“I hope so.” She tore off the plastic, smoothed it against his hard belly, and tucked in the tail. “That should keep the stitches dry if you’re careful.”
“I’m not a very careful man.” Mischief lit his eyes again.
“No kidding.” She stepped back and pointed to his bandage. “Keep the spray on your other side.”
He reached forward. Stella froze. Part of her wanted him to touch her very, very much. But her sanity questioned her judgment. This man had too many secrets.
He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, draped his bloodstained T-shirt over his shoulder, and sauntered down a hallway. A minute later, she heard more windows opening, then the rush of water through pipes.
She definitely needed air-conditioning.
Keeping one wary eye on the shadows, she popped the top off her coffee cup and sipped with gratitude. Her day had been long, and it didn’t appear as if she’d see her bed any time soon. The thought of bed brought Mac’s ripped body to mind, but the only things she would be eliciting from him tonight were answers.
Dust coated every surface in Mac’s little cabin. Stella unwrapped a chicken sandwich and ate it while she snooped. His fridge was empty except for condiments, and the cupboards contained only canned goods. Wildlife magazines were stacked on the counter. She picked up the latest issue, not the one covered in spider cooties. The mailing label read Dr. McClellan Barrett.
“Find anything interesting?”
Stella turned. Mac stood in the doorway, dressed in a soft blue shirt, unbuttoned over a pair of low-slung jeans. His damp, shaggy blond hair hung well past his ears, and he obviously hadn’t shaved for weeks. Holy hell, the man could work ruggedly handsome like nobody’s business.
She raised the magazine in her hand. “I didn’t know you were a doctor.”
“You have a PhD.”
“Yes.” The admission seemed to embarrass him.
“Considering you had a troubled youth and likely didn’t spend much time on schoolwork in high school, your PhD is pretty impressive,” Stella said. “Is your real name really McClellan?”
He crossed the room. “It is. My father was a Civil War buff.”
“Hence your brothers, Grant and Lee.” Stella sipped her coffee. The caffeine was working its magic on her brain.
“Exactly.” He reached for a sandwich and ate it in three bites. “Where does Stella come from? That’s not a name you hear very often.”
“I was named after my grandmother.” She handed him another without a word. When he’d finished it, he went to work on three glazed donuts and downed half a cup of coffee. Once she was satisfied he wasn’t dying of hunger, Stella got down to business. “Now tell me about the woman you saw tonight.”
Mac wiped his mouth with a napkin, balled it up, and tossed it into a trash can in the corner. “I only saw her for a couple of seconds as my headlights hit her. The road was wet, and I couldn’t stop. I didn’t have any option but to swerve into the trees.”
“Anything you can remember will help.”
Mac rested his forearms on the table and closed his eyes. “She was naked and sprawled on her back.” He opened his eyes. “I wasn’t close enough to see her face, but her body was thin. Her hair was short. Don’t know what color since it was wet. She wasn’t moving. At the time, I thought she was dead. But I suppose she wasn’t.” Confusion lowered his brow. “Unconscious maybe?”
A thin woman with short hair . . .
It couldn’t be.
“If she was dead or unconscious, how did she disappear?” Stella asked.
“That’s the important question, isn’t it?”
Dena Miller went missing after a violent altercation. Why would she be lying across a rural road, miles from her house? And if she was, how did she get there? Mac’s story was plain crazy, but what were the chances a thin woman with short hair disappeared and he saw another thin woman with short hair under equally strange circumstances the same night?
Stella shifted gears. “How did you get shot?”
He closed the donut box and sat back in his chair. “I spent the last few weeks in the Amazon on assignment. My partner took some photos of coca dealers. They didn’t appreciate it.”
“But you study river otters.”
He studied her face for a few seconds. “Not exactly.” He set his coffee down, and his eyes turned serious. “Do you trust me, Stella?”
“In what way?” A vague sense of discomfort tossed the sandwich in Stella’s belly. What had Mac gotten himself into?
“You’re going to find my story a little hard to believe, but I need your assistance.”
She planted both palms on the table and held his gaze. “If you’re in some sort of trouble, you need to be straight with me. I can’t help you if you’re holding back important information.”
Mac leaned his forearms on the table and leveled his eyes with hers. “I’m a DEA agent.”
Mac needed her help to find that woman and prove he hadn’t imagined her.
If he was really going to be honest with himself, he wanted Stella to know he was one of the good guys. Since he was a teenager, he’d been unable to shake his reputation. He’d been clean and sober for twelve years, and his family still doubted him.
Tonight it felt suddenly and inexplicably important that Stella believed his story.
“I thought the DEA had a strict policy of not hiring anyone with prior drug experience.”
“I didn’t ask for the job. They came to me.” Mac knew the DEA’s policies. “I had a particular skill set they needed.” Lately, he’d wondered if he was listed as a disposable asset. His former boss had sought Mac’s help, but the region was under new management. Mac’s new boss didn’t want to give up a valuable source of information, but he didn’t seem to mind putting Mac into dangerous situations. A few years ago, Mac hadn’t cared, but Lee’s death had changed his perspective.
Her lips pursed. “Dangerous job.”
His hand strayed to his bandage. He probably shouldn’t have told her, but he couldn’t take back his admission now. Maybe that was the point.
Stella frowned, deepening a vertical line between her brows. “How long?”
“Three years of hanging out in the jungle, snooping on drug traffickers, and pretending to be studying otters?”
“Well, I actually do observe the otters. I’ve published several papers on family group behavior. Local kids are always wandering into camp. It’s important that my cover be well-established.” Mac sank back into his chair. “And I like otters.”
“What?” He raised a hand, palm up. “Otters are badass.”
“Seriously?” Stella shook her head in disbelief.
“They eat piranha. Once, I saw four adults kill a young caiman that showed too much interest in their den.”
“That’s not what I meant.” She stabbed the table with a forefinger. “When I first met you, everyone treated you as if you were a space cadet, but I knew it was an act. You’re smart, and you were too good at planning that search last November. Now it all makes perfect sense.”
Mac felt heat rise into his face.
“Do your brother and sister know about the job with the DEA?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want them to worry.”
Her head tilted. “Why did you tell me?”
Good question. The first time he’d met her, Stella Dane had left an impression on him that he hadn’t been able to shake. But he could hardly tell her that. “You’re a good cop, and I want you to take this disappearing woman seriously.”
Her face turned solemn. “I would have anyway. I only asked for a drug test because your story was so strange, and I was concerned.”
She’d been worried about him. The idea pleased him. Most people simply assumed the worst, but Stella was different, which brought on a whole other set of concerns. Mac would be heading back to Brazil in eight weeks. He was spread thin trying to establish a connection with his family. But Stella . . .
She made him think about things he’d never considered before, like not coming home to an empty house. Like having someone to share a late-night meal.
Or his bed.
“So that’s what you were doing when you were shot? Investigating drug traffickers.”
“I’ve been working in that region studying wildlife since I was an undergraduate. I know many of the villagers. Until I went to work for the DEA, I was a simple wildlife biologist studying the effects of deforestation and pollution on giant river otters. Now my expeditions are funded by a fake university that’s actually a front for the DEA. Before this trip, I always worked alone, but my new boss wanted me to have a team.” In reality, his new boss hadn’t trusted him. “So this time I was paired with a special agent and a guide. We were only supposed to observe,” he said. “There’s been an increase in traffic on the Amazon River from Peru and Colombia into Brazil. Our job was to report who was moving what.”
“How did you end up with the DEA?”
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