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"I still think you're insane."
Since Angeline had last seen Brody Paine almost six months ago, he'd grown a scruffy brown beard that didn't quite mask the smile he gave at her pronouncement.
His sandy–brown hair hung thick and long around his ears, clearly in desperate need of a cut, and along with that beard, he looked vaguely piratical.
"Seems like you're always telling me that, babe." Angeline lifted her eyebrows pointedly. They were sitting in a Jeep that was currently stuck lug nut deep in Venezuelan mud. "Take a clue from the theme," she suggested, raising her voice to be heard above the pounding rain.
As usual, he seemed to pay no heed of her opinion. Instead, he peered through the rain–washed windshield, drumming his thumb on the steering wheel. The vehicle itself looked as if it had been around about a half century.
It no longer possessed such luxuries as doors, and the wind that had been carrying sheets of rain for each of the three days since Angeline had arrived in Venezuela kept up its momentum, throwing a stinging spray across her and Brody.
The enormous weather system that was supposed to have veered away from land and calmly die out over the middle of the ocean hadn't behaved that way at all. Instead, it had squatted over them like some tormenting toad, bringing with it this incessant rain and wind. May might be too early for a hurricane, but Mother Nature didn't seem to care much for the official calendar.
She huddled deeper in the seat. The hood of her khaki–colored rain poncho hid most of her head, but she still felt soaked from head to toe.
That's what she got for racing away from the camp in Puerto Grande the way she had. If she'd stopped to think longer, she might have at least brought along some warmer clothes to wear beneath the rain poncho.
Instead, she'd given All–Med's team leader, Dr. Miguel Chavez, a hasty excuse that a friend in Caracas had an emergency, and off she'd gone with Brody in this miserable excuse of a vehicle. She knew they wouldn't expect her back anytime soon. In good weather, Caracas was a day away.
"The convent where the kids were left is up this road," he said, still drumming. If he was as uncomfortable with the conditions as she, he hid it well. "There's no other access to St. Agnes's. Unless a person was airlifted in. And that ain't gonna happen in this weather." His head bounced a few times, as if he were mentally agreeing with whatever other insane thoughts were bouncing around inside.
She angled her legs in the hard, ripped seat, turning her back against the driving rain. "If we walked, we could make it back to the camp at Puerto Grande before dark." Though dark was a subjective term, considering the oppressive clouds that hung over their heads.
Since she'd turned twenty, she'd visited Venezuela with All–Med five times, but this was the worst weather she'd ever encountered.
"Only way we're going is forward, sweetie." He sighed loud enough to be heard above the rain that was pounding on the roof of the vehicle. His jeans and rain poncho were caked with mud from his repeated attempts to dislodge the Jeep.
"But the convent is still miles away." They were much closer to the camp where she'd been stationed. "We could get some help from the team tomorrow. Work the Jeep free of the mud. They wouldn't have to know that we were trying to get up to St. Agnes instead of to Caracas."
"Can't afford to waste that much time."
She huffed out a breath and stared at the man. He truly gave new meaning to the word stubborn.
She angled her back even farther against the blowing wind. Her knees brushed against the gearshift, and when she tried to avoid that, they brushed against his thigh.
If that fact was even noticeable to him, he gave no indication whatsoever. So she left her knee right where it was, since the contact provided a nice little bit of warmth to her otherwise shivering body.
Shivers caused by cold and an uncomfortable suspicion she'd had since he unexpectedly appeared in Puerto Grande.
"What's the rush?" she asked. "You told me we were merely picking up the Stanley kids from the convent for their parents."
Her lips tightened. "Brody—"
"I told you to call me Hewitt, remember?"
There was nothing particularly wrong with the name, but he definitely didn't seem a "Hewitt" type to her. Brody was energy itself all contained within long legs, long hands and a hard body. If she had to be stuck in the mud at the base of a mountain in a foreign country, she supposed Brody was about the best companion she could have. She wouldn't go so far as to call the man safe, but she did believe he was capably creative when the situation called for it.
"Fine, Hewitt," she returned, "so what's the rush? The children have been at the convent for nearly two months. What's one more night?" he'd already filled her in on the details of how Hewitt Stanley—the real Hewitt Stanley—and his wife, Sophia, had tucked their two children in the small, exceedingly reclusive convent while they trekked deep into the most unreachable portions of Venezuela to further their latest pharmaceutical quest.
Brody had, supposedly, enlisted Angeline's help because he claimed he couldn't manage retrieving both kids on his own.
"The Santina Group kidnapped Hewitt and Sophia two days ago."
Despite the rough beard, his profile as he peered through the deluged windshield could have been chiseled from the mountains around them. "Do you ever wonder about the messages you're asked to dispatch?"
"Never." He gave her another one of those mind reader looks.
