The plane door thudded into its socket. Sara’s hands clenched in her lap as the flight attendant slammed down the lock.
Come on! Move!
The American Airlines 757 flight had been sitting on the runway for almost an hour, and Sara couldn’t help wondering whether she was to blame for the delay. Her muscles ached from steeling herself for a tap on the shoulder that would revoke her hard-won freedom.
The whine of the jets accelerated. She glanced toward the window and caught a flicker of her own tense reflection against the bustling backdrop of the airport. Fine, ash-blonde hair spilling down over the collar of borrowed clothing. Long-lashed amber eyes staring back anxiously amid pale, strained features. Her mouth moving silently in the glass. Please! Hurry!
As if her plea were a cue, the plane began to taxi down the runway. The cabin erupted into a cheer. Only then did Sara feel the sting of fingernails cutting into her palms. Forcing her gaze away from the window, she relaxed her hands against her thighs. But she would not feel safe until the wheels were off the ground and the plane was angling away from Bolivian airspace.
How long has it been since I felt safe? Not since she’d found out that her new fairy-tale family were not upstanding business entrepreneurs but drug dealers, their mansion built with cocaine profits, and her handsome, young husband a murderer. Not during all the weeks of hiding; or that terrible pursuit through the jungle night.
Not even after her incredible, last-hour rescue—for then had come the questions. Police. Government officials. Her own embassy. Not all of whom wished to concede that Sara Connor de Cortéz, traitor americano daughter-in-law of one of Bolivia’s most prominent families, was innocent of the charges drummed up against her.
Yesterday had come a brief reprieve when Doug Bradford, the DEA agent who had led the rescue, came to her with an offer of sanctuary and tickets on the evening flight to Miami. The two of them were still clearing customs when the tap came on her shoulder. The local authorities had more questions before Sara could leave the country.
Those questions turned out to be less concerned with the Cortéz drug empire than ensuring that Sara had no plans to file any awkward claims on the assets the Bolivian government had seized from her husband’s estate. But it was well past midnight before Sara, her chin stubbornly uptilted against the protests of the one embassy official present, had signed away in triplicate all claims, present or future, to Industrias Cortéz or the estate of one Nicolás Cortéz, deceased.
That those signatures left her penniless and homeless mattered little. There was nothing that Sara wanted to take with her from her brief sojourn in this place. No possession. No memory.
The plane was off the ground now. All around the cabin passengers were craning their necks for a last glimpse of loved ones and home. Tension eased from Sara’s shoulders, but she did not turn her head. She would not take a final glimpse of tall palms tossing their fronds above grassy fields, of wandering brown rivers sparkling gold under the morning sun and the restless sea of the jungle canopy, of lonely thatched farmhouses and quiet adobe villages.
There was a beauty that Sara had come to know and love down there, beneath the plane’s wings. There were many normal, decent human beings. But for Sara, this small Andean country she’d embraced with such joy and hope four short months ago would now forever be overlaid with memories of the terror and pain and grief that had found her there. Memories of the searing image of rage on the face of a man she’d loved. Memories of the ruined, bloody bodies of the two men who had betrayed her.
Her father-in-law, Don Luis Cortéz.
Her husband, Nicolás Cortéz.
If I could just erase it all from my mind . . . I would wipe these last months from my life as if they’d never been!
No, that was not entirely true. There was a peasant family who had offered kindness and refuge when Sara’s own countrymen had not. A small shepherd girl whose work-roughened fingers she could still feel sliding into her own. And a quiet jungle knoll where the Creator of the universe had reached down to touch his strayed child with infinite love.
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 3:17–19. The litany that had carried Sara through the last terrifying weeks settled her churning mind again. I am leaving this place as empty-handed as the people in those verses. Everything I thought I’d found here is gone. But I am not alone. . . . I was never alone. Don’t let me forget again!
Nor was she entirely without friends.
As a thump signaled the retracting of the landing gear, Sara stole a glance at her traveling companion. Like her, Doug Bradford was not availing himself of a last glance, though he’d lived in Santa Cruz longer than Sara—over five years.
Does he resent his peremptory dismissal from a post he served with such distinction?
If so, he did not show it. He’d already opened his briefcase and was flicking through a sheaf of computer readouts with an abstracted frown. Sara took advantage of his absorption to study him from under lowered eyelashes.
He had none of the careless, almost frightening, aristocratic beauty of a Nicolás Cortéz. His strong features were best characterized as “rugged,” and the uncompromising line of his mouth and certain inflexibility of his jaw made him seem older than his thirty years. His unruly brown hair was badly in need of a trim; his medium build appeared deceptively ordinary under the loose, comfortable clothing he wore. Only the narrowed gray gaze—the slow, speculative appraisal that Sara had termed his “cop” look—gave away who he was: Doug Bradford, Special Agent of the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration.
