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Authors: Joan Johnston

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BOOK: Invincible
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“I won't let that happen,” the duchess promised.

“Then I can go?” Flick asked hopefully.

“You can go,” Kristin replied. “I want your word you won't contact your father until I say it's all right.”

Flick chewed on a hangnail a moment before she stuck out her hand to be shaken. “It's a deal.”

The moment Flick let go of Kristin's hand, she said, “I can't believe I'm going to meet my father!”

Kristin closed her eyes and pressed her lips tight. In her daughter's mind, meeting her father was a foregone conclusion. Kristin wasn't at all sure she was going to allow it. She'd promised herself, from the moment she'd laid eyes on her daughter at birth, that she would never let Max hurt Flick. She had never imagined what she would do if Flick found out about her father and wanted to meet him.

The damage was done. She would take Flick to London now. And figure out whether to let Max into her daughter's life later.

9

“T
his meeting of the Castle Foundation is called to order. Good to see all of you.”

“Good to see you, too, Oliver.” Max wasn't crazy about Skype, but having a video computer conference from London with his siblings allowed him to see their faces every three months or so, no matter where in the world they were. He'd done his best not to miss any meetings, because it was just about the only contact he had these days with his siblings.

The Castle Foundation had been created by the four Benedict brothers with the money from their trust funds. It met once quarterly to decide how to invest and distribute the fortune they'd each received from their parents when they reached twenty-five.

It was impossible, when all his siblings were pictured on a computer screen at the same time, not to notice how different Oliver looked from the rest of them. His dark brown eyes and wavy chestnut hair were a far cry from everyone else's blue or gray eyes and straight black hair. Oliver was broader in the shoulders than his
brothers, his nose thinner, his cheekbones sharper, his lips more full.

Their father had to have known from the first that Oliver wasn't his own flesh and blood. Max shuddered at the weight Oliver had borne his whole life of knowing he was technically—if not legally—a bastard. Max had never spoken to his brother about it. Oliver wouldn't have allowed it.

But it was Oliver he'd gone to when Kristin disappeared. Oliver who'd told him to forget about her and move on with his life. Oliver who'd first steered him toward the CIA, which had given his life the meaning it had now.

He'd never confirmed to Oliver, or to any of his siblings, that he was engaged in espionage. He'd been afraid his older brothers might laugh at him. And he couldn't trust Lydia to keep her mouth shut about it.

Interesting—fascinating?—that he'd told K exactly what he did for a living two minutes after he'd met her again. Especially when he continued to play the role of footloose playboy with his family. Of course, it had been necessary to tell K the truth, because they were going to be working together. But he could have made sure she was going to take the assignment before he'd peeled off his thin disguise.

The truth was, he'd wanted her to know he'd done something useful with his life. He'd wanted to impress her. He'd wanted her to regret throwing their friendship away. At one time she'd been closer to him than anyone
else in his life, a substitute for the siblings from whom he was separated.

Because his middle brothers, Riley and Payne were close in age, they'd always been each other's best friends. Riley was older than Payne by a year and taller by an inch. Payne had a scar through his eyebrow where he'd had stitches after Riley had hit him in a teenage fight over a girl. They'd never gone after the same girl since.

Riley had light gray eyes. Payne's were sky blue, like their father's. Riley's straight black hair was shaggy. Payne kept his cropped. It was impossible to tell which of the two had a more cynical view of life in general and women in particular.

Max glanced at their younger sister's image and realized how stunningly beautiful their mother must have been when their father met her. Lydia's blue eyes looked almost as violet as their mother's. She had flawless ivory skin and long, silky hair, dark and shiny as an Egyptian scarab. No wonder Bull had forgiven the duchess's infidelity. No wonder he'd turned a blind eye to his eldest son's looks.

Lydia had recently turned twenty-five and thrown her trust fund into the pot. This was her first Castle Foundation meeting.

“Where are you, Lydia?” Max asked his sister.

“Venice,” she replied. “What do we do at these meetings?”

“Mostly we listen to Oliver tell us what cause we're supporting with our money,” Max said. “Well, Oliver?”

Oliver was president of the foundation and made the recommendations for which charitable organizations received their contributions and how their money was invested so it could grow. “We're giving a substantial amount for relief in Haiti, if that meets with your approval.”

