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Saras surprise, p.7
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       Sara's Surprise, p.7

           Deborah Smith
 
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  “I’ll be waiting. You’ve got my grocery list?”

  She nodded, fighting an urge to look toward the camper window. Kyle gripped her hand tightly, his fingers slow and warm and just as nimble as she’d imagined, stroking the cup of her palm.

  “See you later,” Sara said desperately. “Come on. I’ll walk a few yards with you.”

  Her knees were weak as she got out of the truck and shut the door. Kyle came around to her side. The scars accented his strong, expressive features in ways that made him look terribly forbidding when he frowned, as he was doing now.

  “I don’t think you can make this trip alone,” he said, standing defiantly in front of her. He massaged the tops of her shoulders. “My God, you’re tense. Sara, I’m sorry if I’ve sounded flippant about your problem before. I didn’t realize how alone and how afraid you are. I’ll help you get over it. I swear I’ll help.”

  She grabbed his hand, led him a dozen steps beyond the front of the truck, put her arms around his neck and her head on his shoulder, then hugged him hard, standing on tiptoe as she forced every muscle to release its fear and absorb his comfort. He couldn’t help her because he didn’t know the truth. She’d never let him know, because she never wanted to look into those warm, sexy eyes and see contempt. But she wanted him to know how much his offer—no, how much he meant to her.

  “You’re the sweetest man I’ve ever known,” she whispered. “And if I need help, I’ll ask right away.”

  “So, uh, need a little help?” he murmured against her hair. He hugged her back, his arms taut bands of muscle around her, making her feel both safe and afraid.

  “No, Sir Knight, not today.” Sara patted his chest, and he understood the warning. Slowly he let her go. She stepped away, smiled at him, and exhaled wearily. “Watch out for the dragons.”

  “You too,” he called as she staggered back to the truck. “You too.”

  Her shopping was blissfully uneventful. When she returned she found Kyle’s sleek black sports car parked in front of the castle. Sara locked the back of the truck and left it filled with baby food and disposable diapers, all hidden inside plastic garbage bags. She’d unload them during the middle of the night.

  The disposable diapers and plastic bags grated on her environmentalist’s conscience, but she had to have them, just this once. With Kyle on hand she couldn’t tote baby products around in open paper sacks. Nor could she wash loads of cloth diapers in the laundry room right off the kitchen.

  Sara made certain that Noelle was fast asleep inside the wicker basket before she entered the castle, Daisy ambling along beside her. She strained her ears but heard no indication that Kyle was moving about. Maybe he was taking a nap. After all, he’d spent all night on the roof planning his invasion and chipping away at the mortar that held her chimney cap in place. Sighing with relief, Sara hurried to the nursery and settled Noelle in her crib. Then she went back to the truck, got two small sacks filled with Kyle’s grocery requests, and took them to the kitchen.

  Afterward she cruised back toward the bedrooms. Outside his door she called, “Kyle?” in a polite tone, and knocked. When there was no answer she tested the doorknob. Unlocked. Sara glanced into the room. The end of his tote bag could be seen peeking from behind the heavy damask draperies on the sides of a kingly bedstead. His dirty clothes were draped over the shell of a knight who stood guard in one corner.

  Sara’s mouth twitched with amusement. The suit of armor was wearing Kyle’s Hawaiian shirt.

  But where was Kyle? As if in answer, Daisy woofed and trotted toward a tall, narrow window across the room. She put her front paws on its stone sill and reared up so that she could peer out the beveled glass. She woofed again.

  Sara frowned and went to the window. And then she began to laugh. Earlier he had thought her geese so funny.

  Across the garden Kyle sat astride the limb of a giant oak tree. He was looking down. Her attack geese were looking up.

  Five

  Stretched out on his stomach along the couch in front of her fireplace, Kyle shifted his legs slowly and winced. He felt Sara’s hand pat his shoulder gently, and her sympathetic attention made his embarrassment even more acute. During the course of his old career he had outwitted some of the smartest terrorists in the world; now he couldn’t outwit a flock of fat, waddling birds.

  “What happened?” she asked.

  He tried to sound grandly disgusted. “I came back, cleaned up, and decided to bring in some firewood.”

