By the time the Major had settled
on their camp site, the sun had slid beyond the trees and dropped
away into the gullies of shadow. Eve glanced around her and became
aware of the primitive atmosphere of the jungle when the sun faded
and the darkness fell like a cloak. The tall trees seemed to
come closer and the sounds in the undergrowth grew menacing.
Though she had been at the mission just over two months, Eve had never spent a night in the actual jungle . . . least of all with a man. She felt scared and strung-up, half fascinated by the experience, and yet wary of the man and the reason for the two of them being here, in the shadowy depths of this vast, unnerving and primeval place.
He had said he was going to light a fire, but Eve knew how risky that could be at night when the flickering flames might be seen, bringing upon them a sudden attack from out of the dark, sharp blades swinging in the firelight, doing to them what had been done to a Jesuit priest and several of his flock at a mission not far from the one where Eve had worked with Sister Mercy and the other nuns.
She waited in the deepening dusk, alone for the moment because Wade O'Mara had said he smelled creek water and had gone to investigate. Eve longed to sit down, but didn't dare risk it. Her ankle was aching, but it was the bodily weariness that was making her feel [35-36] so nervous and wan. Oh, how lovely right now to have a bed to fall into, where she could snuggle under the duvet and sink her head into a soft pillow. Sheer luxury! And when she awoke a shower to stand under, lathering herself with a foamy soap, twisting about under the delicious cascade until her skin was glowing.
Eve came out of her reverie to find Wade O'Mara in the clearing. He was carrying some objects which made a thumping noise when he dropped them. "Stones from the creekside," he explained. "I'll build the fire inside them and it won't be so visible."
"Is it wise?" she asked. "Perhaps we shouldn't risk it."
"You need some hot sweet tea, my lady, and so do I as a matter of fact. I'll open a can of corned beef and we have some biscuits. We shan't do too badly, eh?"
"You're very casual about everything, aren't you?" Yet even as she spoke Eve couldn't help wondering what lay behind that imperturbable manner of his; was it military training which induced it, or was he concerned not to let her see just how grim their situation was; two people alone like this in alien country, his nerve and that Breda automatic shotgun all that stood between them and the bloodthirsty vengeance the rebels were wreaking upon anyone who stood in their path.
"What do you mean by casual?" Wade went down on his haunches and started to arrange the fire stones. He glanced up a moment and she caught the glimmer of his teeth and eyes . . . alert as a leopard, she thought, with his vitality still at a high level of voltage despite the hard slogging pace he had set for both of them, all that day.
"Well, as if you did this kind of thing every night of your life."
[36-37] "I do it quite often, make camp in the jungle. The one definite difference is that I don't usually have the debutante of the season to share my bully beef and biscuits."
"I wish you wouldn't keep bringing that up!" she exclaimed. "I'm not a debutante any more--I didn't want to be one in the first place, but my guardian insisted."
"Come now, I'm sure you enjoyed every moment of the admiration and the proposals." His tone of voice was lazily sardonic. "How many did you collect?"
Eve heard the branches of dry wood snapping in his hands as he laid the fire in the compact circle of stones, and she wished he wouldn't be so sarcastic when she was feeling too weary to enjoy answering him back.
"I forget," she sighed. "They were unimportant."
"All but one of them, eh? You said you had a young man in England."
"Did I?" Eve ran her fingers through her sweaty hair and pulled at the collar of her shirt. She wished she could have a wash, and wondered if the creek held sufficient water for a quick plunge.
"I feel so messy," she said. "I-I'm not asking for any of our drinking water, but would it be possible for me to bathe in the creek?"
"Utterly impossible," he replied curtly. "This is nighttime, if you haven't noticed, and I don't know what's swimming about in there. You'll have to wait till the morning and I'll decide then if you can take a wash in it--it will be pretty muddy anyway."
"Mud is good for the complexion," she said flippantly. "What could be in it beside mud?"
