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Authors: Catherine Palmer

Tags: #Inspriational, #Suspense

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BOOK: A Kiss of Adventure
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A man like Graeme . . . who lied . . . who had grabbed her off the streets for his own purposes . . . who was probably up to something illegal. . . . She didn’t know a thing about him that appealed to her. And she didn’t want to.

If only this metal floor weren’t so hard. After being dragged alongside a loping dromedary, pulled nearly in two, and tossed headlong into a speeding Land Rover, her entire body felt bruised and stiff. Her shoulders ached, and a knot had lodged at the back of her neck.

“Here, put this blanket under you.” He tossed it over the seat. “You’ll rest better.”

She rolled onto her knees, spread out the blanket, and lay down again. She didn’t look at him—not more than a glance. He was big and his knees jutted up toward the Land Rover’s roof. This wasn’t right. Not that she would ever let the man touch her. It just didn’t feel right.

“Better?” he asked.

“Thanks.”

“Sweet dreams.”

“You, too.” She shut her eyes, and though she prayed hard, sleep didn’t come for hours.

Graeme stared up at the black ceiling of the Land Rover. He preferred stars. He preferred silence. He preferred being alone.

Not that the woman behind him wasn’t attractive. What man in his right mind would resent the company of a long-legged blonde with bright blue eyes and a smile that could melt butter? From what he could tell, she had a keen intellect, too, and a spirit of adventure to go with it. Africa didn’t beckon the timid.

He glanced over the seat back at the sleeping figure of the woman he’d thrown bodily into his vehicle that afternoon. She must be tougher than she looked. He’d expected her to burst into tears, hand him the document, and beg to be taken to safety. Instead she had argued with him, tricked him, threatened him, and bullied him.

He liked that in a woman.

His grin died as her boyfriend’s image floated into his mind. Old Arthur probably liked it, too. The guy had nearly shot the Targui to save her. A stupid move like that would have gone over great with the Malian government. Graeme could see the newspapers plastered with it now. Love could do strange things to a man.

Not that Graeme would know. He lifted a hand to the open side of the Land Rover and traced the denuded silhouette of the baobab tree with a finger. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in pursuit of a female. His research had taken all his time and energy in the past few years, and he’d been more than happy to lose himself in his quest. Things with women didn’t work out well for him. Never had.

Of course, when you took into account what he’d grown up with, it was no wonder. That was fine, too. He didn’t need people around. Didn’t like them. Especially women.

Now he had this blonde lioness tagging along. Her presence would attract the Tuareg like a swarm of bees to a frangipani tree. Any man with an ounce of sense would hand her back to her boyfriend at the first opportunity. Graeme McLeod had never had to be responsible for anyone but himself. And why should he? He’d taken care of his own needs for as long as he could remember. That was enough.

He hunkered up on one elbow and looked again over the seat at the sleeping woman. She could be trouble. Already was, in fact. He studied the long braid that curled down her arm. Moonlight painted it a pale, lustrous gold. Gold. Like the treasure of Timbuktu. He gently picked up the hank of long hair and weighed it in his palm. Soft, heavy, it was warm from the contact with her skin. He held it to his nose and shut his eyes. How long since he’d been this close to another human?

The treasure of Timbuktu. What was it? She had asked him that evening. Just as he’d asked himself a thousand times before. He didn’t know.

But the scent of her golden hair tugged at him more surely than the promise of all the treasure in Timbuktu.

His eyes flew open at the realization, and he dropped her braid as though it had stung him. Sinking back onto the Land Rover’s cramped seat, he crossed his arms over his chest and stared out at the baobab tree.

THREE

A jingling sound disturbed Tillie, and she rolled over. She heard voices . . . low male voices murmuring, conferring. A branch broke. Coming fully awake, she listened to the sounds from the edge of the clearing.

“Graeme?” she whispered.

Nothing. The Land Rover was empty. As a prickle of alarm slid down her spine, she sat up. “Graeme?”

He opened the Land Rover door. “Mornin’, glory.”

