Christmas With a Palace Thief
** National Readers' Choice Award Finalist **
Security chief Umberto Niro has dedicated his life to a single mission: defending the Barrali royal family from all threats, both internal and external. When he detects an intruder deep inside the palace, capture is swift and certain. Then he discovers the thief is his former co-worker—and ex-girlfriend—Sara Angeletti, and he suspects there's more to the Christmas break-in than meets the eye.
Umberto turned his back on Sara years ago, but she hasn't forgotten the depth of passion they once shared. When he hauls her into his office in handcuffs, she uses that attraction to her advantage. She's playing with fire, but Sara's on a mission of her own....
Can they survive the holiday...and each other?
The ROYAL SCANDALS Series:
- Christmas With a Prince (novella)
- Scandal With a Prince
- Honeymoon With a Prince
- Christmas on the Royal Yacht (novella)
- Slow Tango With a Prince
- The Royal Bastard
- Christmas With a Palace Thief (novella)
- The Wicked Prince
- One Man's Princess
- A Royal Scandals Wedding, for newsletter subscribers
Release date: October 27, 2015
Print pages: 134
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Christmas With a Palace Thief
Breaking into a royal palace wasn’t an easy task, even for the most skilled thief. When that palace teemed with holiday guests, many of whom were VIPs, tightened security protocols made the challenge even more daunting.
Sara Angeletti was not a skilled thief. Fortunately, she had other key factors working in her favor: familiarity with the building’s layout, inside information on the royal family’s surveillance system, and a dreary, moonless night. Best of all, tonight’s mission was for a purpose near and dear to her heart.
The black umbrella clutched in Sara’s gloved hand shielded her from the cold drizzle as she made her way along Via Floriana, the city boulevard that bordered the rear of the palace complex. It also shielded her face from the security cameras and passersby, for despite the late hour, Sara wasn’t the only pedestrian on the wide sidewalk of Sarcaccia’s capital city of Cateri this Friday night. A smattering of businesspeople and civil servants strode past her purposefully, their heads down and shoulders hunched as they attempted to escape the rain before it soaked through their clothing. The rest were holiday shoppers, their arms loaded with bags as they hurried toward one of the neighborhood’s bustling restaurants or dashed for the shelter of the nearby bus stop awning to await a ride home. The few pedestrians who dared raise their eyes were interested only in the glitter of the Christmas lights strung over the street or the route numbers displayed on the front of the approaching busses.
Even for this time of year, it was rare weather for the Mediterranean island, given its sun-drenched location only a ferry ride from Naples, Italy. Sara couldn’t have planned it better.
Two buses lumbered to a stop, one behind the other, sparking a frenzy of activity as people queued to board. A few passengers used their arms or elbows to wipe condensation from the windows in an attempt to read the street name over the bus stop and get their bearings. Sara took advantage of the distraction to cover the last few steps to her destination: a spot along the low stone wall she knew was difficult to see on the palace security feed. She checked to ensure no one was paying attention to her, then folded her umbrella and slipped it between the wrought iron rails of the fence that topped the wall. he took care to keep her head down and face aimed away from the cameras as she waited to confirm that the motion detectors had been disabled.
After another quick glance to confirm she wasn’t being watched, she stepped onto the stone, grabbed the fence’s top rail, and propelled herself up and over to land in the narrow space between the wall and a row of tall, neatly-trimmed evergreens. From the time Sara stepped onto the stone wall until she landed on the softly packed earth, only four seconds had elapsed. She’d timed herself often enough while practicing on a similar fence near her apartment to know.
In one smooth move, she dropped to her belly, grabbed the umbrella, then wriggled under the evergreens. Low, sharp branches scratched her back, but she’d worn a form-fitting jacket and tucked her shoulder-length dark hair into a tight cap to prevent snags. She couldn’t risk making a racket by disentangling herself from the bushes while she could still be seen by those on the street.
A few seconds later, she emerged into the royal family’s private garden. She rose to her feet, brushed the damp dirt from the front of her jacket, and allowed herself a moment to catch her breath and savor her success. Sarcaccians were fiercely loyal and protective of the royal family. They wouldn’t have stood idly by if they’d spotted her scaling the fence. If the cameras had caught her movement, the sidewalk on the other side of the evergreens would’ve been instantly illuminated. Yet all remained dark and still, and the only sounds coming from the opposite side of the evergreens were typical city noises. The honking of taxis, the low hum of car engines, and occasional voices from the bus stop.
