Rescue Day 1, the walled city of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
"Chin up, Calista!"
Mentally frowning, Callie followed Evan's instructions. Both of them had been dragooned into this one last modeling job before she hung up her Manolos forever. But unlike her, the photographer wasn't in the cross-hairs of a paramilitary leader who wanted a new piece of arm candy. Evan was not Jaime Cruz's type.
Scared to death of the man stalking her and threatening to keep her in Colombia, she'd called in back-up who would assure she'd fly home to Chicago and not end up a prisoner on some jungle plantation. Once safely back home, she'd junk her top model image once and for all, become plain old Callie Meyers, and begin a real life.
For now, she was two days into a three-day shoot and she had a job to do--and the enemy to hold off until the cavalry arrived.
"Calista, love. Look at me, not the crowd."
Callie dragged her gaze away from the two thugs Cruz had assigned as her "guards." The huge men glared at anyone who got too close to the photo shoot.
"That's my girl. Now part your lips. Make love to me and the camera, not the clouds, sweetie."
"Why, Evan, I didn't know you cared." She gave him the best sexy look she could muster under the circumstances. It must have been good enough because Evan nodded and hummed happily as he framed the shot. "Your Chad would bitch slap me into next month if I turned my wiles your way."
"Got that right." Evan chuckled. "My sweetie is one jealous hunk." He snapped six pictures in less time than she could think about it. "Although if I were going to play for the other team, you'd be the only woman I'd do. You are sex personified, dear one."
Yeah, right. What a joke. She might be a supermodel, but she hadn't had sex with a man in so long she forgot how. Raising younger twin brothers since the death of their widower father seven years ago had taken up the majority of her free time. Besides parenting the twins, she'd attended college part-time and worked as a waitress until she'd been "discovered" by Evan, a world-famous fashion photographer. That had been six years ago. He'd just been hired to photograph a new ad campaign for a major cosmetics line. Given carte blanche in choice of models, Evan had convinced the company to use her as their face. After that serendipitous meeting, there'd been little time for male-female relationships. It amazed her she didn't look as old and tired as she felt. If given the choice between sex and sleep, she'd choose sleep every damn time--and had.
"You." Evan turned and crooked a finger at the meek, put-upon Colombian fashion designer's assistant standing off to the side. "Fix the drape of the dress across Calista's hips."
The girl was in awe of her and Evan, but scared to death of the two goons in dark designer shades and jungle haute-design; their light-weight Italian wool sports coats were perfectly tailored to hide the guns holstered under them. Callie's guards glowered at the visibly trembling young girl as she approached Callie.
Thank God Cruz stayed away during the daytime shoots or nothing would have gotten done. He was even scarier than his thugs since his harmless exterior hid the killer lying just under the surface. He was probably too busy raping and pillaging the countryside in pursuit of left-and right-wing terrorists while protecting his drug cartel bosses. Instead, Cruz chose to bother her during dinner. The last two nights he'd managed to corner her at the hotel restaurant for that evening's meal. She'd had indigestion her whole time in Colombia.
The designer's assistant smiled shyly as she smoothed the aqua-colored chiffon over Callie's hips with shaky fingers.
"It's okay, pequena." Callie hated the fear in the girl's doe brown eyes and suspected if anyone wanted to look closely enough, her own eyes displayed a similar emotion. They were both pawns in a male-dominated, failing nation. "They won't hurt you. They're here for me." The girl nodded as she backed away. Like any wary prey, she kept the goon squad in sight at all times.
Callie would've taken care of the smoothing of the dress herself and saved the poor girl the trouble of being the center of the bad guys' attention, but she was precariously balanced on her side on a crumbling wall of a UNESCO Heritage site, the ancient city of Cartagena de Indias. The drop from the fortification walls, which had prevented seventeenth century pirates from raiding the town, was over a hundred feet to a rocky, wave-beaten shore. Yet, as dangerous as her position was, the Caribbean Sea shined like a turquoise jewel in the background and the pictures would be fabulous.
Several more clicks and whirs and Evan put his camera down. He walked over to help her off the wall. "Sore, love?" He held on to her until she could step out of the five-inch-heeled, bejeweled sandals that probably cost more than most Colombians earned in a month. The little assistant snatched them up as if they were the crown jewels and placed Callie's own thrift-store flip-flop sandals on the ground.
