Kristin’s knees threatened to give way. The man holding the gun towered over her and pinned her with an accusatory glare. Shockwaves rocketed through her and forced air from her lungs as she stared up at him. Was this actually happening? Her first day in Vietnam and she was being held at gunpoint by some…some half-dressed thug!
“Who are you? What are you doing in here?” His upper lip curled as he snarled the words. He stood near the table, dressed only in khaki pants, a towel slung around his neck. His wet hair reached the nape of his neck. Kristin noticed a large bruise on the right side of his jaw.
Who am I? Who the jack are you? She opened her mouth but no words came. Screaming didn’t seem possible either. Fear throttled her. “I’m…Kristin Taylor. I’m a journalist, from Boston. I—I’ve been invited.”
“Invited by whom?” He narrowed his eyes and his scowl deepened, two vertical grooves forming between blond brows. He didn’t lower the gun.
Before she could answer, a young black man in Army uniform struggled off the couch behind them. He gave a yelp, his dark eyes widening.
“Luke! Take it easy, man!” He held up a hand, but remained a safe distance away. Whoever Luke was, he obviously had no intention of ‘taking it easy’, and G.I. Joe over there wasn’t about to help. Kristin veered her gaze back to the small pistol still pointed at her. Her heart hammered against her chest. She fought for air and calm. Okay, Dad, what would you do right about now?
Her assailant ignored the other man, his gaze fixed on her and her alone. “I asked you a question. Who told you to come here?”
“Caroline…” Kristin fished out the scrunched up piece of paper from the pocket of her jeans and frantically tried to make sense of the chicken scratch. Her hands shook so badly it was almost impossible to hold the paper steady. “…Maddox. She works for UPI. We met on the plane. She said she needed a flat mate. Told me she’d meet me here…I swear I’m telling the truth.”
The man stared like she’d spoken in Swahili, visibly paled, then let out his breath in a loud rush of air. He set the gun down on the table and swore. Twice. Kristin’s pulse slowed, warm relief rushing through her. So she wasn’t going to die today. But she kept her eyes trained on him, just in case.
He raked his fingers through his wet hair, turned back to her and shook his head, an incredulous look still marring his features. “You’re in the wrong apartment. My sister’s place is next door. First on the left.”
“What?” Horror tightened its grip again. Panic rose and threatened to make her faint anyway. She’d been sleeping in the wrong apartment? And this…this…Hairy Neanderthal was her new flat mate’s brother?
Oh, without a doubt, this was the worst day of her life.
G.I. Joe began to chuckle as he ventured closer. Not too close buddy, or I might just clock you one for not helping me. She’d put him at about twenty, if that. A little stocky, but it suited him.
“You okay, ma’am?” He spoke in a deep Southern accent, and she appreciated the concern in his eyes. Kristin managed a smile and nodded. She was still breathing, and she wasn’t dead.
“You gotta take a sharp turn at the top of the stairs. The door is easy to miss, ‘specially with no light out there.” The young man’s dark green fatigues displayed the yellow and green Private First Class insignia on his shoulders. So he was military. She hoped the jerk that almost killed her wasn’t.
She remembered the camera equipment and film in the bedroom, and her eyes took in the photographs covering the table. Maybe he was a journalist of some sort, a photographer. Or, given what he’d just put her through, an escapee from the nearest mental institution.
The jerk in question watched her, unflinching as her eyes raked over him.
“Who did you say you were again?” His scrutinizing gaze whipped across her face, his mouth set in a frown she suspected to be permanent. His accent matched his sister’s.
Blood rushed back to her brain and fury followed. “You just pulled a gun on me. You first.”
He stepped back, the barest grin lifting the corners of his mouth for an instant. “Luke Maddox. I…um…thought you were an intruder.”
“Obviously.” Kristin’s hands began to tremble. She’d almost been shot. Nausea rose in her throat. She bent over, palms spread just above her knees. Her head swam and bright sparks flashed in front of her eyes.