Once her enemy; now her friend. In fact, he was her only friend besides the Indian peasant family to whose jungle farm he had taken Sara for safekeeping. He had risked life and career to secure her freedom and the downfall of the Cortéz drug empire, and saying good-bye to him had been the hardest blow of leaving the country. Harder even than the prospect of landing in the United States with no money, no job, no place to go.
Then, beyond hope and expectation, he had come to Sara and asked her not to go out of his life. What had softened that cool gray gaze as he’d extended his mother’s offer of hospitality? What had been that responding surge in her own heart?
Not the turbulent emotions that had swept her away from her ordered collegiate life in Seattle and under the spell of a charismatic foreigner, Nicolás Cortéz. Sara was still too heartsore, bruised, and shell-shocked for that. But something—though perhaps no more than the first hesitant unfurling of a petal that promises spring will return to the frozen earth.
Sometimes the fig tree does bud.
“So, did I miss a spot?”
Color instantly stained Sara’s cheekbones as she realized that Doug’s practiced survey of the airline cabin had ended at her face, the suggestion of a twinkle in his eye making it clear she’d been staring too long. An upward quirk at the corner of his mouth softened as his glance dropped to her hands, which once again were clenched tightly in her lap. “Are you okay?”
“Not really. But I will be as soon as we leave Bolivian airspace. I still keep bracing myself for someone to tap me from behind and tell me it’s all been a mistake; that I’m under arrest after all.” Sara wrinkled her nose ruefully. “Silly, I know. After all, Julio and Diego and Raymundo and the others are all in jail, and everyone knows they’re guilty now.”
“Well, actually—” The amused curve of Doug’s mouth tightened instantly to a straight line as his eyes returned to the computer printout in his hand.
Sara, catching the grim note in his voice, demanded sharply, “What is it? What’s happened?”
“Bad news.” Doug passed the sheaf of paper to Sara. “An intel briefing from the office. Ramon brought it by the airport when he said good-bye.” Ramon had been Doug’s partner during the Cortéz investigation. He had managed to keep his name out of the local papers and would be staying on in Bolivia. “Seems the Cortéz still have some clout. This is a judge’s order dismissing all charges against your brothers-in-law, Raymundo and Diego.”
“But—” Sara skimmed through the printout, outraged. “That’s ridiculous! They were part of it all. They helped kill that poor boy!”
“Not by their account. According to their testimony—which changed, of course, once they had to admit that Nicolás was the one that shot Ricardo, not you—they tried to stop Nicolás from killing the boy, but he was so drunk and angry they couldn’t get to him in time. As for the cocaine, neither one was at the hacienda when we busted the place, and their names weren’t found on any incriminating documents. They’re keeping the blame focused squarely on your father-in-law’s head of security, Julio Vargas, as the one responsible for any drug dealing at Industrias Cortéz. That at least has some element of truth.”
“Truth!” Sara cried. “What about my testimony? I was there! I told the police what I saw. Raymundo and Diego already admitted they lied about the shooting, so why would a judge believe them over me? As for the drugs, maybe they kept their hands clean while Julio did the dirty work for Don Luis. But they knew well enough where their money was coming from, and they were certainly willing to do anything to keep it coming—even covering up murder. I heard them myself!”
Doug’s broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. “It’s your word against theirs; and unfortunately, there are too many people here, in and out of the legal system, who prefer to believe the Cortéz are getting a raw deal, no matter what the evidence says, and regardless of the ‘hysterical accusations’—that’s their description, not mine—of a gringa daughter-in-law.”
“So we’re declared personas non grata and run out of the country for telling the truth, while criminals like Raymundo and Diego walk away scot-free?” Sara’s fingernails were digging into her palms again. “It just isn’t fair!”
“No, it isn’t fair. But that’s the way this business goes. People who should be behind bars get off all the time. Not just here, but back in the States. If they’ve dealt enough drugs to afford a top-drawer lawyer . . .” Doug snapped his fingers. “It’s something you’ve got to learn to live with in this line of work. You just do your best to nail them the next time around. And there’s always a next time.”
He looked down at Sara’s mutinous face, and the grim line of his mouth eased. “What matters is that you’re safe now. By tonight you’ll be back on American soil, and none of the Cortéz, and not Julio Vargas, or any of their dirty associates will be able to touch you again. You can put this all behind you.”
Safe. There’s that word again!
