After checking her purse with its little radio and her snub-nosed .38 at the entry to avoid setting off the metal detectors, Margarita was careful not to brush against the walls as she followed the captain of the prison through dank, dark corridors. Not long ago, political prisoners had been crammed into the subterranean rooms the Spanish had once used for storing powder and supplies. Thanks to her uncle’s enlightened presidency, only a fraction of the cells were now inhabited. Even so, the stench of centuries of misery clung to the dim interior.
“This man you wish to speak to shares a cell with the other scum who use our people as mules to ferry their drugs,” the captain told her. “I sent a guard to bring him to an interrogation room.”
She’d come up with some reason to get rid of both the captain and the guard. She wanted time alone with the prisoner to verify if he was, indeed, the man SPEAR had been seeking.
Flinging open a narrow door, her escort warned her to watch her head and stood to one side. Margarita ducked under the low lintel, took one step into the stark room and froze.
A red-faced guard stared at her through eyes bugged almost out of their sockets with terror. An arm was wrapped iron-tight around his throat. His gun holster flapped empty, and the barrel of his semiautomatic dug into his temple. Behind him, a horribly scarred figure smiled a malevolent welcome.
“Come in, Señorita de las Fuentes. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Carlos?” Anna peered through the open doors of a small crimson and gold antechamber. “What are you doing in here all by yourself?”
“Looking for your cousin. Someone said they saw her come in here a while ago.”
What looked suspiciously like a pout settled over Anna’s delicate features for a moment. She chased it away with a toss of her dark hair. Slipping through the doors, she glided across the room.
“Won’t I do instead?”
Instant alarms sounded in Carlos’s head. Nubile and overripe for marriage, Anna had fixed her sights on him with almost the same determination he’d fixed his on Margarita. He suspected her determined pursuit sprang as much from jealousy of her cousin as from a young woman’s infatuation with an older and decidedly more experienced male.
Another man might have been flattered by her attentions. A few might even have taken advantage of her passions. Carlos didn’t feel the least temptation to accept the seductive invitations she insisted on sending his way. Anna was a pretty little thing, but she wasn’t Margarita.
Smiling, he strolled across the plush carpet. “Let me escort you back to the ball. I have no doubt Miguel is looking for you to claim a dance.”
“Miguel…pooh!” With a careless wave, she dismissed the lieutenant who served as Carlos’s aide. “He’s a boy. A mere boy.”
“Actually, he’s older than most lieutenants,” Carlos countered mildly. “He worked his way up through the ranks and received his commission based solely on merit, not through family connections like so many.”
“I don’t wish to speak of Miguel.” A sulky note crept into her voice. Slanting him a doe-eyed look through thick lashes, she slid her palms up his lapels. “I wish to speak of us.”
Gently, he captured her wrists. “There is no us. You know I’ve asked your uncle for Margarita’s hand in marriage.”
“Yes, well, my cousin has a mind of her own when it comes to choosing her man. As do I.”
“So I’ve discovered,” he said dryly. “Come, Miguel will be looking for you.”
“I don’t want to dance with Miguel.” Stubbornly, she dug in her heels. Her pout was real now. “If you must know, I saw Margarita leave the Palace almost an hour ago.”
Well, well. That bit of information provided Carlos intense satisfaction. Evidently he wasn’t the only one who’d needed some privacy to regroup from that shattering kiss they’d shared on the balcony.
“Did she say where she was going?”
“No.” A sly expression slid across Anna’s delicate features. “Perhaps she went to meet a lover.”
“I think not,” he replied calmly.
In one of their more acerbic exchanges, Margarita had let Carlos know she wouldn’t come to his bed a virgin…if the sky should fall and the mountains crumble and she one day decided to marry him. His jaw had locked at the idea of another man touching her, but he was honest enough to admit that he hadn’t exactly spent the past thirty-eight years in a monastery.
He knew for a fact, however, that Rita’s natural fastidiousness had kept her from forming any casual liaisons since her brief fling with another student during her years in the States. That gave him some consolation. As did the knowledge that her continued abstinence chafed her as much as it did him. She was a passionate woman, with the fire of her people in her veins…a fire Carlos was determined to stoke.
His body hardened once more at the mere thought of Margarita’s mouth hot and eager under his. She wasn’t as indifferent to him as she liked to pretend. She couldn’t tremble at his touch, couldn’t flush with heat the way she had, if she cared nothing for him.
Impatient to find her, Carlos tugged at Anna’s clinging hands. He’d locate Margarita, escort her home, pick up where they’d left off on the balcony. And this time…
The urgent call whipped his head around. Although Carlos had given up both his uniform and the title he’d earned as commander of Madrileño’s elite counterterrorism strike force when he accepted the post of deputy defense minister, old habits died hard. His military aide still called him commander, and Carlos still responded instinctively.
Miguel Carreras hurried into the room. Short, sturdy and well muscled, the lieutenant admirably filled out his uniform adorned with a gold-roped aguillette and fancy dress sword.
“You must come at once, sir. There’s been a…”
When he saw Anna clinging to Carlos’s lapels, the lieutenant skidded to a stop. Surprise and hurt flickered in his brown eyes. Then his training kicked in and he turned a face of rocklike impassivity to his superior.
“There’s been an incident at the castillo.”
“What kind of an incident?” Carlos asked, calmly disengaging Anna’s hands. He hadn’t missed that look of startled dismay on his aide’s face. He’d talk to Miguel later and explain the situation, perhaps offer him some advice on handling Anna. Although he had to admit his own track record with the de las Fuentes women made him something less than an expert on the subject.
Stiffly ignoring the woman at his superior’s side, Miguel poured out a hurried report. “I don’t have all the details. Only that one of the prisoners was taken in for interrogation. He overwhelmed his guard and threatened to kill him. Margarita…Señorita de las Fuentes…offered herself as a hostage instead of the guard.”
Shock and disbelief slammed into Carlos. Every muscle in his body snapped wire taut.
“He took her with him,” Miguel related with a worried frown. “Into the jungle. He commandeered a Jeep and took her with him.”
The vicious curse that erupted from Carlos widened Anna’s eyes.
“The captain of the guard just brought the word,” the lieutenant finished. “He’s waiting for you in the Gold Room.”
Leaving an openmouthed Anna behind, Carlos strode through the doors. Questions hammered at him with each sharp crack of his heels on the parquet