Diamond Bay by Linda Howard

  In only a few minutes she came back into the kitchen, her hair brushed out and pulled up on each side of her head with a wine-red butterfly clip. She was still barefoot, and she wore denim shorts so old that they were almost white, along with an oversize maroon jersey with the tail knotted at her waist. Her tanned face was completely free of makeup. She was comfortable with herself, he realized. She could probably stop traffic when she did deck herself out in silk and jewels, but she would do so only when she felt like it, not for someone else’s benefit. She was self-assured, and Kell liked that; he was so dominant that it took a strong woman not to be completely overpowered by him, not to shrink from him both in bed and out.

  Working with an economy of motion, she put on the coffee and started the bacon frying. Until those twin aromas started filling the air he hadn’t been aware of how hungry he was, but abruptly his mouth began watering. She put biscuits in the oven, whipped four eggs for scrambling, then peeled and sliced a cantaloupe. Her clear gray eyes turned toward him. “This would be easier if I had my best knife.”

  Sabin seldom laughed or was even amused, but the dry, chiding tone of her voice made him want to smile. He leaned against the work island to take the weight off his injured leg, unwilling to argue. He needed a means of self-defense, even if it was just a kitchen knife. Both logic and instinct insisted on it. “Do you have any sort of gun around here?”

  Rachel deftly turned the bacon. “I have a .22 rifle under the bed, and a .357 loaded with ratshot in the glove compartment of the car.”

  Swift irritation rose in him; why hadn’t she said anything about them the day before? Then she gave him another of those long, level looks, and he knew she was just waiting for him to say something. Why should she give a gun to a man who had held a knife on her? “What if I’d needed them during the night?”

  “I don’t have any shells for the .357 other than ratshot, so I discounted it,” she replied calmly. “The .22 was within reach, and I not only know how to use it, I have two good arms as opposed to your one.” She felt safe at Diamond Bay, but common sense dictated that she have some means of protection; she was a woman who lived alone, without close neighbors. Both the weapons she had were for what her grandfather had called “varmints,” though anyone looking down the barrel of the .357 wouldn’t know that it was loaded with ratshot. She had chosen both for self-protection, not for killing.

  He paused, his black eyes narrowed. “Why tell me now?”

  “One, because you told me who you are. Two, because you asked. Three, even without the knife, you weren’t unarmed. Handicapped, but not helpless.”

  “What do you mean?”

  She looked down at his hard, brown bare feet. “The calluses on the outside edges of your feet, and on your hands. Not many people have them. You work out barefoot, don’t you?”

  When he spoke his voice was quiet and silky, and it raised a chill along her spine. “You notice a lot, honey.”

  She nodded in agreement. “Yes.”

  “Most people wouldn’t think anything about calluses.”

  Just for a moment Rachel hesitated, her gaze turned inward, before she resumed setting the table and checking the food. “My husband took extra training. He had calluses on his hands, too.”

  Something tightened inside him, twisting, and his fingers slowly curled. He darted a quick glance at her slim, tanned, ringless hands. “You’re divorced?”

  “No. I’m a widow.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  She nodded again and began dishing up the eggs and bacon, then checked the biscuits in the oven. They were just right, golden brown on top, and she quickly turned them out into the breadbasket. “It’s been a long time,” she finally said. “Five years.” Then her voice changed and became brisk again. “Wash up before the biscuits get cold.”

  She was, he reflected a few minutes later, a damned good cook. The eggs were fluffy, the bacon crisp, the biscuits light, the coffee just strong enough. Homemade pear preserves dripped golden juice over the biscuits, and the yellow cantaloupe was ripe and sweet. There was nothing fancy about it, but it all fit together, and even the colors were harmonious. It was simply another facet of her competent nature. Just as he was savoring his third biscuit she said serenely, “Don’t expect this every day. Some mornings I have cereal and fruit for breakfast. I’m just trying to build up your strength.” Her manner hid the satisfaction she felt in watching this coldly controlled man eat with such obvious enjoyment.

  He leaned back in his chair, taking his time as he examined the twinkle in her eyes and the smile that was barely hidden by the coffee cup she held in her elegant hands. She was teasing him, and he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had actually dared to tease him. Probably back in high school, some giddy, giggling teenage girl trying out her newfound powers of seduction and daring to use them on the boy even the teachers considered “dangerous.” He’d never actually done anything to make them think that; it had simply been the way he looked at them, with that cold, level gaze as black as a night in hell. Rachel dared to tease him because she was certain of herself, and because of that certainty she met him as an equal. She wasn’t afraid of him, despite what she knew, or had guessed.

  In time. He’d have her, sooner or later.

  “You’re going about it the right way,” he said, finally responding to her teasing statement. Rachel wondered if he did it deliberately, waiting so long before answering. He could either be thinking about what he wanted to say, or those long pauses could be designed to tilt the other person a little off-balance. Everything he did was so controlled that she didn’t think it was a habit; it was a deliberate tactic.

