HEAT OF THE NIGHT CHAPTERS 1-3
The plane bucked and sputtered, its engines threatening to die before the wheels could touch down on the dirt runway that had been carved out of the jungle a hundred feet below. Ken "Viper" Thompson stared at the civilian medical team from behind mirrored sunglasses. They were ragtag group of do-gooders, who believed they were making a difference in the world.
Had he ever been that naïve and young? If he had, Ken couldn’t remember. Fifteen years as a professional sniper would do that to a man. He and his spotter, John James Ekle had replaced one of the nurses and the minister on the team at the last moment, which was why they were jammed in here like a half dozen squids in a jar.
Sweat trickled down his back as the heat rising from the jungle smothered the little plane and its occupants. Lack of circulation made the stale air take on an edge of fear and desperation. Nerves were running high. Ken scanned their faces once more, but everyone seemed to be preoccupied with what was outside the aircraft.
No one suspected the real reason he and John were here, not even the sharp-eyed doctor in charge of the team. They hadn’t had time to develop a deep cover—thanks to a power-hungry ex-general’s accelerated timetable—so they’d decided to blend with a real medical relief team. Danger came with that decision, since civilians were unpredictable and could blow even a good cover by accident.
That’s how Ken had ended up dressed as a missionary priest and John had passed himself off as a nurse. Both had enough combat medical experience and training to pass scrutiny, but Ken’s size had made him conspicuous. At 6’3, there was no blending in. Without the collar to deflect suspicion, the homegrown military would spot him for what he was—a warrior.
It was one thing to pretend to be a priest, it was quite another to think like one. Ken’s gaze dropped to Dr. Lily Houser’s bare legs as she uncrossed them. They weren’t long, but they were shapely like the woman. Firm and compact, they had just enough strength to grip when it counted. It didn’t help that her short sexy blond hair and sleepy green eyes looked as if she’d just crawled out of bed after a night of vigorous lovemaking. Hell, maybe she had.
The visceral reaction the thought provoked made Ken pause. Why should he care if she had a lover or not? He didn’t even know the woman. It wasn’t like he was looking to get involved in the middle of a mission. His eyes strayed to her chest and what few saintly thoughts he’d had fled from his mind. Ken tugged at his clergy collar, wishing he’d worn the vestigial tab instead. The cutout display in his shirt would’ve saved a lot of choking.
Damn, it was hot in here.
Ken had been given a file on Lily and the rest of her team before leaving the marine base in Oceanside, California. According to the papers, this was the second time she and this group had volunteered to be dropped into the ass-end of the jungle. They planned to immunize the locals against the H1N1 virus and set up a makeshift clinic to help curb infant mortality rates.
While they set up shop, Ken planned to put a bullet through Juan Garcia—an ex-general with grand ideas of raising an army to stage a coup—then hump it out of the jungle with John before anyone was the wiser. Unfortunately, that would take time since the satellite photos showed three potential locations. Until John scouted them all out and found where Garcia was hiding, Ken would have to play holy man under the watchful eyes of Dr. Lily Houser.
His gaze strayed to her legs again. Her tan thighs poked out from beneath khaki shorts before tapering into a pair of snug hiking boots. He could think of worse places to be than beneath the good doctor.
Lily felt his eyes on her again. She couldn’t see the blue hidden behind those mirrored shades, but there was no mistaking the heat. She resisted the urge to tug her shorts down over her legs. It wasn’t like they were indecent. They came to mid-thigh. Yet under his gaze, she felt naked. Lily crossed, then uncrossed her legs in an attempt to get comfortable in the cramped space. Weren’t priests supposed to only have eyes for God?
It didn’t help that Ken didn’t look like your average priest. Her eyes slid over his well-muscled form, long-fingered hands, and dark head. He kept his hair short and his rugged face clean-shaven. She caught a whiff of something musky, thought it might be aftershave until she smelled it again and realized it was simply soap and man.
Father Ken wasn’t classically handsome. He was too rough around the edges for that, but he was striking, even more so when she could see his eyes. The color of glacial ice, there’d been nothing cold about the way he’d looked at her. Any more heat and he’d have melted the polar caps. Lily was more than a little ashamed that she’d noticed.
