Eat Prey Love (Love at Stake #9) by Kerrelyn Sparks
Caitlyn had been warned never to come near this place. Gutsy or foolish, she didn't know which category she fell into, but it was too late to worry about that now. She had arrived.
Her rental car's headlights illuminated a smooth, black-topped driveway. Tall trees arched over the road, their skeletal branches grasping like gnarled fingers at the starlit sky. She suppressed a shudder and focused instead on the patches of bright yellow daffodils scattered over the grounds.
Looking for the positive, she would call it. Foolhardy, some might say. But when facing the unknown, she'd learned in her twenty-six years that keeping a good attitude was critical. The fact that the grounds appeared well-maintained was a good sign. And the security guard at the entrance had seemed friendly, checking her ID and welcoming her with a smile.
Think of this as an adventure. You love adventure.
Even so, her grip tightened on the steering wheel as she watched the heavy wrought-iron gate swing shut in her rearview mirror. The metallic clang echoed around the barren trees and vibrated through her bones.
She was locked in.
Dad had to be wrong. This place couldn't be dangerous. She'd looked it up on the Internet before coming. Romatech Industries manufactured synthetic blood, then shipped it to hospitals and clinics around the world. The CEO and inventor, Roman Draganesti, was credited with saving thousands of lives every year. Who could object to that?
She proceeded down the long driveway that snaked through extensive grounds. Maybe Dad was referring to the bombing she'd read about. That had happened three years ago, though, and nothing dangerous had occurred since then. She was perfectly safe, she assured herself, as a dimly lit, sprawling building came into view.
Neatly clipped hedges lined the wings that spread from the building's center. Overhead lamps shone down on the dozen or so cars in the parking lot, while insects buzzed in each lamp's halo of light. She parked her rented Camry and glanced warily at the entrance.
Dad was being overly dramatic, that was all. But why would he want to keep her away from her sister? Was he concerned that a reunion would cause her emotional distress? Caitlyn had to admit she didn't know what to expect from a sister she hadn't heard from in six years.
She'd been shocked when two days ago she'd received a card from her older sister. Shanna had acquired a new last name: Draganesti. Was she married to the CEO of Romatech? When had that happened? Shanna had included a photo of her son and daughter, and she'd invited Caitlyn to a birthday party for Constantine, who was turning four in late March.
Caitlyn had stared, dumbstruck, at the photo for five minutes. She hadn't known she had a nephew and niece. Mom and Dad had never mentioned it. How could they fail to brag about their grandchildren? The invitation had arrived at the extended-stay hotel where Caitlyn had found a room after returning to the States a week earlier. How had Shanna known where she was?
The last communication she'd had from Shanna was a birthday card in July 2004. Shortly after that, Shanna disappeared without a trace. Almost a year later, Dad had announced that he'd located her. She'd been given a new identity through the Witness Protection program.
Dad had been vague on the details, only saying that she was lost to them forever. They must all stay away from a place called Romatech Industries. Shanna had changed. She could no longer be trusted. She was to be avoided at all cost.
She's still my sister. Caitlyn had to know the truth. She climbed out of the car with her handbag and gift for Constantine. Dad would go ballistic if he knew she was here. He was already pissed by her recent fiasco. The fact that she'd made a mistake for good reasons didn't matter. She was still screwed. Her career ruined. Blacklisted from the State Department. No job, no home, and a quickly dwindling amount in her savings account.
Coming here to see Shanna could be another mistake, but dammit, she wanted her sister back. And she'd never been one to shy away from a challenging situation. She slammed the car door to accentuate her rebellious determination, then marched toward the entrance.
She was about twenty minutes late, having made some wrong turns. She knew her way around Minsk, St. Petersburg, Bangkok, and Jakarta, but White Plains, New York, was a foreign land to her. She could hear shouts and laughter in the distance, so hopefully that meant the party was still in full swing.
Her stride slowed as a nagging question returned, one that had bothered her since she'd first opened the invitation. Who would throw a birthday party for a four-year-old at nine o'clock at night? Granted, she didn't have any experience with raising children, but still, didn't kids usually go to bed about that time?
She paused mid-step when the front door swung open. A column of light spilled out, framing the dark silhouette of a huge man.
"Miss Whelan?" His voice was deep and gravelly. He moved to the edge of the light and became more visible.
"Yes." Another security guard, Caitlyn assumed, since he was well over six feet tall and looked as indestructible as an army tank. He was dressed in the same khaki pants and navy polo shirt as the man at the front gate.
