A face to die for, p.23
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       A Face to Die For, p.23

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane
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  He’d fallen to pieces—pieces he’d never fully reassembled.

  Until their reunion.

  All Gabe’s pain and bitterness had vanished the second he’d felt Dani’s body under his. She belonged to him again, and he intended to keep it that way. Just as he intended to keep her safe. He didn’t buy the deadbeat dad story, but he did buy the fact that someone was after her.

  But the attack in Rockefeller Center? Threats to Dani’s life and to his? Gabe hadn’t signed up for that. He was in way over his head. And he wasn’t an idiot. He now realized that whoever Carp’s boss was wasn’t trying to protect Dani from some anonymous culprit. He was the person who was after Dani. It obviously had something to do with her twin sister. God only knew what. But Gabe was at a total loss about how to keep both Dani and himself safe.

  He couldn’t tell her the truth. It wouldn’t stop the bastard. Plus, if he poured the full story out now, Dani would dump him in a heartbeat. Hell, she’d probably turn him over to the cops. But if he didn’t… where was this leading? Which way did he turn?

  The walls were closing in and Gabe was starting to suffocate.

  CHAPTER 25

  The Brandos’ home

  Todt Hill, Staten Island

  It was primary results night, and Joseph was the only composed member of the group that was assembled in the Brandos’ living room. Donna was bustling around, nervously bringing in additional platters of antipasto—when no one had finished the first two platters—Lina was pacing around the room, and Neil Donato, Joseph’s campaign manager, was eyeing his cell phone, scanning his local updates, and waiting for a definitive call that would finalize this race.

  “You’re going to burn a hole through that phone, Neil.” Joseph bent one knee and crossed his leg over to rest on the other. “We’ve got a wide lead. It’s almost over.”

  Neil turned to Joseph, brows raised. He was a good six years younger than Joseph, although his craggy features negated that fact. Tall and lean, he was all high energy and crackling ambition. Even his attire spoke volumes about who he was. While Joseph was dressed casually in a golf shirt and jeans, Neil was wearing a suit—his only concession having been that he’d tossed the tie and opened the top buttons of the dress shirt about an hour ago.

  “Yeah, the lead is substantial,” he agreed. “And luckily, we only have one competitor. But it’s not over till it’s over.”

  “Such optimism,” Joseph said dryly.

  “I am optimistic. Just cautious.”

  “That’s why you’re so good at what you do.” A grin. “Glad I hired you.”

  A corner of Neil’s mouth lifted and then turned into a full indulgent smile as Lina walked over to him with a plate of antipasto.

  “Here, Uncle Neil.” Her eyes were twinkling as she handed him the plate. “Please eat something. Otherwise, you’ll pass out and Mom will never forgive us.”

  Neil took the plate and gave Lina’s hand an affectionate pat. “Okay. But only because it came from you. Otherwise, I’d stare at my phone until my eyes crossed.”

  As if on cue, his cell phone’s ringtone sounded.

  He grabbed the phone, his index finger sliding the screen to accept in one fluid motion, after which the phone was at his ear. “Neil Donato.” A pause. “Yes, Ken, of course.” Neil walked over and handed the phone to Joseph, a broad smile splitting his normally serious face. “It’s your opponent,” he said.

  Joseph rose from the sofa and took the phone. “Ken, hello.” A smile. “Thank you. I appreciate your graciousness. You ran a strong race.”

  Lina was already jumping up and down, stifling her shriek of joy, when her father handed the phone back to Neil and said, “Ken just conceded the election.”

  “Congratulations.” Neil clapped Joseph on the shoulder. “You’re now the official Republican candidate from our district. Every polling platform says you’ll run right over our Democratic contender. After that, you’re on your way to the United States House of Representatives.”

  All chaos erupted at that point, with Donna and Lina flinging their arms around Joseph, practically knocking him back down onto the sofa, and Neil popping open a bottle of champagne, which had been nestled hopefully on ice.

  Glasses were poured and passed around, and everyone lifted theirs high in the air.

  “To Joseph,” Neil said. “May he take Congress by storm.”

  Cheers and smiles greeted Neil’s toast, and the clinking sound of glasses was resounding.

  “Hard to believe that such a small crowd can be so noisy,” Joseph teased. He pulled Donna to his one side and Lina to his other, and his expression transformed to one of grateful tenderness. “Thank you. I’m a lucky man. I love you all—even you, you slave driver,” he added, raising his glass to Neil.

  “And we love you.” Donna gave him a resounding kiss. “You’re a fine man, Joseph Brando. You’re going to do great things for our country.”

  “Mom’s right.” Lina gave her father a huge hug. “And we’re the lucky ones. We have you.” A dubious look. “I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about sharing you with the country.”

  “You’ll get used to it,” Neil admonished her with that same indulgent grin.

