Casey Summers wiped her forearm over her brow. The African sun was as scorching and unrelenting as she remembered, and after a four-hour Jeep drive without air-conditioning, it had well and truly heated her blood and her bones.
Stepping into the shade of Amakala Lodge, she paused as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light.
“Ah, Ms. Summers, you are here.”
The shift of air from overhead fans washed over her hot cheeks as she set down her rucksack. She smiled as Dan Jonan stepped from behind a reception desk. He, too, was exactly as she remembered. Black skin, big brown eyes, and a neck as thick as an elephant’s leg. He was always smiling, or so it seemed, and full of hospitality.
“Dan, how are you?” she asked, holding out her hand.
He took it in both of his and squeezed. “Very well, my lady, very well. I trust you had a pleasant trip to Amakala?”
“As long as expected but uneventful. I guess that’s the best one can hope for after two flights and several hours bumping along on dusty tracks.”
He inclined his head a little. “To arrive in one piece is always a godsend.”
He released her hand. “You must be thirsty. Here, I have made our special cocktail.” He poured orange liquid from a tall glass jug. Several chunks of fruit landed into the tumbler. “For you. It will cool you down and revive you.”
“Thank you.” She took it and sipped. The sweet fruity flavor spread on her tongue and she recognized it from her previous visit. “Delicious.”
He beamed even wider and went back behind the desk.
“Is Sandy here?” Sandy was the ranger Casey had teamed up with before. Then she’d been doing a piece on South African birds and their mating rituals and the pair of them had built up a friendship while going out each day onto the savannah in search of the perfect shot.
“I… er… did the magazine not tell you?” Dan asked.
“Wild World? No, I haven’t spoken to anyone in the office.” How could she have? She’d been in the air for what felt like days and there’d been no signal on her phone for hours.
Dan looked away, lifted a stack of papers and shuffled them.
A knot of worry formed in Casey’s belly. “What is it? Is Sandy okay?”
“Oh, yes, she’s quite well.” He set the papers aside and looked at Casey again. “But she’s not here.”
“No, she’s in Cape Town. Her father was taken ill suddenly. Word came the day before yesterday and she got on the first plane out of here to see him. You know how it is.”
“Yes, of course. Gosh, I hope he’s okay.” Casey knew Sandy was close to her family. The poor girl would be desperately worried about her father.
“So I am afraid I have had to find you an alternative ranger,” Dan was saying.
“Sorry?” Casey returned her attention to her own situation. “An alternative. Well, I’m sure that will be fine. As long as there is someone.”
Dan cleared his throat and nodded. “Yes. Perfectly fine.” His usual smile dropped and his eyebrows pulled low.
“What is it? What’s the matter?” The knot in Casey’s stomach was growing tighter.
“Nothing, it’s fine. He’s fine.” He paused. “Apart from you won’t be staying here, at the main lodge. Rhett doesn’t like that. He has his own lodge, about an hour and a half from here, over near our border with Tahao Lodge.”
“Oh, I see.” That would be okay… wouldn’t it?
“Yes, he thinks it is best for watching out for poachers, that sort of thing. To be there.”
“Well, as long as it’s not a mud hut or a tree house.” Casey smiled and thought of her neat apartment in Chelsea, just a stone’s throw away from her London office, bistros, shops, and bars. She didn’t mind compromising on comfort in the line of duty but she hoped she’d at least have a bed in this new ranger’s lodge.
“Not a mud hut.” Dan smiled again. “Very civilized in fact.”
“Civility I can live with.”
Dan reached for the jug of juice then topped up her glass. “He is not here yet. But should not be long. Why don’t you sit and wait in here?”
“Thanks, I will, but maybe out on the veranda, I’ve missed the view.”
“And Africa missed you.” He pressed his hand on her shoulder. “Go and sit, I will see where Rhett has got to. I’ll try him on the radio again.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Casey stepped outside, dropping her shades from her forehead as she went. The decked veranda was wide and spanned the length of this part of the lodge. It was shaded and more brass ceiling fans whirred overhead. She hoped her new lodge would have plenty of fans. When she’d visited Amakala Reserve before, and stayed in this lodge, it had been very comfortable and she’d enjoyed chatting to other guests who’d been sampling the game drives. But this time, staying an hour and a half away with just one ranger, it would be very different.
She hoped he was easy to get along with.
