Private Maneuvers / Page 13

Page 13


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"I hope so. Trust in the air is everything, and I need to know they trust me to hold up my end flying. That I'm a wingman to be counted on."


Pausing mid-ramble, Darcy glanced over at Max. This man had a way of making her babble on about herself and things she didn't really want to talk about anyway. She could almost see Alicia shooting her a mocking yawn symbol. "What about you? Brothers? Sisters? Red-brick, middle-class America upbringing?"


He sat silently for so long she thought he might not answer. Had she bored him to sleep after all? And if she climbed right over to him, would that stir him?


Or was he awake and she'd pushed this silent man too far?


Max shifted in his chair, eyes still half-open. "Only child. My old man was active duty—a Navy Captain. My mother and I followed him around the world."


Darcy thought of her own mother, a woman she didn't even remember except from pictures, since she'd died of an aneurysm twenty years ago. Would her mother have been able to put the kidnapping into a sharper focus? Darcy shrugged off the notion. She was doing fine on her own, damn it. "So you get your love for the water from your father."


A furrow creased his brow. "I guess so. Although he would probably choke on his commission to hear we have anything in common. I haven't been the ideal son."


With a few clipped sentences Max relayed much— a veritable sharefest for such a closemouthed man. A heady rush of success filled her. "Ah, come on. I'm sure he loves pineapples."


Max snorted.


She wanted to see his smile and bring back the rare chattiness she'd only just begun to enjoy with him. "I'll bet your clothes made for some interesting times around your house."


His eyes slid from the horizon. A surprise spark of laughter lit the edges of a smile. "And I've become conservative in my old age."


Their laughs twined. She wanted to twine a lot more with this guy.


The common bond in their upbringing only made him tougher to resist. Chitchat wasn't helping. She needed distance fast before she crawled across the deck and into his arms again.


Darcy knew just the question guaranteed to chill the heat humming through her. "So, Max, what's a marine biologist with a penchant for wild dive shorts doing packing a Glock 29 on my airplane?"


Tension ripped through Max. His every muscle tightened with a reminder to keep his guard up around this woman. He should have kept his yap shut. Instead, he'd thought it would be safe to spill a few truths about his past to relax her.


Darcy Renshaw was about as far from safe and relaxing as a man could get.


He'd screwed up and lost focus. Now he had to haul himself out of the mess and protect his cover. "My work takes me all around the world, some parts not as safe as others. I always carry a weapon."


Her eyes showered sparks his way. "You're supposed to declare that weapon before setting foot on any aircraft." She swung her legs over the side of the lounger and sat upright to pin him with an accusing glare. "I could have you thrown in jail."


Now there was an image to tempt a man—Darcy slapping cuffs on him while wearing her skimpy ribbed underwear. "I did declare it. To Daniel Baker." Max stabbed a finger toward her injured leg. "Now put your foot back up or I'll have Doc Clark lock you up in the infirmary." She didn't budge. "Why Crusty?"


"He's the senior pilot."


Max watched her mull that over until the will to argue seeped out of her set shoulders. A momentary retreat, no doubt, but welcome.


"Okay, then." She reclined back and swung her legs onto the lounger. "Next time, I'd advise telling all the aircrew or you could land yourself in trouble."


"I'll keep that in mind." How pissed would she be if she found out the rest of what had been kept from her? She made it clear she didn't appreciate back-seat roles, but life didn't always offer choices.


He had a job to do and a woman to protect. And he damned well didn't intend to let her wander off alone into the jungle to face her childhood ghosts and present day "critters.'' Whether she wanted it or not, this woman had his protection.


A woman mellowing into a sleepy haze. Her body lolled, relaxed, sagging into a seductive sprawl on the lounger that sent heat rushing south with throbbing intensity.


Max speared a hand through his hair, scanning the perimeter from his higher vantage point. What would it be like to make love to this uninhibited woman out in the open? She might be innocent, but he recognized a sensualist when he saw one. And Darcy was one hell of an enthusiastic sensualist. It would be a lucky man who tapped into that.


Hell. He did not need jealousy burning his gut. She wasn't his and never would be.


Waves lapped in the distance with a lulling regularity. Darcy's eyelids drifted closed, her breathing rhythmic.


Finally Max allowed himself the pleasure of looking at her—so damned pretty. Not gorgeous in some unapproachable-model kind of way, but pretty. Real. And alive, thank God.


In the quiet and solitude of the night, Max let himself say the words he'd bottled up for hours. "You scared the hell out of me with those gunshots. It knocked a year off my life seeing you on the floor with that snake."


A smile teased at the corner of her lips, her lashes still caressing her cheeks. "I told you. I never miss."


Sighing, she nestled on her side, cheek on her hand.


She didn't miss? Well, neither did he. And he knew it would be tougher than he'd thought keeping his hands off her while ensuring she didn't fall victim to any more "coincidences."


Darcy pulled herself through at least seven layers of sleepy fog. She turned her face into the pillow. A pillow. Not a lawn chair. Sometime during the night, Max must have carried her back to her room.


She'd actually slept through the chance to snuggle against that muscle-cut chest again. She must have been more wasted than she'd thought. Probably for the best as she would have been tempted to pull him down onto the covers with her to discover if he had other tattoos.