“Where were you?” She looked into his eyes. Blue-green in the morning light, they were soft, almost gentle. “I—I thought I heard something.”

“Sleep well?” He climbed into the front seat, put the key in the ignition, and turned toward her.

“Sort of.”

“You wiggled.”

“You snored.”

He grinned. She let her focus dart from his eyes to his powerful arms and back to the mane of dark hair framing his face. How could anyone look so fresh at this hour of the morning? Brushing awkwardly at her tangled hair, she realized how dirty and stiff she felt. The blue cotton skirt she had ironed the morning before was now creased into a hundred wrinkles, and her sleeveless blouse had lost a button.

“Well,” she said, coughing slightly. “I guess you didn’t hear anything then? Back there—”

“I heard ’em, all right.” He peered through the brush toward the road they’d driven down the day before. “Camels.”

“Camels?” Tillie gasped. “Tuareg!”

“Time to catch the school bus.” Graeme turned the key, put the Land Rover in gear, and sped out of the clearing onto the track just ahead of the long parade of camels. The fearsome blue-veiled figure atop the largest camel drew his sword, shouted, and spurred the caravan toward the vehicle.

“Here they come!” Tillie shouted over the rattle of the Land Rover’s wheels. “Go!”

“I’m going.”

“Can’t you drive any faster?”

“This baby’s doing good to get up to forty.”

“Forty! What kind of a vehicle only goes forty?”

“This one. Get up here, and tell me what our pals are up to.”

She clambered into the front seat beside him and peered past his shoulder as the gaily decorated camels slowly receded in the trailing dust. Their veiled drivers continued to shout and brandish swords that glinted pink in the early light.

“They’ve fallen back, but they’re mad,” she told him. “And they know they’re on the right track.”

“No doubt about that one. We’ll have unwanted company all the way to Timbuktu.”

Chewing at her lower lip, Tillie realized that although the Land Rover outdistanced the camels, the road had narrowed into a single rutted lane. She glanced at the gas gauge. Less than half a tank. She’d seen a gas can bolted to the rear of the Land Rover, but could they get far enough ahead of the Tuareg to have time to make use of it?

The muddy Niger also took on a new look. Its normally placid flow had churned into bubbling white rapids. The shallow water rushed over glass-smooth stones and swirled into pools dug by spinning pebbles. “Hand me a banana, Mat,” Graeme shouted as he drove.

“Mat?”

“Matilda, right?”

“Tillie.”

She reached over the seat, pulled two bananas from the bunch, and handed one to Graeme. Then she leaned back, peeled her breakfast, and tried to keep her thoughts as far as she could from the man beside her. It was impossible to talk over the roar, which was too bad because conversation would have distracted her. As it was, she had the dubious privilege of being able to study her companion at length— something she refused to do! She didn’t want to waste any energy dwelling on an adventurer who courted danger and was probably up to no good.

Better to think about her neem trees. She was sure the small staff PAAC had employed for her could look after them. Still, it bothered her to be away.

Mat.
What kind of a dumb nickname was that? Better than Matilda, anyway. She wished Arthur wouldn’t call her that. Even
darling
got on her nerves. Mat. It made her sound tough. Spunky. Bold.

Never mind!
she scolded herself, realizing where her thoughts had drifted again.
You have more important things to figure out.
Such as how to get word to Hannah and Arthur, what to do if the Tuareg got their hands on her, and what the writing in the amulet meant.

Mornin’, glory,
he’d said to her. She sort of liked that. As though she were a flower. A growing thing. She liked the way he’d smiled at her, too. Calm and assured, even though he’d already seen the camels. Even though she looked like a dust mop on a bad day.

Tillie’s relentless thoughts drifted from her banana to his hands. His long fingers spread over the steering wheel, and he worked the rattling gearshift expertly. He had rolled his window down, and his hair blew away from his face, revealing the hard planes and angles. How had he broken his nose? Why did he always grit his teeth? She could see the dust settling on the ends of the long black lashes that framed his deep-set eyes.

Where had this man come from? What had brought him to Africa? The amulet, of course. The journal of Mungo Park. The treasure of Timbuktu. But why did he look so comfortable here? So much more at home than Arthur.

