Diamond Bay (Chapter Seven)
He shook his head. "I'm too tired, and this damned headache is worse. I think I'll go back to bed."
He did look tired, but that wasn't surprising. He had been on his feet a lot, considering that he had just recovered full consciousness that morning. She was tired, too, the events of the day having sapped her energy. "Let me take a shower first. Then I'll help you get settled," she said, and he nodded in agreement.
She hurried through her shower and pulled on her most modest nightgown, then belted a light robe around her. He was waiting in the bedroom when she left the bath, and the rest of the house was dark. "That was fast," he said, smiling faintly. "I didn't know a woman could get out of a bathroom in less than half an hour."
"Chauvinist," she said mildly in reply, wondering if his smiles ever reached his eyes.
He unfastened the cutoffs and let them drop, then stepped out of them and limped into the bathroom. "I'll wash what I can reach, then call you to do the rest, all right?"
"Yes," she said, her throat tightening at the thought of feeling his body under her hands again. It wasn't as if she hadn't washed him before, but he was awake now, and he had kissed her. It was her own response to him that was making her nervous, not worrying over anything he might do. He was still too much of an invalid to make any serious advances.
There was no need for her to sleep with him now; it would be easier on both of them if she didn't make a big deal out of it and simply made a pallet before he came out of the bathroom. Thinking that, she took a couple of quilts from the top of the closet and unfolded them on the floor, then dragged a pillow from the bed and tossed it down. She wouldn't need a cover; her robe would be enough.
After twenty minutes he opened the door. "I'm ready for the reinforcements."
He wore only a towel knotted around his lean waist, and he was literally weaving on his feet. Rachel looked at him closely, concern driving away her nervousness. He was pale, the skin stretched tautly over his high cheekbones, but his lips were very red. "I think you're feverish again," she said, laying her hand against his cheek. He was too warm, but the fever wasn't nearly as high as it had been before. Quickly she lowered the lid on the toilet and helped him to sit down, then gave him two aspirin and a glass of water before she finished washing his torso, working as fast as she could. The sooner he was in bed, the better. She should have been looking for the fever to flare again after the way he'd pushed himself that day.
"Sorry about this," he muttered as she dried him. "I didn't intend to give out on you this way."
"You're not Superman," Rachel told him briskly. "Come on, let's get you in bed."
She helped him to stand, and he said, "Wait." Removing his right arm from around her shoulders, he tugged the towel loose from his waist and draped it over one of the towel racks. Totally and unconcernedly nude, he put his arm back around her shoulders and leaned on her heavily as she helped him walk to the bed. Rachel didn't know if she should laugh or get huffy with him, but in the end she decided to ignore his lack of clothing. It wasn't as if she hadn't seen him before, and if it didn't bother him, it shouldn't bother her.
Even though he was feverish and exhausted, nothing escaped his notice. He saw the pallet at the foot of the bed, and his dark, level brows lowered as his eyes narrowed. "What's that?"
He looked at it, then at her. His voice was quiet. "Get that damned thing up from there and get in bed with me, where you belong."
She gave him a long, cool look. "You're presuming a lot on the basis of one kiss. You're a lot better now. I won't need to get up with you during the night, so I don't need to sleep with you." "After sleeping with me that many times, why stop now? God knows it can't be modesty at this stage, and sex is out of the question. Any pass I made would be false advertising, and you know it."
She didn't want to laugh, didn't want him to know that his logic seemed very… logical. It wasn't the thought of what he might do that made her wary of sleeping with him now, but rather the knowledge of what it would mean to her to lie beside him in the night, to feel his weight and warmth in the bed next to her. She'd gotten used to sleeping alone, and it was painful to rediscover the subtle but powerful pleasure of sharing the dark hours with a man.
He put his hand on her throat, his callused thumb rubbing the sensitive tendons running down to her shoulder and making her shiver. "There's another reason why I want you to sleep with me."
She didn't know if she wanted to hear it. That cold, lethal expression was in his eyes again, the look of a man for whom there were no illusions, who had seen the worst and not been surprised. "I'll be right there, at the foot of the bed," she whispered.
"No. I want you at hand, so I'll know exactly where you are at all times. If I have to use the knife I want to make certain you don't accidentally get in the way."
