Grace Carlyle always hoped she'd die from intense pleasure while having sex with her husband. Well, she wasn't married, and she'd never had sex, but she was still going to die.
And not from intense pleasure.
From heat exhaustion? Maybe.
From hunger? Possibly.
From her own stupidity? Absolutely.
She was lost and alone in the freaking Amazon jungle.
As she strode past tangled green vines and towering trees, beads of sweat trickled down her chest and back. Small shards of light seeped from the leafy canopy above, providing hazy visibility. Barely adequate, but appreciated. The smells of rotting vegetation, old rain and flowers mingled together, forming a conflicting fragrance of sweet and sour. She wrinkled her nose.
"All I wanted was a little excitement," she muttered. "Instead I end up broke, lost, and trapped in this bug-infested sauna."
To complete her descent into hell, she expected the sky to open and pour out a deluge of rain at any moment.
The only good thing about her current circumstances was that all this hiking and sweating might actually help her lose a few pounds from her too-curvy figure. Not that losing weight did her any good here. Except, perhaps, in her obituary.
New Yorker found dead in Amazon
At least she looked good
Scowling, she swatted a mosquito trying to drink her arm dry-even though she'd applied several layers of ucuru oil to prevent such bites. Where the hell was Alex? She should have run into her brother by now. Or, at the very least, stumbled upon a tour group. Or even blundered upon an indigenous tribe.
If only she hadn't taken an extended leave of absence from AirTravel, she'd be soaring through the air, relaxed and listening to the hypnotic hum of a jet engine.
"I'd be in an air-conditioned G-IV," she said, slashing her hand like a machete through the thick, green foliage. "I'd be sipping vanilla Coke." Another slash. "I'd be listening to my co-workers discuss stiletto heels, expensive dates and mind-shattering orgasms."
And I'd still be miserable , she thought, wishing I were anywhere else .
She stopped abruptly and closed her eyes. I just want to be happy. Is that too much to ask ?
So often lately she battled a sense of discontent, a desire to experience so much more. Her mother had tried to warn her what such discontent would bring her. "You're going to get yourself in trouble," she'd admonished. But had Grace listened? Noooo . Instead she'd followed her aunt Sophie's lovely bit of wisdom. Aunt Sophie, for God's sake! The woman who wore leopard print spandex and cavorted with mailmen and strippers. "I know you've done some exciting things, Gracie honey," Sophie had said, "but that's not really living. Something's missing from your life and if you don't find it, you'll end up a shriveled old prune like your mom."
Something was missing from Grace's life. She knew that, and in an effort to find that mysterious "something," she'd tried speed dating, Internet dating and singles bars. When those failed, she decided to give night school a try. Not to meet men, but to learn. Not that the cosmetology classes had done her any good. The best stylists in the world couldn't tame her wild red curls. After that, she'd tried race-car driving and step class. She'd even gotten her belly button pierced. Nothing helped.
What would it take to make her feel whole, complete?
"Not this jungle, that's for sure," she grumbled, jolting back into motion. "Someone please tell me," she said to the heavens, "why satisfaction always dances so quickly out of my reach. I'm dying to know."
Traveling the world had always been her dream, and becoming a flight attendant for a private charter had seemed like the perfect job for her. She hadn't realized she would become an airborne waitress, jaunting from hotel to hotel, never actually enjoying the state/country/hellhole she found herself in. Sure, she'd scaled mountains, surfed the ocean waves and jumped from a plane, but the joy of those adventures never remained and like everything else she'd tried, they always left her feeling more unsatisfied than before.
That's why she had come here, to try something new. Something with a bit more danger. Her brother was an employee of Argonauts, a mythoarchaeological company that had recently discovered the crude glider constructed by Daedalus of Athens-a discovery that rocked the scientific and mythological communities. Alex spent his days and nights delving deep into the world's myths, proving or disproving them.
With such a fulfilling job, he didn't have to worry about becoming a shriveled old prune. Not like me , she lamented.
