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Saras surprise, p.9
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       Sara's Surprise, p.9

           Deborah Smith
 
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  When she reached the nursery she sagged with relief. Noelle was standing up in her crib, holding the bars and bobbing in place merrily. Her yellow sleepsuit made her look like an excited Easter chick.

  Daisy sat on the floor beside the fallen monitoring unit, a small device that resembled a walkie-talkie. Daisy’s ears drooped, as if she feared that Sara might accuse her of knocking it off the wall.

  Sara picked up a brightly colored rubber frog that lay suspiciously near the monitor. It was one of Noelle’s crib toys. “I think that this frog has learned how to fly,” Sara said dryly. Noelle squealed and gave her a dimpled smile. “I think that this frog flew over and kissed the baby monitor.”

  She put the toy aside to be washed. The monitor was unharmed; the nursery’s thick white carpet had cushioned its fall. She hung it back on the wall and made a mental note to fasten it tighter.

  Now that the crisis was over she felt drained of energy, and a different kind of anxiety grew in her chest. “Let’s watch the moon,” Sara said wearily. She turned the nursery lights off and carried Noelle to the window.

  A huge white moon cast its magical light on the shrubs and trees around the keep; it carved weird, sharp shadows on the wall beyond. The ethereal white guardian, riding high above the mountains, had inspired her grandfather Scarborough to name the place Moonspell Keep.

  The moon and the setting had enchanted him, he said. Enchantment wasn’t a bad thing, he thought. A world surrounded by magic was bound to a safe place. Gazing up into the eerie silver glow, Sara could easily believe that. Perhaps the moon would enchant Kyle and soften his misguided determination to help her.

  Kyle waited for her patiently the next morning, sitting in the kitchen with a pot of coffee and a bowl of pancake batter ready. Seven o’clock came and went. At ten after Kyle strode to her bedroom door and knocked. There was no answer and no sound of movement behind the door. He went back to the kitchen and put the pancake batter in the refrigerator.

  At twenty after he unplugged the coffeepot. Smiling thinly, so disgusted that he didn’t care about the consequences of his actions, he went to her bedroom door and picked the lock, using a highly sophisticated tool he’d mastered over the years—a fingernail file.

  The room was empty, though the unmade bed showed that she had at least spent the night there. The mysterious door to her secret part of the castle was shut and locked, just as he’d assumed it would be. Kyle inspected the electronic lock with its panel of numbered buttons. Hmmm. Since he didn’t have the code, he’d need something a little more sophisticated than a fingernail file.

  He froze at the sound of footsteps in the hallway behind the door and decided to give her one more chance. He trotted from the bedroom, locked the outer door again, and returned to the kitchen.

  Five minutes later she hurried in, greeting him with a big smile as she tucked a blue cotton shirt into snug jeans. “I’m sorry!” She fluffed her short red hair as if she hadn’t had time to comb it. “I overslept!”

  “No, you didn’t,” he said cheerfully, going to plug the coffeepot in again. “You were in the back taking care of whatever it is you take care of so secretively.”

  Her hands froze around her face. “How … what makes you say that?”

  “Intuition.” He got out the bowl of pancake batter and put a griddle on the stove top. “Don’t be late again.”

  “Don’t get carried away with this takeover of yours! Are you going to time me?”

  Smiling, he turned around and waved a spatula at her. “If you’re more than five minutes late, I’ll do my best to break into your lab and see what’s keeping you.”

  He was immediately sorry that he’d made that threat. Her green eyes filled with anger, but also with fear. She looked horrified and worried. Kyle felt sorry for her.

  She muffled a cry of distress behind one hand and went to the window seat, where she curled her legs under her and hugged both arms around her midsection. She seemed very lost and alone as she stared out at a bleak, overcast day.

  “Sara,” Kyle said in a soothing tone. He went over and sat down beside her, then stroked her shoulders with one hand. “I’m not an enemy. I’ll keep your secrets—whatever they are. What are you so afraid of?”

