Capturing Gabriel, Romancing the Guardians, Book Three


Sample first three chapters!

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The Book of Invasions (Lebor Gebála Érénn, c. 1150), in an early compilation, contains a poem saying the Tuatha Dé Danann came to Ireland in “flying ships” surrounded by “dark clouds.” When they landed on the Iron Mountain in County Leitrim, they “brought a darkness over the sun lasting three days.” And, “The truth is not known, beneath the sky of stars, Whether they were of heaven or earth.”

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Josie Tseda shifted her aching backside. She wasn’t used to spending all day in the saddle, much less on a stiff-legged old mule. The animal constantly bounced her up and down as she followed her guide up a rough, zigzagging trail through the hills west of Cali, Colombia. She longed for her smooth-gaited mare, now in her father’s keeping back home in Canyon de Chelly, heart of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona.

Surrounded by a hot, steamy jungle of tropical trees and undergrowth that plastered her clothes to her sweaty skin, she also wished for the dry climate of her people’s homeland. She mopped her damp cheeks with her shirt sleeve and laughed softly. Who was she kidding? Despite the discomforts, her wanderer’s soul loved exploring this lush green land. Of course she also had a mission to carry out.

Glancing over his shoulder, her young, tan-skinned Colombian guide hauled back on his reins and shouted, “Hurry, señorita. Is not safe for you here. You must keep up.”

“I’m coming, Berto.” He was right, this was a dangerous part of the world, where drug cartels ruled and where rebel groups who’d long battled the Colombian government lurked in the hills and jungles. Murder and kidnapping were commonplace. She wouldn’t risk her life here if it wasn’t so important to find the man she was seeking.

Muttering, “Move it, you bag of bones,” she kicked her lagging animal into a slightly faster pace. Up ahead, Berto waited with his rifle across his lap. Seeing him glance apprehensively around, she eyed every bush and tree along the trail, fervently wishing for a more energetic mule.

They’d acquired their mounts from Berto’s cousin in a village far down the trail, after riding a rickety bus into the foothills of the Farallones de Cali, the mountains where Josie hoped to bag her quarry. The cousin, whose creased brown face showed him to be much older than Berto, had not wanted to lend out his animals, but following a low-voiced discussion between the two men, he’d finally agreed to let them have the mules.

“When will we camp for the night?” Josie asked after catching up. She needed food and rest and figured the animals did too, even if her youthful guide didn’t. Besides, evening was closing in fast with the mountains throwing everything into heavy shade.

“Soon. I know a place. Is not far.”

“Good.” She sighed tiredly. Usually, she could hike all day with a forty-pound pack on her back and still have energy left over. Now, she felt winded and exhausted. Must be the altitude, she thought.

True to his word, Berto called a halt a short time later in a small clearing not far from a gurgling creek. They unsaddled their mounts, watered them and staked them out for the night in a patch of lush grass. While Berto gathered wood and started a small campfire, Josie refilled their canteens at the stream and dug packets of dried food from her saddlebags. They brought to mind the MRE – Meal, Ready-to-Eat – packs she’d often eaten during her stint as an Army helicopter pilot in Afghanistan.

Seated on a fallen log near the fire, they ate their meal of rehydrated rations, washed down by strong Colombian coffee brewed over the fire. When done, Berto helped Josie pitch a small, red nylon tent for her use. By then, night had fallen and the forest was alive with the sounds of nocturnal animals.

“You sleep, señorita. I watch,” Berto said as Josie picked up her saddlebags, intending to place them inside the tent. No reflection on him, but safe was better than sorry in her book.

She frowned and glanced at the black wall of trees surrounding them. “Do you expect trouble?”

“No, no. Is only, how you say, caution.”

“Precaution. I understand, but you need to sleep too.”

He shrugged. “I am fine.”

Shaking her head, she said, “Wake me later. I’ll keep watch while you sleep.”

Berto shrugged, droopy black mustache crooking up at the corners. “We will see.” He motioned her toward the tent. “Buenas noches.”

Josie hesitated but decided further arguing was pointless. With a nod, she ducked into the tent and zipped it shut. She had rolled and tied her long hair at the back of her head in a traditional Navajo bun that morning to keep it from flying in her face. Removing the yarn wrapping, she brushed out the mane of straight black hair and braided it loosely to prevent it from tangling. Then she stretched out on her sleeping bag fully dressed without even kicking off her boots. If trouble were to erupt, she wanted to be dressed and ready for a fight. Tired as she was, she soon fell asleep.

Hours or maybe only minutes later, a hand roughly shook her shoulder, waking her. Then the hand groped her breast. She gasped and her eyes flew open. Above her in the darkness loomed a man’s crouched figure. Without having to think, she drove the heel of her left hand into his solar plexus and chopped him in the throat with the edge of her right hand, moves she’d learned in the Army. She rolled out of the way as he gagged and toppled sideways.

Not giving the intruder time to recover, Josie pulled her combat knife from her boot and scrambled from the open tent. She shot to her feet, glanced around and froze. A semicircle of men surrounded the campfire, facing her. Berto stood with his back turned, talking to a tall man with lean features, dressed in camouflage pants and shirt – like several of the others – and a floppy-brimmed camo hat.

Berto pivoted toward her. Surprise widened his eyes when he spotted the deadly knife in her hand. “Señorita!”

“Who are these men, Berto?” she demanded. Her gaze traveled over the motley bunch, returning to the tall man. He stood out from the rest, not only in height but with an indefinable air of authority. He was also handsome as sin.

“Señorita, I –” her guide began.

A growl of rage behind Josie alerted her. She whirled just as the man she’d temporarily put out of action burst from the tent and launched himself at her. She had no time to react. He knocked her flat, jolting her when she hit the hard ground. Landing on top of her, he knocked the wind out of her.

Somehow, she hung onto her knife. Although barely able to breathe, she jabbed the blade at the flabby underbelly of his bearded chin. The point pricked his skin, producing a thin trickle of blood that ran down his throat. He went still and watched her with fury in his black gaze.

“Get off me,” she panted, struggling for air.

He snarled between clenched teeth but didn’t move. His fetid breath made her want to gag. Then a low voice barked the same order in Spanish. The oaf on top of her shot a rebellious glance at whoever had spoken. With a hate-filled glare, he growled a refusal, twisted his head away and made a grab for her knife arm. She jerked it aside just in time.

