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Khuyết danh

Tác giả: Sandra Brown
Thể loại: Tiểu Thuyết
Biên tập: Bach Ly Bang
Upload bìa: Duy Phuc Nguyen
Language: English
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Cập nhật: 2015-10-22 15:11:14 +0700
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Chapter 2
ll the jungle animals were waking up. Rustling leaves marked the progress of reptiles and rodents. Birds chattered in the branches of the trees overhead. Small monkeys screeched as they swung from vine to vine in search of breakfast.
But even their shrill racket took second place to the vivid cursing inside the cab of the truck.
Kerry cowered against the driver’s door as she watched her mercenary come awake with about as much humor as a fairy-tale ogre. In fact he resembled an illustration she remembered from a childhood picture book with his hair sticking out at odd angles, his ferocious scowl, and his heavily shadowed jaw. Grunting and groaning, he leaned forward, unsteadily braced his elbows on his knees and held his head between his shaking hands.
After several moments, he moved his head around – it seemed to cause him agony – and looked at Kerry through bloodshot eyes. They had as many red streaks in them as the eastern sky. Without saying a word, he fumbled for the door handle, unlatched it and virtually rolled out of the truck.
When his feet struck the ground, lushly carpeted and spongy as it was, he let loose a string of blistering curses, products of a fertile imagination. That set off the noisy wildlife again. He clasped his head, and Kerry couldn’t tell if he was trying to hold it on or tear it off.
She opened the door on the driver’s side. Cautiously checking the ground for snakes first, she placed her sandaled foot in the deep undergrowth and stepped out of the truck. She considered picking up one of his weapons, either the machete or the gun, but decided that he was in no condition to do even the most defenseless animal any serious harm.
Gambling her safety on that decision, she crept around the hood of the truck and peered down the opposite side of it. He was braced against it with only his bottom touching. His feet were planted solidly in front of him, as though he had carefully put them there and didn’t dare move them for fear of falling off the planet. He was bent forward at the waist, still cushioning his head between his hands.
When he heard her tread in the soft undergrowth, which must have sounded like a marching army to his supersensitive ears, he swiveled his head around.
Under the baleful gaze of golden brown eyes, Kerry halted.
"Where am I?" The words were garbled, ground out by a throat abused by tobacco and alcohol.
"Montenegro," she replied fearfully.
"What day is this?"
"What about my plane?"
He seemed to have a difficult time keeping her in focus. The sunlight was growing brighter by the moment as it topped the trees. He squinted against it until his eyes were almost closed. When an extremely vocal bkd squawked noisily overhead, he winced and cursed beneath his breath.
"Plane. Plane. Airplane."
When she only stared back at him apprehensively, he began searching through the pockets of his shirt with a great deal of agitation and practically no coordination. Finally, from the breast pocket, he produced an airplane ticket and what appeared to be an official exit visa. The whimsical government of Montenegro was stingy with visas. They weren’t issued very often and were more valuable than gold. It took a king’s ransom in gold to have one forged.
He shook the ticket and visa at her. "I was supposed to be on an airplane last night at ten o’clock."
Kerry swallowed. He was going to be upset. She braced herself for his wrath. But she tilted her head back fearlessly when she told him, "Sorry. You missed it."
He turned around slowly, so that his shoulder was propped against the truck. He stared at her with such undiluted animosity that she quavered on the inside.
When he spoke, his voice was whispery with menace. "Did you make me miss my plane out?"
She took a cautious step backward. "You came with me of your own free will."
He took a threatening step toward her. "You haven’t got long to live, lady. But before I murder you, I’d like to know, just out of curiosity, why you shanghaied me."
She pointed an accusing finger at bun. "You were drunk!"
"Which I’m living to regret."
"How was I supposed to know that you were trying to get on an airplane?"
"Didn’t I mention it?"
"I must have told you," he said with an insistent shake of his head.
"You didn’t."
He squinted his eyes and looked at her accusingly. "You’re not only a whore, you’re a lying whore."
"I’m neither," Kerry declared, blushing hotly.
Those unusual agate eyes traveled from the top of her tousled head to the tips of her toes. But this time, unlike the appreciative way they had moved over her in the cantina, they were scornful. His look made her feel exactly like what he was accusing her of being. In the daylight the cheap, ill-fitting dress showed no saving graces.
