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Sasha had played here often as a child, especially during wintertime, when don Antonio Martino had allowed his children and their guests to skate and ride bicycles and to in-line skate here, warm and secure, no matter how fiercely the Chicago blizzards raged outdoors. The place still gave her a sense of complete security, even though she now knew all about the dirty business that supported it.
She also knew what don Martino would do to her if he found out she was working as a confidential informant for the feds, so she was careful, as she moved among the beautifully dressed revelers, not to appear too detached or too observant.
Just let the bra-cam do all the work, she reminded herself, strolling over to the wedding cake so that the tiny lens embedded in the lacy bodice of her navy-blue waltz gown could get a clear shot of some nearby musclemen. Clad in black suits, these thugs weren't making any pretense of enjoying themselves. For them, this was business: protecting the bride, the family and the expensive wedding presents.
"Any sign of him, Camper?" asked a voice from the microreceiver in her ear.
Sasha raised her glass to her lips to hide her reply. "Lots of familiar faces, but so far, no zioVincenzo."
"You're doing great," the voice assured her. "Even if the Butcher doesn't show up, we've got some valuable footage, thanks to you."
She bit back a smile, wondering how Special Agent Jeff Crossman always managed to sound so reassuring and appreciative when she was wired, especially since he was so suspicious and critical of her at all other times. As her handler, code name Summit, he had helped her through every one of her official ops so far, while tirelessly working in the background to get her fired.
If he ever used that sweet, sexy voice on you in person, you'd have a vaginal meltdown, she teased herself. Luckily, there's not much danger of that happening.
She began swaying to the music, acknowledging that the love ballads filling the air were beginning to get to her. Nearby, a father was dancing with his toddler daughter, allowing her to stand on his feet to follow his steps. It stirred vague memories of Sasha's own father, and she imagined him—the powerful Franco "Big Frankie" Bracciali—behaving in the same indulgent way at weddings past.
It brought to mind one of Big Frankie's favorite stories, about the first time he took Sasha to Rome. She had been five years old, and when they had walked into the middle of the Pantheon, she had looked around, then announced cheerfully, "The Romans stole this idea from zio Antonio!"
Refocusing on the little girl dancing nearby, Sasha warned her silently, Your dad's a hero to you now. I envy you that. But I'm also afraid for you, because if he works for don Martino, or any of these other Mafiosos, you're in for some serious heartache.
"Heads up, Camper.A limo just pulled into the private driveway at the side of the house. Keep an eye out."
"Copy that, Summit." Grateful for the interruption, Sasha turned toward the entry hall that led to Antonio Martino's study just in time to see the bride—Gianna Martino-Barrett—dash through the columned doorways. The poor girl was probably sneaking out for a bathroom break, or even more likely, a quick drag on a cigarette. But there was always the possibility that her willful and reckless already appeared in her file.
always in Jeff's handwriting. me, miss." A huge guard blocked her path as motioned toward the alcoves at the east side of the "Guest bathrooms are over there. The entrance ladies is behind Minerva. Gents behind Neptune."
Sasha pretended to pout. "I'm not just a guest. I'm an honorary member of the family."
"This part of the house is off-limits at the request of don Martino."
"I'm guessing you don't know who I am. Either that or you have a death wish." She arched an eyebrow, but only in mock reproach. "I'm Sasha Bracciali."
His brow furrowed. "Bracciali?"
"That's right," a man's voice growled from behind her. "She's Big Frankie's daughter, you moron. Get out of her way."
Sasha turned to give the bride's brother, Carmine Martino, a quick hug. "Finally! I was wondering when you'd notice me. Thanks for the rescue."
"My pleasure." The future head of the Martino crime family beamed. "Good thing you changed your mind about coming. I would've taken it personally if you didn't."
"It's all so complicated, isn't it?" She exhaled slowly and audibly. "I was afraid I'd run into Daddy and end up making a scene. But when I heard he could only stay for a few minutes, I decided I could time my arrival to avoid him."
"I figured it was something like that. Come on." Carmine took her by the arm and tugged her back toward the party. "Let's dance. You owe me one from the last time I saw you."
"At Bobby's wedding?" Sasha grimaced. "That was your lucky day. Remember how I left early with a stomachache? It turned out to be the mother of all flu bugs. Be glad you didn't get close enough to catch it."
"It would've been worth it," he murmured, his eyes openly scanning her body.
"You're so sweet. Stay right here, okay? I need to pop into the powder room for a sec, then we can dance."
"I'll show you the way."
She almost reminded him that she knew this house by heart, but decided it might offend him. Or worse, make him sentimental for the old days, when she had hung out here with his sisters—Gianna and Vittoria— while Carmine lurked in the background, wanting to hit on her, but afraid that her father would hear about it and have him erased from the face of the earth.
She even wondered if she and Carmine might not have ended up dating, secretly or otherwise, if she hadn't spent most of her teenage years at the Athena Academy, an all-girl prep school in Arizona. That experience had changed Sasha's life, exposing her to cultural and ideological influences that differed greatly from her childhood in Chicago—or more accurately, the Chicago of her honorary uncle Antonio Martino and her father, don Franco Bracciali.
