Kat is a good friend and this is one of her stories that I've loved when she read bits in critique and after it was finished.
Lilly McGrath refused to surrender. She ran down the narrow pathway and rounded the corner. She slipped on a small rock, and only her hand gripping the edge of the stucco building stopped her from tumbling head first onto the road. Her ankle throbbed, but she kept going.
Her mind raced as fast as her heart and faster than her feet. Who was he? In the past month she'd crossed paths with him a dozen times in almost as many towns. He’d nearly grabbed her in Lisbon. If not for that besotted Portuguese fisherman who wanted to make her his wife, she’d probably be dead.
The man was good; she’d grant him that. When she calmed down, she’d take pride in the fact that her ex-boss sent the best.
She darted into an old church and hid in the empty confessional. The stale air in the tiny cubicle and feelings of claustrophobia left her gasping for a normal breath. Why did she think Europe would be safe? No matter where she ran, he always turned up. She never got a chance to find work. The ten dollars in her pocket wouldn’t get her a bus ticket, assuming she could lose him again. And just this morning she’d discovered all her credit cards had mysteriously been canceled.
She finally caught her breath and cursed her own folly. When would she learn to keep her mouth shut? Mr. Santana hadn't hired her for her brilliant mind. He didn't want her to notice the inconsistencies. When her apartment blew up, she realized that she should have kept her opinion to herself.
Her father warned her she would end up in trouble if she moved east to work in New York. "Farm girls from Iowa have no business going off to work in the big city. They should marry and raise a crop of babies," he’d told her. Wouldn't he just gloat if he saw her now?
The thud of heavy footsteps heading in her direction came to an abrupt halt. She sucked in a deep breath as her body broke out in a nervous sweat. Someone yanked at the curtain.
"An dio. Mi dispiace," the flustered, white-haired woman sputtered and pulled the curtain shut again.
Lilly stared at the black sheet of fabric, paralyzed in fear. After a few terrifying seconds, she realized that the local woman making her weekly visit to the parish priest posed no threat. Lilly must have lost her pursuer, but not for long if she didn't get moving. She couldn't risk going back to the hostel for her clothes. He apparently knew where to find her again.
If she were prone to flights of fancy, she would believe Mr. Santana had sent a psychic. That man seemed to know exactly where she'd turn up when half the time she didn't know herself. How did he always find her? She made no calls and only used her credit cards just before leaving a country.
Lilly pulled a bandanna from her neck and wrapped it tightly around her ankle for added support. She couldn’t remain in the church unless she planned to make a confession to the Roman Catholic priest. Now that would be a story to tell. If she lived long enough, she might do just that.
She stepped out the door and glanced down the narrow street. Only the tourists braved the blistering Italian sun. Wary, but less nervous, she made her way along the maze of streets into the town center of Genoa. Eager bargain hunters filled the shopping market, allowing her to blend in with the crowd.
A pain to her backside initiated her into that fine Italian custom of rear-end pinching. She whirled around. Two strong hands gripped her shoulders and pushed her back into the wall. She opened her mouth to scream but nothing came out.
Numbness washed over her. She slumped into the man’s arms.He’d drugged her. "Help me," her mind shrieked to the people who stopped to look, but they only stared.
"Lilly, honey," the man muttered lovingly. He wiped his hand tenderly across her damp forehead. "I told you to be careful of the Italian wine. It's far too strong for you, baby." He glanced up at the crowd of onlookers and shrugged. "She's not used to drinking." He made a gesture with his hand and repeated his words in fluent Italian. The bastard had them laughing at her. No one would help her. "Come on. The car is just around the corner. What? You can't walk?"
He swept her up in his arms as everything went black.
* * * *
Jack braced his hands against the wall as the small boat pitched from side to side on the churning sea. He glanced at the petite woman sleeping on the bunk bed. Nylon rope bound her hands together. Guilt over tying her up left a bad taste in his mouth but she possessed more ingenuity than he’d expected. That little slip of a woman had given him a really hard time.
He'd followed her since she left the States two months ago. In that time, she’d made contact with no one. The department wanted to move on her ex-boss, Santana, so Jack had planned to bring her in a month earlier when they were in Lisbon, but he got blind-sided by a love-struck bear of a man. The crazy fisherman almost killed him. By the time he regained consciousness, she’d disappeared again.
