Once she regained her sense of stability, Grace crawled through the cave. Warm, humid air brushed her skin, thawing her inside and out. Following flashes of light, she soon emerged from the rocky exit. Familiar sounds of the Amazon welcomed her: the screech of howler monkeys, the incessant drone of insects, the hurried rush of a river. Utterly relieved, she jackknifed to her feet. Her knees almost gave out, but she forced herself to move forward, to put distance between this world and the other.
As she ran, the backdrop of sounds tapered to quiet. Sunlight faded, leaving a horrendous darkness. Then, rain burst from the sky, pelting and soaking her. Under the weight of the water and darkness, she was forced to seek shelter beneath a nearby bush. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up .
Finally the rain ended and she popped up, once again dashing through the forest. Gnarled tree limbs reached out, clawing at her face, slapping at her arms and legs, splashing remaining raindrops into her eyes. She wiped them away and kept moving, never breaking stride.
Shards of sunlight gradually returned, winking in and out between clouds and foliage, illuminating a treacherous path of trees, dirt and rocks. Twigs snapped beneath her boots. Every few steps she tossed a fearful glance over her shoulder. Looking, always looking, fearing the worst.
I'll come after you , Darius had said. I'll not rest until I find you .
She shot another look over her shoulder... and slammed into a male chest. Grace flew backward, landing on her back with a thump. The man she hit was barely taller than she was and flew backward, as well, remaining supine, gasping for breath. She came up swinging. She'd escaped a horde of warriors, and she wasn't going to be captured or assaulted now.
"Whoa, there," another man said, stepping over his fallen comrade and holding up his dirt-smudged, empty palms. Droplets of water sprinkled from his baseball cap. "Calm down. We won't hurt you."
English. He was speaking English. Like the man lying on the jungle floor, this one was of average height with brown hair, brown eyes and tanned skin. He was thin, not corded with muscles and he wore a beige canvas shirt. The Argonaut logo was stitched over the left breast, an ancient ship with two spears erected on either side. The name Jason perched above the ship.
Jason of the Argonauts, she thought with a humorless, inward laugh.
Alex worked for Argonauts. She rolled the name Jason through her mind, wondering if Alex had ever spoken of him, but she found no reference. It didn't matter. He worked with her brother and that was good enough.
The cavalry is here.
"Thank God," she breathed.
"Get up, Mitch," Jason said to the fallen man. "The woman isn't hurt, and it doesn't speak well of you if you are." To her he offered a canteen of water. "Take a drink. Slowly."
She grabbed the canteen eagerly and gulped down all that her stomach could hold. The coolness. The sweetness. Nothing had ever tasted so good. Except for Darius, her mind whispered. Tasting him was an experience with no equal.
"Slow down," Jason said, reaching for the flask. "You'll make yourself sick."
She wanted to snarl and snap at him, but allowed him to reclaim his property. Water dribbled down her chin, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. "Thank you," she panted. "Now let's get the hell out of here."
"Wait a minute," he said, closing the distance between them. He grasped her wrist and placed two fingers over her pulse. "First we need to know who you are and what you're doing here."
"Later. Let's get out of here." She hadn't seen Darius exit the mist, hadn't heard him, but she wasn't taking any chances. He could kill both of these men with a mere snap of his fingers.
Jason must have caught her desperation, because she watched with widening eyes as he withdrew a 9mm Glock. Alex always carried a weapon when he went on expeditions, so the sight of it shouldn't have bothered her, but it did.
"Is there someone after you?" He didn't spare her a glance. He was too busy scanning the wooded area behind her.
"I don't know," she answered, gaze darting through the trees. What she wouldn't do for her own weapon right now. "I don't know."
"How can you not know?" he demanded. Then he softened his tone, and added, "If you were being followed, how far back would your pursuer be?"
"Fifty feet, maybe." Her voice barely rose above whisper. "Is there anyone out there?"
"Not that I can see. Robert," he shouted, gaze boring into the trees.
"Yeah," came a distant, rough voice. She couldn't see the one who had uttered the response and figured he was hidden in the thick stumps and leaves.
"Robert is one of our guards," Jason explained to her. To Robert he called, "See anyone out there?"
"One hundred percent."
After Jason put on the gun's safety, he anchored the weapon in the waist of his jeans. "No one's after you," he told Grace. "You can relax."
"Even if there were someone out there, we've got scouts all around us and they'd never make it anywhere near you."
So Darius hadn't followed her. Why hadn't Darius followed her? The question echoed through her mind, plaguing her, confusing her. "You're sure there's not a large, half-dressed man out there?" she asked. "With a sword?"
