Hunter Cassidy looked up at the triple-canopy jungle and wiped the sweat from his brow. The thick foliage completely blocked the sun, but the shade did nothing to guard against the humidity. His sweat-soaked fatigues stuck to his skin, and the incessant buzzing of the oversized mosquitoes almost drowned out everything else.
The crunching of boots over the earth alerted him he wasn’t alone anymore. If these morons weren’t careful, the jungle would devour and spit them out in seconds. Not that he’d lose any sleep. Traitorous bastards deserved whatever happened to them.
From his hiding position, he watched Tom Davis walk out into a clearing. The man looked to his left and signaled. Hunter followed his gaze. Davis’s partner tried to keep cover behind a cluster of thick trees. And failed miserably.
Hunter stepped out of his veiled spot, mere feet from Davis. He took perverse pleasure when the other man’s eyes widened at their close proximity.
“All right, you got me out here in this hole. Do you have it?” Davis adjusted his linen shirt to display his nine millimeter.
As if Hunter didn’t expect him to be carrying. “Do you have what I want?”
“If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
“You first.” After everything Hunter had been through, he wasn’t compromising. When Davis didn’t move, Hunter gritted his teeth. “Tell your boy over there that his head is in the crosshairs of my sniper.” There was no sniper, but his bluff worked.
Davis’s dark eyes narrowed as he pulled out a thick manila envelope and tossed it over. Hunter opened it and riffled through the pages.
When he was sure he had the necessary paperwork, he pointed to an overgrown elephant ear leaf. If Hunter was lucky, Davis would get bit by one of the many venomous vipers native to the region. “The papers and records are under there.”
Davis glanced around nervously, but took the few steps to the plant and lifted a plain brown box. “How do I know you haven’t made copies?”
“You don’t…just like I don’t know if you’ll renege on our deal. Looks like we’ll have to trust each other.” Of course he’d made copies. It was the first thing he’d done. Davis knew it, and he knew it. Hunter hoped the thought of being exposed was enough to keep the other man out of his life permanently.
Davis snorted and started to walk away, but Hunter wasn’t through.
“If I see you again I’ll expose what you are, then I’ll kill you.” He was tired of killing, tired of death and just plain tired of living like an animal. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t make an exception for the man in front of him.
Davis tripped on a thick tree root, but quickly adjusted himself.
Hunter waited until both men were out of sight before disappearing into the jungle. He strapped his rucksack over his back and started running. A quick check of his watch told him he had two hours to make it to his rendezvous point. If he didn’t make it, the helicopter would leave him, and he’d be stuck in Central America for another couple of weeks. No way could he allow that to happen.
If he didn’t make it to Alexis in time, he knew that, deal or not, they’d go after her as leverage against him.
Hurley Beach, North Carolina
Two days later
Alexis Baptiste jerked upright in bed and clutched her chest. Her top was completely soaked through and her heart thumped a staccato drumbeat. Her room was quiet and she was alone. As she should be.
Sighing, she fell back against the fluffy pillow and pulled the covers up to her neck. For the past week the same erotic dream had been tormenting her. All she could seem to think about lately was Hunter kissing her, touching her, teasing her…
No, no, no. She thought she’d finally put the memory of him to rest, yet lately when she closed her eyes, she only saw his face. It pissed her off to no end.
She should be dreaming about her fiancé, Michael. Not the liar who’d left her. Pathetic. She punched her pillow for good measure before shoving the comforter off. “Jonathan, time to get up,” she called even though she knew he was already awake. Somehow, he always woke up a few minutes before her.
Seconds later, her five-year-old son flew through the door and onto her bed wearing a Spider-Man costume. Despite the fact that Halloween had been over for about a month, he insisted on wearing it all the time. “Mom, I don’t want to go to school. Why can’t I spend the day with you?”
“You know why. We’ve discussed this about twenty times. I’ll be doing boring wedding stuff. You wouldn’t have any fun.”
“If I’m with you anything is fun.” For being so young, he knew exactly what buttons were guaranteed to make her melt.
Still, she didn’t budge. “Sweetheart, you can’t miss school today. It’s your show-and-tell and you’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”
“Oh yeah!” He flew off the bed, thoughts of staying home already forgotten.
He paused by the door, his hand on the metal knob.
“Can you take off that costume and brush your teeth by yourself?”
He rolled his eyes with the dramatic flair only someone his age could pull off. “Mooom!”
“Okay, well, give me twenty minutes and I’ll help you carry down your project.”
He nodded and slammed the door behind him.
She stripped and jumped into the shower. Though she was tempted to luxuriate under the powerful jets of water, she didn’t. Jonathan was a great kid, but there was never any telling what he’d get into if left alone too long.
Since there was a light layer of snow on the ground outside, she ran a hair dryer through her hair a few times to get most of the dampness out. After changing into jeans and a thick turtleneck sweater, she hurried down the stairs.
She found him in the kitchen trying to pour a glass of milk, which teetered dangerously near the edge of the kitchen table. “What did we talk about?” she asked from the doorway.
He froze, then turned around, his cheeks flushed bright red. “But I thought I could get it myself—”
She lifted her eyebrows. “How did you get this out of the refrigerator?”
“With a chair,” he mumbled.
Alexis shook her head. At least he was honest. After pouring him a glass of milk, she popped two pieces of cinnamon bread into the toaster. “Don’t get into anything for two seconds, okay? I’m going to grab your project.”
With wide eyes Jonathan nodded and took a sip of his milk.
