Authors: Nichole Christoff
Katie had curled up in the corner of the sofa. She was typing on her cell phone as fast as her thumbs could fly. And concentrating on the message she was writing as if her life depended on sending it.
“Did you hear from your sister?” I asked.
Katie nearly dropped the device.
“What? No. My sister'sâ¦tied up.”
She tossed her smartphone to the far end of the sofa, hugged her knees to her chest.
She was worried. And she couldn't hide it.
She said, “Ikaat's trying to get some rest.”
“We should do the same. We're not leaving tonight, but that's all I can say for sure.”
She nodded, huffed out a sigh. I thought maybe the top line of her shoulders relaxed. Until a sharp knock on the suite's door had us both jumping out of our socks.
I pressed my eye to the peephole. In the hall, a pimply chap in a Harry Styles haircut and the uniform of the hotel staff stood opposite me. He looked harmless enough.
But looks, as I knew too well, could be deceiving.
I opened the doorâbut only as far as the safety chain would allow. “Yes?”
I didn't like how this guy knew Katie's name. After all, I'd registered under Sternwood. Staff at our door had no business asking for a deMarco, Katie or otherwise.
I was about to tell the fellow to buzz off when Katie piped up.
Katie joined me at the door.
To Katie, the young man said, “You forgot your pen, madam, in the restaurant.”
And there it was, in the palm of his white-gloved hand. It was a fat thingâlike a high-end fountain penâand its barrel blurred the lines between black and white thanks to some kind of marbleized finish. Its cap was screwed on tight, but judging by what I saw of the rest of the instrument, I was willing to believe the nib beneath could've rivaled a Roman soldier's spear.
For a long second, Katie only stared at it.
“You left this behind, madam, when you signed your chit.”
It was good of him to return it to her. Pens like this one could range into the hundreds of dollars. Katie blinked at hers as if it were made of solid gold.
Wordlessly, she accepted it from the young man's hand.
I dug in my pocket for a tip, but the chap retreated before I could offer him one. I bolted the door behind him. Carrying the pen before her like it was some kind of flashlight, Katie mumbled good night, said she was exhausted, and retreated to her room.
I could relate to that feeling, at least. After my frustrating conversation with Roger, all I wanted to do was barricade myself in mine. But my room, I suddenly remembered, was already occupied.
I found Barrett asleep in my bed. His trousers lay on the floor with the rest of his clothes and the air was sweet with the mist of his shower. Judging by the detritus on the nightstand, he'd raided the minibar, tooâand self-medicated with what would've been my drugs of choice: scotch and Toblerone.
Was it any wonder I was drawn to this man?
For a long moment, I watched him sleep while I debated calling the house physician. Barrett could be in shock. He could be in pain. He could be in danger of never waking up. But his breathing came nice and easy, not sharp and labored. So I decided to let him rest. For the time being.
In the meantime, I had other things to do.
Like worry about my conversation with Roger.
Somehow, I felt he and I had been speaking two different languages. And I hadn't enjoyed the experience. Roger had dodged my concerns for Ikaat and Armand on purposeâand my father was dodging me altogether.
If my father gave me the cold shoulder, I wasn't sure what it would mean for the Oujdads. I wasn't even sure what it would mean for me. Most troubling of all, I wasn't sure what it would mean for Barrett, caught between the laws of our country and Britain's.
It was this troubling thought that had me grabbing Barrett's clothes, taking them into the bathroom, and locking the door behind me. I picked through his pockets, looking for anything that linked him to Armand Oujdad's hideout or to the thugs who'd lured him into that attic. I found nothing.
Frustrated, I took a steaming shower, scrubbing my skin until I washed away the stench of burning building and the weariness of the endless day. Feeling almost human again, I pulled on a complimentary bathrobe, embroidered with the Rabbit's Revenge crest. Wrapped in warm, white Turkish terry, I went to check on Barrett.
He was still sound asleep.
So I got busy searching the room.