When he and John had first reported to the aircraft, she’d balked. Her regular nurse, Amy had backed out of the trip at the last minute without much of an explanation. The crew Lily had put together was skeleton enough without losing a key member. Every member had a specific function. Without someone there to fill in the missing piece, the team would fail.
Lily had little choice but to accept the new additions. That didn’t mean she had to like them. She’d put her personal preferences aside because children were dying down in Cielo Bonita. A delay to seek out new team members would only mean more unnecessary casualties.
Still, she’d made a few phone calls. Lily couldn’t afford not to since she had to depend on her team when they reached the jungle. Father Ken and Nurse John had checked out much to her chagrin. Lily didn’t like working with new people, especially out in the field. You never knew how they’d react to the conditions.
Her gaze strayed to Father Ken. He didn’t look like the delicate type. She glanced at the large black duffle at his feet. In fact, he looked as if trips like this were second nature to him.
The plane dipped and everyone but Ken and John gasped and grabbed for their harnesses. John hadn’t missed a beat as he chatted up her other registered nurse, Karen Matthews, a cute redhead with stunningly long legs that went on for miles. From the look on her besotted nurse’s face, the advances he made weren’t exactly unwelcome. Karen laughed and touched his arm as John pulled a face behind the pilot’s back. As long as their antics didn’t jeopardize the team, Lily didn’t care what two consenting adults did in their free time.
Lily forced her hands to release the straps and calmly smoothed out her short blond hair. She was still getting used to the length, since she’d cut it specifically for this trip. When she realized Ken was still watching her, Lily dropped her hands into her lap. If he wasn’t rattled, then she wasn’t going to be either. Men like Ken and John wouldn’t respect a leader who couldn’t even handle a little plane ride.
She rolled her shoulders and forced herself to make eye contact. His lips quirked and the cramped airplane space suddenly got warmer. Lily looked away and thought she heard him laugh as the wheels bounced off the runway, then touched down.
Cielo Bonitawasn’t more than a few shanty houses perched next to a winding river full of deadly anaconda and caiman—a cousin to the crocodile. To call it a town was being generous, Ken thought. Why Dr. Lily wanted to build a clinic here didn’t seem immediately apparent. Fifty miles over the towns got bigger. There was more need, according to his intelligence.
He unloaded his duffle with his clothes and bibles in it. His M-21 rifle, Glock pistol, KaBar knife, and ghillie suit would be buried beneath foliage at the fallback site. He and John couldn’t afford to count on airport security, even though they’d been paid ahead of time to look the other way.
Ken waited for John to get his gear. His spotter scope had been disguised and placed with photography equipment. Lily glanced back at them as John approached.
“I think the good doctor has the hots for you,” he said. “She’s barely taken her eyes off you since the flight began. Maybe she has a taste for the forbidden.” He laughed and waggled his eyebrows.
“Or maybe she hasn’t made up her mind about us,” Ken said, looking his way. “We need to stay on our toes. We can’t afford to tip off the natives or the friendlies.”
“Tell me you wouldn’t like a piece of that,” John said, his eyes straying to Lily’s bottom. “She’s your type and she has one smokin’ body.”
Ken elbowed him hard. “I don’t have a type. Try to stay focused on the mission.”
John grunted, then gave him a knowing smile. “That’s what I thought.”
“We better help them set up. Don’t want to give our new boss an excuse to send us packing,” Ken said, ignoring his partner. The mission came first. It didn’t matter that Dr. Lily Houser had a mouth that was utterly kissable or that his hands itched to touch those luscious curves she kept hidden under that loose blue T-shirt. Ken had a role to play and it didn’t include seducing the utterly fuckable doctor. Lily would be horrified if she knew what he was thinking, not to mention if he acted on his carnal thoughts. He tugged at the collar again, then forced his hands away. A real priest would be used to wearing the damn thing. Of course, most priests didn’t have seventeen and a half inch necks.
If he had a brain in his head, he’d do his job and get the hell out of here. His prolonged presence would only endanger the sexy doctor and her team. Ken had no doubt they’d be receiving a visit from some of Juan Garcia’s men either today or tomorrow. He planned to make himself scarce when they arrived. No sense in tipping them off. They probably already had eyes on the place. He scanned the faces of the villagers who’d come to get a glimpse of the new arrivals.