  There could be a double meaning to his words, but Rachel chose to take them at face value. “If that’s a bribe to keep me cooking like this, it won’t work. It’s too hot to eat a big meal three times a day. More coffee?”


  As she poured the coffee she asked, “How long are you planning to stay?”

  He waited until she had set the pot back on its warming pad and returned to her seat before he answered. “Until I get over this, and can walk and use my shoulder again. Unless you want me gone, and then it’s up to you when you throw me out.”

  Well, that was plain enough, Rachel thought. He’d stay while he was recuperating, but that was it. “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do?”

  He leaned his forearms on the table. “Get well. That’s the first item on the list. I have to find out how deeply we’ve been compromised. There’s still one man I can call when I need him, but I’ll wait until I’ve recovered before I do anything. One man alone won’t stand much of a chance. I have three weeks left of my vacation. Three weeks that they’ll have to keep this quiet, unless my body just ‘happens’ to wash up somewhere. Without my body they’re stalled. They can’t make any moves to replace me until I’m officially dead, or missing.”

  “What happens if you don’t turn up at work in three weeks?”

  “My file will be erased from all records. Codes will be changed, agents reassigned, and I will officially cease to exist.”

  “Presumed dead?”

  “Dead, captured, or turned.”

  Three weeks. At the most she would have three weeks with him. The time seemed so pitifully short, but she wasn’t going to ruin it by moaning and sulking because things weren’t turning out just the way she wanted. She had learned the hard way that “forever” could be heartbreakingly brief. If these three weeks were to be all she had with him, then she would smile and take care of him, even argue with him if she felt like it, help him in any way she could…cherish him… then wave goodbye to this dark warrior and keep her tears for herself, after he had gone. It didn’t give her much comfort to know that women had probably been doing that exact thing for centuries.

  He was thinking, his lashes lowered over his eyes while he stared into his coffee cup.
“I want you to make another shopping trip.”

  “Sure,” Rachel said easily. “I meant to ask you if the pants were the right size.”

  “Everything’s the right size. You have a good eye. No, I want you to get hollowpoint ammunition for that .357, a good supply of it. The same for the rifle. You’ll be reimbursed.”

  Being reimbursed was the last of Rachel’s worries, and she felt a flare of resentment that he’d even mentioned it. “Are you sure you don’t want me to buy a couple of deer rifles while I’m at it? Or a .44 Magnum?”

  To her surprise he took her sarcasm seriously. “No. I don’t want you on record as having purchased any type of weapon since the date I disappeared.”

  That startled her, and she leaned back. “You mean ­records of this sort that are likely to be checked?”

  “For anyone in this area.”

  Rachel looked at him for a long, long time, her gray eyes drifting over the hard planes of his face and the closed expression in his eyes, eyes that were older than time. At last she whispered, “Who are you, that anyone would go to such lengths to kill you?”

  “They’d rather take me alive,” he replied dryly. “It’s my job to make certain that never happens.”

  “Why you?”

  One corner of his mouth quirked upward in what passed for a smile, though it was totally humorless. “Because I’m the best at what I do.”

  It wasn’t much of an answer, but then he was good at answering questions without giving any information. The details that he’d told her had been carefully considered, chosen to exact the response from her that he wanted. It wasn’t necessary; Rachel knew that she would do whatever she could to help him.

  She drained the last of her coffee and stood up. “I have chores to do before it gets too hot; the dishes can wait until later. Do you want to come outside with me, or stay in here and rest?”

  “I need to move around,” he said, getting up and following her outside. He slowly limped around the yard, taking in every detail, while Rachel fed Joe and the geese, then set to work gathering the ripe vegetables from the garden. When he tired, Kell sat down on the back steps and watched her work, his eyes narrowed against the sun.

  Rachel Jones had a comfortable way about her that made him feel relaxed. Her life was peaceful, her small house cozy, and that hot Southern sun burned down on his skin…. Everything here was seductive, in one way or another. The meals she cooked and shared with him brought up stray thoughts of what it would be like to have breakfast with her every day, and those thoughts were more dangerous to him than any weapon.

  He’d tried to have a normal private life once, but it hadn’t worked out. Marriage hadn’t brought the intimacy he’d expected; the sex had been good, and regular, but after the act was finished he’d still been solitary, set apart by nature and circumstance from the rest of the world. He’d been fond of his wife, as far as it went, but that was it. She hadn’t been able to scale the barriers to reach the inside man; maybe she’d never even realized he existed. Certainly she either hadn’t realized or hadn’t wanted to face the true nature of his job. Marilyn Sabin had looked on her husband as merely one of the thousands of men who held civil service desk jobs in Washington, D.C. He went to work in the mornings and he returned—usually—at night. She was busy with her own growing law practice and often had to work late hours, so she understood. She was a fastidious woman, so Kell’s cool, distant character had suited her perfectly, and she’d never made any effort to see beyond the surface to the complicated man beneath.

  Kell turned his face up to the sun, feeling everything in him loosen up and slow down. Marilyn…it had been years since he’d even thought of her, an illustration of how shallowly she had touched him. The divorce hadn’t elicited any response from him other than a shrug; hell, she would have been crazy to have stayed with him after what happened.

  The attempt on his life had been clumsy, not well planned or well executed at all. He and Marilyn had been out to dinner, one of the few times in their married life that they had been out together socially, and never to one of the ritzy “in” places that Marilyn loved so dearly. Kell had seen the sniper as soon as they left the restaurant and acted immediately, shoving Marilyn down and rolling for cover himself. His action had saved Marilyn’s life, because she had kept walking and ended up between Kell and the sniper, who had fired almost simultaneously with Kell’s shove, wounding Marilyn in the right arm.

  That night had forever changed the way Marilyn viewed her husband, and she hadn’t liked the new view at all. She’d seen the cool way he had tracked and cornered his assailant, seen the short, vicious fight that left the other man unconscious on the ground, heard the biting authority in Kell’s voice as he gave orders to the men who arrived shortly and took over. One of those men took her to a hospital, where she was treated and kept overnight, while Kell spent the night piecing together how the sniper had learned where he would be that evening. The answer, obviously, had been Marilyn. She saw no reason to be secretive about her movements or the fact that she would be dining with her husband that night, or where; she’d truly had no idea how dangerous and highly classified her husband’s job was, nor had she been interested in learning.

  By the time Kell collected her at the hospital the next day their marriage was over in every way except legally. The first words Marilyn had said to him, very calmly, were that she wanted a divorce. She didn’t know what it was he did, didn’t want to know, but she wasn’t going to risk her own life being married to him while he did it. It might have piqued her vanity a bit when Kell agreed so easily, but he’d been doing some thinking during the night, too, and had reached basically the same conclusion, though for different reasons.

  Kell didn’t blame her for getting a divorce; it had been the wise thing to do. The close call had shaken him, because it had illustrated how easily he could be reached through the very person who was supposed to be closest to him. It had been a mistake for him even to attempt to have a normal private life, considering who he was and what he did. Other men could manage it, but other men weren’t Kell Sabin, whose particular talents put him on the leading edge of danger. If there was any one man in intelligence whom other agencies wanted to take out of commission, it was Kell Sabin. Because he was a target, anyone close to him was automatically a target, too.

  It had taught him a lesson. He had never again let anyone get close enough to him that they could be used against him, or hurt in an effort to get to him. He had chosen his life, because he was both a realist and a patriot, and he was willing to pay whatever price he had to, but he was determined to never again involve an innocent, a civilian, one of the very people whose lives and freedom he was sworn to protect.

  He’d never been tempted to marry again, or even to take a mistress. Sex was casual, never on a regular basis with the same woman, and he always carefully limited the number of times he saw anyone in particular. It had worked out well.

  Until Rachel. She tempted him. Damn, how she tempted him! She was nothing like Marilyn; she was comfortable and casual, where Marilyn had been fastidious and chic. She knew—somehow, she knew—too much about his way of life in general, while Marilyn hadn’t realized even a fraction that much about him in the years they were married.

  But it simply wouldn’t work. He couldn’t allow it to work. He watched Rachel as she worked in her small garden, content with her chores. Sex with her would be hot and long, writhing on that bed with her, and she wouldn’t worry if he mussed her hair or smeared her makeup. To protect her, he had to make certain that sex was all it ever was. When he walked out of her life it would be for good, and for her own good. He owed her too much to risk any harm coming to her.

  She straightened from her bent position and stretched, reaching her arms high in the air; the movement thrust her breasts upward against the thin fabric of her shirt. Then she picked up her basket and picked her way across the rows of vegetables tow
ard him; Joe left his position at the end of the row and followed her to find shade under the back steps. There was a smile on Rachel’s face as she approached Kell, her gray eyes warm and clear, her slim body moving gracefully. He watched her approach, aware of her in every cell of his body. No, there was no way he’d endanger her by staying any longer than was necessary; the real danger was that he was so hungry for her that he might be tempted to see her again, something he couldn’t let happen.


  THE NEXT FEW days were slow, hot and peaceful. Now that Kell was on the mend and didn’t require her constant attention Rachel resumed her normal work schedule; she finished planning her course and began working on her manuscript again, as well as tending the garden and doing all the other small chores that never seemed to end. She got the requested hollowpoint bullets for Kell, and the .357 was never far from his hand. If they were inside he sometimes placed it on the table in the bedroom, but usually he kept it stuck into his waistband at the small of his back, instantly accessible.

  Honey came to take the stitches out of his wounds and professed to be amazed at how well he had healed. “Your metabolic rate must be something else,” she said admiringly. “Of course, I did a terrific job on you. The muscle in your leg was a mess, but I did some repair work, and I think you’re going to come out of this without even a limp.”

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