CODE NAME: BLONDIE by Christina Skye

Available April, 2006
ISBN 0-373-77069-3

Blondie on the Beach

"You must have some way to communicate with your headquarters, right?" Miki's voice turned tense. "They can send a plane for you."
"Not yet, they can't."
"Why not?" She shot to her feet, banging her head on the earth ceiling.
The woman had to be almost six feet tall, Max thought, and she looked more than a little klutzy. But that could be one more part of her act. "Open your eyes. Did you happen to see any planes in the area?"
"So call someone. Use a radio. You must have one with you."
"There's a storm heading into this area. I doubt that any planes are flying right now."
"So when?" She winced, rubbing her head.
"I'll try calling again soon." Like hell he would, Max thought grimly. He held up a cardboard-covered tray with a prepackaged meal. "Are you hungry?"
Miki shook her head. "I had breakfast back in Tahiti and some coffee and a protein bar at the beach where we were shooting-"
"Shooting what?"
"Swimsuit stills and tropical backgrounds for a calendar to be published next year."
"You're a photographer?"
"For ten years. I can't think of any work I'd like to do more - and I've done most of it, trust me." Something haunted filled her eyes. "I guess that's all off, now that my boss is…dead."
"Vance was the other passenger? Big guy, balding?"
"That's him. He wasn't breathing when I woke up. There was a lot of blood on the seat. Did you find his body?"
Max nodded. The sight of the airplane after the crash into the ocean hadn't been pretty.
Miki looked at him uncertainly. "Could I have more water, or is that something we need to ration?"
"We have enough, but don't overdo it."
She took the canteen and splashed a little on her hand, then rubbed her face. "I'm sticky from all that seawater. What I wouldn't give to clean up."
"Afraid I don't have bath facilities on the island, as you probably noticed."
She squirmed uneasily. "But you must have-I mean, what about the necessities?"
Max pointed over his shoulder. "When you need to go, you find a quiet spot and do what you have to do. But be sure to bury everything. This is a fragile ecosystem," he added, pretty sure that this concern would sound authentic-even if he didn't know much about ecosystems.
Only weapons.
"Of course." She turned and stared pointedly up the three steps. "Unless you're going to lock in me again."
"One, I didn't lock you in. The door was always unsecured. Two, I left my dog so you wouldn't wander out in the dark and hurt yourself. Then you went straight out and did just that."
For the second time, her eyes said yeah, right. "It's not dark now, so how about opening that door? I want to get some fresh air and clean up."
There was an answer to her question. Max just couldn't think of it right that second. He could strong-arm her into staying. He could probably frighten her badly. On the other hand, what if she really was an innocent bystander having one nightmare day that included a plane crash at sea? Hell, she didn't look or act like a trained professional. Her blond hair was matted from seawater, she had mascara clotted under her eyes, and her legs were scratched up. Max had dumped her sweater outside, some kind of short, clingy thing that barely covered her arms much less her chest. Now he noticed that stray white hairs covered her Hawaiian shirt.
He plucked off one of the hairy strands and held it up. "You're shedding."
"It's from my shrug."
"Beg your pardon."
"Shrug. A short sweater…the new, new thing." Her voice was ironic. "Actually, it was my own design. I knitted it between shoots back in Tahiti. Or was it the Marianas? After a while, all beaches start to look alike. Did you find it?"
"Back on the beach."
She seemed relieved, smiling suddenly. The curve of her mouth fascinated him so much he almost didn't notice her expression change as she broke into a hacking cough. "Great. Seawater in the lungs. I think I swallowed some really nasty algae too."
He thumped her hard on the back. "Dulse and sea plants are an excellent source of nutrients. The iodine and mineral salts are invaluable."
She stared at him. "Don't tell me you're a nutritionist along you're your field medicine and oil research. That's impressive."
Max noticed that she didn't bat her eyes when she said it. No simpering either. He needed to decide if she was very innocent-or very carefully trained by Cruz.
