She managed not to snap at him, but her quick glance must have transmitted a bite of annoyance.
He blew out a stream of air to let her know how irritated he was at being ignored.
She wanted to tell him to stow the attitude.
Don’t lose sight of the goal. She still needed that invitation from him. She needed her job, too, for all the obvious reasons, but Stuey couldn’t afford to lose her either. She hoped. He’d hired a new hotshot who had potential with some training, but Abbie had handed WCXB’s anchors a wall of Emmys. She hoped that played heavily in her favor. Getting into the Wentworth fund-raiser offered the only glimmer of hope for finding out what had happened to her mother.
Tatum said if he could discover why her spleen had started malfunctioning after her mother visited the Kore Women’s Center ten days ago he’d have a fighting chance to cure her. But the Kore center blew him off, stating her mother had only donated blood and participated in routine tests. Nothing else.
That’s when Tatum had divulged details on Kore that would rock the Wentworth Foundation, which supported the women’s center, if Abbie released Tatum’s disclosure as news.
And she would do just that if she didn’t get to speak with Gwenyth Wentworth, who had yet to return a phone call. The Wentworth heiress hosted the fund-raiser. If Abbie could get inside the event, she’d find a way to talk to Gwen.
When Hannah came back on the line, Abbie said, “I’ll call him when I get to the office.”
“When are you coming to the medical center?”
“Soon as I can, but I’m busy right now-”
“Give me a break, Abbie. Just because I don’t clock in somewhere doesn’t mean I’m not busy, too.” The real Hannah had returned, shrouded in her usual self-importance and unwilling to be one-upped by a sister who worked for a television station. “Besides, how serious can digging up dirt on our police be? Whose life are you ruining this week?”
“You want crooked cops on the streets?” Abbie snapped.
“Of course not, but you act like everyone in law enforcement is on the take. Some of them are protecting us.”
“I know that and I don’t think they’re all bad seeds.” Not really. Abbie switched lanes and pretended to ignore Stu’s finger tapping on his knee. “Back to what we-”
“I have appointments, too,” Hannah said, cutting her off. “But I’m not letting mine take priority over Mom.”
Bully for Hannah that she put Mom ahead of spa treatments and having her house redecorated. “I’ll come by tonight, but I gotta go now. Call you later.” Abbie ended the call before Hannah forced her to say too much in front of Stuey.
“Boyfriend?” Stuey asked.
“My personal calls are just that.” She threw a look of low tolerance at him. “Personal.”
He twisted his fish lips, frowning as though he had a hook in his jaw. He was in his standard stewing mode, the reason her secret Stuey nickname fit so well.
She used a fingernail to scratch the middle of the thick curls she’d twisted up off her neck and secured with a plastic clip. She couldn’t let temper interfere, not now when she had to get into that fund-raiser. Attending a snooty party meant wearing shoes designed by sadistic trolls and dressing to compete with women born to make fashion statements.
She’d been born to pig farming.
And had one outfit that might suffice. Her sister Hannah had given her a satin dress a half size too small for Abbie after being told dark green was not Hannah’s color. The only reason Abbie might be able to wear the Saran Wrap dress now was because she’d spent so much time with her mother at the medical center, where food just wasn’t appealing.
Her mother was losing weight faster.
“We’ll be at the station soon.” Stu’s voice switched from social to superior.
Not helping his case one bit.
Abbie sighed loudly enough to ruffle the flat silence perched between them in the seven-year-old sport utility. Flipping on the turn signal, she hung a right onto Michigan Avenue, where-hallelujah-the traffic was moving. Some people considered driving through Chicago challenging, but she’d grown up in south Illinois hauling loaded livestock trailers behind a twenty-five-foot-long flatbed truck.
Guess it was time to start negotiating. Abbie lightened her tone. “How about a deal? I’ve earned the raise and flextime option. So what if I agree to look into the senator’s affair with the judge if you’ll get me an invitation to the Wentworth fund-raiser tomorrow night as a guest?” She’d found out Brittany Vancleaver had an invitation, because of her grandfather. Stuey could use that angle to get Abbie an invitation.
Stuey didn’t reply, intense as a fish stalking bait.
Come on, baby, take it. Abbie wanted to steal a glance and see if he’d bite, but she kept her shoulders relaxed and her attention on the road. He might have thought their hour-and-a-half-long lunch had been about him prepping her to go after the judge, but Abbie had been luring Stu toward this moment.
