A Dangerous Exchange
The African sun beat down on Marnie’s neck as she stared at the puddle of gasoline on the ground. She cursed. The smell burnt her nostrils and she kicked the tire of the jeep in frustration. Unbelievable. She’d escaped the rebels who had followed her into the Congolese jungle and though now miles behind her they’d screwed her with a lucky shot to the fucking fuel line. She hadn’t noticed until she ran the car out of gas. Bullets weren’t exactly great for car maintenance. The bastards had stranded her, and if she didn’t get her ass in gear, they’d catch up to her and she’d be dead.
She was going to have to walk.
Her sweaty hand gripped the package beneath her printed dress which was large enough to cover most of her body. It was reassuring to feel the square box in the pouch snug around her waist beneath the cotton material. She smoothed the front of the dress and collected her gear for the long, grueling walk. With the head scarf around her long hair and the voluminous dress, her outfit was complete. It gave the impression of a shapeless, unattractive female, and that was a perfect cover for her. Soldiers didn’t stop women who weren’t pretty. She’d blend into the background, just like a hundred times before. Her ability to give the impression she was harmless, plain and unobtrusive let her slip through the most tense situations unscathed. Couriers were easy prey unless they were trained to protect themselves. Most people didn’t realize what she really was or what she could do, until the knife was at their throat. As an international special courier, no one expected her to be armed and dangerous.
This job, however, had been a pain in the ass. At first, it seemed to be a straightforward simple courier delivery. It wasn’t. It was supposed to be legitimate business. It wasn’t.
Instead, there was blood, death and bullets.
As she pressed her gun into her leg holster, she tried to shove the vision away. She had to focus on survival. Gun, passport, money, package with the memo.
She had to stay numb. There was no time to break open the box and find the answer to a nine year old question. Stay in the moment. Survive. Those were the two thoughts that would save her.
With heavy steps, she started to walk on the rough asphalt that stretched for miles in front of her. The problem with walking was it left her with time for thinking. And feeling.
Her uncle had set her up perfectly.
She wiped the sweat from her face. He’d died back there. She should be upset. A normal person would be, she guessed. But there was no inkling of grief or loss inside her for him, other than the usual frustration of a wasted life. Her only memory of her uncle was a short visit after her parents had been killed. It hadn’t left a good impression on her seventeen-year-old self. But under the African sun, with the azure sky and the vast expanse of dirt and sand, Marnie realized her uncle had been the last of her family. It was probably the reason she’d done one of the dumbest things in her entire career.
She’d taken the package and run.
Under a hail of bullets, she’d careened her jeep into the jungle and headed for the mysterious address her uncle had whispered in her ear as he gasped his last breaths. She thought she’d gotten away. She looked behind her at the metal heap, a useless pile of junk.
The road stretched endlessly into the horizon. Gnawing doubt poked its way through the bravado that had gotten her this far. Facing forward, she tugged out her GPS hand held. Another forty miles. She wasn’t going to make it.
Stop it. Stop thinking like that. You have to make it. You promised. You know what’s in this package.
Inside that little box was the evidence she needed to find her parents’ killer. That memo.
How he was supposed to find the woman on this long stretch of road between the Congo and the Sudan, Todd had no idea. But orders were orders. His job as watchdog for the United Nations wasn’t exactly stress free and adding an adventure-seeking American to his list of responsibilities gave him heartburn.
The wind kicked up and whirled sand along the edge of the blacktop. According to his information, she’d driven out of the jungle with rebels hot on her trail. And that was if she hadn’t been caught.
Along the road, he’d seen only a few people. Walking was a common mode of transportation in most areas of Africa. Today, he’d seen five men and no women. Up ahead, he spied a dark woman with a large head wrap and a floral dress. A jeep was abandoned about a half a mile up the road. He studied the woman more closely. She walked with the usual grace of the women of the Congo and, if it hadn’t been for the modern pack on her shoulder, he would have passed by her.
Her head was down and she kept her stride slow even when he squeaked his brakes in front of her. In English, he shouted at her. “Get in. We don’t have much time.”
She froze and finally raised her eyes to glare at him. He was startled. Her dark skin gave her the appearance of a native African, but her eyes were a surprising green. Her features were delicate with a straight nose and a generous mouth. The strength of her jaw line and the chords of her neck belied the deception of the large voluminous dress. Todd was fascinated.
