Until Twilight

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Until Twilight Desiree Holt & Cerise DeLand Book 3 in the Nemesis series.

Isabella Sebastiani has the best instincts. For defusing bombs. But the moment she spots Lane Hallowell in the piazza in Florence, she knows her instinct for finding an irresistible lover has improved. Yes, she’s to meet Lane for a job interview. Sì, her mind tells her to ignore his tempting good looks and his incomparable charm. But her body tells her to embrace him. And her heart demands she take him home with her. Into her arms. Her bed. A seasoned security operative, Lane shouldn’t be enthralled by a woman within minutes of meeting her. But the cool, professional explosives expert fascinates him and he’s determined to protect her from harm. As the two of them track a group of terrorists from Florence to Rome and on to Paris, Lane and Bella learn that time doesn’t matter when passion demands a future filled with love.

Ellora’s Cave Publishing

www.ellorascave.com

Until Twilight ISBN 9781419934728 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Until Twilight Copyright © 2011 Desiree Holt & Cerise DeLand Edited by Helen Woodall Cover art by Syneca Electronic book publication July 2011 The terms Romantica® and Quickies® are registered trademarks of Ellora’s Cave Publishing. With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the publisher, Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.® 1056 Home Avenue, Akron OH 44310-3502. Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the publisher’s permission. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000. (http://www.fbi.gov/ipr/). Please purchase only authorized electronic or print editions and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted material. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. The publisher and author(s) acknowledge the trademark status and trademark ownership of all trademarks, service marks and word marks mentioned in this book. The publisher does not have any control over, and does not assume any responsibility for, author or third-party Web sites or their content.

UNTIL TWILIGHT Desiree Holt & Cerise DeLand

Until Twilight

Chapter One As she wove her way through the diners at the tiny circular café Isabella Sebastiani was not in the mood to be shocked. Not twice in one day. She’d already endured one trauma this morning in Florence’s Bargello when she had defused the worries of that ancient gallery’s young director over a suspected bomb in a small, lady’s purse. That had been a false alarm that made her late for a very important job interview. But halting in her tracks in front of the replica of Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria, she saw one man whose appearance created a bursting sensation deep in her stomach. No, Bella, deeper than that. She straightened and tamped down the fierce physical attraction that raged like a five-alarm fire in her soul. “Va bene,” she told herself all was well. She could handle men who were so good looking they were too vain to really care for a woman. Placing one foot before the other, she hitched the straps of her slim leather briefcase higher over her shoulder. “Men do not astonish you.” Why does this one? She could not take her eyes from him, this man who was a stranger to her, this man who was the only man among those in the café in the piazza who could possibly be the one she was meant to meet. She pushed her sunglasses up her nose and tried not to stare. No matter that he did not seem to notice her. No matter that at least fifty others dined on the terrace of that same famous little restaurant. He was the tallest one. The fittest. The most mouthwatering. With chocolate-brown curls and fine, strongly chiseled features that rivaled the David overlooking the square, this man appealed to every cell in her body. And he mustn’t, Bella. If he likes you as a person, if he values your vitae, if he accepts you as his partner in this international security firm for which he works, then you must not want him to pet you, cara. 5

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She wove her way through the diners at the tiny circular tables. May in Firenze began the march of the tourists—and squeezing among the tables required a ballerina’s maneuver of hips and legs that had him fully facing her. He seemed not to breathe. Not one movement betrayed whatever the hell he thought of her. He sat, one leg crossed over the other, his sunglasses concealing his eyes, yet she felt his gaze burn away her white cotton dress to caress her nipples and her pussy. Can your tongue arouse me more, American? Her thong became drenched with her cream at the hope he would taste her and delight her. Her nipples hardened and she cursed the fact that her Italian lace bra had no padding to conceal her interest in him. Do I attract you at all, Mr. Hallowell? At that moment, he shifted in his chair and she suppressed a smile of satisfaction. That sadly was difficult because now as he faced her fully, she could only admire him more. With his muscular frame molding the expensive black tee shirt to his chest, the gray trousers skimming the long legs, the elegant fingers holding his copy of La Stampa, he consumed her so slowly she felt her labia begin to melt in torrid need. How could he destroy her like that? With a concentration she had never known in any other lover. Was he going to be her lover? No. Not now. Not soon. She had just rid herself of one. She needed to be alone for a while. Independent for a while. Unpossessed by a demanding man. She stopped in front of him and removed her own sunglasses. “Buon giorno, Mr. Hallowell.” Smiling, she held out her hand. “Isabella Sebastiani.” He rose to his feet and towered over her by at least six inches. Her knees went to butter as he shook her proffered hand then cupped her elbow with the other. His skin was warm, his grip strong. “Buon giorno, Isabella. I am very pleased to meet you. Per favore, please sit with me.” She sank into the wrought iron chair, realizing his Italian accent was good but he chose to communicate with her in his native English. That was wonderful, keeping her 6

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on her mark mentally as she sought to keep her eyes from devouring him. She placed her briefcase to the pavement, put her glasses on the tabletop and focused on his arresting face. What nationality was the name Hallowell, anyway? These Americans were so many variations on a theme. His complexion was tanned but not olive. The strong bone structure Nordic. The lips heavily sculpted as any classical Greek god’s. And the eyes? What in hell color were they? Isabella had to know. “I hope you have not waited long. I was called to an urgent meeting this morning.” “Not a problem. I am here in Florence between assignments and taking a few days’ rest.” “Ah, bene. I see. How do you like our city?” He inclined his head. “Adore it. My mother is a professor of Renaissance architecture at the University of Chicago. Florence is a second home to me.” How coincidental. “How intriguing. My father is an expert in Renaissance frescos of the Duomo here and throughout northern Italy.” “All the things we learn at home from our parents become a part of us,” he murmured in a baritone that stroked her skin like the whisper of sheerest Luccan silk. “Is that how you first discovered you wanted to restore fine paintings?” “It is,” she confirmed, knowing he had read her résumé and perhaps even memorized her career path from art restorer to explosives expert. “You have come far for one who is only twenty-eight.” “Sì, I work hard,” she said and smiled, causing him to lean forward and allow her to catch a whiff of his cologne. Bergamot? Verbena? The man was a feast for the senses. No, Bella, fermate! Stop this. “My first case was to restore a painting by Caravaggio that had been mutilated by a bomber.”

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“I read that. The thieves had taken it from the Uffizi, put a false canvas on the back of it, encasing a film of C4 inside, intending to return it to the gallery and blow up the building in high tourist season of July.” She grinned, making him firm his lips. At last, a reaction. Molto bene. “I compliment you on your background check of me. All of you at Nemesis obviously do a fine job of researching your candidates for employment.” “Thank you. We pride ourselves on that.” He sat back, folded his hands in his lap and just stared at her. Calm and steady as the sun moving across the sky. She let him look his fill until her pussy was so swollen, so very wet, she had to say something to divert the urge to grab his hand and lead him home with her. “And Signora and Signore Molloy? They are enjoying their honeymoon?” “They are,” he said with such diplomatic aplomb she swore she was going to make him wait for years—decades!—before he ever got her into bed. “They apologize for their tardiness today, but there was an accident on the autostrada from Milan. Many cars and a few trucks are piled up. They will proceed south as soon as the highway is cleared.” Hallowell nodded, his lips curving in a way that stretched his firm jaw in a grin and brought out a dimple in his left cheek. Could she place her lips there? No, Bella. “Ah, unfortunate.” “Luckily, their delay gives you and me an opportunity to get to know each other.” She nodded, but she burned with irritation at his suave demeanor. Meanwhile, I blaze from head to toe in an irrational inferno of desire for his hands on my skin. “I have never worked with a partner.” “I myself have never had a permanent one.” In life? Or only in work? Curse your wandering mind, Bella. “Frankly, Mr. Hallowell, I don’t know how to share. My expertise in bomb detection and dismantling is one I have cultivated for nearly five years. I have had supervisors in the Italian police and I have belonged to a team. But never assigned to one man to work with, day after day. Forgive me for my bluntness, but I must say these things.” 8

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His dark brows rose only fractionally. “If we are to work together, there is no other way to proceed.” “Sì, I agree.” “Buon giorno, Signorina.” The waiter clad in black appeared at their side. In Italian, he asked for her order. “Hot chocolate,” she replied without looking up at him. “And four of the dark chocolate truffles filled with vin santo. I hope you will share them with me, Signore Hallowell?” “Grazie, I will. Nothing more for me at the moment, prego,” he instructed the waiter who left them pronto. He seemed so self-contained, so utterly unflappable, that she knew she would have to lead the conversation. Folding her hands in her lap, she willed her body to a serene pose she knew was a lie and said, “Tell me about Nemesis from your perspective. I know it from the corporate website and from a few of my friends who have hired the group. But I must know what you think of management. The salary. The travel. The assignments.” His mouth hitched up in a one-sided grin. The dimple came out to play. “You are interviewing me?” She spread her hands out wide and arched her brows at him. “Naturally. You learned all you need to know about me, sì?” His face fell. His body, if it were possible, became more still. “Not all, Bella.” The words, the tone, his endearing address of her suspended them both in a moment in time. “Tell me,” she managed after god knew how long, “about the company.” He began a litany of facts about Nemesis. The size of the security firm. The date it was organized by Nicole Welles. How she added her oldest friend, Maddie Sommers, to the staff, and then Maddie’s new husband, Dan Foreman. How Lane himself had come

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on after a stint in the Secret Service. Now the recent addition of Nicole’s new husband, Adam Molloy who was a former Israeli Mossad agent, added depth to the organization that consulted for independent companies and governments alike. “We take only the assignments which we are drawn to ethically. And we do an assessment of our likelihood of success, all before we sign any contracts with a client.” “I like your principles.” “Once we are committed, we never stop until we are successful,” he told her in a manner that had her wondering if indeed he really told her about himself and his potential relationship with her. Sì, Bella, you. The waiter appeared at their side with her truffles and hot cocoa, then placed them before her. She could not take her eyes from Lane Hallowell. “We know we need on staff someone whose expertise is explosives. You are the most qualified. You fit our needs very well.” “And your need for a partner?” He nodded, then said, “And my need for a very good partner,” as if he caressed her lips, her breasts and her swollen, needy cunt. Mesmerized, lost, she reached across the table and with two fingers caught the rim of his sunglasses and slowly took them from his face. His eyes. Madre Mia. His eyes were a kaleidoscope of green and gold shards of brilliant glass. They were sensuous, large and heavy-lidded, beneath strong, slashing brown brows. And they were more eloquent than any words he might have uttered. He wanted her. Her breasts beaded. Her pussy pulsed. She rose, picked up her briefcase and dropped his glasses inside. Then she picked up his hand. “Leave twenty euro.” 10

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He fished in his trouser pockets for some bills. He had no idea what he threw down. He could only watch this woman who possessed him. She was willowy, but well-endowed. She was a dark-haired siren with onyx eyes and a carriage so regal, he had grown hard since he first saw her pausing in front of the David. Christ knew how he could even open his mouth to talk to her. And if she decided she would join Nemesis, someone had better teach him how to work with her. Because all he wanted to do was kiss her wide, sultry mouth, discover those beautiful, big breasts and make her moan and twist and come loudly in his arms. And now for all his boyish silent drooling, and all his determination to keep it professional and practical, she was leading him at a determined clip through the piazza toward Santa Croce. She said nothing. She didn’t have to. Her nipples were taut beneath the thin white halter dress. Her expression was closed, focused on her goal. He could barely walk, his cock was so engorged. So erect. Damn, how far away was her apartment? He tried to remember her address from her vitae and couldn’t. What the hell. She knew where they were going. She knew what she was doing. The smell of new leather hit his nostrils as they hurried through the narrow lanes of the tanners’ district. Wafting out of the workrooms and shops were the aromas of espresso, chocolate and freshly cut garlic. Golden rays of the dying afternoon sun warmed the buildings and the pavement as the two of them hastened past. Just this side of the church of Santa Croce, she halted before a building with huge windows and large balconies. She stepped up to its ochre and yellow door. Digging out a key, she turned the lock and proceeded up a winding staircase. She never looked back. She knew he was there on her heels. At the third floor, she paused before another door, opened it and held it as he followed her inside.

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Here in the hall made rosy by the twilight rays streaming through a large window at the other end, she placed her briefcase and her keys on a large table and turned to him. Her expression was tight, almost pleading with him. He understood. And as he took her in his arms and pressed her to the wall, as he lifted one hand and dropped a kiss to her palm, her wrist, her forearm, her elbow, he whispered, “Bella mia, this was never my plan.” Her head lolled against the wall, her lush mouth fell open. Her hauntingly lovely black eyes absorbed him. “I told myself it was not mine.” He captured her chin between two fingers. “Once. We’ll make love once.” She gasped, a stricken look on her face. Her disappointment broke his heart, fired his pride and made his cock harden painfully. “This is no interview,” she demanded on a whisper as she outlined his lips with one forefinger. “No. This has nothing to do with work.” He bent and picked her up in his arms. “This has everything to do with need.”

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Chapter Two Lane wanted to strip the flimsy dress from her body, tear away any scrap of lingerie beneath it so she was naked to his eyes. Instead he drew in a deep, controlling breath. One did not go at Isabella Sebastiani like an animal. This was a woman to be tasted, savored, explored. With this unexpected erotic pleasure he would definitely take his time. “Bedroom,” he growled in her ear, running his tongue along the sensitive shell. “End of the hallway,” she gasped, pointing. Lane strode down the short hallway to the open door at the end into a large, highceilinged room He barely noticed the typical Mediterranean-style furniture or the huge windows with a view of the city that she flung open when they entered the room. His attention was focused on the enormous bed that dominated the room. An expanse of carved headboard stretched along the wall, the bed itself covered in what looked like acres of pale, pistachio-green quilt. “Do you hold parties in that thing, bella?” Her laugh was unsteady. “Not usually, but I think we’re going to have one today.” Grasping the material with his hand, he yanked it down toward the footboard before standing Isabella at the edge of the mattress. He moved his hands up and down her arms, caressing the soft skin, feeling the tiny shivers racing through her. His gaze dropped to her nipples, dark beneath the fabric of the dress and so obviously hard. He pinched one of them lightly between thumb and forefinger and was rewarded with a soft whimper. On impulse, he bent his head and drew the thin cotton of her dress, the sheer silk of her bra and her beaded nipple into his mouth, sucking hard and flicking his tongue over the surface. Isabella threaded her fingers through his hair, clutching his head and 13

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arching herself into him. His cock flexed against the material of his slacks, a painful reminder of his state of arousal. Slow, Hallowell. Keep it slow. He grabbed handfuls of the material of her skirt and drew it slowly up her thighs to her hips, grasping it with one hand while the other slid beneath the edge of her thong to cup her ass. He moved his fingers down to where her buttocks and her thigh connected, then lower just to the edge of her slit. Automatically she widened her stance to give him better access and his finger reached farther to circle the opening to her pussy. He continued his dual assault on her nipple and her cunt, her tiny moans arousing him further, her slender fingers digging into his skull. With a tremendous effort he lifted his head from her breast and slipped his hand back up over her ass. Breathing heavily, he reached for the button holding the halter top closed. When the fabric fell away, he stared at the rich lushness of her breasts now open to his gaze. He cupped them in his palms, taking their weight and thumbing her nipples gently. Damn! They were huge, firm and inviting. He could suck on them all night. Pressing his mouth to her, he gently licked her full, sensuous lips while he made quick work of the back zipper on the skirt of her dress, letting it fall to the floor and pool at her feet. He squeezed and kneaded her breasts while his tongue thrust inside her mouth and learned every silken inch of it. Forcing himself to step back, he let his eyes take in every inch of her trembling body, from her wet, taut nipples to the tiny triangle covering her mound. Lane didn’t know where to touch first. Where to taste. She was a Florentine princess in flesh and blood, so compellingly arousing that he nearly came just from looking at her. “There’s no sign that says ‘Don’t touch’,” she teased, with a slight catch in her voice. “I wish I had a dozen pairs of hands.” He could barely get the words out. He reached to caress her shoulders, her arms, the rich swell of her breasts, pausing to flick both the dark nipples. He molded his fingers to the indentation of her waist and the flare of her hips. His hands met on the soft skin of her tummy and moved as one 14

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through the trimmed glossy pubic curls to find the wet slit and within it the furled knot of her clitoris. Isabella sucked in a breath as he tugged the nub with two fingers. The rich scent of her arousal teased at his nose and he fell to his knees, burying his face in her pussy. As carefully as if he were opening the petals of a flower he spread her cunt lips and drew his tongue along the length of her slit. She shuddered and grasped his shoulders, digging her fingers into his muscles. Her taste was better than any fine wine he’d ever had and twice as intoxicating. He lapped at her like a man dying of thirst, sliding his hands around to cup her very fine ass and hold her in place. By turns he licked her slick flesh and swirled his tongue around her swollen clit. The more he tasted the wetter she became, her body trembling in his grasp, delicious little sounds escaping her lips. When she was shaking in his grasp, he nudged her until she fell backward onto the bed, her legs dangling over the edge of the mattress and splayed wide open. Locking his mouth onto her clit, he slid two fingers inside her, curling them to find her sweet spot. Setting up an insistent rhythm with his mouth and fingers, he probed and stroked and sucked, feeling the tension grow in her body. “Oh, please,” she cried out, thighs quivering, hands clenched into fists as they grasped at the fine cotton sheets. Please? Oh, yes, he’d please her all right. He increased the pace of mouth and fingers, touching all her intimate points, lapping at her rich cream. As he felt her nearing her climax he slipped his fingers from the clasp of her pussy and moved them along the very sensitive tissue to the area around the puckered ring of her anus then back up again. Once, twice, then he drove three fingers into her channel and bit down gently on her clit. She came in a voluptuous explosion, drenching his hand and bucking her hips, little cries of “oh, oh, oh” punctuating her spasms. Lane couldn’t take his eyes from her. The orgasm gripped her fiercely, shaking her entire body. Her hands closed tightly around the sheets, her hips thrust and rose. Her eyes were closed, her face flushed and her 15

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breasts heaving at him as she struggled for breath. He continued to stroke and suck until the last aftershock faded and Isabella lay limp on the bed. Moving her unresisting body, he adjusted her until she lay lengthwise, her head on the pillows. Then he bent down to her kiss her, his tongue still coated with her juices probing her mouth. Lane was overcome with a desire to feel those full lips around his cock, to slide it into the heat of her mouth. His hand coasted over her body, cupping her breasts and tweaking her nipples before sliding over the smooth skin of her tummy and finding her wet heat again. “I think one of us is overdressed,” she gasped, tearing her mouth away. “And there’s room on this bed for both of us.” Lane chuckled softly. “If I’d taken my pants off too soon it would all be over but the shouting.” “I’m ready to shout, cara mio,” she whispered. She reached a hand to his face and traced the line of his lips with one finger. “Right now.”