Sara waited for the thrumming of her heart to slow before she bent to hide the umbrella under the evergreens. She took care to note exactly where she left it. Unlike the palace’s famed formal gardens, which boasted wide gravel walkways, crisp hedges, and smartly-labeled flowerbeds, this enclosed, private space was a riot of blooms during the spring and summer months. No paths existed save the seemingly random patches of moss and grass that allowed one to walk amongst the flowers and take cuttings of whatever appealed. With the onset of winter, most of the perennials were trimmed down for the season and the fountain in the garden’s center emptied of water and silent. She gauged the distance from the fountain to her current position. With no lights or paths to guide her, it’d be easy to lose the umbrella, and she needed it on her exit to avoid being identified on camera.
Though if everything went according to plan, the security staff would never know she’d been here, and they’d never have cause to review the video footage. That was crucial; even if she’d successfully obscured her face, the footage would make it obvious she’d had inside help. All would be for naught if it were traced to the king himself.
Sara shook out her hands, fortifying herself for what lay ahead. Now that she was inside the grounds she faced her toughest challenge: getting into the building without being stopped. She traversed the garden, which was encircled by the high evergreen hedge she’d wriggled under, doing her best to keep to the driest areas to minimize footprints. Only a handful of the palace staff knew of this garden’s existence; even fewer visited, which meant any footprints would be easy to spot. Sara herself had only entered the space once, accompanied by Princess Sophia, and that’d been over eight years ago. It’d been during the last week of summer. Sophia had been about to depart for her fall semester in France, and the flowers were still beautiful.
Sara was fired the week before Christmas.
She reached the far side of the enclosure and searched for the narrow break in the evergreens, one barely wide enough for a body to squeeze through. At the same moment she spied the opening, she heard the sound of feet against gravel on the other side, then a sweet, feminine laugh followed by a much deeper one. Shoot. She’d anticipated guests would be tempted to sneak out of the charity ball to explore the palace grounds, but hoped tonight’s drizzle would deter them. No woman in her right mind would want to ruin a gown worthy of being worn to a formal function at the Sarcaccian royal palace, let alone do so this early in the course of the night’s festivities.
The sex better be worth it, sweetie.
Sara pulled back to wait for the couple to pass. When the steps slowed, her pulse leaped.
“I don’t see a gate.”
“It’s along here somewhere,” a rich male voice responded. The sound of the wrought iron fence being rattled came to Sara’s ears. She pressed herself more firmly into the evergreens at the garden’s perimeter. “Got it. The latch is on the back of the gate so it can’t be seen. You have to know it’s here to find it.”
“It’s sized for someone the width of a twig! How am I going to get through that in my dress?” Despite her protest, the woman sounded more amused than concerned.
“I’d be happy to help you remove it.”
Sara cringed. Oh, please, no.
“Little chilly for that.”
“I know dozens of ways to keep you warm.” Low, sexually-charged laughter carried through the damp air.
Sara closed her eyes and tried to still her breath at the sound of the gate scraping open. Why in the world had she agreed to this?
Because you’re a good person, Angeletti.
“Wait until we’re back indoors and you can warm me all you want. In the meantime” —Sara heard a muffled grunt— “there. Made it.”
A heartbeat later, two figures—no, three—shimmied through the narrow opening in the evergreens. The couple had a dog with them.
The woman took three or four steps into the garden, then paused. “Oh, Massimo, I had no idea this was here!”
Sara’s throat clenched. If anyone could sniff out the fact the garden was already occupied, it’d be royal newlywed Prince Massimo, a tough former soldier, and his well-trained Sarcaccian Shepherd, Gaspare. As if to prove it, the dog swung his head toward Sara, sniffed the air, then trotted over and poked her hip with his wet nose.
Sara buried her gloved hand in the damp fur between the dog’s ears, willing Gaspare to stay silent. Not twenty feet away, Prince Massimo’s Texas-born wife, Kelly, lifted the edges of what appeared to be a gorgeous floor-length gown peeking out from under her raincoat, then took a few tentative steps toward the center of the garden.
“Why haven’t you brought me here before?”
