Emerald Nights

Emerald Nights

Virginia Brown

March 2016 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-675-8

If the jungle doesn’t kill them, will love stand a chance?



 

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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A legendary adventurer seeking fame and treasure in 1880’s Peru.

A headstrong California beauty who’ll do anything to protect her father, a professor determined to find the lost Incan city of Vilcapampa.

If the jungle doesn’t kill them, will love stand a chance?

The lady has just met her match.

He wasn’t her type of man. And yet . . .

"We’re probably making a big mistake,” he said roughly, and she nodded.

"Very likely.”

"Are you sure this is what you want?”

She drew in a deep, trembling breath. "More than anything.”

His reaction took her by surprise. He pulled her to him, his mouth crashing down on hers with bruising force, invading her with his tongue as he backed her toward the bed. It almost hurt, but she tasted his urgency, and heat and desire rose in her as sharp and strong. He shoved a hand through her hair, loosened the pins and let them scatter atop the mattress and onto the floor, raked his fingers through the loose braids to free it around her shoulders, splayed his fingers over her back, tugged at laces that held her jabot around her neck. He tossed it aside, unbuttoned her blouse and peeled it down her arms, freed her mouth for a moment to regard the Flynt Waist beneath with less than enthusiastic scrutiny.

Heart hammering, she helped him untie the laces and stood silently when he slid it off her. . . .


Virginia Brown has written more than fifty historical and contemporary romance novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice Award, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, and Career Achievement Award for Adventure. She is also the author of the bestselling Dixie Diva mystery series and the acclaimed mainstream Southern drama/mystery, Dark River Road, which won the national Epic e-Book Award in 2013 for Best Mainstream.

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Excerpt


Chapter One

San Diego, California—September 1889

"BETHANY!” PROFESSOR Horatio T. Brasfield turned with an excited cry and called again. "Bethany! Come here—splendid news!” His hands trembled, and his thin face creased into furrows of delight as his daughter appeared in the doorway of his study. She paused, surveying the litter of manuscripts and thick books on her father’s desk, and shook her head with wry bemusement.

"You’re quite untidy, you know,” Bethany observed as she gingerly en­tered the book-lined room, and her skirt caught on a jumble of artifacts. Grumbling, "How can you find anything in all this clutter?” she disentan­gled the folds of material from a barbed spear adorned with ratty feathers, then stepped cautiously around a grimacing statue of a South American fertility god.

"I have a method,” Brasfield replied vaguely and turned to lift the crack­ling folds of a thick bark-page book arranged in accordion pleats.

A fond smile curved her mouth as she approached her father without fur­ther mishap, and her gaze deepened with affection. Rimless spectacles balanced precariously on the tip of Papa’s nose, and his eyes that were a lighter shade of blue than her own sparkled with glee as he tapped a forefinger on the pleated pages on his desk. Reaching out, she smoothed back the thinning brown hair that straggled onto his forehead. "Papa, you really must take better care of yourself,” she scolded, but there was no real censure in her tone. "You’ve been poring over those manuscripts for weeks, not getting enough to eat, or enough rest, and your eyes—you must rest them before...”

Waving an impatient hand, Brasfield cut off her rambling scold. "None of that matters. Look here at these figures in this ancient Spanish manuscript. Do you see?”

Peering over his shoulder, she gazed at the colorful rows of figures pos­tured in various poses. The professor had painstakingly removed centuries of grime to reveal bright colors beneath the layers of dirt, and she could barely make out what appeared to be a man in a feathered headdress holding a shield in one hand and arrows in another.

"Do you think—”

Brasfield interrupted excitedly, "I know!My interpretation must be correct. Bethany, I believe that there truly is a lost city in Peru—the legendary Vilcapampa where the Inca warlords fled from the Spanish conquistadores.” He lifted the fragile bark pages almost reverently. "If my deductions are accurate, this indicates that the last refuge of Manco Inca—a powerful ruler—is in the ancient province of Vilcabamba, just northwest of the city of Cuzco in Peru.”

