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South Pacific island of Pilenau
The jungle heat was like a living thing, voracious and malign, sucking the life out of him, drop by precious drop. The black steel of the AK-47 was slick under his grip, damp with the moisture that hung in the air and made every breath he took an effort.
He had trained in the jungle, lived in it, made love in it. Hunted in it for the two-legged killers that hid in its green depths. But it was the last place in the world he'd want to die.
It was the last place Danny would want to die.
Derrick brushed back a heavy vine trailing across the path, then swore as a slim green snake tumbled onto the ground at his feet, twisted over the toe of his boot, righted itself and slithered out of sight. He couldn't tell if it was one of the half dozen or so types of poisonous snakes to be found in this damned jungle, and he didn't care. Snake bites were the least of his worries .
Everyone who knew the situation on the island had agreed: if he was going to get his brother out of this jungle alive, there was only one person he could absolutely trust to get him where he had to go as fast as he had to get thereBradshaw.
Orchid hunter, botanist, research scientist, Dr. E. B. Bradshaw had grown up on Pilenau and was as at home in the jungle as the indigenous tribes that still lived in its depths and hunted their prey with poison-tipped darts. For a feea very hefty fee, he'd been toldBradshaw had guided others into the jungle and brought out a few lost adventurers everyone believed could never be found.
Whatever the fee, Derrick didn't care. If Bradshaw could get him through this hell of a jungle ahead of the Pilenau army, he'dmortgage his soul if he had to.
In country like this, where the best satellite images in the world could give you a leaf-by-leaf view of the dense jungle canopy but only occasional glimpses of the treacherous jungle floor a hundred or more feet below, a skilled guide could mean the difference between mission success and mission failure.
And when failure meant that Danny might die, Derrick would grab at every advantage he could get. Grab, hell! For the sake of the younger brother he'd failed so often, Derrick would flat out take what he needed.And what he needed now was an experienced guide.
The fact that Bradshaw was a woman didn't matter .
Bradshaw's camp was right where it was supposed to be. Bradshaw was nowhere in sight.
Derrick stood in the middle of the clearing, rifle at the ready, warily eyeing his surroundings. It wasn't much of a camp, just a small cleared area with two well-worn tents set on crude wooden platforms a couple feet off the ground. The tent on the right was small, large enough for two if they were really, really friendly. The flaps on the tent were down, no doubt hiding a cot and maybe a box of clothes and personal possessions. It wouldn't be much, and judging by the rest of the place, it definitely wouldn't be valuable.
The sides on the larger tent were rolled up, exposing the rough wooden planking that served as the floor, a crude worktable, a few heavy-duty plastic chests that probably protected papers and research materials, a chair and smaller table half-buried under untidy stacks of books, and a makeshift kitchenrough-sawn planks laid over crates turned on their sides in lieu of cabinets. The crates were filled with cookware, dishes, canned food and plastic tubs sealed tight against the insects that otherwise would have devoured the rice and sugar and other staples they probably contained.
He'd wondered why someone living alone in the jungle hadn't worried about leaving a camp unattended for days at a time. Especially in a place like Pilenau, where anything of value that wasn't tied down or locked up tended to grow legs and walk away. Now he knew. There wasn't a hell of a lot to steal, and, this deep in the jungle, what there was probably wasn't worth the effort of hauling away.
The place looked empty, but the coffeepot on the small camp stove steamed gently, the scientific papers and hand-written notes laid out on the makeshift work-table arranged as if someone had been working on them only a few moments before.
Slowly, he pivoted on one foot, scanning the camp, the jungle, the trail he'd just covered. Bradshaw was here. But where?
A soft rustle of leaves and a softer thump at his back made him spin around, rifle at the ready. Too late. The woman who'd dropped out of the trees behind him had the slim, deadly rifle in her hands pointed at his navel. Even from ten feet away he could see that the safety was off and that she held it like a person who slept with the damned thing and liked it.