Sitting on a swing chair that had a soft cushion for the base of her back, she stared out into the distance. An electric fence circled the lodge, necessary to keep the tourists from becoming lion dinner, but beyond that, there was nothing manmade to rest the eye on.
On and on the reserve ambled, stretching into the distance. The grass was lush; trees, small and large and with cloud-shaped tops, were dotted about. The horizon was a shimmering roll of undulations, small hills, and valleys. Casey remembered some of the routes the rangers took their charges on, but there were so many, it was a maze of tracks. Each seemed to come with hidden delights, though—watering holes, caves, dens, and lairs. Casey had well and truly fallen in love with Africa and its many treasures on her first visit. Sitting here now, her heart rate slowed and she inhaled deeply. It was strange how a foreign land could feel so familiar, so home-like. She guessed the beautiful wildness had gotten into her soul.
To her right, a rumbling vehicle was approaching the lodge. She couldn’t see it from where she sat but a plume of dust drifted east on the wind, lazily dispersing like a gritty ghost.
The engine switched off. A car door banged.
“Rhett, you are here,” Dan called. “I tried your radio, no answer.”
Ah, so her partner for the next two weeks had arrived.
“I’m here, but not because I want to be.” A deep voice with a thick South African accent.
Casey’s lovely relaxed feeling evaporated the way the dust cloud had, and the sweetness in her mouth from the drink turned bitter. The reply to Dan had been spoken by someone with a rasping voice, as if the words had been dragged over sandpaper.
“I appreciate it,” Dan said. “We were in a bit of a fix, full house and all that.”
“I’m not paid to babysit English women who fancy themselves as wildlife experts.”
“I think you’ll find—”
“Where is she?”
Footsteps echoed around the veranda.
They were coming nearer.
Casey stood. Shock was rapidly turning to anger. She didn’t fancy herself as a wildlife expert, not by any stretch of the imagination. Photography expert maybe, after all she did have a degree in that, but animals, no; she shot images of what she saw and tried to learn about her subjects, that was it.
“You owe me for this, Dan. I’ve got enough on this time of year.” The same dark, irritated voice as before.
“Yes. I know. And I’m sorry, but with Sandy in Cape Town…”
A knot formed in Casey’s belly as a shadow stretched over the veranda, then into view came a tall man wearing a dark brown Indiana Jones-style hat, a short-sleeved khaki shirt undone several buttons, and pale cream trousers. He had on clumpy boots and a thick leather belt the same color as his hat.
His attention settled on Casey. His heavy eyebrows were pulled low, his eyes narrow slits, and his mouth a stern line. He had a good sprinkle of dark stubble around his jawline that seeped down his neck.
He stopped and placed his hands on his hips. His gaze traveled over her as he bit on his bottom lip.
“How do you do,” Casey said. With her heart rate increasing, she stepped forward. This really wasn’t the best start. “I’m Casey Summers.”
His frown deepened. He didn’t take her hand. “I hope you’ve got a strong stomach, Ms. Summers. It’s a bouncy ride over to my place.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve done plenty of game rides in the past.”
“So you know the rules then?”
“Er, yes, I’m sure I do.” She presumed he meant not wearing bright colors, making loud noises, and respecting the animals’ habitat.
He huffed and turned to Dan. “Two weeks, right?”
“Yes.” Dan clasped his hands together and nodded. “Two weeks.”
“Not a bloody day longer.”
Irritation swarmed over Casey. It was all very well to hear him tell Dan he wasn’t pleased about his extra houseguest when he didn’t know she was listening, but right in front of her was downright rude.
“Actually,” she said, “I think I’ll decline your offer, Mr.…”
“Dawson. Rhett Dawson,” he said gruffly.
“Mr. Dawson.” She nodded. “It’s very kind of you to have offered for me to stay with you and accompany you out into the plains for my photography work. But it’s clear I will be too much of an imposition and that’s the last thing I want.” She turned to Dan. “I’ll stay here if it’s not too much trouble. Perhaps I can join some of the scheduled game drives.”
“Oh, dear.” Dan’s smile dropped and he shifted from one foot to the other and wrung his hands. “That won’t be possible, Ms. Summers.”
“We are fully booked. The lodge has not one spare room. No, I am sorry.” He shook his head. “It is the problem for us and with Sandy gone.”
“What about Sandy’s room?”
“No, that is also occupied. Quite a mess-up with the reservations. It was better when we wrote in a book, now the computer… it gets confused.”
