Authors: Margaret Daley
Tags: #Harlequin author, #Debra Webb, #Carla Cassidy, #Romantic suspense, #Rita Herron
“We really should get some sleep.” He breathed the words against her lips right before claiming them in a deep kiss that brought her hands up to clutch his shoulders for support.
Her equilibrium suffered a further disruption when he trailed light kisses to her earlobe and began to nibble. Her world was upside down, and she was beginning to think Brock Slader was the cause of it rather than her brother’s disappearance or the Amazon jungle.
“I’d better go.” His words tickled her ear and neck. Reluctantly he placed her away from him. “Good night, Sam.”
She watched him walk away, her hand brushing across her kiss-swollen lips. After Brock had disappeared around a corner, she stood in the hallway a moment longer, staring at nothing in particular. The humid air was saturated with the smell of damp foliage and tobacco.
She practically floated into her bedroom on a cloud of romantic dreams, but the laughter of Fathers Carlos and Paul pierced her haven, sharply reminding her of her quest. She closed the door, looked for a lock, and when she found none, she thought about putting the table or chest up against the door.
Their robust laughter drifted to her again, and she tensed. Something was wrong. She felt it deep in her bones. Too restless to sleep, she dragged the chest over to block the door, then began to pace the small room.
Suddenly she stopped and whirled toward the door, her hand flying to her mouth to silence a cry. Was Father Paul was the same man who had been out on her balcony? She’d only gotten a glimpse of the man in the shadows on her balcony at the Grand Hotel, but she couldn’t take a chance, in case she was right. Out in the hallway and at the dinner table, the cheap cigar tobacco she had smelled had been the same as in her hotel room.
Her trembling quickly spread through her entire body. She sank onto the bed and tried to think rationally. “It’s impossible,” she whispered into the silence. “He’s a priest.”
Why would a priest be spying in her room in Manaus? But the more she thought about the man on the balcony, she knew he was Father Paul. And with that, she realized Brock and she were in danger.
Samantha snatched up her canvas bag and stuffed all her belongings back into it. She had to find Brock. She looked at the door, then at the window. The two priests were in the living room, and that was the only way out of the house except through her window.
Tossing her bag out the open window, Samantha climbed out, landing on her bottom in a bed of flowers. She pushed herself to her feet and allowed her eyes a moment to adjust to the moonlit night. The house next door was pitch black. She had no idea which room Brock was in, but she felt the urgency to get to him.
Glancing over her shoulder several times, she hurried in the moonlight toward the house. Once inside, she realized the design of this house was similar to the other. She decided to go to the room that would be hers in the other house, hoping that was where Brock was staying.
Samantha paused at the door, then slowly turned the knob and eased it open. Peering into the room, she saw the outline of a body in the bed and wedged herself through the small opening. She tiptoed toward the bed, her arms outstretched to prevent her from bumping into anything.
At the bed she reached down to touch the dark shape when a hand was clasped over her mouth, cutting off her breath. Something cold and metallic was thrust against her throat.
The icy touch of the knife against her throat paralyzed Samantha. She suddenly felt like the man in the fable who had a choice of two doors, one with a tiger behind it and the other with a beautiful woman behind it. She had obviously picked the tiger.
With one arm across her front, her assailant hauled her back against his broad chest. Samantha was so frightened she couldn’t breathe. Whose room had she wandered into? Father Paul’s? Did he live in the other house?
“Shh, Sam. It’s me.” Brock loosened his hand from her mouth as the knife dropped away from her throat.
Samantha, inhaling deeply, slumped back into him. When she had filled her lungs, she spun around, her hands flying to her waist. “You could have warned me or something. I think I aged ten years in one minute."
“I didn’t want to take the chance you might scream. I’ve heard you before. I didn’t want the whole compound awakened.”
“Do you always try to shut up people with a knife at their throats?”
“I didn’t know it was you at first. I told you I never take things for granted.”
He grasped her arm with one hand and tugged her toward him while his other hand tilted up her chin, forcing her to look at him. Then, before she could say anything more, her soft lips were crushed beneath his. His caressing fingers glided to the curve of her neck.