“What’s wrong?” John asked. “Are you having one of thosefeelings?”
Ken looked at the faces once more, but didn’t get the itch between his shoulder blades that always let him know when he was being watched. He shook his head and rolled his stiff neck. “Let’s get moving,” he said. “We don’t have much time.”
“Right behind you, boss.”
Ken shot him a warning glance and pointed to his collar. Just the thought of it choked him.
“I mean Father,” John said, then chuckled.
“More like undertaker,” Ken muttered and they both laughed.
Despite Ken’s resolve to stay away from the luscious Dr. Lily, he’d had little luck doing so in the three days since they’d arrived. She was like a magnet for his attention. Her sexy laugh and caring demeanor drew him repeatedly to the makeshift tent they’d set up as a temporary clinic. The patients had been flowing in ever since word got out that a doctor had arrived. She’d treated well over two hundred people in the past two days and more kept coming. Lily was a tireless worker, who never lost her bedside manner no matter how exhausted she became.
There’d been times he’d had to step in and make her take a break, drink some bottled water and have a bite to eat. Those times had been his favorite because he’d learned a lot about the woman. She was the youngest of three kids in a family of lawyers. Lily had fought to go to medical school, even though her father had expected her to join the family firm. Ken had read most of the information from her file, but Lily had made the facts come to life with her animated storytelling.
If Ken had learned anything over the last few days, it was that Lily was a scrapper. Despite her diminutive size, she fought for what she wanted and what she believed in. She had very strong opinions about a variety of subjects and wasn’t afraid to share them. He’d enjoyed every second of their verbal sparring, but couldn’t miss the fact that it hid a deeper attraction. One that was getting harder and harder to ignore.
They’d just finished their lunch, when the first of Juan Garcia’s men arrived. It had taken longer than Ken had expected. Whether that was due to the distance from his camp or extreme caution, he didn’t know, but would find out soon enough. The man had come in under the guise of a wounded farmer, but Ken and John had recognized military training in his gait and his watchful gaze.
Lily left Ken’s side and rushed over to help him into the tent. She was already asking questions with the help of a local interpreter before the flap closed. Ken shot John a sharp look and jerked his head toward the tent. John followed Lily inside.
Ken rose slowly and put his hands together so that it looked like he was praying. All the while, he scanned the tree line. He had no doubt they were under surveillance. The spot between his broad shoulders was twitching. He crossed himself, then stretched out his stiff muscles and calmly made his way toward his tent. The heat from the jungle punched the air out of his lungs. The sweet smell of blossoms wafted on the breeze, leaving him light-headed or maybe it was the company he’d been keeping. Ken wanted to go into the medical tent, but there was no reason for him to be there. It wasn’t like the man was dying and needed last rites. John would report back on what the soldier said. He just had to wait. It turned out to be a very long two hours.
The man who’d come in under the guise of a farmer hadn’t said much. John noted that he’d looked over their equipment and eyed the staff suspiciously. He was spying, trying to ascertain if they were who they said they were. His actions left no doubt that Juan Garcia was in the area. Fortunately, the rest of the afternoon and evening was uneventful.
The next morning three more men showed up. These guys hadn’t bothered to disguise their uniforms. Lily had hesitated when she saw them, but then quickly ushered the men into the medical tent for treatment. Up to this point, Ken had respected Lily’s work ethic and intelligence, but now he was beginning to wonder if he’d misjudged her.
It was one thing to treat a man in disguise, it was quite another to knowingly treat the men that had caused some of the injuries she’d seen over the last few days. She was deliberately putting herself in harm’s way. She needed to get that sexy butt back to San Diego where she’d be safe. It took every fiber of his being not to march into the tent, pick her up, and put her on the next flight out of town.
Lily stared at the men dressed in green fatigues. One man watched her and her team while the other two searched their tents and luggage. No one tried to stop them and for that she was grateful. She hadn’t known she’d been holding her breath until the last man came out of Father Ken’s tent empty handed. Lily’s shoulders eased a little. Logically, she knew there shouldn’t be anything to find, but that hadn’t stopped her from worrying. For one terrifying moment she’d imagined them shouting that they’d found something other than bibles.
He’s a priest, she reminded herself again, hating that she had to keep doing so to prevent her growing feelings for the man from showing.
