Dark waters lapped the century-old palace's foundation, eager to claim the forgotten building on one of Venice's backstreet canals. At four on the February morning, tourists still partied on in the distance, drunk on love, youth and full-bodied Italian wine. Gabe Cannon could hear both the water and the faint beat of the music, but he couldn't hear the half dozen men in the building with him. His new commando team spread out like ghosts moving through the night.
"Target on the roof," the team leader's voice whispered in his earpiece.
He stole up the crumbling stairs, ready for the rogue soldier who needed to be brought in before he caused more damage. He'd known Jake Tekla ten years ago in the army--a decent guy back then, but war could change a person, could even twist a man's mind.
Static hissed in his earpiece before the words, "Kill order authorized. Repeat, authorized to shoot on sight."
His instincts prickled. Standard procedure called for an attempt to capture first, and see what information they could gain during interrogation. Usable intelligence trumped a quick kill, every time. Then again, he worked for a private security firm now: XO-ST. Xtreme Ops Shadow Teams. They did things differently than his previous employers, the army and the FBI.
Gabe reached the roof. Plywood patches formed a psychedelic pattern in the moonlight-an unexpected break. Not having to sneak around on crumbling Mediterranean roof tiles would make this much easier. He stole forward and eased into the cover of a crooked chimney stack.
He caught a silent shadow at the door he'd come through--Troy, one of his teammates, joining him. Odd how Gabe had been last into the building, but first on the roof. Maybe the others had pulled back on purpose, testing the new guy. Another person might have been annoyed, but he'd expected this much. He wasn't afraid of having to earn his stripes.
Dormers, chimneys and ridges blocked visibility. Clouds kept drifting over the moon. Scan. Move forward.Take cover. A night game of hide and seek in a labyrinth, with a fair chance that the ramshackle roof could open up under his feet any minute.
Then he stole around a dormer and spotted the target at last. Jake Tekla blended into the night in black fatigues, similar to Gabe's, black ski mask in place. A lot slighter than Gabe remembered. Looked like being on the run had taken its toll on him. The man crept toward the edge of the roof, his focus on the jump he was considering.
No visible weapons.
Yet another thing that didn't add up. Not for a government-trained, seasoned soldier.
Gabe inched closer, watching for a trap. He flicked the safety off his gun. Come on. Turn. He moved another step closer then stopped with his feet apart, gun raised, silencer in place.
His target sensed him at last and spun around.
Gabe caught the curve of a breast in the moonlight, and his finger froze on the trigger as he stared at the woman.
She could be a trap--Tekla's accomplice or a decoy.
He had a kill order.
Most of the men he worked with squeezed the trigger each and every time, preferring to err on the safe side. He'd been like that once. A muscle jumped in his cheek. He pushed the North Village incident from his mind.
The woman stared at him for a startled moment, then her instincts kicked in and she ran. Or tried. He lunged after her, caught up in three leaps and brought her down hard. She was lean, yet soft, every inch unmistakably feminine. But none of that feminine softness showed in her fighting spirit. She shoved against him with all she had. She had to know she was conquered, yet she refused to yield, stirring some of his base instincts.
"Stop," he hissed the single word into her ear as he did his best to subdue her.
Plywood gave an ominous creak on the other side of the ridge, the team moving into position to cover the roof and inspect all its nooks and crannies. Something stopped Gabe from calling out even as the woman did her best to scratch his eyes out, fighting in silence. Enough small things about this op had triggered alarms in his mind for him to want to see what he had here before he called the rest of the team in.
He patted her down one-handed, although if she had a knife she would have probably used it on him by now. He kept his voice low. "Did Tekla send you?"
She tried to buck him off. He managed to hold her down with one hand and ripped her black mask off with the other. Wavy dark hair tumbled free, eyes going wide with panic even as her full lips snarled. Despite the semidarkness, he couldn't miss her beauty, or the fact that she had Tekla's eyes and nose.
"Who are you?" he asked, even as the answer was already forming in his mind.
The man had two sisters, the younger one a teenager and the other somewhat older. The one under Gabe now was all woman and then some. Definitely not the teenage sister. He'd met both once at the airport when Tekla and he had gone home on a short leave over Christmas, back in their army days. They didn't have parents, he remembered suddenly. Tekla had enlisted so he could support what was left of his family.
What in hell was his sister doing on the roof? No way his team's intel could be so bad on an op like this. They weren't fighting in the chaos of some distant battle field. The target's sisters were supposed to be living with a distant aunt in Arkansas, according to the op files.
His mind ran all the options as he pressed her down a little harder to keep her still. He wanted to believe that Brent Foley, the team leader, hadn't known who she was when he'd given the kill order, but being naïve didn't pay in this business.
