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Synopsis

Humanitarian Dakota Soren goes in search of a missing child and finds herself caught in the middle of a land war. The winner will control the most powerful wonder drug in the nation’s history, growing wild in the Himalayan forest.
But there are no winners here.
Between the guerrilla army robbing the villagers of their livelihood, and her own Humanitarian team selling out for their piece of the pie, who’s left to turn to?
Don’t say it’s that deceitful witch doctor, Jhakari Dai. The locals may idolize him, but it will take more than a little magic between the sheets to convince Dakota that he’s worth trusting.

Jhak knew he should’ve sent Dakota away the moment she appeared. With his reputation tainted, his people preyed upon, and the very deity that meant to guide him beating him like a drum, making the jump from recluse to protector never seemed more unappealing. Even if it came with a delectably tight package and milky skin that blossom with the slightest touch.
With the village in turmoil, Dakota and the Jhakri must find trust in each other as they battle to save the Jhakri’s future, and the village.


Chapter 1

Magic Go Poofery

Five-hundred villagers and not a single one had looked for the child. Shouldn’t that say something?
Dakota Soren gritted her teeth and panned the forest floor. No wussing out from here. She thrashed through spent tree limbs, thick brush, and lord knows what kind of skin-blistering, poisonous plants.
“Dakota, come back.” Ram’s deep, native lilt sounded labored. And a good hundred yards or so behind.
Not. Happening. Her pulse kicked up. Pretty sure he meant that to sound coaxing. On some level. But she had practically invented his undertone of annoyance.
She couldn’t just let the child vanish without a logical explanation.
Abduction by ancient fairytale, was it?
If that’s what they really believed, let’s see how they handle this little bit o’ magic-go-poofery. Dakota shot, what she hoped, was a careless glance over her shoulder. She didn’t catch much, only a sliver of Ram’s blue t-shirt as he jaunted—far too easily—down the trail she’d just paved.
Dakota expelled a hot breath of irritation. She sheathed the eight-inch kukri blade into the carrying case at her hip. Using hasty steps, she picked down an uneven gully, maneuvering her thin frame through narrow openings between the close-packed rock.
A bouncy little skip might be more convincing at this point. Anything to prove the stupidity of this whole situation.
Sure, if she wanted to break her ankle.
Not that the rodents and snakes would care much for technique anyway, right? Hopefully, with enough noise in her step, they would clear the way.
That much noise seemed an impossible task for a small boy, only two years of age. How could those chubby limbs even get this far? One misstep and he could have toppled nose-first into a viper pit. She steeled her heart against the sickening pang of dread.
Pifft as if rodents and snakes were the largest of threats here, anyway.
And shouldn’t that say something too? Probably like, hey-Dakota-if-you-want-your-ass-to-stay-attached-you-may-want-to-turn-it-around.
Branches scraped her forearms as she pressed forward. Needle-like limbs clawed strands of hair from her loosened ponytail. Still faster than slicing and hacking at the bushes with no grace or efficiency whatsoever. Just one more indication she didn’t belong. Yet another stupid westerner? No, this little search party stunt advanced her way above that.
To walking leopard’s stew.
She panned the low-growing foliage. Come on, little guy, where are you? She risked another quick look back and hummed a slow, waltzing tune, careful to steady the tremble in her voice.
Ram’s tone grew harsh. “Seriously, girl!”
“You’re not enjoying this? It’s a beautiful day for a stroll.” She called back, trying to keep her tone light—like woodland-princess-floating-on-a-freaking-cloud light, even as the tickle of nervous energy raced up her spine. Not sure whether from fear of her surroundings or from pissing him off.
Don’t matter. If he detected fear or not, at his rate, he wouldn’t catch her, and with all his hollering and thrashing around back there, this stupid Snow White had safely increased her search party to two.
Done. Deal.
“Kota!” Aaron’s voice roared through trees, stirring a small flock of Forktails in the canopy overhead.
Oh. And big brother. That makes three. She quickened her pace.
“It’s pointless. It’s been three days already,” He barked.
“Oh, wonderful counting skills there.” Pointless? A sneer tugged at her lips. Try being a humanitarian who couldn’t actually help people. Now that’s pointless. Oh, she knew what he meant. Chances were slim anyone could survive out here on their own for three whole days—especially a toddler.
So a recovery mission then. Not ideal. She could go without discovering pint-sized remains, but she had to bring back some evidence. A few tracks, a shoe or something. For the mother’s sake.
Doing her job meant calming that woman’s emotions and guiding her back to reality. Give her some proof to either celebrate or grieve. Not leave her in anguish until exposure took her too. The villagers might be able to watch her die but not Dakota.