Sensations bombarded her with a stunning effect: the bristly feel of his day’s growth of beard against her tender skin, the taste of him on her tongue, the warmth of his hands on her body as they roamed down the length of her back, the masculine scent of him that intoxicated her.
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” he asked, his breath fanning her cheek.
She ignored his husky tone. They didn’t have any time to lose. Before she forgot why she had come to his room in the first place and surrendered to the dazzling pleasure he offered, she pulled out of his embrace, backing up against the bed, only seeing his outline in the dim moonlight streaming through the window.
“You don’t have to worry if our being in the same bedroom will shock the dear fathers. They aren’t priests—at least I don’t think they are. Father Paul was the man on my balcony.”
“Well, that explains that nagging voice inside my head.”
“When something doesn’t quite ring true, I have a little nagging voice, a sixth sense some people call it, that warns me.” His voice was businesslike now, all traces of the husky, passionate tone gone. “Did you notice how deserted the compound was when we arrived? It’s possible Father Carlos isn’t the real padre and that they’re both involved with what’s going on—whatever that is. From all I’ve heard concerning this mission, the real Father Carlos has his hands full. Too many Indians come for aid and there aren’t enough workers to help.”
“And we only saw two Indians, the cook and the one with the snake. By the way, when we get out of this mess, remind me to pay you back for that one.”
“Come on.” Chuckling, he took her hand and grabbed his backpack from the chair. “When we’re safely back in Manaus, it will be a pleasure, Sam. Right now, I think we’d better get out of here.”
“But the treasure! We can’t leave without it.” She tugged her hand from his, standing her ground. They had come too far not to search for it. It had been important enough to her brother that he’d told her about it. Why? What was it?
“Where did your brother hide it?”
“Under the altar in the church.”
“Great. That’s across the compound from our plane. No one ever hides anything right next to the landing strip. Everything would be so much simpler,” Brock muttered as he eased the door open and peered into the hallway lit by a single light at the end of it.
“I wonder why they put you in this house.”
“Have you ever heard of divide and conquer?”
A shiver streaked up her spine. “Do you think they’ll try something during the night?”
He shot her a quick look over his shoulder as he led the way out of the house. “Yep, I’m afraid these men have been about as patient as they’re going to be.”
“I wonder where the real priests are.”
Brock halted at the front door and turned toward her, gripping her arms and pulling her close. She thought he was going to kiss her again, and her feminine side welcomed it, even though they couldn’t afford the time.
Instead, he whispered into her ear, “Sam, wonder about those things some other time.”
“I always talk when I’m scared. The sound of my own voice calms me.”
“In this case the sound of your voice will alert them.” His words came out gently while his hands lessened their hold on her arms.
His mouth touched hers for a brief searing moment, then he released her to open the front door. That fleeting kiss left her wanting much more. What would it be like if they had met under normal circumstances?
“Move!” Brock’s furiously whispered order scattered her wandering thoughts and sharply brought her back to the situation at hand.
This was no time to daydream. She would need her full concentration if she was going to make it out of this place alive. Not for one moment did she think these men after Mark were out for a Sunday stroll. They were playing a deadly game, and they’d do anything to win.
Outside, backed against the front of the house, Brock took a minute to get his bearings. Samantha, next to him, dared not move. She heard the laughter from inside the other house where the two fake priests were, for she was sure now they both weren’t real priests. It sounded as if they were having their fill of some cachaca. Maybe they would get drunk and forget all about Brock and her.
Without a word Brock grasped her hand again and motioned for her to follow him. With a nearly full moon lighting the night, they ran from dark shadow to dark shadow until they were at the small white New England-style church. It seemed incongruous and stood alone, a bit of civilization in the midst of a vast, untamed wilderness.
The door creaked when Brock inched it open. To Samantha it sounded as if the church bells were pealing, announcing their presence to the whole compound. She looked back several times to see if the two fake priests had heard.
Thankfully the yard was empty.
