Connor O’Brien couldn’t help but wonder if his boss had been drunk off his ass when he came up with this plan. Kidnapping a man from a charity gala teeming with security without attracting attention, all while wearing a tux, was harder than it looked on paper.
Oh, and just to make it more fun, he was unarmed.
“Where is this guy?” a voice said in his ear. Literally. Ty West was running exterior surveillance, and his voice came from the almost-invisible, flesh-colored dot in Connor’s ear. “We saw him go in and he hasn’t come out. He’s in there somewhere.”
Connor was still getting used to having West’s voice in his ear. For years, it had been Jack Donovan, but his longtime partner had retired from the Devlin Group to live in peace with the love of his life, who they’d rescued from several dangerous situations.
West, a former FBI agent who hadn’t coped well with rules and regulations, had proven himself several times over since joining the group, and Connor trusted the man with his life. But it was still an adjustment, and it took time to learn every vocal inflection and expression, and to know exactly how the other man would react in any given situation.
This operation wasn’t the ideal time to be dealing with a learning curve.
But if West said Gauthier was in the building, he was definitely in the building. The question was where. And why hadn’t he joined the festivities yet? The ballroom was massive and there were several other spaces where people were gathering, but Connor had canvased the entire space and there was no sign of their target.
“His security is doing a second walk-through,” West said. “He must be on his way in.”
Henri Gauthier was a billionaire who’d built his empire on the financial elements of crime, handling money transfers and accounting for some very nasty people. There were a lot of governments around the world who’d like to get their hands on him and the United States was one of them. Intelligence agencies had been seeing an increase in chatter about a large-scale coordinated attack on US military targets around the globe by the end of summer. While there were a lot of people trying to ferret out the details, disrupting the money and capturing the man handling it was the fastest way to put a stop to it.
The US government had to play by certain rules, however. And the French government didn’t extradite French citizens, especially ones who presented themselves as very generous philanthropists and probably “donated” to all the right people. So a sizeable amount of money—probably disguised in the budget as jet fuel or congressional toilet paper—was earmarked for contracting the Devlin Group to do the job. They had to get him onto US soil alive, though.
When Connor saw Victor Bouras approaching him, he swallowed back a curse and braced himself. It would be bad if anybody in this building figured out he wasn’t who he said he was. But there were a few people who would make sure it was a fatal mistake for Connor, and Bouras was one of them.
“Julien Armstrong! It’s good to see you again.”
Connor smiled. “You know I can’t resist a charity event of this scale.”
“Neither could your parents. Your father is still so missed. He was such a valuable member of the community.” He wasn’t talking about the charity community. Julien Armstrong Sr. had been an active member of a very dangerous, very criminal—and therefore very wealthy—circle of people.
“Thank you. I miss my family very much,” Connor said, injecting the right amount of sorrow into his voice.
He did miss his family, but only because he hadn’t been home to Florida in a while. They hadn’t been blown up as Julien’s family had, in an assassination that could have been orchestrated by the man he was talking to, for all he knew. Sliding into the identity of a real person whose death hadn’t been broadcast was a lot harder than making one up, but with this crowd, a false ID wouldn’t cut it. Assuming the role of a person they knew of—though hadn’t met personally yet—had been the only way in.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Bouras said, “I see somebody I need to speak to. It was good to see you, Julien.”
Connor was thankful for the reprieve. It had been several years since he dusted off the Julien Armstrong Jr. name, but the last time he had, at an event much like this one, Bouras had cornered him, giving him the hard sell on why he should join him in a few business opportunities. Bouras hadn’t mentioned the illegalities of those enterprises—that information wouldn’t come until money was exchanged and it was too late to back out—but Connor had known. Keeping himself from getting embroiled in it without letting on that he knew what Bouras’s ventures entailed had been a conversational tightrope he didn’t care to walk again anytime soon.
Thirty minutes later, there was still no sign of Gauthier and Connor was getting bored. He’d been holding the same champagne flute for well over an hour and, while the tuxedo was surprisingly comfortable, he hated the shoes. Boredom was dangerous because if his attention wandered, he could miss something. Maybe that something would be an opportunity to approach the target, and maybe it would be somebody trying to kill him. Working for the Devlin Group was all fun and games until you were thinking about taking a fishing trip and missed the needle coming for your neck.
