posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann
Eleven years ago Mary Elise McRae had expected to fill a hope chest for Daniel Baker. But she’d never thought she would fill it quite so literally.
Her body currently folded inside a five-by-five foot wooden crate, Mary Elise hugged the two small boys closer. The rough-hewn box jostled on the back of the flatbed truck, jarring bony little elbows and knees against her. Hard. Not that anyone dared do more than breathe in the cedar-scented darkness.
A lone horn honked along the stretch of desert road in their escape route from Rubistan. The truck jerked to a stop. A goat blocking the way? Or a cow? Either animal slow when Mary Elise needed fast. Headlights from the truck behind them shone through the tiny slits between the boards.
A Rubistanian guard from the embassy tracking them.
She’d heard his voice during the loading onto the truck. Procedure didn’t allow him on the U.S. government’s vehicle, but those ominous beams sparked fear inside her as surely as if he’d been sitting alongside puffing away on one of those cigars he favored. Would he use this delay as an excuse to ambush them? Cause an “accident”?
The diesel engine’s growl increased and the truck lurched to life. Mary Elise exhaled her relief in the stifling enclosure. Only another half hour, max, until she delivered Trey and Austin safely aboard a U.S. military cargo plane. Then she would say her tearful farewells to the two children being smuggled out of this Middle Eastern hell in the back of Captain Daniel Baker’s C-17.
His name echoed in her mind amid the grind of changing gears. What would Daniel say when he saw her for the first time in eleven years? If only he had advance warning she would be with the boys, but she’d expected to stay at the embassy, not be in this sweltering crate.
With any luck, they’d be too rushed to talk. She would pass over her young charges. Thank Daniel for answering the emergency SOS she’d anonymously routed through the economic attaché. Then haul butt off the airstrip, back to her tiny apartment in Rubistan’s capital, back to her teaching post at the American embassy school.
Back to her solitary life.
She wouldn’t let memories of Daniel make her yearn for anything more. She’d worked damned hard for her pocket of peace away from Savannah. Peace bought with the help of Daniel’s father. Trey and Austin’s father too. And today she would repay that debt.
“Mary ‘Lise?” Austin whispered from under her chin. “Wanna get out. Gotta go.”
“Shh,” she urged as loudly as she dared. “Soon, sweetie. Soon.” She hoped.
Sweat trickled down her neck, caking sand to her skin as Mary Elise willed Austin silent. A crate of computers didn’t whisper for a bathroom, after all. Sure, a diplomatic pouch was immune from inspection – a pouch being U.S. government property of any size from the embassy. Totally immune. Unless that “pouch” starting talking.
Her arms locked tighter around thin, preschooler shoulders on her left and the more substantial nine-year-old frame on her right. At least Trey was old enough to follow instructions, his shoulders pumping under her arm with each heavy breath. Little Austin was a wild card.
Bracing her feet against the other side to combat jolts, she suppressed the illogical bubble of laughter. Definitely a card. Wild. Precious. And looked so much like his adult half brother Daniel.
So much like the baby she and Daniel might have had if not for the miscarriage.
Of course she hadn’t been able to turn away when Austin had pumped out tears at the sight of the crate. He’d begged for Mary ‘Lise to crawl inside with him instead of his twenty-one-year-old nanny, a pale nanny who’d seemed all too willing to bow out.
The truck squealed to a stop. A tiny hand tucked into hers and clutched tight with chubby stickiness. She pressed a silent kiss to Austin’s brow.
“Well, hello there, gentlemen,” the masculine bass rumbled.
Even with eleven years more testosterone infused into deepening his voice, she would recognize that hint of a drawl anywhere. No rushing. Even in the middle of an unstable country, on a darkened runway where threats lurked in countless shadows… Danny didn’t hurry for anyone. Life followed him. He never followed life.
His ambling lope thudded closer. Could they hear her heart thump outside the box?
A second set of footsteps sounded. Faster. Cigar smoke wafted through the thin slits between boards. The distinctive scent of imported Cubans favored by the Rubistanian guard from the embassy snaked around her.
The slower bootsteps, Daniel’s, stopped. “How downright neighborly of you to offer an escort, but my folks here can handle things now.”
“We have procedure to follow in my country, Cap-i-tain,” the guard clipped out in heavily accented English.
“Lighten up there, Sparky. I know all about your procedure. The paperwork’s pristine … well, except for some ketchup on the edge there from my fries. Now back on up so my loadmaster can finish the transfer.”
Daniel’s affected flippancy reached into the box with calming comfort. And unwelcome arousal. His voice shouldn’t still have the power to strum her numbed senses to life, especially not now. She wasn’t a teenager anymore. She was a mature woman with control over her life. She’d moved on after the debacle with Danny. Married someone else.
Lighten up, ‘Lise. Danny’s mantra echoed in her head through the years. Life’s just not that complicated.
“Time to head on out, Sparky,” Daniel called, casual and irreverent as ever. “The sooner Tag over there can load up and lock down, the sooner we’ll get off your runway and out of this … garden spot.”
A trail of tangy smoke slithered into the box. “What is your hurry, Cap-i-tain?”
“Hurry?” Daniel’s bass rumbled closer, louder. The truck shifted with the weight of another body. “I need to head home for my annual pilgrimage to the Frit-o-Lay factory. Besides, my copilot’s just a kid and it’s past her bedtime.”
“Hey, now,” a female voice called from below. “Frit-o-Lay? I thought you were going to Hershey, Pennsylvania.”
“That was last month, Wren.”
“And you didn’t bring me any chocolate? I’m crushed.”
“I thought about you. But what can I say? I got hungry on the way home.”
