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Authors: Merline Lovelace

Dangerous to Hold

BOOK: Dangerous to Hold
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THE OMEGA AGENCY

Top Secret Government Agency charged with keeping peace throughout the world—by just about any means possible. With a few exceptions, the operatives generally live their own lives until they are called into action. They work under the direction of special envoy Adam Ridgeway—and they
always
get the job done.

Jaguar:
At home with guerrilla warfare, there's nothing this loner likes better than a solitary mission. But Jake Mackenzie doesn't always get what he wants….

Cowboy:
His relaxed stance and charming drawl disguise his tireless efforts and cool head in the face of danger. Yet Nate Sloan's toughest challenge might be escaping the pursuit of a camp of determined women!

Doc:
Book smarts matched by physical strength give David Jansen an edge, but he hides both behind a diffident air. What will happen when his resolve is truly tested…?

Chameleon:
With an ear for languages and a quick mind, Maggie Sinclair can be anyone she wants to be. But will she let Adam see her true self?

And don't miss the adventures of the next generation of OMEGA agents:

Artemis:
Like the huntress, Diana Remington always bags her prey. But her arrows miss the mark when she's sent to recover a downed pilot in
Hot as Ice,
a February 2002 release from Silhouette Intimate Moments.

Renegade:
The last thing ex-marine Rick Carstairs wants is to act as bodyguard to the Mexican president's fiery niece—especially after he meets her…. Watch for his story, coming later this year from Silhouette Intimate Moments.

PRAISE FOR MERLINE LOVELACE

“Wow! Clear your evening…you'll want to read this all at once.”

—
Affaire de Coeur
on
Night of the Jaguar

“This story is a fantastic tale of danger and love in wild surroundings.”

—
The Paperback Forum
on
The Cowboy and the Cossack

“Unforgettable characters and scintillating romance…”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Debbie Macomber

“Merline Lovelace delivers top notch romantic suspense with great characters, rich atmosphere and a crackling plot!”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Mary Jo Putney

“Merline Lovelace writes with humor and passion.”

—Publishers Weekly

MERLINE LOVELACE
DANGEROUS TO HOLD

Dear Reader,

I'm thrilled that Silhouette has decided to release this special collector's edition of the original CODE NAME: DANGER series. I had a ball with this series—I never knew where OMEGA's intrepid undercover operatives would take me or what hairy situations they'd get into next.

In this edition you'll meet the cool, unflappable Jaguar and rodeo-rider-turned-secret-agent Cowboy. And of course there's the irreverent Maggie Sinclair, who continually strikes sparks off OMEGA's chief.

If you enjoy the first two books in the original series, be sure to watch for the next two.
Dangerous To Know
hits the bookstores in July 2002.

And—long drum roll here, please!—in response to your many letters and requests, the adventures continue in a whole new set of CODE NAME: DANGER books. The first book in the new series,
Hot as Ice,
is a February 2002 release from Silhouette. A new title follows later in the year, with more books coming after that.

Happy reading,

NIGHT OF THE JAGUAR

To the man who has always been my dark, handsome hero—the one, the only, the wonderful, Al.

Special Acknowledgments

With special thanks to my super “technical advisers”:

Dr. Larry Lovelace, whose medical expertise is exceeded only by his great sense of humor;

Colonel Bob Sander, U.S. Army (Ret.), who spent far more days in the jungle than he cares to remember,

and

Lt. Bill Price, Oklahoma City Police Dept. (Ret.), friend, security expert and a Jaguar at heart!

Prologue

Cartoza, Central America

O
h, God, please don't let them find us!

The terrified woman squeezed her eyes shut, as if that might block out the horror that had shattered the night.

A rattle of machine-gun fire assaulted her ears. Hoarse voices shouted. Someone screamed—a long, agonized cry for help. A pig squealed horribly.

The woman hunched lower behind the screen of spiky palmettos, her arms wrapped around the small, trembling bodies she was trying to shield, and prayed as she'd never prayed before.

The gunfire stuttered to a halt. Low, guttural voices called in the village. Then nothing. Heavy, dark, suffocating silence, unbroken except for a small whimper from one of the children cowering against her. A silence that lengthened, causing hope to claw at her chest. Maybe they were gone! Maybe the attackers would melt back into the jungle they'd crept out of.
She drew in a ragged breath and tried to shush the child pressed against her side.

