Diamond Bay by Linda Howard

  “You did a helluva job, doc,” he drawled, smiling at her.

  “I know,” Honey returned cheerfully. “You were just plain lucky on your shoulder. You may lose some of your rotation ability, but not much, I don’t think. Take it easy on both the leg and shoulder for another week or so, but you can start working the stiffness out if you’re careful.”

  He had already been working the stiffness out; Rachel had seen him exercising his shoulder and arm carefully, as though testing the limits of the stitches. He hadn’t put any weight on either his leg or shoulder, but he had been doing exercises to ease his movements, and as a result his limp was much better, no worse than if he’d had a sprained ankle.

  Honey hadn’t even blinked when he removed the pistol from his waistband and placed it on the table while he took off his khaki pants and blue cotton shirt. Wearing only his briefs, he’d sat at the table and observed expressionlessly while she removed the stitches and Rachel leaned over to watch. Then he put his clothes back on and returned the heavy pistol to its accustomed place at the small of his back.

  “Stay for lunch,” Rachel invited. “Tuna salad and fresh tomatoes, light and cool.”

  Honey made it a practice never to refuse one of Rachel’s invitations. “Done. I’ve been craving a fresh tomato.”

  “Southerners serve tomatoes with almost everything,” Kell observed.

  “That’s because almost everything tastes better with a tomato,” Honey defended. She was from Georgia, and passionately fond of tomatoes.

  “Love apples,” Rachel said absently. “Tomatoes, that is. Though I don’t know why they were called that, since most people thought they were poisonous because they’re a member of the nightshade family, like belladonna.”

  Honey chuckled. “Oh, ho! You’ve been reading up on old poisons, haven’t you? Is someone in one of your books going to kick the bucket from an overdose of belladonna?”

  “Of course not. I don’t write whodunits.” Not at all perturbed by Honey’s teasing, Rachel glanced at Kell as she set the table. “You’re not a Southerner, are you? You have a drawl, but it isn’t Southern.”

  “Most of it comes from spending a lot of time with a man from Georgia. We were in Vietnam together. I was born in Nevada.”

  That was probably the limit of the personal information he would give about himself, so Rachel didn’t ask any more questions. They ate the simple meal, with Kell sitting between the two women, and though he ate well as always and kept up with the conversation, she noticed that he sat where he could watch both the window and the door. It was habit with him; he did it at every meal, even though he knew no one could approach the house without Joe giving warning.

  As Honey was leaving she smiled at Kell and held out her hand. “If I don’t see you again, goodbye.”

  He took her hand. “Thanks, doc. Goodbye.” Rachel noticed that he made no pretense about staying.

  Honey eyed him consideringly. “I’m literally bursting with questions, but I think I’m going to follow my own good advice and not ask them. I don’t want to know. But be careful, you hear?”

  He gave his crooked half smile. “Sure thing.”

  She winked at him. “If anyone asks, I don’t know a thing.”

  “You’re a smart woman, doc. After I’m gone Rachel can fill you in on the details.”

  “Maybe. But maybe I’ll just make up my own answers. That way I can get as wild and romantic as I want but still play it safe.”

  Probably Honey’s outlook was the best, Rachel thought after she and Kell were alone. Honey allowed herself to be wild and romantic in her fantasies, but in real life she opted for safety. Honey would never do anything as risky as falling in love with a man like Kell Sabin. She would clean the kitchen, just as Rachel was doing, and forget about the rest. Rachel turned and found him watching her in that steady, unnerving way of his. Her chin lifted. “What is it?”

  For answer he walked up to her and cupped her chin in his hand, then bent and covered her mouth with his. Surprise held Rachel motionless for a moment; he hadn’t kissed her after that first time, though she sometimes thought there was a touch of possessiveness in the way he held her at night. She hadn’t betrayed the pleasure she felt in sleeping in his arms, but there was no way she could hide the heavy surge of desire that made her respond to his mouth, her lips parting at the pressure of his, her hands sliding up the hard, warm wall of his chest. His tongue curled against hers, and she made a sound deep in her throat, her breasts and loins tightening as if he had touched them.

