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Lisa Collins's slender body was huddled into a compact ball, her face just inches from the dirt floor as she pressed her nose and mouth hard into her bare, grimy arm. Smoke rose all around her, thick black smoke that rolled and curled and rammed oily fingers up her nose and down her throat. Choking, she coughed, desperately muffling the sound. Please God there was no one nearby to hear. If they heard her... she shuddered. She had no illusion as to what her fate would be.
At least the screaming had stopped. Although she knew she shouldn't be, knew what the silence meant, Lisa was guiltily grateful for that. She had thought she would go mad, listening to the tortured cries of Ian and Mary Blass and their three children as they roasted to death inside the flaming inferno of what had once been their home. If she hadn't been outside when the soldiers came, making a quick, prebed visit to the shed that housed the farm's sanitary facilities, she would have been dead now, too. At the thought her body shook from head to toe. And she hadn't escaped yet, she knew. The killers were still here, all around her, putting the torch to everything, butchering animals as well as humans. The screams of pigs and cows had mingled with those of the Blasses....
They were guerrillas, of course. For which side Lisa couldn't be sure. She had known of Rhodesia's civil war when she had asked for the assignment, but it had seemed like such a heaven-sent chance for escape that she had barely considered the possibility of danger. Besides, she had thought naïvely, as was now abundantly clear that her status as an Americanjournalist would protect her. Well, as in so many other things in her life, she'd been wrong. Maybe dead wrong.
The smoke was getting worse every second that she lay there, coiling up under her protective arms to caress her face, doing its best to suffocate her. Lisa knew that she had to make a move, had to run for it while she was still capable of doing so, but the thought of leaving her hiding place, of venturing out into the open space of the yard, paralyzed her. She was mildly surprised to discover that, despite everything, she was not yet ready to die....
On the other side of the thin wall, feet thudded to within inches of her head. Lisa stopped breathing as a man shouted something in an unintelligible language. Somewhere over her head she heard a dull plonk. Then, to her overwhelming relief, the footsteps ran on.
Lisa's heart was just regaining its normal rhythm when she became aware of an ominous crackling noise. Lifting her head, she looked around and saw that the whole back end of the shed was bathed in a hot orange glow. Fire! Tiny tongues of flame were licking at the roof, racing for the walls. She no longer had a choice: she had to run for it. Panic welled like vomit in her throat. She was scared scared to death. So scared she couldn't move could she?
She could. Terror became her ally, forcing her cramped limbs to propel her in a low crawl toward the door. Her breath rasped painfully in her throat. Tears made scalding tracks down her face. She was going to die, she knew, right here on this isolated farm in southern Rhodesia. And she was only twenty-five! It wasn't fair! Oh, God, it wasn't fair!
The three feet to the door seemed like three miles. Lisa gagged on the smoke, her back muscles tensing in futile defense against the fire now raging directly above her. All around, small flaming pieces of wood dropped to the ground. Lisa knew that it was just a matter of a few minutes before the roof collapsed and she would die. Did it hurt to die? she wondered. Of course it did. Think of how the Blasses had screamed....
Her nails dug deep furrows in the dirt floor as she dragged herself forward. If she could just get outside she would live at least for a little while. But when at last she reached the door she stopped, gasping for precious air as she lay on her stomach on the floor, her mind whirling in frightened circles. What awaited her beyond the door terrified her almost more than the crematorium she faced if she stayed.
"Into your hands, Lord," she whispered finally, and giving herself up to His protection she pushed the door. It moved easily. She opened it just enough so that she could see out. The night air, cool and sweet compared to what was in her lungs, flowed in through the crack, touching her face like a benediction. Lisa gulped it in, loving the pain of it as it chafed her raw throat. Air was wonderful, one part of her mind registered, as her eyes raced fearfully over the scene before her.
It was night, but it wasn't dark. Flames shooting out from the house and barn and various outbuildings illuminated the farmyard so that it was almost as light as day. Everywhere Lisa saw khaki-uniformed men, some standing gloating over the destruction they had wrought, some running through the yard brandishing flaming torches, some loading objects that had obviously been plundered from the farm onto trucks. None of them seemed particularly interested in the burning outhouse. Lisa took a deep, steadying breath. She had a chance, then. Just a chance.
