Brody had to put the previous night out of his mind. He had a job to do, and despite how it had gone down, his twenty minutes with Capri had accomplished one goal: the money was gone.
The four members of the Gypsy Lass crew were seated at an out-of-the-way table in the upper dining hall near the king’s less prominent guests. It suited their needs just fine, as it gave them views of both the main and side entrances. There was another door used exclusively by the king on the other side of the room. They weren’t worried about that; it was better guarded than the rest to begin with.
As far as everyone was concerned, including Ekon, they were guests of the king. It was a show of appreciation for a business relationship spanning over eight years.
The girl who might be the cause of all the trouble was named Faye. She’d been acquired five months before, at the age of fourteen, making her the oldest beauty ever accepted into the fold. She’d come willingly, but Ekon had received one letter threatening his life each month since her arrival.
Alexander warned Ekon that the girl would be more trouble than she was worth, but he hadn’t listened. Brody wasn’t surprised. Ekon thought with his dick and convinced his beauties it was romance.
The power of kings.
Brody lounged as best he could in the uncomfortable polycarbonate chair, legs stretched out beneath the table—but his muscles were taut. His eyes scanned the room for signs of trouble. He’d cut his hair, shaved, and cleaned his boots. He’d bought a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt for the occasion. He’d never had cause to wear anything other than coveralls, jeans, and whatever wrinkled shirt he dug out of his drawers, but this was a job, and he’d do what he needed to do for the job.
Leroy kept pulling at the collar of a shirt he’d borrowed from Jax, who put them all to shame in freshly-pressed khakis and a blue button-down. Brody suspected he’d dressed Colin, but the captain had rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned the top button so he could breathe.
Alexander had let them in early to avoid security. They all had guns on them, and a couple of Brody’s favorites were strapped under the table. Just in case. The advisor had made sure the outer tables were outfitted with tablecloths to make the concealment easier.
The early entry also allowed them to see every partygoer as they arrived. Some couples from the apartments outside of the palace trickled in, as well as courtiers who lived in the palace. When the beauties appeared, Leroy finally stopped fidgeting.
He was seated to Brody’s right, which had the worst vantage point. The captain had rightly assumed he would be useless for keeping any type of watch. Jax was across from the gunman, watching the main doors. Brody could see the stairs, and Colin had a partial view of both.
The door by the dais opened. Two guards entered, followed by the king and a second pair of guards. The room stilled. Those who were seated stood, and then the room bowed in unison. Ekon waved briefly and took his seat in the center of the platform. Marianne, a deep scowl twisting her face, came next, and Alexander brought up the rear. Marianne sat two seats away from Ekon, to his left, and the advisor sat on the other side of her.
Brody knew her far seat meant that she’d been outranked, or soon would be. She was just a regular lady now, destined for occasional use or retirement. The new favorite would sit between her and Ekon, and a rising favorite would sit to his right. This evening, they knew from Alexander, the seat would go to Faye.
The guests continued mingling.
“Wow,” Leroy breathed, and Brody glanced over to see what—or who—had caught his eye.
Gina, the girl of the hour, entered with her attendant. The new lady wore a dazzling green gown, offsetting her thick, flaming hair. Her freckled cheeks were flushed; her eyes were wide and set on Ekon. She looked like a blushing bride. Brody snorted at the farce. Colin shot him a look.
The king helped the girl up the steps of the dais and pulled out her chair. He offered her a glass of champagne and Brody sat up so he could reach his glass. The crystal was small, delicate, not meant to be handled by his calloused fingers.
The thought came unbidden, and he grew sullen. For once, it wasn’t Jillian or his little girl tormenting him. Part of him was grateful for that. But he didn’t want to be tormented by anyone.
“Thank you all for coming,” Ekon said to his guests. “A toast—to the newest and, perhaps, rarest of my ladies. Happy birthday, Gina.”
He raised his glass, gave the infatuated girl a dazzling smile, and took a sip. The room followed his lead. Brody resisted the urge to spit out the bubbly liquid. Champagne had never been to his taste. As the king sat down, the rising favorite entered, escorted by Tamara.
Faye was fifteen now, with a head of curly, natural hair. Her skin was light brown, like the twins, and they could see her stunning blue eyes from where they sat. Even Jax and Colin raised their eyebrows in appreciation. Leroy looked like he might fall out of his chair. Brody had to admit she was a rare gem. She seemed to know her own appeal better than the other girls and wasn’t as flustered by the king. It was the benefit of having had time to come into her own, on her own, he imagined. She approached the dais and bowed low. Her cream-colored dress, accented with brown, skimmed the polished floor.
Ekon nodded, and she climbed the stairs to her seat.
The crew was alert, keeping a lookout for anyone reacting in an unexpected way to her presence. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary. Tamara returned to her post at the dormitory without ever realizing Brody was there.
There was a late arrival, and heads turned again. Ekon’s brow furrowed in disapproval. While it was typical of the younger girls to arrive after his entrance and the toast, all of the invited ladies should have been there.
