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Diamonds–jewels of every kind, in fact–are Taylor Kincaid’s best friends. The only thing she enjoys more is the challenge of stealing them, at which she excels like few others in the world. And specializing in plundering precious stones from wealthy international criminals just makes it all the more satisfying . . . and dangerously exciting. So for Taylor, there’s no resisting the double allure of snatching the elusive Blue Star diamonds–a prize she has pursued across three continents–from the South American stronghold of the murderous Morales terrorist organization.
The heist goes down without a hitch. Until Taylor discovers she has made off with more than she bargained for, namely the secret security-system codes that provide access to a South African diamond mine–packed with enough gems to sink a battleship. Suddenly, Taylor’s no longer just an ultrachic freelance jewel thief, but a reluctant player in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game against elite global trouble-shooters and bloodthirsty terrorists.
There’s nothing reluctant, however, about Huntington St. John, the top T-FLAC operative who’s hot on Taylor’s trail. And in Taylor’s opinion, just plain hot. The feeling, emotional and otherwise, is very mutual. Though they’re on opposite sides of the law, Hunt and Taylor swiftly come to appreciate each other’s well-honed skills. But since ecstasy is fleeting, and diamonds are forever, Taylor soon slips from the sheets and hits the streets . . . to reclaim the jewels she stashed overseas. And true to his name, Hunt is close behind–but this time, he’s after more than the codes. With the clock ticking, and two groups of terrorists closing fast, they’ll have to mix pleasure with some very risky business. If they can survive danger at every turn, outwit the ultimate high-tech security system, and somehow conquer each other . . . they just might get everything they desire.
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August 10 San Cristóbal South America
Dressed in black, shrouded by the night, T-FLAC opera- tive Huntington St. John melded with the darkness of the fetid alley behind the adobe jail. Night vision glasses made it possible to observe every inch of the inky interior of the cell through a narrow barred window high in the wall.
Where in the hell was the prisoner?
It had taken six long, bloody months to discover this woman’s identity. Six months, and the considerable resources of the counterterrorist organization Hunt worked for. It hadn’t been easy, by God, and he was not leaving without her.
He needed a thief. Someone resourceful, cunning, and unscrupulous. Someone at the top of his game. Hunt wanted the best. Nothing less would do.
Determined to find the right thief, T-FLAC’s crack team had scrutinized past burglary victims for the last five years. Limiting their search to individuals, or companies, with collections of fine gems who had the most sophisticated, advanced security systems. They’d compiled lists comprising thousands upon thousands of names. They’d cross-matched friends of the victims, relatives, staff, and lifestyle to find a common denominator.
Three hundred names had cross-matched, and 118 people appeared on more than six lists. A deep background check on those suspects turned up an interesting anomaly. Seventeen of the women had identical, or nearly identical, backgrounds. Or, rather, one woman had seventeen identities.
No one, other than himself and a few select T-FLAC operatives, even knew the thief was a woman. They’d finally connected the dots.
Hunt had his thief.
But where the hell was she?
An hour after ascertaining who she was, and with an educated guess, where she might be, he was wheels up and headed for South America. It was highly suspect that she just happened to be in the very city he needed her to be in. San Cristóbal.
In flight he’d knew she’d robbed José Morales followed by a quick arrest minutes before he touched down in San Cristóbal.
So, it was a fait accompli.
A quick, thorough search of her hotel room revealed nothing. Not a hint, not a clue. No surprise there. She never left clues. Ever. Which is why it had been so fucking hard to discover who she was in the first place.
This woman wasn’t merely extraordinarily good at what she did, she was a phenomenon. And fearless.
She was the one he wanted. And by God, he’d have her. Even if, as he suspected, she’d been hired by someone else.
Despite intel to the contrary, her absence from the cell could be explained by one of three options: she’d been moved to another location, the other party had already extracted her, or she’d been killed.
Now that would be bloody inconvenient all around. He’d already invested enough time and energy. He wasn’t about to start looking for someone else now.
Suddenly, footsteps echoed down a hallway. Clear, loud, deliberate. Two pairs—heavy, booted. And the odd, incongruous sound of chains rattling, like something out of a bad horror film.
One of the guards kicked open the cell door. It slammed against the adobe wall and let in muted light from the hallway to illuminate the cramped cell. “This time, bruja,” the jailer threatened in Spanish, “you will not get free.”
