Excited shouts rang out across the open yard. Cameron Donnelly turned to see a plume of red dust rising in the far distance, shimmering in the heat of the scorching Kenyan sun. Several minutes later, a rumble echoed through the air, announcing the impending arrival of a convoy of trucks, and Cam’s team of UN staff broke off their conversation.
Word of the supply delivery had spread like wildfire through the refugee camp over the past few days, and a crowd of people were gathering in front of the warehouse, eager for whatever goods came laden on the trucks. If they were lucky, this would be one of their more generous supply runs. After all, the convoy had special guests this time, an audience that UNHCR headquarters in Geneva wanted to impress.
Patsy, Cam’s second-in-command, had been in charge of leading the convoy, and the status updates she’d sent during the three-day round-trip between the Dadaab refugee camp and Nairobi had been promising. The paramilitary groups manning checkpoints along the route had been generally cooperative, and they’d only lost a minimum amount of supplies along the way.
The convoy rolled to a stop in front of the warehouse, and a crowd quickly congregated around the vehicles. Cam’s staff corralled them back to create space for the trucks to be unloaded. Patsy elbowed her way through the throng, backpack thrown over her shoulder, platinum-blonde ponytail standing out in the sea of dark black hair. She strode over to Cam with a wide smile.
“Hey, boss.” The Australian accent rolled off her tongue, slow and easy, more suited for a beach lined with surfboards than the middle of a refugee camp.
“Hey, Patsy. Good trip?”
“As good as can be expected. Although, probably more exciting since we’ve got precious cargo.”
Cam grunted at the mention of precious cargo, code words they’d been using for the two journalists Cable Broadcasting Network had sent from the States. Most of his staff had been excited about the prospect of getting on TV, but in Cam’s opinion, they were little more than necessary evils. He had said as much to Teresa, Cam’s boss at UNHCR headquarters, when she called to give him the news.
“Play nice,” she’d said over the staticky Skype connection. “When was the last time Dadaab was in the news? We need the publicity.”
He might not have liked the prospect of having to babysit some journalists, but Teresa was right. So he bit his tongue, and now they were here.
Next to him, Patsy sighed dramatically and made googly eyes back in the direction of the convoy. Cam followed her gaze. From the chaos emerged a tall Asian man, looking impossibly immaculate for someone who had traveled all the way from the States.
The trip from New York to Nairobi usually took a good twenty-four hours, and most people looked like the walking dead by the time they made it all the way to Dadaab in eastern Kenya. But not this man. His shiny black hair had that artfully tousled look, like it was meant to be falling over his forehead at just that angle. The snug-fitting baby-blue polo shirt had no visible wrinkles and sat tucked neatly into khaki slacks that somehow maintained a crisp crease right down the front. Aviator sunglasses shielded the man’s eyes, but there was no hiding the easy grin that graced his lips.
Something stirred in the depths of Cam’s consciousness, an old and familiar feeling that had his eyes lingering over the shape of the man’s jaw, the stretch of blue fabric around a biceps. Cam snapped his head away and adjusted his Oakley sunglasses as he quickly scanned the people around him—had they noticed his little slipup? He couldn’t be sure.
“Cameron Donnelly?” The man’s voice reverberated from somewhere in the middle of his chest, low and resonant, designed for seducing listeners over the airways. And the way it caressed his name—settling on the accents and lilting over the consonants—made Cam acutely aware of the attraction awakening inside of him. He clenched his jaw and tamped down the desires he had learned to hide so many years ago.
“Tyler Ang, CBN.” He held out a hand. Long tapered fingers topped with cleanly manicured nails.
Cam hesitated. It was irrational—it was only a handshake—but his palm already tingled with his body’s natural excitement of touching someone he was attracted to. He sucked in a breath as he stretched out his hand, as if that would dull the impression of Tyler Ang’s soft skin and strong grip. It didn’t. Cam pulled his hand away a fraction of a second too early, but if the other man noticed, he didn’t show it.
“This is my cameraman, Douglas Mann.” Tyler Ang nodded at the man standing next to him. “I’m told you’re going to show us around this week?” His tone was friendly and unassuming, like his presence there was par for the course. But it wasn’t normal, at least not to Cam—the TV-ready journalist looked out of place in the rough, arid landscape and ignited reactions in Cam that he couldn’t afford to indulge.
