Pagan’s Paradise Excerpt

Chapter 1

He was looking at her again.

Joanna McCall looked back through her camera lens, noting with guilty pleasure the sexy way he’d twisted his tall, broad-shouldered body in her direction. His strong, symmetrical features, his chiseled lips, and his thick, dark hair made the American across the Plaza de San Remo a portrait photographer’s dream. But his pale blue eyes and the way he quietly raked the crowd with them were what truly captured her attention.

Those eyes were watching her now with growing interest as he began rolling up his shirt-sleeves in the muggy night air. Each inch of his well-muscled forearm was revealed ever so slowly, his casual moves bordering on a carefully orchestrated seduction. Joanna swallowed. A private seduction in a very public place.

The excitement tingling through her, she told herself, had nothing to do with sexual attraction and everything to do with heightened professional interest. Besides, she’d seen his type before; he was flirting with every pretty girl on that platform. Clearing her throat, she braced her elbow against the stuccoed column and steadied her camera. When his stare didn’t waver, she hesitated a second, wiping perspiration from her brow while she made her decision. “Why not?” she murmured. Accepting his bold stare as part of the price for a photo, she zoomed in, then tightened her focus on his face.

“Come on, Mr. Wonderful, smile for me,” she said, knowing he couldn’t hear her above the strumming guitars, the steady drumbeats, and the shouts of the dancers.

A corner of his mouth suddenly rose, creasing one side of his face with a dimple. Instinct had her squeezing the shutter the same moment he winked at her. Jerking the camera away from her face, she slipped behind the column and pressed her backside against the rough finish. Groaning, she slapped a hand to her forehead and stared at the camera dangling against her breasts. Her first night in San Rafael, her first opportunity to immerse herself in its unique flavor, and she’d spent the time focusing her lens and her attention on an American. A highborn, hold-your-breath-handsome American hobnobbing with government officials, flirting with their pretty daughters, and, according to that wink, highly amused with the attention she was giving him. She thought she’d learned her lesson about men like him.

Obviously not.

Flaring her nostrils, she lifted her head, narrowed her eyes toward the covered alleyway, and tried not to think about all the worthwhile photos she’d missed because of him. Well, she was not wasting any more shots on him.

Joanna smoothed the sides of her carrot-red ponytail, then leaned around the column to make certain he wasn’t coming her way. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him, in silhouette, talking with two military officers.

Like everyone else the American talked to, the officers appeared mesmerized by him. From the moment she’d found him with her lens, she’d been mesmerized too. She took a step closer. More than the American body language that set him apart from the others, he carried himself with bone-deep, blue-blooded confidence. His aura of self-assurance seemed to captivate the officers rather than intimidate them. And the easy way he laughed and made them laugh continued to charm everyone near him. She rolled her eyes. So what!

Joanna made a move to turn away, when something made her stop. A ripple of awareness eased into her consciousness. She studied the American for several more minutes before she caught on to his routine. What passed for a drifting gaze when he was working up a smile or a thoughtful response was a simple surveillance technique he had honed to an art form. From the pickpockets to the Guardia Civil, the American missed nothing in his scattered sweeps around the Our Lady of the Flamingos Festival.

Chewing on the inside of her cheek, Joanna strained forward and narrowed her gaze again. She’d seen smooth operators before but never one so accomplished. Maybe his intent was a little more complicated than checking out every pretty girl there. She looked quickly around the plaza. Whom or what was he looking for? Whatever he was up to didn’t matter to her, she decided. She hadn’t come to San Rafael to gawk at Americans. Especially the winking, aristocratic type.

Adjusting the stretchy neckline of her peasant dress, she ran her hands over her hips, then reached for her camera.

She prided herself on being able to change out a memory card in the dark. Now was as good a time as any to practice that trick because the card was nearing full capacity. If she hurried, she could slip in an empty one and shoot the dancers twirling around the plaza. That way the evening wouldn’t be a total waste.

Deftly removing the plastic piece from the camera, she continued looking at the American. She bit back a smile as she slipped the tiny card into its waiting sleeve. What, she wondered, did he pride himself on doing deftly in the dark?

Keeping an eye on him, she allowed her imagination full range as she located another card in her hip bag. Steamy images concerning deep kisses and deep-voiced whispers had her breathing through her mouth. Suddenly she was all thumbs, fumbling with the card like an amateur. When she realized what was happening, she put a stop to it with a self-deprecating frown. She had better things to do than to fantasize about a blue-eyed stranger.

