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Counterterrorist operative Max Aries flung a leg over the crumbling second-floor balustrade, then dropped lightly onto the narrow stone terrace. He’d spent some pretty damned phenomenal days and nights in this sixteenth- century palazzo. But he wasn’t here to seduce Emily Greene. Not this time.
He presumed she was here. Her little yellow Maserati was parked out on the street, but she hadn’t answered the doorbell when he’d rung a few minutes ago. Of course there were any number of places an attractive, single woman could be at two in the morning. If not for the urgency of her calls Max might have waited until a decent, civilized time to see her. He’d been awake for a straight ninety-seven hours, and he was punchy as hell. Sleep would’ve been good. A shower would probably be appreciated. But there hadn’t been time for either.
He’d been on the T-FLAC jet, halfway home from an op in Grozny, when he’d called his answering service to check for messages during a break in debriefing. He rarely had personal messages; operatives didn’t have time for real lives, so he was surprised to have received half a dozen.
All from Emily Greene. Apparently she’d been leaving messages for weeks. The messages had started out cool, but reasonable and sympathetic, then grown increasingly more annoyed as she’d practically summoned his ass to Florence for his father’s funeral.
Message received loud and clear.
Fine. He was here, wasn’t he? A few weeks late, and several dollars’ worth of sincerity short, but he was here. He hadn’t been that interested in the death of his sperm donor. But he was curious as hell to see Emily again. This was as good an excuse as any. And, he thought, amused, he’d practically been in the neighborhood.
The balcony doors were wide open to the chill damp air, and several of the spicy-scented potted geraniums crowding the patio were knocked over. There were dozens of possible reasons the pots had been toppled, but between one inhale and the next Max’s hand went instinctively to the custom Glock in the small of his back. He left the SIG Sauer and Ka-Bar knife in their ankle holsters where they were.
He wasn’t the only one who’d entered her apartment this way. Exhaustion dissipated as adrenaline reactivated his tired brain. Unless she had Romeo and Juliet fantasies, Emily had an intruder. First the old man’s murder, now this? Max didn’t believe in coincidences. He stepped over scattered dirt to slip through the open French doors where sheer white draperies fluttered in the rain-drenched air.
The delicate fragrance of woman was underscored by the familiar, but out of place, smell of male sweat and gun oil. The intruder had passed this way recently. Very recently.
Moving quickly and soundlessly through the stygian darkness of the living room, he circumvented the enormous, down-filled floral sofa where he and Emily had made love their last time together. Max’s night vision was excellent, and his eyes automatically adjusted to the almost-pitch-black interior even as he catalogued the blend of distinctive odors around him. The acrid smell of turpentine, the unmistakable smell of still-wet oil paint from Emily’s first floor studio, dust, flowers, garlic—
He felt that familiar spike of adrenaline and smiled. Now he was wide awake. Alert to the smallest sound or hint of movement, he followed the man’s trail like a bloodhound. Weaving his way at top speed through the overcrowded rooms, and heading toward the long hallway leading to the rest of the apartment.
Silently crossing the terrazzo floor of the entryway, he noted the flowers in a vase on the hall table, black in the darkness. A woman’s purse lay beside the crystal vase. An umbrella and long raincoat hung from a hook nearby. No sign of moisture, indicating she’d been home awhile. Two suitcases stood sentinel nearby. Where was she going?
He noticed a dark shape lying twenty feet ahead on the floor in the hallway, just this side of the open bedroom door. Max’s heart double-clutched.
He raced toward the still figure.
God damn it.
Between here and there was the slightly less dark opening to the kitchen where he sensed someone standing in wait. He spun on his heel just as a hard object struck his upper arm with a bone-jarring thud. He deflected the second blow, grabbed the assailant’s wrist and twisted. A heavy object dropped to the tiled floor with a metallic clang. The second his fingers closed on the slender, bare arm, he knew his attacker was a woman.
He yanked her arm up behind her back, not letting up be- cause his assailant was a she. He knew plenty of female tangos who could fuck a guy’s brains out one minute and put a bullet between his eyes the next. He used a little more force on her arm. The woman let out a blood-curdling shriek as she struggled for freedom.
He didn’t ease up any. He wasn’t using enough pressure, yet, to snap her fragile bones. She wiggled and squirmed in his hold. He backed her into the kitchen. Separating her from the dark lump a few yards away on the hallway floor. Divide and conquer. “Settle down, I—”
She wasn’t listening. “Mi lasci andare, figlio di puttana!”