If he didn’t get naked soon Isabella was afraid she’d leap off the bed and rip his clothes off herself. He was the most attentive lover she’d had in ages, concentrating on her pleasure first rather than his own. But now she needed to feel his skin against hers. To touch him everywhere. To wrap her fingers around the cock pressing so urgently against his fly. The smile he gave her was teasing but hungry. “Getting impatient, are you?” “Impatient for a lot more.” She shifted her body on the bed, opening her legs to tease him with the sight of her drenched pussy. Tiny little shivers still skated over her skin and the throbbing inside her pussy that the release had momentarily stilled was back in force, vibrating through her body.

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Her eyes locked with his as he stood up and pulled off his shirt. She was sure she drooled at the sight of that hard-muscled chest dusted with dark hair, the sculpted definition of the muscles in his arms and shoulders. In the fading light that filtered in through the open balcony doors the lines of his masculine face were in sharp relief. The whole picture made Isabella squeeze her thighs together against the pounding of the pulse in her cunt. Incredibly, the orgasm had only whetted her appetite for more. Much more. When he unfastened his slacks and stepped out of them along with his boxer briefs she thought she might swallow her tongue. His cock was absolutely magnificent, springing forward from the dense thatch of curls surrounding it, the sac with his testicles hanging heavy beneath it against his thighs. God, the man was absolutely beautiful. And every inch of him radiated sex. She wet her lips. “Come here, Lane.” She held out a hand to him. He paused to bend and retrieve something from his wallet—a condom, of course— before climbing onto the bed next to her. “Bella mia,” he crooned, one hand cupping a breast as he kissed her forehead, her cheeks, the line of her neck. He nibbled the lobe of her ear and licked the soft place behind it, the one that sent such shivers racing through her and heated her blood. Isabella slipped a hand between their bodies to find the hot length of his cock and wrapped her fingers around it, stroking the velvet skin over the hard steel. It flexed in her hand and when she circled the tip of a finger over the head she felt the thick drop of liquid beading at the slit. Boldly she rubbed it with her finger, then lifted that finger to her mouth and sucked it languidly. “Jesus, Bella,” Lane hissed. “Have mercy on a man.” He clamped his hand around her wrists, stilling its motion. “But I want to,” she told him, even as he continued to place kisses at strategic places. “I want to make you feel good, too.” “Oh, let me tell you, I feel better than good.” 17

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Still he moved her hand and bent his head to take a nipple in his mouth, pulling on it with his lips and biting it lightly. His hand continued to mold her breast as he tugged and nipped. She moved restlessly, wanting more, wanting to feel every inch of him against her. She wove her fingers into his thick hair, arching her breasts up to his mouth, rubbing herself against the thickness of his cock and the concrete hardness of his body. When he shifted abruptly she moaned a protest but he kissed his way down her body, taking his time. Licking every inch then feathering kisses. He ran the tip of his tongue through the crease where hip and thigh joined and dipped it into the indentation of her navel. It was sensual torture. She wanted more but she didn’t want him to stop. All she could think in her scattered brain was that here was a man who knew how to make love to a woman. Then he was between her thighs, spreading them wide and placing an open-mouthed kiss on her cunt. She bucked against him, every nerve ending firing, her blood pounding in her ears. When he lifted his head, she looked down at him through heavy-lidded eyes and saw her cream glistening on his lips. She watched as he grabbed the condom and easily rolled it onto his cock. Then he pushed her legs back, positioned himself at her entrance and with a swift stroke plunged into her waiting pussy. Automatically she wrapped her legs around his waist, digging her heels into the small of his back to pull him into her as tightly as she could. He braced himself over her for a moment, then began a slow glide in and out, an almost languorous movement, adjusting his body so his pubic bone rubbed her clit with every motion. Every rasp of that sensitive flesh sent more liquid into her cunt, lubricating a channel already wet and waiting. When he drew back she could feel every inch of his erection slowly scraping against her sensitive walls. When he thrust forward his balls slapped against her, turning her arousal into an explosion of lust. She tried to urge him to increase his pace but he seemed determined to draw it out as much as possible. She could see every muscle in

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his body taut with the effort at control, desire and need blazing in his eyes. Sexual warmth suffused her, the blood in her veins turning into molten liquid, her inner muscles clutching at him. She was sure she couldn’t endure it for another moment, all her nerves were crying for more, a dark coil of need was unwinding faster and faster inside her, Lane increased his rhythm, quicker now and harder. He leaned forward more so her already sensitive breasts rubbed against the hair on his chest. She was on fire everywhere and everything ceased to exist except the heat surrounding her, the man over her and the thick, hard cock pounding in and out of her. More, more, more. It echoed in her head. She used her legs to pull herself even closer to him as the wave inside her built up and up, crested, and exploded. At the same moment Lane stiffened, gave one last hard thrust and emptied himself. She could feel the spurts of hot, thick semen through the thin barrier of the latex, the heat of it expanding through her body. Isabella clutched at him as she fell into space, rockets exploding as she spun and whirled, her body convulsing again and again and again. Finally she lay gasping for breath, her heart hammering, Lane on top of her catching his weight on his arms. The only sound in the room was their breathing as they drew air into oxygen-starved lungs. At last he brushed strands of hair from her damp cheeks and smiled down at her. “Molto bene, cara,” he said in a low, deep voice. She smiled back at him. “Very good indeed. You make love like an Italian Renaissance man, Lane Hallowell. I do believe you are a famous lover reincarnated.” “Then perhaps we made love like this in another life.” She laughed. “Oh, I think I’d remember that.” He chuckled. “Give me one minute here and I will attempt to remember.”

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“We should revive our memories and our bodies with good wine. Sadly,” she said looking forlorn as only pampered Italian beauties could and not seem petulant, “I have none. But I can go down to the enoteca at the corner and get us a good bottle.” He ran his open palm down her throat to cup a breast. Against her nipple, he whispered, “I like you as you are, undressed. What if I call the shopkeeper? Will they deliver it up to us?” “Giorgio Silva is the owner’s name. Sì, he will bring it up for me.” She leaned up to nuzzle Lane’s ear. “He does it often.” Lane lifted a brow at her. “On other afternoons?” She knew he asked if she had enjoyed other trysts like this here. “Exactly.” Lane’s expression fell to a boyish dismay that dissolved any concern of hers that Lane Hallowell had taken her to bed to add her to his list of conquests. “I am damn jealous.” “You must not be. I have had few lovers. Carefully selected. Carefully discarded. And you?” “The same.” She nodded, pleased with his answer and sensing his honesty. “Our wine then.” She told him the phone number to call. He slid carefully from her body and padded to the bathroom to dispose of the condom. Isabella forced herself from the bed, pulling a satin robe from her closet and belting it at the waist. She heard Lane moving behind her, picking up the phone, ordering from Giorgio in flawless Italian. Oh, my god, she thought. I really have found myself a Renaissance man. I can hardly wait to see him in action on the job. If Nemesis hires me. If I want the job and if I can work with him without making a fool of myself over him.

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He came up behind her on the balcony, his hands warm on her shoulders, his lips tracing the line of her throat down to her shoulder. “I love this view overlooking the city,” she told him, reveling in the warm, wet mark of his mouth on her skin. “It’s like an artist’s palette of colors.” “I agree. And a fitting place to drink our toast as soon as the wine arrives.” She turned to look up at him, his additional six inches of height towering over her. He had a commanding presence now flushed with passion. A man enchanted. As was she by him. Be careful of your heart, Bella. “And what will we be toasting?” His smile curled her toes. “Why, to our new partnership, of course. And our first assignment together.” Isabella raised an eyebrow. “Partnership? You mean you are offering me the job? But we’ve hardly had the interview.” He stroked her cheek and brushed his fingers lazily against her cheek. “I read your dossier. It told me everything I need to know professionally. The important thing was to determine if we blended personally.” “Oh? And you’re saying we do?” “I think the second part of the interview confirmed that, don’t you think?” he leaned down to brush his lips against hers just as a knock sounded on the door and the cell phone in the pocket of his slacks rang. “I am heading into the shower,” Bella pointed toward her bathroom. “Get the door, can you?”

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Chapter Three He fished for his phone, but whoever had called had hung up. Having an idea it was Nemesis headquarters calling, he slipped on his trousers as he watched a soft smile curving Bella’s lips before she whirled for her bathroom. His body still flushed from his molten coupling with this incredible woman, he felt his cock twitch as he studied the elegant beauty of her naked ass. “Stop it, Lane,” he muttered as he buttoned his waistband and headed for the front door, touching the face of his phone as he went. From the exchange code on the screen, he glimpsed that the call had originated from Nemesis headquarters in south central Texas. On the second ring, he was greeted by a chipper woman with business definitely on her mind. “Good morning, Maddie. Up early, aren’t you?” He greeted the woman who was part owner with Nicole Welles of the private security company he worked for. “Especially in your condition, you should be home in bed, shouldn’t you?” “This baby is not due for another two weeks, and it doesn’t matter where I am, Lane, sitting, standing, walking, he’s going to be a powerhouse just like his father.” Lane chuckled. Another insistent rap sounded at the front door. “Sì, sì, I’m coming!” he hollered to Giorgio at the front door. “I called to hear about the interview.” “Interview, right,” he answered haphazardly, realizing he needed euros to pay this guy and dug in his pocket for his money clip. “Sorry. I promised I’d call. But the meeting went well. Terrific, in fact. Scusi,” he told her as he swung wide the door and smiled at the pudgy older man with a goofy grin on his face. “Uno momento.”

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“I get that you are somewhere and busy, but I need more substance than just a headline. I have that new assignment for you. It’s urgent and—” “So much for my vacation.” “You knew it might come through quickly.” “I did,” he admitted. “So if Isabella is ready to come on board and be your partner, I need to negotiate her employment with her.” “Right. Right.” Lane plunked fifty euro into the man’s outstretched palm, having no time to ask him what the bill really was and an urgent need to get on with Maddie’s issue and return to Bella. “Grazie. Grazie. Ciao. It was great, Maddie. We hit it off.” Wow, if you only knew. “You think you can work together?” Maddie pressed. “More than,” he told her as he shut the door, juggling two bottles of wine and the phone. “Really?” she asked in a tone that told him he’d revealed more than he wanted to. “Why’s that?” He winced. “We have a lot in common. Parents who are in the art world. A love of Italy. The language.” “Right. I knew that, Lane, before I picked up the phone.” Perceptive Madison Foreman. “Tell me more, quickly, please.” “We communicate well.” Lane fought for a rational assessment of how well he and Bella blended beyond the bedroom. Searching for words to be objective, he wandered into Bella’s small colorful kitchen and put the wine bottles on the counter. “We understand each other without talking. The body language is—” Bella appeared at the corner, fresh from a shower, her smooth olive skin dewy with water and utterly bare.

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He swallowed. Hard. “Clear,” he managed as he snaked out an arm and circled it around her delicate waist, then buried his lips in that tempting spot at the hollow of her collarbone. “We talk with our minds.” “Sounds kind of woo-woo to me, buddy,” Maddie concluded. Bella snuggled against him, her hands to the button of his waistband. “It is,” she whispered, obviously having heard Maddie and prompting him to repeat her own words. He did, not able to find another set that might be better considering Bella was busy brushing her fingers along the skin of his ribs. “Ahh,” Maddie chuckled. “What do you say in those moments?” Bella heard and rubbed her nose down his chest to lick one of his nipples and elicit a grunt. His nipple turned to fire as he groaned. “Is that so?” Maddie laughed lightly. “I think I know this language.” “Does she?” Bella paused to ask and look up at him with limpid onyx eyes. He sank his fingers into the satin hair at her nape and pressed his lips to hers for only a second. Her mouth left his reluctantly, still open as he gathered his damn wits and responded to Maddie, “Perhaps you do.” “Can I ask if the person you are really communicating with right now is Isabella?” “You can,” he told her as he bent to capture Bella’s lush mouth once more with his own. “Lane?” Maddie asked none too delicately. “Hmm?” was all he could manage as Bella’s hands brushed his trousers down his hips and cupped his cock in one and his balls in the other. “I’ve got a case I need to get started here.” “I understand,” he replied like a drone while Bella sank to the floor and flicked her tongue over the slit of his cock. He growled. “I tell you Bella’s good. Very…good.” He

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shut his eyes, wanting to finish the conversation and get on with enjoying the woman who was tonguing his hardening shaft. “I have to make her an offer, Lane.” Against his skin, he felt Bella moan as she drew away with a pop and stared up at him. Her large, dark eyes hazy with lust, she said in her accented contralto, “Tell her to give it to you.” “Give it to me,” he told Maddie and Bella as well, his fingers gripping the back of her head to lead her to take him inside her warm cavern once more. Bella laughed, deep in her throat and did as he wished. He nearly came right there, his cock so erect, so thick, so full he could hardly bear Bella’s languid strokes. “Ahhh. Okay. Hmm. One hundred forty thousand. Lane? Are you there?” “Yes. Yes.” He was here all right. Where the hell else would he go with Bella’s expert mouth loving him like this? “One hundred and—” he began to repeat. “Higher,” Bella crooned and sank over him with such a strong, long pull that he thrust his hips at her. “It is!” he told her. She pulled away, unable to stop a giggle. “Pardon me?” Maddie inquired in her professional, no-nonsense voice. “I want more,” Bella said when she heard Maddie and licked drops of his pre-cum from his seam with the delicacy of a woman devouring a rare treat. He wobbled on his feet and nearly went to his knees. “Tell her. I want more.” He repeated it, his gaze fastened on her lips. Pink, rhythmic, lush. Her mouth serviced him with such sure-fire strokes he had no freaking idea what he was doing. Only knew what he wanted to do. Have done. To him. “Okaaaay. More,” Maddie responded with consideration. “One fifty.” “Bene. And assurance of one month’s vacation a year,” Bella paused, her lips wet with his essence. 25

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Voice hoarse, Lane repeated her terms. “Agreed,” Maddie shot back. “Of course, we have best health insurance, usually three weeks off between assignments, profit sharing, a 401K.” Bella smiled up at him, hearing all of it because now he had lowered the phone to her ear. Hell. Why pretend any longer? But Bella still spoke only to him, her gaze glued to his. “I want a trial period. One month.” He frowned. Why, he asked her silently. Her expression was as closed as that of a master’s Madonna. But her hands pleasured him like a sultry lover. “Lane?” Maddie asked. “A trial period. One m—” “Got it,” Maddie shot back. “Agreed. Anything else?” Bella shifted her gaze from him to his cock, then sank her lips over him to totally envelop his length. He had to put a hand to the wall to remain standing. She withdrew slowly. “I want assurance that for that month my only partner will be you.” He thumbed her lower lip. “She wants—” “I heard her, Lane. What do you say to that?” “Maddie, I’d say,” he breathed as he set the phone on the kitchen table and hooked his hands under Bella’s arms to lift her into his embrace, “I need her. I want her. I’ll do my damndest to ensure no other man will do.” He hauled her up, crushed her to him, loving every inch of her marvelous mouth, feeling every sinuous curve of her breasts and belly and thighs wrapping around his. He kissed her once. “What do you say, Bella? Are we a team?” “We are. One month.” 26

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He couldn’t wait to begin and bent to scoop her into his arms. Bella managed to pick up the phone and say, “Mille grazie, Maddie. You have yourself a deal.” She listened for a minute, then said, “Sì, ciao, Maddie.” “She wants you to call her later so she can tell you more about the new client.” Then she clicked off the phone and put her lips to his. “Show me, Mr. Hallowell, how good a partner you will be.” “Now that I’m not in a rush,” he grinned and strode back to her bedroom, pretending to be so fucking cavalier when he really felt like King Kong the Conqueror, “I have a few things I’d like to do all night long.” She laughed, hair thrown back, as he set her down on the rumpled bed. “We’ll need more than wine.” “I cook.” “Superb!” She clapped her hands together and rolled away from him as he climbed on the bed. “I think I will be ravenous.” He grabbed her ankle to pull her toward him. His mouth on her musky cunt, he nuzzled her, then licked her diamond-hard little clit. “God knows I am.”

