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Authors: Anne Stuart

Risk the night

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Riskthe Night

  

byAnne Stuart

  

Copyright2011 by Anne Kristine Stuart Ohlrogge

  

CHAPTER ONE

 

It had started as an average day. The man currently calling himself Constantine awoke in hissmall apartment in the thirdarondissementof Paris afterthree hours’ sleep. He seldomneeded more, and often made do with less, a blessing or a curse from the surlygod who made him. He’d showered,shaved and dressed in work clothes, staring at himself in the mirror for a longtime. He had no vanity – hisface and body were tools of his trade and nothing else. He had a lean, wiry frame, deceptivelystrong, and he was taller than he appeared. His face was narrow, with strong bones, and the only thingremarkable about him were his bright blue eyes, an unfortunately memorableshade of turquoise. He put in themuddying contacts, surveyed the results with satisfaction before tying his hairback and covering it with a cap. In his black jeans and black turtleneck he would blend in with thestudents in the area, particularly with the backpack he’d purchased for theoccasion.

He double-checked its contents. A change of clothes. HisGlockand silencer, just in case. He tucked the knife in one of the black boots he wore,yanking the jeans over the bone handle. He’d planned carefully, as always, and it wouldn’t take long. He’d have more than enough time toreturn here for a shower if things got messy. The good thing about black – blood never showed.

It was a warm spring day, promising rain later. He moved down the streets at aleisurely pace in the early morning hours, reaching the discreet boutique hotelwell before the city day had begun. Scum of the earth likeMiradornever gave hima moment’s pause. He had a gift, agift for death, and in the case of someone likeMiradorit was well-used.

He didn’t know why he hesitated. He’d been trained for this by none other than the United Statesgovernment, though they no longer paid his bills. And at least on his own he could pick and choose histargets. He didn’t have to worryabout shades of gray – either the target was scum or worthredeeming. He had more than enoughbusiness taking care of the absolute scum.

So much, in fact, that he was getting tired of it. So damned tired. But for now he had no reason to quit.

He took care ofMirador, quickly, cleanlyand headed back to his apartment, going straight for the shower. By the time he emerged, made his secondcup of coffee for the day and turned on the television the hit had already madethe news. Switching off thetelevision, Constantine headed out for the worst part of his day. 

“I was an idiot to tell you I’d do this,” he said, walking into the empty third floor flat Taggart hadrented for the occasion.

Taggart had been leaning over a camera, but he rose and looked up athim, his face creasing with annoyance. He was older than Con, and he’d been in the business since he was veryyoung. He knew more, had done morethan Con even wanted to think of, and he owed him. Though he wasn’t sure he owed him this much.

“Cry to someone else,” Taggart growled, not bothering to remove the cigarette from the side ofhis mouth. “Your voice will bedisguised, the room will be pitch black and the reporter will be on the otherside of a barrier. There’s no wayyou’ll be identifiable.”

Con made a grumbling noise. “So why are we doing this?”

Taggart shrugged. “I owedsomeone a favor. Like you owed mea favor. Probably the guy I’mdoing it for owed someone else. You weren’t just hatched – you know how these things work.”

“I know how these things work.” He looked around the empty apartment. He was restless, edgy, and the last thing he wanted to dowas sit down and spin stories for a gullible reporter.  But Taggart was right. He owed him. “Where?”

“Got the bedroom set up. There’s a bullet-proof divider between you, just in case this isn’t asinnocent as it appears.  Thewindows are completely blacked out – there won’t be a shred of lightgetting in.”

Con’s smile was cool and brief. “Don’t think I won’t kill you if this blows up in our faces. I’m not that sentimental.”

“Neither am I,” Taggartsaid, opening the door into an inky dark room. “I assumeMiradorwas your work?”

“Why assume that? I’m onvacation.”

“Sure you are.”

At least Taggart had seen to the basics. Coffee, wine, fresh bread and cheese and fruit. He wasn’t particularly hungry –he didn’t eat much the days that he worked. Taggart would know that as well, but Con wasn’t interestedin playing games. He made himselfa cup of coffee and leaned back in the darkness, waiting.

