Jackson “Preach” Conroy leaned an elbow on the sticky tabletop, fighting to douse the flare of anger embedded in every cell of his body. He searched each face wreathed in the acrid fog of cigarette smoke. The place was the devil’s den. How many wives were home weeping? How many kids were going hungry?
Stop it, Conroy. Don’t go there. He scrubbed a hand across his mouth and blew out a breath.
He’d fought to get out of this mission, knowing too many ghosts would rear their spectral heads. But the director of the SeaMount Agency had refused to listen to any argument, and within twenty-four hours he had been on a flight headed for St. Beatrice, this troubled island country.
A cacophony of hoots and whistles swelled like a living thing in the dimly lit room. Whatever the sassy waitress said appealed to the club’s rough crowd. Teetering on ridiculously high heels, she tossed her bottle-blonde hair over one shoulder and sauntered to a nearby table, the short hem of her floral dress swishing with each step.
Jack couldn’t take his eyes off her.
His one and only reason for being in this bar.
He detested her line of work. That alone should put him off, but she intrigued him. He hadn’t expected that.
A small woman—just under five feet compared to his six-foot-three frame—she was a bit of a klutz. He hoped she didn’t have a strong attachment to the shoes. They’d have to go. Right after he pitched the shirt and sandals he wore. On this mission, dressing in costume meant looking like a stinking idiot.
She wobbled up to his table, her eyes on his tropical green mug still as full as when she’d set it down fifteen minutes ago. Drinking the contents would be a breach of his ironclad code. He was not his father.
“You’re not drinking.” Lucinda lifted a sweating pitcher in his direction.
The parrot-shaped handle of his mug pressed against his palm. “Taking my time.”
“Hot day.” She fanned her face and fluffed her hair giving Jack a glimpse of a heart-shaped mole on her temple. The distant pop of gunfire swung her gaze toward an open window. “That’s not good.” Her hazel eyes, tipped up over high cheekbones, came back to study him. “You on vacation?”
“Something like that.”
She frowned and shrugged. “The fighting will blow over. Always does.”
Wasn’t gonna happen. He’d stepped off the plane and had boots on the ground before he had all the intel he needed, but what little he knew indicated the political unrest had reached a boiling point and was about to blow with volcanic proportions. The impending civil war advanced the timeline of his mission, the focus of which stood before him preening with the hope of earning a good-sized tip.
The entrance door squeaked and an older gentleman walked in followed by a hulking brute who appeared to be his muscle.
“Esteban!” Lucinda’s lush lips widened in a welcoming smile. She teetered away.
Alarm slithered down Jack’s spine. He dumped his drink in the soil of a half-dead potted plant. The assurance that he knew all the players in the scenario he was orchestrating had taken a direct hit and gone down in flames. The man dressed in the tropical-weight white suit was a surprise.
Jack didn’t like surprises.
Lucinda hurried as fast as her heels allowed. She hadn’t seen Esteban in over a week. He was her one bright spot in this miserable job. She kissed his whiskery cheek, ignoring Rico, Esteban’s bodyguard, hovering in the background. Rico petrified her.
Esteban accepted her kiss as his due and took her hand in his. “Lucinda.” Censure shone in his pale gray eyes. “Manuel tells me you’ve been riding again.”
She glanced at the club’s owner, Manuel Mingau, as he approached to greet Esteban. Tattletale. “I have to run the bike every now and then.” Much older than her, Esteban expected her to act like a lady. In his world, ladies didn’t ride motorcycles.
“If it must be ridden, let Manuel ride it.”
She ground her teeth together. Manuel had a shed filled with bikes. He didn’t need hers, the toad. She wanted to swat the gloating grin off his wide mouth. She’d spent a pretty penny on her used bike. Finding one to fit her small frame hadn’t been easy. Hiding her free hand in the folds of her dress, she crossed her fingers and forced a smile. “Okay.”
He patted her shoulder and turned to Manuel. “There’s a shipment arriving this week.”
Lu stepped away from the table. They never wanted her around when they discussed business. I should stay just to annoy them. Stepping up to the bar, she handed her pitcher to Tito. “Slow afternoon.”
He nodded and smiled, his gold tooth glinting in the low light. “Everyone’s on the beach.”
Two months ago she would have been on the beach, too. Lifting the now full pitcher, she glanced toward the corner of the room. The tourist’s intense blue gaze caught and held her attention. A shiver raced along her spine.
Today marked his fourth visit to the club. His short black hair and ocean blue eyes were a mesmerizing combination. Dressed in a tropical print shirt, his watchfulness set him apart from the crowd. He wasn’t here to party with the locals or forget his real life by drowning in the island rum.