Suddenly, another man crouched beside her. Thinking he meant to help subdue her, she whipped her blade across his chest and heard him gasp as it tore through his shirt, into his flesh. With lightning reflexes, he gripped her wrist and squeezed painfully, wrenching a sharp cry from her lips as the knife dropped from her paralyzed hand.

Staring at the man’s lean features and light, angrily slitted eyes, she recognized him as the one Berto had been speaking to when she burst from her tent. She expected him to strike back at her for wounding him but instead, he shoved the other man off her, issuing a harsh reprimand in the same low, resonant voice her attacker had refused to obey moments before. She realized he must lead this band of thieves or rebels, or whatever they were.

Wary and confused by his intervention, Josie lay there breathing hard while he rose with a grunt of pain and backed away, one hand pressed to his chest where she’d cut him. Rolling cautiously to her knees, she scanned the ground, trying to spot her knife.

“Are you searching for this, señorita?” her rescuer asked. “You do not need it.”

She looked up and saw him holding the deadly combat knife. Her stomach lurched but she threw back her shoulders. “Yeah? I guess I didn’t need to defend myself, either, when your friend came into my tent and put his hands on me, right?”

His hawk-like features took on a furious expression. Turning his head, he berated her attacker, whose hate-filled gaze raked Josie. The nasty, flabby looking oaf rubbed his throat where she’d struck him and replied hoarsely, adding a mocking laugh. Like most Indians native to the southwestern U.S., she understood enough Spanish to know he gloated over how he’d pawed her. His snide remark earned another sharp rebuke from his boss.

The tall man returned his attention to her. “I apologize for Manuel’s behavior, señorita. I told him only to wake you and bring you out here so I might speak with you.”

“Right,” she sneered, not taken in by his attempt to pacify her. “Just who are you, mister, and what do you want? I know you didn’t show up here in the middle of the night merely to talk to me.”

His lips quirked upward. “Actually I did, Señorita Tseda,” he said, startling her with his use of her name.

“How do you know . . . ?” She left the question hanging when he stepped closer. “Stay away!” she warned, pivoting sideways on the balls of her feet, arms out and ready to deliver a punishing, straight-leg kick if he didn’t keep his distance.

He halted, eyes glittering in the firelight. “Foolish woman,” he said, shaking his head. Then he turned and walked to the fallen log, beyond which Josie spied a shadowy line of horses and mules. Collapsing heavily on the log, he called to Berto and issued a curt demand in Spanish.

“Sí, Señor Gabriel,” the guide replied.

“Gabriel! Gabriel Valdez?” Josie burst out, not believing her ears. Had she just knifed the man she’d been sent to find and escort to Arizona?

He looked up and smiled grimly while wiping her blade on his ripped, bloody shirt. Tucking the knife into his boot, he replied, “Yes, Señorita Tseda, I am he, the very one you have been asking for all over Cali.”

“Oh my God! I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I would have if you had given me a chance.” He went silent when Berto ran over and squatted at his feet, setting down a red first aid kit like the one Josie had purchased for her trek into the mountains. Maybe it was the same one. The young Colombian, who was clearly well acquainted with Valdez, helped him unbutton his shirt and ease it off.

When she saw the red gash across Valdez’s lower chest, Josie bit her lip. Blood ran down his abdomen and stained his camo pants with dark, wet patches. She swallowed a lump of regret.

“Let me help,” she said hoarsely. “I was in the U.S. Army. I learned a lot about patching up wounds.”

Valdez studied her, deciding if he dared trust her, she realized. After what she’d done, she couldn’t say she blamed him. He surprised her by motioning for her to approach. She rubbed her sore wrist and walked over to him, noticing he’d removed his hat, allowing her to see his eyes were mossy green. Then she took in his wavy black hair and sternly carved features. Their bold strength fascinated her.

A deep voice boomed out behind her, ordering her to halt. She whirled to find a man striding toward her. Although not as tall as Valdez, he was still a lot taller than her and barrel-chested. His angry, threatening glower almost made her reach for her missing knife before Valdez spoke. Calling the man Javier, he told him to relax, she had his permission to come near. This didn’t set well with the burly fella, judging by his disgusted snort, but he halted.

“You wished to help, señorita?” Valdez said.

She hesitated, reluctant to turn her back on Javier, but she concluded he wouldn’t lay a hand on her without his boss’s say so. Pivoting to face Valdez, she encountered his questioning gaze, nodded mutely and dropped to her knees to examine his wound. Fortunately, the long gash looked worse than it was. Her knife hadn’t cut very deep. After cleaning away the excess blood and applying antibiotic ointment, Josie helped Berto pad the wound and wrap a gauze bandage around Valdez’s midriff.

All the while, she was aware of his musky male scent and the warm, leanly muscled flesh beneath her hands. The combination produced a heady effect on her senses, making her breathing quicken, her stomach flutter and her palms sweat. She couldn’t remember ever being so disturbed by a man.

Finished with their task, she and Berto packed the first aid supplies into the plastic case. The guide rose with the case in hand and Josie also started to rise, but Valdez stopped her, laying a hand on her shoulder. She inhaled sharply and met his probing gaze, wary of what he might say or do.

“Now, señorita, tell me why you have been so determined to find me.”

She glanced around at the watching men. Javier had moved to stand near Berto, who was packing away the first aid kit in her saddlebags. The young guide understood some English. Did any of the others? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t risk anyone, even Berto, finding out why she’d come looking for Valdez.

She shook her head. “I can’t tell you. Not here with all of them listening.”

Valdez cocked a black eyebrow and lifted his hand from her shoulder, triggering her soft sigh of relief mingled oddly with regret. “None speak English except Berto and, as you must know, his knowledge of your language is very limited.”

Josie pushed to her feet, stepped back and crossed her arms. “Maybe so, but I can’t take the chance. I must speak to you in private.”

He scowled, black brows locking above his long, aristocratic nose. “If you think to lure me into your tent so you can attack me with another weapon, puta, it will not work.”

“What!” Knowing he’d just called her a dirty name, she jammed her fists on her hips and bent toward him, glaring. “Listen, you prick, I flew down here to find you as a favor to a friend. To deliver a message, not to kill you or be insulted.”