Wiping the sweat from her brow, Grace increased her pace. About a week ago, Alex had shipped her a package containing his journal and a gorgeous necklace with two dangling, intertwined dragon heads. No note of ex-planation accompanied the gifts. Knowing he was in Brazil and looking for a portal that led into the lost city of Atlantis she'd decided to join him, leaving a message on his cell phone with details of her flight.
With a sigh, she fingered the dragon chain hanging at her neck. When Alex failed to pick her up at the airport, she should have returned home. "But nooo," she said with deep self-loathing, suddenly more aware of her dry, cotton mouth. "I hired a local guide and tried to find him. ' Si, senhorina,'" she mimicked the guide. '"Of course, senhorina . Anything at all, senhorina."'
"Bastard," she muttered.
Today, two miserable days into her trek, her kind, considerate, I-only-want-to-help-you guide had stolen her backpack and abandoned her here. Now she had no food, no water, no tent. She did, however, have a weapon. A weapon she had used to shoot that bastard in the ass as he ran away. The memory caused her lips to curl in a slow smile, and she lovingly patted the revolver resting in the waist of her dirty canvas pants.
Her smile didn't last long, however, as the midday heat continued to pound against her. In all her wildest dreams, her need for fulfillment had never ended like this. She'd envisioned laughter and-
Something hard slammed into her head and jostled her forward. She yelped, her heart pounding in her chest as she rubbed her now throbbing temple and skimmed her gaze over the ground, searching for the source of her pain.
Oh, thank you, thank you , she mentally cried when she spied the rosy-colored fruit. Mouth watering, she studied the delicious-looking juice seeping from the smashed remains. Was it poisonous? And did she care if it was? She licked her lips. No, she didn't care. Death by poison was preferable to walking away from this unexpected treasure.
Just as she reached down to scoop up what she could, another missile crashed into her back.
She gasped and jerked upright.
Spinning, she sent her narrowed gaze through the trees. About ten yards away and fifteen feet up she discovered a small, hairy monkey holding a piece of fruit in each hand. Her jaw dropped open in disbelief. Was he... smiling?
He swung back both of his arms and launched each piece at her. She was too stunned to move and simply watched as they splattered against her pants, stinging her thighs with their impact. Laughing, proud of himself, the monkey jumped up and down and waved his limbs wildly through the air.
She knew what he was thinking: ha, ha, there's nothing you can do about it . This was too much. Robbed, abandoned, then assaulted by a primate who should pitch for the Yankees. Scowling, at her wits end, she picked up the fruit, claimed two mouthwatering bites, paused, claimed two more bites, then launched what was left. She nailed her target in the ear. He lost his smile.
"Nothing I can do about it, huh? Well, take that, you rotten fuzz ball."
Her victory was short-lived. In the next instant, fruit sailed at her from every direction. Monkeys littered the trees! Realizing she was outnumbered and outgunned, Grace grabbed what fruit she could, ducked behind a tree, jumped over a swarm of fire ants and ran. Ran without knowing what direction she traveled. Ran until she was certain her lungs would collapse from exertion.
When she finally slowed her pace, she sucked in a breath, then bit into her bounty. Sucked in another breath, then bit into the fruit again, continually alternating between the two. As the sweet juices ran down her throat, she moaned in surrender.
Life is good , she thought.
Until another hour passed. By then her body forgot that she'd had any nourishment, and lethargy beat rough fists inside her, causing her feet to drag. Her bones were liquefying, and her mouth felt dryer than sand. But she kept walking, each step creating a mantra in her brain. Find. Alex. Find. Alex. Find. Alex. He was out here somewhere, looking for that silly portal, perhaps blithely unaware of her presence.
Unfortunately the deeper she roamed through the jungle the more lost and alone she became. The trees and liana thickened, as did the darkness. At least the scent of rot evaporated, leaving only a luscious trace of wild heliconias and dewy orchids. If she didn't find shelter soon, she would collapse wherever she found herself, helpless against nature. Though her vaccinations were up-to-date, she hated snakes and insects more than hunger and fatigue.
