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TROPICAL HEAT (Chapter One)Huren
The brilliant lights of the operating room glinted off the scalpel being held to Dr. Elizabeth Goodall's slender throat.
Flat on his belly in the main air-conditioning duct directly above them, Sam Pelton aimed his Sig Sauer between the soldier's expressionless eyes. The state-of-the-art, multi-million-dollar operating room wouldn't have been unusual if it had been in a large hospital in a major city anywhere in the world. But this OR was smack in the middle of the jungles of Central Africa.
"Obviously I was brought all this way for a reason," Beth was saying a little desperately. "Just tell me why. There's no need to threaten me with the scalpel." When she got nothing more than a blank stare, she dragged in a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly. "Who's in charge? You?" she asked the guy with the blade.
Yeah. I'd like to see the asshole in charge, too, Sam thought, watching them through the small holes he'd pierced in the metal duct. This top-secret compound, deep in the Huren jungle, belonged to President Sipho Nkemidilm. What was so damn urgent that he'd had a prominent physician kidnapped from a bustling metropolitan hotel and flown thousands of miles to his hidden compound?
Something big. The compound was crawling with heavily armed, camo-clad soldiers. More of them than had been reported here a week ago. It didn't bother Sam that there were twenty trained soldiers in residence. Twenty to one weren't insurmountable odds. He had an arsenal of weapons on him, and a heavier pack, fully equipped, concealed several clicks away in the jungle. Another smaller pack was hidden just outside the compound. He was loaded for bear, with the skills and determination to use either his weapons, or what ever else was at hand. What ever it took to expedite this rescue mission.
One of the men shoved a handful of blue fabric at Beth's midsection. It drifted to the floor as she made no move to accept it, and instead, glanced around the brightly lit room without moving her head. "Does anyone here speak English?" she asked with admirable calm.
They didn't. Or pretended they didn't.
Her red-gold hair, pulled up in its customary simple ponytail, was disheveled, and her amber freckles stood out in sharp relief on her pale skin. Her eyes flickered between the man holding her at blade-point and the three stony-faced, AK-47-wielding soldiers flanking her.
Two more uniforms were stationed at the door. A seventh man, presumably the anesthesiologist, stood hunch-shouldered and mute at the head of the operating table, clearly trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible.
Wasn't going to save his sorry ass. Sam was ready, willing, and freaking able to blow the place to smithereens at the first opportunity. Once he had Beth. Once she was safe. Dropping down now, guns blazing, while personally satisfying, might get her killed. That was a risk he wasn't willing to take.
The son of a bitch with the scalpel at her throat would be the first to die.
They'd snatched the wrong doctor. His doctor, goddamn it. At least that's what Sam believed. Beth was a general practitioner, and while he, and the entire town of Brandon, Montana, thought she was extra special, as far as he knew she didn't have any more skills than the several hundred other GPs in attendance at the symposium she'd been attending in Cape Town. He suspected the tangos thought they'd snatched plastic surgeon Lynne Randall. And the second they realized their mistake, Beth would be dead.
And before they killed her she'd be begging to be dead faster.
He had to get her the hell out of here sooner than ASAP. People said Sam Pelton didn't have a nerve in his body, that ice water ran in his veins. But right now he was as scared as he'd ever been. Everything was different about this op because Beth was in the center of it.
Scalpel-dick jerked his head, indicating that one of the men pick up what Sam presumed were scrubs. The pulse at the base of Beth's throat pounded her stress level, yet she still refused to accept the clothing. Her sangfroid was remarkable. But that was Beth. Always cool, calm and collected.
That's it. Keep your head, sweetheart. I'm right here.
Ignore the scalpel indenting her skin, Sam told himself savagely. Ignore the way her fear, and the stark white lights, leeched all the color from her face. Ignore the smudges under her eyes. Ignore the rapid pulse hammering in the hollow of her damp throat.
Ignore, God damn it, the fucking scalpel pressed to her carotid.
To do his job, he had to block Beth from his mind. Since he hadn't been able to do that for the past two years, it wasn't easy. He managed to do it anyway.
She swallowed hard, and the scalpel left a razor-thin line of blood on her neck. Right where Sam had been craving to kiss her for months. And that was the last fucking time he'd resist the impulse to kiss her. As soon as he had her out of here, and it was safe enough to do so, he was going to kiss Beth like she'd never been kissed before. To hell with restraint. To hell with waiting.
Instead of freaking out, she reached up and gently tried to push the man's hand away from her throat. With the slight shift in angle, the thin blade cut a red line between her thumb and forefinger. She cried out, making a big production so all the soldiers could see the blood.