“So you’re as stuck with me as I am with you,” Rhett said after a few moments. “And it appears neither of us are happy about it.”
Casey’s mind whirred. She’d been looking forward to this assignment for so long. Ever since the magazine had approved it. Yet now she was with a sullen grump who clearly didn’t like company and had never been taught manners. Should she just pack up and catch the next flight out of here? Explain to her boss there had been a mix-up and it wasn’t possible to stay in Africa? Maybe she could return in a month or so when Sandy was back from Cape Town.
“So what are you waiting for?” Rhett asked. “We should get going before nightfall.”
She sighed. Going back to London with no photographs wasn’t an option. There was only one thing for it. And that was to go to this rude and surly ranger’s lodge and try to get the shots she needed. There were no rules saying she had to speak to him, or even like him, so as long as she got what she’d come for, that would do.
An hour and a half later, Rhett pulled his dark green, open-sided Jeep in front of a tall wire gate. He glanced around then stepped out. “Wait here.”
“Of course.” It was the most he’d spoken on the potholed journey to his lodge.
As he slid the rattling gate to the right, Casey surveyed him. He was handsome in a rough, earthy way. She didn’t imagine he had a vain bone in his body. That was how he looked, like it or leave it, end of story. And he was tall, at least a head higher than her, wide too, as if his muscles were bunched beneath his skin ready for action. He wore one bit of jewelry from what she could see, a leather necklace with a small canine tooth hanging from it.
He hopped back into the Jeep. “The padlock is a number code; I can’t be accessed with keys.”
“In case of emergencies, it’s nine, four, nine, three.”
He pulled forward. Once inside the small compound Casey got a proper look at the lodge that would be her home for the next two weeks.
It was built of stone with a timber porch and roof. Like the lodge at the main reserve center, this had a veranda benefiting from the shade of the overhang. Neatly proportioned, it had a large front door with a window either side of it. A colorful selection of flowering shrubs grew haphazardly around the sides. They looked as if they’d planted themselves, rather than been carefully cultivated.
Rhett killed the engine, then alighted and closed the gate. He reached back into the Jeep for his rifle. “You don’t leave here without me, okay.” He frowned at her, as though the heavy creases in his brow would add punctuation to his words.
“Why would I?” She spun around and reached for her rucksack. Wandering alone into a reserve full of wild animals wasn’t on her to-do list, though she did wish the high wire fence didn’t circle the whole property. It would make capturing images of any creatures wandering by pretty damn tricky.
“I dunno why you would,” he said. “Just don’t ‘cause if you get eaten, Dan will be real pissed with me.”
“I can assure you I have no intention of getting eaten.” She slid from the Jeep, pleased to stretch her spine after the bone-shaking journey.
He huffed and slung his rifle over his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll show you where you’re sleeping.”
She was tired, but she was also hungry. She hoped her reluctant host had plans for a meal before bed.
As she followed behind him in his shadow, the sounds of the plains came back to her. The hoop, hoop, hoop of the hoopoe bird, the chirp of crickets, the rustle of dry grass and gravel underfoot. As soon as the sun slipped away, the cicadas would start their song and likely spotted hyenas and night jars would add to the chorus.
Rhett climbed the four steps of his veranda. He set his rifle by his door, the butt on a worn square of rug and the strap hanging limp. Pushing the door open, he stooped and held out his hands.
A sudden scuffle caused Casey to pause.
A small fluffy creature bounded into Rhett’s arms.
“Hey, fella,” he said, half turning as he lifted it.
“Wow, is that a…”
“Serval, yes. He lost his mother. I’ve been hand rearing him.”
“How old is he?”
“Not quite two months.”
Casey had the urge to reach out and stroke the serval cub. He was ridiculously cute. Smaller than a cheetah at the same age but with long pointy ears and limbs that appeared too big for its body. “What will you do with him when he’s fully grown?”
“He’ll go to a sanctuary most likely. Be used for breeding.” Rhett tickled the creature under the chin. “You’ll like that, won’t you, Buddy. All the lady felines you can handle.”
The serval wriggled and butted against Rhett, seemingly overexcited that he’d arrived home.
“What do you call him?” Casey asked.
Rhett shrugged and set the creature on the floor. “Buddy.” He nodded at the door. “You can leave that open, he’s allowed outside when I’m home.”
Buddy ran over to her, appeared to sniff her feet then lolloped outside.