God, please don’t let me faint in front of him… She made a mental note to write her mother and inform her she’d remembered how to pray.
“Hey, you okay?” He put an arm out to steady her as she swayed.
Kristin inhaled, straightened, and breathed out. The moment passed and she pulled her arm out of his grip. She stumbled over to one of the teak chairs near the window and dropped into it. The room spun again. The private dashed to the kitchen, returning with a glass of water for her. She eyed it with suspicion.
“I got it from the fridge. It’s fine. I think.”
She caught the wary glance he sent Luke’s way, but took the glass. “Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Private First Class Jonathan Hicks, ma’am. But you can call me Jonno.” His grin was a wide display of white teeth against his dark skin. She figured he was barely out of high school.
Kristin took a sip of the cold water, tension still gripping her shoulders. “Thanks, Jonno. And you don’t have to call me ma’am.”
“Is this your stuff?” Luke Maddox came out of the bedroom, her duffel bag in one hand, and her shoes in the other. Kristin nodded as he dumped them at her feet. “Door’s over there. When you’re ready.”
“Excuse me?” She put her glass down on top of the photographs, tempted to chuck water all over them. “When I’m ready?” How she wanted to wipe that smug smirk right off his face. “You just held me at gun point. I think you owe me an apology at the very least, Mr. Maddox.”
Jonno gave a slow whistle and Luke glared. Then he set his steely gaze back on Kristin. “You want me to apologize?”
“Yes. I do.” She folded her arms across her chest and forced her eyes to remain locked with his. His jaw tightened. Blue eyes shone like hard chips of arctic ice, framed in a face that might pass for handsome once that scruff was shaved off it. But his appearance was the least of her concerns. His gun still sat on the table, and he looked like he might want to use it again.
“Right, then. Sorry. Now get out.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her out of her chair.
“Luke, calm down.” Jonno stepped forward, displeasure glinting from his eyes. Kristin turned on Luke, her temper shooting skyward. “Let go of me.”
He released her arm, but not her eyes.
Kristin clenched her fists at her sides. She’d never felt such a need to slap anyone in her life. Well, apart from that incident in fourth grade when Tim Barnes tried to kiss her… Sucking air into her lungs didn’t accomplish any state of calm. “I’ve never been treated like this in my life. How dare you!”
The private clapped his hands together and let out a chortle of what she hoped was agreement. Luke Maddox did not seem as impressed. But he did appear somewhat mollified.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, folding his arms. Thick biceps bulged and Kristin swallowed down a fresh wave of fear.
“No harm done, right, Luke?” his companion offered. “Luke’s a little skittish.”
“Shut up, Jonno.” With long strides he marched past them into the bedroom. The slamming door shook the small apartment. Kristin sank down into the chair again, her knees buckling.
“I’ll go.” She looked up at Jonno and managed a weak smile as she slipped into her sneakers. “I just need…a minute.”
“No problem. Take your time.” A dimple played in his ebony cheek as he smiled. “Sorry about him. I could say he’s not always like that, but…”
“It’s okay.” Kristin foraged for an elastic band in the pocket of her jeans and tied her hair back.
Jonno dropped in to a chair on the other side of the table, pulled a piece of bare white wood from his pocket, took a pocket knife from a small leather case strapped to his belt, and began whittling.
Kristin took shaky breaths and glanced out the open window. Sunlight tickled the tops of the trees across the street. The room felt warmer than it had a few hours ago when she’d fallen asleep. In the wrong apartment.
She looked back at Jonno and watched in fascination as he worked. “What are you making?”
Jonno glanced up. “Stick people.”
She stared, her mind blank. His chuckle was deep and melodious as he wiggled the piece of wood at her. “Stick? Get it? Stick people.”
