Vistaria Has Fallen, Chapter Seven

As Vistaria Has Fallen will be released this week, this is the last excerpt chapter.  Enjoy!

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VISTARIA HAS FALLEN
(Vistaria Has Fallen: Book One)
A Romantic Military Thriller

VISTARIA HAS FALLEN WILL BE RELEASED ON OCTOBER 19, 2017


EXCERPT FROM VISTARIA HAS FALLEN
COPYRIGHT © TRACY COOPER-POSEY 2017
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Chapter Seven

“Calli! Calli, come on now, wake up.”

Something tapped her face. Calli wished it would go away.

She tried to turn away from it. Pain ripped through her at the small motion. She groaned.

“That’s it. Wake up, Calli. I need you to wake up.”

Nick’s voice. His low caressing voice. He was here.

She remembered. “What happened?” Her voice was a croak.

Someone spoke nearby. Rapid Spanish. Something about a telephone.

Nick answered. He spoke rapidly, precisely.

The man answered. A single word.

Nick said more, his voice sharp. Calli heard Duardo’s name. “Calli, open your eyes. I need to see your eyes. Quickly, Calli. Look at me.” The snap of command in his voice made her obey without hesitation. She opened her eyes. Snapped them shut as flickering light hurt them.

“No, Calli. Come on.”

A woman screamed. “Someone help me! Help! Please!”

Minnie. Calli opened her eyes and tried to sit at the same time. She cried out as pain exploded in her head.

“Slowly,” Nick said. His hand on her shoulder steadied her. He had a cut over his cheek, just under the eye. Blood ran down his face. His shirt was ripped, the torn edge blackened. Burned.

“Where’s Minnie?” Calli cried, twisting around. She had been lying on the ground tiles. Nick crouched over her.

Details snapped into place, her senses pulling it together. The house that should have been behind them stood no longer. In its place, a ball of flames reached high into the early evening sky, crackling and roaring. Screams and moans came from all around her. A babble of Spanish.

Somebody help me!” Minnie screamed her plea.

Calli tried to get to her feet. Nick’s hand kept her down. “Take it easy.”

“Screw that. I need to help Minnie.” Calli pushed at his arm and got to her feet, the dancing shoes crunching in pebbles, dust and debris. She swayed for a second, the ground dipping, then steadied. She looked around. “Oh my God,” she breathed. There was little left of the courtyard. The walls no longer stood.

Brushed away by a giant, she thought. “Minnie!” she screamed.

“Here! Over here!” Minnie yelled back. “Oh hurry! God, hurry!” Her voice came from the jagged, broken tiles at the end. Calli headed in that direction, crunching through the debris.

Señor! Señor!”

“Calli, wait!” Nick called.

She turned back. One man from the party limped to Nick, his face dirty and scraped.

“You go. I’ll take care of this,” she told Nick. She moved to the edge of the tiles, testing with each step if the tiles would take her weight. They sagged under her step and the broken ends sloped down sharply. An image of people moving on thin ice came to her. She got down on her hands and knees, then stretched out across the tiles and wriggled toward the end.

The stately old tree that had provided most of the shade over the patio had taken a mortal blow. It had been pushed over the edge of the cliff by the blast. The tree’s roots were ripped from the ground, destabilizing the surrounding earth. As it fell, it had had destroyed that corner of the courtyard. The weakened ground gave way beneath the tiles. Only, with such an extensive root system, the tree was not completely torn from the earth. It leaned over the cliff like a monster’s railway crossing boom, close to horizontal.

As Calli peered over the edge, little rocks and pebbles cascading from her movements, the tree gave another deep groan and shuddered. The immense weight of the trunk and branches strained the injured root system. Soon, it would give away.

Another small gasping cry, below her, echoed the shudder of the tree. She looked down.

Minnie crouched on a tiny shelf, her arms outspread against the cliff for balance, her head turned into the cliff.

“Minnie!” Calli called.

She twisted her head to look. “Calli! Quickly! You must help Duardo! Hurry!” Minnie nodded toward the tree.

Calli lifted her head and looked at the tree. It took a moment for her to see Duardo. He hung amongst the vines and leaves trailing from the end of the tree. In the dying daylight she could see his eyes were closed. His head rested against his arm. He was not unconscious, or his grip would have given way.

“Calli, you have to hurry. He was talking at first. I think he’s fading. If he passes out…oh God, hurry, Calli!”

For a tiny moment Calli lay there, flummoxed. How do I do this? Duardo would be no lightweight. One thing seemed clear, though. She would have to go out onto the tree. It was the only way she could get close to him.

