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By Melissa James
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRenegade River, Bay of Islands, New Zealand
It was her.
Oh, yeah, it had to be. No other woman had ever roused that knife-edged core, gut-gnawing hunger, scraped with a burning need to hold and protect. Scraped, not mixed. It never blended, like something meek or tame. Nothing about his reaction to her was tame. One look and his veneer of social graces shed like molted skin to reveal the raw male animal beneath, hungry and hot, savage and needing.
McCall stood five feet from the round, cross-beamed window beneath an intricate and beautiful sign like something straight out of Middle Earth, proclaiming her to be:
Elizabeth Silver, Potter of Excellence.
He watched her working at her wheel, her face - that unforgettable blend of lush South American exotic and haunting English-rose beauty - filled with gentle concentration.
He'd loved her trademark auburn curls, but the new, almost boyish style, a cropped mop of raven hair, only intensified her surreal loveliness. The haunting star-queen - everything else faded away, submerged beneath the power of the dark azure eyes in that amazing face.
Even in quiet repose without a trace of makeup, it was definitely her face. The unique light and dark, serenity and turbulence, so-intense-it-slammed-you-in-the-guts beauty that had launched a million magazines and spawned male fantasies beyond count from the time she was fourteen. The unsmiling waif.
She'd smiled for him.
They'd met while shooting promo pics for a navy recruitment drive, and he'd immediately seen the wistful, shy girl inside the haughty model. And within hours, he was in so deep he'd never really found his way out.
He could still see her lying beneath him, drugged by his kisses, her swollen mouth smiling with innocent desire ... driving him, the guy his SEAL team called The Untouchable, to his knees. All he knew was, he had to have her - but he couldn't make love to her while they met in secret. She'd asked him to wait until they revealed their relationship to her wealthy parents. Touching and kissing, making promises during stolen meetings. I can't tell my parents about us yet, Brendan ... but I will soon, I promise ... I promise.
That damn word still yanked his chain. Yeah, she'd gone slumming with him all right. She'd wanted a holiday from the jet set, and he'd made it clear he was happy to be her slave for as long as she wanted him.
But within six months she'd returned to her uptown life, hit the high-class party circuit - and then more dubious gatherings. Hanging on the arms of the rich and infamous with men of evil reputation. Yet she'd still seemed so damn innocent, above it, or beyond it all. Always, she seemed apart from the angst and lusts of life, as if she'd fallen from a star.
Until the day she'd married arms and drugs dealer Robert Falcone, she'd still been his. Though his world was her exact opposite - a world peopled by pimps, black-market traders of weapons and human flesh, while he infiltrated and busted their filthy deals with his trained undercover teams - he'd been fool enough to believe she'd come back to him.
But he couldn't forget her. She was Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Aphrodite - but she was his. He'd staked his claim, and one day he'd mark her, brand her to the world. McCall's woman.
That objective hadn't changed in ten years. He wanted her even more now that the big-eyed elfin-child had become golden, lissome woman. The flames of desire still licked at his soul. They were always there, burning alive all they touched in sudden conflagration.
McCall dragged in a breath that felt like the center of a firestorm - blasting hot, scorching him from the inside out. Yet it was April in New Zealand, mid-autumn, and the lush, green coolness of the air couldn't be milder. She sat at her potter's wheel in a quiet house amid the emerald hills, a long-lost dream of wistful beauty, and he felt like a caveman wanting to drag her off by the hair. My woman.
Hold it in, or she'll run again.
If the boss knew of their past, he'd take him off this assignment for sure. But Delia de Souza Falcone was his one lapse in a perfect career, his own private ghost - the haunting immortal who walked with him by day, her sweet whisper in his ears by night - but when he awoke, she was never there.
Yet here she was in the Bay of Islands, in quiet, semirural New Zealand, of all places. The country right next door, yet it was the one place he hadn't thought of looking.
He thought he'd known her better than anyone living; but he'd been forced to reassess that half-assed belief when Anson, his superior in the information-and-rescue group known to the upper brass only as the Nighthawks, had told him there was a strong probable hiding out in northern New Zealand.
So she made a fool of you again. What's new about that?
Yet he couldn't help but admire her guts. Damn smart of her, coming here, setting up a business like a bona fide ordinary citizen. If he hadn't thought of it, neither would Robert Falcone - and it appeared to be so. Falcone had seemingly forgotten his wife and spent five years chasing another woman, Verity West, a fellow Nighthawk, code name Songbird. Her cover as an international singer nicknamed "The Iceberg" had made her irresistible bait for a man like Falcone, who saw women only as trophies to show off, or for breeding children for him. Songbird played her part in bringing Falcone's networks down, until he escaped from custody with the help of corrupt police on his payroll.
But a week ago the Nighthawks received positive confirmation that Falcone's hunt for his supposedly dead wife and son had intensified after five years on the back burner, and he was concentrating on the South Pacific. Anson had again gone through all the Delia possibles, coming up with this woman, and only by sheer luck had he, McCall, beaten Falcone's men here. He had about two days to get her out of here, though how the hell he could do that with the orders he'd been given was beyond him.
Keep all information pertaining to who you represent or what we want from her confidential until you get a positive ID, and proof that she has the tape of Falcone ordering a hit on Senator Colsten. If she goes to the press, she'd prejudice the case in court and he'd go free ... and more innocent people will die. This woman is either Delia de Souza or her cousin, Ana. We have positive confirmation that Ana de Souza flew in to Amalza five days before the accident that killed one of them - and the other had to have taken the child, and the tapes. Getting the proof we suspect Delia holds, and taking down the rogue Nighthawk in league with Falcone, are our number-one priorities.
Damn it! He knew Anson was right, but how the hell was he supposed to gain her trust without giving her the truth?
It's what you've done the past ten years with every other mission. Just get on with it.
He pushed open the rounded door beside the round, cross-beamed window - a savvy move on her behalf, making the half-hidden house vaguely resemble a hobbit hole - and the bell above tinkled. He stood in the doorway, framed by the glow of early morning, and waited. Look at me, Delia.
"I'll be with you in a moment. Please feel free to look around." Her voice, with a perfect New Zealand soft burr, was cool as spring water, gentle as the pitter-pat of new rainfall, and though it was miles from the husky Rio accent he remembered, it still hit him with a fission-blast of heat. He didn't move, didn't speak. Her beauty was gently mellowed in the simple jeans and soft lavender woolen sweater she wore, covered with a clay-smeared smock. Her once perfect, soft, long-fingered hands were grubby from her work, with chipped, short nails and cracked, rough skin. But it was her. He knew it.
Look at me, Delia... .
Excerpted from Dangerous Illusion by Melissa James Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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