by Nikki Logan
Never take your eyes off a predator
Veterinarian Clare Delaney is in Africa, relocating fourteen sedated African Wild Dogs to a protected habitat. When their convoy is set upon by poachers, Clare is taken hostage. Now she’s in the middle of God knows where with five vicious criminals who have no desire to protect the life of an unwanted prisoner…
And never run…
The hostage jeopardizes everything. British undercover agent Simon DeVries is furious; this job should have been as smooth as silk. Instead, Clare has compromised not only the operation, but his position and authority amongst his “crew.” Worse still, he finds himself not only wanting to protect her, but keep her as close to him as possible. Close enough to keep her from running away and getting herself killed. And close enough to touch and taste that smooth skin…
Now Clare is in even more danger. Because it’s one thing to identify with your captors. Falling for one is quite another…
© 2012 Nikki Logan
Clare Delaney grabbed what little sleep she could amid the heat and acrid smell of urine and rotten meat. Tucked comfortably into the straw a safe distance from the fourteen deeply sedated African Wild Dogs, she’d grown half-hypnotized by the rhythmic rocking as WildLyfe’s transporter bumped along the highway, roused only by a brief cargo check as they’d crossed the border from Zimbabwe into neighboring Zambia.
Reaching for the two-way that sat on top of her veterinary kit, Clare radioed the rest of the team. “Transporter check-in,” she murmured. “All fine back here.”
A string of acknowledgements crackled back at her from the four passenger vehicles leading the convoy. The four air-conditioned vehicles.
She swiped at the sweat tickling down her neck. Volunteering to ride in the back of the transporter truck all the way to the protected habitat in the north had seemed like a much better idea in the comfortable cool of an African morning. Nadia and Mitch had said she was crazy, but Clare had been worried about one particular dog, Jambi, and how quickly the big alpha might recover from the effects of the Ketamine she’d administered.
Being damp didn’t bother her—her hair was already half-soaked—but the tickling on her skin reminded her too much of the persistence of the winged little chenje that liked to stick their cicada legs to sweaty human skin. Dashing them away was instinctive.
Then again, maybe volunteering to ride in the back was just her way of reveling in the last few moments of their work on this project. Two long years of tracking, preparing, and planning. Months of negotiations with the local governments, hundreds of hours observing the pack and getting to know each of the fourteen rare dogs—their markings, their habits, their hierarchy. It was hard to believe that in just a few hours they’d be safe in their new territory, far away from the poachers and conflict with agriculture in the south.
As safe as they could be, anyway.
The transporter lurched suddenly and her eyes snapped open. It wasn’t like their driver, Musai, to brake so suddenly with a full load of—
Before she could brace herself, Clare tumbled sideways, landing flat on her stomach as the truck swerved to a halt on the shoulder of the deserted road. Doors slammed—several of them—and that was enough to keep her immobile, half-pushed to her knees in the straw. Her gaze flicked to the dogs, then the giant sliding door of the transporter. Outside, angry voices shouted garbled instructions over the panicked tones of her colleagues. Only the unmistakable rack of a high impact shotgun brought instantaneous silence. Her breath backed up low in her chest and she locked her gaze on the door to the transporter, pushing slowly to her feet, listening past the stampede of blood in her ears.
Yet that didn’t release any of the tension holding her rigid.
The transporter rocked as someone climbed in the front and the vehicle rumbled back to life. Clare’s heart thumped hard and steady, tucking itself up between her collarbones for safekeeping, as the useless shouts of her fellow WildLyfers faded into the distance. She cursed her boss for being too cheap to spring for an armed guard while going north. This was exactly the sort of people WildLyfe had been working so hard to protect the pack from.
And she’d delivered the dogs up to them in one easy-to-hijack package.
She peeked through a crack in the transporter’s side door as the truck turned off the highway, her mind racing. An ocean of tall razor-grass whizzed by, dotted with clumps of thorny acacia. She could try to save herself, leap out the side and possibly survive to make it back to the others, but she could just as easily kill herself with a badly timed jump.
