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"Left perimeter clear." Shifting his night vision goggles, Daniel LeCroix peered through the inky blankness of the Colombian jungle, his body humming and ready for action. He focused on the large tent at the far end of the rebel encampment. No sign of the soldiers who slept in the canvas shelter. Lowering the night vision goggles, he cast a glance to his partner, who monitored the camp through an infrared imaging camera. "What do you have?"
Months of preparation had led to this moment. With their objective moments from fruition, he'd be damned if he'd let anything screw up their mission now.
"No movement," Alec Kincaid confirmed. "Looks like the guards watching the ammo are the only ones awake." Alec stowed the infrared imager in his pack and slid his NVGs into place. "Ready to move?"
Adrenaline spiked in Daniel's blood, readying him for battle. "Hell, yeah. Let's go."
Silently, he and Alec dropped from the tree where they'd been perched for hours, watching the faction of rebel soldiers who held several captives in the remote camp. Only one of the prisoners interested Daniel.
Nicole White. A U.S. senator's daughter kidnapped from the medical mission where she was working and held as a political pawn.
Freeing her and returning her safely to the United States was their sole objective tonight.
Leading with his sidearm, Daniel crept down the steep, vegetation-dense hillside to the clearing in the narrow Colombian valley where Nicole had been held for close to thirteen months.
Would she recognize him, remember him?
Daniel shoved down the jangle of anticipation that skittered through him when he thought of seeing Nicole again. Touching her. He had to stay focused on his job if they were to get out of that jungle alive.
When they reached the crude wire fence at the edge of the camp, Alec pulled a pair of wire cutters from his pack and quickly created a hole large enough for them to crawl through on their bellies. Daniel wiggled through first, then Alec. Using hand signals, Daniel directed Alec to the right. Daniel walked backward, following Alec and guarding their six. Keeping to the shadows, they made their way toward the back of the camp where Nicole was being held.
As they rounded the tent where they'd determined supplies were kept, Alec stopped abruptly. He pointed to the guard stationed at the entrance of the supply tent.
I've got this one, Alec signaled, then soundlessly dispatched the man before the guard even knew he had company.
Behind them, a squeak drew Daniel's attention. The door to the ramshackle latrine by the perimeter fence opened, and a soldier stepped out, shining a flashlight toward the camp.
When the beam passed over Alec, Daniel tensed. Just as the man swung the light back and opened his mouth to shout a warning to the camp, Daniel fired a single head shot, and the soldier crumpled. Despite the silencer muffling the gun's noise, Daniel knew someone could have heard the telltale pop. They had to hurry.
By unspoken agreement, Alec set a faster pace toward the fenced area where Nicole was being held. Farther down, they encountered two more guards, playing a game with dice as they monitored the cache of arms stacked in crates under a tarp. Skulking through the night like panthers, Alec and Daniel snuck up on the duo and took them out, as well.
With Alec keeping watch, Daniel hurried to the fenced area where the rebels held their captives. The cages holding the prisoners were little more than dog pens, and two teepeed sheets of rotting plywood provided Nicole's only protection from the elements. Rage flashed through Daniel seeing the squalid conditions in which Nicole had been forced to live. Gritting his teeth, he funneled his fury into cutting through the fencing of her cage, then crawled to the tented plywood where she slept.
She wasn't alone. Daniel frowned but dismissed the small form huddled beside her. His mandate was clear. Nicole was his only objective.
Shifting his attention, Daniel held his breath as he caught his first up-close glimpse of Nicole in five years. Her long slender legs and feet were bare. Dirty cargo shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt hugged her womanly curves, and the fetal position in which she slept heightened his sense of her vulnerability. Her arms pillowed her head, and her tangled blond hair spilled over her cheek. Even disheveled and grimy, she was still every bit as beautiful as he remembered.
Daniel's heart performed a tuck and roll, and he allowed himself the briefest moment just to look at her and thank God she appeared unharmed. But even a few seconds of delay were an indulgence, and he steeled himself for the task ahead. It was go time.