Five days later he caught up with her in Madrid. He knew she needed money since he'd lifted her wallet before she got away. A contact confirmed that she’d finally shown up at the American Express office for a cash advance.
Jack closed the cabin door and turned towards the voice. "Yeah?"
"There are storm warnings. We'll have to bring her into port in Nice."
“Shit.” He pounded his fist against the wall. "Damn it, Stucky. I told you we needed a bigger boat. It's too risky."
"It’s the best I could do. Did you want me to advertise?"
Jack massaged his throbbing hand. What choice did he have? They couldn't exchange the boat for a larger model since they appropriated the vessel illegally. The owner had surely reported it missing by now.
He planned to keep the boat out at sea until they could meet their contact in Tangier. Bringing Lilly into port in France could put the mission in jeopardy, and might prove fatal. His two-week assignment had turned into a two-month ordeal.
"Okay. But I need a jeep as soon as we dock. Get in touch with Anton and see if he can find me a safe house—as far away from people as possible. I have a feeling our guest is going to be screaming like a banshee when she comes to."
"Give her another shot."
"No. I didn't want you to drug her the first time. I could have handled her without it. The idea is to bring her back alive."
Stucky scratched his head. "And they’ll be able to convince her to testify?"
"It's not our problem." Stucky returned to the deck while Jack remained below. "It's not our problem," he muttered again.
The job ended when he delivered her to his boss. He’d never obsessed over what came next. Only Lilly McGrath wasn't a hardened criminal and something about this job stuck in his throat. For the first time he wondered what would happen when she was no longer useful to them.
* * * *
Lilly rolled to her side and groaned. The bright morning light sent a searing jolt of pain across her forehead. She squeezed her eyes shut. Drums pounded in her ears. When she tried to stretch she found her hands bound tightly together at the wrists. Forcing her eyelids opened again, she looked around the sparsely furnished room.
What had happened?
A flood of memories came rushing back. Italy—the laughter—and that man who had tormented her across half of Europe. She needed to escape. But how?
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and slipped to the floor on her knees. All her muscles felt stiff but she demanded they respond and pulled herself up.
Where was she? According to her watch, only two hours had passed. Impossible. She checked the date and amended her thoughts. Twenty-six
hours. How far could they have taken her in that time? Someone would have noticed if they tried to put her on an airplane.
She swallowed and noticed the lingering taste of salt. She must have been near the sea recently. A boat? Of course. How else would they plan to cross borders?
Shaking off the fatigue from her muscles, she walked to the boarded window of the rustic cabin. An old newspaper on the dresser below the window appeared to be written in French, so hopefully she was still on the European continent. She reached for the door but withdrew her hands quickly when she heard voices on the other side. Footsteps headed in her direction and she darted back to the bed.
The door opened and he walked in, carrying a tray. He placed it on the table. "How are you feeling?"
She glared coldly at the man she’d learned to recognize as readily as her own father. Thick, sable brown hair fell in soft waves over his collar. The corner of his mouth lifted in an arrogant grin. His piercing eyes, straight nose and rugged jaw gave him an alarming appeal, and a full day's stubble on his chin added to his rakish appearance. She remembered that he'd had a moustache the first time she saw him, but after Lisbon he gave it up.
He wore a cable knit sweater and brown corduroy pants, giving him a distinctly Mediterranean look. Like a chameleon, he had a unique talent for resembling the locals, no matter where they crossed paths.
Tall, dark and handsome.
Every woman's fantasy was her nightmare.
* * * *
"Coffee?" Jack asked, holding out a cup of dark steaming brew. Lilly took the cup he offered in her two hands.
He realized his mistake the second he read her intention. He turned just in time to miss being scalded in the face by the hot liquid she hurled at him. "You vicious little brat!"
The coffee seeped through the sweater, burning the skin on his back. He quickly pulled the garment over his head and draped it on his arm. He suppressed the urge to retaliate. In her shoes, he would have done the same.
He’d underestimated her again. Two months ago, she’d been a frightened woman running for her life; an export clerk who stumbled onto something she shouldn't have noticed. She knew enough to make her a liability but not enough to keep herself safe.
At least, she appeared to be innocent. She could be involved right up to her baby-blue eyes, but that would be the most incredible acting job he'd witnessed. Since leaving New York, she'd become tougher, but she still didn't strike him as the criminal type. She didn't possess the hardness it took to live that kind of life.
