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Saras surprise, p.2
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       Sara's Surprise, p.2

           Deborah Smith
 
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  She noticed that he was sitting up straighter, his jaw clenched, his hand gripping the frame of the car window. Sara eyed him with alarm. “Don’t even think of trying to rescue me again. I don’t want to be rescued. And I have state-of-the-art security systems.”

  “Attack geese,” he said dryly.

  Sara winced. He must have talked to one of the locals, she mused. But she wasn’t kidding about the system. It was designed to protect Moonspell Keep from even the most determined invader.

  “Why won’t you let me inside?” he asked.

  “Judging by the trouble my research caused before, I think it’s best that it remain completely confidential.”

  “I don’t care about your plant research. I’m not here to peek at your lab or fondle your orchids.”

  “I told you, I’m putting my past behind me.”

  “But you haven’t built much of a present or a future to take its place. Well talk, we’ll work out your fears—”

  “My only fear is that you won’t go away.”

  “That’s a valid one, then, because, lady, I’m not.”

  Sara recalled that his aging-Beach-Boy outfit concealed a lean, powerful body that served him well no matter what he asked of it—which in this case might include climbing stone walls and dodging a flock of mean geese.

  He could never get inside her fortified home, but he could probably—no, definitely—get inside the grounds and cause a great deal of trouble. “All right, ten minutes,” she told him wearily. “But I’ll walk down to the gate and talk to you there.”

  “Good enough. Sara, the past is over. You can relax.”

  She bit back an ironic laugh. Looking at his scarred face and thinking of her daughter—whom he might despise if he ever learned of her existence—Sara knew that she could never relax.

  Kyle got out of the car and leaned nonchalantly against the front fender, pulling a white Windbreaker over his arms as he did. Crossing his legs at sockless ankles, he stared at his baggy white trousers and white running shoes.

  The sports car and the beach clothes would, he hoped, make him look a hell of a lot more jovial and carefree than he was. The last thing he wanted was to remind Sara of the last time she’d seen him.

  Should he take off the sunglasses? Remove the hat? He ought to. Unlike the Windbreaker, the glasses and hat made it obvious that he wanted to hide his scars. Nothing carefree about that. Kyle realized that his throat was dry with anticipation and dread. He hesitated for a moment, then tossed the hat onto the car’s hood and laid the sunglasses beside it. Running his fingers through his sun-streaked hair, he exhaled wearily and waited.

  There was no sound from the other side of the massive gate. Kyle gazed at the gray steel, listening as the minutes passed. It began to dawn on him that she might have lied about the visit. He eyed the stone walls that stretched into the forest on either side, calculating ways to get through the barbed-wire shield that protruded from their outer edge. He looked closer, noting a barbless wire that wound through the others. The shield was electrified.

  Dear Lord, who did she expect to fight? Ninjas? Rambo?

  “Hello,” a soft voice said behind him.

  He whipped around, silently cursing himself for being so distracted that he hadn’t heard her footsteps. She stood on the other side of the car, leaning toward him a little, her small hands pressed atop the fender as if she liked knowing the car was a barrier between them.

  The world shrank, becoming only a backdrop for their silent tableau. Her shadowed green eyes never strayed from his pensive blue ones. Her jeaned legs were braced slightly apart; her chest moved raggedly under a pullover sweater striped in russet and gray. He wanted to hug her, wanted to gather this deceptively delicate-looking woman into his arms and tell her that he’d never forgotten her. Instead, he shoved his hands into his trouser pockets.

  “You cut your hair,” he said finally.

  She blinked, thought for a moment, then nodded. “Right after I came home. As part of my starting-new program.”

  “Pretty dramatic.”

  Touching a hand to the short, feathery cap of cinnamon-red hair that had once hung to her waist, she smiled tentatively. “I guess it’s a shock to you.”

  “I’m used to shocks. I like it.”

  “At least it makes me look older. Now when I see myself in a mirror I don’t fight an urge to buy pompoms and join a cheerleading squad.”

  He forced a jaunty grin on his face. “How old are you these days?”

  “On a good day, thirty. On a bad day, about a hundred and twelve. How about you?”