“Yeah, look. You’re welcome to shadow any of us, but don’t get in our way. We’re not here to babysit you.” He glanced back to the truck that held their bags and equipment. “And grab your gear before someone makes off with it.” The words came out much harsher than they needed to be, but better to push the guy away than risk too much interaction.
Besides, it was true—they were busy, he didn’t have time to roll out the red carpet. He turned away to search for his logistics supervisor, but didn’t miss the eyebrow that popped up over the top of the aviators, or the shrug that Patsy gave in response to Tyler Ang’s unspoken question. Let Patsy deal with them—she was better with people, anyway.
“Robinson!” Cam shouted as he spotted the tall, dark-skinned Kenyan man. Robinson was directing the flow of boxes and crates from the trucks into the warehouse.
“Boss!” Robinson greeted Cam as he approached.
“How’s the shipment looking?”
“Eh—it’s good. With this, we’ll have enough inventory for two months, maybe. Oxfam should have a shipment next week, so that will help.”
“Good. When’s our next scheduled delivery?”
“Eh . . .” Robinson chuckled. “Soon.”
“Great.” Cam was anything but excited at that news. Two months’ worth of supplies, maybe three—he did some quick calculations in his head—wasn’t a lot of buffer, but he’d worked with less before.
“What does ‘soon’ mean?”
Cam snapped his head around, arm half raised in defense. It took him a moment to recognize the perfectly tanned Tyler Ang, standing over his shoulder, much too close for comfort.
“Whoa, sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.” Ang held up both hands, palms facing out.
Cam clenched his jaw against the sudden spike of adrenaline in his system. He sucked in a slow, steady breath through his nose, barely catching Tyler Ang’s next words.
“I wanted to know how frequently you guys do supply runs. I overheard your guy say that this shipment brings you to two months’ worth of supplies? Is that the typical inventory level you maintain?” He had pulled out a small notebook from somewhere and was already scribbling away.
When Cam didn’t respond, Tyler Ang raised his head, eyebrows lifted above his sunglasses. “Play nice.” Teresa’s words rang in his ear.
“‘Soon’ could mean any number of things—next week, next month, or never. ‘Soon’ means we have no fucking clue.”
Tyler Ang paused, pencil poised. “So there’s no schedule?”
He sounded so surprised that Cam almost laughed out loud. “Supply runs happen when the donor gods deign for them to happen. No one really knows when that’s going to be.”
“Then how do you know whether you’ve got enough to last you until the next run?”
“We don’t.” The two short words were pointed, with enough force to stop the next question from coming out of Tyler Ang’s mouth. He snapped it shut as Patsy ran up to them.
“Hey, Tyler,” Patsy said, eyes shifting quickly between them. “Doug’s pulled all your gear. Why don’t I drive you guys back to Admin Block and get you settled in your tent? You’ve got a couple of hours before the sun sets to familiarize yourself with the place, and then you can head out into the camp tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Sounds great.” Even through the opaque lens of the sunglasses, the look Tyler Ang gave him felt like a dissection.
Cam gritted his teeth again. There were things inside of him better kept hidden from the light of day.
Tyler Ang backed down first. “Guess I’ll see you later, then.” He nodded once before following Patsy to the idling Land Cruiser, already loaded with their gear.
He walked with a sure, confident stride. The way those khakis pulled taut over Tyler Ang’s ass, the taper of his back to a narrow waist, registered in Cam’s brain before he could stop himself. He spun around with a jerk.
Don’t look; don’t be gay. Indulging in those desires only led to people getting hurt out here. He’d learned that lesson in the worst way possible, and he wasn’t about to make the same mistake again.
He felt a call to retreat back to that dark corner of his mind where nothing penetrated, where he was safe from the outside world. The call had been stronger lately, the dark corner growing larger, and his resolve to resist was eroding by the day. Soon, Cam told himself; his days in the field were numbered, and then he’d be able to shake this darkness and go back to normal. Whatever the hell normal was.
Cam blinked back the darkness—that was for later. Right now, there was a crisis to ward off. Soon couldn’t come soon enough.