"Things with teeth that snap at pink toes and milky-white bottoms," he rejoined. "I know you aren't feeling your usual bandbox self, but it's better to be safe than nipped, wouldn't you say?"
[37-38] "I suppose so." But she said it regretfully and watched as a match flared and was applied quickly to the kindling he had laid. The acrid tang of woodsmoke filled the night air and small flames fluttered upwards, then gradually sank to feed on the dry branches. Wade unbuckled the straps of his knapsack and took out a couple of cans, something tightly rolled, and finally a kettle that would hold about two cups of water. Eve listened as the water gurgled from the leather bottle into the small kettle, and she reflected again how unruffled this man seemed to be. She was glad he was so tough and self-reliant, but at the same time he was so disturbing and awoke in her a feeling of being a helpless and vulnerable female. She should be the one making the tea, yet it was he who placed the kettle on the improvised stove and put chunks of sugar in a large enamel mug.
"We'll have to share this," he said, and the firelight showed her the deep groove in his hard, unshaven cheek. "Like a loving cup in those romantic stories you probably read in bed."
"I'm not a romantic fool," she snapped. "You enjoy getting at me, don't you, just for the fun of it because I'm keeping you from what you really enjoy!"
"And what might that be?" he drawled, busily at work with a can opener, also found in the cavernous depths of his knapsack. "From what I know of men--and at my age, with my experience, I presume to know a little more than you, my lady--this situation has elements to it that most men would enjoy. I'm not so very different from all those guys, but this isn't a regular sort of picnic, honey, and while you and I strike tinder and make sparks, you don't let your thoughts wander where they shouldn't."
[38-39] "And where's that, may I ask?" Eve couldn't control a rush of colour to her cheeks, for he seemed to be implying that she was getting romantic ideas about him.
"All around us, in the jungle," he said explicitly. "We both know what could come out of there if our fire is spotted, and it's best not to think of what I'd have to do rather than see you fall into their hands--presuming it's true what you hinted, that I enjoy the business of killing."
Eve stared at him, a hand clenching her side as the kettle boiled and he dropped into it a handful of tea from a tin.
"Sorry we haven't any milk," he said drily, "but the tea will be hot and sweet and invigorating."
"Do you mean"--she could feel her heart thumping, "you'd kill me?"
"Sure, rather than see happen to you what I've seen elsewhere. My dear deb, I'm not in this man's army for kicks, or completely for the cash. People are being butchered out here, good people on the whole, if a little misguided about how other folks' countries should be run. I've seen nasty things in the last couple of years, and as I said once before, you should have stayed at home and married that smooth young man of yours, then you wouldn't be stuck with me in the middle of a jungle--a guy who may have to blow your pretty head off rather than see it chopped off."
"Ugh!" Eve shuddered all the way to the bottom of her spine. "You don't spare the rod, do you?"
"It had to be said, and now stop thinking about it." He untied the bundle he had taken from his knapsack and it sprang free of its tapes, an army blanket that was waterproofed on one side, which he laid on the ground he [39-40] had firmly trampled down with his boots. "Come on, sit down and try and relax. Do you like corned beef?"
She nodded, and despite his horrific words she wasn't turned off the food, which he handed to her on a chipped enamel plate, with a few digestive biscuits on the side. "Thank you." She glanced up at him, standing very tall in the firelight. "And don't hesitate to do it, if you have to!"
"A proficient soldier never hesitates, and I'm very proficient when I have to be. Also a good shot, if that will set your mind at rest?"
"My mind's at rest." In the shifting glow of the fire, as he poured the tea, his features were distinctly ruthless and above them he had the tousled dark hair of a freebooter. Eve was in no doubt that she could be sure of swift annihilation should the rebels attack them, and even as she felt a sense of relief about it, she still felt that deep-down sense of disturbance at being so alone with Wade O'Mara. She had never met anyone of his type before. Had he always been a soldier, wandering from war to war, and never at home long enough to become tamed and ordinary like so many other husbands? Was his wife so undemanding that she didn't mind being without this tough, resourceful man for months on end?
