Authors: Sandra Marton
Maybe she’d smiled at the irony of it. Or looked like she might smile.
Stubby had backhanded her.
“Stan’ up straight,” he’d ordered, and he’d wedged the Polaroid in the branch of a tree and shot a picture with him standing on one side of her, Skinny on the other, both touching her intimately, but she had not flinched and had, instead, glared into the lens of the camera.
When Skinny pulled the developed photo from the camera, he’d snarled a curse and punched her in the belly.
“Soon,” he’d said, “you will not be so brave.”
He’d taken a piece of grimy paper and a pencil from his backpack. The other man had written something on the paper. Then he’d sealed the photo and the paper in an envelope and disappeared into the jungle. He’d returned a couple of hours later, without the envelope, and the men had grinned and high-fived each other.
Another day had been spent stumbling through the jungle. At nightfall, her captors had repeated last night’s pattern. They’d built a small fire. Cooked the carcass of something over it. A lizard, maybe. When it was still half raw, they tore it apart. This time, they hadn’t offered her any, nor did they offer her water.
They’d been too busy drinking.
They still were.
And she needed to pee.
Peeing was turning into the story of her life.
Wait. Wait! A bathroom break could save her.
The men had relieved themselves on the trail several times, not bothering to hide anything they were doing from her.
Earlier, she’d had to do the same thing. She’d gestured her need as best she could. The tall one had finally figured it out and he’d unbound her wrists and let out enough of the rope so she’d been able to step off the trail and go behind a bush, but he’d tied her hands together as soon as she’d reemerged.
What if she could get him to untie her hands and leave them loose?
The men were drinking hard. Soon, they’d pass out.
Alessandra began making sounds behind the gag. They didn’t react. After a while, though, they looked at her.
“Shut up,” Stubby snarled.
She didn’t and he stood up and came towards her.
“Wha’ you want?”
She raised her eyebrows. Made a wriggling motion. He scratched his head.
“She needs the bat’room,” Skinny said.
Alessandra jerked her head up and down.
Stubby rolled his eyes. Then he untied her ankles and unwound some of the rope from the tree. She staggered to her feet. The ground tilted a little; she knew it was lack of water and lack of food, and she fought against the moment of disorientation.
Who knew what they’d do if she passed out?
“Well? Go on,
. Go behind the bush. No one wishes to see a woman squat.”
She held her hands out in front of her. He grunted and undid the knot at her wrists.
She went behind the bush. Did what had to be done. Finished just in time, because Stubby yanked hard on the rope leash and when she staggered toward him, he grabbed her hands—she felt her moment of hope dim—re-bound them, pushed her to the ground, wrapped the rope around the tree again and tied her ankles together.
Minutes later, he and his pal had been sprawled beside the fire, snoring.
She was trapped.
What would happen when they found out that there was no money to buy her freedom? Her father or her brothers could have paid a ransom for her, but nobody at the coalition knew she had a wealthy father, let alone wealthy brothers.
They didn’t know anything about her.
She’d wanted to succeed on her own.
In a family like hers, you had to prove yourself.
She’d studied design at FIT. She’d told her brothers that the Fashion Institute of Technology had awarded her a scholarship. Not true. She’d waitressed her way through school, won a much-desired internship at a high-end fashion house on graduation and went on waitressing because the internship didn’t pay enough to live on. Her designs were good. Outstanding, her boss said. One thing led to another, and six months later she had a dream job with a much ballyhooed young New York designer.
She’d sketched and pinned and sketched and pinned and tried not to think about the fact that her dream job had begun to seem, well, superficial.
After a few months, the designer called her into his office and told her, with a big smile, that he was moving her up.
He wanted her to join his fur design team.
The strange thing was, she’d never thought about furs before. She didn’t own any; in s vague kind of way, the idea of wearing something that had once been alive made her uncomfortable. Two weeks of sitting in rooms with the gorgeous, glorious pelts of dead animals laid out all around her left her more than uncomfortable.
