The small plane banked violently, and Saira squeezed her eyes closed. Once again, she felt her fingers dig into her seat’s armrests.
Rivulets of sweat felt sticky and ticklish as they ran down her back and squelched against her body where it met the seat. Her hands were dripping, but she didn’t know whether it was from the heat or from being panicked. The muscles in her stomach and calves were aching as she tensed and willed her body to stop the plane.
She wasn’t paying attention to Gerhard sitting next to her, but she could feel the force of his exertion as he tried to land the small craft.
They were getting close to the earth. Saira thought she was prepared for the impact but the jar as the plane hit the ground rattled her bones and her teeth. They bumped along the sand for moments that felt like forever before they came to a shuddering stop.
When she opened her eyes, all she could see around her was the red dust storm the plane had kicked up. As it settled, she realized they were in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing. No trees, no dunes, no bushes. Stretching out in all directions were miles and miles of flat sand.
Saira felt more panic rising inside her body. Her fear was irrational, she knew, but she felt as though the sand would smother her. There was no escape.
She noticed her fingers were still digging into her seat’s armrests and unclamped her hands. As she stretched out her fingers and tried to relax, her muscles screamed with the pain she’d inflicted on them when she’d tensed every single one in her body.
Next to her, Gerhard sat still, his hands on the plane’s yoke.
As his body relaxed, he turned toward her.
“Are you okay?”
“What do you think? You’ve landed us in the middle of nowhere. How long will we be here? Can you fix the plane?”
Gerhard shrugged, and Saira wondered how he could be so relaxed about it all?
She’d seen television shows and read about people being stranded in the desert and dying of thirst. Would it happen to her? She didn’t relish the idea.
Gerhard’s voice was far too controlled for Saira’s liking when he spoke.
“I’ll see what I can do. But we may need help.”
“Help? Where do you see help around here?”
“Well, it won’t be easy, but I’m sure we can summon some.”
Saira was sure the temperature rising inside her had nothing to do with the heat in the desert. She was getting mad as hell.
What was the man playing at?
Gerhard opened the door on his side, and scorching air blasted into the already boiling cabin.
Saira put a hand on her chest as she struggled to draw the heated air into her lungs. She opened her door, but even more hot air streamed into the cabin.
Gerhard placed a firm, dry hand on her forearm.
“I wouldn’t go outside if I were you.”
“You don’t seriously expect me to stay in this oven while you go outside?”
Gerhard removed his hand and nodded.
“Trust me. It’s safer here than out there.”
Safer? What was he talking about? Would she have to deal with wild animals as well on top of this disaster?
“What do you mean, safer?”
Those blue eyes locked on hers, and she understood he wasn’t used to being challenged.
“I mean, it’s hotter out there than in here. Out there, you risk sunstroke.”
Saira shifted in her seat.
She didn’t want to sound petulant, but she was feeling more than annoyed. The perpetual clamminess her entirely inappropriate clothing for such weather had produced, didn’t help things.
“I still think it would be better if I sat in the wing’s shade.”
Gerhard got out.
He spoke through the open door, his back toward her.
This time, Gerhard didn’t help her. As a result, when she jumped down from the plane, she sank into the sand. She tried to muffle the loud yelp that came with the unpleasant surprise. But the difference between the surfaces underfoot almost made her lose her balance, and the heat from the sand penetrated her shoes at once. She wouldn’t give Gerhard the satisfaction of seeing her distress.
Saira pulled herself together, reached back, grabbed her water from the cabin, and rooted through her bag for her jacket to sit on. Even though the wing of the plane had given the illusion of shade, the sand underneath was scorching. Saira had forgotten they’d only just landed here. The sun had been baking the sand into what felt to her like grains of fire beneath her. She jumped up as the heat penetrated through her jacket and burned her backside.
Though Gerhard was apparently ignoring her, she was sure she’d seen him smirk when she’d jumped down from the plane onto the blistering sand and again when she’d leaped up as the heat had penetrated her behind.
Meanwhile, Gerhard had opened the bonnet on the side of the plane. He was tinkering away, a frown deepening between his eyebrows.
Saira watched him and didn’t care for the frown.
She walked closer to him.
“Can you fix it or not?”
“I’m not a mechanic.”
Saira had to walk away before she lost her temper. She placed her hands on her hips. Staring off into the distance might help her get a grip on her emotions. But it didn’t help.
Oh, God, they would die here. She knew it.
When she had her breathing a little more under control again, she turned to face Gerhard.
“But if you’re not a mechanic, how the hell are you going to fix this thing?”
