Read an Excerpt
"What do you mean the negotiations are finished?" Bethany Darrow leaned across Stephen Grimes's desk, her hand tipping a stack of papers, scattering them to the floor.
The lawyer for Tri-Continent Engineering looked at the mess, then at her. She didn't bother to apologize. "You are not finished. My sister is out in the jungle somewhere. Who knows what kind of hell FARC is putting her through? You can't just leave her there. You owe her."
Two years ago, a rebel group kidnapped Samantha. Her younger sister had been surveying a stretch of land for a pipeline for TCE, and then one day, she was gone. Taken by Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaria de ColombiaEjército del Pueblo, better known as FARC. And while they seized hundreds of people each year, making millions to support their radical militant army and increase their hold into the drug trade, this was her baby sister.
His expression placid, Grimes ran a hand over his thinning gray hair, adjusted his tie and straightened his shoulders. "TCE doesn't owe Samantha anything. She's a contractor who knew the risks. Now calm down."
Tossing her dark brown ponytail over her shoulder to fall down her back, Bethany dropped into the expensive leather office chair and reined in her anger. Years of experience as a wilderness guide in southern Utah had taught her that an emotional overreaction in the face of a bad situation led to mistakes.
Grimes's office wasn't the Utah wilderness, but the principle applied. "You have to understand, you're our last hope." She pulled a picture from her wallet and flipped it toward Grimes. It was the last one sent by the kidnappersvia a released hostageto show thather sister still lived. "We have proof of life. Recent proof. We're close to getting her back this time."
He didn't bother to look at the picture but pushed it toward her with the tip of his index finger. "I know this is frustrating. But legally, this is what's best."
"For whom?" Bethany snapped.
"For everyone," he replied.
God, what a lie.
He continued, "I didn't want this. I want Samantha to come home just as much as you do."
"As much as me? Not even close," Bethany countered, trying to wrap her brain around TCE's pullout from negotiations for her sister's release. "Why are you abandoning her after two years? To screw with us?"
Grimes glared at her. Despite his age, his eyes were clear and hard as lapis. "Of course not."
"Then why?" Bethany pressed.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "The agreements with Express Engineers broke down. Samantha might be our contractor, but she is their employee. If they were willing to pay part of the ransom and sign a statement admitting full responsibility, TCE might be willing to pay the rest as a goodwill gesture, but without that, my hands are tied."
Express Engineersthe company that sent Samantha to TCE. They were worse than TCE in that they claimed sympathy, but when it came down to action, they backed away.
Bethany clenched her hands into fists, afraid that if she didn't do something with them she might slap the lawyer. "So no one wants to admit responsibility and my sister is left to die in a no-man's-land of legalese."
Grimes remained silent. It didn't surprise her. To say much more might admit culpability, and that was not in the best interest of TCE.
And Grimes always did what was best for TCE.
"So what happens now?" she asked.
"The Colombian kidnapping task force is still working the case."
"And they've been so successful," Bethany said, with a snort of disgust.
Grimes sighed. "This isn't easy for me, either."
She picked up the photo off the desktop. The woman in the picture bore little resemblance to the sister she remembered.
Holding a newspaper dated from last week, she was thinner. Her mahogany hair was chopped shoulder length and bleached pale by the Colombian sun, the image a far cry from the longhaired, coiffed woman she knew. They'd beaten her as well, and even though it was the hundredth time Bethany looked at the picture, it still made her want to cry.
Next to Samantha stood Cesar, her sister's jailer. With his shaved head and clean clothes, he grinned as if posing for a portrait. Bastard. The sight of him made Bethany want to shred the picture, to erase his mocking grin from the world, but reason ruled.
She turned her attention back to Samantha. It was her eyes that upset Bethany the most. They were the same bright green as hers, but an unfamiliar fear filled them along with a weariness and a resignation that Bethany wasn't ready to admit plagued her, as well. At least, not yet.
Not even when Grimes and TCE decided to abandon her and her family.
Samantha needed her, she reminded herself. Her mother needed her. And she'd be damned if she was going to fail them. She'd rafted rivers that people claimed were death traps, and when she had reached the end, she'd screamed her success to the world.