Derrick stared, startled by her sudden appearance and angry at himself for being startled. Mistakes got men killed. He couldn't afford to make them.
The woman in front of him clearly wouldn't be inclined to let him make another.
He studied her appreciatively.
She was tall, almost as tall as his own six feet, but lean, fine-boned and elegant. She had the kind of body that should have been sheathed in curve-clinging silk. Instead, she wore a rumpled khaki shirt and walking shorts that looked like they'd been washed on a rock.
Her hair, a silken brown that was almost black, was drawn back in a practical and unbecoming ponytail that kept it off her neck. Her nose was a tad too long for her finely sculpted face, her mouth a little too wide. Too wide, yet eminently kissable
Her assessing gaze swept past him to study his back trail, then swung back to pin him in his place.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "And what do you want?" Her rifle never wavered from its deadly aim on his gut.
Derrick lifted his hands from his own rifle and held them up, palms out.
"I'm looking for E. B. Bradshaw, the orchid hunter," he said. "That's you, right?"
Again that disconcerting, unblinking gaze.
"I am she," she said at last, the clipped, precisely grammatical words as sharp as the parang, the local version of a machete, dangling from a loop at her waist. "And you still haven't answered my questions."
"My name's Marx," he said. "Derrick Marx."
"And you're here because ?" She pointedly left the question dangling.
"I need a guide and I'm told you're the best person for the job."
"A guide to where? And for what?"
She didn't waste words. He liked that. It made explaining things a hell of a lot simpler.
"My brother is being held hostage by the Sword of God. I intend to get him out."
For the first time, the muzzle of her rifle wavered. "The Sword of God? They kill people. Or hadn't you heard?"
"I'd heard. That's why I need your help."
"To do what? Get you both killed?"
"I need you to get me to their camp, as quickly as possible."
"Ah. My mistake. You want to get all three of us killed." She couldn't quite pull off the sneer.
"Could we sit down while we talk about it?" He cocked his head in the direction of the larger tent but took care not to let his hands drop anywhere near his rifle. "I wouldn't say no to a cup of that coffee if you offered."
If he could get her talking, he just might convince her to help him. If he had to share a few facts he'd prefer to keep to himself, then so be it. Whatever it took.
And if the truth didn't convince her, he and Bear had worked out a damned good lie that would.
For a second, he wasn't sure she'd bite. He might as well try to read a rock as her expressionless face. Just when he decided she'd refuse, she slowly lowered her rifle. Derrick stifled his automatic sigh of relief.
"Slide your rifle off, slow and easy, and set it down there against that tree." She gestured with her rifle.
"Drop your pack beside it."
Since she hadn't taken her finger off the trigger, Derrick did what she said, then stepped away, hands still high.
"Cups are in that box over there with the rest of the dishware." Her voice was deep for a woman, sexy and a little rough around the edges, as if she didn't use it much. "Sugar's in that plastic container on the table. No cream. No canned milk."
He cautiously lowered his hands. "Black's fine."
Was it his imagination, or had one corner of her mouth twitched in amusement?
Derrick picked a mug at random, used the frayed tea towel hanging on a hook as a hot pad on the enameled tin pot, and poured out a half cup of the blackest coffee he'd ever seen. He took a brash swig. The hot, inky brew was all the way to the back of his mouth before his taste buds rebelled. His throat seized. His eyes teared. It was all he could do to choke it down instead of spit it out.
"What the hell is that stuff?" he spluttered, holding the mug away from him in distaste.
She laughed. It was an intriguingly sexy laugh, even if it was at his expense.
"It's the local coffee. Or what passes for coffee, anyway. God knows what they put in it. I've never had the courage to ask." She slid her finger off the trigger. He could see the tension in her shoulders ease. "There's a spoon by the sugar. Three heaping spoonfuls will just about make that drinkable."
He poured in three, gingerly sipped, then added a fourth before claiming the worn camp chair she'd indicated. The chair's battered wood frame creaked under his weight. The canvas back and seat sagged. It wasn't the kind of chair you got out of easily.
