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Nigel shot her a disparaging look. "I'm getting mighty tired of hearing, "Blake said ... "every time I want to do something. Maybe you'd rather have him sharing this crazy stunt with you instead of me."
The words of denial Jo knew he expected from her stalled in her throat. In some ways, she would rather have Blake with her, but not for the reasons Nigel suspected. Living in the Kimberley, one of the world's last great wildernesses in the far northwest of Western Australia, was proving to be a far greater challenge than she had anticipated, and they'd only been in the outback for three days.
How was she supposed to survive for a month in such a hostile environment, when Nigel thought he knew more than a man who owned the local crocodile farm and had grown up on this land? The bush shelter they were supposed to be moving into tomorrow was barely started because Nigel insisted on doing things his way. Now he was going beyond stubborn all the way to reckless.
"Please be careful," she implored.
"Blake Stirton isn't the only man who can handle this stuff," Nigel threw at her over his shoulder. "Your editor has more faith in me than you do."
Hearing the censure in his voice, Jo regretted letting Nigel talk his way into sharing this assignment. Nigel was the marketing director at Australian Scene Weekly's advertising agency and they'd dated until he'd gotten too serious for Jo's comfort. She knew he was hoping to win her back during the trip, but she was equally determined to convince him that their relationship was over.
Maybe she was out of her mind for thinking she could survive in the wilderness with only the minimum of modern-day amenities, she berated herself silently. Like Nigel Wylie, she'd lived in the city for all of her twenty-six years and had gone camping only on family outings. She'd enjoyed them, but had always been happy to get back to civilization.
Under the harsh outback sun, her fair complexion was a liability, and she was beginning to wish she'd had her long, streaky blond hair cut short before leaving Perth. Even tied in a ponytail, it felt uncomfortably hot and heavy between her shoulder blades.
Her editor, Karen Prentiss, had come up with the idea of sending her feature writer on a survival mission soon after hearing about the discovery of some ancient cave paintings on a cattle property called Diamond Downs in the wilds of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. According to Jo's research, the property owner, Des Logan, and his late wife had a daughter, Judy, and fostered four sons after they discovered they couldn't have any more children of their own. The boys were all from problem backgrounds, but Des had managed to straighten them out over time and each was now successful in a different field.
Blake, the oldest of the Logan foster sons, had briefed her and Nigel on what to expect during their stay at Diamond Downs. He owned Sawtooth Park, a crocodile breeding and education center outside Halls Creek, a few miles away.
Thinking of the enormous crocodiles he'd shown them during their orientation, Jo shivered. The scaly throwbacks to the dinosaur era both fascinated and terrified her. She'd taken to heart Blake's warnings about respecting the wild crocodiles who inhabited the rivers and creeks of Diamond Downs, more than Nigel had done, it seemed.
A fresh prickle of unease lifted the fine hairs on the back of her neck as she watched him steady himself by grasping the branch of a freshwater mangrove, so he could lean over the still water to fill his canteen. They had fresh water at camp, but Nigel insisted it was colder straight from the creek.
The surroundings were idyllic. Around her, majestic pandanus, paperbarks and eucalypti created a cool oasis. The air was fragrant with the sweet scents of the mangroves, tropical orchids, gardenias and grevilleas. An outcrop of large granite slabs protruded into the water, forming a natural jetty. Blake had pointed out a series of worn cavities in the surface of the rocks where, over centuries, the aboriginal people had crushed grass seeds into paste for food.
He had also warned them that death lurked beneath the deceptively tranquil, lily-strewn water.
Her sense of unease grew. "Please, watch out for -"
"Crocodile!" Nigel shouted at the same moment.
In a blur of movement, an olive-colored torpedo surged out of the water, wolflike dagger teeth snapping shut around Nigel's canteen with the force of a steel trap. She barely had time to glimpse a great dragon head with horned eyebrows and blazing yellow eyes, before the prehistoric creature sank back into the creek, its powerful serrated tail churning the water to foam.
For a horrified instant, she thought Nigel had been dragged in, as well, until she saw him swing himself into the tangled branches. His grip on the tree must have saved him. "Get away from there," she screamed.
"What the flaming hell do you think I'm doing?" He pulled himself hand over hand back to shore, while she kept a wary eye on the water. The crocodile was nowhere to be seen, but she could sense its fearsome presence lurking in the depths.
Then Nigel was back on land, sheet-white and shaking, rubbing the back of his neck where the strap from the canteen had etched a furrow. The torn leather dangling from his neck told its own story. Angrily, he jerked the strap off and dashed it to the ground. "Blasted man-eater ought to be shot."
He spun back in the direction of their camp where Blake had supplied them with a .303 rifle for protection. She grabbed Nigel's arm, barely halting his progress. "You can't shoot it. Crocodiles are a protected species."
"Not if they attack humans," he spat at her.
"It didn't attack. You invaded its territory," she said, as shaken by the near miss as he was. "If you injure it instead of killing it, you could make matters worse."
His scathing look raked her. "Worse than nearly being dragged under and eaten alive?"
She refrained from repeating Blake's lesson that crocodiles didn't eat their prey alive. They rolled you over and over until you drowned, then stowed you in an underwater lair to be eaten once you'd softened sufficiently. The very thought made her sick. She had a feeling Nigel wouldn't welcome the reminder right now. If he hadn't had such a firm grip on the tree ...
"I'm glad you're okay," she said softly.
His stare remained wintry. "Are you?"
"Of course I am."
"Because you care about me, or because you want to get your story?"
"No story is worth a life."
"No? Then tell your boss what she can do with this assignment."
She gestured impatiently. "You know why I can't."
"Because you need Karen to use her influence with her husband. Isn't there another way to keep Lauren's home open that doesn't involve risking both our necks?"
"None that Karen was prepared to share with me," Jo said, too shaken to hide her bitterness. Ever since the editor heard about Diamond Downs, she'd had a bee in her bonnet about setting a feature there. Jo would have been happy simply to interview the Logan family, but for some reason, Karen wouldn't hear of it. "Too predictable for Scene Weekly. Our readers expect an inside story, a sense of being there," she'd told Jo. That's when she'd hatched the idea of having Jo live off the land for a month and report on the experience diary-style in each issue.
Excerpted from Live To Tell by Valerie Parv Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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