Kendra McGee wouldn’t have entered her family’s home if she’d paid attention to the sound of a gate closing nearby, or if she hadn’t discounted the shadow that briefly appeared then ducked back into the darkness. She was too focused on her fiancé as he kissed her goodbye in the dim glow of the living room light shining out the window.
“See you tomorrow,” he whispered.
Her heart was so full of love she thought it might burst. Sounds, shadows, and the possibility of danger were the furthest things from her mind. All she saw was Brandon and the romantic glow the inside lights threw onto the dusting of snow coating Dad’s prized flower beds.
She ignored her father’s muffled voice inside the two-story home where she’d grown up.
When the living room light went out, Brandon pulled her into his arms and whispered, “Aww, wasn’t it nice of your parents to give us privacy before we separate for a whole day?” He gave her a passionate kiss that made her tingle all over.
“I’ll miss you.” She skimmed her hand across his cheek.
He cupped her face with his cold hands, gazing into her eyes with his that went from hazel to green to brown, depending upon his mood. They darkened as he leaned down to kiss her again. When he pulled away, he let her shiny black hair cascade through his fingers. “I love you.”
He backed down the steps to the sidewalk and blew her a kiss with both hands. He was so dramatic, part of what she loved about him. She hoped he’d keep that characteristic after they married and opened their medical practice together.
As she watched his taillights disappear around the corner, she touched her lips and closed her eyes to savor the memory of his tingle-producing kiss. With a sigh, she gazed at the Christmas lights up and down the street. They made coming home from Princeton for winter break feel magical.
This was going to be a good visit. Mom and Dad would be so excited when she showed them the ring Brandon had given her.
Dad groaned inside the house. She wondered if he’d cut himself while serving the apple pie, a tasty ritual her parents had devised for the monthly return of their only child. With a smile and a carefree hum on her lips, she turned to the door.
Despite being twenty-two and about to become a med student, she loved everything about coming home. The violet walls of her childhood bedroom. Cooking fancy meals or shopping with Mom. Gardening or some other project with Dad. It was even better when Nana, Dad’s fun-loving Irish mother, joined them for church, camping, or a night on the town. She wished with a twinge of grief that Mom’s Cherokee mother wasn’t too sick to visit anymore.
She dug through her purse for the house key, grumbling to herself when she couldn’t find it. They must have known she was home since they turned out the light. She tried the knob.
Given the paranoia that had plagued her parents through the last few years, it should have alarmed her that the handle turned easily. Instead, a spark of anticipation put another smile on her lips and made her mouth water at the thought of the dessert awaiting her.
When she pushed the door open, the kitchen light threw two strange silhouettes against the wall in the dining…
It took a moment to realize the heap under the table was her father. She dropped her purse, suitcase, and coat and took three steps forward. He reached toward her. “Kendra, no.” His arm flopped down. His voice was so weak it scared her.
“Dad?” She looked around. “Mom?” She started to run to her father, but he rasped, “Kendra, no.”
The curtain on the kitchen door swayed, bringing her attention to a handprint near the knob. Blood? A stranger pushed the door open, and a beam from the kitchen cast an eerie glow on his dark goatee but not the rest of him.
As he took a step forward, the stranger yelled Dad’s name. “Kevin!” He faltered when he looked to the kitchen. “Oh, my God, Inola.” Anguish filled his moan as he said her mother’s name.
“Kendra eef run!” Dad coughed, then a gunshot from the kitchen silenced her father forever.
She turned to run from the goatee man but hesitated when she heard a second gunshot. Glancing back, she saw the man stumble toward Dad while holding his shoulder. Blood oozed between his fingers. With the blast of a third gunshot, the man fell across Dad. She didn’t have time to wonder if he was dead or who he was.
She may have screamed. The only thing she was certain of was that she needed to get out of there and get her cell phone out of her back pocket to call the police.
A man in a ski mask rushed from the kitchen toward her. She tripped over Mom’s slipper, fell onto Dad’s ottoman, and scampered toward the door on her hands and feet. He picked her up by a belt loop and the back of her sweater.
