Authors: Elyse Snow
Tags: #Romance, #Erotica, #Contemporary, #Fiction
So many people to thank for helping me to get to this place. Leslie, Juli, Tim and Joe for their encouragement and enthusiasm: knowing you thought I could do it made the writing easier. My parents for putting books in my way again and again and again, and especially my mom for giving me that first romance so long ago. My editor, Tera Kleinfelter, for suggesting a better way, sometimes gently, sometimes with a nudge. It’s definitely better for both.
Ethan stood at his office window, gazing south toward Liberty Island, and wondered if today would be the day. If today the private investigator he and Gabriel had hired would actually provide a lead that could open the door to the future.
It would be easier if it was just him, or just Gabriel, but easy wasn’t the way they had chosen. The solution had to fit them both equally well. And passionately.
Ethan sighed and rubbed his temple. He couldn’t even complain about Gabriel, because last week he’d been the one to reject every possibility. He hadn’t responded to even one of the candidates because he knew they were wrong. He’d already met each and every one of them, and knew none of them were right as a mate for himself and Gabriel.
Hell, he’d fucked most of them, and he’d guessed from his friend’s face that those women he hadn’t slept with, Gabriel had.
That was part of the problem. They needed a solution from a relatively small pool of possibilities. One they’d been swimming in all of their lives.
Not for the first time did Ethan wish he could reject the Colony entirely. Simply step away and find an outsider female to complete their circle.
It wasn’t just the three hundred and fifty years of tradition or sixteen generations behind him, and behind Gabriel as well, or the thought of how his parents would handle the disappointment and outright snubbing that would be part of the aftermath. It was also that he was tied, body and soul, to the Colony by virtue of being the CEO and President of the Colony Bank of New York. The Colony’s original financial establishment and the place where most of his people kept their investments and savings, tying him, literally, to directing the future financial success of the group. He had been in this role for nearly eight years, and it had been a profitable run.
No one wanted him to quit, which would definitely be the outcome of mating an outsider.
Although recently Ethan was restless, ready for something new.
So back to the small pool.
The intercom on his phone buzzed. He pushed the button. “Yes?”
His PA spoke. “Mr. Okuni is here.”
“Thanks, bring him in, Amanda. And call Mr. Pryor, let him know we’re ready.” Ethan flicked the button and drew a deep breath.
Ten minutes later Ethan was staring at Okuni, the P.I. They were sitting in Ethan’s office around the small conference table, and there was absolute silence.
“Say that again.” Gabriel’s voice was harsh with surprise.
Ethan’s head swiveled toward his friend. Gabe looked just as shocked as he was.
Okuni spoke again, patiently. “Your mate doesn’t have to be a full-blooded Colony member.” He held up his hands as both men started to speak. “I took a different direction this week. After you gave me those records I asked for, I put my best research geek on them. She found something very interesting.” The investigator pulled two pieces of paper out of the file in front of him. He handed one to Ethan and one to Gabriel, then continued. “I’m not surprised you don’t know about this incident. It had obviously been buried by the Colony’s Board of Trustees, but the good news is that it gives us a precedent for something a little outside the box.”
“Get to it already,” Gabriel growled impatiently.
“In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, a dozen young men ran off to join the Union Army. The Colony as a whole was against participation, but these boys wanted to fight. Eventually, about half came home. Of the rest, some died on the battlefield or in hospitals. But three—” Okuni leaned forward and tapped the table in front of him, “—three didn’t come home. In 1868, the families of these young men asked the Colony to find out what had happened. The Board agreed. What they found was this: all three had moved to Missouri and all had married young women who were not Colony members. One man was dead from complications of a battlefield wound but left a widow and two children. The other two were alive, one with five kids and one with three. The Colony made all three families an offer to return. The man with three kids turned them down, but the other two families agreed.
“Your Colony has had three periods in their history when outsiders could be invited in. These records show that this particular agreement was made outside regular invitational periods, solely for these wives and children to become full members even though they were not full-blood Colony descendants. In fact, it probably triggered the open period beginning in 1870. Then the Board more or less buried it for the last century.”
“So I did a search for those who had left the Colony. Runaways, moved out, disappeared. Didn’t find anything recent, but going back, I found the names of five young women and two young men who slipped through the cracks between twenty and thirty-five years ago.”
“Where are they?” Ethan asked.
“That’s where it gets tricky.” Okuni pulled out two more pieces of paper for them. “One young man and one woman are definitely dead. One woman has completely disappeared, no traces. Of the remaining four, the man and one of the girls are married to each other and living in Seattle. No kids. The other two women married and had children. One, three boys. The other, a daughter.” He pulled out a picture and pushed it toward Ethan, seated across from him.
Ethan touched it, pulled it toward him without looking at it. Gabriel stood behind him, looking over his shoulder. They both stared at the 8x10 color photo of a twenty-something woman on a bike. She was stopped in a crosswalk, her head turned toward the traffic, a bag strapped across her back. A bike messenger.
The helmet and sunglasses hid most of her face, while the black high tops, olive cargo pants and hoodie camouflaged her body. All he could tell was that she had short, dark hair.