  Slowly Kell moved forward, backing her up until she was jammed against the cabinets. Rachel freed her mouth and gasped, “What brought this on?”

  His mouth moved down to the curve of her jaw and explored the soft skin below her ear. “Must be all those love apples you’ve been feeding me,” he murmured. “Stop turning your head away. Kiss me. Open your mouth.” She did, her hands clenching his shirt, and he took her mouth in a long, deep, mind-drugging way that went on forever and had her standing on tiptoe to press against him. His hands slid down to her buttocks and cupped them, lifting her into even more intimate contact.

  The kiss stripped away all pretense and left them clinging together in open passion, hungry for each other, straining to get even closer. Their passion had been building for days, feeding on the memory of intimate touches between them that normally would have come after the first questing kisses, but they had been thrown together in circumstances that had gotten the order mixed. She had seen and touched his hard, beautiful body while caring for him and soothing him. He had felt her in his hands and gotten used to the particular sweet scent of her even before he’d known her name. He had slept with her in his arms for four nights now, and their bodies had grown accustomed to each other. Nature had circumvented all the natural barriers that people threw up to protect their sense of privacy, forcing the two of them together in a hothouse atmosphere forged by circumstance.

  The force of what she was feeling frightened her a little, and again she tore her mouth away from his, hiding her face in the warm curve of his throat. She had to slow this down before she went out of control. “You’re a fast man,” she gulped, trying to steady her voice.

  He moved his hands from her buttocks to slide them up her back, holding her tightly. His mouth nuzzled her ear, and his voice was warm and dark. “Not as fast as I wanted to be.”

  Uncontrollable shivers were vibrating through her entire body, and her nipples were so tight that they ached. He held her even more tightly, crushing her breasts against his hard, muscle-layered body and rubbed his cheek against the top of her head, but the tender caress didn’t last long against his hungry need for more. He dug his fingers into her hair and tilted her head back, his mouth once again taking hers, his tongue moving in the rhythm of making love. Rachel’s entire body jolted when his other hand covered her breast, sliding inside her blouse to cup her warmly in his palm so he could rasp his callused thumb over her hardened nipple, simultaneously soothing the ache and creating a deeper one.

  “I want to be inside you,” he murmured, lifting his head to watch the way her nipple rolled under his thumb. “I’ve been going crazy, wanting you. Will you let me have you for the time we have left together?”

  God, he was honest, and she had to swallow hard to keep from crying out at the pain. Even now, with their bodies fevered with need, he didn’t make sweet promises he had no intention of keeping. He would be leaving; the best they could have would be temporary. Still, it would be so simple if she could just forget about the future and go with him now into her bedroom, but his honesty reminded her that she had to think about the future and the day when he would leave her.

  Slowly she pushed against him, and he moved back, giving her the space she needed. With a shaking hand she pushed her hair back from her face. “It isn’t something that’s easy for me,” she tried to explain, her voice shaking just like he
r hand. “I’ve never had a lover…only my husband.”

  His eyes were sharp, watchful, and he waited.

  She made a helpless gesture. His honesty deserved her own. “I…care about you.”

  “No,” he said sharply, deliberately. “Don’t let it happen.”

  “Is it something I’m supposed to turn off, like a water faucet?” Rachel faced him, her gaze level.

  “Yes. This is sex, nothing else. Don’t fool yourself into thinking there can be anything more, because even if there were, there’d still be no future in it.”

  “Oh, I know that.” She gave a tight little laugh and turned to look out the window over the sink. “When you walk out of here, that’s when it ends.”

  She wanted him to deny it, but again that brutal honesty destroyed her hopes. “That’s it. That’s the way it has to be.”

