She’d flown hundreds of miles, ridden four hours beside her sullen former brother-in-law Toney, all because Adrian had run off to his dig without signing the papers. Contrary beast that he was, he must have sensed how much she wanted this divorce.
The camp was like so many she’d been to before, only smaller. Even with her eyes closed, she’d be able to map out where everything was. The location might have been a resort, complete with palm trees, if not for the olive-drab tents in a circle, two bigger than the rest, with a fire pit in the center. Along one side of the camp were aluminum barrels raised off the ground on wooden brackets—the water supply. The shower would be over there, a none-too-private nylon-walled tent that could never wash off all the dirt.
Generators lined the other side of camp, silent until the lab was up and running, which would happen once Adrian started bringing up artifacts. Strung from one tent to the next were clotheslines, covered with clothes, mostly male and mostly collegiate. If she looked closely, she could identify Adrian’s collection of T-shirts with rude archaeological sayings. She doubted he’d changed that much.
The sound of the ocean on the other side of the dunes washed through the open windows of the truck. The beach was carved from high rocky cliffs. Toney parked on a ledge above the campsite. To leave, they would have to back up the narrow road to turn around.
Other teams stayed in hotels and commuted to the expedition site every day. They had fast food available and running water. Alcohol. She had to marry the one archaeologist who didn’t think he was on a dig unless he was living like Grizzly Adams.
Not that he knew who Grizzly Adams was. Being raised in Scotland and living in camps most of his adult life made him weak in the area of pop culture.
About the only area he was weak in.
That and, well, practicality.
Being here was more like being home than the house she and Jonathan had bought. She was no longer the down-and-dirty girl she’d been, looking for clues about ancient civilizations in the writings they’d left behind. Her job translating for Allied Global wasn’t as hazardous.
Or as exciting.
She climbed out of the Land Cruiser, scanning the camp for Adrian. She had to guard herself from surprise when he appeared.
No matter how she’d prepared herself for affecting a cool reaction, nothing readied her for the man who approached. He moved with sinuous grace, hard muscled, lean faced, with his dark hair cropped close in what he called his “dig cut”, easier to keep clean. Silver-blue eyes glinted in the firelight. Her mouth dried up at the sight of him in the muscle-shirt style she’d always loved, his broad shoulders and sculpted arms tanned dark. She fisted her hands against the memories of stroking her fingers over his skin, casual gestures, sexual ones. She’d never touch him again, and the loss of familiarity weighted her belly. The past couple of years had been good to the man she’d known nearly half her life. The man who’d turned his back on everything she held precious.
Adrian Reeves, gorgeous as ever.
“Mal.” He was the only one to call her that. He braced a booted foot on a tree stump, the picture of virility. Unbidden, memories of being wrapped in those arms flooded back, and with them the heat of desire. The one thing they’d been able to do right every time.
Mallory swallowed. “Adrian.”
“You look good.” His mocking smile took in her mud-spattered boots and pants even as his Scottish burr tickled her nerves. “Never thought I’d see you in those clothes again.”
She pushed away her reaction to his look, that jump in her stomach, by recalling Jonathan’s expression of surprise when she’d packed. Her need to keep her gear had given him evidence she hadn’t put this life behind her as she’d claimed.
“Toney wouldn’t tell me what you’re looking at. I think he’s still mad at me.” She glanced after the younger man as he strolled off toward an open-sided tent before she turned to Adrian. “Have you found something good?”
A light came into his eyes, sending the cynicism she’d seen there before scurrying into the shadows. That hadn’t changed. Dr. Adrian Reeves loved his work.
“You might say that. Will you be able to stay through tomorrow? I’ve got some stuff to show you.” He rubbed his palms together, grinned, and she caught a glimpse of the idealistic boy she’d loved.
She glanced toward the dunes. On the other side would be the dive boat, the gear they’d need to go out to the site dozens of feet beneath the surface. She could taste the oxygen and feel the regulator in her mouth. The wash of nostalgia was unexpected. Turning back, she shook her head. “I need to get home as soon as I can.”
He stepped forward, his eyes scanning her, but she didn’t flinch. He was looking for a weakness. She refused to show him one.
“You said that on the phone. What’s your hurry?”
God, she didn’t want to tell him the truth, not two seconds after she got out of the truck. “I have a life in the States.”
“One you were willing to drop to come out here.”
“You didn’t leave me any choice.” She held his gaze for a long time, wanting him to understand he’d inconvenienced her, but also needing to hide how much it hurt her to come.
“Yeah, well, you have to stay tonight. I don’t want anyone in the jungle in the dark.” He flicked his gaze over her. “You’re probably hungry.”
He turned away, his body loose limbed, relaxed, the opposite of the tension that ran through her own body.
“Dinner should be almost ready. Let’s hit the mess tent.”
She fell into step beside him, unwilling to give him the slightest edge. “Let me guess. Chili and beans.”
“The digestive tract’s best friend.” He looked over his shoulder at the Land Cruiser. “You going to leave your bag in the truck?”
