Authors: Debbie Macomber
To my friends who love the smell of chlorine in the morning as much as I do
Rachel Williams, Audrey Rugh, Lorraine Reece, Joyce Hudson, Leta Taylor, Marjorie Johnson, Debbie Noble, Mary Cammin, Maria Houston, Janet Hane, Sue Felix, Mark Ryan, Jessie Truax, Greg Northcutt, Bill Irvine, Per Johnson, and Kathy Davis for watching over us all
A woman’s frantic scream pierced Luke Madden’s slumber. He bolted…
“I’m willing to pay you for your services.”
Slim Watkins stepped into the post office at five minutes…
The man was mad. That was the only possible explanation,…
At first light, Letty slipped out of bed and dressed…
Jack Keller played back the message on his answering machine…
He was alive, although he wasn’t sure why. After repeated…
Letty stood under the shade of a low-hung roof as…
The moon cast a reflective glow across the smooth waters…
Men baffled and exasperated Marcie Alexander. She stood in the…
He should be asleep, Murphy thought darkly. He would be,…
Letty woke with her head nestled against Murphy’s shoulder and…
Jack Keller decided to let Marcie wait and wonder. Her…
Night had settled over Zarcero, and Letty would have been…
For reasons Luke would probably never know, the beatings had…
Anger was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotion to Letty. She…
As Marcie sat at an elegant linen-covered table next to…
Murphy parked the jeep on the side of a rut-filled…
Jack Keller returned to his condominium around two in the…
“Don’t move,” Murphy instructed Letty in an urgent whisper. He…
Marcie, dressed in white cotton pants and a blue sailor…
At dawn Letty woke and discovered Murphy had built a…
Murphy didn’t know what the hell kind of game Letty…
Luke gained strength each day. He hadn’t seen Rosita since…
Letty could feel the anger coming off Murphy in waves…
Jack had decided to ride it out a while, let…
Luke heard the sound of the guards’ footsteps outside his…
Letty woke with a start and bolted upright. She exhaled…
Marcie picked up her polished pink bowling ball and enthusiastically…
Hopelessly lost, Letty wandered aimlessly through the streets of San…
Keeping his arm around Letty, Murphy turned to face the…
“As of two days ago your brother was alive.”
Rosita walked into the dimly lit room and looked at…
Letty knew that Murphy was worried about her. She’d killed…
“Marcie, did you order the Apple-Smith perm?”
Letty was only vaguely aware of what was happening to…
Marcie closed her eyes briefly in an effort to calm…
The week that passed was the longest one of Letty’s…
Letty sat in the cool evening shade on her porch…
Letty stood on the porch with her hands braced against…
A woman’s frantic scream
pierced Luke Madden’s slumber. He bolted upright and shook his head, hoping to clear the sleepy fog from his brain.
The rumors had been rampant for weeks, filled with threats of a military coup, but the Zarcero government was handling the situation competently. Less than a week ago, Luke had personally been assured by President Cartago that there was no need for concern.
The screech of rapid-fire gunshots was followed by shrieks of horror and outrage.
Luke threw back the lone sheet and reached for his pants. The hair on the back of his neck stood straight out as the sound of booted feet slapped on the boardwalk outside his window.
No sooner had he yanked up the zipper than his door slammed open. A crazy-eyed soldier toting an Uzi stormed into Luke’s bedroom, screaming at him in hysterical Spanish, demanding that he join the others in the compound.
The first thought that flashed into Luke’s mind was that he was going to die.
Away from home. Away from his twin sister.
In that split second, he realized how desperately he longed to live. A mental image of Rosita, the brown-eyed beauty he loved and planned to marry, filtered into his thoughts as he rushed to follow the guerrilla’s orders.
Chaos greeted him outside. Frightened, desperate women huddled in a circle by the fountain, protecting their children. Frantically Luke searched for Rosita and was relieved when he found her with the other women.
The lifeless body of Ramón Hermosa lay sprawled in a pool of blood outside the chapel doors. Mowed down by hate. Murdered in the name of progress. The dead man’s open eyes stared blankly into the night.
Dear God, not Ramón
. Anger surged through Luke like an electric current. The kind old man was no threat to anyone.
