Authors: Melissa Cutler
Realization of his powerlessness crashed over Aaron. These men could do whatever they wanted to Camille—rape, kill, anything—and Aaron couldn’t protect her. It was one thing to die as a result of his dangerous job. It was something much worse to watch another suffer, particularly a woman, for no reason other than her close proximity to trouble when it struck.
He was shoved through a side door in the plane and dumped on the floor. Camille was dropped at his side. With much effort, he turned his head to see her. Her eyes were not glazed over from the drug, nor did she look afraid at all, which threw Aaron off. He’d been prepared to console her. Instead she met his look with a sharp, confident gaze, as though she was trying to give
The plane taxied, then angled into the air. Aaron shifted until the back of his arm touched Camille’s hand. She wiggled her fingers against his skin. Of all the people in the world to be the last each saw before dying, that they were stuck with each other was definitive proof that God had an ironic sense of humor.
When the plane reached cruising altitude, someone moved between Camille’s legs. Aaron could tuck his chin enough to see the man’s slim form, but not what he was doing. He had a pretty good idea, though. Against the back of his hand, he felt her skirt being raised. Someone Aaron couldn’t see laughed and whooped. Aaron took Camille’s hand firmly in his and looked into her eyes. For the first time, she seemed afraid.
Don’t think about it, Camille. Look at me and turn your mind off.
After a minute, her look of fear evolved into confusion. The man above Camille smacked Aaron’s hand away and rolled her to her stomach. Then Aaron saw the harness.
Black straps looped around her thighs and shoulders, meeting in a rectangle of material against her back with attachments for the master jumper. Camille was being fitted with skydiving gear, the kind used in tandem jumps. When her harness was on, the man left her on her stomach. She turned to Aaron, her expression questioning. Aaron tried to speak, but his words came out distorted beyond understanding.
The same man moved over Aaron, lifting his legs and putting his tandem harness in place. Aaron had enough experience and skill to be a solo jumper, but like most people, he’d started with tandem jumping, where the novice is strapped to the front of an experienced jumper—the one with the parachute.
Aaron’s master jumper began the process of binding them together. Aaron had read reports of instances where this hadn’t been done correctly and the results were as gruesome as one might imagine. Hopefully these guys knew what they were doing.
The door of the plane opened and the howl of air moving at a hundred miles per hour eclipsed all other sounds in the cabin. The kidnappers heaved two wooden crates fitted with chutes through the opening. Too bad Aaron would never have the chance to tell his team about the Cortez Cartel’s method for smuggling weapons into Mexico.
Goggles were put on Camille and Aaron, which seemed like an odd bit of caring for hostage-taking narco-terrorists, and they were hauled to standing on weak but functioning legs. With the press of the master jumper’s belly nudging him, Aaron dragged his heavy feet toward the open door. He remembered how intimidating that opening, with the scream of the wind, looked on his first jump, and turned, seeking Camille to bolster her courage.
She stood behind Aaron, lining up for her jump. Though he was pretty sure she’d never been skydiving before, he shouldn’t have been surprised by the look of steely determination on her face. She might be the most grating woman he’d ever met, but he had to admire her fortitude. Camille was one tough broad.
She dipped her head in a terse nod, then shrank away with the rest of the plane as Aaron fell into the infinite blue horizon.
* * *
Camille’s heart pounded in her ears as she fell to earth. The fear of not knowing if the chute would open or if her harness would hold overrode all other thought during the free fall that seemed to last an eternity. Finally, the force of the unfurling chute jolted her back. Cold air whipped at her bare legs and feet. She was probably the first woman in history to skydive in a business suit, which was an honor she could have done without—and a perfect example of her rotten luck.
Camille used to believe she had fantastic luck. Five years ago, while lying in a hospital bed, she felt lucky to have cheated death, lucky that when Jacob misfired his gun, the bullet ripped through her thigh and not her head or an artery. In the days following the shooting, she felt lucky to keep the leg with the promise of walking again.
But as weeks and months passed, luck abandoned her. Oh, she could walk—for a little while before the throbbing pain became unbearable. And she could run—for a minute or two at a time. Soon, her recovery stalled.
