Authors: Molly E. Lee
“This is insane. You can’t end things like this after almost ten years of working together. I should at least get a shot at earning the ratings again.” I blocked his exit, trying unsuccessfully to control the desperation in my voice.
He rotated the paperwork in his hands. “It would have to be something . . . epic, Easton. Something viewers would never expect or forget.”
I nodded, hope filling my chest.
“We wouldn’t be able to fund or insure the expedition. You’d have the entirety of that responsibility. I would also highly suggest going it alone.”
“What?” That hope slowly died with each breath I took. “You want me to work without my crew?” We’d been filming together for years. We knew each other’s moves, had the same thought processes. We were practically brothers. And that kind of trust was crucial in surviving the life-threatening expeditions we went on. Without trust, or familiarity, too many things could go wrong, and that was a recipe for getting seriously injured, or worse.
“I don’t want you to. I’m telling you, you have to. The show has already been dropped. If you can come up with something that not only makes viewers remember why they loved you in the first place but also kills the rumors about your having help, then maybe it will be enough to get your Thursday night slot back.”
I opened my mouth and closed it several times before speaking. “I can’t do it with just GoPros and hand-cams. Not entirely. I’d need someone there with a high definition, at least, in order to get the shots your people salivate over.”
“Just one, then. And it can’t be anyone from our corporation.”
I didn’t have friends outside of my crew, no one I trusted enough or was experienced enough to handle the extreme terrain. Except . . .
“An ungettable get, Easton. Don’t forget. It has to have the wow factor. Do you have something like that up your sleeve?”
Robert stared at me while my brain put the pieces together. Calculating survival scenarios was so ingrained in me it was part of my instincts now, absolutely second nature. The answer presented itself before I had time to toss it aside.
“Yeah, I think I do.” I sighed and stepped out of his way.
“You don’t sound too thrilled about it.” He paused in the doorway and placed a hand on my shoulder. “It’s just a job, Easton. Don’t go killing yourself over it.”
I shrugged off his hand. “That’s exactly what you pay me to do.”
He gave me a slight shake of his head and turned to leave, stopping just as he made it to the hallway. “You have two weeks before we prep the writers to fill the slot. One day over and I take back your second chance.”
I sank into the rolling chair I’d sat in moments ago, resting my head against the leather back. Two weeks would be enough, but only if I could get her to agree. That, and manage to overcome a fear that had chained me for years.
This was by far the stupidest thing I’d ever even
about doing, but there weren’t any other options. Viewers wanted more extreme, more obscure, and more dangerous. Well, I’d sat on one of the biggest finds in history for years, never sure I could conquer the caves again and survive. The physical and mental strain were enough to crush most men, but the history I had there . . . what waited in those dark depths had the power to crush any part of me that was still human. Sounded like a perfect recipe to get my viewers—and the funding for my endless array of hunts—back.
But first I had to convince Rain.
THE RED EARTH
was warm beneath my elbows as I laid on my belly, stretched to full capacity. I held my favorite Cannon EOC to snag a shot of the lioness and her cubs that padded up the makeshift path ahead of me. The tall grass had been worn down by the four by fours the guides used when taking tourists on sightseeing hunts for the big five—lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo.
The permits, which gave me full access to the national game reserve, sat snuggled in my pack next to me. My Jeep was parked beneath a camel thorn tree a little over four hundred meters back. I’d followed my favorite lion family on foot, as closely as I dared—which usually teetered on the edge of too close.
The cats enjoyed a lazy day in the bush. Their three cubs pounced at the grass as the soft breeze blew it in their faces, and I couldn’t help but see a few kittens tormented by an owner with a feather stick.
The lioness never let down her guard, as if her senses were always engaged and ready to spring into action the second she smelled anything not to her liking. I was thankful she never labeled me as a threat. I’d tracked them for weeks, snapping shots when the opportunity presented itself, and learned about their habits, tendencies, and dynamics. They were incredible creatures, strong and smart and fierce. Every time the father lion returned from his investigations and hunts farther in the bush than his family followed, I was reminded of how majestic they were. He never lowered his head, donning his alpha role well, and the way he was protective of the lioness and the cubs never ceased to amaze me.
I shifted my weight as quietly as possible, wishing my bones would quit aching. I’d been holding the position for close to six hours. The wait would be worth it, though. Any minute, if he kept to the routine I’d studied for weeks, Daddy would return to home base and I could finally catch the shots I so desperately wanted. The family dynamic that stirred my heart so much had eluded me—sometimes due to my lack of fast fingers and others simply lost because the father didn’t return until well after nightfall. Cutting my eyes to the right, the direction from where he usually returned, I silently pleaded that he’d come home early today.
Sweat dripped from my forehead, sliding down my nose in a slow, itchy roll. I held my pose, though, unwilling to risk the noise the movement would require. The cubs may remind me of kittens, but I wasn’t naïve enough to think I’d be okay if they got curious. An hour before sunset, I finally heard the sweet sound of heavy padded paws crunching the dry grass.
