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blamed him. Even though she had never trusted him, she didn't lay that at his door. It took a person of excruciating fairness to absolve him of all blame as she had done.He had learned not to agonize over the choices he had to make. Some of them were hard decisions, and every one of them had left their mark on his soul, or what was left of it. But other people seldom saw things the same way, and that, too, he'd learned to shrug off. As his father's old friend Jess McPherson once said, he was hell on people. He used them, exploited them, and then either betrayed them or simply disappeared from their lives. The very nature of his job demanded that he not let anyone get dose enough to touch him emotionally. He had forgotten that once and let a woman get close to him; hell, he had even married her. Venetia had been a disaster, both professionally and personally, and in the fourteen years since he had been strictly solo.Several times during the past five years he had been relieved that Niema Burdock probably hated his guts. That put her safely out of his range and killed the occasional temptation to get in touch with her. It was better that way. He would just check on her now and then, make certain she was all right-after all, he'd promised Dallas he would take care of her-and that would be that.He had expected her to find someone else. She was young, only twenty-five when she was widowed, and both smart and pretty. He had wanted her to find someone else, because that would put her forever out of reach. But she hadn't, and he was through with being noble.He wasn't giving her any more chances.But she would run like hell if he simply asked her out. He would have to play her gently, like taking a world-record trout on gossamer line, never letting her feel the hook that was reeling her in until it was too late for escape. On his side was her own nature, the adventurousness she seemed determined to bury, and a very real situation that needed to be finessed. Weighed against him was the fact that, despite the uneasy bond forged between them in Iran, she didn't trust him; he'd always known she was smart.Frank had asked her to his house on a bogus excuse, in a well-meant but awkward attempt to do a little matchmaking. Well, maybe it had worked. And maybe the excuse wasn't so bogus after all. John's mind raced, weighing risks and benefits. He decided to go for it."Delta Flight 183 was sabotaged. The FBI labs have turned up traces of explosive, but no detonator. The stuff seems to be a new, self-detonating compound, probably based on RDX and developed in Europe."She put her hands over her ears. "I don't want to hear this."John moved around the island and took her hands down, holding her with his fingers wrapped around her slender wrists. "Anything in Europe goes through an arms dealer named Louis Ronsard. He lives in the south of France.""No," she said."I need you to help me get into his files and find out where the stuff is made and who has already gotten a shipment of it.""No," she said again, but with a touch of desperation in her voice. She didn't try to pull away from him."Ronsard is susceptible to a pretty face-""Good God, you want me to whore for you?" she asked incredulously, dark eyes narrowing in dangerous warning."Of course not," he snapped. No way in hell would he let Ronsard, or anyone else, have her. "I want you to get an invitation to his villa so you can put a bug in his office.""There are probably a thousand people in this city alone who could do that. You don't need me.""I need you. Of those thousand people who could do the work, how many of them are women, because I can guarantee you no guy is going to catch Ronsard's interest and get invited to his villa. How many? Twenty, maybe? Say a hundred. Ronsard is thirty-five; how many women out of that hundred are roughly his age? And out of that number, how many of them are as attractive as you?"She jerked on her wrists. John merely tightened his hold, while taking care not to hurt her. She was so close he could see the velvety texture of her skin. "You speak French-""I'm rusty.""You'd pick it up again in no time. I need someone who's young, pretty, speaks the language, and has the skill. You meet all the qualifications.""Get someone else!" she said furiously. "Don't try to tell me you couldn't find a contract agent who met all your criteria, someone who wouldn't know your real name. You make it sound like I'm some Mata Hari, but I've never done any undercover work at all. I'd probably get us both killed-""No you wouldn't. You've been on other ops-""Five years ago. And I just did technical stuff, not any role-playing." She added coldly, "That's your forte."He let the slam roll off his back. After all, she was right. "I need you," he repeated. "Just this once.""This once until something else comes up and you decide you 'need' me again.""Niema..." He rubbed his thumbs over the insides of her wrists in a subtle caress, then released her and stepped away to pick up his coffee cup. He had pushed her enough physically; now was the time to back off and give her back control of herself, so