Private Maneuvers / Page 9

Page 9


She straightened, her arms falling away from her knees as she braced her shoulders for battle. "Okay, here goes. I made a real pest out of myself back on the beach the other day and you were nice to let me off the hook with all those bicoastal excuses. You're a sexy, fascinating guy, but I realize you're not interested. And that's fine." She paused, laughing lightly as she scrunched her toes in the sand. "Well, sort of."

Her honesty was killing him faster than bullets.

Waves rolled up the sandbar, lapping around them before receding. "I'm not any good at games, Max, and I just misread the signs. Sorry. Most of all, I'm sorry I've made things uncomfortable this past week."

He felt slimier than pond scum. How did he combat such total, open honesty? Especially when she had every reason to be pissed at him. He'd sent mixed signals from the start. Here was his chance to fix that by sending her safely packing. Cut her off. Now.

He couldn't do it. He had to offer her some kind of a face-saving out while still keeping the boundaries in place. "You didn't misread anything."

Confusion creased her brow—with an unmistakable hope glinting in her eyes.

Rule number two for undercover work, keep the story as close to the truth as possible. He forced the words out. "There's someone else."

Her brow smoothed.

But the wary hope faded also. "Oh, well, that explains it then. I should have thought to ask at the start."

"Or rather there was." Where had that come from? Hell. Her honesty must be an infectious disease.

Darcy rested her cheek on her knees and watched him, waiting without pushing. This woman made talking easy.

Too easy.

"She, uh..." Max looked away from those amber-rich eyes luring him to spill secrets. He scooped up a shell, pitching it from hand to hand. "She died two and a half years ago."

"I'm so sorry."

The soft comfort of her words washed over him like the incoming tide. Not effusive or gushing. But genuine.

He regulated his breathing with the steady rhythm of toss, catch, toss, catch. "We'd been living together for about six months, had even started to talk about getting married."

Max shoved thoughts of the baby aside. He didn't want to open himself up to that much honesty today. Or ever. He pitched the shell into the ocean that had taken Eva as well as their kid away from him.

"How horribly unfair."

"Yeah, it was." He'd been the one who should have died. Survivor's guilt was hell to live with.

The normal constraints he kept on his emotions slipped. He'd channeled it all into revenge for so long, he didn't know what to do with the churn threatening to kick over him.

Why couldn't he just sleep with Darcy since they both wanted it? He could lose himself inside her for a few hours. He'd done so more than a few times over the past two and a half years. Except the women he'd chosen had been using him as much as he'd been using them. That wouldn't be the case with Darcy, and then he would have even more guilt heaped on top of an already weighty load.

Yeah, he wanted her all the way down to his waterlogged toes, but he wouldn't do anything about it.

"You're an..." He paused, brushing a thumb over a raindrop on her cheek and thanked God it wasn't a tear. He searched for the words to do her justice, but had to settle for, "an incredibly hot lady. But I'm not in a good place right now and the last thing I need is to drag someone down there with me." Understatement of the year.

"Incredibly hot?" She gently slugged his arm. "Well, Doc, you sure do know how to make a girl feel good when you're letting her down."

He wanted to tell her to shower her compassion on somebody else. He didn't need it or deserve it. He'd only told her the bit about Eva for calculated reasons, not out of any honest intent to share something from his past. Every inch of him wanted to shout at her to stop trusting him.

Raindrops picked up speed, pocking the water and offering a convenient excuse to run from a conversation that was shifting into dangerous territory. "We should head in before the clouds open up. Come on and I'll walk you to your quarters."

The words backfired in his brain as he faced another night of not sleeping while thinking of her two doors down. Just his luck, the Air Force had been accommodating in providing him and his assistant with VOQ rooms under the guise of accommodating the whole "free the dolphins" mission. Sure being on base offered additional security, but at a lethal price to his sanity.

Max stood, stomping sand off and extending his hand to Darcy without thinking. Until her fingers twined with his. Then he couldn't think of anything except the way she felt.

Max flipped her hand in his. An excuse to touch her a while longer? Maybe. A small white bandage glinted on her wrist, puckered from water but holding strong. "What happened here?''

"Spider bite. No big deal."

She shuddered, only a small tremble so imperceptible he wouldn't have known if he hadn't been holding her hand.

"There are plenty of those around here. Don't forget to shake your boots out before putting them on."

"I'm used to the buggers showing up in my room." A light laugh slipped free at odds with the tiny tremor. "But the ugly thing stowed away in my flight bag behind my lunch. Actually, that's why we landed early. Doc Clark wanted to make sure it wasn't poisonous."

Poisonous. The word twisted something inside Max, and he didn't like it. Damn it, it was just a freaking spider bite. The woman was a combat-ready military officer. She didn't need his misplaced overprotective urges.

He forced his thumb to still. Max dropped her hand, clearing his throat and thoughts as he stepped back. "I'm glad you're all right."

Thunder rumbled a warning just before the skies opened up in a tropical downpour. Darcy slicked back her hair, a full-out wicked smile on her lips. "Last one to the VOQ's a sea turtle. Ready. Set."

She shoved him backward into the surf and sprinted away.

