Despair washed over Carina Ferrare as she stared at her father’s mansion coming into view past a manicured lawn and landscaped with perfectly groomed tropical foliage. Her prison. Oh, she was let out now and then to fool the world about just what a monster her father was, but she always went out under heavy guard and always returned to the gilded cage to be locked away again.
The limousine glided to a silent stop in the circular drive opposite the scrolled ironwork front doors. An urge to flee, to let her father’s goons shoot her in the back and end her misery, washed over her. What was the point of living if she was always to be gripped in the unbreakable fist of her crime lord father? The door beside her opened, and she stepped out, helpless to do anything else. She was a lowly pawn, and pawns did not challenge the king.
One of her “escorts” touched her elbow, urging her away from the limousine and under the sweeping portico. Yeah, yeah, she knew. The portico provided cover from snipers. Although it would have to be a hell of a sniper to hit anyone in this exact spot. The nearest cover outside the sprawling Ferrare compound was nearly a half-mile away.
The mansion’s white stucco walls gleamed in the moonlight with false purity as one of the men operated an elaborate keypad and handprint recognition system. The guard’s names were Alfredo and Neville, but she called daddy’s pet gorillas Freddie and Neddie—to their everlasting disgust.
God. How could her life have gone to hell so fast and so completely?
Two months ago, a knock on the door of her apartment in Gavarone’s capital city, St. George, in the wee hours of the morning had turned out to be Neddie, telling her to get dressed and come with him. Now. Her father, Eduardo Ferrare, had ordered her to come to his beach estate outside of St. George. For “safety reasons.” And God knew, Daddy always got his way.
As Freddie and Neddie stood back now to let her enter her father’s house, she glanced up and noticed that tonight the mansion’s adobe-tiled roof was the color of blood.
How creepily appropriate was that?
As she walked grimly up the shallow marble steps, she steeled her resolve. No more despair. No doubts. No weakness. She wasn’t about to give her father the satisfaction of breaking her. By God, she wasn’t his daughter for nothing.
She took a deep breath and paused on the threshold. She could do this. Just go inside and play the obedient daughter for one more night.
Lord, she hated this house and her forced presence in it. Her escape plan had to work. She would go stark raving mad if it didn’t.
The good news was Daddy Dearest would never guess that Tony, her long-time clubbing buddy and best friend, had the cajones to help her escape.
Her rendezvous with Tony tonight on the dance floor of a nightclub in St. George had gone well. Freddie and Neddie had lurked by the bar like trolls the whole time, never suspecting that as she and Tony had shouted back and forth, they’d worked out the last touches on their scheme while they gyrated under the strobe lights.
She’d passed off several expensive pieces of jewelry to Tony, tonight. He was going to pawn them and buy her a plane ticket from this sleepy little corner of South America to an even sleepier corner of New England. Her older sister, Julia, was there already, hiding from their father.
Eduardo would never dream that she, his wild child daughter, would willingly sentence herself to such a quiet existence. She’d always been the rebel in the family. Julia had been the responsible big sister who all but raised her, and who’d grown up into an accountant and found a good man who loved her like crazy, apparently. Little did her father know that she, too, desperately craved the peace and stability that Julia had found.
But in Eduardo’s house, it was all about playing the game. Giving him exactly what he expected to see. Truth be told, she’d gotten sick of the party scene years ago. Right now, her outings to nightclubs were her only escape, the only bright spot in her existence.
How lame was that?
Thankfully, she’d convinced Eduardo that if she didn’t make occasional appearances in her regular Gavronese haunts rumors would get started about her. Rumors that would draw media attention to him that he couldn’t afford.
It was the one chink she’d found in her father’s formidable armor over the years. An international criminal feared on four continents didn’t have too many exploitable weaknesses. But he didn’t like to draw unnecessary attention from the press.
Of course, that meant she’d spent the last few years doing everything in her power to draw media attention to herself and, indirectly, to him. The tabloids loved her. She said and did the most outrageous things she could think up. She specialized in sleazy clothes and sleazier men and delighted in flaunting both. She’d never met a paparazzo she wouldn’t pose for.
