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Father Patrick Connelly aka Michael O'Connor dropped the benevolence he forced himself to wear in public and crossed the confines of his cabin in three impatient strides. Scowling, he un-buttoned his black shirt. The stiff white collar was penance for buying him credibility. He impatiently yanked off the torture device and tossed it aside. Penance. Now his alias was affecting his way of thinking. Neither guilt nor redemption were in his repertoire.
He poured two fingers of smoky Irish whiskey from his contraband stash. The Spencer Tracy affable priest persona was a pain in the ass. He'd thought it an inspired identity, but the saintly act had begun to chafe. His most grating role but also the most challenging.
He sipped, savored the slow burn sliding down his throat. Definitely the most profitable.
As Father Pat Connelly, a priest knowledgeable about Greek and Roman culture, he'd been hired by the cruise line to educate interested passengers. As Mike O'Connor, a veteran professional smuggler, the reproduction antiquities he'd displayed in the library to illustrate "Father Connelly's" lectures had given him the perfect place to plant genuine ancient artifacts. Hidden in plain sight among the fakes. Once the ship returned to America, fencing the stolen artifacts secreted aboard by him and his partner was their mysterious boss's problem.
He glanced at the bureau drawer where he stored smaller pieces he'd acquired at various ports of call. He periodically rotated them to the library to freshen his lectures. Some were also real rather than reproductions, but nobody else knew that. His own private investments. If the boss's grand scheme worked, a bonus. If it didn't his insurance policy.
He swallowed another gulp of whiskey. Damn good thing he'd invested wisely, because it was looking as though he might have to cut and run.
A sharp rap on his door startled him. He opened it to see First Officer Giorgio Tzekas, and swore. "What now?"
Giorgio anxiously slipped inside. The playboy's classic bone structure showed he'd once possessed looks to go with his oozing charm, but too much boozing and sordid nights now etched his face. "Did you see him? Lanky, salt-and-pepper hair, fiftysome-thing Italian?"
"Bernardo Milo. Yeah, he attended my lecture last night."
"And?" Giorgio's anxiety sharpened. "Did you get the vibe?"
The cop vibe. After fifteen years conning other people, Mike knew when he was being conned. With Milo, he wasn't sure. He didn't know if it was because several things had gone wrong during this operation or because the scam really had been blown to hell. Mike wasn't big on taking risks this late in the game. He planned to retire in the sunny Caribbean, not rot behind bars in some dank federal pen.
He sipped whiskey, buying time. He trusted his instincts, but he sure as hell didn't trust the cocky bastard in front of him. Every screwup required a sacrificial lamb, and he couldn't think of better roasted mutton than Giorgio Tzekas. The young Greek was an intellectually challenged egomaniac who squandered Daddy's money on easy women and hard-core gambling. Old man Tzekas's friendship with Elias Stamos, the cruise line's owner, was the only reason sonny-boy had a legitimate job. God only knew why their mutual boss in the smuggling ring kept him on. In fact, on one of the first legs of the cruise, the moron had panicked and moved artifacts to potted plants, of all places, where they'd been discovered and spurred speculation and an investigation.
If Mike had his way, Giorgio wasn't going to be his enforced partner much longer. Which meant keeping him obedient and unsuspecting. He shrugged. "Milo seemed real interested in the lecture. He took a buttload of notes, and chatted up the other attendees. He had more artistic know-how than any cop I've ever run into."
"Since he boarded, I've had this weird feeling." Giorgio scratched his chin. "I've never caught him staring, but he just seems like he's around a lot, ya know?"
Milo had sought out Mike to discuss antiquities. The tall, craggy Italian had said he was a contractor who'd restored historical buildings. Art was his hobby and his passionfrescoes mostly. He'd recently lost his son, who'd worked with him, in a car accident and had booked the cruise to recover. The man was intelligent, interesting and seemed lonely rather than threatening. Their conversations had been relaxed and friendly on the surface but Mike's intuition was twitching. "There's only so much real estate on a ship. We run into the same passengers frequently. Maybe he likes your technique for picking up sluts." He smirked. "Or maybe he just likes you."