Cameron Donnelly did not like Ty. That had been clear from the moment they’d met with the sun beating down on them and nowhere to hide but under that threadbare tree.
Donnelly hadn’t been fazed by the sun, though. He probably wasn’t fazed by much, if that firm jaw and stern brow were anything to go by. Ty had read somewhere that there were three types of aid workers: the wide-eyed newbie who wanted to save the world, the weary veteran who had accepted that they were not going to save the world, and finally the gives-no-fucks lifer who had no interest in saving the world. Donnelly was a lifer.
Which really made no difference to Ty; he was here to get his story. Except he’d been here three days already and wasn’t anywhere near getting his story, not while following Donnelly around from meeting to useless meeting. At this rate, he’d end up with some stock footage and would never get promoted off the Chinatown beat. Interviewing Chinese grandpas about the latest mugging, or thug teenagers about the most recent car accident had been great for his first few years at CBN, but now he wanted to cover real stories that affected the course of world history.
Dani, Ty’s editor, wanted stories that would shock and awe: poor starving children, mothers holding dying babies, ramshackle shelters, and overrun health clinics. Meetings and spreadsheets were not going to get Ty his promotion.
Doug was still snoring into his pillow when Ty slipped out of their tent. The early morning air was cool against his skin as the sky began to brighten along the eastern horizon. He strolled down the row of tents reserved for short-term visitors, heading away from the mess hall and offices toward the edge of Admin Block, the fresh smell of dew tickling his nose. A quiet stillness reigned over the land, broken only by a few chickens clucking away in the distance.
He’d always liked the morning. A memory surfaced of himself as a child, wrapped in blankets as his mom drove to a park near their house. It was still dark when she pulled him from the car and they snuggled together on a bench overlooking a little drop-off, waiting for the sun to appear. He’d been too small to think to ask what they were doing, but he’d forever associate mornings with that sleepy happy feeling and the smell of roses that had always lingered on his mother’s skin.
The memory dissipated as quickly as it had materialized. That little boy felt like a stranger to him sometimes, someone who might have looked like him, but who would have walked a much different path than the man now walking between the quiet rows of tents.
He reached the end and stopped. Apparently, he wasn’t the only person awake. In the barely lit dawn stood Donnelly, one leg propped up on a fence as he stretched. His T-shirt hung from his frame as if it was several sizes too large, and his jogging shorts drooped so low on his hips that Ty was certain they’d slip off. The fanny pack he wore around his lower back wasn’t much of a belt.
Remembering how easily Donnelly had startled the other day, Ty made a noisy approach. Donnelly straightened from his stretch and turned. Maybe it was the early hour, or maybe he’d been caught off guard, but the Donnelly that faced Ty did not look like the same man he’d seen around the camp the past several days.
The Oakley sunglasses that normally obscured Donnelly’s eyes were sitting on top of his head, revealing dark bags and weather-worn wrinkles. His lips, often pressed tightly together and obscured by a scruffy auburn beard, were parted, full and plump. His shoulders were slack, and he had yet to pull his long wavy hair back into his man bun.
Donnelly looked him over with an appraising glance, as if wondering what the hell Ty was doing there. Then something sparked in Donnelly’s eyes—a flash of recognition, perhaps something more—before he blinked, and it was gone.
The transformation was incredible. One minute Donnelly was tired and world-weary, and in the next, his shoulders tensed, his posture straightened, and that . . . something in his eyes was replaced by the Donnelly he’d seen around camp. The give-no-fucks lifer.
“Good morning,” Ty called out.
“You’re going for a run or something?”
“Mind if I join you?”
It was impossible to miss the way Donnelly stiffened at the suggestion, or the second, much more deliberate head-to-toe survey of Ty’s body. “Dressed like that?”
Ty quickly assessed his linen slacks and light polo shirt. Okay, it wasn’t what he typically wore to go running, but he could make it work. “Sure, why not?”
Donnelly shrugged, slipped the sunglasses over his eyes, and pulled his hair back like he was putting his armor on. “Suit yourself.”
He took off at a light jog, leaving Ty to catch up. They set a steady pace, and Donnelly led them through the streets of the camp. Street was a generous word for the lanes between the uniform tents, white with the UNHCR logo emblazoned in baby blue across the sides. Some had morphed into Frankenstein-esque shelters as residents had built onto the tents with scraps of plastic, metal, or wood.
