Home > The Defender (Aces Book 5)

The Defender (Aces Book 5)
Author: Cristin Harber

 

PROLOGUE

 

Twenty-Five Years Ago

Paris, France

 

Once a month, the moon lined up with the sun and bared its dark side. Astronomers called this the new moon. Diana called tonight’s black sky their only chance. In la Ville-Lumière, the City of Light, they’d take every advantage.

New wave music pulsed from the Citroën’s speakers, and Diana wished Nancy were driving tonight. Everything would remain as they’d planned, including the usual David Bowie and Iggy Pop mixtape.

Osman veered right, and the car rumbled over the Pont de la Concord. The road noise on the arch bridge reverberated louder than during their practice run. Perhaps the now-empty lanes amplified sounds, or perhaps Osman drove differently than Nancy. Diana didn’t care for last-minute changes, but they had no choice. It wasn’t as if they could have expected their usual driver to suddenly turn off-color and be relegated to a dodgy hostel bed.

They crossed the Seine. Osman turned onto Voie Expresse Rive Gauche. He made the turn too fast, and she gritted her teeth, glancing to James, who sat next to her in the backseat. “It’s weird, just the three of us.”

Osman looked at the empty passenger seat, then over his shoulder. “Feels like I’m your driver.”

Her brows arched. “You are our driver.”

“Alright,” Osman chortled. “Just a bit of banter.”

Diana smiled thinly.

“It’s fine.” James patted her leg.

They merged onto Rond-Point du Bleuet de France. Osman checked the rearview mirror before changing lanes, caught Diana’s eye, and shrugged apologetically. “Just lightening the mood.”

James squeezed her leg, a reminder that all would run smoothly. After all, it was far from their first heist, and they’d weathered worse than speeding and a stomach bug.

The road opened to a broad boulevard lined with picturesque, canopied trees. She couldn’t see them as well as earlier, but their branches blanketed the night, quieting the final few minutes of their journey. Osman navigated from the thoroughfare. He crisscrossed a labyrinth of cobblestoned avenues and paved alleyways and then slowed next to the park square where they’d had a picnic lunch that day. Osman parked and turned off the headlamps. A familiar silence settled over the dark car. As always, it gave her a moment to wholeheartedly appreciate their mission.

She grinned. Butterflies swirled in her stomach.

“Alright,” Osman said.

Nerves be damned—it was time to begin. Diana opened the back door and stepped into the darkest edge of the park.

Dark corners in the City of Light weren’t easy to pin down. She and Nancy had scouted dim streets for several nights. They had passed the time with French history trivia, wondering if their niche knowledge would land them on a televised daytime game show.

How many people actually knew the Eiffel Tower wasn’t why Paris was called the City of Light? Not many, they’d wager, and no one would see the paradox in what they were doing tonight.

Two-hundred-plus years before the wrought iron lattice tower was built, Louis XIV commanded the lieutenant-general of the police to make Paris safer. Lanterns were placed throughout the city. Parisians illuminated their windows with glowing candles. Ironic—they were using the shadows to retake a piece of stolen history that formed the basis for modern-day police.

James slid out of the Citroën, checked his watch, and ducked his head inside the car. “One hour.”

“I’ll be next to the telephone box on the corner,” Osman said and waved through the window. “Keep your wits about you.”

A nervous premonition tightened in her neck. She wished David Bowie were singing instead of Osman’s warnings. Diana turned for the park. Adrenaline rushed in her ears as the Citroën pulled away.

James jogged to her side. “Alright?”

“Of course.” Nerves were to be expected. She rolled her shoulders and shook them away.

“Everything will be fine.” He touched her elbow. “We work faster when it’s only the two of us.”

“True.” An adrenaline high was quickly replacing her jitters.

They walked into the park and avoided lampposts and illuminated phone boxes. The far side abutted their target, the Hôtel de Alarie, the Parisian residence of Duke Maël Gaspard Alarie.

As a matter of legal privilege, the French nobility did not exist anymore. Their elitist rights had been stripped, but as with hereditary titles like Duke Alarie, la noblesse had remained. Alarie represented a nobility that inherited obscene wealth and ungovernable privilege.

The manicured grounds were split down the center by a stone drive that ended in a large forecourt. Two symmetrical wings jutted from the château and flanked the receiving courtyard. The duke was out of the city for the season, and accordingly, the full staff was not maintained.

Nancy had obtained partial blueprints of the interior. Diana, James, and Osman had committed them to memory. They didn’t need to know as much as they’d learned. Osman had mapped their route from a broken window latch to Alarie’s library. In it, he had hung the original lamppost plans sketched by Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, the lieutenant-general of the police appointed by Louis XIV. The drawings were last seen in public in 1940 and were assumed to have been looted by the Nazis.

Diana could guess how the duke got his hands on them. If society knew, they didn’t care. People like Alarie acted above the law because law enforcement gave them that right. Tonight, she and James would do their part to make things right. The sketches would be returned anonymously to their rightful caretakers. Perhaps more people would learn about the City of Light and give her and Nancy a challenge on trivia night.

Other than the main entrance, few lights were on. They skirted the perimeter of the east wing and counted windows. At the seventeenth, they ducked behind the hedge. James took a knee. Diana used his leg as a stepstool and reached for the frame. James lifted and braced her. Her sweaty palms slid over the glass. She found purchase on a pane and leveraged her lofted position. The heavy window rose.

“Alright,” she said.

James boosted her inside. Her landing wasn’t graceful; bumps and bruises didn’t matter. She bounded to her feet and peeked out the window. James had backed into the hedge to give himself a single stride before his jump. One foot smacked the wall. Momentum boosted him higher. His hands grasped the window ledge, and with more determination than strength, he pulled himself in.

“Nicely done,” she commended.

He laughed and dusted himself off. “Wouldn’t want to do that again.”

They had entered a storage closet that smelled of chlorine and cleaner. Its layout matched the blueprints and was attached to a service area and laundry room. The connecting door was where they had expected. A good omen for an easy night. Diana grinned. “I told Osman we need a name.”

James tried the knob. It easily twisted, and the door opened. “What, like the Three Musketeers?”

She rolled her eyes. “Except there’s four of us. I suggested Robin Hood.”

“Sure. I like it.” He walked through. The floor covering crinkled. James slipped and nearly lost his footing. “What the—careful.”

The room had no windows, illuminated only by a slender slip of faint light from under the hallway door. Diana took a hesitant, rustling step. “It’s plastic sheeting. The kind laid out for renovations.”

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