She turned her head and looked at the knife, still lying there on the table beside the bed. "No one can break in without waking us."
"I'm not taking that chance. Get in the bed. Or we'll both sleep on the floor."
He meant it, and with a sigh she gave in; there was no use in both of them being uncomfortable. "All right. Let me get my pillow."
His hand dropped to his side, and Rachel retrieved her pillow, tossing it into place on the bed. Gingerly he eased between the sheets, and a low groan escaped him as he lay back, putting strain on his shoulder. She turned out the light and got into bed on the opposite side, pulling the sheet up over both of them and curling up in her usual position, just as if they had done this for years, but the casual pose was completely superficial. She was tightly knotted inside; his caution was catching. She doubted that he really expected the men who were hunting him to break into the house in the middle of the night, but he prepared himself, anyway.
The old house settled around them with comfortable squeaks and groans; in the evening silence she could hear the crickets chirping outside the window, but the familiar noises didn't reassure her. Her thoughts roamed restlessly, trying to piece her snippets of information into a coherent picture. He was on vacation, but he'd been ambushed? Why were they trying to get rid of him? Had he learned something they wanted suppressed? She wanted to ask him, but his quiet, even breathing told her that he had already gone to sleep, worn out from the day.
Without thinking, she reached out and put her hand on his arm. It was a purely automatic gesture, left over from the nights she had needed to be aware of his every movement.
There was no warning, only the lightning-fast strike of his right hand as his hard fingers clamped around her wrist with a force that bruised and twisted. Rachel cried out, in fear as much as pain, every nerve in her jolted by his attack. The hand that held her wrist slackened a little, and he muttered, "Rachel?"
"You're hurting me!" The involuntary protest was wrung from her, and he released her completely, sitting up in the bed and swearing softly under his breath.
Rachel rubbed her bruised wrist, staring up at the faint outline of his body against the darkness. "I think the pallet would be safer," she finally said, trying for lightness. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to touch you. It just… happened."
His voice was rough. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. My wrist is bruised, that's all."
He tried to turn toward her, but his injured shoulder stopped him, and he swore again, halting the movement.
"Climb over on this side, so I can sleep on my right side and hold you."
"I don't need holding, thank you." She was still feeling a little shaken by the way he'd reacted, as violently and swiftly as a snake striking. "You must have a hard time keeping bed partners." "You're the only woman I've slept with, in the literal sense, in years," he snapped. "Now do you want to take your chances on startling me again, or are you going to crawl over here?"
She got out of bed and walked around to the other side, and he slid over enough to make room for her. Without a word she lay down, turned her back to him and pulled the sheet up to cover them. In equal silence he positioned himself against her like a spoon, his thighs against the backs of hers, her bottom snuggling his loins, her back against his hard, broad chest His right arm went under her head, and his left one curved around her waist, anchoring her in place. Rachel closed her eyes, branded by his heat and wondering how much of it was fever. She'd forgotten how it felt to lie like this with a man, to feel his strength wrapped around her like a blanket. "What if I bang against your shoulder or leg?" she whispered.
"It'll hurt like hell," he replied dryly, his breath stirring her hair. "Go to sleep. Don't worry about it."
How could she not worry about hurting him, when she would rather die than cause him pain? She nestled her head into the pillow, feeling the iron hard strength of his arm beneath it; her hand slid beneath the pillow and lightly closed over his wrist, a touch that she had to have now. "Good night," she said, sinking into his warmth and letting drowsiness take over.
Sabin lay there, feeling her softness in his arms, the female sweetness of her scent in his nostrils and the remembered taste of her on his tongue. It felt too good, and that made him wary. It had been years since he'd actually slept with anyone; he had trained to such a fine, sharp edge that he hadn't been able to tolerate anyone close to him while he slept, including his ex-wife. Even while he'd been married he had still been essentially alone, both mentally and physically. It was odd that he could feel so comfortable now, with Rachel sleeping in his arms, as if he didn't need to be distant with her. He was innately cautious and solitary, on guard with everyone, including his own men; that trait had saved his life more than once. Maybe it was because he was already subconsciously accustomed to sleeping with her, to touching her and being touched by her, though that light touch on his arm had startled him into a violent reaction before he could catch himself.