She arched her brows in faint surprise. "But I thought an expedition could find no trace of such a city. Didn’t the university send out men with native guides a few years ago, and those fortunate enough to return reported no finds?”

"True, but they didn’t allow me to spearhead the expedition, either,” Brasfield said with grim firmness. "I informed Arthur Morton of his mistake, but, of course, as head of the university, he was not amenable to my comments as to his ineptitude.”

She said dryly, "I should think not. Papa, you must practice tact on occa­sion if you expect to receive financial support from the university.”

"I don’t need them now.” Brasfield lifted the thin bark pages from his desk. "Bentworth has enlisted the aid of a guide for me and is providing the unmet funds for an expedition. Private funds are much more lenient than those entrusted just by the university.”

A slight frown puckered Bethany’s brow, and she wrinkled her nose with dis­taste. "Oh? Spencer Bentworth? Mr. Morton claims he is unscrupulous when it comes to the acquisition of artifacts. Dare you risk your spotless reputa­tion with a man such as him?”

"There’s a lot more at risk than a mere reputation, dear child,” Brasfield murmured, sliding his rimless spectacles back up his nose and peering closely at the scroll. "History is to be made, and I intend for my name to be inscribed as the man responsible for bringing back to light the magnificence of the Incas. Yes, the discovery of the lost city of Vilcapampa will ensure my place in the annals of history—here, read Bentworth’s letter, and you will understand.”

"Papa,” she began, but her father had bent over his desk again, absorbed in the unraveling of the scroll’s mysteries. Sighing, she took the crumpled sheet of paper he’d shoved in her direction, smoothed out the creases, and read Bentworth’sterse message. Her father was right. Bentworth unreservedly granted him the rest of the funds for an expedition and even provided the name of a guide. A man by the name of Trace Taylor was said to have come across the ruins of an ancient city on one of his forays into the jungles of Peru, and he now resided in the city of Lima. She frowned. Did her father really intend to pursue this? It seemed unlikely that he would be able to realize his dream, but then, he had been studying the Incan civilization for as long as she could remember.

Another sigh escaped her, and she replaced the letter on her father’s desk, smiled slightly when he didn’t even notice her, then left the study. She closed the door behind her and returned to the small tiled veranda where she had been doing research of her own.

A stack of books stood beside the lounge on which she had been reclining, and she retrieved the top volume as she sank back onto the cushions. Some­how, though, her attention could not return to the words she had found inter­est­ingbefore her father’s excited call. Travel to Peru? An extended explora­tion of dense jungles and mountainous terrain? She feared Papa was not physically up to it. After all, her father was in his late fifties and was more accus­tomed to poring over illegible tablets brought back by the more intrepid than he was actually doing the field work himself.

Oh, it wasn’t that he hadn’t wanted to go out into the field; on the contrary, he had pleaded with university officials for many years to allow him to do so. No, it was his erratic health that held him back, and Bethany feared that his determination to do so now might cause him harm.

"Foolish old goat,” she murmured fondly. Her eyes softened, and she tugged on a thread of her hair, peered down at it, and decided she needed a shampoo. Brown strands had lightened in the California sun lately since she could never remember to wear a hat. Her hair was her best feature she’d always thought, as it was thick and hung in a straight shining fall when she brushed it out after a shampoo. It was her saving grace. If not for her hair, and eyes that wavered between blue and violet, she would have long ago been relegated to the ugly side of plain. As it was, she found herself still regarded as just plain. Fair enough, she supposed. She knew her limitations. Life had dealt her a hand that she finally accepted. She would never be the petite blonde with gay laughter and sparkling chatter at a dance, but always be the painfully shy, too-tall, awkward woman in a corner. Certain rewards enjoyed by some were not to be for her, so she had made a niche in which she was useful and content. Being the daughter of Horatio T. Brasfield, eminent professor of ancient cultures and archaeology, was a full-time job.

