“You’ll beg,” he predicted with a sneering confidence that ground her teeth together. “Long and hard.”
The son of a pig!
The moment he disappeared through the vines, Margarita dragged herself up and began searching the cave. All she needed was a ragged edge, a sharp protuberance of any kind to saw through her bonds. She’d wiggled her way out of worse situations than this during SPEAR’s brutal escape and evasion training.
That was training, a nasty little voice inside her head heckled. This is for real.
As if she needed the reminder! Ignoring the scream of protest from her shoulders, Margarita rolled over to the nearest wall and fumbled behind her with numbed fingers for its surface. Panic rose in waves when she felt nothing but smooth rock. Choking with frustration, she humped and stretched and humped again, propelling herself snail-like along the floor, searching the surface behind her with desperate fingers.
She’d almost given up hope when she scraped against a small, sharp crack in the rock. Praying its flintlike edge would do the job, she pushed up on one elbow to gain leverage and went to work. Her back arched at an awkward angle. Every back-and-forth movement caused a white-hot lance of pain in her shoulders. Sweat ran in rivulets from her temples. Blood dripped onto her balled fists from wrists scraped raw by rope and stone.
Straining, grunting, sawing, Margarita struggled to keep track of the passing seconds. Her heart hammered as she listened for the thud of footsteps, but she knew she’d never hear Simon’s return over the thundering falls and her jackhammering pulse.
When the ropes finally parted, what began as a fervent prayer of thanksgiving spiraled instantly into a silent scream. For several precious moments, Margarita could only writhe on the cave floor while her abused shoulder sockets exacted their revenge. Finally, the agony subsided enough for her to sit up. Panting, she fumbled at the ropes binding her ankles. When they, too, gave, she dropped her forehead onto her knees and allowed herself one moment of sobbing relief.
Not a heartbeat later, the faint scrape of rock on rock brought her head up with a jerk. Molten fury coursed through Margarita. This time, she wouldn’t hand herself over so easily. This time, she’d have a few surprises in store for a certain one-eyed bastard.
She was gathering herself for an attack when gunfire burst out in the valley below. Her heart contracted painfully as monkeys screamed and birds flapped noisily into the sky. In almost the same instant, a shadowy figure appeared at the curtain of vines draped across the cave’s mouth.
She caught the glitter of sunlight on a gun barrel. With a feral snarl, Margarita launched herself through the vines.
Long afterward, Carlos would shudder every time he remembered the violence that suddenly erupted at the cave’s mouth.
One moment, he was feeling his way cautiously along the narrow path, searching for the entrance to the cave. The next, a burst of gunfire told him the squad he’d positioned to guard the approach to the steep track had engaged with a hostile force.
Then a dark fury exploded through vines straggling down the cliff face and catapulted into Carlos. Only the fact that he’d inched his way up the dangerous track with every sense on full alert kept him from being butted right off the path and over the sheer cliff.
In a purely self-protective move, Carlos grappled with his attacker and flung them both sideways, away from the edge of the precipice. Struggling furiously, they went down in a tangle of thrashing arms and legs. A vicious elbow dug into his windpipe. Choking, Carlos wrenched an arm free and pulled it back. His balled fist was in mid-swing when his attacker flung back a tangled mass of ebony hair and snarled a curse.
“Son of a motherless—!”
Violet eyes widened in shock. Just in time, Carlos pulled his punch. The blow slammed into her shoulder instead her jaw. With a small, helpless cry of agony, she crumpled onto his chest.
Rolling them both away from the edge of the track, Carlos scrambled to his knees. His first instinct was to gather her writhing form into his arms and pour out a thousand apologies for the brutal blow, but the soldier in him needed to secure the area first.
Shaking his head to clear it, he performed a swift mental assessment of the situation. The stutter of guns behind and below them told him his men were engaged in a full-fledged firefight. He had no idea how many enemy were coming up the path and how many might already be in the cave. Given his vulnerable position on the narrow ledge, attack was his only defense.
With a warning to Margarita to stay low, he took a firm grip on his 9 mm Beretta, threw himself through the vines, and hit the floor rolling. An instant later, he was on his feet, sweeping the cave with savage eyes. Only after he was satisfied it held no immediate threat did he jam his pistol into its holster and rush outside. His throat closed when he saw the way Margarita had curled into a fetal ball against the cliff face.
“Rita! Sweetheart!” Gently, he rolled her over. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know it was you.”
Biting down on her lower lip, she struggled to sit up. Tears streaked her dirt-smudged cheeks. Leaves and bits of debris clung to her tumbled hair and long-sleeved white shirt. When Carlos spotted the bright red blood staining her sleeves, his heart stopped.
“What did that bastard do to—”
Rock splintered a mere six inches from his face. The shot was still reverberating when Carlos threw himself forward, shielding Margarita’s body with his own. A burst of fire followed the first bullet, each one sending vicious rock shards flying through the air.
It took less than a heartbeat for him to realize these shots came not from the path below, but from the direction of the waterfall he heard rumbling in the distance beyond the cave. In a lightning reflex, he banded an arm around Margarita’s waist and half dragged, half flung her around a bend in the path. A stone outcropping protected them from the shooter momentarily.
“It’s him!” she gasped. “The escaped prisoner! He’s got the submachine gun he took from the guard.”
On his own, Carlos wouldn’t have thought twice about tackling the man. But he wasn’t on his own, and the driving necessity right now was to remove Margarita from the line of fire.
His men were strung out along the path below, fighting a ferocious rearguard action from the sound of it. The dangerous fugitive was above and closing fast. They couldn’t stay in this exposed position. That left only one option.
“We’re going over the side.”
She shot a wide-eyed glance at the steep precipice, gulped and nodded. Whipping off his belt, Carlos slapped it around her waist and slid the tongue through the buckle. A quick tug yanked it tight.
“Grab the vines to break your slide,” he ordered, wrapping the loose end of the webbing around his fist. “I’ll do the same.”
Another burst of fire plowed into the rock less than a foot away. Carlos ducked, muttered an oath that was half curse, half prayer and dragged her with him over the edge.
Their plunging descent could only have lasted seconds, but to Margarita it seemed like a lifetime. Spongy vegetation shielded their bodies from the worst of the cliff face, and Carlos’s raw strength kept them from a disastrous free fall. Somehow, he managed to lock his fist around vines that stretched like elastic bands with their weight. Just as one vine reached the breaking point, he made a frantic grab for another.
Margarita heard him grunt with the strain of hanging onto both her tether and his precarious handholds while the two of them bumped and slithered down the slope. To her disgust, she could do little to help. Her right arm dangled uselessly, still numb from the combined effects of his savage blow and hours twisted behind her back. Her left arm had tangled in the belt anchoring