Diamond Bay (Chapter Nine)
"She lives in a little house close to the beach. Deserted area, nothing around for miles. We questioned her when we first started looking for Sabin."
"And?" The voice was almost gentle.
Lowell shrugged. "And nothing. She hadn't seen anything."
"She must be out of the ordinary to capture Ellis's attention."
After considering it a minute Lowell shook his head. "She's good-looking, but that's all. Nothing fancy. No makeup. Outdoorsy type. But Ellis hasn't stopped talking about her."
"It seems our friend Ellis doesn't have his mind completely on the job at hand." The comment was deceptively casual.
Again Lowell shrugged. "He thinks Sabin died when the boat blew up, so he's not putting a lot of effort into hunting him."
"What do you think?"
"It's a possibility. We haven't found any trace of him. He was wounded. Even if by a miracle he'd made it to shore, he'd have needed help."
Charles nodded, his eyes thoughtful as he waved Lowell away. He had worked with Lowell for many years now and knew him as a steady and competent, if uninspired, agent. He had to be competent to have survived. Lowell was no more convinced of Sabin's survival than Ellis was, and Charles wondered if he had allowed Sabin's reputation to override his own common sense. Common sense would certainly seem to indicate that Sabin had died in the explosion or immediately thereafter, drowning in the warm turquoise waters to become food for the denizens of the sea. No one should have survived that, but Sabin… Sabin was one of a kind, except for that blond devil with the golden eyes, who had disappeared and was rumored to be dead, despite the disquieting talk that had floated out of Costa Rica the year before. Sabin was more shadow than substance, instinctively cunning and damnably lucky. No, not lucky, Charles corrected himself. Skilled. To call Sabin "lucky" was to underestimate him, a fatal mistake too many of his colleagues had made.
"Noelle, come here," he called, barely raising his voice, but he didn't need to. Noelle was never far from him. It gave him pleasure to look at her, not because she was extraordinarily beautiful, though she was, but because he enjoyed the incongruity of such lethal skill housed in such a lovely woman. Her job was twofold: to protect Charles and to kill Sabin.
Noelle came into the room, walking with the grace of a model, her eyes sleepy and soft. "Yes?"
He waved his thin, elegant hand to indicate a chair. "Sit, please. I have been discussing Sabin with Lowell."
She sat, crossing her legs to best display them. The gestures that attracted unsuspecting males came naturally to her; she had studied and practiced too long for them to be anything else by now. She smiled. "Ah, Agent Lowell. Sturdy, dependable, if a little shortsighted."
"Like Ellis, he seems to think we're wasting our time in searching for Sabin."
She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, then blew smoke through her shapely lips. "It doesn't matter what they think, does it? Only what you think."
"I wonder if I am bestowing superhuman powers on Sabin, if I'm so wary of him that I can't accept his death," Charles mused.
Her sleepy eyes blinked. "Until we have proof of his death we can't afford to assume otherwise. It's been eight days. If he somehow survived, he would now be recovered enough to start moving around, which should increase our chances of finding him. The most logical thing would be to intensify our search, rather than slacken it."
Yes, that was indeed logical; on the other hand, if Sabin had survived the explosion and somehow made it to shore, something that seemed impossible, why hadn't he contacted his headquarters for aid? Ellis' s contact in Washington was completely certain that Sabin hadn't attempted to get in touch with anyone. That simple fact had convinced almost everyone that Sabin was dead… yet Charles couldn't convince himself. It was sheer instinct that prompted him to keep his men searching, waiting, poised to strike. He could not believe that it had been so easy to kill Sabin, not after all these years when attempt after attempt had failed. It was impossible to have too much respect for his capabilities. Sabin was out there, somewhere. Charles could feel it.
He was abruptly brisk. "You're right, of course," he told Noelle. "We will intensify the search, re-cover every inch of ground. Somehow, somewhere, we have missed him."
Sabin prowled the house, his savage mood reflected on his face. He'd done some hard things in his life, but none of them had been as difficult as having to watch Rachel get ready to go out with Tod Ellis. It went against every instinct he had, but nothing he'd said could change her mind, and he was helpless, handcuffed by circumstance. He couldn't afford to do anything that would focus attention on her; it would merely increase the danger she was in. If he'd been ready to move he would have gone that night rather than expose her to Ellis, but again he was stymied. He wasn't ready to move, and to move before he was prepared could mean the difference between success and failure, with his country's security at stake. He'd been trained for half his lifetime to put his country first, even at the cost of his own life. Sabin could have sacrificed himself without hesitation or even regret if it had been necessary, but the simple, terrible truth was that he couldn't sacrifice Rachel.
