Guide My Heart
(The Stirring Book 1)
Guide My Heart
Copyright © 2017 by Caroline Swart
Edited and Formatted by
Pam Berehulke, Bulletproof Editing
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“Holy hotness.” Meghan pinched my thigh. “Would you look at that?”
“Ouch!” Smacking her fingers away, I looked in the direction she was pointing and sucked in a breath. “No way.”
Our jaws slack, both Meghan and I watched the sexiest male to ever draw breath sling a muscular thigh over the running board and hoist himself into the safari game-drive Jeep.
“Oh. My. God,” my best friend whispered in awe. Pressing a hand to her chest, she let out a tiny whimper of lust as he glanced at our group.
His green eyes tracked over my head but then almost immediately returned to focus on mine. The smile he gave me paralyzed me, and yet my lips curled up into a goofy grin, which would have stayed in place if Meghan didn’t pinch my thigh again.
“Brit. Brit, he’s looking at you.”
“Cut that out,” I snapped.
“But it’s true. Oh, sweet mother of—” She bit off her words as I kicked her under the seat.
“Calm down. You’re making a scene. He’s just a travel guide, and he’s got a job to do. He won’t start the tour until you stop gawking at him.”
Meghan bit her lip and continued to stare unabashedly.
We were in the third row of a Jeep that had been modified for game drives. An elderly couple dressed in khaki tops with matching leopard-print neck scarves sat next to us. Thankfully, they weren’t hogging all the room and were too small to elbow me in the confined space. I shifted restlessly on the hot seat, waiting for the tour to begin.
The four teenagers in the row in front of us were female, and it was obvious they’d noticed the guide. They used their European accents and flicked their hair, trying to attract his attention. As if they had a chance.
“He looks like Thor.”
Rolling my eyes, I noticed the glazed look on Meghan’s face and sighed. “Get a grip, Meggy. You’re worse than the pubescents in front of us.”
One of the girls turned and glared at me.
The vehicle roared to life with a lurch, forcing us to grab the handrail on top of the seat in front of us. I accidentally trapped that same girl’s hair, and she yelped as the big truck pulled away from the game lodge. As soon as I could, I released her curls and shrugged an insincere apology when she glared at me again. Talking was pointless over the roar of the engine.
Meghan seemed to break out of her lust-filled trance. “Here we go,” she mouthed with an enthusiastic smile. Her fair chin-length hair bounced as she twisted around to search for wildlife before we’d even left the enclosed area.
We hadn’t driven more than thirty yards when the driver stopped the noisy vehicle. An electrified double gate blocked our path with diamond-shaped danger signs clearly visible. A rush of chatter started between the tourists as we waited at the entrance.
Thor stood and faced us. He had to be the most amazing sight I’d seen since landing in South Africa yesterday for our two-week safari vacation.
After giving us a blinding smile, he greeted us in a velvety, powerful voice. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Chris.”
“It is the actor.” Meghan gasped, widening her eyes.
I frowned at her. “Don’t be stupid.” Obviously, our guide wasn’t really Chris Hemsworth, but he did bear a close resemblance.
“Welcome to the Lion’s Pride Game Lodge.” Resting his hip against the open window, he pointed at the driver. “This is David, and we’ll be introducing you to the inhabitants of our reserve.”
In a hushed voice, Meghan said, “Do you hear that accent? So yummy. I could listen to him all day long.”
I smiled and stole another glance, taking a quick inventory. Mid-twenties, tall, broad forehead, high cheekbones, tanned skin, and golden hair pulled back into a short ponytail. Everything about him screamed delicious.
“Before we leave the enclosure, please remember to stay inside the vehicle. The animals see the truck as a nonthreatening unit and won’t attack, but your safety isn’t guaranteed unless you remain seated.”
This caused another murmur of voices, and everyone discreetly shifted away from the sides.
As soon as the first gate opened, David stepped on the accelerator and drove inside the fenced area. The first gate slid closed behind us, and the one in front opened. Leaving the safe area, we entered the reserve.
A dirt road led the way into a yellowed grassy plain dotted with small green bushes, a rugged array of sloping hills in the distance. Here and there, thorny trees stretched their branches toward the wispy clouds above.
“Oh, this is so beautiful.” Meghan had finally stopped gawking at the tour guide and stared at the scenery around us.
A few antelope grazed nervously at the side of the road, and we stopped for a closer look. The bucks were no taller than knee-height with light brown hides and white underbellies. One of them sported an impressive set of horns, while the rest were smaller and hornless.
“These are impala. The babies are affectionately known as bokkies,” Chris said. “You’ll notice the male has the horns, and he has a harem of females.”
“I’ll be a part of Thor’s harem any day.” Meghan had resumed her starry-eyed expression, and I lowered my camera with a small laugh.
He glanced at me then and tilted his head slightly. My cheeks burning, I focused my gaze on the small buck.
“See the black streaks that run from their white buttocks to the upper hind legs?” He pointed at their tails and everyone nodded. “They form the letter M, like the M in McDonald’s.”
We gave him blank stares, waiting for him to explain.
“These antelope are the preferred choice of food for predators. They’re like McDonald burgers for lions and cheetahs. If you see the M running in the distance, you can bet that a leopard or another predator is following behind.”
The tourists finally chuckled, and cameras flashed and clicked as he continued to educate us about the four-legged Happy Meals.
Chris’s knowledge was impressive, and he kept us entertained as the tour progressed. We stopped to see kudus, giraffe, and wildebeest. His voice was smooth, and I soon picked up the different nuances in his accent.
The temperature rose as the sun climbed, and an annoying line of sweat trickled down my back. Even though I wore a thin tank top with a pair of cotton shorts, the heat was still oppressive.
When we reached a large group of thorn trees, Chris gestured for David to stop. “Don’t make any loud noises,” he whispered as he pointed to a sandy spot on the far side of the last tree.
My eyes focused and I gasped. Five lionesses sprawled on the ground, panting in the heat. One lifted her head and seemed to single me out. She was enormous, and the way she fixed her amber eyes on mine caused tingles to erupt in my stomach. It was the weirdest feeling, like climbing into a hot bath with icy feet. Very creepy.
“This is part of the Khumba pride,” Chris said fondly. “The cubs are just out of sight. If we wait for a few minutes, they might make an appearance.”
Cameras clicked again, but everyone kept quiet. Even Meghan was subdued.
The lions were huge—no wildlife documentary could accurately depict their size. Their paws were gigantic, about ten inches wide from the first pad to the last. What would their claws feel like fully extracted and ripping into one’s flesh? Just the thought made me shiver.
Inside the vehicle, the atmosphere was electric. Everyone was excited, most likely too scared to speak.
As the lionesses relaxed in the sparse shade of the thorn bushes, flies buzzed around their heads and crawled over their bodies. They too were sweltering in the hot weather.
I could sympathize with them. At least when our vehicle moved, we had a slight breeze, but now that we’d stopped the temperature was hellish, and I was cooking.
“The females guard the cubs, and hunt for food at dusk. They generally lay low during the heat of the day.”
While Chris spoke, I blew out a breath, unable to bear the sticky heat any longer. Raising my hand, I swiped at my forehead with the back of it.
A low growling sound came from the front of the vehicle, drawing my gaze to Chris. Was it my imagination, or had his eye color switched to honey gold? For a moment, he stopped speaking and stared at me strangely, much like the lioness panting in the shade.
“That’s odd,” Meghan whispered. “Thor looks like he’s starving and you’re the main course.”
Dropping my arm, I squirmed in my seat. Meghan had a point. The man looked ravenous.
I’m not exactly prom-queen material, but I’m not ugly. My stomach is flat, my hips flare just enough, and my chest fills out a T-shirt nicely—or so I’ve been told. But my eye teeth aren’t exactly in line with my front teeth, and my hair is the color of dark coffee. I may be pretty enough, but I’m not a blond bombshell.
That’s why I couldn’t fathom Chris’s sudden attraction. The gleam in his eyes was so hot, my stomach flip-flopped. Everyone in the Jeep turned to look at what he’d seen, and I glanced back too, hoping they wouldn’t realize where his attention lay.
David started the engine and we were jolted away from the pride. Some of the tourists complained about not seeing the cubs, but the driver grabbed Chris’s hand, tugging him down roughly to exchange a few low words. How strange.
“Oh wow, Brit. Did you see how he stared at you? Did you flash your bra at him?”
I scoffed. “Must be the marks on my arm.”
Lifting my hand, I studied the small blotches. I’d had them as long as I could remember, and although they resembled tattoos, they were actually birthmarks. Starting at the knob of my wrist bone, four tiny paw prints trailed toward my elbow. The females in my family shared the same marks, but a doctor had assured us they were harmless. Just a concentration of melanin, he’d said.
Still, I didn’t think a tattoo would cause Chris to look at me like that.
David spoke to him, wagging a finger as he drove. I caught one or two phrases over the loud noise, but they weren’t speaking in English.
With a closed expression, Chris continued the tour but didn’t look at me at all. Not even once. As soon as we reached the lodge, he said an abrupt good-bye to the group and hopped out to stride inside.
Meghan grumbled. “I wanted to meet him. He should have waited for us.”
Peeved, I had to agree. “Guess he doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
Climbing over the seats, I exited the vehicle. David had remained and he nodded at me, his white shirt a stark contrast against his dark skin. I said good-bye and hurried away from the Jeep, but his gaze followed me as we entered the lobby of the game lodge.
Once inside, Meghan exclaimed, “This is more like it,” as she accepted an ice-cold glass of fruit juice from a waitress. Giving the woman a grateful smile, I took a glass from the same tray.
An employee with vivid auburn hair and an amazing tan stepped out from behind the lobby counter. Wearing a light summer dress, she looked cool and elegant. Her rubber heels squeaked on the floor as she headed toward us.
“Hi, my name is Sarie. Are you girls enjoying yourselves?”
At the sight of her bright smile, my moodiness lifted. We were on vacation, and I’d traveled too far to let a tour guide’s surliness spoil my African vacation. My mom had paid a lot of money for this trip, and I was determined to enjoy every second of it.
It was the week before Christmas, but instead of being bundled up and freezing in New York, I was walking around in shorts. The Southern Hemisphere was in the throes of summer, much to our delight, but the only hint of Christmas I’d seen were some sparkly lights and the occasional strand of tinsel strung here or there. Here, the Christmas trees consisted of painted white branches nailed together in triangular shapes. In such a sunny place, there was no need to add lights and glitter—the weather created the holiday spirit with no effort at all.
Meghan fell into conversation with Sarie while I sipped my drink. Still hoping to catch a glimpse of Chris, I allowed my gaze to wander the lobby.
The lodge’s entrance was large and blessedly cool. Two African employees stood behind the reception desk that ran the length of the wall. The counter was built of dark sheets of wood that were smoothly polished, and intricate tree lattices decorated the front panels. Indigenous plants rested in vases along the shiny surface, together with woven baskets filled with pamphlets.
A life-sized elephant carving stood to the left, complete with twinkle lights draped around its neck for the holiday, and a gathering of sandstone statues were arranged to the side of the slate floor. Reeds filled an assembly of brass buckets near the reception desk, and wooden beams crisscrossed under a high thatched roof. The faint smell of tar and dried grass sweetened the air.
When Sarie mentioned there was going to be a party later tonight, I turned to face her. “Sounds like fun. What time?”
“At six. You’re scheduled for a massage at our spa, and after that, we’ll have a spit braai for dinner.”
Meghan’s brow pinched in confusion. “What’s a spit braai?”
“Oops.” Sarie laughed. “Spit braai is a South African word. We’ll be roasting meat on a rotisserie outside. A light lunch is being served in the restaurant now, but do keep space for tonight’s meal,” she said with a wink.
As she spoke, my stomach growled. “Must be all the fresh air. I’m ravenous.” Placing my empty glass on the counter, I tugged on Meghan’s arm. “Come on, let’s freshen up for lunch.”
We left the lobby and walked into the sunshine outside, headed for our quarters. Each of us had our own luxurious thatched-roof cottage close to the lobby and restaurant. Thirty other stone-walled cottages on stilts surrounded the lodge. Some were family sized, and others, like ours, shared a small deck and splash pool.
My mother had picked the best game lodge she could find, saying she wanted us to have the vacation of a lifetime. As far as we could tell, she’d been adopted from this region of South Africa, but couldn’t trace her roots accurately. Her practice in New York was busy in December, and she’d asked me to bring photos and stories about the place until she could visit. So far, the vacation had exceeded my expectations.
“Don’t you just love the view?” Meghan sighed as she walked into my room.
Through the glass door, I could see Kaneba Lake framed by majestic hills in the distance. The cottages were elevated, and a series of wooden walkways led to the lake where direct access was blocked by high thorn bushes.
“Everything here is beautiful.” I searched in the small cupboard, digging out a clean pair of shorts and a tank top. “Hurry up and get changed. I’m starving, but I’m not going out wearing this again.” Armed with a towel, I shooed Meghan from my room.
Taking extra care with my makeup once I’d showered and dressed, I rapped my knuckles on her door. “Are you done?”
“Yeah,” she drawled as she opened the door. Her room was the mirror image of mine.
Squatting in front of a small bar fridge, she searched for a drink. “Apparently, the legal drinking age in South Africa is eighteen,” she said, smiling over her shoulder. “I guess at nineteen, we’re legit.” Her grin couldn’t get any wider as she presented two miniature bottles of whiskey. “Ta-da!”
