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To the Limit
By Virginia Kelly
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCiudad San Mateo San Mateo, South America
She'd come armed.
The dress made a formidable weapon. Simple, sophisticated, tasteful. The kind of dress most women did not have the grace to wear. Another woman would have chosen a little black dress to show off a curvaceous figure. This woman's regal posture said she chose this little black dress to put off any man willing to approach her.
The thought made Nicholas Romero smile.
He knew all the other guests at his mother's formal fund-raiser. That meant the interesting American had to be Mary Beth Williams. She'd telephoned this morning while he was busy trying to verify the rumors that had brought him home to San Mateo, rumors of something that could bring an end to what had torn at him for years. Annoyed at the intrusion, he'd listened politely, intending to hang up as quickly as possible. But her precise tone and insistent manner had made him curious to find out what she could want that demanded his immediate attention. Even though he'd wanted to avoid this evening's party, he decided to invite her. After a brief hesitation, she'd accepted.
She stood just inside the marble-floored foyer and looked into the formal dining room, as if searching for someone among the milling guests. A quick push at her short, stylish hair revealed nervousness, but almost before he saw it, a cool, composed mask fell into place. That type of control intrigued Nick.
He half listened to a new United States embassy official standing beside him as he watched the young woman. He'd always thought blondes were overrated by his countrymen, but this one was different. The black high-heeled sandals she'd chosen showed off her fantastic legs but contradicted her manner. It smacked of aristocracy, of grace and polish, and gave her a touch-me-not quality.
Not the sort of woman he normally found attractive.
But he was up to a challenge and, he admitted, excusing himself from the embassy official, he liked what he saw.
Standing inside the beautifully adorned foyer, Mary Beth hoped no one could tell she'd run in as if the hounds of hell were chasing her. Her relief at getting inside the huge, exquisite house in this elite neighborhood had been so profound, she'd wanted to hug Doña Elena Vargas, who'd greeted her. Now she tried to calm her jangled nerves while waiting for the middle-aged woman to announce Mary Beth's arrival to her son, Nicholas Romero.
If only the car she'd spotted across the street as she got out of the taxi had not looked exactly like the one that followed her from the airport earlier, she wouldn't have given it another thought. But it did, down to the muddy front plate.
Clutching her evening bag with a slightly shaky hand, she pushed the idea to the back of her mind. She couldn't afford fear. She had come here for one reason - to do whatever was necessary to save her brother.
She spotted Romero as he mingled with the guests. He was hard to miss. Even from across the room, Mary Beth couldn't help but notice his intense blue eyes, so at odds with his black hair. On the evening news he didn't seem as tall. Or as handsome. Or as ... intimidating. But here, at this formal party, he was all that and more.
This was the man she had to convince to help her. She'd come prepared to pay him to take her into the San Matean jungle. One look at his home, at him, and she began to have doubts. But the Primero de Mayo terrorist group had given her no choice. If she did not take the hundred-thousand-dollar ransom to them, they would execute Mark.
At first she'd considered confiding in their father, but only momentarily. Spencer Williams, with his long history of issuing terse orders, would have placed his son at risk by arranging some sort of rescue. The only hope Mark had was for her to do as the terrorists dictated.
But her years of living as a foreign diplomat's daughter had taught her that she would need someone who knew how to mediate. And the only one who could do that in this country and make sure Mark was released was, according to everything she'd learned, Nicholas Romero.
She'd chosen him because her exhaustive though hasty research had told her he was the one who could see this through. Several magazine articles had praised his abilities as a successful negotiator. A newspaper article had reported that he'd even dealt with Primero de Mayo before.
Taking her eyes off him for a moment, she scanned the room, noticing the well-dressed guests, the uniformed waiters, the elegant buffet. A small band played a Latin ballad softly. Everything about the setting reminded her of the life she'd left behind ten years ago. She would never have guessed she'd have to participate in this sort of thing again. And certainly not in order to get Mark back safely.
Thank goodness for the shop just down the block from the hotel. She'd found an appropriate dress, though a bit low in the back for her taste, and skimpy sandals that were at this moment making her long for her tennis shoes.
She received appraising looks from several people and smiled politely in response. Sure her face would freeze in a sham of a smile if she didn't stop, she returned her concentration to Romero.
As she watched, several very attractive women stopped and spoke with him. Attentive, he shook hands and smiled, but treated them no differently than he had two elderly women he'd spoken with moments ago.
Now, standing beside a youngish man - American, she would guess - he listened courteously, until he looked up, his gaze seemingly drawn to her. He placed his drink on a nearby coffee table and crossed the room, politely greeting people. Dressed in formal black, he moved with confidence, his long strides bringing him closer and closer. The sounds of the party faded, and Mary Beth fought the overwhelming urge to bolt.
What was she going to say? Everything she'd rehearsed in her hotel room had evaporated. Her surroundings, his appearance, everything about this party told her that offering to pay for his services would be awkward, if not insulting. Wishing for some instant revelation, she scrambled to think of the right approach to get him to agree.
He had to agree. He was a man sworn to peace, to saving lives. He wouldn't refuse. He couldn't.
All she had to do was act confident. Schooling her features for the performance of her life, Mary Beth suppressed a nervous laugh and took a wineglass from a passing waiter's tray.
"Ms. Williams," he said over the sounds of other voices and clinking glasses. "You decided to attend after all." His English was perfect, his Spanish accent barely perceptible.
"It was kind of you to invite me." But from the cool reception she'd received on the telephone, she guessed it hadn't been kindness. He probably thought she wouldn't know how to deal with these surroundings. But then, he had no way of knowing that this was just the life she understood, the life she'd been raised in.
"You've made me curious," he replied, his voice quiet and too masculine. "It's not every day that urgent business brings someone to San Mateo to see me."
Probably not. He was the one to travel on urgent business. As a United Nations diplomat and special envoy to countless world trouble spots, he had pulled off some of the most spectacular feats of compromise in recent international relations.
But she hadn't chosen him because of his public reputation. That would be easy enough to manipulate - something she'd learned the hard way.
Never one to believe everything she read or heard, she'd checked with some friends who moved in the same diplomatic circles as Romero. They'd assured her that he was above reproach. But she had been careful not to tell anyone why she was asking. She couldn't afford to risk Mark's life in any way.
Excerpted from To the Limit by Virginia Kelly Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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