The Orchid Hunter

The Orchid Hunter

Jill Marie Landis

August 2017   $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-777-9

Can an English lady raised as a "wild orchid” ever be truly tamed?

 
Our PriceUS$16.95
Code978-1-61194-777-9
 
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| Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt |


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When Trevor Mandeville leaves behind the drawing rooms of London and journeys to an island paradise in search of a rare orchid, he comes face-to-face with an even more shocking treasure. Stolen from her family at a young age, Joya Penn has spent most of her life running wild and free. Trevor tries to resist her charms, but soon finds himself captivated by the deliciously innocent—yet wildly seductive—young creature with eyes as blue as a mountain lake and blonde hair rippling down her back in an untamed mane.

Given her first taste of desire by the handsome adventurer, Joya believes all her dreams have come true when Trevor agrees to escort her back to London. But her uninhibited ways quickly throw his entire household—and his heart—into delightful chaos.

As Joya despairs of ever being the sort of "proper lady” Trevor could love, Trevor begins to wonder if he’s finally found the treasure he has been hunting for his entire life . . . in the forbidden paradise of Joya’s arms.

Jill Marie Landis is the New York Times bestselling author and seven-time Romance Writers of American Finalist for the RITA Award. Long known for her historical romances, Jill Marie Landis also now writes The Tiki Goddess Mysteries (set on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband, actor Steve Landis).

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Excerpt

Chapter One

1850

JOYA PENN STOOD on the valley floor, staring up high mountain walls lush with vegetation, up into the cloud of mist that had settled upon the upper slopes of Kibatante. The mountain was inhabited by a great, hulking spirit of the same name who was the mountain and at the same time, was a god who existed within the volcanic, igneous rock.

As long as the spirit of Kibatante slept in the heart of the island, eve­ryone knew that all would be well on Matarenga.

One of her sandals had come untied, so Joya bent down and quickly rewrapped the woven hemp thong around her ankle. As she straight­ened, she brushed a cockroach off of the coarse, yellowed fabric of her shin-length trousers.

Her shirt, a soiled castoff of her father’s, was knotted at her midriff. She found the garment a nuisance, but the year that her breasts had developed, her parents had demanded she cover herself. She would prefer not to be burdened with so many clothes, but her father still insisted. She argued that Matarengi women felt no need to cover their upper bodies. Why should she? She was perfectly comfortable with or without clothing. Still, she bowed to her father’s will.

Joya sighed, feeling adrift as she wiped perspiration from her brow with her forearm. Wishing that Kibatante’s spirit would slip inside her heart and ease her unsettled feelings, she touched a pouch tied to a thong around her neck. The small leather sack was filled with good-luck charms that kept her safe. She opened the bag and looked at the objects inside—a feather, sharks’ teeth, a shining piece of rock. The largest among them was her mother’s silver hair comb, which she had pressed into Joya’s hand on the day she died. She had begged Joya not to forget her. As if she ever could.

Eight Matarengi bearers, their skin glistening with sweat, were scat­teredover the hillside gathering moss and plant fibers used to pack around orchid specimens to be shipped to London. Joya had been in charge of leading the men today and the search had gone well. Tomor­row morning, the hunting party would start back over the mountain trail to the native village and the house that she and her father shared on the beach.

Even knowing that her life was full, she wished she could lose the heaviness that she carried in her heart. She had the breathtaking beauty of the island paradise and the lifelong friends she had made among the Matarengi people. She had the orchids that she and her father hunted, gathered, and packed. They were the loveliest of flowers, fragile in appear­ance, yet hardy enough to grow in the wild and even survive being shipped all over the world.

The work she shared with her father was fulfilling and, over time, she had recovered as much as a daughter ever can from the loss of her mother. Despite the fact that she was no man’s wife, and the fact that she had seen little of the world, she realized that she was a very lucky young woman.

But ever since she had been a child, there had been a shadow of sad­ness haunting her, a notion that there was something vital, something she could not explain, missing from her life.

According to Matarengi custom, she should have been a bride long be­fore now, but her white, English parents had strictly forbidden her ever marrying into the Matarengi tribe. She was to marry one of her own kind—something that had proved to be nearly impossible, for no suita­ble white man had ever come to the island for any length of time. Even if she chose to ignore her parents’ dictates, there was not a single Mata­rengi male on the island, save Umbaba, her closest friend, who was even comfortable around her.

She was beginning to lose hope of ever leaving the island or marry­ing anyone. She wondered if there was anything in the least desira­ble about her by English standards. How would she ever find out, when leaving the island to search farther afield was something her father re­fused to allow?

