Read an Excerpt
By Annie Solomon
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2003 Wylann Soloman
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Baby, oh baby, oh baby." Like a hot breeze, a hoot of laughter drifted across the night-lit airfield as Finn Carver descended from the charter plane.
The laughing man crossed his arms and leaned against the car parked on the edge of the Memphis tarmac, the runway lights illuminating him. "My, my, my, don't you look good."
But Finn was in no mood for teasing. "Cut the crap, Jack." He pitched his briefcase and overnight bag to Jack Saunders and tried to ignore the way the younger man was making a big production out of admiring Finn's tuxedo.
"Yessir." Jack gave a long, low wolf whistle. "The storm troopers have definitely arrived." Finn eyed Jack's baggy Hawaiian shirt, worn loose over a pair of rumpled khakis. "I wouldn't talk. You could take a few fashion lessons yourself."
Jack grinned and shrugged off the criticism the way he always did. "Yeah, but then I'd lose the thing that makes me so ... so me."
Behind them, the pilot hurried into the hangar, leaving Finn and Jack alone on the empty tarmac. It was past midnight, and the heavy delta air seeped beneath the collar of Finn's white dress shirt. But humidity wasn't the only thing making him sweat.
He scowled, crushing that thought. Nothing on earth would put him on the run, least of all a woman. He wrenched off the sleek black jacket and tossed it in the back of the car before folding himself into the passenger seat. "Come on, Jack," Finn called out. "It's not like the bad guys are going to wait while you get your rocks off ragging me."
Jack stowed Finn's bag and briefcase in the trunk, then slid behind the wheel. "I gather you want to skip the how are you's?"
"Just brief me." Jack shook his head. "Someday you're going to learn to slow down and say hello." "Jack-"
"Just trying to save your life here, buddy. You saved mine." "I didn't-"
"You gotta learn to loosen up. You don't want to keel over from a heart attack before you're forty, do you?" "Jack ..." He could give the younger man a heart attack himself and his voice clearly said so.
Jack only grinned at the threatening tone. Jesus, the guy was worse than a puppy. Nothing you did put him off.
But Jack held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, I get it. Work, work, work. So here's the deal." Suddenly he was all-business. "I drop you off at the house where the party's at, then take your stuff to the motel. Here's the address."
He fished a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to Finn. "I stashed a cop at the house to keep an eye on things. I'll drive back to the house, leave this car there, and catch a ride back with the cop." He reached into the glove compartment. "Here," he said. "Credit cards, driver's license, social security card. Welcome back, Agent Carver."
Finn shuffled through the identification, saw his own name printed on everything, and replaced the cards he'd been carrying in his wallet for the past six days. He let out a tense breath and leaned back against the headrest. It was good to be clean for once. Twelve hours ago he'd been unshaven, scouring dockside bars and low-life coffee shops for even the slightest hint of where the package he'd been hunting might land. All he'd unearthed were the same rumors they'd been hearing for weeks. Something big, powerful, and nuclear was going on the market but no one knew where or when.
Then Roper had contacted him, said they'd found the girl.
Finn had grabbed a fast haircut, a tux, and boarded the charter almost before he'd had time to breathe. And now here he was, about to resurrect a ghost. "You're sure this is her?" Finn asked.
"People told me you had a problem with trust," Jack said in a mock mournful voice, "but I didn't want to believe it." He reached for a manila envelope imprisoned by the visor in front of him, flipped it into Finn's lap, and started the engine.
As the car pulled away from the hangar, Finn slipped out the surveillance pictures and swore softly. "What'd I tell you," Jack said. "It's her." "Now this is hard to believe." "The eyes don't lie."
Finn nodded thoughtfully. No, they didn't, but pictures did. He'd have to see for himself. "Where is she?" "At Beaman's digs. Partying. Hence the party clothes." Jack nodded toward Finn and the tuxedo he wore. "I thought Beaman just died."
"A week ago." Jack gave a cynical snort. "But everyone handles grief in their own special way."
Finn slipped into silence, thinking about the woman in the pictures. He didn't know much about her, but what he knew was keeping his palms slick, even in the air-conditioned car. His record was piss-poor when it came to working with women, especially this kind. Third-rate "actress," second-rate country singer, first-rate gold digger. Well, everyone had their talents.
And clearly men were hers. Old men. With lots of money. Lucky for him that was exactly the skill he needed right now. Yeah, real lucky.
"Beaman was what," Finn said, scanning the report enclosed in the envelope with the pictures, "soul mate number four?"
