He was an easy mark—or so she thought.
Vincenzo, the sole scion of an ancient Italian family, believes it is his duty to return a stolen Renaissance painting, together with its allegedly magical properties, back to its proper spot in the village church. Only then will fertility be restored to his family and prosperity to his town. For his own mysterious reasons he’s desperate to carry out this vow, and so hires a thief—a savvy female con woman—to help him find the painting and steal it back.
Sabrina has her own view of the situation. She thinks Vincenzo is nuts. Neither does she care for rich people, except as marks. And Vincenzo, trusting, naive, and loaded, is going to make a good one.
At least, that’s what she believes until the crazy Italian starts doing some conning of his own.
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Sabrina hoped the guy wasn’t a cop.
The man in the long overcoat had been on her tail like a tick on a dog ever since she’d left the airport gift shop. From there she’d ambled through the cafeteria, taken a long powder in the ladies’ room, and even visited the ticket lines.
He’d shadowed her every step.
Stopping outside the duty-free shop, she stared at the ivy leaves and fake snow painted on the glass store window, leftover relics of winter in Miami. The man was behind her, reflected green and red in the glass. He was pretending to leaf through postcards in the shop across the corridor. There was a furtive, embarrassed manner about the way he took one card at a time, studied it, and then replaced it on the rack.
He didn’t look like a cop, Sabrina had to admit, taking her time to study him. For one thing, he was dressed far too well. That overcoat had to be worth a couple grand, and the suit beneath it, custom-tailored, maybe another. She doubted Miami PD officers dressed with that much money.
Or maybe that was just wishful thinking because, God knew, she had enough on her plate as it was. Not only was she broke, but her most recent business partner probably wanted to kill her.
It had been a mistake to get involved with Lise Gunther. Sabrina should have realized the hustler queen wouldn’t follow the rules Sabrina’s mentor, Joe, had taught her all those years ago.
You never took a mark for more than he could afford.
Unfortunately, Sabrina had not perceived Lise’s hard-hearted nature until after discovering the marginal circumstances of their intended victim. By then Sabrina had used up the front money Lise had given her, money on which Lise expected a hefty return. Since Sabrina hadn’t swindled the victim, she couldn’t produce the return. So now what she needed was time, and a safe place to think a way out of her present fix.
What she didn’t need was to be dodging the law on top of everything else.
Besides, she hadn’t done anything illegal…in this state…yet.
The man who’d been following her had now exhausted the small stand of postcards. He stood there, at apparent loose ends, rubbing his chin.
Sabrina narrowed her eyes. Policeman or not, he was making life very difficult. She’d come to the airport looking for fast, easy cash. Means to get out of town. Fat chance of picking up any dough, however, with an audience watching.
On the other hand, if he wasn’t a cop and was as rich as he looked, her follower might be the answer to her problem.
Making a sudden decision, Sabrina spun to face the man.
He froze, one hand still at his chin, his eyes fastened on her.
A poker face he had not. His stunned dismay gave her a glimmer of amusement as she started toward him.
He simply stood there, the edge of his palm against his chin. He was a couple inches better than six feet and dark—dark hair, dark eyes, and dark, finely shaped brows. He had the soft, romantic beauty of a poet, complete with long, sweeping dark eyelashes.
My word, Sabrina thought, coming to a halt before him. He’s prettier than I am.
“Excuse me,” she said aloud. “Do you have the time?” The asinine question seemed to fit the circumstances.
He appeared to appreciate it, too, slowly lowering his hand from his face with an expression of undisguised relief. “Naturalmente.” Speaking in a rich European accent, he turned his wrist to look at a fancy watch. “It is ten minutes to eight o’clock in the evening.”
Italian, Sabrina decided. From Milan, judging by the natty clothes. Now that she was closer she could see the suit was not merely custom-tailored, but custom-made. The tie was also custom-made, raw silk, and pierced with a solid gold pin. No diamond inset, however, in that gold pin. That would have been obtrusive and Money, Real Big Money, was never obtrusive. Sabrina’s heart began to pound, happy and excited.
Real, big money didn’t rouse her scruples. Real, big money could afford to donate his wallet so she could give Lise the slip.