Sometimes she hated having to play the role of both parents. It always seemed she wasn’t doing enough. She sprinted up the stairs and picked up his scaled-down model of Big Ben. He wanted to show his class the inner workings of the famous clock. Alexis didn’t completely understand his fascination with machines, but she did everything in her power to encourage him. Jonathan’s father had been the same way. He’d taken machines apart just to put them back together again. Too bad for him he hadn’t been around to see his son grow up. Even when she let her anger at Hunter’s abandonment threaten to overtake her, she reminded herself he’d missed out on getting to know Jonathan. Then she just felt sorry for him.
As she maneuvered down the stairs, she smiled to herself. In less than a month she wouldn’t have to worry about being both parents. After she was married to Michael, it would be a relief to share some of the responsibilities. She might not have passion with him, but he loved Jonathan and treated him like his own. Not to mention he was secure and dependable.
Those were the important things. If she told herself that every day, eventually she’d believe it.
Hunter watched a two-story, colonial-style house from the safety of his SUV. He’d parked across the street to blend in but he ached to march across the street and ring the doorbell. Not that he’d actually do it. Still, the desire to see her was almost painful.
This had to be Alexis’s house. The investigator he’d hired was the best. Rick wouldn’t have given him this information if he hadn’t been totally sure. Still, fear and worry burned in his gut like slow-moving acid. After being gone for so long, it seemed impossible he’d found her. Everywhere he went, he expected to get a sniper bullet in his head. So far Davis had left him alone. Of course it had only been two days since he’d escaped Panama, and he’d made a point to stay off the radar so he wasn’t feeling too lucky just yet.
Hunter simply needed to know that Alexis was alive. Safe. He’d watch out for her for a while—from a distance—then he’d leave her alone. It wasn’t as if he had a place in her life anymore. The man she’d known had died in the jungle. The things he’d seen and done were too much for anyone to forgive, especially someone like Alexis. Even imagining he might have a place in her life was unnecessary torture, and he’d never been a masochist.
The front door opened and a little boy with sandy blond hair came tearing down the front steps toward the four-door utility vehicle parked in the driveway. He glanced down at his email printout and rechecked the address even though he’d memorized it. The boy couldn’t be more than five. Maybe he did have the wrong house.
Then he saw a woman carrying what appeared to be a constructed clock of some sort. It was so large it covered most of her upper body and face. Strange, Rick hadn’t mentioned a husband or a child. And Rick had told him this was Alexis Baptiste’s home. The woman carefully placed the clock in the back of the vehicle and turned around as she closed the hatch.
Then he saw her face. His years in the navy and his many years spent in the jungle had trained his body to remain calm in every situation, but he couldn’t control the tightening in his chest.
He thought he’d been prepared to see Alexis again, but reality was a bitch.
Everything about her had always screamed sex appeal, and it was no different now. Her thick, jet-black hair was much shorter. She wore it just above her shoulders, not like years before when it had fallen halfway down her back. She was still lean, but there were more defined curves beneath her snug turtleneck and jeans. He couldn’t see her eyes from where he was positioned, but he remembered them clearly. They were the color of the palest sea, almost turquoise. And they had the ability to see right through him. The first time they’d met he’d been mesmerized by her eyes. Had stared like a fool until it had been obvious he was making her uncomfortable. Thanks to her Greek heritage, her olive complexion was perfect even in the winter months.
Though he was too far away to hear the conversation, it was obvious to anyone watching how much she loved the kid. A maternal fierceness surrounded her. Yes, that must be her child.
This presented more unanswered questions. Was she married, or divorced? Was the father involved in her life? And why hadn’t Rick given him any of this information? A twinge of pain shot through his chest. This could have been his life, his kid.
A familiar sensation overrode the pain and filled him at the knowledge of all he’d lost. Icy anger. He embraced it and held on to it tight, using it as his anchor. The rage he felt for all those lost years bubbled up and Hunter funneled his anger at the one man who’d taken him away from Alexis. From a shot at a real life. At least if he was angry he couldn’t dwell on the fact that she’d never be his again.
He kicked his vehicle into gear when she pulled out of the driveway and punched the familiar number into his cell. As he dialed, he barely had time to keep up with her as she pulled away from the house.
“Why didn’t you tell me she had a kid?” he barked into the phone.
“Damn it, man, do you even know what time it is?” His friend’s voice was thick and slurred. “I had a rough night. Call me later.”
“It’s almost noon in London!” Hunter shouted in annoyance, and then heard the definite sound of the phone clattering to the floor. Any normal human being should be up by this hour.
“I guess you’re right,” Rick mumbled, and Hunter heard a rustling on the other end.
He also thought he heard a woman’s voice in the background. “Rick, why didn’t you tell me about her child? That’s what I consider relevant information.”
“You call me after six years and want an address. No, ‘how are you,’ nothing, nada. Go to hell, Hunter! You didn’t say you needed specifics.”
“That’s not the point. I need to know everything about her.” His fist tightened around the phone.
He should have given Rick more details, but he hadn’t wanted to alert anyone about Alexis’s importance in his life. Now it looked like he had no choice. He trusted Rick more than he trusted most people, but after the past few years in a permanent state of hell he couldn’t afford blind faith in anyone. He couldn’t risk anything happening to Alexis. Not after he’d come so far.
“Fine, fine, I’ll get right on it. I’ll contact you this evening.” Rick’s voice was clipped and he knew he’d made a mistake angering one of the few people who could help him.
Hunter swallowed his pride and rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t specific, but give me a break. I haven’t had much contact with the civilized world for six years. I’ve forgotten how to act like a human.”
“Nah, you were a Neanderthal back then too…but I’ve still missed you, man.”
“If you need to send me anything, email me.” After they disconnected, Hunter continued to follow Alexis at a distance. He wasn’t sure if she was in danger, and he didn’t plan to let her out of his sight until he knew she was safe. Watching her, then having to leave her again, would likely kill him but he had no choice. Not if he wanted to live with himself.