“Sorry, kid, you weren’t the target.” The voice was more of an angry, throaty hiss than an apology. He grunted as he heaved her out the front window pane.
Kayla Walsh had never expected to leave the safety of witness protection to end up in an abandoned Virginia missile silo. But here she was, following her grandmother’s silver-haired boyfriend, Vincent, through a cold and musty underground parking lot.
Her best friend and former physical therapist, Martin, touched her arm. Walking behind Vincent, he leaned down to whisper in Kayla’s ear. “Are you sure about this? I’m getting bad vibes.”
She raked her fingers through her short, black hair and whispered, “You could go back home to Arizona.” She looked up into the dark eyes above Martin’s wide nose. She hoped he wouldn’t abandon her to finish their mission alone.
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “We’re in this together.”
Vincent stopped at an elevator and turned toward his guests with a smile that deepened the dimples in his cheeks. His blue eyes sparkled with pride as he pressed the call button.
Martin stopped beside Vincent under a light that reflected off his shaved head and gave his ebony skin a green tone.
She stared at a logo on the doors that identified Vincent’s operation as a security business.
“I thought my grandmother said you were a rancher.”
“I have several businesses, dear.” Vincent entered the elevator. “My grandson runs the ranch. At my age, this business is easier on my tired muscles and bones.” He stepped into the elevator and waited for them to join him.
She tried to smile while clinging to a handrail during a high-speed descent farther underground. The sleep-deprived fog in her brain took her thoughts in a morbid direction. The tremble in her knees threatened to reveal her discomfort. Hoping to tamp down her growing unease, she bit the side of her mouth and supported herself against the wall.
“I’m looking forward to sleeping on the plane.” She hoped the words would coax her thoughts away from what brought her to this refurbished missile silo. After being chased down a dirt road by two guys who kept yelling things she couldn’t hear, a magnet attached to a helicopter had whisked her car to a metal platform. Her stomach stayed behind when the platform swished down to a parking lot where Vincent met them.
“I could use a nap, too.” A wobble in Martin’s unusually quiet voice worried her.
The elevator door opened to another hallway with concrete walls lit by more sconces. A man in tight jeans and black-framed glasses waited for them outside the elevator. Vincent introduced him as his assistant, Alex, who extended a hand as cold as Kayla’s insides.
She wondered if Alex’s administrative duties bored him as much as hers did when she worked for her grandmother at the Arizona home for abused women and children.
Vincent put a hand on Martin’s shoulder. “Kayla told me last night that your attacker at the Lincoln Memorial tried to slice your throat. Our nurse practitioner is waiting to treat the wound. Alex will take you.”
Alex led Martin down another hallway.
Vincent, all six-foot-two of him, turned to Kayla. “Your grandmother wants to talk to you before we leave for Paris. We have a guest room where you can freshen up and make the call.”
He led Kayla into a brighter hallway with windows and doors on both sides. Men and women in casual clothes tapped on computer keyboards or talked on phones. A group of six discussed a strange drawing on a white board—boxes, circles, and triangles connected by lines.
No one looked up as Vincent and Kayla passed.
She stepped around the door he held open and surveyed the room. It contained a twin bed covered with a beige comforter, and a sink against a green wall, with a mirror over it that was flanked by a hand towel on one side, and a hair dryer dangling from a hook on the opposite side. To the left of the sink was a toilet, and a tiny square shower stall took up a corner on the right.
He gestured toward the black phone on the nightstand. “To call your grandmother, dial nine. You’ll hear a buzz, then dial her number. When you’re done, open the door. I’ll be right outside.”
He closed the door, but she imagined his presence behind it.
She sat on the bed, wondering if someone would listen to her call. Her grandmother had told her to trust Vincent, but given everything that had happened in the last two weeks, trust was in short supply.
Twenty-four-year-old Kayla Walsh stood on the yawning metal ramp of a cargo plane, awed by the clear blue Indian Ocean and cloudless sky in Broome, Australia. Ignoring the conversation between the pilot and her traveling companion Yves, she breathed in the hot, salty air that blasted her face.
