He hated jungles. Yet here he was, stuck in another one. Central America this time. Why couldn’t he be sent to the Arctic or Siberia? What drew the bad guys to the heat and humidity? Or did the atmosphere make them the bad guys in the first place?
He wiped sweat from his eyes with a shrug of his shoulder. Almost midnight and hotter than midday back home in Texas.
He and his team of Rangers joined a group of DEA agents crouched on a hillside, surveilling a sprawling home in a manmade clearing in the middle of the jungle, a compound as out of the way as Santiago Saldana could make it.
Saldana was the baddest of the bad when it came to drug kingpins. He’d kidnapped, tortured and killed DEA agents, and used the scum-of-the-earth MS-13 gang to get his product over the border. A DEA agent had infiltrated Saldana’s inner circle, but hadn’t been heard from in weeks, so here they were.
Problem was, they might be too late. They hadn’t been able to confirm Saldana’s presence in the compound. After three days, there was no sight of him, or the American infiltrator who had been their source of information.
So they waited. In the heat. With the bugs. And the rain.
“Showtime,” Sergeant Julian Cervantes murmured from Alex’s left, his binoculars trained on the compound.
A light flickered on in the house below and a goddess stepped into the bathroom, a goddess with dark wavy hair, eyes that tilted up in the corners like a cat’s, and creamy skin that glowed in the soft light. Alex didn’t have to raise his own binoculars to know—they’d managed to be on this side of the compound the past two nights at this time. The side on the hill, with the view of the bathroom which held the luxurious large tub and glassed-in shower.
The goddess wore a silky white robe tonight and flipped back the sleeves as she reached over to turn on the water. She poured in a pink glob of some stuff she’d had sitting on the side of the tub, no doubt sweet smelling, and it foamed under the stream of water. Then she twisted her shoulder-length hair up and pinned it with a clip, exposing a long, graceful neck.
Yeah, he was watching through his binoculars now. This job had damn few perks and she was just about the best he’d seen during his twelve years in.
Then facing the window—she had to think she was alone, with this damn jungle all around—she let the robe slide down her arms in a slow, sensuous movement.
Beside him, Julian uttered what sounded like a prayer.
She was a fantasy woman, with full, round dark-tipped breasts, her nipples erect from the friction of the silk. Her skin was flawless. He could almost feel the smoothness of it under his rough palm, and he folded his fingers against the sensation. The curls at the apex of her thighs were dark and neat.
She stepped into the tub—hell, even her feet were graceful—and slipped beneath the bubbles.
This time Julian swore.
She lathered up some fluffy cloth and smoothed it over her arm, leaving tiny bubbles in its wake.
The sight of a woman indulging in a bubble bath in the middle of the jungle was so incongruous. She poured soap on the thick cloth, lifted her legs from the bubbles to smooth it on, such feminine actions. So out of place in his world.
Then her hands disappeared under the water. For a while.
She closed her eyes, scooted lower and her lips parted.
“Jesus,” Alex breathed.
“I hate bubbles,” Julian said in a choked voice.
Alex shouldn’t be watching. He should tear his gaze away as she tilted her head back, offering her throat to her invisible lover. Who was she imagining over her, touching her? Saldana? The thought almost gave him the strength to turn away before she reached out of the tub and picked up a bright pink object.
He recognized it from last night, when there had been no bubbles, only the woman, standing with her robe parted, one leg on the edge of the tub and--
“Is that her—?” Julian didn’t say the word. “Are those things waterproof?”
She arched her back, revealing soapy breasts. Alex imagined his own touch smoothing away the bubbles to make way for his mouth. Her body undulated with pleasure, sending water and bubbles over the side of the tub.
He jerked his gaze away with a curse. He had no business watching this woman, Saldana’s lover, not when he had sweet Rebecca waiting for him back home.
Rebecca, who he’d never seen naked, never touched, never more than kissed. She wasn’t ready for a physical relationship after her bastard of a husband had taken off on her, and Alex treasured her too much to push for it. Rebecca Kelso was his ideal, not the goddess in the tub. Rebecca was the kind of woman who would make him sane again after the things he’d seen and done. She would give him balance.
He reached over and smacked Julian’s arm. The younger man turned with glazed eyes and inclined his head. The goddess was rising from the tub now, soap bubbles sliding down her flushed body, her movements languid with the aftereffects of her ministrations. The cat eyes were heavy lidded, the look of a satisfied woman.
Alex hadn’t seen that look in a long time.
“Let’s get out of here,” he mouthed to Julian.
“Who is she, do you suppose?” Julian whispered as they slipped through the foliage on their way back to the rudimentary camp. “Saldana’s girlfriend? We don’t have any intel on a girlfriend.”
