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Guide My Heart

(The Stirring Book 1)

by

Caroline Swart



Guide My Heart

Copyright © 2017 by Caroline Swart


Edited and Formatted by

Pam Berehulke, Bulletproof Editing


Cover design by

COMPRSA


Kindle Edition


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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Coming Soon

Also by Caroline Swart

Author’s Note

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Chapter One

“Holy hotness.” Meghan pinched my thigh. “Would you look at that?”

“Ouch!” Smacking her fingers away, I looked in the direction she was pointing and sucked in a breath. “No way.”

Our jaws slack, both Meghan and I watched the sexiest male to ever draw breath sling a muscular thigh over the running board and hoist himself into the safari game-drive Jeep.

“Oh. My. God,” my best friend whispered in awe. Pressing a hand to her chest, she let out a tiny whimper of lust as he glanced at our group.

His green eyes tracked over my head but then almost immediately returned to focus on mine. The smile he gave me paralyzed me, and yet my lips curled up into a goofy grin, which would have stayed in place if Meghan didn’t pinch my thigh again.

“Brit. Brit, he’s looking at you.”

“Cut that out,” I snapped.

“But it’s true. Oh, sweet mother of—” She bit off her words as I kicked her under the seat.

“Calm down. You’re making a scene. He’s just a travel guide, and he’s got a job to do. He won’t start the tour until you stop gawking at him.”

Meghan bit her lip and continued to stare unabashedly.

We were in the third row of a Jeep that had been modified for game drives. An elderly couple dressed in khaki tops with matching leopard-print neck scarves sat next to us. Thankfully, they weren’t hogging all the room and were too small to elbow me in the confined space. I shifted restlessly on the hot seat, waiting for the tour to begin.

The four teenagers in the row in front of us were female, and it was obvious they’d noticed the guide. They used their European accents and flicked their hair, trying to attract his attention. As if they had a chance.

“He looks like Thor.”

Rolling my eyes, I noticed the glazed look on Meghan’s face and sighed. “Get a grip, Meggy. You’re worse than the pubescents in front of us.”

One of the girls turned and glared at me.

The vehicle roared to life with a lurch, forcing us to grab the handrail on top of the seat in front of us. I accidentally trapped that same girl’s hair, and she yelped as the big truck pulled away from the game lodge. As soon as I could, I released her curls and shrugged an insincere apology when she glared at me again. Talking was pointless over the roar of the engine.

Meghan seemed to break out of her lust-filled trance. “Here we go,” she mouthed with an enthusiastic smile. Her fair chin-length hair bounced as she twisted around to search for wildlife before we’d even left the enclosed area.

We hadn’t driven more than thirty yards when the driver stopped the noisy vehicle. An electrified double gate blocked our path with diamond-shaped danger signs clearly visible. A rush of chatter started between the tourists as we waited at the entrance.

Thor stood and faced us. He had to be the most amazing sight I’d seen since landing in South Africa yesterday for our two-week safari vacation.

After giving us a blinding smile, he greeted us in a velvety, powerful voice. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Chris.”

“It is the actor.” Meghan gasped, widening her eyes.

I frowned at her. “Don’t be stupid.” Obviously, our guide wasn’t really Chris Hemsworth, but he did bear a close resemblance.

“Welcome to the Lion’s Pride Game Lodge.” Resting his hip against the open window, he pointed at the driver. “This is David, and we’ll be introducing you to the inhabitants of our reserve.”

In a hushed voice, Meghan said, “Do you hear that accent? So yummy. I could listen to him all day long.”

I smiled and stole another glance, taking a quick inventory. Mid-twenties, tall, broad forehead, high cheekbones, tanned skin, and golden hair pulled back into a short ponytail. Everything about him screamed delicious.

“Before we leave the enclosure, please remember to stay inside the vehicle. The animals see the truck as a nonthreatening unit and won’t attack, but your safety isn’t guaranteed unless you remain seated.”

This caused another murmur of voices, and everyone discreetly shifted away from the sides.

As soon as the first gate opened, David stepped on the accelerator and drove inside the fenced area. The first gate slid closed behind us, and the one in front opened. Leaving the safe area, we entered the reserve.

A dirt road led the way into a yellowed grassy plain dotted with small green bushes, a rugged array of sloping hills in the distance. Here and there, thorny trees stretched their branches toward the wispy clouds above.

“Oh, this is so beautiful.” Meghan had finally stopped gawking at the tour guide and stared at the scenery around us.

A few antelope grazed nervously at the side of the road, and we stopped for a closer look. The bucks were no taller than knee-height with light brown hides and white underbellies. One of them sported an impressive set of horns, while the rest were smaller and hornless.

“These are impala. The babies are affectionately known as bokkies,” Chris said. “You’ll notice the male has the horns, and he has a harem of females.”

“I’ll be a part of Thor’s harem any day.” Meghan had resumed her starry-eyed expression, and I lowered my camera with a small laugh.

He glanced at me then and tilted his head slightly. My cheeks burning, I focused my gaze on the small buck.

“See the black streaks that run from their white buttocks to the upper hind legs?” He pointed at their tails and everyone nodded. “They form the letter M, like the M in McDonald’s.”

We gave him blank stares, waiting for him to explain.

“These antelope are the preferred choice of food for predators. They’re like McDonald burgers for lions and cheetahs. If you see the M running in the distance, you can bet that a leopard or another predator is following behind.”

The tourists finally chuckled, and cameras flashed and clicked as he continued to educate us about the four-legged Happy Meals.

Chris’s knowledge was impressive, and he kept us entertained as the tour progressed. We stopped to see kudus, giraffe, and wildebeest. His voice was smooth, and I soon picked up the different nuances in his accent.

The temperature rose as the sun climbed, and an annoying line of sweat trickled down my back. Even though I wore a thin tank top with a pair of cotton shorts, the heat was still oppressive.

When we reached a large group of thorn trees, Chris gestured for David to stop. “Don’t make any loud noises,” he whispered as he pointed to a sandy spot on the far side of the last tree.

