Diamond Bay (Chapter Six)
"Hanging in there," he grunted.
"Help me get his shirt off," she said to Rachel, and the two women gently and efficiently stripped him. He was glad that he'd chosen to wear the cutoffs, or they would have had his pants off, too. He didn't have any modesty to worry about, but it still disconcerted him to be handled like a Barbie doll. He dispassionately observed the purpled, puckered skin around the stitches in his leg, wondering about the extent of the muscle damage. It was essential that he be able to do more than hobble, and soon. The damage to his shoulder, with its complex system of muscle and tendons, was likely to be more permanent, but mobility was his greatest concern at the moment. Once he had decided what course of action to take he would need to move fast.
Fresh bandages were applied, and he was put back inside his shirt. "I'll be back in a couple of days to take out the stitches," Honey said, repacking her bag. It struck Sabin that not once had she asked his name or any other question that didn't deal with his physical well-being. Either she was remarkably incurious or she had decided that the less she knew, the better. It was a view that he wished Rachel shared. Sabin had always made it a rule not to involve innocent citizens; his work was too dangerous, and though he knew the risks of his job and accepted them, there was really no way Rachel could comprehend the extent of the risk she was taking in helping him.
Rachel went out with Honey, and Sabin hobbled to the door to watch as they stood by Honey's car, talking in low voices. The dog, Joe, took up a position at the foot of the steps, a low growl working in his throat as he turned first to watch Sabin at the door, then back to Rachel, as if he couldn't decide where to place his attention. His foremost instinct was to guard Rachel, but those same instincts couldn't allow him to ignore Sabin's alien presence at the door.
Honey got in the car and drove off, and after a final wave Rachel walked back to the porch. "Calm down," she admonished the dog softly, daring to give him a swift touch on the neck. His growl intensified, and she looked up to see Sabin coming out on the porch.
"Don't come too close to him," she warned. "He doesn't like men."
Sabin regarded the dog with remote curiosity. "Where did you get him? He's a trained attack dog."
Astonished, Rachel looked down at Joe, standing so close by her leg. "He just wandered up one day, all skinny and beat-up. We reached an understanding. I feed him, and he stays around. He's not an attack dog."
"Joe," Sabin said sharply. "Heel."
She felt the animal quiver as if he'd been struck, and blood-chilling snarls worked up from his throat as he stared at the man, every muscle in his big body quivering as if he longed to launch himself at his enemy but was chained to Rachel's side. Before she thought of the danger she went down on one knee and put her arm around his neck, talking softly to him in reassurance. "It's allright," she crooned. "He won't hurt you, I promise. Everything's all right."
When Joe was calmer Rachel went up on the porch and deliberately stroked Sabin's arm, letting the dog see her. Sabin watched Joe, unafraid of the dog, but not pushing him, either. He needed to have Joe accept him, at least enough to let him leave the house without attacking.
"He was probably abused by his owner," he said. "You're lucky he didn't have you for breakfast the first time you walked out of the house."
"I think you're wrong. It's a possibility that he was a guard dog, but I don't think he was trained to attack. You owe him a lot. If it hadn't been for him, I couldn't have gotten you up from the beach." Suddenly she realized that her hand was still on his arm, slowly moving up and down, and she let her arm fall to her side. "Are you ready to go back inside? You must be tired by now."
"In a minute." He slowly surveyed the pine thicket to the right and the road that curved away to the left, committing distances and details to memory for future use. "How far are we from a main road?"
"About five or six miles, I guess. This is a private road. It joins the road from Rafferty's ranch before it runs into U.S. 19."
"Which way is the beach?"
She pointed to the pine thicket. "Down through the pines."
"Do you have a boat?"
Rachel looked at him, her gray eyes very clear. "No. The only means of escape are on foot or driving."
The faintest smile lifted one corner of his mouth. "I wasn't going to steal your car."
"Weren't you? I still don't know what's going on, why you were shot, or even if you're a good guy."
"With those doubts, why haven't you called the police?" he returned, his voice cool. "I obviously wasn't wearing a white hat when you found me."
He was going to stonewall it to the end, the ultimate professional, alone and unemotional. Rachel accepted that she wasn't entitled to full knowledge of his situation, even though she had saved his life, but she would very much like to know that she had done the right thing. Though she had acted on her instincts, the uncertainty was gnawing at her. Had she saved a rogue agent? An enemy of her country? What would she do if it turned out to be that way? The worst part of it was the undeniable and growing attraction she felt for him, even against her own better judgment.