But if Brent did know... Eliminating one of Tekla's sisters might push the guy over the edge, bring him out into the open as he came in for revenge. XO-ST's small army for hire consisted of ex-soldiers and ex-agents, conducting outsourced ops for the U.S. government and anyone else who could meet their price. Brent wrote the book on how to reach goals by whatever means necessary.
Except, Gabe hadn't signed on to kill innocent women, no matter how badly he needed the money. He motioned to her to stay down and stay quiet, then eased his body off her a little so she could breathe.
"Is he here?" he whispered.
After another spirited minute of resistance, her muscles went slack and she lay there, breathing hard, despair filling her eyes. She shook her head.
He pulled up all the way. Her gaze slid to his gun, and she swallowed, her body stiffening. Fear came onto her face, that wide-eyed look of people who know they are about to die. She didn't beg, nor did she offer her brother's life for her own. She simply met Gabe's gaze and lifted her chin.
She still looked impossibly young, although he figured she had to be around twenty-six or twenty-seven by now. Her slim body might have looked fragile next to his, but her eyes shone with defiance. Which wouldn't be enough, not with a kill order in place and a team of mercenaries spread out around them.
"I'll come back." He secured her with a plastic cuff to the iron scroll that decorated the roof's edge, with one smooth move.
He switched on his mouthpiece as he turned from her, ignoring her silent struggle. "Target escaped the roof. East end."
He ran along the edge toward the other side where a six-foot gap separated the old palace from the next building. Dark shapes materialized from the shadows. He jumped without giving the steep drop below him much thought. As expected, his clear purpose and energy drew the rest of the team behind him.
He dashed forward as if he could see a man's disappearing back somewhere up ahead. He didn't slow for twenty minutes and several rooftops later. Then he braced against the edge of the roof as he stared down onto a dark, abandoned bridge below him. "Lost visual contact."
A four-letter word came through his headset, then, "Did he look hurt?"
"I could have sworn I clipped him before we lost him last week." A moment of silence. "Spread out."
As the team scattered, Gabe made his way back to the old palace, trying to think of the woman's name, not expecting much after ten years, surprised when it did pop into his brain: Jasmine.
She was going to take him to Tekla. He would bring the man in himself, making sure she didn't get hurt in the process. Things could get out of hand when a cornered person was confronted with an entire commando team. For all he knew, the other sister was here, too. His jaw muscles tightened. He had no respect for a man who would use his sisters as a shield. Gabe vaulted from roof to roof, watching out for crumbling edges.
If he could complete the mission without bloodshed, he wanted to give it a try. Maybe saving a few lives, after having taken so many, would even the scales a little.
Except, he found the palace roof empty.
He stared at the sawed through plastic cuff next to a shattered roof tile and its sharp shards. He should have thought of that, dammit. Anger coursed through him as he moved to look over the edge, not seeing her anywhere below.
A few hardy tourists strolled the sidewalks, out doing the whole 'Venice by starlight' thing. He considered going down among them, even as he knew it would be futile. She could be anywhere by now. Closer to the city center, St. Mark's Square and the areas around the major hotels, would be even busier. A lot of visitors had arrived already for the famous Carnival that would start next week. They enjoyed taking their fancy costumes out for a test drive. He would never find her tonight.
He'd underestimated her. She wouldn't be easily defeated. Of course, she was trying to protect her brother, which he could respect. But he was going to bring Tekla in.
He needed the money badly. Lives depended on it.
Jasmine hurried along the Grand Canal, dodging a group of die-hard revelers, glancing back over her shoulder for the hundredth time. She couldn't see Gabe Cannon anywhere.
Her teenage fantasy man was hunting her brother. She sure hadn't seen that coming. Freaking surreal.
He looked just as good as when she'd first met him at that airport and had fallen instantly in love while they'd all gone out for pizza. One of those unavoidable pitfalls of life, really. He'd been more handsome than any of her pop idols, and her teenage emotions had been just begging for an outlet. She cringed in embarrassment when she thought of all the melodramatic drivel she'd written about him in her diary in high school.
His dark hair was a little longer now and his face had developed a few more hard edges, but the sight of him could still knock the air from her lungs. He probably didn't even recognize her. Last time he'd seen her, she'd been a gangly teenager with braces.
"Permesso." Jasmine moved around an older woman who held half-dozen poodles on leashes, barely registering the dogs, her mind on other things.
Gabe Cannon could have killed her on that roof.
She reached the next bridge and touched the wing of the carved angel on the right post in a silent prayer, as she did every time she passed through here. She needed a guardian angel and badly. And maybe she had one. Maybe he'd been looking out for her tonight.