For whatever reason, it felt good to hold her, to kiss her. She was a remarkably dangerous woman, because she tempted him in ways he'd never been tempted before. He thought of having sex with her. Every muscle in his body tightened, and he began to harden. Too bad he wasn't able to roll her onto her back and do all the things to her he wanted to do, but that would have to wait. He would have her, but he'd have to be very careful that it didn't become anything more than a good time. He couldn't afford to let it be anything else, for both of them.
Rachel woke slowly, so completely comfortable she was loath to open her eyes and start the day. She was normally an early riser, wide-awake as soon as her feet hit the floor, and she really liked the morning. But on this particular morning she had burrowed deeply into her pillow, her body warm and relaxed, and she was aware of having slept better than she had in years. But where was Kell? She was immediately aware that he wasn't in the bed; her eyes popped open, and she was out of bed before the thought was even completed. The bathroom door was open, so he wasn't in there. "Kell?" she called, hurrying out of the bedroom.
The answering call came from the back, and she almost ran to the rear door, which was standing open. He was sitting on the steps, wearing only the denim shorts, and Joe was lying on the grass at his feet. Ebenezer Duck and his faithful flock were waddling around the backyard, peacefully hunting insects. The rain the night before had left everything so fresh it almost hurt to look at it, and now the sun lit a dark-blue sky that didn't have a cloud in sight It was a remarkably peaceful morning, warm and sweet.
"How did you get out of bed without waking me?"
Bracing his hand on the step, he pushed himself to a standing position; she noticed that he seemed to be moving more easily than he had the day before. He faced her through the screen. "You were tired after taking care of me for four days."
"You're getting around better."
"I feel stronger, and my head isn't hurting." He opened the screen door and hesitated for a moment, his black eyes swiftly running down her body. It was all she could do to keep from folding her arms across her chest, but she knew that the gown she'd chosen didn't reveal anything, so the gesture would have been futile. She probably looked a mess, with her hair uncombed, but she'd seen him at his worst, so she wasn't going to worry about that, either.
"I'm too used to playing mother hen," she said, laughing a little. "When you weren't in the bed I panicked. But since you're all right, I'll go get dressed and make breakfast."
"Don't get dressed on my account," he drawled, a comment she ignored as she walked away. Kell watched until she was out of sight, then slowly made his way back up the steps and inside. He latched the screen door behind him. She didn't play games by wearing slinky nightgowns and then pretending to be embarrassed by what was revealed, but she didn't have to. With that pink flowered nightgown and her tousled hair, she looked warm and sleepy and so damned soft a man could sink into her. That was exactly what he'd wanted to do when he awoke to find that her nightgown had ridden up during the night and he was pressed against her bare thighs, with only the thin nylon of her panties keeping him from her. He'd become so aroused that he'd had to get out of bed, to remove himself from the temptation of her body. He swore impatiently at his own physical disability, because it kept him from taking her the way he wanted to take her, hard and fast and deep.
In only a few minutes she came back into the kitchen, her hair brushed out and pulled up on each side of her head with a wine-red butterfly clip. She was still barefoot, and she wore denim shorts so old that they were almost white, along with an oversize maroon jersey with the tail knotted at her waist. Her tanned face was completely free of makeup. She was comfortable with herself, he realized. She could probably stop traffic when she did deck herself out in silk and jewels, but she would do so only when she felt like it, not for someone else's benefit. She was self-assured, and Kell liked that; he was so dominant that it took a strong woman not to be completely overpowered by him, not to shrink from him both in bed and out.
Working with an economy of motion, she put on the coffee and started the bacon frying. Until those twin aromas started filling the air he hadn't been aware of how hungry he was, but abruptly his mouth began watering. She put biscuits in the oven, whipped four eggs for scrambling, then peeled and sliced a cantaloupe. Her clear gray eyes turned toward him. "This would be easier if I had my best knife."
Sabin seldom laughed or was even amused, but the dry, chiding tone of her voice made him want to smile. He leaned against the work island to take the weight off his injured leg, unwilling to argue. He needed a means of self-defense, even if it was just a kitchen knife. Both logic and instinct insisted on it. "Do you have any sort of gun around here?"
