One day later, the Blake Hotel, Panama City, Panama
Smith stood stock-still at the edge of the hotel's pool deck, staring at the bikini-clad blonde testing the water with the perfectly polished toes of her right foot.
Tilting his head slightly to one side, he sized her up from a different angle, not that it made any difference. She was perfect from every angle, absolutely perfect. Geezus. His life couldn't possibly be this complicated, this crazy. He should be with the guys at Joint Ops Central, hot on the trail of two traitors, a notorious drug runner with global connections, and a plane the DEA analysts were still drooling over. He shouldn't have been rousted out of his hotel room in the middle of the night and shoved on a flight leaving Lima before dawn, and he sure as hell shouldn't have been reassigned to a lousy Personal Security Detail, a PSD, not for any reason—but especially not for this reason.
Panama City, hell.
Standing next to him, a State Department flack rattled on about being held personally responsible for any mishaps or screwups, of which there had better be absolutely none, zero, or Smith was going to get his ass handed to him on a platter. The stakes were high, the flack said; Rydell was being tagged for a job that he no way in hell deserved, and he damn well better remember it.
Yeah, yeah. Smith had heard it all before, and like everyone else who'd ever tried to sell that line, the State guy had it ass-backward. Guys like him never got tagged for jobs they didn't deserve. They got tagged for the jobs nobody else could do or the jobs nobody else wanted. Neither reason of which actually applied to the current situation, he silently admitted. Every guy in the world wanted this job. Guys dreamed about a PSD like this one, fantasized about them, and there were hundreds of badass knuckle-draggers out there who could do it at least as well as he could, and probably a few who could do it better, because at fifty feet he was already going down in flames.
She stepped down into the pool, bent over—sweet geezus—and splashed some water on her arms.
He reached up and loosened his tie.
Yeah. Right. They'd done that, and seeing her again only proved what he'd done a pretty damn good job of denying for the last four months: Once had not been enough.
Not even close.
And it pissed him off.
He didn't need this.
"Ms. York's safety and comfort are going to be your top priority for the next two days," the flack was saying. "Nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to come between you, and absolutely nothing is going to happen between you, so get those thoughts out of your head, and if you bring her back here with so much as a single hair out of place, you will find yourself back at the bottom of the food chain. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Rydell?"
"Crystal." The single word was cold, succinct, and in no way indicative of his current internal condition, which was hot under the collar and veering toward some sort of epiphany he was sure he didn't want to have.
But, dammit, strings had been pulled somewhere to get him taken off the Peruvian mission, and those same damn strings had to have been bought, sold, and horse-traded in dark alleys in order to get his butt landed on the pool deck of the most exclusive hotel in Panama City for a baby-sitting job—strings a whole helluva lot bigger than the ones holding Honey's bikini together.
An if-there-were-a-hundred-and-four-square-inches-of-material-in-the-whole-damn-thing-he'd-eat-his-hat bikini.
And he couldn't take his eyes off it or the curves it did absolutely nothing to contain—which wasn't doing a damn thing to improve his mood.
"The itinerary for Ms. York's tour is in your portfolio, including all departures and arrivals and the names of every major coffee grower in the highlands. She's especially keen on meeting the plantation owners."
Smith slanted a glance down through his Ray-Bans at the shrimp-sized flack in his bespoke suit and handmade leather shoes. Brett Jenkins III had Yale written all over him, and asshole written all over that.
"Coffee? Tour?" Nobody had said anything about coffee to him. Nobody had used the word "tour."
High-priority personal security detail was what he'd been told, orders straight from the top, code red, a full-court press requiring the utmost discretion and a covert operator from SDF.
He let his gaze stray back to the woman leaning over the side of the pool and taking a sip from a pi–a colada with enough fruit in it to qualify as a side dish.
Discretion, his ass.
There was nothing discreet about Honoria York-Lytton in a black string bikini, nothing discreet about the huge pair of rhinestone-studded black sunglasses perched on her nose, nothing discreet about the hundred and one shades of blond hair she'd twisted up into a perfectly disheveled pile of wild curls on top of her head.
