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Authors: Joan Johnston

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BOOK: Invincible
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“As for your suspension, I asked a friend in Washington if he thought you could get leave from the FBI to travel to London for a while. He said he'd check into it. I wonder now if he might have misconstrued my request. I didn't mean you should be put on suspension.”

Kristin felt things shifting out of her control. “How dare you interfere in my life! I'm not going anywhere, especially not to London.” Although she'd been considering exactly that half an hour ago.

“I understand you're scheduled to play an exhibition tennis match with Max against Elena Tarakova and Steffan Pavlovic on opening day at Wimbledon,” the duchess said. “I couldn't have arranged it better myself.”

Kristin felt her pulse pounding in her temples. How could the duchess possibly know about something the CIA had arranged with Scotland Yard? Then she remembered the duchess's “friend” in Washington. Had Bella suggested the exhibition match? Had Max been manipulated—without his knowledge—as well? Was there really an assassin after the president? Or had Bella and her friend in Washington made that up, too?

“Arranged?” she replied in as even a voice as she could manage.

“Well, I didn't arrange the match,” Bella confessed. “I didn't have anything to do with that. But I must admit, it's an amazing coincidence that you've been
asked to spend time with Max in London just when I decided to—”

“Even if I agreed to such a thing,” Kristin interrupted, “I haven't played a professional match in ten years.”

“It's only an exhibition, Ms. Lassiter. You and Max have plenty of time to practice before the match.”

“I can't leave my father. Or my daughter.”

“As I said, everything can easily be arranged. Felicity can come with you. I spoke with your father, and he agrees that you should play.”

“My father doesn't run my life. And Flick goes nowhere without my say-so.”

“The announcement of the match was made this morning in the
Times
. There's a great deal of excitement, actually, about having the four players who were the Wimbledon finalists ten years ago playing a mixed doubles exhibition match.”

Kristin wondered if Max was hoping to force her hand by having the announcement made without her having consented to play. And if Bella had nothing to do with arranging the match, then it was likely the assassin existed and that Max's investigation of the tennis players at Wimbledon was necessary.

Which meant her participation in the match—and the investigation—might very well be important, as Rudy had suggested. Even if it dragged up a lot of unhappy history for her.

Ten years ago, Max had won the Wimbledon Boys' Singles Championship match against Steffan Pavlovic. Kristin had lost her Girls' Singles Championship match
against Elena Tarakova. Kristin wasn't looking forward to seeing Elena again. The woman who'd stolen the Wimbledon prize from her had also ruined her life. With Max's cooperation, of course.

That was another story. One she'd tried to forget. Of love transcendent. And love betrayed.

“I've made arrangements for you and Felicity to fly to London on my private jet. Your father will be taken care of by a private nurse I've hired.”

Kristin couldn't believe the duchess's gall. “What part of
no
don't you understand?”

“I hate to point out the obvious, my dear, but you're out of money. What other choice do you have?”

None. She was out of choices. And the duchess knew it. “Why are you doing this?” she asked. It would be just like Bella Benedict to arrange for Kristin to go to London so that Max could take her to some British court and get custody of Flick. She suddenly wondered if Flick was in the room with her grandfather, or whether Bella might already have spirited her daughter out of the country.

“Have you seen Flick?” she asked anxiously. “Have you said anything to her about any of this?”

Kristin rose and was already headed down the hall when Bella said, “I don't want to take Felicity away from you, Ms. Lassiter. I only want to help you and my granddaughter.”

Kristin marched back into the waiting room and confronted the older woman. “Why should you help me? What is it you want, really?”

“Happiness for my son with the woman he loves.”

Kristin snorted. “You're barking up the wrong tree.”

“By that, I presume you mean that my son isn't attracted to you.”

“How about I'm not attracted to him,” Kristin countered.

“I can see I'm ahead of myself again,” the duchess murmured. “Will you sit down, please? This might take a while.”

