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Hooper, Kay - [Hagen 09]

BOOK: Hooper, Kay - [Hagen 09]
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It Takes a Thief
by Kay Hooper

 

 

Prologue

 

He was a rotund little man, an unashamed paunch
straining the seams of his tailored vest. Shiny wing-tipped shoes
were on his small feet. He had a great leonine head with a cherub's
face, small brightly twinkling eyes, and pouty lips. He was very
much a caricature of a strutting bantam rooster pleased with his
own importance; few of the people he casually encountered would
see more than a vain little man.

There were those who knew better. A small number,
certainly. They had learned their lesson, and knew that the man who
called himself Hagen was as harmless as a battleship, as innocent as
a shark in bloody waters, as foolish and inconsequential as an atomic
bomb. They knew, in fact, that he possessed a Machiavellian mind of
frightening ruthlessness, an absolute vision justice, and an
inability to give up even when the cause seemed lost.

And he was a rotten loser.

On this clear summer afternoon he was harshly
reprimanding one of his newest men. "You were unforgivably
clumsy. You set off an alarm that roused the entire building. Your
orders were to verify that Josh Long had not returned to his
apartment – and that was all! You were not told to attempt
entry of the apartment."

Brady Seton had been a marine; he had grown up in one of
the roughest sections of Chicago; and no one had ever called him a
timid man. But now, standing stiffly before his boss's desk, he felt
decidedly shaky. He had loused up badly, and he knew it; his first,
relatively simple, assignment as an operative in the agency Hagen ran
looked as though it would be his last.

"Excuses?" Hagen inquired sharply.

Seton knew what excuses were worth. "No, sir."

"Then draw your pay."

Seton left.

In general, Hagen was rarely hard on the people under
his control. Manipulative, yes, but not unfair. However, he was
in a bad mood, and had been for some time now. His plans were in
disarray, he had just been passed over for the position of director
of the FBI, and his small agency had suffered a number of losses in
manpower over the past two years. In fact, he had lost his two best
agents, and those people he had occasionally borrowed from other
agencies had suddenly become unavailable to him.

And, worst of all, Hagen's greatest plan seemed to be in
ruins about his ears. His idea – brilliant, he had thought –
had been to fake a kidnapping of Josh Long, an exceedingly wealthy
and powerful man, for the express purpose of sending Long's
impressive security force, his very talented wife, one of Hagen's
former agents, and his friends after the man Hagen had intended
to implicate in the kidnapping – an international
terrorist known simply as Adrian.

Adrian, once leader of the terrorist group called the
Final Legion, was the single criminal Hagen had gone after but not
succeeded in capturing. The failure was a raw wound to his vanity.

His plan would have worked, Hagen knew. Raven Long had
been one of Hagen's best agents, and the people surrounding her and
her husband were a highly talented group perfectly capable of
tracking down Adrian and capturing him. It would have worked. But
Hagen had been forced to be extremely careful, because all those
people had strongly developed survival Instincts And he had been
forced to employ agents who were not the best.

Josh Long, born and bred in a world where his great
wealth and power made him a constant target, had very good instincts
indeed. Somehow, he had realized another attempt was about to be
made. He and the key men on his team had vanished weeks ago, leaving
no trail, and leaving Hagen hamstrung.

And things had gone from bad to worse. Seton, a new
agent, had botched his job, and Hagen had to assume the idiot had
left fingerprints. Raven would waste no time in having those checked
out. And she could. Long Enterprises had the best nonofficial
information network Hagen had ever seen. She would get Seton's
name within hours. Hagen's only comfort was that Seton's name had not
been linked in any way with his own.

Small comfort.

He was left waiting for something to happen, and Hagen
hated waiting. He was also uneasily aware that, for the first time in
his checkered career, he might well have underestimated his prey. He
had not hesitated to make use of the talents of Josh Long and members
of his group in the past. Of course not a single member of that inner
circle had ever been his target. And, though he had often misled one
or the other of them, they had clearly understood his motives.

This time, he doubted they would.

Hagen had always been the dog; never the fox. He had
never even considered the feelings of that hunted creature.

Now, he did.

 

One

 

Jennifer Chantry wandered casually down the hallway,
smiling at the occasional person she encountered without seeing
anything but a jumble of facial features. She had spotted at least
half a dozen plainclothes security men, and her heart was pounding
frantically beneath her calm facade. How on earth was she going to
get herself out of this mess? The bracelet was cutting into her palm
as her fingers held it tightly. She should have gone to the cloakroom
instantly and put it into her small clutch purse, but that would be
the first place one would search.

She saw one of the security men at the end of the hall,
and felt hunted. It was a strange, unsettling feeling. There was
a set of double doors to her left, and she opened one of them and
slipped into the room, hoping desperately that the action didn't
reflect her wild desire to run.

The room was a study, with floor-to-celling bookshelves
and a big mahogany desk, a few chairs, and reading lamps. To
Jennifer, the room was achingly familiar. It made her throat hurt,
and she blinked back sudden tears.

A lamp burned softly at the desk, Jennifer noted before
realizing that the room was also occupied by a total stranger.
Quickly, she murmured a vague apology and turned toward the door, but
then went still.

The door handle was turning slowly, stealthily, and her
heart lodged in her throat. Someone had seen her. And Garrett Kelly
would just
love
to call the police, and they'd put handcuffs
on her, and –

She heard no footsteps, but the big man who had been
standing behind the desk crossed the room quickly and, reaching her,
unhesitatingly pulled her into his arms.

"Sorry about this," he whispered cheerfully,
just before his lips captured hers.

