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Dead Ringer

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Dead Ringer - Chapter 1

"Baby, oh baby, oh baby."

Like a hot breeze, a hoot of laughter drifted across the night-lit airfield as Finn Carver descended from the charter plane.

The man with the laugh crossed his arms and leaned against the car parked on the edge of the Memphis tarmac. The runway lights illuminated his linebacker frame, marine buzz-cut and habitual boyish grin. "My, my, my, don't you look good."

But Finn was in no mood for teasing. "Cut the crap, Jack." He pitched his briefcase and overnight bag to Jack Saunders and tried to ignore the gleam in the younger man's eyes as he snagged the luggage while making a big production out of admiring Finn's tuxedo.

"Yessir." Jack gave a long, low wolf whistle. "The storm troopers have definitely arrived."

Finn eyed Jack's baggy Hawaiian shirt, worn loose over a pair of rumpled khakis. "I wouldn't talk. You could take a few fashion lessons yourself."

Jack grinned and shrugged off the criticism the way he always did. "Yeah but then I'd lose the thing that makes me so...so me."

Behind them, the pilot hurried into the hangar, leaving Finn and Jack alone on the empty tarmac. It was past midnight, and the heavy delta air clammed up beneath the collar of Finn's white dress shirt. But heat wasn't the only thing making him sweat.

He scowled, crushing that thought. Nothing on earth would put him on the run, least of all a woman. But he wrenched off the sleek black jacket anyway and tossed it in the back of the car before folding himself into the passenger seat.

"Come on, Jack." Finn called to the other man out of the still open car door. "It's not like the bad guys are going to wait while you get your rocks off ragging me."

Jack slammed the door shut and stowed Finn's bag and briefcase in the trunk. Moments later, he slid behind the wheel.

"I gather you want to skip the how are you's?"

"Just brief me."

Jack shook his head and started the car. "Someday you're going to learn to slow down and say hello."


"Just trying to save your life here, budddy. You saved mine."

"I didn't--"

"You gotta learn to loosen up. You don't want to keel over from a heart attack before you're forty, do you?"

"Jack..." He'd give the younger man a heart attack himself and his voice clearly said so.

Jack only grinned at the threatening tone.

Jesus, the guy was worse than a puppy. Nothing you did put him off.

But Jack held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, I get it. Work, work, work. So here's the deal." Suddenly he was all-business. "I drop you off, then take your stuff to the motel. Pick up your key at the desk. Here's the address." He fished a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it Finn. "I stashed a cop at the house to keep an eye on things. I'll leave the car there and catch a ride back with him." He reached into the glove compartment. "Here," he said. "Credit cards, driver's license, social security card. Welcome back Agent Carver."

Finn shuffled through the identification, saw his own name printed on everything and replaced the cards he'd been carrying in his wallet for the past six days. He let out a tense breath and leaned back against the headrest.

It was good to be clean for once. Twelve hours ago he'd been unshaven, scouring dockside bars and lowlife coffee shops for even the slightest hint of where the package he'd been hunting might land. All he'd unearthed were the same rumors they'd been hearing for weeks. Something big, powerful and nuclear was going on the market but no one knew where or when.

Then Roper had contacted him that they'd found the girl.

Finn had grabbed a fast haircut, a tux and boarded the charter almost before he'd had time to breathe. And now here he was, about to resurrect a ghost.

"You're sure this is her?" Finn asked.

"People told me you had a problem with trust," Jack said in a mock mournful voice, "but I didn't want to believe it."

He reached for a manila envelope imprisoned by the visor in front of him, flipped it into Finn's lap, and started the engine.

As the car pulled away from the hangar, Finn slipped out the surveillance pictures inside and swore softly.

"What'd I tell you," Jack said. "It's her."

"Now this is hard to believe."

"The eyes don't lie."

Finn nodded thoughtfully. No, they didn't, but pictures did. He'd have to see for himself. "Where is she?"

"At Beaman's digs. Partying. Hence the party clothes." Jack nodded toward Finn and the tuxedo he wore.

"I thought Beaman just died."

"A week ago." Jack gave a cynical snort. "But everyone handles grief in their own special way."

