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Hostage to Love
By Maya Blake, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Maya Blake
All rights reserved.
The harsh command reverberated through Belle Winkworth-Jones, causing her already pounding heart to skitter with renewed fear. She tightened her hand around the arm of the old man beside her, anxious to communicate reassurance.
"Not long now, Father," she urged the priest, silently willing him to walk faster while keeping herself between him and the soldier behind them.
Anxiously, she glanced over her shoulder and past their grim-eyed guard at the other two captives — Edda and Hendrik Morgensen — and breathed a little easier to see them keeping up.
The guerrillas marched them relentlessly through the night, not stopping until dawn tinged the inky blackness of the dense African jungle. As if aware of the danger that lurked nearby, the critters and creatures of the night fell into silence at their approach. Only the distant hoot of an owl echoed eerily above the canopied treetops.
By the time they stopped to make camp, Belle could barely place one foot in front of the other.
After five days of the same, she now knew the routine by heart. Their captors handed out small pieces of the stale, near-molded bread made from coarse corn flour. After they ate, she and the three other hostages would be tied up around the trunk of a large baobab tree or a large rock, where they would stay shaded from the harsh September sun until close to dusk. Then the punishing journey would recommence.
She'd stopped asking what their captors intended to do with them; her demands had so far fallen on deaf ears. For the most part, the guerrillas were silent, preferring to let the deadly threat of their weapons do the talking for them. Nothing urged a person to walk faster or shut up better than having the business end of a machine gun aimed at them, she'd discovered.
But she had a fair idea where they were headed. Even though she'd only heard whispers of where his camp was located, the rebel leader who controlled this part of Nawaka was well known. Some spoke of him with fear, others with reverence.
Right at that moment, the emotion that burned in Belle's stomach stemmed from neither. The rebels' treatment of them, especially old Father Tom, only caused anger to swell in her chest.
Recognizing the futility of her fury, she squashed it down, finished her bread, and slumped against a large boulder in the small clearing they'd been brought to. The throbbing pain in her bleeding feet and wrists echoed through her body, but she ignored it. She also ignored the cramping in her abdomen. She would worry about that particular problem later.
She glanced at Father Tom. The aging missionary had hurled himself so bravely in front of her when the rebels had invaded their mission camp and had taken her and the Dutch couple — her fellow volunteers at the mission-run relief camp — hostage. Guilt and worry replaced her anger. Because of her, he'd also been thrown into the back of the armored truck along with them.
She went to him and held out the water bottle the rebels had surprisingly let her keep. "Drink," she said softly, knowing they only had a short amount of time before they would be tied up. Dehydration was a reality they'd learned to live with since their capture. Temperatures soared well into the hundreds during the day, the humid atmosphere made all the more unbearable by the density of the forest. Water was also a scarce commodity, so the constant fear that they'd succumb to the life-threatening condition was ever-present.
He took a drink and handed it back. She took a small gulp, careful to ration the water she'd replenished at a shallow waterhole they'd passed the night before. Wiping the back of her near-calloused hand across her mouth, she put the bottle away, her eyes on the old man.
"Are you all right?" She indicated the side of his head, which still bled, albeit lightly, from when he'd fallen earlier.
"Och, I'm fine, lass. 'Tis just a scratch. Anyway, I'll soon be back at the mission." His Scottish brogue hadn't diminished, even after thirty-five years in Africa.
She suppressed the hysterical laughter that bubbled up in her throat. Father Tom Campbell had repeated this assurance for the past five days. Just how he hoped to evade the fifteen rebel soldiers who guarded them remained a mystery to her.
So far he hadn't tried anything stupid. She'd prayed his belief they would soon be back at their missionary outpost was spiritual rather than wishful thinking. But today she caught a disturbing glint in his eyes, one that made her uneasy.
She looked over her shoulder and counted seven of the soldiers disappearing back into the jungle. Scanning the immediate vicinity to make sure the remaining rebels wouldn't overhear them, she crouched down and leaned toward the old man.
"Father, I hope you're not planning anything crazy, because you know these men won't tolerate it. Besides, I need you to look after me, so please promise me you'll do as they say," she pleaded with him, unashamed to play the helpless damsel just this once if it meant keeping him safe.
He waved her concerns away. "Ah, lass. No harm will come to you, not while I'm around. I'm not going anywhere without you. But soon we'll be going home."
"I'm sorry, Father, but I think you're wrong. We've been heading east since yesterday," she whispered. "I ... I think we're near the border, approaching the leader's camp. There are bound to be more of his men around, so please, don't do anything rash."
Father Tom shook his head. "I know it in my heart, and I can feel it in these old bones, we're going home within the week. Rest easy. You'll be back with those you love soon. I'm sure there's someone special waiting for a bonny girl like you."
