by Nikki Soarde
Kat Mulligan, a tiny woman with a big personality and bigger heart, built a business and life for herself and her handicapped brother—alone. Her focus is on the positive—and the future. The past can stay buried.
Until her estranged father suddenly reappears. She tries ignoring him—and the pain he brings with him. However, she can’t ignore his proposition—head to the Australian wilderness in search of a treasure that could change her life.
Dane Calder, her handsome guide, is too irresistible for her own good. The two of them connect explosively while Dane explains their itinerary. Kat decides she’ll go, but to keep her focused on her goal and not on her rugged guide, she insists her best friend Chay accompany them. He’s gay and therefore the perfect chaperone. Or is he?
Dane’s desire for Kat is obvious, but his feelings for her athletic, boy-next-door friend come as a surprise—to all three. None of the adventurers are prepared for the secret loves and desires unleashed beneath the azure skies of the Kakadu.
Kat jolted awake, her entire body zinging with electricity. “What? Huh?”
“Hey, kitten. Sorry to wake you, but you need to come inside. There’s a storm a’comin’.”
She blinked, gazing up into the bluest eyes set in the most handsome, rugged face, she’d ever seen. Dane’s fingers were still on her cheek. It was that touch that had awakened her and sent a jolt of awareness through her. She blinked rapidly, dragging her gaze away from his face to look out the windshield at the front of the plane. A bank of threatening, gun-metal gray clouds loomed on the horizon, and the air hummed with electricity.
“We’re here?” she said groggily.
“Yup. Landed about fifteen minutes ago. I let you sleep as long as I could.”
She sat up, groaned as her back and legs protested being in one position for so long. “Where’s Chay?”
“Inside.” He grinned. “Choking down a cup of Laklak’s infamous cure all.”
“Friend of mine. The woman who owns this joint.” He retreated from the plane and held out a hand. “Come on. She’s anxious to meet you.”
Shaking out stiff muscles and sore joints, Kat struggled out of the plane and followed Dane down the dusty driveway that led to a small, wood-frame house on the edge of a bank of trees. It was worn and weathered. A few of the windows bore cracks and the roof was missing a few shingles, but the white wood siding and bright yellow shutters had obviously been painted recently.
She drew up short. “What the hell are those?”
Dane stopped, frowned, but then followed her gaze to the trees beyond the house that held her attention. “Oh. Those are Darwin woollybutts. They’re blooming now. Pretty, aren’t they?”
“Uh. Yeah.” Pretty didn’t begin to cover it. The tall, green-leafed trees covered in fuzzy orange flowers lived up to their descriptive name admirably. She had the odd sensation that her eyes were slightly out of focus.
“Come on.” Dane grabbed her hand and dragged her forward, just as a fat raindrop landed splat on her nose.
They made it in the door just as the skies opened. Rain pelted the ground and a crack of thunder boomed in the distance.
The aroma that greeted her upon stepping into the wide-open kitchen and living space made Kat’s stomach growl, begging to be fed after what had been a ten-hour fast.
Chay sat at the rough-hewn kitchen table, huddled over a steaming mug. He glanced at her and lifted a single finger in weak greeting. “She’s alive.” He turned back to his mug. “More than I can say for myself.”
But before she could get an answer to that vague query, she was swept up in a fierce bear hug. “Kat-kat!” squealed the woman whom Kat could only assume was Dane’s friend. Her chubby, mocha-colored arms held Kat so tight she had to struggle for breath.
“Kat Mulligan, this is my dear friend Laklak.”
“Uh. Hello,” she choked out.
At last Laklak released her from the hug, but obviously had no intention of actually letting her go. She gripped Kat’s shoulders with thick, strong fingers as she regarded her guest at arm’s length. Her face was dark like chocolate, with the slightly flattened features common to the local aboriginals. Deep lines and wrinkles rimmed her eyes and mouth and creased her forehead, but her hair was as black as her eyes. Kat was hard-pressed to guess her age, but suspected she wouldn’t take kindly to being asked.
“You’re a pretty one, aren’t you then?” She looked at Dane. “Laklak approves.”
And then she grinned, revealing a smile peppered with holes.
“Exactly what do you approve of me for?” asked Kat, glancing from her to Dane.
“As a friend to my Dane, of course.” Laklak slapped her on the shoulder. “What else?” But then she winked and cackled as she waddled back toward the stove where something was bubbling.
Kat looked at Dane and arched an eyebrow, but he merely shrugged. With a roll of her eyes she crossed to where Chay sat and pulled out a chair to plunk down beside him. He looked at her and she grimaced. “You don’t look so good. What’s wrong?”