He had to do whatever he could to keep her safe, even if it meant swallowing his pride and possessive instincts. She was safe enough with Ellis as long as he had no reason to suspect her of anything. To jerk her out of the house and take her away before Ellis arrived to pick her up, as Kell had badly wanted to do, would arouse the man's suspicions. Kell knew the agent, knew that he was damned good at his job…too good, or he'd never have been able to hide his other activities for so long. He also had a good-sized ego; if Rachel stood him up it would make him furious, and he wouldn't let it pass. He would be back.
Patience, the ability to wait even in the face of great urgency, was one of Sabin's greatest gifts. He knew how to wait, how to pick his moment for optimum success, how to ignore danger and concentrate solely on timing. He could literally disappear into his surroundings, waiting, so much a part of the earth that the wild creatures had ignored him and the Vietcong had at times passed within touching distance of him without ever seeing him. His ability to wait was enhanced by his instinctive knowledge of when patience was useless; then he exploded into action. He explained it to himself as a well-developed sense of timing. Yes, he knew how to wait… but waiting for Rachel to come home was driving him crazy. He wanted her back safe in his arms, in bed. Damn, how he wanted her in bed!
He didn't turn on any lights in the house; he didn't think it likely that the house was being watched, but he couldn't take the chance. Rachel and Ellis might return early, and a lit house could trigger Ellis's suspicions. Instead he moved silently through the darkness, unable to sit still despite the ache in his shoulder and leg. His shoulder had been giving him hell since the afternoon, and he absently massaged it A humorless smile quirked his lips. He hadn't felt a thing while he'd been making love to Rachel; his senses had been centered completely on her and the unbearable ecstasy of their bodies linked together. But since then the shoulder had been painfully reminding him that he was a long way from being healed; he'd been lucky he hadn't torn it open again.
Abruptly he swore and limped through the kitchen to the back door, so agitated that he couldn't remain inside the confines of the house any longer. As soon as Kell opened the back door he sensed Joe leaving his stakeout under the oleander bush, silently moving through the shadows, and he softly called to the dog in reassurance. Kell no longer feared being attacked; Joe had warily accepted his residency, but Kell didn't trust him enough to refrain from identifying himself before going down the back steps.
Automatically keeping himself in the shadows, Kell circled the house and investigated the pines, assuring himself that the house wasn't under surveillance. Joe padded along about ten feet behind him, stopping when Kell stopped and advancing when Kell moved on.
A new moon was just rising, a thin sickle of light on the horizon. Sabin looked up at the clear sky, so clear, like Rachel's eyes, that infinity seemed within his reach.
His heart twisted again, and his hand clenched into a fist. He whispered a curse into the night. She was too gallant, too strong, for her own good; why couldn't she play it safe and let him take all the risks? Didn't she know what it would do to him if anything happened to her?
No, how could she know? He'd never told her, and he never would, not at the expense of her safety. He'd protect her if it killed him. His mouth twisted wryly; it probably would kill him, not physically, but deep inside where he'd never let anyone touch him… until Rachel had slipped past all his defenses and seared herself into his mind and soul.
Of course, there was always the possibility that he wouldn't get out of this alive, anyway, but he didn't dwell on that. He had thought a lot in the past few days, considering and discarding options. His plans were made. Now he was waiting: waiting for his wounds to heal more completely; waiting until he was physically ready; waiting for Ellis and his pals to make some little mistake; waiting until he sensed the time was right… waiting. When the time came he would call Sullivan, and the plan would be put into action. He would rather have Sullivan with him than any ten other men. No one would ever be expecting the two of them to be working together again.
No, his only uncertainty was because of Rachel. He knew what he had to do to protect her, but for the first time in his life he dreaded it. Letting her go was one thing; living without her was another.
