Excerpt from High-Stakes Affair
If there was one thing Dante Quevedo knew intimately, it was revenge. He'd lived it, breathed it, and plotted it for twenty years. And tonight it would finally be his.
Pressing down on the remote control detonator, Dante watched as a potent mixture of C-4 and diesel fuel exploded, shooting brilliant orange flames high in the midnight sky and rumbling the ground beneath his feet. With a quick surge of satisfaction, he slid the detonator back into his knapsack, then slipped through the inky shadows to the machinery shed where the casino’s emergency generators were housed.
The bomb’s fire leaped and roared in the darkness. Security guards rushed past, shouting into their radios as they raced toward the rocketing blaze. Dante crept around the shed, the thick smoke shielding his movements from the surveillance cameras mounted on the walls, and paused at the metal door. Using his custom made, stainless-steel diamond pick, he jimmied the lock and stepped inside.
He glanced at his watch. Sixteen minutes. Not much time to disable the back-up generators and get himself in place. Then the hacker would work his computer magic and cut the main power to the casino, allowing Dante to break into the penthouse, the aristocrat who’d hired him in tow.
Misgivings stirred inside him, but he shook them off. He’d agreed to the deal -- his release from prison in exchange for getting the unknown woman inside. Her reasons, her goal -- hell, even her identity -- didn’t matter.
Only Dante’s chance for vengeance did.
Resolve fisting deep inside him, he strode to the generators’ control panel, located the power switch and turned it off. Then he sawed through the fuel lines with his wire cutters and opened the drains on the tanks to buy more time. Diesel fuel poured out, the harsh fumes stinging his nostrils and watering his eyes. Knowing time was dwindling quickly, he returned to the door and peered outside.
Smoke still billowed past. A cacophony of sirens pierced the air as emergency vehicles sped up the Pyrenees Mountain slope. His adrenaline rising, Dante stepped from the shed and locked the door, then melted into the night.
Picking up his pace now, he jogged to the stolen hatchback he’d parked at the periphery of the gravel lot. Nine minutes. He opened the trunk, tugged a crisp white dress shirt over his t-shirt, then yanked on his jacket and tie. Still hurrying, he stuffed his lock picking tools into his pocket, brushed the leaves and twigs from his suit trousers, and stowed his knapsack beneath a nearby shrub. If all hell broke loose he didn’t want any evidence traced to him.
Moving slower to avoid attention, he strolled casually past the valet parking and up the casino’s wide stone steps. Located in a medieval fortress, País Vell’s opulent playground attracted high rollers from around the world. Dante nodded to the uniformed doorman, stepped into the chandelier-studded lobby, and paused.
The domed ceiling soared above him. Huge marble columns shouldered the mezzanine, its gilded railing glinting in the refracted light. Bells jangled from the adjacent gaming pit, the cheerful noise razoring through him like a garrote to his heart. His sister Lucía had died in this casino. She would never laugh, never hear those sounds again.
He steeled his jaw against a rush of emotions, guilt over his failure to save her bludgeoning his heart. Her death haunted him, all right. He couldn’t stop reliving her final, frantic phone call -- that she needed him to help her, that the prince was trying to kill her, that she’d witnessed something dreadful during her waitressing shift and had to leave. Dante had raced to the casino, only to find her body dumped in the parking lot like discarded trash. Bloody. Mutilated.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the burning need for vengeance threatening to incinerate his hard-won control. But he’d get revenge; he had no doubts about that. He’d find the evidence he needed to destroy the prince -- and every other member of the royal family -- no matter what it took.
But he had a bargain to fulfill first.
Still careful not to attract attention, he stalked across the marble lobby to the gaming pit, then wove past the baccarat tables and roulette wheels to the private, high-limit rooms off the palace’s central hall. He checked his watch. Five minutes. The aristocrat would be in one of the high roller rooms by now. The plan called for her to enter the corridor nearest the medieval watch tower a minute before the power went off. Dante estimated they’d have half an hour to break into the penthouse, find whatever she wanted, and return to the hallway before the maintenance people restored the power.
