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John Smith checked his watch and looked around the Plaza Hotel's ballroom.
Things were going well. According to the report that had just come over his earpiece, the ambassador's plane had landed safely at La Guardia and the man would be arriving at the party on time.
Smith's eyes passed over the glittering crowd. It was the same kind of flashy scene that always revolved around $5,000-a-plate dinners. Women in jewels and long gowns, men in tuxedos, the collective net worth of the room up into the stratosphere. In the midst of the shifting throng, deals were being made, affairs were getting started, and social slights were exchanged with smiles. The place was choked with air kisses and hand pumping.
Underneath the chandeliers in the elegant ballroom, the whole lot of them looked as if they had the world by the throat. Smith knew better. He'd been hired by quite a few, had learned their dirty secrets and their hidden vices. He'd even watched as some got their wake-up call to real life.
Being the target of an armed stalker, that was something to worry about. Your kid gets pinched by some madman looking to hose you down for a couple million? That was a problem. Whether or not your mistress's boob job was symmetrical paled in comparison.
Danger, like illness, was the great equalizer, and the rich learned fast what really mattered when tragedy came knocking at their door. Courtesy of the visit, they also picked up a few lessons about their inner depths. Smith had seen hardened businessmen break down, sobbing from fear. He'd also witnessed great reserves of strength appear in a woman who'd only worried about her clothesbefore.
Being a personal security specialist was a dangerous line of work but it was the only thing he could imagine doing. With his military and intelligence background, and the fact that he didn't take orders well, it was a good fit. An observer, a protector, a killer if he had to be, Smith was at the top of his field and his small firm, Black Watch, Ltd., handled everyone from statesmen to financiers to international figures.
For some, it would have been a hard life. His chosen profession had him flying around the world, sleeping in hotel rooms, staying in other people's homes, moving on to the next job without a break. To him, the lack of continuity was appealing. Necessary.
An army duffel full of clothes and two metal briefcases of equipment were his only possessions. The money he'd earned, a tidy sum, was spread around in various off-shore accounts under several different names. Without a valid social security number, and with neither the Internal Revenue Service nor any other government agency having an unclassified record of him, he was, for all intents and purposes, a ghost.
But this didn't mean he went unnoticed.
A woman in a tight black gown sauntered by him, eyeing him with an invitation he imagined a lot of men would find irresistible. He looked past her, through her. He wasn't interested in a quick fling with a social diva. Experience had taught him to stick with his own kind.
The women he'd been with tended to be members of the intelligence community or in the military. They understood his life and expected nothing more than a shared night or two, a body to warm their bed. Civilian women tended to look into the future after they had sex and dealing with their misplaced expectations took time and patience he didn't have to spare.
His earpiece went off. The "package" was in his limo, heading to the Plaza.
"Thanks, Tiny," he said into a small transmitter on his wrist.
The ambassador had been receiving death threats, which was how Smith had ended up in a tuxedo at the party.
As he scanned the crowd, he didn't expect trouble. The place was crawling with his men. He knew and trusted them all, having handpicked them out of elite military corps. Black Watch was the only place he knew of where former Rangers, Marines, and Navy SEALs could work together without throwing punches. If something went down tonight, they'd work together and do their damnedest to protect the ambassador.
Except Smith wasn't worried because he knew something no one else did. The man after the ambassador had been killed about five hours ago, in a deserted outpost in his native country. Smith had been tipped off by an old friend of his, and considering the source, he was confident the intel was solid. It didn't mean the ambassador was out of the woods, as assassins could be easily replaced, but it decreased the odds of trouble on this particular evening.
Despite the reduced level of threat, Smith wasn't any less alert. He knew where all the bodies in the ballroom were, in what patterns they were moving, how they were entering and exiting the space. Even the best intelligence in the world wasn't going to change the accuracy of his peripheral vision or his rapid assimilation of information.
The watchfulness was second nature to him. As immutable as his eye color.
Smith sensed someone approach from behind. He turned and looked down into the worried face of Alfred Alston, the gala's host. The man was a typical Social Register type, with a full head of prematurely white hair and the requisite horn-rimmed glasses. Smith liked him. The guy had been easy to deal with.
"I'm terribly sorry to intrude, but have you seen my wife?"
There was a slight English cadence to his vowels, no doubt left over from when his family had crossed the Atlantic. Back in 1630.
Smith shook his head.
"She should have been here quite some time ago. She would hate to miss the ambassador's entrance." Alston's thin fingers came up and fiddled with his bow tie. "Although I'm sure she will turn up."
The strain around the man's eyes was more truthful than his words.
"You want me to send one of my men over to your place?" Because Alston had been such a good sport, Smith wouldn't have minded the extra effort. Besides, it wouldn't take long. His boys had a way of getting through traffic that made NYC taxi drivers look like they were from the Amish country.
Alston offered a worried smile. "Thank you, that's very kind, but I wouldn't want to trouble you."
"Let me know if you change your mind. The ambassador's on time, by the way."
"I'm glad you're here. Curt Thorndyke was right. You put a man's mind at ease."
