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The Medusa Proposition

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He laughed heartily as the door slammed shut behind her. He was still chuckling a few minutes later when Gretchen stepped into the room, frowning.

“What’s up, Gretch?”

She handed him a sheet of paper with an e-mail printed on it. “We received another threat against you, Mr. Rowe.”

He sighed. “I get death threats all the time. Tell Nils. He knows what to do.” Nils Olson was his chief of security and a former Swedish Special Forces commando. They’d met when they got caught in a blizzard, helicopter skiing on a mountain in Austria. The big Swede had found him snow-blind and half-frozen. They’d made it down that mountain together and been fast friends ever since.

“Here’s your schedule for today, Mr. Rowe.”

He’d tried for years to get Gretchen to call him Tom, but she’d never budged. He was the boss, and would forever remain Mr. Rowe to her. He knew everyone thought they were sleeping together. But he also knew that she was hopelessly in love with Nils, and Nils was hopelessly focused on his job, completely unaware of her feelings. Tom tried to respect her privacy as much as she respected his, however, and stayed out of the whole thing. And in the meantime, he had a great security chief and an equally great assistant.

He sighed and took the typed schedule. His day was packed with meeting various members of the sixty delegations at this summit, then he had an hour to work out, an hour to rest and shower, and last on the list, the opening ball this evening.

“Have my tuxedo steamed and my black dress shoes shined, will you, Gretchen?”

“Of course.” She moved to the coffee table to collect the tray. “How did your interview with Miss Ellis go?”

“Actually, it went fantastic.”

That made Gretchen look up. She knew as well as anyone how much he despised reporters.

He grinned. “She only lasted ten minutes before she stomped out in a huff.”

“The last one made it nearly a half hour before she gave up.”

“The last one was hoping to get me in the sack.”

Gretchen tsked. “Still. Only ten minutes? You must have been particularly unpleasant today. Either that or this one wasn’t the least bit patient.”

“You’re right. She’s not the least bit patient, our Miss Ellis. Not patient at all.”

* * *

Paige looked around the grand ballroom, scoping out who was present and if her light blue satin gown was too horribly out of fashion. It felt weird to be wearing high heels and jewelry and have her hair piled on top of her head like this. She’d spent so long crawling around in mud, wearing fatigues and toting an assault rifle that she’d almost forgotten what it felt like to get dolled up.

The crowd ranged in more or less concentric circles around the room, with the people growing progressively more financially important as she walked toward the heart of the party. Her gaze swept the innermost circles of power here tonight—a who’s who of the world’s most influential business leaders. Her stomach leaped at the sight of a familiar silhouette, a tall, athletic form she’d recognize whether dressed in surfing trunks or a designer tuxedo.

Of course, he had to choose that exact moment to look up. Their gazes locked. Damn him! He would have to catch her ogling him in a fancy tux that made him look like a cover model. He smirked at her and her palm got a sudden itch to swipe the expression off his face. But rather than give him the satisfaction of getting a rise out of her, she instead pasted on a pleasant smile as she veered away from him and his companions.

Paige snagged a flute of champagne from a strolling waiter and downed the thing in a single gulp. When the next waiter passed, she exchanged the empty glass for a full one and sipped this one a little more temperately. Although she’d been gone for two years, the faces were mostly the same. She had interviewed many of the dignitaries in the room and made polite small talk with them as she cruised the ball.

A number of her fellow journalists were clustered around a bar at the far end of the huge room, but she avoided them. They had an alarming tendency to reminisce about Jerry with her, and frankly, she avoided those memories whenever possible. She might have come to terms with her role in Jerry’s death, but it didn’t mean she wanted to wallow in her lingering guilt.

She felt eyes on her and glanced up, her gaze colliding with the dark, amused one of Thomas Rowe halfway across the room. Jerk. She looked away pointedly. But she couldn’t resist peeking his direction a minute later. Dammit! He was still staring at her!