The second he released her, she pivoted and punched him in the stomach. “I killed your accomplice”—she yelled in rapid, almost unintelligible, Italian. Whack!—“and I won’t”—Whack!— “hesitate to”—Whack!—“kill you, too. The police are on their way.” Whack. “I’ll get a medal for killing you bo—”
“Emily,” Max grabbed her arms—much more gently than he would have a tango—to stop the pummeling. “It’s me, Ma—”
She kneed him in the balls.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, woman!” Pain shot up into his brain with the intensity of a laser scalpel. He doubled over, fighting to remain conscious through the nausea. Direct hit. Christ, a rookie mistake not expecting that.
She used this opportunity to strike him on the back of the head with her clasped hands. Then tried to knee him in the face. He shoved her leg aside just in time to avoid a broken nose.
Testicles lodged in his Adams apple, he straightened with difficulty and pulled her tightly into his arms, lifting her off her feet and off balance. Screaming invectives, she struggled like a fish on a line, body arching, legs kicking.
Even in the dark he recognized the pale oval of her face. Her eyes glittered, reflecting the dim light on the cook top. She wasn’t seeing anything but escape as she swung wildly again.
He gave her a shake, trying to make eye contact. Strands of her silky dark hair caught in the stubble on his jaw. She still smelled like paint thinner and roses. How had he missed that when he’d first grabbed her?
“For Christ’s sake, Emily! It’s me, Max. Settle down.”
As his voice registered, she stopped fighting, freezing in his hold. “Max?” The fire went out of her like air out of a balloon and she sagged against him, dropping her forehead to his chest.
She felt good in his arms, damn good, but he settled her carefully on her feet the second she acknowledged she knew who he was.
Jesus-fuck, his balls hurt like hell. “Okay now?” he asked gruffly, straightening as best he could.
“Not by a long shot.” The light in the kitchen clicked on. Her chocolaty hair was wild around her shoulders and her dark eyes appeared almost black in her pale face as she blinked him into focus. The top of her head reached his chin, but she looked a lot taller as she glared up at him. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Jesus. He’d forgotten how incredibly beautiful she was. Not moderately pretty, not just attractive, but drop-dead, breath-stealing stunning. Her dark hair and eyes made her creamy skin seem to glow from the inside like a light inside alabaster. Her nose was small and perfectly shaped, her long-lashed eyes were large and expressive, and her mouth—Man. Her mouth was made for sin. Her body, now dressed in skimpy pajamas, was lithe, toned, and sensational. Her breasts high and firm. Mouthwateringly perfect. Her legs were long, and Jesus, they’d been strong wrapped around his hips, his shoulders, his—Focus—
“You pretty much insisted,” he said dryly, resisting running his hand around her smooth midriff to feel her bare skin again. He stuck his free hand in his pocket, and leaned against the door jamb. A quick sideways glance and he could see that the lump outside the door hadn’t moved.
“Almost three weeks ago!” she snapped, running both hands through her thick glossy hair. The movement lifted the front of her small T-shirt just enough for him to get a view of the soft lower swell of her breasts and a tantalizing glimpse of her midriff.
His mouth went dry. Man oh man. She didn’t fight fair.
“And while I’m pleased you finally decided to show up,” she said with just a tinge of sarcasm, and oblivious to the fact that his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth, “waiting a few more hours and ringing the frigging doorbell would have been the polite thing to do.”
She dropped her hands to her sides and glared at him. “But then polite isn’t really your thing, is it, Max? What’s the time anyway?”
She glanced at a clock over the stove. “Two bloody a.m.?” She spun back to him. “Are you and your friend nuts?”
The guy on the floor? “What friend?”
“What frie—” Her eyes, big, brown, and expressive, went wide. “Oh, my God. You mean the guy out there wasn’t with you? Then who is he?”
“Good question.” Not sure if he could walk yet, he was excruciatingly aware of every single whimpering nerve ending in his balls as he straightened up a little more. White suns spiraled and shimmied in front of his eyes as he pushed off the door jamb.
Great. Just fucking great. “Wait here. I’ll check.”
She bent down, exposing her pretty heart-shaped ass draped in baby pink cotton pajama bottoms. Picking up the sixteen-inch cast iron fry pan in both hands, she handed it to him handle first. “Here. Be care—Oh.” She noticed the Glock he’d managed to hang onto when she’d kneed him. Retaining his grip on the gun was a function of reflex and training. But even he was surprised to find it was still in his hand. She’d be excellent as a diversionary tactic in a T-FLAC training exercise.