A hair out of place? Give him a break. She didn't have a hair in place. What she did have was a tiny black cocktail umbrella tucked in her wild blond curls. When she took the pink umbrella out of her pi–a colada and stuck it in her hair, too, the picture was complete: bimbo, party girl, five feet two inches of pure plaything.
He wasn't fooled for a second.
If she'd taught him one thing in San Luis, El Salvador, it was to never underestimate a woman in platform heels and a polka-dot dress—especially if that woman's family had come over on the Mayflower and her father and two uncles had been United States ambassadors, especially if that woman held an advanced degree from Harvard and her dating pool started on Madison Avenue in Manhattan and ended at the State Department in Washington, D.C.
She was connected, all right, and he hadn't called her, not once since the wild night they'd hooked up in the old Hotel Palacio in San Luis. He'd had Skeeter, one of his SDF teammates, track her all the way home to Washington, D.C., and confirm her safe arrival, and then he'd done his best to put her out of his mind. He hadn't written her, except once, but never sent the letter. He hadn't sent flowers, though he'd been damn tempted to more times than he wanted to admit, and he hadn't returned her panties.
Nope. The panties were still his, still in his possession, still in his rucksack, the sheerest, prettiest, most expensive piece of lingerie he'd ever seen, ever touched, ever whatevered.
Perfect. He had her silk underwear, and she'd sicced the State Department on him. Oh, hell no, this was no accident.
". . . limo will be here in about forty-five minutes to take you to the air base to catch a flight scheduled to leave in two hours and arrive at Ilopango International Airport this afternoon. From there, you'll be taking a private vehicle up into the mountains of—"
"Ilopango?" Smith interrupted, his attention and his gaze snapping back to Jenkins. "Ilopango is in El Salvador." And no way in hell had anybody said any damn thing about the mission being in El Salvador.
"And so are the coffee plantations Ms. York is scheduled to visit in Morazan Province along the Honduran border, near the Torola River. Ambassador Hasbert himself has arranged the introductions."
Smith's eyebrows arched above the curve of his Ray-Bans. The Torola? Jenkins had to be kidding. Didn't the man know what in the hell was going on up in the hills of Morazan? Hadn't he done any goddamn research on this PSD at all?
Smith's gaze shot back to Honey, and he swore silently to himself. She knew, so help him God. She had to know, or she wouldn't have needed him, because, dammit, there was only one reason for there to be any connection whatsoever between the pampered, pedicured, and pedigreed Washington, D.C., socialite and a Third World backwater in the Salvadoran highlands. Only one, goddammit, and it was nothing but the kind of trouble somebody should have stopped before it got to the point of him staring at her bikinied bottom in Panama City.
Geezus. Just how the hell much trouble had her sister gotten herself into this time? And who in the hell had Hasbert arranged to introduce her to? The Salvadoran government-sanctioned coffee growers, or the rebel leader trying to blow them off the map, Diego Garcia, because, frankly, Ms. York didn't need an introduction to Diego Garcia. She and the guerrilla captain had met in San Luis the same night Smith had met her, four months ago, in a church, over a table piled high with the quarter of a million dollars Honey had smuggled into El Salvador and had been handing over to a dissident priest who hadn't wasted a second in handing it over to Garcia—U.S. cash, all in fifties bundled together by rubber bands into two-inch stacks.
Mission of mercy, she'd called it, a mission of mercy for her sister, a trust-fund-baby bride of Christ who was sacrificing her life as an impoverished nun in El Salvador. But all hell had broken out on the border in the last four months, and more times than he cared to remember, Smith had wondered if he should have stopped the illegal cash transaction in the sacristy when he'd had the chance.
Not that he'd had much of a chance. The money had been on the table by the time he'd gotten to the church, and he'd been a little low on firepower and authority. One .45 cartridge, that's all he'd had for the ancient pistol he'd been packing. One lousy cartridge for one old gun, because Honey had stolen his Sig Sauer, his extra magazines, and about half his brains by then.
And there she was, sipping a pi–a colada and cooling her cute ass in the pool, waiting for him to take her back into El Salvador.
Smith cleared his throat before he spoke.
"Has Ms. York been advised of the guerrilla activity on the...