Panting with his rapid-fire attention to her pussy, Bella blessed the concrete walls of her old building as she began to keen while he ate her. “I cannot bear this!” she yelled at him and fisted his shoulders. “I must taste you. Again. Often.” “You will!” She sank back to the bed, her arms out like a slave. And was she not? To him? Oh, dangerous, Bella. But his mouth was so sweet as he sucked her. And his tongue was so fast, so hard as he tickled her. And his hands, so commanding as he held her ass to lift her to his delicious mouth. 27

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“Lane.” She fought for reason. “We are now one!” He lifted his head, his jaw set, his gaze sensuous green and brown heat. “For only a month. I must hurry.” “Hurry?” She tried to close her thighs. Impulsive, demanding man, he would not let her. “I will not have a man who hurries!” “My thought, exactly.” He fumbled around on the nightstand and produced a condom, then tore it open and slipped it on. “I hurry to convince you to stay with me. Beyond the month.” “You must prove—” He circled her legs up, her ankles around his neck as he slid in deeply, totally filling her. “I will.” She shuddered at his size, his heat. “I think I believe you.” He began to move, a rhythmic dance that took her mind away. And her house phone rang. “No,” they both objected to the intrusion in unison. “Maddie again?” she asked as the two of them halted, paused in mid-stroke. “Calling on your phone?” He winced and shook his head once. “I doubt it. She knew what was happening here. So who?” She gave his cock an internal massage. “I must answer. It might have to do with the Bargello again. Or another emergency.” As the preferred explosives expert in Italy she was on call with all the police departments as well as major institutions when a threat occurred. But at the moment she could barely put one thought in front of the other. Lane felt too marvelous to let him go. But she must. “We will return to this.” He sank over her, his arms shaking, and kissed her lips. The phone was ringing over and over. Not relenting.

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She rolled to the side and struggled to her feet. In her hall, she picked up the receiver. A man began a flood of information. The Bargello’s director. “Sì, sì, Signore Silvestri. I understand. Where did you find it?” “Beneath Donatello’s David,” he answered, his voice shaking with fury and fear. “I see. Like this morning. And it looks the same as the little purse from earlier today?” This could hardly be coincidence. It just wasn’t possible that all American female tourists had the same taste in purses. And why leave another exactly like the first in the exact same spot? “Leave everything just the way you found it,” she said to him, regretting that her “interview” with Lane had to end. “Have you called the polizia again?” Sometimes she was the first call even before law enforcement agencies were alerted. This would be an excellent opportunity to see how well she and Lane worked together, and access to Nemesis if the situation proved too much for La Guardia di Finanza or her to handle. Which was a distinct possibility. But she needed to get the panicked museum director under control. “Calm yourself, Signore Silvestri. The pack this morning was not lethal in any way. The polizia tell me the forensics prove what I detected.” “No matter, I do not care what they say!” the young director pressed her. “They will return. My precious children, my priceless treasures, are in danger. Come at once. At once.” “Sì, sì, I will come. I will examine this one. Not to fear.” Lane came to stand in front of her and took her in his arms. His lips in her hair, he kissed her sweetly. But against her belly, she felt the strength of his very erect cock. She let him caress her back in tender strokes, her breasts beading against his strong warm chest, while trying to concentrate on what she was hearing. But she froze at Silvestri’s next words. “What do you mean the Uffizi has the same purse?” How could the palace museum of the de’Medici along the river and more than ten blocks south of the Bargello have the same purse? What was going on here?

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The young director of the Bargello was clearly upset, racing along in Italian, spilling out his information so quickly, she had to make him repeat his words. “It is the same manufacturer as this morning’s, Signorina Sebastiani. L.L. Bean. American. Brown. As was this morning’s pack. But this time the person has left it beneath the oil by Artemisia Gentileschi.” The Florentine woman known for her rare achievements in oil painting in an age dominated by male artists. “Which one?” “Judith slaying Holofernes.” “A woman with a sword,” Bella said immediately, her first thought of the similarities between the bronze statue of David the Goliath slayer and Judith the slayer of a nefarious Assyrian. Was there something symbolic about that? “Sì. Sì,” he said. “Violent. Bloody.” “The painting is, yes. But the David is almost sweet, were it not for the sword and the fact that David has his foot on the severed head of the giant.” “Crafted nearly a century apart,” Silvestri told her, but he did not have to. Her years in Florence, her childhood listening to her parents and their friends discuss the lives and works of hundreds of artists had left her with a storehouse of information in her brain. “Donatello did his own version of Judith slaying Holofernes,” he added. “So did Caravaggio,” she added. Lane whispered, “And Titian, Rembrandt.” “So many others,” said Silvestri. “With few other similarities,” she narrowed her gaze, recalling one of her father’s friends who had told her of artworks which had been noted for the quotations ascribed to them—and political messages attached to them. “Donatello’s David stands for the freedom of man.” Again she tried to discern if there was a hidden meaning here. Lane’s voice wafted over her. “While Artemisia and this work in particular stand for the liberation of women.”

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She stared up at Lane. “Signore, I will be there in a few minutes. I bring with me my associate.” Then she hung up. “You will come with me, won’t you?” Lane hugged her close. “You and I are now inseparable.”

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Chapter Four The Bargello was alive with activity when they arrived. Tourists had been evacuated and herded to one side of the sidewalk behind the Guardia’s blue and gray barricades. Bella smiled at the efficiency of La Guardia di Finanza, the police force of Italy responsible for customs and therefore protection of all artworks. The Finanza law enforcement were carefully chosen men and women of whom she herself had been one before she became an independent consultant last year. Museum workers stood to one wide with some of the museum’s security guards. And beyond them, the local Florentine uniformed polizia wove another line of security. Standing with the agitated director, Silvestri, were two men in dark suits. Detectives of the Finanza. Isabella had worked with them just that morning. “I would like to say it’s nice to see you again, Signorina,” the taller one said, advancing toward them. “But not under these circumstances.” “I agree, Cappi. Let’s see what we’ve got. I’m going to assume this one isn’t another false alarm.” “Only you can tell us that.” He looked over her shoulder at Lane. “He is with me.” Cappi frowned. “With you?” She huffed impatiently. “Lane, show them your credentials.” He flashed his Nemesis wallet at them and she tapped her foot in irritation while the detective examined the document closely. “All right,” he said at last. “Scusi, but you know how careful we must be.” “I would think his being with me would be enough, but fine. Let’s go inside.”

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As she approached the door, Silvestri hurried up to her. “Signorina Sebastiani, you must help me. They are going to destroy my beautiful museum. These irreplaceable works of art.” She took a moment to place a calming hand on his arm. “I am not going to let that happen. Now I must go inside to do my job.” She looked at Cappi as he opened the door. “My equipment is here?” He nodded. “I brought it myself as soon as the call came in. I still had it in my car from this morning.” The bomb disposal equipment made an ugly contrast to the marble bench it was sitting on. She sighed, handed her purse to Lane and took off her shoes. In seconds she was encased in what she called her “alien suit”, headgear in place, hands clamping onto long rods with claws on the end.

Lane noted that a lead shield had been rolled into place in front of the purse, but it had to be low enough that Bella could reach over it. Despite the fact that he was well aware she knew what she was doing, his stomach knotted with anxiety for her safety. When everyone had removed themselves to safe distance, she strode slowly forward until she was standing at the shield. She extended the rods over the top and began working the claws. Meticulously she lifted the flap of the purse until its contents were exposed. Lane held his breath for a long moment until she turned her head slightly. Through the plastic in the front of her head shield he saw her lips moving. “What did she say?” he asked the suit standing next to him who was talking into a lapel mic. “That she believes the bomb is TATP and she needs a lead box with dry ice in it.” He’d just bet she did. Triacetone triperoxide (TAPT) was stable only as long as the environment around it didn’t become hot. Then it could blow at any minute. He had a

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lot of questions, such as how it had gotten past the museum security with their visitor inspection policies. How the bomb maker or makers had kept it stable until they placed it and left, although the museum temperature was kept low of necessity because of the fragile condition of many of the artworks. And if there was a timer attached to it. He found himself sweating while two other men suited up exactly like Bella rolled a sizeable lead box over next to the purse and opened the cover. The smoke rising from the box indicated it already had dry ice inside. He began counting the seconds to himself as she slowly lifted the purse with the claws and transferred it to the box. That done, she dropped the rods and closed the lid, then removed her headgear and turned to Lane. “Three small vials that look like perfume,” she told him. “The white crystalline powder that is TATP travels better in solution.” “The Mother of Satan,” he muttered. She nodded. “Current choice of suicide bombers. But that’s not the case here. Obviously.” “What now? And what about the purse at the Uffizi?” “This box goes into the bomb disposal van while you and I run like hell to the Uffizi. Then I’ll defuse them both at the same time.” He raised an eyebrow. “You can leave this one that long?” “The dry ice makes it stable for a short period of time. Come. We must hurry.” “Signorina, Signorina.” Silvestri, who had been allowed back into the museum area, raced toward her, wringing his hands. “We must find who’s doing this.” “And we will,” she assured him. “I’m going to leave someone with you until I get back. Even as we speak equipment is being set up in your office to monitor phone calls and all messengers will be checked.” She put a delicate hand on his arm. “I promised you, it will be all right. Believe me.”

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She cast a look at one of the men in dark suits who hurried forward and led the young director toward his office. “This way, Signorina Sebastiani,” one of the uniforms said. “The Minister of Finance has ordered a car at your disposal.” She smiled at him and he saw the relief wash over her that her old family friend, Arturo Franzoni, now in the Italian Cabinet, would give her ready transportation to help his policemen in the Finanza. “Please tell Minister Franzoni I am most grateful.” “Sì, he says he will do anything to aid you, Signorina. Meanwhile, please, the driver is waiting for you at the front door.”

Their driver had once been a professional racer, she was certain of it by the way she’d left her breath behind her as he left the curb. He zoomed along in his little dovegray car to deposit them blocks away, along the Arno River. Once inside the famed offices of the de’Medici, now a museum, she and Lane went through a similar routine until the purse with its lethal contents rested in another lead-lined box. And more tension-filled time while she defused each one. More than two hours later, the same driver sped them back to the Bargello. There, Lane followed Isabella up the long steps to the upper level of the medieval jail where now the museum offices were located. Finanza polizia lined the corridors. More police were on the upper balcony in front of a heavy carved wooden door, including two metropolitan detectives in suits. One of them greeted her. “Another one for your clever hands, Bella,” he told her. “Let’s hope you can take care of things before the poor director pisses himself.” “Of course, Aldo,” she said calmly, addressing him by his first name. She ignored the slight edge of sarcasm in his voice. Many of the local police departments had their own bomb disposal unit but Isabella had an international reputation for handling explosives and she was always at the top of everyone’s list when an incident occurred. The metropolitan polizia deferred to her with reluctant and grudging admiration. Aldo stepped forward now as if to prevent Lane from entering the museum. 35

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“He’s with me,” she snapped. “Scusi, Signorina Sebastiani. But you know we must be extremely careful.” She cast an impatient eye at him and said to Lane. “Show them your creds so we can get on with this.” Seconds later one of the uniformed men pulled the wooden door open and Isabella swept inside, followed by Lane. Silvestri was standing just inside, flanked by yet more local polizia, wringing his hands. His face was covered with a fine sheen of perspiration. “Grazie, grazie, for coming so quickly, Signorina,” he babbled. “I left everything exactly as I found it.” “Fine,” she muttered. “Good.” She looked at her old friend, the detective. “Cappi? Are my things still here?” “I made sure of it,” he told her. “We also have a small tape recorder left inside the purse.” “Another message?” she asked, her eyes on the small bomb laid out on Silvestri’s desk. “Sì. We have examined the tape recorder. Ten years old. Japanese make.” “Too old and too inexpensive to trace for ownership. Only fingerprints or trace evidence will help us learn who did this,” she concluded as she bent to the bomb. Then she began the process of dismantling it, exactly as she had done on the previous one. The TATP bomb consisted of three tiny perfume vials filled with the dangerous liquid. They lay atop an innocuous gel mask that had been previously chilled and was still warming. Items a woman might carry in her purse. And lying next to them a simple lady’s alarm watch, set to go off at a certain time and detonate the explosive.

Lane tried not to show the relief he felt that the immediate danger was past and Bella was away from the explosives. He knew she was the best of the best, but the thought of that supple body blown to bits made him shudder.

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Finally, done with the vials, Bella punched the button on the machine and played the message back again. The male voice speaking English in a British accent filled the room. You display art that celebrates liberation of the oppressed, yet millions are impoverished by the three-headed hydra. Yet you do nothing. We will make you. Freeze the assets of Kopf or the next bomb will be immediate and devastating. Octo. Lane and Isabella exchanged glances. “We must have voice analysis,” she told Cappi. “Interesting they did not bother to use a disguise mechanism,” Cappi noted. “Leaving a recorded message is something new, right?” Lane asked her. She nodded. “Today is the first time the bombs have appeared anywhere, in the art world or otherwise. The recorded message, too. Yet, this demand to freeze the assets of the Kopf is astounding.” “The Kopf,” he said with a sour taste in his mouth. “Kopf Industries owned by three men known for their art holdings and their obscurity.” “And their greed. One Russian, one Italian and one German joined together to package subprime mortgages and sell them as securities, defrauding millions and bankrupting entire countries.” Bella felt her blood pressure tick up. “This is no art thief setting these bombs. Could it be that some of those who have been defrauded by Kopf have set them?” Lane stared at her. “Why not? They talk of being oppressed and impoverished by the three-headed hydra? Makes sense to me.” “But who are they?” demanded Silvestri. “How can we save my museum if we do not know who is doing this?” Lane nodded. “Signore Silvestri has a point. I have never heard of Octo. Who is this unknown group that’s suddenly doing this? Definitely strange that no one wants to claim credit for it.”

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“What should I do?” Silvestri asked, nervously clasping and unclasping his hands. “If they ask for a ransom to end the planting of bombs, do you have the cash available?” Lane wanted to know of the director. Silvestri shrugged. “From the insurance company. And it would have to be approved by the board.” Bella paced. “Signore, you can do nothing at the moment. These would-be bombers have not asked for money. They have not set the bombs in so intricate a manner that they could not be dismantled.” She cocked her head and raised a finger in the air. “They’re warning us. Of Kopf, certainly. We must learn more about this three-man group, Lane. Quickly. We need to find out if there are other museums or galleries in Europe that are having the same problem. If they have recorded or written messages attached that speak of Kopf or a three-headed hydra.” Lane pulled out his cell phone. “Let me get onto Nemesis and see what background Maddie and Dan can dig up. And I’ll try to reach Adam and Nic. See if they’ve arrived here in Florence yet.” Adam Molloy, former Mossad agent now married to agency CEO Nicki Welles, still had many contacts all over Europe and the Middle East and often was the Nemesis point man for international cases. Terrorism was Adam’s specialty. Lane opened the door to the office and walked out into the hall, finding a quiet corner where he could carry on the conversation. He didn’t need either the museum staff or the polizia listening in as he called headquarters. But as he opened his phone, he saw he had new attached documents, all securely encrypted, from Maddie about their new client. His new client. Ours, he corrected himself as he read all the info with growing understanding and horror. When he had brought himself up to speed enough to talk with Maddie with some intelligence, he hit the speed dial for headquarters in Texas. “I just read what you sent me, Maddie. Threats against the G8 Finance Ministers by a group called Octo? Who the hell are they?”

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“New. No traces,” she told him. “The G8 countries and Interpol are hiring us to see if we can be eyes and ears in addition to their own security. The meeting of the eight finance ministers is in Paris in three days, Lane. We need you and Bella on this. No telling what this Octo group has in mind.” “We’ll have to hustle here, Maddie. We’ve got our own problems with bombs planted by Octo who want to bring down a corporation called Kopf Industries.” He gave her the condensed version of the bombs, their defusing and the recorded message. “See what you can find for me, okay?” “Wow,” she yelped and he heard her doing little pants. “Hold on, will you? Braxton Hicks contractions. Nothing…um…big. False labor. Okay. Phew! Okay. Kopf? Did you say Kopf Industries?” “I did. Why—?” “Well, good thing we’re on this, buddy. The G8 have been under pressure by elected officials and pension companies to freeze the assets of Kopf who stole their money in a subprime-mortgage scam last year. One of the reasons they want more security is because of the demonstrations all over Europe against Kopf. Everyone calls Kopf a hydra.” Lane ran a hand through his hair. “How did I miss that?” “You were in Barcelona undercover on your last case.” “Right. Right. But the hydra connection and G8 meeting threat might mean we are working the same case from two angles.” “Maybe. Maybe. Oh, boy. Hang on. Here we go again… Okay. We’re good. Send me a transcript of the recording, will you, if the Italian police will let it go?” “Sure. Bella is working as a consultant to the museums and the Finanza, so I doubt that’ll be a problem with them. And now that she’s working with us and our client is the G8, that ought to be more reason to let you analyze it on your software.”