As a public service to make amends for his crimes, she did her level best to relieve her father of as much of his wealth as possible. Specifically, she tried to put it back lavishly into the hands of the working people he’d stolen it from.
Sometimes she just gave money away. Fistfuls to any random person in need whom she happened to run across. Eduardo wouldn’t let her donate to any charities. Which was a shame. She could really blast through his bank accounts that way.
Her spending was a huge bone of contention between them. But until Eduardo actually pulled the financial plug—and oh, the media stink she would make if he ever did—she planned to go through his money as fast and furiously as she could think up ways to do so. It wasn’t much, but it was one small act to make amends to society for her monstrous father.
Carina paused in the dim cavern of the foyer and kicked off her strappy high heels. Dangling the skimpy shoes from her fingers, she climbed the long, curving staircase toward her room. The mansion’s ornate walls pressed in on her heavily. One more night in this wretched house of horrors and then she’d be free. Forever.
“Good evening, Miss Cari.”
She looked up at the gravelly voice. Gunter, her father’s gray-haired German chief of security, had worked for her father for as long as she could remember. She tended to think of him as a benevolent uncle who was really into guns and black suits.
“Out late, I see,” he commented with a hint of disapproval in his voice.
“Good band,” she mumbled.
“I’m glad you’re back safely, at any rate.”
Her father had been grouchy and distracted ever since the trouble with her older sister two months ago. Quiet, boring, responsible Julia had up and taken off for the United States with copies of all her father’s financial records and a whole bunch of Eduardo’s money, apparently. Who’d have guessed sweet Julia had it in her?
Although her father hadn’t said so, he’d undoubtedly dragged her back home to the estate to put pressure on Julia. It wasn’t a new trick in his retinue of control tactics over Julia—just an extremely annoying one. Cari was really sick and tired of being their pawn. She was an adult trying to have a life of her own. What was so damned wrong with that?
This standoff between Eduardo and Julia was getting worrisome. The maids were whispering that Julia had made off with millions and that her father was threatening to kill Julia when he found her. Surely, that was an exaggeration.
But just maybe, it wasn’t.
Both Eduardo and Julia had upped the stakes in this conflict to the point where neither one could afford to back down. And Cari was trapped in the middle.
She had to get out before their confrontation blew sky-high, with her caught squarely in the blast.
Four o’clock tomorrow morning was zero hour for her escape. Twenty-five hours and ten minutes to go. She could make it that long without losing her mind.
She walked down the long hallway toward her bedroom at the back of the house. A half-moon high overhead sent cold, blue-white light through the gauze curtains into her bedroom. She didn’t turn on the lights as she entered her room. Rather, she made her way to the French doors leading to the balcony and threw them open.
The evening was cool enough to raise goose bumps on her arms. The ocean’s usually balmy humidity had become a damp chill in the air, tonight. Leaning on the wide stone balustrade that surrounded the balcony, she listened to the surf. White breakers striped the blackness of the ocean beyond the wide lawn, and the crash of waves incoming and hiss of waves outgoing mesmerized her, soothing her as they always did.
She leaned on her elbows, the cold of the stone soaking through her skin, and the damp of the night soaking through her bones, until she was chilled completely through.
Too jittery to sleep, she delayed going back inside despite the shivers coursing through her. Freezing felt better than the dull numbness that so often came over her from living under her father’s iron fist.
The ocean was turbulent tonight. A storm must be coming. The wind whipped up the ocean into row after row of rolling waves, pounding onto the white sand beach in a relentless, hypnotic rhythm. She watched its impersonal grandeur for a long time, feeling smaller and smaller in the face of Nature’s power.
She was lonely.
Was it too much to wish for someone in her life who would simply love her? Tony was great, but he was also gay and only loved her like a sister.