Five years earlier
Daniel stood at attention, watching the parade of national and state dignitaries dressed in their best black-tie finery make their way into the governor's Mardi Gras ball. His buddies at the New Orleans Naval Air Station thought he was crazy for volunteering to work security for the ball. But when he'd heard that Louisiana Senator Alan White would be attending, he'd known he couldn't be anywhere else that night.
Daniel had prepped his Navy dress whites for the event, counting on the other rumor he'd heard to be truesince his wife's death last year, Senator White had brought his daughter, Nicole, as his companion to public events such as this.
Even as he conjured a memory of the last time he'd seen Nicole, a limo flying American flags from the antennae pulled up to the front drive of the antebellum mansion where the ball was underway. Daniel held his breath as Senator White emerged from the backseat, then turned to offer his hand to someone inside the limo. A chill filled the air that February evening, but the weather had nothing to do with the tremor that rolled through Daniel as a graceful young blonde woman stepped out onto the driveway. An ice-blue chiffon gown hugged her curves, and she molded her mouth into a stiff smile as she started toward the stairs on the senator's arm. Jeweled combs winked in the porch lights and held her long hair swept up in a twist, exposing the slim column of her neck.
Daniel tracked her progress with his gaze as she approached, his mouth dry and his gut in knots. With her hand tucked in the crook of her father's arm, Nicole cast a surveying glance to the other partygoers, issuing perfunctory greetings. The politician's daughter, groomed in social graces and good public relations. American nobility, so far out of his league Daniel had to squelch the urge to laugh in bitter irony at the lengths he'd gone to tonight just for a chance to see her again. His studious gaze caught her attention, and Daniel flashed her a lopsided grin. "Hello, Nicole."
Her steps faltered, and a look of confusion dented her brow. "Do I?"
Daniel blew out a deep breath. He'd been crazy to think she'd remember him after so many years.
But then her face brightened, and she pulled her arm free of her father's to step closer to Daniel. "Boudreaux!"
His heart kicked up a zydeco beat as she seized his hand and squeezed his fingers. "Boudreaux? Is that you?"
He grimaced mentally. As much as he'd wanted her to remember him, her use of the derogatory nickname her friends had given him didn't bode well for what she remembered about him. He tugged his mouth into an awkward smile. "Yeah, it's me."
Delight lit her eyes and brightened her grin, and hope stirred in his chest.
"Oh, my God! Look at you!" She canted forward, circling his shoulders with her arms and pressing a social kiss to his cheek.
Stunned by her hug, he was a beat too slow returning the embrace, and his brain snagged when the sweet floral scent of her hair hit him. His body's reaction to her touch, her scent was immediate and carnal.
Still holding the sleeves of his dress whites jacket, she levered back and let her gaze take in the length of him. "I almost didn't recognize you in this impressive attire." She flashed a flirtatious grin and tugged at the breast of his jacket.
"Good Lord, everything they say about a man in uniform is true!"
Daniel rallied his senses, determined not to come off as a flustered sap and to preserve the dignity his uniform required. "You look beautiful, too."
Understatement. She was breathtaking. He'd thought so five years ago on her prom night, when he'd been his cousin's date and met Nicole for the first time.
"Nicole!" Senator White had backtracked to fetch his wayward daughter, not quite managing to hide his irritation. "What's going on?"
Had she been hugging the son of one of his golf buddies rather than a security guard, the senator wouldn't have been nearly so piqued, Daniel wagered.
Nicole extended a hand to her father, waving him closer. "Daddy, I want you to meet someone. This is" She hesitated, cutting an embarrassed look to Daniel.
"Daniel LeCroix," he finished, offering his hand to the senator before she defaulted to the nickname that mocked his bayou roots.
She twitched her lips in an apologetic grin. "Daniel. Of course! Forgive me. I'm just awful with names!"
Her father arched an eyebrow and heaved a sigh. "To my chagrin. She once called the chairman of armed services by his predecessor's name."
Folding Daniel's free hand between her hands, she faced her father again. "Daniel is the boy who brought me home from prom my junior year." When her father's expression remained blank, she added pointedly, "He's the one who rescued Boudreaux from the storm drain for me!"
Adrenaline kicked Daniel's pulse, and he jerked a startled glance toward her. Boudreaux? She'd named the kitten?
