Charade

A deadly masquerade.As an undercover asset for the FBI, Sasha Bracciali can deceive with finesse and improvise at a moment's notice. And she'll gladly practice any deception if it means saving a kidnapped Athena student. So Sasha takes on the roles of Mafia princess, seductress and co-conspirator at the fortress of an Eastern European despot. Cut off from everything and everyone she knows–including the FBI handler with whom she's been having an affair–Sasha unmasks a painful truth: She has no idea who to trust. But she must figure it out quickly, or her most ambitious charade will also be her last.
Содержание:

Charade

   




   From: Delphi@oracle.org

   To: C_Evans@athena.edu

   To: Re: fashion designer, Sasha Bracciali

   

   Christine,

   

   That Teal Arnett is in the custody of Kestonia’s new dictator is devastating news. Of course I am willing to help you! Athena Academy, and all that it stands for, means so much to me. For your next rescue mission, I’ve brought in reinforcements. I’ve contacted Allison Gracelyn.

   

   It seems the Kestonian is hosting a gala for the international who’s who, including Mafia contacts from the U.S. Thanks to his mob dealings, Sasha Bracciali’s father may be able to get her in. No worries about her ability to go undercover. Yes, she’s a fashion designer, but she moonlights as an FBI asset. And she’s an Athena alumna. That says it all.

   

   This time, Teal is ours.

   

   D.

   Dear Reader,

   I recently took my first trip to Europe, mostly to research a time-travel story that takes place in Renaissance Italy, but we also spent five days in Rome as background for future books and because it has always fascinated me. I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the Coliseum. Wow! I still get shivers. It was truly the high point of an amazing two weeks.

   

   And so, when Silhouette Books asked me to write about an Italian-American heroine, my initial response was, Can she go to the Coliseum? Luckily, the answer was yes.

   

   I hope you enjoy the visit as much as Sasha and I did.

   Ciao!

   

   Kate

Charade Kate Donovan







   

KATE DONOVAN

   has been dreaming up romantic adventure stories since childhood. Charade is the seventeenth of those to find its way into print, ranging from spy stories to time travel. In her real-life adventures, she’s a wife, a mom, an attorney and a winner of a Romantic Times BOOK reviews Achievement Award for Series Romantic Adventure.

   This book is dedicated to the city of Rome

    for being such an amazing inspiration

    and for helping me get into Sasha B’s point of view.

Contents

   Chapter 1

   Chapter 2

   Chapter 3

   Chapter 4

   Chapter 5

   Chapter 6

   Chapter 7

   Chapter 8

   Chapter 9

   Chapter 10

   Chapter 11

   Chapter 12

   Chapter 13

   Chapter 14

   Chapter 15

   Epilogue

Chapter 1

   Champagne in hand, Sasha Bracciali wandered through a late-afternoon crowd of wedding guests, enjoying the rays of simulated sunshine pouring down from the skylight in the domed ceiling of the Martino family’s ballroom. This magnificent venue had been inspired by the ancient Pantheon, complete with marble floor and ornate columns. And like its predecessor, the room’s circular walls were studded with alcoves that housed huge statues of Roman deities and Italian saints.

   Sasha had played here often as a child, especially during wintertime, when don Antonio Martino had allowed his children and their guests to skate and ride bicycles and to in-line skate here, warm and secure, no matter how fiercely the Chicago blizzards raged outdoors. The place still gave her a sense of complete security, even though she now knew all about the dirty business that supported it.

   She also knew what don Martino would do to her if he found out she was working as a confidential informant for the feds, so she was careful, as she moved among the beautifully dressed revelers, not to appear too detached or too observant.

   Just let the bra-cam do all the work, she reminded herself, strolling over to the wedding cake so that the tiny lens embedded in the lacy bodice of her navy-blue waltz gown could get a clear shot of some nearby musclemen. Clad in black suits, these thugs weren’t making any pretense of enjoying themselves. For them, this was business: protecting the bride, the family and the expensive wedding presents.

   “Any sign of him, Camper?” asked a voice from the microreceiver in her ear.

   Sasha raised her glass to her lips to hide her reply. “Lots of familiar faces, but so far, no zio Vincenzo.”

   “You’re doing great,” the voice assured her. “Even if the Butcher doesn’t show up, we’ve got some valuable footage, thanks to you.”

   She bit back a smile, wondering how Special Agent Jeff Crossman always managed to sound so reassuring and appreciative when she was wired, especially since he was so suspicious and critical of her at all other times. As her handler, code name Summit, he had helped her through every one of her official ops so far, while tirelessly working in the background to get her fired.

   If he ever used that sweet, sexy voice on you in person, you’d have a vaginal meltdown, she teased herself. Luckily, there’s not much danger of that happening.

   She began swaying to the music, acknowledging that the love ballads filling the air were beginning to get to her. Nearby, a father was dancing with his toddler daughter, allowing her to stand on his feet to follow his steps. It stirred vague memories of Sasha’s own father, and she imagined him—the powerful Franco “Big Frankie” Bracciali—behaving in the same indulgent way at weddings past.

   It brought to mind one of Big Frankie’s favorite stories, about the first time he took Sasha to Rome. She had been five years old, and when they had walked into the middle of the Pantheon, she had looked around, then announced cheerfully, “The Romans stole this idea from zio Antonio!”

   Refocusing on the little girl dancing nearby, Sasha warned her silently, Your dad’s a hero to you now. I envy you that. But I’m also afraid for you, because if he works for don Martino, or any of these other Mafiosos, you’re in for some serious heartache.

   “Heads up, Camper. A limo just pulled into the private driveway at the side of the house. Keep an eye out.”

   “Copy that, Summit.” Grateful for the interruption, Sasha turned toward the entry hall that led to Antonio Martino’s study just in time to see the bride—Gianna Martino-Barrett—dash through the columned doorways. The poor girl was probably sneaking out for a bathroom break, or even more likely, a quick drag on a cigarette. But there was always the possibility that her exiled uncle—Vincenzo “the Butcher” Martino—had shown up to kiss the bride, despite the multiple outstanding arrest warrants that bore his name.

   “Summit? I’m going to check out the rest of the house.”

   “Negative, Camper. The party’s in the ballroom. It’ll look suspicious.”

   Sasha continued walking toward the hallway, murmuring, “Vincenzo won’t show himself in here. Not with a crowd like this. They’ll meet in Antonio’s study for a quick hug and some tears, then he’ll be gone. This may be our only chance, and I’m taking it.”

   There was a moment of silence, and Sasha was sure Jeff had muted the speaker so that he could fire off a couple of expletives about the “spoiled Mafia princess” he was being forced to handle. Still when his reply came, it was in Summit’s trademark tone. “Don’t take chances, Camper. Just get a shot of his new face, then get out of there.”

   “Copy that.”

   Relief flooded through her. Of course, she would have proceeded with or without his blessing, but it was better this way, especially given the number of times the words willful and reckless already appeared in her file.

   And always in Jeff’s handwriting.

   “Pardon me, miss.” A huge guard blocked her path as she reached the far end of the entryway. “Can I help you?”

   “I need to use the little girl’s room.”

   He motioned toward the alcoves at the east side of the ballroom. “Guest bathrooms are over there. The entrance to the ladies is behind Minerva. Gents behind Neptune.”

   

   Sasha pretended to pout. “I’m not just a guest. I’m an honorary member of the family.”

   “This part of the house is off-limits at the request of don Martino.”

   “I’m guessing you don’t know who I am. Either that or you have a death wish.” She arched an eyebrow, but only in mock reproach. “I’m Sasha Bracciali.”

   His brow furrowed. “Bracciali?”

   “That’s right,” a man’s voice growled from behind her. “She’s Big Frankie’s daughter, you moron. Get out of her way.”

   Sasha turned to give the bride’s brother, Carmine Martino, a quick hug. “Finally! I was wondering when you’d notice me. Thanks for the rescue.”

   “My pleasure.” The future head of the Martino crime family beamed. “Good thing you changed your mind about coming. I would’ve taken it personally if you didn’t.”

   “It’s all so complicated, isn’t it?” She exhaled slowly and audibly. “I was afraid I’d run into Daddy and end up making a scene. But when I heard he could only stay for a few minutes, I decided I could time my arrival to avoid him.”

   “I figured it was something like that. Come on.” Carmine took her by the arm and tugged her back toward the party. “Let’s dance. You owe me one from the last time I saw you.”

   “At Bobby’s wedding?” Sasha grimaced. “That was your lucky day. Remember how I left early with a stomachache? It turned out to be the mother of all flu bugs. Be glad you didn’t get close enough to catch it.”

   “It would’ve been worth it,” he murmured, his eyes openly scanning her body.

   “You’re so sweet. Stay right here, okay? I need to pop into the powder room for a sec, then we can dance.”

   “I’ll show you the way.”

   She almost reminded him that she knew this house by heart, but decided it might offend him. Or worse, make him sentimental for the old days, when she had hung out here with his sisters—Gianna and Vittoria—while Carmine lurked in the background, wanting to hit on her, but afraid that her father would hear about it and have him erased from the face of the earth.

   She even wondered if she and Carmine might not have ended up dating, secretly or otherwise, if she hadn’t spent most of her teenage years at the Athena Academy, an all-girl prep school in Arizona. That experience had changed Sasha’s life, exposing her to cultural and ideological influences that differed greatly from her childhood in Chicago—or more accurately, the Chicago of her honorary uncle Antonio Martino and her father, don Franco Bracciali.

   Still, Carmine had been enough of a stud back then to attract her when she came home during school breaks. Sasha hadn’t yet discovered the dark side of her family’s business, much less the way it warped men like her father—and boys like Carmine—with its heady combination of power and violence.

   In those days, all she had wanted to do was design dresses, fall in love and please her father—not necessarily in that order. Slowly but surely, the Athena Academy had shown her there was more to life, nurturing her academic and creative talents while also teaching her martial arts, weaponry and mountain-climbing—skills she never would have thought to acquire otherwise. That solid foundation had given her the strength to endure and succeed even after her mother’s violent death during Sasha’s second year of college, an event that might otherwise have damaged Sasha beyond repair. Even so, her subsequent estrangement from her father, whom she believed was responsible for her mother’s death, had almost destroyed her.

