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Lily tilted her head and smiled at her companion, Salva- tore Nervi, as the maître d’ silently and with grace seated her at the best table in the restaurant; her smile, at least, was genuine, though almost nothing else about her was. The pale arctic blue of her eyes was warmed to a hazel brown by colored contact lenses; her blond hair had been darkened to a rich mink brown, then subtly streaked with lighter shades. She touched up the roots every few days, so no telltale blond showed. To Salvatore Nervi she was Denise Morel, which was a common enough surname for there to be plenty of Morels in France, but not so common that the name set off subconscious alarms. Salvatore Nervi was suspicious by nature, a fact that had saved his life so many times he probably didn’t remember all of the occasions. But if everything worked right tonight, at last he was caught—by his dick, as it were. How ironic.
Her manufactured background was only a few layers deep; she hadn’t had time to prepare more. She had gambled that he wouldn’t have his people dig any deeper than that, that he would run out of the patience required to wait for the answers before he made a move on her. Normally if a background was required, Langley prepared it for her, but she was on her own this time. She’d done the best she could in the time she had. Probably Rodrigo, Salvatore’s oldest son and number two in the Nervi organization, was still digging; her time was limited before he found out that this particular Denise Morel had appeared out of thin air only a few months before.
“Ah!” Salvatore settled in his chair with a contented sigh, returning her smile. He was a handsome man in his early fifties; his looks were classic Italian, with glossy dark hair and liquid dark eyes, and a sensuous mouth. He made a point of keeping himself in shape, and his hair hadn’t yet started to gray—either that or he was as skilled as she at touch-ups. “You look especially lovely tonight; have I told you that yet?”
He also had the classic Italian charm. Too bad he was a cold-blooded killer. Well, so was she. In that they were well-matched, though she hoped they weren’t an exact match. She needed an edge, however small.
“You have,” she said, but her gaze was warm. Her accent was Parisian; she had trained long and hard to acquire it. “Thank you again.”
The restaurant manager, M. Durand, approached the table and gave a deferential bow. “It is so nice to see you again, monsieur. I have good news: we have procured a bottle of Château Maximilien eighty-two. It arrived just yesterday, and when I saw your name, I put it aside for you.”
“Excellent!” Salvatore said, beaming. The ’82 Bordeaux was an exceptional vintage, and very few bottles remained. Those that did commanded premium prices. Salvatore was a wine connoisseur and was willing to pay any price to acquire a rare wine. More than that, he loved wine. He didn’t acquire bottles just to have them; he drank the wine, enjoyed it, waxed poetic about the different flavors and aromas. He turned that beaming smile on Lily. “This wine is ambrosia; you will see.”
“That is doubtful,” she calmly replied. “I have never liked any wine.” She’d made that plain from the start, that she was an unnatural Frenchwoman who disliked the taste of wine. Her taste buds were deplorably plebeian. Lily, in fact, enjoyed a glass of wine, but when she was with Salvatore, she wasn’t Lily; she was Denise Morel, and Denise drank only coffee or bottled water.
Salvatore chuckled and said, “We shall see.” He did, however, order coffee for her.
This was her third date with Salvatore; from the beginning she had played it cooler than he wanted, refusing him the first two times he’d asked her out. That had been a calculated risk, one designed to allay his caution. Salvatore was accustomed to people seeking his attention, his favor; he wasn’t accustomed at all to being turned down. Her seeming lack of interest in him had piqued his own interest, because that was the thing about powerful people: they expected others to pay attention to them. She also refused to cater to his tastes, as in the wine. On their two previous dates he had tried to cajole her into tasting his wine, and she had adamantly refused. He had never before been with a woman who didn’t automatically try to please him, and he was intrigued by her aloofness.
She hated being with him, hated having to smile at him, chat with him, endure even his most casual touch. For the most part she’d managed to control her grief, forcing herself to concentrate on her course of action, but sometimes she was so sick with anger and pain that it was all she could do not to attack him with her bare hands.
She’d have shot him if she could, but his protection was excellent. She was routinely searched before being allowed anywhere near him; even their first two meetings had been at social occasions where all the guests were searched beforehand. Salvatore never got into a car in the open; his driver always pulled under a protected portico for him to enter, and he never went anywhere that required him to make an unprotected exit from the vehicle. If such an exit wasn’t possible, then he didn’t go. Lily thought he must have a secure, secret exit from his house here in Paris, so that he could move about without anyone knowing, but if he did, she hadn’t spotted it yet.