Several yards, a tapir and two capybaras later, she had made no progress that she could see. Her arms and legs were so heavy they felt like steel clubs. Not knowing what else to do, she sank to the ground. As she lay there, she heard the gentle song of the insects and the-Her eardrums perked. The peaceful trickle of water? She blinked, listening more intently. Yes, she realized with excitement. She was actually hearing the glorious swoosh of water.
Get up , she commanded herself. Get up, get up, get up !
Using every bit of strength she possessed, she pushed to her hands and knees and crawled into a thick tangle of vegetation. Forest life pulsed vibrantly around her, mocking her weakness. Brilliant, damp green leaves parted and the ground became wetter and wetter until becoming completely submerged by an underground spring. The clear, turquoise water smelled clean and refreshing.
Shaking with the force of her need, she cupped her hands together, scooped up the cool, heavenly liquid and drank deeply. Her parched lips welcomed every wet, delicious drop... until her chest began to burn, hotter and hotter, like she was swallowing molten lava. Except, the sensation came from the outside of her body, not the inside.
The heat became unbearable, and she shrieked. Jolting up, her gaze locked on to the twin dragon heads dangling from the silver chain around her neck. Both sets of ruby eyes were glowing a bright, eerie red.
She tried to jerk the thing over her head but was suddenly propelled forward by an invisible force. Arms flailing, she broke past an amazingly thick wall of flora. She abruptly stilled as the medallion cooled against her chest.
Her eyes grew impossibly round as she studied her new surroundings. She had entered some sort of cave. Drip. Drip . Droplets of water beat against the rocky floor. A cool, welcoming breeze kissed her face as relief nearly buckled her knees. The tranquil ambiance flowed into her, helping to calm her racing heart and labored breathing.
"All I need now is the powdered eggs, canned beans and coffee that were in my pack and I'll die happy."
Too exhausted to care what might be inside, waiting for a tasty human to appear, she scrambled deeper inside the passage and down a steep incline. The ceiling constricted and lowered, until she had to crouch and kneel. How long she crawled, she didn't know. Minutes? Hours? She only knew she needed to find a smooth, dry surface so that she could sleep. Gradually a ribbon of light appeared. The muted beam snaked around the corner like a summoning finger. She followed.
And found Paradise.
Light crowned a small, iridescent pool of... water? The dappled ice-blue liquid seemed thicker than water, almost like a clear, transparent gel. Instead of lying on the ground, however, the pool hung upright at a slight angle, much like a portrait on a wall. Yet there was no wall to support it.
Why wasn't it spilling over? she wondered dazedly. Her foggy brain couldn't quite sort through the bizarre information. Balmy tendrils of mist enveloped the entire haven. A few ethereal strands reached the cavern top, swirling, circling, then gently dipping back down.
She uttered a nervous laugh, and the sound echoed all around her.
Grace reached out carefully, meaning only to touch and examine the strange substance. At the moment of contact, a violent jolt exploded within her, and she felt as if her entire being was sucked into a vacuum, pulling her, tugging her in every direction.
The world crumbled, breaking around her piece by fragile, needed piece, until finally ceasing to exist. Terror unfurled and consumed her. She was falling slowly, falling down. Her arms reached out, desperate for a solid anchor, yet no tangible object greeted her palms.
That's when the screams began. High-pitched, disharmonized, like a thousand screeching children running all around her. She covered her ears to block the sound. She needed the noise to stop, had to make it stop. But the screams only grew louder. More intense.
"Help me!" she cried.
Stars burst like fireworks at her side, spinning her round and round. Spinning her up and down. Waves of nausea churned inside her stomach, and she tried valiantly to regain any sense of time or place.
Suddenly everything quieted.
Her feet touched a hard surface; she swayed but didn't fall. The nausea slowly receded. Cautiously she shifted her feet, ascertaining that she truly stood on a stable foundation.
