The atmosphere stirred with a lively elegance at the lavish estate of Juniper Irving as her Gala moved into full swing. The front drive was lined with luxury cars and limousines as they deposited the many guests in their clean cut tuxedos and glamourous gowns.
Heads turned as Aurora glided from her car in a smooth, sultry motion; the fabric of her midnight blue gown fell over her shapely curves with a pleasant appeal. The flowing skirt lead the eye up to an intricate beaded pattern of silver leaves that reached over Aurora’s bare shoulders. Her curled locks of brown hair were twirled into a graceful updo, exposing the sapphire choker around her neck and a matching pair of earrings.
Aurora strolled to the front entrance with a confident stride; her dress flowing with the soft caress of the late summer breeze. With a trained eye she gave a subtle inquisitive glance to the exterior of the building. She could see no other entrances and windows that were too high from the ground to get in unnoticed with security guards scattered throughout the grounds. The abundant property line made the mansion the tallest building in the area, so getting in through the roof was not an option. She found herself wondering how Ranger planned to follow her without an invitation.
The mere acknowledgement of her name was enough to get Aurora passed the sizable security guard and she stepped into a world of prestige and indulgence. The architecture of the banquet hall was splendour to the eye. A set of crystal chandeliers that hung from the ceiling sparkled like clustered stars above the crowd. Through the tall paned windows that lined the walls, the guests received a beautiful view of the estate grounds. On each side of the hall, a large set of patio doors that opened onto a lovely terrace to enjoy the starry night sky. The smooth stone floor was speckled with several round dinner tables topped with silver and black linens, stunning center pieces and fine china. A live band set the mood with a smooth melody to accompany the guests.
“I’m in,” Aurora spoke: careful not to draw any attention. To the uniformed observer, it would have looked like she was speaking to no one, but in truth her voice carried through the hidden transmitter in the sapphire choker.
“Do you have eyes on Irving?” Ranger’s voice sounded through the receivers hidden in her earrings.
Aurora was happy to see the dual purpose of her accessories was functioning perfectly. She carefully scanned the crowd in search of her target but came up empty. “Not yet.”
“Don’t worry. Once she knows you’re here she’ll find you,” Ranger replied.
“How are you so sure?”
“You’re a member of a prominent family. She’s going to make an active effort to make face time with every big shot here.”
Aurora took notice of the different faces in the crowd. “I don’t recognize anyone here.”
“Well anyone with any real note doesn’t take Irving seriously. Her businesses may seem legit on the outside but that doesn’t stop the rumours. “
Aurora’s gaze was pulled towards a waiter offering her a flute of bubbling champagne off a silver tray. She reached out her graceful hand to retrieve the drink when her eyes met with her comrades. She couldn’t help but note how much a modest server’s uniform and a slicked back hair style could do to hide the infamous Ranger. The final touch that Aurora found almost strange was that he wore Ranger’s face but Ethan’s glasses. It was as if the combination of the two worked to create someone original.
“I told you I’d find a way in,” Ranger greeted with a charming smile.
Aurora smiled back and raised her glass to him. “Clever.”
“I try,” He replied with a courteous nod. He then gave a subtle gesture to the crowd. “Keep mingling,” he instructed as he turned away from her.
Aurora shifted on her heel and began to saunter through the room at a casual pace, taking in all she could with casual glances. “So, what’s the plan?” she asked through the communicator before taking a small sip of her champagne.
“You’re going to keep eyes on Irving. She’ll make a solid effort to talk with an heir to the Falons so she should approach you soon. Just talk to her for as long as you can and maybe get some information out of her but be careful not to expose yourself. You may be prepared for that but I still don’t want you to take any unnecessary risks.” Ranger directed.
“Understood, and what will you be doing between serving appetizers?” Aurora asked.
“I’m going to do some snooping.”
“Be on your guard. Just because this is a party doesn’t mean Irving doesn’t have her Knights on hand,” Aurora warned.
Aurora set her focus on playing the part of highbrow heiress as she strolled around the hall with a nonchalant step. She took sparse sips from her glass as her gaze drifted over the room in an imperceptible search for her target.
Her ears glided between the frivolous conversations of the numerous party goers. The discussions topics ranged from boats and summer homes to business ventures and acquisitions. There was one subject that continued to float about the room like a wafting balloon; her late fiancé. Apparently, his death and the mystery behind it had flared into a hot button topic and plenty of the guests had their theories, many of which painted a less then flattering picture.
Aurora pulled in her discipline to control the anger sparked by those people and their petty chatter. She glanced down at her champagne and slung down the remains in search of some reprieve.
“I know you’re at a party but pace yourself. We have a mission to carry out and you need your head in the game,” Ranger spoke through her earpiece.
“I just need to take the edge off. I’m fine,” Aurora answered: her tone short.