Quick as a snake she was through the door, belly-crawling across the short, tough takka grass toward the line of trees that marked the end of the cleared ground. If she could just reach the jungle she could hide.... She might live! The thought, previously so impossible, was intoxicating. Lisa slithered across the ground faster than she had ever dreamed she could move, afraid to look anywhere but directly ahead. Rocks and sharp sticks tore through her jeans and short-sleeved T-shirt and ripped at her skin, but Lisa hardly felt the pain. Her whole consciousness was focused on making it across the arid patch of earth separating her from safety.
She had less than five yards to go when her clawing hand touched flesh... cold flesh. Lisa looked to her left and froze. Sprawled just inches away was the body of a man a man she had known. Cholly that was his name. He'd been sent by Ian Blass to meet her at the small local airport and had driven her the sixteen miles out to the farm, talking volubly all the way. Was it only the day before? Impossible to believe. Now he was dead. Brutally murdered, his body awash in a pool of blood that was even now soaking into the ever-thirsty African soil, leaving behind obscene little clots that clung to his coffee-colored skin and the brown blades of grass.... His throat had been slit. The still-oozing gash stared up at the night sky like a wide, obscene grin where no grin should be. Lisa felt the gorge rise in her throat. Stomach convulsing, she vomited until there was nothing but clear liquid left inside her. Then, blindly, forgetting everything in the face of this newest horror, she lurched to her feet and ran stumbling toward the trees.
By some miracle she made it. But even then she didn't stop, didn't slow her headlong flight. She couldn't. Panic drove her on, plunging through the waist-high undergrowth, mindless of even the inchlong thorns of the lawyer vine that reached out to stab at her. Twice she tripped and fell headlong, but got up to run on. The only thought in her mind was that she had to escape... had to escape... had to
"Jesus H. Christ, what in the hell is that?"
The savage exclamation brought her head swinging around. Soldiers! More than a dozen of them, standing in a loose cluster not three arms' lengths away. The pitch blackness of the jungle and her own terror had blinded her to their presence until this moment. Oh, God, to let her get so far and no farther was cruel....
Still, she tried. She ran desperately, leaping and twisting through the dense foliage. Behind her she could hear crashing footsteps as they chased her, and then the fast pant of a man's breathing. A flying tackle brought her down at last. Her body jarred deep into the prickly undergrowth, borne down by a man's hard weight. Slewing her head around in a wild attempt at self-defense, she saw the khaki sleeve of a uniform and screamed. And screamed. And screamed. Until something slammed viciously into her jaw and the world went black.
Lisa dreamed that she was home again, a thoroughly spoiled teenager safe in her grandfather's big house on Chesapeake Bay. She was his pampered darling, his only surviving kin, and nothing in the world was too good for her. The best clothes, the best schools, a car she had them all. But at nineteen she didn't want them. Or at least they weren't her top priority. Jeff was Jeff Collins, the dreamily handsome, football-playing son of a state senator. She'd been out with him only twice, but she wanted him forever. And what Lisa wanted, Lisa got.
"What Lisa wanted, Lisa got." Even in her dream Lisa smiled humorlessly at that. She had gone after Jeff with the single-minded tenacity she'd inherited from her publishing-tycoon grandfather, and had wangled a proposal out of Jeff within six months. Their engagement was greeted with enthusiasm by both families. "An ideal match" was what everyone called it. Her own happiness was something Lisa took for granted. For people like herself, the "right" people, that was how life went. Things always worked out the way they were supposed to, and she expected no less than a "happily ever after."
