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Danger hung heavy in the air around her. It was time to go. Instinct, a nudging from God or just plain common sense told her the time was now. She'd been here a month getting to know the child in her arms, but even this three-hour wait for the taxi she'd called was too much time. Cassidy McKnight loved Tefé, a poor city located in the state of Amazonas, situated in the northern part of Brazil. But now, uneasiness rolled through her as she shifted twoand-a-half-year-old Alexis higher on her hip and scanned the dirt path that was supposed to pass for a road.
Tropical green trees swayed in the slight breeze, and the humidity pulled Cassidy's natural flame-colored curls even tighter against her head, causing the mass to lay heavy against the back of her neck.
"Come on, come on," she muttered, alternating amongst pacing, standing and tapping her foot. Patience had never been her strongest virtue. Where was the cab? "My Cass-ty," Alexis said, and lay her curly, blond head on Cassidy's shoulder.
"My Lexi," she answered, and planted a smacking kiss on the child's rosy cheek.
Alexis grinned, then sobered. "Want Mama." Cassidy's heart lurched. "I know, sweetie. I wish your mama was here, too."
Cassidy nodded. "Yes, Daddy, too."
Alexis looked up at the sky. "In heaven with Jesus?"
Cassidy blinked back tears and whispered, "Yeah, in heaven with Jesus."
Anna, one of the relief workers from the orphanage and also a woman Cassidy called friend, walked up. "Taxis take forever around here. You might be better off hiking it."
Before Cassidy could respond, Alexis pointed to the sky and said, "Mama, Daddy withJesus."
Anna blew out a sad sigh, looked at Cassidy and said, "You'd think God would have a special protection plan for people who build orphanages, wouldn't you?"
Cassidy gave a humorless smile, a mere twitch of her lips, although she nodded her agreement. She was ready to leave for more than one reason. Being here, the same country, the same jungle, where her brother had disappeared two years ago was taking its toll. They'd never found his body and Cassidy still had trouble accepting his death.
The taxi finally squealed around the corner and pulled up in front of the Amazon Orphanage. Dust swirled as it stopped.
"About time," Cassidy muttered, and moved through the gate. The sun beat hot as she nodded to the bearded driver and pulled open the back door. Anna followed and handed over a booster seat. Cassidy placed it in the backseat and tossed the diaper bag on the floorboard.
Alexis in her arms, she turned back to the relief worker who had short dark curls and compassionate dark blue eyes.
Anna said, "Here are the papers. I sent another copy to your fax machine. It should be waiting for you when you get home. God be with you."
Cassidy stuck the rubber-banded bundle in the back pocket of her jeans and leaned over to give the sweet woman a one-armed hug. "Thank you so much for all you've done."
Anna squeezed back and said, "Take care of the bebê pequenoand yourself. You need to go. You really shouldn't have taken the risk to come herenot with the enemies your father has made with our local rebels."
Cassidy stepped out of the embrace. "I know. You're right, but I just couldn't stand the thought of some stranger picking up Alexis. She's had enough turmoil in her little life, and that would have added to her confusion."
Anna's expression said she agreed. Cassidy assured her, "I managed to e-mail Amy and let her know we were leaving and would be home by tomorrow late. Everything will be fine." Amy was a childhood friend taking care of things in the States, like decorating the room for Alexis, while Cassidy took care of things in Brazil.
Anna allowed a small smile, and Cassidy knew the woman would have done the same thing had she been in Cassidy's shoes. Anna motioned back toward the taxi. "I understand, but now it's time for you to leave. After that villager saw you, too many people know you are here."
No sooner had the words left her mouth than Cassidy's taxi churned its wheels and, with the passenger door still open, disappeared around the curve beyond the orphanage.
"Hey! What?" Choking on the swirling dust, she waved a hand in front of her face and stared after the vehicle.
She turned at the sound of another engine and understood. A jeep full of four men all holding rifles was headed directly toward them.
Anna grabbed her arm. "Run back through the gate!" As Cassidy turned to obey, bullets kicked up the dirt around her and she froze in shock, terror causing her to shake. Eyes closed, shoulders hunched, she clutched Alexis close. The child howled her protests and fear. Cassidy flinched with each report, but she knew that if these men wanted to kill her or the baby, they'd both be dead.
God, what is going on? Protect Alexis, please!
The shooting stopped; the silence screamed in her ringing ears. Before she could raise her head, rough hands pulled at her.
"Put down the baby!" ordered a hard-eyed man dressed in jungle fatigues, his rifle held negligently in his hand, pointing to the ground.
