Thursday, 3 January 2013

What are they searching for... and why?

Happy New Year and ... welcome to my first post of 2013. 

If you haven't yet read my December ancestral mystery release  - Topaz Eyes - here's a chance to read the beginning. 

What's it about: 
A peculiar invitation to Heidelberg embroils Keira Drummond in the search for a mysterious collection of extraordinary jewels once owned by a Mughal Emperor; a hoard that was last known to be in the possession of Amsterdam resident, Geertje Hoogeveen, in 1910.

Who among the progeny of Geertje – hitherto unfamiliar third cousins brought together for the quest – can Keira rely on? Distrust and suspicion among them is rife.

Which one is greedy, and determined enough, to hire thugs to tail her… and worse… as she travels to Vienna and Minnesota?  Can Keira even trust Teun Zeger - a Californian she is becoming very drawn to – as they pair up to unearth the jewellery?

As they follow a trail of clues, will they uncover the full collection before the hired gun kills them? Details remain furtive and undisclosed until danger and death forces their exposure. And who harbours the ultimate mystery item that is even more precious than the Mughal jewels?

Greed, suspicion and murder are balanced by growing family loyalty, trust, and love.

From Chapter One to get you started:

Keira Drummond had found the bizarre request to return to Heidelberg, Germany, impossible to resist. After almost six years, little had changed on the street named Steingasse as she sat looking down towards the Brukentor – the towers of the old bridge spanning the River Neckar with their distinctive helmeted tops.