Kristin laughed and felt the muscles in her neck relax. Her stomach gave a low rumble. Hopefully Caroline’s fridge would be in better shape than her brother’s. She really should go, but something about him made her stay. He was her first connection to the war. “How long have you been over here, Jonno?”
“A year and a half.”
“Are you stationed in the city?”
“Yeah. They send me all over. I got stuck running press around. Mostly Luke. But it’s okay. Better than being out in the field, that’s for dang sho’.”
“I bet.” He wouldn’t know anything about Teddy’s company. Kristin fought off disappointment and smiled. “What part of the South are you from?”
“Georgia. Just outside Atlanta. Say, you’d better split.” He narrowed his eyes and jerked his head toward the bedroom just as Luke opened the door.
Kristin kept a careful eye on him as he approached. At least the gun was within her reach this time. Not that she would know what to do with it.
He’d donned a green t-shirt tucked into his khaki pants. His hair had been towel-dried and combed. He strode across the room, his eyes sweeping them as he passed. “Why are you still here?”
“She needed a minute. We’re just hangin’.” Jonno spoke for her and shoved his piece of wood back into his pants pocket.
Kristin watched Luke as he stood before the window. She couldn’t pinpoint his age, put she wouldn’t put him over thirty. He rested his elbows on the top of the window frame and laced his hands around the back of his damp head. From where she sat, she had a great view of his arms of steel. She blinked and counted herself lucky he hadn’t tried to hit her.
“You finished your tea party, Jonno? The war’s not gonna wait for you, mate.” He continued to stare out of the window, a muddy boot thumping on the thin rug beneath his feet.
“Shoot. Won’t miss much.” Jonno pushed his burly frame to a standing position and looked down at Kristin. “You got your kit yet?”
“My kit?” Confusion settled over her. Then she realized he meant the clothes she’d need when she visited the base camps or went into the field. “No. I wasn’t sure where to go. I planned to do that today. I just flew in last night. I mean this morning. Actually, I have no idea what day it is right now.”
“In Vietnam it doesn’t matter.” The quiet words came from Luke. He kept his eyes straight ahead, as though he spoke to himself. Kristin studied the hard features and wondered again what he was doing here.
“Well, we could help you out,” Jonno said. “Show you around a bit.”
“No. We could not.” Luke slowly turned toward Jonno and stared pointedly, one eyebrow almost touching his hairline. Kristin smothered a grin.
Jonno shrugged and rubbed his round jaw. “Well, now if memory serves me correct, Luke, you did almost kill the lady. I’d say it was the least you could do.”
Luke grunted and pushed his hands into his pockets. “I’m sure Miss Taylor would prefer to fend for herself.”
Kristin recoiled at the barb and her pulse quickened. “You’re right, I do prefer to fend for myself and I manage quite nicely, thank you.”
“I can see that.” A hint of a smile touched his mouth. “Do you find yourself in men’s apartments very often, Miss Taylor?”
Slow heat pricked her face and Kristin stood up. “Actually, no. Believe me, this was a very unfortunate miscalculation on my part. I won’t be bothering you again, I can promise you that. Now, if you’ll get out of my way, I’ll get out of yours.” She reached for her bag and started for the door, but he blocked her path.
“Okay, look, I’m sorry. I’ve been traveling all night and I’m exhausted. I may have…over-reacted.”
“Over-reacted?” Kristin squeaked, putting her hands on her hips. “You could have killed me!”
He leveled his gaze, his mouth drawn. “I wouldn’t have killed you. I would have gone for the shoulder.”
Kristin shuddered and attempted to push past him. He stayed put. She dropped her bag and it hit the floor with a thud. What now?
He ignored her glare and studied her with an air of calm, as though he found her…interesting. “What are you doing here, in Vietnam? Did you say you’re a journalist?” A strand of damp blond hair fell over one eye. He had to be well over six feet and it was hard not to feel intimidated under the weight of his stare.