She wasn’t picky. She just wanted a decent man to give a damn about her for a little while. Until she could find her soul again. No strings attached, no scheming, no danger. Just a little old-fashioned tender loving care. Was that really so much to ask of the universe?
A tear escaped the corner of her eye and ran down her cheek, cold against her skin. It was the chilly breeze making her eyes water. She was not crying for herself, dammit.
God, she couldn’t wait to disappear, to shed her skin and her past, and to begin a new life.
She padded across the expanse of white carpet to her bed. Lost in her thoughts, she pulled off her silk blouse, leaving on the white cotton tank top underneath. She shimmied out of her short leather skirt and let it fall to the floor as well. Abruptly exhausted, she pulled back the covers in the dark and crawled into bed.
That was odd. Her bed didn’t feel right. The mattress moved heavily. She rolled over and plumped the pair of eiderdown pillows she favored and noticed, out of the corner of her eye, a strangely shaped shadow enveloping the bed. Big and dark, it encompassed most of the other side of her bed.
And then two more things struck her simultaneously: a sensation of wetness on her skin and a metallic smell.
What in the world…
She sat up and took a good look at the other side of her bed. And jumped violently. There was someone lying there!
The house’s ventilation system kicked on just then, its fan billowing her curtains just enough to cast a thin shaft of moonlight across her bed. She caught a glimpse of a silver crucifix earring in her unexpected companion’s left ear.
“Jeez Louise, Tony,” she whispered. “You scared the daylights out of me! How in the world did you get up here without my father’s men seeing you?”
She reached over and nudged his shoulder. He was out cold. She didn’t think he’d drunk that much at the club tonight. He couldn’t pass out in her bed like this. Her father would be livid that anyone, even Tony, had successfully snuck past his security team. Eduardo would take away her clubbing privileges.
She whispered, “Hey, Tony. Wake up. Don’t snore through my great escape on me, will you?”
Nothing. A vague sense of dread coiled in her stomach.
“Tony. Wake up.” She shook him harder.
He was out like a light.
Her scream split the night air like the fall of a guillotine.
There was blood everywhere. Her white lace bedspread was soaked in red. The sheets, the pillows and now even her tank top were bathed in it. Congealed blood defined a dark gash across Tony’s neck. Frantically, she knelt over him, pressing her hand against the long wound.
“Tony!” she cried. “Oh, God, Tony!”
And then she noticed his eyes, glassy and blank, staring off into space. His mouth was open, pulled back into a rictus of terror. She glanced down at the bed and saw his hand clenched around the sheets. A single thought exploded in her brain.
Her father had slit a man’s throat in his own daughter’s bed.
The horror of it hit her first, sending bile up into her throat. And then the guilt struck. If she hadn’t asked Tony to help her, he wouldn’t be lying here, dead. She felt violently sick to her stomach.
On top of everything else, a wave of utter hopelessness slammed into her. She would never escape her father. Never. And with that thought, black despair closed in on her.
She knew her father was a criminal. A cruel, ruthless man. But never, ever, had he turned that violence directly on her. That had been the one constant in her life. Her father loved her in a distant sort of way, and for all his flaws, he had always protected her from the world he lived in.
But tonight, he’d smashed that silent covenant to smithereens in a murderous pool of blood.
And that was what finally broke her.
She couldn’t go on any longer. She wasn’t strong enough to keep fighting who and what her father was.
A great black pit of despair yawned before her and, numbly, she fell into it.
Clumsy with creeping terror, she pulled out the fire escape ladder stored in the trunk by the French doors and fumbled to hook it onto the balcony ledge. Desperately fleeing the horror behind her, she flung herself over stone railing.
Joe Rodriguez floated just below the surface of the shallow ocean, gently buffeted by the waves gathering to race ashore. His neoprene scuba suit protected him from the worst of the cold, but even at this equatorial latitude, a night dive in the Atlantic Ocean was viciously cold.
He peered through his NODs—underwater night optical devices—at his diving watch. He had about two hours of oxygen left. He put the periscope’s eyepiece back to his facemask. Nothing much was happening at the Ferrare estate in front of him.
