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Grace Cunningham picked up her briefcase and walked into the closet-size room that held the copy machine.
She hated hanging around after her stint in this office was finished. But, if anybody asked, she had a good reason to be here. The last time the great man who'd hired her to organize material for his autobiography had mislaid some of her notes, he'd cost her hours of work. This evening, she wanted her own copy of the research summary.
He'd left her at nine, as he always did, and she had no illusions about why. He was using her as a cover to meet another woman. And they weren't working on his book. Unless he was planning a chapter on "sexual conquests."
But as a junior research assistant with a day job at the Smithsonian, Grace wasn't in a position to complain.
Everybody in her office kept telling her how lucky she was to score this assignment. She didn't bother filling them in on the level of stress.
She'd thought he was taking his honey farther down the hall. But when intimate laughter drifted through the wall from the adjoining office, Grace went rigid. She didn't want to hear what was going on in there, but she couldn't turn off the lurid pictures that suddenly flashed into her mind.
The client was a man of immense power in the capital of the free world. A guy who worked behind the scenes in ways the public couldn't even imagine. Although a few knew his name, they felt his influence. Only in his late fifties, he was starting to worry about his health.
Grace had seen the woman—a blonde much younger than her lover. Young enough to flatter his ego.
Her low, throaty voice drifted through the closed door. "I have an idea you'll want to try."
Grace's insides clenched. Her mother hadn't raised her to listen in on a scene like this.
She turned off the copy machine and then the light as a man wearing a business suit stopped in the corridor outside the next-door office and gave the closed door a smirking look.
Obviously he knew what was going on in there, too.
Feeling her face redden, she took a step back into the shadows, hoping he hadn't seen her and wouldn't think she was eavesdropping. Every muscle in her body tensed as she listened to the sound of rustling clothing and panting breath through the connecting door.
Each minute that ticked by felt like a century. Finally she heard the moans of a man reaching orgasm.
Thankful that her unwanted stint as a voyeur was over— she went still when the cry of satisfaction changed to a loud gasping sound of pain.
The man she'd seen in the hall ran through the office where Grace was standing and charged through the connecting door into the room where the lovers were closeted. He was shouting something that sounded like, "Ridgeway is down! Repeat. Ridgeway is down!"
Obviously the guards had gone into panic mode. Seconds later, more footsteps came pounding down the hallway.
The door between the two offices was open, giving Grace an excellent view of what was going on inside. She pressed her fist against her mouth. A few moments ago she'd been embarrassed by the sounds of lovemaking. Now she was grappling with something far worse.
Armed bodyguards kicked open the hall door and shoved their way into the office where the man lay unmoving on the beige carpet.
"Get a doctor," one of them shouted into the microphone at his collar. "He's unconscious. Get the defibrillator."
A man holstered his weapon and sprinted into the hall, reappearing moments later with a plastic case. Someone else started CPR.
Grace shrank into the shadows, her heart pounding as she stared at John Ridgeway, head of the Ridgeway Consortium, one of the most prestigious think tanks in DC. This morning he'd been advising the president. Now he was lying gray and unconscious in a back office of the consortium's downtown headquarters.
Her gaze bounced around the room, and she saw Ridgeway's sex partner crouched in the corner, pulling up the bodice of her black dress to cover her small breasts.
The woman's gaze met Grace's for a couple of frantic heartbeats, then flicked to the right before settling on the bodyguard bearing down on her. Grace knew her name. It was Karen Hilliard.
The man grabbed Karen by the elbow and pulled her roughly to her feet.
"What the hell did you do?" he demanded, thrusting his face into hers.
She raised her chin. "Nothing. I haven't done anything. Let me go."
The man's hold on her arm tightened. "You're kidding, right?"
More footsteps came rapidly down the hall, and an older man with thinning dark hair and unstylish horn-rimmed glasses entered the scene of chaos. Grace recognized him at once. Ian Wickers, Ridgeway's chief of staff.
"Looks like a heart attack."
"Will he pull through?"
"Don't know. The doc's on his way."
Wickers turned to the guard who held the woman in place. "Take her to the secure room in the basement."