"A sword?" Dark intensity filled Jason's eyes, and he studied her. His body seemed to loom around her, bigger than she'd thought. "A man with a sword was chasing you?"
"I meant a spear," she lied, not sure why she did so.
Jason relaxed. "No one's out there but my men," he said confidently. "The tribes out here won't bother us."
This didn't make sense. Darius had been so intent on catching her. Why hadn't he followed her? She was torn between fear and-surely not-disappointment.
Her thoughts scattered as a wave of dizziness swept through her. She swayed and scrubbed a hand across her forehead.
"How long have you been out here?" Jason asked. He wrapped a parka around her shoulders. "You might have been bitten by a mosquito. You're shaky and flushed, and I'm willing to bet you've got a fever."
Malaria? He thought she had malaria? She laughed humorlessly, fighting the knot twisting her stomach. She was tired and weak, but she knew she didn't have malaria. Before flying into Brazil, she'd taken medication to prevent the disease.
"I'm not sick," she said.
"Then why-You're scared of us," he said. He grinned. "You don't have anything to fear from us. Like you, we're Americans. Hardly dangerous."
Another wave of dizziness overtook her. She clutched the parka closer to her chest, drawing on its warmth as she recovered her equilibrium. "You work for Argonauts, right?" she asked weakly.
"That's right," he said, losing his smile. "How did you know?"
"My brother works there, too. Alex Carlyle. Is he here with you?"
"Alex?" came another male voice. "Alex Carlyle?"
Grace turned her attention to... what was his name? Mitch, she recalled. "Yes."
"You're Alex's sister?" Mitch asked.
"That's right. Where is he?"
Mitch was older than Jason, with salt and pepper hair and slightly weathered features. Lines of tension branched from his eyes. "Why are you here?" he asked.
"Answer me first. Where's my brother?"
The two men exchanged a glance, and Mitch shifted uncomfortably on his feet. When she returned her attention to Jason, he arched one of his brows. He appeared calm and casual, but there was a speculative gleam in his eyes.
"Do you have any identification?" he asked.
She blinked at him and spread her arms wide. "Do I look like I have identification?"
His gaze roamed over her, lingering on her breasts and thighs, barely visible under the camouflage slicker. "No," he said. "You don't."
Unease stole through her. She was a lone woman, days away from civilization, in the company of men she didn't know. They're Argonauts , she reminded herself. They work with Alex. You're fine . Hands shaky, she pushed wet hair back from her face. "Where's my brother?"
Mitch sighed and wiped a trickle of rain from his brow. "To be honest, we don't know. That's why we're here. We want to find him."
"Have you seen him?" Jason asked.
Disappointed, worried, Grace rubbed her eyes. Clouds were beginning to fill her vision. "No. I haven't," she said. "I haven't heard from him in a while."
"Is that why you're here? Looking for him?"
She nodded, then pressed her fingertips to her temple. The simple action had caused a sharp, unabating ache. What was wrong with her? Even as she wondered, the pain in her temples knifed to her abdomen. She moaned. The next thing she knew, she was hunched over vomiting, every fiber of her being clenched in rebellion.
Jason and Mitch leapt away from her as if she were nuclear waste. When she at last finished, she wiped her mouth with her palm and closed her eyes. Mitch skirted around and handed her another canteen of water. He remained a safe distance away.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Stomach still churning, she sipped. "No. Yes," she answered. "I don't know." Where the hell was her brother? "Were you part of Alex's team?"
"No, but we do work with him. Unfortunately, like you, we haven't heard from him in a while. He simply stopped checking in." Jason paused. "What's your name?"
"Grace. Did you just arrive in Brazil?"
"A couple of days ago."
She hated her next question, but she had to ask. "Do you suspect foul play?"
"Not yet," Mitch answered. He cleared his throat. "We found one of Alex's men. He was dehydrated pretty badly, but said Alex had left him to follow another lead. The man's at our boat now, hooked to an IV."
"Where did this other lead take him?" she asked.
"We don't know." His gaze skidded away from her. "Do you know what Alex was looking for? His teammate babbled about, uh, Atlantis."
"Atlantis?" She feigned surprise. Yes, this man worked with Alex. Judging by his words, however, he hadn't known Alex's agenda. That meant her brother hadn't wanted him to know, and Grace wasn't going to be the one to tell him. Besides, how did she explain something so unbelievable? "I thought he was trying to prove the legend about the female warriors. You know, the Amazons."
He nodded, satisfied with that. "How long have you been out here?"
"Since Monday." Two miserable days that felt like an eternity.