  “Okay, I’ll try, but only because I’m such an awesome daughter.” Lina leaned around her father to grab her mother’s arm. “The party,” she reminded her. “We’ve got to finalize details.”

  “Now?” Neil stared.

  “Did you expect our nonstop Lina to adhere to the dreaded word wait?” Joseph asked, completely unsurprised.

  “You’re right,” Neil replied, listening as Lina began sharing specifics with her mother. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

  Offices of Forensic Instincts

  The brownstone was quiet, which suited Ryan just fine. Downstairs in his lair, he needed solitude and mental concentration.

  “There is late-breaking confirmation that Joseph Brando was the victor of today’s Republican primary and that he’s proceeding with his quest for a seat in the United States House of Representatives,” Yoda announced.

  “Good and bad,” Ryan murmured, hunched over his work. “Good because we can go to the victory party and do our thing. Bad because I have to wear a suit. But not a surprise. The guy was leading by a mile.”

  “I have a vast number of videos showing the proper knotting of a tie,” Yoda informed him. “There is one on YouTube that is especially exacting.”

  “Thanks, Yoda. But I’ll leave that honor to Claire. Nothing like the personal touch.”

  “Very good, Ryan.” Yoda fell silent and Ryan resumed his task: tracing Dani’s hacker.

  When he’d started the process a few days ago, he’d used his spyware account credentials to gain access to the web application. Once he looked “under the hood,” he knew what he needed to do. Leveraging an unpatched security flaw, he’d gained access to the security tables and elevated himself to an admin. From there he FTPed a month’s worth of log files to a secure drop location and then downloaded them to the FI server.

  For the past few hours, he’d been searching the spyware application for the account that was spying on Dani. There was no personally identi
fiable information except for the user ID and password. But that was all Ryan needed. He searched through the server log files, looking for entries containing the alphanumeric user ID.

  And then, just minutes ago, bingo. The log showed the IP address of the computer that had invaded Dani’s privacy. Time for a reverse lookup to determine the approximate geographic location.

  Cleveland. That certainly rang a bell—and not a welcome one.

  Ryan frowned, rummaging around on his desk for the list of people Dani had supplied him with, seeking confirmation of what he remembered. Yup. There it was. Cleveland, Ohio. The city where Dani’s boyfriend, Gabe Hayward, lived.

  Ryan didn’t believe in coincidences. He immediately began searching through the header information in each of Dani’s email messages. Sure enough, multiple messages sent by Gabe to Dani showed a match between the IP address of the email and the spyware account.

  Shit. Dani’s boyfriend was a scumbag—and a criminal. He was being paid by whoever was running the show to do this. The way Dani had talked about him, it was obvious this wasn’t a random hookup, it was a relationship. And now she had to be told that this guy was a creeper and a felon.

  Well, one thing was for sure. Ryan wasn’t going to be the one to do the telling. That would be up to someone worthy of the task.

  He picked up his cell and called Claire.

  “Hey,” she answered. “I’m in lotus position, trying to relax.”

  “Well, un-relax. I need you.”

  “A booty call?” He could hear the amusement in her voice.

  “That’s not why I called, but actually, yeah. I’d love one of those.”

  “Wouldn’t you always?”

  “Can’t deny it.”

  “Ever honest.” Claire sighed. “Well, it just so happens I’m having trouble unwinding and I could use the help of your unique set of skills. Why don’t you come to my place? My bed’s a lot more comfortable than your lumpy sofa.”

  “Not this time, Claire. We need to be here.”

  A poignant silence, during which time Ryan could actually sense the transformation in Claire—from lover to claircognizant.

  “This is about Dani,” she said at last, her tone quiet and sober. “You found something. And it’s not good.”

  “Yes. And no, it’s not.” Ryan blew out a breath. “Just come to the office and straight down to my lair. We’ve got a problem—a major one.”

  “I’m on my way.”

  * * *

  Claire walked into the lair and automatically locked the door behind her. But the expression on her face wasn’t a sexual invite. It was a pained awareness.

  “The person doing the spying—it’s someone close to Dani, someone she cares for,” she said without preamble.

  Ryan nodded. He might never understand Claire’s gift, but he no longer minimized it. “Big-time.”

  “Gabe. Her boyfriend.” Claire waited for the confirmation in Ryan’s gaze, then sank down onto a chair when it came. “Dammit. When I started calming Dani down about the hacker’s intentions, I started getting the creepiest feeling that there was some level of sexual gratification involved in this spying arrangement. Yes, there’s money involved. But there’s also more. Emotional entanglement, desire… it all flashed through my head while I was assuring Dani it wasn’t the case.” Claire shook her head, sadness tugging at her heart. “This truly sucks.”

  “I know.” Ryan walked over to the well-worn sofa he kept in the room and dropped down onto it, arms folded behind his head, forehead creased in thought. “If I give you some of their email exchanges, maybe show you a Google Earth photo of the bastard’s apartment, can you get a more detailed read on things? Maybe a hint of who Hayward is working for?”