Sometimes she felt more like a caretaker than a daughter. After his wife’s death fifteen years before, Professor Brasfield was prone to forget about food or time when he was working, and if she didn’t take him a tray of nourishing food, or insist that he rest, he might have perished from starvation long ago. Bethany was the only person he would allow to bully him into resting for any length of time, and knowing this, she decided that if her father was so deter­mined to follow his dream of discovering the lost city of the Incas, she would have to go with him.

Smoothing folds of material over her knees, she closed the book she had been reading on great artists and gazed across the veranda at the slopes leading seaward. Their house was small—as befitted a professor whose concerns lay more with scholarly pursuits than fame and fortune—perched on a California hillside overlooking the hills and ocean. Seawinds brushed over her face, lifting her hair, ruffling the lacy collar of her blouse. It was autumn, and the air was warm.

Stretching luxuriously, she tried to clear her mind of worries of past, pre­sent, and future, concentrating instead on enjoyment of the moment. She closed her eyes against the bright press of sunlight, breathed deeply of the rich fragrance of ocean air sweeping over desert sage and manzanita on the hills, the silken touch of the wind across her bare arms and face. It was almost as comfort­ing as a caress, she thought before she could stop herself, then her eyes snapped open and she sat upright.

There was no use in even contemplating such things. She’d had enough of that, hadn’t she? After all, Stephen had proven to her how faithless a man’s touch could be, how utterly casual and deceitful. And Stephen was gone now, had never really been hers in the first place. He’d almost literally left her at the altar. Another woman had captured his attention and love, and she was beauti­ful and available while Bethany was not. It wasn’t that she might not have agreed to his more intimate caresses; he’d just never pursued it that far. So now here she was, twenty-five years old and left on the shelf. It had taken nearly a year, but she’d come to the inescapable fact that it was not meant for her to be loved. Her lot in life was to assist her father, to delve into history and leave lasting monuments of their work. That would be her legacy. Instead of children and a husband, she had her father’s work to occupy her time and mind.

Why else would she have willingly given up what one professor at the univer­sity had called her "exquisite talent with a paintbrush and chalks” to help her father? After all, what was her small amount of talent compared to the mark her father would leave on history? And he’d always said she was the only assis­tant he’d ever had who possessed such a light touch with ancient artifacts. She could clean dirt-encrusted pottery without leaving so much as a mark on them, while others often shattered fragile pieces.

Sighing, Bethany tried not to recall how desperately she had once wanted to become an artist. That had passed, of course, with time. Now she was con­tent being her father’s assistant. And he depended upon her to get things done, take care of matters that he could not do when he was so involved in such time-consuming research and study. All his colleagues said that she was an excellent, capable worker, and how lucky Brasfield was to have her.

Whatever was she doing relaxing on the veranda when there was so much to do? So many arrangements to make—passage on a steamer to Peru, supplies for an extended expedition, bearers to carry the supplies, and, of course, a guide. What was his name? Taylor. Yes, that was it, Trace Taylor. He’d better be good, she thought as she rose from the comfortable lounge to begin prepara­tions for a wonderful adventure. This may well be Papa’s last such exploration. He deserved to succeed.


 

 

Chapter Two

Lima, Peru—October 1889

"GET UP!” A fierce pounding shook the door, and the words filtered through the solid oak again. "Get up! I have to talk to you!”

Inside the cluttered office that doubled as a lodging, a man and woman lay on a narrow bed, both naked. She arched upward, bare breasts brushing his mouth, and he applied himself studiously to creating more of those lovely female moans that he appreciated. Interruptions were to be ignored. Cupping his hands on her breasts, he paid strict attention to his duty. His hand slid be­tween them, and the pounding on the door resumed. She grabbed his head with both hands, pushed at him, and he swore before muttering that she should ignore it.

"There’s no one I want to see more than you right now,” he said as he re­turned to his very pleasurable task. Enveloped in a sensual haze, he concen­trated on soft skin and willing female, ignored the pounding on the door and the edges of a headache beginning to encroach on the moment. There was another ache that concerned him more, and he knew just what would ease it.

Pushing forward, nestled between warm thighs, he smiled as her hands moved to hold his head instead of push him away and renewed his efforts. Tantalizingly close, he had just reached the sanctuary he sought when the ham­mering reverberated through the room as if the door were being struck by a battering ram.