“What is it you want?” Luke cried out, clenching his fists.
Three men, all heavily armed, approached him. One slammed the butt of his rifle against Luke’s shoulder, shoving him closer to the women. Intense pain spiraled down his arm.
“What do you want?” Luke repeated, ignoring the danger to himself.
The three men parted when an officer approached. Hate gleamed in their commander’s eyes as he studied Luke. Luke could feel the other man’s loathing as keenly as he’d once felt Rosita’s love.
“I understand you are a friend of our president,” the commander spat out. Slowly a sinister, evil smile edged up the sides of his mouth. “Or should I say
“This is a mission,” Luke explained, gesturing toward the church. “I have nothing to do with politics.”
“You should have thought of that before you made friends with José Cartago. You will pay dearly for that friendship,
. Very dearly indeed.”
He removed a polished pistol from his holster and pointed it at Luke’s head.
“No, for the love of God,
!” Rosita screamed, and raced across the grounds. Sobbing, she threw herself at the commander’s feet. “Please, I beg of you in the name of the Virgin Mother, I plead with you not to do this.”
But it was too late, Luke realized. He was a dead man.
I’m willing to pay you
for your services.”
“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” Murphy said, eyeing the prim and oh-so-proper postmistress who held his mail hostage. “You want
to accompany you to Zarcero?”
The woman was nuts, Murphy decided. There were no two ways about it. Letty Madden, postmistress of Boothill, Texas, was a prime candidate for the loony bin.
She looked up at him from behind her scarred oak desk in her private office, her brown eyes as dark as bittersweet chocolate. This female-in-distress performance might weaken another man’s defenses, but not Murphy’s. He had no intention of interrupting a well-deserved rest for some woman with an itch up her butt, seeking adventure.
His opinion of the opposite sex had never been high,
and since his friends Cain and Mallory had both married, his attitude was even worse. It’d take more than the fluttering of this postmistress’s eyelashes for him to traipse through some jungle on a wild-goose chase.
“You don’t understand,” she insisted.
Murphy understood all right; he just didn’t happen to be interested in the job. Besides, the postmistress wouldn’t earn enough money in two lifetimes to afford him or the services of Deliverance Company.
“It’s my brother,” she continued, and bit into her trembling lower lip.
A nice touch, Murphy mused skeptically, but it wouldn’t change his mind.
“He’s a missionary.”
She actually managed to look as though she were on the verge of weeping. She was good, Murphy gave her that much. Sincerity all but oozed from her pores.
“Since the Zarceran government collapsed, no one in the State Department or CIA can tell me what’s happened to him. The phone lines are down, and now the United States has severed diplomatic relations. The people in the State Department won’t even talk to me anymore. But I refuse to forget my brother.”
“I can’t help you.” He didn’t mean to be rude, or heartless, but he simply wasn’t interested. He’d already told her as much three times, but she’d apparently opted not to believe him.
This was the first of several errors on her part. Murphy was a man who meant what he said. If her brother was stupid enough to plant himself in a country on the verge of political collapse, then he deserved what he got.
“Please,” she added with a soft, breathless quality to her voice, “won’t you reconsider?”
Murphy heaved an impatient sigh. The last thing he’d expected when he stopped off to retrieve his mail was to be cornered by one of Boothill’s most virtuous citizens.
“You can help me,” she insisted, her voice elevating with entreaty. “It’s just that you won’t. It isn’t as if I’m asking you to do this out of the kindness of your heart!”
Good thing, because Murphy’s nature didn’t lean toward the charitable.
“I said I’d pay you, and I meant it. I realize a man of your expertise doesn’t come cheap, and—”
“My expertise?” No one in Boothill knew what he did for a living, and that was the way he wanted it.
“You don’t honestly think I don’t know what you are, do you?” Her chin came up a notch, as if he’d insulted her intelligence. “I’m not stupid, Mr. Murphy. There are certain matters one cannot help but notice when sorting the mail. You’re a soldier of fortune.”
She said the words as though they made her mouth dirty. No doubt this lily white sister of a missionary had never sunk to such despicable levels before now. Murphy, lowlife that he was, loved it. He certainly didn’t expect a decent, God-fearing woman like Letty Madden would encourage business dealings with the likes of him.