His mug was empty.
She rarely read a customer wrong but this man baffled her. You’re here to push the booze, Lu. Do your job. She moved between the mostly empty tables; they wouldn’t deposit a single cent in her pocket. Unfortunately, neither would some of the occupied tables where the money was poured into a glass.
“I’ll take more of that.” A meaty hand latched onto her wrist.
This Neanderthal was the worst of the regulars. “Hands off, Roberto.” Before he could tighten his grip, she yanked her arm away. Her foot twisted. The exhilaration of success got lost in a fight to regain her balance.
Beer sloshed over the rim of the pitcher. She dropped it and grabbed the closest chair. The pitcher landed on its side atop the tourist’s table, spilling a tsunami of cold beer straight into his lap. He shot up from his seat, a wet patch spreading across his shirt and dark khaki cargo pants.
Sprawled across a captain’s chair, Lu ignored the catcalls and unhelpful suggestions from the rowdies. The chair’s arm dug into her ribs. She tried to rise with grace—impossible to do in platform heels.
The tourist reached for her.
“I’m so sorry.” Her breath rasped loud in short gasps. Expecting his touch to be rough with anger, the hand gripping her elbow was surprisingly gentle. For a long moment she stared into his eyes, drowning in unfathomable depths as blue as the deepest water off the island coast.
He set her on her feet, holding her as though she were fragile. “You okay?”
His question reminded her to breathe. Sucking in air, a sharp twinge shot through her side. She nodded. “I’m sorry.”
His gaze shifted and sharpened. “Boss is coming this way.”
The sour taste of dread coated her tongue. This wasn’t her first spill. But it was the first one of such magnitude.
“Lucinda!” Manuel’s voice speared through her. “Clumsy vaca!”
She tried to shake off the tourist’s hand, but his grip tightened.
Manuel’s hand fell heavy on her shoulder. “You are bad for business but Esteban, he likes you. Go clean yourself.”
Biting her lip to hold back an angry retort, she glanced at the tourist in apology.
He wasn’t looking at her. The concerned gaze of only a moment ago had cooled dangerously and was trained on Manuel. “No woman deserves to be called a cow.”
“Ah, amigo. This is not the first acidente.”
The tourist’s blue eyes iced glacial.
Lu shivered. His interference would make the situation worse. “Sometimes I am less than graceful.”
He released her arm, never taking his eyes off Manuel.
She hobbled to the kitchen and tossed the cheap plastic pitcher into the sink. One shoe felt spongy. The heel had loosened when she twisted her foot. She braced her hand against the wall and pressed her fingers against the throbbing ankle. It didn’t hurt as bad as a sprain, but she’d strained it for sure. Her ribs were tender and her dress needed to be laundered. She had a spare outfit in her tote bag. Several accidents taught her the wisdom of having an extra on hand.
Lu straightened her shoulders, ignoring her co-workers’ baleful glances. Native to the island, not one of them offered her a word of solace. Her earlier attempts to make friends had been rejected, so she’d given up. She needed the job, not friends.
Leaving the kitchen, she limped along the hall and ducked into a room off to the right. A rabbit warren of narrow passages wound between cases of liquor stacked so high they’d crush a person if they toppled.
She shut the door and made a beeline for a small neon-pink carrier where two coal black eyes peered out in happy adoration. “Finny.” Unzipping it, she pulled out a pure white Maltese puppy.
Released from her prison and reunited with her mistress, the pup whined and writhed in ecstasy.
Cuddling the soft little scamp, Lu dodged the moist tongue darting out to give kisses. A gift from Esteban, Finula had wrapped her tiny self around Lu’s heart. She adjusted the pink collar set with clear sparkly gems.
“I need to change, sweetie.” Taking her purple tote off the wall hook, she slipped it onto her shoulder. “Then I’ll take you out back for a quick potty.”
“No you won’t.”
Lu spun around.
In the darkest corner, the tourist leaned against a stack of boxes.
A frisson of fear prickled across her shoulders. “What are you doing back here?”
“Looking for you.”
Her breath caught and she hugged Finny close. “I’m sorry I spilled beer on you.” She stepped back, unsteady on her broken shoe. He wasn’t wearing his bright shirt and appeared to merge with his surroundings. “I’ll pay to have your clothes cleaned.”
“You’re coming with me.”
“Yeah, right.” She backed another step toward the closed door. Keep him talking, Lu. “I suppose you think you’re God’s gift to women.”
His smile tipped up on one side. “I’m God’s gift to you.”
Another step back. “I don’t need God giving me gifts. But thanks, anyway.”
