No doubt about itshe was going to die. She could almost see the headlines: B-List Actress Killed In Chicken Bus Accident. Dreams Of Hitting The Big Time Crushed With Her.
For someone who'd just been chosen to star opposite Hollywood's hottest actor, Ivy James sure didn't feel like red-carpet material. While she certainly hadn't expected mobs of eager fans to greet her, or a stretch limousine to sit waiting to whisk her away to a five-star hotel, still she'd held out hope that someoneeven a minor crew memberwould come to meet her flight. But no one had been waiting for her at the arrivals terminal, and in the end, her only option had been to stick with the itinerary provided to her and hop a public bus for the eighty-mile ride from the resort city of Veracruz to the remote mountain town of Pancho Viejo. And now here she was, bone-tired, sweaty and, above all, scared stiff, on a suicide ride through the Mexican jungle.
The garishly painted bus, decked out with a roof rack and brush guards, lurched violently to one side of the badly potholed road, throwing her against her neighbor. The driveror piloto, as he'd called himselfapparently believed that although his vehicle might look like a beat-up school bus, it was in fact a finely tuned Formula One race car.
For the past hour they'd careened along steep mountain roads. Twice, they'd passed other buses on blind, hairpin curves. Ivy had squeezed her eyes shut, but the honking horns, smoking brakes and violent rocking weren't things she'd soon forget.
With a muttered apology to her neighbor, Ivy clutched her overnight bag tighter on her lap and pressed herself against the window, praying she didn't throw up. She cast a sideways glance at the old woman beside her. Her brown face was seamed with creases, her eyes were closed and her mouth worked soundlessly as her callused fingers slid over the beads of a rosary. The sight gave Ivy a strange sense of relief that she wasn't the only passenger who found the ride terrifying, but at the same time it confirmed her belief that her life was indeed in peril.
The air was sticky and hot. Passengers were packed in like cattle. Some sat three to a seat; others stood in the aisle, gripping the handrails and swaying with the movement of the vehicle. The steamy heat only worsened the pungent smells permeating the aireverything from rank body odor to diesel fumes to the rich coffee beans the old woman carried in the sack at her feet. Even the lush vegetation, carved gorges and occasional stunning waterfall failed to distract Ivy from the odors. She was too busy keeping her stomach in check to appreciate the dramatic scenery that surrounded her.
The linen pantsuit she'd donned back in New York had seemed a good choice at the time, but after hours of traveling, it was wrinkled beyond recognition. Perspiration trickled between her breasts, and her shirt stuck uncomfortably to her back. Her feet, clad in a pair of slip-on sandals, ached.
A sudden waft of air through the bus brought with it the strong smell of spicy jalapenos, and Ivy's stomach roiled alarmingly in response. Stifling a curse, she dug through her handbag until she found what remained of a roll of antacids. She brushed away crumbs from the exposed end, unwrapped the last three tablets and popped them into her mouth, praying the chalky substance would help her queasiness subside. The bus driver had assured her they were going to Pancho Viejo, but she hadn't expected the trip to take so long. She pulled out her itinerary, which was crumpled from handling. After unfolding it, she read through it swiftly.
Arrive Veracruz, Mexico. Okay, she'd managed that part, having departed New York City some fourteen hours earlier aboard an AeroMexico flight, with only a brief layover in Mexico City.
Take public bus to Pancho Viejo. She'd managed that, too. Well, so far. It was anyone's guess when or if she'd make it safely to her destination.
Obtain local transport from Pancho Viejo to Hacienda la Esperanza. Just where was Pancho Viejo, anyway? If the bus ride was any indication, the place was somewhere in the dense mountain region north of Veracruz.
The events that had led to this moment had unfolded so quickly she hadn't even had time to do an Internet search about the region before her agent had hustled her off to the airport. She'd been back in NewYork less than a week, having just wrapped up a film shoot in Montreal, when he had called with the mind-blowing news.
Ivy had been too stunned to question why Finn Mac-Dougall wanted to cast her in his latest movie, opposite Hollywood's golden boy, Eric Terrell. If she hadn't actually touched the contract with her own hands, she'd have thought somebody was playing a bad joke on her.