Sara forced herself to relax, her head dropping back wearily against the headrest. Doug was right. Jailed or free, the remaining members of the Cortéz clan could not touch her now. She was on an American-owned aircraft approaching the edge of Bolivian airspace, and in a few short hours she’d be back on her own native soil, safely and permanently beyond their reach.
But the euphoric sense of escape that had come with the plane’s takeoff had evaporated.
Maybe it’ll come back when I’m actually standing on U.S. territory.
But it didn’t.
Maybe it was because of the long, jostling lines clearing Immigration, or the babble of what had to be every language on the planet. Or it could have been the view outside Miami International Airport’s plate-glass windows with its glimpses of tiled roofs beyond the warehouses and tall palms against a twilight sky that bore more of a resemblance to the country Sara had just left behind than to any other part of the U.S. she’d ever visited. Even after the temporary passport she’d been issued by the American consulate in Santa Cruz had been examined and returned and she was following Doug along the endless corridors and down the escalators to the baggage claim area, there was little to remind Sara that she was back in her own country. It seemed everyone around her was speaking Spanish.
I’m just tired. Last night had held little sleep, and her attempts to nap on the plane had been broken by meals and questions about what she wanted to drink from the flight attendants. A fresh headache throbbed at Sara’s temples as she struggled to keep up with Doug’s long strides. A feeling of displacement and exhaustion settled over her so that even Doug seemed suddenly like a stranger, frowning and moving briskly along as if he’d forgotten she was at his heels.
But as they located their designated baggage carousel, Doug turned to look at Sara. “You hanging in there?” he asked quietly. “It shouldn’t be much longer.”
He’s got to be exhausted himself, she realized. He’d stayed with Sara at police headquarters until the early hours of the morning. But if he was feeling the effects, it didn’t show in his keen gaze or in the confident, lithe carriage of his well-muscled frame. Sara, conscious of her own wilted posture and the bedraggled condition of her borrowed clothing, felt rather like a stray puppy he’d been kind enough to rescue off the street.
Restraining herself from rubbing at her temples, she straightened her shoulders. “I’m fine. Oh, look—there’s my suitcase.”
Doug leaned forward and hoisted the bag from the carousel in one smooth motion. Neither Sara nor he had much luggage. His precipitous release from duty had not allowed time for any real packing, and the single suitcase now at his feet held the few donated outfits that Laura Histed, the pastor’s wife at the International Church in Santa Cruz, had insisted on scavenging for Sara. Ellen Stevens, the Santa Cruz DEA administrative officer, would box up and ship the rest of Doug’s belongings to him on a U.S. military transport.
After retrieving his duffel bag, which he swung over one shoulder, Doug grasped the handle of Sara’s suitcase in one hand and his briefcase in the other and led the way through Customs and around a long glass wall behind which a waving crowd was waiting to greet emerging passengers. He lowered both pieces of luggage to the floor as he made a swift survey of the waiting area.
“I don’t see my mother. I told her yesterday to meet us here if she had time to meet the flight. Otherwise, we’d take the shuttle. Our flight was almost an hour late, and with the time it took to clear Immigration, if she isn’t here by now, we’d better just head out.”
He had reshouldered the duffel bag and was reaching for the suitcase when a sharp exclamation cut through the babble of the other passengers.
“Doug! There you are! I was beginning to think you’d missed the flight. Of all the—!”
The woman striding toward them, Starbucks cup in hand, was tall and thin and at first glance far too young to have a thirty-year-old son. Only as she approached did Sara see the deep-scored lines around the woman’s eyes and mouth and recognize that the auburn waves were the result of a superbly done rinse.
The older woman didn’t pause for breath as she glanced at her watch. “I’ve been pacing back and forth down here for two hours. If I’d known it was going to be this kind of wait, I’d have left you to the shuttle. I finally broke down and decided if I didn’t get a shot of caffeine, I’d keel right over. If you weren’t here when I got back, I was going to let you make your own way home.”
She smelled strongly of cigarettes and was restless enough to have imbibed a half-dozen shots of espresso. Or perhaps with MIA’s no-smoking policy, she just needed a fix of nicotine. Her eyes—not gray like Doug’s, but green—narrowed as she glanced around. “Well, now that you’re here, let’s get out of this place. It’s raining cats and dogs out there, and the forecast is that it’s only going to get worse. Where’s your luggage? Surely this can’t be all of it! Well then, let me help you get this, and we’ll get out of here.”
“Just hold it, Mother.” Doug firmly removed Sara’s suitcase from his mother’s grasp. “First things first. I’d like you to meet your house guest, Sara—” He hesitated fractionally before finishing, “—Connor. Sara, this is my mother, Cynthia Bradford.”