“It’s my parents’ favorite spot. I don’t come here that often." In the darkness, Sara saw Massimo move to wrap his arm around Kelly’s waist. “When we started walking this direction and Gaspare ran ahead, I realized you’d never seen it.”
“I can’t see much of it now.”
“Then let’s explore. The rain’s letting up and I’d much rather stay here than spend another hour inside a crowded ballroom.”
Kelly and Prince Massimo moved further into the garden, with Massimo describing what grew where during the summer months. Gaspare nudged Sara harder, encouraging her to crouch down to pet him. She did, taking care not to bump into the hedge behind her.
“Missed me, didn’t you, big boy?” she breathed into Gaspare’s ear, hoping her tone would soothe him. When she’d worked in the palace, she’d become attached to the new puppy and watched his training with interest. She’d heard that while Massimo served in Africa, Gaspare had moved into Princess Sophia’s palace apartment. Sara wished she could’ve been around for that; she’d have enjoyed spending more time with the dog.
Gaspare nuzzled against her, then turned and pushed his rear end into her hip with such force he nearly knocked her over. Sara rolled her eyes. How could she have forgotten? Getting a rump massage was Gaspare’s goal in life. If she scratched his backside, he’d moan. But if she didn’t, he’d push even harder and possibly whine. Either way, Massimo would quickly realize that he and his wife weren’t alone in the garden.
Gaspare cocked his head in his owner’s direction, then looked up at Sara. To her horror, the dog let out a low grumble of protest.
“Sounds like he found a rabbit,” Sara heard Kelly say.
“Gaspare, leave it. Come.”
“Go,” Sara whispered, giving Gaspare a soft swat on his hindquarters. The dog stared at her for a beat longer than he should, given his training, then rubbed his body across her legs before darting through the flowerbed toward the garden’s center, where Massimo and Kelly now stood near the fountain. Taking advantage of the noise, Sara ducked through the gap in the evergreens and slipped out the open gate, emerging into the palace’s massive formal gardens. Moving quickly, she crossed a gravel pathway, leaped a row of boxwood hedges, then crouched behind them. She waited and listened, but no sound came from behind her.
On a long exhale, she turned to survey the palace, where the party was in full swing. The building appeared glorious at night, being a smaller version of its contemporary, Versailles. Light from dozens of crystal chandeliers glowed through the row of windows that lined the central section of the palace and the faint swell of orchestra music carried on the night air, mixing with the low buzz of hundreds of animated voices. Outside the doors that led revelers to the garden, sentries stood watch. From this distance, it took effort to pick out their forms. They wore suits so they blended in with the crowd, but Sara knew who—what—they were. Each of them would be armed, given the dignitaries in attendance tonight, and each would have an earpiece connecting him—or her—to Umberto Niro, the head of the Barrali family’s security operations.
Sara’s gut seized at the very thought of the man and she put a hand to her stomach. In order to succeed tonight, it was imperative she block him from her brain.
Resolved, she crept along the boxwood toward the far wing, where the lights remained dim. The third floor housed King Carlo and Queen Fabrizia’s private apartment. Motion sensors and cameras ensured no one could enter through the tall, rectangular windows.The sounds of the party faded as Sara rounded the end of the stone structure and looked up. The curtains in the king and queen’s apartment were open, save for the fourth window from the end. There, the curtains were closed.
Her signal to continue.
Even so, Sara remained in place, watching the shadows for movement and listening for the slightest indication of a human presence. With Prince Massimo and his wife wandering the gardens, the guards might not be in their usual positions. Once Sara was certain she was alone, she stood and walked along the gravel path as if she were a guest out for a stroll in the fresh air. A guard with good vision might see that she wore narrow black pants rather than a gown, but if so, she counted on the fact the kitchen staff working the event wore similar pants. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see one of them outdoors, taking a break now that dinner had ended.
Then again, Plan A was not to get caught.
She made her way to the service door, grateful no one was taking a cigarette break, then punched the six-digit code into the keypad with her gloved fingers and pressed her thumb against the small screen at the bottom. Three seconds seemed like three minutes as she waited for the light on the screen to turn green. The door clicked. She was in.