“Who cares?” Alex said. “She has to know what kind of person he is, and she doesn’t care. If that’s what floats her boat, she ain’t worth fantasizing about.”
“Were you not watching the same thing I was? Damn, have you ever seen a woman do that? I’ve never seen a woman do that.”
Alex didn’t think Julian expected an answer. Thank God. “She’s given up her soul for the lifestyle he offers her.”
Julian frowned. “Way out here? Not a lot of women would go for that. The question is, why would he leave a woman like that out here alone so long? Something’s wrong with that picture. You don’t think he’s already moved to the States?”
Alex shook his head. He didn’t know. He had to hope they weren’t too late. “Maybe there’s a leak. The agent who gave us the intel on Saldana also could have given him the heads-up that we were coming. Maybe he tortured it out of him. No matter how, Saldana isn’t here. We’re wasting time and resources waiting for him to come back.”
He pulled away from Julian, as they entered the camp, already reaching in his rucksack for the spiral he kept there. When the younger man went to make a report to Keith Vasquez, the agent in charge, Alex dropped against a tree and flipped open the battered spiral to write to Rebecca.
But he couldn’t get his mind off the raven-haired goddess. He had to do something.
“We’re wasting time.” Alex confronted Vasquez when he couldn’t calm down enough to finish his letter to Rebecca. They weren’t going to complete the mission by waiting Saldana out. The man was long gone. “Saldana isn’t coming back. He’s not stupid enough to just drive past us to get home. We missed him. Time to regroup.”
“Master Sergeant,” Vasquez said coolly, keeping his voice low to avoid detection. “He left something valuable behind.”
“What would that be?”
“The woman. Isabella Canales. She’s an American citizen.”
“Saldana’s whore,” Alex spat.
Even Vasquez drew back. “You know her?”
“We saw her on surveillance. You think she’s worth his freedom? More importantly, does he?”
“Hell yeah,” Julian murmured.
Alex shot him a look. “You don’t get it. Women like that are a dime a dozen. It’s not like he loves her for her mind.”
“Maybe not. But she is an American citizen,” Vasquez said.
“Who shares her bed with the scum of the earth.”
Vasquez tightened his jaw. “One more day. We haven’t seen Agent Cortez yet.”
They wouldn’t. If Saldana was gone, he wouldn’t have left his associates behind. If he’d knocked the agent off as a spy, well, they’d likely stumble over his body in the jungle. But this wasn’t Alex’s call. Vasquez made it clear his opinion didn’t count.
“Send me back down to watch, then. Let’s make the most of these twenty-four hours.”
“I already have Lee and Jordan out there.”
“Another man can give you another angle.”
“I need you fresh.”
Alex looked at him pityingly. “I’m a Ranger. I do what needs to be done.” He turned to find Julian.
“You know she’s asleep, right?” Alex asked Julian a few moments later as they hiked the short distance to the compound.
“Yeah, but if you think I’m going to be the only Ranger snoozing while the rest of you are on the mission, you got another think coming.”
“Did it sound to you like Vasquez wants to go in for the girl?”
“That is what it sounded like.”
“He better have damn good information on the inside of that place. I do not want to be booby-trapped in the jungle.”
They moved clockwise around the perimeter, west of where they had been at their earlier post. A spider the size of a tennis ball dropped on Alex’s arm, and even after he flicked it away, he could feel the hairy legs on his skin.
He hated the jungle.
“What the hell is that?” Julian muttered, directing Alex’s attention to a corner of the compound and the slight figure emerging from it.
“A kid?” Alex theorized. “Out for an adventure?”
“In the jungle?” Julian scoffed. “At night?”
“They aren’t always smart.” Damned if he didn’t know that from experience.
“This one is.” Julian motioned to the way the figure glanced over his shoulder. “Doesn’t want to get caught.”
“Running away from a parent.”
“You see anyone besides the girl and the guards in there since we’ve been watching?”
“Christ.” Alex focused his binoculars on the kid, only it wasn’t a kid. Dark hair hidden under a dark cap, pulled back into a ponytail that curled in at the nape of a slim, graceful neck. When she turned to look behind her, he saw the feminine tilt of her nose. “What the hell is she doing?”
“Who is it?”
Alex lowered his binoculars and started moving down the hill. “The goddess.”
“Who?” Julian asked from behind him. “Where are you going?”
“Vasquez says she’s the only thing Saldana cares about, the only thing that will draw him out. We need to get her.”
