|Cover art by Meredith Russell|
Footloose adventurer Greg Drakowski used to live for the moment but these days shadows of grief and guilt cling to him. Recklessly following one lead to the next, Greg crosses oceans at the very hint of treasure, and doesn’t care that he rushes into danger.
This time his quarry is a cache of diamonds, hidden away decades ago. When the clues bring him to the ancient city of Salisbury, he knows he’s close to success.
Renovations expert Jonathan Ellis is part of Ageless Wood Restorations - three generations of knowledge and trade. Focused and hard-working, Jon finds value in recreating the elegance of the past with his own hands, and it will take something - or someone - extraordinary to break into his enclosed world.
When Greg drops into Jon's lap he finds it impossible to refuse him. Even when the bad guy appears and Jon isn't sure whom he can trust, he knows he has to stand by Greg, if only to save the idiot from himself.
This is a Salisbury story, it can be read as a standalone, but you may want to read Heat first to get a good idea of the sandbox that Chris and I are playing in :).
Book 1 - Heat
Book 2 - Ice
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One year ago
The first bullet missed Greg’s head by less than an inch; he felt the heat and the displacement of air as it thudded into the wall behind him.
“You promised me, Greg,” Andrey snapped, fear in his voice. He’d managed to wedge himself behind a large crate with Egyptian import stamps on its side. “You told me this was safe. Lena is going to kill you, if these bastards don’t.”
Greg ignored his friend and assessed the situation. The crates were good enough to provide shelter at the moment, but they wouldn’t be strong enough, unless their contents were made of steel, to ricochet the bullets. Knowing his luck today, they had already been unpacked. Plywood-enclosed emptiness stopped nothing.
Another round planted itself in the wall a little farther away. Was the shooter aiming blindly into the corner where they’d run, or did they have sight of the two men and had deliberately targeted not to injure them? Greg shoved at the crate a little, just to get some more room behind, and the next bullet fired grazed his calf; the burning heat made him yelp.
He’d been shot before, and he was sure he’d be shot again, but it hurt like a motherfucker when it happened. He clamped his hand over the wound and met Andrey’s shocked gaze with a subtle shake of his head. He attempted to telegraph that he was okay, but Andrey’s abject fear didn’t subside.
Adrenaline and excitement had taken them so far. They’d tracked the artifact from Crete to Egypt, and the final lead had come from Marie LaSalle, his old friend in Algiers. Hundreds of thousands in cash waited for them, now that they’d fulfilled the contract with Mack Stephanos and liberated the Maxentius medallion. All they had to do was get it to him. It sat in its silk wrappings, safe and sound in the money belt hidden under Greg’s T-shirt. Forty grams of near-as-damn-it pure gold in close to mint condition, and only the third of its size known. A few years ago, one of the medallions had sold for a staggering amount. Greg had over a million dollars’ worth of gold in his keeping. And they’d been so close to getting away clean.
Greg may well have the damn thing, but he was pinned in a corner, and there was no way out.
“Greg?” Andrey asked a little desperately.
Greg acknowledged the man was allowed to be desperate. He had a wife and two kids waiting for him back in Heraklion. A wife who, incidentally, hated Greg’s guts for the number of times he’d coaxed Andrey into working with him. This situation was not going according to plan at all. In fact, nothing had gone to plan since Greg found Andrey in the coffee shop near the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete, and despite the protests and glares of hatred from Andrey’s wife, Greg had persuaded him to join in the latest commission.
Greg had needed a wingman, one he trusted 100 percent, who had an almost uncanny skill with computers. But right then, to add one last fuck-up in a long list of fuck-ups, they were pinned down at the back of this rundown warehouse in the seediest part of Metobas’ waterfront, with absolutely no way of getting out. The mouth of the Nile was so very close….
Greg was renowned as the man who could escape from anything, the adventurer who’d cheated death on so many occasions, the one interested parties relied on to find even the most deeply buried treasures. He was slick and fast, and no one got the better of him. Indiana Jones had nothing on Greg Drakowski.
Except today he was fucked, and, by extension, so was Andrey.
“Throw it over here!” a voice ordered from the shadows. “There’s nowhere to run. Give me the medallion, and I’ll let you live.”
