Private Maneuvers / Page 10

Page 10


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Two rooms down. Darcy.


He tore out the door and into the night air as a third shot reverberated. He blasted down the walkway past Lurch, already sprinting in the same direction. Doors flung open above them, feet pounding, heads peering over the balcony.


Max reached the door first. He twisted the knob. Locked. "Damn it." He shouldered the door. Not that it budged. "Darcy, talk to me."


Silence.


Lurch crowded behind him. "You wanna kick it in or should I?"


"Move. I've got it." Max backed a step. Gun up and ready, he kicked the door once, twice.


The panel crashed inward. Leading with his Glock, Max swung into the gaping doorway.


And confronted the very last scenario he would have expected. Hell, he couldn't have ever envisioned this one.


Darcy lay on her side on the floor beside the bed, legs tangled around bed sheets and...a snake.


Relief warred with a new dread.


Her arms extended and taut, she aimed her gun at the ten-foot twitching serpent. A snake whose head wasn't more than six inches away from her. With a striking distance half of its length, the creature would have a reach far beyond what it would take to nail Darcy.


A brown tree snake—he identified quickly—it only carried mild venom. Not a problem. Unless it struck repeatedly.


Max eased into the room. Closer. Careful to keep his movements unthreatening, he extended his hand, ready to immobilize the undoubtedly pissed reptile. "Darcy, you can stop. I'll take care of him."


Her hand clenched around the trigger.


"Easy now." Max held still, kept his voice even, hoping to calm the woman as much as the snake.


"Shift that gun to the side. I can stop this fella faster and safer than any more bullets. Okay?''


Her finger slid off the trigger. Her throat moved with a long swallow.


Slowly, he placed the gun on the floor. No sudden moves until...he...was...


Ready.


His hand shot forward. His fingers locked around the snake. Just behind its powerful jaws. Immobilizing its mouth.


Relief, too much, churned through him. He shoved it aside before it distracted him.


Max didn't have to debate what to do next. Given the need to control the tree snake population on Guam, the fact that it was near death anyhow and that the damned thing had scared the tough-as-nails Darcy pale, the snake would die. A quick snap and he put the snake out of its misery.


Max hefted aside the limp reptile and crouched by Darcy. "You okay?"


She elbowed up, wincing. "Positively zippy."


And nearly naked.


Now that the initial crisis had faded, his eyes took in Darcy sprawled on her side. And there was plenty of her to see.


Sweet mercy and The Doors, the woman was so hot she could make a man forget how to swim. "Take a second to catch your breath."


While he found his.


Her matching panties and ribbed tank top, some kind of pale-orange color with flowers patterned over every enticing inch, weren't the garb he found on most sharpshooters. But the dichotomy added a sexy edge to Darcy's vibrancy. Sure he'd scoped out her legs earlier, but the whole bedroom setup with her br**sts full and unrestrained against the ribbed shirt sent his every molecule of testosterone to full chemical boil.


Not that he imagined she would want the growing crowd, or even him, checking her out right now.


Max nudged his gun under the bed and out of sight as he reached over her shoulder to drag the spread off the mattress. His bare chest brushed her damned near bare one. No lingering there, chump. Especially not with the group of gawkers standing behind them and Darcy's pupils still dilated with fear.


Adrenaline and anger pulsed overtime even as he told himself she would be fine. One cranky brown snake wouldn't bring down this woman who didn't have a wilting-flower cell in her body.


He wrapped the blanket around her, tucking her orange underwear out of sight. "Here you go."


Later he would think about why the hell it was so important to shield her from everyone's eyes but his own.


"Thanks, Max." Darcy's grip whitened on the blanket, her breaths ragged but her voice steady. "For the blanket and for taking care of Sly over there."


"My part was small." He clenched his hands to stop from stroking her back, offering some kind of comfort. "You were holding your own just fine."


"Whatever."


From the parking lot, a shout for people to get the hell out of the way sounded just before Crusty shoved into the room. He screeched to a halt by the snake.


"Holy crap." Shoving a hand through a major case of bed head, Daniel Baker whistled long and slow. "Remind me to request you as my wingman next time I'm flying combat."


She laughed, her voice thin and too tight. "Maybe I'll let you be my wingman, Baker."


"Dream on." He scratched a hand along the shoulder of his inside-out shirt. "Are you okay, co?"


"She's fine now." Max's hand curved around her shoulder. Crusty's gaze fell right down to Max's possessive grip. Yeah, he was staking sunflower-seed rights. If he was wrong for Darcy, then the dark-ops tester dude in front of him wasn't any better for her.


Darcy angled to peek around Max. "Anybody see Doc Clark out there in the hall? I've got a little problem."


Her lighthearted grin betrayed by her chalky face, she swept aside the corner of the spread to reveal three sets of puncture wounds climbing up her ankle to her knee.


She adjusted her hold on the blanket, the Band-Aid from her spider bite earlier setting off alarms in Max's head.


Two accidental attacks in one day.


Suspicion coiled into certainty in Max's gut. He'd learned fast not to believe in coincidence. Too often coincidence translated to a threat still in hiding. And for some unknown reason, Darcy was the target.