Christ. Had she done that on purpose?
There was much frantic debate in Hureni as they tried to figure out what to do. Her injury clearly scared the crap out of them. They'd wanted to scare her, they had no problem cutting her in small increments, but the injury to her hand had them in a panic. Beth had called their bluff.
She curled her fingers tightly into her palm, then cradled her bleeding hand against her chest. Blood stained her skin, shocking and redder than any blood Sam could remember. Maybe because Beth's skin was so pale. Hell. Maybe because this was Beth. His Beth.
Using every bit of control and all of his training, he clenched his teeth until his jaw ached. He might not be killing any of them, but he was counting the minutes and choreographing every move.
"I'm not resisting," she said, her voice, to someone who had studied her for months, slightly uneven. "I'm not fighting. There's no need to hurt me again. Call whoever's in charge and we ca—"
Her words were cut off with a choked scream as the man grabbed her hair, using her sassy ponytail as a handle, yanking her head back, leaving her arched throat naked and vulnerable.
Light glinted off the blade as he yelled his displeasure, his angry spit splattering her face.
Sam's heart did a double tap as the scalpel carved another thin red line on the smooth skin, this time her cheek. Three goddamn strikes and you're out, dick. Cool it, he told himself, almost jumping out of his skin with the need to act.
But his training told him that while the guy was cutting Beth, the cuts were small and not life-threatening. Not to Beth. To the guy making them, it was a death sentence. The son of a bitch wasn't going to kill her, Sam rationalized, sweat beading his brow. The grunt with the scalpel wasn't high enough up the food chain for one thing, and for another, someone had brought a doctor here for a specific purpose. Hopefully he'd find out the who and why before Scalpel-dick got any more aggressive with that blade and he was forced to kill him sooner rather than later.
Intel had reported that Nkemidilm wasn't in residence. He was off with his troops fighting the Mallaruzi on Huren's western border. Huren was also in the middle of a bloody, and extremely violent, civil war. The body count was sky high. Nkemidilm was a megalomaniacal sadist and was fighting with damn well everyone in and out of his country. He'd trained in Russia, his army carried American-made weapons, and he had absolutely no regard for human life. His allies were no better.
The cold air blasting around Sam did nothing to cool his temper nor did it dispel the fear churning in his gut as he watched the tableau beneath his hiding place.
Nervous perspiration made Beth's creamy skin look dewy, touchable. They'd let her remove the jacket to her black pantsuit, and her long-sleeved pink blouse was half untucked, sticking to her skin and smeared with dirt and blood. Even mussed she was sexy. She should be back home in Montana in her small clinic, dispensing suckers to damp-eyed kids and wearing the all-encompassing white coat of her profession. And giving him a hard time.
He'd tried talking her out of attending the medical symposium in Cape Town when they'd "accidentally" bumped into each other at the bank two weeks ago. South Africa was a country in flux. Not safe for tourists just yet, and counted as one of the most dangerous places in the world. Yet in spite of, or because of his warnings, she'd gone anyway.
Who'd taken Beth, and what the hell did they want with her? No. Not Beth. Dr. Lynne Randall. All Dr. Randall, safely sequestered in a local safe-house, could tell them was that Beth had gone upstairs to pick up some notes for her. Beth had been snatched moments after entering Randall's room.
Thank God his people in the Cape had been smart enough to squash the story from the press. None of the bad guys knew they'd kidnapped the wrong woman.
"If no one in charge is coming, then I'm—"
One of the soldiers answered in Hureni. Sam didn't speak the language, and clearly neither did Beth.
Just her eyes moved as she addressed the anesthetist standing across the room. "Do you speak English?"
He gave her a blank stare and her attention returned to the man with the blade at her throat, who was still yelling at her. "I have no idea what you're saying," she told him crisply, raising her voice just enough to get his attention. Her hand must have hurt like hell, but she wasn't paying it any attention.
Scalpel-dick yelled louder, inches from her face. Louder didn't mean she could comprehend him any better.
The door opened and he shut up like a tap being turned off. The rest of the soldiers in the room snapped to, straight-backed, weapons at the ready-attention. Sam already had the Sig aimed at the potential new danger.
His heart skittered.
The Butcher. Tau Thadiwe.
The terrorist was currently on every country's Capture Dead or Alive list. Six feet seven inches of solid muscle, with skin the color of dusty ebony, and currently dressed, unselfconsciously, in a short white hospital gown. Flip-flops snapping on his enormous feet, he strode into the room surrounded by a phalanx of soldiers.