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“Agreed,” Maddie said. “Hey wait! Before you go, you really think she is our caliber?” “Not a doubt in the world,” he bit off. He knew Maddie often used teasing to defuse tense situations but right now he was still shaking inside from Bella’s proximity to those bombs. He’d need to get hold of himself in a big hurry. “She’s the best I’ve ever seen. Steady as a rock with a cool head and the ability to block everything out except what she’s doing. And an unbelievable knowledge of explosives. Cool, calm, thoughtful. Just what we need.” What I need. “Good. Whoever gets info first calls the other. Deal?” “Deal. I’ll be going back to Isabella’s. You and I will talk soon.”

Isabella leaned back in her chair, shoes off and feet resting on an ottoman on the balcony of her apartment. It had been a very long day and the view of the black velvet sky was soothing to her frazzled nerves. The false alarm this morning. The “interview” with Lane which included all that exhaustive but highly satisfying sex. Racing from the Bargello to the Uffizi and back, taking care of the explosives, calming the directors, speaking with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and beefing up security all took exhaustive patience and control. Now that she could finally relax, she felt limp and drained. She and Lane were drinking a Brunello as smooth as silk and more soothing than the ebony sky. Meanwhile Lane tried to get Adam and Nic again. “I got a ‘not available’ message so I left a voice mail,” he told her, clicking off and dropping the phone on the little table between them. “I wonder where they are that they’re in a dead zone.” “That happens rarely in Europe, but it does occur,” she offered. As he checked his watch, his phone rang. “It’s two in the afternoon in Texas,” he murmured as he hit the receive button and talked with Maddie.

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As he hung up, Bella leaned forward, more alarmed by his bleak expression. “So what did Maddie say?” The lines around his mouth grew taut, then he took a long swallow from his glass. “Nothing good.” Isabella frowned. “What?” “Two in Paris and one in Spain. Same procedure. A purse with a dud in it left first—in France at the Louvre and in Spain at the Prado—followed up by the real thing. And that followed by the same recorded message.” “Hydras. Kopf. Scams to rob people of their pensions and savings,” Bella spit out the words. “Greed.” “But it’s not logical to punish the finance ministers,” he added. “If their governments allow it,” she waved a hand. “I know Arturo pressed for reforms.” “Arturo?” he asked as he split the rest of the wine between the two of them and lifted his glass again. “The finance minister of our government is an old family friend. My father and he went to Oxford together in the sixties. I spoke to him today on the phone. You remember. When we were offered the car to the Uffizi. And you know, he said nothing of this threat in Paris.” Lane shrugged. “Probably did not want to worry you. You had your own things to think about. Bombs. Museums and priceless art inside.” Lane shrugged again. “That’s the problem with museums. The cost of everything has escalated so much that security is low on the list. Technology is old. Professionals hardly merit the term. And right when the facilities need the best. These days, if a thief or a bomber can get past the front door then they’re good as gold.” “Security will now be on the alert for L.L. Bean purses,” Bella told him. “Our nasty little friends will need to find another delivery method.”

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“Let’s hope we find them before that happens.” He took her nearer hand in his and tugged at her, urging out of her chair. When she was standing he reached up for her waist and tumbled her into his lap. “Meanwhile, there’s nothing we can do but wait for the forensics to come in the morning. We will decide what to do afterward. And this has been a rough day for you. I think you need a little stress relief and I’m just the person to provide it.” “Oh?” Her lips curved in a seductive smile and she felt some of the strain easing from her body. She wouldn’t be able to relax fully until this was over and resolved but Lane’s touch had such a narcotic effect. Oh, wait. Maybe drugging wasn’t exactly the right concept. “What did you have in mind?” His mouth sought hers, one lean hand cupping her head and pulling it toward him so he could bring her lips to his. At the first contact, warmth seeped through her and the knots in her muscles began to unravel. His tongue swept into her mouth, touching every interior surface like the lick of a flame. His hand cradled her breast and his thumb rasped lightly back and forth over her now-hardened nipple. What was it with this man that just the barest touch could make her body ignite? Her breasts felt heavy and between her thighs she felt the wetness of her cunt and the pulse of her clit. “Haven’t we already done this today?” she asked, breathless, when he broke the kiss. “Are you insatiable?” “I seem to be that way with you,” he murmured, nibbling at her bottom lip. His hand moved from her breast to slide beneath the silken fabric of her skirt, his fingers stroking their way up the inside of her thigh until he reached her thong. “Wet,” he breathed. “I knew it. The chemistry between us is instantaneous and hot.” “I hope we can control this when we’re out in the field together,” she joked.

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“Trust me, princess. I might play hard but I work just as hard. When I’m out there I’m all business. Period.” He bent his head and nipped her nipple through her clothing. “But right now business is on hold and I can’t stop wanting to fuck you.” “Then perhaps we should move from the balcony,” she teased, the hunger inside her already bursting through her body. “Unless you want to perform for the city of Florence.” In response he stood up with her in his arms, carried her into the bedroom and placed her on the sheets still rumpled from earlier in the day. He bent over her, his mouth again ravenous against hers as he swiftly and expertly removed her clothes. His hands skimmed lightly over her body, tracing the dips and hollows, molding to her breasts and sifting through her glistening pubic curls to find the hot, wet folds of her pussy. Isabella moved restlessly, suddenly needing to feel him inside her, the hard length of him filling her. “Hurry,” she whispered as he stripped off his own clothing and sheathed himself in a condom. “We’ll have to replenish the supply of these if we’re going to keep doing this,” he remarked, his voice thick with desire and heat flashing in his eyes. “No problem. We’ll put it next on our to-do list.” He settled himself between her thighs and with one swift stroke drove into her. She gasped as the walls of her vagina stretched to accommodate him, then molded around him at once, the feel of him already becoming familiar. “Hard and fast this time, Bella.” He loomed over her, every muscle in his face taut, his weight balanced on his hands as he locked his gaze with hers. “Sorry.” “Oh, yes, please. Please.” “I thought you would not have a man who hurried.”

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She clenched her inner muscles around him. “There are exceptions to every rule. And this is one of them.” He moved then, deep, rapid strokes, in and out, feeding the bonfire inside her. Whether it was the fact that their bodies were becoming so in tune with each other, or the crash of adrenaline after the tension of the afternoon that ignited it so quickly, the orgasm crashed over them in seconds. It hit with the force of a tornado, sweeping them into space, bodies shuddering together, hearts hammering, the only sounds in the room the lazily turning ceiling fan and the rasping of breath seesawing in and out of their lungs. And finally they were done, spent, collapsed together on the sheets. Lane managed to rouse himself after several moments to dispose of the condom. “I think we should order more sustenance,” he suggested as he padded back to the bed and surveyed her with an appreciative gaze. “I could eat every inch of your body but that might not be enough to get me through until tomorrow.” “Of course.” She smiled, wiggling her brows at him. “Although your first thought is both tempting and tantalizing, business and pleasure demand more than wine.” He gave her a cockeyed grin. “I said I would cook.” “I have a few things for a carbonara. If you know how to—” “I do,” he assured her to her surprise. “Bene! You know, I’ve seen that before, with a different kind of bomb but I can’t remember where.” She frowned. “I think it’s important that I remember, too. But first, I will call Cappi to see if they have any more facts about fingerprints on the purse.” She sat up and was just reaching for her cell phone when Lane’s phone chimed. They looked at each other as he reached for the instrument. “This can’t be good,” he said, pressing Talk. “I agree.” And as they listened, they stared at each other, absorbing the news.

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Chapter Five Lane heard a man’s voice greet him. “Dan?” “Hey, Lane. Yep, I’m running this desk for the afternoon. Maddie has gone home early under my orders. She’s giddy with the need for rest. Anyway you have me. Listen, we’ve just gotten a bit of news from Paris and you must hear this.” “A recorded threat?” Lane asked him, his gut telling him it was connected to the ones who had left the museum messages. “Yes. Put your phone on speaker.” Lane motioned to Bella to come closer so she could hear the voice on the phone. She had her own phone to her ear but shut it off when he beckoned and came to slide next to him. Instinct and desire had him wrapping his arm around her shoulders and drawing her moist, supple body against his as they sat on the edge of the bed. A mechanical voice repeated word for word the same threat they had heard in the Bargello earlier. Except now there was an addition. Your ministers meet. Their first act must be to freeze the hydra’s assets in all eight countries. Or else the finance ministers will suffer. We are Octo. Eight united, eight strong. Eight dedicated to the destruction of the hydra. Bella froze in Lane’s arms. “Arturo,” she whispered the name of her family friend, the Italian finance minister. Her fingers dug into Lane’s. Lane hugged her close, knowing now this threat was personal for her. One of the finance ministers was dear to her family and to her. “Play it again, Dan.” And when it was done, Lane said, “Send me a high-quality audio copy, will you?” “Sure. We are doing research on this Octo group. So far, nada.”

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“How can that be?” he asked as Bella stared at him, listening as best she could to Dan and his conversation. “Came up out of grass roots,” Dan said. “Fast. Seems to be no organized money behind the group. No terrorism money or masterminds, either, as far as we can find so far. This might be created just to address the Kopf swindle.” “Unique,” Lane mused as he caressed Bella’s shoulder and she snuggled closer to him to hear better and maybe…for comfort, too. “It is. But their name is the only thing we’ve got to go on. If they mean to imply the G8, it is a pretty damn odd thing to take on the name of your target as your moniker.” “Agreed. But if it points to what they want,” Lane speculated, “then who are we to argue?” “True.” “Okay. I’ll keep my phone on and charged. Call, text, whatever as you need.” “Will do. Before we go, I want you to know that I got hold of Nicki and Adam with all this and to help, they went straight to the Florence airport and caught a red eye to Paris. They should be arriving at Charles de Gaulle in…let’s see…twenty-two minutes. They’re staying at the George Cinq. I’ve arranged reservations there for both of you.” “Why there?” The five-star hotel was a beauty but exceptionally costly. True, Nemesis agents stayed where they must to do a job well, not necessarily where they got the finest sheets or the best croissant. “All the G8 ministers are staying there. Their meeting place is not far away. I want you near them and in the center of things. Got you a pass to the meeting, too.” “Okay. I hear you. We’ll be in Paris as soon as we can.” “Lane, listen. Soon cannot be soon enough. I know it has been one helluva day there in Florence, but I need you in Paris tomorrow. Both of you.” Bella sat up. “I cannot go until I finish up this work on these bombs. The Finanza and my museums demand it.”

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“Cara,” Lane spoke the endearment and shocked himself with how natural it sounded. He cupped her cheek. “I think this is the same case. You belong to us now.” To me, too. “We will do this together.” “Please, see this my way,” she begged him on a whisper and put her lips to his in a tantalizing plea. “Tell him you will call him back. I must talk with you about these new facts.” She pursed her full lips, the look on her face an irresistible mix of mystery and sexual entreaty. He could not resist. “I’ll call you back in a few minutes, Dan. In the meantime—” “Yeah, I know,” Dan replied, giving a chuckle as if he could see Bella against him, skin to skin, kissing him, holding a phone and hot with sorrow and sexual promise. “Not a problem. In fact, take your time. You have all that material to go over but you two better get some rest. Tomorrow is not going to be fun.” “Dan. We are starving here, working ourselves to the bone!” When we’re not, we’re so damn lost in each other, I cannot breathe. “Send me all you’ve got. We’re eating!”

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she told Lane as she rose up on her knees, straddled him, rubbed her nipples and ribs and belly against his torso and sighed. “You’ll kill me with desire.” He snorted, put his phone down and reached to position her over his cock. She hummed, loving the friction, unable to resist her desire, remembering the need for a condom and her need to call Cappi. “Oh! Oh!” She put her hand over his erect cock, admiring him, massaging him, helping him harden and lengthen. “I must have you. I hope you have a condom.” “I do, but you’ve got to let me get it, honey. I can’t reach.” She cursed and pressed her soaking-wet lips to the ridge of his shaft. The thrill of his heat, his iron tantalized her to distraction. “Who is this crazy woman you have

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made?” she whispered as she slid from his thighs to the carpet, took his cock in her mouth and adored him. One hand cupping his testicles, she rolled them for him as she kissed his slit. Sweet, soft little pecks at his seam where now he emitted beads of desire for her. Bene. Molto bene. She licked his length. How long he was. How strong. How red. He could fuck her so well with this. Skin of silk. Muscles of steel. She smiled against his flesh, her tongue laving him, her teeth nipping him. She would have him as often as she liked. He would let her, too. No man had ever done that. No man had ever had the stamina. She cooed and held him by the root. Then she sucked him into her mouth. All the way down. He cursed. In English and Italian. Wonderful, my American man. My partner. In all things. The idea made her shiver and moan. Ravenous to pleasure him, she sucked him more strongly. Her pussy drenched with hot cream. Her core pulsed to be filled by him. Still she would not let him go. Not until she made him lose control, as she did so damn easily when she was near him. Loving him. Taking him. He put a finger to the corner of her mouth. “Cara mia, if you do not let me go now, I will come in your mouth.” She paused. Her long lashes lifted. Her gaze met his. He was dazed, his hazel eyes wet and dreamy with desire for her. She could not let him go. Never had she sucked a man to completion. Never had she cared enough. The act was too…intimate. “I want you like this,” she crooned to him, stroking his root, rolling his balls. “Let me, sì?” He shifted and groaned, then sank his hands in her curls. “Do it for me, cara. Christ knows, I want you every way you want me.” Smiling, she sank over him, taking him all the way into her mouth and down her throat. He braced himself against the mattress, his head thrown back. She moaned at the image and bent even more devotedly to her loving task. He was long. Hot. Hers. Hers. 48

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He bucked. She swallowed him even more deeply, careful not to hurt him, rabid to consume him. Back and forth, she made love to his length, celebrated all he was to her. Everything he was to her. Lost in her lust, lost to her fascination for him, she sucked him over and over in long, hard drags. He grunted, overcome. She knew he was near climax. Inside her heart swelled. Her cunt throbbed. He growled, one hand atop her head. And he came in her mouth. She pulled back, eager to swallow, determined to take all of him he meant to give her. He cupped her cheek as he shot his cum into her, holding her gently as she drank all of him. And sighed. Wiped her lips with two fingers and then let him lift her to his arms and take her back to the bed with him. For long minutes, he threaded his fingers through her hair as he pressed her delicious body to his own and whispered dulcet endearments into her ear. She lay there, enraptured by his responses. This was the kind of man she had always wanted. Wild for her. Willing to be captured by her. Able to give as much as she received. If only he would take the time. Lane Hallowell would. Did. How had she been so fortunate to meet him? How can you know so quickly, Bella, he is so right for you? After long minutes of drifting in the bliss of his embrace, he whispered, “Shower and dinner.” He tugged her boneless body from the bed and led her to her bath. There he stood her against the wall and turned on the water full blast. Taking down the detachable showerhead, he took her in his arms and directed it to the small of her back. The warm needles of water refreshed her, caressed her and made her hungry for him again.

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He lifted her face to put his lips to hers. A gentle meeting of flesh on flesh, his kiss was the breathless touch of the gods. “Darling,” he said nearly without sound, “how can I need you again?” She let her head fall back, as he brought the showerhead around to train on her aching nipples. Her hands went to his cock, dangling between his thighs but rising in her hand and thrilling her to her core. “Does it matter how?” “No, Bella. Only that we do.” He gave her a lopsided grin, then went to his knees, his hands nudging her thighs open and directing the spray to her sensitive labia. She jumped at the sting of the spray. Then groaned as he put two fingers up inside her cunt. She spread her thighs wider. “More, more,” she begged him, her fingers grabbing his hair and pushing his mouth to her pussy. “I need your mouth on me.” He was so damn obedient. He put his mouth to her lips, then pulled away, his caress a dance between kisses on her clit and the sting of the spray. Her knees buckled, but he caught her, pinned her upright to the warm tiles. “Let me have all of you, Bella.” He dropped the hand shower to the floor to put two hands to her pussy and roll her open. “Cara mia, how lovely you are. How plump. And red.” She shot a hand to the wall, and a hand to his head. “Oh, have me, before I die here.” Growling, he nuzzled her, his talented lips sucking at her, taking her needy little nub into his mouth and flicking it with his tongue. As he pulled away, he pinched it and she trembled. “Fuck me,” she pleaded with him. He put two fingers up inside her, finding her tender ridge and caressing her. With his other hand, he parted her labia with two fingers and tickled and rasped her clit until the pressure built inside her to a roar.

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With a cry she felt her body shudder and release, the thunder inside her a furious declaration of how well this man could change her world. Never had she come standing up. Never had she come this often. Never had she needed to with any other man. When she opened her eyes, she stood in his arms as he kissed her cheeks and her mouth. “We have sated one hunger for a few minutes,” he told her, humor alight in his eyes. “Let me cook for you before we need each other again.” “A fine idea before we are skin and bones, eh?” She handed him a loofa and a large bar of lavender soap.