And she had it. For nearly a year. Perhaps their marriage wasn't the shooting-stars-and-ringing-bells romance described in popular fiction, but it was good, solid, based on mutual trust and affection. Or so she told her girl friends. Privately, she began to wonder. Her sheltered upbringing had given her a very limited knowledge of sex she'd been a virgin when she married, more from lack of opportunity (the best schools were always exclusively Female) than any real moral convictions but the little petting she had done on dates had shown her that physical contact with a man could be enjoyable. With Jeff, it wasn't. There was no getting around that. He didn't enjoy it either, although he tried very hard to hide his lack of enthusiasm. As time went on and things didn't improve, Lisa began to wonder sickly if the problem was hers, if perhaps she lacked whatever it was that turned men on. Certainly she didn't light any fires in Jeff, despite the fact that she was an exceptionally lovely girl everyone said so. Her figure was good, tall and slender and rounded in all the right places. Her face had a delicate perfection of feature that could hardly be faulted. Her shoulder-blade-length ash-blond hair was always clean and shining, she wore only the faintest trace of makeup, in deference to Jeff's taste, to accentuate her tip-tilted green eyes, she smelled good, dressed well so what was wrong?
She found out two days before her twentieth birthday the same day she found out that she was pregnant. She had suspected her condition for several weeks, but hadn't wanted to say anything to Jeff until she was absolutely sure. On this particular morning, when the doctor confirmed that she was indeed expecting a child, Lisa canceled her planned lunch out and hurried home with her news, happier than she had been in a long time. To her pleased surprise, Jeff was home. His coat and hat were in the downstairs closet, and seeing them Lisa smiled joyously, anticipating his excitement when she told him that he was going to be a father. She walked up the stairs to their bedroom, still smiling. And sure enough Jeff was there. He was in their king-sized bed, quite naked, and with him was another man.
She would have divorced him then if it hadn't been for the baby, despite the fact that he cried and told her that this was the first time, that men really weren't his thing, that it would never happen again. He had begged her not to tell what she had seen, to give him another chance. Finally she had agreed because of the baby.
It was the second biggest mistake of her life. She should have left him on the spot. As time went on it got harder and harder, because he was genuinely thrilled about her pregnancy and, after Jennifer was born, devoted to the child. Sweet little Jennifer adored her father from her first breath, and Lisa couldn't find it in her to take the child away. How do you explain to a toddler that Daddy loves other men better than he loves Mommy because of course he did.
Lisa had been on the point of taking Jennifer and leaving despite everything when the most horrible chapter in the nightmare that had become her life began. Jennifer got leukemia. Not all the hundreds of thousands of dollars in Lisa's trust fund, nor all her grandfather's millions or his endless network of connections were able to save the most precious thing in Lisa's world. Numbly, she could do nothing but watch as her child wasted away, her anguish matched only by Jeff's. They died little by little together, the three of them, until at last it was over and Jennifer lay in a cold, dark grave. After that, Lisa collapsed. It was months before she could pass a day without crying, months before she could come to grips with the fact that her child was dead. Dead. Dead.
After a year she realized that she had to snap out of it or be as dead as Jennifer. Her lifeline came in the form of a job on the Annapolis Daily Star, one of the many newspapers her grandfather owned. She hadn't asked for the job, didn't really want it, in fact, but her grandfather insisted. It was time she did some work for a change, he said, the concern in his eyes belying his gruff tone as he surveyed her too-slender figure and wan face. When Lisa tried to demur, he would have none of it. He needed someone to cover local society events, he told her, and who better than his own granddaughter, who had been mingling with all the right people since her birth and had entrée into the best homes on equal terms? Lisa shrugged, and assented. The apathy that had shrouded her for months had left her incapable of defying her grandfather's iron will. So, reluctantly, she had started to attend the local luncheons and charity bazaars and hunt balls that had taken up so much of her time before Jennifer's birth. The only difference now was that she reported on who wore what, who said what, and who was with whom for the Star. To her surprise, Lisa found that she had quite a gift for writing. Soon she actually began to look forward to getting to work each day. She felt life begin to flow again in her body like sap rising in a tree. She renewed old acquaintances, forgotten in her anguish over Jennifer, and made new friends among the Star's staff and elsewhere. Finally she got to the point where she could once more contemplate leaving Jeff. Only when she was free of him could she hope to achieve some measure of true happiness, she knew. But still she put it off, dreading her grandfather's reaction, Jeff's parents', their friends'.