If anyone was worse than Nkemidilm it was his old friend Thadiwe. The two men shared an alliance that went back to their covert training days in Russia some thirty years ago. The counterterrorist group Sam worked for was aware that Thadiwe was responsible for doing a little extracurricular work after his and Nkemidilm's basic training ended. Torture was both Thadiwe's specialty and his passion, and he'd educated Huren's leader in the fine art of persuasion until both men were feared and revered for their sadistic skills.
The man was an amoral psychopath. Not only was he chillingly good at what he did, he relished his work.
Speculation had been rife about his whereabouts for months. And here he was. Deep in the jungle where no one would think to look. Thadiwe and Nkemidilm had done a damn good job keeping their friendship off the radar. They hadn't been seen together since 1996.
"Dr. Randall, thank you for coming," Thadiwe said in unaccented English. Sam didn't know if he felt better or worse getting the confirmation that they'd snatched the wrong doctor.
Thadiwe approached Beth but didn't extend his hand, nor did he instruct his men to stand down. Suddenly he noticed her still bleeding hand. Hard to fucking miss since the left side of her pink blouse was stained red. The tango scowled.
"I wasn't aware that I had a choice," Beth said dryly. "Please tell this man to put the scalpel down. I'm no threat."
Thadiwe turned on the man beside her who still had the scalpel at her throat.
Move, Beth. For fuck's sake, move out of the way.
Without a word Thadiwe pulled the HK out of the holster of the soldier next to him and shot his man point-blank in the face. Beth flinched, jumping back as blood and brain matter spattered the area. She moved directly into Sam's line of fire.
For several stunned seconds nobody moved, then, his eyes on Beth, Thadiwe snapped his beefy fingers. One of his men rushed to hand him a handkerchief, which he used to wipe the blood off his face. The white gown he wore now had red polka dots all down the front.
Sam now knew who, and he had a pretty good idea why. He prepared to fire. Move, Elizabeth!
"My apologies for the manner in which you were transported here, Doctor." Thadiwe wiped his hands, then tossed the bloodied cloth aside. "My men tend to be zealous in their interpretation of my instructions."
Beth's shoulders were stiff, and she was barely breathing. It was almost better not being able to see her face. Sam wanted to curve his hand reassuringly around her vulnerable nape.
"What is it you expect of me, Mister—?"
"Tau Thadiwe," he said, signing her death warrant. What ever surgery he wanted Beth to perform on him, he had no intention of letting her live afterward. "Prepare yourself to do facial reconstruction immediately, Dr. Randall."
"There's nothing wrong with your face," Beth told him after a brief pause. "I can't imagine why you wa—"
Thadiwe backhanded her. She staggered, but quickly recovered. Too quickly. Goddamn it, a fraction of a millimeter more and Sam's shot would have taken off the top of her head. The tango's handprint was a livid red mark on the curve of her check. "What—?"
"Unless they are in reference to the procedure or my health, no questions."
Sam shifted the muzzle of the Sig the necessary fraction of an inch to aim at the parallel lines between Thadiwe's eyebrows. You're about to die of lead poisoning, asshole.
The need to take out the tango made Sam's entire body itch. He was ready to drop him right there. Right now. Beth chose that moment to shift, blocking his shot again.
Move to the left a few inches. Come on, sweetheart. Just a couple of inches.
"You are here to do my reconstructive surgery. You're the best. That's why I ensured you would attend the symposium in Cape Town."
"You were the secret benefactor that paid L—my way to Cape Town? I don't know who you are, but there are easier ways to schedule surgery than kidnapping the doctor."
"Not just a doctor. You, Dr. Randall. You are the preeminent facial reconstruction plastic surgeon in America, are you not?"
Beth still blocked the shot. For Christ's sake, don't tell him who you are, Sam thought, wishing to hell telepathy was one of his skill sets.
"I'd be more receptive to your request if you'd made an appointment," Beth said coolly, and Sam breathed a silent sigh of relief. Smart girl. He shouldn't have underestimated her.
Thadiwe clicked his beefy fingers, and one of his men handed him a large manila envelope. He rooted around inside to find what he wanted, then handed her several photographs. "This is what I want my new face to look like."
She glanced at the pictures, her ponytail brushing the pink, blood-speckled collar of her shirt, then said smoothly, "I can't perform surgery without extensive lab tests, X-rays—"
"The lab tests were done last week, as were these X-rays and photographs." He handed her the envelope. "Everything you need is here."