He heard the shuffling noise a few minutes later, another sound, as ifsomeone bumped into a piece of furniture, and then the scraping sound of woodon the marble floor. He leanedforward toward the microphone that would distort his voice. “Do you have a blindfold on?” He spoke in French. He suspected the reporter was American– they usually were.

He was right about that. He just hadn’t expected it to be a woman. “Yes, and it’s a pain in the ass,” she said in a low voice, her schoolgirl Frenchadequate. She’d had an expensiveeducation, an anomaly which normally would have interested him. Right now he had too many other thingson his mind. “Renardsaid I could take if off once you told me I could.”

“Not yet.” He lit a cigarette,the flare of light blinding in the inky darkness. Stygian darkness. He wondered if this was what hell looked like. He expected to find out sooner rather than later. “All right,” he said. Thefaint glow of the cigarette wouldn’t give anything away, and it would throw heroff. He didn’t smoke.

He heard the rustle of cloth, the clearing of her throat, and he knewshe wanted to ask him not to smoke. She didn’t dare. Smartwoman.

“What did you want to know?”

She cleared her throat again. “My name is Elizabeth Shannon and I’m writing an article …”

“I don’t care who you are or what you’re doing,” he said, bored. If that was her real name then he waschristened Constantine. “Renardmade the arrangements. If I didn’t trust him I wouldn’t be here.” Trust Taggart to have taken a name likeRenard. Sly old fox. “Ask yourquestions. I have things to do.”

“I’m taping this. Do youmind?”

“Why should I?” He tookanother drag of his cigarette and waited, patient, bored. Slightly distracted by the husky notein her voice. Unlike others henever found sex appealing on the days that we worked. But there was something about her voice …

“You kill for a living?” She asked the question in English. Mid-Atlantic seaboard upper class American English. He was right. 

“I do.” He answered herin the same language, with a guttural German accent. German accents were tricky – you could easily startsounding like a Prussian nobleman or a Nazi commandant. He always used a light touch, even whenhe used a working class voice.

“Who hires you?”

“Whoever can meet my price. Governments. Privatecontractors. Individuals. I’m not fussy.”

“What is your price?”

“It depends on the job, the complexity, the fame of theindividual. I’d say probably morethan you can afford. Were youlooking to hire me?”

“No.” He was spookingher, deliberately, and she was trying not to show it. Good for her. He could terrify combat veterans if he tried. He considered toning it down, but didn’t. 

“How many people have you killed?”

“I’ve lost count.” He waslying to her, of course. Anotherof his curses – a photographic memory. He knew each face, each name, each job, and always would.

“Are there jobs you would refuse to take?”

“Why would I?” He wastoying with her, more interested in her answers than his own variety of lies.

“Because the … the victim … the target … what do you call them?” She was beginning to soundrattled. He took another drag onthe cigarette he didn’t want and smiled.

“Take your pick,” hesaid. “Victim sounds good.”

He could pick up on her annoyance now. She suspected he was playing with her. Good. He liked an intelligent adversary, and she was mostdefinitely that.

“Did you kill Congressman Walters?”

“No comment.”

“Did you kill the King of Waziristan?”

“No comment.”

“Did you kill Jimmy Hoffa?” she demanded, frustrated.

“No comment.”

“Would you kill a good man? If the price was right?”

“How am I to know whether a man is good or not? One man’s savior is another man’sterrorist. It’s not my place tojudge.”

“Just to carry out the sentence.”

“Yes.”

“Would you kill a woman?”

He took another drag on the heavy Turkish tobacco. When in France he smokedGitanesif necessary, unfiltered. “What makes you think women are any less innocent thanmen? I can assure you, certainwomen are far more dangerous than their male counterparts.”

“I take it that means yes.”

“Take it any way you wish.” Taggart was going to be annoyed with him. He was supposed to give this inquisitive female enough tofeed her paranoid fantasies with no real information. Instead he was stonewalling her, for the simple reason thathe wanted to annoy her. To get areaction from her. For God’s sake,he wanted to move her. What thehell was wrong with him today?