   Reminding herself now of the job she had to do, she allowed Carmine to take her by the hand and lead her into a second hallway, where she noted in frustration that the door to don Martino’s study was closed tight. There was no sign of Gianna, and the room was guarded by two armed men.

   “What’s that about?” Sasha asked in a hushed tone. “I’ve never seen muscle in this part of the house. Not even during the drug war.”

   “We’ve got a very special guest,” Carmine told her, adding quickly, “It’s no one you know.”

   Noting a hint of wariness in his hazel eyes, she decided to take a chance. “I know everyone who’s anyone, remember? And the more special they are, the more likely they visited my house at least once during my childhood to pay their respects to Daddy.”

   “I thought you needed to take a leak.”

   “I do. After I prove to you that I know your special guest. Unless he’s so special that you aren’t allowed in there with him.”

   Carmine laughed. “You haven’t changed a bit. Still gotta have your own fucking way every single fucking minute of every single fucking day.”

   Sasha laughed, too. “Why should I change? I’m perfect just the way I am.”

   “True.” He licked his lips. “How about a deal? We’ll join Pop and Gianna and the guest. If you know him, I’ll wait on you hand and foot for the rest of the reception. If he’s a stranger to you, we’ll go up to my room and you can be my love slave.”

   Summit’s voice intruded immediately. “Negative, Camper. Do not take that bet.”

   “Hmm…” Sasha sifted her fingers through her long, loose hair, then nodded. “Okay, handsome. You’re on.”

   

   As much as Sasha disapproved of violence, she felt a tingle of anticipation when one of the guards refused to step aside on Carmine’s orders. In an instant, her muscular escort had pinned the poor slob against the doorjamb with one hand while sticking a slender silver blade against his throat.

   “If this wasn’t my sister’s wedding day, you’d be dead,” Carmine assured him. “Now apologize to the lady, then move your fucking ass out of the way.”

   Sasha flashed them both a playful smile, then took a deep breath and tiptoed into the sanctum sanctorum, where she saw her friend Gianna crying in the arm’s of a middle-aged stranger while another man stood nearby, also sobbing. Sasha would have known the second man anywhere, despite the fact that all the shades were drawn and the lights were dimmed.

   “Zio Antonio!” She didn’t have to pretend to be happy. “It’s so wonderful to see you.”

   “Sasha?” He strode over to give her a bear hug. “My God, look at you. More beautiful than ever. And because of you and your God-given talent, my Gianna looks radiant, too. This gown you designed for her is a work of art. It should be displayed in the Uffizi next to the masters.” He held Sasha at arm’s length as he added, “What’s this I hear about you refusing to let us pay you? If anything, I should double your usual fee for such a treasure.”

   “You got the family discount,” Sasha explained. “I hope you don’t mind, but that’s how I’ll always see you and Gianna. And Carmine, of course.”

   Carmine chuckled. “No, thanks. I’m looking for a different kind of relationship.”

   Sasha laughed, then turned back to Antonio. “Take a closer look at Gianna. I think she’s the work of art. Don’t you?”

   “Of course.”

   “Thanks, Sasha,” Gianna said, wiping away her tears. “And thanks again for coming. I was afraid you wouldn’t. And you’re the closest thing to a sister I have, now that—well, you know.”

   Sasha gave the bride a warm hug, knowing how much it would have meant to her—to everyone—if Vittoria Martino had lived to see this day. But Tori had died young, another victim of the mob violence that had plagued both their families for almost a century.

   Wasn’t that why Sasha was working with the FBI? To put an end to that madness once and for all?

   Taking a deep breath, she directed her full attention toward the man with the unfamiliar face who had backed into the shadows, watching them in silence. “You must think I’m awfully rude, sir, bursting in this way and interrupting your tender moment. I’m Sasha Bracciali.” Extending her hand, she walked closer to him, positioning the bra-cam to capture his face, and hoping that there was enough light for the image to be useful.

   “You’ve grown into an exquisite young woman. More beautiful than even your mother, and she was a goddess.” The stranger kissed her fingertips respectfully. “You may call me zio Dante. I’m not really your uncle, but I’m an old and dear friend of your father’s, here for a short visit.”

   Sasha tried not to stare, but the effort was wasted. This was just too good to be true. The man’s voice was familiar, but she had never seen that face before in her life. Rumors of Vincenzo “the Butcher” Martino’s plastic surgery had abounded for years, and she was sure she was now getting confirmation thereof, not to mention, a huge coup for the FBI’s Organized Crime Unit.

   “Did you get a chance to see Daddy?” she asked him carefully. “He was here earlier, I’m told. But he left before I arrived.”

   “Big Frankie and I had a nice visit last year when he came to Roma on a business trip. I was sorry to hear about your mother’s death, Sasha. She would be so proud if she could see you today.”

   Yeah, it’s a shame Dad killed her, isn’t it? Sasha challenged him silently. But considering how many people you’ve offed in your time, I guess you’d be the first to understand why he had to do it. Caesar’s wife and all, right?

   “Don’t talk about her mother. It makes her sad,” Gianna scolded the men. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion.”

   “The happiest day of my life,” Antonio said quickly. “To see my daughter married—that is pure joy. And on that same day, to have both Sasha and my beloved cousin return to this house after too long an absence. It is more than a man deserves. We must drink a toast immediately. Carmine?”

   His beloved cousin? Sasha’s pulse began to race. Vincenzo is one of his cousins! Isn’t that enough proof of his identity to move in now? I hope Summit’s getting all this! If the bra-transmitter lets us down I’ll shoot myself.

   Carmine poured brandy into four elegant snifters and handed them out. Then he murmured, “To Sasha. She’s as fucking stubborn as ever, but tonight, that’s gonna work in my favor.”

   Antonio scowled. “What sort of toast is that?”

   “Allow me.” Sasha lifted her glass with a flourish. “To my family, not through blood but through choice.”

   The man who called himself Dante chuckled. “Any girl who can quote Sinatra deserves to be a Martino.”

   “To Sasha,” Antonio agreed, raising his glass.

   As the others echoed the toast, Summit’s warm voice sounded in Sasha’s ear. “Okay, Camper. We’ve got more than we need. I’m going to ring your cell, you’re going to answer, and then you’re going to tell them your best customer just called you in hysterics over some dressmaking emergency and you have to go soothe the ruffled feathers.”

   Her phone rang on cue, and she apologized, then stepped away from the group and answered it.

   “Good girl,” Summit whispered. “You’ve done an amazing job. First by designing that crazy bra, and now this. It’s unbelievable. It’s also over, so get the hell out of there. And if that horny bastard Carmine tries anything, tell him you’ll sic your father on him if he doesn’t back off. Got it?”

   “For heaven’s sake, Martha!” Sasha exclaimed. “It can’t be that bad. Just calm down. I’ll be right there, I promise. Just don’t try to force the zipper whatever you do. We used the last scrap of fabric for the lining of the jacket. So please, just calm down. I’m on my way.”

   She could see disapproval in the eyes of Antonio and Dante, not to mention annoyance in Carmine’s. “Sorry, I thought I turned that thing off,” she said in apology. “But it’s lucky I got the call, because my best customer is having a panic attack, and she’s having it in her five-thousand-dollar business suit. I’m so, so sorry, but I’ve gotta dash. Forgive me?” Before they could protest, she walked right up to Dante and said, “I’ll give Daddy your best. And next time I visit Mom’s grave, I’ll tell her all the lovely things you said about her.”

   He patted her cheek. “She would be sad to see you put business ahead of a family wedding. You should marry young Carmine here. Then you’d never have to work again.”

   “And we’d really be sisters,” Gianna agreed with a tearful smile. Wrapping her arms around Sasha’s waist, the bride insisted, “You were so sweet to come at all. I know it was awkward, but it meant the world to me and that hunky new husband of mine.”

   Sasha gave her friend a teasing smile. “You’d better go find him. Last time I checked, he was dancing with Tessie Gallo.”

   “What?” Gianna scowled, then said to Dante, “Stay right here, zio. I’ll be back before you leave so you can kiss the bride one last time. Or the widow, depending on what’s going on out there.” Grabbing Sasha’s arm, she added, “Come on. I’ll walk you out.”

   “No, I’ll do it,” Carmine told her, his tone leaving no room for argument. “Sasha and I have unfinished business. Right, beautiful?”

   Sasha arched a disapproving eyebrow in his direction, and was pleased when he winced. Then she took Dante’s hand and smiled sheepishly. “I made such a silly bet with Carmine. He told me you were an old friend of don Martino, and I thought I knew everyone from the old days, so I bet him that I knew you. Is it possible I’m just forgetting? Maybe you met me once, when I was just a baby. I really want to win this bet, so…”

   Dante chuckled. “There was one time in particular. You spit up milk all over my brand-new suit. I’d say that binds us for life, wouldn’t you?”

   “That doesn’t count!” Carmine bellowed. “Sasha doesn’t remember it, so it doesn’t count.”

   Sasha sent an inquiring glance toward his father. “I’ll abide by your decision on this, zio.”

   “Fuck that,” Carmine muttered. “I won the bet, and I’m going to collect.”

   Antonio Martino’s eyes darkened, but his voice was even when he announced, “My son is the loser here today, in more than one way. Gianna? Show our guest to the door, then go and pay attention to your husband. Sasha, take care. And Carmine?”

   The son’s expression had twisted with apprehension. “Yeah, Pop?”

   “Apologize to Sasha for trying to take advantage of her. And to your sister, for ruining her wedding day. And then, if you are very, very lucky, I will allow you to apologize to me.”

   

   “So? What do you think the don did to him? Slapped him around, right?” Winston Lowe grinned at Sasha. “Man, I would’ve loved to see that.”

   “Yeah, but at least we got to see Carmine Martino cower in fear, thanks to Campie’s brilliant tittie-cam,” said his partner Chuck McBride, the third member of Jeff Crossman’s Organized Crime team.

   Sasha bit back a laugh. “Have a little respect. It’s called a bra-cam.”

