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Paris, France September
Being here is insane.
SIS agent Marina Bond turned the key to one of the two rooms she'd hired for the afternoon in a seedy hotel in the Montmartre district of Paris, and carefully opened the door. You never knew what you'd find in these disgusting fleabag joints. But it was cheap, and the receptionist wouldn't remember her five minutes from now, even if she hadn't worn a black wig over her strawberry-blond hair.
After giving the small, threadbare room a swift visual inspection she went across the hall to the second room. "At least it's clean," Marina muttered.
And there was no way it could be bugged. She hadn't decided on the place until ten minutes ago. Two rooms might be overkill but, again, you never know.
She checked her watch. She must get this meeting over quickly, since she only had an hour lunch break. She'd gone awol in the middle of her current undercover operation, but she owed Corbett Lazlo. He'd saved her life once. The least she could do was return the favor.
There was a knock on the door. Rap, pause, raprap-rap.
The right pattern. Still, you couldn't be too careful. Marina drew her Glock 23 from her designer handbag, checked the door and grimaced. Why was there never a peephole when you needed one?
"Who is it?" she called.
"Corbett Lazlo sent me."
The muffled voice was male. British colonialNew Zealand? South Africa? Sounded distrustful. And not Corbett.
Her heartbeat kicked up. "Why didn't he come himself?"
"He's abroad at the moment. Sends his regrets. But you said this meeting was urgent, so here I am."
She scowled. "I just spoke to him on the phone lastnight. He was here, in Paris."
"Things happen fast in our business."
Did they ever. Marina worked for the Secret Intelligence Servicealso widely known as MI6the British equivalent of the American CIA. Corbett Lazlo was the owner and director of the Lazlo Group, one of the most elite private investigation agencies in the world. SIS used the group occasionally on ops. But could she trust that the disembodied male voice on the other side of the door was who he said he was?
"He also sends his regards to Moon Doggie," the voice said.
The shoulders of Marina's posh Givenchy trench notched down and a smile tugged at her lips. Moon Doggie, her father's code name in the U.S. Secret Service. She had met Corbett Lazlo years ago when she was a kid still living in the States before her parents' divorce, during one of her dad's protection gigs gone bad. Dad hated his Secret Service code name; only a select few were privy to it, including the man who'd saved his daughter from an uncertain fate. This guy was legit.
She lowered her weapon and eased open the door, motioning for the Lazlo agent to come in while she checked the hall. Empty.
Not that she expected to be followed. She'd been careful. She assumed he had, too, especially if he worked for Corbett Lazlo. But, yeah, you never knew.
Closing the door, she returned the Glock to her purse and turned to size up Corbett's stand-in. For a second she just stared, jolted by surprise.
The man was gorgeous. Upper thirties, tallvery tallmuscular, tanned with longish sun-streaked blond hair and a rakish mustache that accented an angled, character-filled face.
Eyes the color of the morning sky stared back at her. Assessingly.
"Agent Bond, I presume?" he asked, to his credit without a hint of amusement.
She nodded, keeping her own amusement to herself. Could she help it if Dad had gifted her with such a wildly inappropriateor maybe wildly appropriatelast name? It had always been an open invitation for her colleagues to come up with all sorts of droll monikers and comical comments.Yeah, well, she'd never really minded. She could hold her own with ol' James.
The Lazlo agent grunted. "I'm"
She cut him off before he could say his name. "Doesn't matter who you are."
"I'm von Kreus. DeWitt von Kreus," he completed firmly, tossing the leather jacket slung over one shoulder onto the bed. "Company policy to identify oneself."
His pronunciation was telling. Definitely South African. With a hint of Afrikaans. Her current undercover op was to infiltrate an African conflict diamond cartel. Coincidence? Her pulse jacked up again and she made a quick decision.
"Whatever. Take off your clothes," she ordered briskly.
His brows shot up. "Excuse me?" "I'm invoking Denmark protocol," she said. "You've got a problem with that?"
"You think I'm wired?" Von Kreus's annoyance seemed genuine.
Denmark protocol was an old-school safety measure only invoked these days as a last resort. In the field, when circumstances prevented electronic counterchecks, usually between potential enemies or rivals, stripping to the skin and changing venues eliminated your enemy's buddies listening in or taping the conversation.
"I'm not taking any chances," she stated evenly. His jaw worked. "In that case, I won't take any, either. I invoke it in return."
She blinked. "What? Why?" He had no reason to suspect her of anything. He didn't even have to talk.
"If you don't like it you can always wait and speak to Lazlo himself," he said, noting her hesitation with a smirk of satisfaction. "The boss should be back in a day or two."
"This can't wait."
Corbett needed to hear this information asap. And she couldn't afford any more time off the grid. Besides, she wasn't shy. "Fine. Let's just get this over with," she muttered.