I laughed as she fished for bottles of soda and mixed the contents.
“Oh, Meghan. This is the life.” I exhaled a happy sigh as I flopped back onto her plush white quilt. “Can you imagine our friends at college?” Closing my eyes for a second, I smiled. “The weather forecast says it’s snowing in New York today, and here we are in the middle of summer, having the vacation of a lifetime.”
As Meghan beamed at me and dropped a few ice cubes into the glasses, I thought again about how lucky I was to have her in my life.
Her dad and my mom had met and double-dated when they were in veterinary school, then later stayed close as couples. After my dad passed away, we’d moved next to them, and Meghan and I had become best friends. When her dad learned about the safari trip my mom was booking for me, he paid for Meghan’s ticket under the pretext we’d keep each other out of mischief. Hah!
Meghan’s silver bangles jingled as she handed me a drink. “We also get to see all the amazing guys here. Cheers.” Clinking her glass against mine, she smiled. “I wanted to call dibs on Thor, but I can see he’s yours.”
“Hmm, he disappeared too quickly. I don’t think he likes me anymore. Cheers.” I took a big sip and spluttered, holding the glass away. “Gosh, how much alcohol is in this?”
“The chef is kinda hot,” Meghan said, ignoring my coughing. “Did you see how he ogled me at dinner last night?”
I snatched a tissue from her bedside table and dabbed my eyes with it. “The bearded guy with the bun?”
“Yeah. What’s with the man-bun and ponytail craze here, though? Don’t get me wrong, they know how to rock it.” She sighed dreamily. “I think it’s so alpha male.”
The whiskey went down more smoothly with my second attempt. “Must be the lack of razors in the bush. I don’t know.”
“You’re such an idiot.” She pushed my shoulder. “Finish up, BFF. I’m starving.”
We downed our drinks, and I grimaced as the rush of alcohol fired through my veins. After a quick appraisal in the mirror, we left her cottage and headed back to the lodge, our cheeks slightly flushed.
Two handcrafted wooden doors opened into the dining area that was large and airy with tables scattered beneath a high-beamed roof. A few guests were already seated close to sliding-glass doors that opened onto a full-length deck.
“The view here is better than the room.” She pointed at Kaneba Lake, sparkling like a diamond in the afternoon sun.
“It is pretty cool,” I agreed, popping a dinner mint in my mouth that I snatched from the hostess stand.
Waiters bustled in and out of swing doors carrying platters above their shoulders, and a buffet table to our left seemed to groan under a heavy weight of food.
Sarie stood nearby with a Santa hat perched on her head. She walked over, pointing at the smorgasbord on display. “What do you think?”
Meghan laughed. “If the food tastes as good as your hat looks, I’ll be first in line.”
“This old thing?” Touching it self-consciously, Sarie smiled. “Only a few more days until Christmas, thank goodness. This hat so uncomfortable. I can’t wait to pack it away with the rest of the decorations in the store room.”
When I looked at her in mock horror, her eyes widened and she covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh no, it’s not that I don’t like Christmas or anything.”
“Calm down.” I gave her a teasing grin. “We’re here on safari. The time of year is just a bonus.”
“Good grief, I thought I’d offended you.”
Meghan raced to the buffet. We joined her, and as she stared at the food like a greedy child, Sarie offered to explain a few of the dishes.
“Yeah, that’d be cool.” Meghan nodded without looking at us.
“The only dishes you won’t be familiar with are over here.” Sarie motioned to one side of the table. “That bowl contains lamb curry, and those crispy things are called poppadums. You eat them together with a chopped-tomato-and-onion dish called sambals, over there.”
I glanced hungrily at the ceramic dishes, inhaling the fragrant aromas. My eyes almost closed in ecstasy as cinnamon and a host of unfamiliar spicy scents wafted in the air.
“We have a hot carvery with grilled chicken breasts and roast gammon.”
Feeling guilty, I rubbed my stomach. No matter how good the food looked, I’d have to save room for dinner. Central Park was far away, and I couldn’t chance jogging in the bush. Until I could find a way to burn off the calories, I’d have to watch my diet.
“I thought you said this was a light lunch,” I said to Sarie.
She smiled. “Let me know if you need anything.” Spotting another couple entering the room, she walked over to greet them.
My bestie was already standing in line, so I joined her. The foreign girls we’d seen earlier were ahead of us, piling their plates high with meat and vegetables.
Meghan peered back at me, wrinkling her nose. “Promise you won’t act like a teenager if I tell you something?”
“I am a teenager,” I said, raising a brow. “For another few months, anyway.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Her eyes sparkled. Sneaking a glance over my shoulder, she whispered, “Thor’s at the door, and he’s watching you again.”
I couldn’t help myself. Without thinking, I looked back at Chris.
My gaze fixed on his, and a thousand butterflies took flight in my stomach. With a strangely possessive stare, he moved toward me.
Meghan snickered before whispering “incoming” in a singsong voice. The foreign girls noticed him at the same time and nudged each other with excitement.
Oh my God. I couldn’t move. He advanced on me with a predatory gait like a sleek, golden-haired lion. My heart leaped in my throat as he stopped so close, the material of his shorts brushed against my knee.
“Hey,” I mumbled back, captivated by his smile.
Broad shoulders blocked the light from the veranda doors as I tilted my head to look up at him. He smelled so good, but not from aftershave. No, he carried his own natural scent of sunshine, grass, leather, and maybe a hint of vanilla. I tried not to close my eyes as I breathed deeply.
“My name is Chris de Lange.”
“What’s my what?” I said, and Meghan exhaled in frustration behind me.
“Your name.” His lips curled in amusement
“Oh.” I let out an embarrassed chuckle. If only my brain would kick into action, but it was frozen. Still, I had to try.
“Britney Adams. You can call me Brit.”
“Yeah, it’s like the singer, but I don’t sing . . .”
Meghan shoved her hand toward him, obviously trying to save me from embarrassing myself further. “Hey, I’m Meghan Tait. So nice to meet you.”
Jeez, get a grip, Britney.
White teeth flashed as he shook her hand. His blond locks were loose, parted in the middle with the ends brushing his shoulders. A silver lion-paw charm dangled from his neck, and a faint line of stubble darkened his jaw.
“Did you enjoy the game drive today?” he asked, releasing her hand.
“Yes, absolutely.” Meghan grinned. “Although Brit wanted to ask you about some of the animals we saw.”
“You do?” he said as I sputtered “I do?” at exactly the same time.
Meghan rolled her eyes as he shot me a curious look, so I quickly added, “I mean, yes. Yes, I do.”
“Why don’t you guys grab a table over there?” She pointed to the glass doors. “You can ask all the questions you’d like,” she said to me. “Don’t worry, I’ll get the food.”
Gritting my teeth, I tried to glare at her, but Chris had already maneuvered me toward the deck by placing a hand at the small of my back. His fingers splayed over the waistband of my shorts, brushing the bare skin under my top. A rash of goose bumps prickled my arms at that slight contact.
“Is this table good?” he asked, pinning me with forest-green eyes.
Nodding, I waited as he pulled out a seat and gestured for me to sit. He angled his chair beside mine and swung himself into it before focusing on me.
“So, what would you like to ask?”
For a second, my mind went blank. How could I concentrate when all I could see was tanned skin and white teeth? He was so close, the hair on his bare legs tickled my calves.
Come on, Britney. Think!
“I’d like to know why the lioness stared at me today.” Yes, the question was stupid, but it was the first thing that came to mind.
A glint of humor shone in his eyes, and his lips curled into a half smile. “Maybe she’d like to eat you.”
Laughter burst from me before I could stop it. “Yeah, I bet.”
“Seriously. She has good taste.” His gaze turned to my arm as I ducked my head to hide my burning cheeks. Reaching out to lift my wrist from my lap, he whispered, “Nice tattoo.” With almost reverent care, he ran the back of his knuckles along my birthmark.
As his fingers caressed my skin, a current of sensation hit me, a swoop in my belly like the first big drop in a roller-coaster ride. I had to be dreaming.
Chris leaned forward as if he were going to kiss me, and my eyes dropped closed. But instead of the darkness I expected when I normally closed my eyes, a vision sizzled behind my eyelids. A thick golden chain appeared, sparks flying from it as it floated in the air. Before I could move, one end of the metal slid over my arm and wrapped around my wrist. I tried to pull away, but my hand wouldn’t move.
What was happening?
In the vision, I tried to scream at Chris but my mouth wouldn’t open. All I could do was watch as the edges of his body glowed and the other end of the chain settled in his hand. A rich vanilla scent overwhelmed my senses, making my head fuzzy.
Chris tugged the chain gently, and I lurched forward. A second later, the glow around his body faded and the golden chain disappeared. Opening my eyes, I found myself leaning against him, the side of my face pressed to his chest with his large hand cupped against the back of my head.
What on earth?
Mortified, I tried to pull away but he tightened his embrace. His muscular arms enfolded me, drawing me closer, and I had to place my hands on his thighs to stay upright. A moment later, he released me with a soft smile, brushing strands of hair away from my cheek and tucking them behind my ear.
“Are you okay? Is it jet lag?” he asked, his voice filled with concern.
Floor, please open up and swallow me now.
Nodding, I removed my hands from his thighs, sure I must be imagining a flash of hunger in his eyes as I sat back in my seat.
The bit of whiskey I’d had with Meghan earlier. That was it. It was the only explanation for my behavior. What else would cause me to act this way?
“Look at all this food.”
Meghan broke the tension when she hooked her foot around the leg of a chair, dragging it toward her. With a plate in each hand and another balanced precariously against her chest, she wiggled into the empty space and smiled at me.
Chris hopped up to help Meghan, leaving me dazed and reeling. “You shouldn’t have brought food for me.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “You’ll get me fired.”
How could he speak normally when my legs were like Jell-O?
Meghan’s mouth fell open. “Oh no. I’ll take it back.” She reached for his plate but stopped when he laughed.
“Just kidding. My parents own the lodge. I was going to have lunch in the kitchen before I saw you two at the buffet.”
Meghan cocked an eyebrow in surprise.
If I weren’t so flustered, I’d be more interested in the fact that his parents owned the lodge. Slowly, the buzz in my stomach calmed and my mind cleared. As the world shifted into focus, I made myself a promise not to touch African whiskey again. A tiny shiver ran through me when I thought of how close I’d been to Chris. His unique vanilla-and-leather scent lingered in my nostrils, and I could still feel the heat of his thighs on my palms.
With casual ease, Chris finished his food while I pecked at mine, too conscious of his closeness to do any justice to the delicious meal.
Meghan kept the conversation going as if nothing had happened. She must have seen him holding me but she kept her composure, chatting about our long flight and how awesome the animals were. The interrogation would happen later, of that I was certain.
He was about to have the last mouthful when one of the foreign girls approached our table. As luck would have it, she was the one I’d almost scalped on the game drive.
“Hello.” She gave him a wide smile. “My name is Milla.”
“Great,” Meghan whispered in my ear. “This place is full of movie stars.”
When she saw my blank look, she huffed. “Jovovich, get it? Resident Evil? Argh!” Shaking her head, she concentrated on finishing her meal.
I stared at Milla again. Her voice was high-pitched and heavily accented.
Pushing back his plate, Chris gave the girl a panty-melting smile. “Hi, Milla. How can I help you?”
In full flirting mode, she twirled a curl of hair around her finger and dropped her chin, reminding me of a little girl asking her daddy for candy.
Meghan snorted softly as she took another bite of food.
“I would like to join the wildlife volunteer program.”
Milla’s w and v sounds were switched, so what she said came out like, “I vud like to join the vildlife wolunteer program.”
Chris nodded. “When would you be free to join? Now, or in future?”
“I’m free now . . . or later.” Her lips tilted up as she gave him a coy look.
Meghan tapped my arm, and with a start, I released the death grip I had on my steak knife.
“Right. I’ll get the forms, and you can fill in the details.” Chris stood and slid his chair under the table. “Thanks for the meal, ladies.”
He leaned toward me so we were almost cheek to cheek. “Get some rest this afternoon, and meet me at the barbecue tonight,” he whispered softly. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
And just like that, his vanilla scent enveloped me, drugging me again.
Although I was still confused about what had happened before, my goofy grin reappeared as he left with a wink.
“Oh yes!” I groaned. “Just there.”
The masseuse dug her fingers into a stubborn knot under my shoulder blade. With delicate precision, she rubbed and kneaded the spot before patting the bunched nerves into submission.
“This is the best,” Meghan said dreamily from the table next to me.
“Mmm, best vacation ever.”
We were in a small massage room with dim lighting, towels wrapped around our waists, and music piping softly through hidden speakers in the ceiling.
“So, what happened at lunch?”
I lifted a lazy eyelid. “What do you mean?”
Meghan let out a chuckle. “Oh, come on, Brit. When I got back to the table, you were practically sitting on his lap.”
The masseuse began a series of chops along my buttocks, giving me a minute to gather my thoughts.
“I think it was the whiskey,” I said after the chopping subsided.
Meghan grinned. “Don’t give me that.”
“I’m serious. That stuff is potent,” I insisted as the masseuse indicated our session was over. With a silent groan, I sat up, covering myself with the towel before sliding from the table. “It made me dream about Chris, and when I woke up, I was in his arms.”