He stood there in the night and cursed whatever it was that made him different from other men: the extraordinary skill and cunning, the acute eyesight and athletic body, the extreme coordination between mind and muscle that, all combined, made him a hunter and a warrior. When his emotional aloofness was added to that it had made him a natural for the job he held, the perfect, emotionless soldier in the cold gray shadows. He couldn't remember ever being any different. He hadn't been a noisy, laughing child; he'd been silent and solitary, holding himself aloof even from his parents. He'd always been alone deep inside himself and had never wanted it any other way; perhaps he'd known, even as a child, how much it would hurt to love. There. He'd let the words form in his thoughts, and even that was so painful that he flinched. He was too intense ever to love casually, lightly, to play the game of romance over and over. His emotional distance had been a defense, but Rachel had shattered it, and it hurt. God, how it hurt.
Rachel sat across from Tod Ellis, smiling and chatting and forcing herself to eat her seafood as if she enjoyed it, but it chilled her every time he gave her that toothpaste-ad smile. She knew what that smile concealed. She knew that he had tried to kill Kell; he was a liar, a murderer and a traitor. It took all her strength to continue acting as if she were having a pleasant time, but nothing could keep her thoughts from slipping back to Kell.
She had wanted nothing more than to continue lying in his arms that afternoon, her body limp and throbbing from his rough, fast, but intensely satisfying possession. She had forgotten what it was like… or perhaps it had never been like that before. Being married to B.B. had been warm and fun and loving. Being Sabin's woman would be like burning alive every time he touched her, going soft, hot and moist at his glance, his lightest touch. He wasn't easygoing and cheerful. He was a hard, intense man, the force of his personality radiating from him. He wasn't playful; she'd never heard him laugh, or even seen his rare smiles reach his eyes. But he had reached for her with such desperate, driving need that everything in her had responded immediately, and she had been ready for him, wanting him.
No, Kell wasn't a comfortable man to be around, or an easy man to love, but she didn't waste time railing against fate. She loved him, and accepted him for what he was. She looked at Tod Ellis and her eyes narrowed a little, because Kell was a lion surrounded by jackals, and this man was one of the jackals.
She put down her fork and gave him a bright smile. "How much longer will you be around here, do you think? Or are you permanently assigned to this area?"
"No, I move around a lot," he said, responding to her direct attention by flashing his smile once again. "I never know when I'll be reassigned."
"Is this sort of a special assignment?"
"It's more of a wild-goose chase. We've been wasting our time. Still, if we hadn't been searching the beach I never would have met you." He'd been throwing out lines like that since he'd picked her up, and Rachel had been determinedly skirting them. He evidently thought he was a modern day Don Juan, and probably a lot of women found him attractive and charming, but, then, they didn't know what Rachel did about him.
"Oh, I'm certain you aren't hurting for casual dates," she said in an offhand manner.
He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. "Maybe I don't consider this a casual date."
Rachel smiled and removed her hand to pick up her wineglass. "I don't see how you could consider it anything else, considering you may be reassigned at any time. Even if you aren't, I'll be leaving on vacation soon and probably won't be back for the rest of the summer."
He didn't like that; it put a small dent in his ego that she wasn't willing to hang around for as long as he was there. "Where are you going?"
"The Keys. I'm going to stay with a friend and do some research in the area. I was planning to stay there until I have to come back to teach a night course in Gainesville when the fall quarter starts."
Anyone else would have asked her about the course she was teaching; Ellis scowled at her and said, "Is your friend male or female?"
Just for a moment she entertained the appealing idea of telling him to take a long walk off a short pier, but it wasn't her plan to antagonize him, not yet. She still wanted to get some information out of him if she could. So instead she gave him a cool look that told him he'd gone too far and said calmly, "A woman, an old college friend."
He wasn't stupid. Arrogant and conceited, but not stupid. He grimaced in a way that was meant to be charming, but left her cold. "Sorry. I overstepped myself, didn't I? It's just thatwell, from the moment I saw you, I was really attracted, and I want to get to know you better."
"There doesn't seem to be much point in it," Rachel pointed out. "You would be leaving soon, anyway, even if I hadn't planned my vacation."
He looked as if he'd like to refute that, but he'd told her himself that he moved around a lot. "We may be around for another couple of weeks," he said sulkily.
"Tying up loose ends?"
"Yeah, you know how it is. Paperwork."
"Is it just you and Agent Lowell?"
