Authors: V. K. Black
‘You said you’ve worked in restaurants at home. Are you a chef when you’re not working for Changpu?’
She shook her head, tensing. Any mention of Changpu, and she did that. Why? Had he hurt her? Threatened her? A murderous rage surged through him, as he pictured that slimy little bastard ordering some sort of punishment for Ariana. He’d only seen him once, at a restaurant in Hong Kong, surrounded by his lackeys. Changpu had felt Luke staring at him, and had paused, then smiled, raising his glass to Luke as if in salute to an honourable foe. Luke had bested him that time. ‘Ariana, does that bastard hurt you?’ he demanded.
‘No,’ she said, staring down at her hands and fiddling with her fingers.
‘Because if he does —’
What he saw clinging to the sleeve of her shirt hitched his Sir Galahad instincts up another notch. How was he supposed to deal with this? His mother used to go into hysterics at the sight of them. Every girl he knew back home would scream, especially at one so big. A locust, the length of his hand, brown, to match the bush it had crawled from.
As he spoke, Ariana glanced down at her sleeve. ‘Goodness! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a huge locust, have you?’ She delicately grasped the insect by its back, drew it off her sleeve, and flung it away. The locust flew in an indignant flutter of its large, wide wings, back to its tree. ‘What?’
This to him, as he stared at her in amazement.
‘Nothing,’ he said, grabbing up their gear. ‘Let’s go.’
An hour later, they stood staring up at the tall, narrow entrance of a cave. As they drank deeply from their water bottles, they glanced at each other. And he know she felt it too. The way she half smiled. The way her eyes sparkled. It was that thrill. That excitement that didn’t come from the big deals, which made Bob and his dad smile. It was more than the money, though that was important. Something beautiful that had been hidden by living, breathing men, long, long ago, lay a few short tunnels away.
Luke took out a torch and the map. The tunnels throughout the whole cave system were marked as simple red dots. ‘Okay, first tunnel on the left, then two more rights, then a left. Nothing to it, according to the map. You’re not scared of the dark, are you?’
Her every muscle tensed, and Luke wondered if his flippant remark had annoyed her. Then she turned to him, with a simple ‘No’. And he saw it and recognised it. She wasn’t annoyed. Sheer exhilarated joy shone out of her lovely eyes.
They entered the cave, and paused, getting their bearings, as the light immediately dimmed. The narrow entrance, which allowed in only a small amount of sunlight and fresh air, had given no clue to the size of the cavern in which they stood. He glanced around. There was only one way they could go, just as the map had said. Nudging Ariana, who was gazing about her, amazed, he walked toward the far end of the cavern, with her following closely behind. He heard her breathing deeply. He used to do the same once. That adrenalin rush played havoc with your oxygen levels if you let it. ‘Breathe slowly, Moonbeam,’ he advised her.
She sniffed. ‘Ariana.’
He smiled. He could tease her later. Her breathing eased.
They’d progressed further into the cavern by now, and the huge space had narrowed into a wide tunnel. The dim light diminished to darkness and he switched on his torch. The air smelt of earth. His torchlight picked out their surroundings. The hard granite walls and floor glistened and the cave’s roof sparkled high above them. Then he saw it up ahead. The first tunnel. He nudged Ariana, who had moved up next to him, and she nodded.
They took the left turn. Luke paused for a second, enjoying the total silence. They walked for maybe half an hour—it was hard to tell—towards the blackness that lay beyond his torchlight. Ariana’s smooth arms brushed his. Then the walls surrounding them narrowed. Reaching up, Luke touched the roof above his head. He trained the torch’s beam on the right hand side of the wall. Their second tunnel should be coming up soon.
‘Shit!’ His yelp of pain echoed through the cave. He’d hit his head on the roof.
‘Shh.’ Ariana grabbed his torch-carrying arm and pointed it at the wall. He’d nearly missed it. The second tunnel, its roof no higher than their knees.
‘Are you okay to crawl?’ Shining his light into Ariana’s pretty face, he couldn’t miss her eager smile and emphatic nod. ‘Great. Follow me.’
They got down on all fours and turned right into the narrow confines of their new tunnel. Looping the lanyard of the torch around his neck, Luke shortened the rope. The air smelt foetid. He whispered, ‘You okay back there, Ari?’
