Publish Date: August 2012
In the wild, even love takes its chances.
A wildlife release mission in Africa turns deadly when the convoy is hijacked by smugglers, and veterinarian Clare Delaney is taken hostage. Terrified for her life and her animals, the intrepid Clare establishes a rapport with the man she believes is the criminals’ leader, and reluctantly finds herself under his protection…and falling hard for the enigmatic man.
Alpha-to-the-max Simon deVries sees right through his sexy captive’s attempt to seduce her way to freedom. So when their simmering attraction flares into true passion, it takes them both by surprise. Now he’s torn between completing his secret mission and letting her escape without telling her his true identity. He knows if he lets her go, he will be risking his career, his life…and his heart.
Copyright © 2012 by Nikki Logan. Permission to reproduce text granted by Entangled Publishing LLC.
Clare Delaney grabbed what little sleep she could amid the heat and acrid smell of urine and rotten meat. Tucked comfortably into the straw a safe distance from the fourteen deeply sedated African Wild Dogs, she’d grown half-hypnotised by the rhythmic rocking as WildLyfe’s transporter bumped along the highway, roused only by a brief cargo check as they’d crossed the border from Zimbabwe into neighbouring Zambia.
Reaching for the two-way that sat on top of her veterinary kit, Clare radioed the rest of the team. “Transporter check-in,” she murmured. “All fine back here.”
A string of acknowledgements crackled back at her from the four passenger vehicles leading the convoy. The four air-conditioned vehicles.
She swiped at the sweat tickling down her neck. Volunteering to ride in the back of the transporter truck all the way to the protected habitat in the north had seemed like a much better idea in the comfortable cool of an African morning. Nadia and Mitch had said she was crazy, but Clare had been worried about one particular dog, Jambi, and how quickly the big alpha might recover from the effects of the ketamine she’d administered.
Being damp didn’t bother her—her hair was already half-soaked with it—but the tickling on her skin reminded her too much of the persistence of the winged little chenje that liked to stick their cicada legs to sweaty human skin. Dashing them away was instinctive.
Then again, maybe volunteering to ride in the back was just her way of revelling in the last few moments of their work on this project. Two long years of tracking, preparing, and planning. Months of negotiations with the local governments, hundreds of hours observing the pack and getting to know each of the fourteen rare dogs—their markings, their habits, their hierarchy. It was hard to believe that in just a few hours they’d be safe in their new territory, far away from the poachers and conflict with agriculture in the south.
As safe as they could be, anyway.
The transporter lurched suddenly and Clare’s eyes snapped open. It wasn’t like their driver, Musai, to brake so suddenly with a full load of—
Before she could brace herself, Clare tumbled sideways, landing flat on her stomach as the truck swerved to a halt on the shoulder of the deserted road. Doors slammed—several of them—and that was enough to keep her immobile, half-pushed to her knees in the straw. Her gaze flicked to the dogs, then the giant sliding door of the transporter. Outside, angry voices shouted garbled instructions over the panicked tones of her colleagues. Only the unmistakable rack of a high impact shotgun brought instantaneous silence. Her breath backed up low in her chest and she locked her gaze on the door to the transporter, listening past the stampede of blood in her ears.
Yet that didn’t release any of the tension holding her rigid.
The transporter rocked as someone climbed in the front and the vehicle rumbled back to life. Clare’s heart thumped hard and steady, tucking itself up between her collarbones for safekeeping, as the useless shouts of her fellow WildLyfers faded into the distance. She cursed her boss for being too cheap to spring for an armed guard while going north. This was exactly the sort of people WildLyfe had been working so hard to protect the pack from.
And she’d delivered the dogs up to them in one easy-to-hijack package.
She peeked through a crack in the transporter’s side door as the truck turned off the highway, her mind racing. An ocean of tall razor-grass whizzed by, dotted with clumps of thorny acacia. She could try to save herself, leap out the side and possibly survive to make it back to the others, but she could just as easily kill herself with a badly timed jump.
Worse, it would mean leaving the sedated dogs unprotected.
