Time of the Temptress 2
A lot of the country around the missionhad been cleared for plantations and livestock, but Eve now foundherself in the actual jungle, where wild snaking vines bound thetrees together and laid traps for unwary feet, where ropes ofconvolvulus hung thick as an arm and loaded with the big bellflowers that smelled so primeval. Long, broad banana leaves hadto be beaten out of their path, and whiplike bamboos had to beavoided. It was exhausting, the continual avoidance and beatingback of jungle growth, all so alive, somehow, as if it would gobblethem up. And the heat was cloying, so that Eve could feel theperspiration running down her skin and soaking the clothes thatkept her from being badly bitten around the legs and arms. Themosquitoes seemed to lurk in the lower growth, among the enormousferns and massive leaves around the boles of the trees. All wasdim and green and seething with insect noises, broken by the crunchof Wade’s boots, breaking down the path as much as possible sothat she wouldn’t stumble in her cumbersome sandals.
She dared not think of all the milesthey must travel until they reaached [sic] the coast. She feltdismayed by the very thought of hours, perhaps days in this livinggreenhouse, where like a pair of human flies they battled withthe giant foliage.
“What happens,” she askedsuddenly, “if the coast is in rebel hands?”
[19-20] “We make for one ofthe villages. They’re dotted about, and so off the beaten trackthat it’s hard to believe there’s a rebellion going on. Oftenthe people are friendly and ready to help . . . but my adviceright now is don’t waste energy thinking ahead, just keep walkingand keep up your spirits.”
“I’m trying, but don’t youhave the feeling we’re being watched all the time, every stepwe take?”
“Monkeys,” he said laconically,”high in the trees. Curious about us but not dangerous.”
Eve smiled with relief, and wonderedif there was anything on earth which could unnerve this Majorof mercenaries, shatter the coolness with which he faced thisjourney and its hazards. Was he so hardened that nothing couldmake a dent in him?
He paused and his panga gleamedas he hacked a sprawl of lianas from their path. Now and againshe had seen him consult a compass so she was free of the fearthat they could become lost . . . he might not be the most charmingof travelling companions, but he was sure of himself, and a broad-shoulderedbulwark against the menace that seemed to simmer behind her, andat every side of her.
She stumbled nervously when a parakeetscreeched in the undergrowth, and at once he shot a look overhis shoulder. “Mind your step!” he ordered.
“I’m all right–“
“Would it help if I cut youa stick?”
“Then stay just where you areand I’ll cut a bamboo.”
He disappeared into the densenessat the left of them, and Eve took a rest against the trunk ofa huge old tree, shutting her mind to what its foliage might be[20-21] hiding, and aware of a longing to slide down into thegiant ferns and sleep. It seemed as if she had been on the movefor hours, and indeed she had, for it had been some time lastevening when the Major had searched the mission and found theSisters and herself concealed in the cellar. All their patientshad fled, or had been carried away by their families.
“We must keep going a whilelonger.” A bamboo stick cut at the joint was placed in herhand. “This should make things a bit easier.”
“Thank you.” She lookeddefiantly into his eyes, as if to deny her weariness. He thoughtshe lacked hardihood and she had to show him that she wouldn’tbe a burden on him. “I know how imperative it is that wekeep on going, and I shan’t fall behind, Major, or make you wishtoo fiercely that I were a soldier instead of a stupid societygirl who should have stayed at home in her cosy bandbox.”
He grinned in that brief and diabolicalway of his. “It will be something for you to remember, eh? Always supposing I get you to a boat or plane.”
“I assure you this trek willbe unforgettable!”
“And uncomfortable.” He faced about and they continued on their way, one behind theother, plodding tenaciously through an endless tunnel of greenand shirring forest, brightened now and again by flame blossomsor a creamy curtain of wild orchids.
Eve thought of cool, faraway England,and the flaming quarrel she’d had with her guardian, who had beenso sure that she would allow herself to become engaged to JamesCecil Harringway the Third; heir to a corporation, good-naturedand gangling, but not the man for Eve. She had stood out, andthen on sheer impulse [21-22] had packed a bag and flown to Tangabecause she wished to help, to do something with the pamperedlife her guardian had made for her, only to expect in return thatshe marry a man she neither loved nor desired.
