Red After Dark by Elise Noble

CHAPTER 1 - BETHANY

IF TWO WEEKS ago, somebody had told me that I’d be sitting on a private jet heading for an apparently luxurious estate near Richmond, Virginia, I’d have died laughing.

But there I was, and quite honestly, there was nothing funny about the situation.

In fact, everyone on board looked tense.

Emmy Black was sitting at the table up front, pieces of gun spread out across the polished black wood in front of her. She’d been cleaning the thing since we left Northolt. When we hit turbulence half an hour ago, the bullets had all rolled onto the floor, and she’d cursed like hell while she crawled around retrieving them. Then she’d lined them up neatly on end again, exactly the same as they were before.

Sky Malone, her not-quite-eighteen-year-old sidekick, had downed a large glass of wine as soon as we levelled out, and now she was sprawled on the grey leather sofa, lips twitching. Even in sleep, she was unsettled. Could I blame her? Not really. She’d quit her whole life to work for Emmy, left everything she knew, and no way would Emmy give her an easy ride.

And then there was Alaric. My hot new boss. My hot new totally off-limits boss who rumour said had stolen ten million dollars from the FBI, then done a bunk. I was almost certain that he hadn’t. Almost. There was still a tiny niggle at the back of my mind that wouldn’t let me trust him completely. I knew he lied. I’d seen him do it, smoothly, convincingly, without a hint of guilt clouding those soft brown eyes.

The last passenger was Ravi, Alaric’s friend and colleague, and now my colleague too. I’d just been hired as a PA at Sirius, the private intelligence agency they ran along with two others—Judd and Naz.

“Having second thoughts?” Alaric asked.

“Of course not,” I lied.

How could I not be having second thoughts? I’d abandoned my old life too. First, I got fired from my job, and then I walked away from my family and my inheritance. My ex-husband as well, although I didn’t miss him one bit. In the decade we’d spent married, Piers had turned from a slightly cocky trainee dentist into an obnoxious, philandering prick whose brain in no way matched the size of his overinflated ego.

The last fortnight had been fraught with drama—drama that started when Sky pinched my car. After that, I discovered I’d been inadvertently transporting stolen goods, which quickly got stolen again, and before we could think about recovering them, my friend got abducted by a psycho. Right now, my brain was still trying to catch up.

“Because I’d understand if you were reconsidering. Has your father called again?”

“Once this morning, but I didn’t answer.”

What would I say to him? I doubted very much he was calling to apologise. My father never said he was sorry. Not for selling my beloved horse behind my back, not for pushing me to stay with a man who’d cheated on me, not for his own extramarital affairs. No, if I spoke to him, he’d only pressure me to change my mind, to come back into the fold and toe the family line.

But no more.

Once I’d made the decision to go it alone, a weight had lifted. Yes, the future was daunting, but better to face the unknown than the certainty of being yanked back every time I made a decision that disappointed my parents, and threatened with being cut off financially if I ploughed ahead anyway.

“It gets easier, Beth. I promise.”

I had to believe that. The same thing had happened to Alaric eight years ago, and he’d survived. I suspected that was partly why he’d given me the job with Sirius. Out of pity. That and guilt because he’d been instrumental in me getting fired from Pemberton Fine Arts—the gallery where I used to work—in the first place.

“Holy shit.”

Emmy’s quiet exclamation made everyone look up. Well, everyone except Sky because she was still fast asleep.

“What?” Alaric was at her side in an instant, looking over her shoulder at the phone in her hand.

“Irvine Carnes just endorsed Kyla Devane for his old senate seat.”

Alaric gave a low whistle of surprise, so clearly that was unexpected, but I had no idea why. All I knew was that Irvine Carnes was somehow wrapped up in the disappearance of the aforementioned stolen goods, seeing as it was his assistant who’d picked up the package in London and then fled the country.

“For those of us who don’t follow American politics, could you explain?” I asked.

“Carnes is a Republican, Devane’s independent,” Emmy said, as if that answered everything.

“Carnes recently retired from the senate,” Alaric explained. “Said he wanted to spend more time with his family. Everyone expected him to throw his weight behind the next Republican on the ballot for the special election to replace him. Carnes is well-liked in Kentucky, so his opinion carries a lot of sway. For him to push Devane instead of David Biggs…that’s huge.”