Her eyes widened. “Damn. You got the good stuff. I hope there’s more left in the fridge because I’m definitely having some before the barbecue.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re such a dork. You know that, right?”
With a twinkle in her eye, she entered the changing room and unhooked a robe from the door. “We’d better hurry and get ready for tonight. I don’t want to be late.”
“Hopefully that hunky chef is on duty. He won’t know what hit him once he sees me,” she said with a wicked grin.
“Poor guy.” I rolled my eyes.
Thankful she hadn’t asked for a better explanation, I slipped into my clothes. Maybe it was best to keep quiet—I’d hate for her to think I was crazy. We had thirty minutes to prepare for the barbecue, so we hurried back to our rooms.
The ladies at the spa had done our manis and pedis, as well as facials and waxing, so I felt buffed and polished. My hair was thick and straight, and all it needed was a quick brush to get it back into shape. After applying dark eyeliner and mascara, I did a quick twirl in the mirror to see if the sundress I’d changed into was presentable.
Meghan was ready when I knocked on her door.
“Wow.” She whistled. “Does Chris know you’re about to rock his world?”
“Don’t be silly. This is the only dress I brought. I hope your chef is prepared. You’re not messing around tonight.” Pointing at her low-cut top, I laughed as she pushed out her chest, presenting her assets.
“Yeah, man-buns beware. These beauties are dangerous.”
We were still chuckling and joking when we entered the barbecue area. Meghan straightened, spotting her target within seconds. With a hand cupped at her mouth, she whispered in my ear, “Hottie alert. My chef is on duty.”
Following her gaze, I saw him behind one of the grills, carving slices of meat for the guests.
The sun was almost down, and long shadows stretched over the brick walls. A delicious smell of barbecued meat hung in the air. Christmas lights strung on the wall flickered, and about thirty tourists wandered around the smoky entertainment area. Huge flames crackled in a deep fire pit dug into the center of the open space.
I wasn’t sure if a sixth sense made me look to the right, but when I did, I found Chris’s eyes blazing intensely at me. The hair on my arms rose and my stomach nosedived. I smiled at him, but he didn’t reciprocate. Once again, his gaze was fixed on me, homed in as if I were his prey for the night.
Milla broke our connection when she stepped in front of him, blocking my view. I couldn’t mistake the halo of blond curls draped over her bare shoulders. She was dressed for attention in a strapless top and a revealing pair of hot pants. The firelight gleamed on her long, sleek legs, making my sundress seem plain in comparison.
Shivering, I stepped back. The hungry look in Chris’s eyes was unsettling. It made my stomach flutter in a pathetic and girly sort of way.
Someone touched my arm, and I whirled around, releasing a surprised breath.
“Hi, glad you could make it.” Sarie grinned. “Did you enjoy the massage?”
“Yeah, it was great, thanks.”
“Good, I’m glad.”
A tall, wiry guy in his early twenties stood next to Sarie, and judging by his tanned skin, he spent most of his time outdoors.
“I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Blom. He and his father are guests of ours, and he asked about you.” With a quick squeeze of my arm, she headed toward another guest, leaving the two of us alone.
Giving me an appraising look, he shook my hand. “Call me Renaldo, please.”
“Hey, I’m Britney Adams.”
“Ah, you’re an American.”
“That’s right,” I said, extracting my hand from his long fingers. “Born and bred.”
“You don’t look foreign.” His eyes glittered as he reached out to lift a lock of hair from my shoulder to rub between his thumb and forefinger.
My brow arched at his forwardness. I’d just met the guy, and he was invading my personal space.
“You look like a local with your beautiful brown eyes and dark hair. Most American tourists have fair skin and blue eyes, which doesn’t fare well in our harsh sunlight.” He shook his head. “But your golden complexion suits our climate. You could have been born here.” He gave me a seductive smile.
Okay, this guy was definitely flirting.
He wasn’t bad to look at, and out of boredom, I decided to play along. I was on vacation, after all. But before I could practice my come-hither skills, Chris intervened.
“Blom.” He stepped between us, dipping his head to Renaldo in a curt greeting.
God, Chris looked good. His hair was long, thick, and slightly wavy, the color of ripe wheat ready to be harvested.
Renaldo paled in comparison as he nodded in reply. “Hello, Chris. Good turnout tonight.”
“Thanks.” As Chris turned to me, a vein throbbed along the column of his neck. “Britney, can I have a word with you?”
Was he upset with me?
“Yes. Of course. Excuse me, Mr. Blom.”
Renaldo’s lips firmed but he stepped back, allowing Chris to steer me away with a hand gripped tightly around my forearm. Marching me over to an empty corner, Chris slowed and came to a stop, trapping me between his body and the brick wall.
“Okay,” I murmured uncertainly. “What was that all about?”
For a second, he didn’t speak. His breathing was unsteady, and he clenched his hands at his sides.
“Chris, are you all right?” Placing a hand on his chest, I stared into his eyes. His nostrils flared as he took a calming breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a tight voice. “Didn’t mean to drag you away like that.” Glancing over his shoulder, he looked in Renaldo’s direction and then turned to face me.
I gulped. Chris’s eyes were completely golden, not a trace of green anywhere. Slowly, deliberately, he slid his hand along my wrist, his fingertips brushing the paw marks on my arm.
In an instant, sparks flew around our bodies. The golden chain I’d seen in that crazy vision reappeared, wrapping itself around my waist. The other end coiled around Chris’s knuckles, and he tugged at the chain gently. Completely helpless, I was yanked forward in his grip until my chest pressed against his hard, warm body.
Bowing his head, he grazed his nose along my jaw and growled, “You smell so good.”
My eyes were open this time. I hadn’t imagined the chain.
“Chris, what are you doing?” I whispered as his free hand curled around my hip.
Drawing me closer, he tightened his hold until my cheek rested against him, my thighs flush against his. Our bodies fit together perfectly in the shadowy corner. His grip was so tight, I could feel every dip and ridge of his large frame.
“Don’t fight it,” he murmured into my ear. “I’ve searched for you forever.”
The same glow I’d seen before enveloped us, and I had the strangest urge to rub my face all over his broad chest like a needy cat. His biceps bunched under my fingertips, and his skin felt as smooth as silk over steel.
“Chris, where have you been?” a nasally voice interrupted in a thick European accent. “I have been waiting and waiting for you.”
Chris stiffened. Still holding the chain, he released me, and the warmth of his big body faded from mine. As I stepped back, the chain splintered into wispy pieces and vanished.
“Milla,” he said in an annoyed voice. “I said I’d see you later. What’s the matter?”
The spell I’d fallen under lifted as I processed his words. Shaking my head, I tried to clear my thoughts.
Did Chris have an arrangement to meet Milla tonight? Seriously?
God, I was so stupid.
I wondered if he’d made the same date with her, just in case I didn’t show up, but there was no use in confronting him about it. He’d probably lie and say she wanted to discuss a tour or something. Men were all alike. No matter the continent, they were exactly the same.
“Britney . . .”
He frowned but I’d already stepped around him. The trick he’d used to make the chain appear was neat, but it wasn’t going to fool me.
“Go ahead, Chris,” I said over my shoulder. “Don’t let me keep you from your date. Your schedule seems pretty full tonight.”
Despite him calling after me, I was determined to leave. Scanning for Meghan, I sighed in relief when I spotted her next to the chef. Her hand was on his arm, and she was laughing at something he’d said. She smiled as I walked closer and caught my gaze, raising her fingers behind his back to signal she was all right.
I couldn’t interfere or spoil her fun. Meghan deserved a good vacation too. Waving, I left the area as quickly as I could.
As soon as I got back to my room, I sank on the bed. Brushing my tears away, I switched on the TV, determined not to go outside again. A seam of my dress ripped when I yanked it off with more force than necessary, but after a while, I calmed down. After raiding the snack drawer, I lay back on the bed with a chocolate bar in one hand and the TV remote in the other.
Much later, a door closed nearby and giggling could be heard through Meghan’s bedroom window. But that wasn’t what startled me. No, it was the low grunt of a large animal, padding restlessly outside my door in the early hours of the morning that had me sitting upright in bed.
I remained that way until the first rays of sunlight filtered through the blinds.
A sharp knock on my door startled me. Opening my eyes, I blinked at the digital clock on the side table. It had to be wrong; it couldn’t possibly be that late.
“Are you awake? We’re going to miss breakfast. Hurry up,” Meghan called out, her voice muffled through the wooden door.
Groaning, I rolled out of bed and opened the door. She burst into the room, grinning broadly.
“Get up, sleepyhead. It’s ten o’clock. Breakfast closes in half an hour, and we’re supposed to see the orphaned animals today.”
With one fist rubbing my eye, I yawned. “Wipe that smile off your face.”
Meghan snickered like a young kid. A pair of sunglasses perched on her head, and her face glowed with happiness. “Guess what happened last night?”
Turning my back on her, I shuffled to the bathroom. “I don’t have to. You were loud enough to wake the dead.”
She laughed out loud as I squirted toothpaste on my toothbrush and began brushing my teeth. “His name is Marshall. He’s a qualified sous chef, and he’s twenty-four years old,” she gushed. “Such a talented guy, I swear. He made me laugh all night.”
Tilting my head to look up at her, I spat the last of the toothpaste into the sink. “You’ve got a hickey.”
Her hand flew to her neck. “Huh? What do you mean?”
Bumping me away from the mirror, she craned her neck and touched the mulberry-red mark at the base of her throat. “Oh no, he didn’t!”
“Oh yes, he did,” I said as I wet a facecloth to wash my face.
While she dug through my makeup, I brushed my hair into a quick ponytail before finishing up in the bathroom. I was fastening my sandals in the bedroom when she reappeared.
“Can you still see it? I’ve covered it up as best I can.” She pointed at the mark, which was a lot less visible.
Nodding, I stood and pocketed my room key.
“He’s such a guy. I mean, really.” Her smile was bright as she slid the sunglasses from her head over her eyes. “What was he trying to do? Mark his property?”
I shrugged while holding the door open. “As long as you enjoyed yourself.”
“Oh, I did. Did I tell you how talented he is?”
“TMI, Meg. It’s too early in the morning.”
Flitting from the cottage, she stopped halfway out the entrance. “Hey, what happened to you last night?” She placed a hand on my arm and searched my face. “You left so early. Did you and Chris get together?”
“Nope. I watched TV all by myself last night.” I didn’t tell her about the chain, and how Chris had said he’d searched for me forever. That bit of info was staying right where it belonged, in zip-your-lips land.
“Oh no.” Her eyes widened. “I saw him follow you when you left, and he didn’t come back all evening. I thought you were together.”
“Hmph,” I grumbled. “Did you see Ms. Movie Star at the party?”
“Who, Milla? No, I think she disappeared around the same time you did. Why?”
My fragile mood crumbled and I shooed my friend out of the cottage. “No reason. I didn’t feel like playing second fiddle to some tourist.”
“No, you’re kidding. Brit, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you say anything?”
I gave her a thin smile as I locked the door. “Don’t be silly. An early night was just what I needed. All this fresh air has been making me sleepy.”
Meghan snorted in disbelief. “Tell me if it happens again. Remember, sisters before misters. Promise?”
Laughing, I agreed. As we linked arms, I almost stumbled when I noticed a huge paw print in the dust under my window. Not wanting to upset Meghan, I continued walking as if nothing was wrong, but goose bumps dotted my forearms. Luckily, I’d stayed indoors last night.
After a light breakfast of fruit and yogurt, we caught one of the Jeeps leaving for the animal orphanage. Chris was nowhere to be seen, and Milla hadn’t joined her party. Not that I minded. Christmas wasn’t far away, and I didn’t want to mope over a stupid tour guide when I was on the vacation of a lifetime.
Feeling better about my decision, I hopped out of the last Jeep and waved at Sarie as she welcomed us to the animal sanctuary.
“Hi, girls. Glad you could join us.” Always glamorous, she’d dressed casually in a suede safari hat and a gray T-shirt and shorts. Her smooth, tanned legs drew admiring glances from a few of the older men in our party.
She smiled before pointing forward. “The entrance to the rhino orphanage is down that pathway.”
We followed her directions along an earthen track hemmed between security fencing until it opened into an area surrounded by tightly packed wooden poles. Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, staring at a pen where three baby rhinos had their snouts propped between the metal bars.
“Look at those sweet things,” she exclaimed.
Some of the tourists had walked up to the pen, and the babies were moving to and fro with excitement.
Sarie spoke behind us. “They’re waiting to be fed.”
I had to smile. The baby rhinos were ugly enough to be beautiful. With gun-metal-gray skin folded like armor, tiny bumps for horns, and ears way too big for their heads, they were positively prehistoric. Squealing like puppies waiting for food, they ran their square mouths back and forth along the bars.
“Aw, they’re so cute. Can I take a baby home to New York?” Meghan’s blond bob tilted to the side as she pouted.
“If you’re willing to pay the airfare,” I joked.
“It won’t be so expensive.” She moved closer. “Seriously, they don’t weigh that much.”
One of the babies nudged her hand with his lip.
“Think again.” Sarie grinned. “They can weigh up to two tons when they’re fully grown. At this age, they need to be fed six times a day, and they eat their mother’s dung in the wild, so you’d have to whip up a few stinky shakes to keep them happy.”
