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The maps were wrong.
Jack McKibbon flipped through the latest topographical charts and compared them to last year's. The permanent compound was being built too far away from the new drill site. His crew would have to take a damn bus between the two. He'd been staring at these maps for an hour and there was no other way to interpret the information.
Someone had screwed up, and considering they were heading back to fix the pump and redrill in El Fasher next month, these kinds of errors could cause serious problems.
He patted through the files, the aerial photos of the well site that needed repair and the embassy report on the recent cease-fire between the Sudanese government and the JEM rebel forces in the Darfur area until he felt the hard edge of his cell phone. The desks in hotels were never big enough.
He flipped open his phone and hit speed dial without even looking.
"Jack?" Oliver, his partner and friend, answered. "Is Mia"
"Have you looked at the maps?"
"The maps? You brought the maps?" Oliver, a little more jolly than the average hydro-engineer, laughed.
"Of course. I had all the files couriered, they arrived a while ago. I thought you'd want to get a jump on things."
"I can't believe you brought your work to the hotel. One night is not going to make a difference, Jack. How about you take a break. We're going to party. Mia's coming"
"I'd hardly call it a party," he said, sorting through the mineral reports. He needed to recheck that silver count. That could change the water table information.
"There will be food and booze. By most standards, that actually is a party."
"It's a fundraiser meet and greet," Jack scoffed. Jack was head of research at Cal Poly where Oliver chaired the hydro-engineering department. They'd been working on a lightweight drill and pump that could withstand the extreme desert conditions of Africa and Asia. And over the past four years, these fancy events had become standard operating procedure, before and after every summer, Christmas and spring break spent in the field. But after the success of their drill during last year's sabbatical, Oliver and Jack had brought so much prestige to the school that the administration had decided that more torture, in the form of these cocktail soirees, was in order.
Particularly now, to raise some money for Jack and Oliver's trip next month.
Which would explain why they were here, on the cliffs of Santa Barbara, miles from the university, in an effort to bring up the big bucks from Los Angeles. Africa was a popular charitable cause in Hollywood. "Just try, Jack."
"Christ, Oliver. The university is trotting us out like trained monkeys"
"For Mia. Try to get your head out of the dirt for one night."
"It's been over a year"
"I know how long it's been," Jack said. A year and two months, almost to the day.
The excitement of seeing her, when he remembered, was bright and hot, shooting out sparks.
But these maps.
"When is she supposed to arrive?" Oliver asked and Jack swore, checking his watch.
"Any minute," he said. "I'll see you later."
He hung up and ran a hand over the scruff covering his chin. He'd wanted to be dressedat least showeredby the time Mia showed up. As if being cleanshaven would somehow make this reunion easier.
But the maps had arrived and he'd gotten distracted.
Jack closed his burning, tired eyes. Jet lag dogged him. Not to mention the malaria he had barely recovered from. He was thirty-five and he felt a hundred and five.
The truth was, he was tired of Africa. Tired of the sand. The heat. The militias. Of coming home sick, only to turn around a few months later to go back. He was tired of never being able to meet the need, of feeling like a failure every time he left. But he couldn't tell Oliver. He couldn't tell anyone.
This had been his dream, water for the thirsty. And to give up on it now felt shameful. Selfish.
And this whole situation with Mia was making his crappy mood worse.
Calling Mia like this not quite the reunion he'd dreamed about.
I owe you, she'd written in response to his email asking her to come to this event with him.
Owe me, he thought, turning the words over in his mind like a spit of meat over a fire. Logically, that was true.
But there were thirty years of friendship between them. A thousand emails. Promises made and kept.
Mia could be prickly. And his being out of the country for the past year had no doubt made her very prickly despite the daily emails.
This reunion of theirs was going to be unpredictable. And not being able to prepare for Mia's mood made him nervous. Was she going to be angry? Happy, like him, just to see each other?
He didn't know and it was making him crazy.
Someone pounded on the door to his hotel suite. The windows rattled as if mortars were being dropped. There was a pause and then more pounding.
It was her. Not that he could tell by the pounding. It was his internal barometer, which measured pressure and changing dynamics better than any equipment he carried into the field.
Warning, that barometer whispered. Be very, very cautious.
He ran his hand across the front of his worn T-shirt and crossed the room, his shoes soundless on the broadloom.
He was surprised to feel his heart thudding in his chest. Nerves? he wondered. Excitement?
A month ago he'd stared down a truck full of hostile militiamen and now he stared at the mahogany door, anxious about what stood on the other side.
It wasn't the same kind of anxiety. Mia wouldn't have weapons. He hoped. But she'd be armed with something far trickier and more insidious. Something he couldn't negotiate with and had never known how to handle.
He opened the door and as expected, it was her. Mia Alatore.
And his heart slipped the reins of his brain and he was so damn glad to see her. To have her here. Selfishly, she just made him feel good. The world fell away, the maps disappeared, and his whole existence was Mia.
"Good God, Jack, I thought I was going to drive right into the ocean before I found this place. You didn't tell me we'd be hanging over a cliff."
A whole lot of attitude in a tiny package.
She barely came up to his shoulder. Her too-big plaid shirt hung loose on her body. A ball cap, beat-up and white with dried sweat, sat low on her head, keeping her eyes shaded.
She was the same. Exactly the same and part of him rejoiced. In a world gone crazy, Mia Alatore was the same.