"Go!" she shouted over her shoulder already halfway to shore as she splashed through the surf. Her laughs carried along the wind, whipping round him. Open, playful, free of concerns and full of life.

He intended to make sure that didn't change.

* * *

Screams swelled in Darcy's throat.

She jammed her face into the pillow to stifle the shout begging to burst free. The half-awake side of her brain struggled to smother nightmare cries with reason.

Spiders only crawled in her dreams now.

Snakes only slithered through her subconscious.

Still the coiling pressure around her leg seemed so real. Tighter and tighter it gripped, painful even through her sleep-dazed senses. Darcy flipped to her back. Listened to rain pattering outside. Worked to will away the fog of sleep.

"Okay. Wake up." She scissored her legs free from the tangled sheets. Her left leg felt sluggish. Perhaps numbed asleep. Something like exercise weights strapped to her ankle anchored it to the bed.

Cold, scaly weights.

Oh, God.

This wasn't a dream.

Darcy snapped awake and upright just as fangs sank into her skin. Hot pain flashed up her calf. Terror spiked through her harder than whatever had hold of her leg.

Only seconds earlier, screams had seemed impossible to restrain. Now she couldn't push a single squawk past a constriction in her throat tighter than the grip on her leg.

She blinked against the pitch-black darkness. Why had she chosen tonight of all nights to roll down the hurricane shutters? She grappled for the lamp.

The needle-like fangs sank deeper. Pressure increased. It couldn't be as heavy as it felt. Surely fear exaggerated sensations. If only she'd worn sweats to sleep tonight rather than the cooler ribbed T-shirt and panties.

Her clammy fingers fumbled with the switch. The lamp wobbled, tipped, clattered to the floor. Her first muffled whimpers of fear whispered free.

Please, someone hear me. Help me.

Echoes of childhood whimpers for rescue, quiet pleadings she'd prayed someone would hear on a psychic level because she wasn't allowed to scream or they would bring back the spiders. Or the snakes.

Just small, green garden snakes, she reminded herself. Her kidnappers hadn't wanted to risk damaging their collateral.

The thick coil began to unfurl along her leg, jaws still clamped on to her.

Her pulse pounded in her ears like the rap-rap-rap of helicopter blades beating the air. What if the snake released her ankle? She swallowed back bile at thoughts of it biting her stomach.

Her face.

The pressure eased. A slow serpentine glide started up the outside of her leg. Panic clawed at her insides.

She forced herself to think. It wasn't moving quickly. She just needed light to dial the phone for help. Quietly. If she stayed calm, someone could get the key and come for help.


Her mind blanked of all room numbers except Max's. Of course he was the logical choice. The man worked with animals. Max would know what to do.

Carefully, she inched her hand across the coverlet. She stifled the urge to flail against the insidious caress inching toward her hip.

Her fingertips brushed the light. Steady this time.

Max might even have the perfect answer for her over the phone. Once she gave him a description of the snake, he would reassure her it wasn't poisonous. Then she would just hang out with her fanged buddy until her own personal exterminator found a key.

Darcy twisted the switch. Harsh yellow light sent sparks pricking in front of her until her eyes adjusted. She blinked, focused and turned to face her attacker.

Beady eyes the size of dimes stared back from the foot of her bed.

Full-blown nausea born of terror roiled. Her dreams hadn't been an exaggeration at all. Obsidian eyes seared her from the head of a ten-foot-long brown snake as big around as her white-knuckled fist.

Max! she mentally screamed without twitching even a muscle. Her gaze jerked back to the bedside table. No phone waited beneath the light.

Frantically she traced the path of the telephone cord across the room. Fifteen feet away. It might as well have been miles. The phone rested beneath the window where she'd left it when she'd called her sister before going to bed.

Darcy drew in a shaky breath, using every ounce of training to squash her terror. Help wasn't within reach, and damn it, she'd learned to deal with pests in survival. Which left her with only one option.

Time to kick some snake butt herself. She just hoped the reptile wasn't looking for supper.

Unwrapping his turkey-sandwich supper, Max settled behind the laptop computer resting on the utilitarian table in his VOQ room. He clicked through the multiple menus, logging into the remote account linking him to the CIA's mainframe computer.

Rain gurgled through the gutters outside his door while he waited for the connection to complete. He bit off half the sandwich. Scratched a hand over his bare chest. And tried not to think how much better his day could have ended if he'd been two doors down in the room with Darcy.

The secured black-and-green screen hummed to life, snagging his attention back to the job at hand: sending his report. The list of additional captioned addresses stretched like a damned laundry list. Why worry about a tap leaking military plans when he was all but using a freaking bullhorn transmitting his reports to a stadium?

Not much of a team player are you, son? his father's voice taunted through the years.

Sure he was. He'd just found his animals respected rules and loyalty better. Max tipped back in his chair to open the small fridge behind him for a bottle of water.

A pop cut the air.

A gunshot.

His chair slammed back onto all fours. He shut down thought. Training assumed control. Max nailed the terminate button on his computer with one hand as he grabbed for his Glock with the other.

A second shot rattled the windows.


Adrenaline pumped through him. He didn't question his instincts. He knew.

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