Abbie’s heart raced ahead of her feet. She turned sideways, sliding like a flexible knife through the humans cluttering the Wentworth mansion.
Please don’t let her be rushing into a security ambush that would hand her over to law enforcement.
When she reached the far end of the ballroom only a few people littered the hallway. None noticed her. At the next corner, she slowed to move through a hall broken up by four white doors trimmed out in intricate gold designs.
One door opened. Abbie’s blood pressure skyrocketed.
The young woman exiting the powder room wore a deep blue knee-length dress better suited to a boardroom than a party.
As they met, Abbie glanced over to take in the exotic female with lush black hair to her shoulders and a petit face that resembled some Italian actress Abbie couldn’t identify. But the curiosity wasn’t returned.
Invisibility had its perks.
As Abbie reached the bathroom entrance, she paused just long enough to check behind her to assure the Italian beauty had disappeared. She scampered ahead, following the directions Gwen’s security guard had issued in the harsh tone of an order.
Probably because Gwen hadn’t been happy when she’d spoken to him, which would be Abbie’s fault for shocking the color from Gwen’s face.
Two more turns and Abbie located the thick double doors crafted of varnished hickory she’d been told were not locked. She placed her shaking fingers on a cool bronze handle and pressed her thumb on the lever that moved smoothly.
Please don’t let an alarm go off.
A small snick sounded then, hallelujah, the door opened.
Gwen hadn’t tricked her. Yet. A little too late to worry about being arrested for trespassing in a secured area of the mansion.
Still following instructions, Abbie crossed a paneled library that smelled of history and ink then passed through a set of open glass doors into a sunroom twenty by forty feet. She kept walking across hand-painted tiles and through another set of open doors to a pool and patio area enclosed by a vine-covered stone wall that was chest high and appeared more decorative than a security measure. The fortress-looking wall a hundred feet away and partially hidden by trees should intimidate most of the population from trespassing.
Armed security took care of the rest.
When Abbie stepped further onto the patio heat wafting from the walls warmed her, balancing the chilly evening temperature to a tolerable one. She watched for any sign of alarm or men with radios charging forward.
Nothing moved, not even the tiny candles hung on a stained-glass screen. The tea lights offered just enough visibility to move around without falling into the pool where the surface of the water lay still as a sheet of glass illuminated from below. Burgundy and yellow wicker furniture with bloated cushions covered in a sunflower pattern sat around the pool, posed for a magazine shoot.
â€œYou arrived here faster than I expected.â€
Abbie whirled, hand on her chest. â€œYou scared me to death.â€
Gwen stood in a shadowed corner. â€œSeems only fair since you weren’t exactly subtle in the ballroom.â€
â€œI don’t have time to be subtle.â€
â€œSo you say.â€ The Wentworth heiress continued in a rich voice Abbie recognized as cultivated to sound both exquisitely feminine and professional. Her creamy skin and smooth cheeks were taut with stress lines, eyes searching everywhere.
Abbie waited in silence. Gwen had to make the next move, before Abbie said another incriminating word.
When Gwen lowered herself to a wicker chair next to a glass table, Abbie took the chair that faced Gwen and the grounds beyond the patio. She drew a breath, preparing to gamble her future and very likely her freedom.
Gwen held up a finger. â€œFirst, I want the truth about why you’re here.â€
â€œI told you. I found out the real reason my mother has been going to the Kore Women’s Center every year and about the experiments going on there.â€ Abbie’s heart pounded loud as an angry fist on a door.
Dr. Tatum had warned her not to speak to Gwen inside the house if she didn’t want to be trapped by her words. Make Gwen believe she had to meet somewhere private outside.
Gwen sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. â€œAny facility like Kore has a research division.â€
â€œNot like these experiments. I know about what happened to women like my mother. Fertile women with rare blood.â€
Gwen didn’t say anything for several seconds. â€œWhat do you think you know?â€
â€œI know about the scam,â€ Abbie started. â€œThe Kore Women’s Center convinces unsuspecting women to come in for free tests and lab work, then they use that information to vet out who to blackmail into their secret program.â€
Gwen’s eyes widened with each word. Her skin rivaled her white dress for lack of color. She visibly struggled for control then regained it quickly. â€œYou do realize how absurd that sounds.â€
â€œYou think I’d be stupid enough to come here without evidence?â€ Abbie had bluffed her way into a lot of situations, such as getting her first chance in the news business, but the line of hooey she’d just handed Gwen took the prize. She didn’t have anything more than a belief in the doctor that had cared for all the women in her family for over twenty years. Time to start negotiations. â€œIf you help me, I won’t incriminate you in any way. But if you don’t help me, I’m going to expose everything I have on the Kore Women’s Center–and the Wentworths–to the world and let the chips fall where they will.â€
Gwen sat so still she seemed mummified then she shook her head, speaking in a whisper. â€œYou can’t do that.â€
â€œI can and will do that. My mother was perfectly healthy until she entered your clinic ten days ago. Now she’s dying. You help me or I’ll find a way to shut down the clinic. I don’t care how much propaganda you put out about helping other women.â€
â€œWe do help women. We–â€
â€œSave it for someone who believes you.â€ Abbie figured she had very little time before someone came hunting Gwen and ended her meeting. â€œI have years of documentation for her visits and blood donations. My mother’s doctor may have believed the bogus medical records Kore sent in response to his inquiries, but I now have proof of what you’re hiding and I’ll use it if that’s the only way to find out what happened to my mother.â€
â€œYou don’t have any idea of the repercussions of what you’re threatening.â€
True, but that had never stopped Abbie before once she had her mind made up.
