Gabriel Hunt tugged at the tight collar around his neck and grimaced as he failed to loosen it. He stuck the thumb of his other hand inside the cummerbund cinched around his waist and pulled it out a little.

"I hate tuxedos," he muttered.

His brother Michael leaned closer to him. Without altering the beaming smile on his face, Michael said from the corner of his mouth, "Stop fidgeting."

"Easy for you to say, yours probably fits."

"You could have had one made as well," Michael said. "Thomas would have been delighted. If instead you choose to rent from some off-the-rack dealer..."

"Best part of wearing a tuxedo’s getting to give the damn thing back," Gabriel said. Then he spotted something that interested him more than the collar’s constraints.

Someone, actually.

The loveliest woman he had seen in quite some time.

She moved toward the Hunt brothers, her natural grace allowing her to glide with apparent ease through the crowd that thronged the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was as beautiful as any of the masterpieces hung on the walls in the museum’s many galleries.

A mass of midnight-black curls framed a compelling, high-cheekboned face dominated by dark, intense eyes. Those curls tumbled over honey-skinned shoulders left bare by the strapless evening gown of dark green silk that clung to the generous curves of her body. She possessed a timeless, natural beauty that was more attractive to Gabriel than anything the multitude of stick-thin, facelifted society women attending this reception could ever muster.

And she appeared to be coming straight toward him.

"Who’s that?" Gabriel asked his brother.

"I have no idea," Michael replied. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before."

"You’d remember if you had," Gabriel said. "I thought you knew everyone here."

Tonight’s reception was in honor of a new exhibit of Egyptian art and artifacts, many of which the Hunt Foundation had provided on loan to the museum. Gabriel had brought several of those artifacts back with him from a recent trip to Egypt—some of them even with the knowledge of the Egyptian government. The exhibit would open to the public the next day, but tonight was an advance showing for the museum’s wealthiest benefactors.

Gabriel snagged a couple of glasses of champagne from a tray carried by a passing waiter. The beautiful young woman might be thirsty, and if she was, he was going to be ready.

"What’s that she’s carrying?" Michael asked in an undertone.

It was Gabriel’s turn to say, "I have no idea." Instead of some glittery, fashionable purse, the young woman carried a cloth-wrapped bundle of some sort. The cloth was a faded red, and to Gabriel’s eye, it appeared old. The fabric looked distressed, the edges frayed.

A waiter moved in front of her, offering her a drink. She shook her head and looked irritated that the man had interrupted her progress across the hall. When Gabriel saw that, he tossed back the champagne in one of the glasses he held, then pressed the other into Michael’s hand.

Either the lady didn’t drink, or she had something else on her mind at the moment.

Gabriel set the empty glass on a pedestal supporting a clay vase, then turned to greet the young woman with a smile as she finally reached the spot where he and Michael were standing, near one of the pillars that ran along the sides of the hall.

"Señor Hunt?" she said. He caught a hint of a South American accent, but only a hint.

"That’s right," Gabriel said, but before he could ask her who she was, she spoke again.

"Señor Michael Hunt?"

Gabriel shot a sidelong glance Michael’s way and Michael stepped forward, smiling. Shorter, younger, and studious-looking rather than ruggedly handsome, he was accustomed to paling into insignificance next to his more dynamic older brother. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

"I’m Michael Hunt," he said. "And you are...?"

"My name is Mariella Montez," she told him.

"And what can I do for you, Miss Montez?"

Before she could reply, the waiter who had stopped her on her way across the hall appeared behind her sleek, bare left shoulder. "Excuse me, ma’am, but I believe you dropped this."

With an annoyed look again on her face, she turned toward the red-jacketed man and said, "I didn’t drop anything—"

But what the waiter was extending toward her was a pistol, aimed directly between her ample breasts. He reached out with his other hand to snatch the bundle she was carrying.

Mariella jerked back and said, "No!"

Incredulous and instantly tensed for trouble, Gabriel stepped between Mariella and the waiter. "Hey, buddy, put that thing down. This is a museum, not a firing range."

"This is not your concern," the waiter said, and swung the pistol at Gabriel’s head.

Instinct brought Gabriel’s left arm up to block the blow. His right fist shot up and out in a short, sharp punch that rocked the waiter’s head back and bloodied his nose.

With his now crimson-smeared face contorted with anger, the waiter swung again. This time he slashed at Gabriel’s throat. Gabriel leaped backwards and collided with the young woman.

