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The unforgiving South American sun scorched Mitch Mendoza's neck as he watched three men on the hillside below him through a pair of high-powered binoculars.
His current mission had only two rules. Rule number one: Don't mess up. Rule number two: If you mess up, don't leave witnesses.
The three men, aka the witnesses he wasn't supposed to leave, moved at a good clip. They were local, used to the jungle terrain and the humidity that made breathing difficult for outsiders who had no business being in these parts. Outsiders like Zak "Kid Kansas" Goodman who gasped for breath as he tried to keep up with Mitch.
"We can't let them reach the river." Mitch let the binoculars drop against his chest and looked back at the twenty-two-year-old trust-fund jerk whose only ambition seemed to be finding trouble and annoying as many people as possible in the process.
The boy was a long way from his fancy college fraternity, scratched and gaunt, wearing the signs of his recent imprisonment. "They're just a couple of goatherds. Let them be."
Mitch didn't think the kid had developed a consciencealthough, that would have been nice. More likely, he was just too lazy to pick up the pace, too soft to put in the effort that would be necessary to catch up.
"I'm hungry. I want a break." He was worse than a three-year-old whining, Are we there yet? from the backseat.
"Soon." Mitch moved forward, adjusting his half empty backpack.
Their food had run out the day before. Neither of them had washed since last Friday. Not that he would have said they were roughing it. They still had a bottle of drinking water between them, and a tent to keep out the poisonous creepy crawlers that liked to pay jungle trekkers nighttime visits.
"Watch your step."
The faster they went, the more careful they had to be. Snakes hid in the undergrowth, stones blocked their steps on the uneven ground. Neither of them could afford a twisted ankle. They needed to catch up with those goatherds. Quickly.
Word that two Americans were trespassing through infamous drug kingpin Juarez's part of the jungle could not reach the nearest village. Or the head of the local polizia. If the police chief was corrupt, he'd report right back to Juarez. If he was clean, he'd report the info to his superiors. Mitch didn't need complications like that. Enough had gone wrong already.
The trip should have been a simple in-and-out rescue op, except that Zak wasn't the clueless victim his file had indicated. Mitch had found him in a shed on Juarez property just as the kid had shot the drug lord's second in command. Juarez's brother-in-law, in fact.
That wasn't going to be forgiven.
Juarez was going to move heaven and earth to find the idiot. What had the kid been thinking anyway? He'd shoot his way out of camp and make it out of the jungle? He would have been dead within the hour if Mitch hadn't been watching the camp for days; if he hadn't been ready to grab the kid and run with him.
He pushed forward and knew without having to turn around that Zak was falling behind. The kid made a lot of noise.
"Keep up and keep quiet." His mission was to get Kid Kansas, aka Kansas Governor Conrad Goodman's son, out of the South American jungle in one piece without anyone knowing that he'd been there in the first place.
They didn't exactly have authorization from the local government. Mitch didn't have authorization from his own government, for that matter. Just a request from Colonel Wilson. The governor and the Colonel went way back, to a double tour of duty in 'Nam. They were blood brothers.
That the Colonel trusted Mitch with the mission was an honor. Mitch would have walked through fire for the man.
He looked up at the sun and prayed for a little luck, although he was used to his prayers going unanswered. But maybe this was his lucky day, because suddenly the three men he was following stopped. It looked like they were going to have a bite before crossing the river.
"Let's move." He set the pace even faster. "I can't."
"Should have stayed home, then."
"It's not my fault I was kidnapped," the kid snapped. He was getting his spirit back and then some.
Right after he'd shot Juarez's brother-in-law, he'd been ready to fall apart, panicking when Mitch had busted into his prison. But in the past two days, once he'd realized his escape had been successful, he'd come to consider himself some sort of an action heroor, at the very least, Mitch's equal.
"I don't deserve any of this," the boy kept on whining.
"You didn't come to Bogota for sightseeing."
The governor had bought that line from his spoiled son. Mitch didn't. But Zak's lies were an issue for another day. Right now, he had bigger fish to fry. The men in front of them weren't his only problem. Juarez's soldiers were hunting for Zak, and they couldn't be far behind.
