Read an Excerpt
By Suzanne Forster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Suzanne Forster
All rights reserved.
"Psssst, Randy! This guy's the closest thing to an untamed animal I've seen outside the L.A. Zoo. Shall I send him in?"
Miranda Witherspoon glanced up from the work on her desk, wincing at the flushed excitement of her personal assistant, who'd just opened the office door a crack and stuck her head in.
"See if you can reschedule him, Barb," Randy pleaded, gingerly pressing her fingertips to a spot just above her right eyebrow and what promised to be the mother of all headaches. "The last applicant tried to bench press my file cabinet. And the one before that—with the shaved head and gargoyle tattoos—had hand grenades stashed in his camouflage fatigues. I saw them when he scratched himself. Please, Barb, make up some excuse."
"I'm not sure that's wise, Randy. He's not the type you pat on the bottom and point toward the door." Her voice dropped to a hush. "He looks like he could rip the buttons off your blouse with his teeth."
Randy shuddered. "Then tell him I've got PMS. Macho types are known to be terrified of mice and overwrought women. It's a male hormone thing."
Barb shot Randy a long-suffering look, mumbled something that sounded like "craven coward," and shut the door.
Randy continued to massage the tenderness above her eyebrow, one of the many trigger points for her tension headaches, according to her chiropractor. Her relief at postponing the appointment was mixed. She'd been interviewing mercenaries all morning, and if she'd known how difficult it was going to be hiring someone to find her missing fiancé, she would have tried an employment agency instead of taking out an ad in a soldier-of-fortune magazine. The men who'd responded so far looked more than capable of handling the job, but they'd all refused the assignment when she'd mentioned the Brazilian crime czar she believed was involved in her fiancé's disappearance.
Their reaction had magnified her fears about her fiancé's safety, and they'd also made her feel guilty for her suspicions about Hugh. She'd actually feared he might be getting cold feet about their upcoming wedding. It wouldn't be the first time she'd been left standing at the altar. But that fiasco was a long time ago, she reminded herself, part of her misbegotten youth.
As the pulsing in her forehead began to subside, she swiveled in her executive chair and gazed out the window of her tenth-floor corner office. The panoramic view of L.A.'s skyline was spectacular today, an imposing vista of mirrored skyscrapers etched against a cloudless blue sky. Sometimes she had to pinch herself to believe it was really true that she. Randy Witherspoon, a ragtag West Side kid, was head of market research for an international chain of resort hotels. Even more unbelievable, she was engaged to the firm's executive vice president in charge of acquisitions, Hugh Hargrove.
Edna would love this, Randy thought, sinking back into the chair's plush leather upholstery. With a wistful smile, she remembered her mother's dreams of a better life, of a Prince Charming who, complete with white charger, would sweep into their lives and rescue a beleaguered single mother and her young daughter from their bleak walk-up apartment. Even if Edna had gotten tangled up with some very questionable men while she was waiting for her prince to show up, she'd never stopped dreaming, right until the day she died five years ago.
A creaking sound alerted Randy that someone had opened her door. "Barb?" she asked, spinning around.
Randy's jaw dropped in utter surprise. It wasn't Barb who'd stormed the citadel. The job applicant filling Randy's doorway was at least six four. His storm-blown blond hair was as long, luxuriant, and wild as Randy's dark pageboy was neat, and the mirrored sunglasses hanging over the neckline of his T-shirt bounced the light from her windows like laser beams. If she'd had to describe him in ten words or less, she would have been tempted to call him a green-eyed golden mountain lion of a man.
"Did we have an appointment?" Randy asked.
"With destiny," he murmured.
Before Randy could think how to respond, he pulled a silver flask from his flak vest, walked to her desk, and handed it to her. "Might help with the PMS," he said, smiling with breathtaking sensuality. "It's a sure cure for hangovers."
"Uh ... no thanks."
"I haven't got anything catching," he assured her. "And even if I did, this stuff would kill it."
Randy stared at the flask, wondering ironically if a shot of straight liquor might sober her up. Beyond her headache she felt a little drunk, probably from overexposure to testosterone. Impulsively, she took the flask from him and freed the cap. The brew that slid down her throat was unlike anything alcoholic she'd ever tasted. Tangy and sharp-edged, it stung as it went down.
"What is this?" she asked, clearing her throat.
He merely smiled, took the flask back, and helped himself to a deep pull before he returned it to his vest. The military fatigues he wore looked as if they'd seen action, especially the pants, which had prominent rips at the knee and thigh.
He was definitely a man who commanded attention, though not because he was classically handsome. The angles of his jaw were too blunt, and the bridge of his nose looked as if it had been broken more than once. And yet his green eyes, set like emerald chips in his sun-bronzed features, were undeniably striking.