He didn't say anything else, and she didn't respond to his provoking mention of his lack of clothing when she'd found him. She glanced at Joe and turned to open the screen door. "I'm getting out of this heat. You can take your chances with Joe if you want to stay out here."
Sabin followed her inside, measuring the unyielding straightness of her back. She was angry, but she was also disturbed. He would have liked to reassure her, but the hard truth was that the less she knew, the safer she was. He had no way of protecting her in his present condition and circumstances. The fact that she was protecting him, willingly endangering herself even though her guesses ranged uncomfortably close to the truth, did something unwanted to his insides. Hell, he thought in disgust at himself, everything about her did something to his insides. He was already familiar with the scent of her flesh and the tender, startlingly intimate touch of her hands. His body still felt the press of hers against him, making him want to reach out and pull her back. He had never needed another human being's closeness, except for the physical closeness required for sex. He eyed her bare, slender legs and softly rounded buttocks; the sexual urge was there, all right, and damned strong, considering his general physical condition. The dangerous part of it was that the thought of lying in the darkness with her and simply holding her was at least as attractive as the thought of taking her.
He leaned in the doorway and watched as she efficiently finished cleaning the dishes. There was a brisk, economical grace to her movements, even while she was doing such a mundane task. Everything was organized and logical. She wasn't a fussy woman. Even her clothing was plain and unadorned, though her beige shorts and simple blue cotton shirt didn't need any adornment other than the soft feminine curves beneath them. Again he was aware of the tantalizing image of those curves, just as if he knew how she looked naked, had already had his hands on her.
"Why are you staring?" she asked without looking at him. She had been as aware of his gaze as she would have been of his touch.
"Sorry." He didn't explain, but, then, he doubted that she would really want to know. "I'm going back to bed. Will you help me with the shirt?"
"Of course." She wiped her hands on a towel and went ahead of him to the bedroom. "Let me change the sheets first."
Fatigue pulled at him as he leaned against the dresser to ease the strain of his weight on his left leg. His shoulder and leg throbbed, but the pain was to be expected, so he ignored it. The real problem was his lack of strength; he wouldn't be able to protect Rachel or himself if anything happened. Did he dare remain here while he healed? His brooding gaze remained fixed on her as she put fresh linens on the bed, his available options running through his mind. Those options were severely limited. He had no money, no identification, and he didn't dare call to be picked up, because he had no idea of the extent to which the agency had been compromised, or who he could trust. He wasn't in any shape to do anything anyway; he had to recuperate, so it might as well be here. The small house had its advantages: the dog outside was a damned good defense; the locks were strong; he had food and medical care.
There was also Rachel.
Looking at her was easy; it could become an uncontrollable habit. She was slim and healthy-looking, with a honeyed tan that made her skin look luscious. Her hair was thick and straight and shiny, a dark ash-brown so completely lacking in any warm highlights that it almost had a silvery sheen. It went well with her wide, clear, lake-gray eyes. She wasn't tall, less than medium height, but she carried herself so straight that she gave the impression of being a tall woman. And she was soft, with rounded breasts that nestled into his palms….
Damn! The image was so real, so strong, that it kept creeping back. If it was only a fever-induced dream, it was the most realistic he had ever known. But if it had really happened, when and how? He had been unconscious most of the time, and out of his head with fever even when he'd been awake. Yet he kept reliving the sensation of her hands on him, stroking gently, with the open intimacy of lovers, and he had either had his hands on her or his imagination had lurched into overdrive.
She plumped the pillows and turned to him. "Do you want to sleep in your shorts?"
For an answer he unsnapped the cutoffs and let them drop, then sat down on the bed so she could work the shirt off his shoulder. The warm, faintly floral scent of her enveloped him as she leaned close, and he instinctively turned his head toward it, his mouth and nose pressing into her shoulder. She hesitated, then quickly freed him from the shirt and moved away from his touch. The moist warmth of his breath had heated her skin through the fabric of her shirt and played havoc with the even rhythm of her heartbeat. Trying not to let him see how his nearness had affected her, she neatly folded the shirt and placed it on a chair, then picked up his cutoffs and placed them on top of the shirt. When she looked at him again he was lying on his back, his right leg bent at the knee and raised, his right arm resting across his stomach. His white briefs contrasted sharply with his bronzed skin, reminding her that he didn't have any tan lines on his body. She groaned inwardly. Why did she have to think about that now?
