Authors: Sara Craven
Biting her lip, Chellie left him to it.
Once alone, Ash crossed to the door and listened for a moment before pushing it almost shut. Then he went back to the desk, swiftly unbuttoning his shirt and extracting the fiat pouch he had taped to his waist He chose one of the skeleton keys it contained and opened the drawer that Chellie had indicated.
Inside, lying on the untidy jumble of papers, was a large-bladed knife, businesslike and menacing at the same time.
Ash's lips pursed in a silent whistle. 'Songbird,' he said softly, 'I think you may have underestimated Mama Rita.'
There were several passports in the drawer but only one with the distinctive maroon cover. He opened it, swiftly checking the details with a nod of satisfaction.
So far, so good, he told himself.
He gave the photograph a cursory glance, then paused, studying it more closely. The girl in the picture looked back at him, a faint, almost defiant smile playing about the corners of her mouth, the green eyes cool and candid. And totally unafraid.
His mouth curled cynically. 'But that was then, darling,' he told the photograph. 'How things can change.'
He closed the passport, slipping it into his back pocket, then replaced his keys in their pouch, retaping it to his skin.
He took the knife and used it to force open the other drawers in the desk, scattering their contents all over the floor to give the impression of opportunist theft. Then he closed the top drawer and forced that too, using the tip of the knife to damage the lock.
He felt brief sympathy for the other girls whose passports had been stolen and held against their good behaviour, but there was nothing he could do about that.
Besides, none of them were rich men's daughters.
Only you, songbird, he thought. And you're coming with me, whether you like it or not.
Chellie's heart was racing as she went up to her room, and she made herself breathe deeply and evenly, trying to calm down and be sensible. As she opened the door she braced herself against the usual scuttling noises, her skin crawling with revulsion.
At least on the boat she'd be spared that particular nightmare, she thought, switching on the naked lightbulb which dangled from the ceiling. But vulnerable to plenty of others in its place, an unwanted voice in her head reminded her.
She knew nothing about her rescuer—not even his name.
There was no guarantee that he'd keep any of his side of the bargain. In fact, by trusting him even marginally, she could find herself in a far worse mess.
He looked tough enough, she admitted unwillingly. His body was lean and muscular, with wide shoulders and a strong chest. But then the life he'd chosen—delivering other people's boats, with some petty thieving on the side—was a pretty chancy existence.
Under normal circumstances he was the last man in the world she would ever have turned to for help.
But she couldn't let herself worry about that now. Desperate situations required desperate measures, and she had to get away from this place, whatever the means.
Once I'm out of here, and I have my passport back, I can think again, she told herself with a touch of grimness.
It was amazing the effect that even a whisper of hope could have. After these weeks of fear she was beginning to feel a resurgence of her old spirit. The conviction that her life belonged to her again, and she was back in control.
Swiftly, she stripped off what little she was wearing and put on the underwear—white cotton bra and pants—she'd washed earlier in the day. They still felt damp, but that couldn't be helped. She dragged her one and only tee shirt over her head, and pulled on a brief denim skirt. She stowed the black dress and G string in her canvas shoulder bag, along with her few toiletries and what little money she had left.
Then she took her sandals from the cupboard, banging them together to dislodge any lurking cockroaches, and slipped them on to her feet.
'Ready to go,' she said, half under her breath.
On her way to the door she caught sight of herself in the piece of broken mirror which hung from a hook on the wall. Once more her hand went involuntarily to her shorn head as she experienced a pang of real pain at the loss.
Her hair, dark and glossy as a raven's wing, had been cut in a sleek chin-length bob when she'd arrived here, but Mama Rita had ordered it to be chopped off to make more room for the wig. Lina had been given the scissors and had enjoyed her task, while the others laughed and jeered.
I'm barely recognisable, she thought.
But maybe that would be an advantage when the time came to continue her journey—alone.
Think positive, she adjured herself.
After all, that was what she had to aim for—to focus on— to the exclusion of everything else. Taking charge of her own destiny once more.
What had happened with Ramon was a glitch, but no more than that And she would make damned sure that no other man ever made a fool of her again. Including Sir Galahad downstairs.
Him, perhaps, most of all.
She extinguished the light and went quietly down the rickety steps.
She was halfway along the passage to Mama Rita's room when Manuel came round the corner.
Chellie checked instantly at the sight of him, and he stopped too, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
? he said. 'What you doing, huh?'
From some undiscovered depth Chellie found the strength to smile at him. 'I thought I'd go down to the bar for a drink.'
who hired you?' He was frowning.
'Asleep.' Chellie gave him a long, meaningful look from under her lashes. 'And not much fan any more.'
He looked her over. 'Why you in those clothes? And where your wig? You supposed to be blonde.'
