One day, this would all be over.
One day they could all return to normal.
BUNDLED UP AGAINST THE bitter New York wind in a full-length mink coat and matching hat, her Tiffany diamond drop earrings sparkling like stalactites in the dazzling winter sunshine, Althea ran a black, gloved hand along the top of the gravestone, lovingly tracing a finger over the one-word inscription.
“He’s dead, my darling,” Althea whispered. “Bob Daley’s dead. We got him.”
Watching the Englishman’s skull explode across her computer screen had been gratifying. But it hadn’t brought Althea the closure she’d hoped for. She’d come to Daniel’s grave today in hopes that it might bring her some peace.
Perhaps it’s because he isn’t really here? The simple marble slab was just a memorial. Nothing lay beneath it. Thanks to them, Althea would never know where her beloved Daniel really lay, or whether he had even been buried. They had stolen that comfort from her, just as they had stolen everything else.
That’s why I don’t feel closure, she realized suddenly. Captain Bob Daley was just the beginning.
I must destroy them all.
Just as they destroyed me.
Althea wondered why the CIA hadn’t called in Tracy Whitney yet.
It was vital that Tracy be a part of this. Her message had been crystal clear on that point. Why were they waiting?
If that moron Greg Walton didn’t act soon, she’d be forced to take matters into her own hands. As the icy wind bit into her cheeks, Althea hoped it didn’t come to that.
Wrapping her mink more tightly around her, she turned and walked to her waiting limousine.
It was nice to be rich.
But it was even nicer to be powerful.
TRACY WHITNEY WATCHED THE SNOWFLAKES FALL SOFTLY TO THE ground outside her window as she sewed name-tapes into her son’s soccer kit. Nicholas Schmidt, 9G. This was the second kit Tracy had had to buy Nick since the summer. At fourteen, her son was growing like a weed. He must be taller than Jeff now, Tracy thought.
Nicholas knew Jeff Stevens as Uncle Jeff, an international antique dealer and old friend of his mother’s. He believed his real father was a man named Karl Schmidt, a German industrialist, who’d died tragically in a skiing accident while Nick was still in his mother’s womb. It was the story Tracy had told him and everybody else in Steamboat Springs, the small Colorado town that had been their home for almost fifteen years now. But it wasn’t true. There had never been any Karl Schmidt, or any ski accident. Jeff Stevens was Nick’s father. He was also a con artist and a thief, one of the best in the world. Although never quite as good as Tracy.
Putting aside the shorts, Tracy got to work on Nick’s shirt. The dark blue team colors brought out the color of Nick’s eyes—piercing blue, like his father’s. He also had Jeff’s athletic build and thick dark hair, and that irresistible combination of masculinity and charm that had drawn women to Jeff Stevens like moths to a lightbulb. Tracy hadn’t seen Jeff in three years, not since she saved his life, rescuing him from a psychotic former agent named Daniel Cooper. But she thought of him often. Every time Nicholas smiled, in fact.
That last encounter with Jeff Stevens had been a crazy time in Tracy’s life, a brief, brutal return to the adrenaline and danger of a world she thought she’d left behind forever. Afterwards, she’d struck a deal with the FBI to grant her immunity from prosecution and returned to the peaceful anonymity of Steamboat Springs. Uncle Jeff had visited once, and kept in touch with postcards from far-flung parts of the world. He’d also set up a trust fund for Nick worth tens of millions of dollars. What can I say? he wrote to Tracy. The antiques business is booming. Who else am I going to leave it to?
Jeff knew that Blake Carter, the old cowboy who ran Tracy’s ranch and had practically raised Nicholas, was a far better, safer, more solid father than he could ever be. Like Tracy, he wanted their son to have a stable, happy life. So he’d made the ultimate sacrifice and walked away. Tracy loved him for that more than anything.
It bothered her sometimes that everything Nick knew about her and his real father was a lie. My own son doesn’t know me at all. But she took comfort in Blake Carter’s words. “He knows you love him, Tracy. When all’s said and done, that’s all that matters.”
At last the huge pile of kit was named and folded. Tracy stretched, poured herself a bourbon and threw another log on the huge open fire that dominated her open-plan living room. She watched it spit flames high into the air, crackling so loudly it sounded like a gunshot. Warm, comforting smells of pine resin and wood smoke filled the room, mingling with cinnamon from the kitchen. Tracy sighed contentedly.
I love this place.
With her slender figure, shoulder-length chestnut hair and lively, intelligent eyes that could change from moss green to dark jade according to her mood, Tracy had always been a beauty. She was no longer a young woman, but she still exuded an intoxicating appeal to the opposite sex. There was something unattainable about her, a spark of challenge and temptation in those unknowable eyes that transcended age. Even in jeans, Ugg boots and a roll-neck sweater and without makeup, as she was now, Tracy Whitney could light up a room at a glance. Those who knew her best, like Blake Carter, saw something else in Tracy—a sadness, deep as the ocean, and beautiful too in its own way. It was the legacy of loss—lost love, lost hopes, lost freedom. Tracy had survived it all. Survived and thrived. But that sadness was still a part of her.
Tracy sipped the dark liquor, letting its warmth slide down her throat and into her chest. She shouldn’t really be drinking—it was only four in the afternoon—but after all that damn sewing she deserved it. Plus it felt like evening. Outside twilight was already making way for darkness, with the indigo sky fading slowly to black. On the ground, snow lay feet thick and pristine, like frosting on a wedding cake, punctured only by the dark green spruce and pine trees, reaching their leafy arms up to the heavens. The house was at its best in winter, when its floor-to-ceiling windows showcased the snowcapped Rockies at their most magnificent. The term “splendid isolation” could have been coined for this place. It was one of the main reasons Tracy chose it all those years ago.
A loud knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.
So much for isolation.
The ranch’s position might be remote but Steamboat Springs was still a small town and Tracy was the mother of one of its more troublesome teenagers. Her mind ran over the possibilities as she walked to the door.
Irate mother of an eighth grade cheerleader?
Oh God, please not the Sheriff. Blake would hit the roof if Nick had been running one of his scams again. Last time he’d managed to reprogram the school library computers to show that half of the middle-school students were entitled to rebates. The school had erroneously paid out more than two thousand dollars to Nick’s buddies before the head librarian got wise and called the cops.
Sheriff Reeves had gone easy on Nick that time. But one more screw up and he’d have to make an example of him.
Tracy put on her most gracious smile and opened the door.
A waft of freezing air hit her. Tracy shivered.
Two men were standing on her porch. Both wore long cashmere coats, trilby hats and scarves. One of the men she didn’t recognize. The other, very unfortunately, she did.
Agent Milton Buck of the FBI attempted a smile, but was so out of practice it came off as a leer.
“This is my colleague, Mr. Gregory Walton of the CIA.” Buck gestured to the much shorter man standing next to him, hopping from foot to foot against the cold. “May we come in?”
FIVE MINUTES LATER, TRACY and the two agents stood awkwardly around the kitchen table. Tracy had offered them each a cup of coffee. Coats had been removed, pleasantries dispensed with. It soon became apparent that the shorter man, from the CIA, was in charge of proceedings.
“Thank you for letting us in, Miss Whitney.”
Bald, softly spoken and scrupulously polite, Tracy immediately liked Agent Walton a lot more than Agent Buck. Then again there were tapeworms that Tracy Whitney liked more than Agent Buck. The two of them had history together, none of it good.
“It’s Mrs. Schmidt here,” Tracy said. “And I wouldn’t leave a man to freeze to death on my doorstep, Mr. Walton. However much I didn’t want to see him,” she added pointedly, looking directly at Milton Buck.