Valdez clenched his beard-stubbled jaw. Rising slowly, he stepped forward, forcing her to straighten and back up. A head taller than her five-foot-three, he towered over her, his broad shoulders and sleekly muscled chest in her face. Struggling to ignore that manly expanse, she lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes at him.

“Little one, you try my patience,” he gritted. “Give me this message you were sent to deliver. Then go home.”

“Don’t call me little, mister!” Josie blazed. She’d fought and beaten macho men before; she refused to let him intimidate her. “And I can’t go home without . . . .” She almost said without him but caught herself in time. Sighing, she said, “Look, can we just take a walk? Far enough so no one can hear.” She jerked her head toward Berto, who now stood watching and listening. “Then I’ll say what I came to say and you . . . you can decide what you want to do.”

He tilted his head, considering her. “Very well. Give me a moment.” He called to Javier, and spoke briefly. The other man nodded and sauntered over to stand near her again – to watch her – while Valdez walked to the string of animals.

A horse neighed and stomped, followed by irritated muttering. Valdez returned a moment later, mouth set in a grim line as he slipped into a fresh, russet brown shirt, reminding Josie of the pain she’d caused him. She guiltily bit her lip again as he buttoned the garment. Leaving it open at his throat, he faced her.

“Shall we?” he invited, gesturing toward the darkness beyond her tent.

Nodding stiffly, she crossed the clearing with him. When they walked into the black night, he took hold of her arm, making her jump. He laughed softly.

“Do not be afraid, señorita. I only wish to save you from tripping in the dark.”

“You don’t need to. I’ve got eyes like a cat.” She no more than said it when her foot caught on a snag. She would have fallen if he hadn’t steadied her.

“You were saying?” He didn’t laugh but she could tell he wanted to.

“Okay, you made your point,” she said, annoyed at herself more than at him.

They walked on, moving cautiously. When Valdez halted, the small campfire was only a dim glow behind them. “This is far enough,” he said, releasing her arm. “So, what is so secret that none of my men can know?”

Nervous now that the moment had come, Josie rubbed her hands up and down her pant legs and cleared her throat. “The . . . the message I bring is from Lara Flewellen, the new High Guardian.”

Valdez emitted a gasp that turned into a growl. His hands clamped around her arms like shackles, cutting into her flesh, driving a cry of pain from her lips. “What did you say?” he demanded, his tone as hard and sharp as a steel blade.

“Let go,” she ground out between clenched teeth. “You’re hurting me!” She tried to twist free but he held on, although he did loosen his hold slightly.

“What do you know of Guardians?” he barked in the same threatening tone. He gave her a hard shake, making her bite her tongue. “Tell me!”

Tasting blood, she snarled furiously and tried to knee him in the groin but missed, striking his rock-hard thigh instead. “I’m not telling you anything, asshole, until you turn me loose!”

He spouted a mouthful of Spanish swear words but he let her go. Sighing, she rubbed her throbbing arms.

“Very well, speak,” Valdez ordered.

She wanted to tell him to go to hell, but that wouldn’t accomplish her goal. “As I said, I’m here to pass on Lara’s message and –”

“Wait. Why do you call her the new High Guardian?”

“Because the old one, her uncle, is dead. He was killed in a car wreck a few months ago. Evidence showed his car was tampered with.”

“Madre de Dios!” He sounded hoarse with shock.

“Lara was with him and was also badly hurt in the crash.” Hearing him mutter under his breath, Josie wished she could see his expression, but he was only an inkier black shape in the darkness.

“And why does she trust you to bring me this information?”

Josie fumbled for words. “It . . . it’s kind of a long story. See, an old army buddy of mine saved her from the Hellhounds. Uh, that’s what she calls the ones who murdered her uncle and tried to kill her. She said the name comes from some old myth about a dog that guards the gates of Hell.”

“Sí, I have read of the beast. It is named Cerberus in the Greek stories.”

“Right. Anyway, Conn, my friend, needed a refuge for Lara. He asked me for help, and I brought the two of them to a safe place. Later, another Guardian, Michaela Peterson, showed up. She said you two know each other. She’s with another army buddy of mine. He rescued her when she was captured by one of the Hellhounds.”

“You have many army buddies, perhaps too many to believe.”

“Oh, yeah?” she huffed. “Maybe you don’t know the truth when you hear it.”

“No? Or is it that your story is all a lie meant to trick me into trusting you?”

“What! Why would I come all this way to do that?”

“I think because you are one of these Hellhounds.”

Stunned by his accusation, Josie exploded. “You ungrateful SOB! I ought to –”

With no warning, he grabbed her by the waist and slung her over his shoulder, jarring a shriek out of her. Her braid fell nearly to the ground, a heavy weight dragging on her head.

“What are you doing? Put me down!” Struggling to break his steely hold on her legs, she furiously pounded his back. He ignored the blows and started walking.

“I said put me down, you mother –”

He delivered a stinging slap to her rump. “Quiet, bruja! Or I will wash your mouth out with soap as you deserve.”

She wanted to hurl cuss words at him but clamped her teeth together and fumed in silence. Soon, she couldn’t speak as he strode along bouncing her on his shoulder, knocking the air from her lungs with no regard for her or the risk of tripping as she had done earlier. By the time they arrived back in camp, she could barely breathe.

Valdez dumped her on the ground by her tent. She landed in a painful heap, a small rock digging into her hip. He stood over her, wearing a menacing scowl.

“Get in there,” he ordered imperiously, pointing at the tent, “and sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day.”

Reluctantly obeying, she turned and crawled into the tent. She zipped it shut with trembling fingers, ashamed to admit the bastard had frightened her. What did he mean tomorrow would be a long day? Did he plan to beat her into submission, to make her say she was one of the Hellhounds? It wouldn’t work, because it wasn’t true.

The fool! He hadn’t even given her a chance to tell him her main reason for coming here, that she was supposed to fly him to safety. All he’d done was accuse her and manhandle her, making her so darn mad she’d wanted to punch him in the mouth. She didn’t take that kind of crap from any man. Furious, she considered trying to escape but immediately dismissed the idea. She’d made a promise to Lara and would not break her word.

