“Yeah, my life’s a cakewalk,” Hunter muttered, unwilling to engage in another round with Korbin after the argument this morning in Nashville. The muted ding of Korbin’s phone followed by quietly spoken words meant Hunter might be spared any further conversation for the rest of the ten-minute ride to the Wentworth mansion. They both knew tonight’s plan and their jobs, so the less said for the duration of this trip the better.

Hunter could hold the peace but doubted Korbin would.

Cherry assignment? Not from his vantage point.

The team should be thanking him for having the juice to pull an invitation to this fund-raiser with one phone call, not giving him grief over refusing to take a female BAD agent as a companion.

Some might see his assignment tonight as just another advantage of being one of only two Thornton-Payne heirs.

Hunter loathed spending an evening enduring mindless chatter from the perpetually self-consumed almost as much as dealing with the damned media that hovered with a vulture’s eye for opportunistic misery.

But he’d attend fund-raisers every night for a year if it meant the chance to find Eliot’s killer.

And he’d do it for Joe Q. Public, BAD’s director. Joe had brought him into the organization seven years ago when they met in a complicated situation that should have ended with Hunter’s death.

A male snitch in Poland, known only as Borys, had saved both Hunter and a female CIA agent from being made while deep undercover inside the Russian mob. Four months later, the CIA cut a deal with the same crime family to trade Borys for information.

When Borys disappeared before the exchange could be made, the CIA cornered Hunter. Joe pulled off a maneuver to save Hunter’s neck that would have impressed a wizard.

The CIA allowed Hunter to walk away as long as he never interfered with one of their operations again.

If they ever located Borys, Hunter’s life would be worth less than the snitch to the agency.

Entering the Brugmann home four years ago could have resulted in a breach of his agreement with the CIA if not for Joe’s quick action. Unbeknownst to Hunter and Eliot, a camera at the back of the safe had filmed both of them. Mere hours after the FBI’s raid on Brugmann’s property, a team of BAD agents stole the film from an FBI evidence locker before the CIA had a chance to review the images.

Ass saved once again.

If only Eliot had survived. Hunter had gotten Cynthia into the funeral home after-hours so she could have a private moment with Eliot since his family didn’t know she existed. Her anger had rivaled Hunter’s. She’d railed at him for bringing Eliot home in a box. Regardless of what she thought of him, Hunter watched over Cynthia and her son. He’d put aside his feelings over how she’d trapped Eliot and do his duty to his friend forever.

But tonight he had to pay back more than one debt. If he followed his mission instructions, he would only stay long enough to recon the guests attending and pick up the USB memory stick Linette Tassone-their mole inside the Fratelli-dropped at some point during the event, then he’d eavesdrop on the Fratelli meeting if he could locate the three expected to attend.

If. Small word with too much room for autonomy.

During the mission briefing, Joe had told Hunter the CIA had tied the killer at Brugmann’s in Kauai-better known as the Jackson Chameleon-to a series of linked deaths. They wanted the JC assassin.

The CIA should have made better use of the last four years while Hunter had patiently spent his time proving to Joe and Retter he would not go rogue. Waiting on his chance to find the killer who had laughed when Eliot cut his rope. And fell…

“Yep, Joe’s right,” Korbin said, interrupting the silence. His cell phone call had obviously ended, to Hunter’s chagrin. “You are the perfect choice for this gig.” He shrugged with feigned acceptance. “Guess it’s like you said about Rae. No one can play in your league if they’re not born to it.”

Thanks for reminding me of the low shot I had to take at Rae to keep her out of danger tonight. Hunter couldn’t allow anyone to be tied to him once he walked into the Wentworth complex. Rae Graham would do anything BAD required of her, and at a level of expertise that impressed them all, Hunter included.

She deserved to know if she was walking into a dangerous situation, but Hunter could tell no one his plans. “I did Rae a favor.”

Korbin’s harsh laugh was vacant of humor or understanding. “Forgive me if I don’t see the generosity in your argument, amigo.”

Can’t let it go, can you, jerk-off? “If she tried to enter as a guest, someone in tonight’s crowd would nail her as a poser and lacking. Her presence would draw the kind of attention we can’t afford. The minute one woman got a hint of any shortcoming the rest would turn on her faster than a pack of cougars at a frat house.” Hunter cringed internally against the snick of guilt his lie triggered. His job required lying, but he hated doing it at the cost of a teammate’s pride.

