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País Veil, the Pyrenees Mountains, 11:37p.m.
Rafael Navarro dangled from the wall of the medieval castle, the murmur of approaching voices drifting down to him in the inky, moonless night. He went dead still, slid his gaze to the void plunging forty feet below him, and wondered what had gone wrong with his plan. Those guards weren't supposed to arrive yet. He'd spent weeks studying their rotation for the G-6 summit, counting off the intervals of the passing searchlight, calculating the exact time and place to break into the American diplomat's room. And he should have had three more minutes to scale this wall.
Cold sweat beaded his forehead. His back and shoulders throbbed as he clung to the nylon rope. But he schooled himself to absolute stillness, knowing even the slightest shift could move a prong on the grappling hook, drawing the royal guards' attention to him. Behind him, a cool breeze swept down the slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains, the slow, rhythmic clanking of cowbells tightening his nerves.
"You're not seriously going to smoke that." The man's voice came from the wall walk above.
"Why not?" a second man asked. His voice had a belligerent edge. "It's not going to kill anyone."
"The hell it won't," the first guard said. "You heard the boss. Anyone who screws up tonight gets fired." "Yeah, yeah."
Rafe's heart galloped against his rib cage. He'd be dead if he didn't move. Now. In a few precious seconds, the searchlight would pass, illuminating him like a dark bug splayed on a silver wall.
But cigarette smoke wisped past. More crucial seconds ticked down. Rafe gritted his teeth, his biceps trembling, every survival instinct screaming at him to go. But he couldn't move, couldn't even change positions to relieve the pressure on his now-numb hands.
"Hombre. Would you come on?" the first guard said, echoing Rafe's thoughts. "The next rotation's about to catch up."
"Fine." Disgust tinged the smoker's voice. A glowing cigarette butt streaked over the wall, barely missing Rafe's head. The guards finally pushed away from the ledge, the thud of their receding footsteps fading into the night.
Rafe eased out a breath, but forced himself to wait, counting off several vital heartbeats in case they circled back. Then he powered up the rope in a surge of adrenaline, glad he'd kept up the brutal workouts that enabled him to make this climb even though he'd retired from a life of crime. Until now.
He reached the medieval battlement and paused again. Stiii ciear. His arms aching, the desperate need to hurry flogging his brain, he hoisted himself over the edge. Then he yanked up the rope, pulled the grappling hook from the wall, and duckedjust as the searchlight skimmed overhead.
Too damned close.
His heart pounding, that addictive rush of danger streaming through his veins, he crawled to the ancient watchtower, careful to keep his head under the light's wide range. Then he coiled the rope and tucked it against the wall for his descent. The high-powered beam swept back over the cylindrical tower, past a planked oak door dotted with iron studs.
Now. He leaped up and sprinted to the door. Skidding to a stop, he whipped the lock-pick gun from his back pocket, inserted a tension wrench into the lock and applied the gun. A series of sharp, rapid clicks rent the air.
The lock gave way.
Rafe squeezed through the door, careful not to let the hinges creak, into the darkened alcove that adjoined the diplomat's room. At this height he didn't worry about triggering an alarm. No one got past the armed guards, surveillance cameras and intrusion detection devices on the castle's lower floorsexcept a third-generation master thief like him.
But he wasn't out of danger yet. He had to find the historic signet ring and get back down that wallbefore the reception ended and the American returned to his room.
Flicking on his penlight, he padded across the antique rug to the Baroque-style bureau. He checked the drawers, peeked behind the huge gilded paintings on the medieval wall. No ring. No hidden safe. He turned toward the bedroom.
A soft, feminine laugh stopped him cold.
His pulse drummed hard. He snapped his gaze to the closed velvet drapes dividing the two rooms. The diplomat had come back earlyand he wasn't alone.
Rafe frowned, debating his options, but he didn't have a choice. He had to get that ring tonight. The diplomat was scheduled to present it to Pais Vell's king in the morning. And if that happened, Rafe's bargain with the police chief would be void.
