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Only someone who had come back from the dead truly knew how deadly distractions could be.
Danielle Moore had let personal feelings get in the way of a top-secret mission over a year ago and had nearly lost her life. So she kept her eyes glued to the man-six feet two inches of thick muscle-as he charged at her like a linebacker after a quarterback, arms outstretched to trap her in his embrace.
Dani used his momentum against him, sweeping him aside with a matador like step. Turning quickly as he stumbled by, she snapped an elbow to the back of his neck and dropped him to the ground. Before she could totally incapacitate him, another more compact man charged at her from the opposite side of the room.
She pushed off the first man's fallen body and came up ready for action, but as she did so, something pulled along her midsection. A twinge of pain followed, but she tamped it down. She couldn't allow physical discomfort or weakness to divert her attention.
As the smaller man shoved past his rising friend, she released a sharp dropkick, catching him squarely in the chest and rocking him backward, where he immediately tripped over the larger man. Both men sprawled to the ground in a messy heap.
Dani stopped, placed her hands on her hips and laughed as they tried to untangle themselves and resume their attack.
"Come on, boys. Is that the best you can do?" she teased in fluent French.
After months of training together, the three of them had developed an easy camaraderie. Even now, when the men couldn't seem to contain Dani as her physical strength and martial arts prowess returned rapidly, they accepted her superior abilities good-naturedly.
Her currentphysical state was quite different from what it had been nearly three months ago, Dani thought.
After being shot and lingering in a coma off and on, she had emerged long enough to approve the removal of the bullet that had lodged precariously close to her spine. Three months after that, she had finally been well enough to begin physical therapy and try to get back into shape.
She had a new mission waiting for her, after all. At least, that's what the enigmatic man by her bedside had intimated to her so many months ago.
Dani now knew who that mysterious angel was-Corbett Lazlo, the elusive powerhouse behind the Lazlo Group, a private agency known for handling the most discreet and sometimes dangerous of missions. A group well known to her from her time with the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS, the British equivalent of the CIA and the agency at which she had worked as the Sparrow, a world-renowned assassin.
Only she hadn't really been an assassin. All her supposed "kills' had been taken into SIS custody so that SIS might find out more information about an elusive crime organization they called SNAKE, which they suspected of being responsible for a number of illegal operations.
She had let her last mission get personal. Her actions had resulted in the death of the prince of Silvershire and had nearly caused her death and that of her twin sister. SIS had been less than pleased that, in her quest to find her parents' killers, she had messed up the mission in Silvershire, the small European island kingdom she had called home at one time. With her cover as the Sparrow possibly blown and an international incident brewing, SIS had tossed her out.
Lazlo, who had also been thrown out of SIS many years earlier, was the man she had to thank for keeping her alive. He was the one responsible for the medical treatment that had worked a miracle and brought her back from the dead.
He had taken her into his agency and told her that he would let her know when the time was right for her to be reborn and go out on another mission.
She felt mission-ready now and sensed that somehow Lazlo would know that.
He seemed to know everything about everyone while she, like most of the people she had met within his group, knew little about him. To her surprise, few had even seen the elusive Mr. Lazlo.
After thanking her two sparring partners for the training session, she walked to the gym to finish her workout. She took a place at the first station and lifted the weights, evenly pushing up the bars on the bench press and enjoying the strength she had regained in her arms. Satisfied, she finished her reps and moved on to the next station and then the next.
By the time she finished, her muscles trembled from her exertions, but it was a good feeling. The kind of sore that said she was getting stronger.
The kind of pain that confirmed she was still alive.
In the locker room, she peeled off her clothes and grabbed a towel, ready for a long soak in the Jacuzzi. As she passed a mirror, she stopped short, surprised by what stared back at her.
The image of a hard-bodied woman of average height was reflected in the mirror. Shoulder-length hair in need of a trim. Fine-boned shoulders leading to full breasts above a long, barely pink scar that ran down her middle. Beside the scar was the ragged, stellar-shaped wound where she had been shot during her last mission.
The physical wounds of the past year were alive in her vision, much like those in her heart, which had been there far longer. The scar of her parents' murder. The ragged and still unhealed wound from her lover's death barely three years ago.
Dani ran her hand down the long scar, but it was numb. Just as she was numb inside. Paralyzed. Yet she still had things to do so that might make her feel alive again.
So that she could finally go home. Go and see her twin sister, Elizabeth.
Only, as she'd heard before, she suspected that she could never truly go home again.
Lazlo agent Mitch Lama watched as Dani sparred with the two men in the gym.
Was she ready? he wondered tapping his lips with his index finger as Dani deftly handled the two much larger men.
The frailness from her injuries was gone, as was the pallor that had colored her skin for the many months she had been unconscious and battling for life. Months during which he had come to sit by her bedside, urging her to keep up the fight. Reading to her in hopes that she might hear his voice and return because they had things to settle between them.
Now she was back from the dead and he didn't know what to do with her. What to do about the lies she had told him for so long. Lies that had nearly cost him his life and hers.
She looked strong now. Presumably ready for action. He had always admired Dani's physicality. Been intrigued by the strength beneath the seemingly fragile and feminine surface.
She was a warrior. A champion who was forever prepared to take up a cause and fight a wrong.
He both loved and hated her for being a hero.
For nearly three years, he had been waiting to see her. To talk to her again. To be able to touch her and have her know it was him.
To ask her why she had lied to him about who she was, even as he'd lain dying.
A loud beep came from his computer, notifying him that he had an urgent message from Corbett Lazlo. A second later, his phone rang and he had no doubt who would be on the line.
He shut down his access to the camera trained on Dani, immediately regretting the loss of her.
"Lama," he said, a tinge of annoyance in his voice that he had been pulled away from his surveillance.
Corbett Lazlo identified himself. "Did you get my message?" "Hold on just one second, sir, while I open it," he said, the cadence and tone from his days in the military coloring his speech. He double-clicked to open the e-mail message Lazlo had forwarded and held his breath as he read it.
The message threatened with its simplicity.
Ready for Round 2? "I'm assuming Cordez couldn't track the source of this message either?" He wondered why their top computer person was having such difficulty tracing the mysterious missives.
"You're correct. Plus, I have some other news."
He knew the news would be bad so he preempted Lazlo's report. "Another operative is down. I'm assuming the same MO as before?"
"Unfortunately, yes. His body was discovered not far from our Prague offices. Close-range shot to the head, just above the left ear. Hollow-point bullet. I've asked our various contacts to see if they have a record of any assassins with a similar MO but I suspect there may be quite a few."
Mitch considered the facts and sensed that the moment for waiting and watching had ended. Time for him and the Sparrow to join forces and discover who was behind the messages and attacks.
"I'm assuming that you want me to activate the Lazarus Liaison now, Mr. Lazlo."
Silence came across the line before Lazlo asked, "Do you think she's ready?"
He recalled the sight of Dani as she sparred. "I think she's physically ready, sir."
"Quite the political answer. And you? Are you ready? Physically? Emotionally?"
He'd be a liar if he said "yes," and so he provided the only answer he could.
"That remains to be seen, sir."
Lazlo's rare amused chuckle cut across the phone line. "Well, then.We'll activate the Lazarus mission sometime tomorrow. Be prepared for a joint briefing with the Sparrow in the afternoon."
He wanted to protest that it wasn't enough time but suspected that he could never have enough time to fortify himself to see her again. To face Dani down and deal with all the issues sure to exist between them.
But he had no choice. Corbett Lazlo had saved his life and Dani's. For that reason alone, he was honor-bound to do what Lazlo was asking of him.
He only hoped that, when it was all over, he would finally have some peace in his life.