“Are you going to be all right for a while?” she said to Minnie.

“Yes, yes. Go!”

Calli wriggled her way over to the upended tiles and broken ground where the tree had stood for so long. The root system thrust high into the air, the long tendrils, once buried in the earth, now stretched like threads. The bottom half of the tree still held the earth, while the center of the trunk had split like kindling. Calli jumped and snagged the base of a root. She hung for a second. The root, a foot in diameter, ran like a tent rope down to the earth, disappearing under the edges of the tiling. She drew herself up and kicked with her feet to find footholds on the base of the tree. The heels of the shoes caught at projections and snags, giving her a foothold.

Calli pushed herself up above the root, supporting herself on the broad beam like a gymnast. She worked her way over the sharp slope down to the trunk of the tree itself. It wasn’t as straightforward as walking across a log, yet the multiple stems created ruts and runnels that gave her footing, until she reached the first of the major branches. She got down on her stomach and studied the way ahead.

She lay well out over open air now. The ground dropped thirty-five vertical feet. Duardo hung only two feet away, yet six feet below her. She would have to climb down into the branches to reach him.

“How you doing, Minnie?” she called.

“Just shut up and get him!” Minnie yelled back.

“Working on it. Is there a branch right below me?”

“Yes.”

“Big?”

“As big as your butt.”

“That’ll do,” Calli murmured. She would have to slide over the side of the trunk and find the branch and grab it before gravity took her the rest of the way down.

Fear shuddered through her.

“Duardo! Can you hear me?” she called out.

No movement. No sound.

“Just don’t let go, Duardo. I’m coming to get you.” She couldn’t think of any Spanish. She took a deep breath. “Here I go.” She slid over the sharp ridge of the trunk, her knee and hand trailing to give her purchase. She reached underneath for the branch Minnie told her was there. It was further than she’d thought. For one breathless, faint moment of panic, she hung in mid-air, unsupported anywhere. She curled her left arm around the big branch and slithered onto it, her legs clutching hard.

Her heart hammered. She forced herself to keep moving. She wriggled up the branch, closer and closer. Duardo’s hands gripped a handful of vines and whip-thin branches right beneath her. Calli stretched out her fingers. She couldn’t reach his head. Instead she patted his arm. “Duardo!” she called. “Duardo!”

The glossy black hair, covered in wood chips and twigs, moved. He stirred and looked up at her. Calli caught her breath at his unfocused gaze. Even as she watched, his eyes rolled up.

“No!” she yelled. She shot out her hand as his fingers loosened and the vines slid through his grip. She had no idea what she intended to do beyond holding him. She grasped his wrist and brought her other hand around the branch to grip beneath her fingers.

Minnie screamed.

Duardo’s full weight pulled on Calli’s arms. The branch she laid upon drove into her chest. She gasped, pain ripping through her shoulders, as Duardo dangled from her hands, a complete deadweight. He had passed out.

She drew a few slow breaths. The branch mashed against her chest hampered her breathing. Yet she could breathe—shallow as it was—and that was enough for now. She turned her head toward the hill where she could see Minnie hugging the earth, the broken tiles a few feet above her head. Calli lay lower than the tiles and couldn’t see the remains of the house or anyone on the courtyard. There was a lot of shouting, strident voices and the crackle of flames. The fire still climbed and she could see the tips of the flames licking the trees.

Duardo’s feet still dangled thirty-five feet above the ground.

She drew another slow breath, filling her lungs, then shouted as clearly as she could. “Nick! Nicolás! Over here!”

She kept up the shouting. It would take time for her to be heard because she competed against the drama playing out above. She conserved her strength, breathed deeply and kept shouting, while her shoulders burned and her fingers cramped.

“Nicolás!”

“I’m here.” His voice was behind her. Steady and quiet. Movement on the tree made it creak and shudder beneath her.

“Be careful!” she warned. “Only, hurry. I don’t know how long I can hold on.”

“You can hold on for as long as you need to.” He sounded confident and much closer. The tree bounced and stirred.

“My fingers are going numb.”

“It doesn’t matter. Your muscles are far stronger than you think. It’s your mind that makes them weak. It’s your mind that decides to let go. You should know this. Karate, right?”

“Yeah. A century ago, seems like.”

Tremors through the branch against her chest. He chuckled. “You know I’m right.” His voice sounded close, now. “As long as you decide you will hang on, you can outride any pain, any desire to let go. You release the pain and you hold on.”