“Spit it out,” Kristin said. “What is it you want?”

“I want you to marry my son.”

Kristin would have laughed if she hadn't felt so near to tears. It seemed the Mean Witch was matchmaking. As crazy as it seemed, she'd apparently picked out Kristin for her youngest son.

Once upon a time, Kristin had loved—and trusted— Max Benedict enough to give him her virginity. He'd repaid her by treating what had been the most beautiful night of her life as though it were nothing. The next time she'd seen him, he'd been kissing her Wimbledon opponent—Elena Tarakova—a few moments before the start of their championship match.

Was it any wonder she'd lost? Kristin had been lucky she'd had enough composure to play at all.

Now fate had thrown the four of them—Max, Max's boyhood friend Steffan, Kristin and the woman who'd stolen Max away—back together for an exhibition match. With Max as her prize. Kristin wanted no part of it. Except…the duchess was right about one thing. She
needed the woman's money. Kristin sat back down. “All right. I'm listening. How can you help me?”

“I'm ready and willing to pay all your debts and expenses. All I'm asking in return is that you play this exhibition match with my son.”

“That's all?” Kristin said sarcastically. “That's plenty.”

“I don't know what separated the two of you ten years ago, but I do know Max thought the world of you once upon a time.”

Kristin didn't comment. In light of the events of the next morning, their one night of love felt more like a night of conquest, where Max took what was most precious from her and walked away. Kristin wasn't about to let Max back into her life, where he could break his daughter's heart by abandoning Flick the way he'd abandoned her mother.

“I'll never trust your son with my heart again.”

“I'm not asking you to do that.”

“You're not?” Kristin said. “I'm confused.”

“I'm only asking that you play this exhibition match with Max. If you make up and he should propose marriage, well, whether you say yes is up to you.”

Kristin laughed. “You want me to marry Max, but if he proposes, I don't have to say yes? Do I have that right?”

“That's right,” the duchess said. “I'll give you all the financial support you require simply for going to England and playing the exhibition match.”

“That's crazy.”

“The two of you will need to spend a lot of time together on the tennis court to get ready for that match. Which will give you time to work out whatever issues separated you ten years ago. That doesn't sound so crazy to me.”

“I'm not the least bit tempted by anything you've said so far.”

“Maybe I have something that will tempt you,” Bella said. The duchess took a black velvet bag from her purse. When she opened it, a waterfall of rubies and diamonds tumbled into her hands.

Kristin gasped when she recognized the beautiful stones. The duchess held out a ruby-and-diamond necklace, a ring, a bracelet and a pair of pendant earrings. Kristin could barely speak. “Are those…? I mean, I've heard of them, and I've seen pictures of you wearing them, but I never thought I'd see them in person. In a place like this. Are those…?”

“Yes, my dear,” Bella confirmed as she held out the necklace, diamonds and rubies dripping over her fingertips. She held out the pendant earrings in her other hand. “These are the infamous Blackthorne Rubies.

“The largest ruby, the centerpiece of the necklace, was given to the first Duke of Blackthorne by Henry II in 1154, when Henry was crowned King of England and created the dukedom. It was a reward to Sir Philip Wharton for saving the king's life during one of his early battles to win control of the kingdom.”

“They're…” Words deserted Kristin as she reached out to touch the breathtaking rubies.

“There's a legend attached to the rubies, that they bring the wearer courage. My husband gave the jewels to me as a love gift on the day my eldest son was born.”

Kristin wondered if the duchess realized she'd said
my
eldest son, rather than
our
eldest son. She'd heard the rumors that Oliver wasn't Bull Benedict's son.

The duchess continued, “The jewels are yours if you play the exhibition match with Max.”

The ruby-and-diamond jewelry the duchess had offered her was priceless. Kristin was suspicious. She sensed a trap. The duchess wasn't going to give away something so valuable without expecting something in return. “Why would you agree to part with something so precious in exchange for so little?”

