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Authors: C. J. Miller

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BOOK: Traitorous Attraction
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“It will take days to walk to Mangrove.”

“Not if we cut through the jungle.”

It was her turn to be surprised. “Cut through the jungle? Won’t that take longer?” The terrain could be brutal. Dense vegetation would slow their progress.

“Not if you know what you’re doing.”

The problem was that she didn’t know what she was doing. Cutting through the jungle meant a rougher landscape and a greater chance of getting lost.

“The longer we’re out here away from civilization, the harder it will be on us physically and emotionally. We’ll find shelter until the sun rises. Then we’ll start moving,” Connor said.

“I’ll help however I can,” Kate said. She’d read how to build a shelter in the jungle, but in the pitch blackness, she had no clue where to start.

“I’ll make a fire to keep predators away. Then I’ll see what I can throw together.”

They walked into the trees. Kate clung to Connor’s arm, her body shaking from fear and from the cold. She was with Connor. He was one of the best people to be with in the jungle.

“Relax. We’ll be okay,” Connor said, his voice soft and comforting. He stopped and turned. “Would it make you feel better to hold the flashlight?” He handed it to her. “Shine it on the ground in front of us so we don’t trip, okay?”

She took the flashlight and held it in one hand, gripping him with the other. “I’m scared.”

“I know and I’m doing everything I can to make you not afraid.”

Though she questioned her reasoning for coming into the jungle and how much her guilt had played into it, she didn’t doubt finding Connor had been the best course of action. He was committed, protective and skilled.

They found a location where they could clear an area for a fire. Connor removed the lighter from his pocket. He grabbed some twigs and fine brush and used them as kindling to start a fire. When he had a strong flame burning, he added a few more sticks and then stepped away. In a few minutes’ time, he had a good fire going. “I’m going to gather supplies. Wait here.”

“Alone?” What lurked in the jungle? Animal predators would avoid the fire, but the members of the Armed Revolution could be patrolling or living in the area. The Tumaran government could have soldiers posted looking for the AR. Distrust and anger between the two ran high and she didn’t want to be in the cross fire.

“I’ll stay within eyesight. Or at least, within shouting distance,” Connor said. He took the flashlight from her.

Kate clung to the straps of her backpack, needing to do something with her hands. “I’ll wait here unless there’s something you want me to do.”

Connor was already gone. If she got crazy about needing to be close to him, she was proving right Connor’s doubts about her abilities. Kate had read about the Tumaran jungle. She knew what to expect.

The sound of crackling wood had her jumping. Just the fire settling. She squinted into the dark and couldn’t see anything.

The sight of Connor returning from the jungle, his arms filled with leaves and branches, was a relief. Kate uncurled her toes and relaxed her shoulders.

Connor laid broad leaves on the ground, covered them with a plastic tarp and then stacked the branches on top of it. “This will slow down the bugs from crawling over us.”

Slow down.
Not stop. Kate took a deep breath. She could handle this.

Connor left and returned two more times with items he’d gathered. Leaves and dried moss created bedding. As she watched him, it dawned on her they’d be sleeping next to each other, side by side, on a bed about the size of a twin mattress. With the amount of effort he’d put in to make one bed, she couldn’t ask him for a second bed just for her. This wasn’t the time to be modest and ask for sleeping space.

Connor lay on the branches and patted the wood next to him. “Sleep now. We’ll get an early start.”

Kate set her bag on the ground and sat on the leaf-and-branch bed. It was more comfortable than she’d expected. She set her head on the rolled clothes from her pack. Connor was lying on his side, and Kate shifted, trying to make more room for him. The fronts of his thighs brushed the backs of hers.

Kate shivered.

“Are you cold?” Connor asked, already digging in his pack. He withdrew a flannel shirt and laid it over her.

The temperature had dropped, and with the fire at her front and Connor at her back, the flannel created a warm pocket for her to sleep. “Thank you for the bed and the blanket.”

“You’re welcome.” He slung his arm around her.

It was a place to put his arm, she supposed. It didn’t mean anything. His forearm rested below her breasts and his breath blew against the back of her neck. Desire skittered down her body and pooled low in her belly.

“Is my hair in the way?” she asked, reaching to gather it in her hands.

“Nope. Smells like the ocean.”

She flipped her hair above them, keeping it from his face. Another compliment? Or was he one of those people who hated the beach? “My next vacation will be to the beach.” She was mentally stretched out in the sun, digging her toes in the sand while the water lapped over her legs.

