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If there was one thing Dante Quevedo knew intimately, it was revenge. He'd lived it, breathed it and plotted it for twenty years. And tonight it would finally be his.
He pressed the trigger on the remote control detonator, then watched as a potent mixture of C-4 and diesel fuel exploded, shooting brilliant orange flames high into the midnight sky and rumbling the ground beneath his feet. With a quick surge of satisfaction, he slid the detonator back into his knapsack, then slipped through the inky shadows to the machinery shed where the casino's emergency generators were housed.
The bomb's fire leaped and roared in the darkness. Security guards rushed past, shouting into their radios as they raced toward the rocketing blaze. Dante crept around the shed, the thick smoke shielding his movements from the surveillance cameras mounted on the walls, and paused at the metal door. Using his custommade stainless-steel diamond pick, he jimmied the lock and stepped inside.
He glanced at his watch. Sixteen minutes. Not much time to disable the backup generators and get himself in place. Then the hacker would work his computer magic and cut the main power to the casino, allowing Dante to break into the penthouse, the aristocrat who'd hired him in tow.
Misgivings stirred inside him, but he shook them off. He'd agreed to the dealhis release from prison in exchange for getting the unknown woman inside. Her reasons, her goalhell, even her identitydidn't matter.
Only Dante's chance for vengeance did.
Resolve fisting deep inside him, he strode to the generators' control panel, located the power switch and turned it off. Then he sawed through the fuel lines with his wire cutters and opened the drains on the tanks to buy more time. Diesel fuel poured out, the harsh fumes stinging his nostrils and watering his eyes. Knowing time was dwindling quickly, he returned to the door and peered outside.
Smoke still billowed past. A cacophony of sirens pierced the air as emergency vehicles sped up the Pyrenees mountain slope. His adrenaline rising, Dante stepped from the shed and locked the door, then melted into the night.
Picking up his pace now, he jogged to the stolen hatchback he'd parked at the periphery of the gravel lot. Nine minutes. He opened the trunk, tugged a crisp white dress shirt over his T-shirt, then yanked on his jacket and tie. Still hurrying, he stuffed his lock-picking tools into his pocket, brushed the leaves and twigs from his suit trousers, and stowed his knapsack beneath a nearby shrub. If all hell broke loose, he didn't want any evidence traced to him.
Moving slower to avoid attention, he strolled casually past the valet parking and up the casino's wide stone steps. Located in a medieval fortress, Pais Vell's opulent playground attracted high rollers from around the world. Dante nodded to the uniformed doorman, stepped into the chandelier-studded lobby and paused.
The domed ceiling soared above him. Huge marble columns shouldered the mezzanine, its gilded railing glinting in the refracted light. Bells jangled from the adjacent gaming pit, the cheerful noise razoring through him like a garrote to his heart. His sister Lucia had died in this casino. She would never laugh, never hear those sounds again.
He steeled his jaw against a rush of emotions, guilt over his failure to save her bludgeoning his heart. Her death haunted him, all right. He couldn't stop reliving her final, frantic phone callthat she needed him to help her, that the prince was trying to kill her, that she had witnessed something dreadful during her waitressing shift and had to leave. Dante had raced to the casino, only to find her body dumped in the parking lot like discarded trash. Bloody. Mutilated.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the burning need for vengeance threatening to incinerate his hard-won control. But he'd get revenge; he had no doubts about that. He'd find the evidence he needed to destroy the princeand every other member of the royal familyno matter what it took.
But he had a bargain to fulfill first.
Still careful not to attract attention, he stalked across the marble lobby to the gaming pit, then wove past the baccarat tables and roulette wheels to the private high-limit rooms off the palace's central hall. He checked his watch. Five minutes. The aristocrat would be in one of the high-roller rooms by now. The plan called for her to enter the hallway nearest the medieval watchtower a minute before the power went off. Dante estimated they'd have half an hour to break into the penthouse, find whatever she wanted and return to the hallway before the maintenance people restored the power.
Veering past a display of medieval armor, he headed to a nearby restroom and ducked inside. Two minutes. He drew in a breath, mentally reviewing the palace's layout as another minute ticked down.
His belly tensed. A familiar surge of excitement drummed through his veins. One minute left. The game was on.
He stepped back into the hall.
Right on schedule, a woman sauntered down the hall toward him, her slender hips swiveling in her snug black pants, her long legs covering the distance with graceful strides. Dante took in her firm, high breasts, her sweetly curving waist. Thick dark hair cascaded around her shoulders, gleaming like burnished chestnuts in the muted light.
He knit his brows, something about her niggling his memory, prompting a feeling of familiarity he couldn't place. He shrugged the sensation off. He couldn't possibly know her. He had little contact with Pais Vell's wealthy eliteexcept when he broke into their estates, relieving them of their cash and jewels.
Conscious of the surveillance cameras recording his movements, he turned toward the water fountainjust as a man strode behind her into the hall.
Dante's heart skipped. He eyed the newcomer's short, burly build, the bulge of a sidearm beneath his suit, the hyperalert way he scanned the hall. A bodyguard. What the hell? No one had mentioned him.
