**UNMASKED is a re-issue novella previously part of the anthology CAPITOL DANGER. Minor changes to places and secondary characters have been changed, but the story of Luke and Abby is the same as in the anthology.**
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Lights glittered all around the main ballroom of the newly constructed Monitor Hotel for its first inaugural ball.
Snow-white linens covered the tables. Waiters, some of them security personnel working undercover for the night, dressed in black, carried trays of champagne in more crystal flutes among the national and foreign dignitaries, as well as both campaign supporters and workers who flocked the ball. Named for the Union’s Ironclad war ship from the Civil War, the hotel had an overall nautical theme, with all the main rooms, such as the Constitution Ballroom the ball was being held in, named after early American Naval sailing vessels. Tonight, however, in keeping with the winter theme, huge evergreens covered in twinkling white lights and blown-glass snowflakes lined the walls between the floor-to-ceiling mirrors and the crystal columns. Suspended overhead were more glass snowflakes, as well as the crystal chandeliers. The whole thing was—sparkly.
“Christ. Whose idea was it to hang all this glass?” Luke Edgars whispered as he took Abigail Whitson’s arm to escort her into the throng.
As always, a heated rush skittered over her body as he moved in beside her. They’d been together as a couple since he’d helped rescue her best friend and shut down the sex-slave ring holding her. Even so, her body still reacted like a hormonal teenager just with his presence.
“Not the security detail, you can bet your sweet ass on that.” The deep rumble of U.S. Deputy Marshal, Frank
Castello, sounded in the earbud secured in Abigail’s left ear.
She glanced up to see the older man across the room near one of the ice sculptures that sat on the dessert tables. Even dressed in a custom-tailored tuxedo, he still wore his usual scowl which, given the women eyeing him, only enhanced his lone-wolf appeal.
“You be careful out there. We have no idea when or where the deal is supposed to go down.” Another voice, belonging to Luke’s brother-in-law, FBI Special Agent Jake Carlisle, sounded in Abigail’s ear.
“Hell, we don’t even know who sent us the tip-off in the first place,” Castello mumbled.
“We know from the files we hacked the contact is on the up and up,” Luke muttered back, scanning the room.
She fought hard to hide a smile. For as self-assured as Luke was in the field, put him with members of his family—even the adopted member, Castello—and he was suddenly the little brother who bristled if any of the others questioned his skills or knowledge. Of course, he was the first one they called on when they needed some file or computer hacked off book.
“Until we’re sure who all the players are, let’s take this easy,” Jake said. “We don’t need anyone getting an itchy trigger finger with all these people and all this glass.”
Thanks to an anonymous tip, Luke and Abigail, both Treasury agents now under Homeland Security, discovered a money trail linking several of the attendees of tonight’s ball to a jet-setting playboy womanizer, who also happened to be an illegal arms merchant. Luke’s brother-in-law, FBI Special Agent Jake Carlisle brought in all their troops to try and trap the merchant before a cargo of Strategic Air Missiles or SAMS could be sold. Complicating the whole mess, the suspected merchant was also a major contributor to several well-placed Congressmen, Senators and political lobbyists.
The decision was made to bring her and Luke in undercover. For the past four months, she’d been attending many high-profile fundraiser events as Abigail Strickland, the ward of Senator Strickland, a new sitting member of the Committee on Homeland Security and whose permission to use him as a cover story had been given freely. To make her more high-profile in the media, she’d also been doing some modeling work—a perfect fit for her nearly six-foot-tall frame. Luke was always on her arm as her bodyguard, even at photo shoots. Her profile as a jet-setter with high contacts to an influential senator was meant to attract their arms dealer’s attention tonight.
Which is why Abigail was dressed in a black, floor-length, silk evening gown, complete with a slit up the right leg. They’d tried strapping a small handgun to her left leg in hopes she wouldn’t be defenseless at the ball. Since she’d never had to wear one before, she’d spent the past two weeks with one strapped to her thigh. She’d literally been walking around town armed, or was it legged?
A small giggle escaped her.
Luke turned one of his dazzling playboy smiles on her. “You find this funny, sweetheart?”
“No.” She smiled at him, finally almost equal to his height thanks to her heels. “I was just thinking how hard a time I’ve had learning to walk with that gun strapped between my legs. I’m glad this dress was so thin it nixed the idea of me wearing it tonight. I’d probably shoot myself when we dance.”
He slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her flush against his long, lean, tuxedoed body. The masculine scent of him and the slight spice of his aftershave filled her senses. “Trust me, when we’re dancing this close, a gun going off is the least of our worries.”
Groans from other members of the team filled Abigail’s ears.
“TMI, Romeo,” said one of the FBI agents carrying a tray of canapés past them.
“Boy’s got it bad,” quipped another.
“Focus on the mission, Luke,” Castello mumbled.
Abigail couldn’t help either the laughter that bubbled out again or the flush that filled her face.
“Y’all are just jealous you don’t have this gorgeous woman on your arm,” he said before capturing her lips with his.
“Luke,” Jake commanded through the mics. “Don’t draw attention to yourselves until the mark gets in the room. Low profile, remember?”
Luke slowly lifted his lips from Abigail’s, grabbed her hand and pulled her into the shadows near one of the pillars, flanked by more crystal-covered trees.
“Have you had time to catalogue the room?” he asked her.
She knew what he meant. One of the reasons she was in on this op was her photographic memory. Since they were virtually working blind on who their arms dealer might be meeting tonight, part of her job was to study everyone in the room in her own unique way. Her brain worked like a high-resolution camera. It took snapshots of whatever she saw, logging them into her memory for retrieval whenever she concentrated on an event or a person. Part of her assignment was to get as many images logged in what she liked to think of as her “filing cabinet” so they could compare the images with anyone interested in buying illegal arms, like known terrorists or anyone with a felony background, after the ball.
“Give me a few more minutes. The wait staff keeps streaming in and out. Kind of hard to get a read on if I’ve seen them all.”
“Try thinking of the room as a clock.” Luke held her close, one hand warm against her bare back where the dress dipped dangerously low. He nodded to the left. “Nine o’clock is there. Work slowly. Clockwise until you’ve covered the room. We’re not expecting you to capture everyone. Just relax and do what you do.”
Taking a deep breath, she followed his suggestion. Slowly, she worked the room as if she were looking for someone special. She didn’t try to focus on anyone in particular, just let her eyes and mind take the mental photos of anyone in the room—partygoers and wait staff alike. Her mind also captured the room’s layout and significant landmarks like the stage, bars and catering tables. She’d seen the blueprints of the room and table plans before the op, so the room felt familiar to her, as if she’d already been here before. Though a pencil sketch couldn’t compare to her mental 3-D images.
As she scanned the room, the occasional dignitary she’d previously studied before tonight stood out. The gala was the grand opening of the hotel centered around the U.S. Navy’s history. It wasn’t surprising to see so many high-ranking members of the military in one place, such as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and his spouse at the one o’clock portion of the ballroom. General Michael Walton and Dr. Alberta Reyes had entered and were currently speaking to Secretary of the Navy, Dr. Arnold Tenor, and Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Academy, Vice Admiral Pauline Nieman. Abby focused on another section of the room at three o’clock. Even her and Luke’s ultimate boss, Secretary of the Treasury, Ms. Martha Trammel, talking with the Minority Whip, former General Robert Powers and Norman Winkoski, the CEO of one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the country.
The place was packed and quite frankly, in Abby’s opinion, any one of the people present could be the supplier of weapons to their target.
Just as Abigail finished her sweep of the room a click sounded in her ear.
“Heads up. Our man’s car just arrived,” Jake said.
A shiver ran through Abigail. She sucked in a breath, then slowly let it out.
Luke pulled her in tight once more, leaning in to whisper in her free ear. “You can do this, sweetheart.”
“First, I have to get him to notice me,” she said, her natural insecurity sneaking forward once more.
Luke leaned back and slowly slid his gaze over her, warming her from head to toe with wolfish male appreciation. “Even if he weren’t looking to get his hooks into the ward of Senator Strickland, trust me, you’ll have his attention. Hell, probably every man in the room is drooling over you.”
Despite his belief in her abilities to not only dazzle their mark but follow through in her mission, she knew that beneath all this glitzy makeup, chic hairdo and uber-sexy dress was the same desk accountant she’d been before the day Luke found her standing in a bloody crime scene. Now she was here, in her first undercover assignment, and those self-doubts bubbled up from deep inside.
“Look at me, Abby,” Luke said, all teasing gone from his voice, his hazel-colored eyes focused on her with steely strength and confidence. “All you have to do is dance one dance with him, slip the mic in place and come back to my side. Nothing else is going to happen.”