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Authors: C. J. Miller

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers

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BOOK: Traitorous Attraction
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“Did you leave someone waiting for you at home?” she asked.

“Left someone? Yes. Left her waiting? No. It never worked, and after a few failures, I stopped trying. I’m better off alone.” It was easier for him to focus when he didn’t have anyone’s expectations on him. He could live his life how he wanted, come and go when he pleased, and never have to explain himself.

“You’re really into the whole solitary thing, aren’t you?” Kate asked.

Was that pity in her voice? He did not care for that in the least. “It’s not that I’m into it, as you’ve phrased it, but I prefer it. I’ve been up front about that and it works for me.” Why did it matter? He had agreed she could come along to look for his brother. She should see that as a major win.

“Aiden told me you and he used to spend a lot of time together.”

When they were younger and before they had time-consuming, soul-sucking jobs, they had spent a great deal of time together. They had even shared the rent on a two-bedroom town house for a few years. “When we were kids.”

“What changed?” Kate asked.

They’d grown up. They’d escaped being under their father’s thumb and they’d gotten jobs to support themselves. They’d each wanted their own space. “Life changed us.”

“Or you changed,” Kate said.

Why was she digging around about this? If she and Aiden were so close, he would have told her all the ugly details of their lives. “Of course I changed. I grew up. I had more responsibilities.” Although from a young age, he’d had a number of grown-up tasks. Taking care of Aiden. Finding food when the cupboards were bare because his father hadn’t bothered to go shopping. Making sure they had clean clothes and shoes that fit. Getting them to school on time.

“That doesn’t mean you needed to cut Aiden out.”

Was that her interpretation or Aiden’s? “What makes you say I cut him out?”

Kate must have sensed she was walking on sensitive ground. “Nothing. Aiden just mentioned he missed you.”

Connor had missed Aiden, too. He’d regretted the distance between them. Toward the end, their conversations had been about their father and how they were footing the bill and the responsibility for his care. They were conversations that had made them both uncomfortable. Aiden believed their father had changed. Connor saw him for the coldhearted, abusive jerk he’d always been.

Connor hadn’t wanted their disagreements about Sphere to escalate into the fight that had caused discord between them. It was difficult to live with the idea that they’d never close that distance.

“I’ve missed him, too,” Connor said.

“I hope you’ll have the opportunity to see him soon,” Kate said.

Hope.
There was that word again. It was a fickle word that could end in happiness or devastation. Despite Connor’s tortured thoughts, sleep claimed him.

Part III: The Jungle

Chapter 5

T
he bus would take them to Mangrove. Though Kate had no illusions the intel she’d intercepted was completely accurate, she hoped for Aiden’s sake they’d pick up on his trail at the bar where he’d last given a verbal check-in. It had been seven months. Perhaps someone would remember him. In a small town, someone looking like Aiden would make an impression. He didn’t look like a local and neither did she or Connor. Maybe someone in Mangrove would know where the Armed Revolutionaries had set up their camps.

Connor was wearing a blue, nondescript ball cap over his hair and Kate had tied a bandanna around hers. It didn’t hide her blond hair completely, but it made it less noticeable.

The bus was a remnant of the eighties, rust around the wheel wells and bumper, paint chipped and scratched from the sides, and the cloth seats worn to threads, silver tape around the seams. The air-conditioning didn’t work and the small rectangular windows were opened. It was a hot, humid day and the wind wasn’t cooperating to cool the inside of the vehicle.

Connor and Kate took their seats in the middle of the bus, keeping their heads bent together and ignoring other passengers. The bus was three-quarters full and ten minutes late when leaving the bus terminal.

“If you want to sleep, now is a good time,” Connor said. He shifted in the narrow confines between the bench seats.

During the brief time they had spent together, Connor had shown two sides: cold, detached and mechanical and the side she preferred, warm, protective and considerate. “I am tired.” It hadn’t been easy to sleep on the floor of the room or ignore the sporadic sounds from the street and liquor store below. The longer into the night, the louder it had become until quiet finally came around 5:00 a.m.

Kate closed her eyes and tilted her head back against the seat. The bus rumbled over potholes, and if she wasn’t so tired, it would have prevented her from sleeping. When she awoke, she was immediately aware that in her sleep, she had shifted, letting her head fall to Connor’s shoulder, and he had his arm around her. Heat and embarrassment burned through her. He smelled good, an earthy masculine smell, and she felt safe nestled against him. Should she pretend to be asleep and shift away? Or wake up and pretend she hadn’t noticed the intimacy?

She decided on the second. When she moved upright, Connor let his arm fall away. She missed the contact the moment it was lost. It was dark and the temperature inside the bus had lowered to a more comfortable level. “How long was I asleep?” she asked.

“A few hours,” he said.

That long? “Did you get any sleep?” she asked.

“No, I’m fine. I want to keep an eye on things.” His eyes traveled across the aisle to a group of four men, two turned in their seats to face the others, their conversation boisterous. They were passing cards from a playing deck between them.

