Man of fire, p.1

Man of Fire, page 1


Man of Fire

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Man of Fire

  © Margaret Rome 1970

  Original hard cover edition published in 1970 by Mills & Boon Limited

  SBN 373-70558-1

  Harlequin Presents edition published August 1974

  All the characters In this book have no existence outside the imagination of the Author, and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the Author, and all the Incidents are pure invention.

  The Harlequin trade mark, consisting of the word HARLEQUIN and the portrayal of a Harlequin, is registered in the United States Patent Office and in the Canada Trade Marks Office.

  Printed in Canada.


  TINA DONNELLY staggered into the hallway of the flat and thankfully kicked shut the door before dropping the numerous parcels she was burdened with on to a nearby chair.

  'Whew!' she muttered, 'bless Aunt Chris for insisting upon central heating!' Warmth began to disperse the icy tingle from her cheeks and to melt the few snowflakes that were caught in the soft wisps of auburn hair that refused to be confined by her fur hood. Quickly she shed her outdoor things, then once more gathered up her parcels and took them through to the kitchen to begin preparing dinner for herself and her aunt.

  She hummed as she worked, loving the comfortable domesticity of preparing food and appreciative of the labour-saving work surfaces and modern decor of her surroundings. Before they had moved into the flat, her aunt had given over the kitchen to her to do with it exactly what she wanted, and while her aunt had been immersed in plans for decorating the lounge and the two bedrooms, Tina had pored over glossy leaflets advertising the ultimate in kitchen equipment. When the flat was eventually finished, they had both been delighted with their own and each other's efforts. As she had gazed around at the startlingly different sitting-room with its wall-to-wall carpet of forest green in the centre of which was spread a tiger skin with its snarling-toothed head still intact, Tina had told her aunt admiringly,

  'Honestly, Chris, if you weren't already wrapped up in your own job you could make a fortune as an interior decorator, you've displayed your treasures wonderfully!'

  Her aunt had smiled her pleasure while Tina had wandered around reverently fingering the various rare and wonderful mementoes of Chris Donnelly's many expeditions abroad. There was a pair of Benares brass candlesticks, converted most successfully into twin lamps, effectively placed together on a small table of Indian teak. Clustered beneath them was an interesting arrangement of lumps of crystal and some delicate, curiously-shaped shells she had discovered on an atoll in the south seas. A gilded mirror reflected a painting of an old mosque. On another wall, hand-painted tiles and delicate figurines from Brazil were cleverly placed to catch the light from tall windows draped in curtains of Thai silk. In an alcove, a carved wood head from Austria sat next to a spiky variegated dragon tree held in a miniature witch's cauldron. An exciting, exotic, but basically comfortable room that practically told the life story of the intriguing woman who had designed it.

  Chris Donnelly had been equally enthusiastic about her niece's success in the kitchen and Tina's faint misgivings about her extravagance in plumping for white marble floor tiles had been quickly dispersed; they did, after all, contrast wonderfully against the glowing yellow walls and units and against the brown quarry tiles above the sink. The row of copper pans and the copper-hooded cooker lent a perfect finishing touch.

  But the excitement of moving into their new flat was now six months behind them, and the well recognizable signs that Chris Donnelly's itchy feet were once more urging her to stray had begun to show themselves to Tina's trained eye some weeks previously. She smiled as she set two places at the table. Every time her aunt jerked out the shamefaced admission that she had signed on for yet another expedition her words had to be greeted by Tina with a surprised ejaculation so that she would not guess the news did not come as a complete surprise. Chris never guessed that during the tortuous weeks while she wrestled with a conscience that decreed that it was wrong of her to leave her young niece alone in London while she traipsed through an African jungle or climbed a mountain in Peru, Tina was calmly overhauling her gear and making sure everything her aunt would need would be ready at the moment of confession - which generally came just a few days before sailing date. Even if Chris had noticed, she would merely have grinned and admitted ruefully that Tina knew her so well she could anticipate her actions weeks before she herself had reached a decision.

  Tina did know her well. Knew her, loved her, and was immensely proud of her slim, vivacious, and still young-looking aunt who, though not quite forty, had distinguished herself in the field of botany and was dedicated to searching the remote parts of the world for any new or interesting plants that might further the cause of science. Her centre of work was the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, but periodically she joined expeditions setting out to inaccessible parts of the globe in order to bring back, sometimes at incredible risk, seed and seedlings of new plants to be evaluated and eventually added to the unique collection at Kew.

