Sway dangled from the fourth-floor balcony of a palacio in a ball gown and strappy stilettos instead of her climbing harness and rigging. The balcony would have been a great way out if she was wearing rappelling gear as planned. As a hiding place to avoid whoever had entered the office, she was searching, not so much.
Her heart thrummed a rapid tattoo inside her chest, and adrenaline lit through her system as she listened to the water fountain below and the strains of Seville city traffic on a nearby street. Perspiration dampened her skin. Her fingers trembled.
She needed a plan, one that didn’t include becoming human paint splatter on the concrete.
Footsteps sounded on the patio. The clock running in her mind told her she had four minutes until the guard rotation. If the patron saint of thieves were with her, the unknown person would turn around and go back inside soon.
She continued fighting her body’s urge to release her tenuous grip on the ledge.
The steps came closer and closer until they stopped right above where she hid. She prayed the chain of her purse would be silent where she’d strapped it across her body before going over the railing. Holding her breath, she stiffened her body as much as possible to make herself as invisible as she could get.
“You need a hand?” an amused voice, with the slightest bit of Russian accent, asked from above.
Equal parts fear and relief surged through her as she looked up to see a pair of men’s dress shoes on the balcony beside her strained fingertips.
“You going to hang out there forever, Sway? I bet your tank is running low.”
At the sound of her nickname—the only name people who worked with her knew—the tight knot in her chest eased, and the breath she’d been holding released in a forced whoosh. No one who worked for the Count, whose office she’d been searching, knew her as Sway. Her mystery guest was most likely a friendly. Yes, she still dangled without a safety rope, but the man standing above her probably wouldn’t shoot her or step on her fingers.
She’d been in worse situations…though none came to mind as she dangled without a backup plan.
A gust of wind blew against the ledge, the strength of it causing her feet to slip from their perch and her body to twist away from the building. She bit back a shout as her left hand lost its hold on the stone ledge, scraping her already raw skin. Her body swung as her weight transferred to her right arm and wrenched her shoulder, the muscles in her arm howling in protest. To silence a scream, she clenched her teeth and shut her eyes tight.
She knew she must be bleeding. Sticky wetness made her grip even more tenuous. Her fingers slipped until only the tips remained on the stone ledge.
“Help me up. Help me up,” she whisper-shouted an octave above her normal register. Her arm trembled. Her fingers ached. It didn’t matter who the hell he was as long as he kept her from plummeting to her death.
A hand appeared, stretched through the bars of the railing, and took a firm hold on her right wrist below where her fingers held on for dear life. She used the momentum and the pendulum swing of her body to reach her free hand up and grasp his. Their palms hit. She grabbed him with as tight a grip as her abused fingers could manage, but another vicious gust blew against her. She lost her hold on him.
They both cursed this time. She took a few deep breaths in an attempt to regulate her breathing to the ebb and flow of her body’s movements back and forth. She needed every advantage.
“We’ve got one more shot, cupcake. It’s now, or you’re a Pollock painting.”
“Get me the hell off this ledge.” On the next body swing, she reached her arm up as high as it would stretch. Her fingers scraped roughly against the stone again, but her wrist smacked solidly against her savior’s palm. This time, his grip held.
Her mystery man pulled her up until she could grab the top of the railing. In the back of her mind, she was impressed he could haul her dead weight, but her focus centered on slowing her frantic breaths and calming her shivering body. He continued to hold on to her as she pulled up her feet and planted them on the stones where her fingers had been only moments before.
Her shoe choice seemed like a genius decision for a hysterical moment with the tight fit and firmly held ankle straps. Otherwise, she’d be barefoot, and some unsuspecting Spaniard might be in the hospital with a stiletto pump embedded in their skull.
As she stood, her rescuer wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her. She looked at his face for the first time.
Adrenaline still fogged her mind, and it took a moment to recognize the man with dark wavy hair, light eyes, and a sinful set of lips holding a wicked smirk. Her brain clicked back on, and she scowled.
“What in the hell are you doing here, Roman?” she gritted out as he pulled her over the railing to set her down safely on the balcony. Her dress scraped across the worn stone, and she winced. When he didn’t release her, she wriggled to escape his tight grip.
“Let me go.” She sneered and tried again to escape the brush of his body against hers.
