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Authors: Lydia Rowan

Ultimate Escape (2 page)

BOOK: Ultimate Escape
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2

T
he last two
days had been a whirlwind of research, planning, and phone and e-mail conversations to get her visa and accommodations set. And in between, she’d had to come up with a plausible explanation for why she needed a month off work on such short notice. And unlike she usually would have, she didn’t even feel guilty about the imaginary great-aunt in Mobile whose health had taken a turn. If the people at her company didn’t know that she had no relatives farther than fifty miles out of Thornehill Springs after she’d been in their employ for nearly a decade, that wasn’t her problem. But she had gotten a little annoyed at having to constantly reassure her family that no, Carl breaking up with her hadn’t sent her around the bend, and yes, it was perfectly safe for her to travel alone.

She understood the worry, but wished they would stop asking. Yes, it stung—badly—that Carl had left her, and the way he’d done it had been far less than ideal. But this trip wasn’t about Carl. It was about her, for once, for maybe the only time in her life, doing something different, something unplanned, finally living her life.

By the time she stowed her bag in the overhead compartment and settled in her seat about to begin the second leg of the trip, which would take her from Atlanta to Seoul and then the third leg, which would take her to Ho Chi Minh City, she was ready for the vacation. Someone had rolled over her foot with their suitcase as they’d boarded, but so far, the trip had been good.

In less than forty hours she’d be in Vietnam. Wild, especially since before today she’d never even been to Atlanta. Excited and nervous, she buckled her seat belt and waited.

Her phone chimed, and she considered ignoring it, worried that it was her mother once again trying to convince her to change her mind. Her mood dampened instantly, and she resolved to ignore the phone, not willing to sacrifice any more of her good spirits.

But she folded when the phone chimed again, and when she went to turn it off, she saw a message from her friend Quinn.

Heard about the trip!

How, when Quinn lived in Geneva, Switzerland? Nola had no clue but then again, in a town the size of Thornehill, news traveled fast, and apparently, internationally.

Have fun. And don’t come back pregnant like some people you know!

Nola laughed out loud and then quieted when she saw the looks of the passengers surrounding her. Quinn had gone on an international trip and fallen in love with a billionaire. But Quinn was also beautiful, strong, the opposite of Nola, so Nola figured she didn’t have to worry about having a passionate affair that ended with a happily ever after. No dashing billionaire, millionaire, or thousandaire for that matter, would be waiting to sweep her off her feet. If she made it back in one piece without dengue fever, which she’d spent way too many of her precious hours researching, she’d count the trip a success.

“Ma’am.”

Nola jumped at the softly spoken word and glanced around wildly, gaze landing on a person who stood next to her seat. He was a middle-aged Asian man, several inches taller than Nola, fit and very nicely dressed. He was wearing dark sunglasses, and while she couldn’t see his eyes, she could feel him looking at her.

“Pardon me. I didn’t intend to startle you,” he said in gently accented tones, though Nola couldn’t place the origin.

“N-no problem,” she said.

Nola waited and when he didn’t move on, she smiled slightly. “Yes?”

“I hate to impose, but would you mind too terribly if we switched seats?” he asked.

He inclined his head, and Nola followed the motion with her gaze. “Oh, this is coach. You wouldn’t want to sit back here,” she said.

The man smiled a little tightly and then stepped even closer to allow a steward to pass. Nola was engulfed in the cloying scent of his cologne, and it took all of her willpower not to recoil. She was incredibly relieved when the man moved away again.

“My seat is next to the window, and I much prefer the aisle. Besides, this seat is closer to the loo.”

Nola broke his gaze, considering. A window seat sounded fantastic.

“It would be a great favor,” he said.

Nola looked at the man and then back at the first-class cabin. She began unbuckling her seat belt and then stood.

“Okay,” she said.

The man twisted his face into what Nola believed was intended to be a smile, and she felt a burst of cold shiver across her skin.

“Let me grab my…” Nola started, but he reached up and opened the overhead compartment before she finished speaking.

“Is this it?” he asked, gripping Nola’s black bag.

“Yes, but I can…”

He scoffed out a dismissal and then lifted his other hand. His body blocked Nola’s view, but a few moments later, he pulled, lowered the bag onto the ground, and then gestured toward the front of the plane.