Chapter 6


"There are no coincidences in this business." Kneeling to check the door lock for jimmied scratch marks, Max spoke over his shoulder to Lurch—known to the rest of the world as Captain Rick DeMassi. "Rule number three for undercover work, right, Perry?"


"You got it, boss." Perry swept his hand along picture frames searching for bugs—the electrical, listening kind this time.


"Yeah, yeah, whatever," DeMassi chanted. The Special Operations pararescueman assigned to oversee physical safety reached up into the light fixture to feel for openings. Hopefully, the guy would never have to serve in his primary capacity for this mission—dragging someone out of the water if the op turned sour. "But I'm telling you, I was watchin' the place, keeping an eye out for Renshaw, too, like you... requested. Easy enough since you're two doors down. I'm telling you, no one went in or out from eight until now."


The CIA hadn't spared any expense in tapping the best resources of the joint services Special Operations Forces.


As much as Max chafed at accounting to others, he had to admit DeMassi seemed to know his job. The guy managed inconspicuous well, especially for an oversize New York-Italian in Guam.


Max skimmed a finger along the hinges of the door to the next room, but no fresh wood showed to indicate the hinges had been taken off and replaced. "Then somehow it came in earlier."


Darcy had been locked in tight and alone with the snake lying in wait. Frustrated anger spiked. He needed the reassurance that he could hold someone accountable, nail that person to the wall and make damned certain no more coincidences happened on his watch. "Perry, check the housecleaning roster. I want to know who serviced this room today."


"Will do." The assistant jotted a note in his day-runner with one hand, loosening his bow tie with the other. He tugged it free and draped it over his sports jacket hanging on a chair.


Max stepped up onto the bed and tapped the ceiling. Solid cinder block like the walls, built to withstand typhoons. Nothing had slithered in that way.


DeMassi's arms bulged through the openings of his sleeveless T-shirt as he twisted a screwdriver along an air-conditioning vent. Finally he dropped his hands to his side with a huff. "Nothing came in through those." He raked a finger along the outside. "And the dust is so damned thick and undisturbed you can file a complaint with the cleaning staff when you get that name."


Max stepped back to the floor and knelt beside the bed, trying not to think about Darcy sprawled on the floor earlier. A tough-as-hell proposition when her baby powder scent clung to the sheet trailing off the side.


He didn't even bother trying to control the urge to protect her. Hell, it would be weeks before he could suppress the image of that snake inches from her face.


Dropping to his side, Max peered underneath the bed. He snagged his gun and tucked it in his waist holster before looking again. More dust and shadows. He reached a hand out behind him. "Hey, DeMassi, pass me a flashlight."


The flashlight smacked into his palm. Max swung the beam under the bed. A long swath sliced through the dust, a clear coil pattern in the middle. A damned big coil.


Max whipped upright before the anger could twist any tighter. "At least we know where the thing hid out. But then, who the hell knows how long it slept curled under there?"


DeMassi crouched beside him. "It could have slithered past while the maids were cleaning the bathrooms."


Max stood, scoping the room while scenarios played out in his head. "Who's in the next room?"


Perry flipped a page in his leather planner. "U-2 pilot from Beale AFB. She left this afternoon to head back home to California."


Max flung the flashlight on the bed and crossed to the connecting bathroom. A possibility.


Returning to Darcy's room, Max paced while Perry worked the crank on the hurricane shutters. Restless energy without an outlet fueled Max's feet. "I'm not sold on the coincidence theory of two attacks in one day."


DeMassi scooped the maglight from the bed. "The same car or guy following you twice in a day, that's no coincidence. Clicks on different phones, not a coincidence. But freaky weird animals in Guam are pretty much the norm, Doc."


Max grunted, unwilling to dismiss the possibility so quickly. Could DeMassi be an insider leak? He'd been the one following Darcy, after all, with a free and clear order to do so. The guy had opportunity to plant the pests. Seemed unlikely, but Max wasn't ruling out anything. He paused by the dresser, his hand absently flipping Post-it notes filled with Darcy's scrawl scattered along the mirror.


"Fill out mission reports."


"Check takeoff currency."


"Fly-safe meeting—O' Club— 1600.''


All written on pink posties with a lighter floral background—her warrior spirit mixed with undeniable femininity tempted him.


"Okay," Perry drawled, snapping shut his day-planner. "Say it's not coincidence. What's the motive for anyone messing with Renshaw?"


DeMassi reached up into the corner of the mirror and pulled down a faded family photo. "Someone's jealous of her high connections? The U-2 pilot even." He thumped the picture. "Wants to see General Renshaw's daughter screw up. Or maybe even just a practical joke. God knows those flyers are always pulling something."


"Possible," Max conceded, taking the photograph of dad, daughters and a son. Darcy wore her school uniform, all arms and legs with scabby knees and no front teeth. And a killer smile even then. "In which case it's petty stuff, nothing to do with the mission."


DeMassi flicked the photo in Max's hand. "Unless you're sleeping with her."


The memory of Darcy in skimpy ribbed cotton mocked him.


"So?" DeMassi pressed. "Are you?"


Max dropped the picture on the dresser. "No. Hell, no! This is work. Rule number one—avoid entangling alliances."


DeMassi folded his arms over his pumped chest. "Why the hell can't you Agency boys speak plain English? Say it like it is. Nothing can screw up ops for a guy faster than a woman."


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