Authors: Candice Proctor
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Erotica
India knew a swift stab of some emotion she could not name. There was no doubt in her mind that he spoke the truth, which meant that neither the bare-bottomed baby she'd seen on his veranda nor the boy, Patu, who had helped sail them here, were his. And she knew, too, that while she had struck out at him blindly in furious and embarrassed self-defense, she had hit a nerve far more painful and raw than she had ever intended.
The silence between them returned, and this time, neither one broke it.
It was some three-quarters of an hour later, when they were working their way down a high, windswept slope sparsely covered with gorse and tree ferns and tall stands of kunai grass, that Jack Ryder's hand suddenly closed around India's arm to pull her back behind the wide buttressing roots of a big lone mountain pandanus.
"Sonofabitch," he swore softly beneath his breath, his gaze fixed on some point far to their right.
"What is it?" she whispered, her heart beginning to beat in quick, painful lurches as she squinted hopelessly into the distance.
He shifted, his gaze flicking over her in a quick, assessing glance. "Can't you see?"
"No, of course I can't see," she said impatiently. "What is it?"
He leaned forward until his lips were only inches from her ear. "Cannibals."
"Oh my God." She couldn't go through that again, she thought in quiet despair. She simply couldn't. "I thought you said you and the cannibals were business partners. That they wouldn't attack you. That as long as I was with you, I'd be safe."
Unbelievably, the edges of his mouth quirked up in amusement. "They're not exactly predictable, cannibals." The smile faded as he gazed into the distance again. "Try to keep as low as you can, but hurry. With any luck, they won't see us until we're near enough to the gorge to make a run for it."
She'd heard it for a while now, the growing roar of a mountain torrent, somewhere up ahead. She turned to fix him with a steady, suspicious stare. "Gorge? There's a gorge?"
"Wairopa Gorge." He propelled her on with a gentle but insistent pressure in the small of her back.
India didn't know much Pidgin, but she knew enough to make her stomach twist with an old, shameful fear. "Why is it called Wairopa Gorge?"
"Because a Scandinavian expedition that came through here some years back erected a bridge of fencing wire and braided vines over it."
"Fencing wire and—" Her voice broke, so that she had to swallow hard before she could continue. "How many years ago?"
"I don't know. Four. Maybe five."
"Five years?" She stumbled over a half-buried stone and would have pitched head forward down the slope if he hadn't still been holding her arm. " You want me to use a wire and vine bridge that's five years old? How deep is the gorge?"
"Six hundred feet. Maybe a little more."
She could see it now, a great, nearly vertical chasm of moss-covered black rock that split the mountain in two. "Oh my God," she whispered, her voice lost in the violent booming rush of the river far, far below.
"Don't tell me," said the hateful man beside her, his smile broadening as he studied her face. "Miss Indomitable McKnight is afraid of swinging bridges."
"I can't cross that thing," she said, her voice tight, her gaze fixed on the bridge of knotted vines and rusting wire and primitive, hand-hewn planks that dangled over an ominously thundering void. "I can't." Her step faltered, her head shaking slowly back and forth.
He threw a quick glance over his shoulder, his mouth tightening into a hard grin. "It's either the bridge, or the cannibals. Take your choice."
She was close enough now to see the zigzag of slippery, nearly vertical moss-covered stone steps that snaked down the side of the cliff, toward the raging river far below. Cut directly into the rock face, they were primitive and dangerous and yet, somehow, still preferable to the creaking, rotting bridge that swung sickeningly with every buffet of the wind. "There are steps," she said, just as a shout went up from behind them, followed by another.
"Shit. They've seen us." Jack Ryder's hand closed hard on her arm, jerking her forward. "We don't have time for the bloody steps.
Jack took the bridge at a rush, hoping to get India McKnight across it before she lost her nerve—or caught sight of who was really behind them. But they'd only made it something like three feet out onto the bridge's slippery, swaying planks before she balked, her hands closing convulsively over the vine-wrapped sides of the bridge, her face going pale and slightly greenish.