Saira could have sworn she heard Gerhard mumble “give me strength,” or something like it. Not only was she stranded in the desert, but she had to deal with a jerk like him. Being hunky didn’t make up for it. Life could be so unfair.
Damn, she should never have come. What a stupid idea. Bloody Max. He’ll have a lot to answer for when she gets back to London.
All of a sudden, she didn’t want to be anywhere near Gerhard. She eyed the area under the wing furthest away from him and walked there as fast as the sand would allow her without tripping and falling. But the clanging and banging of his tinkering grew in volume, and she couldn’t help wondering what he was doing. Another small prayer went up that he didn’t damage the engine even more.
Unable to contain her curiosity, she peeped around the plane. He was fumbling inside the cabin and ignoring her. When she saw him unpacking a bundle of wood from underneath his seat, and reaching for a lighter in his pocket, she couldn’t believe it.
Was he going to make a fire? In this heat?
She walked closer.
“Fire? I thought we only need it at night to prevent predators from eating us alive.”
“I’m not building a fire for the wildlife.”
The man was impossible. Saira felt the urge to stamp her foot but wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing he’d got under her skin. Why couldn’t he be civil? Men with manners were in such short supply these days. Why are they all like Jonathan, instead of like her father?
Saira watched in silent fascination as Gerhard built a fire. He collected some straw-like plant matter she hadn’t noticed before because the way it blended in with the color of the surrounding sand, was perfect. He placed it over the pieces of wood, like kindling, started the fire and blew on it until it took hold.
God, he was a real Neanderthal.
But when he took off his shirt, Saira almost gasped at the sight of his beautiful torso and had to cough to hide her faux pas.
Gerhard’s body wasn’t only beautiful, toned with perfect muscles, but he looked far more like a model than a Neanderthal. Just the right smattering of hair on his chest made him appear even more manly. His all-over tan made her wonder why he spent so much time without his top? Perhaps he had a lot of leisure time. That he was pure male and nothing like Jonathan, just made him seem more mysterious. He moved with ease and elegance, felt as though she was watching a dancer instead of a Neanderthal. Only now he had his back to her, could she admire his toned bum and thighs.
But the beauty of his body couldn’t disguise the fact that the fire was now roaring and smoke was everywhere. It made Saira’s eyes water. The sudden uncontrollable coughing fit that gripped her, wouldn’t let go and didn’t help the situation. The heat from the fire added to the already unbearable conditions.
Just as she was about to say something, Gerhard grabbed the sleeves of his shirt. He held the shirt over the fire for a few moments, then removed it and repeated the action over and over.
Saira could see the effect. The smoke curled into the air above them into an upright column since there was no wind to disperse it.
Okay, he’s cute. But what the hell? Are we in a cowboy movie now?
Saira took a few steps toward Gerhard because she didn’t want to shout and come across like a banshee. Besides, she didn’t trust her voice to carry after the coughing fit.
“I don’t understand. Why make a fire? Why don’t you just call someone?”
Gerhard spoke without stopping what he was doing.
“Have you tried using your phone in the desert? It doesn’t work here.”
Saira hadn’t considered that. A sizeable stone fell into her gut. Would she really be stranded here?
“But what about the plane’s radio?”
“I’m not an electronics engineer.”
Saira narrowed her eyes.
What the hell did he mean by that?
Gerhard spoke as though he’d read her mind.
“The radio is dead. Something must have gone wrong with the radio’s wiring when the engine blew.”
Saira felt tears of panic sting her eyes.
She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t cry.
“I saw you had a walkie-talkie?”
“The battery is flat.”
Shit. She knew it. She would die here for sure. Who ever could see these puny smoke signals?
Saira looked up into the vast sky. Only someone with binoculars glued to their eyes and looking in the right direction would see such small puffs of smoke.
She wasn’t in the mood for one of his stupid answers she didn’t understand but somehow couldn’t stop the question leaving her mouth.
“But who would see this?”
The sun was glistening off the sweat on Gerhard’s back, and droplets were dripping down his temples. But he didn’t seem to be suffering in the slightest. Saira envied him.
Again, he didn’t look up as he spoke.
“You’d be surprised.”
What does that mean? Why does he have to be so weird? For goodness sake, why couldn’t he just spell it out? He must know she knows nothing about this lifestyle. Wasn’t he a guide? The guides must meet people from lots of different backgrounds. She reckoned most of their guests didn’t understand about conditions in the desert or this kind of lifestyle, either.
Was it her imagination, or was he actually smiling?
Just as she turned around to walk away, Gerhard’s voice sounded behind her.
“You’ll just have to trust me.”
Saira almost snorted with indignation.
We’ll see about that.