He heard her intake of breath. “Have you ever killed a woman?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“A child?”

“No.”

Silence as she digested that information. He should have lied to her – he didn’t want her makingthe mistake of thinking he was human. “Are you here in Paris for a particular job?”

“I’m on vacation,” hesaid. “I’m here for the wine andthe food and the pussy and nothing else.”

He felt her instinctive reaction, and he wanted to laugh. A crude word was such a minor thingcompared to the world he was opening up for her. 

It went with his accent – rough German that was then distortedby the microphone. He could croonto her in a few hours and she’d have no idea who she was talking to. The idea was tempting. 


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He wondered what she looked like, he thought as he fielded her questions. Was she tall and leggy, unnaturallythin and nervous like so many career women? Was she slightly plump, with glasses and sensible shoes? He liked that idea. He was tired of wafer-thin models.

He found he was getting turned on, which was odd. Not his style. He liked the idea of fucking her. Of going out and finding her after thiswas done, seducing her, seeing how far he could push her. He could seduce just about anyone, andthis woman, whose name was most definitely NOT Elizabeth Shannon, would bechild’s play.

Blonde or brunette? Tallor short? He fantasized as he spunher stories, some blatant lies, some horrifyingly true, and she was naked withher sweet, questioning mouth on his cock. He didn’t usually like women to be frightened of him, not in bed. He liked an even match, a woman whogave as good as she got, one who had the illusion that she was in control. They never were. He made it a rule never to walk into asituation where he didn’t command complete control.

It would be easy enough with this one. She was young, thinking she was experienced. Those were the easiest to get to.

He shook his head, amused at himself. He wasn’t taking care of that little problem thisafternoon. This was business, thiswas for Taggart. 

“Tell me,” he said,pitching his voice low. Even withthe distortion and the German accent he knew it would come through the otherside of the wall as pure seduction. “Do you have a lover?”

He felt her instinctive withdrawal as she considered her answer. “In fact, I have. A very kind, sweet man. Not that it’s any of yourbusiness. Why do you ask?”

“Do you like kind, sweet men? Do you fuck in the darkness, missionary-style? Do you even suck his cock?”

“You’re disgusting.”

He laughed softly. “Thatanswers my question. You shouldtry it sometime. You might evenlike it.”

“I’ll have you know that I’ve …” her voice trailed off as she realized what he was doing. Her laugh was rueful, and he was hard. He should have had Taggart put a filteron her voice too. It was low,melodic, slightly nervous and most definitely self-aware. “You’re the one who’s supposed toanswer the questions,” she said. “Not me.”

“You don’t want to tell me about your sex life?”

“Not particularly. Anymore than you want to tell me about yours.” The moment she said the words she knew her mistake. “Cancel that. You’d probably like nothing more than to try to embarrass mewith salacious stories. I’m hereto find out about your work as an assassin, nothing more.”

He smiled to himself. “I don’tlike that word, ‘assassin.’ It’stoo melodramatic.”

“God, you’re not going to use one of those tough-guy movie terms, areyou? Like Cleaner?” She’d relaxed now, ready to lob some ofhissnarkback at him. She had no idea how mismatched they were, but he could begentle with her. For now.

He laughed softly. “No,sweetheart. I avoidterminology. I am what I am, dowhat I do. Aren’t you tired ofthis by now? Do you want to gosomewhere and fuck?”

Her heard her swift intake of breath, but her reply was calmenough. “If you think sexualinnuendoes are going to scare me off after some of the stories you’ve told methen you have a strange opinion of women.”

“You’re American. MostAmericans are far more comfortable with violence than sex. Just look at your television shows.”

“I’d rather not,” shesaid dryly. “And no, I don’t wantto go somewhere and fuck, though you’re very kind to offer. I’m meeting my boyfriend for dinner.”

