Just a Kiss Away
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Arriving on a lush Pacific island, Eulalie Grace LaRue was soon to be reunited with the father she hadn't seen since childhood. Yet before Lollie's dreamed-of meeting could take place, the lovely Southern belle was caught in the crossfire of a violent revolution -- and thrown into the rugged arms of Sam Forester.
On the run in the jungle, the battle-scarred soldier of fortune didn't know what to do with the pampered blonde placed in his care. Survival was his top priority, but he could not resist Lollie's seductive charm...or deny the growing attraction between them. Though Sam thrived on chance and risk, falling in love was the one chance he wasn't willing to take.
Powerless against the desire that consumed them both, Lollie surrendered to his passionate embrace. But when he dismissed her affections, she was determined to fight for him...to prove that in the steamy heat of paradise two hearts would find the love of a lifetime....
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From "Just a Kiss Away"
Luzon Island, Cavite Province,
The machete just missed his head.
And Sam Forester needed his mercenary head, preferably still attached to his body. He spun around. A guerrilla soldier stood a foot away with the long curved knife held high, ready to strike again. Sam punched him. A familiar crunch rang from his callused knuckles to his wrist. He shook the soreness from his hand and stared down at the soldier. The man wouldn't get up soon.
Sam picked up the machete and a moment later whacked a path of escape through the dense jungle bamboo. Where the growth allowed, he ran. Damp, pointed leaves of oleander scratched his face. Cut bamboo crunched under his feet. Wet, furry vines slapped at his shoulders and head. He raised the machete and sliced through a low, smothering ceiling of jade vine. All the while he could hear the others chasing him.
He burst into a clearing -- no jungle to tangle him up, to hold him back. He pushed harder for the chance to gain a little ground. Running, running, pulse throbbing in his ears, he looked up. It was still dark. A virid canopy of giant banyans blocked out the afternoon sun. Ahead all he saw was a wall of green -- the never-ending sea of tree-palm fronds and another dark wooden forest of island bamboo.
Mist steamed up from the humid ground as if the earth had cracked open over the seas of hell. A sweet, almost sickening smell hung like fog in the heavy air. The smell grew stronger, the leaves around him thicker. He ripped at them, driving on, harder and harder, tearing through a dense, twisted prison of sweet jungle jasmine. The rough, woody vines caught on his shoulder, scratched his arms and hands. They seemed to suddenly wrap around him like long grasping fingers, determined to slow him down, hold him, or trip him. But he couldn't trip. His escape depended on it. One fall and they'd have him. The guerrilla soldiers were that close. Though now he couldn't hear them over the pounding of his heart, he could still sense them, could feel them. They were hot on his heels.
Then he heard them right behind him, crashing through the underbrush. They panted. They swore. They stuck to him as if they were his own shadow, ever present. He heard the crack of their machetes -- long, deadly, curved steel blades that splintered a path in the tall bamboo. With each chop, each hack of metal against splitting wood, the frenzied sound of pursuit ran an icy path of fear through Sam's bones.
Sweat streamed down his tanned face, under the black leather eye patch he'd worn for eight years, over the hewn angles of his life-weathered face, and trickled down through the dark shadow of a three-day beard. His perspiration mixed with the sweltering beads of humid, thick, steamy air that cloaked everything on this heaven-and-hell island.
His vision blurred from the wet air...or from the sweat; he wasn't sure which. He sped on, stumbling once when he couldn't see anything but a dark wet blur. He swabbed his good eye with a torn sleeve. His heart drummed in his ears. It was a beat to run by.
A new fragrance filled the air. The smell of risk.
A sudden blood rush sent him running faster, pounding through the jungle. The bitter metallic taste of danger was so palpable, so real, that it swelled in his dry mouth with the same urgency of sexual impulse. His brink-driven breaths increased, faster, faster, until they burned in his chest like hot acid. His legs churned. His ridged thighs contracted. Mud suddenly swallowed his feet. He couldn't move.
Damn! He pulled forward, determined not to let dirt and water stop him. He fought on, dragging and slogging his legs forward. His boots felt like lead. The mud got deeper. It sucked at his thighs. His calves ached. The muscles in his forearms tightened. He trudged on and on. Now the mud was only ankle-deep. He broke free, still ahead of the men who chased him, and soon he had gained ground once again.
He ran. They pursued. It was a game in which he wavered on the edge, maybe even the edge of death. He was in his element. He tested the fates. He challenged the odds. And he gambled with his life, because the thrill was keener and so much more intense when the price of failure was so dear.
A white, wicked smile cut like lightning across his hard jaw.
Sam Forester lived for this.
Binondo District, Manila, 4:00 p.m.