Committing to stay and defend her helpless cargo turned the adrenaline that coursed through her body in the opposite direction, making her sharp and decisive rather than blank and breathless. Her body vibrated with tension but she commando-crawled backward, closer to the unconscious dogs, positioning herself between them and the door, ready for battle, as the transporter slowed to a stop.
First rule of the wild: Never take your eye off a predator. You never turned your back on wild dogs, even comatose ones.
Unless what was coming at you was more dangerous…
Clare braced herself as the side door of the transporter slid open with a violent clang.
“What the fuck?!” A skinny, ginger-haired man lurched at the sight of her.
Clearly, he hadn’t expected anyone to be on board. She spread her arms wide, an under-sized and inadequate human barrier between the poachers and her dogs, and the man’s beady eyes shifted between the wild creatures and her as he climbed into the truck. She was only 5’ 2” with zero self-defense training. It’d be a short battle, even against someone as scrawny as he was.
He circled to his right. Clare shuffled left until she was closer to the door—and to freedom—and he was hard up against the pack. He split his focus, nervous but nasty, between her and the dogs. She kept her gaze glued on him.
Before she realized what was happening, a fetid blanket sailed down over her head and someone yanked her off her feet from behind. Her scream cracked across the African bush, sending a cluster of wild birds flapping as she was bundled out of the transporter and dumped roughly onto the floor of a smaller vehicle. Three doors slammed and it peeled off at top speed.
“Don’t move!” A hard boot jammed down on Clare’s shoulder. She lay in a painfully awkward position under the filthy Hessian blanket. Fear kept her still and silent at first, then her survival instinct kicked in and she kept her mouth shut so she could listen—to them, to the sounds of their vehicle travelling. Anything that might give her the tiniest sense of control. She strained to hear the distinctive rumbling of the transporter.
It was faint, but it was there. She wondered who was driving it now. Her shiver of relief congealed into something darker, hoping Musai hadn’t been hurt.
A deep voice came from the driver’s seat. “She conscious?”
She recognized his thick accent immediately and named him for the country where she had picked up the transporter and the dogs. Zimbabwe.
“You still with us?” A boot collided with the side of her face, slamming steel against bone through the blanket. She flinched and groaned.
“She’s awake,” the voice said, and laughed.
The scratchy fabric disguised her wince. Boots. He kicked her again for good measure and this time her cheek cracked. She hated that she couldn’t stop herself from crying out.
“Enough!” Through the buzz of pain, she recognized a new voice. “Pull over.”
Quiet but commanding—and British judging by his cultured accent. Out of place in this hostile setting. Was he in charge? They rattled to a halt. Apparently he was. As the door closest to her head opened, warm air streamed into the pocket under her foul blanket and she drank in its freshness.
Despite the momentary relief, her muscles tensed. Was this it? Had they arrived where they were going to dump her? Would they leave her alive or dead? With no weapon, no water and no shoes—those were still sitting in the straw in the transporter—how long would she last in the wilds of Zambia, anyway?
“Out,” the man said, but not to her.
Alpha. She named him for his status in the group.
Boots shoved her violently aside as he scrambled out and slammed the door. The weight in the truck shifted as Alpha slid to sit above her, his legs carefully braced around her huddled body. The far door slammed as Boots clambered back in, taking no more care of her legs than he had of her head. She was too grateful that her skull and torso were protected now from Boots’ vindictive steel-caps to care that she hadn’t been released.
Alpha spoke again. “Drive.”
It seemed like hours before the tires crunched to a halt on gravel. Clare stiffened. Were they at their final destination? Stomach acid threatened and she swallowed it back. Now was no time to let fear bare its teeth. She flexed her limbs, warming them up for what was to come. A few shallow breaths later, both rear passenger doors opened and the two men got out.
She didn’t wait to be asked.
Like a swimmer off the block, she fired out the door, hurling back the blanket and sucking in a lungful of hot, dusty air. She narrowly missed slamming into one of the men and lost valuable seconds changing course to leap around him. Pins and needles sliced through her feet as she lurched—half-blinded by the rich African light after her long, dark confinement—past the truck with her beloved dogs and up the rocky track.
Surprised voices shouted in three languages behind her. Just as she wondered whether escape was going to be that easy, a steady thumping grew close behind and powerful arms closed effortlessly around her.