His nerves ratcheting higher, every sense hyperalert, he crept to the floor-length drapes and nudged the edge aside. The cool, musty room was shrouded in darknessonly the faint, golden haze from a bedside lamp penetrated the gloom. Rafe zeroed in on the couple standing across from him on the opposite side of the bed. The woman had her back to him, and the mellow light gilded her naked curves.
No, not naked, he amended, his mouth quirking up in regret. But her back was bare, her gown plunging so low on her hips he could easily imagine the rest.
He allowed his gaze to linger, taking a long, leisurely slide down the sensuous sweep of her spine to the riveting contours of her hips. He couldn't fault the diplomat's tasteor haste. The woman was flawless, at least from the rear. She had sleek, honeyed skin, and centerfold-worthy curves. She wore her dark hair up, exposing the tempting nape of her neck. Loose tendrils danced in the light.
And given the rapt expression on the balding diplomat's face, her front side was better yet.
But Rafe didn't have time to ogle the diplomat's escort. Dragging his attention back to the room, he scanned the wingback chairs hulking in the shadows, the imposing Louis XIV armoire with its carved doors hanging ajar. That ring had to be within reach. But how could he get past the bed to search?
The diplomat tugged off his shirt and tossed it aside, then struggled to pull off a sock. He staggered and lost his balance, lurching against the woman. She steadied them both and laughed.
Rafe stilled, the low, throaty sound jarring something inside him, a memory he'd fought to erase. He whipped his gaze to her smooth velvet skin, the dip of her slender waist, and gave his head a swift shake. It couldn't be her. There was no damned way.
Gabrielle Ferrer hadn't set foot in Pais Vell in years.
"Come on, honey," the diplomat said, enunciating his words too carefully, drawing Rafe's eyes to the wine glasses beside the bed. "You're wearing too many clothes."
He spun her around in a move probably meant to be debonair. Instead he tripped and sprawled back over the bed. The woman fell atop him and laughed again. "Easy there." She pushed herself up to her elbows, bringing her face more fully into the halo of light, and Rafe's heart slammed to a halt. So he hadn't hallucinated that voice. It really was Gabrielle.
Hell of a place to find his ex-fiancée.
He ran his eyes down the elegant swell of her cheekbones, the seductive tilt of her lips. She hadn't changed in the past three years. She still had those hot, sultry eyes, that X-rated mouth.
A body that still fueled his erotic dreams.
The diplomat pawed at her dress, pulling her shoulder strap down her arm, revealing the curves of her ample breasts. Curves Rafe had tasted and teased and touched.
He clenched his jaw. Resentment scorched deep in his gut. She was good, he'd give her that much. The sensual laugh, the come-hither way she tossed her head, baring the tempting skin of her throat. She was every man's fantasy, a siren luring him to erotic bliss.
But she'd only been acting with him.
"Let me get you more wine," she purred to the diplomat, and her husky voice scraped over Rafe's nerves. "Then I'll join you."
She pushed herself off the bed. The neckline of her long gown gaped, exposing a flash of creamy flesh. Her body was perfect, all rightan attribute she used well. She wielded it like a lethal weapon, destroying any man foolish enough to care.
Good thing he was no longer that fool.
Dodging the diplomat's groping hands, she turned to the bedside table, and bent to pour the wine. Rafe watched her in actionwriggling, making her dress tighten over her hips in a move guaranteed to snag the eye. His traitorous blood heating, he clenched his gloved hands into fists, the urge to yank that soft, yielding body against hisand make her want him againriding him hard.
He hissed, furious at his reactionthat even after all this time, he wasn't immune. Each sinuous move knocked his heart off course, sending blood surging straight to his groin.
He shook away the lust with effort, determined to focus on finding that ring. But suspicion swirled inside him, the same uneasy feeling he'd had from the start of this job winging back full force. Why was Gabrielle here? She hardly needed a notch on her belt, and seducing this overweight, middle-aged lothario wasn't her style.
