Gabriel would have known this was Don Sanchez just by the aura of power the man exuded. The Mexican drug lord was forty-five, heavy-featured, dark-jowled. His eyes were an uncanny light brown—almost amber. Tiger’s eyes, Gabriel thought. Unlike Botelli, who went for the bling, Sanchez was dressed in simple, almost severe, black. No rings, no flashy cufflinks or shirt studs, nothing but a single pin gleaming like a tiny captured star in the man’s exquisitely tailored jacket lapel.
Glancing about, Gabriel fixed a picture of Botelli’s soldiers’
positions in relation to Sanchez’s outfit. They appeared to be pretty evenly matched. He turned back to the limo in time to see another man emerge from the vehicle and straighten, disconnecting the cell phone call that had delayed him.
The pavement seemed to shift beneath Gabriel’s feet as he stared down into familiar dark eyes. No damn way. His heart leapt into his throat. He blinked. Risked another look. Eyes as rich as espresso met his own—and widened in mirrored shock.
Tall, Dark and Handsome from the Club Madrone was one of Don Sanchez’s lieutenants!
It took Gabriel a moment to absorb it, like a body blow. He recovered quickly, though. Neither he nor Sanchez’s man was in any position to betray the other.
Sanchez’s lieutenant stared straight back, eyes narrowed, a twisted half smile on those sensual lips—and the memory of that sexy, hungry mouth on his body turned Gabriel’s face hot.
He stared through the other man as though he were invisible.
Gabriel forced himself to show nothing at the sight of the tall, lean, elegantly clad figure strolling beside Sanchez toward the stairs. He wore a shoulder holster so finely made that it barely disturbed the cut of his classic black tux. Botella boots and a Movado watch; it was no secret that Sanchez paid well. This man exuded a tough but suave confidence, a genuine presence.
He could easily have passed for the real man of position and importance in that group of thugs.
The stranger leaned forward and murmured something into Sanchez’s ear. Sanchez smiled, incredibly, making him even less attractive. And his lieutenant chuckled—that deep velvet laugh Gabriel remembered only too well. It sent a shudder of pleasurable memory down his spine.
Sanchez’s men fell into position around him as they mounted the stairs. Botelli’s own men tensed, shifted, readying themselves. Botelli was smiling widely, but Gabriel could see the bead of sweat trickling down his jowl.
Gabriel glanced again at Sanchez’s lieutenant and met a burning stare. Gabriel forced a cocky grin to his face. The other man’s eyes flickered, and he looked away—and Gabriel relaxed a fraction, forcing his attention back onto the job.
Botelli had arranged the meet so that he would have the advantage of standing on the upper level with Sanchez and his men on the stairs below, but Sanchez and his men just kept marching up the steps, and Botelli and his crew were forced to fall back a few feet—and then a few feet further—until they were all the way inside the marble foyer.
“Don Jesus.” Botelli planted his feet and held a pudgy hand out in greeting. “You honor my home.” His black eyes ran briefly over Sanchez’s lieutenants. “Gentlemen.”
Unsmiling, Sanchez accepted the handshake. “Ricco. I’ve looked forward to this day.” He nodded curtly to the tall, handsome man at his side. “My second-in-command, Miguel Ortega.”
Ortega. Miguel Ortega. Why wasn’t he in any of the files Gabriel had seen on Sanchez’s organization?
Botelli inclined his head politely, but made no move to shake hands. He gestured to his own underboss. “Michelangelo Rizzi.”
The two lieutenants sized each other up with impassive faces.
Sanchez’s tawny gaze moved past Botelli and his entourage to the service staff milling in the background. He said abruptly,
“Where’s Gina?” A hint of color came into his face.
“I’m…looking forward to seeing my future bride.”
Anxious was more like it, and abruptly Gabriel realized that Botelli did indeed have some leverage. Sanchez wanted Gina all right; regardless of what this marriage meant to the Botellis, it was the real thing for Sanchez.
And Botelli knew it too. He ushered his guests forward, saying smoothly in what Gabriel always thought of as his snake oil salesman voice, “Gina will join us shortly, Don Jesus. You know girls. And this is a very special evening for Gina. She wants to look her best.”
Sanchez murmured, “I do so like pretty things.”
Botelli motioned for a server to approach, and Sanchez accepted a fluted glass of champagne. His men stood wordlessly by, refusing to even acknowledge the offer, while Botelli’s crew accepted the champagne with the air of men making a point. Gabriel took a glass and made an effort not to look Ortega’s way.
Sipping his champagne, Sanchez smiled—at his own thoughts—and Gabriel thought that white flash of teeth was more chilling than the tiger’s blank stare. He unobtrusively studied the man’s scarred, walnut-dark face, his nose obviously broken more than once. His face bore the legacy of a violent life. The brutal face of a brutal man.
Gabriel risked a look at Ortega. The man was staring expressionlessly at him. Gabriel stared stonily back. He had to be good at reading people to stay alive. Yet, never in a million years would he have pegged Ortega as a murderer or a drug dealer. Despite the rough sex and domineering attitude, he’d shown…gentleness. Had been almost loving. He’d read Gabriel like a bedtime story, understood every single secret desire and wish—and granted them generously.
Gabriel swallowed a mouthful of champagne. It could have been battery acid for all he knew.
Strands of classical music drifted out the open double doors leading into the ballroom. Partygoers were arriving now, a line of expensive cars pulling up the long, shady drive and fashionably dressed guests entering the mansion, smiling pleasantly and vaguely at their host, though most of them probably didn’t know Botelli from Adam. Botelli ignored them, his attention fixed on his guest of honor, who sipped champagne and looked around the gracious room as though taking inventory.
Giggles and high voices bounced off the marble floor and vaulted ceiling. Even Sanchez’s posse turned a few unsmiling faces to see the new arrivals. Gabriel recognized several of Gina’s spoiled and brainless jet-setting pals in the most recent wave of arrivals.
Botelli selected a canapé from another circling server, shoved it in his mouth, speaking through the crumbs. “Don Jesus, I thought we might take some time and discuss a little business before my sister joins us.” He gestured down the Aubusson-carpeted hallway where his study was located. “We can—”