Rae and Korbin were fairly new to BAD, on board for just over two years now.

Both had proven to be elite agents.

At five-eight with a buff body, one hell of a brain, and sharp feminine features, Rae would have actually been the perfect companion and made Hunter’s job a whole lot easier this evening. As it was, she’d still be on-site tonight, but as part of the catering staff. Any other time, Rae would have had no issue inserting as a servant, but she didn’t care for being snubbed publicly.

Hunter sympathized. He didn’t care to be the asshole doing the snubbing, but he had a personal agenda that would put his neck in a noose if he got caught.

And might pressure an assassin to act even if Hunter didn’t get caught.

That could put Rae in a sniper’s crosshairs without any warning.

Not going to happen.

And if anyone at BAD knew what he was up to he’d get yanked out of the field so fast he’d have vertigo. He could live with the team pissed off at him for openly dissing Rae, but he couldn’t live with putting any agent at an unfair disadvantage in a dangerous situation.

Neither would he pass up the chance to find Eliot’s killer.

Which made him the scourge of this mission.

What the hell.

Most agents at BAD didn’t like him on a good day. They respected his skills and intelligence-gathering capacity, but no one would partner with him after Eliot’s death.

Maybe because he told them he had cut Eliot’s rope, using cold logic when he explained how Eliot couldn’t climb so getting him down would have been impossible.

Would it have been possible?

Hunter’s gut contracted. Don’t replay what-ifs again.

His lie to Joe and Retter had been the simplest way to prove he was still the ruthless agent BAD expected him to be. Sad to recall how easily everyone at BAD had accepted it as truth, that Hunter could cut the rope on a friend and teammate.

They’d taken an internal step back, eyes judging him as soulless. Which suited Hunter.

He’d never trust another person as much as Eliot.

Never get that close to anyone again.

Never allow someone else to sacrifice their life for him.

Korbin’s dark gaze shot into the rearview mirror, the black eyes stirring with an unfinished battle. “You screwed Rae this morning.”

Didn’t think you’d give up yet. Hunter shrugged callously.

“She fooled everyone as the wife of an American diplomat at the queen’s shindig in Great Britain last year. Rae’s damn good-”

“-at handling weapons and neutralizing threats,” Hunter cut in, getting tired of sounding like a bastard. “But she’d be culled the minute she walked through the door. Plus, no one would believe I was involved with her.”

Let it go, Korbin.

Black eyes continued to damn him via the mirror.

Hunter drew a breath of resolve and added one final slam he was glad Rae couldn’t hear and doubted Korbin would share. “She might fool world leaders attending tonight, but not those raised with old money. The Wentworth guest list is based on financial power first, political markers second. All the training in the world doesn’t cover the tiny nuances these women learn from birth.”

“Men bring trophy brides to these things, right? I think she could handle walking around looking gorgeous. Looking happy to be with you might have tested her skills.”

Hunter noted the ping of irritation in Korbin’s voice and the relentless defensiveness on Rae’s behalf.

Big mistake, Korbin.

Dangerous to care that way about another agent.

But it was Korbin’s mistake to make.

Hunter cranked his attitude wide open, determined to shut down any further discussion. “Even with Rae’s extensive speech training, I still knew she came from a London gutter the first time I talked to her.”

“So?”

“I’m not known for dating sewer prostitutes.”

Korbin didn’t say anything. Hunter noted his knuckles on the steering wheel whitened in a death grip.

Anger punched through the car from both ends.

Hunter pressed his elbow down hard on the door handle, embossing the soft leather. His finger muscles wanted to tighten, but he kept his hand open, relaxed looking to the casual observer.

Korbin would see what the world had to see-a Thornton-Payne heir who disdained anything and anyone who failed to measure up to his lofty standards.

A man whose blood ran so cold it could freeze a syringe.

Hunter had come by that blood naturally.

Only Eliot had ever known when Hunter’s gut twisted with hidden anger… or pain. Eliot could always separate the façade Hunter showed the world from the truth.

That nothing-matters-to-me mask had been formed the night before Hunter’s seventh birthday as he and his five-year-old brother Todd witnessed another argument from where they hid at the top of the stairs. His mother had taught him how to sit silent as a shadow. She backhanded him and Todd over any infraction, particularly Hunter’s sharp tongue. But wife number one, better known as Mother Dearest, hit her limit when his dad ordered her to spend more time with her children.

