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Saras surprise, p.6
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       Sara's Surprise, p.6

           Deborah Smith
 
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  The picnic basket was larger than average and Noelle was smaller. The basket had survived years of Scarborough family outings. Sara smiled wistfully, remembering. With two biologists for parents and two aspiring biologists for children, the picnics had often turned into field trips. This basket had held potato salad and birds’ nests, fried chicken and snakeskins.

  And now it held a precious secret.

  Her hands trembling with nervousness, she hooked the strap of a floppy leather purse over one shoulder, then lifted the basket slowly, her palms sweating on the wide wooden handles. If she could get through this month’s shopping trip safely, the rest of Kyle’s visit shouldn’t pose too many problems.

  “Come on, Daisy. Let’s just keep our cool and act like nothing’s odd.”

  Daisy trotted out of the bedroom in front of Sara. Sara eased the basket to the hallway floor, then shut and locked the bedroom door. Her pulse thready, she carried the basket down the hall and stopped outside a door to one of the guest rooms.

  Kyle’s odd surname was derived from the more elegant-sounding St. Surpris. She remembered someone telling her that Kyle’s great-great-grandfather was a French pirate who settled in Florida. Considering the way Kyle had come down the chimney, his last name ought to be St. Nick.

  “Kyle?” she called, her voice high-pitched. “I’ll be waiting in the truck.”

  She heard him cross the room hurriedly. Suddenly he pulled the heavy mahogany door open—making the task look easier than it was for most people—and grinned at her. “I’m ready. I was just washing soot off my arms. I know you’ll be thrilled when I finally get a change of clothes.”

  He shoved his arms into his grimy shirt. His chest and shoulder muscles flexed under a snug white thermal top that was smudged with sooty fingerprints across the flat plane of his stomach. The prints disappeared under the waistband of his jeans. They would have made an interesting roadmap for a trip through Surprise territory.

  “Clean clothes. Yes,” Sara said, distracted.

  “What’s in the basket?”

  “A rabbit.” Her palms were damper than the Amazon rain forest. Sara took a steadying breath. “I keep it in the lab.”

  He frowned quizzically as he buttoned his shirt with large, extraordinarily nimble fingers that must have had lots of experience in delicate maneuvers. Sara suspected that those fingers were adept at dismantling everything from locks and bombs to a woman’s resistance.

  “You don’t perform some kind of animal experiments, do you?” he asked. “You’re not injecting Bugs Bunny with carrot hormones, I hope.”

  Sara managed a laugh. “I’m not Dr. Frankenstein. No. The, uhmmm, rabbit is just a pet. Unfortunately, it keeps getting out of its cage. It likes rare tropical plants for lunch. So I’m giving it back to the original owner.”

  “I love rabbits.” Kyle smiled fiendishly. “Broiled, with a side dressing of rice.” Sara swept him with a look of mock dismay and took a step back. He chuckled. “Jep and I hunted rabbits when we were growing up.” He paused for effect. “Beach bunnies.”

  Sara only smiled, afraid to laugh again because it might wake Noelle. “I can picture the Surprise brothers on the prowl together. The Great Blond Hunters, cruising the dangerous coast of Florida, armed with suntan lotion and a cooler full of beer.”

  “Not Jeopard. He was the only guy on the beach with a cooler of Dom Pérignon. And the only guy who needed absolutely nothing more than a smile to draw every female within sight.”

  Sara nodded, though she tried to picture Kyle’s elegant, stern older brother lazing on the beach, carefree. She couldn’t. Jeopard Surprise might have been fun-loving once, but the years had turned him into a tough, brooding enigma, frighteningly so. During the rescue attempt, before she’d realized that he was on her side, she’d lashed a well-aimed foot into his groin. He hadn’t made a sound. He hadn’t even looked upset. He had simply pushed her into the grip of a giant named Drake Lancaster, then leaned against a wall for a few seconds, his eyes nearly shut. The Iceman, she had heard Drake and Rucker call him.

  “You love your brother very much, and you admire him,” she said to Kyle. “I can hear that in your voice.”