Now barefoot, she wiggled her peach-colored toes on the stones of the uneven walkway, polished to satiny smoothness by thousands of feet over hundreds of years, then slipped into her sandals. "As if you cared, sadist." Evan liked to make his models suffer for his art. She smiled. He winked, his lips twisted into his famous grin, but his eyes held concern and fear for their situation. "I'm fine except for those torture devices called shoes. They were killing me and I didn't even walk in them. We almost done for the day?"
They'd started six hours ago and she hadn't eaten. If it hadn't been for the vast quantities of fresh juice the assistant had provided, she would've fallen on her butt from low blood sugar and dehydration a long time ago. Then her guards would've probably shot everyone. Cruz wanted her in one functioning and decorative piece. His plans for her, ones he had shared in explicit detail the night she'd arrived, made her want to vomit.
"Almost, my precious one." Evan guided her behind the changing screen under the shade of a tent raised to protect her skin from the harsh equatorial sun and intermittent rain showers. While she changed out of the exorbitantly priced dress into her own chain store tank top and peasant skirt, Evan retreated to a perch on the wall next to the screen. "They're here again." His voice was whisper-low and tight with anxiety.
"Sort of hard to miss," she whispered back. "Think the Bears would want them for the offensive line?" She came around the corner of the screen and sat in the folding director's chair with her name screen-printed on it.
"Always the kidder, aren't you?" His lips thinned into a grim smile. His body blocked her from the gazes of the two tough-looking men who'd been her shadows since she'd arrived in Cartagena.
"Yeah, well, I grew up on marine bases all over the world and then raised two boys from pre-teen to college age. A sense of humor and a thick skin is a requirement." She sighed and swept trembling fingers through the mass of multi-hued blonde hair which had helped make her famous. She turned troubled eyes toward her friend. "Cruz won't let me go. It could get hairy."
"Jesus, Callie, I thought you were calling for help. Where is it? It's been almost two days!" He leaned even closer to her so as not to be overheard. He fussed nervously with the folds of her gauzy skirt, his hands trembling. "I read up on this Cruz person after you told me who he really was. He's bad news, my sweet."
"Yeah, I know." She stifled the beginnings of hysterical laughter. She tended to laugh at inappropriate times. Her childhood friends, the Walshes, used to tease her unmercifully. She'd spoiled many a war game of hide-and-seek/hostage rescue in the savannas and swamps contained within the borders and surrounding Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by giving away her team's position. Because of that, she'd been made designated hostage. The irony when compared to her current predicament had her snorting delicately. "I called the US Embassy in Bogota the night we arrived, the night Cruz threatened me, and told them the local para-leader was far too interested in me."
"And? What did our illustrious government representatives say?"
"To make sure I was never alone--and to get the hell out of the country as soon as I could. Big help, huh?" Callie swore under her breath. "We shouldn't have let Marv talk us into this job. I wonder what Cruz paid our slimy agent under the table to get me here?"
Evan fisted her skirt, realized what he'd done and then proceeded to smooth out the creases he'd made. "That greedy old bugger. Marv told me you wanted this job, that you wouldn't come without me, that you wanted to finish your career with the photographer who'd started it."
"He lied." The asshole.
He paused, his eyes narrowed. "Tell me the truth ... are Chad and I in danger? From what I read on the Internet, kidnapping is a booming business for the paras."
"Cruz doesn't want you or any of the rest of the crew. He wants me." Gracing his home. In his bed. Bearing his children. Yeah, like that will happen. "Plus, he has other leverage to keep me here--my brothers. He won't use you." Not if I can help it, anyway.
She patted the hand mutilating her skirt once more. "He never mentioned you or Chad either time he cornered me." Not satisfied with threats, Cruz had also man-handled her as he outlined his agenda and what he expected of her. "At the end of the shoot, he expects me to go to his plantation and willingly..." after he threatened to kill my brothers, "...become his woman, as he put it."
"I said it before and I'll say it again ... he can't stop you from leaving. You're a goddamned United States citizen."