  Tina was her assistant - home-based, because she had always adamantly refused to travel - and, owing to her aunt's brilliant teaching and her own absorbing interest in her subject, her work was already beginning to stir up interest amongst their tightly knit circle of scientific acquaintances.

  Tina left the kitchen and cast an approving eye over the beckoning comfort of the warmly lighted lounge before crossing to the window to peer out into the damp, sleet-ridden darkness of the cold March night. Below, she saw brightly illuminated buses, crowded with heavily clothed, huddled-up commuters, crawling fitfully along streets packed with home going traffic, their swishing tyres sending sprays of churned-up, filthy slush into the gutters and, judging from some irate gestures, on to the feet of some of the luckless pedestrians. She glanced at her watch and frowned. Her aunt was often caught up in last-minute discussions or prolonged committee meetings, but she always managed to let her know if she was going to be late for dinner. They never journeyed home together; it had been arranged that Tina should leave an hour before Chris so that she could have a meal ready for her aunt when she arrived home. When they had reached Kew that morning her aunt had been summoned by her boss, and that had been the last Tina had seen of her. The pucker between her brows deepened. Although Chris Donnelly could climb mountains, shoot rapids and face the hazards of unexplored terrain, the London rush hour reduced her to a helpless babe. Tina's teeth dug into her bottom lip as she remembered the hesitating, haphazard way she had of crossing a busy street. The thought sent her hand hovering over the telephone, but before she could lift the receiver its shrill ring shattered the quietness of the room causing her to jump to answer its urgency.

  'Hello,' her voice held an anxious, questioning inflection, 'Tina Donnelly speaking.'

  'Tina!' a man's voice, full of guarded relief, answered. She recognized it as belonging to Alex Maxwell, a doctor friend of her aunt's, and hurriedly she questioned him,

  'Alex, do you know where Chris has got to? It's late, and I'm beginning to get worried, you know how incompetent she is in traffic.'

  'Indeed I do,' Alex Maxwell answered grimly. 'I've tried repeatedly to warn her, but she's always laughed at my fears for her safety. Perhaps now she'll admit I was right!'

  'Perhaps now!' Tina's voice rose with apprehension and she almost shouted down the mouthpiece. 'Alex, what do you mean? Are you trying to tell me something awful has happened to Chris?'

  Quickly, he soothed her, 'Now, now, Tina, don't panic. Your aunt has had a slight mishap, yes, but it isn't serious. She was knocked down by a taxi almost on the doorstep of the hospital. Luckily, I was on duty and the doctor in Casualty, knowing she's a friend of mine, phoned up
to my ward and told me ...'

  'How seriously is she hurt?' Tina broke in frantically.

  'She has a broken wrist and the devil's own luck!' Alex bit out with impotent anger. 'One of these days, that woman will allow someone to look after her properly, but first of all she'll have to outgrow her pigheadedness!'

  Tina gave the ghost of a smile at the worried outrage in Alex's voice. She had guessed ages ago that he was in love with her aunt, but Chris had always maintained that it would be unfair of her to marry any man as she would be no sooner settled in their love nest than she would be wanting to spread her wings and fly away.

  Tina was both relieved and sympathetic. Her voice was warm when she assured him: 'I know how you feel, Alex, and I agree with you entirely. Perhaps some day, if you don't get tired of waiting, she'll admit you're right, but at the moment she'll need rest and quiet. Can I come round to the hospital to bring her home now, or is she too shocked to be moved yet?' Tensely, she waited for his answer. Even though her aunt's injury was slight, she could not bear to think of her lying hurt and alone in a hospital bed.

  Alex's snort came quite audibly over the telephone. 'Shocked? Rest and quiet? She's turned this hospital into a madhouse during the short time she's been in it! I suggested that she stay in for observation — just overnight - and the ensuing uproar was enough to convince me that, for the sake of the rest of the patients and staff, she would come home immediately. 'Your aunt,' he enunciated heavily, 'is a very strong-minded woman!'

  Tina laughed softly and, reluctantly, he joined in. After a second, he spoke again conclusively. 'Expect us in about fifteen minutes, Tina, I'm off duty now and I'll bring her home in my car.' She thanked him gratefully and before he rang off assured him that he would be met on arrival by an especially good meal.

