I turn to find a young kid, little more than a teenager, offering me a tray with a selection of drinks. I smile and select a flute I’m sure holds champagne. I don’t plan on drinking it—not when on the job—but having a glass in my hand will ward off being offered one every few minutes. I need to be on my game and could do without frequent interruptions.
The Thoroughbred Charities of America fundraiser is quite the elaborate event. Looking around the hotel’s ballroom, I spot a good number of designer outfits among the well-dressed guests as I try to locate the guy I’m supposed to meet. Unfortunately, I have no idea what he looks like.
Damn Jacob Branch for throwing me to the wolves. I don’t have much experience with covert operations and definitely feel out of my element here. I’m normally in charge of coordination and communications but, in his infinite wisdom, Jacob has decided I should go undercover as a wealthy Pakistani socialite, looking to invest her money in thoroughbred horses.
My contact is a former Canadian horse trainer, who is looking to establish himself in the United States. I wasn’t given a physical description for Mr. Adrian, but was assured he would recognize me.
“Ms. Baqri? Onyx?”
The rich baritone has me swing around.
First thing I notice are his dark eyes, aimed at me. My skin breaks out in goosebumps under his intense scrutiny. My eyes drift, taking in the rest of his appearance, but quickly focus back on his eyes.
“That’s me. You must be Mr. Adrian?”
I struggle to keep my voice even, shaken by the tight and marred skin creating the appearance of a mask. It’s clear some graft work has been done, but the damage from extensive burns is still visible on a large portion of his face and neck. His head is shaved, almost making the scars stand out more.
“Hamish,” he corrects me.
Then he extends his right hand, which is missing two fingers and—like the skin on his face—looks badly scarred. I notice he is studying me closely, and I get the sense I’m being tested. Holding his eyes, I take his offered hand without blinking.
Silently I curse my boss for the minimal information he provided. All I was told is this man is going to lend my cover story credibility.
“Hamish,” I echo, tilting my head as I let go of his hand. “I don’t detect a Scottish accent.”
“There isn’t one. I was named for my great-grandfather, a farrier from Dundee who came across after World War I and settled in Canada. I’m a third-generation Canadian.”
I suppress a smile at the hint of pride in his voice.
“Horses are in the blood, then?” I observe.
“You might say that.” He gestures toward an empty table farthest from the podium. “Let’s have a seat.”
I lead the way, all too aware of the deep plunging back of my gown. Not my pick—I would’ve chosen something a bit more modest—but Jacob insisted if I wanted to pull off the cover of a rich socialite, I should start by dressing like one.
He picked the gown.
A sleek, satin, champagne-colored tank dress, hugging my pronounced curves. The color is perfect against my brown skin, but the tight fit would be better suited to someone younger, and definitely skinnier than I am.
“So, how do you know Jacob?” I ask when he takes a seat beside me.
“Shared interests. We go way back.”
A rather evasive response, leaving me even more curious. Especially since I’m always in the market for anything I can find out about my boss, who is no more than a voice on the phone to me.
I’m about to push for more information, when a server walks up with a tray of drinks. I pass, but Hamish selects a Glencairn glass which undoubtedly holds bourbon.
The waiter seems mesmerized at the sight of his mangled hand.
“Thank you,” I quickly tell the young man, who startles and rushes away from the table.
Hamish either doesn’t notice the awkward moment, or he’s accustomed to stares and chooses to ignore them.
“So, I understand you have plans to step into the thoroughbred racing scene,” Hamish comments.
I have no idea what Jacob told him about me, so I tread carefully, sticking close to my cover story.
“Yes. I hope to, but I’m discovering it’s quite a challenging world to get into.”
My objective is to obtain a membership to the Thoroughbred Guild of America. The membership is by invitation only, and so far, I haven’t been extended one. Not for lack of trying, mind you.
“A polite way of saying it’s an old boys’ club,” Hamish points out, sitting back in his chair as he unapologetically scrutinizes me. “From where I’m sitting you have a few strikes against you right off the bat. You’re the wrong gender, the wrong color, you’re too young and too beautiful, and no one knows you.”
He seems to recognize my look of disbelief at his blunt observations, and continues before I can voice my displeasure.
“No sense beating around the bush, you should know what you’re up against.” He takes a sip of his bourbon. “The good news is, I can help you.”
He may be right, but his calm arrogance rubs me the wrong way.
“And how do you propose to do that?”
Credit to him, he barely reacts to my snide tone.
“Even though I was sidelined the past couple of years, and have recently moved here, I know this business,” he states calmly. “I’m willing to introduce you to it.”
“What’s the gain for you?”
His grin is a bit lopsided, but it transforms the left side of his face.
“Like I said, I’m new to town, and even though I have a decent reputation in the industry, those who’ve heard of me only know me by name. I need to reestablish myself in this community. Build up trust, but people aren’t that receptive to a face like mine. Having a beautiful woman by my side will make me more approachable. So you’ll be helping me as much as I’ll be helping you, and trust me, it won’t be a hardship.”
I’m guessing whatever caused his injuries was the reason for the hiatus from the racing world, and possibly for his choice to rebuild his career here. I can see how connecting with me—or at least my cover identity—might be beneficial to him, but I’m not that sure how he’ll be able to help me out.
So…I want to have a little chat with Jacob before I take him up on his offer.
“Excuse me for a minute, please?” I get out of my seat and slip out from behind the table, throwing him an apologetic smile. “I have to find the ladies’ room.”
I smile and nod at people I pass as I find my way out of the ballroom. Once in the hallway, I bypass the bathroom and find a quiet corner in the lobby.
“I wasn’t expecting you yet,” Jacob announces when he answers my call.