Greg rolled his eyes. The words sounded like they came from some cheesy eighties film and meant nothing to him. He did not give up artifacts he’d worked so diligently to find, and he certainly wasn’t giving up the only bargaining chip he had for Andrey and him to get out of here alive.
His lateral thinking had him figuring out possible ends to their situation. The only one he could see working was the one where he had a gun, maybe a grenade launcher, or a tank.
All of which he obviously did not have.
Andrey looked at him with despair, but Greg nodded confidently, and the expression of Andrey’s face changed from despair to hope. Andrey thought Greg had a way out of here, some miracle he could pull out of the hat.
Greg groped at the barrier behind them, ducking a volley of bullets that smashed and destroyed as they shattered through the wall. Thin laths with a skim of crumbling plaster—no corrugated metal—revealed a gap at the bottom that led to a narrow walkway. Beyond that, the Nile lapped at the pilings of a rickety dock as it made its way to the Mediterranean, and only a half a mile upriver, Greg’s boat sat waiting. He shoved at the fragile wood, and it gave a little against his weight.
“Andrey, help me,” he hissed, knowing they’d need the two of them to make a hole big enough to get out.
His friend didn’t answer, didn’t heave against the wood with him, and Greg looked over with desperation and irritation swirling inside him.
But Andrey wasn’t going to be able to help.
Andrey was dead, a bullet hole front and center in his forehead, his sightless eyes staring and fixed. Blood, brains, and bone had spattered across the wall behind him, and Greg hadn’t noticed.
Andrey had died instantly.
Greg hadn’t seen the moment his best friend died. Grief choked him, tore through him like fire, followed by a surge of bitter guilt.
Andrey was gone.
Bullets thudded into the wood, and then flight took over; Greg had no time for sorrow. Some superhuman strength in him forced and splintered the rotten wood behind him. He tumbled out of the space, pulling Andrey’s lifeless body, which fell half on him. Greg gripped Andrey under the arms and began to drag him.
Then realization hit in his desperation. He wasn’t going to be able to move his friend and survive.
Andrey wasn’t there; Andrey was in his version of heaven, probably with Manet paintings and never-ending bottles of champagne. Greg snatched the slim gold chain around Andrey’s neck and tugged it until the clasp broke, and then, with a soft kiss to Andrey’s curly hair, he gently placed his friend onto the soft Nile mud as tears blurred his vision.
A line of bullets strafed the ground next to him, carving into his grief. Instinct took over. Greg crab-walked back until he could scramble to stand. He ducked into the first side alley he came to and ran. Like the devil was on his heels, he ran through the twisty maze of passages, heading upriver to where he’d moored the Kingfisher.
As he neared the boat, he heard shouts behind him and pushed harder, his lungs burning, his legs like jelly. He pulled the rope from the mooring, leaped onto the speedboat, shoved the key in the starter, and mere seconds after, he was away from the shore and heading toward the mouth of the estuary and the open sea.
He didn’t look back; he couldn’t. He’d left Andrey back there. And Andrey’s wife waited in Crete, with two children under four years old. The eldest boy was named for him, little Gregor….
His breath caught in his throat, and for a moment Greg thought he was going to throw up.
Things like loss didn’t happen to him. Andrey had always said an angel touched Greg at birth, death and destruction slipping over him like water, luck his permanent companion.
Yeah, well, luck certainly hadn’t taken care of the man Greg had known since their early teens, the man he loved like the brother he’d never had.
Finally, the dice rolled in his favor once more—no one followed him.
The small boat sheared through the waves of the Mediterranean, and the wind made him tear up, until those tears became real and the worth of what he had in his belt meant nothing to him.
“I’m done!” he shouted to the wind. “I’m done.”
Grief had him sobbing and railing, and he only calmed as the shoreline drew farther away and the streamlined bulk of the Nereid came nearer. He would be safe on board that large luxury yacht. Safe, but alone, his best friend dead, and guilt like acid inside him.
Mack was waiting for him on the foredeck, arms crossed over his wide chest, his gaze assessing the fact that only Greg returned.
“Andrey?” he asked as he assisted Greg in tying off the boat.
Greg swallowed the emotions that threatened to push him to his knees. Mack hated for anyone to show compassion or grief. “Dead,” Greg said flatly.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Mack replied with enough gravity to make it seem like he might care after all. Then he ruined the effect completely. “Did you get the Maxentius?”