Veering past a display of medieval armor, he headed to a nearby restroom and ducked inside. Two minutes. He drew in a breath, mentally reviewing the palace’s layout as another minute ticked down.
His belly tensed. A familiar surge of excitement drummed through his veins. One minute left. The game was on.
He stepped back into the hall.
Right on schedule, a woman sauntered down the corridor toward him, her slender hips swiveling in her snug black pants, her long legs covering the distance with graceful strides. Dante took in her firm, high breasts, her sweetly curving waist. Thick, dark hair cascaded around her shoulders, gleaming like burnished chestnut in the muted light.
He knit his brows, something about her niggling his memory, prompting a feeling of familiarity he couldn’t place. He shrugged the sensation off. He couldn’t possibly know her. He had little contact with País Vell’s wealthy elite -- except when he broke into their estates, relieving them of their cash and jewels.
Conscious of the surveillance cameras recording his movements, he turned toward the water fountain -- just as a man strode behind her into the hall.
Dante’s heart skipped. He eyed the newcomer’s short, burly build, the bulge of a sidearm beneath his suit, the hyper-alert way he scanned the hall. A bodyguard. What the hell? No one had mentioned him.
Suspicions crowding inside him, Dante leaned over the fountain and dipped his head to drink. This couldn’t be a trap; why bother springing him from prison only to arrest him again? Besides, he trusted his friend Rafael Navarro, the former thief who’d arranged this deal. Rafe never would have set him up.
But then who was the unknown aristocrat? Why would she bring a bodyguard along? And what the hell was he going to do now?
He took several long swallows of water, waiting until the woman had nearly reached him, then angled her another glance. His eyes connected with hers, and recognition kicked him straight in the gut.
His jaw slackened in disbelief.
But it was her, all right. He could hardly mistake her infamous oval face, those mesmerizing amber eyes. He scanned her dark winged brows, her sinfully carnal mouth, that elegant, fine-boned jaw. She continued gliding toward him, her head held high, her slender spine erect, centuries of privilege and breeding evident in every regal step.
A hot rush of fury scorched his gut. No wonder Rafe had kept her name a secret. If Dante had known her identity, he never would have agreed to this job. The royals had gunned down his helpless mother. They’d murdered his baby sister. There wasn’t a chance in hell he’d help anyone even remotely connected to them.
And this princess... He thinned his lips in disgust. Paloma Vergara was a notorious wild child, a pampered, frivolous tabloid queen whose escapades had outraged the nation for years. She spent her useless life partying, squandering money earned on the backs of the downtrodden people -- epitomizing everything he despised.
She drew even closer, her gaze locked on his. Suddenly, she stumbled, a flash of uncertainty flickering in her eyes. But she recovered her poise and strolled through the door of the women’s lounge, trailing a taunting wisp of perfume.
His face muscles rigid, anger pounding his veins with the force of that bomb blast, Dante turned back to the fountain and swore. He should call this off. He should walk away right now. She was the princess, his enemy, a member of the family he’d sworn to destroy. And now he had her bodyguard to contend with, a complication that could get him killed.
But he’d promised to take her into the penthouse in exchange for his release from jail. The princess had done her part and freed him, so how could he renege on the deal?
He scowled at the gurgling water, an onslaught of conflicting emotions waging a full-blown war in his head. Every survival instinct he possessed urged him to get out now. But his word meant everything to him. His lifestyle might not be conventional -- stealing from the aristocrats to help País Vell’s poorest citizens -- but he followed his own strict code of honor, meting out justice and revenge.
Abort the mission or adjust? He only had seconds left to decide.
He took a final swallow of water. The princess’ bodyguard stopped, taking up his post beside the restroom door. Ten seconds. Dante continued debating his choices, but a grim feeling of inevitability settled inside. Bottom line, he’d given his word. He had to complete this mission, no matter what.
Hoping to hell he wouldn’t regret this, he turned off the fountain and prepared to strike.
back to main books page
Copyright 2011 by Gail Ellen Barrett. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.