This restaurant was his favorite, because it had a private, covered entrance that most of the patrons used. The establishment was also exclusive; the waiting list was long, and mostly ignored. The diners here paid well for a place that was familiar and safe, and the manager went to some lengths to ensure that safety. There were no tables by the front windows; instead there were banks of flowers. Brick columns throughout the dining floor broke up the space, interfering with any direct line of sight through the windows. The effect was both cozy and expensive. An army of black-suited waiters wove in and out among the tables, topping off wineglasses, emptying ashtrays, scraping away crumbs, and generally fulfilling every wish before most of them were even voiced. Outside, the street was lined with cars that had reinforced steel doors, bulletproof glass, and armored bottoms. Inside the cars were armed bodyguards who zealously watched the street and the windows of the neighboring buildings for any threat, real or otherwise.
The easiest way to take out this restaurant, and all its infamous patrons, would be with a guided missile. Anything short of that would depend on luck, and at best be unpredictable. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a guided missile.
The poison was in the Bordeaux that would shortly be served, and it was so potent that even half a glass of the wine would be deadly. The manager had gone to extraordinary lengths to procure this wine for Salvatore, but Lily had gone to extraordinary lengths to get her hands on it first, and arrange for it to come to M. Durand’s notice. Once she had known she and Salvatore were coming here for dinner, she had let the bottle be delivered.
Salvatore would try to cajole her into sharing the wine with him, but he wouldn’t really expect her to do so.
He probably would expect her to share his bed tonight, but he was destined to be disappointed once again. Her hatred was so strong she had barely been able to force herself to let him kiss her and accept his touch with some warmth. There was no way in hell she could let him do more than that. Besides, she didn’t want to be with him when the poison began to act, which should be between four to eight hours after ingestion if Dr. Speer was right in his estimation; during that time she would be busy getting out of the country.
By the time Salvatore knew anything was wrong, it would be too late; the poison would already have done most of its damage, shutting down his kidneys, his liver, affecting his heart. He would go into massive, multisystem failure. He might live a few hours after that, perhaps even a full day, until his body finally shut down. Rodrigo would tear France apart looking for Denise Morel, but she would have disappeared into thin air—for a while, at least. She had no intention of staying gone.
Poison wasn’t the weapon she would normally have chosen; it was the one she had been reduced to by Salvatore’s own obsession with security. Her preferred method was a pistol, and she would have used that even knowing she herself would be shot down on the spot, but she hadn’t been able to devise any method of getting a weapon anywhere near him. If she hadn’t been working alone, perhaps . . . but perhaps not. Salvatore had survived several assassination attempts, and had learned from each of them. Not even a sniper could get a clear shot at him. Killing Salvatore Nervi meant using either poison, or a massive weapon that would also kill any others nearby. Lily wouldn’t have minded killing Rodrigo or anyone else in Salvatore’s organization, but Salvatore was smart enough to always ensure there were innocents nearby. She couldn’t kill so casually and indiscriminately; in that, she was different from Salvatore. Perhaps that was the only difference, but for her own sanity, it was one she had to preserve.
She was thirty-seven years old. She’d been doing this since she was eighteen, so for over half her life she’d been an assassin, and a damn good one at that, hence her longevity in the business. At first her age had been an asset: she had been so obviously young and fresh-faced that almost no one had seen her as a threat. She no longer had that asset, but experience had given her other advantages. That same experience, though, had also worn on her until she sometimes felt as fragile as a cracked eggshell: one more good thump would shatter her.
Or maybe she was already shattered, and just hadn’t realized it yet. She knew that she felt as if she had nothing left, that her life was a desolate wasteland. She could see only the goal in front of her: Salvatore Nervi was going down, and so was the rest of his organization. But he was the first, the most important, because he was the one who had given the order to murder the people she’d loved most. Beyond this one aim, she could see nothing, no hope, no laughter, no sunshine. It meant almost nothing to her that she probably wouldn’t survive the task she’d set for herself.
This in no way meant she would give up. She wasn’t suicidal; it was a matter of professional pride that she not only do the job, but get away clean. And there still lurked in her heart the very human hope that if she could just endure, one day this bleak pain would lessen and she would again find joy. The hope was a small flame, but a bright one. She supposed that hope was what kept most people plugging along even in the face of crushing despair, why so relatively few actually gave up.
That said, she had no illusions about the difficulty of what she wanted to do, or her chances both during and after. After she’d finished the job, she would have to completely disappear, assuming she was still alive. The suits in Washington wouldn’t be happy with her for taking out Nervi. Not only would Rodrigo be searching for her, but so would her own people, and she didn’t figure the outcome would be much different if either caught her. She’d gone off the reservation, so to speak, which meant she was not only expendable—she’d always been that—but her demise would be desirable. All in all, this wasn’t a good situation.