Finn MacDougall wasn't just a great director. In the hallowed studios of Hollywood, he was king, with a reputation for filmmaking rivaled only by Steven Spiel-berg's. Barely forty years old, he had it all: a gorgeous wife, two adorable kids and a house overlooking the Pacific worth seven figures.
According to Ivy's agent, MacDougall had seen her in several small, independent films and thought she'd be perfect for his newest project, Eye of the Hunter. The proposed salary had left Ivy speechless. As if there had ever been any doubt Ivy would agree to take the part. A two-time Academy Award-winning director, Mac-Dougall specialized in action movies that were pure adrenaline, with edge-of-your-seat suspense that ensured every picture was an unforgettable experience for the audience. Some of the most acclaimed actors in the business owed their careers to Finn MacDougall.
And he wanted her.
Ivy wasn't about to question his motives. Without even reading the script, she knew she wouldn't let this opportunity slip by. She just needed to get to the set before he changed his mind, especially since they'd begun shooting three weeks earlier. That information had surprised her. Obviously, she was a last-minute replacement. Directors normally didn't wait until the eleventh hour to pick their leading ladies.
The two days following MacDougall's offer had been a whirlwind of signing contracts and release forms, obtaining medical clearances and insurance, packing and making travel arrangements. Finally, her agent had driven her to the airport, where, at the last minute, he'd thrust a large envelope into her arms.
"It's the script, darling," he'd told her. "You have a nine-hour flight. Do yourself a favor and read it."
She had. Three times, using a lime-green highlighter to underscore all her lines. The story was about a Special Forces soldier, Garrett Stokes, who'd been taken prisoner by a ruthless drug cartel in Colombia, then rescued by a beautiful missionary. It had more than captured her imagination; it had held her spellbound.
Initially, the script, with its graphic violence and no-holds-barred depiction of covert warfare, had disturbed her. At one point she'd had to put it down and pull several deep breaths in order to control her emotions. The screenplay touched a place within her that was still raw, dragging old memories out from where she'd kept them carefully hidden for two years.
Even now, thoughts of her older brother, Devon, brought an ache to her heart. That he'd died doing something he loved didn't matter. It couldn't dispel the anger and grief she had felt at his loss. She'd arrived at the military hospital in Washington, D.C., shortly after he'd emerged from surgery. Despite the severity of his wounds, she hadn't believed he would die. He'd always been so confident, able to handle anything life threw at him. With the death of their mother four years earlier, he'd been the only family she'd had left. He'd always promised her that he'd come back from Iraq in one piece, that he'd always be there for her. She'd believed itright up until the moment he'd died.
Devon had wanted to join the marines for as long as Ivy could remember. He'd enlisted on his eighteenth birthday, and nothing had given him as much pride as wearing that uniform. He'd served three tours in Iraq, but his career had come to a tragic and bloody end the day a roadside bomb had shattered his convoy. He'd survived long enough to be airlifted to Landstuhl Hospital in Germany, then to the Walter ReedArmy Medical Center, where he'd finally succumbed to his injuries.
Ivy thought he would have approved of the script she now held in her hands. Her own feelings aside, she acknowledged that the story held a universal appeal. Guys would love it for all the military pyrotechnics, everything from exploding cars to buildings to aircraft. Not to mention some graphically brutal torture scenes. Women would appreciate the romance in the film, especially the love scenes featuring a naked Eric Terrell as the special-ops soldier who falls in love with the missionary who saves his life. Women around the world would faint in their seats at the sight of Eric's cobblestone abs and supremely sculpted arms, not to mention his superior posterior.
Ivy felt a little faint herself at the knowledge that she would be on the receiving end of his manly caresses. Thank God she'd maintained her daily exercise regimen in Montreal. Nothing worse than playing opposite the most desired man in America while your thighs jiggled with cellulite.
Not that she was interested in Eric Terrell other than professionally. The last thing she needed was to become involved with yet another leading man. She'd been there, done that, and it had led to only heartache.
There'd been Jacques, the artistic Frenchman she'd thought was totally into her, until she'd discovered he was more into himself. Then there'd been Simon. He'd played a deliciously sexy bad-boy hero, but his naughty habits had extended into his private life to the degree that he'd been unable to commit to just one woman. Finally, there had been Malcolm. She'd completely fallen for his charm, and had believed him when he'd told her she was the only girl for him. It had been the truth, at least while they'd worked on the same project. But once filming ha...
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