Why? Simple. Barrett's pockets had been too empty. Any man-about-town would have keys on him, loose change, or an Oyster fare card to ride the Underground. Barrett, however, hadn't even been carrying a wallet.
Of course, it was possible that the thugs who'd beaten him to a bloody pulp had stolen these things from him. But it was just as likely Barrett had hidden them. From his attackers, naturally.
Or from me?
The bottom line was that Barrett was a soldier. And soldiers lost in enemy territory have been known to “sanitize” their appearance. The term is an old one. It comes from our flyboys and doughboys who stripped their uniforms of name tapes, rank, or unit insignia when they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong timeâsuch as behind enemy lines. Anything that could've given a foe tactical information about nearby forces, an ongoing mission, or our plans and positions was destroyedâor concealed.
And it was this thought that propelled me across the room.
I began my hunt with the bureau drawers. I searched in them, under them, behind them. I found nothing.
I moved on to the desk. It yielded no surprises. Not in its drawer, not under its blotter, and not among the pages of its menu and magazines.
I decided to get creative. I peeled the rich, green felt from the underside of the desk lamp. I dismantled the telephone base. Nope.
In the closet, I pried up the carpet. I shook out the folds of the spare blanket. I slipped the cover off the ironing board.
I turned my attention to the fainting couch at the foot of the bed. It was a dreamy thing upholstered in tassels and lavender brocade that swept up and over its single arm like meringue on a tea cake. The romance of it belonged in another time and place.
But since it was here, now, would it make an ideal hiding place?
I glanced up to find Barrett watching me, his chocolate eyes full of heat and a hint of darkness. He'd shoved the sheets to his naked waist. And tucked a muscled arm behind his head.
He patted the comforter beside him. “Come to bed.”
I didn't like how he'd caught me searching the room. And I hated how he'd issued his invitation. Just before I examined the chaise.
“You're not exactly in a position to give orders, Lieutenant Colonel Barrett.”
“Yes, ma'am. Please, ma'am. Come to bed.”
I drew a breath to tell him no. He needed to rest. And I needed to keep my distance from him.
But after a long moment, I did as he said.
When I sank onto the bed's duvet, it was as soft and fresh as a snowflake. I didn't dare slip beneath it, though. Barrett, I was certain, didn't have a stitch of clothing on beneath these sheets and I wore nothing under my robe. While he was in no condition for fun and games in the middle of the nightâand I was in no mood to get tangled up with a man who offered more questions than answersâI wasn't sure I'd remember that in the empty hours before dawn. So I stuck to the near side of the bed.
Barrett held out his hand to me. “You won't hurt me. I promise.”
With some effort, Barrett gathered me to him.
“When you found me in that attic,” he said, “I thought I was dreaming.”
“That wasn't a dream.” Without invitation, the memory of the flames leapt at me. I could smell the stench of the kerosene. And feel the raw wound of my own fear. “That was a nightmare.”
Barrett tried to laugh, but the sound morphed into a sigh. He smelled like citrus and sunshine and in the cold, damp London night, the scent of him made my heart stutter. So I closed my eyes. And pictured Barrett on Philip's video. Blowing Dalmatovis away.
“Barrett, why were you in that attic? Who were the men who beat you?”
“Doesn't matter now.”
“Of course it matters! For God's sake, they almost killed you.”
“Yeah”âBarrett yawned so hard his jaw crackedâ“but they didn't.”
He laid his cheek against my hair and I could feel his cocky smile through the crown of my head. If he hadn't been so battered, I would've poked him in the ribs. He might not have felt it, though. Against my body, his had relaxed. He was slipping toward sleep, but there was still so much I needed to know.
“Barrett, what are you doing here in London?”
“London. Who asked you to fly to London?”
He mumbled something I couldn't make out.
And with that, Barrett dozed off to sleep like the dead.
The next thing I knew, insistent rays from a morning sun were poking through the heavy drapes at the windows. I woke slowly, feeling warm and cozy under the duvet. It was as soft as a swan's breast and Barrett, my groggy mind figured, must've tucked the thing around me during the night.