An hour later, wrapped in her own robe with Lane in one of her big towels, they sat at her kitchen table finishing the last of his excellent carbonara. “I’ll do the dishes in the morning,” he said as he sat back. “A man who cooks and does dishes,” she exclaimed. “I am in heaven.” He leaned over to put his lips to hers. “You are here with me, cara. Come now, we are going to bed.” “I must call Cappi. See if he has any fingerprint matches.” Lane nodded. “Would he have anything at this hour of the night?” “You are right. It’s too late.”

Hours later as she rolled over and the sun shone in her eyes, she reached for Lane. Solid, reliable, lovable Lane. Pushing aside the need to learn what time it was and what might be happening beyond their bed and their delicious affair, she rose on her elbow to look at him. Arms cast out in abandon as he lay on his back, he seemed years younger. She leaned down, the musk of his body an aphrodisiac she could not ignore. Her nose

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skimming his torso, she felt one of his hands sink into her hair as he drew her close and wound his legs in hers. For long moments, they lay like that. Lazy, languid, liquid. His hand in her hair. Her lips on his chest. Her nose loving the fragrance of her lavender on his skin, his body in her bed. Her phone rang. He rose up on an elbow to glance around and try to find it for her. “Must have left it in the kitchen,” he murmured and left her embrace. Within minutes he was back to hand it to her. She took a quick look at the number. “Cappi,” she told him as she hit the recall button. A few rings later, the detective answered the phone to inform her there were no results on the prints yet. “Half an hour more,” he said, “Interpol has had a few other emergencies this morning.” “Like what?” she asked, alarmed that they might have more bombs. “Nothing on this case,” Cappi told her. “A problem in Bonn. Bank robbery.” “I see. Thank you. Call me when you know something.” She rang off and was ready to dial the Bargello to see if all was well there when her phone rang again. “Ciao! Sì,” she exclaimed to her caller. “Arturo! How wonderful to hear from you— ” she began in Italian. She was surprised he was calling her so early in the morning and about a case that was being pursued by so many law enforcement agencies. The minister said, “I know you have been working on these near explosions in Bargello and Uffizi. My staff has told me about your work.” “I am glad, Arturo, because—” “Isabella, I am leaving my house here this morning on my way into my office in Roma. Un momento.” She heard him say, “Ciao, Marta,” to his wife before returning to their conversation. “Marta sends you her love, Isabella. Now listen to me. I do not have much time, but I want you to know that I am sending a Finanza helicopter for you in

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Florence. It comes within the hour. They will land at the airport, at the government hangar pad.” “Why a helicopter, Arturo?” “Ah, well. I have heard of what happened there yesterday and we have a new threat, early this morning in the Villa Borghese.” “A purse?” she asked. “Like the others?” “Sì, the same description. Exactly. Where is my driver?” he asked someone with him. “I told him to be here in five minutes. What has happened to him?” “Arturo,” Bella beseeched him, “is it an L.L. Bean purse?” “Sì, sì, Bella. Where are my two bodyguards? Ah, Bella.” He sounded exasperated. “My staff is lazy today.” The hair on her arms prickled. His staff was the finest in the country. What was wrong? “Where are you, Arturo?” “About to walk out my door. Opening it now. I’m waiting for my chauffeur. Who is late. Why?” “Because—” “Oh, my god.” “What?” Bella stilled. “Let me see here… I now have a purse of same description in the doorway to my home.” “What?” She sat bolt upright on the edge of the bed. Lane scowled at her. Arturo repeated his last words. She could not believe what she was hearing. “Arturo! Listen to me. Do as I say. Step away from the purse. Now. Tell anyone else who is near it to move away.” Lane’s eyes went wide.

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Arturo said, “I have bodyguards…but they are not here…and…” “Tell everyone, anyone not to touch it.” “My family—” “Do not let them come out front.” She scrambled to her feet. Lane dialed someone on his phone. “Sì, Isabella. They are inside. My wife and one of our daughters. The staff. All inside.” “Tell someone, anyone near you to get them out! Now.” She hung on while she heard him direct one person near him to do as she had said. “Wait,” he told her, an odd note of bewilderment in his voice. “Three men approach. How would they know to come?” He sounded confused all of a sudden. “Do they have bomb equipment?” she asked him. “Arturo? Do they?” “They are in black. They are…not…Finanza. But—wearing balaclavas. Why?” She heard shouting, scuffling. “What are you doing?” Arturo shouted, the sound muffled. She hit the speaker on her phone so that Lane could hear. At the same time, she saw Lane hit the record button on his own phone and put it next to hers. “Get in the car!” a bass male voice shouted in Italian. Lane put a finger to his lips. “Get in the car!” “Watch out,” said another male voice in English. This with a British accent. “Don’t hurt him, for chrissakes. We don’t want to kill him just get the accounts frozen.” Bella stared at Lane, mouth open and working on the silent word, Octo. Another man cursed in French. “All in?” “Come on! Come on!” yelled the British man. They heard the car engine gun. 54

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The reception went fuzzy. Voices clear or not so as the men of different nationalities spoke to each other. Lane ran out into her living area and came back with a notepad and pen. We’re listening to him being abducted? She nodded in agreement. Lane wrote, He left his phone on? Again she agreed silently. Wonder if he has a GPS on it? Lane wrote. He’d better, she scribbled on the pad. Lane motioned to himself and then that he was going out. To find help. To find another phone. Meanwhile, Isabella sat in growing fear as she listened to the men of Octo abduct Arturo Franzoni.

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Chapter Six “He’s gone,” she told Lane, frozen in shock. And fear for her friend. “I heard the engine of the car as it drove away.” Wild to comfort her, he came to her and took her cold hands in his warm ones. “We’ll get him, Bella. Do not worry. I promise we’ll get him back.” “I must go to Rome to investigate this.” She pushed away the covers and swung her slim legs over the side of the bed. At that moment Lane’s own cell phone rang. He picked it up and flipped it open. “Yes?” “Have you discussed this with Isabella?” Maddie’s familiar voice all business even though Lane had wakened them around two a.m. Texas time. No hello. Just straight to the point. “No. Yes.” He gritted his teeth. “Isabella’s close family friend, Arturo Franzoni, a member of the cabinet here, was abducted from his doorway and she heard the whole thing. He’s the head of La Guardia di Finanza, responsible for customs, art theft, and banking for Italy.” “Holy hell.” Maddie sounded grim. “Also, there was a purse at his front door just like the ones left at the museums. I think they planned to snatch him and blow up his house as a warning to others.” “Well, that certainly fits right into the rest of this.” Lane watched Isabella carefully push herself off the bed, pull a robe from the closet and belt the sash tightly at her waist. She was pale but steadier than she’d been a minute ago, and listening to his end of the conversation.

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“Listen.” He walked out of the room to continue the call. “Isabella’s insisting on going to Rome to look into this and the bomb threat there.” “But the G8 ministers are already assembling in Paris,” Maddie protested. “There isn’t going to be an attack until they’re all in the same room,” Lane pointed out logically. “If we get there tomorrow we’ll still have plenty of time. And we may pick up more information in Rome.” “All right,” Maddie told him with reluctance. “I’m going to tell myself you’re using good judgment here, Lane. Don’t disappoint me.” “Maddie, for what we’re paying her we need to believe in her instincts. And you need to believe in mine.” He snapped his phone shut and turned to find Isabella looking at him. “Thank you,” she said. “For what?” “For believing that I know what I’m doing and standing up for me to Maddie.” Lane shoved his cell phone in his pocket and pulled Bella into his arms. God, she was so soft against him, those lush breasts like clouds of cotton against his chest. He leaned his cheek against her hair and inhaled her scent. Lane Hallowell had been with more than his share of women in his lifetime but none of them had affected him with such cataclysmic impact. None had seared themselves into his soul the way Isabella Sebastiani did. “From the moment I met you,” he murmured, “I knew you were what Nemesis needed and what I needed. Nothing’s happened to change that.” “We need to get moving, then. We have a lot of territory to cover if we’re going to be in Paris by tomorrow.” He cupped her cheeks. “And we’ll get it done.” He took her mouth in a scorching kiss, his cock hardening and pressing against his fly, his balls tingling. With great effort he pulled himself away. “Okay. Now we can get ready.”

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***** Lane leaned against the wall of the Italian government office and watched Isabella in yet another heated discussion with Emilio Umberto, Arturo Franzoni’s vice minister for finance. “I assure you,” she told him, “the agency I work for is treating this with the utmost priority. And Signore Franzoni is an old family friend, as well. Trust me, we are doing everything we can.” The man looked from her to Lane, panic still flashing in his eyes, his plump little body vibrating with tension. Because Arturo Franzoni was now not attending the G8 conference, Umberto would take his place. “I want him found. Very quickly.” She and Lane nodded. In the hours since she and Lane had arrived in Rome, they has been to Arturo’s house, questioned his wife and the maid, questioned everyone at his office, and Isabella had disarmed the explosives in the purse left at the Franzoni doorstep. She’d also neutralized the one at the Villa Borghese and Lane worried she was running on the edge of nervous energy. It had been a long, stressful day for everyone, waiting for word from the kidnappers and trying to find any clues to who they were. Lane had been on the phone constantly to Nemesis headquarters in Texas, Dan working his international contacts and Maddie searching on the computer. Now Lane and Isabella were in Umberto’s office, waiting for preliminary results of forensics reports from the scene of the kidnapping. Fortifying themselves with cups of rich Italian coffee, they were listening once more to the tape of the phone call that had come in just moments before, exactly at ten a.m. local time. Minister Franzoni is safe. For the moment. But his continued good health depends on your ability to act quickly. The G8 countries must move immediately to freeze all assets of the immoral Kopf Industries. If you are too weak to prosecute these criminals then we must take action. They must be stopped. When this is announced on international television the minister will be released. You have forty-eight hours to act. Octo has spoken.

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They all stared at each other. Lane frowned. “If Octo is giving the G8 forty-eight hours to freeze the Kopf assets, that means they want it done before the meeting begins.” “And that voice is the same voice as the message we listened to in Florence,” Isabella said. “If they don’t even bother to disguise the voice then they don’t care if we catch them. Are they crazy? They could kill Arturo at any moment.” “They’re not going to kill him,” Lane said quietly, setting his cup and saucer on the desk. “And you know this how?” Umberto asked. “He’s their ace in the hole. They need him alive or they have no bargaining chip. But if we don’t at least give the appearance we are acting, then I’m afraid not just Franzoni but all the G8 ministers will be killed when they gather in Paris.” “Just who is this Octo?” Umberto asked. “I have never heard of them.” “Nemesis is working at warp speed to discover the identities.” At that moment his cell phone rang. Looking at the readout, he excused himself and walked to the corner to take the call. When he finished he sat down again, his heart very grim. “What is it?” Bella asked. Then she clenched her hands. “Not about Arturo.” “No.” Lane shook his head. “That was Dan. He’s found out a little information on Octo from one of his former contacts.” “Well?” she asked impatiently. “They are brand new,” he told her. “Rumor has it they are young hotheads fed up with the fiscal manipulations of Kopf Industries. The theory is each of them has faced financial ruin in some form because of that. One of the suspected members of Octo is a Frenchman by the name of Liebermann. His family was robbed by the Nazis of their family art treasures during the Occupation in the forties. Liebermann is an activist to get all that art back from current owners, who are, by his view, illegally retaining the

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works. So this may be a connection to the story that the heads of Kopf own many pieces of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II.” “Dios mio!” Umberto exclaimed. “Indeed.” This from Isabella. “If that is true, then they have an emotional desire for revenge as well as a practical one. For generations many families have tried to obtain proof that the art these people display—and often lend to museums—is actually stolen and should be returned.” “Yeah,” Lane agreed, “but governments have been reluctant to rattle the cages of people with enormous wealth who wield tremendous power. If that’s what these people want, you’ve got generations of anger that has built up to this point. The manipulation of the subprime mortgage market that precipitated the ruin of many banks and businesses is just the launching pad for this attack.” Emilio Umberto spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Then what can we possibly do? My government will never agree to these demands. And I don’t think the other G8 countries will, either.” “But fortunately they’ve united to engage Nemesis to act for them,” Lane told him. “I think Signorina Sebastiani and I need to check in to our hotel so we can make some phone calls. Nemesis will work with the G8 representatives to craft some kind of statement that will hold these people off until we can find Minister Franzoni and also neutralize any threat to the upcoming conference.” He looked at Isabella. “Because of high security, Dan is certain members of Octo cannot get into the building where the meeting will be. But he also seems to think any other members of Octo will be hidden somewhere along the arrival route of the ministers to the conference. Hotheads like this will want to view the results of their handiwork.” “Let’s hope for lots of them,” she agreed. “If we can get our hands on any of them we can find the others. But right now we need to do whatever we can to secure Arturo’s release.”

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He rose from his chair and held out his hand to Umberto. “You know where we’re staying if you need to reach us. And we have your phone numbers.” He slid a Nemesis business card across the smooth wooden surface of the table. “If you get any more telephone calls, report it to this number. Ask for Dan Foreman. He and his wife, Madison, are coordinating everything from the home office.” The man looked at the card. “I shouldn’t call you?” Isabella shook her head. “They’ll have information we might not have yet. Call them. They’ll get in touch with us.” Bella stood quickly. “You know we must be in Paris tomorrow.” “Sì. La Guardia di Finanza has authorized one of its jets for your transportation,” Umberto told them. “All we need is your required departure time.” “We’ll call you.” Isabella held out her hand. “We will get Arturo back,” she assured him. “I promise.”

***** Isabella stood at the window, looking out at the streets of Rome, nightlights twinkling against the velvet sky. They’d chosen a quiet little place called The Mediterraneo. Isabella usually stayed there whenever she was in Rome, favoring the easy walk to the train station, the Coliseum and the Forum as well as several consulates. She loved its old-world charm and the deep, dark mahogany furnishings. They had a magnificent breakfast buffet served in a room surrounded by Italian cut glass windows, but regretfully she knew she’d have to pass on it this time. Their early departure would only give them enough time for flaky pastries and strong coffee. On any other occasion she’d be ecstatic to be here in this seductive hotel in the city of romance. Now, however, she was consumed with worry for her friend and the foreboding of impending disaster.

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Lane came up behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. “That was Dan on the phone. Umberto contacted him. There’s been another phone call, but this one was from Franzoni.” Isabella turned quickly. “Is he free? Is he safe?” “No, sweetheart, but he says he’s not being mistreated. He just repeated what we heard in the first call. Dan said it sounded as if he was reading from a script.” “He probably was. I hope you’re right thinking they can’t afford to kill him.” “He’s just a bargaining chip to let us know they mean business. Remember one of the last things he said on his call with you was they wore balaclavas. That means he can’t identify them, so if we comply with their wishes they have no reason to kill him.” “Anything else?” “Yes.” Lane turned her so she faced the window again. “He thinks they have a lead to someone in Octo. He’s still working his contacts and he’s been talking to Adam. He and Nicole will meet us in Paris tomorrow.” “I’m so worried about Arturo.” She leaned back against him, loving the hard warmth of his body. “Everyone knows he’s a priority,” Lane assured her. “We’ll get it taken care of.” “And there’s still the matter of Kopf Industries,” she reminded him. “Just because Octo has decided to use terrorist means to attack them doesn’t mean there isn’t something there to investigate.” “But none of the G8 governments wanted to rattle that powerful cage,” Lane reminded her. “I think when this particular crisis is resolved Nemesis may be contracted to dig into the three men who own it. We can do it quietly, out of the spotlight and without worrying about diplomatic breaches of etiquette.” “I know. But right now I just feel so helpless and I hate it.” She laughed and there was a touch of hysteria in the sound. “Give me a good bomb to dismantle any day.”

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“Not this day.” Lane nibbled her earlobe and traced a line along the column of her neck with the tip of his tongue. “No new reports of any bombs since the one at the Franzoni residence, thank god.” “Waiting is the worst of it. I just wish I could remember where I’d seen a bomb like these before. I think it’s very important.” “Quit trying so hard and it’ll come to you.” “I want to be doing something but there’s nothing to do until we get to Paris. Maybe we should have left tonight.” “Tonight you decompress,” he told her. “The conference isn’t for forty-eight hours yet and not all the ministers have arrived. You need to be at your sharpest in case they manage to plant any explosive devices.” She sighed. “You’re right. I know you are. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off. “Maybe I can help you work off some of that nervous energy.” His hands slid down to her breasts, fingers tweaking her nipples through the silk of her blouse while his tongue continued to dance along the sensitive skin of her neck. He cupped the weight of her breasts in his palms while his fingers continued to play with the stiff peaks. Isabella closed her eyes and sighed, letting the warmth of his touch seep through her. As he worked her taut nipples and rubbed her breasts she felt the anxiety slowly easing from her body to be replaced with a different kind of tension. He continued to pay attention to her neck and the spot behind each ear that sent shivers through her. Deftly, he opened the buttons on her blouse, tugged the garment from her skirt and eased it from her body. His body tightened against her back when he disposed of her bra and her breasts stood free in the lamplight. His cock was a thick ridge pressing against her buttocks through the fabric of his trousers while he rubbed and kneaded and pinched and teased.

