Five Weeks in the Future: Lima, Peru:
“Watch Out!” Darcey screamed.
The limo had just entered the middle of an intersection, when Darcey caught sight of a huge, black SUV bearing down on them. She only had time to turn and look out of the window behind Armando before the SUV had broadsided them. It hit the limo in front of the back door panel on the passenger side. The impact threw Armando into Darcey, propelling her over and crushing her against the back door on the driver’s side. She could feel the armrest cutting into her side.
A white-hot pain shot through her shoulder as her head slammed into the window.
The limo spun madly--tires screeched, metal crunched, glass shattered--and then it was flying through air. The vehicle rolled over repeatedly in slow motion, while Darcey and Armando tumbled over each other inside like laundry in a dryer. The limo finally came to rest on its side shuddering, and then silence, except for the rotation whir from one of the limo’s wheels as it slowly wound down to a standstill.
Bright bursts of light flashed behind Darcey’s eyes. She heard Armando utter several loud expletives in Spanish, and then something heavy hit her leg. She could feel a warm sticky substance sliding down her forehead.
Something hard poked Darcey in the back and it hurt like hell. A white-hot pain hit her as she tried to shift her position to call for Armando. She scrunched her eyes in pain as tears ran down her cheeks, then she screamed.
Catching her breath as the pain subsided, she tried again to reach out to Armando. “Armando! Armando!” she called as loud as she could, but she was sure it wasn’t much above a whisper. “Are you okay?” She bit her lip as she tried to move to get a better look at Armando. The pain was excruciating.
She heard nothing but a small moan.
At least he’s alive she thought, relieved.
She didn’t think she had any broken bones, but she hurt everywhere. The inside of her head was pounding, her shoulder felt as if it were on fire, and her legs were pinned in a painful position by something heavy. Darcey attempted to move to see what was holding her legs immobile, but an explosion of pain shot through her body--darkness.
Persona non grata
Five weeks previously: Dallas, Texas:
The day dawned bright, clear, and comfortably warm, giving no hint of the dark storm clouds brewing on the horizon just a mere five weeks in the future.
It was Sunday. Just like all the others Sundays, Darcey and Brad had spent together riding at the Bellington Stables. Except today, for some reason the owner and old university buddy of Brad’s, Mike Bellington, had decided to join them. Darcey was annoyed with his constant nervous chatter, mostly about nothing, interrupting what was supposed to have been her and Brad’s quiet time away from a week of their stress-filled jobs. At least it was for her. Brad had never completely shared with her exactly what his job was. He had just said it was classified, but she would know all about it in due time--not totally satisfying to a gal with a wicked curiosity.
It was going on two o’clock when they returned to the stable, where they left the horses in the capable hands of the attendant, and followed Mike into the Stable’s new Tack Room Deli and Coffee Shop, one of the topics Mike had incessantly droned on about.
Shortly after a second round of beers had been placed on the table, Darcey noticed a woman silhouetted against the open door. She briefly surveyed the room then began walking with purpose across the floor toward their table. Brad and Mike were deep in a friendly argument over the latest soccer scores and hadn’t noticed her.
Darcey scrutinized the woman as she approached. She was maybe five foot six or seven and had a slim build. The baggy shirt and prairie skirt that hung to the floor were not at all flattering. However, her dark mahogany-colored hair, tied at the nape of her neck with a black ribbon, flowed in graceful waves halfway to her waist. Her skin had a slight dusty-rose color to it, and the long, black lashes that circled her dark eyes were curiously strange and exotic. Darcey had never seen eyes like that on anyone.
As she approached the table, Darcey noticed she seemed to glide rather than actually having a rhythm to her footsteps. Darcey couldn’t be sure because the woman’s feet were not visible beneath the prairie skirt.
When the woman got closer, Darcey could see she had a slight smile on her face as she looked from Brad to Mike, but, when she noticed Darcey, the smile vanished, replaced with a quick downturn of her mouth.
Darcey couldn't quite put her finger on the vibes this woman was generating, but they weren’t good.
Be careful of this one, her inner voice cautioned.
Mike saw her before Brad and jumped up as she approached. Brad turned, a frown forming on his face when he saw the woman.
“Lilly, glad you’re here. The office phoned to say you would be coming.” Mike nervously pulled out a chair for her as he looked at Brad and shrugged. “Sorry, I should have told you. I guess it just slipped my mind.”
“Well, no harm done.” Brad’s eyes bored into Mike’s. “She’s here now.”
Mike gave a half-hearted smile as he made introductions. “Lilly, I’d like you to meet Darcey Callahan, and you know Brad, of course. Darcey is his lady love,” Mike said, cringing inside and wondered why he had thought it necessary to say that.