Uncomfortable with the direction of her thoughts, she began to climb the mountainside, keeping to the trail the men had hacked out with huge, lethally sharp machetes. In the lower regions of the valley floor, where the sun rarely fought its way through the dense growth, the ground was perpetually damp. She took care not to fall, for her sandals were caked with mud and slippery. Occasionally she had to pause and chop away branches that intruded across the trail with her own blade.

She passed two of the men, stopping to direct three others to take rooted samples from various plants in a deep ravine on the mountain­side. She took a specimen from one of the men, held it close, and exam­ined the root structure. It was a fine orchid, a soft lavender-rose in color.

She wished she could accompany the next shipment of flowers to England, walk along the crowded streets and byways, see the River Thames. She longed to experience the sights and sounds she had only learned of from her parents’ stories or seen in the prints in her books.

Whenever she closed her eyes and thought of London, somehow she easily imagined herself already there. Sometimes she would dream of England in vivid detail, scene upon scene, with such complete clarity that the images seemed very real.

Sometimes her dreams were haunting. Like Kibatante, the spirit of the mountain, it was as if she could be in two places—in the dream itself and outside of it, watching it unfold. She always dreamed of a girl, very much like herself, but notherself, in and about London.

Whenever she awoke from such a dream, it would take her a mo­ment or two to realize she had actually been safe in her bed asleep and that she had never really left Matarenga.

The odd sensation of these dreams-within-dreams had begun when she was a child. More curious than frightened, she would tell her mother about the experience and ask for explanations her mother could not give.

Joya could still recall the way deep frown lines appeared upon her mother’s brow whenever she tried to explain about the other girl who was her and yet was not her.

"Do not dwell on such things, child,” her mother, Clara, would al­ways say. "Dreams are only that. They aren’t real.” Then her lovely mother would smile, but the smile would never reach her eyes. After­ward, Joya would feel more confused than ever.

Eventually, she took up sketching, using bits of charcoal and odd pieces of paper, bark cloth, whatever she could find, as she wrestled with the images in an effort to understand. At first the drawings were only the scribbles of a child. As she grew, she amazed her parents with her skill, but they believed that the girl portrayed in the sketches was Joya herself.

Only she knew differently. The young woman in her drawings looked like her, but was definitely not her. She knew that as well as she knew the names of all the shimmering, rainbow-hued fish in the lagoon and the orchids on the hillsides. Drawing what she dreamed about some­times left her feeling even more adrift than ever.

One day she had called upon Otakgi, the oldest, wisest man on Mata­renga, the man her father called a witch doctor. From what little she knew of either, Otakgi was neither a witch nor a doctor. He was a man of magic, a healer, keeper of Matarengi legends and age-old tribal lore. Even when she had been a young girl with a head full of strange dreams and a heart full of questions, even then he had seemed ancient.

Otakgi’s skin was blue-black, thin and wrinkled, as withered as the dried blossoms of the flame tree. His hair was tightly braided with color­ful beads among the woven strands. He looked as old as the island itself, and it was whispered among the natives that he was almost as old as Kibatante, as timeless as the turquoise lagoon that surrounded Mata­renga.

Alone, more frightened of her dreams than of the old man, she had slipped into the shadowy interior of his small fadu, a native dwelling made of coconut fronds and bamboo. He was seated cross-legged on a tightly woven mat of pandanus, staring through the open door, toward the reef and beyond.

She sat in silence and tried not to wiggle until he came out of his trance, looked over, and found her waiting.

"I have strange dreams, Otakgi. Dreams of myself and not myself. I am very confused.” She spoke in Matarengi, a language she knew as well as, or better than, English.

She was forced to remain still, even though it was a while before he looked at her again. When he did, his eyes burned like hot black obsid­ian. He stared through her, as if she had no more substance than smoke. When he finally spoke, his voice reminded her of the rustling of the leaves when the Kusi trade winds blew gently over the land. He raised both hands, palms up. His long fingers, gnarled with age, lifted skyward.

"It will be many, many seasons yet before you know the meaning of these dreams. Do not be frightened, even if they seem strange, for one day you will find your other self. You will know the secret of this second spirit, the lost spirit of your soul.”

When he paused, silent again, she was afraid that he would say no more, that she would be no wiser, no more satisfied than when she had entered the fadu.

But the old man eventually stirred. He hummed quietly to himself and rocked back and forth on his bare, bony buttocks.

"There is no need to fear,” he had said, louder now, his voice firm, as if trying to impress her with the truth. "Be patient.”

And so, as the years passed, she continued dreaming and drawing and trying to be patient. She locked her questions away rather than make her lovely mama frown. Her papa, who had always worked so hard exploring the uncharted interior of the island for new orchids, certainly had no time for questions.

