Read an Excerpt
The PERFECT STRANGER
By ALISON KENT
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Alison Kent
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTequila and Mickey Finn.
A hell of a bachelor party guest list.
A jackhammer morning-after headache.
José Cuervo might be a sumbitch, but the bottle didn't deserve the blame for the hangover that had J. Jackson Briggs pressing the heels of his palms to his eye sockets.
His spinning head was all about waking on a cold, concrete prison floor, an AK-47 five inches from his nose jump-starting his day with a jolt.
The stumbling trip he'd taken at gunpoint-from his cell, down a dark corridor, into a military command center-had terrorized him into nausea.
And now here he was, stuck holding his tongue because he wasn't so backwater that he didn't know not to piss off his host country.
He didn't care that the charity-based Smithson Engineering crew had just signed on for another back-breaking, year-long stint in the jungles of San Torisco.
He didn't care that the contentious nature of the military dictatorship characterized a nation on the brink of total disaster.
He didn't care that he was the construction site's only chopper pilot. He was ready to go home. To the States. As soon as he was outta here, he was outta here.
And it couldn't happen soon enough to suit.
Irritation spilled down his back along with his body's physical response to San Torisco's tropical climate. Ninety-eight percent humidity and a new sheen of sweat drenched his work shirt.
He didn't want to know what had dried in his hair, matting it in a crust to his skull. He didn't want to know what constituted the brown stains on his green fatigues.
He especially didn't want to consider when or how his boot laces had been chewed through.
All he wanted was out.
The coat of puke green paint slapped across the floor in El Comandante's headquarters did little for his mood or his stomach.
Rocked back on two legs of a rickety chair, he eyed the machine gun five feet away on top of the scarred and battered metal desk. The additional distance gave the weapon a new perspective, one no less menacing.
From here, however, he could see the eyes of the uniformed man behind it. They were as cold as the floor he had slept on, as black as the darkness summoning him down.
He refused to look at the woman sitting in the chair three feet from his side.
Twisting the tight gold band around his left ring finger, Jack released a sigh, then burped up a blast of the chemical churning in his gut.
The burn up his throat told him there'd been more in his glass than the shot of tequila he'd sloshed there sometime before midnight.
Then, his buddy Brad's bachelor party had been in full swing, and Jack had been lucid, sober, and still the wedding party's best man.
Six hours later he'd come awake to find himself a prisoner.
And the groom.
He wondered who'd slipped him the Mickey, who'd added the wife.
Most of all he wondered why.
"Once more, Señor Briggs. And this time be warned that my patience grows thin."
Comandante Mosquera pushed the parchment document across the piece of furniture that was a scratch-and-dent reject, then sat back and swiveled his chair side to side. "Is this, or is this not, your signature?"
Jack brought his own chair down hard and snatched up the paper. Elbows on his knees, he forced himself not to sway to the maddening squeak-squeal, squeak-squeal of the other man's seat for fear he'd tumble to the floor.
Instead, he focused one bleary eye on the Partida de Matrimonio. Certificate of marriage. The real McCoy. One hundred percent. Eighteen karat. Sure as sh-
"Yeah, it's mine," Jack bit off. With a flick of his wrist, he spun the parchment back onto the desk. No one did that backward left-handed scrawl like J. Jackson Briggs. He'd recognize it in a heartbeat.
"Bueno. Muy bueno." Comandante Mosquera dried his forehead in the crook of an elbow, the sweat stain one more service medal decorating his olive-drab uniform. Adjusting his beret over his slick black hair, he tapped his desk with a length of bamboo cane.
A sharpened length of cane, Jack ruefully noticed.
"You ... you ... Americanos." El Comandante spit out the word with great disgust, gesturing in the air with the crude weapon. "You come to our island. You treat our homeland like you treat your own. Selfishly, you take what you want. Never do you give thought to the burdens you will leave behind when you go."
"Look." Jack raised his palms in a gesture of false concession. "You've got the wrong guy. I'm not going anywhere or leaving anything behind. I'm here to do a job at the request of the Sabastiano government. Your government.
"In fact," Jack said, on a roll, "your dictator, Carlos Sabastiano himself, is picking up the tab. The way I figure, you owe me-"
Bamboo cane hit metal desk and snapped. Three inches of pointed stick landed at Jack's feet. He glanced up.
The lethal-looking blade now protruding from the hollow rod wasn't crude at all, and only slightly more intimidating than the malevolence in the other man's eyes.
Comandante Mosquera spiked the blade into the desktop's wooden surface. The cane quivered with the backlash. Jack swallowed hard.
"Why you are here does not concern me, Señor Briggs. What you do while you are here you will answer for."
"Look. Sir," Jack forced himself to add, when the commander's nostrils flared. "All I'm doing here is working on the road the Smithson crew is cutting from Ciudad Torisco into the mountains."