“I want my son to be happy. Whatever the cost.”

Kristin laughed. It wasn't a pleasant sound. “I don't believe you. You forget, I was Max's friend. I know how little time you spent with him when he was growing up. I know how little you really care.”

She watched the duchess flinch at her accusations.

“It's true I sent my children away to school. And I didn't spend enough time with them when they were younger. But not because I didn't love them.”

She didn't explain her reasons for keeping her children at a distance and Kristin didn't ask.

“You've wasted your time coming here,” Kristin said, anxious to end the interview before Flick showed up. “You must know it's unlikely a playboy like Max would propose to anyone, let alone a woman who rejected him
ten years ago. And even if, by some miracle, he did propose, I would refuse him.”

“Then you have nothing to lose by agreeing to go to London,” the duchess persisted.

Kristin tried to imagine what the duchess hoped to get in exchange for the priceless stones—especially if she didn't agree to marry Max. Maybe the duchess only wanted to provide for her granddaughter. But she'd chosen a strange way of doing it.

Kristin had just about decided she should go to London to participate in Max's investigation to uncover a potential assassin. So why not combine that logical reason for going with the duchess's illogical request?

All she had to do was play the exhibition match.

It was little enough for the reward she'd been promised. The truth was, she needed the financial assistance the duchess had offered. The Blackthorne Rubies… The rubies would provide security for her and her daughter until Flick was grown.

“All right,” Kristin said at last. “I'll go to London. But Flick stays here.”

“No!”

Kristin turned and saw her daughter leap up and out from her place of concealment at the entrance to the hallway.

“How long have you been hiding there?” Kristin demanded as she rose.

“Long enough to hear that my father isn't dead! Why did you lie to me, Mom?” she wailed.

“Sweetheart, I…” Kristin didn't know what to say.
She felt her heart squeeze at the look of betrayal in her daughter's Benedict-blue eyes.

“I can't believe I have a grandmother.” Flick stared at the duchess. “You are my grandmother, aren't you?”

The duchess glanced at Kristin, who nodded, then turned to Flick and said, “Yes, my dear, I am.”

Flick crossed the room until she stood face-to-face with the duchess. “What am I supposed to call you?”

“Grandmother?” the duchess proposed.

Flick made a face. “How about Gram?”

“Gram sounds fine,” the duchess replied with a smile.

“Flick stays here,” Kristin said emphatically.

“No.” Flick turned to her mother and shook her head, her chin tilted mulishly. “I want to meet my father. Especially now that I know I have one.” She crossed to the chair where Kristin was sitting and said, “You shouldn't have lied, Mom. You shouldn't have said he was dead, when he isn't.”

He was dead to me. I thought you were better off without him. He couldn't abandon you if he was already dead.

She reached out for Flick's hand, but Flick jerked it away. “I know what's best, Flick. Staying here is best for you.”

“If you leave me behind, I'll find a way to get to London on my own,” Flick said, meeting her mother's gaze.

Kristin knew she shouldn't give in to her daughter's threat. The problem was, there was no one to take care
of Flick if she left her behind. Her father needed to focus on his recovery. And Flick was resourceful enough to make good on her threat to find a way to get to London on her own.

“Felicity could stay with me at Blackthorne Abbey while you're in London,” the duchess offered. “I could bring in a tutor so she doesn't get behind in her school work.”

“What about Max? I want your assurance he doesn't see Flick—he doesn't even find out about Flick—until I say so.”

She turned to Flick and said, “Do you understand what I'm saying, Flick. If you come to London, you don't have any contact with your father until I say so.” She moved her gaze between the two, grandmother and granddaughter, and said, “That's the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“I'll take it,” the duchess and Flick said together.

“If it's any comfort to you,” the duchess said, “Max never comes to the Abbey without prior notice. I suspect he's going to be too busy to come visit while you're in London.”

“I don't want her ‘accidentally' meeting Max,” Kristin warned.

BOOK: Invincible
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