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Meghan Jordan lay on her stomach against the thick African grass, steadying the video camera between both hands. This morning, Kibibi, with her sandy-brown coat, had ventured briefly from her den only to disappear again. With her four lion cubs already over a month old, it wouldn't be much longer until she introduced them to the pride. All they had to do now was wait.
Her second camera operator and editor, Kate, handed her a bottle of water from the Jeep's cooler before crouching back down beside her. "What do you think?"
Meghan mulled over the question. "I think that creating a documentary is far less glamorous than I once thought."
"Yeah, well, I figured that one out after the first week."
Meghan smiled as she unscrewed the top of the water bottle, her eyes still on the entrance of the den where Kibibi had moved her cubs six days ago. Unglamorous, maybe, but completely worth it. Eight months as a part of the reserve's conservation program had given them full access to the pride, including the recent birth of Kibibi's four cubs. Statistics showed that 80 percent of all lion cubs died within the first two years, but so far, all of Kibibi's cubs were thriving. They'd already been waiting five weeks to get footage of the lioness finally introducing her cubs to their father. She'd wait another five weeks if she had to.
"Samuel's in the Jeep, keeping his eye on a female black rhino that just wandered into the area."
Meghan frowned. "If she scares away Kibibi, that rhino and I are going to have words."
"I'm more worried about the rhino's bad temper and what it might think about us edging in on its territory."
"Don't worry. Their eyesight is worse than their temper."
"So what does that mean exactly?" Kate asked. "That I hope it won't be able to see me when I have to start running for the nearest tree?"
"As long as you're actually able to scale one of these trees, you'll be fine."
"Right." Kate eyed the nearest Jackalberry tree shooting fifty feet into the air, then shook her head. "I'm not sure which would be worse. Tangling with a rhino or being forced to scale that."
Movement from the tall yellow grass drew Meghan's attention back to the den. Kibibi emerged cautiously with one of the cubs in her mouth.
Bingo. "We've got them."
Meghan lifted up her camera. Samuel was going to have to worry about the rhino for them. She had to focus on getting the last of the footage she needed.
Kibibi took a guarded step forward.
They were either moving on to another den or, as Meghan hoped, finally joining up with the rest of the pride. She held the camera steady, her adrenaline rushing again, while Kate snapped still footage. She could try to script the document down to the smallest detail, but in the end, the wildlife-especially the predators she was documenting-always had the final say. What happened next was up to Kibibi.
The lioness stopped a few feet from the den, her body alert to the scene around her. Something familiar stirred within Meghan. There was nothing like being out in the bush. The neverending velds bordered by thick forests had become her second home. Here was the one place she'd found that made the stress of the real world disappear-like her other role as the daughter of a diplomat who had recently been appointed ambassador.
The subtle scent of cigarette smoke jerked her attention away from her work.
She nudged Kate with her elbow, her gaze still on Kibibi, who stood still at the top of the ridge outside the den. "Do you smell that?"
"Yeah. All we need now is a fire to set this grass ablaze."
The roar of a second vehicle to their east broke through the stillness of the bush, followed by a deep snort behind her. The rhino. Meghan jerked her head around and peered into the thick brush. That rhino would stomp right over them if they weren't careful. Twenty feet away, Samuel, their driver, sat alert in the Jeep with a safari hat perched on his head and a rifle in his hand.
Meghan glanced back toward Kibibi's den, but she'd already missed her chance for any new footage. The lioness had vanished.
Frustrated, she scanned the thick brush, scattered with spiny tree trunks and limbs covered in green leaves, and spotted the second vehicle as it bridged the gap between them. Her stomach twisted as the second
Jeep moved in between the female rhino and her baby, pushing the mother toward them.
"We need to move now," Kate shouted.
Meghan shoved her camera into the bag and snapped the flap shut. What in the world was the driver doing? Samuel's gun fired behind them in an attempt to scare the rhino back into the thick brush as Kate ran ahead of her for Samuel and the Jeep.
But Meghan's route was cut off as the rhino gave another warning snort, signaling it was about to charge. Meghan's heart pounded. Two tons of rhino wasn't something to tangle with. She weighed her options. Behind her the bush was too thick to negotiate. The only open routes were either toward the baby rhino or up a tree a dozen feet to her right.