  “On a good day, thirty-six. On a bad day, about fourteen. I regress.” She laughed, but the sound died quickly. She looked at him in bewilderment. “What’s wrong?”

  Kyle realized that his face was revealing a lot more than he’d planned. “I’ve never heard you laugh before. It’s a nice sound.”

  She glanced away, her expression troubled. “Well, we didn’t get a chance to spend much time together, before. What, an hour in Surador? A few days at the hospital in Virginia? And the situations didn’t lend themselves to humor.”

  “I’m glad you can laugh now.”

  “Can you?” She watched him closely.

  He nodded. “On the good days.”

  “Do you and your brother stay busy down in Ft. Lauderdale? With the new work?”

  “As busy as two old retired men want to be.”

  “Well, Gramps, how does it feel to run a safe, normal import-export business?”

  Kyle considered telling her the truth, but decided that it might make her more wary of him. The business was a front for a private investigations service—very discreet and very far above the average P.I.’s milieu. Their clients included small foreign governments and multinational corporations. But compared to their former occupations, the work was definitely safe and normal.

  “There’s a lot of money in shipping and receiving European antiques,” Kyle told her lightly. “And no one tries to kill you over them.”

  “You look good, Kyle. I mean that.”

  His stomach tightened. He didn’t dwell on his scars. He knew exactly how awful they were, but Sara sounded very sincere. He liked the quality and gentleness of her lie. “I’ve had a lot of plastic surgery. I’ll have more, as time goes by.” He changed the subject quickly. “Where’s the secret door?” He gestured toward the stone wall. “How did you get out and sneak up on me? If I give you some cereal box tops, can I have your special map and decoder ring?”

  Her eyes crinkled with amusement. “The keep was designed to be mysterious. My grandfather was a creative architect. My mother added a few secret touches of her own.”

  “Which is a polite way of saying ‘Mind your own business, nosy.’ ”

  “I’m afraid so.” Frowning, she added, “It has to be that way. If I’d been secretive about my work before, there wouldn’t have been any trouble.” Sorrow flickered in her eyes for an instant as her gaze swept his face; without words she showed her guilt over his own condition.

  “You were doing your job,” Kyle told her gruffly. “I was doing mine. We couldn’t help what happened.”

  She shook her head. “I could have.”

  “How?”

  “By not trusting Valdivia to begin with.” Visibly shaken, she raised a hand to her throat. “That’s the first time I’ve said his name out loud since I came home from South America. I’d prefer never to say it again.”

  The mention of Diego de Valdivia broke the tenuous spell Kyle had built. She stepped back, obviously on the verge of leaving. “Don’t,” he told her. Kyle moved toward her and held out his hands in supplication. “How could you have known that he wasn’t an ordinary businessman who was just curious about your research with herbicides?”

  It was no use. She looked guilty and distraught and more than a little angry. “It’s over. He forced me to create something I hated, something so awful that it still makes me sick to think about it, and I don’t feel any bette
r knowing that our government has control of it now. I can’t do anything about that, but I can make sure that my research never gets twisted that way again.”

  “Valdivia’s dead, you know. You’re letting his ghost haunt you. You’re here all alone—”

  “Good-bye, Kyle,” she said, her voice strained. “It was good to see you again.” She began backing into the forest. “Maybe someday we—take care. Take good care of yourself. You deserve all the happiness in the world. Bye.”

  He moved forward, grimacing with frustration. “It’s not that easy, Sara. I didn’t come here simply because Dinah asked me to. I didn’t come just to help you. I came to fight some of my own demons too.”

  She smiled nervously. “Dragons, not demons. That’s what I have here. Didn’t you see them on the main gate? Go home. Please, go home.”

  “No.” She was still backing; he was still advancing. “Let me inside the keep right now or I’ll pester you until you do.”

  “I won’t. Not ever.”

  “Then you better tighten your security.”

  She halted, her fists clenched, her eyes wide with amazement. “Stay off the grounds, Kyle. I didn’t want to tell you this, but … I have dogs. Security dogs. Rottweilers. Trained to attack.”