  “So many people have suffered because of me,” she whispered brokenly, her throat flexing. She continued to stare rigidly out the window, but tears slid down her cheeks. “Dinah was kidnapped because she happened to be my friend; my mother’s health was ruined because she spent a year worrying about my safety; and you”—she struggled for control—“you were hurt badly because of me.” She shook her head fiercely. “I don’t want anyone else to suffer because of what I did.”

  “You were innocent.”

  “No. I was foolish. I took too many risks. Now I’m afraid that if anything ever happens again—to me—that more people will get hurt. I can’t bear that idea.”

  “What people?”

  “Anyone who’s close to me.”

  Kyle slowly placed his hand on the back of her neck. He caressed with small circular motions and hoped that she wouldn’t worry that the gesture was offering something besides comfort. “You can’t go through the rest of your life alone, Tinker Bell.”

  “Maybe not. But I can try.”

  “Don’t you ever want a family? A husband, kids?”

  “Children?” She avoided the husband issue but looked at Kyle with an intensity he hadn’t expected. “For years I didn’t know if I wanted to be a mother. I couldn’t decide if I’d be any good at it.” She hesitated, seeming reluctant to say more. “What do you think about having kids?”

  “I think I’ve missed my chance.”

  “You’re a young man!”

  Kyle had never considered himself much of a family type. Maybe the fierce longing that grew inside his chest now was provoked by Jeopard’s upcoming marriage. Maybe it was provoked by wanting Sara more than he’d ever wanted anyone in his life. He thought of the terrified little boy in the country store. Maybe he should go take a look in the mirror and jerk himself back to reality.

  “I don’t do very well with kids,” he muttered.

  She gasped softly, and when he studied her eyes he saw that she understood his meaning. Kyle managed to shrug as if it were something he could easily accept. “I’ve gotten used to it. My sister’s little boy cries every time he sees me. It’s uncomfortable for him, and me too.”

  “How old is he?”

  “He just had his first birthday.”

  “Oh, Kyle, at that age children are likely to be shy with strangers. They’re starting to form distinct likes and dislikes, and sometimes they’re so erratic that you can’t ever figure them out. Don’t let your nephew’s reaction worry you.”

  Suddenly she took his face between her hands. Kyle stiffened with self-defense. He wouldn’t let himself feel anything, even though she was gazing at him so tenderly that he wanted to kiss her.

  “You’ll marry some very lucky woman someday, and you’ll have children,” she assured him. “And they’ll adore you.”

  He pulled her hands down. “I won’t invade your lab if you won’t touch my face.”

  “Kyle, you don’t think that your scars have anything to do with my reasons—”

  “I don’t want to talk about it.” He forced a smile and squeezed out of her hands. “So, Doc. You seem know a lot about babies. Let me guess—you’re bottle-feeding a litter of geraniums in the lab. Tell me where you learned so much about motherhood.”

  Her skin was fair; it revealed changes in her mood with a speed that amazed him. Right now it was like watching color radar on a weather map. A cold front had just arrived.

  “What’s for breakfast?” she asked sharply. “Pancakes and interrogation? Is it going to be like this at every meal?”

  “Not if you come to the table on time.” Puzzled by her sharp reaction to an innocent question, he got up and went to the stove. “Lunch is at twelve. We’ll drive over to Lexington after that. I’m tired of
having dishpan hands, so I’ll take you out to dinner.”

  “There’s something I forgot to tell you last night. My groceries are being delivered this afternoon. Remember Tom and Lucy Wayne, the couple I’ve mentioned? They’ll bring the supplies. Then Lucy will do some housework, and Tom’s going to rake leaves.”

  “So you’re saying that you want to postpone the trip?”

  Kyle eyed her warily when she came over to him and leaned against the counter, smiling sweetly. “Could we go to Lexington tomorrow?” she asked, her elf’s face looking too sincere. “Just think. I won’t be in the lab this afternoon. I’ll be right here, with you and Tom and Lucy. When they’re not looking, you can twist my arm and try to make me answer more questions. You’ll get to pester me all afternoon.”

  He pursed his lips. “Okay. That sounds like fun.”

  “I thought you’d like the idea.”

  She poured a cup of coffee and walked to the table. Her jeans contained an unmistakable and very sassy sway of victory. He decided to let her enjoy it while she could.