She tried to nod. Her cheek scraped on the branch. “Okay.”

“Minnie, we’ll get you in a minute. You must hold on, too.”

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Minnie muttered.

Small movements. A pause. “I’m going to shout,” Nick warned. He did shout, a stream of Spanish.

Voices lifted in response. Steps sounded on the tiles. “Señor?”

The crunching on the tiles reminded her of her perilous crossing. “Tell them to be careful, there’s no support for the tiles.”

“I have,” Nick assured her. He spoke more and from the cadence, the clipped sentences, she guessed he was giving orders. Scurrying, murmured conversations. More movement on the tree.

“It won’t support many more.”

“It will last long enough,” Nick said from right behind and above her. A touch on her back. “That’s me,” he told her. “I’m right above. I have to—”

From the corner of her eye, she saw his boot land on a smaller branch to her left, behind and lower than her body. Weight and warmth settled on either side of her hips. He straddled her.

“Okay?” he asked.

A giggle rose. She tried to squash it. “You only had to ask. You didn’t have to arrange all this to get me in this position.”

“And chance you turning me down?” He tapped her belt. “Is this leather?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to take it off. Can you lift one hip so I can get at the buckle? I’ll keep you balanced.”

She lifted her hip. His hand slid beneath. “Higher,” he said. She pushed with her knee and lifted higher. The end of the belt slipped out of the buckle, the buckle loosened and the belt slid around her hips and pulled away. With deep relief, she lowered herself back to the branch, her hip flexors and thigh trembling with the effort to maintain balance in that awkward position.

Nick moved above her, the tree shaking with his actions.

“What happened up there?” she asked.

“Explosion. From the kitchen. We’ll find out later.”

“Is everyone all right?”

“Later, Calli.”

Everyone was not all right.

He leaned out and reached for a branch below her. It was thinner than the branch she lay on, yet still sturdy. He lowered himself in a slow, controlled roll. The athletic move spoke of muscle power beyond her own. Hanging by both hands meant his legs brushed against the unconscious Duardo. Nick rolled himself up and hooked his legs over the branch he hung from, reminding her of a similar movement made by trapeze artists at the circus. He had to pull himself up with his arms to bring his legs high enough to do it. He let go of the branch and rolled back down again. Now he hung upside down, right next to Duardo.

The movements on the tree grew closer. Quiet murmurs. Hands on her calves, holding her steady.

Nick reached into the ragged remains of his shirt and pulled out two belts, one of them Calli’s. Putting the other between his teeth, he looped Calli’s belt around Duardo’s abused wrist, below her fingers. He slid the buckle tight like an emergency tourniquet. He laid the other end of her belt against the free end of his own, then threaded both through the buckle of his belt. The tongue of the buckle slid through the holes of both belts. It created a secure loop in his belt. Nick pushed the loop over his arm, high over the elbow, and took a grip on the leather down by Duardo’s wrist and tested it.

He looked up at Calli. “Do you know what I’m doing?”

“You’re going to take his weight.”

“Yes. Then I need you to climb down his body and hang onto his legs, because we will swing you.”

What?”

“Yes, like a pendulum. That will bring you over to the high ground there, right in front of Minnie.”

“Wait!” she called and frowned, thinking it through. “I get to the ground, hang on to Duardo, then what?”

“You’ll see. Take care of that for now. Climb down, hang on.”

“Okay…” She took another breath.

He lifted his free hand to touch her shoulder. “As soon as the weight goes, your arms will feel numb and useless. You still must use them to climb down. It has to be you, you’re lighter.”

“If you’re trying to scare me, Nick, it’s too late.”

He smiled. “You’ll be fine. I will take the weight, now, okay? Let go when you’re ready.”

She looked at her hands around Duardo’s wrists. “My fingers won’t let go.”

“Think of what it would be like to put them into nice warm, soapy water. The way the warmth seeps through to the bones.”

She thought of her kitchen in Montana, the morning sun shining in the window over the sink, water in the sink. She would plunge her hands into the water and spread her fingers, enjoying the sensation…

Her fingers uncurled as if she had flexed them as she had in in her mind.

Duardo dropped another few inches, while Nick’s grip on the leather stayed firm. He checked the strain on the leather then looked up at her.

Her shoulders were white ice, cold and locked solid. She gave a little choked groan and rested her head against the branch, fighting back tears. It was as bad as Nick had forecast. She was glad of the hands holding her steady on the branch because she could not have held on for herself.

“Calli.” Nick’s voice. He had curled up a little to watch her. “Ready?”

