“He’s late,” Chris Marais growls as he shuts the hood of the Jeep, getting into the driver’s seat and wipes some grease from his fingers with the cloth Edward hands him. He turns the ignition and with a loud roar, the engine comes to life and he drives away, leaving a cloud of dust behind.
“I’m sure he must have a good explanation,” Edward tries to placate from the passenger side, feeling sorry for the new veterinarian that is supposed to start today. If Nic Andrews knows what’s good for him, he’d better have a proper excuse if he doesn’t want to stay in bad favour with Chris.
Edward has the greatest admiration for Chris, not only as the lead veterinarian here at Thembakazi Game Reserve, but also for the person he is, and so does all the other workers, whether working directly with Chris in the field or at the clinic, or just the general staff at the lodge. But they all know that he doesn’t take kindly to those that do things differently to the way he likes things done and everybody respects that. Chris is already annoyed that some fresh out of university vet is starting here at Thembakazi, just because he is some or other family member of the owner of the reserve, and being late on his first day, is just adding fuel to the fire.
Pulling up at the side entrance of the clinic, Edward sighs as he glances at Chris, anticipating Chris’s reaction when they both notice a tourist crouching down in front of one of the enclosures at the back of the clinic, playing with the cheetah cubs through the fence. There is a reason why Chris became a vet and not a doctor, not only because of his love for animals, but also, people in general irritate him.
“As if it’s not enough that the new vet is late, now I have to deal with exasperating tourists!” Chris growls again, making Edward just shake his head. The Jeep barely comes to a standstill, when he jumps out, barging through the gate that clearly states ‘Staff Only’, and barks at the person, evidently a woman, sitting with her back towards him, “You are not allowed back here, you are actually not allowed to be here at all!” Clearly the woman is either hard hearing, stupid or just plain spiteful, ignoring him completely.
Taking a step closer, his patience wearing thin, he opens his mouth to try again, but gets cut off, “I heard what you said, just didn’t realize you were talking to me. Not use to people barking at me like some alpha dog at a disobedient pup.” She still doesn’t turn around or get up, just continues playing with the cubs, her dark brown ponytail that is pulled through the pink baseball cap she’s wearing, whipping slightly in the light afternoon breeze.
“Well, this alpha dog doesn’t have time to deal with disobedient pups,” he says sternly, grabbing her by the arm, “Let’s go!” He spins her around, willing to drag her out of here if he has to, but he is completely stunned by a pair of electric eyes, the colour of a clear summer sky, looking up at him. The moment is frozen in time as his gaze is held prisoner, mesmerized by her sun kissed skin, not hiding the rose of her cheeks, and her blush-coloured lips drawing him in.
She is aware of his lingering gaze, the intensity enhanced by its emerald hue, as it keeps her captive. His light brown, almost blond hair, and the day-old stubble covering his strong jawline and chin, drawing emphasis to his enticing lips as the bristles play around his mouth, gives him a rugged look. She mentally shakes her head, trying to rid herself of the desire to feel the roughness of his stubble against her palm, to run her fingers through his hair. She has always been drawn to the more clean-cut kind of guys, the clean shaven, dressed in a suit kind of guy, but suppose, if you live in the bush, you have to look the part.
With a suppressed sigh, she heaves herself from her thoughts and steadies herself, both physically and mentally, and says, “What? Cat got your tongue?”
Chris is pulled from his daze, her words waking up a feeling of building frustration, more towards himself but nonetheless towards her. Regarding a couple choice words he would like to say to her, but not being raised to speak to a woman in such a manner, he decides to rather keep his mouth shut and just escort her out of the area.
He doesn’t get far when the back door of the clinic opens, “Ah, Chris!”
“Mr. Andrews,” Chris replies, dropping his grip from the woman’s arm and holding out his hand to the impeccably dressed man walking towards them. With his neatly styled salt and pepper hair and his pristine suit, one would never think he owns this beautiful reserve, right in the middle of the bushveld.
“Please, I’ve told you a million times before, call me John,” Mr. Andrews says, taking Chris’s hand, “I see you’ve…”
“Chris, quick!” Edward interrupts, calling from the Jeep with an urgency in his voice, “Baby elephant trapped in a snare east of the P2 road, just south of Hippo Hole, Langa radioed for assistance.” Edward has barely finished his sentence, when Chris is already seated in the driver’s side of the Jeep, “By the sound of it, the calf is only a few days old,” he continues when one of the back doors of the Jeep shuts behind them.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Chris asks, seeing the annoying woman with her thick skin in his rear-view mirror, buckling her seatbelt.
“I’m coming with,” she simply states, not offering an explanation.
“Like hell you are!” this woman is driving him up the wall, “Damn tourists think they can do whatever they want, no regard for the consequences!”
“Good thing I’m not a tourist then,” again her statement only fuels his frustration further, but before he can say anything, she continues, “I haven’t introduced myself yet, not that I was given a chance though,” she holds out her hand to Chris and says, “Andrews, Nic Andrews, at your service.”
Completely taken aback, Chris ignores her offered hand, “You’re a woman,” he says, his tone a mixture of surprise and confusion.
“Last time I checked, yeah,” she smirks, turning towards Edward, extending her hand to him instead. Edward smiles broadly, his perfectly white teeth in contrast to his smooth chocolate skin, as he shakes her hand and introduces himself. She already likes him, he has an open, honest face, and she knows they are going to get along just fine.
“You’re the new vet,” Chris finds his voice again, drawing her attention back to him.
“That would be me,” the mischievous glint in her eyes becoming more pronounced, “See, not such a disobedient pup after all.” He only glares at her in the rear-view mirror before he pulls away in another cloud of dust.
As he drives in the direction of the injured elephant calf, without so much as another glance towards her, she is sure that he is hitting every pothole along the well-treaded dirt road on purpose, making her body jerk every which way. She knows he probably thinks she’s just another spoiled, rich brat, only getting the job because of her ‘daddy’s’ connections, and thinking that she wouldn’t last five minutes in this environment. She has to admit, even though it’s been her dream ever since she was a little girl to come work on her uncle’s game reserve, she doesn’t have any real experience working in this type of conditions, with African wild animals and the extreme rugged outdoors, but she is determined not to let him know that, not to let him see she’s not used to roughing it.
When the top of her head hits the roof of the Jeep for the umpteenth time, she meets Chris’s eyes in the rear-view mirror at the same time that Edward turns to her and asks, “So, Nic, is that short for something?”
Holding in a groan that threatens to escape her lips, sure that she’ll have a hell of a headache at the end of this drive, if it should last much longer, she musters the widest smile possible, her gaze still fixed on Chris’s in the mirror, before she turns to Edward. “Yeah, officially I’m Nicolette Andrews, but I prefer Nic. Everybody calls me Nic, it’s easier, shorter.”
“Well, welcome to Thembakazi Nic,” Edward says, offering her a warm smile, “We are like one big family here and I’m sure you’ll fit right in.”
She returns his smile, chancing a brief glance in Chris’s direction, unable to miss the tightening of his jaw and a tiny vein pulsating in his left temple, almost masked by the beads of sweat glistening on his suntanned skin. She is sure the two of them are a long way from being part of the same big, happy family, but she’ll be damned before she allows him to ruin her childhood dream and answers Edward with a tenacious attitude, “I’m sure I will, thanks. I’m sure I’ll be like the new puppy that everyone in the family loves,” childishly feeling like sticking her tongue out at Chris whose head whipped in her direction when she said that, she chokes back the urge and looks the opposite way.