A face to die for, p.8
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       A Face to Die For, p.8

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane

  Quickly, she replied to the message.

  Hey back. I’d be thrilled to have you here, and to introduce you to the really-not-so-scary Big Apple. The people are mostly great, and their pets are the best-dressed ever. I envy their wardrobes, and so will you. Most of all, I’d love to have the chance to get to know each other and to talk in person. I feel as if it’s been months rather than less than a week since we first connected. Just send me your itinerary when you have it; I’ll even pick you up at the airport. And since my look-alike couldn’t be anything but trustworthy, you’ll be staying with me, so don’t bother booking a hotel.

  Not two minutes after Gia hit send, her cell phone binged again.

  Great, thanks! I’m calling Gabe now to see if Cleveland is a go. Right from there, I’m coming to New York. I’ll be booking my flights online ASAP. I’ll send you my whole itinerary tonight. In the meantime, you can start planning our nonstop talk ’n tour. Later!

  Later, Gia messaged back with a grin.

  Still smiling, she slipped her iPhone into her handbag. Another week and she’d be meeting her look-alike. That would be a blast. And given that Dani seemed to have as much energy and stamina as she did, Gia would make it a whirlwind two days, crammed with all the City had to offer, leaving lots of talk time.

  She’d plan it all out tonight.

  5:30 p.m.

  He blew off his mound of paperwork and came straight home. Without so much as a trip to the bathroom, he headed to his computer to do what he was being paid to do. Good money. Good cause. Great perks. He had full control of Danielle’s video camera and microphone. He had a front-row seat to her life, and right about now, he’d love some playtime, hopefully watching her strip down to that lacy bra and thong of hers. But movie time would have to come later.

  Quickly, he logged on to Danielle’s computer and downloaded the information captured by his spyware. The keystroke logger reported everything she typed.

  The data popped up. He scanned the screen.

  Shit. A message with an itinerary—an itinerary that led straight to New York.

  He grabbed his burner phone and made the necessary call.

  Todt Hill, Staten Island

  “Get ready for takeoff,” Lina told Brianna in a teasing voice. Her father had sent a driver and a Town Car to pick the two of them up at the St. George Ferry Terminal. The first few minutes of travel had been uneventful. But the fun part was about to begin.

  “Takeoff ?” Brianna’s forehead creased in question. She’d never had occasion to visit Staten Island, but when Lina had invited her to dinner at her family home, Brianna had jumped at the reprieve. She was still shaky from Monday’s meeting with Claire and Casey. Claire had all but told her that the vibes she was picking up off the T-shirt meant things were about to get much, much worse. She and Casey had even taken a few more personal items of hers with them when they left. And reassurances or not, Brianna was a basket case.

  She felt a little guilty about going to Lina’s parents’ when she’d been putting off seeing her own. The problem was that, much as she adored her mom and dad, the next visit she had with them was going to be intense and emotional. She owed them an explanation. She was a lousy liar, and they also had the right to know. But meeting Lina’s folks would come without that burden. It would, hopefully, be an evening of relaxed conversation and home-cooking—just what Brianna needed.

  She was about to reiterate her question about takeoff when the road ahead provided her answer.

  The driver downshifted, and the Town Car began climbing up the steepest incline Brianna had ever seen in New York City. The initial part of ascent was flanked by condos, apartments, and a school playground. But as they climbed higher, the scenery changed. Magnificent homes and estates began to appear, many of them gated, most of them boasting ornate statues and exquisite lawns.

  Brianna blinked. “This is where you grew up?” she asked Lina in astonishment. She’d known Lina was wealthy, and she’d expected her to have lived in some exclusive area, but these houses looked like castles.

  “Isn’t it cool?” Lina grinned, staring out the window, clearly immune to the grandeur and more intrigued by the natural landscape. “Todt Hill is the highest natural point in the five boroughs, four hundred ten feet above sea level, and made entirely out of rock.” She turned to give Brianna a mischievous look. “When I was a kid, I used to dream of sledding down the full length of the hill. Talk about the fearlessness of youth. I once made the mistake of mentioning that dream to my parents. They took a sled off my Christmas list—permanently.”

  “Do you blame them?” Brianna asked.

  “Nope. But it was still a great dream.” Lina pointed to a pair of iron gates at the end of a cul-de-sac. “That’s home.”

  “Oh my God.” Brianna just stared. “Lina, why didn’t you prepare me for this? I’m wearing jeans, for heaven’s sake.”

  “So am I. And there’s nothing to prepare you for. We’re rich. So what? My parents are awesome. You’ll love them, and they’ll love you. I talk about you all the time.”

  “I wish you’d done the same with me about them.” Brianna was trying not to feel intimidated. “I know your dad’s a state assemblyman and a lawyer, and that your mom owns a Soho boutique that you worked in between college and grad school. I’ve got an investment banker and a pediatrician as parents. They make lots of money. But this?” She waved her arm. “We’re almost at the gates. Give me a twenty-second crash course in what I’m missing and what I’m about to face. Please.”

