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"Are you lost, Blondie?" Sebastian Stone killed the engine of the Jeep and glanced over his shoulder, ready to work the charm on the female whose tone had been more mocking than welcoming. But when said female strode up to the driver's side, the flirty remark died in his throat. The girl couldn't have been older than fourteen or fifteen, which rendered any flirtatious exchanges absolutely inappropriate.
Still, he couldn't resist a little mocking jab of his own. "Actually, kiddo, I'm right where I'm supposed to be."
He knew no self-respecting teenage girl would respond well to being called kiddo, and sure enough, he got the reaction he'd expected. The girl's brown eyes flashed with indignation, and her mocha-colored cheeks took on a reddish hue.
Shooting him a sinister look, she crossed her arms over her chest. "Seriously, dude, what are you doing here?"
Sebastian hopped out of the Jeep and nodded at the ramshackle brick building twenty feet away. "I have an appointment with Dr. Davenport."
Those dark eyes narrowed. "Are you a patient?"
He cocked a brow. "No. Are you?"
"No." She huffed out an annoyed breath. "Fine. Come on, I'll take you to Julia."
"How gracious of you, Miss " He waited for her to fill in the rest.
"Simone," she said grudgingly.
"Pleasure to meet you, Simone. I'm Sebastian."
Grabbing his canvas messenger bag from the backseat, he trailed after the teenager, who, despite the sweltering heat, was surprisingly energetic as she led him toward the covered porch of the clinic.
It was a disgustingly hot day, and the sun had been beating down on Sebastian's head during the entire drive over here, bringing beads of sweat to his forehead and making his threadbare T-shirt stick to his chest. Eventually he'd taken off the shirt and made the rest of the drive shirtless, drawing uneasy glances from several of the local women he'd passed on the side of the road.
The folks around here weren't used to seeing strangers in cars roaming the area. Valero was one of the poorer towns in San Marquez, just a small settlement at the base of the mountain. Lush greenery, rocky slopes and an abundance of tangled shrubbery marked the landscape, with gravel and dirt roads winding their way through the terrain like unwanted intruders. With a population of barely a thousand, the town of Valero was nothing more than dilapidated brick houses scattered about, isolated farms, a surprisingly busy marketplace and this Doctors International clinic located on the outskirts of town.
"Julia's in the back," Simone said as they stepped through the paint-chipped double doors at the building's entrance.
The girl stuck to a brisk pace, but Sebastian still had enough time to scope out his surroundings as they ventured deeper into the medical facility. Although Doctors International specialized in visiting areas in dire need of medical care, setting up makeshift hospitals and then packing up and moving on, the organization did have some permanent clinics in place all over the globe. This was one of them, and Sebastian noted that the operation they had going here was professional and efficient.
The hallways were dimly lit but clean. The waiting room he and Simone passed was small and cramped, but offered rows of plastic chairs and toys for the children waiting with their parents. Because the building was L-shaped, they had to take a sharp left and ended up striding down another long hallway. This one featured several closed doors, most likely exam rooms. Through a pair of swinging doors with small square windows, Sebastian glimpsed a large room containing dozens of hospital beds.
"You get a lot of overnight patients?" he asked the teenager.
She spared him a glance over her shoulder. "Sometimes. There's always a few patients in the AIDS wing, but the general wing isn't usually so full."
"But it is at the moment because of the malaria cases that have cropped up, right?"
Simone tossed him another look, this one laced with suspicion. "How do you know about those cases?"
"I'm a journalist," he answered. "It's my business to know everything."
The teenager halted, her hands landing on her slender waist. "You're a journalist? No way."
Despite the fact that he was lying through his teeth, he stared at the girl with nothing but sincerity. "Yes way."
"Who do you write for?" she challenged.
He shrugged. "Everyone. I'm a freelancer, so I'm constantly traveling the world, searching for stories."
As of three days ago, anyway.
He decided to keep that to himself. He couldn't very well come out and say, "Hey, guess what? I used to be Special Forces, but now my own government wants me dead." The kid probably wouldn't believe him anyway. It did sound farfetched as hell.
Unfortunately, it was the cold, hard truth. For the past eight months, he'd been hiding out with the two remaining members of his former unit. What had once been a nine-man team had been reduced to a paltry three. Six deadone during that ill-fated mission to San Marquez, but the five that followed? Those deaths were no accidents. After the unit had been recalled back to the States, those men had been systematically killed off, presumably because they'd seen too much during that last op.
Sebastian had nearly died himself, which was why he'd promptly connected with Nick Prescott and their commanding officer, Captain Robert Tate, and the three of them had gotten the hell out of Dodge.