TCE wasn't going to beat her. They were people. Politics. Nothing more.
Bethany kissed the photo before she slid it in the back pocket of her jeans. Hold on, Samantha. I'll get you out of there.
Standing, Bethany tugged at the edges of her pale green, well-worn T-shirt. "Don't worry about Samantha, Mr. Grimes. This situation isn't your problem anymore."
"I wish there was something I could do." Grimes stood and came around the desk. More than six feet tall, he towered over her with the top of her head reaching just below his shoulder. "What are you going to tell your mother?"
Bethany looked up at him. "My mother? I thought you knew."
They'd met with him at least once a month, if not more, since Samantha's abduction. He'd talked with them for hours on end, explaining the myriad issues surrounding an international kidnapping. Hell, he'd seen her cry. Grimes was an important and annoying part of their lives. It seemed odd that he'd missed something so monumental.
"Knew what?" he inquired.
"They operated last night and put her into a chemically induced coma to allow her brain to heal."
Grimes's cheeks turned red then paled as he realized the order of events. He clasped her shoulder with a wrinkled hand. "I am so sorry. You should have said something."
His hand still on her shoulder, Grimes led her to the door.
She shrugged him off. He voiced the right sentiments, but his actions spoke louder.
"What now?" he asked her.
It was a good question. On the upside, now that TCE had abandoned her, she couldn't hurt negotiations. Hell, there weren't any. There would be no more days spent by the phone waiting for a call. No one to give her false hope. No more sitting by her mother's bedside and lying to hertelling her that her youngest daughter would be coming home soon.
Bethany knew what she was going to do. She wouldn't listen to lawyers who told her to not interfere. She'd ignore the men and women paid to cover the company's ass. She'd do what she should have done the moment she found out that FARC took her sistercontact Angel and Fiona.
The ex-mercenary and his famous reporter wife had become good friends with her when she worked as a movie consultant on the same film as Angel. In a short time, she'd come to know and respect both for their tenacity and commitment to a variety of humanitarian causes. When the film had wrapped, the three parted as friends.
She didn't know how good of friends until Samantha was kidnappedthey were the first people who called her when it hit the news. They had a friend in Colombia, they told her. One who specialized in rescuing FARC kidnap victims.
But she'd let Grimes talk her out of hiring a mercenary. She'd believed the lawyer when he told her that negotiations were best. That if she were patient, her sister would be released.
Both she and Grimes had been fools.
No more waiting.
She might not have the seven hundred thousand dollars FARC wanted, but Angel and Fiona were on her side. Add a phone call and a plane ticket to Colombia and she'd get Samantha out. It was a crazy idea, but then so was the situation.
Besides, there wasn't another choice.
Bethany shrugged. "I'm not going to do anything. Talk to the embassy. Wait. Hope that the situation improves."
He looked down at her, suspicion in his eyes. "Nothing foolish though, right?"
Bethany looked up at him, not surprised at his perception. He knew her well enough to know who she was beneath the skin. "Of course not," she lied.
"Good. Don't." Still, he didn't seem convinced. "Let the Colombian government do their job."
Right. Like TCE did theirs? She wasn't putting her bruised faith in politics, corporations or foreign governments anymore. She'd put her faith in a specialistsomeone who knew FARC and had beaten them before. Angel's friend.
"Please, let him be the one I need," Bethany whispered.
As soon as she'd left Grimes's office, she'd gone home, gathered her files, her passport and called Angel to arrange a rendezvous between her and Xavier. He and Fiona had been happy to help though not pleased she was going to Colombia herself. Still, they had given her what she needed, and she'd booked the first flight to Buenaventura, a city on the coast of Colombia.
Twenty-four hours later she was jet-lagged and her jeans and white T-shirt smelled like old sweat, but she was at Rubies, Xavier's bar. It was a start.
Even though it was early in the day, music poured from a bar across the street, mixing with the chatter of the populace and the occasional shout of a street vendor. The sky was gray with signs of an impending storm, and the scent of the ocean mixed with exhaust from the cars.
Under other circumstances, she'd take the time to explore the tropical seaport. Learning to navigate new environments was both her job and her nature. But right now, there was business to attend to.