  Tom and Lucy Wayne were simple, gentle people who worked hard and asked few questions. Their presence at the keep provided a welcome emotional buffer. Kyle, silent and brooding, went outside and helped Tom rake leaves. Sara dusted windows but found herself peering out distractedly, watching Kyle work.

  “I’m r-ready for th-the wax, S-Sara.”

  Lucy Wayne’s timid voice startled her. Sara smiled at her reassuringly. “Sorry. I forgot. It’s right there.” Sara pointed to a plastic bottle on the dining room table.

  Lucy bobbed a head on which was wound a scraggly, white-blond braid. She grabbed the wax, darted a look at Sara from behind thick glasses, and hurried away, her skinny legs flapping inside ancient bell-bottom jeans.

  Kyle came to get a drink of water, and to watch Sara polish colorful panes of glass set in a star pattern in the dining room windows. She glanced at him and was caught in the mesmerizing closeness of his solemn blue eyes. “Yes?”

  “You won’t let anyone else onto the grounds,” he said, frowning, “but you trust Tom and Lucy, and they’re two of the strangest characters I’ve ever seen.”

  “My mother hired them while I was … you know.”

  “In Surador?” His stern expression gentled at her continuing discomfort over mentioning that part of her life.

  “Yes. When I came home she told me she’d been giving Tom and Lucy odd jobs to do and that they’d never caused her a minute’s worry. Mother was a great judge of people, and she’d decided that they were exactly what they appeared to be—poor, simple, and straight out of a little coal-mining town somewhere way back in the hills.” Sara shrugged lightly. “They’ve never done anything to make me think otherwise.”

  At that moment Tom broke into a shuffling sort of clog, dancing in the leaves like a carefree scarecrow. Clothed in patched overalls and a military fatigue shirt, lanky black hair flopping along his shoulders, he pumped his arms up and down merrily. Inside the boundaries of an angular face his mouth opened in a wide smile. He had a bad overbite accented by three gold-capped teeth. After a minute he quit dancing and went back to raking.

  “I’ve conducted business in backwoods places where there were some pretty odd people,” Kyle commented dryly. “But this guy would draw crowds in a zoo.”

  “You’re awfully judgmental.”

  “I’m trying to understand what you see in Tom and Lucy that you didn’t see in me. Why you don’t bat an eyelash at letting two flaky locals inside the grounds once a week but you made me fight for entrance every inch of the way.”

  “They don’t ask questions. They don’t make demands.”

  “When you look at them you don’t see an ugly past and an even uglier future,” he retorted.

  Reckless anger flared inside her. “Ugly, ugly, ugly,” she chanted. “Is that what you are?”

  He looked stunned. Then he said, “Hell, yes. At least I’m honest about it.”

  Without another word he walked out. Sara rested her forehead on a cool blue pane of glass and wished she hadn’t been so quick to fight with him. Ever since his arrival at the keep she’d felt restless—she could describe it only as a sense of knowing how incomplete she’d been before she saw him again. In her whole life she’d never had to fight such a dangerous combination of devotion and desire.

  The poignancy of it was frightening. In research terms, she’d finally found the known unknown, the piece missing from an equation. Now that he was part of her life, the equation was solved; she knew what she’d been looking for all along.

  After Tom and Lucy collected their pay and drove off in a rattling, rusty old van, Sara offered to cook supper. She’d never had much success with cooking—she couldn’t resist experimenting, which was a great attitude for the lab but a disastrous one for the kitchen. But this evening she wanted to do something to shock and please Kyle.

  He, however, was not in the mood to appreciate her offer. Without being bad-tempered about it, he claimed houseworkis bummed-outis, which was, he assured her, a temporary form of exhaustion suffered by macho men. Then he filled a tray with pineapple and cheese sandwiches, potato chips, and two of his beloved Coco-Moos.

  He carried it to his room, along with a stack of old Zane Grey westerns he’d gotten from one of the castle’s many bookcases. Sara felt like crying as he disappeared into his bedroom and shut the door. He was hurt, though he’d probably never admit it.

  She didn’t know what to call her feelings for him. The word love kept surfacing, but it was always accompanied by a sense of despair, so she tried not to think about it. She and Kyle were still strangers in so many ways. But everything, everything about him fascinated her.