Meghan wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, did I say they were cute? Bad rhino,” she said, scolding the poor baby closest to her. “Not good to eat your mommy’s poop.”
Barely containing her laughter, Sarie guided us to the next set of pens. The two rhinos in this enclosure seemed a bit older. The bumps on their heads were unnaturally smooth, and they were a lot bigger than the babies we’d left behind.
“What happened to their parents?” I asked, and a deep voice rumbled in my ear.
“All of these rhinos were orphaned because of poachers.”
Yanking my head back, I found Chris right behind me. I was so startled, I couldn’t figure out what he’d said.
“Really?” Meghan’s eyes widened as she turned to face him.
“Yes,” he said, answering her while staring pointedly at me.
Sarie gave us a little wave and left to greet a new group of tourists.
Taking a deep breath, I savored the fresh scent of his aftershave. He was so close, I could almost feel him against me. If he moved forward an inch, we’d be touching. Honestly, this man had no sense of personal space. Even if I wanted to be angry about last night, his hungry gaze stopped me in my tracks. He stared at me as if I were his prey, and I was his to devour.
Without thinking, I wet my lips, and he groaned softly.
Stubble glistened on his jaw in the morning sunlight, and all I could think about was how it would feel against my skin. He was making me crazy. Against my will, my body was drawn to his like a paper clip fighting a magnet. Thankfully, he released the spell by looking away.
“Poachers are brutal. They gouge out the horn of the adult rhino.” He took a deep breath and focused on the pen. “They don’t care if the animal lives or dies. They’re left to bleed to death.”
Whoa. The grisly subject sobered my lust-filled thoughts in an instant.
“How do they catch the rhino?”
Meghan’s question came at the right time. She walked to the next pen and he followed, thinking I’d join them. As he told her about darting, and the barbaric methods the poachers used, I stepped back, glancing at the rest of the tourists.
Sarie had moved to a smaller pen where people were listening to her commentary. I looked back at the baby rhino enclosure just in time to see the one person I wanted to avoid.
So she’d finally decided to join the tour. I thought we were the last bunch of tourists to leave the lodge, so how did she get here? With Chris? Had they woken up together, and after a leisurely breakfast in his mother’s kitchen, taken his car to visit the orphanage? My jealous mind pictured the scene.
Wait, am I jealous?
I couldn’t name the biting emotion in my chest, but whatever it was, I didn’t like it. Strengthening my resolve, I decided not to fall for him again. The effect he had on my emotions was almost physical. Keeping my distance was the only option, especially if I guessed right and he was a player. With looks like his, how could he not be?
No, I wasn’t an impressionable female tourist looking for a holiday romance. This festive season, Santa wouldn’t get milk with his cookies.
Leaving him to finish the conversation with Meghan, I wandered over to the crowd surrounding Sarie.
“Britney.” Renaldo stood behind me, giving me a lazy smile. Dressed in khaki with his dark eyes sparkling dangerously, he was the image of a typical hunter.
“Renaldo, hey. How are you?”
“Much better for seeing you.” As he spoke, he slung an arm loosely around my shoulders. “Come and meet my dad,” he said, guiding me to a gathering of tourists at another pen.
This one was much bigger than the other enclosures, with a carpet of grass that covered the sandy soil and a swing gate at the entrance. Four mature rhinos grazed peacefully, making chuffing sounds through their noses as their square mouths ripped at the tender shoots.
Renaldo walked up to a man with a lined face and touched his arm. Lean and tanned like his son but with a cool glint in his eye, the man seemed bored by the proceedings.
“Dad, this is Britney Adams from New York.”
“Hey, there.” I smiled.
“Brit, this is my dad, Hannes Blom.”
“Good to meet you.” Taking his proffered hand, I shook it lightly as he nodded at me.
“So you’re here on vacation?” he asked.
“Yeah. All this sunshine beats walking in snow.”
“Ja, and the currency exchange is good. You can buy a lot of Christmas presents to take back home.”
“If my friend had her way, she’d buy a rhino for Christmas,” I joked.
Hannes answered seriously, though, and his words made the hair on my arms rise.
“No, the rhinos should be sold to hunting farms. That’s where the money is. These beauties can fetch up to thirty-five thousand dollars when they’re big. Martin is a sentimental fool—he and his son, Chris, don’t want to sell their animals.”
Huh! Who was this guy? How could anyone sell the plump, gray-skinned babies for hunting purposes?
I lifted a brow, trying to keep my tone even. “Maybe they don’t like raising them just to be killed.”
“Tsk.” Mr. Blom flicked his hand as if he were batting away a fly. “That’s what farming is all about. Livestock is raised to be killed and eaten. There’s no difference. It’s another continent, another kind of animal.”
“Yes, but these animals are endangered. Once they’re dead, there aren’t any more.” Raising my chin, I glared at him angrily.
An odd smirk played on his lips, but he didn’t reply, maybe because Sarie’s group had just joined us. Mr. Blom nodded at her before walking away.
Renaldo tightened his arm around my shoulders. “Ignore him. He’s in a bad mood.”
My cheeks were warm after the exchange, but Renaldo pressed a finger softly against my skin. “Hey, are you okay?” He frowned, studying my face.
I blew out a breath. “Your father is intense. But I’m good.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? He can be a bit abrupt, but he means well. Don’t let him get to you.”
“I’m good. I promise.” Peering over his shoulder, I decided to change the subject. “Why do they call them white rhinos? They have gray skin.”
A small smile touched his lips before he dropped his arm and turned to look at the animals. “The Dutch called them weid or wide rhinos when they first came to Africa, because of their wide mouths, but the British thought they meant white rhinos. I guess the name stuck.”
“Ah.” I smiled.
Renaldo placed a foot on the bars, and I reached out to grasp the metal that was warming quickly in the midmorning sunshine. The air carried the smell of rich soil and freshly cut wood, together with the slightly sour tang of dung. He waited patiently as I watched the huge animals graze.
“I don’t understand why anyone would want to kill them,” I said after a while. “They’re such beautiful animals.”
“Horns. The hunters want the horns.”
“But what’s so special about a horn?”
“Hmm, what’s so special about a horn?” Renaldo paused, his eyes glittering mischievously. “Sounds bad when you say it like that. Are you sure you want the answer?”
The tension I’d felt after speaking to his dad disappeared, and my laughter rang out. “Don’t be an idiot. Tell me the truth.”
Grinning broadly, he leaned down to whisper in my ear. “It’s said to have aphrodisiac properties. They say it makes a man hard all night long.”
Once more my cheeks heated, but this time it was because of the teasing note in his voice. There was no mistaking his flirtatious tone. If Chris preferred Milla’s company, I didn’t need to look far for his replacement.
But my heart was stubborn. It needed chemistry and zinging sparks, and maybe a golden chain or two . . .
Someone tugged at my arm and I swung around, tamping down my guilty thoughts.
“Whatcha doing?” Meghan asked.
“Learning about horns,” I said without thinking, then cringed once the words left my mouth.
She pulled her sunglasses down and studied me over the rims. “What an awesome topic. Mind if I join?”
“But of course.” Renaldo grinned. “I was telling Britney why the rhino horn is so popular.”
Meghan slipped an arm through his, pulling him closer. “Only rhino horn, or other horns?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Meghan, I can’t take you anywhere. Don’t be disgusting.”
She shushed me with a finger over her lips. “Don’t interrupt my lesson. Your friend was just about to educate me.”
“His name is Renaldo, and this is Meghan, my best friend from New York.”
Renaldo winked at her. “I was saying that rhino horn is considered an aphrodisiac in the Far East. They’ll pay a fortune for it.”
She straightened, cocking her head to the side. “Haven’t they heard of Viagra?”
“Meghan,” I said in a warning tone.
“What?” She smiled innocently. “Have an ad campaign and tell them. That’s what I’d do.”
Renaldo’s shoulders shook before he exploded with laughter. “I’d pay good money to hear that ad.”
The two carried on with their banter, but my thoughts had drifted. I took a second to scan the enclosure while they were joking around.
A few stalls down, I found what I was looking for. Milla stood next to Chris, staring at him adoringly as she touched his forearm. He nodded and pointed at something in the pen, but I’d seen enough. I couldn’t bear to see them together. I had to get away.
Turning back to Renaldo, I put on my most imploring smile. “Is there anything else we can do today?”
Meghan gave me a sympathetic look. “Oh, poor baby. Are you bored already?”
“No, but it’s hot, and I’d like to spend some time at the pool if I can.”
“You mean you finally want to get that itsy-bitsy red bikini wet?”
Meghan could be such a tease sometimes, and her comment had the desired effect. Renaldo’s head snapped up so quickly, I thought he’d get whiplash.
“Come with me. I know where the exit is, and I’m sure we can organize a ride back to the lodge.”
Bingo. Men were such suckers.
I bit back a smile. “If it’s not too much trouble . . .”
“Not at all.” He moved away from the spot where Chris and Milla stood, just like I’d hoped, and called out, “Follow me.”
An hour later, I was ensconced in an adorable doughnut-shaped float, nursing a hard cider and splashing tepid water with my foot.
“I still think the red bikini would have looked better on you,” Meghan grumbled. She lay spread-eagle on a lounger at the side of the pool, trying to absorb every ray of sunshine. Her sunglasses shielded her eyes, which were probably closed.
“I agree.” Renaldo nodded solemnly. He paddled closer on his frog-shaped inflatable—not an inch of flab on his lean, tanned frame. Reaching out, he grabbed my float to stop it from gliding away. “Although the yellow suits your skin tone.” Slowly, he ran his fingers up my sun-warmed forearm, his gaze darting to mine to gauge my reaction.
“Yeah,” Meghan said, “the yellow one-piece isn’t the best for tanning, but Brit can wear sackcloth and make it look good.”
Ignoring Renaldo, I took another sip of cider, feeling his fingers rest on my arm as his thumb gently rubbed the underside of my wrist. The air was hot, and the pool smelled of coconut tanning lotion and baked earth. The whole mood was relaxing, and the cider combined with Renaldo’s soft stroking made me drowsy.
I glanced over at Meghan as she raised the material of her bathing suit from her ample chest. She peeked at her tan and smiled.
“I love the sunny weather here. Beats a New York snowstorm any day.” Sitting up, she turned the tanning lotion bottle upside down and slathered her flat belly with a layer of protection. “Hey, Chris,” she called out, waving quickly.
Almost dropping my cider, I snatched my arm away from Renaldo as I looked toward the far end of the pool to find Chris’s gaze fixed intently on me. My heartbeat stopped as a butterfly the size of a pigeon took flight in my stomach.
Standing at the pool’s edge, he placed his hands on his hips and glared. With golden hair fanning his shoulders like a lion’s mane, he looked like an angry gladiator. A muscle ticked in his jaw, which for some reason made me feel guilty.
But why? I hadn’t done anything wrong. Chris and I weren’t even an item. I had nothing to be ashamed of. And I was on vacation, for God’s sake. So, why did my feet kick at the water in an effort to move my float away from Renaldo’s?
Chris’s fierce expression softened as he watched me splashing around like a baby duck.
“Hey,” Renaldo called out. “The water is perfect for a swim. Get your trunks and join us.”
A murderous look flashed across Chris’s face when he heard Renaldo’s voice. Why was he so upset?
“Blom, ek waarsku jou nou. Bly weg van haar.” Chris’s voice was little more than a growl as he spoke in his language, pointing a warning finger at Renaldo. After one more glower, he whirled around and stormed toward the lodge.
“Wow, what was that all about?” Meghan raised her sunglasses, peering at his retreating form before turning to Renaldo. “What did he say? Was that Afrikaans?”
I flopped back against the float and took a swig of my cider, wishing I could understand what Chris had said. Renaldo’s lips firmed as he shook his head. “Passop, meneertjie,” he whispered, and then he smiled. “Yes, Meghan. That was Afrikaans. But I’m not going to repeat what he said.” Paddling closer, he clinked his beer bottle against mine and grinned. “Britney, looks like you’ve got another admirer. Luckily, I don’t mind competition.”
Still feeling guilty, I forced a smile as the throaty roar of a lion rumbled in the distance.
The next morning, I woke up with an evil cider buzz. I’d have to check the alcohol content on the local drinks before indulging again. The blazing sunshine the day before had added to my headache, but at least my skin had darkened to a rich golden-brown.
After popping two aspirins, I took a gulp of water and swallowed before studying my reflection in the bathroom mirror. The new tan gave my face a healthy glow, even if I didn’t feel all that well.
As I snagged a new bottle of water from the fridge, someone knocked outside. Thinking it was Meghan, I swung the door open and was about to turn my back when I saw who was there.
“Hi, Britney. Can I come in?”
My mouth opened in shock at the sight of Chris standing in my doorway. His hair was tied back in a low ponytail, and a new day’s stubble lined his jaw.
“May I?” he asked after I’d taken too long to respond.
I stepped back, allowing him to enter. Luckily, I’d made the bed and tidied up earlier, even with a headache.
“I’ve come to apologize for yesterday. I was out of line, and I’m sorry.” Surprising me, he held out a small bouquet of wildflowers. “These are for you.”
“Thank you.” With a shaky hand, I accepted the flowers. Closing the door behind him, I ushered him into the room. “You don’t have to apologize. Why do you think I’m upset?”