"Do you want the sheet over you?"
"No, the fan feels good." He lifted his right hand from his stomach and held it out to her. "Sit here for a minute."
Her mind told her that it wasn't a good idea. She sat down, anyway, just as she had done so many times since he'd been in her bed, her body angled to face him and her hip against his side. He draped his arm over her thighs, his hand cradling the curve of her hip as if to keep her nestled against him. His fingers, curving around to her buttock, began to move caressingly, and her heart started pounding again. She looked up to meet his eyes and was unable to look away, caught by the mesmerizing black fire.
"I can't give you all the answers you want," he murmured. "I don't know them myself. Even if I tell you I'm a good guy, you'd still only have my word for it, and why would I cut my own throat by telling you anything else?"
"Don't play devil's advocate," she said sharply, wishing she could find the will to break away from the seductive power of his gaze and touch. "Let's deal in facts. You were shot. Who shot you?"
"I was ambushed, set up by one of my own menTod Ellis."
"The same, from the description you gave."
"Then make a call and turn him in."
"It isn't as simple as that. I'm on a month's vacation from the agency. Only two men knew my location, both of them my superiors."
Rachel sat very still. "One of them betrayed you, but you don't know which one."
"Perhaps both of them."
"Can't you contact someone higher up?"
Something cold and furious flashed in his eyes. "Sweetheart, you can't get much higher. I'm not even certain I can get through. Either one of them has the power to declare me an outlaw, and calling from here would endanger you."
Rachel felt the icy power of his rage and shivered inside, thankful that she wasn't the one who had crossed him. The look in his eyes was in direct contrast to the touch of his fingertips on her hip. How could his touch remain so gentle, while the wrath of hell glittered in his eyes?
"What are you going to do?"
His fingers trailed down her hip to her thigh and rubbed across the hem of her shorts, then gently glided beneath it. "Recuperate. I can't do a damned thing right now, including dress myself. The problem is that I'm putting you in danger just by being here."
She couldn't control her breathing, or her pulse rate. Heat was building inside her, destroying her ability to think and leaving her to operate purely on her senses. She knew she should move his hand, but the rasp of his rough fingertips on her thigh was so pleasurable that all she could do was sit there, quivering slightly like a leaf in a soft spring breeze. Did he normally treat women as if they were his to touch as he wished, or had he picked up on her uncontrollable responses to him? She thought she had disguised them well, kept them to herself, but perhaps his job had made his senses and intuitions more acute. Desperately she made herself move, putting her hand on top of his to prevent it from moving any higher.
"You didn't put me in danger," she said, her voice a little hoarse. "I made the decision without your help."
Despite her controlling hand, his fingers moved higher and found the edge of her panties. "I have a question that's been driving me crazy," he admitted in a low voice. He moved his hand again, delving beneath the elastic leg of her panties and curving his fingers over the cool bareness of her buttock.
A whimper escaped her before she bit her lip, controlling the wild little sound. How could he do this to her with just his touch? "Stop," she whispered. "You have to stop."
"Have we been sleeping together?"
Her breasts had tightened painfully, begging for that touch to be transferred to them, for him to claim them as he had before. His question destroyed what little concentration she had left. "This… there's only this one bed. I don't have a couch, only the love seats"
"So we've been in the same bed for four days," he interrupted, stopping a flow of words that she had felt edging toward incoherency. His eyes were glittering again, but this time with a different fire, and she couldn't look away. "You've been taking care of me."
She drew a deep, shuddering breath. "Yes."
"You've been feeding me."
"Yes. Your feverI had to sponge you with cool water to keep it down."
"You did everything that had to be done, took care of me like a baby."
She didn't know what to say, what to do. His hand was still on her, his palm warm and hard against the softness of her flesh.
"You touched me," he said. "All over."
She swallowed. "It was necessary."
"I remember your hands on me. I liked it, but when I woke up this morning I thought it was a dream."
"You did dream," she said.
"Have I seen you naked?"