Worse, it would mean leaving the sedated dogs unprotected.
Committing to stay and defend her helpless cargo turned the adrenaline that coursed through her body in the opposite direction, making her sharp and decisive rather than blank and breathless. Her body vibrated with tension but she commando-crawled backward, closer to the unconscious dogs, positioning herself between them and the door, ready for battle, as the transporter slowed to a stop.
First rule of the wild: Never take your eye off a predator. You never turned your back on wild dogs, even comatose ones.
Unless what was coming at you was more dangerous…
Clare braced herself as the side door of the transporter slid open with a violent clang.
A skinny, ginger-haired man lurched at the sight of her. “What the fuck?!”
Clearly, he hadn’t expected anyone to be on board. She spread her arms wide, an under-sized and inadequate human barrier between the poachers and her dogs, and the man’s beady eyes shifted between the wild creatures and her as he climbed into the truck. She was only five foot two with zero self-defense training. It’d be a short battle, even against someone as scrawny as he was.
He circled to his right. Clare shuffled left until she was closer to the open door—and to freedom—and he was hard up against the pack. He split his focus, nervous but nasty, between her and the dogs. She kept her gaze glued on him.
Before she realized what was happening, a fetid blanket sailed down over her head and someone yanked her off her feet from behind. Her scream cracked across the African bush, sending a cluster of wild birds flapping as she was bundled out of the transporter and dumped roughly onto the cramped floor of another vehicle. Three doors slammed and it peeled off at top speed.
“Don’t move!” A hard boot jammed down on Clare’s shoulder. She lay in a painfully awkward position under the filthy Hessian blanket. Fear kept her still and silent at first, then her survival instinct kicked in and she kept her mouth shut so she could listen—to them, to the sounds of their vehicle traveling. Anything that might give her the tiniest sense of control. She strained to hear the distinctive rumbling of the transporter.
It was faint, but it was there. She wondered who was driving it now. Her shiver of relief congealed into something darker, hoping Musai hadn’t been hurt.
A deep voice came from the driver’s seat. “She conscious?”
She recognized his thick accent immediately and named him for the country where she had picked up the transporter and the dogs. Zimbabwe.
“You still with us?” A boot collided with the side of her face, slamming steel against bone through the blanket. She flinched and groaned.
“She’s awake,” the voice said, and laughed.
The scratchy fabric disguised her wince. Boots. He kicked her again for good measure and this time her cheek cracked. She hated that she couldn’t stop herself from crying out.
“Enough!” Through the buzz of pain, she recognized a new voice. “Pull over.”
Quiet but commanding—and British judging by his cultured accent. Out of place in this hostile setting. Was he in charge? They rattled to a halt. Apparently he was. As the door closest to her head opened, warm air streamed into the pocket under her foul blanket and she drank in its freshness.
Despite the momentary relief, her muscles tensed. Was this it? Had they arrived where they were going to dump her? Would they leave her alive or dead? With no weapon, no water and no shoes—those were still sitting in the straw in the transporter—how long would she last in the wilds of Zambia, anyway?
“Out,” the man said, but not to her.
Alpha. She named him for his status in the group.
Boots shoved her violently aside as he lurched out and slammed the door. The weight in the truck shifted as Alpha slid to sit above her, his legs carefully braced around her huddled body. The far door slammed as Boots clambered back in, taking no more care of her legs than he had of her head. She was too grateful that her skull and torso were protected now from Boots’ vindictive steel-caps to care that she hadn’t been released.
Alpha spoke again. “Drive.”
It seemed like hours before the tires crunched to a halt on gravel. Clare stiffened. Were they at their final destination? Stomach acid threatened and she swallowed it back. Now was no time to let fear bare its teeth. She flexed her limbs, warming them up for what was to come. A few shallow breaths later, both rear passenger doors opened and the two men got out.
