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It was a world Bailey hadn't expected to ever enter again. She had left home fourteen years before vowing she would never return. After her parents deaths six years ago, there had never been a reason to return.
She stood beneath expensive crystal chandaliers, outfitted in a brilliant emerald designer dress and high heels, with emeralds and diamonds at her throat and ears. Diamond pins held her hair in place and a single emerald ring graced her hand as she lifted a champagne flute to her lips to sip.
Not cheap champagne here. This was best, some of the best that she had ever sipped in her life. Perhaps better than her own coming out ball when she had turned sixteen, and her father had definitely splurged on that.
She stared around the ballroom, let the orchestra's music drift around her, and pretended it was just another assignment. That she was still with the CIA, that the op she was on was blessed by its director and that backup would be waiting if shit hit the fan.
She knew better. In this world there was no back up. There was just Bailey Serborne, the Serborne heiress. The prodigal daughter without a family to welcome her back into the fold. There were only the enemies that surrounded here.
"Bailey, how good to see you again." She lifted her cheek with a smile and allowed yet another vapid smile to cross her lips as a kiss was brushed against her cheek.
Janice Waterstone. She was in her sixties and she still looked forty. Plastic surgery and cosmetics could accomplish miracles.
Janice was one in a long line of welcoming elite that was in attendance at the Serborne mansion that Bailey had opened two months before.
She'd returned home, supposedly with her tail tucked between her legs, her pride smarting from her dismissal from the agency. And the dismissal was nothing more than the truth, she could still hear her director screaming at her in his office. Milburn Rushmore's face had been neon red, flushed and perspiring he'd been so pissed at her.
"It's good to see you again, Janice." The smile was as patently false as the other woman's.
Janice was no more happy to see her here than Bailey was to be here. It was the social lie that mattered though, the persona, the façade presented to the world.
The Serborne fortune was one of the twelve largest in the world. In more than three hundred years it had never dwindled, it had always grown. And her family had always remained in the top tier of the social elite. The cream of the crop so to speak. American royalty.
She stared around the ballroom, remembering her mother's balls here. The exquisite parties, the months of planning that had gone into them. Angelina Serborne had been an exacting hostess. Her parties were always enjoyed, and invitations were always envied.
"You have quite a crowd here," Janice looked around with a smug smile. "I believe I even saw Sheik AbdulRhamadin and his bodyguard. Not to mention several of this years hottest actors."
"Every invitation was accepted." Bailey shrugged her bare shoulders.
"Of course they were." Janice blinked back at her. "A Serborne invitation hasn't been issued in six years. No one was going to miss this party, even if it was such short notice."
In other words, it hadn't been planned a year in advance.
"I'm home. I wanted to remember the good times," she stated simply. "Mother loved the parties."
Janice paused at the mention of Angelina then finally nodded as though her thoughts were pleasant for a change.
"Angelina and I used to plan her parties together," Janice sighed. "I've missed her."
Bailey finished her champagne. It was instantly snagged by a waiter and replaced with another.
"Excuse me Janice, I see someone I need to talk to," Bailey excused herself before making her way across to the room to her nemesis.
Some men were so power hungry that they would do anything to achieve the position they sought. One of those men was Raymond Greer, a former CIA overseas operative.
Raymond had managed to slide into the Elite by the way of marriage to one Mary Grace Altman, a widow that he'd met while on a European cruise while undercover. Bailey wondered if Mary was aware that at one time, she was the former agents mark.
Raymond stood an easy six four, but he lacked the breadth and the muscle that would have made his height attractive. His face was shaped rather like a weasels, and she could honestly say she had never seen a real smile cross his lips.
"Hello Raymond, I'm glad you could make it." She stepped up to the former agent and continued softly. "You've done very well for yourself."
"Not all of us are born into wealth." His smile was tight, almost angry as he spoke back just as softly. "Some of us definitely have to work for our retirement."
Bailey's brows arched as she glanced several feet from where they stood to Raymond's delicate wife.
Mary was one of the sweetest people Bailey knew, and one of the few who understood the word sincerity. She was a sister to one of the men that Bailey hated most in the world, and the aunt to the girl that had once been Bailey's dearest friend.
"Some things should never be considered work," she stated softly as she turned back to him.
He glared back at her.
"Really Raymond, I'm your hostess, don't you know you're supposed to kiss my ass." She brought her glass to her lips to hide her own gloating smile. "You're letting your roots show my friend. That's considered impolite."
