Mistress of the Game

Chapter 2

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DARK HARBOR, MAINE. 1984

DANNY CORRETTI LOOKED DOWN THROUGH THE branches at the swirling mass of people below and felt gripped by a wave of vertigo.

"What the hell are we doing here?"

Closing his eyes, he tightened his grip around the ancient yew tree, making sure both he and his camera remained concealed in the thick green foliage.

"Making money," his companion whispered excitedly. "Look, there she is!"

"Where?"

Following his friend's line of vision, Danny Corretti trained his zoom lens on a figure huddled in the very center of the crowd of mourners. Dressed head to toe in black, with a thick, floor-length lace mantilla covering her immaculately cut Dior suit, it was impossible to make out her face. She could have been anyone. But she wasn't anyone.

"Are you kidding me?" Danny Corretti frowned. Below him the churchyard seemed to lurch ominously, the ancient graves rising and falling like horses on a ghoulish carousel. "I can't see shit. Are you sure it's her? It could be Johnny Carson under all that lace."

His companion grinned. "Not with that ass it couldn't. It's her all right."

From the tree to his left, Danny Corretti heard the low whir, whir, click of a rival camera. Refocusing his zoom, he began to shoot.

Come on, baby. Give Daddy a smile.

A clear shot of Eve Blackwell's face would be worth a cool hundred grand to whichever photographer got there first. Anyone skilled enough to capture her elusive baby bump could expect to earn twice that.

Two hundred grand!

Not a lot of money to the Blackwells perhaps, heirs to multibillion-dollar Kruger-Brent, Ltd., the diamond empire turned vast, multinational conglomerate that had made them the richest family in America; but a fortune to Danny Corretti. It was the Blackwells who had brought Danny and his fellow paparazzi to St. Stephen's churchyard on this chill February morning. They had come to bury their matriarch, Kate Blackwell, dead at last at the grand old age of ninety-two.

Look at them. Like bloated blackflies, swarming around the old lady's corpse. Revolting.

Danny Corretti felt his nausea return, but tried not to think about it, or about the excruciating pain in his back from being stuck up a tree for six straight hours. He longed to stretch out, but didn't dare move a muscle, in case he alerted the Kruger-Brent security guards to his presence. Watching the dour, black-clad figures pace the perimeter of the churchyard, pistols clutched like security blankets to their ex-Marine Corps chests, Danny Corretti felt a stab of fear. He doubted Kate Blackwell had hired any of them for their sense of humor.

You'll be okay. Just get the shot and get out of here. Come on, Eve, baby. Say cheese.

Danny Corretti wasn't really cut out for this sort of covert work. A tall, skinny man with preternaturally long legs and an unexpected shock of white-blond hair above his Italian olive complexion, there weren't too many hiding places in the Maine churchyard that could accommodate his lanky, six-foot-two frame. The yew tree had been his best option, but he'd had to arrive ludicrously early this morning to beat his rivals to such a coveted vantage point. As he clung to the upper branches now, every sinew of his body felt like it was on fire, despite the numbing cold of the day. He gritted his teeth, cursing his long legs to the heavens.

Just think of the money.

Ironically, if it weren't for his long legs, Danny wouldn't have been on this crazy job in the first place.

If it hadn't been for Danny's long legs, his mistress's husband would never have noticed his size-twelve feet sticking out from under the marital bed.

Ah, Carla. God, she was beautiful! Those breasts, as soft and succulent as two ripe peaches. No man could resist her. If only that neanderthal she married hadn't punched out early…

It was Danny's long legs that had gotten him beaten to a pulp and landed him (uninsured) in the local hospital. Thanks to his long legs, his wife, Loretta, had discovered his affair, divorced him, and taken the house. Now, thanks to his long legs, Loretta's rat-faced lawyer was demanding that Danny pay alimony to the tune of a thousand bucks a month.

A thousand bucks? Who did they think he was, Donald friggin' Trump?

Yes, Danny blamed his long legs entirely for his current predicament. Why else would he be spending his Sunday morning bent double and freezing his ass off in a four-hundred-year-old tree above a graveyard, risking his neck for one lousy picture of the woman the tabloids had dubbed "The Beast of the Blackwells"?

Danny Corretti's long legs had a lot to answer for.

He was gonna get that shot of Eve Blackwell if it killed him.

The priest's voice rang out through the February chill, deep and strong and powerful.

"Merciful God, you know the anguish of the sorrowful…"

Behind her thick veil, Eve Blackwell sneered. Sorrowful? To see that old witch dead and buried? Please. If I were ten years younger I'd be doing cartwheels.

Today Eve was burying one of her enemies. But she would not rest until she had buried them all.

One down, three to go.

"You are attentive to the prayers of the humble…"

Eve Blackwell glanced around at the small group of family and friends who had come to bid her grandmother Kate farewell and wondered if any of them could be described as humble.