"Which isn't worth crap in Colombia. Jaime Cruz is the law in this area. His paramilitary group, Serpiente Negra, is the only reason the FARC and ELN terrorist groups haven't overrun this part of the country." At the confusion on Evan's face she explained, "FARC is the main right-wing terrorist group in Colombia and the ELN, its communist counterpart. Both use threats, killings, kidnappings and other crimes to enforce their power, of which they have more than the sanctioned Colombian government. The only groups strong enough to keep them in line have been the paramilitary groups such as Cruz's. He keeps this area safe for the tourists. Wouldn't surprise me if he didn't take kickbacks from the hotels and resorts to do so. Hell, even the Colombian government probably appreciates his control of the region." Tourist dollars were almost as lucrative as drug money and a far better promo op.
Evan moved restlessly on the wall, his hands now fisted tightly on his thighs. "What are we going to do?"
She flashed him a brilliant smile. "I did it already. I told you I would get help and I did. After my first choice, the US Embassy, told me I was on my own, I called in private security last night while on my walk. He should be here today."
"He? One guy? Sweet Jesus, Calista! One guy can't fight off a paramilitary group. Even little old apolitical me knows that."
Callie had to chuckle. Evan was a political neophyte. If not for his lover Chad, Evan would've run into trouble years ago on his shoots all over the world. "I called my childhood friends, Keely Walsh-Maddox and her brother, Tweeter, who are principals in Security Specialists International. Their operatives are all ex-military Special Forces and trained for just these sorts of situations. One of their guys is equivalent to four marines." If she believed everything Keely had told her. She squeezed his cold hand. "I'll be fine--" I hope, "--and so will you, Chad and the others. Trust me?"
"You know I do." He shook his head, his eyes taking on a faraway look. "I remember that time in Kenya. Out of everyone on the team sent to protect us you were the only one whose brain seemed to work when the lions rushed us. But one guy? Come on, Calista."
"SSI could only get the one guy here today. But his back-up team should arrive at a safe house tomorrow on the last day of the photo shoot where we'll meet them to get me out of the country. I've been informed you'll be going out a different way. The operative will have the details for us when he arrives. The theory is Cruz will concentrate on me--not you and your people." She leaned closer to Evan. "Don't be surprised when a guy named Risto Smith arrives and claims to be my husband. Act as if you know him. Keely and I figured even Cruz might chill his jets a bit if he thinks I'm married. I guess this Risto is one mean-looking son of a bitch."
"Beauty and the Beast? I can see a photo spread for Vogue." He swept his hands in a broad arc. She could always count on Evan to find the humor in a situation. "By the way, how recent is the marriage?" He grinned at her raised eyebrow. "I'm a method actor, dear one. If you're recently married, I can be even more excited about seeing the new hubby. If it's a secret marriage of long-standing then I, as an old and dear friend, would greet Risto more casually."
"Recent ... very recent. We eloped right before I left Chicago, okay? Is that enough inspiration?"
"Perfect ... ah, and I think your hubby may have arrived." A commotion and angry male voices had Evan turning, which allowed her to see past him. "Oh my God, I hope that's him. He's..." Evan fluttered a hand over his heart, "stunning. All lines and angles. Rugged masculinity."
Holy crap! The picture Keely had sent to her cell phone had not done the guy justice. Her make-believe husband had just taken out the two, gorilla-sized thugs and wasn't even breathing heavily. He bent over and disarmed both men, throwing their weapons over the ancient wall into the sea. Her womb clenched and her lacy thong dampened at his show of strength.
Her pretend husband cast a narrowed glance over the area until he found her tent shelter. Man, he was impressive. She could practically feel his testosterone across the small plaza. Keely hadn't misrepresented Risto Smith at all--he was capable and dangerous. The tension she'd carried in her shoulders and neck since Cruz had threatened her and her brothers dissipated. She wasn't alone anymore.
"Sweet baby Jesus, he's huge." And all mine. Callie shook off the errant thought. The man didn't look like the type to belong to anyone but himself. She was just borrowing him for a short time. But damn, why didn't they grow men like him in Chicago? She reached for Evan who helped her stand. She dropped his hand then walked toward Risto Smith, taking her time to drink him in.
Keely had left some things out of her description. He was broad-shouldered, lean-hipped and far taller than her own five feet, nine inches. His face was all lines and angles with a sharp blade of a nose. Even though his name was Finnish-sounding, he looked to have some Native American blood. His collar-length hair was thick and dark as pitch, wildly layered about his head, giving him a medieval warrior look. His eyes were dark and glittering, focused only on her. She shivered and another small gush of moisture dampened her already soaked panties.