The Latino's eyes narrowed dangerously. He eased to his feet, skirted the desk, stopped directly in front of Jack's chair. With his feet planted shoulder width apart, the commander made an intimidating tower.
"You deny that you American men find our San Toriscan women to your liking?" Mosquera asked, smoothing down his thick mustache with forefinger and thumb.
At the change in conversational direction, Jack hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his fatigues and leaned back. "The scenery's been great, yeah. Why do you ask?"
A keening sob rose into the air, a sound so awful Jack wondered whose grave he'd stepped on. Before he could so much as turn toward the screeching woman-his screeching wife-the AK-47 gouged the bridge of his nose.
He gagged back the bile shooting up his throat, closed his streaming eyes, and tried to pray.
Now I lay me down to sleep ...
"Your wife seems to find your little ... what do we say ... disregard for the situation most inappropriate."
Jack licked his dry lips and managed to croak out, "What situation are we talking about here?"
El Comandante answered with a growl and a sharp twist of the gun barrel.
Searing heat shot to the top of Jack's head. He bit his tongue; the metallic tang of fresh blood seeped into his mouth. His face beat like a tom-tom, burning hotter with each pulse of blood.
And then, just like that, the pressure vanished.
Jack pitched forward. He caught himself before hitting the floor, then blinked, blinked again, and sneezed.
He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, then dried it on his pants, leaving behind equal parts mucus and blood as he focused a furious gaze on the man across the room.
Comandante Mosquera sat on the edge of his desk. The gun dangled from his fingers like an extension of his arm. "In our country, Señor Briggs, when a man takes pleasure with a woman he is no longer a free man."
He picked up the marriage certificate and studied Jack's scrawl. "Our women are taught their obligations from the day they are born. They are instructed by their own mothers to care for their future mate. To provide him children. To provide him a home. To provide him loyalty and service.
"In doing so, they honor our ancestors. They know nothing of the choices your American women have." El Comandante ended his lecture with a snort.
Jack gingerly tested the split skin on the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, well, it's not called the land of the free for nothing."
He heard a tiny snuffle at his side, then a chuckle-no, a cough. Knowing he could avoid the bad news no longer, he peered between two fingers to get a good look at his wife.
From the look of things, he'd bagged himself a winner.
Worn brown fabric, drab and inclusive, enveloped the woman, from the top of her head, down her shapeless form, to the pink toenails at the end of ragged rope sandals.
A tendril of dark hair peeked from beneath the head covering, giving him a clue that she was-
Wait a minute. Wait just the hell a minute. Pink toenails? Pink toenails? Uh-uh. No way was he sitting still for this scam.
Jack pushed to his feet. "Whatever's going on here isn't going any further until I talk to someone from the American Embassy."
"Señor Briggs. I am not taking orders here." El Comandante raised his gun-toting arm. "You, on the other hand, will do exactly as I say. Unless you wish to face the consequences."
He released the safety, flexed his trigger finger, and sighted Jack's throat. The barrel loomed closer.
Tasting gunpowder and metal and his own mortality, Jack considered his options for the length of time it took the other man to pick up the blade-bearing cane with his free hand.
"What is it I'm supposed to do?" Jack asked.
"First, you will sit down."
Jack was slow to respond, slow enough in fact that he caught a brief flare of indecision in the other man's eyes before the cold blackness returned.
Good. He'd made his point. The chair he sat in might be unstable, but he wasn't.
Comandante Mosquera arched one thick brow, then gave a brief nod of approval. "Muy bueno. Now, Señor Briggs. Your wife is in need of your escort. She must journey to her family home in a mountain village."
Jack straightened. The chair swayed. "I'm the only chopper pilot Smithson's crew has. We're laying fifteen hundred feet-"
El Comandante brandished the cane point and cut off Jack's sentence. "Once you are there, your wife and her family will make the final decision on whether or not you will be a worthy husband. Because of this questionable course of events, if she wishes an annulment she will be granted one."
Jack perked up. A quick trip up the road might not be a bad idea. Especially if he came back a free man.
He pretended to ponder El Comandante's proposition when, in truth, he wondered why the San Toriscan military was meddling in personal matters.
How much backup did this guy have? Or was he an elite member of the Sabastiano private Policía, answering to no one but the big man himself?
Jack swore succinctly, but silently. Everything about this deal stank of hidden agendas. "I don't have any say in the matter?"
"You have a say in nothing."
His palms pressed to his thighs, Jack stood, wincing at the dizzying rush of blood that swept through his skull to the center of his face. "Then let's go."
One corner of Mosquera's mustache lifted. "Señor Briggs. What is your hurry?"
"I'm under deadline. Hank Smithson doesn't have time to waste looking for me."
"Do not worry. We will inform your ... how is it you say ... your foreman at the Smithson compound where you will be for the next month."