There was her identical twin sister, Alexandra. At thirty-four, Alexandra was still a great beauty with her high cheekbones, mane of buttermilk hair and the striking gray eyes she had inherited from her great-grandfather, Kruger-Brent's founder, Jamie McGregor.

Eve's eyes narrowed with hatred. The same hatred she had felt for her twin since the day they emerged from the womb.

How dare she! How dare my sister still look beautiful.

Alexandra was weeping openly, clutching tightly to her son Robert's hand. Blond, delicate and sweet-natured, ten-year-old Robert was a carbon copy of his mother. A gifted pianist, he had been Kate Blackwell's favorite, and Kruger-Brent's heir apparent.

Not for much longer, thought Eve. Let's see how long the boy lasts without Kate around to protect him.

Eve Blackwell felt her chest tighten. How she loathed the pair of them, mother and son and their crocodile tears! If only it were Alexandra's body being lowered into the gaping, frozen earth today. Then Eve's happiness would truly be complete.

Beside Alexandra hovered her husband, the eminent psychiatrist Peter Templeton. Tall, dark, handsome and blue-eyed, Peter Templeton looked more like a quarterback than a psychiatrist. He and Alex made a handsome couple. Peter had once been arrogant enough to think he understood Eve. He believed he'd seen through her, through to the molten core of hatred that bubbled deep within. Alexandra, in her goodness, had never been able to see how much her twin sister hated her. But her husband knew better.

Eve smiled.

Vain fool. He thinks he knows me, but he's barely scratched the surface.

No, the priest would find no humility in Peter Templeton.

What about her own husband, the eminent plastic surgeon Keith Webster? Many people thought of Keith Webster as humble. Eve could hear his grateful patients now: "Dear Dr. Webster, such a gifted surgeon, but so shy and unassuming about his talents." Eve felt her flesh creep as Keith wrapped a protective, conjugal arm around her shoulder.

Protective? He's not protective. He's possessive. And psychotic. He blackmailed me into marriage, then deliberately destroyed my face, carving up my beautiful features and turning me into this grotesque, this creature from a carnival freak show. All so that I wouldn't leave him.

One day I'll make that bastard pay for what he's done.

Eve Blackwell was many things, but she was not stupid. She knew that the trees and bushes around St. Stephen's Church were alive with photographers, and she knew why: they all wanted a picture of her hideously ravaged face.

Well, they could go to hell, the lot of them. From behind, you could still make out Eve's perfect, womanly figure. But her front side was completely concealed. No lens on earth could penetrate the thick, hand-woven lace of her veil. Eve had made sure of it.

Once a renowned beauty, in recent years Eve Blackwell had become a virtual recluse in her Manhattan penthouse, terrified of showing her monstrously scarred face to the world. Indeed, she had not been seen in public for two years. The last time was at her grandmother's ninetieth birthday party at Cedar Hill House, the Blackwell family's private Camelot, just yards from where the old woman was now being laid to rest.

Kate Blackwell was the lucky one. She'd gone to join her beloved ghosts: Jamie, Margaret, Banda, David, the spirits of Kruger-Brent's long and violent African past. But there was to be no such rest for Eve. With rumors already flying about her pregnancy – Eve and Alexandra Blackwell were both expecting, but the family had refused to confirm this to the press – Eve was well aware that the price on her head had doubled. There wasn't a tabloid editor in America who wouldn't sell his soul for a half-decent picture of the Beast of the Blackwells with child.

And to think, they call me a monster…

"Lord, hear Your people, who cry out to You in their need…"

Eve watched silently as Kate Blackwell's coffin was lowered into the freshly dug grave. Brad Rogers, Kate's number two at Kruger-Brent for three decades, stifled a sob. Now a very old man himself, his hair as white and thin as the dusting of February snow beneath his feet, Brad Rogers had been all but broken by Kate's death. Secretly he had loved her for years. But it was a love she could never return.

How tiny she is! thought Eve in wonder as the pathetic wooden box disappeared into the bowels of the earth. Kate Blackwell, who had loomed so large in life, feted by presidents and kings. How insignificant she was, in the end.

Not much of a feast for the worms of your beloved Dark Harbor, are you, Granny?

For years, Kate Blackwell had been Eve's nemesis. She'd done everything in her power to prevent her wicked granddaughter from achieving her life's ambition – taking control of the family firm, the mighty Kruger-Brent.

But now Kate Blackwell was gone.

"Eternal rest grant to her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her."

Good riddance, you vengeful old bitch. I hope you rot in hell.

"May she rest in peace."

Danny Corretti looked miserably at the negatives in front of him. His back was still killing him after this morning, and now he felt a migraine coming on.

"You get anything?"

His friend tried to sound hopeful. But he already knew the answer.

None of them had gotten the two-hundred-thousand-dollar picture.

Eve Blackwell had outsmarted them all.

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