Before she could answer, he shook his head and his upper lip curled again. “Never mind. I don’t need to know. But I’ll tell you this, if you came here looking for adventure, looking to make a name for yourself, fine…I’m sure you will. We’re all here for that. But it’s hard. This isn’t the Debutantes Ball. It’s war. Men are being killed out there. Are you ready to see that?”
“Luke, cut it out.” Jonno gave Kristin a sympathetic look. She smiled back, but her breath still came in spurts.
Avoiding Luke’s piercing gaze, Kristin gathered her thoughts before she looked back at him. “I am a journalist. I came here to cover the war. I work on my own.”
He chuckled and scratched the blond stubble on his jaw. “A stringer. No papers, press card?”
“Come on, Luke.” Jonno moved in and placed a hand on Luke’s shoulder. “Be cool for once, huh? We can help her get her stuff and take her out to the 24th.” His kind eyes moved over Kristin’s face. “If you can get a couple of pieces sold, you’ll be on your way. Newspapers are hungry for stories. They don’t care where they come from.”
Kristin nodded, but the thought of going anywhere with Luke Maddox clouded her judgment. “Thanks, but I’ll manage.” She heaved her bag over her shoulder again and walked to the door.
Luke’s deep voice stopped her. She turned, weariness dragging on her. Silently she met his eyes, a bitter taste rising in her mouth.
He lifted his broad shoulders, a thin smile chasing off his scowl for just a moment. “You can do what you want, but we’re heading up North tomorrow morning. If you’d like some help getting your kit, and a ride, you can come along. If you prefer to go it alone, suit yourself.”
Kristin worked hard to stop a grin, but failed. She cocked her head, put her hand on her hips and widened her smile. “Why, Mr. Maddox. We womenfolk can be a little helpless at times. I’d sure appreciate being taken care of.”
He gave her a look that could curdle milk. Kristin almost regretted her theatrics as she tried to read him. What if he really just wanted to put a bullet through her brain?
“Don’t worry, I’ll be with you,” Jonno said, reading her mind.
Kristin hesitated, then shook her head. “Thanks, but no thanks. Good day, gentlemen.” She yanked open the door and stepped out into the dark hallway, slamming the door shut behind her.
Kristin walked the pavements in the morning heat, searching for anything that might give her a clue as to where she was. Caroline eventually showed up early last evening with a handsome army captain in tow. She’d laughed gaily when Kristin informed her of the mix-up. Kristin hadn’t found it quite so amusing.
Caroline showed her around the apartment that was identical to Luke’s, but thankfully much cleaner, introduced her to their landlady, Madame Dupont, a rotund Frenchwoman in her late forties who seemed quite happy to have Kristin as a tenant. Then Caroline left to go out to dinner with the man Kristin assumed was her boyfriend. They invited her, but Kristin decided to stay put and get as much rest as possible. Her roommate still hadn’t returned by the time Kristin left the apartment that morning. In her exhausted state, she had forgotten to ask Caroline where to go to get her kit.
She racked her brain and tried to remember the streets they’d driven down from the airport. If she could get herself to The Majestic, she might run in to Jean Luc. He would help her.
Heat wrapped around her like a thick cloak. She’d enjoyed a deep, refreshing sleep and looked forward to her first day here, but at this moment, lost in a strange foreign city where she didn’t speak the language, the thought of hopping a plane and heading home held some appeal.
Kristin jumped at the sound of a horn’s blast directly behind her. She kept walking. The hotel had to be just around this corner…
“Hey, Miss Taylor!”
The horn blasted again and Kristin turned. A military Jeep pulled up to the curb. Jonno sat in the passenger seat. Luke Maddox sat behind the wheel. Jonno waved to her like she was an old friend. “Miss Taylor! Over here.”
She adjusted the green scarf around her head, unable to stop a smile. Slowly she approached the vehicle.
“Where are you headed?” Jonno asked. Luke looked straight ahead, ignoring her.