She plodded on in the wake of herguide, and felt sure that had her father not been killed whenshe was three, she would not be here in the steaming jungle, herface hot and shiny, and clad in the shirt and slacks of a man. Not only that, but at the mercy of a jungle mercenary, and aband of rebels who might be stealthily following their trail,or lying in wait for them at the coast.
Half an hour later they halted fora rest on a fallen tree, which Wade searched thoroughly for snakesbefore allowing her to sit down and relax. He handed her thewater bottle and she took several grateful sips.
“More welcome than wine, eh?” He took his own few sips and then screwed the cap firmly intoplace again. “Fancy a bit of chocolate?”
She shook her head and watched himenjoy some. He seemed quite untired, with an alertness in hiseyes that made her think of a prowling animal that never sleptor needed to. She felt curious about him and wondered if sucha man had a wife, a family, a home in which he behaved like ahuman being. All she was certain of was his nerve, and that hehad done startling and outrageous things. His only law was thatof jungle lore!
“What conclusion have you cometo?” he drawled.
“That I’m placed in the positionof trusting a tiger.”
“The swift and silent brutewho likes the shadows, eh?”
“The cat who kills for pleasure.”
He didn’t reply and the jungle enclosedthem as if in a green and echoing bell-glass. Eve wondered ather [22-23] temerity in speaking as she had, but she didn’t shrinkaway from him, or allow her eyes to waver from his face. He hadbeen frank enough in his opinion of her!
“A million orchids,” hemurmured. “Back in England they cost the earth, and afteran evening at the dance a girl preserves the orchid she has wornon her dress. So many of them must remind you of the times you’veworn one to a concert or a ball?”
“I always preferred a rose,”she said quietly. “Orchids have a clutching look about them.”
“They have no thorns.”
“True,” she said witha faint smile. So she had thorns, which meant that she had prickedthis man. She congratulated herself, and wriggled her toes insome ferns to cool them.
“You’ll get bitten if you don’twatch out,” he warned. “Mosquito welts are not onlyirritable, they’re painful and they can lead to a fever. I thinkwhen we make camp I’ll dose you with a quinine tablet.”
“When do we make camp, Major?”
“When the sun goes down. Thejungle will then be so dark as to be impenetrable, and I guessyou need a night’s sleep. We’ll start at dawn tomorrow and makebetter time.”
“I hope I’m not too much ofa hindrance,” she said, “but I couldn’t take a seaton that plane in preference to one of the Sisters. They had enduredmore than I . . . oh, I don’t want to sound self-righteous, butthey were good to me. They understood why I came out here–“
“Were you running away of yourlife of luxury?”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking. You’d have been far more contemptuous of me had you known mebefore I worked at the mission.”
“Was there a young man involved?”
[23-24] She shrugged and thoughtof James, who would be horrified, and startled, to see any girlless than immaculate. He was really one of those who believedthat girls, like dolls, were kept in boxes in pretty dresses,with not a hair out of place. Girls like herself, who were broughtup by nannies, who went to finishing schools, and drank champagnewith their eggs and bacon.
“The silence of a woman alwaystells more than a torrent of words.”
Eve came out of her reverie as Wadespoke almost against her ear. She turned, startled, to look athim and found his eyes piercing hers and raking over the smooth,heated skin of her face, and taking in the features that had aCeltic purity to them. Her mother had been a Highland beauty,much painted by all the fashionable artists, and Eve was a truedaughter of the isle of Arran, with eyes that reflected the mistylochs.
“So it was a man who sent yourunning out here to scrub and pray! Did you quarrel with him?”
“Yes,” she said, for itwas all too true, and it wouldn’t do any harm to let this mercenaryMajor believe that the quarrel had been with a man she loved. In a way it had been. She was fond of her rather arrogant guardian,and when she married she wanted to marry for love’s sake. Itwas upon that issue they had flamed into heated words. “Iwon’t be sold in the marriage market,” she had stormed. “I’d sooner work at Woolworth’s!” But as it happenedshe had read about the plight of Tanga in the newspapers, andbeing impulsive she had decided to be a heroine instead of a counterhand.
“Was he worth the predicamentyou now find yourself in?” Wade ran a hand down his unshavenjaw, and Eve winced at the rasp of the black bristles. The soundseemed to emphasise his maleness, and her total de-[24-25]pendenceupon his skill and his grit.