She flinched at the muted thud of footsteps nearby. A low voice. More footsteps, only a little way from their hiding place. Men trudged past. For a few moments, a few heart-stopping, desperate moments, she thought she and the children were safe. But then, a parrot screamed a protest at the passing men, startling a frightened cry out of little Teresa.

The footsteps slowed, then stopped. Stillness descended, heavy and waiting.

She pressed Teresa into her side, against the thick, sweltering folds of the robe she'd thrown on in the desperate hope it would give her and the children some protection. The little girl's terror infected the others. Ricci, only three, sobbed.

The palmetto fronds rattled, parted. Moonlight glinted on the evil-looking gun barrel that pointed right at her heart, and cast the lean face above it into sharp, shadowed angles.

They stared at each other, her eyes wide with terror, his narrowed and deadly.

Another face appeared at his shoulder. “What is it, gringo? Who's there? More of these peasants who resist our cause? Kill them!”

The man holding her in his line of fire drew in a deep breath. “It's a nun. For God's sake, it's a nun.”

Chapter 1

O
n a quiet side street just off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of Washington's embassy district, an elegant, Federal-style town house stood dark and silent in the pre-dawn April chill.

A discreet bronze plaque beside the front door caught the dim, fading glow of the streetlamps. Anyone brave enough or foolish enough to be wandering the capital's streets that early might have peered curiously at the plaque and learned that the structure housed the offices of the president's special envoy.

Those in the know—political correspondents, foreign diplomats, cabdrivers, and the bag people who slept on the subway grate on the corner—could have told the curious wanderer that the position of special envoy was another of those meaningless ones created several administrations ago to give some wealthy campaign contributor a fancy Washington office and an important-sounding title.

Only a handful of government officials with the highest compartmentalized security clearances knew that the offices
of the president's special envoy occupied just the first two floors of the town house.

Still fewer were aware that the third floor served as headquarters for a covert agency. An agency whose initials comprised the last letter of the Greek alphabet—OMEGA. An agency that, as its name implied, was activated as a last resort when other, more established organizations, such as the CIA or the State Department or the military, couldn't respond for legal or practical reasons.

And only the president himself knew that the special envoy also acted as the director of OMEGA. The director alone had the authority to send its agents into the field.

One of those agents—code name Jaguar—was in the field now.

His controller paced OMEGA's high-tech communications center on the third floor of the town house. Her pale gray linen slacks showed the effects of a long day and an even longer night, as did her wrinkled red silk tunic, with its military-style tabs at the shoulders and pockets. Tension radiated from every inch of her tall, slender body as she took another turn, then stopped abruptly in front of the command console

Dammit, why didn't Jake report in?

Maggie Sinclair shoved a hand through her thick sweep of shoulder-length brown hair and glared at the unwavering amber light on the satellite receiver. “Are you sure there hasn't been any interference with our signals?”

The communications specialist seated at the side console sent her a pained look. “No, ma'am,” he drawled in his soft Texas twang. “Not unless somebody's got something a whole lot more sophisticated than baby here.”

He patted the steel gray console tenderly. “And no one does. If one of our agents in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or anywhere else on the planet so much as sneezes into his transmitter, I'll pull it down for you. No one, not even the
U
-nited States Air Force, can interfere with my signals.”

Warming to his subject, Joe Samuels began to describe in loving, excruciating detail the power and frequency spectrums
he could call up at will. Maggie listened with half an ear, having shared the small hours of the night with him and his baby many times before. She stared at the amber light, her thoughts on the man she was waiting to hear from.

Where was Jake? What was happening in Cartoza?

After more than two years as a special agent for OMEGA, Maggie had spent enough time in the field to develop keen instincts about an operation. Every one of her instincts was screaming that something had gone wrong with this one.

She should have heard from Jake hours ago. She was his control, his only contact at headquarters, and he hadn't missed a prearranged signal yet. The last transmission he'd sent had indicated that the big arms shipment would be tonight.

They were close, so close, to breaking up the international consortium that specialized in selling stolen U.S. military arms to unfriendly governments and revolutionary forces. Posing as an expatriate mercenary, Jake had infiltrated one of the rebel bands some weeks ago. The information he'd sent in so far had detailed how the weapons were being smuggled from various military arsenals across the U.S. He'd even pinpointed the isolated airstrips where the arms were being delivered.

