“Who was that?” Todd asked. “Don’t think I’ve seen her around.”
“All I know is her name. I don’t think this is her usual social circle.” Talk about blowing him off without a second thought. He hadn’t been hitting on her. Not really.
Abbie didn’t fit his requirements for a night in the sack, mainly because his criteria didn’t demand much. A sex kitten brimming with self-importance offered just enough challenge to keep an evening sporting for two people with zero emotional investment.
Or as Abbie had aptly put it-no harm, no foul.
And none of the women Hunter spent a few hours burning off energy with expected to hear from him again. He couldn’t say the nights were memorable, but he didn’t make any promises or leave anyone in tears.
Abbie looked like a woman who bubbled with emotion.
He bet she’d be a memorable night.
But she’d expect a second date, phone calls, and more.
How had he strayed this far off his mental target of figuring out how he knew her and why she was here? Remembering Todd, Hunter started to ask how the move to Chicago was going when he realized his brother had forgotten him as well.
Todd stared with longing at something or someone.
Hunter followed Todd’s line of sight to Pia, his brother’s ex-wife.
Engrossed in a conversation with two other women, Pia was just as stunning as she’d been on the cover of Cosmopolitan when Todd first showed Hunter a picture of his new squeeze three years back. Pia still wore a size two, even after giving birth to her and Todd’s little boy eighteen months ago.
She erupted in laughter at something her friend said and glanced over in time to meet Hunter’s gaze, which she returned with undisguised hostility.
Hunter took in Todd’s pained expression, the look of a man who had been royally screwed, literally and then figuratively.
Todd and Pia had married after a whirlwind affair, because they had supposedly fallen “in love at first sight.”
What a crock.
The baby showed up seven months after the wedding.
Another woman with an agenda, and like all the others, Pia lacked a conscience and a soul. The only thing he’d say in her favor was that she never fought Todd for full custody.
Hunter cleared his throat and Todd swung around with too bright a smile, working to hide where his mind had drifted. “What are you doing here? You hate these things.”
Tell me about it. “Doing a favor for a friend.”
“Must be some friend.”
“Something like that.” Hunter appreciated how his brother never whined about Hunter not calling to let anyone know he was coming to town. Todd had no idea how Hunter filled his daytime or nighttime hours since they both had substantial trust funds. His brother never pried.
In Hunter’s family, lack of interest was considered a way of showing respect for privacy.
Hunter had a bad feeling about the answer he might get but asked anyhow. “Why are you here?”
“Just doing my part for charity.” Todd lifted a scotch and water into view and took a drink. More like he slammed the alcohol and handed the empty glass off to a waiter before letting a wince escape in Pia’s direction.
Not a good sign.
Hunter hadn’t heard of Todd dating much in the past six months of freedom from that auburn-haired ball-and-chain whose laughter punched across the twenty feet separating them. But Hunter hadn’t been to Chicago since his brother moved here.
Please tell me you aren’t thinking about getting back with that scheming bitch even if it means the chance to live full-time with your little boy.
Todd should just take Pia to court and get custody of Barrett.
She couldn’t be much of a mother.
Relationships, friendships, marriage, families-all baggage that ends up breaking apart at the seams when life hits rough pavement. Or was nothing more than a financial arrangement to begin with if the women involved are anything like our mother.
“Are you window shopping?” Hunter surely hoped so. He didn’t like that I-want-her-back look hanging on his brother’s face.
“Not really. Nothing new on the market.” Todd hooked a hand around his neck and rubbed. “How long you in town for?”
As short a trip as possible. “Don’t know. Got a little business to do.”
“You get a free night, let me know. We’ll grab dinner.”
Guilt peeked into Hunter’s mind over how long it had been since he’d shared dinner with Todd, the only member of his family who called from time to time just to see that Hunter was still alive. None of them knew how many times that status had almost changed. “Sounds like a plan. Catch you later.”
“See you.” Todd took the scotch a waiter delivered and chugged half the drink.
Three steps away, Hunter slowed to turn around and tell his brother he’d definitely meet him for dinner, but he had no idea if he’d be in Chicago tomorrow night or halfway around the world.
He was still considering the possibility when the profile of a man standing in the atrium with the curved double stairway just beyond this ballroom caused Hunter’s pulse to vibrate. He’d seen that face with the scar running along the right cheek and jaw once before, on the night he and Eliot breached Brugmann’s compound.