The distraction worked. The Greek huffed. "I don't bat for that team, and you know it, you bastard."
"I figured you'd do just about anything for money." In fact, Mike knew Giorgio had his own hoard of "private investments." Tzekas had brokered several successful buys for himself and bungled one. Just more rope to hang his idiot self with. Mike inclined his head at the door. "I'm beat. Bye now."
Giorgio hesitated. "Maybe we should tell the boss."
That's all he needed. For Megaera to climb all over his case again. Or worse, get suspicious and decide to micromanage the operation. "Report that you're imagining some guy is looking at you? That would go over like a hooker at mass. I'll keep an eye on him."
Giorgio shuffled his feet again. "Ariana Bennett's mother is still aboard. Claims she's not leaving until her daughter is found. You're the one the boss usually contacts. Have you heard any news?"
"No." Mike rolled his suddenly taut shoulders. Toward the beginning of the cruise, one of his genuine artifactsan Olympian vasehad been accidentally broken in the library. He'd meticulously pieced it back together and discovered a shard missing. The sharp-eyed librarian had been suspicious of him since day one, and she'd been the only person nearby, the only one who could have taken it. She'd been poking her nose into things that didn't concern her and asking questions, and Mike and Giorgio had reported her to the boss.
Then Ariana Bennett had disappeared.
"She's been missing over a month." Giorgio shifted. "Do you think she's dead?"
"Not my concern." Mike gulped the last of his whiskey. Truth was, he'd been growing antsy. Not about the nosy librarian's welfare but about his own. If she'd been killed because of his tip-off, it made him an accessory to murder. But he didn't want Giorgio overthinking it. The moron was likely to bolt and leave him holding the bag. "You really had it bad for her, didn't you? Quit whining over the one who got away. There are plenty of babes on this ship to keep you busy."
Giorgio didn't snap at the bait this time. "It will be your concern if Ariana is dead and her disappearance is linked to us." The Greek's forehead furrowed. "Murder carries a stiffer penalty than smuggling."
Mike barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Don't strain your brain cells, genius. "It's too late for an attack of conscience, Tzekas. The boss is a pro. Megaera's plans have worked brilliantly so far, even through the snafus." He clapped a falsely friendly hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Keep the faith."
Mike ushered Giorgio out and refilled his glass. From here on, his eyes and ears were wide-open. If he picked up a hint of trouble, he was a ghost. He would disappear and leave Megaera and her flunky to pay the price.
IMPRISONED IN the swaying belly of a seafaring monster, Ariana Bennett reluctantly floated to consciousness. Had she passed out? Been knocked out? She strained to see, but no light pierced the icy veil of smothering darkness.
No, she had died and gone to hell. Hades was cold and damp and black, and stank of fish and diesel fuel.
She tried to move. Her wrists, bound behind her back, throbbed in tandem with the pulsating heartbeat of twin engines. Her head pounded. Every breath dragged in her parched throat, and her body felt as battered as a discarded piñata.
Like many foolish souls before her, she had challenged the Fatesand lost. She moaned. She would have rather remained in the grip of somnolence. Oblivion was safer.
"Signorina Bennett?" The resonant baritone flavored with a rich Italian accent echoed from the abyss. "You are awake?"
She jerked. She wasn't dead.
But she hadn't escaped the devil. "Where are you?" His deep voice in the black void seduced her with the promise of warmth. Compelled her to reply.
She compressed her lips. If he didn't know, she wasn't drawing him a map.
"Are you all right?"
That depended on his definition of all right. Surviving a mob kidnapping, yacht explosion, failed escape attempt and near drowning probably qualified. If she were a cat, she'd be eight lives short and counting.
"Ariana? It's Dante."
A shiver glided up her spine. As if she wouldn't recognize the alluring voice of the man who had held her hostage for almost six weeks.
At the end of August, an antiquities dealer in the Naples market had directed her to a nearby archaeological dig. She'd found Dante excavating at the site. A fierce, dark Napoletano with a big, hard-muscled body and spine-tingling voice. She'd asked a few questions, and the mob had kidnapped her. She'd been interrogated and almost killed by Dante's partner. Then she'd been drugged and awoken in a strange house. Alone with Dante.