 Still tremendously busy, Steingasse was too narrow for the clutches of tables adorning both sides. Even in the middle of the street it was difficult to see the cobbles, the pedestrian traffic a constant procession undulating along its length, since it was one of Heidelberg’s most popular tourist areas.
            Sipping her coffee, she now had great reservations over accepting the strange summons and couldn’t fathom the compulsion she’d felt to comply, because caution normally imprinted itself on her forehead. Now she was in Heidelberg, the circumstances surrounding the request were even more nebulous, and so shrouded in secrecy. Apprehension that there was something underhand about it sat heavy in her stomach. She’d yet to meet her host, and presently wasn’t convinced she wanted to.
            “Frei, or besetzt?”
            The abrupt question, in halting German, startled a smile from her. Free, or occupied, the tall man beside her was asking? A curve to her lips lingered as he stared, his focus intent. Dull flutters skittered inside her. Something about the man tripped a little switch, yet glued her mouth. Shut. The words free, and occupied, adopted whole new hues.
            Her nod was infinitesimal.
            Sharing tables in places like this was the norm; in fact, the waiting staff positively encouraged it, liking their tables groaning with potential tips. She already shared with a Norwegian couple who’d been happy for her to take the third seat at the table: the only table in the vicinity with spares. It would be downright mean of her to deny this man the fourth.
            His thank you nod encompassed all of them as he glided a small package and an envelope onto the tabletop, before shrugging out of his dark grey jacket.  
            With no conscious intention of being nosey, it was difficult for Keira to ignore someone who dominated her airspace as he shuffled around in the impossibly tiny gap. She contemplated the swallowing of his throat when his glance alighted on her, and then halted. Interest flared, a widening of his grey eyes accompanied a hint of a smile, just crinkling the corners of his mouth. Blinking a few times, she considered looking away but found she couldn’t. It wasn’t impossible, she just didn’t want to, and it seemed neither did he. 
            Without breaking eye contact, he fumbled the jacket over the back of the wrought-iron chair and then squeezed in as best he could, a tighter smile coming her way.
            Irritability, or perhaps frustration, draped over him as much as his business clothing, the slight pull at his brows not something she could miss. Before tugging her gaze away, she returned his smile. She doubted it was the lack of privacy on the street which bothered the guy, or he’d have moved on to a quieter place. 
            Alongside her, his fingers idled then tapped on the table edge as he surveyed the area, his head lifting to appreciate the architecture, much as she had done a few moments earlier. Taking stock over his shoulder, by bowing his torso to an uncomfortable angle, he was also able to view the towers, but before Keira could catch it his envelope slipped off the table edge, dislodged by his extended fingers. Bending to grasp it at the same time as he did, she barely avoided a brow collision. Sheer male and a hint of some kind of herb, assailed her nostrils. She savoured it before they both moved; his now smiling mouth within centimetres of hers.
            Deep and throaty, the single word of thanks rippled towards her. She answered in English as she held out the envelope. “No problem. Here you go.”
            “You’re English?”
            “Scottish. And you’re American?”
            The man laughed, his teeth bright against the tan of his skin. “I am, though how could you tell my German was non-native?”
            One moment of shared amusement was enough. Sitting back in her chair, as he did, they began a casual conversation. Mischief lurked behind her answer. “Mmm. Let’s see which might offend the least. Hesitation? The wrong ‘a’ sound maybe? Or perhaps it’s just the fact almost everyone around here isn’t a German native, including most of the wait staff.”
            The raising of his brows stoked a nice little fire. “How can you possibly make such a judgment?”
            “I worked at a wine bar, only a couple of streets away, for the best part of eight months, right here in the heart of Heidelberg’s tourist areas. Though, it was almost six years ago.”
            Something about his steel drum gaze, the twinkle perhaps, indicated she’d impressed him.           
            “No restaurants to wait tables on in Scotland?”
            “Oh, sure. I waited on plenty of tables there, too. I attended the university here in Heidelberg, as part of my languages course and, in the nature of things, had to finance my way. But don’t get me wrong. A job like that was the best way to improve my fluency.”
            “Yeah, but how did you manage if most people around were non-German?”
            “Did I forget to say my boss was German?” Memories of the slave driver he’d been brought forth another smirk. “I absorbed a dictionary worth of very nice words from him, I can tell you. And not the German I learned during seminars along at the university.”
            A slight pause descended, the waiter having arrived at the table. Keira studied the man when his attention moved to their server. His thick hair was mid-brown, short, yet not so cropped she’d be unable to slide her fingers through. A nice idea, but she’d no time for dalliance so why did these errant imaginings even enter her head? Still, she couldn’t help notice the polite smile he flashed at the waiter before glancing at her half-full coffee cup. His pointing finger, and questioning glance, she took to mean did she want another: her simple headshake all he needed before he placed his beer order in halting German. Economical with words he, nonetheless, seemed a generous person.
             Assessing the character of strangers was a favourite pastime, and it always pleased when her judgment was spot on.
            “Are you impressed? I just ordered me a beer.”
            “I’m guessing your German’s limited?”
            “How much can anyone learn in transit from London?” Dark laughter rippled down her nerve endings, though there was an abashment that didn’t seem to match, because the man oozed masculinity. He flashed a small phrase book taken from his back pocket.
            “My German is worse than non-existent, and doubly embarrassing since my father was of Dutch descent. Not the same as German, I know, but I believe some of their words are quite similar. ” 
            Her laugh rang along with his, since it was so easy to join the bandwagon of his mirth. “No lessons in Dutch at your grandma’s knee?”
            “Not a word. The only thing I’ve got that’s Dutch is my name.”
            Keira expected him to introduce himself. Yet, opportune or not, he didn’t. His gaze lingered, though, just enough for her to wonder if it was what he expected of her. She chose to resume the topic of his Dutch ancestry. Her own association with Holland went way back, but in many ways her knowledge of the language was no better than his. “You’ve never visited Holland?”    
            “Nope. Never visited Holland: never visited Germany before either. Till around midday today, I’d never stepped foot in mainland Europe. The closest I’ve been across the Atlantic have been visits to London.”
            “Heidelberg is beautiful, I’m sure you’ll enjoy being here.” Confidence that he would rang through her tones. It was a fabulous place to visit, especially for a first visit to Europe – the architecture and old world splendour spectacular to view.
            The man’s smile faltered, his eyes momentarily clouding as he re-pocketed his phrase book. “Nice thought, but I’m not so sure I’m going to be here long enough to see the best of it.”