“Which beach?” he asked.

It didn’t matter to her. She’d grown up on the East Coast and had spent summers on the Maryland Eastern Shore. As a teenager, she’d taken trips to Florida with her friends and had loved it. She’d been on cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Her favorite place to sit was near the water, where the crowds were thin and the sun was hot. “Anywhere that’s quiet and private.”

“I could not agree more,” Connor said.

Quiet and private
was a good way to describe Connor. Kate shifted, trying to get her shoulder in a more comfortable position. Her breasts rubbed against Connor’s arm and her backside brushed his hip.

“I could have made the cot larger, but I thought we could share body heat.”

Kate made some noncommittal noise. Being this close to Connor affected her on another level. With Connor, she felt safe. Despite his insistence that he was a lone ranger, he was showing significant consideration for her. When she was with him, she felt safe and protected, and falling asleep in his strong arms was easy.

Chapter 6

T
he air around her was hot and sticky. Her shoulder was sore and her shirt had risen up to her bra. She was facing Connor, her face buried in his T-shirt-covered chest, her hands tucked close to his stomach. Before she could roll away and pretend they hadn’t been cuddling, Connor opened his eyes.

“Morning,” he said, sitting and running a hand through his hair.

While his had taken on a disheveled appearance, she was certain she looked like a rag doll left out in the rain. She sat and finger-brushed her hair and arranged her clothes. She tied her hair away from her face and secured the handkerchief over it.

“We’ll break camp and look for food and water,” Connor said.

After she stood, he tossed away the branches that had made their bed and put damp earth over the fire. Kate’s stomach growled, and her tired, foggy brain longed for caffeine.

“You look pretty good in the morning,” Connor said.

Was he making fun of her? “I don’t have a mirror, but I must look a hot mess.” The humidity was playing havoc with her hair.

“I wouldn’t use both those words.
Hot
’s a good word. You look like you should, like you’ve been camping.” Connor rolled his shoulders. “My biggest complaint is that you took up more than half the bed. I’ll remember that next time. You travel in your sleep.”

Kate’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment and she dug through her bag to deflect the comment. “Why didn’t you slide me away if you needed more room?” Being close to him had made sleep possible, but she felt guilty if she’d made it worse for him.

“I didn’t want to wake you by giving you a splinter,” he said.

Right. Their bed wasn’t a mattress. “Tonight, I’ll make my own bed and you won’t have to worry about me taking up space.”

Connor shrugged and slung his backpack over his shoulders. He looked at his watch and then at the sun. He started walking.

Kate followed. He stopped several times to pull fruit from the trees and hand it to her. Some were bitter and unripe, but they provided liquids and calories. At least he hadn’t asked her to eat bugs. They were preserving their limited food sources, uncertain how long they would be hiking.

Determined to keep up with him, Kate didn’t complain about the pace he was setting. His strides were long, and by taking the lead, he was doing the most work, moving branches and vines as they traveled. They walked for what felt like hours before Connor broke the silence.

“Tell me how you got suckered into working for Sphere,” Connor said.

An interesting way to describe it. She hadn’t been forced. She had decided of her own volition. “Why does anyone work for them? They have access to amazing technology, devices I had never seen before, and I thought I was making a difference by working there. Plus, it was flattering to be chosen. You can’t apply to Sphere. You’re recruited.”

“Right. Their recruitment process. I forgot that part of their sales pitch. Like their careful selection casts out the weak, and only the brave and the strong remain to fight the good fight.” The edge of bitterness told her he was speaking more of his experience than making a comment on hers.

“I believe the work I did helped someone. Or many people. Stopped wars.”

“Or started them,” Connor said.

Kate flinched. She wasn’t naive. She was aware of the difficult politics and dicey problems Sphere inserted themselves into. “Or kept the casualty list smaller,” Kate said.

“I’m guessing there was a man involved.”

Kate stumbled over her feet and righted herself before face-planting. “You’ve already accused me of being involved with your brother. Do you think every decision I make has to do with a man?” He was striking at that part of her that hated when someone assumed her looks, and by extension her romantic relationships, were how she had what she did. Kate thought of her older sister. Elise had parlayed her looks into a spot on Hollywood’s A-list, and Kate had seen how vicious that world could be. Kate wanted to be known for her intelligence, not her appearance. She didn’t want to be stalked, hounded by adoring fans or made to feel like a commodity.