She gave him a wary look. “Guess you won’t be needing this.” Despite her bravado he noticed the fine tremor in her hands as she slid the pan onto a nearby countertop.
They’d been together a handful of days and nights the last time they’d been together, and getting to know one another hadn’t been part of his seduction plan. Emily had been a means to an end a year ago. The fact that they’d been combustible in bed had turned out to be a bonus. But they hadn’t done a lot of talking. For all he knew she was pissed enough to brain him when his back was turned.
He shook his head, scared as hell that she could’ve been hurt when he grabbed her. Proud that she could hold her own. The frying pan was an effective weapon in a pinch, but nothing beat a speeding bullet. “Stay put.”
Max went into the dimly lit hallway. The lump was still there on the floor, halfway between the kitchen and Emily’s bedroom. He placed his foot firmly on the guy’s back.
“Is he dead?” she demanded, automatically slipping back to Italian. She’d lived in Florence long enough for it to be her first language, although she was as American as he was.
Flipping the guy over with his foot, Max kept the Glock aimed directly at the guy’s forehead. “Nope, you did a good job,” he told her, impressed with her handiwork. Looked like she’d whaled the guy a couple of times after he was down. No defensive wounds.
“He’s just unconscious.”
She’d gotten in a couple of excellent blows to the man’s face with the pan. Good girl. There was a lot of blood and swelling, but the guy was still breathing. Which was a good thing. Dead men didn’t offer a lot of answers. And Max had a shitload of questions.
“Thank God,” she said on a shaky breath. She hadn’t moved from the doorway, and he motioned her over.
“Come out here and tell me if you recognize him.”
Emily had her weapon of choice, a sixteen-inch cast iron frying pan, gripped in both hands again as she stepped out of the kitchen doorway. “Light on or off?”
The hall light overhead clicked on, illuminating the unconscious man. It also illuminated Emily. This time the thin PJ pants she wore drooped to expose the three tiny dolphins leaping over her belly button. The tattoo was sexy as hell, but the soft, velvety skin of her belly was more so. He’d loved to nuzzle his face against the silky, fragrant warmth. Loved the rose soap and woman smell of her. He’d used the tip of his tongue to taste her skin there, and she’d sighed, he’d brushed his lips lower, and she’d moaned.
“Are you sure he isn’t dead?” she asked quietly, coming up behind him, tension in every lovely line of her body. Her tall, lush, sexy body. Her full breasts were outlined by the skimpy cotton top. One side of the little pink satin bow holding up her pants was undone, The single loop sat just beneath the leaping dolphins. Sweet. Girly. Hot.
Not only was the guy not dead, Max was pleased to note that Emily’s knee to his groin hadn’t killed any lustful thoughts he had. Christ—that tat on her smooth, creamy skin had given him some extremely uncomfortable nights over the last few months. Good to know his dick was still fully functional.
He doubted if Emily Greene had been holding open the window of opportunity for him for a year. Fine and dandy with him. Max didn’t do involvement. Ever. But she’d let him into her bed before. Perhaps—“Yeah, I’m positive he isn’t dead. Know him?”
He hauled the guy upright by his lapels. Cheap, dark suit. Brown shirt. Dark sneakers. Stunk of Gauloise cigarettes and gun oil. Max patted him down, relieving him of the Heckler & Koch tucked in an underarm holster. A USP Tactical, Max noted. Cost twice as much as the guy’s entire outfit, plus a thousand bucks.
A hired gun.
Put a whole different spin on the break-in.
Taking out the clip one-handed, Max slid the magazine and weapon along the floor behind him, out of reach. Then started searching his pockets. A knife in a leg holster. And a compact Smith & Wesson 66 .357 in an ankle holster. The guy meant business.
What kind of business?
Max removed both weapons and stuck them on top of a nearby bookcase out of sight. Who the fuck was this guy? Not a tango. Not here. Not in Emily’s apartment at two in the morning in a quiet residential neighborhood of Florence. Didn’t make sense. But even though it wasn’t likely, he considered it for a moment. Considered and dismissed it. Nah. But since terrorists were his business, he tended to see tangos behind every shrub and dung heap.
“Of course I don’t know him.” Her eyes gleamed in the semidarkness. She was so beautiful she stole his breath. “He broke in just like you did. Friends,” she said pointedly, bending to pinch the gun in two fingers, “don’t climb up two stories to pay a social visit.”
She took several steps closer, eyes running over the guy, whose head was flopped to his chest. Max used the barrel of his Glock to jerk up his chin so she could have a better look. She’d done a nice job breaking the intruder’s nose, and she’d managed to get in several more strategic hits, as evidenced by the ugly bruise on one cheek and a knot above his left eye. Blood still ran sluggishly down the dude’s temple.