Finn slipped into silence, thinking about the woman in the pictures. He didn't know much about her, but what he knew was keeping his palms slick, even in the air-conditioned car. His record was piss-poor when it came to working with women, especially this kind. Third-rate "actress," second-rate country singer, first-rate gold-digger.

Well, everyone had their talents.

And clearly men were hers. Old men. With lots of money. Lucky for him that was exactly the skill he needed right now.

Yeah, real lucky.

"Beaman was what," Finn said, scanning the report enclosed in the envelope with the pictures, "soulmate number four?"

"And counting," Jack replied. "She chews 'em up and spits 'em out. Can't help but admire her, though. At least she's well paid."

"Those extra bucks are going to come in handy since her old uncle doesn't pay top dollar."

"That's assuming she'll do it."

"Oh, she'll do it. She's been hunting her momma for years. And with Beaman out of the picture, her free ride's gone--"

"She's vulnerable," Jack said, egging him on. "Probably lonely, afraid--"

"Exactly. Just ripe for the picking."

Jack shook his head. "Jesus you're a cold bastard."

Not cold enough if his sweaty hands were proof.

"It's a cold world, Jack, and we're the ones keeping it from getting colder. I do what it takes to get the job done."

Twenty minutes later Jack headed up a long winding drive that led to a large estate overlooking the Mississippi River. A columned portico set the front of the house off from the stately brick wings on either side. Greenery climbed the brick; thickly flowering shrubs adorned the entryway. The house was old and dignified, or it had been. Right now lights blazed out the windows like cut-rate diamonds, and raunchy, bass-heavy music pounded so loudly through the front door Finn could hear it outside.

His pulse notched up, pushed by a big fat slice of deja vu. Scanning the grounds, he checked the perimeter and picked out Jack's cop, who was dressed as a uniformed valet.

At a nod, he came to the driver's side. Jack rolled down the window and murmured softly, "Everything okay?"

The cop knelt to window level. "Party's still going strong. The other valet tells me it'll rage for hours yet." He eyed Finn curiously. "This him?"

Before Jack could reply, Finn got out of the car. "Thanks for keeping an eye on things. We'll take it from here."

"No problem," the cop said as he rose. "Anytime you need a little extra coverage on the lady, I'm your man."

"Why's that?" Coolly, Finn regarded the other man over the car roof; he didn't like the cop's blasé attitude. "Easy night?"

The other man laughed. "Shit no. Boring as hell, but oh so easy on the eyes."

He came toward Finn on a slow lope. "You ever see her?"

Finn got his jacket out of the back and put it on. "Just pictures."

The cop gave Finn another measuring look.

"Heard a rumor they were sending in some hotshot undercover guy. If it's you, you're in for a real treat, pal. But I got some advice."

He leaned in close, grinned and stabbed Finn with a finger. "Make sure you hold onto your zipper."


Angelina Mercer stood in a corner of Arthur Beaman's large, luxurious living room and watched the party swirl around her. Because of the June heat and the crush of people, the air conditioning was set at arctic, and she was cold.

Don't blame it on the air, party girl.

She shivered. Truth was she'd been cold for a week. Ever since she found Arthur Beaman crumpled on the floor, dead from a massive stroke. Tears pricked her eyes but she blinked them away. God, she missed the old man.

She looked around at the drunken bodies crowded into Beamer's house. The party was exactly as he'd specified; loud, crowded and full of booze. He would have loved the send-off.

Too bad it wasn't doing much for her. She looked down at the vodka in her hand. She should be drunk; she needed to be drunk.
Trouble was, she didn't feel like drinking tonight.

Darling girl, she heard Beamer's crusty voice say in her head. Life is too short for the mopes.

The familiar phrase sent the corners of her mouth upward. It was the first time in a week she'd had the urge to smile.
Suddenly she felt the old man frowning down on her from wherever the hell he was now. And more than anything, she wanted to wipe away that frown and put the mischievous smile back on his eighty-year-old face.
The hell with the mopes.

The hell with death and loss and moving on. This party was for Beamer, and she'd be damned if she'd disappoint him. She raised her glass heavenward.

