Pain snaked up Iris Browning's spine and squeezed, stealing her breath. She stumbled to a halt, her sudden stop earning a French epithet from a blond walking on the sidewalk behind her. The woman swerved around her, glaring and gesturing.
"Sorry," Iris murmured, moving off the sun-baked sidewalk and leaning against the warm stucco façade of a dive shop. She breathed deeply, the tangy sea air filling her lungs and beginning to clear her pain-fuzzed brain.
"Are you okay, sugar?" A man's drawl, molasses-slow and unmistakably Southern, rumbled from somewhere to her right. She opened her eyes, squinting against the tropical sun, and found a pair of slate blue eyes fixed on her.
The speaker was obviously not a local, though his sun-bronzed skin suggested he'd been in the tropics a while. He sat at a small wooden table near the front of an open-air café. His long, muscular legs stretched out in front of him, clad in a pair of denim cut-offs that had seen better days. His cotton T-shirt, though worn loose and untucked, did little to hide his broad shoulders or muscular chest.
Iris raised her eyes to meet his curious gaze. "I'm fine."
He pushed back from the table, his chair scraping the concrete floor, and stood to face her. "You don't look fine."
"Gee, thanks." She shot for sardonic but didn't quite achieve it. Annoyed at her weakness, she pushed away from the wall. Her knees wobbled but she managed to stay upright.
Remember why you're here, Iris.
Ignoring her instinct to run, she crossed to him and pulled a photo from her pocket. It was becoming dog-eared, thanks to her morning's efforts. "Have you seen this woman?"
The stranger's brow wrinkled as he studied the face. "Can't say I have." He looked up. "Friend of yours?"
"She was supposed to meet me yesterday afternoon. She didn't show." The anxiety writhing in her stomach had been building since she'd arrived by cab at the hotel to discover Sandrine missing. The concierge had told her Sandrine hadn't checked out, but none of her friend's things were in the room she and Iris were supposed to share. Iris didn't want to think the worst, but the alternatives didn't make much sense.
As the blue-eyed stranger handed the photo back to her, his fingers brushed hers. A dark sensation roiled through her, pulling her attention back to the present. It wasn't physical pain, like the earlier sensation, but an emotional one, black and bitter like strong coffee.
She jerked her hand back, losing her grip on the photo. It fluttered to the floor, face up.
The man's eyes narrowed as picked up the photo and handed it to her. "Sorry. Didn't mean to invade your personal space."
She realized how he must have interpreted her quick retreat from his touch. "You didn't," she assured him, her voice more gruff than she intended. The blackness swirling through her thickened, slowed to a poisonous crawl.
"You're not used to this heat. Why don't you sit down? I'll buy you something to drink."
She looked up at him, intending to refuse. But the wariness in his eyes struck a nerve. Her earlier reaction to his touch had wounded him, somehow. She found herself unable to compound the insult by rebuffing his offer.
Besides, she was tired and thirsty.
Relenting, she sat in the chair he held for her. The stranger disappeared for a moment, returning with a chilled bottle of water, already uncapped. He set it in front of her and took the chair on the opposite side of the table.
"Name's Maddox." His gaze followed the bottle to her lips.
Iris began to take a sip, then stopped. How many rules of traveling alone had she just broken? She set the bottle back on the table and looked nervously at her companion.
A wry smile curved his lips, carving dimples in his bronzed cheeks. She felt a bubble of unexpected attraction pop and spread through her chest. "Sorry. Guess I should have left it unopened. I'll get you another one."
She shook her head. "I'm okay." She started to stand, but fresh pain assaulted her, driving her back to her seat.
"I'll get you another one," he repeated firmly.
She watched him cross to the bar and order another water. He paid in cash and brought the unopened bottle back to her. She opened the bottle and took a sip.
"Had any sleep?" he asked.
She eyed him warily. "How bad do I look?"
Maddox grabbed the other bottle of water and took a swig before he spoke. "You look tired. A little pale. Not bad."
"I just want to find Sandrine."
"That's a pretty name." He gestured at the photo on the table. "Pretty girl. Maybe she met somebody here--"
Iris shook her head. "She'd have left a message."
He leaned toward her, flashing her a grin just this side of naughty. "Love makes you forget your own name, sugar."
"She would have left a message," she repeated firmly, forcing her gaze away from those dimples.
"Give her time. Maybe she will." He sat back again, slouching low in his seat. One sandy lock of hair flopped into his eyes; he shook it away from his face and leveled his gaze with hers. "You have somewhere to stay, don't you?"
She nodded quickly. "She'd already checked in for us."
"Well, that's good." His voice softened, almost as if he were speaking to a child. "Maybe you should head on back to your room until later in the day. The sun down here in the islands isn't like what you're used to in the States."
"I live in Alabama. I know about heat." She immediately felt foolish for giving him even that much personal information.