His target, Carina Ferrare, the younger daughter of international crime lord Eduardo Ferrare, had just come home. Since it was a Friday night and she’d left wearing a tight skirt and a blouse unbuttoned practically to her waist, Joe guessed she’d been out dancing again.
It almost made a guy sympathize with her. Except he’d spent too many years scraping bodies off the ground or patching back together the victims of her family’s violence to have much sympathy for Carina Ferrare. She lived a life of pampered, luxurious excess paid for in other people’s blood and suffering. And surely, she knew it.
Anyone with a shred of conscience would be too embarrassed to show her face in public. But the younger Ferrare daughter flaunted her family’s ill-gotten wealth. She wore outrageously expensive clothing and jewelry, and from what he’d seen, she tossed money around like candy. No matter the suffering behind its origin.
The only good news for his mission was that, despite her extravagant lifestyle, he got the distinct impression she was unhappy. The poor little rich girl couldn’t buy love, could she? The corner of his mouth twitched in disdain.
But he had faith she would jump at any opportunity to get away from her father. Frankly, she struck him as the type to leap at any new adventure—the wilder, the better.
Such a contrast to the older sister. Julia Ferrare was responsible and thoughtful, a gentle soul who had risked her life to do the right thing and stop her father. Julia was the banker who handled all of Eduardo Ferrare’s finances, and she’d agreed to testify against her crime lord father just as soon as her younger sister was freed from his clutches. Jim Dutcher, his teammate on the Blackjacks, was the lucky bastard Julia loved and had turned to for help when she fled her father.
Julia had placed one condition on her testifying against her father. Rescue her little sister from their father.
So here he was, preparing to rescue Carina Ferrare, whether she liked it or not. He was the advance man for the Blackjacks, doing tedious, around-the-clock surveillance to nail down the younger Ferrare daughter’s routines and habits before they mounted a full-scale rescue.
It was his job to figure out the best mode of snatching her, whether to approach her and enlist her cooperation or just throw a bag over her head and grab her. The four other reasonably healthy members of the Blackjacks, a highly classified Special Forces team, would join him in another week or so to help him run the actual rescue operation.
The Blackjacks had been chasing Eduardo Ferrare for a decade, and they almost had him now. It had been a huge breakthrough when Julia Ferrare had agreed to go before a grand jury and reveal everything she knew about her father’s crime empire. Given that she kept the books for the whole operation, she knew more than enough to put her old man behind bars for the rest of his life. But she’d been adamant. The Blackjacks had to pull out her sister before she would say a word.
He wasn’t all that worried about how he would free Carina. What charm couldn’t accomplish, coercion could. Surely any daughter of Eduardo’s understood all about force and its myriad applications.
The hard part was going to be keeping her under wraps once the team had her. A young woman with looks like hers wouldn’t be easy to hide until they got her out of Gavarone. Especially since the tiny country was firmly in Eduardo’s back pocket, compliments of the millions of dollars in crime money he injected into Gavarone’s economy while laundering his fortune.
Plus, Carina was a celebrity in her own right. She was plastered all over the tabloids constantly, from what he could tell. She turned heads everywhere she went with her wavy brunette hair, light green eyes and exotic features. Not to mention she had legs that didn’t quit.
She was a heartbreaker if he’d ever seen one. The kind of self-centered, high-maintenance princess who would run roughshod over anyone dumb enough to actually love her.
Something brushed against his leg and Joe glanced down. A grouper fish. Small but definitely edible. Had he not been on a mission, he’d have speared the thing and had a tasty supper tomorrow. At least it hadn’t been one of the plentiful sharks that roamed these waters.
He plastered his eye to the lens of the periscope, put the bone chilling cold out of his mind and resumed the thrilling task of underwater night surveillance.
He counted off the minute or so it would take Cari, as he’d overheard her clubbing friends call her, to reach her bedroom from the front door of the mansion. Any second now, the lights in her room should go on. He watched the appropriate window.