The name catapulted me from sleep. I twisted toward his side of the bed, but it was empty. He was gone.
I kicked off the covers, snatched my glasses from the nightstand, and jumped to my feet. The bedroom door was ajar. I rushed through it, burst into the sitting room.
And blundered into the middle of a tea party.
“Jamie,” Ikaat said, looking up and smiling. “Good morning. Would you like a cup of English Breakfast?”
I nodded automatically, tried to get my brain to switch gears.
Ikaat sat in a tufted armchair, a silver teapot in her right hand and a delicate china cup in the other. One of those linen-draped room-service trolleys that convert to a small dining table was parked in front of her. Polished domes dotted its surface. I didn't need to be a detective to know what was underneath them. The heavenly scent of crisp bacon, fresh croissants, and strawberry jam reminded me I was starving.
Likewise, Ikaat's outfit told me she'd gone shopping at some point in the hotel boutique. She was perfectly put together in chocolate slacks, a camel sweater, and her brown hijab. She even wore a hint of peach lip gloss. It shimmered against her tanned skin and brought out a golden sparkle in her dark eyes.
But maybe that was wariness.
She exchanged a shy smile with Katie, who sat on the sofa opposite her. Katie, too, was dressed to impress in a gray cowl-neck that showed off the black pearls at her throat. By comparison, I felt decidedly frumpy. My bathrobe was as rumpled as if I'd slept in it. And that was because I had.
Of course, I hadn't slept alone. And both Katie and Ikaat clearly knew it. Their smiles said as much.
And so did the fact that Barrett was sitting on the other end of Katie's sofa.
He stood the way a gentleman does when a lady enters the room, so it was hard to pretend he wasn't wearing anything more than the bathrobe that matched mine. For the first time, it dawned on me that maybe he made a regular pastime out of rolling out of bed to have breakfast with women he'd just met. After all, he'd been divorced for a couple of yearsâand Barrett wasn't the kind of man who had to do without female company.
“We found your friend,” Katie explained, “when a bellhop came for his laundry.”
“He seems to be traveling lightly,” Ikaat added, “with only the clothes on his back.”
This statement got the stilted smiles started all over again.
I supposed they thought Barrett had been in a pretty big hurry to get to Rabbit's Revenge. And into my bed. After he'd shot a man to death in front of us on the street.
But this little exchange told me a couple things. Barrett hadn't blabbed about being in the building fire. And if he and Ikaat had met in her homeland to arrange her defection, neither one of them was going to acknowledge it now.
Still, I remained convinced Barrett had indeed been Ikaat's contact. She had to be the reason he was in London. I was certain, too, he'd killed Dalmatovis to save her. And according to the video surveillance I'd seen, he'd stuck to her father's side
the shooting. Consequently, I doubted her father's current whereabouts were a mystery to him.
In that instant, I made a decision. If I wanted to find Ikaat's father, if I wanted to protect Barrett from the law, and if I wanted to get this dog-and-pony show on the road to Washington before Washington sent people to London after us, I needed to start with the first link in this chain: Ikaat.
The night before last, she'd answered my questions about her father willingly enough.
Now, she needed to answer my questions about Barrett.
As I stepped forward to accept my teacup from her hand, Barrett settled onto the sofa again. He moved stiffly, but who could blame him? His body had taken a brutal beating. However, I couldn't hear pain in his voice when he and Katie fell into easy conversation. And I was glad. Because I needed the two of them to start talkingâand to stay talking.
“I'm so sorry,” I said to Ikaat.
She cocked her head, curious, just as I'd hoped she would be.
“I've put you in a compromising position,” I explained. “I'm sure your father wouldn't approve of what I've done.”
Ikaat caught my gist and her almond-shaped eyes cut to Barrett.
I almost smiled.
Instead, I tried to look abashed.
