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No One Lives Forever
Chapter One

Hotel Palma Dourada
Cuiabá, Brazil


No One Lives Forever Gripping his 9-millimeter Beretta, Nicholas Charboneau peered through the peephole of the penthouse suite, responding to a soft knock. The red and black uniforms of hotel personnel should not have given him any cause for alarm. And yet, the hair at the nape of his neck reacted to a rush of adrenaline. Two men stood by a rolling cart of white linen, covered with food platters and a bottle of Brazilian Merlot with a distinctive label.

Compliments of the house...or a Trojan Horse? The bottle of wine told the tale.

A lazy smile curved his lips. At his age, he relied more on wit and cunning, leaving the chest thumping to younger men. He had no intention of answering the door, making himself vulnerable.

"No way," he scoffed, muttering under his breath. "Nice try, but never would've happened."

"Who is at the door?" The voice of his young bodyguard, Jasmine Lee, drew his attention. Towel drying her black hair, she stood near the wet bar dressed only in the white robe of the hotel. "Did you order room service, Nicky?"

He raised his hand and shook his head, silently mouthing the word, "No."

Her body tensed, dark eyes flared in alert.

The sound of shattered glass from across the room broke his concentration. Jasmine darted from his sight, heading toward the noise.

As he rounded the foyer corner, three men dressed in black paramilitary uniforms burst into the room from the balcony, guns raised. Without hesitation, Jasmine tossed her towel toward the nearest man, a distraction. She punched a fist to his solar plexus, doubling the man over. To finish her attacker, she elbowed the back of his head, toppling him to the carpet. Now, she faced another, chin down and fists raised in defiance.

One down. White queen takes black knight's pawn, threatening the rook.

Nicholas's body reacted on pure instinct as chess maneuvers ran through his head, a practice in discipline and control. Adrenaline fueled his anger. He raced across the room, Beretta leveled. Unarmed, she wouldn't stand a chance if they started to shoot. He chose a spot to her far right, forcing the men to split their attack. A tactical maneuver.

Nicholas squared off with a man who'd been coerced to turn his back on Jasmine. His assailant flinched, fear in his eyes as he faced the Beretta. Not wanting to start any gunplay, he backhanded the man across the jaw, knocking him down.

"Arrgh." Wincing in pain, the man writhed on the floor, holding his jaw. Blood dripped through his fingers.

Two down. White knight to king four, checkmate in two moves.

He smelled victory. With Jasmine at his side, he tilted his head and glared at the final man. His gun aimed dead center between the stranger's eyes. "Who sent you? And you better pray I believe you."

"Mãos ao alto." A stern voice came from behind.

Clenching his jaw, Nicholas wavered for an instant. He gripped the Beretta, maintaining what little tactical leverage remained. But he had a feeling all that was about to change. Unwilling to lower his weapon until he knew for certain, he shifted his gaze to catch a reflection in the mirror behind the wet bar.

The seductive country of Brazil had beckoned Nicholas to its borders, the fertile ground of corruption awaiting his influence. Now, the reality of that summons had a face. The room service attendant narrowed his eyes in challenge, matching his stare in the mirror.

Despite the night air coming from the open doors to the balcony, he noticed the man had a bead of sweat at his temple. The droplet lingered on the brink of a sun-weathered crease, one of many lines marking his face.

Nicholas did not speak Portuguese. But since the uniformed man held a Kalashnikova assault rifle aimed at his head, understanding the native tongue became a moot point. The universal language of the AK-47 made his meaning perfectly clear. Nicholas lowered his weapon, allowing one of the men to take it, then raised his hands in compliance.

He had no option. Given the odds against a semi-auto rifle in tight quarters, they were severely outnumbered. And one of the men held a gun on Jasmine. Check. The black bishop had taken his queen out of play. As in the game of chess, he would voluntarily topple his king to concede, not wanting to risk her life.

Checkmate. Game over. In an instant, everything changed.

Glancing toward Jasmine, Nicholas noticed her dark eyes communicating a clear message. He knew from experience she would fight if he gave her the slightest encouragement. The beautiful woman's unspoken connection to him made words unnecessary. With a subtle shake of his head, Nicholas gave his order.

You and I shall live to fight another day, my love. He would not challenge the inevitable. Whatever the purpose of these intruders, he would soon find out.

"I'm sure there's been some kind of mistake." He glared at the menacing faces of the five men. The two who entered through the front door via passkey had wheeled in a large portable table. Aroma from the food wafted in the air, making his stomach grind. "The hotel knows never to send me wine made in Brazil."

Insulting the local wine was his calculated attempt to determine whether these men spoke English. The leader's expression remained deadly focused on him. The man held the rifle tight to his shoulder, clenching the weapon in a taut grip. With no reaction to his first offense, he ventured a second for good measure.

"I hope you realize..." Nicholas raised an eyebrow. "...there will be no gratuity."

The head honcho had no sense of humor, nor did he apparently speak any English. Nicholas would not be dissuading him with his keen negotiating skills. Without the use of his quick wit, his best weapon would be gone from his arsenal, along with his gun. Nicholas churned his brain considering his limited options.

