Diamond Legacy – Excerpt

DIAMOND LEGACY – CHAPTER 1

“You shameless little hussy. How many times have you sweet-talked Jason out of a treat this month?”

Miranda Parrish tucked a water hose between her knees and grabbed the biggest dental brush in her kit. “Give me a grin, sweet Daisy.” She lightly tapped the elephant’s trunk. “Time to scrub away the evidence.”

The smallest, and by far sweetest, African elephant in residence at the San Diego Zoo lifted her trunk and dropped her lower jaw obediently. Miranda set to work, meticulously scrubbing every square inch of enamel.

“You know,” said a familiar voice behind her, “if you applied the same level of concentration to members of the opposite sex, you might have something more exciting to do on a Saturday than flossing pachyderm pearlies.”

“Stow it, Jason.” Miranda grabbed the hose and rinsed the excess cleansing agent from Daisy’s gums. “Have you nothing better to do than annoy me?”

“Ain’t nothing better than hitting on the sexiest dental zoologist west of the Pecos.”

A drop-dead glare was her only reply.

“Aw, come on. Hank don’t deserve someone as hot as you. That uptight boyfriend of yours hasn’t a clue what to do with those luscious lips of yours.”

“And you do? You’re barely twenty and too arrogant by half.”

“Age has nothing to do with experience.” He gave her a flirty wink. “This Alabama boy can do things to you that would curl your toes.”

Miranda curbed the urge to laugh. For all his bluster, Jason Harvick was the best college intern employed at the San Diego Zoo and showed the most veterinary promise. Unlike others, he never balked at menial labor and thrived on the many hours spent tending animals. With a fresh Monica McCabe 10 blond appeal and a willingness to work, he was a staff favorite. He was also full of mischief, and she did her level best to discourage it.

“Your questionable expertise aside, I’d be happy if you just turned off the water for me.” She dropped the hose and tossed her brush into a bucket of disinfectant, then reached up to rub Daisy’s lower jaw. “Good girl, Miss Daisy.”

The elephant’s trunk dropped onto Miranda’s shoulders with a gentle squeeze, and she accepted the awkward embrace. In a way, it felt a bit like Hank’s. Awkward, yet well intended, and above all, comfortable. Dependable. Nothing like the usual adventure-seeking idiots she tended to gravitate toward. She was through with that type. As staff director for the zoo, Hank Meadows was the polar opposite of the Bass Pro Shop outdoorsmen she’d dated since college.

“All I’m saying is”—Jason disconnected the hose and began rolling it up for her—“it’s a dang shame to think of someone like you going for a stick-in-the-mud like Hank. You’ve got more fire in you than that.”

No, she didn’t. That was her sister, Erika. “Please, Jason. Can we leave my love life alone?”

Miranda slipped a hand into her sport vest pocket and produced a green apple for the elephant. Tonight she was cooking lasagna for Hank. A nice bottle of red wine, some soft music on the stereo, and another chance to prove things were as they should be. Not that she needed convincing. Hank was the epitome of domesticity, a man tailor-made for settling down.

“Have it your way,” Jason said, his voice laced with disgust. He dried his hands on a towel, then grabbed his backpack and pulled out a large manila envelope. “Here, take this.”

Something jittery danced in her stomach. “What’s that?”

“Heck if I know.” He shrugged. “Maxwell yanked me out of the chimpanzee enclosure and said to deliver it posthaste.” The last word he said with puckered lips, imitating the very staunch, very British, head veterinarian.

Miranda shot him a disapproving frown before taking the envelope and breaking the seal. When she pulled out the contents, something fell to the ground, and she reached to pick it up. Airline vouchers. Round trip from San Diego to…Botswana?

Her heart skipped a beat. Africa. Its very name invoked visions of vast primeval deserts, game reserves filled with rare species, and pure untamed natural habitat just waiting to be explored. Her college thesis dealt with the reserves constant threat of poachers, of civil war, and desperately poor countries struggling to balance human need and animal dominance.

“It’s about time!” Jason tossed his backpack down and stared at her with hopeful expectation. “Much longer and you’d sprout roots.” He shuddered at the horror. “Where to?”

She caught her lower lip between her teeth and glanced away from the excitement in his eyes. Why now? Why couldn’t this have come eight months ago when she would’ve jumped at the chance to get out of California? Now she had direction, a planned future. This was no time to be flying off to the wilderness for…for…she glanced at the letter.

Katanga Wildlife Center is fortunate to have in its care a rare and valuable albino hippopotamus. Estelle is small, only four-thousand pounds, but suffers from an advanced abscessed lower canine. We would greatly appreciate someone of your notable expertise to perform a difficult, but much needed dental procedure.

“What is it? Come on, you’re killing me here.” Jason’s impatience near had him twitching, yet she was reluctant to answer.

“The Katanga Wildlife Center in Botswana has a hippo with dental problems,” she finally conceded.

“Africa?” He whistled long between his teeth. “Lord have mercy. You’re gonna need an assistant, right? Someone to lug your equipment, take notes, catch your dinner? Tell me that’s me.”

