If books could kill, p.25

If Books Could Kill, page 25

 

If Books Could Kill
 


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  “I heard that,” Robin whispered. “We need to get out of here.”

  “I know.”

  Without warning, Helen said, “Kyle was a wonderful lover.”

  “Uh-oh,” Robin murmured.

  “What?” Serena said in disbelief.

  “Shut up!” Martin said, shaking his wife.

  “Jesus Christ, Helen,” Serena cried. “What kind of stupid cow are you?”

  “Don’t call her a cow!” Martin shouted.

  “Easy, bro,” Serena said, holding up both hands in acquiescence.

  Robin swore under her breath. I had to agree; this was not going to end well. And where the hell was everybody? The police? The tourists? Was everyone off having tea or something? Had Serena locked the door behind her?

  “You killed the only man I ever loved,” Helen said, her voice strained and halting.

  “I told you to shut up!” Martin roared.

  “And I’ll never do what you say,” Helen said flatly.

  Serena stared in disbelief at her sister-in-law, and I couldn’t blame her. What was Helen thinking by taunting Martin? On the other hand, what did she have to lose?

  Martin flexed his arm, putting more pressure on Helen’s throat. It must’ve been the last straw, because she bent, then swung her leg and kicked him in the shin.

  Martin grunted. “What’re you-”

  She kicked him again.

  “Stop provoking him.” Serena moved closer, clearly sensing trouble.

  The kick didn’t disarm Martin, but it distracted Serena long enough for me to grab the only thing within reach: the four-foot-high wrought-iron candle stand. I whipped it like a light saber at Serena’s stomach and her gun went flying.

  I heard the chapel door bang open then. “Yoo-hoo!”

  “It’s Mom!” I shouted at Robin. “Don’t let her come in here!”

  Robin took off. I went scrambling for the gun and so did Martin, relaxing his grip on Helen, who sprang loose and went after the only target available: Serena. Robin jumped on her back and started pounding the hell out of her.

  “Go, Helen!” Mom shouted from the back of the nave.

  “Get off me, you bitch!” Serena bucked, but Helen was too pissed off to care.

  Martin yanked the gun out of reach, but I managed to scrape his arm with my nails. The gash drew blood and he swore ripely as it dripped onto his beige linen jacket.

  “Shit,” he cried. “You bitch!”

  “Payback always is,” I said, and backhanded him across the chin. Man, that hurt.

  His head jerked back just as heavy footsteps pounded across the nave floor. Martin paid no attention, just shook off my attack and fought to aim the gun back at me. “I’ll kill you, bitch.”

  “I don’t think so,” Derek said as he dived on top of Martin.

  “Oomph.” Martin’s hand released the gun and it skittered away.

  I managed to roll out of Derek’s way, then scrabbled to my knees and claimed the gun. I wasn’t entirely sure whom to point it at, so I held it up as if it were a trophy. Which it sort of was, I guess.

  Derek jumped to a standing position, then shoved one foot onto Martin’s back, forcing him to stay prone on the floor until a constable scurried in and handcuffed him.

  Derek’s eyes were dark with concern as he lifted me up, took the gun from my hand and pulled me close.

  “Where the hell have you been?” I asked as I buried my face in his soft leather jacket.

  “Just trying to quell an international incident,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around me. “Sorry I was late.”

  I sagged against him, craving the warm strength he radiated. “Late? No, you were right on time.”

  “And the grand-prize winner of the Lawton-McNamara Bookbinding Prize is… Brooklyn Wainwright!”

  As I walked up the aisle to the wide stage, I was vaguely aware of the announcer describing my work. A giant screen played a short video I’d shot of my gilding process. I think I made a speech, but mere minutes later, back in my chair and surrounded by the crowd of over two thousand of my peers, I had almost no memory of what I’d said.

  But I had a gleaming Baccarat crystal plaque with my name on it to remind me that I’d won.

