Authors: Laura Taylor
Cover design ©2011 Blue Jay Media Group
All rights reserved. No portion of this book, whether in print or electronic format, may be duplicated or transmitted without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Other Books by Laura Taylor
Intimate Strangers, based on the novel Tender Mercy
The Christmas Gift
Smoke and Mirrors
Honorbound, hard cover and paperback
For thriller writer Andrew Peterson and his beautiful Carla—with love.
David Winslow dreamed with all of his senses engaged. He craved the heat and willingness of a sensual woman, a rare steak, and a six–pack of ice–cold American beer—just a few of the pleasures he’d been denied during the endless days and nights of isolation, hunger, and torture that he’d endured since his captivity and imprisonment.
Sprawled on his back atop a rank–smelling pallet that failed to accommodate his large–framed body, he shifted restlessly. He groaned in his sleep, the ache in his empty belly nearly as severe as the ache in his loins.
Reaching out, David sought comfort where none existed in his nightmares. He found nothing more substantial than air. Disappointment and frustration made him groan a second time. A volley of rifle shots suddenly exploded in the courtyard adjacent to his cellblock.
He jerked upright into a seated position. He crossed his arms in front of his face and upper torso, an instinctive defensive posture against any and all threats. His chest heaved, the air raging in and out of his body scalding his lungs even as he scanned the shadowed corners of his small cell through narrowed eyes.
David scowled and brought himself under control. He stilled his body, and he slowed his breathing as he listened for the subtlest hint that he might no longer be the sole occupant of the cellblock.
Several tense minutes passed.
Finally convinced that he was still alone, he pushed himself up to his feet and prowled the cell like the caged animal he knew he’d become. He remained in motion for nearly an hour, the exercise tiring but also an integral part of his morning ritual.
David eventually paused in front of his makeshift calendar. He simmered with renewed fury as he stared at the grooves he’d already made in the wall with a metal tab removed from a zipper on his flight suit. Digging into his pocket, he fingered the sharpened tab and resigned himself to making the fifty–seventh mark.
Fighting the despair that fought for dominance in his mind as he completed his task, David returned to his pallet. As he sat, spine rigid and fists clenched so tightly that they began to ache, he fought for a mental state somewhere between self–pity and hopefulness.
He longed for the luxury of companionship and conversation, just as he craved decent food, a hot shower, and clean clothes. He whispered a prayer for freedom, but he couldn’t keep himself from wondering if anyone even knew he was alive and if they would ever respond to his fervent entreaty.
David closed his eyes, bowed his head, and massaged the back of his neck. He calmed himself with steadying breaths. And in the silence of his cell, he once again vowed to survive this Middle East hellhole in spite of the odds stacked against him.
An objective observer would understand and empathize with his frustration, his loneliness, and his constant fear of being executed without a trial. But his captors would never permit an observer, not even one from the International Red Cross. The Geneva Convention meant nothing here.
Instead, David Winslow, a defiantly stubborn thirty–five year–old aviator, American citizen, and officer in the United States Marine Corps—the same man who refused to succumb to starvation or to surrender to the other acts of violence inflicted upon him by his guards—consciously and steadfastly endured.
An unexpected sound jarred him from his thoughts. He surged to his feet and moved into the shadowed corner of his cell. Tension tightened every muscle in his body when he heard more than one set of footsteps rushing down the cellblock’s center aisle.
Squaring his shoulders, David worked at mastering his anxiety over the prospect of yet another torture session with his interrogators. He counted each second that passed. A fine sheen of perspiration covered his face, and he grimaced as he recalled the beatings he’d experienced during two long months of captivity.
Raking a hand through his dark hair, David froze when the barred door of the cell next to his was shoved open. One of the guards shouted in an Arabic dialect, his ire evident. David took a shallow breath, then another.
Another prisoner? he wondered.
The shouting continued, and then something—or someone—landed on the cell floor. The barred door slammed closed, the squealing resistance of the rusty tracks a lingering punctuation mark in the otherwise silent cellblock. The guards quickly departed without even glancing in his direction.
Bewildered, he gave into his curiosity and cautiously emerged from the shadowed corner. He slid along the wall, but the sound of sobbing brought him up short. He exhaled as compassion and comprehension blunted his surprise.
Understanding the man’s need for privacy, he remained silent as he stood there. He would give his fellow prisoner time to compose himself, time to come to terms with the shock and horror he felt. David leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes, and wondered if they spoke a common language.
"This cannot be happening."
David stiffened, unable to believe his ears.
"This is not happening to me," the female voice groaned again through her weeping.
A woman? An English–speaking woman?