Stop thinking about his body. You’ve got to get out of here.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Sway,” he purred down at her. His rough baritone rasped against all the nerves in her body, making her wonder how those words might feel when spoken while his head moved between her thighs. “Last time I saw you, you almost unmanned me. It might not be safe for me to unleash you.”
The reminder of their most recent run-in, when he’d acted like an underhanded sneak and taken what she’d gone to so much effort to steal first, jolted her head out of her knickers, and she focused once again on the instinct to knee him in the balls. It was a much more desirable inclination than the one to grab him by the hair and pull him to her chest for a rousing round of motorboat. Panting after Roman Blinov was never been good for her. It would be especially dangerous to think those thoughts while the panic and adrenaline of her recent near-death experience still rode her. She might make a very bad decision.
A very naughty decision. Wait…no. No naughtiness with Roman. You’re mad, remember?
“You stole my statue,” she said through gritted teeth as she sharply raised a knee to finish what she’d started in Athens last year.
He deftly avoided her attack on his testicles and pulled her even closer. Whether it was intended to restrict her movements or press their party parts closer together, she wasn’t sure. Knowing Roman, probably both.
When his hand slid to her backside, she found out she was right. “Get your hand off my ass, or I swear I’ll make sure you end the night with superglue in places God and the manufacturer never intended it to go.”
“Still so adorable, Sway.” The hand on her ass flexed in a blatant grab, and she growled low and with enough menace to do a TV werewolf proud. “Your threats might have more punch if you were not the size of a doll. I forgot how cute you are when you get angry. Your—”
His words cut off abruptly as the click of the balcony door opening echoed in the quiet night.
Before she could blink, Roman crushed his lips against hers. She assumed the move was to keep the guard from shooting them on sight, and she would have high-fived him for his quick thinking, but the instant burst of electricity sparking between them drew her into the kiss rather than away from it.
Screw the guard. He could catch them as long as they kept kissing. Under Roman’s insistent mouth, she opened to allow him unfettered access. His tongue slid like silk against hers, and she moaned. She couldn’t remember the last time someone kissed her like that.
Aw, hell, I’ve never been kissed like this. He totally deserves his superstud reputation.
His tongue teased the roof of her mouth in a caress with a direct impact on other, more sensitive parts of her body. She slid her hands up the soft fabric of his tuxedo to bury them in his hair, overwhelmed by the impulse to find out if it felt as soft as it looked.
“¿Qué haces aquí?” a harsh voice demanded behind them.
The spell broken, they split apart like shrapnel. Their mouths disconnected with a wet pop. Both turned to see a glowering security guard standing at the balcony doors who waved his hand at them before pointing a finger back inside toward the office.
With the balcony doors and the office door on the other side of the room open, the sounds of the party happening down the hall streamed into the room. Her contact, who’d gotten her into the palacio, told her the Count purchased the extravagant apartment last year because it fit his penchant for lavish bashes. Open floor plan, soaring ceilings, and easily secured by the army of bodyguards he hired.
“¿Qué hace usted? ¿Como has llegado hasta aquí?” the guard asked as he continued to wave and point like some kind of demented schoolmarm.
Like I’m going to tell you what I’m doing out here or how I got here. Moronic rent-a-cop. Anna had to channel what little self-control she possessed right then to not roll her eyes.
“Lo siento,” Roman slated, smoothly covering his rough, Russian cadence with a crisp English inflection as he stepped behind her. “We were looking for a bit of privacy, but we will get back to the party. My apologies for the mistake. Come along, darling.”
Guess I’m not the only one playing dress-up.
She gave him props and a few brownie points for good measure. His highbrow British accent sounded flawless, the smooth articulation a sharp contrast with his natural gruff Moscow flavor.
Outwardly, she didn’t react lest she make the guard even more suspicious than he already appeared, but inside she wondered who Roman pretended to be tonight.
Her head itched under the blonde wig she’d worn to cover up her riotous, natural mass of brown curls. Her golden skin, courtesy of a spray tan, and lighter hair color contrasted with the cerulean blue of the one-shoulder chiffon gown she wore to distract from her facial features and make her utterly forgettable. While she wanted to fit in, she didn’t want to stand out.
“Of course. I’m so embarrassed,” she said to the guard and ducked her head as if to cover a blush. In reality, she used the move to cover the lack of one. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been embarrassed enough for her cheeks to flush. Impulses like that were ruthlessly trained out of her in her teen years. Now, she chose precisely which expressions crossed her features and used them with strategic prowess to get what she needed.