"I'm answering your ad for a soldier of fortune," he informed her. He was oddly soft-spoken for such a big man, but the effect added to rather than subtracted from his physical presence. Burnished chest hair curled above the loose neckline of his T-shirt, and the biceps exposed by the rolled-up short sleeves were enormous. Even his hands were big. The right one had engulfed the flask he'd offered.
Brute strength, Randy acknowledged uneasily. If any words applied, those two did. Despite his quiet manner, he looked as if he could snap bones effortlessly. She glanced down at her own rather delicate arms, and beads of perspiration broke out on her upper lip. Whether it was the effect of the man or the drink, she didn't know, but she was beginning to sense that she was losing control of the situation.
How to End a Difficult Job Interview. Randy searched her memory, trying to recall that particular section of the book she'd read recently on guerrilla management tactics. The interviewer should stand as a clear signal that the appointment has come to an end.
She stood. "Actually, I'd finished interviewing for today," she said, favoring him with a courteous smile.
"So your assistant told me."
He made no attempt to leave; not even a muscle twitch indicated that he was getting the message. As she stared into his rich green eyes, Randy felt the strangest glimmer of recognition. It wasn't so much that she knew him from somewhere. She would have remembered him. It was more the sense that he knew her. There was a familiarity in his smile, and there was more than casual interest simmering in his eyes. Much more. It was almost ... sexual.
What felt like a depth charge headed straight for Randy's stomach. Why was he looking at her that way?
"Why don't you sit down?" he suggested, whisking a straight-back chair from against the wall and setting it closer to her desk. "I'm going to."
The chair he'd chosen was several sizes too small for him, but he managed to look at home in it. Lounging down, he folded his arms casually, stretched out his long, long legs and gazed up at her with an air of expectancy that was unnerving.
Randy sat down too. Clearly the only way to regain control was to look as if she'd planned to interview him all along. "Do you have any experience locating Americans missing in foreign countries?" she asked.
"I've been working in recovery operations ever since I left the Marines, originally for the Pentagon, now on my own. Last year I brought back a U.S. diplomat who'd been detained in a Guatemalan prison camp and a missionary couple determined to save souls in the jungles of Brazil."
"Brazil? That's where my fiancé was last seen. He had business in Rio de Janeiro."
He hooked a foot on a rung of the chair and raked back a shock of white-gold hair out of his eyes. His smile was lazy, sexy, approving. "Rio, the city of sun, sin, and forbidden sex. Good place to get yourself lost."
"Hugh didn't get himself lost," she insisted. "He was last reported in the company of a man named Carlos Santeras, a Brazilian crime czar who's trying to go legit by buying into resort hotels. Santeras got his start in illegal arms dealing, jewel smuggling, and heaven knows what else."
She hesitated, waiting for the mercenary's reaction. This was where all the other he-men she'd interviewed had blanched and bowed out.
"Carlos Santeras?" He laughed as if remembering. "I haven't seen that pit viper since I rescued a female DEA agent from his jungle compound in the mountains several years back."
"You've dealt with him?" Randy asked.
"I doubt he'd put it that way. Let's just say I'm good at dodging machetes. I'm also intimately familiar with the converted subterranean slave quarters of his mansion where he kept the woman prisoner ..."
Randy listened with fascination as the mercenary went on, describing how he and his two former partners in recovery operations had gained entrance to the heavily guarded compound and then searched out the woman agent. As he recounted the story, Randy realized he was perfect for the assignment. He knew the area, and he'd already outmaneuvered Santeras once.
She waited for him to finish, intending to hire him on the spot, but as the seconds ticked by she became aware of some very strange sensations. She was beginning to feel flushed, as if the room's temperature had shot up ten degrees. Worse, her gaze seemed magnetically drawn to the more muscular parts of his body, and particularly to the way the material of his fatigues tugged at his spread legs. The man's thighs looked hard as marble. She could even see golden hair curling through one of the holes near his knee.
With some horror, she found herself following the path of his inseam, knowing exactly where it would take her. As her eyes crept upward toward the delta of his thighs, her heart began to pound frantically.
"Are you all right?"
Randy's head snapped up. "Yes, of course."
"Was it something I said?"
"No, I'd like to hire you, that's all. You're more than equipped—er, qualified to take on the assignment."
He was watching her with great interest, and she could feel her face heating under his scrutiny. He knew. He knew about her sexual fascination with his inseam. Avoiding his probing gaze, she lifted the collar of her blouse away from her damp skin.
"Are you interested?" she asked.