My heart raced, and I took a snail’s breath, shifting my eyes back and forth in order to gauge the distance between the family and the father. The lioness sensed him as well, for her once poised stance as she watched her cubs play switched to a strong confident gait toward him. He approached her with a raised head, his thick, tangled mane blowing slightly in the breeze. The cubs bounded and leaped after their mother, their balance not as steady as their parents.
The shot I’d waited weeks for was at the tip of my finger, and only a hundred meters
away. I started snapping, the camera’s click inaudible to the animals ahead of me. I had to get the buildup pictures in case
wanted to do a center spread with a frame by frame. The money shot was so close—the incredibly tender moment where the lion would greet the lioness with a compassionate nuzzle on top of her head, the cubs bouncing around his massive paws. I’d only witnessed it twice in my study of the family, but the wait, if I caught it, would be more than worth it.
I held my breath. They were only a few strides from each other.
A quick shift in tension between the lions startled me, their stiff bodies so unlike what I’d seen day after day during my time out in the bush. It only took a few seconds to know what put them on alert, and only five more for them to bolt in the opposite direction. I jumped to my feet, capturing their departure—capable of finding the beauty in their retreat as a singular family unit, their paws pounding the earth in a fury. They were out of eyesight before the loud four by four screeched to a stop next to me. I dropped my camera around my neck and wiped the sweat from my brow.
Beauty in the retreat or not, I was fuming as I stomped toward the white, topless Jeep. I recognized the guide, Mamello, who I had a good working relationship with. I respected the man, so I toned down my rage before I opened my mouth—but just barely.
“You have absolutely terrible timing, Mamello.”
He flinched at my sharp words, his hands raised in defense as he hopped out of the vehicle.
“Trust me. I told the fool we should wait until you returned to camp. He insisted time wasn’t available to waste.” His English was accented, but I was so used to it, I followed his words effortlessly.
The knowledge that it wasn’t Mamello’s fault only kicked my anger into higher gear. “Who’s the asshole who thinks it’s okay to cost me a shot I’ve waited weeks for?”
“Me.” The voice came from the other side of the Jeep, where I could only see the back of a man getting out of the vehicle. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see his face, his voice punched through my chest and stole my breath.
The same voice that had read to me by a campfire, the midnight sky endless above us, and Irish landscape beneath us. The same voice that had instructed me ruthlessly on how to throw a punch as we practiced near our home in Oregon. The same voice that had whispered in my ear how much he loved me.
He slowly came around to the front of the Jeep, his hiking boots kicking up a bit of red dust as he took a lean against the hood. He crossed his arms over a much more muscled chest than I remembered.
He was no longer the boy I’d loved and who had ripped out my heart. He was a
—an incredibly sexy man who apparently still had the power to make my thighs heat with just a look.
Not a chance in hell, girl.
“Easton Wells,” I said, popping my hands on my hips. “You just cost me my money shot.” I tossed my hand in the direction of where my lion family had run off.
His brown eyes, sharper than I remembered, scanned the area slowly before bringing them back to me. “I’m sure you’ve got plenty of money-worthy pictures in that camera of yours.”
Like he would know a thing about me. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I glanced at Mamello and he pushed off the Jeep. Mamello reached for the driver’s side door, but paused before getting in. “You okay, Rain? He said he was a friend.”
Well, the man still had a sack, calling me that. I took a deep breath and nodded. “Something like that.”
“You’ll get him back to camp, then?”
“Yes.” The answer was automatic, but the ache in my chest pondered the safety of allowing Easton to climb into my Jeep.
Mamello glanced at Easton with a look that clearly said he was happy he wasn’t him. Was my anger showing that much? I uncurled my hands, my fingers aching from the fists I’d had them in.
Easton made his way to where I still stood frozen, and then stopped when he was a foot away.
“You look good, Rain.” His eyes trailed my body, taking in the shorts and boots combo I’d donned this whole trip.
Damn. The man stood well above me, his six-foot-four frame filled out with hard muscles that stretched his white button-up shirt. Where was the boyish Easton who had fumbled the first time he’d unclasped my bra? Chills raced across my skin from the memory, and I swallowed hard.
“It’s been nearly ten years, Easton. You didn’t fly all the way to Dinokeng, South Africa, to tell me I look good.”
“Nine.” He pinned me with his gaze, and heat fluttered through my chest.
I shrugged, hoping he couldn’t see how quickly he’d gotten under my skin.
Had he ever left?
I instinctively rubbed the center of my chest, right where the hole he’d created had been since he’d left without a word all those years ago.
“How have you been?” He shifted his weight, and with how close he was to me, I could smell him. And he smelled just like I remembered—earthy, like the ground beneath us had been injected in a bar of soap, creating a crisp, fresh, and warm aroma.
I blinked hard, mentally telling my body to lock it up. Some strands of my ponytail had come loose and blew in my eyes, and I swiped them back. “Seriously?”
He sighed and rubbed his palms over his face. “I’m trying, Rain.”
I shook my head. “You’re
? After no word whatsoever for nine years? You know how hard I tried to find you after you first left? And now you want to . . . what? Talk?”
“Don’t. You can’t possibly think there is a way to apologize for leaving me after . . . after . . .” I couldn’t say the words. Nearly a decade and I couldn’t say the fucking words
after my father died.