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"It looks as if we'll be flying with clear skies tonight out of Atlanta and across the pond. We expect to have you in London by 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, their time."
Holly Smith relaxed her grip on the armrest. She was flying.Yes, indeed. Maybe she shouldn't have ordered that third glass of wine at the airport bar, but she had a pleasant buzz going and she wouldn't be nearly as relaxed otherwise. So far, flying wasn't as bad as she'd imagined it might be.
Despite what her ex-boyfriend Greg had said, she was not a neurotic mess. So she had some quirks. Who didn't? Who cared if she checked her silverware for cleanliness in a restaurant before she used it, and had brought along her own blow-up travel pillow and blanket so she wouldn't have to use the airline's? And, she was careful with her money. But cheap? She thought not.
A neurotic mess? Hardly. A mess was just ugly. A person couldn't be a mess, spilt milk was a mess. Screw him. She nearly laughed aloud. Nope, she wouldn't be doing that anymore. And hadn't he been surprised to hear it?
She'd known they were in a go-nowhere relationship. Ending that had been the first step in her new plan to make all aspects of her life proactive rather than reactive.
It was rather funny how such a life-changing event had started out so innocuously. Three months ago, she'd been waiting in the hair salon to be called back for a wash and trim. She'd been thumbing through a magazine when she'd stumbled across an article. Usually, she never read those pseudo-self-help pieces, but she'd found herself sucked into this one. The article focused on being the change you wanted in your life rather than waiting for someone to change it for you. It had been an aha, scales-falling-from-her-eyes moment.
She took charge in so many other aspects of her life. She'd deliberately pursued a high school teaching career that focused on working with gifted students. She'd set a goal and achieved it. Buying her condo? Same thing.
The "aha" had come in the relationship department. It was as if she'd discovered thousands of dollars of therapy between the covers of one glossy magazine.
She'd realized she was the queen of reactive relationships because drumroll she didn't trust herself. She'd known she and Greg were going nowhere but she would've waited on him to end it. Her breaking up with him had been huge. It'd been like getting to base camp on a Mount Everest climban important first step.
She reached overhead to direct the stream of cool air from the vent more directly in her face. That felt good. She just wouldn't think about all the germs that were probably in all that recycled air. So far, so good on flying. Of course, they weren't there yet. She exhaled, trying to release the anxiety that suddenly welled up within her. When she got really upset she threw up. And throwing up right now not good.
"A little nervous about flying?" the woman in the window seat next to her asked, a note of sympathy in the question.
"Just a little," Holly said. She dug into her backpack and pulled out the inflatable pillow and a small travel blanket. "I've never flown before."
"You picked a long flight for a first timer."
Holly grinned. "Only because the boat takes too long to get from Atlanta to Venice." There was a kernel of truth in her humor. Three quick breaths and the neck pillow was done. She fumbled with the plug for a second, but then got it.
"If you don't mind me asking, I have to know what or who is so important in Venice that you're willing to take such a long first trip?" The woman chuckled. "Sorry. Don't answer that if it's too personal. I'm a writer and I always want to know stuff. My husband says I'm nosy. I consider it research."
"A writer? No kidding?" Wow. "What do you write?"
"I'm Martina Larson. Call me Marty. I write romance novels."
Holly read her fair share of romance novels. Who in the world didn't love a happy ending? The woman's name was vaguely familiar. "I think I've read a couple of your books before. They're very sensual." If they were the ones she thought they were, they were quite spicy. Just the kind of sex she wished she was having. But not trusting herself in a relationship also translated to not trusting herself to indulge in some of her more explicit fantasies.
Marty laughed. "My books go way beyond sensual. I'm on my way to a writers' retreat with a couple of friends. We'll be staying in a sixteenth-century castle a few hours north of London." She paused. "You never said
why you're going to Venice."
"I've heard it's beautiful." And that was true.
