“I feel sick,” Scarlett Stone warned in a sharp undertone to her lifelong best friend, Angelina LeMay.
“They don’t know who you are,” Angel responded with a pat on her arm. “Relax and enjoy yourself for a change. I can’t believe you actually came with me, but I love you for it.”
Her friend wouldn’t be quite so understanding if she knew what Scarlett had hidden in her panties. She took a gulp of champagne. This was a stupid idea. Who did she think she was—James Bond?
The thought shot fear through her bloodstream. Too close to home. Too real.
But this wasn’t spying on State secrets. She was investigating an old crime, looking for the truth before it was too late. No one would help her. God knew, she’d begged every one of them over the years and they’d all refused. Now it was up to her.
The reception room where the Russian Ambassador to the United States was hosting his annual Christmas party looked like the inside of a palace, with fantastically high ceilings, icy white walls inlaid with gold detail, and two huge chandeliers shining like a galaxy of tiny stars. A grand piano off to one side was being played quietly in the background. The subtle scents of pine mingled with perfume and the spice of mulled wine—the effect cloying, yet oddly nostalgic. The place was crowded. The sense of opulence and history, staggering.
Until 1994, the ambassador’s residence had been the Russian Embassy and reeked of a rich clandestine history of secret power struggles. Fitting under the circumstances. Her father had told her the KGB used to operate out of two trailers in the back yard, in the shadow of the huge Washington Post building. She didn’t know where the KGB’s modern-day equivalent, the SVR, was secreted and she hoped she never found out.
Angel’s parents—her father was Congressman Adam LeMay—had received an invitation to tonight’s Christmas party but hadn’t wanted to attend. Angel had begged Scarlett to take the place of her sister who was hiking in the Mojave Desert. Considering the new ambassador was Andrei Anatoly Dorokhov, Scarlett hadn’t been able to refuse, no matter how dangerous and desperate her plan might be. She had no choice.
She took another drink. She needed a little Dutch courage, maybe even a sedative.
“Scar, don’t look now,” Angel’s voice dropped to low and breathless, “but I think my future husband just walked in the door.”
Angel LeMay fell in lust on a regular basis.
“I hope you’ll be very happy together,” Scarlett said without turning.
“Navy dinner dress blues and a gold cummerbund.” Her friend fanned herself with her free hand. “I am in love.”
“I thought you were only getting married for money?” Scarlett teased.
Angel flashed her dimples. “I’ll make an exception for a war hero, and anyway, he might be loaded.”
Angel might be her best friend, but it didn’t mean Scarlett was blind to her flaws. Her parents indulged her every whim. She “worked” on Capitol Hill in her father’s office, doing God only knew what—answering the mail if tonight was any indication. Scarlett figured brain atrophy explained most of Angel’s poor choice in men. Not that hers was much better. Lab rats and academics were the only guys she dated, and “dated” was an optimistic term. “Grabbed coffee with between experiments” was probably more accurate.
Over Angel’s shoulder, Scarlett watched another guy wearing a black tux making his way toward them. His intense coal-eyed gaze never left her friend’s butt. Angel was wearing a little black dress, with the emphasis on “little.” Few men could resist and fewer tried. He looked up and caught Scarlett watching him. A dimple appeared in one cheek and ebony eyes twinkled. No remorse that she’d caught him ogling her friend’s ass. Just that sense of entitlement that if he wanted to stare, no one was going to stop him. Confident and powerful. Somewhere in his late twenties, early thirties, the man had player written all over his handsome face.
He walked up and introduced himself. “Welcome to the home of the Russian Ambassador to the United States. May I say it is a pleasure to welcome such beautiful young ladies. My name is Sergio Raminski, the ambassador’s personal assistant.” His Ws sounded vaguely V-like, but apart from that his accent was perfect.
He looked more like a bodyguard than any personal assistant she’d ever seen, but maybe she was paranoid. Actually there was no maybe about it. A shiver of unease hummed over Scarlett’s skin. If ever there was a candidate for foreign intelligence agent, Raminski was it.
According to her dad, a portion of the embassy staff here were actually agents for the Kremlin, the same way some of the Americans in Moscow did more than stamp passports. Angel introduced herself and then introduced Scarlett as her sister, Sarah. Scarlett’s nerdy appearance had been overhauled by a pro, something Angel had been doing at every opportunity since kindergarten. She and Sarah looked vaguely alike now that Angel had plastered her with makeup and pulled back her hair. Scarlett had borrowed a strapless, silver gown that shimmered in the candlelight. The skirt had a net petticoat and double layers of gathered silk which flounced around her knees. Four-inch heels meant she was almost chin-level to most of the guys in the room.
