Basically, a high-society livestock show.
“It’s a very exclusive affair,” the host said as he led her to the table. He raised one eyebrow toward her. “Some grandniece or second cousin of the president.”
Lisa felt better. Surely, no one would dare intrude here. Crossing into the main dining room, she did her best not to hobble. Still, something must have shone in her face, maybe the sheen of her skin, something in her eye.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” the host asked as they reached the table, pulling a chair for her.
“I’m fine.” She offered him a smile, but it felt stiff on her face. “Just a long day of shopping.”
“Of course,” he said graciously, but his gaze flicked around her a bit, likely noticing her lack of a purse. “Were you expecting someone else?”
She checked her watch. Hopefully so. Painter had told her to find a spot and call him. He had a security detail already headed downtown to extract her. She picked up the menu—hopefully they’d also square her bill. She needed something stiff in a tall glass, no ice.
“I believe my party is running late,” Lisa said. “And I’m afraid I’ve forgotten my cell. Is there a house phone I might use?”
“I’d be happy to bring you one.”
“Perfect. Thank you.”
She sat back, soaking in the quiet chatter of the early dinner crowd. The restaurant had a colonial charm with its wood-beamed ceiling, oiled plank flooring, exposed brick walls, and a fireplace tall enough to climb into without ducking.
The host returned with a cell phone. She passed on a drink order to her waiter—a single malt whiskey. “The Macallan, please. The sixty-year-old.”
Expensive, but as a doctor, she prescribed it for herself anyway.
And this is definitely going on Sigma’s tab.
She dialed Painter’s secure line—not only to inform him about where she had holed up; she was also anxious to hear any news about Kat.
The connection clicked through. “Where are you?” he immediately asked.
She told him, including the address.
Painter sighed in relief. “The team is fifteen minutes out. Stay put.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
The waiter arrived with her drink. The whiskey trembled in the crystal as she held it. She took a sip to steady herself, letting the aged liquor evaporate along her tongue, heating all the way down.
“I’m safe here,” she said, attempting to reassure both Painter and herself. “I’ve got a drink, and I’m surrounded by people. The elite of Charleston.” She heard the tinkle of music flowing from the cotillion upstairs. “In fact, there’s a party going on here. Some distant relatives of President Gant. Then again, you probably can’t turn a stone over here in Charleston without finding someone related to that family.”
Painter’s next words came too fast, choking a bit. “Did any of them recognize you?”
An amused snort of disbelief escaped her. “Of course not. Why would anyone in the president’s family—?”
“Are you sure?”
The panic frosting his voice passed to her. She stared up toward the wood beams, hearing the thump of music, the trickle of laughter. She remembered the grande dame’s eyes glancing her way, the sudden whispers.
“Painter, what’s this about?”
“I want you to get out of there—right now.”
Lisa stared at the expensive drink in her hand. “I don’t have any way to pay. If I bolt now, I’ll cause a commotion, draw more attention to myself.”
And she wasn’t sure she could bolt, not with her ankle. Now that she’d been sitting a few minutes, even shifting her left leg sent shooting stabs of pain all the way to her hip.
She lowered her voice. “What aren’t you telling me? I can barely walk … I need to know what I’m facing.”
A short silence stretched. She imagined Painter rubbing a finger along that line between his brows, debating how much to say or calculating his next step. Over the years, that crease had gotten deeper as he sat in the director’s office—and all that rubbing wasn’t going to make it go away.
“Tell me,” she said, tired of all the half-truths and secrets.
He finally spoke, talking fast. “I haven’t told anyone this. Not Kat, not Gray, not anyone at Sigma. Not even you. It was just a dangerous suspicion before, but a few minutes ago, I got what I believe to be substantial verification.”
“About the Guild.”
Lisa went cold. She knew Painter had been concerned that Amanda’s plight could be tied to that deadly cartel. Did he have proof now?
Painter spoke his next words carefully, as if testing them aloud for the first time. “I know who is running the Guild.”
“It’s the president’s family.”
The shock took an extra moment to break through her. Surely Painter was joking. Her mind struggled to put all of the pieces together in her head, trying to comprehend how that could be true. She came to only one conclusion.
“That’s impossible,” Lisa said, her voice faint.
“That’s why I didn’t tell anyone—not until I knew the truth. I’ll explain more once you’re back in DC.” His next words hardened with warning. “But, Lisa, now you understand. I need you out of there, as silently as you can.”
Despite her fear, she fought against a stab of anger at him for keeping this secret from her—and not just from her. “What about Kat?”
“Don’t worry about her … just get out of that restaurant.”
Promising to do just that, she snapped the cell phone closed. She looked up toward the ceiling, still struggling to believe. She had to trust Painter was right. Readying herself, she downed the rest of the whiskey in a single gulp—a waste of such a fine single malt, but she needed the fortification.
She pushed gingerly back to her feet. One hand clasped to the back of her chair. There was no hiding her limp any longer. She hobbled back to the host’s station.
“Ma’am, are you sure you’re okay?”
No. Not in the slightest.
“I’m fine,” she lied and lifted the house phone. “Reception’s bad in there. Is it okay if I step outside to finish my call?”
“Of course. Let me help you.”
“No need.” She hurried toward the door and back out onto the street. She took a few steps, but the uneven cobbles proved too challenging. Her hobble became a fall.