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She was getting wetter by the minute, a deep throbbing resonating through her body from her womb, the walls of her pussy fluttering with hunger and need. A hum of satisfaction sighed from her mouth and Lane’s deep chuckle vibrated against her shoulder. “You are so damn responsive, Bella. It’s a wonder I can ever keep my hands off you.” Swiftly he unzipped her skirt and let the fabric pool at her feet on the floor, leaving her in just the whisper of material that was her lacy thong. “What you do to lingerie should be considered illegal,” he murmured. “I look at you and I want to throw you on the bed and fuck you senseless.” “Not a bad idea,” she said, breathless as one hand slid down her tummy over her mound to find her wet, swollen folds and her aching clit. “But then I wouldn’t get to do this.” He took her clit between two fingers and squeezed gently. “Or this.” One long finger slid the length of her slit, rubbing the slick flesh. “Or this.” Abruptly he moved his hand, turned her to face him and held her gaze while he slowly licked her cream from his fingers. The sight of it was so arousing a fresh surge of liquid drenched her and the throbbing in her womb increased in intensity. “Taste yourself on me, Bella,” he growled, and captured her mouth with his. His kiss was hungry, demanding, dominating. His tongue lapped at the seam of her lips and they parted for him, allowing him to thrust inside. Every flick of his tongue on her inner surfaces was like the touch of a live wire, leaving licks of flame heating her. With his mouth still fused to hers, he placed his hands beneath the globes of her ass and lifted her, carrying her to the bed. He positioned her on the edge with her legs hanging over and eased the thong down and off. Then spread her thighs wide and bent her legs so her feet were planted on the edge of the mattress, his hungry gaze on her exposed pussy.

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Tremors raced through her as the heat of his gaze swept over her. “Beautiful,” he breathed, and reached down to trace the line of her slit from end to end. Again he licked his finger, slowly, teasingly, before reaching down to touch her again. “And delicious.” He dropped to his knees, spread the lips of her pussy and closed his mouth over her clit. Isabella nearly rose off the bed at the jolt of electricity that raced through her. “Lane!” she gasped, and fisted her hands in the coverlet to anchor herself. He ignored her whimper of pleasure and pulled at her clit with his lips, sucking it into his mouth and teasing it with his tongue. His fingers held the lips of her pussy wide for his pleasure as he ate at her clit and drew hard on the throbbing bundle of nerves. One finger slid easily into her well-lubricated pussy, then another, curving so the tips found that hot spot just beneath her clit. When he pressed upward in cadence with the sucking pull of his mouth, her body exploded, a climax racing over her like a tidal wave, consuming her. She dug her heels into the mattress and arched herself up to him, wanting more. No. It was too much. Lane never missed a beat, his mouth pulling on her clit as his fingers dragged against her hot spot. When the tremors eased and she lay back panting, he slowly withdrew his fingers from her cunt, carrying her cream with them and using it to lubricate the tight ring of her anus. “Oh god!” She jumped at his touch. “Ssh,” he soothed. “Easy. We’re just getting started here.” He scooped more liquid from her still-quivering cunt and massaged it into that tense muscle before slowly easing the tip of one finger inside her. Isabella pushed herself up to him, little cries of pleasure spilling from her mouth. When he had his

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finger fully inside, he went back to work on her clit with his mouth, tugging and nipping and sucking. Incredibly the coil of need inside her began to unspool like a hot, silken thread. When he moved his other hand to slide two fingers into her pussy again every nerve in her body fired, every muscle clenched. She sank into a cloud of erotic heat where the only thing she felt was his fingers plunging in and out of both her needy tunnels and his clever mouth tormenting her clit. On and on it went, the flame building and building and then being eased back down until she couldn’t focus on anything except that tight coil of need ready to spring again. “Oh please,” she begged. “Please, please, please.” His low chuckle vibrated against her sensitive cunt and intensified the hunger racing through her. In the next instant he thrust his fingers hard into both channels and bit lightly on her clit and again she erupted, consumed by yet another orgasm. Her body convulsed, every muscle clamping down as Lane worked to draw out her response until she fell back a limp, sweaty mass. He rose to his feet, a sensuous smile curving his lips, and began to strip off his clothes. “Now,” he said. “Now we get down to business.” “Business?” she could hardly get a word out. “What was that you were just doing?” “Getting you ready, bellissima.” He tossed his clothes aside and stood there for a moment looking at her body, his eyes lit with carnal need, his cock thick and swollen and standing rigidly away from his body. Even as spent as she was, Isabella drank in the sight of him and unbelievably felt the stirrings of heat yet again low in her belly. Lane rearranged her on the bed and moved between her thighs, expertly rolling on a condom with one hand.

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“I want to be inside you now,” he ground out. “Tasting that sweet pussy, feeling it, feeling the heat of that luscious ass. God, Bella. I could hardly keep from coming right then.” He spread her thighs and positioned the head of his cock at her opening, let out a slow breath and eased himself inside her. She couldn’t help the sigh of pleasure that whispered from her as she felt the fullness of him stretching her vaginal walls. “Hold out your breasts for me,” he growled. “Rub your nipples.” At that point she would have done anything he asked her to. She lifted her breasts and captured her nipples, squeezing them as her gaze locked with his. And then he moved, slowly at first then harder and faster. Sweat slicked his body as he fought for control, tried to pace himself but she could see the ridge of every muscle stand out with the effort. “I can’t hold on to it,” he gritted. “Come with me, Bella. Come now.” As if she could control her response, either, as primed as she was. He drove into her hard, once, twice, three times and they exploded together. The walls of her pussy clamped around his pulsing cock, feeling the hot spurts of his release filling the latex sheath. Isabella wrapped her legs around him to pull him in as tight as she could while her body continued to shudder with his. At last he fell forward then rolled to the side, taking her with him. She wasn’t sure if it was her heart or his she felt pounding so loudly, his breath or hers that split the air so harshly as lungs dragged in oxygen. Bella had no idea how much time had passed before Lane finally eased himself from her body and pulled her up with him. He kissed her, an expression of such deep affection it brought tears to her eyes. How had she been so lucky as to meet this man and connect with him like this? He slid from the bed and lifted her to him.

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“Shower time,” he told her. “Then room service and sleep. Tomorrow we have a very big day.” “I pray it will be a successful one,” she told him. “It will be. Just keep the faith.”

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Chapter Seven “Fourteen hours and ten minutes left to find these kidnappers before they hit their targets,” Bella fretted as she and Lane walked down the hall of the George V hotel in Paris the next afternoon. They stopped and Lane knocked on the hotel room door of Nicki and Adam Molloy. He squeezed Bella’s waist for reassurance. “No worries, cara mia. We are ahead of these guys in so many ways.” The door swung open to the wide, grinning face of Adam Molloy. “Come in, come in!” he beckoned, stepping aside to let them both into his and his wife’s suite in the five-star hotel. “We’ve got a good bottle of champagne awaiting you and a few amuse-bouche. You both look like you could use a good drink right about now.” “Just what Bella and I need right now, Molloy, is to be amused.” Lane stuck out his hand to shake Adam’s. The two men had cemented a relationship over the past few months built from mutual appreciation of the other’s intelligence and efficiency. “Great to see you two. Meet Isabella, Adam. Hey, Nicki.” Lane strode forward to briefly embrace his boss, one of the two female partners in Nemesis. “Glad you are here.” The tall, elegant, ebony-haired beauty shook back her waist-length, straight hair and looked him over. “You look ragged. Not much sleep, I gather, with all the work, eh?” “Sleep I can do later,” he replied. After all this is over with and I figure out how to keep Bella intrigued and hot to have me permanently. That last thought jolted him and he rummaged in his brain for something to conceal it from the others. “Here’s the newest member of our team.” He stepped away to let Bella meet Nicole Welles Molloy.

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While the two women began a conversation, Lane ran a hand through his hair and moved toward Adam who was uncorking a bottle of Dom Pérignon. “Did you have a chance to read my notes on this Octo group?” “I did. Also got the supporting docs from Maddie and Dan. Interesting.” “What’s even more interesting are the forensics reports from the Finanza in Rome on the scene of Franzoni’s kidnapping.” Adam handed him a flute of the champagne. “Have a drink of this. It’ll change your mood.” Want to bet? Lane took the glass and let the silk bubbles burst in his mouth. Nice, but not as good as Bella. He tried to smile. “You’re right. Great stuff here. Question is, after I tell you what I’ve got, and you fill me in on what you and Nicki have done here in Paris, will your champagne help any one of our moods?” “Let me give the women their glasses and we’ll all decide if we’ll feel better any time soon.” The four of them seated themselves on the plush damask sofas of the sitting room. And as they talked, it became clear that the champagne was infinitely brighter than anyone’s news. “The finance ministers of the G8, minus Arturo Franzoni, are to arrive here…” Nicki glanced at her watch, “in the next hour or so. They’re not happy, to say the least.” “Under the threat of bombs or kidnapping,” Adam continued, “they will come through with whatever is needed. Interpol, Europol, CIA and extra security from each of their countries are on tap.” “The hotel,” Lane ventured, “must be crawling with undercover agents as well.” “Then add a contingent of Paris gendarmes!” Adam waved a hand. “You can’t go to the ice machine without bumping into one trying to look like he’s an average guy.” Bella put her champagne on the coffee table, and Lane noticed she had taken only one sip. Her eyes bore dark circles from the lack of sleep and he felt a sharp pang of

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guilt. If she wasn’t worrying about her friend Arturo, she and he were locked in some fierce embrace, satisfying every carnal instinct known to god or man. Hoping the incredible sex would ease the tension that gripped them nearly every moment. “Let me tell you about the forensics report from the scene of the kidnapping.” Nicki nodded. “Do, please.” Lane offered, “Sorry we couldn’t send it to your phones. The first transmission was garbled and they only resent it five minutes ago.” Bella dug into her tote and pulled out her phone. In a few clicks, she had opened the file to refresh her memory as she told Nicki and Adam about Arturo’s assailants. “The purse was the same color, make and style as the others left in the galleries. Looks like the same dye lot number, too. So all purses were purchased at the same time by the same vendor. As of two hours ago, the Finanza has asked L.L. Bean to search their records for the purchase of three or more of these items by one customer.” Adam snorted. “Criminals always trip up on the fine points.” Bella agreed. “Inside the purse left outside Arturo’s home was a fog bomb. No plastique.” “Because this bomb was never meant to blow up, but to cover whatever action they planned,” Lane continued, “Octo is not really interested in mass murder.” “Kidnapping,” Nicki pointed out, “is not exactly a nonviolent act.” “No,” Bella said, “but this time we have a residue on the purse which tells us the purse was recently in Lake Garda.” “Crazy.” Nicki sat back, stunned but rueful. “What person planning a crime would be so careless?” “An amateur criminal,” Lane offered. “Careless to drop it and then careless to use it anyway.” A phone rang. Nicki turned to Adam. “Yours?”

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He raised a finger as he rose to get it from their bedroom. “Lake Garda? You’re sure?” Bella looked at the pdf file on her phone, frowning. “The Finanza forensics specialists are very good and they say…sì, here it is. ‘The calcium levels in the residue and the presence of certain microbes lead us to conclude this purse was submerged in the waters of an Italian lake from the Alpine regions. Specifically, Lake Garda.’” “Hold that thought,” Adam told them all as he left them for the bedroom and his ringing cell phone. “I’ll wait,” Bella said to the others, “until Adam returns before I continue with this.” “While Adam is talking,” Nicole said, “let me bring you up to speed on our work. We’ve gotten a list of all the finance ministers’ room numbers. The suites for them, the rooms for their staffs. French law enforcement has given us their contact numbers, but they’re not happy to work with us.” Bella winced. “I understand. Independents on the job do not make them feel very competent.” “Exactly,” Nicki smiled as she fished her own phone from her trouser pocket. “The heat of the competition gives them hives. Let me send you the contact numbers now so you have them all, just in case.” “Good idea,” Lane said as he and Bella watched Nicole transfer the info and saw it come up on his screen, then heard it ring in on Bella’s. “News,” Adam announced as he stood in the doorway of the sitting area, looking like he just swallowed a canary. “What?” Nicki urged him. “Let me say this fast. Digest it all on our way down in the elevator. Okay?” “Sure,” Lane agreed, and got to his feet. “Hit us.” “Raul Toro, who just finished a case for us in the south of France, just texted me. He’s in the lobby himself, sent by Maddie since his other case wrapped up, and the

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head of the French police just tipped him off. And hold on to your hats, the heads of Kopf are arriving in the lobby as we speak.” “Kopf?” Bella jumped to her feet. “In the same hotel as the finance ministers!” Lane was right beside her. “They’ve got to be nuts to come here.” Adam snorted. “They are not known for being reticent. Who knows the real reason they’ve come? Could be anything.” Adam shrugged as the four of them picked up their keys and pocketed their phones. “They’re afraid. They’re stupid. They’re cocky. They want to thumb their noses at Octo. Hell. Who knows. But hold on. There’s something else I need to tell you.” Lane paused with the two women at the door to the hall. “Yeah, what?” “I’ve researched Henri Liebermann.” Lane racked his brain for the meaning of the name. “The guy who thinks the three owners of Kopf own French art stolen from Jewish Parisians by the Nazis?” “The same. He’s also in town this week, speaking at a forum on recovery of French art from the Third Reich. My contacts in Jerusalem tell me that Liebermann lists on the Israeli Register of Illegally Seized Property, among other items, a painting by Van Gogh that two months ago a dealer in Paris tried to buy from one of the three owners of Kopf.” “This is our first indication that any of the rumors that Kopf owners held stolen property is accurate,” Bella said. “Exactly,” Adam nodded. “Too bad the dealer cannot verify it.” Lane didn’t like the question he had to ask. “Why can’t he?” Adam stared at Lane. “He’s dead. Sudden heart attack. Soon after word got out into the art world.” “No coincidence?” Lane speculated. “Very little,” Adam answered. “Unfortunately we have no solid evidence to persuade the family to exhume the body and test for drugs.” 73

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Lane mulled that over. “Which one of the Kopf group did the dealer attempt to buy from?” “The German.” “Wilhelm Gottfried?” Bella asked, her eyes wide and bright with expectation. “Wonderful. I’ve always thought he was a snake in the grass.” “You’ve had dealings with him before?” Nicki asked her. “I met him briefly four years ago. I was with a team from the Finanza and we investigated a bomb threat at his home.” Her voice trailed off and she looked at Adam, realizing the idea that had suddenly occurred to her had also popped into his brain. They both grinned. Lane slapped a hand to his thigh. “Okay, Nicki and I give up. Tell us the secret!” “Shall I?” Bella asked Adam with a conspiratorial wink. “Be my guest.” She looked at the others. “Wilhelm Gottfried owns a glorious, fabulous twohundred-year-old villa.” Her eyes twinkled. “On Lake Garda.” Lane shook his head. “And?” Nicki looked from Lane to her newest employee then to her husband. “I don’t get the connection.” Adam grinned. “Henri Liebermann owns a villa on Lake Garda, too. I happen to know that over the past few years he’s attended some social events at Gottfried’s. I think Gottfried invited him to flaunt the art and Liebermann went to see for himself.” “Does that connect at all with the bomb threat?” “I’m wondering now if it did. When I remembered that connection I recalled where I first saw that purse bomb and it was at Gottfried’s.” Everyone stared at her. “The same bomb? The same purse?” “Different kind of bomb but the same purse.”

