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Sergeant First Class Tyler Matheson lifted the scope away from his eye, ran his thumb around the rubber eyepiece collar to dry off the sweat, then flattened himself against the courthouse roof to sight on the plaza below. The sun wasn't yet up and already the day was promising to be a steam bath. The locals had started setting up their market stalls before first light, and now the cobblestones were getting clogged with everything from wheelbarrows of bananas to crates of live chickens. Stray dogs nosed among the carts while seagulls, drawn from the harbor by the promise of scraps, fluttered and swooped over the crowd. Picking out a lone assassin in that melee would be a challenge.
Jack Norton's voice came through Tyler's headset. Jack was positioned near the gates of the governor's palace on the far side of the plaza. "Someone's on the scaffold. You see him, junior?"
Tyler moved his rifle toward his left. A column of steel pipes and wooden planks rose above the corner of the courthouse where the facade was being repaired. An ambitious restoration project was underway throughout Rocama City's historic Old Quarter, which included the colonial-era structures around this plaza in the heart of the district. It was meant to benefit the island nation's budding tourist industry. It didn't do much good for security. It was tough to lock down a site when there were so many uncontrolled vantage points.
Yet Eagle Squadron had been ordered to keep this mission low-key. There would be no change of routine, no road closures, no security zones or aerial surveillance. The Rocaman president's keenly loyal palace guards were their only backup. The real purpose of the American envoy's visit had to remain a secret until the official announcement could be made.
Tyler used his elbows to drag himself closer to the edge of the roof and centered the scope's crosshairs on the figure who was climbing the scaffold. The man wore a hard hat and a tool belt, so he could be a workman wanting to get an early start on the day. Tyler's hunter's instincts told him otherwise. The man's body language didn't jive with that of a guy getting paid by the hour. And he was moving too carefully, as if he were carrying more than what was visible. "That's our shooter," he said into his transmitter.
"Maybe." It was Duncan Colbert's voice. Judging by the volume of the squawking in the background, he was near the chicken crates. "The scaffold provides good line of sight for the entrance to the palace, but it leaves the shooter exposed."
"Doesn't matter. No one's looking up," Jack said. "There's too much action down here."
"He could be heading for your roof, junior," Duncan said. "It's the only flat one around."
"Or he could be checking out the brickwork before the rest of his crew comes in— Damn!" Jack said. "Did you see that jump?"
Tyler lifted his head. The man had disappeared from his scope. That was because he had leaped to the low roof of the adjacent building, the Royal Rocaman Hotel.
Tyler pushed to his feet, looped the strap of his rifle across his chest and sprinted to the far edge of the courthouse roof. He bypassed the scaffold and jumped, relying on his momentum to carry him directly to the hotel. He hit the tiles hard and grabbed the ridge along the peak to regain his balance just as his quarry slid down the slope of the roof and over the edge. Tyler listened for an impact or alarm from the ground, but there was none. He inched forward. "Where'd he go?"
"He landed on a balcony," Jack said. "Top floor of the hotel. Huh, just like a cat."
"The palm trees are blocking my view," Duncan said. "I'm going to change position."
"He's about three yards ahead of you, junior," Jack said. "I can't see his face."
Tyler moved forward three yards, then turned and slid headfirst down the tiles on his stomach until he caught the edge of the roof in his hands. He looked over.
A stocky man was beside a cluster of wrought iron furniture less than twelve feet below him. He'd discarded the hard hat and the tool belt and was kneeling on the floor, his dark head bent over his lap as he assembled a sniper's rifle.
Adrenaline punched Tyler's gut, just as it always did when he closed in on his quarry at the end of a hunt. Though no photographs of him existed, this had to be El Gato, the assassin Eagle Squadron had been ordered to stop. Intelligence hadn't expected him to strike so soon, since the American envoy he was targeting would be in Rocama City for more than a week if the talks went as scheduled, but the team had wanted to cover all its bases. Could it really be this easy? Tyler anchored one hand on the edge of the roof, tensing his muscles so he could flip himself over.