The house stood tall, impressive by its sheer height. Prized white coral rock formed the walls around the city estate, walls that blocked out the strange foreign mix of cultures on the island, walls which also ensured that the area within was the way the owner wanted it -- private, protected, and perfect.
There were two iron gates, one in front and one in back, embellished with an intricately carved grapevine motif, the exact same design used in the high transom windows of the house. Layer after glossy layer of thick black paint coated the gates and the small iron grilles that crowned the many windows of the house. Not one spot of the ever-prevalent island rust marred the home of Ambassador LaRue, of the Belvedere, South Carolina, LaRues, owners of Hickory House, Calhoun Industries, and Beechtree Farms.
Within those precious coral rock walls there was no bustle, just a courtyard paved in rich burnt-red imported tiles identical to those that shingled the steep pointed roof of the house. No breeze fanned the dark glossy leaves of the crape myrtle trees that stood like proud sentries in that still courtyard. But beads of humidity spotted and sparkled from the thick climbing vines of Chinese honeysuckle that draped just like South Carolinian wisteria from the wrought-iron balconies of the second story.
A fragrance swelled through the courtyard, the rich, sweet smell of the tropics. Breaking the silence, a distant tapping drifted down from an open corner window in the second story. The tapping was slow, yet for some odd reason had the sound of impatience. It faded for a moment, then grew, faded, then grew, repeating over and over until it stopped with the suddenness of a gunshot.
Eulalie Grace LaRue plopped into a chair and rested her chin on a tight fist. She frowned at the tall clock ticking away its eternal minutes. It read four o'clock. She switched fists. That took up two more seconds. She sighed -- a delicate, all encompassing southern sound, honed to perfection over the years by the genteel alumnae of Madame Devereaux's Ladies' Conservatory, Belvedere, South Carolina. That took up four whole seconds.
She glanced at the clock again, wondering how three hours could seem like years. But it had been years, she reminded herself, seventeen long years since her father left Hickory House, the ancestral home of the LaRues of South Carolina, for his foreign post somewhere in Europe.
Her mother, a descendant of John Calhoun, had died in childbirth when Eulalie was two, so her father had left her in the care of her five older brothers and a few trusted family servants. She could still remember how, days after he'd left for his foreign post, she had asked her eldest brother, Jeffrey, where the place called Andorra was. He'd taken her hand and led her down the curved mahogany staircase to the giant dark oak doors of the room Eulalie had been forbidden to enter -- one of the many things forbidden her because she was female. At the time, her five-year-old mind had dubbed her father's study "the forbidden room," but over the years there were so many "forbiddens" she had run out of terms.
On that particular day when her brother first opened the doors, she had balked, standing in the doorway twisting the blue velvet ribbons that held back her blond hair. He'd reassured her that it was all right for her to come into the room as long as one of her five brothers was with her. She could still remember the sense of awe with which she had tentatively followed Jeffrey into that huge, dark, wood-paneled room.
The room had seemed stuffy and tight and she'd felt a flush of heat that made her stomach tighten. She'd taken a few deep breaths and hardly had a chance to take in her surroundings before her brother led her to the tall globe that stood next to a massive desk. He spun the globe, an action that'd made her even dizzier until he stopped it, and showed her a small pink spot on the map. He told her that was where her father was.
She could remember staring at the small pink dot for the longest time. Then she'd asked if their father would be okay and when he would come home. Jeffrey had just looked at her for a long moment, then told her what a pretty little LaRue lady she was, with her big blue eyes and silky blond hair, just like their mother, and that little girls, especially the LaRues, needn't worry about such things. At that exact moment, Eulalie had been struck with the stomach ague, and she'd upchucked on the desk.
Jeffrey never answered her question.
And in the subsequent years, the question had still been evaded. Yet whenever a letter from her father had come, Jeffrey had always brought her into the study -- first making sure she was well -- to see the colored dots on that globe: from Andorra to Spain to Hejaz to Persia to Siam and, most recently, to the Spanish colony of the Philippine Islands. Somewhere around the age of fifteen, Eulalie had stopped asking when her father would come home, but she'd never stopped hoping.
All that hope and prayer came to fruition three months ago, when another letter had come to Hickory House. She had been arguing with her brother Jedidiah about whether she should be allowed to take the carriage to a special tea without a brother in tow -- a request she knew was fruitless but was nonetheless worth the effort since it killed the boredom of that afternoon -- when Jeffrey had called a family meeting. Jedidiah had immediately scowled at her and asked what the hell'd she done now.