His eyes sought hers over his wrist. “Is that all right?” he asked, probably referring to the time.
“What? Oh yeah, it’s great. I mean, I have plenty of time before my flight.” Considering that that flight was completely imaginary, she had all the time in the world. Sabrina bit her lip and took a pensive look around. An awkward silence ensued.
Come on, you ninny, she silently urged. You’ve been following me for the past forty-five minutes. Now you’ve got an opening—take it!
“Perhaps…” Getting the words out seemed awfully difficult for him. “If you are not in a hurry,” he managed to stammer, “I could buy you…something to eat. Or a drink?”
Sabrina spared him a sidelong glance. A man this good-looking should have developed a better technique by his age—early thirties, she guessed. But then, maybe the good-looking ones didn’t need much technique. Maybe women chased them.
“Sure, a drink would be okay.” Actually, a whole meal would have been wonderful. Since she’d taken her powder in Gainesville two days ago, she hadn’t had the chance or the cash to eat right. But she didn’t want to get too chummy with the guy. Just chummy enough to get close to his wallet…
“There’s a lounge, I believe, in that direction.” He gazed down at Sabrina as though he could hardly fathom his good fortune. “Oh, and my name is Vincenzo. Vincenzo Nicolazzi.”
“Raven,” Sabrina said, which was the closest to a real name she had. “Sabrina Raven.” And then, because she knew he’d expect it, she held out her hand. She couldn’t help tensing, though, before his flesh met hers. She hated to be touched.
But the Italian’s handshake wasn’t bad. It was brief, dry, and not particularly unpleasant.
She looked up, mildly surprised, and caught a similar surprise in his face. But before Sabrina could react to this strange phenomenon, the Italian did something far worse than the handshake. He smiled.
She wasn’t prepared. In her experience, rich men didn’t smile like angels. But this one did. His smile was innocent. It was pure. It brimmed over with generous warmth.
Sabrina actually had to take a step back. Whoa. He was good at that. A person might believe he truly was innocent and warm. But Sabrina knew better. No wealthy man was warm or innocent.
“Shall we?” the Italian asked, and indicated the direction.
“What? Oh yeah, sure.” Sucking in her lips, Sabrina led the way.
The bar was crowded. Under soft recessed lighting harried passengers-to-be clustered around a scattering of gray laminate tables. Heaps of carry-on luggage surrounded each group, making navigation tricky.
Nevertheless, her Italian companion managed to get them a table near the window looking out on the corridor. Sabrina would have preferred something closer to the wall, out of view, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
For the moment, she was a beggar. Man, she hadn’t been this down in ten years, not since she was a runaway teenager, picking pockets outside Grand Central.
“What would you like?” The Italian held out a chair for her. “Wine, or perhaps a cocktail?”
Any alcohol would go straight to her head. Even on a full stomach Sabrina couldn’t handle the stuff. “Actually, a hot cup of coffee would be great.”
“Bene.” Another smile, not quite as lethal as the last one, and he raised a hand for the waitress. Sabrina was not surprised when that personage made a beeline for her companion. Money learned at an early age how to command service. One of these days, Sabrina promised herself, she’d learn the knack.
Once the waitress had taken their order, the Italian turned back to Sabrina. He’d shed his overcoat and she could see the rich sienna colors and elegant design of his suit. With one knee crossed over the other and that pretty face, he should have looked effeminate. He didn’t. He looked sheerly, beautifully male—something Sabrina was surprised she noticed. Not only was she presently preoccupied with staying alive, but she wasn’t particularly man-crazy.
“I’m afraid this is going to sound like a—how you say?—like a line,” he said.
“Ah, go ahead and try me. What’s the line?” She had a mild curiosity about why this good-looking man had picked her, of all people. Meanwhile, the conversation gave her time to try guessing the location of his wallet. Probably his inside jacket pocket. Someplace that wouldn’t ruin the lines of his suit. Joe had taught her how to guess such things, back when she was underage and starving.
Her companion’s gaze turned unfocused, as though he were looking at something far away. “I can’t believe how much you look…so very like her.”
