A lot of the country around the mission
had been cleared for plantations and livestock, but Eve now found
herself in the actual jungle, where wild snaking vines bound the
trees together and laid traps for unwary feet, where ropes of
convolvulus hung thick as an arm and loaded with the big bell
flowers that smelled so primeval. Long, broad banana leaves had
to be beaten out of their path, and whiplike bamboos had to be
avoided. It was exhausting, the continual avoidance and beating
back of jungle growth, all so alive, somehow, as if it would gobble
them up. And the heat was cloying, so that Eve could feel the
perspiration running down her skin and soaking the clothes that
kept her from being badly bitten around the legs and arms. The
mosquitoes seemed to lurk in the lower growth, among the enormous
ferns and massive leaves around the boles of the trees. All was
dim and green and seething with insect noises, broken by the crunch
of Wade's boots, breaking down the path as much as possible so
that she wouldn't stumble in her cumbersome sandals.
She dared not think of all the miles they must travel until they reaached [sic] the coast. She felt dismayed by the very thought of hours, perhaps days in this living greenhouse, where like a pair of human flies they battled with the giant foliage.
"What happens," she asked suddenly, "if the coast is in rebel hands?"
[19-20] "We make for one of the villages. They're dotted about, and so off the beaten track that it's hard to believe there's a rebellion going on. Often the people are friendly and ready to help . . . but my advice right now is don't waste energy thinking ahead, just keep walking and keep up your spirits."
"I'm trying, but don't you have the feeling we're being watched all the time, every step we take?"
"Monkeys," he said laconically, "high in the trees. Curious about us but not dangerous."
Eve smiled with relief, and wondered if there was anything on earth which could unnerve this Major of mercenaries, shatter the coolness with which he faced this journey and its hazards. Was he so hardened that nothing could make a dent in him?
He paused and his panga gleamed as he hacked a sprawl of lianas from their path. Now and again she had seen him consult a compass so she was free of the fear that they could become lost . . . he might not be the most charming of travelling companions, but he was sure of himself, and a broad-shouldered bulwark against the menace that seemed to simmer behind her, and at every side of her.
She stumbled nervously when a parakeet screeched in the undergrowth, and at once he shot a look over his shoulder. "Mind your step!" he ordered.
"I'm all right--"
"Would it help if I cut you a stick?"
"Then stay just where you are and I'll cut a bamboo."
He disappeared into the denseness at the left of them, and Eve took a rest against the trunk of a huge old tree, shutting her mind to what its foliage might be [20-21] hiding, and aware of a longing to slide down into the giant ferns and sleep. It seemed as if she had been on the move for hours, and indeed she had, for it had been some time last evening when the Major had searched the mission and found the Sisters and herself concealed in the cellar. All their patients had fled, or had been carried away by their families.
"We must keep going a while longer." A bamboo stick cut at the joint was placed in her hand. "This should make things a bit easier."
"Thank you." She looked defiantly into his eyes, as if to deny her weariness. He thought she lacked hardihood and she had to show him that she wouldn't be a burden on him. "I know how imperative it is that we keep on going, and I shan't fall behind, Major, or make you wish too fiercely that I were a soldier instead of a stupid society girl who should have stayed at home in her cosy bandbox."
He grinned in that brief and diabolical way of his. "It will be something for you to remember, eh? Always supposing I get you to a boat or plane."
"I assure you this trek will be unforgettable!"
"And uncomfortable." He faced about and they continued on their way, one behind the other, plodding tenaciously through an endless tunnel of green and shirring forest, brightened now and again by flame blossoms or a creamy curtain of wild orchids.
Eve thought of cool, faraway England, and the flaming quarrel she'd had with her guardian, who had been so sure that she would allow herself to become engaged to James Cecil Harringway the Third; heir to a corporation, good-natured and gangling, but not the man for Eve. She had stood out, and then on sheer impulse [21-22] had packed a bag and flown to Tanga because she wished to help, to do something with the pampered life her guardian had made for her, only to expect in return that she marry a man she neither loved nor desired.