"And counting," Jack replied. "She chews 'em up and spits 'em out. Can't help but admire her, though. At least she's well paid."
"Those extra bucks are going to come in handy since old Uncle Sam doesn't pay top dollar." "That's assuming she'll do it."
"Oh, she'll do it. With Beaman out of the picture, her free ride's gone-" "She's vulnerable," Jack said, egging him on. "Probably lonely, afraid-"
"Exactly. Just ripe for the picking." Jack shook his head. "Jesus, you're a cold bastard."
Not cold enough if his sweaty hands were proof. "It's a cold world, Jack, and we're the ones keeping it from getting colder. I do what it takes to get the job done."
Twenty minutes later Jack headed up a long winding drive that led to a large estate overlooking the Mississippi River. A columned portico set the front of the house off from the stately brick wings on either side. Greenery climbed the brick; thickly flowering shrubs adorned the entryway. The house was old and dignified, or it had been. Right now lights blazed out the windows like cut-rate diamonds, and raunchy, bass-heavy music pounded so loudly through the front door Finn could hear it outside. His pulse notched up, pushed by a big fat slice of d?j? vu. Scanning the grounds, he checked the perimeter and picked out Jack's cop, who was dressed as a uniformed valet.
At a nod, he came to the driver's side. Jack rolled down the window and murmured softly, "Everything okay?" The cop knelt to window level. "Party's still going strong. The other valet tells me it'll rage for hours yet." He eyed Finn curiously. "Heard a rumor they were sending in some hotshot undercover guy. If it's you, you're in for a real treat, pal. But I got some advice." He leaned in close and grinned. "Make sure you hold on to your zipper." Angelina Mercer stood in a corner of Arthur Beaman's large, luxurious living room and watched the party swirl around her. Because of the June heat and the crush of people, the air-conditioning was set at arctic, and she was cold.
Truth was she'd been cold for a week. Ever since she found Arthur Beaman crumpled on the floor, dead from a massive stroke. Tears pricked her eyes but she blinked them away. God, she missed the old man.
She looked around at the drunken bodies crowded into Beamer's house. The party was exactly as he'd specified: loud, crowded, and full of booze. He would have loved the send-off.
Too bad it wasn't doing much for her. She looked down at the vodka in her hand. She should be drunk; she needed to be drunk.
Trouble was, she didn't feel like drinking tonight. Darling girl, she heard Beamer's crusty voice say in her head. Life is too short for the mopes. Suddenly she felt the old man frowning down on her from wherever the hell he was now. And more than anything, she wanted to wipe away that frown and put the mischievous smile back on his eighty-year-old face. The hell with the mopes.
The hell with death and loss and moving on. This party was for Beamer, and she'd be damned if she'd disappoint him. She raised her glass heavenward. Here's to you, old man. She tossed back half her drink and plunged into the crowd.
Finn stepped inside Beaman's house and grimaced at the full force of the sound. Tuxedos and gowns swarmed over the plush interior. He pushed his way past the laughing group gathered under the hallway's vaulted ceiling. Screaming to be heard over the noise, the partygoers paid no attention to him. Balloons and streamers lay in disarray over a gleaming black and white marble floor. He stepped over them, pushed some away. Someone handed him a drink, but he set it down. He needed a clear head tonight.
The crowd thickened as he moved inward, black satin over white brocade. Well-fed men stood in clusters around marble sculptures. Wraith-thin women draped over expensive furniture. A few turned his way with an interested eye, but he ignored them.
A burst of laughter came at him from the sidelines, sharp as a gunshot. Somewhere someone was coking up, dropping Ecstasy or whatever designer drug was the trend of the hour. There was sex here, too. In the coatroom, the closet, in furtive corners, people mating like rats in a dark alley. And somewhere there was betrayal. Not his own this time, but it was here, he could smell it. The knowledge rose up like a sickness, the haze of booze and smoke sliding over his shoulders like a coat he hadn't worn in a long while.
A banner that read "Bye-bye Beamer" spanned the living-room entrance. Inside, the room looked as though it had been packed into a dice cup, shaken up, and rolled out, furniture landing every which way. Green and gold striped sofas with green velvet pillows stood uncomfortably out of place against the edges. Gilt-edged mirrors still hung on the walls, but the marble-topped tables that should have been beneath them sat askew. A baby grand had been stuffed into a corner to make more room for the horde, which roiled, shifted, and all of a sudden split in two.