"Don't look down!"
he shouted when she let out a low moan, her eyes widening as she stared at the tumbling, rocky torrent of frothing white water far below. "And don't look back, either," he added when she twisted her head to glance at the exposed, windswept rocks of the mountain behind them. "Just give me your hand and we'll get over it together.
damn it," he added, his voice sharpening as first one man, then another appeared up the main trail from Futapu Bay.
He expected to have to pry one of her hands loose from the bridge, but she reached out to him, her gaze lifting to meet his. Her eyes were dilated wide with fear, her breath coming in jerky gasps. He took her hand in a fierce grip, and urged her forward. "Easy now," he murmured, as if coaxing a nervous horse. "Just hold my hand and put one foot in front of the other."
With each step, the wires jerked in all directions, so that it was like trying to walk on the thrashing tail of a giant crocodile, but she didn't scream. She was not the kind of woman who would ever scream, he thought with an unexpected and unwanted surge of admiration as he watched the way her square jaw tightened with determination, her thin nostrils flaring with each intake of breath. She was one hell of a woman. Aggravating and cranky and opinionated as all get-out, but with enough guts to put ten men to shame.
They were still a couple of yards from the end of the bridge when Simon's voice reached them, barely audible above the roar of the river far below.
"Hold your fire, men! He has Miss McKnight with him."
"What?" she said, her face going slack as she started to twist around.
Tightening his hold on her hand, Jack jerked her onto solid ground with a force that sent her flying past him, so that she lost her footing and went down on her hands and knees in the trail. Yanking his machete free, he was about to bring the blade down on one of the main bridge supports when she scrambled to her feet and threw herself against him.
"You told me it was
She hit him hard enough that he staggered, his breath coming out in a startled
"You filthy, lying
Wrapping his left arm around her waist, Jack swung India McKnight behind him and raised the machete again, just as Simon ran out onto the swaying, moss-covered planks of the wire bridge. His momentum propelled him almost a third of the way across before he stopped short, his gaze riveted on Jack's upraised machete. Then his eyes shifted to meet Jack's and the two men stared at each other, chests heaving with labored breathing, faces drawn and hard. Beside him, India McKnight went suddenly, breathlessly still.
"What's stopping you?" called Simon, a muscle jumping along his tight jaw. "You killed the better part of an entire ship's company. Why balk at one old friend?"
Jack's fist tightened around the machete. The bridge was old and rotten. One blow would be enough to send the rusted fencing wire and ancient planks and the man on them hurtling down into oblivion. For one haunting moment, Jack was vividly aware of the woman behind him, her breath coming hard and fast, and the bluejackets bunched up behind another officer, a slim, dark-haired young man of perhaps twenty or twenty-two who hesitated, wide-eyed and apprehensive, on the far side of the bridge. Then, suddenly, all the leaves in the forest behind them began to rustle, the bridge swaying ominously back and forth as the squall finally blew in.
Dark and gray, the clouds moved rapidly to obliterate the blue sky and vivid golden sunlight. "Sonofabitch," Jack growled, and shoved to his feet. The machete still in his fist, he grabbed India McKnight's hand again and yanked her with him in a scrabbling rush.
"After him, men," shouted Simon. "Quickly. But hold your fire!"
Jack expected her to try to hang back, or break free of his hold. She did neither. Hand in hand, they fled down the main trail and into a dark gloom of thick, moss-covered trunks and looming vines and great arching ferns as the rain forest closed in around them once more. Overhead, they heard the excited flutter of hundreds of birds as the creatures of the jungle rushed for cover. Then the sky opened up, and it poured.
The heat of the day vanished. The rain teemed down, soaking them instantly. An endless curtain of giant drops pelted through the overhead canopy of native oaks and beech, drummed on the giant leaves of the spreading understory, filled the air with the smell of wet vegetation and dark earth. Even with the rain, the going was easier now that they'd struck the main trail again. But with every step, Jack was aware of Simon's men, pounding behind them.