My eyes focused and I gasped. Five lionesses sprawled on the ground, panting in the heat. One lifted her head and seemed to single me out. She was enormous, and the way she fixed her amber eyes on mine caused tingles to erupt in my stomach. It was the weirdest feeling, like climbing into a hot bath with icy feet. Very creepy.

“This is part of the Khumba pride,” Chris said fondly. “The cubs are just out of sight. If we wait for a few minutes, they might make an appearance.”

Cameras clicked again, but everyone kept quiet. Even Meghan was subdued.

The lions were huge—no wildlife documentary could accurately depict their size. Their paws were gigantic, about ten inches wide from the first pad to the last. What would their claws feel like fully extracted and ripping into one’s flesh? Just the thought made me shiver.

Inside the vehicle, the atmosphere was electric. Everyone was excited, most likely too scared to speak.

As the lionesses relaxed in the sparse shade of the thorn bushes, flies buzzed around their heads and crawled over their bodies. They too were sweltering in the hot weather.

I could sympathize with them. At least when our vehicle moved, we had a slight breeze, but now that we’d stopped the temperature was hellish, and I was cooking.

“The females guard the cubs, and hunt for food at dusk. They generally lay low during the heat of the day.”

While Chris spoke, I blew out a breath, unable to bear the sticky heat any longer. Raising my hand, I swiped at my forehead with the back of it.

A low growling sound came from the front of the vehicle, drawing my gaze to Chris. Was it my imagination, or had his eye color switched to honey gold? For a moment, he stopped speaking and stared at me strangely, much like the lioness panting in the shade.

“That’s odd,” Meghan whispered. “Thor looks like he’s starving and you’re the main course.”

Chapter Two

Dropping my arm, I squirmed in my seat. Meghan had a point. The man looked ravenous.

I’m not exactly prom-queen material, but I’m not ugly. My stomach is flat, my hips flare just enough, and my chest fills out a T-shirt nicely—or so I’ve been told. But my eye teeth aren’t exactly in line with my front teeth, and my hair is the color of dark coffee. I may be pretty enough, but I’m not a blond bombshell.

That’s why I couldn’t fathom Chris’s sudden attraction. The gleam in his eyes was so hot, my stomach flip-flopped. Everyone in the Jeep turned to look at what he’d seen, and I glanced back too, hoping they wouldn’t realize where his attention lay.

David started the engine and we were jolted away from the pride. Some of the tourists complained about not seeing the cubs, but the driver grabbed Chris’s hand, tugging him down roughly to exchange a few low words. How strange.

“Oh wow, Brit. Did you see how he stared at you? Did you flash your bra at him?”

I scoffed. “Must be the marks on my arm.”

Lifting my hand, I studied the small blotches. I’d had them as long as I could remember, and although they resembled tattoos, they were actually birthmarks. Starting at the knob of my wrist bone, four tiny paw prints trailed toward my elbow. The females in my family shared the same marks, but a doctor had assured us they were harmless. Just a concentration of melanin, he’d said.

Still, I didn’t think a tattoo would cause Chris to look at me like that.

David spoke to him, wagging a finger as he drove. I caught one or two phrases over the loud noise, but they weren’t speaking in English.

With a closed expression, Chris continued the tour but didn’t look at me at all. Not even once. As soon as we reached the lodge, he said an abrupt good-bye to the group and hopped out to stride inside.

Meghan grumbled. “I wanted to meet him. He should have waited for us.”

Peeved, I had to agree. “Guess he doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

Climbing over the seats, I exited the vehicle. David had remained and he nodded at me, his white shirt a stark contrast against his dark skin. I said good-bye and hurried away from the Jeep, but his gaze followed me as we entered the lobby of the game lodge.

Once inside, Meghan exclaimed, “This is more like it,” as she accepted an ice-cold glass of fruit juice from a waitress. Giving the woman a grateful smile, I took a glass from the same tray.

An employee with vivid auburn hair and an amazing tan stepped out from behind the lobby counter. Wearing a light summer dress, she looked cool and elegant. Her rubber heels squeaked on the floor as she headed toward us.

“Hi, my name is Sarie. Are you girls enjoying yourselves?”

At the sight of her bright smile, my moodiness lifted. We were on vacation, and I’d traveled too far to let a tour guide’s surliness spoil my African vacation. My mom had paid a lot of money for this trip, and I was determined to enjoy every second of it.

It was the week before Christmas, but instead of being bundled up and freezing in New York, I was walking around in shorts. The Southern Hemisphere was in the throes of summer, much to our delight, but the only hint of Christmas I’d seen were some sparkly lights and the occasional strand of tinsel strung here or there. Here, the Christmas trees consisted of painted white branches nailed together in triangular shapes. In such a sunny place, there was no need to add lights and glitter—the weather created the holiday spirit with no effort at all.

Meghan fell into conversation with Sarie while I sipped my drink. Still hoping to catch a glimpse of Chris, I allowed my gaze to wander the lobby.

The lodge’s entrance was large and blessedly cool. Two African employees stood behind the reception desk that ran the length of the wall. The counter was built of dark sheets of wood that were smoothly polished, and intricate tree lattices decorated the front panels. Indigenous plants rested in vases along the shiny surface, together with woven baskets filled with pamphlets.

A life-sized elephant carving stood to the left, complete with twinkle lights draped around its neck for the holiday, and a gathering of sandstone statues were arranged to the side of the slate floor. Reeds filled an assembly of brass buckets near the reception desk, and wooden beams crisscrossed under a high thatched roof. The faint smell of tar and dried grass sweetened the air.

When Sarie mentioned there was going to be a party later tonight, I turned to face her. “Sounds like fun. What time?”

“At six. You’re scheduled for a massage at our spa, and after that, we’ll have a spit braai for dinner.”

Meghan’s brow pinched in confusion. “What’s a spit braai?”

“Oops.” Sarie laughed. “Spit braai is a South African word. We’ll be roasting meat on a rotisserie outside. A light lunch is being served in the restaurant now, but do keep space for tonight’s meal,” she said with a wink.