“Okay.” She’d lied. She wouldn’t be able to do what he wanted.

He pointed to his eyes. “Watch me. Okay?”

She nodded.

“Reach out for my hand.” He held out his left hand, across his body, for his right arm stretched below, holding up Duardo.

She reached and her arm obeyed. It was lifeless, light and insubstantial. There was no strength. She forced her fingers to curl around his hand.

“Now lower yourself down.”

It took all her courage to lower herself off the branch and let go. For a moment she hung purely by Nick’s grip. It brought her swinging into Duardo’s body.

“Sorry,” she said.

“I don’t think he noticed. Can you grip the leather?”

She knew what to do now. She squeezed the leather above the buckle around Duardo’s wrist. Imitating Nick’s controlled movements, she transferred her weight from her left hand in Nick’s to the leather belt. Nick released her hand. She let herself down, hooked her arm over Duardo’s shoulder, then let go of the leather. With mental apologies to Duardo, she hooked her right hand into the band of his jeans and let herself down. She wrapped her left arm around one thigh and let herself slither down until she had her arms about Duardo’s calf.

She looked up. Nick’s face was marred by fierce concentration. On the branch where she had been clinging like a burr, Pietro sat straddled. Another man…Jose, she thought, sat right behind him. A third sat on the main branch and a fourth behind him.

“Okay!” she called. “Quickly!”

Nick had both hands around the leather now. Straining, he pushed with his arms. The tiny movement traveled down to her and translated into a miniscule sideways motion. Nick kept up the effort, pushing and releasing, pushing and releasing, until the arc of her swing grew wider and wider. Gravity added its effect.

“Watch the ground,” Nick said.

She twisted her head around. With each inward swing of the arc she moved closer and closer to the ground. A few more inches and she would be able to put her foot on the ground.

“Find something you can grab!” Nick called.

She looked and saw one of the emerging tree roots had formed a big loop. There was nothing else but raw earth and rocks. “I see it!” she called back.

“When you’re ready, grab it and keep hold of Duardo!”

She swung outward, swooping across the valley. She didn’t look down. Instead, she watched the loop of tree root come rushing toward her. She imagined grabbing it.

Now. She reached out, snagged the root with her hands. It was cool and grubby. It held.

She thrust out her foot and dug for a foothold as the pendulum motion tried to take her backward. The strain transferred to her shoulder, although it was minimal compared to the pull from holding Duardo’s full weight. She still hugged Duardo’s leg to her, only now she stood anchored to the ground, a bare six feet from the top of the cliff. Those six feet were vertical, unstable earth.

Distantly she heard the men on the trunk clapping and cheering. She hooked her leg through the root.

Nick hung patiently, his arms outstretched. “Ready?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“As Duardo is lowered, take a better hold of him, so he doesn’t roll down the valley.”

“Okay.”

Nick rolled his head up. “Listo?” he asked Pietro.

“Sí!”

“Ahora!” Nick shouted. He let go of the leather with his left hand and flexed, rolling up. He thrust his hand toward Pietro, who clamped both hands around Nick’s wrist.

The tug on Duardo’s leg came. Calli, forewarned, hung on.

“Obtuvolo!” Pietro declared triumphantly.

Got you, Calli guessed.

Nick and Pietro adjusted their grip, so that each had their fingers gripped around the other’s wrist. Pietro reached over to grip the man next to him in the same way. In turn, the man reached to the one next to him and so on along the tree.

Nick looked down at her. “I’m going to drop and Duardo will too.” He unhooked one leg and pushed with his boot against the branch to release the other. Only he didn’t drop like a stone. He rolled. Duardo’s body sank toward the ground. Calli hauled on him, bringing him to the ground close by her, again gripping the band of his jeans and hanging on grimly.

Pietro did the same as Nick, letting himself fall off the branch in a controlled motion and now the two of them hung in the air, a human chain. The third man, Jose, slipped off the tree and Nick dangled closer to her. Duardo had reached the ground. She pulled him up and thrust her leg in front of him so he would not roll. That left her hands free. She reached up and caught Nick’s leg and hauled him sideways, toward the high ground. A fourth man slipped off the tree. Nick stepped beside her.

He gave a shout. The chain of men on the trunk moved back to the base of the tree, toward the cliff and the broken tiles. As they moved, Nick reeled Pietro in so he could stand. Then Jose.

Finally, a chain of men stood along the cliff, up onto the tree base. The men on the tree climbed off and lay down on their stomachs on the edges. They reached down with their hands.