"Thank you, Major." Eve accepted the big tea mug and set her lips to the brim. The tea was strong, but she was far too thirsty to mind, and she gulped her half of the brew while he sprawled on the blanket and crunched a biscuit while he watched her.
"One thing I'll say for you, young deb, you don't make a fuss about eating and drinking like a soldier. Thanks." He accepted the mug and tipped it to his own [40-41] mouth, and Eve could have sworn that he set his lips exactly where hers had been. Oh heavens, she thought, and came to the realisation that there was an insidious, very masculine charm under the veneer of hardness that this mercenary Major presented to the world in general. She recalled his firmness in getting the nuns aboard the last plane to Tanga, and the way he had briefly smiled at Sister Mercy.
"Are you a Catholic?" she asked him abruptly.
"I was born into the faith," he replied, tossing corned beef into his mouth and munching with appetite. "It isn't often that I get to practise its tenets, as you can see from the uniform I wear. Why do you ask?"
"You were very kind to Sister Mercy and the other nuns, and I noticed that once or twice you used Latin terms that she understood."
"And I don't strike you as being normally kind, eh?"
"I-I wouldn't say that." Eve glanced at the fire and chewed her own supper. "I'm glad we have a fire, but it still scares me in case it gives us away."
"You don't have to be scared," he drawled. "You won't know what's hit you."
"All the same--well, we've both got a lot to live for, haven't we? You have your son, and I--I have my life back in England."
"With the honourable young man who allowed you to come out here to scrub floors and risk your neck?" A black eyebrow arched above cynical grey eyes, which dwelt on the fine gold chain and golden good-luck coin which she wore, glinting in the firelight against the smooth skin of her throat. "Were you testing him, honey? Hoping he'd dash after you and grab you off the airfield before you boarded the plane?"
[41-42] Eve thought bitterly of James the last time she had dined with him, eating expensively at the Charisse before they went on to the theatre . . . she had told him she was thinking of coming here, but he had laughed away the idea. "Don't be a silly girl," he had said, patting her hand as if she were an infant or his doddering aunt, but never a girl he hoped to sweep off her feet with his love-making. "Whatever would you find to do out in the bush? A little orchid-picking, my sweet?"
She could have told Wade O'Mara that she despised James and thought him a useless stick, but wisdom prevailed and she smiled what she hoped was a yearning, romantic smile.
"I wanted to prove that I could be of use, and I have proved it," she replied.
"You've proved to the hilt that you were running away from that exciting life of yours back in England. Of course you were, so don't deny it. If you were so keen to be of use to the community you could have applied for proper training at a hospital or taken a Cordon Bleu course in cooking and opened your own bistro . . . both would have offered you the chance to scrub floors and peel potatoes."
"You're a sarcastic devil!" Eve exclaimed. "The cynicism is layers thick on your hide!"
"It probably is," he agreed. "But at least I'm honest about what drives me to do certain things. I don't wrap my motives in a self-deluding veil of sacrifice and service. You were bored to the hilt with being a social butterfly, so you decided to create a flutter by scorching your wings on the edge of a political flare-up. Only it turned out to be more like a forest fire and you didn't bargain for being caught in it with a stinging brute [42-43] like me, did you?" The look he gave her was derisive and knowing. "Hand me your plate, Eve. You've earned a sweet even if it's too late for a spanking."
"No doubt that's how you've dealt with your son," she said, "when you've been at home to deal with his training."
"No doubt," he drawled. "Come on, I've opened a can of pineapple chunks and I'm fairly sure you have a sweet tooth, not having arrived at the stage when you need to trim any surplus fat from that sylph-like figure; and believe me, by the time I've dragged you through the jungle, like Tarzan and Jane, you'll be trim enough to be a model."
