To the Limit by Virginia Kelly released on May 25, 2004 is available now for purchase.
About the Author
To learn more about Virginia and her books, visit her website at http://virginiakelly.net.
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All books are stand-alone reads, but if you prefer to read related books in order:
Florida Sands Romantic Suspense Series:
Against the Wind
Just One Look
Take a Chance on Me
Shadow Heroes Series
Dancing in the Dark
In the Arms of a Stranger
To the Limit
Read an Excerpt
Ciudad 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 or experience to wear. Another woman would have chosen a little black dress to show off a knock-out body. 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 fundraiser. 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 back 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 to see if she was willing to face a crowd just for the chance to speak with him. After a brief hesitation, she 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. Her gaze paused on the American Secretary of State, before moving on with a quick push at her short hair. Nervous, he decided, but almost immediately, a cool, composed mask fell into place. That type of control intrigued Nick.
He half listened to one of the bored and ever-present socialites standing beside him as he watched Mary Beth Williams. He'd always thought blondes were overrated by his countrymen, but this one was different. The black high-heeled sandals she wore showed off her fantastic legs but contradicted her manner. It smacked of aristocracy, of poise 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, he liked what he saw.
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 the woman who'd greeted her. Elena Vargas had introduced herself as Nicholas Romero's mother. Mary Beth had been told that she was the aunt who'd raised him. Gracious and charming, she had helped settle Mary Beth's jangled nerves.
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. 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.
Seeing Catherine Ellison, the Secretary of State, gave Mary Beth pause as she perused the room, but she'd find a way to avoid her old friend's mother. No way was she going to have the State Department find out why she was here. Now all she had to do was wait for Doña Elena, as Mrs. Vargas had asked to be called, to announce Mary Beth's arrival to her son.
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. In the one grainy newspaper picture she'd seen, he didn't seem as tall. Or as handsome. Or as ... intimidating. But here, at this formal event, 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, listed as a terrorist group by the U.S., had given her no choice. If she didn't take the hundred-thousand-dollar ransom to them, they would execute Mark. Why they'd contacted her and not her parents was a mystery. Unless Mark had given them her name.
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. Maybe that was why Mark had chosen her. If only he'd stayed in the Army, but he'd wanted the adventure of using his engineering skills in remote places. She'd been happy her brother would be safe, away from the multiple deployments that had kept him from home for years. The irony of his current situation wasn't wasted on her. His only hope now was for her to do as the terrorists dictated.
But living as an ambassador's daughter had taught her that she would need someone who knew the country and how to mediate. According to everything she'd learned, Nicholas Romero was the only person who could make sure Mark was released unharmed.
Several people she'd contacted in the diplomatic community had praised Romero's abilities as a negotiator even though most of his work stayed out of the news. The one newspaper article she'd found had reported that he'd dealt successfully with Primero de Mayo a year ago.
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. Catherine Ellison hadn't spotted her and was leaving after an affectionate hug with Doña Elena. That was a relief, but everything about the setting, which had required a quick shopping trip for the appropriate dress and shoes, reminded her of the life she'd left behind ten years ago.
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 again turned her attention to Romero.
Several very attractive women stopped to speak with him. Attentive, he shook hands and smiled, but treated them no differently than he had two elderly women he'd spoken with moments before. Then he looked up, his gaze seemingly drawn to her.
He placed his drink on a nearby coffee table, excused himself 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 as 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, the guests, his appearance, everything, 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 help her. 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," Romero said over the sounds of other voices and clinking glasses. "You decided to attend." 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 a formal function like this. But then, he had no way of knowing that this was just the life she'd been raised in.
"You made me curious," he replied, his voice low and smooth. "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 special envoy to countless world trouble spots, he'd been behind some of the most spectacular feats of compromise in recent international relations, not to mention direct negotiations with terrorists holding captives.
But none of that had been splashed on the news. That sort of thing would be easy enough to manipulate — something she'd learned the hard way. Her research had turned up so little written about him that she'd checked with friends who would be honest in their appraisal of Romero. Some knew him socially, but most within the diplomatic corps knew him personally and from top secret reports that couldn't be divulged. Without specifics, they'd assured her that he was above reproach, both personally and professionally. When asked why she was interested in him, she'd said it was idle curiosity. She couldn't afford to risk Mark's life in any way.
Before she could think of a suitable reply to his comment, she was jostled from behind. "Excuse me," she said and stepped forward, only to brush against Romero's chest. He smelled of some expensive but subtle cologne.
Steadying her with a hand to her upper arm, he smiled at the person behind her. It was a polite, professional smile, the same one he'd used with everyone she'd seen him with, the same one he'd used when greeting her.
She had to get beyond his polite professionalism in order to get him to agree. He had to want to help her. Standing beside him with nothing to say was not the way to get what she needed.
Flattery, she'd learned years ago, generally worked. But the only flattering thing she could think of at the moment was that he was handsome. That, she was sure, was not the way to approach him.
"You have a beautiful home," she said finally, speaking over the music, which had become a bit louder.
"It's my mother's, although I stay here when I'm in the city. It's perfect for fund-raisers such as this."
Before she had time for a response, he said, "Join me at the buffet." He indicated the long, elaborately set table on the other side of the room, directing her with a sweep of his arm.
As they made their way across the crowded room, Mary Beth felt the warmth of his hand through the material of the black dress. With the gentle unsettling brush of his fingers guiding her forward, she made her way around small groups of people. Behind her, he sounded confident as he greeted acquaintances, while she felt as if everyone in the room was staring at her.
When they reached the buffet, he stepped aside and looked down at her. "You're uncomfortable, Ms. Williams. You don't like parties?"