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Nicki exchanged a look with Adam. “Then this has been going on for a very long time.” “The attempts to reclaim the art, maybe,” Lane said. “Somehow Octo has narrowed their list down to the heads of Kopf as the primary owners of the art they’re seeking. But obviously they’ve been ineffective in previous attempts and finally decided to take drastic measures.” He opened the door for the four of them. “Let’s get downstairs and see what’s what with the G8 ministers and the heads of Kopf. Maybe even Liebermann will show up. We get everyone here in one place and we can force the issue.” Bella looped her arm around Lane’s waist and hugged him as they headed for the elevator. “I love it, as you Americans say, when a plan comes together. Let’s hope this is what’s happening.” “Yeah?” He teased her, pleased that he was able to bring a light to her tired eyes. “Luck has a lot to do with this one.” “I’m not going to deny how important luck was here,” she whispered as the elevator doors whooshed open. “But I’ll take all that comes my way. Especially when it comes to us.” She whispered those last few words so the others could not hear. Lane could not take his eyes from her as they rode down to the lobby. Their affair was only days old, and yet the intensity of his desire for her was raw. A savage need to take her bed every other hour consumed him and just to look at her was becoming torture. She was so brilliant, so sensual, so utterly fascinating, he could take her away for a year and his cock would still be up and happy every time he caught sight of her. To distract himself, Lane took out his cell phone as the elevator arrived at the lobby floor. They exited and walked straight ahead. “I have to check with the concierge about our dinner reservations.” Nicole turned, her expression tight as she nodded toward one corner of the lobby. “And I need to send a fax,” Adam lied as he tipped his head in the direction of the guests’ office. 75

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This way with Nicki and Adam positioned as they were, the four of them had a comprehensive view of the front doors and the lobby. “Come on, I see Raul,” Lane said to Bella and took her arm to lead her to his Nemesis colleague. He noted his friend, usually so dapper in suit and tie, today looked a little the worse for wear with his latest gig here, tracking whoever came in and out of this lobby. But as always, he doggedly pursued his assignment. They didn’t call him The Bull for nothing. Making the introductions, Lane played the scene as if they were all old pals just happening upon each other. Bella, a good actress, went along with everything, taking her lead from Lane. “Here, here,” Raul said as he rose to his feet. “Damn, I haven’t seen you both in so long. I need a picture for Irene and the kids.” “A picture,” Lane repeated, digesting that because Raul had no Irene and no kids. Lane turned a bit to see the reason why Raul was so devoted to the idea of a snapshot with his iPhone and spotted the target. “Okay, great! Let me put my arm around Bella! Smile, cara mia,” he said to her sotto voce, “the three-headed hydra seems to be gracing the lobby behind us.” “How charming,” she cooed, posing for Raul. “I always wanted to be a turista.” “Bene, bene,” he told her as they both looked at Raul’s screen. The image was a tall, wiry gray-haired man. A short, balding one. “The first must be our Russian caviar, eh? This one is definitely our Bavarian dumpling,” she told him with a fire in her eyes. “And this one,” she said with obvious distaste, “is the brother of the man we met yesterday.” Lane searched his memory banks, checking the familiar look of this man against all those he’d met yesterday. A slew of aides and government workers came to mind. Then he had it! He turned his back to the three men who formed Kopf Industries so that no one could read his lips when he mouthed the name, “Umberto?” The Italian vice finance minister! 76

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Raul cleared his throat. “That’s this dude’s name?” he asked Bella as he too turned his back. “Got a first name?” “Giorgio,” she told him in a low voice. “Okay. Let me just send these on over to Maddie in Texas. She told me to get pictures of everyone of interest in this lobby and she’d run it through our face recog software.” He pushed a couple of buttons. “Okay…there we go…done!” Bella had swung back around and began to mutter in Italian. Lane knew from her tone, she didn’t like what she saw. He shifted his gaze. Through the front doors came the vice finance minister of the Italian Republic. He looked weary, rumpled and harried. His dark eyes scanned the lobby as his retinue surrounded him and his bodyguards took note of everyone within twenty yards. The one man they didn’t expect, the one they blocked, frisked and then let through because their boss told them to, was his brother, Giorgio Umberto. Although the two men embraced, neither one displayed any brotherly love toward the other. “Got a shot of that, Raul?” Lane asked from the corner of his mouth. “Maddie’s gonna dig my artistic talents.” “As long as the resolution is high enough for our techs to work with, she’ll be mad for you, buddy,” Lane assured him. “Uh-oh. What’s going on there?” The Umberto brothers were having an argument. A low-pitched, violent exchange in which one was giving beady-eyed statements to the other. They broke off as quickly as they had begun, Giorgio leaving his brother to return to his two Kopf buddies. “Any idea what they said to each other?” Lane asked Bella quietly while Raul clicked away at text messaging. “They’re not happy with each other, which you could understand without a translation, sì?”

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He nodded. “Giorgio told his brother to come see him tonight in his room.” “Really?” Lane was shocked at that. “But our friend refused.” “Wise of him. He should not go anywhere he is not previously cleared for.” Lane’s phone rang. “Hold on, let me get this. It’s…” Adam? “Hey, Lane. Listen to me. That embrace we all just saw?” “Yeah, what about it?” Lane asked, spotting Adam across the lobby near a potted palm. “The central office of the Italian government just officially announced on radio and TV that they are freezing all assets of Kopf Industries.” Lane swore. “The vice minister knew all along what was happening!” “You bet,” Adam said and clicked off, his expression self-satisfied. Lane repeated the information to Isabella and Raul. Bella crossed her arms, stared at Lane but seemed to be looking right through him. “What are you thinking?” “I wondered why the vice minister of finance was so fearful of coming to this conference. Now we know one reason. His own brother is involved. He is part of Kopf. And the vice minister is obviously apologizing to his brother about the freezing of assets.” “He should have told us.” “Sì, sì. Very bad of him to conceal this fact. But I think the best thing to do now is for me to become reacquainted with Herr Gottfried. I think I can coax some information from him.” “No. Bad idea.”

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“Good idea,” she contradicted. “I will say that I am here with colleagues from my business and that I saw him and wanted to buy him a drink.” “No, Bella.” Lane’s gut said this was a horrible move. “You said you hardly knew him. Just met him a couple of times.” “Ah, but it was obvious he liked me.” The way she said it left no doubt that the reason Herr Gottfried “liked” her was that he wanted to lay her. “No.” She ignored him, unbuttoned the top button of her silk blouse and removed the clip that had held up her glossy dark waves today. “I’m telling you, Bella. This is not wise.” She shook out her hair so it tumbled down her back and smiled at him, her back to her quarry. “Not to worry. I will be safe, darling.” Raul noted that last word with the arch of a dark brow. That word, however, made Lane even more determined to keep her from the German. “No, Bella.” “While you two argue about our Kraut, I want you to know one small fact.” “What?” Lane shot at him. “Sorry.” “Hey. I get what goes on here between you two. No problem. But Maddie has written something here. You need to take a look, Lane. Do you know what this means?” Lane had to read it twice. The text message said, “I may be nuts here…or it’s just my false labor which doesn’t seem to be getting any lighter. But. I know this guy in this picture. I swear I do. Give me a few minutes to get Jessie on this over in Face Recog. But I could swear I have seen this man before. Couldn’t tell you his name. But bear with me.” He passed the phone over to Bella. She shrugged. “All right, but I can’t stand around waiting when an opportunity has presented itself. He might walk away any minute.” Then she curved her lips in a smile

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and brushed a light kiss on his cheek, playing to the audience in the lobby. “Ciao, Lane,” and she sped off toward Gottfried. He tried to look unaffected by her departure, knowing the German would want to investigate precisely who Bella was and who she was with. “Talk to me, Lane.” Raul had a shit-eating grin on his face. “You can be replaced, you know,” Lane warned the man. “No I can’t, Lane, old man. And obviously she certainly can’t.” Got that right. He kept his back to the lobby. “How’s she doing with Mr. Wonderful?” “Great. Who wouldn’t want a woman like that to approach you with those gorgeous sultry eyes flashing?” Lane ground his teeth. “Sure. Sure.” Raul’s phone pinged. He clicked on. “Oh, wow. Read this from Maddie.” Looking over his shoulder briefly to cast a jaundiced eye on Bella, he reluctantly read the new text. Maddie wrote, “Oh, hell. I do know this man. He’s the one I saw over a year ago when Dan and I were staking out Rick Carstairs’ ranch. It’s clear to me now that if he was there then he was one of the men meeting and planning a coup of the U.S. government with the man who was then the Speaker of the House of Representatives here. Be very careful there. This man is dangerous.” He texted back and asked which of the two brothers in the picture she referred to. “The one on the left,” she messaged back. “You’re certain? They look a lot alike.” “They do. Sure. But I’m certain. The one on the left.” Jesus. “Do you know who he is?” she texted again. “I do,” he replied. 80

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“Who is it?” she responded. “Italy’s vice minister of finance.” Lane whirled, staring at the place where Bella should have been standing conversing with Wilhelm Gottfried. Instead, there was no one. “She went into the bar with him,” Raul said in a low voice. “We’re—” Raul grabbed his coat sleeve. “No, we’re not going in there. She is a big girl and if she’s been hired by us, she can take care of herself. Cool to a simmer there, fella. The lady is delicious, but she also has brains.” “You’re right. You’re right.” Forty-five tense minutes later, Bella emerged from the bar. Her German took himself and two of his bodyguards straight up in the elevators. “Well?” Lane asked when she returned, her bravado escaping her like air from a balloon. His relief increased with every breath she took. “What?” “Nothing. He’s secretive as a clam. I have an invitation to his villa in Lake Garda anytime I like, but aside from that? Nothing.” She closed her eyes and swayed, nearly falling into the lobby sofa next to him. “Take me upstairs.” “Go,” Raul said. “Nothing much going on here now. My relief arrives in about half an hour. Get some rest. I know what you’ve been doing for the past forty-eight hours.” Lane helped Bella stand. “Come on. We’ll order room service for dinner and you are going to bed to get some sleep.” “Bene notte,” she bade Raul with a watery smile. Walking with Lane, she seemed as limp as a rag doll. Then in the elevator, she fell against him. “I need you,” she told him, reaching up to kiss him. The desperation rippled through her body and he felt the terror of it. “I may need you for a long, long time.” Proud as a beast that had conquered his own part of the jungle, Lane assured her, “I’m taking you to bed. But you are going to eat and sleep in it. That’s it.”

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She pressed her face to the column of his throat. “And if I wake you in the night, will you make love to me then?” “Always, Bella,” he promised. “I will always make love to you.”

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Chapter Eight “If Italy froze the Kopf assets why hasn’t Umberto been released?” Isabella asked as she and Lane walked down the hall from the elevator. “Maybe they’re using him as leverage to get the other seven countries to follow suit. None of them has stepped up to the plate.” “If that doesn’t happen then the bomb threat is still in play,” she pointed out. The moment they walked into their suite Isabella kicked off her shoes, ran her hands through her hair and flopped down on the bed. “I need a shower,” she announced. “Just talking to Gottfried makes me feel dirty.” Lane knelt next to the bed, and began rubbing her feet, her ankles and up the length of her calves. He had such a soothing touch, his fingers knowing just where and how to press and rub. A sigh of pleasure drifted from her lips like a soft breeze. “Let me take care of you, bellissima,” he murmured. “Let down your guard for just this little while and give yourself over to me.” “Oh, Lane.” She moaned softly, her body melting into his. “You have no idea how much I want that.” “Then let me,” he insisted. “Don’t fight me.” He moved up onto the bed next to her, pulled her into his arms and brushed the silken strands of hair from her face. “We’ve had a hellacious couple of days, every minute of them stressful and tense. You’ve been going ninety miles an hour and shouldering an incredible amount of pressure. You don’t always have to be the strong one, you know.” She studied his face, trying to read the emotion she saw there. “Sometimes being strong sucks. You know?”

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“I do. And letting yourself go with me doesn’t make you weak, just human.” He kissed her cheek, her nose, her chin and her eyelids. “If the situation was reversed I’d give every bit of control to you and enjoy every minute of it.” She laughed softly. “I’m just so used to seeing that as a sign of weakness.” “The last thing anyone would call you is weak, Bella. Maddie is tracking down sales of the purse and Nicki is making arrangements for us to get into the hall where the G8 meeting is being held.” “We have to do it tonight. And it’s already almost twilight.” “Trust me. She’s on it. But she has to coordinate with the government, because the meeting is taking place in a government building. Then she has to contact the heads of all G8 security teams and set it up for me to meet with them. And then we’ll all go to the hall and you can do your thing. But no one else is going into that place until you clear it.” “Okay. You’re right.” “You said you want a shower. Let me give you one. I promise you’ll love it.” She smiled at him, her body melting at his touch. “I put myself in your hands, mi amore.” Phht! Did I just call him my heart? He hasn’t promised me anything except team partnership and great sex. And I do not want to scare this man off. But he brushed his lips over hers. “I’m definitely the man for the task.” He increased the pressure of the kiss, rubbing his lips over hers and tracing the seam with the tip of his tongue before urging her to open to him. His tongue invaded hungrily and she met it with her own, enjoying the sensual dance as he unbuttoned her blouse and parted the fabric then flicked open the front clasp of her bra. One warm hand covered a breast and immediately heat streaked through her. He caught her nipple between two fingers, squeezing it gently even as he pushed the blouse and bra straps over her shoulders.

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His tongue still dueling with hers, he slid down the zipper of her skirt and thrust the material over her hips, sliding his hand beneath the flimsy silk of her panties to brush her trimmed pubic curls. One lean finger slid between her slick labia, over her now-throbbing clit and into the wet heat of her pussy. “You’re ready for me,” he whispered against her mouth. “I think you’re always ready for me, aren’t you, Bella?” She tried to rub herself against his touch. “I think, sì, you are right. One touch and I go up in flames.” She tried to open her legs more for him but the skirt still restricted it. “Uh-uh,” he murmured into her mouth. “I’m in charge here, remember?” “I’ll try, mi amore.” There. She’d said it again and he didn’t flinch. If anyone could be in charge of her it would be Lane Hallowell. They had only known each other for a very few days but already she felt more for him, trusted him more, than any other man she’d ever met. They worked well together as a team but it was more than that. He was concerned for her welfare without getting in the way of her job, showing respect for her particular area of expertise. He seemed to sense what she needed even before she did. And she’d felt an instant and powerful emotional connection to him. Did he feel the same? He slid off the bed and pulled her to her feet. He finished undressing her with great care, folding her clothing precisely and placing it on one of the armchairs. Then, in a very masculine but very graceful movement he lifted her in his arms and carried her into the huge bathroom. Propping her against him with one hand, he reached into the shower with the other and turned on the spray. When he was satisfied with the temperature he lowered Isabella to the commode seat and she watched him strip his own clothes off with a maximum of efficiency. God, she loved looking at his body, so sleek and powerful, so toned, muscles as defined as those of a statue. The soft mat of hair on his chest, and the magnificent cock

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jutting proudly from his groin. The pulsebeat in her womb ratcheted up at the sight of him. “Okay.” His smile was easy but his eyes burned with hungry passion. “Time to shower off the filth of society.” He lifted her to her feet, took her hand and led her into the shower with him. The spray was so fine it was almost a mist as it cascaded down on her, the pattering of the drops so gentle on her skin. Lane propped her against the wall, grabbed the bottle of scented gel the hotel provided and worked some into a lather in his hands. Then he began to gently rub it into her skin, beginning at her shoulders, kneading the muscles as he worked his way down her arms, paying individual attention to each finger and the palm of each hand. Her wrists, her knuckles, the insides of her elbow. Strong yet gentle strokes that eased away the tension gripping her muscles. Next he worked his way across her collarbone and down to the slope of her breasts, stopping to pay careful attention to each nipple, pulling them until they were stiff, pebbled peaks. Her breath caught in her throat as he directed the spray to rinse them then put his mouth to each of them, sucking and nipping in turn. She felt every pull clear through her body to her cunt as if shards of electricity sizzled through her. Isabella simply leaned against the wall, eyes closed, and gave herself over to the pleasure of it. More shower gel, more lather, Lane’s strong hands sliding down her tummy, pausing to trace the furled flesh of her navel, down, down, through the neat curls of her cunt lips until a fingertip glided over her already sensitive clit. A gentle stroking, a touch barely there but more arousing than if he’d actually pressed hard on it. His finger brushed back and forth, slowly and softly, and with each movement her pussy clenched and hungered for him to fill it. She heard a low moan drifting in the steam-filled air and realized it was coming from her. “Feel good, bellissima?” Lane’s mouth was close to her ear, his breath fanning her skin. 86

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“Mmmm,” was all she could manage in response. His chuckle was low and sensual. “Good. Very good.” His finger dipped lower, rubbing the length of her slit before slipping easily into her pussy. More stroking. More rubbing. A second finger joined the first, then a third and she moved her hips, riding his hand. But then they were gone and she was empty again, groaning a protest. “Shh, shh,” he murmured. “It’s all good.” One of his feet nudged the insides of her ankles, urging her to spread her legs and she willingly obliged. Anything if he’d just put his hands back on her body. And then he did, beginning with her ankles, kneading gently again as he’d done earlier. Sliding his hands up her calves, massaging the muscles, up, up her thighs until again he reached— But his hands were gone again and she moaned her displeasure. Lane just gave that sexy chuckle again and turned her to face the wall of the shower, placing her hands flat against the wet tiles. Now he worked her shoulders and her back, fingers pressing against each bump of her spine and teasing the indentation just at the top of her buttocks. Then his soapy fingers were sliding into the crevice and teasing that tight ring of muscles that guarded her ass, the pucker of her anus. Rub, rub, rub and then one finger pushed its way in, probing gently, rubbing the sensitive internal tissues. “Breathe, Bella,” he urged in a low voice. “Slow, deep breaths.” She did and a second finger insinuated itself in next to the first. Lane worked them slowly in and out, scissoring them to stretch and ease the tissues. More of the slick gel, more penetration by his fingers. When he added a third one, slowly, slowly, heat surged through her and her pussy clenched in earnest. In, out, in, out, setting up a rhythm that her body caught and rode.

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By the time he eased those fingers from her she was filled with a riot of sensation, an urgent need to be pushed the last little bit to the orgasm that was rapidly uncoiling inside her. She heard the shower door sliding open, the familiar crinkle of the foil wrapper of a condom—had he brought it into the bathroom with him?—and then he was back. Firm fingers opened the cheeks of her ass and thumbs pressed against that puckered ring again. Then pressure as the head of his cock nudged the opening and began the steady, slow thrust inside. “Breathe,” he said again. “Just like before.” In, out, in, out. Timing her breathing to the movement of his shaft. When he filled her completely he held very still for a long moment. “Okay?” he asked. “Mmm. Sì. Very okay.” One hand slid past the curve of her hipbone to the slight curve of her tummy and down to capture her clit again. “Let go, Bella,” he urged. “Give yourself to me completely.” He drove into her ass with powerful, steady strokes, his fingers rubbing her clit with the same even rhythm. She felt the orgasm reaching through her, pushing her, expanding until she was teetering on the edge of an abyss deeper than she’d ever seen before. “Now,” Lane growled, pushing his fingers deep inside her. “Go ahead. I’ll catch you.” He nipped her shoulder. “I’ll always catch you.” At the moment his body stiffened she gave herself over to him completely, letting the climax take her. With the water sluicing down on them she thrust back against him, feeling his release pump into her through the thin latex, one of his fingers sliding into her pussy where her walls clamped down on it.