"Then how do I know what your breasts look like? How they feel in my hands? It wasn't all a dream, Rachel. Was it?"
A hot, wild blush colored her face, giving him an answer even before she spoke. Her voice was stifled, and she looked away from him, her embarrassment at last freeing her from his gaze. "Twice, when you woke up, you… uh…grabbed me."
"Helped myself to the goodies?"
"Something like that."
"And I saw you?"
She made a helpless gesture toward her neck. "My nightgown drooped when I bent over you. The neckline was hanging open…."
"Was I rough?"
"No," she whispered.
"Did you like it?"
This had to stop, right now, though she had a feeling that it was already too late, that she should never have sat down on the bed. "Move your hand," she said, trying desperately to put some strength into her voice. "Let me go."
He obeyed without hesitation, triumph stamped on his hard, dark face. She shot up from the bed, her face on fire. What an utter fool she had made of herself! He probably wouldn't be able to sleep for laughing at her. She was at the door before he spoke, his voice momentarily freezing her to the spot.
She didn't want to turn, didn't want to look at him, but the way he said her name was a command that pulled at her like a magnet. Lying down didn't diminish his power; being wounded didn't diminish it. He was a man born to dominate, and he did it effortlessly, with the sheer strength of his will.
"If I could, I'd come after you. You wouldn't get away."
Her voice was as quiet as his, rising only slightly above the whir of the ceiling fan in the cool, dim room. "I might," she said, and closed the door gently behind her as she left the room.
She wanted to cry, but she didn't, because crying never solved anything. She hurt inside, and she felt restless. Lust. She had identified it almost immediately, had properly labeled the source of her undeniable and, evidently, uncontrollable attraction to him. She could have handled it if it had remained merely lust, for lust was a human appetite, the perfectly normal reaction of one sex to another. She could have acknowledged it, then ignored it. What she couldn't ignore was the growing emotional impact he had on her. She had sat there on the bed and let him fondle her, not because she was physically attracted to him, though God knew that was the truth, but because he had rapidly become far too important to her.
Rachel's refuge was work; it had saved her when B.B. died, and she sought it instinctively now. Her study was small and cluttered with both her work and memorabilia: books, magazines, clipped articles and family photographs crowded together on every available space. It was comfortable for her; it was here that she immersed herself in her interests, and despite the clutter she knew where everything was. It wasn't until her eyes fell on her favorite picture of B.B. that she realized she wasn't going to find the comfort she sought in this room. There couldn't be any hiding from herself; she had to face it, and face it now.
Slowly her fingers traced B.B.'s smiling face. He had been best friend, husband and lover, a man whose cheerful manner had hidden a strong character and firm sense of responsibility. They had had so much fun together! There were still times when she missed him so much that she thought she would never get over the sense of loss, even though she knew that wasn't what B.B. would have wanted. He would have wanted her to enjoy her life, to love again with all the passion she was capable of, to have children, to pursue her career, to have everything. She wanted that, too, but somehow she had never been able to imagine having it without B.B. and he was gone.
They had both known and accepted the risks of their jobs. They had even talked about them, holding hands in the night and discussing the danger they faced, as if by bringing it out in the open they could hold it at bay. Her job as an investigative reporter had made it inevitable that she would step on toes, and Rachel was very good at anything she chose to do. B.B.'s job with the Drug Enforcement Administration was inherently dangerous.
Perhaps B.B. had had a premonition. His hand strong around hers in the darkness, he had once said, "Honey, if anything ever happens to me, remember that I know the possibilities and I'm willing to take the risks. I think it's a job worth doing, and I'm going to do my best at it, the same way you won't back down from a story that's getting too hot for comfort. Accidents happen to people who never take any risks at all. Playing it safe isn't a guarantee. Who knows? With the noses you put out of joint, your job may turn out to be more dangerous than mine."
Prophetic words. Within the year B.B. was dead. An investigation Rachel was making into a politician's background had turned up a connection with illegal drugs. She didn't have any proof, but her questions must have been making the politician itchy. One morning she had been late to catch a flight to Jacksonville and her car had been low on gas. B.B. had tossed her the keys to his. "Drive mine," he'd said. "I have plenty of time to get gas on the way to work. See you tonight, honey."
But he hadn't. Ten minutes after her flight left the ground B.B. started her car and a bomb wired to the ignition killed him instantly.