She didn’t wait to be asked.
Like a swimmer off the block, she fired out the door, hurling back the blanket and sucking in a lungful of hot, dusty air. She narrowly missed slamming into one of the men and lost valuable seconds changing course to leap around him. Pins and needles sliced through her feet as she lurched—half-blinded by the rich African light after her long, dark confinement—past the truck with her beloved dogs and up the rocky track.
Surprised voices shouted in three languages behind her. Just as she wondered whether escape was going to be that easy, a steady thumping grew close behind and powerful arms closed effortlessly around her.
“Oh, no you don’t…” Alpha.
She roared her frustration, twisting in his grip and firing off every obscenity her father had brought home from Boston’s dockyards. Alpha lifted her off the ground with ease, pinning her, face-out, against his hard chest in a rock python’s grip. He smelled like sweat and work and…man. She’d take the stench of wild dogs any day. Her heart pounded with rage, but as she writhed backward, her head slammed onto his shoulder and, just for a moment, her ear moved in range of his lips.
The word breathed against her ear, playing with the hairs on her neck. There was a warning in his tone, but no threat. The tiniest part of her terrified mind grasped that. He repositioned her more securely against him, tossing her like a child in his arms, and walked back toward the vehicle—a traditional African bakkie, three quarters rust—that was surrounded by her captors.
And she got her first good look at them all.
The skinny ginger-top started to laugh and her gut turned. Boots… Bastard. On the far side of the bakkie, a giant African stared out into the veldt like this was all too boring. Walking toward her was a blond man, average build, carrying the filthy blanket.
“Here,” he said, raising the Hessian up to toss over her. Nothing distinct, nothing memorable. The voice of every man she’d met in Johannesburg. She called this one Jo.
“No, leave it.” Alpha’s words reverberated in his chest where she was crushed against him. “She smells bad enough. Plus, she’s seen us already.”
Jo stepped back and nodded to someone beyond her view. She craned her neck and got a flash of a bald head behind the wheel of the transporter—the fifth man—before Alpha pushed past the others, straight toward a dilapidated farmhouse. Opening the door single-handedly, he bundled her through the kitchen and into a half-cleared out store-room, lined with louvered windows. He dumped her on the weathered floorboards.
Peeling her watch off and pocketing it, he fixed her hands behind her with lengths of cable-tie. As soon as he was done she coiled and backed up hard against the wall, urgently assessing him.
There was no way she was getting past him. Those shoulders spoke of strength she couldn’t match and he’d already outrun her without so much as breaking a sweat. Clearly the man was fit—and used to working outdoors, judging by his even tan and battered boots. She pushed thick hair back from her sticky face, wiping her sweaty hands on cargo pants already soiled from a morning full of dog handling.
Storm-gray eyes swept over her thoroughly, slowly. “You look like a wild creature yourself. What’s your name?”
She glared at him.
A dangerous smile curved his lips. “I know you speak English, because you swear like an Irish guard. Again, what’s your name?”
Clare doubted even her Da would have used the word she spat back at him.
The smile chilled. “Tell me your name.”
An old joke from vet school fought its way into her mind. “Ana.”
Her chin went up defiantly. “Phylaxis.”
The smile disappeared along with all the air in the room as he stepped farther into it. She couldn’t help but stumble back.
“Well, Ana Phylaxis, here’s the rules.” He held up three work-roughened fingers. “One: you don’t try and break out of here. We’re in the middle of big-cat country and you wouldn’t last ten seconds outside the gates without a vehicle or a weapon.”
“Two: you don’t pump us for information. In fact, it would probably be best not to speak to us at all unless spoken to. Three: do what you’re told, keep your mouth shut, and don’t even try to play us against each other. You may look good enough to eat, but believe me when I say you absolutely do not want to go there.”
“And in return?” She twisted shaking fingers behind her back. As if she was in any position to negotiate. Her hammering heartbeat fell into sync with the fast thrum of the bush-chenje outside.