“So why would he do it?” Ravi asked. “Does he have a problem with Biggs personally?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Their policies align, and Biggs seems like an okay guy.”

Emmy snorted. “The term ‘okay’ being relative. Biggs is a lawyer turned politician. He checked his morals at the door.”

Considering Emmy had thrown a man off a building two days ago, I wasn’t sure she was the best person to make that argument, but then again, I’d had a hand in helping her. I kept my mouth shut.

“Maybe it was tactical?” Alaric suggested. “Devane’s been surging in the polls, and Aidan O’Shaughnessy’s been rising too. Perhaps Carnes figured that if Biggs was going to lose, Devane was the lesser of two evils.”

“But is she though? I heard she wanted the US to pull out of UN peacekeeping operations.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“From the horse’s mouth. Her Twitter account. Apparently, the US military’s just too expensive, and those countries should be fighting their own battles.” Emmy gave her head a little shake. “No, Carnes’s move doesn’t make sense. If he’d publicly backed Biggs, Biggs’s poll numbers would’ve gotten a boost.”

“Then why do it?”

“Who knows? Maybe we’re missing something.”

“Like what?”

“If we knew that, it wouldn’t be fucking missing, would it? But I’m curious. Aren’t you curious? Let’s add it to the list of questions when we talk to Carnes and his assistant.”

I had to admit, I was curious. I’d long since learned from my father’s cronies that when a politician did the unexpected, it was usually to benefit themselves rather than the country. Like the time Digby Bartrum, MP for Surrey Heath and Daddy’s doubles partner, had awarded the contract for a new government computer system to a company my parents had invested in, despite it being more expensive than the other options. They’d split the spoils. I heard them bragging about it over drinks.

“Why not? Sure we can’t fly straight to Frankfort?”

“Sky needs to go to Richmond. Plus I have a meeting, and it’s already been rescheduled twice thanks to all the shit that happened in London.”

Alaric sighed, and Emmy’s tone softened.

“We’ve been chasing this painting for eight years, Prince. Another day won’t make much difference.”

Prince.Once again, I was reminded of Emmy and Alaric’s past, of a time when they’d been close enough to give each other nicknames. Cinderella and Prince Charming. A hot bud of jealousy swelled in my chest, which was completely irrational since Emmy was happily married now. Stand down, hormones. Alaric had made it quite clear that he was focusing on his career for the moment, and I was getting over a messy divorce. Plus there was the whole lying/stealing thing.

No, I had to concentrate on work. My salary from Sirius was the only thing keeping me and my current horse off the breadline, and with my sketchy résumé, I couldn’t afford to screw it up. Not with Chaucer’s livery bill due in a week.

“I only booked accommodation from tomorrow night,” I said. “If we go straight to Kentucky, I’ll need to change the reservation.”

Alaric straightened and came back to his seat beside me. “We’ll go tomorrow. But this painting’s jinxed, I can feel it. Just like Emerald. Every time we get a lead, it blows up in our faces.”

The painting in question was Red After Dark, a modern masterpiece by Edwin Bateson valued at a cool million bucks. It had been stolen from the Becker Museum in Boston thirteen years ago along with four other paintings, and I’d left it in my freaking car while I nipped into Tesco. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, obviously—my ex-boss had lied to me about the contents of the package—but my need to buy carrots for Chaucer had been the catalyst that led to the grand unravelling of my life and landed me on the plane today.

And Emerald? The Girl with the Emerald Ring was Alaric’s nemesis. Believed to be the main target of the Becker raid, the oil painting hadn’t been seen since the day it was stolen. Alaric had been on her trail eight years ago, ready to swap what was effectively a ransom for her safe return, when the pay-off had vanished along with his reputation.

See? We really were quite similar. I’d lost Red, and he’d lost Emerald.

Then we’d both lost everything.

“That’s the way of the world,” Emmy told him. “If shit ran smoothly, neither of us would have jobs, would we?”

“I’d be good with that. Wouldn’t you like to lie around on the beach all day, listening to the waves?”

“Nah, I’d get bored.” The plane hit another rough patch, and her bullets fell over and rolled off the table again. “Fuck it. On second thoughts, the beach doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”

Wow.