Her voicelaced with the sweet accent of her Hispanic heritagewas like a shot of whiskey right to his gut. He'd been to a lot of places, seen sex acts and rituals that would make a monk give up his robes. But nothing in the world was as sexy as Mia's voice.
"I'll keep you out of the ocean, Mia," he said with a smile. Her head jerked up and he got a good look at her wide amber eyes.
There she had changed. Over the past five years, he'd seen her three times, not counting right now, and each time he saw her, her eyes had faded a little more. The fire and glitter worn soft over the years.
He could see the years in those eyes, the darkness where there had only been light.
"Did you have trouble?" he asked, leaning in to carefully kiss her warm, smooth cheek. She smelled like sunshine and horses.
Oddly enough, two of his favorite smells. He could have stood there, sniffing her cheek all day.
"No," she murmured, ducking away and clearing her throat. "But they wouldn't valet my truck. Some punk kid in a uniform made me park in the employee lot."
"I'm surprised they didn't make you park it in the ocean."
"Watch it, Jack," she said with a smile and his chest swelled with fondness. "She'll hear you and she doesn't like water any more than I do."
"It's good to see you," he said, awkwardly patting her shoulder. "Thank you for coming."
"Well," she muttered, "like I said, I figure I owe you." She stepped inside their room. Suite, actuallyhe made sure she had her own room off the living room. He didn't want there to be any more awkwardness than necessary.
"Nice place," she said, looking around. "Better than the last dump. Being Indiana Jones must pay better than it did a year ago."
Christmas, a year ago, he'd asked her to come to Los Angeles, to sign some legal paperwork before he took his sabbatical. He'd paid little attention to the motel where they'd stayed, not realizing how crappy it was until she pointed it out.
"The university is paying for this. It's part of the thing."
"The thing?" Her smile was brief but breathtaking, a lightning strike over the Sahara Desert. "You live some kind of life, Jack McKibbon, if people throwing millions of dollars at you is considered just a thing." Her eyes were warm. Fond. He wondered for a minute if she was.proud of him?
"It's not at me, per se, it's the university. I mean, it's our research. Our pump. But the money is going to the university. For more research." He was babbling, awkwardly talking about his work, which did not bode well for the night ahead. Another reason he hated these events.
If people wanted to talk science, he could do that all day. But explaining the complex nature of water tables and the ever-changing political nature of Sudan in laymen's terms was impossible for him.
Oliver was better at that stuff.
"Either way. It's a good thing you do." Her smile reached her eyes, crinkling the corners. "Water for the thirsty. Like you always dreamed."
He felt her measuring him, testing him through the years and choices that separated them. Seeing perhaps if she still knew the practical stranger that stood here, found in him the boy she'd known better than anyone else.
He saw that girl he'd known. She was right there in that stubborn line to her chin. The nose that led her into more trouble than one half-size female should ever see.
"I missed you. It's been a long time, Mia," he breathed, the words squeezed through a tight throat.
She blinked, as if jerking herself out of a daze.
"Where do you want me to put my stuff?" she asked, and the moment was shattered. She dropped her duffel on the floor, plumes of dust erupting into the air at the impact.
"There works," he muttered. Whatever was in that bag couldn't be in good shape. "You know, maybe I should have made it clear, but this is a formal thing."
Her eyes sliced through him. "You worried I'll show up to your fancy shindig with dirt under my nails?"
"No, well, maybe. And I don't care." He reached out his hands, showing her the red dirt that stained the skin around his fingernails. "I just don't want you to be uncomfortable. There's going to be a lot of scrutiny"
"Because you're Indiana Jones and making Cal Poly a whole bunch of money?" She said it as a joke and guilt clobbered him.
You're an ass, he told himself, bringing her here to be scrutinized and gossiped about.
"No," he said and took a deep breath. No other woman in his life owed him enough to stand beside him and face down the firestorm of academia gone wild. "I should have told you this in my email," he said.
"Uh-oh, this doesn't sound good." She crossed her arms over her flannelled chest and those curves she'd always worked so hard to hide were unmistakable.
"Mia, I'm sorry"
"Out with it, Jack. You always were a wuss when it came to dealing the bad stuff."
That was a low blow and his temper flared. It was easy for her to judge him. She'd stayed. He'd left. Big freaking deal.
"Fine, because the dean has accused me of having an affair with his wife."
She didn't look at him. Not for a long time. The air conditioner kicked on, loud in the silence. He counted her breaths, the rise and fall of her chest, wondering why it mattered.
"Have you?" she asked.
"No, Mia. Of course not. But Beth the dean's wife, has been." How did he put this? "Indiscreet."
"She wants to have an affair with you?"
"So it would seem."
"And you can't just say no?" she asked, her eyes snapping.
"It's delicate," he said.
"You want me to tell her?" she asked. "You made me drive two hundred miles over the mountains two months before calving season, when I'm so busy I can't see straight, to tell some woman to keep her hands off you?"
In a way. In his head it made so much sense. But that was his problemwhat worked in his head didn't always translate to other people. To real life.
Mia picked up the duffel bag, leaving dust on the floor. This trip out to Santa Barbara was a big deal for her, he knew that. Things were busy at the Rocky M and as far as he knew, she was still doing most of the work.
And now she was here and angry with him, which wasn't what he wanted at all.
Give him a hundred feet of sand and seventy-mile-an-hour winds, and he could make things work.
Add another person to the equation, someone he had to deal with face-to-face, and he'd find a way to blow it.