Her Hidden Truth

The mission was always top priority for a Specialist–except this assignment was personal for agent Vince Ferrelli. Though anyone would be hard-pressed to find a tougher operative, Vince had one vulnerability…Katrina Moore."Kat" had been fitted with a new memory implant to protect her identity while undercover. But the device had malfunctioned and put her in serious jeopardy. Only Vince could extract her from the demented organization…if she remembered the love she'd shared with Vince–and not the truth.But pretending that they were a passionate couple would be torture for Vince. Because he still loved Kat. And he sure hoped she wouldn't kill him when this case was closed!
Содержание:

Her Hidden Truth

   

   MISSION RECOVERY

   “SPECIAL OPERATIONS”

   Director: Thomas Casey

   Deputy Director: Lucas Camp

   When all else fails,

    a Specialist is called in to “recover” a situation.

   This team of highly skilled men and women was created to serve the needs of all other U.S. government agencies whenever the usual channels failed. The elite force is trained in every area of antiterrorism and aggressive infiltration. All agents have extensive stealth and sniper training and are multilingual. They must meet the most stringent mental and physical requirements of any national or international security force. They are prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish their mission….

   Failure is not an option.

Her Hidden Truth Debra Webb


   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

   Debra Webb was born in Scottsboro, Alabama, to parents who taught her that anything is possible if you want it badly enough. She began writing at age nine. Eventually she met and married the man of her dreams, and tried some other occupations, including selling vacuum cleaners and working in a factory, a day-care center, a hospital and a department store. When her husband joined the military, they moved to Berlin, Germany, and Debra became a secretary in the commanding general’s office. By 1985 they were back in the States, and finally moved to Tennessee, to a small town where everyone knows everyone else. With the support of her husband and two beautiful daughters, Debra took up writing again, looking to mystery and movies for inspiration. In 1998 her dream of writing for Harlequin came true. You can write to Debra with your comments at P.O. Box 64, Huntland, Tennessee 37345.



CAST OF CHARACTERS

   Katrina Moore—A deep cover CIA operative. The new memory implant that is supposed to protect her may very well be the death of her…as well as the man she loves.

   Vince Ferrelli—A Specialist determined to protect the woman he fell in love with four years ago.

   Thomas Casey—The enigmatic director of Mission Recovery.

   Lucas Camp—Deputy director of Mission Recovery. He will do whatever is necessary to take care of his Specialists.

   David Kovner—The suspected head of the World Security Agency, a ruthless group who preys on the young men and women of American society. Those recruited believe they are working for the good guys, when in reality WSA is a mortal enemy.

   Philip Yu—The team leader. He has his sights set on more than making his mark with the WSA. He wants Kat for himself. He will allow nothing to stand in his way, not even Vince Ferrelli.

   Jamal Johnson—The team’s driver and lookout.

   Will Adams—The team’s cyber security expert.

   Leva Vlasov—The team’s demolitions expert.

   Professor Damrus—Is he more than a mild-mannered history professor?

   Blue Callahan—As a Specialist in Mission Recovery, her job is to provide backup for Vince Ferrelli.

   This book is dedicated to all the wonderful readers who have taken the time out of their busy schedules to read my stories. Thank you so much for the opportunity to entertain you. Thanks for all your support.

Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Chapter Fourteen

   Mission Briefing

Chapter One

   Vincent Ferrelli rarely went looking for trouble, but somehow it always found him. Maybe it was the Harley he rode or maybe it was just the handsome face God had blessed or, depending upon the way one looked at it, cursed him with. Whatever the case, Vince never backed down from a challenge, personal or professional.

   Never.

   Those damned flyboys from Langley Air Force Base didn’t know who they were messing with. Not one of the three—or all three together, for that matter—stood a chance in hell against an Italian boy born and street schooled in Trenton, New Jersey.

   Oh, well, Vince mused, it was their funeral.

   “Maybe you’d like to step outside and put your money where your mouth is,” the tallest of the three, and the one who appeared to be the leader, suggested.

   There was no way to know the guy’s rank since he was dressed in civvies. But judging by his age, twenty-two or twenty-three, and the “wings” he’d boasted about, a first lieutenant maybe. Had probably just gotten those wings and thought he could rule the world. The other two were most likely from the same class. Fresh out of fighter-pilot training and ready to play the Air Force version of Top Gun.

   But not tonight.

   “It’d be my pleasure,” Vince said, barely restraining a grin as adrenaline raced through his veins. This would be a piece of cake. Casey would have his ass come morning, but tonight Vince was going to show these guys that you didn’t need wings or a buzz cut to be bad.

   On more than one occasion Vince had been told that he was bad…bad to the bone. And why not? He’d earned it. A former U.S. Navy SEAL and now a Specialist in the most highly covert government agency.

   Hell, yeah, he was bad.

   And in the mood to blow off a little steam.

   Vince followed the three outside the Lady Liberty Lounge. A blast of rock music tagged along but was quickly muffled by the door closing behind them. The still, sticky air hung in the July night like a shimmering ghost.

   There were two things a guy could count on after dark during a D.C. summer, thickening humidity and restlessness. This part of the city literally vibrated at night—came to life in a way that was both alluring and dangerous. His own boredom had drawn Vince out to this sleazebag joint tonight. The need to do anything but watch another episode of some sitcom. The primal urge to discover the secrets the night held.

   He should have stayed home.

   If he had stayed home he wouldn’t be about to trade punches with these lightweights. There was nothing Vince hated more than waiting for his next mission. This time was going to prove no exception. And this time the trouble he usually attempted to avoid had found him.

   The dim streetlights barely cut through the darkness, lending just enough illumination to get a readout on the facial expressions and body language of his opponents. The parking lot was jam-packed with the cars of patrons, but completely empty of people. They were all inside, gyrating to classic rock music, staking claims and pumping up the sexual tension. There would be no one to witness the lesson he was about to teach these still-wet-behind-the-ears gentlemen.

   That was probably a good thing.

   The biggest and beefiest of the three stepped forward. The way his nose crooked to the left, it was pretty clear that he was no stranger to barroom brawls.

   “I tell you what, old man,” he said smugly, “just to even up the odds, why don’t you and I go one-on-one and the winner can take it from there.”

   Okay, so he’d seen thirty his last birthday. That didn’t make him old by any stretch of the imagination. Vince shrugged in response, not even bothering to justify the ridiculous comment. Instead he took a moment to survey the spiffy, well-polished group. He’d bet a big, sweet slice of his mom’s cherry pie that every part of their wardrobe, down to the skivvies, sported designer labels purchased straight from the Post Exchange. These guys were green in every sense of the word.

   When Vince had looked his fill, he said, “Makes no difference to me, boys.”

   Fury claimed the beefy guy’s expression. “I’m gonna enjoy wiping that grin off your face,” he threatened.

   “Take your best shot,” Vince offered as he motioned with both hands for the guy to come and get him. Might as well get this over with so he could get back to the beer he’d left at the bar, along with the sexy blonde who’d deserted these flyboys in favor of Vince, which was the whole reason this little war had started. Just another reason Vince should have stayed home tonight. He’d been dwelling on the past again…a sure sign he wasn’t thinking straight.

   Before the muscled gorilla could make his first move a car skidded to a stop right behind Vince. Careful to keep most of his attention on the threesome ready to take off his head, Vince glanced over his shoulder. The sight of a long, black limousine confused him at first, then a window powered down.

   His boss. Director Thomas Casey.

   Great. Just great.

   “Get in the car,” Casey ordered. He did not look happy.

   “We have unfinished business with him,” the beefy guy bellowed, impatient, belligerent. “He’s not going no place until we’re through.”

   The three started to close in on Vince. He was just about to tell Casey he’d only be a minute when the sound of Lucas Camp’s voice stopped him.

   “Back off,” Lucas commanded. “I’d hate to have to use this.”

   Fully expecting to find Lucas wielding a weapon, Vince looked across the top of the automobile at his direct supervisor, the Deputy Director of Mission Recovery. To his surprise Lucas held a mere cellular phone in his right hand.

   “I’m sure General Fielding would be less than pleased to be awakened at this time of night for such a petty nuisance. And since he’s a personal friend of mine, I’m even more certain he’d be happy to see that you gentlemen were immediately transferred to Minot.”

   Silence ruled the night for about five seconds.