Such a collision might have been pleasurable under other circumstances, but not now. Not with a madman of a waiter swinging a gun that he could just as easily start firing at any moment.

Gabriel felt Mariella push him away, then say, "Señor Hunt, you must take this!" But she wasn’t talking to him. He heard Michael, behind him, saying, "What is it?" She was probably trying to give Michael the cloth-wrapped bundle, whatever it was. Gabriel didn’t have the time to check whether the hand-off had been successful. Instead, he lowered his head and tackled the waiter around the waist, driving the man off his feet. The gun went off as they fell, the bullet shattering a pane of glass in the ceiling twenty feet overhead.

Commotion filled the Great Hall as shards of glass rained down. Some men yelled and pushed forward, demanding to know what was going on. Others scurried out of the way, trampling on the trailing edges of their dates’ expensive gowns in their rush to steer clear of the fray. Security guards ran toward the scene of the struggle.

Gabriel knocked the gun out of the waiter’s hand, but the waiter darted in under Gabriel’s guard, wrapped his fists around Gabriel’s throat, and squeezed with a grip like a dockworker’s. Gabriel heaved himself off the marble-tiled floor and rolled over in an attempt to break the man’s hold. The waiter hung on stubbornly.

Rolling over and then over again, the two men crashed into a pedestal—the same pedestal, in fact, where Gabriel had placed his empty champagne glass a few minutes earlier. It fell to the ground and shattered, spraying shrapnel.

The Egyptian vase that stood on the pedestal was heavier and didn’t fall immediately—but Gabriel noted with a surge of concern as it started to topple.

It wasn’t fabulously rare or valuable—otherwise it would have been safely behind glass or at least velvet ropes. But it was old, and Gabriel watched its growing tilt with alarm.

As the vase tipped over, he let go of the waiter’s forearms and shot out a hand to catch it. It landed in his palm, just an inch above the stone floor. One more inch and it would have been a pile of worthless shards, like the shattered window overhead. He lowered it gently.

Meanwhile, though, the waiter had gone on with his attempt to squeeze what little air still remained in Gabriel’s lungs out of his body. A red haze was starting to form over Gabriel’s vision and rockets were exploding behind his eyes from lack of oxygen. There were people all around them, but no one was reaching in to help—they seemed to be distracted by something else that was going on. Gabriel tried to call out to them, but found himself unable to get a sound out through his constricted throat.

If he hadn’t been wearing a goddamn tuxedo, he’d have had his Colt on him and maybe could have gotten to it. Or at least a knife—he’d have had something. As it is, he had nothing, except a cummerbund, a bowtie, and maybe a half-minute of consciousness left.

Ah, hell, Gabriel thought. Dust to dust.

With a heave, he smashed the vase over the head of the man trying to kill him.

The waiter slumped sideways, and his fingers slipped off Gabriel’s throat at last. Compared to their grip, the hated tuxedo collar suddenly felt luxurious. Gasping lungfuls of air, Gabriel sat up. He yanked his bowtie off and ripped his collar stud out, panting.

Then he took stock of the chaos all around him.

The waiter who’d attacked him wasn’t the only member of the service staff that seemed to have been overtaken by violent impulses. Several more red-jacketed men had pulled guns from under their jackets and now menaced the crowd, alternating between simply brandishing the weapons and firing them over everyone’s head. Smoke from their gunfire hung in the air, stinking of gunpowder and flame. Women screamed, men shouted curses, and vice versa. Everybody was scrambling to get out of the line of fire, though no two people seemed to agree on which direction was safest. As Gabriel leaped to his feet, he saw one man dive into an open stone sarcophagus. Then one of the waiters spotted a security guard leveling a gun at him and without hesitating shot the guard in the chest. Blood sprayed and the crowd screamed.

The gunman swung his automatic toward another guard. Racing up behind him, Gabriel ripped the cummerbund from around his own waist and, holding both ends, dropped it over the gunman’s head from behind. He jerked back hard just as the man squeezed the trigger. The shot slammed upward toward the vaulted ceiling and another window high above them splintered.

With the cummerbund forming a makeshift lasso around the gunman’s neck, Gabriel swung him face-first into one of the pillars. The crunching impact made the man go limp. Gabriel let go of one end of the cummerbund and allowed the unconscious man to fall to the floor.

