Authors: Candice Proctor
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Erotica
Standing beneath the sheltering overhang of the cliff face, Jack squinted up at the sky. The rain had stopped, but the world still rang with the splash and drip of running water. It looked as if it had rained for a hundred years, he thought, rather than a mere thirty or forty minutes. The path snaking its way down through the soggy, dripping tangle of green was a quagmire of mud and slippery rocks, and the air still held a definite chill. Then the sun broke through the parting clouds, and the dark wet rocks around them began to steam.
Swearing softly beneath his breath, Jack kicked off his boots and socks, unbuttoned his wet shirt, and pulled it off. He had his trousers half undone when India McKnight said, "
What are you doing?"
His thumbs hooked in his waistband, Jack looked up to find her watching him with wide, scandalized eyes. "What the hell do you think I'm doing? I'm taking off my bloody clothes. They're soaked."
She'd been bedraggled enough when he'd rescued her from the cannibals, with her blouse torn and her pith helmet gone and her hair coming down in stringy, sweat-dampened hanks. Now, drenched by the rain and smeared with wet sand from the cave, she had the rakish air of a shipwreck victim. Or maybe a guttersnipe. But she hadn't lost one iota of her starch. "And so you just strip them off? In public?"
He laughed out loud. "This isn't exactly Piccadilly Square." He pushed his trousers and smallclothes down over his hips. "There's a reason the natives on these islands run around bare-assed, you know. A wet man with clothes on is a hell of a lot wetter than a wet man with no clothes on, and a hell of a lot more likely to get sick." Hopping around on first one foot, then the other, he finally managed to peel the wet material off his legs.
When he straightened, it was to find her staring resolutely off over the dripping, vivid green leaves of the banyan tree below them. The color was high in her cheeks, her chest lifting with her labored breathing, her wet blouse clinging to her in a way that he couldn't help but notice. And he knew it again, that swift, unexpected, and totally unwanted surge of sexual awareness. She was not at all the type of woman who interested him. She was prudish and bossy and determinedly, aggressively virginal. But there could be no denying the effect she had on him, however impossible it was to understand. Dropping his arms so that his bunched wet trousers strategically covered the growing evidence of his wayward thoughts, Jack gave her a crooked, provocative grin. "If you had any sense, you'd strip off, too. Spread out on the rocks, that outfit of yours'll dry in no time. But you're looking at a long, cold night if you insist on keeping your clothes on."
She wrapped her arms around her chest, as if she was afraid he might try to take her clothes away by force. Or maybe she was just cold. "Some of us are made of sterner stuff than others."
"So that's what it is, is it?
With a sodden plop, he spread his trousers out on a nearby rock to dry. "And here I thought you were just being stubborn and stupid."
She swung to face him, her eyes narrowed, her magnificent breasts rising and falling with each agitated intake of air. "Stupid? Is that what you call decency? Prudence?"
Deliberately, Jack turned his back on her. "Prudence. Now, that's an interesting choice of words. What the hell do you think? That I'd be so overcome by lust at the sight of your naked body that I wouldn't be able to stop myself from ravishing you? Believe me, after twelve years of living in these islands, the sight of a naked woman doesn't even turn my head anymore. Besides—" He hung up his shirt in the golden rays of the setting sun, where the breeze would catch it. "You're not my type. I like women who like the way a man's body looks—the way it feels. Women who actually enjoy what happens when a man and a woman's bodies come together. Women who don't just lie back and think of England, and wait for it all to be over."
"What makes you think you know what type of woman I am?"
He threw a quick glance at her over his shoulder, and huffed a laugh. "Hell, just look at you, swathed in a bloody tartan skirt in the middle of a tropical jungle, with your collar buttoned up so high around your neck it's a wonder you don't choke."
"I'll have you know that my Expedition Outfit is imminently practical."
"Practical?" Bending over, he picked up a dry branch that had fallen beneath the overhang of the cliff, and looked around for more. "It's a wonder you don't have a heat stroke. There's only one reason a woman would wear a getup like that, and that's as a signal to men. It's like wearing a sign tattooed across your forehead that says,
Warning. Frigid virgin. Do not touch."
"Huh." She swept up a branch to add to the pile he'd been accumulating on the flat shelf of rock at the cave's entrance. "Just goes to show how much you know."
Forgetting he had a growing reason to keep his back to her, Jack straightened slowly, his gaze narrowing as he took in her heightened color. "Ho. What are you trying to tell me? That you're not a virgin?"
"That is none of your business," she said, and tossed him what he realized only in the last instant was a waterproof tin of safety matches.
He was so surprised he just managed to catch them out of the air. "Where the hell did these come from?"