   “We’re all through here, sir,” the tallest man said quickly, obviously not willing to risk being shipped to the middle of nowhere in North Dakota. He pushed in front of his brawny friend and shook his head at the guy. “We have an early call to formation in the morning.”

   Vince blew out an exasperated breath as the three men headed back into the bar without so much as a fleeting glance in his direction. “Two minutes tops,” he griped to Lucas. “That’s all I needed. You couldn’t wait two minutes.”

   “Get in the car, Ferrelli,” Lucas growled.

   His annoyance rising as the adrenaline receded, Vince reluctantly obeyed the order. He knew better than to push it. “What’s up?” he asked as soon as he’d settled into the seat across from the top brass of Mission Recovery. The limo rolled into forward motion without preamble. Vince would have to come back for his Harley when the impromptu meeting was over. Anticipation kicked in. It had to be important for them to look him up this time of night.

   “We have a mission for you,” Casey explained. “You’ll need to leave first thing in the morning.”

   Since it was practically morning already, Vince decided that was fine with him. At least he wouldn’t have to pace the floors of his tiny apartment any longer. He had a mission. About time.

   “I’m ready. What’s the job?”

   “The CIA has an operative in trouble,” Lucas told him. “She’s been under deep cover for one month now. She’s infiltrated a small group of extremists who think they’re working for the World Security Agency.”

   Vince frowned, searching for any recognition. He found none. “The World Security Agency?”

   “Doesn’t exist,” Lucas explained.

   Casey took over from there. “The CIA has been tracking the so-called WSA for almost a year now. They recruit young people across the nation to support their cause by assuring them that they’re doing their patriotic duty. So far WSA has been successful twice.”

   “The bombing at LAX six months ago,” Lucas interjected, “and the attempt on the United Nations building just two months ago. Four or five are usually recruited and all of them die when the mission is completed, successful or not.”

   “How did the CIA manage to get someone inside?” Vince wanted to know. If all leads wound up dead ends, the CIA had done a pretty good trick by getting someone inside.

   “One guy survived the UN attack,” Lucas went on. “Philip Yu. The CIA has been tracking him since. We don’t know why he was allowed to live and the others were killed, but it was a lucky break.”

   “So the CIA sent someone in to get close to Yu?” Vince suggested.

   “Right. Yu had already recruited three others before the CIA’s operative. If the same modus operandi prevails, we believe they’ll attempt something soon. We don’t have much time.”

   “And you’re going to let it play out in hopes of nabbing the brains behind the operation,” Vince finished for him. It wasn’t a question. Sounded like his kind of mission.

   Lucas nodded. “We’ll never stop them if we don’t cut off the head of the organization.”

   “Cool.” Vince considered the one thing that didn’t add up. “Why isn’t the FBI running lead on this?” The whole scenario spelled Bureau jurisdiction to him.

   “They were,” Casey said. “Until intelligence pointed to a David Kovner as one of the top echelon of WSA.”

   “Israeli?”

   Casey nodded affirmatively to Vince’s question. “The CIA took over from there. As well as being dangerous, this guy is a huge embarrassment to our Israeli friends. They want him stopped, but they need our help to finish the job.”

   “So who am I and where am I going?”

   Lucas and Casey exchanged a look. The tension started in Vince’s gut, but swiftly worked its way up his back to his shoulders. He didn’t like that look. It could only mean trouble right up front.

   In this business, starting off on the wrong foot or one step behind could be a very bad thing.

   “Port Charlotte, Virginia,” Lucas said in answer to his second question. “It’s a college town off Highway 1 between Woodbridge and Fredericksburg. Yu and his team share a large rental house there. Three of the group are enrolled in the university. In their spare time they’ve been training in the art of surgical demolitions. We know how Yu is getting his orders. We just can’t catch Kovner in the act. We need to tie him to WSA.”

   Vince wasn’t the top demo expert in Mission Recovery but he was pretty damned good. There had to be some other reason he’d been chosen. His director’s next words told him the question was written on his face.

   “We selected you for this mission,” Casey told him in answer to his unspoken inquiry, “because we need your particular multilingual skills in the event it becomes an issue and we need someone who can handle the demo aspect of the assignment.”

   Vince was fluent in seven languages. But he knew that wasn’t the only reason he’d been chosen. All Specialists were multilingual. The tension radiating between the two men seated across from him was too intense for it to be so simple.

   “The CIA operative involved is the first to field test a new memory implant,” Lucas went on. “The purpose of the implant is to keep an operative out of trouble if the cover is in jeopardy. When the implant is activated the operative’s own memory is suppressed and effectively replaced by the cover profile in the implant. Nothing, not drugs or torture, will induce the operative into confessing, since he or she becomes the cover profile.”

   “That’s a new one.” Vince was familiar with the CIA’s reputation for experimental projects. “So when the implant is activated, the Company knows the operative is in jeopardy?” Vince also knew that CIA operatives were closely monitored. They’d been using tracking devices for years now.

   Lucas nodded. “Since this is the first time they’ve even had a lead on this so-called World Security Agency, they don’t want to lose this operative. If the mission is salvageable, they want it completed. But if it’s not, your job is to try to get the operative out safely. The implant, if functioning properly, is only temporary. Time is very short.”

   Vince nodded his understanding. “Sounds easy enough. Tell me about the operative.”

   “Katrina Moore. Age twenty-seven.” Lucas ticked off the details. “She’s been with the Company since being rejected by the SEALs four years ago.”

   Kat. Things went very quiet inside Vince as the memories from four years ago came flooding back on a tidal wave. Conflicting emotions tugged at him…renewed the regret that never really went away.

   “The two of you have a history?” Casey said, no doubt reading Vince’s startled expression or somehow having prior knowledge. But that was impossible. No one knew…

   Hesitant to admit something so intensely private, Vince finally nodded once. “Yeah, kind of. I was one of her instructors in BUDS.” Both men knew that BUDS—Basic Underwater Demolition SEALs—was the most rigorous personnel training outfit in the Navy.

   “Which she failed,” Lucas remarked.

   Failed wasn’t the right word. Kat had been doomed from the word go. The elite Navy SEALs didn’t want women among their ranks. No matter if she was good enough. Kat was as good as any of the men, better than some, but that fact hadn’t changed the bottom line. The powers that be had drummed up an acceptable reason to performance drop her and it was done. She’d felt betrayed when she hadn’t made the cut.

   She’d felt betrayed by Vince.

   And rightly so. Though his vote alone wouldn’t have made any real difference in the end, he’d caved and followed the antiquated rules. He’d voted against her…despite what he thought…despite what they’d shared.

   “Yeah,” he said in answer to Lucas’s prodding. “But it wasn’t because she wasn’t good enough,” he clarified quickly. “She was a woman. That was the only reason.”

   “Do you think she holds that failure against you?” Casey asked.

   “Not entirely,” he admitted after a tense moment. “She knows it was not my decision alone.” He looked Casey straight in the eye. “But she has other reasons to resent me that are far more personal than that.”

   Lucas laughed, but the sound held no humor. “The two of you had a thing going during training and you betrayed her?” He shook his head. “Son, haven’t you ever heard of the term ‘fraternization’? They could have hung you for that. She could have ruined your career.”

   But she hadn’t. The cold reality of that truth sank all the way to Vince’s bones. She could have had her revenge. What he’d done had been wrong in more ways than one. He’d disgraced himself, whether anyone else ever knew it or not—had allowed a weakness. For that reason he had walked away from his hard-earned career. Because he hadn’t been worthy of it any longer.

   A full year later Lucas Camp had knocked on his door and offered him a way to redeem himself professionally. But nothing had assuaged his conscience where Kat was concerned. There had been no way to make that right.

   Until now…maybe.

   “That’s right,” he snapped. “I screwed her over and she hated me for it.” He swallowed, the effort difficult. Those demons haunted him…made him regret a great deal more than either of their failed career moves. “I can’t say that I blame her, but it’s done. I can’t change it now. And she didn’t have to end my career. I made an unforgivable mistake. I resigned because of it.”

   “So your personal reasons for leaving your military career were more personal than you led us to believe. This should make things interesting,” Lucas said as he flipped through what was probably Kat’s file.

   “Maybe you’d better pick someone else for this assignment,” Vince suggested tightly. “Not that I don’t want to do it, but Kat—Miss Moore—might be more receptive to someone else. My presence might actually put her in more jeopardy. I don’t want that.” He wouldn’t do anything that might hurt her. No way.

   “That’s not possible,” Lucas said succinctly.