At the thought of her almost-fiancé, Tillie shook herself mentally.
Will you stop already? The best thing you can do about Graeme McLeod is ignore the man!
Sufficiently chastised, she settled back in her seat, determined to follow her own counsel.

They drove without speaking, and Tillie watched the rapids melt away and the river return to placid brown.

Finally, Graeme pulled the Land Rover to a stop and broke the quiet. The sun had passed its zenith and was lowering in the west, and the rays filtered through the dust settling around the vehicle. “It’s time to eat and gas up,” he said. He reached behind him, opened a box, and took out two more bananas.

Tillie mentally groaned in hunger, but she said nothing as he offered her one.

“Banana?”

“Thanks.” She began to peel. “Graeme, I’m glad you’re taking me to Timbuktu instead of . . . well, what I mean is, I’m thankful for the Land Rover. I don’t think I’d do too well on a camel.”

“You’d be fine on a camel.” He smiled at her. “The skirt might be a little awkward.”

“I guess it would.”

Tillie took another bite and looked out the window, suddenly uncomfortable. Though there was nothing overly personal in the comment, the look in his eyes had held a warm awareness. All she’d intended to do was thank him, not draw his attention to herself. That was the last thing she wanted.

In fact, she told herself stubbornly, at this moment what she wanted most was a good hot meal and a warm bed. At home. With Hannah. Surrounded by security and safety.

Are you sure?
a soft voice within her inquired, and she shifted uneasily in her seat. Of course she was sure! And yet . . . she couldn’t deny that the escape that morning had done more than startle her. She’d felt a rush of excitement when the Land Rover roared out of the clearing and she saw that they had outmaneuvered the
amenoukal
.

“I’m glad you spotted the Tuareg this morning,” she said, trying to dispel the awkwardness of the moment. “I don’t know what they want with the amulet, but they’re sure determined.”

“What they want is the treasure.”

She studied him for a moment. “What do you want, Graeme? Are you after treasure, too?”

He inclined his head. “Of a sort.”

“What sort? You told me you’ve been tracking this down for more than a year.”

“I have. And I’ll get it. No matter what.”

“No matter what? No matter if someone gets hurt? No matter if you have to do something illegal? No matter what happens to me?”

His profile hardened. “Those are not my primary concerns right now. I’ve got to get to Timbuktu before the Tuareg do.”

Tillie stared at him. “So you don’t care whether I’m safe or not?”

“You’re safe.”

“But you don’t care. I don’t know where the treasure is, so I’m useless to you, right?”

“You’ll slow me down.”

“Wait a minute.” Tillie flung the banana peel to the floor. “You mean if I’d been outside the Land Rover this morning and the Tuareg had gotten too close, you would have driven off without me? You’d have left me there?”

“Hold it, now!” Graeme shot her a frowning glance. “Where’d you get that idea?”

“That’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever heard. If I inconvenience you, you’ll just go off and leave me.”

“Inconvenience me? No. However, if you continue to get on my nerves . . . ,” he growled.

“If I slow you down, you’ll leave me in the desert. You’ll let the Tuareg have me.”

His scowl deepened. “Right now, I’d consider personally feeding you to a crocodile,” he snapped, throwing his own banana peel into the paper sack behind him. Without another word he threw open the door and stomped outside. Turning in her seat, Tillie watched as he lifted the spare container of gasoline from its bracket and emptied it into the tank. He was blazing mad—hotter than the afternoon sun beating on her back.

Maybe she’d been wrong to question him. Maybe she’d judged him unfairly. Hannah had certainly warned her not to be judgmental if she didn’t want to be judged herself.

Graeme stormed back to the Land Rover, climbed in, and turned the key in the ignition. The Land Rover sputtered to life, then coughed and died. He pumped the gas pedal several times, then tried the key again. Nothing.

As he pounded the steering wheel, Tillie decided she’d better not criticize his motives again. She had no idea where he stood in this entanglement with the Tuareg—and if Arthur was close on their heels, it wouldn’t be long before she could turn the whole mess over to him and the government.