Here's to you, old man.

She tossed back half her drink and plunged into the crowd.


Finn stepped inside Beaman's house and grimaced at the full force of the sound. Trash music. Trashy as the woman throwing this wake.

Tuxedos and gowns swarmed over the plush interior. He pushed his way past the laughing group gathered under the hallway's vaulted ceiling. Screaming to be heard over the noise, the party-goers paid no attention to him. Balloons and streamers lay in haphazard disarray over a gleaming black and white marble floor. He stepped over them, pushed some away. That peculiar been-here-done-that feeling grew stronger, a cold wind swirling around him.

Someone handed him a drink, but he set it down. He needed a clear head tonight.

The crowd thickened as he moved inward, black satin over white brocade. Well-fed men stood in clusters around marble sculptures. Wraith-thin women draped over expensive furniture. A few turned his way with an interested eye, but he ignored them. He knew all about those women.

Just as he knew all about the other glassy-eyed faces he maneuvered past. Faces with too much liquor and too much money. Recognizable, though he didn't know a single one.

A burst of laughter came at him from the sidelines, sharp as a gunshot. Oh yeah, he'd been here before. Somewhere someone was coking up, dropping ecstasy or whatever designer drug was the trend of the hour. There was sex here, too. In the coatroom, the closet, in furtive corners, people mating like rats in a dark alley. And somewhere there was betrayal. Not his own this time, but it was here, he could smell it. The knowledge rose up like a sickness, the haze of booze and smoke sliding over his shoulders like a coat he hadn't worn in a long while.

And then he saw her.

A banner that read "Bye-bye Beamer" spanned the living room entrance. Inside, the room looked as though it had been packed into a dice cup, shaken up and rolled out, furniture landing every which way. Green and gold stripped sofas with green velvet pillows stood uncomfortably out of place against the edges. Gilt-edged mirrors still hung on the walls, but the marble-topped tables that should have been beneath them sat askew. A baby grand had been stuffed into a corner to make more room for the horde, which roiled, shifted, and all of a sudden, split in two.

And there she was, the hair looser, the clothes outrageous, the face younger. But the resemblance was unmistakable.
A shaft of something almost like fear pierced him quick and sharp. Deep down he'd been hoping the pictures had been deceptive; that Roper and Jack and everyone else had gotten it wrong.

But they hadn't.

Holding a drink in one hand, her lithe body undulated in an impromptu belly dance while a ring of men clapped and cheered her on. Thick blond hair fell in voluptuous waves around her face and shoulders. A clingy white skirt, shimmery with silver thread, hugged the curve of her hips and exposed the top of her navel. Although it reached her ankles and the knife-sharp heels she wore, the skirt was also slashed open to the top of her shapely thigh. Encased in a skimpy, sequined halter, her full breasts shone white and shiny as her skirt. Between the two, bare skin gleamed tan and supple, and exquisitely tempting.

Your mouth's watering, Carver.

No, it wasn't.

He leaned into the living room's arched entrance and watched Angelina Mercer work the room. Her long, tanned leg swung sinuously in and out of the opening in her skirt. Her smooth arms wove above her head, her hips gyrated, her eyes glittered with the challenge: come get me if you dare.

He'd bet that every male in the room felt something move in his shorts.

Including him.

The cop's parting words echoed in Finn's head, but he dismissed them.

Get a grip. He knew what she was.

Yeah, only too well.

A final guitar chord screamed, and she upended her drink, downing every drop. "Here's to Beamer!"

Her crowd of admirers cheered. "To Beamer!"

Ample breasts rising and falling in breathlessness, she headed out of the male circle, skin glistening with exertion.

"More!" The crowd took up the cry, stamping their feet in time with the chant. "More, more, more!"

"You know what they say about too much of a good thing," she shouted over the blare of the next song. With a laugh, she threw herself at one of the men and gave him a loud smooch on the mouth. "Get drunk everyone!"

And she whooshed out of the circle toward Finn.

He lounged against the arch, making no overt move to catch her attention. She'd notice him soon enough. Much as he didn't want to, he'd make sure of it.