Hunt’s mouth flattened into a thin line as he took in the tableau in the doorway.
Trussed up in chains, the woman couldn’t brace herself as the guards flung her through the open door and onto the floor with a thud. Her head bounced on the cement and she let out a startled grunt of pain.
Hunt bit back a curse. This was precisely why he disliked women involved in missions. They were vulnerable and easily broken. He hated like hell seeing someone soft and delicate hurt.
The chains wrapped around her sounded almost musical as she rolled across the floor, until, stopped by the opposite wall, she lay still.
The two guards observed their prisoner for a few minutes from the doorway, speculating in rapid-fire Spanish as to whether the woman was a witch. Or worse. So, she’d attempted an escape, had she? He shook his head. Nice try, but no cigar, sweetheart. This prison built on the outskirts of town housed political prisoners, as well as the dregs of humanity. No one, including apparently a pro like her, had ever escaped.
Hunt was about to change that.
Listening to the conversation between the guards, Hunt shook his head. She’d given it her best shot five times. 5-0 wasn’t a great track record, but it sure took guts. No wonder the men were pissed. No wonder they had a mile of bicycle chain wrapped around her body, and God only knew how many gleaming new padlocks fastened down her back. She’d be lucky to draw in an unrestricted breath, let alone stand.
The metal door clanged shut and the key ground harshly in the lock. Sorry to disappoint, hombres, but she’s mine. He listened to the guards’ footsteps retreat down the hallway toward the front of the jail.
The crunch of tires on gravel drifted between the buildings down the narrow alley where he waited. Headlights strobed over the single-story structures as cars and trucks pulled into the unseen parking lot of the seedy nightclub across the alley behind the jail.
Vehicle doors slammed. Glass clinked. Laughing voices rose. A band tuned up their instruments. The door of the dive opened and slammed. Opened and slammed. Opened, letting out the raucous sounds of the crowd warming up for the evening. All music to Hunt’s ears.
He knew the bar would soon be packed to the rafters. The band would be loud enough to deafen anyone within a hundred yards, and the secondhand smoke would make a five-pack-a-day smoker look like a piker. This was almost too easy.
The night air felt thick and oppressive. Not even a glimmer of a star broke the blackness of the sky overhead. San Cristóbal in midsummer was not for the fainthearted. He’d been here several years ago on another op. The sprawling city on the edge of the rain forest was too damn crowded for his liking. Known for its topless beaches and raunchy night life, it wasn’t one of Hunt’s favorite places.
The atmosphere was a South American version of spring break—noise, people, skin, and excessive drinking. The combination usually turned things ugly before midnight. It was a quarter till.
In the distance, a dog’s barks turned to mournful howls. A car backfired. Lights continued strafing the roofline as more vehicles turned into the parking lot of the club. A steel guitar riffed in a jangle of bad chords, followed by the thump of sticks on the drum as the band continued its warm-up.
The chains wrapped around the woman chinked. Good. If she could move, she wasn’t too badly hurt. As far as Hunt was concerned, as long as she could talk and think long enough to tell him what he wanted to know, that was sufficient.
In theory, he had no problem with her captivity.
She was where thieves belonged.
But not where he needed her to be for the moment.
Oblivious to the muggy heat causing his dark shirt to stick to his back, he gave a quick tug to the clamps he’d hooked to the bars earlier, making sure they were secure. A clever T-FLAC invention, the device, small enough to fit in his pocket, it consisted of a complex series of pulleys and thin metal cable, and needed very little pressure to act as a fulcrum.
The band segued into their first number. What the group lacked in talent they made up for in volume. The ruckus from the club would drown out all but an atomic bomb.
“Thanks,” Hunt muttered dryly as he exerted the small hand movement necessary to activate the tool. Inside the cell the chinking of the chains abruptly stopped.
He stepped aside as window frame, bars, and chunks of plaster came out of the old adobe wall with a grinding thunk.
What,” the icy voice in Theresa Smallwood’s ear dripped fury, “do you mean there was nothing there? You arranged for the arrest immediately when she got back to her hotel, like I told you, didn’t you?”