That Gabe hadn't handed her over to his team was nothing short of a miracle. She'd broken free, thanks to some quick thinking. "You are never unarmed," her brother had taught her shortly after they'd gone on the run. "Everything around you can be used either as a tool or a weapon."
Of course, could be Gabe had meant for her to escape. Maybe he thought he could follow her from a distance. Good luck with that. She'd become a master of evasion in the last few weeks, learned every island, every canal in the city. With her twists and turns and doubling back, she was confident that she'd shaken him.
One final test, then she could go home and get some sleep.
The canal glistened darkly in the moonlight, leading to the harbor a few blocks ahead where U.S. Congressman Richard Wharton's whale of a yacht bobbed on the waves, overshadowing the smaller vessels around it. She didn't go that far, just past the hideously expensive gondolas and the only slightly better water taxis to catch a vaporetto. The water buses, used by locals, were the least expensive way to get around in Venice.
A half-asleep teenager asked her something in the local language as she stepped on board.
"I speak very little Italian. Sorry," Jasmine told her.
The girl turned from her and asked another person.
Jasmine went to stand in the back. She never sat. She preferred to be on her feet, ready to leap and run at short notice. Or leap and swim. Hopefully, not tonight. She didn't like the look of the cold, dark water.
She inspected every person on board from her vantage point. No sign of Gabe.
"Bella Signora, you're an American, si?" A young man in his twenties sidled up to her with an exaggerated smile and an I-want-to-ravish-you look.
She ignored him.
"Antonio show you real good time. I'm very special for ladies. Very confidential. Two hundred American dollars. All night," he added with wide-eyed enthusiasm.
If the situation wasn't so sad, it would have been funny. Since... the incident... she couldn't stand the thought of a man touching her.
"Are you sure?" He dragged out the last word, probably thinking she just needed encouragement. But when he touched her arm and she flinched, jerking away from him on reflex, he finally got that she meant what she said and moved away from her, looking for another potential customer.
She got off at the last stop, Soremo, an out-of-the-way island that once had been famous for its salt warehouses. The giant storage rooms had been cut up into small flats at one point, now housing teachers, shop assistants and blue-collar workers--people too busy cranking out a living to pay her much attention.
She slipped through a broken window in the back of an abandoned building and listened. Heard nothing but the water and rats scurrying in the far corners. She moved to the top floor, careful of the rotting stairs. Between the saltwater and the sea winds, anything not paid attention to quickly deteriorated here.
"It's me," she called out when she reached the door in the very back. And as she opened it, she could see Mandy lowering the only gun they had left.
"Did you bring food?" The seventeen year old looked her over with sleepy eyes.
"I do what I promise." Jasmine reached into her shirt and pulled a Panini then the small bunch of bananas she'd snatched while weaving through the streets. She gave a third to Mandy before she went to check on her brother.
"I got antibiotics." She presented the small Ziploc bag that held half a dozen white pills.
"What did you sell for it?" Not even the several days' growth of beard could hide Jake's sunk-in cheeks.
"Nothing." She'd stolen those earlier in the day.
Back when her life had been normal, she used to think the line between right and wrong stood pretty clear, the whole black and white thing. These days she lived in gray, moving toward darker and darker tones every day. If she hadn't sold Jake's backup gun for food weeks ago, she might have shot Gabe on the roof before she recognized him.
She wasn't comfortable with that thought, but she couldn't afford to be caught. Mandy and Jake needed her to take care of things until Jake recovered.
"You have to take Mandy and leave," he said under his breath after he swallowed one of the pills. "It's not safe for you here."
Her muscles stiffened. "It's not safe for us anywhere."
A moment of dark silence passed between them, filled with her nightmarish memories.
Guilt made Jake's face look even gaunter. "I never meant for you to get hurt. But this place isn't any better. I should have taken you someplace else. I can't protect you like this."
He'd taken a bullet the week before. She'd removed the slug with a pair of knitting needles she'd lifted off an old lady at a cafe, but the wound was getting badly infected, immobilizing the whole leg and bringing on fever. That he also had a broken arm from a nasty fall didn't help.
"We're not going anywhere without you," Mandy said around the food in her mouth. Then coughed.
She'd been coughing last night, too. Jasmine shot her a questioning look.
Mandy shrugged. "I think I'm allergic to mold. Or rat poop."
They had plenty of both.
"Are the men still in the city?" Jake asked in a casual tone, shifting on his folded cardboard box bed, keeping his right arm out, careful with the makeshift cast.
Jasmine went back to the stained, ancient mattress she'd salvaged from a dumpster and sat next to her sister, pulling the blanket higher around Mandy's shoulders. The temperature wasn't bad for February-low fifties since the sea tempered the city's climate-but they were far from comfortable without heat.