As she spoke, my stomach growled. “Must be all the fresh air. I’m ravenous.” Placing my empty glass on the counter, I tugged on Meghan’s arm. “Come on, let’s freshen up for lunch.”

We left the lobby and walked into the sunshine outside, headed for our quarters. Each of us had our own luxurious thatched-roof cottage close to the lobby and restaurant. Thirty other stone-walled cottages on stilts surrounded the lodge. Some were family sized, and others, like ours, shared a small deck and splash pool.

My mother had picked the best game lodge she could find, saying she wanted us to have the vacation of a lifetime. As far as we could tell, she’d been adopted from this region of South Africa, but couldn’t trace her roots accurately. Her practice in New York was busy in December, and she’d asked me to bring photos and stories about the place until she could visit. So far, the vacation had exceeded my expectations.

“Don’t you just love the view?” Meghan sighed as she walked into my room.

Through the glass door, I could see Kaneba Lake framed by majestic hills in the distance. The cottages were elevated, and a series of wooden walkways led to the lake where direct access was blocked by high thorn bushes.

“Everything here is beautiful.” I searched in the small cupboard, digging out a clean pair of shorts and a tank top. “Hurry up and get changed. I’m starving, but I’m not going out wearing this again.” Armed with a towel, I shooed Meghan from my room.

Taking extra care with my makeup once I’d showered and dressed, I rapped my knuckles on her door. “Are you done?”

“Yeah,” she drawled as she opened the door. Her room was the mirror image of mine.

Squatting in front of a small bar fridge, she searched for a drink. “Apparently, the legal drinking age in South Africa is eighteen,” she said, smiling over her shoulder. “I guess at nineteen, we’re legit.” Her grin couldn’t get any wider as she presented two miniature bottles of whiskey. “Ta-da!”

I laughed as she fished for bottles of soda and mixed the contents.

“Oh, Meghan. This is the life.” I exhaled a happy sigh as I flopped back onto her plush white quilt. “Can you imagine our friends at college?” Closing my eyes for a second, I smiled. “The weather forecast says it’s snowing in New York today, and here we are in the middle of summer, having the vacation of a lifetime.”

“I know.”

As Meghan beamed at me and dropped a few ice cubes into the glasses, I thought again about how lucky I was to have her in my life.

Her dad and my mom had met and double-dated when they were in veterinary school, then later stayed close as couples. After my dad passed away, we’d moved next to them, and Meghan and I had become best friends. When her dad learned about the safari trip my mom was booking for me, he paid for Meghan’s ticket under the pretext we’d keep each other out of mischief. Hah!

Meghan’s silver bangles jingled as she handed me a drink. “We also get to see all the amazing guys here. Cheers.” Clinking her glass against mine, she smiled. “I wanted to call dibs on Thor, but I can see he’s yours.”

“Hmm, he disappeared too quickly. I don’t think he likes me anymore. Cheers.” I took a big sip and spluttered, holding the glass away. “Gosh, how much alcohol is in this?”

“The chef is kinda hot,” Meghan said, ignoring my coughing. “Did you see how he ogled me at dinner last night?”

I snatched a tissue from her bedside table and dabbed my eyes with it. “The bearded guy with the bun?”

“Yeah. What’s with the man-bun and ponytail craze here, though? Don’t get me wrong, they know how to rock it.” She sighed dreamily. “I think it’s so alpha male.”

The whiskey went down more smoothly with my second attempt. “Must be the lack of razors in the bush. I don’t know.”

“You’re such an idiot.” She pushed my shoulder. “Finish up, BFF. I’m starving.”

We downed our drinks, and I grimaced as the rush of alcohol fired through my veins. After a quick appraisal in the mirror, we left her cottage and headed back to the lodge, our cheeks slightly flushed.

Two handcrafted wooden doors opened into the dining area that was large and airy with tables scattered beneath a high-beamed roof. A few guests were already seated close to sliding-glass doors that opened onto a full-length deck.

“The view here is better than the room.” She pointed at Kaneba Lake, sparkling like a diamond in the afternoon sun.

“It is pretty cool,” I agreed, popping a dinner mint in my mouth that I snatched from the hostess stand.

Waiters bustled in and out of swing doors carrying platters above their shoulders, and a buffet table to our left seemed to groan under a heavy weight of food.

Sarie stood nearby with a Santa hat perched on her head. She walked over, pointing at the smorgasbord on display. “What do you think?”

Meghan laughed. “If the food tastes as good as your hat looks, I’ll be first in line.”

“This old thing?” Touching it self-consciously, Sarie smiled. “Only a few more days until Christmas, thank goodness. This hat so uncomfortable. I can’t wait to pack it away with the rest of the decorations in the store room.”

When I looked at her in mock horror, her eyes widened and she covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh no, it’s not that I don’t like Christmas or anything.”

“Calm down.” I gave her a teasing grin. “We’re here on safari. The time of year is just a bonus.”

“Good grief, I thought I’d offended you.”

Meghan raced to the buffet. We joined her, and as she stared at the food like a greedy child, Sarie offered to explain a few of the dishes.

“Yeah, that’d be cool.” Meghan nodded without looking at us.

“The only dishes you won’t be familiar with are over here.” Sarie motioned to one side of the table. “That bowl contains lamb curry, and those crispy things are called poppadums. You eat them together with a chopped-tomato-and-onion dish called sambals, over there.”

I glanced hungrily at the ceramic dishes, inhaling the fragrant aromas. My eyes almost closed in ecstasy as cinnamon and a host of unfamiliar spicy scents wafted in the air.

“We have a hot carvery with grilled chicken breasts and roast gammon.”

Feeling guilty, I rubbed my stomach. No matter how good the food looked, I’d have to save room for dinner. Central Park was far away, and I couldn’t chance jogging in the bush. Until I could find a way to burn off the calories, I’d have to watch my diet.

“I thought you said this was a light lunch,” I said to Sarie.

