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Saras surprise, p.4
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       Sara's Surprise, p.4

           Deborah Smith
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Her eyes locked on his with an intensity that made him feel vulnerable. She searched them while he cursed silently, but couldn’t look away. Her expression softened. “So when was your last datus Friday-nightus, Mr. Surprise?”

  “Oh, no, Doc, you’re not turning the tables on me. I’m an expert at interrogation.”

  “Uhmmm. A definite lack of social activity, I suspect. How interesting. Perhaps you and I are both hermits, only in different ways.”

  “I haven’t walled myself—”

  “What are you afraid of, Kyle?” The victorious gleam in her eye began to annoy him. “You enjoy baiting me, patronizing me—”

  “Maybe, but it’s for your own good. And I told you up front that helping you would help me—”

  “How? What are you trying to prove to yourself? Are you so afraid you have nothing to offer a woman that you have to prove that you do, even if it’s only by playing therapist?”

  Months of hidden frustration and self-doubt boiled over. Wounded right down to his carefully nourished sense of truth, Kyle grabbed her by the shoulders and cursed softly. “See for yourself what I can still offer.”

  She murmured an anguished litany as he lowered his mouth to hers. “Don’t. Can’t. Shouldn’t …” But then he was kissing her, moving his lips over hers in a seductive challenge, putting every skill he possessed into the kiss as he tried to strip away time and bad memories and scars, both his and hers.

  Sara knotted her fists into his flannel shirt and jerked fiercely, but at the same time she kept her mouth against his and received the thrust of his tongue without resisting. Angry, trembling, she slipped her tongue forward and stroked in return. Kyle groaned and heard her answering plea—for mercy, but also for more.

  For one magnificent second he tasted the sweetness and heat he had so often dreamed about, the welcome that he had hoped to provoke in her regardless of his appearance. They shared the culmination of fantasies and promises that needed to be kept. But she drew back, half crying, looked at him with a grimace of regret, and turned her head as if she couldn’t stand his ravaged face.

  He was speechless for a moment, while his exhilaration drained away and a hollow feeling replaced it. “I guess I settled two doubts at once,” he said finally. “I’ve still got plenty to offer, but you’d rather I didn’t offer again.”

  She nodded at him wearily, her head bowed. “I’m so sorry it has to be this way.”

  Kyle’s emotions hardened into a fist inside his chest. “Don’t feel embarrassed. Not long after I came home from Surador a few of my old acquaintances dropped in to visit. They tried to act cheerful, but … Sara, you’re not the first woman who couldn’t quite hide her reaction to my scars. Don’t blame yourself.”

  Her head jerked up. Her eyes glittered with shock. “You think that’s why I stopped kissing you?” When he nodded, sorrow and regret filled her eyes. “Oh, Kyle, no.”

  He stiffened in amazement as she took his face between her hands and quickly brushed her lips over several of the larger scars. She pulled away from him, shaking her head when he leaned forward again. “No. No more. I mean it, Kyle.”

  Bewildered and desperate for answers, he frowned at her. “What do you need, Sara? What do you want?”

  “Nothing. I’m doing okay,” she said with deliberate vagueness. “You can’t change my life-style. Someday I’ll change it myself, but not now.” She glanced at her wristwatch. “Now I have to go. This is the last time I’ll see you. I mean it. God bless you, Kyle. I wish things were easier to explain. Good-bye.”

  She tried to rise to her feet, but he trapped her wrist with a firm grip. Breathing raggedly, Kyle shook his head. “Go into town with me. Have dinner. At least do that much.”

  “I can’t.”

  He slid around so that he blocked the exit from the tent. “Then you can stay and talk. There’s no reason for you to hurry back to the castle.”

  “Experiments,” she said, staring at him anxiously.

  He uttered a cheerful but earthy opinion of her bluff. “I won’t kiss you again. I promise. Relax.”

  “Please. Let me go.”

  “I’m holding you prisoner for the rest of the afternoon.” He gestured around them at the tent’s brightly colored walls. “It’s not an ugly dungeon. And I don’t intend to torture you.” He inhaled with a great show of contentment. “Enjoy the sound of the rain. Take your shoes off. Unbuckle that AM-FM-clock-radio-toaster-oven around your wrist.”