His eyes hardened and Clare wondered if his long, considering silence was supposed to lull her into a false sense of security—like the sway of a cobra. “In return I’ll do my best to make sure you get out of here alive.”
Her mouth dried up. His best. Meaning it wasn’t likely.
But she had to know…
“Wait,” she cried as he reached the doorway, his back straight and inflexible. Cold, gray eyes turned back, pinning her, and she took a deep breath. “What are you going to do with my dogs?”
Something flitted across his shielded eyes. Disappointment. Anger. A strange kind of regret. He stepped closer and his lip curled. Her eyes fixated on it.
“Rule number two. Don’t do it again.”
And then he turned and slammed the door firmly in her face.
Without her watch, Clare had no idea how many hours had passed before she saw him again. Her head ached from clenching her teeth and her tongue peeled off her gummy palate. The naked, dusty bulb that illuminated her room dimmed. She’d been on enough bush expeditions to recognize the dip and surge of generator electricity. But at least she wasn’t in the dark, not literally, anyway. The air in the room may have been hot and thin but she couldn’t stand the thought of being in darkness, as well.
She was barely holding herself together as it was.
She twisted her hands to get some flexibility in her bonds. She’d already challenged the locked door repeatedly, bruised her fist banging on the ancient timber, and shouted until she was hoarse. At last, she’d slid to the floor, trying to hear what was going on outside. Eventually, even the flickering light bulb hadn’t stopped her from falling into an exhausted sleep on the ancient, moth-bitten mattress.
Now, she pushed up off it and crossed to the window to peer out into the darkness where a sun-bleached yard and rusty old water tank had been when Alpha first locked her in during daylight.
What the hell was going on?
She had a fair idea of what fourteen wild dogs—or their body parts—were worth on the black market but to take the truck in broad daylight… On the highway. That was bold. Or desperate. More than the average villager out stealing bush meat would have risked. This was organized.
Her eyes explored what her fingers couldn’t; the louvered windows, the weakest link in the room. Just begging to be smashed open. They weren’t expecting a human hostage along with their canine cargo or they would have prepared this room better.
She shifted uncomfortably, as her bladder made its presence well and truly felt.
Night time. The dogs were almost certainly conscious by now. If the sweltering heat in her prison was any indication, the sun beating down on the stationery truck all afternoon would have turned it into an oven.
She pounded on the door with unsteady hands. “Can somebody give the dogs water?”
She banged again, louder. “Please…will you water the dogs?” And how about some for me while you’re at it?
This time she heard footsteps. Outside, someone stopped but didn’t open the door. Clare leaned against it, tired, frightened, and worried for the pack. She pressed a whisper into the flaking timber. “Please…”
After a pause, the bolt shifted. She stumbled backward as the door opened to reveal Alpha’s carefully schooled expression and tense posture. Her urgency made her forget caution.
She started forward. “The dogs…please can you—”
He held up both hands. “Do you need the bathroom?”
She did need it—badly—but she was more worried about her parched animals. “They’ll need water,” she said, her temper rising.
“So you keep saying.” Boredom flattened his voice.
Understanding finally dawned. He had no intention of helping them. “I’d be happy to—”
“I think not,” he said.
Her breath quickened and she stumbled to try to block his body with hers. Lifting her eyes to his, she implored him. “Please.”
He sighed and turned to go. “I’ll bring you food soon.”
He stopped but didn’t bother to turn around. This wouldn’t be pretty. She took a breath and risked speech.
“I do need the bathroom.”
Simon deVries leaned against the door to the washroom, crossed his arms, and got comfortable for a long stay.
Christ! A hostage. Not part of the plan. It had been a good plan, too, detailed and thorough. Until now.