When Grace Ballard, the Star's feature editor, casually mentioned over lunch one day that an old school friend of hers had married a Rhodesian farmer and was at that moment experiencing all the excitement and adventure of living in that country during its civil war, Lisa had felt only the faintest glimmer of interest. Until Grace had gone on to bemoan the fact that all the Star's stringers in the area were too caught up covering the actual fighting to do the feature story she envisioned something along the lines of "American Woman Raises Family Amid Bullets, Bombs." It was then that Lisa felt a premonitory quiver at the base of her spine. This was her chance, she realized, both to branch out into writing about something more substantial than weddings and dances, and, more important, to escape.
Speaking casually to hide her mounting excitement, Lisa had volunteered to travel to Rhodesia to get the story. Grace had been at first amused, and then, when she saw that Lisa was serious, horrified. John Landis, the Star's managing editor, had flatly vetoed the idea. After all, he pointed out, Lisa had no real experience as a reporter, and Rhodesia in its current state of chaos was a place for only the most professional and the hardiest. Finally Lisa was able to force an admission from him that the Blass farm was miles from the fighting, but Landis insisted that it made no difference: the idea was too outlandish, too dangerous, even to consider. But for once in her life, Lisa took advantage of her family connections to pull rank. She went straight from Landis's office to her grandfather and laid her request before him. He looked at her silently for what seemed like a long time, weighing the sudden, blazing life in the green eyes that only weeks ago had been as dull and lifeless as last night's embers, and at last gave his permission. Only as she was leaving his rosewood-paneled office at the back of his sprawling home did he tack on a brusque admonition for her to take care. Lisa nodded, smiling, but in truth she barely heard. That there could seriously be physical danger to her person she barely considered. She was far too elated about this plum that had dropped into her lap. It seemed like the answer to a prayer: the perfect way to make the break with her old life with no one the wiser until it was all over. And of course, as she prepared for the journey, she told no one that she wasn't planning to come back at least not to Jeff or to the house they shared....
Lisa hurt all over. Pain brought her whimpering back to consciousness. Her skin felt as if it were on fire. Fire.... she remembered fire. Was she burning, then? Had she passed out, only imagining that she had managed to escape from the shed? Had... Something sharp pricked her skin, and she flinched.
"Ouch!" she was surprised to hear herself say aloud, and opened her eyes. She was looking into a man's face, a tanned strong face with irregular features and a scar bisecting one cheek. It wasn't a handsome face until one met the blue, blue eyes.
"So you're awake at last, sleeping beauty." The voice matched the face, very hard and male, with the unexpected overlay of a soft southern drawl. Lisa blinked, not taking her eyes from the man. At her bemused expression he smiled. One long-fingered brown hand came up and very gently smoothed the hair back from her forehead.
"Can you hear me?" he asked. Lisa nodded faintly, still staring. His teeth were slightly uneven, she noted, but they were very, very white in his dark face.
"Where am I?" she whispered. Her voice frightened her because it was so weak.
"You're safe," he said, not really answering, but it was the answer she wanted.
"Who are you?"
"My name's Sam. Sam Eastman. Who are you?"
"Lisa Collins." Her voice sounded as if it were coming from far away. Lisa began to wonder if perhaps she was imagining this whole conversation, if she had imagined the job, the fire, everything that had happened. If perhaps she had lost her mind in her grief over Jennifer's death...
"Are you real?" The suspicious question made him smile again.
"More real than you, I imagine, honey. Do you feel up to talking? Can you tell me if you have people somewhere near, somewhere we can take you?" He sounded kind and concerned. At his deliberate gentleness, Lisa felt hot tears begin to well in her eyes.
"I'm from Maryland," she whispered forlornly.
"Okay." The word was soothing. "Don't cry about it. You've been through a bad time, but you're going to be just fine. Now what you need is rest. I'm going to give you something to help you sleep. Okay?"
"Okay," Lisa echoed with a quavery attempt at a smile. In her present confused state she would have agreed with anything he suggested. It was strange, the effect he had on her. He made her feel safe, safe and protected....
Sam turned away to pick up something from the overturned box that served as a makeshift bedside table. Lisa's eyes never left his face as he turned back to her. Once again something pricked her arm. Groggily she realized that what had pulled her from her dreams had been the jab of a hypodermic needle. She continued to stare at him until the drug took effect and her eyes closed....