            “Your beer, sir!” The waiter’s chirrup in English halted their conversation when he appeared at the man’s elbow.
            The stranger slid his package and envelope towards her, clearing off enough space for his beer stein, since the table was so small. A long pull at the frothy drink brought a satisfied smirk to his face as he appreciated the chill of it. “I needed that.”
             “Even businessmen are due time off to gallivant just a little, surely?”         
            A twitch at one side of the man’s mouth indicated unease with her statement. As a translator she often had to work one-to-one with people, and though in no way a psychologist, she’d gotten very good at reading expressions, especially when people couldn’t formulate the words they needed or were unsure of the meaning of something. Something puzzled the stranger.
            “There’s the hell of it. I’m not here on business. You?” His personal question sounded as tentative as hers.
            “No, I’m not here on business and not for tourist reasons either.” Keira’s mood dipped, the reminder of her summons spoiling what was proving to be a pleasant interlude with the stranger.
            A bit of mystery hung, and hovered, as she sipped her coffee and the man glugged his beer. His thirst appeared great, though he wasn’t in the least bit apologetic about being so driven to drink. She wished his tongue wouldn’t do that nice little lip-wiping after each sip. Silent sighs did nothing to quell the temptation to lick off the beer froth herself. Hmm. She hadn’t been in any kind of relationship for months. Too long, obviously, since she eyed up this stranger with such relish.
            The man’s head whipped back, a question coming at her in parts, as he again tongued off more beer froth. “If you were a tourist… with only a few hours to spare… what would you do first?” 
            She laughed at his intent stare. Something lurked in his gaze; most likely nothing to do with a desire to tramp the cobbled streets of Heidelberg. Any innuendo wouldn’t embarrass her, though, since she was just as guilty of ogling. “Hmm. I guess that depends on your tastes.”
            His eyes danced over the rim of his stein as he hesitated, his beer mug held aloft. “Apart from quenching my obvious dehydration, what do you recommend to see in the near vicinity of Heidelberg?”
            Keira became an enthusiastic guidebook during the next while as she gave him some pointers – all within a short walk of the Old Bridge. 
            The American’s responses were equally animated until their easy conversation suddenly faltered. Toying with his beer glass in one hand, he reached for his envelope in the other. Concentrating on the white paper with fierce intensity, he fiddled with it as though weighing it up both in his fingers and in his mind. A tense and awkward silence permeated the air around the two of them, which was ridiculous really as the area thronged with noise and busy movements.
            Abruptly, he snagged her gaze, his eyebrows a neat little frown. His words rushed out as he set down his beer before wafting the envelope. “Look. I know you don’t know me, but… if you’re not busy this evening? With friends, or some kind of appointment, or whatever…”
            She couldn’t look away. Could do nothing but wait. Was this total stranger about to ask her for a date? Or translate for him? Definitely the disappointing one of the two possibilities. Except? Could this be an escape clause from the appointment she did have, and now didn’t want to attend?
            His words hung in the air. Agitation of some sort held him in a tight grip. Strangely, Keira felt it appealing to witness his hesitation, maybe even vulnerability?
            “See, I’ve been given this invitation right out of the blue, and I wondered if you’d like to accompany me. If you’re not busy elsewhere?”
            The envelope pinged free of his fingers when a woman at the table behind him stood up, her overstuffed bag bumping his arm, but the plummeting invitation was only one casualty of the collision. In her embarrassment to apologize profusely, in what Keira guessed to be some Eastern European language, the woman grasped the falling envelope and set it awkwardly onto the table, dislodging his beer stein. Keira squirmed as a wash of pale gold liquid sloshed right over the envelope, and headed towards her lap. More apologies, and an even fierier red face, ensued as the woman extricated herself, and flurried off.
            Grabbing napkins from the centre stand, Keira swabbed the soggy envelope free of beer, before she swiped the remainder of the flow off the table.
            “Don’t worry about it.” The guy’s grunt barked out as he peeled a card free of the saturated wrapping.
            Keira’s breath hitched when she glanced at the invitation being uncovered, her eyebrows wincing at the distinctive gilt-edged border and flowery script. This stranger had one of those invitations, too? An invitation which looked exactly like the bizarre one she’d received earlier that afternoon. ‘…you will find it to your advantage to attend the opening of the Myer Gallery.’ A request which should have seemed positive, yet lacked so much.
            An icy shiver skittered all over her skin, and lodged deep at the base of her spine. Why would a stranger, who’d randomly sat next to her, have a similar invitation? Heidelberg was a large city. It couldn’t be good.
            Coincidence? She couldn’t make herself believe it. The flutters she felt invade her now were nothing like the former desire generated by the stranger; they were of sheer, unadulterated alarm. The invitation she’d been given, less than two hours before, had caused her a lot of disquiet when she’d received it, since it had been handed over in such a peculiar and secretive fashion. That this stranger had a similar card was so weirdly coincidental there had to be something odd going on. Perhaps this American had a sinister motive for revealing it? He could have left it in the soggy wrap. Or was he literally showing his card to lure her into a false sense of security? Her mind ran amok with many possibilities, but all of them alarmed her.
            While he stared at the card, her eyes scanned, up and down. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but relief didn’t come to quell her panic. Patrons still exchanged noisy talk, and a steady swarm of people trooped along the potholed cobbles, past her table as before, heading for the riverside. None of them looked furtive, yet she couldn’t shake off a feeling of unease.
            Why had this American not moved on to another street? Knowing the area from before, it was very likely the next street along would be less crowded. Was it also coincidental he, too, seemed on edge and agitated about something? His concentration was intense on the card as he wiped off the dregs of beer.
            The feeling of threat escalated. He didn’t seem like a stalker – though she’d never confronted one. Yet, the man must have followed her, and awaited the opportunity to insinuate a meeting. To gain her agreement to accompany him to the evening event. But why? There had been too many unanswered questions – by the third party organizer – even before she’d encountered this American.
            His head turned away to catch the attention of the waiter. Grabbing her purse, Keira pulled out a few euros to pay for her coffee, and fumbled them beside her cup. Slipping neatly around the other couple at the table, she sped along Steingasse towards the towers of the Old Bridge, and blended in with the surge of tourists. She ignored the man’s plea and shouted apology. Let him believe she’d been annoyed at being drenched with beer, but she wouldn’t stay one more minute.      

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