Setting her lips and refusing to be humoured, Eve handed him her plate, for the truth was she was still quite hungry but she knew he had to preserve as much of their solid food as he could. She certainly wasn't averse to sharing the pineapple chunks, but his caustic remarks took some swallowing . . . maybe because he struck too close to the truth for comfort. It wasn't until she had arrived at the mission and found there was real need for her services that she had faced the truth of why she had come. It had been her act of rebellion against a cushioned yet controlled life, and she had needed to get far away from England in order to feel free of her guardian's iron hand in the velvet glove. She was fond of him, and grateful to him for the way he had cared for her, but he expected to rule her life and plan her future, and Eve had fled in a sort of revolt a man like Wade O'Mara could never be expected to understand.
She doubted if Major O'Mara, sprawling there in his mercenary khaki, had ever felt a stab of fear in his en-[43-44]tire life. No one had a lead on him, not even his wife. But Eve felt beholden to her guardian, though not yet was she going to be forced into marriage that would suit him far more than it would suit her. She had wanted to test her wings, but she wasn't complaining about the scorch marks, and with a tilt to her chin she accepted her plate of fruit chunks with a stiff murmur of thanks.
"Sorry there's no ice-cream to go with them," he drawled, "but I guess you can whip up enough ice for the two of us when you put on that frosty look."
"Funny, aren't you?" Eve ate her pineapple from her fingers and thoroughly enjoyed doing so . . . maybe in her secret heart she had longed to be a hoyden for a while, her feelings roughed up by a man who would never have been smooth with women. She could just imagine what she looked like with tangled hair, wearing slacks that flapped around her ankles and a shirt that was oily from insect repellent. Her guardian would have a fit, and James would probably swoon.
"That's it, smile." The voice was as rough and purring as if it came from a leopard's throat. "I won't ask you to share the joke, for I'm well aware that naughty thoughts can lurk behind a demure face."
"I expect you presume to know all there is to know about women," she rejoined, licking juice from her fingers. "I don't doubt that in your travels as a warrior you've met every colour and every creed. Your wife must have a mind as broad a Loch Ness."
"Broader," he agreed, and the smile on his firelit face was an inscrutable one, making Eve wonder just how much his marriage meant to him. Like all the other thoughts he aroused it was a disturbing one . . . she didn't want to delve into his private life, but they were [44-45] a man and woman alone in the primeval jungle and it would have been unnatural had she not been curious about him . . . as he was probably curious about her.
Suddenly an ominous snarl came from the depths of the trees and Eve turned her head towards the sound and felt her heart give a leap. "What's that?"
"Probably a leopard on the hunt for its supper," he said casually.
"So long as it doesn't start fancying us," she gasped.
"Let's hope it will soon find its kill. I don't want to use the rifle if I can avoid it, for a gunshot in the dark can carry for miles."
Eve shivered, and realised anew how perilous their situation was. The fire had to be kept low in case the flames were seen and this increased the chance of some dangerous animal leaping upon them.
"Don't start getting jittery," he said. "Leopards are the least of our worries. Have you ever seen one?"
"One or two used to roam about in the vicinity of the mission, but there was a fence of pointed stakes around the compound."
"Lovely creatures," he murmured, "with a spring to them like oiled silk. Too bad they're hunted for their skins."
"I hate real fur coats," she said, recalling with a flash to her eyes a quarrel she had once had with her guardian when he had tried to make her wear a sealskin jacket he had bought for her birthday. "I can't bear the thought of animals being slaughtered just to satisfy the vanity of women and the ego of the men who buy furs for them."
"Do you know how they kill the leopards so the lovely supple skins won't be marked?" Wade was rolling him-[45-46]self a cigarette from his pouch of tobacco, and he shot her a look across the guarded flames of their fire, his brows a single dark slash above his eyes.
"In some beastly cruel way, I expect." Eve met his eyes. "Have you ever hunted them?"