“That’s for yesterday when I made a scene at the pool.” He cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably on his feet.
“Don’t worry about it.” Clutching the flowers, I looked for a vase. “I couldn’t understand what you said to Renaldo anyway, and he refused to translate.”
“Blom isn’t trustworthy. His dad is a slimeball, and I don’t like him. I don’t want him to annoy you. Hopefully, he got the message.”
Finding an empty plastic container, I glanced at him. “I think he did. He said something to you when you were leaving, but again, he wouldn’t translate.”
A muscle throbbed in Chris’s jaw. “I’m sorry you had to hear us squabbling. Let me make it up to you.” His voice turned low and persuasive, and with glittering eyes, he moved closer to my side.
I could smell the crisp scent of soap mixed with his unique vanilla fragrance, and it made me shiver. Trying to hide my nervousness, I filled the container with water, arranging the flowers hastily.
“We can go for a private game drive,” he suggested. “Just the two of us.”
While I was busy, he reached out and rubbed his knuckles gently against my cheek. Warmth pooled in my stomach at his touch, and my limbs turned to jelly. How could he keep affecting me like this?
No, no, no.
He was with Milla yesterday.
Don’t be stupid, Brit.
With renewed conviction, I stepped away from his touch. “Are you sure you don’t want to invite Milla instead?”
“No.” He tilted his head, studying me. “I’m inviting you.”
Damn. Another hot wave swept through my belly as his eyes gleamed. How could I say no to this man? His proximity and intoxicating scent, the heat he gave off—the combination was deadly. But I couldn’t be sure if I’d been invited because the euro-chic movie star wasn’t available. Was I his second choice?
“Maybe Meghan should come too.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. My cheeks heated but I didn’t care. I’d feel better if Meghan came along.
“She’s tanning at the pool today. Said something about being a good friend.”
“I’ve packed brunch in case you’re hungry.” His mouth curled up invitingly. “We can eat along the way.”
I chewed on my lip. Chris was only offering to take me for a game drive. Nothing more. I was probably making this Milla situation bigger than it should be. Raising my chin, I made a decision.
“Sounds good. I’ll get my bag and we can leave.”
As we walked to the door, I tried to calm the beating of my heart. This was Thor, the man of my dreams. Meghan would tease me without mercy, but I wanted a bit of fun on my vacation too. It was a shame I wanted more than a fling. Things would be so simple if that was all I was after.
Watching him as he took my key to lock the room door, my blood sizzled. He was the best vacation fantasy I’d ever had. If only he were a one-girl guy, I’d claim him as my own.
Inhaling deeply, I followed him behind the cottages where he helped me into a brand-new white Jeep. We headed out on a dirt road that curved behind the lodge, and although it was narrower than the main road, it was just as bumpy. We stopped at an electrified double-fenced gate before entering the reserve.
The Jeep was far more comfortable than the game-drive vehicle. It had plush leather seats and a hard-plastic dashboard. The sunroof had been removed, allowing a square of sunlight to bake my head and arms.
Neither of us spoke as the road slanted uphill. Chris sneaked a few glances my way, but I kept my gaze fixed on the horizon. After a while, he slowed down and left the gravel road behind. Turning the wheel, he followed a smaller track through the bush until it ended under the tangled branches of a tree.
“So,” he said proudly as he shut off the ignition. “What do you think?”
For a second, I was speechless. The view before us was breathtaking. He’d parked on the lip of a hill that dipped in front of us with endless miles of yellowed grass plains extending in gentle rolls and swells into the distance.
“Oh my,” I breathed in awe. To the right, herds of buck clumped together like tiny dots on a canvas, grazing peacefully in the morning sun. The breeze was warm, and I could smell a hint of dried earth in the air. “This place is stunning. Do you come here often?”
Chris shifted toward me, making himself comfortable against the door. “Yes, but not as often as I’d like. My brother used to join me, but he’s studying at college for the next few years.”
My brows hiked. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“Nico is in Johannesburg studying tourism. Following in my footsteps,” Chris said with a warm smile, “or so he says. My dad inherited this place. We’ve been farming here for generations. Changing to a game reserve wasn’t a hard decision, though. We love animals, and it’s too dry to grow crops anymore.”
Opening the console between us, he reached for a soda and offered it to me.
“Thanks.” I smiled.
“My younger sister, Karien, lives in Australia.”
“Lucky girl. I’ve always wanted to go there. South Africa was at the top of my list, but Australia is a close second.”
“Why was South Africa your first choice?” He watched me carefully as I took a sip of the lukewarm drink.
Glancing at my birthmark, I swallowed again before continuing. “My mother was born here. Somewhere nearby, apparently. My grandmother said Mom was adopted, but she passed away before my mom could get the details. There’s no paperwork, and there’s no record of a clinic anymore.”
Chris straightened in his seat. “Does your mother have the same mark on her arm as yours?”
“You thought it was a tattoo,” I said, wondering why he was so curious about my birthmark.
“I couldn’t be sure without asking.”
Lifting the hair away from my neck, I nodded. “Yes. It’s a birthmark we share.”
The temperature was rising, and I was grateful for my decision to wear shorts. That wasn’t the only reason, though. Chris couldn’t stop staring, and his gaze raked over my body from head to toe.
I tried not to squirm under the intense scrutiny. “All the girls in my family have the same pigmentation on our arms. My twin sisters are younger than me, and they have the same marks.”
Snapping his gaze to mine, he widened his eyes. “You have sisters?”
“Yep. Madonna and Cher.”
He couldn’t hide the smile that followed, then laughed out loud. “Was your mother hoping to start a band?”
“If she did, she was disappointed.” I grinned, looking away at the savanna. “Madonna is the rowdy one. She’s the mouthy twin, and Cher is her exact opposite. So timid, she wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“And what does your mother do?” He raised his arms above his head in a stretch.
“My mom?” Trying not to stare at the golden strip of skin he’d exposed between his shirt and shorts, I played with the ring on the soda can.
“Yes. Tell me about her.”
“Mom loves animals, she’s a vet in New York. We call her the cat lady. She’s like a cat whisperer—they all love her. My dad passed away when we were young, but Mom didn’t remarry. After this trip, I’m going to study to be a vet like her. My sisters too. We’re all animal lovers, but none of us sing, except in the shower.”
His serious green gaze caught mine. “Sorry about your dad.” Shaking his head, he scratched his jaw. “I can’t believe you have more siblings, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“And you all like cats?”
“Yes, the whole cat family. That’s why I was so excited to see the lions on our game drive.”
“I’ll organize a trip so you can meet them personally. They’ll be happy to know you’re an animal lover.”
“Are you going to tell them about me?” I gave him a look of disbelief.
The panty-melting grin was back, and I tried not to fan myself.
“See the vultures over there?” Changing the subject, he pointed to the left, resting his arm on my shoulder as he motioned toward the sky.
With a quick nod, I looked up, trying hard to ignore the feel of his skin against mine. My heart pitter-pattered at his touch, and I struggled to keep a straight face.
Up above, three birds wheeled endlessly like planes in a flight pattern over the dry landscape, their wide wingspans throwing shadows on the ground.
“The lions are feasting on a kill, and the vultures are waiting for their turn.” His voice deepened, and he moved close enough for his breath to tickle the fine hairs on my neck.
Aware of the heavy weight of his arm, I tried to concentrate on the scene ahead. I could see all the animals. Two male lions attacked a carcass while a few lionesses stalked around the kill, glancing back at the hyenas who circled them at a respectable distance. The hyenas poked their heads forward, darting away when the lions growled.
Chris let his fingers rest on my bicep, and instantly, the mood in the vehicle changed. My knees trembled and my pulse pounded in my ears.
“If you look carefully,” he said, moving his hand lower, “you’ll see the rest of the pride, waiting behind the males.”
Using his other hand, he pressed a thumb under my jaw, tilting my face to his. He gave me a second to pull back, but I didn’t. I couldn’t stop what was about to happen, even if I tried.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see,” he said reverently as his gaze focused on me. Inching forward, his lips hovered over mine. “So, so beautiful.”
And then his mouth swept down. His tongue ran against the seam of my lips before delving inside. As he kissed me, his fingers left my chin, finding my wrist and the paw-print birthmark.
Sparks zinged through my body. Bright flashes of light pinged behind my eyelids, and a golden chain materialized around us, looping under my arms until it wrapped snugly around my waist. The loose end of the chain snaked around his hand, dropping into his open palm. Chris closed his hand over the chain and groaned. He gave the slightest of tugs, pulling me closer.
With a ragged exhale, I shifted. This was insane. His drugging kisses made me cling to him in desperation. Closing my hands around his neck, I whimpered as heat flowed like honey through my veins.
“Britney,” he moaned against my lips. “You’re killing me.”
I was halfway over the armrest when the harsh toot of a car horn interrupted us.
Reluctantly, Chris pulled away. I wanted to cry when the chain vanished and his warmth left my skin.
It had happened again, but this time, I couldn’t blame alcohol. I’d only had a sip of soda all morning.
Chris’s chest rose and fell as he glared over the headrest. Slamming back into the seat, I straightened my top, combing my hair with my fingers. Whoever had interrupted us had the worst timing ever.
A black Land Rover stopped about ten feet away, and the horn tooted twice more before the engine switched off. The windows were open, revealing Renaldo smirking as he raised a hand in greeting.
“Britney. Chris. What a coincidence. Good to see you both.”
The knuckles on Chris’s hand whitened around the steering wheel. Some of the hair in his ponytail had escaped after our embrace, and one end of his shirt collar stood up.
Renaldo eyed us knowingly, focusing on my swollen lips. His mouth tightened in disappointment, as if he knew what we’d been doing. Trying to hide my burning cheeks, I twirled my hair nervously.
Just then, Milla leaned forward in the passenger seat of Renaldo’s car. A hard expression crossed her face as she glared at me, but it was gone in a flash. The next minute, her face morphed into a smile as she batted her eyelashes at Chris.
“There you are. I have been looking for you. I wanted to show you the new tattoo I got.” Without any warning, she pulled up the edge of her stretch top to display a row of colorful lines peeking out under her exposed bra cup.
I was so going to throw up.
She sat back slowly, giving me a satisfied grin, and I battled to keep my mouth shut. My fists clenched as I thought about her and Chris together. Yes, there was no doubt left in my mind. They’d been together. She wouldn’t be so forward if they hadn’t been intimate before.
Chris cursed under his breath, but if he was mad, it was only because he’d been caught.
The air in my lungs burned, and I wanted to cry. Why was I so upset? This was supposed to be a vacation fling. I knew the score before I got in the car, but just thinking about Chris with Milla gutted me, making my heart ache.
There was no way to explain why I felt this way—like Chris was my whole life. My everything. Emotions charged through me like quicksilver, running rampant through my brain. I was so jealous, I could scream. And I didn’t get jealous. Ever.
“What’s wrong, Brit?” Chris frowned at me as he placed a hand on my arm. “Why are you so upset?”
To be honest, I couldn’t answer him. There was no explanation for my anger. All my emotions were heightened when I was near him. The intoxicating smell of vanilla rose around me, and my blood began to boil. My head ached with a dull pounding that surged with each beat of my heart.
I couldn’t think clearly. Sitting close to him muddled my brain, and the pain in my head intensified. There was no other option. I had to get away from him. Ripping my arm from his grasp, I unlatched the door and jumped out before he could stop me.
“Britney, what are you doing?” Chris shouted after me. “Britney, no. Don’t get out!”
Renaldo’s eyes widened. “Brit, listen to Chris.”
Opening his door, Renaldo was about to climb out of the seat when a low growl rumbled from behind. My legs froze, and I turned to look back slowly.
“Oh my God.”
I stiffened at the sight of a huge lioness crouched a few feet away with flattened ears, her amber eyes fixed on Renaldo. He jumped back into his car and slammed the door while Milla shrieked hysterically beside him.
I stood alone outside the Jeep. The lioness switched her gaze to me, and I knew I had to get back into the vehicle, but my limbs wouldn’t work. I was frozen to the spot.
“Stay calm,” Chris whispered fiercely as he moved across the seat and opened the door. Landing on the ground in front of me, he held up a hand, grunting at the lioness.
He maintained eye contact with the predator while reaching behind to grab my arm. Carefully shielding me, he maneuvered us back to the Jeep.
As soon as my body touched the cold metal, my brain kicked into action. With legs and arms scrambling in haste, I slid across the passenger seat to the driver’s side.
Chris remained steady, gradually climbing into the car. He closed the door with a gentle click, still keeping his eye on the lioness.
The creature stared at us for a few seconds longer before rising out of her crouch to lope away into the bushes.
“Jeez.” Chris breathed unsteadily. “That was close.”
With trembling fingers, I grabbed hold of the steering wheel.
Renaldo reversed his car and drove up to the passenger door, too close for a lion to sneak between the vehicles. He spoke through a small gap in the window.
“Are you crazy, Britney?” With an incredulous stare, he shook his head. “What were you thinking?”
I couldn’t answer. The reality of what had happened hit me with force, and my mouth opened and shut without forming words.
Chris placed a hand over mine to calm me. “She forgot where she was for a second,” he told Renaldo. “I’ll take her to the lodge. A glass of sugar water should settle her nerves.”