The mother hadn’t left the edge of the forest from the moment the boy went missing. Dehydration had set in long before Dakota even reached the village. The woman’s eyes had been wide and desperate. The salt from spent tears had etched along either side of her pale mouth, aging her more harshly than ten Himalayan winters combined. Her voice had weakened to a thin rasp—that would be the next to go—but no doubt, the mother would grind a jagged fragment of that word over and over through her vocal cords, until her last breath. “Krrrri…”
Jhakri. Dakota’s vision narrowed on the jagged rocks above. Sure, it’s fun to believe in a little magic from time to time, but there comes a point when this civilization must admit that it does, in fact, have a pervy uncle.
That uncle being the ancient shamans growing wild and unchecked for generations in this part of the world. Nothing more than weasely opportunists. The Jhakri preyed on the naive and innocent in villages like these.
Dakota cooed to the massive tree trunk in front of her, “Traipsing around under the guise of a spiritual healer, all the while molesting women, scamming the elderly, and taking payment for it all”—She ripped a glossy thumb-sized leaf from the nearby brush— “Thank you very much.”
Her tone flattened. “And let’s not forget, they’re equally as quick to scamper away at the first sign of confrontation.”
Skirting the tree, she held up both hands in mock fear at the empty path ahead. “But oh-no, don’t go in the woods. They are soooo much different in the woods.
All that woody power!”
Still, the idea that one of those monsters might steal a baby…?
Her stomach churned with unease, and she cupped a reassuring hand over the blade at her hip. That level of desperation crossed all sorts of boundaries.
Ram’s voice took on a harsh edge. “Aaron, she’s going too deep.”
“Ram, is that one of those ‘That’s what she said’ jokes? What would your mommy say?” she sang back, hoping that his mouth would snap shut with disapproval. Growing up with three older brothers, did they really expect to let that one slide by?
Instead, his words sped with desperation. “She’s in his world now.”
Dakota forced out an unaffected giggle. “Wouldn’t have taken you for the fairy-unicornian-magically-delicious type. How charming.”
Aaron fired back. “Kota, you’re out of line.”
She weighted her tone with a child-like pout. “Me? You guys are the ones making dirty, naughty, sexy jokes. I’m trying to keep things light here. Take a little walk. Find a baby…”
Like he had any seniority over her in the first place. The locals might think him a blue-eyed demigod, but Kota new better. His six-foot-four, muscles aplenty, and enough testosterone to fuel a locomotive, all simmered down to just three words. Big. se Dumb. Oaf.
Speaking of dumb, had this deer trail been here the whole time? She let her shoulders drop in their sockets as she scuffed the ribbon of packed earth with the bottom of her sneaker. Wildlife, pave the way, huh? Good timing too. It’d help put some space between her and Freight Train Aaron.
Her stride lightened. Not quite to bouncy-skip level, but close enough. The Jhakri’s world sure didn’t look, sound, or feel any different from any other part of the woods. No magical forcefield. Surprise-surprise. A whole lot of nothing to get all worked up over. In fact, not too different from the woods back home. Maybe she did have a little woodland princess vibe in her after all. Her lungs filled with a triumphant breath of cleansing pine.
Aaron’s voice grew distant, but what it lacked in volume he made up for in cynicism. “No one asked for your help. Have you noticed that?”
She tipped her head in mock consideration. “Well, I’m not fluent in Napali. Yet. So maybe they have, and I just don’t know it.”
In the moment of silence that followed, she could just picture Aaron’s accusatory glare hitting Ram dead center, until he consented, calling back. “They haven’t asked.”
“But hey, they still could.”
Aaron’s voice picked up speed and ferocity with each word. “Stop turning this into your own personal crusade. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
“Tough words, baby hater.”
Any moment now, he’d Chugga-chugga right through the trees. With any luck, he’d trip in the process, and fracture that stubborn, square jaw of his. Dakota broke into a jog as the trail widened and curved, then she slowed again as the encroaching brush slashed at her jeans.
Aaron’s tone dampened under the rhythmic tempo of gravel under her feet. “If you had even one ounce of diplomacy.”
Her mouth dropped open. Hey now. She could be sensitive—respectful even—when it came to religion and culture. But when a tragedy like this hits and no one acts, what kind of precedent does that set?
The same stupid precedent that’s been going on for generations.
How many more children would go missing? How many mothers would weep at the forest’s edge with their souls ripped from their chests?
Wasn’t it about time someone went after these people? Gave them a few repercussions to look forward to?
And what better way to catch a charlatan than to play one herself? Like that old saying. Something about catching more flies with honey?