‘Uh huh.’ She was panting in the thin air, same as him.
He winced as the gravel scraped his knees and elbows, but couldn’t turn around to make sure Ariana was okay. But he knew she was there. Her breathing, and the occasional ‘ouch’ and ‘darn’ told him she was right at his heels. The torchlight flickered against the impenetrable dark in front of them. He tried to estimate how long they’d crawled for. Maybe another half an hour?
The next tunnel, illuminated by his unsteady torchlight, appeared up ahead. ‘Turning right, Moonbeam.’
He grinned. His light picked out the lowered roof up ahead. Damn. The backpack had to go. His heart was thumping now. Off this tunnel, to the left this time, lay the emeralds. The monks hadn’t let him down yet.
Behind him, Ariana sniffed.
His curse reverberated throughout the whole tunnel system, it seemed. The roof had dipped again. The walls had narrowed. The only option was to stretch out and lie flat on the tunnel’s hard, cold floor and crawl like a snake. The monks hadn’t mentioned that. Reaching his hands out in front of him, he was able to cling to the end of the torch with his fingertips, as he slithered forwards. Shit. The roof lowered still more. Some of the tunnel may have even caved in. His head might not fit through.
‘Ariana, it’s going to be a tight squeeze up ahead. I’m going to have a go. How are you going?’
‘Fine,’ she panted.
Luke smiled in the darkness. If he had to have one of Changpu’s girls along on this part of the adventure, he was glad it was Ariana. Mai Ling had been elegant and sexy, but she was designed for seven-star hotels. She would have freaked as soon as she’d smelled the dirt. None of the women he knew back in Australia would have done any better. They would have been in hysterical tears way before now. Probably around the locust point.
‘Luke? What are we waiting for?’
‘Sorry. Tally Ho.’
She giggled. Trust Ariana to understand a hunting call from about a hundred years ago. His grandfather used to say it.
With the tips of his fingers, he pushed his torch through the narrow space. The torch rolled to one side, out of sight. The sudden plunge into blackness shocked his senses.
Behind him, Ariana gasped.
‘We’re going to be fine, sweetheart. A few seconds more.’ Luke prayed she stayed strong, that she wouldn’t panic.
He needn’t have worried. She jostled his foot. ‘I’m fine. Go.’
Luke turned his head to one side to fit it through the narrow space between the roof and the floor, wincing as the roof’s rough surface scraped his ear. He pushed harder. His head squeezed through. The roof and walls clutched at him, trying to hold him back. He tried not to think about what would happen if the rest of him got stuck. Using every ounce of his strength, he pulled himself forward, inch by painful inch.
As soon as his feet followed his backside through that tiny space, his heart, which had been beating double time, slowed with relief.
‘I’m through!’ he called, retrieving his torch, which had wedged itself against the wall.
‘Great!’ came Ariana’s muffled reply.
The roof above his head disappeared and the tunnel widened. Luke crawled till there was room for two people, then he lay, struggling for air, and waited. Ariana’s petite body appeared through the tiny space, her blonde hair reflecting in the torchlight. He waited till her gasps for breath eased. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ she said, politely.
‘Good girl,’ he said, laughing.
The new tunnel opened up on their left. It was a small cave, not a tunnel. One more short, easy crawl. Luke’s wavering light illuminated a partly broken wooden box right at the back. When they arrived, they were able to sit up at last. Ariana’s warm body rested against his. He trained the torchlight on the box in front of them.
‘Ariana,’ he whispered, the air too thin and stale to speak louder. ‘Hold the torch.’
‘Okay,’ she breathed, and took it from him, shining the light down at his hands.
They glanced at each other, and at the exact same moment, they both grinned.
He opened the lid. A plump parcel of animal skin lay inside. He lifted it out and opened up the stiff folds.
Glittering back at him were his two perfectly matched emeralds.
Ariana and Luke stared at each other for long seconds. Awe, excitement, joy — she read all those things in his eyes. She read them easily, because she felt them too.
Then his eyes hardened. Right at the exact same time reality dawned on her. She’d loved every minute of today. The almost sickening excitement of crawling through that dark tunnel, not knowing what would come next. The thrill of finding something so valuable and old and beautiful. That feeling of camaraderie they’d shared.
But now they were back to business. She had to steal those emeralds and save Jason. Oh, and she owed Luke sex.
