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One year ago, Africa
"I'm going. Either with you or alone, but I'm going."
A determined Samantha Harcourt ignored her driver's coming protest and slipped into the back seat of the tiny European car. After three days on the South African coast, she'd seen nothing but the posh resort hotels along the ruggedly beautiful beaches. The real Africa was out there somewhere and she aimed to see it. Today.
Alfred, the ebony-faced driver, had driven her and the other models around the private beach areas rented by Sports Stuff Magazine for their annual swimsuit edition, but no one else had requested to go beyond the tourist areas. Even now, with the modeling shoot about to wrap and go back to America, the other models lounged on the white sand beaches, uninterested in the rest of the country. "I may only be here once, Alfred. Please. I want to see the real Africa."
The man sat like a stone at the wheel. "I was instructed not to take you there," he said, his accent an interesting mix of African dialect and clipped British tones.
Sam sighed and peeled off a hundred-rand note, offering it without further comment.
Alfred shook his head but took the money and cranked the engine.
Satisfied, Samantha sat back to enjoy the scenery, digital camera at ready. She wasn't sure what to expect. Her life as a fashion model had taken her around the world and to many diverse places, but this was her first trip to Africa.
"Do you know a market where I can buy a ceremonial mask?" She collected masks of all kinds and would love one from this continent.
Alfred's dark eyes flashed in the mirror. "I will get you a mask. The markets aren't safe fortourists."
Sam figured that was the best she could hope for. "I'd appreciate that, Alfred. Thank you."
"We go back now. Yeah."
She'd been warned that the crime rate was high in some areas, but-
"I want to see where the everyday people of Africa live."
Alfred's wrinkled brow deepened to cornrows, but he drove on.
Within ten minutes, she understood his reluctance. Wealthy mansions gave way to shantiesmakeshift dwellings patched together with cardboard, tin, bricks and a hodgepodge of found materials.
Poverty, astonishing and terrible, spread out in a wide swath. Bony children played in the unending dirt with sticks and rocks. Adolescent girls carried water from muddy ponds while women hung meager laundry across strips of bowing rope or string. It was a scene of inexpressible squalor.
A deep sense of shame shifted over Sam, so profound that her stomach rolled. All she'd ever done was pose for a camera and look pretty. In her entire life, she'd done nothing that mattered. Yet she had so much, and these people had so little.
"We go back now? Yeah," Alfred said again. Sam turned horrified eyes to him. "No. Keep driving."
Something inside her was stirring, some innate longing. Turning back now was out of the question.
In the distance, a ways from the bulk of the desolate township, she spotted activity of a different kind. Someone was constructing a building.
Leaning forward, Sam squinted toward the structure. Habitat for Humanity, perhaps? Did they work in foreign lands?
She pointed. "Take me there." "The American missionary." Alfred nodded, this time approving her idea. "He is building a fine, new orphanage for the little ones."
An orphanage. Children without families. Sam gripped the edge of the window; the inner churning grew worse by the minute. Her family hadn't been that supportive, but she'd grown up with every material advantage. She could barely conceive of children with nothing to depend upon but the kindness of strangers.
She glanced down at her acrylic nails, safari shorts and designer top. A pair of gold bracelets-twentyfour carat speckled with costly gems-jangled at her wrist. Matching earrings dangled from her ears. Her tiny bag was Gucci, her sandals Prada. Her clothes and jewelry would probably pay for building that small orphanage. This morning the attire had been perfection, a reflection of the persona she cultivated. Now, the shallow trappings of a pampered life brought only shame.
Eric Pellegrino thought the African sun had finally gotten to him. Standing with a brick in one hand and a trowel in the other, he stared at the tall blond apparition stepping out of the tiny car. Dust swirled up around her, making the scene even more surreal. A mirage. That was what she had to be. Not the team leader who'd been felled by traveling sickness.
"Eric, Eric." Amani, the six-year-old orphan boy who had long since won his heart, came running around the side of the building. His little brother, Matunde, only three, ran behind him. Amani pointed to the car. "Company. More workers."
Both boys clapped their hands with glee and rushed the vehicle.
Eric figured he should close his gaping mouth and go rescue the woman before Matunde and Amani scared her off. Missions' teams arrived every summer to help the orphanage on a short-term basis, mostly youth groups with little knowledge but great enthusiasm. This year they were adding on to the tiny, overcrowded orphanage.
One thing he'd learned after nearly six years in Africa, never turn down a gift or an offer of help. If she was here, she must be feeling better.
He was the one suffering from a sudden attack of breathlessness.
He handed the mudded brick to one of the teens and went to greet the newcomer. The orphans, always fascinated by a vehicle or company, swarmed the car. When several children wrapped around her legs, the woman bent low and hugged them. Eric's heart bumped. Anyone who cared about the kids was automatically on his happy list.
His newest helper was tall and tan and willowy, pale blond hair slicked back from a clean, natural face into a thick ponytail. Elegantly groomed eyebrows arched above a pair of stunning silver-blue eyes that gazed at him with undisguised interest. With her delicate beauty and her fancy clothes, she looked as out of place as a princess at a mud-wrestling contest.
He, who'd learned the hard way not to be misled by exterior appearances, couldn't stop staring.
Sure, she was beautiful, but the instant connection was more than that. It was as if he knew her already, as if he knew the things that would make her laugh-and cry, as if he looked into the face of his future.
With a shake of his head, he dispelled the odd sensation and stepped forward.
"I'm Eric," he said. "Director here. These are my kids. Or rather the orphanage charges. I call them my kids."
Smiling down at the children, the mirage untangled herself and offered a well-groomed hand. "I'm Sam."
Her skin felt the way he'd known it would. Soft and pampered, but under-girded with steel, even if those fingernails wouldn't last ten minutes. "Welcome to Ithemba House. Feeling better?"
She blinked at him. "I beg your pardon?" Matunde and Amani already had her hands, tugging toward the structure.
"The mission's director called. Said you were under the weather. International travel does that to a lot of people."
"Oh. Right. Sure. I-" She looked around at the driver and then back at Eric. A strange expression, almost of decision, came and went. Eric understood. She wouldn't be the first who was scared off by the sheer enormity of the problems he faced every day. But Eric hoped she would stay for more reasons than he could articulate.
Finally, she let the boys pull her forward. "So where do I start?"
Eric jerked his head toward the building. Even seriously overdressed for the task, the woman had grit. He liked her attitude. Ah, who was he kidding?
Sam intrigued and attracted him. There was something very special about her. "Some of the other girls are around back mixing mud for the bricks."
As much as he'd like to forget work today and spend it getting to know her better, they had a job to do. He figured a job away from him was the best place for lovely Sam.
"Okay," she said. "Just a second." With the boys in tow, she went back to the car and spoke to the driver. From the man's expression, he wasn't happy with his passenger, but he nodded and drove away.