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She shouldn't have agreed to the mission.
Isabelle Rush hung on to the rock ledge with the tip of her fingers, dangling over a 300-foot drop to the rocks below. A tangy scent from some small fern she'd inadvertently crushed in the last handhold tickled her nose. Would she fall if she sneezed?
She was secured with knots and ropes she didn't understand and didn't trust, petrified of slipping. The current of air that moved above the tree line seemed to pick up speed, the odd gusts pushing against her.
Please, don't let there be a serious wind. "A few more yards and we can stop to rest," Rafe said from somewhere above her, barely breathing heavily.
She, on the other hand, was gasping for oxygen in the thin, high-altitude air, sweat running down her back from exertion.
She should have stayed in Miami.
He was the absolute worst man for her to be teamed up with. Of course she couldn't refuse, not when a client's life hung in the balance.
But, at the very least, when Rafe had said "shortcut" she should have run screaming into the night — in the opposite direction. What was it with men and their shortcuts? Like chasing murderous, kidnapping drug lords wasn't enough excitement? They had to add getting lost in the Andes Mountains to the mix?
"This will save us a full extra day," he said as he tightened the rope.
She hoped he was right and that her instincts, which screamed lost and on the brink of disaster, were sounding a false alarm. Speed was their only hope for finding Sonya Botero alive.
Isabelle clenched her muscles, having a foothold for one boot only and too much of a gap between the next indentation to push or pull herself up. She was five foot four. She could not stretch over the same distance as Rafe could.
Night was closing in on them — not dark yet, but the shadows were becoming long, which made judging distances harder. She had to do something before visibility became worse and her limbs grew even more exhausted. One... Two... She heaved her body upward, looking at the chunk of rock she was aiming for, shutting out the drop below. She grabbed on, and in that moment of truth that decided whether she would hold her grip or fall, a strong hand clamped around her wrist and held her steady.
"Easy now," Rafe said. "Almost there."
She allowed him to pull her up, only grunting in response although she had plenty to say. She was saving her breath for the climb. Rafe, having been born in Ladera, seemed used to the mountains that made up most of the country.
He helped her up to a ledge that was about six feet by four feet, small patches of moss growing in the scant dirt the winds had blown up there. The rock wall continued above it for another hundred feet at least, just as sheer as the section they'd already conquered.
"Nice climb." A sense of relief was evident in his smile, the fact that he was immensely enjoying himself visible in his eyes — the color of cocoa powder the instant it melts into chocolate. "Piece of cake, didn't I tell you?" His voice was rich with the flavor of South America, spiced with the slightest accent.
"Mmm." She gulped the thin air. When he'd pulled her up she'd landed on her knees. She sat back onto her heels now and shrugged off her backpack, blew on her fingertips, which were raw and bruised from the sharp rocks they'd had to conquer.
"How is this better than taking a car up the road?" she asked, once she thought she could speak without gasping.
"Faster," he said over his shoulder as he unhooked their ropes systematically. "I'm glad we picked the Maxim ropes — excellent hand, 48-sheath yarn, good twist level." He was gathering up everything in careful coils. "Fine abrasion resistance, too. See this? Not a worn spot."
Was that supposed to make sense? "So how come you've never mentioned anything about this climbing hobby of yours?"
He shrugged and tucked the equipment against the inside edge of the shelter. "Never came up, I guess."
She didn't mean to voice the thought that popped into her head, but it came out just the same. "We've worked together for three years and I barely know anything about you."
Part of that was his own need for privacy, she supposed, and part that she had, on purpose, kept out of his way, not liking the physical attraction that drew her to a colleague, an infamous playboy at that. A brief and steamy relationship that would no doubt end in pain and embarrassment was not among her carefully crafted life goals.
He was unrolling his sleeping bag, saying something about the time they would save by climbing.
"Faster is not always better," she snapped. Not if one of them got injured or fell.
"No, not in everything."
When he looked at her like that, his full attention like a cocoon around her, his brown eyes fixed on her face, it made her want to squirm like some school-girl. She gathered her self-control and kept her poise as he went on.
