Authors: Margaret Daley
Tags: #Harlequin author, #Debra Webb, #Carla Cassidy, #Romantic suspense, #Rita Herron
The thought sent a chill down her spine, in spite of the heat. “What has made you so cynical?”
“Reality,” he said in a clipped voice, his expression suddenly very closed. His stance forbade further discussion of the subject.
Samantha took a step back, trying to distance herself from his very masculine presence. “Are you saying I should hope to find my brother dead rather than not at all?”
Brock’s mouth thinned. His eyes narrowed. He didn’t need this. Why was he even standing here with her. His common sense told him it was dangerous to become involved with Samantha Prince and her quest. He needed to keep his distance. She reminded him of all the things he had left behind in the States: security, normalcy, order.
But looking at Samantha Prince at that moment stirred something in him he didn’t need or want—a protective instinct. Wisps of her fiery hair had escaped her bun and framed her face. Not a beautiful face by most people’s standards but definitely intriguing, he decided as his gaze took in the angry tilt of her head, the glint in her sherry-colored eyes, the frown on her full lips, the sprinkle of freckles on her upturned nose.
His infuriating silence riled her. “For your information, Mr. Slader, I’ll take the unknown over that kind of certainty any day.”
She stormed past him without the slightest idea where she was going. Brock Slader had none of the characteristics of the rescuer of her dreams. Well, maybe a few of the physical traits, she amended reluctantly, scanning the side street she had absently turned down. She finally realized that she was totally lost.
The street was narrow, and she couldn’t see very well because the buildings created deep shadows. She was already halfway down it, so she hurried toward the opening at the other end, her gaze skipping from one dark doorway to another. She had to fight the urge to run. Her vivid imagination conjured up men lurking in the shadows, ready to spring out as she walked by.
Hugging her purse close, as though it were her shield of armor, Samantha fixed her gaze on the cars passing through the intersection ahead and continued walking.
A hand grabbed her arm, and she froze. She wished now more than ever that she had taken a self-defense class. She yanked away from the grasp and was suddenly freed. She stumbled forward and was caught again—this time by two muscular arms winding about her waist.
Samantha didn’t have to look at the face of her “assailant” to know it was Brock Slader. His scent engulfed her, creating a tingling reaction that she desperately wanted to ignore. But that proved impossible. The feel of his chest against her back sent her pulse racing. Her traitorous body certainly wasn’t going along with her levelheaded side.
“The police station is this way.” Brock steadied her, his arms still loosely about her as he nodded his head to indicate the direction she had come from.
She gazed up into his face, too close for her peace of mind, and saw the mischievous sparkle dance to life in his eyes. He was certainly enjoying himself.
Pulling herself from his embrace, she straightened her sundress with as much dignity as possible and put several feet between them, her chest rising and falling rapidly. “If you’ll just give me directions, I’m sure I can find it on my own,” she said in a haughty tone that didn’t seem to dent his amused arrogance one bit.
“Most likely you’d become another lost soul in this jungle. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
“I’m not your responsibility.” She lifted her chin a fraction. She was determined to assert her independence. She had come alone to Brazil to find her brother and she would find him—alone.
He grinned. “Even a cynic is allowed to have a heart every year or so. I guess you caught me when I was due.” He shrugged, his expression innocent.
“Oh, how lucky for me.” She walked past him back up the dimly lit side street, secretly glad he was beside her, but she would never tell him that. She didn’t like depending on anyone, especially a stranger, but her common sense had always been strong, and right now it was telling her she needed help to find Mark.
They traversed the streets of Manaus in silence, Brock’s steps quick and sure. Samantha had to quicken her pace to keep up with his long strides, but she wasn’t going to say a word to him. He would probably just comment on how out of shape she was—which she was painfully finding out to be true. If only she’d been taking that aerobics class she kept putting off.
Her mind reeled from the heat and lack of sleep and food. She should have listened to Brock Slader earlier and at least eaten more. He would love for her to acknowledge that, but she wasn’t going to.