We have taken the liberty of making travel arrangements on your behalf…

“I don’t know, Jason. There’s a lot to consider.”

His eyebrows shot up so high, it was a wonder they didn’t fall off. “You’ve got to be kidding. What’s to consider? It’s Africa. Lions and tigers and bears. Are there bears? I don’t know. I’ve never been there!”

The last he emphasized with plenty of melodrama, practically begging her to agree to go. “It’s not that simple. There’s Hank to consider, for one.”

“Hank? Hank! Come on, you can’t take him. What good would he be on the Serengeti? The man can’t rope a steer in a pen. How’s he gonna catch a rampaging hippo with a toothache?”

“Okay, for one, I’m certain the rampaging hippo is already penned up, and two, the Serengeti is in Tanzania, not Botswana.”

He rolled his eyes. “Logistics. Who cares? The point is, it’s an all-expense-paid trip to safari land, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. How can you even hesitate?”

He was right, of course, and not so long ago she wouldn’t have thought twice. But now there were complications. A job interview at University of Southern California next week, Hank’s hint of an important question to ask her, and she’d just ordered a new Toyota Rav4 online in a shade of slate blue that perfectly matched her eyes.

“I can’t blindly fly off to the other side of the planet without consulting my family first.” She should use more emphasis if she wanted to sound convincing. The words were true, but they came across like an excuse.

“Yeah, you do that,” Jason said. “But come Monday morning, I expect you to arrive wearing standard safari gear. And I’d better be the named assistant. Because I’m telling you now, tomorrow I’m going down to the local Safaris R Us and loading up.”

Miranda shook her head with a laugh before sliding the documents back in the envelope and tucking it inside her kit. “Hold off on spending your life savings, at least until Monday.”

“Fine. But don’t you dare let Humdrum Hank talk you out of this!”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d quit maligning my…boyfriend. He happens to be a fine man.”

“Yeah, whatever you say. Just remember—it’s Africa. It’s free. And I’m begging you.”

With a lopsided grin she systematically packed up her dental kit, gave a final pat to Daisy, and headed for the lab.

* * * *

Miranda stacked dirty dishes on her kitchen counter and glanced at the pricey bottle of Australian Shiraz. It was three quarters gone, dinner was now a memory, and she’d yet to broach the subject of Africa with Hank. Her father had been ecstatic when she’d called him that afternoon. When she expressed her hesitation, he threatened to barrel out of his wheelchair and personally drag her “nincompoop brain” to the plane. So what if he nearly died over there? If she let that prevent her from taking advantage of an adventure like this, he’d never forgive her. And her sister Erika all but ordered her to go. But as of this moment, she still hadn’t decided for certain.

Boscoe, her orange tabby cat, rubbed against her leg with a mighty purr, and she reached down to absentmindedly scratch his head. Hank seemed a little edgy tonight, probably due to that unspoken question of his looming on the horizon. What should come first? His ultra reserved proposal? Or the mention of her spontaneous trip to a war-torn continent to perform a root canal on a rare and valuable albino hippo?

She broke off a tiny chunk of Parmesan cheese and handed it to Boscoe. The tabby pranced out of the kitchen with his prize, and she opened the fridge to toss in the remaining cheese and leftover lasagna. Hank stepped up behind her, slid his arms around her waist, and kissed the top of her head.

“You’re a wonderful cook, Miranda. You’ll make someone a fine wife one day.”

Please, she prayed, not yet. “I’d hold off on that judgment until you’ve tried the dessert.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve known you over two years now, and in the six months we’ve been dating…let’s just say I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”

She captured her lower lip in her teeth and turned in his arms to face him. Shouldn’t such a declaration come with a feeling of euphoria? Was something wrong with her?

“Hank, there’s something I need to tell you.”

He angled his head to give her a sideways look. “Not quite what I hoped to hear.”

“I know.” She breathed a heavy sigh. “But I received an unusual offer today.”

Hank stiffened, and despite his perpetual stoic demeanor, Miranda clearly saw dismay. She worried her lower lip between her teeth, her decision suddenly twice as hard. He released his hold on her, reached for the last of the Shiraz, and refilled their glasses.

“Tell me about it.” He handed over her crystal goblet.

“Geoff Maxwell has been contacted by a game reserve that requested my veterinary specialty. They have a hippo with an abscessed tooth.”

“Which reserve? The Xanadu Ranch in upper Texas?”

She shook her head. “Not Texas. Africa.”

He choked on his wine. After a brief coughing spell, he lowered his glass to the counter and stared at her in watery-eyed disbelief. “You can’t be serious.”

“The Katanga Wildlife Center in Botswana already made travel arrangements. It’s an all-expense-paid trip to southern Africa, a once-in-a-lifetime chance.” She echoed Jason’s earlier words.

Hank pulled out a barstool from the small kitchen island and sat down. “Katanga.” His voice sounded flat. “Isn’t there a civil war going on over there?”

“Diamonds, not civil war. They fight over diamonds. And I’m not likely to encounter any of that where I’d be going.”

He stared at her with zero enthusiasm. “It still sounds dangerous. You shouldn’t risk it.”