She raised the camera just in time to hear the dancers giving a chorused shout as they hurried by her and out of the plaza. As the last swishing skirt brushed her arm, she let out an exasperated sigh. There went her chance to photograph the colorful group with the feathered headdresses.

“Damn,” she muttered, knowing she deserved to miss them after what she’d been doing for the last half hour. Indulging herself with throwaway shots of an indecently attractive man because he had simply smiled at her. It bordered on sacrilege when she’d flown two thousand miles for the purpose of photographing underprivileged children.

Leaning against the column, she thought about the photo project for Lemon Aid that had brought her to the tiny Central American country. The children’s relief organization had also hired her to photograph scenes of everyday life in San Rafael. She was sure that the military officers and politicians clustered near the microphone were not what Lemon Aid had in mind. Besides, the only time she’d seen any honest emotion on their faces was when they were talking with the American, and she had no intention of bringing back those photos to Lemon Aid.

As the microphone’s squeal began lacing itself through the first speech, Joanna wandered through the crowd fringing the plaza. Once she stopped looking at the American, she set herself to the pleasurable task of selecting festival scenes for her photo project. Food vendors tending their sizzling braziers, souvenir carts stacked with colorful religious statues, and, in a whimsical moment, a cat sleeping soundly in a flower box tempted her and won. She passed on the lovers sharing caresses and stealing kisses, but the children, their mouths and hands filled with cotton candy and their eyes filled with greedy wonder, were the easiest and most inviting subjects of all.

“Oh, yes,” she murmured to herself.

Satisfaction swelled in her chest; these were the kinds of scenes she’d longed for years to capture. And the kinds of people too. Real people. Simple, honest, hardworking people. The type Lemon Aid wanted for their brochure.

Her gaze drifted toward the platform where the American had been. He was gone. She fought the inclination to look around for him and instead took a photo of an elderly peasant lifting a glass of wine to honor his wife. The eloquent gesture made her smile. At last she was in the right place at the right time doing what she was meant to do. Her evening was on track. She laughed to herself as she strolled around the plaza. Her life was on track as well.

Suddenly the music began again along with the familiar shouts of the dancers. She wasn’t missing those smiling faces and colorful headdresses this time. She moved into a covered alleyway to give the dancers plenty of room for their entrance. The music grew louder as the crowds welcomed them back with a deafening roar. Joanna had just lifted her camera, when a hand came out of the dark and closed around one of her wrists. Another hand grabbed her camera strap and tugged. She tugged back, and all hell broke loose. Ham-like hands were groping her in the dark, hitting her arms and jerking on her camera strap.

“Not my camera, you—”

An explosion of multicolored stars lit the darkened passageway as one of the muggers whacked her in the face, then whipped the strap from around her neck. Grabbing for the camera, she slugged back but missed her target. The next blow she took knocked her sprawling to the cobblestones. Pain pulsed in the center of her face, but her will to retaliate overrode everything. No one was going to mess with her new life or anything in it. Pushing up on one knee, she grabbed for a pant leg, but the two men were already sprinting away and down the alley.

“Bring back that Nikon, you bastards!”

As she pushed up on her other knee she felt a pair of hands closing on her shoulders. “Oh, no, you don’t,” she said even as she was being lifted off the cobblestones and pulled against a man’s thighs. She struggled as he closed his arms around her waist, then stooped down and drew her harder against him. God help her, whoever this was, he wasn’t letting go. Panic filled her in the dark alleyway; this couldn’t be happening again.

“It’s over. They’re gone,” he said, his breath warm on her cheek.

Joanna fought the mixed messages of protection and restraint that his towering form and relentless embrace were giving her. She had wanted a challenging adventure on this trip, but she hadn’t counted on getting it so soon. “Let go of me,” she said with a growl, thumping her fists awkwardly against his arms and striking his watch. Her blows bounced harmlessly off gold, glass, and his hard muscles. For one awful moment she felt hysterical laughter convulsing in her chest. What was wrong with her? She was almost enjoying the masculine press of his body against hers.

“They’re gone,” he said again, his voice more determined this time as he caught her wrists in one of his hands and held them against her breasts. He gave her a gentle shake. “Calm down, Red. I’m not here to hurt you. You’re safe now.”

Unspent anger roller-coasted through her again. “I don’t want to calm down,” she said, trying and failing to pull herself from his grip. “I want my Nikon back!” As she wriggled against him she lifted her chin in the direction of the boulevard at the far end of the alley. “They ran down there. Let… me… go.” She gritted her teeth. “Please, just–.”