Lightheaded, Samantha stopped, placed a hand on her forehead, and drew in a shallow breath, then another, to calm her fast heartbeat. Brock glanced back at her.
Begrudgingly she murmured, “I have to rest for a few minutes.”
He was instantly beside her, taking her elbow in his hand and guiding her toward some steps to sit down. “I forgot you’re not used to this heat.”
It was even worse when he was charming and gentlemanly. Resting did nothing to slow her heartbeat. And when he sat down beside her, his thigh touching hers on the narrow stairs, she decided the jungle air did strange things to people’s heads and bodies.
She scooted over as far as possible on the two-foot-wide step. “If I had known I was going to be doing this, I would have tried to find a sauna to help me get used to the humidity. You would think being from New Orleans, this wouldn’t be such a shock to my system.” She waved her hand in front of her face, which did little to stir the stifling, moist air, and exerted more energy than it was worth.
He didn’t say anything. Instead, he leaned forward with his elbows resting on his lean, muscular thighs. His gaze was intent upon a spot near his foot.
Samantha reclined back and braced her arms on the step behind her. She studied Brock Slader, the afternoon sunlight illuminating his rich ebony hair, sprinkled with a few strands of silver. She sensed this man was tough, aggressive, individualistic, a man who shaped his own destiny. She wasn’t sure where the impression came from, but it was strong like the slope of his jaw line, the feel of his hand on her, the sharp look in his eyes that delved inside a person to discern the hidden meaning behind words spoken. She knew he could move quickly and silently to take a person by surprise as he had with her on the side street.
Questions inundated her. Why was he in the Amazon? What did he do for a living? Why had he come after her?
Finally Samantha voiced one of the many questions she wanted answered. “Why did you say it would be better if I knew my brother was dead than not discover anything?”
“Not better, just easier on you emotionally in the long run.” He propped his chin on his loosely laced hands and continued to stare at the spot near his feet.
She couldn’t see his face, but in his voice she heard concern, and something else she couldn’t quite figure out. “I don’t see how it could be easier on me emotionally. Mark and I are very close. He’s all I have. There were times I felt more like a mother to him than a big sister.”
He looked at her, and for a brief moment Samantha saw anguish in his gaze. Then his expression became shuttered. His eyes, deep and intense, evaluated her much as she had assessed him only a few minutes before. There was an almost physical element to his gaze, and she felt as if she had opened up a painful chapter in his life.
“Believe me. I’ve seen what uncertainty can do to a person.” Brock rolled to his feet and offered his hand to help her up. “We’d better get moving. We have a lot of ground to cover.”
Samantha fitted her hand in his and rose. “How much farther to the police station?” she asked in order to put their conversation on a less personal level. Suddenly she wasn’t sure she could handle anything more.
“Only two more blocks.”
She fell into step beside him, and this time he slowed his pace for her. When they arrived at the station, she allowed Brock to ask the questions, since the man in charge couldn’t speak English. She had to acknowledge again how indebted she was to Brock after just a few short hours.
When he was satisfied with the answers the policeman gave him, he turned to Samantha and said, “Mark hasn’t been found dead and he’s not in jail. And there have been no unidentified bodies found in the last week.”
She sighed with relief. “Thank goodness. Do you think we should check the hospitals and clinics?”
“I can call them when we return to the hotel, if you like.”
“Yes. He could be hurt. I have to rule out every possibility.”
“Do you want to report him missing?”
For the next thirty minutes Samantha, with Brock as her interpreter, answered questions concerning her brother. By the time they left the police station, she was exhausted.
Brock regarded her pale features and said, “I think you should go back to the Grand Hotel and get some sleep.”
Determined to cover as much ground as possible that day, she shook her head. “Let’s visit a few hotels in the area first. Then I’ll call it a day.”
She wasn’t sure she could solicit his help the next day, and at the police station she realized she needed someone who knew the language and the country. Brock was all she had at the moment, and if she had to, she would swallow her pride and ask him again for his help. Her brother’s life might be at stake.
