Dark Storm (Dark #23)

by Christine Feehan

Chapter 1

"I can live with being on a small boat with no privacy for seven long days, the sun turning me into lobster girl, and mosquitoes feasting on me, I really can," Riley Parker informed her mother. "But I swear to you, if I hear one more complaint or disgusting sexual innuendo from Mr. I'm-So-Hot-Every-Woman-Should-Bow-Down-To-Me, I'm just going to shove the idiot overboard. His constant licking his lips and saying he likes the idea of mother and daughter gives me the creeps."

Riley cast a glance of pure loathing at Don Weston, the annoying idiot in question. She'd met a lot of narcissistic pigs while earning her doctorate in linguistics, and a few more among the faculty at University of California, Berkeley, where she now taught, but he took the cake. He was a great brute of a man, with wide shoulders, a barrel chest and an attitude of superiority that irked Riley. Even if she wasn't already so much on edge, the presence of that awful man would have made her so. Worse, her mother was very fragile right now, making Riley extremely protective of her, and his constant sexual innuendos and filthy jokes around her mother made her want to just shove him overboard.

Annabel Parker, a renowned horticulturalist famous for her efforts to reestablish thousands of acres of Brazilian rain forest lost to deforestation, looked at her daughter, dark brown eyes twinkling and mouth twitching, obviously itching to smile. "Unfortunately, honey, we're in piranha territory."

"That's the point, Mom." Riley cast another pointed glare in Weston's direction.

The only benefit of the horrible man's presence was that plotting his demise gave her something to focus on other than chills slowly spreading through her body and making the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

She and her mother made this same trip up the Amazon once every five years, but this year from the moment they had arrived in the village to find their usual guide ill, Riley felt as if a dark cloud hung over the trip. Even now, a strange heaviness, an aura of danger, seemed to be following them up the river. She'd tried hard to shrug it off, but the ominous feeling remained, a weight pressing down on her, chills creeping down her spine and ugly suspicions keeping her awake at night.

"Perhaps if I could accidentally cut his hand as he goes overboard ..." she continued with a dark smile. Her students could have warned the man to beware when she smiled like that. It never boded well. The smile faded a little, though, as she glanced down at the murky water and saw the silver fish churning around the boat. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? It almost looked as if piranha were following the boat. But, piranha didn't follow boats. They went about their business.

She stole a glance at the guide who muttered to the two porters, Raul and Capa, ignoring their charges-a far cry from the familiar villager who usually took them upriver. The three looked very uneasy as they continually studied the water. They, too, seemed a little more alarmed than usual about being surrounded by a swarm of flesh-eating fish. She was being silly. She'd been on this same trip many times before without freaking out over the local wildlife. Her imagination was working overtime. Still ... piranha seemed to be all around their boat, but she couldn't see a single flash of silver in the waters surrounding the boat chugging ahead of them.

"Ruthless child," Annabel scolded with a small laugh, drawing Riley's attention back to the aggravating presence of Don Weston.

"It's the way he looks at us," Riley griped. The humidity was so high that every shirt Riley wore clung to her like a second skin. She had full curves, and there was no hiding them. She didn't dare raise her hands to lift her thick, braided hair off the back of her neck or he would think she was deliberately enticing him. "I really, really, want to smack that oaf. He stares at my breasts like he's never seen a pair, which is bad enough, but when he stares at yours ..."

"Maybe he hasn't ever seen breasts, dear," Annabel said softly.

Riley tried to smother a laugh. Her mother could ruin a perfectly good mad with her sense of humor. "Well if he hasn't, it's for good reason. He's disgusting."

Behind them, Don Weston slapped his neck and hissed out a slow, angry breath. "Damn insects. Mack, where the hell is the bug spray?"

Riley suppressed an eye roll. As far as she was concerned, Don Weston and the other two engineers with him were liars-well at least two of the three were. They claimed to know what they were doing in the forest, but it was clear neither Weston nor Mack Shelton, his constant companion, had a clue. She and her mother had both tried to tell Weston and his friends that their precious bug spray would do no good. The men were sweating profusely, which washed off the insect repellent as fast as they could apply it and left them feeling sticky and itchy. Scratching only aggravated the itching and invited infection. The smallest wound could quickly become infected in the rain forest.

Shelton, a compact man with burnt mahogany skin and rippling muscles, swatted at his own neck and then his chest, murmuring obscenities. "You threw it overboard, you big bastard, after you used the last of it."

Shelton was a little friendlier than the other two engineers and not quite as obnoxious as Weston, but instead of making Riley feel safer, his proximity actually made her skin prickle. Maybe that was because his smile never reached his eyes. And because he watched everything and everyone on board. Riley had the feeling Weston vastly underestimated the other man. Clearly Weston thought himself in charge of their mining expedition, but no one was bossing Shelton.

"We should never have thrown in with them," Riley murmured to her mother, keeping her voice low. Normally, Riley and her mother made the trip to the volcano alone, but when they'd arrived at the village, they found their regular guide too sick to travel. Alone in the middle of the Amazon, without a guide to accompany them to their destination, she and her mother decided to team up with three other groups traveling upriver.