After all, he’d never seen a thief quite like her before.
As if to prove his shouted words, gunfire erupted from behind them as two jeeps appeared on the road to the south and the woman jumped into action. She grasped the door handle on the passenger side and swung her body into the seat. With a flourish, she whipped out a pistol from under her skirt and gave him a flash of shapely thigh. “Don’t get any ideas, buddy. I have to get to Khartoum. You can drive me or I’ll just take the jeep.”
He jerked the wheel and barreled in the opposite direction. “I’ll drive you. Put that thing away. Or if you’re going to point it, take the safety off.”
She glared at him. “If I took the safety off, I might shoot you. I have no intention of wasting ammunition.”
One side of his mouth lifted in a reluctant smile. “You don’t even know me.”
“All the more reason to be suspicious.”
He shot a glance at her and noted she peered behind them, her knuckles strained as they clenched around a small, square box in her lap. “I was sent to find you.”
Those green eyes pinned him. “Oh? How is that possible?” She scoffed. “I didn’t even know I was going to be here.”
He sped up, the sand becoming a blur. If she did pull the trigger, she’d kill them both. He tried a joke to ease the tension. “Never underestimate the United Nations.”
She snorted. “I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate them, is it?”
Todd’s humor deserted him. This little thief owed the overworked paper pushers her life, but she was sneering at them. “It’s possible you don’t understand a fucking thing. Why they’d want to save your worthless hide is beyond me.” He flicked his gaze over her, disgusted. “I imagine the government doesn’t want a dead American on their hands, even one who is robbing their country.”
That got her attention. “What?”
He jerked his head to the box. “You’re stealing those diamonds, but I’m afraid you won’t get far.”
“Stop the car.” Her pistol pressed against his temple, the safety off.
So fast. Damn, amazing reflexes. He complied but left the engine running. He turned his head to look at her but the force of the barrel increased.
“If you move, I’ll kill you.” Her tone was cold and he didn’t doubt she’d do it. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
“Those two jeeps are catching up.” He stared at her from the corner of his eye. A jury about to send a man to the chair looked friendlier than this woman did. Maybe a different tactic. “You’ll never get past the soldiers at the border.”
Behind them, he could hear gunfire as the jeeps closed the distance. His nerves tightened and his throat burned. He closed his eyes and waited.
She sighed. “I am not a thief. I’m a fool.” The bitterness and resignation in her voice tugged at him, as they were meant to.
“Damn,” he said softly, “You’re good. Do you play that “little girl lost” game with everyone? Or am I special?”
The muzzle of the gun pressed harder and his breath caught. “Oh, you’re special. Who the fuck are you, anyway?” she demanded to know.
“I’m a United Nations security agent. My name is Todd Atchison.”
“Well, Todd Atchison, I have a gun to your head. Now what?” The gun, cold and hard on his skin made his heart race. But Todd didn’t have a chance to answer.
A bullet slammed into the back window and barely missed her head. She dropped the gun from his temple and screamed, “Go!”
He threw the jeep into gear and mashed his foot on the gas pedal. The vehicle leapt forward and he swerved to the left as one of the jeeps tried to slide up alongside.
The woman leaned out the passenger window and yelled at him, “Let them get closer.”
He shot an uneasy glance in the rear view mirror. She made a good target leaning out the window. This one had brass balls, well if she had balls. Clearly, she thought he’d follow her orders. Instead, he gripped the neckline of her dress and yanked until she collapsed back on the seat, her head slammed into his shoulder. She scrambled back up and glared at him. “What was that for, asshole?”
“You’re going to get killed. Just stay down and let me drive.”
“I don’t follow orders from U.N. lackeys.” She started to aim out the window again.
“You’ll follow mine.” He jammed on the brakes and sent her tumbling forwards. The two jeeps blew past and careened off the road to avoid a collision. “Now, you can shoot them.”
If looks could kill, he would have been dead, but she took aim and fired. He had to admire her ability. A crack shot on the left back tire sent the first jeep sliding off the road where it flipped over and crunched into the sand.
The second jeep stopped and sent a hail of bullets at them as they flew past. At a safe distance, he turned his head to glare at her. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Your worst nightmare, buddy.” Her gun was trained on him as they sped down the vast expanse of asphalt.