She flushed. Over the past few years she’d gotten accustomed to being waited on by bellboys, waiters, valets, but Adrian’s gentle prodding reminded her of his rule—everyone carried their own weight in his camp. She backtracked the few steps to the Land Cruiser for her duffel and turned to see Adrian’s smirk as he recognized the worn bag.
She swung the strap over her shoulder as they crossed the short distance to the mess tent.
“You’re early, as usual,” the young woman in the tent told him.
The smirk turned into a full-blown smile, complete with dimples and white teeth. Mallory was glad she wasn’t the recipient. It had too much power, and after her long trip, she wouldn’t have any resistance. As it was, it sparked a hum low in her belly. The girl behind the table seemed immune.
“Linda, this is Mallory.”
He didn’t add any more, but the hardness in Linda’s eyes told Mallory he’d mentioned her name before. Well, what did she expect, that he’d have glowing things to say about her after Tunisia? Thank heavens she would be out of here tomorrow.
“Mallory. Welcome to our camp.”
Mallory wondered if her imagination put Linda’s emphasis on the word “our”. Linda’s smile was tight as she served up a bowl of chili that ordinarily wouldn’t have looked appetizing, but after the cardboard burger she’d had on the flight, Mallory’s mouth watered.
Adrian motioned her out to the benches set around a campfire. The evening was already cooling. She suppressed a shiver as she stepped gingerly around the crude wood. Facing the flames with her left side away from him, she balanced her bowl on her lap.
“You did bring a sweatshirt?” Adrian gestured to the goose bumps on her arms.
She inclined her head toward the duffel she’d dropped at her feet. She wasn’t exactly sure why she didn’t want him to see her engagement ring; she fully intended to explain why she was anxious for this divorce. The very thought of that conversation tightened her throat. “I’ll get it in a minute.”
She took a bite of chili. Either she was hungry or had spent years away from camp food, but she found the lumpy brown glop delicious.
Adrian watched her, amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes.
She looked down to see she’d cleaned her bowl. Embarrassed, she set her bowl aside. When she did, her ring glinted in the firelight.
Adrian stilled beside her.
Funny how she was so tuned to him after all these years.
“What’s that?” he asked, his voice flat.
Damn his eagle eyes. She straightened. If she had to choose, she would have waited to talk about this. “My engagement ring.”
His lips thinned. “You’re engaged.” So matter-of-fact, when it couldn’t be easy to learn.
Needing something to do, she bent down and unzipped her duffel. She pulled out her sweatshirt, though she was no longer cold. “You had to know there was a reason I came here to get the papers signed.”
“When’s the wedding?” His eyes didn’t leave the ring, but the muscle in his jaw jumped.
“That’s—” He calculated, his brow furrowed. “What? Five weeks away?”
“Not quite.” She barely restrained herself from squirming under his inquisition.
He set his full bowl aside with a thunk that showed his emotions were barely constrained. “Who’s the guy?”
“Jonathan Montcroft.” She’d never noticed how pretentious his name sounded on her tongue. The man himself wasn’t, but Adrian would jump to that conclusion. Half an hour with her ex and she was already thinking like him again. “We work together at Allied Global. He’s a linguist.”
The raised eyebrow had her blushing even before he asked, “Better than me?”
She resisted the urge to tell him to grow up. “He speaks five languages.” But her remark didn’t erase the picture his double entendre brought to her mind.
“Five languages. Beats my measly three all to hell, doesn’t it?”
“It’s not a competition.” She was too tired to have this conversation.
“Let me guess.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “He’s the kind of man who wants the white picket fence and two point four kids.”
“Three, but yeah.” She watched him, so masculine it hurt to look at him. She squeezed her eyes shut. This man had been the joy of her life and her downfall.
“What happened to Smoller?”
She drew back. The animosity between the two former partners had begun with Adrian’s accusations that Valentine had taken the ivory casket Adrian and Toney claimed to have uncovered. The casket disappeared soon after and, despite in-depth searching, was never discovered in Valentine’s possession. The vehemence with which Adrian went after Valentine had stunned Mallory. She’d tried to reason with him, but that had only made everything worse. He’d accused her of taking Valentine’s side over his.
Their marriage had not improved from there.
“I haven’t talked to him in months. There was never anything more than friendship between us, Adrian. You know that.”
“Not before I moved out, anyway.”
She sucked a breath through her teeth. “Or after.”
Adrian scrubbed his hands over his face. He sat back, wiped his hands on his hips. “You have those papers?”
Shoulders sagging with relief, she turned away to the duffel at her side and drew out a thick sheaf of papers and a pen. Colorful little flags stuck out from the pages, indicating where his signature was needed.
The two bites of chili Adrian had eaten rose up in his throat and he leaned back to look up at her. Her face was drawn, her eyes anxious as she held out a pen.
Seeing her climb out of the truck dressed in her dig clothes had sent him spiraling back in time, had sent hope tumbling through him. Yeah, he’d known she was coming but sure as hell hadn’t expected to see her in her cargo pants and boots, blonde hair swinging behind her in a ponytail, looking like no time had passed.