“A stiff tot of brandy would be better, if you ask me.”
“What a stupid girl.”
Milla’s shrill voice grated through my already fragile nerves. Clenching my jaw, I gave her a dark look.
“Not now, Milla.” Chris frowned at her before turning his gaze on Renaldo. “Why don’t you two get back to the lodge? We’ll meet up with you shortly.”
Renaldo rubbed the back of his neck and stared at me before starting the car. I could see he wasn’t pleased to leave me behind, but there wasn’t much he could do. The Land Rover reversed and then roared away in a cloud of dust.
“Are you okay?” Chris ran a knuckle down my cheek. His expression had softened to one of concern, making my bottom lip tremble.
“Something is happening to me, Chris. What is it?”
“Oh, Britney.” He exhaled. “There’s so much you need to know.”
“Please, Chris.” My eyes filled with tears. “This isn’t like me at all. When I’m with you, I change. I’d never do anything so foolish on my own.” Swallowing hard, I whispered, “What are you doing to me?”
For a second, I thought he’d explain, but he didn’t. All he mumbled was, “It’s called the Stirring,” before he climbed over the seat to sit in the back.
“The what?” Resting my head against the leather headrest, I kept my eyes focused on his.
“Go on. Get into the passenger seat.” He gestured with a finger. “The roof is open, and I don’t want Simba to get ideas.”
That spurred me into action. Before he could blink, I was on the other side.
He chuckled softly as he settled behind the wheel. Once the engine started, he threw the vehicle in reverse and took us away from the edge of the hill.
I wanted to continue the conversation, but he twined his fingers through mine and lifted my hand, kissing my birthmark gently. Without warning, my eyelids fluttered closed, and the next time they opened, I found myself safe between the cool sheets of my bed.
“Do you see him?”
“Nope,” Meghan said, popping the p while she surveyed the lobby. “And he wasn’t in the restaurant or anywhere outside.”
It was Christmas Eve, and I still hadn’t spoken to Chris about the incident the day before. Meghan and I had been on a mission to find him since breakfast this morning, and she was taking her role as my private investigator seriously.
A door near the reception desk opened, and I heard his voice clearly. Meghan squeaked before shoving me behind the life-sized elephant carving. “Get back.”
Hooking a strand of Christmas lights around the elephant’s ear, she edged forward. I peeked over her shoulder just as Sarie stormed into the lobby. Chris followed her, his voice sharp and accusing in his own language. Sarie fired a string of Afrikaans words at him.
The two were obviously fighting, and I didn’t want to get in the middle of their argument. Meghan didn’t have the same concerns, and if I didn’t keep a tight hold on her belt hoops, she would have joined them already. I moved back to avoid being seen.
“Oh no.” Meghan shook her head as the Christmas lights flickered in colorful patterns against her shiny hair.
“Milla, she’s at the entrance. Sarie is going to flatten her if she doesn’t look where she’s going. If we were in a movie, Milla could use her gun and a chain for protection.”
“Huh?” I stared at my friend in confusion.
Without taking her eyes from the scene, she sighed. “How can you not know the white-corridor fight scene? I swear, I’m renting Resident Evil when we get back home. And you’re watching every bit of it with me.”
“Shut up and keep looking,” I hissed as the argument continued.
A throat cleared behind us, and I froze as someone whispered, “Can we join your surveillance, or is this a closed operation?”
I glanced around to find two guys behind us, both dressed in faded jeans and tight-fitting T-shirts. The one nearest me had honey-blond hair cropped close to his head. Tattoos covered his forearms, and his green eyes twinkled in amusement.
“Hi, I’m Hugo.” Extending his hand, he grinned. “But my friends called me Huge.”
Meghan let out a little hum of appreciation as she rose from her crouch.
“This is my brother, Leon.” He gestured with a raised thumb.
Leon was shorter than Hugo by an inch, but the two shared the same eye color. With dark blond hair and a grim look on his face, he seemed more serious than his brother.
“Hi.” Trying to keep the sheepish tone from my voice, I shook his hand. “I’m Britney, and this is my friend Meghan.”
Hugo stared at our joined hands for a second. “So, you’re the one.”
Raising my wrist, he smiled. “The missing link in our chain.”
The scowl on his brother’s face disappeared as he moved closer to inspect my birthmark, and I tugged my hand away.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Meghan acted like a mother hen, pushing me behind her. “Hey, there. Nice to meet you.”
“Hi, I hope we weren’t interrupting anything,” Hugo’s eyes twinkled as he greeted her.
“No, we were looking for the artist’s name on the elephant. It’s a really nice carving,” she said with a practiced deadpan.
Leon’s brows drew closer as he stared at her. She was a terrible actress and I couldn’t face her without laughing, so I kept my gaze on the ground for a second.
“I believe you have sisters.”
My head whipped up at Hugo’s unexpected statement. “What do you know about my sisters?”
“Relax, bokkie.” He grinned. “Chris is our cousin. He told us about your family in New York.”
“Oh.” I folded my arms over my chest. “They aren’t here. Why do you want to know what they look like?”
The brothers glanced at each other before Leon answered.
“Chris said you were searching for your mother’s family, so we wanted to know if you looked alike.” He rubbed his nose as he spoke, which made me think he was lying. Stupid guys—they probably thought they’d get lucky if my sisters were on vacation too.
They certainly seemed happy when I said, “We all have the same coloring and height.”
With all the commotion of meeting the two brothers, I realized the lobby had gone quiet. Looking at the reception desk, I sighed. Chris, Milla, and Sarie had left. We were alone with the staff and the two hunks who’d caught us eavesdropping. I stared longingly at the lodge’s entrance, wondering if Chris was outside with Milla.
“Have you girls had a chance to visit the sangoma yet?” Hugo asked, dragging me back to the conversation.
“No. I don’t even know what a sangoma is,” Meghan said, stumbling over the word.
“You’re kidding. Hasn’t Chris taken you to our village?”
“Um, no.” Her brow winged up in curiosity.
“Then this is your lucky day.” Motioning for us to join him, he walked over to the receptionists.
“David.” Hugo grinned, high-fiving the driver we’d met on the first game drive. “We’d like to take these two beautiful ladies to the village. Do you have time for another tour?”
“Hang on.” I held up a hand. “I don’t want to visit the village.”
Meghan huffed. “Come on, Brit.” Tugging my arm, she pulled me toward the lobby desk. “I’d like to see a bit more of Africa before our vacation is over.”
“What about the talk I wanted to have—with someone.” My eyes bulged with an I don’t want to go look.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, waving away my concern. “We’ve got all day to find him.”
“But we can’t leave with two strangers. We don’t know these guys at all.”
Meghan stopped short, causing me to bump against her back. Her lips firmed while she crossed her arms to glare at me.
Trying to argue with her when her mind was set was futile. She always won. And no matter how I tried to convince her, we ended up visiting the small African village about a mile from the game lodge anyway.
“You know I didn’t want to leave without speaking to Chris,” I hissed at her as the vehicle turned onto the gravel road outside the village.
“You’re way too tense.” Meghan patted my arm. Giving Hugo a happy grin, she turned to wink at me. “Relax and enjoy the trip.”
My bad mood eased as David stopped the Jeep in front of one of the circular huts. The village was incredible. All of the hut walls were wattled and daubed with a clay-like material while clumps of grass, bleached by the sun, covered the roofs with an untidy fringe. Goats and chickens wandered freely, and small children hooted with laughter as they chased one another across the dusty ground.
Leon proved to be a gentleman when he helped me exit the vehicle, but Meghan didn’t wait for Hugo. She jumped out before he could help her.
Once on the ground, I placed my hands on my hips and stared at the rural scene. This was the Africa I’d wanted to see. This was the non-commercial, traditional village I’d watched in countless National Geographic documentaries, where dark-skinned natives wore mismatched clothing and young teenagers carried plastic buckets of water on their heads. Older woman chatted with babes swaddled around their waists, and cows plodded past our car without a care.
“What do you think?” Hugo’s voice startled me out of my reverie.
“Amazing.” I couldn’t find words to describe the scene.
“I thought you’d like it.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “This village is almost the same as when our forefathers first found it.”
As he spoke, a little boy rolled a wire car in front of us. It was made from old fencing and chopped-up soda cans.
“Almost.” I smirked. “I’m not sure they had soft drinks back then.”
Laughing, Hugo pointed toward the door of the hut. “Let’s say hello to the sangoma. She’s excited to meet you.”
“Zandi is the village mother. Chris spent most of his childhood here, and Leon and I know every inhabitant. She loves the lodge’s guests. It would be rude of us not to introduce you.”
Meghan was chasing after a baby goat, and she clearly wasn’t interested in anything or anyone else, so I left her behind as I followed him into the darkened hut.
Inside, a host of smells attacked my nose. Moist clay, old smoky coals, dried leaves, spiced meat. The scents were sharp and unfamiliar. Without thinking, I pressed a strand of hair to my nose, wondering if the aroma would cling to it.
“Molo, inyanga.” Hugo nodded at someone in the cool room.
A tiny figure rose from a chair and walked over to greet us. Smiling, the woman reached out to me. Her dark skin was unwrinkled, and her lips were plump and shiny. Obsidian eyes stared at me as her braids swayed around her face.
“What is she saying?” I whispered to Hugo as I clasped her hand.
“She called you lioness and said hello.”
“Hey.” I gave her hand a quick shake and released it. “Tell her I say hello, and thank her for allowing us to visit.”
“You’re welcome.” The tiny woman spoke in perfect English, her white teeth lighting up her face.
Smart move, Brit. “I’m sorry. I thought you couldn’t understand me.”
“No, don’t apologize. A lot of the villagers would battle to understand your accent, but we’ve all had schooling. I have a grade-twelve certificate,” she said proudly.
As she spoke, my eyes began to adjust to the gloomy room. “This is a lovely place.” I waved at the furniture placed against the curved walls. Her TV sat on a solid coffee table in the center.
“Thank you. Mr. de Lange organized solar panels, so we’ve got electricity as well as the Internet.”
Ouch. The National Geographic fantasy I’d built over the years crumbled to dust in my mind.
“Can I offer you something to drink?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m good. Thanks.”
“At least let me throw the bones for you,” she said, pointing to a small reed mat in the corner.
I shrugged and turned to Hugo for help.
His lips curved into a conspiratorial smile. “Zandi is a fortune-teller. Besides helping the villagers with herbs and potions, she throws animal bones to read your future.”
“Oh. Right. Of course,” I mumbled. Following her, I watched as she sat down on the mat and dug into a wooden box.
With hunched shoulders, she lifted a cloth bag, said a few words against the material, and shook it open. Scattering the contents over the mat, she held her dark fingers just above an array of shells, dried bone, a claw, and dice that had fallen on the floor.
“Sit.” Her voice was quiet and commanding.
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath as I tried to squat next to her, but she frowned until I folded my legs and sat down completely.
“The spirits are happy with you,” she said after a while. “They welcome you home after your long journey.”
“I’m just visiting,” I said with an apologetic smile.
Zandi’s eyes met mine with a warning look, and Hugo cleared his voice.
Right. No talking allowed.
Rubbing her hands in the air over the scattered items, she continued. “The great lion has been waiting for your arrival for many years. There is much joy among the pride. The spirits demand a celebration, and we will slaughter a cow to show gratitude to our ancestors for the return of you and your mother and sisters to the pride.”
I cocked my head to the side. “Excuse me?”
Turning eyes the color of midnight at me, she grinned. “Give me your hand.”
Hesitantly, I held out my right hand. She lifted it carefully, rolling my arm so my birthmarks were visible. She reached for a yellowed claw on the mat and cooed in her own language as she brushed the dried barb against my arm.
A vision of flames erupted in my mind, and I grunted as if I’d been struck. Through the wall of flames, I saw a pride of lions. Simba, the one who’d stalked me when I’d left the Jeep, was watching me with a look that was almost human. A male lion with a thick golden mane sauntered over to her prone form. Dipping down, he gave her a long lick from the back of her neck across her head. Simba closed her eyes, seeming to enjoy the attention, until he collapsed against her side in a huff. She angled her body to rest her head in the cradle between his massive paws. He licked her once more and then both lions turned to me, capturing me with their stare. I gazed back at them in a trance until the veil of flames grew, covering them behind the fiery wall.
When the vision ended, I cried out, feeling Hugo’s fingers on my shoulders.
“Hey, are you all right?”
Dots flashed behind my eyelids, and my tongue was as dry as sandpaper. This was insane. I had to have a drink before I fainted.
“Zandi, do you have water?”
I heard scuffling behind me, and within seconds, a tin cup of water was pushed into my hands. Taking a gulp, I blinked twice before the room came into focus.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.”
“It must be the smell of impempo,” Zandi said. “It’s an herb we burn to call our ancestors. Sometimes it can be overpowering because of the sweet scent. Come and sit on the chair outside. You’ll feel better soon.”
Hooking his hands under my armpits, Hugo lifted me like a feather. He swept an arm around my waist and carried me out of the house.
“I don’t need to sit.” I gave him a wan smile as he set me on my feet. “Do you mind if we go back to the lodge instead?”
“Britney, what’s wrong?” Abandoning the goat, Meghan hurried toward me.
“Nothing. I feel a bit faint. Don’t worry, I just need fresh air.”
