Private Maneuvers / Page 19

Page 19


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He nodded. Knife in hand. He already knew. The clear water must have alerted him as it had her.


A school of fish scattered.


Darcy stiffened. Readied. Blood in the water would draw sharks, but a more imminent threat waited around the reef.


A figure circled into sight, spear aimed straight for Darcy. Eyes behind the mask glinted with pure evil.


No question of his intent now.


Max detonated into action. Yanked the spear, levering the diver forward. Max locked a bulging arm around the attacker's neck. His knife arced down, cut the attacker's air hose with a swift skill and unsettling efficiency that startled her. Reassured her.


One down in only seconds. Hope buoyed Darcy.


A body slammed into her, jerked her arm. Adrenaline surged through her veins, pulsed in her ears. She curled her knees and kicked forward. Thrust. Hard. Slammed the looming diver into the toxic spines of the red coral. The diver twitched, fell away.


Darcy thrashed left, then right, searching for the other two in the distance. She steadied her breathing, strategizing her next move. Another figure slid into view.


Damn it, how many did they have? Already her legs quivered from the exertion combined with their earlier dive. No question, Max's skills in the water outstripped hers. If only she could hold up her own end. She needed to give him an edge.


A hand banded round her arm. Memories of the past blurred with the present, of another hand years ago clamping on her arm at a luau, dragging her away from the crowd.


No!


She powered an elbow back into the attacker's neck. Bought a moment's freedom while Max maneuvered out of reach of a spear and knife.


She sucked in more air. Gritting her teeth for a battle she feared she couldn't win.


And then it came to her. The only plan with a chance of succeeding. She'd just been too trapped in the past to recognize it.


Only minutes earlier she'd vowed that she'd learned, that she would see the big picture in relationships and service. No longer would she seek glory at the expense of what others needed from her.


She hated vulnerability. Hated giving in. But if she continued with her current mode of attack, they could both die.


God help her, she would have to surrender.


* * *


What the hell was Darcy doing? Max swung clear of an arcing knife while Darcy sank.


She descended. Deeper.


Another ten feet and she'd be below the hundred-foot point, in danger of nitrogen narcosis. If she succumbed, she'd be all but helpless.


She had to know that.


She was leading them deeper to disorient their attackers, as well. The consummate warrior and wingman, she knew how to relinquish ego for the good of mission survival. Giving Max an advantage because she trusted he could combat the increased pressure. And he could.


He dodged the next swing of the spear by going deeper. Deeper still. With any luck, the divers would peel away and give up.


Or not. Three bodies powered after them.


Max fought the narcotic effects of the depth. Years of training and experience shifted into overdrive. Lethargy pumped through his veins with a tempting drunken draw, like a six-pack buzz just waiting to grip him. If he let it.


With seasoned practice, he shook it off. Unlike two of their attackers. Already their motions slowed. Turned sluggish.


Victory teased.


The other diver swam straight for Darcy. So damned close. Only a few yards separated them. The attacker caught her flailing arm. Darcy kicked. Struggled. Wasn't any match, not now with the intoxicating effects threatening.


Rage roared in Max's ears, obliterating the rush of air pumping from his tank. He reached...


The attacker's arm cut through the water. The large blade of a hunting knife gleamed in the glistening depths. The jagged edge raced down toward Darcy. Sliced across her arm. Severed her regulator hose. Bubbles spewed behind her into the blooming red of blood staining the water.


Hell, no!


Resolve iced away the haze. Keeping blood out of the water was no longer a concern, now that Darcy's already leeched all around them.


Max plunged his knife into the attacker's chest. Hefted. Flung him off Darcy.


Her arms slowed until they stopped moving altogether. She stared back with dazed eyes, eyes that slid closed.


Hang on, Darcy. Hang on. From his tank he yanked free the octopus attachment for a second diver and shoved the extra mouthpiece between her lips. Breathe. Breathe, damn it.


Crimson blood diffused into a pink haze around them like one he'd seen before. Max shoved those thoughts away before they stole reason faster than a lack of oxygen.


He needed her conscious and breathing before he started the rise. She had to exhale the expanding air in her lungs during a rapid rise.


Time was running out before their attackers might recoup—


Her lids flickered. Foggy, but awake. Not even a second to waste on relief.


He pointed up and locked her slick, too-damned-cold body to his. He had to get her into the boat and the hell away before the other two goons shook off the lethargy.


Rapid rise.


Max secured his hold around her waist. She flung her limp arms over his shoulders in a weak attempt. He unsnapped her weight belt, then his. Infused air into his BC vest. They shot up.


She slumped in his arms. Dead weight.


Exhale, damn it. He tapped her stomach, a light punch to push the air out and combat an insidious threat as deadly as the men lurking beneath them.


The faster the rise the faster the air expanded in the lungs, minimizing time to accommodate. Increasing the risk of exploding the lungs. Instinct screamed to inhale and exhale in a normal rhythm. But one breath of air could be exhaled for an entire rise.


Instinct had to be shut down, the brain assuming control like with a dolphin's controlled breathing. Years of diving had taught him until he rarely thought about it anymore.


But Darcy would be fighting it. And if the air continued to expand without release... Instant death.


