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Saras surprise, p.14
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       Sara's Surprise, p.14

           Deborah Smith
 
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  “Have you lied to me about something?” Sara asked, her throat tight. “Is that what you’re saying?”

  He nodded. “And you don’t know how much I regret the lie.” He grasped her hand. “Jeopard and I don’t have an import-export business down in Ft. Lauderdale. I guess you’d call us private investigators.”

  “You guess? What kind of cases do you take?”

  “Hmmm. Jeopard’s fiancée, Tess Gallatin, was one of our cases. You remember what I told you about her—that she’s a princess?”

  Sara nodded blankly. “Cherokee Indian on her father’s side, and her mother was the queen of Kara. Scandinavian. How could I forget a strange story like that?”

  “Tess didn’t know that she had a royal background. She didn’t know who her real mother was until Jeopard and I investigated her case. Actually, we were hired by someone in Kara to find out if Tess was hiding a rare blue diamond that had been stolen from the queen. Jeopard was supposed to get close to her and determine whether or not she had the diamond.”

  “And obviously he did.”

  “Yeah. But she was no thief. The diamond was a legacy from the mother she’d never met. We helped her discover her background and claim her title as a princess.”

  Sara held his gaze angrily. “That sounds like honorable work. Why didn’t you just tell me the truth about it?”

  “Because I thought you’d trust me less if you knew that I was an investigator. That you’d think that I still had ties to Audubon’s group—that he’d sent me to check up on you.”

  Sara couldn’t deny his intuition. “You were right,” she muttered. Then she searched his eyes and asked bluntly, “Do you still have ties to the group?”

  Tension filled the silence. His gaze became hard, as if he were steeling himself for her reaction. “Yes.” When she stiffened he put both arms around her, the embrace like a capture. He was astute, Sara thought, because at the moment she felt like moving away from him.

  “What kind of ties?” she asked coolly.

  “You don’t just walk away from a career with Audubon. If one of your old cases is reopened, you can be called back to duty, at least temporarily. And that’s what happened to me. I have to go to Virginia to meet with Audubon.”

  She hugged herself and tried to fight the knot of dread growing in her stomach. “Is it about me?”

  “Yes.”

  Sara made a soft sound of horror and covered her face. He whispered her name sadly and tried to pull her head to his shoulder, but she began to struggle, furious. “You invaded my home and now you’re going to inform on me!”

  “There’s nothing to tell about you! Don’t you understand?” He grabbed her shoulders and shook her gently. “Audubon has found out that I’m with you, and he just wants to know why—and what I’ve learned. All I’m going to tell him is the truth, that you’re studying the medicinal uses of exotic plants.”

  “And that I have a baby daughter who was conceived in Surador!”

  “Yes. I’ve told you already, no one is interested in Noelle!”

  “Will you tell Audubon that you and I are lovers?”

  “Yes.”

  Stunned, she stared at him. Then, between gritted teeth, she whispered, “Be sure to describe the details. How I moved, how my body felt, what I said in your ear—”

  “Stop it!” His eyes glittered with torment that matched her own. “Sure, I’ll tell him that we’re lovers. I’ll tell him that we love each other. I’ll tell him that I want to marry you and be a father to your daughter, and that all the three of us want is to be left alone!”

  “The government will never leave me alone! They want something from me!”

  “We’re not talking about the government, Sara. We’re talking about Audubon. He’s free-lance. Don’t be stubborn and foolish. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of. Not Audubon. Not me.”

  “You planned to get information on me right from the first.”

  “No. I came here as a friend, I swear. Hell, Sara, I came here because I couldn’t get you out of my mind. I had to prove to myself that I ought to forget you, because you’d never want to get involved with me and my scars. I thought that once I knew that there was no hope, I could go on with my life. Thank God, I was wrong—you need me as much as I need you. I won’t let anything ruin things for us now.”

  She glared at him through tear-filled eyes. “If your brother adopted a professional persona that was cold and cruel, what persona did you take?”

  His jaw flexed; he eyed her with both despair and frustration. “I’m trying to be as honest with you as I can. I’ll tell you more as time goes on. You can trust me.”