"How do you do? I'm Howard Barr." He motioned to the open door. "Come in."
"I hope I'm not too late." Caitlyn stepped into a wide foyer and glanced around. Potted plants, nice artwork on the walls, a gleaming marble floor...and no Shanna. No one there at all.
She swallowed hard as the huge security guard shut the door and locked it. "Shanna's here, isn't she?"
"Sure. The party's in the cafeteria. I'll take you there in just a minute." Howard gave her an apologetic look as he stepped behind a table. "I have to check your bags first. Standard procedure, nothing personal."
"I understand." Caitlyn placed her bags on the table. "Is there still a problem with people bombing Romatech?"
Howard shook his head as he rummaged through the silk handbag she'd bought in Singapore. "It's been calm lately."
"It seems like an odd place for a child's birthday party."
He shrugged. "Shanna set up a nursery next to her office, so the little ones spend a lot of time here."
"Oh." Shanna had an office in a scientific research facility? "I thought my sister was a dentist."
"She is. She has a dental office here." Howard slid her red silk handbag to her with a puzzled look. "You didn't know that?"
"No. I've been out of the country and...out of touch. I didn't know she had children or that she was even married until I received the invitation to this party. Her husband is Roman Draganesti?"
"Yes." Howard frowned as he plunged his large beefy hands into the gift bag. "I can't believe you didn't know."
Caitlyn winced. The blue and red crepe paper she'd carefully arranged was being crushed. "For some reason, my dad never told me."
Howard's fists tightened, smushing the crepe paper even more. "That...sorry. I guess I might as well tell you. Your dad's not very popular around here."
"He doesn't seem very fond of you guys either."
Howard grunted and pulled out the fire engine she'd bought for Constantine. "This is cool. I had one of these when I was a kid."
He was changing the subject, as if she wouldn't notice. "Do you think Constantine will like it? I didn't know what to buy for him." She'd bought all sorts of stuff - a book, a DVD, a dinosaur, and the fire engine - hoping that if she hit all the bases, one would result in a home run.
"Yeah, he'll love this stuff." Howard jammed the fire engine back into the gift bag, then frowned at the mangled crepe paper. He attempted to fluff it up but only succeeded in ripping the paper. "Damn. I'm just making it worse. Mom always said I was a bear in a china shop."
"I thought that was a bull."
He grunted and slid the present back to her. "Sorry."
Her beautifully packed gift bag looked like it had been mauled by a grizzly. Howard seemed genuinely embarrassed, so she gave him a friendly smile. "Don't worry about it. I doubt a four-year-old boy cares about aesthetics. It's what's inside that really counts."
He nodded, clearly relieved. "I'm glad you feel that way. You...may need to remind yourself of that before the night's over."
Was that some kind of warning? Caitlyn slipped the long strap of her handbag over her head and shoulder, grabbed the gift bag, and followed the security guard to the end of the long foyer. They passed through a set of double doors, then entered a long hallway, lined on one side with windows. A courtyard and garden was visible through the glass.
On the other side of the courtyard, she could see the cafeteria through another wall of glass. It was well-lit, with colorful balloons gathered in bunches and obstructing her view of the people inside.
Howard led her to the right, then turned left into an intersecting passageway that linked the first wing to the second. The hallway continued, lined on both sides with glass. Not soundproof, for she could hear shouts and laughter from outside. She slowed, glancing out the windows on the left.
Off in the distance, past the cafeteria, she spotted a basketball court. It was brightly lit and currently filled with players.
"They've got quite a game going on." Howard paused beside her to watch. "Roman had that court put in last summer, but it's usually just him, Tino, and Phineas playing. Tino was excited about having enough guys at the party for two full teams."
"You mean Constantine is playing?" Caitlyn stepped closer to the glass. As far as she could tell, all the players were grown men and teenage boys.
"That's Phineas there, doing a slam dunk." Howard motioned to the left end of the court.
Caitlyn smiled as the young man celebrated with an exuberant rendition of a chicken dance. The guys were obviously having a great time, but as big and athletic as they all looked, she was worried they would run over her young nephew. She searched the court for a little boy, then halted, her gaze fixated on the most glorious representative of manhood she'd ever seen.
Smooth and stealthy, she thought, as the man ran down the court. He glided with such effortless grace it was like he was standing still and the earth was doing the moving. His shoulder-length black hair blew back, revealing a classic profile - straight nose, sharp cheekbones, strong jaw.