Were they a threat? Their arms were covered with the same type of snake tattoo the man in the bar had. Were these men members of the Snake Slayers? Were they aware of the altercation in the bar the day before?

“I can keep an eye out if you want to sleep,” she said. As she spoke, the men glanced at her, two of them leering in her direction. Goose bumps rose on her arms and an uneasy feeling passed over her.

“Nope. I’ll wait,” Connor said. For her. He was staying awake to protect her. If she wasn’t with him, he could have gone almost unnoticed on the bus.

They were foreigners and it was obvious to anyone who saw them. Some Tumarans lived under the assumption that foreigners, especially Americans, were wealthy and carried cash and jewelry. Would the men approach, thinking they could rob them? The bus driver wouldn’t be any help and the people around them were likely to ignore an assault. Getting involved in a fight brought too much trouble, and the farther Kate and Connor were from the city, the more the law of the land changed from the hands of law enforcement to outlaws.

The glances from the four men increased and then their voices lowered. Kate tensed. They were planning something and she didn’t like it.

She gripped Connor’s arm. “I’m getting a bad feeling,” she said in Italian.

Connor glanced over at the men. “I’m not thrilled about this either, but we’ll be okay.”

Kate tried to appear confident, lifting her head and squaring her shoulders. She wouldn’t let the men intimidate her. She had training. Untested training and no real field experience, but she wasn’t helpless.

“Hey, friend, is this your first time in Tumara?” One of the men directed the question at Connor.

“No, it’s not,” Connor said. He looked at them, but he didn’t engage in more conversation.

“What about your lady? She looks like a first timer,” the man said, and they snickered.

Connor ignored them, although he shifted in the seat, sitting straighter, turning his shoulders toward them, blocking her between him and the open window. He would defend them in a physical confrontation if he had to, but he wasn’t looking for a fight.

“You look like two Americans who brought trouble to town yesterday in our bar,” one of the men said.

Then they were aware of the incident. Connor said nothing.

One of the men crossed the aisle and leaned on the back of their seat. He reached to touch Kate. She shrank away as Connor’s hand flew up. He caught the man around the wrist and twisted it away. “No touching.”

The man winced.

Connor released him and the man rubbed his arm. “Don’t be rude, American. You could find yourself and your lady lost and hunted in the jungle. You forget that today, you’re outnumbered. When you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. We have unfinished business.”

It wasn’t wise to threaten a man like Connor. Not only was his physical appearance a deterrent, but he was also quick and trained. Kate had seen glimpses into what he could do, and she wouldn’t test him, even if the odds were stacked against him.

Connor said nothing. The men were irritable and on edge. Watching them closely, Kate recognized the signs of drug use. Bloodshot eyes, twitchy movements and a slight tremor in their voices. Her fear increased. They couldn’t walk away. They didn’t have any place to go trapped on the bus. People around them were looking away and at the ground, trying not to make eye contact. No one wanted to engage in an altercation with these men.

“We’re not looking for trouble. Just passage to our destination,” Connor said.

The man gave Kate a long look as if undressing her with his eyes. She shivered with disgust.

“It’s a long ride to Mangrove. I was hoping to use the time to settle the score.” The man laughed as if he’d made an outrageously funny statement. Connor had no reaction. None. The man pulled out a knife and held it to Connor. “You think you’re too good to talk to me? How about you learn the rules here? On our turf, we’re in charge. When I speak to you, you say, ‘Yes, master Snake Slayer.’”

Connor’s expression remained calm. No way would he speak those words.

Kate’s heart was racing, and panic caused a cold sweat to break out across her body. “We just want to get to our destination,” Kate said, reiterating what Connor had said earlier.

“You’ll get there, but there’s a higher fee involved for Americans with an attitude. Start by giving me your wallets,” the man said.

Kate’s muscles seized. What would Connor do? In close spaces with a knife drawn, someone would get hurt. The other three men stood and crowded around, escalating the situation.

How could she defuse it? She’d taken training on dealing with aggressive people and de-escalating problems. What could she say to him that would make him and his gang sit down and keep to themselves for the remainder of the trip?

“Why don’t you put that away?” Connor said. “This won’t end well for anyone. We’re stuck on this bus for another few hours.”

The man blinked at Connor, confusion crossing his face. He hadn’t thought through his demand. He was looking to prove something to his friends. He wouldn’t back down, unless he could somehow save face.

The man lowered the knife to his side. Relief washed over her, but after a few beats, anger flashed across his face. He swung the knife abruptly and a gasp escaped her. Connor caught his swinging arm and squeezed, forcing the man to drop the knife. It fell to the seat of the bus, and Connor grabbed the handle of the blade before one of the man’s friends got the idea to jump into the fight.

“Take a seat. I don’t want trouble,” Connor said.

The man was bleating like a sheep.