“I’ll pay you,” she offered again. “Anything you ask.”
He snorted softly and purposely leveled his gaze at her breasts, wanting to shock her.
“I know all about Deliverance Company.”
That caught Murphy’s interest. “You do, do you?”
She stiffened. “Mr. Murphy, please, my brother is all I have. My parents…my father died four years ago and there’s only Luke and me.”
Murphy wasn’t keen on delivering a few home truths, but it seemed necessary. “Listen, I’m sorry about your brother being in Zarcero. But nothing you say or do now is going to change the fact that the country’s in chaos.
“If you’re seeking my advice, then I’ll give it. You’d be wasting your time, energy, and finances to look for your brother at this late date. The chances are he’s been dead two weeks or more.”
“No,” she said with such vehemence that Murphy flinched. “Luke’s my twin. I’d know if he were dead. I’d feel it here.” She slapped her clenched fist over her heart, and her shoulders heaved with the strength of her conviction. “Believe me, Mr. Murphy, Luke’s alive.”
Murphy had no desire to argue with her. She could believe anything she damn well pleased, and if it comforted her to think her brother had survived the coup, so be it.
“Can I have my mail now?” he asked impatiently, and stretched out his arm.
Letty reluctantly handed him the few pieces. “Is there anything I can say or do to convince you to take on this assignment?” she asked, and boldly held his eyes.
“Not one damn thing.” Now that he had what he’d come for, he turned and walked out the door. Before
he left the post office, he glanced over his shoulder and experienced a twinge of regret when he saw her head bowed in defeat. He couldn’t help feeling bad for her and her brother, but not enough that he’d sacrifice the first time he’d had free in months.
By the time Murphy arrived home twenty minutes later, his sympathy for the postmistress’s plight had waned. He’d noticed her before, plenty of times. She was exactly the type of woman he avoided most. Those goody-goody, holier-than-thou ones were the worst.
Letty Madden was a pretty thing, or could be, if she’d ever stop apologizing for being a woman. She wore her long hair away from her face, as if pulling it tight enough against her head might erase any sign of wrinkles. The plain postal uniforms did nothing to enhance what nature had generously given her. If she wore any makeup, it would surprise him. She seemed downright afraid of her own femininity.
Murphy had no use for religion and even less use for women in general. Oh, they had their place, he’d be the first to admit, but that was generally atop a mattress, smelling of perfume and sex. He paid for their services and walked away free of any emotional entanglements.
He’d seen firsthand what a woman could do to mess up men’s lives. In the last few years he’d lost his two best friends, and not to any bullet. No, the weapon that had ruined both Cain McClellan and Tim Mallory was far more deadly. Each had gotten hammered by the cockeyed emotion they called love.
At one time Deliverance Company had comprised
Cain, Mallory, Bailey, Jack Keller, and Murphy, a crack team of ex-military experts who’d pulled off some of the world’s most daring rescue missions. But no more.
Murphy didn’t need Cain or Mallory to teach him when it came to women. He’d learned everything he needed to know from his mother. The woman was both weak and pitiful. From the time he was ten, Murphy knew that he wanted nothing to do with the opposite sex. He may have only been a snot-nosed kid at the time, but his insight had served him well in the twenty-five years since.
Even Jack Keller, his best and most trusted friend, had been taken in by a woman’s charms. His mistake had damn near cost him his life. Jack continued to carry the scars of his weakness, not that he’d learned his lesson, Murphy noted. Jack had come dangerously close to messing up more than one mission by not keeping his zipper closed. His friend had a weakness for a pretty face.
Murphy walked into his house ten miles outside of Boothill and slapped the mail on the kitchen counter. For all the hassle he’d gone through to get it, there wasn’t anything more than a handful of bills and a few advertisements.
He opened the fridge, took out a cold beer, and headed for the porch.
The screen door slammed behind him as he slumped on the wicker chair and braced one booted foot against the post. The sun blared down hot and intense. Even the shimmering afternoon air seemed to protest the heat.
Boothill wasn’t the end of the world, but a person could view it from there, and that suited Murphy just fine.
Smiling to himself, he took a long, deep swallow of the beer and wiped his forearm against his brow.
It didn’t get any better than this.