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Midnight in Ruby Bayou by Elizabeth Lowell - Romance>Suspense/Mystery/Thriller
Faith Donovan is famous for crafting exquisite jewelry studded with fabulous gems. But the dangerous task of acquiring the rare rubies she needs for her art has taught Faith to be wary of anyone outside her own family -- especially someone like Owen Walker, an adventurer with an intimate knowledge of the ruby trade and man's murderous greed. But now necessity has thrown the them together, as they venture into the shadowy world of the wealthy and mysterious Montegeaus in search of quality stones.
A powerful Georgia clan descended from pirates, the Montegeausare said to possess a staggering fortune in gems, hidden for generations in the legendary Blessing Chest. In the living shadows of historic Ruby Bayou. Faith and Walker are soon drawn into a terrifying web of corruption and betrayal, and haunted by the dark, unfolding secrets of the Montegeaus past and present. For there are those who would kill for the contents of the Blessing Chest. And now two outsiders who have learned too much stand in the way...
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The public areas were above the thieves, buildings three and four stories high that held centuries of art and artifacts collected by rulers whose whim was the very breath of life for their subjects. There was room after room filled with extraordinary sculptures, ancient icons and immense tapestries, paintings to make angels weep and saints envious, quantities of gold and silver and gemstones beyond the ability of even man's deepest avarice to comprehend.
In the darkest hours of the early January night, there was only time and the scrape of guards' worn boots over marble that had once known only the polished arrogance of royalty. The smallest sounds echoed down the long, magnificent corridors with their gilt and vaulted ceilings supported by columns as tall as ancient gods.
Even the hundreds of public rooms weren't enough to display all three million items in the treasure trove. The lesser items, or those out of fashion at the moment, were stored in basement warrens where gleaming marble gave way to crumbling plaster and rat-gnawed wood. Dust lay like dirty snow on every surface. The bureaucrats who had once listed and catalogued the imperial collections were long gone, dismissed by a civilian government that could barely keep its soldiers in bullets.
Three women and two men moved briskly down the narrow subterranean hallways. Caught in the glow of flashlights, human breath came out in white bursts. In front of the museum, the river Neva was frozen. So was everything else in St. Petersburg that couldn't afford or steal electricity. Away from the public areas where foreign diplomats, dignitaries, and tourists gaped at royal treasures, the buildings were in disrepair. The world-class pieces of art -- the Rubenses and da Vincis and Rembrandts -- were well maintained. The rest of the czars' treasures had to be as hardy as the Russian people themselves to survive.
One of the thieves unlocked a large room and flipped on the switch by the door. Nothing happened. Someone cursed, but no one was surprised. Everyone in the city stole lightbulbs for their own use.
Using a flashlight held by her partner, the dark-haired woman went to work on a huge, decades-old safe. The tumblers were balky. The door squealed like a dying pig when she opened it.
She was not worried by the metallic scream. Even if the guards above heard it, they would keep on making their rounds through warm, empty halls and imperial rooms. The guards weren't paid well enough to investigate odd sounds. No smart urban citizen poked around in the dark looking for trouble. Enough came in the normal course of life.
Working in whispers, the thieves began pulling open lockers and drawers. Occasionally someone would grunt or draw in a breath at a particularly spectacular piece of jewelry. If their hands lingered, the dark-haired woman spoke curtly. She had her orders: Take only the modest pieces, the forgotten ones, the nameless baubles that were uninspired gifts from long-dead aristocrats or merchants or foreign officials seeking favor with the czars. These were the pieces that were listed on royal inventories as "brooch, pearls with red center stone" or "stomacher, blue stones with diamond surrounds." None of these pieces were valued enough to be documented in the imperial portraits upstairs. None of them appeared in photographs of imperial jewelry. They were blessedly anonymous.
Midnight in Ruby BayouBy: Elizabeth Lowell