She plodded on in the wake of her guide, and felt sure that had her father not been killed when she was three, she would not be here in the steaming jungle, her face hot and shiny, and clad in the shirt and slacks of a man. Not only that, but at the mercy of a jungle mercenary, and a band of rebels who might be stealthily following their trail, or lying in wait for them at the coast.
Half an hour later they halted for a rest on a fallen tree, which Wade searched thoroughly for snakes before allowing her to sit down and relax. He handed her the water bottle and she took several grateful sips.
"More welcome than wine, eh?" He took his own few sips and then screwed the cap firmly into place again. "Fancy a bit of chocolate?"
She shook her head and watched him enjoy some. He seemed quite untired, with an alertness in his eyes that made her think of a prowling animal that never slept or needed to. She felt curious about him and wondered if such a man had a wife, a family, a home in which he behaved like a human being. All she was certain of was his nerve, and that he had done startling and outrageous things. His only law was that of jungle lore!
"What conclusion have you come to?" he drawled.
"That I'm placed in the position of trusting a tiger."
"The swift and silent brute who likes the shadows, eh?"
"The cat who kills for pleasure."
He didn't reply and the jungle enclosed them as if in a green and echoing bell-glass. Eve wondered at her [22-23] temerity in speaking as she had, but she didn't shrink away from him, or allow her eyes to waver from his face. He had been frank enough in his opinion of her!
"A million orchids," he murmured. "Back in England they cost the earth, and after an evening at the dance a girl preserves the orchid she has worn on her dress. So many of them must remind you of the times you've worn one to a concert or a ball?"
"I always preferred a rose," she said quietly. "Orchids have a clutching look about them."
"They have no thorns."
"True," she said with a faint smile. So she had thorns, which meant that she had pricked this man. She congratulated herself, and wriggled her toes in some ferns to cool them.
"You'll get bitten if you don't watch out," he warned. "Mosquito welts are not only irritable, they're painful and they can lead to a fever. I think when we make camp I'll dose you with a quinine tablet."
"When do we make camp, Major?"
"When the sun goes down. The jungle will then be so dark as to be impenetrable, and I guess you need a night's sleep. We'll start at dawn tomorrow and make better time."
"I hope I'm not too much of a hindrance," she said, "but I couldn't take a seat on that plane in preference to one of the Sisters. They had endured more than I . . . oh, I don't want to sound self-righteous, but they were good to me. They understood why I came out here--"
"Were you running away of your life of luxury?"
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. You'd have been far more contemptuous of me had you known me before I worked at the mission."
"Was there a young man involved?"
[23-24] She shrugged and thought of James, who would be horrified, and startled, to see any girl less than immaculate. He was really one of those who believed that girls, like dolls, were kept in boxes in pretty dresses, with not a hair out of place. Girls like herself, who were brought up by nannies, who went to finishing schools, and drank champagne with their eggs and bacon.
"The silence of a woman always tells more than a torrent of words."
Eve came out of her reverie as Wade spoke almost against her ear. She turned, startled, to look at him and found his eyes piercing hers and raking over the smooth, heated skin of her face, and taking in the features that had a Celtic purity to them. Her mother had been a Highland beauty, much painted by all the fashionable artists, and Eve was a true daughter of the isle of Arran, with eyes that reflected the misty lochs.
"So it was a man who sent you running out here to scrub and pray! Did you quarrel with him?"
"Yes," she said, for it was all too true, and it wouldn't do any harm to let this mercenary Major believe that the quarrel had been with a man she loved. In a way it had been. She was fond of her rather arrogant guardian, and when she married she wanted to marry for love's sake. It was upon that issue they had flamed into heated words. "I won't be sold in the marriage market," she had stormed. "I'd sooner work at Woolworth's!" But as it happened she had read about the plight of Tanga in the newspapers, and being impulsive she had decided to be a heroine instead of a counterhand.
"Was he worth the predicament you now find yourself in?" Wade ran a hand down his unshaven jaw, and Eve winced at the rasp of the black bristles. The sound seemed to emphasise his maleness, and her total de-[24-25]pendence upon his skill and his grit.
"I'm not sorry I came," she said, meaning it. "I've been of some use, even if you don't think so. I've seen suffering and courage, and I feel sure I'm a better person for knowing people such as Sister Mercy and the other nursing nuns."