  “You should have taken my geese seriously after the way they chased you this morning.”

  “I thought they were all honk and no action.”

  Sara sat cross-legged in the floor, near enough that he could touch her if he wanted. He always wanted—even now, when the corners of her mouth kept curling upward at his expense.

  “I only wanted to bring in some firewood. To be a good guest.”

  “I know. I promise not to laugh out loud anymore.”

  “I brought in two armloads from the woodpile without the geese noticing me. Then I got greedy. I went back for a third load. They noticed.”

  “And then?”

  “They took revenge for every quill pen and down pillow ever made. They pinched me with those damned beaks. I haven’t been grabbed so much since I rode to the top of the Empire State Building in an elevator full of drunk women.”

  “Would you like some liniment for your pained dignity?”

  “Yes.”

  While she was out of the room he got up and gingerly padded to the huge hearth where he’d stacked his first two loads of firewood. The third lay scattered around the base of the tree he’d climbed.

  By the time she came back, carrying a mysterious jar, he’d built a fire. The aromatic scent of burning oak filled the castle’s great room. The room was suspended between pleasant shadows and the last of the afternoon sunlight that filtered through the tall windows on the southern side. Kyle leaned against the fireplace and thought how appealing the room was, especially when Sara stood near the windows, backlit with a halo of sunshine.

  She had changed into a soft blue sweater and stretchy white ski pants with the instep straps turned up around her ankles. The outfit revealed a small, slender body curved with muscle. She was little but not fragile. Still, a man would want to be very gentle when he held her in bed.

  Kyle’s reverie dissolved as he pictured the imprints his ridged scars would leave on her skin. He’d never kiss her again; he wouldn’t dredge up the subject of his ugliness. And he’d try not to daydream any more than he could help. But unbidden new images tormented him already. He and Sara, curled up together on the couch, sharing a mug of hot cider, her arms slipping around his neck, her mouth tasting of apple and cinnamon …

  “Lie down again,” she ordered him, her expression fathomless. “And tell the nice sorceress where the trolls nibbled at you.”

  “I can manage alone.” Feeling troubled when he realized that she meant to rub the liniment on him, he decided that belligerence was a good defense.

  She rolled her eyes. “After you came down from the tree you mentioned that your lower back hurt. You can’t rub liniment on your own back.”

  “Maybe I have double-jointed arms.”

  “Maybe you have a thick head. Pull your shirt off. Lie down. Quit grumbling.”

  He eyed the jar she held. It was full of a slimy white substance. “You’re going to turn me into a garden slug. When I walk I’ll leave a trail. What is that stuff?”

  “It’s the juice of a plant that grows in the Amazon rain forest. It’s been used for centuries by the Indians there. It won’t hurt you.”

  “My sister Millie said that to me once, when we were kids. A Surprise never turns down a chance to take chances. We taste-tested some swamp water. I don’t want to go into the ugly details, but the people who sell milk of magnesia made a lot of money as a result of that experiment.”

  She looked at him patiently but tapped a bare, dainty foot on the scroll patte
rn of a richly ornamented rug. “I haven’t got all afternoon, Kyle.”

  Before the incident in Surador he had never been self-conscious about his body. He had kept himself in good shape, admired the results in a full-length mirror occasionally, but otherwise never thought about it except when someone, invariably female, offered a compliment. Confidence, not vanity, had made him feel comfortable.

  Now he had to grit his teeth to keep from hesitating any longer. Kyle jerked a ribbed white sweater over his head and lay down on the old couch, feeling its cool, soft leather meet his scarred chest and stomach. He wished that the loose brown corduroys he wore didn’t hang so low on his waist.

  He pillowed his head on one forearm and stared resolutely at his own bicep, trying not to think about the fact that Sara had just knelt on the thick tapestry rug beside the couch, that she must be grimacing at what Diego de Valdivia’s well-trained dogs had accomplished.

  “I … I think you’re right,” she said abruptly. “I think you can put the liniment on without my help.” She set the jar on the floor and vaulted to her feet as Kyle raised his head to stare at her. “I’ll be in my lab until six. Your chili fixings are waiting for you in the kitchen.”