"Why don't you just give up?" India McKnight shouted, the rain coursing down her wet face, her voice a breathless rasp as she slipped and slid behind him in the muck. "You'll never get away."
Jack gritted his teeth and plowed on, his boots slapping through the puddles, the rain running in his eyes as he tipped back his head to search the rocky, vine-covered hillside on their right. "If I can just find—Ah," he shouted in triumph as a black void opened up beside them. Tightening his hold on India's hand, he pulled her off the path through a tangle of wet creeping fig and into a dank, dark world of sweating stone and cool stale air that closed in around them like a tomb.
Her steps slowed as she looked around in wide-eyed wonder. "What is this place?"
"It's an old lava tube."
"It's a burial chamber," she said, her voice hushing with excited awe as the fading light from the receding entrance revealed a scattering of skulls and long bones, ribs and disjointed vertebrae, some gleaming white, others turned green with mold and age. Then the tunnel widened out into a chamber whose very walls seemed to be composed of nothing but row after row of gape-eyed, grinning skulls, hundreds of them, looming, towering, peering. She stopped cold. "But this is fascinating."
for Christ's sake," he swore, sheathing his machete. With one swipe of his arm, he sent the nearest wall of skulls shivering and clattering and banging to the stone floor of the cave behind them in an avalanche of chattering jawbones and cascading craniums.
"What are you
?" she cried, her voice rising in horrified indignation. He jerked her forward, but she twisted around, trying to peer behind them. "This is a gravesite you're desecrating. How would you like it if these were the bones of your ancestors?"
Jack let loose an inundation of green leg and arm bones that rattled and rolled away into the darkness. "Hell, I'd set every one of them to dancing on a gibbet if I thought it would save me right now."
His hand tightening around hers, he dragged her on. The last faint glow of light from the entrance was almost gone, and as the tunnel narrowed and twisted to the left, he whacked his forehead on a low protrusion of stone and said, "Shit."
"Huh. Serves you right," she whispered in that censorious, Sunday-school teacher voice of hers. "And exactly how do you propose to see where we're going now?"
They could hear a renewed rattle and crash of bones followed by the painful thud of soft warm bodies hitting stone as Simon's men, swearing and shouting, stumbled into the bouncing, sliding phalanx of dead man-eaters.
"I don't need to." Beneath his feet, the solid stone floor of the cave changed, suddenly, to soft sand. Dropping to his knees, Jack groped blindly along the dripping rock face on his left with the splayed fingers of his free hand. Already he could feel the moisture seeping into the sand beneath him, wetting his pants legs. "Now, where the hell—Ah." His hand slid over the smooth wet stone to shoot into a yawning void, and he let out a satisfied exhalation of breath. Yanking on India McKnight's hand, he pulled her down beside him. "Lie down."
She half fell against him, her hand gripping his shoulder, her head coming up as she stared at him, a vague shadow, peering at a shadow. "I beg your pardon?"
"Now, damn it!" Bearing her down into the soft, wet sand, he pinned her woman's body beneath his.
She squirmed furiously against him. "What are you doing?"
"Shhh," he hissed, and clamped his hand over her mouth. "Just keep your head down, and watch your elbows."
She murmured something indecipherable against his hand, her palms flattening against his chest as she tried to push him away from her. But already he was moving, only just managing to duck his head as he rolled with her beneath the curtain of rock that separated the lava tube from the cave that lay beyond it. He heard her elbow whack painfully against the stone, then they were through.
He landed on top of her, his arms braced wide on each side of her shoulders to take some of his weight as he kept his hand pressed firmly over her mouth. Their faces were inches apart, so close that he could feel the flutter of a stray lock of her hair against his cheek when he breathed out. He lowered his head until his mouth was about where he assumed her ear must be, although he couldn't be certain, for the dim gray glow of the lava tube had been replaced by an impenetrable blackness that seemed to press in on them, thick and damp. "Don't make a sound," he whispered.
