A friendship that catches fire, a conquistador's gold medallion, an act of atonement that goes horribly wrong, a rain forest trek they might not survive.... Gabrielle O'Hara, a bush pilot in Brazil, plans to enlist the aid of Nicolao Hamilton, her childhood friend, to help her return a conquistador's gold sunburst medallion their fathers had stolen from a shrine deep within the rain forest. Gabby believes that act cursed their lives, allowing happiness to slip by "an inch out of reach." She hopes that by returning the medallion, the curse will be reversed. Unfortunately, Nic doesn't believe in the curse and contends the trip would be suicide. With no alternative, Gabby shanghais Nic. Things go terribly wrong after they replace the medallion in its tiny shrine, as if the debt is still owing and fate is demanding interest. An accident on the river, a raging infection, an illegal mining operation, and relentless danger combine to thwart their safe return from their mission. With the rain forest's entire arsenal to contend with, their bond of friendship develops into a love that will bind them forever...if they can survive long enough to experience it.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Sharon K. Garner enjoys writing stories about love and danger set in exotic locations. A former library cataloguer and newspaper proofreader, she keeps her hand in with freelance proofreading and copyediting for other writers. She lives in PA with her welder/EMT husband of many years, a man who no longer flinches when asked such questions as "How long does it take to bleed to death?" and "How can I disable a big piece of equipment?" One neurotic black cat completes the household. In her free time, the author reads English mysteries and regularly prances around the living room doing walk aerobics, all the while keeping an appreciative eye on her small collection of Tiffany-style lamps and her significantly larger collection of crystal figurines. Visit her athttp://www.sharonkgarner.com
"This adventure keeps you on your toes and on the edge of your seat. The atmosphere of the jungle is vividly and graphically shown. Ms. Garner has created a spellbinder!"JP -- Rendezvous Reviews
"Excitement runs high in Garner's sweet adventure romance, which will appeal to fans of the movie Romancing the Stone."Diana Tixier Herald -- Booklist
"Wow! I thought River of Dreams was going to bore me and boy; was I ever wrong! Picture the South American jungle. It is beautiful and dangerous. River of Dreams reads like waking up in a Spielberg flick; frightening, thrilling, and stimulating."Buzzy's Reviews -- eBookAd and Midwest Book Review
"If that plane won't fly, amigo, you'd better be able to walk on water." Nic Hamilton leveled a rifle at her, clicking off the safety to punctuate his cold words.
At the first sound of his voice, Gabrielle O'Hara looked up from where she knelt on his splintered dock, examining her pontoon plane's damaged float. This was a fine start, she thought, Nic playing with guns and threatening her.
"Try amiga," she answered, laughter in her voice. She slowly tugged off her aviator sunglasses, revealing emerald-green eyes, peeled back the baseball cap that confined her coppery hair, and stood up. "Hello, Nic." Her voice surprised her when it caught on the edges of his name.
"Gabby." His face went slack with shock, erasing the anger. She watched his fighting stance relax and he lowered the rifle, clicking on the safety. His dark eyebrows, thin and sweeping, briefly lifted into his forehead before he squinted at her in the bright sunlight.
"I should have guessed it was you, Gabby. I've heard that you're a madwoman in a plane," he finally said.
Nic's shouted threats had stopped pouring from her radio before she landed. She'd been a captive audience, since her plane's radio wouldn't transmit, just receive.
She shrugged. "There's always method to my madness, Nic. I'm sorry I couldn't answer you on the radio. I wanted to surprise you anyway."
"You wanted to surprise me," he repeated tonelessly and, at last, smiled his crooked grin. "Even when I'm threatening to blow you out of the sky if you try to land? But then you never listened to me when we were kids, Copper Top. Why should it be any different now?"
She returned his grin with a shaky one of her own. "Come on, Nic. I kind of guessed you didn't really have an anti-aircraft gun trained on me. And you would have broken me like a twig if I hadn't listened to you when we were kids."
Hearing both her nicknames on his lips had caused her breath to catch in her throat. Nic and her father were the only people she had ever allowed to shorten her name to Gabby, and Nic was the only one who dared to call her Copper Top.
She pushed the memories back where they belonged, willing herself to get on with her plan. She'd have to be firm with Nic to secure his help in returning the medallion to the shrine, especially if it meant involving him against his will.
She swallowed hard then gestured toward the red and white plane sitting alongside his damaged dock. "I'm sorry about your dock, too. I had a slight problem."
Her single-engine plane, which she had just landed badly, was slow, overloaded, and difficult to maneuver.
