Excerpt: Tangled Hearts

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Chapter 1

The warning signs had always been there. Years later, when she could look back on that fateful evening with the detachment of time, Alanna Cantrell would realize that both she and Mitch had deliberately chosen not to heed them.

Mitch, of course, had always remained steadfastly impervious to danger. His innate, devil-may-care attitude had contributed hugely to his success. It was also partly why she had fallen in love with him.

Alanna had never met a man as dashing as Mitchell Cantrell. Which was why she’d permitted herself to believe him when he assured her that their love was a talisman. A magic charm that would protect them from the madness.

It was a typically hot evening in June. The sun was a bright yellow ball, riding low on the horizon when she left her office at the American University of Beirut. Protestors marched in front of the salmon-pink American embassy next door. Alanna ignored them.

It was her first wedding anniversary and she was determined to enjoy it. For just this one night she was going to forget that she lived in a war zone, was going to ignore the blackened, charred ruins and broken water pipes and pretend that the city was as it once had been — the Paris of the Middle East.

For this one night she was going to pretend that the sûks, the markets that had been reduced to rubble, were once again glittering with gold and the brilliant sheen of silk. And for this single evening she was going to make believe she didn’t see the children clambering over an abandoned anti-aircraft gun on the nearby beach, where a bright red Ferris wheel suggested an earlier, more carefree time.

Mitch was waiting for her on the steps of the building. She was about to fly into his arms when he suddenly pulled a colorful bouquet from behind his back.

“They’re absolutely exquisite. But how in the world did you find tulips in Beirut?”

He laughed, a deep, rumbling sound that had always possessed the power to thrill her. “It’s not that hard. You simply have to know where to look.”

“These must have cost a fortune on the black market,” she murmured, touching the velvety petals.

The flowers created a stirring of an all-too-familiar homesickness for San Francisco. The hydrangeas would be in full bloom on Russian Hill’s serpentine Lombard Street, puffy, snowball-shaped blossoms of pink and white. Gardeners would be putting out the bright yellow and red zinnias at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Golden Gate Park would be ablaze with color, and sidewalk stands would be brimming with brilliant, freshly cut flowers.

“Hey, don’t worry, my little chickadee.” Mitch bent his head and nuzzled her neck. “The nest egg is intact.”

Since their wedding, Alanna had been saving for a house back in the States. A large house, with plenty of room for children and a big tree in the backyard for a swing. Mitch had promised her that after this last assignment in the Middle East, he’d be ready to settle down. Personally, after having spent the past twelve months watching him work, Alanna considered that an optimistic timetable, but she wanted to be ready when — and if — her talented newsman husband suddenly became domesticated.

“Remember I told you that Pier Uttenbos’s wife went home to Holland to have her baby last month?” Mitch asked.

“Of course.” Alanna also recalled how the news of Pier and Marieke Uttenbos’s newborn daughter had triggered her own desire for a child. Mitch’s child.

“Well, as luck would have it, he was due to return from Amsterdam today, so I asked him to bring along some flowers for my beautiful bride.”

With the rigid self-honestly that had always served her well, Alanna knew that her eyes were too wide, her chin too square, and her long brown hair lacked the drama to be considered beautiful. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her skin was too pale, refusing to tan even in this land of perpetual sunshine. But every time Mitch looked at her in that special, intimate way of his, she felt beautiful. Desireable.

He’d been away in the south, sleeping on the ground, evading blockades, trying to avoid being killed in the cross fire that was part and parcel of the civil war. The idea that he had been thinking of her was wonderful.

“You are the most romantic man I’ve ever known.” She knew her heart shone in her eyes as she looked up at him.

“I sure as hell didn’t used to be,” he admitted. “But I’ve discovered that it’s easy to be romantic when you’re married to the most delectable woman in the world.” Mitch cupped her chin and bent his head. The kiss was a brief flare of heat that ended all too soon.

“So how was your day?” he asked as they began strolling down the Avenue de Paris.

“We’re still wading our way through the Peloponnesian War.” Alana tucked her arm through her husband’s. The wide gold band on the ring finger of her left hand gleamed in the brilliance of the setting sun.

“That’s the one between Sparta and Athens? Back in the fifth century, right?”

She grinned up at him. “Very good.”

Mitch shrugged. “Being married to a classics professor, I was bound to pick up something. Besides, I took an intro classics course my sophomore year at Stanford. So, is old Thucydides still as dry as I remember him from my college days?”