“Deal?” His acidic tone surprised her. “I’m offering you what you need-a position with more money and flexible hours, because you’ve obviously got some family crisis happening. That’s the deal.”
Her heart sank. No wonder he kept going through office managers faster than water through a rusted-out pot.
Stuey had the perceptiveness of a rock. He was guessing at her having a family crisis, but if he really thought that was the case the bastard could show some understanding.
Money had never been at the core of her motivation to do anything other than survive. Something crooked officials who’d tried to pay her off had found out. She’d taken to investigative work like a duck to water when she first dug into her father’s suicide, but she was sick to death of chasing shakedown cops and political weasels. Of having law enforcement treat her as if she’d sell out her grandmother for a story.
Abbie had asked Stu to allow her flexible hours for personal reasons. What did Stuey do? He saw a chance to use it against her to help his position. One day she’d have the money to call her shots and travel the world as an international journalist filming documentaries that made people feel good.
That wasn’t in the cards this week.
“You know,” Stu murmured slyly, his clothes rustling when he moved close to whisper, “I have better things to offer than getting into a fancy party. You could sweeten the pot on the deal… later tonight.”
Stuey thought she was willing to, to… to prostitute herself for a freaking job?
That pig. Like the one I almost married and not near as useful as the ones Dad had raised.
Abbie wheeled her vehicle into WCXB’s parking lot, slid into the first open space, and stomped her brakes.
Stu slammed his hand against the dash, stopping his forward momentum. “What the hell?”
She shifted a steel-hard gaze at him, hands gripping the wheel to keep from locking them on his throat. “Number one, I’m not sleeping with anyone to get anything, much less do that for a job. Number two, you flatter yourself if you think I’d sleep with you, and number three? You’re dating Brittany.”
God, but she hated men some days. Most days.
They lied, cheated, and manipulated their way through life.
Her heart thumped from a dangerous mix of adrenaline and anger. She would never let another man screw her over again.
All of them were dirtbags, especially her boss.
Boss… crud. She’d let her temper boil her brain senseless. She still needed the pass to the damn fund-raiser.
“How’d you know-” Stu caught himself and snapped his lips shut. His face turned a deep shade of guilt.
Hmm. Maybe she could work this in her favor.
She hated having to give Hannah credit for this news scoop, but fair was fair.
“How’d I know you were dating Brittany?” Abbie put the car in neutral and left the engine running. She turned to face him. The possibility of impending triumph surged into her voice. “Brittany’s brother went to school with my sister Hannah, who is now in a book club with Brittany. During their last book club meeting, Brittany started talking about how much she loved being a society reporter for WCXB and said that’s how she met this wonderful guy-Stuart-she’d been seeing for the past month.”
Stu’s face lost the cocky angles and turned pasty. Dating old man Vancleaver’s granddaughter might not have been Stuey’s best idea, even if they were well suited. Abbie would normally have felt it was her duty to clue in Brittany about dating the lecherous Stuart, but Brittany had a reputation for two-timing her men and bragging about it.
Who was Abbie to interfere with a perfect match?
But Brittany wouldn’t overlook his infidelity.
Abbie added, “I’d venture to say she thinks you two are dating. If you’re available you should let her know right away.” She never thought she’d be thankful for having endured Hannah’s recent rambling about her own latest conquest-a self-made millionaire with three houses in different states. But in the midst of her all-about-Hannah review, her sister had suggested that Abbie should take a tip from Brittany, who had nailed a man considered one of the most eligible bachelors at Abbie’s television station.
I do not hate my sister.
Well, at least not Hannah.
Casey, her twenty-five-year-old baby sister, was another story.
Abbie rarely suffered from the green-eyed monster, but hearing how she should learn how to get a man from gorgeous Brittany or conniving Hannah hadn’t made it one of her better days.
Now she pitied Brittany almost as much as she did the poor rich sucker Hannah had in her feminine crosshairs. As the middle child of three kids, and one who hated growing up on a pig farm, Hannah had started sleeping her way to an impressive investment portfolio the minute she’d turned eighteen. She’d made it clear she would not dirty her hands ever again.
As if Hannah had ever helped out on the farm.
Casey had set her sights on more attainable targets. Unfaithful men. Hard to aim much lower than that.
Abbie had loved her dad and his farm. She would one day prove he hadn’t committed suicide and left her mother destitute.
Stu swallowed hard, the sound loud in the car. His fish lips narrowed and turned down at the corners. The shoulders of his navy Brooks Brothers suit slumped. “I, uh, may have given you the wrong impression about my intentions.”