  Later, during the champagne reception that followed, I savored the rush of hugs from family and friends, the joy of my work being recognized, and the admittedly shallow but nonetheless thrilling shock of victory. I was pretty sure I’d never forget it as long as I lived.

  The sight of my parents dressed in matching tartans almost brought tears to my eyes. It was safe to say that the one thing they would never be called was subtle.

  My mother ran up and hugged me. “I’m so proud of you, honey.”

  “Thanks, Mom.”

  She looked me up and down. “We should’ve bought you a kilt, too. You look so serious in your black suit.”

  “I was trying for understated elegance.”

  “And that’s exactly what you achieved,” she said with a generous smile.

  I laughed. I knew I would never be as flamboyant as my parents-or Robin, for that matter, who stood a few feet away wearing a short gold sheath that fit her like skin. But I thought the black silk pants and slim matching jacket I’d chosen suited my mood tonight. Just hours before, I’d struggled for my life with a homicidal maniac and his sociopathic sibling. Serena and Martin had been led away in handcuffs, and Helen had collapsed in the arms of the first constable on the scene and been taken to the hospital for observation.

  I saw Royce across the room, having an animated conversation with the small group gathered around him. He wore a tuxedo and a rather rakish bandage around his head. Earlier, he’d made the mistake of arguing with Helen in the hotel lobby when Martin came looking for his wife. Martin had immediately concluded that Helen and Royce were also having an affair and decided to add Royce to his kill list.

  I shook off those awful thoughts and instead watched Robin flirt with Angus. He’d also dressed in full kilt regalia for the occasion-or maybe for Robin, who’d expressed more than a passing interest in seeing him kilted to the max.

  I’d had a debriefing session with Angus directly after the St. Margaret’s standoff. He’d relished the fact that Martin’s purpose in killing Kyle had been that oldest of motives, jealousy, pure and simple.

  “Nobody kills over a book,” he reiterated.

  I didn’t take it personally because he was right-this time. But who was to say that books couldn’t kill?

  I took another sip of champagne as Mom and Dad discussed stopping at Stonehenge on the way back to London tomorrow. I was about to comment when I heard a whining voice somewhere close by, behind me. I focused my attention on the snippet of conversation.

  A man was saying, “Why, it’s simply wonderful work, excellent inlay, superior gilding and the best example of-”

  “But did she have to win first prize?” Minka whined.

  Another woman asked, “Have you seen her book?”

  “I saw it, I saw it,” Minka groused. “What’s the BFD?”

  “One merely has to observe the outstanding use of-”

  Minka interrupted with a sound of pure disgust and stomped away.

  Ah, sweet. “More champagne, please,” I quipped, perky in victory.

  “That’s my girl,” Dad said, happy as a man could be when dressed from neck to knees in red plaid wool.

  A passing waiter stopped and held his tray steady as I traded my empty glass for a flute filled with sparkly liquid.

  After the tense confrontation of that afternoon, the party atmosphere was infectious. I reveled in the laughter and cheer and made plans to meet friends in Lyon in the summer and the Lisbon fair next fall.

  As I sipped champagne and shared an air kiss with the woman who ran the book-arts center where I taught classes back in San Francisco, a commotion erupted nearby. From out of the crowd, two men approached.

  “Stop pushing me.”

  “You’ll apologize now and be done w
ith it.”

  It was Tommy and Harry from the Robert Burns Society, my kidnappers from earlier in the week. They stopped in front of me and Tommy nudged Harry. “Now, tell her you’re sorry.”

  Harry rolled his eyes. “Hello, Brooklyn.”

  “Hi, Harry,” I said. “Hi, Tommy. What’s going on?”

  A waiter sailed by. Harry grabbed a champagne flute from the tray and drained it in one gulp.

  He wiped his mouth, then blew out a heavy breath. “I’m to apologize for frightening you last night, miss. I thought I could get inside, grab the book and be done with it. Seems I was wrong.”

  I gaped at him. “It was you?”

