Private Maneuvers / Page 23

Page 23


"Do you really believe that, Darcy?"

Her shoulders trembled under his grip, and he wanted to get her the hell out of here where he could hold her. Finally she turned to face him. Soot streaked along one tanned cheek.

It had been that close. The bastard responsible was that desperate.

His hold tightened on her shoulders as if he could keep her grounded and safe through his sheer force of will. A temporary measure. Even though he damned well knew this accident was linked to his case, she still faced similar hazards daily—an unsettling notion he hadn't considered before.

He understood the call to service and the risks involved for her. But had never thought beyond the island. Beyond this case.

Now he had to consider more, didn't have a choice anymore around this woman. Even if he said goodbye to her tomorrow or the day after, he would always wonder and worry. And if, God forbid, something happened to her, it would level him.

He wanted the old days back when he could sit against a wall like Crusty and thumb through paperwork until the world returned to order again. Instead he could only think of the woman in front of him and the fact that he'd almost lost her. Could well lose her in ways that had nothing to do with his profession.

He forced his breathing to slow and reminded himself she was alive. Alive and pissed.

Anger radiated from her in waves as dark as the soot smudging her cheek. "They tried to crash my plane, Max. Some son of a bitch screwed with my airplane."

A rage as intense as hers ignited in him. This crew could have died. Darcy could have died.

He couldn't change Darcy's occupation. Or what might happen tomorrow. But he could damn well make sure the son of a bitch responsible for that smudge on her face and shadows in her eyes paid.

Darcy hauled her weary body from the front seat of the rental car outside the VOQ. Bronco, Crusty and Tag piled out, as well. Nobody had the energy left for even a good-night, instead heading straight for their rooms.

Scratching a hand along the neck of her flight suit, she made her way down the open walkway and tried not to think about how much she could use a night on the roof deck with Max. Now that life had slowed, the flight rolled through her mind. She'd half expected the crew wouldn't believe her calculations and would razz her about wanting to return to Guam because of Max. But they hadn't. They'd accepted her call in the air without question.

Accepted her.

Was this something new? Or had she simply missed it before because she couldn't look past the chip on her shoulder larger than her father's stars? Definitely things to consider. Later. Once she shucked her flight suit, showered off the layers of grime and slept for twelve hours. Longer.

Never long enough to forget how good it had felt relaxing back into the comfort of Max's hands on her shoulders. He always knew when she needed him. She—a woman who prided herself on never needing anyone.

And there he was.

She shouldn't be surprised. Max leaned against the wall in the shadows outside her room, thumbing through a copy of the base newspaper while he waited.

She wasn't fooled by his relaxed pose at all.

Muscles rippled with tension along his bared arms. His diver-down tattoo flexed and twitched as if protesting the restraint of Max holding back. Ready to pounce.

He flicked to the next page of the base paper without looking up. "Wanna head up to the deck or go inside?"

"You assume I need you now like after the snake attack and back in the hospital."

He would be right, not that she intended to admit it.

Max closed the paper, folded it in half and tucked it under his arm with precision. "Maybe I need to see you."

Well, hell. The guy sure knew how to sap the air out of a girl's anger. Darcy jammed her key into the lock. "Okay. You've been a good friend. You've seen me, checked up on me. I'm really fine. Or as fine as can be expected when I've almost died twice in a week."

And she hadn't even flown combat. Talk about a crash course in survival. She swung open her door and strode inside. His determined footsteps tracked her into the darkened room.

Darcy flipped the light switch and pivoted on her boot heel. "Good manners dictate you wait to be invited in."

"Thanks for the tip. I'll take it under advisement."

"The new Max is even grumpier than the other one."

He didn't budge. "So I've been told. Thanks again for the etiquette lesson."

His broad chest offered comfort, calling to her with a power more intense than an embossed invitation. Especially with an empty bed only five feet away.

She needed space. Now. Maybe if she ignored him he would leave.

Darcy plopped down in a chair and started untying her boots. She thumped one, then the other onto the floor, and still Max loomed by the door. Would the guy ever get the message?

Standing, she hooked her hands on her hips. "Leave, please, so I can get some sleep."

He took a lazy step nearer to her. To the bed. "Do you really want me to go?"

"Yes." No.

"All right, then." He absorbed her with the slow ride of his eyes one last time before he turned to grip the knob.

"Max!" Damn. She bit her lip.

He didn't turn back. Just waited.

Damn him again for making her be the one to say it. But he'd been right in the hospital. They couldn't leave it like this.

She let the question fall from her mouth, a question that had tormented her insecurities. "Is that your real name?"

His hand fell away from the door. Slowly he turned, and she was confused all over again. She didn't recognize this man any more than the Max of the weeks prior. The man of the past few days.

She looked closer and found...he was pieces of both.

Could that be wishful thinking? She didn't know or have the energy to wade through it all at the moment. This man stretched her comprehension on a good day.

This had not been a good day.