"Taylor! I know you’re in there!”

"Aw Christ,” he muttered in disgust as his partner shoved free of him and rolled off the bed, her Spanish invectives leaving him in no doubt that it didn’t matter if he was through or not, she certainly was. He watched with resignation as she stepped into her dress, grabbed a warm serape to throw over her voluptu­ous body, and marched to the door.

It didn’t help that the headache now matched the other ache in ferocity, and he squinted against the light that assaulted his eyes as the door opened. It was briefly blotted out by her exit and the entrance of Gil Fortune, a man he had liked up until this moment.

"Oh,” said Fortune, pausing just inside the door as Juanita stormed off. "Bad timing?”

Trace said something extremely crude and pulled a pillow over his head. He lay there in the temporary absence of light while he waited for at least one of the throbbing aches to cease. It took longer than usual, but finally he peered out from under his pillow to see Fortune sitting in a chair at the table. He hoped his expression was as ferocious as he felt.

"What the hell do you want?”

"Speaking of hell—you look like it.”

He shoved his pillow aside. "If I had my pistol close, I’d shoot you.”

"Good thing for me it’s all the way over here on the table. Ah ah—don’t get up. I’ve no desire to look at that this early in the day.”

Since he had no desire to expose his rampant need to another man, he just said, "Throw me my pants then. And it’s your own damn fault if you see some­thing that scares you. You’re the one who showed up at the crack of dawn banging on my door.”

As he tossed a pair of cords toward him, Gil remarked, "Your face is more scary than anything you might have in your pants. When was the last time you shaved? All I see is black hair and attitude. And it’s the crack of noon, not dawn.”

Another pithy remark flew from the direction of the bed, and Fortune went to the stove.

"Do you have any coffee? Looks like you need some.”

He stepped into his pants and pulled them up, buttoning them as he re­garded Gil from slitted eyes. It must have been the last bottle of whiskey. His head pounded, his eyes felt scratchy and sore, and there was a taste in his mouth like he’d licked a stable floor.

"I don’t need coffee. I need a shot of whiskey,” he muttered, considering the "hair of the dog” theory to be fairly effective.

"You don’t need to meet a prospective client still drunk,” Gil advised and rat­tled the coffee pot so loudly that Trace winced.

"I don’t have any prospective clients. Remember?”

Standing with his back to him, Gil poked at the embers in the stove and fed it another log before saying over his shoulder, "You do now. I just got the mail packet. It’s late, but there’s a letter for you stating that a Professor Brasfield will be in Callao on the 15th of October, and as you were referred to him, he expects you to meet him at the boat.”

Interesting. He scratched the bristle of beard on his jaw. "What’s today’s date?”

"October 14th.”

That figured. Almost enough time to cure his itch and look presentable. "Kinda sudden, isn’t it?”

Gil pumped water into the coffee pot. "There was a storm and the mail was delayed, but at least it arrived, which is better than we can expect most of the time.”

Raking a hand over his bare chest, palm brushing the thick pelt that kept him warm in the damnable chill of winter, Trace briefly considered going back to bed and saying to hell with it. Most jobs that came his way lately paid little to nothing. He’d make better money finding lost dogs for little old ladies.

"This professor isn’t looking for his dog, I hope,” he muttered. "That’s all I get these days.”

Gil dumped coffee into the pot and sat it on the small stove. "You’ve got to ignore what happened a while back. Your services are hired for Brasfield. It pays well. You need the money. Go clean up and shave, and the coffee will be ready by the time you’re done.”

Since Fortune was using the only place on the stove to heat water, Trace re­signed himself to washing and shaving in cold water. Not the best way to soften up three days of beard.

It was more difficult than he anticipated. The cold water wasn’t the worst of it, but the dull razor and listless shaving soap left him looking like a rat had tried to chew it off instead of a man with a razor, headache, and foul temper. He had enough white patches on his face to pass for a pigeon’s favorite statue.