He asked sneeringly, "What’s your gimmick?"
"I don’t have a gimmick."
"Was business so bad in the states, you had to come down here to peddle it?"
If Kerry hadn’t been so frightened of the latent violence that was causing his muscles to twitch involuntarily, she would have stepped forward and slapped him. Instead she fashioned fists out of her hands, but kept them at her sides.
Through gritted teeth she said, "I’m not a whore. I only disguised myself as one so I could go into that bar and pick you up."
"Sounds like whoring to me."
"Stop saying that!" she cried, as angered by his offhanded assessment of her as by his actual words. "I need your services."
He glanced down at his fatigue pants, which were still unfastened and riding low on his narrow hips. "I think you akeady had them."
Kerry went hot all over. It seemed that every drop of blood in her body rushed to her head and was pushing against her scalp. She couldn’t meet his sardonic eyes any longer and glanced skittishly around the clearing.
He laughed scoffingly. "I don’t remember it. How were you?"
She seethed. "You’re despicable."
"That rowdy, huh?" he said, rubbing his jaw. "Wish I remembered it."
"We didn’t do anything, you fool."
"Certainly not."
"You just wanted to look but not touch?"
"Then what are my pants doing unzipped?"
"I had to unfasten them to get your pistol out," she flared. "I didn’t want you to kill me.’’
He digested that. "That is still a distinct possibility. And taking away my pistol and machete won’t stop me. I could easily kill you with my bare hands. But I’d still like to know why you kept me from getting on that plane. Do you work for the Montenegran government?"
She gaped at him, incredulous that he could think such a thing. "Are you crazy?"
He laughed without humor. "That’s probably it. It would be just like El Presidente to recruit an American broad to spy for him, damned coward that he is."
"I agree with you that he’s a coward. But I don’t work for him."
"The rebels, then. What do you do, steal exit visas for them?"
"No. I don’t work for anybody in Montenegro."
"Then who? The CIA is in a world of hurt if you’re the best they can do."
"I work for myself. And don’t worry. I can meet your price."
"What do you mean, my price?"
"I want to hire you. Just name your fee."
"IBM doesn’t have that much money, lady."
"I’ll pay anything."
"You’re not listening. No more jobs in Montenegro. I want out of this godforsaken place." He moved toward her, sinister and steely. "You’ve screwed up royally, lady. That was the last plane out of here before the government shut down all international travel. Do you know what I had to do to get that visa?"
Kerry was sure she didn’t want to know. His slow, threatening approach made her talk faster. "I’ll make the delay worth your while. I swear it. And if you agree to help me, I can guarantee you a way out."
"How? When?"
"On Friday. I need only three days of your time. You’ll go home with your pockets full of money."
She had his attention. He was studying her thoughtfully. "Why me? Beyond the fact that I was drunk and easily duped."
"I need someone with your experience."
"There are several others still hanging around. Even several in that stinking bar last night."
"But you looked more… suited to the job."
"What is this job?"
She sidestepped the direct question. First, she had to sell him on the idea of staying in the country for a few extra days. "It’s a tough job. I need someone who has his own weapons available." She appealed to his vanity. "And, of course, the experience and courage to use them if it becomes necessary."
"Weapons?" He shook his head in bewilderment. "Wait a minute. You think I’m a mercenary?"
She didn’t have to answer him. Her expression told him that his guess was correct.
Kerry stared at him in mystification as his face broke into a facsimile of a smile. His laugh was hoarse and deep, but eventually it rumbled up out of his chest and finally erupted as a series of dry, hacking coughs. He cursed expansively, but not so viciously as before. He rubbed his forehead and dragged both hands down his haggard face. Then he leaned against the truck, turned his face heavenward, and sighed heavily.
"What’s wrong?" Kerry had to ask, though she didn’t think she wanted to know. His laughter had held irony, not humor.
"You got the wrong man, lady. I’m not a mercenary."
Her jaw went slack as she stared at him. "That’s not true!" How dare he try to trick her this way. "And you called El Presidente a coward. You’re just trying to weasel your way out of accepting a challenging job."
"You’re damn right I’m a coward," he shouted. "I cover my ass, understand? I don’t claim to be a glory guy. But I’m not lying when I tell you that I’m no professional soldier."