Dragging her eyes away from his, she said, with an attempt at nonchalance, ‘I guess we need to get back to the boat before dark.’
Luke nodded, then folded the animal skin carefully around the two beautiful gems, and stowed them in the pocket of his boardshorts. ‘Yeah.’
They crawled, in total silence, back the way they’d come.
When they finally emerged into the afternoon sunlight outside the mountain, she took a huge gulp of fresh air, but the humid heat, after the relative coolness of the tunnels, hit her like a sludgy cosh. ‘The swim back to the boat will be great, won’t it?’ she remarked inanely, wanting to break the awkward silence.
They started off toward the river. It was downhill this time, and easier going. ‘Thank goodness things cool down once the sun sets.’
He grunted this time. Could mean he agreed with her.
She knew she should shut up. His lack of communicativeness was annoying her, but she tried again, tossing over her shoulder as she slithered down a small hill, ‘What are we going to do tonight — I mean…’ Clamping her hand over her mouth, she felt herself flush. She sped up. Which was a mistake. Her feet slid from under her and she landed heavily on her bottom on the thick, wet grass.
Luke strode up beside her and helped her to her feet. ‘I know what you meant,’ he said harshly. ‘While we still have some sunlight, we’ll motor to where the two rivers meet and drop anchor. Then tomorrow, I’ll navigate around all those sandbanks.’
Wow, a whole speech.
Ariana nodded. Those blue eyes were so icy. Mr Intimidating sure was back with a vengeance. A wave of irritation washed over her.
Fine. You don’t trust me. Well that’s good, because you shouldn’t.
She kicked herself for getting all cosy with this man. Her only concern was Jason, which put Luke and herself on directly opposing sides.
Did he still want to have sex with her tonight? She glanced up at his frigid, hard face.
They reached the river and swam to the boat. Same delicious cold water. No smiles or yells this time. As she climbed aboard beside Luke, his eyes flicked over to her. Her T-shirt had ridden up over her bottom. Luke’s eyes lowered to her exposed thighs and pink panties.
And she had her answer. Her pelvis gave a huge throb. Yes. Sex was definitely on the menu tonight.
* * *
After he’d found the emeralds, Luke had experienced a surge of anger he didn’t think he’d ever felt for a woman before.
Dammit, when was he going to grow a reliable brain? He’d lost it with Mai Ling in Singapore for a brief, almost fatal few seconds when lust had taken over. But it wasn’t only lust with Ariana. Oh, there was plenty of that, but he liked her too. At least…until they’d both stared at the emeralds in their cosy little cave. He’d seen the moment in those pretty, expressive eyes of hers when he’d known all that comfortable chumminess was crap. When he’d remembered she was going to fight him for those emeralds, every step of the way.
He’d spent most of his time thinking Ariana was a rookie who had no idea what she was doing. But he was wrong. She was good. Damn good.
He was so pissed off right then, and all the way back to the boat, with himself as well as her, that he could barely bring himself to say a word. He’d decided to forget about their sexual arrangement. A quick trip back to Sri Lanka and he’d never see her again.
Then he’d seen her panties and the sexy curve of her backside and her long, creamy thighs.
‘Ariana,’ he said harshly, ‘Come with me to the bridge.’ Time to explain the deal. No more Mr Nice Guy.
As she stood before him, he unwrapped the emeralds and held them up to the dying sun. Their intense greenness sparkled right back from every facet of their traditional emerald cut. They were worth a fortune. And he couldn’t trust this woman in front of him for one second.
‘Beautiful, aren’t they?’
Ariana nodded warily.
‘Is that all you’ve got to say?’ he asked mockingly. ‘After all the trouble you’ve taken to get to this point. Aren’t there any questions you’d like to ask? Like where I’m going to hide them?’
She shrugged, an annoyed spark in her eyes. ‘I’m guessing you’ll put them in your safe.’
‘Very good, Moonbeam.’ Luke ignored her glare. ‘My turn for a question now. How are you planning to get them off me? Are we going to have a boxing match, baby?’ he taunted. ‘I’ve no intention of hurting a hair on your pretty head, so you could try.’ He pretended to give it some thought, then shook his head in mock regret. ‘But I don’t like your chances.’
‘I’ll think of something,’ she said between clenched teeth.