“Did he touch you?” Max asked coldly. She had no idea the man could go from slightly battered to dead in two seconds or less depending on her answer.
When she didn’t respond, he glanced over his shoulder in time to see her shaking her head. “Is that a no?”
She held the gun slightly away from her body like one would hold a dead rat. “He scared the bejesus out of me, but I saw him before he saw me.”
Good enough. She was scared, but rational. Max needed answers. “Are the police really on their way?”
Could complicate matters. Max had his own people to deal with garbage detail. Not that he’d expected to need them since he was technically on vacation. Technically.
She hesitated. “I didn’t have time to call them. I’d just come into the kitchen for a glass of milk when I heard him sneaking out of my bedroom—My God. I didn’t even hear him go right past the kitchen and into my bedroom. I just grabbed the heaviest pan I could, and hit him as he passed the door. The sound was—” She grimaced.
Horrific. Max knew. He’d slammed heavy objects into any number of craniums. Had a few slammed into his own.
She glanced back at her victim. “What did he think I had that was worth stealing?”
It was rhetorical, but he answered anyway. “We’ll find out.” He continued searching the guy’s pockets as he talked. If the intruder was a burglar he’d been flattened before he could lift anything. Odd since he’d gone from one end of Emily’s apartment to the other. “Anything missing?”
He was no expert, but Emily had some good stuff around. As he recalled she had antiques, objets d’art, and other presumably valuable bits and pieces cluttering every surface. The woman was not only untidy, he remembered, she was adorably absentminded.
“I don’t know. There’s nothing of any great value up here. The studio downstairs has better security. The insurance companies for the museums demand it.”
The H&K and frying pan clanged together as she switched the gun to free her other hand. She reached down and picked up the clip, turning it end over end as she talked. She had pretty hands, with long slender fingers and short nails. He remembered her hands weren’t quite as soft as they looked because of the paint and cleaners she used. But he’d loved the feel of them gliding over his skin, touching him, stroking him. God. He’d loved the feel of her hands.
And she always had paint on her, somewhere, that she’d missed when she cleaned up. This morning it was a smear of green on her elbow, and a smear in her hair. Five gradiated diamond studs sparkled and flashed in each ear as she moved. Those were new.
“I recently finished a copy of a very famous work, but no one except the client knew the original was h—What?”
“English, okay?” he switched from Italian, jerking his chin indicating the guy on the floor. Chances were he spoke English, but maybe he didn’t.
Emily switched easily to her native English as she continued. “But I shipped both pieces back to Denver three days ago. So there’s nothing of value downstairs right now, even if someone figured out how to break in. Do you want me to go down and check?” she offered. But she didn’t move.
It hadn’t occurred to him that she’d suggest going alone after what had just happened. Single woman. Could take care of herself. Except when an armed man broke in. Well hell. She’d even taken care of the intruder before he’d gotten there. “No. Go somewhere and lock the door till I’m done here.”
She looked over her shoulder, and Max followed her gaze. Other than the dim light streaming through the kitchen doorway, and the overhead hall light, the entire apartment behind her was dark. A visible shiver ran across her shoulders.
“What if he wasn’t alone?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
He figured that a second intruder would be long gone, but he wasn’t about to take any chances. “Maybe.” He reached back for the flex-cuffs he just happened to be carrying. “I’ll secure this one, and go take a l—”
The guy exploded up off the floor. Emily screamed. More in warning than fright.
Max shot out his elbow, striking his opponent’s throat. The guy gagged, but came back with a punch to Max’s solar plexus.
The party was on.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Emily said hoarsely, backing up.
“Go back in the kitchen, shut the door. Lock it if you can,” Max told her evenly as the man landed another solid blow, this time to his sternum. Pissed Max off, because he’d been thinking about Emily, not guarding himself sufficiently to deflect the blows. He threw a rear hand punch that knocked the bastard back a couple of steps, then pulled him in for a head butt. Both men cursed. It hurt like hell.
There wasn’t enough room for three of them in the narrow hallway, and Max was afraid Emily would try to “help” him with her frying pan. And get hurt for her trouble.
“Emily—” The other man telegraphed by his body movement that he was going deliver a punch to the side of Max’s head. Max grabbed his arm high and low, and pulled him in for a knee to the belly. The man grunted, but came up swinging.
“I have his gun and this . . . thing.”