“Mariella Amorini. Her mother is Anna Worth, father a Paulo Amorini. Anna Worth is a full-blooded Colony descendant. Parents divorced, father lives in St. Louis. Bit of a deadbeat. No alimony, no child support payments since the fourth month he moved out, twelve years ago. Worth never pursued it. Mariella is twenty-three, full-time bike messenger now.” Okuni read the facts from a sheet of paper.
“Now?” Gabriel asked.
Okuni nodded. “A year ago, she was a part-time bike messenger and part-time college student, taking night classes in biology and chemistry. Pre-med track. Quit in the middle of last spring.” The P.I. paused. “And the bonus is that she lives here in Manhattan. In Hell’s Kitchen.” He sat back, a satisfied expression on his round face.
Ethan heard Gabriel’s in-drawn breath.
He stared at the picture. He had a feeling about this.
“Address?” he held out his hand.
Okuni handed him the sheet of facts. An address in the West Thirties. Her mother’s address only five blocks away. Single. No boyfriends. No roommates. No pets. The name of the messenger service where she worked. The name of the college she’d attended in New York, the courses she’d taken. A year and a half in Miami when she was eighteen, before college.
Surprisingly few details about Mariella, more about Anna Worth Amorini.
“Thank you, Mr. Okuni.” Ethan stood and held out his hand.
The other man stood as well. “Shall I continue as usual for next week?”
Gabriel spoke, “We’ll let you know.” He sat on the edge of the table, ignoring the smaller man, focusing on the other pictures in the manila folder.
Ethan walked the detective out and handed him over to Amanda. “I’ll be in touch, and your payment, with bonus, will be there this afternoon.” He nodded at his PA and she shut the door.
He turned back to his best friend. “Why do people think you are the charming one?”
Ethan smiled. “We agree.”
Gabe frowned. “These pictures suck.” He dropped them onto the tabletop. “None of them show her face.”
Ethan shook his head. “This is better than anything Okuni’s brought us yet. Agreed?”
“Agreed. What now?” Gabriel checked his watch. “Damn, I need to get to the restaurant. We need to meet her. Face to face.”
“I’ve got some ideas. Go on. We’ll talk tonight.”
Gabriel nodded. “Come by for dinner,” he tossed over his shoulder as he walked out.
Ethan turned back to the view. He had a desk full of work, meetings rushing toward him and calls to make. Despite all those things, he stared out at the city below him. Looking down from the fiftieth floor gave one a certain perspective. But now he knew that somewhere out there was Mariella Amorini, the perfect mate for Gabe and himself. The day was looking up.
Now all they had to do was meet her.
Mariella pumped her legs harder. It was late morning on Tuesday and lunchtime traffic was already picking up. Taxis, limos and regular cars, as well as what seemed a larger than usual quotient of stupid people at crosswalks. She’d never understand why people on foot wanted to chance being hit by racing taxis just to gain a few feet of distance and a few seconds of time on their fellow pedestrians.
She’d already been up and down and across the Island today picking up and delivering envelopes and packages. Glancing at her wrist, she noted that if she took her lunch break now, she’d be in a good spot to pick up her next package with time to spare.
At just that moment, her Bluetooth clicked.
That meant Manny, her dispatcher, needed something. It clicked again, three times. That was code blue, in Manny-speak.
Keeping her legs moving, she tapped the device. “Yeah?”
“Urgent pickup at Colony Bank on 55th and Park. And by urgent, I mean get your tight ass over there now,” Manny barked.
“Lunchtime. Will pick up in forty-five.” The light went yellow and she braked.
“Now, Mari. Call came from top floor. They want you, and I mean you, exclusively, there, now. Capital B Big Bonus. Hustle.” Manny hung up.
Well, damn. There went lunch, she thought, calculating the time necessary for a short crosstown/uptown ride. As the light shifted to green, she pushed off into the moving mass of honking vehicles.
The building at 55th and Park was a testament to money. Tall and black, spearing into the sky, the Colony Bank Tower positively glittered in the April sunlight. She locked her bike to a nearby pole and hustled into the lobby.
The guards at the desk were dressed in well-tailored suits rather than the standard blue security jackets. They looked more like male models than guards. Despite that, two of them stared at her from the instant she pushed through the revolving doors and walked across the lobby.
“Pickup for Cheetah Messengers,” she said.
One of the guys dropped his eyes below the ledge, then back to her. “This way.” He stood and, after glancing at the other guys, she followed him to the nearest elevator, set alone. The guard pushed the button, and when the door opened, stood back for her to enter. Once she was inside, he keyed the lock in the panel, and then pushed the single button below. He stepped back and the doors closed.
The car rose. And rose and rose.
Top floor, Manny had said. Guess the top floor was really at the top.
The car stopped, finally. The doors whooshed open, and she stepped out into a gorgeous atrium space. Above her was a glass ceiling, through which she saw the clouds above Manhattan. The space in front of her was full of plants and what looked like antique wooden furniture, thick carpets and artwork. Paintings and a tapestry—a big one—and some sculptures were placed around the lobby.
Not too far in front of her were two desks facing each other, where a woman and a man were seated at sleek work stations. Both had headsets and were talking into them while staring at a screen and typing fast. Beyond them was another, sleeker desk where a woman about her mom’s age sat, but in a striking green suit.
Mari looked around but no one paid any attention to her except the woman in the suit, who looked up and smiled. As Mariella walked toward her, she spoke in to an intercom next to her, then stood.