When Hunter stepped onto the driveway paved with stones cut in swirling designs, he paused to straighten his cuffs. The temperature had dropped with the last rays of sun, leaving the air cooled to a frosty mid-forties.
Korbin closed the door and slowed as he walked past Hunter’s shoulder long enough to whisper, “Asshole or not, we’ve got your back.” He climbed in and drove away.
Hunter pinched his silk cuff so hard the material should have turned to powder. He missed Eliot at the strangest times. Eliot would have also called him an asshole, but in a way intended to draw a smile instead of blood.
Screw it. Hunter had a package to retrieve and a killer to find.
He took several steps forward, pausing to lift his phone from the inside pocket of his tux and tilting his chin down as though to check a text message.
In truth, he used that moment to take stock of the exterior security mixed in with the valets.
A car door opened and closed behind him, offering a plausible reason to turn so he could scan the rest of the setting.
His gaze bottlenecked at the woman exiting a black corporate sedan. Age around thirty, maybe five foot five, shapely, in a soft inviting way. She’d wrapped her curvaceous body in a dark green dress with a black sash and black heels. Intriguing.
He continued pressing random digits on his cell phone so he could enjoy the delightful vision more closely while she dug around in her glittery evening bag. She wore her curly brown hair piled high, screwed into some kind of style that showed off sparkling earrings, a matching necklace, and the sweet, sweet curve of her neck. Inexpensive costume jewelry. Minimal makeup, little more than dressing up her simple face, though her lips did have a delicious appeal.
Something in her movements and face seemed familiar.
Did he know her?
Didn’t look like someone he knew socially… or had dated.
She didn’t resemble the rail-thin, self-absorbed females with a penchant for exotic jewelry and one-of-a-kind designer clothing he’d tolerate for a night.
Curly Locks didn’t have a drop of blue blood in her.
A plus in his book.
But how did she know the Wentworths?
Hunter prepared to dismiss her as interesting but not significant enough to be noted when she lifted her head and glanced around as though getting her bearings.
Her gaze crashed into his and her eyes widened.
He stared into anxious turquoise-green eyes. Dark lashes framed the worried gaze that once again brought on a sense of déjà vu.
Had he met her somewhere?
She lingered a second longer, the extra look making him think she found his face familiar, too, but the moment ended abruptly. She broke eye contact and rushed up the four wide steps flanked by marble columns and disappeared inside.
Probably one of those “everyone has a twin” things.
But he’d investigate further once he had time.
Never dismiss anything unusual on an op.
He stepped forward, affecting the casual pace of the slightly bored. Passing through the arched entrance integrated into a two-story wall of glass, he paused for the doorman, who bulged with a censorious air.
Can’t allow the unworthy to slip through.
Hunter withdrew the silver-and-black invitation that had been couriered to his hotel at noon. He handed the card off without waiting for a comment before walking on.
A Thornton-Payne was never denied entrance to any social event.
He strolled through a brief hallway boasting art rarely seen outside museums, likely owned for generations. If any of the Rembrandts, Monets, or Rubenses could talk about what went on inside this home the result would be a bestselling gossip book. The Wentworth family had been mired in mystique and rumors that rivaled the Kennedys’. The buzz of voices lured him ahead to a ballroom with soaring gilded ceilings that boasted hand-blown chandeliers shaped as flowers and vines. Classical notes of Bach floated from a pearl-white baby grand between quiet conversation supplied by over two hundred patrons awaiting the entrance of Gwenyth Wentworth, who sat on the board of the Kore Women’s Center.
But her father, Peter Wentworth, still led the revered family.
And Peter would have died in an explosion four years ago if Eliot hadn’t given his life to ensure Hunter made it off that cliff in Kauai to deliver the plans for a terrorist attack on the UK hospital.
So what was the connection between Peter Wentworth and the Fratelli de il Sovrano, a secret organization that had seriously threatened American security more than once in the past two years?
BAD disarmed an attack on the U.S. Congress last year with the help of an infamous electronic informant known only as Mirage who worked via the internet until she was captured by a fellow BAD agent and unmasked as Gabrielle Saxe. Gabrielle became involved in their mission after being contacted via a cryptic postcard by Linette, a woman she’d known as a girl when they were both teens at a private European school before Linette disappeared.