The night had grown cool. Shivering, Josie scooted into her sleeping bag and curled on her side. Sleep seemed impossible, but as she rehashed everything that had happened between her and the tall Colombian, her eyelids drooped and she succumbed to her need for rest.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

“Señorita? Señorita, you are awake?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m awake, Berto,” Josie called groggily from her tent. Jeez, it was still dark. She glanced at her glow-in-the-dark watch. It read 4:30 a.m. No wonder she felt like she hadn’t slept more than a few minutes,

“Okay, I tell Señor Gabriel. He say you come eat. We go soon.”

“Go where?” Hearing no reply, she maneuvered painfully from her sleeping bag. As she’d predicted, her thighs and bottom ached from yesterday’s ride, and other parts were tender where Valdez and that oaf Manuel had manhandled her. Fumbling around in the dark, she managed to unzip the tent and stick her head out. She half expected Valdez or one of his goons to be standing there, waiting to grab her, but seeing none of them nearby, she breathed slightly easier.

Most of the men squatted around the low-burning campfire, forking up food and slurping coffee from aluminum plates and cups. Valdez stood with a cup in his hand near their staked out mounts, talking with Javier, who appeared to be his right-hand man.

Wondering if he intended to send her back down the trail with Berto or beat her as she’d feared, Josie crawled from the tent and pushed stiffly to her feet. Valdez turned his head and eyed her, showing not a trace of emotion. She glared at him, letting him know she wasn’t about to forgive him for mistreating her. He looked away and called to Berto, instructing him to dish up breakfast for her.

“Sí, señor.” The young man jumped up from his spot by the fire. Grabbing another plate, he spooned food from a pan hanging over the low flames and motioned Josie to come and get it.

She walked cautiously toward him, gaze shifting around the men who watched her, some curiously, others with disdain or outright hatred in the case of Manuel. Berto pointed to the log where they’d sat eating supper only hours before, which seemed like days ago.

“Sit, señorita. Please.”

She did as he said but stared hard at him, making clear she’d guessed his role in her present situation. She’d hired him to lead her to Valdez. He’d done that all right, but she hadn’t expected to end up a prisoner. Looking shamefaced, he handed her the plate and brought her a cup of steaming coffee, then hunkered down to finish eating with the other men, who Josie studiously ignored.

The strong coffee energized her and, although she had no appetite, she forced down the greasy powdered eggs and some kind of salted meat she’d been served. She needed the nourishment for whatever Valdez had in mind for her. While eating, she shot a glance over her shoulder to where she’d last seen him. He wasn’t there, and a swift scan of the campsite didn’t reveal him.

Meanwhile, the men finished their breakfast, rinsed off their utensils in the nearby creek and stowed them away. Then they started saddling their mounts. She kept waiting for their overbearing leader to appear and dole out her punishment for daring to stand up to him, but he didn’t. Instead, Berto took her empty plate and cup to wash. When he returned, she rose and caught his sleeve. He nearly jumped out of his skin at her touch.

“I need to . . . you know,” she said, waving her hand at the bushes surrounding the small clearing, which had begun to lighten with approaching dawn.

The young man’s eyes widened. He swallowed hard, mustache bobbing. “Señorita, I-I do not know –”

“I will see to the señorita, Berto,” Valdez said in a smooth-as-honey tone behind Josie, making her spin around.

“No! I don’t want you to . . . .” She couldn’t get the words out.

“To escort you into the trees?” he supplied, lips twitching.

She narrowed her eyes, riled by his obvious amusement. Her face burned. “Yes!” she ground out.

“But I insist, my dear.” With that, he caught her elbow and urged her toward the woods. Silently cursing him and his watching followers, she let him lead her to a clump of tropical ferns growing between two giant palm trees. He pointed to the larger of the two. “You will find privacy beyond that tree. I will wait here. Do not go far and watch where you step. There are snakes and other things you would not care to meet.”

His mention of snakes made her skin crawl. She had encountered sidewinders and other rattlers in her homeland, vipers and even cobras in Afghanistan. She’d learned long ago to give the slithering critters a wide birth, but how was she to see a snake here among the dense foliage? Glad she wore high riding boots, she glanced at Valdez, seeing his lips twitch again. That’s all it took to stiffen her spine.

Gathering her courage, she walked cautiously into the thick ferns. She stopped behind the tree her captor had pointed out and carefully studied the area. Seeing no sign of movement, she quickly relieved her urgent need, straightened her clothes and retreated from the lush greenery.

Valdez stood waiting in a hipshot pose, arms casually crossed. She shot him a haughty glare but didn’t resist when he lightly gripped her elbow again. Neither spoke until they neared the smothered campfire. Stomach churning with dread of what lay in store, Josie halted, freed her arm from his grasp and faced him.

“What are you going to do with me?” she demanded, hands on her hips.

He shrugged. “You have left me no choice but to take you with me.”

She frowned. “Take me with you where?”

“Up there.” He pointed to the mountain peak to the west, an intimidating silhouette in the gray dawn light.

“Are you crazy? No way am I climbing that mountain.”

He laughed. “Do not worry, the animals will do most of the climbing.”

“Don’t you laugh at me!” Josie fired back. “And I’m not going up there. I came here to find you and deliver a message, not hide out on a frozen mountaintop.”

“You will go where I say you go,” he said, all trace of humor gone. He reached for her arm, but she yanked it away and stumbled backward. “Be careful, little fool!” he shouted, pointing behind her.

Too late, she realized she teetered on the edge of the smothered campfire. Arms flailing, she fought to regain her balance. She shrieked in fear just as he grabbed her by the waist and hauled her to safety against his hard chest. She gasped and locked gazes with Gabriel Valdez’s grayish green eyes. They held anger and . . . concern? For her?

“Idiota! The coals are still burning hot.”

“I-I know. Thank you for catching me.” Shaking in reaction to her close call, she clung to him, arms wrapped around him. Suddenly realizing her position, she slipped her hands between them and tried to push him away, forgetting his wound.

His grimaced at her touch and hastily stepped back. Mouth set in a white line, he held her at arm’s length.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Oh no? I think maybe you did.” Moving to the side, he gripped her arm and started to lead her to the saddled mounts.

“No! I won’t go!” She dug in her heels, resisting with all her might.

Halting, Valdez said, “You will go with me, Josie Tseda. You have no more choice in the matter than I do.” Then he signaled Javier forward.