Until then, it seemed much wiser not to further antagonize the man who, for the present, held her safety in his hands.

“Great. Just great.” Graeme ground his teeth. Turning the key now caused only a useless whirring under the hood.

“What’s wrong with it?” Tillie asked.

“How should I know?” he snapped. “The temperamental thing has done this to me over and over. Slide over here and start it when I tell you to.”

She watched as he opened the hood to pour a little gasoline into the carburetor. His faded shirt flapped open in the breeze, and he wiped a greasy finger on his jeans.

“Now!” he yelled. “Crank her up.”

She turned the key, and the Land Rover whined down to nothing, like the last sobs of an exhausted, crying child. She groaned.

Disgusted, he slammed down the hood and strode to the back of the vehicle. She turned to find him stuffing blankets and bananas into an old army-green knapsack.

“What are you doing? Aren’t we going to try to start the Land Rover again?”

“The Land Rover’s dead.” He slung the pack onto his back. “We’re on foot now. I suggest you get ready to do some walking.”

“But that’s crazy! The
amenoukal
will catch up to us if we don’t have the Land Rover.” She scanned the barren countryside. “Maybe there’s a village around here with a mechanic or something. . . .”

Graeme looked up and shook his head. “This is the edge of the Sahel. There’s no mechanic from here to Algeria. This buggy needs a new starter, and we sure aren’t going to find one out here.”

Tillie swallowed the dry lump in her throat and frowned down at her wrinkled skirt. Thorny seeds in the zak grass made her leather sandals impractical. Wistfully, she thought of the white tennis shoes parked in her closet in Bamako. Worse than the sandals, though, was the fact that she didn’t have a hat. Without one, she’d burn to a crisp.

She eyed the supplies in the back of the Rover. How could they carry enough water for both of them? And what if the Tuareg—

Her frantic thoughts were disturbed by the sound of stomping footsteps. She looked up in time to see Graeme disappear around a clump of bushes beside a bend in the river.

Well! He was gone. He really had left her. She could go where she wanted now. Of course, there was only one path to Timbuktu, and it followed the course of the Niger River. The
amenoukal
was on the path, certainly not far behind. And Arthur was surely on it, too. If she stayed here . . .

The image of climbing a tree and hiding until it all blew over inserted itself in her brain. Safety. Security. Escape. Why not? It was crazy to think God had sent her into this mess. A loving God wouldn’t allow such a thing. Would he?

No. Of course not. There was nothing for her to hold on to out here at the edge of the desert. She had no weapon. No food. No one to guide her but a renegade who would abandon her—make that
had
abandoned her—at the first opportunity.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses.”
Hannah’s voice washed over Tillie like a spray of warm water.
“But we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

Squeezing her eyes shut, Tillie swallowed at the knot in her throat.
Trust in the Lord.
She doused her doubt with the comforting words of Hannah’s verse and gradually felt her heart grow calm again.

Okay, Lord. No chariots, horses, or Land Rovers. I will trust in the name of the Lord my God.

Breathing a prayer for safety and guidance, she grabbed the last bunch of bananas and a ragged blanket and jogged after Graeme. As she rounded the bushes, she saw him standing on a grassy knoll a few yards away. He watched her approach, his mouth drawn into a tight line.

Surprise tumbled down her spine like spilled marbles. “I didn’t expect you to wait.”

“I didn’t expect you to come.”

She stopped to catch her breath. “I’m here.” She blinked at the sweat stinging her eyes and brushed her thick braid over her shoulder. “Believe me, there are a thousand places I’d rather be right now, but I know I have no choice but to go with you.”

“I’m flattered.” Graeme turned and strode down the knoll.

Tillie walked beside him, her skirt picking up prickly zak seeds and her sandals catching in the tufts of grass growing along the river’s edge. Curse her careless tongue! She hadn’t meant to offend him. After all, he’d been nothing but civil to her. He had saved her from the
amenoukal
. He had fed her, given her a place to sleep.

BOOK: A Kiss of Adventure
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