  He nodded. “And I’m just as close to my sister Millie. The three of us pretty much raised each other. Our mother died when we were kids, and our old man put the navy first, the family second. But he was a hell of a guy.” Kyle shrugged, any regrets resolved long ago.

  “I think that you’re the most interesting of the men in your family,” Sara told him. “Probably the most creative too. So Jeopard used his perfect smile and expensive champagne to lure beach bunnies? What was your modus operandi?”

  “I offered them milk,” he assured her solemnly. “I went for the wholesome girls.”

  “Or maybe the girls with good teeth and big, uhmmm, bones.”

  He laughed richly. “Those too.”

  The beautiful masculine tones of his laughter made her giddy; they were like fine wine hitting her bloodstream. When he suddenly stepped into the hall, Sara moved quickly away from him, almost stumbling.

  “I just want to look at your cottontail,” he protested.

  Sara put a hand over the spot where the picnic basket’s lid had once, years before, had a clasp. “It’s … it’s wild. I can’t open the basket.”

  “You keep a wild rabbit for a pet? Let me guess—it’s a guard rabbit for the lab. All right, youse dirty thief”—he turned his voice into what could only, to Sara’s rattled mind, be described as James Cagney doing Thumper—“drop the microscope or I’ll mate with your wife’s fuzzy bedroom slippers.”

  Sara covered her mouth to keep from either laughing or crying, she wasn’t sure which. The strain of having Kyle so close to Noelle was beginning to tell.

  “Your rabbit smells like you sprayed perfume on it,” he commented, sniffing.

  Baby powder. Sara winced inwardly. Damn this situation! Everything in her scientist’s nature was devoted to finding and recognizing the truth. Weaving this ludicrous lie went against the principles of her orderly universe. And she was just plain lousy at it. She walked toward the great room, holding her picnic basket in front of her as if she could block the fragrance of scented talc.

  “You smell Eau de Carrot,” she said over her shoulder in a tone that meant drop the subject. “Hurry up. I’m leaving.”

  “Sara.” He caught up with her, slipping into his dirty jacket as she entered a big foyer where the cold gray stone walls suited her mood. “Let me carry your killer bunny,” he teased gently. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

  She shook her head but gave him a reassuring smile. “Just open the door and let the bridge down. The key’s hanging on the horn over there.”

  From a short white horn mounted on a wall plaque he took a key ring so large that Sara could have put it over her head like a heavy necklace. It was made of wrought iron, with moons and stars worked into one quadrant of the circle. The ornate key contained the same design. The head of it filled the palm of Kyle’s hand.

  “When did you buy the place from the giant?” he asked dryly. Then he glanced at the horn. “Nice trophy. Caught a unicorn in the backyard, hmmm?”

  “It came from an antelope.” Sara felt Noelle shift inside the basket. “My brother and I found it on a family safari to Africa. I must have been about ten years old. The antelope had died from natural causes. But I do love unicorns. When I was very little my grandfather had me believing that they hid behind the trees in the garden. I knew that if I looked hard enough, I’d see them. I don’t think I’ve ever given up hope. Open the door. This rabbit might get impatient.”

  The door’s original bolt slid back with a ponderous creaking of iron on wood as Kyle turned the key. He studied the newer electronic lock next to the door handle. “Your code, m’lady.”

  “One four two, two two six.”

  He punched buttons. “Any mystical significance, sorceress?”

  “Nope. It’s just a combination of my IQ and bir
thday.”

  Kyle arched a brow at her. “You were born in January 1942?” Smiling wryly, she shook her head. He exhaled with relief. “February twenty-sixth?” She nodded. “So your IQ is only a modest genius level of one hundred and forty-two points?”

  “Yes.”

  “Thank God. For a second I felt like a chimpanzee who’s just found out he’s been discussing bananas with Albert Einstein.”

  He pushed the door open. Sara pointed to a control panel on the wall of the outer foyer. “That operates the bridge.”

  She waited until she was certain that Kyle’s attention was trained on the interesting spectacle of a hydraulic system lowering five yards of heavy wooden bridge across a moat filled with good old southern privet hedge. Then she lifted the basket lid and peeked inside. Noelle lay on her stomach sleeping soundly, just as before.

  “What’s up, Doc?”