She’d heard those words before. Mom constantly warned Dad against the more dangerous aspects of his job. Dad rarely paid any heed, claimed it was part of the territory. Now here she was, daring history to repeat itself.

“Risk will be minimal,” she replied. “I promise to be back in five weeks, safe and sound.”

A sour look crossed his controlled expression. “You’ve already accepted.”

“No,” she denied. “I have until Monday.”

“Don’t do it, Miranda. Stay here. Marry me instead.”

The demand came so unexpectedly, she nearly dropped her grandmother’s crystal goblet. She’d known for a couple weeks that he had planned to propose, but not like this. Not at the expense of her dream. It wasn’t fair.

“Hank, I—”

“Listen to me. You’ve too much going for you right now. Animal dentistry is in its infancy, and you’ve made great strides in the field. Leaving now may jeopardize your chances at USC. I went to considerable effort to get you that interview. You can’t miss it.”

“Surely, it can be rescheduled. Africa will be an experience like no other, a place I’ve dreamed of going. Think of the resume credentials!”

“You don’t need more credentials. You’re already a shoe-in for the teaching position. Look, you’re twenty-nine years old and way ahead of most in your field. Isn’t it time to start thinking of settling down? Raising a family? With me?”

Total domestication stared her in the face. A part of her wanted the life he had described. Another, bigger part of her just got mad. He was asking her to give up her dream. No, that’s not entirely true. He was asking her to replace her dream with something every woman desired. But why now? Why couldn’t he be as thrilled as she over the prospect of going to Africa? How could he blithely say “don’t go”?

“That’s not fair, Hank. It’s only five weeks. USC will wait.”

“What about me, Miranda? What about us?”

Time for brutal honesty. Erika had summed it up best this afternoon.

Hank’s nice, sis, but I don’t see any chemistry between you. He’s the nine-to-five nesting type. You’re not. No matter how much you pretend otherwise.

She sighed. Her type hadn’t exactly worked out either. The last decade had been more like a comedy of errors. But Erika was right. The one constant in her life centered around her work. And Africa? Deep down she’d known all along she’d be going. And that was just plain sad because she really liked Hank; he was a good friend. Therein lay the problem.

“I’m sorry, Hank,” she admitted softly. “I have to go.”

He expelled his breath in a whoosh and sat there staring at her.

“I—”

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Never mind, it’s fine. I knew you were going the minute you brought it up.”

“Please understand, Hank. My work is more than a job. It’s a legacy, a way of life since I was old enough to follow my dad around. He’s been to Africa and his stories are legendary. How could I pass this up and not regret it?”

He shook his head and stood. “The regret is mine. I always knew I’d come in second to one of your expeditions one day.”

Hank didn’t sound angry, just stoic and listless. Miranda stared at him in conflicted silence, hating to cause him pain. But she couldn’t accept his proposal. Couldn’t be the kind of person he wanted her to be. Adventure ran in her veins, but even deeper ran animal welfare. She itched for field work. How could she set that aside, get married, and spend the remainder of her career teaching? She couldn’t. Not if it meant passing up on an animal care facility in Africa or missing an opportunity to test her skills on a hippo in need. Not if it meant turning her back on a rare chance to continue working on a theory her and Dad had discussed for years. She couldn’t live with that kind of regret, even if it meant their relationship was over.

Taking a deep breath of resolve she said, “I can’t walk away from who I am, Hank.”

He dropped his head on a sigh. “No, I suppose not.”

His body language indicated acceptance, or maybe resignation, but he didn’t say the words. Instead, the silence stretched out between them, and he moved toward the living room.

She followed, watching him grab his hat from the rack by the front door. Not knowing what else to say, she crossed the room and wrapped her arms around him in a hug.

He hesitated before squeezing her tight. “I can’t believe you’re saying goodbye.”

Something caught in her throat. “You’re a good friend, Hank.”

“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “Call me when you return.”

The door shut behind him with a soft click and a dizzying wave of competing emotions.

Heartbreak battled with the elation of freedom, a rush of adrenaline threatened to overpower guilt, and the effort it took to suppress it all made her knees wobble.

Boscoe chose that moment to prance over with his tail held high. She scooped him up and gave him a fierce hug, pressing her face into his warm fur. When he squawked in protest, she released him and aimed for a built-in bookcase lining one wall.

She stood there, staring at a prized possession on the shelf, an intricately carved wooden giraffe, a gift from her father when he came home from Africa. A trip that nearly killed him.

He had taken insane risks and had always come out on top. Until Africa. Until the day he’d faced down well-armed poachers and came away with a paralyzing spine injury. Everything had been lost—luggage, med kits, his ability to walk, but he swore the recovery time spent with the Maasai people had been well worth the cost. He claimed an awe-inspiring sense of wonder at a land rich in natural history, and his countless stories gave credence to that fact.

Miranda ran a finger softly down the graceful neck of the giraffe. Now it was her turn. She closed her eyes as a shiver of anticipation raced across her skin. No, that wasn’t right. More like nervous energy, fear of failure, or the fact she stood on the edge of realizing the same dream that nearly cost her father his life.

She’d no idea, but ready or not, she was headed for Africa.

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