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Drums pounded out into the sticky tropical night, their vigorous beat almost drowning out the guitars. Her smile tinged with strain, Hani Court surveyed the laughing, singing crowd from her vantage point at the other end of the ceremonial area.
The village people had thrown themselves into the celebrations with typical Polynesian gusto, the occasion their way of thanking the group of New Zealand engineering students who'd fixed and upgraded their derelict water system.
First there had been feasting, and now they were dancing. A teacher at the local school, Hani wasn't expected to join them.
Instead, watching the whirling, colourful patterns the dancers made, she resisted aching, nostalgic memories of Moraze, her distant homeland. There, beneath a tropical moon every bit as huge and silver as this one, men and women danced the sanga, an erotic expression of desire, without ever touching.
Here, half a world away on Tukuulu, the dancing was purely Polynesian but it shared the graceful hand movements and lithe sensuality of the sanga.
Six years ago Hani had accepted that she'd never dance the sanga again, never laugh with her brother Rafiq, never ride a horse across the wild, grassy plains of Moraze. Never hear her people cheer their ruler and his sister, the girl they'd called their little princess.
Never feel desire again…
Unfortunately acceptance didn't mean resignation. Pierced by longing for everything her stupidity had thrown away, she glanced around. She wasn't on duty, and no one would miss her if she sneaked back to her house in the teachers' compound.
A prickle of unease scudded down her spine. She drew in a breath, her stomach dropping into freefall when her eyes met a steel-blue scrutiny.
Transfixed, she blinked. He was taller than anyone else and the stranger's broad shoulders emphasised his height; hard, honed features provided a strong framework for a starkly handsome face. But what made him stand out in the exuberant crowd was his formidable confidence and the forceful authority that gave him an uncompromising air of command.
Every sense on full alert, Hani froze. Who was he? And why did he watch her so intently?
Quelling an instinctive urge to run, she felt her eyes widen as he walked towards her. Her tentative gaze clashed with a narrowed gleaming gaze, and a half-smile curved his hard, beautifully cut mouth. Colour swept up through her skin when she recognised the source of his interest.
OK, she could deal with that. But her relief was rapidly followed by shock at her body's tumultuous—and entirely unwelcome—response.
Never—not even the first time she'd met Felipe—had she experienced anything like the surge of molten sensation in every cell as the stranger came nearer, moving through the crowd with a silent, lethal grace. Her skin tightened, the tiny hairs lifting as though she expected an attack.
Warned by that secret clamour, she stiffened bones that showed a disconcerting tendency to soften and commanded her erratic heart to calm down.
Cool it! she told herself. He probably just wants a dance. Followed by a mild flirtation to while away the evening?
That thought produced an even faster pulse rate, pushing it up to fever pitch.
Perhaps he thought she was a local; although she was taller than most of the islanders her black hair and softly golden skin blended in well enough.
He stopped beside her. Bewildered and shocked, Hani felt his smile right down to her toes; it sizzled with a sexual charisma that emphasised the aura of controlled power emanating from him. With a jolt of foreboding she realised he was being eyed covertly or openly by most of the women within eyeshot.
Antagonism flared inside her. Here was a man who took his powerful masculine attraction for granted.
Just like Felipe.
But it was unfair to load him with Felipe's sins…
He said in a voice that made each word clear in spite of the background noise, 'How do you do? I'm Kelt Gillan.'
Struggling to dampen down her wildfire response, Hani smiled distantly, but she couldn't ignore the greeting or the fact that he obviously thought a handshake would be the next step.
Nor could she pretend not to feel the scorching along her cheekbones when she looked up and found his gaze on her mouth. Hot little shivers ran through her at that gaze—darkly intent, too perceptive.
'Hannah Court,' she said, hoping the aloof note in her voice would frighten him off.
Of course, he didn't scare easily. One black brow lifted.
Reluctantly she extended her hand, and his fingers closed around hers.
'Did I hurt you?' he demanded, frowning.
'No, no, not at all.' He had, in fact, judged to a nicety exactly how much strength to exert. Fumbling for a reason she could give him at her involuntary reaction, she hurried on, 'Just—I think someone walked over my grave.'
It took every shred of her fragile control not to snatch back her hand. His fingers were warm and strong—the hand of a person who worked hard.