Kristin shifted, sweat sliding down her back. “I thought I’d go over to The Majestic. I met some journalists on the plane, and they’re staying there.”
Luke snorted, his eyes hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. “The Majestic is the other way.”
Of course it was. Kristin blinked under the sun’s rays. Wonderful. Another fine display of her journalistic instincts.
“Hey, look,” Jonno set his boyish grin on her. “Why don’t you just come with us? We can help you get your stuff, and you can ride with us today. What do you say?”
Luke huffed and slouched down in his seat. Kristin narrowed her eyes. Just what she wanted to do, spend a day with The Odd Couple. She stood for a moment, weighing her options. “Well, maybe if you could just give me directions…”
Luke swiveled, his shades slipping down his nose slightly, allowing that scrutinizing blue gaze to settle on her. “Are you always this stubborn?”
Kristin inhaled sharply. “Yes.”
His mouth stretched into a slow grin. “God help us. Get in.” He faced front again and gunned the engine while Jonno hopped out to help her in to the Jeep.
She declined the front and climbed into the backseat. Luke pulled out in to traffic and suddenly it hit her. “Hey!” She poked Jonno, shouting to be heard over the noise of traffic and the accelerating engine of their own vehicle. “Shouldn’t you be driving? He’s not military, is he? Isn’t that against the rules or something?”
Jonno gave a deep belly laugh as Luke swerved across incoming traffic to get to the opposite side. Once headed in the right direction, stuck behind a bus, Luke glanced over his shoulder. His scruff-covered face broadened, revealing a hint of what, given a chance, would be a dazzling smile. “Welcome to Vietnam, Miss Taylor. There are no rules.”
Luke strode ahead down the dusty sidewalk. Kristin, at least ten paces behind him, gave up on matching his speed. Even though she wore light cotton pants and a sleeveless blouse, moving at any speed in this sweltering climate was torture. She blinked perspiration out of her eyes and pressed on.
Small shops and restaurants like the ones she’d seen on the drive from the airport lined the streets. Every now and then they passed women crouched on the sidewalk, cooking over a fire. Thick spicy smoke hung in the air. Children ran in and out of the pedestrians. Honks from cars and the shouts of impatient drivers added to the pandemonium. Wiping sweat off her face, she let out a sigh of frustration and picked up her pace.
“Don’t worry, he’ll wait.” Jonno ambled along beside her.
Kristin gave her new friend a sidelong glance. “Somehow I’m not convinced.”
She almost tripped over a small child who ran up alongside her, his dirty little hand outstretched. A group of about ten children followed them, chattering away in Vietnamese. They pressed in to her, surrounding her on all sides. Their shabby clothes and bare feet tugged at her heart. Toothless grins and wide smiles abounded.
Kristin slowed, fumbling around in her pockets for anything to give them. She found a pack of gum and began doling out strips. Up ahead, she heard Luke’s low voice raised in warning. She lifted her eyes in time to see him waving off a couple of larger boys. One of them fell off the sidewalk. Luke lunged for the boy’s arm, pulled him out of harm’s way and sent him on his way with a push and a reprimand. She couldn’t make out his words, but heard enough to decide it was hardly fitting language to use in front of a child, even if he didn’t understand English.
“Hey! Stop that!” He walked too far ahead to hear her protest. “Why did he yell at them like that?” She turned to Jonno for help, but he shook his head, nonplussed.
“It’s all right. He’s just telling them, very politely, to get lost.”
Kristin glared. This was ridiculous. Who did this overgrown uncouth excuse for a man think he was? She quickened her pace, looking downward as she sidestepped a bottle. Her next step took her right into the chest of the man she’d been so determined to pick a fight with a minute ago.
“Am I in your way, Miss Taylor?” He stood like a soldier, brawny tanned arms crossed. His blond hair shone underneath the blazing sun. Those blue eyes glinted at her over the rim of his sunglasses and the corners of his mouth twitched in a manner Kristin found most discomforting.