She smiled. “Let me know if you need anything.” Spotting another couple entering the room, she walked over to greet them.

My bestie was already standing in line, so I joined her. The foreign girls we’d seen earlier were ahead of us, piling their plates high with meat and vegetables.

Meghan peered back at me, wrinkling her nose. “Promise you won’t act like a teenager if I tell you something?”

“I am a teenager,” I said, raising a brow. “For another few months, anyway.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Her eyes sparkled. Sneaking a glance over my shoulder, she whispered, “Thor’s at the door, and he’s watching you again.”

Chapter Three

Oh crap.

I couldn’t help myself. Without thinking, I looked back at Chris.

My gaze fixed on his, and a thousand butterflies took flight in my stomach. With a strangely possessive stare, he moved toward me.

Meghan snickered before whispering “incoming” in a singsong voice. The foreign girls noticed him at the same time and nudged each other with excitement.

Oh my God. I couldn’t move. He advanced on me with a predatory gait like a sleek, golden-haired lion. My heart leaped in my throat as he stopped so close, the material of his shorts brushed against my knee.

“Hi.”

“Hey,” I mumbled back, captivated by his smile.

Broad shoulders blocked the light from the veranda doors as I tilted my head to look up at him. He smelled so good, but not from aftershave. No, he carried his own natural scent of sunshine, grass, leather, and maybe a hint of vanilla. I tried not to close my eyes as I breathed deeply.

“My name is Chris de Lange.”

“Hey, Chris.”

“What’s yours?”

“What’s my what?” I said, and Meghan exhaled in frustration behind me.

“Your name.” His lips curled in amusement

“Oh.” I let out an embarrassed chuckle. If only my brain would kick into action, but it was frozen. Still, I had to try.

“Britney Adams. You can call me Brit.”

“Nice name.”

“Yeah, it’s like the singer, but I don’t sing . . .”

Meghan shoved her hand toward him, obviously trying to save me from embarrassing myself further. “Hey, I’m Meghan Tait. So nice to meet you.”

Jeez, get a grip, Britney.

White teeth flashed as he shook her hand. His blond locks were loose, parted in the middle with the ends brushing his shoulders. A silver lion-paw charm dangled from his neck, and a faint line of stubble darkened his jaw.

“Did you enjoy the game drive today?” he asked, releasing her hand.

“Yes, absolutely.” Meghan grinned. “Although Brit wanted to ask you about some of the animals we saw.”

“You do?” he said as I sputtered “I do?” at exactly the same time.

Meghan rolled her eyes as he shot me a curious look, so I quickly added, “I mean, yes. Yes, I do.”

“Why don’t you guys grab a table over there?” She pointed to the glass doors. “You can ask all the questions you’d like,” she said to me. “Don’t worry, I’ll get the food.”

Gritting my teeth, I tried to glare at her, but Chris had already maneuvered me toward the deck by placing a hand at the small of my back. His fingers splayed over the waistband of my shorts, brushing the bare skin under my top. A rash of goose bumps prickled my arms at that slight contact.

“Is this table good?” he asked, pinning me with forest-green eyes.

Nodding, I waited as he pulled out a seat and gestured for me to sit. He angled his chair beside mine and swung himself into it before focusing on me.

“So, what would you like to ask?”

For a second, my mind went blank. How could I concentrate when all I could see was tanned skin and white teeth? He was so close, the hair on his bare legs tickled my calves.

Come on, Britney. Think!

“I’d like to know why the lioness stared at me today.” Yes, the question was stupid, but it was the first thing that came to mind.

A glint of humor shone in his eyes, and his lips curled into a half smile. “Maybe she’d like to eat you.”

Laughter burst from me before I could stop it. “Yeah, I bet.”

“Seriously. She has good taste.” His gaze turned to my arm as I ducked my head to hide my burning cheeks. Reaching out to lift my wrist from my lap, he whispered, “Nice tattoo.” With almost reverent care, he ran the back of his knuckles along my birthmark.

As his fingers caressed my skin, a current of sensation hit me, a swoop in my belly like the first big drop in a roller-coaster ride. I had to be dreaming.

Chris leaned forward as if he were going to kiss me, and my eyes dropped closed. But instead of the darkness I expected when I normally closed my eyes, a vision sizzled behind my eyelids. A thick golden chain appeared, sparks flying from it as it floated in the air. Before I could move, one end of the metal slid over my arm and wrapped around my wrist. I tried to pull away, but my hand wouldn’t move.

What was happening?

In the vision, I tried to scream at Chris but my mouth wouldn’t open. All I could do was watch as the edges of his body glowed and the other end of the chain settled in his hand. A rich vanilla scent overwhelmed my senses, making my head fuzzy.

Chris tugged the chain gently, and I lurched forward. A second later, the glow around his body faded and the golden chain disappeared. Opening my eyes, I found myself leaning against him, the side of my face pressed to his chest with his large hand cupped against the back of my head.

What on earth?

Mortified, I tried to pull away but he tightened his embrace. His muscular arms enfolded me, drawing me closer, and I had to place my hands on his thighs to stay upright. A moment later, he released me with a soft smile, brushing strands of hair away from my cheek and tucking them behind my ear.

“Are you okay? Is it jet lag?” he asked, his voice filled with concern.

Floor, please open up and swallow me now.

Nodding, I removed my hands from his thighs, sure I must be imagining a flash of hunger in his eyes as I sat back in my seat.

The bit of whiskey I’d had with Meghan earlier. That was it. It was the only explanation for my behavior. What else would cause me to act this way?

“Look at all this food.”

Meghan broke the tension when she hooked her foot around the leg of a chair, dragging it toward her. With a plate in each hand and another balanced precariously against her chest, she wiggled into the empty space and smiled at me.

Chris hopped up to help Meghan, leaving me dazed and reeling. “You shouldn’t have brought food for me.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “You’ll get me fired.”

How could he speak normally when my legs were like Jell-O?

Meghan’s mouth fell open. “Oh no. I’ll take it back.” She reached for his plate but stopped when he laughed.