   “Too bad you can’t find a way to have the lens implanted directly into your nipple,” Winston said wistfully. “That way if some hotshot like Carmine ever gets you naked, we could still see the show. Er, I mean, collect the evidence.”

   “You guys are so immature.” She glanced toward the special agent in charge, hoping for a nod of agreement. But Jeff Crossman was scowling.

   Oh, fine. The honeymoon’s over already? she asked in silent disgust. Even after I got you a photo of Vincenzo Martino’s new face? You’re such an ingrate, Crossman.

   Aloud, she murmured, “What’s the problem, Jeff?”

   “As if there’s just one?” He exhaled in apparent exasperation. “Fine. Let’s start with that toast of yours.”

   “The Sinatra toast?” Winston asked with a wink. “Did you really quote Old Blue Eyes, Campie?”

   “Stop calling her that,” Jeff warned him. “If you two clowns want to participate in this debriefing, grow up.”

   “Sorry, Jeff,” his men said in unison.

   But Sasha could see that their eyes were twinkling, so she threw them a bone by insisting, “I’m fine with ‘Campie.’ But I draw the line at ‘tittie-cam.’”

   “That’s right,” Jeff muttered. “Laugh it up. I’m still waiting for an explanation.”

   “Of the toast?” Sasha shrugged. “It’s just something I’ve heard my father say.”

   “So you didn’t mean it?”

   “Pardon?”

   “You said they were your family. By choice. Did you mean that or not?”

   Sasha stared into her handler’s dark green eyes and wondered if he could possibly understand, even a little, the complex world in which she had been raised. A world where family was everything, and sometimes, everyone was family. And sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes, even your own flesh and blood weren’t.

   It was complicated.

   And Jeff Crossman was a simple guy. Clean-cut. All-American, both figuratively and Heisman Trophyly. With his six-foot-three athletic frame, his squeaky-clean background, his intact family and grass roots schooling—all of which had spawned a black-and-white view of right and wrong—he viewed Sasha’s world through an amazingly clear lens, when in truth, it needed multiple filters if one really wanted to discover the truth.

   Jackass.

   She sent a warning glare in the direction of Tweed-ledum and Tweedledee, then told Jeff, “Yes, I meant it. They’re family to me in one sense. But that doesn’t mean I endorse their behavior. And it doesn’t mean I’ll protect them. They’re criminals. The kind of criminals who rob innocent victims of any chance for a normal life. They robbed me of that when they killed my mother. And no one robs Sasha Bracciali and gets away with it.”

   She paused for dramatic effect, then assured him, “Go ahead. Put that in your report. I dare you.”

   “Did you ever sleep with Carmine Martino?” She drew back, stunned by the question, and before she could stop herself, she answered with a resounding, “No!”

   “Sheesh, Jeff. That’s kinda rough, isn’t it?” Winston murmured. “She just fingered Vincent Martino for us. Cut her some slack, will ya?”

   Sasha laughed lightly. “My hero. Now if you boys don’t mind, I’m going home. I’ve got a raging headache.”

   Jeff held up his hand. “Wait.”

   She cleared her throat, wondering if for once this hunky marionette was actually going to apologize to her. “What now?”

   He slid a picture of “Dante” across the table to her. “You’re convinced this is Vincent Martino, aka, the Butcher?”

   “Absolutely.”

   “Based on what?”

   “Like I said, I recognized the voice, although I couldn’t swear in court that it was Vincenzo. But he said he was Daddy’s friend. And Antonio’s cousin. And that whole thing about me spitting up on him. And his crush on Mom—ugh. That seemed familiar, too. So all in all? Yes. I think we’ve got our guy.”

   Jeff leaned forward, his gaze imprisoning hers. “And tell me again, just for the record. What is your relationship with Vincent Martino? Do you consider him family? By choice, not blood?”

   Sasha could almost hear the accusation in his tone, but she shrugged it off. “My relationship with him? When I was a kid, he used to slip me a cannoli every once in a while when my mother wasn’t looking. I loved him for that.”

   Winston grinned. “Slipped you a cannoli? Is that as dirty as it sounds?”

   Sasha stared at him, speechless for a moment. Then she burst into laughter. “That does it. You’re officially a pervert. But that’s better than Jeff, because he’s officially an ingrate.” Grabbing her purse, she headed for the door, adding over her shoulder, “Nice working with you, fellas. I’m outta here.”

Chapter 2

   Exhausted, Sasha would have crashed into bed within minutes of arriving home, but she was anxious to follow up on a news story that had been taunting her all week despite her need to focus on preparation for the wedding op. Now that she had been debriefed, she could stop tuning out the rest of the world, beginning with the fate of two kidnapped girls.

   Her favorite twenty-four-hour news channel was rerunning a video of Representative Bryan Ellis of Arizona, who pleaded into the TV camera for the return of the two teenagers. According to Ellis, both victims had been students at a prestigious Arizona prep school for girls.

   Athena Academy.

   Thirsty for information about the status of her fellow Athenians, Sasha fired up her laptop to check AA.gov, but the alumni Web site was strangely silent about the fate of the girls. It simply parroted what Ellis had already told the media: that the abduction had been bold and well planned, the families had been notified and the whole country was praying for the safe return of the students.

   “Bullshit,” Sasha muttered. “There’s a lot more than praying going on. We have women in the FBI, the CIA, NSA—you name it. These creeps are gonna wish they’d never been born when they come face-to-face with pure, unadulterated Athena force.”

   Every fiber of her being wanted to call the school and offer to help, but it was the middle of the night. Plus, she knew that the Athena Academy had alumni much more experienced than she to tap. After all, Sasha’s function with the FBI was to be a glorified snitch. An asset, not an agent. It made sense, given the nature of her work, but still it rankled her, even on a good day. And on a bad night like this, it truly frustrated her.

   As if they’re going to ask a Mafia princess for help on something like this? she mocked herself.

   Immediately, she tensed. That was Jeff Crossman’s viewpoint, not her own. Apparently he had really gotten under her skin with his doubts about her reliability. And while she knew it wasn’t totally his doing—she had her own internal conflicts, especially in regard to her father—she still cursed Jeff for daring to speak them out loud so often.

   Sleep, or even resting under the covers, was out of the question. She would stay up all night if necessary, monitoring the TV and the Web site until she was sure the students were safe.

   Twisting her hair into a knot that barely fit inside a plastic cap, she took a quick shower and slipped into a long, silky blue robe. Then she curled up on the couch with a glass of Pinot Grigio, her laptop and the remote control, determined to hunker down indefinitely.

   She had just taken the first sip of her drink when someone knocked on the door to her condominium. It was an odd occurrence for multiple reasons. She rarely had visitors. It was nearly eleven o’clock at night. And her building had excellent security, which meant she should have gotten a phone call from the front desk announcing any guest who sought admittance.

   Sliding to her feet, Sasha considered her options carefully. There was the pistol in the bottom drawer of her nightstand. Or a call to the front desk. Or…

   Forget those screwups at the desk. Just call 9-1-1!

   But that seemed imprudent, given the nagging sensation in the back of her tired brain that her visitor was probably Carmine Martino, determined to collect on his bet.

   Which led her to her final option—one she didn’t usually consider. She could simply kick the crap out of any assailant. Wasn’t that the most practical part of her Athena Academy legacy?

   Smiling at the thought, she walked over to the door and peeped through the peephole. Then she frowned in confused disbelief.

   Jeff?

   Without thinking, she threw open the door and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

   “Nothing. Can I come in?”

   She was literally stunned. This guy never, ever came to her place. She always went to him, which made sense, since it wouldn’t have been prudent for an FBI agent to be spotted entering the residence of a Mafia boss’s daughter. Not prudent for Jeff, and certainly not for Sasha.

   So why was he here?

   Stepping aside, she allowed him to enter. Then she asked hesitantly, “Did you guys apprehend Vincenzo Martino?”

   “We’re still working on it.” He gave a long, appreciative whistle as his gaze traveled around her sumptuously furnished living room. “Nice place.”

   “My design work pays all the bills. And, yes, the down payment came from my mother’s trust fund, but every penny of that was completely legitimate. Not that it’s any of your business.” Sasha felt her temperature rise. “Even if every inch of this place was financed with mob money, I don’t have to explain it to you.”

   Jeff turned and gave her a patient smile. “All I said was, it’s a nice place. You look good, too, by the way.”

   Sasha sucked her breath in so quickly it made her chest ache. What the hell was he doing? Being nice to her? Complimenting her? Using his Summit voice on her in person, when he surely knew it was meant solely for electronic communications over safe distances?

   But there he was, sounding strong and safe and sexy. Combined with his deep green eyes and admiring smile, the effect was lethal. Yet she knew it was false—this guy thought she was a crime waiting to happen!—so she steadied herself, then demanded, “Why are you here, Agent Crossman?”

   “Sorry, I know it’s late. I just wanted to apologize for the way I acted earlier.”

   Sasha moistened her lips. “Pardon?”

   “You did a great job today. And I gave you a rough time. I’m sorry.”

   “You always give me a rough time,” she reminded him. “What’s so different about today?” Before he could respond, she insisted, “Don’t give it another thought. I’m used to it.”

   “That’s my point. I’ve been wrong. I admit it.”

   She would have been shaken by the sentiment had she not noticed his gaze slip, just for a moment, from her face to her body, which probably looked fairly good in this particular robe. “Oh. My. God. Don’t even think about it. Just go home and sleep it off.”

   He flushed. “It’s not that, either. Although like I said, you look great. You’re amazing, actually. If we land Vincent the Butcher because of you—well—”

   “So? You came here—at eleven o’clock at night—to apologize for calling me a spoiled Mafia princess? Fine. Apology accepted. Now go home.”

   Jeff frowned. “I never called you that. At least…”

   “Not to my face? Yeah, you’re a classy guy. No doubt about it.” Stepping close to him, she raised her chin defiantly. “You know what really bugs me? All these months, you’ve been railing about my divided loyalties and crappy motivation because of my so-called vendetta against my father. But you know what? I think you’re the one with a vendetta. Against me.”

   “That’s not true,” he assured her, using his Summit voice again.

