A Touch of Greed
The worry stone in Max’s pocket is getting a workout. If it’s not the latest shenanigans of his burglary crew, it’s the bombshell that just exploded in his personal life. Seventeen years after walking out on him, Marianna is back, and she has revelations that will upend his plans for peace and quiet.
The team is salivating to take advantage of her position on an archeological space dig. The backer, an illegal antiquities collector, has long eluded them. Their timeline moves up when they discover that Marianna is the mogul’s chosen fall guy.
Emotionally satisfying with a twist that will leave you shaking your head, Touch of Greed is a fast-paced read you won’t put down.
Max dragged a hand down his face, the bristles of his freshly trimmed mustache poking him. Life had become entirely too rowdy. Which was saying something when you considered he was a longtime employee of Sebastian St. Croix, keeping track of the man’s personal business and assisting him in purloining previously stolen artworks, relics, and antiquities. A few experiences along the way had been harrowing. None as deadly as last night’s face-off with a missile. And yet it was today’s meeting that had him rolling the smooth chunk of orbicular jasper in his pocket between his fingers and thumb. He didn’t normally fidget, much less pace. But here he was marking a path between tall fluted columns reminiscent of an Old Earth Greek temple outside the Shaded Garden as he awaited a person he’d never expected to meet again.READ MORE
She hadn’t said why she wanted to see him, only that it was important and needed to be face-to-face. That was five days ago. The ship she’d taken from Bontol had arrived on planet this morning. She’d messaged him with the location of a restaurant in the quaint suburb of New Arras and a schedule. And here he was, looking like, as Cade had put it, he had a date or a date in court: stylish black suit, crisp open-collared white shirt, primped, polished and waiting on a woman. The one woman he’d ever truly loved. The woman who had crushed his heart seventeen years ago.
Time had been kind to him. A touch of gray at his temples and in his beard were the only hints he was older than the forty he looked. In fact he was forty-seven. Fit. No paunch. Still in his prime.
Why should it matter? He had no wish to renew a relationship that had left him bruised and furious. But he was also well past the mind-set that would enjoy rubbing his undiminished good looks in the face of an old lover. Still he couldn’t deny he wanted her to desire him again, as if that would somehow assuage an ancient heartbreak. More likely to assuage his vanity. Prove casting him off had been a big mistake, one she was here to rectify.
No. Don’t fool yourself. If that were true, it would have happened long ago.
He compelled himself to lean against a column, arms crossed over his chest, the image of a man relaxed and self-assured. She was five minutes late, and if her habits remained predictable, he had five more to wait. And then he saw her, walking toward him in that way she had, almost gliding. The sheath she wore, a vivid coral red, showed off her long legs and the svelte figure she’d managed to maintain over the passing years. The breeze blew her dark hair across her cheek, and she brushed it aside. Their gazes caught, and he fell into her smoky brown eyes as he had the first time they’d met.
Before she reached him, he straightened, his hands falling to his sides, but he made no movement in her direction.
The barest of creases was visible between her brows. Her eyes searched his. Her mouth twitched once, but she didn’t smile. “Max.”
“Marianna.” He forced her name out through a throat grown tight.
They stared at one another as though caught in a spell, before she pressed her lips together and sighed. “Shall we go inside?”
He gestured for her to proceed him and followed her into the restaurant. Water arched from a wall fountain, cascading before a mosaic depiction of dolphins frolicking in the sea. The mural stretched all the way to the high ceiling. The blue, pink, and pale green colors of the walls, artwork, and furnishings gave the place a sense of light airiness, as though they’d been transported to a bistro near a warm ocean inlet. It was the perfect setting for Marianna’s beauty.
Once they settled at a table and had ordered, silence again descended over them like a thick cloud. Customers carried on conversations around them, cutlery clattering amid occasional bursts of laughter, but it was as though he and Marianna were inhabiting their own private universe.
“You look well. Life has been good to you?” It wasn’t a question as much as a statement. Her expression gave nothing away about her inner thoughts.