Alaric had told me a little about the Riverley estate before we arrived, but I still wasn’t prepared. Quite fancy, he’d said. I’d feel right at home.

Sure, if I were the Duchess of Marlborough.

My parents’ mansion was “quite fancy.” This…this was something tourists would pay money to gawk at. I could only imagine what the inside was like. And Emmy lived here?

When Ravi turned from the front seat of the chauffeur-driven SUV that had been at the airfield to meet us, his eyes were wide.

“This is a house?”

At least I wasn’t the only one to be surprised.

“It’s more of a playground for grown-ups,” Alaric said.

Emmy’s car had left us in the dust on the journey, probably because she’d shooed her driver into the back seat and taken the wheel herself. I spotted him when we reached the turning area at the top of the driveway, leaning against one of the stone pillars that flanked the massive front doors, hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. Mental note: don’t get in a car with Emmy driving.

Sky didn’t seem shaken, but she was staring up at the gargoyles that decorated the roofline with a dazed expression on her face. Glad it wasn’t just me. Then she caught me looking at her and scowled as I climbed out of the car.

“What?” she asked. “We weren’t all born with a silver spoon up our arse, okay?”

I was getting used to Sky now. To her snark and the somewhat abrasive personality she used as a defence mechanism. Underneath the prickly exterior, she had a good heart. I nodded towards the building.

“No, it seems some people were born with a gold spoon.”

“Platinum, actually,” Emmy said as she slammed the car door. “But that was my husband, not me. Need a hand with your stuff?”

“Uh… Yes, please.”

Alaric had already started unloading the suitcases. One, two, three, four of them. And embarrassingly, they all belonged to me. He and Ravi had brought a duffel bag each, Sky carried a well-worn backpack, and Emmy had a laptop bag and nothing else. Until the others arrived at my flat to pick me up, I hadn’t realised they were travelling so light, and by then, it was too late to repack. Whenever I’d gone on trips with Piers or my parents, it had been practically mandatory to take a mountain of luggage. A girl never knew when she’d need that third cocktail dress. But with hindsight, perhaps I could’ve left some of the shoes behind, and the yoga mat too. This place probably had its own gym. Heck, I bet there was even a personal trainer just waiting to whip everyone into shape.

I moved to grab a suitcase, but before I could extend the handle, a small man with orange hair bounced down the steps, his silver jumpsuit shining in the sun.

“Ooh, new people!” He scurried towards Sky but quickly veered in my direction when she took a step back. “You must be Bethany? I love your necklace.” Oof. He squashed the breath out of me in a hug, then set his sights on Ravi. “Hey, hot stuff. I’m Bradley.”

Behind his back, Emmy rolled her eyes. “Bradley, for fuck’s sake let people get in the house before you start molesting them.”

“I’m just being welcoming.”

“Really? I pay your salary, and I didn’t get so much as a hello.”

“You live here. That’s different.” Now he headed for Sky again, and I noticed her fists ball up at her sides when he flung his arms around her. “So, you’re Emmy’s new project? I hope you know what you’ve let yourself in for. She’s a real slave driver. I’ve barely had a day off since Christmas.”

“Bradley, nobody made you go to every single fashion week. You also invited yourself to ‘help’ in Florida and then took it upon yourself to redecorate my house. Again. And you have an assistant now. Where is Izzy, anyway?”

“I sent her to the spa. Her manicure was chipped.” He gave up on Sky, who was stiff as a board, and grabbed my hand instead. “Come on, I’ll show you around. The guest house is ready for you and your men.”

His wink told me exactly what he was thinking.

“My men? No, no, it’s not like that.” Both of them? Not even in my dreams. “Not at all.”

“Sure it isn’t. Oh dear, you need a manicure too. I’ll book you in. Does tomorrow morning work?”

“Actually, we’re going to Kentucky tomorrow.”

“Tonight, then. I’ll get a beautician to come over. Where’s the rest of the luggage?”

“Uh, this is it. The cases are all mine.”

“Well, at least somebody knows how to pack properly. Leave it, leave it, one of the men can put it in your room.” He tugged me towards the front doors, and I pleaded with my eyes for Alaric to save me, but the cruel sod just grinned and waved. “The main house was built at the end of the nineteenth century, although it’s been extensively modernised since…”