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Five weeks later
Detective John D'Ambrosia didn't do parties.
Standing near one of five bars set up throughout the elegant St. Charles Avenue mansion, he tapped his finger against the crystal tumbler, and savored the irony. For a man who religiously turned down invitations to happy hours and crawfish boils, he spent an obscene amount of time finessing invitations to parties at which he wasn't wanted.
But there was a difference. It was the man who said no. The undercover detective never overlooked an opportunity.
Surveying the room, he studied everything. The number of exits. Where each was located. If they were manned. How many security guards mingled with the guests. If they were packing.
Fifteen, he counted, including one dressed like a waiter. Others wore tuxedos, just like the other guests. Even John. The once tailored jacket hung looser than the last time he'd put it on. he'd lost weight.
He couldn't complain. His partner had lost his life. The thought ground through him, crystallizing his attention on the elite of New Orleans. They drank and laughed and postured, while Alec lay in a crypt on the outskirts of the city. he'd been a good cop, even if in the end he'd been labeled bad. There'd been no twelve-gun salutes. No bagpipes. No convoy of police officers from parishes across southern Louisiana to pay respect.
Because dirty cops didn't get respect. They got iced. Keeping his expression impassive, John forced his fingers to loosen their death grip on the crystal. he'd tried to do as his C.O. had instructed. Clear his head. Gain perspective. But the silence had screamed at him, and the forced vacation had given his mind toomuch time to wander. And the woman
This time the crystal did shatter. Shards sliced into his palms as they fell to the parquet floor, the tonic water splashing his pants. Scowling, he closed his fingers into a fist, and felt blood.
After all this time, after all the things his hands had done, that surprised him. He would have sworn he couldn't bleed anymore.
He signaled a waiter and grabbed a wad of cocktail napkins, used them to staunch the bleeding. The woman was of no consequence. Alec was. he'd been a good man. he'd had a wife. he'd wanted kids.
Making sure his killer paid was all that mattered.
In a port city like New Orleans, black-market contraband was nothing new. But over the past six months there'd been a sharp escalation. At first mundane things, such as knockoff designer handbags and computer chips. Then a shipment of pharmaceuticals had been seized, a cancer drug that was anything but. Then came the seven dead college students with heroin in their systems, the narcotic altered somehow. Different. A hundred times more lethal.
And then there was the Russian girl found running down Tchoupitoulas. Naked. Emaciated. Beaten.
She refused to speak, not even to the soft-spoken Russian teacher from Tulane. But her eyes had flared when she'd been shown the picture of a manthe same man whose name appeared in Alec's secret files.
Now John stood in that man's home, watching him cross the extravagantly decorated den with a drink in his hand and the world at his feet. Like an actor taking the stage, the tall, deceptively elegant man moved through the adoring guests with warm smiles and polite nods. Because that's what Nathan Lambert did. Deceive, and take.
Smiling, the silver-haired man thumped a younger man on the back, kissed an older woman's hand. A younger woman put her arms around him, leaning in to kiss the sliver of his face not concealed by a wolfish Mardi Gras mask.
Nathan Lambert accepted it without missing a beat, wiped his clean-shaven cheek, then moved on.
Because that, too, was what Nathan Lambert did. Moved on. Celebrated importer by day and southern gentleman by night, the man appeared untouchable. Rumors linking him to black-market activities had circulated for years, but nothing was ever proven. Few even investigated. Especially after Lambert's only son died a hero's death inAfghanistan. In grief, he'd become as much of a martyr as his son.
John was not impressed.
With a discretion he had down to a science, he left the wadded, bloodied napkins on a serving tray and wandered to the dining room, where candles flickered from every ledge, every table. Expensive artwork hung from paneled walls, while the sound of jazz drifted in from the verandah.
The scent of roses and spice stopped him. For all of one sharp heartbeat. He turned abruptly, saw the woman. She stood on the other side of the highly-polished table, in a cluster of three other women. But removed somehow. As if she wasn't really there. A long, tight-fitting gown the color of bronze hugged her body, while Egyptian-styled feathers concealed her face.
The urge to rip off the mask moved through him with a violence that stunned.
From behind his own maskMidnight Magic, the clerk had called ithe watched the way she dragged her finger along the rim of her wineglass, then forced himself to turn away. Her hair was auburn, not midnight. Her lips the color of blood, not that of a lover's flush. But the perfume."
Didn't matter. He couldn't spin around in circles every time he smelled the soft scent of roses and spice.
Frowning, he plucked a stem from the tray of a passing waiter and returned to the main room, where Lambert still held court. When a woman in a red-feathered mask asked him to dance, John obliged. When another asked him to fetch a drink, he obliged that, as well. Anything to make sure he didn't stand out.
From the far side of the room, a woman came into view, and everything shifted. It was the woman from the dining room, with the mask of green, purple and black feathers, the gold sequined eye slits. This time John started toward her. Until Lambert intercepted. The older man curved a hand around her hip, shattering any possibility of this considerably younger woman being Lambert's daughter.