Then the man she'd just kissed pulled her roughly back into his arms, and the problem of meeting her took care of itself.
She laughed and tried to squirm away, but the drunk had her fast. "Come on, baby, let's have a little more of that."

"Let go of me." Rising panic edged her voice and Finn pushed himself off the entry. He strolled toward the struggling couple and casually placed an arm around the drunk, looking for all the world like his best friend. Except Finn tightened his grip, squeezing so hard, the drunk gasped in pain and dropped his hold on Angelina.

Finn smiled. "You may want more, but the lady's had enough." Before the guy could react, Finn spun him around until the drunk staggered dizzily and faced the center of the room. "Back to the party, pal." He gave the man a gentle shove, and he disappeared into the crowd.

Then Finn turned to the woman, who raised an amused eyebrow at him. "Well, well, Sir Galahad. Nicely done."

A cool one. Good. For what he wanted she'd need to be cool. He could almost admire her if she hadn't also teetered toward him, the liquor showing.

"Thank you." She extended her hand in a graceful arc, as though he should kiss it. Something on her left shoulder caught his attention--an odd-shaped beauty mark or tattoo--but before he could examine it, she levered herself closer and he found himself staring into a pair of ice-green eyes.

That's right, little 'lina. Come to papa. "Not Galahad," he said.

"Robin Hood?" She poked him playfully in the chest with one long, slim, manicured finger. "Whoever you are, I don't know you." Her breasts brushed his arm, her perfume coiled around him, and the blood went straight to his groin.

Silently, he cursed his own weakness and winked at her. "Sure you do."

"Friend of Beamer's?"

"I knew him, yeah."

She appraised him, a shrewd expression on her face. "No. I don't think you did."

He smiled. "Friend of a friend."

She grinned back; she had his number now. "You are a party crasher."

He didn't deny it. "What's a party without a few uninvited...friends?"

She dropped an arm lazily over his shoulder and looked up at him. Her hip grazed his. Unwanted heat seared him. Everything he'd been afraid of since Roper told him about her came screaming back, but he forced himself to stand still and ignore the sweat starting at the back of his neck where her arm lay like a cool steel trap.

She smiled, her lips promising worlds. "Do you have a name...friend?"

A moment ago, he would have sworn her eyes looked bright, but up close the green was tinged with sadness. Weary eyes. Old eyes.

Where had he seen eyes like that before?

He said, "Finn."

"Fin?" She threw him the 'that's weird' look he always got when he introduced himself.

"Yeah, Finn. Like in shark."

She laughed, throwing her head back. "Well, Fin," she gave his name mock emphasis, "sharks like to swim around in the cool and the wet, and you're all dry." She held up her empty glass, swirling the ice. "Me, too."

She told him what she was drinking and he went to find her a refill.

When he returned, she was gone.


But chasing her was part of the game.

He found her outside on the deck where thick, summer air drenched him in the overripe smell of damp soil and honeysuckle. A wooden railing surrounded the space on three sides and she was standing on it, leaning against the home's outer wall. Hands behind her back, face to the stars, she'd closed her eyes as if absorbing the moonlight.

Thirty feet below, the Mississippi River lay shrouded in woods and darkness, and the only thing separating her from the abyss was six inches of railing.

"Why don't you come down and join me?" All he needed was to have her break her cheap, beautiful neck.

"Where's my drink?"

He handed the glass to her, and she swallowed a third of the contents, laughing as some spilled down the side of her mouth. A ripple of distaste ran through him, but he kept it off his face while she wiped her chin with the back of her wrist and gazed down at him with excited eyes. "Why don't you join me, Mr. Sharkman?"

"Because someone needs to catch you when you fall."

"I won't fall." To prove it, she stepped away from the wall and began to pace the railing like a tightrope walker.

Jesus Christ.

Honed to stilettos, her four-inch heels barely found purchase. "See? Graceful as a cat." She giggled and almost lost her balance.

"Watch out!" He jumped toward her, but she righted herself, laughing.

"Nervous? Didn't know sharks had nerves."

Beneath his jacket, sweat glued his shirt to his back. Eyes fixed on her, he paced the length of the railing, following her highwire dance.