Shaking his head and muttering something she couldn't hear, he moved toward her in a ground-eating stride. Obviously, she wasn't moving fast enough to suit him. Her mouth dried as he stalked her. He moved like a jungle cat, aware of all potential danger surrounding him. His demeanor said it all: he'd handle whatever came his way and survive to tell about it. This was a man a woman could rely upon. He could be protective or destructive, depending on his mood.
Stopping a few feet from her, he sent her an imperious look, one dark masculine brow arched. It was a look she recognized, her father had often worn a similar look with her and her brothers; it said "what the fuck are you waiting on?"
Callie let out a sigh, forced her trembling lips into a wide smile and ran into his arms. "Risto! You made it!"
She buried her face against his throat, getting a whiff of citrus and clean male sweat. Her arms went around his neck in a vice-like grip; his went around her waist and back, taking her weight easily. He murmured something unintelligible against her hair. He lifted her until her feet dangled several inches off the ground, then swung her around, putting on a show for the crew, the lookee-loos, and Cruz's men who were slowly getting up. More likely, his act allowed him to continue to check for danger. Either way, the crowd seemed impressed. Callie knew she was.
Risto rubbed his beard-roughened jaw over her hair and spoke in a low tone, his breath wafting over her ear. "You okay, Ms. Meyers?" The rumble of his voice sent a frisson of sexual awareness down her spine, the sensations settling in long unused female parts. Her clit throbbed, matching the rapid beat of her heart. God, what a time for my libido to wake up. Right kind of man. Wrong time and place.
She angled her face then brushed her lips over his. Her tongue licked a small scar marring his upper lip. He started at the touch, exhaling roughly, his breath smelling of mint and coffee.
"Call me Callie." She whispered the words over his sculpted mouth, the tip of her tongue returning to trace the scar once more. His hands tightened on her body. "After all, we're supposed to be married. And, yes, I'm fine, scared, but fine. The bastard ... well, let's say he has a sick way of courting me. His goons have kept their distance. But he..." A slight hitch in her voice, she stifled a sob threatening to erupt. She refused to let go of the control she'd kept on her emotions, the danger wasn't over yet.
He pulled her closer, so close her breasts brushed his chest. Her nipples pebbled from the casual touching. "Shh. It's okay. Keely and Tweeter fully prepped me." He nuzzled her ear. She shivered. "You did the right thing in calling them. Cruz would never have let you leave."
"I know ... my brothers?" Her stomach clenched. She'd told Keely Cruz had threatened to kidnap her brothers if she didn't come to him voluntarily. Her friend had promised to get them to safety. "They're safe?" He nodded, his cheek brushing hers. She whimpered her relief, tears threatened to swamp her eyes.
Risto muttered a low, rumbling "fuck" and allowed her body to slide down his until her feet touched the ground. He kept a supporting arm around her until she got her balance. She hadn't realized how much the last two days of stress and worry had taken out of her.
He brushed his lips over her cheek, kissing away tears she hadn't even realized had fallen. He massaged her waist and back, soothing her. He played the role of a loving husband well. "Tweeter took them to Camp Lejeune. Colonel Walsh and his marines will protect them. Keely wanted to go with Tweeter, but Ren threatened to tie her butt to the bed if she dared to leave Sanctuary with the baby." Ren and Keely's son Riley was a little over three months old.
An inappropriate giggle erupted at the image Risto's words projected. "Sounds as if Keely has found herself a man who can handle her." She and Keely had been tomboys growing up. It would take quite a man to tame her friend. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." She punctuated her words with kisses to his chin, jaw and mouth. Suddenly, her knees gave way and she inhaled sharply as her vision dimmed.
Risto moved to catch her. "Stay with me, Callie." He swung her into his arms, cradling her against his chest.
Even securely held, the world spun for a few more seconds. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, before opening them to his concerned gaze. "Sorry. I haven't slept much. Too much adrenaline. The heat. The humidity. No lunch."
He cursed, a litany of profanity the likes of which she hadn't heard since she'd stopped living on marine bases. She felt as if she'd come home.