He hesitated, habit too deeply ingrained in him to make it easy for him to talk in any detail about his work. Rachel held her breath, wondering if his ego would prompt him to try to make up for the ground he had lost by being too personal. After all, it was inherently flattering when someone asked about your work. It was a way of getting better acquainted, of asking innocent questions that still denoted interest. She was interested, all right, but not in Ellis.
"There are nine of us actively investigating," he finally said. "We were all chosen especially for this job."
Because they were unscrupulous? She gave him a wide-eyed, ego-stroking look. "It must be really big to have that many men working on it."
"As I said, we're the active investigators. We can call on about twenty other men for backup if necessary."
She looked suitably impressed. "But you think it's a dead end?"
"We haven't turned up anything, but the top man isn't satisfied yet. You know how it is. People behind a desk think they know more than the men in the field."
She sympathized with him and even made up a few tales to reciprocate, edging the conversation away from his work. If she probed too directly and too often it could rouse his suspicions. Talking to him made her feel unclean and anxious to get away from him, as far away as she could. The knowledge that he would try to kiss her, probably even try to talk her into bed, filled her with sick horror. There was no way she could tolerate his mouth on hers even for a moment. Even if he wasn't a total snake, which he was, she couldn't have kissed him; she was Kell Sabin's woman, a fact that had nothing to do with will or determination. It simply was.
She forced herself to chat for another hour, smiling at the appropriate moments and forcing down the increasing urge to gag. He was almost more than she could tolerate. Only the thought that Kell could use any information she got out of Ellis gave her the will to stay. When their dishes had finally been cleared away and they were taking their time over coffee, she put out another feeler. "Where are you staying? This isn't a tourist area, and motel rooms can be hard to find."
"We're actually spread out down the coast," he explained. "Lowell and I are sharing a room at this dinky little motel, Harran's."
"I know where it is," she said, nodding.
"We've been living off fast food since we got here. It's a relief to get a decent meal for a change."
"I imagine so." She pushed her coffee cup back and looked around the restaurant, hoping he'd get the message that she was ready to go. The sketchy details she'd gotten would have to be enough; she simply couldn't sit there with him any longer and pretend that she liked him. She wanted to go home and lock the door behind her, closing Tod Ellis and his cohorts out of her life. Kell was there, waiting for her, and she wanted to be with him, even though she was uneasy about his mood. He had been coldly silent when she left, his rage barely controlled. He had wanted her to play it safe and let all the risk fall on him, but Rachel could quit breathing more easily than she could stand by without doing anything while he was in danger. He wasn't used to his commands being ignored, and he didn't like it one little bit.
For his own reasons Ellis wasn't loath to leave a little early. Rachel imagined that he thought the remainder of the evening would be spent in a more physical manner. He would be disappointed.
She didn't talk much on the way home, both reluctant to have any more to do with Ellis than necessary and because her thoughts were increasingly taken with Kell, though he'd never been far from her mind all evening. Her heartbeat suddenly lurched and her blood skittered through her veins, making her feel flushed and dizzy. The fierce lovemaking they'd shared that afternoon should have clarified their relationship, even if only on that basic level, but it hadn't. Kell had looked at her so oddly afterward, as if she wasn't what he'd expected. Despite his anger with her when she refused to do what he told her, on some deep level he had seemed even more self-contained than ever. He was a difficult, unusual man, but she was so acutely sensitive to him that every faint nuance of his expression, which most people wouldn't notice at all, seemed to shout at her. Why had he looked at her like that, then withdrawn? Why did she feel farther from him now than she had before they had lain locked together in writhing heat?
Ellis turned onto the private road that ended at her house and a few minutes later pulled the car to a stop in front. The house was dark, but she hadn't really expected it to be any other way. Kell wouldn't advertise his presence by turning on lights.
They got out of the car, and as Ellis came around to her side they heard that low snarl. Joe, bless him, didn't miss anything.
Ellis visibly jerked, the sudden alarm starkly etched on his face in the ghastly light from the car's open door. He stopped in his tracks. "Where is he?" he muttered.
Rachel looked around but couldn't see the dog. He was black and tan, with the classic markings of a German shepherd, so his darkness made it difficult to see him. The snarls placed him slightly to her left, close to Ellis, but she still couldn't make him out.
