Lily tilted her head and smiled at her companion, Salvatore Nervi, as the maitre d‘ silently and with grace seated her at the best table in the restaurant; her smile, at least, was genuine, though almost nothing else about her was. The pale arctic blue of her eyes was warmed to a hazel brown by colored contact lenses; her blond hair had been darkened to a rich mink brown, then subtly streaked with lighter shades. She touched up the roots every few days, so no telltale blond showed. To Salvatore Nervi she was Denise Morel, which was a common enough surname for there to be plenty of Morels in France, but not so common that the name set off subconscious alarms. Salvatore Nervi was suspicious by nature, a fact that had saved his life so many times he probably didn’t remember all of the occasions. But if everything worked right tonight, at last he was caught-by his dick, as it were. How ironic.
Her manufactured background was only a few layers deep; she hadn’t had time to prepare more. She had gambled that he wouldn’t have his people dig any deeper than that, that he would run out of the patience required to wait for the answers before he made a move on her. Normally if a background was required, Langley prepared it for her, but she was on her own this time. She’d done the best she could in the time she had. Probably Rodrigo, Salvatore’s oldest son and number two in the Nervi organization, was still digging; her time was limited before he found out that this particular Denise Morel had appeared out of thin air only a few months before.
“Ah!” Salvatore settled in his chair with a contented sigh, returning her smile. He was a handsome man in his early fifties; his looks were classic Italian, with glossy dark hair and liquid dark eyes, and a sensuous mouth. He made a point of keeping himself in shape, and his hair hadn’t yet started to gray-either that or he was as skilled as she at touch-ups. “You look especially lovely tonight; have I told you that yet?”
He also had the classic Italian charm. Too bad he was a cold-blooded killer. Well, so was she. In that they were well-matched, though she hoped they weren’t an exact match. She needed an edge, however small.
“You have,” she said, but her gaze was warm. Her accent was Parisian; she had trained long and hard to acquire it. “Thank you again.”
The restaurant manager, M. Durand, approached the table and gave a deferential bow. “It is so nice to see you again, monsieur. I have good news: we have procured a bottle of Chateau Maximilien eighty-two. It arrived just yesterday, and when I saw your name, I put it aside for you.”
“Excellent!” Salvatore said, beaming. The ‘82 Bordeaux was an exceptional vintage, and very few bottles remained. Those that did commanded premium prices. Salvatore was a wine connoisseur and was willing to pay any price to acquire a rare wine. More than that, he loved wine. He didn’t acquire bottles just to have them; he drank the wine, enjoyed it, waxed poetic about the different flavors and aromas. He turned that beaming smile on Lily. “This wine is ambrosia; you will see.”
“That is doubtful,” she calmly replied. “I have never liked any wine.” She’d made that plain from the start, that she was an unnatural Frenchwoman who disliked the taste of wine. Her taste buds were deplorably plebeian. Lily, in fact, enjoyed a glass of wine, but when she was with Salvatore, she wasn’t Lily; she was Denise Morel, and Denise drank only coffee or bottled water.
Salvatore chuckled and said, “We shall see.” He did, however, order coffee for her.
This was her third date with Salvatore; from the beginning she had played it cooler than he wanted, refusing him the first two times he’d asked her out. That had been a calculated risk, one designed to allay his caution. Salvatore was accustomed to people seeking his attention, his favor; he wasn’t accustomed at all to being turned down. Her seeming lack of interest in him had piqued his own interest, because that was the thing about powerful people: they expected others to pay attention to them. She also refused to cater to his tastes, as in the wine. On their two previous dates he had tried to cajole her into tasting his wine, and she had adamantly refused. He had never before been with a woman who didn’t automatically try to please him, and he was intrigued by her aloofness.
She hated being with him, hated having to smile at him, chat with him, endure even his most casual touch. For the most part she’d managed to control her grief, forcing herself to concentrate on her course of action, but sometimes she was so sick with anger and pain that it was all she could do not to attack him with her bare hands.
She’d have shot him if she could, but his protection was excellent. She was routinely searched before being allowed anywhere near him; even their first two meetings had been at social occasions where all the guests were searched beforehand. Salvatore never got into a car in the open; his driver always pulled under a protected portico for him to enter, and he never went anywhere that required him to make an unprotected exit from the vehicle. If such an exit wasn’t possible, then he didn’t go. Lily thought he must have a secure, secret exit from his house here in Paris, so that he could move about without anyone knowing, but if he did, she hadn’t spotted it yet.
This restaurant was his favorite, because it had a private, covered entrance that most of the patrons used. The establishment was also exclusive; the waiting list was long, and mostly ignored. The diners here paid well for a place that was familiar and safe, and the manager went to some lengths to ensure that safety. There were no tables by the front windows; instead there were banks of flowers. Brick columns throughout the dining floor broke up the space, interfering with any direct line of sight through the windows. The effect was both cozy and expensive. An army of black-suited waiters wove in and out among the tables, topping off wineglasses, emptying ashtrays, scraping away crumbs, and generally fulfilling every wish before most of them were even voiced. Outside, the street was lined with cars that had reinforced steel doors, bulletproof glass, and armored bottoms. Inside the cars were armed bodyguards who zealously watched the street and the windows of the neighboring buildings for any threat, real or otherwise.