Authors: Dana Marton
Life expectancy couldn’t be more than thirty, maybe forty years among the natives. The boy had already learned that special attitude of the tribes to take the bad with the good and live every moment as if it was a gift.
Back in the U.S., harried business executives paid thousands of dollars for special retreats to teach them the same thing, Jase thought with some irony.
He kept track of the time, and in another half hour stopped for another break. Again, Mochi was quickly asleep. Jase made another fire, although he wouldn’t have bothered if he’d traveled by himself.
Melanie kept watching him. Probably trying to figure out why he’d broken her out of camp. If he wasn’t careful, she might figure out that he wasn’t who he said he was.
“I expect to be paid for this,” he told her.
She glanced at his backpack where he’d stashed her pistol. “Pedro doesn’t let me keep money.”
He wondered if she’d offer kisses again, and prayed he had the strength to turn them down if she did. Bad enough he’d let that happen once.
But she didn’t try anything like that. She didn’t say a word, just looked uncomfortable and worried.
“You’re an American. There’s always a reward.” He shrugged, playing the mercenary.
“There is!” She grabbed on to that immediately, obviously lying through her teeth. She didn’t have much of a poker face. “My father will be very grateful.”
There was a good chance she didn’t even have a father. But he gave her points for quick thinking. If he truly
a mercenary, that was exactly what he would have wanted to hear. “Well.” He gave a swarthy smile. “We have a plan then.”
She seemed relieved and even dozed off after another couple of minutes. The fire cast shadows on her face. She was beautiful in any light. He caught himself and looked away.
He picked up a small branch and whittled it down to a peg to keep himself busy, cut another strip of leather off his belt and played with that a little, trying to think how he could best fit the two together.
He let the woman and the boy rest for half an hour, then woke them gently. Mochi came instantly awake. She needed more coaxing, but got there eventually. She moved without protest, rubbing her belly.
“We’ll walk a little farther, then make camp for the night. We should be far enough by then to be safe.” They needed rest so they could cover a decent distance once the sun came up.
“How are you doing with the bug bites?” He’d noticed her scratching earlier.
“My hands are the worst.”
She had softer skin than he did. He thought for a second, kicked aside the decaying leaf mold under his feet until he got to dirt, then he bent and scooped up some muddy soil. “Give me your hands.”
And he rubbed mud all over them. “This should help a little.”
Rubbing her slim fingers sent unexpected awareness through him. Man, he’d been alone too long when just holding a woman’s hand turned him on.
He let her go and busied himself ruffling the puppy so she wouldn’t guess how touching her had affected him.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice a little thicker than usual.
“Just don’t forget to wash it off before you eat.” He gave the dog one last pat then picked up their bags and strode forward on the trail.
It’d probably be best if he didn’t touch her again.
call woke Melanie toward dawn. The fire burned low in the middle of their small campsite. It had been enough to keep predators away overnight. And the smoke did cut down on the number of insects, although not nearly enough. She was more than grateful for the mosquito netting over her sleeping bag. Thank God, Jase had thought of everything when he’d packed his bag.
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and watched as he slipped from his sleeping bag and stirred the fire. He stood tall, his body well-built, his senses already alert as he observed their surroundings. He had a straight nose and a square, masculine jaw, but her attention only skimmed those, settling on his lips. And for a moment, she could feel his mouth against hers all over again.
Ridiculous that she couldn’t forget that brief moment. Troubling that tingles pinged through her body just from the memory.
He stirred the embers to get enough heat to boil water for coffee, but he didn’t add more wood. They would be leaving shortly.
He looked her way once he set the tin cup on the fire, his gunmetal-gray gaze catching hers. “I’m going to refill our canteens. I heard a creek not far off the trail when we stopped last night. I’m checking it out. Stay here.”
She couldn’t believe her luck. “Okay.”
She waited until he disappeared in the bushes, then left her sleeping bag and began gathering up things that she would need for her journey. She took Jase’s backpack, since it was bigger than hers, and left some of the food on a stone by the fire, hoping the ants wouldn’t find it before he did. She owed him some consideration. He
helped her. So far.
Some of the tension in her back eased. Leaving him without having to shoot him was so much nicer and easier. She’d been worried about that, if she could pull the trigger, if she could somehow steal her pistol back in the first place. She’d worried about what Mochi would think of her, seeing her shoot the man the boy clearly admired. Jase simply walking off and leaving them alone lifted a tremendous weight off her shoulders.
She tried to free her sleeping bag from the tree, but couldn’t cope with the complicated knots Jase had tied, so as much as she hated to, she had to leave that behind. She did pack the mosquito netting. She also found the pistol and kept it handy in case he came back too soon. She prayed that he wouldn’t.
Would the old weapon really blow up in her hands if she fired it? Could be he’d just been trying to discourage her. A working gun would have made her feel safer as she walked through the jungle. Jase had taken his gun with him, but she wouldn’t have known what to do with that anyway. His sinister black weapon looked twice as complicated as the old-fashioned pistol she had. She did take the machete, though, which she would definitely need.
The lack of safe-filter canteens worried her the most. Jase had taken those. Mochi and she would need water. But it did rain regularly, and she reasoned that rainwater straight from the sky would have to be safe to drink. There couldn’t be any parasites in that. Hopefully she could gather some of that from the larger leaves.
She strapped the bag onto her back. “Let’s go, Mochi.”
The boy looked at her wide-eyed, then looked in the direction where Jase had disappeared.
“We have to go now.” She walked over to him and picked up the puppy in an ungainly sweep. The furry little thing settled right against her, practically sitting on her shelf of a belly. “Come on. It’s going to be better this way. Trust me.”
Mochi dragged his feet, but then followed at last, not wanting to be separated from the puppy.
