Charlotte, North Carolina
Zeke Blackwell shifted his attention from the antiquities dealer’s hopeful face to the incredible array of weapons splayed out before him—an Italian stiletto dagger, an English mortuary sword, a Polish rapier, and a longsword of indeterminate origin.
It’s not here.
The stab of disappointment cut deeper this time, and the hope he’d been holding on to for the past year took a severe nosedive. He couldn’t keep this up. Couldn’t continue staving off the inevitable collapse of all he held dear while searching for an artifact he would never find.
Even so, he went through the motions of examining the sword on the off-chance that someone over the past one hundred years had replaced the longsword’s distinctive wooden grip and twisted quillons.
He indicated the sword. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all. Please.” The antiquities dealer made an encouraging motion.
With gloved hands, Zeke lifted the longsword from its black velvet bed. No four-headed wolf on the pommel or ancient Latin etched on the cross guard.
An extraordinary piece, but not the one he was searching for. A familiar, yet efficient numbness slid through his mind and loosened his taut muscles. He returned the artifact and picked up the other pieces, appreciating their craftsmanship and excellent condition. He saw no telltale signs of modern construction or technology, but, as much as he’d like to think otherwise, he was no expert.
But Lan Sardoff could identify a reproduction in a single glance, so Zeke didn’t question their authenticity.
“The pieces are not to your liking?” his friend asked, a note of concern in his voice.
“You’ve outdone yourself, Lan.”
“But none are the one you seek.”
He shook his head. “You have provenance for each?”
“Do not say after all of these years you doubt me now?”
“I would be a fool to overlook the fact that yours is a for-profit business.”
A slow smile etched tiny lines in Sardoff’s perfectly tanned face as if he intended to deliver one of his oily salesman quips. Then the curve of his lips straightened and an uncharacteristic seriousness took hold of his features. “Anyone else would need to be concerned about my profit margin. If not for you,” he waved a ringed hand around his expansive shop, “my business empire would have crumbled before it ever had a chance to rise.”
Zeke’s friendship with the dealer stretched back to their days at UNC, when Sardoff had helped him join the fencing team. Sardoff, two years older, had been fencing since grade school. He was a master. The best on UNC’s team, and he’d taken the raw promise in Zeke’s technique and molded it over the course of many private lessons.
A few years later, Zeke had been presented with an opportunity to pay his friend back when Sardoff told him about suspecting a potential buyer of stealing a vintage comic book, worth more than a quarter of a million dollars, from the shop after Sardoff refused to negotiate the price.
Zeke had broken into the thief’s home and taken back the stolen comic book, and Sardoff had thanked him by recommending his “services” to trusted clients.
His occasional recoveries—or what his brothers referred to as shadow operations—became the precursor to what would eventually become a lucrative family business. But Zeke’s first recovery hadn’t been smooth. In fact, Zeke’s ass hadn’t even cleared the thief’s office window sill before the guy entered and caught him in the act.
Even now, reliving how his surprised expression had turned into a furious, you’ll-pay outburst, as Zeke slipped, er, fell out of the window, still made him smile.
Zeke waved off his friend’s words. “Sardoff’s Antiques and Uncommon Treasures would have survived the loss of the comic book. Its owner is too stubborn, and too smart, to fail.”
The dealer bowed his head in amused acknowledgment, then studied him with a salesman’s intensity. “I’ve heard whispers about an early sixteenth-century British longsword with a four-headed wolf carved on the pommel and familia primum inscribed on the guard,” Lan said, studying his face with a salesman’s intensity. “Is this something you would be interested in?”
Familia primum. Family first.
Shock turned Zeke’s muscles to glass. One wrong move, and his world could shatter into a million fragments. Had Sardoff found Lupos, the sword that had defended the Blackwell family for generations until it was stolen from his great-great-grandfather a century ago?
“An antique longsword,” Zeke said, infusing amused disbelief into his voice. “Do you really have to ask?”
“No, I suppose not. But I cannot obtain something the possessor has no desire to sell.”
Disappointment coiled in his gut. “Can you get me a name?”
Sardoff lifted a brow. “Do you really have to ask?”
Zeke grinned, despite the tension still gripping his insides. “I suppose not.”
Always the businessman, his friend swept his hand over the antique arsenal displayed on the table. “Which one should I wrap up for you?”
Zeke snapped off his Nitrile gloves and stuffed them into the front pocket of his jeans. “All of them.”
Lifting a duffel bag from the floor, Zeke dumped out two stacks of Ben Franklins onto the table. “All.”
After returning to his hotel, Zeke carried his duffel bag of artifacts to his room, showered, and changed into a gray button-down shirt and black slacks for his prearranged dinner with his older brother Ash.
Now, he followed the hostess of the Grand Marquis Hotel restaurant to a booth across from the bar, feeling like a stink bug amidst a kaleidoscope of butterflies.