“Rough plane ride. And an even rougher landing.” He glanced at Dane. “You call that a landing strip?”
“Around here you make do.”
Chay heaved a heavy sigh before taking a sip from his steaming mug. “Anyway, I don’t suppose you noticed.”
“It was rough?” she said to Dane.
“Just a few dips and dives.” Dane had moved over to the stove and was dipping a spoon into the bubbling concoction. “Nothing a real man couldn’t handle.”
Chay sneered. “Oh, that’s nice. I’m insulted, even as I sit here drinking swill that passes for tea.”
“Laklak tea is best for belly,” chided their hostess. “Drink.”
With a sigh of resignation Chay obliged. “So, Kat’s more of a man than I am, is that it?”
Dane just shrugged as Laklak looked on with interest. To Chay Laklak said, “You likes the boys, yes?”
Very slowly Chay replied, “Yeah…I likes the boys.” Kat could tell he was bracing himself for a rebuff or perhaps a prayer for his soul. These were the kinds of reactions he typically got from Laklak’s generation—whatever that may be. “You got a problem with that?”
“Problem?” She seemed stunned. “Stupid question. I likes the boys too. Just checking to see what we got in common.” Another cackle that had Kat grinning. Then she nudged Dane in the ribs. “He’s cute, too, don’t you think?”
Dane’s gaze snapped up like he’d been stung. “Huh? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
This had Laklak laughing so hard she literally doubled over and held her stomach in glee. The other three looked on in complete bafflement as she continued chuckling at her own private joke.
When she finally got control of herself she ignored the question, instead turning her attention to the pot. “So, you hungry? We could eat in twenty minutes. I just have to cook up the rice.”
“Oh yes,” said Kat. “It smells wonderful. What is it?”
“Mud crab curry.” Dane sipped off his spoon and an expression of absolute rapture washed over his features. “It’ll put hair on the soles of your feet.” He glanced at Chay. “I don’t know if you can handle it.”
“Mud crabs? Curry? I can take anything you can dish out.” Chay narrowed his eyes. “Just hand me a fuckin’ spoon.”
A half hour later they were all seated around the table with full plates, bottles of beer, and a storm raging outside that Kat feared would rip off all the remaining shingles.
Chay’d had all of six bites and already sweat was pouring down his face, but Dane was no better off. Red-faced and sweating, however, both men continued shoveling food into their mouths.
“It’s delicious,” said Chay, taking a swig of beer. “But it could use some hot sauce.”
“Be careful or I’ll find some for you,” challenged Dane.
The two women’s eyes met and they both laughed. Kat took small bites, laced liberally with rice. She had a pretty tough stomach where spicy food was concerned, but she was adult enough to acknowledge that this stuff was out of her league.
“So, what’s the plan from here?” she asked, setting down her fork and giving her palate a break.
But instead of answering her, Dane turned to Laklak. “Did you get the permits?”
“Yeah. But I had to sell my body to get them.” An enthusiastic cackle punctuated the joke.
“Permits?” asked Kat.
Dane nodded. “Yeah. Most of Arnhem Land and the Kakadu Park is protected and off-limits to tourists. You can take guided tours and go camping in designated areas, but for anything beyond that you need a government permit. Even then, we’re going to be travelling well outside the permissible regions. But if we’re intercepted, I want to at least have permits on hand, so that we can plead getting lost, or not knowing the way home.”
“Why is it off-limits?”
“It’s aboriginal land and protected ancient habitats. They’re just trying to keep it isolated from western culture as long as possible.”
“And to keep the tourists from getting eaten,” added Laklak.
“You’re talking about the crocs.” Chay’s fork hovered in mid-air.
“Yes.” She nodded sagely. “The ginga will be hungry.”
“Oh, don’t listen to her,” chided Dane. “I know what I’m doing. She just likes scaring people.”
“Hmm.” Slowly Chay took another bite.
“We’re also picking up the canoe here and the last of our supplies. I didn’t want to have to buy that stuff in town, myself. It would raise suspicion.”
Kat took a swig of beer. “This is serious stuff. I don’t think I realized quite how serious.”
“There are hefty fines for what we’re doing, but rarely jail time. The most important thing is to get going without being intercepted. After that chances are poor that we’ll run into any rangers.”
Laklak slanted him a look. “Course not. Just angry Mungguy.”
“Angry? Why would the natives be angry?”
For the first time since she’d known him, Dane appeared uncomfortable. “Because we’ll be crossing sacred ground. I thought I told you that.”