"What do you want?" He ran a hand over his balding brown hair and his hazel eyes flickered back to her in dislike.
Bailey shrugged at his question. "Really Raymond, we should be friends. We've come from the same world in some ways. The same dangers. We could trade war stories."
Not in this lifetime and she knew it. Raymond despised her for her birth, just as she despised him for his arrogance. But that arrogance had been an inborn trait of his. He was finally where he had felt he had belonged all along. It didn't matter how he'd had to lie, cheat, and perhaps even kill to get here.
Raymond's gaze narrowed on her at her suggestion. "Funny, you were never interested in discussing anything with me before."
She smiled at that. "And I'm not now, but there's no sense in being enemies Raymond. We're both a part of this society; we'll see each other often. We should make the best of it."
"You're not interested in returning to the agency then?" he asked her, a hint of calculating in his voice and in his gaze.
It was a question she had been asked several times over the past weeks since returning home.
"You don't have to insult me," she informed him coldly. "I think we're both aware that's never going to happen."
Let him get his strikes in, for now. She could handle them now as she had never been able to before.
"Because you were fired." He smiled in gloating satisfaction.
Bailey gave a low, light laugh. "I quit. Rushmore just felt he should fire me in retaliation. Haven't you heard? He didn't like having someone on his team that didn't believe he had a direct line to God."
Raymond's brow arched at that. She was repeating his own insults concerning Rushmore.
"Figured that out, did you?" He asked smugly. "I did warn you Bailey. Rushmore believes he's above the rest of us. One of these days someone should put him in his place."
"Six feet under," she muttered before directing another tight smile in his direction. "If you'll excuse me now, Raymond, I need to mingle a bit more. We should talk more later though."
She moved away from him but glanced back at him, giving him the impression that she was considering more than a bullet through his head.
She was home. She was back in the bosom of society, a very elite society that had in recent decades become a law unto itself. Unfortunately, they didn't police themselves very well and considered themselves so far above the laws that governed others that one or more of them had begun stepping into international terrorism. And murder.
As she greeted her guests and sipped at her champagne the image of her parents flashed through her mind. Ben and Angelina Serborne had been gracious, enduring. Her mother had smiled with genuine amusement or fondness, her father had had a deep belly laugh that never failed to make others laugh in turn.
And her father had been a patriot. A man dedicated to his country and its freedoms. It was a dedicated she suspected might well have ended in his death.
She should have returned sooner, she thought as she stared around the ballroom, took in the bright colors of the evening dresses, the dark tuxedo's. This was Aspen's winter finest, and mixed with them were six families that were part of a very elite group of powerful men. The richest of the rich. The most powerful. The most corrupt. She should have returned years ago and learned the secrets she was only now beginning to realize.
There were reasons why she had left home at eighteen. Reasons why she had turned her back on a fortune that would take four lifetimes to even put a dent in. Reasons why she had walked away from her parents and everything she had ever known in her life.
There were reasons why she was back now. Was of those reasons was to find the man responsible for the death of her parents. The man who had paid an international assassin known as Orion, to kill them.
She couldn't ask Orion himself, he was dead. Taken out by an unknown group of soldiers or agents and killed in his bed. A shadowy force that didn't even have a name. The same group that had kidnapped her in Atlanta.
Word in the underground was that the force that had taken out Orion were ghosts. Men that no one could identify, a team that no one could draw information on.
The thought sent a chill up her back as she forced it back and away from her. She'd walked away from Orion, knowing even as she fought the knowledge, that she didn't have a chance of taking him on her own. She would never get the information she needed without returning here, she just hadn't expected exactly what she had found once she came home.
"John Vincent. What the hell are you doing in Aspen?"
Bailey swung around at the male exclamation. Ian Richards and his wife Kira were in Aspen for vacation, the ex Navy SEAL had married one of the nation's most sought after heiress', Kira Porter, giving him entrée into some of the most exclusive parties.
And there, shaking hands with the burly ex SEAL was John Vincent. Every background check she had done on him had shown him as shady in his dealings as well as his business. He was a suspected hardware, information and arms broker to terrorists and drug cartels. A middle man that ensured a smooth and honest transaction among thieves. It was only fitting that he would know Richards with that cover. Ian Richards was also the son of one of the most notorious drug cartel rulers to exist, until he had been killed several years before.
Ian was accepted here because he was a SEAL, because drugs were as prevalent as the champagne that flowed like water and his wife was one very rich heiress.
