At last the slope gentled enough for him to drag them both to a halt. They lay on their backs for a few seconds, panting. She couldn’t get her breath, could barely see for the sweat stinging her eyes. Twisting, she swiped her face on her sleeve and stared upward.
A multitude of green layers shielded them from observation. The thunder of the falls was the only sound that penetrated the dense stillness. His chest heaving, Carlos rolled to his feet and tugged Margarita up.
“Are you all right?”
“I will be.” She clawed at the belt cutting her in two. “Once I…can breathe…again.”
“Here, let me.”
His big hands fumbled with the buckle. When the tortuous constriction around her middle loosened, she gulped in long swallows of air.
His face grim, Carlos hitched the belt around his hips and swiped an arm across his face. For the first time, Margarita noticed he’d donned the mottled green and black of jungle fatigues. Over a similarly camouflaged long-sleeved shirt and black T-shirt, he wore a nylon vest with dozens of little pockets. Streaks of black and green face paint smudged to a muddy mask made him almost indistinguishable from the jungle around him.
No wonder she hadn’t recognized him when she dived headfirst through the vines! She’d seen him in his dress uniform dozens of times before he resigned his military commission to accept the deputy minister’s job, and in impeccable civilian attire ever since. But this was the first time she’d glimpsed the soldier in his element. He looked almost like a stranger.
Even his voice sounded different. Cold and flat, it lacked any hint of inflection. All traces of the teasing note he generally employed with her had completely disappeared. Belatedly, Margarita realized he was holding himself in rigid check.
How in God’s name did he do it? Every emotion from wild elation at having escaped to bitter self-disgust for not taking Simon down tumbled through her. Carlos apparently could mount a search-and-rescue effort, dodge a hail of bullets, plunge down a mountainside and still exercise a self-discipline that amazed and, perversely, irritated her no end.
“Stay here,” he ordered, reaching once more for a long, straggling vine. “I’m going back up to regroup my men. I’ll drop a rope down for you when we have the situation under control.”
Margarita’s eyes narrowed. If he thought she was going to sit here meekly and wait with hands folded, he’d better think again. She’d just opened her mouth to set him straight when a little splat sounded a few feet away. It was followed in the next instant by the distant crack of a rifle. Another series of splats set a feathery fern trembling just above her head.
Releasing the vine, Carlos lunged for her. No dummy, Margarita was already diving for the shelter of a rotting log.
“There!” The echo of a shout came through the canopy. “I see a flash of white.”
Within the blink of an eye, a deadly hail of bullets tore through the dense canopy of leaves. The crumbling log provided no protection at all. Hauling Margarita upright by her wrist, Carlos took off. His grip was brutal on flesh already raw and bleeding from being scraped against sharp rock, but she was in no mind to protest as they broke into a desperate run.
Bullets ripped through leaves just above their heads. Twice more, they heard shouts. Once, a scream and what sounded like the thrashing fall of a body down the mountainside behind them. Then the jungle swallowed all sounds. Ferns the size of small trees whipped at Margarita’s face and arms. Dangling vines tried to trip her. Spiky pineapple plants and tank bromeliads tore at her blouse.
By the time they reached the lower slopes, a painful stitch stabbed into her side, her wrist was bleeding again, and every breath singed her lungs. Thankfully, the underbrush thinned out enough to make the going at this level a little easier. Instead of lush plants, the jungle floor consisted primarily of fallen tree trunks, leafy ferns and layers of rotting vegetation.
Margarita knew this lack of undergrowth was due to the giant strangler figs, which began life as seeds dropped by monkeys or birds in the branches of host trees. The stranglers then sprouted roots that dropped ropelike to the ground, forming a sort of cage around their host. Their trunks shot upward and spread dense green umbrellas of leaves. In the process, these monstrous kings of the rain forest starved their host trees of light. Eventually, all that was left beneath the canopy were the rotting remains of host trees covered with luminous green mosses, ferns and flashy flowers like the orchids that clung in great clumps to the tree trunks.
Margarita had no idea how far they traveled through this dim, green gloom before Carlos at last signaled a halt. He stood silent, head up, eyes narrowed, listening intently for sounds of pursuit. At that moment, Margarita couldn’t have heard an elephant crashing through the forest over her own wheezing breath. Bending at the waist, she planted her sweaty palms on thighs that quivered like over-stretched elastic and dragged air into her aching lungs.
“I think we’ve lost them.”
The hoarse timbre of his voice drew her upright. Slanting Carlos a quick glance, she saw that sweat had plastered his black hair to his head. His chest heaved under his fatigue shirt. He, too, sucked in long gulps of air. Unaccountably pleased that he was feeling the effects of that break-neck run as much as she was, Margarita summoned a shaky smile.
“The bullets started flying back there before I could thank you for coming after me.”
“Thank me?” His head snapped around. “Thank me!”
Her grin slipped, then disappeared completely as he rounded on her. As dangerous as a panther prodded from its den and twice as furious, he stalked across the spongy carpet of vegetation.
“I don’t want your thanks.”
The sparks shooting from his black eyes set Margarita’s back up. She’d been through too much in the past twelve hours to take that tone from him or anyone else.
“Fine! You don’t want my thanks. Then I suggest you use that radio attached to your belt to call your men and arrange a rendezvous.” She turned away, intending to find some water for her parched throat. “In the meantime, I’ll…”
He planted himself in front of her, blocking the way. “There are only two things I want from you at this moment. The first is an explanation. What the hell’s going on?” he demanded, his dark gaze drilling into her. “Why did you go to the prison last night?”
Unfortunately, she couldn’t give him an explanation even if she wanted to. Like all SPEAR agents, Margarita had sworn an oath of secrecy about her membership in the elite cadre. From the thunderous expression on Carlos’s face, she guessed she’d have to do some fast talking to get him to buy the cover story she’d fabricated for the captain of the guard at the castillo.
“It’s my job to analyze the impact of the illegal drug trade on our nation’s economy, remember? This fugitive is obviously a key figure in that trade. I thought he might let something slip that would give me a clearer picture of what we’re dealing with.”
She could see Carlos wasn’t buying it. Disbelief showed clearly under the streaks of black face paint still decorating his cheeks and chin.
“Do you expect me to believe you left a dress ball to speak with a prisoner you could have interviewed just as easily the next morning?”
She tipped her chin and looked him square in the eye. “There was nothing to keep me at the ball. I was bored and decided to leave.”
The barb hit home. His jaw clenched. A vein throbbed amid the taut cords of his neck. He stared at her with such glittering intensity that Margarita felt a flutter of something close to nervousness.
This was Carlos, she reminded herself. Always in control Carlos. Much as he probably wanted to throttle her at this particular moment, he’d rein in the emotions simmering behind his scowl.
To her secret disappointment, he did.
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