  “I don’t even know you.” She braced her hands against his chest and tried to push herself away. For a second his grip tightened on her arms, but when she began to struggle he let her go. She scooted away and crouched on the foot of the bed, feeling like an animal protecting its den.

  “I think I understand your disguise,” she said, her voice low and broken. “Jeopard tricks people by making them fear him; you trick people by making them trust you.”

  He inhaled softly. “Yes. I’m good at it too. When it’s necessary, I can make friends with the deadliest S.O.B.s you’ve ever imagined. Then I use that friendship to put them away, to keep them from hurting innocent people. I’m a little ashamed of how good I am at the con jobs, but I’m not ashamed of what I’ve accomplished because of it. I’ve never tried to con the people I love.”

  “Don’t go see Audubon. Tell him to take a flying leap.”

  “I can’t, Sara. Despite what you think, his motivations are good. Inside your mind you’re carrying the know-how to create a herbicide so powerful that a tea-spoonful would wipe out most of the greenery in this state. It’s his job to keep track of you. And when one of his former agents is living with you, it’s his job to ask for an explanation. Look, why would I tell you all of this if it weren’t true? Why would I risk your distrust?”

  “Because you’re worried that I’d find out the truth about you anyway.”

  His shoulders slumped. “How much do you really want to trust me? There’s something inside you that I don’t understand, something that you seem to be holding back. I think this is a good excuse for you to put me at arm’s length because you’re hiding something else.”

  She trembled violently. She’d thought that she and Noelle were so safe. Sara reminded herself that Kyle hadn’t deceived her more than she was still deceiving him. But you’re doing it for his own good. Think how the truth would hurt not only Noelle, but him. Sara turned away from him and huddled on the end of the bed, staring fixedly at the floor. “You’ll be leaving for Virginia in the morning, to see Audubon?”

  “Yes. Sara, I—”

  “I think you ought to sleep in the guest room tonight.”

  His voice came back graveled with anger and sorrow. “I don’t want to leave you alone with your morbid fears and suspicions.”

  “When you’re gone I won’t have anything to fear.” The obscenity that came from his mouth had a wounded sound that tore at her. “There’s one other thing to consider,” she said desperately. “If you leave the keep, I’ll make certain that you never get back in. So, don’t leave.”

  She heard him stand up. Slowly she turned her head to look at him. His eyes were cold, his face an angry mask made cruel by the scars. “I’ll get back in,” he told her. “Count on it.” He let his gaze flicker over her for a second. “I’ll get back in.”

  He left the room, closing the door behind him with a slow, confident motion of his hand, and she felt as if he had just made her his prisoner.

  Ten

  Confused and exhausted from a sleepless night, Sara dressed in a sweater and pink overalls, combed her hair neatly, and hid her emotions. She waited for Kyle in the kitchen at dawn, with a pot of coffee made. He walked in brusquely, dropped his big leather tote bag on the floor, gazed at her with troubled, searching eyes, and then said, “Well?” as if he were expecting her judgme
nt, guilty or innocent.

  “I keep thinking that Noelle trusted you at first sight.”

  “And?”

  “Maybe I should have faith in her opinion. I don’t know.”

  Sara noted that his eyes were ringed with shadows and he had nicked his chin shaving. His golden hair was rumpled. His jogging shoes were sloppily laced. He’d already put on his blue down jacket over his jeans and white sweater, and the jacket collar was haphazardly turned under on one side.

  He didn’t look like a sophisticated, conniving superagent. He looked very human and very much in need of a hug. She groaned inwardly with frustration. Perhaps it was an act. Perhaps. No. She couldn’t tell. Yes. Maybe.

  Finally, her head felt as if it would burst with indecision. All she could do was stare at his jacket and luggage with a sinking heart. “You’re leaving right now?”

  “The sooner I go, the sooner I’ll get it over with, the sooner I can come back here and try to convince you that I’m not your enemy.”