A seagull screeched, wheeling past his face. Tyler took his attention off El Gato for a split second. When he looked back, the man had his weapon in his hand and was jumping to the neighboring balcony.
Well, that's what he got for thinking this might have been easy. Tyler swung down from the roof, eyed the gap to the next balcony and followed.
The chilled champagne had come with the room. So had the platter of chocolate-dipped strawberries and the miniature pitcher of cream. It had all been meant to stimulate the appetite, not satisfy it. Evidently the hotel management assumed that a couple on their honeymoon would be able to come up with all kinds of creative ways to partake of the goodies.
But Emily hadn't been feeling very creative last night. She'd just wanted to get drunk. She'd done a bang-up job of it, too. No half measures for Emily Wright, no indeed, because as she'd discovered, magnums of champagne weren't meant to be consumed by one person.
Just like honeymoon suites weren't designed for single occupancy.
She groaned and dropped her forehead against the shower stall. The impact with the tiles started another turn on the Tilt-A-Whirl that had set itself up inside her skull. She groped for the faucets to turn off the water. Somehow, they twisted the wrong way, cutting off the hot and opening up the cold.
She cursed, jumped backward and promptly lost her footing. She grabbed the faucets to keep from falling and managed to shut the cold. Meanwhile, the carnival ride picked up speed, morphing into a combination Ferris wheel and merry-go-round.
Emily pressed her fingers to her mouth and fought to keep down the contents of her stomach as she staggered out of the shower. She winced when she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Even soaking wet, her hair was starting to corkscrew. And she'd known she shouldn't have eaten the strawberries. The rash she got whenever she indulged was already mottling her chest and neck. But she'd wanted the chocolate, and besides, no one was here to see the rash. No one would see the black teddy she'd bought for her wedding night, or the red garter belt, either.
"Enough," she muttered, scowling at her reflection. "Pity party's over. Today is the first day of the rest of—"
Her voice broke before she could finish the trite phrase. Yet it was true. Her life stretched out in front of her, as full of possibilities—and as daunting—as a blank page. The only thing for certain was that Christopher wouldn't be part of it.
Fine. Good. So there was no reason to waste any more time mooning over what might have been, or the dreams that wouldn't come true. She was going to enjoy herself. She really was. She had paid for a full ten days before she had to return to reality.
A solitary reality.
"And that's good," she said, snatching up a towel. "Love is for fairy tales. And men are overrated." She was about to rub her hair dry when she thought better of it and gingerly blotted the water drops from the ends. "You don't need a man," she muttered. "You're tall enough to reach the top shelves in the cupboards. So aside from opening jars and scratching itches you can't reach, what are they good for? Besides totally screwing up your life?"
Buoyed by her pep talk, she walked to the bedroom. The sky glowed conch-shell pink through the glass above the louvered balcony doors. The overhead fan didn't do much to cut the mugginess; as first days went, this one promised to be a hot one. The sounds of dogs and seagulls, plus snatches of Spanish drifted from the plaza below. It was market day, she remembered. The brochure from the travel agency had featured pictures of it, but she wasn't sure she would be venturing outside until she felt more human. She dropped her towel beside the empty champagne bottle and rummaged through her suitcase for her underwear.
The first item she encountered was the red lace bra that went with the red garter belt. Why hadn't she repacked her luggage before she'd left?
For the same reason she hadn't canceled the honeymoon, she reminded herself, defiantly picking up the matching fire-engine-red panties. Because she'd wanted to prove she wasn't hurt. She might have indulged in pity for herself, but she'd be damned if she'd accept it from anyone else. Ten days would be plenty of time for her to lay the ghosts of all those happily-ever-after fantasies to rest. She would go back to Packenham Junction refreshed and tanned. That would show her family she was going to be just fine. Her coworkers at the paper would see that she was too tough to fall apart.
Only, they weren't her coworkers anymore. She'd worry about getting her job back once she got home. Actually, she would have to find a home first. She'd couldn't imagine going back to the apartment she'd shared with Christopher, but her options were limited. Her bank account was down to double digits, and she'd maxed out her credit cards to pay for this trip.