When she reached the middle, she raised her arms wide and cried out to the night. "Hallooo Beamer!" She cocked her head, but no answer came. "Do you think he's out there, doing the rumba in heaven? God, but that old man loved to dance."

"Did he?" He watched closely. Was she wobbling?

"Poor Beamer." Her voice caught. Tears? He would have thought her incapable of it.

To prove his point, she laughed again, shouting into the chasm below. "Did you hear that, Beamer, you old coot? Poor you!" She giggled and wavered again. "Whoops..." Her arms pinwheeled.

Fear spiked; he'd had enough. Fastening one hand on the back of her halter, he pulled her toward him. Her drink went flying and she landed with a thump in his arms.

"Hey...what'd you do that for?"

"You want to kill yourself, do it on someone else's watch."

She twined her arms around his neck and smiled languidly up at him. "You're the only one who would have missed me."
"What about all your 'friends' in there?" He nodded back toward the party still raging inside.

"All party crashers. Like you, Sharkman." She snuggled up against him.

He tensed, trying not to like the feel of her bare midriff beneath his fingers. Or the curve of her hip or the view down the front of her tiny halter. She wiggled, settling in.

"Mmn, I like sharks." Her eyes closed, then opened again. "Big, black-haired sharks..." Her head drifted onto his shoulder. "...with ocean eyes, and sharp, cruel mouths."

He looked down; she was asleep. And suddenly he knew why the party smelled familiar and where he'd seen that sick-and-tired look he'd observed in her eyes.

His wife.


Angelina put a hand to her eyes, shielding them from the morning light.

Who the hell opened the curtains before she was awake?

Slowly, she sat up. Groaned.

God, was that her tongue or a ball of wool?

Staggering off the bed, she stumbled on the floor and looked down.

Her Versace's were still strapped to her feet.

In fact, everything she'd worn the night before still clung to her body.

Holding on to the headboard, she undid the tiny straps and slid out of the tortuous heels. What in God's name had ever possessed her to buy the things, let alone wear them?

Beamer liked them.

Yeah, good ole Beamer. Sweet, tender, lovable Beamer. He'd loved buying her clothes.

Tears threatened, but she sniffed them away.

Why couldn't you have stayed a little longer, Beam?

Someday she was going to find a young man, one who'd stick around more than a few years.

Fat chance.

What young man would let her have her own bedroom and make no demands except that she look good and bring a little fun into his life?

Before she could stop it, a picture of Beamer's crumpled body rose in her head and with it the panic that had rushed up her throat. She remembered the frantic phone call, trembling fingers pushing 911 and screaming for an ambulance. Before it came a squad car arrived, complete with a uniform who asked a lot of questions and acted as if he didn't believe her answers.

Not that she expected any different. Not from a cop. They'd looked at her the same way all those years ago when they refused to believe the truth staring them in the face.

She shuddered, then pushed the memories away.

Through the bathroom door she heard the shower turn on.

Who was that?

She thought back to the night before. Who had she ended up with?

A picture of sharp blue eyes and a grim mouth rose in her head.


But she still had her clothes on, so they couldn't have.... Or maybe they could.

She didn't remember.

She didn't want to remember.

No more, party girl. You promised Beamer.

Sorry, Beam, but promises were made to be broken.

Sighing, she padded out of the bedroom. The sight that greeted her was enough to depress a saint, let alone a wicked witch like her. Empty bottles, half-filled glasses swimming with cigarette butts, dead balloons. Beamer's banner tilted into the living room archway, hanging by a string.

God, she was tired of her life. The weight of it thudded behind her eyes like a wake-up call. She fingered the edge of the banner and it sailed down to the floor.

Who are you going to be now, party girl?

She thought briefly of the fruitless search for the one person she truly belonged to. Not the pale, timid woman who had raised her, but the one who had birthed her. Not the one who had cowered in the face of a small town's blindness, but the one who would have stood up for the truth. Who would have thumbed her nose at them all. Just like her daughter.

But the records were sealed, and not even Beamer's millions had been able to unlock their secrets, though the old goat had tried.

