Tonight was the night. Jacqueline Beresford's life as a female cat-burglar would finally end--after one last treasure made her rich. The beautiful Faberge egg was within her grasp. She could almost feel the intricate designs touching her fingertips. She could almost see the sparkling jewels in the light of day. She could almost hear--a man right behind her! The giant of a man threw a shadow over Jackie's reaching hand and her dreams of great fortune. He could have crushed her with a single blow--but he didn't. Instead, he lifted her up. Rory Donovan gave Jackie a job as his son's own governess. He wanted to help her--and perhaps to love her. But could Jackie trust a man who had used her sins to make himself her master?
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December 11, 2008
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Excerpt from Jackie and the Giant by Linda Winstead Jones
The man locked his doors! Here in rural Alabama, a hundred miles from nowhere, this paranoid man named Rory Donovan secured every one of his doors and windows at night. Every single one! Jackie knew it to be true because she'd checked, circling the plantation house and silently trying every door and every window.
Well, she wasn't going to give up simply because this job wasn't easy. If only she had a set of false keys like the ones Mina used to carry, she'd be in that house right now, climbing the stairs to the master bedroom where there rested, she'd heard tell, a Faberg� egg on a bed of black velvet.
If she had that egg in her hands she could retire. Over the past few years, she'd been able to save a tidy sum, but it wasn't quite enough. Not to make her feel completely secure, absolutely certain that she'd be set for life. With the Faberg� egg in her possession, security would be hers at last. The cottage she dreamed about would be hers, and she'd gladly leave this chancy profession to others who were more daring than she.
Jackie placed her hands on her hips and lifted her head to the gallery that encircled the second floor. Washed in moonlight, the square two-story plantation house was colorless, hushed, and imposing. White-pillared and classic in design, it was a Southern castle, a monument to a time and a lifestyle long gone. There was elegance here, and majesty ... and money.
There wasn't enough light for her to see very far beyond the gallery railing, and that concerned her for a moment. For all she knew a sleepless resident of this house could be standing in the shadows above, waiting and watching. A smile crossed her face. It was going on three in the morning, so that wasn't likely.
Taking a deep and silent breath she approached one of the narrow columns that girdled the house. This burglary was turning out to be a bit more work than she'd intended, but the prize that awaited her was worth any effort.
This was definitely her last job, she reminded herself as she clasped the white column and hoisted herself up. She'd said that before, once when she'd been almost caught, and again a few months later when she'd decided she had enough money to get by on if she were very frugal. In the end, she'd always decided that the time wasn't right for retirement, but tonight she meant it. Truly.
The black trousers had definitely been a good choice for these early morning hours; she never would have been able to work her way to the second-story gallery in a cumbersome skirt. Her progress up the column was slow but steady, and when her arms and legs got tired she thought of the Faberg� egg. It was gold, she'd heard, bedecked with more gems than even the grandest lady would wear. Pearls, rubies, sapphires. Diamonds. Ah, she absolutely adored diamonds.
A peek onto the gallery through the slats of the railing confirmed her suspicion that no one was about at this hour. All was as quiet and gray and peaceful here as it was below. A dismal thought occurred to her, but she brushed it aside. Surely Donovan was not so paranoid as to lock the French doors on the second floor?
Once she'd hauled herself onto the gallery she sat with her back against the column she'd climbed, catching her breath and ordering her heart to be still. It only took her a moment to restore her breathing, but her heart was slow in obeying. As she sat there, she thought about this Rory Donovan and his fine house and his Faberg� egg. Sally said he'd won it in a poker game in Nashville, taking the prize with four aces from a Russian prince or duke or some such who'd thought--wrongly--that he had an unbeatable hand.
Some people had all the luck. It wasn't the first time Jackie had made that observation, and it likely wouldn't be the last. From her position against the column, she looked down the wide gallery. Rory Donovan was one lucky son of a gun. He had this plantation--Cloudmont, it was called--more than his share of money, and according to Sally he'd been blessed with the gift of beauty as well. He wouldn't miss the egg. At least not for long.