"Answer me, bella. I am also a prisoner."
She peered into the oily gloom. That was a new tactic. Fragmented memories of the previous night tumbled into place. Was this an elaborate plan to gain her cooperation? Signor Dante had held her captive for a month before bringing her aboard a yacht. They'd drifted around the Mediterranean nearly two more weeks. Yesterday, a fiery explosion had destroyed the yacht and in the melee, she had been forced to rely on Dante to get her to shore. She'd tried to escape from him, but a few bullets from a guy in a Zodiac and they'd both ended up prisoners.
"We must act. We may not have much time before they return."
They? He actually sounded concerned. If this was a ruse, he'd done a superlative job. If their predicament was real, who would cross the mob by attacking him? Unless he wasn't working with the Camorra, Naples's Mafia. Perhaps the Camorra had hunted Dante down and incinerated the yacht. She closed her eyes. Impossible to think with a hammering headache.
Maybe Dante had gone rogue and kidnapped her solo. That would explain why he hadn't hurt her. She was his investment. It also explained why she hadn't been ransomed. Dante labored under the misimpression her family owned valuable antiques, although she'd explained multiple times that they were less fiscally solvent than dot-com investors.
"Trust me," his low tone coaxed.
Right. And he had a cactus farm in Venice for sale. She cautiously shifted on the ice-cold floor, and her abused muscles shrieked. Were they both prisoners of the mob?
"Trust me, Ariana," he repeated fervently.
Even before Dante had kidnapped her, she'd felt so alone. So isolated. Her mother disapproved of her job on the ship, and Ariana hadn't been able to disclose the truth about her mission. Her father's former contacts were leery of her motives. Ariana had made friends among the cruise-line staff, but she couldn't confide in them about her plans to clear her father's name. And she was suspicious of two employees who had expressed a little too much interest in her. The priest was savvy about antiquities and gave lectures to the passengers in the library, but Father Connelly's disposition wasn't exactly saintly. And First Officer Giorgio Tzekas was a player with more lines than the telephone company.
She wanted desperately to trust in somethingtrust someone. Dante had not threatened or hurt her. He'd calmly refuted her fear that he meant her harm, and remained cool and aloof while implacably refusing to release her.
"I know you are listening, signorina. Why won't you answer?"
How did he know? She gnawed at her lower lip. Logic had failed during her five-month journey to restore her father's reputation. She'd gotten nowhere. A woman of order and reason, she had been thrust into an alien universe.
"San Gennaro, mio bello, aiutami tu!" Distress tinged his muttered exclamation. "If you wish to live, speak!"
Ariana stifled a gasp. If he were bluffing, a Naples native wouldn't petition their venerated patron saint, San Gennaro. She uncurled and stretched stiff, sore legs. Dante had shown kindness during her captivity. Clean clothing. Books and magazines. Hot cappuccino at breakfast. Of course, he'd locked her in her room when he'd gone to fetch them. But yesterday when they'd been forced to flee the yacht, he had not only saved her life, he had expressed empathy over her fear of deep water and carried her.
"I am bound hand and foot. If you are able, talk to me, per favore. We need a plan."
What should she do? Though Dante's large, capable hands could break her in half, he had handled her with carefully tempered strength. He had touched her only when necessary, and with respect. A wise woman would choose him versus the coarse thugs who had trussed her up and tossed her into the bilge like fish bait, even if his interest in her welfare was only because he thought he could trade her for money. At least he was dedicated to safeguarding his investment.
Adrift and floundering, she was forced to rely on instinct. Those instincts screamed at her to answer him.
Pain ground her joints as she struggled to sit up. "I" the word emerged as a croak, and she cleared her throat "I can get up. Just my hands are tied."
"Grazie a Dio!" He uttered a relieved sigh. "Then you must come to me."
Decision made, she refused to second-guess herself. "Easier said than done. It's as dark in here as the inside of the Trojan horse."
"Beware of Greeks bearing gifts." His wry chuckle was oddly comforting. "Follow the sound of my voice."