Still, Carmine had been enough of a stud back then to attract her when she came home during school breaks. Sasha hadn't yet discovered the dark side of her family's business, much less the way it warped men like her father—and boys like Carmine—with its heady combination of power and violence.
In those days, all she had wanted to do was design dresses, fall in love and please her father—not necessarily in that order. Slowly but surely, the Athena Academy had shown her there was more to life, nurturing her academic and creative talents while also teaching her martial arts, weaponry and mountain-climbing—skills she never would have thought to acquire otherwise. That solid foundation had given her the strength to endure and succeed even after her mother's violent death during Sasha's second year of college, an event that might otherwise have damaged Sasha beyond repair. Even so, her subsequent estrangement from her father, whom she believed was responsible for her mother's death, had almost destroyed her.
Reminding herself now of the job she had to do, she allowed Carmine to take her by the hand and lead her into a second hallway, where she noted in frustration that the door to don Martino's study was closed tight. There was no sign of Gianna, and the room was guarded by two armed men.
"What's that about?" Sasha asked in a hushed tone.
"I've never seen muscle in this part of the house. Not even during the drug war."
"We've got a very special guest," Carmine told her, adding quickly, "It's no one you know."
Noting a hint of wariness in his hazel eyes, she decided to take a chance. "I know everyone who's anyone, remember? And the more special they are, the more likely they visited my house at least once during my childhood to pay their respects to Daddy."
"I thought you needed to take a leak."
"I do. After I prove to you that I know your special guest. Unless he's so special that you aren't allowed in there with him."
Carmine laughed. "You haven't changed a bit. Still gotta have your own fucking way every single fucking minute of every single fucking day."
Sasha laughed, too. "Why should I change? I'm perfect just the way I am."
"True." He licked his lips. "How about a deal? We'll join Pop and Gianna and the guest. If you know him, I'll wait on you hand and foot for the rest of the reception. If he's a stranger to you, we'll go up to my room and you can be my love slave."
Summit's voice intruded immediately. "Negative, Camper. Do not take that bet."
"Hmm…" Sasha sifted her fingers through her long, loose hair, then nodded. "Okay, handsome. You're on."
As much as Sasha disapproved of violence, she felt a tingle of anticipation when one of the guards refused to step aside on Carmine's orders. In an instant, her muscular escort had pinned the poor slob against the doorjamb with one hand while sticking a slender silver blade against his throat.
"If this wasn't my sister's wedding day, you'd be dead," Carmine assured him. "Now apologize to the lady, then move your fucking ass out of the way."
Sasha flashed them both a playful smile, then took a deep breath and tiptoed into the sanctum sanctorum, where she saw her friend Gianna crying in the arm's of a middle-aged stranger while another man stood nearby, also sobbing. Sasha would have known the second man anywhere, despite the fact that all the shades were drawn and the lights were dimmed. "Zio Antonio!" She didn't have to pretend to be happy. "It's so wonderful to see you."
"Sasha?" He strode over to give her a bear hug. "My God, look at you. More beautiful than ever. And because of you and your God-given talent, my Gianna looks radiant, too. This gown you designed for her is a work of art. It should be displayed in the Uffizi next to the masters." He held Sasha at arm's length as he added,
"What's this I hear about you refusing to let us pay you? If anything, I should double your usual fee for such a treasure."
"You got the family discount," Sasha explained. "I hope you don't mind, but that's how I'll always see you and Gianna. And Carmine, of course."
Carmine chuckled. "No, thanks. I'm looking for a different kind of relationship."
Sasha laughed, then turned back to Antonio. "Take a closer look at Gianna. I think she's the work of art. Don't you?"
"Thanks, Sasha," Gianna said, wiping away her tears. "And thanks again for coming. I was afraid you wouldn't. And you're the closest thing to a sister I have, now that—well, you know."
Posted December 9, 2008
Athena Academy graduate and FBI agent Sasha Bracciali is undercover using her vocation as a fashion designer and her heritage as the daughter of Chicago Mafia Don 'Big Frankie' to hide her efforts to rescue an Athena student Teal Arnett being held by the new Kestonian dictator. Apparently this Eastern Europe despot is aware of Teal¿s special skills.----------- Accompanying Sasha on the rescue attempt is her FBI handler special agent Jeff Crossman, who recently has become her lover. However, inside the Kestonian compound, Sasha operates alone as she must seduce the megalomaniac in order to save the child. However, as she gets closer to mission successfully accomplished, Sasha unravels shocking information that leaves her trusting no one especially Jeff.--------------- Country name aside (Kestonia vs. Estonia?) The third Athena Force tale since the reincarnation from the Bombshell days (see THE GOOD THIEF by Judith Leon and LINE OF SIGHT by Rachel Caine) is an excellent fast-paced thriller. Sasha is terrific as an Athena graduate trying to save a current academy student while quickly finding she is alone with no one she can trust or rely on. Readers will appreciate Kate Donovan¿s entry as CHARADE is a superb action-packed romantic suspense.------------- Harriet Klausner
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