He started to walk toward her. "I noticed. You landed that thing like a ruptured duck. The dock can be fixed but what about the plane? I hope you weren't ferrying it for someone."
She smiled at his analogy and slid her sunglasses on so she could watch him saunter onto the long dock, and to hide what she was thinking. Nic had always been too good at reading her eyes.
She studied him for several heartbeats. Gone was the insecure sixteen-year-old kid she remembered. He looked taller and his slimness had matured into corded muscle. There wasn't even an echo of awkwardness in the man he'd become. Now, he had a boneless kind of grace.
"No, it's mine," she said when he stood in front of her. "It's funny you should mention a ruptured duck. This was dad's 'second best' plane and he called her The Ruptured Duck. We tore out the six passenger seats to expand the cargo area. She's old and slow and I don't use her much. My big amphib is being overhauled in Sao Paulo."
The small lie nagged at her. This is for his own good, as well as mine, she reminded herself silently.
She had a rule about her planes: nobody touched them except her. If she crashed, it would be because of her own stupidity, not someone else's. She had left her treasured old amphibian safely in Sao Paulo because, as much as it hurt, The Duck wasn't coming back. It was overloaded with fuel and supplies. Enough fuel to get them upriver but not back again. Enough supplies for the time it would take them to paddle out on the river.
Together they knelt to examine the slash in the top of one of the plane's floats. The plane was riding low in the water and the float had slid under the dock when she taxied up to it.
"Do you still have the acetylene torch, if I need it?" she asked.
"Yeah, it's here somewhere." He cocked his head to one side and looked at her. "Where you headed?"
She concentrated on the damage, deliberately making her voice casual as she rose to her feet. "Upriver. Want to come along?"
He studied her for one long, excruciating moment before he answered. She almost squirmed before looking away.
"No, I don't. There's nothing upriver but the mission hospital at Grilo and a hundred ways to die. Besides, there's trouble between the Nunes and the Amaral Indians up there."
She studied the river while he spoke, her body hot and sticky. The Brazilian rain forest sucked the breath right out of her. Then she was uncomfortable and uneasy. The Rio Sonhos, River of Dreams, was running higher than she expected, its dark water already creeping into the thick jungle vegetation along the banks.
Her voice had an edge to it when she finally spoke again. "Well, you're the district officer for that area. Do something about it."
He grunted. "In name only. Besides, my predecessor was a heavy-handed bastard. I'll bet the Nunes and Amaral have long memories."
She touched the camouflaged, clay-covered gold medallion, the reason for this journey, hanging around her neck beneath her khaki shirt.
"Being the district officer in name only, you won't stop me from flying upriver?" she asked carefully, watching him.
Standing in his shadow, literally, she saw that he carried a new measure of width in his adult shoulders, making him slim at the hips and light on his feet. At six feet three, Nic, the man, had a powerful presence.
His gray-blue eyes glinted. "I won't have to. I have pop rivets, metal sheeting, and an acetylene torch, but no fuel for ducks, ruptured or otherwise." He gestured toward a hangar a few hundred feet off the river on a pond-like backwater. "I have enough in my plane to reach the nearest boat that can get me to Manaus. That's it."
She jutted out her chin. "Did I ask for fuel? I brought extra. The Duck will fly without your pop rivets, metal sheeting, or torch, and gravity always gets me down, one way or another. Want to check my cargo, Nic?" she added softly, insolently.
He frowned, drawing his startling eyes to slits in his tanned face, a skin tone compliments of his Brazilian mother. His American father, her father's best friend until the medallion, had given him his height and eye color.
"Maybe," he said, all friendliness gone from his voice and face. "And I won't ask first. There was a lot of air traffic over here six months ago. They wouldn't talk to me either. What's upriver, Gabby?"
She'd gone too far, too fast. Her attitude had pushed her into a corner she couldn't afford to be in. Now, how to get out of it?
Her childhood experiences with Nic had taught her that she could sometimes distract him by creating a diversion, changing the subject, or making him angry.
She shrugged and punched him playfully on the arm. "Lots of trees. So, how have you been?" she said in a rush. "I heard you went to the States for a while, went to school, got married."
She'd heard other things, too, like he was divorced and drank too much and was almost a recluse up here since he returned two years ago.
"And I heard no man has ever gotten you to the altar," he shot back.
She grinned. "It isn't for lack of being asked."
"Poor devils." Nic had learned to play the game. He abruptly changed the subject back to tricky ground. "I also was informed, by headquarters no less, that you're flying for Manoel Prospero. He does business just one step inside the line."
That wiped the smile off her face, and she knew she looked guilty. She was just congratulating herself on leaving her sunglasses in place when Nic reached out and pulled them down to the tip of her nose.