She had endured until one day she discovered she was no longer a child, but a woman—and everything changed. She was no longer al­lowed to go half naked, like her Matarengi friends. Soon, none of the young men, save Umbaba, would speak directly to her. Slowly, she be­gan to feel more and more isolated.

She went to her parents and begged them to take her to England, to let her experience life off of the island. Since she could not live a full life as a Matarengi, she wanted to live among her own kind for a while. They gently refused her outright, but then debated in hushed whispers behind their bedroom door.

Not long afterward, her mother died.

Months eased into years. She tried to lose herself, her questions, her needs, in her work with the orchids, but late at night, she was forced to battle her aching loneliness.

Perhaps, if she could get to London, she would not only find that part of her she felt was missing, but even meet a suitable man who would find her desirable, someone who would want her enough to marry her.

She had not argued with her father about leaving Matarenga in a good while, but today, almost as if the Kusi winds were charged with change, as if her skin no longer fit, Joya found herself thinking about what Otakgi had said to her so long ago:"One day you will find your other self.” She was determined to leave the island. She would demand that her father make some arrangements to send her along when the boat came to pick up the orchids. She would make her demands when they re­turned home from the hunt.

Suddenly, the ground began to tremble. Her hand closed around the orchid plant as rocks began to tumble down the mountainside. She was grazed by flying gravel. The Matarengi became frightened. They shouted to each other, and to her, to take cover.

Kibatante was stirring. The god of the mountain, keeper of the is­land, was disturbed.


 

Chapter Two

I’LL BE DAMNED if I die now. Not when I’m so close.

Dangling high above the valley floor, Trevor Mandeville clung with bare, muddied hands to the twisted, exposed root of a jacaranda tree. The gnarled root was his lifeline, his only hope.

He cursed and prayed that it would hold his weight until he was safe on solid ground, until the idea that he could fail became a memory and the reality that he was mortal had faded back into his subconscious.

The muscles in his back and arms screamed as he strained to save him­self. A heavy pack on his back weighed him down. His rifle swayed from the strap over his shoulder and slapped him in the side. His face was inches from the scarred, loose earth of the mountainside.

He spat at the dirt, cursed fate, then himself, and even Dustin Penn, the man he had journeyed halfway around the world to find. He closed his eyes, imagined staring Death in the face. Skeletal, hollow-eyed, the Grim Reaper tempted him to ease the muscles burning in his arms and shoulders.

"Let go,” Death whispered, urging him to give up, to feel the cool wind rush past him as he floated through the abyss, down, down through the tangled canopy of treetops that hid the valley floor.

He was raised never to leave a job unfinished, never to walk away from responsibility. His sister, Janelle, had accompanied him to Africa. She was awaiting him off the mainland coast, on Zanzibar. He refused to abandon her on foreign soil.

So Trevor clung tighter, strained harder. Pulling himself up hand over hand, he fought for a toehold in the crumbling earth. Death was something he would not even consider in this instance, for death meant failure. He always did everything in his power to avoid failure.

An hour ago, as he was hiking a barely discernible jungle trail no wider than his shoulders, a cloud of heavy gray mist had taken him by surprise. Fog settled in, camouflaging the landscape. Thick as rain, it ren­dered the trail dangerously slick.

Around midday he had stripped off his sweat-soaked shirt and shoved it into the top of his pack, and so when he fell, his skin was scraped by the rough stones embedded in the mountainside. Now his bare chest, scratched and bleeding, stung.

Sweat mingled with dampness from the fog trickled down his spine. His knee-high leather gaiters were covered with trail mud, their crossed laces caked with it. His khaki pants were filthy and torn, the toes of his leather shoes scratched from kicking the mountainside.

In the heavy mist, looming palms and acacia trees around him be­came hulking dark shapes. Their leaves swayed with the rhythm of the trade wind. Green parrots dived and squawked, taunting him. Howler monkeys screamed with the shrill sound of demented laughter.

Again, Death whispered in his ear, "Just let go.”

A coarse sound burst from Trevor’s throat, one that might have sounded like a laugh, but was really a shout of defiance. It echoed against the face of the mountain and carried to the treetops.

Failure was not an option. The jungles of the world were already lit­tered with the bones of hapless Englishmen who had lost their lives for their orchid-crazed patrons. Hunters had drowned, been lost or mur­dered, or fallen to their deaths—men who loved to gamble, men of adventure willing to die while searching for beautiful flowers in terrible places, to discover rare, exotic plants that would grace some wealthy aristocrat’s home.

