To Karen’s surprise, Petra shuttered her surprise and turned her placid expression to the supervisor, nodding in understanding. Karen snuck a look at Ashon who looked equally perturbed. He caught her gaze and gave her an imperceptible nod that did nothing to calm her frazzled nerves.
Then the supervisor turned to Ashon and spoke to him in her native tongue. Petra didn’t make eye contact with Karen, instead inspecting the children on the bed.
Ashon cleared his throat, seeking Karen’s attention once more. “I will step out for a bit. She needs my help elsewhere…” he looked apologetic for leaving her, but Karen nodded, grateful that he was leaving with the children. She’d find a way to manage Petra.
The moment he stepped out with the supervisor, Petra’s accusing glare fixed on her. Holding up both hands, Karen moved slowly toward her. “Escúchame, se lo puedo explicar.”
Shaking her head, Petra took a step back and another until her back brushed against the flap of the tent.
Karen gritted her teeth and reached for Petra’s hand. “Listen to me!”
Petra wrenched her arm from Karen’s hold and jolted from the tent, yelling out in Spanish. “Ladrona!”
“I am not a thief—” Karen paused from exiting the tent, glancing once at the children who still sat unperturbed by the chaos erupting around them. She squatted in front of them. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back. I prom—”
The flap of the tent whipped back and two women stepped inside the tent. One of them was the supervisor, and the other was Alice from HopeWell. Immediately recognizing the woman she’d abandoned to die, Alice gasped and pointed a finger at Karen. “Get her!”
Karen straightened and moved to the other edge of the tent just as a man stepped inside the tent. Ducking out through the other side, Karen limped past the adjoining tents on a twisted ankle.
The voices of Petra and Alice trailed her as she hurried as quickly as she could toward the bushes where she’d parked Ashon’s car. Stumbling over her own two feet, Karen landed on her sore knees and palms. Gritted her teeth to keep from crying out, she struggled to stand.
Karen pushed to her feet and started limping toward the bushes. Her injured ankle gave way and she dropped to the floor in pain.
Rushing feet thundered behind her, no doubt Alice’s army of bad guys pursing her. Karen attempted to stand, but the weight on her ankle would be too much. She lowered to her hands and keens and crawled to a nearby bush, hiding behind it.
The men hurried past the bush, a gasping Alice trailing slowly behind them while roaring directives to catch her or else!
Karen shifted her weight and a sharp pain shot up her right leg. She slapped a hand to her mouth to muffle the cry. Tears gathered in her eyes and she sagged against the bush, wishing it would all be over soon.
Then a hand dropped on her shoulder. Karen yelped, only to have the other hand clap over her mouth. Thinking it was Ashon who had come to rescue her, Karen’s gaze darted to the shadowed form over her shoulder. Her eyes widened at the stranger that held her captive.
“Scream and we both get caught.”
The familiar yet unfamiliar tone made her freeze. The cry died in her throat as she sought out the shadowed features of the man who seemed familiar yet not.
He sighed at her silence. “Can you stand?”
Rushing footsteps thundered past them again and both she and the man stiffened. “Where is she?” Alice demanded angrily. “She can’t be too far from here. Find her now.”
Heartbeat racing violently, Karen swallowed in despair. Either way, she was done for.
The steps moved away as Alice and her henchmen searched the surrounding area. Alice sighed heavily. “What is it, Petra? Do you see something?”
Rustling sounded just a few feet away and alarm shot through Karen. That pesky girl was searching the bushes. The stranger gripped Karen’s shoulder. “On my mark,” he whispered near her ear. “Run toward the hut to the left.”
She nodded, not knowing what else to do. If Petra caught them, it would be the end. She’d rather take her chances with this unexpected savior.
“One,” he said in a whisper. The rustling stopped and Karen held her breath.
His firm command was said in a whisper and Karen didn’t hesitate; half-crawling, half-walking toward the hut he’d specified. She didn’t know if he was following or if Petra had caught on, she could only hear her racing pulse in her ears, eyes focused on the shadowed hut up ahead.
Within seconds, Karen stumbled inside the open portal and rolled onto her back, gasping for air.
Before she could catch her breath, two hands grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her to stand. Adrenaline pumping, Karen kicked and punched at the darkness, fists meeting their target.
The man growled and Karen wasted no time, kicking the shadow before she hurried toward the exit. Except his arm swooped around her waist and lifted her off her feet. She didn’t have time to elbow him when he shoved her face forward against the wall, imprisoning her between the wall and his hard frame.
She wriggled, attempting with all her might to go free. His grip around her waist only tightened, cutting off circulation to her diaphragm.
“You’ll get us both killed!” the man whispered fiercely. “Stop it, Karen!”
“I have half the mind to choke you,” he growled. “What are you doing here?!”
Karen’s pulse thumped loudly in her ears. That voice.
“If I knew you were gonna be involved in this mess, I would have never helped you. Never cared to.”
That voice. So familiar yet how could it be? Why would he be here?
“Do you have any idea how worried I was about you? I could just strangle you right now.”
Except the man behind that voice would never utter such horrid words. Karen balled her fists. “Let me go or I’ll kick you where the sun don’t shine.”
“Shut up,” he growled, shoving her against the wall. “You have some nerve acting like you’re in control.”