“The seat is 5A. Thank you very much,” he said.

“Do you have a bag up there? Need help with anything else?” Nola asked.

He shook his head. “I’m just fine, my dear. Just fine.”

That smile-like expression covered his face again, and she felt a fresh rush of cold. It was a simple thing, but Nola couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of discomfort, especially with those dark glasses regarding her, the man having the ability to see her, though she couldn’t see him.

But
first class. First class,
was the main thing that rolled through her brain.

“Well, thank you. Have a nice flight,” she said after a moment.

The man nodded and she headed toward the front of the plane. Nola lowered into the wide, plush seat that had full-body recline.

“May I offer you a beverage, ma’am? Champagne, perhaps?” the stewardess asked before Nola had even fastened her seat belt.

That confirmed it. This trip was off to an excellent start.

3

D
uarte Cruz stalked
through Tan Son Nhat International Airport in search of his prey.

It had been two days since the flight had taken him from his home in Seattle to Ho Chi Minh City. He and the rest of his team worked quickly to set up and then the focus had turned to the chase. He’d been at the airport for hours, waiting patiently, but the end was in sight. The soldiers who patrolled the airport had eyed him warily but ultimately dismissed him, leaving Cruz free to explore.

His relative anonymity was a byproduct of Vietnam’s exploding tourism industry. The low cost of accommodations and travel in the country had appealed to other Asian tourists, then Europeans, and now more and more Americans. And with the tourists had come a slew of private security. People wanted to enjoy the exotic locale, and while Vietnam was relatively safe, those with means often preferred to travel with assistance. This fact allowed Cruz to hide in plain sight, more nameless, faceless muscle to guard the ultrarich. Just as he’d expected when he and the team had put this plan into action.

Through means he didn’t bother to question, one of his partners, Sam, had gotten hold of the flight manifesto and a picture of the person he sought. Now, all he had to do was follow her. The information had been vague, but what Cruz did know told him that his quarry was into a particularly dirty business, and though he wasn’t exactly sure which one yet, it was going to be his pleasure to put her out of it.

Calm but excited to be this close, he waited outside Customs, taking in the boisterous family reunions, scurrying businessmen and party officials, the tourists and backpackers, letting his gaze linger for only a moment before moving on in search.

Then he saw her.

She was in her late twenties, average height, average-looking features. That she was African American with healthy, rounded curves made her stand out, but absent those two things, she would have been completely unremarkable, one of the flock of tourists who flooded the terminal.

She was living proof of how deceptive looks could be.

The woman looked left, then right, eyes wide and searching, face open but uneasy, and then she headed to an information booth. He watched her chat with an airport official, finding himself strangely drawn to her polite, shy smile and her gentle, almost timid demeanor. With a piece of paper Cruz presumed was a map clutched in her hands, she marched toward baggage claim, keeping her head down but her eyes moving quickly from thing to thing as she walked. Keeping her in his line of sight, Cruz waited a few moments and then followed, staying close, but not so close she would notice.

The flights had been long, but even still, most traffickers didn’t bother with luggage. But the people he sought, the ones she would lead him to, were a cut above. And maybe that explained the conundrum that this woman presented. Wide-eyed, excited, shy, none of the furtiveness or suspicion he usually saw. She was doing the best impression of a clueless tourist he’d ever seen.

After grabbing a piece of luggage that almost dwarfed her, she glanced at her map and then headed toward the rows of gleaming hotel buses. As she moved, she ignored the cyclo riders and taxi drivers that called out to tourists. A good thing for her. At best, one of those rides would end with her fleeced out of a few dollars, but at worst, she’d be airlifted to Bangkok, another victim of Ho Chi Minh City’s lethal traffic. Whether the city was called Saigon, referenced by its formal name, or shortened to HCMC, the result was the same. No matter what it was called, the traffic in the city was literally killer, and was responsible for more tourist injuries and deaths than anything else.

She approached the shuttle driver and after a quick conversation, probably in English since the nicer hotels in the city—and based on the shuttle, hers was very nice indeed—tried to cater to Western tourists and account for the language barriers, she scribbled something on the paper and then headed to the bus, where she paused long enough to write down the license plate number before boarding.