Sweat pooled in the small of Theresa’s back as she pressed the receiver against her ear. The sound of the long-distance-distorted voice crawled over her skin like the tiny feet of a dozen spiders. The cramped phone booth stunk of pee, sweat, and fear. Theresa was responsible for two out of the three.
She shuddered, knuckles white as she clenched the receiver, and forced herself to respond. Forced her voice to remain steady. Competent.
“No more than three seconds,” she assured her boss. She prayed she didn’t sound as scared as she felt. They both knew how important this assignment was.
How dare that fucking thief put her life in danger? Theresa thought, still shaken with anger. She’d asked the girl to work for her. She’d offered to pay her, and pay her well, to retrieve the contents of Morales’s safe. Which, for Christ’s sake, she was going to do anyway. The girl refused Theresa flat out.
Theresa swallowed fear-thick spit. “She’d barely closed the door when the Federales grabbed her.” She hadn’t had a chance to hide anything. And Christ knew, she was too damn slick to have gone to all that trouble to hand it over to the police.
Theresa had waited a few minutes to make sure no one saw her, then tossed the hotel room. Politely. Professionally. No-one-would-suspect carefully. Nothing. Not a fucking thing. Nada. Zip.
“Then you have what I want,” the voice said smoothly in her ear. Not a question. Never a question.
Theresa’s armpits prickled with dread and her mouth went bone dry. She needed a drink, she needed one bad. “I’ll meet with our Rio contact as planned. Tomorrow,” she said with utmost conviction, the answer implicit.
The air seemed to vibrate menacingly around Theresa as the silence on the other end of the phone lengthened. When she heard a click instead of the ass-reaming she expected, she let the phone drop and slumped back against the bullet-riddled glass of the phone booth as though she were a puppet with her strings cut.
She’d find the bitch if it was the last thing she did.
She exited the phone booth, then strode across the gravel lot of the abandoned gas station to the rental car.
Oh, she’d find the girl all right. She’d find the girl, retrieve what she’d stolen, and then slice her skin from her skinny body in one long ribbon like peeling a fucking apple. Theresa hadn’t gotten where she was by letting emotions get in the way of business. Business was brutal.
If she had to screw the brains out of every cop in this godforsaken city to find out where the woman was being held, she vowed she’d do it.
Theresa was proud of the small elegant black rose tattooed on the small of her back. One day soon she would have more petals added, and she’d be the Black Rose. Until then she’d do her job, and do it well. And when the time came, she’d carve that full-blown rose tattoo off the current Black Rose’s skin.
She opened the car door, slid behind the wheel, and buckled up for safety as she pulled out of the dark lot. For more immediate gratification, she thought of the thief’s big black eyes, that smooth, dusky skin, and decided she’d leave the girl’s face for last.
Hear me now, do you, sweetheart?” a man said softly in the darkness. Well, yeah. He’d just knocked down the wall and his shoes crunched in the grit on the floor as he walked toward her. Hard to miss. Taylor stayed where she was, the chains loosely covering her body, wondering if he could see she’d managed to free herself already? Nah. Too dark.
She twisted her body in the direction of his voice. Rancid air wafted through what she presumed was a hole in the wall. Stink had never smelled so good. “The cavalry, I presume?” she whispered.
“Something like that.” His deep voice was rich and gravelly, his tone dry, and vaguely British.
She had no clue who he could be. Had the woman who’d approached her this morning sent him? It was the only logical explanation. She didn’t know anyone in San Cristóbal. Or rather, she didn’t know anyone who should know she was in jail. She didn’t need or want a partner, and she’d repeat what she’d told Theresa Smallwood this morning, as soon as he got her the hell out of here.
He crouched down beside her before she realized he was that close. Wow. Impressive. He moved like a cat. A big, strong, powerful cat.
“Are you badly hurt?” he asked, hands moving over the chains. “Where’s the start of this thing?”
“I’ll live. They didn’t have me quite as secure as they thought.” Taylor shrugged the chains off her shoulders and staggered to her feet. He grabbed her upper arm as she swayed. The pounding in her head made her teeth ache, and she was grateful for the steadiness of the large hand holding her upright.
The cell was as dark as the black hole of Calcutta, but even though she couldn’t see him, she could feel the heat of his large body beside her. She had an irrational urge to let her head drop to his chest. Only for a moment. The novelty of someone rescuing her shouldn’t be wasted. Instead of succumbing, Taylor locked her knees. Air fanned across her face. He had, she guessed, waved a hand in front of her nose.