Now there was a gaping, five foot two flaw with big, brown weepy eyes. To complete the insanity, he had cast himself as chief babysitter. Not like he’d had any choice. There wasn’t one man on this crew he would trust if Miss Irish USA decided to wield her only weapon—herself. Including him, and he was the best of the lot. He didn’t owe Dyson, Corby, and the others a thing, but his loyalty and his entire focus had to be on this job, not on their unexpected guest.
The toilet flushed and, after a moment, he heard the sound of a tap running. He was vaguely aware of the state of the bathroom when they’d first returned, and figured the room couldn’t be any better now that five men had used it.
She’s a hostage, deVries. I don’t think it matters what she thinks of the facilities.
God knew its function was more important than its form at this point. His hormones might be suckered, but his nose was working just fine. The woman smelled positively gut-turning thanks to the feral blanket she’d been covered in for the ride, and having held her close to him a couple of times now, so did he. His own wash could wait until the main business of the day was complete. Thankfully, it almost was.
He settled back against the doorframe and dug his hands deep into his pockets.
The transporter—the evidence—would be fifty miles away by now, en-route to a fiery destination far from the farmhouse. Just as well she was occupied in the bathroom, otherwise she’d be bleating about those damned dogs. He wasn’t convinced the gravity of the situation had dawned on her yet. There was only one thing they wanted from those animals and it wasn’t their rare genes.
The door creaked open and he straightened, ignoring how small she seemed in the opening. “You need a shower,” he said. He stood a little taller when she didn’t move. “Now. You stink, and thanks to you, so do I.”
He followed her gaze into the bathroom to see it was devoid of both shower stall and tub. Instead, there was a square patch of ancient tile with a broken drain hole in the center that opened to the cavity under the house. Nothing more.
“You’ll have to use the bucket,” he said, irritated. When she hesitated, he lifted an eyebrow. “I promise not to peek.”
She flushed scarlet. “I don’t have any clean clothes, or a towel…”
Neither did he—not for a woman. An unexpected and unplanned-for woman. He cursed under his breath. “Wash your clothes. I’ll bring you something to wear while they dry. Get started.”
She closed the door quickly and, seconds later, he heard the sound of the tap running and the old plastic bucket filling. He was about to head to the bunkroom when he paused. Was she crazy enough to wait until he’d moved from the door, and then make a break for it?
He groaned. Not crazy, maybe, but certainly desperate.
He put his fingers to his lips and belted out a whistle, not risking calling anyone by name within her earshot. He hoped it would be Dyson, the least worrisome of the three. Dyson liked his women more masculine. Completely masculine, in fact. Didn’t make him a better human being particularly—the man was still a creep—but it made him just trustworthy enough to guard a naked, vulnerable woman behind a door with no lock on it.
He heard the thump of steel-capped boots on the wooden floor.
Shit. Corby. The worst possible choice. He’d have to move fast.
“You rang?” Mockery ran thick in the weedy voice.
Simon kept his voice low but threatening. “Stay here. Make sure she doesn’t come out.”
“Sure, sure.” Corby studied his nails, a badly disguised smirk under his pointy nose.
Sarcastic little maggot. “Do not go in there.”
Simon turned and headed for the bunkroom where five camp beds were set up. Rummaging in his pack for his towel and the biggest T-shirt he had, he’d just turned back to the hallway when he heard coarse laughter. That couldn’t be good. Rage boiled as he approached the bathroom door, now standing wide open, to see Corby leaning on the doorframe soaking up the view.
Son of a bitch.
“I didn’t go in—”
He grabbed Corby by the hair and hauled him out. The mirror framed her, backed pitifully into the corner of the room, no shower-curtain, no towel, nothing but an empty bucket to afford her some privacy. She wielded it like a weapon. She looked—what?—angry, embarrassed. Definitely frightened, and so she should. But there was something else.
The rigid set of her arms—refusing to cover herself—and her heated glare that burned right back at the laughing weasel. That took guts.
