Read an Excerpt
The Perfect Target
By Jenna Mills
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Turn on your TV."
Alessandro Vellenti squinted through the darkness of his Lisbon hotel room. He'd seen closets bigger, closets dedicated solely to shoes and handbags. But the small room had a shower, and that's all he'd really wanted.
Well, maybe not all he wanted, but all he could have.
Night had fallen while he'd stood under the spray of a lukewarm shower, trying to ignore the metallic smell of the water. Now, flashing lights from the discotheque across the street cut through the threadbare curtains like something straight out of a macabre horror flick.
"My TV?" He positioned the mobile phone against his shoulder and fumbled for the bedside lamp. Anticipation increased his heart rate. Javier was hardly a television kind of guy. Sandro doubted his partner wanted him to see the newest reality show to disgrace the airwaves. "What's going on?"
"Something big. What took you so long to answer the phone? I'm not finally interrupting something, am I?"
Sandro ignored the jab and wrapped a threadbare towel around his hips. Rivulets of water clung to his chest and slid down his legs, but he didn't finish drying. There was no need. The room reeked of stale cigarettes and harsh antiseptic, but the temperature was only slightly cool. Sandro had certainly endured colder. And hotter.
He preferred the hot. "I'm not a kiss-and-tell kind of guy," he muttered, looking for the remote. "What's going on?"
"Jorak Zhukov was arrested crossing into the United States from Canada. The ambassador to Ravakia is giving an interview right now."
Finally, the urgency in Javier's voice made sense. Implications and questions immediately surfaced, raised more questions. "Was he by himself?"
Sandro went down on one knee, locating the remote under the narrow bed, adjacent to a skimpy black bra and slinky white scarf. He didn't even want to think about how the erotic garments had found their way under the bed. Doing so would be too depressing. Instead, he aimed the ancient control at the pathetic excuse for a television across the room.
Nothing happened. "Has he been charged with anything?"
"Just traveling on a falsified visa. So far. But I can't imagine the United States letting him slip through their fingers, not after what happened to those agents."
Sandro hit the power button again, still with no luck. Banging the useless instrument against the nightstand, he recalled the countless reports he'd reviewed about Jorak Zhukov and his father Viktor, the overthrown leader of the Eastern European country Ravakia. The two were wanted in connection with the deaths of eight undercover operatives. Word on the street had it something even bigger was going down.
It was Sandro and Javier's mission to find out what.
"What of Viktor?" Anticipation whirred deep inside Sandro. Nailing the notorious father-son duo would save countless lives. "Any indication they were traveling together?"
"The State Department doesn't think so."
Sandro gave up on the remote, took the room in three long strides, and jabbed the on button. A bright light yawned across the screen, but no picture and only the sound of static.
"They think Viktor's holed up somewhere in Europe," Javier added.
Maybe. Probably. When the U.S. got determined about finding something, safe hiding places became scarce. "Do they know where?"
"If they do, they're not saying."
A distorted picture finally formed. Sandro flipped through channels on the old black-and-white until he found the familiar CNN logo. The picture remained fuzzy, however, the sound garbled.
"The State Department's heightened the travel warning for American citizens and interests," Javi added. "With Jorak in custody, Viktor will be desperate. They fear retaliation."
Sandro slammed his palm against the side of the television, still no sound. Against a backdrop of a proud American flag, Ambassador Peter Carrington grew more animated by the second. Defiance glowed in his eyes, hardened the lines of his patrician face. His hands moved as he talked, slicing through the air like a chop to the neck of an invisible opponent.
"What's he saying? I can't get any volume."
"The usual. The United States is not in the business of negotiating with criminals on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list."
Sandro stepped back from the television, suddenly cold. "Zhukov will take that as a direct challenge."
A hard noise broke from Javi's throat. "I don't understand people like Carrington, so snug in his ivory tower that he doesn't realize he's not insulated from the real world."
"He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth," Sandro pointed out. The highly revered, much loved Carrington family skirted as close to royalty as America got. "He's never had his world blow up around him."
"That's about to change," Javi warned as the interview ended. A shadowy image of General Viktor Zhukov replaced that of the newly appointed ambassador to Ravakia.
"Viktor's already on the move, knows he needs leverage."
Leverage. The word snaked through Sandro like rancid meat. "You mean a hostage."
"Viktor made contact about thirty minutes ago," Javi said, his voice practically drowned out by a siren somewhere in the city. "He's already got a plan. And a target."
The news didn't surprise Sandro. "Who?"
The name did. An image immediately formed, of leagues of chestnut hair and exotic green eyes. "The ambassador's daughter?"
"A child for a child," Javi muttered cryptically. "Word on the street is she's in Europe indulging some gypsy fantasy. She was last seen in Seville."
Only a few hours' drive from Lisbon.
"Cristo." Sandro knew little of the ambassador's youngest child, other than that in her late twenties, she seemed the exact opposite of her perfect, politically correct older sister and brother, Elizabeth and Ethan, dubbed the E-twins by the press. Not that Miranda wasn't perfect in her own right ...
She sure as hell could kiss, he thought, then wished he hadn't. Vividly, he recalled a tabloid photo of a bikini-clad Miranda wrapped around some Ivy League frat boy, mouths locked in a pose more suited to the cover of an X-rated video.
Sandro sucked in a sharp breath and shoved wet hair back from his face. His body groaned in frustration.
Don't go there, he warned himself. Don't even think about there. Especially not with a woman targeted to become a pawn in a high-stakes international game. Especially not while he stood wet and naked in a hotel room that reeked of sex by the hour. He couldn't afford to be distracted any more than he could afford the nasty kink in months of grueling undercover work. His mission was clear: gain the general's trust, learn his secrets, then bring him down.
"It gets worse," his partner added, seemingly reading his mind, as always. "That's why I'm calling."
Sandro braced himself. "Lay it on me."
"The general wants you to get her for him, amigo. Said if you can deliver the girl, he'll know where your loyalties lie."
Sandro went very still. A test. The irony of it burned clear down to his bones. If he failed the test, he failed his country.
But if he succeeded ...
Excerpted from The Perfect Target by Jenna Mills Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.