He had a feeling that either way this woman was going to be big trouble. Since he couldn't give her a good reason to stay underground and out of sight, he decided stalling was the best tactic. Fingering the white piece of thread, he sat down on the steps leading outside. "What do you call this stuff?"
"Angora. As in rabbits and goats."
"And you used it for that…sweater thing you mentioned. How?"
She stared at him, looking impatient. "I knitted it. Two sticks, one string. You may have heard of it," she said dryly.
"I don't think I've ever seen anyone actually do it." Max rubbed the back of his neck. "How long does something like that take to finish?"
"Three or four days, more or less. It depends on how complicated the stitch is and what your needle size you're using." She put her hands on her hips. "You don't have the slightest interest in knitting. You're just trying to keep me in here. Why?" she demanded flatly.
Max didn't move. "Actually, I am interested. How does it work?"
She stalked across the small space, angry and determined like a storm that couldn't be contained. "Enough of the inquisition. Let me out of here now or I'll do something you don't like. And trust me, it will be really loud."
"How about you relax?"
"I can't relax. I've been in a plane wreck, nearly drowned, and now I'm incarcerated with a crazy person. You know what I think?"
Max watched her, fascinated by the color pulsing through her cheeks and the anger in her eyes. Was she always so intense? "I can't imagine."
"I think you're a criminal who came here to hide out. Probably you're the kind who uses his brains more than brawn. Maybe you're a high-tech thief, someone who masterminds money laundering. Not the chump change kind either, but a business that's far-flung and multinational. Out here you think no one can catch you."
"You've got quite an imagination." Max watched, fascinated as she ran into a crate, stubbed her toe and hopped around awkwardly. "You may want to cool down before you hurt yourself."
"That's very funny. You couldn't care less about me. First you lock me up here in this…this dank cave while you-"
She stopped as Max stood up and calmly pushed open the small metal door, revealing a perfect turquoise sky.
"Go on."
She stayed where she was, her face uncertain. "Right now?"
"Right now."
Wind ruffled her hair. "Up there? You won't stop me, or send that big dog of yours after me?"
Max reined in his impatience. It was a calculated risk to let her out onto the beach, but risky moves could yield the best results. He figured she would need to find temporary bathroom facilities soon anyway. "You've got four minutes. There's a rock with some hibiscus plants to give you privacy. When you're done, you can scrub your face with sand and a little water. You've got four minutes."
She looked at the canteen he was holding out.
"Sand. You want me to wash with sand?" She caught a shaky breath. "I could be dead right now, half eaten by fish. What's a little sand in comparison to that?" She took his canteen of water. "Four minutes?"
Max nodded. Following her moods was like trying to catch small fish in turbid water. One minute she complained, the next she was logical and full of apologies. He moved aside, slanting her a warning look. "Remember the time. It's important."
"So you keep saying." She raised the canteen against her chest, climbing past him up the stairs, but her barefoot hit an uneven plank and she fell sideways.
Max caught her quickly, his hand circling her waist. Her hair brushed his face and her body slammed against him, surprising them both by the contact. Beneath damp clothes her skin radiated a subtle but distinct heat. He released her as soon as he could, dropping his arm and trying not to remember how warm she had felt.
A sudden wind filled the small space, ruffling her hair. After what felt like an eternity, Miki cleared her throat and stepped back. "That was clumsy of me."
"No problem." Max put more space between them. "No more perfume because it bothers my dog. And no noise." When Max followed her outside, little flecks of white yarn drifted back from her shoulders. She swung her arms wide, trying to balance in the narrow doorway, and in the process nearly knocked him in the face.
He ducked by reflex, wondering if she was always this clumsy. If it was an act, it was very well rehearsed. Something tickled his nose, squeezing his throat and he sneezed hard, which sent more angora fluff up into his face and nose. Max brushed them away, frowning. The noise discipline applied to him as much as her. Cruz could be on the other island waiting and watching right now.
One mistake could get them killed.
Cruz didn't believe in giving second chances.