The ringing bells and shrill buzzers from the game booth grated on Sinclair Duval’s last nerve. Every time someone won or hit a bull’s eye, triggering an obnoxious sound, she closed her eyes and prayed for the torture to end. The only good thing about Jungle Kingdom was it made for a nice place to go for indoor fun during the chilly winters.
Sinclair spent the last eight days stuck in the cockpit of a commercial airliner traveling between Raleigh-Durham, Orlando, and DC. It was a small price if she wanted to switch shifts with some of the other pilots to have a few days off at the end of the month. Those days she reserved to for her three-year-old niece, Nahla.
“Hey girl.” Barb Lowens placed her purse on the picnic table and sat on the bench across from her. She helped her five-year-old unlace his shoes before shooing him off to the Jelly Bean Jumping Tent. “Where’s Nahla?”
Sinclair pointed at the tent. “The same place where your son’s headed.”
Both women met by accident at Jungle Kingdom a few months ago when she needed a Band-Aid for Nahla’s skinned knee. She pointed Sinclair in the right direction and they’ve been friends ever since. Both women made it a point to meet once a month to go through the torture of the crowds, screaming children, and outrageous prices.
Barb shook her head and smiled. “How do you do it? Raising a daughter while flying a big commercial jet. Your sister must be a godsend.”
Ha! What a crock.
Sinclair and Nahla pretended to be mother and daughter whenever they came here. She didn’t want sympathy for that worthless skeleton stretched out in her closet. She would rather it go away, but it was too hard to get rid of her drunken-pothead sister, Mina.
Nahla’s mother was a real piece of work. Whenever Mina disappeared, Sinclair had to shoulder the task of finding Nahla a babysitter while she flew across state lines. Although Mina swore she never tried anything harder than marijuana, Sinclair caught her trying to “loan” her newborn out for a bag of LSD. Since that day, Sinclair refused to leave those two alone if she could help it. With Mina’s arrest record, Social Services looked for any reason to take Nahla. Sinclair was the only thing that stood between them. Had their parents been alive, things might have been different. Maybe.
Sinclair glanced at her watch. “You’re late, Barb. They’re about to let the kids out of the Jumping Bean.”
Her friend waved a dismissive hand. “Phil finally got himself another contract. It’s not a big job, but at least it’ll help. I made him a congratulatory breakfast this morning.”
“Mmmm hmmm. Depending upon how his day goes, he might be giving you a big ‘thank you’ tonight.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Both women laughed.
From the corner of her eye, Nahla’s sweet smile made Sinclair’s laughter trickle into a heartfelt smile. She cursed herself for not taking off more time from work to be with her. Her niece grinned with every bounce inside the Jumping Bean tent. Two pigtails bounced on either side of her head as she jumped around on the air-filled trampoline. She never thought a child not birthed from her own womb could fill her with so much happiness.
Sinclair ran her fingers through her short, corkscrew spirals. Both aunt and niece had the same golden brown hue that earned compliments from complete strangers. Sinclair was one of the women fitness gurus hated. She didn’t have to work hard to keep her slender figure.
So why couldn’t a nice guy see that? All she ever seemed to attract was Mina’s raggedy leftovers who looked like just they stepped out of solitary confinement.
“Earth to Sinclair.” Barb fanned her hand in front of Sinclair. “Girl, are you having a flashback or something?”
She shrugged. “Just thinking about family is all,” she lied. “It hurts to see all these families around here and all I’ve got is me and Nahla.”
Barb folded up her son’s coat. “Be grateful you have that. Some women aren’t as fortunate. They’ve either got a fool for a daddy or they’re so damn career-minded that they don’t have time for a family.”
Sinclair flinched. Once upon a time, she was that career-minded woman…until her sister called about the bank taking the house. She cut her international flights, refused two promotions, and took shorter legs just so she could be home with her family. Her paycheck got them out of the red, but three years later she still struggled to keep them in the black. It would help if Mina could hold down a job for more than one month at a time.
She sighed. “Maybe. But I wish there was more I could do for Nahla. It’s just so hard and…” She let that thought go before Mina’s name entered the picture.
“Shoot, girl. You’re lucky you found out about her stupid father when you did. A crack head like that has no business being around a child. Just be thankful those drugs didn’t mess up your little girl.”
“She’s too young to tell right now.” She hoped to God there wasn’t.
Her friend stared at her. “The doctor’s didn’t say anything?”
Sinclair nodded. “They said Nahla could develop some learning problems later on down the road. Or maybe something like ADD. We just don’t know yet.”
And if that ever happened, Sinclair would beat her sister with a crowbar. She couldn’t get her hands on Brian, Nahla’s father, because he disappeared two months after his baby was born.