Then again, Capri wasn’t like the other ladies. She wore a full-length gown in some sheer, frilly fabric, cinched at the waist, one pretty shoulder exposed. Her brown curls were loosely braided and interspersed with beads and ribbon. She looked like spring.
She wasn’t flawless, like a dark-skinned goddess at the next table that kept Leroy slack-jawed, but she was beautiful and she commanded the room. Everyone noticed her, whether their gaze was filled with awe or envy. Even Ekon’s look of annoyance gave way to fondness.
It could have been the unconventional position she held in the palace hierarchy. But Brody knew from experience, it wasn’t just that.
Her back was straight; her poise was perfect. Her smile seemed to say that she knew something no one else did, and since she was one of few women in the room who had been with more than one lover, it was likely the truth.
But for all of her affected, seductive grace, something sad and tragic still seeped through. And because Brody knew her past, he saw it clearly—and felt it more than he wanted to.
He’d hoped she wouldn’t be there. He didn’t need the distraction.
She seemed to sense his glare and glanced his way. Her lips parted in surprise. She hadn’t been expecting to see him, either. He felt a sense of satisfaction at her break in composure. He held her gaze and threw back the rest of his champagne like a shot. The girl recovered and turned away, disentangling herself from a short conversation with a courtier to greet her host and the guest of honor properly.
She bowed gracefully to the king, who nodded in return, and then she approached to say a few words to Gina. Brody was too far away to hear, but Gina’s brown eyes lit up when she saw Capri, and she reached out to squeeze her hand.
He remembered then that Gina had been in the dorm the night he caught Sullivan on Capri. They were friends. Only two years apart. He imagined seventeen had looked much different for Capri.
“Shots,” Colin said quietly, drawing his attention away from her.
Brody looked at his captain, who jerked his head to the side. A man had entered, wearing a servant’s uniform. He was a little older than Brody. Nothing would have looked out of the ordinary to the guards at the door, but he saw that the man’s eyes were on Faye.
The gunman glanced back at the dais. The rising favorite hadn’t noticed him yet, but he centered himself between the tables and took a step forward. Gina saw the movement and glanced up. Brody, Colin, Jax, and—finally—Leroy unholstered their weapons.
The man pulled a knife. Gina covered her mouth, drawing the attention of those near her. Faye saw what was happening. Her eyes locked on the man, and her mouth silently formed a question that confirmed Brody’s suspicions: she knew him.
Leroy stood slightly because, somehow, he’d wound up with the clearest shot—but it was a guard who tackled the intruder from behind. Leroy and Jax slipped their guns back into place, assuming the danger was over. The guards had stepped up. Their presence was unnecessary.
Colin, who had been trained by the U.N., and Brody, who had been double-crossed enough to know better, waited. They exchanged a glance. Something didn’t sit right with either of them. Why did he draw a knife when he was so far away from his target? Why did he hesitate when his daughter recognized him?
The young guard who had apprehended him took the knife. Two more guards came to assist.
Ekon was already standing, waving the hero of the hour forward. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen. Brody knew they didn’t usually hire them that young. If they did, it would be very unlikely someone fresh out of training would be assigned to the upper dining hall. Ekon brought him onto the platform and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
The king sported a wide smile, and his easy attitude in the face of near-assassination allowed the rest of the court to relax.
“This young man has earned a seat at my table! He saved my life tonight!”
Brody looked at Faye, and despite the events of the last few minutes, despite the fact that her father was being taken to the concrete cells below the palace at this very moment, she only stared at her plate. Her cheeks were flushed. She was trying to keep the emotion from showing on her face, but a girl of fifteen rarely could. Fear. Grief. Excitement. Why the excitement?
Jax had sensed the mood of the table, and his gun was drawn again. Leroy was enjoying the king’s speech and the food. He’d catch up if he needed to.
“What’s your name?” Ekon asked the guard.
“Tyler.” He spoke clearly. There was no sign of nerves.
“Tyler! I’ll have a special reward for you.” He glanced out into the crowd, and Brody followed his gaze—to Capri.
Her cheeks flushed. She was mortified, and the look she shot her king was scathing. Brody could tell that using her to reward heroic deeds had not been part of the deal. Her attendant put a hand on her leg and whispered in her ear. She’d try to fix it.
He felt anger, familiar and almost comforting in his chest. But he didn’t like that it was for someone else, especially someone else living.
“Don’t worry.” The king waved his hand dismissively. “He’ll wait the two weeks.”
Capri remained tightlipped and went back to her champagne. She couldn’t tell her king no. Brody turned back to the dais with effort, forcing himself to ignore her. He was just in time to see Faye glance up at the guard. For the briefest moment, they made eye contact, and hers shone.
She didn’t get flustered by a king, but she got flustered by this man.
A boyfriend. Shit.
“Actually, Ekon—” He didn’t use King and that was significant. It raised Ekon’s suspicion, and he stepped back. “I intend to take another beauty with me. Right n—”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence. Brody had already pulled the trigger.