Risto turned his back on the interested bystanders and began to walk. "Hell, woman, you can't do an op on an empty stomach."
"Cruz put me off my feed--and Evan has only one speed and that's fast forward."
"Fuck 'em both." His jaw clenched. "Excuse my language."
"No worries. I've heard and said worse." His snort of disbelief had her grinning. He'd learn soon enough. She might be a supermodel, but she swore like a marine and had often shocked the models and crews on photo shoots. Looking over Risto's shoulder, she found the astonished gazes of the photo crew and the hostile ones of Cruz's muscle. She returned her focus to Risto's sharply angled jaw line. "Where are we going? I don't think Evan was done for the day."
"You're done." He headed for the narrow path which led to the parking area. "We're going to your hotel."
The way he said "hotel" as if it were a nasty word had her narrowing her eyes. Something bothered him about the hotel. Had he tried to get into her room and they denied him? His next words negated that thought.
"I stopped by and put my gear in your casita and scouted around some."
Scouted around for what? She mentally shrugged. She'd find out once they got back to her, now their, suite of rooms.
"Okay. Can we get something to eat? I'm starving." He nodded. She wiggled. "Put me down. I can walk. I'm too heavy to carry."
"No." At her gasp and continued attempts to get down, he added, "Stop it! You fucking almost fainted. And you don't weigh all that much. You could add a few pounds." He hugged her more tightly against his body and continued to stride straight toward the paseo currently blocked by her erstwhile guards.
Risto swore foully, this time in idiomatic and very filthy Spanish. Loosely translated, he ordered the sons of bitches out of the way or he'd gut them and then drop them over the ancient wall to the rocky beach for the gulls to peck out their entrails. The thugs moved.
"Holy crap," she breathed against his neck, "effective threat."
He peered at her through thick lashes, his eyes glinted darkly. "You understood all that?"
"Shit." His mouth thinned and the muscles in his jaw tensed. "I apologize for..."
She placed her fingers over his lips. "Stop apologizing. I've wanted to let loose with some of the profanities my dad used. But since I couldn't follow up the words with the actions, I kept my mouth shut. It's been a real pain holding back."
"If you don't mind me asking, where would a lady such as you learn to swear in idiomatic Spanish?"
"Marine bases around the United States and the world." She smiled. "The best education a kid could get. I was a horrible tomboy ... still am."
"You don't look like one."
"Appearances are often deceiving." She fluttered her lashes.
Risto snorted and shook his head.
"Calista, dear." Evan's trilling tones came from behind them.
"Stop, please." Callie patted Risto's chest. He frowned, but nodded and turned to meet Evan. "Let me down." He refused even after she pinched his arm. Solid muscle that arm. "Yes, Evan? I thought we were done for the day. Risto and I haven't seen each other for four whole days."
Her pretend husband played his part by holding her against him with one arm, then turning her head for a searing hot, but far too short, kiss. She licked her lips, tasting him--mint and coffee and heat.
"Here's your tote bag, dear girl." Evan grinned and handed her the large, leather bag which held all her important papers--she hadn't trusted Cruz not to break into her rooms and steal her passport, traveler's checks and credit cards. "Ah, newly wedded bliss." Cruz's goons had followed and stood off to the side, interested observers. One had his cell phone out and was, she bet, making a report to his boss. "I guess this means you and Risto don't want to have dinner with me and Chad this evening?"
"Callie hasn't had lunch yet, Evan." Risto's voice held anger and a note of chastisement. "I'm taking her to get cleaned up and then I plan to feed her. Maybe we can meet later for drinks after she has a nap." The way Risto said "nap" was clearly meant to indicate to all who listened he intended to be in that bed with her and they wouldn't be sleeping.
Evan had the grace to blush. "Oh, yes, please take care of our girl. And, definitely ... a drink ... later. Chad would love to see you again. He was so-o-o upset you two lovebirds eloped. He so wanted to plan a wedding for our Calista."
"I didn't want to wait for the hassle of a wedding." Callie stroked Risto's jaw. "I didn't want him to get away."
Risto coughed. "Callie tells me I have you and Chad to thank for keeping the Latin lovers away from her."