Smith resumed looking around the room. In another twenty minutes, the ambassador would show up. There'd be the requisite photographs and genuflecting and then dinner would be
Smith's eyes caught on something.
Or someone, rather.
He stared through the crowd at a blond woman who had just arrived. Dressed in a shimmering silver gown, she was standing in the elaborate entrance to the ballroom looking too damn radiant to be real.
He recognized her immediately. But who wouldn't?
The Countess von Sharone.
Conversation in the ballroom dropped to a hush as people registered her presence. The social status of the gala, already high, shot through the roof with her arrival, and the crowd's approval was palpable.
If these fancy types hadn't all been carrying drinks, they'd have burst out in applause, he thought dryly. As if she were the honoree, not the ambassador.
Still, he had to admit she was a looker. With her blond hair twisted up high on her head, she was a classic beauty with delicate features and dazzling green eyes. And that dress. Molded to her body, it moved like water as she stepped into the room.
Christ, she was beautiful, he thought. Assuming you liked that patrician, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth type.
Which he didn't.
Alston went up to her. She extended a hand and accepted air kisses on both cheeks from him, her expression warming. Someone else approached her and then another, until she was carried into the room on a wave of ingratiation. Smith tracked her every movement.
She'd been in the papers recently, he recalled, although it wasn't like she was ever really out of them. Her clothes, her parties, that extravagant wedding she'd had, they were fodder for the tabloids and the real papers alike. What had he read about her lately, though? Her father had just died. That was it. And there'd been some spread about her and five other women in the Style section of the New York Times. He'd seen it lying faceup on the front desk of the Plaza.
Talk about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, he thought, eyeing the heavy pearls and diamonds that were around her throat and dangling from her ears. Her family's fortune was in the billions and that count she'd just married wasn't exactly pulling down minimum wage either.
As she came deeper into the room, she turned in his direction and met his gaze. Her brows lifted regally when he didn't look away.
Maybe she resented being stared at. Maybe she sensed he didn't belong even though he dressed the part.
Maybe some of the lust he was feeling had crept into his face.
He hid his reaction as she scanned him. He was surprised by the shrewd light in her eyes and the fact that she lingered on his left ear, the one with the piece in it. He wouldn't have expected her to be so observant. A first-rate clotheshorse for haute couture, sure. The favorite arm candy of some wealthy man, yeah. But hiding half a brain under all that fancy window dressing? No way.
The countess continued into the room as Tiny's deep voice came through the earpiece. The ambassador was fifteen minutes away. Smith glanced down at his watch. When he looked up, she was standing in front of him, having broken away from her admirers.
"Do I know you?" Her voice was soft, a little low for a woman. Incredibly sexy.
The smile she offered him was gentle and welcoming, nothing like the aristocratic, chilly grimace he would have predicted.
His eyes flickered over her. Her breasts were concealed by the silver gown but they were perfectly formed and the waist below them was small. He imagined that her legs, which were also covered by the dress, looked every bit as good. He also noticed her perfume, something light and tangy that got into his nose and then his nervous system.
"Haven't we met?" she repeated, putting out her hand and waiting for an answer.
Smith looked down. She'd given him her left hand and he caught a look at the jewels on her ring finger. She was wearing a monstrous sapphire and a thick band of diamonds.
The rings reminded him he'd just mentally undressed a married woman.
He glanced up into her eyes, wishing she'd go the hell away. They were beginning to attract attention as she stood there with her hand out.
"No, you don't know me," he said roughly, gripping her palm.
The instant he touched her, a flare of heat shot up his arm, and he saw an echo of it flash in her eyes. She pulled back sharply.
"Are you sure we haven't met?" Her head tilted to one side while she rubbed the hand, as if trying to get rid of an unpleasant sensation.
His earpiece fired up with another update on the ambassador. "Yeah, I'm sure."
Smith turned and walked away from her.
"Wait," he heard her call out.
He didn't stop, just kept heading for the back of the ballroom. Pushing open an unmarked door, he stepped into a corridor that was filled with extra chairs and tables. Bald lightbulbs were suspended from the squat ceiling and they cast harsh shadows on the concrete floor. The hall would take him to the service entrance the ambassador was going to use.
When he heard a clicking noise behind him, he turned around. The countess had followed him.
Even under the glare, she was breathtaking.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Who are you?"
"What's it to you?"
She hesitated. "It's just that you were looking at me as if we'd met."
"Trust me. We haven't."
Smith started walking away again. The last thing the countess needed was another man panting after her. No doubt adoring simps were a dime a dozen in her life. And speaking of simps, why wasn't her husband drooling all over her tonight? She seemed to have come to the party alone.
Smith glanced over his shoulder.
The countess had turned back to the door. Her head was down, as if she were bracing herself before going back into the gala.
His feet slowed. Then stopped.
"What's wrong with you?" he called out, his voice bouncing off the bare walls. The instant he asked the question, he wanted to take it back, and muttered, "Someone show up wearing the same dress tonight?"
The countess's head snapped toward him. She straightened and regarded him coolly.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with me." Her voice was steady, the words coming out clean and sharp. Maybe he'd imagined the vulnerability. "You, however, are sadly lacking in manners."