Instead of worrying about the guard, she fixated on Roman’s duplicity. Usually, he didn’t like lying about who he was. His white knight conscience didn’t like lies and intrigue. He preferred to walk the straight and narrow with his shining moral compass to lead the way. Plus, in their world, the one where artifacts and treasures traded hands and weren’t always obtained legally, he was a face and name people often recognized. Hell, the guy looked like a GQ cover boy, not exactly a person people easily forgot.
Darting past the security guard before he said anything else, she and Roman walked inside, through the study, and down the hall to where the party raged. Her attention refocused on why she’d attended the party in the first place, and she cut off all thoughts of Roman’s motivations. The longer she stayed in the apartment, the greater the chance someone would discover the Count’s safe didn’t have as many items in it as it did earlier in the evening.
Thinking about the blueprint of the layout she’d studied at the start of the job, she considered her options for a quick exit. If she could ditch her escort and make it to the last bedroom in the hallway, she could go out the window and use the edge of the stone trellis to drop onto the third-floor terrace. Her fingers were raw and beat up from her escapade on the balcony, but they’d probably hold long enough to get her there if she wrapped them in something first.
The gear bag she’d left hidden in a planter in the office was a goner, but selling the item stashed in her bra would buy new gear. Most of the money was already spoken for, but she should have enough left over to purchase a few necessities. And to hideout for a while longer.
Sway cut off that thought before it could take purchase and overwhelm her. She needed to focus on the situation at hand and not on the danger lurking across the English Channel.
“I know you’re thinking of all the ways out of here, cupcake, but you will just have to get used to me,” Roman said, his Russian accent back. It jerked her attention back to her interfering companion. “I think you wouldn’t want any of the guards getting suspicious enough to search you.”
At his not-veiled-at-all threat, she stiffened. “Not any more than you do, big guy. I know you were happy to see me out there, but there’s more than an erection in your pants.”
She’d felt the press of something, maybe a small figurine, against her hip when he stepped behind her on the balcony. It seemed like the law-abiding crusader had some ulterior motives of his own tonight. As they stood now, staring at partygoers drinking cocktails and dancing to the music being piped in through the surround sound system, she thought she could make out a shadow of something in his pants pocket.
“Very perceptive. Trust me, though. You want to hear what I have to say. We need to get out of here before we are caught or killed. Unfortunately, our gracious host has a history of being a little quick with his trigger finger. Maybe afterward we can exchange stories. You give me the one where you jump off a balcony, and I will give you one about the necklace you smuggled out of China last week.”
Appalled by Roman’s pronouncement, Anna spun to face him. How did he know she’d stolen the necklace? Did he know why or for whom? The last thing she wanted was to get sucked into one of his Interpol-funded Robin Hood crusades, especially not for the first piece of jewelry she wished she’d never set eyes on.
Be cool. No need to freak out. Yet. Probably. Distract. Deflect. Be Sway, not Anna. Sway can handle it.
“What’s your plan for getting out of here, smart guy?” she asked as she transferred the gold chain strap of her satin purse from its awkward position across her chest to dangle more elegantly from one shoulder.
Feigning unperturbed sarcasm, she didn’t quite have the energy to feel, she nodded at the pair of guards checking every person entering and leaving the party. “That big German over there, the one who looks like an extra from Die Hard, is Gunter. He searches everything going through the door. Everything. Even diplomatic pouches.”
She’d learned the hard way yesterday. A pouch had seemed like a foolproof way to get her prize out of the building undetected until she did a trial run using a guy posing as a diplomatic aid. Gunter confiscated the pouch, unzipped it, and rummaged through the contents without blinking an eye.
As a waiter passed by, they both took glasses of champagne from his tray. The movement tugged the scratches on her hand, and she winced. So distracted by the guard, exit strategies, and Roman’s potent smooches, the pain in her body hadn’t registered. Now, though, the ache in her shoulder and elbow from her one-armed hang sliced like long lines of acid drips. Her hands burned from the raw, open wounds cut by the rough stones she’d clung to. Even her toes were sore from their desperate perch on the ledge.
Trying to push away the pain, clear her mind of everything but solutions to her problem, Sway turned her thoughts back to the situation at hand. It didn’t work. Her fingertips pulsed with every heartbeat that chased the fiery throb in her arm, but she pushed through it. Pain, her been a constant companion since childhood, so she could and would cope. She had to.