“He won’t do you any harm,” Rhett said. “He’s still got his baby teeth. Just don’t leave leather shoes lying about, he likes to chew.”
“Got you.” She glanced around the inside of Rhett’s home. It wasn’t large but the high ceiling made it feel spacious. She was glad to see several fans. The kitchen area had a fabulous window with views that more than made up for the basic facilities, and to the right was a living area with huge glass doors opening out onto another veranda complete with table and chairs. “This is an amazing place.”
“Yeah, well, it’s home.”
“A very unusual home.”
“I need to be where my work is.” He reached for two glass tumblers and set them on the counter.
“How long have you lived here?”
“Since I built it, nine years ago.”
He turned to her. “Yes. Always alone. I like it that way.” His jaw tightened and a tendon flexed in his cheek. “Whiskey?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You want a whiskey or not?” He held up a bottle of amber liquid.
Whiskey wasn’t a flavor Casey particularly enjoyed but something told her the hospitality was best accepted. “Er, yes, please, with some water if that’s okay.”
He poured a little into each glass, then slid one across the counter in her direction. “Bottles of water to your left. Help yourself while you’re here, last thing I need is you dehydrated and getting some kind of female migraine.”
A zing of annoyance went through her. She was perfectly capable of staying hydrated without being told to, and didn’t men get migraines, too? She pulled open the refrigerator and added a healthy slug of water to her whiskey.
He watched her do it over the rim of his glass.
Sod it. She was just going to lay the cards on the table. If she didn’t, the next two weeks would be unbearable. “Why, Rhett, did you agree to me being here? It’s clearly not something you wanted.”
“Dan’s been good to me. He was in a fix.” He shrugged.
“So I’m doing it for him, not you. Letting a stranger into my house is hardly my usual routine.”
Casey was quiet; figuring out how to handle this gruff, straight-talking ranger wasn’t going to be easy. She figured his heart was in the right place, as he was repaying a debt to Dan, and anyone who hand-raised orphaned servals couldn’t be all bad. But still, pleasant conversation clearly wasn’t on his agenda.
He finished his whiskey and poured another two fingers into his tumbler. “The bedroom’s through there and there’s a loo that way too.” He nodded to the right but stepped to the left, toward the living area. “Electricity can be a bit hit and miss, it’s wind powered, but do your best to make yourself at home.”
There was only one doorway in the direction he’d nodded. “Where will you sleep?”
“Out here.” He stepped onto the side veranda and sat in a large wicker chair. It creaked as he leaned back, set his feet up on the rail, and crossed his ankles.
“Is there a bathroom, a shower?” she asked.
“Yep, behind that screen.” He gestured outside with his drink.
“Behind there?” A large green barrel sat above a big square panel of wood.
“Easiest way to get hot water for a shower is to let the sun heat it in that tank. You’ll soon get used to it.”
“It’s, er… not very private.”
“As a general rule, privacy isn’t high on my list of concerns. No one but me here.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” As she’d spoken, Buddy smoothed past her leg. The unexpected feeling of his warm fur made her jump. “Oh!”
Rhett turned and raised his eyebrows. “I don’t have Egyptian cotton white sheets or whatever they are at the main lodge, so be sure to check the bed before you get in it, snakes and spiders are harder to see.”
She swallowed down a gulp of whiskey and watched Buddy curl up in a basket next to Rhett. Oh, why couldn’t she be at the main lodge like last time? It had been so very civilized, five-star luxury compared to this.
But Casey wasn’t a quitter and she was here now. So she wandered into the bedroom and set her rucksack on a wooden stool.
“This will be fine,” she said to herself. The bed was large, the mosaic patterned sheets faded and the pillows not especially plump. A mosquito net hung around it from a large wooden hoop. Furniture was minimal; a wardrobe with a few clothes hanging in it, all the same earthy color tones, and a white porcelain basin set on the table. There was a small mirror, but no pictures, no attempt at cozying up the place. It was a shame really; Casey could imagine it decorated colonial style with soft rugs, interesting African artefacts and maybe a few mahogany antiques. But that clearly wasn’t Rhett’s style. He was a simple-living man. Food, shelter, and his animals seemed to be his main needs, and, of course, whiskey and a rifle.
A sudden slap on her head made her cry out. “Argh!” She dashed her hands through her hair; something had landed there and it was scurrying around. “Ah, fuck, fuck, get off.” She spun in a circle, tipped her head forward and back, hopped on the spot. Panic gripped her.