  At times he was as wholesome as a box of corn flakes, but there was always the underlying glint in his eye, the worldly look that fit the things he’d told her about himself during their shared meals.

  She would never forget the day she had talked to him in Valdivia’s courtyard. He had told her and Dinah, in a businesslike tone, that he would kill Valdivia if he had to. Since he was chained helplessly to a large stone fountain, he’d made that threat with a smile, poking fun at the irony of his own bravado. But Sara had not doubted that he meant every word, that he had the training and the inclination to kill Valdivia, and, from the look in his eyes, that he wouldn’t lose any sleep over it if he did.

  That was the kind of hatred he still felt for Valdivia. For Noelle’s father.

  Seven

  Sara had no appetite. She went to the nursery, fed Noelle, and read to her from a science journal. Noelle squealed and gurgled her appreciation for her mother’s voice, even if the subject was ectotrophic and endotrophic types of mycorrhizal associations. Daisy fell asleep on the floor by Sara’s rocking chair, snoring softly, paws to the ceiling.

  Noelle refused to yawn, blink slowly, or give any other sign that she was getting sleepy. “I have work to do, petunia,” Sara said mildly. Finally Sara carried her downstairs to the greenhouse and put her in an extra playpen she kept there.

  “Snoot,” Noelle said happily, welcoming the big toy elephant that lived in the playpen. She stood up and put her arms around his head, then began to talk in her mysterious baby language of noises and half words. Daisy flopped down in the sawdust beside the playpen.

  Sara watched the cheerful scene for a second, then turned blindly and grabbed the dirt-stained apron she wore when she worked in the greenhouse. Her fingers shook as she slipped the yoke of it over her head. She feared the worst about tomorrow. Kyle was on the verge of forcing her to spend time outside the keep. She had to think of new excuses.

  Sara went down the long rows of tables, making notes on the charts that hung from the table edges at regular intervals, checking moisture levels, studying leaf development, and weeding out weak and dying plants. At heart she was simply a gardener. She loved to work with the plants in the greenhouse, getting her hands covered in the damp, fertile soil, smelling the rich scents of the flowers, a
nd watching the endless variations grow into fascinating forms. Even without the added pleasure of sunshine and fresh air, gardening brought her into sync with a peaceful world.

  Tonight, with the Lexington trip looming over her, she didn’t know if she’d ever feel peaceful again.

  Even while lost in thought about tomorrow, she automatically glanced up to check on Noelle occasionally. The baby sat with a collection of stacking rings between her feet. She kept trying to fit them over the end of Snoot’s trunk.

  Sara lost track of time, and when she finally glanced at her watch, ten minutes had passed. Smiling giddily, she lifted her head to check on Noelle. At the other end of the cavern, near the end of the long tables, the playpen sat empty.

  “Noelle!”

  Dark terror swept through Sara as she ran through the big greenhouse. Daisy was gone too. It didn’t make sense. Noelle was as active as a small monkey these days, but she couldn’t have gotten out of the playpen without help. Sara groaned out loud when she realized that Snoot now lay facedown, his big gray body mashed against the playpen’s webbed side. He was just the right size to make a very effective ladder to the top.

  Sara couldn’t see beyond the greenery that covered the tables. When she reached the playpen she slid to a stop, looking around wildly. Noelle sat in the sawdust under the end of a table. She had managed to reach up and pull a knotty, twisted little vine from its pot. Daisy stood beside her, looking worried. Noelle was gleefully chewing a mouthful of the plant’s soft, blue-black leaves.

  And they were deadly.

  Kyle sat up in bed, listening to the sound of doors slamming and feet running. He threw his book on the rumpled covers and went to the door quickly. As he jerked it open he heard Daisy bark furiously, then a crash, the sound of glass breaking. It came from down the hall. Sara’s suite.

  Kyle stepped outside his room as one of her double doors slammed open. She ran into the hall and halted, staring at him with wild, frightened eyes. She wore a dirty brown apron. Cradled to her chest she held a large bundle wrapped in the coverlet from her bed.

 
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