"No problem. Glad you're here though." Evan shot a nasty look at Cruz's men. "Some people can't take a hint that our lovely Calista is unavailable." He turned his back on their unwanted escorts. "Calista, dear one, we can probably wrap up the shoot tomorrow. We'll be doing some jungle shots--in the national park just outside of town."
"That's great," Callie said. "You'll have to tell us exactly where when we meet for drinks. Risto will drive me to the shoot."
"Sounds like a plan. See you two later." Evan saluted and walked back to the tent where the crew was packing things up.
"Senorita Meyers." One of the thugs must have grown an extra set of balls, because he approached them, fingering a large knife. "You will please stay. Senor Cruz is coming. He is not happy." The man glared. If looks could kill, Risto would've been dead on the ground, a bloody mess.
Before she could take the cretin to task, Risto jumped in. "I'm her husband, pendejo. Senor Cruz can fuck himself. Sorry, honey."
She kissed his chin. "No problem, tiger. I told you the man was persistent." Risto snarled, sounding very much like the predatory cat she'd just named him. He turned his back on Cruz's messenger boys and continued up the path toward the parking area. Either Risto was insane or had really big balls. She would never have turned her back on armed men. "Um, they're following us." She couldn't keep the shakiness out of her voice.
"Yeah, I know. Once I lock you in the Hummer, I'll take care of them." His lips twisted into a nasty grin. Big cojones it was then. She was glad he was on her side. "Those two won't touch you."
"Well, I knew that--they wouldn't dare. Cruz wants me alive and unharmed." Not quite true. She had bruises on her ass and hips from where the bastard had pulled her to him when she'd tried to leave him in the hotel bar. "I'm more worried about you. I didn't think ... Cruz will have you killed ... he won't fight fair."
"Don't worry about me. Better men have tried. I fight to win." He stopped at a black Hummer with tinted windows and held her one-armed against his body as he punched in a key code. "Now, let's get you inside while I go take care of the trash."
Risto lifted her so she could scramble into the passenger seat. Waves of heat came off the dash and black leather upholstery. She flinched, the seat burning her skin through the thin fabric of her tank top and skirt. He frowned. "Fuck. You can't stay locked up inside a closed vehicle--it's over ninety degrees in there and like a damn sauna."
The man was a natural protector like her dad and Colonel Walsh. Damn, she loved marines. And even though he was an ex-marine, her dad had said "once a marine, always a marine, baby girl."
"Give me the keys." She wiggled her fingers. He handed them over. "I'll start the car and get it cooled off."
He swept a calloused finger over her heat-flushed cheek. "You need to eat and hydrate now. There are protein bars in the end pocket of my duffle in the back seat. Eat one to tide you over until I can get you a real meal." He pointed to the bottle of water in the cup holder. "Drink that. You need the water more than you need to worry about my germs. Got it?"
"Yeah, thanks, and I'm not worried about your germs."
"Get a bar now, Callie."
She scrunched her nose but decided it wasn't worth arguing about his autocratic tone at this point--plus she was starving. She turned and pulled a peanut-butter-flavored bar out of his duffle, unwrapped it and took a bite.
He grunted. "Now, lock this door. Don't open it for anyone. If trouble comes, lean on the horn."
"What trouble?" She mumbled around a sticky bite of the chewy bar. She grabbed his water bottle and took a deep drink, helping the dry granola down her stress-constricted throat.
His lips quirked into a satisfied smile at her actions. "Remember? The badass said Cruz is on his way."
She swallowed another gulp of water then gasped. "Gee, you must think I'm stupid. This is..."
"This is outside your comfort zone. It is for most people." He leaned in and tapped the tip of her nose. "That's why you have me. If you do need to leave the vehicle, meet me at the cantina across the square. Sit in the back and try to blend in. I'll look there first before I start tearing the old city apart."
He turned to leave. She touched his arm. Flexing under her fingers, his skin was hot, hair-roughened, covering tight, steely muscles. "Be careful... Come back to me."
His lips twisted into a feral smile. "I'm planning on it." Risto shut the door and stood there until she locked it.
Callie watched him stalk toward the last sighting of his intended prey. He was all fluid muscle and lethal intent. She had no doubts the two men would regret pulling guard-the-supermodel duty today. Sinking low in the seat, she resumed eating and drinking and kept a wary eye out for Cruz.