It left her sick.
Within days, she’d quit her job and explored her career options. There were designers like Stella McCartney who refused to work with animal skins or hides. She could go in that direction.
Or she could do something about what she had learned was an illegal trade in certain kinds of furs.
A month later, she was working with The FURever Fund, feeling as if she might just be accomplishing something.
She’d gone from being an asset to being a liability.
She’d screwed up, big-time.
And on a far less philosophical level, what would happen when her captors finally figured out that she wasn’t going to make them rich?
She thought again of her family. Her brothers, Luca and Matteo. Her sister, Bianca. Her half-brothers and half-sisters, Travis, Caleb and Jake, and Emily, Jaimie and Lissa. She thought of the pain they’d endure if something happened to her.
She could tell her kidnappers to contact her brothers or her sisters.
Or her father.
No. She would never turn to her father for help. Never.
Her brothers and sisters? How could she let them know what a fool she’d been, getting herself into such a mess? Going to a country that was on the government’s travel advisory list even after the coalition’s director had sent her an e-mail lauding her for what he’d referred to as her courage in planning a visit?
And that dumb decision not to use the chamber pot…
One of her kidnappers started snoring.
Alessandra shuddered. She turned her face away, shut her eyes, gave in to exhaustion…
And, improbably enough, fell asleep
* * *
She came awake, screaming.
At least she would have screamed—if screaming had been possible.
But it wasn’t.
Not only was she gagged, but a hand was clamped tightly over her mouth. A big, hard, powerful hand.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
Warm breath against her ear. A low, husky male voice.
“Do you understand? I’m not going to hurt you.”
And this was just a camping trip.
She didn’t know who had his hand over her mouth, Stubby or Skinny, but it didn’t matter. He wanted to hurt her. Only a fool would think otherwise.
It was the middle of the night, and one of them had grown weary of waiting.
She jerked against the hand, even managed a soft, terrified
. The hand pressed down harder. Her head was pushed up and back.
“Goddammit, woman! Stop!”
Stop? No way in hell was she going to stop!
She twisted, bucked, even fought. managed to get a piece of the man’s hand between her teeth despite the gag. She couldn’t really bite him, but she felt her incisors scrape against his skin.
His breath hissed.
Good. She’d hurt him.
She’d annoyed him was what she’d done.
He shifted his weight, flattened his palm over her mouth and pinched her nostrils shut with the fingers of his other hand.
Terror gave way to panic.
She was going to die. Here. Like this. In the fetid jungle, at the whim of one of her captors…
Except, in the gray light of predawn, she could see them on the opposite side of the clearing, sprawled next to the embers of the dying fire, both still sleeping, both snoring.
She jerked against the stranger’s hand. Made a sharp, strangled sound.
“That’s right,” he whispered. “I’m not one of them.”
Maybe not. But she needed air. Air…
“You want to live?”
She jerked her head up and down. Her lungs were starting to burn.
“Make one sound, try to bite me again, and I’ll cut off your breathing until you lose consciousness. Got that?”
She gave a frantic nod, and the fingers clamped over her nose loosened. She took a long, long breath. Nothing had ever felt as good as that rush of air into her lungs.
The man put his mouth to her ear again.
He knew her name?
“I’m going to take you home.”
She jerked against his hand.
“That’s right. Home. To the States. Are you with me?”
“I’m going to cut you free. Your hands. Then your feet.” He tugged at the rope around her wrists. “This is tightly tied. That means you’ll feel the knife right against your skin. Do.Not.Move. I don’t want the blade going through flesh. Understood?”
She nodded again and felt the cool kiss of steel between her wrists and the rope.
The rope gave way.
The man edged forward in a tight crouch. She could see the back of his head, the broad shoulders encased in a camouflage shirt as he bent over her feet and severed the rope that bound them.
