“Meet me upstairs. I want you and I’m taking you to bed.”
Despite her pounding head, Anna Mercado smiled to stall for time and sipped her margarita. Delivering a not-so-subtle message, her estranged husband ran his fingertips lightly over the top of her thighs before adjusting the beach umbrella.
“We’ve already discussed this. I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” she said.
“No? I think it’s one of the better ideas I’ve had all day.” Max Mercado grinned, completely at ease with her seeming rejection. “You need more sunscreen or you’re going to burn, babe.” His accent made the declaration sound sexy as he climbed over his wood-and-canvas chair to grab the lotion from her bag.
She took another sip of the frozen drink and searched for what to say. Going upstairs with her handsome husband was a terrible idea. She looked past the pristine sand of the Ritz-Carlton’s exclusive beach to the startling blue water of the Gulf and tried to remember how she’d been talked into this faux family vacation.
That was easy. Their very ill son had begged. She couldn’t refuse Zach when he’d asked for so little in the past twelve months.
As much as she’d like to blame the wretched circumstances, Max’s assumptions this morning were completely valid and entirely her fault. Yesterday she’d been looking for courage to face the future, so she’d let herself be talked into sharing a suite with him instead of insisting on her own room. She’d come dangerously close to sharing a bed with him last night as well.
But almost having sex had more to do with sharing two bottles of wine than talking—and absolutely nothing to do with courage. Lack of communication had long been an issue in their failing marriage. Lack of communication and Max’s lack of exclusivity.
Compatibility in the bedroom had never been a problem for him . . . with anyone. If anything, it was just the opposite. Her husband liked to show every woman a good time in bed.
Today, she had the mother of all headaches and morning-after regrets over an evening that had led to “almost sex.” She was not sleeping with him. She couldn’t.
Even if that intimacy was . . . familiar. Safe. Easy. Comfortable. It wasn’t love. Not anymore.
Despite what others thought, it didn’t matter to her how wealthy Max was. As his wife she couldn’t live with his infidelity. She took another sip of her frosty concoction and reached up to stay his hand as he went from rubbing sunscreen into her shoulders to massaging her neck.
Okay, so she liked his hands on her. And the man was beautiful. There was no denying it. With his Hispanic good looks and panty-melting charm he’d always been difficult to resist. Maybe this drink was starting to work as a hangover cure, or maybe she should just set it down on the side table immediately, because she was considering going upstairs with him.
“Zach’s having a blast.” She was still stalling. “I told him I would get him food from the beach grill when they open for lunch.”
Their fourteen-year-old son was sand sculpting a great white shark with his cousins ten yards away, blissfully oblivious to his mother’s dilemma.
“This could be his last shot at fun for a while. Once he checks into Children’s Transplant Center . . .” All playfulness was gone from Max’s tone.
A year ago she’d never dreamed it would take so long for her son to get a new heart, or that his health would deteriorate to the point where they’d be forced to consider an LVAD heart pump to serve as the “bridge to transplantation.” The countless meds they used and the pacemaker implanted six months earlier could no longer regulate his heart rhythm. Waiting had become a tangible enemy as time was running out.
That they were now waiting for someone else to die so their child could live was something she tried not to think about. The guilt would be overpowering. As it was, Anna jumped whenever the phone rang.
“Are you glad you’re here?” Max’s husky voice pulled her from the dismal thoughts. Seeing Zach so happy, she couldn’t help but nod.
“Yes, I am. I didn’t realize how much of a toll this has been taking. You’re sure we can get there in time if the hospital calls?”
“With the company plane we can be at CTC in three hours. And we’ve got Julia to take care of him if any complications arise.”
Anna glanced at the extremely competent and attractive private cardiac care nurse who’d flown into Cancun with them from Dallas. “I know, I just—”
“He’s been on the wait list a year, Anna. They’re not going to call this weekend. He’s checking into the hospital Monday for the LVAD. God only knows how long that recovery will take.”
He was behind her and wouldn’t let her interrupt. “I’m not asking if I can come back or if we can do the transplant procedure here in Mexico anymore. But we need to give him this time away from the strain and stress of it. Forty-eight hours is all. Let him enjoy his family. I need to give you both this time. Please, let me.”
Anna squeezed her eyes shut. She wouldn’t argue with him. Not anymore. It was too exhausting when he lost his temper.
Just for today, she wasn’t going to look back and she wasn’t going to look forward. She couldn’t think of what the coming weeks held. The past year had been too hard, and the future was too scary to contemplate.