   “Isn’t it?” She smiled grimly. “You’ve seen all my advantages—fancy houses, elite prep schools, zillion-dollar weddings and colorful relatives. And then there’s you. So drenched in normalness you can’t possibly relate to all that. So you denigrate it.”

   He arched a teasing eyebrow. “How am I drenched in normalness? If that’s even a word, which I doubt.”

   Sasha bit her lip, regretting the display of temper. Wasn’t she just feeding the stereotype? The hot-blooded Italian female? Plus, he was right about normalness. It wasn’t a word per se, but it fit him sooo well.

   Except for his body, which was anything but normal. And his face was superior, too. And his voice. And to be fair, winning the Heisman Trophy in his junior year at Princeton was nothing to sneeze at, especially since her father—Big Frankie—had reportedly made a bundle on a related bet.

   Jeff touched her shoulder lightly. “Come on, Sasha. Let me apologize. I’ve been tough on you. For a lot of reasons. I see now I was wrong. You’re invaluable to my operation. And the most amazing person I’ve ever worked with.”

   “But…?” She licked her lips. “You still don’t trust me. Right?”

   “I’ve always trusted you. It was your motives I questioned. Because of your relationship with your father.” He exhaled sharply. “I’m sure I would have reacted the same way you did if I—well, if I suspected my father of—well, of doing what you think your father did.”

   “You can’t even say it!” She backed away in embarrassed disgust. “That’s the real reason you didn’t trust me. You have so much contempt for the world I grew up in, you can’t believe—not even for one minute—that something or someone decent could come out of it.”

   “Sasha—”

   “Your father would never have anyone killed. Even if your mother had had sex with another man right in front of his eyes! They’d all just troop over to group counseling, right? But scum like my father and me—”

   “Cut it out,” he instructed firmly. “I never said that. And I never thought it, either. Not once.”

   She forced herself to settle down. Then she said with a sigh, “You figured I’d forgive Dad one day, right? And then my loyalty to you would shift back to him.”

   “Loyalty to me, loyalty to him.” Jeff exhaled again, this time in clear frustration. “That’s my point, Sasha. You’re setting yourself up for a huge disappointment—or worse, if you look at it that way. Real loyalty has to be grounded in something unshakable. It’s great that your culture respects family above all else, but that opens the door to factions, infighting, jealousy—”

   “What’s your loyalty grounded in?”

   “I guess, justice. The rule of law. Our legislatures and courts. Not personal vengeance and passion.”

   “Judges and politicians are just as corrupt as anyone else who wields power,” Sasha insisted. Then she turned away from him, folding her arms across her chest. “Maybe you should just go.”

   

   “Hey.” He rested his hands on her waist and massaged it lightly. “Don’t be mad, okay?”

   She turned back to him, completely disoriented. “What are you doing?”

   “Tell me to stop,” he suggested hoarsely.

   She wanted to say something—anything—but found herself moistening her lips instead.

   Countless fantasies, some from earlier in Sasha’s life, some from the day she first met this frustrating, judgmental hunk, flooded her mind and body with heat and excitement. Not that she needed it. He was supplying more than enough juice with his hot, appreciative stare.

   Then he pulled her against himself, and she gasped at the hard-body feel of him. In an instant his tongue was sparring with hers, his hand roving under her robe, his breathing growing ragged and needy—

   And then—as if to rescue them from themselves—there was another unexpected knock on the front door.

   “Damn.” Jeff realigned Sasha so that her cheek was nestled against his chest. “Are you expecting someone?”

   She loved the erratic way his heart was pounding, mostly because it offered proof that he was as excited as she. Not that other proof hadn’t been pressed against her, but that was just physical. Just a guy thing. This breathless lack of control was something else. Emotion. Confusion.

   All the things Sasha was experiencing.

   “I wasn’t expecting anyone. Especially not you,” she told him.

   “Yeah. Me, either.”

   She pulled free and tried not to smile too widely. “It’s probably Carmine Martino. Here to collect on his bet.”

   Jeff’s amorous expression rearranged itself instantly. “He can collect on my fist, the asshole.”

   “Earth to Jeff. If he sees you here, my cover’s blown, remember?” She stroked his tightened jaw. “I can handle him, believe me. Go hide in the bedroom.”

   Jeff shook his head. “I don’t want him alone with you. Not ever.”

   “I won’t be alone with him. You’ll be in the next room. Plus,” she added playfully, “I can kick his ass. And yours. Thanks to my fancy prep school.”

   He hesitated, then grinned. “Yeah. I know all about that from your file.”

   “Don’t forget it,” she said in mock warning. “Now shoo.”

   

   Still smiling, Sasha forced herself to recover from the lip-lock with Jeff, then took a few moments to re-belt her robe, which had been forced open during the kiss. She knew she should change into something less sexy, but her clothes were in the bedroom with Jeff and the bed, and that combination seemed just as dangerous as whatever was waiting for her in the hall.

   Moving to the peephole, she was surprised to see that her second visitor for the evening wasn’t Carmine, either. Instead, it was a bored-looking delivery boy with a long white box. And once again, security hadn’t alerted her, which was baffling. Not to mention, annoying.

   Your Christmas bonus is in jeopardy, boys, she warned the front-desk crew.

   

   Then she took a moment to warn herself, as well. Since when are flowers delivered in the middle of the night? Something screwy’s going on.

   Her best guess was that Carmine had sent them. He would have ways of getting them past the guards, either covertly or otherwise. If that was the case, she needed to get this over with as quickly as possible, then get back to Jeff—hopefully for another round of X-rated kissing.

   Wise up. You’re still Franco Bracciali’s daughter. This could be a completely different kind of package, so stop being such a sap. Girls who let strangers into their homes in the middle of the night make headlines the next morning, and not in a good way. So forget about sex and try to focus, will you?

   Clearing her throat, she called out, “Who is it?”

   “Flower delivery. Sorry for the late hour, but it’s a rush.”

   Sasha scowled. “Just leave the box where I can see it through the peephole, then go. Sorry about your tip, but like you said, it’s late.”

   “No problem, ma’am. Have a good night.”

   Jeff was beside her before she could open the door. “Flowers? What’s that about?”

   “I don’t know,” she admitted. “How did he get past security? In fact—” she arched an inquiring eyebrow “—how did you get past it?”

   “The alarm system on the delivery door in the alley is prehistoric. Typical of these ritzy buildings—all the show is up front. But I reset it after I was inside, so…” His tone grew brisk. “Stand back. I’ll handle it.”

   She laughed. “You’re kidding, right? It’s my condo, so you stand back. Never let it be said that a Bracciali allowed an honored guest to get blown up on our turf.”

   “I knew you led an interesting life,” he drawled, “but this just about beats it.”

   She liked the way his green eyes twinkled when he teased her, but reminded herself that he had mostly been an enemy—or at least a detractor—for the majority of their relationship, so she shouldn’t let her guard down so easily.

   Turning away from him, she leveled her eye with the peephole again, then had to admit, “It looks legit. Let’s check it out.”

   Opening the door, she edged into the hall and knelt beside the long white box. “No ticking,” she told Jeff, half jokingly.

   “Allow me.” He grabbed her by the elbow, pulling her to her feet. Then he pushed her behind himself before nudging the lid with his foot. The box opened easily, revealing a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses.

   “Ooh, nice.” Sasha knelt again, scooping the flowers into her arms. The she flashed Jeff a playful smile. “You didn’t send them, did you?”

   “Given how things are going, I kinda wish I had. But no. You’ve obviously got another secret admirer. Some sort of belated Valentine’s Day gift.”

   Sasha could see a tiny envelope nestled between the dark red blossoms. Pulling the card free, she opened it and scanned the simple inscription.

   

   Your cell and landlines both roll to voice mail. We need to talk. Check your e-mail. AA.

   “What does it say?” Jeff demanded. “Are they from Martino?”

   Sasha pursed her lips, buying time to decide how to respond. Given what was going on at Athena Academy, this mysterious message could only be about the kidnapped girls.

   Which meant they had found a way to allow Sasha to help! And it also meant she had to get rid of her sexy guest. Fast.

   “It’s from my father,” she lied finally. “He feels awful that we couldn’t attend the wedding together. He thinks it’s time to talk.”

   “Man, that’s huge.” Jeff rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Are you ready for that?”

   “Honestly?” She gave an audible sigh. “It bothered me, too, avoiding him the way I did. Gianna and I—and her sister Vittoria—were inseparable when we were little. We played in that ballroom on bad-weather days while Dad and Uncle Antonio sat nearby talking. Obviously they were up to no good, but still…”

   “Still, it was innocent in its own way,” Jeff agreed. “I get that, you know. You think I’m constantly judging you, but the truth is, I get it. That’s the only reason I’ve ever thought you’d crack under the strain. Because it is a strain. He’s your father. You love him. I get that.”

   Sasha stood and looked him in the eye. “Thanks.”

   “What are you going to do?”

   “I don’t know. I could call him. Or I could blow it off. I’ve done that before. But either way, I need to think it through. Alone. I’m sorry.”

   “No problem. I should be going anyway. This was sort of nuts from the start. Not that I planned it. At least, not from the start.” His handsome face flushed. “Did I mention how good you look?”

   Sasha felt her cheeks redden. “You look good, too. I guess we were set up by our own hormones.”

   “Yeah?” He chuckled. “I like that.”

   She couldn’t help but smile. “You’d better go.”

   He nodded, but didn’t move toward the elevator. “I know this sounds corny, but I’m gonna remember that kiss for a long, long time.”

   “Me, too.” She gave him another, more wistful smile. “Too bad I wasn’t wearing the bra-cam, or we’d have videos of it. For old times’ sake.”

   “Actually…” He rested his hands on her hips as he’d done just before their kiss. “I’m kind of glad you weren’t wearing a bra.”

   “Mmm.” She brushed her lips across his, then pulled free quickly. “Definitely time for you to go, Agent Crossman.”

   “Yeah. I’ll call you.” He cleared his throat, then explained, “To let you know what happens with Vincent.”

   “Right.” She bit her lip again. “Bye, Jeff. And thanks.”