She had recoiled at his flash of temper. "But your pistol, your machete – "
"For protection. What kind of damn fool goes into the jungle without any way to protect himself from animals? Of the four-legged variety as well as the two-legged kind." He took another step toward her. "We’re in a war zone, lady, or haven’t you noticed? Now I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I’m taking myself back to town right now and throwing myself on the mercy of El Presidente. Maybe he’ll still let me leave."
He glanced down at Kerry again, taking in the long, tangled hair and whorish dress. "He likes a bawdy story. I’ll tell him one of the lovely ladies of his country enticed me beyond the point of no return. He’ll like that."
He stepped around her and headed toward the hood of the truck.
She clutched at his sleeve desperately. "Believe me, this is no game. You can’t go."
"Wanna bet?" He wrested his arm free and made for the driver’s side of the truck.
"What about all that weaponry?" she asked, pointing toward the bed of the pickup.
He bent down, picked up the machete, and slid it back into its sheath. "You want to see my weaponry? All right."
He strode toward the rear of the truck and heaved one of the heavy bags over the side after removing the tarpaulin with a flourish. "Stand back," he cautioned her theatrically. "I’d hate for any of these to blow up in your face."
With a sharp tug, he unzipped one of the bags. Ready for explosive devices to spill out, Kerry stared down at the contents of the canvas bag with stupefaction.
"That’s a camera."
His expression was dripping with sarcasm. "No kidding." He rezipped the bag and set it back inside the pickup. "To be precise a Nikon F3."
"You mean all those bags have cameras in them?"
"And lenses and film. I’m a photojournalism I’d offer you my card, but a group of guerrillas and I used them to start a cookfire a week or so back and I’m fresh out."
Kerry ignored his acerbity and stared at the canvas bags. She had mistakenly thought they contained the weapons that would have assured her safe passage out of the country. It was several moments before she realized how long she’d been staring, lamenting her monumental error, contemplating her dilemma, and weighing the options left open to her.
She spun around. The man was headed into the jungle. "Where are you going?"
"To relieve myself."
"Oh. Well, I admit I made a mistake, but I’d still like to offer you a deal."
"Forget it, lady. I plan on making my own deal with El Presidente." He thumped his thighs with his fists. "Dammit! I can’t believe I was stupid enough to miss that airplane. What enticed me to leave the cantina with you? Did you slip me a mickey?"
She took umbrage and didn’t even honor the accusation with a denial. "You were drunk before I found you. Why, when you were so bent on making that plane, were you drinking yourself senseless?"
"I was celebrating." His teeth were angrily clenched, so Kerry knew she had struck a nerve. He was just as angry with himself as he was with her. "I couldn’t wait to leave this armpit of a country. I’d been grubbing around for days trying to buy a seat on that airplane. Know what I had to do in exchange for that visa?"
"I had to take a picture of El Presidente and his mistress."
"Doing what?" she asked snidely.
Insulted, he glared at her. "A portrait that I’ll probably sell to Time. If I ever get back to the United States. Which looks doubtful, thanks to you!"
"If you would just hear me out, I could explain why I needed a mercenary and went to such desperate lengths to get one."
"But I’m not the one."
"You look like one. Why do you think I chose you?"
"I wouldn’t hazard a guess."
"I chose you over every other man in that bar because you looked the most disreputable and dangerous."
"Lucky me. Now if you’ll excuse – "
"You use a camera instead of a machine gun, but you’re of the same breed as these soldiers of fortune." She could still use him. If she had mistaken him for a professional soldier, it was probable that others would, too. "You sell your services to the highest bidder. I can make this worth your while, Mr…."
She stared at him in perplexity.
"O’Neal," he supplied tersely. "Linc O’Neal."
Lincoln O’Neal! She recognized his name instantly, but tried not to show that she was impressed. He was one of the most renowned and prolific photojournalists in the world. He’d made his reputation during the evacuation of Vietnam and had recorded on 35mm film every war and catastrophe since. He had two Pulitzer Prizes to his credit. His work was of the highest caliber, often too realistic for the weak-stomached and too poignant for the tender-hearted.
"My name is Kerry Bishop."
"I don’t give a damn what your name is, lady. Now, unless you want to see what’s behind my zipper after all, I suggest you don’t detain me again."
