Private Maneuvers / Page 21

Page 21


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Not that it made her feel any better at the moment. Just hollow. Tired.


Darcy forked a hand through her tangled mess of hair. She didn't even bother asking how he'd wrangled past the guards. Apparently, this man made his own rules, which didn't include respecting her wishes.


The two-faced rat bastard had used her confidences about her father against her. She wanted Max out of her room, before she did something ridiculous like ask him to hold her until the nightmares faded. "Visiting hours are over."


He didn't budge, just continued to pin her with those sea-green eyes shifting with more depths than even she'd imagined. She'd only just begun to figure the guy out, and now he'd changed the picture all over again.


Max folded his hands over his stomach, looking so much like the man who'd waited in her room after the snake attack a few short weeks ago. But that man had been an illusion.


"Well, Max?"


"I thought you might need me after what happened, in case it stirred up bad memories from the past."


Of the tree snake?


Then she realized he meant the kidnapping twelve years ago. The past. Of course he knew everything about her from his CIA briefings. Betrayal blazed over her with a fresh vengeance. She'd never stood a chance against him, not when he knew all her secrets, every button to push to wrap her mind so totally around wanting him.


She accepted a certain loss of privacy that came with signing away her life to the military and all the necessary security clearances that entailed. But right now she wasn't feeling reasonable. She felt damned n**ed and exposed to a man who'd kept everything about himself hidden.


Darcy lashed out with the first line of defense that came to mind. "I needed you on the beach yesterday, but you didn't seem to care much about that then, secret-agent man."


He swung his leg from the side of the chair, both elbows on his knees. "You have good reason to be pissed at me."


Damn him and his sympathetic eyes.


"Doesn't take a Scooby Doo sleuth to figure that one out, Doc."


Irritation chased across his face. "I had a job to do. I couldn't tell you top-secret, classified business that falls under a need-to-know-only status. I thought you understood that."


She frowned. "I do."


"Then what's the problem here?"


"Problem? If anyone knows about duty and service to country first, you're looking at her. Problem? You're the problem."


"O-kay. Then you're still upset over the beach?"


Hell yes, she was, but she didn't intend to let him know. Especially not now. "Actually, I'm over that. After all..." She pinned him with her best Alicia the Icicle imitation. "You're the one who didn't get to finish."


Max's brows shot toward his spiky hairline. Good. He deserved a few surprises, the dirtbag.


His brows lowered slowly, assessingly. He studied her through narrowed eyes as if deciphering one of Lucy's or Ethel's clicks. "Then why are you pissed at me?"


Uh-oh. She should have admitted to the secret-agent-man excuse, an easy out to get him off her back. Instead, she would have to fess up to the truth. "You called my father."


Max's jaw thrust. "Excuse me for thinking your life seemed more important than your pride."


"Pride?" Indignation and more than a little pain chased away all traces of exhaustion. "You think this is about pride? It's about being treated with respect. If Crusty were the one lying in this bed, would you have called his mommy to come look out for him?"


He shoved to his feet. "That's a crock."


Shock shut her mouth. For two seconds. "Run that by me again?"


"You heard me." He advanced one stalking step at a time, flowered swim trunks riding low on his hips, T-shirt stretched across broad shoulders that had saved her just twenty-four hours before. "I'm tired of apologizing for keeping you alive the past three weeks. Tired of apologizing for making sure you're safe now."


He stopped beside her bed, hands planted on the silver rails as he leaned closer. "Most of all, I'm tired of trying to keep my mind on the job while keeping my hands off you out of some damned misplaced sense of honor."


He wanted her. Still. For real. No cover act.


And in that burst of realization she acknowledged her secret fear—that he'd been pretending the attraction and she'd been too naive to know. That he hadn't wanted to finish.


Hadn't wanted her.


Forget backing down. He desired her and she reveled in the power.


She met him nose to nose, this stranger who evoked a now-familiar heat within her. "Nobody asked you to be honorable."


A flame lit his eyes a split second before his mouth met hers. Or did hers meet his? She didn't know and didn't care.


She just wanted closer. Deeper. More.


Her lips parted under his and he took her mouth. Took her senses. Took her ability to do more than hang on to his neck and kiss him back, explore the taste and warmth of Max, the part of him she knew well.


His hand reached to drop the metal rail, his body following as he sat on the edge of the hospital bed. He cradled her gently, slowed their kiss, savoring, so different but no less enticing than their devouring frenzy on the beach. Their hands explored each other with tender reverence, stealing reassurance that they'd made it through the day alive.


He lowered her back onto the pillow. Not that she put up much resistance, or let go. She wanted to hold on to this moment, to the remnants of familiarity between them. She'd barely let herself dream there could be something more. And it seemed so damned unfair she couldn't have it all.


Max brushed her lips once, twice, again before he rested his forehead on hers. "What the hell am I going to do with you?"


Familiarity faded, painful reality threatening to intrude. Her hand cradled his bristly cheek. "You don't get it, do you?"


