Thursday, 2nd October 2002, 5:30 PM
Lushan National Park, Jiangxi Province, China
The ground shook beneath Keon’s feet as another aftershock rattled the base of Mount Lushan. The small tourist huts that stood proudly only a few days ago had been reduced to piles of rubble, and nothing but tea plants lined the hillside as far as the eye could see.
The team he was assigned to after arriving had been searching the park for days. A group of researchers on an expedition had been up here on the day of the earthquake. Most of the team’s members were found safe and well, save for a few minor cuts and bruises, and one or two broken bones. But they were still missing two members who’d headed up to the research stations to collect specimens and reset traps. What kind of people wandered away from the group in the middle of nowhere to chase butterflies?
Keon stopped and looked around. Ah. Not a single member from his search-and-rescue team to be found. In fact, there wasn’t a soul in sight. So, he had the answer to his question. What kind of a moron wandered away from his team? Someone like him, obviously.
He reached for the two-way strapped to his belt and radioed in his coordinates. What was he doing here? He’d endured cold, hunger, and muscles so tired that it seemed like hard work just walking through the rough terrain. He could be back home in Chelsea, in England. He would be leaving his nice cosy office at his family’s practice at this time of day.
The device crackled. His team leader replied. They’d located one of the scientists, Matthew Davenport. “They split up.” Static sounded over the radio. “The girl went to research zone three. Over.”
Keon glanced at a copy of the map the research team had given him at first light this morning. He would be saying goodnight to the reception staff and medical secretaries if he were at home. Keon imagined himself climbing into his brand-new executive saloon, with its all-leather interior and walnut dash. It came with the job he’d all but quit to come here.
“Roger that. I’m in zone three.” Keon scanned his surroundings for something to identify his location in connection with the research base in that area. “I’m about fifteen minutes from the station. I’ll call in an update when I get there. Over.”
Ma is right, I’ve lost my mind. But Keon had been compelled to come here. He needed to help the thousands of people who’d been affected by one of the worst earthquakes since records began.
Keon set off again, tripped over a loose rock, and fell to his knees. Ouch! This place was damn dangerous. His gaze tracked the offensive rock tumbling down the steep embankment. It barrelled across the dirt, crunched through the shrubbery, and rolled out of sight. Then, it grunted as it came to a halt.
Keon froze. Rocks didn’t grunt. His heartbeat stuttered. What if something lurked in the foliage? An animal. He would be in danger, and there was no one and nothing for miles around. Was this chick worth his life? But his heart wouldn’t let him give up.
“Hello?” Keon called out.
When no one responded, Keon tried again. Still nothing. Relieved and in good conscience, he backed away. His gaze remained on whatever was concealed behind the vegetation.
Calm down, McGowan. There’s nothing there. You’ve gone soft in your time as a GP.
The rock flew out from the middle of the bushes, hit Keon square in the chest. “Ow!” Keon yelled, rubbing his chest. What the hell? The bushes rattled again. There was definitely someone there.
Keon slid down the rocky verge. He fought with rustling hedges and discovered a fallen tree. Beneath it, a hand. A deathly shade of pale. What was the chick’s name again? Darcy? “Hello?” Keon shouted again. The fingers wiggled from their caged spot. She was alive. Keon fought with the bough and branches, looking for an entrance into her tree-imposed prison.
He clicked the side of his radio and announced, “Got her. I could do with some backup.” He just about yelled into it, but then remembered communication etiquette and added, “over.” He stumbled upon a booted foot with a muddy white sock attached to an ivory leg. With skin that pale, she must be on death’s doorstep—she appeared practically translucent. Keon followed the path of her body, past the cuts and bruises, over a pretty mashed-up and bloodied knee that appeared to show signs of an infection. Her torn khaki shorts had seen better days, and the white t-shirt caressing her curves would make a catwalk model jealous. Eventually, he came face to face with her dirt-smudged cheeks, battered, swollen lip, and her dark-chocolate eyes, which shone reassuringly bright and alert.