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She shook and shuddered, tumbling into the abyss but secure in the knowledge that Lane was with her, his strong hands grounding her. Her body clenched over and over until finally she stopped spinning in space, the fireworks behind her eyelids eased and there was just the seesawing of her breath and the thundering of her heart. As she struggled to catch her breath, Lane pressed a kiss to the tender spot behind her ear. And she could have sworn she heard him whisper, Mine. But then he was easing himself from her body, holding her with one hand while he soaped himself with the other, pulling her against him as he let the shower spray rinse them off. He turned off the water, opened the shower door and wrapped her in a big, fluffy heated towel. He sat her again on the lid of the commode while he dried himself then lifted her and carried her into the bedroom. “I have to get dressed,” she murmured. “I have things to do.” “And you’ll do them. But first, close your eyes for fifteen minutes. I promise I’ll wake you. Do it for me, Bella. You need to recharge. Trust me.” She curled against him, closing her eyes. Trust him. Yes, she did.

***** Although they would have a very late dinner with Adam and Nicki, Lane had ordered something light from room service. He’d insisted that Isabella eat, knowing that the tension of the situation was draining her strength. Now they were dressed and preparing to head downstairs and get a report from Raul on activity in the lobby. Isabella was just pulling her hair back into a thick gold clip and Lane was fastening his watch on his wrist when his cell phone rang. He looked at the readout before answering. “Hey, Maddie. Got something for us? I hope?” “Maybe more than you want. I played every card I had to get an immediate answer from L.L. Bean and get past their customer confidentiality roadblock.” Lane tensed. “So you found the buyer?” 89

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“Oh, yeah. You ready for this one?” “Spit it out.” “The buyer is a woman named Rachel Krone.” Pause. “She happens to be Henri Liebermann’s niece.” “Holy shit.” A zap of electricity skated over his spine, the kind of feeling he got when he was close to solving something. “What is it?” Bella asked. “What has she got?” He looked over at her. “I’ll tell you in a minute. Maddie, do you have an address for her?” “Does Sunday follow Saturday? I’m texting it to you as soon as I hang up, along with her phone number. And get this, Lane. She lives in Paris.” At that revelation every muscle in his body tightened. All the players were gathering here in the City of Light. Every one of his senses told him the last act was about to be played out. “Okay. We’re on it.” He disconnected and repeated everything to Bella. “I need to call Adam and Nicki right now.” But before he could speed dial them his phone rang again. Nicki herself. “I’ve cleared everything with the government so we can get into the building. Someone will meet us there in an hour. That just gives you time to meet with all the G8 heads of security and help them figure out the best way to protect their charges.” “Good enough. We’re on our way downstairs right now. Wait until I tell you what Maddie found out.” “Well, hurry. You and Bella get down here right now. We can finish going over this while we head to the meeting room where the G8 security heads have gathered.” Lane filled Isabella in while they headed for the elevator, answering her questions as best he could. He looked her over with an assessing eye, satisfied that her color was good and her eyes clear. She’d been completely stressed out when they’d hit the room earlier, and that was no fit state for an explosives expert.

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Mine. He wondered if she’d heard him whisper that word in the final moment of orgasm. And if she did, what did she think? They’d been together such a short time, but it hadn’t taken long for him to realize this was the woman for him. Not just as the other half of his team but as someone with whom he was completely in sync. And not just for work. Forever. Adam and Nicki were waiting for them in a corner of the lobby and Lane repeated everything for them. “Holy shit!” Nicole was silent for a moment. “All right. I’m going to get Adam onto his contacts. With even this tiny lead we have a pretty good chance to find out who Octo really is.” Lane glanced across the lobby to where Raul was seated in one of the big wing chairs, casually leafing through a magazine. “I see The Bull is still on the job.” “Yes. He’s keeping track of the three heads of Kopf for me, as well as Liebermann who has come through the lobby twice in the past hour.” “Anyone with him?” She nodded. “Two men. He snapped their photos with his phone and sent them to Maddie to run through the face recog software.” “Any word yet on Arturo Franzoni? Any clue as to where he could be?” “I’m still on it. Again, I’m using Adam’s contacts from his Mossad days since everyone else has come up dry.” “You’d think that since Italy froze the Kopf assets as they asked, they’d let him go,” he pointed out. “I think they want to hang on to him to force everyone else’s hand.” “Won’t the threat of a bomb do that?” Lane asked.

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“They may be trying to cover all bases. There’s a sound of desperation in their messages and in everything they’re doing. Snatching the Italian Minister of Finance shows how frantic they are.” Lane repeated to her what Isabella had told him about the bomb threat some time ago at Gottfried’s home. “I’m guessing they’ve already tried going through channels to reclaim the stolen art—I’ve got Dan checking on that—and haven’t gotten anywhere. This is a personal thing, Lane, not political. Thousands of Jewish families had valuable art conscripted by the Nazis and have been fighting for generations to get it back.” Lane raised an eyebrow. “And they’ve traced enough of it back to the three heads of Kopf that they’re taking these drastic actions?” “Again, Dan’s getting that information, using every person he ever worked with overseas to call in favors. He knows we’re running out of time.” “Lane.” Isabella put a soft hand on his arm. “You have no idea of the passions involved with regard to this stolen art. It’s worse than a blood feud.” She looked at Adam and Nicki. “Adam, I’m sure you can understand. Think of it. People were swept from their homes, their property confiscated and if they weren’t killed they were left with nothing. Families have struggled for generations to reclaim what they lost. This is very, very personal.” Lane shook his head. “I hear you. And I agree with you on the desperation. Blowing up eight finance ministers will definitely send a message to the countries where Kopf has assets.” A dark-haired man in an impeccable suit approached them and looked at Nicki. “Miss Welles?” “Yes?”

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“I’m Charles Deschamps.” He pulled a flat leather wallet from his pocket and flipped it open to display his credentials. “I’ll be escorting you to the hall where the meeting is scheduled for tomorrow.” “Excellent. And you have the G8 security heads together for us?” He nodded. “Right this way.” The eight people gathered in the small meeting room all had one thing in common—very grim expressions on their faces. They had a number of questions for the Nemesis people, which Nicki took the lead in answering. Isabella stood beside her, explaining the situation regarding the bomb threats and what she planned to do shortly. While she was dealing with them Nicki’s cell phone rang and Adam took it from her and answered it, moving into a corner for privacy. Lane watched him, saw some of the tension ease from his body, saw him nod two or three times and disconnect. “What?” Lane asked when the former Mossad agent walked back to him. “They’ve found Arturo,” he told Lane in a low voice. Lane raised his eyebrows. “How? Where? Did Octo release him?” “No. Some…contacts of mine were able to effect his escape.” A look of satisfaction flashed briefly over his face. “They also have two of Octo’s people ready to deliver to the Italian police when I give them the go-ahead.” “Does Octo know that yet?” Adam grinned. “Are you kidding? My friends were trained by Mossad. There’s a lid clamped down tighter than a vacuum seal.” His face turned serious. “We can let the others know but not anyone outside Nemesis. As soon as Dan calls back with the rest of the information we need we may be able to wrap this whole thing up.” He glanced over at Isabella. “Assuming your lady neutralizes the bomb threat.” “Oh, she’ll do it. No doubt. She’s the best.” Nicole walked over to them. “We’re ready to go.”

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Lane looked at the eight people gathered behind her. “You’re taking them with you? Putting them in jeopardy?” “I want them to understand that these people, Octo, can get into any place they want, do anything they want, and that freezing the Kopf assets will be the best alternative.” “You know your stuff,” Lane told her. “Who am I to argue?” Nicole’s cell phone beeped. Adam handed it back to her and she looked at the screen. “Time to go.” Her gaze shifted to Charles Deschamps. “Interpol is waiting at the hall with the dogs and bomb disposal equipment.” “Then by all means, let us go.” It was only a short walk from the hotel. Deschamps unlocked the massive carved doors and they all moved into the reception area. “Please wait here,” Bella told the others. “You’ll be safe here. Following their pattern, the bomb will be inside the meeting area.” Lane ground his teeth, watching her move away from him, the dogs and their handlers with her, but he knew she’d be distracted by his presence. But when he heard her voice he moved to the entrance to the room. “It’s here,” she called, standing in the middle of a row of seats about halfway back from the front. The handlers were tugging on their dogs’ leashes who had detected their prey and wanted to be let loose. Lane and the others watched while someone brought Isabella the protective gear she needed, helped her into it and arranged the shield and robotic arms. Then a leadlined box was placed next to her and everyone moved away. Lane was sure she’d be able to work better if they’d been able to take out some of the seats but that might have set off the bomb. And Isabella, being the very best there was, had worked in tight situations before. He had to believe she was in control.

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Although it took less than fifteen minutes for the purse to be lifted and placed in the box and the lid locked down, Lane felt as if it really took hours. He was soaked with perspiration by the time they got the all-clear signal. He didn’t even care who was watching. When Bella was out of her gear and standing next to him again he pulled her into a tight embrace, holding her as if he’d never let her go. “Mine,” he whispered in her ear. This time she smiled and gave a barely perceptible nod and he knew she’d heard him.

***** For people who had been through an incredibly nerve-racking few hours the five members of Nemesis attacked their late dinner with incredible appetites. With everything wrapped up Raul had gratefully joined them. “I’m always starved in the aftermath,” Nicki told them, soaking up the garlic butter from the escargot with chunks of hot, fresh bread. “I could eat everything on this menu.” Adam ran his knuckles lightly along her cheek. “And you deserve whatever you want, babe. You pulled off a big one today.” “Not without a lot of help.” She took a slow sip of her wine, then looked around the table. “And a huge amount of help from everyone here. Especially Isabella, our newest team member.” “Everyone played a big part,” Bella reminded her. Lane was watching Bella carefully, making sure she ate, rubbing her shoulders to ease the residual tension. Once the bomb had been placed in the box and taken out to the bomb disposal van she’d separated the vials inside and placed them in individual boxes for the bomb lab to dispose of. Dan had come through with more information about Octo now that they’d found a lead and Adam’s Mossad contacts had been

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instrumental in identifying the others. Very quietly Henri Liebermann, his niece and the others, including the two who had kidnapped Umberto, were all in Interpol’s custody. But there had been side benefits to the whole mess. Realizing that others might move in to take Octo’s place if they didn’t do something, and sufficiently alarmed by the kidnapping and the bombs directed at their groups, the other seven of the G8 countries had moved quickly to freeze the Kopf assets. Giorgio Umberto and his two partners were very busy trying to catch the falling pieces of their conglomerate and all of the art each of the men possessed was being carefully scrutinized along with the documentation. “So, Isabella.” Nicki studied her. “I usually like my major players to headquarter in the States, but I’m prepared to give you flexibility in that if you’re too rooted in Italy.” Bella smiled and leaned into the shelter of Lane’s arm. “Actually my partner and I had a long discussion while you were finishing up with Interpol. I’m going to keep my apartment in Florence but I’ll be sharing Lane’s quarters with him. We thought it might be more efficient that way.” “Efficient,” Adam repeated. “Yes, I’m sure that’s the word Lane had in mind.” “You’d think Nemesis was a damn dating agency,” Raul complained, finishing his vichyssoise. “Look at you, the four of you. And Dan and Maddie back in Texas.” “Well,” Nicole told him, “you know what they say about danger being an aphrodisiac.” She shifted her gaze to Lane and Isabella. “So I guess I can assume the two of you are satisfied with being teamed up permanently?” Lane pulled Bella into his side. “At least for the next fifty or sixty years.” “Well.” Adam cleared his throat. “A good day’s work all around, then. I think it deserves a toast.” He lifted his wineglass. “To Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Once again she scores a victory.” “To Nemesis,” they each echoed, and the clink of crystal as they touched glasses floated on the air.

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Epilogue The fifteen people who sat around the long table in the plush conference room looked beyond grim. Not even the coffee made from specially roasted beans and the exquisite French pastries could sweeten the situation. The person at the head of the table, addressed only as The Chairman stared at each person individually. “This has been another disaster,” The Chairman said. “Three in a row. All caused by the group called Nemesis.” “What do we know about them?” the man at the immediate left asked. “Not as much as we’re going to,” The Chairman said in a tight voice. The person to the immediate right carefully replaced the coffee cup in its saucer. “So far they’ve disrupted our arms deals, our plan to put Paul Trask in office as the president of the United States, our international drug distribution, and now they’ve virtually emasculated Kopf Industries owned by three of our members.” “So what are we going to do?” someone asked. “We have in place a plan for international dominance but they seem to be chipping away at it one piece at a time.” The Chairman looked at each of them in turn. “We’re going to find out everything we can about them, and take them down.” The woman standing to the side began to distribute folders to each person sitting at the table. “Read these reports carefully. Each of you has an assignment. We will reconvene at the lodge in Canada one month from today to see where we are. In the meantime I caution all of you to be very, very careful. There is no longer any margin for error.”

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About the Author Desiree Holt: I always wonder what readers really want to know when I write one of these things. Getting to this point in my career has been an interesting journey. I’ve managed rock and roll bands and organized concerts. Been the only female on the sports staff of a university newspaper. Immersed myself in Nashville peddling a country singer. Lived in five different states. Married two very interesting but totally different men. I think I must have lived in Texas in another life, because the minute I set foot on Texas soil I knew I was home. Living in Texas Hill Country gives me inspiration for more stories than I’ll probably ever be able to tell, what with all the sexy cowboys who surround me and the gorgeous scenery that provides a great setting. Each day is a new adventure for me, as my characters come to life on the pages of my current work in progress. I’m absolutely compulsive about it when I’m writing and thank all the gods and goddesses that I have such a terrific husband who encourages my writing and puts up with my obsession. As a multi-published author, I love to hear from my readers. Their input keeps my mind fresh and always hunting for new ideas. Cerise DeLand: An award-winning author of more than two dozen romances and mysteries, Cerise DeLand creates heroes readers crave. Cerise has met many men in her worldwide travels and created the best of the best from all the wonderful places she’s lived and visited. Today, she lives—and writes—in wild west Texas, where a neverending stream of cowboys, vaqueros, para-military types and diplomats stroll into town and fuel her imagination for red hot affairs. Desiree and Cerise welcomes comments from readers. You can find their websites and email addresses on their author bio pages at www.ellorascave.com.

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Also by Desiree Holt & Cerise Deland Nemesis 1: Until the Dawn Nemesis 2: Until Midnight Wedding Belles: Something Blue with Allie Standifer

Also by Desiree Holt 1-800-DOM-help: Delight Me Cougar Challenge: Hot to Trot Cupid’s Shaft Dancing With Danger Diamond Lady Double Entry Downstroke Driven by Hunger Eagle’s Run Ellora’s Cavemen: Flavors of Ecstasy I anthology Hard Lovin’ Mistletoe Magic: Elven Magic with Regina Carlysle & Cindy Spencer Pape Mistletoe Magic: Touch of Magic Emerald Green Escape the Night

Hot Moon Rising Hot, Wicked and Wild I Dare You Journey to the Pearl Just Say Yes Kidnapping the Groom with Allie Standifer Letting Go Line of Sight Night Seekers 1: Lust Unleashed Night Seekers 2: Lust by Moonlight Night Seekers 3: Lust Undone Night Heat Once Burned Once Upon a Wedding Phoenix Agency 1: Jungle Inferno Phoenix Agency 2: Extrasensory Riding Out the Storm Rodeo Heat Seductive Illusion with Allie Standifer Switched Teaching Molly Trouble in Cowboy Boots Turn up the Heat 1: Scorched with Allie Standifer Turn up the Heat 2: Scalded with Allie Standifer Turn up the Heat 3: Singed with Allie Standifer

Turn up the Heat 4: Steamed with Allie Standifer Until Midnight with Cerise DeLand Until the Dawn with Cerise DeLand Wedding Belles: Something Blue with Cerise DeLand & Allie Standifer Wedding Belles: Something Borrowed Where Danger Hides

Print books by Desiree Holt Age and Experience anthology Candy Caresses anthology Cougar Challenge: Tease the Cougar anthology Demanding Diamonds anthology Ellora’s Cavemen: Flavors of Ecstasy I anthology Erotic Emerald anthology Mistletoe Magic anthology Naughty Nuptials anthology Once Burned Rodeo Heat Sequins, Saddles and Spurs anthology Where Danger Hides

Also by Cerise DeLand Carried Away Hat Trick Her Three-Way Merger I Caught the Sheriff Laid Bare Me and Mr. Jones Mia Dolce Strong Arms of the Law Until Midnight with Desiree Holt Until the Dawn with Desiree Holt Wedding Belles: Something Blue with Desiree Holt & Allie Standifer Wedding Belles: Something New Whenever We Meet

Print books by Cerise DeLand Irresistible Forces

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