Lilly had always made him extremely nervous. She reminded him of a cobra ready to strike at the slightest movement. He, Brad, and their university research team had been on the verge of completing a ground-breaking engineering feat when the Ocean Research for Consolidated Alliances Corporation “ORCA” had made them an “offer they couldn’t refuse” and bought their Bio Dome, Ecosphere, and Filtration Systems plans.
Mike and Brad were the primaries in the development of the dome and filtration system and ORCA had hired them as project managers.
According to ORCA officials, this project was to be an experimental, secret project requiring both men to sign confidential, non-disclosure agreements. The project was estimated to take upward of five years for completion.
That’s where they had met Lilly. She had been promoted to Brad’s assistant after the person who originally held the position had died under mysterious circumstances. Mike had his suspicions about what had really happened, but then his father had died and he had to return to Dallas to help his mother run the stables. He still received a healthy stipend as part of ORCA’s buyout of his part of the project.
Darcey smiled back, cautiously. Something’s not right here, she decided, looking from Mike to Lilly and then to Brad, who was glowering at Mike.
“Hello,” Lilly said in accented English. She smiled tightly, as her eyes did a quick up and down assessment of Darcey, then her face went blank as Mike held the chair for her to sit down.
Instantly, Darcey felt a cold chill and goose bumps form on her arms.
Lilly sat down, adjusting her skirt, then folded her hands neatly in her lap. Darcey thought she seemed rather odd and noticed that Lilly kept her eyes trained on her folded hands, her face giving away nothing.
Darcey shivered again.
Looking pointedly at Brad, Mike hesitated. “Lilly came in on the morning flight from Lima. The Dallas office sent her here, since they couldn’t reach you on your cell. She’ll be flying back this afternoon, so she needs to talk to you--now.” Mike emphasized the “now,” looking anxiously at Brad. “Lilly works with Brad,” Mike said, as a sidebar, to Darcey and swallowed.
Darcey could see this Lilly person was really making Mike jumpy. He looked on the verge of a panic attack.
Maybe Lilly was the reason Mike suddenly decided to join us today. Maybe he was supposed to tell Brad about her but couldn’t figure out how. That would explain all the stupid babbling he did on the ride. Annoyed, she tried to analyze the puzzling situation.
As far as Darcey knew, Mike owned the riding stables, and he and Brad had gone to the university together. Since Brad had acted like the relationship was no big deal, she hadn’t inquired further.
Maybe I should have, she worried.
“What brings you here?” Brad frowned, as his gaze shifted from Mike to Lilly. “Is everything all right with the project?”
A rhetorical question. She wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t something wrong with the project, Brad thought as he studied Lilly.
Lilly, her eyes still looking down at her hands, seemed exasperated as she looked up at Brad. Her expression quickly smoothed, concealing her emotions. “No. Everything is not right,” she stated flatly, answering the question that did not need an answer.
Her presence was all that was needed to convey the importance of the problem connected to the project. Lilly raked her eyes over Darcey again before dropping them back to her lap.
Brad reached over and put his hand on Darcey’s arm.
“Excuse us for a little bit, babe. I have to talk to Lilly. I won’t be long.” He gave her arm a gentle squeeze as he stood up.
This gal is definitely not a people person, Darcey thought shivering inwardly. She certainly doesn’t like me, and the feeling is mutual.
“That’s fine,” Darcey said, smiling up at Brad. “I’ll be right here. Take your time.” She turned and looked directly at Lilly.
Mike gave Brad an uneasy look and stood up. “I’ve got horses to look after,” he said clearing his throat. “See you guys later. Darcey. Brad.” Touching his Stetson and inclining his head toward them, he nodded. “Lilly.”
Lilly gave a slight nod of her head as she rose from her chair, her eyes hard as she glared at Darcey again.
Darcey stared back. Geez, lady, what’d I do to you?
Brad and Lilly followed Mike out the door. She could see them standing, just outside the window. Lilly looked extremely upset about something. She placed her hand on Brad’s arm in a pleading gesture. He stood there, nodding his head every so often, his jaw tight. Apparently, Lilly wasn’t giving him the opportunity to get a word in edgewise.
Darcey shivered again remembering how she had needled Brad about the project. That had been as close to an argument they had ever come. He had paced the room, frustrated at her, and finally exclaimed, “Don’t you think I would tell you if I could? My hands are tied. I can’t.”
She let the subject drop after that, but, it still rankled her that he wouldn’t trust her enough to tell her about it.
After five minutes or so, Brad turned on his heel, leaving Lilly standing alone, glaring after him. He pushed the door hard as he entered, his face livid. Darcey could feel his anger. Glowering, Brad sat down, grabbed his beer, and took a big gulp.