Here and there, Ty spotted evidence of residents taking pride in their homes. Wreaths made of questionable materials hung atop makeshift doorways. Colorful fabric covered the side of a tent. A series of ribbons were tied to a nearby tree.
In front of every tent were women mixing packets of powder with water, young children sweeping dirt yards with brooms made of branches. As they passed, people looked up and nodded at them, as if it were customary to see Donnelly running through the camp. They were all quiet, though, a sharp contrast to the raucous crowds that gathered later in the day.
A million questions ran through Ty’s mind, but the rhythmic beat of their feet hitting the dirt ground and the meditative cadence of their breathing kept him from asking—the morning was too perfect to be disturbed. They continued for a while before Ty noticed a group of kids following them, most in bare feet, all keeping pace with no difficulty.
Ty glanced over at Donnelly and what he saw surprised him. Donnelly was smiling—an honest-to-god smile with lips curling and cheeks full. This was the first time Ty had seen something warmer than sternness on Donnelly’s face. A couple of the kids shouted something that Ty didn’t understand. Donnelly reached out, gave each of them a fist bump, and they all kept going.
The farther they went, the bigger the group of kids became, and the nods of greeting from mothers morphed into shaking heads at the two foreigners leading a bunch of kids through the streets. By the time they stopped in an open square, the sky had brightened and their posse of followers had grown to about twenty.
They were a mix of boys and girls, all with shortly shorn hair, covered in a fine layer of red dust from the run. Excited, they smiled and jostled each other. When Donnelly kneeled, they swarmed him, the bigger kids elbowing the smaller ones out of the way.
“Polepole,” Donnelly said, waving them back with the palms of his hands. He reached into his fanny pack and came out with a handful of colorfully wrapped candy. But rather than distribute them, he asked each kid a question and each one listened with intent concentration. Only after they’d answered his question to his satisfaction would they get their treat.
“Kumbuka kuweka hii siri, sawa?” he asked them, placing one finger vertically across his lips. They nodded, eyes wide, mouths full of sweets. He held out his hand again and collected the candy wrappers before stuffing them into his fanny pack. “Can’t leave any evidence around.” He tossed the comment over his shoulder so casually that Ty almost didn’t catch it.
“Mjomba.” One of the kids leaned in close and murmured to Donnelly, as the rest shifted their stares up at Ty, towering above them. “Nani huyo? Chi-na?”
“Chi-na! Chi-na!” The kids all started shouting as Donnelly peered at Ty, eyes obscured by the reflective colors of his sunglasses. His smirk was obvious, though, as if he thought this was the most amusing thing in the world.
Donnelly translated. “They want to know who you are. Specifically, if you’re from China.”
The unexpected question hit Ty like a blast of cold air, leaving him feeling like an imposter in his own skin. He forced himself to smile. They were kids. They didn’t know any better.
“No, I’m American.” Even he could hear the touch of resentment in the declaration. He suppressed a cringe.
Donnelly didn’t respond right away, but the smirk wasn’t as smug as it had been a minute before. Then he turned back to the kids with a shake of his head. “Si Chi-na. Marekani.”
“Marekani! Marekani!” they all started shouting.
He shouldn’t be so goddamn sensitive. They didn’t care if he was Chinese or American or an alien. All they wanted was something to shout at him and then giggle about afterward.
When Donnelly stood, Ty was surprised to find himself on the receiving end of a smile—the same one the kids had gotten. It only lasted a second before Donnelly blinked, and it was gone, leaving Ty wondering if he had imagined it.
Donnelly turned toward the kids again. “Kwenda shule sasa.” He waved them off, and they all ran back in the direction they’d come from. “Kwaheri!”
He and Donnelly stood in the square until the last kid disappeared.
“You do this often?” Ty asked as they walked back toward Admin Block, the streets now full of people shouting out greetings to each other.
Donnelly’s stare weighed on him through the lenses of his sunglasses, and Ty wished he had his own aviators to deflect. Donnelly stared for so long that Ty didn’t think he’d respond. Then he turned away and muttered, “A few times a week.”