To uncover more pieces of Max's past.


Darcy arched into a languorous stretch. Her leg throbbed from the bites, just as her mind throbbed with memories of moonlight and Max. She didn't want to leave the bed and lose the dreamtime with him that had so perfectly overlaid the horror from earlier.


She'd found more distraction than she'd bargained for with the hunky professor. Sure, the night glow and solitude had been sexy, but the talking had been even more intimate. Somehow confusingly different from the friendships she shared with her crewdog buddies.


None of them could have pried bits of those past Guam days out of her. Yet wasn't this trip about putting that time behind her? She wrestled with lending too much importance to her sharing with Max.


Tougher than wrestling a ten-foot snake.


As difficult as putting her past behind her.


Of course, so far she'd made zero progress in that department, too. One little encounter with a tree snake and she'd been plunged back into that nightmare time.


Get a grip, soldier.


Darcy rolled out of bed. She tested her weight on her injured calf. Winced. Wincing even more at the next three days she would spend working a desk in the squadron until she returned to flying status. Might as well get to it.


Today would be as good a time as any to start confronting those critter memories with a hike to stretch out her tension kinks. She limped over to her dresser. The scraggly, puffy-eyed image in the mirror mocked her. No wonder Max kept his distance. She grabbed a brush and started yanking it through her tangled rat's nest of hair.


Darcy paused midstroke. One of her flowered sticky notes waited on the mirror. She dropped her brush beside her day-planner and peeled the paper from the mirror.


"Meet us at the bay—6:00 p.m. Lucy and Ethel."


Anticipation, too much, stung her stomach as she remembered his insistence from the night before that he accompany her on her jungle walks. She crumpled the pink Post-It note in her fist. Damn Max Keagan and his mixed signals. Sit with me on the deck, but don't touch me. Stay away. Come see me. What did he want from her? And what did she want from this man? She had friends. She wanted him to be something more, no question, but not while he carted around baggage from a dead lover.


Opening her fist, Darcy stared down at the mangled scrap of paper from a man who'd known she wouldn't want to be alone but had let her keep her pride. A man who called few people friends, but had been there for her. Somehow, just talking to him had hauled her through a hellish night. Maybe he could pull her through the next weeks confronting her past as well.


Darcy placed the paper on her dresser and slowly smoothed out the wrinkles until it lay flat again.


No, she wasn't sure what she wanted from Max anymore. But she knew she would be sorry if she left the island before finding out.


Max eased his boat into the bay. The sight of Darcy waiting for him had become familiar over the past two weeks, since he'd issued the initial invitation to join him. An invitation to keep her safe had somehow turned into something else.


Today she'd chosen the dock rather than a sandbar, sitting on the edge with her feet dangling in the surf. Her black suit clung to her honey-tanned body, dog tags dangling from her neck. Between her breasts.


He forced his hungry eyes up. Her welcoming smile blazed brighter than the tropical sun toasting his back.


A rare thing for him, a welcome-home scenario, and yet he'd become too accustomed to it in a few short weeks. Darcy waited while he moored the boat. Sometimes she met Perry and him at the dolphin pen. Other times she waited at the boat launch. Just for him.


He'd always been a loner. His animals made more loyal companions than people, anyway. They also had fewer expectations, a corner of his brain taunted.


Yet Darcy never asked anything of him. Just that he hang with her. No great hardship, hanging with Darcy Renshaw in her bathing suit.


Sometime during the past days things had gone from professional to personal. He and Darcy had scoured nearly every inch of the island together. Whatever ghosts waited for her there, she faced them, shadows lurking in her eyes.


He knew the basics about her kidnapping from her file, not that she'd ever confided in him. At least the "critter coincidences" had stopped, but he couldn't convince himself to back away. He was just being cautious.


Yeah, right, chump.


And in another few days she would be returning home. His stint as her unknown guardian would be over and he could forge ahead with finishing his mission.


Damn, but that sandbar and dock would be empty. More so than before. He would miss talking to her. Miss that he'd never had the chance to peel her suit off.


Miss her.


"Hey there, Keagan," his personal siren called, waving as she pulled her feet from the water. "About time you showed up."


How long did it take to draw a pair of never-ending legs from the water?


Finally she stood and swiped beads of water from her tanned skin.


Max swallowed and concentrated on docking the boat rather than parking himself in Darcy. "Busy day."


One that left him itching. He was so damned close to locating that tap. He could feel the logic pattern of which cable contained it gel in his mind. He knew. But until he had solid proof, the knowledge was useless to his superiors. He'd run Lucy and Ethel up and down the cable four times with no luck. What was he missing?


He couldn't afford wasted time with operatives in the field and crews flying missions over Cantou. Darcy's words on the VOQ roof after the snake attack came back to haunt him. How she wanted to be in the action in Cantou. The edge of urgency to plug that damned leak upped tenfold.


Soon, he reassured himself. Soon. Then the real maneuvering would begin in the dance of filtered misinformation to flush out the traitor. He counted the hours until Darcy's departure took her away and safe. Took her away. Period.


Damn it. He couldn't afford to regret her leaving.


The tide drew the boat closer, engine in idle gurgling water behind. With a familiarity two weeks in the making, he pitched her the line to tie off the boat.


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