* * *

Coming to a bend in the trail, Gabriel glanced over his shoulder at his prisoner. Third in the line of riders, with Javier leading her mule, she rode with her hands tied to the pommel of her saddle and feet to the stirrups. Meeting his gaze, she glared at him murderously. He suppressed a grin to avoid infuriating her more and faced forward.

She’d fought ferociously while being secured to the saddle, punching, kicking and biting, snarling like a wild thing the whole time. Javier, who could handle most anybody, had needed help from another man to subdue her. Gabriel admired the woman’s spirit but did not trust her. The story she had told about Hellhounds and her army buddies conveniently saving Guardians was too farfetched to believe.

How had she learned about the Guardians and that he was one of them? Did she know what they guarded? He meant to pry the answers out of her but not until they reached safety. He was a hunted man, on the kill lists of drug traffickers and corrupt officials, as well as the Farc, Marxist guerrilleros who infested the Colombian jungles. His only refuge lay in the Páramo, the cold, inhospitable heights above the tree line. Once there, he would find out one way or another who Josie Tseda really was and why she’d sought him out. He must in order to protect himself and his followers.

The woman was an enigma. Despite her fierce display, she was a small, delicate female, soft to the touch when she’d clung to him earlier. Her copper coloring, high cheek bones and femininely squared jaw revealed Indian blood, as did her long raven hair and huge, expressive brown eyes. Which norteamericano tribe did she belong to and how had such a petite woman qualified for the United States Army? He was fairly certain she’d spoken the truth about that at least. She was well trained in fighting skills judging by how she’d handled herself last night and while being secured on the mule.

He hoped she would open up and tell him the truth. The thought of using force to make her talk went against everything he believed in, but if that was the only way, he’d do it. Next to putting an end to drug trafficking in his native Cali and one vicious man in particular, protecting the ancient scroll he had vowed to guard was his mission in life. No woman, no matter how lovely and spirited, came before his sworn duty.

Brushing aside such concerns for now, Gabriel concentrated on watching the trail ahead and the heavy foliage on both sides, where his enemies might lie in wait, ready to gun down him and his men. Soon, they would reach the cloud forest, where ground-hugging fog offered concealment but also made it harder to spot a trap. Gut clenching, he hoped to pass through the danger zone without losing any men, or the woman.

Hazardous as the cloud forest was, it also held misty beauty. Would she notice and enjoy the rare sights, or was she too angry to appreciate them?

* * *

Josie was in so much pain that she had to bite her tongue to keep from crying out. Every step the mule took jostled her bottom and thighs, and she couldn’t even shift in the saddle because her feet were bound tightly to the stirrups. So tightly that they’d gone numb. She doubted she’d be able to stand when her ruthless captor stopped for a break. If he ever did.

Trying to distract herself, she thought of her friend, Dev Medina. He should be safely back in the States by now. Dev had accompanied her to Colombia, insisting it wasn’t safe for a woman alone. His implication that she couldn’t take care of herself had rankled, but she’d been grateful for his presence during her hunt for Valdez in Cali, the sprawling city where the Colombian formerly lived. They’d ventured into some seamy areas where no woman ought to be caught alone.

She managed a rueful smile, recalling Dev hadn’t trusted Berto, thinking it too convenient for the kid to suddenly show up at their hotel, claiming he knew where to find Señor Valdez. But after a week of asking questions and pursuing dead-end leads, Josie had been desperate to locate her quarry. Deciding to take the risk, she’d hired Berto as her guide and told Dev to go home. He’d argued of course, but she’d taken advantage of his weak spot, Michaela, the Guardian he had rescued from the clutches of a deranged Hellhound in Galveston, Texas. The statuesque blonde had become Dev’s ladylove along the way, and Josie knew he worried that she might be in danger.

Michaela was staying with Josie’s father, with no one else to protect her should the Hellhounds discover where she was hiding. Pressing that point, it hadn’t taken too long to convince Dev to catch a plane for home after seeing her and Berto off on the bus into the foothills. He’d felt bad about leaving her, but she’d given the big bear a hug and ordered him to go take care of his woman.

She’d been right to do so. No matter what happened, she did not want to be responsible for putting Dev in harm’s way. As a chopper pilot, she’d saved his butt too many times in Afghanistan to get him killed now.

Her mule vaulted up a particularly steep rise on the trail, jolting Josie more than usual. Excruciating pain shot through her tender parts. This time she couldn’t swallow an agonized gasp. Javier threw her a glance over his shoulder. Valdez drew rein and turned in his saddle to study her. She wasn’t quick enough to hide her grimace. Swinging his horse around, he walked the animal past Javier and halted beside her.

“You are in pain. Why did you not say something?”

She narrowed her eyes in resentment. “So you and your pack of wolves could laugh at me? Never!”

He shook his head. “No one is laughing now, certainly not me. You bring unneeded suffering upon yourself.”

“Oh yeah? You’re the one forcing me to ride up a steep trail on this miserable, stiff-legged old mule.”

Scowling, Valdez studied her mount for a moment then sighed and dismounted, saddle leather creaking. He stepped to Josie’s left and began to untie the rope binding her foot to the stirrup.

“What are you doing?”

“Is it not obvious? I am releasing you.” He didn’t bother looking up as he spoke. Finished freeing her numb left foot, he walked around the mule and untied her right foot then reached to free her hands.

“Now what?” she asked as the last rope fell away.

His lips crooked into a half-smile. “Now you step down, Señorita Tseda.”

Josie frowned. “I can’t. My hands and feet are numb from being tied so tight.”

He glowered at Javier, who sat silently observing, and reprimanded him for binding her too tightly. The other man lowered his head and muttered a reply.

Valdez turned his attention back to Josie. “Javier should have been careful not to cut off your circulation. Perhaps if you had not fought so hard –”

“Hey! You’d fight too, if somebody tried to hogtie you.”

Arching black eyebrows, he said, “I do not know this hogtie and I think I do not wish to know. Come down now. I will help you.” He grasped her by the waist and lifted her off the mule, trying to be gentle, she could tell, but even so she uttered a strangled cry and collapsed against him. Her feet and hands tingled painfully with the returning flow of blood, but what really hurt was the raw flesh along her inner thighs and private places. Pride was the only thing that prevented her from whimpering like a child.

Valdez scooped her up, drawing a surprised gasp from her lips. He issued an order to his men and they dismounted while he carried her to a spot at the side of the trail. Pausing, he called to Berto and added a few curt words. A moment later the young man trotted over with a folded blanket and laid it on the ground where his boss indicated.