She couldn't tell him just yet that Prospero had owned the medallion and once held a huge IOU from her father. Or explain that it was necessary for her to do business with him to pay off the debt and buy back the medallion. Or that it turned out to be a big mistake to trust his people. Not yet, even though she realized that all he saw in her eyes was guilt over one illegal cargo she'd been tricked into carrying. With one finger she shot the sunglasses back into place.
"I don't fly for him anymore," she said tersely. "Do you have a shower that works?"
He studied her a long, frowning moment before he answered. "Sure. Most of the gadgets still work around the place. I have solar power now. No more generators or kerosene lamps, except in the rainy season."
Up close she could see and smell more subtle differences in him. His lower face was shadowed by several days' worth of beard. Above it his eyes looked like the maps of interchanges around two gray-blue lakes. His cut-off shorts were filthy, as was his tee shirt which shouted the merits of a seedy bar in Manaus. He looked dangerous.
"Really?" She made a point of looking at him from his uncombed hair to his boots before she pushed her sunglasses up into her hair, deciding to take her chances. "I flew a load of goats once that smelled better than you. Is this your new look?" she asked sweetly.
"Uninvited guests have to take me as I am. Not staying long, I hope?" This was accompanied by another cockeyed grin.
She ignored him and dug inside the plane for her bag. "Lead on, Nic. I have to go to the bathroom."
As she walked the familiar half mile to the house, she fell silent at his side. She remembered the first time she experienced the suffocating sensation caused by the climate. It was the same day she fell in love with the mighty rain forest.
She had been eight years old and newly motherless. Her father, a botanist, decided to follow his lifelong dream, plant collecting in the Brazilian rain forest. He contacted his old friend Wynn Hamilton, an American geologist and prospector living in Brazil, who had a motherless nine-year-old son, Nicolao. Because they had no close relatives, her father brought her here with him, the first of yearly visits with Nic and his dad for the next seven years.
That first time, she had ridden in an old open-top Land Rover on this same narrow, black earth road she now walked. She had sat in the back with the strange, dark-haired boy who asked her to call him Nic.
Closed in by vegetation, the road was a steamy tunnel, the heat and humidity wrapping around her in a warm, wet blanket. Beyond the road, magnificent trees rose two hundred feet to a leafy canopy.
She had caught splashes of brilliant color in the low, lush growth along the sides of the road. Having inherited her mother's love of flowers and her drawing ability, she wanted to reach out and push aside the tangle and examine the tantalizing blossoms more clearly.
Nic, sitting across from her on the bench seats in the back, had watched her. "It's shady and fairly open in the forest itself, but don't go outside the compound without one of us. You can get lost in a minute if you go into the jungle."
She'd followed that advice until that last plant hunting season, the time the men went upriver without her and Nic, farther than ever before. That's when their fathers found the tiny shrine in the jungle and the solid gold sunburst medallion inside it that changed their lives. Not for the better.
Nic broke into her reverie by putting out a hand to bring her to a halt. His touch brought an immediate feeling of warm tingling awareness of him. When she looked down at her arm in surprise, he snatched his hand away as if her skin burned him.
"Look, you're welcome to stay for a few days if -- if you want to," he said harshly, the cost of the words evident on his face. "But don't expect me to be good company. I'm off people, especially women."
"I heard. I'm sorry," she replied softly.
He looked at her for a moment in silence. His voice, when it came, was that of an unsure sixteen-year-old again. "How about you. Are you okay?"
She smiled at him fondly, swallowing the lump in her throat. "I'm fine, Nic, thanks. This will be just like old times."
His features tightened and he shook his head, suddenly angry. "What the hell are you doing flying for Manoel Prospero, Gabby?"
She came right back at him. "I don't fly for him anymore. Look, can we discuss this later? I'm tired, I'm hungry, I'm dirty, I--"
" -- have to go to the bathroom. I know," he said and loped ahead.
She ran to catch up. She could see the house now, or what was left standing of it. A dun-colored wall had enclosed it and the outbuildings in the old days, rearing out of the jungle to form a courtyard. That wall marked the boundary beyond which she had been forbidden to pass alone. She vividly remembered the day that last season when she had overstepped that boundary.
It had been a strange season to begin with. At sixteen, Nic was edgy and given to long silences and even longer stares. He was the same old Nic, but there had been something else making him restless, something that she had been too immature to understand.
She was her father's sketch artist for the plants he collected, and she had been eager to practice that morning in anticipation of his homecoming. So, while Nic was busy elsewhere, she took her drawing pad and pencils and went outside the wall, into the rain forest, leaving the safety of the road behind. She marked her path on the trees with a bright oil crayon she took for that purpose.