  An hour later, comfortably replete after an excellent dinner, the three of them were sitting in the lounge drinking after-dinner coffee. Chris, looking pale but still vital, sat next to Tina on the tobacco brown velvet settee and Alex sat opposite them in a man-size armchair with a balloon glass of brandy cupped lovingly in his hands and with the benevolent smile of a man who has just dined well on his relaxed mouth. He reflected idly as he assessed them both over the rim of his glass.

  'D'you know, it's extraordinary how alike you both are - you could almost be taken for twins!'

  Chris laughed, 'Almost being the operative word, Alex dear; but I love you for your chivalry.'

  But he shook his head and insisted, 'No, I mean it! You have the same delicate colouring, the same red-gold hair - even though you style it differently - the same unusual green eyes set in an intriguing slant, even your height and build are identical.' His eyes slewed from one to the other and kindled as they rested upon Chris. 'The only difference lies in your natures. Tina has the bloom of an awakened child, whereas you, my love, hold all the enticing mystery and allure of a mature woman.'

  When Tina blushed, Chris, with heightened colour, admonished him sharply, 'Stop teasing, Alex! You're embarrassing the child. If you don't behave you'll have to go home. I'm an invalid, remember, and you, as a doctor, ought to know better than to upset me!'

  Both he and Tina looked their astonishment, then they began to laugh. Only an hour ago, on her arrival from hospital, she had severely reprimanded Tina for daring to fuss her and had stated firmly that she felt fine, her wrist didn't even hurt, and that she absolutely refused to be treated as an invalid. Their laughter underlined her contrariness, and she looked a trifle shamefaced as she tried to brazen her way out of the situation.

  'Anyway, there are things we must discuss. You two don't seem to understand how much this wretched accident has upset my plans. How on earth,' she appealed to them both to be serious, 'can I hope to leave for the Amazon in a week's time with a broken wrist?'

  For a second, her question brought sudden silence, then both Alex and Tina spoke together.

  'But you can't! It's absolutely out of the question!' Alex snorted.

  'The Amazon, Chris?' Tina echoed.

  Pleased with the attention she had attracted, Chris hugged herself excitedly and stressed, 'The last great journey on earth! And I've been chosen as one of the party!' Before either of them could find breath to interrupt, she went on eagerly, 'One of the popular dailies, The Reflectory is sponsoring an expedition up the Negro and Orinoco Rivers to test out the performance of hovercraft in this terrain. They have room for a scientist, a geographer, a photographer and, of course, a botanist in the party. I tell you, I could have fainted with excitement when they offered me the opportunity of going. Just think of it! Two thousand miles of country where no white man has ever set foot and scores of new plants to seek out and seedlings to collect Then,' she breathed heavily, 'I have to go and spoil it all by breaking my wrist!' She looked down at the offending plaster cast with disgust before appealing hopefully to Alex, 'Is there any chance at all that I might be able to make it?'

  If Tina had had any doubt of Alex's feelings for her aunt they fled when she saw the effect Chris's words had on his usually placid face. She saw anger fighting with chagrin and then grim determination overrule signs of very real worry when he answered her sternly,

  'No chance, Chris. Not a chance in hell!'

  Chris should certainly have known what his answer would be, but deep down she must have cherished a slight ray of hope, because disappointment clouded her face at his answer. When he saw this, Alex softened slightly and his voice was sympathetic when he encouraged her,

  'Cheer up, Chris my love, there'll be other expeditions. This one may seem to you to be "the last great journey on earth", but I'm certain that in a few months from now you'll be getting just as excited about some other expedition you've been invited to join.'

  'Perhaps,' Chris dejectedly refused to be comforted, 'but the leader of it won't be - Caramuru, the man whose expeditions I've always wanted to join but whose company, up until now, has always eluded me.'

  'Who on earth is Caramuru?' Alex drawled with amusement.

  Chris's eyes sparkled as she leant towards him and, in a voice full of a respectful awe which Tina had never imagined Chris to hold for any man, she told him, 'He is Señor Ramon Vegas, a Brazilian of Spanish descent, the most knowledgeable, intrepid jungle guide of our time - and the most sought after. His family were amongst the first Spanish people to settle in Brazil, generations ago, and he learned most of what he knows about the jungle from his father, who was also a famous explorer. Ramon, I believe, took over the running of his family's estate a few years ago, after his father's death, and this keeps him too busy for many sorties into the jungle. This trip is one of the few he now undertakes, and I was absolutely thrilled at the idea of joining him.'