Sabrina’s attention snapped back to the Italian’s face. So. That was behind the dogged pursuit. She reminded him of someone else. “You’re right. That does sound like a line.” But she softened the complaint with a smile. Hell, so long as she got what she was after, why complain? “Friend of yours?”
“No.” He paused, thinking. “More like family.”
Sabrina raised her brows. With her honey-blond hair and clear green eyes she doubted she resembled anybody in this Italian’s family.
“Perhaps I should be more clear,” he worried. “She is not a person. She is a painting.”
“A painting.” Sardonic amusement crept into her smile. Sabrina was no beauty, but she did have some curves. “In that case I’m surprised you could make the comparison—I mean, with my clothes still on.”
It took him a moment to understand, and then his handsome face turned a dull red color. “Oh, no. The painting is not a nude. Certainly not. It is a painting of the madonna. La Madonna della Montagna.”
The madonna! Sabrina couldn’t help a guffaw. She put a hand to her mouth, trying in vain to smooth out a broad grin. “I’m sorry, but that’s—that’s—” completely ridiculous. “—A new one.”
He appeared nonplussed by her amusement. “I assure you, the resemblance is quite striking.” While Sabrina struggled not to chuckle, he sketched a hand in the air across her wide cheekbones, drawing down past the beauty mark over her mouth to the sharp, cunning chin. “It’s in your eyes, your expression…a certain aura.”
A certain aura? Sabrina knew she had a kittenish, naturally mischievous face. Most of the time she had to bend over backwards to make it appear halfway respectable. Now she bit her tongue in order to keep her composure. “I must admit, you are the first man who’s ever compared me to the virgin Mary.”
“There is a likeness,” he repeated, stubborn. He turned to nod acknowledgment toward the waitress, who’d come to set down their coffees.
“All right, then. I’ll take your word for it,” Sabrina agreed, once the waitress had left. “So. Tell me more about this painting.” Despite her immediate problems, she felt a tug of curiosity. “What did you say the name was?”
“La Madonna della Montagna.” He reached for the packets of sugar the waitress had left with their coffee. “The Lady of the Mountain. She was commissioned by my family over five hundred years ago.”
“That’s pretty old.” Sixteenth century, Sabrina calculated. “Wouldn’t that make it from the Renaissance?”
“That is correct. For five centuries she hung in a revered spot in the village chapel. Her presence, her spirit, guarded the town. Many came to pray before her. You see—” He broke off abruptly.
Sabrina, who’d been leaning toward his jacket, halted as well. “Many came to pray before her?” she prompted. There was a faraway, glazed quality to his eyes that she liked very well. Despite her curiosity, she hadn’t forgotten his wallet.
Unfortunately, his focus changed. Once again it sharpened, directing straight on her face. He leaned closer, his voice hushed. “You see, she had special powers.”
“Special powers,” she repeated, staring at him.
“It is true,” he said. “Magical powers.”
Magic? Sabrina met the quiet insistence in his eyes and realized something elemental. Nuts. The guy was completely nuts.
“I see,” she murmured, then silently cursed as he leaned back in his seat and his wallet moved out of range. “Um, what kind of powers?” Keep him talking, Sabrina figured. Crazy or not, given time, he’d lean close again.
He shook his third packet of sugar. “She was said to grant prosperity.” Carefully he ripped the packet open, tilted it, and then watched the granules fall into his coffee. A muscle in his jaw tightened. “And…fertilita.”
Sabrina’s eyes narrowed. First virgins and now fertility? “You don’t say.”
“I do.” He appeared oblivious to her sarcasm, picking up a spoon. “Women travelled from all over the region to light a candle before her in prayer. It is said that no prayers were left unanswered.” He hesitated, then added with a shrug. “Men, too.”
Sabrina studied him carefully. “What do you mean—men?”
“Those who’d…felt their vigor die. They petitioned the Lady, too.” He ran the spoon through the sugar-laden coffee, avoiding her eyes. “The Lady of the Mountain answered them, as well.”
I’ll just bet, Sabrina thought, watching him. But he didn’t appear to mean any of this as a joke—or a come-on. On the contrary, he appeared to be absolutely serious, even about drinking that over-sweetened coffee, lifting the cup toward his mouth.