Their lighthearted voices filled the box, and Mary Elise resented the twinge of envy over his easy rapport with the copilot. She’d once shared that same relationship with Daniel until the summer their friendship had spiraled into something more. So much more.
Memories swirled in the murky box with oppressive weight. So Daniel still loved his junk food. They’d met twenty-two years ago over a chocolate Ho-Ho. She’d pulled the treat from her Holly Hobby lunch box to thank him for bloodying Buddy Davis’s nose after the bully made fun of her Yankee accent.
Did Daniel still like video games too? Hide his genius brain behind jokes?
Kiss with an intense thoroughness that turned a woman’s insides to warmed syrup?
A hand patted the box once, again, and again, with slow reassurance. Daniel. “And speaking of hungry,” he said, his hand thumping a lulling lazy beat. “There’s a flight lunch and a bag of licorice with my name written all over it waiting in the cockpit. Let’s step this up.”
Smoke spiraled inside, mingling with the ripe scent of fresh-cut boards. A low wheeze hissed from Trey. His head fell back against her arm as he sucked in air.
Tension stretched inside her. Mary Elise rubbed a soothing hand along his back, a poor substitute for his inhaler, but all she could risk. The smoke, cedar and fear were too much for anyone, much less a child with asthma. As if these kids hadn’t already been through enough with their parents’ “accidental” deaths and a Rubistanian uncle trying to claim them – and their inheritance.
All the more reason to get the children to their half-brother on American soil. Screw official diplomatic channels where the boys could be in college before Rubistan coughed them up.
Mary Elise hugged the boys closer, her hair snagging along the wood. Pulling. Stinging her scalp. Hard. Her eyes watered.
Oh, God. Come on, Daniel. They needed to get rid of that guard so someone could crack open the box, let Trey breathe.
And let her out.
Another puff of cigar smoke tendriled inside. “How interesting that your name tag reads Baker, Cap-i-tain. That is the last name of your ambassador who so recently died.”
The thudding stopped. Silence echoed for three wheezing breaths from Trey before the rhythmic tap resumed. “Baker’s a common last name over in America, Sparky.”
“Of course. If you were related you would be in mourning, not working.”
The vehicle dipped with added weight, then footsteps shuddered the truck bed. Not Daniel’s lope. The clipped pace of the guard. “Is that a loose board I see right–”
“Don’t even think about it.” Daniel’s steely voice iced the humid air. The click of a cocked gun echoed. “If you lay so much as one finger on that box, I’ll blow your damned hand off. A diplomatic pouch is sovereign United States government territory. Move back and get off this truck. Now.”
Bugs droned in response along with the low hum of the idling plane engines. Please, please, please, be careful, Danny. She hadn’t wanted to see him and now she couldn’t bear the thought of never laying eyes on him again. She’d brought him here, hadn’t had a choice for the boys. But if things went to hell, she would never forgive herself.
An exhale sounded along with the retreat of boots and smoke. The gun snicked as it was uncocked.
The crate rolled forward.
Air rushed from her lungs. Not that she should be surprised at Daniel’s victory. The teenager she’d known carried an untamed look in his eyes, the veneer of ten generations of Savannah wealth having worn thin for him. So often he’d flung himself into brawls like a scrappy street fighter in defiance of his pedigree. In defense of her. He’d always won, too. Except once.
I’m sorry. She winged her apology for then as well as now.
He’d taken a punch from his father when she’d been as much at fault for the unplanned pregnancy. Of course Daniel had never raised a hand to defend himself.
God, she wished she had the option of fighting back against her ex-husband, fists and brawn and bluster, instead of shadow dancing with insidious threats. He’d never actually struck her, just controlled her, betrayed her body in a way so soul rending she wondered if she could ever recover. And then when she’d dared leave him, he’d hired a hit man to take her out.
Not that the police would help her, thanks to her ex’s far reaching influence.
She wasn’t a wilting flower, but she also wasn’t stupid. So she’d run. She’d even been willing to move to a hotbed of political unrest in the Middle Eastern country of Rubistan to stay alive. At least in Rubistan no one thought it might be a nifty idea to kill her simply because she couldn’t bear him children.
Visions of her Georgia home chilled the sweat sealing her silk shirt to her skin. Come on, come on, come on. Open the damned box.
The sides closed in with claustrophobic pressure. She shoved away the need to run. For the boys. The precious warm weights beside her who smelled of chocolate and sunshine and dreams she would never have.
The crate tipped. Mary Elise and the children slid, wedging into the corner with the minimal padding of a couple of blankets.
“Tag, go easy there,” Daniel called. “Wouldn’t want to crack a keyboard now, would we?”
“No worries, sir.” A voice sounded beside them as the box jerked to a stop. “I’ll treat it like one of my own.”
A mechanical drone built. The dim streaks of light faded. The load ramp shutting? The world faded around her to near black until the ramp clanked closed.
She forced her breathing to regulate. Maybe they needed privacy to open the crate. That made sense. Then they could slip her back off the plane under the cover of darkness. Not ideal. But doable.
Lazy footsteps picked up speed along the metal floor. A final thump sounded on the planked top. “Lock it down tight, Tag.”
“Roger that, Captain.”
The thud of boots faded. Chains jangled in the time fugue of waiting. Was it safe to talk? Engines roared, growing louder. Forget waiting.
Mary Elise opened her mouth and shouted. And couldn’t hear herself over the engines.
Her heart hammered her chest. The boys wriggled closer. She screamed. A soundless shriek swallowed by the din.
The crate vibrated, joggled as the plane moved. Faster. Forward. Picking up speed. The roar built, swelled. Tension clenched her chest until each breath became a struggle like Trey with his asthma.
The box tilted back. Gravity slid her with the boys until she landed against the wooden wall as the plane…
Oh, God. They were airborne.