“I will not,” he said evenly.

She turned in his arms to get a look at the man. She could barely make out his features in the dim shaft of light, but she recognized those pale blue eyes immediately. And that hold-your-breath-handsome face. The American’s face. Tiny hairs stood up on the back of her neck. She realized she’d given him the wrong voice. His was a deep voice to be sure, resonant and masculine, but gentled by a cultured southern accent. He was from Georgia, she guessed, or the Carolinas.

“You,” she whispered as he let go of her hands. She instinctively curled them around one of his biceps. All evening long she’d tracked him with her camera, unable or unwilling to ignore his magnetic pull. Now she was in his arms, staring into those improbable eyes and listening to the rich cadence of his words while her heart thundered. Her lips parted and her mouth went dry. If he were any better-looking, she’d go blind, if she didn’t die of acute embarrassment first. Closing her eyes, she gave a low but satisfying grunt of frustration.

“Stratford. Jack Stratford,” he said, sliding her dress back onto her shoulder. If he had to look at those gorgeous, perky, milky-white breasts of hers for another moment, he’d be dealing with a distinct discomfort of his own for the rest of the night.

“Now, don’t go passing out on me,” he said before she reopened her eyes. Lifting her chin on his fingertips, he glanced at her still straight nose, then sent a silent thank-you prayer toward heaven before raising his gaze to her wide-set eyes again. He couldn’t make out their color in the bad light, but he knew God hadn’t graced this redhead with such an extraordinary face and body then blown the package on an obscure eye color. He smiled, more to himself than to her. He was betting on sea green with gold flecks, but that revelation would have to wait.

“Looks like you took a direct hit. Easy there, darlin’. Scoot back against the wall. That’s it. Now try to relax and catch your breath,” he said, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbing at her nose with it.

“Ouch!” Stinging pain snapped Joanna back to her senses. Taking the handkerchief from him, she looked away as she held it to her nose. She wasn’t about to tell him that the self-consciousness she was experiencing at meeting him after taking those photos was almost as bad as the pain. She winced. And then there was the issue of the stolen camera. When she thought of all the work she had ahead of her—minus her most reliable piece of equipment—she groaned again. It was an expensive camera, but most important, it was her sentimental favorite.

“Are you okay?”

“No, I am most definitely not okay. They stole my Nikon. My good Nikon,” she wailed, slapping the paving stones, then wincing with the pain shooting up the palm of her hand.

She glanced at the raw red skin, then bit off an unladylike curse.

“Your good Nikon?” Standing, he searched for her shoes, then tucked the red leather flats in the crook of his arm. “Now, is that like your good pair of scissors?” His joke caught her off guard, as he had meant it to, and she gave in to halfhearted laughter. The reassuring sound proved to him that she hadn’t been seriously hurt in the attack.

“Whoa. There it goes again,” Jack said, guiding her handkerchief-filled hand back to her bleeding nose. She leaned forward, sending that naughty neckline sliding partway down her arm. One naked shoulder glowed invitingly in the dim light, the other, Jack managed to notice, remained covered. He flicked his gaze to her face and found the first look of uncertainty beneath her thick lashes. Bloodied nose or not, she was still the gutsiest woman he’d ever laid eyes on. And undeniably beautiful. He shook his head. He wasn’t going to think about the romantic possibilities inherent in their encounter. Nothing was going to come of this meeting because, as with most things in life, timing was everything. And after what he’d heard around the speaker’s platform tonight, he had barely enough time to get this lovely tourist out of San Rafael before the bullets started flying.

He shook his head, tsking sympathetically as the crowd in the plaza cheered the dancers. “Those travel brochures never prepare you for these situations, do they?”

She shook her head.

“Try not to think about it. Once you’re out of here, you’ll be able to put this all behind you.” He bent down to give her a reassuring pat. “What’s your name, Red?”

She started to speak but stopped when the dancers began rushing from the plaza again. Jack moved closer and stretched out one arm to prevent her from being trampled during the spirited exit.

“Joanna McCall,” she said, turning her head to watch the last of the dancers rush by. A pink feather from a dancer’s costume floated to the cobblestones beside her. She lifted her hand, then let it fall into her lap. “My camera.” Her whispered words were meant to convey a mix of dramatic desperation and self-pity so overdone, it bordered on comedy.