Jackie rose to her feet silently and made her way to the nearest opened French door. She peered beyond the lace curtains that danced softly in the breeze to see a small boy huddled under his covers, a shock of hair unruly against his pillow and a tattered blanket clutched in his little fingers. She smiled, but only for a moment.
She knew of entire families who lived in houses smaller than this room. The bed was wide and had a tall, ornately carved headboard, and the matching wardrobe would have held everything Jackie owned, and more. There was a fine rocking chair, a large rug, and a desk for rocks and books and other boyish treasures.
This was one lucky kid, Jackie reasoned as she made her way along the gallery to the next room.
The French doors to this chamber were closed tight, and a quick look through a pane of glass showed her that the room was deserted. Sheets were draped over its contents, and in the moonlight the covered furniture looked vaguely like a family of ghosts. She shivered once and walked on, rounding the corner. Taking small, silent steps she walked to the very end of the gallery and stopped just short of the next door. This was the place; she knew it. Even though she hadn't yet glimpsed into the room, her heart told her this was the place. A treasure beyond her wildest dreams awaited within.
She peeked around the door to see a scene similar to the one in the first room. All was gray and dark, but her eyes had adjusted to the night and she could see well enough what lay before her. A man slept in a massive four-poster bed, a quilt pulled well above his waist, his hair tousled on the white pillow upon which his head rested.
Sally had been right; from what Jackie could see by the pale moonlight, he appeared to be very handsome. Physically, Rory Donovan had been blessed with regular, strong features and thick hair that curled just slightly. His chin was square, his jawbone prominent, and his shoulders wide.
Without a twinge of conscience, she stepped around the open French door and into the room. Once she was inside she stood very still. Some people were such light sleepers that the very presence of another person in their room awakened them, and before she went too far she had to make sure that Rory Donovan was not so sensitive.
She stepped into a shadow and watched the figure on the bed for movement, listened for a change in breathing before she moved on. It simply wouldn't do for Donovan to wake and catch her. Even asleep he looked far too strong, and far too fast.
When it became clear he hadn't been disturbed, she turned her attention to the rest of the fine bedchamber. It was a large room, airy and elegantly furnished and free of clutter. There was a dresser and a tall wardrobe fashioned from the same dark wood as the four-poster bed, a massive wing chair upholstered in a dark fabric, and against the far wall there was a glassed display case sitting on a low table. That case held the object of her desire.
She crossed the room silently, her eyes on the egg that had brought her here. Even by the scant moonlight that made its way through the French doors on two walls, it was magnificent, finer than she'd imagined, more exquisite than she'd dreamed. Gems formed an elaborate pattern on the golden egg, twisting and twirling in an almost exotic design. How could she not smile?
Here was her retirement, her way out of this crazy life, a chance to begin again.
A harmonica had been carelessly left on the display case. She glanced back at the man on the bed. Did he play? She didn't know him, except from Sally's descriptions, but for some reason she couldn't imagine him playing such a thing. Sally said he was a charmer, a carefree man of the world, but in sleep he seemed much too serious and imposing for a frivolous endeavor such as playing a harmonica.
She lifted the instrument with every intention of putting it aside so that she could lift the glass cover, when something struck her as being odd. She held the harmonica up so that it caught more moonlight. Gold. The man had a gold mouth harp! Without another thought she slipped the harmonica into the front pocket of her trousers.
Her hands were on the case's glass cover when she heard Donovan stir. Just to be safe, she dropped down and placed her back to the wall, pulling herself into a tight ball and making herself as small as possible. She was in the shadow of the wing chair, well hidden. If Donovan should arise from his bed he wouldn't see her. He wouldn't. She closed her eyes and said a little prayer. Who was the patron saint of thieves? Dammit, Mina would know.