But until tonight he hadn't been able to identify the middlemen, the Americans who arranged the shipments and took payment in drug dollars. Tonight, Jake had learned, the big money men were flying in with a special shipment. Tonight, he'd planned to be part of the group that met them. Tonight, OMEGA would take the middlemen down.

Maggie had placed surveillance aircraft on orbit and put a strike force on full alert, waiting for his signal. It hadn't come.

Resuming her seat in front of the command console, she reached for a foam cup with a neat pattern of teeth marks around its rim. She took a sip of cold coffee, then grimaced and set the cup aside. With a last, frowning glance at the amber light, she tugged a black three-ring notebook toward her. She flipped through the tabbed sections until she found the parameters for mission termination.

Maggie knew the criteria for ending an operation by heart. As the respective control and field agents for this mission, she and Jake had drafted them together weeks ago. But with his life on the line, she wasn't trusting anything to memory.

Ten minutes later, she pushed the notebook aside. She still had some latitude within the agreed-upon parameters. She'd sweat it out a few more hours yet, she decided. There was still a chance they could pull it off. The drop could have been delayed by weather, by mechanical problems with the plane, by any one of a hundred unexpected events.

Besides, Jake was good. Damn good. He had more field time than anyone in the agency, two years more than Maggie herself. He'd been one of the first operatives recruited for OMEGA, a CIA transplant who'd helped train the dozen other transfers from various military and government agencies. He'd salvage the operation…if it was salvageable.

Still, the sixth sense Maggie had learned never to ignore in this business kept nagging at her. Her brows puckered in concentration, she stared at the console and willed herself inside Jake's head.

What was going on down there?

She was so intent on the unwavering yellow light that she didn't see Samuels acknowledge a positive palm-and-voice print. Nor did she hear the near-silent hum as the heavy oak door to the control center—protected by a bullet-proof titanium shield—slid open.

“Nothing yet?”

The deep, quiet voice, with its distinctive Boston cadences, made Maggie jump. She swiveled her chair around, thinking ruefully that she should be used to the way her boss moved by now.

And, she decided with a quick intake of breath, she certainly ought to be used to the sight of Adam Ridgeway in formal dress. She'd seen him in his special envoy persona often enough, looking incredibly distinguished and darkly handsome in white tie and tails tailored to fit his broad shoulders and lean, athletic body. Adam usually stopped by the
OMEGA control center after attending one of his many diplomatic functions. Maggie had expected him tonight. Nevertheless, she had to force trapped air out of her lungs as she shook her head.

“No, nothing yet.”

He flicked a glance at the row of clocks above the command console. “It's almost 4:00 a.m. down there.”

“I know.”

One of Adam's dark brows notched at her clipped response.

“I'm giving him another few hours,” Maggie added, in a more measured tone.

He studied her face for a moment, then nodded. “All right.”

The tight knot of tension at the base of Maggie's spine loosened an infinitesimal fraction at his quiet acceptance of her decision. She and Adam had had their disagreements in the past over her somewhat unorthodox methods in the field. But he'd never yet questioned her instincts about an operation. That he didn't do so now reinforced Maggie's confidence in her decision to delay terminating the mission.

Adam turned away, pulling at the ends of his white tie. “I'll be in my office downstairs. Call me if you hear anything.”

The mischievous grin that was as much a part of Maggie's nature as her intense dedication to her job tugged at the corners of her generous mouth. She snapped a hand to her forehead. “Aye, aye, Skipper!”

Adam paused, his blue eyes gleaming at her atrocious approximation of a salute. “It's obvious we didn't recruit you from the military,” he commented dryly.

Maggie grinned as she watched him stride across the room with the smooth, controlled grace of a man who had crewed for Harvard and still sculled on the Potomac every chance he got. She often teased him about his choice of a sailing craft, suggesting that someone with his wealthy background could afford a real boat—one with an engine, maybe, or at least an anchor.

When his black-clad frame disappeared into the darkness outside the control center, Maggie swung back to the console. Her lingering smile faded slowly.

The amber light emitted the same unblinking glow.