"I'm from Georgia, myself," he said, a smile in his voice. "Bet you couldn't tell, huh? Been working on losing my accent."
She couldn't hold back a soft chuckle.
He smiled at her, flashing that dimple again. It had a similar effect, twisting her stomach into a knot. "That's better. Laughter's the best medicine, they say."
"I'm Iris." She managed a tight smile.
"Nice to meet you, Iris. That's another pretty name."
She ignored the compliment. "Are you here on vacation?"
"No, ma'am, I live here year round."
"Because Georgia just wasn't hot enough for you?"
"In the summer Georgia's hotter than here." He slumped deeper in the tiny café chair. "It's nice year-round here in Mariposa. Never so hot that a sea breeze can't perk you up and never so cool that you need to wear socks with your flip flops."
"How does one support oneself on a tropical island?" she asked, giving into a twinge of curiosity.
"One lives off one's trust fund, sugar." He laughed. "Or odd jobs. Whichever is available."
"What odd jobs do you do?"
"Don't think I look like the trust fund type?"
She flushed, embarrassed by her assumption. "I'm sorry--"
"I do security work. Here and there."
Mysterious, she thought, her wariness returning. She'd grown too relaxed over the past few minutes. Not smart, dropping her guard all alone in a strange place.
"Have you talked to the police about your friend?" Maddox asked after another long swig of water.
The question disarmed her a bit. "They didn't seem terribly concerned. They said she's a grown-up, it hasn't even been twenty-four hours yet--"
"Blah blah blah," he finished with a sympathetic nod. "How about family and other friends? Did you check with them?"
"She doesn't have a family, and I don't know that much about her life or who her other friends are." She could tell her answer confused him, so she continued. "Sandrine is a friend from college. We live in different states now. We do talk on the phone now and then, but I don't know much about her life and she doesn't know about mine. That's part of what this weekend was going to be about--catching up.
"Well, maybe it still will be," Maddox said. "In fact, I bet when you get back to the hotel, your friend'll be waitin' for you with some crazy story about how she got waylaid."
Iris wished she could believe him. But the sense of unease that had hit her the second she stepped from the plane in Sebastian had grown to full blown foreboding, as palpable as the pain still pulsing up and down her spine.
"You don't buy that, do you?" Maddox murmured.
"Sandrine's level-headed. She wouldn't go off with someone she'd just met, and she wouldn't have blown off meeting me at the airport when she worked so hard to talk me into this trip." Iris looked down at Sandrine's face in the photo, the ever-present smile and the sparkle of mischief in her green eyes. "And then I think about that missing girl over in--"
"Don't go there yet." Maddox reached across the table and brushed the back of her hand with his fingertips. Once again she experienced a strange, dark sensation spiral up her arm from the point of contact. The emotion it evoked inside her remained frustratingly nebulous--dark, painful but undefined.
She forced herself not to pull her hand away this time.
"How about the U.S. Consulate?" he asked, sliding his hand away. "Have you checked with anybody there?"
"They suggested I call the police." She picked up Sandrine's photo and put it in the front pocket of her purse. "What do I owe you for the water, Mr. Maddox?"
"Just Maddox. No mister. And the water's on me."
"Thank you." When she stood, he stood with her, the polite gesture at odds with his scruffy appearance.
"I hope you find your friend." He sounded sincere. "Tell you what--when she turns up, bring her down here and I'll buy you both a drink. Just ask for Mad Dog. Everybody knows me."
She inclined her head toward him and headed out of the café. The sun slammed into her head like a ninety-degree sledgehammer, sapping her remaining energy as she trudged toward the beach, where the Hotel St. George hovered like a pale pink jewel over the cobalt-blue waters of Cutler's Bay.
The closer she got to the beach, the stronger the smell of the sea, sharp and salty in the breeze that lifted her hair and dried the perspiration beading on her forehead and arms. But mingled with the sea air, an undercurrent of misery lingered like a bitter aftertaste. It weighted Iris as she neared the palm-studded beach stretching for a mile around the bay.
Someone was out there. Someone in agony. Physical pain, sharp and specific, etched phantom slashes along the skin of Iris's wrists and ankles. A throbbing pain bloomed in the back of her skull, blinding in its intensity.
Her vision blurred, the world around her beginning to spin out of control. She groped for something to hold onto, something to keep her from pitching forward into the street, but there was nothing. Nothing but the blare of car horns and a muted cacophony of voices.
And pain. Knee-buckling, back-bending pain.
She crumpled to her knees, the sting of the rough pavement on her bare flesh little more than a twinge against the onslaught of agony racing circles around her nervous system.
She tried to lift her head, tried to regain her bearings, but nothing around her looked real or recognizable. It was as if the pain itself had become tangible, a red mist surrounding her, blinding her to everything else around her.
In the heart of that mist, a man's voice called her name.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.