No light tonight, but the French doors opened and she stepped out onto her balcony. Right on schedule. She went out there often to gaze out at the ocean. Which boded well for him and his team. Predictable people were easy to kidnap.
Damn, she was beautiful—and wistful, tonight—as she stared out toward the ocean.
Whether he wished her ill or not, he couldn’t help but react to her sad expression. He was a healer, after all. A medic normally in the business of easing pain and suffering. Her melancholy called to him as irresistibly as a siren song. Aww, hell. He was a sucker for hard-luck cases, and it didn’t hurt when they came in wrappings like hers.
Good thing the very name Ferrare made him clench his teeth in disgust. It lent him a measure of immunity to her charms. Still, he allowed himself to savor the sight of her breathtaking features as she leaned on the balcony, staring out to sea.
What was she thinking about?
After a while, she rubbed her arms and went back inside.
Normally, his teammates in the Blackjacks would be at the base camp, providing backup. But they were tied up stateside, right now. Julia had fingered an informant inside the team’s support staff and the rest of the guys were still tracking down that person.
If they didn’t catch the informant soon, the team would have to sneak away under other pretexts and make their way down to Gavarone without tipping off the informant—and Eduardo. Colonel Foley, the team’s commander, would be coming as well to supplement their depleted ranks.
It had been a rough winter on the team, with several serious injuries among them. But the result had been worth it—their number one enemy was dead center in their sights. Eduardo Ferrare was going down. Soon. The only hitch was that all their hard work and sacrifices weren’t going to be worth a hill of beans if he didn’t figure out a way to get at Carina.
He stowed his periscope and surfaced for the swim back to a hot shower and a warm bed. Suddenly, surprisingly, a light snapped on in Cari’s room. That was odd. She ought to be in bed by now.
His senses jolted to full alert. Something was wrong. Cari was in trouble. He swam for shore and the mansion. He didn’t have the slightest idea what he was going to do when he got there, but every nerve in his body shrieked for him to get to her. Now.
The tide was going out and he fought against the currents dragging him back out to sea. A hefty little riptide had set itself up. Dammit. He didn’t have time to mess around with drifting down the beach and then coming ashore. He kicked harder.
He saw movement on her balcony and lifted his head to look.
What in the hell was she doing?
He stopped, treading water while he watched her toss a rope ladder over the edge of her balcony and shimmy down it awkwardly. She wore only a skimpy tank top and a pair of bikini panties that were splotched white and black.
She ran barefoot as fast as her long legs would take her toward the high fence that separated the beach from the grounds of the estate. She paused only long enough to punch in a number on a keypad by the gate and then she was tearing down the beach toward the water. She looked completely out of her mind with terror.
Joe’s adrenaline roared and, abruptly, he wasn’t the slightest bit cold. Stunned, he watched as she kept right on running, straight into the cold surf.
What was she doing? She wasn’t dressed for this kind of water!
She was headed straight at him. Had her older sister told Cari he would be out here? Surely not. Julia didn’t know the details of the plan to rescue her sister. She was still recovering from her own injuries, suffered while escaping her father.
But here came Cari, splashing right at him. She was a strong swimmer, and her slender arms pulled her rapidly toward deep water, aided by the outgoing tide. He knew the exact spot where the beach shelf gave way to a steep drop-off. She was almost there. And then the riptide would snag her and push her out to sea. No matter how good a swimmer she was, she would be in serious trouble then.
He put his mouthpiece back in and submerged. He would reach her faster that way than if he tried to fight the currents on the surface. With powerful kicks of his rubber fins, he propelled himself toward her.
The visibility stunk this close to shore. The waves stirred up sand and sediment, and he could hardly see his hand in front of his face. Not to mention it was pitch dark down here. Only the slightest hint of moonlight penetrated the water. Were it not for his NODs, he would be as blind as a bat.
He surfaced long enough to get another fix on Cari’s position. Slightly to his left. He corrected course, ducked under water again and kicked like crazy.
Her stroke was faltering. Damn. She was in trouble.
