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Authors: Jenna Mills

THE PERFECT TARGET

BOOK: THE PERFECT TARGET
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Contents:

 

Prologue

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15

Prologue

^
»

Two roads diverged in a wood

And I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.

—Robert Frost

 

"
T
urn on your TV."

Alessandro Vellenti squinted through the darkness of his Lisbon hotel room. He'd seen closets bigger, closets dedicated solely to shoes and handbags. But the small room had a shower, and that's all he'd really wanted.

Well, maybe not
all
he wanted, but all he could have.

Night had fallen while he'd stood under the spray of a lukewarm shower, trying to ignore the metallic smell of the water. Now, flashing lights from the discotheque across the street cut through the threadbare curtains like something straight out of a macabre horror flick.

"My TV?" He positioned the mobile phone against his
shoulder and fumbled for the bedside lamp. Anticipation increased his heart rate. Javier was hardly a television kind of guy. Sandro doubted his partner wanted him to see the newest reality show to disgrace the airwaves. "What's going on?"

"Something big. What took you so long to answer the phone? I'm not
finally
interrupting something, am I?"

Sandro ignored the jab and wrapped a threadbare towel around his hips. Rivulets of water clung to his chest and slid down his legs, but he didn't finish drying. There was no need. The room reeked of stale cigarettes and harsh antiseptic, but the temperature was only slightly cool. Sandro had certainly endured colder. And hotter.

He preferred the hot. "I'm not a kiss-and-tell kind of guy," he muttered, looking for the remote. "What's going on?"

"Jorak Zhukov was arrested crossing into the United States from Canada. The ambassador to Ravakia is giving an interview right now."

Finally, the urgency in Javier's voice made sense. Implications and questions immediately surfaced, raised more questions. "Was he by himself?"

"Apparently."

Sandro went down on one knee, locating the remote under the narrow bed, adjacent to a skimpy black bra and slinky white scarf. He didn't even want to
think
about how the erotic garments had found their way under the bed. Doing so would be too depressing. Instead, he aimed the ancient control at the pathetic excuse for a television across the room.

Nothing happened. "Has he been charged with anything?"

"Just traveling on a falsified visa. So far. But I can't imagine the United States letting him slip through their fingers, not after what happened to those agents."

Sandro hit the power button again, still with no luck. Banging the useless instrument against the nightstand, he recalled the countless reports he'd reviewed about Jorak Zhukov and his father Viktor, the overthrown leader of the Eastern European country Ravakia. The two were wanted in connection with the deaths of eight undercover operatives. Word on the street had it something even bigger was going down.

It was Sandro and Javier's mission to find out what.

"What of Viktor?" Anticipation whirred deep inside Sandro. Nailing the notorious father-son duo would save countless lives. "Any indication they were traveling together?"

"The State Department doesn't think so."

Sandro gave up on the remote, took the room in three long strides, and jabbed the on button. A bright light yawned across the screen, but no picture and only the sound of static.

"They think Viktor's holed up somewhere in Europe," Javier added.

Maybe. Probably. When the U.S. got determined about finding something, safe hiding places became scarce. "Do they know where?"

"If they do, they're not saying."

A distorted picture finally formed. Sandro flipped through channels on the old black-and-white until he found the familiar CNN logo. The picture remained fuzzy, however, the sound garbled.

"The State Department's heightened the travel warning for American citizens and interests," Javi added. "With Jorak in custody, Viktor will be desperate. They fear retaliation."

Sandro slammed his palm against the side of the television, still no sound. Against a backdrop of a proud American flag, Ambassador Peter Carrington grew more animated by the second. Defiance glowed in his eyes, hardened the lines of his patrician face. His hands moved as he talked, slicing through the air like a chop to the neck of an invisible opponent.

"What's he saying? I can't get any volume."

"The usual. The United States is not in the business of negotiating with criminals on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list."

Sandro stepped back from the television, suddenly cold. "Zhukov will take that as a direct challenge."

A hard noise broke from Javi's throat. "I don't understand people like Carrington, so snug in his ivory tower that he doesn't realize he's not insulated from the real world."

"He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth," Sandro pointed out. The highly revered, much loved Carrington family skirted as close to royalty as America got. "He's never had his world blow up around him."

"That's about to change," Javi warned as the interview ended. A shadowy image of General Viktor Zhukov replaced that of the newly appointed ambassador to Ravakia. "Viktor's already on the move, knows he needs leverage."

Leverage.
The word snaked through Sandro like rancid meat. "You mean a hostage."

"Viktor made contact about thirty minutes ago," Javi said, his voice practically drowned out by a siren somewhere in the city. "He's already got a plan. And a target."

The news didn't surprise Sandro. "Who?"

"Miranda Carrington."

The name did. An image immediately formed, of leagues of chestnut hair and exotic green eyes. "The ambassador's' daughter?"

"A child for a child," Javi muttered cryptically. "Word on the street is she's in Europe indulging some gypsy fantasy. She was last seen in Seville."

Only a few hours' drive from Lisbon.