He shook his head. "Would you care for a cigarette?" he asked. "Hand-rolled, but they serve."
"I don't smoke, thank you." She watched as he took a glowing stick from the fire and lit the cigarette between his lips; the flame played a moment over his features and she thought again how ruthless he looked, and yet there was a side to him that was far more subtle and complex, as if cruelty might repel him. "Major, did you fight in Biafra?" she asked on impulse.
"Yes." He slung the stick on to the fire and leaned back on the blanket, his eyes narrowed against the smoke of the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
"It must have been horrible."
"Those fearful massacres! We read about them in the newspapers."
"They weren't a pretty sight," he agreed. "But you don't want nightmares, and in a while we're going to settle down for the night."
Eve glanced around her at the density of the jungle trees, at what might be lying in wait to pounce upon them while they slept.
"I sleep like a cat," he drawled, "with one eye open. You'll be safe enough with me."
"Will I?" The words sprang of themselves to her lips, and for some reason they sounded--provocative, so that instantly Eve could have bitten her tongue.
"The fact that you're an attractive wench cuts little [46-47] ice with me," he said, a trifle cuttingly. "Apart from the fact that you were with those nuns, I don't happen to seduce girls young enough to be my daughter. Does that relieve your girlish apprehensions?"
Eve was grateful for the darkness which concealed the colour that rushed into her cheeks. "I didn't mean--"
"Didn't you?" Smoke curled about his dark head. "I'm a soldier and I fight wars, and when the opportunity offers I relax--with a woman. I don't happen to regard this situation as a very relaxing one, and when we do kip down for the night I'm going to give you a tablet that will relieve any aches and sprains and make you sleep easy, so you'll dream for a few hours that you're back in your cosy canopied bed at the family mansion, which I daresay stands in its own acres, with enough land a man might farm without breaking his back."
"You sound as if you might be a frustrated farmer," she murmured. "Is that your ambition, if you don't get a bullet in your back?"
"Who taught you perception?" he queried, squinting across the fire through his pungent cigarette smoke.
"Maybe I was born with it," she said. "Even debutantes aren't necessarily feather-brained."
"No, the only thing that's feathery about you, lady, is that you're such a fledgling in a hard cruel world. You'll grow up, more's the pity."
"Why is it a pity, Major?"
"Kids I find amusing, even those with plenty of backchat, but women have only one function as far as I'm concerned."
"What ghastly cynicism!" she exclaimed. "How did [47-48] you ever come to get married with your outlook on--love?"
"There are a couple of specific reasons why a man puts his head into that particular noose, so can't you guess? I was doing my National Service and I met this fetching little waitress in the canteen. As I don't happen to believe in abortion I became a husband at the age of nineteen, and a proud father at twenty. Let me add that I've no regrets on that score, and now are you satisfied that you've winkled my secret out of me?"
"I-I wasn't being inquisitive," she denied, and it was curious how unshocked she was by his revelation. Somehow she had guessed that this tough, resilient character had never been romantically in love . . . it was there in his face, in his eyes, that he placed women in two categories, those to be revered like Sister Mercy, and those to be desired like the girl he had got into trouble during his very first year as a soldier. It touched Eve that he had done the honourable thing and was so obviously proud of the son from his enforced marriage. Her fingers clenched in the blanket on which she sat almost as if she were controlling an impulse to reach out and run her fingers down his lean life-clawed face. Heaven help her, it wouldn't be wise to touch him . . . as that other Eve had touched Adam when the serpent whispered.
"You shivered just then," he said. "Beginning to feel cold? That does happen in the jungle at night."
"I-I guess I'm tired," she gave a little yawn. "It's been a long and very unusual day."
"It has, at that." He leapt with agility to his feet and tossed the cigarette butt into the fire. "You'll want to go into the bush to spend a penny, so you'd better take [47-48] my torch. Keep the light trained downwards, won't you?"