She shook her hair out of her face in an unexpectedly feminine gesture, and gave him a slow smile. "I keep them in my knapsack. I'm
It was the first time Jack had seen her smile like that, and the effect it had on him was both unwelcome and potentially embarrassing, given his current state of undress. Swearing silently to himself, he crouched down beside the pile of firewood, one knee strategically raised to hide his crotch, and wondered how long it would be before he could comfortably put his bloody trousers back on.
It took a while, but he eventually managed to coax a sluggish flame from the damp wood.
"You're not worried someone might see the smoke?" she asked, coming to stand on the far side of the fire, her arms still wrapped around her chest.
Jack looked up, and shook his head. "If I know Simon, he'll have his men combing those lava tubes till dawn."
"And the cannibals?"
He added another branch to the growing flames. "I trade with all the mountain tribes, and the natives on the northern end of the island have been Christianized. Which means they now symbolically eat the son of God, rather than each other."
A shiver wracked her
frame, and she stretched her hands out to the blaze. She'd made an attempt at fixing her hair and brushing the worst of the mud and sand from her clothes, but she was still soaked to the skin. In the faint light of the fading day, her hands looked almost blue. Jack sat back on his heels, his gaze on the curve of her cheek, where a smudge of dirt stretched from her ear to the angle of her strong, square jaw.
"Why did you do it?" he asked suddenly.
"Run with me. You know as well as I do that if you'd hung back, I'd have had to let you go."
She kept her attention fixed on the dancing flames, her voice crisp and matter-of-fact. "Without me beside you, Captain Granger's men would have shot you."
"And you'd have cared?"
Slowly, she raised her gaze to meet his. "You saved my life. Twice. And even if one of those episodes was entirely your fault, it still seemed a shabby way to repay you, by letting you be killed. Even if you did deserve it," she added.
He laughed. Then the laughter died on his lips as he stared at her reflectively for a moment or two, thinking oddly and with no apparent connection that he hadn't noticed what a wide, full mouth she had, and that maybe he hadn't been wrong after all when he'd decided, after reading that book of hers last year, that he'd like this woman if he were ever to meet her.
India was cold. She was cold and she was wet and she was so hungry, her stomach kept growling. Sitting as close to the flames as she could without actually catching on fire, she slipped her notebook from her knapsack and subjected it to careful scrutiny. The edges of the pages were a bit wavy, but the waterproofed canvas had kept out the worst of the wet. She propped the book open beside her, the pages turned toward the fire.
"I guess if we run out of wood, we can always use that," said Jack Ryder.
India looked up. He sat cross-legged near the entrance to the cave, his back propped against a rock as he worked at doing something with a long stick. Much to her relief, he'd finally put his trousers back on, but he was still bare-chested, the fire and the setting sun combining to drench his smooth, tanned flesh in a deep golden light.
"Huh," she said, because she knew him well enough by now to realize that he was only trying to get a rise out of her. "Why not burn your clothes instead? You never seem to wear them, anyway." She thought about poor Captain Granger and his men, forced to strip and walk back to their ship in the nude, and then the cannibals with their mud-smeared black buttocks and pandanus penis purses. Her day had been bizarrely filled with naked male bodies. And it occurred to her, as she watched the muscles in Jack Ryder's upper arms and chest flex and bunch with each pass of his knife over the tip of the stick he was working on, that his male body was by far the most attractive she'd seen.
It was a thought that brought with it a strange inner clenching that stole her breath and lingered like a slow heat, low in her belly. Aghast, she comforted herself with the thought that such a primitive, physical reaction was to be expected, considering the savage environment in which they were stranded. She told herself her unwanted, scandalous interest in this man's hard, bronzed body was a natural result of her having seen—literally—so much of him in the last thirty-six hours. But as she watched his eyes narrow in amusement, watched a dimple appear, fleetingly, in one lean, tanned cheek, she knew she was only lying to herself.
"If you had any sense, you wouldn't still be wearing yours," he said, and so wayward were her thoughts that it took her a moment to remember they were talking about clothes.
She glanced away, more embarrassed by her own thoughts than by his words. "I will survive, Mr. Ryder."
"Oh, you'll survive, all right. But you might pick up a nasty fungus. They're bloody hard to get rid of in the tropics."
India knew a hollow sense of dread. They could be unpleasant things, tropical fungi.
"There was a missionary's wife over on Tanna who got a fungus on her foot," he was saying. "Ate up half her leg before—"
"I don't need to hear this, Mr. Ryder."
"Actually, I think you do."