'My dress got torn.' She shrugged casually. 'And that wig is so hot. Surely I don't need it just to buy a beer?'
A slow, unpleasant grin curled his mouth. 'I have beer in my room,
. You want more fun? You have it with me.'
'No.' Chellie took a step backwards, her hand closing on the strap of her bag in an unconsciously defensive gesture.
He noticed at once, his gaze speculative. 'What you got there,
'Nothing,' she denied, lifting her chin. 'And I'm going to have my drink in the bar—without company.'
For a moment he stared at her, then, to her astonishment, she saw him nod in apparent agreement. It was only when he slid to his knees, eyes glazing, then measured his length completely on the wooden floor that she realised who was standing behind him, grasping one of Mama Rita's wooden candlesticks and looking down at his victim with grim pleasure.
She said shakily, 'My God—is he dead?'
'Not him.' Ash stirred the recumbent body with a contemptuous foot 'I knew what I was doing. He'll have a bad headache when he wakes up, that's all.'
?' Her laugh cracked in the middle. 'Breaking and entering, and now GBH. What next, I wonder?'
'Well, I can't speak for you.' He went down on one knee, and rifled through the unconscious man's pockets, producing his keyring with a grunt of satisfaction. 'But I plan to get out of here before he's missed.' He got to his feet, his glance challenging. 'I have your passport, so are you coming with me? Or would you rather stay here and accept his next invitation? It may not be as cordial as the last,' he added drily. 'But perhaps you don't care.'
Not just the rock and the hard place, Chellie thought. This was the devil and the deep blue sea, and she was caught between them, as trapped as she'd always been.
And, it seemed, she had to choose the devil…
For now, she told herself, but not for ever. That was the thought she had to cling to. The resolution she had to make.
She felt a small quiver of fear, mixed with a strange excitement, uncurl in the pit of her stomach as she looked back at him, meeting the blue ice of his gaze.
She said lightly, 'What are we waiting for, Galahad? Let's go.'
The air outside was warm and so thick she could almost chew it, but Chellie drew it into her lungs as if it was pure oxygen.
She thought, I'm free. And that's the way I'm going to stay. For a moment, she felt tears of sheer relief prick at her eyes, but she fought them back. Because there was no time to cry. Instead she had to make good her escape. Or the first part of it, anyway.
Getting out of the club had been just as nerve-racking as everything that had gone before it. They had dragged Manuel, who had already begun to stir and mutter incoherently, into the office and locked him there with his own keys.
The way to the back door led past the girls' dressing room, so they'd had to waste precious seconds waiting for the coast to be clear. He'd gone first, to unlock the rear door, and had slipped past unseen. But when it had been Chellie's turn she'd found herself catching Jacinta's startled gaze.
She'd made herself smile, and even give a little wave, as if she didn't have a care in the world, but there was no certainty that the other girl wouldn't mention what she'd seen once Chellie's absence had been discovered. In fact, she might not be given a choice, Chellie told herself with a pang.
However, she needed to put space between Mama Rita's and herself and waste no time about it, she thought, breaking into a run.
'Take it easy.' The command was low-voiced but crisp, and her companion's hand clamped her wrist, bringing her to a breathless halt.
'What are you doing? We need to get out of here. They'll be coming after us…'
'Probably,' he returned. 'So the last thing we want is to draw attention to ourselves. If we run in this heat, we'll be remembered. If we walk, we're just another anonymous couple among hundreds of others. So slow down and try and look as if you want to be with me. And for God's sake stop peering back over your shoulder. Your whole body language is shouting "They're after me",' he added, his tone faintly caustic.
'Oh, please excuse me,' Chellie hit back, heavily sarcastic. 'But the role of fugitive is still rather new to me.'
'Just as well,' he returned, unmoved. 'Hopefully you won't have to play it for long.'
He released his grip on her wrist and clasped her fingers instead, drawing her closer to him, adapting his long stride to her shorter pace. Making it seem, she realised unwillingly, as if they were indeed a pair of lovers with the rest of the night to spend together.
On balance, Chellie thought she preferred a bruised wrist to this implied intimacy. The touch of his hand, the brush of his bare arm against hers was sending a tantalising ripple of awareness through her senses, which, frankly, she didn't need or understand.
Life had taught her to be wary of strangers—to maintain her cool in unfamiliar situations. After all, it had taken a long time for Ramon to get under her guard, until, unluckily, she'd taken his persistence for devotion rather than greed.
But now she'd been thrown into the company of this stranger. Condemned, it seemed, to endure the proximity of a man who had no apparent compunction about committing burglary or hitting over the head anyone who got in his way. And knowing it had been done for her benefit hardly seemed an adequate excuse.