Greg hiked up his T-shirt and realized for the first time that he was marked with Andrey’s blood—and his leg hurt like hell. His hand shook as he unzipped the money belt compartment He pulled out the chunky medallion wrapped in dark blue silk and handed it over. “I’m done,” he said.
Mack considered him carefully and then nodded. “I understand.”
“I’m going to find an ordinary life, where my friends don’t die. I don’t want the money from this. Send it all to Lena.”
“Of course.” Mack nodded, allowed him a moment of thinking he had a handle on the rest of his life, and then he sighed and shook his head. “I understand.”
Greg began to walk away. He needed a shower and somewhere to sit where he could grieve in private, but Mack’s voice stopped him.
“Maybe you should go straight into another commission? Work your way through the shock of losing Andrey?”
To Greg’s ears, Mack sounded calculating and not at all interested in the fact that Greg had just held his dead friend in his arms.
But what did he expect? Mack wasn’t his friend, his father, family of any sort. Mack hooked him up with adventure and money, and pretended to care.
“I said I’m done.”
“I have a connection for the Khlebnikov diamonds if you’re interested.”
Greg shook his head. The spark of interest the name created was nothing wrapped beneath the suffocating pall of guilt.
Mack shrugged. “Andrey always wanted to find them. It would be a fitting memorial to his life. Anyway, I understand. You’re done. Go below, get rid of those clothes, and clean up. I’ll send someone to treat your leg. Then sleep. We can talk more when we’re back in Alexandria.”
He turned away and walked down the companionway. Greg limped after him, with the announcement buzzing in his head. It wasn’t the first time Mack had mentioned the fabled hoard of cut and polished rocks smuggled out of pre-Revolution Russia. Back then, Andrey’s eyes had lit up when they’d talked, blazing with enthusiasm. He would have loved to hunt them down.
Grief chased those thoughts until Greg was a mess of indecision and his mind finally closed down. His life was empty now. Now? It had been empty all day, nothing made sense, and with Andrey gone….
“Give it time,” Mack said as he paused outside of Greg’s cabin. “Grieve and find me when you’re ready.”
“I promise you I am done.”
Mack sighed and pressed a hand to Greg’s arm. “Maybe you feel too much, Greg. Andrey wouldn’t want you to stop what you do, wouldn’t ask you to stop living.”
“He wasn’t even meant to be on this one with me. Lena pleaded for him not to go. I talked him into it.”
“Fate has a way of dealing heavy blows, my friend. Now go rest. Soon we’ll be back at the villa, and you’ll be able to think more clearly about what you’d like to do next.”
Nothing came clearly to Greg, not then nor later, when he awoke in the familiar room in the white-walled villa on the edge of Alexandria. He lay back on the bed, the soft voile at the windows blowing gently in the early-morning breeze. The air carried with it the scent of the blue lotus floating in the ornamental pool beyond his balcony.
Greg held Andrey’s chain; the pierced coin that hung from it swung in circles. It was a gold ruble, dated 1897, the year Andrey’s family had escaped from Czarist Russia. Andrey had worn it every day. The coin was smooth from where it rested on his skin, a reminder that life was to be lived on your own terms, or so Andrey always said.
The image of that warehouse flashed across Greg’s mind: Andrey’s slack features, the scent of blood—No! It was too much.
Greg realized he was in shock, knew it clinically from the way he was closing his eyes and shutting down. He refused to let that happen and forced himself to sit up.
I’m sorry, my friend. So sorry.
Breakfast was a quiet affair. Greg didn’t eat much, but he drank enough coffee to feel buzzed and more focused.
“What did you decide?” Mack asked.
Greg wasn’t sure how to word how he felt. He lived for the adventure, the danger, for being the first person to see an artifact after a thousand years, the only one able to find what had been lost. Adventure was in his blood.
Andrey’s face filled his thoughts, and he turned to Mack. Greg was born to take risks, to hold history in the palm of his hand, if only temporarily. He was strong and brave and focused. Or at least, he would be.
Then there was Andrey’s family. They weren’t hurting for cash, not with Andrey and Greg’s fees for this last commission. But anything could happen in the future, and the least he could do was to make sure their finances were secure. If he took another job, he’d split the payment fifty-fifty. Enough for him to be done, to vanish, and for Mack never to be able to find him. If he did this, it could be a real end to things for him.