His crudity didn’t put her off as it was obviously intended to. It only fueled her resolve. He turned his back on her and went stalking through the trees. Despite her flimsy shoes, Kerry plunged through the wall of green after him.
She caught his sleeve again and, this time, held on. "There are nine orphans waiting for me to escort them out of the country," she said in one breath. "I’m working with the aid of a benevolent group in the United States. I’ve got three days to get them to the border. On Friday a private plane will land there and pick us up. If we’re not at the rendezvous place on time, the plane will leave without us. I need help in getting them through fifty miles of jungle."
"Good luck."
She uttered a cry of disbelief when he turned away again. She clutched his sleeve tighter. "Didn’t you hear what I said?"
"Every single word."
"And you don’t care?"
"It’s got nothing to do with me."
"You’re a human being! Barely, granted, but still a human being."
"Sticks and stones – "
"Oh, damn you and your jokes!" she cried. "These are children."
His face hardened. It was no wonder to her that she had mistaken him for a mercenary. He seemed untouchable. His callousness was unbreachable.
"Lady, I’ve seen hundreds of kids blown to bits. Stomachs swelled up like balloons from starvation. Covered in sores and crawling with lice and flies. Screaming in terror when then: parents were beheaded in front of them. Tragic, yes. Sickening, yes. Nations of them, lady. So don’t expect me to fall on my knees in anguish over nine."
She released him and recoiled as though his heartlessness was a hideous, contagious disease. "You’re a horrible man."
"Right. We finally agree on something. I’m not spiritually equipped to take care of nine kids, even under the best of circumstances."
She straightened her shoulders determinedly. Loathsome as he was, he was her only hope. She didn’t have time to go back into the capital city and search for a replacement. "Consider this just another job. I’ll pay you whatever I would pay a professional soldier."
He shook his head adamantly. "It wouldn’t be as much as I’ll make off the film I’m taking home."
“Three more days won’t matter. Your film will be just as valuable on Friday as it is today."
"But I won’t be risking my ass in the meantime. I value my hide almost as much as I do my film. I’ve risked it too long in this stinking jungle. I have a sixth sense that tells me when to move on." He locked gazes with her. "Now, I don’t know who you are, or what the hell you’re doing in a place like this, but it doesn’t involve me. Got that? I hope you get the kids out, but you’ll do it without me."
He turned abruptly and took no more than a few steps before he was swallowed by the jungle. Kerry’s shoulders drooped with dejection.
She slowly retraced her steps to the truck. Spotting the pistol still lying on the ground, she shuddered. He might not be a mercenary, but he was just as cold and unfeeling. He was unhumanly jaded and didn’t possess an iota of compassion. To turn his back on children! How could he? How could anyone?
She stared at the pistol, wondering if she could force him at gunpoint to help her. The idea was ridiculous, of course, and she dismissed it as soon as it was formulated. She could just see herself toting little Lisa in one hand and the.357 Magnum in the other.
He would probably murder them all in their sleep anyway before they were halfway to their destination or if a better offer presented itself along the way.
Angrily, she whirled around. Her gaze accidentally fell on the bags lying in the bed of the truck. Cameras, she thought scornfully. How could she have mistaken them for weapons and ammunition? They were the tools of his trade, all right, but they were of no use to her.
How low did a man have to stoop before he could place a roll of film above the life of a parentless child? A wretch of a man. A coldhearted, selfish man, who would rather print me pictures of other people than be touched by them personally. A man to whom a roll of firm –
Film. Film. Film.
Kerry’s heart skidded to a halt. Her eyes rounded with sudden inspiration as she stared at the canvas bags. Before allowing herself time to consider the grave consequences of what she was about to do, she bounded into the bed of the pickup and unzipped the first bag.
Linc felt like hell.
Every time a macaw exercised his vocal talents, the noise went through his head like a spear. His stomach was in turmoil and with the least bit of encouragement would ignominiously empty itself. His teeth had grown fur overnight. He had a crick in his neck. God, even his hair hurt.
Wondering how that was possible, he explored it tentatively and discovered that it wasn’t his hair giving him such misery, but an unaccounted for goose egg on his cranium.
But the worst of all his pains was the big one in the butt… by the name of Bishop. Something Bishop. Carol? Carolyn? Damn he couldn’t remember. All he knew was that at the moment he’d like to be carving her name on a tombstone after having strangled her with his bare hands.