  Kyle’s voice and footsteps startled her. She jumped and tried not to slap the lid down too loudly. Her nerves on fire, Sara frowned at him. “You … the rabbit … it … you could have made it jump out!”

  He pointed to the alert dog near her feet. “Your crack security canine would have hunted it down.” Daisy, who had fallen asleep during the two minutes it had taken them to unlock the door and lower the bridge, lay on her back, legs splayed.

  Sara nudged her with the toe of a sneaker. “Wake up.”

  Daisy made a grunting sound and opened bleary eyes.

  “Sounds like a security pig to me,” Kyle noted cheerfully.

  “Daisy!”

  The dog got up, yawning, and trotted outside. Sara gazed at Kyle, feeling troubled. “You think that I and my useless guard dog are pretty ridiculous.”

  He shook his head, and the teasing glint faded from his eyes. “I think you’re a gentle, loving person at heart, and you’d rather trust Daisy than bring any dragons into your home.”

  She nodded, a little shaken by his insight. He stepped aside and swept a hand toward the bridge. “After you, m’lady.”

  Sara had already brought the truck around from the back, where she kept it in a small shed. It waited on the cobblestone apron beyond the bridge. The tailgate and camper hatch were open. Noelle’s car seat was hidden in the front corner of the truck bed, under a pile of blankets.

  “Go ahead and get into the cab,” she told Kyle. “I’ve got to tie this basket shut.”

  “Sure. We wouldn’t want the killer bunny to get out.”

  The geese waddled around a corner of the castle. Sara stared at them in dismay. “Worry about the geese instead. Kyle, get in the truck!” As soon as they saw him, a stranger, they went into battle mode. They trotted forward, their wings spread, their heads thrust forward, their beady eyes never leaving their target.

  He said a couple of words that were probably offensive to everything with wings, including airplanes. Then he snatched the picnic basket from Sara’s hands and shoved it into the back of the truck. “I’ll save you,” he called, sounding a great deal more amused than she was at the moment. She expected to hear Noelle’s wail of distress immediately.

  He lifted Sara into the truck bed. Daisy leapt clumsily and landed in her lap. Kyle slammed the tailgate and ran to the driver’s side of the cab. It was locked. He ran to the other side and tried the passenger door. It was locked.

  He began to laugh. “I’m goose meat! I’m a goner!”

  Sara scrambled out and unlocked the driver’s door. She dove across the seat, reaching for the lock on the passenger door. Kyle slung it open and threw himself into her lap just as a big gander reached him, hissing and striking.

  “He got me!” Kyle’s head was pillowed on her thighs; he was laughing so hard that he couldn’t sit up. His long legs dangled from the truck. In its beak the gander had trapped the laces on one of Kyle’s running shoes. Sara grabbed a package of crackers from the glove compartment, ripped it open, and flung the contents out the passenger side. The gander let go of Kyle’s laces and went after the treat.

  Kyle swung the door shut and pushed himself upright, then glanced down at her thighs as if he were remembering how they had felt under his head and deciding how they would feel under his hands. “Thank you, m’lady, thank you. You saved me from the dragons.” He looked startled when she climbed out and headed toward the back.

  “I’m just going to check on my rabbit.” Her heart racing, Sara crawled into the truck bed and opened the picnic basket. Noelle chortled and smiled around her pacifier as Sara lifted her out and fastened her into the car seat. “Ride in here with Daisy for just a few minutes, sweetheart,” Sara whispered. “Then I’ll come get you.” She patted Daisy and wearily returned to the cab. “The rabbit is fine.”

  Kyle freed an object that had been wedged in the seat near his hip. “What’s this?” he asked, holding it up. “A life preserver for a fairy?”

  Sara stared at the pink teething ring in horror. The ring had disappeared last month, after their last shopping trip. Now she knew where Noelle had dropped it.

  “It’s a dog toy,” she said weakly. She tossed the teething ring out the window.

  Kyle chuckled dryly. “I didn’t think that Daisy was smart enough to play with toys. She’s a low form of plant life with fur. That’s why you call her ‘Daisy.’ ”

  “She’s just mellow. Very mellow.” Sara cranked the truck hurriedly and drove down the cobblestone lane to the gate. She stopped, pulled a radio-control unit from her purse, and signaled a mechanism to roll the wide steel gate aside. Then she handed the unit to Kyle. “I have two. You keep this one as long as you’re my guest.”