“Here's a man, in our sitting room, and he's not wearing clothes. He's a complete stranger to you, Ikaat. I can only imagine what your father would say.”
Color flooded Ikaat's cheeks. Now, I'd see what she was made of. I'd see if she'd tell the truth.
Or if she'd lie.
She chose her words carefully. “Mr. Barrett is not entirely a stranger to me.”
“Oh?” I added a drop of milk to my tea. “What is he?”
Ikaat folded her hands in her lap. They were small hands, feminine yet strong. “He is a friend of my father's.”
But that couldn't be true. Not with the travel restrictions her government enforced. Ikaat's countrymen rarely got out of their homeland. And Americans like Barrett never got in. Ikaat knew this even better than I did.
She said, “My father accompanied me to a conference in Dubai in June. He let it be known a physicist wished to go West. One day later, Mr. Barrett checked into our hotel. And one month after my father and I returned to our home, Mr. Barrett walked in from the desert.”
across the desert?”
If he'd been caught crossing her country's borderâ¦If he'd been found in her townâ¦Sickening possibilities shuddered through my mind. I was a general's daughter. I knew what horrors could happen to captured American soldiers.
Ikaat answered, “Mr. Barrett stayed in our home for several days. Before he walked across the desert again, he and my father had formed an agreementâand a plan for our escape to London.”
But Barrett hadn't been in London when Ikaat and her father arrived. He'd been at my father's fundraiser in Georgetown. And later that evening, he'd been at my placeâwith me.
“Why did Barrett fly to London after you arrived?” I asked. “Did your father contact him? Did he ask him to come?”
“My father?” Ikaat shook her covered head. “No.”
And to my chagrin, my cell phone began to clang like a firehouse bell in my bedroom.
Really, I wanted to press Ikaat. I wanted to ask her who in the hell had told Barrett to get on a plane to London. But I needed to get to my phone even more.
I found the thing abandoned on the nightstand. I snatched it up, hoping my father was calling to say I had the time I needed to find Ikaat's dad before the cavalry crashed in. I would even have welcomed Roger's voice, if he were calling to deliver the same news.
But neither my father's name nor Roger's lit up my caller ID.
I let his call roll to voicemail. But Philip must've redialed immediately, because my cell started to fuss all over again. I was about to decline this call, too, when Barrett slipped into the bedroom. Softly, he closed the door behind him. He moved slowly and jerkily, like one of those antique clockwork soldiers sold in the stalls near Nob Hill. It dawned on me that if Philip gave up on calling me, if he and his cops somehow came knocking on my door instead, and if they caught Barrett here in the process, it would be game over. Barrett would rot behind bars for killing a killer. And whoever had sent Barrett to defend Ikaat would have a nice, anonymous life without sparing him a second thought.
I couldn't allow that.
So I answered my phone in a hurry.
“Well,” Philip said when I picked up. “I see you made it through the night.”
“Yes,” I replied, filling my voice with enough sugar and spice to keep a bakery in business through Christmas. “It's amazing what a full night's sleep can do for a girl. How're you today? Did you sleep well?”
“Against my better judgment,” he said, ignoring my questions, “I've secured an invitation to a party in Belgravia tonight. May I have the pleasure of your company?”
He was still angry with me for bailing on him the day before. That much was clear. And I didn't blame him one bit.
But I also knew he wasn't calling just to tell me he was pissed off.
“Oh.” I glanced at Barrett, found him watching me with unabashed interest.
Right in front of him, I ran a hand into the crevices of the ridiculously curvy chaise I hadn't managed to search the night before. And I came up with nothing. If Barrett had stashed anything there, he'd removed it as I'd slept.
To Philip, I said, “Normally, I'd love to go to a party with you, but since I'm here on a job, I don't think I canâ”
“Allow me to restate my offer, Jamie. I received a telephone call this morning. From the prime minister. Apparently, the venerable president of your young nation woke him before dawn. Your leader is profoundly interested, it seems, in alternative energy.”