The little bitch had made him miss that airplane!
Every time he thought about it, he ground his teeth. And because he couldn’t cope with his own stupid culpability at the moment, he directed his anger toward the woman.
Damn conniving female. What the hell was she doing in Montenegro to begin with? She was nothing but a meddlesome do-gooder. Nine orphans. How the hell did she think she could secretly transport nine orphans five miles, much less fifty, then catch a plane that was supposed to rendezvous…
Hell. It sounded like a bad movie script. Unworkable. Implausible. Impossible.
And she had gambled on htm risking his neck, not to mention the fortune he stood to make on the photographs he’d taken, to help her. What a laugh! He hadn’t stayed alive by being Mr. Nice Guy.
Ask anyone who knew him, and they’d tell you that Linc O’Neal looked out for number one. He was liked. He was respected. He took his turn when it came to buying drinks. But don’t depend on him in a pinch, because in a pinch, it was his ass he was concerned about and not the next guy’s. He pledged allegiance to himself and himself alone.
He reminded himself of that as he trekked back to where he’d left the woman. He was relieved to see that she had calmed down measurably. She was leaning against the pickup, braiding her hair. The long, dark mass of hair – she had enough for about six people – was pulled over one shoulder. She was working it deftly through her fingers to form a braid as thick as his wrist.
That hair. It was one reason he’d been attracted enough to go with her last night. Hell, the last thing he had needed was a woman. He had wanted one, yes. He’d been in Montenegro for six weeks. But he was too fastidious to quench his basic male desires with the tavern whores who nightly bedded soldiers from both sides of the conflict. He’d never been that horny.
Last night, of all nights, he had avoided company of any kind. He’d had only one thought in mind: catch that airplane. All he had really wanted was the numbing effect of a few drinks and to get on that airplane and put as much distance between himself and Montenegro as possible.
But the liquor, potent as it was, hadn’t been able to wash away the memories of the atrocities he’d witnessed in the past six weeks. So he’d kept drinking the foul stuff. And though it hadn’t dulled his memory, it had severely clouded his judgment.
When the woman with that dark hair, lustrous even in the foggy light of the bar, had approached him, his common sense had surrendered to the swelling pressure in his pants. The kiss had been the deciding factor. One taste of her mouth, which had proved to be just as sweet as it had looked, had tipped the scales of his judgment.
Now, he was somewhat relieved to see that he hadn’t taken complete leave of his senses last night. She was pretty. She was clean. Her figure was good, though a trifle slender, much too slender for that ridiculous dress. His instinct for women was still intact.
But how he could have mistaken her for a whore, he’d never know. He looked more like a mercenary than she did a prostitute. Her hair was dark, so it had been easy to mistake her for one of the local women. But in the dappled sunlight of the clearing, he saw that her eyes weren’t brown as he had originally thought. They were dark blue. And her complexion was too fair to belong to a woman of Latin descent. It was almost too fair to belong to a brunette.
Mainly, she didn’t have that hard, embittered, weary look of the women who had taken to prostitution to buy something to eat. The Montenegran women who were forced to sell themselves for the price of a loaf of bread grew very old very fast.
This woman still looked fresh and wholesome, and, in the sunlight, unmistakably American. She should be living in a nice house in a Midwest suburb, organizing the Junior League’s spring tea. Yet, here she was in a jungle clearing, the morning after pulling off a dangerous escapade. In spite of himself, Linc was curious about her.
"How’d you get the truck?"
She didn’t seem surprised by his abrupt question and answered without hesitation. "I stole it. It was parked in front of the cantina. The keys were in the ignition. I disguised you as an officer with the jacket and cap left on the seat."
"Thank you."
"And you just drove us through the checkpoint, pretending that I was your client for the evening."
He nodded in acknowledgement of her cleverness. "I’ve got a knot on my head."
"Oh, well, I’m sorry about that. You were… I was trying to – " She suddenly broke off. Linc got the distinct impression that she was keeping something from bun, something she was glad he’d obviously forgotten. "Go on."
"You bumped your head on the dash."
"Hmm." He studied her for a moment, but let her lie of omission pass. There was no sense in pursuing the subject since their adventure together was drawing to a close. He was now certain that he hadn’t had her last night. Drunk as j he had been, he wouldn’t have forgotten lying between those thighs, whose provocative shape he could see beneath her dress.