“Too bad. If there weremore time I’d unzip myself and …”

“I gather you’re getting bored with all this.” Her voice was brisk, interrupting hiscrude comment. “So am I. Just one more question.”

Just as well, he thought. He was getting distracted.

“Would you tell me your name?” 

He laughed, a short, sharp sound. “You know the answer to that. If I did I would have to kill you,” he said. “And don’t decide to be Nancy Drew and try to find out who Iam. If you do Iwillkillyou. And you won’t be some DanielPearl type martyr. I’ll make itlook like an accident, and no one will ever know you died for your fuckingstory.”

Her heard her intake of breath, and he knew she believed him. “I won’t,” she said.

“I didn’t think you would,” he said peaceably. “Anything else? I need toget to my gym.” Another lie. He worked out in whatever room he wasinhabiting, exercises to keep him agile and alert. He didn’t need fancy machines.

“Just one. Why do you doit?”

He laughed. He couldimagine how it sounded on the other side of the pitch dark window, like thesound of the devil, laughing from the fires of hell.

“Because I’m good at it. Everyone has certain talents. You’re a journalist. Ikill.”

Dead silence from the darkness. “Are you a sociopath? Or apsychopath?”

Good for her, he thought silently. “A psychopath loves his work, sweetheart. I’m a sociopath. I just don’t care.”

And he flicked off the microphone.

Enough.

  

CHAPTER TWO

 

Madison Mary Banks felt the micro-recorder slip out of her sweat-damphands and land on the floor. Itwas tough enough to withstand the punishment, having survived war zones and hersister’s energetic toddler, but she made no effort to retrieve it. She felt strange, disoriented, shesmell of tobacco on the air, the sound of his distorted voice in her ear. She wrapped her arms around her waist,hugging herself. She had justspent the better part of an hour in a darkened room with someone who could onlybe called a monster – it was no wonder she felt ill.

His stories lingered in her brain, and she wished there was some wayto wipe it clean. He’d answeredeverything in detail, but not in specifics. No names, but how long it took a man to bleed out, dependingon which artery was severed. Whichpoisons worked the best. Snipertraining, but not where he’d received it. She now had a sickeningly clear view of what it was like to be a … atermination specialist in the modern world. She just wished she didn’t.

The door opened, and light flooded the room, momentarily blindingher. She felt an instant’s panic,but it was simplyRenard, the friend of a friend ofDrake, her boyfriend, the man who’d facilitated this meeting.

Drake was going to laugh at her, say “I told you so” when he sawher. But maybe she’d have managedto pull herself together by then. 

“You okay, mademoiselle?” Reynard’s voice was cool and obsequious. Just the kind of man whose ancestors stormed the Bastilleand knitted while the aristocrats were beheaded. She knew how she presented to most people, no matter whatkind of thrift store clothes she dressed in, and he was probably wishing theystill had tumbrels.

“Fine,” she said, hervoice hollow. “Has he gone?”

Renardraised an eyebrow. “Yes, mademoiselle. He left a good ten minutes ago. I was waiting for you to open thedoor.”

“I was … was assembling my notes,” she said weakly, reaching down and picking up therecorder. “It’s good to have yourthoughts in order while they’re still fresh.”

“Indeed, mademoiselle. You will tell our friend I fulfilled my part of the bargain?”

Which friend, she wondered. Drake, or a friend of a friend of Drake’s? She rather hated the idea that she was sleeping with a mantoo closely connected to the creature she’d just interviewed.

“I’ll tell him,” shesaid, rising, the recorder clutched in one hand.

 

Constantine heard the door to the apartment close behind theirdeparting guest, and he sank to the floor with another cup of coffee, his legscrossed beneath him as he watchedTaggertdismantlehis safe house. 

“Did you have to do that?” Taggertdemanded irritably.

“Do what?”

“Try to seduce her. She’sharmless, but she has connections. If you wanted to fuck her that badly I could have cancelled this and youcould have picked her up at a café.  At this point if you shagged her you’d probably screw her up forlife. You gave her quite a convincingpicture of our lives, though a bit more colorful and imaginative than thetruth. But why the hell did youlet her tape you?”


