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Randi Lewis clutched the book of fairy tales to her chest as a second thump shook the room.
The children laughed, and Nicky poked his finger at the book. "Did the witch scare you, mademoiselle?"
Randi eked out a smile. Nicky didn't seem to notice the strange bumps in the nights and the comings and goings of an assortment of odd characters to his father's palatial home in the middle of the jungle.
But Randi had grown more and more awareand leeryof them.
Her grandmother had warned her about taking a job in this luxurious but strange household. "Drogas," Abuelita used to say. Drugs.
But the locals had assured her Nico Zendaris was no drug lord, and Randi had needed the job to help her ailing grandmother. Now with Abuelita dead, nothing was keeping Randi in Colombia.
Nicky's younger sister, Angelina, tapped her knee. "More story, please, mademoiselle.."
Nothing except these motherless children.
Tugging on one of Angelina's dark curls, Randi met the girl's big, dark eyes and said, "But this is the scary part, Angelina. You always cover your ears during this part."
Angelina dropped her lashes, and her gaze slid to the door. "More story, please."
Tears choked Randi's throat. The activities and people in her father's house did scare Angelina. The girl preferred the make-believe fears of witches and giants to the very real fears of shadowy men, her father's outbursts and being uprooted and shipped off to other countries at a moment's notice.
Randi peeled the book from her chest and cleared her throat. "The witch fed the children more and more foodroasted duck and mashed potatoes and thick slabs of bread and cheese and ice cream sundaes."
Nicky howled. "You're making that part up. They didn't have ice cream sundaes in those days."
"Shh, Nicky. Don't yell." Angelina stuck her fingers in her ears.
Patting his sister on the head, Nicky rose to his knees. "I want to see the picture, mademoiselle. I want to see the picture of ice cream sundaes."
Randi turned the book around to face the kids. Something crashed right beneath them, and she dropped the book.
Angelina scooted closer to Randi and wrapped her arms around her legs.
Randi dropped her hand to Angelina's shoulder and squeezed. "Don't worry. I'm here."
The crash even caught Nicky's attention, and he looked up from the fallen book with a pair of round eyes. "What was that?"
"I'm not sure." Her gaze darted to the intercom on the wall. Mr. Zendaris often used it to communicate with her when she had the children in this roomwhat he called the nurseryeven though Nicky was seven and Angelina had just turned five.
Her tongue swept across her dry lips. She rose from the chair and almost crept across the room to the intercom. On the way, she locked the door of the nursery.
She pressed the intercom button. "Hello? Is everything okay downstairs?"
Mr. Zendaris's security had set up the intercom so that the people on the other end could hear her, but she couldn't hear them unless they pressed the button on their intercom. Not that she needed an intercom to hear the noises, shouts and upheaval from downstairs.
Both children whimpered and crowded against her. She pressed them close with one hand and spoke into the intercom again. "Hello? This is Mademoiselle Lewis. I'm with the children. Is there a problem?"
A male voice growled back at her. "Stay where you are."
On shaky legs, Randi led Nicky and Angelina back to the carpet where they'd been reading. With her fingertips, she pushed them down. "Stay on the floor."
She sidled against the wall until she reached the large window that overlooked the rolling back lawn of the property. The spotlights that usually glared brightly enough to pick out every blade of grass had been snuffed out. The crescent moon playing peekaboo with the clouds didn't offer any illumination.
The stillness of the scene outside contrasted with the frantic activity below them. This sounded like more than one of Mr. Zendaris's rampages.
Someone pounded on the nursery door. "Open up."
Randi's heart galloped in her chest, but she recognized the voice of one of Zendaris's security guards, Costa. She didn't like Costa, or his overpowering cologne, but at least he treated the children with care.
She crossed the room with Nicky and Angelina hanging on her arms. She unlocked the door and threw it open. "Costa, what is going on down there? It's frightening the children."
Sweat gleamed on Costa's bald pate as he swooped down and swept up the kids, one in each massive arm. "You don't worry about the kids anymore."
"What do you mean?" Randi's blood ran hot and pounded against her temples. "Nicky and Angelina are my responsibility."
Nicky let loose with a long wail and Angelina looked like a wax figure clamped against Costa's side, her gauzy pink scarf trailing on the floor.
Randi reached out to smooth Angelina's soft curls from her face and drape the scarf over her head, but Costa jerked back toward the door. "Not anymore, mademoiselle."
Nicky began to squirm and shriek. Adjusting his grip on the kids, Costa backed out of the room and kicked the door shut.