Derrick settled deeper into the chair, then took another cautious sip of the coffee. Four sugars helped. "What do they use this stuff for? Snake bite?"
"Only if you live long enough." The amusement was gone.
She hesitated, then slipped her rifle's sling over her head, set the weapon against the far side of the small table in front of him and casually propped her hip against the table's edge. The parang at her side clunked against the chipped wood. She didn't seem to notice.
Derrick couldn't help but admire her strategy. His rifle was twenty feet away. Hers was right at her fingertips and out of his reach. She was on her feet, able to react instantly to any threat. He was in a sagging canvas chair with a corner of the table dividing him from her. If he tipped the table over as a distraction, the books, canned foods and kitchen miscellany piled atop it would scatter across the tent's floor, as much a hazard to him as to her. If he tried to take her, she'd have her rifle pointed squarely between his eyes before he ever got to his feet.
She shouldn't have pinned the parang against the table, though.
As proof he was no threat, he stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankle and smiled up at her, enjoying the view. There was a lot more to admire about E. B. Bradshaw than just her strategic sense.
Was it his imagination, or was that a blush rising under her tan?
"If the coffee's this strong, what's the local moonshine like?"
"Trust me. You don't want to know." She shoved away from the table abruptly, as if suddenly needing a little more distance between them.
"What branch of the military are you?" She wasn't looking at him, but the too-fast pulse visible at the base of her throat betrayed her. She was as intensely aware of him as he was of her.
"I used to be Special Forces."
"I'm a senior consultant with Hudson Security International. We advise corporations on how to keep their facilities and their personnel safe. We also provide bodyguards and security details if the company wants. And are willing to pay for it," he added dryly.
Her gaze swung up to meet his. "Even in war zones?"
"Especially in war zones."
"So why not use those resources? Why come to me?"
"Because you're here and they're not. Yet. Because you know the area and they don't. And because I don't want to risk alerting the Sword by flying surveillance in a chopper. By the time I've got Danny out of that camp, friends from Hudson will be here to evacuate him. In the meantime "
In the meantime, a lot could go very, very wrong. He shrugged, forcing away the thought. "In the meantime, I hoof it. And you're the person best qualified to show me the way."
Without alerting the Sword or the army. "Me?" The single word was rich with scorn. "You haven't heard of topographical maps? Satellite photos? GPS?"
He swallowed the dregs in his cup and casually got to his feet. He could see her tense, then slowly relax when he made no move toward her or the rifle she'd set aside. When he took a couple steps to the side, away from her, she relaxed even further.
That pulse in her throat hadn't slowed any, though. He found that tantalizing. "You and I both know that topo maps and satellite photos aren't much help in jungle like this." Derrick set the cup down on the crate of kitchenware. It was a natural move, and it left his hands free. He swung back to face her. "That's why I need you."
She took a startled step back, away from him. Her hip hit the side of the table, making the dishes rattle. "I don't buy it. One man? To rescue just one hostage? Last I heard, the Sword had five or six hostages, not one."
"He's my brother." That came out sharper than he'd intended. Angrier. The anger made her bristle. She didn't seem to hear the guilt that wavered at the edges.
"Danny turned nineteen a week ago," he added flatly.
"I don't imagine he had much of a celebration."
She wasn't backing down. "So you get your brother out, and other hostages are murdered in retaliation. I wouldn't call it a fair trade."
"Neither would I. But the Pilenau army is mounting a rescue operation. I know when and where they plan to hit. My goal is to be there just enough ahead of them to get Danny out without alerting the Sword. Then the army moves in and takes care of the rest of the hostages."
"So let them rescue your brother, too."
That was the last thing he wanted. The army wasn't likely to be any friendlier to Danny than the terrorists.
Derrick couldn't tell her that, but there was another explanation he knew she'd buy. It had the additional advantage of being absolutely true.