“Funny, isn’t it,” she remarked, “how magic only seemed to happen back in the good old days. You never hear about it working in the modern world.”
“Oh no.” The cup stopped halfway to her mark’s mouth. Over it his eyes were deeply horrified. “It still happens. Magic. The Lady still retains her powers.”
Sabrina arched an eyebrow. “But you spoke in the past tense.”
He lowered his cup of coffee. “The Lady is as potent as ever, but she no longer hangs in the village church.”
Sabrina had always had the hunter instinct. Joe had often marvelled over the way she could sniff out a good con. Right now, with the Italian looking at her with that steady, lunatic gaze, her instincts started screaming. There was something here, something very big.
“She no longer hangs in the village church,” Sabrina repeated slowly. “Why not?”
His expression hardened. “Because she was stolen.”
Sabrina didn’t know how this fit in. But she was sure that, somehow, there was an angle here. She was as certain of it as she was of her own left foot.
“Stolen,” she repeated. “That’s terrible.”
“Atroce,” he agreed. “It was during the Second World War. For fifty years the town has been without his Lady.”
“Nazis?” Sabrina theorized.
“I thought so, at first.” The Italian opened yet another packet of sugar. In horror, Sabrina watched him pour it into his coffee. “But after four years I have narrowed the search down to one or two Americans.”
Her attention went back to his face. “You sound as though you’ve been actively searching for the painting.”
“I have.” Lifting his cup, the Italian actually took a sip. Sabrina was amazed when he didn’t flinch at the taste. Instead his expression turned set and determined. “I have devoted myself to finding the Lady. You see, I took a vow.”
The guy was certifiable. A vow?
The Italian set down his cup with a solid clink. The line of his mouth drew back unhappily. “I’ll be breaking that vow tonight, if I fly back to Milan.”
Sabrina’s instincts were screaming again. Opportunity, they shouted. Big opportunity. But not for her. She had to scram. The trail she’d left since Gainesville wasn’t sufficiently covered for her to pick up a game here.
Which was really too bad. She could practically smell the money involved in this story—and she wouldn’t scruple to bilk this man.
“Breaking a vow is a serious thing,” she proclaimed anyway, as if she’d be able to stick around long enough to reap the benefits of this provocation.
He looked up sharply. “Yes, I said so to Sylvio. But he would not listen. He said that four years is long enough.”
He’d been looking for four years? This painting had to be worth a bundle. Aloud, Sabrina said, “A vow is a vow.”
He stared at her intently. “Yes,” he agreed. “A vow is a vow.”
She’d been toying with him, half distressed she couldn’t follow this game, and half determined to distract him enough to extract his wallet. But now Sabrina found herself the object of a serious and highly focused regard. It was intent enough to bring her calculating mind to a halt. What was he seeing?
“Now, I wonder,” he murmured, and leaned closer. His eyes darkened and bored deeper.
It was unnerving, yet Sabrina couldn’t look away. There was a peculiar power to his gaze, not forceful, no, almost…religious. In fact, she felt as though he was reaching down with those eyes, deep down inside of her, exploring regions she’d thought carefully locked away.
Slowly, he lifted one hand. Inside of her, everything froze. She could swear he meant to reach inside of her with that hand, to drag all of her darkness out into the open. He’d see her then, all of her, from her pathetically naive origins through the harsh betrayal and on through the years of rage and yearning.
A look of sudden and piercing intelligence shot from those dark eyes of his. In that moment Sabrina, panic-stricken, felt sure he knew her, inside and out.
As if to prove it, he didn’t touch her. His hand halted before connecting with her face. As if he knew. His touch would make her bolt.
While he slowly lowered his hand, Sabrina pulled herself together. This was ridiculous. The man was a complete stranger, and nuts, to boot. He had no special powers or inside knowledge. He certainly didn’t know her.
As if to prove it, an expression of awe came over his face. No inside look at Sabrina could have inspired such an emotion. “Yes, I wonder,” he mused softly, “if meeting you is not a sign.”