Haunted by grief, she had finished the investigation, and now the politician was serving a life sentence without parole for both his drug dealings and his part in B.B.'s death. Then she had given up investigative reporting and returned to Diamond Bay to try to find again some sense of life for herself. Peace, hard won but finally hers, had let her find pleasure in work again, and in the quiet tenor of life here on the bay. She had contentment, peace and pleasure, but hadn't come close to loving again; she hadn't even been tempted. She hadn't wanted to date, hadn't wanted a man's kiss, or touch, or company.
Until now. Her forefinger gently touched the glass that covered B.B.'s crooked grin. It was incredibly painful and difficult to fall in love. What an apt phrase it was! "Falling in love." She was definitely falling, unable to stop her whirling, headlong plunge, even though she wasn't certain she was ready for it. She felt like a fool. After all, what did she know about Kell Sabin? Enough for her emotions to go wildly out of control, that was for certain! She had somehow started loving him from the first, her intuition sensing that he would be important to her. Why else had she fought so desperately to hide him, to protect him? Would she have taken the risk of caring for any other stranger? It would be romantic of her to assume that it was predestination; another explanation was an ancient one, that a life belonged to the one who saved it. Was it a primitive predilection, a sort of bonding forged by danger?
At that point in her thoughts Rachel gave a wry laugh at herself. What difference did it make? She could sit there all night thinking of plausible and implausible explanations, but they wouldn't change a thing. She was, regardless of will and logic, already half in love with the man, and it was getting worse.
He was trying to seduce her. Oh, he wasn't in any physical shape for it, but given his superb conditioning and strength he would probably recover much faster than an ordinary person. Part of her shivered in excitement at the thought of making love with him, but another part, more cautious, warned her not to let herself become that involved with him. To do so would be to take an even larger risk than hiding him and nursing him back to health had been. She wasn't afraid of the physical risk, but the emotional price she might have to pay for loving such a man could be crippling.
She took a deep breath. She couldn't limit her emotions and responses to carefully measured dollops, like following a recipe. Her nature wasn't that controlled and unemotional. All she could do was accept the fact that she loved him, or was growing to love him, and deal with it from there.
B.B.'s photographed gaze looked back at her. It wasn't a betrayal to love someone else; he would want her to love again.
It was wrenching to accept the idea; Rachel didn't love lightly. When she gave herself it was with all the passion of her emotions, which wasn't an easy or casual way to love. The man in her bed wouldn't welcome her devotion; it didn't take a crystal ball to tell that he was one of those men who combined icy unemotionalism with fiery sensuality. He lived for the danger of his job, and it was a job that didn't encourage emotional ties. He could take her with raw, hungry passion, then calmly walk away and return to the life he had chosen.
Wryly she looked around the study; she wasn't going to be able to work, after all. Her emotions were too turbulent to allow her to sink into either planning her class or working on her manuscript. She had gotten her hero into a sticky situation, but could it be any stickier than the one she found herself in? Actually, she could use some practical advice. A smile suddenly lit her face. She had an expert in her bedroom; why not use his knowledge while he was there? If nothing else, it would help occupy his time. To occupy her time, she could finish weeding the garden now that it was late afternoon and the sun's ferocious heat had abated somewhat. She might as well do something practical.
The twilight was rapidly fading and she had almost finished her chore, when she heard the simultaneous creak of the screen door at the back steps and Joe's explosive, furious spring from his position at the end of the row where she was working. Rachel screamed Joe's name as she jumped to her feet, knowing that she'd never be able to reach the dog in time to stop him.
Sabin didn't retreat. Joe hesitated when Rachel screamed at him, his attention momentarily split, and Sabin used the interval to ease himself down into a sitting position on the steps. It left him vulnerable, but it also took him out of a threatening position. Joe stopped four feet away, his face contorted, the fur on his neck raised as he crouched.
"Stay back," Sabin said evenly as Rachel approached from the side, trying to put herself between Sabin and the dog. She was far too willing to use herself as a shield; he didn't think the dog would intentionally hurt her, but if the dog attacked and Rachel tried to protect him… He had to reach an understanding with Joe, and it might as well be now.
Rachel stopped as he'd directed, but she spoke softly to the dog, trying to calm him. If he attacked she wasn't strong enough to wrestle him off of Sabin. What was he thinking of, coming out like that, when he knew Joe didn't like men?