Max checked the actual amount on the documentation he'd received prior to the meeting. He whistled. “Nice.”

“We need a vote,” Oliver said. “All in favor.”

They all cast their votes in the affirmative. Oliver would ultimately decide through which organization the money would be dispensed. When they'd finished their financial discussion, and confirmed the allowance each of them would receive for the coming quarter, Max said, “I couldn't get away to the States last week. I presume we all got the same invitation. Did any of you go see Mother on Mother's Day?”

“I was busy,” Lydia said defensively. “I couldn't go.”

“Hell no, I didn't go,” Riley retorted. “I sent a card and a gift because that's the polite thing to do. Mother can never say I lack manners. Not that she ever notices one way or the other.”

“I sent a gift but no card,” Payne said. “It seemed easier to pretend I care than to make the point that I don't.”

“I couldn't be there,” Oliver said, making no explanation and giving no excuse. “But the fact that she summoned us at all was strange.”

Trust Oliver to hit on the issue that had worried Max.

He'd been called in to meet with Scotland Yard at the last minute and hadn't been able to make the trip. He'd been disappointed only because it meant he hadn't been able to slip down to Miami to see K. “Why do you suppose Mother invited us?” Max asked. “And to The Seasons, of all places?”

“It was Mother's Day,” Lydia pointed out. “She wanted to see her children. Is that so strange?”

“It is for Mother,” Oliver said bluntly.

“It's a little late for her to start pretending to be a loving parent,” Riley said.

“Or for us to start pretending that we care,” Payne added.

Max had always sided with his older siblings in their undeclared war against their mother, but he'd never been able to stop loving her. Even when she continued to disappoint him time after time. He was intrigued that she'd invited them. Especially when she might have expected the response—or rather, non-response—she'd gotten. “Why don't I try to find out what she had in mind?” he suggested.

“What's the point?” Riley asked. “I thought we gave up on her a long time ago.”

“I'll tell you something you may not know,” Oliver said. “None of us went, but Dad showed up. And Mother made an emergency trip to the hospital in Richmond.”

“Is she okay?” Max felt a spurt of anxiety that he hid from his brothers. He wondered if his parents had gotten
into another verbal fistfight that had left his mother reeling.

“According to Dad, it was only a panic attack,” Oliver said.

“Panic over what?” Lydia asked.

“Probably over facing the husband she cheated on in a home that belongs to him but which she still has the right to enjoy,” Payne muttered.

“More likely she was pissed off because nobody showed up,” Riley said.

“Why don't I ask her?” Max said. “I have some engagements that will keep me in London for the next month or so.”

“I read about one of your ‘engagements' in the
Times
today,” Lydia said with a laugh. “You're playing tennis at Wimbledon!”

“With Kristin of all people,” Riley said with a grin.

Max grimaced. “Someone suggested it to the All England Lawn Tennis Club, and they thought it was a great idea. I'm going along for the ride.”

“Don't tell me you aren't going to enjoy seeing Kristin again,” Payne said. “You guys were best buds. Whatever happened with the two of you? How come you never talk about her anymore?”

Max shrugged away the question. It was easier than trying to explain. He hadn't realized how important his friendship with Kristin was until he'd lost it.

Kristin had understood what it meant to have parents who weren't together anymore. Hers were divorced. She'd understood why, as the youngest of four brothers,
he'd wanted to be the very best at something, because she'd had an older sister who'd shown more promise on the tennis courts than she had. The sister had been killed in an auto accident. Kristin had spent hours on the tennis court trying to win her father's love by measuring up to that dead paragon.

Kristin had also understood how fame—she had a fair amount of it herself—made people want to be your friend for reasons that had nothing to do with liking you.

He still felt betrayed by the way she'd walked away without a word. He was the one who'd pushed to take their friendship to the next level. When they finally had, she'd bolted back to the States. He'd tried calling her and emailing her, but she wouldn't return any of his messages. Finally, he'd gotten mad enough—and sad enough—to give up.

“I haven't seen Kristin since she left the tennis circuit ten years ago,” Max said straight-faced.

“Was that your choice or hers?” Lydia asked.

“It was mutual,” he lied. Max didn't like to think of how badly he'd mismanaged things with K. He shouldn't have tried to make their friendship into something else. Friends like her were hard to replace. He hadn't managed to do it in the ten years since she'd walked out of his life.