"Of course." Romantic he wasn't, but he was certainly to be trusted not to take a girl for a plastic doll without natural functions which needed to be relieved. She accepted the torch with a murmur of thanks, and was so terribly glad he wasn't like James, who went turkey-red when a girl excused herself to go to the powder-room. There in the jungle bush she tried not to think about snakes and knobbly black spiders and concentrated on how James would react if he could see her right now. When she returned to the fireside she was smiling to herself.
"Something tickle your fancy?" Wade enquired drily.
"Oh, I was just wondering how they'd react back home if they could see me now."
"So it amuses you that the guardian and the boyfriend would probably be shocked?" As he spoke he was delving into his knapsack and Eve saw the glimmer of something white in his hands. "The boy-friend might have grounds for breaking off the engagement if he knew you were alone in the primitive jungle with a mercenary, eh?"
"We aren't yet officially engaged," she said, and watched as strong, deft hands unfurled a length of filmy mosquito netting.
"But it's on the cards, eh? The desirable union of the season's deb with a young man capable of handling your inheritance if not your imagination."
"My imagination, Major O'Mara, is no more vivid than anyone else's."
"I beg to differ. You're standing there right now and [49-50] having mental images of sharing this blanket and net with me. Dare you deny it?"
"I-I had come to that conclusion," she admitted, feeling the warmth come into her cheeks as she envisioned herself tucked in close to that lean and ruthless body . . . she had never been that close to a friend, let alone a stranger.
"And as your imagination is female, Eve, you've gone a step further and petrified yourself with the belief that a rough soldier is going berserk the moment he comes in contact with your nubile young body. It could happen, along with a lot of other things that might happen before I get you to Tanga in one piece, but you're going to have to take a chance, like the one you took when you told that pilot you could trek it with me. You knew when you spoke up that I wasn't a weed among the coronets."
"I was aware of the risks I was running," she said, a trifle breathlessly. "It was more important to me that Sister Mercy and her nuns be flown to safety--I happen to mean that! I might be a bit spoiled, but I'm not selfish!"
"There's no need to be on the defensive with me," he drawled. "I know a lot more about women than you'll ever know about men, so let's get something straight. When a man makes love, just about everything else goes out of his head and he becomes almighty vulnerable. I can't afford that happy state of being right now, with leopards and rebels on the prowl. Do I make myself clear?"
"As glass," she said, and could feel her cheeks burning.
"Right." He held out his hand and there on the palm [50-51] of it was a small round object. "Swallow this and you'll sleep through without being worried about me or anything else. Go on, take it."
Eve accepted the tablet and put it against the edge of her tongue. "I-I think I might sleep without it," she said nervously.
"You'll take it," he rejoined. "I want you fighting fit in the morning, with no residue of pain from that ankle you turned over. The tablet has something in it to relax your nerves and ease your aches, and I'd take one myself except that I've got to keep alert and not fall into a deep sleep. D'you want a sip of water to help it go down?"
He poured a little of their water into the mug and handed it to her. Eve made no further protest and swallowed the tablet. She had to trust him . . . there was no one else around to see after her, and even to look into the density of the jungle was to feel the nerves crawling in her stomach. The trees were black creaking shapes in the darkness and there were stealthy sounds that made her skin creep.
Wade handed her the netting and told her she was to swathe herself in it. "Like an oriental bride," he drawled wickedly, "right over your head and face. Go on. You won't suffocate, but it will keep out anything that might crawl on you in the night."
"Oh, do you have to be so explicit?" she appealed. "What are you going to use to cover yourself, or don't you care about the crawlies?"
"I can wrap this around my head like granddad's nightcap." He showed her the white silk scarf which he had confiscated at the airfield bungalow.
[51-52] "So that's why you wanted it!"
"Sure. Did you imagine I was saving it for a night out at the country club?"
Eve grinned as she began to twirl the netting about herself. "I can't imagine you at the country club drinking gin slings and talking about the latest polo match. I think that would bore you to distraction."