   Her words brought a smile to his lips. “My pleasure. Get inside, Camper. And lock the door. The security in this dive sucks.”

   His expression—not to mention his tone—was so seductive, she felt herself beginning to melt again, so she gathered up the flowers and the box, then bustled past him, calling good-night over her shoulder. Then she followed his instructions by engaging the dead bolt as soon as she was inside the condo.

   “Ohmigod,” she told herself, leaning against the door and exhaling with exaggerated need. “What was that about?”

   It was a question she could have dwelled on—and drooled over—for hours, if Athena Academy hadn’t been waiting to hear from her.

   

   When Sasha dialed the number supplied in the e-mail from AA.gov, Allison Gracelyn, an Athena board member who now worked for the NSA, answered on the first ring, saying only that a car would be arriving for Sasha in ten minutes. That gave her just enough time to don a pair of black jeans and a stretchy purple V-neck sweater. Then she grabbed her favorite butter-soft black leather boots and a cozy parka, along with her purse, and headed for the door.

   Unfortunately, her third unexpected caller of the evening was waiting in the hallway. And this time, it really was the much-expected Carmine Martino, who asked pointedly, “Going somewhere?”

   Oh, crap, Sasha complained to herself. But aloud, she kept her cool. “A delivery guy just dropped off some flowers. But he took off before I could give him a tip. So I wanted to catch him—”

   “He’ll live,” Carmine assured her, his thick voice indicating he had had too much to drink. “The real question is, who the fuck is sending you flowers in the middle of the night?”

   “A client, if you must know.”

   He grinned. “The fat one that got trapped in her zipper?”

   “She isn’t fat. Not at all. It was a defective zipper….” Sasha narrowed her eyes in warning. “Go away, Carmine. If you want to visit, come back at a decent hour.”

   “I don’t want to visit. I want to collect on my bet.” He pushed her into the living room, then closed the door behind them and warned, “No more tricks.”

   Sasha’s training, both from Athena Academy and from her boutique-but-effective karate classes thereafter, would have allowed her to teach him a lesson, but she knew it would raise questions about her seemingly innocent lifestyle, so she decided on a different tactic. “We can sit on the sofa and talk. After I get these roses into water.”

   “Sitting on the sofa is a good start,” he said with a leer. “Hurry up. I’ll pour the booze. Where is it?”

   “Check the sideboard. I have a little of everything. The glasses are on the top shelf.”

   With her purse still clutched under her elbow, she grabbed the flowers and headed for the kitchen. Once there, she fished out her cell phone and address book, thumbing until she found the number for Antonio Martino’s consiglieri. Dialing rapidly, she listened to the ringing as she shoved the roses into a vase.

   “Who is this?” a gruff male voice answered.

   “This is Sasha Bracciali. Don’t talk, just listen.”

   The man was apparently good at taking instructions, because his only reply was soft, steady breathing. Encouraged, Sasha hid the cell phone among the blossoms, then returned to the living room, where Carmine was waiting for her with two glasses of red wine.

   Setting the vase on the sideboard, Sasha insisted in a firm voice, “I don’t want any trouble, Carmine. You need to go home and sleep it off before you do something we’ll all regret.”

   “You’re so full of yourself,” he retorted, slamming the glasses down, then stepping to within inches of her. “We can do this friendly, or we can just do it. It’s you’re choice. Either way, you’re gonna thank me for it.”

   “My father would be furious if he knew you were doing this. Your father, too.”

   “Fuck ‘em both. And you. Literally in your case,” he added with a grin, reaching for her neck with one hand while his other began unbuckling his belt.

   But the sound of a phone, ringing from inside his jacket, stopped him, at least momentarily. “Fuck! Who the fuck…?” He pulled out the phone and scowled at the display. Then he grimaced. “I gotta take this. Don’t go away.” Flipping it open, he asked carefully, “Pop? Is everything okay?”

   Sasha watched as his eyes widened with obvious fear. “Sure, Pop. I was just—yeah, yeah, I got it. I’m going. Fuck… Yeah, yeah, I’m going.”

   Sasha backed away, trying not to let Carmine see how entertained she was by his transformation. Not that she blamed him. She had heard some fairly gruesome stories about Antonio Martino’s temper, and she imagined Carmine had felt the sting of his displeasure more than once in his twenty-nine years.

   “You bitch,” Carmine whispered, his face purple with anger. “I can’t believe you had the fucking nerve to call him.”

   “Shh…” She put her finger to her lips, then inclined her head toward the roses. “He’s still listening. You’d better go, Carmine. We’ll just chalk this up to all the excitement over the wedding, and a little too much Chianti. Okay?”

   “Bitch,” he repeated, but fear had returned to his voice. And while he clearly wanted to threaten her—or worse—he settled for flipping her off, Martino-style. Then he stormed out of the condo, slamming the door behind himself.

   Sasha retrieved the phone and held it to her ear as she walked over to re-secure the dead bolt. “Zio Antonio? Multo grazie. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me, but I was still scared.”

   “I’m very disappointed in my son,” Antonio assured her solemnly. “First he ruins Gianna’s wedding day, then he dares threaten an angel like you. And after I spoke with him this very evening about the need to treat you with respect. Can you forgive us?”

   “I’m just so grateful for the rescue.”

   “Anytime. Any place. I hope you know that, Sasha.” The don paused, then said bluntly, “Your father will be very angry about this. And with good reason.”

   “Except he won’t ever know,” Sasha promised. “It’s not like I talk to him these days. And even if I did, you took care of everything. So why bother?”

   “You’re a good girl,” Antonio told her in a husky voice. “And my son is a fool. Sleep well, cara mia. Don’t worry about a thing.”

   

   “I won’t,” Sasha assured him softly, genuinely grateful for his solicitude. “Ciao, zio.”

   

   Aware of the fact that Allison Gracelyn worked in Washington D.C., Sasha half expected the Athena Academy limousine to take her to O’Hare Airport so that she could meet with the board member on the East Coast. And if not, then to Arizona, where the Gracelyn family lived, and where the school itself was located.

   But to her surprise, the driver took her to the nearby Grand Union Hotel and instructed her to go directly to Room 2003. And so after a quick stop in the restroom to check her appearance—Allison was something of a heroine to her after all—Sasha made her way to the twentieth floor.

   Allison answered the door right away, greeting Sasha with warm enthusiasm. “Come in. It’s great seeing you again.”

   “I wasn’t sure you’d remember.”

   “You make an indelible impression,” Allison assured her. “We met at the welcoming reception when you first came to our school, and then again at your graduation. Correct?”

   Sasha felt a surge of pride that this lovely, accomplished woman would remember such details. Of course, it was probably all in a file somewhere. And Allison undoubtedly attended all the initiations and graduations—

   “At the initiation, you and I spoke about the portrayal of Italian-Americans in movies and on television. But at your graduation, all you wanted to talk about was your acceptance to the School of Design. Your enthusiasm was contagious. And I hear your success has been electric, as well. We’re all very proud of you.”

   Sasha bit her lip. “I’m so flattered you remember all that. Especially considering everything that’s going on.” Daring to grab Allison’s hands in her own, she demanded, “Is there any news?”

   “Come and sit with me.” Allison led her to a large table and motioned to one of the overstuffed chairs that surrounded it. Once they had settled in, she explained. “One girl has been rescued. That’s the good news.”

   “Oh! That’s such a relief. But…”

   “The other girl is unharmed. Unfortunately we were unable to rescue her. Mostly because she didn’t cooperate with us.”

   “Why not?”

   Allison grimaced. “She wants to investigate from the inside. To learn who masterminded the kidnappings, and for what purpose.”

   “Cool kid.”

   “I suppose. But she’s driving us crazy in the process.”

   “I can imagine.” Sasha took a deep breath, then said in a rush, “I really appreciate getting all this information, especially firsthand like this. But I’ve got to ask. Why are you telling me of all people?”

   Allison gave her a confident smile. “Because you—of all people—are the perfect person to help us recover the missing student. Assuming of course, that you’re willing.”

Chapter 3

   Tossing his car keys onto his cluttered desk, Jeff Crossman strode to the only window in his sparsely furnished studio apartment, then shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and stared through the miniblinds at the neon lights that illuminated the freezing Chicago night.

   “Un-effing-believable,” he murmured to himself. “You kissed Big Frankie’s daughter? You must be out of your effing mind.”

   He could just imagine what Winston Lowe and Chuck McBride—the younger, less-experienced agents on his Organized Crime team—would say if they heard about this. Those guys had been openly and obnoxiously wild about Sasha Bracciali from the start, to the point where the Special Agent in Charge—namely Jeff—had had to pull rank on them more than once, warning them to cut it out when the compliments started flying too thick and fast.

   “You’re an effing hypocrite, Crossman,” he assured himself now, although that characterization wasn’t completely true. He had never denied that she was pretty—okay, smoking hot—but he had been determined his team would treat her with respect. She was, after all, a nice, decent girl trying her best to do what was right.

   But he had also seen her as a liability, and now as he stared out into the night, with the haze of their kiss beginning to fade, he focused on other, less sexy parts of their incendiary encounter. In particular, he reminded himself of her accusation: that he had been conducting a vendetta against her.

   Those words had shocked him, but didn’t they hold a grain of truth? He had been uncomfortable with the idea of handling her, right from the start. Not because of her social and financial advantages, real or imagined, but because of her motivation. Because to Jeff, motive was everything when it came to evaluating an asset.

   He could respect straight, uncomplicated revenge as a motivator. It actually made things simple. And he also appreciated the most common incentive of the garden-variety snitch—cold, hard cash.

   In contrast, he didn’t trust an asset whom the Bureau was manipulating into cooperation by threat of imprisonment. Nor was he comfortable with someone whose sole motive contained any other element of fear. It made them too emotional, which in turn led to surprises and complications.

   Jeff Crossman didn’t like complications.

   Because of your normalness, he reminded himself, but his goofy smile faded quickly. He needed to stop fantasizing about how sexy and vulnerable she had been at her apartment, and start remembering the reason he had gone there in the first place.

   To apologize, yes, but also to have a talk—the talk they should have had that first day, when she had walked into Jeff’s downtown office, a tentative smile on her face, her hand outstretched to meet him. She had looked so pretty. So hopeful. So very, very dangerous.

