Mac's Angels, page 4
“Mac, is he aware you sent Shadow?”
“He believes I sent Conner Preston.”
“You know Kilgore is saying that he hired Shadow to search for the treasures.”
“Yes. I checked with Sterling, who denied it. Interesting isn’t it?”
“But you think this is somehow connected to Berlin and Bart, don’t you?”
Mac hesitated for a long time before saying, “Maybe, but I haven’t found the link. Any ideas?”
“Not yet. You know Erica says she didn’t make it to the church ten years ago because she was kidnapped by Green Berets. Do you know anything about that?”
“No. I was told at the time that the incident was classified. The military claimed she needed money. Her bills were suddenly paid and though they could never prove it, they believed it was her payoff for setting up you and Bart. When she made no effort to reach you, there was no reason to question that conclusion.”
“Then how was she able to work for the ambassador? Didn’t she have to go through some kind of security clearance?”
There was a long silence. “Conner, she passed. The money was her own. What do you think of her story?”
“I think she’s a very convincing woman when she wants to be. Until I find some reason to believe otherwise, I’ll take the military’s explanation. I’m beginning to think she’s right about what is happening now. This is connected to that Sunday at the church.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Conner glanced over at the sleeping figure sprawled across the wine-colored blankets in front of the fire. “Yes, send snow.”
“Should I ask what that means, Conner.”
“No.” There was no way he could tell Mac that Erica’s house was a sexual oven and he was being broiled alive.
It was the mountain, he decided, and the fog that came and went, creating the eerie atmosphere around the gray granite structure that was the Fallon family home. He’d paced the room for hours, the thick carpet muffling the sound of his footsteps and leaving nothing but tension behind.
“So what are you going to do?” Mac asked, bringing Conner back to the present.
“I don’t know yet. But come morning, we’re leaving. Waiting is something I’ve never been good at. I think it’s time for Shadow to meet the players in this little charade.”
“I’m working on it, Mac. I’ll be in touch.”
Conner stood at the window looking out. As Shadow, Conner Preston had gone just about anywhere he wanted and accomplished what he set out to do. Trying to make sense out of this situation was like trying to catch smoke.
He was fooling himself. When that bullet shattered the window, just missing Erica, everything changed. He’d spent ten years holding first Erica, then himself responsible for Bart’s death. Now Erica was in danger and the hell of it was that he couldn’t walk away and let her die no matter what she’d done.
Conner sighed. When Brighton Kilgore had contacted Shadow to look into the sudden appearance of lost World War II art treasures on the black market, he’d turned him down, preferring to investigate on his own. That familiar feeling of danger had drawn him in.
As if some mastermind were orchestrating the event, the players had been pulled together; three from the past and three from the present. Though the ambassador was, from what Conner could deduce, an innocent party, Erica, Ernst, and Kilgore had all turned up on a committee charged with locating the looted treasures. Coincidental? Not likely. But why had Kilgore announced to the committee that he’d hired Shadow?
Conner was deliberately focusing on everyone involved—except Erica. He couldn’t avoid that any longer. What was her part in all this? Was she setting him up again?
Conner decided it was time Shadow and Brighton Kilgore had a little talk. The situation might prove a bit tricky since officially there was no connection between Shadow and Conner Preston. Anyone who dealt with Shadow could reach him only through a private number.
Now Conner would have to make personal contact with Kilgore. In the past he’d always made it a practice to avoid any contact with Shadow’s clients, prospective or otherwise, but this time he’d have to make an exception. He’d become the sophisticated playboy he was expected to be.
“Something wrong, Conner?”
Conner groaned. “I didn’t mean to wake you, Erica.”
“It’s hard to sleep while you’re pacing about like a caged lion. Why didn’t you tell me you had a phone?”
He thought about how she’d felt in his arms. “I was distracted.”
She let it pass. “Do you think Mac is trying to throw us together?”
So she’d heard his conversation. “Mac isn’t that subtle. He’d say so. He just wants to protect you.”
“What do you see out there?”
He didn’t turn. “Fog. How come I never knew about this place before?”
“It was part of my past, a past I tried very hard to get away from.”
“Why would you want to leave? I think I’d like it here,” he admitted. “It’s like a private world, sheltered from the outside.”
“When the snow is two feet deep, it’s really sheltered. When my parents were still alive, we called this place home but it was never really ours. We just passed through when my father was between ‘opportunities.’ There was a time when all I wanted to do was get away from all this history, tradition, and failure. Neither he nor I could ever live up to the family’s expectations. I felt smothered here.”
“Now I come here when I want to be alone.”
“I can’t imagine that you were ever considered a failure, Erica.”
“Well, I was. Growing up, I was plain and shy.”
Conner laughed. “I never saw that Erica.”
“I wanted to be an artist but I was told I had no talent. So I studied art history and pretended. I never finished college, never completed my art history project, never had a regular job.” She gave a bitter laugh. “Just like my father.”