The bus slammed to a stop. Kate surged forward, catching herself on the seat in front of her. Brakes squealed and the engine idled loudly. The bus driver walked down the aisle, gun in his hand, waving it at them. He looked at the Tumaran men and then at Connor and Kate. He pointed his gun at Connor and Kate.

“You two, get off my bus. I don’t want trouble. Off. Now,” the driver said, pointing his gun between them and the back door.

Kate opened her mouth to protest. They hadn’t started the fight, although with the knife clasped in Connor’s hand, he looked like the aggressor. That, in addition to the Snake Slayers having some control of Rosario, put her and Connor in the losing position.

Connor stood. “We’re going,” he said to the driver.

Kate waited a moment for someone to speak in their defense and explain what had happened. No one moved. No one lifted their heads. The gangs had made everyone too afraid to speak.

Looking through the window, she felt worry swamp her. The bus was in the middle of the jungle. No other roads led this way, and she couldn’t remember the last time they had passed a town or she had seen anyone on the road. They didn’t have much with them. Where would they go? How far had the bus gone? How much farther to Mangrove?

“Come on, Kate,” Connor said.

He wasn’t going to argue and try to stay on the bus? Connor was already stepping down the aisle. Kate hitched her bag higher on her arm and followed Connor. When they were on the ground, the door shut forcefully behind them and the bus pulled away, kicking up dirt and debris. As the bus disappeared down the road, it stole the last of the light, leaving them in the pitch black.

Darkness. No city lights. No streetlights. Nothing.

“Why didn’t you argue?” Kate asked. She shivered. It was cold and they were in the middle of nowhere.

“Wouldn’t have helped. We’re Americans. They were Snake Slayers. The driver wouldn’t have believed us, or if he did, he wouldn’t stand up to gang members.”

“Where are we going now?” Could they hike back the way they’d come? Or were they close to another town?

“We had to get off the bus at some point and hike through the jungle. It’s just happening a few miles sooner,” Connor said.

He was annoyingly calm. Wasn’t he concerned about the change in their plans? Would they run out of supplies? What about finding a safe place to stay? “We don’t have shelter.”

“We’ll make it.”

“We don’t have enough food or water to last long.”

“We’ll find more.”

Kate blew out her breath. Sphere agents had a reputation for being resourceful. Their extensive training allowed them to survive in the worst circumstances. They were conditioned to remain calm. Kate’s training had taught her to do the same while she was behind a computer. What about now? She felt exposed and shaky and worried. She’d participated in training exercises to sharpen her survival skills, but she’d had the comfort of knowing help was a few hundred feet away and the exercise lasted only a few hours.

In the jungles of Tumara, she had no such comfort. She had to rely on her book knowledge and Connor.

“How close are we to Mangrove?” Kate asked.

Connor reached into his pack and withdrew his flashlight, a GPS locator and the map they’d bought in Rosario. He turned on the flashlight and aimed it at the map. Their partial view of their surroundings was scarier than the pitch black. Lurking in the jungle were jaguars and other predators. Would the light draw them?

Plants and the beaten road were all she could see in the beam of light. No landmarks and no street signs. The road the bus had taken had been paved at some point, but the blacktop was cracked and missing in many places, washed over by mud and leaves.

“Will we follow the road?” Kate asked.

Connor looked at his watch, which had a small compass. “It will be easiest to travel a plowed path, but it’s not a direct route and will take more time. We’ll stay as close to it as we can.”

His words brought to mind the articles she’d read about the area following Aiden’s disappearance. Hikers went missing. Tourists were robbed at gunpoint. “Do you have a phone? We should call for help.”

Connor walked into the brush along the road. “I have a sat phone for emergencies. Who do you want to call? Your buddies at Sphere? I think that ship has sailed.”

It hurt that he believed she would sell them out and run back to Sphere at the first bump in the road. “Don’t blame me for this.”

“I am not blaming you.”

“I have friends at Sphere. I could call them for advice.” She could trust her friends to keep her location a secret, couldn’t she?

“Not a chance. By this point, every person in that organization is looking for you and will sell you out in a heartbeat. They might even be offering a reward for your capture.”

Kate had received those memos offering a reward for the apprehension of or information leading to agents who’d disappeared. Sometimes, the reward was in the millions.

“You have to think like a field agent. We work with the information we have, we trust no one and we stay focused on the mission. In this case, that’s finding Aiden.”

Kate hated that she wasn’t as mentally prepared on this mission as she had thought. She was out of her element. She couldn’t admit that to Connor. Not now. She’d have to fake that she was comfortable and competent.

Could they hitchhike if another vehicle drove this way? “We can flag down another car along the road and ask for a ride,” Kate said.

Connor gave her a look that was a mixture of surprise and dissension. “What if the people driving the car are with the revolution and unfriendly toward Americans? What if the people in the car are with
el presidente
and they don’t believe why we’re in the jungle? We’ll stay off the road and see who comes by before we reveal our presence.”

BOOK: Traitorous Attraction
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