“Just kidding. My parents own the lodge. I was going to have lunch in the kitchen before I saw you two at the buffet.”

Meghan cocked an eyebrow in surprise.

If I weren’t so flustered, I’d be more interested in the fact that his parents owned the lodge. Slowly, the buzz in my stomach calmed and my mind cleared. As the world shifted into focus, I made myself a promise not to touch African whiskey again. A tiny shiver ran through me when I thought of how close I’d been to Chris. His unique vanilla-and-leather scent lingered in my nostrils, and I could still feel the heat of his thighs on my palms.

With casual ease, Chris finished his food while I pecked at mine, too conscious of his closeness to do any justice to the delicious meal.

Meghan kept the conversation going as if nothing had happened. She must have seen him holding me but she kept her composure, chatting about our long flight and how awesome the animals were. The interrogation would happen later, of that I was certain.

He was about to have the last mouthful when one of the foreign girls approached our table. As luck would have it, she was the one I’d almost scalped on the game drive.

“Hello.” She gave him a wide smile. “My name is Milla.”

“Great,” Meghan whispered in my ear. “This place is full of movie stars.”

When she saw my blank look, she huffed. “Jovovich, get it? Resident Evil? Argh!” Shaking her head, she concentrated on finishing her meal.

I stared at Milla again. Her voice was high-pitched and heavily accented.

Pushing back his plate, Chris gave the girl a panty-melting smile. “Hi, Milla. How can I help you?”

In full flirting mode, she twirled a curl of hair around her finger and dropped her chin, reminding me of a little girl asking her daddy for candy.

Meghan snorted softly as she took another bite of food.

“I would like to join the wildlife volunteer program.”

Milla’s w and v sounds were switched, so what she said came out like, “I vud like to join the vildlife wolunteer program.”

Chris nodded. “When would you be free to join? Now, or in future?”

“I’m free now . . . or later.” Her lips tilted up as she gave him a coy look.

Meghan tapped my arm, and with a start, I released the death grip I had on my steak knife.

“Right. I’ll get the forms, and you can fill in the details.” Chris stood and slid his chair under the table. “Thanks for the meal, ladies.”

He leaned toward me so we were almost cheek to cheek. “Get some rest this afternoon, and meet me at the barbecue tonight,” he whispered softly. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

And just like that, his vanilla scent enveloped me, drugging me again.

Holy crap.

Although I was still confused about what had happened before, my goofy grin reappeared as he left with a wink.

Chapter Four

“Oh yes!” I groaned. “Just there.”

The masseuse dug her fingers into a stubborn knot under my shoulder blade. With delicate precision, she rubbed and kneaded the spot before patting the bunched nerves into submission.

“This is the best,” Meghan said dreamily from the table next to me.

“Mmm, best vacation ever.”

We were in a small massage room with dim lighting, towels wrapped around our waists, and music piping softly through hidden speakers in the ceiling.

“So, what happened at lunch?”

I lifted a lazy eyelid. “What do you mean?”

Meghan let out a chuckle. “Oh, come on, Brit. When I got back to the table, you were practically sitting on his lap.”

The masseuse began a series of chops along my buttocks, giving me a minute to gather my thoughts.

“I think it was the whiskey,” I said after the chopping subsided.

Meghan grinned. “Don’t give me that.”

“I’m serious. That stuff is potent,” I insisted as the masseuse indicated our session was over. With a silent groan, I sat up, covering myself with the towel before sliding from the table. “It made me dream about Chris, and when I woke up, I was in his arms.”

Her eyes widened. “Damn. You got the good stuff. I hope there’s more left in the fridge because I’m definitely having some before the barbecue.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re such a dork. You know that, right?”

With a twinkle in her eye, she entered the changing room and unhooked a robe from the door. “We’d better hurry and get ready for tonight. I don’t want to be late.”

“Okay.”

“Hopefully that hunky chef is on duty. He won’t know what hit him once he sees me,” she said with a wicked grin.

“Poor guy.” I rolled my eyes.

Thankful she hadn’t asked for a better explanation, I slipped into my clothes. Maybe it was best to keep quiet—I’d hate for her to think I was crazy. We had thirty minutes to prepare for the barbecue, so we hurried back to our rooms.

The ladies at the spa had done our manis and pedis, as well as facials and waxing, so I felt buffed and polished. My hair was thick and straight, and all it needed was a quick brush to get it back into shape. After applying dark eyeliner and mascara, I did a quick twirl in the mirror to see if the sundress I’d changed into was presentable.

Meghan was ready when I knocked on her door.

“Wow.” She whistled. “Does Chris know you’re about to rock his world?”

“Don’t be silly. This is the only dress I brought. I hope your chef is prepared. You’re not messing around tonight.” Pointing at her low-cut top, I laughed as she pushed out her chest, presenting her assets.

“Yeah, man-buns beware. These beauties are dangerous.”

We were still chuckling and joking when we entered the barbecue area. Meghan straightened, spotting her target within seconds. With a hand cupped at her mouth, she whispered in my ear, “Hottie alert. My chef is on duty.”

“Where?”

Following her gaze, I saw him behind one of the grills, carving slices of meat for the guests.

The sun was almost down, and long shadows stretched over the brick walls. A delicious smell of barbecued meat hung in the air. Christmas lights strung on the wall flickered, and about thirty tourists wandered around the smoky entertainment area. Huge flames crackled in a deep fire pit dug into the center of the open space.

I wasn’t sure if a sixth sense made me look to the right, but when I did, I found Chris’s eyes blazing intensely at me. The hair on my arms rose and my stomach nosedived. I smiled at him, but he didn’t reciprocate. Once again, his gaze was fixed on me, homed in as if I were his prey for the night.

Milla broke our connection when she stepped in front of him, blocking my view. I couldn’t mistake the halo of blond curls draped over her bare shoulders. She was dressed for attention in a strapless top and a revealing pair of hot pants. The firelight gleamed on her long, sleek legs, making my sundress seem plain in comparison.