Sergio bowed first over Angel’s hand, then Scarlett’s. When she tried to let go, he surprised her by holding tight for a moment, making her pulse skip a beat, though not in a good way. A blush heated her cheeks and she pulled firmly away.
“Your father was unable to attend?” Sergio asked.
Scarlett’s mouth gaped.
Angel stepped in. “After the Vice President’s funeral today he felt a little unwell. He sends his apologies.”
Scarlett swallowed the knot that had formed in her throat. Her father was the real reason she was here.
“Nothing serious, I hope?” Black eyes were alight with interest.
Insider knowledge is always of interest to Russian officials no matter how seemingly mundane—her father’s warnings flashed through her mind.
“Just something he ate at lunch.” Angel smiled. She was a pro at lying and manipulation to get what she wanted. From the hard light in his eyes, Scarlett bet money Raminski was better.
“You were lucky you did not all succumb to the sickness.” Raminski cranked up the warmth of his smile. “I would have missed out on the best part of the evening—meeting two such lovely, young ladies.”
It wasn’t only Raminski’s cheesy lines that made her queasy. She was about to do something that could get her arrested. The idea made her stomach cramp. Once in a lifetime opportunity, she reminded herself. And once in a lifetime might be an overstatement. Fate. Serendipity. Seize the moment. What is the worst that can happen?
They could lock her up and throw away the key.
She swallowed more champagne.
Angel—born flirt—smiled an electric smile and smoothed her hands over her concave stomach, as if more attention needed to be drawn to her goddess-like figure. “I wanted to fit into my dress tonight so I was a good girl at lunch.” The expression in her eyes suggested she wasn’t normally a good girl.
“Your efforts are much appreciated, Ms. LeMay.” Raminski inclined his head courteously to Angel, and then to Scarlett.
He was so not her type. She liked men who appreciated a woman’s brain at least as much as her body. Not handsome, muscle-bound jerks who only wanted a bout of hot, sweaty, mindless sex.
Gotta get over that, an inner voice complained.
And then it clicked. This was her chance. Angel and Sergio Raminski were all distracted and flirty with one another. She just needed ten minutes alone. “Actually,” she touched her own stomach, “I don’t feel so good. If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to visit the powder room.” She took a step back and jostled the elbow of someone behind her.
“Fu…udge,” said a deep male voice.
She whirled and came face-to-face with Angel’s future husband. She could tell it was him because she’d made him spill champagne down the front of his dress blues.
“I’m so sorry.” She grabbed a white, cloth napkin off a nearby waiter and dabbed at the man’s white shirt and gold cummerbund. “I’m such a dork.”
“That wasn’t my first thought.” His expression caught her off-guard. It contained a very male look of admiration. She blinked. He took the napkin from her hand and she felt a shiver of something that was definitely not repulsion.
The guy looked…like… Well, he looked fabulous. And hot. Tall enough she had to tilt her head way back even wearing these ridiculous heels. He had military-short, dark blond hair that shone brightly under the chandeliers. A lean face, firm jaw, pale hazel eyes that twinkled with obvious humor and a mouth that tried to suppress it. She resisted the urge to fan herself the way Angel had earlier. Her eyes drifted lower, taking in broad shoulders and a chest-full of medals that jerked her out of her perusal. He was an American hero and not for the likes of her.
Sergio Raminski tried to step in. “Allow me to help.”
“Yeah, no thanks.” The guy held up his hand firmly as if to ward the Russian off. Captain America meets the Dark Prince. “Not a big fan of champagne, anyway.”
“You’re going to be all sticky.” Scarlett grimaced apologetically.
“Sarah LeMay!” Angel’s laugh got dirty and loud and Scarlett flushed with embarrassment.
She opened her mouth to insist she hadn’t meant it as a double entendre, but snapped her jaw closed. The sparkle in the sailor’s gaze intensified and Raminski’s smirk became a full-blown grin. She rolled her eyes. Great. Just great.
“If you’d like to get properly cleaned up I can take you to one of the guest suites, or…” Raminski tilted his head to one side and slipped into silky hospitality mode. “Miss LeMay was just going to find the restroom. Perhaps you can accompany one another?”
