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Rio McClintock dug his elbows into the moist, volcanic dirt, cursed the CIA and adjusted his binoculars. He focused on the terrace, decked out in Christmas lights, hanging over the inky Pacific. A crush of people mingled, sipping expensive booze and congratulating themselves on their good luck. He could almost hear the tinkling glasses and murmur of voices from his perch.
Another party. Didn't those people have anything better to do than eat, drink and be merry?
And didn't they realize their generous host, Mad Prince Alexi, supplied arms and ammunition to a motley crew of terrorists and two-bit dictators the world over?
The sea of people parted as a tall man, dressed in dark slacks and a black turtleneck, cut a swath through the patio. Alexi looked like a black hawk descending on a field of brightly colored birds of paradise.
Who the hell wore black in Hawaii? Rio ran a finger along the neckline of his sweat-soaked black T-shirt. Unless you had to.
He rolled onto his side and dug one of two water bottles out of his backpack, avoiding his Colt .45. Leaning on one elbow, he chugged half the bottle and then ground it into the thick carpet of mulch that cushioned his lookout post, a burrow in the side of a gently sloping hill.
He trained his binoculars back on the partygoers. Pretty people. Alexi had no shortage of beautiful women hanging on his arm, cavorting on his beach and soaking in his hot tub. They either didn't realize the danger surrounding the man like a miasma, or they courted it. Pretty, stupid people.
Scanning the upper-level windows again, he drew in a quick breath as a man with slicked-back white hair came into focus. He muttered, "Bingo."
Rio figured Alexi hadn't come to Maui for the sun and surf, and his CIA contact had figured the same thing. Now the proof stood at a window in Alexi's palatial rental. Alexi always used Vladimir Kolchenko, the White Russian, as the go-between for his arms deals. Kolchenko's presence in Maui guaranteed that Alexi planned to mix business with pleasure.
A bug skittered onto Rio's arm, and he flicked it off into the darkness. Now if he could just figure out a way to get into that house instead of rotting away on this spongy precipice hanging over the ocean.
A twig snapped, and he jerked to a sitting position, dropping the binoculars where they banged against his chest. He crouched by the tree growing out of the hillside to his right, his muscles tense and coiled.
Tourists, even extreme hikers, never ventured this far from the trails crisscrossing Maui's backcountry. Had Alexi's goons ferreted out his hiding place carved into the side of the hill?
His gaze tracked back and forth along the ridge of the hill, the half moon shedding a fuzzy glow on the jumble of plants that hugged the edge. A bush rustled and an object sailed over his head, dropping at his feet.
He glanced down at the crumpled flower petals littering the toes of his hiking boots.
As the foliage parted above him, a denim-clad leg appeared over the side of the ridge. The sound of a click pumped up his adrenaline, and he braced his back against the tree trunk ready to charge at the intruder.
Another leg appeared and Rio lunged forward, wrapping his arms around both appendages now dangling over the edge of the drop-off. He yanked at the legs, which kicked wildly, clamping them to his chest as he hurtled himself and his squirming package to the soft ground.
They rolled a few feet down the hillside, and although the struggling stopped, Rio received a nip on his chest through his T-shirt for his efforts. What kind of pansy-ass thugs did Prince Alexi have working for him these days? What next, hair pulling?
Their journey downhill came to a stop against a clump of bushes with Rio in the superior position, straddling the other man. Although he hadn't seen or felt a weapon during their tussle, Rio ground his knee into the intruder's right forearm while cinching his fingers around the man's narrow left wrist before he rose to a sitting position.
The branches from the trees above them obscured what little moonlight illuminated the scene. The small-statured man beneath him hadn't put up much of a fight, but Alexi's guy could be luring him into complacency.
Rio growled, "I'm going for my flashlight. If you make a move, I'll send you straight down this hill and your boss can scrape you off those rocks."
As Rio reached for his belt, he could've sworn his captive squealed. He snatched his flashlight from his belt loop, flicked it on, and shined it into the face of the limp form beneath him.
"What the hell?" He jerked back. A woman, her red hair fanning around her head, gazed at him with wide eyes. Had he just taken down an unsuspecting tourist?