   The tension in Vince’s gut ratcheted up another notch or two. “Why not?” he asked—demanded actually. “Sending me in could be a big mistake.”

   “There’s a back door built into the implant,” Lucas explained grimly. “For this very scenario. To facilitate a retrieval, the implant was designed with what the Company calls a Romeo option. All you have to do is say the code phrase and Katrina will instantly recognize you as the lover with whom she’s still involved.”

   Vince held out both hands stop-sign fashion. “Wait just a minute.” He dropped his hands and exhaled a heavy breath. “I’m telling you the woman hates me. I don’t think any implant is going to change that deeply ingrained emotion. The second she sees my face, the mission will be blown all to hell.”

   Lucas pointed a no-arguments look in Vince’s direction. “Maybe she does hate you. But that’s neither here nor there, Ferrelli. The fact of the matter is that she used you for her Romeo profile. You’re the only man for this mission. If Katrina Moore was willing to bet her life on you, then who are we to dispute the issue?”

   Vince felt stunned.

   Lucas leaned forward slightly when Vince remained speechless. “She described you down to the very last detail.” He lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “I think maybe her memory was a little dim in some areas.”

   Vince didn’t find any of it amusing. His concern for Kat’s safety mushroomed in tandem with his dread, but he didn’t ask a single question while Lucas rattled off the rest of the details of the mission. The whole thing felt like a dream…not necessarily a bad dream, but one that made him extremely uneasy.

   Payback, Vince decided. It couldn’t be anything else. A second or two later his mind had wrapped fully around the concept. It was the perfect chance for Kat to get even with him. A part of him wanted to think otherwise, but he knew better. He’d hurt her too badly. He would never forget the look in those big green eyes when she learned that she’d been performance dropped from the graduating class for no real reason.

   She’d left and he hadn’t seen her since. But he’d thought about her now and then…and every moment in between.

   He’d thought about her every day for four years, but he’d stopped trying to keep tabs on her after she joined the Company, the revered CIA.

   One way or another he wouldn’t let her down this time.

   

   NEARLY AN HOUR LATER the limo braked to a stop next to Vince’s Harley in the parking lot of the Lady Liberty Lounge. The place was still jumping, the lot still overflowing and the music thumping all the louder through the thin exterior walls. Vince wondered vaguely if the blonde had made up with her flyboys.

   In the last fifty minutes they’d discussed one-by-one the team members with whom Kat was involved. Vince now had a clear mental picture of each. Only one, Philip Yu himself, worried Vince.

   “Any questions?” Lucas asked, studying Vince closely.

   The guy was way too smart and read people far too easily. Lucas recognized that Vince had a real problem with this mission, but he’d do what he had to.

   Retrieving Kat was priority one. Though, technically, salvaging the mission was supposed to be his first goal, this one was personal. Even Casey had to see that. They couldn’t expect anything else under the circumstances. Casey didn’t have to say it and he wouldn’t. Thomas Casey was a man of few words. No one really knew him, except maybe Lucas.

   “I think I’ve got it.” Vince reached for the door handle. He’d pack and get on the road before dawn. He wanted to see firsthand as soon as possible that Kat was safe.

   “Don’t try to intercept the target until she’s alone,” Casey suggested. “We have no way of knowing her status. She may fully believe she’s the enemy she was assigned to infiltrate. That would be the best case scenario. If,” he went on grimly, “the implant has malfunctioned and the code doesn’t trigger the right response, you could be putting yourself in serious jeopardy.”

   Vince met that intense blue gaze. “I won’t approach while she’s with the others unless there’s no other window of opportunity.”

   Casey dipped his head in acknowledgment. “If too much risk is involved, back off. We’ll send in an entire team. The CIA won’t like it, but they’ll live with it.”

   “Yes, sir.” Vince nodded to Lucas then climbed out of the vehicle. Before turning away he tapped on the closed window, then waited for it to power down to reveal Lucas’s expectant expression. “Who’s got my back on this one?” Vince asked, just now remembering that he should. Of course, the information would be in the mission profile.

   “Callahan.”

   Perfect. Blue Callahan was the best sharp shooter in the bunch—even if she was a girl. Vince couldn’t help smiling at the irony of the situation.

   “That’s great,” he said to Lucas.

   “Glad you approve.” Lucas started to power up the window but hesitated. “Not that it would have made any difference,” he added pointedly before sending the darkly tinted window the rest of the way up.

   Vince watched as the limousine disappeared down the next block. Lucas Camp was easy to work for. He was straight up and in your face. The director was another story. Vince would never understand Thomas Casey. Just when he thought he had the guy figured out, he goes and says something totally out of character. As though he really cared about the people who worked for him or something.

   Maybe he did. Then again, maybe he just didn’t want to look bad to the Company hotshots breathing down his neck on this one.

   Shaking his head, Vince straddled his Harley. He inserted the key and gave it a quick flick. The perfectly tuned engine roared to life. He could spend a lifetime studying a guy like Casey and never understand what made him tick. But right now he had something much more important to do.

   He had to get close to Kat. Had to keep her safe. Even if she didn’t want him to.

   If she did accept him, it would only be the implant, not the real Kat, he reminded himself. The real Kat had most likely forgotten all about him long ago.

   Vince released the clutch and rocketed toward the street. She might have forgotten, but he would never forget.

Chapter Two

   The headache was worse today.

   Kat squeezed her eyes shut and tried to banish the pain, but it just wouldn’t go away. She couldn’t remember when it had begun…days ago…a week? It just kept getting worse. The bouts closer together. More intense.

   Forcing her eyes open, she stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Aspirin didn’t help. Nothing helped. She blew out a long, slow breath. She had to pull it together. In three minutes she had to be ready to perform.

   Kat splashed some cool water on her face in the hope of clearing the haze that accompanied the insistent pounding in her brain. That attempt proved useless, as well. She groped blindly for a paper towel. The holder was empty. She muttered her favorite swearword and wiped the moisture from her face the best she could with the backs of her hands. That was the thing about public bathrooms. One could never count on the necessary paper to finish the job.

   Turning her head side to side to check the neatly coiled bun, Kat tucked a stray, fiery red curl behind her ear and smoothed her moist palms over her hair. She studied herself a moment longer than necessary, something about the person staring back at her didn’t sit exactly right, but she couldn’t put her finger on the problem.

   Kat shrugged. Nothing she could do about that, either. She looked herself over again, then, satisfied with what she saw, slipped on the large, black-framed eyeglasses that were part of her disguise. She slid a hand over the jacket of her gray business suit, finding comfort in the tiny bulge in the waistband of her skirt that was for emergency use only. She preferred a 9 mm, but the .38 proved easier to conceal.

   No one was supposed to die today.

   Still, she wasn’t about to go into this without a way to defend herself if things went to hell in a hurry. And that could happen. Another of those things she somehow understood without knowing how.

   Inhaling, then exhaling another bolstering breath, Kat picked up her brown leather briefcase and left the inadequately supplied ladies’ room.

   Two minutes and counting.

   At a quarter of noon, Union Station was crowded. She’d taken the time this morning as she entered D.C.’s famous train gateway to the capital to note the neoclassical facade. Inside the cavernous marble-floored lobby she’d felt the rumble of the trains below as they entered the station. It was all so familiar…comforting. She felt at home here but she had no clue why. Had she lived near here in the past? Been a regular commuter? She shook her head. She was being silly. A person remembered the places she’d lived. Paranoia, that’s all. She was just being paranoid.

   The sound of the announcer singing out the track and time for the next Metroliner jerked her attention back to the task at hand. Some part of her that she didn’t understand and that was pure, well-honed survival instinct, kept the pain at bay as she focused on what had to be done. She just pushed through the throng of hurrying commuters and toward the down escalator.

   Though she couldn’t name any precise instances at the moment, she’d done this sort of thing for years. She knew it as well as she knew her name, but wasn’t exactly sure how she knew. Kat was completely at ease with tracking a human target. She’d done it a thousand times. The basis of that fact also eluded her. It simply felt second nature.

   God, what was wrong with her lately? She knew who and what she was…she just couldn’t get right with it all. It was as if a brick wall stood between her and the answers she desperately needed. It was weird.

   Too weird.

   But, like the headaches, she couldn’t think about that right now. She damn sure couldn’t let any of her cohorts see her inner struggle. Too many of them already wanted her out. Regrettably, out was synonymous with dead.