Gabriel spun around to look for Michael. He caught a glimpse of his brother and Mariella at the far end of the room, fear-stricken guests dashing back and forth between him and them. Michael had the cloth-wrapped bundle tucked under one arm now, and with his other hand he held the woman’s wrist, trying to guide her through the chaos.

More gunshots blasted out, increasing the panic in the room. Gabriel didn’t know how many civilians had been hit so far, or whether any had been trampled in the stampede. But it was too optimistic to hope either number was zero.

From the street outside, he heard the sounds of police sirens approaching—but they sounded far away.

He started shouldering his way through the crowd in the direction of Michael and Mariella. He was still several yards away when one of the waiters appeared next to Michael and chopped at his head with a tightly held automatic. The blow landed with a hollow impact that Gabriel could hear even over the din in the vast room. Michael’s knees unhinged and he fell, letting go of the woman and dropping the bundle.

"Michael!" Gabriel roared. He fought his way forward.

Mariella screamed as another waiter grabbed her and started dragging her away. She twisted in his grip and punched him, a nice solid right hook. The blow was enough to knock her assailant back a step. She lunged toward the bundle Michael had dropped.

Before she could reach it, a fleeing woman passing by kicked the bundle and sent it rolling across the floor. The cloth unwrapped as it rolled. Gabriel caught a glimpse of the object the cloth had been protecting.

A whiskey bottle.

Mariella threw herself after the bottle, grabbing for it. The waiter who had pistol-whipped Michael was after the bottle, too. He threw people aside to get them out of his way. The automatic rose and fell as he used it to batter a path through the crowd. Mariella was about to snatch the bottle from the floor as the man reached her, grabbed the back of her dress, and hauled her up and shoved her away.

Gabriel finally made it to Michael’s side, bent to take hold of his brother’s arm and lift him to his feet. Michael was groggy but conscious, a trickle of blood worming down his face from a deep cut in his scalp.

"Can you stand?" Gabriel had to shout to get his attention.

Michael nodded, wincing at the pain the motion must have set off inside his head. Gabriel helped him lean against a pillar and told him to stay there, then headed for Mariella.

The crowd was beginning to thin a little, and Gabriel realized that one purpose of all the shooting had been to herd the throng of guests toward the museum’s front entrance, leaving more room for the waiters to go after Mariella. Several bodies lay crumpled on the floor and a few guests crouched cowering in the corners, but much of the high society crowd had already escaped and most of the remaining guests and museum staff were pressing and fighting to get out the doors.

Mariella was just fighting, period. Two more waiters had grabbed her, but they had their hands full holding her while the first one went after the whiskey bottle. She stamped on their feet and kicked at their legs and writhed in their grasp. Before Gabriel could get to her, she tore loose from her captors for a second and tackled the other waiter from behind. As he fell, his hand just missed the bottle he’d been reaching for.

"Get her off me!" the waiter roared to his associates.

The other two men latched on to her again, but by this time Gabriel was there, clubbing his hands together and smashing them into the back of one man’s neck. The man went down hard, as if every muscle in his body had gone limp.

Mariella twisted and clawed at the other man’s face, leaving red streaks on his cheeks. He threw his hands up as she feinted at his eyes, then she lifted a knee into his groin. He doubled over in agony.

That left only the waiter who was trying to retrieve the bottle, and unfortunately it left him free. He grabbed for it once more.

Mariella cried, "Stop him!" as Gabriel ran past her.

The waiter scooped up the bottle and turned with a satisfied smirk on his face. The expression didn’t last long because in the next second Gabriel’s fist crashed into his face.

As the man teetered, Gabriel got his first good look at him. He was big, well over six feet tall, with massive shoulders that strained the seams of the uniform jacket. He hadn’t gotten those shoulders carrying trays of champagne, nor was waitering likely to be how he’d acquired his broken nose or the network of scars along both cheeks and around his eyes.

The punch had momentum and all of Gabriel’s weight and strength behind it. Despite being bigger and heavier than Gabriel, the man reeled from the impact. His hands went up in the air...

And the whiskey bottle flew out of his grip, turning over and over as it soared high and then came crashing down to shatter on the marble floor in an explosion of glass and liquid.

Mariella Montez had just seen several men beaten and several more shot, and she’d watched it all without showing any abnormal distress, any grief. But now, as she saw the glass shatter and its contents lost, she screamed, a low, plaintive wail, as if her heart had been ripped out.

Copyright © 2009 by Winterfall LLC.

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