Gil looked up when he stepped back into the room, his gaze arrested by the sight, but he had the good sense not to comment. He pushed a cup of steaming coffee across the table toward him. "Strong enough to put hair on your chest. Not that you need more. Sit down. Once I tell you about this new client, you may want to kiss me.”

"It’d take more whiskey than South America imports to get me that drunk.”

He stuck his arms into a shirt and buttoned it up to his neck, then lowered his large frame into a chair that he expected to splinter into pieces at any mo­ment. His size wasn’t conducive to native-made furniture. He’d have to spe­cial-order from Brazil to get chairs big enough to make him comfortable.

The mug of coffee heated his hands as he lifted it to his mouth, looking at Gil over the rim. "Start talking.”

"You’ve been referred as a guide for Professor Horatio Brasfield. He’s searching for Vilcapampa.”

It took a moment for this to filter through the clouds in his mind. Pos­sibili­ties presented options, then questions. "Who referred me?”

Gil shrugged. "What does that matter?”

Trace stared into his coffee, ran his thumb across the rim, thoughts as dark as the brew. "Seven months ago, I led an expedition into the Andes, and I’m the only one who made it back. That’s enough to ruin any guide. I’d like to know who recommended me and why.”

For a minute Gil didn’t answer, then said reluctantly, "Bentworth.”

Hot coffee burned his tongue and throat, black and bitter. It figured.

"Look,” Gil added, "you need the work. If you ever expect to guide an­other expedition, you’ve got to prove to everyone—including yourself—that the last time was fate and didn’t have a damn thing to do with your ability. Everyone in Peru knows that you’re the best damned guide around.”

"It seems to be a well-kept secret,” he said dryly. "I haven’t been able to get a job guiding little old ladies across the street, much less anyone into the jungle or mountains.”

Shrugging, Gil said, "Since it was Bentworth who blacklisted you, obvi­ously he’s had time to reflect and reconsider.”

"I just never thought of him as the reflective kind. Especially when it was his money that funded that damned expedition. Christ.” He set down the mug and rubbed his eyes with both hands.

"Look, you did your best to talk those fools into turning back. They wouldn’t listen, but it wasn’t your fault.”

"Sometimes the dead speak more loudly than the living.” Trace shook his head. "I don’t trust Bentworth.”

"So don’t trust him. But what else are you doing to do? You’re rotting away here, so either you take a job that pays you enough to stay, or go back home with your tail between your legs. I don’t see that you have any other choice.”

"Dammit, Gil. I hate it when you’re right.”

Nodding, Fortune sympathized, "I’m not just a pretty face.”

Eying the younger man with amusement, he took a scalding sip of coffee. Not even his own mother would have called Gil handsome, but behind his irregular features, slight overbite, and pale eyes the color of gooseberries lurked the charm of a statesman and the calculating brain of a physics professor. He could sweet-talk a young lady out of her drawers and make her think it was her own idea, and tell you how many pennies were in a jar to the exact amount after only a glance. A man of many talents.

"I’m sure you brought the letter,” he said once the coffee burned a path to his stomach, and Gil promptly took an envelope out of his inside coat pocket and pushed it across the table.

"As your agent, I took the liberty of accepting for you. I sent a cable that will be at Callao before you can get there. May I suggest you invest in a new wardrobe before leaving? Clothes make the man, I hear.”

"My choices denote me truly,” Trace paraphrased. "It’s too early for Hamlet. I haven’t said I’m taking the job yet anyway. I swore I wouldn’t take anyone into the Andes again. Not looking for Vilcapampa, anyway. That place is cursed.”

"Don’t tell me you believe those old myths.”

He thought about it, remembered odd things, then said flatly, "I never did be­fore, but the last time—” He paused before finishing, "The last time, it seemed as if everything we did was jinxed. I’ve never seen anything like it. Ropes that were fine the day before were suddenly rotten. Food that was sealed tightly in tins was opened and found to be filled with worms.” He shook his head. "I would rather dance with the devil than try it again.”

Gil smiled. "Do you prefer a waltz or country reel?”



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