During the debrief a day later, Joe and Retter had considered it unlikely that the scar-faced mystery guy could have gotten in position in time to shoot Eliot’s rope.
But the guy had been on-site the night Eliot was murdered.
Framed by the high archway opening between the rooms, the mystery man now lingered near the left base of the stairway, partially blocked by the tiered fountain in the center of the atrium.
Hunter continued moving very slowly. Standing still drew attention.
Could that guy have been the sniper or had he been only the buyer for the stolen list of names?
Either way, he’d escaped a massacre, so he had to know something about what went down after Hunter and Eliot exited Brugmann’s property.
Hunter scouted the room with vigilance, listening for the damned signal. What was Linette waiting on?
He worked casually through the cluster of attendees, letting his eyes drift back and forth as though he were interested in who was here.
When he drew within fifty feet of the mystery guy, security stepped into view on each side of the arched opening, barring anyone from entering the atrium, where the mystery guy remained.
Was he waiting for someone?
Could Hunter be staring at the man who killed Eliot?
None of the security protecting this particular area included BAD agents. He couldn’t move closer without attracting interest from them, but he was the only agent in position to observe without detection right now.
Years of training and a brutal determination to find the assassin was the only way he hid the shaking need to rush that scar-faced guy and grab him by the throat.
Hunter’s mental gears snapped into motion. He took stock of his position. Remaining in close proximity without talking to another guest would alert security, if they were on their toes.
For what the Wentworths probably paid, they should be.
Hunter did a fast assessment of everyone surrounding him, searching for one person who wouldn’t be so intent on talking they’d interfere with his surveillance.
His gaze skidded to a halt when he found Abbie again.
She stood off by herself, leaning back against a wall, studying the room almost as closely as he had.
She sure as hell wouldn’t talk to him.
He had an idea. Hunter walked over and approached from a blind side, then whispered near Abbie’s ear. “I know why you’re here.”
She froze, her hand in midair, lifting another full glass of champagne to her lips.
Damned if that reaction didn’t send his guilt meter into the red zone. He hadn’t meant to terrify her, just raise her curiosity.
“What do you want?” she said in a barely civil tone, but he heard more. Surprise, disbelief… then alarm. As though she faced dire consequences for being found out.
He had an idea why she sounded guilty. “Ten minutes.”
She licked her lips, thinking, then carefully placed the untouched champagne glass on the corner of a table and lifted away from the wall on unsteady feet.
Taking her elbow in a polite hold, he guided her to the best vantage spot for observing the mystery man, who had moved almost out of view around the corner. He turned Abbie to face him, leaving her back to the scene he watched unfold as Gwen Wentworth stepped up to the mystery guy.
Definitely a scene Hunter needed to observe, if Abbie would just play along.
She stared at the second button on his chest when she wasn’t casting a surreptitious look from side to side. “My purpose for coming has nothing to do with you, so why are you bothering me?”
“Bothering you? Just want to talk for a few minutes, and think I can help you out.” He cut his eyes up every couple seconds, keeping track of Gwen’s position. Three men descended the left side of the stairway to join her.
“I don’t need any help, but I am curious to know what you’re offering.” Abbie raised eyes full of challenge.
His ten minutes were going to disappear if he didn’t find something to get her talking. He had an idea that she wanted to meet someone since Abbie had been asking when the guest of honor would arrive. Hunter had heard that the mayor and her new husband, who’d just sold movie options on his book, were attending. They weren’t the most important celebrities in attendance, but Gwen had used a fund-raiser more than once to celebrate a political ally’s good news. Abbie had said she was a writer. Didn’t take a big leap to figure out she might want to meet the mayor’s husband.
Or possibly someone else Abbie considered notable.
Obviously not a Thornton-Payne, but anonymity with even one person was a welcome break at these events.
She’d most likely gotten into the party through a friend or a corporate invitation. If she’d stand with him for ten minutes so he could observe the meeting going on in the atrium, he’d introduce Abbie to anyone here.
Except, of course, Gwen, since that would interfere with tonight’s mission.
Hunter turned on his you’re-so-interesting tone, which brought out the best in most women. “You said you don’t know many people here and I’m familiar with a majority of this crowd. I could introduce you around.”