"Time will tell," he drawled. "When you find yourself in the Ritz Bar again, surrounded by admirers, you might soon forget the scent of ether and incense."
"You're abominably cynical, Major!" She gave him a furious look. "I can't imagine you believing in anything, except the chase and the kill."
"Then your imagination will have to be attended to, young lady." He rose to his feet, lean and supple as any tiger. "Siesta is over, so rouse yourself, and get those toes back inside those sandals."
Defiance flickered through her . . . she wanted, as in the old days, to toss her Titian head and turn her back on a man. Her fingers clenched on the thick silk of the shirt he had commandeered for her, and she hated with her eyes that hard, fierce face of his. Heavens, how the tropics had browned his skin, burned his gentler feelings to a tinder, crinkled his eyes! Had he never danced to the last nostalgic waltz? Had wine never left its tears on the rim of a stemmed glass, while the petals drooped on flowers he had given a girl, and the candlelight died on the table?
"I know your feet are hurting and your spirits are wilting," he said roughly, "but this I have to do. On your feet, deb!" He enclosed her shoulder with his sunburned hand and forced her to rise. She wrenched free of him and struggled into the sandals with their leather soles as hard as his soul!
[25-26] "As I'll ever be, gallant Major!"
"Attagirl." He gave a low, sardonic laugh, almost lost in the depths of his brown throat, and hoisting pack and rifle he stepped among the jungle trees, the webbing vines, the sticky spider nets, the primeval scents, and Eve followed him.
"I feel," she said, "as if I'm training to be a squaw!"
"Yes, you keep thinking along those lines and we'll get along fine, little one. Squaws are humble and obedient creatures."
"Did you stumble?"
"As if you'd care!" she snapped.
"I might take the trouble to give you a hand."
"The back of it?"
Again he laughed, and a monkey leaped among the interlocking limbs of the trees and its tail seemed to whip at the trumpet flowers, showering petals like a mock confetti. A reluctant smile sprang to Eve's lips. It was good to see the monkeys, for their presence proved that she wasn't entirely alone with a human tiger.
For brief minutes she was amused, and almost secure, and then something dropped on to her and her scream tore the transient peace to shreds. She felt a wet stickiness all down one side of her shirt, and then Wade was beside her and she was giving him a dumb, stricken look.
"What the devil--?"
"W-what is it?" she gasped.
He touched her, and then gave a brief laugh. "A bird's egg, probably tossed down on you by one of those mischievous monkeys. It's made something of a mess."
[26-27] "Better a broken egg on you than a palm rat, or a bird-eating spider. Stand still while I clean you up."
She obeyed him, but couldn't quite control a contraction of her nerves as she felt him wiping her off with a khaki handkerchief large enough to cover a coffee tray. His hand brushed her body and she felt a sensation that actually frightened her more than the egg bursting against her. Their aloneness in the jungle was suddenly alive with alarming new meanings, and she was recalling some of the tales about mercenary soldiers which native girls at the mission had imparted to her.
Eve gave Wade O'Mara a quick fearful look, which he answered curtly in words. "You can cut out what you're thinking." He gave his handkerchief a shake. "I don't go in for ravishing my hostages, not even a Titian-haired deb who has probably teased the wits out of the Champagne Charlies at the hunt balls. There, that will soon dry off. You'll feel rather sticky, but it's the best I can do, and I'm not going to waste any of our precious water."
"Th-thanks." Eve flushed hotly at the ease with which he had read her mind. Men believed that it excited a girl, the thought of being at the mercy of a tough and ruthless character, and she didn't dare to look at Wade in case she actually felt a stirring of curiosity about what it would feel like if he suddenly flung her down in the rampant ferns and took her with all the forceful assurance with which he tackled everything.
"What are you waiting for?" There was an edge to his voice. "To find out what it's like to tease a ruffian in jungle cloth?"
"I don't go in for that sort of behaviour," she said indignantly.
"I bet you don't." His eyes swept her up and down. [27-28] What else is there for someone like you, whose virginity had to be preserved for the highest bidder? There's little honesty in it, but a whole lot of tantalisation, only don't try it on with me, lady, or I'll teach you that on the rough side of the tracks we don't cheat."