She couldn’t go home, not that she really had a home anymore. She couldn’t endanger her mother and sister, not to mention her sister’s family. She hadn’t spoken to either of them in a couple of years anyway . . . no, it was more like four years since she’d last called her mother. Or five. She knew they were okay, because she kept tabs on them, but the hard fact was she no longer belonged in their world, nor could they comprehend hers. She hadn’t actually seen her family in almost a decade. They were part of Before, and she was irrevocably in After. Her friends in the business had become her family—and they had been slaughtered.
From the time that the word on the street had said that Salvatore Nervi was behind her friends’ deaths, she had focused on only one thing: getting close enough to Salvatore to kill him. He hadn’t even tried to hide the fact that he’d had them killed; he had used the deed to drive home the lesson that cross- ing him wasn’t a good idea. He wasn’t afraid of the police; with his connections, he was untouchable on that front. Salvatore owned so many people in high positions, not just in France but all across Europe, that he could and did act exactly as he pleased.
She became aware that Salvatore was speaking to her, and looking annoyed because she so obviously wasn’t paying attention. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I’m worried about my mother. She called today, and told me she had fallen down the steps at her home. She said she wasn’t injured, but I think I should go there tomorrow to see for myself. She is in her seventies, and old people break their bones so easily, don’t they?”
It was an agile lie, and not just because she’d been thinking about her real mother. Salvatore was Italian to the bone; he had worshipped his own mother, and understood family devotion. His expression immediately became concerned. “Yes, of course you must. Where does she live?”
“Toulouse,” she replied, naming a city just about as far from Paris as you could get and still remain in France. If he mentioned Toulouse to Rodrigo, that might buy her a few hours while Rodrigo searched in the south. Of course, Rodrigo might just as easily assume she had mentioned Toulouse as a diversion; whether or not the ploy worked was a crapshoot. She couldn’t worry about second-guessing the second-guessers. She would follow her plan, and hope it worked.
“When will you return?”
“Day after tomorrow, if all is well. If not—” She shrugged.
“Then we must make the most of tonight.” The heat in his dark eyes told her exactly what he was thinking about.
She didn’t dissemble. Instead she drew back slightly, and raised her eyebrows. “Perhaps,” she said coolly. “Perhaps not.” Her tone told him she wasn’t quivering with eagerness to sleep with him.
If anything, her withdrawal sharpened his interest, deepened the heat in his eyes. She thought perhaps her reluctance reminded him of his salad days, when he had courted his late wife, the mother of his children. Young Italian girls of his generation had very closely guarded their virtue, perhaps still did, for all she knew. She hadn’t had much contact with young girls from any country.
Two waiters approached, one bearing the bottle of wine as if a priceless treasure, the other bringing her coffee. She smiled her thanks as the coffee was placed in front of her, then occupied herself with adding rich cream to the brew and ostensibly paying no attention to Salvatore as the waiter made a production of uncorking the bottle and presenting the cork to be sniffed. In fact, her attention was sharply trained on that bottle and the ritual that was being played out. Wine connoisseurs were so earnest about these rituals; she didn’t understand it herself. For her, the only ritual pertaining to wine was pouring it into the glass and drinking it. She didn’t want to smell a cork.
After Salvatore nodded his pleased acceptance, the waiter, solemnly and with great awareness of his audience, poured the red wine into Salvatore’s glass. Lily held her breath while Salvatore swirled the wine, sniffed its bouquet, then took an appreciative taste. “Ah!” he said, closing his eyes in pleasure. “Wonderful.”
The waiter bowed, as if he were personally responsible for the wine’s wonderfulness, then left the bottle on the table and took himself off.
“You must taste this,” Salvatore told Lily.
“It would be a waste,” she said, sipping her coffee. “For me, this is a pleasant taste.” She indicated the coffee. “Wine . . . bah!”
“This wine will change your mind, I promise.”
“So others have promised me before. They have been wrong.”
“Just a sip, the merest taste,” he cajoled, and for the first time she saw the flare of temper in his eyes. He was Salvatore Nervi, and he wasn’t accustomed to anyone naysaying him, especially not a woman he had honored with his attention.
“I dislike wine—”
“You haven’t tried this wine,” he said, seizing the bottle and pouring a measure in another glass, then extending the glass to her. “If you don’t think this is heaven, I will never again ask you to taste another wine. I give you my word.”
That was true enough, since he would be dead. And so would she, if she drank that wine.
When she shook her head, his temper flared, and he set the glass on the table with a sharp click. “You will do nothing I ask of you,” he said, glaring at her. “I wonder why you are even here. Perhaps I should relieve you of my company and call an end to this evening, eh?”
She would have liked nothing better—if only he had drunk more of the wine. She didn’t think one sip would deliver enough of the poison to do the job. The poison was supposed to be supertoxic, and she had injected enough of it through the cork into the bottle to fell several men his size. If he left in a temper, what would happen to that uncorked bottle of wine? Would he take it with him, or would he storm out and leave it sitting on the table? As expensive as this wine was, she knew it wouldn’t be poured out. No, either another customer would drink it, or the staff would share it.