At the most she’d lure him right in, right? And the least, she’d show Ram and Arron, shot for shot, how much sticky-sweet stupidity they could gulp down in a single evening. She’d frolic across the whole country if she had to.
Her actions were justified. Damn justified. Dakota angled her head back and shouted. “Oh, I’m all about diplomacy, sweetheart. This is one game I know how to play—” Her last word sucked inside her lungs with a sharp gasp of surprise at the creature perched above her.
Cat. A big one.
Her entire body jolted in an attempt to throw itself into immediate reverse. She locked her knees against her forward momentum.
She skated on the downslope of pebbles beneath her feet and pinwheeled her arms backward, fighting for balance.
The slender branches in her reach ripped and tore at her palms as she continued to slide.
Stop. Stop!
Gravity nudged her down the two-foot embankment. Closer to those eyes.
Claws.
Her backside hit the ground. Teeth clanged together on impact. She scuttled back on hands and feet, trying to reclaim the distance she’d slid.
Her attention locked on the boulder six feet above.
The leopard’s face seemed frozen. Its emotionless gaze pinned her.
“You like to play games?”
She blinked. Her line of sight raced from penetrating eyes to blood-soaked mouth. Waiting for the first move.
But the leopard hadn’t moved. Certainly, hadn’t spoken.
She swallowed against what could only be described as the metallic aftertaste of her own heart.
A motion behind the large cat snared her focus. A massive coffee-toned shoulder swelled into view above the cat, followed by a head of glossy, raven-colored hair. As the man climbed over the boulder and into view, the cat’s head tipped lifeless to one side, like a puppet sluffed from his masters’ hand
“Don’t worry. He can’t bite you.” The low rumble of the man’s voice sounded more hushed than she would expect from a Himalayan behemoth like that.
But maybe he wasn’t so big. Crouching on the huge boulder above her could create an illusion of some kind.
“What are you doing?” she breathed.
The moment the words escaped, a thought hit her brain with grand-slam force. Her attention snapped to the lifeless cat, then back to him.
Poacher.
Oh god. She closed her eyes. “Know what? It doesn’t matter. I didn’t see anything. I could just go!” She edged to the pathway behind, one syllable of agreement from him, and Dakota could scamper along home. All the way back to Utah.
“Leaving already?” The man planted both palms on the boulder. Cords of muscle in his massive forearms clenched as he swung his lower half forward. “That’s just my luck.” Mud-crusted climbing boots hit the forest floor with a solid thud.
Annnd, that wasn’t mud.
She swallowed against the tension in her throat. So much for the illusion theory. As he straightened to full height, her gaze climbed from the crimson stains on his boots, to the length of his frayed jeans. Not the found-at-the-mall kind of frays either. These took months—maybe years—worth of labor. They had ulcered into gaping chasms at the knees and upper thighs, exposing coffee-colored skin and…
A blush-inducing view of someone’s very prominent maroon-colored maraca sock.
The button fly of his jeans must have tokened an offering or two to the gods of labor as well, leaving a gap just large enough for the bulge of red cotton underneath to snare her curiosity.
Woody power indeed.
If this were the famed Jhakri, the man of myth and too many psychedelic mushrooms, he should have more than enough fundage for a pair of no-peek-a-boo pants. Even those villagers without money would at the very least be scammed for their clothing. Add a plentiful diet of food offerings and booze, the guy shouldn’t even fit in those pants.
He fit a little too well.
And speaking of being too big for one’s britches, his attitude wasn’t a fit either. Not quite. He had the sarcasm down, no problem. But no air of self-importance to go along with it.
Something didn’t add up.
His voice flattened as he looked to his lower half. “It’s not nearly as impressive as it seems.”
“Oh, I—”
“But that’s not why you’re here.”
Head flooded Dakota’s cheeks. “No. It’s not.”
“What are you doing here?” he fired back.
“Nothing!” Her brows raised. All innocence.
Those caramel pools of interrogation weren’t holding back for anything, but why did he whisper? If this really were the fearsome Jhakri, what stopped him from exploding in anger?
When his gaze flicked to the clearing ahead, her attention followed…
She blinked. It couldn’t be.
The pudgy little torso seemed full of life. Not deflated under the weight of death. His dingy shirt looked as though it belonged to a doll, not a child. So small. Dakota’s heart clenched and her gaze raced over every detail of the face-down form. No blood, no scratches. But he wasn’t moving!
His chubby, bronzed appendages curled under him in the fetal position, except for one leg—its poor leg—stretched taught, his foot tethered to a wooden post.
Why wasn’t he moving?!
“Sleeping,” he whispered.
“Why?” She edged away from the man but froze the moment her ears caught the telltale scrape of gravel under her feet.
“Babies do that.” His expression eased. “It’s their thing.”
“No. Why is he tied?” Desperation thickened her words. “Please. You have to let him go.”