He shifted, no longer leaning against the boxes. “Everybody needs God’s gifts. Your gift is getting out of this vile place. You don’t belong here.”
“You sound like Deacon Beam. He likes to remind me I’m on the fast track to hell.” You’re babbling, Lu. Shut up. But she couldn’t stop talking any more than she could stop the tremors rippling through her body. “Well, duh! Like God would want me in heaven.”
“Your grandmother sent me.”
She froze in place. “Gran?”
A sharp knock shook the flimsy door. “Lucinda, hurry.”
Manuel! She dove for the door. A warm hand clamped over the bottom half of her face and stopped the scream filling her chest. Pulled back against a solid wall of muscle, she vibrated with shock.
Manuel hammered on the door. “Esteban is waiting.”
“Say, ‘give me another minute’ and nothing else or the dog dies.” His words whispered hot across her temple.
She whimpered beneath the strength of the hand controlling her.
“Lucinda?” The doorknob rattled. “Open up!”
Her gaze flew to his eyes, then down to his boot jammed against the bottom of the door. She inhaled through her nose. His hand smelled of soap and warm male. He must have sensed her acquiescence because his hand loosened.
“G-give me another minute.” She tried to keep the fear from her voice. If Manuel suspected something was amiss, he’d insist on investigating and Finny would die. “I-I’m changing.” She held her breath.
“Esteban is impatient.” Manuel pounded his fist against the door once more for good measure and left.
“Give me the dog.”
Hot tears spilled down Lu’s cheeks. “You said—”
“Now.” His hand went to his belt.
The pit of her stomach knotted rock hard. She should have seen this coming.
He yanked his dark T-shirt from his waistband and held out his hand. “Give it over.”
“Wha . . . what are you doing?”
Finny disappeared beneath his shirt before he tucked it back into his waistband.
“You’re stealing my dog?” Eyes on the wiggling bump beneath his shirt, she didn’t see the hand come up to cover her mouth. The weight of it dropped but sticky tape remained, sealing her lips.
Her hands went to her face only to be caught in his iron grip. In one swift motion he fastened a white plastic strip around her wrists. Her stomach rolled, and the bitter taste of bile burned the back of her throat. The man wasn’t taking only Finny. He was taking her, too.
She shook her head. “Don’t do this.” But the words, smothered by the tape, were nothing more than a tormented moan. Think, Lu! Large hands gripped her waist. She rocked on her broken shoe and then was airborne, landing upside down over his shoulder. Her nose bumped against his back. God, help. Like that would happen.
She beat at her assailant’s back and bottom with her bound hands. A strong arm clamped hard behind her knees. Her feet harmlessly paddled the air. He swung around fast. She grabbed his belt as an anchor, her tote bag dangling between her bound wrists. Desperate, Lu jammed her elbows into his back.
Jack jogged down the dingy hall, filled with the stink of booze and greasy food, toward the rear service exit. The firebrand draped over his shoulder growled and pummeled his back while inside his shirt a cold nose skated across his ribs. He bit back a smile. Weirdest job he’d ever been on.
He hadn’t wanted to frighten her, but with the escalation of street fighting and the entrance of the older man, he didn’t have time to talk some sense into her. He had to go with Plan B. Snatch and grab.
Beyond a rack of cleaning supplies, a thin slice of light outlined the backdoor. Tightening his grip on her, he opened it a crack and listened before easing through the door and into the alley. He had studied the back of the club as closely as he’d scrutinized the front. Behind him a shout rang through the thin walls of the building.
The owner of the club was on the hunt for his barmaid.
Jack’s gaze lingered on the three-sided shed filled with a fleet of motorcycles. Tempted by speed, the noise and flash would make him an easy target.
Hotfooting it along the alley, his burden bounced on his shoulder. Just short of the main street, he ducked into the recessed back entry of an aging hotel and slipped her from his shoulder. The hem of her dress hiked up her thigh. His pulse tripped over the expanse of pale skin webbed with delicate blue veins. He yanked the hem of the dress into place causing her to wobble on her heels.
He pushed her up against the brick wall. “Here’s what you’re gonna do. You will walk when I walk. You will run when I run. You will not fight me. You will not say a word. Am I clear?” Fear shadowed her eyes, and shame washed through him. Right now, he needed her cooperation at any cost.
Her eyes swooped to the bulge in his shirt that shifted from his right to his left and continued to move around his side. The tears leaking from her gold-flecked hazel eyes didn’t dampen the sparks of anger shooting his direction. She nodded.
