Gabriel turned his head to level a murderous stare, but Ortega was already striding away, following the others into the ballroom behind Sanchez and Gina.
Gabriel gave himself a few moments to compose himself.
Losing his temper would just be stupid. But between Gina and Ortega this was going to be one very long night.
From the ballroom doorway he could see Sanchez’s second in command chatting with one of Gina’s bosom buddies, a stunning blond woman in a skimpy red sheath.
Gabriel straightened his shoulders and joined the party.
The champagne was very good. Crisp and dry and appropriately chilled although Gabriel was mostly just pretending to drink it.
He liked the way the tiny bubbles tickled the roof of his mouth, though, with a slight burn, almost like a lover’s tongue.
He had spent three hours ostensibly trailing Gina around the crowded room, staying close enough so her brother was happy with her protection, but well out of arm’s reach. His real target for the night had to be Don Sanchez, but he was very careful in how much attention he seemed to be paying the drug lord.
Unfortunately, Gina had put him squarely on Sanchez’s radar—the very last place he wanted to be. He could feel that tawny, narrow gaze following him. He made sure he stayed well in the background for the rest of the evening, taking sparing sips of champagne, silently watching everyone and everything.
Of course, part of watching everyone and everything meant watching Miguel Ortega talking and flirting with women in the packed room. Women were going gaga. Gabriel had seen at least two notes slipped into the underboss’s pocket, one placed there by a local judge’s wife. Justice really was blind it seemed.
Ortega had accepted them all with a sizzling smile and a boyish wink. Sophisticated women giggled like schoolgirls as he skillfully brushed them off. For some illogical reason, the brushoffs pissed Gabriel even more than if the man had taken advantage of all he was offered. But then maybe he would be taking advantage. Just because he didn’t drag these bimbos off upstairs the minute they offered to put out didn’t mean he wouldn’t accept an offer or two later when he was off the clock.
Glancing around the room, wall-to-wall with black tuxedos and jewel-colored evening gowns, Gabriel located Gina in the center of a group of her fawning friends, waggling her newly acquired diamond engagement ring under their cosmetically enhanced noses. The rock covered the entire segment of bone on her ring finger, a rectangular emerald-cut diamond so massive that it looked fake. Gina’s friends oohed and aahed while Gina pretended to heft her hand like she was determining just how heavy a stone it was and how much she could get for it.
Gabriel snorted a laugh into his drink. She was fine. He could take a turn around the patio and get some fresh air.
He turned away and nearly careened into a woman standing too close behind him. Her companion’s hand shot out, grabbing his glass before he dumped the contents down the woman’s long, bare back. Instead, the alcohol sloshed down the front of his trousers.
“Shit!” Gabriel gasped at the cold liquid soaking into his clothes. An offended, overly made-up face turned his way.
“Sorry, Mrs. Ross,” he apologized quickly to the judge’s startled wife. “Please forgive me. I wasn’t watching where I was going.” He tried to disarm her glassy glare with his best contrite schoolboy smile. Mrs. Ross peered at him, then tittered.
Gabriel glanced at her companion. Miguel Ortega held Gabriel’s empty glass, which he tilted in a mock toast, though whether it was aimed at Gabriel or Mrs. Ross was unclear. He handed the glass off to a waiting server and took a fresh one for himself.
“You should be more careful,” Mrs. Ross informed Gabriel severely.
“He should,” Ortega agreed, studying Gabriel with pseudo gravity.
“We could all afford to be a more careful,” Gabriel retorted.
Ortega’s eyes flickered. “That is true,” he said. To Mrs. Ross he added smoothly, “In fact, I believe I must speak to Mr.
Contadino about some of this evening’s security measures.”
“Oh, but surely…?” Mrs. Ross protested, her expression absurdly crestfallen.
Ortega, however, had already fastened his free hand on Gabriel’s shoulder, making his excuses to the woman and steering Gabriel away.
Or trying to. As soon as they were safely out of Mrs. Ross’s clutches, Gabriel attempted to slide from under Ortega’s grip.
Ortega’s hand tightened.
Gabriel said shortly, “D’you mind?”
Ortega cocked an elegant eyebrow. “I thought you liked the hands-on approach.”
Gabriel stopped walking. “If you don’t want a broken wrist, take your hand off my shoulder.”
The hand clamped on his shoulder relaxed, smoothing its way across his shoulder and lightly down his biceps. Gabriel felt the touch as acutely as though it were caressing his bare skin. “I’m sorry.” Ortega took a sip from his own nearly full glass—not quite managing to hide his smile. “I nearly forgot. You’re not the sentimental type, are you, Giovanni. Or do you prefer to be called G?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t talk to me about anything that isn’t business related.” Gabriel smiled insincerely, pitching his voice as if he and Ortega were having a casual chat. “Now, say whatever it is you have to say because I need to go change my clothes.”
Ortega’s brows rose. “And here I imagined I was rescuing you.”
“By dumping a drink down my pants? Wow. Did you think my crotch was on fire?”
Ortega choked on his champagne.
Gabriel lifted a hand in greeting to Gina, ignoring her peremptory gesture for him to join her and her friends.
Ortega, having recovered from his amusement, pretended to give his own question thought. “Hmm. Since I prefer gatito I think I will use Señorita Gina’s endearment for you.” He graced Gabriel with that twisted sardonic half smile again. “G can stand for so many things, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” Gabriel returned. “Get lost. Get out of my face. Gorilla.
Goddamn you. So many words, so little time. And what do I call you? A for ass-wipe? B for bastard? C for—?” He grinned, laughed too loudly, and clapped Ortega on the shoulder, jostling his drink.
Ortega seemed to be ready for him, though, and Gabriel was unsuccessful in dumping the other man’s champagne on him.