she wouldn't feel as threatened. "I've seen you work. You're fast, you're good, and you can build a transmitter from pieces of junk. You're perfect for the job.""I went to pieces on the last job.""You had just heard your husband die." He didn't mince words and saw her flinch. "You're allowed to be a little shell-shocked. And you kept up anyway, we didn't have to carry you."She turned away, absently rubbing her wrists."Please."Of all the words he could have used, that was the least expected. He saw her spine stiffen. "Don't try to sweet-talk me.""I wouldn't dream of it," he murmured."You're so damn sneaky. I knew it the first time I saw you. You maneuver and manipulate and-" She stopped, and turned back to face him. Her throat worked, and her big dark eyes looked haunted. "Damn you," she whispered.He was silent, letting the lure entice her. Danger was as addictive as any drug. Firemen, cops, special forces personnel, field operatives, even the emergency department staff in hospitals-they all knew the rush, the incredible thrill when your senses are heightened and your skin feels as if it won't be able to contain all the energy pulsing through your muscles. SWAT teams, DEA agents-they were adrenaline junkies. So was he. And so was Niema.He did what he did partly because he loved his country, and someone had to be in the sewers taking care of the shit, but also because he loved walking on the knife edge of danger, continually poised on the brink of disaster, with only his skill and his wits to keep him alive. Niema was no different. She wanted to be, but she wasn't."Do you know how prevalent terrorism is?" he asked conversationally. "It isn't something that happens in other countries; it happens here, all the time. Flight 183 is just the latest episode. In 1970,Orlando, Florida, was threatened with a nuclear device if it didn't cough up a million bucks. In 1977, Hanafi Muslims took hostages in the D.C. City Council offices, and a couple of other places. In 1985, the FBI caught three Sikh Indians sent over here with a list of assassination targets. There was the World Trade Center bombing. Lockerbie, Scotland. Hell, I could give you a list three feet long."She bent her head, but he had her undivided attention."We catch most explosives because of the detonator, not the explosive itself. If the bastards have come up with an explosive that begins as a stable compound, then degrades and becomes unstable and detonates, we have a big problem. One bridge taken out can foul shipping over the entire eastern seaboard. A blown dam threatens our entire power grid. Airplanes are particularly vulnerable. So I need to find out where the stuff is being manufactured, and Ronsard is my best bet. I'll find out some other way, eventually, but how many people will die in the meantime?"She still didn't respond. He said briskly, as if she had already agreed to work with him, "I'll be there under a different cover, using an identity I've been building for quite a while. I would take you in with me as an assistant or a girlfriend, but Ronsard doesn't issue 'invitee and guest' invitations. You have to get invited in separately.""No. I won't do it.""Once we're in, I'll have Ronsard introduce us. I'll pretend to be smitten. That'll give us an excuse to be together."She shook her head. "I'm not going to do it.""You have to. I've already told you too much.""And now you have to kill me, right?"He put his hands in his pockets, his blue eyes alive with amusement. "I wasn't thinking of anything quite that James Bondish.""That's what this whole thing sounds like, something out of a James Bond movie. You need someone trained in cloak-and-dagger stuff, not me.""You'll have time to brush up on basic handgun skills. That's all you'd need, though if everything goes right, you won't even need that. We get in, you place the bug, I get into his files and copy them, and we get out. That's it.""You make it sound as easy as brushing your teeth. If it were that easy, you would already have done it. He-what was his name? Ronsard?-Ronsard must have a pretty good security system.""Plus a private army guarding the place," John admitted."So the job would be a lot trickier than you're trying to make it sound.""Not if it goes right.""And if it goes wrong?"He shrugged, smiling. "Fireworks."She wavered. He saw it, saw the temptation in her eyes. Then she shook her head. "Get someone else.""There is no one else with quite your qualifications. The fact that you haven't been active in five years is a plus, because no one is likely to know you. The intelligence community is a fairly small one. I can build you an identity that will stand up under any investigation Ronsard does.""What about you? You haven't exactly been inactive.""No, but I go to a lot of trouble to make sure no one knows what I look like, or who I am. Trust me. My cover is so deep sometimes I don't know who I am myself."She gave a little laugh, shaking her head, and John knew he had her."Okay," she said. "I know I'm going to regret it, but... okay.""John," Frank Vinay said carefully, "do you know what you're doing?""

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