As much as she longed for something or someone to give her hope, she knew Max was not that man. But he was safe and he was all she had.
“So?” Her husband sat in the beach chair beside her. “Are you done beating yourself up about last night? It’s okay, you know. We are still married. And I still want you. Come upstairs. Forget about all this for a while.”
She blew out the breath she’d been holding and swung around to look at him through dark glasses. It was disconcerting that he was practically reading her mind. He wasn’t usually able to do that.
“I can’t. I need—”
“What Anna?” He interrupted as usual, but in the past he would have been irritated with this level of intimate conversation. Today he truly seemed interested in what she had to say. “What do you need?”
“Things that are not fair to ask of you if I’m not staying in this marriage.”
“I understand. But he’s my son, too. Did it occur to you that I might be scared and looking for a little comfort?”
His words shocked her to her toes because they mirrored her thoughts exactly.
She slid Chanel sunglasses down her nose to stare at him. “No, frankly that never occurred to me.”
He stared into her eyes. “Lay the burden down, babe. Emilio will watch the boys and Julia is here, too.”
The very capable Julia was under the huge shade tent shielding the boys from the blazing Mexican Riviera sun. Emilio, the tank-like Mercado bodyguard, was several yards away under another umbrella watching them all. His only concession to the beach setting was a knit shirt instead of a coat and tie.
Max’s affluent family owned the largest tequila distillery in Mexico and took precautions everywhere these days, even inside an exclusive resort. Her husband was right. Anna wasn’t really needed at the moment.
“I—” she hesitated but it had to be said. “You do understand I’m not staying.”
He touched her face when she would have stopped there.
“I feel like I’m using you, Max.”
He laughed, a deep rich sound that stirred something inside her from long ago. Those hypnotic brown eyes crinkled up at the corners as he brought her hand to his lips. “God yes, woman. Now come upstairs and use me some more.”
She laughed with him then, every argument slipping away. “All right. But I have to get my head wrapped around all this. Plus I have to get Zach something to eat.”
She took his hand and read the time on his expensive dive watch. “The grill opens in fifteen minutes. I’ll be up right after,” she said.
He grinned at her like a boy who is about to commit serious mischief and knows he won’t be punished. Leaning over her body to kiss her, he caressed her shoulder and slid his palm down her arm into her bikini top to cop a very thorough feel. She gasped, but he was blocking everyone’s view.
“The only thing I want you to wrap yourself around is me. I’ll be in the suite. I’ve got a couple of calls to make.” He kissed her again, making it crystal clear what he intended to do to her once she got upstairs. Then he was gone, waving to the boys and stopping to talk to Emilio.
She sat listening to the waves, surprised at how aroused she was. Maybe this was another mistake, but she didn’t care. Her headache was fading and she was going for it.
She wasn’t going to pretend he was offering courage or anything resembling hope. But what he could offer was pulse pounding, peel-the-paint-off-the-ceiling comfort sex. That was the only thing on the menu, and right now she’d take it, because the coming days were looking grim.
“Take Zach from the party before the guests arrive. We won’t dump her body until the designated time. It’s all been arranged.”
Anna stopped in the doorway of the Presidential suite, her husband’s words abruptly penetrating her lust-fogged brain.
“No, I’m not worried. Haven’t you heard? Mexico is the land of vicious drug cartels and random violence. My wife will be a sad statistic.”
Was this a dream?
She felt the cold Italian marble beneath her bare feet and recognized Max’s voice in the adjoining room, but she didn’t wake up. The seductive words he had whispered moments earlier on the beach still resonated in her head.
The only thing I want you to wrap yourself around is me.
She’d come up immediately when Julia had volunteered to get Zach and the cousins’ meals from the hotel’s beach grill. But on the way to the room she’d been calling herself all kinds of a fool. She and Max were on the verge of officially separating even though they’d been living apart for several months. The counseling wasn’t working. Having sex was a terrible idea. Even comfort sex.
Yet he’d been so attentive, so different on this trip. So anxious to please her, while keeping his temper completely in check. Last week she’d been considering which attorney to use in a divorce. Now she was just grateful she was standing here overhearing his phone conversation in the next room.
Her thoughts raced and her blood chilled, but her feet were glued to the imported floor. She stared across the opulent suite’s living room to the open balcony doors. The heir to the Mercado Tequila fortune settled for nothing less than the finest, even when planning his family’s demise.