Time seemed to slow as her vision sharpened, taking in every detail. She detected some sort of tattoo along his neck. His jaw was shaded with a hint of dark whiskers. A glint of gold gleamed on his earlobe. An earring. Exotic. Dangerous. So very masculine.
A big redheaded man moved into his path to block him, but he dipped around his opponent with ease and kept going. So graceful, and yet so strong. He reached the free throw line and leaped into the air, twisting to catch the basketball hurled in his direction, then rotating in the air to neatly deposit the ball through the hoop.
Howard snorted. "Show-off."
The man landed lightly on his feet as his team shouted in celebration. He grinned.
And Caitlyn was lost.
She slowly became aware that Howard was nudging her. "There's Tino. Do you see him?"
What? Who? She pressed a palm against the glass, surprised to find herself light-headed. She inhaled sharply. Sheesh. The man had smiled, and she'd forgotten to breathe. Forgotten to think. She'd slipped into some sort of trance.
Temporary insanity. That had to be it, 'cause the man was definitely not her type. She'd always dated the clean-cut, shirt and tie, neatly combed hair, corner office type of guy. Intellectual and predictable. Easily managed and easily forgotten when the lure of adventure called. And it always did.
Caitlyn had never been able to resist the exotic. Exotic languages, foreign locales. It was the reason she'd joined the State Department. She'd worked all over the world, and she thrived on the excitement. But even though she'd put her physical self in stressful situations, she'd never done that with her heart. When it came to relationships, she'd always played it safe.
This man was dangerous. She could feel it in her bones. He could slide right under a woman's skin and take hold of her heart. If she had any sense, she'd stay away from him. Unfortunately, her sense was in question. She'd been warned to stay away from Romatech, yet here she was.
She took another deep breath and eased her grip on the gift bag. She'd been clutching it so tightly, the handles had dug into her palm.
"There's Tino. By the other goal." Howard pointed.
She spotted her nephew for the first time and smiled. He was even more adorable than he'd looked in the photo. Blond curls and an angelic sweet face. Her earlier concern rushed back. "He's too little to play with adults. They'll run him over."
Howard chuckled. "Tino can hold his own. He has...special skills."
Skills? What kind of skills could a boy have to help him compete with guys over twice his size? And who was the mystery man who'd made her forget space and time?
"Come on. I'll take you to Shanna." Howard headed down the hall to a set of double doors.
Caitlyn followed slowly, peering out the window to make sure her nephew wasn't being trampled. The gorgeous mystery man was playing defense now, guarding the big redheaded guy who had possession of the ball.
Constantine was still stationed underneath the goal. The redheaded guy tossed the ball to him, and he caught it. The other players ran toward him, and Caitlyn slowed to a stop, worried for his safety.
Howard grabbed her arm. "Come on, let's go."
Her jaw dropped as Constantine's jump went higher and higher. "What the...?"
"Come on." Howard tugged, managing to make her stumble a few steps. "Shanna wants to see you."
Caitlyn's heart raced. Her nephew was now as high as the goal, and he easily dropped the ball through the hoop. His team cheered as he landed on the cement.
She gave Howard an incredulous look. "Did you see that? He just jumped ten feet in the air!"
"Well, yeah. I told you he has some special skills."
"Like what? Flying?" She glanced out the window again. The guys were playing in a normal manner now, as if nothing strange had just happened.
A chill tickled the back of her neck. This was too weird. "Is this related to the reason my dad told me never to come here?"
Howard winced. "Please don't tell your father what you saw. He might reject Tino, and it would break the little guy's heart. Tino's a great kid - "
"Who can fly?"
Howard frowned as he opened the door. "It's not my place to say. Shanna will explain it to you."
Caitlyn glanced inside at the cheerful balloons and happy people. The chill on her neck skittered down her spine. It's just a birthday party for a little boy. No big deal. Then why did it feel like she was about to tumble down the rabbit hole?
It's an adventure. You love adventure. She squared her shoulders and strode into the cafeteria. It was a large room with glass walls on two sides, overlooking the courtyard, the basketball court, and landscaped gardens in the distance.
Howard motioned to the first table, which was laden with gifts, and she set her crumpled gift bag there. The next table boasted a punch bowl and trays of finger food. Across from it, a table held a large chocolate sheet cake with Happy Birthday, Constantine written in bright red icing. Another table was topped with tubs of ice containing bottles. Beer, she assumed, for the adults.
Finally, she reached the tables where people were sitting. All female, she noted as she searched for her sister. Her eyes widened at the sight of one woman with purple spiky hair. She estimated about ten women her age, all happily chatting with each other. A handful of younger girls sat with them.