As she started to run toward the tree, the second Jeep accelerated past the mother rhino, slowing down briefly beside her. The driver shouted at her to get in. Meghan didn't have time to think. Grabbing the strap of the camera case tightly between her fingers, she swung up onto the passenger side of the vehicle as the rhino charged.
The driver pushed on the accelerator. "How fast can they run?"
"I'd suggest we don't stick around to find out."
Meghan ducked as the tall grass whipped against her face and arms from the sides of the open Jeep. Branches snapped beneath them, but they were beginning to lengthen the distance from the rhino. A second later, her driver hightailed it through a wide opening in the bush to safety.
He glanced at the rearview mirror. "I think we lost her."
As the Jeep came to a stop, Meghan fought to catch her breath. Chest still heaving, she glanced at the stranger beside her wearing a black Stetson, Spanish-style boots, a Western shirt and a belt buckle the size of Texas.
She blinked twice. Who was this guy? "Do you realize how close we both just came to getting killed? If she'd gotten close enough, that rhino could have flipped this Jeep."
He shot her a weak smile. "And I thought I just saved your life."
"You think you saved my life?" Seriously? Meghan's fingers gripped the side of the Jeep. "You're the one who got between that mama and her baby and caused this whole fiasco. You can't just drive where you please- not in a wildlife reserve. In case you hadn't realized it, you're not in Texas anymore."
"Thanks for the tip, but I figured that out a few hours ago. We don't exactly have giraffes and baboons in my part of the world."
"Just longhorns and tumbleweeds?" she countered.
"I suppose we've got a few of those back on the ranch." He pulled off his hat, revealing a pair of striking blue eyes that managed to cut through a layer of her frustration. "But I really am sorry."
He might be good-looking, but she wasn't willing to be charmed. Even saying sorry in that thick Southern drawl of his wouldn't bring Kibibi out of her den today or return the wasted hours they'd spent waiting for the lioness's appearance.
"I guess I should introduce myself. I'm Alex Markham."
"My new assistant?" Meghan swallowed hard. Mr. Cowboy wasn't at all what she'd expected. "You were supposed to arrive yesterday."
"I apologize. I missed my flight out of Amsterdam."
"My boss assured me you could handle the work. What do you know about filming wildlife and making documentaries?"
"Apparently enough for your boss to give me this job."
She frowned, still unimpressed. If he had any real credentials, he'd have mentioned them. The way he was dodging the question seemed to indicate that he had no direct experience at all. Surely he wasn't serious. She'd asked for a film student, not some Texas ranch hand.
She let out a sharp humph. The last thing she needed right now was an unqualified assistant. She'd come a long way from her days as school-newspaper editor at her high school. Since then, she'd moved on to producing short films and online promotional pieces for businesses. The opportunity to make this wildlife documentary held with it the power to propel her further into the world of film, but she needed this footage-and a qualified replacement assistant-to pull it all together.
A twig snapped in the distance. She stared out into the bush, looking for movement. She'd have to deal with Mr. Lone Star later, because something wasn't right. Someone else was out here.
She turned back to him, her brow furrowed. "Do you smoke?"
"Smoke?" The question clearly caught him off guard. "No. Why?"
"I want you to drive back to the spot where you picked me up."
He shook his head as if she was crazy. "In case you forgot, there was a very unhappy rhino back there that I, for one, would prefer to avoid running into again."
"And in case you forgot, an assistant is supposed to assist. Are you going to drive or do I need to?"
Alex hesitated briefly, then spun the vehicle around and headed back toward the clearing.
Meghan leaned into the seat, battling nerves that had settled in the pit of her stomach. If the mystery smoker wasn't Mr. Cowboy, then who was he? And what had he been doing in the middle of nowhere with no one but Meghan's crew, an angry rhino and a litter of lion cubs in range?
Alex knew he'd blown their introduction the moment Meghan jumped into the Jeep. The scowl on her face communicated clearly that he'd failed the first test miserably. He strummed his fingers against the steering wheel, then swerved to avoid a reddish termite mound sticking out of the uneven terrain.