Isabella Canales’s heart pounded. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. How would she find the American soldiers in the jungle at night? Clearly they didn’t want anyone to know they were here. If that was the case, how would she, with no training and no real jungle experience, find them?
When Eric Reyes had told her soldiers were on their way to take Santiago into custody, she’d hatched her plan. But Santiago had seen the American talking to her, alone, secretively, and he’d gone into a rage. She didn’t want to remember what he’d done to the man.
She didn’t want to think about what Santiago had done to her. So she’d planned her escape.
She’d staged her show every night at midnight, luring the guards into an unofficial schedule. They would stop outside her window at that time, then they’d move on, leaving her a window of time to get out of the compound unseen. No one would miss her till the morning.
If Santiago even dreamed she was thinking about escaping, her life would be so much worse. She couldn’t afford for him to catch her. She couldn’t be his prisoner anymore.
Her stolen boots rubbed with every step despite three pair of socks, and the rough fabric chafed her skin after years of wearing only the finest fabrics. She hoped the soldiers had transportation, and that it wasn’t far. She hoped she could charm them into taking her home. She didn’t want to play her trump card yet.
A stealthy rustling to her left froze her in her tracks. Jaguars were nocturnal, right? But surely they’d be intimidated by her size.
If she were a hundred pounds heavier.
Too late, she realized the jungle had gone silent, as if the creatures in the trees froze as well, hoping the predator would ignore their existence.
Great. She was out in the jungle, in danger of either being discovered by Santiago’s guards or being eaten.
Then a face emerged from the brush, only it wasn’t the face she was expecting. It was…green and black streaked, and a moment passed before her terror-stricken brain processed it as human, beneath a helmet wound with vines.
Her relief was short lived, because the soldier had an automatic weapon pointed at her chest.
“Isabella Canales?” His American accent skipped over the nuances of her Spanish name.
“Yes?” Her voice was shaky.
“Toss your pack over there and put your hands in the air.”
Goddamn. Up close she was even more stunning, a tiny little thing, the kind of woman a man wanted to care for, protect. The kind who, while he was watching her back, stabbed a knife in his.
“You stay there while Cervantes goes through your pack, then he’s going to pat you down.” He wished he didn’t have to hold a gun on her so he could do it himself. To make sure she was safe before he brought her back into camp. That was why.
His grip tightened. Yeah, right.
He glanced over to see Julian unzip her pack and swear.
Alarm raced through Alex, and he weighed possibilities and solutions. Was she armed? Wired? He scanned the area for cover. “What?”
“It glows in the dark.” Julian gingerly lifted a familiar pink object from the bag with two fingers.
“Christ.” Alex turned back to the goddess. “You’re going out into the jungle to get off? Putting on a show in front of a window wasn’t enough?”
She didn’t answer, every line in her body tight as Julian dug through her things. Keeping one eye on her, Alex noticed Julian paw past a colorful piece of fabric, saw the flash of high heels. Where the hell did this woman think she was going?
“Clean,” Julian pronounced after another minute. “You want me to search her?”
“I’ll do it.” Instead of shouldering his gun, he passed it to Julian, never taking his gaze off her.
He reached to remove her hat, forking his fingers through her hair, dragging the rubber band free, ignoring the silky strands catching on his rough fingers and the flowery scent rising as he dragged his fingers along her scalp. She looked up at him, eyes large and wary, her gaze not leaving him as he moved his touch down her slender back and into the waistband of her cargo pants, skimming his palms over silky panties. The pants were loose enough that he could reach her thighs, but that would mean bringing her body even closer to his. Already he could smell her on his clothes, no doubt the scent from that pink stuff she’d poured in the tub.
Stepping back, he snatched his hands out of her pants. The expression in her eyes was daring. A thrill of admiration ran through him.
He squashed it like the spider.
He reached under her tank top, over her smooth flat stomach, under the underwire of her bra, his fingertips brushing the plump undersides of her breasts.
Then hard. Her nipples pebbled at his touch and he tried to quell the lust that rose up. He didn’t linger, but searched under her bra, beneath her arms.
Still she looked at him with those dark eyes.
Then he slid his hands down inside the front of her pants, kicking her feet apart.
The flesh of her belly jumped under his palm, but other than that she didn’t move when he reached down the front of her panties, over those neat dark curls that he could see in his memory. He probed her heat briefly, businesslike, ignoring the tightening in his groin, then removed his touch to pat down her thighs.
“Take off your boots.”
“May I sit?” A thread of fury underlay her voice.
“Be my guest.”
She dropped to the ground, untied one boot and shoved it at him. He inspected it, marveling at the large size, then dropped it to the ground beside her and took her other boot.