“Uh. No. I don’t remember that part.”
“Well, if we want the Sapphira, that’s what we’ve gotta do. Cross sacred ground, and climb a sacred cliff.”
Kat and Chay went very still. “Sapphira?” This was the first time they’d ever heard either Dane or Malcolm refer to the mystery object as anything other than an “artifact.”
“Yes. It’s not a real sapphire. That’s just what the local tribe dubbed it. Or that’s the closest translation Malcolm and I could come up with.”
Kat dropped her spoon. “Hang on a second here. Are we stealing something from these people? Because I just won’t be a party to that.”
But Dane shook his head. “No. The Sapphira isn’t native to this region. Malcolm and I had it with us when we came through the last time, and the tribe we were staying with saw some spiritual significance in it. Actually to call them Mungguy is inaccurate. This is a small, isolated tribe that has a rather…eccentric leader. And he’s led them in some rather unorthodox traditions.” He shrugged. “Anyway, in effect their leader stole the Sapphira from us. They hid it, and we had only just found out which cave in the escarpment held it when we encountered some rather…irate rangers and were asked to leave. Immediately.”
“So where is it from originally?”
“It’s South American. An Aztec artifact that Malcolm came by honestly.”
“Really?” Kat allowed the skepticism to creep into her voice.
But Dane was adamant. “Yes. Really.”
Kat had no intention of letting him off that easily, but the boom of thunder that cracked over their heads made them all jump, even as they were plunged into blackness.
“Shit,” said Dane to Laklak. “You still got that generator?”
“I do. But settle down. It never lasts longer than a few minutes.” A flash of lightning lit up the room, quickly followed by another boom.
“I want to see,” said Kat, launching from her chair and heading for the door.
“Hey!” But Dane wasn’t quite fast enough to stop her.
She stepped out onto the porch, her face immediately stung by the fine spray of rain that managed to reach beyond the cover of the wide awning. It was a different world now. Dark and menacing, the wind howling like a banshee as it whipped the trees into a frenzy and sent bushes and tin cans tumbling wildly across the landscape. The lightning cracks were frequent and close, and the thunder deafening.
“I’ve never seen a storm like this,” she said when she felt Dane move in beside her.
“I’m not surprised, what with living in the city all your life.”
“And dangerous. I’m hoping she blows herself out, and we don’t see another one like this while we’re out there.”
Somewhat unsettled, she gazed up at Dane. “But you could handle it, right?”
His smile was reassuring as he slipped an arm around her shoulder. “I can handle anything, kitten. Except maybe you.”
Her reprimand for his use of the pet name died on her tongue at that last comment. A man who acknowledged her strength of will and yet wasn’t threatened by it was rare. And she found it unbelievably alluring.
She allowed herself to enjoy the feeling of those muscles wrapped around her body, the sense of strength and control that he exuded. Kat had always looked after herself, but it was good to feel like maybe she could hand that job off to somebody. Even if it was only briefly.
“Most city girls would be cowering inside,” he observed, his grip on her shoulders never wavering.
“Well, I’m not most city girls.” She turned to face him. “Am I?”
He smiled. “I couldn’t believe you slept through that flight. Chay thinks you’re not human.”
“And what do you think?”
The storm raging around them paled in comparison to the storm that suddenly kicked to life in his eyes. “I think I’m going to kiss you.”
Although she knew she should stop him, she couldn’t bring herself to. And when his lips fused with hers, she felt it like a rumble of thunder in her tummy. His lips were so warm and sweet, his tongue gentle even as it took absolute control of hers. And his arms—oh god, his arms—the strength in them as they wrapped around her body and held her oh so tight.
She wrapped her arms around him, wanting more than she knew she could. She cursed herself for it, even as she nudged her hips against his and felt the deep growl of yearning in his chest.
She wanted him there and then. Right on the porch amidst the driving rain and rumbling thunder. She wanted nothing more than to be wet and naked with him, and completely at the mercy of the storm.
His hand crept down to grip her ass and pull her more firmly against his erection, and impossibly her desire grew. But just as the words “Take me” formed on her tongue, another set of words echoed in her ears.
“What the hell?”
They jumped apart just in time to hear Chay mumble, “Shit,” and bolt back inside, and for Kat to feel a wash of guilt that she neither wanted nor understood.
“Chay!” she cried, but Dane caught her arm as she headed for the door.
“This has nothing to do with him.”
She wanted to agree, but although she was hard-pressed to say why she just couldn’t. She just shook her head and ran after her friend into the darkened house.