Lily had known coming in to Cielo Bonitathat she might have to contend with the politics in the region. In this case, that meant the corruption, intimidation, and violence that was rampant. Like various areas in South America, civil unrest was common or at least had been in the past. Between the drug trade and power struggles, violence was as normal as breathing. She didn’t know which cause had these men knocking at her door and she didn’t care. The faster she treated them, the sooner they’d be gone. Hopefully for good.
The many paid the price for the few bent on destruction. She knew these men had caused some of the wounds she’d treated. Lily had heard whispers of kidnappings, torture, and enslavement. The latter used for labor in the drug trade. She’d even heard stories of young girls being taken from their families and forced into prostitution to entertain the soldiers.
She’d taken the warnings seriously, but she hadn’t been able to turn her back on the people. Any more than Lily would turn her back on these men. She’d taken an oath to treat everyone no matter their background and Lily intended to keep it.
Karen Matthews stood next to her, her gaze going again and again to John Ekle, who’d finally shown up to work.
“Long night?” Lily asked.
John had the decency to blush. “Longer than I thought.” He grinned and Karen scowled.
“Doctor, should we give him an antibiotic?” she asked.
“Yes,” Lily said as she finished dressing the soldier’s leg. He’d had a cut that had gotten infected. If he’d left it much longer, she would’ve had to amputate.
“No, I meant him,” Karen said, pointing to John.
His gray eyes flared. “I always use protection, darlin’. You don’t have to worry about me,” he said, winking at her. “I’m a regular Boy Scout.”
John’s words were playful like always, his actions smooth and relaxed. Nothing he did seemed out of place as he helped them bandage the soldier, but Lily couldn’t shake the feeling that he was watching their patient closely.
“You are disgusting,” Karen said, helping the soldier off the table.
The man glanced between them and his lips quirked. Some things were universal and didn’t require interpretation, Lily thought as the soldier hobbled out of the tent. The armed group left shortly thereafter. No doubt to report their findings.
John leaned forward, not missing a beat. “You still like me.”
Karen balked. “Not anymore. You’re a himbo.”
“Ouch,” he said, clutching his chest.
She snorted. “Like calling you a male bimbo would ever hurt your feelings.”
His gray eyes glittered in amusement as he gave Karen’s body a slow perusal. “I’ll make it up to you tonight,” John said. “I promise.”
Karen glared. “You said that last night and the night before.”
“Yeah.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and gave the nurse a lopsided grin. “But now I mean it.”
“You two need to get a room,” Lily said, shaking her head.
“Oh, I intend to,” John said, sending a heated glance Karen’s way. “What’s it going to be, darlin’, your tent or mine?”
Karen let out a frustrated growl, but from the look in her eyes she had every intention of taking John up on his offer.
Lily’s thoughts wandered to Father Ken. “Not going to happen,” she muttered under her breath, before tossing her latex gloves into the trash.
Ken made himself scarce, keeping toward the tree line, but couldn’t bring himself to go far in case Lily needed him. He didn’t think the men would try anything, but you never knew with homegrown militias. At least she wasn’t alone.
Despite his nocturnal activities, his spotter was in there with her. John had spent the past few nights traipsing through the jungle, and studying satellite images to try to figure out where the ex-general had been hiding himself. Ken had covered his absence when Lily noticed him missing by telling her that John had met a local woman in the town. She’d frowned, but accepted the story, since John had done nothing but flirt since they’d arrived. It was a good cover. No one who’d been around him for any length of time would suspect it was a lie.
This morning John had reported that he’d located their equipment and a crude four-room house seven klicks south of their position. He’d seen movement and had been able to get a positive I.D. on Juan Garcia. John had scouted out a tree-covered hill two thousand feet away that looked to be a good spot to try to take the shot. The dense brush would give them the cover they needed.
Ken watched the soldiers leave. He didn’t relax until they were out of sight. He hadn’t seen the location John had picked out yet. He’d need to survey the place for himself before he knew for sure if he could take the shot from that position. It wouldn’t do for a tree branch to be in the way. They would be leaving tomorrow morning and if all went as planned, they would not be returning. A fact that bothered him more than it should...thanks in part to a certain blond-haired doctor, who in a short while had managed to weasel her way under his skin.