Josie didn’t know exactly when her arms had circled Valdez’s neck, but she was very aware of his male scent and the hard wall of his chest against her side. When he lowered her onto the blanket, she experienced a sense of loss as he separated from her.

Crazy woman! He’s an arrogant bully who kidnapped you. You can’t let yourself feel anything but anger toward him.

He stood and walked to his horse, returning shortly with a canteen. Uncapping it, he bent and handed it to her. She nodded, disturbed by her unwanted reaction to him and unable to speak. Leaving her to rest and drink her fill, he sauntered over to the other men, several of whom had taken the opportunity to sprawl in the shade.

Covertly watching him from beneath the screen of her lashes, Josie couldn’t help admiring his tall, sinewy build and fluid grace. He sat near Javier and Berto, leaning against the trunk of a convenient palm tree with his long legs crossed at the ankles. Removing his hat, he raked a hand through his rumpled black hair and replaced the hat. He carried on a casual conversation in Spanish with his companions and laughed at some comment from Javier that made Berto scowl and turn red, plainly embarrassed.

Javier slung his burly arm around the young man’s head, knocking his hat off, and ruffled his hair. At that point, Josie noticed a resemblance between the two and it dawned on her that they were likely father and son. She might have seen it before if she hadn’t been so wrapped up in her alarming situation . . . and in ogling their leader, she admitted.

Valdez only allowed them a few minutes’ rest. As the men mounted up, he strode over to where she sat. Wondering how she was going to survive the rest of the day in the saddle, she struggled to her feet and bent stiffly to retrieve the blanket.

“Let me have that,” Valdez said, taking the blanket from her. “Come, I will make you as comfortable as possible.” He held out his hand and waited for her to take it. When she hesitantly placed her much smaller hand in his, he didn’t lead her to the mule, her beast of torture. Instead, he steered her toward his sleek bay gelding, which looked to be at least sixteen hands high.

“Wait, I can’t ride him,” Josie said, hanging back, trying to tug her hand free. “He’s too tall.”

Chuckling, he refused to let go. “Do not worry, señorita, I will not let you fall off Cezar’s back.”

“What? Are you saying I’m to ride with you?” She shook her head in disbelief.

“That is precisely what I am saying. It will be far more comfortable for you than bumping along on that wretched creature.” He tilted his head toward the mule. “Do you not think so?”

“No! I don’t think any such thing. I’m not riding with you.” She tossed her head indignantly and stuck out her hand. “Give me the blanket. I’ll pad my saddle with it and I’ll be fine.”

A muscle ticked along his square jaw. “You are stubborn and full of pride, but you will not win this battle, chiquita.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Josie slumped against Valdez, sitting crosswise in his lap. His arm supported her back, his hand curved around her waist. Beneath her, the folded blanket cushioned her sore bottom.

Infuriated by his highhanded decree that she ride with him, she’d resisted when he hoisted her onto his horse. He’d gripped her leg to prevent her from jumping off and, stepping up behind her, had easily subdued her with his iron-hard arm around her midriff.

“You will only exhaust yourself by fighting me,” he’d told her.

Knowing he was right, she had stopped struggling but sat rigidly erect at first. She’d lasted maybe a half hour before the constant motion of the horse and her complaining muscles forced her to relax. Later, they’d stopped briefly again to rest the horses and mules and eat a lunch of jerky and water. Except for that, Valdez had kept them moving all day.

The temperature steadily dropped as they climbed higher and minutes ago they’d entered a belt of fog, obscuring visibility to a few feet ahead. The damp, cool air raised goose bumps on Josie’s skin, making her shiver and hug herself.

“Welcome to the cloud forest, my dear,” Valdez said, rubbing her arms through the cotton material of her shirt. She thought of pushing his hands away but they were big and warm and his touch gentle.

“The cloud forest? You mean it’s always like this?”

“Sí, the clouds hang low to the ground at this altitude. Because the air is so moist, it’s perfect for moss and epiphytes to grow.”

She wrinkled her brow. “Epiphytes? I hope they’re not snakes.”

He laughed softly. “No, they are plants that grow upon other plants, such as trees. They do not need soil to root. They draw moisture and nutrients from the air and rain without harming their host plant. Orchids are the best known epiphytes. Look carefully and you will see many varieties.”

Josie peered into their misty surroundings. Sure enough, she spotted several brightly colored orchids peeking out from moss-draped tree branches. “So pretty,” she murmured.

“Sí, there is great beauty here and in all the forest, what is left of it. Much has been lost to land developers, mining interests and the like.” Valdez sighed and grimly added, “But sooner or later they will pay. In Colombian folklore, the forest and the animals it shelters are protected by Madremonte, mother of the forest. You would call her Mother Nature. It is said she does not forgive those who bring destruction to her realm.”

Josie tilted her head back and gave him a fish-eyed glare. “Yeah? How does this Madremonte feel about guys who kidnap innocent women in her realm?”

He grinned, slashing grooves framing his mouth. “I cannot say, Señorita Tseda. I have never before kidnapped an innocent woman.” He laughed low in his throat. “Nor do I believe I have done so today.”

“Oh! You, you skunk!” Straightening abruptly, she jerked away from him. Her sudden, violent movement startled the horse, making the bay shake its head and dance sideways, rocking Josie forward. She started to topple off and yelped in fright. Valdez’s arm shot out to catch her below her breasts. She gasped and unconsciously locked her hands around that steely band as he hauled her safely back against him.

At the same time, he mouthed a flow of soothing Spanish to the horse. Once the gelding settled down, Josie grew conscious of her captor’s arm beneath her breasts and how his hand cupped the side of one full mound. Then she realized her own hands still clutched his arm in a death grip. She instantly released him but he did not loosen his hold or remove his hand from her breast.

“You can let go of me now,” she said.

“And allow you to fall and be injured should you become angry again?” He tisked in disapproval. “No, no, that I cannot do.”

“Mister, either move your hand or lose some skin,” she gritted, fingernails poised over his bare wrist.

He arched his brows in challenge but lowered his hand to her waist. “You are una pequeña tigresa, a little tigress full of fire and fight. It would be my pleasure to tame you if I could but trust you.”