Biting back a laugh, he shook his head instead. “Well, Joanna, you can’t stay here. When the procession to the cathedral starts, this tunnel is going to be filled with people. Can you stand up?” He watched as her chin began trembling under the balled handkerchief she had pressed to her nose. He checked his watch in the dim light. Five minutes until the religious procession was scheduled to begin. “Go ahead, darlin’. Cry and get it over with,” he said, thinking about the irony of his words. Indeed, bad timing. He looked at the inviting way her softly flowing dress caressed her slim hips and shapely legs and sighed. He’d have her on the plane to Miami before he had a chance to see her without his handkerchief pressed to her bloody nose. He ought to have a good cry over this mess himself.

“Cry?” she whispered in disbelief as she threw down the handkerchief. “My camera’s been stolen and you expect me to cry?” Bracing her hand against the wall, she pulled her shoes away from him. “I don’t think so, Mr. Stratford. I intend to file a police report, then see what can be done to get my Nikon back,” she said, her voice suddenly strong as she stood up and pushed away from the wall. Without warning she cringed, then toppled against his chest.

“Call me Jack,” he said as he looked down at the disheveled woman filling his arms.

“Jack… I stood up too fast.”

She was clinging to his shirt and belt buckle as if she would fall off the earth if she dared let go of them. Widening his stance, he took more of her weight against him. Poor kid. Maybe she was a little more the worse for wear than he’d thought. Shifting slightly in his embrace, she rubbed her cheek against his chest. “Oh, Jack,” she said, her whispered words ending on a sigh.

But it wasn’t just any kind of sigh. It was a pain-free, promise-filled kind of sigh. Narrowing his eyes, he pursed his lips and considered the potential implications in a sigh like that. “That’s it. Relax,” he said, gliding his hand up her arm. Every satiny inch he touched was arousingly and marvelously female. For one cockeyed moment a world of sensual possibilities began opening to him.

She sighed again; he swallowed.

It wasn’t easy being a gentleman when her curvy warmth and soft sighs were singing out to the core of his manhood. But he’d try—even if it killed him. Peeling her fingers from his buckle, he started to lift her into his arms. She suddenly stiffened and pulled away.

“I—I’m all right now. See? My nose stopped bleeding,” she said, reaching for the wall. Dropping her shoes to the ground, she slipped her feet into them as the drums and horns started up in the plaza. She cupped her hands to her mouth and raised her voice above the music. “Thank you. You’ve been very kind to help me, but I need to talk to a policeman.” She brushed the front of her dress and tried smoothing her hair as she backed away from him. “I saw a few uniforms in the plaza. Maybe—”

He reached for her arm then pulled her close to him.

“Joanna, it’s too late.”

She shook her head. “I can’t hear you.”

“You can’t go in there now,” he said, pointing toward the plaza.

“What?” She twisted around for a look, but the arched entrance was filled with singing people, many of them carrying tall white candles. And they were all headed her way.

“Come with me,” he said, wrapping an arm around her waist. She dug in her heels.

“But, Jack—”

“No buts, Red,” he said, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “That’s what’s known as a solid wall of humanity. Unless you want to end up circling the park most of the night, then marching up the steps of the cathedral at daybreak, I think you’d better move it. Now.” They both glanced behind them, then at each other.

“If I had my camera—”

“You don’t,” he said as they hurried out of the alleyway and into the boulevard. The religious procession had picked up speed and was a few yards behind them. “This way,” he shouted when she hesitated.

“But my hotel’s that way,” she shouted back to him as the people streamed their way.

“That’s west of the cathedral. Those avenues are blocked off now and will be until tomorrow. Come on,” he said as the crowd began engulfing them. He felt her hand tighten around his like a frightened child’s.

“It’s okay. I won’t let go,” he shouted, but she didn’t appear to hear him. Leaning closer, he started to speak again, but cymbals began crashing in time with the drumbeats. When Jack looked at her face he expected to see low-grade terror; instead, she was almost smiling at the spectacle surrounding them. He rolled his eyes; if she enjoyed this, she’d probably see the coming coup attempt as a trip through Pirates of the Caribbean. Thank heaven she would be leaving San Rafael before the fighting began.

The crowd suddenly surged, and the steady pressure of his hand around hers was gone. Panic zipped up her spine. Twisting around, she looked for him. “Jack!”

“Over here,” he shouted.

She spotted him to the left, then struggled against the wave of worshipers toward him. He was just a few feet away, reaching out for her. She stretched to take his hand when hot candle wax splashed her fingers. More startled than hurt, she yelped. In the next moment he lunged through the crowd, wrapped his arm around her, and pulled her from the thick of it.