“Can you see me?” he whispered.
Lord he smelled good, she thought absently. For an instant her pulse accelerated with a purely female response. Then her survival instincts kicked back in. “Of course not,” she whispered back. “It’s pitch—” she tilted her head. “Can you see me?”
“Yeah. Even without the nvg’s.”
Night vision glass. Excellent. He was a regular Boy Scout. She stuck out her hand. “Let me try the glasses.” He dropped the nvg’s into her palm.
“It’s possible your jailers won’t have heard the wall of Jericho tumbling,” he whispered sarcastically as Taylor fumbled to bring the glasses to her eyes. He reached out and turned them right side up in her hands without pausing. “It’s possible they won’t turn around and come right back and check on you again. It’s also possible that someone won’t come back into the alley to take a leak. All of that’s possible. Like to stick around and tempt fate?”
She blinked a couple of times to clear her vision. Blinked again. No amount of blinking helped. She heard him through the thick buzz in her ears, vaguely computed what he was saying as her mouth went dry. She curled her fingers around the hard plastic of the nvg’s, squeezed her eyes shut. Opened them.
And sucked in a horrified breath.
Black. Unrelieved black.
She couldn’t see.
God help her. She. Could. Not. See.
They’d hit her, several times, and hard, the last time she’d managed to get away. Hit her with something heavy. The butt of a gun most likely. She’d lost consciousness for a few seconds and had a blinding headache as a memento. Taylor fingered the knob on the back of her head. Was the damage permanent? God. She couldn’t go there. The ramifications terrified her.
“Well?” Despite the cacophony of noise from nearby, Taylor heard his soft words clearly.
She licked dry lips. “H-Houston, I think we have a problem. I can’t see—anything.”
There was a slight pause before he said quietly, “At all?”
She almost jumped out of her skin when she felt his hand on the back of her head.
“Your head bounced when you landed.” He gently combed his fingers through her hair until he came to the tender spot she’d found a second ago. She winced when he brushed the area with a surprisingly gentle touch. “There’s a nasty bump back here. Bleeding too.”
There was no point mentioning that her jailers had rewarded her for each escape attempt by using her as a punching bag before they’d thrown her back in the cell. Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Reno, Nevada, she’d had plenty of experience with bullies’ fists.
She’d had bruises before. They healed. It was her sight she was worried about.
He dropped his hand. “This complicates things.”
Taylor almost snorted. “For me too, pal.” It hurt to scowl. “Sorry to inconveni—”
He stuck a solid shoulder to her midriff and hoisted her over his shoulder in a smooth move. Taylor grabbed the back of his shirt for balance.
“Oh, God, please don’t hang me upside down. I might puke.” Which proved how badly her head hurt. Upside down was one of her specialties.
“Don’t,” he told her unsympathetically as he strode across the room.
She used both hands to clamp his impressively tight buns, to stabilize herself as he strode across the cell. Seconds later she felt and smelled—other air. It could hardly be termed fresh. It stank of unwashed bodies, fried food, and garbage. In this case, the smell of freedom.
His shoulder must have been made of solid steel. Her bruised stomach and ribs protested vehemently as he jogged. She had the mother of all headaches, her ribs felt like they were gouging her aching lungs, and nausea threatened to erupt into projectile vomiting any second. Taylor didn’t utter a single word of complaint as he headed away from the loud music and sound of bottles breaking. Away from that cell.
She assured herself that the blindness was temporary. She just wished she knew how long temporary was. She’d also like to know who he was, and why he’d gone to all the trouble of rescuing her. But she could figure that out later. Right now she was simply grateful for his unexpected appearance.
His footsteps were surprisingly silent as he ran for what felt like an hour. Just when she was positive she was going to lose all of Maria Morales’s delicious canapés, he swung her to the ground, then held her upright with a firm hand on the back of her neck. His fingers felt hot and hard on her clammy skin. A reminder of his strength and a heads-up that he could snap her neck like a twig. Out of the fire and into the frying pan?
The small fluttering wings of panic she’d been working hard to suppress for the past couple of hours unfurled a little more to beat an urgent tattoo in her stomach.
He wasn’t breathing hard, and she was reluctantly impressed. He was big, strong, and physically fit.