Too astonished to struggle in the first instant,
Jennifer was only dimly aware of the door opening, and then
softly closing again. She felt the fine material of his cream-colored
tuxedo beneath her fingers, felt powerful arms and a hard chest,
and long legs pressed to her own. And she felt an instant, helpless
response uncurl in the pit of her belly, spreading throughout her
body in heated ripples.

"On the other hand," he murmured when he at
last raised his head, "I'm not sorry at all. Hello."

Jennifer stared up at him dazedly and, even in
bewilderment, felt her heart catch. Good heavens, the man was
beautiful.
Violet eyes lit from within, a strong, handsome
face, a smile to make a woman forget her very name.

She cleared her throat in a small, bemused sound.
"Hello."

His eyes laughed down at her.

Jennifer made a determined effort. "Let go of me,"
she ordered in a voice better suited to calling kittens.

"Do I have to?" he asked solemnly.

She thought about it, then hastily got a grip on
herself. "Yes, of course. Let go of me!"

"Your wish is my command, ma'am," he said.
stepping back and raising her hand to his lips with a graceful
half bow.

Jennifer hadn't thought there was a man left alive who
could say things like that and kiss a woman's hand, but this man did
it awfully well. And then he smoothly removed the bracelet from her
nerveless fingers.

"Give that back," she gasped, anger and panic
warring inside her.

He was holding the bracelet up to take advantage of the
faint light, looking at it through suddenly narrowed eyes. "What
have we here?" he murmured.

"It's mine!"

"Hush," he warned absently. "You want to
have the security people bursting in here?"

It was the last thing in the world Jennifer wanted, and
she quickly lowered her voice to a whisper. "Give me the
bracelet," she insisted.

He looked down at her, his lips curving in that
incredible smile. "It isn't considered very polite to rob
your host," he told her gently.

Jennifer bit her lip. "I didn't – I mean,
it's . . . Oh, you wouldn't understand!"

"You're undoubtedly wrong about that," he
murmured. "But since I'm on a tight schedule, I don't have the
time to insist. How were you planning to get the bracelet out of
the house?"

She blinked up at him. "Umm. My purse."

He was shaking his head. "First place they'll
look."

"Well, I thought that, but – " Jennifer
blinked again.

"Please give me the bracelet!"

He eyed her ruby gown thoughtfully. "Are you
wearing garters, by any chance?"

"Am I what?" she managed faintly.

"Garters. Those sexy little devices from bygone
days used to hold up stockings? They came before some total moron
invented pantyhose."

Fascinated, she stared at him. "Yes, as a matter of
fact, I am. Why?"

"I love Southern women." Abruptly, he went
down on one knee and swept her clinging skirt up above her knees.
"Great legs," he told her.

She stared down at his dark head and felt carried along
by an irresistible force beyond her power to stop. "Thank you,"
she murmured.

"Hold the skirt up," he instructed briskly.

Meekly, Jennifer held the skirt up. She could feel his
warm fingers on her thigh, then the cooler metal of the bracelet. He
was fastening the bracelet to her garter, she realized in
astonishment.

He rose easily to his feet and stepped back, frowning
slightly as he gazed at his handiwork. "Drop the skirt, and
let's see how that looks," he instructed. Jennifer obeyed.

He nodded in satisfaction. "Fine. No one should
notice it under the skirt. Unless our host decides to search his
guests, you should get it out all right."

Wondering if she had tumbled through Alice's mirror by
accident, Jennifer stared at him. "You aren't going to try to
stop me? Or tell security about this?"

He crossed his arms over his broad chest, violet eyes
laughing again. "Well, that might be a trifle awkward you see."

After a baffled moment, she looked past him, remembering
where and how he'd been standing when she'd first seen him. "You
were at the safe," she said slowly "Trying to open it."

"Not at all. I'd just closed it. And since I don't
want anyone checking for missing valuables . . . Well, you
understand."

"You're a thief," she said wonderingly.

Lifting one flying brow, he said in a pained tone "Now,
that's the pot calling the kettle black."

"I'm not a thief!" Jennifer shook her head.
"Oh, never mind. I'm leaving."

If she had expected this very peculiar man to try and
stop her, she was disappointed. But when he spoke just as she was
about to open the door, his words caught her off guard.

"Mind telling me your name?"

"Yes, I do mind," she snapped softly.

"That's all right," he told her, unperturbed.
"I'll find out what it is."

She looked back at him, frowning. "Why? To report
me later?"

"No. But I've got to hear the story of the
bracelet. Before she could respond, he added musingly, "Besides,
I definitely fell in love with your legs."

Jennifer escaped while she could, unnerved to hear the
sound of soft, deep laughter behind her. With no security guards in
sight, she took a familiar route through the house, making her way
carefully and silently along deserted service corridors and small,
unused rooms, until she left the house the way she'd come. The
room was a small parlor, the furniture draped in dust sheets, and
Jennifer went out through a window with a broken lock.

She was in the side garden, an area that had once been
beautiful but was now overgrown, and she thought with a pang what a
difference a few years could make. She slipped along the almost
Invisible path, holding her skirt up, all her senses straining for
any sound. Carefully, she worked her way around the house and back to
the front, skirting the parked cars and keeping her distance from the
front entrance.

She paused at the top of the driveway, looking down the
long lane that was flanked by tall oak trees dangling Spanish
moss. Then she looked back at the house, biting her lip. Who
was
that man? Was he going to be trouble? He was there for some nefarious
purpose of his own, certainly, and a large part of her cheered him on
if it meant any loss to Garrett Kelly. At the same time, she hardly
wanted the house looted of its treasures.

BOOK: Hooper, Kay - [Hagen 09]
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