That did it. She met his too-calm, crazy eyes and felt herself drop back down to earth. She didn’t believe in signs. No, nor in vows or magical powers. What she did believe in was cold, hard cash. And she’d been sitting for two whole minutes with that wallet within reach and hadn’t done a thing about it.
“A sign.” Shakily, she smiled. Yes, that’s what he was, all right. A sign. It was time to get back to business. She laid her hand on his jacket sleeve. This would distract him from the movement under his jacket lapel. “You know, I believe you’re right. I believe that it is.”
An expression of reverent joy lit his features just as Sabrina lifted his wallet.
“Thank you,” he said. His tone was completely sincere.
Meanwhile, Sabrina leaned back and surreptitiously stuffed the slim leather wallet against her back waistband.
“You have been extremely helpful,” he said.
I could say the same for you. Sabrina smiled back at him, feeling a measure of her own relief, knowing she had the means now to get out of town. If she’d gone crazy for a minute there, letting him get to her, well, it was okay now. Just a glitch in the normal systems. He was no magician, just a man, and not a very smart one at that.
She stood. “Thank you for the coffee.” Her mouth watered at the thought of the meal she’d now be able to give herself. On a train, perhaps, going north. Lise wouldn’t expect a train. “And good luck finding your painting.” Why not wish him luck? It didn’t cost her anything.
He stood as well, his gallantry apparently in-bred. “Grazie. You have decided me to keep my vow. I will not fly home to Milan after all. I will complete my mission here.”
His smile was all warmth and innocence, naive as a babe.
The wallet pinched Sabrina’s lower back. The poor guy hadn’t stood a chance.
“Signora Raven.” He took her hand, but this time didn’t let it go. “In a way, you have saved my life. At least, my soul. How can I ever repay you?”
The utter gratitude in his eyes distracted her from the discomfort of being held by the hand. “Think nothing of it,” she muttered. This wasn’t guilt. Sabrina never felt bad about robbing a rich man. And this one could afford the loss. He was plenty rich. Oh yes, crazy or not, he was of that class against which she’d declared war years ago. She never felt guilt over a rich man.
“Good-bye,” Sabrina said.
“Arrivederci,” the Italian returned. “Until we meet again.”
Right, Sabrina thought. Not bloody likely. She allowed herself a smile as, safely down the corridor, she worked the wallet free of her waistband.
But her hands were shaking, for some reason, and she couldn’t get past his odd certainty they’d meet again—or that one strange moment of his acute intelligence.
Dammit, her instincts were howling.
“Ah, there you are.”
Sitting in the dining car of a train heading north, about to dig into an aromatic piece of sole—the first solid meal she’d seen in days—Sabrina stopped cold.
She knew that voice. Lise Gunther.
Damn. Damn. And Damn. Sabrina’s hungry stomach shriveled. Looked like she wasn’t going to enjoy this meal after all. In fact, she might not end up alive to eat it.
She’d really thought she’d ditched the woman. Buying a ticket for this train had been ridiculously easy. The Italian’s wallet had been generously stuffed. Hundred dollar bills he’d been carrying. Sabrina hadn’t even had to risk breaking out his credit cards.
Once on the train, she’d ‘convinced’ a waiter to serve her after hours, so she was the only one in the dining car. The sky was black outside the large windows. Small vases of flowers graced the linen on each table. She’d just started to relax.
Should have known that was a mistake. Since Joe had up and died last year, Sabrina hadn’t known many moments of true relaxation.
Play it cool. Take the offensive.
With her heart beating madly, Sabrina stuck her fork into the flaky fish, took a bite, and only then turned. “Hey, Lise. How ya doing?”
The woman who stood in the aisle between the tables could have passed for a corporate executive. In her mid-forties, she wore a sage green jacketed suit, an upswept blond hairstyle, and carried herself with calm authority.
A bulky man with short-cropped hair and a sneer stood just behind her. Darrel, Lise’s human attack dog.
Sabrina nodded toward the booth seat opposite herself. “Take a load off.”
Lise raised one well-clipped eyebrow. Darrel, appearing to take that as a signal, uncrossed a pair of arms thick with vein-marbled muscle. The sneer on his face turned into a leer. Sabrina suspected, given the chance, Darrel would satisfy a few whims of his own before taking care of Lise’s business.