By the end of the mission to uncover the Fratelli’s plot, Linette had become a mole inside the Fratelli camp, where she remained against her will. Supposedly.
Hunter had yet to be convinced Linette was entirely trustworthy. No BAD agent had met her in person.
But that might change tonight since, according to her last missive, Linette was supposed to be in attendance at the Wentworth event along with three Fratelli superiors, each from a different country-a UK representative, a Russian spokesman, and one from the U.S. known as Fra Vestavia, who BAD had a keen interest in.
Vestavia had infiltrated the DEA, as Robert Brady, then disappeared before being exposed as a traitor and was now perched at the top of BAD’s list of wanted criminals.
Hunter had his own elite wanted list, with the assassin who killed Eliot first in line to answer for his sins.
But Hunter’s assignment for BAD was priority one.
After four years of patience, he could not afford the mistake of rushing.
Once he retrieved the USB memory key Linette planned to drop tonight, he did intend to review the information before passing the key to BAD. Linette indicated the key would include copies of kill photos Vestavia had received, the pictures marked with an unusual emblem as confirmation of the contractor’s kill.
She described the spoon-shaped design as having a smiling skull with sunglasses in the bowl and the body of a chameleon on the handle. The same design engraved on a titanium baby spoon with a carved Jackson’s chameleon for a handle found by FBI at Brugmann’s home on the coast of Kauai the night Eliot had died.
The FBI had dubbed the assassin in the Jackson Chameleon-the JC killer-and connected that death with some that went back ten years.
Why a baby spoon? A macabre calling card.
As if the shooter had taken to killing since birth.
Hunter pushed those thoughts out of the way and continued moving through scattered pods of guests, careful not to make eye contact. Most gave him a subtle double take.
They were deciding if he was who they thought he was.
BAD assets scattered throughout the party had entered as catering and additional security, filling in holes created when specific personnel on the staff came down with a case of intestinal flu.
Amazing what modern medicine can do to cure or to induce an illness.
Everything was in place for a successful mission.
BAD agent Carlos Delgado entered Hunter’s field of view wearing a navy suit and a wire curling from his ear. He’d inserted as part of additional security for the event. Venezuelan by birth, Delgado’s dark eyes squinted with suspicion at everything he observed.
Carlos coordinated the on-site team.
He was also the one who’d captured Gabrielle last year and understood the risk involved with trusting an informant no one at the agency had ever met or could vouch for.
Gabrielle used her amazing electronic skills for BAD now, lived with Carlos, and believed completely in her friend Linette’s credibility.
All well and good, but Hunter hadn’t survived this long in covert work by giving trust so easily.
Before tonight, Linette’s only contact with BAD had been limited to electronic means, which made her an easy gamble to stake a bet on until now. But the Fratelli could discover her duplicity at any time. If that happened before she had a chance to alert BAD, the Fratelli could use her to flush out anyone she’d been in contact with, which would expose Hunter.
Just another reason this type of op fell squarely on the shoulders of BAD when it came to walking into situations other agencies would hesitate to touch.
BAD sometimes had to move on an opportunity with minimum intelligence and maximum gut instinct.
Heading toward him, a sultry redhead slowed her steps, intentionally trying to grab Hunter’s eye when she passed. He returned polite interest.
Any more and she’d have doubted his authenticity.
The room oozed gorgeous women. Could one of them be Linette? Much simpler for her to identify Hunter than for him to pick her out. All she had to do was watch for him to pick up the memory stick inside a container the size of a lipstick tube once she gave the signal she’d dropped it outside a specific window.
Once that was done, he’d search the mansion covertly to find where the three Fras were meeting.
Every BAD agent backing him up tonight was exceptional. Lethal. But they couldn’t defend against an unidentified threat.
He noted two more agents… then a green satin dress and twisted mop of curly hair swished into view.
The woman he’d seen outside.
She sipped a flute of champagne. No, she pretended to drink. The liquid level in the crystal glass never lowered.
One of the catering staff offered her a selection from a tray covered in canapés decorated as works of art, but she refused with an absentminded shake of her head, then asked a question.
When a couple moved out of the way, the server’s face came into full view. Rae was answering the woman’s question.
If Curly Locks wasn’t talking to anyone else and hadn’t come to enjoy free drink and food, why was she here?