“Where would he go? And alone?” The wide expanse of his bare chest pumped with a silent snort. “Fluffy up there might look tame, but the kitties in these woods don’t play with string.”
She nodded. More to herself than to him.
How do you appeal to someone who believes themselves to be an otherworldly being? And believes you to be nothing more than a wandering idiot from the western hemisphere?
Bail on the woodland princess charade and bring in the big guns.
She took a deep breath. “Look, I don’t know you, but you seem a fairly reasonable person. I’m sure you have more pressing matters to attend to than diaper changes and lullabies.”
He shifted his attention to the child and his full bottom lip pressed up in agreement. “True. The lullabies are nice but…”
Humor. That’s a good sign, right?
“I’ll take him back.” She sashayed closer, a movement that was all hips and no common sense. She placed a gentle hand on his upper arm. “He certainly doesn’t belong here.” The heat that radiated from his skin made her thoughts skip. The words. Gone.
The Jhakri’s head began a slow and pointed rotation to where her hand rested on his massive bicep. “But he doesn’t belong to you.”
“N—no,” she admitted, lowering her hand.
“And yet you want him just the same.” He canted his head. His lids lowered as he appraised the curve of her hips, then scaled up to linger over her breasts. “What? No man at home to give you one of your own?” His lips curved into a broad grin. “There’s a guy that helps with that.”
As if she couldn’t tell where this was going. She frowned. Damn well better keep that wood where it grows. She forced a smile and corrective nod. “It’s not like that. I was just trying to find the little one. Get him back to his mom.”
“And what do you hope to gain from that?”
She coughed. “Gain? Life isn’t always about payment for services, you know. What did you hope to gain by taking him? Tying him to a stake like some wild animal? You know, there are a few too many baby haters in woods today.” She gestured an open palm toward the sleeping child. “It’s an innocent being that can do nothing for you.”
“Except bait.”
Her brows lifted. “What?” She paused, but the stranger refused to respond. She tried again. “You’re using him as bait?”
He squared his massive shoulders in front of Dakota and laughed. “Not me.” His chin angled in appraisal. “You.”
She shook her head. Confused. “No. I would never.”
“Someone’s baiting you, pretty girl.”
She tucked in her chin. “Wha—You don’t even know me.”
He pointed a large, callused finger to the child. “No one tempted me to come to come to the woods. I live here. They deliberately left him in predator territory.”
“You didn’t steal him.” More a statement than a question.
His eyes darkened, but in a blink, the expression vanished. He shook his head slow. The rich depth of his accent seemed to skip along each syllable. “Just waiting to see what they were baiting. Now I know.”
Ram’s distant shout tugged at Dakota’s attention. “She’s over here!”
She turned to the stranger. Her words rushed out. “Why me?”
His dark features didn’t move. “Yes. Why you?”
She looked to the sound of Ram’s voice, then back again “I…I don’t know!”
Each of Ram and Aaron’s thrashing steps seemed to count down the seconds to interception.
“My guess. You must be very popular,” he mused.
She didn’t fight the nervous, side-to-side sway of indecision that built through her body. “That can’t be. No one wanted me out here in the first place!”
“They didn’t stop you.”
“They”—she looked to the path behind her— “tried.” Did they? Did they really? Because if they wanted to stop her, both Ram and Aaron would have been here by now.
He angled his head to the leopard above, still slumped over the boulder. “They meant you to interrupt its dinner. You failed.”
“Lucky me.”
“No. No luck for you yet.” With one deliberate step, he closed the distance between them and his thick arms locked around her waist.
Her spine went rigid as he leaned in. Too close! She arched back. “wait, wait, wait. Bad idea.”
“Maybe. Most my ideas are. But It’s the best I have.” He meshed his body against hers.
The heat of his dark voice danced against her ear. His forceful whisper, a tangle of foreign words she couldn’t comprehend.
Her head lowered as his grip eased. Oh. That was all? A secret?
Dakota shoved aside the odd sense of disappointment. At least she wouldn’t have any trouble keeping a secret like that. “I don’t speak your language.”
“Doesn’t matter.” He crooked a finger under her chin and steered her face back to his. “You will hear me.”
The supple press of his full lips on hers sent a shock of surprise through her system.
And worse, her body leaned in, lips parted in welcome. As if somehow the buckle had loosened on her straightjacketed hormones. Foom! Tiny embers scattered in every direction through her bloodstream, flailing with looney abandon.
The crazy wave of titillation—the one that begged for the moist warmth of his mouth—hit the moment he released her.
Her eyes opened at the immediate loss of warmth.
There one moment. Bam. Gone the next.
Pounding footsteps from the path behind ripped her attention away.
“Kota what the—”
She spun to face Aaron. Her vision wide. “He’s here.”

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Kacey Mark

Layton, USA

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