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He seldom wore his gun anymore. A senior agent at Quantico, his regular assignment was in the classroom. Today, he was in New York for a consultation and seminar, teaching other special operation personnel how to go undercover and get out in one piece. Payne had the practical knowledge. Twelve years ago when he was twenty-four, he'd infiltrated the upper echelons of a Chicago crime family and lived among them for eighteen months. His tapes, wire taps and sequestered testimony had taken down seven minor crime bosses and toppled the Verone family. He should have been proud. In certain FBI circles, Payne was considered a legend.
Yet, he never thought of that time without regret. His efforts hadn't ended corruption in greater Chicago. He'd barely made a dent. When the Verones stepped down, another family arose to take their place. Crime was a many-headed hydra, voracious andunstoppable. Now, a dozen years later, Gus Verone, the old patriarch, had regained supremacy. Except for two men still serving time in federal prison, it was as if Payne's undercover operation had never happened.
"You're going to love this restaurant," his companion said.
"Why's that, Danny-O?"
Danny Oliphant, like many of the younger agents, assumed that Payne was of Mediterranean descent. Because of his black hair and dark eyes? A superficial resemblance to Al Pacino? It wasn't true; Payne wasn't Italian. His surname, Magnuson, was Scotch, and he'd grown up in Wisconsin where the culinary fare was mainly meat and potatoes. His only association with Italian cooking was during his undercover assignment when he immersed himself in the culture and passed as Pete Maggio.
As a general rule, Payne avoided the Italian scene. He'd met a lot of people in Chicago he couldn't face again. Not that they'd be expecting to see him. Payne, in his incarnation as Pete Maggio, was supposed to be dead.
Danny Oliphant - a husky redhead with an innocent, snub-nosed face - held open the door to the corner restaurant, Mama Paisan's. They shook off the cold in the foyer and stepped inside where a pleasant warmth surrounded them. In keeping with the neighborhood location, the decor was casual with red checkered tablecloths and woven Chianti bottles used as flower vases. A long bar traversed one wall. Above the noise of conversation, Payne heard the background music of a tarantella.
Instinctively, he scanned the faces of restaurant patrons, looking for enemies. He recognized one man. Not an enemy. Another agent from today's seminar.
"Luke Borman." Payne turned to Danny-O. "I didn't know we were meeting anyone."
"Me neither." Danny-O waved and approached the other man. "Hey, Luke. Good to see you. What are the odds we'd end up at the same place?"
Too high, Payne thought. As he reached across the table to shake hands, Luke's jacket gaped open and Payne noticed the handle of the gun in his shoulder holster. Not standard FBI issue. This casual dinner was beginning to feel like a setup.
"Join us," Danny-O offered.
"Thanks, but no," Luke said. He checked his wristwatch. "I'm waiting for my girlfriend. She's late, as usual."
His reason for being at Mama Paisan's sounded innocent enough. Luke's presence was nothing more than coincidence, except Payne didn't believe in random chance. Everything happened for a reason.
He led the way to a table in the middle of the restaurant and sat with his back to the wall. Though he remained alert to potential danger, the comfortable atmosphere soothed him. The mouthwatering fragrance of rich sauces and fresh bread tickled his senses and took him back in time. He remembered a candlelit dinner in his Chicago apartment. Twelve years ago. And he remembered a woman, the woman, Candace Verone. Slender with long coltish legs, she swept through his small one-bedroom apartment with sinuous grace. Wisps of long chestnut hair escaped her ponytail and curled at the edge of her high cheekbones. She wore no makeup, didn't need any. Her hazel eyes were ringed with thick, black lashes. Her full lips glistened with a soft, natural pink. She was only nineteen but seemed more mature. The constant drama of the Verone crime family would be enough to age anyone, especially a sensitive coed with a strong sense of justice and truth.
Candace Verone. Payne thought of her often. The atmosphere at Mama Paisan's brought her back to him with unbearable vividness. He remembered her leaning across the table in his apartment, holding out a serving spoon for him to sample the tomato sauce that had been bubbling on the stove for hours. In memory, his tongue tasted the perfect blend of fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers and garlic. In her eyes, the candlelight reflected a winsome glow.
He'd wanted to be honest with her, to explain his undercover work. To do so would have been dangerous. For both of them. He figured that when his assignment ended, he would come back for her. But such solace was not to be. She vanished after the final takedown. Though it seemed impossible, she was gone without a trace, never to be heard from again. Her disappearance was a tribute to the national and international connections of the patriarch, Gus Verone. He'd hidden his granddaughter so effectively that even the FBI couldn't locate her. Payne had followed every lead, every hint. He would've done anything to see her again, to taste her lips, to feel her delicate body cradled tight against his -
"Payne!" Danny-O called him back to reality, nodding toward the waitress. "Should we get wine with dinner?"
"Burgundy," Payne said. Candace had preferred red wine, full-bodied and rich. "A liter."
There was no reason to avoid alcohol. He wasn't on duty. This afternoon's consultation and seminar on undercover procedure had gone smoothly, and he planned to head back to D.C. tomorrow morning.
Danny-O planted his elbows on the checkered tablecloth and leaned forward. With his red hair and freckles, he looked like Opie grown up. "What was it really like? Being inside?"
Payne shrugged. This wasn't the place to be discussing undercover ops. "Just a job."
"Did you ever, you know, get too involved? Did you ever think of dumping the assignment and joining the family?"
What kind of question was that? A test of loyalty? He wondered if Danny-O had an ulterior motive when he volunteered to show Payne the town. "Why do you ask?"
"You got to admit, the families have a certain appeal. Lots of money. Good wine. Great food." He gestured to the table in front of them where the waitress placed a basket of warm crusty bread. Danny-O winked up at her. "Beautiful women."
She smiled back at him and moved away. Her graceful hips undulated as she wove through the half-filled tables. It was a decent-sized crowd for a Thursday night when the weather was dismal. Payne watched as the waitress swished through the swinging door into the kitchen. What lay behind that door?
He glanced again at Luke Borman whose girlfriend had not yet arrived. Something about this dinner was wrong. Payne's instincts, honed from years of ferreting out deceit, warned him to move on. He held up his wristwatch and made an excuse. "Sorry, Danny, I don't really have time for dinner. I'm meeting someone at ten."
"Who?" Danny-O challenged.
"Someone." His tone was clipped, final. He'd say no more. Explanation was unnecessary; a senior agent deserved respect.
"At least have a glass of wine." Danny-O raised both hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Come on, Payne. You can spare time for one glass, can't you?"
Was he stalling, trying to buy time to keep Payne at the table? "You sound anxious, Danny-O. Been under stress lately?"
Excerpted from The Secret She Keeps by Cassie Miles Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.