“I’m not sorry I came,”she said, meaning it. “I’ve been of some use, even if youdon’t think so. I’ve seen suffering and courage, and I feel sureI’m a better person for knowing people such as Sister Mercy andthe other nursing nuns.”
“Time will tell,” he drawled. “When you find yourself in the Ritz Bar again, surroundedby admirers, you might soon forget the scent of ether and incense.”
“You’re abominably cynical,Major!” She gave him a furious look. “I can’t imagineyou believing in anything, except the chase and the kill.”
“Then your imagination willhave to be attended to, young lady.” He rose to his feet,lean and supple as any tiger. “Siesta is over, so rouseyourself, and get those toes back inside those sandals.”
Defiance flickered through her .. . she wanted, as in the old days, to toss her Titian head andturn her back on a man. Her fingers clenched on the thick silkof the shirt he had commandeered for her, and she hated with hereyes that hard, fierce face of his. Heavens, how the tropicshad browned his skin, burned his gentler feelings to a tinder,crinkled his eyes! Had he never danced to the last nostalgicwaltz? Had wine never left its tears on the rim of a stemmedglass, while the petals drooped on flowers he had given a girl,and the candlelight died on the table?
“I know your feet are hurtingand your spirits are wilting,” he said roughly, “butthis I have to do. On your feet, deb!” He enclosed hershoulder with his sunburned hand and forced her to rise. Shewrenched free of him and struggled into the sandals with theirleather soles as hard as his soul!
[25-26] “As I’ll ever be,gallant Major!”
“Attagirl.” He gave alow, sardonic laugh, almost lost in the depths of his brown throat,and hoisting pack and rifle he stepped among the jungle trees,the webbing vines, the sticky spider nets, the primeval scents,and Eve followed him.
“I feel,” she said, “asif I’m training to be a squaw!”
“Yes, you keep thinking alongthose lines and we’ll get along fine, little one. Squaws arehumble and obedient creatures.”
“Did you stumble?”
“As if you’d care!” shesnapped.
“I might take the trouble togive you a hand.”
“The back of it?”
Again he laughed, and a monkey leapedamong the interlocking limbs of the trees and its tail seemedto whip at the trumpet flowers, showering petals like a mock confetti. A reluctant smile sprang to Eve’s lips. It was good to see themonkeys, for their presence proved that she wasn’t entirely alonewith a human tiger.
For brief minutes she was amused,and almost secure, and then something dropped on to her and herscream tore the transient peace to shreds. She felt a wet stickinessall down one side of her shirt, and then Wade was beside her andshe was giving him a dumb, stricken look.
“What the devil–?”
“W-what is it?” she gasped.
He touched her, and then gave abrief laugh. “A bird’s egg, probably tossed down on youby one of those mischievous monkeys. It’s made something of amess.”
[26-27] “Better a broken eggon you than a palm rat, or a bird-eating spider. Stand stillwhile I clean you up.”
She obeyed him, but couldn’t quitecontrol a contraction of her nerves as she felt him wiping heroff with a khaki handkerchief large enough to cover a coffee tray. His hand brushed her body and she felt a sensation that actuallyfrightened her more than the egg bursting against her. Theiraloneness in the jungle was suddenly alive with alarming new meanings,and she was recalling some of the tales about mercenary soldierswhich native girls at the mission had imparted to her.
Eve gave Wade O’Mara a quick fearfullook, which he answered curtly in words. “You can cut outwhat you’re thinking.” He gave his handkerchief a shake. “I don’t go in for ravishing my hostages, not even a Titian-haireddeb who has probably teased the wits out of the Champagne Charliesat the hunt balls. There, that will soon dry off. You’ll feelrather sticky, but it’s the best I can do, and I’m not going towaste any of our precious water.”
“Th-thanks.” Eve flushedhotly at the ease with which he had read her mind. Men believedthat it excited a girl, the thought of being at the mercy of atough and ruthless character, and she didn’t dare to look at Wadein case she actually felt a stirring of curiosity about what itwould feel like if he suddenly flung her down in the rampant fernsand took her with all the forceful assurance with which he tackledeverything.
“What are you waiting for?” There was an edge to his voice. “To find out what it’slike to tease a ruffian in jungle cloth?”
“I don’t go in for that sortof behaviour,” she said indignantly.
“I bet you don’t.” Hiseyes swept her up and down. [27-28] What else is there for someonelike you, whose virginity had to be preserved for the highestbidder? There’s little honesty in it, but a whole lot of tantalisation,only don’t try it on with me, lady, or I’ll teach you that onthe rough side of the tracks we don’t cheat.”