"Oh, yes ... I'm interested."
She looked up. "In the assignment?"
He continued to study her in a way that made her want to cross her legs and pull down her skirt. What in the world was in that drink he'd given her?
"What was your name?" she asked.
He said his name as though she ought to know it. Did she? She took a deep breath, gathering her wits. This was truly crazy. She had a crisis on her hands—her fiancé was missing—and she was fantasizing about a stranger. She never should have drunk from his flask. It had created an illusion of intimacy she couldn't shake. Had she already offered to hire him? Was it too late to change her mind?
"You're not dreaming," he said softly.
Again that smile, lazy, sexy. It said everything and revealed nothing. He roused himself and sat forward on the chair, putting considerable stress on the rips in his fatigues.
"You said you wanted to hire me, didn't you?" he asked. "Maybe we should discuss the details?"
"Details, yes." Details were exactly what she needed right now—discreet bits of information, cool and concrete, reality-based. "My fiancé was supposed to have returned last week. When he didn't, I contacted his hotel, the airline, and, of course, the consulate. Everyone's been marvelously concerned and cooperative on the phone, but nothing's being done. Honestly, I'm at my wit's end. Hugh seems to have vanished, and all they want me to do is fill out forms." Her voice broke with frustration, emotion. "What if he's been hurt? We were to be married—"
"Yes, next month. The wedding's just two weeks away."
That bit of information seemed to take the edge off his sexy smile. He studied her left hand, where her engagement ring would have been if she hadn't been having it sized, then glanced past her, out the window, looking decidedly moody.
"Is everything all right?" she asked. "You are going to take on the assignment, aren't you?"
He rose, pulled a card from his vest pocket, and tossed it on her desk. "This is my fee, per day, plus expenses. I'll need some personal data on Hugh—a current picture, his driver's license, social security, and credit card numbers. I'd also like a thorough physical description and a list of his personal habits. You can fax it to me, the sooner the better."
"Fine," Randy said, startled by his abrupt behavior. She stood, too, concerned that he would leave before she was finished. "I'll see that you get the information. However, there is a condition to this deal we haven't discussed yet."
"Me. I'm coming along, Mr. Dias. I'm going to Rio with you."
He barely reacted, except to give her a quick, insolent once-over as if she were a lame packhorse someone was trying to pawn off on him. "Sorry, I work alone. This is a dangerous assignment, Ms. Witherspoon. It's not Club Med."
Randy was more perplexed than offended. She hadn't expected him to be delighted, but she also hadn't anticipated being so rudely dismissed. "I won't get in your way," she explained patiently. "I'll stay in the hotel. I just want to be on the scene."
"You would be in the way, believe me. Especially if I had to get out of the country quickly."
She drew a breath and squared her shoulders. Politeness was getting her nowhere. "Mr. Dias, my fiancé is missing, and so far everyone I've appealed to for help has either patronized me, stalled me, or stonewalled me. They're not doing anything but shuffling papers, and I'm tired of sitting here feeling helpless! I'm going, and that's all there is to it."
"In that case you're going with someone else. I'm out." He nodded curtly and turned to leave.
"Mr. Dias!" she cried as he opened the door. "Don't be so hasty. We can discuss this, can't we? I'll pay you more than your normal rate—whatever you want."
He glanced over his shoulder and nailed her with a smoldering look. "You could never meet my price, Ms. Witherspoon," he said. "Trust me."
With that he shut the door and was gone, leaving Randy to stare after him in shock. "Well, excuse me," she murmured softly.
Taking one deep breath, she summoned the intestinal fortitude that had taken her all the way from the poverty of her childhood to this high-rise office. If any woman had ever pulled herself up by her bootstraps. Randy had. She'd worked two or three jobs, supporting her ailing mother and putting herself through college at the same time, all in the pursuit of a better life. Diligence had brought her this far. Diligence and a burning desire to succeed. It was the American way, her mother's dream, and to Randy's way of thinking, a West Side kid's only shot at success. Nothing had come easily, and because of that, she was used to putting her mind to something and then getting it, one way or another.
At the moment her mind was on Geoff Dias.
She walked out of her office and into the hallway just in time to see him disappear through the exit door to the stairway. Of course, a soldier of fortune wouldn't take the elevator, she thought sardonically.
She caught up with him three floors from the bottom, no easy task in high heels and a short skirt. "I hope you don't think you can dismiss me so easily," she told him, fighting to catch her breath and keep pace with him at the same time.
He continued down the stairs at a good clip, apparently determined to do exactly that—dismiss her.
Excerpted from Surrender, Baby by Suzanne Forster. Copyright © 1993 Suzanne Forster. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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