“What happened to him?”
“He and Mother were in a car that drove off an embankment in the mountains of France. The result of another ‘adventure’ gone wrong.”
“But you could come here,” he said, almost adding, why didn’t you?
“Yes. I could come here. That’s what my father would have done.”
So much for safety. The Erica he knew would never hide. She’d do just what she was doing now, challenge life. “Tell me about the history and tradition,” he said.
“The tradition is that sooner or later all the Fallon women come here to live out their lives—alone.”
“That’s pretty depressing. What about the history?”
“That’s easier. Just down the street is the park where the Battle of Lookout Mountain was fought during the War Between the States. They say that sometimes, in the winter when the mist is thick, you can see the soldiers’ ghosts.”
“I can believe that,” he said. “Tonight I felt a shiver or two as I walked down the street.”
“As kids, we used to sit on the cannons and wait for the ghosts to appear. All we ever accomplished was scaring ourselves to death.”
“That’s not so hard to do.”
“I find it hard to believe that you are ever scared, Conner.”
“Believe it, lady. There are times I’m scared to death. This is one of them.”
Conner turned around. From the light of the fire she could see his bare feet. The first article of clothing Conner shed was always his shoes. At some point he’d unfastened his belt and unbuttoned his shirt.
For the last five minutes, through half-closed eyes she’d watched him pace, smiling at the picture of his tousled hair, his bare feet, and wrinkled clothes. No longer the immaculate executive who had appeared at her door, he looked as if he’d just climbed out of bed. There’d been a time when it was their bed he’d just climbed out of and the trousers had been regulation camouflage. She’d lov
Before he’d walked away from her.
Before he’d blamed her for Bart’s death.
Erica sat up and leaned toward the fire, her chin resting on her crossed arms. Absentmindedly she fingered the zipper in her jump suit, gasping when a strand of her hair inadvertently got caught.
Conner stepped forward before he thought. “Let me.” He pushed her fingertips away while he tugged at the metal tongue. But the more he moved the fastener down, the farther she had to lean to ease the pain and the closer she came to his bare chest.
By the time he worked the strand of hair free he’d exposed most of her breasts and the sound of his breathing was as uneven as her own.
“Thanks,” she said, and scooted away. “I’m sorry I brought you into this, Conner. I honestly wish I could do things over.”
“Honesty? Now, there’s a commodity in short supply.”
“And Shadow?” she snapped. “Does he deal in honesty?”
“Shadow does what he has to do. But you know that, don’t you? Why do you think Kilgore told the committee about Shadow? I would have thought he’d keep his nefarious little enterprises to himself.”
“I’m not sure. I had the feeling that it was a kind of threat. Either Mr. Ernst would come up with something, or his man would. Mr. Ernst asked who his man was and Kilgore said that he’d hired a mercenary known as Shadow.”
“What makes the committee think this isn’t just some kind of hoax? There’ve been rumors of Hitler’s secret vault of treasures for fifty years. But nobody has ever found it.”
“The art treasures are not a rumor, Conner. Brighton Kilgore owns one of them.”
“He does? Which one?”
“Before World War Two, two identical statues of the Virgin Mary flanked the altar of a small church in France. When the Germans invaded, the statues disappeared. Kilgore has one of them.”
That surprised Conner. Why would he say he’d hired Shadow to find the artworks if he already owned one of them?
“How would you feel about spending Christmas in New Orleans, Ms. Fallon?”
“If you’re looking for Santa, I think you’re a bit too far south.”
“I stopped believing in Santa Claus a long time ago. No, we’re going to call on my old friend Brighton Kilgore.”
“We? Won’t he think it odd that you and I are together?”
“Maybe, and maybe not.”
“In the meantime, I’ll let you keep watch while I grab a few winks. My guess is our shooter is gone, but I’ve been wrong before.”
Erica walked to the window and looked out. Faint patches of light smudged the fog in the eastern sky. “When are we leaving?”
“When does the first train run down the mountain?”
Instead of driving to the Chattanooga airport, Conner headed for Atlanta, an hour and a half away. The schedule was better and if the local airport were being watched, their destination would remain secret, at least for a while.
Conner turned in his rental car and bought the last two first class tickets to New Orleans on the next flight.
“I haven’t been to New Orleans in years, but I’ve been told that you can’t find rooms without a reservation,” Erica said, “certainly not the week before Christmas.”
“Not rooms. A suite. And I keep one at the Claridge.”
“Because I never know when I’ll be in town. I also have an office there.”
Erica knew about the Claridge. Housing both offices and living quarters only the very wealthy could afford, the classic building was located at the edge of the French Quarter, overlooking the river.