He glanced at her again. Khaki shorts, army-green T-shirt and hiking boots were topped off with a straw sun hat and sunglasses to block the South African sun. She looked tough and capable, not at all like someone in need of protection. But protecting her was exactly why he was there.
His father's pleas reverberated in his mind. It's a favor for an old army buddy of mine, Ambassador Jordan. He's received threats on his life in connection with upcoming local elections in the country where he serves. In the last threat, they mentioned his daughter. Said that they know where she is. She won't accept a security detail, so you'd have to be discreet. It would just be until the elections are over .
Sending threats to an American ambassador was a risky move from someone within the opposing party- and so far the threat hadn't been backed up by anything credible-but Alex understood Ambassador Jordan's determination to not take any chances when it came to his daughter's life. Alex knew all too well the way it could crush a man when he failed to protect the ones he loved. The ambassador was wise to take precautions- wiser than Alex had been.
In the end, though, it wasn't just his past griefs or his decade in law enforcement, dedicated to the pursuit of justice, that made him take this assignment. No, his coming had little to do with Meghan. It was the chance to revisit his mother's homeland-something that had been gnawing at the back of his mind-that had eventually clinched the deal.
A flood of memories, untapped for years, rushed over him. As an eleven-year-old, he'd watched the kids walk by in their school uniforms in front of his grandparents' house. He remembered his ouma feeding him milk tarts and hunting with his oupa. They'd passed away years ago, but he still missed them. Just like he missed his mother.
He shoved the unwanted memories aside. He needed to find out what was going on.
"What are you after?"
"I'm not sure." She stared straight ahead at the narrow, open path through the bush leading back toward where he'd first noticed the rhino. "Something isn't right. We've had issues with poachers, and I need to ensure that they're not back."
Alex wove through the uneven terrain. Just what they needed-another complication. Nothing like throwing a firecracker into the mix of an already explosive situation.
He slowed down as the bush opened up around them. A giraffe lumbered in the distance before stopping to graze. Alex didn't let the peaceful scene distract him.
He was used to the occasional cattle rustlers back on his father's ranch, but even he knew enough to realize that rhino poaching was a serious and often deadly business.
Alex pushed on the brakes, not sure whether or not he wanted to get out from the relative safety of the Jeep. He'd had enough wildlife encounters for one day.
The only other animal he could see was a harmless-looking zebra grazing in the distance. "Are you sure it's safe to walk around here?"
"You don't need to worry. The rhino we encountered is probably at least a half a mile from here by now. She was as nervous as we were."
"But does she have friends? That's what I want to know."
Meghan laughed for the first time. "It's possible, but most of them will keep their distance if they hear us, unless you have another bright idea about getting between a mother and her babies. Don't forget, there is the lion you scared away in this area, too. We were filming Kibibi and her cubs this morning right over there." She pointed to a clump of grass covering up a small inlet.
"They're the subject of the documentary, right?"
"You think poachers have been out here looking for them?"
"Maybe. More likely, the rhino was their target. Just look for anything that might confirm someone else was out here."
Besides their own footsteps through the dry brush and a few birds chirping, the afternoon was still.
Alex started walking parallel to her, hoping he didn't come across as knowing what he was doing. After ten years as a Texas Ranger, investigative tactics had become like second nature. "You knew I was coming, right?"
"Yes. I was just expecting someone a bit more academic and less "
"Like a cowboy?" He tugged on the edge of his silver belt buckle. Maybe he should have opted for the safari look.
"That's one way to say it."
She pressed her hand against the top of her head to secure the hat covering her dark blond hair as a breeze blew it back slightly, revealing the handful of freckles sprinkled across her tanned face. She wasn't the only one surprised by appearances. He'd expected more of a bookish-looking grad student from the snapshot her father had sent him. Instead, she was surprisingly pretty. Not his type, maybe, but very pretty. Not that it mattered. Between the time he needed to deal with his father's failing health and his ambition of being captain for the Texas Rangers one day, a relationship at the moment didn't exactly fit into the equation.
Especially since Shannon.
Losing her had convinced him that service to God and country were all he needed in his life.