She shook her head to dispel the image of gray eyes and chiseled features that rose in her mind. "No, Father. There's no one special."
Not since one man had cut her hopes away. Not since the future she'd foolishly dreamed of and mapped out for herself had turned out to be a mirage.
She felt compassion for the children of Nawaka whose lives had been torn apart by war and famine. She certainly felt fear, for herself and the other three captives whose plight was very grave indeed. She pitied the soldiers, who thought the only way to resolve their conflict was by wielding guns and tormenting innocents.
But feelings of excitement, longing, and, above all, love? No, those had been trampled beneath feet encased in Italian hand-made shoes with all the carelessness of someone stubbing out a cigarette.
Forcing the unwanted thoughts from her mind, she focused on the old man. "So, can I count on you to behave?" she asked.
He held up three gnarled fingers. "Old scout's honor."
Somewhat reassured, if not all together convinced, by the old man's words, she straightened and swatted the ever-present flies from her face.
By the time the second group of rebels returned, they'd finished their meager meal. Ignoring the pain in her feet, Belle helped the old man up and fell into her designated place in line, the second of the hostages walking between two groups of gun-toting captors.
Their journey ended abruptly an hour later.
The scorching sun still rode in the cloudless sky when they passed a large circle of moabi trees and entered a clearing dotted with thatched huts.
The largest of the huts, slap in the middle of the semi-circular group of similar dwellings, was the most carefully constructed. Although made to look like its dilapidated neighbors with its thatched roof, oven-strengthened mud exterior, and wooden-slatted windows, the structure held a few differences to the practiced eye. The walls were slightly thicker, the door made of mahogany rather than the weaker plywood of the other huts.
Belle gaped at the unexpected sight this far inside the jungle, the pleasing hint of civilization momentarily overriding the reason for her presence here. To one side of the clearing, a large well rose from the ground, complete with a powerful-looking hand pump and a simple water hose had been connected from the well to a showerhead hooked to a tree branch.
The simple, but oh-so-very-missed, comfort gripped her attention.
She was so focused on thoughts of taking a shower that it took a few precious seconds to sense his presence.
"Welcome to my humble abode," the voice said. It was deep and lyrical, a mixture of accents that curiously intrigued her. Just as it had the first time she'd heard it three weeks ago.
Turning sharply to her left, she came face to face with the man on whose orders they had been taken — her ultimate, ruthless captor.
Belle reluctantly admitted, just as she had the first time she'd seen him, that the propaganda pictures strewn around the Nawakan capital and on signposts in every village did not do him justice.
He towered over his men, a commanding figure whose camouflage uniform was the only thing he had in common with his subordinates.
Shoulder-length brown hair bleached light by the harsh African sun, blue-eyed and swarthy, the rebel leader wouldn't have been out of place on the cover of People Magazine, except for the ugly, jagged scar that disfigured the right side of his face.
But even with the scar, she had to admit there was a riveting presence about him, a charismatic pull that could lull one into believing he was marginally less dangerous than he truly was. Especially when he chose that moment to bare white, even teeth in a seemingly harmless smile.
She tensed as he came closer, the sheer breadth of his shoulders blocking out the sun as he paused two feet from her.
"I trust my men treated you well?" he asked.
She barely stopped a snort from escaping. Father Tom started to answer, but she stopped him with a slight shake of her head.
"Yes, but I ... we would like to know why we've been cap — taken."
"All in good time. First things first. Let's get you out of this interminable heat." His English was perfect, a fact which, since Nawaka was mostly a French-speaking country, made her wonder about his origins. He signaled to one of his men, who came forward and snapped to attention in front of him.
"Please ... just tell us why we're here." She forced firmness she was far from feeling into her voice.
His blue eyes lost a touch of warmth, but his smile remained in place as he stepped closer.
She swallowed, her heart lurching before hammering against her ribcage.
"You've subsisted on bread and water for the past five days. Surely you wish to partake of more substantial sustenance to regain your strength?"
Father Tom lurched unsteadily on his feet. "Keep your food. Just tell us why we're here!"
Captain Mwana turned toward him, and like a flash of lightning, cordiality had disappeared, replaced by a fearsome, icy regard. Belle smashed down her fear and planted herself between the two men, facing their captor. From the corner of her eye, she saw the other soldiers move toward them.
"We appreciate your offer of food and water. And afterward, perhaps we can have an explanation of why we're all here?" she said with a lift of her chin, while with one hand behind her back, she waved frantically for Father Tom to stay put.
For several tense moments, Captain Mwana ignored her, his deadly focus trained on the old man. Finally, Father Tom retreated to the large, flat rock.
Seemingly satisfied that he wouldn't be any more trouble, the rebel leader turned his attention back to her. "All in good time, my dear." His tone had once again returned to that of charming host.