“How dare you!” Eve itchedto slap his hard, cynical face.
“I’d dare, lady.”
“I just bet you would,”she retorted. “You wouldn’t have come within ten miles ofthe ethics of a gentleman.”
“I thought you had a tasteof gentlemanly behaviour a few hours ago, when not one of thatsort would offer you his seat on that plane, which by now is safelylanded while we’re standing here steaming in this heat.”
Eve flushed again, and hated himfor his knack of striking clean to the bone and exposing the painfultruth. “The impulse to survive does away with politeness,I suppose,” she said.
“Now you’re learning, foxfire,”he mocked.
“Foxfire?” Her eyes ranenquiringly over his hard face.
“Didn’t your elegant youngman ever tell you that your hair matches the coat of the vixenas she streaks across the turf pursued by the hounds and the gallanthuntsmen?”
James . . . tell her that? Evedoubted if he’d ever noticed anything about her beyond that shedressed, spoke and behaved correctly, and would in due courseinherit some sizeable stocks and shares.
“If your nerves have quitesettled,” Wade drawled, “we’ll be falling in line againand might make another mile or so before you wilt and have tobe fed.”
“I’m not an infant, Major O’Mara. I’ll keep up with [28-29] you, don’t worry about that. I’m justas eager as you are to reach civilisation.”
“Right. And the next timea bird’s egg falls on you, don’t scream the forest down.”
“Did I upset your nerves?”she asked tartly.
“My nerves are iron, lady,but you could have been heard and the female scream can’t be mistakenfor anything but what it is, probably one of the most primitivesounds on earth.”
This time Eve thought it wise tolet him have the final word, and taking hold of her bamboo stickand her bits and pieces wrapped in the plaid robe, she fell inbehind him and they continued on their way . . . into the veryheart of the jungle, or so it seemed.
It was, Eve reflected, like beinga pickle in a salad; the vegetation was all shades of green, exceptwhen a sudden bract of bougainvillea sprang vividly to life againstthe foliage, or a great stem of wild orchids burst forth fromthe trunk of a towering tree. The leaves of the plantain wereenormous and could have served as umbrellas should it suddenlystart to rain. Branches twisted together in the most erotic shapes,like dark limbs entwined in eternal passion, sometimes modestlyveiled by drapes of lacy green fern.
Every now and again a bird wouldflutter down on large wings and startle Eve, or a parakeet wouldlet out a raucous squawking sound, as if scolding the two humanbeings for being in a place meant for more primitive creatures.
The Major waded on through the moist,riotous, earthy-scented jungle with all the aplomb of a man takinga hike through Epping Forest with the prospect of a long coolbeer awaiting him at the Rising Sun. Hack, hack, went his sharp-bladedpanga, shearing [29-30] through the thick stems and tanglesof vine, lopping off the great leaves across their path, and trampingdown with his boots the thorny growth that could have torn Eve’sankles.
Occasionally he shot a look at her,or flung a question over his khaki-clad shoulder. “How’reyou coping, lady?”
“I’m having a picnic,”she rejoined. “I’m wondering how anyone could join a junglearmy to endure this . . . whoever uses your services must paywell.”
“They pay sufficiently,”he said. “Enough to put my kid through college.”
“Y-you have a family?” His casual reference to a child almost sent Eve sprawling intoa patch of spiky bamboo, which she avoided just in time.
“A son.” He whacked awaywith his panga at a whip-like branch.
“Aren’t you worried that you’llbe killed?” she asked that broad back, with the dark patchof sweat between the shoulder-blades. “That wouldn’t dohim much good, would it?”
“It’s the worriers who getthe bullet, so I steer clear of worrying.”
“What about your wife?”Eve swallowed drily. “Surely she doesn’t approve of theway you earn your living.”
“She was never the worryingsort,” he rejoined. “Larry, the boy, is keen to bea doctor, and I intend to see to it that he gets what he wants.”
“How old is he?”
She heard Wade O’Mara emit a sardoniclaugh. “Nineteen, which makes him only a year younger thanyou, eh?”