Before he got distracted by any more pleasurable thoughts, he turned his attention to what he was going to do once he reached the city. He hoped he would catch El Presidente in a good, receptive mood. "Well, I’m glad we’ve got the truck. It’ll make getting back to the city easier. Are you riding back with me, or do we say our farewells here?"
"That won’t be necessary," she said with a cheerful smile.
"Driving back to the city."
He assumed an impatient stance. "Look, I’ve given you my answer. Let’s not play any more games, okay? Just give me the keys to the truck and I’ll be on my way."
"I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere, Mr. O’Neal."
"I’m going back to town. Now." He stuck out his hand, palm up. "The keys."
"The film."
She inclined her head, and he followed the direction toward which she had gestured until he sighted the curls of brown film, now worthless, exposed to the fatal tropical sun.
His blood-curdling cry began as a strangling sound. But when it left his mouth, it was a full-fledged roar of outrage. He whirled around, lunged, grabbed her, and bent her backward over the hood of the truck. His forearm acted as a bar across her throat.
"I ought to kill you."
"You might just as well," she shouted bravely. "Whaf s one more murder? You were willing to sacrifice the lives of nine children to your own selfish pursuits."
"Selfish pursuits! That film represents what I do for a living. You just cost me thousands, lady."
"I’ll pay whatever you ask."
"Forget it."
"Name your price."
"I don’t want the friggin’ job!"
"Because you might have to consider someone besides yourself for a change?"
"Damn right!"
"Okay, then, I’ll tell you how you can turn this to your advantage. Let me up. You’re hurting me."
She squirmed against him. But immediately became still. His hips were pressing against hers, and her wiggling had a profound and instantaneous effect on him. Against the softest, most vulnerable part of her body, he grew hard.
At the same time she noticed his condition, it registered with him. Instead of moving away from her, however, he pressed closer, fitting himself into the cleft between her thighs. His eyes mocked her insultingly. His breath struck her face in hot gusts.
"You invited me, remember?" he said silkily. "I might take you up on your invitation."
"You wouldn’t dare."
His slow smite was anything but reassuring. "Don’t count on it, lady."
"You know why I took you out of that cantina."
"All I know for sure is that I kissed you and that I woke up this morning with my pants unzipped."
"Nothing happened," she vowed in a voice tinged with anxiety.
"Not yet." He made the words sound like a promise of things to come, but gradually released her and helped her up. "However, business before pleasure. How could this possibly work to my advantage?"
Rubbing her throat and casting him venomous looks, Kerry said, "The story. You would be involved in the rescue of nine orphans."
"And in transporting illegal aliens into the United Stales."
She shook her head. "We have Immigration’s sanction. All the children have been slated for adoption by American parents." She saw a slight alteration in his skeptical expression and took advantage of it. "You’d be right there, Mr. O’Neal, recording it all on film. The story would have much more impact than what you already have."
"Had," she conceded guiltily.
They contemplated each other warily.
"Where are these kids?" he asked, breaking a long silence.
"About three miles north of here. I left them in hiding there yesterday afternoon."
"What were you doing with them?"
"Teaching them. I’ve been here for ten months. Their parents are all dead, or considered so. Their village was burned out a month ago. We’ve been foraging for food and living in temporary shelters while arrangements were being made to get them out of Montenegro and into the United States."
"What arrangements? With whom?"
"The Hendren Foundation, named in honor of Hal Hendren, a missionary who was killed here almost two years ago. His family founded the relief organization soon after his death."
"And you think they’ll be at that rendezvous point as they said they would?"
"How’d you get your information?"
"By courier."
He barked a laugh. "Who would sell his sister for a package of Lucky Strikes. Which incidentally I need badly," he muttered, slapping his pockets until he found a pack. He discovered it was empty. "Got any?"
"Figures." He cursed. A long, disgusted breath filtered through his teeth. "Do you trust this courier?"
"His two sisters are among the orphans. He wants them taken out. His father was shot by the regular army as a spy for the rebels. His mother was… she was killed, too."
Linc propped himself against the side of the truck and gnawed on his lower lip. He looked down at his film. It was the proverbial spilled milk if he’d ever seen it. Forgiveness would be a long time in coming, but there was nothing he could do to save the fflm now.