“And what were you talking to them about?”
Donnelly chewed on his bottom lip before answering. “A bunch of things: how school is going, how their health is, their family. I like to check in and make sure any concerns are being taken care of.”
“Is it always the same group of kids?”
“Do you ever stop asking questions?”
Ty let a grin spread across his lips. “I’m a journalist. Asking questions is what I do.”
Donnelly grunted and fell silent for a moment before answering. “I take different routes through the camp, so it’s more like I rotate through the kids.”
A crackle interrupted before Ty could ask his next question. “Alpha-Romeo-1, this is Alpha-Romeo-12, message, over.”
Donnelly dug a handheld radio out of his pack. “Alpha-Romeo-12, this is Alpha-Romeo-1. Send, over.”
“This is Alpha-Romeo-12. There’s been a break-in at the health clinic in C Block. Can you be on-site? Over.” The radio distorted the voice, but Ty managed to pick out Patsy’s Australian accent.
“Fuck,” Donnelly muttered before raising the radio to his mouth and pressing the Talk button. “This is Alpha-Romeo-1, affirmative. ETA ten minutes. Out.”
Donnelly took off at a jog, not bothering to put the radio back into his pack. Ty followed him, wishing he had Doug with him to film whatever it was they were heading into. “Does this happen often?” he asked as they ran.
“Only every other fucking week.” Donnelly took a sharp right.
How the hell Donnelly knew where they were or where they were going was a mystery to Ty. Every street was variations of the same patched-together shelters, opening suddenly onto little community courtyards filled with loitering people.
“What about security?”
“What about security?”
“Don’t you have security on these places?”
From the way Donnelly tilted his head at him, Ty was sure that Donnelly was throwing him some serious side-eye, and he was spared the sharp edge only by the sunglasses. Ty wasn’t surprised when Donnelly didn’t answer the question.
When they made it to the health clinic, a massive crowd of people already filled the small courtyard, most of them women with children of varying ages. They approached Patsy, who was talking with a couple of uniformed men, and a woman wearing a Médecins Sans Frontières vest.
“What happened here?” Donnelly approached, and everyone stepped aside—it was clear who was in charge. Ty hung back to observe and pulled out the notebook he’d had the foresight to grab when he left his tent this morning.
“The same fucking thing that happens every time, Cam.” The women in the Médecins Sans Frontières vest spoke with a heavy French accent.
“Angelique, I’m sorry.” Donnelly was calm and sincere but also resigned. “You know we don’t have the extra staff to man every station every night.”
“Right, and the fucking thieves aren’t idiots, you know. They can figure out the rotation schedule. You have to, I don’t know, randomize!” Angelique spoke with one hand on her hip, the other waving around to emphasize her point.
His jaw clenched, Donnelly turned to one of the uniformed men wearing a burgundy beret. “Sergeant?”
The officer nodded once but didn’t speak.
“How much did we lose this time?” Donnelly asked.
Angelique shook her head and headed for the concrete building. “These thieves are smart, I tell you! They only take what they know they can use, and . . .”
Ty didn’t follow them inside, instead debating whether he should borrow one of those radios to get Doug to come out here. Dozens of people stood or sat in a line that wound around the clearing. Some stared at him with curiosity. Others were hunched over, rocking back and forth, clutching a body part.
The weirdest thing was how eerily silent the place was. No people shouting, no animals braying. Nothing more than an occasional sniffle or a shuffle of feet against the dirt.
“You went on a run with Cam this morning, eh?”
Ty turned at Patsy’s question. “Yeah, it was . . . interesting.”
“Did he hand out sweets to the kids?”
“Yeah, that was unexpected. Didn’t fit the image I’d been building of him.”
Patsy chuckled, loud in the stillness of the yard. “He wasn’t always so . . . rough around the edges, you know.”
Ty cocked his head, his interest piqued. “You’ve worked with him for a long time?”
She eyed him, as if deciding how much she should share. Ty kept his expression innocent and waited out the awkward pause.
“Several years now. But Cam’s been around for ages. A bit of a legend, he is.”
“What made him so ‘rough around the edges’?”