Time and her fingers flew quickly as she tried to draw everything she saw. After a few hours, she had no trouble finding her way back to the road. As she walked toward the house, she heard the Land Rover roaring up behind her. Playfully, she turned around and stuck out her thumb.
Her smile died when she saw the fury on Nic's face. A muscle worked relentlessly in his tanned cheek and his mouth was set in a grim line. He erupted from the driver's side of the vehicle and crossed the distance between them in two strides. His long fingers bit deeply into the soft flesh of her upper arms.
"Where have you been?" he exploded.
"Sketching in the forest. And I blazed a trail. Now take your hands off me." Anger and astonishment were mixed equally in her voice.
Her words fed his anger. "You know you're not supposed to leave the compound alone," he ground out between clenched teeth. She squealed in alarm when he scooped her up in his arms and dumped her in the passenger seat.
She shot to her feet, leaning over the windshield. Her words followed him as he strode around the Land Rover and got in. "I don't know what your problem is, Nic, but I'd rather walk than ride with you right now."
"Shut up and sit down!" He grabbed the tail of her khaki shirt and jerked her down into her seat as the Land Rover leaped forward.
"You're a pig, Nic!" She slapped him on the arm then rode in heated silence, her arms crossed tightly across her chest as she held angry tears at bay.
When they reached the inner courtyard, outside the sala, the drawing room, they got out as one and marched inside. Everything of importance was discussed in the sala.
She turned to him, hands on hips. "Now just what was that about? I'm not an idiot, you know. I have jungle experience, the same as you."
He paced back and forth in front of her in agitated silence, something in his eyes jerking on the leash. She had made him angry in the past, but this time he seemed ready to explode. For one scary moment she wished that he was in a cage, with bars separating them.
"This compound is an island in the jungle -- civilization stops at that gate," he finally managed, barely calm enough to say the words clearly. "There are plants, animals, and insects out there that are capable of killing you, and you know it, besides the danger of getting lost. And I'm responsible for you when our dads are gone."
"Since when?" she said and poured on the disbelief.
"Since day one," he bit out. "The same day I told you never to go outside the walls alone."
"Well, it's different now. I've been coming here for seven years. I can handle myself in the jungle because you taught me how. And I don't want to hear any more about my being your responsibility." She started for the door.
Nic stepped in front of her, blocking her path. She forgot that he could move like lightning. For just a moment she let his eyes swallow her, reveling in the strange sensation of falling into their gray-blue depths.
"I thought you were lost in the rain forest. What could I do by myself to find you?" he said, a catch in his voice.
She sorted out fear mixed with blazing anger and realized how much the admission had cost him. "Oh. I didn't think of that. I'm really sorry I was so thoughtless, Nic," she said contritely. "Next time I'll leave a note."
"Next time?" he spluttered. "There will be no next time, Gabby! Comprehende?"
She realized then how white-hot angry he was. Nic peppered his English with Portuguese only when he was under strong emotion.
But she was in no mood to back down. "I said next time, Nic," she repeated slowly. "I'll talk to Dad when he gets back about where I can and can't go. Touch me again and they'll be calling you Lefty," she warned as he took a step toward her.
He stopped and she stood her ground, rubbing her upper arms where she would carry the marks of his fingers for a week.
His beautiful eyes narrowed to glittering slits as they stared into her green ones across two feet of space. In the sudden stillness she could smell the soft musky scent from his damp shirt.
Her gaze dropped to his mouth where her eyes bumped across the chiseled points of his upper lip then slid along the fullness of his lower. In the next instant she was crushed against that damp shirt and those unbelievably soft, unexpectedly warm lips were on hers.
For a moment she froze in surprise then trembled as her hands pushed their way into his thick hair to hold him while she kissed him back. He finally broke the kiss, staring at her, wide-eyed.
"Deus!" The word came out of his mouth in a croak.
In the next second she was so angry she couldn't see him clearly. How dare he bring that into it? It wasn't fair! She punched him in the stomach and ran out of the room. The next day their fathers returned with the medallion.
She had figured out a lot about what was fair between men and women in the twelve years that had passed since then. But she had never since been kissed by a man without remembering that first kiss from Nicolao Hamilton.
Reliving it now, she tripped over her own feet. She cleared her throat and kept her eyes on the road, hoping he would let it pass. Out of the corner of her eye she saw his sideways glance and his slow grin and braced herself.
"You're still poetry in motion, Gabby."
"Oh, shut up, Nic," she muttered and stomped ahead.