“Mon dieu.” She sighed and then smiled at him. “Bonjour.”
“Hi,” Keon replied. “Are you Darcy?”
His question was met with a frosty glare. “Dar-sha,” she corrected him in a hoarse voice. “Je m’appelle Dar-sha Vil-mee-air.”
“Darcia, I’m Keon McGowan,” he stated. “I’m a doctor.” He paused to relay her condition to his team leader. His replied with short and succinct information. They updated him on the other lost scientist they’d found among the rubble of a fallen hut. His condition was critical, and there was no one available to come to their aid.
She wriggled, brought her hidden second hand into view. “Enchante.”
Keon stared at the delicate fingers outstretched in his direction. They might have a problem. “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Do you speak English?
“Oui,” she replied, as Keon frowned. Had he said it wrong? “Doc-teur, air vous oh-kay?”
“Yes,” Keon smiled. “More importantly, are you?”
“Je l’ai blessé mon genou.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.” Keon reached into his search-and-rescue pack, withdrew a first aid kit, his water bottle, and a foil blanket.
“My…ah…knee…is sick. No, not sick. It is…um…” She frowned. “What ees a word for…ow?”
“But you can feel the pain?”
She nodded again.
“That’s a good thing.”
“Non. Pain is not good.”
“In this case, Darcy, it is. It means you’re not paralysed.”
“Dar-sha. Not Dar-see.”
“Don’t we have more pressing matters than how I pronounce your name, Dar-sha?”
She rolled her eyes.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Je ne sais pas. Ah, I mean, I do not know.”
“The ground moved. I fell. I woke up under ze tree. I sleep. I wake up under ze tree.”
So she’d been unconscious? Keon reached over a branch as thick as his thigh, crossing her waist. “There was an earthquake three days ago.” He looked around for a backpack or something she might have been carrying. A drink flask lay just beyond her reach. He grabbed it, and its weightlessness warned Keon it was empty. “Did you drink this?”
Keon unscrewed the top and lifted the flask to his nose. Despite its odourless contents, it still held the familiar musty smell of a thermos. It was unlikely the hip flask would have sustained her body’s need for fluids as long as three days. If she’d not eaten anything since then, she was probably also dehydrated and lacking many vital nutrients. Her full lips did look parched.
“Okay,” Keon smiled. “Let me check you over, and then I’ll get you a drink.” Keon wriggled around the tree branches until he was positioned above Darcy. “Can you look into the penlight for me please, Darcy?”
“Sorry.” Her pupils responded normally. He reached around the tree again and took her pulse. He struggled to manoeuvre the blood pressure cuff around her free arm. Next, he needed to fill it with air and position his stethoscope to measure her blood pressure. It was a little low as expected, certainly not low enough to panic. He just needed to keep an eye on it until help came. She was one lucky girl. “I don’t want you to move too much. You could have a spinal injury,” he warned her.
She looked at him. “Have you been a doctor many years?”
“Sort of.” Keon shrugged. He didn’t like to admit he’d stubbornly quit his job as a GP at his family’s practice when his parents had told him he couldn’t have emergency leave. What did that say about him, his loyalty, and sense of responsibility? “I was a family doctor briefly before I came out to China with my friends, Tim and Sarah.”
Tim, Keon’s mentor during his final years of medical training, now worked for a charity funding medical aid around the world. He’d only come home from his last assignment two weeks ago when Keon called to ask him if he was going to China. He was. Keon wanted to go with him, and despite the charity’s policy and procedures, his help wasn’t turned away when he and Sarah, a lifelong friend, had turned up in China. In fact, Tim had looked relieved to see them.
It had been a mistake to allow Sarah Watson to accompany him. He liked Sarah; after all, they’d been mates for a really long time. He’d have liked her more if she wasn’t his sister’s best friend and if Tim hadn’t had his eyes on her throughout their friendship. But Keon had been clueless about her feelings until they were on a commercial flight heading to the closest airport, unaffected by the earthquake, where he discovered she was hell-bent on discovering more than China with him. How did he tell a girl who’d made her intention more than explicitly obvious that he didn’t feel the same, and how would he go about it without embarrassing her? He’d never meant to lead her on.