He’d only made that mistake once, early in his career with them, and Donovan had saved his ass. Tonight, he was alone on the inside, so with boredom creeping up on him, it was time to shift his strategy. Maybe he’d try a different area of the party. What he lost in field of view, he might make up with eavesdropping.
Then he saw her.
She was walking down the staircase, a champagne flute in her hand. She was tall and wearing a red dress that showed a body that could only be described as perfection. The words red dress didn’t begin to describe it, though. The blood-red gown was fitted, with a slit that allowed a peek at her long, slender leg every time she stepped down. And the bodice hugged her torso, forming the top of a heart over the swell of her breasts. A silky scarf of the same color accented her long neck, as well as the rubies and diamonds dangling from her ears. Dark hair was gathered into a knot at the base of her neck, and he could tell if he pulled the pins, it would fall in a long, thick cloud over his hands.
She looked elegant and sinful, and she moved like a queen descending upon her subjects.
Not a word a guy wanted to hear while defenseless, surrounded by some potentially very dangerous people, and distracted by a beautiful woman, but Connor didn’t so much as flinch. He just waited patiently, scanning the room in a way that looked relaxed—as though he was looking for somebody worth talking to—while he waited for more information.
“That stunner in the red dress is Zoya Volkova.”
Somebody at this event was probably going to end up dead before the evening ended, and he needed to make sure it wouldn’t be his target. They needed Gauthier alive if they were going to get information about who was planning the attacks, and the Devlin Group was already at a disadvantage because kidnapping was a hell of a lot harder than assassination.
Racing against Zoya Volkova hadn’t been part of the plan. He knew the name. Everybody in the business had heard of the lethal Russian weapon wielded by Peter Sidorov—one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and secretive men on the planet. Connor had even seen a few photos of her, though she’d clearly been disguising herself to varying degrees, because seeing a photo of this woman in red wasn’t something he would have forgotten.
He fingered his cufflink, sending the single click to acknowledge he’d received that unwelcome information, and then caught himself looking at her again. That wasn’t smart. Looking like she did, she was probably used to men staring at her, but there were different kinds of looking, and she would be able to tell the difference.
After taking a swig of the warm champagne, he started moving around the outside of the room, looking to put himself out of her sightline. He was casual, setting his glass on the tray of a circulating server. He chatted with a couple for a few seconds about what a lovely evening it was. But he was careful to never lose sight of that red dress.
He wouldn’t get the chance to sweep her into his arms and whirl her around the ballroom floor, but he had no doubt he and Zoya Volkova were about to dance.
Zoya Volkova was a woman rarely ruled by emotion, but she had to admit Henri Gauthier was vexing her to the point that impatience and annoyance prickled across her skin.
She needed to find him. Kill him. Make her exit.
It was a simple plan, really, but the man was proving to be most uncooperative. He was on the premises, but he must have holed up in a private room somewhere—either talking business or indulging in one of his less savory pastimes. She’d explored a little, but security in the museum was tight and she’d encountered several brawny men who suggested she return to the party before she gave up on finding him that way. She took her time descending the grand staircase, however, lingering on the balcony that gave her an excellent vantage point from which to peruse the crowd.
Zoya knew who many of the people attending the ball were. And some of them had even seen her before, though none of them would connect tonight’s stunning bombshell dripping wealth with whatever version of her they’d crossed paths with in the past. And none of them interested her. She was here to kill Henri Gauthier. Ideally, she could use her ample wiles to lure him into a moment of privacy. If not, she only had to be close enough to accidentally scratch him with the prong of her ring and the poison it was coated with would ensure he was dead within minutes. Either plan required him to be present, however, and so far she hadn’t spotted him in the crowd of people who held no interest for her.
Except for the man in the corner. He was interesting on so many levels.
He was carelessly gorgeous—the kind of man who was almost unfairly attractive without seeming to care. His tux was expertly fitted to a body that was lean, but obviously strong. He had dark hair that was just long enough so Zoya could curl her fingers into it and force his head back so she could run her tongue up his throat to the edge of his immaculately trimmed beard. She couldn’t see the color of his eyes at that distance, especially with the slight glare from the stylish glasses he wore. He looked confident without being cocky, and hot as hell without being arrogant, and she liked that in a man.
He was also the enemy.