But it wasn't his calluses that sent another bolt of sensation through her, so fiercely intense it numbed her brain and left her with nothing to say.
Rescue came from the band; abruptly, the drums and music fell silent. The dancers stopped and turned to the back of the dance floor.
The stranger looked over her head, his eyes narrowing as Hani found enough voice to warn, 'The elders have arrived. It's polite to be quiet.'
He didn't look like someone who'd care about the rituals of Polynesian society, but after a quick nod he watched the aristocratic council of men and women who ruled Tukuulu file past.
Hani dragged in a deep breath. The leaders would produce their best oratory to thank the group of students, and on Tukuulu it was an insult to leave while they spoke. So although she was stuck beside this man for some time, at least she wouldn't have to talk to him.
She'd have time to subdue the wild confusion attacking her. And then she'd think up some innocuous conversation. Not that she cared if he assumed she was a halfwit, she decided defiantly.
Willing herself to keep her gaze on the elders as they positioned themselves in front of the crowd, she wondered where he'd come from and what he was doing here. Although his height and those burnished eyes, the cold blue of the sheen on steel, hinted at a northern-European heritage, his olive skin spoke of the Mediterranean.
Perhaps he was Australian, or from New Zealand, although she couldn't recall an accent.
As for what he was doing here—well, right next door was the big nickel mine, Tukuulu's only industry, so possibly he had something to do with that.
If so, Hani thought trenchantly, she'd try to persuade him that the mine company needed to accept some responsibility for the school that educated its workforce.
About half an hour into the speeches, Hani blinked, then closed her eyes against the light from the flaring torches.
Not here, not now, she prayed fervently. Please!
Cautiously she lifted her lashes, only to blink again as the flames splintered into jagged shards that stabbed into her brain. Heat gathered across her temples, while a dragging ache weighted her bones.
The fever had returned.
Don't panic—just stay upright. Once they finish you can go.
For almost two months—ever since the last bout—she'd been so sure she'd finally managed to shake off this wretched bug. Fear hollowed her stomach; the last time she'd been ill with it the principal had told her that another bout would mean some months spent recuperating in a more temperate climate.
But she had nowhere to go, and no money…
Acutely aware of the silent woman at his side, Kelt Crysander-Gillan concentrated on the speeches. Although he couldn't follow all the allusions, the Tukuuluan dialect was close enough to Maori for him to appreciate the sentiments and the aptness of the songs that followed each speaker.
Pity the council hadn't waited another ten minutes or so to arrive. Then he'd have had time to introduce himself properly to the woman with the intriguing face and the aloof, reserved air.
Looking down, he realised that she was sneaking a glance at him from beneath her lashes. When their eyes clashed she firmed her luscious mouth and looked away, providing him with an excellent view of her profile.
Kelt switched his gaze back to the orator, but that fine line of brow and nose, the determined little chin and the sleek gloss of exquisite skin stayed firmly lodged in his mind.
An islander? No. Not if her eyes were as green as they seemed to be. And although her silky fall of hair gleamed like jet, a quick glance around the room confirmed that not a single Tukuuluan shared the red highlights that gleamed across the dark sheen. A staff member? Probably. When he'd come in she'd been talking to one of the teachers.
He'd already ascertained she wore no rings.
More than an hour after they'd arrived, the elders finally sat down, giving the signal for the celebrations to continue. Immediately the hall exploded in chatter, swiftly overwhelmed by the renewed staccato thump of the drums.
And the woman beside him turned without speaking and walked away.
An ironic smile pulled at the corners of Kelt's mouth as he watched her. So much for the notorious Gillan pulling power! He couldn't recollect any other woman flinching when he shook hands.
His gaze sharpened when she appeared to stumble. She recovered herself and stood with bowed head and slumping shoulders.
Without volition, Kelt took two steps towards her, stopping when she straightened up and set off into the hot, dark embrace of the night.
But something was definitely wrong. She wasn't so much walking as lurching down the avenue of coconut palms, and while he watched she staggered again, managed another few steps, and then collapsed heavily against the trunk of the nearest tree.
Kelt set off after her, long legs eating up the distance. Once within earshot he demanded, 'Are you all right?'
Hani tried to straighten up when she heard the deep, cool, aloof voice—very male. Even in her distress she was pretty sure she knew who was speaking.
