The first pages of DOUBT AND DESIRE, my recently released romantic suspense novel.
The woman wasn’t what he expected, and Sterling was in no bloody mood for surprises. Scowling, he watched Sarah Kaufman blink like some nocturnal creature emerging into light as she trailed the other Kathmandu passengers into the Delhi terminal. Most of McCabe’s women struck him as almost interchangeable, sultry, model-thin beauties, but this one was unremarkable, with pale skin and brownish hair pushed behind her ears. She was in her late twenties, he guessed, perhaps thirty. A bit below average height, she wore loose cotton trousers and a gauzy lilac tunic. No make-up, as far as he could tell, and dark eyes ringed by shadows.
She studied the departing flight information board before proceeding to an Air France gate. In the waiting area, she curled into one of the few open seats, squeezed between a sari-clad matron and an older gentleman apparently engrossed in a copy of the Hindustan Times.
Moving closer, Sterling shifted his worn backpack off his shoulders to the ground. Then he leaned against a wall diagonally across from Sarah’s row and folded his arms over his chest.
Sarah Kaufman closed her eyes. Within minutes she reopened them and shifted in her seat. Not able to sleep, Sterling decided, observing her from beneath the lowered brim of his cowboy hat. She fiddled with something in her bag, and then looked up and stared straight at him. Her delicately arched brows drew together and her lips parted, but her expression was remote, as if she were gazing inward, rather than out. She wasn’t seeing him at all. Was she having second thoughts, regrets?
No matter. His mouth tightened. If she had anything to do with the deaths of his fellow agents, he’d crush her along with McCabe, without mercy or compunction.
Sarah’s bones ached from fatigue. By now she should have been winging her way over the Atlantic, but foul weather across Europe disrupted flights on three continents. Four-o-clock in the morning, and she was still stuck in Delhi. She didn’t want to contemplate how much more time would pass until she reached Boston.
Still trying in vain to find a comfortable position, Sarah told herself given the packed terminal, she was lucky to have a place to sit at all. The Indian lady in the seat beside her began to snore, puffs of breath wafting in and out of her slightly opened mouth. Astounding the woman could sleep with the cacophony surrounding them–voices speaking in Hindi and Urdu and Farsi, French and Swahili, and other languages Sarah couldn’t begin to identify. English in its various incarnations added to the assorted tongues–Anglo-Indian mixed with buttery Texas drawls and proper British intonations. Like a modern Tower of Babel, punctuated by piped-in music and loudspeaker announcements, and the laughter and screams of children awake far beyond any reasonable bedtime. Jets roared in the background like modern-day dragons sweeping in and out of the ancient city.
Constant motion and sound, scents of fuel, cardamom, and jasmine, human sweat and blistering disinfectant. Sarah fingered her block-printed prayer scarf, a parting gift from her friend Kabir, as if it were a protective talisman. During her years in the Peace Corps, this part of the world had seeped into her blood. She promised herself one day she’d return.
The dead end of the year, this week between Christmas and New Year’s. Hardly a good omen McCabe saw fit to break her heart on the cusp of the new millennium. Her stomach clenching at the memory, Sarah reached inside her duffle bag for the science fiction anthology she’d toted along for the trip. Immersing herself into an alternate universe would be just the ticket.
Except this time the escape plan didn’t work. Visions of her former fiancé played havoc with her concentration. After scanning a few pages, Sarah let the paperback rest on her lap.
McCabe had reeled her in like a naïve little fish. How had she been so gullible? Still, she was lucky to have learned the truth about McCabe before they married, or worse yet, had children. Yes, lucky.
She was staring blankly into space when an Anglo-Indian voice crackled over the loudspeaker, announcing her flight was ready to board. Finally! The crowd converged on the boarding gate with the enthusiasm of fans swarming the field after a homecoming victory.
When Sarah reached the end of her row, a bearded man who’d been sprawled in his seat lumbered upright. Blocking her way, he plopped on his tattered Stetson hat and hoisted an equally worn backpack over one shoulder. As bloodshot cocoa-brown eyes traveled up and down her body, the man’s thin lips widened into an unabashed grin. “Honey, since it looks like we’re both going to Paris, maybe you could show me around when we get there.”
Right, this guy was just her type. She gave him her chilliest schoolmarm glare. ”Do you mind? I’m trying to reach the gate.”
Mr. Cowboy Hat tripped on his own feet and stumbled against her. Sarah caught a charming whiff of sweat mixed with stale beer.
“Sorry.” Regaining his footing, he motioned her in front of him with a grand sweep of a muscular, tattooed arm.
Sarah marched past him. When she reached the end of the queue to board the airplane, she glanced back. The lout had moved on to new prey, a strawberry-blonde in skin-tight jeans who appeared more receptive to his questionable charms. Sarah reflected there was no accounting for taste.
She started down the ramp and hesitated, motioning other passengers to go ahead of her. Her throat tightened. Did she imagine McCabe would run up at the last minute and beg for another chance? What would she answer if he did?
No. Of course, her answer would be no. Straightening her shoulders, she boarded the airplane.
Luckily Sarah’s seatmates, an older Indian couple, were no more interested in casual chitchat than she. After perfunctory greetings, they left Sarah to her own thoughts. Pressing her face against the porthole window, she stared down at the glittering lights of the massive city as the jet ascended into darkness.