"It is. And it shouldn't be too crowded at this time of year, at least not as crowded as in the summer. Short of going to the Venetian in Vegas, there's no mistaking Venice for anywhere else. My husband and I spent a couple of days there several years ago."
Had Marty abandoned her family, left behind a husband and two children, and stayed in Venice? Had she gone on a business trip and then virtually dropped off the face of the earth? No birthday cards, no Christmas cards, no appearance at high school or college graduation, no contact for twenty-seven years. Holly's wild guess was probably not.
"I want to see it for myself," she said.
"Are you meeting a friend there?"
"No. I'm going solo. But I have arranged for a tour guide, since I have an abysmal sense of direction." This was her mission, her quest, her confrontation. She wanted a firsthand reckoning with the woman who'd birthed her and then abandoned her.
She thought she'd put it behind her, the Mother's Day Tea in kindergarten when the teaching assistant had sat with her because she'd been alone. Being thirteen and having to get up the nerve to approach her father and tell him she needed sanitary napkins. Unlike her friends, she didn't have a mother to prepare her. She'd told herself she couldn't miss what she'd never known. And since Julia, as Holly mentally referred to her, had skipped town when Holly was three, she had no recollection of a time when she'd had a mother.
But that wasn't exactly true. Deep inside, for as long as she could remember, she'd been waitingnurturing a secret hope that one day the phone would ring, a letter would arrive in the mail, that Julia would show up on her doorstep. Her father had finally started to date last year and remarried this year. And Holly had figured it out. Dumping Greg was base camp. Finding Julia was Everest.
"You'll love it," Marty said.
"I think it'll change my life."
Marty eyed her with a mix of speculation and curiosity, as if she knew there was more to the story than Holly was telling. But they were interrupted when the flight attendant announced the upcoming in-flight movie, a romantic comedy.
"Oh, I've been dying to see this. I missed it at the movies," Marty said.
After all the anticipation and anxietyand probably the wineexhaustion overwhelmed Holly. She settled the pillow around her neck and unfolded the blanket, tucking it over her shoulders. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a nap. If it looks like we're going to crash, please don't wake me."
She closed her eyes and tried to relax beneath the blanket. She was only partially kidding.
"WE SPOTTED HER ENTERING London under the name Holly Smith." Gage Carswell leaned forward for a better look at the blurry photo enlarged from the airport-security camera as Mason continued his briefing. "She's catching a connector to Venice. We'll delay the flight out of London, which should give you ample time to get in place. We ran her schedule. She's booked a room off of San Marco for a week. You're going to be in the room next door. She's arranged for a private tour guide, requesting an off-the-beaten-path experience. Your cover will be as that guide. Monitor her twenty-four/seven. We want to know where she goes, whom she sees, what she does. We need contact information. Names. Numbers." Mason shrugged. "Set a honey trap."
Ten years in the spook business and Gage still found all of the spy lingo amusing. Why the hell didn't his handler just say don't kill her, seduce her. He was not, however, amused at being tagged for a honey-trap assignment. Bloody bother, that. He didn't mask his annoyance.
Mason's clipped chuckle lacked any warmth. Sadistic bastard. "I know the seduction routine isn't your preferred MO, but Eros is currently undercover."
The legendary agent Eros who had never met a woman he couldn't seduce to get whator whomhe wanted. Kazbekistan? Poor sot. At least the food would be better in Venice.
Gage settled back in his chair in the windowless office. Paranoia and caution went with the job of managing covert operations, but it would drive Gage nutters to spend every day in this box, even if it was in London. However, windows meant the other side could use a telephoto lens or other high-tech methods of gleaning information on a desk or computer screen that didn't want gleaning. Give him his field-operative position any day.
He glanced again at the photo of the woman Mason had included in his briefing papers. The Gorgon, aka Holly Smith. Five foot six. Weight listed at one-forty, but Gage figured that contained a fifteen-pound lie. Women couldn't resist shaving down the number. Chin-length brown hair, and startling aquamarine eyes in an otherwise average face. From what he ascertained from the photo, she wasn't a beauty, but she wouldn't set small children off screaming, either.
