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Panama City, Panama. Four days later.
There was a bikini bottom in his bathroom.
Curious as hell, Kid picked the tiny scrap of green-and-purple cotton up off the towel bar and turned it over in his hand.
It wasn't unusual for him to come home and find somebody crashing at his place. He'd known the instant he walked in that someone was there. The house in Panama City had belonged to his brother, and J.T. had always had an open-door policy.
But the bikini bottom was unusual.
Combat boots, surfboards, cases of beer--that's what he usually found. Not outrageously green bikini bottoms with purple palm fronds printed on them.
It was enough to make a guy think.
And about death.
He swore softly and put the swimsuit back on the towel bar. J.T. had been the kind of guy who took care of people, a lot of people. Some of them had been women--mostly friends, but a couple of ex-lovers had shown up over the last few months. Kid didn't think he could face one of them tonight, and have to be the one to tell them J.T. was dead. He still felt about half dead himself.
Easing himself around, he limped back out to the living room. The house was pure tropical bungalow, with two bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen and dining area together, and a living room that opened onto a palm-shaded courtyard. It had lizards darting around outside, a housekeeper named Rosa who held the place together no matter how many unexpected visitors showed up, and neighbors who liked to party--tonight being a case in point. A salsa beat was coming from both sides of the house.
After his and C. Smith's adventure on the Putumayo, two days in a Bogota hospital, and two days of debriefing with the DEA and the Defense Department guys, he wasn't in the mood to party. All he wanted to do was sleep in a bed he called his own. He hoped the bikini girl had picked the spare bedroom and not the one he usually took.
The thought made him pause.
Geez. No wonder he never got laid anymore.
He shook his head and continued on across to the breezeway and the south bedroom, the one he preferred, and sure enough, it was definitely ocupado.
There were clothes everywhere, and stuff, girl stuff, piled up on his dresser and draped over the chair, filmy stuff, bright colorful bits and pieces. The girl's suitcases were on the floor in a corner, and besides being the most amazing shade of crocodile-patterned hot pink leather he'd ever seen, they were overflowing with electrical cords, makeup bags, and shoes, like a "girl grenade" had exploded and sent her clothes flying in every direction and left the heavy stuff to settle.
That thought gave him pause, too, sort of reminded him of something else, but he wasn't going to spend the effort to figure out what. He was too damn tired to sort through anything tonight. All he wanted to do was sleep, and one bed or another didn't really make much difference.
He turned to leave, when a small torn white T-shirt hanging off the doorknob caught his eye, a plain white T-shirt with a paint smear on it--electric blue paint.
Everything inside him froze, except his heart, which plummeted into the pit of his stomach.
Impossible. It was absolutely impossible--but he knew that T-shirt, knew that paint smear.
His gaze slid to the clothes draped over the chair, and he saw something else he knew: a purple silk robe with a letter "N" painted in pink on the pocket. Geezus. He looked around the room, at all the stuff. But it wasn't just stuff, and it wasn't just any girl grenade that had gone off in here. It was a Nikki McKinney grenade.
He picked up the robe, brought the silky material to his face--and her scent flooded his senses. Hot sex, warm love, all the memories were there, so close to the surface.
Nikki was here, and suddenly, he was in over his head. Way over.
Why in the world would Nikki be in Panama City?
And had she brought the freakin' fiber artist with her?
Geezus. He couldn't take that. No way in hell.
He looked up from the robe and checked the room. No, this was a one-person disaster, from the Panama hat and pink-and-green-striped sunglasses on his dresser to the pile of underwear on the bed. This was all Nikki, every square inch of it.
Underwear. Bed. Nikki.
And suddenly, he was wide awake, every cell in his body.
He dropped the robe back on the chair and headed out the door. In the courtyard, he turned toward the loudest music. Nikki would be at ground zero, which meant the Sandovals' walled garden next door.