Moonlight poured in through the windows on the sides of the church, affording them enough illumination to see where they were going as they made their way toward the altar. But even in the moonlight Samantha managed to catch her foot on a wooden bench, causing it to scrape forward. She halted, her heavy breathing the only sound disturbing the church’s eerie quiet now.
Rubbing her damp palms together, she continued toward the altar, deciding she could never be a thief or a spy. Her body wasn’t cut out to take this kind of tension—or physical abuse.
Suddenly Brock stopped, and Samantha collided against his back. He placed his hand over her mouth to stifle her gasp of surprise and dragged her quickly down a row of benches until they were wedged between the wall and a wardrobe closet that shielded them from the back of the church.
Brock slowly took his hand from her mouth, but she knew better than to say a word. Every taut muscle in his body conveyed his tension.
It wasn’t until a minute later, though, that Samantha heard the men’s voices and was amazed at Brock’s keen hearing. Her heart had been beating so loudly that was about all she could hear. And her breathing sounded so labored that she wondered if she were directing the men right to their hiding place.
The door at the back of the church opened, and Samantha froze.
“Paul, what are you doing going in there? We’ve got work to do,” Father Carlos said in English.
“I thought I heard something.”
Father Carlos came to the door and looked into the dark church. “Probably one of those natives sneaking back here after we told them to get lost. Hurry if you must take a look. Our Mr. Slader is waiting.”
“Then Miss Prince,” Paul said with a cackle that chilled Samantha in the heat of the jungle. “I think I’m going to like talking to her.”
The men were going to find them, and she didn’t know the first thing about fighting. Why didn’t she pay attention when Mark used to watch Friday-night wrestling on the TV?
Paul stepped into the church. Samantha’s heart stopped beating. Her breathing was suspended in her lungs. But instead of walking farther down the aisle, Paul swung his flashlight in a wide arc, illuminating the dark shadows. Samantha and Brock flattened themselves even more against the wall.
A trickle of sweat rolled down her face, then another. The light shone near the closet, only two inches from Brock’s arm. It lingered there for what seemed like an eternity. It took all of Samantha’s willpower not to cry out in fright.
“There’s no one here. Let’s get going, Paul.”
Paul mumbled something, clicked off his flashlight, and left the church.
Samantha slowly released her pent-up breath, sagging against Brock.
Silently Brock took her hand again, and they hurried toward the altar. It wouldn’t take the two men long to discover Brock was missing. Paul would then remember the noise he thought he’d heard in the church and be back to investigate more thoroughly.
At first Samantha fumbled in the dim light, trying to feel for anything under the altar or on the earthen floor that might be a treasure. But she couldn’t find anyplace that might hide something of value. Brock came up empty-handed, too.
“Maybe I misunderstood my brother. This is just a wooden slab,” Samantha whispered in disappointment as her hands again ran over the planks that were used to make the altar.
“I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to use this.” Brock rummaged in his backpack and extracted a small flashlight that looked like a pen. “It won’t matter in a few minutes. The good fathers will know we’ve flown the coop.”
Brock examined the space under the altar until he spotted a crack in the wooden-planked table. He pried it loose and a small black book fell onto the hard-packed dirt floor. “Could something of value be your brother’s black book?” One thick brow rose in bewilderment. “Like the next man, I like a pretty woman, but to risk my life for ten percent of a little black book seems a bit much to ask. Don’t you think, Sam?”
Samantha picked up the book and flipped through it, ignoring Brock’s tone. The writing didn’t make sense. It was in some kind of code. She showed it to Brock. “What do you think?”
A noise in the compound demanded his attention. “I think we’d better get moving before we’re caught.”
Samantha stuffed the book into her canvas bag. There would be time later to go over it, if they made it out alive. The shouts in the compound were louder, only yards away.
“The church!” someone yelled.
“What do we do now?” Samantha tried to keep the panic from her voice, but the only kind of danger she had ever had to face was an irate customer who felt she had been cheated. Samantha would gladly settle for being back in New Orleans now, confronting that woman with her umbrella raised, ready to fight to the end for her two dollars.