“What exactly did you think I’d be hiding?” she asked as she retied her boots and got to her feet.
Her voice was too loud, so he hushed her, leaned close to answer. “I’ve seen women stick some nasty things in some nasty places to kill soldiers.”
“You think I’m coming to attack you?” She glared, and her words whipped out. “I’m coming to you for help.”
He eased back, the scent of her overwhelming the scent of the jungle and his own stink. “We’re to believe you because you tell us? You’re not exactly trustworthy.”
He inclined his head toward the compound. “The company you keep.” He motioned her to walk ahead of him back to camp. What the hell was she doing out here in the first place? He squelched his curiosity. He was the muscle, not the detective. He’d let Vasquez take care of it. The more distance he kept from Isabella Canales, the better.
But he could still smell her on his hands.
This was a bad idea. Isabella’s skin hadn’t stopped crawling since the silent soldier had stopped touching her. She was a prisoner, a suspect. She hadn’t foreseen this, the disdain, the suspicion. The near-hatred.
The man the soldiers took her to introduced himself as Vasquez and looked down at her like he had found some prize. Her whole body tightened so much she thought her muscles would snap.
“Where is Saldana?” Vasquez asked, his voice smooth.
Isabella didn’t fall for the attempt at charm. “You think he’d tell me?”
Vasquez lifted an eyebrow. “You’re his lover, aren’t you?”
She felt herself flush. The young Hispanic soldier who had gone through her pack studied her, and the others didn’t hide their smirks. Only the silent one, the one who had searched her, had no expression. But he watched her.
“He left when he heard you were coming.”
“Where did he hear it?”
She swallowed her fear. If they hated her this much now, how would they feel about her if they knew an American had been tortured and killed in the compound and she had been the reason? “I don’t know.”
She recognized the tone. Santiago used it often enough to intimidate her. “Why would I lie to you? I need your help.”
Vasquez drew back a little. “You need our help?”
She didn’t look away, though she wanted to. God, she hated how he was looking down his nose at her. “I want to go home.”
“Saldana wouldn’t take you?”
She had to turn her head then. “I served him better here. And I didn’t have money to leave on my own. You’re my only chance.”
“You’re saying you’re his prisoner.” The silent soldier spoke at last, and all the contempt she’d gotten from Vasquez was nothing compared to the tone of his deep voice.
“I haven’t been allowed to leave the compound in four years.”
“In my experience, hostages don’t get silk robes and vibrators.”
She kept her head turned away. Of course he’d assume she was lying, but she was still humiliated by the search. “Those things were for his pleasure, not mine.”
“Not from what I saw tonight.”
She whipped around on him then, needing to release the tension that threatened to shatter her. “You have no right to accuse me. You don’t know what I’ve endured.”
“I know drug dealers. I know what whores endure.” He pushed away from the tree at last, looking down at her with hate in his dark eyes. A contempt even Santiago didn’t show.
“Shepard, that’s enough.” Vasquez’s voice was calm but firm, and the soldier stepped back.
Shepard. That was the name of the man who’d touched her so roughly. He straightened at the order but didn’t look away. So she didn’t either.
“If you won’t tell us where Saldana has gone, we use you as bait,” Vasquez said, drawing her attention.
That forced a laugh from her. “You overestimate my value. If I was so valuable, do you think he would have left me here?”
Vasquez moved closer. “I don’t believe I do. I know Saldana—I know he doesn’t tolerate having something he owns being taken from him.”
So, in four years, she had made no gains. She was nothing more than a pawn. Her safety, her happiness was important to no one, and the only person who loved her was thousands of miles away.
She had to get to him.
These men, the three agents and four soldiers, planned on using her. She would use them in return. She just couldn’t let them know.
Surrounded by DEA agents in a Humvee, heading back home, and still Isabella didn’t feel safe. Would she ever feel safe again? She would spend the rest of her life waiting for Santiago to catch up to her. What Vasquez had said about him was right. He didn’t like things taken from him, and she was his property. If she didn’t get back to the States before he found out she was missing, he knew just how to hurt her most. She hadn’t thought that part through.
Maybe this wasn’t the best plan, but it was the only one she had.
At least the silent soldier, Shepard, was in the other vehicle. She was operating on the last reserves of the courage that had brought her out of the compound, and didn’t need his constant judgment.
The ground shook and the men in the front seat swore. There was a rattling, and the man beside her grabbed the back of her head and shoved her down behind the seat onto his lap. She tensed instinctively. This had been a risk, but here? Now?
“Don’t fight me.”
What did he mean? Did he think she would do what he wanted here?