"How dare you!" Eve itched to slap his hard, cynical face.
"I'd dare, lady."
"I just bet you would," she retorted. "You wouldn't have come within ten miles of the ethics of a gentleman."
"I thought you had a taste of gentlemanly behaviour a few hours ago, when not one of that sort would offer you his seat on that plane, which by now is safely landed while we're standing here steaming in this heat."
Eve flushed again, and hated him for his knack of striking clean to the bone and exposing the painful truth. "The impulse to survive does away with politeness, I suppose," she said.
"Now you're learning, foxfire," he mocked.
"Foxfire?" Her eyes ran enquiringly over his hard face.
"Didn't your elegant young man ever tell you that your hair matches the coat of the vixen as she streaks across the turf pursued by the hounds and the gallant huntsmen?"
James . . . tell her that? Eve doubted if he'd ever noticed anything about her beyond that she dressed, spoke and behaved correctly, and would in due course inherit some sizeable stocks and shares.
"If your nerves have quite settled," Wade drawled, "we'll be falling in line again and might make another mile or so before you wilt and have to be fed."
"I'm not an infant, Major O'Mara. I'll keep up with [28-29] you, don't worry about that. I'm just as eager as you are to reach civilisation."
"Right. And the next time a bird's egg falls on you, don't scream the forest down."
"Did I upset your nerves?" she asked tartly.
"My nerves are iron, lady, but you could have been heard and the female scream can't be mistaken for anything but what it is, probably one of the most primitive sounds on earth."
This time Eve thought it wise to let him have the final word, and taking hold of her bamboo stick and her bits and pieces wrapped in the plaid robe, she fell in behind him and they continued on their way . . . into the very heart of the jungle, or so it seemed.
It was, Eve reflected, like being a pickle in a salad; the vegetation was all shades of green, except when a sudden bract of bougainvillea sprang vividly to life against the foliage, or a great stem of wild orchids burst forth from the trunk of a towering tree. The leaves of the plantain were enormous and could have served as umbrellas should it suddenly start to rain. Branches twisted together in the most erotic shapes, like dark limbs entwined in eternal passion, sometimes modestly veiled by drapes of lacy green fern.
Every now and again a bird would flutter down on large wings and startle Eve, or a parakeet would let out a raucous squawking sound, as if scolding the two human beings for being in a place meant for more primitive creatures.
The Major waded on through the moist, riotous, earthy-scented jungle with all the aplomb of a man taking a hike through Epping Forest with the prospect of a long cool beer awaiting him at the Rising Sun. Hack, hack, went his sharp-bladed panga, shearing [29-30] through the thick stems and tangles of vine, lopping off the great leaves across their path, and tramping down with his boots the thorny growth that could have torn Eve's ankles.
Occasionally he shot a look at her, or flung a question over his khaki-clad shoulder. "How're you coping, lady?"
"I'm having a picnic," she rejoined. "I'm wondering how anyone could join a jungle army to endure this . . . whoever uses your services must pay well."
"They pay sufficiently," he said. "Enough to put my kid through college."
"Y-you have a family?" His casual reference to a child almost sent Eve sprawling into a patch of spiky bamboo, which she avoided just in time.
"A son." He whacked away with his panga at a whip-like branch.
"Aren't you worried that you'll be killed?" she asked that broad back, with the dark patch of sweat between the shoulder-blades. "That wouldn't do him much good, would it?"
"It's the worriers who get the bullet, so I steer clear of worrying."
"What about your wife?" Eve swallowed drily. "Surely she doesn't approve of the way you earn your living."
"She was never the worrying sort," he rejoined. "Larry, the boy, is keen to be a doctor, and I intend to see to it that he gets what he wants."
"How old is he?"
She heard Wade O'Mara emit a sardonic laugh. "Nineteen, which makes him only a year younger than you, eh?"