Sweat slipped into his eyes and made him blink. He tightened his grip. Hand over hand, Trevor heaved himself upward, using the rough, twisted root to bring him even with the raw, broken edge of the trail. Gritting his teeth, he swung side to side like a pendulum until he dared to let go and grab for a place to land.

He hit the edge and clung. Before he started to slip again, he quickly scooted his upper body along with his elbows and forearms, grunting with effort as he dragged himself along, kicking with his legs. Soon he propelled himself to a secure patch of smooth, level ground.

Not until he drew his legs up and crawled a few feet away from the precipice did he allow himself to breathe. His heartbeat was ragged and wild.

A pair of noisy red-beaked parrots swooped down for a closer look. Beneath him, the earth trembled again, but gently this time, as if settling into place.

His hands shook. He took off his sun helmet, wiped his brow with his forearm, replaced the headgear, and then adjusted the rifle strap. Unfastening the canteen at his waist, he took a long pull of water. As his breath settled into an even cadence, Trevor scanned the sky and tried to see the sun through the tangle of branches and leaves that canopied the trail.

There was no indication it might burn through the fog before night­fall. If he did not start walking again soon, darkness would catch him on the side of the mountain and he would be forced to either bed down there or crawl along the narrow path on hands and knees, feeling his way out.

Pushing himself to his feet, he ignored the swell of weakness in his legs. Resettling his rifle strap, he took note of the superficial scratches on his chest and arms. His right cheek stung. He touched it and his fingers came away smeared with blood.

Starting out again, he concentrated on the trail, searching for any sign of weakness in the earth. Around the bend, where the mountainside was less eroded, he came upon crude steps set into the downhill slope. Flat rocks had been buried in the earth to form stepping-stones. He experienced a surge of relief when hiking became easier.

Every few yards, he could make out an outline of a boot print amid scattered prints of bare feet in the thick mud along the side of the trail. Trevor smiled with satisfaction. The shock of his close call slowly ebbed, soothed by the promise of success. Months of relentless work could finally yield the desired result. By nightfall, he could actually come face to face with Dustin Penn, the world’s most elusive and most renowned orchid hunter.

For years Penn had been shipping notable quantities of rare and unu­sual finds to London from different ports in Africa, while somehow keeping his whereabouts a secret. Over the last twenty years, Penn’s reputation as well as the mystery surrounding him had grown.

In the highly competitive business of orchid hunting, hiding the loca­tions of one’s finds was perfectly normal. An amateur orchidologist and part-time hunter himself, Trevor kept meticulous notes and maps that he shared with no one. But hiding from the world, as Penn had done,was not the norm.

Unconsciously, his hand smoothed the butt of his rifle as he won­dered how Penn would react to discovery. Would the man resort to violence to keep his whereabouts secret? Had he become a deranged recluse? How would he react when surprised?

As for himself, Trevor hated surprises. He always took great pains to make certain his own life was well ordered, that he consistently stayed on schedule. Everything that he could control always went according to plan.

He had learned at his grandmother’s knee that strict routine was neces­sary to success and that discipline kept one’s life from falling into chaos. He was well prepared to face Penn and whatever challenges came with finding him. Hopefully, there would be no surprises.

Although he had never set foot on Matarenga before, Trevor had of­ten trekked over similar ground. If he had learned one thing, it was that jungles were filthy, humid, primeval places where nothing was easy or predictable and a man was never entirely safe. Still, he never felt as fully alive as he did whenever he was on a hunt. Perhaps it was the chal­lenge of the very unpredictability of the jungle that attracted him.

He often thought that if it were not for his responsibilities to Mande­ville Imports, to his grandmother and his family name, he would choose to spend all his time hunting orchids in the far corners of the world.

Dusk had poured shadows between the trees by the time Trevor had reached the valley floor. The air was thick enough to drink, close and stagnant. Moss grew on the trees, as did many epiphytic vines and plants that eventually destroyed their hosts.

It was too dark to see the trail now, but the scent of wood smoke had begun to beckon him. He had slipped his shirt on and left it hanging open until he could clean his wounds. Beneath the cuts and bruises, his heart raced with excitement. He hacked away at the undergrowth with his machete until he could see firelight flickering through the trees.

Caution was of the utmost importance now, so he moved with stealth. As he edged closer to the light, he slipped his rifle off his shoul­der. Primed and loaded, it would give him only one shot. Then, if attacked, he would be forced to fight hand to hand until the end.

He had never killed another human being before. He did not relish the prospect of doing so now, but he would fire in self-defense if he had to. After what had happened on the trail, he was determined Death would have to work very hard to claim him.

