BRONZED BETRAYALS

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                                                            CHAPTER ONE


The club relied on trendy darkness mixed with strobing colored lights to create an atmosphere I'd tried to avoid since the year after college. Unfortunately, the woman throwing the party for her new husband's sixtieth birthday was only twenty-three, and if she wanted a loud, drunken Monday night extravaganza with beautiful people decades younger than hubby, he and his checkbook were happy to buy into this wifestyle. Even if he risked a heart attack. I'd put my money on six months.

Oh well, she'll look smashing in a black mini and veil, I thought.

We were using the party invite as a cover. I needed an alibi for later, and this kind of over the top celebration provided such an option. As head of the London office of the Beacham Foundation, I stayed on the party lists for nearly every rich person who dallied in any form of art collection, preservation, philanthropy or as just a hanger-on to the scene. Which meant I tended to save my RSVPing for times when there were fundraisers, or I needed to meet someone in particular who was slated to attend. Neither of those cases fit this Bacchus brouhaha, but the party set a perfect alibi mechanism for leaving people with an impression that I was there later when I ... wasn't. Something essential within the next hour's timeframe.

The Russian and his wife left the dance floor and had been holding court at a corner table for most of the evening, his red face showing the effects of too much alcohol and exertion. His flirty trophy wife also seemed to hop in his lap the second his blood pressure appeared to be lowering a smidgeon. I wondered how much she stood to inherit and how hard she'd work to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Six months might be optimistic, I concluded.

My right temple throbbed. The impending migraine could easily have had its roots in the techno-house party beat pounding redundantly from the perimeter speakers. Or possibly the potent mix of too many bodies wearing too many competing fragrances. I didn't know where the maximum capacity level stood for the building, but the number attending likely exceeded the licensed amount.

Or it could be because I was waiting for my personal assistant and longtime friend, Cassie Dean, to crash the party and be my look-alike so I could break into the home safe of the party boy. Yes, besides an alibi, this party did double duty by letting me know the homeowners would be occupied and away while I slipped into their secured house. This was the first non-art related party I'd attended in some time, and ironically, I did so in connection to a pseudo-art crime. It wasn't something I allowed to be well known, but I wasn't a virgin when it came to such reclamation ventures. I wasn't technically stealing. The objective was to return stolen artwork to its rightful owner. Basically, the plan called for me to steal a stolen art piece from at least an accessory to art crime and possibly the instigator of said crime—if the Russian was the one who commissioned the original theft. The jury remained out on that last part of the equation, but I was still recovering stolen art.

Jack Hawkes whispered in my ear, "You look like you're contemplating a trip to the guillotine." He wasn't just my partner in crime this evening, but part of my team investigating forgeries and art heist activities over the past six months. He also doubled as our law enforcement tie with his connection to the British government and Home Office. He and I had begun our partnership suspecting each other as this six-month plot unfurled, until we realized it was nearly everyone else we couldn't trust. Lately, our partnership had turned personal as well.

"I'm almost wishing someone would cut off my head," I replied. "It's starting to pound as steadily as the bass." I tried to keep from elbowing the couple beside me as we all seemed to be allocated the same square inch on the crowded dance floor. After arriving fashionably late, we'd been at the party less than an hour and I had already been groped three times by drunken strangers. When another man stroked the part of my kicky little black Givenchy cocktail dress that covered my derriere, my elbow slipped, and the stranger's hand vanished. I raised my chin, motioned to Jack in the direction of a side wall, and said, "Let's see if we can find someplace marginally less crowded."

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