Authors: Catherine Palmer
Tags: #Inspriational, #Suspense
And he’d called her
Oh, she wished this whole crazy thing would be over— God’s will or not.
Graeme looked over his shoulder at the woman trying her best to match his stride on the narrow road. He knew he should slow down, but the sun was setting fast, and he needed to find shelter. One more day and the Land Rover would have gotten them to Timbuktu. Now it was impossible to know how long the trek might go on—if they could even manage to stay ahead of the Tuareg.
“You said you’d tell me more about the Tuareg,” Tillie said. Her train of thought startled him with its similarity to his own. “Would you fill me in now?”
He walked on in silence a few paces before speaking. “What do you want to know?”
His tone of voice was anything but encouraging. “Everything.”
“I’ve spent almost two years working on this case. If I told you everything I knew about the Tuareg, it would take a month.”
“Case? Are you working on a case? You never told me that.”
“You never asked.”
“Whom do you work for?”
“I thought you wanted to know about the Tuareg.”
“I want to know whom you work for!”
“I’ll tell you about the Tuareg.” He kept his eyes on the path. “The Tuareg are a nomadic race. They live in flattopped tents made out of sheepskin or cowhide. They measure wealth by the number of dromedaries they own, and they increase their wealth by stealing them.
in Arabic means ‘abandoned of God.’”
“Nobody’s abandoned by God.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
“Maybe you’re not. But I am.”
“You haven’t met the Tuareg.”
“Oh yes I have—the one on the white camel. It doesn’t matter what people do or how they live. God’s love never abandons us.”
He gave her a sideways glance. “Always been this naive, Mat?”
“It’s called faith. Believing even though you don’t have proof.”
“I’d call it chuckleheaded.” He could hardly fathom that a woman who had her feet planted in the firm soil of science and logic would give any credence to the implausible hocus-pocus of religion. He had no doubt that God had set the world spinning. However, he was equally convinced that, having done so, God had abandoned his creation to its own fate long ago.
“Let’s say someone does something bad to you,” he proposed, deciding to toy with her a little before his rational arguments devoured her. “I mean really bad. Are you going to stick around?”
“All right,” she jumped in. “Let’s imagine you’re a father, and your son . . . oh, what’s the worst thing you can think of? Maybe your son uses illegal drugs or robs people or . . . what? What’s the worst thing a son could do?”
Graeme felt his throat tighten. “Kill someone.”
She nodded. “Say your son kills someone. Are you going to abandon him? Are you going to stop loving him? Are you going to deny that he’s your son?”
“Of course not. Anyway, God doesn’t. He loves us too much.”
“You sound awfully sure of that for someone who’s tramping toward the desert with a band of Targui chasing her.”
He watched a smile play around her full lips. “I wondered about it, you know,” she said softly. “It’s not like I wasn’t scared when the
grabbed me. But then I remembered I’m never walking alone. I will fear no evil.”
So much for logic.
As they went on in silence, Graeme watched the sun go down for the second day along the Niger. Another black night was coming on, and he wondered where they could rest without the protection of the Land Rover. Tillie might fear no evil, but he knew enough to be wary. They would need a place safely away from the river but close enough that they could find their way back to the road in a hurry if the need arose. Which it just might.
Behind him, the woman trotted to keep up with his long strides. What good was reason in the face of blind trust? All the same, something about her wide-eyed gullibility drew him. To his surprise, he found himself wanting to take care of her. Protect her. Maybe he was getting soft in the head. Or maybe just being near a woman had stirred something inside him. Some buried tenderness. When he listened to her talk, her voice soft yet confident, he half wanted to believe in her version of God himself. Crazy.
Better to concentrate on things he was certain of. Like the Tuareg.
“Did you know the Tuareg call themselves ‘the people of the veil’? They’re Moslems, but most of them aren’t very religious. They use sand rather than water for their ablutions. Timbuktu is their seasonal camp, and they don’t venture much farther south. Certainly not into Bamako. They spend four months a year on the river before heading into the desert.”
As he said the last words, he turned off the rutted road toward a tangle of thorny brush, tamarinds, and tall grass.
This would have to do.
Tillie followed Graeme into the brush, slapping at the mosquitoes that danced around her head and arms.
“Where are you going?” she called after him. She tried to keep up, but she was forced to stop several times to yank her skirt free of thorns. “Graeme?”
Just as she was certain she had lost him in the darkness and brush, she spotted a spark of light deeper in the tangle. She pushed through to it—and caught her breath. The heavy growth had indicated a stream—a tiny tributary just beyond the edge of a small glade. Crouched over a small fire, Graeme looked up at her.
“Ready for a banana?”
She stepped into the clearing. “Frankly, I could eat a horse right now. But a banana will do.”
Graeme dragged a couple of battered bananas out of his knapsack. “If you want to wash up first, I imagine the stream’s fairly clean.”