  “All right.” From the kitchen table she got a plastic bag filled with orchid blossoms. “Would you like them? There’s enough for two days. You really shouldn’t miss a day using them. Even if you don’t have a blender you can crush them up in a glass of milk.”

  A muscle flexed in his jaw. His eyes softened, but only a little. “Thank you.” She handed him the bag and stepped back. He laid it carefully on his tote.

  “Would you like a cup of coffee before you go?”

  “No.”

  “I know that my coffee tastes a little like a bad lab experiment, but—”

  “I don’t think we’ll solve anything by drawing out the good-byes, Sara. Do you trust me any more than you did last night?”

  Wretched, she looked at him. “I honestly don’t know. I don’t know what to believe.”

  “Honest.” He made the word sound unsavory.

  “Would you like to say good-bye to Noelle?”

  “I already have. She was asleep. I even told Daisy good-bye.” He grunted with dismay and almost sounded amused. “I don’t think Daisy heard me. She was snoring too loud.”

  Sara stuck her hands in her side pockets and clenched them. “So you’re all set. I’ll walk you to the door.”

  “You’d better ride down to the gate with me.” He dug the remote control from a jacket pocket. “Don’t you want this back? Don’t want me to have easy access, do you?”

  “Why not? Do you enjoy using your Tarzan act to get over the garden walls? I thought I’d let you use the gate next time.”

  “I wanted to give you a sporting chance to make good on your threat to keep me out.”

  She laughed dully. “In a calmer moment I realized how ridiculous my threat was. I might as well try to keep crab grass out of a garden.”

  “My root takes that as a compliment.”

  Sara shrugged. “I like crab grass.”

  He slipped the remote control back into his pocket, took the bag of delicate orchid blossoms in one hand, and picked up his tote with the other. Sara followed him from the kitchen. He’s going to visit a man who’s a stranger to me, and he’s going to tell that man the personal information about my life.

  By the time they reached the entrance foyer her teeth were gritted and her resolve solid. Sara took the ornate key ring from the antelope horn and unlocked the door. She could feel Kyle’s gaze on her face every second of the time, and she steadfastly ignored him. But her hands fumbled with the electronic lock, and she needed three tries to get the code right. “Damn.”

  “Which did you forget—your IQ or your birth date?”

  “My reason for letting you know this code in the first place.” She pulled the door open and stood beside it like an usher.

  With one of his easy, loping strides he moved close to her. In another instant his lips brushed a gentle goodbye across her forehead. She shut her eyes to squeeze back tears.

  “Keep the dragons at bay until I come back to help you fight them,” he said.

  When she opened her eyes to let the obstinate tears flow freely, he was gone.

  Audubon’s home had become extremely familiar to Kyle over the years. It served very tastefully as the group’s headquarters, and when Audubon called an agent in for a meeting, that agent was treated with all the polite hospitality of a master host, which Audubon was.

  Kyle gazed out the window of his suite at white fences and sprawling pastures stocked with polo ponies. Like everything in Audubon’s fashionable, old-money world, they were carefully chosen for quality and variety, like the selections in Audubon’s wine cellars, the classic cars in his garage, and the glamorous women who paraded through Audubon’s life.

  From somewhere downstairs in the mansion a gong began to sound, as if heralding the arrival of royalty. Dimly Kyle heard a helicopter approaching the estate. He glanced out the window and spotted it, a large custom model, one of Audubon’s favorite toys. The gong kept pounding. Audubon loved grand gestures and melodrama. If he ever saw Sara’s castle, he would probably want to buy it.

  Within a few minutes one of Audubon’s assistants called on the suite’s phone and told Kyle that Audubon was home and waiting to see him in the study. Kyle went downstairs and followed a large hallway to a room where elegance was embodied in English antiques, classic paintings, sterling silver polo trophies, and mahogany bookcases crammed with a fortune in rare editions.

  In the center of it all was Audubon with his combat boots propped on the corner of a massive antique desk. His jungle fatigues were wrinkled and sweat-stained; one hand was bandaged around the palm, and a tiny spot of blood had already soaked through the gauze.

