Circulating through the Renaissance ballroom with a tray of champagne flutes, Kelsey Mitchell made herself keep smiling. She couldn’t let the weird vibe coming from some of her fellow servers distract her from maintaining her cover as Jane Wilson, waitress.
But the tension around those people was troubling. They seemed off-stride. Tense. Almost jittery.
Wilt, the middle-aged man refilling the buffet, was practically vibrating. As though he were tapping his foot behind the long, blue-draped table.
The thirtyish ex-jock at the carvery station, a last-minute hire, actually was tapping his foot while he sliced roast beef for the guests. He loaded the plates efficiently but never made eye contact with anyone. Never smiled. A serious no-no for staff at a high-end boutique hotel like the Fierenze.
At least the guests seemed to be enjoying the easy rock music piped in from the main ballroom. The decorations also added a festive note. Suspended from the ceiling, glass snowflakes glittered above the crowd, complementing the winter-white trees standing at intervals along the walls. From their branches hung glittery stars in red, white, or blue about the size of Kelsey’s hand. The patriotic trees, so appropriate for celebrating a presidential inauguration, stood out against the ballroom’s gold-on-royal-blue silk wallpaper.
Turning to make another pass through the room, she swept her gaze over the crowd in search of her target, importer Dorton Keyes. Where…?
Oh. Dancing with his wife, who topped him by a head. Kelsey drifted toward them and observed her coworkers.
Tiny, red-haired Ellie, weaving her way among the high-top tables around the dance floor, looked as calm and collected as ever. So did Steffie, who was picking up dirty plates, her black hair in a French twist that was just as tidy as it’d been during setup, four hours ago.
Was it just the guys who were acting weird?
Stopping here and there to offer champagne, Kelsey worked her way closer to Keyes. She’d slipped a bug under his lapel earlier, so the recorder in her locker downstairs would catch everything he said. Unfortunately, it would also pick up music and ambient noise that could garble the words, so she needed to note which people talked with him and when.
A balding, gray-haired businessman from Iowa built like a fireplug with a gut and a bad combover, he was so not the image of someone who would kidnap children and sell them as sex slaves.
At least, not if you watched too many movies. But Kelsey’s employer, the secret, international intelligence agency known as Arachnid, had taught her better than to trust stereotypes. Dorton Keyes was importing—and exporting—more than knickknacks out of his sleek offices in Dubuque.
Kidnapping him after the ball, questioning him to learn where his human pipelines ran, was a mission she could happily sink her teeth into. It was the payoff for the eight weeks she’d worked here undercover.
His security guards, two brick-shaped goons, loitered by the doors. This was just a job to them. To her, though, taking out slime like Keyes was personal.
A young, blonde woman in a stunning satin gown of flag blue with silver spangles beckoned to Kelsey. Smiling, Kelsey changed direction.
Beside the blonde stood a tall, ruggedly handsome guy with brown hair that looked almost bronze and keen, hazel eyes. Kelsey sucked in a quick breath. The shoulders under his black tuxedo jacket were the width of the Rocky Mountains, and the trim torso encased in his crisp, white shirt implied the rest of him was in good shape, too.
Her cheeks heated at the thought. The guy was with a date, for crying out loud. A date who had the porcelain-and-cream complexion Kelsey’s favorite aunt always touted. Not to mention makeup so skillfully applied that it seemed not to be there.
I can do makeup.
Yeah, though she usually did it to not look like herself.
At least this time, she’d been able to keep her own brown hair, now drawn back in a ponytail, and didn’t have to wear contact lenses to change the blue of her eyes.
“Evening,” the man said in a baritone as smooth and rich as dark chocolate.
“Good evening, sir, ma’am.” Hiding the shiver his voice sent through her, Kelsey presented the tray with a little flourish that looked good but wouldn’t unbalance the flutes.
“Let me, Greg,” the woman said, reaching for a glass. She handed it to her companion.
The tensing at the corners of his eyes might’ve started out as a wince, but he stifled it, accepting the drink. Maybe he didn’t like champagne and was just indulging his pretty date. The two of them looked a bit young for this middle-aged crowd, late twenties for her and early thirties for him. Maybe they were using a relative’s tickets.
“Thanks, Fee,” he said in a dry tone. The two exchanged a wry look that apparently had some kind of meaning, and the woman shrugged.
Fee took a glass for herself, blue eyes cheerful. “The place is busy tonight.”
“Time passes faster that way,” Kelsey replied easily.