An ocean breeze blew through the room, ruffling her hair like a playful lover. The Gulf of Mexico was just as blue as it had been ten minutes ago when Max kissed her on the sand, yet everything had changed. She was listening to her husband order their son’s kidnapping and her murder.
Why? Did he want complete control over Zach’s life?
“I’ll meet you after. It’ll probably be midnight or later. I’ll be dealing with the fallout from their disappearances.”
His laugh was low and rich, sounding the same as it had moments ago on the beach, but the words were cruel. “I’ve always been an excellent actor. Playing the grieving widower and desperate father won’t be hard.”
She’d been holding her breath and took a quiet gulp of air against the nausea that threatened. Perspiration was running down her back. Everything over the past twenty-four hours had been a lie, but she still didn’t understand the reason.
“Yes, payment as we discussed. But you may have to keep him in seclusion until you hear from me. There won’t be any margin for error.” She heard impatience in his voice now.
Oh my god. What was he thinking?
Zach needed care and monitoring by qualified nurses almost round the clock. He had to go back to Dallas for the LVAD pump. She couldn’t even process what would happen if the center called now with a donor.
She had to get Zach and herself out of here until she understood what the hell was going on. She knew she wasn’t dreaming when she accepted the idea of getting on a plane without breaking into a cold sweat. Her fear of flying was completely swallowed up in her new fear of Max.
“I’ve got to go. Anna’ll be here soon.”
That shocked her out of her frozen reverie and she inched from the entryway, closing the door silently behind her.
Racing to the elevator, she threw herself inside and stabbed the lobby button. Zach should still be eating lunch at the beach with his cousins.
He didn’t have the new phone that Max had just given him yesterday. She’d asked him to leave it in the room, concerned it would be ruined in all the sand and surf. At least she had the hospital pager in her beach bag. She didn’t go anywhere without it in case the doctors of Children’s Transplant Center called with word of a matching donor.
Where were their passports?
She stopped walking beside the ladies’ lounge in the lobby and wanted to scream when she realized their travel documents were in the suite’s room safe.
Jesus . . . God. Help.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks as a maid pushing a cleaning cart opened the swinging door. “Are you alright, señora?”
“Sí. Gracias.” Anna nodded, smiling weakly before ducking into the restroom herself. She had to pull it together. Weeping while walking through a five-star hotel would draw more attention than she could afford.
Soothing music played a soft island rhythm. A wall fountain gurgled and overstuffed chairs beckoned—a tranquilizing retreat under any other circumstances. Anna sank into one of the overstuffed chairs and felt her perspiration soak into the upholstery. She took a ragged breath. She had to have a plan.
Her whole life, she had always known her next step. Even when Zach got sick, and she felt as though she’d stepped into an abyss, the doctors had given her a course of action. Use meds, install a pacemaker, the LVAD if necessary, and wait for a heart. God, the only time she’d never had a plan had been when she’d met and married Max at nineteen in a whirlwind romance. She’d thrown caution—and her carefully considered roadmap for an education and career—to the wind to marry him, never dreaming what his enchanting exterior disguised. Her stomach roiled under the strain.
The police? Not an option, even if they believed her wild story. With the corruption in the Mexican police force and the Mercado family wealth, she couldn’t trust that they weren’t already on the payroll.
Max wasn’t taking Zach till later tonight, so she had a little time. But she was wearing a bikini with a sarong cover-up, plus she was barefoot with barely twenty dollars in cash. Everything—Zach’s meds, her passport, Zach’s passport, their clothes, plus all her credit cards—was in the suite with Max.
What was she going to do?
With startling clarity she knew, and the knowledge of what it entailed had her dashing for one of the stalls to empty the contents of her stomach. Kneeling on the cold hard tile, despair washed over her in relentless waves along with the nausea. After a few minutes, she rose on shaky knees to stagger to the sinks.
She was going to have to go back upstairs and have sex with her husband, putting on the performance of a lifetime and acting as if she hadn’t just overheard him threatening to take Zach and dispose of her body like so much trash. She’d go to bed with him, pretending to be enjoying that “comfort sex” and when he got up to get showered and dressed, she’d grab her clothes along with Zach’s and run.
Could she do it?
If she wanted to save herself and her son, she’d have to. But she had to have their passports, Zach’s meds, and some cash before they could leave. They had to get out of Mexico this afternoon, before Max suspected she knew anything.
Copyright © 2013 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.