If. Such a tiny word for a huge decision.
Mack placed a pack on the table in front of him. A familiar folder that would contain information and papers, clues and maps, and everything that got Greg’s blood pumping.
“You knew I would say yes,” he murmured.
Mack nodded with sadness in his eyes. “It’s what you do, my friend. Andrey was part of your yesterdays, and you know you have a thousand tomorrows to make his death a meaningful step in your life.”
How did those words sound so clinical, as if Mack had consigned Andrey to a yesterday without considering how Greg felt today? “I’m not sure I can do this alone.”
“You’re always alone; you know that.”
“Harsh,” Greg said tiredly.
Harsh, but true.
Andrey may have been his partner on this last hunt, but what Greg did best, he did alone.
Mack pushed the folder toward him. “New York, Russian immigrants, a lukewarm trail, diamonds. Interested?”
Greg took the pack and poured another coffee before opening to the first page.
The Khlebnikov diamonds.
Andrey would have loved that one.
For Andrey. He nodded his agreement.
Mack's cynical smile said it all, really. "Good. It's a long-term commission, so I have another task for you in the meantime."
Greg almost said no, but then he realized one important thing as he wavered. What else was he going to do?
“Yes, of course I understand.” Jon Ellis gritted his teeth and hoped his frustration didn’t show in his voice. He made a conscious effort to slacken his white-knuckled grip on his cell phone. This was the fourth refusal, and he was running out of experts to call. “There’s no way you can turn down a chance like that.”
Restoring a fire-damaged medieval building didn’t come close to a contract from the BBC and Cirencester Museum to be part of the team reconstructing a Roman water mill. He ended the call with polite congratulations and resisted the urge to throw his phone down the length of the Long Gallery.
The problems had begun two days ago when his business partner, best friend, and surrogate father, Uncle Paul, had fallen off the ladder. One moment he was at the top, whistling Simon and Garfunkel melodies in his usual cheerful fashion as he examined the edges of the Jacobean molded cornice above the Long Gallery’s door, and the next he sprawled unconscious on the floor, the ladder on top of him and his arm broken.
The following morning, Jon phoned an old colleague, Dave, who was usually up for a bit of work on the side, but Dave was off to Bermuda for his daughter’s fancy beach wedding.
The next expert had flat-out refused without bothering to offer a reason, as had his third connection.
And now this last one, whose name completed his entire list of local, usable contacts, had turned him down.
Uncharitably, Jon wondered if any of them had already been co-opted to work on the Roman mill, and the thought crossed his mind that he might have liked to be involved in that. No one had called him.
Jon allowed himself to stew for a little while. Everyone in the trade knew he’d been the one to hook this contract at the restaurant. Jon knew he’d gone up against the two who’d refused to take his call—sour grapes, that was what it was. Rebuilding the Laurels was a prestigious assignment, and Jon knew it. For all its small size—himself and his uncle as the hands-on craftsmen, and his father dealing with the office work, Ageless Wood Restorations had built up an enviable reputation. Most of that, Uncle Paul said, was down to Jon’s hard work, dedication, and sheer talent over the last decade, and his drive to succeed.
At twenty-nine, Jon practically was Ageless Wood. He shook off the negativity and started to thumb through his battered notepad. Time to look further afield, since he’d run out of wood restoration specialists in the south.
All the work on the modern side of the Laurels restaurant had been done by other contractors; the kitchen and ancillary rooms were pristine and top of the range, as were the public restrooms and the private bathrooms on the top floor. The decorative plaster moldings on ceilings and cornices throughout the building, all original, had been lovingly restored and limewashed. All that was left for Jon to do was complete the delicate tasks of replacing or restoring the fire- and smoke-damaged woodwork, most of which, like the plasterwork, dated from the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thankfully the ancient timber support beams were sound.
There must be someone he could find.
“Hello?” called a familiar voice from below, and Jon sighed. Could the day get any more difficult? Lewis Mandineau, co-manager of this lovely old building, was a genuinely nice person, and Jon hated the thought that he might have to let him down. He hadn’t got this contract by promising he’d turn the work around quickly, but he’d guaranteed craftsmanship and a completion date. Now, three months in, he was going to miss that date. Unless he could find a skilled carpenter to help with the beautifully intricate panels of the Long Gallery and the landing, he would never make the deadline.