“Very well,” she said, seizing the glass. Without hesitation she carried it to her mouth and tilted it, letting the wine wash against her closed lips, but she didn’t swallow any. Could the poison be absorbed through the skin? She was almost certain it could; Dr. Speer had told her to wear latex gloves when she was handling it. She was afraid her night might now be very interesting, in a way she hadn’t planned, but there was nothing else she could do. She couldn’t even knock the bottle to the floor, because the wait staff would inevitably come in contact with the wine while they were cleaning up.
She didn’t bother to repress the shudder that rolled through her at the thought, and hastily set the glass down before patting her lips with her napkin, then carefully folded the napkin so she wouldn’t touch the damp spot.
“Well?” Salvatore asked impatiently, even though he’d seen the shudder.
“Rotten grapes,” she said, and shuddered again.
He looked thunderstruck. “Rotten—?” He couldn’t believe she didn’t like his wonderful wine.
“Yes. I taste its antecedents, which unfortunately are rotten grapes. Are you satisfied?” She let a hint of temper show in her own eyes. “I dislike being bullied.”
“You did. With the threat of not seeing me again.”
He took another sip of wine, buying time before answering. “I apologize,” he said carefully. “I am not accustomed to—”
“Being told ‘no’?” she asked, mimicking him by sipping her coffee. Would the caffeine speed the poison? Would the cream in the coffee slow it down?
She would have been willing to sacrifice herself in order to take just one well-placed shot at his head; how was this any different? She had minimized the risk as much as she could, but it was still a risk, and poison was a nasty way to die.
He shrugged his burly shoulders and gave her a rueful look. “Exactly,” he said, showing her some of his legendary charm. He could be a very charming man, when he chose. If she hadn’t known what he was, she might have been taken in; if she hadn’t stood beside three graves that contained two close friends and their adopted daughter, she might have philosophically decided that, in this business, death was a fairly normal outcome. Averill and Tina had known the risks when they got into the game, just as she had; thirteen-year-old Zia, however, had been an innocent. Lily couldn’t forget Zia, or forgive. She couldn’t be philosophic.
Three hours later, the leisurely meal consumed, the entire bottle of wine now sloshing in Salvatore’s stomach, they rose to leave. It was just after midnight, and the November night sky was spitting out swirls of snowflakes that melted immediately on contact with the wet streets. Lily felt nauseated, but that could well have been from the unrelenting tension rather than the poison, which was supposed to take longer than just three hours before the effects began to be felt.
“I think something I ate isn’t agreeing with me,” she said when they were in the car.
Salvatore heaved a sigh. “You do not have to pretend illness in order to not go home with me.”
“I’m not pretending,” she said sharply. He turned his head and stared at the Parisian lights sliding by. It was a good thing he’d drunk all the wine, because she was fairly certain that he would have written her off as a lost cause in any case.
She leaned her head back against the cushion and closed her eyes. No, this wasn’t tension. The nausea was increasing by the moment. She felt the pressure increase in the back of her throat and she said, “Stop the car, I’m going to be sick!”
The driver slammed on the brakes—odd how that particu- lar threat made him instinctively go against his training—and she threw the car door open before the tires had rolled to a stop, then leaned out and vomited into the gutter. She felt Salvatore’s hand on her back and another on her arm, holding her, though he was careful not to lean so far that he exposed himself to the line of fire.
After the spasms had emptied her stomach, she slumped back into the car and wiped her mouth with the handkerchief Salvatore silently passed to her. “I do beg your pardon,” she said, hearing with shock how weak and trembly her voice sounded.
“It is I who must beg yours,” he said. “I didn’t think you were truly ill. Should I take you to a doctor? I could call my own doctor—”
“No, I feel somewhat better now,” she lied. “Please just take me home.”
He did, with many solicitous questions and a promise to call her first thing in the morning. When the driver finally pulled to a stop in front of the building where she rented a flat, she patted Salvatore’s hand and said, “Yes, please call me tomorrow, but don’t kiss me; I might have caught a virus.” With that handy excuse, she pulled her coat around her and dashed through the thickening snowfall to her door, not looking back as the car pulled away.
She made it to her flat, where she collapsed into the nearest chair. There was no way she could grab her necessities and make it to the airport, as she had originally planned. Perhaps this was best, after all. Endangering herself was the best cover of all. If she was also ill from poisoning, Rodrigo wouldn’t suspect her, wouldn’t care what happened to her when she recovered.
Assuming she survived, that is.
She felt very calm as she waited for whatever would happen, to happen.