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"Get outta my way! Move! Move!" a young Peruvian boy barked, pushing aggressively against her.
Ana Elena Rafael gave a small cry of surprise as she fought the grogginess of her dream and tried to disembark from the airliner. The aisle was jammed with a crush of restless passengers. The child shoved against her hip and then wriggled past. Ana had been patiently waiting to deplane at the Cuzco airport, when the abrupt attack occurred.
Stunned, she didn't have time to think or move. She'd been standing in the aisle of the first-class section when the pushy child launched himself into her. The boy and his father had sat right behind her during the Lima to Cuzco flight, the child shrieking and pummeling her chair.
Nerves raw, she threw out her hands now, completely off balance. To her dismay, she realized she was going to fall right into the arms of a passenger sitting on the opposite side of the aisle.
Ana saw the man turn and look up as she cried out, a surprised expression in his alert blue eyes. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as she awkwardly pitched forward and he caught her.
She had been vaguely aware of the thirty something man when he'd boarded the plane in Lima. It was a one-hour flight up and over the mighty Andes to Cuzco, nearly thirteen thousand feet above sea level. He'd gotten up once to go to the restroom, which was located near the cockpit door.
Bothered by the constant hammering on the back of her seat, Ana hadn't take much notice of any other passengers. She recalled that when the man had come out of the restroom, his blue eyes had focused on her like a laser. Or maybe more aptly, because she was a wildlife biologist who studied jaguars,he reminded her of a big cat focused on its prey. A frisson of warning, of danger, snaked through Ana. It was as if death were stalking her.
She tried to shake off the premonition. She had enough to think about, especially the dream she'd had during the previous flight. The calmness and peace of the Village of the Clouds had been abruptly shattered by the real world, plus her irritation toward the overly permissive father of the rude child.
As the blue-eyed man helped her regain her balance, Ana studied him more closely. He was darkly tanned and ruggedly handsome, with black hair trimmed in a short military style. And those eyes… Mesmerizing. Like the eyes of the beautiful jaguars she cared for back in Arizona at the Wildlife Institute near Camp Verde.
All of those impressions shimmered through her in the brief moments he held her. In his casual jeans and white shirt, he seemed like an everyday workman. So how could such an ordinary man seem so extraordinary? Something told Ana that he had a lot of power beneath his simple facade. He hides it, her intuition whispered. He wanted to blend in and vanish. Much like the jaguar, Ana thought. The cat's gold coat was spotted with black crescents, perfect camouflage in the dim, dappled light of the jungle. A jaguar could literally disappear among the shadows cast by trees and sun. This man was like that. She knew it.
And now she was in his arms. The look in his wide eyes was one of worry, shock and concern. Ana's intuition—which her adoptive mother, Mary Rafael, had often told her resembled that of her beloved jaguars—absorbed all his feelings like a sponge. That was how Ana read people. How she knew what they were feeling, instead of what they projected.
Ana could feel his hands. With thick calluses across his palms, long, strong fingers and short nails, they were a worker's hands. This was a man who labored outdoors, no doubt. And now those hands were wrapped around her shoulders.
The stranger had stopped her from striking her head on the seat in front of them, or possibly worse. As Ana steadied her breathing, she managed to grip one of his arms. The man was like a rock. His shoulders were broad beneath that thin cotton shirt. Ana felt the thickness and strength of his muscles as she tried to recapture her balance.
She heard the Peruvian boy's father mutter a rebuke to his child, then walk on by without stopping to apologize or help her straighten up.
Something gave way in her ankle; pain shot up her right calf. The blue-eyed man grunted as he took her full weight, his hands gripping her shoulders as he held her upright.
More passengers were pushing past her as she clumsily regained her balance. They were in a hurry. It was 6:00 a.m., and they wanted to get into the city.
Ana felt the man gently settle her into a seat. "Welcome to Cuzco." He smiled wryly. "I call this one the stampede flight. It's the first plane out of Lima in the morning, and most of the businessmen are on it. Are you okay, seÃ±orita?"
