Home > The Persuasion

The Persuasion
Author: Iris Johansen

Chapter

1

MacDuff’s Run

Scotland

 

The portrait of Fiona MacDuff shone on the wall of the private gallery like a star lighting the darkness.

Yes!

Russell Davron stood for an instant focusing the beam of his flashlight at the painting, admiring the technique of the artist as well as the beautiful face of the woman he had managed to capture with such accuracy. The long, wavy red hair, the hazel eyes shining with such vitality and humor, the hint of recklessness in the curve of her lips. Fiona MacDuff had been dead for centuries, but she looked as if she could step out of that portrait and take life by storm, molding it to whatever she chose. It was no wonder that John MacDuff, Earl of MacDuff’s Run, chose to keep her portrait here at the gallery of his primary residence rather than at one of his other estates. While researching the painting, Davron had wondered why MacDuff hadn’t sold it during the years when he’d been tottering on the verge of bankruptcy. Of course, the painting was unsigned, which made it less valuable, but somehow Davron doubted if that had even made a difference to him. Because even now after MacDuff had managed to save his family fortunes, that portrait still had a place of honor in this castle. In good times and poor, the earl hadn’t been able to let his Fiona go. Davron was beginning to see why…

“Why the hell are you just standing there?” Stefano Luca hissed as he came up behind him. “Take the painting and get out of here. That relief sentry should be reporting in another ten minutes. He’s going to wonder where the other guard has gone. If you’ve made trouble for me, you’ll pay, Davron.”

Davron felt a chill as he moved quickly toward the painting. He had a very good idea what payment Luca would demand if anything went wrong. Luca wasn’t the same man who had recruited him all those years ago. Or perhaps he was and Davron had chosen to ignore it because it was safer and more profitable to close his eyes. “I only took a minute,” he whispered. “I’m sure you disposed of that guard’s body with your usual skill. We’ll be gone long before they find him.” He carefully took down the painting. He probably should have been more cautious. These days it wasn’t safe to argue or displease Luca in any way when he was this on edge. It would be wise to try to soothe him. “And I was only appreciating our lovely Fiona. I’m sorry I argued with you when you told me that she was worth retrieving. I was thinking only of the monetary value.” He didn’t add that this was also what Luca was usually concerned about. “Your eye is obviously better than mine. You must have seen something else in her.”

“Stop talking. Just get it out of here.” Luca was stepping closer to the empty wall where the portrait had been hung. “Stash the painting in the truck. I’ll be there in a minute. I just have one more thing to do here.”

And Davron had an idea what that last thing would be. Luca was carrying the stainless-steel container he had lately started to bring to every job like this. But it was no longer empty as it had been in the truck. He jerked his eyes away from the canister. Well, what did he care? Luca might be a bit mad, but he’d furnished him with a fine living for years and Davron had learned to live with the ugliness and fear that went along with it. All Davron had to do was take care of business, obey orders, disable all the security systems at the galleries, and act as a beast of burden when Luca made his choices. It seldom involved anything in the least violent. Luca liked to handle that himself.

As he had done tonight.

But Davron couldn’t resist looking curiously over his shoulder as he moved quickly across the gallery toward the door.

Blood.

It was no surprise. There was usually blood these days, Davron knew. Luca liked to leave a signature. This time he had a brush in his hand and was dipping it into the container and then painting the wall with a huge bloody cross. It was probably the blood of the guard he’d stabbed outside the gallery. Davron had wondered why Luca had sent him ahead to grab the painting while he cut the man’s throat.

He’d needed time to take the blood.

The cross was finished now, and Luca should be following him soon. But he wasn’t coming. He’d reached into his pocket and was pulling out something and fastening it to the center of the bloody cross.

It was a photograph, Davron saw in surprise. This was a new addition to Luca’s usual routine. Davron couldn’t make out the details of the photo from across the gallery but it was definitely the photograph of a woman.

A woman with long, wavy hair that he thought might be as red as Fiona MacDuff’s in this portrait he was carrying.

But Davron couldn’t really be sure with all that blood flowing over the photograph…

* * *

 

Kendrick Castle

Wales

“Wake up, Jane.”

It was Michael’s soft whisper, Jane MacGuire realized drowsily as she opened her eyes. It was still dim in the tent, though she could see a slit of daylight at the opening. Her brother, Michael, was no longer curled up in his own sleeping bag across the tent but sitting next to her, fully dressed and with legs crossed. Was something wrong? Probably not. She could see that his chestnut-brown hair was a little rumpled, but those amber-colored eyes were sparkling with the boundless vitality usually present only in a ten-year-old. Still, better check. “Hi. You okay?”

“Sure.” He lit his flashlight and smiled cheerfully down at her as he saw that she was fully awake. “You were just restless so I thought I should wake you up. Did you have a bad dream?”

“I don’t think so.” She yawned, sat up, and looked at her watch. “I don’t remember if I did.” But it was six thirty and almost time to get up anyway. All the volunteers and students participating in this archaeological dig at the grounds of Kendrick Castle usually met down at the mess tent for breakfast at seven thirty. Michael always looked forward to mixing with them and finding out what they’d discovered the day before. It had become almost a ritual during the three weeks she and her brother had spent together sharing the work of the dig and the other experiences connected with it.

But that wasn’t supposed to happen today.

She frowned as she gazed at Michael’s jeans, blue T-shirt, and white tennis shoes. “Hey, why are you dressed to go to work? Your mom and dad are going to be here this afternoon. And after we have tea, they’re going to take you back to London for the weekend. Did you forget about it?”

He grinned mischievously. “Gee. Yeah, that’s what happened, Jane. I just can’t keep track of everything on my social calendar. It didn’t occur to you that that’s hours away from now and I can hang out with my friends and maybe do some digging?”

Of course he hadn’t forgotten. Michael never forgot anything. And sometimes what was behind that little boy’s sunny smile was not at all what it seemed. “Don’t be a smart aleck.” She reached out and tousled his hair. “You wake me up and then make fun of me?” Her gaze was suddenly searching his face. “And, as I said, I don’t remember having a restless night.” She paused. “Did you have a nightmare, Michael?”

“I never have nightmares. Maybe I was a little restless.” His smile faded. “Because when I woke up, I got to thinking that it would be great if you could come back to your apartment with us instead of staying here at the dig for an extra day. Why couldn’t you do that?”

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