Rico and Luis Sandoval were a couple of trust-fund twins whose daddy ran the biggest chain of car dealerships in Panama. They were great guys for a good time, a cold beer, and a Friday night poker game, strip poker if they could talk a girl into playing.
Kid always opted out of any Sandoval brothers scheme that included drunk naked women, but Rico and Luis wouldn't have had to use liquor or talk very fast to get Nikki in the game. There wasn't anything she liked better than naked men. Twins would be an irresistible bonus in her book.
Cripes. Nikki and a couple of Panamanian beach-boy hustlers with a marked deck. The thought had Kid limping at double time. It would serve Rico and Luis right if he just let her have them. They'd never get the drop on her, no matter how much they cheated, and once she pulled her "Gee, can I paint you naked" line on them, they wouldn't have a chance. She'd have them stripped out of their machismo faster than they could drop their skivvies. The trust-fund boys would still be looking for their balls come Christmas.
But he didn't want any other guys dropping their shorts for Nikki tonight, or any other night--Panamanian beach boys or fiber artist fiances.
A fiance--how in the hell had he let things get so out of hand? How had he gone seven months without calling her? Without writing her?
He stopped by the gate in the wall--stopped and made himself take a reality check. The truth was, he knew why he hadn't contacted her. He knew exactly why he hadn't gone home at Christmas. And nothing had changed.
He wasn't the man she'd fallen in love with, not anymore, not even close, and there was no coming back from the places he'd been.
But she was here, and he had to see her. He wasn't going to fool himself into thinking she'd come to see him. He was the last person she would have expected to show up in Panama City, despite his owning the house. If she'd wanted to come to Panama, for whatever reason, Skeeter would have loaned her the key and given her the official situation report: He was in Colombia, working out of Bogota.
And if he hadn't reached the end of his rope, that's where he'd still be.
No, she couldn't have come here looking for him. For the last seven months, no one except the men he was with had known where he was or what he was doing. In the beginning, that had been Hawkins, and later another SDF operator, Creed Rivera. After Creed had finished his mission, he'd gone home, but Kid had stayed.
He'd stayed too long.
Colombia wasn't safe for him anymore. People were looking for him. They just didn't know his real name or what he looked like, not yet, but that wasn't going to hold them off forever, not these guys, not if he kept doing what he'd been doing. The airfield on the Putumayo wasn't the first time el asesino fantasma had hit Juan Conseco's operation, and the drug lord knew it. News of the "Putumayo bounty" Conseco had put out on the ghost killer had hit Bogota while he'd still been in the hospital. The cocaine baron wanted him dead or alive, and for half a million dollars, Kid figured Conseco had a pretty good shot at getting him.
It was a helluva lot of money, but Kid had done a helluva lot of damage, including a pair of sniper hits contracted by the Colombian government via the U.S. Department of Defense on two of Conseco's top lieutenants, a mission so black it had been black-on-black. Which all made Nikki's presence even more unnerving, if that was possible--which, honest to God, it wasn't. He was already unnerved all the way down to his gut and his toes by her being here. The situation with Conseco only made it worse.
And wasn't that just perfect? He hadn't been home five minutes, and the first thing he had to do was literally kick Nikki McKinney out of his bed.
Well, hell. At least now he had something to say that didn't begin and end with "I'm sorry." He'd said that to her so many times, especially when she was crying, and when they'd been together, she'd cried a lot. He had to admit that "Get your butt home" didn't sound much better, though.
He reached for the gate, then had to stand back when a couple stumbled through, their arms wrapped around each other, holding each other up on their way to the Ramones' place on the other side of Kid's yard.
From the looks of the two of them, a little drunk, a little disheveled, and both in drag with half their clothes falling off, the Sandoval party was in full swing--a fact proven when he stepped through the gate.
Every year, four days before Ash Wednesday, Panama City hosted Carnaval, a sexually charged, anything-goes party leading up to Lent. Every Friday night, no matter what was happening on the next Wednesday, the Sandoval brothers did the same.