The American held the other man’s gaze so long Scarlett began to feel uncomfortable. Then he turned to her and held out his elbow in a courteous move. “Sure, let me escort you. We can get lost together.”
“I know who I’d like to get lost,” she muttered quietly, cutting a glance at Raminski as they walked away.
The sailor flashed her a grin. The last thing she wanted was an escort, especially the kind people noticed with good looks and glittering medals, but she needed to get out of here and making a fuss would garner too much attention. Scarlett Stone might run away and hide, but the congressman’s daughters had been raised in wealth and privilege. They expected to be treated like society princesses. Outside, in the hallway, a waiter directed them down a long stretch of dimly lit corridor. According to the blueprints she’d studied, this was where she needed to go.
Her heels clicked off the parquet flooring, her footsteps echoing loudly in the relative quiet of the empty hallway. He moved silently, but she was very aware of the man at her side—his size, his looks, and warm body next to hers. They stopped when they reached the men’s room and she quickly disengaged her arm. “I’m really sorry about the champagne.”
“Accidents happen.” He shrugged easily and held out his hand. “Matt Lazlo.”
She shook his hand, his skin warm and dry; grip, strong but not crushing. Her mouth formed her real name for a split-second before she remembered who she was supposed to be. “Sarah LeMay. I’m here with my…sister, Angel.” She couldn’t hold his gaze, but she could hardly confess the truth just because he had pretty eyes and looked good in uniform. Some secret agent she’d make. She resisted rolling her eyes at herself.
His lips tightened and his expression turned serious. “I’m sorry they made you uncomfortable back there.”
Her gaze flashed to his in surprise. She’d spent a lifetime being uncomfortable and few people noticed. She rubbed her bare arms where goose bumps raced over her skin. “It’s okay. It was my fault for knocking champagne all over you. I tend to be clumsy unless I’m working.” Then her hands were steady as lasers and they needed to be.
“So what is it you do?”
Crap. “Oh, nothing very important,” she said vaguely. Sarah worked for an advertising agency but Scarlett didn’t want to expand on the lies she’d already told and, under the circumstances, she could hardly tell him she was an expert in solid-state physics.
“Pretty earrings.” He tapped one of the sparkling danglies Angel had lent her. Scarlett touched it self-consciously, not used to wearing anything flashy.
She pointed to his medals. “That’s some impressive silverware you have there yourself. Thank you for your service.” The words made her uncomfortable—not because she wasn’t sincere, but because if he knew who she really was, he wouldn’t want her thanks. She hunched her shoulders at the thought, folded up a little on herself. America thought her family was the ultimate in treacherous backstabbers and betrayers. Unless she could prove otherwise, they always would.
She noticed a pair of tiny holes in the material where a pin must have sat on his uniform jacket. She reached out and brushed her fingers over the rough edge of the material. “What did you have there?” She raised her eyes to his and watched his pupils flare in surprise.
She withdrew her hand. “So why’d you take it off?”
One side of his lips kicked up. God, he was pretty. “Take what off?” Sharp intelligence spiked those hazel depths, making them a million times more attractive, sending a jolt right through her system. The timing was a death knell to any possible relationship—and wasn’t that the story of her life. She took a step back.
The thought of what she was about to do crowded out the pleasure of meeting a guy who had gorgeous eyes and a keen sense of humor. “I suppose I better hurry up and get back to Angel.”
He pulled a face, obviously as keen to return to the party as she was.
“Why did you come tonight?” Scarlett asked, suddenly curious.
“A direct order from my boss. What about you?” He stood with his legs braced apart, watching her as if he had all the time in the world.
She didn’t have all the time in the world—she had this one brief moment to try and right a terrible wrong. Even then it might not be enough. “My parents made me,” she told him.
It wasn’t a lie.
They stood there staring into each other’s eyes, and Scarlett forgot to breathe. It was one of those rare moments when you met someone and wanted to spend the whole night getting to know them better. She finally broke the connection. It could never be. She turned and walked to the entrance of the ladies’ room, and when she glanced back, Matt Lazlo had disappeared.
Matt Lazlo was not the man for her, no matter how much she might want him to be. His uniform should have served as warning enough.
Scarlett’s father’s favorite quote had been, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” but he’d still ended up in a supermax prison serving multiple life sentences for treason. Now Scarlett was about to take the concept of vigilance to a whole new level and God help her if she got caught.
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