He clenched his jaw and clamped his thighs tighter around her frame. Or maybe Alexi had employed a new weapon in his arsenal.
"Let me go. I don't have a boss and that includes you." She bucked beneath him, drawing up her leg to knee him in the crotch.
He dropped down onto her thighs, and she nailed him in the backside instead. "Tell me what you're doing here. How'd you find my position?"
"I'll tell you everything once you get off me. I don't know you nearly well enough for you to be straddling me like this, but buy me a couple of mai tais and you might get lucky."
She wriggled her body, and the movement, along with the exotic scent wafting from her skin, sent a shaft of desire right through to his core. Gladly, he hoisted himself up, extending a hand to her. "Get up. Don't move."
She grasped his hand, her skin smooth to the touch, and he yanked her up beside him. "Raise your arms to the side."
"You sure like tossing around the orders, don't you?"
"Just do it."
Rolling her eyes, she followed his instructions, thrusting out her arms. His flashlight trailed over her body while he patted her down with one hand. She stiffened as he passed his hand across her breasts to make sure she didn't have a weapon concealed in her bra.
When he ran his palm down her bottom and briefly clenched her crotch, she jumped back. "Whoa. You'll have to spring for a third mai tai to get that far."
He snorted. "Don't flatter yourself, sweetheart. All you represent to me is a suspicious person in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Okay, he lied. If she did work for Mad Prince Alexi, that man possessed a brilliant strategy. This woman with her sexy body and tough talk heated his blood and stirred his passions. One helluva distraction for a stakeout.
"Satisfied I'm not packing?" Her eyes glittered in the beam of the flashlight, but he couldn't discern their color.
Satisfied? Not at all.
"Yeah, not much you can hide in those tight jeans and T-shirt."
She raised her brows. "Wow, you noticed my clothing?"
"I get paid to notice." He cleared his throat. "I've also noticed you're not dressed for hiking, and you don't have a backpack. So what are you doing here, and what was that click I heard right before I tackled you?"
"Click?" She scrunched up her face, but it still couldn't mar her flawless beauty. She slapped her thigh and laughed. "I found an old lighter on the ground and flicked it open and then clicked it shut. You thought that was the safety on a gun?"
He shrugged, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I guess it sounded magnified out here. That still doesn't answer my first question."
"One question at a time, cowboy." She tossed a handful of long, curly hair over one shoulder.
He scowled and shot back, "Don't call me that."
"You got something against cowboys?" She tilted her head, and her hair tumbled over her other shoulder, its strands catching the beams from his flashlight.
His hand fisted at his side as he recalled his first and last visit to the McClintock ranch in Colorado. "Maybe. Now answer the question. The first question."
Folding her arms across her chest, she hunched her shoulders. "I'm out here for the same reason you are."
A muscle twitched in his jaw. What kind of game was she playing? Did some other agency have Prince Alexi under surveillance? If they did, they wouldn't send a lightweight like this woman—with no weapons and no training—no matter how gorgeous. Unless they planned to plant her inside Alexi's mansion and maybe even his bed.
His gut rolled at the thought of this woman in Alexi's clutches. Then he took a deep breath. He didn't have to rescue every scatterbrained woman on the planet.
One had been enough.
"Same reason? You mean a late-night hike?"
"Yeah, right." She kicked a gnarled root with the toe of her running shoe. "A late-night hike by yourself, huddled against the side of a hill and using mad martial arts skills to attack other tourists."
He fought against the grin stealing across his face. "Those weren't mad martial arts skills. I just yanked you off the edge of the overhang."
"Cut the crap, m-man." She covered her mouth as if stopping herself from saying more. Waving her arm behind her, she recovered. "I know why you're here, and I'm here for the same reason."
"You show me yours first, and I'll show you mine." He dug a hand in the pocket of his jeans. He had no intention of telling her his business on this hillside. But when they finished playing games here, he wouldn't mind taking her up on her invitation to buy her a mai tai or three.
She jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward Alexi's house, now hidden by the hillside's dense foliage. "I'm here for Prince Alexi Zherkov, and so are you."