At least John sure as hell hoped she wasn't his daughter. In her strappy stilettos she stood an inch or two taller than her companion. Her auburn hair was twisted behind her head to leave her shoulders bare. Actually, the dress did that. Its length sheathed her too-thin body as if someone had used a fine brush to paint the bronze over every curve
The image slipped in before he could stop it: long, dark hair and liquid brown eyes, pale flesh and curves. It had been his hand that slid along every inch
He crushed the memory, allowed himself only to focus on Lambert's companion. The way she smiled. The fluidity with which she moved. The way Lambert constantly kept a hand on her.
Everyone had a weakness, just as everyone had a price. And he'd bet his last dollar he'd just found Lambert's.
Now he had only to find the woman's.
The plan was so simple it almost made John laugh. Lambert had taken something from John that he could never get back.
Now, John intended to return the favor.
Everywhere she looked, she saw him. Everywhere she turned, he was there. Even when she closed her eyesespecially when she closed her eyes. That was when her imagination would take over, and she would find him as he'd been the last time she'd seen him, sprawled on a cot with a white sheet tangled around his hips, his olive-skinned chest and shoulders bare, his breathing rhythmic.
The urge to return to him, to slide next to him and press her body against his one more time had almost ruined everything. She'd done what she had to do. And despite the fact her plan had blown up in her face, she would not allow herself to look back. There was only forward. And Nathan.
Enjoying a moment out of the spotlight, she skimmed the rim of her wineglass along her lower lip and watched the man who could turn the future she craved into reality. He stood across the room, a tall, distinguished-looking man with thick dark hair and classic bone structure. But behind the genteel mask he showed the world, she'd caught something else in his eyes, a sadness she should have expected, but hadn't. She'd heard too many stories over the years, vicious rumors and scandalous allegations. In her mind she'd turned him into an unfeeling ogre.
But now she realized her mistake.
Nathan Lambert was a man of deep, driving passion, just like
The thought stopped her cold. She tightened her fingers against the crystal and took a deep swallow, savored the kick of the alcohol. She refused to feel anything else, refused to let her mind drift to another man. Another night. Another lifetime.
It galled her that she wasn't sure which man it was who made her body burnthe man she'd loved, or the man she'd used.
Deep inside something shifted, and along with it came an awareness she'd once relied on. From behind her feathered mask she scanned the room, and saw him. The man from the dining room. He lounged just inside an arched doorway, his big body deceptively relaxed, his mask black feathers with a red accent plumehiding much of his face. But not the fact that he watched her. His smile was languorous as he lifted his glass toward her and held it that wayin greeting or toast or dare, she didn't knowfor a long, tight moment. Then he brought the stem to his mouth and finished off his drink.
Saura felt the zing clear down to her toes.
Once she would have returned the gesture without thinking twice. Just five weeks ago she'd initiated a similar challenge. But she'd been playing by different rules then.
Now she played by Nathan's.
Or at least pretended to.
And Saura Robichaud could pretend very, very well. Especially when she wanted something. Which she did. Very, very badly.
Pretending not to notice the way the stranger still watched her, she angled her chin and looked toward the far side of the room. If Nathan still
He was gone.
The invisible shackles that had kept her in place most of the evening vanished, and she moved quickly, working her way through the revelers, toward the hallway that ran down the center of the old house. She was a tall woman with a long stride, but the slim gown kept her steps like those of a geisha. She hurried anyway, despite the way her ankles wobbled against the obscenely high heels she'd chosen.
It had been two years since she'd worn anything other than sneakers or flip-flops.
She didn't have much time. Nathan would be back soon. He rarely left her alone for long. She had to
"Excuse me, ma'am?"
She would have kept walking, but along with the words came the soft, cool feel of a woman's hand against her forearm. She stopped and turned, saw an older woman with a gold sequined cat-eye mask peering up at her. "I'm sorry, I was just on my way"
"Of course you are," the woman said. "But he asked me to find you, let you know he's waiting."
Saura stiffened. "He?, "Your date," the woman said. "He's on the patio."
The surge of excitement crystallized into something sharp and brittle. With forced politeness, she thanked the woman and made her way toward the doors thrown open to the festive patio. Music drifted in from the night, not lively and fast like the band had been playing most of the evening, but slower, more rhythmic.
The memory swept in so fast she had no time to brace herself, no time to ward off the nonexistent scent of soap and leather and man. Of sweat.
Then she saw him. Not Nathan. But the stranger from across the room, outside now, lounging against one of the columns supporting the verandah. As soon as she stepped outside he pushed away and started toward her.
Instinctively she turned. Nathan was waiting
She realized her mistake too late. The older woman had not said Nathan or Mr. Lambert, as one of his guests surely would have. She'd simply said your date.
"Nice night," came the man's voice from behind her, and before she could lose herself in the crowd, he had a hand on her body, and she realized she had two choices: run and make a scene, or oblige him and get this over with.
Slowly, she turned, found herself looking straight into his black bow tie. "I hadn't noticed."