Weakly she said, 'Yes, thank you,' humiliated to realise she sounded drunk, the words slurred and uneven. She probably looked drunk too, huddled against the palm trunk.
'Can I get you anything?' This time he sounded curt and impatient.
'No.' Just go away, she pleaded silently.
'Drink or drugs?'
She longed for her usual crisp, no-nonsense tone when she responded, 'Neither.'
Instead the word dragged, fading into an indeterminate mutter. Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore him and concentrate on staying more or less upright.
He made a disgusted sound. 'Why don't I believe that?' Without waiting for an answer he picked her up as though she were a child and demanded, 'Where were you going?'
Fighting the debilitating desire to surrender and just let him look after her, she struggled to answer, finally dredging the words from her confused brain. 'Ahead—in house.'
He set off silently and smoothly, but by the time they reached her door Hani's entire energy was focused on holding herself together long enough to take her medication before the fever crashed her into nightmare territory.
'Where's your key?'
'B-bag.' Her lips felt thick and unwieldy, and she said it again, but this time it was an inarticulate mutter. Dimly Hani heard him say something else, but the words jumbled around in her head.
Chills racked her shaking body as she whispered, 'Cold… so cold…'
Unconsciously she curled into the man who held her, striving to steal some of his warmth. Kelt's unruly body stiffened in automatic recognition and, swearing silently, he took the bag from her limp fingers. His arms tightened around her and he said, 'It's all right, I'll get you inside.'
She didn't appear to hear him. 'B-bedside,' she said, slurring the word.
She was shivering so hard he thought he heard her teeth chattering, yet she was on fire—so hot he could feel it through his clothes.
Kelt set her on her feet, holding her upright when she crumpled. He inserted the key and twisted it, picking her up again as soon as he had the door open. Once inside the small, sparsely furnished living room he found the light switch and flicked it on.
The woman in his arms stiffened, turning her head away from the single bulb. Her mouth came to rest against his heart, and through the fine cotton of his shirt he could feel the pressure of her lips against his skin.
Grimly, he tried to ignore his body's consuming response to the accidental kiss.
Guessing that the open door in the far wall probably led to a bedroom, he strode towards it. Through the opening, one comprehensive glance took in an ancient institutional bed. A rickety lamp on the chest of drawers beside it seemed to be the only illumination.
He eased her down onto the coverlet, then switched on the lamp. Hannah Court gave a soft, sobbing sigh.
His first instinct was to call a doctor, but she opened her eyes—great eyes, darkly lashed, and yes, they were green.
Even glazed and unseeing, they were alluring.
'Pills.' Her voice was high and thin, and she frowned, her eyes enormous in her hectically flushed face. T-top drawer…'
Kelt's expression lightened a fraction when he saw a bottle of tablets; although he didn't recognise the name of the drug, the dose was clearly set out, headed rather quaintly For the Fever.
He said harshly, 'I'll get you some water.'
When he came back her eyes were closed again beneath her pleated brows. She'd turned away from the light, rucking up her skirt around her hips to reveal long, elegant legs. Setting his jaw against a swift stab of desire, Kelt jerked the fabric down to cover her.
'Hannah.' Deliberately he made his tone hard and commanding.
Still lost in that region of pain and fever, she didn't answer, but her lashes flickered. Kelt sat down on the side of the bed, shook out the right number of pills, and repeated her name. This time there was no response at all.
He laid the back of his hand against her forehead. Her skin was burning. Perhaps he should call a doctor instead of trying to get the medication inside her.
Medication first, he decided, then he'd get a doctor. 'Open your mouth, Hannah,' he ordered.
After a few seconds she obeyed. He put the pills onto her tongue and said in the same peremptory tone, 'Here's the water. Drink up.'
Her body moved reflexively, but she did as she was told, greedily gulping down the water and swallowing the pills without any problems.
She even managed to sigh, 'OK—soon…'
Kelt eased her back onto the pillow and slipped the sandals from her slender, high-arched feet. She wasn't wearing tights, and her dress was loose enough to be comfortable.
To his surprise she made a soft protesting noise. One hand came up and groped for him, then fell onto the sheet, the long, elegant fingers loosening as another bout of shivering shook her slim body with such rigour that Kelt turned away and headed for the door. She needed help, and she needed it right now.