During her previous visit here six years earlier, her late mother had described the first impression of Broome as opening the door of a convection oven and leaning in too far. That was accurate, plus, thinking of her mother put a brief smile on her face.
Unlike her arrival with her parents in a passenger plane on the last leg of that summer vacation, she had just endured two days on two different cargo planes. She and Yves had boarded one in Austria, then got off to change planes in Bangkok, where they had been able to purchase a sandwich and water before boarding the next cargo plane, belonging to the owners of a diamond mine. That had been their only meal along the way, and her stomach was now rumbling.
In contrast to that trip with her parents, this wasn’t a vacation.
Yves and Vincent—the man Kayla was sure had murdered her parents and put her in a year-long coma—believed Mom and Dad had hidden a priceless diamond in Australia. A diamond Vincent claimed her parents stole from the Louvre in Paris, but that should have been his. Kayla refused to believe that her parents, Inola and Kevin McGee, would have done that, especially with their teenaged daughter present.
That vacation seemed like a ridiculously long time ago, when life was carefree. She had been engaged to a fellow med student, and her name was Kendra McGee—before the home invasion that changed her life forever and put her in witness protection. Turned out it wasn’t witness protection at all. It was Vincent deceiving her grandmother so he could control and keep track of them.
Kayla heaved a sigh, ready to head to the diamond mine, retrieve the diamond, and catch the next commercial flight back to the States. Back to Martin, who had been her physical therapist before becoming the best friend who had undertaken this arduous journey across three continents, in search of a diamond Vincent insisted belonged to him. She hoped that finding the diamond would finally bring her back to the normal life she craved.
Martin’s kind, gentle spirit had captured her heart during the past few weeks, and they had confessed their love for each other. Now he was convalescing in a Paris hospital. She’d hated to leave him behind as she completed her task, but his injuries had been too extensive to allow him to travel.
The diamond mine they were headed to used to be owned by the family of Lucas, Yves’s business partner. The two men claimed to have been friends with Kayla’s parents many years ago and had been entrusted with their safe word.
Despite Yves knowing her childhood safe word, she felt unable to trust him because of the way they had approached her.
They’d used a sedative to force her to leave Martin behind, but it had given her disturbing dreams. At the same time, it had caused her to finally remember the attack that had left her parents dead. Those memories prompted as many questions as they answered.
Then there were the stories Yves had told during the flights to Australia. They had pierced her heart and drained her hope of getting justice for her murdered parents. She had to find the Rose Diamond to save herself, her grandmother, and Martin.
Despite the hot Australia day, she shuddered at the memory of the blast of cold that had ripped through the light fabric of her summer clothes back in Austria. A helicopter had taken her and Yves from a snow-covered mountain top to an Austrian airstrip. When she realized they were about to board the first plane, she had tried to reason with Yves.
“We don’t need to go to Australia,” she had argued. “My family didn’t visit a diamond mine during our vacation there.”
She now understood that last family vacation was what had triggered the destruction of the lives of everyone she loved.
Yves was undeterred by her protests. His voice had sounded as flat and tired as his dark brown eyes looked. “We must go if we ever want our lives back.”
He had placed a hand on her back to nudge her into the cavernous fuselage lined with jump seats. While showing her how to buckle up, he explained that although Lucas’s family no longer owned the diamond mine, they had remained in contact with the new owners.
“It’s where the Rose Diamond originated,” he had said. “Lucas’s grandfather gave it to the Prime Minister of France when he toured the mine in the 1980s. When Lucas heard of Vincent’s plan to steal it, he talked us into helping him.” He shook his head. “What a mistake.”
Now, Yves placed his hand on her back again, this time to nudge her out of the plane and into yet another attempt at shaking loose memories of that fateful vacation. She didn’t believe they’d hidden it in Australia, and she shook off his hand to wrap her arms around herself.
“You’re still afraid of me?” He sounded hurt, and his crinkled-up face showed concern.