The windowless service passage was gloomy and silent as the grave. The rainy weather heightened the feeling, lending the narrow space the smell of damp earth. During the palace’s construction centuries before, this hallway and others like it were designed to allow staff to travel throughout the building without being seen in the public or residential areas. Foodstuffs, linens, packages, and cleaning supplies all moved invisibly through the network of service passages. Tonight, with events focused in the palace’s massive ballroom, the bulk of the staff would be found in the hallways of the central wing. Sara placed her hand on the wall, using it to guide herself toward the stairs. At the top of the stairwell, she used the same six-digit code, the same thumbprint. Heard the click of the lock as it disengaged. This time, she waited before going through the door.
God help her if Umberto was on the other side, manning his typical evening post along the main staircase. He was the last line of defense against anyone who dared attempt to access King Carlo and Queen Fabrizia’s private apartment while the royals were in residence. Tonight, she counted on him being in the midst of the action.
Hearing nothing, she cracked the door and peered into the wide, opulent hallway. Darkened chandeliers hung overhead; the only light came from the windows on the opposite side of the hallway. Nothing moved, no sounds could be heard.
She entered and closed the door behind her so it blended seamlessly with the moldings, then peeled the thumbprint sticker off her glove and stuffed it in the front pocket of her jacket. To her right, a broad marble staircase led to the rest of the palace. Her destination was on the left: the double doors to the king and queen’s rooms. She approached, turned the lever, and entered, taking care to close the door soundlessly. The living room was large and comfortable, with plush Persian rugs topping the hardwood floors. A magnificent fireplace dominated the space, and a grouping of sofas and high-backed chairs surrounded a spacious coffee table in the center. A single lamp perched on a glass-topped end table near one of the sofas cast the room in a soft light.
Resisting the temptation to gape at the furnishings, Sara skirted the seating area and made a beeline to the rooms that lay behind the fireplace. It wasn’t long before she was in the bedroom. There was no mistaking it for anything other than what it was: the sanctuary of a royal couple worth billions. Sara could fit her entire apartment in the room…twice. The ceilings were easily double the height, and these had been painted in the eighteenth century to resemble the Mediterranean sky at sunset. Gilt laced the moldings along the edges, its gleam apparent even in the semi-darkness.
Sara passed by the door to the luxurious master bath and entered the queen’s personal closet. As large as a studio apartment in the city, it was professionally designed, boasting floor to ceiling shelves and hang rods crafted of elegant rosewood. A Flokati rug occupied the center of the space and was topped with a comfortable ottoman. Two pairs of shoes lay on the hardwood floor nearby, apparently castoffs as the queen readied for tonight’s event.
Sidestepping the shoes, she went to the antique bombe chest situated at the rear of the closet and counted down to the third drawer. Her breath hitched as she surveyed the contents. Everything was as the king described. Dozens of rings, most worth more than Sara earned in a year at her gelateria, rested on a plush velvet tray custom-fit to the drawer and designed to showcase each piece’s beauty. She reached to the back of the drawer to free the tray, then placed it on top of the chest. After unzipping her jacket, she unfolded a black bag she’d carried against her ribs, then set it on the floor before reaching into the drawer once more. She felt along the wood until her fingers found the tiny strip of silk. She pulled, revealing the drawer’s hidden compartment. Inside, she found the item she’d been sent to retrieve, a gold box roughly the size of two decks of cards. She withdrew a thin layer of bubble wrap from her black bag, wrapped it around the gold box, set it in the bag, then zipped it all inside her jacket. Finally, she shut the hidden compartment, returned the tray of rings to its proper position, and closed the drawer.
Perfetto. Now all she had to do was get out.
Sara flinched at the deep, familiar voice as much as at the sound of a gun being cocked. Though the last time she’d heard the man utter that particular word, it’d been preceded by a don’t and followed by more intimate sounds.
How had she not heard him approach? How had she not felt him approach? Because suddenly, she felt the man’s presence as powerfully as if she were wrapped in his arms.
Slowly, Sara raised her hands to her sides and turned. Starting with the dark wingtips the man wore on his feet, she drew her gaze from his precisely tailored tuxedo pants to his lean waist, then forced herself to linger a moment before examining the broad chest and athletic shoulders encased in a white dress shirt and tuxedo jacket. Finally, she lifted her chin to meet the green-eyed gaze and menacing scowl of a man with a rock-hard jaw, sculpted cheekbones, and military haircut. A man whose scowl was far more intimidating than his gun.
Umberto Niro. Her ex.
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