Rachel deftly turned the bacon. "I have a .22 rifle under the bed, and a .357 loaded with ratshot in the glove compartment of the car."
Swift irritation rose in him; why hadn't she said anything about them the day before? Then she gave him another of those long, level looks, and he knew she was just waiting for him to say something. Why should she give a gun to a man who had held a knife on her? "What if I'd needed them during the night?"
"I don't have any shells for the .357 other than ratshot, so I discounted it," she replied calmly. "The .22 was within reach, and I not only know how to use it, I have two good arms as opposed to your one." She felt safe at Diamond Bay, but common sense dictated that she have some means of protection; she was a woman who lived alone, without close neighbors. Both the weapons she had were for what her grandfather had called "varmints," though anyone looking down the barrel of the .357 wouldn't know that it was loaded with ratshot. She had chosen both for self-protection, not for killing. He paused, his black eyes narrowed. "Why tell me now?"
"One, because you told me who you are. Two, because you asked. Three, even without the knife, you weren't unarmed. Handicapped, but not helpless."
"What do you mean?"
She looked down at his hard, brown bare feet. "The calluses on the outside edges of your feet, and on your hands. Not many people have them. You work out barefoot, don't you?"
When he spoke his voice was quiet and silky, and it raised a chill along her spine. "You notice a lot, honey."
She nodded in agreement. "Yes."
"Most people wouldn't think anything about calluses."
Just for a moment Rachel hesitated, her gaze turned inward, before she resumed setting the table and checking the food. "My husband took extra training. He had calluses on his hands, too."
Something tightened inside him, twisting, and his fingers slowly curled. He darted a quick glance at her slim, tanned, ringless hands. "You're divorced?"
"No. I'm a widow."
She nodded again and began dishing up the eggs and bacon, then checked the biscuits in the oven. They were just right, golden brown on top, and she quickly turned them out into the breadbasket. "It's been a long time," she finally said. "Five years." Then her voice changed and became brisk again. "Wash up before the biscuits get cold."
She was, he reflected a few minutes later, a damned good cook. The eggs were fluffy, the bacon crisp, the biscuits light, the coffee just strong enough. Homemade pear preserves dripped golden juice over the biscuits, and the yellow cantaloupe was ripe and sweet. There was nothing fancy about it, but it all fit together, and even the colors were harmonious. It was simply another facet of her competent nature. Just as he was savoring his third biscuit she said serenely, "Don't expect this every day. Some mornings I have cereal and fruit for breakfast. I'm just trying to build up your strength." Her manner hid the satisfaction she felt in watching this coldly controlled man eat with such obvious enjoyment.
He leaned back in his chair, taking his time as he examined the twinkle in her eyes and the smile that was barely hidden by the coffee cup she held in her elegant hands. She was teasing him, and he couldn't remember the last time anyone had actually dared to tease him. Probably back in high school, some giddy, giggling teenage girl trying out her newfound powers of seduction and daring to use them on the boy even the teachers considered "dangerous." He'd never actually done anything to make them think that; it had simply been the way he looked at them, with that cold, level gaze as black as a night in hell. Rachel dared to tease him because she was certain of herself, and because of that certainty she met him as an equal. She wasn't afraid of him, despite what she knew, or had guessed.
In time. He'd have her, sooner or later.
"You're going about it the right way," he said, finally responding to her teasing statement. Rachel wondered if he did it deliberately, waiting so long before answering. He could either be thinking about what he wanted to say, or those long pauses could be designed to tilt the other person a little off-balance. Everything he did was so controlled that she didn't think it was a habit; it was a deliberate tactic.
There could be a double meaning to his words, but Rachel chose to take them at face value. "If that's a bribe to keep me cooking like this, it won't work. It's too hot to eat a big meal three times a day. More coffee?"
As she poured the coffee she asked, "How long are you planning to stay?"
He waited until she had set the pot back on its warming pad and returned to her seat before he answered. "Until I get over this, and can walk and use my shoulder again. Unless you want me gone, and then it's up to you when you throw me out."