The man hustled Karen out. After they were gone, Wickers addressed the room at large, his voice clipped and commanding. "Archer, zip up his fly."
One of the bodyguards kneeling over the unconscious man unceremoniously maneuvered his limp penis back inside his underwear and zipped up his pants.
Wickers kept talking. "Mr. Ridgeway was alone when he had a heart attack. I'm not going to have a scandal cloud the reputation of the consortium."
"Yes, sir," came a chorus of agreement.
From her hiding place in the next room, Grace watched the unfolding drama, her heart thumping. When her knees threatened to give way, she leaned back against the wall, grappling with her own disbelief.
It had all happened so fast. Too fast. She should have done something. But what?
Her brain threatened to shut down. But she forced herself to take deep breaths and stay cool.
One salient fact leaped out at her, grabbed her by the throat and wouldn't let go.
She was a witness to a cover-up of major proportions. They'd hauled Karen Hilliard off to the basement and made it look as if John Ridgeway was alone and working late. What was going to happen to Karen Hilliard now? And what would these ruthless men do if they discovered another woman had seen everything? Heard everything. Would they let her live to tell about it?
Feeling as if she was standing on quicksand, she pressed her hand against the hard surface of the copy machine. If only she'd left the building when her research job was over, she'd be home by now.
The medics brought a stretcher and loaded the unconscious man onto it.
"Will he make it?" Wickers asked.
"He's already dead. Like Michael Jackson," the doctor answered.
After all the frantic activity, the room and the hallway were finally empty. This might be her only chance to get away.
The security man who had seen her earlier had forgotten about her in the confusion. But when he started thinking clearly, he would remember there'd been a witness.
She wanted to run. But she forced herself not to panic. Two years ago she'd turned her life upside down and come to Washington on her own. If she could do that, she could get through this.
At least she'd caught one lucky break. She'd gone shopping with a coworker on her lunch hour at a couple of the boutiques on Seventh Street. Fumbling in her briefcase, she pulled out a black jockey's cap and jammed it onto her head, pushing her sable-colored locks out of sight.
She thought about hiding her blue eyes with sunglasses. But that would look strange at night.
Keeping her head down so the security cameras wouldn't pick up her face, she stepped out of the copy-machine room.
But she couldn't stop the death scene from playing out in her mind. She'd known Ridgeway had heart problems. And hidden them from the public. He was arrogant. And secretive. And he'd thought he could operate outside the laws of God and man.
She started to turn away. Then from under the sofa, she caught the glint of something that sparkled. As she stared at it, she remembered the split second when Karen had looked at her—then to her right. Toward the couch.
Every self-protective instinct screamed at Grace to get out of the building before it was too late. But instead of running in the other direction, she took a quick step toward the couch, then another. Reaching underneath, she felt something that wasn't part of the office equipment. It was Karen's beaded evening bag.
Had it gotten kicked there during the emergency? Or had Karen deliberately hidden it?
Why? As proof of what had happened?
Or maybe she'd understood Grace's dilemma—and handed her a kind of insurance policy.
With shaking fingers, she shoved the evening bag into her briefcase. Conscious that she had to get out before they locked down the consortium complex, she stood and walked into the hall, striding to the exit as if she'd only been working late.
"See you next week?" the security guard asked, and she knew he wasn't in the loop.
"Yes," she managed to say in a cheerful voice as she turned in her badge, signed out and walked toward the gate that opened onto Pennsylvania Avenue, praying it was still open.
Brady Lockwood bent his muscular six-foot frame so that he could stare into the unpromising depths of the refrigerator, eyeing a red-and-white carton of kung pao chicken and half a Philly cheese steak.
How old were they, exactly? Probably old enough to send his digestive system into spasms.
He tossed the takeout containers into the trash, then grabbed a bottle of ginger beer and took a swig, wincing as the sharp bite of the potent soft drink hit his mouth.
For the past three years he'd lived in Washington, DC, in La Fontana, one of the grand old apartment buildings that lined upper Connecticut Avenue.