Shivering, I stepped back. The hungry look in Chris’s eyes was unsettling. It made my stomach flutter in a pathetic and girly sort of way.

Someone touched my arm, and I whirled around, releasing a surprised breath.

“Hi, glad you could make it.” Sarie grinned. “Did you enjoy the massage?”

“Yeah, it was great, thanks.”

“Good, I’m glad.”

A tall, wiry guy in his early twenties stood next to Sarie, and judging by his tanned skin, he spent most of his time outdoors.

“I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Blom. He and his father are guests of ours, and he asked about you.” With a quick squeeze of my arm, she headed toward another guest, leaving the two of us alone.

Giving me an appraising look, he shook my hand. “Call me Renaldo, please.”

“Hey, I’m Britney Adams.”

“Ah, you’re an American.”

“That’s right,” I said, extracting my hand from his long fingers. “Born and bred.”

“You don’t look foreign.” His eyes glittered as he reached out to lift a lock of hair from my shoulder to rub between his thumb and forefinger.

My brow arched at his forwardness. I’d just met the guy, and he was invading my personal space.

“You look like a local with your beautiful brown eyes and dark hair. Most American tourists have fair skin and blue eyes, which doesn’t fare well in our harsh sunlight.” He shook his head. “But your golden complexion suits our climate. You could have been born here.” He gave me a seductive smile.

Okay, this guy was definitely flirting.

He wasn’t bad to look at, and out of boredom, I decided to play along. I was on vacation, after all. But before I could practice my come-hither skills, Chris intervened.

“Blom.” He stepped between us, dipping his head to Renaldo in a curt greeting.

God, Chris looked good. His hair was long, thick, and slightly wavy, the color of ripe wheat ready to be harvested.

Renaldo paled in comparison as he nodded in reply. “Hello, Chris. Good turnout tonight.”

“Thanks.” As Chris turned to me, a vein throbbed along the column of his neck. “Britney, can I have a word with you?”

Was he upset with me?

“Yes. Of course. Excuse me, Mr. Blom.”

Renaldo’s lips firmed but he stepped back, allowing Chris to steer me away with a hand gripped tightly around my forearm. Marching me over to an empty corner, Chris slowed and came to a stop, trapping me between his body and the brick wall.

“Okay,” I murmured uncertainly. “What was that all about?”

For a second, he didn’t speak. His breathing was unsteady, and he clenched his hands at his sides.

“Chris, are you all right?” Placing a hand on his chest, I stared into his eyes. His nostrils flared as he took a calming breath.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a tight voice. “Didn’t mean to drag you away like that.” Glancing over his shoulder, he looked in Renaldo’s direction and then turned to face me.

I gulped. Chris’s eyes were completely golden, not a trace of green anywhere. Slowly, deliberately, he slid his hand along my wrist, his fingertips brushing the paw marks on my arm.

In an instant, sparks flew around our bodies. The golden chain I’d seen in that crazy vision reappeared, wrapping itself around my waist. The other end coiled around Chris’s knuckles, and he tugged at the chain gently. Completely helpless, I was yanked forward in his grip until my chest pressed against his hard, warm body.

Bowing his head, he grazed his nose along my jaw and growled, “You smell so good.”

My eyes were open this time. I hadn’t imagined the chain.

“Chris, what are you doing?” I whispered as his free hand curled around my hip.

Drawing me closer, he tightened his hold until my cheek rested against him, my thighs flush against his. Our bodies fit together perfectly in the shadowy corner. His grip was so tight, I could feel every dip and ridge of his large frame.

“Don’t fight it,” he murmured into my ear. “I’ve searched for you forever.”

The same glow I’d seen before enveloped us, and I had the strangest urge to rub my face all over his broad chest like a needy cat. His biceps bunched under my fingertips, and his skin felt as smooth as silk over steel.

“Chris, where have you been?” a nasally voice interrupted in a thick European accent. “I have been waiting and waiting for you.”

Chris stiffened. Still holding the chain, he released me, and the warmth of his big body faded from mine. As I stepped back, the chain splintered into wispy pieces and vanished.

“Milla,” he said in an annoyed voice. “I said I’d see you later. What’s the matter?”

The spell I’d fallen under lifted as I processed his words. Shaking my head, I tried to clear my thoughts.

Did Chris have an arrangement to meet Milla tonight? Seriously?

God, I was so stupid.

I wondered if he’d made the same date with her, just in case I didn’t show up, but there was no use in confronting him about it. He’d probably lie and say she wanted to discuss a tour or something. Men were all alike. No matter the continent, they were exactly the same.

“Britney . . .”

He frowned but I’d already stepped around him. The trick he’d used to make the chain appear was neat, but it wasn’t going to fool me.

“Go ahead, Chris,” I said over my shoulder. “Don’t let me keep you from your date. Your schedule seems pretty full tonight.”

Despite him calling after me, I was determined to leave. Scanning for Meghan, I sighed in relief when I spotted her next to the chef. Her hand was on his arm, and she was laughing at something he’d said. She smiled as I walked closer and caught my gaze, raising her fingers behind his back to signal she was all right.

I couldn’t interfere or spoil her fun. Meghan deserved a good vacation too. Waving, I left the area as quickly as I could.

As soon as I got back to my room, I sank on the bed. Brushing my tears away, I switched on the TV, determined not to go outside again. A seam of my dress ripped when I yanked it off with more force than necessary, but after a while, I calmed down. After raiding the snack drawer, I lay back on the bed with a chocolate bar in one hand and the TV remote in the other.

Much later, a door closed nearby and giggling could be heard through Meghan’s bedroom window. But that wasn’t what startled me. No, it was the low grunt of a large animal, padding restlessly outside my door in the early hours of the morning that had me sitting upright in bed.

I remained that way until the first rays of sunlight filtered through the blinds.

Chapter Five

A sharp knock on my door startled me. Opening my eyes, I blinked at the digital clock on the side table. It had to be wrong; it couldn’t possibly be that late.

“Britney.”

Another knock.

“Are you awake? We’re going to miss breakfast. Hurry up,” Meghan called out, her voice muffled through the wooden door.