Their gorgeous statuesque mother had marched across the marble foyer with her Mercedes keys in hand. His dad stepped into her path, telling her, “Your car’s locked in the garage until you start acting like a real mother.”

“What? Giving birth is pretty damn real, but I never agreed to be a nursemaid. I kept my end of the deal. You got the two kids you wanted. Heirs to the Thornton-Payne dynasty. You should be grateful as hell they favor me and didn’t turn out looking like trolls.”

Hunter had never looked at his dad the way he had right then, seeing the wide-set eyes, thick eyebrows, hook nose, and short stature. His father visibly shriveled in that moment, his voice sad when he said, “I thought having children would soften you, but you’re just a cold gold-digging bitch. Can’t you at least act like a mother? I keep you in jewels and cars and clothes. What else do you want?”

“My freedom. If you think I’m going to live like a prisoner with snotty kids, you’re wrong. I’m over this.” She squared her shoulders, looking down at her husband with evil twitching her lips. “I want a divorce… and custody of the boys, which won’t be hard for me to win since you’re never home. Don’t look so surprised. I’m more of a mother than you are a father anyhow.”

Even though Hunter spent most of his days assuring Todd their mother liked them, he’d had his doubts. Until that moment, he’d also suffered a child’s need to know he was loved. He watched, still not sure he could trust the sincerity of her words.

“I see your game,” his father said in a quiet voice shaking with fury. “You only want the boys to hold over me so you can get more money than agreed to in the prenuptial.”

“Even if that was true I wouldn’t wage a battle against your team of lawyers for more money.” His mother had laughed sarcastically through her perfect lips. “What do you care? You’re never around. Just pay me enough to hire decent help to take care of the pain-in-the-asses and neither one of us will have to deal with them, but I want my freedom.”

Todd whimpered. Hunter cupped his brother’s mouth to keep him from giving away their position.

His father lifted his chin. “I will not give up my sons.”

That’s when Hunter saw a gleam of victory in his mother’s green eyes. She said, “In that case, here’s my only offer, and it’s good for twenty-four hours. I get everything in the prenuptial plus two million. That’s a million for each kid.”

She’d sold him and his brother with no more thought than she’d have given to pawning a diamond ring. Actually, she might have shed a tear over losing the jewelry.

From that day forward, Hunter held his trust close, refusing to risk letting go until Eliot forced him to take a leap of faith.

The limo slowed and turned right onto the road to the Wentworth estate.

“You’ve got being an arrogant, cold-hearted snob down to a science.” Korbin’s sarcasm cut with a razor’s edge. “Doubt anyone else on the team could pull off your level of asshole-or even wants to. We’re lucky to have someone who’s born to it.”

“Did you come out of the womb a dickhead or develop that jockstrap personality on your own?” Hunter considered the heat in Korbin’s anger over the issue with Rae. Sounded too much like that of a sack mate instead of a teammate. Maybe he should warn Korbin only a fool would break Joe’s rule of no fraternizing with a teammate.

But he didn’t know if Korbin and Rae were doing the midnight tango or not.

He didn’t care.

Joe and Retter’s problem.

Hunter had no trouble keeping everything in a professional capacity on a mission. That way he never had to think about anything unrelated to the job.

Like the possibility of watching his only true friend fall to his death.

Korbin swung the car left, then stopped at the gate to clear Wentworth’s entrance security before continuing down a one-way drive bordered with spruce trees. Tiny blue-white lights glittered along the branches. He pulled into the circular drive that encapsulated a granite fountain with a bronze fifteen-foot-tall sculpture of a fierce Poseidon battling a sea serpent.

Not what Hunter would have expected to find in front of a French Country-styled home sprawled under seductive up-lighting and custom steel-and-bronze sconces.

The wealthy called any oddity “style.”

Four valets attended vehicles. Two doormen stood at an arched entrance with custom gold-plated double doors. A smattering of international luxury sports cars and sedans lined the expansive horseshoe drive, along with stretch limos. The rest of the vehicles were likely stashed in a hidden lot on the estate.

Korbin parked and hopped out, which thankfully prevented any further conversation.

The car door on Hunter’s left swung open.

Shoulders straight, Korbin looked every inch a professional driver without a trace of a smirk or attitude on his face. Hunter hadn’t thought he had it in him, but Korbin had proved more than once he also had ice water running through his jugular.