Better get back to work, he told himself, heading for the office down the hall. He'd taken a new case this afternoon. Typical P.I. deadbeat-dad stuff. Not like the interesting assignments he'd gotten from the Light Street Detective Agency.
But that was then. This was now.
He'd just started thumbing through the files, when the phone rang. Although the ID didn't give the caller's name, the number told him it was the Ridgeway residence.
He braced to hear his brother asking for help with his latest mess.
Instead, John's wife expelled the breath she must have been holding. "Brady, thank God."
"Lydia, what's wrong?" he asked, picturing her delicate aristocratic features stiff with tension but not a strand of her dyed auburn hair out of place.
"I can't talk over the phone," she said, her control almost slipping. "Just come over here. I…need you."
I need you.
In the twenty-five years they'd known each other, she had never uttered those words. In public she could look friendly. But she'd never asked for his help. What was going on over there?
"I'm on my way."
Hurriedly, Brady changed from sweats into dark slacks and a button-down shirt. As an afterthought, he shrugged into a tweed jacket and paused to swipe a comb through his unruly dark hair.
On the ride up rain-washed Connecticut Avenue, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He reached for his cell phone, then drew his hand back. He couldn't call Lydia to ask what was wrong, not when she'd sounded so secretive. Was she going behind John's back? What?
As he wove in and out of traffic, his mind drifted to the strange workings of fate. And of genetics.
Brady might be the smarter brother, but it was John who had the ear of the U.S. President.
Brady's goals had been more modest. He'd seen what the quest for power did to a man, how it changed his values and warped his perspective. All he'd wanted was a fulfilling job, a comfortable life—and a wife and two kids.
His hands clenched on the wheel. Unfortunately, that had been too much to ask.
As he turned into the driveway of the Ridgeway estate, the man in the guardhouse gave him a grim-faced look. Before Brady could blink, a bank of bright lights switched on, momentarily blinding him.
"Get out of the car," a voice boomed. "Keep your hands in the air where we can see them."
Shadows moved behind the lights. Men. With guns—judging by the glint of metal.
"Out of the car," the voice boomed again. "On the double if you don't want to get your ass shot."
Brady stepped into the rain, blinking as the spotlights stabbed into his vision.
From behind the wall of light, he heard a familiar voice, Bill Giordano, the man who headed his brother's home security detail.
"It's okay, Taylor. He's Ridgeway's brother."
Brady was allowed to get back into the car, along with the security man, and they proceeded up a curving drive toward the fifty-room mansion his brother had bought ten years ago.
"What are you doing here?" Giordano said, speaking in the quiet tone that Brady knew meant watch out how you answer.
"Lydia called me. She said she needed me. What's going on?"
"There's no easy way to say this. Your brother is dead."
Brady managed to drag in enough air to say, "How?"
"Heart attack—we think," Giordano answered. "He was catching up on some work at the office before he and Lydia went to a reception."
"Doesn't the consortium have a doctor on staff?"
"And defibrillators. All the goddamn latest equipment. If they could have saved him, you know damn well they would have."
Brady nodded, trying to pull himself together.
Lydia was waiting for him in the upstairs family lounge. Her eyes were red-rimmed as she walked toward him, setting a glass on an end table as she crossed the room.
As if to mock the occasion, she was dressed for an evening reception in a long emerald gown that was the perfect color for her hair and skin.
When she embraced him, the scent of the liquor on her breath grabbed him as tightly as her arms, and a seductive thought wove itself into his mind. He could have a shot of bourbon. Just one. To get himself through the trauma of John's death.
One drink, and he was on a one-way trip to hell. No bourbon. No exceptions.
The cab pulled up in front of Grace's apartment just off Dupont Circle. She already had a ten-dollar bill in her hand, which she handed to the cabdriver.
"Keep the change," she called as she hurried through the drizzle to the front door of the converted brownstone. Once it had been a single residence. Now each floor had two apartments.
Her low-heeled shoes clattered on the uncarpeted wooden steps as she climbed to her second-floor unit, unlocked her front door and stepped into the small living room.
When she'd locked the door behind her, she stopped short, her stomach clenching as she looked around the shadowy room.