Over the years, Francesca Lewis had imagined many scenarios when they’d run into each other again. His saving her from being mugged wasn’t one of them. “Hello, Deck,” she said, managing to sound calm. “Thanks for the rescue.”
She met his gaze head-on, trying to keep her expression dispassionate. Her hands were shaking. Frankie took a deep breath and clutched her fingers around her tote bag. They’d been twenty-two years old the last time she’d seen him, and he’d had a youthfulness about him then.
Deck was all man now. His chest and shoulders had broadened, and he had muscles everywhere. Impressive muscles. Frankie took another long breath.
The boy-band/rock-idol hairstyle was gone, replaced by a more conservative cut—longer on top, short over the ears and nape—but his dark hair was shaggy as if he’d skipped a few barber appointments and it appeared as if he hadn’t bothered to shave for days. Those velvet-brown eyes of his still did things to her. She looked away, not wanting him to realize how much he could affect her. He was gorgeous, even better-looking now than back then, and he’d been damn hot in college.
Deck had majored in business because his parents had decided he would join the family company. So why was he here in fatigue pants and combat boots?
“Is your firm conducting a hostile takeover in Trujillo?” She gestured toward his clothing.
Deck grinned and Frankie locked her knees to keep from swooning. Damn it, he wasn’t supposed to be able to do this to her any longer.
“I never joined my dad’s company.” He changed the subject. “You’re wearing your hair long now. I like it.”
The frisson of pleasure irritated the hell out of her. Slinging the leather straps of her tote over her shoulder, Frankie said, “Good to see you, Deck.” That was a lie. “Thanks again.” She pivoted and began to head toward the inn.
To her frustration, he caught up to her. “I’ll walk you to your hotel. Where are you staying?”
She didn’t want to tell him. She wanted to leave and pretend she’d never seen him again. “Thanks, but it’s not necessary.”
“Yes, it is. You don’t know if those gang members are waiting up ahead to finish what I interrupted.”
“Odds are they’re more interested in evening the score with you than stealing my bag.”
Deck continued to keep pace with her. “I claimed you as my woman. They could attack you to get back at me. Now which hotel are you staying at?”
Frankie recognized the stubborn expression on his face. Deck wasn’t about to surrender the battle, and she was shaking from being accosted, leaving her without the energy to argue with him indefinitely. “Palacio Monasterio,” she admitted grudgingly.
He whistled low, under his breath. “Librarians must be paid more than I thought.”
She bit her tongue. He was trying to get a rise out of her and she wasn’t giving him the satisfaction.
“Sorry.” Deck smirked, not even slightly remorseful. “I meant archivist.”
No, he didn’t. She focused on the road in front of her. “Did you really think I would fall for that?”
“You used to.”
“I’m not twenty anymore.”
“No, you’re definitely all grown up.”
Was that admiration in his voice? Frankie refused to glance over and see if she was right.
“When I’ve thought of you over the years, Frankie, I always pictured you in some library, studying and making notes. How often do you travel to places like Puerto Jardin?”
Her sigh was nearly inaudible. “Never to places like Puerto Jardin. Every other assignment has been somewhere safe. Libraries in London, New York, or Madrid. Private archives in Berlin or Paris. University collections in Baltimore or Boston.”
Safe. That’s what he wanted—his Nerd safe back in the States.
“I’ll arrange to get you and Ellis back to Los Angeles. I’d like to set it up for tomorrow, but it will likely be Wednesday.”
Frankie lost her relaxed pose. “I’m not going back to California. Not yet.” There was a pause. “Me, my team, we’re down here to locate the Lost Treasure of Trujillo and we can’t go home yet. There’s too much left to do.”
“The Lost Treasure of Trujillo? Is that why Archer was talking about treasure hunters?”
“It’s why Ericksson and his men are here. Or at least it’s the most likely reason.”
“You might be familiar with the treasure, but I need a few details.”
“During the revolution, the Spanish viceroy loaded a ship with gold, art, tapestries, and other high-value items. The cache disappeared, but we might be able to find it and put the items into museums. I want that chance.”
He recognized the stubborn tone. “Francesca, the only way to keep you and your friend alive is to get you out of the country. The Vikings won’t try anything in the States.”
Straightening in her chair, Frankie scooted it around to look him in the eye. “You’re wrong. Ericksson’s team has been suspected of killing people in Florida, North Carolina, and yes, California. They believe I have information that will lead them to the Lost Treasure of Trujillo, and if they have to follow me back to LA to get it, that’s what they’ll do.”
His stomach knotted, but he remained calm as he said, “Archer can hire bodyguards.”
“For how long, Deck? The rest of my life?”
“How about until someone finds the treasure? How about until Ericksson decides to look for a different cache? Not the rest of your life.”
“The treasure has been missing since 1820 and people have been searching for it since the day it disappeared. Do you know how much the treasure is estimated to be worth?” She didn’t wait for a response. “One billion dollars. Billion with a B. How long do you think it will take Ericksson to give up on a billion dollars?”
“And what’s your solution? Continue on as if nothing happened? As if you weren’t nearly killed today?” Some of his cool slipped and Deck reined himself back in. “No treasure, no matter what its value, is worth your life.” He leaned forward, taking her hands in his. “I want you safe, Nerd.”
“The best way for me to stay safe is to locate the treasure. Once it’s tucked away in a museum, Ericksson will move on and forget about me.”
She extricated her hands from his and Deck didn’t miss the way she rubbed her palms across her thighs, as if trying to get him off her skin. It hurt and it didn’t help to remind himself that the reaction was his own fault. He’d earned this pain. Every bit of it.
Deck’s voice was thicker than usual as he asked, “Do you have a plan to find this treasure that’s been missing for two centuries? One that no one else has been able to locate?”
“I’ll follow the clues like I would with any research project. Today, I found a hint. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the convent and see if they have an archive.”
“Which convent?” He had a bad feeling about this.
“La Convento de Madres Fieles.”
The convent where KW worked as a handyman because of the inordinate interest in the abbey.
“Do you think that the Vikings will allow you to research without trying to stop you?”
Frankie bit her lower lip and heat swamped Deck. It was a habit of hers, something he’d seen her do over and over. Now he knew something he hadn’t realized at the time. It was one of his turn-ons. Memories of the night they spent together threatened to overwhelm him.
“I’ll hire you.”
“You’re a mercenary. You’re looking for work since you’re not hooked up with one side or the other in the civil war. I’ll have Archer pay you to be my bodyguard.”
“You’re the only person I trust to keep me safe.”