He shoved Corby down the outside steps where the scum slammed into a steel water trough beside the house. The skinny pervert swore up a storm and rose to take him on, but Simon pushed him back down and snarled, one hundred percent primitive instinct. “You pathetic degenerate. Go near her again and I will peel your skin off with a carving knife.”
He marched back into the house before his fingers did actually reach for his blade.
“You’re the new guy, asshole,” Corby shouted at his retreating back. “You don’t run this show.”
“Yeah I do,” Simon muttered to himself. “Just none of you have caught on yet.”
He lowered his eyes as he approached the bathroom. She hadn’t moved far—where could she go completely naked?—but she had picked up the towel and shirt he’d dropped by the doorway and now clutched them against her. They did nothing to wipe the tantalizing mix of alabaster curves, pink flush, and downy shadow from his mind. That was going with him to the grave.
Now that the streaks of dirt were washed off her face, he could see a dark bruise blooming on her jaw where Corby had kicked her on the highway. His lips tightened. He reached for the wet clothes she’d piled on the closed toilet lid.
“I’ll return them to you when they’re dry,” he said, his gaze fixed firmly over her head.
She nodded, silent and dignified. Not many women would have managed that, naked. Or men.
Bundling up her clothes, he closed the door behind him and waited, his heart pounding at the back of his throat. Echoing parts of him farther south.
Keeping this job on track had just gotten a hell of a lot harder. Corby had changed the ground rules. Within minutes that little piss-ant would be spilling his guts to the others, and they’d think Simon was keeping her for himself. He’d have to be ready with some damn fine reasons not to share her around.
Obligation burned deep in his belly. He was all that stood between her and a nasty end. Maybe it would’ve been better to leave her dry, smelly, and out-of-sight.
She emerged a few minutes later, his T-shirt ridiculously oversized yet still not covering as much as he’d hoped. Her wet, dark hair tumbled around an oval face in which three features stood out notably—a luscious pair of lips, the darkening bruise, and enormous brown eyes which glittered whilst resolutely avoiding his. His stomach churned. He’d left her exposed and vulnerable, and she’d only been under his care for a few hours.
Not your care, he had to remind himself. Your supervision.
Nonetheless, not a good start.
At the door to her holding room, he retrieved his towel and turned her to face him. Brown eyes fixed on his left shoulder, the color now high in otherwise ashen cheeks. He wrapped a new piece of cable-tie in a figure-eight around her wrists and yanked it tight in front of her.
Then, without a word, he closed her in the room.
He couldn’t have felt more like a bastard if he’d been the one enjoying the show back there in the bathroom. Not that he’d looked—liar!—at least not for long, and certainly not on purpose.
He returned the damp towel to his bunk and fumbled the padlock off his pack. It would fit fine. Not particularly robust, but secure enough to slow Corby down, or anyone else who might take a shot at getting lucky. It would at least lend some warning they were busting in. Not that she could do much with that heads-up except to maybe yell the place down.
A little voice asked him whether she would be any safer with him holding the key…
In a few hours, he’d moved from minor physical contact to having seen her as God intended. Minus the bucket. She’d been scared, vulnerable, and stark naked, and to his shame he’d hardened up in that moment. Not a sterling recommendation of his character.
But he wasn’t here to win awards for chivalry, he told himself, shoving a kitchen chair out of the way as he passed through. You’re here to secure the shipment. There was a reason he’d been assigned this job, a reason he was working with men he couldn’t stand on a project that turned his stomach.
He was the best.
And the best should be able to multi-task. Get the assignment done while minimizing collateral damage. Human and otherwise.
He moved down the back stairs to the house, ignoring Corby’s surly regard.
As he stalked across the dusty, nighttime compound with her soggy clothes in his hands, he suppressed an unbidden mental picture. Not of her standing defiantly in the bathroom, her perfect, lush body dripping wet—although he’d keep that one handy for later. It was the image of her gazing up at him with bottomless brown eyes, pleading for someone to tend to those damn dogs.