“Stop beatin’ yourself up.” Barb unscrewed the cap off her bottled water. “Nahla’s fine and there are plenty of men out there. You’ll find one. You just have to stick with it. Heck, I’m surprise you haven’t run into one of those cute Captains of yours. Do a little pilot to co-pilot.”
“Girl, please. Just about all of them are white and I feel funny dating outside of my race. I still want to give a decent brotha a try. You know. Keep hope alive?”
“Good luck. Even the white girls are sinking their claws into our decent men.”
“You need to stop.”
Barb chuckled. “Don’t mind me. Look, I’m sure the right guy is out there, if you opened your mind a little. Now take that sweet piece of Hispanic juju over there in first-aid. Hoooooney, if I could get away with it, I’d make sure my son has an accident all the time.”
Sinclair’s jaw dropped. “Girl, you need to stop. Here you are a married woman and you’re still spying the eye candy.”
“Girlfriend, just because I’m married doesn’t mean I can’t stop looking.” She cut her eyes to the first-aid office on the other side of the indoor park.
Sinclair couldn’t argue. The guy was as fine as a piece of expensive marble. That rugged, Antonio Banderas look worked for him.
A loud bell rang, signaling the end of the ride. Sinclair and Barb gathered outside the entrance behind the line with the parents claimed their children. As soon as Nahla poked her head through the slit opening, her face beamed in delight.
Sinclair’s heart swelled. Seeing her niece this happy made her happy.
The attendant lifted Nahla out of the attraction. Her little feet scampered across the area rug heading straight off for Auntie.
Sinclair enveloped her niece in a hug. “Did you have fun, baby?”
Nahla pulled away first and lifted up her foot to her aunt. “Mmmm-hmmm. Can I do ‘gain?”
Sinclair knelt and began covering up Nahla’s dirty sock with a small sneaker. “How about we try some of the other rides first? If there’s nothing else, we’ll come back here. Deal?”
Nahla nodded, her pigtails jerking about either side of her head. “Deal.”
Cedric, Barb’s son held up a bloody finger. “Mommy, my finger hurts.”
Looking at Sinclair, Barb grinned. “Ask and you shall receive. We’ve gotta go to first-aid.”
“Oh, lord,” Sinclair laughed. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself. Using your child like that.”
“No shame, girl. My son is in need of medical attention. Wanna come?”
She finished with Nahla’s shoes and stood. “I won’t be able to keep a straight face.”
“That’s because your jaw will be droppin’ once you spy a piece of that El Niño boo-tay.”
“How about we meet you guys somewhere?”
“Ooooo, Aunt–! Uh…I mean…Mommy…” Nahla pointed at the giant jungle gym.
Sinclair’s looked up and her stomach tightened.
That jungle-gym maze was three stories tall. Sure it looked like a great place for Hide-N-Seek, but something about those multicolored tubes bothered her. They looked too small and tight. Even though the sign read adults less than 150 pounds could enter it didn’t help. Nahla would want Auntie Sin to go with her for sure.
“Looks like you’ve got your hands full,” Barb said. “How about we meet you there?”
She gulped, unable to take her eyes off the monstrosity. “Uh…”
Nahla squeezed her hand and began tugging. “Peeeeeze, Pretty peeeeeze?”
Sinclair rolled her eyes. “All right, baby.” Letting her niece lead her away, she looked over her shoulder at her friend again. “We’ll meet you over there.”
Barb nodded and dragged her son off to the first-aid office.
Nahla stopped twice to tug wedgies from the back of her overalls along the way. Sinclair wasn’t in any hurry to feed her light touch of claustrophobia. But if she could sit for hours inside a small cockpit, then there was no reason why she couldn’t do this. Right?
Scooping Nahla in her arms, she marched to the jungle gym, determined to conquer her fears. Before she could kick off her sandals, Nahla’s rear wiggled through one of the tubes.
“Hold on.” She grabbed her niece’s overalls. “We’re not going that way. This way.” She lifted her up on a rope net. At least that bought her some time before she had to climb through one of those suffocating tubes.
Fifteen minutes screaming children inside the 3-D maze had worked a headache between Sinclair’s temples. She stuck her head out of a tube and almost collided with another adult chasing after their child. When Nahla led her to a rope bridge, Sinclair had serious doubts that the ropes would hold her weight. At least there was a vat of foam blocks below to break her fall.
By the time they made it to the top of the three-story maze, Sinclair halted Nahla so that she could rest on the padded floor.
“Having fun?” She swiped the sweat beading on her forehead.
The little girl nodded. “Can we do round next?”
“Mmmm-hmmm. The one wit’ the horsy.”