Quickly she seized the opportunity. "Look, you stand still while I walk into the yard. He's behind you, so don't move any closer to him. When I'm out of the way, get in the car on this side and he probably won't bother you."
"That dog's vicious. You should have him chained," Ellis snapped, but he didn't argue with her instructions. He stood absolutely still while Rachel walked up into the yard, then sidled toward the open door on the passenger side of the car.
"I'm sorry," she apologized, hoping he couldn't hear the insincerity in her voice. "I didn't think. Still, he's good protection. He's never yet let a stranger walk into the yard."
Joe moved then, the movement betraying his position. Snarling steadily, he planted himself between Rachel and Ellis.
She wanted to laugh. There was no chance of even a good night kiss now, and from the look on Ellis's face he wanted nothing more than to be inside the car, with solid steel between him and the dog. Hastily he slid inside and slammed the door, then rolled the window down partway.
"I'll call you, okay?"
She made herself hesitate, rather than shouting out the "No!" she wanted to voice. "I'll be busy getting ready for my vacation. I have some work I have to finish before I leave. I really won't have much free time."
Now that he was safe from the dog his cockiness was returning. "You have to eat, don't you? I'll call you for lunch or something."
She planned on being busy, but she could handle him over the telephone. She didn't want him showing up here unannounced, but that wasn't likely as long as Joe was in residence.
She stood in the yard, watching the taillights as he drove off, then said, "Good boy," to Joe with obvious approval in her voice. Turning toward the house, she wondered why Kell didn't turn on a light for her now that Ellis was out of sight. She started to walk up to the porch but hadn't taken a full step, when a hard arm passed around her waist and jerked her backward.
"Have fun?" a low, angry voice whispered in her ear.
"Kell." She relaxed against him, pleasure flooding warmly through her at even this touch, despite his anger.
"Did he touch you? Kiss you?"
She had expected questioning, but not primarily about that. Kell's voice was rough, almost savage.
"You know he didn't," she replied steadily. "After all, you were out here watching."
"What about before?"
"No. Not at all. I couldn't stand the thought."
A great shudder passed through his body, an extraordinary response in a man as controlled as he normally was, but when he spoke his voice was level again. "Let's go inside."
He locked up while she went into the bedroom to put away her purse and slip out of her shoes; then he joined her in the bedroom. His black eyes were expressionless as he watched her slip the earrings out of her pierced lobes and put the jewelry away in a velvet-lined box. He'd been right; she slipped into stylish sophistication as easily as she puttered barefoot in the garden, and she was gut-wrenchingly sexy in either case.
His silent, unwavering stare was making her uneasy. "I did get some information," she finally offered, taking a nightgown from the dresser and darting a quick look at him. He looked… furious, somehow, though his face was rock hard and his eyes expressionless. His arms were folded across his bare chest; he wore only his jeans and running shoes, and he looked formidable.
He didn't ask, but she condensed it for him, anyway. "There are nine of them actively searching for you, but Ellis let it slip that they have a backup of about twenty more if needed. They're scattered, looking up and down the coast. Ellis and Lowell are staying at Harran's Motel. He thinks you're dead and that they're wasting his time, but the head man on the operation won't give up."
That would be the mysterious "Charles." Sabin had known who had to be behind things from the moment he had recognized the red-haired woman, Noelle, on the boat. He had known it would be only a matter of time until they locked horns again. Charles was the head of an international terrorist organization that had been growing bolder and more challenging, while at the same time Charles himself had kept at a safe distance, protected by a web of technicalities and politics. Now he had come out into the open, to get Sabin. But he'd made one big mistake: his first attempt hadn't succeeded, and now Sabin knew that his own organization had been infiltrated. Charles couldn't afford to stop the search until Sabin was found, dead or alive.
When Kell didn't ask any questions Rachel shrugged and went into the bathroom to take off her makeup and change into her nightgown. His silence was unnerving; he probably used it as a weapon, to shake people off-balance and put them on the defensive. Well, she wasn't one of his minions; she was a woman who loved him.
Five minutes later she left the bathroom, her clothing draped over her arm. Sabin was sitting on the side of the bed, taking off his shoes. He kept his eyes on her while she hung her things in the closet, not looking away even when he stood to unzip his jeans.
"The nightgown is a waste of time," he drawled. "You might as well pull it off and put it back in that drawer."