“You’ll be better soon.” Zandi touched my hand in concern as Hugo opened the Jeep’s door.
I gave her an overly bright grin. “Chris says it’s jet lag. It’s not serious. Sorry for causing a fuss.”
Smiling, Zandi touched my forehead with cool fingers. “Go well, lioness. Bring your pride the next time we meet.”
Meghan climbed up next to me. “I can’t take you anywhere,” she said with mock severity. “Are you sure you don’t want to lie down?”
“No,” I said as David got the motor running. “I’m much better.”
And I was. All trace of dizziness disappeared as soon as we left the village.
Christmas Day arrived quietly and without a fuss. No sirens or taxi cabs tooting their horns. No TV programs with jingling Christmas bells in every scene. And no mom rousing me from sleep with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk.
With a chest tight with homesickness, I rolled out of bed. Glancing at my watch, I saw it was much too early to call my mom and sisters in New York. They’d still be tucked in their beds, wrapped up warm against the cold for a few more hours. I wondered if they missed me. I certainly missed them.
The sun was shining, so I took a quick shower and dressed in a pink T-shirt, a pair of white shorts, and white sneakers. Snagging Meghan’s Christmas present from the bedside table, I tapped on her cottage door and was shocked when she answered.
She looked awful. The apples of her cheeks were flushed, and her nose was bright red. Dabbing a crumpled tissue against her nostrils, she stepped aside for me to enter.
“Meggy, what’s wrong?”
“I’ve caught a cold,” she said sadly as I held out her present. “Thanks.”
Still dressed in her pajamas, she shuffled to the unmade bed and sank onto the mattress.
“I feel like crap.” Sniffing, she lay back on her pillow. “Merry Christmas. Your present is on the fridge.”
“Merry Christmas.” Setting her gift on her bedside table, I sat next to her and pressed the back of my hand against her forehead. “You’re burning up. Have you taken any medication?”
“I’ve just had aspirin and something for my throat.” She closed her eyes. “The nurse gave me some vitamin C and a nasal spray. Said I should rest as much as possible today. Apparently, it’s just a fresh cold and I’ll feel better later if I stay indoors.”
“Oh no. Poor you.” Tucking the blanket around her legs, I poured a glass of water from the jug on her bedside table. “Here, drink this. You have to stay hydrated.”
Lifting her head, she took a sip of water and swallowed painfully.
“I’ll sit with you. When it’s time for Christmas lunch, I’ll bring you a tray of food.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She waved me off. “I need sleep. You can’t waste your day with me when I’m not conscious.”
“No. And that’s final.” Closing her eyes, she slumped on the pillow and croaked, “Take your present and go.”
“My present is going to stay here until you’re well enough to open yours together with me,” I said, waggling my finger in her face.
“All right, but I need sleep. Marshall said he’d bring lunch, so you don’t have to worry.”
“Are you sure?”
When she nodded, I got up. Feeling slightly rejected, I kissed her forehead and headed for the door.
What was I going to do today?
The restaurant was busy, and all the staff and guests gave me a cheery Christmas greeting. After eating a bowl of oatmeal, I wandered into the lobby, hoping to catch sight of Chris.
Sarie was at the reception desk. She seemed pensive but as soon as she saw me, a strange expression flitted across her face. It disappeared quickly and was replaced by a bright smile.
“Britney, Merry Christmas. How are you?”
“Good, thanks. Merry Christmas to you too. Where is everyone?” I asked, surprised not to see the usual staff at the front desk.
“They’ll be back in a minute. Say, would you mind helping me for a bit?”
“Yes, of course. What can I do for you?”
Gripping my arm tightly, she pulled me toward the main entrance. “I must feed the rhinos, and I need help carrying the powdered milk boxes to the Jeep from the store. We’re a bit understaffed today, but it isn’t far away. We’ll have to drive there.”
“Okay.” I let her lead me outside.
Chewing on her bottom lip, she seemed a bit on edge. With her gaze darting back and forth, she rushed us toward an older Jeep. She started the engine before I had a chance to close the door all the way, and I struggled to fasten the seat belt as she accelerated away from the lodge.
As soon as we were on the gravel road, she made a quick call on her cell phone. She spoke in her own language, and her knuckles whitened on the wheel when she hung up.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“What? No. Sorry.” Straightening, she grimaced. “Just something that happened at work.”
“Anything you’d like to talk about?”
“Nope, everything’s sorted now.”
The grin she gave me was odd, but I ignored it and concentrated on the scenery.
We were in the game park, driving at high speed along an unfamiliar gravel road. The guides usually drove a lot slower, and I hoped we didn’t meet any animals by accident. Dry, hot air made my T-shirt flutter, telling me the day would be a scorcher. Poor Meghan. She was missing out on all the fun.
Sarie drove for another ten minutes before braking the Jeep to a halt outside a small brick building. Surrounded by red sand and yellow grass, it stood alone in an area far away from our usual trails.
Glad to have arrived in one piece, I unclipped my seat belt and hopped out of the vehicle. This had to be the store she’d mentioned. Small windows sat high on the walls, and the roof was flat. It was probably like a furnace inside.
“The door’s open. Go in, I’ll be there in a minute.” Sarie motioned toward a rusted green door.
Holding up her cell phone, she began to speak to someone, so I walked to the door and opened it gingerly. Hopefully, my eyes would adjust to the darkness after the bright sunlight outside.
Someone grabbed my arm as soon as I stepped inside, jerking me forward roughly. I tried to scream but before I could utter a sound, a wet cloth slammed over my mouth. My nose filled with a hot, sweet scent, and within seconds, my vision clouded.
The last thing I saw before collapsing was the vague image of Sarie’s face with an ugly sneer on her lips.
Groaning, I tried to unglue my eyelids. My head was woozy, and my mouth felt like it was shoved full of cotton balls. Loose hay was scattered over the cold cement floor where I lay. Dampness from the ground had crept up to freeze my butt, and pins and needles had spread all the way up from my calf into my hip.
I rolled over in agony. What was this place?
A soft grunt made me lift my head to peer over my shoulder. What I saw scared the last of the saliva right from my mouth. Scrambling back, I tried to crawl away from the monstrous lioness staring soulfully at me through metal bars.
“Jeez!” I screamed. She was right next to me.
Still too weak to stand, I did a backward crab walk to escape the beast. A hard wall halted any escape and I rested against it, panting to regain my breath. I was safe for now, thick metal bars separated her from me, but my heart still jackhammered against my ribs.
The lioness huffed and turned to join three other lions a few feet away.
Where the hell am I?
Panicked, I gazed around. This was an old zoo, and I was in an animal cage. What the hell was I doing there?
The enclosure to my left was empty, but the one to my right contained three hungry-looking lions and one grumpy lioness. If the metal bars weren’t between us, I’d be the main dish for their Christmas lunch.
At least, I hoped it was still Christmas. I couldn’t tell how long I’d been here.
Shivering, I gazed through the bars before me. A lonely thorn tree stood about fifteen yards away. Mud spread from the edge of the cage to a dilapidated lawn chair under the tree. The vegetation around the cages was unkempt, and long grass covered the wooden seat like an untidy friend. This place hadn’t been used in a while. Even the hay on the floor smelled old and musty.
Sliding sideways, I moved until my back hit the edge of a door. I struggled to stand and ran my hand along the seam, looking for a way out. Nothing. No handle or knob—only a rusty feeding slot that was sealed tightly. My fingers couldn’t find purchase at all.
Slamming my fist against the metal door in frustration, I froze as the lanky lioness walked toward me again. She looked eerily like the one who’d scared me senseless the previous day. With a grunt, she sauntered up to the bars, drawing my attention to a gate between us.
A lever held the gate’s lock in place, but it was connected to a long metal rod that ran the length of the cage to the wall behind me. It disappeared through a hole in the brick.
“Ah, you’re awake. Good.”
I whipped around. The feeding slot had opened, and someone was on the other side of the door. Even though my head was woozy, I recognized that voice.
“Mr. Blom?” I croaked, my throat scratchy. “What am I doing here?”
“Not now, girl. You’ve got company.”
Why was Renaldo’s dad speaking to me through a feeding slot, and where was Sarie? She had a lot of explaining to do.
I was about to speak when the door to the empty cage screeched open and someone was shoved inside. Horrified, I watched as the person fell to the floor against the bars.
“Chris.” A sob tore from my throat.
“Britney.” He groaned softly, turning his face my way.
I didn’t care about the lions; I had to get to him. Moving as far from their cage as possible, I stumbled over to where he lay.
When I got closer, I saw Sarie at the open door of Chris’s enclosure. She held a small device that crackled and buzzed in her hands. Had she just used a Taser on him?
“Chris, what have they done to you?” Ignoring her, I crouched next to him, joining our fingers through the bars.
Before he could answer, Sarie closed the door and locked it with a loud clang.
“Are you all right?” Wincing, Chris looked at me with concern.
“I’m good. They haven’t done anything to me. Are you okay?”
Nodding, he got up on his knees and gripped the bars to stand, still shaky after being tased.
Hannes Blom cut in. “I don’t mean to interrupt your little reunion, but time is running out.”
Chris stood up and reached for me through the bars, squeezing my hand. After I’d responded with a clasp of my own, he faced Renaldo’s dad.
“Let her go. I’ll give you anything you want.”
Mr. Blom tilted his head wearing a self-satisfied smile. “Actually, I already have what I need. Sarie found the video footage you planned to use against me.” He waved a disc for us to see. “She’s been very helpful.”
Through the feeding slot, she appeared next to him, and I cringed as Blom pulled her close.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get us out of here. Help is on the way,” Chris whispered so softly, I barely heard him. He leaned against the bars, his eyes shining.
“I’m scared. Why have they taken us, and why did they hurt you?”
“Just trust me, okay?”
I nodded, my heart racing with fear.
Chris turned to Blom. “What are you going to do with us?”
Blom’s face darkened. “The only thing I can do.” White teeth shone as his lips curled into a malicious smile. “Did you really think you could hand me over to the police? Rhino horn is worth a fortune. If you were clever, you’d farm the rhino like I do. I told your girlfriend they’re just livestock to be raised and slaughtered. We do the same with cows. What’s the difference?”
I couldn’t help myself. “They’re endangered, dumbass!”
“That’s why we only take the horn,” he replied calmly, as if talking to a child.
“Your hunters take too much of the horn,” Chris countered angrily. “The animal bleeds to death.”
“Yes, that’s true. I’ve been more selective employing hunters lately.” Sighing, Blom frowned. “But that’s a worry for another day. I’m happy Sarie removed any evidence you had. You tried to drag my son into this mess, but he’s as clueless as you were a week ago. This clever lady helped me track the rhinos around the park, not Renaldo.” Hugging her closer, he smiled. “Once this mess has been sorted, I’ll bring him into the business.”
“Let Britney go,” Chris demanded. “She’s just an innocent tourist.”
“I can’t. She was the bait to lure you in the first place. Sarie said you’re besotted with the girl. It was easy to fool you when she said Britney needed help.”
Something squeezed at my heart at Blom’s words. As frightened as I was, I couldn’t help the emotions that raced through me. Everything in my body screamed out for Chris. The connection we had was real and he’d felt it too—I wasn’t dreaming. Just holding him through the bars helped settle my frantic thoughts. What a craptastic time to recognize the feelings my heart had instinctively known.
I’m in love with him.
As if Chris knew what I was thinking, he lifted my hand and placed a kiss on my knuckles.
“Luckily, you two lovebirds won’t be split up.” Blom laughed. “I’ve got four hungry lions who haven’t eaten in three days. They won’t waste a morsel.”
As he spoke, the metal rod attached to the gate rattled and the door between my cage and Chris’s opened. With a cry, I released him and rushed to climb through. Solid hands curled under my arms as Chris dragged me against his chest. He held me as I sobbed, terrified at what was coming next.
“Everything will be fine,” he crooned against my hair.
“That’s right, stick together.” Blom’s voice filled with humor. “I’d love to stay and watch them feed, but I have a meeting with an important client from Asia. Big money, you know.”
Sarie’s mouth quirked in a smug smile as she watched us through the opening. Fury welled in my chest—if only I could get my hands on her.
Blom walked to the other end of the wall and pulled the metal rod for the hatch on the far cage to open. “Totsiens, Mnr. de Lange. Lekker dag.”
“Good-bye, Mr. de Lange,” Chris translated for me in a flat voice. “Enjoy your day.”
Sarie waved as Blom’s laughter rang out. He slammed the feeding slot closed, and a moment later, an engine started outside and tires squealed away. We were officially alone with four hungry lions.
Terrified, I froze. “Oh my God, Chris, what are we going to do?” I watched in horror as the first animal loped through the hatch into the empty middle enclosure. It was the rangy lioness.
Chris held me firmly. “I told you, don’t worry.”
Tears spilled down my cheeks, and I could barely see the next three lions cautiously making their way into the middle cage. Shaking badly, I tried to wiggle out of Chris’s hold. We could climb the bars to the roof. They couldn’t jump that high, could they? I was too young to die. What would my mother say when they found my chewed remains?
“Britney,” Chris commanded. “Trust me.” Kissing my forehead, he released me and walked to the middle cage’s hatch.
“No, Chris,” I screamed, but my cries were drowned by the sounds of men shouting nearby. They could help us.
“Chris, wait! I hear voices.”