“Are you happy?” She didn’t look it. He’d fallen in love with her enthusiasm and her passion for life, for archaeology. For him. Now something more than three years and a thousand miles separated them.
She almost dropped her pen in surprise. “I will be.”
With a nod, he took the pen. If she believed it, he would too. His name looked very final scrawled across the white paper.
He was letting her go. It was what she wanted, so it was the right thing to do. They could both move on.
He was just used to being married. He’d broken habits before. After almost three years apart, this one should be a snap.
“I’ll head back to the city first thing in the morning if you can spare someone to take me to the airport. Probably not Toney because he barely said a word to me. I think he was pissed off.” She took the papers and folded them neatly into an envelope before tucking them away.
“I thought you might want to dive, see what we’re working on.”
Mallory tugged at her ponytail and looked across the camp. “I don’t do archaeology anymore.”
“All right. Never mind, then.” He stood. “First, there’s someone I want you to see.”
He led her to a tent, situated away from the center of the camp, a little sturdier, a little bigger than the others. She cast a curious glance at Adrian, but he said nothing, only watched her face as he pushed open the tent flap.
A rush of joy engulfed Mallory at the sight of the old man in the camp chair. She dropped to the ground beside her mentor, Dr. Robert Vigil. He’d aged so much in the short time, his cheeks hollowed, his eyes sunken but still sparkling in delight at her arrival. He was so thin. He’d never been a large man, but now he seemed frail.
He tossed his familiar cloth dig journal on the floor beside her and closed his bony hands around her shoulders, pulling her up for a warm embrace. Just for a moment, she rested her head against his skinny shoulder, all her worries evaporating in the security of his arms. He’d been her anchor when she’d lost her parents, when her marriage had fallen apart. Now he was here—with Adrian.
She opened her eyes to see Adrian watching them and all those worries rained down again.
“What are you doing here?” Dr. Vigil eased her away to look at her.
“I—” She dropped her gaze from the dark brown eyes that always saw too much, that knew her too well. “I came to see Adrian.”
She heard the hitch of breath that could be hope or wariness. Dr. Vigil had loved both of them but their constant fighting and their split had been hard on him. Mallory felt guilty—and not a little jealous—that Adrian had kept in contact with him. She’d known the professor since she was a child. But once she split with Adrian, she hadn’t wanted any reminders of Adrian, of her digger’s past, of the career that destroyed dreams. Because of her need for distance, she’d lost the only family she had left.
“She brought the divorce papers,” Adrian said, still near the entrance of the tent. He pulled a cellophane bag of beef jerky out of the pocket where he used to carry his cigarettes. “She’s getting married again.”
She whipped her head up to meet Dr. Vigil’s gaze, knowing if she looked at Adrian, she’d burn a hole through him for beating her to the punch.
The professor’s stunned expression lasted only a second before a smile spread across his face, not quite reaching his eyes. “Congratulations, Mallory. I hope he’s worthy of you.”
She heard the censure in his voice and defensiveness rose. Did he want her to continue pining after Adrian, who couldn’t give her what she needed?
Dr. Vigil must have seen the pain in her face because he shifted subjects. “You look wonderful. Doesn’t she look wonderful, Adrian?”
Adrian shoved the jerky into his pocket. “She’s too skinny.”
She scowled, rising. “It’s the stress of planning a wedding. This time I want to do it right.”
Their own wedding had been an outdoor affair in Greece, and they’d dressed in their dig clothes. Their only concessions to convention were the rings and the flowers in her hair. At the time, the ceremony had seemed the height of romance. They’d been young and wild about each other, certain nothing or no one would ever come between them. She imagined most young couples felt that way, but she and Adrian—she’d been so sure. She glanced at his left hand. Of course he’d stopped wearing his ring.
She folded her left hand into a fist. Now she wore someone else’s.
“You might have considered planning it after you were divorced.” He’d stopped his laconic lounging and stood straight, tension in the lines of his body.
She stepped closer. “You might have signed the papers before you left civilization. You’ve had them for months.”
They were nose to nose in the small space, his scent washing over her, filling her with a memory of gliding hands and hot skin, while his flashing eyes filled her with another, aching recollection. So many fights, just like this one. This wasn’t what love was supposed to be. She drew back, relieved she and Jonathan never fought, never lashed out at each other. Never hurt each other.
Adrian glared a moment longer before he spun and left the tent.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Vigil,” Mallory murmured, embarrassed that he’d witnessed such a spectacle, that she hadn’t grown up where Adrian was concerned. In that moment, she’d forgotten the old man was there.
Dr. Vigil waved a hand, dismissing it as if it didn’t bother him. His eyes crinkled as he looked after Adrian. “It feels like old times.”
She glanced toward the opening. “Is he still chasing after the Theophilius boxes?”
Dr. Vigil’s gaze sharpened. “He hasn’t told you?”
She shook her head.
“He thinks he’s found one.”
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