“What…what were you saying to that boy?” she sputtered. “I saw you push him away.”
His mouth turned downward. One finger inched his shades up and his eyes were hidden from view. “He wanted money and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sometimes a firm hand is the only thing they respond to.”
“That’s absurd. They’re just children.” Kristin caught her breath.
Luke sighed, taking off his sunglasses. His eyes seemed softer somehow. Or she was getting heatstroke. “Look, you may as well get used to the kids. They’re everywhere. There’s an orphanage around the corner. Another one two blocks away. If you give them anything, they’ll never leave you alone.”
Kristin shifted under the glare of the sun and the man who stood before her. “That’s crazy. You make them sound like criminals.”
Luke emitted a grunt, put his glasses back on and raked his fingers through his hair. “That’s what they are, some of them. They’ll take whatever you have, whether you give it to them or not.” Suddenly he grabbed her arm and yanked her sideways. A bicycle sped past. Kristin stared after it in disbelief. She hadn’t even seen it coming.
She didn’t have to thank him for that, did she?
Luke cocked his head toward the building in front of them. “We’re going in here.”
She followed them into what looked like a house from the street. Once Kristin’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, she saw a cavernous room with tables upon tables of any item imaginable. A couple of Vietnamese men watched in silence. The musty smelling shop appeared unlike any she’d ever been in. Transistor radios, books, maps—military maps, she discovered on closer inspection.
Kristin lifted an olive green canvas tarp spread over one table. She stared at the row of automatic weapons and pistols hidden beneath it. Her heart began to pound just a little faster. She poked a finger at what looked to be an M-16, but pulled back when a hand came down over hers.
“Stay away from the toys, Miss Taylor.” Luke placed a hand under her elbow and propelled her in a different direction.
“Where did they get all this stuff?” she hissed.
Luke glanced her way and hiked up an eyebrow. “You really want to know?”
Kristin tugged at the scarf around her head and tied it around her neck. No, she probably didn’t. The proprietor hurried over to them and addressed Luke by name. He’d obviously done business here before. Why didn’t that surprise her?
An hour later, Kristin exited the store with her items of contraband. After some haggling, they’d talked the old man into what Luke considered a decent price for the things she needed. Jungle fatigues in her size, a canteen, a waterproof poncho, helmet and boots. The shopkeeper tried to sell her a pistol, but she’d refused.
She just prayed she wasn’t going to be wearing some dead soldier’s gear. Immediately her thoughts turned to Teddy and she sank against her seat. God, please, just keep him alive.
Luke yelled over his shoulder to her as the Jeep sped along the street. “I’ll drop you back at the apartment. I need to pick up some more film. We’ll come back for you in an hour.”
She scowled, not at all convinced. “Can I have that in writing?” she shouted back.
They screeched to a stop outside the apartment building. Jonno turned from the front to look at her in clear surprise. His shoulders shook with laughter.
Luke swiveled, resting one arm over the back of his seat. “Why, Miss Taylor, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you didn’t trust me.”
Kristin sniffed, gathering her things. “Well, let’s see. In the short space of time I’ve known you, you’ve pulled a gun on me, you drive so recklessly you’d be arrested in most states, and you seem to have a nasty habit of pushing young children around. So, yeah, I trust you like a GI trusts the Viet Cong.”
His grin faded and he stared at her for a long moment that crept toward dangerous silence. Kristin swallowed down panic. What was wrong with her? Right now he was her only hope of getting out of Saigon. If she didn’t get to one of the base camps, she wouldn’t have anything to write about. “Sorry. I…mean…that was…I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Get out,” Luke growled, gunning the engine. Kristin grabbed her things in haste and scrambled out of the Jeep.
“One hour. I’ll be waiting!” she shouted after them as the Jeep disappeared into the heavy traffic. She stared down at the cat prowling around her feet. “He’s not coming back is he? When will I ever learn to keep my big mouth shut?”