  She curled her legs under her and sat on her heels, her hands clasped on her lap. For a second Kyle had the disturbing notion that she was about to beg for her freedom. “I really did leave a delicate … experiment. I don’t want it to be alone for more than a few minutes.”

  “Sara, you can’t make me believe that a bunch of plants need your constant attention.”

  “You make it sound as if I’m growing petunias for my patio. I’m talking about sophisticated laboratory projects.”

  “All right. You can leave. I’ll go with you.”

  “No!” She ground the word out angrily. “I’ve visited with you, which is what you said you wanted! I’ve told you over and over that I’m happy, that I want to be left alone, that I will never let you inside my home! What is it going to take to make you believe me?”

  Kyle leveled calm eyes on her. “I don’t believe that you’re happy any more than I believe that you want to be left alone. I do believe that you have to be forced back into the world.”

  She leaned toward him, her expression fierce. “I don’t want to hurt you. I never want to see anything bad happen to you again. But I have to tell you something.” She took a calming breath. “I left a recording on my phone system. It says that an armed man has vandalized my cameras and is now trying to break into my estate.” She glanced at her watch. “If I don’t get back soon, that recording, complete with my address, is going straight to the county sheriff’s office. When he comes to arrest you, I’ll add attempted kidnapping and assault to the charges. And I will file charges.”

  Kyle had to admire her tenacity and resourcefulness. She had a brilliant, stubborn, mysterious mind, and she was a challenge worthy of every skill he possessed. He silently declared war on her. A gentle kind of war, but one without retreat.

  “What are you so desperate to protect, Sara?”

  She thumped a fist against her leg. “Myself! My sanity! Now let me go!”

  He nodded and moved aside. “I’ll be leaving as soon as the rain stops.”

  She froze, gazing at him with shock and, he noted happily, a certain amount of wistfulness. “Really?”

  “Really. I’ve done all I can do. I’ll send someone to repair all the camera cables.”

  Her watch began to beep. “Three-minute warning,” she said, distracted and frowning. “I have to hurry.”

  “Good-bye, Tinker Bell. Take care of yourself.” He smiled with just the right degree of stoic cheer. “That was a great kiss. Thanks for making me feel better than I have in a long time.”

  The tent wasn’t tall enough for standing. She crawled to the door and halted, warily watching him. The lonely, almost tragic expression that washed over her face tore at his belly just as the lie about leaving had.

  She pressed her fingertips to her lips, kissed them, then brushed them over his mouth. “I’ll never forget you,” she murmured. She scrambled out of the tent.

  Kyle slipped outside and stood in the drenching rain, watching until she disappeared around the curve in the wall. Then he began to pack. And make war plans.


  Sara waited until the next morning and then decided to see if Kyle had made good on his intention to go home. She left Noelle sleeping in the safe confines of her crib and went down a long staircase into the castle’s cellar. The steel door in its far wall opened when she punched a code into the electronic lock.

  Sara entered her underground greenhouse, a cavern of chiseled rock walls that could easily accommodate a thousand tropical plants. Besides one large main area, it was d
ivided into a dozen self-contained glass cubicles, each with separate light, temperature, and moisture controls for different plant needs and experiments.

  In the open space colorful seedlings from dozens of species grew in trays set on neat rows of tables. Candy-colored butterflies fluttered through the cavern, crickets sang in the shadows, and several pairs of small parrots talked noisily from their perches in a small tree.

  Sara inhaled ripe, humid air and felt the heat radiated by a rock ceiling covered with fluorescent lights. An underground cavern was not the ideal place for a tropical greenhouse, obviously, but her mother had spent years developing it, and it served its purpose well.

  Exiting through another steel door on the far side of the cavern, she entered a low, narrow corridor of claustrophobic dimensions, lit by tiny white lights at head level on the walls. The air became cool and musty; she felt smothered in a way that she never did ordinarily. Sara rubbed a palm over the taut muscles in the back of her neck, lifting feathery red hair.

  Kyle had reminded her of all she was missing, all she’d given up to protect Noelle from unwanted questions and scrutiny. Now she felt like a plant reaching desperately for sunlight that could never be hers. For the first time since her return from Surador she found herself chafing under the restrictions of her reclusive life, even while she knew she’d make the same choices again.

  Sara climbed a narrow set of stone steps to a landing just wide enough for her to stand easily. The stairs proceded upward for another dozen yards, their angle gradually growing so shallow that they were hardly stairs anymore. Near the top their smooth surfaces were strewn with decaying leaves. The stairs ended at a double door that lay flat above them, at ground level.

  Sara pushed a lever on a control panel set in the landing wall, and the doors opened upward with a soft whirring sound. Golden maple leaves floated into the stairwell; bright sunlight poured down, so warm and friendly that she thought of Kyle again and fought off feelings of sorrow.

  After she climbed out of the passageway and stood in the crisp autumn morning, surrounded by forest, she closed the doors with a remote-control unit. She hung the device on the elastic waistband of her white sweat pants and carefully tugged the tail of her matching top over it.

  Then she slipped through the woods as quietly as she could. But Kyle was gone and his camping site was already obscured by a covering of newly fallen leaves. Her shoulders stiffened with unhappy satisfaction. Sara went to the empty area and stood, gazing bleakly about. He had even scattered the rocks that had circled his fire.

  A thoughtful camper, that was Kyle. Don Johnson playing Sonny Crockett pretending to be a Boy Scout, with a kissing technique worth a dozen merit badges. She wanted him, she needed him, but drawing him into her life would be the cruelest thing she could do.

  The forest seemed more quiet than usual, and the autumn breeze made a forlorn, empty sound in the highest tree branches. Tears blurred her vision. Sara picked a leaf up and let it go, watching it spiral, caught in forces it couldn’t control.

  Diego de Valdivia, the power-hungry man who had forced her participation in an immoral type of research, the South American business patrón who had secretly dabbled in espionage, the man who had maimed Kyle forever, was Noelle’s father.

  Kyle gave her two days in which to relax and grow careless. Shortly after midnight of the second day he left his motel room and drove back to her estate, hid his rental car in the woods near her driveway, and set out through the dark forest on foot, carrying a backpack full of gear. He kept clear of the gate at the main road to avoid setting off the sensors he knew were hidden there.

  He ruefully eyed the dragons that snarled in a sliver of moonlight atop the gate’s massive pillars. Her dragons were friendly, she’d said. Sure. And so were his nightmares.

  When he reached the walls around the keep he went straight to an oak tree he’d scouted out the week before. From his pack Kyle pulled a grappling hook with a rope attached to it. He threw the hook over one of the oak’s thick, outflung limbs.

  Still wearing the backpack, he climbed fifty feet of rope hand over hand, using muscles that burned with protest because he hadn’t indulged in such a feat since his days at the Naval Academy, fifteen years earlier. Kyle sat on the tree limb for a few minutes, catching his breath.

  He was high above the keep’s wall, and in the distance the castle’s dark, ghostly visage shone clearly. It was a small but very authentic-looking medieval fortress, he discovered. He wouldn’t have been shocked to see knights riding up in a procession as a princess waved from an upper window.

  Goose bumps rose on Kyle’s arms as he coiled his rope and fixed the grappling hook for another toss. He threw it at a sturdy-looking walnut tree not far inside the grounds. After he’d secured a taut line of rope from one tree to the other, Kyle wrapped his arms and legs around it and edged over the wall, many feet below.

  When he was safely ensconced in the walnut tree he pulled a nightvision scope from his pack and gazed through it, studying the neatly kept gardens for any sign of dogs, geese—or dragons. None, he thought in grim victory. He’d bet a year’s supply of Coco-Moos that there were no dogs, the geese were harmless, and as for the dragons, well, he’d take his chances.

  From the walnut tree he tossed a rope to the roof of the castle. The roof was flat and had battlements, much to his amusement. The grappling hook clattered into one of their narrow gaps and wedged snugly. Kyle crossed his last rope bridge. By morning he would find a way inside the keep. Victory.

  Daisy was not a nervous dog. In fact, Sara suspected that her nerve endings were coated with marshmallow.