Morning came early for the medical team. The heat and the noise made sleeping in impossible. The sounds of the jungle grew in volume as the animals began their daily struggle for survival. The hot air accentuated the damp musky odor of the rich soil and the sharp tang of the muddy river nearby.
As was her habit, Ken found Lily sitting on a log by the fire, a bowl of instant oatmeal in her hands. Her hair had been pulled back and she wasn’t wearing any makeup, allowing her inner beauty to shine through. She hadn’t noticed him yet, so he continued to stare. He was going to miss seeing her face every morning. His chest constricted as he stepped forward into view. Lily smiled brightly, then scooted over so he’d be able to sit beside her. It was a routine they’d both gotten used to over the short time they’d been here.
“Good morning,” she said, taking a sip of coffee.
“Morning,” he answered, grabbing a cup for himself. “Need a refill?” Ken shook the coffee pot.
“No, I’m good,” she said, putting her cup down to finish eating.
They sat in silence, each enjoying the beginning of a new day. The sun hadn’t reached the treetops yet, but already the heat threatened to turn the world into a sauna.
“It’s going to be a scorcher,” Lily said.
“Yeah, it feels like it.” Ken took a sip of his black coffee. “I’m going to head out to a village that I’ve heard might be receptive to the good word,” he said.
“You’re leaving?” she asked, her expression clouding without her realizing it.
Ken’s throat tightened, making it hard to swallow. He squeezed the cup to keep from reaching for her.
“I thought most of the people in this area were already converted,” Lily said.
He nodded. “They are, but the people I’m referring to are natives.”
“Oh.” Lily reached for her coffee. “How long will you be gone?” She didn’t have to say that she was going to miss him. Ken could see it in her shimmering green eyes. It matched the longing he felt inside.
Ken looked away unable to face her. He’d lied to hundreds of people over the years. Some for their own good and some because it meant the difference between life and death. Yet his gut clenched at the idea of lying to Lily.
“Should be a day, two tops,” he ground out, while staring at the swaying trees.
“Maybe I can come with you?” she suggested.
His head whipped around. “No! I mean, you’re needed here. Word has spread that you’re giving inoculations. It takes people days to travel to get here. You don’t want them to show up when you’re gone.”
Her amber brow furrowed. “What if you need medical assistance?”
He met her gaze. “I’ll take John with me. That should keep him out of Karen’s hair for at least a few days.”
She laughed. “He does seem to be quite the horn-dog. I’ve heard him drag himself in late most nights.”
“I’ll have a word with him about that,” Ken said.
Lily laughed and the sound washed over him. “I think he’s long past saving,” she said.
Ken hadn’t been referring to saving John’s soul, although he’d known Lily’s mind would go in that direction. He’d meant he would have a word with his spotter about the amount of noise he was making. He should’ve been able to slip in and out of camp undetected.
“Did you hear him last evening?” Ken asked.
Lily shook her head. “No, but that’s not a surprise since I saw him go into Karen’s tent last night. My guess is they’re still in there.”
Their eyes met and held as the attraction they’d been fighting bubbled up, swamping them. Lily’s gaze dropped to his mouth and lingered, while she moistened her lips. Ken knew what he was about to do was all kinds of wrong, but he couldn’t stop himself. This was the last time he’d ever see Dr. Lily Houser and he’d be damned if he’d leave here without tasting her. Before he had a chance to let good sense and his conscience talk him out of it, Ken lowered his head and captured Lily’s luscious mouth.
He groaned on contact as her full lips softened under his assault. He’d meant to be gentle, work into the kiss, but he wanted her too bad. She tasted better than Ken had imagined, better than he’d ever dare hope. Sweet from the oatmeal and sharp from the coffee. Totally delicious. He ran his tongue over the seam of her mouth, then sucked her lower lip, luring her into the fire that was raging between them.
Her fingers flitted over the front of his shirt hesitantly. He mistook the move for trying to escape. Ken’s hands automatically tightened into fists, clutching her T-shirt as he deepened the embrace. Their tongues touched and need shot through him, tensing his muscles. His body made demands that were not about to be answered, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to toss Lily over his shoulder and carry her back to his tent. He wanted her naked and writhing beneath him, her firm thighs gripping his sides as they rode out the passion exploding between them. Ken wanted her more than he wanted his next breath. He knew he had to let her go before he acted upon the insane thoughts churning in his head, but his fingers refused to cooperate.