India kept her gaze fixed on the darkening lowlands stretching away from the base of the mountains, to the north. A moment ago, the world had been awash in golden light. Now the sun was only a faint memory on the far horizon as the distant sea turned into a surging swath of pink-tinged silver, broken here and there by the dark ragged outline of faraway islands. In the trees below, a native nightingale began to sing, while all around them, a myriad of night-blooming flowers filled the air with an exotic medley of sweet scents. India sat very still, awed to silence by the beauty of the moment.
Jack Ryder broke it. "How do you expect to be able to write anything meaningful about the South Seas when you've never felt a tropical breeze on anything more than the bare skin of your face?"
"I have a very good imagination," she answered tartly, glancing back to where he still sat, doing whatever he was doing to that stick.
"Huh. You can imagine what you've never known, can you?"
"I have been cold before."
He let out a short laugh. "It's not cold. You're only cold now because you won't take off your wet clothes." He ran his hand up the stick to test the point. "I'll bet you didn't even take off your clothes the time you did it."
There was no mistaking which
he was referring to. She should have told him she had no intention of discussing anything so personal, and that if he were a gentleman, he never would have made such a remark. Instead she demanded, "How do you know it was only one time?"
He looked up then, the firelight gleaming in his dark eyes. "Well, you obviously didn't enjoy yourself. And if you didn't enjoy it, then why would you do it again?"
India stared at him, uncharacteristically bereft of speech.
"Well?" he said, going back to work on his stick. "Did you?"
"Did I what?"
"Did you take off all your clothes?"
"Of course not."
"I'm not having this conversation," India said, pointedly turning her back on him to stare off over the darkened treetops. The moon was full tonight, the sky so full of stars that the heavens glowed.
"I don't believe you even did it," said the hateful, irrepressible man behind her. "I mean, why would you?"
"Presumably for the same reason anyone does," she answered tartly, before she could stop herself.
"In my experience, people do it for one of two reasons: either out of a sense of duty, or because they succumb to passion. But since you've never been married—" He paused. "You haven't been married, have you?"
"Of course not."
"I thought not. So, since you obviously didn't do it out of duty, one would think you must have succumbed to passion. But people who succumb to passion usually take off all their clothes—unless they're so excited they're in too big of a rush, of course. But since you weren't excited, and you say you didn't take off your clothes, I'm wondering why you—"
"I was curious," she said, twisting around to face him again. "Is that so difficult to understand?"
"Yes, curious. Having made up my mind never to marry, I decided I wanted to see what
was like—so I'd know what I was missing. I decided I wouldn't be missing anything."
He stared at her for a moment, then let out a short bark of laughter. "Only you would approach something as sensually sublime as lovemaking as if it were a scientific experiment."
Sensually sublime. It wasn't an expression she would have expected him to use. But surprise
account for the strange, not unpleasant flow of liquidlike warmth his words sent coursing through her. "It wasn't a scientific experiment. It was..." India paused, chagrined. It might not have been scientific, but it had definitely been an experiment, of sorts.
"So, how was it?" he asked.
"I beg your pardon?"
He looked up, a slow smile curving his lips. He was really quite devastatingly attractive, in a rakish, dangerous way. "What was the result of the experiment?" he asked.
She kept her voice crisp, analytical. Detached. Everything she wasn't at the moment. "I found the entire episode unutterably boring." And embarrassing, she thought, although she didn't say that. "Frankly, I fail to understand either the attraction or all the hoopla surrounding what is basically a rather unpleasant and messy activity."
He reached to put away his knife, which she realized he wore sheathed in his boot. "So because you made the mistake of selecting a man who was a bad lover, you gave up on the whole thing, did you?" He stood, reaching his naked, well-muscled arms over his head in a lazy stretch that was both entirely natural and intensely, breathtakingly sensual. "Don't you think that was a bit hasty? Scientifically speaking, of course."
India stared up at him, her eyes narrowing against the smoke. "And what makes you so sure he was a bad lover?"
"You just said so."
"Yes you did. If he hadn't been a bad lover, you wouldn't have found the whole experience
You just didn't know he was a bad lover because you had nothing to compare him to." In one fluid motion, he bent to catch up the
he'd been sharpening and straightened to give her a slow smile. "Now, let's go catch some dinner, shall we?"
"I don't think we should stop yet, sir," said Alex, gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering.
Captain Granger turned, the makeshift torch in his hand sputtering and flaring to send ghoulish patterns of light and shadow over the gray rock face behind him. "The men are still wet from the rain, Mr. Preston, and it's damned cold in these caves. An officer must always remember to take into consideration the needs of his men."
Alex felt a flash of heat at the rebuke, yet couldn't stop himself from saying, "Ryder must be here somewhere."