He put on a last burst of speed. He couldn’t see a blessed thing in the murky water. She had to be right in front of him. He looked around for any sign of her.
And then he caught a glimpse of her pale body off to his right. Her arms were barely moving. As he watched, her limbs went still. She kicked spasmodically for a second or two and then stopped moving again. He watched in horror as she sank slowly beneath the surface of the water.
She spiraled downward toward him, a pale, lissome shape, her hair swirling gently around her head. She looked like a mermaid descending into the ocean’s black depths.
Except Carina Ferrare was no mermaid. She was a flesh-and-blood woman who needed to breathe.
Joe kicked with all his strength and shot up beside her. He yanked the mouthpiece out of his own mouth and shoved it into hers. She started violently as it touched her. He remembered belatedly that she wasn’t wearing night-vision gear and couldn’t see him in the water’s blackness.
She shook her head and backed away from the mouthpiece. What was she trying to do? Kill herself?
She fought, but she didn’t stand a chance against a trained commando like him. He just wrapped her up so tightly she couldn’t move. Their faces burst through to the cold air and he took a great sucking breath.
She spit out his mouthpiece, coughing. “Let me go!”
“Dammit, does my father always have to win? Can’t you just leave me alone? Let me go. Please. No one will miss me. Just this once?” she pleaded, her voice laced with hysteria.
She was trying to die? She’d have succeeded if he hadn’t been there. What a piece of luck. Hell, this rescue mission was going to be a piece of cake. He would just swim her down the beach to his staging area and Eduardo Ferrare would think his daughter had drowned. It was perfect.
“Carina, quit fighting and listen to me for a minute. I’m here to rescue you.”
She continued to sob hysterically and breathe in great gasping breaths of true panic.
He spoke forcefully. “Your sister, Julia, sent me to get you. You’re safe, now. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“Y-you d-don’t work for m-my f-father?”
Her teeth were chattering like castanets. Hypothermia was setting in. He had to get her out of this water, and soon. Not to mention he thought he smelled blood on her. And if he could smell it, the sharks roaming these waters damned well could, too.
“No, I don’t work for your father. I’m here to get you away from him.”
“Did Tony send you?” Her voice broke on another sob.
He frowned. Who the hell was Tony? “No,” he began. “Your sister, Julia, sent me,” he repeated. Her mental processes were slowed, another sign of encroaching hypothermia.
Keeping one arm wrapped securely around her, he lifted his facemask to look at her directly. Her lips looked black in the moonlight. He swore under his breath. She shivered violently against him. Part cold, part shock, if he had to guess. Either way, he had to warm her up, pronto. He pulled her even tighter against him. Her body trembled violently against his. She would never make it back to his camp in this state.
“Wh-what’s y-your n-n-name?” she got out between her rattling teeth.
“Joe.” Man, she was cold. She felt like an ice cube, even through his rubber suit. He treaded water with easy kicks of his legs, keeping them both afloat while he shared his body heat with her.
Cari lurched convulsively in his arms. “Oh, God,” she cried in terror. “They’re coming for me!”
Joe looked toward the shore. Sure enough, four men in full scuba gear were wading out into the water from the direction of the Ferrare estate. Wow, Eduardo’s people had responded fast to her flight.
The men were carrying underwater spotlights and motorized diving-propulsion devices that would pull them through the water at twice the speed he could swim on his own. Hauling Cari, who had no fins and was too cold to move, Joe would never manage to outdistance the men. He cursed under his breath. There went his perfect getaway. He should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy.
She frowned like she knew the place. “M-maybe. Although I d-doubt my father will l-let me out of the h-house after…” Her voice broke.
He talked fast as the spotlights drew closer. “I’ll be there every night between ten p.m. and two a.m. until you can come. I’ll sit at the bar upstairs. Ask around for a guy called Joe. Got it?”
“Joe,” she repeated.
He gave her a quick smile, then shoved his mouthpiece in, yanked down his goggles and disappeared beneath the surface of the waves.