Groaning, I rolled out of bed and opened the door. She burst into the room, grinning broadly.

“Get up, sleepyhead. It’s ten o’clock. Breakfast closes in half an hour, and we’re supposed to see the orphaned animals today.”

With one fist rubbing my eye, I yawned. “Wipe that smile off your face.”

Meghan snickered like a young kid. A pair of sunglasses perched on her head, and her face glowed with happiness. “Guess what happened last night?”

Turning my back on her, I shuffled to the bathroom. “I don’t have to. You were loud enough to wake the dead.”

She laughed out loud as I squirted toothpaste on my toothbrush and began brushing my teeth. “His name is Marshall. He’s a qualified sous chef, and he’s twenty-four years old,” she gushed. “Such a talented guy, I swear. He made me laugh all night.”

Tilting my head to look up at her, I spat the last of the toothpaste into the sink. “You’ve got a hickey.”

Her hand flew to her neck. “Huh? What do you mean?”

Bumping me away from the mirror, she craned her neck and touched the mulberry-red mark at the base of her throat. “Oh no, he didn’t!”

“Oh yes, he did,” I said as I wet a facecloth to wash my face.

While she dug through my makeup, I brushed my hair into a quick ponytail before finishing up in the bathroom. I was fastening my sandals in the bedroom when she reappeared.

“Can you still see it? I’ve covered it up as best I can.” She pointed at the mark, which was a lot less visible.

Nodding, I stood and pocketed my room key.

“He’s such a guy. I mean, really.” Her smile was bright as she slid the sunglasses from her head over her eyes. “What was he trying to do? Mark his property?”

I shrugged while holding the door open. “As long as you enjoyed yourself.”

“Oh, I did. Did I tell you how talented he is?”

“TMI, Meg. It’s too early in the morning.”

Flitting from the cottage, she stopped halfway out the entrance. “Hey, what happened to you last night?” She placed a hand on my arm and searched my face. “You left so early. Did you and Chris get together?”

“Nope. I watched TV all by myself last night.” I didn’t tell her about the chain, and how Chris had said he’d searched for me forever. That bit of info was staying right where it belonged, in zip-your-lips land.

“Oh no.” Her eyes widened. “I saw him follow you when you left, and he didn’t come back all evening. I thought you were together.”

“Hmph,” I grumbled. “Did you see Ms. Movie Star at the party?”

“Who, Milla? No, I think she disappeared around the same time you did. Why?”

My fragile mood crumbled and I shooed my friend out of the cottage. “No reason. I didn’t feel like playing second fiddle to some tourist.”

“No, you’re kidding. Brit, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you say anything?”

I gave her a thin smile as I locked the door. “Don’t be silly. An early night was just what I needed. All this fresh air has been making me sleepy.”

Meghan snorted in disbelief. “Tell me if it happens again. Remember, sisters before misters. Promise?”

Laughing, I agreed. As we linked arms, I almost stumbled when I noticed a huge paw print in the dust under my window. Not wanting to upset Meghan, I continued walking as if nothing was wrong, but goose bumps dotted my forearms. Luckily, I’d stayed indoors last night.

After a light breakfast of fruit and yogurt, we caught one of the Jeeps leaving for the animal orphanage. Chris was nowhere to be seen, and Milla hadn’t joined her party. Not that I minded. Christmas wasn’t far away, and I didn’t want to mope over a stupid tour guide when I was on the vacation of a lifetime.

Feeling better about my decision, I hopped out of the last Jeep and waved at Sarie as she welcomed us to the animal sanctuary.

“Hi, girls. Glad you could join us.” Always glamorous, she’d dressed casually in a suede safari hat and a gray T-shirt and shorts. Her smooth, tanned legs drew admiring glances from a few of the older men in our party.

She smiled before pointing forward. “The entrance to the rhino orphanage is down that pathway.”

We followed her directions along an earthen track hemmed between security fencing until it opened into an area surrounded by tightly packed wooden poles. Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, staring at a pen where three baby rhinos had their snouts propped between the metal bars.

“Look at those sweet things,” she exclaimed.

Some of the tourists had walked up to the pen, and the babies were moving to and fro with excitement.

Sarie spoke behind us. “They’re waiting to be fed.”

I had to smile. The baby rhinos were ugly enough to be beautiful. With gun-metal-gray skin folded like armor, tiny bumps for horns, and ears way too big for their heads, they were positively prehistoric. Squealing like puppies waiting for food, they ran their square mouths back and forth along the bars.

“Aw, they’re so cute. Can I take a baby home to New York?” Meghan’s blond bob tilted to the side as she pouted.

“If you’re willing to pay the airfare,” I joked.

“It won’t be so expensive.” She moved closer. “Seriously, they don’t weigh that much.”

One of the babies nudged her hand with his lip.

“Think again.” Sarie grinned. “They can weigh up to two tons when they’re fully grown. At this age, they need to be fed six times a day, and they eat their mother’s dung in the wild, so you’d have to whip up a few stinky shakes to keep them happy.”

Meghan wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, did I say they were cute? Bad rhino,” she said, scolding the poor baby closest to her. “Not good to eat your mommy’s poop.”

Barely containing her laughter, Sarie guided us to the next set of pens. The two rhinos in this enclosure seemed a bit older. The bumps on their heads were unnaturally smooth, and they were a lot bigger than the babies we’d left behind.

“What happened to their parents?” I asked, and a deep voice rumbled in my ear.

“All of these rhinos were orphaned because of poachers.”

Yanking my head back, I found Chris right behind me. I was so startled, I couldn’t figure out what he’d said.

“Really?” Meghan’s eyes widened as she turned to face him.

“Yes,” he said, answering her while staring pointedly at me.

Sarie gave us a little wave and left to greet a new group of tourists.

Taking a deep breath, I savored the fresh scent of his aftershave. He was so close, I could almost feel him against me. If he moved forward an inch, we’d be touching. Honestly, this man had no sense of personal space. Even if I wanted to be angry about last night, his hungry gaze stopped me in my tracks. He stared at me as if I were his prey, and I was his to devour.