“Not yet,” Lise told him, a mistress chiding her beast. With one gloved hand lifted to stop Darrel, she kept her gaze on Sabrina. “Where’s my money?”
“I don’t have it.”
Lise’s lips tightened. “Where did it go?”
“Renting office space, paying for other stuff to look like a real company.”
“And the take?”
“Wasn’t any.” Feeling scared sick, Sabrina forced herself to fork in another casual bite of sole. “The widow turned out to be practically destitute. I couldn’t take her last dime.”
Lise’s gloved hand clenched into a fist. “I expected a return on the money I gave you.”
“And you’ll get one.”
That stopped her. Both Lise’s eyebrows rose. She lowered her clenched fist. To Sabrina’s relief, the woman finally, if slowly, sank into a seat on the booth seat opposite her. “I’ll get a return, hm? I’m very interested in hearing how you intend to do that.” Lise smiled. “Meanwhile, you can start by giving me whatever you lifted off that man at the airport.”
So, Lise had been onto her as far back as the airport. Chagrined, Sabrina reached for her purse.
For a man so big, Darrel was amazingly quick. He had his hands on her purse before Sabrina could blink an eye. With a lovely grunt, he handed it to Lise.
“Thank you, Darrel.” Smiling at Sabrina, Lise accepted the small leather purse with grace. “He must take precautions against weapons.”
“I don’t carry any,” Sabrina muttered.
Lise didn’t appear to hear, or to care. With a satisfied expression, she pulled the Italian’s calfskin wallet from Sabrina’s purse. Opening it, she soon found the ten one-hundred dollar bills that remained. Her satisfaction deepened. “A lucky take.”
Sabrina’s heart pounded. This was the moment. Her chance to convince Lise Sabrina was more useful healthy and alive than…anything else. Lifting a shoulder, she claimed, “That’s not the half of it.”
Lise paused, eyeing Sabrina before handing the bills to Darrel, who casually stuffed the money into his front shirt pocket. “No?” she asked.
“Unh unh.” Taking the offensive, Sabrina pointed over the table with her fork. “There’s a whole lot more where that came from.”
Lise tilted her head. “Explain.”
“Take a look inside his wallet.”
With another brief, thoughtful pause, Lise did. Her gray gloves paged through the plastic sleeves. Sabrina had been through the wallet at least a dozen times. She knew exactly what Lise would find.
“‘Vincenzo Nicholazzi,'” Lise read. “New York driver’s license.” Her eyebrows went up. “Manhattan address.”
A most exclusive address, but Lise could see that as well as Sabrina had.
“This must be his mother,” Lise opined, flipping the driver’s license over.
Sabrina, too, had figured the heavy-set woman with the dark hair shot with gray must be the Italian’s mom. She’d been amused the man carried her picture. Lise, however, didn’t crack a smile.
“What is this?” Lise was looking at the last plastic sleeve. Her brows drew down. “This isn’t a person.”
“It’s a painting,” Sabrina explained.
Lise looked up at her. “He carries a photograph of a painting?”
“Not just any painting,” Sabrina pointed out. “A five hundred-year-old painting.” With special powers, she added to herself.
Lise gazed down at the photograph in the wallet, then back up at Sabrina. She did not remark on any resemblance between the two, but then, Sabrina hadn’t expected her to.
“Is this what you were talking about?” Her pale eyes went shrewd on Sabrina. “The ‘lots more?'”
Sabrina held out her hand for the wallet. “I bought a ticket all the way through to New York. What do you think?”
Lise kept her hands on the wallet. “You’re going to see him?”
She’d never expected to lay eyes on the man again. “Yup,” Sabrina replied.
“After stealing his wallet?” Lise stared at her. Darrel looked down, too, apparently concurring this was a crazy idea.
Sabrina wasn’t so sure she didn’t agree with them.
“A man like that,” Lise cautioned, “with money and connections—he could have the police on you in one second flat.”
“He won’t.” But Sabrina had considered the possibility.
Lise’s gaze narrowed. “Joe always said you had an instinct for this sort of thing. How much do you think is involved?”
