Authors: Cindy Gerard
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
Damn the woman. She'd always been more trouble than anything else in his life. More trouble and more excitement.
Five years after the divorce, he'd at least thought he'd figured out how to exorcise her from his system: he focused on the job, did what he had to do to get by, and left the past where it belonged. The job was running E.D.E.N. Securities, Inc., the West Palm Beach security firm his father had founded and Ethan now owned with his brothers and sister. Getting by was a matter of taking it one day at a time.
And the past—specifically the part involving Darcy—was history. At least he'd told himself it was until he'd gotten her call.
Then just like that—just hearing her voice again— and he'd known he would never be free of her. Had never
free of her. Like a fever or a virus immune to drugs, Darcy Prescott had infiltrated his blood and burrowed deep the first time he'd set eyes on her....
EIGHT YEARS EARLIER
The night sky provided a glittering
backdrop beyond the expansive stone terrace flanking the main salon at the U.S. ambassador to Peru's official residence. All that glittered, however, was not limited to the city lights and the candle glow glinting off the delicate crystal dressing an elegantly set table at the by-invitation-only U.S. Embassy party. A king's ransom in jewels sparkled around the necks and wrists and on the fingers of the dignitaries and their ladies in attendance.
Ethan had arrived at the mucky-muck dinner party not more than ten minutes ago. Later than was kosher. Sooner than he'd like it to have been. Unfortunately, he'd had his orders. For him, it was one of those
functions peopled by U.S. and Peruvian dignitaries, local civic and government leaders, and a smattering of foreign service officers and embassy staff. He and Manny Ortega were the token warriors. The symbols of the best of the best the U.S. Army had to offer.
Not lost in translation was an in-your-face reminder to the local populace of the U.S. presence in Peru combating the ongoing drug trade along the northeastern border with Ecuador that, among
things, was commonly known but never discussed or openly acknowledged. Ethan and Manny had both been "requested," in fact, to not only put in an appearance but also show up in full dress uniform, medals shining, boots spit polished.
This was the part of the job Ethan could do without. He understood that diplomacy was as integral to the working relations between the U.S. and South American countries as his A-team's operations in the area were. He understood that he would be called upon to factor into that diplomacy. But the longer he was out in the field, the more comfortable he felt there and the less comfortable he felt with people.
Interesting. He spent weeks on end slinking around the jungle. Didn't have human contact for days sometimes, and even then it was most likely the kind of contact that wielded an assault rifle with the business end aimed directly at him.
time he poked his head back among the civilized if that prospect was more appealing than a run-of-the-mill dinner party.
Manny flashed a grin that generally had a
lay me down and do things to me
effect on women, as a caramel-skinned beauty walked by him. "This beats sucking dirt and crawling on our bellies any day. I know I don't miss the bugs and snakes, at least for a little while. And I have high hopes for the main course. Anything will be better than the monkey meat we've both grown to appreciate and love, don't you think?"
This was true. Ethan would
grow to appreciate or love monkey meat, no matter that there were times, in the jungle, where monkey meat and leaves were all they'd had to eat.
"What I think is that I'd like a beer," he said just as a waiter appeared with a tray of full champagne flutes.
Manny snagged a glass for each of them. When he shoved one at Ethan, he took it with a glare.
Manny laughed. "You have no class, my friend. It's a good thing you have that tall, dark, and handsome thing going for you or the ladies wouldn't give you a second look, you know? Those baby blues are only good for so much play."
Used to Manny's good-natured slurs on his blue-collar preferences, Ethan tipped the champagne to his lips—and saw her.
He simply and literally froze, the glass hovering near his mouth.
She was, in a word, stunning. This slim, creamy-skinned redhead with Nicole Kidman beauty and grace and the most animated and wicked green eyes he'd ever seen.
He couldn't help it. He stared, mesmerized, as she talked to a barrel-bellied Lima suit who leaned toward her and whispered something in her ear all the while trying to get a glimpse down her dress.
It was some dress. A tight little black number. Sleeveless, a little low cut, and short enough to show sleek, slim legs and a whole lot of pale, silky skin.
Lust rolled through him like a fireball dragging a ten-foot tail. How long had it been since he'd touched a woman's skin? Heard a woman's sigh? Felt a woman's heat as he pressed deep inside her?
How long since he'd seen a woman like her?
She'd taken the WOW factor to new heights.
Her husky laughter as she shook back that amazing mane of long fiery hair and let her admirer down gently had Ethan calculating the blocks back to his hotel and the bed where he wanted to see her stretched out naked and gasping beneath him. Preferably tonight.
"Who is she?" he asked when he caught his breath and his heart had dropped back into his chest.
Standing beside him, Manny followed Ethan's gaze. "The redhead? I don't know. I've never seen her before, let alone met her. Now, however, would be a good time to change that, don't you think?"