A truck rumbled past, shaking the ground beneath their feet. The hum of traffic was punctured by the tat-tat of a firefight. Much as it would make taking her simpler, he couldn’t waltz down Main Street with her gagged and bound. The natives overlooked many things on this island, but kidnapping wasn’t one of them. He slipped his finger beneath the tape and peeled it off her trembling mouth.
She licked her lips, the chemical bite of the tape’s residue causing her to grimace. “May I have Finny?”
“No. The rat is my insurance.” He leaned down and pulled a knife from a boot sheath.
She went rigid, her unflinching gaze on the fixed blade. “Finny isn’t a rat.”
“Hold out your hands.”
She clamped them tight against her stomach. Her breath hissed between her teeth when the flat side of the blade grazed her skin.
With a flick of his wrist, Jack cut the flex cuff then sheathed his knife. Keeping one small hand in his, he checked his six then turned back. “I’m—” Crack! His head snapped to the side and pain exploded on his cheek. The copper taste of blood coated his tongue where his tooth sliced the inside of his cheek.
Calling himself every kind of fool, he snagged her clawing fingers before they took out his eye. He wrestled her around and pushed his forearm against the back of her neck, nailing her cheek to the wall. Using his body mass against such a tiny opponent was almost criminal. Her breath whistled in short distressed pants. Taking care not to squish the bundle of fur tickling his ribs and yapping, he leaned against her back. “We don’t have time for this. Your grandmother wants you out of here.”
Her gaze swung back over her shoulder trying to find him. He accommodated her by leaning around to look her in the eyes. “She’s worried about you.”
“Leave my grandmother out of this.”
“I can’t. She’s why I’m here.”
Beneath his arm, the muscles in her shoulders softened. She was listening. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but you’re coming with me. It’s up to you whether your dog lives or dies.” He knew he was being a real piece of work, but she’d awakened something deep inside him. He didn’t like the feeling, whatever it was.
He swung her around to face him, prepared to counter another attack. Pulling on his shirt, the puppy fell into his hand with a startled yip. He tossed aside the clothing in her tote and tucked the pup inside before slinging the long handles over his shoulder. A man purse. Determined to make the sacrifice and wear the thing, he clamped his elbow against the restless pup.
Her bottom lip trembled. Anger sizzled in the honey gold depths of her eyes, but she didn’t fight him when he pulled her from the entryway and headed toward the main road. He propelled her around the corner of the building and into the stream of pedestrians.
A shout echoed in the alley behind them between the buildings. Jack caught a glimpse of Esteban’s muscleman.
“How do you know my Gran?”
He ignored the question, concentrating instead on maneuvering her through the flow of foot traffic. She limped from her fall off those blasted high heels. Why she chose today to wear them was Murphy’s Law in play. The honk of a horn echoed between the stucco buildings. They dodged a bicycle weaving through the crowd.
“I asked, how do you know my grandmother?”
Keeping her hand wrapped in his, he pulled her close. “She called us.”
“Us?” She glanced at him. “Who are you?”
“Jack Conroy. Your grandmother contacted the agency.”
“SeaMount Agency. We rescue little girls like you.”
The tension in her escalated. He draped an arm over her shoulder and, under the guise of an infatuated lover, steered her into the cool shade of the storefront awnings. The tantalizing scent of strawberry shampoo had him leaning closer. Funny, he hadn’t taken her for the strawberry type. “Your grandmother wants you back in Ingersoll, Kansas.”
She jerked at the mention of her hometown.
Behind them a commotion broke out. Rebel soldiers jumped out of a pickup truck, tricked out with a machine gun mounted in the bed, and forced the occupants of a civilian transport into the street. The M-15s the rebels waved around looked new, as did the technical they drove. The door displayed a blue square bisected by a green line, the insignia of the Island Voice of Reform Party.
“Hustle it, Lulabelle.” The street crowd had thinned. The short hairs on the back of Jack’s neck jumped to attention. The locals were ducking for cover. The worst was coming on fast. Snugged close to his side, she struggled to keep up. The heels had to go. He guided her into a protected alcove. “Give me your foot.”
Bracing her hand against a window showcasing gaudy sequined shirts, she touched her tongue to dry lips. “Why?”
He reached down and pulled her shoe off. With one quick snap of his wrist, the heel broke off.
“You broke my shoe.” She spoke as though she didn’t quite believe what she’d witnessed.
“You can’t walk in these shoes, much less run.” He held up what was left of the shoe and frowned. A steel shank ran through the sole, shaping the arch. Held horizontal, the toe pointed up as though it belonged to an elf.
She stared at the mutilated footwear and repeated herself. “You broke my shoe.”