"The road is probably watched. It's not a bad climb, honestly. Just seems like it because it's your first. We have good equipment. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
"Last I checked, we were here as teammates," she said, testy that he made it sound as if he was babysitting her.
"Of course. And I hope you are not going to let anything happen to me." His sensuous lips stretched into a smile, his even white teeth a contrast to his olive-colored skin. "Compadres. Buddies."
That'll happen. Partners, yes. Buddies, highly unlikely. She wasn't optimistic enough to shoot for friendship. She wasn't sure she could handle it, didn't want to spend that much time with him outside the job. The forced proximity of the mission was plenty enough to drive her crazy.
None of that was his fault, though, to be fair. "Sorry," she said. "I'm just tired. It's been a nerve-racking day."
"Are you hurt anywhere?" he asked as he came closer.
She pulled her hands to her lap, but he caught the gesture and reached for them, took one in each of his and flipped them palm up.
His face turned grim as he swore softly under his breath in Spanish. He let her left hand go and reached for his backpack to extract a small tube of ointment from one of the side packets. "Why didn't you say something? We could have taken more breaks."
"Call me crazy, but I don't consider dangling on a rope over the abyss a break. I'd just as soon get the climb over with as fast as possible." She took a breath then held it as he squeezed some of the clear gel onto his fingertip and rubbed it gently over the pad of her thumb.
"Okay?" He glanced up, into her eyes, with concern. She cleared her throat. "Good. Feels cool."
"You should be fine by morning." He moved on to the next finger, then the next.
When he was done, he took her hands one more time and pressed a warm kiss into each palm, sending some heat into her face that she hoped he couldn't see in the twilight.
"How are your arms and legs?" He put away the gel. "A good muscle rub and everything could be as good as new by the time we get going again."
"No. Thanks," she said and fished out a jar of face cream from the bottom of her pack, something one of her friends was developing in a quest to build a successful cosmetics business.
Isabelle got free samples of everything, partially due to their friendship and partially, she suspected, because Sylvia was hoping to feature her products, for future brides, at Weddings Your Way. She dabbed the smooth, rich cream onto her wind-dried face with a knuckle and spread it around with the back of her hand, not wanting to mess up whatever potion Rafe had rubbed over her fingertips.
The scent of oranges soothed her. Sylvia used various essential oils in most everything she made.
Rafe sniffed the air appreciatively. "So we snuggle up for the night?" He flashed a sly grin and made himself comfortable.
"No. Again. But nice try," she said while thinking a snuggle wouldn't be that bad, for body heat if nothing else. August was a winter month in Ladera, a country in the Southern hemisphere. The weather wasn't bad during the day but dipped into the forties at night. At least Laderan winters were generally dry, so they didn't have to worry about being cold and wet.
The breeze ruffled his dark hair, putting the slight curls into disarray. "Men have fragile egos, you know," he said, and his expression turned serious. "Too much rejection can be psychologically damaging. Emotional trauma and that kind of stuff."
She drew up an eyebrow. "I don't think you see enough rejection for that."
He was unfairly good looking, something like she pictured Antonio Banderas would look like if he joined a gym today and kept going religiously. He had an easy smile, sexy, that matched his laid-back manner, and intense eyes that were sharp with intelligence. He was infinitely charming and, at the same time, commanded respect with ease.
And she was a fool for getting a secret thrill out of bantering with him like this, although she was smart enough never to take his advances seriously — nor did she think he expected her to. The man had an active social life. She always figured he flirted with her at the office out of boredom in between assignments.
"Someday..." he said, mischief glinting in his eyes, obviously not ready to give up yet "...all that pent-up desire will erupt. You will realize what you've been missing. The dam will break and — "
"Is this little fantasy going anywhere?" she asked in a voice as dry as she could manage it.
"I'm just saying. When the time comes... Be gentle with me."
She smiled into the semidarkness despite herself. "I'm not someone you need to worry about."
"It's always the quiet ones who worry me the most." His voice vibrated through her the way bass chords did if you sat too close to the speakers.
Don't think about it.