  But Audubon’s flowing snow-white hair—his one true vanity, he claimed—was impeccably styled, and Kyle took that as a sign that the mission, whatever it had been, had gone well.

  “Long trip?” he asked, reaching across the desk to shake Audubon’s good hand.

  “To hell and back.” Audubon rarely smiled, but satisfaction was tucked into the squint lines around his dark eyes. “I had to make a quick little jaunt out of the country. Sorry to keep you waiting. I get the idea that you’re not feeling very patient right now.”

  Kyle lowered himself into a leather armchair across from the desk. “No. I want to know the story on Dr. Scarborough.”

  “So would I, if I were you.”

  “Why have you had two agents watching her all this time?”

  “How do you like their Ma and Pa Kettle act?”

  “Not bad. They won her mother’s trust, and when Sara came home from Surador, Anna assured her that good ol’ Tom and Lucy Wayne were trustworthy. Perfect. Congratulations. But why is that kind of surveillance necessary?”

  Audubon tilted his majestic head in acknowledgment of Kyle’s grim tone. “Hmmm. You’re not interested just for professional reasons.”

  “That’s right.” Quickly, and with very few details, he explained what had happened between him and Sara. “She’s scared,” he told Audubon. “And I keep telling her that she has no reason to be. Should I be worried that I’m misleading her?”

  Audubon steepled his fingers against his mouth and looked at Kyle somberly. “The herbicide she created was a hoax.”

  “A hoax?”

  “It doesn’t hold up under testing. The compound is no doubt deadly, but when it’s exposed to air for more than a few seconds, it becomes harmless. In other words, the herbicide is a winner in the lab and a loser in the real world.”

  “There was no way she could have known that when she created it for Valdivia. He was so impatient that he didn’t give her time to do any tests outside the lab.”

  “So she told us.”

  “Why would she lie about it?”

  “Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she had no idea that her experiment was a failure. It’s difficult to know what to believe about her motives. That’s why we’ve been keeping track of her all this time. Waiting for something to give us a clue to the truth.”

  “She’s got nothing to hide.
She hated being forced to concoct the damned herbicide for Valdivia, and I can’t blame her. It wouldn’t shock me if she had deliberately tried to sabotage it. But I don’t think she knows whether she did or not. Why don’t the government boys just politely ask her? It’s not a question she’d shy away from answering.”

  Audubon probed him with dark, sharp eyes. “What did she tell you about her child?”

  “The father was a soldier. Must have been one of Miguel Santos’s men, since I understand that they were the ones who helped with the escape. She was in shock. She needed a friend. He was in the right place at the right time. The baby was born nine months after she came home.”

  “And you have no reason to doubt that story?”

  “No.” Kyle held the stern gaze across the desk from him, silently warning Audubon not to let professional cynicism mock Sara’s integrity. “She’s one of the ones you’ve always talked about. One of the ones who makes everything worth the effort.”

  “I want her to be worth it. Believe me. You know better than to think I want anything less.”

  “Then what are you trying to tell me?”

  Suddenly Audubon looked tired, a rare and disturbing thing for him. He drew his feet down and leaned forward on the desk. His eyes were hard, but not cruel. They seemed to scan Kyle’s scars for a moment. “Before the kidnapping—if it was a kidnapping—she was Valdivia’s mistress. And we’re fairly certain that her child is Valdivia’s daughter.”

  • • •

  Sara made her decision and called Tom Wayne. She asked if he wanted some geese, free of charge. “They’ll be hell to round up,” she warned.

  “Oh, I’ll be glad to come get ’em!” he said, sounding very enthusiastic, which puzzled her a little. “Me and Lucy been talkin’ about that little girl of yours. We sure would like to see her again.”

  Sara rubbed her head distractedly. She was trying to give Kyle the benefit of the doubt. She had been foolish and stubborn. She shouldn’t live in fear anymore, not because of her past, or Kyle’s questions, or Audubon’s surveillance. She shouldn’t rely on protection from a flock of maniacal geese. And she shouldn’t worry about a couple of harmless people who loved babies and simply wanted to visit with Noelle.

 
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