Smith frowned, thinking that she was damn efficient with the putdowns. With one sentence spoken in level, calm tones, she'd made him feel like a total heel. Then again, she'd no doubt had plenty of practice cutting people down, had probably perfected the skill on a whole retinue of servants and waiters over the years.
Well, he wasn't one of her lackeys. And she had no business getting in his way. Even if the ambassador's assassin was dead, the last thing Smith needed was to have someone like her hurt in the middle of one of his details. She needed to go back to the party now, so he could do his job.
Time to be a hard ass, he thought.
Smith sauntered over to the countess and had to ignore the tantalizing scent of her while glaring into her eyes.
"Is there something you have to say?" she asked primly. "Or do you just want to loom over me?"
As she regarded him with that even stare, Smith was surprised. People backed off quickly when he glowered. The blond was holding her own.
He pushed his face closer to hers, feeling irritated.
"I'm sorry if I merely offended you," he said. "I meant to piss you off."
"Now why would you want to do that?"
"Because you're in my way."
Time was passing, the ambassador was getting closer, and the countess's tenacity was beginning to get under his skin.
Just like her proximity was. Staring down at her, he felt an urgency that had nothing to do with timing.
And everything to do with hunger.
Wrong woman, wrong place, he thought. Get rid of her.
"Tell me, countess, do you always beg for attention like this?" His voice was cold, disdainful.
"I'm not begging you for anything," she said smoothly.
"You pick the only man who has no interest in you and follow him out of the party. You think that's standoffish?"
He was itching to be free of her but there was more. His reaction to her, the strength and inappropriateness of it, made him wary. She was like standing in front of a fire.
And he was a man who had no intention of being burned.
He was surprised when her lips lifted in a slight smile. Instead of getting the reaction he'd banked on, some kind of huffy disapproval, he was being eyed with tolerant censure.
And then she shocked him by nailing the truth.
"You," she said decisively, "are threatened by me."
Smith was stunned and recovered with a jolt of anger.
Who did this blue-blooded Barbie doll think she was? He was in the business of saving lives and she paraded around in fancy dresses at parties. He dealt with murderers and thieves and psychos for a living. He was threatened by her? Screw that.
"You've got a hell of an ego there, Barbie," he said laconically, "if you think you're scary."
"And you seem increasingly antagonistic. I wonder why?"
Smith jabbed his thumb in the direction of the door.
"You better go on back to your friends out there in la-la land. You'll be much safer with those Ken dolls than alone with me in the service corridor."
In response, she had the gall to smile widely at him
Didn't she understand he was a dangerous man? An armed man, for Chrissakes.
And did she have to smell so good?
The countess shook her head ruefully. "You know, I really thought you were someone different."
Different? She got that right. "You bet your sweet ass I have nothing in common with you."
"Out there, I thought you were really in control, in charge of something."
"Honey, I'm in charge of the whole world."
"Really? So why are you so upset? We're just talking."
"We're not doing anything. You're wasting my time."
She shrugged, an elegant lift of her shoulders. "You came back to me. No one is keeping you here."
As he towered over her, she raised her hands, the picture of innocence.
She turned back to the door and looked at him over her shoulder. "You also aren't very savvy."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Some simple rules on human conflict. If your opponent is angry, irritate him." She shot him a glance from under her lashes while putting her hand on the doorknob. That big, relaxed smile of hers goaded him. "The instigation technique works particularly well, even with tough guys like you. Maybe especially with tough guys like you."
That did it.
In a surge of movement that had nothing to do with his conscious mind, Smith reached out and snatched her against him. She'd driven him to the brink of his self-control.
And one inch past it.
The amusement left her face as she braced her hands against his chest. "What are you doing?"
"Too late to go back now, Countess," he growled. "You pushed the wrong man, too far."
He took her lips in a punishing kiss, his arms contracting and holding her so tightly, he could feel every inch of her. The sensation of her body against his was a total shock. Her soft contours fit into his hard angles seamlessly and a wave of lust burned through him. She was like harnessing pure lightning, like nothing he'd ever felt before.
As he slid his tongue between her lips, a moan drifted up through her throat and into his mouth. He felt her grip his shoulders as she stopped trying to shove him away and began to kiss him back.
And then his earpiece went off. The ambassador's car had pulled up.
Smith broke the contact abruptly, stepping back and breathing hard. She opened her vivid green eyes and stared at him, wordlessly.
He paused, soaking in the way she looked. Her lips were swollen and red from his kiss, her breath was coming out in soft beats, her cheeks were flushed. She was an unforgettable woman who would have to be forgotten. Otherwise he'd go insane, he was sure of it.
Smith turned away sharply and broke into a jog, knowing he better damn well be at that service entrance when the ambassador got out of his limo. He hadn't lost a client yet and he wasn't starting tonight.
Just forget you ever met her, he told himself as he pounded over the concrete.
Fat chance of that.
Dammit, why the hell did she have to follow him? And why hadn't he just kept going when she did?
Because it's just getting started between us, he thought grimly.
His sixth sense told him that their paths were going to cross again.
Copyright© 2004 by Jessica Bird