Hedge Parker sauntered through de Gaulle Airport with a small black leather carry-on and a hard-side rolling luggage case. While tourists marveled at the snaking tube-designed terminal, he scanned the faces around him for out-of-the-norm expressions and found none. The security guards appeared relaxed. Checkpoints ran smoothly. Public announcements sounded in a clear multi-lingual feminine voice. All was well in this corner of Paris.
Agent Parker’s six-foot-four athletic frame drew a little female attention as he strolled across the worn red carpet, but the wobbly wheel on his suitcase had a few others staring, as well.
Women from around the travel hub noticed his broad shoulders, perfectly groomed goatee, and midnight blue eyes. Some went out of their way to step into his line of sight. He nodded politely and smiled as he passed each one.
A few years before he could fly in jeans and tees, carrying nothing more than a backpack or duffle. These days his cover attire was a bespoke charcoal business suit. The suit wasn’t bad, but his wingtips were still not quite broken in. They felt tight and squeaked right along with his luggage wheel.
He sighed with relief when he found his exit. He hated traveling alone.
Eleanor met him at the terminal door with a hug. Hedge kissed her cheek. Just a husband returning home after a business trip, as far as anyone else could tell. He passed the leather bag to her and tossed his roller case into the trunk of her sedan.
“How was your flight?” she asked him, placing the bag in the back seat and then sliding behind the wheel.
He closed his door as she peeled away from the curb. Why did she always have to drive as if she were in a high-speed chase? “I don’t think the plane ever went this fast.”
Eleanor snickered. “You’re supposed to blend in.” She looked at her former partner and grinned. “You look great, Hedge. How’ve you been?”
He couldn’t answer that question. Not yet. Not with Elle sitting right there. Better to deflect. “You’re really something. I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to get the dress activated.” He knew she could do anything, but the LBD project had been shelved for months. He never expected it to fly.
Eleanor laughed. “I wouldn’t be here without you.” She squeezed the wheel and bit her bottom lip. “We’re really going to do it.”
Hedge watched her drive through the narrow streets. Hedge knew from experience that when she bit her lip like that, she was excited. He gritted his teeth, wishing things could be different. If not for that last night in Mexico City. “You should be the one to wear it. This is your baby. If I hadn’t—”
“Don’t you dare say that,” Eleanor snapped at him. “This is not about me, and it’s not about you.”
“I know, Elle. You always say it’s about the job.”
“And it is. We use the best tools we have for the job.” She nodded, and her voice seemed to flutter to a higher pitch. “And sometimes we get to develop better tools for the job.”
“They said it was your husband that got the ball rolling,” Hedge said, almost a question. He pulled at his maroon silk tie to loosen it a bit. He wasn’t sure if he was feeling motion-sick or something a little closer to the heart.
Eleanor sat straight in her seat. Hedge could tell she wasn’t ready to talk about her husband with him, and he felt a stab of pleasure from making her uncomfortable. He hadn’t been comfortable in years; why should she?
“Yes, actually. Stan came to me last month about someone inviting him to a party with girls and celebrities.” Eleanor kept her eyes on the road as she spoke. “We’ve suspected for a while that there was something like this. The French and Greek governments have had similar complaints. Their officials go to a party, and suddenly they change their minds about legislation, policy, and even basic platform issues. In Greece, a judge reversed his decision on a key money laundering case. We think there may also be a connection with the British judge that hung himself last October.”
“So, it’s blackmail?”
“At least that. It may be a great deal more. We have our suspicions but no proof.”
“And the Italian Prime Minister’s brother selling the family villa? Was he a victim, too?” Hedge asked.
“I doubt it,” Eleanor said. “I’ve met him. He’s just an idiot.”
Hedge laughed. “Aren’t we all?” The seatbelt cinched Hedge in place as Eleanor maneuvered between lanes and then hit the brakes.
Eleanor parked her sedan at the curb in front of an apartment house and turned to face him. “Are you ready to meet Evan… Agent Tyler?” she asked.
“Who is she?” He scanned the tall cut-stone building at their side.
The purple slate roof sat above the fourth floor like an old woman’s hat. The windows were all veiled with scrolled wrought iron. Paris always reminded Hedge of childhood visits to his grandparents’ home in New Orleans. Old money, rich food, architecture by day, parties every night. A lace curtain shifted in a window, and he focused again on the job.
“We all read her profile, I know. But who is she? Is she the real deal?” he asked.
A slim redheaded young woman emerged from behind the double-door entrance wearing a tailored gray skirt suit and black leather gloves. She pulled a lipstick-red travel bag behind her. As she approached the car, she lowered her black sunglasses and peered in. When she saw Eleanor, she smiled.
“Get out and help her,” Eleanor said, nudging Hedge.
He stepped out of the car and the woman took a step back from her luggage. Hedge took the red case and added it to the contents of the trunk. The woman watched his handling of her bag as she waited next to the rear passenger door. Hedge slammed the trunk closed and then opened the door for Evan with an exaggerated flourish of chivalry. She was from Texas, one of the handful of states where Hedge knew women still appreciated help with luggage and opened doors.
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Parker,” she said in a rhythmic drawl. Evan slid into the back seat next to the leather case.
Hedge glanced at her legs—to make sure she was all in—and then closed the car door.
“You can call me Hedge,” he said as he closed his door and secured his seat belt.
Evan raised her eyebrows and smiled. “And just how does one get a nickname like ‘Hedge’?” she asked.