Aurora’s chest heaved in a deep sigh. “It’s these people. They’re chatting about Cole’s death like it was some cheap murder mystery. Have they no respect for the dead?”
“These are the kind of people who have enough money to go to their heads but not enough humility to balance it out. Don’t let it bother you.”
“How could it not bother me?” Aurora snapped back.
“People will gossip, especially the small minded. They may have their theories but, in the end, just remember that you know the truth, and it’s far greater than any picture they can paint.”
Aurora smiled to herself. Even over the communicators, she could sense Ranger’s compassion. It made her extremely thankful that she chose to put her faith in him. “Thank you.”
“I meant every word. Now try and clear your mind and focus on the task at hand. Leave those small people in their small world and look approachable; Juniper just joined the party.”
“To your ten o’clock.” Ranger directed.
With the subtlest of turns Aurora peered through to crowd to set her eyes on a woman with a caramel complexion and small stature. The woman’s dark, stern eyes complimented the hollow smile she paraded out for her guests but the pitch-black suit she wore with a deep red scarf draped over her shoulders foreshadowed her true nature. Aurora finally had eyes on her target, Juniper Irving.
“I see her,” Aurora informed Ranger.
“Don’t meet up with her just yet. You don’t want to seem too interested. Just linger insight and she’ll find you,” Ranger instructed.
“Understood,” Aurora acknowledged as she continued to casually drift about the room.
Just as Ranger predicted, before long Juniper caught sight of Aurora and almost immediately seized the opportunity for some influential face time.
“Miss Falon,” Juniper greeted with courtesy and an outstretched hand. “So glad you could make it.”
Aurora painted on the sweet smile of the pampered heiress to accept her welcome. “Of course, it’s a lovely event. I’m sorry I’ve never made it out before now. “
Juniper’s noticed the empty glass in Aurora’s hand. “Looks like you’re getting into the full swing of the party right away. Let me get you a fresh glass,” Juniper insisted as she flagged down a server to trade the empty campaign flute for a full one and took one for herself. She raised her glass to Aurora with a courteous gesture. “To your first time in my home and the hopes you will bring the rest of the Falons to join us next year. I would love to discuss some business ventures with your father and brother.”
They clinked the glasses together, making a lovely sound and took a small drink together. “It is business that keeps them away, unfortunately. But I will give them all the details of this fantastic party and try my best to pry them away from their work next year. By the way, what is the cause of the night?”
“The fund is for aiding impoverishes neighborhoods within the city,” Juniper answered.
“How noble of you, I hope that it will affect real change. Why did you choose that cause amongst the many others?” Aurora replied, keeping to conversation going. She needed to find a balance between politely interested but not too eager. She had to fish for information while disguising it as casual dinner talk.
“It is a cause that is dear to my heart. I came from a place much like that. Different city, of course, within the Island Republic.”
“I never knew that about you. That must have been hard growing up in a place like that.”
Aurora watched Irving with a careful but subtle eye as she spoke of her complicated past. Aurora thought that recalling memories of hardship would soften her Junipers expression but her eyes simple reflected a sense of smug satisfaction. It was as if she was staring down a defeated foe. “It was a struggle, to say the least. But, with a little luck and a mountain of hard work, I was able to pull myself up and make something of my life. That’s when I met my husband. Marrying Robert brought me into this world and gave me tools to accomplish my dreams.”
“Where is your husband, by the way?” Aurora asked.
“He doesn’t like big events like this. I guess after growing up with these parties as a common occurrence can make them seem . . . tedious. He has trusted me with our affairs, and he enjoys the benefits. If Cole Iver would’ve kept his nose clean, you could’ve had the same arrangement,” Irving said with an amused chuckle.
Aurora raised an eyebrow at Juniper and her implications. “I beg your pardon?”
Irving locked her dark eyes with Aurora and flashed that same hollow smile. “I’ve heard a lot of interesting stories about Cole Iver’s death but the ones that keep on making the rounds is that he got himself into trouble with some dangerous people. These stories also say that his death was a clever assassination dressed up as natural causes. Do you have something to add to these stories?”
Aurora could feel her body tense up, but she had to be careful not to show it. Juniper’s gaze was friendly but also inquisitive. Aurora knew that stare. Juniper was looking for her reaction. Was it merely because of Aurora’s connection to Cole . . . or was it something more? But Aurora trained for this and kept the mask of the pampered heir out in front. Aurora gave Juniper nothing more than an amused chuckle. “Oh my, the stories that fly in your circles. Didn’t you hear, it was all over the news. Cole Iver’s death was tragic, yes, but natural.”
Juniper returned the chuckle with one of her own and shrugged her shoulders. “Forgive me for prying, I just thought, if anyone would have the truth of it all, it would be you.”
“Why would you say that?” Aurora asked.
“I had heard that you two were an item. Is that also just a rumor?” Juniper asked, her forcibly friendly eyes once again laced with a need for information.