And then he saw her. The hair was looser, the clothes outrageous, the face younger. But the resemblance was unmistakable. A shaft of something almost like fear pierced him quick and sharp. Deep down he'd been hoping the pictures had been deceptive, that Roper and Jack and everyone else had gotten it wrong. But they hadn't.
She held a drink in one hand, her lithe body undulating in an impromptu belly dance while a ring of men clapped and cheered her on. Thick blond hair fell in voluptuous waves around her face and shoulders. A clingy white skirt, shimmery with silver thread, hugged the curve of her hips and exposed the top of her navel. Although it reached her ankles and the knife-sharp heels she wore, the skirt was also slashed open to the top of her shapely thigh. Encased in a skimpy, sequined halter, her full breasts shone white and shiny as her skirt. Between the two, bare skin gleamed tan and supple, and exquis-itely tempting.
Your mouth's watering, Carver. No, it isn't.
He leaned into the living room's arched entrance and watched Angelina Mercer work the room. Her long, tanned leg swung sinuously in and out of the opening in her skirt. Her smooth arms wove above her head, her hips gyrated, her eyes glittered with the challenge, Come get me if you dare. He'd bet that every male in the room felt something move in his shorts.
Including him. A final guitar chord screamed, and she upended her drink, downing every drop. "Here's to Beamer!" Her crowd of admirers cheered. "To Beamer!"
Ample breasts rising and falling in breathlessness, she headed out of the male circle, skin glistening with exertion. "More!" the crowd took up the cry, stamping their feet in time with the chant. "More, more, more!" "You know what they say about too much of a good thing," she shouted over the blare of the next song. With a laugh, she threw herself at one of the men and gave him a loud smooch on the mouth. "Get drunk, everyone!" And she whooshed out of the circle toward Finn.
He lounged against the arch, making no overt move to catch her attention. She'd notice him soon enough. Then the man she'd just kissed pulled her roughly back into his arms, and the problem of meeting her took care of itself. She laughed and tried to squirm away, but the drunk had her fast. "Come on, baby, let's have a little more of that."
"Let go of me." Rising panic edged her voice and Finn pushed himself off the entry. He strolled toward the struggling couple and casually placed an arm around the drunk, looking for all the world like his best friend. Except Finn tightened his grip, squeezing so hard that the drunk gasped in pain and dropped his hold on Angelina. Finn smiled. "You may want more, but the lady's had enough." Before the guy could react, Finn spun him around until the drunk staggered dizzily and faced the center of the room. "Back to the party, pal." He gave the man a gentle shove, and he disappeared into the crowd. Then Finn turned to the woman, who raised an amused eyebrow at him. "Well, well, Sir Galahad. Nicely done." A cool one. Good. For what he wanted she'd need to be cool.
"Thank you." She extended her hand in a graceful arc, as though he should kiss it. Something on her left shoulder caught his attention-an odd-shaped beauty mark or tattoo-but before he could examine it, she levered herself closer and he found himself staring into a pair of ice-green eyes.
That's right, Angelina. Come to Papa. "Not Galahad," he said.
"Robin Hood?" She poked him playfully in the chest with one long, slim, manicured finger. "Whoever you are, I don't know you." Her breasts brushed his arm, her perfume coiled around him, and the blood went straight to his groin.
Silently, he cursed his own weakness and winked at her. "Sure you do."
"Friend of Beamer's?" "I knew him, yeah." She appraised him, a shrewd expression on her face. "No. I don't think you did." He smiled. "Friend of a friend." She grinned back; she had his number now. "You are a party crasher." He didn't deny it. "What's a party without a few uninvited ... friends?"
She dropped an arm lazily over his shoulder and looked up at him. Her hip grazed his. He forced himself to stand still and ignore the sweat starting at the back of his neck where her arm lay like a cool steel trap. She smiled, her lips promising worlds. "Do you have a name ... friend?"
A moment ago, he would have sworn her eyes looked bright, but up close the green was tinged with sadness. Weary eyes. Old eyes. Where had he seen eyes like that before? He said, "Finn." "Fin?" She threw him the 'that's weird' look he always got when he introduced himself. "Yeah, Finn. Like in shark."
She laughed, throwing her head back. "Well, Fin," she gave his name mock emphasis, "sharks like to swim around in the cool and the wet, and you're all dry." She held up her empty glass, swirling the ice. "Me, too."
Excerpted from Dead Ringer by Annie Solomon Copyright © 2003 by Wylann Soloman. Excerpted by permission.
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