Julia Collins had issues. She’d even made a list of them—in order of priority, of course. Her OCD tendencies sat in joint first place with her pathological shyness. This was closely followed by the paralysis she felt when dealing with the opposite sex, then came the way she crumpled in the face of authority and, finally, the raging panic that overcame her anytime she was out of her comfort zone. In other words, she was absolutely the best person to ask for help when you were languishing in a foreign jail.
“Have you found me a decent lawyer yet?” her grandmother said from the other side of the bars.
“Not yet. I only had time to check into the hotel, leave my bags and clean up before I came straight here.” All of which had taken longer than she’d anticipated, because she couldn’t speak Spanish and hadn’t realised the hotel she’d booked was about a two-hour taxi trip from the prison—although she suspected her driver had taken the circuitous route.
Of course, if she’d brought Joe along with her, as her boss had insisted she do, then she would have known where to book a hotel. The ex-marine had spent time in Peru and, unlike Julia, could speak the language.
A flash of guilt speared through Julia at the thought of Joe Barone. She’d deliberately emailed Joe flight details that were false. In fact, she hadn’t even booked him on a flight at all. Mainly because the thought of spending fourteen hours sitting on a plane next to a man who attracted and terrified her in equal parts was just too much to handle. She very much feared he was still sitting in Heathrow waiting for her to turn up.
“Julia? Are you awake?” Her gran’s ludicrous question brought her back to her present situation.
“Of course I’m awake. I’m standing here, talking to you.”
“Mmm, for a minute there, I wasn’t sure. You do realise that this is a time-sensitive issue you’re dealing with? I’d like to get out of prison before some woman called Bertha makes me her bitch.”
“Gran!” Julia gave her a disapproving glare. “You are joking, right? I mean, you aren’t being threatened or anything, are you?”
“Only by poor hygiene and terrible food. There’s a good chance I’ll die of the bubonic plague before I’m released.” She raised her stubborn chin. “To hell with a lawyer. Just break me out of here. I mean, look at the place.” She waved a hand. “How hard could it be?”
“You can’t talk like that,” Julia hissed as she looked around to see if anyone had overheard. All she saw was the industrial grey concrete that made up the short-term holding area of Lima’s notorious female prison. It wasn’t much, but after the chaos Julia had witnessed in the general area of the prison, she was glad her gran was being held separately.
She looked down at the stamps running up her forearms and shuddered. Once she’d queued outside the prison, with all the other visitors, she’d had her personal space invaded by a leering man who’d patted her body looking for weapons. Julia suspected she’d have nightmares about that for years to come. After that, her paperwork had been scrutinised and she’d been questioned in rapid-fire Spanish that she didn’t understand. A lifetime later, her arms had been stamped—to prove she wasn’t an inmate—and she’d been allowed inside. Julia didn’t go clubbing, so she’d never had a club stamp on her arm, but she imagined it was a very similar experience to the one she’d just endured.
“Oh, darling.” Patricia Matthews sighed heavily. “This is too much for you. I should have bitten the bullet and called your mother instead.”
“No. I’m fine. I can do this. It’s just jetlag and culture shock rolled into one. Don’t worry about me; you’re the one who needs help. You did the right thing. Who knows what Mum would have done if she was here?” Libby Collins wasn’t exactly known for her restrained reaction in a crisis. Julia well remembered the dramas she’d endured growing up, especially seeing as, in her family, almost everything constituted a crisis.
Her gran folded her arms over her pale blue peasant blouse. There were no prison uniforms for these inmates. As far as Julia could see, there was nothing at all for the inmates. The glimpses she’d had of overcrowded cells, with pallets made of rags for beds, made her cringe.
Julia suddenly thought of something horrific. “You do have a toilet in your cell, don’t you?” She put a hand over her heart as it raced at her next thought. “You have to share it, don’t you? Please tell me you at least have privacy when you use it?”
Her gran pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. When she looked back at Julia, she seemed more resigned than hopeful to see her there.
“I don’t want to talk about the toilet. I want to talk about your plan to get me out of here. What are you doing about finding a decent lawyer? The ones that have approached me only want money. They’re promising to get the charges dropped and get me out of here in seconds—if I fork over all my cash.” She rolled her eyes. “Like I’d fall for that. That’s why I sent Alice off to find someone honest, or at least someone with a solid reputation.” She bit her lip and suddenly looked closer to her age than usual. “Then Alice didn’t come back.”
Gran’s best friend had been missing for four days, a fact that didn’t seem to bother the Peruvian authorities any. After she got her gran out of jail, Julia planned to hire an interpreter and grill the police on exactly what they were doing to find Alice. She felt nauseated at the thought. Okay, maybe not grill. Maybe ask politely and quietly…or send a firmly worded email…or maybe a text…
“Julia, are you listening to me? What are you doing about a lawyer?”
“Sorry, I was thinking. You don’t have to worry about a lawyer. I have a plan all written out. I’m going to look in the yellow pages, or do a Google search, and then I’m going to get someone at the hotel to call around for me—”
“Or,” came the deep American voice behind her, “you could have trusted that I knew a guy, like I told you before you dumped me at the airport.”
Every instinct within her was screaming that if she didn’t move, maybe he wouldn’t see her—and eat her alive. She was pretty sure she’d react exactly the same way if she was ever confronted with a hungry T-Rex.
Julia watched her gran’s eyes go wide at the sight of Joe, then she smiled with appreciation. “You must be a friend of my granddaughter.”
“You must be her incarcerated grandmother.” Two hands landed on Julia’s shoulders and Joe was standing at her back. Right against her back. “I’m Joe. I work with Julia.”
Her grandmother’s eyes sparkled. “Is that all you do with my granddaughter, Joe?”
Danger! Abort! Hide! Julia’s inner voice, which was remarkably similar to the robot in Lost in Space, was no help at all.
“With all due respect”—Joe’s soft American accent vibrated through Julia as he spoke to her gran—“that’s between Julia and me.”
He leaned into Julia, and she felt his breath whisper against her ear. “Later, we’re going to talk about the stunt you pulled at the airport.”