He caught Darcy studying him. Her rich, chocolate eyes drank in every detail as though she could reach into his soul. “What?”
“Est-ce que tu aimes, Sarah?” Darcy smiled at him.
“Yeah.” Keon fought the blush, trying to hide the fact he’d been caught staring into her eyes. “I like Sarah. She’s been around since middle school.”
Darcy nodded but remained silent. From the glint in her eyes, Keon suspected it wouldn’t be the last he heard about it, and he was happy to talk, even about Sarah, if it meant Darcy remained conscious.
“What about you? I was told you’re a doctor, too? What are you doing in China?”
She smiled again. Even covered in dirt, she had a beautiful smile. “I am a lepidopterologist.” He lifted his brow as he tested the reflex in her free arm. Her eyes lit up in stark contrast with her pale skin. “I am learning the many species of butterflies here in China.”
“Interesting,” Keon muttered as he scrambled back through the branches to inspect her knee. The blood had dried; it was swollen and looked quite painful. “Why on earth would someone dedicate their life to butterflies when they could change lives by finding the cure for cancer?” he asked without thinking.
He touched her knee, and she yelped before scowling at him. “You are a jerk, oui?” Then she muttered something in French about what he assumed, considering her tone, was his intelligence or rather, his lack thereof.
Keon went to touch the knee again, and she flinched. “Papa says men, you are the typical English jerk.”
“Okay, let me see how much of this I remember,” he said quietly. As he manoeuvred through the fallen tree’s branches again, a thin layer of jasmine and heat reached out and stroked his senses. “Dar-sha est…um, Papa’s petite fille?” he attempted haltingly.
She laughed as he negotiated the confines of the space while his body responded inappropriately, his mind wandered inappropriately, and he felt a blush burn at his collar.
Jay-sus McGowan, you’re a doctor, for crying out loud!
“And no, I’m not a jerk, and to prove it, I’m going to give you a drink.” Keon brought the water bottle to her lips. “Better?”
She nodded, and Keon dug into the basic medical kit he’d been given this morning. Without the proper clearance or a credentials check, he was limited to using only the tools to clean and dress her wounds—the type of things any volunteer without medical training could do.
When he cleaned his hands with a sterile wipe and snapped on the latex gloves, her eyes widened. Big, dark saucers of panic stared at him. “It’s okay, Darcy. I’m just going to clean the wound and dress it.”
His hand froze at the high-pitched cry. He looked up at her. “What?”
“Je suis allergique.”
“Allergic?“ Keon repeated. Allergies were not to be taken lightly, and the language barrier meant if he made a wrong move, he could potentially kill her. “To what?”
“Les gants… Um…your…ah.” She sounded just about frantic. “Your hands.”
“My hands? You’re allergic to my hands?” he asked, confused.
“Non, les gants.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means.”
She rolled her eyes, reached for his hand, and then froze. “I am allergique to des gants on your hands.”
“The gloves?” Keon asked. When she nodded, he sighed. “You’re allergic to latex?”
“Ah.” Keon stripped them off quickly. “Are you allergic to anything else?” he snapped, although she had no way of knowing, his anger was really directed at himself.
It was one of the first things he’d been taught: understanding the patient’s medical history was paramount in his or her treatment. As she shook her head, Keon dumped the gloves in a small disposable bag, washed his hands with a little water, and then took out another antiseptic wipe. He attempted to wipe away as much of the latex residue as he could.
“I’m sorry. I think your knee is infected and…” If it remained untreated, it meant the possibility of serious complications, ranging from fever to amputation and even death. He’d have to keep a closer eye on her BP, pulse, and temperature, as well as the red swelling around her knee.
He returned his attention to the exposed and bloodied leg that had gone untreated for three days. Torn between the risks if he proceeded to treat her infected knee without gloves, and the infection that could risk her life, Keon sat back on his haunches and cursed. He reached for his radio.