There were colored lights hanging in the trees, two transvestites crooning on a makeshift stage, well over a hundred other people crammed into the garden, some in costume, plenty of beer, and a bar serving baja panties--literally "panty lowerers," which in Panama translated to any drink made with hard liquor.
And there was Nicole Alana McKinney. He spotted her instantly. She was half in costume, with a pink feathered tiara in her black-and-purple spiked hair, and a blue sequined miniskirt with a matching stole to go with the top half of her green-and-purple palm frond bikini. She had a baja panties in one hand and five cards in the other. Her back was to him, and she was sitting at a table with four guys, two of them Rico and Luis, one of whom was already down to a pair of tighty-whities and an orange feather boa.
It was like the living incarnation of his worst nightmare--or at least his nightmare before she'd gotten engaged.
But this scene. Oh, yeah, he'd imagined it plenty of times: Nikki and a bunch of half-dressed guys well on their way to being undressed guys.
It was her work, taking naked guys and putting them through the wringer of her cameras and her paint brushes until she got what she wanted, which was always more than the guys ever thought they'd have to give.
She was practically famous now, her paintings showing on both coasts and selling in five figures. Three months ago, she'd done an Esquire magazine cover of Brad Pitt as one of her fallen angels. Kid had seen it in Bogota, and it had been incredible.
Fucking Brad Pitt. Who would have believed? Nikki's mentor, Katya Hawkins, was taking her straight to the top of the art world, exactly where she deserved to be. He'd watched Nikki work once--work a guy over--and it had made him sweat and all but turned him inside out. He hadn't known a girl could be so freakin' fierce.
Yeah. He'd kept up with her career, with her life. He'd been discreet, but he'd kept up, asked a few questions. Her sister was married to another of the Steele Street operators, Quinn Younger, although Quinn hadn't gone out on many missions since he and Regan had hooked up.
It was a helluva price to pay for a woman, but under any other circumstances than the ones he'd found himself in last summer, he might have done it for Nikki.
She hadn't come straight out and asked him to take fewer chances, or even quit his job, but he'd seen it in her eyes every time she'd looked at him. He'd known it every time she'd cried because he was going away. So freakin' fierce, and yet so fragile.
Hell, she'd probably made the right choice with the basket weaver guy, but yeah, sure, he could have done it, backed off on the job and turned himself into her boy toy, gone back to school, and become . . . something.
Something other than what he was: a highly skilled weapon of the United States government. The months he'd spent with Hawkins and Creed, tracking down and taking out his brother's killers, had changed him. Superman and the jungle boy had changed him. They'd taken everything the Marine Corps had taught him and honed it all to a razor sharpness.
He wasn't a bona fide superhero, not like Hawkins, and he wasn't three-quarters wild like Creed, but he didn't have to do much more than stand there and look at her to know he was still in love with Nikki McKinney.
God, what lousy news. And it didn't change a damn thing. It only made things harder.
He was going to have to keep his distance. Be professional. Stay cool. Play it smart. Get her back on a plane ASAP--and for God's sake not do anything stupid and spontaneous.
Like kiss her.
Or run his tongue up the side of her neck.
Or put his hand on her ass.
He took a breath, ran through the "don't" list one more time, and was good to go--up until she suddenly turned in her chair, startled like a bird taking flight, feathers flying, sequins shimmering, and looked straight at him. He saw the shock on her face, saw her mouth form his name, and his quickly laid plan started sliding out from under him like beach sand in a riptide.
In combat, "tunneling," focusing on one thing and losing track of everything else that was going on around you, was a good way to get killed.
Apparently, the same rule applied in love, because he was slain. The transvestites went into a butchered rendition of "La Vida Loca," and he could barely hear it. The other hundred people were laughing, talking, singing along, their glasses clinking, their sequins shaking, and all they were was a blur. Loose feathers floated in the air, beer spilled, women squealed--and all he could see was Nikki. All he could hear was his heart beating, slow and steady and strong. He knew what he felt, and there were no words for it. Not this.