Eleanor laughed as she charged the car into traffic. “He’s had that one for a long time. I always assumed he earned it because he always hedges his bets. This man is never without a backup plan.”
“He sounds like a good man to have around during an emergency,” Evan replied.
“Oh, if you’re in an emergency situation, he’s bound to be close,” Eleanor said.
“You know I can hear you, right?” he said. He turned to his new team member. “Agent McKinnon and I have known each other for years. Probably since before you were born,” he said, jabbing both women about their ages. He knew it was bad manners, but he didn’t feel like being careful.
Eleanor seemed to ignore him. “Evan Tyler, this is your new team leader, Hedge Parker. And yes, he’s every bit as ornery as you’ve heard.”
“Who else is on the team?” Hedge asked, changing the subject.
“Kirk, of course,” Eleanor answered. “He’s sweeping the flat as we speak. And Teo Ramos and Jarrett Brawn.”
“Will you be staying, Agent McKinnon-Grey?” Evan asked Eleanor.
“Oh dear, no,” Eleanor said. “I have a flight back to DC tonight. You all can handle things here.”
Hedge nodded. “I worked with Ramos a few years back on a security detail. He’s a good man. What do you know about Brawn?”
Eleanor’s expression lightened as she pulled up to the flat. She handed Parker a large envelope from behind her seat. “It’s all in the file,” she said. “Have fun.”
Hedge and Evan retrieved their bags from the trunk. When Hedge reached back into the car for the black bag, he shot a sad grimace to Eleanor. “I wish you were staying.” The time was too short for the conversation they needed to have.
She nodded. “I know you do. Now get in there. You have your own team now.”
Hedge and Evan went inside the small apartment building and crossed the lobby to the tiny elevator. Both of them pulled their luggage behind them, but Hedge kept the black leather bag protected under his arm. Hedge punched the up arrow, and they listened as the carriage descended with a whine.
“Nice,” Evan said. “What floor?”
“We’re on three.” He broadened his shoulders, hoping to make her nervous. Evan was tall, muscular, with the kind of red hair that didn’t look fresh from a bottle. She was magazine perfect, and he had no intention of falling for her. “Real estate in Paris is pricey. This place isn’t bad at all.” He stared straight into her teal blue eyes without blinking. Not falling might be tough.
She just shrugged and met his cool gaze with a warm smile. “No complaints from me. If we plummet to our deaths in this elevator car, well, it was a pleasure meeting you.”
Hedge couldn’t help but like her. He appreciated that his intimidation tactics merely glanced off her casual defense.
They survived the lift to their floor, and Hedge led her to the first door on the right. He used a key from the file envelope to open the door for Evan and then followed her inside. Eyes up, soldier.
“Hey, Red,” Evan said to her partner, Rowan Kirk, who greeted them in the narrow vestibule.
“You finally met Hedge,” Kirk answered her with a hug. He turned to shake Agent Parker’s hand. “How do you like my girl?”
Hedge raised his brow at their familiarity. He knew they had been partners for a few years now, but he expected their age difference to keep them at a professional arm’s length. “Your girl? Hmmm. She’s something else, Kirk.”
Kirk nodded. “You have no idea. She once turned an asset with little more than a wink and a smile.”
“I can imagine,” Hedge chuckled. Maybe there was nothing more than admiration.
“You know I can hear you, right?” she said, smirking at both men.
Kirk wrapped his arm around her shoulder and led them both into the small parlor where two other men sat. One jumped up at the sight of Hedge and rushed to shake his hand.
“I don’t know if you’ll remember me, sir,” he began to say. His broad white smile contrasted with his bourbon brown complexion and dark features.
“Teo Ramos. Of course, I remember. Two years ago, in Venezuela. You’re the man who can make a three-story parking garage collapse look like an accident.” Hedge offered the younger man a firm handshake.
“I thought you said you worked security together,” Evan said. She shook Teo’s hand, too.
Hedge exchanged a knowing look with Teo. “That’s right. Nothing says ‘security’ like a briefcase of C4.”
Ramos laughed. “I’m glad for the opportunity to work with you again, sir.”
The other man looked up from his chair at a small table, where he sat sharpening a five-inch knife on a whetstone. He barely acknowledged Hedge, but when he saw Evan, he stood up and stepped into the conversation. “I’m Brawn. Jarrett Brawn.” His wispy brown hair gave him a youthful appearance, but the defined creases at the corners of his eyes indicated that he was at least thirty-five.
Hedge sized him up quickly. Physically strong. Easily manipulated by women. Desperate for the Alpha role. Hedge tightened his grip on the black bag.
Evan held out her hand to shake his. “Evan Tyler. Pleased to meet you.”
Brawn grinned. He circled his left hand on her right arm, just above her elbow, and led her to the small sofa against the wall. “What an elegant accent. You must be from the South.”
“I knew it,” he said. “Have a seat.”
Kirk interrupted. “Actually, we need to get right to work. Eleanor stressed that time was of the essence.”
Hedge maneuvered himself between Evan and Brawn and removed a sealed box from the black bag, placing it on the coffee table in the middle of the room. He gestured for Brawn to return to his place at the table. He waited while Evan took a seat in the center of the couch, and then he and Kirk sat on either side of her, almost protectively.
Ramos took the chair next to Kirk.
“What’s our assignment, sir?” Ramos asked.
“What’s in the box?” Brawn added.
Hedge leaned forward, placing both hands on the package, and said, “This box little assignment.”