Quickly she unbuttoned her trench coat and laid it on the bed with her purse. Then she unbuttoned her silk blouse and peeled it off, too. It joined the other things, along with her black pageboy wig.
She tried to ignore him when he just stood there watching inscrutably as she removed the clip holding her blond hair in place and shook her head to loosen it from its confinement. His steady gaze followed the strands, then continued over her shoulders and down to her breasts where it lingered.
Her temper flared. "See anything you like?"
His pale-blue eyes darkened to steel and looked up at her with hunger?
A sudden punch of awareness slammed through her insides, swift and sharp and just as hungry as his gaze. Damn, what was going on here?
Without replying, he pulled a SIG 226 Navy from the small of his back, then drew his black T-shirt over his head and pitched them both onto the bed next to his jacket, watching her the whole time with those icy-hot eyes.
She couldn't help it. She deliberately checked out his naked chest.
She wasn't disappointed. It was broad and buff and well defined, his nipples flat, dark and tight. Her own went pebble hard under her bra as she followed an arrow of sandy-colored hair to where it disappeared into the low-hipped band of his jeans.
Crouching down, with rapid efficiency he removed his leather boots and his socks. Then he stood, crossed his arms and waited for her. To take off something else.
Sudden irrational gratitude flitted through her that her current undercover job required wearing designer clothesand that she'd adopted the French habit of using self-tanner rather than unsexy pantyhose. She cleared her throat. And toed off her strappy sandals.
His brow raised mockingly when she stopped there. Okay, fine. Whatever. Unzipping her pencil skirt, she added it to the growing pile on the bed. And gave her underwear a surreptitious glance. Pink, lacy and they matched. Thank you, God.
Von Kreus gave her expensive lingerie a more thorough inspection. As well as what lay under it. He seemed
Heat scorched up her throat and cheeks as his She swallowed a curse as, unfazed, he unbuckled his belt and slid out of his jeans. Then his boxer briefs were gone and he was standing in front of her completely naked.
Oh. My. God.
Make that very aroused.
Ignore it, she told herself, and him, and strove to remain calm as she removed the rest of her clothes. a cool, objective professional. This electricity sparking between them was not real. It was caused by hormones. Or pheromones. Or one of those other pesky chemical things that made people think and do inappropriate things at the most inappropriate times. And, anyway, men couldn't control when their equipment started to work. He was probably just as mortified as she at what was happening.
Except he didn't look mortified at all as she disposed of her last article of clothing. He looked predatory.
A shiver coursed down her spine. It had been a long time since a man had looked at her like that. If ever. This man looked as if he wanted to eat her for breakfast.
She tore her gaze away from his. This wasn't what she'd come here for. As appealing as the thought suddenly was.
"Ear stud," she instructed, noticing the glint of gold in his left lobe. Trying desperately to stay on task.
He took it off without protest. While he did, she removed her own jewelry, then pulled in a deep breath, went to the door and checked out the hallway. All clear.
"Lock up and come with me," she told him. Scooting quickly across the hall to the second room she'd rented, she waited for him to join her, then locked the door behind him.
"Aren't you being a bit paranoid?" he asked, flipping the key to the first room onto the nightstand.
"I'm here because of Corbett. But I don't want this favor to come back and bite me in the butt."
Damn. Bad choice of words. She fought another flush that threatened to creep up her neck.
Von Kreus tipped his head and spread his arms out passed through his expression.
Far too tempting. "That won't be necessary," she assured him. He clearly hadn't expected the Denmark protocol, so he wouldn't have hidden a bug that thoroughly on his person. Switching rooms would take care of anything planted in his clothes. Besides, despite his African connection, instinct told her he had no hidden agenda.
Her decision had nothing whatsoever to do with "All right, then." He stood still, obviously waiting for her to come closer.
As per the protocol. Which she'd never actually had to use before. She'd learned the outdated maneuver in one of her induction training courses, amidst massive snickering and lewd jokes from the other, mainly male, recruits. That had been eight years ago. Why, oh, why hadn't she learned her lesson from their reaction?
But she had no choice. She'd started this. "All right, then," she echoed, and walked right up to him as though she'd done this every day of her beloved SIS career.
But she was distracted. And she ended up too close to him. Way too close. Close like she-couldfeel-his-curly-chest-hair-tickle-her-nipples-and-hiswarm-breath-in-her-hair close. Not to mention
Oh, God. This was not good.
He bent his mouth to her ear, bringing them within a hair's breadth. Less, in some places. A lot less.
"Now, what was so important that I had to strip naked to hear it?" he softly taunted in his honey-andgravel accent.
He had to know what he was doing to her. How only explanation for his sexy-as-sin, deep, silky parts to brush provocatively against hers.
She closed her eyes, wanting to stop at least the visual stimulation. But she was immediately filled with the male scent of him. Spicy. Masculine.
Arousing. And felt his hard flesh against her as he adjusted his stance. Closer still.