This guy wasn’t anything like the U.N. Security men Marnie had known. First of all, he drove a lot better than most. And, even though he had a gun to his head, he still kept his cool. He was more like her father, patient, smart, dangerous.
She kept a wary gaze on him as he drove. His hands weren’t even tense on the wheel. Everything about him said relaxed, at ease. Experience had taught her men like him were at their most dangerous now, when he seemed passive. “You said you were sent to find me. Who sent you?” she demanded.
For a moment, his dark eyes met hers and then swerved back to the road. “We received information that an American woman named Mary Singletary was trying to smuggle diamonds into the Sudan.” He shot her a glance. “The Director didn’t think a dead American woman with stolen diamonds would be good press.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Stolen diamonds?”
“That’s what we were told. Is your name Mary Singletary?”
She glared at him and raised the gun closer to his head. “That’s the name on my passport.” No way she’d admit her real name, the name her parents gave her. She still believed she was still alive because she disappeared.
“What’s your real name?”
For a moment, she stared at his profile. Dangerous. Trustworthy. Her instinct argued with the facts to hand. In her profession, she relied on her gut, her instincts. Several times that internal whisper had saved her. Even the best research into any situation could be useless and then that sixth sense that kept her alive kicked in. Her instinct told her he could be trusted. Maybe, just maybe, he could help her with whatever her uncle dumped on her. It wouldn’t be difficult for him to find out her real name anyway. Both passports, one with her real name and the other with her alias, were in her pack. She had a feeling he might not know her actual name, but someone did. The question became whether to trust him or not. A compromise, then. She’d trust him, but only partially.
She laid the gun in her lap, still accessible, but no longer threatening. “Marnie.” She gave him her first name, but not her last.
He gave her a strange look. “An unusual name.”
“Is it?” She glanced out the back window. “I think we lost them.”
The jeep screeched to a sudden halt and she was thrown into the dashboard again.
In a heartbeat, the man sprang into action and wrestled her gun away. His grip on her wrist instantly made her whole arm numb, useless. She kicked out and he grunted when her foot connected with his stomach but he jerked her arm and twisted, she fell, face down on the seat, the top of her head jammed into the door. She tried to kick him with her feet, but he trapped them in the wheel well of the driver’s side and he immobilized her between the back of the seat and the dashboard. He rammed her arm behind her back and his hand pressed on her neck to hold her down.
She struggled, but it was all over and he had her gun. She said nothing. She was a dead woman. For once, her instinct had been wrong.
“Hold still.” He growled at her.
“I am not going to die without a fight, asshole.” She hissed the words at him as she continued to try and break his hold on her arm and neck.
“Die? I’m not going to kill you.” His exasperation made her glance over her shoulder to stare at him. The man had dark brown eyes and irregular features that gave his face a rough expression, but she thought he seemed stunned. Then, his grip loosened enough that she managed to lift her body from the seat. But he’d only let go to get a better hold on her. Both her arms were pinned to her sides and his face was in hers. “I have no idea why you’d think I was a killer. I’m a security officer. The only people I’ve killed have been terrorists.”
Dark espresso eyes, held hers. As she stared at him, something stirred inside her. She turned her face away to break that disturbing eye contact. His hands were hot on her arms and his warm breath puffed tantalizingly across her ear. His scent was so male and his body was pressed to hers, for a fleeting moment desire replaced anger. She banged her head against the firm seat beneath her. Stupid. She did it again; latching on to the anger she’d had a moment before. The fear. She did not want to lust after this man. She wanted to kill him.
“Are you a terrorist?” he asked her.
She made a rude noise and her heart thundered in her ears. She breathed in, reaching for enough calm to answer. It seemed her normal poise was in short supply today though and she needed to seek her opportunity to escape, not lust after a stranger. The inner war raged but she met his gaze with a steady one of her own.
When she didn’t respond, his eyes narrowed. “We can’t sit here all day. Do I have to tie you up or will you cooperate?”
With his hands tight on her arms and his mouth so close to hers, the phrase “tie you up” made a little thrill go through her. What was wrong with her? She was in the middle of the fucking Congolese desert with some man she didn’t know and she was thinking dirty thoughts about him.