Constantine frowned. “Idid, didn’t I? In fact, I didn’tintend to be that helpful. She wasjust so damned gullible that I kept pushing.”

“You forget how long I’ve known you. You were just so horny that you kept pushing. You need to keep away from her, myfriend. I don’t think the tape isimportant, though I might see if I can send someone to get rid of it.”

“I know the kind of men you hire – they’re clumsy. It would … annoy me if they ended upaccidentally killing her.” Hisvoice was light, almost airy. “Itwould annoy me a great deal.”

Taggertsnorted, unimpressed. “Get it yourself. You’ll be seeing her again.”

Con rose in one fluid gesture, his innate grace causing more than oneman to mistake his devotedly heterosexual orientation. “I don’t know what she looks like, Idon’t know her name, and I have no interest in finding out. I’m enjoying the most deliciouslysalacious fantasies about her, I admit. I doubt reality would come even close.”

“It seldom does,” Taggartsaid morosely. He finished packingup the case and locked it. “Todaydidn’t happen.”

“It seldom does,” Conreplied.

 

Maddy wasn’t sure how she made it out into the bright sunshine. It was a hot day, and she stillshivered. She was walking, fast, aNew York City walk, not a Parisian stroll, and she forced herself to slow down,take deep breaths. She looked atthe digital recorder she was still clutching. She could throw it into the busy street, watch it getcrushed beneath the wheels of the cars. She could slam it against the cement pavement, hard, and see the plasticshatter.

She took another breath. She wasn’t going to start making melodramatic gestures. She wasn’t her mother. This had been her choice of a story,and she could just as easily choose not to write it. Except that she had to get it out of her head.

Beneath the distortion of his voice he’d sounded oddly gentle. That, perhaps, was part of thehorror. That he could recount suchacts with the air of a guest at afternoon tea, or some kind of charity benefit,champagne glass in one hand, plate of canapés in the other. Flirting with her. Coming on to her. He had to be in his mid-sixties to havecommitted some of the crimes he described. She’d mocked him, but maybe he really had done something toJimmy Hoffa, assuming he’d been a child prodigy.

Prodigy of death. Sheneeded a shower. She wouldprobably never eat again, certainly not for the next twenty-four hours, but shewasn’t a baby. She’d had Drakecall in favors for this, and she couldn’t throw it away because she was afraidto pull up her big girl panties and get on with it.

She’d write the story, and she’d write the hell out of it.

It wasn’t until she was under the pounding, hot water of the shower inher small, crowded apartment that she realized what it was about the man thathad been so disturbing.

Despite the stories, the details, the cool detachment as he cataloguedthe measured ending of countless lives, she’d been aware of something else inthe subdivided cocoon of darkness. She’d been aware of him. Ofa sinuous thread of charisma, drawing her, calling to her. Like looking into the eyes of a cobraabout to strike and being too mesmerized to move. She’d listened to his voice, his distorted, heavily-accentedvoice, and she’d despised him. Andfelt the insane, irrational stirrings of sexual desire.

She sank to her knees in the old tub, wrapping her arms around her shiveringbody. Closing her eyes, she drewin the blankness. In a moment shewould get up, turn off the shower, brush her teeth and reapply her makeup. She’d go out and meet Drake at theambassador’s party and she’d smile and laugh and shrug off her silly littlereaction.

But for now, she wasn’t going anywhere.

 

The one problem with Paris, Con thought several hours later as he puthis arm around the tiny waist of Tessa Parker, aspiring actress, Vogue covermodel and not so coincidentally the great-niece of the deposed king of Batavia,was the fucking paparazzi. Theyshouted in a dozen different languages, most of which he understood, the cameraflashes were blinding, and security in Paris was lax. He smiled genially as he ushered Tessa into the party, wonderingwhich tabloid his face was going to adorn tomorrow. He’d be background for Tessa’s startling beauty and vividcamera presence. Hide in plainsite had always been his modus operandi, something Taggart never ceased towonder at, but it served him well. As the elegantly handsome Euro-trash,D’Angelo,he went to the best parties, drank and gambled with the best people, and Tessawas the perfect foil. In her caseheroin-chic was accurate. Sheinjected it under her tongue, between her toes, anywhere on her rail-thin,perfect body that wouldn’t show, and she moved through her round of parties andphoto-shoots in a compliant daze.