  She turned and left the room quickly, without looking back. Kyle’s hands knotted into fists as humiliation and sorrow poured through him. Now try to tell me that you don’t mind my scars, Sara.

  Noelle mouthed a spoonful of crushed ice and frowned. Tears still gleamed in her dark eyes, and her face looked ready to crumple again at any second. Sara rocked her in a big chair next to the nursery window. Exhausted from the day’s traumas, Sara meditated on the sunset and nearly dozed off.

  “Mice,” Noelle told her.

  Ice. Sara dipped the spoon into a cup on the windowsill. Noelle took it eagerly and held her mouth open as Sara rubbed a bit over the tiny nubs of two front teeth. In all of medical science there ought to be something to treat sore teeth.

  For two hours Noelle had alternately eaten ice and cried. Lying on the sill was the tiny, flesh-colored transmitter Sara had been wearing in one ear when the teething crisis began. Her ear still rang from Noelle’s high-pitched wails.

  Poor Kyle, he must have been disgusted at her for changing her mind about the rubdown. But there had been no way she could ignore Noelle’s angry shrieks, especially not when the transmitter had magnified and then focused them on one lone eardrum. She had almost run from the room because she feared that the transmitter was so loud Kyle could hear Noelle too.

  Noelle nestled her head against Sara’s chest and sighed as Sara’s fingers stroked her hair soothingly. Too tired to fight sore gums any longer, her eyes drooped shut. She was asleep by the time Sara put her in the crib and kissed her softly on one cheek.

  Sara looked at her watch. Almost six o’clock. Good timing. She could eat dinner with Kyle and make certain that he hadn’t read anything odd into her actions. She couldn’t judge their effect herself; her senses were numb from the day’s events. She did know one thing—despite the risk and inconvenience of having him as a guest, she felt a tingle of anticipation that made new energy hum through her veins now.

  Sara tucked the transmitter back into her ear, pulled several wisps of hair over it, and checked the listening unit that hung on the wall beside Noelle’s crib. Thank goodness for technology. Unlike people, it behaved in predictable ways.

  The kitchen was full of cheerful light and delicious smells. Kyle sat at the table by the bay window, his feet propped on the window seat and his hands latched behind his head. After Sara padded silently into the room she realized that he was either watching the sunset intently or was so lost in thought he hadn’t heard her approach.

  A pair of leather hiking boots lay upended on the floor, and his feet were covered only in white crew socks. He presented a relaxed, unforbidding image, but hardly a tame one. His torso looked trim but powerful in the handsome white sweater, his long legs provoked her interest even encased in loose brown trousers, and his tousled hair was a sensual lure for her fingers. “Hello,” he said without turning around.

  Sara jumped. “How did you know I was here?”

  He pulled his feet down and swiveled in his chair. “We highly trained James-Bond types pick up on the tiniest nuance of sound.” He added dryly, “And I saw your reflection in the window.”

  She was puzzled by the expression in his eyes. Even though he sounded cheerful he looked sad, or maybe resigned. She couldn’t tell for certain. Her gaze moved to a pair of empty beer bottles on the table. Obviously he was in the mood for something stronger than his whimsical chocolate sodas.

  Sara fumbled for neutral conversation. “I did get the right brand of beer, didn’t I? And the Coco-Moos? That was right?”

  “Sure. Thanks.”

  She went to the stove and lifted the lid on a large pot. “Oh, Kyle. Oh. Hmmmm. You outdid yourself. To a person who would starve if it weren’t for frozen food and microwave ovens, homemade chili is heaven.”

  “Well, Jeopard couldn’t cook and Millie wasn’t very good at it either. I was the designated chef when we were growing up. Do you want to eat at the table with me, or are you going back to the lab?”

  “I have time to eat with you.”

  “Look, it’s okay if you don’t. I understand. I’ve been here only one day. I know it’s going to take a while for you to, well, to adjust to me.”

  She chuckled. “You make yourself sound like a strange new pet.”

  “A different sort of dragon, maybe.”

  “You’re no dragon,” she corrected him, frowning at his choice of descriptions. She nodded toward the stove and smiled awkwardly. “I smell enough chili powder to make me think we’ll both be able to breath fire soon.”