  Claire shook her head. “I don’t think that will work. I’ve never experienced the slightest awareness of this guy, even when Dani talked about him. But Dani? That’s an entirely different case. The connections I have to her—and to Gia and Lina—they’re all quite strong.”

  “So you think talking to Dani might help trigger something?”

  “Hopefully, yes.”

  “Good.”

  Something about Ryan’s tone made Claire incline her head, gaze intently at him. “You want me to be the one to tell her about Gabe.”

  “Yeah, I do.” Ryan’s shoulders lifted in a helpless shrug. “You know I’m no good at this… stuff. Emotions… they’re not my strong suit. But they are yours. You’ll tell her in a way that will minimize the damage.”

  Claire exhaled sharply. “I’ll tell her. I’ll catch a train up to Rye tomorrow and talk to her while Gia’s at her client meeting.”

  “Do you want me to go with you?” Ryan was clearly choking on the offer, sincere though it was.

  A hint of a smile. “No, hotshot. I can handle this. You just stay close to the phone in case I need any backup with your technological… stuff.”

  “Sure. That I can provide.”

  “I know you can.”

  There was a weary silence that hung in the air, until, wordlessly, Claire crossed over and sank down beside Ryan on the couch, letting her head rest on his shoulder.

  It was an innocent enough gesture, until Ryan turned his lips into her hair and trailed his knuckles slowly down the side of her neck.

  Abruptly, the atmosphere in the room changed, and the heated sexuality that always crackled between them surged to life.

  Ryan twisted around and pressed Claire down onto the sofa cushions.

  “There’s nothing more we can do tonight,” he said, unbuttoning her blouse. “At least not for Dani. So can we get to my unique set of skills?”

  Claire reached up and tugged his T-shirt over his head. “Promise to help me relax?”

  “Eventually, yeah.” Ryan unhooked the front clasp of her bra. “But it’ll probably take repeat performances and long hours.”

  “I can wait.”

  “No, you can’t. And neither can I.”

  CHAPTER 26

  Rye, New York

  Dani handed Claire a cup of herbal tea and gestured for her to have a seat on one of the tub chairs in Gia’s living room.

  “You sounded very serious when you called,” Dani said, perching at the edge of the sofa with her own cup of tea. “Does this have to do with my parents and our two-family meeting last night? Because Patrick told me he’d let you all know that we’re hanging in.” A tired sigh. “My mom and dad are amazing. They’re being so strong—or at least trying to, for me. They’re scared and they’re in shock, but they want answers as much as Gia and I do. They hit it off with the Russos, partly because there’s now a bond between them and partly because Gia’s parents are fine and loving people. The emotional part of this we’ll get through. The rest, the scary part… that we can eliminate only with your help.”

  “That’s why I’m here.” Claire was frank and to the point. This wasn’t news that could be spun in a positive light. It was news that had to be delivered gently but without hedging. There was no room for Dani to try to explain it away to herself. That would waste time and intensify her pain. She had
to believe what Claire told her. Only after that could Claire truly comfort her and then lay out FI’s plan.

  Dani had picked up on Claire’s tone. “So I’m not wrong. This is serious. You’ve found out something.” She visibly steeled herself.

  “When Ryan first examined your computers, he determined that the spyware was installed only on your computer, not Gia’s. We didn’t know why. Now we do.”

  “Wait.” Dani held up a palm. “Ryan told us—”

  “I know what Ryan told you.” Claire put her own cup on the coffee table and moved to sit beside Dani, gently placing her hand over Dani’s. “He didn’t want to frighten you, not until he knew why it was just your computer that was being hacked.”

  “Am I the primary target? Is that what you’re saying?”

  “No. I’m saying that the person who installed the spyware was only interested in watching and listening to you. The rest, the communications between you and Gia, the DNA test results, that he could see on either end. If it was on your screen, it was on Gia’s. So there was no need to access her computer, as well.”

  “So besides being a criminal, this guy is some kind of pervert?” All the color had drained from Dani’s face. “He’s not only stalking us for some terrifying end, he’s fixated on me?”

  Claire squeezed Dani’s hand as she spoke. “He is fixated on you, but he’s not the terrifying monster you’re imagining. And he’s not random.”

  Dani stared. “Are you saying I know this sicko?”

  “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Claire didn’t avert her gaze. “Dani, it’s Gabe.”

  Silence.

  “Gabe.” Dani repeated the word as if she were tasting a foreign object.

  “Yes—Gabe.” Claire could feel Dani’s white shock transform to searing pain as it singed her fingers. But that wasn’t all she picked up on from the physical contact with Dani’s hand. For the first time, she could sense Gabe, get a preliminary insight into him. Fear… inner turmoil… conflict. He was experiencing a myriad of emotions even as he did what he’d been hired to do.

 
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