In her peripheral vision, she saw Edda and Henrik sag with relief as the tension eased tangibly. But the stone-heavy dread in Belle's stomach didn't dissipate.
With a jerk of his head, the rebel leader indicated one of the smaller huts. The soldier nearest the Dutch couple barked an order. Edda jumped and clung closer to her husband as they were led away.
Beside her, Father Tom tried to stare down their captor, but Mwana's eyes were once again riveted on her face, his sharp, speculative regard boring almost invasively under her skin.
"Come with me," he instructed, stepping back to indicate the large hut.
"Where are you taking her?" Father Tom demanded.
"It's okay, Father." She pressed a reassuring hand on his arm and nudged him toward Edda and Henrik.
He seemed set to protest, but her murmured no, meant for his ears alone, convinced him to refrain. In any case, Mwana had decided not to bother with an answer.
He stood at the door to his hut and beckoned her with a gracious gesture that seemed at odds with her circumstances.
On unsteady feet, she approached, fighting the wave of apprehension that threatened to sweep her away with its unrelenting tide.
Stepping into the hut, she was engulfed by coolness that brought immediate relief from the scorching sun. Extensive bookshelves took up one solid wall. There were books on philosophy, politics, economics, and classic literature. Although their first meeting had been brief — Charles Mwana had stopped their missionary truck on the way to the city and exchanged words with the driver before welcoming Belle to the mission — she'd allowed herself to believe that the man who held a stranglehold on Nawaka to the point where the current government all but bowed to his every wish was nothing but a ruthless thug who chose to hide in the jungle, despite the charisma he seemed to exude.
Looking around, her fear escalated. Whatever else Charles Mwana was, he was not a simpleton. Clearly, her capture was no spur-of-the-moment opportunistic grab.
She took a few more steps into the living area of the hut, and her heart sank.
Pictures of her covered the surface of a coffee table made entirely out of the clean slice of a mahogany tree trunk: images of her playing in the dirt outside the mission with the young children, of her unloading supplies from the mission truck, and even ones of her sitting alone under a large moabi tree, reading in the dusk.
Icy numbness encased her chest. "You've had me under surveillance since I arrived at the mission."
"Surveillance is such an unpleasant word. More like keeping a friendly eye on you," he murmured in that deep, disconcertingly mesmerizing voice.
She turned to face him. "Friendly? Is that what you call being dragged through the jungle for five days straight with nothing but bread crusts to eat?"
He spread large, golden brown hands upward in a cajoling gesture. "I regret that. If there had been an easier way, I would've employed it."
"An easier way to do what? What exactly is the end game here? It can't be because you craved the pleasure of my ... our company."
His steady blue gaze raked lazily over her, pausing in uncomfortable places before rising to recapture hers. "Don't underestimate the power of your charms, Belle, or the time and effort it's taken to bring you here."
The sound of her name on his lips made her skin crawl, but it was nothing compared to the sheer terror his words created inside her. Before she could summon the courage to ask what he meant, there was a knock on his door.
He answered in fluent Nawakan. A soldier entered, bearing a tray loaded with food. The heady smell of cassava and the spinach and fish sauce she'd grown to love since arriving in Nawaka hit her nostrils. Her stomach growled with the pain of denied nourishment, and she swayed where she stood.
The urge to resist the food provided by her captor crossed her mind for a single second before she dismissed its folly. To stand any chance of surviving this ... whatever this was, she'd need all her strength. She'd never been one to cut her nose off to spite her face.
No, her many flaws lay elsewhere, far, far from this nightmare.
She sat in one of the two armchairs that graced the room. The soldier placed the tray directly on top of the pictures on the coffee table. Mwana made no move to remove them, forcing her to glance at the unnerving images of herself that stared back at her.
"Eat," he commanded, pushing one plate toward her.
She started to reach for the heavily scratched utensils and paused. A gleam of amusement lit his eyes as he stared back at her. "You think I would go to all this trouble to bring you here only to poison you?"
She berated herself, since the thought hadn't even occurred to her. "No. I was only going to ask if the others are being fed, too. But since you've brought it up ...?"
He laughed, the sound deep, husky, and ... manly. The latter thought unnerved her further, and it was all she could do not to clutch her head in despair at the sensation that threatened to seize her.
She knew about Stockholm Syndrome, and she felt more than one-hundred-percent sure it wasn't what was happening here. And yet, she couldn't deny that Charles Mwana held a fascination for her, like meeting a celebrity — albeit an unhinged one.
"The answer is yes and no, in that order. Here, I'll prove it." He picked up his own fork and took a mouthful of food from her plate.
She waited until he swallowed before she picked up her own fork. After a few, hearty mouthfuls, she put her fork down.
"The food is unsatisfactory?" he asked with a raised brow.
Excerpted from Hostage to Love by Maya Blake, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2013 Maya Blake. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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