"Didn't care for the coffee? Perhaps you’ll like the food."
She kicked her leg out and sent the tray flying from the bedside table. Stucky's efforts at an edible breakfast littered the hardwood floor.
Jack reached for the door handle. "When you get hungry, you can scrape it off the floor."
He leaned against the outside wall and listened while she vented her frustration with him. Luckily, the room didn't have much furniture, because even with her hands tied she managed to toss a few wooden chairs around the room. She recovered most of her strength, which alleviated his guilt about Stucky giving her those shots.
He chuckled. Let her get it out of her system, he decided. She'd be so exhausted by evening that he wouldn't need to drug her again.
"What's going on?" Stucky asked.
"She didn't like your cooking." Glass shattered against the door and Jack groaned. "When can we get moving again?"
"Tonight maybe. Tomorrow at the latest. Give her another shot."
"No." Although he'd been assured that, in moderation, the drug left no permanent damage, he wasn't a doctor.
Another flying object crashed against the door and his partner jumped. "Do you have a freaking death wish? You'll never be able to control her like that."
Jack thought about the woman he’d tailed for the past two months. An uncomfortable tightening stirred in his loins. A reaction that happened far too often recently. He mentally shook himself. A death wish? The fiery beauty in the other room was no threat to his life, only his hormones.
Casting the dangerous thoughts aside, he returned his attention to the older man's worried expression. What the hell was Stucky's problem? If they couldn't handle one small woman, they should retire.
Normally his partner had cast iron nerves but this job appeared to be getting to him. Although Stucky had tried to decline the assignment, Jack insisted on having him for back up once he actually grabbed Lilly. Unable to fully trust anyone within his own department, he preferred to bypass the normal channels and sneak her back into country. To accomplish that goal, he needed Stucky's expertise to get them in and out of ports undetected.
They disagreed fundamentally on the way to handle themselves but Jack still had a tremendous amount of respect for the older man. Where Stucky played by the established rules, Jack preferred to make his own rules.
"We'll see how the day goes. You go into town and get supplies. I don't want to stop again before we get to Tangier."
Stucky nodded and seemed relieved. A few colleagues hinted that Stucky had lost his edge after the death of his partner the year before. Jack dismissed the charge at the time, but now he wondered. Stress had taken down more men than the job itself.
* * * *
Jack slouched in a chair to read the local paper. At dinnertime, he decided to make another attempt to feed Lilly. If she became weak, they might be delayed longer. He discarded the idea of cooking an egg in case he ended up with it on his face. How much damage could she do with a sandwich and cold water?
He peered around the door and entered carefully. A faded white sheet covered her body curled up on the cot. "Lilly?"
Although she pretended to be asleep, a muffled hiccup gave her away. An unfamiliar wave of regret washed over him.
He walked around the bed, carefully avoiding the shattered remnants of her temper tantrum, and knelt down in front of her. "I know you're awake."
Her eyes flew open and her arm shot out from below the sheet. A fragment of broken glass, clenched tightly in her fingers, sliced into his cheek. He recoiled at the same time her foot landed in his chest and sent him flying backwards into the wall.
* * * *
Lilly rolled off the far side of the bed and sprinted down a short corridor that lead directly to the living room, kitchen area. Footsteps echoed through the house. Without looking behind her, she sprinted out the front door and into the wooded area beyond the house. Her body stayed in motion on pure instinct.
She zigzagged through the brush, scraping her arms on the bark of the trees she used for balance. Leaves and branches rustled beneath her feet. She kept a careful watch on the ground. Her ankle still hurt, and she couldn't afford to twist it again.
Between the tall pines she caught sight of a house. The smoke from the chimney rose like a beacon, leading her to safety. Surely, someone would help her. Less than twenty feet from the clearing, something in front of her moved.
She stopped short and stared straight into the snout of a wolf. The gray canine growled and eyed her warily. Her heart thumped against her ribs. She ran her tongue along her top lip, tasting the salty warmth of her nervous perspiration. Wolves don't normally attack people, she reminded herself. Unless of course they're rabid, her over-active imagination added.
"Don't move," a deep voice ordered from behind.
The wolf’s ears arched into an attack position. She had a tough choice deciding on the lesser of the two evils. Either one could mean her death. The wolf would be quicker.
"Back up, slowly. Don't turn. Don't take your eyes off it."