But he didn’t stop. My jaw sagged in disbelief as he crouched through the opening and stepped into the middle cage.
“Hallo, Simba. Hallo, Pieta.” Walking amongst the lions, Chris hugged them, rubbing their manes. “Hallo, Grootbaas.” Tickling the last lion behind his shoulder blades, he greeted him with a smile. “Worsie.”
The huge beasts brushed up against him like oversized dogs embracing their owner. They huffed and grunted, lovingly caressing him. The lioness stood up on two legs to hold his head between her giant paws while she licked his face.
This was too much for my brain to process. My legs gave out as my vision faded . . .
“Brit, are you okay?”
Something rough scoured my cheek, and I opened my eyes as a huge pink tongue dragged across my face. Fetid breath hit my nostrils, but the fangs next to the tongue made me want to black out again.
“Worsie, stop it now. Let her get air.”
Chris’s hand slipped around the lion’s huge face as he pushed him away from me. “I think it’s best to stand. Otherwise, they’ll sit on your face, and it’s not pleasant.” His lips curved into a gentle smile.
The four animals circled me like excited poodles. Even if I had a camera, no one would believe this, so I gripped his hand and got to my feet.
“Chris, are you guys all right?”
Hugo opened the cage door, laughing when the lioness did the two-legged hugging trick on him as well.
“Hallo, Simba.” Patting her huge head, Hugo peered over her ears. “I’ve got meat for these beauties in the truck.”
A sharp whistle caused the lions to bolt through the door, leaving us alone in the empty cages.
Safe for now, I snuggled against Chris’s chest.
“I told you help was on the way,” he said with a grin.
My legs as rubbery as Jell-O, I clung to his broad frame.
“Let’s get you back to the lodge.” Hugo motioned toward the door. “Leon is feeding our furry friends, but we came in two vehicles so he can join us later.”
I wasn’t about to argue. The sooner we got out of here, the better.
“Did the police stop Blom?” Chris asked as he led me to one of the lodge’s Jeeps.
“Ja, the police were waiting for them when they tried to leave through the safety gate. Your dad is headed to the station now.”
With a satisfied nod, Chris pulled me onto his lap in the backseat. Hugo climbed behind the wheel to drive us far away from the nightmarish place.
“Rest, my angel,” Chris murmured while stroking my skin. The sweet smell of vanilla made me turn into his body, seeking more of his gentle touch.
“I’m so sorry this happened to you.” He pressed a kiss to my brow. “When I found out Blom had kidnapped you, I wanted to kill him.”
“Hmm, you’ll be forgiven if you tell me what’s going on,” I said, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“Yes, I promise. Just as soon as we get you back safely, and you’ve had your Christmas dinner.”
I frowned. “Guess I was almost a Christmas meal for hungry lions.”
“No, only the finest dessert.” He nestled my head in his big hands. Bringing his lips to mine, he kissed me sweetly and softly, his touch almost questioning. I opened my mouth and melted into his caress.
Hugo interrupted with a loud whistle. “Hey, you two. Get a room.”
We jolted apart, and I burrowed my burning cheeks into Chris’s shirt. He held me tenderly, pressing kisses on my head and constantly touching me until we arrived at the lodge.
Meghan was still in bed when we got back, unaware of my mishap, but Chris said her chef had fed her well and was currently in her room. Tales of my misadventure could wait till the morning. I was sure Marshall would be better company than me for now.
Chris ran the water for my shower, but left me to enjoy it alone while he cleaned up. He promised to return with food and said we could talk after that.
By the time I was clean, dusk had fallen and dim orange light filtered through the blinds. I slipped into a fluffy robe, thankful the warm water had removed the kinks from my muscles. A few bruises had already surfaced on my arms and legs, but they weren’t as sore as they looked.
Someone knocked on the door, and my smile broke free as Chris let himself in. Wearing a starched white shirt and long black pants, he looked like the real-life Thor from the silver screen as the last rays of sunlight caught fire in his golden hair.
Giving me that grin that never failed to melt me, he wheeled in a waiter’s cart with two plates covered with silver domes. “I come bearing gifts.”
The delicious smell of hot food wafted past my nostrils, and my stomach growled.
“You’re officially my hero.” Waving him inside, I bypassed the cart to snag my phone and sit at the end of the bed. “Before we eat, I need to wish my mom a merry Christmas. She’s probably wondering why I haven’t called yet.”
“Go ahead. I’ll set this up while you’re busy.”
I dialed my mom’s number as Chris opened a bottle of grape juice and filled two glasses. We spoke for a while, and I sent my love to her and my sisters. I told her I had company, and promised to call the next day for a longer chat. After I said good-bye, my eyes brimmed with tears.
Chris took the phone from my hand and drew me into his powerful arms. “Hey, everything all right?”
I closed my eyes and breathed in his warmth. “Just missing my family.”
His hands slid down to my hips, slotting my body perfectly against his. “Let me make it up to you,” he whispered as his lips brushed my cheek.
“Huh-uh.” I smiled, pulling away. “First, we need to eat, then we need to talk. And only when I’m satisfied with your answers,” I waggled a finger at him, “will I consider those making-up promises.”
His green eyes gleamed. “Trust me, you’ll be very satisfied with my making-up promises.”
With that toe-curling vow, he let me escape to the cart where I lifted the cover off one plate and sniffed at the appetizing aroma.
“This smells so good.”
“I’ve got a bit of everything. I wasn’t sure what you’d like.”
“Hmm, you nailed it,” I said, cramming savory rice into my mouth.
We finished the food in record time, even managing to eat dessert. Once the cart had been loaded with our dirty dishes, I climbed onto the huge bed and stretched my arms above my head. Chris plopped down on his back next to me.
“I ate too much.”
“Me too,” he said.
We lay in silence for a few minutes. The low murmur of an African choir floated in the air outside. Such a beautiful ending to a horrific day.
Questions flipped through my mind until I finally settled on one. “So, how did Hugo and Leon know where we were?”
“Simba’s sister told them.”
Laughing, I swatted his arm. “No, really.”
“I’m serious. Xena traced her sister to Blom’s farm. He’d darted Simba and three males, and placed them in cages. When you were locked up, Xena ran back to tell Hugo.”
“Xena, huh? Is her sister the same Simba that almost attacked me when I left the Jeep?” I turned my head toward him.
“Simba wasn’t going after you. She was trying to protect you from Renaldo.”
“Somehow I don’t think you’re joking. So, tell me,” I asked seriously, “how did Xena speak to your cousin? And is he the only one who can speak to lions?”
Chris exhaled, looking at me with green-gold eyes. “It’s a long story.”
“I’m not in a hurry.”
Sliding his hand over mine, he cleared his voice. “My family moved here a hundred sixty years ago. They were part of a small group, looking for land to farm.”
His fingers tightened. “A pride of lions attacked them at every turn, picking off members of their party one by one. Nothing could stop them. Even firearms couldn’t guarantee the farmers’ safety. The lions attacked at night while they were sleeping, and in the day when they were bathing in the lake. They were terrified and wanted to leave the area. The local tribe didn’t suffer the same fate. They were safe from the predators, walking about without fear. Eventually, the farmers learned of a spell a witch doctor had cast that gave the tribe protection from the beasts, even allowing them to speak to the lions. The farmers traded their weapons with the tribe, and anything of value they had in order to receive the same protection.”
“Did it work?” I asked, mesmerized by the tale.
“Yes. Each family received a birthmark, a trail of lion paw prints down the wrist for the females, and a trail between the shoulder blades for the men.”
Rolling away from me, he tugged at his shirt. High up on golden skin, I saw familiar markings imprinted along his spine. I ran my thumb along his vertebrae, and he shivered at my touch. The sweet smell of vanilla flooded the air, and as I watched, his body began to glow.
“Don’t,” he said. Reeling back, he grabbed my hands. “I want to finish the story, and I can’t if you touch me.”
Swallowing, I stared at him with wide eyes.
“Everyone under the spell not only receives a birthmark and protection, they receive a mate.” Studying my reaction, he paused for a moment. “One perfect partner to keep the spell healthy. Males speak to the lions from birth, and females speak to them after they’ve mated.”
“How do you find your perfect mate?” I whispered.
His expression softened as he looked at me. “If you touch your fated mate’s birthmark, a chain will appear to bind you together. Before mates are joined, the feelings are overwhelming. We call it the Stirring. The longer mates are together, the more the Stirring can be controlled.”
Stunned, I asked, “Do you mean . . .”
“Yes. You’re the perfect match for me.” He inched closer, pressing his thigh against mine. “I’ve been looking for you forever. We can choose someone without a mark as a partner, but it’s never the same as being with your mate. Your soul will always search for your intended. Luckily, there were many farmers in the initial group, and our numbers have grown, but I could never find my soul mate.”
I blinked hard as my heart pulsed wildly at the base of my throat. “Go on.”
“We’d heard of a birth-marked girl who’d lost her parents in a car crash many years ago, but before my family could find her, she’d disappeared.” Rubbing his thumb along my jaw, he whispered, “I’ve always wondered if my soulmate was overseas. I’ve been searching for that lost girl and her offspring forever, hoping to find my true mate.”
“And that was me?”
His eyes crinkled as he smiled at me. “That was you.”
“So, Milla didn’t stand a chance?”
“Who?” Catching my chin with his hand, he tilted my head back. My heart thundered as his breath tickled my lips, and a rumble formed in his chest. “There is no one but you.”
And then he kissed me, his mouth slanted over mine, his body so close there wasn’t a fraction of an inch between us. The bed dipped with our combined weight as he slid over me. Holding himself up on his elbows, he settled his thighs between mine, making me gasp at the delicious warmth.
“Britney,” he said in my ear. “I want to love you. I want to make you mine.”
My stomach cartwheeled as he fixed his gaze on me.
“But I’ll wait for you. I’ll show you how good you and I can be together. Please give me a chance to prove my love.”
Words tried to form in my head, but nothing happened. All I could do was nod.
His lips lingered, pressing sweet, soft kisses on my mouth as my hands ran along his thick forearms. Long golden hair caressed my neck, and his stubble rasped deliciously along my skin.
Groaning, he lifted his body from mine and stood. “I have to stop before I can’t.” He shoved the heels of his palms against his eyes and let out a frustrated sigh. “I’ve been going crazy since I met you, Brit.”
I sat up, clutching at my loosened robe with trembling hands. Staring at every movement I made, he watched me but didn’t come closer. Instead, he walked to the waiter’s cart and searched for something under the cloth.
When he returned, he sank down on one knee and held out a small box in his hand. “This is for you, my love. To prove how serious I am.”
“No, you didn’t!” I squealed like a little girl. My mind reeled as he opened the lid opened and I saw the ring inside. Surrounded by tiny faceted onyx stones that looked similar to my birthmark, the round diamond sparkled in the light.
“I know this has been an overwhelming day, and you don’t need to answer me now, but I’ll ask you today and every day after. I love you, Britney Adams.” His eyes shone brightly. “Will you marry me and be mine forever?”
Chris was right. The day had been overwhelming. It was Christmas, and I was in a strange country. I’d been kidnapped and almost killed. I’d finally learned about my family’s amazing heritage, and my ability to speak to lions. But most importantly, I’d found my mate, my partner in life.
Even though we’d just met, I was certain that everything would eventually fall into place. And I knew what my answer would be—today, tomorrow, and every day after.
Placing my hand in his, I inhaled deeply and smiled. “Yes, Chris de Lange. I’ll marry you. I’ll be yours, and you’ll be mine. Forever.”
Too Close to Midnight
A New Adult sci-fi novel
When Rachel wakes up with a blinding headache, she has no memory of being kidnapped and released by an invading alien race. To save our world from utter destruction, she must trust her new friends and use the technology the aliens have implanted in her body.
Dream Walker series
Gail and the Wind Walkers (Book 3)
Gail needs to save her village from a powerful giant, but she’ll first have to protect her heart from a sexy man determined to win it.
Find My Heart (Book 2)
To protect her twin from school bullies, Maddy learned early to be tough, always the outgoing one, brash and no-nonsense. When her older sister finds love, Maddy travels to Africa to be a bridesmaid at her wedding. There she’s confounded by a handsome best man, savage lions, and a crazy story about magical chains. Can she let down her barriers to open herself to love and the possibility that magic truly exists?
Dream Walker series
Aspen and the Dream Walkers (Dream Walkers Book 1)
Ruby and the Fire Walkers (Dream Walkers Book 2)
Guide my Heart (The Stirring Book 1)
Word of mouth is crucial for any author to succeed. If you enjoyed this book, please consider leaving a review at the site where you bought it. Even a short line or two would be a huge help.
Please visit my website and say hello. I love to connect with new readers.
I’d like to thank my husband for his love and unfailing support, and my amazing son, Jared, for sharing an interest in the written word and for being my inspiration in life.
My editor, Pam Berehulke, is a magician. She has tweaked and pulled the story into shape as only someone with her incredible talent can. I’m proud to be associated with Bulletproof Editing. Thanks, Pam.
Once again, thank you to all my readers. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story.
Caroline Swart was born and raised in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. After a brief stint as a professional singer, she studied software development and landed in the United States in Atlanta, Georgia. She eventually acquired a husband, a software-development company in Africa, and a son, not all in that order. She’s passionate about reading, writing, and music.
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