“They’re shooting at—” He grunted, but as soon as she heard the word shooting, she was down. The rattling sound was louder, almost constant, sometimes in harmony. God, how many were shooting at them?
The vehicle lurched forward, the front end dropping at an angle, flinging Isabella against the back of the front seat and pushing the other man on top of her.
The shouting in the front seat had stopped, and the man on her made no effort to get off of her, his dead weight pushing her to the floor, bending her waist at a painful angle, something wet soaking into the back of her shirt.
Dead weight. Wet and warm, a coppery scent of…
She gagged, then forced the thought away and gathered her strength to push out from underneath him. He must weigh over two hundred pounds. She couldn’t get enough leverage with her legs to lift him off her, so she had to squirm toward the door sliding out from underneath him.
She reached for the door and the metal handle was hot. She snatched her hand back. God, the car was on fire. She was going to die here, burn alive. Would she never get home, never see—?
She turned to the other door, saw a hand reaching in and followed the arm to the dark eyes of Shepard.
“Come on,” he said, sharper this time.
“I can’t. He’s—” The weight of the man still pinned her to the seat. But the other door was beneath her. “Can you open this door?”
The heat was unbearable through her pants, and Shepard withdrew his arm, probably figuring she wasn’t worth saving. She didn’t want to burn to death. She shoved harder against the dead man on her back, and suddenly the weight was gone, she was free, and Shepard was stretching toward her again.
She reached for him, and the truck lurched forward, putting another foot between her hand and his. It felt like she was standing on the door she’d been trying to escape from. Another lurch, another few inches. She screamed his name and saw him throw himself forward, his fingertips brushing hers.
“You have…to climb…on him,” he grunted, every word an effort.
Oh God. Climb on a dead man to lever herself out. Could she do it?
“Now. The truck’s about to go.”
Go where? She wanted to ask, but the strained expression on his face told her now wasn’t the time for questions. She put one booted foot on the man lying against the door, then the other, sinking into the soft tissue. Heaven forgive her.
He grasped her wrists firmly, and when she looked up into his eyes, she saw the first hint of approval.
But when he started to lift her—she could see the strain in his face, his arms—she remembered. She couldn’t leave her pack behind, not after what she’d risked to get out. She pulled one hand free and twisted to look for it, found it wedged between the dead man and the floorboard.
She pulled her other arm free and bent to tug it loose.
Above her, Shepard swore a string. “What are you doing? Do you want to die? The truck is going over.”
She tugged it by the straps and the truck lurched, along with her heart. Another tug and it was free. She looped it over her arm and turned back to see Shepard still waiting, reaching, and she lifted her arms to him.
He pulled both wrists, making her arms ache as the slender bones held the weight of her body. He slid one hand down to her elbow, then the other to her shoulder as her feet scrabbled for purchase first on the seat, finding a place on the back of the front seat, pushing her way toward him. The truck shifted. Over the sound of her pounding heart, she heard the groan of metal, the rattle of more gunfire, which had grown louder now, closer.
Finally Shepard had her, his arms hooked under both shoulders, her face pressed to his sweaty, stubbled throat as he lifted, as the truck fell away in a screech of metal and she tumbled onto Shepard’s chest.
She couldn’t even catch her breath because he was yanking her to her feet and shoving her—his hand on her ass and back, keeping her bent over as she moved—shoving her toward the sound of the gunfire, the intermittent muzzle flashes. She hesitated, turned to protest, and he tackled her, sending her face first down a muddy incline with a mouthful of vegetation. He skidded beside her on his back, gun cradled to his chest. When she turned to give him a dirty look, she saw that the shooting was coming from the other soldiers, providing cover.
So Shepard could save her butt.
She opened her mouth to say thank you and spit out some leaves.
Shepard turned to her, his eyes hard with a layer of desperation sheening them. “Put your arms around me.”
“What?” She fought to focus, still shaking.
“We’ve got to go down there.” He pointed.
She turned. In the moonlight, she could see that a few feet away, the ground dropped off. A cliff.
Shepard was pulling her toward it. She dug her heels in and clutched her pack to her with both arms.
“Are you crazy?” she shouted over the continuing sound of gunfire, both from their enemies and from the other soldiers.
He glared, jaw set, lips tight. “If you don’t we are going to die. I don’t think you can make it down on your own. Put your arms around me.”
She couldn’t. She couldn’t even look down.
Shepard stuck his face in hers. “Would you rather go back with him?”
That riveted her. She slipped the knapsack against her chest and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He pulled her against him, harder than she expected, knocking her breath out.
“Don’t let go,” he said, his muscles bunching so she could feel the tension running through his body as he stepped back, and the world dropped out from beneath her.
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