Suspicions crowding inside him, Dante leaned over the fountain and dipped his head to drink. This couldn't be a trap; why bother springing him from prison only to arrest him again? Besides, he trusted his friend Rafael Navarro, the former thief who'd arranged this deal. Rafe never would have set him up.
But then who was the unknown aristocrat? Why would she bring a bodyguard along? And what the hell was he going to do now?
He took several long swallows of water, waiting until the woman had nearly reached him, then angled her another glance. His eyes connected with hers, and recognition kicked him straight in the gut.
His jaw slackened in disbelief.
But it was her, all right. He could hardly mistake her infamous oval face, those mesmerizing amber eyes. He scanned her dark winged brows, her sinfully carnal mouth, that elegant, fine-boned jaw. She continued gliding toward him, her head held high, her slender spine erect, centuries of privilege and breeding evident in every regal step.
A hot rush of fury scorched his gut. No wonder Rafe had kept her name a secret. If Dante had known her identity, he never would have agreed to this job. The royals had gunned down his helpless mother. They'd murdered his baby sister. There wasn't a chance in hell he'd help anyone even remotely connected to them.
And this princess He thinned his lips in disgust. Paloma Vergara was a notorious wild child, a pampered, frivolous tabloid queen whose escapades had outraged the nation for years. She spent her useless life partying, squandering money earned on the backs of the downtrodden peopleepitomizing everything he despised.
She drew even closer, her gaze locked on his. Suddenly, she stumbled, a flash of uncertainty flickering in her eyes. But she recovered her poise and strolled through the door of the women's lounge, trailing a taunting wisp of perfume.
His face muscles rigid, anger pounding his veins with the force of that bomb blast, Dante turned back to the fountain and swore. He should call this off. He should walk away right now. She was the princess, his enemy, a member of the family he'd sworn to destroy. And now he had her bodyguard to contend with, a complication that could get him killed.
But he'd promised to take her into the penthouse in exchange for his release from jail. The princess had done her part and freed him, so how could he renege on the deal?
He scowled at the gurgling water, an onslaught of conflicting emotions waging a full-blown war in his head. Every survival instinct he possessed urged him to get out now. But his word meant everything to him. His lifestyle might not be conventionalstealing from the aristocrats to help Pais Vell's poorest citizensbut he followed his own strict code of honor, meting out justice and revenge.
Abort the mission or adjust? He had only seconds left to decide.
He took a final swallow of water. The princess's bodyguard stopped, taking up his post beside the restroom door. Ten seconds. Dante continued debating his choices, but a grim feeling of inevitability settled inside. Bottom line, he'd given his word. He had to complete this mission, no matter what.
Hoping to hell he wouldn't regret this, he turned off the fountain and prepared to strike.
Princess Paloma Vergara had done plenty of things she wasn't proud of in her life. She'd shown up drunk at a state dinner. She'd had an affair with a man who'd turned out to be a foreign spy. She'd even appeared naked on the internet, thanks to a particularly sleazy boyfriend with a hidden telephoto lens.
But breaking into the casino penthouse was a new low, even for her.
Leaning against the wall inside the restroom, she pressed her palm to her belly to suppress a burst of nerves. But she could hardly miss the irony. She'd been trying for years to rehabilitate her image, to overcome a lifetime spent disappointing her family and finally prove her worth. Now she was about to obliterate a decade of progress with just one act.
But she was desperate. She had to get into that penthouse and confiscate the blackmail evidence tonight. The casino owner would destroy the prince's reputationand possibly the entire monarchyif she failed.
And better that she do this than her brother Tristan. At least if she got caught, no one would blink. Her reputation had been ruined years ago.
Nothing would go wrong, she reminded herself fiercely. This thief, Dante Quevedo, was reputed to be the best. He'd sneak her into the penthouse to find the incriminating surveillance footage and whisk her safely back out.
More anxiety swirled inside her at the thought of the man loitering in the hallway, the memory of his stark, dark face and furious eyes bringing a rush of heat to her skin. She'd expected someone older, shorter more manageable.
But Dante Quevedo She swallowed hard. He was too big, too male, too dangerous. He radiated testosterone and power. And the hostility in his midnight eyes
She inhaled deeply, refusing to let him unsettle her. So he wasn't what she'd expected. Tough. No matter how much he disturbed her, she couldn't back out now.
She glanced at her watch. Two seconds. Her heartbeat accelerating, she straightened and faced the door.
The lights winked out. The casino's mechanical systems powered down, a sudden unnatural hush descending on the pitch-black air.
Her tension rising, Paloma swung open the restroom door and stepped back into the halljust as a sickening thud reached her ears.
She cringed. She'd hoped her bodyguard Carlos would wait for her down the hall. But if he'd interfered and hurt the thief What was she going to do now?
A tiny light flickered on. The narrow beam of a pen-light drew her gaze to the floorwhere Carlos lay slumped at Dante's feet.
Her jaw dropped. Carlos was an expert fighter. How had this thief managed to take him down?
"What did you do?" she cried, rushing to him. "You didn't hurt him?" The last thing she wanted was to cause her protector harm.
"He's fine. He'll just have a headache when he comes to." Dante's flinty eyes narrowed on hers. "But what's with the bodyguard? He wasn't part of our deal."
"I know. I'm sorry. I tried to sneak off without him, but he wouldn't let me out of his sight."