His idea of a nice evening involved him wearing a T-shirt and jeans, on his deck, with a beer in hand, steak on a plate, and a sunset beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes.
But his brother had more refined tastes, and he’d insisted on this hotel and warned Zeke to wear something besides said deck-wear. Normally, he ignored fashion advice from his brother, but he didn’t want to set their rare get-together off on the wrong foot. Plus, today was his birthday. Why not celebrate in style?
The hostess handed him a menu and laid another in the empty place opposite him. “Your server will be with you shortly, Mr. Blackwell. I’ll show your wife to your table once she arrives.” She smiled at him with generous red lips and blue eyes. Long black hair draped over a bare shoulder, the perfect complement to the strapless white dress that outlined her curves in all the places he liked.
The slight emphasis she put on “your wife” sounded like a question to his ears, one he found himself not interested in answering, despite the obvious temptation.
“Thank you,” he said, picking up the menu.
She had barely turned away before his mind shifted to Lupos and Sardoff’s promise to text him the name of the longsword’s owner. Zeke had allowed his hopes to rise many times over the past year, only to be disappointed. But this was the first time the description matched his family’s heirloom so perfectly.
“Hello, I’m Keith. I’ll be your server tonight,” a tall young man with curly brown hair and a sunburned nose said. “Can I get you anything to drink while we’re waiting for your guest?”
Zeke glanced down at his watch and noted the time.
Way to cut it close, bro.
“Two glasses of your best bourbon.” He glanced at the menu. “I’ll have the beef tenderloin.”
“Would you like for me to put your order in now or wait for your guest?”
“Put it in now.” One thing the last decade had taught him—never hold up food for his brothers. Out of the five of them, he seemed to be the only one who didn’t lose track of time. It’s why he’d made such a great operations manager.
He pushed the thought away. Later. He would get into that later.
The restaurant buzzed with guests. A few were men like him in town for business. Most of them dined on a tumbler of amber liquid. A large group of people in business casual, with matching blue lanyards around their necks, sat at the bar, releasing a continual series of ear-grating laughter.
Several couples dotted the dining room, each sharing different levels of longing looks and intimate touches. Except for a twenty-something couple near the fireplace, who seemed more captivated by their electronic devices than each other.
Everyone in the restaurant had a story. Stories that had led them here, to this place and time.
Zeke allowed his curiosity free rein, picking out the loners, the seekers, and the drinkers.
His surveillance snagged on a guy at one of the high tables in the bar. He didn’t know why, exactly. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting about the man’s stocky build, tousled hair, or stubble-cured face, nor did his plain loafers, dark jeans, and pressed polo shirt inspire the imagination.
Then he keyed in on the intensity of the guy’s face. He followed the man’s line of sight until it stopped on one of the bar sitters. A woman.
He stopped short of snorting. It didn’t take a detective to unravel that bit of domestic drama. Unrequited love. The worst, most devastating kind.
What sort of scenario would elicit such visual fervor? Did he fall in love with his childhood friend? Coworker? Boss? Best friend’s wife?
Or maybe the guy just had a hard-on for redheads.
“Here you go,” server Keith said, placing twin glasses on the table. “Two Old Fitzgeralds.”
Zeke glanced at his watch. His jaw clenched.
Would it be so hard for Ash to take a few seconds and send him an update on his status? Or couldn’t G-man be bothered with common courtesy anymore?
“Would you like me to put in an appetizer?” Keith asked.
“No appetizer. Bring out my meal when it’s ready.” An image of his Gram’s narrowed eyes flashed through his mind, and he added, “Please.”
Once the server left, he fired off a text to his brother.
We still on for dinner?
He lifted the glass to his lips and took a healthy swallow. Old Fitz’s headwind smoothed a path down his throat for the crackle of fire that soon followed.
No longer interested in Intense Dude, he focused on the woman. With her back to him, all he could make out was the curve of her slender neck, her long, red ponytail, black pantsuit, narrow waist, long legs—and sensible shoes. Nothing jaw-dropping extraordinary like the hostess, but nice.
He didn’t take her for a seeker. Not with those shoes. Even if she thought leather slip-ons were sexy, she seemed more interested in the booklet spread out on the bar before her than anyone around her.
Too bad for Intense Dude.
A fruity cocktail sat sweating by her left elbow, so not a drinker.
By choice? Or circumstance?
Did she know Intense Dude? Or was she oblivious to her wannabe-lover’s existence?
Broad shoulders wedged into a tailored charcoal-gray business suit snuffed out his view of the woman. Zeke looked into the familiar blue eyes of his brother Ash.
Zeke rose and extended his hand. “About damn time, asshole.”
Energy poured off his brother, despite the late hour. Unlike Zeke’s constant five o’clock shadow, the G-man’s jaw was clean shaven and his silver-striped red tie was still cinched tight at the neck.