Lilly followed his orders and inched backwards. Her foot tangled in fallen branch and she raised her arm instinctively. The animal bared its fangs and took a step towards her. One shot rang out and the wolf yelped and took off in the other direction.
Before she had time to enjoy her relief, she was caught from behind and pulled to the ground. He straddled his legs across her hips to hold her down and grabbed both her wrist as she tried to pummel him.
The menacing eyes that glared down at her were as wild as the wolf's and infinitely more dangerous. The gash on his cheek still bled. He wiped his arm across his face, leaving a bright red stain on his white shirtsleeve.
She sensed that he wanted to hurt her, but something stopped him. Why didn't he just shoot her and get it over with?
He tied her wrists together with a piece of rope and helped her to her feet. "Don't try that again."
"What are you going to do, kill me?" she snapped.
He put his hand on her elbow and led her back towards the house. "No one's going to kill you, Lilly. We just need to talk to you."
She coughed to cover a nervous laugh. He couldn't think her that naïve. "Yes. I got the message you guys left for me at my home."
Jack exhaled a groan. "I had nothing to do with that."
"Oh, yeah. And I should believe you."
* * * *
Jack quickened his steps and pulled her along. He'd already drawn enough attention by discharging his gun. If a neighbor decided to check out the commotion, he would have a tough time keeping Lilly from yelling for help. "If I wanted to kill you, you'd already be dead. I've had more than enough chances."
"I always got away."
Jack chuckled. Apparently, she believed herself caught up in a misguided game of international intrigue. "You got away because I let you. Except for Lisbon, where I'll admit you got the better of me. I've always known where you were. If you saw me, I wanted you to."
She stopped walking and cast him a mocking glare. "Right. I'll bet that's what you told your boss too."
"Oh, come on, Lilly. I can tell you where you spent your first night in London. What you ate for breakfast everyday. Why, I can even describe the sexy black lingerie you bought last week."
Her eyes widened and her face flushed scarlet. "And why would you want me to get away?"
"To keep you moving. Every time you checked into a hotel you had to give your passport. It only takes a few days to track it down. I'm not trying to kill you. I'm trying to keep you alive."
Her bitter laugh spoke volumes. She didn't believe him. "I suppose it never occurred to you to tell me this in the beginning and save all this trouble?"
"Not really. I only told you this much so you'd see that I don't mean you any harm. I'd prefer not to have to drug you every time I move you. But if you make me, I will."
"Who are you? CIA? FBI?"
"You read too many spy thrillers." He tugged on her arm to get her moving again. "Who I work for isn't important. Just follow orders and we'll both live to tell our grandchildren about it."
"Am I allowed to know your name or is that classified information too?"
"Murphy? And does that come with a first name or should I just call you...?"
"Jack," he said before she labeled him with her choice of colorful nickname. They reached the front door and he pushed it opened with his foot. "And one more thing. It isn't much of a face but it's mine. Don't cut it again."
"I wasn't aiming for your face. I was aiming for your throat."
"I guess I can be thankful you didn't set your sights lower." She jerked her arm free of his grasp and stomped into the house. That attempt failed, but he knew she would try again. He could almost see the wheels spinning in her head as she walked towards the bedroom. "Stay here."
"I prefer to be alone."
"Tough. I wouldn't want you to cut yourself on the broken glass." Or to use another sliver to free herself from the rope again. The woman had guts for an amateur. She flopped down on the worn sofa with a grunt.
He stepped over to the old porcelain sink and splashed water on his face, keeping a watchful eye on her at all times. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he blotted the gash along his face.
"Excuse me, Mr. Murphy, but I need the little girl's room."
Jack shot her a nasty scowl. She shrugged and smiled innocently.
"Come on." He led her down the hall to the bathroom. She held her hands out in front and he removed the rope. When she tried to close the door he stuck his foot inside. "I think not."
Her eyes widened. "You can't be serious? I can't use the bathroom with an audience."
"If you really need it, you can. Leave the door open."
He took up a position just outside the bathroom. Humiliating her was not his objective, but he never made the same mistake twice. His little captive still possessed a fair amount of fight. "Turn on the water. It helps."
"Go to hell!"