“The heel was already loose. I finished the job.” He glanced at her other foot. If he made a matched pair, she still wouldn’t be able to walk in the things.
Close by a ruckus flared in the street and gunfire rattled.
He dropped the shoe. “Get out of the other one. You’re going to have to hoof it barefoot.”
Her nose wrinkled in disgust. “The street is hot and dirty.”
“I can carry you.”
The threat had her shucking her other shoe, mutiny in each jerky move.
He pulled her from the alcove. She tried to shrug his arm from her shoulders, but he tugged her closer. “Don’t fight me, Lulabelle.” She stumbled. He tightened his hold to keep her upright, surprised how right she felt snugged up close beneath his shoulder. He’d been unaware of the empty spot she filled.
“The bottoms of my feet are blistering.” She hopped and skipped a step.
Up ahead a shop owner hurried to pull his wares off the sidewalk.
Jack steered her toward a tub piled high with sandals. “Find what you need. Be quick about it.”
A burst of gunfire, closer than before, echoed down the alley across the street. The shopkeeper’s frightened eyes appeared to take up half of his dark face. He hesitated, wanting to refuse them service. Jack pulled out a bill and forced it into his hand.
Glancing at the money, he stuffed it into his pocket and began pulling sandals from the heap and dropping them on the pavement.
She slipped her foot into one and wiggled her toes.
“Take that one.” Pulling out another sandal that looked the same size, Jack dropped it beside her other foot. “Hurry.”
“They don’t match!”
The V of fabric across the top of her right foot was a riot of yellow flowers. Solid red fabric cut across the top of the left.
“They’ll do.” Thanking the man, he tugged her to his side and took off, forcing her to run to keep up with his long stride.
An ominous whistling streaked overhead.
Jack slammed her against the wall, shielding her with his body. An explosion split the air. The ground shook beneath his boots.
“Wh-what was that?” Her heart played a rapid tattoo against his chest. Her hair tickled his neck.
“The beginning of civil war.” Between them, in the tote, the puppy squirmed and whined.
“Finny?” She pushed at his chest. “You’re squishing her.”
He sucked in his breath and shifted, pressing against her as another grenade came smoking in, closer this time. She braced against him for the pounding explosion that choked the air with thick dust. Dirt and tiny bits of debris peppered his neck and back. He pulled her away from the wall. Across the street, a pink two-story building had a smoking hole in the second floor. “Run.”
The wide street they followed sloped to the waterfront of a large bay, stretching turquoise blue to the horizon. Multi-million dollar yachts bobbed at anchor in the gently rolling water. Where land ended, the street morphed into a wide pier reaching out into the bay.
Jack tightened his grip on her hand and plunged into the panicked crowd leaving the pier and the entertainment they’d been enjoying. Nothing like a few grenades raining down to break up a party.
“Ow!” Lu raised her arm to ward off the stampede. “We’re going the wrong direction.” She yelled to be heard above the din.
Dreadlocked musicians scrambled to pack their steel drums. Food vendors dropped the awnings on their shacks and dashed for cover. Ocean breezes whipped through abandoned racks of T-shirts and sundresses. Transports and party boats moored along the edge of the pier were alive with frantic sailors untying vessels, desperate to get underway.
“Keep moving.” Shielding her and the pup, Jack fought against the crowd. The tat-tat of gunfire sent another wave of terror through the throng. He clutched her to his side, afraid she’d be separated from him. “Move faster, Lulabelle.” He pushed her toward the end of the pier and the transport waiting there.
“Why are they bombing us?”
Not bombs, but now wasn’t the time to explain the finer points of munitions. “Nothing personal. Just war.” He veered to the edge of the wooden pier where the crowd grew thinner, but more obstacles were underfoot. Boat motors revved to life and men shouted to be heard.
Lu tripped on a coil of rope.
Hooking an arm around her waist, he hauled her upright then swept her into his arms. She squeaked in surprise but didn’t fight him. Instead she wrapped her arms around his neck and hung on. The tote rested on her tummy, and he could feel the pup scrambling to right itself.
He dodged a stack of crates and a small ice chest. Another hundred feet. Whit waited with a modified service boat that looked like all the others traveling between the pier and the yachts.
Overhead two high-pitched whistles, one right after the other, sliced through the air.
Jack dove to the side, landing against a bright yellow shack advertising fishing excursions.
An ear-shattering BOOM followed a blinding flash. With a screeching roar, the pier exploded around them. Wood disintegrated beneath his boots and he was falling. The ringing in his ears muffled Lucinda’s scream. Holding her tight, he prayed this wasn’t their last minute on earth.