   Her target moved toward the loading platform where he would catch the Metroliner to New York’s Penn Station. Kat closed in. Once in Manhattan he would rendezvous with his superiors at the new CIA branch office. In his briefcase he carried documents that would mislead those who interpreted them and cause a very important ongoing mission to blow up in their faces.

   Kat had to prevent that from happening.

   She was a good guy. One of her country’s invisible saviors. Countries all over the globe had them…all commissioned by the World Security Agency.

   The world’s savior.

   A frown inched across her brow as something deep inside her shifted, nudged her. As everything else, she couldn’t name it or understand it.

   The man in the blue pin-striped suit standing only a dozen feet from Kat was no bad guy himself. He had no idea that his assistant was a mole for one of the CIA’s archenemies. It was Kat’s job to intercept the intelligence documents in the briefcase, thus preventing the planned catastrophe without any bloodshed or violence at all. Before the mole could arrange a second attempt he would be discovered and dealt with accordingly.

   The briefcase Kat carried was an exact duplicate of the one her target carried. Expensive, elegant. Just like the thousand-dollar suit he wore. Kat watched the man’s body language. He was confident, impatient. In a hurry to get to his destination and get this done. Failure would be a disappointment not only to his superiors but also to him. But he’d get over it. Eventually he’d look back on today as nothing more than a temporary setback to his career.

   Kat had just ninety seconds to make the switch before he boarded the arriving passenger train.

   A screeching, hissing rush of air that seemed to fill the entire waiting area announced the train’s arrival as it slowed to a stop at the loading platform. In seconds the waiting passengers would be allowed to board.

   She had to move now.

   Bracing herself for the impact, Kat began to walk faster. Faster. She slammed headlong into her target. He stumbled back several steps, the briefcase in his hand falling to the floor. Kat dropped her own case as she used his tall frame to regain her balance.

   “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she cried.

   He reached to steady her—chivalry too deeply entrenched to ignore, despite his years of training—and at the same time demanded, “Are you all right?”

   Kat smiled engagingly as she played the part of the flustered, in-a-hurry passenger. “Oh, yes. I’m…I’m fine.” She reached for the briefcase, tracing one fingertip over the lock mechanism to make sure she had his instead of her own. The locking mechanism of the briefcase she’d carried had a slight burr in the metal in a certain spot so she’d recognize it. “I wasn’t watching where I was going. I’m so late!” She eased back just one step and pressed a hand to her chest as if to slow her palpitating heart. “I am so very sorry.”

   His answering smile told her he didn’t suspect a thing. “No harm done.” He straightened his jacket and reached for the remaining briefcase. “Have a nice day.”

   For one tension-filled second, before she turned away, he stared at the briefcase she held half hidden behind her short skirt. She hoped her legs would distract him.

   Her heart skidded to a stop as time lapsed into slow motion.

   She held her breath.

   If he suspected her now—

   The legs did the trick.

   His gaze roved the length of her long, athletic limbs. She’d worked hard to keep them that way, and it was paying off now. The realization startled her for reasons that totally escaped her. A tremble started deep inside her. She was losing it…she had to get out of here.

   Other passengers abruptly brushed past the man still staring at her, jerking him back to attention. He blinked, forced a grim smile and quickly turned away to board the train, a bemused frown still marring his brow.

   Kat released a shaky breath.

   It was done.

   She hurried away through the crowd, taking care not to run. Up the escalator. Deep breath, she told herself. Almost there. No one paid any special note to her. No one shouted for her to stop.

   She moved back through the lobby as swiftly as she dared. She couldn’t risk calling attention to herself even now. Her target would attempt to open his briefcase the moment he took his seat onboard the train and had a chance to think about the encounter. He wouldn’t rest until he’d assuaged the concerns that took root too late in his distracted thoughts.

   The lock had been jammed so it would take some doing to open the case. By the time he realized what had happened, the train would be on its way. He would call Union Station security immediately and the whole place would be locked down tighter than a drum. Her description would be passed to all Metro Security personnel.

   She had to get out before that happened.

   Her heart hammering, her palms sweating, her fingers tight around the handle of the briefcase, she hurried toward the main entrance. When she pushed through the wood-and-glass front doors and out into the bright noonday sun, relief flooded her, made her weak-kneed, despite the gut instinct that she’d done this hundreds of times.

   She zigzagged through the taxis and other cars parked along the train terminal’s busy driveway and headed toward the far end of the main parking area where the car she’d arrived in waited. Her step was a little faster now, not quite running.

   Two more minutes and she’d be in the clear. A kind of calmness slid through her veins. Her heart rate slowed to a more reasonable level. She could—

   A strong arm abruptly cut across her path, stopping her dead in her tracks. Her pulse leaped into warp speed again. Her somewhat sluggish reactions went automatically into offense mode.

   Fully expecting to see a blue security uniform, she instinctively, stealthily, slid her hand toward the edge of her jacket lapel as she peered upward into smoky-gray eyes that were at once completely alien to her and alarmingly familiar.

   “Well, well, if it isn’t the love of my life.”

   Her fingers wrapped around the butt of the small .38.

   “I’ve missed you, and then some.”

   For three gut-wrenching seconds Vince was certain the code phrase wasn’t going to work. Kat stared up at him as if she’d never laid eyes on him in her entire life.

   Then she whispered, “Vince?”

   He relaxed a fraction and smiled. “Long time no see, Kitty Kat. Have you missed me, too?” Maybe the implant hadn’t gone too haywire. He’d been watching her all morning. Had followed her all the way from Port Charlotte just to catch her alone. It shifted something deep inside him when he considered that she’d remembered that little thing he always said to her all those years ago. I’ve missed you, and then some.

   “Don’t move.”

   The voice was male and right behind Vince. The nudge of a pistol barrel in his spleen told him it was Kat’s partner in crime, Philip Yu. The driver of the getaway car. Thankfully he’d stayed in the car and this opportunity had been the closest to catching Kat alone the morning had offered. Interrupting her assignment would have put them both at risk. Vince had tried to wait it out, but he’d had to act before she got back in the car with Yu. Now he’d learn the price of his impatience.

   “You know this dude, Kat?”

   She looked from Vince to the man behind him and back. The confusion on her face was clear to see. Tension rocketed to a new level. Maybe things weren’t in working order, after all. He’d soon know.

   “Phil, this is Vince.” She searched Vince’s eyes, looking for answers he hoped she’d see. “He’s the guy I’ve been telling you about.”

   The pressure in Vince’s side eased. He resisted the urge to exhale his relief.

   “The case,” Yu demanded as he reached around Vince.

   Kat relinquished her bounty. “We should get out of here,” she suggested. She glanced behind her, then scanned the parking area. “They’ll be looking for me any second now.”

   Yu backed away. “Let’s go.”

   Vince turned in the other man’s direction. “She goes with me.”

   Something changed in Yu’s eyes. “I don’t think so.”

   Lucas’s intel was correct. Philip Yu had a thing for Kat. Too bad for him. Something that felt entirely too much like jealousy burned through Vince as he snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her close before she could react.

   “Maybe you didn’t hear me.” Vince met the steel in Yu’s dark gaze with lead in his own. This part was nonnegotiable. “I said she goes with me.”

   “We’ll be right behind you,” Kat assured her partner. She glanced up at Vince. “Right?”

   She was nervous. He could see it in her eyes. “That’s right.” He settled his gaze back on Yu’s. “Are we going to stand around here and argue about it?”

   Yu glared at Vince then shifted his gaze to Kat. “We’ll talk about this later.”

   In typical Kat fashion, she ignored Yu’s comment, pulled out of Vince’s domineering hold and hooked her arm through his. “See you at the house,” she said to Yu without even looking his way. She hated the macho male types. Vince would never understand what had drawn them together in the first place.

   Yu hustled across the lot, tossed the briefcase into the passenger seat and dropped behind the wheel of the car he’d abandoned when he thought Kat was in trouble.

   Vince looked down at the woman at his side. His gut clenched. God, she was gorgeous. She hadn’t changed a bit. Not quite as lean maybe, but otherwise just as he remembered. That alone was far more dangerous than any other aspect of this mission.

   “You ready?”

   She nodded, her smile a little thin.