   Because as a professional, he had forced himself that day to look past the pretty face, the waist-long wavy hair and dynamite body—to see into her heart, her soul, her brain. And he had seen a needy daughter whose father had devastated her with betrayal and hurt so intense, she now needed to lash out at him—or more precisely, at the world that had created him. The world that had allowed Frankie Bracciali to order a hit on his own beloved wife, Sasha’s mother, because of alleged marital infidelity.

   Not that Sasha had been willing to work directly against her father. She had been clear about that from the start, insisting that Frankie Bracciali and his organization were off-limits. She would, however, use her contacts and background to help bring down anyone else.

   It had seemed too good to be true. And then she had looked Jeff right in the eye and told him confidently that it wouldn’t make sense to waste time on her father’s dealings in any event, because “these days, ninety-nine percent of Dad’s business is legitimate.”

   Those words, more than anything, had confirmed Jeff’s belief that Sasha was a deluded, emotional girl who still loved her father as fiercely as ever. If it came to a choice between Frankie Bracciali and an investigation—and that day was bound to come—pretty little Sasha would choose her father over law and order without a moment’s hesitation.

   Jeff didn’t blame her for that. Didn’t judge her for it as a daughter, or as a human being. But in her capacity as an asset, he had believed it made her worthless.

   Over the ensuing months she had done a good job. A great job, in fact. But it wasn’t until the Martino wedding that she had conclusively proved Jeff wrong. She had been nothing short of brilliant at that reception, even before she got a shot of Vincent the Butcher’s renovated face with her crazy-ass bra-cam. Just the way she had handled herself—so cool, so professional—had impressed her reluctant handler beyond words.

   Anyone else would have been distracted and subverted by waves of nostalgia and confusion, but not Sasha. Despite her clear affection for the bride and her warm history with the Martino family in general, she had been all business. Completely focused on the ultimate goal—finding a way to track down and apprehend Vincent “the Butcher” Martino.

   And man, had she delivered.

   To Jeff’s discredit, he hadn’t been willing to accept the truth right away. Instead he had struggled with it, weighing her every word, every movement, intent on finding proof that her emotional ties to Antonio Martino—the man she affectionately called “zio Antonio”—provided justification for not fully trusting her. It was only when she had walked out of the debriefing, her head held high, her long legs and pretty ass mocking him with every stride, that he had realized it was time to admit the truth.

   He had been wrong. From the start. About everything.

   She was an incredible find, an invaluable asset and one-effing-hell of a female.

   And for reasons that had made perfect sense at the time, he had felt the need to tell her that. In person. Right away, even though the hour was late and she was probably in bed. He had convinced himself he had to go over there—to her personal residence—and apologize right away.

   Now he knew better. Somewhere along the line, his body had taken over, conning his mind into thinking his purpose was to talk, when all the while, he had had a much more basic objective: to act on impulses that had been suppressed and denied for so many months, he hadn’t even remembered they were there until it was too late. Until he was drowning in her eyes. In her silk-clad curves. In her kiss.

   Un-effing-believable, Crossman.

   

   “I guess you’ve heard I’ve been working with the FBI’s Organized Crime Unit. But only as an asset, Allison, not an agent,” Sasha explained with an apologetic smile. “I’m flattered—and trust me, I’ll gladly do whatever you ask—but I’m a little confused. There are so many other alumni with more impressive qualifications and relevant experience. Really outstanding women in every sense of the word. So? Why me?”

   Allison pursed her lips. “I should probably start at the beginning. But let me just say first, I disagree with your self-assessment. Your qualifications are as impressive as any Athena Academy student, past or present.”

   Sasha felt her cheeks redden, and she knew it wasn’t just from embarrassment over the praise. It was also confusion, because whatAllison had just said simply wasn’t true. Athena alumni included daring pilots, skillful spies and computer geniuses. There was simply no way Sasha could compete with them, nor did she want to. She was a dress designer who moonlighted as an FBI informant, and she was perfectly content with that life.

   Allison cleared her throat. “Okay, here’s what we have so far in a nutshell. The two students are Teal Arnett, age seventeen, and fifteen-year-old Lena Poole. They each have amazing abilities. Superabilities, in fact. Strength, speed, and in Teal’s case, some talent as a psychic. Coincidentally, both of the girls’mothers were treated at the same fertility clinic before they were born. Thanks to another Athena alumna we know now that their eggs—and those of many other girls—were genetically enhanced by unscrupulous scientists. Anyway—” she paused for a deep breath “—we weren’t aware of the girls’ superabilities when we invited them to attend AthenaAcademy. Believe me, they were more than qualified based on high IQs and athletic accomplishments.”

   Sasha knew her eyes were wide with childlike disbelief but she didn’t care. “My God, it’s so amazing. There was nothing on the news about any enhanced abilities. But that’s why the kidnappers targeted these particular students, right? They want to study them. But to what end?”

   Allison smiled. “That’s the very reason Teal refused to be rescued, to find that out.

   “She managed to get a psychic message to one of our contacts, and we were able to track them from Los Angeles to Colombia.”

   “Wow.”

   Allison sighed. “Before we could reach them in Colombia, they were moved again. Somehow the kidnappers knew we were going to make the rescue attempt.”

   “Because they intercepted Teal’s psychic message?”

   “No. Her talent doesn’t work that way. We think they had someone on the inside, at the Academy or perhaps at the NSA.”

   “Oh no.”

   Allison nodded grimly. “In any case, we were able to get our hands on the other girl, Lena, thank God. But they took Teal to Prague. We had a nearly successful rescue there, and we found out about other girls with genetic enhancements. Unfortunately, they got away with Teal again, but we were able to apprehended a doctor named Jeremy Loschetter who was involved with the scheme. He provided some useful information about the person who organized the original abduction, a blackmailer named Arachne who has an interest in genetic research. We aren’t sure how everything ties together, or whether Arachne is also involved with the group who has Teal now, but we’re exploring all options.”

   “‘We’ being the NSA?”

   Allison paused again, this time for a sip of water. Then she murmured, “I belong to another, smaller group. Once you’re officially on board, I’ll share all that with you.”

   “I’m on board,” Sasha assured her. “I still don’t quite get why you chose me, but it’s too late now. You’re stuck with me till Teal is safe.”

   “Good.”

   Seeing that Allison was uncomfortable with what had to be said next, Sasha prompted her cheerfully. “How does a Mafia princess with a vendetta against her own father fit into all this?”

   Allison’s perfectly shaped eyebrow arched in gentle disapproval. “That’s an odd way to characterize yourself. But you’re correct. Your connection to your father’s organization makes you the perfect woman for this assignment.” She hesitated, then asked, “How much do you know about what’s happening in Kestonia these days?”

   “Kestonia?” Sasha grimaced. “They just had a bloody coup, led by a ruthless autocrat named Vlad something-or-other. Oh no! You’re not saying Teal is in that hellhole, are you?”

   “I’m afraid so. The men who thwarted our last rescue attempt were Kestonian.”

   “Oh no.”

   “Access to the area isn’t just restricted. It’s virtually impenetrable. Vlados Zelasko has an iron grip on the borders. On everything, in fact.”

   “Why would he want Teal?” Sasha wondered aloud. “Isn’t he busy solidifying his power base? The area has to be unstable and vulnerable. Doesn’t he have enemies to contend with?”

   “He killed them all, apparently. As a result, his regime is supremely secure, at least for the moment. His next step, according to his public statements, is to put Kestonia on the map. One way to do that is to involve his country in international trade. Black-market-style trading, mostly.”

   “That’s where I come in?” Sasha guessed. “You think Dad might have some way of contacting this guy?”

   “Almost certainly. There’s a gathering of various crime lords in Kestonia this week. From all over Europe, and from the U.S., as well. Zelasko will meet with the underworld chieftains, then cap it off with an ostentatious ball to showcase his new regime.”

   “Right! I remember reading about that,” Sasha agreed, thinking back to a colorful spread in one of her design magazines. “He wants to prove that Kestonia isn’t drab and standoffish, so he’s inviting dignitaries and royalty from around the world. It should be a fashion bonanza, especially because the guy is so totally photogenic.”

   “They say he’s mesmerizing in person,” Alison confirmed.

   “Maybe so. But in my experience,” Sasha told her carefully, “Mafia types don’t like that kind of splash. They prefer to keep their lavish parties under the radar.”

   “I agree. It’s likely that many of the crime lords won’t attend the actual ball. But still, it’s part of the conference, intended as a signal that Kestonia has become a major world player.”

   Sasha rubbed her eyes, suddenly weary. “And in the middle of all this, poor Teal sits in some hideous cell, scared to death?”

   “According to her psychic messages, her kidnappers have been careful not to injure her. Still, we can’t rely on that.”

   “I agree.” Sasha felt a surge of renewed excitement. “Will Teal be able to send me messages?”

   “I’m afraid not. One has to have psychic ability for it to work well. And she is apparently out of range, or perhaps drugged, because our contact hasn’t heard from her since a few days after the last rescue attempt.”

   “So she won’t be expecting me. But she’ll be expecting someone to show up, because she knows we won’t let a seventeen-year-old girl handle all this alone.” Sasha grimaced. “In addition to me, how many rescuers are you sending?”

   “We sent one already. She failed.” Allison flashed a sheepish smile. “This time it will just be you.”

   Sasha drew back in surprise. “I’m pretty sure Dad can wrangle me some sort of entrée into Kestonia. But once I get there—”

   “Once you get there, you will use your natural ingenuity and creativity—the things that make you so unique and amazing. You will also use your Athena training. I’m told you’ve kept up with your karate?”

   Sasha nodded.

   “Zelasko is so suspicious, it borders on paranoia. If he thought for one second that U.S. government agents had infiltrated his domain, he might do something extreme. Maybe even hurt Teal.”

   Sasha nodded her agreement quickly. “I just hope I don’t let you down. For Teal’s sake.”