“Kilo Mike one nine to base. Over.” He waited for the static to clear and for the operator at the base operations to reply. “Patient conscious and coherent. Has severe leg injuries and potential septicaemia. Unable to complete full medical assessment, as victim is trapped beneath fallen debris. Heavy lifting and medical assistance required immediately. Over.”
“Understood. Assistance before nightfall. Over.”
“Assistance required immediately. Over.” Septicaemia could be quick. He needed her out of there as fast as possible.
“Negative kilo Mike one nine. Victim awake and talking. Class two priority. Assistance before nightfall. Over.”
“Roger that. Over.” Keon sighed, clipping the radio onto his belt. “Sorry, Darcy, we’re going to be here a while. Would you like something to eat?” Keon dug into his bag. He fished out an energy bar. A bag of sweets tumbled onto the ground as he found it. “This is good for you,” Keon said, pushing the bar towards her mouth. He noticed she had a really pretty mouth and mentally chided himself for even having such a thought. “It has lots of nutrients you’re likely running low on.”
Her accent stroked along Keon’s spine. The momentary distraction made Keon wish that he could speak French properly. He bet conversing with Darcy in her native tongue was a little like foreplay. Jeez, he really needed to take his mind out of the gutter.
“D’accord,” she whispered. Keon had no idea why he felt the urge to straighten that out. She lifted a dirt-smudged brow, she pointed to the sweets he’d forgotten were in his hand. “What is it?”
“Oh, these.” Keon lifted the bag. “These are my favourites. They’re jellybeans.” She seemed puzzled. “I’ll make you a deal. You eat this.” He held up the energy bar. “And I’ll share these. Not too many, mind. I don’t want to make you sick.”
He fed her small, bite-sized pieces of the energy bar before he broke open the bag of sweets and slipped one into her mouth. She savoured the taste and made an indecent sound, triggering his poorly controlled responses to her voice before she smiled at him. “My favourite, too.”
“Tu aime les jellybeans,” he attempted. She laughed out loud at his effort to converse in French. “I’m sorry. I sucked at French in school.”
“Non.” She placed her free hand on his. “They are not very French. It was funny.”
“Well,” he said with a sigh. “Looks like we’re not going anywhere for a while.”
“You are not funny.” She scowled at him, but a glint of mischief remained in her eyes.
“Actually, I’m hilarious,” Keon said, moving in a little closer. “And you are dying to laugh.”
“Zut Allore!” She shook her head. “Je suis piege et j’ai mal au genou, et mon chevalier en armure étincelante est comme un clown.”
Keon looked at her. Tears spilled from her eyes and cut through the dirt smudges on her cheeks. She was lost in a foreign country and hurt. She obviously was frightened. “Darcy, I know—”
“Dar-sha!” she spat and turned away.
“Hey,” Keon soothed, reached into his bag for something to dry her tears before he shuffled to lean over her, cautious of where he put his hands. “Je suis desole,” he offered. She turned to look at him. “Did I say it right?” She didn’t reply. “That’s not ‘I’m sorry’? My memory is worse than I thought. Well, I am. I shouldn’t be trying to flirt with you at a time like this.”
She smiled, and Keon gently wiped her cheeks.
“Vous n’aimez pas Sarah?”
“No,” Keon replied. “No, I don’t, Dar-sha.” He made a point of pronouncing her name correctly because he’d upset her so.
“Dar-see,” she whispered. “I like it.” She smiled. “But only when you say it.”
Keon’s arm ached from holding himself above her for so long, but he didn’t care. He suddenly understood why he’d been drawn to China. He’d never been foolish enough to believe in something as fluffy as love at first sight, but now he knew he’d been wrong. Darcy’s eyes captivated him. It was insanely inappropriate, but he didn’t care. This was a now-or-never moment, and he was ready to take a risk. And he didn’t care if he burned in hell for eternity. This moment would be worth it.
Slowly, he lowered his head towards those pretty red lips that held his attention whenever she spoke. “Darcy?” He was millimetres away. “May I kiss you?”
Is it love at first sight?
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