Without thinking, I wet my lips, and he groaned softly.

Stubble glistened on his jaw in the morning sunlight, and all I could think about was how it would feel against my skin. He was making me crazy. Against my will, my body was drawn to his like a paper clip fighting a magnet. Thankfully, he released the spell by looking away.

“Poachers are brutal. They gouge out the horn of the adult rhino.” He took a deep breath and focused on the pen. “They don’t care if the animal lives or dies. They’re left to bleed to death.”

Whoa. The grisly subject sobered my lust-filled thoughts in an instant.

“How do they catch the rhino?”

Meghan’s question came at the right time. She walked to the next pen and he followed, thinking I’d join them. As he told her about darting, and the barbaric methods the poachers used, I stepped back, glancing at the rest of the tourists.

Sarie had moved to a smaller pen where people were listening to her commentary. I looked back at the baby rhino enclosure just in time to see the one person I wanted to avoid.

Milla.

So she’d finally decided to join the tour. I thought we were the last bunch of tourists to leave the lodge, so how did she get here? With Chris? Had they woken up together, and after a leisurely breakfast in his mother’s kitchen, taken his car to visit the orphanage? My jealous mind pictured the scene.

Wait, am I jealous?

I couldn’t name the biting emotion in my chest, but whatever it was, I didn’t like it. Strengthening my resolve, I decided not to fall for him again. The effect he had on my emotions was almost physical. Keeping my distance was the only option, especially if I guessed right and he was a player. With looks like his, how could he not be?

No, I wasn’t an impressionable female tourist looking for a holiday romance. This festive season, Santa wouldn’t get milk with his cookies.

Leaving him to finish the conversation with Meghan, I wandered over to the crowd surrounding Sarie.

“Britney.” Renaldo stood behind me, giving me a lazy smile. Dressed in khaki with his dark eyes sparkling dangerously, he was the image of a typical hunter.

“Renaldo, hey. How are you?”

“Much better for seeing you.” As he spoke, he slung an arm loosely around my shoulders. “Come and meet my dad,” he said, guiding me to a gathering of tourists at another pen.

This one was much bigger than the other enclosures, with a carpet of grass that covered the sandy soil and a swing gate at the entrance. Four mature rhinos grazed peacefully, making chuffing sounds through their noses as their square mouths ripped at the tender shoots.

Renaldo walked up to a man with a lined face and touched his arm. Lean and tanned like his son but with a cool glint in his eye, the man seemed bored by the proceedings.

“Dad, this is Britney Adams from New York.”

“Hey, there.” I smiled.

“Brit, this is my dad, Hannes Blom.”

“Good to meet you.” Taking his proffered hand, I shook it lightly as he nodded at me.

“So you’re here on vacation?” he asked.

“Yeah. All this sunshine beats walking in snow.”

Ja, and the currency exchange is good. You can buy a lot of Christmas presents to take back home.”

“If my friend had her way, she’d buy a rhino for Christmas,” I joked.

Hannes answered seriously, though, and his words made the hair on my arms rise.

“No, the rhinos should be sold to hunting farms. That’s where the money is. These beauties can fetch up to thirty-five thousand dollars when they’re big. Martin is a sentimental fool—he and his son, Chris, don’t want to sell their animals.”

Huh! Who was this guy? How could anyone sell the plump, gray-skinned babies for hunting purposes?

I lifted a brow, trying to keep my tone even. “Maybe they don’t like raising them just to be killed.”

“Tsk.” Mr. Blom flicked his hand as if he were batting away a fly. “That’s what farming is all about. Livestock is raised to be killed and eaten. There’s no difference. It’s another continent, another kind of animal.”

“Yes, but these animals are endangered. Once they’re dead, there aren’t any more.” Raising my chin, I glared at him angrily.

An odd smirk played on his lips, but he didn’t reply, maybe because Sarie’s group had just joined us. Mr. Blom nodded at her before walking away.

Renaldo tightened his arm around my shoulders. “Ignore him. He’s in a bad mood.”

My cheeks were warm after the exchange, but Renaldo pressed a finger softly against my skin. “Hey, are you okay?” He frowned, studying my face.

I blew out a breath. “Your father is intense. But I’m good.”

“Are you sure you’re okay? He can be a bit abrupt, but he means well. Don’t let him get to you.”

“I’m good. I promise.” Peering over his shoulder, I decided to change the subject. “Why do they call them white rhinos? They have gray skin.”

A small smile touched his lips before he dropped his arm and turned to look at the animals. “The Dutch called them weid or wide rhinos when they first came to Africa, because of their wide mouths, but the British thought they meant white rhinos. I guess the name stuck.”

“Ah.” I smiled.

Renaldo placed a foot on the bars, and I reached out to grasp the metal that was warming quickly in the midmorning sunshine. The air carried the smell of rich soil and freshly cut wood, together with the slightly sour tang of dung. He waited patiently as I watched the huge animals graze.

“I don’t understand why anyone would want to kill them,” I said after a while. “They’re such beautiful animals.”

“Horns. The hunters want the horns.”

“But what’s so special about a horn?”

“Hmm, what’s so special about a horn?” Renaldo paused, his eyes glittering mischievously. “Sounds bad when you say it like that. Are you sure you want the answer?”

The tension I’d felt after speaking to his dad disappeared, and my laughter rang out. “Don’t be an idiot. Tell me the truth.”

Grinning broadly, he leaned down to whisper in my ear. “It’s said to have aphrodisiac properties. They say it makes a man hard all night long.”

Once more my cheeks heated, but this time it was because of the teasing note in his voice. There was no mistaking his flirtatious tone. If Chris preferred Milla’s company, I didn’t need to look far for his replacement.

But my heart was stubborn. It needed chemistry and zinging sparks, and maybe a golden chain or two . . .

Someone tugged at my arm and I swung around, tamping down my guilty thoughts.

“Whatcha doing?” Meghan asked.


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