Jack needed a shovel to pick up his jaw. "The next month?"
"Of course, Señor Briggs." A sneer greased the Latino's lips. "You cannot return until the baby is born."
The baby? The baby?
Jack's heartbeat signaled a situational slip from bad to worse. He whooshed in a serious breath and slanted a glance to the side ... and his wife.
She stood then, his burlap sack, and turned his way. Jack never saw her face. He never got past her figure. Past her belly that had to be at least eight months gone.
He remembered well the changes that developed between seven and nine months. He'd measured Mandy's waistline every week until Justin had been born.
But that was forever ago. In a limbo sort of time and space he'd tried to forget.
All he knew right now was that playing handball didn't make a baby, and that was as close to getting any as he'd come the last year.
Stunned, Jack sat. His butt cracked hard against the wooden chair. The legs cracked out from beneath him. His head cracked against a piece of standing concrete block.
And the last image that lingered as he fell to the ground was Comandante Mosquera's smug crack of a smile.
Chapter TwoJack woke the first time to the pitch and sway of a chopper going down. He lunged forward in a panic, wildly searching for the stick to level the craft.
His groping hands found nothing but air, nothing to save him from the crash to come, nothing but wide-open fields below and the still, silent air that amplified screams until he could hear nothing else.
Not even his own thoughts. Not even his heartbeat. Not even the prop above chopping the air like a scythe.
He scrambled and reached, struggled to control the diving craft. There. He had it. The stick. No. A bone. Covered with blood. Tagged with warm flesh.
Chapter ThreeJack woke the second time to blessed peace. He waited for the angels, listened for the harps. Finally, he sniffed, expecting the smoke of fire and brimstone.
All he smelled was himself. The stench brought him awake. That, and the donkey bray that split the air.
The roaring bellow might've been music to a horse's ears, but it boosted Jack's headache into overdrive.
The headache revived the pain in the center of his face. The pain brought the word "puke" to mind, along with the realization that he was no longer in jail.
When he finally pried open the one eye that wasn't swollen shut above his aching nose, he saw nothing but knothole. So far, so good.
A few seconds and a deep breath later he rolled onto his back, tucking his chin to his chest. He was in a peasant's donkey cart, no doubt the property of his wife.
Six bags of beans shored up one side, while the other owed its forty-five-degree angle to a railroad spike wedged against the rotting floor.
Oh, yeah. He could hardly wait to see the place she called home.
He eased up onto his elbows, continuing to sniff. The air was dank and damp with tropical stagnation. The kind of air that was truly hard to breathe.
The raucous racket of jungle birds resounded through the trees. A flutter of red and yellow wings beat against fronds tangled in swaying vines.
Pieces of blue sky dotted the thick growth miles above his head. Extra-large insects buzzed and droned, looking for a square of human flesh.
Jack figured he was safe. At this point his smell would scare off the septic man.
"Hey," he called out. Surely his wife hadn't deserted him so soon. He needed to know exactly how far from civilization he was.
A spit bath was out of the question. He needed a shower. A river. A puddle. He was long past proud.
"Hey!" He shifted higher, jarred to a half-sitting stop, and groaned. The vine hanging overhead had a head of its own-and was headed his way.
An eyelash viper. Right up there at the top of Smithson's list of Things to Avoid While Working in San Torisco. Not that he'd needed the warning.
The snakebite he'd suffered during a stint in Burma had turned him into a true ophidiophobe.
"Yo. Señora Briggs." She had to be out there somewhere. And if she didn't show up in about half a second, she was going to be a widow.
He hadn't moved a muscle other than those it had taken for the gruffly whispered call, but that tiny movement seemed enough for the snake.
The head arced around. The beady eyes gleamed black. The tiny tongue flickered.
Damn, but Jack wished he could remember how to pray.
The snake slithered closer, hovering mid-air, dangling by the tiniest bit of coiled tail.
The whip stung Jack's left ear, snapped the snake from the tree. It fell to the cart: head over the rickety side, tail in Jack's lap.
The top half reared up. Jack jumped, fell back, hit his head on the railroad spike, and watched the downward arc of an eighteen-inch blade.
The machete severed the snake in two. The head thunked to the ground. The tail writhed in his lap.
Jack gladly let tequila and fear take him down.
Chapter FourThe third time Jack woke he smacked his lips and tasted Tequila Mickey, the stubborn demon who'd taken up residence in his gut. The parked cart was still in one piece, and a shuddering glance revealed no viper parts left behind.
Neither was there any sign of Señora Briggs.
A quick physical inventory assured him his nose only felt like it was broken. The swelling had receded. The gash had begun to heal. The rest of his parts seemed to be in working order-some working overtime.
Excerpted from The PERFECT STRANGER by ALISON KENT Copyright © 2007 by Alison Kent. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.