“Don’t let go this time,” he said, hurrying down the boulevard through the growing crowd.

“I didn’t let go. You let go.”

“Right,” he said, turning for an instant to wink at her.

A lock of his hair fell onto his forehead, the collar of his shirt flapped against his throat, but his smile was as true and steady as the first time she’d seen it through her lens. She laughed out loud at the crazy, carefree feeling winding through her. Reaching behind her, she pulled off her ponytail tie and shook her head. She had no idea where they were going or why, and for the moment she didn’t care. Tonight Jack Stratford had saved her life—maybe twice—and she had the right to run through the streets of San Remo with him. There had been far too few spontaneous celebrations in her life, and that she was sharing this one with a handsome stranger provided her with a welcomed if unexpected thrill.

“I swear, Red, I think I saw this night in a movie once,” he said, his drawl charming her enough to let another unapproved “Red” go by. Crossing into a side street, he pointed over his shoulder to indicate the singing that had recently started. “And heard it too.”

“Really? Did the woman in the movie get her camera back?” Joanna asked between heaving breaths as they slowed to a walk beside a high wall.

“No.” He stopped to locate a security panel that was hidden by an overhanging branch of flowers near a door in the wall. He waited until several pedestrians hurried past them in the opposite direction before tapping in the code. Chewing on his lip, he hesitated before slowly turning to her. If his expression wasn’t somber enough, his voice certainly was. “Come to think of it, the woman didn’t fare too well. You were lucky tonight, Red.”

As the possibilities of what could have happened to her hit home, she could feel the smile fade from her face. Nodding once, she looked away from him. She hadn’t come to San Rafael to run through the streets with a good-looking stranger—even if that stranger had biceps of steel and a smile to melt her heart. She had come to the small Central American country to work. And to forget.

“Joanna, if you’re thinking again about hunting up a policeman, you’d best put it out of your mind. The ones that weren’t in the plaza getting drunk are out committing their own crimes tonight. This city and this country have more than their share of roughnecks. That’s the way it is here.” Pushing open the wooden door, he stepped aside to guide her in.

“Wait. I—I’m not sure,” she said, looking around nervously.

“It’s okay,” he said, his tone gentle with understanding. “It’s just my house. You’ll be safe inside until morning. I have plenty of guest rooms and, for what it’s worth, all of them have inside locks.”

“I don’t know anything about you.”

“What do you want to know?”

“For one thing, why are you here, Jack? I mean, if San Remo and the rest of San Rafael are so dangerous, why are you down here socializing with the elite?”

“Business opportunities. I’m developing a string of tourist hotels throughout the country. Come on inside and I’ll answer any questions you have about it.”

She studied him for a few seconds. Why not? She had nowhere else to go until she could make it back to her hotel. What would a few more hours spent with Jack Stratford do to her? Shrugging, she smiled up into those improbable blue eyes. Dumb question. With all the adrenaline still pumping through her, she was bound to come up with some breath-stealing scenarios.

She stepped through the doorway, then stopped dead. “Here? You live here?” Opening her hands, she gestured to the structure on the other side of a lily pond. “That isn’t a house, that’s a… villa.” She turned an accusing stare on him. “You’re very wealthy, aren’t you?”

He made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Loaded,” he said, stepping into the garden and closing the door. “Is that all right with you?”

“I’m sorry. That must have sounded rude. I shouldn’t judge everyone like…” Her voice trailed off, but it was a matter of seconds before she recovered from the distasteful memory worming itself through her mind. Not every rich man was a jerk like Todd Daniels, at least not until they proved it by doing something stupid. And totally unforgivable. She gave Jack a weak smile. “I guess I’m still catching my breath from all that’s happened.”

Jack watched as she shoved a lock of hair behind one ear. Blood spotted the front of her dress, one of her earrings was missing, and a small bruise had formed near her shoulder. On the other hand, her nose had stopped bleeding, and she was standing without his help. If he stared much longer, he’d be hard pressed not to kiss her. He cleared his throat. It would have to be a good-bye and good luck kiss, of course. Guiding her around the lily pond, he headed across the side lawn to the main house.

“You know, you could have broken that pretty little nose of yours, sticking it in a dark alley the way you did. But don’t worry about it. Next time you see your boyfriend, I’m sure he’ll tell you that you’re more beautiful than ever.”

“Hold it right there,” she said, reaching for his arm and forcing him to stop and turn back to her.