Rio widened his stance, digging the heels of his hiking boots into the mulch. The woman had her facts straight. Had the CIA hired her to work with him? If so, they hadn't bothered to tell him about it.
"Who hired you?"
She giggled, bending backward to look at the sky. "I told you cowboy, I don't work for anyone."
"Then what's your business with Alexi?" She hardly looked like an arms dealer. Arms dealers rarely giggled.
She stopped laughing and hugged herself, her fingers biting into the taut muscles of her upper arms. For a curvy woman, she looked fit. "It's not business. It's personal."
Rio wiped the back of his hand across his brow, shoving the hair from his face. Great. Was she one of Alexi's scorned lovers? Apparently, the guy had hordes of them.
Biting the inside of his cheek, he studied the woman's face, now set in hard, determined lines. If she had a burning desire to get back at Alexi, he might be able to use her.
He doused the flare of protectiveness that leaped in his chest. It would be dangerous for her, but if she wanted revenge, they could help each other. Any woman foolish or greedy enough to hop in the sack with Mad Prince Alexi was already playing with fire. What were a few more licks from the flame?
She disappointed him. He figured a sassy woman like her would have too much pride and self-confidence to get tangled up with a scumbag like Alexi.
"Dumped you, huh?" He smirked.
Wedging her hands on her hips, she took a step back. "You think I'm one of those bimbos, who's hanging out with a rich guy regardless of the source of those riches? You think I'm a chick who wants revenge on a player?"
"In a word—yes."
She laughed again, this time doubling over at the waist, her long hair almost touching the leaves on the ground.
No wonder Alexi had dumped her—she was insane. As nuts as Alexi was, he wouldn't have the patience for another lunatic even one whose looks put those women in his hot tub to shame.
She unfolded her body, wiping the tears from her face. She sniffled as she wound her hair around her hand and tossed it behind her. "Oh, it's much worse than that, cowboy."
His brows shot up. This woman was throwing him more zigzags than that mountain road he'd traveled on his way up here. "Worse? Did he double-cross you in a busi ness deal?"
"You don't listen too good for a secret agent, do you? I told you, I have a personal issue with Alexi, not a business one. I don't have anything to do with drugs, or arms or any of Alexi's other sleazy endeavors."
At least she had no misconceptions about Alexi or his business. "So what is it?"
She squared her shoulders and raised her chin. "I have the dubious distinction of being the ex-Mrs. Alexi Zherkov."
Rio's mouth dropped open. Mad Prince Alexi's mysterious former princess. In the flesh.
From his research on Alexi these past six months since the CIA had hired him to get something on the arms dealer and bring him down, Rio had learned Alexi had an ex-wife somewhere. He'd even heard that Alexi had chosen an American for his bride, but Rio's attempts to track her down and discover any more information had met with a brick wall.
Alexi kept mum about his personal life, as did those surrounding him. Rio had gotten close to only one informant, and he didn't belong to Alexi's inner circle. The mole had told Rio about an American ex-wife named Victoria. If he had known any more than that, he'd taken it to his grave after the Landespolizei had dragged his body out of the Rhine River near Munich.
Her bright gaze searched his face. "So you see, you can't tell me anything about that SOB down there that I don't already know. And I have as much right to be on this hillside as you do, spying on him, waiting for him to slip up so you can take him down. I don't know why you boys in the CIA think you can get him now. You've been trying for years without much luck."
He studied her pale face from beneath half-lidded eyes. She thought he was CIA. He wouldn't bother to correct her. She hit the nail on the head with one statement. The CIA had been trying for a long time to trip up Alexi. That's why the Agency hired him—to try more unconventional methods.
"So you're Victoria."
She nodded slowly, her chin dropping to her chest. "You're good, cowboy. I'm practically a state secret back in Alexi's country, good old Glazkova. What else do you know?"
"That's about it." He spread his hands wide. "Why don't you fill me in, and while you're at it, tell me why you're stalking your ex-husband."
"First off, you might as well get the name straight. I'm Tori not Victoria." She opened her arms. "Have you ever seen anyone less like a staid, proper Victoria?"
Posted May 23, 2013
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