Great. A weapon and the clip. “Put them—separately— somewhere out of the way.” He relaxed his muscles, and transferred his weight, rotating his hips and shoulders into the attack, then moved straight forward, forcing the guy to back up with a series of fast punches to the face and chest. His rapid retraction prevented the man from grabbing Max’s hand or arm, and kept him off balance.
Uppercut. Hook. Rear hand punch. Max kept them coming faster than the other man could deflect them.
“Kitchen,” Max shouted to Emily, as the intruder tried a horizontal elbow strike. “Close, but no cigar,” he told the other man in Italian, raising his right knee and driving hard, just above his opponent’s knee. The guy’s body sagged, and he grabbed onto Max’s shirt front.
Max stepped forward and left at a forty-five degree angle, moving into the outside of the other man’s body, then chopped up with both forearms, breaking the hold.
Damn it. He didn’t want Emily holding the gun, and he sure as shit didn’t want his opponent to wrestle it from her. The guy charged in, attempting a hip throw. Max was ready. Shaking off the man’s hand on his right wrist, Max pulled him in close and off balance, then used a leg sweep to bring him to his knees.
He sensed that Emily was still with them in the hallway. With his forearm across his opponent’s throat, he yelled, “Now.”
Emily darted back into the kitchen as the two men wrestled in the hallway. This was surreal. The big gun felt ridiculously heavy in her hand as she tried to decide what to do with it. She’d never held a gun before. She didn’t want to hold one now. Nothing good could come from her gripping the bloody thing, and she presumed Max was afraid if the guy got free he might take it from her by force and kill them both. Not a pleasant thought.
She wasn’t about to grapple with a guy twice her weight for a weapon she had no idea how to use.
She tossed the bullet holder thingie behind the refrigerator, then opened the odds-and-ends drawer, carefully laid the big black gun inside, and closed the drawer as if it might detonate with the slightest movement.
For a moment she stood there in the semidarkness of her herb-scented kitchen, bare toes curled on the cold tile floor. Favorite frying pan still clutched in a death grip in her left hand, she stared at the closed door.
The sounds coming from just outside were enough to make her consider shimmying through the narrow kitchen window and making a break for it down the folding fire escape ladder to the street below. She should get la polizia.
The sickening crunch of a bone snapping made her hesitate. Hopefully it was the intruder’s bone. As annoyed as she was with Max, she still didn’t want to hear his bones splintering like kindling. Emily wiped her damp palm on her pajama bottom, switched the pan from one hand to the other, and wiped that hand as well.
Her gaze darted between the small window and the closed, not locked, door. She knew she could fit through the window. Not easily, but she’d done it on three occasions when she’d lost her keys. Of course she hadn’t done it in the dark, or in the rain, any of those occasions. She hadn’t done it when she was scared for her life either.
God—She couldn’t leave Max alone with a motivated burglar. He could be killed.
Even reminding herself that Max had a gun didn’t make leaving him to deal with her problem acceptable. Damn her own moral code of responsibility. It was frequently inconvenient. Using a double- handed grip on the handle of the pan, she raised it above her head, and stepped back out into the hallway again. Ready to help Max if necessary.
Heart pounding and breathing as if she’d been running, even though she’d barely walked ten feet, Emily gripped the handle so hard her hands went numb. Crossing the threshold from kitchen to hallway, she was just in time to see that the man’s eyes were open. Not that he was looking at her. He was more focused on Max.
With good reason.
Max looked scary as hell. His strong jaw was unshaven, and the lights in the hallway threw his lean, hard features into shadow so that he looked not only enormous, but fierce and deadly. He had a gun in his left hand, pressed hard to the burglar’s bleeding temple. His right had the guy’s injured elbow high over the man’s head, completely earning the menacing grimace the guy was sending him. Max didn’t seem to notice, or care, as he warned the intruder not to move a muscle. In, Emily suddenly noticed, perfect Italian.
The Italian he’d claimed not to speak or understand just eleven months ago.
He was dressed all in black. But then so was the intruder. Which was the bad guy? They both looked dangerous and disreputable. Max’s dark hair was far too long and shaggy. He needed a haircut. And a shave.
All she’d gotten was a glimpse of his eyes in the kitchen, and the coldness in those hazel eyes had chilled her to the marrow. It was as though he were looking at a stranger. Which was damn unflattering, all things considered.
He hadn’t looked at her that way the last time they’d been eye-to-eye. Then the color of his eyes had been black-forest green. And hot. Smoldering hot. A sense of foreboding shuddered through her body and her fingers cramped on the frying pan.
Who was this Max Aries?