Ana felt embarrassment tunneling through her. Strands of her hair caught against her lips and she brushed them away. "Thank you…I wasn't expecting to get trampled."
He gave her an understanding look and held out his hand. "I'm Mason Ridfort. My friends call me Mace."
Ana gripped his outstretched palm, feeling her thumping heart responding to his slow smile. His square face showed off his high cheekbones, solid jaw and cleft chin…and a sensual male mouth. "I'm Ana Rafael. From Sedona, Arizona. Thanks for saving me."
The moment their fingers touched, a shock of energy raced up her arm and straight into her chest. The warmth of Mace's hand contrasted with hers, which was cool and moist.
Coming here to Peru scared her. Given her clash with the child and her encounter with this interesting stranger, it wasn't hard to figure out why. But this journey was something she had to do. The dream called to her. Haunted her.
Ana had to find out the truth. Who was she? The orphanage where she'd lived before she'd been adopted was here in Cuzco. And that was her reason to be in Cuzco to investigate that lead. The dream she'd just had was something new. Ana wasn't going to be detoured from her only lead to her young life before being adopted. She would find out what she could at the orphanage and then try to find out later about the mysterious Village of the Clouds from her dream. Maybe the officials at the orphanage had heard of it. Ana made a note to ask. Alaria had said her birth mother had been born in the Village of the Clouds. Where was the village located? Somewhere in Peru? Many times, Ana's dreams were precognitive and came true. She hoped the peaceful village—and the people inhabiting it—were real and would provide answers.
Releasing Mace's hand, she saw that crowd in the plane had thinned to a trickle. Giving him a tense, fatigued smile, she whispered, "I'm sorry. I'm not the best of company right now. I've just had a long flight from Arizona to Florida to here."
"Umm, jet lag. I understand." Her rescuer looked up and checked the aisle, empty now except for the flight crew. "Are you ready? I think we can disembark without getting trampled this time around."
Ana felt incredibly cocooned by the warmth and security of Mason Ridfort's wonderful auric energy. His care and protection embraced her like sunlight. If she hadn't been so distracted, so raw from the child's hammering on her seat for an hour, or the haunting terror of coming back to the orphanage, Ana would have liked to spend time with this man. But right now, her focus wasn't on him. She glanced down at the gold Rolex on her left wrist.
"I'm late," she said. "I can't be late." She quickly shoved herself to her feet. The jab of pain in her right ankle made her wince.
Mace rose in turn. "Twist an ankle or your back?" Testing her right leg, Ana opened the overhead bin, retrieved her suitcase on wheels and placed it in the aisle. "A little pain in my ankle is all. I'll be okay, thanks." Her hair had fallen forward, a curtain around her face. It swung back as she looked up into his warm blue eyes. "I wish I had time to thank you properly, Mace, but I have an appointment to get to. It's really important. Thanks so much for catching me. I could have hurt myself."
"No problem, Ms. Rafael."
"Call me Ana." She lifted her hand in farewell and hobbled down the aisle. "See you…."
"You just might," Mace called as she exited the plane. Ana hurried down the empty corridor. By the time she reached the main terminal, her ankle was beginning to burn. Perhaps she'd strained it more than she thought. It didn't matter. The pain in her heart was twenty times worse than that in her ankle.
It turned out that the crowd of passengers leaving the airliner had been nothing compared to those in the airport terminal. She was shocked by the numbers of milling bodies, mostly men in dark business suits. The hustle and bustle was tremendous, the noise setting her even more on edge, along with the elbowing and pushing, the aggressive energy that abounded throughout the area.
She had to get a taxi. As Ana moved toward the glass doors of the airport, it seemed a thousand other passengers had the exact same idea. Again and again she was jostled and pushed. Frustrated, Ana began to elbow these disrespectful men back. Who did they think they were, anyway?
By the time she got out the door, her ankle was hurting in earnest. There were thirty or forty taxis lined up, the drivers gesturing and calling to potential patrons. Ana felt like she was in the middle of a male stampede, with no one caring that she was in the way. Obviously, the number of people was greater than the number of taxis, and the rush to get to one overwhelmed her.