And all because she'd believed in a man. Put her faith in love. Opened her heart enough to buy into the whole pathetic fairy tale.
Emily crumpled the red lace in her hands and refused to acknowledge the moisture in her eyes. Damn. She wasn't going to cry. Not over him. She intended to enjoy this vacation, even if it killed her.
Something thumped on her balcony. She turned toward it just as a shadow moved across the louvers. An instant later the doors burst inward and crashed to the floor. A short, dark-haired man ran into the room. He was dressed like one of the construction workers in the square she'd noticed when she'd arrived yesterday, but even her alcohol-fogged brain didn't believe he'd entered her room by mistake. Construction workers didn't normally carry guns.
This couldn't really be happening, could it? Except for the gun, he looked as harmless as the guy who drove the milk truck to her parents' farm. Same round face and full lips, except there was a fine white scar across his chin and his eyes, instead of a merry brown, were black, and as dead as a snake's.
Emily's paralysis lasted no more than a heartbeat. A survival instinct she hadn't known she possessed took over and she reacted without thinking. "Get out!" she yelled, snapping her underwear at the intruder. "Out!" Her action appeared to startle him long enough to allow her to snatch the empty champagne bottle from the floor and swing it at his head.
He ducked, muttered something in Spanish and gave her a left jab that knocked her to the bed.
Both her stomach and the room wavered. She rolled to her feet on the other side of the mattress and was lifting the bottle to throw it at him when it shattered in her hand.
Shards of glass whizzed past her face and bounced on the sheets.
"Get down!" someone yelled from behind her.
Emily half turned in time to see another man lunge toward her from the balcony. He wrapped his arms around her legs and tackled her to the floor. She kicked and jabbed backward with her elbows. He quickly immobilized her by sliding up her body and folding one leg around hers.
There was a series of sharp pops. The lamp beside the bed exploded in a cloud of porcelain. The painting of the seascape on the wall crashed onto the platter on the room service cart, spraying leftover cream and strawberry hulls. Chunks of wood and plaster rained to the floor around her but none of it hit her. She couldn't move. She could hardly breathe. The second man was lying completely on top of her with his chin pressing down on her head. It felt as if he were built like a tree trunk.
As suddenly as they had started, the popping sounds halted. The door to the corridor banged open.
The weight on her back disappeared instantly. A pair of worn black cowboy boots moved into her vision. "Stay put," their owner ordered, vaulting over the bed. Footsteps pounded out of the room and down the corridor.
Emily hadn't meant to obey his command. Out of principle, she had vowed never to go along with what any man told her ever again.
But she was shaking so badly, she couldn't make her limbs work for a full minute. She lifted her head, gasping for breath. Her lungs filled with plaster dust. Coughing, she managed to get to her knees.
Through her tangled damp hair she saw the doors to the balcony were in splinters, their louvered slats strewn in ripples like broken fans. Pieces of dark green glass lay scattered over her bed, the clothes in her suitcase and even the towel she'd dropped on the floor. A line of small, round holes had appeared in the wall behind her.
Her brain struggled to process what she saw. Were those bullet holes? What on earth had happened here? Who were those men?
Belatedly, she thought of screaming but that might bring those men back.
She pushed herself to her feet, wobbled her way clear of the broken glass, and dashed for the room's door. She turned the lock, attached the chain, then leaned back against the panels and hugged her arms across her chest.
Only then did she realize that she was completely naked.
Her teeth started to chatter. She clamped her jaw and breathed hard through her nose. This was no time to panic. She was alive. That's what was important. So what if two strange maniacs had seen her naked? They obviously hadn't been here for that or they wouldn't have left. She had bigger concerns than modesty.
The door vibrated with a sharp knock. "Ma'am? Are you all right?"
Emily jumped away from the door. She recognized the voice, even though she'd heard him speak only four words. Get down. Stay put. It was the big man, the one who had tackled her. She ran back across the room and grabbed the phone.