"Yes," she admitted, and her eyes swept the lean, [30-31] lithe, and forceful figure in front of her and she decided that Major O'Mara was in very good shape for a man with a grown-up son. How old had he been when the boy was born--about twenty? And was his wife attractive? Yes, Eve decided. This tough mercenary would like his woman to be feminine and rather helpless, with big blue eyes and fair hair in contrast to his darkness.
That was the image Eve built in her mind of the woman who waited for Wade O'Mara back in England, while he risked his neck in order to earn sufficient for his son's medical training. Eve thought of some of the men who were contemporaries of her guardian, and the kind of cash they played with on the investment market, able to pick up the phone and give instructions to a stockbroker involving thousands of pounds . . . but the man who was dedicated to getting her safely to the Tanga coast had to kill in order to educate his son.
Eve felt rather shaken, as she had at the age of fifteen when a school friend had enlightened her about the production of babies . . . as if she had learned a fact of life which was amazing and very intriguing. In the large house of her guardian she had been rather sheltered, and it had never been explained to her that men and women didn't only look and behave differently, but had a function in life that was also very dissimilar and accounted for the fact that men had aggressive ways to which women submitted either willingly or unwillingly.
Eve realised how aggressive was the jungle soldier whom she had to obey, on whose strength and ability she had to rely if she hoped to get to Tanga safe and well.
All around them seethed the forces of nature, and any one of the massive trees or tangled growths of vine [31-32] could have been hiding the kind of menace he was trained to overcome. Without him she would be totally lost and at the mercy of all sorts of danger . . . a cold shiver ran over Eve's moist skin, and never before had she felt so aware of being a woman as in this jungle with a tough mercenary who hunted rebels so that he could provide for his son.
What kind of a man did he become when he was back in England with the woman who was the mother of his son? Eve tried to resist the question, but it took a grip on her thoughts . . . was he a very ardent lover, showing his hard white teeth in a possessive smile as he took into his hard brown arms the woman from whom he was parted for hazardous months on the other side of the world?
Was she aware that he sometimes had to rescue nuns from an endangered mission, and be responsible for escorting a lone girl through rebel-occupied country?
Or didn't he talk about the dangers of his job . . . or the temptations involved?
Eve was shocked by her own thoughts, but they persisted in tormenting her as she tramped along in the wake of this man . . . so mocking and sure of his masculinity . . . and with a son named Larry. What could possibly be tempting in a man who antagonised her as much as this one did? A man who was married and the type she would have avoided in the normal course of events?
It was at that point in her feverish thoughts that Eve suddenly stumbled in her over-large sandals and gave a cry as her left foot turned over painfully. "Damnation!" Wade O'Mara halted instantly and swung round, his [32-33] black brows joined together above his blade of a nose. "What have you done now?"
"N-nothing," she said, but there were tears of pain dampening the edges of her eyes and she was obviously limping. He didn't move and when she drew level with him, he caught hold of her arm.
"I-I'm all right," she insisted.
"Don't be a heroine until you have to be," he growled. "Let me have a look at the damage."
"It's just a wrench--"
"Hoist the leg on this fallen log and let me look!"
It was a definite order and Eve reluctantly obeyed him. He removed her sandal and this added to her feeling of defencelessness, induced by the strength of his shoulders and the feel of his hand massaging her ankle.
He glanced at her and slitted his eyes against a ray of reddish sun coming down through an opening in the trees. "You've done well for a slip of a girl, and this had better be rested for the night. I think we'll make camp, and then get an early start in the morning."
Sympathy from the ruthless was bound to take a girl by surprise, and Eve stared down at her ankle clasped in his tough brown hand. She blinked in an effort to stop the tears from coming. "Thanks," she mumbled. "That sun up there is going all to flame--I hadn't realised how the day was going."
He glanced at the dark-strapped watch on his hairy wrist. "The days start early in this part of the world and the nights come quickly. Yes, we'll now make camp, and I'm going to take a chance and light a small fire so we can have some tea. Fancy that?"
"Oh yes," she said fervently.
A slight smile curled his lips, and for the briefest [33-34] moment his fingers seemed to move in a caress against the fine bones of her slim ankle. Then he put her sandal back on and latched it, and even as Eve was steadying herself with a hand on the hard bone and sinew of his shoulder, her heart was reacting in a most unsteady way.
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