“Please, Mr. Slader.” She thought about batting her eyes at him but realized she didn’t have the art of flirting down well. Instead, she said, "I need your help."
“Okay, but when you find it’s time to call it quits, tell me.”
In one hotel all Brock got were glares. It was obvious a person didn’t ask questions there. In another Samantha was relieved that Brock was with her. Several pairs of dark, lust-filled eyes examined every inch of her. How had she ever thought she could do this alone? For once she had done something without thinking and was now regretting her rash decision. And yet, she wouldn’t have done anything differently. She couldn’t have stayed in New Orleans just waiting to hear from her brother—or the authorities.
Ten hotels later Samantha said, “Uncle.” Brock looked over his shoulder at her and arched one thick brow.
His mouth quirked in a small grin. “Lady, I have to hand it to you. I thought you would quit four hotels back, especially when that drunk pinched you.”
“You knew about that?”
Brock lounged against the side of a building, rubbing the back of his neck. “Ma’am, do you want me to go back and beat the living daylights out of him? By this time I’m sure he’s passed out somewhere.”
“What? No duel at twenty paces? A lady’s honor is at stake."
“I’m sure I can rouse him for a few punches, if you want.”
“Well, no. I…” Exasperated at the smug look on Brock Slader’s face, Samantha started down the street at a brisk pace that almost immediately slowed. Her legs were trembling from exhaustion.
She stopped and spun about.
“The hotel is this way.”
Samantha walked back to him with all the dignity she could muster. Why did she have to have such a lousy sense of direction? Well, one thing was certain: she would never be an explorer or a seasoned traveler. She would constantly have to be rescued from getting lost.
The silent laughter in his eyes made her bristle.
“Remind me to pick up a map of Manaus.”
“I doubt that would help. You’re right. You do need a personal guide. If you don’t mind me saying, I’ve never seen a person so ill equipped to search for another person. Before this is over your brother is going to have to look for you.”
“I do mind you saying.” Samantha stiffened her spine and began to head in the right direction.
His robust laughter drifted to her, and she gritted her teeth to keep her retort to herself. He had an uncanny ability to top each of her ripostes with one of his own, and it was getting on her nerves. She must be his afternoon entertainment. If she didn’t need someone like him so much, she would tell him to get lost. But somehow she sensed he knew where he was at all times, and she was a little bit envious of that ability.
What was she going to do tomorrow? As exasperating as he was, Brock Slader was her only hope. She had to convince him to help her at least for another day. Her choices were limited, and right now he was her best option.
At the hotel Samantha stood beneath a fan and reluctantly asked, “Will you make the calls to the hospitals for me? I would except for one small detail. I don’t speak the language.” She attempted a smile and tried to look grateful.
He chuckled, a sound full of a husky presumption. “You don’t have to turn those big brown eyes on me. I told you I would, and I will. But first, don’t you think we should have something to eat?”
“Are you asking me?”
The crinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. “Yes, and I’m paying. The restaurant across the street is good.”
“I must warn you. I’m no longer nervous and I’m famished.”
“Maybe I should make you nervous.” He took a step toward her, his eyes gleaming. “After all, my financial resources aren’t unlimited.”
She backed up until she collided with a pillar. He laid a hand at the side of her head, his mouth inches from hers. Running her tongue over her dry lips, Samantha turned wide eyes up toward his. Suddenly the teasing sparkle in his gaze vanished, and in its place there was a smoldering need. His mouth was a breath away. Every nerve ending vibrated with his nearness.
He straightened abruptly. “If I’m going to make those calls tonight, we’d better eat now. This has been a long day for both of us.”
She had wanted him to kiss her. Her hand came up to cover a hot cheek. He was practically a stranger and her thoughts had raced with pictures of them embracing, kissing… She couldn’t even think about what else.
Again Samantha regretted her vivid imagination. It would cause her definite trouble one of these days. Pushing herself away from the pillar, she hoped her expression didn’t give her thoughts away. Maybe he’d think her cheeks were flushed because of the heat. And maybe it would snow in Manaus.