Pushing aside a pleated shirt and tuxedo jacket, she plopped on the couch with a sigh. She had to figure out her next move. Beamer was gone, which meant the house was gone. Time to make some changes.

She'd never change.

She used to be smart once.

Yeah, and look where it got her.

She shut off the voices arguing inside her head. Too early in the morning for self-reproach.

Besides, she had to pee.

Stepping over dirty plates and strands of streamers, she made her way back to the bedroom and pushed open the bathroom door.

Spacious and airy, the marble bathroom was big enough to sleep in. Beamer had renovated it as a surprise for her, turning the tub into a rose-colored Roman bath with golden cherubs that shot water out of their mouths. She'd scolded him for his lavishness, but he'd just pinched her cheek, called her his darling girl, and told her life was to enjoy.

The shower stopped while she finished her business in the alcove that held the toilet. She came outside, but the door to the shower room remained closed.

Who was in there?


Not his name, but for the life of her she couldn't remember.... Something fishy. Flounder?

A pair of men's trousers lay over the gold and pink angel wings that held hand towels. Down the side of the slacks, a long tuxedo stripe suggested they matched the jacket on the couch. She searched the back pocket and came up with what looked like a wallet.

Opening it, she saw it contained only two things: an official seal and a picture ID. Finn Carver, Special Agent, Terrorism Control Force.

A cop. Sharkman was a goddamn cop.


When Finn came out of the shower with a towel wrapped around him, she was holding his ID, her hair an uncombed and tumultuous gold, her eyes bruised from too little sleep, her face a thundercloud.

"You get out of here."

Calmly, he took the ID from her and put it back in his pants.

"How about I put my clothes on first?"

He dried his chest with a second towel and to his surprise, her face colored.

Like what you see, little 'lina?

If she didn't, he did. The tiny halter seemed even smaller this morning, her breasts about to tumble out any minute. He only prayed the towel around his waist wouldn't give him away.

"You gonna watch?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Like a hawk until you get the hell out of my house."

The little witch. He found his briefs and pulled them on under the towel, eyes never leaving hers.

You're nothing, 'lina. Nothing I can't handle.

She raised her chin as if to say, wanna bet?

Oh, yeah. He'd take that bet. Thanks to his dear departed wife, he was an expert in handling women like Angelina. And he had a bullet wound to prove it.

"You had no right coming here last night. Certainly no right pretending to be--"

"I didn't pretend anything." He slid into his pants. "You knew I wasn't invited."

Her eyes narrowed. "You didn't say you were a cop."

"You were so busy trying to fall off the edge of the world, I didn't have time."

"You had all night."

"Not unless you believe in communicating through dreams."

Pants in place, he left the bathroom in search of his shirt. It lay where he'd left it last night, over the back of the couch.
She followed, standing in the archway where he'd watched her the night before, making an exhibition of herself to a crowd of ogling men.

"Then we didn't...?"

"What's the matter--don't you remember?"

She blushed again.

Of course not. He shrugged into the shirt. "Wouldn't have been very sporting of me, since you were so...under the weather."

"Not to mention I would have sued your ass off."

"Not to mention."

She bit the inside of one full, luscious lip.

That's right, 'lina, think about it. I'm pretty enough. I'm male. And if you take care of me, I'll take care of you.

And I won't even make you sleep with me.

"What do you want?" She barked the question, her voice rife with suspicion.

"I want you to come work for me."

Her eyes widened, then narrowed again. "What makes you think I'd do that?"

"Because I have something you want."

She laughed. "Get real. What in this glorious hellhole of a world could you possibly have that I'd want?"

He found the snapshot in his jacket pocket and held it up, a corner grasped between two fingers. "Your mother."

Angelina gasped, the breath sucked out of her. "Wh--what? What did you say?" She reached for the photograph, but he snatched it back.

"You heard me."

His face was impassive, the eyes hard. His expression gave nothing away. Just like a cop. The most calculating, self-righteous, cold-hearted bastards in the world. She'd had her share of them when she was eighteen and if she never breathed the same air as a cop again she'd count herself lucky.

"I don't believe you."