“You and who else, tough guy? And I told you not to call me little.”

He shrugged. “But you are petite. Is this a bad thing?”

“It is when all the other women in my family are tall. Makes me the runt of the litter,” she grumbled. Why she told him that, she didn’t know.

“I see. But surely you are the most beautiful one in your family,” he murmured, adding a playful grin.

Caught off guard by his flattery, Josie stared into his moss-green eyes. He thought her beautiful, even in her disheveled condition? Her heartbeat quickened and a warm flush crept up her throat into her face. Then reality struck like a jet of icy water.

Whoa there, girl. He’s just trying to soften you up so he can worm whatever information he thinks you’re hiding out of you. Scowling at the thought, she accused, “First you kidnap me, then you sweet-talk me. What’s your game?”

“I play no game,” he said sharply, all playfulness gone. “You are the one who came seeking me, invading my space as you Americans say. What is your game?”

“My game is to keep my promise to Lara. Which I can’t do stuck on this mountain, and when you won’t even let me finish telling you why she sent me here.” She crossed her arms and turned her face away, staring into the fog-shrouded trees.

After a brief silence, Valdez said, “Very well, tell me the rest now.”

Josie hesitated, unwilling to open up to him just to be shot down again. But she had to try. Sighing, she brushed back strands of hair that had escaped her braid, tucked them behind her ear and met his gaze. “All right, but you have to agree to hear me out.”

He nodded. “I give you my word.”

She clasped her hands in her lap. Choosing her words carefully, she said, “As I told you last night, Lara and Michaela both narrowly escaped the Hellhounds. Michaela is staying with my father in . . . in a secret location. My friend Dev, who flew down here to help me search for you, headed back yesterday to make sure Michaela is safe. Meanwhile, Lara and Conn, my other friend, were preparing to leave for New York when I left to come down here. They were planning to contact another Guardian. She’s a nurse. I . . . I don’t recall her name, but you must know her, don’t you?”

“Do I?” His closed expression revealed nothing.

Frowning, she continued, “Lara is certain you and the others are being hunted by the Hellhounds, and she’s afraid they will track her down eventually. She needs all of you to stand with her against them.”

“Ah, now we come to the reason you have sought me out. You are to convince me to join her and bring a certain item with me, no doubt,” he said dryly, with a lift of one dark eyebrow.

Choosing to ignore his stinging tone, Josie nodded. “Yes, and I’m to fly you there to meet her.”

His eyes widened. “You are a pilot?”

She grinned at his astonishment. “Sure am. I flew helos in Afghanistan. That’s how I met Conn and Dev. They were Special Forces. I plucked them and their pals out of some tight situations. Now I’ve got my own whirlybird and a crop dusting business.”

“I see. And you flew your helicopter all the way down here from the States?”

“Yeah, with a few stops to refuel, of course.”

“Of course. And where is this bird of yours now?”

“It’s stashed somewhere safe.” She refused to confide the location until he trusted her to take him to Lara. Trust worked both ways. She couldn’t risk him sending one of his men to move the Firebird, her pride and joy, to where she’d never find it. The helo was her ticket home, not to mention her way of making a living.

He narrowed his eyes and studied her doubtfully for a moment. Then he looked away, evidently thinking over everything she’d said. A short while later, the trail took a sharp turn. The sound of rushing water caught Josie’s ear and soon a silvery, fast moving stream became visible through the misty fog, making her tense.

“Are we crossing that?” she asked, voice rising.

“Sí, but the river is narrow and not very deep this high in the mountains. We will have no trouble.”

“I hope not. I can’t swim.” Drowning was her greatest fear, even more so than being snakebit. With good reason.

Valdez chuckled. “No swimming is necessary, but if it was, Cezar would do it, not you or I.” They reached the river’s edge and he clucked his tongue, urging the horse forward. The bay stepped into the surging stream.

Heart pounding frantically, Josie clutched the saddle horn with a sweating palm. Unknowingly, she curled the fingers of her other hand into Valdez’s shirt.

He gave her a light squeeze. “Be at ease, chiquita. There is no need to fear.”

“Easy for you to say,” she said. However, she soon realized he was right. The narrow river was really nothing more than a creek at this point in its descent from the snowcapped mountains. Although the water ran swiftly, it reached only to the gelding’s knees. Cezar easily crossed to the far bank. Still, Josie breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped onto dry land.

“There, you see, nothing to it,” her captor said in an amused tone.

Her gaze zoomed to his face. Seeing his lips twitch, she snapped, “You think it’s funny that I’m afraid of drowning?”

Sobering, he shook his head. “No, but I do wish you had trusted my word when I said there was no danger.”

“Trust is a two way street, señor,” she snapped, voicing her earlier thought.

Mouth hardening into a thin line, he dipped his head in agreement. “So it is, Señorita Tseda. Gracias for reminding me of that.” His light eyes bored into hers, making clear he certainly did not trust her.

Her breath hitched. Dreading his plans for her when they reached their destination, she chose not to goad him any further. Clearly he didn’t believe a word she’d told him and she could guess the methods he might use to force his idea of the truth from her. She turned her gaze aside and they reverted to their previous silence.

The winding trail narrowed as they climbed out of the cloud forest. At times they overlooked dizzying drops past the clouds to the valley below, making Josie’s heart pound once more, but she gritted her teeth and refused to show fear in front of Valdez again. He and his men seemed perfectly at ease. Their surefooted mounts negotiated the steep path as if born to it, and after a while Josie relaxed, trusting them, if not the riders.

With the passage of hours and the constant motion of the horse, she grew drowsy, finding it harder and harder to stay awake. Finally, she gave up the fight.

* * *

Gabriel studied the woman asleep in his arms. He had tucked his blanket around them both a while ago to ward off the high country cold. Her face nestled against his chest. Lashes the same raven hue as her lustrous hair fanned out across tawny cheeks tinted rose by the chilly air. She looked young and vulnerable, so different from the fierce demeanor she exhibited when awake.

How much of her story was true and how much a lie to ensnare him? Was Malcolm Flewellyn, the venerable High Guardian, really dead? Had Malcolm’s niece Lara taken his place and sent this unlikely emissary in search of him? Or was she one of the evil ones she called Hellhounds?

