As the boards creaked beneath her feet, Kira de la Fuente prayed she’d make it to the other side of the chasm. While she wasn’t afraid of heights, trusting suspension bridges made of wood and rope was not high on her list of pleasant pastimes, even if the structure seemed sturdy and well maintained. She kept imagining herself falling off and plummeting a hundred feet to her death. Luis, her erstwhile Peruvian trail guide, was on the far side of the gorge with their llamas. She’d made him cross first with the animals to make sure the bridge could take the weight.
“Faster!” he shouted. “It is dark soon.” He was examining something he’d picked up off the ground. She couldn’t tell what it was from this distance, but it glinted golden.
Kira went as quickly as possible, ignoring the flashes of the rushing river she caught between the slats. Fog crept steadily through the canyon like a living thing. Soon it would block the view of the river completely, leaving the impression that the chasm was bottomless.
She wondered belatedly if she should have booked the luxury tour with the train up to Machu Picchu instead of this exclusive, private “immersion tour.” Ever since her grandmother had brought her to Peru when she was seven years old, Kira had wanted to return. In fact, that trip set her on the path to her present career, teaching early civilizations to high school sophomores. She adored ancient Egyptians, the Minoans, Greeks, Romans, and Mayan cultures, but most especially the Incans. She was half Peruvian and proud of it. Unfortunately, three generations of her family had been born and raised in California and except for that one trip with Grandma Anjelita, vacations tended more toward the norm for American families—Orlando, Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon. South America wasn’t in the budget. Until now.
Upon her death a year ago, her grandmother had bequeathed her a substantial and surprising amount of money—more than enough to allow her a year’s sabbatical—for the express purpose of returning to the land of the Incas, to this particular village, in fact. So, here she was, high in the Andes, where supposedly genuine Incan lodgings awaited her. For the next week, she would eat authentic food and learn about the culture and language from someone—not Luis—dressed in period costume.
But ever since they’d started out early that morning, her surly trail guide hadn’t stopped hounding her to keep up. Clearly, he expected his customers to be expert llama riders, but Kira loved animals and wasn’t comfortable kicking her llama as hard as he wanted her to. Her efforts to urge it forward using words and pats on its fluffy neck hadn’t worked. The later it got, the more agitated Luis had become. Finally, he had grabbed the reins from her and dragged her mount behind him, muttering to himself all the while. He obviously cared little about customer service and she intended to lodge a complaint.
At last, Kira made it to the other side of the bridge. As she stepped onto the dirt path, a wave of dizziness swept over her and her vision wavered as if she were passing through a wall of water without getting wet. Damned altitude. She’d arrived in Cuzco two days ago and spent most of her time acclimatizing to the high elevation. Because of the mate de coca tea the hotel served and the suggested restful day in bed, she thought she’d escaped the extreme nausea and headaches many tourists succumbed to, but obviously she hadn’t.
Intending to get her canteen, she pushed past Luis and the animals but noticed her pack on the ground, not on the back of her llama where it had been tied. She also saw now the item he’d picked up earlier was a small golden figurine he was now tucking into his saddlebag.
“What’s the deal with my pack?” she said angrily. “Are we camping here? I thought you said it wasn’t far.”
Luis’ eyes darted to the path ahead that curved around sharply. His anger seemed to have dissipated and he looked worried as he mounted his llama, the reins of both animals in his grimy hand.
“You go,” he said, pointing. “Follow the trail. There will be food there and a fire.”
Then, unbelievably, he kicked his mount into a trot back across the bridge, towing her llama behind him.
“Hey, wait a minute! Where do you think you’re going?”
Luis didn’t answer. Instead, he urged the llamas to go faster. She stared at his rapidly retreating figure for a moment in disbelief. He was deserting her! Running after him, she yelled at him to stop. The bridge shook as she chased him, but about three-quarters of the way across, she tripped. Her head struck the wood of a vertical support, and pain exploded in her skull.
She came to about five minutes later. When she sat up, dizzy, something trickled down her temple. She touched her head where she’d hit it and saw blood on her fingers. Panic rose inside her as she realized the gravity of her situation. She was stranded in the wilds of Peru, miles from civilization. She had virtually no provisions. No shelter. And who knew what kind of wild animals roamed these mountains?
Taking a deep breath, Kira told herself to get a grip. She wasn’t a brainless twit. She was intelligent and resourceful. She would survive this. All she had to do was stay calm and think.
As she got to her feet, she assessed her options. First, she would call for help. Her mother had insisted that if Kira was spending a week in the wilderness with no cell service—on another continent, for God’s sake—a satellite phone was mandatory. Although Kira had rolled her eyes at the idea, she was glad now that she’d done as her mother asked. She also had to find shelter. The sun was almost down now and a chill wind swept up from the gorge, making her shiver. After dark, the temperature would drop dramatically and it would take time for a rescue party to reach her. She could go the way the guide had pointed and try to find the ruins herself—if there even were ruins—or she could try to find one of the way houses Incan travelers made use of when journeying themselves.
Mustering her courage, she started back across the bridge. She was about three yards from the end when she saw a man striding down the path toward her. A colorful robe billowed behind him, beneath which he wore a belted, knee-length tunic. On his feet he wore crude leather sandals and thick black hair hung to his shoulders. The man looked like he’d stepped off the pages of one of the textbooks she taught from.