He scooted backwards and stood up. “I’m going to cut the rope around your neck. Once I do, I want you to stand. Slowly. No fast moves. Okay?”
The blade slid between her neck and the trunk of the tree. She swallowed a sob of relief as the rope fell away.
“Up,” he whispered.
She rose. A combination of fatigue, thirst, pain and fear made her knees buckle.
He grasped her elbow. “Easy,” he whispered. “Take a breath. Let it out. Good. Now, step back. I’ve got you.”
He certainly did.
He’d snaked his arm around her waist. She was in front of him now, pressed to the length of his hard body.
She didn’t know who he was or even if she should trust him, but the feel of him against her, the feel of his hand splayed over her belly, gave her strength.
He bent his head so his mouth was at her ear again.
“Another few steps and…”
The snoring from across the clearing stopped. It was as if a giant had hit a switch and silenced the universe.
Her rescuer froze. He put his hand over her mouth, lightly this time, but the message was clear.
Did the drumming of her heart count, or was she the only one who could hear it? She nodded frantically to let him know she understood. He took his hand from her mouth and drew her even closer.
She was shaking.
Both his arms closed around her.
Instinctively, she turned her head and pressed her face against his shoulder.
He was tall. Six one, six two at least. His body was lean and hard. He smelled faintly of sweat, but it was a clean male smell, nothing like the stink of cheap whiskey, rancid grease and days-old body odor that oozed from the pores of her kidnappers.
An eternity seemed to pass. Then, finally, the snoring started again. It was the most beautiful sound imaginable.
Her rescuer touched her hair, as if to assure her that everything was going to be okay. Then he let go of her. She choked back a whimper. Silly, she knew, but she wanted him to keep holding her.
“Time to move,” he whispered.
She nodded. He took her hand. It all but swallowed hers.
She could feel the tension in his body.
She began to tremble.
“Don’t be frightened. You’re doing fine. Just remember. You will not make a sound.”
A command, not a question.
“If you wake those two pieces of shit over there, I’ll have to kill them—and that might complicate things. Understand?”’
Who was this man?
“Nod your head if you agree you’ll keep quiet and do as I say.”
She nodded again. Why not? She couldn’t do anything else… But the truth was, she didn’t understand. Not anything.
He talked about killing as if it would be an inconvenience. He knew her name. He hadn’t hurt her, but he could have.
He was here to take her home.
Then who had sent him? Where had he come from? Not from the coalition’s headquarters. She was sure of that. There were men there. The director. A couple of wildlife biologists. Construction workers. Nice guys, but she couldn’t imagine one of them either threatening to cut off her breath until she lost consciousness or saying he’d have to kill somebody if things didn’t work out.
“We’re going to walk backwards. Ready?”
She nodded again and they moved back together.
It was still not yet dawn, but the sky, patchy through the canopy of trees, was growing lighter and lighter even as the distance between herself, her rescuer and her captors grew.
She wanted to turn and run.
Her rescuer must have sensed it. His hand tightened on hers, forcing her even closer against him.
“Not yet,” he whispered.
The figures in the clearing grew smaller. Trees, vines, tall bushes began to close in. At last, Alessandra could see nothing but dark green of the jungle.
Her rescuer bent his head to hers.
The soft, rough urgency in his voice made her heartbeat quicken. She squeezed his hand. Together they spun around.
They were on the same path the kidnappers had taken hours earlier. It was mostly a mix of soft grasses and earth; she knew it muffled the sound of their footsteps even if, in her mind, they were as loud as booted feet pounding over asphalt.
And running was hard. Every inch of her hurt. She’d stumbled and fallen endless times, and the bruises from those moments had been made worse because of how often her kidnappers had amused themselves by dragging her after them instead of giving her the chance to get to her feet. Bugs had feasted on her exposed skin as well as in places she hadn’t thought bugs could get. Her mouth and throat were parched from lack of water. Her wrists and ankles screamed with agony where they’d been bound.