He got the kid down the hill in twenty minutes, stashed him in some nearby bushes, then moved toward the men's camp. The goatherds had already lit a fire to warm water for theiryerba mate, a favorite herbal drink of most South American natives.
They seemed simple men, each traveling with a single bag, wearing worn, mismatched clothes under their equally tattered ponchos. Their only crime had been being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Then again, better men than these had been killed for lesser reasons.
And how many truly innocent men hung out in this part of the jungle? Where was their herd, for starters?
What had they been doing that close to Juarez's camp? The day after Mitch had rescued Zak, he'd stashed him out of harm's way and left the idiot for half an hour, so he could double back and see how close their pursuers were getting. Zak's only job had been to sit tight. But when he'd heard people moving through the woods, he lost his head and panicked. He'd run, yelling for Mitch in English. The goatherds had seen him.
And for that, they would have to die. Mitch checked his gun with distaste. He didn't condone senseless killing. And he hated having his hand forced by Zak, who should have simply followed him out of the jungle, quietly appreciating the rescue along the way.
He shook all that off and focused on what he was about to do. He would take these men out because he had to. But he wasn't going to shoot them in the back. He took a deep breath and stepped out into the clearing.
The next second, ponchos were shoved aside, the mendefinitely not simple goatherdsaiming AK-47s at him. Mitch's index finger curled around the trigger of his weapon, adrenaline shooting into his bloodstream.
But instead of all hell breaking loose, everything became absurdly surreal as a blonde suburban housewife stepped out of the bushes at the edge of the clearing. She wore khaki capri pants and a matching tank top, blond waves tumbling around her heart-shaped face, translucent amber eyes as wide as they could be. She looked like she came straight from a backyard barbecue or a kid's birthday party. The only things missing were the oven mitts.
"Excuse me. I'm sorry. Can you help me?"
Then their moment of grace was over and the "goatherds" opened fire on Mitch. They apparently didn't consider the woman much of a threat. Mitch dove for the bushes to avoid the flying bullets. But one nicked him in the shoulder. He ignored the burn as he shot and rolled, careful to avoid Blondie.
Lucky for her, he was good at what he did. The fight ended in seconds.
She stood in the same spot, her feet frozen to the ground, her entire body trembling. And he noticed now that her clothes were stained in places, her hands dirty.
"Oh," she said, as he came to his feet, blood trickling down his arm. Her full lips trembled faintly. "I think I'm going to be sick."
"Don't move." He patted her down, feeling surprised, and a little guilty, that he enjoyed it. Her eyes went even wider, and her cheeks blushed pink.
When he was done, he slipped the small designer backpack off her shoulders and checked over the contents: a small first aid kit, bug spray, suntan lotion, extra clothes and a water bottle with a filter that made even mud puddles safe to drink. No weapons.
He gave the bag back. Damned if he knew what to make of her. "Okay. Get sick if you need to."
She ran for the bushes she'd come from, and a second later he could hear her retching.
He turned to the bodies on the sand, then to Zak, who was inching forward from his hiding spot. He looked green around the gills, too. He threw a questioning look toward the bushes where they could still hear their mysterious guest.
Mitch shrugged and collected the weapons. "Go see what they have in their bags." Food would be welcome. He looked with regret at the yerba mate that had been spilled.
"Hey, check this out!" Zak held up two-kilo bags of white powder a minute later, grinning from ear to ear.
Mitch leveled his gaze on the idiot. "Rip it open, then dump it into the river."
"What? No way."
Mitch went stock-still. "Dump it into the river or I'll leave you here to rot."
A long minute passed before the kid sprinkled the white powder over the water, his stance belligerent. He took a quick sniff from the back of his hand when he thought Mitch wasn't looking.
The governor of Kansas was a decent man, but too softhearted. He was going to have to learn tough love in a hurry if he wanted to straighten out his son. Mitch didn't envy him.