“Enough to pay you back for the busted real estate job, and then some.” Every time Sabrina remembered the crazy look in the Italian’s eyes, she was sure of it.
Slowly, Lise leaned back in her booth seat. Even more slowly, she smiled. “That would be interesting.”
About half of Sabrina’s fear fell away. Lise was interested. “And profitable,” she added.
Lise chuckled. “Are you expecting me to put up another stake in this game?”
She’d be willing to? Sabrina relaxed some more, but shook her head decisively. “Nope. All I need is enough to get me to New York halfway presentable.” Pointedly, she eyed Darrel’s front pocket.
Still smiling, Lise snapped her fingers at Darrel. “No, you couldn’t show up on Mr. Nicholazzi’s doorstep without making some attempt to return his money, could you?”
Reluctant, but obedient, Darrel produced the folded thousand dollars.
“Don’t think to give me the slip again,” Lise warned, putting the Italian’s wallet and Sabrina’s purse on the table.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” But it was all Sabrina could do not to cringe under the glare of Lise’s suddenly ruthless eyes.
The female gangster looked utterly capable of murder.
It had been a huge mistake to get involved with her. At the time, two months ago, Sabrina had been full of admiration for Lise Gunther, her power, her drive. She’d seemed to embody what Sabrina had wanted to become, herself. And, okay, she’d wanted someone to work with; it had been damn lonely without Joe.
She should have stuck to herself.
“Friday,” Lise told Sabrina, rising from her seat. “Meet me at the merry-go-round in Central Park. I’ll want details.”
“Sure. See you then.” Sabrina stabbed her fork into her fish. She would meet Lise. Now that Lise knew Vincenzo Nicholazzi’s name and address, Sabrina was stuck with her.
One last time, anyway. Sabrina would do the job, whatever it turned out to be, pay Lise off, and say goodbye.
From then on, she’d work toward her ultimate goal by herself.
“Friday,” Lise repeated, and stalked down the aisle.
With a brutish leer, Darrel followed.
Shuddering, Sabrina took another bite of her fillet of sole, though it had lost much of its appeal. Damn it, why had Joe had to have that idiotic heart attack and die? Sabrina had trusted Joe. He’d been old, cranky, and demanding, but he’d…been there.
For a moment, a heavy loneliness fell over her, the same sensation that had hit her with such surprising force after Joe’s last attack.
Reaching across the table, she picked up the Italian’s wallet. The heavy sensation receded as her curiosity, and a strange disquiet, took over.
How much had been real, and how much fake? He really was Italian and he really was loaded. Of that much Sabrina was certain. But what about the rest of it?
Quickly, she paged through the plastic sleeves of the wallet until she got to the end.
Sabrina took a deep breath as she looked down at the old, black-and-white photograph. It was the Madonna della Montagna. She was sure of it. A deep wrinkle scarred the middle of the wallet-size reproduction, but Sabrina could see all she needed to see.
She could see the Renaissance costume of the three-quarter profile bust. She could see the suggestion of an intricate background of flowers and leaves.
And, most clearly of all, she could see that the woman with the oval face, dark eyes, and hair as black as midnight bore not the slightest resemblance in any way, shape, or form to herself.
Sabrina stared down at the little photograph. He’d lied to her. He’d out-and-out lied!
But why? That was the question that plagued her. What had he possibly hoped to gain by claiming Sabrina resembled the Madonna della Montagna?
Slowly, Sabrina closed the wallet. Nothing. She could think of nothing he’d gained. In fact, the only result of his deception had been to allow Sabrina close enough to steal his wallet.
Although, one of the many things of which Sabrina was uncertain was whether or not Mr. Nicholazzi had known she was lifting his wallet. But that made no sense. Why would he have allowed her to steal it?
A memory niggled at her. Joe, giving her one of her first lessons in con artsmanship. “You have to give them a little something first,” Joe had said in his rasping voice. “You have to feed them some bait. Once they’ve bit down on the line, then you can reel it in.”
Sabrina gazed out the train window at the lights in the darkness zipping by. She appeared to have been fed some bait. But if so, why? What could a man as privileged and wealthy as Vincenzo Nicholazzi possibly want to steal from her?
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