So that’s what she’s looking for, Aurora thought to herself She’s probing for information from Aurora, not Luna, because of our relationship. They’re wondering if I’m a loose end to tie up. Aurora waved her hand in the air. “No, no, we were merely business associates. Maybe a budding friendship but nothing more than that,” Aurora reassured.
Juniper frowned. “Well, that’s an uneventful story. Some of my friends will be disappointed.”
It was nearly an exhaustible struggle to hide the inner surge of her flaring temper under the calm demeanor of her outer shell. Her strong mental resolve was beginning to show cracks as she started to weigh the consequences of speaking her mind. Luck smiled on Aurora that moment. Before she could talk out of turn in a manner she would regret, something across the room caught Junipers attention. In the small moment when Junipers focus was elsewhere, Aurora slipped her sapphire necklace off her neck and held it in her hand.
Juniper turned back to Aurora. “I do apologize. There is some business I must attend to and it can’t afford to wait.”
“Of course; it’s been a pleasure chatting with you.” Aurora regarded in polite form. She set the champagne flute on a near table and offered her hand for farewell. Juniper accepted the hand in a strong shake which Aurora complimented with a friendly pat on the arm. Those polished gestures were nothing more than clever acts of deception. As she established physical contact, she slipped her sapphire necklace into Junipers jacket pocket.
“Come sit with me at the main table during dinner. I have some ventures that your family may be interested in,” Juniper welcomed.
“I’d love to.” Aurora replied with a gracious nod before Juniper strolled away. As Juniper walked away, Aurora made an active effort to track her movements with a subtle eye.
Juniper walked to the front entrance of the hall and met up with a man of medium build, clean cut black hair, and a rich complexion. Amongst the crisp tuxedos and gowns, this mans roughly worn suit and loosened tie seemed out of place, and he carried an apprehensive temperament to match. As Juniper approached, he regarded her with a resentment that bordered on hostile.
“Mr. Arashi, so glad you came to join us. Will you be making a donation?” Juniper greeted. Through the hidden transmitter in the sapphire necklace, Aurora could hear the conversation between them as if she were part on it.
“You know why I’m here, Irving! You’ve gone too far this time and I am damned tired of playing your game!” A weary but infuriated voice answered. From what Aurora could see, that was the voice of the man with Irving, Mr. Arashi. Aurora sensed the gravity of this scene unfolding in front of her and made efforts to keep a casual eye on them while listening in.
“Now don’t make a scene, Fusao. It’s against the Order to involve the masses in our affairs. Why don’t we step outside?” Juniper suggested. Even through the transmitter, Aurora could still hear the smug tone in Junipers voice, as if she was assured of her dominant footing in the situation. The mention of the Order roped in Aurora’s complete attention. Aurora kept eyes on them until Juniper led Arashi onto the balcony, closing the door behind them to assure their privacy. Aurora could hear the flicks of a lighter followed by a deep inhale and exhale. Juniper must have been smoking.
“How dare you quote the Orders laws to me when what you’ve done spits in the face of it,” Arashi raved.
“Don’t be so childish. I’m just playing the game to my strengths,” Juniper answered. The still calmness of her voice stood in deep contrast to Arashi’s aggression.
“Game! You think this is a game!? You took . . .”
“I took what I needed to gain leverage over you,” Juniper cut in.
“You put my family in danger. How could you go this far? Are your selfish goals that important to you that you would do something this horrible?” Arashi asked.
“Oh please. I’ve gone farther than this and I’d do it again to get what I want,” Juniper answered with a cold finality in her tone.
“You’re a monster.”
“No, I’m a businesswoman and in my world you have to be . . . cut throat to get to the top.” Juniper paused to take a deep inhale of her smoke. “I don’t see what the problem is. You could make this stop any time. All you have to do is give me what I asked for.”
“He won’t follow you. Even if I relinquish my rights as his Master to you, he will fight against it. What do you hope to gain?” Arashi asked.
“Mimic’s abilities would be useful in anyone’s hands. Either he uses them under my orders, or I take him out of the game. Both outcomes are favorable to me. So, Fusao Arashi, what is your answer?” Juniper asked sternly.
“You make it seem like I have a choice,” Arashi snapped back.
“You always have a choice. You either fight for what you love or fight for what you think is right. I’ll give you till the end of the night to decide.” Aurora could see the red glow of the cigar’s ember through the window as Juniper dropped in on the floor and crushed it under her shoe. “Enjoy the party.”
“That was a clever move with the necklace,” Ranger complimented as he approached Aurora with a tray of appetizers.
“Did you hear their conversation?” Aurora asked as she took one of the many finger foods from the tray.
“Loud and clear. Mimic was right, Juniper does have something on Fusao Arashi and she’s using it to strong arm him out of his knight.”
“But they never said what it was. We still don’t know what we’re looking for,” Aurora stated.
“True but at least now we know there’s something to find.”