“Then it must be passing fast all over the city, considering how many celebrations are going on.” Fee’s smile was contagious, and Kelsey grinned. Admitting Greg was a top-tier hottie didn’t mean she couldn’t like his date.
“We shouldn’t keep you,” the hottie in question said. “You obviously have plenty to do.”
His gaze met hers, and all the air seemed to rush out of the room. Her mouth went dry, her heart fluttery, and her breath nonexistent. Greg’s hazel eyes darkened. His chiseled lips parted slightly, as though in shock, sending a rush of pure feminine elation through her.
He blinked. His throat moved in a hard swallow.
Kelsey shot a reflexive look at his date.
Fee grinned up at him and flashed Kelsey a friendly look. “I’m sure we’ll catch you later,” she offered.
“Uh. Yes,” Kelsey managed. “Right.”
Conscious of Greg’s gaze on her, she smiled at Fee and strolled away. But her heart still beat fast, and her breathing hadn’t settled.
Okay, what was that? Yeah, the guy’s smokin’ but geez. Get a grip, Kelsey.
A woman in a black gown gave her an odd look, and Kelsey turned up the wattage on her smile. It wouldn’t do to have a guest complain that she’d been surly.
Even if this wasn’t her longterm job, effectively maintaining this cover and handling the covert op after the ball could get her the slot she wanted.
What had she been doing?
Oh, right, surveillance. She gave herself a good, swift mental kick. Screwing up her first op as lead agent was seriously not the way to get that plum job in the New York office. Working there would bring her into the area where the drug runners who’d killed her brother, Todd, ran their poison.
Someday, she’d bring them down. Dorton Keyes was a stepping-stone to that goal.
Arachnid had placed her here so she could to watch him during the inaugural celebration. Afterward, she would call in her waiting team and snatch him. Despite his good ole boy demeanor, he lived in a compound that probably made the guards at Fort Knox jealous. This was the best chance at him that anyone would have for months.
She glanced back at the buffet again. Wilt was looking a bit grim. Should she go remind him to smile?
Hmm, considering his attitude toward any advice from women, no, she wouldn’t waste breath giving him a hint. Better to go get a fresh tray of drinks, or whatever the kitchen needed sent up here, and tend to her cover job.
Yet her eyes turned back to Greg and Fee. No harm checking out his B side, as it were. The tux draped smoothly from those wide shoulders. The smooth fall of the black trousers implied his legs were long and straight.
And the hand holding the champagne flute was large, square, and long-fingered. Nice.
And totally irrelevant to her mission.
Kelsey turned back to business.
“She’s cute,” Fee—short for Ophelia—volunteered. “You should ask her out.”
Raising an eyebrow, Greg went for obtuse. “Who, her?” He nodded toward the middle-aged woman in a red evening gown who stood directly in his line of sight. “I try not to date women Mom’s age.”
As his cousin rolled her eyes, he added, “Besides, she’s wearing a wedding ring and is glued to that guy beside her. Married women are off-limits, too.”
He’d kept his tone light, but the sting of his divorce made the words taste bitter. Five years he’d wasted trying to build a future with someone who decided early on that he was just too much work.
“It’s too bad Lacie’s gigolo didn’t have your scruples.” Fee scowled at her champagne.
Her loyalty warmed him inside. She hated his cheating ex, but that was only natural, considering that he and Fee had grown up like brother and sister.
He hugged her with his right arm, stifling a grimace because the movement was so awkward.
“Hey, the arm’s better than it was.” She patted his hand. “You’ll get there.”
If only he shared her confidence. Despite surgery and three months of therapy, he still didn’t have full range of motion. Still hadn’t requalified on the FBI firing range. He could shoot just fine, but he couldn’t draw or change magazines as fast as he needed to.
But he wasn’t going to spoil tonight for Fee, who so loved a fancy-dress anything. She already felt guilty because the two of them were using her parents’ tickets, thanks to her dad’s back problem flaring up.
She turned toward the dance floor, and Greg turned with her. Waitress Jane, whose name he’d gotten from her employee badge, circulated easily along the edges of the parquet square.
No harm in admiring that smooth stride or the graceful way she slid through crowded areas. She should get an extra gold star for that because some of the guests in those knots of people were none too steady on their feet.
Fee poked him. “What’re you frowning at? Surely not the waitress.”
“It’s not even ten o’clock,” he said softly, under cover of the easy rock coming over the speakers, “and some of these people have passed three sheets to the wind and are going strong toward four.”