"It's been too long John." Kira was accepting a kiss on her cheek from lips that Bailey dreamed about much too often. "Where have you been hiding?"
Bailey watched as John's head lifted, glimpsed his laughing gray eyes and ate every detail with her senses. The strong slope of his brow, the bridge of his nose, those kissable lips and broad cheekbones. Sun bronzed flesh stretched over the broad planes and angles of his face as a dark overnight growth of beard shadowed his jaw.
He looked like a pirate. Like a man that took what he wanted and laughed at the opposition. He looked like exactly what he was supposed to be. Dangerously charming.
"Bailey, there you are." Ian turned his head to her, a smile lighting his handsome features as she moved toward them. "Come meet a friend of mine."
Meet a friend of his. Ian had been part of the Atlanta operation, though Bailey had glimpsed him only once or twice in the operation itself. Kira had been there as well, but Bailey had always suspected that the other woman was much more than she had ever presented herself as being.
"Ian." She accepted his hand as she drew closer. "I'm so glad you and Kira could make it tonight."
"We wouldn't miss it." He grinned as he turned back to John. "I'd like you'd to meet a friend of mine." The introduction was done smoothly, casually, but Bailey could feel the hairs on the back of her neck rising in alarm.
She was being watched, closely. Someone was much too interested in this meeting.
"Mr. Vincent." Her gaze was held by his as he took her hand and brought it smoothly to his lips.
A chill raced up her spine to explode at the back of her neck as electricity seemed to charge her entire body. She could feel her breasts swelling as his lips touched the sensitive flesh over her knuckles and brushed against them. Her nipples were hard, sensitive and between her thighs she was growing heated, wet.
"Miss Serborne," he murmured as he lowered her hand. "It's definitely a pleasure to meet you."
She bet it was.
A smile curled her lips as she felt adrenaline pierce the haze of dark emotionlessness that had held her in its grip for too many weeks now. Suddenly she felt alive, she felt dangerous, she felt a thrill racing through her body that she couldn't control.
"The pleasure is all mine," she assured him, and it was. He was here for a reason, an operation. He was here, and she was laying money on the fact, to interfere in what she had begun just as he and his team had interfered in Atlanta.
She was playing on her home ground now. No one was taking this from her, least of all a man that had already stolen the pleasure of Orion's death.
"Ian, you didn't tell me the scenery here was this exceptional," John murmured aside to his friend as he kept his gaze on hers. "I would have visited sooner."
"The scenery only acquired certain additions recently," Ian assured him.
Bailey kept her smile pleasant as she glanced at Ian and his wife. "Ian's being overly kind," she stated lightly. "So tell me Mr. Vincent, are you here for business or pleasure?"
"Well, I'm a business man." He grinned. "I like to combine the two whenever possible, but at the moment, it's definitely pleasure."
It was definitely an operation. For a second, regret shimmered inside her before she pushed it back, ignoring it. She was nothing to him, and he was nothing to her evidently. She had to remember that, to remember anything else only threatened her control.
Her suspicions couldn't be proved, no matter the time and effort she had put into that investigation. It was wishful thinking she continued to assure herself. She'd lost the man she loved and now she wanted nothing more than to find a way to bring him back. There was no bringing back the dead.
"Would you like to dance?" Still retaining her hand he stepped back from Ian and Kira.
Bailey allowed him to draw her onto the dance floor, holding her silence until she was in his arms, their bodies moving together to the slow, easy strains of the orchestra.
"What are you doing here?" She kept her lips against his shoulder to hide the words, her voice low enough that only he could hear her.
"We need to talk." He didn't answer her question, but she hadn't really expected him to.
"Too bad." She luxuriated in the feel of his body against hers, even with the clothing that separated them. There was something about him that she couldn't ignore, couldn't forget. Something that drew her like a moth to a flame. It was a very dangerous position to be in.
"Come on Bailey." His lips brushed against her ear. "Just a few minutes of your time. I promise, you won't regret it." His hand stroked from her hip up, along her back, then back again.
"I regret meeting you to begin with," she told him softly, noting the tension that tightened his body. "Why would tonight be any different?"
His hand tightened at her hip. "You never know, I could surprise you."
She almost laughed at that statement. There was no surprise in store for her. The best he could do was manage to amaze her with the delivery of whatever he wanted from her. She had no doubt why he was here.
"You're on my turf now," she warned him. "I doubt there's anything that you could do here that would surprise me, John."