He kept Gwen in his peripheral vision. She made introductions between mystery guy and the three men, but if Hunter correctly read the unenthusiastic look in her eyes, the way she didn’t shake hands and the way her lips remained flat, he’d have to guess she was not a happy hostess.
“Why?” Abbie finally asked.
He hated that question. “Do I have to have a reason to help you?”
“Fine. I’ve got an ulterior motive.” Hunter tilted his chin down to the top of Abbie’s head, which served two purposes. He appeared intent on whatever she was saying and leaning this close allowed him to watch Gwen’s group without Abbie realizing something else held his focus.
Her piled hair played into his view, distracting him. He’d like to see those curls sprung loose.
She crossed her arms. “What’s your ulterior motive?”
Give me a minute to think of one. Hunter was trying to get a clear look at all three men who came down the stairs to determine which one might be the American known as Vestavia. “Make you a deal.”
“I don’t make deals with men I don’t know.”
“It’s not that big a deal.” Especially since he hadn’t thought of something else to offer her. Hunter got a better visual of the dark-haired man from the trio. Could he be the one BAD knew as Brady, the former DEA agent who disappeared, then surfaced later as Fra Vestavia? His face didn’t match the image BAD had on file, but that was from almost a year ago, which allowed enough time for plastic surgery. The tallest guy with pale brown hair and stern lips could have been British. Next to him stood a rigid example of Russian features with a stern jaw line, wide forehead, and thick gray hair.
“Okay. What deal?” she asked.
Hunter lifted his chin up enough to draw Abbie’s gaze to his. “Why do you sound like I’m trying to sell you snake oil? Is it that much of a strain to spend a few minutes with me?”
That silenced her.
“Here’s the deal. You want to meet people and I want ten minutes with someone nice.” Hunter caught a movement near Gwen’s group. Another woman emerged from the shadows to stand discreetly to the side of the American male. Thick black hair waved along her shoulders.
She could be anywhere from midtwenties to midthirties. A stunning creature and tense as a stretched violin string.
Linette was Italian. Could that be…
“You know what?” she said quietly, and grasped the lapel of his tux, leaning closer to him. Perfect. He just needed her to stand here another five minutes. He could flirt with her for five minutes.
“What, sweetheart?” he answered, trying to keep his eyes fixed on Gwen’s meeting, but Abbie’s soft scent climbed inside his head with every breath. He added, “I’m at a loss for what to offer you. What would make you happy?”
When Abbie didn’t answer, he dropped his gaze to find her closer, but she’d bent her neck back, clearly seeing that his attention was not on her.
Abbie’s lips tightened with a smile born of irritation. Her quiet words were deceptively calm when she said, “What would make me happy? To meet one man who isn’t a jerk. Why don’t you go screw whoever it is you’re so fixated on and stay the hell away from me?” She swung around to leave.
Abbie didn’t have all night to find Gwen or to play twenty questions with a playboy looking for an hour of mindless entertainment.
That Hunter jerk had been watching someone else while he pretended to talk to her, probably another Lydia clone.
All men were liars and… liars.
She’d taken two steps when hands locked on each of her shoulders, stopping her forward progress.
Had to be Hunter.
She kept a leash on her temper, reminding herself he’d been the only person to step forward the last time she’d gotten into a confrontation. From the way no one challenged him then, she doubted anyone would speak up on her behalf this time.
His warm breath swirled the fine hairs along her neck when he said, “I wasn’t treating you like a joke or screwing with you.”
His hands were strong but held her carefully. The strength surprised her since she’d already tagged him as soft and worthless, but what else did a rich kid have to do all day besides go to the gym or play tennis?
“Admit it,” she whispered. “You were using me to snoop on someone. Another old nuisance?”
“Yes, I was watching a woman, but not an old girlfriend. I saw a woman who is engaged to a friend of mine kissing another man and wanted to be sure about what I’d observed. I didn’t realize she was there until I saw her behind you. I’d point her out if not for needing to protect my friend’s private life.” He squeezed her shoulders, a silent request for her to give him a chance. “I thought you wanted to meet some people and I do know practically everyone here. Now that you understand why I was distracted, will you help me? No one should have to marry a person who can’t even start off faithful.”