Thank God, she thought. She had begun to suspect the entire tour company was a scam, but maybe she’d been right in the first place. Luis was just an idiot.
When the man got to the bridge, he stopped. “Where is that fool, Luis?” His voice, like thunder in a vast canyon, rumbled deeply and seemed to settle inside her bones.
“He took off and left me!” she said.
The man cursed in Quechua, the language of the Andean region. Then he looked harder at her and swore again.
“You are bleeding!” he exclaimed. He started to walk forward, but glanced down and suddenly stopped short, mid-step.
Keeping both feet on the stone-paved path, he held out his hand. “I cannot go farther. Please, come the rest of the way and I will tend to your injury.”
Puzzled, Kira hesitated.
“Come. I give you my word. I will take care of you.”
Kira heard and felt his earnestness, and something about the way he stood, the way he continued to hold his hand out to her, made her believe him. As level-headed as she’d appeared just moments before his arrival, she now realized how frightened she’d been and how relieved she was that help had arrived.
Touching the wound on her head gingerly, she trudged forward with care. The last thing she wanted was to trip again. On the far side of the chasm, her rescuer picked up her pack and waited patiently. The modern backpack looked anachronistic on his shoulder.
When she stepped off the bridge, again she felt a wave of dizziness and stumbled.
The man acted immediately, scooping Kira up in his arms.
“Hey!” she said, clinging to his neck as he strode back the way he had come. “I can walk.”
“No. You are hurt and unsteady,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument. Not that she really wanted to argue. She was dead tired, her head throbbed, and damn it, as politically incorrect as it might be, a visceral feminine satisfaction hummed inside her because a big, strong man had swept her off her feet as if she weighed nothing.
Kira could see little in the growing darkness, but despite his grunts of effort as he climbed the trail, her rescuer seemed to have no trouble navigating the rough terrain. Before long she detected a glow coming from the windows of a small stone building. Darkness had fallen and she knew she probably wouldn’t have found this place on her own with the flashlight she had brought. Once inside, he crossed the room and lowered her gently to the bed, a primitive but comfortable looking mattress sitting on a broad stone platform. She sat upright, since the platform stood at about chair height.
The cottage was rudimentary but cozy with a wooden table and two chairs, the bed, and shelves carved into the stone walls. Wooden shutters covered windows on each of the four walls, and a fire burned in the hearth.
The man regarded her with deep set eyes the color of dark roasted coffee beans. He had the strong coarse features of a native Peruvian—a broad, severe brow, prominent nose, full lips. Yummy. Kira liked men of all types, but a clichéd tall, dark and handsome man never failed to grab her by the girl parts. His hair, she noticed now, hung in tight black spirals, and his cheeks and chiseled jaw bore the austere shadow of a day’s growth.
“Please, allow me to tend your injury.” He spoke strangely, but she supposed it was part of the authentic atmosphere she was paying for.
When she nodded, he examined her scalp. For a man of his size, he was surprisingly gentle. He had dark skin and he smelled spicy, like herbs.
“The wound is not deep,” he said, fetching a clean cloth and hot water from a kettle.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am called Amaru,” he said, dabbing at the cut with the dampened cloth.
“I’m Kira. Kira de la Fuente. Thank you for rescuing me. I’m sure I would have gotten lost if you hadn’t found me.”
“The guide was supposed to have brought you here. To me.”
“Luis?” Kira scoffed. “He’s the worst tour guide I’ve ever had. He bullied me all day.”
Amaru brought his head up sharply. “Did he strike you? Is that how you were hurt?” he asked, scowling.
“Of course not. He just acted more like I worked for him than the other way around. If I were you, I’d fire him and get someone who knows how to treat the guests.”
Amaru’s mouth tightened. “Luis is a superstitious fool with nothing but rocks for brains and payment for duties he did not perform.” He sighed. “I am sorry you were mistreated. I vow to make amends. Pleasing you will be my goal.”
Despite the rock remark, Kira was struck by Amaru’s oddly grave manner. He spoke as if all he wanted in life was to see to her every wish. Not that she was complaining. Far from it. In fact, his gentle touch as he finished cleaning her cut sent shivers of sensation through her.
“Are you hungry?” he asked as he rinsed the cloth and hung it on a wooden peg embedded in the wall.
“I’m starving.” At that moment her nose finally registered a tantalizing aroma and her mouth watered. He handed a bowl of thick stew to her along with some bread and chicha, a mildly alcoholic drink like beer but with a more subtle flavor.
The stew she eyed suspiciously but took a tentative bite. It was tasty. Whatever meat was in it tasted like chicken but a little gamier than the kind she got in the supermarket. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t guinea pig. She remembered taking care of Natalie, the classroom pet, when she was in fifth grade and wasn’t sure she could munch on something that cute. Tonight, she seemed to have escaped that fate because in Peru, guinea pigs, or cuy, were roasted and served with potatoes and a spicy sauce, not stewed, but what were the odds that Amaru wouldn’t serve up one of Natalie’s cousins during the next seven days?
Kira reminded herself she was here to experience Incan life, like her grandmother had wanted, and that meant trying the authentic cuisine. And who knew? Maybe her Peruvian genes would show themselves in her taste buds and she’d discover she liked cuy.
It could happen.
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