   He led her to where he’d parked his Harley. After straddling the wide leather seat, he waited for her to join him. Without hesitation she scooted her skirt high on her thighs—high enough for him to see the sexy garters that held up her stockings—and slung one long, toned leg across the seat. She settled in behind him, then scooted even closer, her thighs clenching firmly around his hips as her arms curled tightly around his waist. As an afterthought she reached up and discarded her fake eyeglasses. She laughed. The sound was contagious and as sexy as hell.

   Vince tried not to confuse the past with the present. He really did. Whatever memories her implant had transposed over her real memory, were only make-believe. No matter how real this felt, it wasn’t. When she realized the truth she would hate him just as much, maybe more, than she had four years ago. That kind of emotion didn’t sweeten with age, it grew bitter. Kat would be bitter, as she had every right to be.

   He’d let her down—betrayed her.

   But now he had one chance to make it up to her. A chance she would never give him under normal circumstances. He gritted his teeth against his own churning emotions. Changing her mind about him would be impossible, but he could keep her safe until this was over. No matter how little she thought of him, she would appreciate walking away from this assignment with her life. And that he could do for her.

   She pressed her cheek against his back, an act of trust.

   A new kind of emotion surged through him. A mixture of relief and anticipation. She trusted him, temporarily anyway.

   This time he would not let her down.

   At the moment he couldn’t be sure what had made her use him as her Romeo. It didn’t matter. Revenge, probably. A mistake maybe? He might never know the reason and it really didn’t matter anyway.

   In minutes they were on the interstate headed back to Port Charlotte. As if sensing that he was thinking of her, she hugged him more tightly. Unable to help himself, he laid his left hand over hers and squeezed. God, he hadn’t known until now how much he’d missed this incredible woman. No one else had ever made him want to change his singular lifestyle. White picket fences and the pitter-patter of little feet had flashed, however briefly, through his mind during their days of stolen moments and hidden passion four years ago.

   No other woman had made him want to see her face every morning for the rest of his life…made him ache to simply touch her the way Kat had. Had made him willingly turn his back on all that he’d considered top priority.

   But that was then and this is now.

   The object of his reverie suddenly tapped him on the shoulder, jerking him to attention. Vince leaned his head back to hear what she had to say. Instead of speaking, she pointed to an upcoming gas station. He nodded his understanding. She either wanted a drink or needed to use the facilities.

   He desperately needed to walk off the tension she’d incited below his belt. Clearing his head with even a few seconds apart would help, as well.

   The one bathroom offered by the old-fashioned, full-service gas station was on the right side of the building and all the way at the back. Vince checked out the four-by-four room before allowing Kat inside. It was cleaner than he’d expected. Apparently the old geezer who ran the fifties-style joint was a neatnik.

   “Is the coast clear?” Kat teased. She leaned back against the wall next to the bathroom door. “I do have a gun, you know.” She cocked one finely arched auburn eyebrow. “And I haven’t forgotten how to use it.”

   Vince resisted the impulse to tell her everything. To ask her what she really remembered, but it would be a mistake. The implant was in control, that was obvious. She would have taken his head off by now otherwise. His mission was to play this out to see if he could finger the guy in charge of WSA. As long as continuing didn’t endanger Kat’s life, completing the mission was essential.

   “Just making sure the facilities were fit for a princess,” he returned just as playfully. They’d sparred like this all those years ago.

   She pushed off the wall and sashayed into the bathroom. “I’ll only be a minute,” she said over her shoulder, her tone flirtatious, inviting.

   Vince looked away as the door closed behind her. He had to regain his perspective here. It would be too easy to fall into the old routine of taking what she had to offer. What he desperately wanted.

   Except it wouldn’t be fair to Kat. She was not herself. Had no control over the situation. He’d been a jerk with her once. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

   The door abruptly opened halfway. “I’ve got a little problem in here, Vince.” She reached out and grabbed his sleeve. “You don’t mind helping a girl out, now do you?” She tugged, pulling him to the door.

   “What kind of problem?”

   She had him in the room and the door closed behind him before the hesitant words were fully out of his mouth. Anticipation spiked, as did his male equipment. This was not a good thing.

   Kat shoved him against the closed door and immediately started unbuttoning his shirt. “Why do you do this to me, Vinny?” she demanded petulantly.

   No one had ever called him Vinny, except Kat. It touched him…but now wasn’t the time. He manacled her hands and held them still. “We don’t have time for this right now,” he urged, his whole body hardening at the prospect she presented.

   “You disappear for weeks, leaving me to my own devices.” She looked up at him, those green eyes hooded, that luscious mouth puckered in a little pout. “Could get a girl in all kinds of trouble.”

   “Kat, you—”

   “Shh,” she purred, then tugged loose from his grasp and whispered, “I just can’t be expected to wait a minute longer.” She stood on tiptoes and brushed her lips against his.

   All thought processes ceased. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. Damn sure couldn’t speak with her looking at him that way…touching him that way.

   Her fingers tangled with his buttons once more. “All you have to do is let me have my way.” Her hungry mouth captured his in a demanding kiss.

   He should have resisted. Should have pushed her away. But he simply didn’t possess the strength to do it. His fingers found their way into her hair. He jerked the pins away until those silky auburn tresses fell around his hands. Her cool fingers moved over his chest sending a fire raging through him. She teased his nipples, making them bud and burn. Traced the ridges of his abdomen. Then tugged at the closure to his jeans.

   Her wicked tongue thrust in and out of his mouth in time with the undulating of her hips against his rigid pelvis. He was coming unglued one piece at a time. He was hard as a rock. His mind was reeling and he couldn’t touch her all the places he wanted to at once. Her hair…the curve of her spine…the swell of her bottom. He lifted her more firmly against him. She moaned, the sound fueling the desire already out of control inside him.

   She kissed him harder, then pulled free, her lips following the new path of her hands. Along his throat, over one aching nipple and downward. She teased him, dipping her tongue beneath his waistband, all the while squeezing his buttocks. Vince closed his eyes and told himself he could be stronger than this. Commanded himself to pull it together.

   He couldn’t do it.

   He pulled her back into his arms, did a one-eighty turn and pressed her against the closed door. He kissed her the way he wanted to…the way he’d dreamed of kissing her for four long, lonely years. He hiked her skirt up to her waist and pushed hard between her welcoming thighs. Another throaty groan echoed in the room, whether from him or her, he couldn’t say.

   He found the spot that was hot and wet for him. Touched her there. He trembled. She did the same. She pulled free of the kiss and cried out his name, her fingers fisting in his shirt, tugging it from his jeans. He trembled again at the needy sound of her voice. He dragged a finger along that ultrasensitive place and reveled in her response. She arched her spine, offering that slick warmth for his taking.

   “Please don’t make me wait any longer,” she murmured. Her eyes opened and she looked directly at him. “Please,” she whimpered.

   In those shimmering jade pools he saw his reflection. Saw the man who was prepared to hurt the only woman he’d ever cared about all over again.

   He couldn’t do it.

   Not even to maintain his cover.

Chapter Three

   There was definitely something very wrong with her. Even Vince rejected her. He’d never done that before. They had always taken any opportunity available to make love. Hadn’t they? Uncertainty pulled in her stomach.

   Kat went cold despite still being held firmly in his strong, warm embrace, her legs coiled around his lean waist.

   “We should get going,” Vince said in that husky baritone that always affected her far more deeply than she wanted to admit.

   As she dropped her feet to the floor and pushed him away, she held that smoky gaze, searched for any little flicker that might reveal what was going through that handsome head of his. Before he’d said a single word, she had felt his emotional withdrawal. Felt it and denied it, until he’d articulated with actual words. Her chest tightened, sending a flood of too familiar emptiness through her.

   He didn’t want her.

   Had he met someone else while he was away this time?

   Or was it simply something he found lacking in her?

   Maybe both.

   Either way, it was a low blow.

   Anger ignited inside her. “What’s wrong? Having a slow week, Vinny?” She shoved her fingers through her hair, shaking loose the rest of the pins, then glared up at him. “Or maybe you’re not yourself.”

   His pupils flared ever so slightly, as if she’d hit the nail on the head. His beard-shadowed jaw hardened like granite right in front of her eyes. “I don’t want your new friend going ballistic because we’re not right behind him.”

   She didn’t miss the hint of jealousy in his tone. Good. It was only fair that they were both miserable. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

   Kat spun around and reached for the doorknob. She wanted to scream. She trusted Vince. Cared deeply for him. Why would he reject her? Something long buried stirred inside her, filled her with dread. The sensation startled her…scared her a little. She tightened her fingers on the knob, gave it a ruthless twist and jerked the door open.