Well, that was plain enough, Rachel thought. He'd stay while he was recuperating, but that was it. "Do you have any idea what you're going to do?"
He leaned his forearms on the table. "Get well. That's the first item on the list. I have to find out how deeply we've been compromised. There's still one man I can call when I need him, but I'll wait until I've recovered before I do anything. One man alone won't stand much of a chance. I have three weeks left of my vacation. Three weeks that they'll have to keep this quiet, unless my body just 'happens' to wash up somewhere. Without my body they're stalled. They can't make any moves to replace me until I'm officially dead, or missing."
"What happens if you don't turn up at work in three weeks?"
"My file will be erased from all records. Codes will be changed, agents reassigned, and I will officially cease to exist."
"Dead, captured, or turned."
Three weeks. At the most she would have three weeks with him. The time seemed so pitifully short, but she wasn't going to ruin it by moaning and sulking because things weren't turning out just the way she wanted. She had learned the hard way that "forever" could be heartbreakingly brief. If these three weeks were to be all she had with him, then she would smile and take care of him, even argue with him if she felt like it, help him in any way she could… cherish him… then wave goodbye to this dark warrior and keep her tears for herself, after he had gone. It didn't give her much comfort to know that women had probably been doing that exact thing for centuries.
He was thinking, his lashes lowered over his eyes while he stared into his coffee cup. "I want you to make another shopping trip."
"Sure," Rachel said easily. "I meant to ask you if the pants were the right size."
"Everything's the right size. You have a good eye. No, I want you to get hollowpoint ammunition for that .357, a good supply of it. The same for the rifle. You'll be reimbursed."
Being reimbursed was the last of Rachel's worries, and she felt a flare of resentment that he'd even mentioned it. "Are you sure you don't want me to buy a couple of deer rifles while I'm at it? Or a .44 Magnum?"
To her surprise he took her sarcasm seriously. "No. I don't want you on record as having purchased any type of weapon since the date I disappeared."
That startled her, and she leaned back. "You mean records of this sort that are likely to be checked?"
"For anyone in this area."
Rachel looked at him for a long, long time, her gray eyes drifting over the hard planes of his face and the closed expression in his eyes, eyes that were older than time. At last she whispered, "Who are you, that anyone would go to such lengths to kill you?"
"They'd rather take me alive," he replied dryly. "It's my job to make certain that never happens."
One corner of his mouth quirked upward in what passed for a smile, though it was totally humorless. "Because I'm the best at what I do."
It wasn't much of an answer, but then he was good at answering questions without giving any information. The details that he'd told her had been carefully considered, chosen to exact the response from her that he wanted. It wasn't necessary; Rachel knew that she would do whatever she could to help him.
She drained the last of her coffee and stood up. "I have chores to do before it gets too hot; the dishes can wait until later. Do you want to come outside with me, or stay in here and rest?"
"I need to move around," he said, getting up and following her outside. He slowly limped around the yard, taking in every detail, while Rachel fed Joe and the geese, then set to work gathering the ripe vegetables from the garden. When he tired, Kell sat down on the back steps and watched her work, his eyes narrowed against the sun.
Rachel Jones had a comfortable way about her that made him feel relaxed. Her life was peaceful, her small house cozy, and that hot Southern sun burned down on his skin…. Everything here was seductive, in one way or another. The meals she cooked and shared with him brought up stray thoughts of what it would be like to have breakfast with her every day, and those thoughts were more dangerous to him than any weapon.
He'd tried to have a normal private life once, but it hadn't worked out. Marriage hadn't brought the intimacy he'd expected; the sex had been good, and regular, but after the act was finished he'd still been solitary, set apart by nature and circumstance from the rest of the world. He'd been fond of his wife, as far as it went, but that was it. She hadn't been able to scale the barriers to reach the inside man; maybe she'd never even realized he existed. Certainly she either hadn't realized or hadn't wanted to face the true nature of his job. Marilyn Sabin had looked on her husband as merely one of the thousands of men who held civil service desk jobs in Washington, D.C. He went to work in the mornings and he returnedusuallyat night. She was busy with her own growing law practice and often had to work late hours, so she understood. She was a fastidious woman, so Kell's cool, distant character had suited her perfectly, and she'd never made any effort to see beyond the surface to the complicated man beneath.
