“You got lucky, my friend.”
Matthew took his eyes from the young women retreating toward the ballroom and turned to Alain St. Jacques, his counterpart in the French intelligence service. Alain had been ready to step in and claim his own kiss before Sammi whipped her friend away. And who could blame him.
The friend—tall in her sequin-studded stiletto heels, wearing a silky, shimmery dress in more screaming red, with a skirt that swirled around legs that looked like they belonged on a Rockette. His pulse thumped, then raced, when he’d seen her on the CCTV from the security office upstairs.
“Lucky. Or played.”
“Played?” Alaine shook his head.“What are you talking about?”
“It could have been an act.” Although the way her initially tense body had relaxed into his...
“That did not appear faked,” Alain said, chuffing out a laugh. “And what would be the purpose?”
Matthew glanced over his shoulder, then pulled his friend aside. “We received a bulletin of an imminent cyber threat on U.S. embassies over the holidays.”
“Yes, we were made aware as well, but what makes you think the ambassador’s daughter’s friend would have anything to do with such a threat?” His lips curved into a quick grin. “Although with her physique,” he waved his hands in an hourglass shape, “she maybe would start a fire.”
Matthew stopped his eyes from rolling. Alain’s English was near perfect, but some of the idioms escaped him, and jokes rarely translated well. “You’ve heard of Epsilon?”
“Oui, of course. Young American woman, a hacker who has been terrorizing the security agencies’ websites for the last half of the year.” His eyebrows shot higher into his forehead. “You believe that woman could be Epsilon?”
“She matches the profile. Medium blonde hair, tall. Plus I found out she’s a professor of math, so presumably a whiz with numbers and statistics. Epsilon is a math symbol.”
Alain grunted. “That could describe thousands of young women.”
“Epsilon has a tat on her left ankle. So did the friend, coincidentally an Epsilon.” At least he thought it was the mathematical symbol. Or maybe an angel. Whatever. “That narrows the odds significantly.”
“You haven’t been paying attention, Matthew. Tattoos are very common today among young women. Besides, if this woman truly is Epsilon, why would she advertise herself like that? And why would she come out from the shadows, and in so public a place?”
“From what we know of her, she likes pushing the envelope.”
“Envelope?” Alaine’s brow creased.
“She likes the thrill of taunting law enforcement. She sends tips before her attacks, certain, of course, that she won’t be discovered. So far she’s been right, but she’ll slip up.” And that round of repartee before that epic kiss would be just the sort of thing Epsilon would do—boldly admit her status while couching it as a tease, ending it with that coarse invitation to warm her sheets.
Matthew shifted his weight as his body reacted to the thought of seeing her satiny gold hair spilled across his pillow, the possibility of following the end of the thin strand of diamonds around her neck to where it disappeared into her cleavage...
He shook his head to refocus his dangerous thoughts. It might be a miniscule chance that Sammi’s friend posed a threat, but it would be foolish to fall victim to a Mata Hari-type ploy as old as time. And the threat was very real.
Although the holiday gala hosted by Ambassador Misra and her family was a private event, the chatter about an impending cyber attack on U.S. embassies over the holidays was enough to warrant a tripling of their normal security protocols. The geeks were hard at work behind the scenes monitoring activity on their servers, but they couldn’t, and wouldn’t, ignore the human threat or the value of human intelligence. And with only two weeks left of his assignment, before he headed back home for his new job in the New York Office, he didn’t want to leave any loose ends, or any bad results.
He hadn’t expected any action this evening but had been monitoring the arriving guests via the CCTV from the security office. The security detail wasn’t thrilled with his armchair quarterbacking, but he’d decided an extra set of eyes couldn’t hurt. He’d been watching for more than a half hour and was starting to zone out when she appeared—crossing the threshold, beaming like a child whose greatest desires had been granted as she handed a satiny wrap to the agent at the door who was disguised in 18th Century garb of the French Court.
Matthew wasn’t normally given to impulse, but his senses had kicked into high alert, and he’d nearly killed himself to get to her before she disappeared into the crowd. Meeting her under the mistletoe had been pure chance, one he decided to take full advantage of. Up close and personal—what better way to vet a potential spy.
Operatives were trained to act naive and gullible, seducible, when the role called for it. Still, it would take a consummate pro to manufacture the jack-hammering of her heart as they’d shared that brief but heated kiss. If that was faked, he’d turn in his “man” card and join a monastery. Still...
“A woman traveling with a U.S. passport who can easily slip past the notice of law enforcement who are searching for cyber terrorists—it’s a no brainer. Until I can prove otherwise, she’s a suspect.”
A dubious expression passed over Alaine’s face. “That’s a—what do you call it...an implausibility?”
“Yes, a stretch, to think she is one and the same. We’ve never seen Epsilon’s face, not fully, only dim, shadowed profiles. And it is highly unlikely that Sammi, or her mother, would invite a spy into their lives.”
Matthew sighed as he texted an encrypted message to the cyber guys. Possible Epsilon sighting. Photos to come. He’d pull stills from the security footage for them to run through their facial recognition software.
“Invite? No. But would they really know if an ‘oldest, closest, best friend’ had been hiding an agenda. She wouldn’t be the first young American to have developed an anti-government passion.”
“I don’t know, Matthew,” Alain said with a shake of his head, “I think it is you who are pushing the envelope with this crazy theory.”
“Could be crazy, but can I risk even the slightest chance that I’m right?”
When Alain responded with a shrug, he continued, “I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t do everything I could to keep the embassy safe.”
“So, how can I help?”
“I need you to head to the security office and have them pull the stills of her entering. The guys will know what to do with them.”
“And while I’m doing your job, you’ll be keeping an eye on this so-called suspect?”
Matthew shrugged. “Someone has to do it.”
Tessa didn’t know how long she sat, hiding in the alcove, after Sammi ran off to help her mother. As the moments passed, she tried to convince herself that her friend’s understanding of the nuances of the French language must be wrong. That she hadn’t uttered a terribly vulgar phrase to a total stranger, making her want to shrink, or disappear...or run anywhere but here.
But the man’s reaction said otherwise—that stunned expression turned quizzical, then...interested. The way he took her into his arms and pulled her close. That kiss...
That voice. His. He’d found her.
She opened her eyes to see shiny black shoes about a half a yard away, then forced herself to lift her gaze to meet his hot-chocolate eyes. They narrowed on her, like he was waiting for her to suffer another round of foot-in-mouth disease. She debated for a moment whether to apologize for her earlier error, then decided bringing her faux pas to the surface would only rekindle her humiliation.
Lifting her chin, she stretched her mouth into a grin while her stampeding heart threatened to explode from her chest. “Hello again...I’m terribly sorry. I’ve already forgotten your name.” With the lie, a flush crawled from her chest up her throat. “It’s my biggest fault...bad memory...for names.” Even in English she couldn’t stop babbling.
His only reaction was another twitching of that mouth as he offered his hand. “Matthew Durand. Wonderful to meet you again.”
“And you.” She cleared her throat and glanced down to the chaise. “Um, I was just resting a moment while Sammi is off doing...whatever it is she has to do.”
“Resting?” His pitch had lifted. “You look far too healthy to be resting during a party.”
When she gave him a limp smile in return, he offered his hand again. “Come. Dance with me. These embassy parties can be interminably dull.”
“Dance?” Again her voice squeaked.
He stuck his hand in her face again. “Please, Ms. Baxter, don’t make me beg.”
Please come back tomorrow for the conclusion to "Found in Translation."