Max kicked, rose, rapping Darcy's stomach. The underwater Technicolor that had so mesmerized him during his earlier dive now flashed by in an ominous kaleidoscope.


Brighter. Brighter still as the surface neared.


Kick. Tap. Try to remember how to pray.


The boat hull loomed in sight. Darcy hung in his arms. So close he could swear he heard her heartbeat thudding in his ears with his own.


Max burst through the surface. The fading sunlight blazed in his eyes, across Darcy's face as her lashes slid closed again inside her mask.


He clutched her to him and hauled her unconscious body toward the boat with one-armed strokes. Each slice through the water reinforced his vow. Rules and fair play no longer applied. He would do whatever it took to keep her alive. And if he lost her trust, her respect...her...in the process, it would hurt like hell, but so be it.


At least she wouldn't end up dead.


She hurt too much to be dead.


Everywhere.


Darcy hadn't ached this much since a case of the bends from a rapid decompression during pilot training. She kept her eyes sealed shut and willed away the pain stabbing every joint in her body. Memories painted themselves on the backs of her eyelids. Of the day with Max. Intense pleasure on the beach. Betrayal at his rejection. Horror in the water.


Max!


Her eyes snapped open. Dimmed lights shadowed the stark military hospital room. A bleached sheet and blanket draped over her body as white as the bandage on her arm, as sterile as the antiseptic air stinging her lungs.


Visions flashed of the knife arcing through the water. Down. Her arm throbbed. The rest blurred. Somehow she'd gotten to the surface. Max.


She searched the room—the rigid hardwood chair, the gleaming sink, rolling tray with flowers. Her gaze finally landed on the broad-shouldered man standing at the window with his back to her. So familiar. So dear. Her breath hitched in her achy chest. At her slight gasp, the shoulders straightened, turned slowly.


It was him. "Hi, Dad."


General Hank Renshaw strode across the room in three long strides. Six feet two inches of lanky uniformed paternal concern closed in on Darcy with suffocating speed.


"Darcy, baby, you scared the living spit out of me, unconscious all night like that." He started to reach, then stopped. His arms hovered in midair, wide in wingspan like the bombers he'd once flown. "Are you okay? I don't want to jostle you. I'm going to get that doctor back in here. Where the hell is he, anyway?"


He pivoted toward the phone as if already prepared to unleash the full power of the rows of ribbons across his chest and three stars decorating each shoulder all over the unsuspecting hospital staff.


"Stop! I'm fine." Darcy took his hand and squeezed, then shoved herself upright. She fought the dizziness that would send him into ordering a battalion of physicians to poke and prod her. "Max. My diving partner. Where is he?"


Darcy's throat closed on the rest of the words.


Her father's face hardened.


A trembling started in her arms. She forced herself to swallow. "Damn it, Dad, tell—"


"He's outside the door talking to the security police standing guard."


Darcy sagged back against her pillows. Screw holding her emotions in check. She'd survived a hideous day, and her father would just have to take a chill pill.


Then the rest of her father's words trickled through her relief. SPs standing guard? Her mind swirled with too many questions.


She started with the most important one. "But he's totally okay? Max?''


Her father nodded.


The rest could wait. She would ask about the SPs as soon as she wiped the worried frown off her father's face.


Darcy pushed herself the rest of the way upright and held out her arms. "Come here, old man. I could use a hug."


His arms opened wide as they'd done when he'd found her on top of the cliff twelve years ago. Just as he'd done then, he gathered her close and held on a little too hard as she inhaled the familiar scent of starch and Old Spice. The past hours waiting for her to wake must have been hell on his aging warrior heart.


"I'm okay, Daddy." Darcy reassured herself as much as him. Willed the echoes of the past to dim. A damned near impossible task right now with her emotions already raw.


The day resembled too closely the horror of captivity in a jungle bunker, alone except for the drip of water and the crack, crack, crack as the guard outside ate sunflower seeds, pitching hulls into her sweltering cubicle.


Every sunflower seed she crunched open as an adult affirmed her freedom. Her strength over the memories. "It's not twelve years ago. Everything's all right."


"I know, baby."


She fought the irreverent urge to laugh over the "baby" comment, even welcomed the distraction. At least her crew wasn't around to hear. Darcy pulled back, shoving the past aside. "How did you get here so fast?"


He sank into a chair beside her bed. "Caught a hop from Korea the minute I heard."


She jammed a hand through her tousled hair. "I can't believe my crew ratted me out." Irritation stung like the pull of stitches in her arm. "Damn it, I bet it was Bronco, that overprotective lug. I'm going to stuff his lunch full—"


"No one from your crew called me."


And from the stern gleam in his eyes she suspected Bronco and Crusty would pay later.


"Then who?"


"Max Keagan."


"Max?" Betrayal swamped her with a power that made his rejection on the beach pale. He knew how she felt about her father's influence encroaching into her world. Why would he have done that? "So you've met him."


Her father nodded, strands of silver glinting through the brown. Most of those whitening strands had sprouted because of her.


"We've... talked."


Uh-oh. "Could you, uh, ask him to step in please?"


She needed to see Max, reassure herself he was alive. Then she would face the fury and hurt crowding her brain.


"I already planned to." All fatherly concern slid away, the General back. "Given what happened out there today, there are a few things you need to know."


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