“Up here,” he shouted.
Footsteps clattered up the newly restored stairs. The fire had been started down there, in the Stuart Room. The repairs and restorations of that and the Tudor Room were complete, but the first-floor rooms and landing still needed a lot of careful attention. Especially the landing. The fire, fueled by exploding bottles of spirits in the ground-floor bar, had severely damaged the paneling. At least half of it needed replacing, and since genuine Tudor or Jacobean paneling didn’t come off the shelves in DIY stores, exact copies of them had to be made. That wasn’t much of a problem when the design was simple linenfold. The difficulty arose with the bands of ornately decorated panels beneath the cornices.
Fortunately, Lewis had an extensive collection of photographs showing the restaurant’s historic features in fine detail, so recreating the necessary panels wouldn’t have been a problem. Jon had already started on the first of them, but Uncle Paul’s accident meant he would have to put the carving on hold. Instead he’d have to concentrate on constructing and carefully fitting the framework for the panels to the old brickwork all the way up the stairway and along the landing. Unless—
“‘Morning,” Lewis said as he joined him in the gallery. “How’s Paul doing?”
Jon smiled ruefully. “Stiff, sore, and miserable. He’s still in hospital, waiting on some results. They want to know why he had that dizzy spell. He says it was just one of those things. They, his wife—that’s my Aunt Rosie—and everyone else, say he needs to get it checked out. He’s not getting any younger.”
Paul was sixty-three now; the man who had been Jon’s mentor, who’d taken an enthusiastic intern and made him a skilled artisan. Paul said he would never stop working, but his wife already had her heart set on retiring to France. This could be the beginning of the end.
The business would be okay. Jon could work alone, add the time to projects, but the idea of that isolation was hard. After all, he and Paul had worked together as ‘Ageless Wood Restorations’ for years, and the company had a reputation for excellence. It had been founded by his grandfather, and had continued under Paul and his older brother, James. Paul had taken Jon on as an apprentice when rheumatoid arthritis began to affect Jim Ellis’s hands and his already-sour disposition.
“He’d be stupid not to get it checked out. Are you busy?”
Jon indicated the workbench and the neatly stacked lengths of wood that waited to be transformed into the support frames for the panels. “Always.”
Lewis pointedly checked his watch. “Actually, I came up to tell you to come and have a tea break. I’ve been mucking around in the kitchen, and it’s past time we had a cuppa.”
Jon chuckled in spite of his gloom and the fact he had bad news to break. All Lewis wanted to do in his new kitchen was make food, cakes, drinks… in fact anything he could do. He called it reusing a muscle that had lost its strength.
Lewis’s boyfriend, Devon Trelawney, called it an experiment in trying to make him fat.
“Admit it,” Jon said. “You just want another excuse to play with all those shiny gadgets, Master Chef Mandineau.”
A slight flush reddened Lewis’s face, and Jon smiled. He liked the man. Not enough to attempt a flirtation, of course. Not only did he refuse to mix business with pleasure, Lewis was well and truly spoken for by the other half of the Laurels’ management.
“I’ll admit I can’t wait for the day we can open the Laurels again,” Lewis continued, and Jon sighed.
“About that. I, uh, have some good news and some bad news.”
“What’s the good news?”
“The last of the panel blanks arrived. We have more than enough now for the rest of the work, with some to spare.”
“Well, that’s one thing,” Lewis said. “I get the feeling I won’t like the bad news much. So come on down, and we can talk over coffee. I made cakes. Cake makes everything better.”
The delicious scents of baking enfolded Jon as they walked into the kitchen. His stomach rumbled, reminding him he’d skipped breakfast that morning. Worry did that to him.
He followed Lewis into the office and dropped into the chair by the desk. The room was a comfortable mix of office and home. A large armchair sat in front of a TV and DVD player, put there for Lewis’s sister, Rachel. Jon had met her only a few times, and he liked her. She was a gentle, shy child in a woman’s body, thanks to the car crash that had killed their parents and left her damaged. The arson that had put the Laurels out of business had set back Rachel’s long, slow recovery—temporarily, he hoped. She was another reason why he didn’t want to let the Mandineaus down.