  “Sure.” Lina was puzzled but amenable. “Like you said, you already know the basics. As for our wealth, before my dad went into politics, he was already a defense attorney. His legal practice made a fortune. His investments made even more. Now, he’s lightened his client load considerably. He’s concentrating all his efforts and a good chunk of his money on his campaign.”

  “What campaign?”

  Lina blinked. “I didn’t tell you? He’s running for US House of Representatives. The primaries are in a few weeks. He’ll sweep those. He got a ton more signatures than necessary to file for candidacy. And his platform is great. He’s all about improving America’s digital infrastructure. He’s so passionate about it that it’s infectious. He’s hoping to get an endorsement from a powerful former congresswoman. I know he’ll get it. Just like I know in my gut that he’ll win in the general election. How awesome is that?”

  Brianna released her breath in a hiss. “Wow. That’s pretty amazing. I can’t believe you never mentioned this.”

  “I really thought I did.” Lina waved the topic away. “As proud as I am, that’s not what tonight is about. Tonight is about my incredible parents meeting my incredible best friend. Okay?”

  “I guess. I’m just a lot more nervous than I was before. It’s just me, my jeans, and a black forest cake.” Brianna gestured at the white bakery box on her lap.

  “Don’t underestimate chocolate.” Lina’s eyes twinkled. “You’ll win my dad over with that cake alone. And don’t be nervous. This is going to be great.” She sat up as the iron gates swung open. “Pay no attention to the size of the house. It’s big, but it’s filled with love.”

  Big wasn’t exactly the word that the Brandos’ house co
njured up in Brianna’s mind. Ginormous would be more fitting. The trees looked like manicured sculptures, and the sculptures looked like something out of an architectural magazine. Huge. Ornate. Extravagant.

  And then there was the house or the manor or the mansion or whatever you called something that was probably close to seven thousand square feet of stone with twin columns, a double staircase, and a row of chiseled shrubbery stretching from end to end.

  The driver pulled around the circular driveway and stopped directly across from the entranceway.

  “Thanks, Eddie.” Lina was already out of the car, waiting for Brianna to join her.

  Just as Brianna climbed out and slammed the car door shut, the front door opened, and a petite woman of about forty-five with short, fashionably styled dark hair and a radiant smile stepped outside and walked down the stone steps. Brianna was thankful to see that she was also wearing jeans and a print silk blouse that was very boutique-y.

  “Hi, sweetheart,” she greeted Lina with a tight hug. She then turned that same enveloping smile on Brianna, who was approaching them. “You must be Brianna. Finally. Lina talks about you nonstop. I’m Donna, Lina’s mom.” Forgoing protocol, she wrapped Brianna in a welcoming hug.

  “It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Brando.” Brianna found herself returning the hug. It was easy to see where Lina got her warmth and exuberance. “And thank you so much for inviting me.” She eased back and held out the cake, which Lina’s mother graciously accepted.

  “How lovely. Thank you. And, please—call me Donna. Otherwise, I feel old. Lina and I have been trying to arrange this get-together for weeks now.” Donna rolled her eyes. “But everyone’s schedule is so crazy.”

  “Well, we’re here now,” Lina announced. “My favorite people finally get to meet. Where’s Dad?”

  “Finishing up a call in his study,” Donna replied. She scooted down to the kitchen with the bakery box, and then returned, gesturing for the girls to follow her. “Let’s go in and relax in the family room. The living room’s way too formal. Dinner should be ready in about a half hour.”

  She led them through a pillared marble foyer with a crystal chandelier and two symmetrical circular staircases leading upstairs. Then she turned down a corridor, past a formal dining room and a massive kitchen that was all cherrywood and marble countertops, and walked into a surprisingly normal-sized family room. Brianna didn’t know much about furniture, but she recognized the Queen Anne period pieces that defined the room. Everything was done in a rich, classic walnut. Two curved sofas, upholstered in gold and burgundy, a wingback chair, a coffee table—filled with photos of Lina—a liquor and china cabinet and a fireplace, alight and ready to welcome guests. The end tables held miniature statuettes, and the walls were filled with still-life art.

  Lina’s mother had been right. Despite its expensive décor, this room felt surprisingly cozy.

  “Please, sit.” Donna gestured at one of the sofas. “What can I get you girls to drink?” A twinkle. “I’d go for wine if I were you. My mixed-drink-making skills are severely lacking. So unless you want your liquor straight up or you want to wait for Joseph to come in, I’d highly recommend the wine. We have a fabulous new Sauvignon Blanc. We loved it so much that we bought a dozen cases of it. I doubt they’ll be staying in the wine cellar for long.”

  “That sounds wonderful,” Brianna said, settling herself on the upholstered sofa cushion. “Thank you.”