   “We have enormous confidence in you, Sasha.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll talk to Dad first thing in the morning. He’ll be so happy to hear from me, he’ll do whatever I ask. Let’s just hope he has the right connections to make this happen without raising Zelasko’s suspicions. Dad’s business is mostly legitimate these days,” she added pensively, “so the connection will have to be made through another family. The Martinos, maybe. They’re our closest friends.”

   “Actually, the Martinos appear to be on the periphery for this particular syndicate. But your father’s connection is very direct according to reliable intel.”

   Sasha winced. “I see.”

   Unbelievable, Dad. What are you doing? Backsliding? Just when our family was really getting out of the crime business at last?

   “According to our reports, your father isn’t attending the conference himself. But he’s sending a representative.”

   “Probably my cousin Mark. He’s more or less the heir apparent, since Dad’s only child doesn’t want anything to do with the family business.”

   Allison pursed her lips. “Would your father be willing to send you, too? Or would he worry about your safety in a strange country?”

   “He’ll worry. But if I want to go, he’ll send me. That’s for sure.”

   “It would be even better if you went alone—”

   “No problem. Dad won’t come, because he can’t leave Illinois, thanks to a court order in a case where he’s a reluctant witness. And my cousin—well, I can handle him. I agree,” she added briskly, “it’s best if I go alone. And soon. Right?”

   “Thank you, Sasha. I know you’ll do well.” Allison smiled. “I assume your father will make the transportation arrangements. We can supply you with information and a few toys that might come in handy. Unfortunately, that won’t include communication equipment. You’ll be out of contact with the rest of the world while you’re in Kestonia. And we can’t supply weapons, either—Zelasko’s men will search your luggage and purse, and frisk you, as well. You’ll have to arm yourself with whatever you can find once you get inside Kestonia.”

   “The toys you mentioned aren’t weapons?”

   Allison laughed. “No. They’re much, much better.”

   Sasha bit her lip, wondering how she would get through so complex an operation without Summit’s voice whispering advice and encouragement in her ear. “I’ll need to tell my handler something. Otherwise, he’ll wonder what’s going on if he can’t contact me.”

   “Tell him you’re going to spend some time with your father. A week or two. We understand that you just performed well for the Bureau under very stressful conditions. They won’t object to your taking a little time for yourself.”

   Sasha frowned. “You’re saying I can’t tell Jeff the truth?”

   “Is that a problem?” Allison was clearly surprised. “I had the impression you and he didn’t get along.”

   “It’s been tense, but we’ve been making progress, trustwise. I don’t want to jeopardize that.”

   “To be frank, we’re controlling access to this information and being even more discreet than usual. We might have a leak.”

   “You don’t have to worry about Jeff. He’s the most trustworthy person I’ve ever met. Like a rock, really.”

   “Oh?”

   “Check out his background. He was a star quarterback until he got a really bad concussion and the doctors warned him not to play anymore. Then the FBI recruited him and he’s been a star there, too. Completely obsessed with honor and justice—” She stopped herself, noting the flicker of concern in Allison’s brown eyes. “I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal about this. I guess because I’m used to having Jeff plan strategy with me. But you’re right—this has nothing to do with him. I’ll handle it the way you suggested.”

   Allison eyed her for a long moment, then nodded. “I’m glad that’s settled. Luckily, I’ve planned an op or two myself along the way, so maybe I can be of assistance.”

   “That sounds great.”

   “Excellent.” Her new mentor’s tone turned brisk. “Let’s get down to details, shall we?”

   

   It was almost 3:00 a.m. before Sasha returned home and crawled into bed for a few hours’ rest. She was sure that despite her exhaustion, she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. Not after the multiple stimuli that had assaulted her body and her brain that evening. The wedding and all the memories it had elicited; the encounter with Vincent the Butcher Martino; the kiss; the upcoming reunion with her father, to be followed by a daring rescue of a genetically enhanced child…

   But to her surprise, she drifted into a deep sleep almost right away. As a result, when her alarm rang promptly at eight o’clock, she was more than ready to jump out of bed and take on the world.

   Starting with Jeff Crossman.

   

   She liked the idea of talking to her handler early in the morning. The air was crisp, almost biting, but clear of snow or rain. People were heading to church. There was a pure, homespun feel to the day. Nothing romantic about it, and definitely nothing sexy or obscene.

   Still, it bothered her that he had sounded so good—downright rumbly, in fact—when she’d called him. And there was the complication that he had asked her to come to his private apartment, rather than the office he shared with his team members. Both locations were downtown, but Jeff had reminded her that the office building was closed, and any meeting there would seem suspicious. She had agreed, only questioning the arrangement after he had already broken off the connection.

   Now she stood outside the door to his apartment and reviewed the cold hard facts, beginning with their first meeting.

   She remembered that encounter vividly. She had been nervous, but also excited to embark on her lofty new project. It had meant so much to her that the FBI’s Organized Crime Unit might be able to make use of her, so that no one else had to suffer the fate of her mother and be killed by “the mob.” It was time for that brand of violence to end, once and for all.

   Then she had braced herself and stepped into the office of SpecialAgent Jeff Crossman—the man who would be “handling” her. One look at him, and she had had only one thought: she had died and gone to informant heaven.

   That’s how amazing he had looked to her that autumn afternoon. Like a god. Not one of the Roman deities, of course, but maybe one of the Celtic ones? She had no idea about them—her whole universe, until now, had revolved around Roman mythology, thanks to her father—but one look at Jeff Crossman’s broad shoulders, emerald eyes and lean muscles had made a Celt out of Sasha, at least for the moment.

   A very short moment, as it turned out. Because once he opened his mouth, he had proven himself to be a first-class jerk.

   Give the guy a break, she chided herself now. He apologized, didn’t he?

   She gave a nervous laugh, remembering how hot that apology had been, and imagining what might have happened next had Allison’s roses not intervened.

   Focus, Sasha! Don’t think about the kiss. Or those shoulders. Or his Summit voice. This meeting is just a formality. Your mission is to save Teal Arnett, not to get laid. Puh-leeze try to remember that. I’m begging you!

   Laughing at herself again—who knew she was so weak for football players?—she raised her fist and rapped sharply on his door with her knuckles.

Chapter 4

   “Hey, Sasha. Nice to see you again,” Jeff said with a warm smile.

   Ignoring how adorable he looked in gray warm-up pants and an untucked white tee, his wavy blond hair still damp from his shower, Sasha handed him the box of doughnuts she had purchased from a nearby bakery. Then she strode into the middle of what appeared to be a one-room apartment. “I’m sorry for calling so early, and for barging in on your day off. But I’ve got a lot on my plate today, so thanks for seeing me right away.”

   Jeff peeked into the cardboard carton. “These look good. I guess I should have brought something to your place last night.”

   “You brought plenty,” she assured him drily. Then she surveyed his living quarters with exaggerated thoroughness. “I see now why you were so impressed with my apartment.”

   He laughed. “Yeah, this joint’s pretty grim. But I’m making payments on a beach house in San Diego, and I spend most of my time at the office anyway, so…”

   Leaving the doughnuts on the counter, he walked over to her. “You said you’ve got a lot on your plate. Starting with me, right? I agree. We need to talk about last night. So have a seat.” He gestured toward the bed. “Want some coffee?”

   “No, thanks. I had some earlier.” Sasha hesitated, then opted for a nearby desk chair rather than the comforter that had been spread over his otherwise unmade and still-warm-looking bed.

   “Right. Let’s get to it then.” He sat across from her. “Obviously, I screwed up. But I swear, I didn’t come over there last night to hit on you. At least not consciously. I just felt like my apology was way overdue. You’ve been a tremendous asset. I don’t want to blow that, assuming I haven’t already.”

   “We’re fine.” She grimaced sheepishly. “When I said I had a lot on my plate, I was talking about my father.”

   “Oh, right.” He flushed as he jumped to his feet. “I’m such an idiot! Did you talk to him? How’d it go?”

   “I didn’t talk to him yet. I’m headed there next. But…” She didn’t have to feign the confusion in her voice. “I think this is it, Jeff. The big moment for him and me. I can’t just keep ignoring him. Or ignoring the problem. So I’m going to force myself to hear him out. Talk it through. It won’t be easy. And I don’t want to rush it. So…” She took a deep breath, then blurted out, “I need some time off. From our stuff. Our business stuff, not the personal involvement. Not that we’re involved. But you know what I mean.”

   “Yeah.” He sat on the bed again, then studied her intently. “Take all the time you need. And just for the record, I think you’re doing the right thing.”

   “Thanks.”

   “As for our personal involvement…” He gave the seat beside him an inviting pat. “Come here for a minute.”

   She winced.

   “I won’t bite you. Or kiss you. I just want to talk.”

   She steadied her racing heart, then scooted over, sitting a safe distance from him and smiling warily. “Any chance we can postpone this till I see how it goes with Dad?”

   His green eyes warmed. “It’s gonna go fine with your old man. He loves you. And you love him. Right?”

   Sasha nodded.

   “It’ll make you an even more valuable asset for us. Not because we expect you to inform on Big Frankie or anything, but because it’ll remove a giant unknown from the equation where you’re concerned. I’ll be relying on you even more than I have been. And hopefully I’ll be treating you better. More like an equal partner.” He edged closer. “It’s gonna be tough, because you’re so sexy. But if I want to be your handler, I can’t—well, handle you, so to speak. And I definitely want to be your handler, because I think we’re gonna do great things together.”

   She could see that he had rehearsed those words—most of them, at least—and she was touched by how difficult it still seemed for him to deliver them. “I know. Don’t worry about it, Jeff. I want to keep working with you, too. Plus,” she said with a wistful smile, “we’ve got less chance than Romeo and Juliet, romantically speaking. Two different worlds and all that.”

   “Don’t kid yourself,” he murmured. “We’d be amazing together. That’s the worst part of it, for me at least. I’ll definitely have to be on my guard against it. Because that kiss,” he added reverently, “is gonna stick with me for a long, long time.”

   Sasha licked her lips, enjoying the forbidden thrill his words were sending through her. If it weren’t for her new mission—the need to save Teal—she might actually have argued with him. Or maybe even kissed him again.

   “I know what you’re thinking,” he warned, his green eyes darkening. “I’ve been telling myself the same thing. We’re both adults. We can handle it. But that’s nuts. Right?”