He had only two choices left to him. He could return to the city and beg that despot who called himself a president for mercy. Even if it was granted, he would go home empty-handed. The other choice was equally distasteful. He still wasn’t ready to become an ally of this butterfly cum Mata Hari.
"Why did you have to kidnap me?"
"Would you have come with me if I had said ‘Pretty please’?" She got only a dark scowl for an answer. "I didn’t think so. I didn’t think any mercenary would want to bother with a group of children."
"You were right. He probably would have taken your advance money, followed you to the hideout, cut the kids’ throats, raped you before killing you, and considered it a good day’s work."
She turned pale and folded her arms across her middle. "I never thought of that."
"There’s a lot you haven’t thought of. Like food. And freshwater."
"I was counting on you…on whomever…to think about all those details."
"Not details," he said with aggravation. "Fundamental necessities."
She resented his speaking to her as though she were simple-minded. "I’m not faint-hearted, Mr. O’Neal. I’ll suffer any hardship I have to in order to get those children out of the country."
"They could all die before we cover that fifty miles. Are you prepared for that?"
"If they stay, they’ll perish anyway."
He pondered her for a moment and decided that she might not be all fluff after all. It had taken considerable grit to do what she had done last night. "Where is the rendezvous point?"
Gladness shone in her face, but she didn’t smile. Instead she turned and rushed to a hollowed-out fallen tree at the edge of the clearing. After poking a stick into it to clean out any snakes that might be harboring there from the heat, she reached in and pulled out a backpack. Unbuckling it as she crossed the clearing, she produced a map as soon as she reached the truck. She spread it out on the sun-baked hood.
"Here," she said, pointing. "And we’re here."
Linc had been traveling with rebel guerrillas in recent weeks. He knew where the majority of fighting was concentrated. He looked down at the woman’s expectant face, his golden eyes as hard as stones.
"That’s troop-infested, solid jungle."
"I know."
"So why there?"
"Because it is so heavily patrolled. They use the least sophisticated radar equipment along that stretch of the border. The plane will have a better chance to get through without being detected."
"It’s a suicide mission."
"I know that, too."
Angrily, Linc turned his back on her. Damn! She would gaze up at him with that melting look, just as she had in the tavern last night. Only this time he could see her dark blue eyes clearly. That look had made him throw caution to the wind, say, "To hell with common sense," and follow her out of the bar. She might not be a whore, but she sure as hell knew her stuff. She knew how to make a man as hard as steel, but as malleable as putty.
He’d had a helluva lot to drink last night, but he hadn’t been so drunk that he didn’t remember kissing her, touching her, and hiring both immensely. She was a gutsy lady. He grudgingly admired her spunk. But it wasn’t her spunk that he wanted to have warm and wanting beneath him. It was her body. He wanted to be wrapped in those shapely limbs and long, silky hair.
He knew, even as he made up his mind, that he was going to pay dearly for making this ill-advised decision.
"Fifty thousand dollars."
After a moment of initial shock, Kerry said. "That’s your price?"
"If you can’t hack it, we’ve got no deal."
She set her chin firmly. "Agreed."
"Not so fast. Here are the ground rules. I’m boss, see? No arguing. No bickering. When I tell you to do something, you do it without asking for an explanation." He punctuated his words by stabbing the air in front of her nose with his index finger.
"I’ve lived in the jungle for almost a year," she said haughtily, wanting to swat that finger away.
"In a schoolhouse with a bunch of kids. That’s a little different from tramping through the jungle with them in tow. If we don’t get attacked, if II be a miracle. The only way I’ll even chance it is to do everything my way."
"All right."
"All right. Let’s get started. Three days isn’t much time to cover the territory between here and the border.
"As soon as I change we’ll pick up the children and gather supplies." She pulled a pair of khaki trousers, a blouse, socks and boots from the backpack she’d taken from the hollow tree.
"I see you thought of everything."
"Including water." She passed him a canteen. "Help yourself."
She stood there awkwardly, holding the change of clothes against her chest. "Would you excuse me, please, while I change?"
He lowered the canteen from his mouth. His lips were glistening with moisture. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. His gaze never wavered from her face.
The Devil's Own The Devil's Own - Sandra Brown The Devil