She yanked her gaze away, vowing to herself not to look at him again tonight. But then the darnedest thing started happening. She’d glance innocently at something or someone, and there he’d be, smack-dab in her line of sight. It was like he was trying to make her look at him. Surely he wasn’t that juvenile.

And then he started moving in on her. Oh, it was a gradual thing, and to the innocent observer would undoubtedly be completely undetectable. But she was aware of every foot closer to her that he came. Was he stalking her? She actually had to curb an impulse to sidle away from him. Double jerk.

The annoying game was interrupted when she overheard his name mentioned among a group of women clustered just to her right. Paige recognized one of them as the wife of the American ambassador to China, a woman she’d interviewed before.

Paige moved in smoothly. “Mrs. Carrillo. You look fabulous! Tell me, are you still working with that international women’s rights group?”

“Why, hello, Paige. Yes, I am. You’re looking lovely yourself.”

“You’re too kind. I didn’t mean to interrupt you ladies … please, don’t stop on my account.”

A woman Paige didn’t know but who sported a thick European accent—French, maybe—laughed. “I was just telling them about Mimi Ando’s rather sordid past.”

Paige said winningly, “I’m sorry. I thought I overheard you mentioning Thomas Rowe.”

The Frenchwoman replied, “You did. He and Mimi were quite an item a few years back. They had a scandalous relationship, even by Parisian standards.”

Curbing her eyebrows, which seemed to want to sail upward, Paige encouraged the woman. “Do tell.”

“Well, they partied their way across Europe and had spectacular fights in the most inappropriate places. And then she met Takashi and dumped Rowe cold. He hasn’t dated another woman seriously since. Rumor has it that she broke his heart.”

Indeed? A jilted lover, was he? Funny he hadn’t shown more reaction to Ando’s body this morning, then, even if to show a certain satisfaction at a rival’s death. But he’d acted entirely unaffected. Not even surprised, come to think of it. Had he known what was in that bag? Was it possible? Had Thomas Rowe murdered Takashi Ando? Over a woman? Her instinct was to reject the notion as absurd. But her training, both in journalism and things military, demanded that she consider every possibility, no matter how outrageous.

She risked glancing around the room in an attempt to spot Rowe. There he was, speaking to a very tall brunette with the kind of body that made other women feel completely inadequate. “Who’s that Rowe’s talking with over there?” Paige asked.

The other women looked around and the Frenchwoman burst out laughing. “Speak of the devil. That’s Mimi Ando.”

Another woman murmured, “While the Takashi cat’s away, the Mimi mouse will play….”

The Frenchwoman shrugged. “Maybe their romance isn’t as dead as it seemed.”

Paige flinched at the reference to death. Ando’s body was still in her refrigerator, awaiting the American forensics team due in later tonight. A gruesome image of his remains flitted through her head. Surely Tom wouldn’t say anything to Mimi about her husband’s death before the American team had a chance to examine Takashi’s remains. And even he wouldn’t be so callous as to tell a woman in a public venue like this that her husband had died.

“If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I could use another glass of champagne. Enjoy your evening.”

“Look me up the next time you’re in Beijing, dear,” Mrs. Carillo called as Paige drifted away.

Paige stepped into the hotel lobby and paced the length of the cavernous space, troubled. Why would Vanessa Blake send a possible murderer to help her this morning? If Rowe was some sort of agent of the U.S. government, had he gone rogue? She opened her cell phone and dialed Vanessa’s private line as she stepped outside into a lush garden in search of privacy.

“Hey, Viper.”

“What’s up?”

“Who was that you sent me this morning? I mean I know who he is. What capacity do you know him in?” “A professional one. Why?”

Paige frowned. “Could you be a little more specific than that?”

“Mind me asking why?”

“Were you aware he had a torrid relationship with Mimi Ando that she broke off so she could marry Ando?”

A long silence greeted that announcement. Finally, Vanessa said heavily, “I’m forced to acknowledge the relevance of that, but I’m having a hard time believing what you’re suggesting. I’ve known Tom for years. He was on Jack’s team.”
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