"I don't like formal parties, Mr. Romero." The words were out before she could call them back. It had been a rude thing to say, considering the setting and the fact that he'd invited her, graciously or not. She turned toward him, desperate to think of something to correct her faux pas, when her attention was suddenly fixed on the first genuine smile she'd seen on his face. He actually looked approachable. Human. And much too attractive.
"Don't look so surprised, Ms. Williams," he said, his eyes alight with humor. "I don't like formal parties, either."
The man who surely attended these sorts of things often didn't like them? She wanted to ask why not; to tell him he fit — had been born to fit — while she didn't. Not even after years of enduring social gatherings just like this with her father.
"Mr. Romero —"
"Please, call me Nick."
Now she understood why so many people referred to him as charismatic. But he was beyond that. People Magazine should have put him on their cover as the sexiest man alive.
He had incredible eyes. Bedroom eyes. Good God, she couldn't believe she'd had such a thought. She blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "My friends call me Mary Beth."
"Then Mary Beth it is," he said with a smile.
"Nick," she replied, more confident that there was hope. "I apologize for intruding on your party."
"Don't," he replied quickly, still smiling. Tiny crinkles formed at the corners of his eyes. "My mother will soon have your donation for the children's clinics she supports. Before she tries to take your last dime for her good cause, she would want you to at least sample what she has prepared."
"Feed me before she turns me into a pauper?" she replied, more at ease.
He laughed. "Exactly." Taking a plate from the table, he put a skewer of shrimp and a beautifully prepared tea sandwich on it. Farther down, he used tongs to lift a small semi-circular pastry, lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar. "These," he said, placing the confection on her plate, "are worth whatever she manages to get out of you."
"What are they?"
"Empanadas de carne, meat-filled pastries. You will never taste any better anywhere. My mother makes them herself. The powdered sugar makes them the perfect combination of savory and sweet."
"Que bien, you found each other," Doña Elena said, taking her son's arm and looking at Mary Beth. "You must watch him. He will eat all the empanadas if we are not careful."
"Then I should eat mine before he takes it from me," Mary Beth replied, appreciating the woman's casual style.
"My Nicky is a gentleman," Doña Elena said with a laugh. "He will not take it — he will persuade you to give it to him."
"Mamá," he said. "I haven't found out why Ms. Williams is here and already you're scaring her off."
"Vaya, hijo, you have never scared away a beautiful woman. I am just alerting her to your methods," she said with a wink.
Nick laughed. His mother reached up to give him a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek before turning away as another guest caught her attention.
"Now, tell me, why did you call?" he asked.
Caught off guard, she nearly said frantic desperation. Instead, she said, "I need your expertise."
"Expertise?" he replied, an amused smile on his perfect lips.
"Your negotiating skills," she hurried to explain.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," he replied, his smile still in place.
She was in way over her head. Somehow she managed not to take the deep cleansing breath she so desperately needed. "May we speak privately?"
He assessed her with a cool expression. The small band shifted easily into a Latin pop tune she'd heard from Marc Antony.
"My office is down the hall." With that, he placed the plate on a waiter's tray, took her elbow and led her away from the party, the sensual beat of the music mingling with the warmth of his hand on her arm.
The office was more of a library, the furniture rich and masculine. Three pictures, each framed in hand-worked silver, were the only softer touches on the massive wooden desk. One picture showed Mrs. Vargas, Romero and another man about the same age, a soldier, judging from what appeared to be the San Matean military uniform he wore. The other two pictures were of a small boy at different ages. If Mary Beth had to guess, she would say that the boy was under a year old in one, closer to three in the other.
"Please," he said, "have a seat."
She wanted to stand, but that would only show how nervous she was. She sat.
He walked behind the desk and eased into his chair, his posture relaxed. "Now, please explain why you need me."
She tried to think of how to begin, how to explain. But there was nothing except the truth.
"The Primero de Mayo terrorists, narcoterrorists, whatever you want to call them, are holding my brother for ransom. I need your help in dealing with them."
He made no reply, his expression suddenly closed.
"You have negotiated with them before," she said, his stillness making her feel as if she should justify her request. "Successfully," she added in the lengthening silence.
He stared at her. The light from a table lamp accentuated his angular cheekbones and strong jaw.
"It wouldn't take very long," she continued, trying to maintain her composure. "A few days at most."
What was he thinking? The oppressive silence grew. She couldn't look away from him, couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Have you contacted your State Department?" he finally asked.
"No. I was warned not to. I won't risk Mark's life by doing anything like that."
"Why not just pay the ransom, Ms. Williams? Primero de Mayo has released hostages when the ransom has been paid."
He had reverted to the use of her last name, not a good sign. "They insist that I take the money to them. I want — need — an expert when I do this."
"Where do you have to take the ransom?"
"To Los Desamparados, in the Upper Río Hermoso valley."
Each tick of the large clock on the low bookcase to one side weighed heavily in the subtly lit room. She wished she could climb inside his mind, see what he was thinking.
"Do you know what desamparados means?" he asked finally.
"That has nothing —"
"The forsaken. As in abandoned." He seemed to watch for her reaction. When she wouldn't give him that satisfaction, he continued. "It's not a safe place. It's jungle."
"That's ceja de montaña country, not jungle, from what I've read. The semitropical 'brow of the mountain.' A cloud forest."
"Except for the slightly cooler climate, it's much the same." He stood, coming around the desk to lean one hip casually on the uncluttered top. "It's dangerous country."
"Which is why —"
"You need a mercenary, not me."
Excerpted from "To the Limit"
Copyright © 2017 Virginia Kelly Vail.
Excerpted by permission of RBV Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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