What crushed her the most was the damage to her right hand, even though the bullet hadn’t come close to it. No matter how diligently she worked in rehab, her right hand shook uncontrollably when she held a gun. She discovered that little nugget of joy four weeks after the accident, her first time back at the firing range. She tried to load the magazine of her Glock 23 and her hand shook like there was an earthquake inside her body. She couldn’t even get a round off.
Her mandatory, department-issued therapist called it post-traumatic stress disorder. That sounded pretty official and all, but giving a name to her problem didn’t magically fix her.
Nothing could fix her.
Just like that, Camille’s temporary assignment to the dispatch desk took on the horrible stench of permanency. Her family encouraged her to pick a different career—if she ever heard the saying
When one door closes, another opens
again, she’d hang herself—but being a top-rate police officer was all she’d ever wanted. It was her one thing, her only thing.
She knew why she’d been kidnapped. Her image was splashed on the news naming Rosalia Perez’s father as a suspect, and a few hours later she was snatched by a group of Spanish-speaking thugs with the financial resources to own a private plane and an arsenal of assault weapons.
Her remorse was solely for Aaron, whose only offense was arriving at the hospital at the same time she did. At least he had the good fortune to be taken hostage with a former Special Forces officer. If even the smallest opportunity for escape opened, Camille would try to get Aaron to safety. She might hate the guy, but no one deserved to die this way. She had a vague recollection of Jacob gushing about Aaron’s assignment as a Park Ranger to an ICE task force, but she had no idea if he possessed skills that could aid their escape. The only Park Rangers she’d ever met had been a pair of granola-eating trail guides.
During the five-minute descent, she focused on determining their location. The ocean sat to the east and a long range of foothills sprawled over the west and south. What really struck her about the landscape was its desolation.
Save for a large city to the south along the shoreline and a highway running north and south, there wasn’t much to see. No suburban developments and few signs of life. The ground, from the shoreline to the tops of the foothills, was blanketed with rocks, tall-reaching cacti and scruffy desert plants. This had to be Mexico. Nowhere in America would such a large stretch of land abutting the ocean be free of people.
Before Camille touched down, she saw they were met by six mangy horses, one of which had a rider, a stout middle-aged Latino man with a thick mustache and a wavy shock of black hair. Two horses were strapped to a wagon laden with the wooden crates. The remaining horses were riderless and saddled.
She landed hard and grunted in pain when her knees hit gravel. The jumper attached to her toppled over her and shouted something in Spanish, then detached their harnesses and hauled her to her feet. Aaron stood nearby, a rifle pressed to his back. Despite it being February, the desert sun blazed against Camille’s fair skin. She licked her dry, cracked lips and tried unsuccessfully to swallow.
When someone shoved her toward him, her jelly legs lurched and she tripped over a rock. She would have fallen except Aaron reached out and caught her. With an expressionless face, he pulled her to his side and maintained a steadying hand on her elbow.
Mr. Mustache gestured to a chestnut-colored horse. With tentative steps, Camille approached it. She wiggled a foot into the stirrup and tried to hoist herself on, but her muscles refused to comply.
Aaron’s hands encircled her waist. “I’ve got you,” he whispered.
As he lifted, Camille hefted her leg over the saddle. Aaron swung behind her. It was the closest she’d been to a man in a long, long time. Check that—ever. She squirmed, desperate to put an inch or two between them.
“Easy there,” he muttered. To Camille’s mortification, he grabbed her hips and pulled her onto his groin. “Sorry.” His breath on her skin sent an involuntary shudder through her spine. “This saddle’s too small for the both of us.”
“Just keep your hands to yourself.”
He responded with a quiet snort. “We’re going to die, Camille, and even if we weren’t, you’re not my type.”
“Believe me when I say that’s a relief.”
With Mr. Mustache holding the reins of Camille and Aaron’s horse, the caravan began a slow trot into the foothills, away from the city she’d seen in the distance.