Jack laughed. No doubt one day he would. His wasted youth had earned him fire-front accommodations. No amount of penance could erase the memory or the guilt. He’d started out with such high ideals, but somewhere in the execution, he'd lost sight of the goals. His job of scaring the shit out of a woman not even charged with a crime left a foul taste in his mouth. Would he care if they’d sent him after a middle-aged spinster with a wart on her nose? He wanted to believe so, but no assignment caused him to lose sleep like this one. An air of innocence surrounded her, despite her ability to wrap a man around her finger as he learned from his incident in Lisbon.
"Are you still there?"
Lilly pounded her fist against the wall. He tried not to laugh when he heard the water running. Something like that had to be easier for men.
She finally emerged from the bathroom and returned to her seat in the living room. He admired her strength. She neither cried nor pleaded like many women in her position might do.
"Do you want something to eat?" he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders indifferently, refusing to admit she wanted anything, but he guessed she must be hungry. She hadn't eaten anything in the last day.
He opened the old refrigerator and removed cheese and a chunk of crusty bread. He handed her the sandwich and sat in the squeaky wooden chair across from her.
She drummed her fingers on the frayed arm of the sofa. “How much longer are we going to be in this resort?”
“Depends on the weather.”
"I suppose if I asked where we're going from here, you wouldn't tell me.
"Right. Think of it as an adventure."
"An adventure is shopping in New York City."
The sarcasm of her words failed to mask the anxiety reflected in her eyes.
"Nothing is going to happen to you," he said softly, hoping to calm her fears. "You have my word on that."
She leaned back in the chair and let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. "There's a comfort. You drug me, kidnap me and take me against my will over international borders. Now I should rest easy on the word of a terrorist."
He stiffened. "I am not a terrorist."
Lilly's stinging barb touched a raw nerve. His own family had accused him of something similar. After all, there wasn't much difference in the job, only in the people who paid him.
"That depends on your point of view, doesn't it? If what you're doing were legal, I'd be going through an extradition process. Even a criminal is permitted legal counsel."
He couldn't argue with the truth. Her job as an export clerk made her well versed in international law. However, he couldn't bring her back through the regular channels. Their survival might depend on no one knowing about her return to the States. If she tried to go back on her own, she might not make it there alive.
"Finish up your sandwich. And then you can get some sleep."
Judging by the tired look in her eyes, she could use the rest. So could he, but he also knew he wasn’t going to get any. Especially not when she discovered the sleeping arrangements.
* * * *
Lilly finished the last bite of her dinner. Eating in front of a man made her self-conscious enough. When Jack stared at her with his penetrating gaze, her embarrassment grew. She swallowed hard. Fear kept her heart pounding at a rapid pace. How was she going to get free?
He sat next to her on the sofa. Before she could spring from her seat, he took her hand and locked a cuff around her wrist. The other end he fastened to himself.
She tried to twist her hand out of the metal bracelet. “What are you doing?”
“I would have thought it was obvious. I’m too beat to spend the night chasing you through the woods, and you’re too good at getting out of the ropes. Should we sleep on the bed or right here on the couch?”
“Are you out of your mind?” Her voice pitched. “I wouldn’t share a bed with you if you were the last man on earth.”
“I guess than means you want the couch.”
“Then sleep on the floor. I’m sleeping here.” He stretched out full length. The old springs creaked. His solid thigh brushed against her hip and pushed her off the edge of the cushion. Her rear-end hit the floor with an indignant thump. The man possessed the manners of a wild boar and the personality to match.
She wrapped her arms around her waist, a gesture that brought his handcuffed arm right into her lap. As if she wasn’t already mortified, his fingers didn’t remain idle, but instead drummed playfully against the zipper of her shorts.
“Don’t touch me, you...animal.” She raised her hand, leaving his arm dangling in the air.
“I’m too damned tired for this crap.” He hooked her around the waist and hauled her onto the couch. With one leg wrapped across hers and his arm cradling her hip, he pinned her against his hard body. She twisted, trying to free herself from the entanglement. The more she turned, the tighter he held her. She managed to make herself aware of every inch of his rock solid body. Painfully aware.
When she gave up her struggle, he chuckled. “Much better. Now get some sleep or it will be a long night.”
If he thought she would be able to sleep like this, then he needed to have his head examined. How was she supposed to relax with his arms wrapped around her like two steel bands? How could she ignore the body heat that cocooned her like a fleece blanket? And how could she deny the strange sensations caused by his rhythmic breathing caressing her neck? Hell. With erotic reactions like this, she was the one who needed to have her head examined.
Yes, indeed. It was going to be a long night.