Darcey placed her hand on his arm. “Is everything all right?” she asked softly. She could feel the tension in his arm.
Setting the beer down and taking Darcey’s hand in his, he kissed her palm--driving her crazy as it always did-- shooting white-hot heat through her veins.
“No, but it’s nothing for you to worry your pretty little head about,” he said, his brows coming together. “Let’s go.”
Darcey barely had time to recover from the heat wave that coursed through her, before he entwined his fingers with hers and practically dragged her out the door.
On the silent, hour-long drive back to Dallas, the late afternoon sun faded into twilight. Darcey, not wanting to invade Brad’s thoughts, snuggled up next to him. He put his arm around her. A feeling of complete happiness enveloped her. Knowing she was safe in Brad’s arms, she dozed off.
Darcey was half awake and coming out of the most exquisite dream, when they pulled into the parking lot of their favorite bistro for a late supper.
Brad leaned over and placed a soft kiss on her lips, and was pleasantly surprised by her instant response of complete abandonment. Pulling her onto his lap, Brad deepened the kiss, parting her lips. Darcey’s heart raced and heat roared through her body as their tongues danced.
“Ummmm--if you keep that up we may have to skip dinner,” Brad breathed heavily into her hair. “Of course, I wouldn’t mind that at all.” He chuckled. Pulling back, he placed a teasing kiss on her nose.
Darcey made a pouty face and reluctantly slid off his lap. “Yeah, I think you’re probably right, but I’m starving. Let’s go,” she said with a laugh, not waiting for him to come around and open her door.
As soon as they were seated at their favorite table, Brad’s cell vibrated in his pocket. Frowning, he looked at the caller ID. “What the hell does she want now,” he mumbled under his breath as he shoved himself away from the table and walked stiffly out to the lobby to answer it.
The low hum of muffled voices, silverware and china clattering prevented Darcey from hearing his low agitated comment. She watched him disappear through the archway into the lobby. The sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach was back.
Brad had been gone close to ten minutes when the waiter stopped back by to see if they were ready to order. Darcey looked up to tell him “Not yet,” when she noticed Brad coming through the archway from the lobby. He was looking down, but she could see his face was stiff, and his lips formed a straight line--he was angry. That was the same look he’d had after talking with Lilly, but it was more intense now. He looked up, saw her watching, and immediately the anger was replaced with that heart-stopping, lopsided grin of his.
Brad sat down, giving Darcey a half smile as he tried to concentrate on the menu, seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him.
“Okay, what’s going on?” Darcey asked, giving him a playful jab in the arm.
“Something pertaining to the project has come up unexpectedly.” Laying the menu down, he looked at her. “It’s nothing for you to worry about. It will be resolved, but I will have to go back to Lima to take care of it.”
Darcey felt a cold chill, and the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach hit her again as she listened to Brad. She knew he had been going back and forth between the Dallas and Lima offices ever since they’d started dating over a year ago, but the tone when he spoke of work now gave her chills. She didn’t understand it, but his voice had a foreboding ring to it, and she could see the worry he was trying to hide behind that half-hearted grin.
“I shouldn’t be gone for more than a couple of weeks,” he said, looking her in the eyes. “This is something I have to take care of immediately,”
Cupping her chin, he gently pulled her toward him and kissed her. He was trying to reassure her, but she could tell he was worried--a lot.
A feeling of helplessness came over Darcey. She wanted to help but didn’t know what she could do. “Tell me what I can do,” she said softly, gently brushing back the dark auburn lock that perpetually fell sexily across his forehead.
“Just be here when I get back,” he whispered, taking her hand and holding it to his cheek, before turning it over to kiss her palm.
Naughty thoughts raced through her head as the white-hot heat from the kiss pulsed through her veins. Brad was leaving her breathless and blushing in the middle of the restaurant. He continually left her breathless and blushing from their very first date--when she had skinned her palm from tripping on a loose stone, and he’d kissed the pain away--to now. The kiss that had been intended for comfort, had instead, ignited a burning passion in both of them and formed a connection between them that neither could explain.
Darcey’s heart turned over as she watched him from under her eyelashes, during dinner. Worry lines creased his brow as he tried to make light conversation. Finally, he leaned back and ran his fingers through his hair, pulling the wayward lock back in place again.
“Sorry, I know I’m not decent company tonight,” he apologized, forcing a smile that never quite reached his eyes. He had spent the last half hour while they ate in relative silence, trying to decide whether to tell Darcey why he had to go to Lima but, if just half of what Lilly had told him was true, he couldn’t afford to put Darcey in danger.
She could see the worry that had been building all evening in the depths of those green eyes, and she shivered, as the feeling of dread swept over her again.
“Let’s go.” He signaled the waiter for the check.
© 2017 by Madge H. Gressley