“Why are you here, Marianna?”
She glanced down, gazing at her lap where Max knew from past habit she was fisting and stretching her fingers. “There…there is someone…”
Her accent, with its slightly rolled r’s and descending cadence, washed over him, eliciting the same visceral response it always had. He waited, the ache in his chest expanding, for her to find the words she needed to tell him.
Her eyes were shimmering with tears when at last she brought her gaze up to meet his. She held her lips tight, unsuccessfully attempting to keep them from trembling.
Was she in some kind of trouble? What could be happening in her life that she believed he was the person she should turn to? He leaned forward. “Tell me. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.”
“You have a daughter.” She blinked, and a tear escaped to trail down her cheek.
For a moment Max’s brain froze. His gaze dropped to the table, his vision unfocused. He replayed her words in his mind, once to assure himself he’d heard correctly and a second time as the reality of their meaning slammed home.
He flicked his gaze up to glower at her.
She pulled back as though his stare had physical force to it. “You’re angry.”
Before he could respond, the waiter came with their meals. Max acknowledged the man, thanking him with a false smile while tapping the index finger of his left hand against the tablecloth.
A daughter! How the hell could he have a daughter? Marianna had not been pregnant when she left. He knew for a fact she’d had her birth control vaccine two months prior to their split. A baby was impossible. And even if it were true, why would she wait seventeen years to tell him? Surely the point when she needed help would have been when the child was young. Did she want a payout now? Was she trying to shake him down for money? That wasn’t the Marianna he remembered.
Once the waiter removed the wineglasses they wouldn’t be using and headed into the kitchen, Max took a deep breath and deliberately relaxed his taut muscles. It seemed he didn’t have to fear the dredging up of old emotions and desires. They could stay packed and sealed in the box he’d constructed for them in his heart almost two decades ago. Any thought of reconciling was sliced to pieces by the razor’s edge of a new betrayal.
“Explain how that’s even possible.”
She dipped her chin in a quick nod. “It shouldn’t have been, but my birth control failed.”
He canted his head to the side.
Her eyes widened, and she lifted her hand in a placating gesture. “I know. It’s impossible, but the vaccine I received was one of 144 a tech stole and replaced with saline. Apparently there’s a black market for the stuff. Something to do with slavers and cults where men marry young teenagers.” She waved her finger in the air. “The important point is, I was unprotected the two months we were together. And I became pregnant.”
He turned from her to gaze at a second fountain in the center of the room, locking on to the water flowing from an urn tipped in the hands of a pudgy marble cherub. A child. He’d abandoned any notion that he would have children of his own. First came the wife, and after Marianna there had been no one her equal to fill that role in his life.
He’d always been close to Sebastian since he’d been assigned to protect him when the boy was six years old. That relationship had evolved, but Sebastian hadn’t needed a father. Max had been more an older cousin. It was true he was Uncle Max to Cheyenne, the daughter of Sebastian’s sister, Jeanne. A blessing, but not the same as having a little girl of his own to welcome from the moment of her birth. And now Marianna was telling him he’d had such a child, but she’d denied him sixteen years of parenting that would have created an inseparable bond between them. It tore at him, unleashing a pain that made him want to raise his fists and roar his agony at the universe. Instead he mentally counted at a slow, steady pace and focused on the water spilling from the urn, allowing it to soothe him, to wash away the worst of his emotional reaction.
Still unable to look at her, he finally spoke. “All right. Let’s say I believe what you said. Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Why did you leave, knowing you bore my child?” He turned to face her once again. “My child, Marianna. Not just yours. Mine. Is that the real reason you left? You made it clear that your career was more important to you. That I didn’t fit into your life. But a baby…that would tie me to you for the long term. Did you really want to be rid of me that badly?”
“No.” Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know about the baby when I left. I didn’t realize I was pregnant until a couple of months later. It was so unexpected I didn’t recognize the signs. I wanted to tell you, but you’d left by then, escorting Sebastian on his grand tour. The baby would be a few months old when you returned, so I decided to wait.”
