Author:CJ Markusfeld

Their promising friendship had collapsed within a single language lesson. What had started as a disagreement about verb tense had somehow turned into a full-blown shouting match in seconds.

“You need to back the fuck off,” Sophie had snapped when Michael had gotten in her face about conjugation. “What kind of a teacher are you?”

Michael’s face had gone dark with disapproval. “This language is unacceptable for a woman. You speak as an uncivilized child.”

Sophie had scrambled up, enraged. She’d stood several inches shorter than him, but just as defiant.

“I speak as I please,” she’d hissed. “This isn’t a backward society where women are treated as subordinates. This is America, not Orlisia.” Anger had flared in his eyes at the snub, and he’d spat an obscenity at her. “Your language is no less disgusting than mine.”

“It is different for a man.”

She’d shot him a withering look, picked up her books, and stalked away, tears of anger stinging her eyes. She’d sworn never to speak to him again – yet when he’d approached her a few days after and humbly asked her forgiveness, she’d been unable to deny him.

They’d fought and made up again two days later. And again. And again. Yet there was no one she felt closer to in the class. And it would seem he felt the same way.

Their first city in Africa was Senegal, and Sophie hit the ground running. She had a weeklong volunteer assignment lined up with Crisis International, a midsized aid agency with a solid reputation for its relief work.

“Sophie Swenda?” A tall, blond-haired man wearing cowboy boots appeared in the doorway of the makeshift hut where she waited. “William Temple.” He tossed her sunscreen and a Crisis International shirt. “Go cover yourself in sunscreen and put that shirt on, Red.” He looked at her sneakers doubtfully. “I guess those shoes will do. Do you have a strong stomach?”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” she said, heading into the tiny bathroom to change. “And don’t call me Red!”

“I like you already!” he shouted after her.

They worked together for one stomach-churning, heartbreaking week in the urban slums of Dakar. For a first experience in the field, it was everything she could have hoped for and more – even if she had tossed her breakfast at the smell of her first slum.

“You did good work here, Sophie,” said Will on her last day in Dakar when he dropped her back at the hotel. “I hope you know that. You touched some lives.”

“Not enough.”

“It’s always like that in our line of work,” he said. “There will always be more who need help than we have resources. You learn to find the small victories where you can.” He handed her a business card and an envelope. “My card and a recommendation I wrote for you.”

“You didn’t need to do that. It’s been my privilege to work with you.” Sophie tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “I can’t tell you what the last week has meant to me.”

“I already know. Who doesn’t remember their first field placement?” He smiled. “Look, here’s some free advice. Finish this crazy GYL year of yours. Get your degree. Pick up another language, something more practical for the field, like French. Then come find me again.” He pulled her into a hug. “You can’t change the world, Sophie, but you can make a meaningful difference in the lives of some of its occupants. You can’t ask for more out of a career.”

Senegal was followed by South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya in rapid succession. By the time the class got through Morocco and into Spain, they were ready for a breather from their hectic schedule.

The staff organized a special event at a tapas bar in Barcelona, complete with local food, music … and wine. “Salud,” said one of the staff members, toasting the room. “You’ve worked hard, behaved well, and you deserve to relax. Just don’t go overboard.”

Sophie had limited experience with drinking. Keeping it to two or three glasses of wine would be safe, wouldn’t it? Yet the glasses were large and the wine stronger than she’d ever had. Through a pleasant haze, she watched Carter DeVries get up from a nearby table, leaving Michael on his own. She walked up behind him, leaning over his shoulder.

“Hi,” she said with a hiccupping giggle. He turned around, grinning. “Wanna go for a walk?” They slipped out into the alley behind the restaurant in the fall night, and things began to happen very quickly.

The minute they were alone, Michael leaned back against the restaurant’s brick wall and pulled her up against him. His mouth opened against Sophie’s, their tongues wrapping around one another. She plunged her hands into his silky black curls, dragging her fingers through them the way she’d wanted to since they’d met. And especially since she’d seen Mirielle touching his hair on the bus.

He moaned deep in his throat, sending her nerves into overdrive. Suddenly she couldn’t get enough of him, pressing closer to her warm body. Michael’s hands slid down to Sophie’s hips and pulled her tight against his body. She could feel him grow rigid in his jeans.

Sophie might have been one of the most gifted students in the state of California, but she had limited sexual experience. Reason and intellect would normally tell her this was a poor choice. But reason and intellect had deserted both of them, and she would do anything to have this man. Michael gasped as she pushed her hips against him, and, encouraged, he cupped her breasts.

“Sophie,” he whispered after several intense moments. “I want you so bad. Right here, right now. I need you.” He pulled open her jeans, and slipped his hand into her underwear. She held her breath as his cold fingers found their way between her thighs. “Oh, mana mila, you need me too, don’t you? I can tell.” He touched her lightly, never losing contact with the spots that felt the best. Between the Orlisian endearment – one she’d never expected to hear from him – and the overwhelming sexual stimulation, Sophie mind went into overdrive. The pressure in her abdomen started to build.

Abruptly, someone grabbed her from behind and yanked her away. She gasped in fright. A low voice said, “Do up your pants.” Then the person rounded on Michael.