“Oh…you mean Merry-Go-Round. Sure.” She’d agree to just about anything to get them out of this place.
That didn’t sound good. Did the maze sway? Other than the sounds of little kids running and laughing nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“Sweetie,” she said, taking her niece’s hand and standing her up. “I think we should go.”
“Yeah. I don’t think–”
A loud grinding noise cut her off. Then, silence shattered the wild enjoyment below. Other parents and children must have felt it too. This thing wasn’t so safe after all.
Screams broke out. Sinclair grabbed Nahla and shoved her through the tube leading down to the next level.
She never had a chance to crawl in behind her.
Plastic tubes and cables rain down around them, tossing and throwing their bodies in different directions. A harsh buckle cracked Nahla’s tub in half and sent both of them plummeting three stories to the cement floor. Sinclair screamed.
Sinclair jerked awake. “Where’s my baby? Where is she? Nahlaaaaaaaaaa!”
Hands grabbed her. Pain shot through her left shoulder. Sinclair jerked away. Agonizing pain exploding throughout her nervous system. She clutched her arm and fell into the pillows.
“Relax,” said a soothing voice with a Spanish accent. “You’re okay. Does your shoulder still hurt?”
Gulping, she chanced a quick nod before snapping her eyes open. “Where’s my niece? What have you done with her?”
Rio Velasquez fumbled with the sling he was about to use to secure her dislocated shoulder. She woke up so fast the he nearly jumped out of the window. Considering he was a were-cheetah always on his guard, that was a hard thing to do.
Despite Nahla at the forefront of her mind, Sinclair couldn’t help noticing the handsome olive man sitting next to her. The thick black waves of his hair caught her eye first. He had the most amazing dark eyes. Haunted almost. Light three o’clock shadow dusted his jaw and cheeks. She knew she saw him somewhere before, but couldn’t put her finger on it.
“May I?” he asked, holding up a sling he spent the last couple of minutes making.
Sinclair forgot about clutching her hand to her chest and an achy shoulder to boot. Another gulp and a quick nod.
Helping her sit up, he eased the sling around her head and tucked her arm inside. He couldn’t resist a quick whiff of her hair. The scent of sweet flowers made his mouth water. It was a relief from the antiseptic smell of the hospital.
However, the pained look on her face drew him out of his revelry. The woman in his arms was in a lot of stress. Thank goodness his medicinal herbs seemed to work on her. Had she and the child died, his were-cheetah King, Dante, would be facing more questions and possible charges. After all, his people owned Jungle Kingdom.
“That should help.” Rio sat his hip next to her on the gurney. “My name’s Rio Velasquez. I’m a physician’s assistant. You were tossing in your sleep and the sling came off. This one might be a little better.”
Now, she remembered that face. He was the Aztec God who ran the first-aid station at Jungle Kingdom.
“Where am I?” Sinclair gritted her teeth through the pain. “Where’s my niece?”
Rio sighed. “Is there someone we should call?”
Panic tore through her. Had it not been for the pain reminding her to keep still, she would have pounced on the man for answers.
Mina would’ve been a great person to call if it weren’t for her having a track record of unreliability. What good would it do her now when they really needed her? Chances are Mina would be so overwrought with “anguish” that she would drown her sorrows with whiskey and a few joints. Sinclair and Nahla had nobody. “No,” she mumbled.
He blinked. “Then it’s just you and your niece?”
She fixed her eyes on him, doing her best to look menacing. “I won’t ask you again. Where’s Nahla?”
He didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. Still, if it were his child he would want to know. “I’ll bring you to her.” Rio left the room. When he returned, he pushed a wheelchair next to the bed and offered the fragile woman a hand.
Unanswered questions flooded Sinclair’s mind. Where was he taking her? Why didn’t he just answer her question? Where were they now? What was going on? Instead of voicing them, she took his hand and let him help her sit up.
Never in her life, had she touched a hand so soft. His warmth enveloped her like the cozy heat of a fireplace. She leaned into him and slid off the bed. Weakened knees buckled, collapsing her against his chest. Rio caught her, his eyes taking a moment to meet hers. The warmth heated her insides.
Rio’s heart tripped. He had been around strong women for so long having one this helpless in his arms was foreign. For a moment, he forgot what he was supposed to do. A blink brought him back to reality. When he helped her into the wheelchair, something tugged on him. It hurt to see her like this. But, he dismissed the though. He needed to keep his distance from humans, this one in particular.
Less than a minute later, they entered the elevator, up one more level, and exited onto the Pediatric Critical Care Wing.
“Where are we?” Sinclair asked, glimpsing inside the rooms as he wheeled her down the hall.
“You’re at Parkside Memorial.”