Offended by his attitude, yet no less anxious to hear what Jeffrey had to say, she'd used every bit of Madame Devereaux's training and stuck her nose high in the air, grabbed her skirts in hand, and walked right past her scowling brother with all the ladylike grace of an organ hymn, for about five feet....Then she'd hit a sour note. She'd tripped on the silk fringe of the Aubusson carpet and had reached out to grab the nearest thing -- the mahogany smoking stand. They both went crashing down, along with her brothers' imported cigars and fifty-year-old French brandy.
Eulalie chewed a nail and frowned at the memory. It had taken three days to convince her brothers, especially Jed, that she could travel to the Philippines as her father's latest letter had requested. She could still remember the joy she'd felt when Jeffrey read the letter. Her father wanted her to come to the Philippines as soon as possible.
All five brothers had started arguing about it. Jeffrey said he still felt she was too young, but then, he'd always thought of her that way because he was fifteen years older than she. Harlan said she was too fragile, Leland claimed she was too naive, and Harrison said she was too helpless, but Jeffrey read on, and all those fears were put to rest because her father had arranged for her to travel with a family, the Philpotts, Methodists who were on their way to save the heathens of the lower Philippine island of Mindanao.
Eulalie had been so excited. The excitement died the minute Jed had opened his mouth. Although eight years her senior, he was the most vocal of her brothers. He'd claimed that wherever she was, an accident would happen. Immediately five sets of blue male eyes had turned to the empty spot where the smoking stand had once stood. Then they'd all looked at her.
She'd claimed he'd never forgiven her for falling into that old dry well when she was three and he was the only one small and thin enough to be lowered down to save her. She'd said it wasn't fair to blame her for something that happened when she was three. For three days they argued, mostly Eulalie and Jed. He had rambled on, likening her to the opening of Pandora's box. He'd spouted off a parcel of things that could happen to her and made her sound like the plague. She'd argued she wasn't a jinx, as he'd said. Everyone knew there was no such thing. His only answer had been that he had the scars to prove it. So by Saturday night she was reduced to tears, deep sobs that swelled from her disappointed depths like the sea in a storm. She cried all night.
But God must have been on her side because it was the sermon on Sunday that freed a puffy-eyed Eulalie from Jed's claim. Pastor Tutwhyler picked that exact morning to talk about how superstitions were the devil's foolery, and a true Christian would never succumb to such ideas. She could have run from the LaRues' front pew and kissed the man the moment he'd started preaching. After the service she'd heard Mrs. Tutwhyler talking about how the Reverend was inspired by Belvedere's newest establishment, a palm reader from New Orleans. But Eulalie didn't care what inspired it. The sermon had done the trick.
And now, three months later, she was here, sitting in a bedroom of her father's home in Manila, waiting as she had for all those years. She'd arrived a day earlier than expected and her father was in Quezon Province, supposedly returning by noon today.
A knock sounded at the door and Eulalie looked up. Josefina, her father's housekeeper, entered, a piece of paper in her hand. "I'm sorry, missy, but your father's been delayed."
Her stomach dropped, and the air in the room seemed suddenly stuffy. She wanted to cry, but she didn't. She sagged back in the chair, disappointment making her shoulders droop far more than Madame Devereaux would have ever allowed. She took a deep breath, gave the ticking clock one last look, and did what she'd been forced to do for so many years. She waited.
The jungle thickened. The machete couldn't cut through fast enough. The bushes blocked Sam in. He dropped to the ground and crawled under the wood ferns, dragging himself over the hard exposed roots and clammy earth. Lizards shot past him. Several bamboo beetles over two inches long crept over from the thick humus that covered the jungle ground. Twigs and damp leaves caught on his hair, pulled at his eye-patch string. He stopped to unhook it, breaking off the green twig that had snagged it. A milk white sticky sap dripped from the broken vine. Sam rolled, dodging the liquid. It was a leper plant whose sap could eat an acid path through human skin in less-than two minutes.
One deep relieved breath and he crawled farther. The vines and jungle seemed an endless trap. The sound of hacking still echoed from behind him. They hadn't reached the thick stuff. That knowledge sent him on, crawling over the damp ground, completely entrapped by twisted jungle cover. Sweat still eked from every pore in his body. It was sweat from the humidity and sweat from his nerves.
A slick black vampire snake with a bite more torturous and deadly than a stake through the heart slithered among the vines near his head. He lay still as stone. The sound of hacking knives and splitting bamboo broke from behind him. Without taking a breath, he watched the small reptile's glassy green stare. Luckily, the snake's thick-lidded eyes were turned away from him. Its jet-colored triangular scales undulated as it slid in a sinuous motion up, over, and through the tangled roots.
From behind him, the hacking stopped. So did Sam's heart. The men had reached the dense thicket of jungle. His heart took up the beat again,
Titel: Just a Kiss Away
Verlag: Pocket, US
Einband: Mass Market Pa
Zustand: Very Good
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