“Oh, no you don’t…” Alpha.
She roared her frustration, twisting in his grip and firing off every obscenity her father had brought home from Boston’s dockyards. Alpha lifted her off the ground with ease, pinning her face-out against his hard chest in a rock python’s grip. He smelled like sweat and work and…man. She’d take the stench of wild dogs any day. Her heart pounded with rage, but as she writhed backward, her head slammed onto his shoulder and, just for a moment, her ear moved in range of his lips.
The word breathed against her ear, playing with the hairs on her neck. There was a warning in his tone, but no threat. The tiniest part of her terrified mind grasped that. He repositioned her more securely against him, tossing her like a child in his arms, and walked back toward the vehicle—a traditional African bakkie, three quarters rust—that was surrounded by her captors.
And she got her first good look at them all.
The skinny ginger-top started to laugh and her gut turned. Boots… Bastard. On the far side of the bakkie, a giant African stared out into the veldt like this was all too boring. Walking toward her was a blond man, average build, carrying the filthy blanket.
“Here,” he said, raising the hessian up to toss over her. Nothing distinct, nothing memorable. The voice of every man she’d met in Johannesburg. She called this one Jo.
“No, leave it.” Alpha’s words reverberated in his chest where she was crushed against him. “She smells bad enough. Plus, she’s seen us already.”
Jo stepped back and nodded to someone beyond her view. She craned her neck and got a flash of a bald head behind the wheel of the transporter—the fifth man—before Alpha pushed past the others, straight toward a dilapidated farmhouse. Opening the door single-handedly, he bundled her through the kitchen and into a half-cleared out store-room, lined with louver windows. He dumped her on the weathered floorboards.
Peeling her watch off and pocketing it, he fixed her hands behind her with lengths of cable-tie. As soon as he was done she coiled and backed up hard against the wall, urgently assessing him.
There was no way she was getting past him. Those shoulders spoke of strength she couldn’t match and he’d already outrun her without so much as breaking a sweat. Clearly the man was fit—and used to working outdoors, judging by his even tan and battered boots. She pushed thick hair back from her sticky face, wiping her sweaty hands on cargo pants already soiled from a morning full of dog handling.
Storm-grey eyes swept over her thoroughly, slowly. “You look like a wild creature yourself. What’s your name?”
She glared at him.
A dangerous smile curved his lips. “I know you speak English, because you swear like an Irish guard. Again, what’s your name?”
Clare doubted even her Da would have used the word she spat back at him.
The smile chilled. “Tell me your name.”
An old joke from vet school fought its way into her mind. “Ana.”
Her chin went up defiantly. “Phylaxis.”
The smile disappeared along with all the air in the room as he stepped farther into it. She couldn’t help but stumble back.
“Well, Ana Phylaxis, here’s the rules.” He held up three work-roughened fingers. “One: you don’t try and break out of here. We’re in the middle of big-cat country and you wouldn’t last ten seconds outside the gates without a vehicle or a weapon.”
“Two: you don’t pump us for information. In fact, it would probably be best not to speak to us at all unless spoken to. Three: do what you’re told, keep your mouth shut, and don’t even try to play us against each other. You may look good enough to eat, but believe me when I say you absolutely do not want to go there.”
“And in return?” She twisted shaking fingers behind her back. As if she was in any position to negotiate. Her hammering heartbeat fell into sync with the fast thrum of the bush-chenje outside.
His eyes hardened and Clare wondered if his long, considering silence was supposed to lull her into a false sense of security—like the sway of a cobra. “In return I’ll do my best to make sure you get out of here alive.”
Her mouth dried up. His best. Meaning it wasn’t likely.
But she had to know…
“Wait,” she cried as he reached the doorway, his back straight and inflexible. Cold, grey eyes turned back, pinning her, and she took a deep breath. “What are you going to do with my dogs?”
Something flitted across his shielded eyes. Disappointment. Anger. A strange kind of regret. He stepped closer and his His lip curled. Her eyes fixated on it.
“Rule number two. Don’t do it again.”
And then he turned and slammed the door firmly in her face.