She didn’t even have to know who he worked for to know that. He didn’t work for Peter Sidorov, so he wasn’t her ally. Having checked out the guests, she assumed he was also here for Gauthier in some capacity, but she wouldn’t let him interfere with her killing the target herself, as she’d been instructed to do.
Being her enemy didn’t make the man any less attractive to Zoya, of course. Having goals that were in opposition didn’t mean they couldn’t be sexually compatible. As long as he didn’t know who she was, entertaining herself with this man after the job was done was still on the table.
He was very, very good. She’d almost overlooked him, and might have if he hadn’t been pretty enough so she gave him a second look. And a third. He looked around the room with almost the perfect amount of laziness—as though he was bored, but not disdainful about it. His body language was relaxed and he mingled with ease.
His mistake was being too casual. It made him stand out in a room full of people jockeying to impress each other, and it drew attention to him. She wasn’t the only woman looking at him tonight.
She noticed the way he’d occasionally fidget with his cufflink, a nervous gesture at odds with his ease. And he would push up the bridge of his glasses, which was a common behavior for people who wore them, but his glasses fit perfectly and she never saw them slip. It could have been a nervous habit, but he didn’t strike her as the nervous type.
Zoya assumed the cufflink communicated with his team, probably by a system of clicks. Contrary to what movies would have people believe, men with earpieces walking around talking to themselves tended to attract the wrong kind of attention. Pushing up on his glasses probably acted as a button for an imbedded camera, marking a spot to pull a still from the video it was transmitting. Maybe for facial recognition software.
She was also aware of the very second that a little bird whispered her name into the man’s ear. The slightest tensing of that delicious body. In her peripheral vision, she watched him scan the room again until his gaze landed on her. It lingered for a few seconds too long, and then he unhurriedly moved out of her sight, to a spot behind her.
Yes, he was definitely good at his job—whatever his objective was tonight. Unfortunately for him, she was better.
Casually navigating the clusters of people, offering smiles and nods but not stopping to make small talk, Zoya made her way toward the man. She managed to time their crossing of paths with a server circulating with a tray of champagne flutes, which gave her a reason to be close enough to the man to speak to him. He didn’t look directly at her, but he knew she was coming. His body tensed slightly, and he shifted to keep her in his peripheral vision.
After setting her nearly empty flute on the tray and taking a full one with a gracious nod to the server, she turned to the man in the tux. “Lovely evening.”
When their gazes locked, the impact of looking into his dark eyes sent a frisson of desire down her spine, but she ignored it. A brief conversation would help her place him—where he was from and whether he was a real player in this game or just a thug dressed up in a suit. On this chess board, she was the queen, but she needed to know if she was moving against a pawn or a king.
The same sizzle of attraction crossed his face before settling into a smolder in his eyes. “It’s even lovelier now.”
“Elizabeth Moreland.” His mouth quirked slightly at the corners, registering her lie as she extended her hand.
He took her hand in his. “Julien Armstrong. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Elizabeth.”
She smiled. She wasn’t the only one using a false name tonight, and this man was no mere pawn. Somebody she trusted had told her Julien Armstrong Jr. was dead. When she’d heard rumors he’d resurfaced, but was limiting his activities to legal and charitable endeavors, she’d assumed some con artist of little consequence was using the name to fleece oblivious wealthy patrons. Obviously, she’d been mistaken.
And he still hadn’t released her hand.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you at one of these events before,” he said. “Are you with the charity?”
She laughed softly, withdrawing her fingers from his gentle grasp. “Something like that. Enjoy your evening, Mr. Armstrong.”
Then she turned and left before he could say anything else, though she imagined she could feel the heat of his gaze on her as she walked away.
He was American, judging by the accent. While it was possible to be employed anywhere in the world if one were good enough, in her experience, the simplest answer was often the correct one. Sifting through her knowledge of agencies and the target, and considering the financial scope of this job, she decided he was most likely employed by the Devlin Group.
That was unfortunate. Somebody else trying to silence Henri Gauthier wouldn’t be ideal, as Peter had been clear she was to do it herself. As long as she could confirm the man had ended up dead, though, he would have accepted the outcome. But the Devlin Group wasn’t in the assassination business. Whoever hired them wanted Gauthier to talk, which meant this man was going to try to take her prey alive.
That didn’t work for her.
Zoya had never let Peter Sidorov down, and this man wasn’t going to be the reason she failed.