She barked a laugh before casting her gaze around them. Then in a lowered voice, she said, “Have you seen this place? We’re all bound to end up rough around the edges. Cam’s fared better than most if you want my opinion. He’s lasted a hell of a lot longer than the vast majority of people who come out here.”
“And how long do most people spend in the field?” Ty asked.
Patsy seemed to ponder the question. “Let me put it this way: A lot of young folks come looking for glory. Only a handful become lifers.” She patted him on the shoulder before turning to join the others inside.
“Only a handful become lifers.” It sounded like a rarified goal. But at what cost?
Cam clicked on the starred email again for what must have been the one hundred and eighteenth time since he’d received it a month ago. It was from Teresa, written formally in the vein of an official email from the UN, approving his request to be transferred to UNHCR’s New York Liaison Office.
He remembered his conversation with Teresa months ago when he first brought up the idea of leaving the field. The Skype connection had been patchy, and she’d made him repeat himself to make sure she’d heard correctly. As if he hadn’t almost choked on the words the first time.
“But that job is in New York,” had been Teresa’s response.
“I know.” Cam had hesitated with his next words. “That’s why I want it.”
“But you’re a field guy.”
That was the same reaction he’d gotten from most of his staff. The only person who had been excited about his decision to leave the field had been Patsy. She’d pulled him into a long, uncomfortable hug and said, “Good for you.”She hadn’t let go until he’d finally relented and hugged her back.
Two weeks until his contract at Dadaab ended, and he was already scheduled on a UN-personnel-only flight out to Nairobi for an in-country debrief. That should take a couple of days, then to New York via London. Then he’d be home.
Cam didn’t remember feeling this terrified when he was twenty-three and waiting for his first overseas posting. Now, the thought of going home made his stomach churn, but the thought of staying out here wasn’t much better. He was fucked either way.
“Hey, boss.” Patsy poked her head into Cam’s office, and he quickly closed the email.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Those CBN guys are leaving tomorrow; thought you might like to say goodbye.”
Cam didn’t like Patsy’s mischievous expression as she kicked the door shut and dropped into a chair. “Why would you think that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she teased him. “Perhaps a smoking-hot journalist had caught your eye.”
Cam’s gaze shot to his closed door, and he listened for the sound of footsteps in the hallway.
“Oh, come on. There’s no one out there,” Patsy said dismissively.
Cam lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “You don’t know that.”
“What I do know is that man is hot as hell, and I’ve seen the way you look at him.”
Cam cringed and buried his face in his hands. Shit, if Patsy had noticed, who else had also noticed?
“Cam, it’s fine!” Patsy leaned across the desk and pulled his hand away from his face. “You’re allowed to be yourself.”
He leveled his sternest gaze at her. “Not that part of myself. Not here. If I’m outted, I’m not the only one who bears the consequences. Other people could get hurt too.”
Patsy’s sigh was more of a huff. “Well, I’m not saying you should have sex in the middle of camp. What’s the harm in chatting with the guy?”
Cam knew she would never fully understand, but he also knew she was only looking out for him.
“Besides,” Patsy continued. “You should at least come hang out with us. You don’t have too many of these nights left, you know.”
A fresh layer of guilt piled onto his already heavy burden. His staff was capable; they knew what they were doing. So why did he feel like he was hanging them all out to dry?
Cam swallowed the mix of fear and shame, and nodded. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Sure thing, boss.” She let herself out.
Cam started packing up his laptop. His staff were more than simply his staff; they were family, and they’d been through a lot of shit together. Patsy was right: he should go and spend what little time he had left with them.
Loud voices and laughter drifted down the hall as he approached. More guilt hit him as he stood in the doorway and watched his people unwind from a long day of work.
Cam’s eyes drifted to a certain tall Asian with the perfect hair and easy grin. One of his female staff leaned in a little too close and giggled at his oozing charm, and something sour and sharp spiked in Cam’s belly. He tried to ignore his reaction, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the way Tyler Ang laughed readily at a joke, or stared intently into the eyes of someone speaking to him, as if that person were the only person alive on the planet.
Cam almost backed out of the room, suddenly in no mood to share his people with this outsider.
Robinson caught sight of Cam. “Boss! You made it!”
He went inside, dropped his backpack on a couch that was probably older than he was, and accepted the lukewarm beer that was handed to him.