"Joe, heel," Sabin said firmly.
Just as it had earlier, the command sent Joe into a paroxysm of rage. She edged closer, ready to leap if Joe made any move to attack. Sabin gave her a warning glance.
"Joe, heel." He repeated the command over and over, always in a quiet, level voice, and Joe made a lunge that brought his sharp teeth within inches of Sabin's bare foot. Rachel gasped and threw herself at the dog, wrapping her arms around his neck. He was quivering in every muscle of his body. He ignored her, his attention locked on the man.
"Turn him loose and back away," Sabin instructed.
"Why don't you just go back in the house while I hold him?"
"Because I'm a prisoner as long as he doesn't accept me. I may need to leave in a hurry, and I don't want to have to worry about the dog."
Rachel crouched by Joe, her fingers buried in his fur and gently rubbing. Already Sabin was planning to leave, but, then, she had known how it would be. Slowly she released the dog and stepped back. "Joe, heel," Sabin said again.
Rachel held her breath, waiting for another violent reaction. She could see Joe shake, and his ears went back. Sabin repeated the command. For a moment the dog quivered on the verge of attack, then, abruptly, he went to Sabin's side and took up the heeling position.
"Sit," Sabin said, and Joe sat.
"Good boy, good boy." Stiffly he moved his left arm to pat the dog's head. For a moment Joe's ears went back and he snarled softly, but he made no move to bite. Rachel slowly released her pentup breath, relief making her legs wobble.
Sabin slanted her a quick glance from his midnight eyes. "Now you come sit beside me."
"Just like the dog?" she quipped, sinking gratefully onto the step beside him. At her action Joe sprang up and moved to stand in front of them, his ears going back again.
Sabin put his right arm around her shoulders and hugged her against his bare chest, carefully watching the dog. Joe didn't like it at all; a growl began rumbling in his chest.
"He's jealous," Sabin observed.
"Or he thinks you might hurt me." His arm around her was interfering with her breathing, and to take her mind off it she held her hand out to Joe. "It's all right. Come here, boy. Gome on."
Warily Joe came closer. He sniffed at Rachel's outstretched hand, then Sabin's knee. After a moment he dropped to the ground at their feet and put his head on his paws.
"It's a shame someone abused him. He's an intelligent, expensive animal, and he isn't old. He's about five."
"That's what Honey thinks."
"Have you always had a penchant for taking in strays?" he asked, and she knew he wasn't just talking about Joe.
"Only the interesting ones." She could hear the tightness creeping into her voice and wondered if he could hear it, too, if he could guess what caused it. His right hand was lightly rubbing her bare arm, an innocent touch if it hadn't been for the warm pleasure it gave her. A flash of lightning in the darkening sky made her look up, glad for an interruption.
"It looks like there's a chance of rain. A thunderhead passed right over us this morning and didn't leave a drop." Right on cue, thunder rumbled and a few fat drops of rain splashed down on them. "We'd better go in the house."
Sabin let her help him to his feet, but he negotiated the steps on his own. Joe got up and took shelter under the car. Just as Rachel latched the screen door thunder cracked deafeningly directly overhead, and the heavens opened to release a deluge of rain. The temperature plummeted while they stood there, the rain fresh and cool, and the wind blew a fine mist through the screen door. Laughing, Rachel shut the wooden door and locked it, then turned to find herself in Sabin's arms.
He didn't say anything. He simply closed his fist in her hair and held her head back, and his mouth came down on hers. Her world shuddered, then tilted off-balance. She stood there, her hands on his bare chest, and let him have her mouth as he pleased, unable to do anything except give him what he wanted. His mouth was hard, as she had known it would be. Hungry, as she had known it would be. He kissed her with the slow, hot skill of experience, his tongue on hers, the roughness of his faint beard scraping her softer skin.
The exquisite pleasure stunned her, and she jerked her mouth from his, her eyes wide as she stared up at him.
His fist tightened in her hair. "Are you afraid of me?" he asked roughly.
"No," she whispered.
"Then why did you pull away?"
She couldn't do anything but give him the truth, staring up at him in the growing darkness while the storm raged over their heads. "Because it was too much."
There was a storm in his black eyes, glittering and snapping with hot fire. "No," he said. "It wasn't enough."