Scowling, Gabriel knew he dared not trust her, as she had unwittingly reminded him. He needed a way to determine if she spoke the truth and concluded force wasn’t the answer. She was such a feisty, strong-willed little thing that he feared she would resist to the end, and the thought of hurting her sickened him. Perhaps there was a better way.

He was strongly attracted to her and sensed she felt the same toward him. Why not use that attraction to seduce the truth out of her? It could prove very enjoyable, he thought with a grin. this was a good plan, one he would put into action once they reached his mountain haven tomorrow. Provided they did not cross paths with any guerrilleros, that is. They had been very lucky thus far. He hoped their luck would hold.

Evening approached swiftly. Calling a halt in a narrow clearing – merely a wide spot along the trail – near a trickle of water that ran down the stony embankment, he brushed his fingers across his prisoner’s satiny cheek.

“Time to awake, chiquita,” he murmured.

Her eyes fluttered open, looking drowsily into his. She sighed softly and smiled, causing him to lift his eyebrows and breathe in sharply. Then she came fully awake. Her welcoming smile instantly disappeared. Stiffening, she sat up and scowled.

“Why the frown? It was my pleasure to serve as your pillow.” His comment drew a doubting look from her, to which he smiled warmly.

She blinked and glanced around. “Where are we? Is this your . . . your hideout?”

“No, it is merely a convenient stopping place for the night. We will arrive at our hideout as you call it tomorrow.”

“And then what?”

“Why, then we shall see if your rather improbable tale is true or false.” Hearing her breath catch and feeling her tense, he quickly added, “You need not be afraid. I have no intention of beating the truth out of you.”

“That’s big of you,” she said sarcastically, but he noticed she relaxed.

“For now, you will eat and rest.” With that, he lowered her to the ground. He waited to make sure she was steady on her feet. When she stepped away, he dismounted and led Cezar to a patch of good grass.

He unsaddled and wiped down the gelding with the bloody, ruined shirt he’d removed last night. Then he assisted Berto in setting up the señorita’s small red tent. As he worked, his gaze often strayed to her as she helped gather wood for a fire and prepare food. Her movements were graceful, her womanly curves pleasing to his eyes. He imagined her lying naked within the tent that carried her scent, with her raven hair freed from its braid and spread around her like a silk fan. His groin throbbed in reaction to the erotic vision.

Silently cursing his lusty thoughts and treacherous body, Gabriel shot to his feet, ordered Berto to finish the job and strode up the wooded slope, away from Josie Tseda. His plan to seduce her could backfire if he wasn’t careful. She was a temptress, a Lorelie. If she was after the scroll he guarded, she might try to lure him into breaking the promise he’d given his mother as she lay dying – later repeated before the Comhairle, the High Guardian’s council. He had vowed to protect the scroll that had been in his mother’s family for eons with his life, and privately to avenge her death. He must not allow a pretty gringa to turn him from his sworn path.

* * *

Josie lay awake thinking of Gabriel Valdez. He’d ignored her during the evening meal and afterward. When she asked permission to step into the bushes, he’d nodded curtly and directed Berto to go with her, for her own safety, he’d said in a wooden tone. Turning as red as a ripe tomato, her former guide had dutifully accompanied her, standing with his back turned until she was ready to return to camp. If she’d been attacked by a wild animal, she doubted Berto would have been any help.

After that, she had zipped herself into her tent without waiting for an order from Valdez. Not that she was sleepy. How could she be after snoozing in his arms for God knows how long? What an idiot! She couldn’t believe she’d fallen asleep so trustingly. You’re losing it, Josie Tseda. If you don’t watch it, he’ll be crawling into your sleeping bag next.

Her restless thoughts darted to his reaction when she revealed the main purpose of her mission. He’d heard her out but obviously didn’t believe her. How was she to convince him everything she’d told him was the absolute truth?

How long she lay there with the day’s events swirling in her mind, she didn’t know, but at some point she finally dozed off only to have Gabriel Valdez invade her dreams. Scowling and pointing a finger that grew into a glittering dagger the same moss-green color as his eyes, he aimed the threatening point at her heart and shouted, “Liar!” again and again. She covered her ears and backed away, shaking her head.

“No, not lying!” she muttered in her sleep.

“Wake up!” a voice whispered. A hand shook her shoulder.

She jerked awake, giving a startled cry. The hand released her shoulder and clamped over her mouth, silencing her. Not registering the fact that the intruder spoke English, she instantly thought of Manuel, her unwelcome visitor last night, and elbowed him in the ribs.

The man hissed in pain. “Jesú! Stop fighting! It is I, Gabriel.”

Josie went limp with relief. He cautiously lifted his hand away.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I-I thought –”

“It matters not. Danger approaches. We must leave.”

She sat up. “What danger?”

“Guerrilleros. Guerrilla fighters. Come!”

She caught her breath, knowing he referred to one of the rebel bands that roamed Colombia. She’d been told a tentative peace existed between them and the government, but it appeared Valdez was at odds with them. While Josie digested this information, he ducked out of the tent.

“Come now, if you value your life,” he whispered, holding the flap open for her.

“I’m coming. Give me a chance.” She kicked off her sleeping bag and scooted out after him. The fire had gone out, or been doused, leaving the night pitch dark, but she caught the muted sound of animals being saddled. Valdez led her toward the sound.

“How do you know the guerrilleros are nearby when it’s so dark?” she quietly asked.

“The night guard heard them. He says they are not far down the trail.”

She stopped suddenly. “What about my tent and sleeping bag?”

“There is no time. Leave them.”

“But I need –”

“This is no time to argue,” he said, tugging her forward. “We must travel fast. You will ride the mule. The beast is surefooted even in darkness. I ordered Berto to pad your saddle.”

“Thanks,” she muttered, annoyed by the loss of her gear, especially the sleeping bag. Where would she bed down the next time? Did he think she’d sleep under his blanket with him? They’d see about that!

She was glad she wouldn’t be forced to sit perched in his lap again. The thick blanket beneath her made riding the mule bearable, just barely. However, once they started up the trail at a good clip, with her riding directly behind Gabriel, she got the jitters. She couldn’t see a darn thing and despite the mule’s supposed ability to stay on the trail, she imagined the animal stepping wrong and plunging both of them into a dark chasm. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Foolishly, she wished for Valdez’s strong arms around her

Don’t be a coward! You can ride just as good as him. You don’t need him to protect you.

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