Finding the source of the scrabbling on her scalp, she flicked at it hard.
A small lizard flew through the air and landed on Rhett’s chest.
He grabbed it, his mouth open, clearly startled by her scream and violent twisting and turning.
“It fell on me,” Casey said, breathing hard. She looked upward. The ceiling was lined with what appeared to be reeds. “It obviously lives up there, how many more are there?”
Rhett frowned and walked to the open window. He set the lizard on the outside windowsill and it scurried off.
Casey pressed her hand to her sternum. Her heart was racing.
“I knew you’d be like this.” He shook his head.
“Like what?” Ick, she could still feel the creature’s little feet tangling in her hair.
“Scared of your own shadow. I thought you’d been here before, to Africa.”
“I’m not scared of my own shadow, and yes, I have, I just stayed somewhere that wasn’t quite as primitive as this.”
“Primitive? This is luxury compared to what the majority of South African people have; you’d do well to remember that.”
“I get that. I have traveled, you know.”
He said nothing.
“It’s just a bit of a shock when the local wildlife lands on your head, that’s all.”
Still he said nothing.
Casey pulled in a deep breath. “Would it be possible to make a sandwich, I haven’t eaten for hours.”
“You know where the kitchen is.” He turned and walked out.
His reaction irked her. Not because of what he’d said, but that he might have thought she’d wanted him to make her food. She hadn’t.
The basin was full of clean water and a small bar of white soap sat next to it. Casey washed her hands and face, wishing she could rinse away the turn of events that meant she was here and not at Amakala Lodge. But of course she couldn’t. After brushing her hair and securing it atop her head, she checked on her precious Nikon camera. It had made the journey safely and she slung the strap around her head, habit, in case she saw anything that inspired her during the sunset.
She found the kitchen to be reasonably well stocked with food including fresh bread and a block of cheese. There was also a pantry stacked full of tins and dried food. Nothing fancy, but enough to keep someone going for a reasonable length of time.
As she made a few rounds of sandwiches, she glanced at Rhett. He was sitting on the veranda again, feet up and his hat pulled over his face as though sleeping. Buddy was on his lap now, curled up and apparently also sleeping, and Rhett’s empty whiskey glass sat on the floor.
After pouring more water for herself, she wandered over to the veranda. She placed the pile of sandwiches on the table then grabbed a couple for herself. The sinking sun had turned the baked earth orange and gold. Long shadows stretched east and the sky was a wash of red and lilac. A single streak of black cloud slashed through the colors.
Africa really was beautiful. She sat, not on a chair but on the steps overlooking the plains. It had been too long since she’d watched the sun sinking into the horizon.
As she ate, the cicadas started their song, a constant high-pitched clicking noise that would likely go on till morning. She spotted giraffes in the distance, moving amongst a patch of trees nibbling the highest branches as they went. There would be so much more out there, unseen, camouflaged, prey or the preyed upon. She couldn’t wait to get started on her project, which was to be shot in monochrome. Her task was to show how markings and color helped animals blend into their environment. It would make an interesting challenge after only photographing birds the last time she’d visited.
Sandwich finished, she brushed off the crumbs then took the lens cover from her camera. In the last pale light in the west several large birds were circling. She wasn’t sure if they were buzzards or vultures from the distance she was at. With an expert hand she zoomed in and snapped half a dozen images. They might be useable but she didn’t expect so. Tomorrow, in the bright light of day, she hoped to get some images of larger land animals.
A sudden rub of fur pushed past her. This time she didn’t startle as she looked down at the cub. Its huge eyes were looking up at her, its long ears with tufts of fur on the end making it look quite comical.
“Hey there, Buddy,” she said quietly and stroked his head.
He purred and rubbed his cheek against her.
She smiled then leaned back and took a few photographs of him. He wanted to be close and leaned in again. Casey chuckled, he was too near to capture on camera so she replaced her lens cap and fussed over him.
After a few minutes she glanced at Rhett. His hat was still over his face as he half sat, half lay in the encroaching darkness but the sandwiches she’d placed near him were gone.
“Right then, Buddy,” she whispered. “That’s me finished for the day. I’ll see you in the morning.” She stood and he wound his long body around her legs twice before walking over to Rhett and curling up on a dusty blanket on the floor.
She paused and surveyed them together—the ranger and his wild cub settled under the African sky.
One thing was for sure, it was going to be an interesting two weeks.