The intruder spoke again.

"Você quer tirar sarro de mim, porco americano? Respeite quem aponta a arma na sua cabeça. Você vai saber logo quem esta engarregado ou vai morrer."

The comment had been directed at him. With so few visits to this country, he had picked up very little Portuguese, but he did recognize the term American Pig and the word morrer had something to do with death.

All things considered—this was not a good sign.

The man standing before him clearly had Indian blood coursing through his veins with his mocha brown skin, pitch-black hair, flat nose, and high, angular cheekbones. The hotel uniform did little to disguise his raw, primitive intensity. An ancient lineage reflected in his dark eyes. The man looked out of place in this urban setting.

So why was he here—and holding a rifle with deadly determination? Desperation forced men to take chances. Unlike the men in this room, Nicholas was not desperate. At least, not yet. Greed was a familiar vice in his area of the world, but Brazil had refined it to an art.

"I'm sure we can come to some...arrangement. If you would allow me to get my wallet, I'll reconsider your gratuity." Carefully, he gestured with his hands, making the universal sign of payola.

Encouraged, he watched the headman give a nod, directing one of his followers to act. Nicholas heard a sound behind his back. Maintaining eye contact with the leader, he resisted turning around until... He gasped when something pierced his neck, a sharp sting. Pain forced him to wince and shrug a shoulder.

Too late. The damage had been done.

"What have you—?"

Within seconds, the skin at his neck burned. Muscles in his legs tingled. His equilibrium challenged, he felt weightless and the room swayed. Walls drained their color.

Gravity pulled at him, forcing him to submit to its will. Nicholas dropped to his knees, his arms falling limp by his sides. He no longer had the strength to lift them. From the corner of his eye, he caught a motion.

Jasmine fought for her freedom, a blur of white. Sounds of a struggle distorted in his head, as if filtered through mounds of cotton. Noise deadened to a dull throb—an erratic and faint pulse. A dark shadow eclipsed his line of sight and an arm flung in retaliation. He sensed Jasmine's loss. It spurred him to stay conscious. His concern for her overwhelmed his body's surrender to the drugs injected into his system—drugs flooding him with an unmerciful indifference.

Falling face-first to the carpet, he held one eye open, searching for her. The muffled sound of his breaths came in shallow pants, slowing with each passing second. With his eyesight failing, he sensed Jasmine's dark hair near his face. Her familiar scent penetrated the veil of his stupor. The coppery smell of blood tainted the memory.

Was she—?

The possibility of her lying dead by his side made his heart ache. Dulled outrage compounded his torment. If anything happened to his beloved and loyal bodyguard, the eternal damnation of hell would appear like a day at the spa for the bastard committing the deed.

He vowed this with his last moment of consciousness, before he drifted through a threshold to his own brand of hell.

* * *

The foreign woman lay at the feet of Mario Araujo. Blood trailed from her mouth. Drops of deep red marred the luxurious white robe. It had not been necessary.

But time was of the essence if his plan worked at all. With a quick gesture, he ordered his men to move into action.

"Esta na hora de sair da cidade com a nosso premio, camaradas. Vamos sequir conforme a plano. Rapido."

They hoisted the American's body, jamming him into the hidden compartment of the room service cart. Tomorrow, he'd feel the pain of his unceremonious departure from the city. For now, the drugs in his body made him a compliant guest.

As leader of his people, Mario had taken the job of scout. He would not order his men to undertake such a risky job if he wouldn't make the same sacrifice. After all, the idea of kidnapping for profit had been his from the start. So for two years, he worked at the menial job of bellhop under the name of Rodrigo Santo. He'd taken the name and identification of a young boy who had died years ago in his village.

The dead rarely took offense to fraud and were good at keeping secrets.

Mario studied his usual prey at the deluxe hotel and suffered the indignities of the civilized world. Normally, he resorted to luring his targets from the hotel by way of an official looking document from the Interior Ministry of Brazil or a memo from the Prosecutor General's Office. And business had been fruitful.

Then nearly a year ago, a man made contact with him over the phone.

He remembered the conversation as if it were yesterday. Mario had gotten the call at the hotel, during work hours. The voice on the phone specifically asked for him and threatened to expose his little enterprise. The man claimed to have proof of his involvement, even had times and dates and known accomplices. Mario had listened, sure the police would bust in and make an arrest that instant, hauling him from the hotel in handcuffs. But when that didn't happen, he regained his composure and assessed his situation in a different light.

"What do you want in return?" he had asked.

"In return?"

"Yes. You'd have me arrested if that were your purpose." Mario persisted, hoping he'd guessed right. "What do you want?"

After a long silence, the man began to laugh, an abrasive sound.

"You see? I knew I picked the right man. You and I are going to get along."

To this day, Mario hadn't told anyone of the secret alliance he had made, not wanting to put any of his people at risk. And with his new partner, Mario had no complaints. His enterprise thrived more than before.

So when the man had called about a rich American, Mario listened again. The kidnapping had been ordered and planned in haste, without Mario's usual care. His associate had told him the foreigner wouldn't stay long and would be far too cagey to be lured from the hotel, as the others had been. Normally, Mario's instincts would have cautioned him against moving forward with the plan, but two things swayed him.