  That was why her behavior in front of the fireplace puzzled Sara so much. As Sara sipped her morning coffee she watched the dog stand with head cocked, growling softly, chocolate-brown eyes trained on the giant opening. The fireplace was the focal point of the castle’s main room, a two-story chamber braced by thick wood beams and decorated with an assortment of plush leather furniture, tapestries, bookcases, and luxurious rugs.

  The hearth could have served as a small dance floor; the firebox itself was taller than Sara’s head and so deep that all five feet two inches of her could lie down in it. Sara had to stand on a kitchen stool to reach the stone mantel, and dusting the Scarborough family crest that hung over the mantel required a stepladder.

  She lounged in the kitchen doorway, where she could keep one eye on Daisy and one on Noelle, who was gurgling happily in her high chair as she flung baby food on the kitchen floor. At ten months, eating was one of Noelle’s supreme entertainments.

  “What is it?” Sara asked the dog.

  Daisy fluffed her golden jowls in a soft woof. She walked to the logs stacked on lion’s-head andirons and tried to peer up the chimney. She growled again. Sara listened intently and finally heard small scuffing and scratching sounds. She sighed with relief.

  “It’s just another owl,” she told Daisy. “Just some little bitty owl who got in under the chimney cap. It’ll find its way out eventually.”

  She went back to Noelle, who had gleefully turned her plastic cup upside down so that remnants of orange juice trickled out of the spout onto her lap, the high chair, and the floor. “Mop!” she said clearly, smiling up at her mother.

  “Mom,” Sara corrected her, gently wiping her hands with a cloth.

  In Noelle’s lingo mop was not something with which one cleaned up baby food several times a day, it was the person who did the cleaning. Noelle made smacking sounds and pursed her mouth. Sara laughed at that signal, while her chest filled with a warm feeling of contentment. Bending over, she took Noelle’s face between her hands and kissed her lightly, tasting orange juice, formula, and scrambled eggs. “I love you too. Time for our bath, breakfast-lips.”

  She carried Noelle through the main room, where Daisy still listened at the fireplace, her ears pricked. “We’re going to take a bath, Daisy Doolittle.” Sara knew that nothing would keep Noelle’s canine pal from following them from the room.

  But Daisy didn’t budge. Noelle called “Zee, Zee”—her version of Daisy’s name—but the dog ignored even that. Finally Sara had to drag Daisy from the room by the scruff of the neck and shut the door behind her.

  He did not feel like Santa Claus.

  Kyle let himself down stone by stone, his toes aching inside his running shoes from constantly fighting for a hold on the slick wall. The chimney was suffocating, full of the soot and smell left by thousands of fires. When he looked up he saw blue sky. When he looked down he saw darkness, followed by a stone ledge, an open damper, and a glimmer of light.


  A few minutes later Kyle eased out of the fireplace and stood gazing at a majestic room outfitted in a style that was very English and very appealing—old brass lamps, stained-glass windows that would have done justice to a cathedral, and plush leather furniture with a comfortable, well-worn look.

  He glanced down at his blackened clothes and skin. Santa Claus never had to deal with soot, apparently. Moving on silent, careful feet, Kyle explored. Off the main room was a cheerful blue kitchen with modern appliances. Gingham curtains decorated a sunny bay window. The window was barred on the outside. The kitchen was connected via a short hall to a dining room that rivaled the big den for splendor and size.

  Going back past the fireplace, Kyle opened a heavy paneled door and stepped into an arching hallway with a carpeted floor. He tilted his head toward the faint sound of water running. After a second he decided that someone was emptying a tub, not filling it. Along the hallway he discovered guest rooms and an alcove at the end with a double door that suggested a master suite. Kyle tested an ornate silver doorknob there. It turned easily, and he slowly drew the door open.

  A snarl greeted him. Hackles rose in a shaggy golden ruff. White fangs shown under curled lips.

  Kyle’s breath caught. This dog was no trained guard animal—it was a mishmash of unimpressive, ill-fitting parts, and he doubted that it weighed more than forty pounds—but it meant business. Bitter, deeply lodged memories flared to life. He would never let a dog bite him again.

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