She slung her backpack over her shoulder, steeled herself and pushed open the door to the bar. The place was crowded with men dressed in blue and white sports jerseys. At the far end of the room was a wide-screen television showing a rugby game in progress. She pushed through the crowd toward the bar. The men didn't give her a second glance.
The bartender was young. Too young, she guessed, to be pouring alcohol, but then again, this was Colombia.
"lHablas inglés?" she asked, straining to be heard over the din as the men yelled at the television.
"A little." He smiled at her, the grin reaching all the way to his dark brown eyes.
"I am looking for Xavier Monero," she said. "Is he here?" She'd didn't bother to scan the crowd. Angel didn't have a picture of the mercenary, and Xavier wasn't to be found on the Internet.
The bartender gave her the once-over in reply.
Bethany fought the urge to roll her eyes, forced a smile to her lips and endured the ogling. "Well, is he here?" she echoed when his attention settled back on her face.
"He is in the back." The bartender pointed toward a door against the back wall and away from the television. "Getting more beer."
"Gracias," she said and headed to the door. Someone on the television must have made a goal because the bar broke out in shouts and clapping. Hands over her ears, Bethany hurried into the back room without knocking and slammed the door behind her.
She leaned with her back against the door, and the first thing she noticed was the gun pointed at her forehead.
"I Quiénes son listed?" the man holding the gun demanded.
Bethany froze, her eyes glued to the barrel of the weapon.
"¿Quiénes son usted?" he repeated, his tone insistent.
Bethany swallowed hard and reminded herself to breathe. This is just like going up against a wild animal, she told herself. If you show fear, you're dead. She forced her attention away from the weapon and met the man's gaze. His eyes were as black and hard as obsidian. His wavy, shoulder-length hair and strong jaw reminded her of Antonio Banderas from Desperado.
Handsome, she realized, if he didn't have a weapon aimed at her head. "I'm American," she responded, her voice quivering despite her intentions.
"That doesn't answer my question. Who are you?" he inquired in perfect, accented English.
"Bethany Darrow," she replied.
"What do you want, Miss Darrow?"
"Are you Xavier Monero?" Her attention slid back to the gun. She swallowed again. No fear. Despite the mantra, her knees began to shake.
Bethany met his eyes once again. She hoped he was Xavier. Even taller than Grimes, and with muscle upon corded muscle that loose jeans and a maroon work shirt did nothing to disguise, he looked like the kind of man capable of a rescue mission.
"I need your help." She took a deep breath. Calm. "If you don't mind, I'm getting a file. It will explain everything."
She let her backpack slip from her shoulder and down her arm. The metallic click of a gun being cocked froze her midaction.
"I mind. Dump the bag." He motioned with his gun.
She nodded and upended her worn pack without ceremony, scattering the spare clothes, toiletries and the files across the rough wood floor. Her spare panties ended up on top of the files. "I didn't check anything." She leaned down to retrieve her underwear and hide her heated face. "So I put in everything"
"Keep your hands up," he interrupted.
"Of course." She straightened and put her hands back in the air, palm out but glared at him despite the gun. He didn't have to be a jerk about it.
He waved the gun at her. "Turn."
Bethany did a slow pirouette. "Happy?"
His attention still focused on her, a brief twinkle lit his black eyes. He brushed aside the pink bikini briefs and picked up the file folder, all business once again. "What's in here?"
"Everything I have on my sister's kidnapping," Bethany explained.
He didn't open it but scowled at her as if the information was the last thing he wanted to see.
Desperation washed over Bethany. Wasn't helping people his job? Shouldn't he show some interest? "Just read the file. Please. Angel said you would help. He said to tell you to call him if you didn't believe me."
"Angel sent you?" His scowl softened. "Why didn't you say that earlier?"
Once again, her attention slid up to the open end of the Xavier's weapon. "The gun pointed at my head distracted me."
He chuckled and lowered the weapon but did not put it away. "Have a seat." He nodded toward a small table at the back of the room. "Hands on top."
"Thank you," she said. The tension that twisted her gut eased, and she edged past him and sat down.