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Off the Map Read an Excerpt B&N
Harlequin NEXT
ISBN: 0373880812

Off the Map
by Dorien Kelly
February 2006

An Excerpt

San Jose International Airport, Costa Rica

Tessa couldn’t fault an airport that offered beer and fried chicken at breakfast time. In fact, after a sleepless overnight layover in Houston, Costa Rican carbs and fat grams had seemed wonderfully festive. She could, however, fault Kate as a travel companion. Or more accurately--and more kindly--perhaps not so much Kate as her dogged insistence that her new bike make the trip, too.

Whether it was their hastily bolted breakfast, the knowledge of the relentless heat and sun just outside this air conditioned enclosure, or the stress of two overtired women hauling six enormous bags and a bicycle, Tessa was sweating. Her shirt clung to her back, and her hair had begun its humid weather snake-dance into dreadlocks.

Vee had told them that Don, the house’s caretaker, would be waiting for them once they cleared Customs. However, after twenty minutes spent scouring the crowd, it had grown obvious to both Tessa and Kate that Don wasn’t among its numbers.

Tessa had seen tour guides gathering their pasty white charges, who looked like so many chicks scattered in a barnyard. She’d witnessed tired families rushing for the comforts of home, and in a swift and evil kick to her battered self-esteem, she’d watched lovers reuniting. Not just one couple, but seemingly everywhere she looked. She wanted to warn them that love was a lie, that they should guard their hearts against this fraud, except she knew that just hers had been false. And so her gaze had jumped from point to point, unable to hold fast to any one thing, any more than Tessa could.

But that was why she was to spend three months in this unfamiliar place, where the Spanish in which she’d believed herself fluent flowed by her like water rushing down a mountainside. She had twelve weeks to learn to hold fast to herself...not to Jack or a job no longer hers, or even to Kate, her cranky human security blanket.

“I’d kill for a cigarette,” Kate said, bike braced in one hand and stacked luggage by her other side. “This was the wrong time to try to quit.”

“There is no right time,” Tessa replied, in no finer a mood. “And forget the cigarette. I’d kill for a phone.”

She had seen a full bank of pay phones while they’d been waiting in line at Immigrations, but on this side of the great divide? Two phones, one of which was broken, and the other well occupied. As her antiquated cell phone was useless in Costa Rica, Tessa held her spot six back in line. Tucked in the pocket of her allegedly wrinkle-proof travel pants was a crumpled bit of paper with the house phone number on it.

“You should call Vee if no one answers at the house,” Kate said.

“And Vee can do what from L.A.?” At Kate’s surprised expression, Tessa schooled herself to patience. “Kate, I’ll get this fixed, I promise.”

Tessa looked through the thick plate glass window to her left. A younger man who’d been there fifteen minutes ago still remained, leaning against the side of a dented and dirty green Volkswagen van. He wasn’t Don, she was quite sure, as he was too tight of skin and short of hair to match Vee’s description of a grizzled Haight-Ashbury veteran.

Still, it was time for a bold move, since Tessa had already been told that Kate’s bike eliminated both the bus system and the currently available rental car stock as means of reaching Vee’s promised land.

While gathering the last of her brainpower, Tessa rubbed her thumb against the rough skin at the back of her left ring finger--all that was left of the engagement ring and wedding band she’d tucked into a safe deposit box back in Michigan. She’d toyed with the idea of selling them, but when it came down to it, she hadn’t been ready.

Most everything else she’d gladly ditched in a garage sale two weeks earlier...the furniture that Jack-and-Uterus had deemed substandard and thus not negotiated for, the fussy Wedgewood china from Jack’s mom, the golf clubs Tessa had owned purely to humor her spouse. Other than her clothing and pre-Jack keepsakes, she’d held onto only her dozens of movies (on VHS tape and therefore nearly as obsolete as she was feeling) and her art supplies. Both collections were being shipped to the house in Playa Blanca, where they’d likely gather dust. And at this rate, arrive before she did. She again glanced at the van.

“I’ve got an idea. Hold my spot in line,” she said to Kate.

Her friend grumbled, but nevertheless wrangled bike and luggage to the proper location.

Tessa headed out the door, where the heat sunk through her clothes and into her skin, a jolt of energy that she knew from tropical experience would soon turn to lassitude. She took advantage of the brief surge, striding over to the rusty van.

A hand-lettered sign reading tourista sat behind the windshield. The sight of it was a stronger lure than a chilled Dr. Pepper. Tessa worked up an outgoing smile for the clipboard-wielding male, who had to be about the same minimal age as Kate’s bartender-plaything.

He smiled in return, and Tessa absently noted something like a sensual thrill chasing down her spine. Maybe the past month hadn’t rendered her completely dead inside? Interesting trivia, but about as relevant to her current situation as Hollywood gossip.

Tessa focused on her more immediate need of language skills. It had been a million years since she’d used Spanish for more than to say hello or thank you. Four years of high school classes, a summer program in Spain after her freshman year of college, all amounting to... In sum, not nearly what she’d thought she’d known last week as she’d glibly chattered along with the Berlitz CDs she’d borrowed from the library.

“Hola,” she said to the van’s possible owner. “De-- deseamos ir a Playa Blanca.”

“Playa Blanca?”

She nodded, then tried to explain where it was located. “Está Quepos?”

“Across the mountains and south from Quepos,” he replied with a nod. “It’s hours from here, you know?”

His English was far less halting than her Spanish, thank God.

“So, are you for hire?” she asked.

He hesitated, and Tessa’s palms began to sweat. She would tolerate no more failure.

“I don’t go that far, too often,” he said.

Hope rose. “But you do sometimes?”

He smiled. “When the money is good.”

She’d make it good--highly tempting, indeed--if it meant they could leave this purgatory of an airport.

“I have a friend with me,” she said, then glanced toward the window, where Kate was giving her a broad smile.
“Come inside. Let me show you what we’ve got.”

“I don’t know,” the driver said, edging closer to his van.

Tessa dug deep and found the smile of charm and confidence that had once stood her so well in business. “Give it a shot,” she said. “I promise the price will be right...”


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