Randi lunged for the door and grabbed the handle. It turned, but the door wouldn't budge. She banged on it with her fists. "Open this door. Let me out of here."
Someone grunted on the other side of the door, and Randi knew she was a captive. But why? If Mr. Zendaris were just uprooting the kids again and taking them to one of his other homes, why imprison her in the nursery?
On other occasions he'd calmly informed her of his plans for the children and she'd taken the opportunity of their absence to stay with Abuelita for a while. She even accompanied Mr. Zendaris once or twice to Paris, Athens and Budapest.
What changed? Why the commotion downstairs? Why had she been sequestered in the nursery?
She pummeled the door, but only managed to hurt her hands. She scooped up Angelina's scarf from the floor and wound it around her neck. Taking a turn around the room, she folded her arms across her chest, her fingers digging into her biceps.
A thwacking noise penetrated the room, and she ran to the window. A large, black helicopter descended from the darkened sky. Its lights illuminated the lawn and beyond the manicured grass to the dense foliage that ran to the high walls surrounding the property.
Randi's breath hitched in her chest, and a chill snaked up her spine. Here and there, members of Zendaris's security force were scattered along the wall, weapons clutched in their hands.
Was the compound under some kind of siege? And did Zendaris plan to leave her behind to face his enemies on her own?
The air in the room stifled her. She opened the French doors to the balcony that jutted over a flagstone path below. She needed fresh air and freedom, but this route offered no escape, two stories high and with no visible means of reaching the ground.
She wedged her hands on the flimsy railing that encircled the balcony. She'd prohibited the children from coming out here since very little stood between them and a long drop to the unforgiving flagstones.
The moist, heavy air caressed her skin, and she dragged in a breath. The sweet, milky smell of the carnations bordering the lawn tickled her nose just like on any other night.
But this was not any other night.
The helicopter had landed on the lawn, its blades whirring and stirring up debris that danced in the air. If her grandmother were still alive, Randi would go to her, but she'd died over a year ago and still Randi had stayed for the sake of the children. Now Nicky and Angelina had been ripped from her arms.
She heard voices and shuffling outside the nursery door, and she spun around to face the room. The door handle turned slowly, transfixing Randi's gaze. She held her breath.
Montana, one of Zendaris's henchmen, poked his head into the room. In the three years she'd been in Mr. Zendaris's employ, she hadn't figured out if Montana was this man's real name or a moniker given to him for his sizeas big as a mountain. His eyes widened as they scanned the room. Then he caught sight of her on the balcony.
The look he sent her sucked the air from her lungs. She took an involuntary step back.
"W-what do you want? What's going on?"
Montana grinned, his gap-toothed smile sending a wave of fear crashing through her body. Montana never smiled.
He took one lumbering step into the room. The knots in Randi's stomach tightened, putting pressure on her lungs and nearly cutting off her breath. She felt for the railing behind her and glanced over her shoulder at the drop into darkness.
Clenching her fists, she swung her hands in front of her. "Where is Mr. Zendaris? I demand to see Mr. Zendaris."
The mountain pointed beyond Randi's shoulder into the night, toward the whining helicopter.
She swallowed. "Where are the children? I need to see Nicky and Angelina before they leave. I always help them pack."
Again, like the grim reaper, Montana silently raised his arm and pointed out the window.
Could she bluster through this? The man was an idiot, a big lump of clay. At least she could outrun him. Dash around him and find someone, anyone with a bit of reason.
Why would Mr. Zendaris want to harm her? The children loved her and she loved them back. He'd commented on it many times in the past. He'd believed the hand of fate had intervened when Randi had shown up in Colombia with her grandmother on the one-year anniversary of his wife's death.
She clamped her hands on her hips and stamped her bare foot. "I'm going to find the children. I'm going to say goodbye to them. Then I'm going to report you to Mr. Zendaris. This is an outrage."
Shrugging, the man lifted his hands and wandered into the room. He bent over from his great height to scoop up the book of fairy tales, in which he could easily star as an ogre. He flipped the pages once, twice, and then tossed the book onto the chair where Randi had been sitting, reading to Nicky and Angelina.
Were they really already on the chopper? Was Angelina afraid?
Randi's heart ached. Then she gritted her teeth. "I'm leaving. You have no right to keep me a prisoner here."
She marched from the balcony into the room, heading for the chair where she'd kicked off her shoes. She unwound the scarf from around her neck and draped it over the back of the chair, reaching for her shoes.