Nick hooked his own leg around the same root Calli used as an anchor. He bent down and with another flex of muscles, picked Duardo up in a fireman’s lift. He looked up above him. “Listo?

“Sí.”

With both hands beneath his torso, Nick lifted Duardo straight up into the air. Many hands reached for him, lifted him up and over the edge. A little cheer sounded above them.

Nick looked behind Calli. “Minnie, your turn. Calli, you must lift her over here.”

Calli looked at Minnie’s tear-streaked face. “No problem,” she said cheerfully. “She’s always been a squirt.”

Minnie gave a big sniff.

“Minnie, you don’t have room to do anything but push off with your hands and fall into Calli’s arms. She’ll catch you.”

Minnie looked at Calli. “Drop me and I’ll never talk to you again.”

“Deal.”

Minnie took a deep breath and launched, arms outspread, straight at Calli. Her weight slammed into Calli. Calli toppled backward. Nick’s arm was there, against her back, holding her up.

Minnie gave a shudder and a hysterical little laugh. Nick patted her cheek. “Not yet, Miss Minerva. Hold on for a few more minutes.”

Minnie took another deep breath and nodded.

Nick threaded his fingers together, to form a step. “Kick your shoes off. Step on my hands, then my shoulder. The men will lift you up. Okay?”

She nodded and sniffed again, wiping her forearm across her cheek, which only smeared the dirt and tears more. Calli propped her up while she pulled off her shoes. She stepped onto Nick’s hands. He boosted her so she could use his shoulder. She stepped up. The men lifted her over the edge as if she weighed nothing. Another small cheer sounded.

“Your turn,” Nick said in Calli’s ear.

“What about you?”

“I’ll be right behind you.”

She kicked off her shoes, casting them aside with regret. She had enjoyed the few minutes she had been wearing them before the explosion. It was unlikely she’d experience anything like that again.

She stepped onto Nick’s hands. He boosted her as if she weighed the same miniscule amount as Minnie. She barely put any weight on his shoulder. Many hands caught at her arms and drew her up. The motion shot pain through her shoulders. It was over before she could protest. She lay once more on the debris and sand scattered across the tiles.

She wanted to stay there, to rest and recover. The same many hands hauled her up, made her sit and move out of the way. They raised her to her feet and led her to a battered yet still whole chair where she sat, grateful to be still for a moment.

She watched as Nick was hauled up. Pietro, Jose and the last of the human chain clambered up. Pietro’s AC/DC tee-shirt hung torn and dirty now. His face was smeared with ash, yet he smiled brightly.

Many more people moved about the remains of the courtyard, including men in uniform. She remembered the valley was a popular residence for army officers. The explosion would have brought them running.

A senior-looking officer, a man with gray hair and a buffet table’s worth of medals across his chest, walked up to Nick. As Nick brushed himself off, the officer saluted.

Nick spoke. It sounded like a question.

The officer pursed his lips, then shook his head.

Nick looked down at the ground and sighed. After a moment he straightened again. “Okay,” he said and spoke more Spanish. Short sentences. Emphatic.

Orders.

The officer saluted again. He turned on his heel and strode away. He called out to others, who came running to his side as he walked, some wearing uniforms, some not. He issued orders, too. They scurried off to do his bidding.

Nick stopped in front of Calli, picked up her hand and pulled her from her comfortable seat, while all around them the courtyard burst with activity. Lights came on everywhere. In the distance came the “thwock-thwock” of helicopters.

“Come here,” Nick said.

She let him lead her to the dark far corner of the yard, the left side where, beyond the jagged remains of the courtyard wall, the truck in which they had traveled was parked. It seemed like a long time had passed since she climbed from the truck.

Nick turned her to face him, letting her rest against an intact section of the house. The cut below his eye had stopped bleeding, although his face was dirty and scratched. “You look like hell,” she said.

“You should check in a mirror.” His grin faded. “Calli…” He shook his head. “You’re a hero, Calli. You saved Duardo’s life and every man here knows it. Only there can never be any acknowledgment of what you did here tonight. There can’t be.”

“I don’t want it.”

“You deserve it. There is a handful of Vistarian men who will for the rest of their lives consider themselves in your debt because of what you did for their captain. They cannot speak of it and neither can I.”

“No problems.”

“Yes it is a goddam problem!” His fist slapped the wall by her head. “We should not be in such dire straits we dare not breathe about the efforts of an American amongst us, yet we are and it will only get worse.”

“Worse?”