Automatically, Cassidy pulled Alexis closer.
The gun barrel rose and pointed at the child. In precise English, he stated, "Put her down or I will shoot her."
And he would. Like he would shoot an annoying dog. Terrified for the little girl, Cassidy kissed the top of her head and bent to put her on the ground. "Go to Anna," she whispered in Alexis's ear.
When she tried to straighten, Alexis clung to her, her chubby arms like steel bands around Cassidy's neck. "No! No! Want up!"
All too aware of the gun still pointed at the child, Cassidy kept her eyes trained on the rebel, reached back and wrenched the clinging arms away from her, feeling like her heart was being torn from her chest in much the same way.
Alexis fought and grabbed at her. "No! Stay with my Cass-ty!"
Cassidy's stomach cramped at the little girl's fear and confusion, but she took a step away, holding the child's hands so she couldn't latch on again. "Shh, sweetheart. It'll be okay."
She shot a pleading look atAnna who stood off to the side with the other two relief workers, eyes narrowed, lips tight. Anna stepped forward to grab up the screeching child and hand her off to one of the other women. She turned back.
The hard hand clamped around Cassidy's upper arm hauled her toward the waiting jeep. Alexis still cried for her. And these brutes had threatened her.
Cassidy exploded. She struggled and resisted the hands that gripped her. But she was no match for their sheer strength.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Anna turn back to the jeep and race toward her. Horror chilled her as she realized what her friend meant to do. "No, Anna, get back!"
Anna ignored her.
Cassidy renewed her fight and landed a solid kick on a hard shin. Her captor grunted and twisted her arm. Pain shot through her shoulder, and Cassidy shrieked.
Anna delivered a solid right hook to the man who held her. He grabbed his bloody nose and hollered, but didn't lose his grip on Cassidy. One of his companions in the jeep yelled a curse, gripped his rifle and dropped to the ground to help. As Anna turned to face him, he swiped the barrel across the side of her head. Blood squirted; she went down and didn't move.
Cassidy fought harder until the man grabbed a fistful of hair and brought her face up to his. His black eyes glittered in his filthy, unshaven face. She tried to turn her face from his rancid breath, but he held her head fast as he told her in slow, measured English, "Continue to struggle and I will snap your neck."
Cassidy froze and whimpered at the pain in her scalp. God, please!
"That's better." With no more effort than it takes a cook to toss a pizza, he hurled her into the back of the jeep. Cassidy hit the floor with a grunt. Pain shot through her left shoulder and her hip throbbed.
A third man grabbed her arms and yanked them behind her back. Rough rope chewed her tender wrists. Cassidy stopped fighting. Her muscles quivered from the exertion. She had no more strength left. Struggling now would only earn her more bruises.
The jeep screeched off, churning up dust as it bumped down the pitted dirt road. Alexis's screams echoed in her ears and fury mingled with the terror choking her.
Cassidy rolled over to see the man who had knocked Anna out. He sat slightly ahead of her, perched on the edge of the jeep instead of in one of the seats. She drew knees up to her chin then kicked out as hard as she could. The bottom of her feet landed on his backside and toppled him over the edge. His harsh yell and shouted curse gave her a brief moment of satisfaction.
His comrades howled with laughter; the driver slammed on the brakes and backed up. They taunted him as he came up over the side of the jeep, dusty, the gash on his forehead matching the one he'd put on Anna's. However, the rage in his eyes turned Cassidy's satisfaction back to terror.
She was dead.
His fist shot out and connected with her left eye and cheekbone. Pain exploded, bright lights flashed, then darkness blanketed her.
Cassidy awoke and choked back an agonized moan as the ropes bit into the tender skin of her wrists. She lay on her right side, her cheek pressed into the dirt while her heart beat in time with her pounding head. She couldn't decide what hurt morecheek, eye, hip or wrists.
With the return of consciousness came memory. Unfortunately, memory brought forth such a surge of terror she gasped.
She'd been kidnapped.
Oh, Lord, help me. Give me the strength to endure. Be with Alexis. Cassidy whispered the prayer then inched her way to sit up as straight as her bonds would allow. She tried to shift into a more comfortable position.
With her hands bound behind her, fire shot along every muscle in her shoulders, arms and back, her body protesting the strain of being in one position for too long. A bead of sweat dripped off her chin; her head throbbed harder and nausea churned.
Gritting her teeth, she gathered every ounce of strength and managed to shift into a sitting position. Panting from her efforts, she dropped her head to bent knees and told herself to keep breathing.