“Why would you do that?” He brought his knuckles to his temple, looking down at the pasta growing cold on his plate. “I don’t understand.” He dropped his hand and stared at her. “I loved you. I would have come back immediately. Hell, you know I wanted you to join us. I’ve never comprehended how you could throw away everything we had created, the love I thought you felt as much as I did, to move off planet for a position at a minor university.”
“It wasn’t minor. It was tenured.” She shook her head. “But that’s not the point. You chose Sebastian over me. I didn’t want you to come back for the baby. I wanted to be first in your life.” Her shoulders lowered. “After she was born, everything changed. Call it maternal instinct, but I realized I was being selfish. I tried to reach you.” She threw her hands up in the air. “You were supposed to be gone for one year. How was I to know you’d extend it another two years and take yourself off to locales where you were impossible to contact?”
“I see.” He grimaced. “It was all my fault for believing you when you’d said it was time for us to go our separate ways. I should somehow have remained available to you. You scraped my heart with a cheese grater when you left, but I should have ignored the pain and continued to hope that we would be together. I remember the ultimatum you gave me like it was yesterday: go with you or go with Sebastian. I begged you to wait for me. I offered to pay the expenses for you to join us during your vacation time. I promised to vid comm you every day. Why couldn’t you just tell me you’d wait for me?”
She bristled at him. “Because I was stupid. Is that what you want to hear? I hated your relationship with Sebastian. I was jealous. You treated him like family. I’d been raised to believe that a person’s heart was limited in capacity. It could love only one person at a time. That’s how my parents explained their lack of interest in me.”
Her voice broke, and she paused to look away for a moment to collect herself before returning her gaze to Max. “I was wrong. I forced you to choose because I couldn’t believe you really loved me if you loved him. I crushed my own heart.”
Sebastian stared at her. He’d known she was jealous of Sebastian, and he’d done everything he could to resolve the tension between Marianna and the boy. But Sebastian hadn’t made that easy. He’d teased her, fought plans to include her, and generally acted like a prick when she was around.
But the boy was eighteen and Marianna was twenty-five. His lips prssed tight, Max fought the retort that filled his mind. He’d expected her to be the one to behave with greater maturity. All his attempts to explain that after the trip he could move to Bontol to be with her had been rebuffed. As was his request that she understand his desire to see Sebastian into manhood. But her focus had been so rigidly set on “me or him.” It was a struggle to keep his gaze settled on her.
“Lina changed me.” Another tear slid down Marianna’s cheek. “I discovered that there was room in my heart to love you and her, each fully and ferociously.”
Max looked past her, pinching his lips. “It’s been seventeen years. Surely you could have found the time to inform me I had a daughter. You haven’t even told me her name.”
He rolled it over in his mind, whispering, “Carolina.”
Marianna’s lips thinned, her brow wrinkling. “Carolina Joana Walker.”
Walker? His stomach went hard. Taking several slow, deep breaths, he resisted the urge to bellow at her, recognizing that she was about to deliver another gut punch. She poked with a fork at the salad she’d ordered, jerky stabs that failed to spear a bite.
The pointless movement of the fork ceased, and her knuckles went white on the handle. She stared at her plate for a hesitant moment before lifting her gaze to him. “I married John Walker when Carolina was a year and a half old. Eventually he adopted her.”
For the first time in a very long while Max wanted to hit something, to vent the emotions raging through him on an inanimate object. A lifetime’s worth of patience and control, gained by dealing with Sebastian’s wild escapades and scrapes, bled away, deserting him when he needed them most.
Marianna. His Marianna had turned to another man. Taken his daughter from him and given her to someone else, a stranger to him. His fist crashed down on the table.
She flinched. “I couldn’t reach you. My savings were gone, and I couldn’t support us. My job paid well enough for one person, but I hadn’t planned on a child when I accepted the position. And you were supposed to come back.” Her voice had become plaintive.