Trying to make sense of her presence, he tracked her suggestive movements with narrowed eyes. It didn't surprise him that she would attend the reception. She moved in rarified social circles as one of the megarich of the world. Not only had she inherited a software conglomerate worth billions, but she'd descended from the landed aristocracy. And as cousin to the prime minister, she had political connections, as well.
All that explained her attendance at the summit's reception. But why this charade with the diplomat? And why return to Pais Vell now?
Unless she was after the same thing Rafe was
His heart missed a beat. He studied the enticing swell of her hips, the gleam of her naked back, and his brows gathered into a frown. Could she be after the historic ring? But why would she be? She didn't need the money. She didn't collect antiquities. And she'd never shown much interest in the La Brigada separatists who claimed the seventeenth-century signet ringa symbol of their lost homelandwas theirs.
Rafe didn't care about the ring, either. And nothing could have tempted him to risk his precious freedom except one thingthe chance to atone for the past.
But none of that explained Gabrielle.
She glanced over her shoulder, shot the diplomat a heated smile, and Rafe's hold on his temper slipped. Regardless of her motives, he knew one thing. That ring was his. If by some odd twist of fate she had come here to steal it, she was out of luck.
She finished pouring the wine, then swiveled toward the bed, holding the glass. Without warning, she glanced up, and her gaze collided with his.
She went stock-still. The color slowly leached from her face. His anger steadily building, Rafe folded his arms and scowled back.
Several seconds dragged past. Gabi stayed rooted in place, gawking at him from across the bed. He deliberately severed the contact, then raked his gaze down the length of herover her full, ripe breasts and narrow waist, back to her stunning faceand his resentment spiked higher yet. Because if she tried to interfere with his plans.
She gave her head a swift shake, as if to pull herself out of her daze. Then she slipped back into seductress mode, curling her lips into a practiced smile. But her hand trembled, sending wine slopping onto the bed, proving she wasn't as unaffected as she tried to pretend.
Good. She deserved to sweat after the callous way she'd dumped him.
Leaning forward, she handed the diplomat the glass of wine. He gulped it down, then reached out to put it on the bedside table. "Lesh get that dress off," he slurred.
"Right." Her voice came out breathy. She stepped away from the bed. Reaching for the straps on her ballgown, she sliced her gaze back to Rafe's.
He didn't move. Stark tension arced in the air. He raised a brow in challenge, wondering just how far she'd take this game. Not that he cared. Gabrielle had meant nothing to him for years. And if she wanted to perform an impromptu strip tease, who was he to complain?
Unless this was some sort of trap
The muscles of his belly tightened, more doubts piling inside. Had she expected him to show up here? Had she been sent here to waylay him? But that made no sense. She couldn't have known his plans. And while she might be an expert seductress, she hadn't faked her surprise.
But then why not sound the alarm? Why not tell the diplomat he was here? What game was she trying to play?
She moistened her lush lower lip with her tongue. The gown's thin straps slithered down. Rafe's gaze dropped to the scraps of fabric clinging precariously to her breasts, just as he knew she'd planned. But if she thought she could manipulate him through his hormones, she was wrong.
She paused, as if to heighten the anticipation.
Damned if it didn't work.
Scowling, he cursed his weakness around this woman. He knew better than to let her suck him in. She'd led him on for years, slumming it with him while she waited for a more respectable man to come along.
A sudden snore cut through the air.
Gabrielle abruptly straightened. Rafe spared a glance at the diplomat now passed out cold on the sheets. Still scowling, he jerked apart the drapes and strode across the room, determined to get answers fast. As he neared, Gabrielle's perfume flooded his senses, that unique blend of jasmine and vanilla taunting his nerves.
He stopped and braced his hands on his hips. She tilted her head back to meet his eyes. "Well, hello, Rafe." Her husky voice rumbled inside him, making him angrier yet.
"Gabrielle." He bared his teeth in a feral smile. She swayed back, her own smile wavering, the pulse speeding at the base of her throat betraying her unease. It was about time she started to worry. Because the real game was about to begin.