She was dazzlingly beautiful. He had no idea if she had a brain in her head beneath the steady supplyof drugs, and he didn’t care. Shewas a means to an end. All he hadto do was lead her around, point her in the right direction, and she was sopretty that conversation wasn’t required of her. She would listen and smile and nod her head and everyonewould be mesmerized, and he would move through the rarified world at her side,seemingly just as vacuous, as he waited for his next job.

She required nothing from him but company. She had no interest in sex, which was just as well. He could fuck on demand, but herbone-thin, ravaged body reminded him too much of famine victims, and he couldcontrol his sexual appetites. Shespent her days, when she wasn’t working, being maintained like a thoroughbredhorse. Groomed and exercised,every square inch of her body, every inch that could be seen, was perfect, andit cost a great deal of time and effort to keep her that way. She had no time to consider her highprofile boyfriend or where he had first appeared. She probably didn’t even remember the meeting he hadarranged.

Tessa stumbled slightly as they walked into the party, blinded by theflashing lights, and his arm tightened. She smelled like chemicals, he thought, leaning down to nuzzle her earas the cameras flashed. She’d shot up before they left, and theinitial buzz was just beginning to wear off. She had no idea her elegant, lazy boyfriend knew what shewas doing in thelooright before they left her hotelsuite, no idea that he’d gone to her supplier not long after he’d chosen her ashis mark and made it very clear that Tessa was only to have the safest, mostconsistent supply of heroin available. She was never going to be able to buy too much and make a fatal mistake,she was never going to get a dangerously strong batch. She would have the best, a safe,careful source. He hadn’t even hadto touch the hardened drug lord behind the dealer Tessa usually used. EvenRabardknew a worthy opponent when he saw him.

Not that he particularly cared if she died, he told himself. But he’d chosen her for a reason,because she could be easily controlled and used. A drug overdose would be unpleasant. With her political connections herdeath would be scrutinized, as would her playboy lover. And the last thing he wanted was toanswer questions.

Besides, she was pretty, sweet and harmless. Either her addiction would overcome her and she’d die, orshe’d eventually get clean. Therewas no way he could influence the outcome – he’d be someone else by then.

But for tonight she looked up at him like a lover, even though they’dactually only fucked a handful of times. He had the feeling he was about to add to that handful. Maybe even double it. This was his second job since he’dbecomeD’Angelo, and Tessa’s lover, but for somereason his blood was running hot.


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Not for some reason, he reminded himself, guiding Tessa in thedirection of the ambassador, her second cousin twice-removed. It was that fucking reporter. It was the voice on the other side ofthe glass. He tried to tellhimself she was a middle-aged troll. She was certainly no match for Tessa – few people were. If she were anywhere close to the kindof female beautyD’Angelohad associated with shewouldn’t be working for a newspaper.

It didn’t matter. Heheard her voice in his head, the horror he’d done his best to ingrain in her,her refusal to be cowed, and he burned.

They mingled, a graceful dance of conversation and flirtation, allsubtext and nothing substantive. He sipped his Moet etChandon, kept his handon Tessa’s skinny arm, glancing around the crowded room.

Embassy parties were usually too tame for Tessa, who liked loud rockand roll and coke for entertainment, but the elderly ambassador was family, andshe’d insisted they stop here first. Which was fine with him. All he had to do was wander around and look pretty.

He saw the woman from a distance, and his eyes narrowed, suddenlyalert. She was sitting at one ofthe little tables with a man a few years older than she was, and he knew he’dnever seen either of them in his life. The man was speaking to her earnestly, holding one of her hands, and shewas listening with the air of a patient mother.