  He froze, her words a betrayal, the worst kind. Some of his sympathy for her turned to disgust, and he uttered a few stunned curses that made her wince. “You know what dogs like those can do to a person,” she said softly, her voice choked. “You know.”

  With one last, tearful look at his ravaged face, she turned and walked away.

  Two

  He wasted no time. He went to the tiny mountain town nearby, bought a tent and other gear, and by late afternoon began setting up camp not two dozen yards from the keep’s forbidding gate.

  Sara watched every move he made via a network of cameras hidden in the trees outside the wall. She shut the lab down temporarily, then went into the greenhouse in the cavern underneath the castle and set all the feeding, lighting, and watering systems on automatic.

  Finally she went into the nursery and bent over the pink and white playpen. “Come here, sweetheart. I’m going to move you to another room.”

  Sara always conversed with her daughter in an adult voice, as if her words were being understood. As a result of that and all the time they spent together, ten-month-old Noelle was advanced for her age. Seated among her toys, she held up both arms and gave a dimpled grin. “Roooom.”

  Sara laughed softly. “You sound like Inspector Clouseau in a Pink Panther movie.”

  “Roooom. Roooom.”

  That was as far as the conversation went, but Noelle chuckled gleefully as Sara set her on the carpeted floor. She immediately poked her diapered fanny in the air, pushed herself onto all fours, then into a wobbly stance, and clasped the leg of Sara’s jeans.

  “I should have named you Vine. Clinging Vine,” Sara teased. She folded the playpen, scooped one arm around Noelle, and started from the room carrying her on one side, the playpen on the other. “Come on, Daisy.” The lanky, golden-coated dog got up from its spot in a streak of sunshine by the nursery’s barred window. She followed closely, tongue lolling. Sara knew that the dog would have come without a command. Where Noelle went, Daisy went. Sara’s mother had often said that there would never be a more devoted baby-sitter than Daisy.

  Sara paused at the door and glanced back at a framed snapshot hanging on the wall over the crib. Her mother smiled at her from under disheveled gray hair, looking both scholarly and motherly. Dr. Anna Scarborough had had a difficult time gaining respectability as a scientist back when the world had said that the mystery of the womb was the only kind of biology a woman ought to study. Nonetheless, she had managed to blaze an impressive trail in the world’s scientific community by compiling extraordinary research on plants in remote areas that few other scientists had visited. Then at the relatively late age of forty she had married a fellow biologist, happily given birth to two children, and concentrated her work in the laboratory and greenhouse she built at the castle.

  She had seen and done a great deal, and last Christmas eve, as a fitting climax to a serendipitous life, she had calmly served as midwife for her first grandchild. Sara had never worried about giving birth at home because Anna Scarborough and Mother Nature were old friends.

  Four months later, while attending a conference of environmentalists in New York, Anna had slumped over in her chair, her seventy-year-old heart too tired to continue beating.

  Sara would always believe that her mother had died happy—in the midst of her work, with her daughter and granddaughter waiting safely back in Kentucky. But Sara also believed that the strain of having a daughter kidnapped, the months of coerced research, and the worry that Valdivia’s poisonous life would taint her granddaughter’s future had contributed to Anna’s early death.

  Sara quickly looked away from the photo on the wall. Remorse made her even more determined not to involve anyone else in her or Noelle’s lives.

  When she reached the security room, Sara set up the playpen and placed Noelle in it. The baby’s dark eyes widened with fascination at the bank of flickering television screens on one wall. She squealed, and Daisy perked her floppy ears in curiosity.

  “We’re going to stay here for a while and watch Mr. Surprise,” Sara told them. “And I’m going to try to decide what to do about him.”

  Daisy yawned and snuffled the playpen’s webbed sides so that Noelle could pat a small hand to her nose, Sara gazed at the dog and felt a deep stab of guilt. Trained attack dogs, indeed.

  Daisy was the only dog in the keep. She had wandered up to the gate last year, a scraggly, starving puppy with loving eyes. One of her parents might have been a golden retriever; the other had undoubtedly been something with no brains and even less coordination. Bugs were the only creatures Daisy ever menaced. She was so clumsy that she stepped on them accidentally.

