Excerpt Volcano

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The long legs had Charlie’s mouth watering. He’d picked out those legs from across the tarmac as they’d waltzed right past all the other passengers. Her briefcase and power suit were somewhat off-putting, but he’d been caught off guard by Jacobsen’s arrival and needed a solution, fast. Business Suit would provide a better decoy than anyone else in the terminal.

Good thing he’d landed when he had and seen the old goat, or he would never have suspected Jacobsen had any connection with St. Lucia. Until he knew what his worst enemy was doing here, he’d opt for lying low and scoping out the territory.

If it wasn’t for that prim jacket, uptight hairstyle, and abominable glasses, he’d figure Business Suit for a fashion model. She had the height for it. He judged she reached past his shoulder, and he stood six-five. That milk-white skin could stand a little sun and makeup, but the features behind those hideous glasses were picture perfect. He bet if she let down that thick knot of ebony hair, she would almost look like a real woman.

Charlie ignored the stirring of anticipation in his pants as he practically threw the recalcitrant female into the waiting van. She felt good in his hands, slim and incredibly soft. She smelled good too, some old-fashioned flowery fragrance that aroused images of warm southern nights. A good jolly-rogering right now would suit him more than fine, but he wanted out of Vieux Fort first. Business Suit here wasn’t the kind of female he would normally choose for a good time—hell, she was the kind he ran from faster than a crazed bull—but kidnapping a family of tourists hadn’t appealed to his baser instincts.

“What in the world do you think you’re doing?” she hissed as he shoved her over on the seat and climbed in beside her. The driver had already thrown her bags on top of Charlie’s backpack and was closing the van doors.

“Getting you out of there,” he hissed back. “You want those soldiers seeing us take off in different cars?”

That silenced her long enough for the van driver to climb into his seat and start the engine. Charlie wished he could make the man move faster, but in the islands, time was irrelevant. The driver would leave when he felt so inclined.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but you’ll go away when we’re out of sight?” Business Suit asked anxiously as the cab joined the line of other vehicles inching from the airport.

He admired her control. Her hands trembled and her lips had lost their color, but she didn’t give in to the usual hysterical female dramatics. Instead, she held her cool and spoke coherently, although he was wary of whatever female weapon she fingered in her pocket. Damned uptight career women thought every man they met wanted under their skirts. Of course, in the case of this particular female, she was probably right.

“Just think of me as the local chamber of commerce welcoming committee, assuring your visit to St. Lucia is safe and trouble free.” Charlie glanced over his shoulder at the traffic behind him: all taxis and rental cars. Jacobsen hadn’t seen him and had probably already left the airport. That didn’t mean someone else hadn’t seen through his disguise. Word spread quickly in small towns.

“I’m not a drug dealer,” she asserted. “I never saw that bag of white stuff before.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say.” He ought to feel guilty for his little prank of asking Alonzo to plant that bag, but he didn’t. Raul was more important than the princess.

“I thank you for your assistance,” she said stiffly, obviously offended by his rudeness. “I’m sure I could have straightened it out eventually on my own. I don’t wish to keep you from your duties any longer. I must insist the driver let you out wherever it’s convenient for you.”

Charlie turned his head and glared at her in disbelief. Her wide round glasses framed unblinking brown eyes rimmed with thick black lashes. He would wonder what world she came from, but unfortunately, he knew. “Do you have any idea what the Vieux Fort jail looks like?” he asked.

Charlie didn’t think she could turn any paler, but she did.

“I’m sure it wouldn’t have come to that,” she replied as stiffly as before. “I’m an American citizen. They would have called the consulate or whoever is in charge of these matters. It probably wasn’t even drugs, just someone’s bath powder.”

“They wouldn’t have bothered testing before they threw your sweet little tail in jail and forgot about you. They do things in their own time and their own way around here,” he said without repentance. “They haven’t had a magistrate in six months and cases are backed up the wazoo. The inmates are a bit miffed, if you catch my drift.”

Charlie checked over the driver’s shoulder to be certain they headed the right way. Once out of Vieux Fort, nothing but the narrow rural road gave evidence of civilization. She might even be grateful for his company when they hit some of those hairpin turns.

He’d appreciate a little gratitude about now, but his haughty companion obviously disdained his animal presence. Charlie shoved his mirrored glasses more firmly up on his nose and sank back in the seat.

“Surely you needn’t accompany me any farther,” she protested, but her shoulders sagged in defeat as the town outside the window vanished from view behind a banana forest.

Charlie smugly suspected she’d just realized the village they left behind was the only civilization around. That ought to scare the hell out of Miss Rich Bitch. His animosity toward her surprised him. Generally, he was a Good-Time Charlie around women.

“I’m going to Soufriere. Anse Chastenet is just down the road. This suits me fine.” He tried to stretch his long legs out. The position brought his hip closer to hers. He grimaced as she scrunched against the window. Maybe if he tried charming her just a little bit… Hell, he’d never charmed a woman in his life. They took one look at his bulk and either crawled all over him or ran for their lives. This woman was the running kind.

Maybe she responded to reason. Charlie didn’t think it very likely, not the way she inched away from him as if she suspected he would pull out a machete and take off her scalp. A guy would think she’d never seen a man before. So maybe he didn’t wear a slick Italian suit or those yuppie camp shorts or whatever she considered socially acceptable. That didn’t make him a killer or a rapist. Lots of women liked his size. Lots.