He collected the AK-47s and tossed them into the river. He had plenty of ammo for his own gun and didn't need the extra weight to carry in this heat. No way he was giving one to the kid.
The bushes rustled as Blondie returned, none too steady on her feet. She kept her distance. She was too pretty to look truly pitiful, but she looked tussledin a curvaceous, wholesome way. "Are you Americans?"
She wasn't the kind of woman Mitch could relate to.
He didn't exactly lead a suburban lifestyle. He fixed Zak with a look to keep him quiet. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"Megan Cassidy. From New Jersey. I'm on a South American orchid tour." She swallowed hard. "We were attacked in the jungle."
Here? What was she on, the kamikaze boat run by Stupid Tours? He swatted some bugs away. "How many people?"
"Twenty-two of us tourists " Her voice faltered. "Plus the two guides."
He felt infinitely tired all of a sudden. He didn't have time to rush into the jungle. He couldn't. It wasn't part of his mission. He asked anyway. "Survivors?"
"Just me." Tears spilled over and ran down her alabaster skin.
He didn't trust tears. He never knew when they were genuine and when they were used to simply manipulate a man. Her crying made him uneasy.
What did people like her think they were doing in the jungle? Hell, she shouldn't have been allowed in the country. Women like her should stick to attending PTA meetings, sipping double lattes while strolling through the mall and playing golf at the country club.
"I need to go home." She swallowed a sob. "Could you help me find the nearest town? I need to get to the police and an airport. Please?"
An unwanted complication at a time when he couldn't afford to be slowed down. "When did all this happen?"
She blinked rapidly. "This morning."
"How far away?"
"I don't know." She sniffed. "I kept running."
He hadn't heard gunshots, but the dense greenery muffled soundthe jungle formed solid walls in places. It all came down to this: he had no way of figuring out where exactly the massacre had taken place. And he had no time to look for it.
He finished considering his options, and shot Zak a look to remind him to keep quiet. "I'm Mitch and this is Zak here. From Panama. We're hiking buddies. Just got on this trail when these drug runners ambushed us," he lied with practiced ease.
He didn't want to have to kill her, and didn't have the heart to leave her, either. But he would, if she became a threat to his mission. "About that attack on your group "
She folded her arms around her slim midriff, her skin tightening over her cheekbones. "Would you mind if we didn't talk about it? Just right now, I mean?" Her amber eyes begged him. There went those trembling lips again.
The sight of her twisted something in the middle of his chest, an unfamiliar sensation he didn't care for. He supposed his questions could wait. "You can come with us as far as the nearest town."
She looked ready to melt with relief. "Thank you. I won't be any trouble, I swear."
He didn't believe that for a second.
Her shoulders straightened as she visibly pulled herself together. "What can I do to help?"
All right, she got a point for that. He'd yet to hear that question from Zak.
"Take whatever food and water you can find and store it in our backpacks," he told her. He nodded at Zak to help her, then went to see about the bodies.
He searched their clothes, but found little beyond cigarettes. No ID on any of them. The last thing people like this would have wanted, if they were caught, was for the polizia to be able to identify them.
Ten minutes later, the current carried the bodies of the three goatherds-slash-drug runners downriver. Another minute and the bags were packed. Mitch's had been hit, his GPS/radio unit among the casualties. It would have been a lot worse if he'd lost that on his way in. But from this point on, the way back out was fairly straightforward.
As he swung his backpack over his shoulder, he caught Megan looking at him.
"Let me see to your wound." She stepped closer, her movements hesitant, but her gaze determined.
His shoulder. Back at home, he would have ignored something this small, but it wouldn't be smart to risk an infection in the jungle.
"All right." But he watched her carefully. She hadn't taken the earlier gunfight well. He didn't want her to faint at the sight of his blood.
She seemed more together now as she peeled back the torn fabric of his shirt, took a good look, then went for her first aid kit.
Zak wiggled his eyebrows at Mitch from behind her. He glared back at the kid who seemed to have little on his brain beyond drugs and women. He looked decidedly less tired than he had before Megan showed up. His gaze kept returning to her, lingering on her curves.