“Of course. Sara, it’s good to meet you.”
The uncompromising line of Doug’s mouth was back again, Sara noticed, making him even more a stranger. As Cynthia leaned forward for a brief Latino cheek-to-cheek greeting that seemed as much the cultural norm in Miami as in Bolivia, Sara felt a sudden panic. She hadn’t really had time since Doug’s offer the day before, to wonder about her prospective hostess. Somewhere in the back of her mind she’d expected . . . What had she expected? Not an arrogant matriarch, certainly, like her former mother-in-law. But perhaps an older version of the gentle, laughing woman that her own mother was in her faded childhood memories. A kindly mother-hen type, like Laura Histed, the pastor’s wife in Santa Cruz.
But not this brittle, restless woman, who was as unlike her son as any two people could be. Had Doug been mistaken about how welcome Sara would be here? Had she herself just made another big mistake?
The throbbing in her temples was growing worse, and Sara had to resist an impulse to turn and flee as Doug picked up the duffel bag and Sara’s suitcase, allowing Cynthia to take possession of his briefcase. She trailed after them to the elevator and up two levels to the parking garage. Oh God, what have I gotten myself into? I don’t even know these people—not even Doug really! What am I doing here?
“Believe it or not, I’ve been at the airport all day. I didn’t call my answering service until I got here this morning to meet last night’s flight, so I never got your message about the change. Of course, I’d already canceled a whole day of appointments. Then this rain’s had the traffic so backed up it wasn’t worth driving home before I’d have to turn around and come back. All I needed was a couple more hours sitting around waiting for an overdue flight to finish off a wasted day. Can’t any of these airlines keep to a schedule?”
Cynthia’s swift strides stopped at a full-size white van. Ornate letters scrolled Cynthia’s Interior Decorating across the side. “I brought the van because I was expecting you’d have too much luggage for the car.”
She slid open the van’s side panel, revealing a stripped-out interior behind the front bench seat. A cardboard box and rolled-up piece of carpet were its only contents. As Doug lifted the luggage inside, Cynthia spun on her heel, her sharp gaze focusing in on Sara for the first time since their brief introduction. “Honey, I just can’t believe any woman travels with just one suitcase!”
Hands on her narrow hips, the older woman looked Sara up and down, her shrewd appraisal taking in the purple stains that exhaustion had laid under Sara’s amber eyes, the strained pallor of the heart-shaped features, the grief and shock still lingering behind the long lashes. Her narrowed green gaze softened so that there was a sudden, fleeting resemblance to her son.
“Look, honey, don’t you pay any mind to my rattling on! Doug’s told me what you’ve been through! Men can be such—” She glanced over at her son and visibly modified her choice of words, “—stinkers, can’t they?”
Running a last comprehensive survey over Sara’s borrowed shirt and slacks, she added, “We’ll go shopping first thing tomorrow. Laying carpet can wait another day.”
With that pronouncement she strode around to the driver’s side of the van, leaving a stunned Sara blinking back unexpected tears. Why . . . she really is kind! All that grumbling . . . it’s just her way of thinking out loud.
“Come on, honey, you just climb on up here next to me,” Cynthia called over her shoulder as she started the ignition. As Sara moved to obey, Doug’s hand shot out to stop her. “Just a minute, Sara.”
Slamming the side door shut, he raked his fingers through his hair while letting out a tired sigh. “Look, Sara, you don’t have to do this. My mother . . . I tend to forget from one visit to the next just how high-powered she can be. If you’d prefer your own arrangements—well, I’ll understand. I just . . . I don’t want you feeling you owe me anything if you’ve got plans of your own.”
His mouth crooked into a rueful half-smile. “I know I kind of railroaded you into this. My mother isn’t the only pushy member of the Bradford clan.”
Despite the wry humor, Sara detected with incredulity an uncharacteristic anxious look in Doug’s intent gaze. He’s embarrassed. He’s worried I won’t like her!
Oddly, the crack in the DEA agent’s normally formidable composure eased Sara’s own uncertainty. Maybe she hadn’t known this man as long and well as she would like. But she would trust her life—and her future—to the kind of man he had proved himself to be. Decent. Caring. Of uncompromising integrity.
“It’s okay, Doug,” she said gently. “I like your mother. I’m looking forward to getting to know her.” A glimmer of a smile lightened her tired face. “And you.”
Doug’s shoulders relaxed, as if he had just pulled off a difficult mission, and a genuine grin brought sudden youth to his somber expression. “Okay, Sara. You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for, but come on.”