"And what can you imagine me doing in my spare time?" he asked, and he was down on his haunches banking the fire with half-dried mosses and leaves which he had gathered from the edge of the clearing.
"Riding," she said instantly, "but not in any kind of local pack. And you probably play a lot of squash."
"How come you say that?"
"You haven't a pot, have you?"
He stood up, tall and hard from his chin to his heels. "I'm not quite in my dotage, kitten, but I guess thirty-nine must seem pretty ancient to you."
"Come off it," he said derisively. "I have a son not much younger than you, and if I haven't a stomach that's gone to pot, then you can put it down to the hard graft of being a soldier. Oh, sure, I'm called a mercenary, but most of us are hard-bitten characters from the regular army who, for some reason or other, find ourselves fighting in the jungle or the desert. It isn't just the cash, but when you've been a soldier for most of your life, it comes easier to answer a call to action than to sign on at the foundry or the factory. Three years ago I was in Belfast, in charge of a bomb disposal squad. Four of us got blown about one night, and when I came out of hospital they discharged me from the army. I tried to settle down to civvies, but it [52-53] didn't work. And now I'm here in the jungle with you, lady. Funny old life, isn't it?"
She nodded, and wondered how his wife had taken it when he had put away his civvy suit and put on a uniform once again. She supposed it was like a drug, the danger he had lived with all these years. Even the domestic comforts had not been strong enough to hold him.
"You actually enjoy all this, don't you?" she said.
Wade shrugged his shoulders and came over to inspect how efficiently Eve had swathed herself in the netting. He shook his head at her. "You look like a kid dressed up in mother's net curtains," he said. "Come here, I want this stuff over your hair, neck, face and arms, otherwise you'll wake up in the morning with bites and welts all over you, not to mention a dose of incipient malaria."
Eve stood there and allowed herself to be covered up until she did indeed resemble a Persian bride. She gave a throaty little laugh, and tried to ignore his hand as it smoothed the netting down over her body.
"What's so funny?" he asked. "Or are you naturally ticklish?"
"I feel like a novice about to take vows," she said, for it seemed wiser not to refer to a bridal image.
"Vows of chastity?" he drawled. "You're not the type."
"Oh, how come you're so sure?" she asked. "You've only known me a day, yet you presume to judge my character as if we're old--friends."
"It is a safer word, isn't it?" he jeered, adjusting the netting so that her neck was well covered. "Any [53-54] guy who called himself your friend would be a poor stick."
"I'm paying you a compliment, you half-child." He gazed down at her, making her aware of his lean height and the total self-assurance of a man who had been to dangerous places and faced all kinds of hazards. "I have reverence for nuns and I admire their courage and dedication, but be thankful you aren't driven by their needs. Your sort will be far more--enjoyable."
With James? The unwelcome thought flashed through her mind even as her eyes measured this man's shoulders and her skin tingled from his touch.
"There, I think you're sufficiently mummified for the night. I haven't wrapped the netting too tightly about your neck, have I? The neck is a particularly vulnerable and tasty part of the anatomy so far as gnats and s'quitoes are concerned." He let go of her and started to search his pockets for something. He brought out a length of string and proceeded to cut it in two with his knife. "Now we'll tie up the cuffs of your trousers in case a snake decides to warm himself inside them."
"Do you have to be so--so precise?" she begged.
"Snakes aren't stupid, you know. They like to warm themselves against soft young skin, so if you feel something snuggling up to you--"
"I'm to presume it's a snake?"
"What else could it be?" Eve knew as he haunched down and tied the flapping cuffs of her pants that his mouth was quirked at one side in a wicked little smile. Oh, he'd look after her to the very best of his ability, and he'd get her to Tanga if he could, but he wasn't [54-55] going to deny himself the pleasure of teasing and tantalising her. She was a new sort of experience for him, and she didn't believe for one moment that he regarded her from a paternal angle. His remarks were a little too risqué for that, and somehow he didn't strike her as the type of man to be all that fatherly, even with his own son.