He knew how to watch someone without people noticing. He smiled, and circulated, and guidedTessa across the room with masterful ease. Who the hell was the woman?

She was young, maybe a few years older than Tessa, with a badly-cutmane of red hair to her shoulders, wire-rimmed glasses, a soft pale mouth anddark eyes, vulnerable eyes in an otherwise ordinary face. There was a slight softness around herjaw, suggesting she carried a few extra pounds that were hidden by the flowingblack dress she was wearing. Expensive dress. Vintagecouturier.  Expensiveearrings. The infomercials werefull of crap – you could tell good diamonds even from a distance andthose were impressive.

She had something on the table beside her, and she pulled her handfree to tap it while she was continuing to talk in an intense, inaudible voice.

“Is something wrong?” Tessa murmured, following his gaze.

“Of course not,caramia,” he said gently. He usually spoke Italian with her, buttonight he couldn’t be bothered with more than the accent and theendearment. 

“Do you know that woman?”

He wasn’t usually so gauche. If a drug-addled woman noticed his fascination then anyone elsemight. He shrugged. “She looks familiar, but I can’t placeher.”

“Do you want me to ask?” Tessa murmured. “Do youwant me to see if they would like to join us?”

“No.” He smiled down ather. “You’re all I need.”

She blinked. “If you’resure.”

“I’m sure.” He could findout soon enough who she was, if his interest held for longer than the next fiveminutes.

Except, of course, that he knew who she was. Without hearing her voice, without ever having seen her facehe knew exactly who she was. Thewoman who’d spent an hour locked in darkness with him. The woman he wanted.

 

“Who is that man?” Maddyleaned forward and whispered to Drake.

“Darling, there are a great many men here. Which one in particular?”

“The handsome one. He’swith some model.”

“Again, that doesn’t narrow things down much …. Ah,” he said. “I think you meanD’Angelo. Don’t tell me you’re like half thewomen in Paris.”

“I’m definitely not like half the women in Paris, and in what way didyou mean?” she counteredgood-naturedly.

“They’re all in love with him. He’s just Euro-trash, with no purpose on this earth but to lookpretty. I’ve had it on goodauthority that he’s really gay.”

Maddy shook her head. “No, he’s not.”

“Come on, sweets, you can’t believe your gay-daris that infallible,” Drakeprotested.

“He’s not gay,” sheinsisted. “He exudessexuality. Hetero-sexuality, infact.”

Drake laughed. “It’s notlike you’re the most sophisticated woman here tonight. I imagine it’s wishful thinking on yourpart.”

“Hardly,” shescoffed. “I’m here with you– I don’t need another man. Maybe it’s wishful thinking onyourpart.”

He laughed at that. “You’re all I’m thinking of. And you’re going home with me …” At that moment his phone rang, and his forehead creased in annoyance.

“Answer it.”

“I’m not going to. They’ll just want me to do something and I’ve saved tonight for you andme. You’ve finally gotten the bigscoop you’ve been looking for, and we need to celebrate. We’ll go back to your place and drinkchampagne and have make wild, monkey love and tomorrow you’ll agree to marryme.”

She felt her stomach knot in sudden apprehension. “You know, I’m not sure if wild, monkeylove is what I’m in the mood for. The man’s stories were pretty unsettling.”

“Did you believe him? Half of these guys like to lie, puff themselves up.”

“I believed him,” Maddysaid. “I wish I didn’t.”

“Well, then, I’ll drive him right out of your mind,” Drake said, still ignoring theinsistent ring of his phone. Finally it stopped, and his broad shoulders relaxed. And then tensed, as the phone startedringing again. “God damn it!” he snapped, yanking out his cell phoneand barking into it. “Speak tome.”

Maddy winced. She alwayshated it when he answered the phone that way, but she couldn’t figure out howto tell him. It reminded her of abad Hollywood movie. Then again,everything was reminding her of the movies, probably because the afternoon feltso surreal. People didn’t reallykill other people as easily as some might make a turkey sandwich. Did they?