Nice try, Stuey, but no free deals today. “Oh, I think I understood exactly what you were saying.” Abbie had an evil side that rose to the surface in the presence of assholes.
He studied her a moment, his eyes flickering with unchecked worry. “About that deal…”
She wanted to smile, just a little, but this was not the time to gloat. Not when she had Stuey dangling by his short hairs. “I want the raise you offered-” Never leave money on the table. “-and the flex schedule, and…”
Stu’s frown deepened with each demand. He leaned forward slightly. A sign in her favor.
“I want an invitation to that fund-raiser tomorrow night.”
His lips parted, some objection hanging there.
What wouldn’t fly? The money? Okay, Abbie could bend on that one, but not the flextime or getting an invitation to the fund-raiser. She had to enter as a guest and not as someone connected to the media. She doubted Gwenyth Wentworth, who avoided the media, would knowingly allow an investigative reporter inside.
Brittany was of the same social class. Not a threat.
Abbie would never be one of them and posed one hell of a threat to the Wentworths. Every passing hour decreased her mother’s chance of recovery from whatever ravaged her body.
“I’ll find the money to give you a raise and approve your schedule, but there is no way I can get you into the Wentworth event,” Stu said almost apologetically, as if he would dearly love to ease his balls out of Abbie’s fist. “Brittany’s using her grandfather’s invitation. She isn’t even taking me.”
“Not good enough.” She relaxed her grip on the steering wheel with great effort and started tapping her index finger. She wanted to give him the impression that she had her own limit on patience. She’d never considered blackmailing anyone, and this didn’t constitute blackmail so much as forcing Stu to take stock of the blank pages in his moral code book.
Thanks to Dr. Tatum, who had been her mother’s doctor for as long as Abbie had been alive, she now had a glimmer of hope, a chance to save her mother. Tatum had told Abbie about how her mother had made visits to the Kore Women’s Center for thirty years.
Three decades of secrets. Tatum had handed Abbie a weapon to bargain with that no public relations firm could spin.
Blackmailing Stuey was the least of what she’d do.
Stuey shrunk back, staring at her with the fear of a weasel that had chased dinner into a snake hole.
Abbie stopped tapping the steering wheel. “I’d hate for our little discussion to get out in public.”
“I can’t, Abbie. I would, but I can’t…”
Bullshit. Stu could make this happen. “Why not?”
“Because the only way you could go is if Brittany doesn’t. Any chance of getting her invitation and giving it to you would end up with her thinking something was going on between us. We’d both lose our jobs. Can’t do it.”
Could the mole inside the Fratelli de il Sovrano sending BAD intel be trusted? Or was tonight’s mission at the Wentworths’ annual March fund-raiser an elaborate setup to expose BAD’s agents?
Out of instinctive reflex, Hunter checked for the 9mm he didn’t have due to the metal detectors he’d have to pass through. He felt naked without it. The sigh he let escape sounded noisy, a testament to the whisper ride of a stretch limo.
“We’ll be there soon, Mr. Thornton… Payne… the third, Your Highness, sir,” came from the wiseass in the front seat driving a limousine so new the leather had a robust scent.
“Fuck. Off.” Hunter was in no mood for anyone’s crap tonight. He had enough on his mind without dealing with the dickhead driving. That sixth sense of his stirred to life with an antsy feeling he couldn’t finger the reason for, but not from concern over executing tonight’s mission. If the mole’s intel was solid, trustworthy, Hunter would walk away one step closer to someone he’d hunted for four years.
The assassin who killed Eliot.
A valid reason to feel edgy.
He would have volunteered to lead this op tonight for that reason alone, but the choice had been made for him before he entered BAD’s mission room. Hunter’s credentials-having been born with a silver spoon in his hand to flip Cheerios across the room-put his name at the top of the list.
A derisive chuckle rumbled from the driver’s seat.
Hunter wished again for a weapon but wouldn’t actually use it on the cretin playing limo driver.
Not worth ruining a tux with blood splatters.
“What’re you so pissy about?” BAD agent Korbin Maximus looked more like a corporate bodyguard stuffed in a dark suit than a reserved limo driver. Mexican genes mixed with who knew what else to give him his muscular six-foot-one build and eyes that were more black than brown. He laid heavily on the barrio accent that came and went with need. “You get the cherry assignments with champagne, limos, and women… how tough is that?”