“Who are you?” Karen demanded, hoping against hope it wasn’t who she thought he was. There was no way he’d be in this God-forsaken place, with these horrible people. She drove her elbow against his gut and once his grip on her waist loosened, she swiveled about to see the face of her captor.
He grabbed her shoulders, pushing her against the wall to hold her in place. “I swear, Karen, I’m not joking. If you wanna die, die on your own. Don’t get me involved.”
He couldn’t be Ashon, who insisted on calling her Missi. And no one else knew her in this foreign land. Except…
The moonlight peeked in from a small window on the opposite end of the hut. Karen had to move him there first and confirm her fears. She raised her knee to him and he buckled, releasing her shoulders to shield himself from her attack. Karen shoved him toward the light, watching intently as he stumbled to the floor.
Breath baited, she squinted at the form of the man crouched under the moonlight beam. The salt-and-pepper wig lay askance on his head but his face was in plain view. Clement Teka crouched before her, anger and pain etched in his handsome features.
She dropped to the floor and gaped at him. “What… what are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” He grimaced, lowering himself on the floor.
Karen shook her head in disbelief. There was no way he was here. “Why? Why are you here?”
He scowled darkly. “I asked you first.”
“No you didn’t—”
Someone called out in the distance and Karen stiffened. Clement’s gaze moved to the window and he shifted, grimacing in pain as he edged away from the light. Karen squinted at his form in the shadows, still unable to comprehend his presence here. He wore a suit a size too big, the shoulders a bit too saggy and the material bulking about his midsection.
It was then she realized that he was the man who offered a hand to help her stand just outside the Quarantine tent. Anger surged within and she glared at him. “I want an answer.”
“Yeah, when you give me yours first.” He shifted, his foot scraping the dirt floor. “Imagine my horror seeing you in this horrible place. Do you have any idea how dangerous, not to talk of how illegal this is?”
Karen scoffed. “You’re one to talk. Are you selling or buying?” His silence made her stomach turn and Karen shifted away from him. “You make me sick.”
“The feeling is mutual, Fraud. Do your folks know this is how you’re using your nursing degree?”
She scowled. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. How can you go against your nurse’s oath and drug children for auction like they are property? Do you have no shame at all?”
Karen gasped incredulously. “I am not—you’re the one parading as a pastor while buying children. You’re the biggest fraud there is, you lying jerk!”
Voices and thundering footsteps sounded just outside the hut, and both froze.
Karen scowled at the softly-spoken directive. “I rather not.”
“If you don’t want to get found out, come here now.”
“I said no—” she yelped when he reached out and grabbed her hand, yanking her into the shadows with him. She landed on his chest and immediately struggled to be let go, but to no avail. Clement’s arms tightened about her, holding her close to his chest.
“Did you see them?” Alice demanded just outside the tent. “I want her found now, you hear me? No one leaves the camp until she is found.” She huffed in frustration, her footsteps hurrying off into the distance.
As silence fell as the voices softened in the distance, and Karen wriggled in Clement’s arms.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Clement warned in a stiff voice. “I’m still hurting here…”
Karen’s face warmed and she pushed against his chest. “Serves you right.”
Clement quickly loosened his hold on her. And as she quickly stepped out of his arms, he groaned and slowly raised himself to sit up. “Why are they chasing you?”
She adjusted the veil about her shoulders. “Because I can’t mind my business.”
“And what business are you minding?”
Karen frowned at his shadowed figure. She couldn’t reconcile the kind-hearted pastor who prayed for her weeks ago at the Houston International Airport with this stranger. But here he was within arm’s reach…
She swallowed hard and averted her gaze. But if he was indeed evil, he just saved her from Alice and her henchmen. Why would he do that if he was working with them?
His firm tone pulled back her attention and she sighed deeply. “I was attempting to steal children from here.”
She inched closer to the door, preparing to bolt in case he changed his mind about hiding. “You heard me.”
“I don’t think I did.” He shifted also, his feet scraping the floor. “You’re not here to sell children?”
Karen snorted in disgust. “God forbid. I wouldn’t have traveled fourteen hours and survived a near-death experience just to help these monsters sell innocent lives.”
“… You’re crazier than I thought.”
Karen frowned, not understanding the awe in his tone or the smile in his voice. “Excuse me?”
“Let me get this straight,” Clement said, raising himself to a crouching position. “You didn’t board your flight nor answer my million calls because you were on your way here to rescue some children?”
“Some children?” she echoed derisively. “I can’t sit back and watch these innocent kids get sold…”
Clement blew out a harsh breath. “Oh man.”
“What?” She frowned as he sat back down. “Did I just put a hitch in your despicable scheme?”
“Karen, be quiet for a second. Let me think.”
Karen scowled but remained silent, though disappointed Clement wasn’t the man she’d thought him to be.
He sighed. “If what you’re saying is true—”
“I don’t lie.”
“Hang on. If what you’re telling me is true, and I’m starting to believe it is, then we need to work together.”
“Yeah right.” She scoffed. “How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
“If it was a trap, Karen, you’d have been found out a long time ago. Listen, I’m here for the same reason as yours.” He scooted into the light, eyes fixed on her. And if there was any doubt that this man was Clement, he dragged the wig off his head and dragged a hand over his face, removing the smudges underneath his eyes and his forehead.
Karen’s jaw slackened, her gaze sweeping over the man before her. “You’re undercover?!”