She looked back toward the man calledD’Angelo,but there was no sign of him or his skinny girlfriend. She would have given ten years off herlife to weigh what that girl weighed. Unfortunately it just wasn’t going to happen. She had wide hips, c-cup boobs and curves when curvesweren’t fashionable. Then again,curves were never fashionable in Paris. Tantpis. She was what she was.

Drake closed his phone with a snap. “We’re off for tonight, I’m afraid,” he said in a disgusted voice. “Something’s come up and I’m going tobe spending the night at the paper.”

She quickly composed her face into an expression of deepdisappointment, hiding her secret relief. “Oh, that’s too bad! But wecan always celebrate tomorrow.”

He smiled absently, his mind already on his new problem. “We’ll do that,” he said. “In the meantime I’ll take you home on the way to theoffice.”

“No need. I can get ataxi.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Hecaught her hand and pulled her to her feet. “I was brought up a gentleman, I’ll have you know. I’ll put you in a taxi first.”

She set the champagne flute back down on the table and picked up thedigital recorder, putting it in her vintage JudithLeiber. She’d wanted to talk to him, to use himas a sounding board. Drake wasalways so sensible, so unsentimental, and he was a journalist born andbred. He could help her sortthrough the strange, conflicting emotions that had been tormenting her sinceshe leftRenard’shouse this afternoon.

But that wasn’t going to be tonight. Which was all right – she needed time to get her ownthoughts together before she approached Drake. He was going to be really pissed if she told him she didn’twant to use the story. He hadnothing but contempt for human weakness, and he’d see her second thoughts asjust that.

She smiled at him. “Tomorrow night, then. It’sa date.”

The vast entry hall of the embassy building was a mass of people,pushing and shoving only as extremely well-bred people could. “What’s the problem?” Drake demanded of someone.

“It’s raining,m’sieur,” the uniformed guard said. “This is the line for taxis.”

“Shit.” Drake was lookingharassed. “I knew I should havebrought my car.”

“The office is just three blocks away, Drake,” Maddy said gently. “You never were afraid of a littlewater.”

“That’s not the problem. You’re way over in the Marais. There’s no way you can walk …”

“But I’m in no hurry. I’ll just take a comfortable seat and wait my turn. I’m a big girl, Drake. I just spent an afternoon with asociopath and lived to tell the tale, I can certainly survive a Paris taxi-rideon my own.”

“Paris taxis are probably more dangerous,” he said dourly.

“Go ahead.” She gave hima little push. “I’ll be fine andyou know it. Emily Post willabsolve you of your social crime.”

He stared at her with mounting frustration. And then, out of the blue, he grabbed her by the upper arms,yanked her against him and kissed her. “You’re the best,” hesaid. “And you are going to marryme, you know.” A moment later hewas gone.

She found herself smiling after him. She wasn’t any too certain of that, but she’d probably be afool not to. They cared about thesame things, their politics were in tune, they believed in the written word andthey were both pragmatists. Theywere good together, physically as well. He brought her to orgasm most of the time, and when he couldn’t she tookcare of it herself. He was kind,he was honorable, and he loved her.

She felt someone behind her, taller than her own five foot eight, andshe turned, expecting one of the guards. To her complete astonishment she found herself looking at the perfectionof an Armani dinner jacket, tailored and fitted, and she knew whose face shewould see above it.

The playboy of the month was looking down at her, an amused expressionon his face. “Mademoiselle, mygirlfriend has a very soft heart, and she has seen that you have beenabandoned. She has sent me over toask if you would like a ride home in our limousine.”

For a moment she froze, feeling a like a deer in the headlights. She wasn’t good with all that intensemasculine beauty bearing down on her, that charisma that could make a nunmelt. “I … I …” she stammered stupidly. What the hell was wrong with her? She could tackle serial killers withone hand tied behind her back. Abrainless piece of window dressing should be child’s play.  “That’s … very kind of you,m’sieur,” shesaid, gaining her self-control. “But a taxi will do me very well.”

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