It was far too late to do anything about it now. Their meeting in Miami had been worse than awkward. It was probably a good thing she'd nixed the tennis match. It would have been difficult practicing together. Speaking
of which, he'd better start putting in some time on the court, if he didn't want to embarrass himself. He should contact Steffan and see if he wanted to hit some balls together.

And he'd better start thinking about a replacement for K.

“Are you going to meet with Mother in person?” Lydia asked.

“I guess so,” Max said.

“Would you ask her if I can…” Lydia's voice trailed off.

“Ask her what?”

Lydia grimaced. “Never mind.”

“Ask her what, Lydia?” Max persisted.

“I want to borrow the Ghost of Ali Pasha to wear at a charity ball I'm attending in Rome.”

“You know how she feels about those stupid precious jewels of hers,” Riley said. “That pearl necklace is more important to her than—”

“Any of us,” Payne finished for his brother.

The Ghost of Ali Pasha was an enormous perfect teardrop pearl, the centerpiece of an exquisite diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire necklace. The pearl had been owned by Ali Pasha of Yannina, an Albanian pasha from the western part of Rumelia, in the Ottoman Empire.

There was a legend attached to the pearl, which began when the pearl came into the possession of Ali Pasha. The pasha was notoriously cruel. He'd roasted rebels, flayed a man alive and executed another by having his bones broken with a sledge hammer. He seized control
in 1788 and ruled most of Albania, western Greece and the Peloponnese for more than thirty years.

The pasha gave the pearl as a gift to his favorite concubine of the three hundred or so Christian, Muslim, Albanian and Circassian women in his harem. The pasha's favorite, a Circassian woman named Juba, was poisoned by a jealous woman in the harem. When the murderer wouldn't reveal herself, Ali Pasha ordered all of his concubines executed.

He wore the pearl in memory of Juba for the rest of his life. When Ali Pasha was finally defeated by his enemies and beheaded, he was wearing Juba's pearl. His head was sent to the Sultan Mahmud II, where it was presented on a silver plate, the pearl still around the pasha's throat.

The Sultan took the pearl as a prize of war—and was strangled by it in his bed.

That was the beginning of the legend that the pearl possessed the ghost of Ali Pasha, which had wreaked a terrible vengeance on his enemy. Thereafter, Juba's pearl was called the Ghost of Ali Pasha.

Somehow, the Ghost of Ali Pasha had ended up as part of the Spanish royal jewels. King Ferdinand VII was pictured wearing the pearl in 1806, in a painting by Goya, just before he was forced to abdicate the throne in favor of the Emperor Napoleon. The king hadn't lost his head while he owned the Ghost, but he'd lost his position as head of state.

In 1840, Queen Isabella II of Spain gave the Ghost to Queen Victoria of England as a wedding present.
The British queen disliked the legend that went along with the pearl and sent it as a gift to Frederick II when he became king of Prussia. The king died without ever having children, keeping the legend alive and well. The Ghost somehow found its way to France and was sold to Tiffany's in the late 19th century at an auction of French royal jewels.

Bull had bought the Ghost from a private owner and had it reset in a necklace with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies—all the jewels he'd previously given Bella—and presented it to her on the birth of their one and only daughter.

Max wasn't surprised Lydia wanted to borrow the necklace. It was exquisite. For some reason, his mother never wore it anymore. “Mother's not in London,” Max pointed out to his sister. “How is she going to get the necklace to you?”

“She could have Smythe send it,” Lydia said. “She trusts him with the keys to everything at the Abbey.”

“He might have the key to the dungeon,” Max said. “But I doubt he has the combination to the safe.”

The Abbey had a dungeon belowstairs, where prisoners of past centuries had been tortured, with secret passages in the walls of the Abbey that could be used to reach it. The four brothers had played in those dark, musty, cobweb-laden passages as kids, even though it was strictly forbidden. His mother's priceless jewels were kept in an enormous safe in the dungeon, the outer door to which was kept locked.

“If you get permission from Mother, I'll make sure you get the Ghost of Ali Pasha,” Oliver said to Lydia.

Max wondered whether that meant Oliver had the combination to the safe, or whether he knew someone besides Mother who did.

BOOK: Invincible
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