"Last Monday?" Jason asked, rejoining the conversation. "You've survived out here-on your own-for seven days?"
"Seven days? No, I've only been here for two."
"Today is Monday, June 12."
Holding back her gasp, Grace counted the days. She'd entered the jungle on the fifth. She'd spent two days wandering through the interior of the rain forest before traveling through the mist. Today should be the seventh. "You said today is the twelfth?" she asked him.
My God, she'd lost five days. How was that possible? What if-No. She immediately cut off the thought.
The possibility continued to flood her, however.
She pushed out a breath. If it weren't for those missing days, she wouldn't entertain the idea at all. But... what if everything she'd just endured was merely a figment of her imagination? Like a mirage in a desert? What were the chances of there being a man who could teach her a new language with a magic spell? Or lick her wounds and heal her?
Or kiss her and make her want to weep from the beauty of it?
Unconsciously she reached for the medallion at her neck. Her fingers met only skin and cotton, and she frowned. She'd lost it in the mist. Hadn't she? She just didn't know, because in all actuality she could have lost it anywhere in this godforsaken jungle.
Her confusion grew, the truth dancing just beyond her grasp. Later, she decided. She'd worry about sorting truth from fiction later. After she'd had a shower and eaten a good meal.
There was no way to explain her suspicions to these men without sounding totally and completely insane, so she didn't even try. "Yes, last Monday," she said weakly.
"And you've been alone the entire time?" Jason asked skeptically.
"No, I had a guide. He abandoned me."
That seemed to pacify him, and he relaxed his stance. "Did you see Alex at all?" He patted her shoulder in a gesture meant to comfort her.
She pretended to stumble backward a step, dislodging his hand. She didn't want to be patronized or coddled. She just wanted to find Alex. When she'd first entered the Amazon, she hadn't worried about him, hadn't worried that he might be lost or hurt somewhere.
Or worse. He was smart and resourceful, and in his journal he'd laughed about evading his "shadow," so she'd just assumed he was not in any real danger.
"I wish I had seen him," she said. "I'm concerned about him."
"Do you know anywhere he might have gone?" Mitch asked.
"No. Wouldn't his teammate know?"
"Not necessarily." Jason sighed, a pronounced sigh that revealed a hint of too-white teeth. "All right," he said. "I need to stay here and continue searching, but I'm going to have Patrick-that's another member of our crew-"
Patrick stepped from the shadows in a swath of camouflage, holding a semiautomatic. A startled jolt sped through her at the sight of the man and his gun. He ignored her upset and tipped his chin to her by way of introduction.
"He won't hurt you," Jason continued. "I'm going to have Patrick get you to our boat. It's loaded with medical supplies. I want you hooked to an IV ASAP."
"No," she said after a moment's thought. Alex might still be in the jungle, alone and hungry. He might need her; he'd always been there for her, through the years of their father's cancer, and she wanted to be there for him. "I'll stay with you and help you look for him."
"I'm afraid that's impossible."
"If you're hurt, or worse, it's my ass in a sling. Let Patrick take you to the boat," he cajoled. "It's docked on the river and not far from here, about an hour's hike."
"No. I'll go into town and-"
"You're two days from civilization. You'd never make it alone. And I'm not sending any of my men into town right now. I need them here."
"Then I'll stay here. I can help," she said stubbornly.
"To be honest, you'd be more of a hindrance. You're clearly near collapse, and we'd waste precious time having to carry you."
Though she didn't like it, she understood his logic. Without strength and energy, she would be a burden. Still, helplessness bombarded her because she desperately wanted to do something to aid her brother. Perhaps she'd question the man on the boat, the one who had spent time with him.
She gave Mitch and Jason a barely perceptible nod. "I'll go to the boat."
"Thank you," Jason said.
"We'll keep you apprised of our progress," Mitch added. "I promise."
"If you haven't found him in a day or two," she warned, "I'm coming back in here."
Jason lifted his shoulders in a casual shrug. "I'll give you a piece of advice, Grace. Go home when you've regained your strength. Alex may already be there, worried about you ."
Her back straightened, and she leveled him with a frown. "What do you mean?"
"There's a good chance he's already flown out of Brazil. Not only did his teammate mention that he'd followed another lead, he also mentioned that Alex bought a plane ticket three days ago."
"To where?" Confusion had her shaking her head. "And why are you still here?"
"We don't know and boss's orders," Mitch said, shifting on his feet. "This is the last place he was seen. We're to search until the office hears from him."
Home, she thought. Alex could very well be home. The concept was so welcome after everything she'd been through that she latched on to it with a vengeance. She turned to Patrick. "I'm ready. Take me to the boat."