Startled, Rachel looked around at him. He was standing by the bed, his hands on the fly of his jeans, and he was watching her with the concentrated attention with which a cat watches a mouse. The air around her suddenly sizzled with tension, and her throat went dry, forcing her to swallow. Slowly he slid down the zipper on his jeans, the denim spreading open in a vee to reveal bronzed skin and the vertical line of downy hair that arrowed down his lower abdomen into the thicker growth of hair just visible in his opened pants. The thick bulge beneath the denim clearly demonstrated his intention.
Her body leaped into immediate response, her heart beating faster and her breath racing in and out of her lungs. It had been like that from the beginning, and she had no more control over it now than she'd had then. He wanted her; that was more than obvious. But he didn't want to want her, and the knowledge hurt.
She swallowed again, pushing the closet door shut and leaning against it. "It's silly," she said, trying for a wry tone but failing miserably. Her voice was taut and shaking. "After this afternoon you'd think I'd be more comfortable about going to bed with you, but I'm not. I don't know what… what we have, if anything. I thought it would be clearer, but it isn't. What do you want from me?" She made a brief, dismissive gesture. "Other than sex."
Silently Kell swore. He was so good at holding people away from him that now, when he desperately wanted Rachel as close as he could get her for what time they had left, she still thought he was pushing her away. They had so little time together that the thought of not grabbing for every moment with her was unbearable, and he didn't know how to make her see that. Perhaps it was better if she didn't see it; perhaps it would be easier for her if she never knew how tempted he was to forget all his rules and priorities. But he had to have her, had to stockpile memories against the empty days in the future when she wouldn't be there. Even now she wasn't playing games, wasn't trying to hide behind lies to protect her pride. She was so honest that she deserved at least a fraction of the same honesty from him, no matter how it hurt. But the pain wasn't only hers.
He looked at her and said, "Everything. That's what I want. But I can't have it."
She quivered, and tears welled in her eyes. "You know you can have anything you want. All you have to do is reach out and take it."
Slowly he walked up to her and put his hand on her shoulder, sliding his fingers under the strap of her nightgown and stroking his rough fingertips over her warm, satiny skin. "At the risk of your life?" he asked in a low voice. "No. I couldn't live with that."
"You make it sound like a concrete fact that anyone close to you is a target. Other agents."
"Other agents aren't me," he interrupted quietly, his black eyes level on hers. "There are several renegade governments and terrorist groups that have a bounty on my head. Do you think I'd ask any woman to share that sort of life with me?"
She managed to smile through her tears. "Don't try to tell me you live like a monk. I know there have been women"
"No one close. No one special. No one who could be used or threatened in an attempt to get at me. I've tried it, honey. I was married, years ago before it got as bad as it is now. She was wounded in an attempt on my life. Being a smart woman, she got the hell away from me as fast as she could."
Not so smart, Rachel thought. She knew that she never would have let that drive her away from him. Her throat was so tight that she was almost choking on her words as she stared up at him, the tears finally overflowing and rolling down her cheeks. "It would be worth it, to be with you," she whispered. "I'd take the chance."
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I won't let you. I won't take the chance, not with your life." With one thumb he rubbed away the tears tracking her face.
"Isn't that my decision to make?"
He moved both his hands up to cup her face, sliding his fingers into her thick straight hair and tilting her face closer to his. "Not when you don't have any real idea of the danger involved. You pulled a little stint as an investigative reporter, and you notice more than is good for you, but you're as innocent as a baby when it comes to knowing what my work is really like. There are agents who live fairly normal lives, but I'm not one of them. I'm one of a very small minority. My existence isn't even admitted publicly."
She had gone pale, her face very still. "I know more about the risks involved than you think."
"No. You know the movie versions, the cleaned up, romanticized, glamorized crap."
Rachel suddenly jerked her head away from his touch, her hands clenched into fists. "You think so?" she rasped, her voice rough with pain. "My husband was killed by a car bomb meant for me. There was nothing cleaned up, romanticized, or glamorous about that. He died in my place! Ask me what I know about someone else paying the price for a risk I chose to take!" Tears began falling again, and she dashed them away, glaring fiercely at him. "Damn you, Kell Sabin! Do you think I want to love you? But at least I'm willing to take the chance, rather than run away from it the way you do!"