He was going to hell for sure.
Lily’s mind spun. She knew what she was doing was wrong, but she couldn’t seem to stop. She had wanted to know what it would feel like to kiss Father Ken since the moment she’d laid eyes on the man. It was so much more than Lily had ever thought possible.
Pulled firm against his hard chest, her body melted into his. Lily reveled in his strength, the touch of his hands. She could feel the leashed power simmering just below the surface of his carefully constructed control. There wasn’t an ounce of softness to him. Even his lips were hard and demanding. He deepened the embrace, stoking her passion until Lily feared she’d go up in flames. She squirmed to get closer as the world faded, leaving only the two of them and the vortex they’d created.
Her fingers threaded through Ken’s short black hair, accidentally brushing his collar. Reality came crashing back with a vengeance. What had she done? Lily cried out and tore her mouth away.
Pain and confusion marred his brow before quickly smoothing into an unreadable expression.
Her hands trembled as Lily brought them to her lips. Her body was still throbbing, demanding release. She ignored it as her mind called her every foul name in the book. “I am so sorry, Father. I don’t know what got into me.”
Ken stiffened. “No,” he said. “It’s my fault. I should’ve never touched you.”
Lily’s face grew warm. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. The fact that she’d welcomed his kiss and enjoyed his touch confused her even more. She’d never done anything like this. Had never even considered breaking this taboo until she met Ken.
A faint streak of red colored his cheeks. “Please forgive me. I don’t know what came over me,” he said. “You are an amazing woman and any man would be lucky to have you. If anyone is in the wrong here, it’s me.”
“How can you say that?” Lily asked. “Don’t you get it? I just French-kissed a priest.”
“I’m not—” Ken caught himself before he could refute her statement. “I better get my things packed for the trip before the sun gets any higher. Thank you for everything.”
Lily nodded, but couldn’t look him in the eye. She’d never been so embarrassed. One minute they’d been enjoying breakfast and the next she’d been all over him. Her parents would be mortified if they ever found out about her lapse in judgment. It wasn’t like she had a thing for priests. She’d simply wanted Ken the man. And for one moment, he’d wanted her, too. She groaned. The stress of the job was obviously getting to her.
Maybe it was a good thing he was going away for a day or two. She had enjoyed their mornings together and was really going to miss him, but some distance would give her time to clear her mind and do some soul-searching. They could talk when he got back or maybe by then everything would be settled and they’d never have to mention it again. They could pretend the kiss never happened. She watched Father Ken retreat to his tent and her heart sank. Who was she kidding? Lily knew she’d remember that kiss for the rest of her life.
She stood up and brushed off her hands, then walked to the river to wash her dishes. A splash nearby startled her out of her musings. Lily jumped back in time to see a caiman submerge under the muddy water and disappear. Caiman were smaller than crocodiles, but still quite deadly. She’d been so distracted by that amazing kiss that she’d nearly strolled right over the reptile. She shuddered at what could’ve happened.
Lily looked around, then quickly finished washing her dishes. She returned to camp as Father Ken exited his tent, carrying his big duffle.
“Why are you taking that?” she asked.
“It holds everything I’ll need for the trip,” he said, capturing her gaze and holding it.
Before Ken or Lily could say anymore, John stumbled out of Karen’s tent, pulling on his shirt. His pants were still unbuttoned and his hair was tousled. He scrubbed a hand over his face and yawned. When he caught sight of them, John grinned. “A promise is a promise,” he said, then looked at Ken and frowned. “Did I interrupt something?”
“No.” Ken scowled. “Thought I was going to have to leave here without you.”
“Give me a minute and I’ll be ready to go.” John changed direction and raced into the jungle. He was back in short order. It took him no time at all to gather his things and join them by the fire.
“Duty calls,” Ken said, staring at Lily, trying to memorize her features.
“Well, I’d better get to work,” she said, hitching a thumb over her shoulder toward the medical tent. “Have a safe trip.”
“Thanks,” Ken said, then quietly added after she walked away. “Have a good life, Dr. Lily Houser. It was truly a pleasure.”
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