She’d clearly lost her mind.
“You did not have to disarm me.” She glared at him. “I had backed off.”
One eyebrow lifted. “What would you have done?”
True. She would have made sure the gun was confiscated. She sighed. “I’ll cooperate,” she muttered. “Let me go.”
For a moment, his gaze dropped to her mouth and she wondered if he was about to kiss her. She also wondered what she’d do if he did. But then his grip loosened and she slid to the farthest corner away from him. Distance. She needed distance from him. Like the entire Pacific Ocean.
He slid the jeep into gear and barreled down the road, muttering curses under his breath. He scowled at the road in front of them. He was tan, broad-chested and all man. He must be very tall since his legs were bunched up even with the seat adjusted all the way back. He didn’t look like a lot of the United Nations lackeys she’d seen in her life.
His hands were huge with long, thin fingers, and he had curly hair, kept short. A subtle grace revealed his security training and his quick movements when he incapacitated her spoke of physical fitness.
Very hot. Very dangerous.
“What’s the verdict?”
At his casual inquiry, her face grew hot with embarrassment at being caught staring. “The jury is still out.”
He shot her a dark glance. “I’m not a killer.”
“Well, I’m not a thief.” She crossed her arms and faced forward.
“What the fuck are you doing in Africa, then?”
“I work for PacTel as a courier.” She unbent enough to tell him. “I was supposed to be picking up land deeds to be signed and approved by the French government.”
“Land deeds?” Todd’s voice was sharp and she frowned.
“Yes. For Cote de’ Ivoire. Apparently, the Congolese government was buying land there but the French have to sign the deeds.” She bit her lip. “That’s what I was told. Get the deeds and bring them to Khartoum.”
“But that’s not what you ended up with.”
“No.” She hesitated. For a moment, she studied his intense face as he waited for her to continue. She had to decide whether to trust him. In her line of work, trust was everything and that trust had been shattered when she showed up at her contact’s location to find her uncle pulling the strings. Not to mention, the last time she had trusted him, he’d taken her gun. On the other hand, she’d pointed it at him. Twice. And she wasn’t dead, yet. “Do you know who Paulo Colonna is?” she asked Todd.
“Everyone around here knows him.” His voice turned monotone. “Born in Bombay, fifty-seven years old, Indian passport. He worked for the United Nations until he was caught smuggling. Interpol thinks he still is. He’s a diamond smuggler turned mine owner. Blood diamonds.”
“He’s my uncle.” She dropped the first bomb.
“No, you don’t.” She whipped the head wrap off her head and ran impatient fingers through her dark curls. “I’ve met him twice in my life. The first time was nine years ago. I was seventeen and my parents had just been gunned down.” She took a deep breath. “I didn’t like him.”
“No?” Todd had a faint smile on his face.
“No.” Her lips tightened. “When he found out my parents had left my guardianship to a family friend, he left again. But he told me he knew who killed them.” She gazed out the front window. “I didn’t believe him. He was a liar.”
“But he convinced you.”
“Yes.” She leveled a serious look at Todd. “When I took this job, he was there, at my contact’s office. He had arranged to see me.”
“And he gave me four hundred rare diamonds from his mine and a United Nations memo.” She kept her eyes on Todd’s face to see his reaction. “Supposedly, it’s an order to retrieve a sensitive package, by any means necessary, from my parents the day before they were killed.”
“You haven’t looked yet?”
“It’s packed with the diamonds. I haven’t had a chance.” Her fingers itched to rip open the box, but she wanted to get over the border before she did. It seemed safer, smarter.
“It sounds like a good story.” He sounded doubtful.
She shrugged. “It’s the only one I have.”
“And you planned to do what? Smuggle those diamonds into the Sudan and break international law?’
“To find my parent’s killer?” She snorted. “Fuck yeah.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“You have the gun.” She bit her lip as despair churned her stomach.
“I take it you’ve made up your mind to try and do it anyway.”
“Of course. You’re already convinced I’m a thief.”
He shot her a dark glance. “I don’t know what you are.”
“You’re still here, aren’t you? I could have shot you.”
His gaze pinned her. “Why didn’t you?”
All the nebulous reasons she hadn’t shot him seemed foolish to say out loud. Her instinct? Her gut? Her women’s intuition? “I don’t know.”