  “Aye, it was me,” Harry grumbled, shooting a dirty look at Tommy. “And I’d’ve done it clean and quietly without causing you any pain and suffering if it hadn’t been for that other bloke. Where’d he come from, anyway? Bugger all, the man took ten years off me life.”

  “You were going to steal the Robert Burns book?”

  “Aye, he was,” Tommy said, shaking his head. “But it was for the greater good, love.”

  “You frightened her very badly,” Derek said sternly. “I would strongly urge her to press charges.”

  “You would?” I said, looking at Derek.

  “Oh, now, miss,” Harry said in a rush. “That won’t be necessary. I admit it was a foolish thing I did, and I’ve learned my lesson.”

  “He’d had a snootful in the bar with the boys,” Tommy whispered loudly. “He did it for Rabbie.”

  “For Rabbie,” I said, and sighed. “I’ll let it go this time, Harry, but don’t ever do anything like that again.”

  “Ach, no worries, miss. As I said, I’ve learned my lesson.”

  “We’ll be off now,” Tommy said. “It was a pleasure to see you again, Miss Brooklyn.”

  “Likewise,” I said, and watched as Tommy nudged Harry toward the bar.

  The chandeliers glittered, the champagne flowed and the big-band music brought a sophisticated flair to the festivities.

  Derek checked his watch, glanced around, then leaned in close to me. “Can I drag you away from the celebration for a moment, love?”

  “Okay,” I said, then was struck that this might be the last night I ever see him. And wasn’t that depressing? I forced myself to smile as I added, “I have no plans to do anything other than swill champagne and bask in the glory of the big win.”

  “That’s my girl.” He was tall, dark and tempting in a beautiful suit that fit his wide shoulders and narrow waist to perfection. He took my hand and a little shiver of excitement passed through me. Was it the touch of his skin? His accent? His strength and virility? Something about Derek Stone always gave me a little thrill of anticipation, and I doubted the feeling would ever get old.

  I sipped my champagne as we walked to the front desk. Derek asked for his package and the clerk handed him a small wrapped parcel.

  The Robert Burns book.

  I turned on him, miffed. “I left that in the safe. What are you doing with it?”

  “Giving it to you,” he said, and handed me the book.

  “Oh.” I held the book close to my chest. “Hmm. I’m not sure what I should-”

  “Let’s go outside, shall we?”

  Taking hold of my elbow, he walked me out to the valet area, where a deep purple Bentley limousine was parked. It was solidly built, like a Sherman tank.

  The blacked-out back window slowly rolled down and a woman inside extended her expensively gloved hand out the window.

  Derek turned to me. “May I have the book?”

  “You’re kidding,” I whispered. I recognized the woman wrapped in shadows in the Bentley’s backseat.

  “I never kid,” Derek said.

  I stared at the Robert Burns book, its red gilded cover radiant in the reflected light of the old-fashioned streetlamps that lined the hotel’s drive. Then I met Derek’s gaze. “Are you sure it’s the right thing to do? The world should have a chance to see this book and read its contents.”

  “This is the right thing to do,” Derek assured me.

  Why wasn’t I convinced? “It doesn’t matter what I think. The book belongs to Royce McVee.”

  “Yes, I spoke with him earlier. He’s thrilled to be rid of it, and when he heard who the buyer was, I thought he would spontaneously combust.”

  “Oh. Well, that settles it.” Reluctantly, I gave the book to Derek and he turned to face the woman in the car. He placed the book in her open hand and bowed from the waist.

  “Thank you, Commander,” she said crisply. After handing the book to a man sitting beside her, she gave me a minute nod and a queenly wave of her hand. The window began to rise and the Bentley drove off.

  “Whoa,” I said, staring at the car as it reached the end of the drive and turned left. “That was intense. So you told her about the book?”

  Derek watched until the Bentley disappeared over the ridge. “No.”

  “But how else would she know? She must’ve heard the whole background thing with Robert Burns and the princess.”