Weston and his two fellow mining engineers had been in the village prepping a trip to the edge of the Andes in Peru, in search of potential new mines for the corporation they worked for. Two men researching a supposedly extinct plant had arrived from Europe seeking a guide to go up a mountain in the Andes as well. An archaeologist and his two grad students were heading to the Andes looking for a rumored lost city of the Cloud People-the Chachapoyas. All of them had decided to pool their resources and travel upriver together. The idea seemed logical at the time, but now, a week into the journey, Riley heartily regretted the decision.

Two of the guides, the archaeologist and his students and three porters were in the lead boat just ahead of them with a good deal of the supplies. Annabel, Riley, the researchers and the three mining engineers were in the second boat with one of their guides, Pedro, and two porters, Capa and Raul.

Trapped on the boat with eight strangers, Riley didn't feel safe. She wished they were already halfway up the mountain, where the plan was to go their separate ways, each with their own guide.

Annabel shrugged. "It's a little too late for second thoughts. We made the decision to travel together and we're stuck with these people. We'll make the best of it."

That was her mother, always calm in the face of a brewing storm. Riley was no psychic, but it didn't take one to predict trouble was coming. That feeling was growing with every passing hour. She glanced at her mother. As usual, she appeared serene. Riley felt a little silly saying she was worried when Annabel had so many other things on her mind.

Still bickering about the discarded bug spray, Weston flipped Shelton the finger. "The can was empty. There must be more."

"It wasn't empty," Shelton corrected, disgust in his voice. "You just wanted to chuck something at that caiman."

"And your aim was as bad as your mouth," the third engineer, Ben Charger, chimed in.

Ben was the quietest of the bunch. He never stopped looking around with restless eyes. Riley hadn't quite made up her mind about him. He was the most ordinary looking of the three engineers. He was average height, average weight, a face no one would notice. He blended, and maybe that made her uncomfortable. Nothing about him stood out. He moved quietly and seemed to simply appear out of nowhere, and he watched everything and everyone as if he were expecting trouble. She didn't believe he was a partner with Weston and Shelton. The other two stuck together and obviously had known one another for some time. Charger appeared to be a loner. Riley wasn't even certain he liked either of the other two men.

Off to the left shore, her eye picked up a white cloud, moving fast, sometimes iridescent, sometimes a pearly color as the cloud twisted together, forming a blanket of living insects.

"Fuck you, Charger," Weston snapped.

"Watch your mouth," Charger advised, his voice very low.

Weston actually stepped back, his face paling a little. He glanced around the boat, his gaze settling on Riley, whom he caught looking at him. "Why don't you come over here, or better yet, Mommy come here and lick the sweat off me? Maybe that will help." He extended his tongue toward her, probably hoping to look sexy, but he got a mouthful of bugs and ended up coughing and swearing.

For one terrible moment, when he called her mother "Mommy" and made his gross suggestion, Riley thought she might hurl herself at him and really push him overboard. But then, with her mother's little snicker, her anger was gone, her unfortunate sense of humor kicking in. She burst out laughing. "Seriously? Are you really so arrogant you don't know I'd rather lick the sweat off a monkey? You are just so gross."

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the pearly cloud of insects growing closer, widening as they moved in formation over the water. Her stomach gave a little flip of fear. She forced air through her lungs. She wasn't one to scare easily, not even when she'd been a child.

Weston leered at her. "I can see when a woman wants me, and baby, you can't take your eyes off of me. Look at your clothes! You're showing off for me." He flicked his tongue at her again, looking for all the world like a snake.

"Leave her the hell alone, Weston," Jubal Sanders snapped, impatience edging his voice. "Don't you ever get tired of the sound of your voice?"

One of the two men researching plants, Jubal didn't appear to be a man who spent a lot of time in a lab. He looked extremely fit and there was no doubt that he was a man used to a rugged, outdoor life. He carried himself with absolute confidence and moved like a man who could handle himself.

His traveling companion, Gary Jansen, looked more the part of the lab rat, shorter and slender, although very well muscled from what Riley had observed. He was very strong. He wore black-rimmed reading glasses, but he seemed every bit as adept outdoors as Jubal. The two kept strictly to themselves at the beginning of the journey, but somewhere around the fourth day, Jubal became a little protective of the women, staying close whenever the engineers were around. He said little, but he didn't miss anything.

Although some other woman might be flattered by his protectiveness, Riley wasn't about to trust a man who supposedly lived his life in a lab, but moved with the fluid grace of a fighter. Both he and Gary clearly carried weapons. They were up to something, and whatever it was, Riley and her mother had enough trouble of their own without needing to get involved in anyone else's.

"Don't be a hero," Weston snapped at Jubal, "it won't get you the girl." He winked at Riley. "She's lookin' for a real man."

Riley felt another small surge of anger wash over her and she whipped around to glare at Weston, but her mother laid a gentle, restraining hand on her wrist and put her head close to whisper. "Don't bother, honey. He's feeling like a fish out of water out here."

Riley took a breath. At this late date, she wasn't going to resort to violence over sexual harassment no matter how much of an ass the man was. She could ignore Don Weston until they went their separate ways.

"I thought he was supposed to be so experienced," Riley answered her mother, her voice equally as soft. "They claim to be mining engineers who've traveled to the Andes countless times, but I'm betting they flew over the peaks and called that going into the rain forest. They probably don't have anything at all to do with mining."