Another moonless night like this one, the night she’d met McCabe. An evening reception at the American embassy in Kathmandu. Had it really been only eight months before?
Tiny lights strung through the embassy courtyard gardens shone like miniature suns. Sarah had worn her only formal dress, an empire-waist jade sheath that flattered her petite, too-curvy figure. She even managed to wrestle her impossible hair into a sleek chignon.
She already knew most of the guests, as the expatriate community in Kathmandu was not overly large. As the evening progressed and the crowd became denser and more boisterous, Sarah grew weary of conversation and wandered to a quieter corner of the courtyard. She sipped champagne from her glass, her mood not unpleasantly pensive. Scents of blooming jacarandas and orchids teased her senses. Eden itself couldn’t have been more entrancing.
“What’s a pretty little thing like you doing here all by your lonesome?” a husky male voice inquired.
A tall man with a narrow, chiseled face shot her a take-no-prisoners grin.
Aha. The snake making his appearance in the garden. “I like quiet,” she replied.
“My name’s Michael McCabe. I can be as quiet or as loud as you like.”
Sarah burst into laughter, shaking her head. He was too cocky and charming, not her type at all, despite the undeniable appeal of his dark looks and rangy, muscular build.
“I’m not interested,” she muttered, not doubting he’d go on to greener pastures.
But when she left the party, she found him waiting for her outside in the street. “I’ll walk you home,” he announced, his tone no longer flippant. “Just to make sure you get there all right. I won’t try anything.”
“Yes,” she told him, surprising herself. “Fine.”
He asked her to marry him three months later.
McCabe was the first man she loved since she lost her fiancé Danny to a drunk driver almost a decade before. No, she corrected herself. The first man she thought she loved. McCabe made her laugh like no one ever had, even Danny. The air around McCabe sizzled, and he wooed her with the same seductive energy. Sarah ignored how he dominated every conversation, how he gradually took up more and more emotional space, and she less and less. How much longer would it have taken for resentment to overcome her infatuation? Another six months, perhaps. A year.
Not that she and McCabe had that long. In mid-October, two months after they moved in together, Sarah came home to their Kathmandu bungalow to find McCabe in flagrante with Sidonie Marchand, a French doctor and mutual friend.
After one look at Sarah’s face, Sidonie had wrapped herself in a sheet and scampered out of the bedroom.
“Why pretend to love me?” Sarah shouted at McCabe when she found her voice. “Why ask me to marry you?” Tears streaming down her face, she emptied her two dresser drawers and jammed clothes willy-nilly into her duffle bag.
Without expression, McCabe got to his feet. Bridging the space between them, he slapped her across the face with such force she stumbled backward.
“Get hold of yourself,” he snapped. “I’m in no mood for hysteria.”
For the first time in her life, Sarah saw red. “Don’t you dare lay a hand on me again, you miserable son-of-a-bitch.” Shaking with fury, she threw her remaining possessions into her bag and slammed out the door.
“Miss, would you prefer coffee or tea? Or perhaps a glass of juice?”
Sarah jolted upright to find a sari-clad stewardess regarding her from the aisle. Time to return to the present. “Tea, I think. Thank you.”
Reaching over Sarah’s seatmates, the stewardess handed Sarah her tea. Sarah carefully placed it on her tray to let cool. She’d get over McCabe, she told herself. Trying to ignore the lump in her throat, she settled in for the twelve-hour flight.
Sterling had attached a pin-sized tracking device to the sleeve of Sarah’s tunic when he stumbled against her in the Delhi airport. She wouldn’t make a move or utter a word without his knowledge. With luck she’d lead him straight to McCabe.
After the plane landed at Orly, Sterling lingered at a magazine kiosk, listening through his earpiece as Sarah spoke with the desk agent.
“I’d like to take the next available flight to Boston. Obviously I missed my connection.”
“Your ticket, Mademoiselle?”
“Here you go.”
A brief silence. “Your ticket has been flagged,” the Frenchwoman announced.
“What do you mean?” Sarah retorted. “I just arrived from Delhi. The original flight I booked to Boston left a long time ago.”
“You must speak with a supervisor. I cannot help you.”
To Sterling’s astonishment, Sarah burst into laughter, a soft, not unpleasing chortle. “Really, what else could go wrong on this trip?”
The agent sniffed. “You are holding up the line, mademoiselle.”
Bloody officious French.
“If you saw fit to direct me to a supervisor, I could be on my way,” Sarah shot back, her tone acidly sweet.
A uniformed airline agent approached the ticket desk, his bulky form blocking Sterling’s view.
“Not to worry, mademoiselle,” the Frenchman pronounced. “I’m sure this is a mere misunderstanding. If you please, come with me so we can quickly resolve the problem.”
As the agent led Sarah out an unmarked door, Sterling’s senses went on full alert. What the devil was going on?
Woozy from jet lag and lack of sleep, Sarah followed the Frenchman down a deserted passageway. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“The supervisor’s office, of course, mademoiselle. Ah, here we are.” He gestured toward an unmarked door to their left.
This wasn’t right. The hair on her arms stood up. Why had she followed this man like an idiotic little sheep? She needed to get away. Now.
Before she could move, her companion kicked the door open and shoved her through it. He slammed her against the wall and put his hand over her mouth. As she struggled to break his hold, something sharp pierced her arm. Then…nothing.