Sometimes, on moonless nights when nobody would see smoke coming from the window, they burned garbage in a steel barrel that stood next to the last window in the back. Mostly they relied on the sun to warm up the south-facing room during the day, and the thick brick walls to radiate that heat back overnight.
"They were out hunting tonight. I tried to lead them away." Doing her best to impersonate her brother. "At least to the mainland." To the airport in Mestre.
She'd wanted them to think that Jake had gotten on a plane, but they'd caught up with her at the old palace. "Gabe Cannon is with them now."
Jake sat up, his forehead wrinkling as he considered the news. After a long minute, he shook his head. "Don't go anywhere near him. We can't afford to trust anyone at this stage. If they caught you--"
She couldn't bring herself to confess that Gabe already had. A miracle that the night hadn't turned out worse.
About twenty mercenaries hunted them, organized into two teams. One searched the city, the other secured the railroad bridge and Ponte della Liberta, the five kilometers long Liberty Bridge that connected Venice to the mainland for car and bus traffic.
Jasmine swallowed her food without tasting it. She needed to find a way to outsmart those men, and she needed to find it quickly. Today's plan had failed. She would have to come up with something better for tomorrow.
Jake finished his meager ration and hobbled over to a window, looked out into the night. Mandy slid down onto the mattress. Normally, she had the most energy among the three of them. And the biggest mouth. But not tonight.
Jasmine reached out to feel her forehead, then squeezed her eyes shut for a second, a sense of hopelessness washing over her. "You're burning up with fever."
"I'll be fine by morning."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Jake's knuckles turned white, he gripped the windowsill so tight. Didn't take a psychic to figure out that he blamed himself for putting them into this situation.
"I didn't want to be any trouble," Mandy said with a small voice.
The sight of her vivacious, chirpy little sister being beaten down like this just about killed Jasmine.
Jake hobbled over to them and sat on the corner of the mattress. Although he would never say it, his leg couldn't support him longer than a few minutes at a time. He pulled the Ziploc bag from his pocket and passed a pill to Mandy who raised her head and swallowed it obediently.
They both needed so much more than that. Real medical care, preferably a hospital, the sooner the better.
Jake lay down and gathered Mandy to him, his own teeth chattering, his face drawn. And as she looked at them, Jasmine had to accept at last that he wasn't going to get better any day now and take charge again. He wasn't going to lead them out of here to safety.
She had to do it.
Gabe Cannon's blue eyes flashed into her mind, the way they'd turned silver in the moonlight. They stood out in contrast to his dark lashes and dark hair, a spellbinding combination of coloring that had wreaked havoc with her teenage heart. Thank God, she was a lot more mature now. She wasn't going to let him bamboozle her this time.
She shoved the last of her food into her mouth and slipped her flashlight back into her pocket as she stood, knowing that what she was about to do would either save them or bury them.
Jake frowned. "Where are you going?"
Better that he didn't know. He might try to stop her. "You both need something for that fever."
Her brother held her gaze for a long moment. "Be careful."
"Take the gun," Mandy offered from under the blanket.
"You keep it. Anyone else but me comes through this door, you shoot. Okay?" She hated putting that kind of burden on her sister, but she could find no other way to make sure they were safe. Jake could barely move his right arm, let alone aim a gun with it. She gave them her most confident smile before she slipped away.
At one point, out of sheer desperation, she'd tracked the men who hunted her brother to the pensione they rented on the main island. She'd wanted to know what kind of enemy she faced. She'd gotten the answer to that: overwhelming.
She had promised herself she would stay away from the place.
Of course, back then she hadn't known that one of the hunters was Gabe.
Gabe kept his eyes on his laptop, giving no sign that he'd noticed the woman who'd been observing him through his window for the last ten minutes. Jasmine.
Brent should have listened to him when he'd recommended setting up perimeter security. But the team leader was too arrogant to think that anyone could ever turn the tables on him.
He made a show of yawning and stretching. His gun hid in the desk drawer. She would have seen if he tried to retrieve the weapon, so he simply turned the key with a slight motion then palmed it. At least now he knew she wouldn't be able to get to it while he left the room in the hopes of luring her in.
He scratched his chest, stood and headed for the bathroom. Going to the window would have scared her off, and his goal was to make her feel as secure as possible. Maybe Tekla was ready to turn himself in and sent her as a messenger.
He closed the bathroom door behind him, waited two minutes then flushed the toilet. She would be pushing the window open, using the noise he made to mask any possible creaking. After a few more seconds, he turned on the tap. She would use that to move into the room, knowing he'd turn the tap off when he was done, giving her warning before he came out of the bathroom.
He left the water running and put his hand on the doorknob. Then he slammed the door open and burst forward.
He registered the empty room a split second before she dropped on him from the storage shelf above the bathroom door, nearly knocking him off his feet.
... continued ...