First, everything had fallen into place without effort, making it too good to pass up. The rich foreigner had been delivered into his hands, yet another generous gift from his anonymous benefactor. But more importantly, his associate had shared vital information on the American and his purpose in this country. For Mario, this carried far more weight than any ransom.

Regardless whether he trusted the man, Mario couldn't ignore the compelling intel. Although it would take time, he'd verify what he could, but shortly it wouldn't matter.

His mysterious comrade made a big show of this being their last venture together, even giving him a special encrypted phone to take with him, for emergency contact only. The phone would work where they were going. And the man had made it worth his while with the American too. Mario would soon return a hero to his beloved home and provide well for his people. Nothing would make him more proud.

Far enough away from the lowland heat, his childhood village had been located at the base of the rocky outcrop known as the Chapada dos Guimarães. Now a distant memory. It had overlooked the flat plain of the Paraguay River and the marshlands of the Pantanal. Still vivid in his dreams, Mario longed for the misty cool of those folding hills. Its pillared rock formations were dotted with the ancient caves of his ancestors. And only the hand of God could have graced such stunning waterfalls.

But too many tourists and the far reach of his own government left him torn apart from his memories. Years ago, he relocated his tribe to a spot deeper into the jungle, far from civilization and its corrupt influence. Yet there were days, resentment swelled in his belly like a virulent cancer. He would compromise no more. After today, maybe he wouldn't have to.

"Até o nosso próximo encontro," Mario spoke in a hushed tone. He watched three of his men escape from the balcony, leaving as they came.

He'd depart with his accomplice, similarly dressed in a hotel uniform. They'd brazenly haul the American to a service elevator. Once in the parking garage, an inconspicuous van awaited for the rendezvous with his men. Soon, he would be on his turf, amongst his own people.

But before Mario left the extravagant hotel suite, he knelt by the side of the Asian-looking woman who had fought so bravely.

"Para o bem do seu amigo, você tem que obedecer as nossas ordens."

He tossed an envelope of the hotel stationery on her chest and lightly tapped the side of her cheek. By the time the beautiful woman warrior awoke, they'd be long gone. And she would know what to do.

He only hoped she also knew how to follow orders.

* * *

Searing light blinded her. Jasmine squinted and the effort sent electrified shards of glass into her brain. She felt the left side of her face throb, swollen and hot. Yet the night air in the room prickled her skin. The sensation made her aware of a metallic tang in her mouth. With a brush of her tongue, she found the source of the blood.

Unwilling to move, she lay perfectly still, waiting for the pain to subside. It only dulled and spread through her body like venom. Soon, her eyes concentrated on the elaborate chandelier overhead. Its iridescent prisms swirled rainbow luster...until the shimmer stopped dead center, coming into focus.

Oh, God...she had been so careless.

"Nicky? What—?"

As she raised up from the carpet, her head nearly exploded. She planted an elbow beneath her weight to keep from collapsing. Nausea churned her stomach. She held back a strand of dark hair and heaved, spitting up pale yellow foam. Her vision dotted with pinpoints of light from the exertion. Signs of a concussion.

Yet Jasmine knew she deserved far worse for her failure.

A dismal ache centered deep within her chest, spreading its heat to her face. She had failed Nicky, allowed him to be taken. For all she knew, he was already dead. She envisioned his handsome face, strangely passive in death. His violet blue eyes glazed in milky white. The image would be forever branded in memory for her sin of failure.

Love blinded her, made her weak and neglectful. And Nicholas had paid the price. Splaying a hand against the carpet, she lifted her body to a sitting position. Her fingers touched a different texture.

An envelope.

The note inside the hotel stationery provided little information, given the many questions looming in her mind. The instructions were brief and to the point. She had ten days to comply. The ransom wired to a Swiss Bank account listed in the note—or Nicky would be killed.

Yet with the instructions in English, it left her wondering who was in charge. Did the uniformed man know exactly what Nicky had said in English and only pretended his ignorance? Or had someone else pulled the strings? For these men to kidnap Nicholas Charboneau, ignorance would be the least of their problems. They obviously had no idea the extent of their offense.

Once more, she stared at the note. No organization laid claim for the abduction. And the ransom was far more money than she had access to. She held no special authority over Nicky's affairs. By outward appearance, he was her employer. End of story. Yet her heart could claim so much more. If only she had disclosed her feelings to him. Now she may never get the chance.

For the first time in her life, she felt completely powerless. That was inexcusable.

Her mind began to formulate a strategy. Due to Nicky's reputation, she was not sure how her demand for help would be received. She would direct the attention of the local law enforcement, overseeing the efforts herself. The nearest American Consulate would be contacted tonight. The U. S. State Department tomorrow. Time was of the essence.

Surely she could garner support, even in this uncivilized corner of the world. And if money was required, she knew how to get it.

Christian Delacorte owed her a very big favor. Despite Nicky's orders to the contrary, perhaps it was time for Christian to learn about his rightful connection to Nicholas Charboneau.

© Jordan Dane


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