   She was out of here.

   At first, recognition of the face staring down at her from the other side of the threshold didn’t register. Kat instinctively reached for her weapon, but realization, a little slow in coming, stopped her.

   Phil.

   It was only Phil.

   She swore. “You scared the hell out of me.” She spat the words, her glower every bit as fierce as the dark one focused her way.

   Phil looked from Kat to Vince. “We don’t have time for this.” He said the last with vehemence. “No more stops.” He glared down at Kat once more. “Let’s go.”

   She pushed past him. “Men,” she muttered. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em.”

   Not waiting for Vince, she slid her skirt up to the tops of her thighs and straddled the Harley. She could drive just as well as he could. If he didn’t like it, he could just ride to Port Charlotte with Phil. That brought a smile to her lips. The time together would do them good.

   Victory poked a tiny hole in her misery, shored up her confidence. She knew how to play Vince. Whatever had happened, she could win him back.

   Vince slung a leg over the seat and scooted in close behind her. It gave her immense pleasure to find that he was still incredibly hard. He’d wanted her, all right. Whatever had stopped him, it wasn’t physical.

   Just for the hell of it she revved the Harley’s engine, long and loud. The next time they had sex, he would be the one doing the pleading, not her. She’d make it so damned hard on him, he’d be on his knees begging in no time at all.

   She released the clutch and jetted toward the highway in a spray of gravel. The rest of Vince’s body went rigid, as well, only this time it had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with fear for his life.

   Kat grinned in triumph. Men. They just didn’t like being controlled by women. Especially the Vincent Ferrelli types. She arched her spine, jutting her fanny right into the vee of his widespread thighs. The fingers clutching her waist tightened, dug into her flesh, sending a thrill through her.

   Oh, yes. She was going to enjoy immensely putting him in his place. Whatever he’d been up to since they parted ways would come out. Kat was sure of it. All she had to do was bide her time and turn up the heat.

   

   IT LOOKED as if the gang was all there when Vince and Kat arrived at the rental house in Port Charlotte. She hopped off the leather seat and smoothed down her skirt. To his extreme irritation, his heart skipped a beat or two as his gaze followed her naturally sensual movements. She was so damned beautiful.

   But he wasn’t supposed to be dwelling on that particular aspect. He pushed the kickstand into place and swung off the bike. On second thought, he snatched the keys from the ignition just to make sure she didn’t take over again.

   She shot him a distinctly satisfied look before sauntering up the drive. She twisted her hips as provocatively as possible every step of the way. Vince just shook his head. He’d royally ticked her off by resisting her sexual advances. If she only knew how hard that had been. He exhaled a heavy breath. Oh, well. She’d thank him in the end.

   Assuming either one of them survived the mission. Judging by the lethal looks Philip Yu had given him, the two of them weren’t going to be buds.

   Before following Kat, Vince took a moment to survey the place once more. Two stories, front and rear entrances only. Steel door on front, sliding-glass doors at the patio in back. The entire neighborhood appeared to be rental property, college-age tenants mostly. Parties had still been going on in a couple of the houses when he arrived that morning.

   He’d set up observation on the house before dawn. Then he’d followed Kat and Yu when they’d left, though he hadn’t known their mission. He had to find out what was in that briefcase as soon as possible. Lucas probably knew by now. The CIA had likely already received word that an unauthorized transfer had gone down. Lucas would send word via Callahan at the first opportunity.

   Meanwhile, Vince needed to see what he could ferret out. He shoved the keys into the pocket of his jeans and headed inside. Might as well face the music. The next few minutes would be crucial to the mission as well as his continued good health. He adjusted the weapon concealed at the small of his back. His backup piece was tucked safely into his ankle holster. He was as ready as he was going to get.

   He glanced left then right as he made his way to the front door. Callahan would be around here someplace. She’d do what she could to watch his back. But, then, once he got inside he was on his own.

   The front door stood ajar since his imminent arrival was expected—if not wanted. As he pushed the door the rest of the way inward he heard Kat’s voice.

   “He’s in or I’m out. No negotiation.”

   Laced with steel, her words were to the point, her tone about the temperature of a Baptist preacher’s brimstone. So, the battle had begun.

   “I don’t like it.”

   Another female voice. Vince mentally ran down the list of names Lucas had given him. Leva Vlasov. Twenty-five. A coldhearted rent-to-own type who was best described as a card-carrying member of Psychos-R-Us. Her family had emigrated from Russia when she was only two years old. High-school dropout, former junkie, but a kick-ass inventor. She loved explosives. Had designed a few of her own. If she wasn’t stopped, Vince could see her making the List. The FBI’s Most Wanted list.

   “Like I care what you think,” Kat retorted arrogantly.

   Damn, she was still fearless. He’d been afraid that had changed, but it hadn’t. Whether it was the implant or just the years in the Company, she’d bounced all the way back and then some. Or maybe, it was what you did to her, a little voice interjected. Helped to make her as ruthless as the very people she sought to bring down.

   He gritted his teeth and forced his attention back to the scene playing out only a few yards away in the oversize living room. The blinds were drawn tight, leaving the room only dimly lit by a couple of lamps. Dark paneling and drab furnishings added another layer of shadows to the gloom. The brown leather briefcase was not in sight. A young, white male lounged in one of the overstuffed chairs. Will Adams, twenty-two, loud and obnoxious. A college reject and utter disappointment to his wealthy Massachusetts family. A genius with computers and more at home in the cyberworld than the real one, Will kept the team in petty cash à la his trust fund.

   “I think you two bitches should just go outside and settle this the old-fashioned way.”

   Jamal Johnson, also called J-Man. Weapons expert and top marksman for the team. Kept a perfect four-point-oh in his academics and could dismantle and reassemble any kind of personal weapon made. Suspected in a couple of homicides back home in Chicago, but never charged. Exactly the kind of impressionable youth whose lack of foresight or trust where his own potential was concerned led him to a life of crime. Now he thought he was one of the good guys. Jamal occupied the sofa.

   Philip Yu leaned against the mantel of the brick fireplace. He watched the two women squaring off in the center of the room but said nothing. Yu was the oldest of the group at twenty-eight. He was good with computers and highly organized. He had no family, but, from all accounts, had an obsession with the Chinese culture of his forefathers, including the martial arts. He’d never been to college and had spent his youth drifting from the fringes of one Asian gang to another, never really quite in. He’d apparently finally found a home with WSA. A place where he thought he could make a difference. Be a good guy, putting his tumultuous early years behind him. Boy, did he have a rude awakening coming to him.

   “Why don’t you shut up,” Leva growled at Jamal.

   Vince kicked the door shut behind him. All gazes swung in his direction. Several hands darted to concealed weapons.

   “Don’t let me interrupt,” Vince offered. He took a few steps into the room and gestured to the closest chair. “I’ll just have a seat and wait for the verdict.” He dropped into the chair and crossed his legs at the ankles. He waved a hand. “Carry on.”

   “I mean it,” Kat reiterated after giving him a cursory glance that spoke volumes about how little her anger at him had abated. Yet, she still stood up for him. “If he goes, I go.”

   No one said a word. Will looked disinterested. Jamal rolled his eyes and Leva steamed.

   Philip Yu pushed off from the fireplace and walked slowly in Vince’s direction. This, Vince had expected.

   It would be Yu, not Leva, who would present the biggest problem. It had nothing to do with security, however, and everything to do with territorial issues. He wanted Kat for himself. Waiting for hell to freeze over would be a more realistic goal.

   Taking his time, his movements deliberate, Yu circled Vince as if trying to decide the best course of action. He paused directly in front of him, arms folded over his chest and asked, “And what would you bring to this group?”

   Vince shrugged nonchalantly. “Nothing, maybe.” He surveyed the team and cocked his head. “Everything, probably.”

   “Just kill him and get it over with,” Jamal snapped abruptly. He clearly didn’t appreciate Vince’s attitude. “This is wack.” He shot to his feet and started pacing and making dramatic hand gestures. “We don’t need anybody else. The Man won’t like it, I can tell you that right now.”

   The Man. Now Vince was getting someplace.

   Still looming over Vince, Yu smirked, enjoying the jabs against him. “I’m afraid we have no openings at the present time, Mr. Ferrelli.”

   Kat sent a chilling look in Yu’s direction.