"Apparently not, Darcy."


She held back the words for a second longer, held him. For one more selfish minute she wanted to pretend he was just Max Keagan, marine biologist with an attitude.


Her own James Dean rebel with a Ph.D.


Instead...she didn't know what or who he was, and as much as his kiss rocked her, his words chilled her.


"You're not going to do anything to me." She'd had enough of people controlling her life. She was willing to relinquish control when necessary in the professional world, but she couldn't settle for less than a partnership on her personal turf. "I understand why you hid your mission. There's nothing to forgive there. But the way you used what I told you against me... That hurts."


He stroked back her hair with tender, lover hands. "I'm so damned sorry. But do you know what it did to me seeing you bleeding in the water and your eyes fogging over?" he paused, his chest pumping with each ragged breath. "I'd make the same call all over again to keep you safe."


She swayed forward. God help her, she was weakening, her body wanting to believe the promise in his seductive touch, the pain in his eyes, and just ignore the harsh vow in his words.


The callused pad of his thumb rasped along her jaw, down her neck before his fingers slid into her hair to cradle her head. "You don't think I wish we could back up and be friends again? I don't want us to leave things this way any more than you do." He cursed softly. "There has to be a better way to say goodbye."


Goodbye? Darcy shook off the sensual daze threatening to drain her will faster than rapture of the deep. He wanted her to see the big picture? Fine. They needed to both be professionals and get over their hormones.


Apparently, Max didn't know her very well, either, if he thought she would simply pack up and head home. She swallowed back the surge of longing still shimmering through her. The time had come to take a stand. "Who said anything about goodbye? I'm not going anywhere, friend.''


"I swear, she's getting on that plane if I have to carry her there myself," Max groused to Crusty, and paced a bare spot in the industrial carpet of the base security police office.


He'd spent the past two hours watching Darcy scan images on the security police computer screens in hopes of identifying their attackers while DeMassi, Lowry and Perry compiled intel in the next room. He'd looked at the same pictures without any luck, and Vinnie still wasn't changing his story.


Crusty tipped back in the office chair, digging through a bag of mooched sunflower seeds. "Pitch her on the plane? That I've gotta see. The whole John Wayne woman-over-the-shoulder routine will definitely go over big with Wren."


"I don't care, as long as she's off the island." He watched her frown as she studied another photo. Only thirty-six hours after their ordeal and already Darcy's flight-suit-clad body hummed with restless energy. Vitality. No lingering effects slowing this woman.


Her finger crooked in her dog tag chain, sawing back and forth. What he wouldn't give to hook his finger in that chain and draw her closer.


Maybe they should talk afterward, when she was safe at home in Charleston and he'd put the whole investigation to rest. If only that nagging voice in his head didn't keep insisting he was screwing up by not settling things between them now.


Friend.


He rued the day he'd used that word with her. She was killing him with friendship, treating him like one of her crewdog buds, taunting him with how very much was lacking and how much more they'd had before.


Crusty creaked back in his chair. "Why not let her spend a few days looking through mug shots until she returns to flying status? She might actually come up with something."


Max grunted.


"Too bad you were so hell-bent on the he-man 'little woman go home' tactics." Baker rattled the bag of seeds, digging for another handful. "If you'd just let her do her part, this could have been so much more pleasant. She can't leave until she's cleared by the flight surgeon, anyway. She has her old man watching over her 24/7 like a rotweiller."


Max ignored the pinch of guilt. He'd done the right thing to keep Darcy safe. The general had a grade-A warrior spirit, the kind that would teach his daughter real survival skills and keep her alive. General Renshaw's mindset seemed to go beyond just bloodying a kid's nose with kung fu crap to teach him that surfing was for bums.


Of course, Max had made sure his old man met the mat before heading out to catch the next wave.


Damn. He didn't need the past crowding his brain. A waste of brain cells and energy, anyway. Max scooped the sunflower seeds from Crusty's hands and started pitching them into his mouth. He crunched and paced. "It's not Vinnie."


"I know."


He almost hated having his gut instinct confirmed. "I've already sent in my recommendation we dismantle the tap. Screw the whole disinformation idea. This is bigger than that. Someone's playing us."


"And that someone's getting reckless."


Max dropped into the vacant office chair across from Crusty. "All the more reason to play it cool. Make like we're content until we have control of the situation." He worked the chair in a lazy half spin from side to side, the spartan government chair squeaking. "The last thing I want is whoever the hell's behind this getting fired up."


"Okay, run with that thought. Let's bounce some ideas back and forth." Crusty waggled his hands. "Brainstorm with me, partner."


Partner? Max paused midcrack.


Brainstorming? Him? What the hell was that all about? More of Darcy's socialization plan. Max stared at her across the rows of steel desks. Intent and focused, she cocked her head to the side to study one photo closer, then waved for the next picture.


She hadn't spared a glance his way, other than another one of her overbright "buddy'' smiles when he and Crusty had stepped into the office. She'd nodded politely, of course, then looked away.


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