  “Ditto for me,” Lina inserted. “Can I help?”

  “Not necessary, sweetie. I’m here.” A masculine voice came from the doorway, accompanied by the appearance of a man whose lord-of-the-manor demeanor identified him as Joseph Brando. He strode over to the liquor cabinet and kissed his wife’s cheek before taking down four wineglasses, uncorking the wine bottle, and pouring. “I’ll do the honors. Lina, I’d ask you to make the introductions, but none are necessary.” He shot a warm glance in Brianna’s direction. “Hi, Brianna. It’s great to finally meet you.”

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Assemblyman—”

  “Joseph,” he cut her off to say. “Please. This is our home. And here, I’m a husband and a father—my favorite roles.” He handed Brianna her wine, giving her a broad, welcoming smile.

  As she studied Joseph Brando, the first word that popped into Brianna’s mind was powerhouse. Even in the casual attire of a golf shirt and khakis, Lina’s dad emanated a take-charge energy that screamed leader. He was tall, more charismatic than handsome, with sharp features, thick black hair and brows, and probing eyes that seemed to take in the entire room with one glance. He had the solid build of someone who had daily workout sessions—probably at five a.m. so as not to cut into the business day.

  No surprise that this guy was running for US Congress, and that he’d probably win. He was a unique combination of dynamic and charming. A born politician.

  “Please, let’s relax and chat a bit,” he said now, waiting for all the ladies to get comfortable before lowering himself into the club chair. He raised one dark brow in his wife’s direction. “You did say that dinner wouldn’t be for a while, right? I don’t want to be the cause of it burning.”

  Donna smiled. “No worries, darling. We’ve got a solid twenty minutes before I have to serve. By all means, let’s talk. I feel as if we already know Brianna. But it will be lovely to get to know her in person, rather than via our talkative daughter.” She winked at Lina, who grinned back.

  “There’s not much to tell.” Brianna found herself wondering just how much Lina had shared with them about the nightmare involving Dr. Hanover. Probably not much, since the two of them totally respected each other’s privacy. Still, she was very much an open book, she was close with her family, and she was protective of Brianna. No doubt she’d implied that Brianna was going through something upsetting enough to warrant a warm family dinner.

  “Lina says your parents live locally,” Donna said.

  Brianna’s parents. A safe topic if ever there was one.

  She nodded. “They live on the Upper West Side. My mom’s a pediatrician and my dad’s an investment banker. They both work incredibly long hours, so it’s a real juggling act for us to get together. But we’re a close family, so we manage.” A surge of guilt shot through her. The truth was that she’d been the obstacle of late. She’d have to rectify that, and soon. She missed them, and they needed to know what was going on.

  “You’re an only child, like Lina?”

  “Yes.” Brianna smiled. “I don’t think their schedules would allow time for another child. But that doesn’t matter. Selfishly, I’ve always enjoyed being the only one. This way, I never had to battle for attention.”

  “Amen to that,” Lina said. “I’m a brat. I want all my parents’ time and energy focused on me, whenever it isn’t taken up by political campaigns and agendas for a better future.”

  Joseph gave her an indulgent grin.

  “Dad, I filled Brianna in about your congressional campaign,” Lina supplied.

  Her father’s smiled broadened, and he leaned forward in his seat, rolling his wine goblet between his palms. “I’m glad. Actually, I have some good news on that front.”

  “I knew it!” Lina exclaimed. “That phone call you were on. You were talkin
g to Uncle Neil, weren’t you? You got the endorsement you were counting on!” A quick pivot toward Brianna. “Neil Donato is my dad’s campaign manager. He’s also a partner at Dad’s law firm. I’ve known him my whole life. He’s awesome.” She gazed back at her father. “Am I right about your good news?”

  “You are indeed. Neil told me that Hailey Sorensen is giving me her official endorsement. We’ll be holding a televised press conference tomorrow for her to announce her endorsement to the public and to the media.”

  He filled in the details for Brianna. “Hailey and I go way back. She served as a House representative for three consecutive terms. Like me, she’s always been a strong advocate for technology and improving the digital infrastructure of our country. So our paths have crossed numerous times. Now, she’s a technology lobbyist based in DC. She’s strongly regarded, both by the government and by big businesses. An endorsement from her will carry a lot of weight.”

  He barely heard Brianna’s congratulations over the shrieks of excitement that came from Lina and her mother as they leapt up and ran to him. He rose quickly to his feet.

  “Oh, sweetheart, that’s wonderful.” Donna hugged him, closely followed by Lina, who launched herself at her father so hard that Brianna was afraid his glass would shatter.

  “Daddy, you’re going to Washington!” Lina shrieked. “I knew it!”

  Joseph hugged his wife and daughter back, giving Lina an indulgent smile. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, honey. There are still almost five months till the election and a lot of ground to cover.”

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