Connor took her hand, helping her over a large fallen tree. “Before Aiden. When you started training with the organization, you met someone.”

How had he known? “A field operative, yes. During one of my first missions, we had worked together, and when we met in person, we clicked.” Suspicion and curiosity nipped at her. “How did you know that?”

Connor glanced back at her. “It’s a Sphere hoax. They put you on a mission with someone who is similar to you, who you jibe with psychologically and emotionally. You become wrapped up with that person and the mission and do anything to get a mission complete and to protect that person. It’s part of the psychological mind trap.”

“You really believe that?” Had Michael set her up? Was he a plant for Sphere? Connor was making her think as suspiciously as he did.

“It’s just another way Sphere controls its employees. Sphere decides it wants your professional and personal life to be about them, and they make it so. And when you’ve dumped everything you have into it, when your entire life is consumed with Sphere, they take the person away. At that point, you’re more isolated and more invested in the company than ever.”

Kate found it hard to believe Sphere would take their tactics to that level. “That seems like an awful amount of effort to isolate me from people outside Sphere.”

“When you were in said relationship, did you spend time with him whenever possible?”

She and Michael had spent a lot of time together. That was how new relationships were. When Michael was sent overseas for months without any way to communicate with her, her feelings for him had cooled. Absence hadn’t made her heart grow fonder, which was lucky, because when he’d returned, he had told her he had fallen in love with someone else. Had their entire relationship been created, used and destroyed by Sphere? “We spent a lot of time together until he was assigned a series of missions outside the U.S.”

“Right. Then you both moved on with your lives, taking your broken heart and filling the void with more Sphere missions and work.”

“You’re making it sound like I was coerced into falling in love with someone. Like Sphere is a god that plays games with their employees and their emotions.”

“I imagine some people within Sphere do believe they are gods.”

Kate went over those first months, which in some ways seemed so long ago. She had been young and inexperienced and pliable. “How do you know all this?”

“After I left the organization, I became friends with a woman who had worked on their psychiatric team years before. She was responsible for creating profiles of employees and creating situations to ignite relationships. She called herself a high-paid, highly skilled matchmaker.”

“She just gave you this information?” Kate asked.

“Not gave. She had worked up a profile on me before Sphere recruited me. She said I intrigued her and she couldn’t figure me out. It took them several tries to find the right woman to lure me.”

She couldn’t stop herself from asking. “Who was the right woman?”

“Her name is Lauren. She’s Italian, a naturalized American citizen, speaks English with a heavy accent that drives me crazy.”

That explained why and how he spoke Italian. Jealousy lodged in her emotions.
She
didn’t have an accent.

“Petite, curly brown hair, curvy, strong. A field operative like me. Physical, likes to train hard and play hard. I wouldn’t get involved with someone I was working a mission with, so it took Sphere longer to get us together.” For someone who didn’t share much, Connor had a lot to say about Lauren. The woman he described was Kate’s opposite. She tried not to let that burn through her.

“You speak of her in the present. Is she in your life?” Unwanted envy for a woman she had never met consumed her.

“We stay in touch. We’re no longer romantically involved.”

“Even though she manipulated you?”

“She didn’t manipulate me. Sphere manipulated us.”

Thinking about Sphere having that much control over her life bothered Kate immensely. Had she let Sphere exploit her? Wasn’t she smart enough to see through a plan like that?

“Believe what you want. I’m being straight with you because I think you deserve the truth. When this is over, you’ll walk away and realize how much of your life was controlled by them. You’ll be glad to be free to live your life on your terms.”

Kate took the branch he handed her to prevent it from slapping her in the face. When she returned to the United States, her life would be drastically different from how it had been before she’d left. She’d be unemployed and, depending on how much Sphere had smeared her reputation, unemployable. What else could they do to her? They had access to her bank account where they deposited her paycheck. The extensive background checks they’d run on her gave them access to most aspects of her life. If they wanted to, they could torpedo her world into a million pieces. What would her family think?

Kate hadn’t taken the path her parents had laid out for her. Neither had her sister. Seeing disappointment in her father’s eyes would destroy her.

“You’ll find a new job and a new life. With your looks, doors will be flying open,” he said.

Again, picking at old wounds. “Can you please stop making insinuations about my looks?” she asked.

“Are you unaware you’re gorgeous?” he asked.

Kate’s muscles tensed. “I am aware of what I look like. Do you know Elise Burke?” she asked.