Shoving aside a thick vine that blocked his line of vision, Trevor re­coiled when his fingers touched the cool, dry skin of a huge snake as thick as his biceps. Face to face with the reptile, he watched its tongue flicker and its eyes close down to slits. It seemed suspended in air as it hung inches from his face until, without a sound, it slithered down the trunk of the tree and away.

He crouched low and focused on the small, nearly circular clearing ahead of him. A low fire glowed in the center of the encampment. Two small tents had been pitched off to one side.

Three male natives hunkered by the fire while a few more worked to­gether on the far edge of the fire’s light. Trevor let go a soft sigh of satisfaction when one of the men moved to reveal a tall packing crate. Further stirring in the group gave him a clear view of three large barrels. Piles of dried moss and coconut husk, packing material for orchid ship­ments, were heaped on the ground at their feet.

Trevor’s gaze shot around the camp. If not Penn, then someone else was hunting orchids here. Firelight shimmered on slick, green leaves knitted into a backdrop. To the right he heard rushing water. Trevor wiped sweat from his brow as he studied the shadowed jungle landscape, recalling the topography of the last few yards so that he could commit them to paper when he logged his notes.

Suddenly his eyes picked up flashes of white against the dark foli­age. It was a moment before he realized that what he was seeing was not reflected firelight, but thousands of stark white orchid blossoms scat­tered like countless stars against the dark backdrop of jungle growth.

His breath left him in a rush.

Not only did he hunt and import orchids, but he had inherited his fa­ther’s extensive collection. He knew the breathtaking beauty of one single bloom, but nothing he had ever seen before could compare to the sight of hundreds of orchid blossoms exploding across the hillside.

A deep, gravelly laugh diverted his attention. There was movement in the camp. One of the natives called to another, then all of them laughed, sharing some joke in their own language.

A white man, illuminated by the firelight, stepped out of one of the tents. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a full head of long white hair, he looked about the right age to be Penn—somewhere between forty-five and fifty. He wore no sun helmet. His shirt was linen, stained down the front; his pants, muddied khaki, were tucked into worn gaiters. His fist was wrapped around the neck of a whiskey bottle. Three gold earrings dangled from his earlobe to flash in the firelight’s glow.

The orchid hunter was unarmed. He spoke to one of his men, then laughed boisterously again, secure in the false belief that they were alone.

Trevor reminded himself to be calm, clear, concise. He would show no threat. He straightened to full height. Every muscle protested. He slipped his rifle strap off, pointing the barrel down. He had traveled halfway round the world for this moment. He would introduce himself, then present his proposition to Penn.

He stepped out of the shadows into the shimmering ring of the camp­fire’s glow and watched as the man across the fire froze stock still and stared back at him in shock.

"Are you Dustin Penn?” Trevor called out.

The native bearers around the fire jumped to their feet. Those near the packing crate swung around. In their own tongue, they murmured among themselves. Their dark eyes shifted to the man .he assumed to be Dustin Penn, and then back to him. The Matarengi were tense, ready, awaiting Penn’s orders.

Trevor knew he was already a dead man if Penn wanted him dead. He tightened his grip on the rifle.

"Who wants to know?” the orchid hunter shouted back.

Penn, if it was Penn, had not moved a muscle, although he appeared less guarded than his men. His voice was rough as the rocky mountain­side, his bulk more muscle than fat. In sharp contrast to his shoul­der-length white hair, his skin was bronze, sun-damaged, and leathered. His eyes were light blue and piercing.

"I’m Trevor Mandeville. I’m from London.”

Everything seemed to be going according to plan until one of the bearers beside the crate shifted to his left. A young white woman stepped out from behind him into Trevor’s line of vision and walked into the clearing.

"And I’ve come to—” Trevor’s gaze touched upon the girl and he was arrested. He could not take his eyes off her. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard the orchid hunter demanding answers, but for the life of him, he could do nothing but stare at the young woman across the campsite.

Medium height. Round blue eyes, clear as a mountain lake. Brack­eted by deep dimples was an evenly drawn, pouting mouth, the lower lip slightly fuller than the upper. Her long hair was blond, thick, tangled, and untamed. Her clear skin had seen much sun, but she was not as darkly suntanned as her father. Her cheeks were radiant.

He was shocked when he realized that not only was she wearing shin-length trousers, but her shirt was tied below her full breasts, leaving nothing to the imagination. Her midriff was bare and trim, her navel exposed. She was not soft, but sleek and finely sculpted, her flesh golden tan.

"Who in the hell are you, sir?” The man was yelling at him now.

The girl quickly crossed the clearing and stood beside the man. Up close, her features were even more remarkable. Hers was a face Trevor knew as well as his own. Suddenly, he found his voice.

"Janelle?”



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