Ash gripped his hand. “Sorry, something’s come up.”
A tall, fifty-something black woman, wearing a purple silk blouse and knee-length skirt, materialized next to Ash, along with a blond-haired man carrying a thick, canvas briefcase.
All three wore the same blue conference lanyard as the group of loudmouths.
Now Zeke understood why Ash had picked this swanky hotel restaurant over a billion others in the city. He was attending an FBI conference.
Which meant Zeke sat in the epicenter of his enemy.
Intellectually, Zeke understood his dislike of the FBI was irrational. After all, they didn’t seek out Ash and rip him from the family business, leaving Zeke reeling at the loss and scrambling to take his brother’s place at the helm.
No, Asher Cameron Blackwell had done that mindfuck all on his own. To follow his passion, his dream. Something he had failed to share with Zeke, until three years ago, when he’d called it quits and left Steele Ridge.
He’d even left his fucking name behind. Wanted the family to call him Cameron now. A clean split.
To hell with that shit.
Tonight was going to be the first step in fixing things with his brother.
Or so he’d thought.
Instead, the FBI crammed the knife deeper into his heart.
“Let me guess,” he glanced at the other two agents, “duty calls.”
Ash’s jaw worked, as if he wanted to say something, but not in front of an audience. Instead, he stuck with the tried-and-true. “I’m sorry, Zeke. I’ll make it up to you.”
He felt the woman’s eyes on him, but he refused to look at her. Had no wish to stare empathy in the eye.
Zeke sank back in his chair and lifted his drink to the trio. “Have fun at the office.”
Ash slipped five twenties from his wallet and placed them on the table. “Happy birthday, bro.”
He stared at the money. The sight of the fanned-out bills caused the whiskey in his gut to heave.
“Here you are,” server Keith said, sliding a plate in front of him. “Can I get y’all anything else?”
“No, thanks.” Zeke placed the pristine white napkin in his lap and used his fork and knife to cut a thick slice of tenderloin. By the time he lifted his head, he was alone.
The beef all but disintegrated in his mouth. Any other time, he would sigh in carnivorous satisfaction. Not tonight. Tonight, he swallowed the meat with all the excitement of changing a newborn’s hundredth shitty diaper.
But he kept cutting and chewing and swallowing with mechanical efficiency.
He took a sip from his third bourbon.
He drummed his fingers against the table.
His gaze strayed to the woman at the bar, then to Intense Dude. The guy’s seat was empty and a server was clearing away his empty drink.
Back to the woman. He couldn’t figure out why a red ponytail and an uninspired pantsuit would compel his attention, but here he was staring. Again.
This time, he searched the back of her neck and around her jacket collar. No blue lanyard. Normally, once people put those things on, they didn’t remove them until they were rolling their suitcase out of the hotel. Which meant she wasn’t part of the G-con. Relief tumbled through him.
Sensible Shoes took a drink of her fruity cocktail before dropping her reading material into an oversized purse at her feet. After paying her bill, she slid off the stool and turned toward the dining area.
Thick, perfectly arched eyebrows accented wide, catlike eyes. Her full lips were without lipstick and, somehow, the absence captured his interest even more. When his gaze roamed lower, he cursed, unable to assess the rest of her assets in that damn formless business suit.
She scanned the room, as if looking for someone. Her eyes met his, and something shifted inside his chest. Something warm and familiar, though he’d never met her before. He didn’t understand the sensation, but he liked it. A lot.
He nodded, and she smiled in return.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.”
Oh, no. Oh, hell no.
Server Keith, followed by several other similarly uniformed staff, snaked through the dining room, holding aloft a small plate of tiramisu skewered by a single, flaming candle.
“Happy birthday to Zee-eeke. Happy birthday to you!”
Keith set the plate in front of him and waited expectantly.
Sensible Shoes smiled and mouthed, “Happy birthday,” as she breezed past his table.
Disappointment burned his chest. He sat there in indecision. Should he call out to her? Invite her to share his dessert? A drink? Hot stranger sex?
The pressure of four politely impatient pairs of eyes kept his mouth shut and his butt in the chair. He blew out the candle and Keith and friends disappeared.
A harsh breath pushed out of his lungs. Ignoring the tiramisu, he knocked back the last of his bourbon, not even bothering to savor it. He wanted the fire. Needed the lick of alcohol to wake the hell up.
His traitorous gaze kept going to the barstool where Sensible Shoes had sat. The longer he stared, the more he regretted not going after her. Not to hook up, though he wouldn't have said no, but to simply to talk to someone who knew nothing about him or his family or his business.
Uncomplicated, no-expectation conversation.
By the time he finished his meal, the mild regret had turned into a full-blown, alcohol-induced flagellation. He signed off on his bill, grabbed what was left of Ash’s whiskey, and began the long journey to his room on the ninth floor.
He chinked the air with his glass. “Happy fucking birthday, to me.”