When he’d agreed to escort his cousin, who’d not only wheedled and invoked the Guys who are recuperating need to get out more theory but enlisted both of their mothers to help, he hadn’t figured on so many drunks. Some of them had even groped him in the lobby earlier, and not only the women.
Greg shook his head. This was a celebration of the first woman president’s inauguration, not a stag—or stagette, or whatever they called the female equivalent—party.
Fee grinned. “Yes, but they’re not your problem. You should intercept that waitress. Whose name tag, by the way, says Jane.”
Only an idiot would admit he already knew that.
Fee bumped his elbow. “You were looking at her like you’d been on a diet for a year and she was a hot-fudge sundae.”
Damn. Was it that obvious? Regardless, admitting it would be a tactical error.
“Always chocolate something with you,” he replied.
“You should get her number.”
Not a bad idea, but she probably had lots of guys hitting on her at functions like this. He wasn’t going to be one of the crowd.
A friend of Fee’s dad came up to speak to her. Greg greeted the man but drifted a little apart to watch Jane in peace. No harm in watching, after all.
She was a few inches shorter than his six one, probably about five seven, in her flat, practical shoes. Her blue eyes glinted with intelligence, and he had the distinct sense she was sizing up the people around her.
Following her gaze, he saw a guy in a black waiter jacket wheeling a cart of empty steel warming dishes toward the door. That seemed normal enough, so why were Jane’s eyes so watchful above her bright smile?
None of his business, of course, but the guy had seemed almost curt when Greg and Fee filled their plates earlier. Curt and antsy. Weird.
“Why’re you staring at the odd waiter?” Fee asked.
“Just wondering what bug crawled up his ass.”
Fee sighed. “This may shock you, Gregory, but not everyone treats wait staff decently. Or even politely.”
“You’d know.” She’d waited tables for years, eventually working her way up to her current job managing Carlo’s, the best Italian bistro in Bloomington, Indiana. It had the best staff, too, because she treated them like vital parts of her team.
“Indeed.” She grabbed his half-full champagne and set it with her empty glass on a passing waiter’s tray. Her hand caught his. “If you’re not going to go chat with Jane, you can dance with me.”
“I live to serve,” he said, and she laughed.
Greg stepped onto the dance floor with Fee. But his gaze drifted back to Jane. Heading for the door, her tray now empty, she was watching the guy at the dessert table.
His radar pinged. Something was wrong here.
Kelsey pushed through the service door to the back corridor. The white cinder-block hallway ran the length of this side of the building, behind the smaller ballrooms and along the office suites the public rarely saw. Wouldn’t want politicians to have to mingle with the little people en route to picking up their fat speaker fees.
Not that little people could afford rooms at the Fierenze. But everything was relative.
The corridor felt cramped, the walls lined with linen carts from the private functions held before the inaugural celebration and tall, slotted cars for empty buffet dishes. There hadn’t been time to get the used tablecloths and napkins down to the laundry and still set up for tonight’s big bash.
Kelsey stepped between two linen buggies to make space for a woman approaching with a tray of smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres.
“Crazy night,” Manuela Escobar said, her black eyes shining. “Kinda fun, though.”
“Yeah. Manuela, do some of the guys seem a little off to you?”
The other woman frowned. “Yeah, now that you mention it. I didn’t pay particular attention, but it’s like they’re on edge. Fidgety.”
Kelsey swallowed against uneasiness. Her trainers had always said it was best to trust your gut first and worry about looking stupid later. Her gut was ringing alarm bells, but she had no reason to warn her colleague off.
Manuela moved by with her tray, and Kelsey walked on down the hall, turning left into the corridor that ran the width of the building and held the service elevators and assorted storage. Maybe the guys were pissed because their presidential candidate had lost. But none of them had said anything in the weeks leading up to the event.
The service elevator lay halfway down the hall, behind the main ballroom. Kelsey pushed the button and waited.
Seconds ticked by. Frowning, she looked up at the display above the elevator. Sub-basement? And not moving?
Okay, that was weird. Maybe somebody had taken trays to the guys stuck in the security station down there.
Meanwhile, time was a-wasting.
She turned toward the stairs and caught a strange, rhythmic sound from the stairwell. Booted feet? Coming up in quick-time?
What the hell? Kelsey edged back into the long corridor, around the corner from the elevator bank and stairs.
The elevator dinged.
A moment later, a gruff, male voice said, “Brothers, our moment is at hand.”
Brothers? What moment?
More booted feet tromped down the corridor she’d just left.
Suddenly, from the ballroom she’d been working came the distinctive pop-pop-pop and rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire.