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Saras surprise, p.3
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       Sara's Surprise, p.3

           Deborah Smith
 
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  Seconds later Valdivia walked into the courtyard. She told Valdivia that she’d do no more work on the herbicide if he harmed Kyle Surprise. Valdivia had simply smiled and pointed toward Dinah, who held her newborn baby, Katie. “You can protect one or the other,” Valdivia said. “Either Mr. Surprise or Dinah’s child. You choose.”

  As Dinah stiffened with horror and Sara took an outraged swing at Valdivia’s jaw, Kyle shoved them both into the arms of Valdivia’s men. “Sara chooses to protect the baby,” he told Valdivia.

  The men dragged her and Dinah to the edge of the courtyard.

  “Stop,” Valdivia ordered. “I want them to watch.”

  Sara struggled to free herself, but the guard’s grip was too fierce. She stared at Kyle, and he raised one hand in farewell, his compelling gaze never leaving her. She screamed silently as a half dozen attack dogs were brought into the courtyard. Valdivia gave the command to kill.

  She closed her eyes against the grisly scene that followed, but nothing could block the sounds of his anguish from her ears.

  “I believe,” Valdivia said to her and Dinah, “your friend has had enough.”

  She opened her eyes and cried out when she saw the guards dragging Kyle’s body away, his blood smearing the white tiles of the courtyard.

  “He is dead,” Valdivia said.

  Valdivia, thankfully, had lied. He’d kept Kyle a prisoner at another of his plantations until Kyle managed to recover enough to escape with the help of rebels. In the meantime Jeopard, his co-agent Drake Lancaster, and Dinah’s husband, Rucker, infiltrated Valdivia’s estate and carried out the rescue—but only because Kyle sent rebel troops to help.

  Now those memories tormented Sara. Her eyes burning with affectionate tears, Sara watched the man on her video screen. He pulled a pair of jeans from a tote bag by his feet then unfastened his light trousers. He had his back to her, and her heart skipped as he slowly, very slowly, pushed the trousers down to reveal taut, angular hips covered in snug briefs.

  The downward angle of the camera and the length of his shirttail prevented her from seeing as much as she would have liked. Sara felt lecherous when she realized that her breath was short with anticipation. But what was wrong with sneaking a peek? After all, he was on her land, provoking her against her wishes. And he was so beautiful, body and soul.

  He bent over, easing the trousers down his legs. She could see ragged scars on the backs of his thighs, but they didn’t dull the beauty of his powerful body. She thought of the roots of a magnificent tree she’d seen once in the Amazon river basin, roots that nature had molded into strong and lovely shapes. His rump flexed with muscle as he bent farther over, dropping the trousers to his ankles.

  He straightened just as slowly, drawing his spread fingers up his legs until finally he rubbed them over his hips and, reaching under his shirt, snapped the waistband of his briefs with a jaunty flick of his thumbs. He kicked his running shoes off and stepped into the jeans.

  Sara propped her chin on one hand and found herself sighing with pleasure as he bent over once again, tugging a pair of faded, rump-hugging denims into place. This man was dangerous. He’d confused her so much that she sat there growing warm and languid—while at the same time wanting to hit him for complicating her life.

  He turned around and smoothed the palms of his hands over the bulge that his unzipped jeans outlined handsomely. Then he tucked in his Hawaiian shirt, zipped the jeans’ zipper, smiled up into the camera as if he’d known all along that she was watching, and blew her a kiss.

  Sara slammed backward into the chair, her mouth open. He’d discovered the security camera on the outside perimeter. Would he figure out that cameras were hidden in the trees all along the wall’s quarter-mile path? Of course he would. And then what would he do?

  He gave the camera a thumbs-up, then went to the ice chest and removed a small bottle full of dark liquid. He shook it, unscrewed the top, and raised the bottle in a salute. He reached into his tote bag again and retrieved some sort of hand tool. He put his running shoes back on and walked toward the camera, his gaze never wavering from the lens, one brow arched as if in rebuke.

  When he stopped at the bottom edge of the camera’s range, he held the bottle up so that she could see it. A Coco-Moo chocolate drink. He seemed to consider it a symbol, a taunt of some kind. He disappeared from view under the camera, which was mounted in the upper limbs of an oak tree, and Sara gasped as she realized what he planned to do. Her video screen abruptly filled with gray static.

  He had located the camera cable, and cut it.

  Kyle spent the next two days exploring every foot of the wall. Sara watched her video screens in growing panic. Every time he found a camera he looked up into it and smiled wickedly at her.

  Then he cut the cable.

  He left only the camera at the gate unharmed. After he finished disconnecting the others, he pulled his ice chest in front of it, sat down, crossed his legs lazily, and pushed the intercom button. “Hello, Sara. I canceled your version of Candid Camera.”

  “You vandalized my property,” she answered coldly. “I ought to call the sheriff and have you arrested.”

  “You won’t.” He grinned. “That would attract too much attention. Your privacy would be compromised. You might have to appear in public.”

  “I ought to open the gate and let my geese negotiate with you.”

  “Why not send the killer dogs? Or are there any killer dogs? I’ve been listening but I never hear a sound—not a growl, not a bark, nothing. I hear lots of geese honking, though. Have you trained your killer dogs to do geese impressions? Does Star Search know about this?”

  Sara put her head in her hands. “Kyle, why don’t you give up?”

  “Because you owe me one.”

  “What?”

  “You never named a plant after me.” He crossed his arms over a broad chest covered in a flannel shirt. “You promised.”

  “The perfect plant already has a name. Kudzu. It shows up where you least want it, makes itself very annoying, and takes over without any encouragement at all.”

  “All I want is a friendly visit with you. Just a few days. Give me a spot on the dungeon floor for my sleeping bag and I’ll be happy. I won’t ask about your research. I swear.”

  She shook her fists as if he could see them. “For months I was a prisoner living by rules I hated! Nobody will ever manipulate me again! The more you try, the more I’ll say no!”

  “Fear is controlling you. There’s no reason to think that anyone would kidnap you again.”

  “That’s not what I’m—” She caught herself. “Kyle, you hardly know me. I’m a loner. An oddball. Kids used to call me the ‘mad scientist’ when I was growing up. I graduated from high school when I was thirteen and got my bachelor’s degree in biology when I was fifteen. By the time I was twenty I had my doctorate. Then I went to South America and spent years doing research by myself.”

  He nodded. “The summa cum laude bookworm. The genius. I read the agency report on you when I was assigned to find out why you’d disappeared. Do you know what else it said?”

  “No.”

  “That you were a warm, outgoing person who always had a lot of friends. That you were devastated at fifteen when your father and brother died while working on a science project in the Arctic. That you and your mother were very close. In short, Doc, that you’re very people-oriented.”

  “I’ve … changed,” she said numbly. “I have to put my research first.”

  “Sara, open the gate and let me in. You don’t have anything to be afraid of or to hide. What can the world take away from you?”

  She couldn’t tell him, so she turned both the intercom and the camera off. Immediately he rang the chime again, rang it repeatedly, as if angry and impatient. She ignored him.

  Sara went to the crib she’d moved into a corner of the security room. Noelle lay there on her stomach, sleeping, her expression innocent and utterly trusting. Sara stroked her dark, almost b
lack hair. What could the world take away?

  “Everything,” Sara whispered.

  Once it became obvious that Kyle wouldn’t give up the siege of Moonspell Keep, Sara was forced to consider new tactics. She called Tom and Lucy Wayne, the local couple who delivered her groceries once a week, and postponed their delivery for fear that Kyle would slip through the gate when she went to let them in. Tom tended the grounds and Lucy did some housekeeping, though only in the castle’s main rooms, far away from Noelle’s nursery and the lab.

  Tom and Lucy had worked for her mother, and they were the only people Sara ever let inside the keep. Even they didn’t know that she had a baby. She never asked them to deliver supplies for Noelle. Instead, she slipped out each month in her mother’s old pickup truck, drove to a town thirty miles away, and bought a stock of formula, baby food, diapers, and anything else Noelle needed.

  After calling the Waynes, Sara went outside to doublecheck the security systems around the castle. With the baby cuddled against her back in a soft canvas carrier and Daisy trailing at her heels, Sara scoured three acres of trees, shrubs, and flower beds, determined to make certain that nothing had been tampered with. She felt as if Kyle Surprise had invaded her inner sanctum already.

  The geese—a dozen aggressively honking white birds of intimidating size and temperament—knew the second she set foot outdoors. They waddled up from their pond at the back of the estate, hissing at Daisy and eyeing Sara with greed. She set out their daily ration of cracked corn and watched them fight over it. They were vicious with any stranger who wandered into their territory, and, she knew from experience, their big blunt beaks could leave a nasty bruise.

  You want a surprise, Mr. Surprise? Show your arrogant fanny to these feathered fiends.

  Finally Sara went to the cobblestone yard and gazed up at her home. It was small, not a real castle, only twenty rooms, and all the upstairs ones had been closed off years before. There was only one turret and one pair of enormous chimneys. The tall, arched windows contained magnificent stained glass motifs that her grandfather had imported from his native England, but the security bars ruined the regal effect.

  Marcus Scarborough had fancied himself the king of a small fiefdom. His daughter had been its princess. Sara smiled ruefully. His granddaughter was its sorceress, held here by a spell.

  She crossed a heavy wooden bridge over a steep gully filled with painfully sharp privet hedge and stood in the castle’s entranceway. Gazing across the front yard toward the massive gate in the distance, Sara wondered what Kyle was doing at his camp just outside, and when he would make his first attempt at scaling the walls.

  She paced in the grand, arching entrance with its enormous door of hand-carved teak and felt even more threatened than she had before. Sara opened the door, pressed a button, and watched the bridge rise until it formed a barricade in front of the entrance. She was ready for him, and she was confident that he would not get inside her home the way he’d gotten inside her heart.

  Exasperated and feeling none too gentle, Kyle decided that Sara reminded him of the tiny crabs that inhabited the marshes of his home state. When threatened, they ducked into their holes in the muddy sand, and nothing could tempt them out again. But a savvy spectator knew to wait, silent and calm. Marsh crabs were invariably too curious for their own good. Sara was a research scientist—like a crab, curiosity was a force she couldn’t resist.

  So Kyle counted the days and waited for her to come out.

  Exactly one week after his siege began, on an overcast afternoon that smelled of cool rain and woodsmoke from his campfire, Kyle looked up from the spy thriller he was laughing over—he wished that the real world were as neat and simple—to listen as distant footsteps crunched on dried leaves. Sara appeared in the woods at the point where the stone wall made a sharp bend to the right.

  Kyle watched her stride toward his camp, her eyes locked on him, her hands jammed defensively into the pockets of white overalls that she wore with a pink sweatshirt. Pink and white were perfect colors for her; in them she stood out like a butterfly in the somber surroundings.

  He stood up slowly, angled a leg out to one side, hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans, and tried to appear relaxed. Pleasure and frustration made a knot in his stomach. Before the incident in Surador he’d had an easy way with women, women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and cultures. His far-flung work had given him ample opportunity for variety. He liked women, inside and out, intellect and curves, the whole package. And, before the scars, they had liked him.

  He was tormented by his need for Sara—lovely, unique, and kind-hearted despite her stubborn refusal to let him inside her private Camelot. She was utterly determined to pretend that he didn’t resemble the lead character in a horror flick. Freddy. Jason. Kyle. Maybe he had a movie career ahead of him.

  She looked at him stoically as she came to a stop on the opposite side of his campfire. Her face was more unusual than pretty, the face of a sloe-eyed forest elf, the queen of the elves, in fact—with a regal jut to the chin and green eyes full of dignity. The image needed only to be framed by a pair of delicately pointed ears to make it mythical.

  Kyle couldn’t help letting his gaze trace the contours of a voluptuous mouth that belonged in a men’s magazine ad cooing something about fast cars, warm nights, and irresistible aftershave. Right now there wasn’t a coo within a mile of that mouth.

  “This is ridiculous,” she told him firmly.

  “That’s right, Tinker Bell.”

  “I have some shopping to do. I can put it off only for another couple of days.”

  “You mean you actually venture into the big bad world?”

  “On occasion.” She raised her chin defiantly. “See? I’m not a complete recluse. You can stop worrying about me and go home.”

  He gestured at her unprotected surroundings. “Aren’t you afraid to be out here with me? There might be dragons, and I’m no Sir Lancelot.”

  She looked at him pensively. “I remember a time when you were.”

  His chest constricted on an aching sensation of loss, of chances stolen, of a time when he could have charmed her, won her. “Long gone,” he muttered.

  “No. A scarred knight is still a knight. Still noble.” She paused. “But misguided. This damsel isn’t in distress.”

  “Then let me see for myself.” He jerked his thumb toward the gate. “Open it.”

  “No.”

  His patience evaporated. “Then why the hell did you come out here to talk?”

  “You want to visit with me! So visit!” She held out her arms. “I’m trying to compromise! Here I am! Do what you want!”

  Drops of cold rain whipped through the trees, the heralds of a deluge that began five seconds later. “Visit accepted,” Kyle said loudly. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to his tent, a low, dome-shaped structure meant for a solitary occupant or two very well-acquainted ones.

  They sat down cross-legged on his rumpled sleeping bag atop the soft cushion of an air mattress, while the rain beat a loud tattoo on the material overhead. Sara’s damp hair and clothes filled his senses with a pleasant feminine smell that included a light fragrance, whether perfume or simply the result of her work with flowers, he didn’t know. Her hand lay cool and tense inside his grip, but she didn’t pull away.

  She looked around, her cheeks flushed as if she were trying to avoid his eyes. His flowered shirt was neatly folded atop his tote bag. She pointed at it. “I think you’ve got some Circaea Quadrisulcata there.”

  “Don’t insult me in Latin,” he ordered mildly.

  “The small white flowers on your shirt. They look like Circaea Quadrisulcata. Enchanters’ nightshade. A pretentious name originally assigned to a more interesting plant, according to mythology, by the Greek enchantress, Circe.”

  “Isn’t nightshade dangerous?”

  “Not this one. It isn’t part of the same family. The name’s not related.”

  “So.” He smiled sardonically.
What does my taste in shirts say about me? That I’m a fake enchanter and not dangerous?”

  Sara pushed dewy red hair off her forehead. “Hardly!”

  “Which part? Both? I am dangerous? I am an enchanter?”

  “You are a smooth talker who could probably charm the Zonotrichia Albicolli down from the deciduous perennials.”

  “Birds from the trees?” he guessed.

  She nodded. “Very good.”

  “Then why can’t I charm you out of your fortress?”

  “You did. I’m here.”

  “For how long?”

  She looked at a man’s digital wristwatch mounted on a thick silver stretch band. “Fifteen minutes.”

  “Yow! An eternity. What’s with the man’s watch?”

  She held her small-boned wrist up so that he could see the watch’s complex dial. “I use the stopwatch in my lab work. I couldn’t find a woman’s watch that had all the features I wanted.”

  “Speaking of timing and relationships, tell me the approximate date of your last social outing with a man.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  He arched a brow. “A datus Friday-nightus. A big date.”

  She scowled at him, and deep wariness glimmered in her eyes. Her fingers stiffened even more inside his grip. “I’m not lonely.”

  “Any prospects?”

  “Not lately.”

  “Not since before the … before Surador?”

  She looked embarrassed. “Right.” More than embarrassed. Worried. Evasive. She began trying to tug her hand away from his.

  Kyle suddenly realized that his interrogation must sound like a come-on. His scars seemed to burn his skin; he was acutely aware of each one. He let go of her hand and said as lightly as he could, “Hey, I’m not hinting for personal reasons, all right? I just want some straight answers about your happiness.”

 
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