Dr. Tatum had shared everything he knew, but he didn’t know what had compelled Abbie’s mother to make annual trips to give blood at the Kore clinic for the past thirty-two years–starting two years before Abbie was born. She planned to find out. Her mother’s rare HH blood had to be part of the reason, but whatever test–or treatment–they did during the last visit had caused her mother’s spleen to fail.
Other doctors had concurred with Tatum who said he’d never heard of a healthy spleen deteriorating so quickly with no clear reason. That had damaged her mother’s liver. At the rate she was going, she’d need a liver transplant soon. An unrealistic expectation with her rare genetic profile.
Abbie had the same rare blood but the RH didn’t match. Her sisters both had normal O blood type. If she could determine the root of her mother’s illness Dr. Tatum might have a chance at slowing the progression until he figured out a cure.
â€œI have people willing to back me so I won’t be alone in dealing with repercussions,â€ Abbie countered. Did the lies get any bigger than that one? If Gwen called her bluff Abbie would find herself fighting a Wentworth lawsuit alone.
â€œYou shouldn’t have involved anyone else.â€ Gwen’s eyes took in everything around them, jumping as fast as her short breaths. She swallowed hard and leaned forward, grasping the chair arms with finely shaped fingers. What would terrify an heiress of a family as powerful as the Wentworths? Gwen lowered her voice. â€œListen to me. Leave here and promise not to mention a word of this conversation and I won’t say a word either.â€
Not a chance in hell. â€œAnd if I don’t?â€
â€œThey’ll kill you…and me.â€
Hunter exited the fundraiser party and signaled Carlos on his way to the front entrance of the Wentworth compound then waited while Carlos diverted the exterior security force in the opposite direction to inspect a suspicious duffel bag. The bag another BAD agent had planted earlier after parking Hunter’s limo.
With security diverted, Hunter slipped soundlessly around the dark corner of the mansion. Cold penetrated his tux, but he welcomed the fresh air after being inside with so many people.
He lifted a night-vision monocular from inside his coat pocket and slipped it on.
If Linette made the drop where indicated in her last electronic message he’d find a faux lipstick tube containing the USB key outside a bathroom window on the west side. The tube had a tiny infrared LED light on one end.
The latest in female accessories for the discerning spy.
BAD believed she created the device herself. Pretty sharp even for a genius since she had little freedom of movement within the Fratelli.
Guess he’d find out soon enough if she could be trusted.
There it was in the middle of a bush, glowing bright as a hundred-watt bulb with the NVG monocular. The poor placement–dangling in the bush–actually gave Hunter a measure of relief. Linette wasn’t a trained operative or she’d have made sure the unit reached the ground when she shoved it through the slit in the screen covering the window.
Hunter flattened his palm, fingers straight, and slid his hand into the center of the evergreen bush.
Out of habit, he took an instinctive scan of the grounds. A maze of gardens and walkways lead through clusters of Yew trees that partially hid the twelve-foot tall brick-and-stone wall surrounding the premises.
BAD’s intelligence indicated sensors covered the top ledge.
No reason for security to guard the wall since the sections were linked into a continual loop. Any break in the signal would send an alarm. Sensors detected movement up to twenty feet above the wall, allowing for animals the size of a hawk to fly over.
But the body moving through the sprawling limbs of a tree on this side of the wall was no bird.
No. Carlos would have alerted him to anything like that.
Hunching down so he could move through deep shadowed spots, Hunter shuffled further around the house to determine what the intruder was after. He’d covered a hundred feet when he spotted a waist-high stone enclosure for a patio lined with bushes.
Staying close to the house in the deep shadow until he reached the wall, he peeked over the ledge to find two women talking.
One had a head of curly hair. Abbie.
The other was Gwen.
Someone who actually knew Gwen Wentworth had to wait months to get on her calendar. What had Abbie said to gain a private meeting when they’d never met?
Hunter kept track of the figure in the tree that moved another branch higher. In a series of crab-shuffling steps, he moved close enough to listen to Abbie and Gwen. They sat on opposite sides of a small table facing each other.
Neither one looked happy.
â€œAre you threatening me?â€ Abbie asked Gwen.
What the hell had they been discussing? Hunter kept an eye on the figure in the tree. Paparazzi?
â€œNo. Not me.â€ Gwen’s fingers gripped the wicker chair arms so tight the fine bones on the back of her hand threatened to break the pale skin.
â€œI can’t tell you.â€
Abbie pointed a threatening finger at Gwen. â€œI told you what I would do. Did you think I was kidding?â€
â€œNo, I don’t. Ask your mother. If she tells you–â€ Gwen shook her head. Her fingers tugged nervously at her lips.
Keeping track of the conversation, Hunter eyed the figure in the tree that had stopped moving.
â€œShe did.â€ Abbie dropped her hand. â€œNot intentionally. I found my mother’s diary. I know the players and I’m going after all of them.â€
â€œAre you crazy?â€ Gwen asked with panic shaking her voice. â€œThe Fras will–â€
The Fras? That snatched Hunter’s gaze back to Gwen who froze and covered her mouth as if she’d said a forbidden word. Her chest jumped with panicked breaths.
Hunter took in the tree climber again who seemed to be leaning forward in a–
â€œThe who?â€ Abbie asked.
Gwen uncovered her mouth. â€œWhat? I thought…you don’t know? You said–â€ She jumped up, hands fisted.
A bright explosion of light burst from where the figure stood in the branches then the boom followed.
The bullet struck Gwen high in the back, slamming her forward at Abbie who screamed.
Hunter leaped over the stone wall.
Abbie’s wild gaze whipped around to him.
If he could get them to the ground the wall would block the shooter…
A second rifle explosion blasted the air.