Tillie looked down at her scratched and bitten legs. Her hair hadn’t been combed for almost two days now, and it was tangled with small twigs and burrs. Her cotton skirt hung tattered and her sleeveless blouse gaped at the neck. “Do you have a comb I could borrow?”
He stood and stretched. The hem of his shirt lifted as he flexed his arms. Tillie tiredly watched his biceps bunch up like a pair of coconuts and then relax. He leaned over and rummaged through his sack again. “Here,” he said, tossing her a small black comb.
Too thankful for the comb and the promise of water to be bothered much about clean clothes, she walked through the brush to the nearby brook. Sitting by the water, she took the pins and rubber bands out of her tangled hair. She had always worn it long because Hannah had never wanted to cut it. In fact, all three Thornton sisters had long hair in various shades of blonde and red. Hannah had taught them to braid, and from that time Tillie had never been without her thick, straw-colored plait.
Just as she did every morning, she worked her hair loose through her fingers and began to comb it—strand by tangled strand, front to back. When she had finally unknotted the last piece, she leaned over the stream and scooped a double handful of water to splash over her gritty face.
“Maybe this would help.”
Graeme’s voice startled her into dropping the water.
Unnoticed, he had slipped up beside her to the bank. He dipped a cloth into the stream, wrung the fabric out, and spread it in his hand.
“Allow me,” he whispered.
She drew back. “Really, I—”
“You always this skittish around men, Mat?”
“No, I’m . . . I’m engaged . . . sort of, and I don’t think . . .” She caught her breath as his fingers brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead and he ran the cold cloth across her cheek. “I don’t think—,” she repeated, slightly dazed.
He smiled lazily. “I don’t think it’s going to matter.”
Watching him as he wiped her face, Tillie became aware of her shallow breath and thudding heartbeat. His eyes were luminous, almost gentle. The rigid line had melted away from his mouth, leaving his lips pliant and compelling. This Graeme was not the hardened man who snapped at her and slammed his fist into nonfunctioning Land Rovers. Neither was this the rogue who had wheeled around the corner and rescued her from a blue-veiled Targui.
This was someone she’d never met.
“Who are you?” she murmured.
“Who do you think I am?”
“I don’t know. One minute you’re telling me I’m useless to you, then you’re threatening to turn me into crocodile bait, then you’re walking off into the desert without me. And now here you are washing my face.”
“Something wrong with that?”
“I’ve never met anyone like you.”
He was silent a moment. “I’ve never met anyone like you.”
She pulled back from his hand as it rested against her cheek. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you plant trees at the PAAC research station in Bamako. I know you’re engaged to some English guy. Sort of.”
“He asked me to marry him. So I’m engaged.”
“Not unless you said yes.”
“I haven’t had time yet! Look, Arthur Robinson is a good man. He’s moral, and he has a solid, respectable job, and he’s . . . he’s very . . . very . . . nice.” The word sounded anemic, even to her own ears.
“Does he take care of you when you’re scared?”
Her eyes flashed. “I’m not scared.”
“You should be. You’re in a fine mess. But you shouldn’t be scared of me.”
“Then why won’t you tell me who you are?”
Abruptly, Graeme stood to his full height and walked back toward the fire. Following close on his heels, Tillie stared at his broad back.
“You know who I am,” he said.
“No, I don’t. Why are you in Africa? What do you do for a living? Why have you been chasing that document?” A thought suddenly hit her . . . powerful and undeniably logical. “You’re not one of those book thieves, are you? Stealing rare old manuscripts from the library in Timbuktu and then selling them on the European black market?”
Graeme studied the ground. “You know about those books?”
“Arthur told me.” She crossed her arms, pinning him with a disgusted look. “This is great! Just great! I’m traveling across the desert with a kidnapper and a thief!”
He hunkered down beside the fire and pulled a banana from the stalk. “I’m Graeme McLeod,” he said, his voice barely audible below the chorus of night insects. “I’m not a thief; I’m a writer. Freelance. I work on grants from various places, among them the British Museum,
, and the Smithsonian.”
Her eyes narrowed in disbelief. “A writer? Where’s your notebook? your computer?”
Graeme peeled a long strip down his banana. “My stuff ’s in the knapsack.”
Tillie didn’t know whether or not to believe him. He certainly didn’t look or act anything like a writer, at least by what little she knew of writers. “And you came all the way to Mali to find out about the Mungo Park rumor.”
“Because the British Museum is paying me to.”
“Because the museum and I are interested in Mungo Park.”
Tillie shook her head in frustration. He was the most confusing and irritating man she had ever met. With his propensity for talking in circles, she wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he was a politician.
“I’m interested in Park for a lot of reasons,” Graeme explained quietly. “I grew up on stories about him. My mother was from Scotland. Mungo Park is my ancestor.” He stopped speaking for a moment as Tillie absorbed this news. “My reason for being here in Mali,” he went on, “is to find out what happened to him. Mungo Park disappeared without a trace. He left a wife, Ailie, and several children.”