But no Shanna.
"You must be Shanna's sister!" A beautiful brunette stood and hurried toward her.
"Yes. I'm Caitlyn." She smiled briefly as everyone at the tables hushed and looked at her.
"Where's Shanna?" Howard grumbled.
"She'll be right back," the brunette continued in a crisp British accent. "She's in the washroom, helping Heather. Both the twins needed their nappies changed." She grinned and extended a hand to Caitlyn. "It's so lovely to meet you. I'm Emma MacKay, Tino's godmother."
Did you know he can fly? Caitlyn refrained from asking the question out loud and shook the woman's hand.
"I'll head back to the security office," Howard grumbled.
"Thank you," Emma told him. "Be sure to come back later for a bit of cake."
"Will do." Howard smiled a farewell at Caitlyn, then lumbered from the room.
"Let me introduce you to everyone." Emma began calling their names, but there were too many for Caitlyn to keep up with at once. She smiled and waved as they all greeted her.
"And this is your niece." Emma moved behind a chair where a little girl was sitting. "Sofia, this is your Aunt Caitlyn."
"I'm happy to meet you, Sofia." Caitlyn's heart squeezed in her chest as the little girl gazed at her with wide blue eyes. She was beautiful. Her eyes were like Shanna's, but she must have inherited her black, wavy hair from her father.
"Hi," Sofia said softly, then glanced over her shoulder at Emma. "I thought you were my aunt."
Emma smiled and brushed the girl's hair over her shoulder. "I'm a pretend aunt. Caitlyn is your real aunt."
"I don't have any aunts," one of the other little girls muttered. "They were all killed."
Caitlyn's breath caught. She tried to recall the girl's name. She was one of Tino's classmates.
Emma moved over to the little girl and touched her shoulder. "Coco, I would love to be your aunt."
"Me, too." The woman seated next to Coco gave her a hug.
All the women echoed a desire to be Coco's aunt.
"Me, too!" Sofia cried. "I want to be an aunt."
Caitlyn smiled. Shanna was fortunate to have such caring friends. From the loving way they interacted with each other, it was obvious they were a close-knit group.
With a small jolt, Caitlyn realized these people were Shanna's family. They knew Shanna better than she did.
A twinge of annoyance needled her. She'd only been nine years old when Shanna had turned fifteen and taken off to a boarding school across the world. Caitlyn had sorely missed her only sister. She'd written letters, but never received a response. Shanna had simply left her family behind. And she'd acquired a new one.
Caitlyn knew she should be happy for her sister, but damn. Why hadn't she been good enough for Shanna? She'd spent most of her teenage years feeling lonesome and abandoned. It was clear her father didn't approve of Shanna or her new family. And he didn't even know the full story - that her son could fly.
"Here's Shanna now." Emma motioned to the double doors.
Caitlyn spun around, her heartbeat shooting to a fast pace. Tears threatened at the sight of her sister. Shanna was accompanying another woman, and each carried a baby.
Shanna still looked much the same, with her strawberry blond hair and blue eyes. She'd matured some, naturally, since Caitlyn had last seen her, but the years had only added a warm and beautiful glow.
Shanna's face lit up. "Caitlyn!" She rushed forward and passed the baby she was holding to Emma.
Caitlyn wasn't sure how to greet the sister she hadn't seen in years, but her awkward hesitation quickly passed when Shanna threw her arms around her in a big hug.
A few tears escaped as Caitlyn held her sister tight. It had been so long, but finally, she had her sister back.
"Look at you." Shanna leaned back and tears glistened on her cheeks. "You're all grown up. And so beautiful."
Caitlyn wiped the tears from her face. "I always thought you were the beautiful one. I missed you."
Shanna hugged her again. "Did you meet everyone?"
"Emma introduced me. Your daughter's precious."
"I totally agree." Shanna grinned. "You need to meet the birthday boy, too. He's outside playing basketball."
And flying up to the hoop. Caitlyn needed to get her sister alone so she could ask a few pertinent questions.
"Oh, you haven't met Heather." Shanna motioned to the pretty redhead who was holding a squirming baby in her arms. "I was helping her with the twins, Jean-Pierre and Jillian."
"This is Jillian." Emma strapped the little girl into a high chair and handed her a cracker.
"They're adorable." Caitlyn admired the two dark-headed babies. "How old are they?"
"Eight months." Heather placed the little boy on the floor, and he shot off in a fast crawl. She sighed. "He'll be halfway back to Texas before the party's over."