He issued calm commands and she replied as she blindly navigated the rolling maze. After long, frustrating moments of stumbling, she bumped against him. He was sitting on a crate, and she maneuvered herself down beside him.
He was so warm. Cold and scared, she couldn't help huddling against his hard shoulder.
"You're trembling." He swiveled so they were pressed body to body, her cheek resting on his chest. Beneath the smooth cotton of his T-shirt, his heart beat strong and steady. The softness of his full beard caressed her face as he brushed his cheek over her temple. "Are you hurt?"
"No." She retreated from the intimate contact, but stayed close enough so his body heat radiated to her chilled, shivering limbs.
"Turn around so we can loosen each other's ropes."
They turned their backs to one another. The mutual exploration of his large, callused hands and sinewy arms jolted her system reminiscent of the power surge that had once fried her laptop. She'd read about Stockholm syndrome. Over time, hostages sometimes fell for their captors. But the very first moment on the dig site when Dante's eyes had locked with hers, her heart had leaped into her throat and pounded so hard she'd nearly choked.
The intriguing Italian possessed a primal gravitational force. Whenever he was in sight, her gaze was pulled to him and her pulse galloped. Now, weeks later, she'd jettisoned the attempt to convince herself her reaction was fear. Like everything else since her father had died, her involuntary attraction to Signor Dante made no sense. He was so far from her preferred cultured academic, he bordered on Paleolithic.
Not to mention that he was a criminal.
She fumbled with the ropes binding his thick wrists. "Are we prisoners on a ship that belongs to the Camorra?"
"If the Camorra had captured us, we would already be dead." She had enjoyed the fresh aroma of his bay laurel soap lingering in the air after he'd showered, and now, in the icy blackness, his evocative scent conjured a vivid image of sun-warmed herbs growing wild on lush Mediterranean hills. His fingers tugged on her bonds. "I have no idea who is holding us. Or why."
His efforts to free her sharpened the ache in her arms, and she stifled a whimper. "That's reassuring."
"Perdonami." His quiet apology amazed her. She hadn't betrayed her pain she'd thought. "Don't be afraid, Ariana. I will protect you."
"Why, for the ransom? In any case, we're in no position to put up a fight."
He snorted. "A man's worth is no greater than his ambitions." Her hands stilled. She had seen keen intelligence in his brown eyes. Who knew her kidnapper was well-read? "Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor-philosopher."
"I find him more helpful in such situations than George Clooney."
In spite of the grim situation, she couldn't help but smile. She'd seen rare flashes of il diavolo's droll sense of humor before, but they always surprised her. "If you get into situations like this often, you might consider a new line of work."
His broad shoulders moved against hers in a shrug. "Every profession has challenges. How aggressively you conquer them depends on how badly you wish to succeed."
"Exactly how high do your ambitions reach, Signor Dante?"
"Let's hope we are not pushed to find out."
She didn't need sight to know that the expression in his eyes mirrored the fierce resolve in his voice. She had spent almost as much time in the past weeks attempting to decipher him as she had her father's encrypted notes. His bearded face rarely showed emotion. But his eyes gave away far more than he knew. As dark and rich as her favorite caramel espresso, the brown depths reflected a wealth of intriguing moods and emotions.
"Keep working at the ropes, Ariana."
"The knots are too strong."
"As you walked to me, did you feel anything that might sever them? Equipment or tools with sharp edges?"
"No, but I can go back"
A door slammed open. A glaring halogen lantern blinded her, and she flinched. Two burly men swaggered in, boasting about their good fortune in a combination of broken English, Greek and Russian.
Ariana groped for Dante's hands and clung to him. An uncertain anchor in the storm, he was all she had.
The lowlifes were big and muscular and scruffy. The Greek flipped open a large knife. She gulped, and Dante's fingers tightened reassuringly. She and Dante were suddenly united by the common threat. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Though Dante was tied hand and foot, he quickly maneuvered her behind him on the crate.
Knife raised, the Greek stepped toward him. Dante pistoned his legs and rammed the man's midsection. The knife clanged to the floor as the Greek flew across the hold.