Her ponytail jerked as she looked up at Thadiwe. "Surely you don't expect me to do it now?"
"I wouldn't have brought you here otherwise."
"But this type of surgery has to be done in stages. Over several months, surely you kn—" Clearly he wasn't aware of how long the procedure took. "As you can see, I have a deep cut on my dominant hand," she told him calmly, holding out her injured hand. Beth was left-handed, not right. But she was playing every card she had. "Obviously performing any type of surgery now is impossible."
"Yet you will manage, Dr. Randall, or I will not hesitate to kill you."
Beth blinked and curled her injured hand toward her body. Thadiwe moved closer, and Sam's finger rested against the trigger, in case the son of a bitch made a wrong move. "I can't."
"You can." Thadiwe slowly ran his finger over the creased frown in Beth's forehead. "And you will. Your husband leaves for work at six-fifteen. He drops your baby off at Apple Tree Day Care. I have your mother's home address in Hollywood, your brother's too—congratulations on his wife's pregnancy. And your grandfather, well, it would be a shame if anything happened to him at the nursing home…In other words, Dr. Randall, if you fail to cooperate fully, I will have your entire family slaughtered by morning. All it will take is one phone call."
Sam's mouth tightened. Even though this wasn't Beth's family Thadiwe was threatening, it was Lynne Randall's—a doctor who was guilty of no more than being the best in her field. Beth's friend.
"Leave my family out of this. All right. You give me no choice. Your surgery will take upwards of twenty hours." She pulled out some of the paperwork, then took a moment to scan the information.
"You have high blood pressure." She glanced up at Thadiwe. "I appreciate your state-of-the-art OR, but what happens in the event of an emergency that I can't handle alone? We're in the middle of the jungle, hundreds of miles from anywhere." Her hand was leaving bloodstains on the manila envelope, and it made Sam crazy to see her hurt when he was right there and should have been able to protect her. Even from herself.
"There are dozens of factors to consider. A reaction to the anesthetic. Clotting issues that could cause excessive blood loss. Underlying, undiagnosed preexisting conditions. Even though you've been treating your high blood pressure, there's still a possibility that you'd stroke out from the stress such a complex medical procedure will put on your body. Especially since you insist on having several procedures done at once. It's risky. Very risky."
Sam's estimation of her b.s. ability went up. The type of surgery Thadiwe wanted would take half a dozen procedures over the span of several months, not hours. Beth was playing along, and buying time.
"How close is the nearest hospital with well-trained emergency room staff and a competent cardiologist?" she asked calmly as she flipped through Thadiwe's paperwork.
"An hour by helicopter. You'd better not make any mistakes, Dr. Randall. If anything goes wrong, if I should come to any harm while under your scalpel, my men have instructions to torture you. You will die in agony and very, very slowly."
Her head jerked up. "And you think that threatening me will scare me into doing a better job?" she demanded, letting her annoyance leak into her voice. Annoyance. Not fear. "I'm a surgeon and bound by my own ethics to do you no harm. But to do that, I'll need to rest first. I've been kidnapped at gunpoint, and tied hand and foot for six hours. I'll perform your surgery in the morning if you give me your word that afterward I'll be returned to Cape Town in good health. Do we have a bargain?"
Christ, she sounded cool. Everyone in the room knew the second Thadiwe got what he wanted she'd be dead.
"I'll need post-operative care."
"Kidnap a nurse," she said dryly.
"I'll give you two hours to rest and study my file."
"That's not enough time. My God, you want every bone in your face rearranged. Do you honestly think that studying your X-rays and photographs for two hours will be sufficient time? I would never allow an exhausted, ill-prepared surgeon to do major surgery on my face."
"You're the best in the world."
"Be that as it may, I'm not at my best now. And you want the best when it comes to this." She held up one of the photographs. "Give me ten hours, and I'll—"
"No. You might as well save time and kill me now, then go and kidnap another facial reconstruction specialist." She thrust the envelope at his massive barrel chest. "But you know, and I know, Mr. Thadiwe, that long before you find anyone else of my caliber, I'll be ready to do your surgery. You kidnapped me because I am the best. Don't be stubbornly foolish enough to rush me. You'll have the face you want by this time tomorrow night."
Thadiwe glanced at the $200,000 Girard-
Perregaux watch on his thick wrist. "I'll give you six hours."
"Eight. I'll be ready."
Beth said nothing. Silence throbbed between them. Finally the man caved, and he nodded. "Not one second past seven A.M."
Sam eased his finger off the trigger.
TROPICAL HEAT Copyright © 2008 by Cherry Adair