Up until two months ago, he would've insisted there was nothing off about that mission to rescue Richard Harrison, the American doctor who'd been held captive by rebel fighters. But as it turned out, nothing was as it seemedthe doctor hadn't been a hostage at all, and the dead bodies Sebastian's team had found strewn all over the village? Those villagers hadn't died at the hands of the rebels but from a virus Dr. Harrison was testing on innocent people.
Unfortunately, that was about all Sebastian knew. The key to finding out who authorized the killing of his unit was in discovering who authorized the manufacturing of a virus he still knew nothing about.
Hopefully that would change today. For the last couple of months, he and the others had kept their eyes and ears open to any unusual medical developments in San Marquez, and last night they'd hit pay dirt.
He didn't know if these malaria cases in Valero were related to Richard Harrison's virus, but he was damn well going to find out. Tate and Nick had agreed it was worth the risk for Sebastian to leave their safe house in Ecuador to investigate, and although he hated being out in the open like this, he was determined to make use of every second.
"So what are you doing here, kiddo?" he asked in a conversational tone. "You're clearly too young to be a volunteer."
"My dad works here." Simone stuck out her chin proudly. "He's a surgeon."
"Impressive." Sebastian smirked. "So he just lugs you along during his travels? He doesn't think school is important?"
She glared at him. "I'm homeschooled. But FYI, there are more important things than school. Like saving lives."
He couldn't argue with that. Saving lives was important. So was staying alive, which was his one and only goal at the moment.
Simone led him to the very end of the hall to a door that swung open the second they approached it.
The slender brunette who'd slid through the threshold stumbled in surprise, then let out a laugh as her gaze met Sebastian's. "Mr. Stone, I presume? I was just coming out to meet you."
"No need. Simone was gracious enough to escort me to you," he answered with a charming smile he'd perfected over the years.
The brunette snickered. "Simone, gracious? I'd like to see that."
Rather than object, the teenager simply shrugged. "You know me too well, Doc." Then she lifted her nose up and frowned at Sebastian. "Later, dude."
As Simone bounded off, Sebastian gave the brunette a wry look. "Nice kid."
She grinned. "She can be a handful, but her bedside manner is surprisingly remarkable. She's wonderful with the patients." The brunette stuck out a hand. "I'm Julia Davenport."
"Sebastian Stone." He leaned in for the handshake, and the firmness of her grip surprised him, especially because her hands were so small and dainty.
In fact, everything about this woman was dainty. Delicate, even. She was average height, but skinnier than she ought to be. He didn't mind a willowy figure on a woman, but Julia Davenport could definitely afford to put on a few pounds. She wore a blue tank top that clung to a pair of small breasts and outlined the unmistakable ridges of her ribcage. Her legs weren't quite scrawny but, again, could have benefited from some extra curves.
Though she did have a surprisingly plump ass, he had to concede, his gaze honing in on that round bottom when Julia turned to reenter her office.
Because he'd always been an ass man, the tantalizing sight stirred his groin, serving as a reminder of his eight-month-long stint of celibacy. Getting laid wasn't something he'd given much thought to since going into hiding. Granted, it was easy not to think about sex when your only company was two bad-tempered soldiers and a case of watery South American beer.
"How was your flight?" Julia asked.
"Uneventful." And nonexistenthe'd arrived on the island by boat after bribing the captain of a cargo vessel to give him a ride and drop him outside the harbor where he wouldn't encounter any customs officials.
"Have a seat," she said, gesturing to a very small, very uncomfortable-looking plastic chair.
While Julia rounded a narrow metal desk and sat down, Sebastian crammed his six-foot-two-inch frame into the tiny chair and tried to get comfortable.
His shifting and sliding earned him another grin from Julia Davenport, and now that he focused on her face rather than her too-skinny frame, he realized just how pretty she was. Not classically beautiful by society's standards, but her features were interesting. A wide, generous mouth that seemed to contradict with her slightly angular jaw, a straight aristocratic nose and a pair of big hazel eyes that gave her that perpetually fragile and doe-eyed air.
But he suspected there was nothing fragile or doe-eyed about this woman, which was confirmed when her expression suddenly turned shrewd. "Okay, what do you want to know?" she asked, getting right down to business.
"Eager to get rid of me?" he couldn't help but tease.
"Actually, no. I would love nothing more than to sit here with you for the next two frickin' weeks. I'm exhausted, hungry, cranky and I can't remember the last time I had a conversation with someone who wasn't sick or dying." She let out a heavy sigh. "But what can you do? I knew exactly what I was getting into when I signed on for this gig."