Forget reasoning. He couldn’t take a chance on telling her about Raul. He didn’t know anything for certain except that he knew damned well Raul wouldn’t abscond with his money. He and Raul had grown up together, protecting each other’s backs. He’d trust Raul with his life, just as Raul must be trusting Charlie with his right now.

“I suppose offering a ride is the least I can do in exchange for your help,” she said tentatively, turning toward him with fear still etching the corners of her eyes behind those awful glasses.

That was more like it. Crossing his arms, he regarded her with no small degree of interest. After all, they’d be spending considerable time together, although she didn’t realize that yet. “My name’s Charlie Smith. What’s yours?”

That brought a wry look from beneath sooty lashes. “Smith? Why not just call yourself Brown and make a joke of it?”

He scowled. “Because the name is Smith. I come from a long line of plain ordinary Smiths. I take it you don’t follow football?”

She still seemed tense, and she answered cautiously, “No, I don’t. Should I recognize the name?”

“Probably not,” he admitted, shrugging. “Not unless you follow college ball. I pulled a kneecap my senior year and never went on to the pros. I could have though,” he added defensively. It was a bit of a sore point with him. He’d been one of the top contenders for the NFL draft. His life could have been filled with wine, women, and song. What made it worse was that he hadn’t even ruined the knee playing ball. He’d done it falling off a damned roof. He glared at her. “Your turn.”

Briefly, amusement curved her naturally red lips and banished the wary look from her eyes. “Penelope Albright; no comments, please. I’m bright, but I’m not a Penny.”

“Yeah, I doubt you come that cheap,” he offered pragmatically. He didn’t spend much time around women wearing designer suits and real gold, but he recognized them when he saw them. “So, what are you doing in St. Lucia, Penelope? Laptops and briefcases aren’t the normal tourist attire.”

“I’m a management specialist in computer software design. I’m here on business. And you? You seem fluent in the native tongue.”

She spoke stiffly, but Charlie noted that her hand no longer clutched as tightly at the weapon in her pocket. Maybe he’d found the key to getting where he wanted. Women always loved to talk.

“I spent some time here in my misspent youth,” he admitted. “I’m here on business too. I can’t imagine anyone in Soufriere possessing a computer though. The electricity is erratic at best. Whose software are you designing?”

She returned to regarding him warily. “I respect client confidentiality. Is Soufriere very small, then?”

Well, that didn’t get him any answers. Charlie shrugged. “It’s a fishing village aspiring to be a tourist mecca. They sell arts and crafts to the few souls brave enough to wander that far. The tourists come for sun and water, and everything they want is at the resorts. Why risk getting ripped off by fast-talking hustlers outside their sheltered world?”

Little Miss Albright grimaced. “There are streets in Miami I can’t walk down without fear of being hustled. I like nice, private little shops with prices clearly marked. I never learned to haggle.”

He’d figured that. His mother had always turned up her nose at the village market. This conversation was getting him nowhere. Pointing out the window, he changed the subject. “There’s a cocoa tree. Have you ever seen one?”

The driver obligingly slowed so they could observe the green pods. In accented English, he pointed out the banana plantation farther up the hill, and the mango trees along the road’s edge.

The farther they drove, the more Penelope succumbed to the grandeur of the view, forgetting her fear. She admired the lush vegetation of the roadside and strained to determine one variety of tree from another. The natural spill of palm trees and bougainvillea down the mountainside captured her appreciation. It was as if she’d entered another world, a tropical jungle where none of the usual human hazards existed. The only people she saw were young children scrabbling in the dust along the roadside, and an occasional elderly man or woman watching the world go by from their front stoop. Mostly, the road wound through acres of vegetation, offering glimpses of the sea far below.

Even the man beside her no longer seemed quite as ominous. She could handle old college football players. They were a breed she knew well. If he’d planned to hurt her, he would have tried by now. She’d still like to smack those mirrored sunglasses off his handsome nose. She hated the way the glasses hid his eyes—and his thoughts.

“I’m surprised the area isn’t more developed,” she commented. The bag of white stuff nagged at the back of her mind, but she strove for calm. “I thought all these Caribbean islands were wall-to-wall tourist havens.”

“Competition is tough, and St. Lucia doesn’t have the services other islands have developed. They’re working on it. Castries, of course, is just what you’ve imagined. That’s where most of the tourists go, because that’s where the hotels are.” He shrugged. “On the other side of the island where we’re headed, the water and electric systems are unpredictable. Sewers, nonexistent. They’ve experimented with using the volcano’s natural heat for generating energy, but the government takes the cheapest bids, and the companies they hire don’t have the experience necessary for the task. Like everything, money is the key. Myself, I’d hate seeing this end of the island turned into a Miami parking lot. I prefer it as it is.”

Penelope nodded at a shack on stilts with chickens pecking in the shade beneath the porch. “You prefer seeing people grubbing for a living with no hope of making anything of themselves?”

Taking a deep breath, she finally released her grip on the pepper spray. He hadn’t attacked her in any way, and it seemed a trifle irrational to fear a man who talked intelligently of the island economy. On the other hand, he’d been at the right place at the right time when that powder appeared in her suitcase, and dammit, he looked like a drug smuggler. Maybe he’d been waiting for that shipment.

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