  'Hm, sounds quite a man,' Alex retorted, slightly huffily, 'but that doesn't explain his rather theatrical title - Caramuru, did you say it was?'

  'Oh, but it does,' Chris laughed. 'Caramuru explains Señor Ramon Vegas far better than I could! No words of mine could identify better with the man than this name the natives gave to him. Caramuru means "Man of Fire", and that, so I've been led to believe, is exactly what legend has him to be - a truly volcanic personality!'

  Alex put in decisively, 'Then perhaps it's just as well you won't be joining him on this expedition, my dear. Putting two fiery people together in one party would be asking for trouble, so you, my pet, had better stay at home.'

  Chris grimaced horribly, then gave a resigned shrug. 'Oh, well,' she sighed, 'the sooner I get on to the Director and break the news to him, the better. He's going to be terribly disappointed. I've been closeted with him all day and for most of the time he rhapsodized on about the rumours that are circulating about a herb doctor somewhere in the Amazon who is reputedly curing the natives of arthritis by treating them with ointment made out of some unknown plant. He's convinced I'll be bringing back the plant, so I'd better let him know what's happened so that he can send someone in my place.'

  A deep silence fell. Chris, for all her light words, was obvio
usly deeply disturbed at the thought of letting down Sir Harvey Honeyman, the distinguished botanist who had helped in no small way to further her career, while Alex, his mouth an uncompromising straight line, was just as obviously brooding on his determination to keep her here in London. Tina looked at them both and wished desperately that there was some way she could help.

  Thoughtfully, Alex broke the silence. 'Why not send Tina in your place?' he asked Chris. 'You've often said she's brilliant in her work and that you can teach her nothing more. Surely she could, hunt out these specimens you place such value on even if she isn't experienced enough to go seeking out herb doctors?'

  Tina's immediate reaction was a jerk of dismay. She looked at her aunt, a plea in her expressive eyes, and Chris patted her hand comfortingly before telling Alex lightly: 'Tina has a thing about travelling; she hates it! I wouldn't dream of asking her to battle her way through jungle, because even the thought of spiders makes her ill and she gives this old tiger skin,' she smiled and thrust a negligent foot on its snarling head, 'a wide berth, if she thinks no one is looking. Isn't that so, darling?' she teased fondly.

  Tina stood up, obviously distressed. 'I ... I'll make some more coffee,' she stammered, then fled with the tray into the kitchen.

  When the door closed behind her slight figure, Alex's raised eyebrows demanded further explanation. Chris raised her hands, palms upward, and shrugged helplessly. 'I don't understand either,' she answered his unspoken question. 'I think it must have something to do with her unusual childhood.'

  'Go on,' Alex searched for his cigars, 'tell me about it.'

  'Well, as you already know, her father - my brother Dean - was also a botanist; a Fellow of the Royal Institute, no less.' When Alex nodded, she continued, 'His wife, Moira, went everywhere with him, he insisted, and she didn't need persuading because she adored him. When Tina was born, I, together with everyone else, thought Dean would either cease travelling and stay at home with his family, or that he would take only short trips and that Moira would be content to remain at home with the baby until his return. But to our astonishment, Tina's birth made no difference whatever to their way of life, and the child was carted around the world to all kinds of curious places until she was old enough to go to boarding school.' Alex gave a surprised exclamation and Chris nodded confirmation. 'Yes, she was literally humped about, piccaninny-wise, through practically every country in the world! Of course, we remonstrated with them, but they either couldn't or didn't want to see reason. Their answer to every argument was: "Children survive in all conditions, and our child is amply protected".' Chris smiled ruefully. 'And she did survive; for a while she even thrived! She was a beautiful, perfectly contented baby and an enchanting infant; it was only later, just before she was separated from her parents to go to boarding school, that she changed from an impish, adorable child into a quiet shadow. Naturally, I did all I could to make her schooldays happy. I visited her, took her out as often as was allowed, but I couldn't take the place of Dean and Moira, she pined for them terribly. Then—' Chris's voice suddenly descended to a whisper and Alex moved to her side and put his arm around her shoulders as he guessed the thoughts that were upsetting her. He lifted her face and saw tears glistening behind her lashes. Quietly he comforted her,

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