Montana grunted and slipped a gun from his pocket.
Randi straightened to her full height and pulled back her shoulders. "I'm telling Mr. Zendaris about this right now."
Could Montana hear the quaver in her voice? Did he even care? He must be here on Zendaris's orders. The man did nothing without Zendaris's approval.
Montana advanced on her, holding the gun in front of him.
Randi backpedaled to the balcony, scuffing her heels. A bead of sweat ran down her face. Now the sweet, cloying scent of the flowers smelled like death.
Her feet hit the rough tile of the balcony and still she backed up toward the railing.
Small footsteps galloped up the stairs amid yells and screams. Nicky and Angelina burst into the room, sobbing and screaming. "Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle Randi!"
"Get back! Leave!" Randi thrust out her hands, even though the kids seemed miles away from her.
Montana growled and charged toward Randi, pointing his gun in the general direction of her head. Both of the children attacked his legs, and Nicky lunged forward to grab his arm just as he was squeezing off a shot.
Red-hot pain seared Randi's left arm and she toppled backward. The railing cracked beneath her. The children screamed. Randi threw out her arms. They whirred like the blades of a helicopter as she fought to keep her balance.
Gage Booker rappelled down the high wall that surrounded the compound deep in the jungle of Colombia. Ahead of him, members of the Army Special Forces team hit the ground and fanned out onto the property. They'd already taken out the guards stationed at the outer wall, but the international arms dealer, Nico Zendaris, would have additional security guarding the lush grounds and ostentatious mansion.
Gage's boots met the ground, sinking into the verdant growth that extended to the manicured lawn ringing the house. Before making his way through the underbrush toward the house in the wake of his support team, Gage stopped and sniffed the air. Jet fuel. In the middle of the jungle? His pulse quickened, and he crouched, peering through the bushes at the white mansion gleaming across the rolling lawn. His muscles tensed. His jaw ached.
Lights dotted the windows here and there, but no lights illuminated the outside of the house. A place like this would have security floodlights, sensors The special team of Green Berets had to be circling the house by now. Where was the gunfire?
It had been too much to hope for that Zendaris would be on this property at the time of their raid, but Prospero had heard murmurings that he might be here. Although Gage would've liked a crack at Zendaris, especially after the hell he'd put his Prospero team members through, this particular mission didn't depend on Zendaris's presence.
It was enough that they'd finally located one of the elusive arms dealer's residences. They didn't even have a picture of him, at least not one without him in a disguise. Nobody knew what the real Nico Zendaris looked like. If Gage could gather photos from the house, they'd be one step closer to identifying him.
He hoped to gather more than just photos. He planned to search and infiltrate Zendaris's computers, emails, safes, bank accounts. Their source had indicated Zendaris spent a lot of time at this residence. Surely he kept personal effects here. Even a phantom had to put down roots somewhere.
A shout rose from the lawn. Adrenaline pumped through Gage's veins. He clutched his M4 carbine and crashed through the bushes.
Gripping his weapon in front of him, Gage charged onto the grass, its soggy blades squelching beneath his boots. The Green Berets had secured the perimeter of the house. Shadows moved across the windows, but the silence prevailed.
Captain Denny, the man in charge of the mission, strode from a set of double doors that opened onto a patio at the edge of the yard. "Booker?"
Gage lowered his weapon and puffed out a breath. The shout he'd heard before had been an all-clear signal.
He called back to the captain. "Over here."
Captain Denny swore a blue streak as he marched across the patio. They met at the edge of the lawn, and Denny barked, "Put some light on this situation!"
From somewhere in the darkness, two powerful flashlights crossed beams, lighting up the patio. The light gleamed on the black stripes beneath the captain's eyes, lighting his eyes on fire.
"They beat us to the punch, Booker. Except for those few pushovers on the outer wall, the place is deserted."
Denny's words landed with a sickening thud against Gage's temples. They'd been double-crossed. He clenched his jaw against a flickering muscle. "How bad is it?"
"Bad." The captain jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Computers yanked out of walls, drawers dumped, closets ransacked and wall safes emptied."
Gage swore and kicked at a lawn chair on the patio. It teetered on one leg for a second and then fell over. "Personal items?"
"Not much. Looks like this slimy SOB has eluded you again."
Gage slung his weapon across his back. "I'm going in."
The captain stepped aside and began shouting orders to his men. Not that he had many orders left to give. The Green Berets had successfully completed their missiongain access to and secure the grounds and house. They'd done that.
It was Gage's mission that had failed.