   “Probably.”

   “I already worry every time I send you into a dangerous situation. If you were my girlfriend, I’d really go nuts.”

   “Me, too.”

   “You, too?” He winced. “You mean you’d worry more?”

   “No. I’d be so distracted. Your voice already gets to me when you whisper instructions. Or try to boss me around.”

   “Yeah?” He gave a sheepish grin. “Right in the middle of the op?”

   Sasha licked her lips, then nodded. “I love it when that happens.”

   “Man…” He exhaled sharply, then leaned into her, covering her mouth with his own while urging her with gentle hands to lie back onto the bed.

   Sasha’s mind reeled with delight. “Jeff…”

   “One kiss, then cold turkey,” he promised, his voice descending into a sexy growl. “Man, you feel good.”

   One kiss.

   Apparently he planned to make the most of it, because his hand journeyed almost immediately under her blouse, caressing her breasts, then expertly unhooking her bra to gain more complete access. Sasha wanted to protest, but her own curiosity was strong, and her willpower was weak, so she followed his lead, allowing herself to explore his tightly muscled chest under his T-shirt as his rough fingers sent wave after wave of pleasure through her.

   This is our one chance, she reminded herself, giddy with arousal. So he’s right to make it count. Plus, you could get killed in Kestonia! Give him something to remember you by. We’ll be good after this. And meanwhile, yowza.

   Inspired by his commitment to her pleasure, not to mention the hedonistic urgency as he ground himself against her, she slid her hand under the elastic of his sweatpants, then ran her fingers along the length of him, enjoying the fullness.

   He gave a long, low groan, then told her ruefully, “We should stop.”

   “One time, then cold turkey,” she reminded him breathlessly. “Why not make it count?”

   “You’re sure?”

   “Mmm, more than sure.”

   She began stroking him again, and he flashed a sexy smile, then reached under her skirt and up along the inside of her thigh until his fingers reached their target.

   “Wait, Jeff. Let me just—” She struggled to sit up, stripped off her boots and skirt, then wriggled out of her blouse and bra. At the same time, Jeff tore off his own clothes, revealing the hunkiest physique Sasha had ever seen at such close range.

   They greedily appraised one another for a few seconds, then Jeff got down to business, pulling her panties off her so that she was wearing only her pink-and-blue argyle knee socks. Then he was on her again, nuzzling her neck while reaching over to open the top drawer of his nightstand.

   “Rubber,” he explained.

   Sasha almost laughed out loud to see her sophisticated handler reduced to one-word grunts. Then he was kissing her again, this time between her thighs, and her laughter turned to a decadent moan as he coaxed throbbing waves of heat and energy to that spot.

   She was so close—and frantic to continue—but he interrupted himself and transferred his mouth to her neck.

   “Jeff…”

   “Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” he promised. And it was true. His first thrust made her gasp with renewed anticipation, then he satisfied her with lovemaking so intense, it was as though they were both about to leave for Eastern Europe on a suicide mission.

   

   As they recovered in one another’s arms, Jeff gave her a sheepish smile. “That was some kiss. Thanks.”

   She bit back an embarrassed laugh. “There’s a handler joke in this somewhere, but I hope we never find it.”

   “Yeah, I’m scum,” he admitted with a chuckle. “But in my defense, I’ve thought about you a lot these last few months.”

   “That’s your defense?” She laughed lightly, then hopped out of bed, grabbed her clothes and darted into the bathroom. “I’ll just be a sec!”

   Slamming the door behind herself, she looked into the mirror over the sink and arched a disapproving eyebrow. “Nice job, Bracciali. When you go into denial, you don’t go halfway, do you?”

   It was true. She had always been so careful before taking any relationship, no matter how hot, to this level. Sure Jeff was gorgeous, and sweet, and sexy, but under any other circumstances, that wouldn’t have been enough. Not this quickly, at least.

   “But you could die in Kestonia,” she reminded herself, only half joking. “The question now is, if you survive, can you go back to being just his asset? Did you mean what you said about cold turkey?”

   She honestly didn’t know.

   Dressing quickly, she returned to find him standing right outside the bathroom door, his green eyes warm with concern. “Are you okay? I can’t believe we did that. I kept expecting you to stop me.”

   “I would have, but you’re pretty good at it.”

   He grimaced. “I’d love to take credit, but the truth is, you were just in denial over the prospect of talking to your dad. Maybe looking for an excuse to postpone it. And like a jerk, I took advantage of that.”

   Sasha touched his tightened jaw. “You’re overanalyzing it, Jeff. Like you said, we’ve obviously been thinking about each other that way for a long time. It was bound to surface eventually. I’m glad it did, so we can deal with it, one way or the other. After I talk to Dad, of course.”

   “About your mom? Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

   “I’ll never be ready. But it has to be done. He’ll probably lie anyway, so…”

   Jeff eyed her hopefully. “Maybe that’s better, right? The truth might hurt too much. So don’t push it. The less you know about his business, the better it is for you, actually.”

   “His business is legitimate,” she retorted instinctively, even though Allison’s words were echoing in her head, reminding her that her father might be making an exception for the lucrative Kestonian market.

   For a moment she thought Jeff was going to argue with her, but instead he just shrugged his shoulders again. “Whatever you say.”

   Sasha studied his guarded expression. “Are you worried about my reconciling with him? In terms of my usefulness to you, I mean?”

   “No. Not at all.” He flashed an encouraging smile. “I trust you, Sasha. Without reservation.”

   “Why? Because I got you a picture of Vincent Martino’s new face?”

   “Because of the way you got it for me. Not from a desire to get revenge for your mom’s murder. Just because you want their brand of ruthlessness to end once and for all. You took no pleasure in what you did last night. In fact, it hurt you to do it. I respect that,” he added softly. “But I don’t want to see you get hurt where your father is concerned. It’s not necessary. So be careful.”

   “Thanks.” She smiled gratefully. “Did they arrest Vincenzo yet?”

   “We’re still working on it. By the time you check in with me next, it should be done.” He cleared his throat. “How long are you thinking? A week? Two?”

   She nodded. “At the most. If I need longer than that, I’ll call you.”

   “Call anyway, day or night, if you need to talk. If it gets rough…” He hesitated, then pulled her into a bear hug. “Don’t let my sex-maniac routine scare you off. I can be a good friend. I hope you don’t need one, but if you do, call me.”

   “I will.” She wrapped her arms around his chest and squeezed gratefully. He felt so big and strong and safe, and once again she wondered how she could possibly pull off the rescue in Kestonia without him whispering encouragement and advice into her ear.

   “Hey.” He tilted her chin upward with his fingertip. “Is something else bothering you? Other than the manhandling and the date with your dad?”

   “No,” she murmured. “But I’d better get going or I’ll lose my nerve. And as for the manhandling, well…” She stepped back, then admitted, “I may have lied about that cold turkey business.”

   “Huh?”

   “You’re a brilliant strategist, right? So while I’m visiting Dad, try to strategize a way you can be my handler and my manhandler. Okay?”

   “Sasha—”

   “I’ve got to go.” She grabbed her coat and purse off the chair and strode to the door, afraid to turn back toward him, even to say goodbye. Something inside told her that if they made eye contact now, she’d be back in his arms for the rest of the morning, and there wasn’t time for that.

   Not now, because she needed to rescue Teal.

   And maybe not ever.

   But she wasn’t ready to concede that yet.

   Spoiled Mafia brat, she accused herself with a rueful laugh as she dashed down the three flights of stairs to the street, then hailed a cab to take her to her childhood home for the first time in almost eight years.

   

   She would have loved to surprise Big Frankie, but security at his two-story brick house was too tight to allow a strange vehicle to approach without someone noticing, so she instructed the cab driver to pull right up to the front curb, then took a moment to compose herself.

   To her amazement, the emotion that was causing her hands to tremble was pure excitement untainted by dread. Was it possible she was really ready to face him? Or more likely, had Gianna’s wedding gotten to her so much that the little girl in her needed to touch base with her daddy—to pretend that nothing had come between them?

   The house was set back a good fifty feet from the street, and Sasha knew she was being watched. She could be intercepted easily before she reached the porch despite the lack of fencing around the property. There were always men in the apartment over the garage, visiting, plotting or just catching a few winks. And her father was almost certainly sitting at his desk, which was positioned in front of a huge bay window that looked out on the street. In warmer months, he could usually be found in the backyard, tending his fruit trees and garden. But in winter, he practically lived at his desk in the den.

   Pulling out a compact, she checked her makeup, and was amused at the flush that lingered on her cheeks from her encounter with Jeff. Not exactly the first look she wanted her father to see after so many years. He was a pretty good judge of human nature, and he’d want to know who the man was, the same way he had demanded to know about every boy she had ever spoken to in Chicago and Arizona during her teenage years.

   Probably not the right time to tell him that you’re hot for an FBI agent, she teased herself as she applied a light dusting of powder to her otherwise radiant glow. Then she winced, remembering that that wasn’t half the story. She was an FBI snitch in her own right. What would her father say about that? Subdued, she paid the driver and sent him away, then turned back to the house just as the front door opened and Big Frankie Bracciali stepped into view.

   At fifty-five, his hair was the same vibrant shade of blue-black as Sasha’s, without a hint of gray. Still he looked a little older, she realized in surprise. Strong as a bull, yes, and commanding as ever, but there was something a little different behind his deep brown eyes.

   It wasn’t age that had changed him, it was sadness. She knew that because as soon as she lifted her hand in a halfhearted, vulnerable wave, the years dropped away, and his expression became almost celestial with love and relief.

   “Dad…” She bit her lip, then raced toward him, throwing herself into his arms, shocking herself even more than him with the intensity of her display.

   “Mio Dio,” he whispered into her hair as he crushed her to his chest. “Is this true? Are you here?”

   “I’m here,” she assured him, laughing and sobbing all at one time.

   He grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her a few inches away, enough to stare down into her face as he demanded frantically, “You’re not dying, are you?”

   Laughing again, Sasha sandwiched his cheeks between her palms. “Of course not, silly. Do I look that bad?”

   Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.