But she was no lightweight. Five-foot-eight in her stocking feet, she might look deceptively fragile, but she was a solid 140 pounds. She worked out to keep her muscles tight and toned. In her business, every advantage counted.
Even though Taylor couldn’t see anything, she closed her eyes to better concentrate. Trying to pinpoint where they were. She hadn’t a clue. No traffic noise. No people talking. She could still hear the music from the club in the distance, muffled by buildings. There was no air movement, so they could be in another minuscule alley. Not being able to see him, or where they were, made her twitchy. She was used to relying completely on herself, and having to depend on a stranger for her safety and well-being made her extremely nervous. She tamped down the anxiety. It was counterproductive.
For the moment, he apparently gave a damn about her welfare. If and when that changed, she’d make sure she was ready.
A car door snicked open.
“In.” He placed his palm on top of her head and shoved her inside. She’d barely dragged both feet into the car when the door was slammed shut. “Huntington St. John,” he said as he climbed in behind the wheel and started the car.
“Annie Sullivan,” Taylor said smoothly. “Thanks for the rescue.”
He snorted. “Annie Sullivan? You’re quick, aren’t you?”
“Not quick enough to get away from the San Cristóbal police, apparently. Is it too soon to ask why you demolished a jail to get me out? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Simply curious.”
“You have something I want.”
The tires crunched over gravel, and she had to lean into a sharp turn as he pulled the vehicle onto a paved road. “Really? And what would that be?”
“The contents of the safe you robbed earlier this evening.”
Ah. So the woman hadn’t taken no for an answer after all. “What safe?” she asked mildly, fumbling for a seat belt as the car sped through the single-lane streets of the city. There was no seat belt. Taylor waited to be catapulted through the windshield at any moment. The upside was, she wouldn’t actually see Death coming for her. God had some sense of humor.
An unfamiliar ache squeezed her chest, and there didn’t seem to be enough air in the car, which made her breathing erratic. She rubbed her fingers on the dull pain at her temple and tried to even out her breathing. “Never heard of him.”
“See where we are?” he asked conversationally. It was a taunt if ever she’d heard one.
“No,” Taylor told him coolly. “I don’t.”
“What did you do with the contents of the safe?” he repeated. No inflection, but she suspected he was annoyed. Too bad.
She could play the poor blind girl card—God only knew it was true. That might buy her time. Or flat out lie and keep insisting she had no idea what he was talking about. Or she could do what she did best. Shade the truth enough to weasel out of this as fast as possible.
“Okay,” she said slowly, as if he’d dragged the truth out of her. “So I pulled off the Morales job. Unfortunately, the cops confiscated my take when they arrested me.”
“Bullshit. They arrested you at your hotel.”
“As I said—”
“There was nothing on you. Nothing in your room.”
Of course not. Did this guy think she’d fallen off the turnip truck? She’d mailed the stuff on her way back to the hotel. “That’s because the police have it.” Taylor leaned her head against the headrest and closed her useless eyes. “Whether you believe me or not, those are the facts. Sue me. And since I don’t have what you want, go ahead and drop me off at my hotel. I’ll thank you nicely for the heroic rescue and say bye-bye.”
“Don’t get too ahead of yourself, sweetheart, you’re not in any position to piss me off. I could always drop you off right here on a street corner,” he told her with far too much relish for comfort. “Watch you stumble around for my own amusement.”
If he wanted something badly enough to break her out of jail he wouldn’t toss her out of the car onto the dangerous San Cristóbal streets, by herself, at night. Not until he had what he wanted. And that assumption wasn’t based on the sexy, rough timbre of his voice or the heady fragrance of his soap. Both of which filled the car and her senses. “A hero and a charmer. My lucky day.” She faked a yawn. “I’ll consider myself kidnapped. Wake me when we get to wherever we’re going, will you?”
“Don’t you want to know our destination?”
She rolled her head in his direction without opening her eyes. “Would it make any difference if I said I didn’t want to go there?”
Exactly. “Then let’s keep it a surprise, shall we?”
Liberating her only to turn around and abandon her wouldn’t have any payoff for him. And he’d want a payoff. He’d gone to considerable trouble to rescue her. So he wanted something that had been in the safe at the Morales estate, did he? What?