In. Out. Relieved, she drew in a breath and slowly let it out. In. Out. When her head cleared, she cracked open her eyelids. A haze of dew still rose from the small pool like strands of pale, glistening ivy composed entirely of fairy dust. The beautiful sight was spoiled only by the stark contours of the gloomy cavern-a cavern that was different from the one she'd first entered.
Her brows furrowed. Here, the rocky walls were covered with strange, colorful markings, like liquid gold upon forgotten ash. And... was that splattered blood? Shuddering, she tore her gaze away. The floor was damp, burdened with odd-shaped twigs, rocks and straw. Several crudely carved chairs pushed against the far corner.
Instead of miserable humidity, she inhaled air as cold as winter ice. Air that possessed a sickeningly metallic bite. The walls were taller, wider. And when she'd first entered, the dappled pool had been on the right side, not on the left.
How had her surroundings changed so drastically and quickly without her moving a step? She shivered. What was going on? This couldn't be a dream or a hallucination. The sights and smells were too real, too frightening. Had she died? No, no. This certainly wasn't heaven, and it was too cold to be hell.
So what had happened?
Before her mind could form an answer, a twig snapped.
Grace's chin whipped to the side, and she found herself staring up into cold, ice-blue eyes that swirled in startling precision with the mist. She sucked in an awed breath. The owner of those extraordinary eyes was the most ferociously masculine man she'd ever seen. A scar slashed from his left eyebrow all the way to his chin. His cheekbones were sharp, his jaw square. The only softness to his face was his gloriously lush mouth that somehow gave him the hypnotic beauty of a fallen angel.
He stood in front of her, at least six foot five and pure, raw muscle. He was shirtless, his stomach cut into several perfect rows of strength. A six-pack, she mused, the first she'd ever seen in real life. Shards of mist fell around him like glittery drops of rain, leaving glistening beads of moisture on his bronzed, tattooed chest.
Those tattoos were glowing, but more than that, they appeared alive. A fierce dragon spread crimson wings and seemed to be flying straight out of his skin, like a 3-D image come to life. The dragon's tail dipped low, past the waist of the black leather pants. Around its body were black symbols that boasted curling slashes and jagged points. These stretched the length of his collarbone and around the biceps.
The man himself proved more barbarous than his tattoos. He held a long, menacing sword.
A wave of fear swept through her, but that didn't stop her from staring. He was utterly savage. Fascinatingly sensual. He reminded her of a caged, wild animal. Ready to strike. Ready to consume. Danger radiated from his every pore, from the dark rim of his crystalline, predator eyes, to the blades strapped to his boots.
With a flick of his wrist, he twirled the sword around his head.
She inched backward. Surely he didn't mean to use that thing. My God, he was lifting it higher as if he really did mean to... "Whoa, there." She managed a shaky laugh. "Put that away before you hurt someone." Namely me .
He gave the lethal weapon another twirl, brandishing the sharp silver with strong, sure hands. His washboard abs rippled as he moved closer to her. Not a trace of emotion touched his expression. Not anger, fear, or mischievousness, offering her no clue as to why he felt the need to practice sword-slicing techniques in front of her.
He stared at her. She stared back, and told herself it was because she was too afraid to look away.
"I mean you no harm," she managed to croak out. Time dragged when he didn't respond.
Before her horror-filled eyes, his sword began to slice downward, aimed straight for her throat. He was going to kill her! On instinct, she swiped her gun from the waist of her pants. Her breath snagged in her throat, burning like acid as she squeezed the trigger. Click, click, click .
Shit. Shit ! The cylinder was empty. She must have used all of her bullets on her bastard of a guide. The gun shook in her hand, and terror wrapped around her with the chill of a wintry storm. Her gaze scanned the cave, searching for a way out. The mist was the only exit, but the savage warrior's big, strong body now blocked it.
"Please," she whispered, not knowing what else to do or say.
Either the man didn't hear her, or he didn't care what she said. His sharp, deadly sword continued to inch closer and closer to her neck.
She squeezed her eyelids tightly shut.