He stepped forward, closed the space between them and extended his hand. Took hers in warm callused heat that was oh-so familiar. "Hi, I'm Max Keagan, and yeah, that's my real name, although I've answered to others on occasion when the job called for it. I have an undergraduate degree in biology from Stanford. A doctorate in marine biology from the University of San Diego. And somewhere along the way to typing 'the end' on my dissertation, I accepted an intriguing offer to work for the government."

She listened—and heaven help her, even believed— all the while wondering why she couldn't bring herself to pull her hand from his enfolding grasp.

Her toes curled in her socks. "And the part about being a military brat, was that just a cover story? A way to get closer to me so you could—'' she winced on the bitter word "—'protect' me?"

Max looked into Darcy's eyes and realized his answer could mark a beginning or end. His choice.

He could so easily slide into any number of personas he'd donned over the years and send her running. That would sure as hell simplify things. He'd checked on her. Found her safe. He could walk away as he'd done countless times before.

He could. But he wouldn't. Not now that he knew it wouldn't make any damned difference. This woman had taken up residence in his head and he didn't have a clue how to evict her. Damned well didn't want to.

"Hell, yeah, I wanted to protect you. But the parts about my past, my father," he forced himself to say, "Eva and the baby. All true."

A sigh shuddered through her. Seeing how much that simple admission mattered to her piled more guilt on top of the old. She deserved better than he could give her, not that he could stomach the thought of anyone else stepping into his place.

She wanted him. He wanted her. And after a week of having almost lost her twice, he couldn't bring himself to turn away again.

Max pulled her closer until she resisted, inches shy of contact, her heat grazing him all the same. "That wasn't the only truth. I wanted you, Darcy, so damned much it dogged me every minute, all day, every night. But I couldn't take it further, not when I couldn't be honest with you."

"So you never have sex while undercover?"

God, he loved her spunk. She wouldn't make this easy for him, but who the hell wanted easy, anyway? "That's not the point."

She shook her hand free and backed up a step. "Then make your point, friend."

He advanced, invading her space just as she invaded his senses. "Yeah, I resisted for the job, to protect you and for a selfish reason, as well." A truth he'd only just admitted to himself. "I wanted you to be with me, not the person you thought I was."

Damn it, look at me, Darcy. See me.

Her hand raised, slowly, almost as if against her will. She touched his arm with just one finger along his tattoo, tracing the inked edges along his bicep. "And now I feel less like I know you than when you stepped into that briefing room a month ago."

Another damned coincidence since he didn't feel like the same man anymore. Darcy had torn down so many walls, demolished defenses.

One elegant finger abandoned the tattoo for the scar disappearing into his sleeve. "Would you have ever told me who you are, even after this case?"

Leave it to Darcy to slice straight to the truth. He'd lied to her about so many things, had so many things from his job he could never tell her. He needed to be honest now. "I don't know what I would have done. But I do know you got to me, the way no one else ever has. You still get to me. Realizing something could have happened to you today, earlier this week, is burning at my gut. Yeah, I'm here because I want to protect you. And I'm not going to back off or apologize for that."

He locked his fingers around her wrist, stopped her tantalizing touch while soaking up the feel of her satin skin. "But what I said outside is true, too. I'm also here because I have to hold you."

The defenses fell away from her eyes, leaving Darcy standing in front of him for the first time since she'd stalked away from him on the beach. "God, Max, you may not talk often, but when you do, you sure know how to level a woman."

Taking her words for consent, he dragged her into his arms as he'd wanted to do since he'd seen her filling out forms at the hospital. Hell, since the first time he'd seen her in that briefing room back in California.

He held her close, probably too tight, and inhaled the scent of her. Soap and baby powder. Darcy and innocence tinged with the harsh scent of smoke making him want to hold her all the tighter.

Her chest rose and fell, faster, heavier, until her br**sts brushed him. Tightened. Bringing an answering tightening in him, an arousal she couldn't miss, pressed so closely to him. Her fingers tightened on his shoulders, but she stayed silent.

He understood her hesitation. He'd pushed her away so many times, hurt her pride once too often. She wouldn't ask. Now to lay it all out there and hope she didn't opt for revenge. A risk well worth taking for a chance to be with her.

He didn't know where they were going. Or how the hell they would manage the aftermath. But he was certain of one thing.

No more holding back.

"Darcy," he whispered against her hair.

"Yeah, Max?" She didn't move or even look at him. But she didn't pull away, either.

"I want you. I wish I could find prettier words for you than that, but you already know I'm not the most communicative guy on the planet. You deserve to hear how damned incredible you are. Except the more I talk, the more I'm finding there aren't any words that come close to doing you justice." He eased back to stare deep into her eyes and repeated, "You deserve to know."

Max cupped her face in his hands, determined to show her a much better way to communicate with their mouths than talking.

Chapter 13

Who needed talk?

Darcy flung her arms around Max's neck and backed toward the bed, her lips parting to accept the warm sweep of his tongue. Answer him with the touch of her own.

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