Her other hand lay on her breastbone, her fingers pointing to her fine-boned face, sensuous lips, and huge eyes. When she let go, Jack slipped his hands into his pockets and watched the moonlight do amazing things to her already-luminous beauty.

“What?” he asked, sensing her stubborn nature gathering strength again.

“I had a right to be in that alley, I don’t have a boyfriend, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I’d broken my nose. In fact, it might have added a little character to my face.”

“I see,” he said, guiding her to the steps and onto the wide veranda. She was the most refreshing personality he’d dealt with in months. And the most provocative. He shook his head, knowing he shouldn’t be entertaining such thoughts. Now that he knew the coup was coming, his clandestine agenda would demand every spare minute of his time. And he knew without a doubt that Joanna McCall’s presence in his life would demand more than he could give her.


“Well, I’m glad you didn’t break your nose. And once you’re back home, I think you’ll be glad too. We’ll get you cleaned up, take it easy for a while, and in a few hours I’ll take you back to your hotel and then on to the airport.” As he started lighting the citronella candles, he called out in Spanish to someone inside.

“My maid,” he said when Joanna gave him a questioning look. “I told her I’d brought someone who needed to freshen up. She’s getting clean towels and soap. Have a seat.”

“Thank you.” Joanna sat down on the striped cushioned chair, drew her legs up Indian-style, and then raised her brows. “Why would I want you to take me to the airport?”

“To catch the noon flight back to Miami.” Blowing out the match, he dropped it on the tiled tabletop, then tore another match from the pack. “Don’t worry. I have connections out at the airport, and I’ll see that you’re on that flight.”

She squinted comically at him. “But I’m not going back to the States right now. Jack, I didn’t come here to vacation.”

As he blew out the second match, he shifted his eyes toward her. “You didn’t?”

“No. I have work to do down here.”

“Work?” he asked, disliking the sinking feeling in his stomach. “What kind of work?”

“A photo project for Lemon Aid. You’ve heard of Lemon Aid, haven’t you? The children’s relief organization headed by Holly Hamilton. She was a model. She used to be the Glory Girl. No? Anyway, she thinks classrooms of kids stateside would be interested in adopting classrooms of kids in underprivileged areas around the world. The stateside kids would provide money for health care, books, clothing—things like that. In return they’d find out about life in other countries. Lemon Aid hired me to bring back a test package of photos and videos.”

Jack drew his blunt-cut nails across the opening of his shirt before pulling at his collar. This surprise turn of events wasn’t going down well at all. Not at all. The military-backed groups in the northern provinces were secretly training for the coup. What they would do to a single female loaded down with camera equipment and moving around their territory made Jack’s hair stand on end. Abduction, imprisonment, and even worse scenarios came to mind when he pictured the indefatigable redhead in action. Hope, wild and sweet, was slipping away. “So, how long are you planning to stay down here on this project?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A month. Maybe two. I’m already planning trips to two of the provinces. A place called Oca Oca in Paradise, and another called Pucalli in Oriente. Aren’t they the most exotic names you’ve ever heard?”

He tried not to cringe. “I’ll tell you what’s exotic up that way. Their particular strain of dysentery.”

“I brought a bottle of those tiny white pills.”

He gave her his most skeptical look. With the exception of Madre de Dios, the areas she’d mentioned couldn’t be more dangerous. “And, you’ve come here alone to do this project?”

“Yes, I’m here alone,” she said. “But I can take care of myself.”

“Really? How’s that nose? It’s not bleeding again, is it?”

She reached for her nose, but crossed her arms over her breasts instead. “No, it is not.” A sigh rushed from her throat. “Hey,” she said testily, “accidents happen.”

“Look, I’m not trying to criticize you, and I’m sure in other circumstances you fend rather well for yourself, but this is San Rafael. Things are different here. If I were you, I’d reconsider this project. Or reschedule it for a later time—”

She cut him off. “But you’re not me. And I’m not going to be alone for long. I’ve been here since three this afternoon, and I’ve already arranged for a guide to take me upriver.”

Every out-of-work timber man with a smattering of English called himself a guide. Of the lot, several unsavory characters came to mind. One particularly nasty one took center stage. Jack eased back in his chair, then let out his breath. What a ridiculous notion. She couldn’t have hired him. “Who?” he asked, then held his breath again.

“Oh, a professional. He came highly recommended. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Ramon Quintero.” She leaned forward and touched his knee. “Are you okay, Jack? You’re looking a little pale.”

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