Rae handled the tray with deft ability. Above her wide smile, her eyes kept track of everything in her area. The minute her gaze bounced to Hunter he lifted his chin to bring her to him.
Didn’t take her long to reach him on those long legs.
She lowered the tray into view and described several palatable offerings while two elderly men he recognized as regulars at major fund-raising events passed on her left.
“What did that woman ask you?” Hunter pretended to labor over his selection.
“She wanted to know what time the guest of honor would arrive and I told her I wasn’t privy to the Wentworth event schedule.” An eyebrow winged in amused curiosity. “There’s a woman here you don’t know?”
Hunter fingered a goat cheese-encrusted canapé from Rae’s tray. “Wouldn’t say that.”
Rae smiled as though she was thrilled to serve a guest, proving she could act with the best of them. When she moved on, Hunter searched for Curly Locks.
Green and black satin slashed through the room with quiet determination.
He might have dismissed her as unimportant if not for his training and if tonight didn’t involve a mission centering around three Fratelli expected to meet with Gwenyth.
And the familiar feeling about the woman stirred his curiosity further.
Curly Locks might have an innocent reason for being here.
Then again, she might not.
If she posed an issue of any sort that might interfere with tonight’s mission he’d alert Carlos, who would give the order to have her removed. Silently.
As if gaining entry to the Wentworth fund-raiser hadn’t been difficult enough, now Abbie had to find Gwen without drawing attention to herself.
The stuffy doorman had given her invitation close scrutiny, as if she’d counterfeited the damn thing, but her name was on the guest list so he had to allow her entrance to the Wentworth fairyland. This family was old, old, old money that originated in the United Kingdom. A Vancleaver like Brittany would blend into this glam crowd like a sparkling shell in the ocean, but Abbie was going for the invisibility of being a raindrop in the ocean until she found Gwen. It should be easy when moving through a room filled with beautiful people decorated in diamonds and precious metals.
If she made a misstep and drew any attention, this bunch would boot her quicker than a cow pony from a herd of thoroughbreds.
That would give Stuey all the ammunition he’d need to get rid of her and the threat she posed to his family jewels.
Abbie smiled constantly, hoping to disarm those whose gaze slid down the ridge of their nose. She wandered about slowly, listening to the sound of classical melodies rolling off the ivory keys of a piano that deserved to be on that knee-high pedestal. Male and female catering staff wore tuxedos. One offered Abbie a flute of champagne she accepted before moving on past exotic flower arrangements taller than her that were nothing short of artistic brilliance.
She slowed next to one gigantic floral display and leaned in to appear as though she sniffed the scent-an aromatic cuisine for the nose-but she actually searched the room for Gwen.
Would the Wentworth hostess use the dual stairway that anchored one end of the room for a grand entrance?
Abbie would. She’d never wanted to own something like this spread, but didn’t every girl think about walking down a fabulous curved stairway like that?
So far, no female matched the photos she’d studied of Gwen Wentworth, with her signature mane of natural blond hair that fell to her waist. The identifying mark was a silvery-white stripe running through the left side.
Strange for a woman not yet thirty.
After researching Gwen for the last forty-eight hours, Abbie felt sad for the woman, whose little boy had died right after birth two years ago. Under different circumstances, Abbie would have liked to film a documentary on the Wentworths ancestry. They had their share of dark secrets but deserved acknowledgment for all this family had donated across the world.
She hoped Gwen’s loss hadn’t hardened the woman, that Gwen had some compassion for other mothers. She didn’t allow interviews so Abbie had nothing beyond news bites on the reclusive woman. Nothing that would indicate how difficult it would be to convince Gwen to help Abbie’s mother.
Didn’t matter. Gwen sat at the head of the board of directors for the Kore Women’s Center. She would not want the damning information Abbie possessed released to the media.
Hopefully Abbie wouldn’t have to make that threat.
Stuart had rolled out a mile of warnings, starting with not annoying anyone since she wasn’t even supposed to be at this party. And not telling anyone she was with WCXB. He could have saved that breath. The quickest way to shut down a conversation in this crowd would be to identify herself as being with the media. The minute someone outed Abbie as being with WCXB and Gwen found out, security would see her off the property.
Abbie wasn’t after a media interview.