Sometimes, honesty was a darned nuisance. "Yes. Of course I am curious sometimes," she admitted. "But I don't make any attempt to satisfy that curiosity. That's not my role. I'm just the messenger. And what does that have to do with the Stanleys?"
He raised one eyebrow. "When I gave you that intel back in November, you didn't wonder about it?" He didn't quite sound disbelieving, but the implication was there.
"There are lots of things I wonder about, but I don't have the kind of clearance to know more. Maybe I prefer it that way." The tidbits of information that she dispatched were not enough to give her real knowledge of the issues that Hollins–Winword handled. It was a tried–and–true safety measure, not only for her personal safety, but for those around her, the agency's work and the agency itself.
She knew that. Understood that. Welcomed it, even. She believed in her involvement with HollinsWinword. But that didn't mean she was anxious to risk her neck over four sentences, which was generally the size of the puzzle pieces of information with which she was entrusted. Brody's message for her that night at Leandra and Evan's wedding reception had been even briefer.
Stanley experimenting. Sandoval MIA.
She'd memorized the information—hardly difficult in this case—and shortly after she'd returned to Atlanta, she'd relayed the brief missive to the impossibly younglooking boy who'd spilled his backpack on the floor next to her table at a local coffee shop.
She'd knelt down beside him and helped as he'd packed up his textbooks, papers and pens, and three minutes later, he was heading out the door with his cappuccino and the message, and she was sitting back down at her table with her paperback book and her latte.
"You didn't look twice at the name Sandoval." Somehow, cold water had snuck beneath the neck of her poncho and was dripping down the back of her spine. She tugged the hood of her poncho farther over her forehead but it was about as effective as closing the barn door after the horse was already out, considering the fact that she was already soaked. "Does it matter? Sandoval's not that unusual of a name."
His lips twisted. "How old were you when you left Santo Marguerite?"
The kernel inside her suddenly exploded, turning tense curiosity into a sickening fear that she didn't want to acknowledge. "Four." Old enough to remember that the name of the man who'd destroyed the Central American village where she'd been born, along with nearly everyone else who'd lived there, had been Sandoval.
She reached out and closed her hand over his slick, wet forearm. "I'm no good at guessing games, Brody. Just tell me what you want me to know. Is Sandoval involved with the kidnapping?"
His gaze flicked downward, as if surprised by the contact, and she hastily drew back, curling her cold hands together.
"We haven't been able to prove it, but we believe that he is the money behind the Santina Group. On the other hand, we know Santina funds at least two different black market organizations running everything from drugs and weapons to human trafficking. According to the pharmaceutical company Hewitt works for, he was on to something huge. Has to do with some little red frog about the size of my fingernail."
He shook his head, as if the entire matter was unfathomable to him. "Anyway, the pharmacy folks will try to replicate synthetically the properties of this frog spit, or whatever the hell it is." His voice went terse. "And in the right hands, that's fine. But those properties are also the kind of properties that in the wrong hands, could bring a whole new meaning to what profit is in the drug trade."
"They've got the parents and now they're after the kids, too. Sandoval or Santina or whoever," she surmised, feeling even more appalled.
"We're working on that theory. One of Santina's top men—Rico Fuentes—was spotted in Caracas yesterday morning. Sophia Stanley's parents were Venezuelan, and she inherited a small apartment there when they died. The place was tossed yesterday afternoon."
"How can you be sure the kids are even at the convent?"
"Because I tossed the apartment yesterday morning and found Sophia's notes she'd made about getting there, and packing clothes and stuff for the kids. I didn't leave anything for ol' Rico to find but who knows who Hewitt and Sophia may have told about their kids' whereabouts. I've got my people talking to everyone at the pharmaceutical place, and so far none of them seems to know anything about the convent, but…" He shrugged and looked back at the road. "Hewitt obviously knew they were on to something that would be just as significant to the bad guys as to the good," he told her. "Otherwise, why squirrel away their kids the way they did? They could have just hired a nanny to mind them while they went exploring in the tepuis." He referred to the unearthly, flattop mountains located in the remote southeast portion of the country. She knew the region was inhabited by some extremely unusual life–forms.
"Instead," he went on, "they used the convent where Sophia's mother once spent time as a girl."
"If this Rico person gets to the children, Santina could use them as leverage to make sure Hewitt cooperates."
"What about Hewitt and Sophia, though? How will they even know their kids are still safe? Couldn't these Santina group people lie?"
"Hell yeah, they could lie. They will lie. But there's another team working on their rescue. Right now, we need to make certain that whatever threats made concerning those kids are a lie."
She blew out a long breath. "Why not go to the authorities? Surely they'd be of more help."
"Which local authorities do you think we can implicitly trust?"
She frowned. Miguel had often complained about the thriving black market and its rumored connection to the local police. "Brody, this kind of thing is way beyond me. I'm not a field agent. You know that better than anyone." Her involvement with Hollins–Winword had only ever involved the transmittal of information!