“Much worse. This is the beginning, I think. I will know more later. If I’m right, this is the first faint sound of disaster for Vistaria.”

“You mean, this explosion was deliberate?” Calli shook her head. “Someone blew up the house on purpose? My god.” She caught at his arm. “Nick, I know someone was hurt. Is Duardo…did he…?”

“Duardo will be fine,” he said. “Menaka died. She sat right next to the kitchen. She had no chance. Nor did Hernandez.”

“Oh, Nick, and the baby?”

“Lives, poor orphaned soul. They delivered it a few minutes ago.”

“Elvira?”

“She is badly hurt.”

Deep sadness welled in her. Calli hung her head. Nick drew her to him and she rested her cheek against his chest. She could hear his heartbeat, only nothing stirred in her. The waste, the pointless loss, pained her too much.

A more terrible possibility occurred to her. “Nick, this didn’t happen because of Minnie and me, did it? They didn’t do it because we came here?”

“No,” he said quickly. “This valley is full of army personnel and a party at any house here would be thick with officers. The valley is a natural target if one is looking for targets. We just didn’t think they were looking for targets like this.” He sighed.

She closed her eyes and let her hand rest against his shoulder. Silk and firm, warm flesh beneath.

His arms came around her, tightening. With a low groan, he pulled her away from him. “I only have a moment, Calli. You must listen, for this is important. You and Minnie will fly back to las colinas. I’ve arranged medical care for you both—you’ll be checked and treated as needed. You’ll get fresh clothes, a chance to clean up, then you’ll be dropped at your apartment tonight just as if you had been to the party. You may feel the need to tell your uncle what happened. I won’t prevent that. You must tell no one else, though. Things will happen now and you must stay removed from them. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

He paused and drew back, surprised, as if he had been expecting a protest from her.

“I’m not stupid, Nick. I can see what is happening here as clearly as you. If this was not an accident, then the rebels have made their first move. You must find out how they knew about this party, how they penetrated it without detection. The only way that could have happened is that you have rebel sympathizers inside the army. That means everyone is suspect, no one can be trusted.”

He cupped her cheek. “You continue to astonish me.”

His praise, his admiration, warmed her. It made the touch of his hand more than a simple comfort. Her senses stirred. She pushed aside the distraction because another horrible possibility occurred to her. “It also means you’re a target, doesn’t it?”

His hand dropped away. “Yes,” he said flatly.

From the valley came a roar of an engine. A rhythmic percussive sound beat at her ears, inside her head. It was a helicopter, very close.

A man stepped around the corner. He carried a rifle and wore a bandolier of rifle shells over one shoulder. “El helicóptero espera, señor.”

“Gracias. Deme un momento,” Nick murmured.

“Sí, señor.” The man stepped back around the house.

Nick turned back to her. “This is a race, Calli. If we can find them and root them out, we may still win the day. We have to pull their teeth—weaken them before we can dig them up out of their mountain strongholds. We must do it quickly, before this gets out of hand. So for now everything must appear to go along as usual. The mine must still operate, people will work and live and we must give no hint we are hunting them. And you must stay out of it.”

She gave in to her need to touch him and rested her hands on his chest. “I’m afraid for you, Nick.”

“Don’t be. I have the nine lives of a cat, don’t you know?”

Señor?” The soldier had returned.

Nick barely glanced at him. “The helicopter is here for you,” he told her.

“I know.” She looked at the soldier. “Uno más momento, por favor.

Sí,” he agreed and moved away again.

Nick smiled. “You’ve been studying.”

“I’m a fast learner.” She sighed. “Economics seems very remote right now.”

“You have one moment more,” he reminded her.

She gripped his shirt. “It’s not enough,” she confessed. “I’m confused, Nick. I thought I had it sorted out before all this happened, only now…I don’t know. You’re right to send me away. All I know is that I don’t want to leave you.”

His hand settled around her neck, curled around it as if he would draw her to him. She held her breath, her heart leaping and her pulse fluttering. He gazed into her eyes.

“Nick,” she whispered. “Nicolás Escobedo. El leopardo rojo. I have seen you all ways. I want them all.”

He closed his eyes. She knew he battled temptation and his own better judgment. Right now she didn’t care about prudence and good sense. She only cared about the truth in her heart—and damn the price of speaking it aloud.

Señor!” came the imperative call.

Nick growled under his breath and opened his eyes. He pushed her toward the waiting soldier. “Go,” he told her.

She was hurried away, toward the military helicopter, with no answer, not even hope to cling to.


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