Connor glanced at her, confusion on his face. “The actress?”

“Yes. She is my sister. My half sister. She wanted me to follow in her footsteps.”

“Life on easy street?” Connor asked. “Why not?”

“First, her life isn’t what it seems. Second, I had one acting job in my life and it was a disaster. I hated it. That world is not for me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

Maybe he’d heard the tension and hurt in her voice. He’d backed down without needing her to explain more. She was glad about that. She didn’t want to talk about her brief and disastrous foray into Hollywood or how much her sister had changed after she’d filmed her first blockbuster movie. Elise became untouchable, uncommunicative and rarely made time for Kate and her family. Kate heard about her sister and her career when the internet alert she’d set up messaged her a news article. It was a sad way to try to be part of her sister’s life.

They reverted back to silence. The strenuous traveling through the jungle tired her. Kate put aside thoughts of her life in America and concentrated on taking one step at a time. Forward progress was slow, and as the sun rose higher in the sky, the temperature and humidity increased.

Kate shook her foot free of a vine that had snaked over her shoes. Connor’s arm shot out and landed across her chest.

“Stop. Don’t move.” The words left his mouth in a whisper.

Alarm tore through her. Had Sphere found her? Rationalization kicked in and a host of other dangers flickered through her mind. A jaguar. A poisonous snake. The AR.

Kate didn’t know which was worse. She strained to hear whatever Connor was hearing or see whatever Connor was seeing. She couldn’t distinguish any human noise from the sounds of the jungle, and with his forearm across her, most of her attention was focused on his strong arm against her breasts.

Connor pointed down to their feet. Razor wire was laid three inches from the ground like trip wire. Nasty trip wire meant to do harm to anyone who crossed it. If they were injured in the jungle, their first-aid kit would help to a point. Open wounds in this climate easily led to infections.

Razor wire meant humans were, or had been, in the area and were protecting something. Kate wasn’t sure if that made her feel better. “We could be near a village,” she whispered. Most locals wouldn’t have access to razor wire, but then again, who knew how the AR and the conflict with the Tumaran government had changed the culture? Communities that had survived thousands of years would adapt to protect themselves and isolate themselves from the problems where possible.

“If this is a welcome to their village, it’s an unfriendly one,” he said. “But are they unfriendly to us or supporters of the revolution? Or have we found an AR camp?”

No way to know whose side anyone was on or what was being guarded by the trip wire. Kate had read that some communities were sympathetic to the revolutionaries, some to the government, and others wanted to remain out of the conflict. “Let’s circle around,” Kate said. She’d rather avoid a confrontation, and entering the marked perimeter invited problems.

Connor peered along the ground. “We don’t know how far it goes, and we could lose daylight and walk miles off our path.” At her wary expression, he set his hand over hers. “If this is the perimeter of a village, that means water. If it’s an AR camp, they could have Aiden. Let’s cross and see what we can find.”

They’d drunk the water from their canteens and eaten some of the food supplies, but they were thirsty and hungry. His touch was as persuasive as his words. Connor was fearless or at least appeared that way. If he was afraid of what they’d find, he didn’t show her. He stepped over the wire and extended his hand to help her. “Focus on the positive. The possibility of fresh, cool water.”

If her mouth wasn’t so dry, it would have watered at the thought. “Water. Yes.”

Connor furrowed his brows. “I’ll look for more fruit to help us stay hydrated.” Connor scanned the area slowly and adjusted the knife at his waist, pulling it to his side. “If my brother is inside, I won’t leave him.”

Kate wished she had spent more time in Sphere’s hand-to-hand combat classes rather than in classes on the latest technology and computer theory. The computer classes had seemed more relevant to her work. In the jungle without her phone, her knowledge of cutting-edge technology was useless.

Connor moved at a slower pace, checking each step. “Put your feet in the tracks I’m making. Land mines could be planted out here.”

Land mines? Images from World War II movies flashed into her mind. Explosions and dirt being kicked high into the air and shrapnel being tossed in all directions. Kate grabbed the back of his T-shirt. Closing her eyes for a brief moment, she squelched the thrum of terror that beat in her chest. Dangerous revolutionaries, barbed wire, jungle predators and now land mines. She’d been involved in operations situated in the jungle, communicating with Sphere agents on an hourly basis. She had been safe in her air-conditioned office with access to food, water, coffee and plumbing. How did field agents cope with the pressure and lack of resources?

BOOK: Traitorous Attraction
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