Finally, the nausea eased and she dragged her head up to look around. Misshapen boards were stacked on top of each other and nailed haphazardly to keep them from falling in. Through the slits in the walls, she could see movement. Shifting closer to lean against the wall, she looked out. A dark-headed, dark-eyed preteen was cooking over a campfire, occasionally turning the meat on the skewer. Cassidy sucked in a sharp breath. Next to the young girl stood the man Cassidy had kicked out of the jeep. Rafael, they'd called him.
She watched, unable to pull her gaze from the sight before her. This man, this rebel, leaned over and gently kissed the top of the girl's head. The girl looked up, smiled and said something. Cassidy couldn't understand all of it, but caught the word, Papai. That awful man was a father? Ugh. Oh, what are these people doing to their children, Lord?
Cassidy shook her head and pain splintered through it. She gasped out a groan and waited. When the throbbing faded, she looked out once again. Garlic, peppers and other spices tantalized her. Dogs barked and children played soldier, shooting each other with toy guns fashioned from sticks.
Several older preteens carried the real thing.
Cassidy shuddered; fear clawed up her spine.
Did anyone other than her kidnappers know she was here? She bent her shoulders forward. No relief. Cassidy looked through the widest crack again. Rustic huts, no electricity, no phone lines. She felt caught in a time warp surrounded only by towering trees, a rushing river and the occasional monkey calling to its mate.
Oh, God, please get me out of this! And get us out before Mom hears I've disappeared. Please, God, first Micah and now me. She'll die. Literally.
Micah, a Navy SEAL on a mission, had disappeared two years ago, and the navy had declared him dead, based on the report of one of Micah's fellow SEALs. Her father continued to search and her mother swore Micah was just on an extended mission. And now this.
The door opened and a short, round, dark-skinned woman with gray-streaked black hair stepped inside. Silent, flat, black eyes stared and Cassidy swallowed hard. The bruise above her left eye continued to throb and the nausea returned with a vengeance.
She muffled a groan, regretting her brief fit of temper in the jeep. Shaking uncontrollably, she focused on the figure in front of her. As though by magic, a knife appeared in her visitor's hand. Cassidy inhaled sharply and shrank back. Unable to tear her eyes from the fearsome weapon, she waited for the worst.
The old woman stepped toward her and shifted the knife higher.
"No, please." Cassidy meant it to be a scream, but only managed a weak whimper.
The woman moved behind her and Cassidy held her breath, expecting to feel the knife plunge between her shoulder blades. Instead, there was a slight tug and her hands popped free.
Agonizing pain sucked the air from her lungs as her muscles screamed their protest at the sudden movement. Tears filled her eyes again, but this time she refused to make a sound.
A short grunt brought her attention up to the face in front of her. The woman motioned for her to follow. Cassidy stood, swaying slightly. Her stomach protested, her eye throbbed, her legs shook, but she obeyed. I can do all things
"Tell me why I'm here, please," she asked in English with a surprisingly steady voice.
Another grunt answered her.
Cassidy sighed and looked around. No way to escape; no weapon to be found. She had already examined every inch of the small hut and other than a lumpy-looking cot with a blanket, the place was empty.
Once outside the dark hut, the bright sunlight intensified the throbbing in her aching head. She bit her lip. What she wouldn't give for a sip of water and a pain-killer. Rubbing her rope-burned wrists, she stumbled after the woman to a small hill that heldof all thingsan outhouse.
Although grateful for the moment of privacy, she wrinkled her nose and held her breath as she finished her business as quickly as possible. She opened the door to find the woman waiting with a small canteen.
"Água." The word came out as a grunt, but Cassidy understood. She eagerly grabbed the container, put it to her mouth and drank slowly; small sips to quench her thirst, but not enough to make her sick. The nausea subsided.
"Obrigada," she said. Thank you. With a shaky hand, she wiped her mouth and asked in Portuguese, the official language of Brazil, "Who are you?"
"Maria." Just one word, but at least it wasn't a grunt.
The woman's dark eyes never changed from their dull flat expression, but her face softened by a fraction.Again, Maria motioned for Cassidy to follow.Again, Cassidy obeyed. The woman's girth should have made her clumsy; instead, she moved quietly and gracefully, skirting over the rough ground.
As she followed, Cassidy tried to formulate an escape plan. She had to get out of here. She had to get back to Alexis. The poor baby must be scared to death. All the adults in her life kept deserting her.
But the question waswhere was here?