After her little tryst with Roman on the balcony, the guard who’d caught them now stood stationed by the door to the study, which meant her rigging was locked away. Most windows and balcony exits were out, elevator shaft too. Her gaze swept the room, discarding each exit in turn as her eyes passed it. The front door was the only viable option. The only problem was the ever-vigilant Gunter and his favorite new toy—a body scanner.
A miniature version of the one used at airports stood sentry by the door, placed there after several items disappeared during parties. Earlier that night, a tennis bracelet was found in a gentleman’s pocket who arrived with a woman but then attempted to leave sans date. Sway assumed he’d either found it or swiped it, but he wasn’t going home with it. She had no doubt about that. If she knew Gunter as well as she thought she did, the man would be lucky to go home with the power to walk on his own. Gunter and his ham-fisted henchmen taught hard lessons.
The glass she held slipped through her fingers. She barely managed to hold on to the delicate crystal as the blood on her hand and condensation on the glass threatened to send it dropping to the floor. She gripped the glass tighter. The bloody scrapes would soon draw the attention of the guards. As she looked around the ballroom for something she could use to cover them, a bejeweled duchess and her escort strolled toward her, elbow-length black gloves draped over the strap of her glittering evening bag.
Perfect. As the couple moved past, she stumbled into the duchess. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t get champagne on your dress, did I?” Sway asked, brushing the back of her hand on the woman’s arm while she used the other hand to pull the gloves from her side.
A few pleasantries were exchanged, and the couple moved on without realizing they’d donated something to Sway’s cause. Once they were out of sight, she slipped the elegant gloves onto her hands and up her arms. A little big, but she doubted anyone would notice. Their odd fit looked loads better than her crime-scene hands. She used the dark fabric to wipe away the traces of blood from her drink glass before turning back to study the crowd of glittering partygoers.
“What time is it?” Roman asked congenially as he sipped his champagne, completely ignoring her lift.
“You’re kidding me, right?” she asked the nutcase next to her. Roman looked as if nothing was amiss, nothing to be concerned over. Instead of responding, he stared at her with those unnerving powder blue eyes of his before he shook out his arm to reveal his watch from under the cuff of his sleeve. He glanced at it briefly before returning his hand to his side and turning his gaze to the party.
The part of her brain that kept perfect time and tracked the twelve minutes to the next security rotation screamed at her to get the hell out of there. The pain echoed its agreement. The number of guards would triple to deal with all the guests who hadn’t been invited for dinner but would arrive soon for dancing. That meant three times as many muscle-bound meatheads lined up for the privilege of strip-searching her when the body scanner she’d have to walk through lit up like a radioactive superhero.
Just as she was about to say forget this and make a run for it, a security guard with skin the color of rich, dark leather and a body big enough to rival any WWE Superstar sidled up to them. While Roman stood over most men, clocking in at six feet and change, judging by the way their bodies fit together on the patio, this newcomer topped him by at least four or five inches. She looked up, and up, and up a little more to study his face, surprised to see amber-colored irises looking down at her. She’d expected velvety darkness to match his skin.
“Excuse me, Mr. Parker,” the guard said as his gaze slid back and forth between her and Roman.
It took her a moment to realize Mr. Parker must be Roman. Of all the names he could have chosen, why that one?
“Our host would like me to escort you to the kitchen. I believe you needed to speak with the cook about a dietary need?” the large man continued and gestured toward the hallway she knew led toward the palacio’s commercial-sized kitchen.
His American accent surprised her, but the deep timbre of his voice matched the rest of him. Its bass resonated through her even though over a foot of space separated them.
“Right, thank you.” Roman’s British accent was back. So was his hand on her lower back, a little too low. Another inch and his fingers would be on her ass again.
And that’s a bad thing?
She silenced her inner horndog and told herself it was a bad thing. A very bad thing. It was no secret Roman’s little sister started climbing the ladder at Interpol thanks to Roman’s help as a retrieval expert. His repossession company, BlinCorp, took contracts from Interpol when none of their agents could get the job done. Career thieves like her and Interpol didn’t go well together. It tended to end with the thieves thrown into secret prisons that made Gitmo look like a Sandals resort.
For now, since she had no other ideas, she’d allow Roman to lead her around. However, as soon as she figured a way out, she was taking it.