"Then we'll find him in the morning, won't we?" The captain swung toward the cave's distant entrance. "Come, Mr. Preston. Your enthusiasm and determination are commendable, but one should never forget the importance of wisdom."
It was a direct order, however lightly he'd phrased it. Alex had no choice but to obey.
They camped for the night at the entrance to the lava tube. As soon as the fires were lit, most of the men stripped off completely, propping up their clothes on sticks to dry. Even Captain Granger undressed down to his smallclothes. But Alex removed only his jacket, although the rain had seeped through to the shirt beneath and his wet trousers chafed him painfully with each unwary movement. Just because one was in a jungle, he reasoned, and wet, was no excuse for indulging in conduct more befitting a savage than an Englishman.
But he'd been foolish to question the captain's decision to call off the search for the night, Alex realized, as he watched the tired, hungry men tear with gusto into the baked red mountain plantains and native oranges the captain had directed them to gather. With more seamen from the ship, they'd be able to search the warren of caves far more thoroughly, come morning. And in the meantime, Ryder wasn't going anywhere.
But when he ventured to say as much to Captain Granger, the other man only shook his head. "I don't intend to waste any more time searching these caves."
Simon Granger glanced up from tending the leaf-wrapped breadfruit he was baking in the coals of the fire. "Jack Ryder knew what he was doing when he ducked into that lava cave. Unless I miss my guess, he'll be halfway down the other side of this mountain before the sun's been up an hour."
"So you think we should continue to work our way around to the northern end of the island?"
Captain Granger busied himself with his breadfruit. "Tell me something, Mr. Preston: Where do you think he's going?"
"I don't think he has any real objective, sir. I suppose he hopes simply to hide out in the jungle until we give up and go away."
"Never make the mistake of underestimating your opponent, Mr. Preston," said the captain, raking the steaming package from the coals. "Believe me, Jack Ryder knows exactly where he's going."
Alex eyed the other man in disbelief. "And where's that, sir?"
unwrapped the steaming fruit with studied care. "As I understand it, the previous French commissioner was a good friend of Jack's—and no friend of the British," he added.
"But he's not there anymore?"
"No. No, he's not." Simon Granger handed Alex an unappetizing-looking lump of mush heaped on a broad leaf. "Here. Try this."
Alex wrinkled up his nose, and felt his stomach heave in warning. "I'd rather not."
"Try it," the captain repeated, more sternly.
Alex's gaze faltered beneath the other man's steady stare. "Yes, sir." His insides skittering in anticipation, Alex took a tentative nibble and realized, for the first time, why they called this unattractive lump breadfruit. "It's not bad," he said around another mouthful, as he suddenly remembered just how hungry he was. "Rather like toast." He took another bite. "Oddly crossed with new potatoes."
"Don't sound so surprised."
Alex looked up to find the other man smiling faintly. "Where did you learn to fix this?"
For one, brief moment, a sad, faraway light shone in the other man's eyes, before he hid it with a careful lowering of his lids. "Jack Ryder taught me."
The sharpened stick was a spear, India came to realize. Ryder used it to skewer a species of plump native fish as they came up to feed in a nearby moonlit mountain pool overhung with soft ferns and trailing vines of white flowering native jasmine and sweet laurel.
To her relief, he kept his trousers on, simply rolling them up to the knee before wading out bare-chested to a flat-topped rock, where he stood motionless yet utterly relaxed, eyes alert, spear poised high in a natural huntsman's posture that India, watching him, decided must be as old as time.
With a quiet ripple and a flick of its tail, a silver fish broke the surface. The muscles and sinews of the man's bare, sun-bronzed back flexed and lengthened. The crude spear shot through the air in a swift, clean strike. And India McKnight, watching fascinated and oddly humbled from the mossy bank, felt something quicken within her, a primitive and unwanted admiration of male beauty and grace and some other quality she could not quite identify but that had something to do with a strong, skilled male's ability to protect and provide nourishment for a female. Once, she would have scoffed
at the idea that she might find such a characteristic even faintly attractive. But the allure was there, powerful and subconscious and no less real for being innate.
"Where did you learn to do that?" she asked when he came to hunker down in the shallows and clean his catch.
"On Rakaia," he said, his attention all for his task. "It's an island near Tahiti."
"Is that where you lived with the cannibals?"
He looked up, the mingling moonlight and star shine limning the sharp bones of his face as he stared at her through dark, narrowed eyes. "Who told you I lived with cannibals?"
"Captain Granger." She held herself quite still, caught off guard by the intensity of his reaction. "He said you lived with cannibals for two years."
Jack Ryder went back to cleaning his fish. "The people of Rakaia haven't been cannibals for half a century or more."