“Why? Isn’t Wake closer?”
He couldn’t help staring into the rooms as they passed. Rio hated the medicinal smell. He could smell the sickness and death. He wanted to help everyone, but couldn’t. Helping these people would mean bringing humans one step closer to their hidden world.
“This is the best hospital in the Triangle area,” he replied. “Don’t knock it.”
“But it’s too–”
“Expensive? Don’t worry about that. The Martinellis said to spare no expense.”
“Who are the Martinellis?”
“The owners of Jungle Kingdom.”
“What?” She tried to grab the wheel to stop them, but her fingers slipped off the handles.
Ignoring her efforts to stall, Rio pushed open a door and wheeled her inside.
Nahla lay on the bed wearing animal-print training pants. It was the best way to make room for all the tubes that stemmed from the girl’s tiny body. A cast from her toes to her thigh encased her left leg. A large white bandage fitted over her right side with a chest tube running out the center. Suction cups glued to the other side of her chest, wired into beeping monitors at the head of her bed. Another cast was on her right arm, extending it out to side with a rod that propped it away from her body. Her chest rose and fell with the clicks of the ventilator. What used to be one of the prettiest faces in her aunt’s world had turned into a swollen mass of cuts and bruises.
Air flooded Sinclair’s lungs as she drew her hands up to her agape mouth. Nothing could have prepared her for blow to the gut and the twist of her heart. She planted her feet on the floor and pushed off the chair before Rio could move her closer. Everything in her pain-ridden body numbed. She couldn’t take her eyes off her baby girl.
Sinclair broke. Leaning on the rail, she clutched the metal until her knuckles turned white. Tears blurred her vision. She hardly noticed Rio lowering the bar. She wanted to touch her baby. Sinclair hoisted her sore body on the bed and pressed kisses to her niece’s swelled cheek.
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispered, clutching her niece’s lifeless fingers. “It’s okay. Auntie Sin’s right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Sinclair swiped the tears off her soaked cheeks. “She’s going to need physical therapy. What else? She’ll…she’ll need round-the-clock nursing too. I’ll pay for everything. I’ll find a way to…” A thought flashed through her head. She glared at Rio. “You find that bastard! I want Martinelli. He’s going to pay for this. I’ll sue the fucking cotton out of his pants!”
Rio touched her shoulder. She shrugged him off. He stepped back. Ms. Duval was upset and had every reason to be, he told himself. After all, this was her flesh and blood. Had their roles been reversed, he would have shaken the hospital from its foundation too.
“Ms. Duval,” he said, in a calm voice, “I understand how upset you are. But you have to under–”
“What?” she spat. “Is that bastard trying to shuck his obligations by bringing us to the best hospital his money can buy? Look at her! There’s not enough money in the world that can fix this.”
Rio couldn’t believe it. For a woman who seemed so delicate a few minutes ago, Sinclair burned with a fire that made him think raging inferno. He also knew if something bad happened to her niece, it would awaken the wild animal inside her, begging to get out. As much as he lived on the wild side himself, he didn’t want to see her go crazy on anyone.
“Ms. Duval,” he said, “your niece is dying. Most of her organs were damaged in the accident. It’s a good thing you woke when you did.” He paused, taking in a deep sigh. “Nahla might not make it through the night.”
“Who are you to tell me my niece’s going to die? You don’t know that. Where’s a doctor?”
Again, Rio held his hands up in defense. “I’m also a healer of unorthodox medicine. If you want me to help your niece, I can.”
“How?” she spat.
Rio glanced over his shoulder. He could hear people coming down the hall, but couldn’t place the steps. They could be anyone. Should he even risk his neck to tell her this?
In the last twenty-four hours aunt and niece lay unconscious in the hospital, Rio spent most of his time back and forth between their rooms, holding the hand of one then going to the other. He couldn’t get the delicate feel of Nahla’s fingers curled around his index finger out of his head. She was so small and so innocent. Children had that effect on him or he wouldn’t have asked to work part time at the first-aid station. He couldn’t flush the horrific image of digging through the rubble to find Nahla’s crumpled little body buried underneath a large tube out of his head. After seeing a hand holding the little girl’s ankle, he moved more rubble to find Sinclair. Never in his life had he seen anything like that. The hurt went so deep that he wanted to gouge out his own heart out to keep the pain away.
“Like I said, I’m a healer among my people.” Rio paused, sucking in a quick breath. “I’m not sure if my herbs can help your niece the way they’ve helped you.”
He hesitated, eyes burrowing into hers. “Your injuries were severe but not like hers. You still need more healing, but right now it’s your niece who needs–”
A throat cleared behind him. Rio damned himself for not being faster.