The Barter sapphires? No. She didn’t think this guy would go to all this trouble for a necklace or two. Not the jewelry, despite its value. She’d netted at least five mil in jewels alone. A nice evening’s work.
What hadn’t been inside that safe were the Blue Star diamonds she’d hoped to find along with the sapphires. Like a dog chasing a car, she’d pursued the Blue Stars all over Europe and half the free world for the last five years. Once again Morales had moved them.
She’d been in an unaccustomed hurry with this job from the start. Usually, her heists were planned to a hair, and she didn’t have to hurry. But she’d had a dammed persistent itch on the back of her neck all day. Taylor never ignored a sign. She’d speed-robbed the Moraleses. Instead of picking and choosing, she’d swept the contents into the thin black silk bag tied like a Colt .45 to her thigh, then split through the third-story window and down the side of the house via a conveniently placed trellis.
The self-addressed mailer, tucked down the leg of her jeans, had been stuffed and sealed as she darted between hedges and shrubs. She’d scaled the estate’s wall, and avoided the Dobbies sleeping where she’d left them, courtesy of the doped treats she’d tossed them when she’d arrived.
No one had seen her. No one.
The mailbox had been on the way back to the hotel. The entire heist had taken barely an hour. Start to finish. Yet the local police knocked before she’d closed the door to her hotel room.
Taylor opened her eyes a slit to see if her vision had returned. It hadn’t. Damn. She hurt all over. The least of her problems at the moment. Her heart, already beating a little too fast, sped up even more. She pushed the alarm back. Don’t panic, she warned herself. Do not panic. She’d been in trouble before, and she’d always found a way out of it. Except she’d never been blind in a foreign country before. A hard knot of fear lodged in her throat.
She curled her fingers into her palms until the pain from her short nails digging into her skin centered her. Concentrate. Panic was wasted energy. Not having her vision put a large crimp in her plans, but nothing was impossible. She calculated the time close to midnight. Her flight left at ten a.m. All she had to do was make it through what was left of the night, grab a cab in the morning, and get on that plane.
Who’d tipped off the police? The woman who’d tried to hire her yesterday? Or—what was this guy’s name? Oh, yeah. “Where’d you get a name like Huntington?”
“Call me Hunt.”
“For short?” Taylor asked, almost amused. “But not for long?”
“You are quick.”
The fact that after all these years of being invisible, two people had not only discovered who she was, but where she was, freaked her out. Where had she zigged instead of zagged? Taylor rubbed the warning prickle at the back of her neck. “Not quick enough apparently. How did you find me?”
“In that cell? Followed the police trail. In general? Thousands of man-hours.”
Taylor’s heart slammed into her ribs, knocking a loud and instant warning. She had to moisten her lips before she could speak. “Thousands of man-hours?”
How fast were they going? Lord, she couldn’t believe she was actually contemplating jumping out of a fast-moving vehicle, God only knew where, when she couldn’t see. “Care to explain?”
She’d never experienced claustrophobia before, but she did now. This entire situation, coupled with being unable to see, made her feel as though she were in a very small box without any air. Her stomach lurched with anticipation—never call it fear—as the vehicle slowed. She fumbled for the door handle. There wasn’t one.
“Don’t bother.” The car stopped. “We’re here.”
Let’s go,” Hunt instructed when she sat there unmoving, head tilted. Her eyes didn’t track when he passed a hand in front of her nose. Hell. She still couldn’t see. “Here, take my hand. Watch the curb.”
Her fingers were slender and filthy dirty as she gripped his hand and let him pull her from the car. As she gracefully unfurled from the seat and stood beside him, Hunt realized she wasn’t as petite as he’d first thought. Her head reached his shoulder, so she was at least five-eight.
He took a good look at her. She was dressed as he was, all in black. Jeans, loosely fitting long-sleeve black T-shirt, black running shoes. Body tall and slender. Skin: Mediterranean dark. Hair: shoulder length and a matted, dusty black.
Heavily lashed dark chocolate eyes focused a few inches to the left of his face. A fast-beating pulse leapt at the base of her throat, and a sheen of perspiration filmed her skin, but she sounded merely curious instead of frightened when she asked calmly, “Where are we?”
“Somewhere the authorities won’t find you. For the moment. Come on.”