   “However,” Yu continued in spite of his obvious inclination to do otherwise, “if a member is willing to risk the consequences of your conditional association, I might be swayed.” He apparently was not willing to risk losing Kat entirely. “You see, I have my own rules where association is concerned.”

   Kat matched Yu’s stance. Her feet wide apart, her arms crossed firmly. “I’m willing,” she said hotly.

   “So be it.” Yu looked from Kat to Vince. “I hope you’re worth the trouble.”

   Vince went on instant alert. He was ready and willing to face any challenge Yu put in front of him, but—

   Yu snapped his fingers, derailing the rest of the thought. Will, surprisingly quick and agile for a guy so seemingly laid back, jumped to his feet and rushed to a hall closet. He rummaged around about thirty seconds or so while no one else moved or said a word. Vince had a bad feeling. Yu looked entirely too proud of himself for this to be good.

   Will returned from his search and plopped a pair of handcuffs in Yu’s open palm. Vince sat up a little straighter. Yu held out his free hand and Kat placed her weapon in it, which he promptly passed to Will. Yu then locked one cuff onto Kat’s right wrist, led her to the bottom of the stairs then attached the other cuff onto a wrought-iron spindle in the winding staircase railing. Like an obedient child, she sat on the second tread.

   Vince surged to his feet. “Whatever you’ve got in mind should be between the two of us.” He glanced at Kat before turning his threatening glare back on Yu. “Just you and me.”

   Yu shook his head slowly from side to side, his smile taunting. “Doesn’t work that way. We all had to take a loyalty test. As a member of this team, if Kat vouches for you, she bets her life on your loyalty and your ability. It’s the golden rule.”

   A rush of burning adrenaline sent Vince’s heart into a faster rhythm. “We’re out then.”

   Yu only laughed, enjoying the hell out of watching Vince squirm. “Too late. Now listen closely because I will not repeat myself.”

   Vince stood stock-still, afraid to even breathe for fear of missing one word of Yu’s instructions.

   “Drive across town to Chamblis Avenue. You’ll find a former private residence that serves as a frat house.”

   Vince started to interrupt when Yu stopped him with an uplifted hand.

   Vince clenched his jaw shut, fury boiling up inside him.

   “Two weeks ago I crossed paths with a couple of the members of this organization. One of them possesses a certain item that I desire. Get it and bring it to me and she lives.” He inclined his head in Kat’s direction. “Fail or refuse and she dies.”

   “You have to let me go with him,” Kat demanded, on her feet, and looking far too concerned to pull off the courageous tone in her voice. “He’ll need backup.”

   Yu shook his head. “He goes alone. Interfere and he dies now.”

   The standoff continued about three seconds. At last, and to Vince’s immense relief, Kat dropped back onto the step.

   “What the hell kind of item?” Vince demanded. “What do I look for?” Desperation topped out as he weighed how much was at risk versus the information he had been given.

   “You’ll know it when you see it. The man who currently possesses it is not worthy of its ownership.” Yu pulled his 9 mm from his jeans and glanced at his watch. “You have one hour.”

   Another surge of desperation stabbed Vince. This was insane. “What’s the exact address? I need to know where I’m going.”

   “J-Man will lead the way. He’ll also be watching every move you make. Make a mistake and she dies.” Yu glanced at his watch again. “Fifty-nine minutes.”

   Vince sent one last look in Kat’s direction. When he would have looked away, her gaze held his. Those green eyes told him the one thing he needed to know: she trusted him.

   He wouldn’t let her down.

   Whether Yu was serious or not, Vince couldn’t be sure. Like the rest of this ragtag team, the guy danced on the edge of psychotic. Pressing the matter to measure just how far Yu would go—if he would really hurt her—considering the way he felt about Kat, was a risk Vince wasn’t willing to take.

   

   VINCE HAD STUDIED a map of the Port Charlotte area before leaving D.C. that morning. He knew the approximate location of Chamblis Avenue, but he allowed Jamal to lead the way. He drove a black SUV. The team had access to two SUVs, both black. Expensive rides for university students and their dropout friends. Someone big had to be bankrolling this operation. Someone besides the rich kid with the monthly allowance. The only question was how long would it take the team to earn the right to be all the way in. To meet The Man himself.

   Maybe they wouldn’t. There was always the possibility that they would die following orders without ever really knowing from whom those orders came. Vince was reasonably sure Yu was the key. He was in deeper than the rest. He may have even met with Kovner already.

   At the moment Vince didn’t give a rat’s butt about nailing Kovner. Right now all he had on his mind was keeping Kat safe. If Yu was serious—Vince glanced at his watch—he had just forty-three minutes to retrieve whatever the hell it was Yu wanted and to get it back to him. Another wave of stark fear rushed over Vince. There were few things in this world that scared him, but hurting Kat again, directly or indirectly, definitely did.

   J-Man parked in front of a small, neat cottage, but that wasn’t Vince’s destination. He’d already recognized the target as easily as if it had been marked with a red bull’s-eye. A seventies-style ranch house stuccoed and painted a nasty beige color. The clashing dragons in a fight to the death, trapped forever by an amateur artist’s brush above the front door, was like a neon sign screaming This Is The Place!

   Someone inside that house had something Yu wanted.

   Vince made a U-turn and stashed his Harley a half a block behind J-Man’s SUV. Vince took a penlight and a small pry bar from the storage area under his seat and headed in the direction of his target. He nodded at the brooding guy who’d escorted him here as he passed. “I won’t be long.”

   “Yeah, you just go ahead and play the tough guy,” Jamal called to Vince’s back. “You’re dead already. So’s that bitch of yours. We don’t need her, anyway. We should’ve ditched her already. Would have if Phil didn’t have a thing for her.”

   Vince stopped and turned back to the cocky SOB tempting his fate without even knowing it. He didn’t have time to analyze the crack about the team not needing Kat. “I’ll be back,” he threatened. “And if you’re lucky I’ll only break one of your legs for fun.”

   Jamal made a derisive sound. “Yeah, right. Those Chinese dudes are gonna whip your puny white ass.”

   Vince ignored the rest of the guy’s muttering. He’d wasted enough time already.

   Two minutes later he was standing at the front door of the house. It was almost two o’clock in the afternoon and the house echoed a deadly quiet. The tenants were either at school, or work, or sleeping off the previous night’s good time. Either way, Vince was going in.

   He did the credit-card thing and had the door open in record time, simultaneously palming his weapon. Thankfully no intruder alarms were activated. The damned things were a dime a dozen and everybody seemed to have them nowadays. Not that they presented any real problems, but they were a pain in the rear and wasted valuable time. Then there was the problem that the sound of the alarm usually woke the residents. He didn’t need that, either—assuming anyone was home.

   The front door led right into the living room, which was lit by a single bare bulb in the unshaded lamp that sat near a shabby sofa. The heavy draperies were closed tight, blocking the afternoon sun. Even in the low light the place looked as if it had been ransacked, but Vince felt reasonably certain that it was nothing more than young-single-male decor.

   He took slow, steady breaths in hopes of keeping his heart rate at a reasonable pace. He had to think clearly and move quickly. There was no way to know for sure what he was looking for, but Yu had insisted he would know it when he saw it. Yu desired it greatly. Something personal to him…something from the culture he worshiped, was Vince’s best guess.

   The living room, kitchen and bathroom yielded nothing. Vince’s pulse rate doubled as he moved down the hall toward the bedrooms. He had only thirty-five minutes left. In the first bedroom he found nothing but a sleeping Caucasian male. Bedroom number two rendered much the same, only this sleeping beauty was of Asian descent. Vince’s temple started to throb with his mushrooming agitation. He had to hurry. Had to find it…whatever it was.

   In the third bedroom another man slept, this one also of the Far Eastern persuasion, and with his woman wrapped in his arms. Vince quickly scanned the room as he had the others, using only the small penlight.

   Nothing. There was nothing here. What the hell was it that Yu wanted? Vince glanced at the woman and considered whether she could be it. Then he thought of Yu’s attachment to Kat and decided against that possibility. Then again, Yu didn’t seemed opposed to killing Kat to prove a point.

   It wasn’t the woman. Vince was sure of it.

   He would know it when he saw it, Yu had said.

   Then he saw it. A gleaming silver ceremonial sword. Even in the poor illumination produced by the tiny flashlight, the sword was obviously very valuable. That had to be it. No question. The only trouble was it hung on the wall above the bed’s headboard. Vince couldn’t see any way to retrieve it without waking the slumbering couple. And that would not be a good thing, or a time-wise one. He had to find another way.