He shrugged and started to put the snapshot away.

"Wait!" She stretched out her hand, heart pounding. Damn him. "What's her name?" She eyed the picture hard enough to burn a hole through it, but all she saw was the white back.


Carol. The sound rolled around in her head, a loose stone echoing, a cannonball ready to explode inside her. "Carol what? Who is she? Where is she?"

"I'll tell you everything when you agree to work for us."

"I don't like you, Sharkman. I don't trust you. Why the hell should I do anything you ask?"

"Because your country needs you."

The mawkish phrase made her laugh again. "You're kidding, right? For what?"

But his face was dead serious. "A little lost and found."

"You lost something and you want me to find it?"

"Smart girl."

"And if I do you'll tell me who my mother is."

"That's right."

"That's blackmail."

"No. It's a simple, straightforward business proposition. Given all this..." He waved an arm indicating Beamer's luxurious home. "I assume you're familiar with them."

She saw the contempt in his blue eyes and was stung by it. "What do you know about me and Beamer? Nothing. So get the hell out of my house."

But he didn't move. "It's not your house. It belongs to Beaman's heirs now." He gave her a pointed look, a reminder that she would soon be homeless, rootless again.

But she didn't need any reminders. Not from him. "You have a damn sick way of asking people for favors."

"I'm not asking, Angel, I'm selling." He wiggled the photograph between his two fingers. "Just like Beaman."

She growled at the implication, but didn't bother setting him straight. Instead, she stared him right in the eye, trying to get past the hard blue wall. "Who burst your balloon, Sharkman? Girlfriend? Wife? Whoever she was, she must have been something to make you so god awful judgmental."

Something moved in his face, something he shut down as quickly as it had come.

"Well, well, well." She arched a brow. "Struck a nerve."

He glowered at her. "You want to trade potshots or make a deal?"

"A deal? Smells more like a scam to me. Arthur spent a fortune trying to track down my mother. And now some two-bit federale walks in and just hands her to me? I don't think so."

He shrugged. "Fine." And put the snapshot away.

"Don't!" The cry was more anguished than she'd intended, but her deep desire to see the picture warred with her desperation not to give him control. She licked her lips. "Why me? I'm not exactly Jane Bond. You must have a million people who do this kind of thing everyday."

His face grew colder, if that were possible. "You're the right type."

"For what?"

"For the job." He picked up his tuxedo jacket and slung it over his shoulder. "You want to close the deal, give me a call." He flipped a card at her and walked out of the house.

Angelina didn't bother picking up the card. She turned her back on the sound of the door slam and tried to slow her breathing.
Her mother. He said she knew who her mother was. Where she was.

She straightened her spine. That gave him power over her. And no man would ever have power over her again.

Facing the mess in the living room, she swooped down and picked up the fallen banner, crushing it into a ball and marching into the kitchen where she threw it in the garbage. She was not going to have anything to do with cops, local, state, federal or planetary. No matter what they claimed to know.

She pulled a plastic garbage bag from a box in the pantry, jerking it free from the roll. Back in the living room, she plucked the empty beer cans and plastic glasses from the floor and dumped them inside the sack.

Your country needs you.

Right. What could she do anyway? She wasn't a cop. She wasn't anything. Just a fly-by-night party girl who was suddenly sick to death of parties.

Yeah, but wouldn't it be nice to be different? To be the good girl for once?

She shut off the argument with herself by dumping the overflowing ashtrays into the sack. The residue of ashes and cigarettes was so disgusting, she threw the ashtrays in there, too. One by one they crashed against the cans, each one a loud reproach. She spotted the card Finn had flung at her lying on the carpet and quickly turned her back on it. Don't do it, party girl.

Hell. Double, triple hell.

She threw the garbage bag down and stalked into Beamer's room. She fingered the expensive cuff links in the jewelry box on top of his dresser. Opening a drawer, she ran a hand over dozens of silk pocket scarves, each one brighter than the next.
In her mind's eye she tucked one into the pocket of Beamer's white suit, a beloved morning ritual.

Profound sadness washed over her and she sank onto his bed. Beamer was gone. Her dear friend. Her protector. She felt naked again. Exposed. With no one on her side.