There were no streetlights to speak of. The shops up and down the street were either abandoned or their owners just didn’t give a damn. The T-FLAC safe house, Villa D’Este, looked like the dozens of other derelict hotels and businesses lining the city.
During the day and late into the night, gamines of all ages and sizes ran wild here, dodging vehicles and fists alike in search of a pocket to pick. The street kids were all bedded down somewhere for the night, so it was quiet at this hour. Come morning it would be a different story. The common denominators for the neighborhood were poverty and filth.
“Where the cops won’t find me. Not a lot of information to go on,” she told him dryly.
Was she really not able to see, or was she bullshitting? If it was bs, she was a damn good actress. “Fifteen steps to the front door, then one stair up.”
As she walked beside him she blinked repeatedly as if trying to clear her vision. Hunt dragged his gaze away from the rapid pulse throbbing at the base of her sweat-dampened throat. Despite her bravado, she was scared. She had reason to be.
Her iron control over her emotions reluctantly impressed him, and he felt a mild twinge of sympathy. He dismissed the thought the moment it surfaced. She was nothing more than a means to an end, and, as good as she was, had already caused him months of delay. This was more than a recovery operation. She was a small—albeit vital—cog in the far more important wheel of the mission to come.
He hoped to hell this inconvenience wasn’t an indication of things to come.
The open door of the hotel cut the darkness, spilling golden light onto the filthy street. Hunt kept her hand in his and angled his body to guide and stabilize her. Her fingers were clammy, her back rigid, as she walked beside him with a natural grace only slightly marred by her lack of sight. A fine shiver traveled down her body as she stumbled over a rough patch, and she clenched his hand in a death grip to keep her balance.
“Easy,” he steadied her. “Step.” Her hesitation as she took the step was infinitesimal. “This really discombobulates you, doesn’t it?”
She stepped up carefully, allowing him to draw her into the dimly lit, grungy vestibule of the hotel before she turned her head to answer. “What? Being blind as a bat, led into a strange place, by a strange man, in a foreign city?” she said dryly. “Discombobulate isn’t quite the word I’d use. But the situation certainly makes me uncomfortable, and cautious.”
She hesitated for a moment, as if considering the possibility. “Temporarily. Very temporarily.” She stopped walking and pulled him to a stop.
Hunt looked down. She wasn’t unattractive. He suspected that once cleaned up, her looks would improve.
“Just because I can’t see you,” she told him tightly, “doesn’t mean I can’t protect myself. You got me out of a bad situation, and I appreciate it. But if you’ve brought me here to something worse—think again.”
He was close enough to see she wore contact lenses, and he wondered almost absently if she wore them to see better or to change the color of her eyes. “You’re in no danger from me as long as you give me what I want.”
“And you’re in no danger from me,” she shot back. “If what you want is what I want.”
“I can be quite persuasive,” Hunt told her, steering her across the lobby once more.
She turned her face up and gave him a sweet smile. “And I can be quite stubborn— What? A step?”
“No. Keep going.” Her unexpected smile threw him for a loop and shot an unexpected jolt of desire straight to his groin. He reminded himself that he was past the age to be aroused by something as false as a woman’s smile. His body vehemently disagreed.
Standing behind the reception desk, watching their slow approach, Gil hand-signed a question. Hunt pointed to his eyes. Gil nodded. The man had run the safe house autonomously for the past ten years or so, and he knew everything that went on in and around San Cristóbal.
In his weekly report to HQ, Gil had alerted T-FLAC to the arrival of the Morales family at their summer home. He’d also acquired a copy of the Moraleses’ party guest list. He’d been the one who reported the theft.
Hunt didn’t give a damn about the stolen diamonds. She could keep those. It was what was in the safe with the rocks that T-FLAC wanted. Their informant inside of Morales’s organization had been vague on the details. The person had clearly been scared witless. All she knew was that the disk held data, possibly codes to access intel on yet another of Mano del Dios’s world domination threats. The information, however flimsy, from this particular source was enough to activate every available T-FLAC operative to discover what that disk held.
If things had gone according to plan, this woman would have stolen the disk for T-FLAC, and handed it over hours ago. What a bloody waste of time this was. By now the intel should be in the hands of people trained to put an end to Morales and his Mano del Dios, Hand of God, terrorist group. Instead, here he was, extracting and babysitting a blind woman.