The women laughed.
"I'll watch him." A young redheaded girl jumped to her feet and ran after the baby.
"Thank you, sweetie." Heather smiled at Caitlyn. "That's my daughter, Bethany, otherwise known as Assistant Mommy and Lifesaver."
"Older sisters are good to have." Caitlyn glanced at her sister. And really painful to lose.
Shanna blinked and gave her a curious look. "We don't have to be separated ever again."
Caitlyn gulped. Had Shanna read her mind? They'd been so close when young, always in tune with each other's thoughts and feelings that she'd often wondered if they shared some sort of odd connection. It was a few years after Shanna's departure that Caitlyn had realized the full extent of her own unique abilities. She'd written about it to Shanna, knowing her sister would understand, but there'd never been a response.
"Shanna was telling me about your family while we were in the restroom," Heather said. "You lived in a lot of foreign countries."
Caitlyn nodded. "Yes, we lived in Poland, Belarus, Latvia - all over that area."
"And Mom home-schooled us," Shanna added. "I swear, every time Caitlyn went out to play, a stray dog or cat would come up to her. Drove our mom crazy 'cause there were too many to keep, and she'd have to find homes for them."
Caitlyn smiled, remembering her favorite kitty, a solid black cat she'd named Mr. Foofikins. Now she understood why animals came to her, but at the time, in her youthful ignorance, she had assumed everyone could understand the noises made by their pets.
"And every time we moved to a new place," Shanna continued, "Caitlyn was the first to pick up the new language. She was incredible. I swear she could learn a language in a month."
Caitlyn's face grew warm as all the women expressed amazement.
Emma watched her closely. "Is it true you know over a dozen languages?"
Caitlyn nodded. She had an odd suspicion that Emma's interest in her was more than casual.
"How long does it take for you to learn a language now?" Emma asked.
Caitlyn hesitated before answering. "A few hours." Her face burned hotter when the ladies gasped. It wasn't like she'd mastered some fantastic skill. It was simply a weird gift she'd been born with. Once she'd figured out she was a psychic linguist, she'd honed the talent to her present level of expertise. It wasn't something she usually talked about, since most people refused to believe she could understand any language she heard. They either thought she was lying or loony.
"That must have been extremely useful for your job with the State Department," Emma observed. "They were wrong to let you go."
Caitlyn stiffened and glanced at her sister, who stepped closer and lowered her voice. "I told Emma you were looking for employment."
"How did you know?" The State Department had done a good job of hushing up her big mistake.
"I called Mom to invite her to the birthday party," Shanna continued quietly. "After she gave me an excuse for not coming, she told me what had happened to you and that you were here in New York, looking for a job. She said Dad wanted to hire you for his team. I wanted to give you an alternative, so I asked Emma to find you."
Emma smiled. "I'm one of the owners of MacKay Security and Investigation."
So that was how they'd tracked her down at her hotel. Even so, Caitlyn was stunned that her mom hadn't wanted to come to her grandson's birthday party. "I don't understand why Mom and Dad aren't here. Or why Dad told me never to come here."
Shanna winced. "I was afraid of that." She leaned closer. "I just want you to know that you're not alone. You don't need to stay at a hotel. We have a townhouse in Manhattan that's mostly empty, and you can live there as long as you need to."
Caitlyn swallowed hard. "That would really help."
"Emma and I thought you might like a job with MacKay Security and Investigation," Shanna continued.
A job offer? This was the last thing she'd expected at her nephew's birthday party. She turned to Emma. "That's very kind of you, but I have no experience in the security business."
Emma dismissed that with a wave of her hand. "We conduct investigations all over the world. Your linguistic abilities make you ideally suited for that kind of work."
"Thank you. I'll be glad to consider it." Caitlyn looked over the faces of Shanna's friends and realized her sister was attempting to draw her into her family, a family her father didn't approve of.
"Before you consider anything," Shanna said with a worried look, "you need to know all the facts. About us."
The chill returned to tickle the back of Caitlyn's neck. Her instincts flared. The entrance to the rabbit hole loomed before her, gaping ever wider and enticing her to fall in. As much as she loved adventure, she wasn't sure this was a place she wanted to go. Her dad certainly didn't want her involved with these people.
But her sister was here. She didn't want to lose Shanna again. She didn't want to lose her niece and nephew. I saw Constantine fly. How could Shanna possibly explain that?
Shanna winced. "I'll do my best."
Caitlyn stiffened. "You're reading my mind."