Where the devil was Jake?

 

Two thousand miles away, Jake MacKenzie cursed viciously as he slashed at the strangler-fig root that had wrapped itself around his boot. His machete sliced through the thick elastic root with deadly efficiency, then slid back into the worn leather scabbard attached to his web belt. Jake reached up to adjust the night-vision goggles that photomultiplied light some forty thousand times, changing the inky darkness around him to an eerie luminous green. He plowed ahead, hard on the heels of the shadowy figure in front of him.

Christ! Everything that could've gone wrong tonight had! Not only had the plane they'd come to meet failed to show at the small airstrip hacked out of the jungle, but government troops had unexpectedly arrived in the area. Someone had better have a damn good explanation for that colossal screw up, Jake thought savagely.

As if that weren't bad enough, he and the band of revolutionaries he'd infiltrated had spent half the night detouring around the troops to get back to their camp, high in the mountains. Then, outside a sleeping village, one of the rebels had stumbled over some pigs. Startled, the stupid bastard had sprayed the squealing animals with his AK-47. Within moments, the night had erupted. Shouts from the nearby village, scattered small-arms fire and the answering stutter of the rebels' automatic rifles had split the darkness. Before Jake could stop them, the rebels had charged through the cluster of huts, firing on the peasants, who had so far stubbornly refused to support their cause.

They'd wanted to kill the terrified woman they'd found hiding in a stand of palmettos, too. Until they'd seen her black robe and veil and the kids clutched in her arms. Even these sleazers hesitated before pulling the trigger on a nun and three
children. Still, Jake's acid observation, in quick, idiomatic Spanish, that a medical sister was the closest thing to a doctor in this remote part of the interior was probably what had saved her life.

So far.

Dragging the woman with them, the rebels had melted back into the jungle. The children, clinging to her like frightened monkeys, had stumbled along, as well. Within moments, an impenetrable wall of darkness had swallowed them. Not even the rugged all-terrain vehicles the
federales
used could navigate through the dense tropical rain forest.

And now he was stuck with them, Jake thought in disgust. Three orphans, according to the woman's frantic pleas to spare them. And a nun! An American nun, if her mangled, broken Spanish was any indication. As if he didn't have enough on his hands with this botched mission.

“Don't touch him!”

At the sharp, sudden cry, Jake dropped into an instinctive crouch and spun around. Through the thin lenses of the goggles—stolen from a U.S. military base, along with a shipment of high-tech arms—he saw the spectral shape of one of the rebels tugging at a child's arm.

“No! No, let her go!”

The man spit out a response, but obviously the sister didn't understand the guttural patois the rebels used. She snatched at his shirt, demanding that he release the child.

Jake straightened, his stomach clenching. The woman's black robe and medical expertise wouldn't protect her much longer if she riled these men. Or if they got to drinking. Or if—

A muted snarl from the man holding the child's arm told Jake things were fast getting out of hand. Cursing once more, he stalked back along the narrow, overgrown trail. He shoved up the goggles, which tended to blur items at close range, curled a hard hand around the woman's arm and jerked her away. The child, a girl of about five or six, cried out.

“Let me go!” The woman yanked against his tight hold, intent on the child.

Jake's grip tightened. “You may not realize how close you are to getting a knife in your ribs, Sister.”

She swung toward him, her face a pale blur in the murky gloom. “You're an American?” she gasped in disbelief.

“More or less,” he snapped.

“Wh-what are you doing with them?” She gestured to the group that now surrounded them, dim shadows against the darker blackness of the night, then repeated helplessly, “You're an American.”

Jesus! Jake's fingers dug into her arm. “This is no time to be discussing nationalities. In case you aren't aware of it, my associates don't like
norteamericanos
much more than they do their own people who resist their cause. Come on.”

She dug in her heels. “Tell that…that murderer…to get his hands off Teresa.”

The wiry rebel understood English a whole lot better than the sister understood Spanish. He spit out a phrase Jake was glad the woman didn't grasp. The situation, he decided, was rapidly going from dangerous to nasty.

“The children are slowing us up. He's only going to put the girl on the packhorse, for God's sake.”

She panted with a combination of fear and desperate determination. “For
his
sake, that's all he'd better do.”

BOOK: Dangerous to Hold
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