“You were off somewhere in the cosmos having a marvelous time with Sebastian, and I was barely putting food on our table. John Walker was a kind man, and he loved Carolina. What was I to say when he asked me to marry him? What was I to say? ‘No, I’d rather starve’? I’d already spent so many credits on trans-galactic calls that never reached you. I couldn’t afford another. What was I to do? Tell me. Tell me what I should have done.”
He blanched and went completely still. Why hadn’t he gone after her? Followed her? Then he would have found out about the baby. Everything would have been different. Instead he’d allowed his hurt to dictate his actions. He should have known better. He pushed his plate aside, an ache in the back of his throat. Some of those calls had made it through, and he’d ignored them. He scrubbed his hand from his eyes to his chin. He was as much to blame for the way events had turned out as she was. His anger disappeared, leaving him numb.
Unable to swallow, he rasped out his response. “You did what you had to do. Carolina is lucky to have you as her mother.” The tightness in his chest overwhelmed him, but at last he choked out the words that had to be said. “I can’t fault you for how you handled things.” But I can fault myself. I was an idiot.
Marianna’s face crumpled, her lips pressed together, and her chin trembled. “Thank you.” Her words quavered.
He took a breath, long, slow, and deep, forcing air into lungs constricted as though resisting the pressure of a heavy weight. His voice husky, he asked, “What now? Why now?”
Fat tears dripped from her eyes. She brushed them away with slender fingers and squared her shoulders. “Carolina and I are moving here, to Domingue, permanently. I’ve accepted a position as a project manager for the Sauterelle II archeological expedition. Since Domingue is the closest planet to where the ship was discovered in deep space, they’re towing it into orbit near the space station. The expedition’s offices are here.”
She paused. “I thought…if you and she were willing”—she fingered the pendant at her throat—“it was time for her to meet you.”
He brushed a hand across his forehead to counter his sudden light-headedness. “And is she? Willing?”
“She doesn’t know about you yet. I’m not certain how she’ll react. I wanted to be sure of your response first.”
He nodded gravely, his mind scurrying with possibilities. “And your husband? How does he feel about this?”
Marianna bowed her head before returning her gaze to Max. “He died a year and a half ago.”
“I see.” Despite all the pain this discovery brought, he had a daughter. His heart actually leaped at the thought. A daughter of his own to care for and guide and spoil as only a papa could. He leaned forward and held his hand out to her. When she delicately laid her own in it, he squeezed. “I would love to meet my daughter and will accept whatever conditions you impose. If she refuses, I won’t pursue matters.” His stomach wrenched. “I’ll leave it to her, but please do all you can to convince her.”
He lowered his gaze to their joined hands. “I’ve…” She pressed his fingers tight. “I’ve always wanted a child, your child. I was half in love with her before I knew she existed. Now… It’s like I’ve been given a most precious gift. Thank you. I’ll cherish her as long as I live.”
Her face had softened as he spoke. “I know you will. I never doubted it.” She gave a deep sigh. “I’ll call you. I can’t give you a timeline. Everything depends on Carolina.”
“Of course.” He brought her hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to it. “Whatever you need from me, you have but to ask.”
She glanced to the side. “I should go. Thank you for lunch. I’m sorry I didn’t have the appetite to eat.”
It took effort to release her warm fingers. Memories of how she had skillfully caressed him played in his imagination. But that was the past. She hadn’t even hinted at the possibility of renewing their relationship. And why would she? He’d betrayed her, after all. He needed to stop thinking that way. “I’ll wait to hear from you.”
She rose, smoothing her dress. “Go with God, Max.” He stared after her as she slipped away, a spot of vibrance in a prosaic world.
Go with God. That phrase was so much a part of his remembrances of the woman. Go with God, she’d say when they parted. But the last time they’d left each other, God had chosen not to accompany him. Abandoned to his own imprudence, he’d made the worst mistake of his life. His stomach knotted. Regret was a bitter pill.COLLAPSE