“Eh, boss, how much longer you with us?” Robinson asked.
“Two weeks and counting.”
“Ay, you’re going to miss it here, aren’t you?” Robinson gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder, but coming from someone who was six feet four inches of muscle, it didn’t feel friendly when it landed.
Cam rubbed his bruised shoulder. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.” And that was the truth; he’d miss the people, that was for certain, but would he miss the long, dirty grind? Probably not.
The hairs on the back of Cam’s neck stood up, as if someone was staring at him. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that Tyler Ang was the culprit.
Yes, after a full week of the posh journalist running around his camp, he still thought of the man on a first-and-last-name basis. It kept him at a distance and staved off the hope that Cam could ever have a chance with him. Aside from that early-morning run they had shared, Cam had managed to avoid the other man altogether. Now, he only had to get through one more night, and then he’d be free.
“Hey, Donnelly.” Tyler Ang’s voice always came as an unwanted yet pleasant shock, resonating so much lower than he could brace himself for. “I wanted to thank you and your team for hosting us this week. I think we got some really interesting stories. The health clinic break-in will definitely get decent airtime.”
Cam nodded. “No problem.” He hid the slight crack in his voice with a quick gulp of his beer. Where the hell had Robinson disappeared off to?
“You’ve got a great team here.”
Cam nodded again and took another gulp of his beer. The beer at camp was little more than flavored water, barely strong enough to give the slightest hint of a buzz, never mind getting drunk off it.
“I heard you’re leaving soon.”
“Yeah, in two weeks.” Cam was almost done with his beer and debated whether he should grab another or go back to his cabin for something stronger.
“You’re going to be missed, you know. They can’t stop talking about what a loss your leaving is going to be.”
Cam’s throat closed with yet more guilt. They would be fine, he reminded himself; he wasn’t irreplaceable by any means.
Cam stared at the bottle in his hand, but he could feel Tyler Ang’s gaze heavy on him, demanding his attention. When he finally succumbed and raised his head, their eyes locked in terrifying clarity. Light-brown eyes, almost bordering on hazel with a slightly golden hue. Those eyes were observant, intelligent, probing. If Cam wasn’t careful, those eyes would see right through his mask, meticulously crafted by many years of fending off the most inquisitive of people. And yet, not having to wear that mask anymore was exactly the reason why Cam was leaving the field.
“You’re allowed to be yourself,” Patsy had said. And he only had two weeks left.
“Do you want something stronger than beer?” The words were out of Cam’s mouth before he had the forethought to stop them.
Dark, thick eyebrows rose, and the full mouth curved into the same easy grin that the girls had been giggling over. Apparently, that grin didn’t only work on horny young female aid workers; it also worked on horny old gay aid workers.
“What do you have in mind?” His voice rumbled low, awakening parts of Cam that had been repressed for a long time.
He didn’t trust himself to speak. Shit, he shouldn’t trust any part of himself at this point. But that didn’t stop him from nodding toward the door, grabbing his backpack, and leading the way outside.
Though the sun had set several hours ago, residual heat still lingered in the air as Cam headed toward his cabin with Tyler Ang in tow. Bringing someone back to his cabin—a man, no less—ran counter to the central principle that had protected him in the field for the past ten years.
Just drinks, Cam told himself. Nothing had to happen. Like Patsy had said, it couldn’t hurt to chat with the guy.
As Cam held the door open, his heart raced at the knowing look he received from golden-brown eyes under strong eyebrows. Cam’s mouth went dry, and he ground his teeth together against the heat that tickled his skin.
Cam lit the kerosene lamps, slowly turning up the flames until they threw flickering light against the walls of his cabin. His bed was little more than a cot, and the only other pieces of furniture were a small table and two chairs, one of which served as his nightstand. He removed the books and the bottle of water from the chair by his bed and brought it over to its partner, then went to his closet to dig out the bottle of whiskey he kept stashed there.
“I hope neat is okay with you.” Cam poured the amber liquid into two plastic cups stolen from the staff kitchen.
“Sure. I imagine ice cubes are in short supply around here.”