He shook his head in denial. He was losing it, he realized. He’d dreamed nightly about the soft, welcoming embrace of a woman, and he’d finally been reduced to fantasizing that one now occupied the adjacent cell.
He tried to speak, tried to verify her existence, but each time he opened his mouth, words failed him. Disgusted with his own uncertainty and afraid that he’d manufactured a companion out of desperation, he retreated to his pallet.
Her sobbing eventually abated, and he welcomed the respite from her shattered emotions. His own emotions, he realized, were unsettled enough. Still, disbelief and doubt lingered within him, and he felt compelled to make certain that he hadn’t imagined her.
"Are you alright?" David Winslow asked in a voice ragged from lack of use.
"Are you alright?"
The question came out of nowhere, starling Emma so thoroughly that she dropped the tote bag she’d been clutching against her chest. Certain she’d imagined the masculine voice, she groaned, "Oh, God."
"Can you hear me?" the man asked. "Are you alright?"
Wondering if she’d crossed the fine line that separated sanity from insanity, she tilted her head to one side and listened as she knelt on the filth encrusted floor of her narrow cell.
"Okay, we’ll try this one more time."
Emma found the mellow resonance of his deep voice oddly reassuring, but she still didn’t quite trust her own ears.
"Are you alright?"
"Who’s there?" she whispered, finally willing to believe she wasn’t alone.
"David Winslow. Major, United States Marine Corps."
"You’ve got to be kidding!"
"Don’t I wish," he responded.
"What… how… I don’t understand."
"Try to stay calm, miss," he advised. "When you can manage it, I want you to tell me your name."
"Emma… Emma Hamilton."
"Are you alright, Emma Hamilton? Have you been injured in any way?"
She didn’t even attempt to varnish the part of the truth she was willing to reveal. "My pride’s dented, I’m scared out of my mind, and I’d kill for a shower, clean clothes, and a way out of this nightmare I seem to be having." Emma swallowed against her rising panic. "It isn’t a nightmare, though, is it? I’m really in a prison cell."
"I’m afraid so." David paused. Then, he asked, "Where are you from?"
"San Diego," she replied, relieved to be asked a question she could actually answer, and even more relieved that this man sounded so… so normal.
"A California girl, huh?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, but I left my bikini at home and my hair’s jet black."
"I am mortally wounded."
Laughter burst out of her, and she briefly forgot that she might never see her family again. "What about you? Where are you from?"
"Billings, Montana. Born and bred."
Amazed, she said, "A cowboy?"
"A Marine, miss."
She heard his pride and found it endearing, but a wisp of suspicion unexpectedly filtered into her consciousness. "This isn’t some kind of a trick, is it? Did the secret police put you in here to test me?"
She waited for him to answer, but his silence made her start to wonder if he would ever speak to her again. She urged, "Please don’t stop talking to me. I’m… I’m holding onto my wits with my fingernails right now, and I really need to believe you’re real."
"I’ve been thinking the secret police might have put
in here," David admitted.
Emma nodded and tried to sound in control of her emotions. "I guess that’s understandable." Curious, she asked, "So, what are you really doing here?"
"Counting the days," he quipped, but the anger edging his voice made his attempt at levity fall flat.
"Americans aren’t exactly welcome in this part of the world," she said, "unless, of course, we happen to be providing food, medical supplies, or money for weapons."
"That much I’ve figured out."
"Please don’t tell me you work for the CIA."
He laughed then, the sound blessedly normal and possessed of no small amount of seduction. "Now I know you aren’t a plant. You’re too blunt."
Emma didn’t appreciate his observation, having been accused for years, especially by her diplomat brother, Sam, of having little or no tact. Nor was she prepared for the underlying sensuality of his laughter, which made her fumble for her next comment. "I guess you aren’t allowed to discuss your… mission, are you?"
The humor remained in his voice. "Reconnaissance isn’t considered a secret when routine visual recon missions are agreed upon by both sides."
"Then you’re a pilot?"
"Second seat of an F–18D."
"Behind the pilot. I’m a Weapons Systems Officer," David clarified.
"I know almost nothing about military airplanes."
He chuckled. "Most people don’t, but I won’t take it personally."
A door squeaked open and slammed against a wall at the far end of the corridor, followed by footsteps advancing toward her cell. Emma, jerked back to the reality of imprisonment, stiffened with apprehension.
"David?" she whispered.
"Stay calm and don’t speak to the guard, Emma. It’s the safest thing to do with these people."
She felt pure terror at the possibility of additional interrogation—and the rubber hoses. Dear God, not another beating with those rubber hoses as she writhed on the floor while her interrogators jeered at her and called her a whore. "I don’t expect to ever feel safe again, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever feel anything but fear."