  It would be useless to argue with him on that point; she had known all along that he was solitary, a lone wolf. “It’s that way for you, but I don’t have that sort of emotional control. I think I love you—oh, damn, why try to hedge my bets?” Her voice was filled with helpless frustration. “I started loving you the minute I dragged you out of the ocean! It doesn’t make sense, does it? But it won’t stop just because you leave.”

  He watched her, accurately reading the tension in her slender back, the tightness of her hands. What had it cost her to confess that? She was the most direct woman he’d ever known, with no use for games or subterfuge. She was the only woman in all these years that he regretted leaving; just the thought of it twisted his guts, but he could handle that a lot easier than the knowledge that keeping her with him would jeopardize her life. She was too fine for him to carelessly endanger her for his own enjoyment.

  He put his hands on her shoulders, kneading the tension from them. “I won’t pressure you,” he murmured. “You have to do what’s best for you, but if you decide you want me, I’m here.”

  Decide she wanted him? She ached with wanting him! But he was giving her the space to decide for herself, rather than seducing her into bed as he knew he easily could; she had no illusions about her self-control where he was concerned. She put her hand on his, and their fingers entwined.

  There was a thump as Joe left the shade under the steps and tore around the side of the house, and Kell’s hand stiffened under hers, his head snapping around. Rachel went still, then shook herself and moved swiftly to the front door. She didn’t have to tell him to stay out of sight; she knew that if she looked around he would already be hidden from view, moving silently through the house.

  She opened the door and stepped out onto the front porch, and only then did she remember that Kell had partially unbuttoned her blouse. She rebuttoned it swiftly, looking around for whatever had set Joe off. Then she heard the car approaching down the private road; it wouldn’t be Honey, since she had just left, and on the rare times Rafferty visited he rode his horse over rather than driving.

  The car that pulled to a stop in front of the house was a pale-blue Ford, a government car. Joe was crouched facing it, snarling, his ears back. “Steady, steady,” Rachel murmured to him, trying to see who was in the car, but the sun was glaring on the window and blocked her vision. Then the car door opened and a tall man got out, but he remained in the open door, looking at her over the top of the vehicle. Agent Ellis, his jacket off and dark sunglasses shading his eyes.

  “Oh, hello,” Rachel called. “Nice to see you again.” The Southern ritual of greeting had its advantages, giving her time to gather her thoughts. Why was he here again? Had Kell been seen when he’d been outside? They had been careful, trusting Joe to warn them if anyone was near, but someone with binoculars might have seen him.

  Tod Ellis gave her his bright college smile. “It’s nice to see you again, Ms. Jones. I thought I’d check in with you, make sure everything’s okay.”

  It was a pretty weak excuse for driving miles out of his way. Rachel stepped around Joe and walked out to the car in an effort to keep Ellis from looking toward the house. It wasn’t likely that Kell would let himself be seen, but she didn’t want to take any chances. “Yes, everything’s okay,” she said cheerfully, going around the car and standing at the door so he had to turn his back to the house in order to face her. “Hot, but okay. Did you ever find that man you were hunting?”

  “No, not a trace. You haven’t seen anything?”

  “Not even at a distance, and Joe always lets me know if anyone’s around.”

  The mention of the dog made Ellis jerk his head around for a quick look as if to check Joe’s location; the dog was still standing in the middle of the yard, his eyes locked on the intruder, low growls still rumbling in his chest. Ellis cleared his throat, then turned back to Rachel. “It’s a good thing you’ve got him, living way out here by yourself. You can’t be too careful.”

  She laughed. “Well, actually you can. Look at Howard Hughes. But I feel safe with Joe guarding the place.”

  She couldn’t be certain, because of the dark glasses shading his eyes, but she thought he kept looking at her legs and breasts. Alarm skittered through her, and she had to fight down the urge to check her buttons; had she buttoned the blouse straight? If not, it was too late now, and he had no reason to think she had been in the house, kissing the very man he was hunting.

  Then abruptly he laughed, too, and took off his sunglasses, dangling them from his fingers. “I didn’t come out here to check on you.” He leaned his forearm on top of the open car door, his posture relaxed and confident. With his clean-cut good looks he was accustomed to approval from women. “I came to ask you out to dinner. I know you don’t know me, but my credentials are respectable. What do you say?”