Cam grunted as they settled at the table. Tyler Ang’s tall frame sat slightly slouched in his chair, and his long legs crossed at the knee. With one arm thrown lazily across his lap and the other holding his cup on the table, he exuded an easy confidence that was both enticing and irritating.
He studied Cam. Cam studied the liquor he swirled in his cup.
“Thanks for the whiskey,” Tyler Ang said, and Cam nodded his acknowledgment. “We should toast.” He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, holding up his cup.
Again those eyes, watching him, seeing him. Cam swallowed around the lump in his throat. “To what?”
Tyler Ang’s eyes narrowed as if in thought. “To your many years of service and the sacrifices you made. And to a new future.”
Cam’s heart thudded so loudly, he was sure it could be heard from across the table. A new future. There was no way this self-assured man could know how much the idea of a new future scared the living fuck out of Cam. This had been his life for the past ten years, and there was still so much work left to do. How was he supposed to leave it all behind?
Cam raised his cup and bumped it against Tyler Ang’s in a dull clunk. Downing its contents, he stood abruptly. “I need a smoke.” His hands shook as he stepped outside.
He lit a cigarette and let the acrid smoke fill his lungs as the nicotine worked its way into his blood stream. The red-orange tip of the cigarette glowed in the inky black of night.
“Seems like everyone smokes around here.” Tyler Ang followed him outside and leaned against the doorjamb a few feet away.
“It’s mostly the expats. It’s how we up our field cred.” Cam stared at the burning end of his cigarette.
“The more someone smokes, the crazier the shit they’ve been through. The chain smokers have the most field cred.”
“So, are you a chain smoker?”
Cam eyed him through a cloud of gray wisps. “I can be.”
Tyler Ang pushed away from the doorjamb and came to stand so close that Cam shuffled backward half a step. When he took the cigarette from Cam, Cam tried not to focus on the brush of their fingers.
Without breaking eye contact, Tyler Ang took a nice long drag. The cigarette glowed bright, and the crackling burn punctuated the silence. He exhaled slowly, and the space between them filled with gray tendrils of smoke. Gazing at the cigarette with a lazy grin and half-lidded eyes, he said, “God, it’s been a long time since I’ve had one of these.”
“What? You trying to build your field cred?” Cam surprised himself with the hint of flirtiness in his voice.
Tyler took another short drag, with the long white cigarette pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and his lips pursed lightly around the filter. “Maybe. Is it working?”
Cam’s lips parted as his lungs searched for more air. Tyler’s proximity and the thickness of his voice did more to suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere than the smoke that surrounded them. He wanted to kiss those lips and find out if they felt as soft as they looked. He wanted to taste the stinging, bitter mix of whiskey and smoke.
He caught himself right before he swayed into Tyler and those undeniably kissable lips. What the fuck was he doing? About to kiss a man in the open where anyone could catch them? Fear prickled his skin as he cast his gaze in a wide arc around them, pausing in the darkest shadows to search for impressions of figures lurking close by. He didn’t see anyone, but that didn’t mean no one was there.
Turning sharply, he went inside and braced himself, arms straight, against the back of one of the chairs. He only had to keep his shit together for two more weeks. He had done it for ten years, so why did two weeks feel so impossible?
He needed to remember: his actions had consequences, not only for himself, but for the people he was here to serve. Eyes were always watching, always judging—the smallest slipup could mean life or death in societies where being gay was not allowed.
Cam jumped at Tyler’s hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, are you okay?”
No, he was not fucking okay.
He grabbed the whiskey and poured himself a generous shot. He tossed it back and poured another; it would probably be easier to drink from the bottle.
“Whoa.” Tyler took the bottle from him, and Cam resisted the urge to snatch it back. “What’s going on?”
Tyler’s one hand rested on Cam’s shoulder, its heat seeping through Cam’s thin T-shirt and warming his skin. He was right there with his golden-brown eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips. All Cam had to do was lean over a few inches, and he could learn the feeling of those lips on his own, those shoulders under his hands. And yet, they felt like miles away.
For ten long years Cam had watched every word he uttered and the way he said them, looked over his shoulder, and questioned every suspicious glance in his direction. He was so goddamn tired of constantly protecting himself. He wanted to be himself, consequences be damned.
And Tyler was a temptation that Cam didn’t have the strength to resist.