She surveyed his room, gaze skimming over all the places he used to be. When she came to the mirror over the dresser, her eyes caught on the sight of herself, hair a wild snarl, eyes puffy, white halter creased from a night of sleeping in it. Beamer would have been appalled, but she merely stared, facing her flaws head on.

Automatically, her hand went to the tiny, heart shaped birthmark on her shoulder. She covered the spot, fingering the faintly raised edges of the mole. Her adoptive mother, Adele, used to say the shape marked the spot where an angel had kissed her. Had her real mother seen it? Had she taken one look and thought it a sign of some deeper defect?

Heat rose up Angelina's neck to fill her face, and all at once she knew without a shadow of a doubt that whatever trap Agent Finn Carver was laying, she had already taken the bait.


Finn slipped into the car Jack had left for him the night before, rummaged in the glove compartment for the keys, and fit one into the ignition. Gripping the steering wheel, he stared out at the dense trees and perfect lawn of Arthur Beaman's estate.
As though it seeped out of his pores, Angelina's lush fragrance curled around him. He'd planned to wait her out right there, but if he didn't ditch last night's clothes, the smell would drive him crazy.

Scrubbing a hand down his face, he tried to shut out all traces of her. The last thing he needed was another floozy getting under his skin. Once a lifetime was enough.

He pushed the thought away, and to make sure it stayed gone, he punched in the secure number to Roper at their temporary headquarters in Memphis. While he waited for the connection to clear, he started the engine and drove off.

"She agree?" his boss asked first thing.

He pictured Roper's bulldog face. "Not yet. But the bait's out there."

"We don't have time for haggling. Get her cooperation. Take her out to dinner, buy her something. She's a dead ringer for Borian's wife, and her sugar daddy's death means the wolf is knocking at the door. That should give her incentive. Why don't you try being nice instead of your usual charming self?"

Finn's jaw tightened. Because he didn't trust her as far as he could throw her. "She's a civilian. She isn't trained. I can do

"--alone." Irony edged Roper's voice. "I know. Finn Carver, one-man army. Look, we've already lost a week since the rumors started. Another week and Borian could make his sale. We have to get inside his operation--preferably yesterday--and right now, she's our only option, so get used to it."

Finn's gut churned at the set-down. Roper may have been right, but Finn couldn't help hoping to avoid prolonged exposure to Angelina Mercer. Then again if his luck held out, she'd stay true to type and he wouldn't have to worry about her.

He promised Roper to report in person later that day, then drove to the motel, got the key from the desk clerk, and let himself into the room.

It was antiseptically neat, with the sharp smell of disinfectant just below the surface. Single bed, plain dresser, table with briefcase and overnight bag carefully placed. Like a thousand other motel rooms in a thousand other places. Sterile. Impersonal. Just the way he liked it.

He shed the tuxedo with its traces of Angelina Mercer, and his thoughts flashed on a house in St. Louis. A small, brick Cape Cod, painted white. It had been a long time since he'd seen his boyhood home. Since his mother's death, he'd had no reason to return. He should have sold the place, but something held him back. Nostalgia, maybe. Sentiment. Some vestigial, barely-there desire for a real life.

He tossed the rumpled clothes onto a chair, stepped into the utilitarian bathroom, and turned on the shower.

Fuck that. He had a real life.

No, he had a job.

And as soon as this assignment was over he'd sell the damn house. He'd tried real life. Tried the whole love and marriage thing, and it had nearly killed him.

He'd take a job any day.

He plunged into the shower, the hot water cutting off the argument, and lingered in the steam until he no longer smelled Angelina on his skin.

His cell phone rang just as he was toweling off. Finn picked it up. "Carver."

"Is that you, Sharkman?" Angelina's voice came through the receiver, low and close. The sound sent a rush of awareness through him, but he quickly repressed it.

"Fins and all. So...what can I do for you?"

"I thought it was more a question of what I can do for you."

His pulse quickened. "What we can do for each other."

A pause. He heard her take a deep breath. "I'm listening."

His heart jolted in satisfaction and alarm. They were on.


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