Erica began to understand how very successful Conner Preston had become. The brash, swaggering young soldier had been replaced by a sophisticated mercenary in a cashmere suit and Italian shoes. Along with the new facade came the deadly surety that Conner would set the rules of their relationship and she would have no choice but to follow them—if she wanted his help.
And she did. She needed Shadow. She wanted Conner.
Erica watched the Atlanta skyscrapers turn into tiny playing pieces on a gameboard as the airplane moved through the clouds and gained altitude. At least it wouldn’t be as cold in New Orleans as it had been in Tennessee.
Cold. As the sun caught the edges of the clouds, they looked like they were brushed with ice. The illusion took her back to the day the ambassador was wounded. Snow had been blowing into their eyes as she and Ambassador Collins had stepped out of New York’s Waldorf hotel onto Park Avenue. Christmas shoppers and departing office workers had quickly surrounded them.
When the man in the ski mask appeared beside them, Erica hadn’t noticed he had a gun. Not until he’d aimed it at her, then the ambassador, and fired. Only Erica had heard his warning as he leaned against her and then vanished into the crowd. “Give them the book or you’ll be next.”
The ambassador was an old man and he’d been good to her. It wasn’t right that he should suffer because somebody wanted to get her attention.
But it had worked. Now it was up to her not to let that attention wander. Because of that warning, Conner Preston had finally come to her, but it was too late for them. He obviously had no feelings for her—except for his openly declared lust, and they’d put that temptation behind them.
“Does Brighton Kilgore know you’re Shadow?” she asked.
“No. He’s an art buyer and Conner Preston is in the import-export business. We’ve crossed paths before both socially and professionally.”
Erica continued to look out the window. “I’m confused. Tell me. How do you keep Shadow and Conner separate? How does one go about employing Shadow without working through Conner Preston.”
“He calls a private number and reaches an answering machine. He leaves a message. Sterling follows up on the call and works out the details. If she determines the matter is something Shadow should look into, then he makes contact, by phone only.”
“And where does one get that number?”
“Only from someone who has contracted with Shadow in the past. But Shadow turns down a hundred assignments for every one he accepts.”
Erica turned her attention from the sunlight beyond the window to Conner, She’d scooted to the corner of her seat so that they didn’t touch. But it hadn’t helped. They were still too close. They may have addressed the question of lust, but its promise was still there.
“And what made you reject Mr. Kilgore as a client?”
“Shadow doesn’t deal in illegal activities for personal profit.”
“What do you expect to accomplish in New Orleans?”
“You know Kilgore lives in New Orleans. I expect to wrangle an invitation to one of his famous Christmas celebrations at his River Road plantation. I want to see the statue for myself.”
“Why is it important that you see it?”
“It isn’t. I intend to learn where it came from.”
“I see. And how will you explain me?”
“You have it wrong, Dragon Lady. You know Kilgore. You’ll explain me.”
“And how do I do that?”
He thought about that for a moment. “That’s simple, Erica. We were once engaged to be married. I suspect Kilgore knows that. We met again in New York when I attended a party in honor of the new United Nations director of trade. We’ve since rekindled our relationship.”
Erica gasped. She and the ambassador had attended. Brighton Kilgore had attended, but she hadn’t seen Conner. “Were you really there?”
“Briefly. I had to leave.”
“I didn’t see you.”
But he’d seen her. From a distance, and even that was too close. Through the years he’d managed to avoid all contact with her—until the ambassador was reassigned to the States. Since then it had become more difficult. He always knew where Erica was—but that time somebody had messed up.
Conner had stepped quickly behind a bronze statue. For just a moment he’d thought she’d seen him. Then, as if perplexed, she shook her head, laughed gaily, and turned back to the guest. Always the dedicated employee, Erica had moved from one group to the next, charming them with her smile and attention and that way she had of physically touching them.
Just as she’d once done to Bart and later, more intimately, to Conner. She was shy, but she knew how to use her body, how to convey a sense of innocence and charm. Every man there wanted her and was convinced that she had special feelings for them.
Before he could do something that would destroy everything he’d built, Conner had turned and left.
Erica Fallon was a fake and a liar. He’d known that then, and now as he studied her he knew how very good she was. The promise of intimacy was still there, not offered, but implied. He didn’t believe for one minute that her pushing him away in the office back in Tennessee was anything more than a ploy to keep him interested.
For now he’d go along with that. For now he’d work with her. But he intended to make her pay for her sins. He’d use the lust she didn’t want to acknowledge to make her want him every day for the rest of her life. Like he wanted her.
She thought the past was connected to the present. She didn’t know how right she was.
“That was a pretty small bag you brought on board, so I assume you aren’t prepared for the kind of socializing I expect us to do.” Conner let his seat back and closed his eyes. “Make a list of what you’ll need, Erica. It’s important that Conner Preston and Erica Fallon take New Orleans by storm.”
“I know you’re accustomed to acting alone, but I would be less likely to foil your plans if I had some idea of what you have in mind.”
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