  “My chili is good for what ails you. I think it kills germs. Or maybe it just scares the hell out of them.”

  “Speaking of ailments, how are your goose bites?”

  “Fine. That liniment did help.”

  “Did you get enough of it on your back? I’ll be glad to—”

  “It’s fine,” he said quickly.

  “I’m sorry I ran out on you. I’d forgotten about an experiment I needed to check.”

  “No explanation needed.” He rose, looking restless. There were times, such as now, when Sara glimpsed the intensity that he hid under his casual facade. This was, after all, a man who had lived dangerously for most of his adult life. She feared that he was already bored by his Good Samaritan role and its confinement.

  “There’s a portable television set in one of the bedrooms,” she told him. “The reception inside these walls isn’t too great, but there’s a VCR, too, and I have a big collection of tapes—mostly classics and PBS specials—but you’re welcome to watch them if you want.”

  He looked at her ruefully and put his hands on his hips. “What? No Popeye cartoons or reruns of Gilligan’s Island for us ordinary folks to enjoy?”

  “I wasn’t trying to imply that you wouldn’t appreciate highbrow entertainment. Why are you so defensive tonight?”

  He shook his head, and his shoulders slumped a little. He looked apologetic. “I’m just moody these days. Remember, I’m here to rehabilitate my own attitude as well as yours.”

  Sara crossed her arms over her chest with mock command. “Tell me what’s wrong with your attitude.”

  He eyed her warily. “I make chili as a way of expressing myself. Understand my chili, and you’ll understand me.”

  “You won’t be a mystery for very long, then. Let’s eat.”

  She set the kitchen table with heavy crockery bowls and pewter serving pieces engraved with the Scarborough family crest. Kyle got another beer; she opened her first, in fact the first one she’d had since before her pregnancy. Being the sole caretaker of a baby, a castle, and a research lab was a constant responsibility; she was afraid to mellow out, even a little. She always had too much to do.

  But tonight was special. Kyle ladled chili into their bowls and carried the pot back to the stove
. After he sat down he raised his beer and said, “A toast. I’ll make one, then you make one.”

  “Okay.” She held her bottle up.

  He clinked his to it. “To better times for us both.”

  Tears stung the corners of Sara’s eyes. “To good memories rather than bad.”

  “To the future of plastic surgery.”

  Sara eyed him gently. She tapped her bottle to his with a little too much force. “To the happiness that exists in the present.”

  He glared at the way she brandished her beer bottle. “What is this, a challenge? The duel of the Budweisers?”

  Chuckling, Sara put her beer down and ate a spoonful of chili. She glanced up and caught Kyle watching her closely. “Well, what do you think?” he demanded.

  “About your attitude, as expressed in your chili? Hmmm. Pretty hot, but so well-balanced that it doesn’t burn. Patiently prepared. Contains a few unexpected ingredients that make it more complicated than it seems on the surface. All in all, I’m quite impressed.”

  He looked pleased. “But the important question is, does it make you hungry for more?”

  Hungry? She was starving, but not for chili. “Oh, ho. A leading question. It strains the comparison too far.”

  “Evasive woman,” he grumbled. “If your attitude was a meal, what would it be?”

  She grinned. “Oysters. Still in the shell.”

  “I’m an expert at opening oysters.”

  “Are you an oyster connoisseur, or just a pearl thief?”

  “Both.”

  This was like an Italian trapeze act, Sara thought. The Flying Innuendos. It was dangerous for the untrained to attempt, and her recklessness was going to send her for a hard fall. “Eat your attitude before it gets cold,” she ordered.

  And then, like a woman enjoying a wonderful meal after a long, dull diet, she put a large spoonful of chili into her mouth and smiled with guilty pleasure.

  Since his cooking provoked such an interesting exchange of information, Kyle got up before dawn the next morning to fix breakfast. She’d mentioned that she was an early bird, as he was, but he couldn’t imagine that she’d be out classifying species of worms this early. He drew a pair of jeans and a white sweatshirt over his thermal underwear, put on two pairs of socks, and padded out of his room, shivering a little. Central heating didn’t do a hell of a lot of good in a castle.

 
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