Nicole met his questioning look with a secret smile. "What else would I name him?"
"Ah, yes. Your cat. I remember now. Well, it's nice to meet you, Daniel." The senator offered Nicole his arm, and his raised eyebrows, warning her it was time to go inside. "Nicole, this young man has a job to do, and our hosts are waiting."
Facing Daniel, she squeezed his hand and gave him a lopsided smile of regret. "It was wonderful seeing you again, Daniel."
He returned a polite smile. Don't leave. "You, too, Nicole." Then to the senator, "Sir."
The senator met his gaze with a hard look that darted to Daniel's rank insignia on his uniform. "Lieutenant."
The senator's tone carried a warning, a reminder of Daniel's place and the social gap between a boy from the bayou and the senator's well-bred daughter. As if Daniel needed reminding. Though he was proud of his Cajun roots, he was always striving to be better than the next guyat basic training, in the classroom, in operationstrying to prove his detractors wrong, silencing those who singled him out or who bought into erroneous stereotypes regarding his heritage.
Nicole squeezed his hand before she released it and flashed a rueful smile as her father grasped her elbow and led her inside.
With a cleansing breath, he resumed his watch, shoulders back and hands clasped behind him. Though he stood at rigid attention, his mind writhed with a tangle of emotions.
He'd accomplished what he'd set out to do tonight. He'd seen Nicole again. But, in light of the tumult inside him, coming tonight might have been a mistake.
Nicole needed air. Shoving her way through the crowded dance floor, she hurried to the front porch and gripped the railing as another shudder of disgust rippled through her. All evening she'd put up with the leering glances her father seemed not to notice, but when the president of the Chamber of Commerce squeezed her bottom on the dance floor, she'd had enough. She'd bet her father's fortune that his "friends" never treated her mother with such disrespect.
Thoughts of her mother, stolen from her by cancer just four months ago, brought moisture to Nicole's eyes. She cast a longing gaze toward the parked cars, wishing she didn't have to endure the party any longer, and she spotted the white dress uniform and broad shoulders that had sent her pulse racing earlier that evening.
A smile ghosted across her lips. Daniel LeCroix. She wasn't surprised he'd joined the armed forces. Even in her brief association with him on prom night five years ago, she'd seen his valor, his kindness, his integrity. When her date hadn't deigned to get his hands dirty to retrieve the stranded kitten, when her friends had all abandoned her for "wasting time" on the rescue, only Daniel had stayed behind to help her instead of going to the dance. Daniel had ruined his rented tux moving the sewer grate and climbing into the drainage pipes, then had walked her and her new pet home. And left an indelible mark on her heart.
Nicole couldn't help but wonder how different tonight would have been if he'd been her escort instead of her father.
The night's not over. Her breath stilled. Ditching her father in favor of Daniel would be waving a red flag in her father's face. He'd never forgive her for the snub and the damage to his well-crafted public image.
But had her father respected her feelings when she'd complained about his friends' untoward advances? A flash of anger spiraled through her. How long was she supposed to put her life on hold to be her father's PR darling? She was already a year behind her class in nursing school because of his last election campaign and months of filling her mother's shoes as his companion at high-profile events and parties. As much as she loved her father, she just didn't want the high-society lifestyle he thrived on.
Inside, the orchestra began playing the ballad from a popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and Nicole sighed. Fixing her gaze on Daniel, she crossed the porch and approached him. "Dance with me?"
He cut a startled glance her direction. "Nicole." His gaze shifted behind her, obviously noting that she was alone. "Why aren't you inside?"
"I needed a breather. Too much hot air in there." She twitched a grin and hitched her head toward the party. Stepping closer to him, she held out her hand. "So will you dance with me? This is one of my favorite songs."
His gaze locked on hers, his regret obvious. "I can't. I'm on duty."
She moved close enough to slide her hand along the polished buttons of his dress whites. She could feel the strong, steady beat of his heart beneath her fingers, and the life-affirming cadence struck her as powerfully virile and maddeningly sexy. "Just one dance. No one will know or care if you just danced this one song with me." She slid her arms around his neck and twined her fingers in the close-cropped hair at his nape. "Please."