“Well, yes, I guess, butâ”
“Tonight's soiree is hosted by an up-and-coming energy mogul. From the Middle East. This gentleman isâhow shall I say thisâwell connected?”
And that's when I finally put two and two together.
Roger had said he'd do what he could to buy me more time to find Ikaat's father. But it seemed he'd actually done more than that. He'd found me a lead regarding the elder Oujdad's location. Now, three phone calls later, here was Philip, offering to take me straight to that lead. All I needed to do was say yes to himâso that's what I did.
“Thank you,” I said. “I'd love to go to the party.”
On the bed, Barrett frowned. His chocolate-brown eyes narrowed to slits. But in my ear, Philip's tone warmed considerably.
“I thought you'd refuse,” he admitted. “I thought you'd see this invitation as nothing more than my meddling. I thought perhaps I'd offended you yesterday when I confessed that nothing would make me happier than your relocating to London. I shouldn't have said that to you, Jamie.”
Philip's simple statement touched the deepest part of me. He was one of my oldest friends. And if I'd had any sense, I would've allowed him to be more than that years ago. Here and now, though, I had to ease his mind. I had to make it right. I owed my friend that much. So I turned my back on Barrett and sought the privacy of the bathroom.
“You don't meddle,” I said, turning on the faucet over the basin to generate some white noise. It made me inexplicably itchy to be on the phone with one man while the other waited in the next room.
“If I do meddle, it's only so I can be near you, Jamie.”
Philip's sincerity made my face grow hot. Along with certain other parts of my anatomy. But I couldn't afford to get sidetracked. Not when so many people had so much riding on what I could learn in the next few hours. “Philip, I can'tâ”
“I'll see you this evening,” he interrupted. “Seven thirty for eight. It's black tie. I'll call for you at your hotel if you'll tell me where you're staying.”
But chances were I wouldn't be at my hotel. Because it just occurred to me I had something I needed to do. If we were going to a posh party in Belgravia, I'd need to wear something besides a Rabbit's Revenge robe.
“I'll meet you,” I told him.
“In that case,” Philip said, “I'll see you this afternoon.”
I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but I didn't get to ask because he hung up. And why not? Everyone was hanging up on me lately.
Back in the bedroom, Barrett was on his feet, peering through the drapes. He turned to look at me when I entered. But for some reason, I couldn't meet his eye.
I told myself it was because I had a lot on my mind.
I opened the closet, found it annoyingly empty.
“Where are my clothes?”
“With the valet,” Barrett said. “I sent them out with mine. I'm not sure the laundry is going to be able to do anything with them, though.”
I could've told him as much. Between the kerosene, the scorched fabric, and the soot, the only thing our clothes were good for was starting a campfire. But since I'd left the rest of my things at The Elizabethan Rose, those were the only clothes I had. As a result, to leave the hotel, I'd have to beg, borrow, or steal something to wear from Katie or Ikaatâ
I paused, hand on the doorknob.
Barrett said, “Maybe it's time we put our cards on the table.”
But I'd worked a case with Barrett before. He didn't readily put his cards on the table for anyone. And when he did, he liked to keep an ace up his sleeve.
I did my best to cross my arms, cast and all, against my chest. “You go first. Who sent you to London?”
“I go wherever Uncle Sam sends me. You know that. Who was on the phone just now?”
“An old friend. He's a highly placed official in Her Majesty's Government. And he's actively searching for you since you gunned down a man on a Covent Garden street. Did Uncle Sam ask you to do that, too?”
Barrett's face was as expressive as a brick wall. “Uncle Sam has asked me to do a lot of things. Why haven't you handed me over to your
I didn't like the way Barrett stressed the words
. And I didn't like the scope of Barrett's question. Mainly, I didn't like my answer to it. I hadn't handed him over because I couldn't bear to see him imprisoned in England for killing a killer who would've murdered civilians without a single hesitation. More than that, I hadn't handed him over because a soft spot in my heart got sore every time I thought about it.