  Sara turned toward the video screens and sat down in a high-backed swivel chair. Her heart thudded as she watched Kyle Surprise finish setting up his camp, arranging lanterns and building a fire with a skill that spoke of much experience. The semiautomatic pistol hanging in a holster on the front of his tent indicated experience of another kind.

  A quilted jacket now covered his Hawaiian shirt. He moved with decisiveness. He wasn’t more than six feet tall, but he looked taller. He had the lanky agility of a runner, and seemed to get wherever he was headed in no more than one or two easy strides.

  His reddish-blond hair was longer than she remembered, and tended to wisp upward around his ears and the back of his neck. She wondered if he had let it grow out to soften the effect of the scars on his face.

  Sara pressed trembling fingertips to her lips and studied that face as objectively as she could. He wouldn’t believe her if she told him so, but he was still an incredibly sexy man. He had never had the matinee-idol perfection that made women gape at his brother Jeopard, but his features had been—and still were—strong and sensual in a way that made perfection unnecessary.

  The scars were terrible, especially the jagged one that ran under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose. But his eyes, Lord, his eyes made her forget everything else. The security camera didn’t do them justice. Big and dark blue, sheltered by thick blond lashes, they were still the warmest, kindest eyes she’d ever seen. How they’d kept that look despite years of dangerous and often cynical work she had never fully understood.

  But then, she really didn’t know Kyle—not the details of his background, his likes or dislikes, his dreams. She had been sitting with Dinah McClure the day he’d shot a paper airplane over the garden wall of Valdivia’s estate in Surador. He had learned somehow that their guards let them venture into the garden alone for an hour every afternoon.

  Hello, Dinah McClure, the note in the airplane had said. This is Kyle Surprise. Remember me? Would you and your friend like to split this banana farm?

  Dinah had known Kyle and Jeopard Surprise through thei
r sister, Millie, who had been her husband’s secretary. Everyone, including Millie, thought that her brothers performed routine investigations for U.S. Navy Intelligence. Until the note came sailing out of the Suradoran jungle, Dinah had had no idea that Kyle and Jeopard were agents for a special hostage-retrieval group called Audubon.

  Yes, Please help us, Dinah had scribbled back, using one of the tooth-marked pens Sara always carried to jot down lists and ideas.

  For the whole hour they’d traded airplanes with Kyle, telling him how Valdivia had kidnapped Sara in Florida and how Dinah had innocently gotten kidnapped by association; how Valdivia was making Sara work on a herbicide for military use; how Dinah had recently given birth to the baby she’d been carrying when Valdivia took her hostage.

  For the first time in months they’d had hope of escaping. The next day they had exchanged more notes with Kyle, and a plan had been devised, but before he could put it into action he was captured by Valdivia’s men.

  Sara would never forget her first face-to-face meeting with Kyle Surprise. Like some kind of prize animal on display, he was chained by the ankle to a fountain in the courtyard of Valdivia’s hacienda.

  “Dr. Scarborough, I presume,” Kyle had said with a jaunty lilt to his voice, though his eyes had scanned her with serious, almost startled interest—the same way she looked at him. They flirted outrageously, both trying to distract the other from the tense situation at hand, but Sara felt a deeper bond, one unlike anything she’d ever known before. Dinah stood nearby, silent, as if she knew that a special and private communion was taking place.

  Kyle waited for Valdivia’s wrath with fearless aplomb. He stood calmly in the sunny courtyard that day, a prisoner anticipating an ugly fate yet capable of offering reassurance to Sara. He was a hero beyond anything she’d ever imagined. At the last moment he took her hand, kissed it, and made her promise to name a plant after him—a perennial, he told her, with a big stem.

  Her heart breaking, Sara hugged him and begged him to forgive her for being—even innocently—the cause of his predicament. He answered by drawing her into a fierce embrace, then kissing her. It was one of those moments that makes a small sanctuary in time, a mingling of heightened emotions and sensations that becomes an indelible memory, and she offered him everything in her soul.

 
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