  “Not from me,” he stated. “Do you honestly think I would repeat the story of a seditious eighteenth-century Scots poet illegitimately fathering a royal princess’s baby? I’d be laughed out of the palace. It obviously never happened.”

  “But-” A movement across the street caught my eye. I glanced over and saw Gabriel leaning against a stone wall, watching me. His arms were folded across his chest and he was laughing. A black taxicab pulled up and Gabriel gave me a salute, then climbed into the cab and was whisked away.

  “What were you going to say?” Derek said.

  I blinked a few times. Had I imagined him? No, and I hadn’t imagined his laughter, either. So now I had to wonder if Gabriel had tried to steal the book in order to sell it to the very person who now owned it. I couldn’t blame him for laughing. Maybe I should’ve just let him get away with the book.

  “Love?”

  I focused on Derek. His eyes twinkled with laughter and his lips were twisted in that mocking half smile I grew more and more fond of every day, despite my best intentions.

  “So you’re saying,” I began, “that all of a sudden, out of the blue, the queen of England gets a bug up her butt for an old book of coarse, sentimental, impossible-to-comprehend Scottish poetry.”

  He flexed his shoulders. “If you don’t mind, we Brits prefer not to think that members of our beloved monarchy have bugs.” He shrugged. “Or butts, for that matter.”

  “Sorry to offend. But…” I stared down the street, where I’d last seen the Bentley driving east toward the palace. Then I glanced in the opposite direction, where Gabriel’s taxi had gone. I wasn’t sure what I’d learned from the Flaxen’d Quean and Kyle’s death, but I knew I was not quite as unhinged and tattered as when I first arrived in Edinburgh. In fact, I felt a lot better. I turned to Derek and asked, “What do you think will happen to the book?”

  He eased his arm around my shoulders and I caught a trace of his scent, an intoxicating mix of leather and citrus and pure masculinity. “I think it’ll make for hours of royal bedtime reading.”

  “I doubt it,” I said, shaking my head. “I can’t help but worry that she’ll take that book and its secrets to her grave.”

  “Darling Brooklyn,” he said with an affectionate squeeze. “That surely won’t be the only secret she takes with her.”

  “Aha! So you admit she’ll be taking the secret with her, which must mean that you believe the story is true.”

  “That’s quite a leap, and you’re sadly mistaken.”

  “No, I’m not. I think…”

  He stopped in the shadow of the hotel wall. The night was cool, but I didn’t feel it as he held me at arm’s length and patiently studied my features. “The stress has finally gotten to you, hasn’t it, darling?”

  “I’m not stressed at all,” I said, biting back a grin. “I feel great.”

  He touched my cheek, pushed a thick strand of hair behind my ear
and kissed me there. “But you’re obviously delusional, aren’t you?”

  I laughed, then almost moaned as he moved his lips along my hairline and down to skim across my jaw. I should’ve asked him if this was his idea of a kiss-off, or if he intended to finish what he was starting. Instead, I decided to do as Guru Bob would do and simply live in the moment.

  “What was the question?” I whispered when I could speak again.

  “Ah, your memory is impaired as well,” he murmured, his warm breath stirring the tiny hairs along my neck. “I suspect you’ve conked your head on some hard surface. That can be dangerous. I’ll have to watch you very carefully from now on.”

  “If you insist,” I managed to say as he turned his attention to my earlobe.

  “Oh, I do, sweetheart,” he said. “I really do.”

  Kate Carlisle

  New York Times bestselling author Kate Carlisle worked in television production for many years before starting law school, where she began writing fiction as a way to lawfully kill off evil professors. The murderous urges faded but her need to write remained strong, culminating in the publication of her 2009 bestselling debut novel, Homicide In Hardcover, the first book in the Bibliophile Mystery Series featuring rare book restoration expert Brooklyn Wainwright. Book two in the series, If Books Could Kill, arrives February 2010. Kate lives with her husband by the beach in Southern California.

  ***

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