Manny took a step forward.
Ethan's hard grip on Manny's arm stopped him. "No. Now would
be a good time. At least not for you. Go find your action somewhere else, compadre. That one's mine."
Manny turned. Looked Ethan up and down. And must have recognized the warning in Ethan's eyes for what it was. Friend or no, this was a nonnegotiable issue.
"So, another heart's going to break tonight, eh?"
Ignoring the laughter in Manny's eyes, Ethan drained the glass, shoved it in the general direction of Manny's chest, and cut through the crowd toward her. "Don't wait up for me."
He was waylaid before he got ten feet.
"Lieutenant." Al Hayden—Ambassador Albert Hayden to those who hadn't grown up calling him Uncle Al—smiled with genuine warmth as he stopped Ethan. "It's wonderful to see you."
"And you, Ambassador." Despite their closeness and in deference to his friend's position, Ethan addressed him by his title as Hayden shook his hand. Respect and genuine affection for the ambassador compelled Ethan to cool his jets where the redhead was concerned. At least for now.
There were two types of U.S. ambassadorial appointments. Those bought by men via presidential appointments when they called in markers and sought the position for prestige's sake and those earned by the good guys, the ones who had worked their way up through the ranks and actually knew what the fuck they were doing. Albert Hayden was one of the good guys.
"It's been a long time, sir," Ethan said, and noted the passing of years on the older man's face.
Hayden was a tidy five ten. Ethan had about four inches on the diplomat. And like Ethan's father, Wes Garrett, a little gray had started to show at the temples of Albert's dark brown hair. His eyes were a clear, vivid gray. And they missed exactly nothing.
been a long time. Too long." The ambassador's shrewd gaze studied Ethan through a smile of affection. "You look well," Hayden decided finally. "I expected to be calling you captain by now."
Ethan was well aware that in his position Hayden knew exactly where Ethan had been and what he'd been doing in the jungles at the base of the Andes along Rio Napo where it intersected with Rio Marafion before both flowed into the mother Amazon. Just like Hayden knew the physical toll the work took on Ethan's body. And psyche.
well," Ethan assured him. "And the new title starts in a couple months."
Hayden considered him a moment longer, then nodded. "Glad to hear it. And how are your parents and your brothers and sister? Have you had contact with them of late?"
"Actually, I spent an hour on the phone with Mom and Dad earlier today."
Out of the jungle for the first time in three months, he'd taken advantage of the opportunity to call home and reassure his always concerned mom that he was fine. That was
he'd showered until the hot water had been long gone and the stench of too many weeks without it had been washed away.
"You know Dad retired."
"From the West Palm PD?"
Hayden's snort relayed his surprise. "Can't imagine Wes Garrett content with retirement."
"You know him well." Wes and Al had been in Ranger Bat together at Fort Benning. Served in 'Nam together. When their service was over, Al had turned to politics while Wes had gone back home and joined the West Palm Beach Police Department. A line of duty injury had finally forced him into early retirement last year.
"It lasted all of three months," Ethan told him. "Dad's since started his own business. Corporate and plant security, self-defense training. A little bodyguard work."
"And knowing your father, he sees it as a legacy to pass on to you boys."
"Don't forget Eve," Ethan warned. Nolan's twin sister could hold her own with the three of them. And they all—Dallas, Nolan, and Ethan—had the scars to prove it.
Hayden chuckled. "How can something so pretty and little be such a spitfire? She still planning on Secret Service as a career?"
"She is, yes. Speaking of pretty," Ethan said, taking advantage of the opening to get to his most pressing issue, "do you know her?" He nodded toward the redhead, who was very charmingly mingling with the savvy of one who was well suited to these stuffy events.
The ambassador followed his gaze. "Darcy? She's with the vice consul's office."
Hayden cocked a brow and Ethan felt a twinge of regret for a reputation he'd earned along the way as being a bit of a player.
"I'll warn you right now, Lieutenant, Darcy Prescott won't be anyone's flavor of the month."
"How about you introduce me anyway? Sir," he added with a smile, and walked with Hayden across the room.
The fact was, Ethan didn't have a month in mind. While it shocked the hell out of him, one look and he'd been thinking forever.
And after one night with Darcy Prescott in his bed, he wasn't sure forever would be enough.
There was luck. Then there was dumb luck.
Without a boatload of both, Darcy knew she was a dead woman. It was just a matter of time. Today, tomorrow. Soon.
She made herself as small and as quiet as possible. And she prayed that the twenty or so men gathered in small clusters around a nighttime campfire would forget that less than an hour ago they had lined up to rape her.
Rape. And probably worse.
Sweat, over and above that caused by the cloying jungle heat, rolled down her back. Nausea curled in her belly and rose like bile as she thought back to the ugly scene.