“He’s a bit grim. And undeniably pessimistic. But there are times when he can display a savage wit. We’ve just reached the place where he begins to realize the importance of Persia in the conflict. That local reference seems to have piqued interest.”

“History is always more interesting when it hits close to home.”

“I know. But that’s enough classics lectures for today,” she decided with a shake of her head. “It’s not every day I celebrate my first wedding anniversary and I refuse to spoil it with talk about war, Greek historians, or even the network.

“Years from now, when we’re old and gray and sitting on our front porch watching our grandchildren playing tag in the flower beds, I want to look back and remember tonight as a special, magical time.”

“You and me both, babe. And with that romantic end in mind, I made reservations at the Commodore.” Her frown lasted no longer than a heartbeat, but his intense blue eyes that never missed a thing, caught it.

“What’s wrong?”

She forced a smile. “Nothing.”

He studied her with that probing look that made him the most effective television news interviewer in the business.

“Really,” Alanna insisted.

Still that long, unblinking look.

“Stop that,” she complained on a laugh. “You know how I hate it when you give me your 60 Minutes stare. Another second of that silent intimidation and I’ll be confessing to the latest car bombing.”

“My wife, Allie Cantrall — urban terrorist.” The soft breeze from the Mediterranean Sea blew a few random strands of hair across her cheek. He tenderly brushed them away.

The idea that this quiet, scholarly, delicately beautiful woman was his wife never ceased to amaze Mitch. Marriage had never held any interest for him. Not that he had anything against the institution of matrimony, he’d occasionally quip. He just didn’t want to spend his life in an institution. Besides, he’d always been too busy racing to the world’s hot spots where he’d enjoy hit-and-run relationships in exotic locales with women who’d been no more eager than he to settle down.

But that was before he returned home from Lebanon for his father’s funeral and discovered that the girl next door had matured into an extremely lovely young woman.

“If you really don’t want to go to the Commodore, we can try the Summerland,” he said. “We haven’t been there since it reopened after last year’s shelling.”

Alanna shook her head. “The Commodore’s fine. It’s just that —”

“Since the press hangs out there, you’re afraid we won’t be left alone long enough for me to play with your leg beneath the tablecloth.”

Alanna felt soft color drift into her cheeks. Twelve months and he could still make her want him with a single word, a wickedly arched eyebrow, the crooked smile that had contributed to Cosmopolitan magazine’s readers voting Mitchell Cantrell the sexiest newsman on television for the past five years.

“That’s part of it.”

“My darling bride.” He drew her into his arms and smiled down at her uplifted face. “Did you really think that after having been away for two long and celibate weeks, I’d want to share my gorgeous wife with a bunch of over-sexed, half-drunk reporters?”

“I’d hoped we could be alone,” she admitted.

He ran his knuckles tenderly, possessively down her cheek. “And we will be. Because it just so happens that your remarkably clever and extremely horny husband has booked the honeymoon suit for the entire weekend.” He waggled his brows in a purely lustful way. “Where he has every intention of spending the next two days — and nights — ravishing his wife in every conceivable fashion. And a few inconceivable ones, as well.”

Forgetting that they were on a public street, in a part of the world that frowned on public displays of affection, she flung her arms around his neck. “I love you, Mr. Cantrell.”

“Not as much as I love you, Mrs. Cantrell,” he answered. “But if we don’t keep walking, Allie, my sweet, I may embarrass us both by dragging you down on that warm sand and having my way with you right here and now.”

He always made her feel so sexy. So wanted. Alanna laughed and ran her fingers through his sun-gilded blond hair. “Promises, promises.”

They continued walking, hand in hand. When they reached the corner, Mitch stopped to buy two shiny red apples, individually cushioned in purple tissue paper, from a pushcart vendor. “For dessert,” he said as he handed Alanna one of the apples.

“I thought I was dessert,” she complained prettily.

“Ah, but even an incomparable lover such as myself needs occasional sustenance to keep his strength up.”

She was about to suggest he’d certainly never given any indication of tiring during their lovemaking before, when a black car suddenly pulled up to the curb and came to a stop with an earsplitting squeal of brakes.

Three men armed with automatic rifles burst from the vehicle. Before Alanna could understand what was happening, they shoved Mitch roughly into the back seat and tore off down the Rue Bliss.

Comprehension came raining down on her like a hail of cluster bombs. Dropping to her knees in the street, where only moments before the car — and her husband — had been, Alanna began to scream.