Lewis disappeared briefly and returned with a tray loaded with mugs, a large pot of coffee, and a couple of plates piled high with fairy cakes and sausage rolls respectively. Jon’s gut cheered loudly, and he flushed.
“Help yourself,” Lewis said. “Then tell me what’s up.”
“I’m having trouble replacing Uncle Paul,” Jon said as he took some food. “If I can’t find someone, I’m not going to meet the completion date. I’m genuinely sorry,” he added lamely. He didn’t have to say if that happened it would also impinge on his contract guarantee and he’d lose money. Lewis knew the facts as well as he did. “I’ll keep trying to hire someone, but they have to be skilled enough for this kind of work.”
“Understood,” Lewis replied. He sighed and shook his head. “Things have been going so smoothly, some sort of hiccup was bound to happen. We—Devon and I—have a contingency plan, and the opening day should still goes ahead on time. We’ll just use the two ground floor dining rooms, that’s all. You’ve done a bang-up job so far, and you were ahead of schedule until poor Paul had his dizzy spell. None of this is your fault, okay?”
“Thanks for taking it so well,” Jon said.
Lewis smiled and pushed the plates a little closer to him. “Dig in,” he ordered, “and keep the rest for your lunch.”
Since Lewis was the best cook Jon had ever met, he did just that.
They both made inroads on the cakes and savories, and drank a lot of excellent coffee. Then Lewis went back to his new kitchen to clean up, while Jon returned to the Long Gallery. It had made more sense to set up his workshop there, as well as store the panel blanks and the lengths of wood that would be trimmed and shaped to form the frames that held the panels in place against the walls. Their main base of operations was near Bath, and all three of the Ellises lived within no more than a few miles of it. Rather than commute every day, both Jon and Paul rented furnished accommodations for the duration of the contract. Paul and his wife Rosie were in a terrace house in Albany Road, while Jon had a first-floor flat in the Maltings, the riverside pedestrian shopping complex about five minutes’ walk from the Laurels.
An hour later, Jon heard Lewis call out a goodbye, and he was alone in the old building. The quiet settled around him, as comfortable as an old coat. The silence wasn’t absolute, of course. The susurration of passing traffic and occasional raised voices from the street below formed a backing to the sounds of the Laurels itself as ancient walls and floors reacted to subtle changes of temperature. Jon smiled and stroked the uneven surface of the massive oak supporting beam that crowned the blocks of narrow bricks of the gallery’s inner wall. Lewis had told him a dendrochronology test showed that the tree had been felled in the autumn of 1398. And here it was in the twenty-first century, as solid as granite and undefeated by time, termites, or fire. In some ways it was a shame that it would soon be hidden by the paneling.
Jon turned his attention to the task immediately at hand, the construction of the next supporting frame. Each length of timber was fastened to the next with wooden pegs, no iron nails for this reconstruction.
“Hello?” The voice was barely audible over his sawing. It came from the kitchen. “Anyone around? Hello?”
“Hang on,” Jon shouted. “I’m coming down.”
The stranger had his back to the connecting door and was gazing around the kitchen when Jon entered. The man turned and offered a bright smile. “Hi,” he said. “Lewis Mandineau? I’m Greg Drakowski.”
He held out his hand and Jon shook it automatically, set off-balance by brown eyes beneath dark brows. Brown hair, close-cropped at the sides and a slightly longer fauxhawk over his forehead; a neatly trimmed beard; framed high cheekbones, and a sensuous mouth. A backpack hung from his shoulders, full of something angular and weighty by the look of it.
“Uh, hi,” Jon said, painfully aware the pause had gone on a little too long. So had the handshake. He released Greg’s hand at once. “I’m not Lewis. He isn’t here at the moment, or not available, at least. The restaurant isn’t open yet.”
“I know. I’d heard about the fire on the grapevine—you know how it is.” His smile was guileless, utterly charming, and his slight accent teased Jon’s senses. “I’ve not long finished a project in Alexandria and had to come back home for family reasons. That’s all settled now, and, well, to be frank I need a job. I was hoping I could join the reconstruction team. I have references, commendations and everything with me,” he concluded.
“What was the project?” Jon asked the second question that popped into his head. The second, because the first was entirely inappropriate.
The third one was, Is this coincidence too good to be true?