All too quickly, the taxis were gone and she was left standing on the curb. Looking at her watch, she felt frustration and more terror. She had an appointment with Mother Bernadette at St. Mary's Orphanage on Plaza de Armas in less than an hour.
And it was one appointment Ana didn't dare miss. This was the orphanage she'd come from.
So far, nothing in Peru looked familiar to her. But she was twenty-seven years old. How much would she recall of being here as a young child? Only snatches, brief flashes—and nightmares that continued to plague her to this day. Nightmares that had unsettled Ana to the point that they had driven her back here, back to her last home in Peru.
Was she Peruvian by birth? Were her real parents citizens of this country? In a letter to Ana, Mother Bernadette had told her that she recalled her being brought to their orphanage as a four-year-old. The nun said she'd taken notes about Ana's arrival on the day of her induction. Clearly, she had precious information Ana wanted.
The desire to find out who she was had eaten at her daily since she was young enough to know they were not her real parents. At age fourteen, her adoptive parents had told her all they knew at that time—Cuzco was a connection to her mysterious past. They had tried to find out more, but had come to a dead end. Now, it was up to Ana to continue the investigation. John and Mary Rafael loved her like the daughter they'd always wanted and couldn't have. And love her they did. Ana loved them just as fiercely in return. No one could have asked for better parents than John and Mary.
As Ana grew older, the nightmares increased in frequency and intensity until she was having them three or four times a week. Often she saw a jaguar. Sometimes she would change into one, and then morph back into human form. At times, a dark hunter stalked her dreams, intent on killing her.
Ana was losing so much sleep, her adoptive parents had urged her to go to Cuzco. They'd coaxed her into making the journey in order to find out who she was. Then, they felt, her nightmares would cease, and she could live in the present, unfettered by the puzzles of her past.
Ana knew it was the right thing to do. She had so many questions. Why had her mother given her to an orphanage? What circumstances had made her abandon Ana? And what about her father? If her dream on the plane was true—and her mother had been born in the Village of the Clouds—Ana was confounded even more. If her biological mother had been born in that magical place of love and caring, why would she abandon Ana? The village seemed so beautiful and tranquil. It seemed impossible that one of the inhabitants could carry out such a heinous act.
As she stood before the airport terminal on the chilly, gray March morning, waiting for a taxi, she hoped all the mysteries of her origins would be solved during this trip.
The breeze was cool. It was the dry season in this part of the world. Ana wore a beige linen pantsuit and a pale pink silk blouse beneath. The black leather briefcase in her hand contained all her vital information—what there'd been of it when John and Mary Rafael had stumbled upon the orphanage and fallen in love with Ana.
Looking up at the moody sky, Ana thought it might rain. She gazed toward the city skyline, where the spires of many Catholic cathedrals reached above the two and three-story gray stone buildings. Founded by the Incas, Cuzco lay in a bowl-shaped valley crisscrossed with a network of cobblestone roads and highways.
Before the Spanish arrived, this city was where the Inca had lived for most of each year.
As she'd seen it from the plane window, the road system had reminded Ana of a spiderweb. Grandmother Alaria's words about the ancients using symbols had come back to her.
"Looks like you're stranded."
Mace Ridfort's low, modulated voice came from behind Ana. She turned around abruptly and nodded. With a large duffel bag balanced on one broad shoulder, he stood out starkly against the next wave of dark suited businessmen. In his other hand he held a badly scarred brown briefcase. Her gaze settled on his hands—strong hands that had grasped and held her. Never had Ana felt so safe, so secure as when this man had caught her, protecting her from injury. What was it about Mace Ridfort?
Noting the glimmer of a smile in his dark blue eyes, she felt as if the clouds had parted and the sun was shining down on her. Jolted, she realized Ridfort's eyes were the same color as Grandmother Alaria's. Was it just a coincidence? Right now, Ana was so out of sorts that her normal intuitive sense wasn't functioning.