“Yes,” she admitted, andher eyes swept the lean, [30-31] lithe, and forceful figure infront of her and she decided that Major O’Mara was in very goodshape for a man with a grown-up son. How old had he been whenthe boy was born–about twenty? And was his wife attractive? Yes, Eve decided. This tough mercenary would like his womanto be feminine and rather helpless, with big blue eyes and fairhair in contrast to his darkness.
That was the image Eve built inher mind of the woman who waited for Wade O’Mara back in England,while he risked his neck in order to earn sufficient for his son’smedical training. Eve thought of some of the men who were contemporariesof her guardian, and the kind of cash they played with on theinvestment market, able to pick up the phone and give instructionsto a stockbroker involving thousands of pounds . . . but the manwho was dedicated to getting her safely to the Tanga coast hadto kill in order to educate his son.
Eve felt rather shaken, as she hadat the age of fifteen when a school friend had enlightened herabout the production of babies . . . as if she had learned a factof life which was amazing and very intriguing. In the large houseof her guardian she had been rather sheltered, and it had neverbeen explained to her that men and women didn’t only look andbehave differently, but had a function in life that was also verydissimilar and accounted for the fact that men had aggressiveways to which women submitted either willingly or unwillingly.
Eve realised how aggressive wasthe jungle soldier whom she had to obey, on whose strength andability she had to rely if she hoped to get to Tanga safe andwell.
All around them seethed the forcesof nature, and any one of the massive trees or tangled growthsof vine [31-32] could have been hiding the kind of menace he wastrained to overcome. Without him she would be totally lost andat the mercy of all sorts of danger . . . a cold shiver ran overEve’s moist skin, and never before had she felt so aware of beinga woman as in this jungle with a tough mercenary who hunted rebelsso that he could provide for his son.
What kind of a man did he becomewhen he was back in England with the woman who was the motherof his son? Eve tried to resist the question, but it took a gripon her thoughts . . . was he a very ardent lover, showing hishard white teeth in a possessive smile as he took into his hardbrown arms the woman from whom he was parted for hazardous monthson the other side of the world?
Was she aware that he sometimeshad to rescue nuns from an endangered mission, and be responsiblefor escorting a lone girl through rebel-occupied country?
Or didn’t he talk about the dangersof his job . . . or the temptations involved?
Eve was shocked by her own thoughts,but they persisted in tormenting her as she tramped along in thewake of this man . . . so mocking and sure of his masculinity. . . and with a son named Larry. What could possibly be temptingin a man who antagonised her as much as this one did? A man whowas married and the type she would have avoided in the normalcourse of events?
It was at that point in her feverishthoughts that Eve suddenly stumbled in her over-large sandalsand gave a cry as her left foot turned over painfully. “Damnation!” Wade O’Mara halted instantly and swung round, his [32-33] blackbrows joined together above his blade of a nose. “What haveyou done now?”
“N-nothing,” she said,but there were tears of pain dampening the edges of her eyes andshe was obviously limping. He didn’t move and when she drew levelwith him, he caught hold of her arm.
“I-I’m all right,” sheinsisted.
“Don’t be a heroine until youhave to be,” he growled. “Let me have a look at thedamage.”
“It’s just a wrench–“
“Hoist the leg on this fallenlog and let me look!”
It was a definite order and Evereluctantly obeyed him. He removed her sandal and this addedto her feeling of defencelessness, induced by the strength ofhis shoulders and the feel of his hand massaging her ankle.
He glanced at her and slitted hiseyes against a ray of reddish sun coming down through an openingin the trees. “You’ve done well for a slip of a girl, andthis had better be rested for the night. I think we’ll make camp,and then get an early start in the morning.”
Sympathy from the ruthless was boundto take a girl by surprise, and Eve stared down at her ankle claspedin his tough brown hand. She blinked in an effort to stop thetears from coming. “Thanks,” she mumbled. “Thatsun up there is going all to flame–I hadn’t realised how theday was going.”
He glanced at the dark-strappedwatch on his hairy wrist. “The days start early in thispart of the world and the nights come quickly. Yes, we’ll nowmake camp, and I’m going to take a chance and light a small fireso we can have some tea. Fancy that?”
“Oh yes,” she said fervently.
A slight smile curled his lips,and for the briefest [33-34] moment his fingers seemed to movein a caress against the fine bones of her slim ankle. Then heput her sandal back on and latched it, and even as Eve was steadyingherself with a hand on the hard bone and sinew of his shoulder,her heart was reacting in a most unsteady way.