She followed the same trail they’d been using until now, grateful when another one crossed it. This gave her a fifty percent chance that Jase might take the wrong path when he followed them. She looked up at the sun. One of the trails headed straight north, the other northwest.
Did he know about the research station to the north? If he did, would he think that she did, too, and she would head straight that way? She took the northwest branch to be on the safe side, deciding to cut over later. She should be able to figure this out.
“We’ll be fine,” she told Mochi, walking carefully.
She’d spent enough time at camp so that the jungle noises no longer scared her. Plus, she gained courage from the machete she was holding. Still, when a loud crack and thud sounded in the distance, she nearly jumped out of her skin, even if she had heard the sound before and knew it to be harmless.
“A tree falling,” she explained to Mochi, who didn’t seem the least concerned.
He pointed to the nearest tree then reenacted the falling part with a grin. Okay. They were definitely on the same page. Of course, he would know the forest better than she did. She had a genuine native guide with her.
The constant humidity of the jungle eroded wood fairly quickly. One of Pedro’s top men had been killed by a falling tree in the jungle shortly after she’d gotten here. The others had brought in the body and she’d seen it from the balcony, not something she would forget anytime soon. So in addition to watching where she stepped, she also paid attention to the trees.
“Ay!” Mochi grabbed her from behind suddenly.
The puppy yelped in her arms.
Right. She needed to pay attention to the bushes, too. She’d nearly walked into a bright red snake. Judging by the way Mochi gave wide berth to the thing, it had to be fairly deadly.
She shuddered as she moved on. “
The boy stood taller and said something back in his own language. From the tone of his voice and his body language, she guessed he was promising to take good care of her.
“We’ll take good care of each other,” she told him, and moved forward, trying to keep an eye on absolutely everything.
She did really well for the first twenty minutes. Then they came to an area where vegetation was thicker. Time for the machete. She handed the puppy to Mochi. Leading it on the leash would have slowed them down too much, as it would want to stop and investigate absolutely every ant and leaf. Plus there was no telling what might dart out from the undergrowth to snatch it.
She was a little more frazzled around the edges, more jittery, without Jase.
She needed both hands to work the machete. She went at it like she meant it. Wow. Clearing a path looked a lot easier when Jase had done it. Her arms were ready to fall off in about five minutes.
A little more and she would stop to drink. She monitored her level of exhaustion, watched for any unusual pain, but her body didn’t seem to mind the exercise. She’d been cooped up too long at the hacienda.
“I can do this,” she reassured Mochi, then raised the machete above her head, brought it down, then did it over and over again. Until she suddenly couldn’t.
The blade got stuck in something above her head.
She looked up, sweaty and annoyed. Her heart about stopped at the sight that greeted her.
She’d managed to hit a hornets’ nest that hung low on a branch above the trail, hidden among the leaves.
All was quiet for a second. She didn’t move. She didn’t dare breathe. Then the nest began to vibrate.
“Run!” she yelled, but Mochi was already tearing into the woods, off the trail.
She dropped the backpack and followed him with an uneven gait, holding on to her belly.
The hornets followed her, a whole cloud of the furious colony. They were catching up quickly. No surprise there. A kitchen chair could have outrun her these days.
The first few stings came right through her clothing. She zigzagged with an alacrity she wouldn’t have thought she still possessed, dashed through bushes just to brush the damned things off. Ran to the left, then ran to the right, having no idea how to escape, running blindly and quickly losing sight of Mochi, who blended into the undergrowth too well.
She needed to catch her breath. Her lungs burned from the short burst of effort. Her skin burned from the stings. It didn’t seem possible that things could go this bad this quickly.
And then everything got a lot worse. A hornet stung her right on her eyelid, making her yelp with pain. Her eye swelled shut in less than thirty seconds.
She kept her other hand up by the other eye, swatting whatever came that way. If anything happened to that eye, she would be completely blind. And then she would probably be dead very shortly after. Either the hornets would get her, or the snakes, or she’d fall over something and break her neck.
“Whatever you concentrate on is what’s going to happen,” Julio used to tell her. “So concentrate on good things.”
So she tried to think of making it out of here and being back in her apartment in Rio. But she got stung on the other eyelid anyway. She cried out, heading into the thickest bush to hide from the hornets, peering through a narrowing gap until finally she couldn’t see anything.
Oh, dear Lord, help me!
She hurt all over, unable to tell if she was being stung over and over or if the pain came from her old stings. She could definitely hear the hornets buzzing. She felt tears run down her face.
Every time she moved and a leaf brushed against her, she thought it was a snake. She wanted to scream for help, but Jase was far away, and she didn’t want to draw Mochi to herself and have the hornets attack him.
She curled into a ball, as much as she was able to, her head down and her arms wrapped around it to protect her face. She needed a plan, but she couldn’t think.
She tried to keep calm. Stress would be bad for her baby. Stress could even induce labor.
Oh, God, don’t think of that.
Think of a solution.
But the only image she could call up was Jase’s face, and the ease with which he handled even the most difficult things.
Black-hearted mercenary or not, she wished she hadn’t run away from him.
Minutes passed. If she were allergic, she would be dead by now. But she wasn’t, and she gave thanks for that mercy.
Melanie stiffened as she heard a slight noise, maybe a small animal, somewhere close by. Then the sound of dribbling water. The smell of ammonia hit her nose.
Mochi’s small hand settled on her shoulder a few seconds later, followed by Chico’s barking at her feet.
Then something cool touched her skin, moist and sticky. He was packing something on her, mud, from the feel of it. She could have cried in relief.
“Melanie!” Jase’s voice called from the distance.
Mochi responded first.
“Aquí, señor. Aquí!”
“There are hornets. Don’t come any closer!” Melanie shouted.
But he was there anyway, a second or two later, his voice clipped with anger as he said, “