Cruz had seen enough that not much ruffled him anymore, but even he found this woman’s behavior notably surprising. She could have been in a State Department video that gave travel tips to new tourists. She’d taken down the bus license plate number, ignored solicitations for a ride, probably gotten the driver’s name, and Cruz had seen how she gripped her suitcase and handbag tightly, not letting either out of her sight for a single moment. This was Foreign Travel 101, not the graduate-level behavior he would have expected from a seasoned trafficker.

And he also had his reaction to her to consider.

To his immense displeasure, the urge to protect her rose as strong as it was unwelcome. He’d tried to push away the thought. This woman was into some nasty stuff, and he couldn’t let the fact that she looked so delicate, so vulnerable, distract him. Sure, if she was the wide-eyed novice she appeared to be, the urge would be understandable, but he knew better. Still, the feeling nagged.

He retrieved his phone and dialed quickly.

“The target’s on the hotel shuttle,” he said.

“Shuttle?” Sam sounded as confused as Cruz felt, but they’d have to work that out later.

“Yeah, get over there and check the place out quick. I want to keep eyes on her, so I’m getting on now,” Cruz said.

“Got it.”

Sam disconnected and Cruz headed toward the shuttle, wondering what his confounding quarry was up to.

••••

Nola rested against the shuttle seat and stared out the window, her breath creating a fog on the glass. In the few moments that she’d been outside, the heavy humidity that clung in the air had coated her, leaving a fine sheen on her skin, which had prickled into goose bumps when she’d entered the air-conditioned vehicle. Good thing she was no stranger to either.

But even if she had been, neither the moist heat nor the contrasting cold of the bus would have been able draw her attention from the sights and sounds of Ho Chi Minh City. She’d never heard anything like it, not even close. The city sounded
alive
, seemed to be almost bursting at the seams with movement, life. And as amazing as the city sounded, the sight of it was something else altogether. The streets teemed with traffic: cars, buses, motorbikes, people on foot, all moving in a haphazard and seemingly random pattern. But from where Nola sat, it appeared to be a beautifully coordinated routine, one she doubted she would ever tire of seeing.

This couldn’t have been more different from home, from anything she’d imagined, let alone thought she would ever see in person. So though she was exhausted from the flights, sweaty but cold, and nearly ravenous, Nola was also invigorated. During the long hours on the flight—made so much more pleasant by the leg spent in first class—nerves had creeped up, and Nola wondered if she’d made a mistake. But just these few minutes had proven this had been worth it.

A
thump
, followed by the jostling of her seat, drew Nola’s attention from the window. She started and looked over, her gaze landing on a man’s crotch. Her eyes widened, but she couldn’t look away, and it occurred to Nola that the bulge a few feet from her face was almost as impressive as the city. She flushed and lowered her gaze, but the strong thigh she landed on didn’t derail the train of her thoughts, so she looked up again.

Of course, the sinfully tight T-shirt and the equally tight-looking stomach it covered weren’t any safer. Nor was the broad chest, the even broader shoulders, or the chiseled jaw that was sprinkled with a five-o’clock shadow that Nola couldn’t help but imagine scraping against her thighs.

With nowhere else to look, she lifted her eyes to meet his, and the faint throb that had started to pulse between her legs intensified, and her nipples, which were already puckered from the cold, pulled tighter, though the response had nothing to do with the temperature. His eyes were a sharp, almost arctic-blue color that should have made her shiver but had the opposite effect.

One glance at those eyes filled her with heat, incited a tugging neediness that Nola couldn’t ever recall feeling. And when he narrowed his eyes and lifted one corner of his mouth in a semismile, Nola squirmed in her seat.

He saw it, too. She could tell from the way the smile deepened, the little glint that sparked in his eyes.

And then the moment was over. The man moved down the aisle, and Nola drew on all of her reserves to keep herself from watching his retreat. She was curious as to whether his back was as impressive as his front, but she was already embarrassed enough at how she’d ogled his crotch, so she wouldn’t give in to temptation. She turned back to look out the window and leaned against the seat again.

She hadn’t even left the airport, and this was officially the best trip ever.

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