She surprised herself sometimes though. Now was one of those times. She was amazed at her reaction to him, at the excitement that filled her. He had taken the prize from her hands last time, and he was no doubt determined to do the same thing this time.
"It's important Bailey," he told her. "We need to talk, after the party."
"After the party I'm going to be incredibly tired." The song drew to a close as she stepped back from his hold. "Maybe later. Leave your number with the door man, I'm sure he'll make certain I get it."
He didn't let her go. Catching her arm he drew her from the dance floor and to the wide double doors leaving from the ballroom.
She had a feeling he wouldn't let this go so easily.
"Mr. Vincent, I can't leave my own party," she protested with feigned lightness, her temper was beginning to burn though.
"Just for a moment, Miss Serborne," he promised as they passed the wide doors and he headed unerringly to the back of the house.
Their progress was being noted. The tingling at the base of her spine was building, assuring her that whoever had been watching her for most of the night still had their eyes on her. She'd tried to pinpoint the sensation all evening and had yet to assign it to one particular guest.
Whoever it was, they were good, better than she would have expected considering the people she knew she was dealing with. Of course, they had been skating by for years now, they would have grown adapt at hiding, she assured herself as John drew her straight to her own personal office.
The door had been locked earlier, it wasn't locked now. Her brows arched as he opened the door and drew her inside before closing and locking it.
"Thank you for making such a spectacle of me." She rounded him furiously then. "You dragged me through my own party like a disobedient pet."
"And you were growling at me every step of the way," he glowered back at her. "What part of, we need to talk, didn't you want to understand?"
"The needing to talk part?" She opened her eyes wide in false amazement. "Did you somehow manage to misunderstand me?"
She crossed her arms over her breasts as she lifted her brow in curiosity. "You don't take ‘no' for an answer at all well, do you Mr. Vincent?"
His lips twitched in amusement. Now, didn't it just make her day to know she amused him in some small part?
"I must admit, I have problems with that word," he finally admitted. "Perhaps my mother said it too often when I was a child."
She gave a short little snort at that. She doubted any woman had ever told him no.
"So what was so important that you felt the need to make a spectacle of me at my own party?" She questioned him coldly. "I hope it's a matter of life or death, because really, there could be no other excuse for it."
His brow lifted. The dark blond color against his sun bronzed flesh was incredibly alluring. He could have been a fallen angel, too ruggedly handsome for words, and too charming for his own good.
"You play the part of the society princess very well," he mused. "I wouldn't have expected it of you."
She gave a little shrug of her bare shoulders. "You could say it's in the blood," she retorted mockingly.
At least, that was what her mother had always assured her. That she had the blood of American royalty running through her veins and she should always remember it. There hadn't been a single member of her mother or her father's family that hadn't married well, that hadn't married into true blood, if not blue blood.
"It's easy to forget when you're trussed up, blind folded and gagged," he murmured with a wealth of amusement now. "The society princess gets pushed behind by the gutter fighter then." He rubbed at his jaw where she had managed to head butt him months before in Atlanta.
"Back any animal into a corner and its going to come out biting," she promised him. "Now, are you going to tell me what the hell you want or do I have to start guessing? I really don't have time to guess, John."
His lips pursed thoughtfully. "You're still pissed over Atlanta, aren't you?"
"Now why would I be pissed over Atlanta?" She asked him. "You just kidnapped me and nearly drugged me. You were directly responsible for my release from the agency and you refused to help me in any way while I was there. So what reason would I have to be pissed?"
John nodded. "As I assumed, you really have no reason not to help me then." His grin was confident and way too arrogant.
"And you live in a dream world that I can only envy, big boy, someone should be kind and awaken you."
His eyes narrowed. "We have a situation, Bailey, a very delicate one."
"Sucks to be you." She wasn't about to admit that she was blazingly curious about his ‘situation'. No doubt, knowing him, the men he worked with and Wilburn Rushmore, she could count on the fact that they wanted nothing more than to use her. Forget working with her, or her working with them. It just didn't work that way.
"You like pushing don't you?" He asked softly, dangerously.
"I like wasting my time as well," she informed him haughtily. "Now why don't you get the hell out of my way and let me get back to my party. I was rather enjoying it before you decided to intrude."
She moved to grip the doorknob and slide the lock open when he shifted, turned and before she knew it she found herself with her back against the panel, his large body pressing against hers, heating it further.
A sharp breath exhaled from Bailey's lungs at the sensation of suddenly being flush against him, almost surrounded by him. It had obviously been too long since a man had touched her, too long since she had felt the warmth and hard thickness of an erection pressing against her, because her senses were rioting with it.