Her blunt tone and frank words intrigued him. When he'd set up this bogus interview, he'd expected to hear a bunch of praise for the Doctors International organization and heartfelt speeches about saving the world and making a difference and all that jazz.
"Sounds like running this clinic is a tough task," he remarked.
"Tough is an understatement." A beat. "Aren't you going to take notes?"
Right. Notes. That was what journalists did.
He bent down and removed a notebook, ballpoint pen and mini tape recorder from his messenger bag. Holding up the recorder, he met Julia's big hazel eyes and said, "Mind if I record this?"
"Not at all."
As he set up the recorder and opened his notebook to a fresh page, Julia shot him another one of those no-nonsense looks. "I read some of your articles online this morning. You're a good writer."
Thank you, Eva.
Sebastian made a mental note to be nicer to Tate's fiancée next time he saw her. He hadn't been Eva Dolce's biggest fan when the woman had come into their lives. Then again, when a mysterious chick showed up asking your commanding officer to risk his neck and kill a man for her, were you really expected to bust out the trust parade?
But in the end, Eva had proven to be trustworthy, and thanks to her, Hector Cruz, the leader of the rebel group currently terrorizing San Marquez, was out of commission.
Also thanks to Eva, Sebastian had a fake writing career all over the internet. It had only taken Tate's hacker fiancée a day to establish Sebastian Stone as a bona fide freelancer, mostly by hacking into newspaper sites and changing the by-lines. The story wouldn't hold up under deep scrutiny, but they'd figured Julia Davenport and her colleagues wouldn't have time to do a thorough background check on the man who was coming to write a glowing piece about their organization.
"Thanks," he said, hoping Julia didn't ask him any specific questions about his "work."
"Though I'm surprised to hear you have internet access here."
"We do in the clinic, but it's expensive, so we only use it for work purposes. Communication-wise, we've got a radio we use to connect with other clinics on the island, and a sat phone for emergencies."
"What about cell phones? I noticed mine kept losing its signal the closer I got to the mountains."
"There's a cell tower somewhere around here, but my phone rarely gets a signal either. Last night the signal lasted for almost an hour, and the midwife we have on staff actually got to talk to her grandson for more than five minutes." She flashed another one of those dry grins. "I swear, we throw a party every time someone sees one bar on their phone display. It's like frickin' Halley's Comet just flew overhead."
He chuckled, and for a moment, he totally forgot he was supposed to interview her. He was enjoying simply talking to Julia Davenport. It had been so long since he'd had a conversation with someone other than Tate or Nick, about something other than the damn targets painted on their backs.
"Anyway, off-topic again," she said with a chuckle of her own. "Interview away, Mr. Stone."
"Sebastian," she echoed.
"All right, well, why don't you start by telling me a bit about the setup you folks have going here."
With a nod, she leaned back in her chair and gave him a quick rundown of the Doctors International organization. She described their goals, the way the organization was structured, the equipment they had on hand. Every now and then, Sebastian interrupted with a question to give credibility to the whole interview thing, but in his head, he was trying to figure out the best way to broach the dying patients in the next room.
"So you do have an MRI," he cut in, pretending to be fascinated.
She nodded, her dainty fingers toying with the end of her long brown braid, which fell over one shoulder. "We do, but we don't have an on-site expert to handle the results. The scans are sent to the central lab in Merido, and the diagnoses and results are emailed back to us."
He asked a few more questions without really caring about the answers, except he found himself incredibly fascinated the more he listened to Julia Davenport talk. She wasn't like any doctor he'd ever met. She actually spoke English, for one, and not that complicated medical jargon that made people's heads spin like merry-go-rounds.
And he liked the sound of her voiceit was soft but controlled, husky enough to be sexy but still professional. A rush of heat skated up his spine as his gaze moved to her mouth, those pouty lips that pursed each time she paused to organize her next thought.
Damn, he was getting all sorts of turned on courtesy of Dr. Julia Davenport. He definitely needed to nip this strange attraction in the bud. Now.
"So what you're saying," he said with another laugh, "is that you're overcrowded, understaffed, short on equipment and pretty much doing the best you can by the skin of your teeth."
Her answering laughter summoned another jolt of heat. "Pretty much," she confirmed.
He studied the random questions he'd scribbled down in his notebook, pretending to think about his next line of inquiry. "What about the rebels?" he asked. "Are you getting any resistance from the ULF soldiers in the area?"
Sebastian was surprised. It was no secret that the United Liberty Fighters resented the alliance between San Marquez and America. For the past ten years, San Marquez had seen nothing but strife and turmoil thanks to the ULF. What started out as an admirable movement to fight a genuinely oppressive government had transformed into violence, unrest and borderline terrorism.