"Cristo."
Sandro knew little of the ambassador's youngest child, other than that in her late twenties, she seemed the exact opposite of her perfect, politically correct older sister and brother, Elizabeth and Ethan, dubbed the E-twins by the press. Not that Miranda wasn't perfect in her own right…

She sure as hell could kiss, he thought, then wished he hadn't. Vividly, he recalled a tabloid photo of a bikini-clad Miranda wrapped around some Ivy League frat boy, mouths locked in a pose more suited to the cover of an X-rated video.

Sandro sucked in a sharp breath and shoved wet hair back from his face. His body groaned in frustration.

Don't go there, he warned himself. Don't even think about there. Especially not with a woman targeted to become a pawn in a high-stakes international game. Especially not while he stood wet and naked in a hotel room that reeked of sex by the hour. He couldn't afford to be distracted any more than he could afford the nasty kink in months of grueling undercover work. His mission was clear: gain the general's trust, learn his secrets, then bring him down.

"It gets worse," his partner added, seemingly reading his mind, as always. "That's why I'm calling."

Sandro braced himself. "Lay it on me."

"The general wants you to get her for him,
amigo.
Said if you can deliver the girl, he'll know where your loyalties lie."

Sandro went very still. A test. The irony of it burned clear down to his bones. If he failed the test, he failed his country.

But if he succeeded…

Reeling, Sandro dragged the phone back to the narrow cot and slipped his hand under the pillow, where his 9mm awaited, silencer intact. "Tell him I'm onboard."

He'd always excelled at tests, wouldn't fail now. Training and loyalty left him no choice. He had to find her. Find the ambassador's daughter. Find her fast, find her first.

Before the long-awaited chance to cozy up to the general went up in flames.

Chapter 1

«
^
»

N
o one recognized her.

Miranda Carrington lowered her tortoiseshell sunglasses and glanced around the open-air market, savoring the sense of liberation. No one watched her every step. No one shoved a camera in her face. There was no one grabbing a mobile phone to excitedly report her outfit, her language, the drink in her hand. No one waiting for her to commit a faux pas worthy of splashing all over the covers of every grocery-store tabloid.

Exhilaration tumbled through her hard and fast. Miranda wanted to twirl around the crowded cobblestone sidewalk, to laugh. Instead, she smiled. Last night a storm had raged, but the morning held nothing but clear blue skies and cool Atlantic breezes.

And freedom.

Here, in the small Portuguese village of Cascais, no one gave a flip about her or her prestigious family. No one noticed the two glasses of port she'd nursed the night before. No one paid attention to her slightly off-kilter sense of fashion. No one watched. No one cared.

Here, she was just another woman, on just another day. She could dance in the street without speculation that she was practicing witchcraft. She could laugh out loud.

Smiling, Miranda reached for the camera draped over her shoulder, lifted it to her face, and snapped several shots of the vendors working the market.

"Bom dia,"
she greeted the older gentleman who'd moved from South Africa to Portugal, where he now made his living carving wooden toys for children by night and selling his crafts by day. He offered her a big smile, which she captured on film.

"Astrida! Astrida!"

Down the cobblestone walkway, an older woman grinned despite her missing front teeth.

"Rosita," Miranda greeted, then snapped a shot of the woman standing proudly in front of her stall, with a fine array of brightly colored scarves blowing in the April breeze. Miranda had purchased one just yesterday, and now used the slinky turquoise fabric to hold blond hair back from her face.

"Obrigada,"
she said in thanks, then continued on her way. A few feet away, she took a shot of a young woman showing off handmade seashell wind chimes to a group of older tourists.

Years of sweltering under the public eye kept Miranda walking at a brisk pace. She didn't want to draw attention to herself. She wanted to savor anonymity as long as she could.

The thrill never went away. Sometimes, she still couldn't believe she'd finally convinced her father to let her live her own life. Eleven years before tragedy had forever changed their family, and in its wake, he'd tightened the net around his family to near unbearable restrictions. But Miranda hadn't seen Hawk Monroe or any of his men in weeks. And she'd certainly looked. She knew the tricks, knew the small tests to figure out if someone was shadowing her or merely living their own lives.

More than anything, Miranda wanted to live her own life. At the end of the street stood a trendy boutique, boasting the seaside village's finest collection of European perfumes. Miranda was tempted to dash inside but didn't want to waste the hazy morning light. She'd seen a fleet of old, rainbow-colored fishing boats bobbing in the harbor from her hotel window, and—

The all too familiar feeling of dread slammed in from nowhere. She stopped abruptly and sucked in a sharp breath, but the icy fingers at the back of her neck didn't go away. Slipping her sunglasses back on, she turned slowly, carefully scanning the crowd milling about the bazaar.

Nothing. Nothing out of place, anyway. No one hurriedly ducked into a shop. No one covertly turned away. No one quickly raised a newspaper to cover their face. She was only imagining things, so used to living in a fishbowl that even here, in this small seaside village, she felt the eyes of the world watching.

BOOK: THE PERFECT TARGET
6.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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