Bailey felt her knees weakening, she felt her heart racing, her breath coming hard and fast.
God she wanted him. As though she knew him, as though suspicion were indeed fact rather than wishful thinking.
"Don't do this," she whispered, her hands pressing against his chest as his head lowered, his lips coming much too close to hers.
"Don't kiss you?" His lips quirked with sexy humor and dangerous intent. "Afraid you might change your mind, Bailey?"
"You like messing with my head," she accused him. "If you think you can use my body against me John then you better think again. It's not going to happen."
The hard growl that left his lips was the only warning she had before his lips were covering hers and reality began recede. Wicked, driving hunger rose to the forefront of her senses, a starving need for touch that she couldn't fight against, that her body had no desire to fight against.
Need and knowledge warred inside her mind now. The need for this kiss that she couldn't seem to get enough of, and the knowledge that he was going to do exactly what she had sworn she wasn't going to allow him to do. He was going to use her body against her. He was going to make her hungrier, he was going to fill her senses with him and sap the strength to fight from her.
She'd known in that warehouse two months ago that he was dangerous for her. She had known that her best course of action for her sanity and her heart was to stay as far away from him possible.
She'd run as far as she could run, and here he was, exactly where he shouldn't be.
Her arms twined around his neck as his hand gripped her hips then slowly slid to her thighs as he pressed a knee between them. The hard muscle of his upper leg rode against the mound of her pussy, stroking the swollen bud of her clit as she fought for breath. Her hands speared into the overly long strands of dark blond hair and she held on for dear life as her hips writhed against his leg.
The friction against that most sensitive part of her body was overwhelming. Lust clamored inside her brain, the need for sex drove sharpened spikes of sensation racing over her nerve endings straight to her sex.
Her tongue rubbed against his, fought for dominancy in the kiss and finally conceded as he wrapped his fingers around the mound of a breast.
Bailey froze, her breath stilling in her throat as his thumb stroked over her nipple. She could feel the rioting pleasure rising inside her. She wanted to tear the material of her dress out of the way, she wanted bare flesh to meet bare flesh.
In the arms of a stranger.
God, she had lost her mind. She had lost what little control she still had of herself and finding it again seemed a lost cause.
He may be some super secret agent. It could all be a game. He could be just as his background assured her he was, a killer, a terrorist, a monster. And here she was surrendering to him without a shred of certainty either way.
She was so desperate for the past that she was creating her own fantasy, and she knew just how dangerous that was.
She tore herself from his arms, stumbling away from him as she covered her lips with the back of her hand and stared back at him in horror.
He even kissed like Trent. Just like Trent. With the same voracious hunger, the same lustful intent.
"Get out!" She panted desperately. "Get out of my home before I have you thrown out."
He looked as shell shocked as she felt. Staring back at her, his gray eyes thunderous, his lips swollen from her kiss, he looked as though the pleasure had punched him just as hard as it had her.
"This isn't over," he warned her. "We will talk, Bailey."
"When hell freezes over," she snapped, furious with herself as well as him.
His lips thinned. "Invest in plenty of heat then," he warned her. "Because it's coming. And it's coming fast baby."
He jerked the door open and stalked out. Every line of his body was tense and hard, projecting the furious lust that practically sizzled off his body as he stalked down the hall and back to the front of the house.
Bailey followed behind him, her heels snapping against the marble floor as she silently cursed him, as well as herself.
She'd be damned if she was going to allow him to manipulate her or to destroy what she was working on here. She knew his kind. He would take over, he would insist on dominance and she had no intentions of allowing anyone to dominate her at this point.
He was too much like Trent. She had loved Trent, ached for him after his death, but she had always known that eventually they would clash.
Stepping into the foyer she watched as he stalked past the open doors as the doormen pulled the open for him. One hand pressed to her stomach, the other hanging at her side, she fought to find her equilibrium once again.
Breathing in deeply she licked her lips then looked around, only to find her gaze caught and held by Raymond Greer's. Her head lifted as her lips tightened. Just what she needed, for the bastard to see a weakness in her.
He was watching her like a beady eyed cobra waiting to strike. Calculating, manipulating.
She nodded toward him sharply before moving quickly back to the ballroom and the party she had organized so painstakingly. She was on a deadline. She didn't have time to be drawn into John Vincent's games. She didn't have time to allow her heart to be broken again.