   Thirty-three minutes.

   Sweat rising on his skin, Vince eased to the woman’s side of the bed. He shoved the pry bar and weapon into the waistband of his jeans, held the penlight between his teeth and leaned as far over the bed as he dared. Slowly, not even breathing, he reached for the sword.

   The image of Kat cuffed to that railing kept zooming through his mind. He had to hurry. Couldn’t make a mistake. Couldn’t let her down.

   His tension eased marginally when he had the sword in his hand. He gritted his teeth, straining against the awkward position until he slowly, quietly, lowered the weapon far enough that he could grasp it with his left hand, as well.

   Got it.

   Now all he had to do was to get out without waking anyone.

   Vince moved slowly, cautiously, across the room…to the door…and into the long, narrow hall. Picking up speed then, the thickly padded carpet muffling the sound of his steps, he made his way back to the living room.

   When he reached for the front doorknob the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.

   Someone was right behind him.

   Vince whipped around, slicing through the air with the sword. The owner leaped back, bowing his body to avoid the sharp edge.

   He had a gun. Vince lunged forward and kicked the weapon from his hand. The guy rushed Vince. He tossed the sword aside and went for the guy’s midsection.

   They tumbled to the floor. The guy managed one blow that landed square on Vince’s left cheekbone. He ignored the explosion of pain. The sound of pottery shattering followed the fall of the lamp as they rolled into a table.

   Seconds later the other male sleeping beauties came to their friend’s aid.

   Leaving the first guy temporarily disabled on the floor, Vince took the guy from bedroom number one down easily with a quick pop to his left temple with the dual-purpose pry bar. The other fellow wasn’t going to be so easy.

   The sword owner staggered to his feet. Vince moved back toward the front door, putting himself between the two men and the sword. He didn’t want to use his gun unless it was necessary. Not only did he not want to kill any of these guys, he also didn’t want the neighbors alerted to the trouble. He didn’t have time to deal with the police.

   “You’re a dead man,” the former sword owner threatened.

   Damn. Vince was just about fed up with people saying that.

   The second guy made a move.

   The wrong one.

   He dropped like a rock, his nose bleeding profusely.

   The ensuing struggle with the last man standing required some time. Precious time. He was determined. He was good.

   But Vince was better.

   Vince picked up the sword, leaving the owner unconscious on the floor.

   He exited through the front door and quickly checked his watch. Eighteen minutes.

   Damn.

   He double-timed it back to his Harley.

   “I’ll take the sword,” Jamal demanded as Vince passed him.

   “Like hell.” Vince didn’t slow down. The sword was leverage.

   He quickly secured the sword to the bike.

   Sixteen minutes.

   He sped across town, retracing his route as quickly as he dared.

   When he reached the house where Kat was being held, he was off the bike and removing the weapon before Jamal made the turn into the driveway.

   With barely one minute to spare, Vince stormed inside, not bothering to knock or to announce himself.

   Leva and Will were pacing the living room, both looked startled—and blatantly disappointed—to see him.

   Yu stood over Kat, the weapon in his hand aimed directly at her head.

   Vince tossed the sword in Yu’s direction. “Anything else I can do for you?”

   Yu caught the sword by the jewel-embellished handle. He shoved his 9 mm into its usual resting place, never taking his eyes off the prize sword. “Release her,” he ordered.

   Will obliged, releasing Kat and passing her weapon back to her.

   Kat stood, checked the .38, then tucked it away. She absently rubbed at her right wrist where the cuff had no doubt chafed it.

   Yu smiled at her. “Looks like your friend is in.” He glanced at Vince. “I hope you can keep him in line.”

   “Don’t worry,” Kat assured him. “I know how to handle Vince.” She flashed Vince a look that he figured he was better off not trying to interpret, then she turned back to Yu. “There’s just one thing.”

   Yu stopped admiring his new toy long enough to focus his full attention in her direction. “And what is that?”

   He didn’t have time to prepare for the blow, definitely hadn’t expected it. Kat sucker punched him in the gut.

   “Don’t use me in your sick little games again. Next time take my word.”

   No one uttered a single syllable. They all wore the same startled expression as Yu. When his look of surprise morphed into a grin of amusement as well as respect, everyone relaxed, including Vince.

   Yu gifted her with a little bow. “The game point is yours.”

   “Good.” She gave him her back and turned to Vince. “Come with me.”

   Not about to refute her declaration that she could keep him in line, Vince followed her up the stairs without hesitation. She led the way to the bathroom.

   “Sit down,” she ordered.

   It wasn’t until he passed the mirror hanging over the sink that Vince realized the extent of the beating he’d taken. His cheek was a little swollen and his lip was busted. All in all, though, he looked pretty damned good considering the odds had been three to one.

   As ordered, he took a seat on the closed toilet lid.

   He could relax, at least for the moment. He was in. This mission might just be salvageable, after all.

   Kat dampened a washcloth with cold water and pressed it against his cheek. The cold felt great, but her nearness felt even better. She knelt between his knees and dabbed at his bleeding lip.

   “You could have been killed,” she scolded softly.

   She was right. He didn’t bother arguing.

   Vince watched her intent expression, his body reacting to both her proximity and the obvious affection he saw in her eyes. For the hundredth time he wondered how he’d let her get away. And, considering their past, what had made her use him for her Romeo profile? It made no sense at all. Did she still feel something for him—besides anger and bitterness? Or was it simply some sort of payback that he didn’t yet understand?

   Cool fingers traced his lower lip, made him tremble inside. She was looking at his mouth now—not with concern but with longing.

   How could he let this thing between them happen without some answers? When this was over, and she had her memory back, she’d hate him even more than she already did.

   She eased closer, her mouth only inches from his.

   He could feel her pull…could feel the temptation of that lush mouth…

   But he couldn’t let this happen.

   He pulled back, took the cloth from her hand and quickly stood when she sat back on her heels to look up at him in surprise…annoyance…something on that order. He didn’t miss the flicker of hurt on her face as he sidled away from her. Dammit, he was going to hurt her either way.

   Feigning interest in the condition of his face, he peered into the mirror over the sink. “Those guys did a hell of a job on me,” he commented offhandedly. “I think this—”

   The definitive click of a weapon engaging shut him up.

   Kat nudged the tip of the .38’s barrel against his temple. “Okay, big guy,” she said, her tone every bit as lethal as the weapon now aimed at his head. “Just who the hell are you?”

Chapter Four

   Vince stood absolutely still and considered his limited options.

   The .38 now boring a hole in his right temple was loaded. He’d watched Kat check it just minutes ago. Not to mention that there were four more people downstairs who would like nothing better than to blow his head off simply for the sport of it.

   He’d just have to wing it.

   He focused on Kat’s reflection in the mirror. Her respiration was controlled. That was good. Her expression calm. Also good. But her finger was snugged just a little too tightly around that trigger for comfort.

   That was not good.

   “What gives, Kitty Kat?” he asked softly, the huskiness in his voice a very real, undeniable result of being alone with her for more than ten seconds, present circumstances not withstanding. “You tired of me already?”

   The muzzle pressed even more firmly into his skull. “Who the hell are you and what did you do with the real Vince Ferrelli?”

   He didn’t dare move a muscle. In fact, holding his breath seemed like the smart thing to do about now. Her gaze never deviated from her target, not even a fleeting glance in the mirror so that he might read her intent in those big green eyes. He had to assume the worst—that her real memory was somehow scrambled with the implanted one—but hope for the best. He’d been an optimist his whole life, why change now?

   “I left him behind. He’s dead.”

   Vince didn’t miss the little catch in her breathing when he said the “dead” word. A muscle contracted in his jaw. If this didn’t work—if she was seriously damaged—he was screwed. And Lucas and Casey were going to be extremely disappointed that he hadn’t made it past the first twenty-four hours.

   “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she demanded tautly, a little something besides anger in her voice. A hint of vulnerability, maybe?

   Vince stared at her in the mirror, willing her to look at him with every ounce of determination he possessed, while he told her the truth that had burned in the back of his brain for four endless years. “Because he took you for granted. He didn’t understand that he was screwing up the best thing he’d ever had.” Hesitation slowed him. He’d just been brutally honest and the Kat he’d once known might never know it. “That man no longer exists,” he tacked on for good measure. “I guess you’re stuck with me now.”

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