"Why would she book a tour?" Gage asked. It didn't make sense.
"As a cover?" Mason shrugged. "To be unpredictable? Because she's a bloody female?"
Not for the first time, Gage thought Mason was something of a misogynist, but that wasn't his problem. "There's a tour itinerary?"
Mason flicked his wrist toward the file. "It's in there, as dictated by the client."
"It's a private tour group? Isn't there an office?"
"No. Your Way Tours is an Internet operation touted as being more low-key and personalized than trolling along with the blue-hairs. Consider it your lucky day that you won't have to wear a natty polyester suit coat, too."
"You're sure she's the one?" Gage ran a finger along the edge of the photo. He'd heard of the woman code-named the Gorgon. Dealing in black-market uranium, she'd proven to be an elusive target for years. But they'd been getting closer and closer. It was only a matter of time. One slipup, and they'd have her.
Mason steepled his fingers and regarded Gage across the expanse of desktop separating them, his pale green eyes cold despite his smile. "Holly Smith is either an alias or a stolen identity." He shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's her." Mason shook his head. "She might as well have a tattoo across her forehead with those aqua eyes. They're uniqueher one identifying mark. She could easily mask them with colored contacts but she won't. Female vanity.
True, she's never operated in Venice before, but if it looks like a Gorgon, walks like a Gorgon, smells like a Gorgon "
"It's a Gorgon," Gage finished for him.
"There's been some chatter indicating a substantial deal impending. With the Gorgon's arrival in Europe, it appears imminent. We could be looking at a drop." Did Mason always have to sound as if he had a stick up his arse? "If so, it's imperative we intercept the package. By the way, you're going in as an illegal. The Italians don't like us poaching on their territory."
"Not a problem." It seemed a bit of overkill for a simple watch-and-monitor situation, but he'd gone in without diplomatic immunity before. If he was caught out, he was on his own.
"Unbeknownst to the ubiquitous Ms. Smith, her travel case has been misplaced at Heathrow. Pity that. It didn't manage to make the connecting flight to Venice."
"We've examined it?"
"We will soon enough. If there's a package, we'll find it. Even so, we'll still want contacts. Holly Smith is being monitored now, but once she steps off the plane in Italy, she's yours. You're to initiate contact at 9:00 a.m. at her hotel tomorrow morning. Her tour includes three meals. She specifically requested a Venetian native, a middle-aged female preferred. Her assigned guide, Signora Ciavelli, however, has developed a sudden and most unfortunate gastric problem and you're to be her substitute. You're not a native but you lived there immediately following university."
It'd require finesse to tail the Gorgon from the airport to the hotel. Even a glimpse of him could give away the game. Familiar anticipation surged through him. He looked forward to outfoxing his new opponent.
"Are we tipping our hand with the missing luggage and the suddenly sick guide?"
"We've calculated the risk," Mason assured him. "We couldn't chance the luggage going through. The most obvious place to hide something is right in front of one's nose. And we need you with her constantly. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced your charm is such that you could sweep her off her feet. And if you try and fail to sweep her off her feet, then you'll simply appear to be a nutter. Inserting you as the guide was a safer bet. She'll be stuck with you."
Gage took the insult in stride. Surveillance, not charm, was his forte. "That works."
A brusque nod and Mason continued, "You're the mate of a mate who owns the guide service. Given your flexible schedule as a gallery owner, you help out in a pinch."
One of the first lessons in spook trainingstick as close to the truth as possible. One was less likely to trip oneself up when one put forth the least amount of lies. Actually, owning an art gallery was not only financially lucrative for Gage, it also offered him the flexibility to extend the range of his spy activities, chiefly because Agnes, his second in command, was a paragon of efficiency and organization.