It was so quiet he could hear the steady
drip, drip, drip
of water as the rain from the storm outside trickled its way into the cave and ran in growing streams down the wall to pool beneath them. He could hear the strained rasp of her breathing, feel the rapid beating of her heart. Painfully conscious of his own heart pounding in his chest, he listened to the scrabbling of boots and jingling of scabbards as Simon and his men rushed past, kicking up sand that sprayed through the low opening in the cave wall to scatter over Jack's bare forearm in a fine, damp layer. The woman beneath him had gone utterly, completely still.
"It's no use," he heard Simon say, his voice echoing queerly from the adjoining chamber. "We need light. Brooks, O'Neal—go back to the entrance and fashion us some torches."
"It's raining, sir."
"I know it's raining, damn it. Just do it."
"We could easily have passed up several side passages already," said another voice, a young, educated voice that Jack didn't recognize.
There was a pause. Then Simon said, "You're right. We'll go back to the last bone chamber and await the torches there."
The voices and tramp of feet receded into the distance. Jack let his hand slip from India McKnight's mouth.
He heard her take a deep breath, and hold it a moment before releasing it. "I am lying in what appears to be a rapidly growing pool of water," she said in a tight, strained voice. "Do you intend to move anytime soon?"
Something about the way she said it made him suddenly, intensely aware of the soft warmth of her breasts, pressed against his chest, and the intimate way her legs had tangled with his. He stood abruptly, his hand clasping hers so that he drew her up with him. "If we don't move soon, we're going to drown."
"Drown?" She surprised him with a short, dry huff of laughter. "Of course."
Jack peered into the darkness, trying to see the woman beside him. She was wet and cold; she'd been shot at, and captured by cannibals, and chased by Her Britannic Majesty's navy over a thundering gorge and through a cave full of the moldy skeletons of generations of man-eaters. Most women—most
—would be fainting with fear, or sobbing hopelessly with reaction. But India McKnight could still laugh at the absurd thought of now drowning.
Reaching out blindly, he found her arm, then slid his fingers down her sleeve until his hand captured hers again. "Let's get out of here," he said gruffly.
there a way out of here?"
Jack took a step forward, whacked his knee, and grunted. "Just hold my hand. And keep your voice down."
"You do realize, of course, that you've only bought yourself a few more minutes," she whispered, her hand obediently gripping his as he began to inch his way forward. "As soon they bring up torches, they'll see that opening, and our tracks in the sand, and know where we've gone."
"Uh-uh," said Jack, water gurgling around his boots as he carefully felt his way forward. "All they'll see is a pool." It had always surprised him, how rapidly the pool in this cave could fill when it rained. Another half minute, and they wouldn't have been able to make it through that passage without swimming.
He took another step, and a strange, eerie music moaned through the cavern, rising and falling, echoing and reechoing.
"What's that?" she whispered, her hand tightening around his.
"They call this place the Cave of Songs. When the water is deep enough, the waves strike the walls of the cavern and make music."
He became aware, slowly, of a faint, barely perceptible lightening in the darkness, and a breath of fresh air that touched his cheek and fluttered the surface of the pool behind them to unleash a new crescendo of uncanny, ghostly notes.
"How did you know about this cave?"
He shrugged. "I hid here once, for a time."
He could feel her staring at him. "When you were on the run from the British navy?"
He expected her to pursue that, but she didn't. "Where will we come out?"
"On the other side of the mountain."
"And the lava tube?"
Jack laughed softly. "This mountain is honeycombed with lava tubes, all intertwined. Simon and his men could spend the rest of the week stumbling around in them. And they all lead back toward the gorge."
From the mouth of the Cave of Songs they could look out over the entire north end of the island stretching far below them, a mist-swirled land of steep, rain forest-filled ravines widening out into verdant valleys and thickly matted swamps. Far to the northeast lay the tiny French trading hamlet of La Rochelle, its golden beaches and emerald lagoon sheltered by the nearly unbroken, half-submerged reef against which the trade winds drove the surf in a never-ending crash of spray and fury.