  “I feel like Walt Disney just gave me the key to the Magic Kingdom. Thanks, Tinker Bell.”

  After Sara drove through the gate he signaled it to close. As she put the truck in gear and started down the half-mile driveway to the road, she felt his gaze on her. “This remote control has your mother’s initials written on it.”

  Sara nodded and said softly, “I’m sure she’d be proud to have you use it.”

  “Jep knew her a lot better than I did, since he was working on this end of the case. He was impressed with her.”

  “You mean he was impressed with her after he was certain that she wasn’t working for … that she wasn’t voluntarily involved in my herbicide research, that she was complying only for my sake.”

  “You really don’t want to say his name. Are the memories so bad, Sara?”

  “Yes.” A very faint scratching noise made her glance toward the back. The window of the truck’s cab looked directly into the front window of the camper. Only a few inches of space separated the two.

  Daisy was clawing at the taped-down curtains on the camper window. When she parted the curtains and peered out happily, Sara stiffened with shock. She’d forgotten how much Daisy loved to watch the scenery. “Dai—” She caught herself. What if Kyle turned around to look? From his side he could see directly into the corner where she’d placed Noelle.

  I know it’s an odd-looking rabbit, Kyle. She has my nose and mouth, don’t you think? And I really think she has my eyes, though they’re dark brown, not green. They don’t have any of her father’s cruelty in them.

  Sara could barely keep the truck centered in the driveway. She adjusted the rearview mirror so that she could stare into the camper window. Her mouth desert-dry, she watched Daisy disappear in Noelle’s direction. Sara chewed her lip until it throbbed. Oh, no, not now, she begged. Daisy wasn’t going to hurt Noelle, no, Daisy had an abiding love for Noelle’s toys. She’d stolen more than a dozen of them already.

  Daisy came back to the window. Clenched in her front teeth was Noelle’s big yellow pacifier.

  Kyle was saying, “So Brig McKay was put in the jail where Millie was working as a deputy. Here’s this famous Australian country-western singer, used to having women fall at his feet, and my sister treats him like some kind of Saturday-night redneck. Brig told People magazine that he had to marry her—it was the only way he could get her to take his handcuffs off.”


  He told her about Millie and Brig’s baby boy, and Sara nodded as if all her attention weren’t riveted to the drama that was courting disaster for her baby girl. Daisy dropped the pacifier, picked it up again, and sat contentedly with it stuck in the front of her mouth.

  She looked like somebody had put a stopper in her to keep stupidity from gushing out.

  Sara gripped the steering wheel so hard that her hands hurt. Kyle hadn’t paid much attention to the teething ring; he probably didn’t even know what a teething ring was. But even a longtime bachelor could recognize a baby pacifier.

  “Sara!” He grabbed the steering wheel. She realized that she’d narrowly missed hanging a front tire in the drainage ditch beside the driveway. A hundred yards ahead she could see the paved public road and the thick stone columns of the second gate.

  “Sorry. I don’t drive much anymore. I’m a little rusty.”

  Kyle held the wheel firmly, keeping the truck centered in the narrow drive. “Stop, Tinker Bell. Okay? Stop for a second. You’re shaking all over.”

  She halted the truck. Bluff, she thought desperately, glancing in the back mirror. Daisy was now rolling the pacifier around in her mouth as if it were a big mint.

  Kyle took her hand and caressed the back of it with his thumb. “It’s not easy for you to leave the estate,” he said gruffly. “I understand. Why don’t you let me go with you today?”

  Sara shut her eyes. Oh, God, he was so kind and caring, and she was leading him on with such lies! “No. It’s really better that I go on alone. I have to prove that I can make it without help. Would you mind walking to your car from here?”

  “No, if that would make you feel better.” He sounded reluctant to let her go, but he was trying not to push her too hard, too fast. Sara tried to smile at him. His dark blue eyes were so sympathetic that it was all she could do to keep from tumbling heart first into the affection they offered.

  “I’ll be back in two or three hours,” she promised.

 
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