As they rode in silence over an endless expanse of shrubs and sand, Camille caught a whiff of Aaron’s scent for the first time—clean, like freshly laundered cotton. Discreetly, she turned her face toward his neck and inhaled. No doubt about it, despite their ordeal, the man smelled like laundry straight out of the dryer. She squeezed her arms down, certain she didn’t smell as nice.
She’d learned the hard way that when men were as good-looking as Aaron, they were used to getting whatever they wanted. Aaron, in particular, oozed entitlement from his every pore. As though being born beautiful was anything more than lucky genes.
It irritated Camille to be the foil to his physical perfection. She neither looked nor smelled as good as he did. She felt awkward and unnatural on the horse while he was graceful and practiced. It was not an exaggeration to say he made being taken hostage look elegant and easy. No wonder she’d avoided him the past two years. His very existence felt toxic to her own.
When the trail turned steeply upward, Camille was forced to lean into his chest. He tensed in response. She turned to find him scowling.
“Don’t worry,” she growled, “it’s not a come-on. You’re not my type either.”
* * *
Not that it mattered in these last few minutes of his life, but no way would Aaron embarrass himself by sporting an erection while sharing a saddle with Camille Fisher. There would be no masking it since she was sitting on his lap, a position only slightly more comfortable than enduring the constant wiggling of her derriere.
Somehow, he had to figure out a way to stop his body’s reaction. First, he needed to quit smelling her hair, which was difficult because it was the most exquisite head of hair he’d ever seen, hanging in thick tresses down her back, inches from his nose. As the trail turned steep, Camille reclined into him and it took all his mental wrangling to not bury his face in it.
The second key to his success was not looking at or touching her long, perfectly toned legs to see if her skin was as soft as it looked. He remembered those legs from Jacob and Juliana’s wedding, how they looked holding up her red dress. What a waste, he’d thought at the time, to give such a body to a foul-tempered harpy.
The moment they crested a hill and a compound came into view, nestled in a narrow valley, Aaron began searching for a weakness in the layout he could exploit as an escape route. If there was one, though, he couldn’t find it. The towering cinder-block wall surrounding three squat, houselike buildings was topped with thick ropes of barbed wire. The iron-barred entrance gate on the east side, currently guarded by two men with rifles, was the only break in the wall.
The horses were led to the south of the compound, under a lean-to that served as a stable, where a pudgy man with wide-set eyes and a long, thin mouth like a frog took the reins. Aaron hadn’t seen a single car yet, which meant they would have to flee on horseback. With that in mind, he made damn sure he knew where the tack and saddles were stored before he and Camille were dragged from the horse and marched toward the entrance gate.
Barefoot, Camille stumbled along the inhospitable desert terrain. Aaron kept a firm hand on her elbow, steering her around the worst of the rocks and prickly cacti blanketing the ground, but her lack of footwear was one more strike against the probability of a successful escape, as if the odds weren’t impossible already.
By the time they reached the courtyard created by the buildings’ U-shaped layout, his hope for freedom had evaporated. The barbed wire-topped fence looked even more ominous up close and, with every step he took over the bullet-casing-littered ground, he counted another man and even more guns. They didn’t stand a chance of escaping this place with their lives.
They were prodded past an unmarked white delivery truck and a table loaded with what looked like satellite communication equipment and into the largest building that seemed to serve as the living quarters. Halfway down a dim hallway, they were muscled into a room that was empty save for the rusty metal chair Aaron was shoved into.
With a half dozen armed men surrounding him and a gun nudging Camille’s back, he didn’t put up a fight. Not even when a man with heavy acne scarring, holding a white rope, stepped forward to bind his hands behind the seatback and his legs to the legs of the chair. Within minutes, a second chair appeared and Camille was similarly bound.
Aaron met her gaze. The toughness he’d come to admire was still there, but shadowed by a hint of fear. As if maybe she’d done her own assessment of their odds and found them as bleak as he had.
From behind the cluster of men, a little girl with round, fearful eyes shuffled forward.
A tall, wiry man knelt next to her, whispering. She looked as though she was ready to run, but the man gripped her soiled red shirt tightly. She looked at Aaron and two tears rolled down her cheeks.