Kell turned his face up to the sun, feeling everything in him loosen up and slow down. Marilyn… it had been years since he'd even thought of her, an illustration of how shallowly she had touched him. The divorce hadn't elicited any response from him other than a shrug; hell, she would have been crazy to have stayed with him after what happened.
The attempt on his life had been clumsy, not well planned or well executed at all. He and Marilyn had been out to dinner, one of the few times in their married life that they had been out together socially, and never to one of the ritzy in places that Marilyn loved so dearly. Kell had seen the sniper as soon as they left the restaurant and acted immediately, shoving Marilyn down and rolling for cover himself. His action had saved Marilyn's life, because she had kept walking and ended up between Kell and the sniper, who had fired almost simultaneously with Kell's shove, wounding Marilyn in the right arm.
That night had forever changed the way Marilyn viewed her husband, and she hadn't liked the new view at all. She'd seen the cool way he had tracked and cornered his assailant, seen the short, vicious fight that left the other man unconscious on the ground, heard the biting authority in Kell's voice as he gave orders to the men who arrived shortly and took over. One of those men took her to a hospital, where she was treated and kept overnight, while Kell spent the night piecing together how the sniper had learned where he would be that evening. The answer, obviously, had been Marilyn. She saw no reason to be secretive about her movements or the fact that she would be dining with her husband that night, or where; she'd truly had no idea how dangerous and highly classified her husband's job was, nor had she been interested in learning.
By the time Kell collected her at the hospital the next day their marriage was over in every way except legally. The first words Marilyn had said to him, very calmly, were that she wanted a divorce. She didn't know what it was he did, didn't want to know, but she wasn't going to risk her own life being married to him while he did it. It might have piqued her vanity a bit when Kell agreed so easily, but he'd been doing some thinking during the night, too, and had reached basically the same conclusion, though for different reasons.
Kell didn't blame her for getting a divorce; it had been the wise thing to do. The close call had shaken him, because it had illustrated how easily he could be reached through the very person who was supposed to be closest to him. It had been a mistake for him even to attempt to have a normal private life, considering who he was and what he did. Other men could manage it, but other men weren't Kell Sabin, whose particular talents put him on the leading edge of danger. If there was any one man in intelligence whom other agencies wanted to take out of commission, it was Kell Sabin. Because he was a target, anyone close to him was automatically a target, too.
It had taught him a lesson. He had never again let anyone get close enough to him that they could be used against him, or hurt in an effort to get to him. He had chosen his life, because he was both a realist and a patriot, and he was willing to pay whatever price he had to, but he was determined to never again involve an innocent, a civilian, one of the very people whose lives and freedom he was sworn to protect.
He'd never been tempted to marry again, or even to take a mistress. Sex was casual, never on a regular basis with the same woman, and he always carefully limited the number of times he saw anyone in particular. It had worked out well.
Until Rachel. She tempted him. Damn, how she tempted him! She was nothing like Marilyn; she was comfortable and casual, where Marilyn had been fastidious and chic. She knewsomehow, she knewtoo much about his way of life in general, while Marilyn hadn't realized even a fraction that much about him in the years they were married.
But it simply wouldn't work. He couldn't allow it to work. He watched Rachel as she worked in her small garden, content with her chores. Sex with her would be hot and long, writhing on that bed with her, and she wouldn't worry if he mussed her hair or smeared her makeup. To protect her, he had to make certain that sex was all it ever was. When he walked out of her life it would be for good, and for her own good. He owed her too much to risk any harm coming to her.
She straightened from her bent position and stretched, reaching her arms high in the air; the movement thrust her breasts upward against the thin fabric of her shirt. Then she picked up her basket and picked her way across the rows of vegetables toward him; Joe left his position at the end of the row and followed her to find shade under the back steps. There was a smile on Rachel's face as she approached Kell, her gray eyes warm and clear, her slim body moving gracefully. He watched her approach, aware of her in every cell of his body. No, there was no way he'd endanger her by staying any longer than was necessary; the real danger was that he was so hungry for her that he might be tempted to see her again, something he couldn't let happen.