  Rachel didn’t have to fake her confusion; it was real. She had no idea how she should answer him. If she went out with him it would go a long way toward convincing him she knew nothing about Kell, but on the other hand, it might encourage Agent Ellis to come around again, and she didn’t want that. Why were they still here, anyway? Why hadn’t they moved farther down the coast in their search for Kell?

  “Why, I don’t know,” she replied, stammering a little. “When?”

  “Tonight, if you don’t have other plans.”

  God, this was making her paranoid! If they had seen Kell, then this could be a ploy to get her out of the house so there would be no witnesses. If not, she might make him suspicious if she acted too suspicious. All this second-guessing could drive her crazy. Finally she went on her instincts. Agent Ellis hadn’t tried to hide his male admiration for her the first time they’d met, so she was going to take his invitation at face value. If nothing else, she might be able to get some information from him.

  “I think I’d like that,” she finally said. “What did you have in mind? I’m not much of a party person.”

  He gave her his boyish grin again. “You’re safe. I’m not into the punk scene, either. I’m too squeamish to stick safety pins through my cheeks. What I had in mind was a quiet restaurant and a good, thick steak.”

  And a roll in bed afterward? He’d be disappointed. “You’re on,” Rachel said. “What time?”

  “Say, eight o’clock? It’ll be sundown by then and cooling off, I hope.”

  She laughed. “I would say you get used to it, but all you do is learn to cope with it. The humidity is what gets you. All right, eight o’clock it is. I’ll be ready.”

  He gave her a little salute and folded himself back under the steering wheel. Rachel walked back into the yard so she wouldn’t get covered with dust when he drove off, and watched until the blue Ford was out of sight.

  Kell was waiting for her inside, his eyes narrow and cold. “What did he want?”

  “To ask me out to dinner,” she replied slowly. “I didn’t know what to say. Going out with him might keep him from being suspicious, or he could be asking me out just to get me out of the house. Maybe they’ve seen you. Ma
ybe they just want to search.”

  “They haven’t seen me,” he said. “Or I wouldn’t still be alive. What excuse did you give him?”

  “I accepted.”

  Rachel had known he wouldn’t be pleased, but she hadn’t expected the reaction she got. His head snapped around, and his eyes burned with black fire, his usual cool remoteness shattered. “Hell, no, you’re not. Get that idea out of your head, lady.”

  “It’s too late. It might really make him suspicious if I made some weak excuse now.”

  He shoved his hands into his pants pockets, and in petrified fascination Rachel watched them ball into fists. “He’s a murderer and a traitor. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since I recognized him before they blew up my boat, tying together some details about things that went wrong when they shouldn’t have, and Tod Ellis is connected in some little way to every one of those plans. You’re not going out with him.”

  Rachel didn’t back down. “Yes,” she said. “I am. If nothing else, I may be able to pick up some information that will help you—”

  She broke off with a gasp; he had jerked his hands out of his pockets and reached for her so rapidly that she hadn’t had time to move back. His hard fingers closed on her shoulders in a grip that bruised, and he shook her slightly, his face hard and set with rage.

  “Damn you,” he whispered, the words barely audible as he pushed them between his clenched teeth. “When will you learn that this isn’t something for amateurs to play with? You’re in way over your head, and you don’t have the sense to realize it! You aren’t still in college playing a game of Assassination, sugar. Get that through your skull! Damn it,” he swore again, releasing her shoulders and running his hand through his hair. “You’ve been lucky so far that you haven’t blundered around and really screwed things up, but how long do you expect that luck to last? You’re dealing with a cold-blooded professional!”

  Rachel stepped back from him, putting her hand up to rub her aching shoulder. Something inside her had gone very still at his attack; that stillness was reflected on her face. “Which one?” she finally asked quietly. “Tod Ellis…or you?”

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