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 being started and social slights were being exchanged.
The place was choked with air kisses and hand pumping.
His ear-piece went off. The “package” was in his limo, heading
in to the city.
“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 hand picked them out of elite military corps. Black Watch
was the only place he knew of where former Green Berets, 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
Except Smith didn’t expect trouble because he knew something no
one else did. The man after the ambassador had been killed about five
hours ago, in a deserted out post 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, and even with his instincts resting
quietly, 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 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.
her immediately. But who wouldn’t?
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 honoree,
not the damn ambassador.
He had to admit she was a looker, though. 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,
Which he didn’t.
She’d been in the papers recently, Smith 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 NY Times. He’d seen
it lying face up on the front desk of the Plaza. He was surprised the
concierge hadn’t framed the thing.
Talk about being born with a silver spoon in the 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
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 was 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 clothes hanger 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 through the room as Tiny’s deep voice came
through the ear-piece. The ambassador was fifteen minutes away. Smith
glanced down at his watch. When he looked up, she was standing in front
know you?” Her voice was soft, a little low for a woman. Incredibly
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 as her upper part did. He also noticed she smelled great.
Her perfume was 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 underneath it.
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
The instant he touched her, a flare of heat shot up his arm. He saw an
echo of it flash in her eyes and she took her hand 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
His ear-piece 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 light bulbs 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 clipping 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
“Trust me. We haven’t.”
Smith started walking away. 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 fancy European aristocrat
of a husband drooling all over her tonight? She seemed to have come to
the party alone.
Smith glanced over his shoulder.
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 barren walls. The instant he asked the question, he wanted to
it back and muttered, “Someone show up wearing the same dress tonight?”
The Countess’s head snapped towards him and she seemed to cast aside
whatever conflict she was having. 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 lackies. Even if he had been rude, he
wasn’t going to let her put him in his place.
Smith marched over until he stood so close to the Countess, he could smell
perfume. He tried 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 overheated. He wasn’t
about to let this social x-ray try to throw him off his stride, in the
middle of a job. He had better things to do than beg for forgiveness because
her delicate sensibilities had been compromised.
He pushed his face closer to hers.
“I’m sorry if I merely offended you,” he said. “I
meant to piss you off.”
He was surprised when her lips lifted in a slight smile. Instead of getting
the reaction he’d banked on, some kind of huffy, snotty disapproval,
she was eyeing him with tolerant censure, as if he were having some kind
Which he wasn’t, damn it.
And then she surprised him again.
“You,” she said decisively, “are threatened by me.”
It was posed as a rhetorical.
Smith was stunned.
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 intimidated
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. I’m surprised you can handle being in here
at all, back lit by something other than a chandelier.”
In response, she had the gall to smile widely at him
Didn’t she understand he was a dangerous man? An armed man, for
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 glowered at 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?”
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 fit 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 lightening,
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 ear-piece went off. The ambassador’s car had pulled
Smith broke the contact abruptly, stepping back and breathing hard. She
opened her pale 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.
Damn it, 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.