“I don’t see why not,” I retort. “Since you clearly left some information out.”
“Well, it might be helpful to know how much—if anything—you told him about my assignment, since he offered to help me out.” I’m annoyed and I don’t bother hiding it. “Considering I don’t know how much he knows, I’m not quite sure what he’s offering to help me out with.”
Apparently, I raised my voice, an elderly woman passing through the lobby glances at me suspiciously.
“I haven’t told him much. Not because I don’t trust him, because I do, but this is your assignment. It’s your call how far you want to let him in. I suggest you play it by ear.”
Next, I hear a click.
Wonderful. He hung up.
Now I’m pissed off.
Is he testing me or something?
Aggravated, I duck into the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face, before returning to the ballroom.
Hamish Adrian is sitting exactly where I left him.
“Okay,” I concede, stopping next to him.
He tilts his head back to look at me.
“I’d like to take you up on your offer of help.”
He flashes me that lopsided grin before getting to his feet. Even though I’m not a small woman at five foot nine, I notice Hamish Adrian still has a good six inches on me.
“Excellent. We can begin by getting a little closer to the action.”
He places a hand in the small of my back and guides me nearer to the stage where the charity auction is about to start.
* * *
I kick my shoes off the second the door to the suite clicks shut behind me.
Much better. I rarely wear heels and I’ve been on my feet most of the night. Hamish was relentless, dragging me along from one group to the next as he worked the room. Networking, he called it.
During the course of the night, I not only made a few tentative contacts, but was able to learn a little more about my enigmatic guide as well. There were some people who seemed familiar with his name, despite his disappearance from the scene five years ago. In talking to a few of them, I discovered Hamish was seriously injured in a tragic stable fire at a training facility north of Toronto. Whenever someone brought it up, Hamish would swiftly redirect the conversation.
Clearly, he’s not comfortable discussing what happened and I’m not going to push it. I barely know the man. Besides, I can do a little snooping on my own. I’m sure I’ll be able to find information online. I have to do background searches on some of the industry people I met tonight anyway.
However, it’ll have to wait until tomorrow, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep my eyes open.
In the bathroom I pull the pins from my hair, which had been twisted in an intricate updo for the occasion. Letting it fall down my back, I briskly massage my scalp with my fingertips, groaning at the release of tension. Next, I zip out of my dress and change into a shirt and yoga pants.
Padding barefoot into the sitting room, I flick on a light near the courtesy bar, and pick up the remote. Maybe a little TV while I wait for the inevitable phone call.
I’m about to lie back on the couch when a knock sounds at my door. Grabbing my phone, I walk up and squint through the peephole into the hallway.
Hamish is standing outside.
“Is something wrong?” I ask, opening the door.
“I forgot to mention something I overheard earlier,” he shares as his eyes seem to take in my appearance. “I’m sorry. I gave you my number but never got yours, and I would’ve sought you out tomorrow morning, but I have to be on a flight at six thirty.”
The man looks distinctly uncomfortable, tugging at the knot of his tie.
“It’s fine. You didn’t wake me up or anything, I’m still waiting for a phone call. What was it you forgot?”
“Apparently, there’s a private auction near Bowling Green in two weeks. The Gilded Bridle. It’s thoroughbreds only, and exclusively by invitation, but I think I might be able to get us in. That is, if you’re interested.”
Absolutely I’m interested. You never know who I might encounter at an exclusive, private auction.
“A winning bid at the Gilded Bridle will go a long way to getting your name out there.”
And may open some doors which have stayed firmly shut thus far.
I’m going to need to talk to Jacob, I’m pretty sure my expense account won’t begin to cover even a starting bid in an auction like that.
“So noted,” I tell him.
Then I open my contacts to the number he gave me earlier, and shoot off a text. A muffled ping sounds from his suit jacket.
“Now you have my number so you can get in touch.”
He nods, the left side of his mouth twitching.
“I’ll call you as soon as I have news.”
“I appreciate that, and thanks again for tonight. It was very helpful.”
He lifts his damaged hand to his head in a mock salute as he backs away from the door.
It’s not until I turn on the TV, looking for a news channel, it occurs to me I never gave Hamish my room number. We said goodbyes in the lobby.
I have a sneaking suspicion where he might’ve gotten it, though.
Jacob Branch is my boss, and the owner of GEM, an organization dedicated to locating and recovering missing kids. Often these children are, or become, victims of sexual exploitation. Our mandate does not end with the retrieval or rescue of the children, but extends to tracking down the predators responsible, and ensuring they receive the justice they deserve.
I am one of the original three operatives. All women, each with their own set of skills. Since then we’ve added a former FBI agent who was part of a Child Abduction Rapid Response team to our ranks.
I’m normally responsible for planning, communications, and aftercare for victims. For some reason, on this case, I’ve been forced to the foreground, taking the lead in the field. Not my strength, but my boss is not a fool and I’m sure he has his reasons. He’s just not sharing them.
“Jacob,” I answer a moment later when my phone rings as if on cue.
“Your friend was helpful,” I admit reluctantly. “I made a few connections I’ll check into when I get back to the office tomorrow.”
Even though I’m only an hour or so from home, renting a suite in the hotel where the fundraiser took place fits my cover, but tomorrow morning I’m back to being myself.
For now, anyway.
“Message me the contacts and I can get started with some background research,” Jacob offers.
I’m too tired to argue and send him the names.
“Jacob? Who is Hamish to you?”
My question is followed by silence and for a moment I think he’s hung up on me again, but he surprises me.
“You could say we’re brothers-in-arms.” Then he adds, “Catch up with you tomorrow.”
Before I have a chance to respond the line goes dead.