"There, that should keep you fairly secure from the snakes and other pests," he said.
"Do you include yourself in that list?" she asked.
"Almighty curious about my amorous inclinations, aren't you, lady?" He lifted an eyebrow and gave her a look that was just on the edge of being derisive. "It's partly your age, and partly the situation that we're in, so you thank your stars I realise it and don't take your pert remarks for a come-on."
Eve bit her lip and wondered if there was something about this tough mercenary that appealed to instincts deep within her, stirred into life by the dense tropical night and the untamed forces of the jungle. He was so much a part of those forces, with a danger to him that was intensified by their primitive surroundings.
The uniform he wore, and the alert discipline of his mind and body, were indicative of what he was trained to do . . . to overcome a silent enemy and kill in several savage ways if he had to. It was awful for Eve to contemplate, but at the same time it was exciting.
And because of that sense of excitement she was suddenly very wary of him . . . and of herself.
"Ready for bed?" he asked. "I want to make an early start and try to get to Tanga some time tomorrow."
She nodded and tried not to notice that her feelings [55-56] went a little bleak . . . at Tanga they would part and go their separate ways. She to board a plane for England, while he would rejoin his unit in some other part of this rebel-torn country. And back in England her guardian would reinforce his argument that she marry James and settle down to a cosy, unexciting and predictable life. It wouldn't matter to anyone that she didn't love James. He was from a good family and he was a kind, undemanding young man. As her guardian had said, she ought to regard herself as a very lucky young woman.
Lucky? Eve shut her mind to all that, and glanced down at the army blanket which her present guardian was smoothing out beside the low-burning fire in its nest of stones, wafting into the air the acrid tang of woodsmoke.
Ever afterwards when she smelled leaves burning in a wood somewhere, she would think of her flight through the jungle with a mercenary Major, who placed his knapsack for a pillow and indicated that she settle down for the night.
"Near the fire," he said, "so you'll keep warm."
When she hesitated, he raised an eyebrow and silently watched her until she took the place he indicated. He settled the netting around her and wrapped her lower body in the plaid robe. "Comfortable?" he asked.
"Right." He stood a long moment looking about him, tensed in every nerve for any sound that might not be made by a natural denizen of the jungle. She heard a sliding movement and saw something steely glint in the firelight . . . it was the broad lethal blade of the [56-57] panga which he drew from its leather sheath and placed at his side when he settled down at her side. His shotgun was actually on the blanket between them . . . like the ancient sword of knightly honour, she thought drowsily, there to defend her as if she were his lady fair.
She felt him stretch out and rest his head on the knapsack beside her own head. The white scarf he had twisted loosely about his neck and face and Eve had to bite on her knuckles to suppress a sudden nervous giggle.
"Go to sleep," he ordered, "and give that vivid imagination of yours a rest for the night."
"I-I was just thinking how odd we must look, Major."
"There's no one to see us except the monkeys," he rejoined, "and they won't tell on us. I hope that young man of yours won't think the worse of you for having to bed down for the night with a rough and ready soldier. Is he the tolerant type?"
Eve suspected that James would be shocked to his marrow to learn of her night in the jungle with a tough mercenary, some of whom had the reputation of being less than honourable when it came to women. He would be bound to suspect the worst, but she didn't mind. She had never wanted to marry him . . . now she could feel herself actively recoiling from the idea of belonging to him. He'd probably find it difficult coping with being lost on Hampstead Heath.
"Well, don't worry." This time the Major had not been able to read her thoughts, maybe because he was lying on his back instead of looking into her eyes. "By the time you get back to good old Blighty, this will [57-58] seem like a dream you had and you can invent a story he'll swallow without being awkward. Goodnight, ndito."
Eve heard him laugh softly to himself, for in the Masai language he had called her his girl, and she had called him her boss.
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