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Authors: Anne Stuart

Tags: #Romantic Suspense / romance, #Adventure, #kickass heroine, #rock and roll hero, #Latin America, #golden age of romance

Darkness before the Dawn (5 page)

BOOK: Darkness before the Dawn
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“Hey, Maggie.” It had been just before dawn, and Mullen was conscious again, if just barely so.

“Yes, Mullen,” she had said, pulling herself together and moving back to his bedside. She’d known him only casually in Washington, but in the last thirty-six hours he’d become intensely important to her. Somehow, some way, she had to get him home safely. Her peace of mind, her faith in herself depended on it.

“You gotta get out of here.”

“We’ve spent the last day and half arguing about this. I’m staying.”

“Look,” he said—and she could see the effort the words cost him—“even Vasili had the sense to get away after he brought you here. He can’t help the Resistance if he’s dead, and neither can you. You’re just going to go down the tubes with me—and for what? It’s too late for me; you know it and I know it. The only thing you can do for me is to get away from here safely.”

Maggie mopped his pale, sweating brow—a useless gesture that soothed her more than it did him. “I’ve told you before. My orders are to wait here for rescue. Mike Jackson would have my skin if I disobeyed, and you know it.”

He’d even managed a weak laugh. “He’s going to have mine, for screwing up so badly. Damn it, Maggie, you’ve got to leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Yes, you are.” She hadn’t heard him enter. Some secret agent she was—someone could sneak up on her without her noticing. He stood in the doorway of the shed with the dawn sky lightening behind him; it cast his tall body in shadow. She didn’t need the light to tell her who it was. She’d known, with a sense of fatality, who it would be.

He moved across the dirty little room and squatted down beside Mullen’s supine body. “How are you doing, Jim?”

“Randall.” There was relief in his voice, relief and resignation. “It’s a code thirty-seven, I’m afraid.”

“You sure?”

“What’s a code thirty-seven?” Maggie had demanded, and Randall looked up at her from his position beside Mullen.

“That’s only for senior agents,” Mullen said with a grim smile. “You’ll get her out, Randall?”

“I’ll get her out. Have you got everything you need?”

“I’m set. Take care of her, will you? She’s a good woman.”

Randall had managed a cynical smile. “Now what the hell would I do with a good woman, Jim?”

And Mullen had laughed. “You’ll think of something. Thanks, Maggie.”

She’d stood there, uncertain, exhausted. “Aren’t you coming with us?” She’d been too tired to see the look that had passed between the two men.

“He’s coming later,” Randall said, patting Mullen’s clenched hand and rising to loom over her in the predawn light. “We’ve made special arrangements.”

“Maybe I should wait—” She didn’t even bother to finish the sentence. His hand had clamped down over her wrist, and his face had been remote, implacable.

“Maybe you should come,” he interrupted. “Good-bye, Jim.”

“Good-bye, Randall.” His voice was stronger than it had been in the thirty-six hours she’d been attending him. “Take care, Maggie.”

“You, too.” She’d had no choice but to follow Randall, what with that manaclelike grip on her wrist. She’d climbed into his Mercedes and sunk into the leather seat with mingled relief and doubt.

Randall had said nothing as he started the car and drove out of the graveyard. She allowed herself a furtive glance at him as they drove down the road, then leaned back against the seat. It was out of her hands. There was nothing she could do to fight it, not at that moment. And closing her eyes, she’d fallen asleep, never guessing what they’d left behind in that tiny shack.

But I know now
, Maggie thought, stretching her cramped legs out in front of her and pouring herself another glass of Scotch. She knew, and would always remember, exactly what she’d left behind in that cemetery. And she’d remember that Randall had had full knowledge, damn his soul to hell. Holding up her glass, she drank a silent toast to the memory of Jim Mullen.

five
 

There were few things Randall Carter detested more than hotel rooms. No matter how spotless, no matter how luxurious, they all had a mass-produced feel that left his skin crawling and his spirits edgy.

Not that that was unusual nowadays, he thought, stretching out on the king-size bed that was much too big for one person, even for someone as tall as he was. There were times when it seemed as if he’d spent his entire adult life waiting for something, working for something, only to have it become worthless once he had it in his hands. Except for Maggie Bennett. He hadn’t had a chance to lose interest in her. He’d been careless, damnably careless, and she’d slipped away like a wisp of fog, and during the last six years there’d been no way he could get back to her, to find out why she had this incomprehensible effect on him. Until now.

He could remember the first time he had seen her, standing in Mike Jackson’s office, long and leggy and curiously untouched, like a young colt, with those magnificent aquamarine eyes staring up at him. If he believed in love at all, much less in love at first sight, he would have known what it was that had knocked him sideways. But he didn’t believe in those things; he called it sex, and he was determined to get her.

His wife’s existence was a minor inconvenience that he intended to ignore, as he’d ignored it before. But he’d seen Maggie’s withdrawal when Jackson mentioned her, and he had known it wasn’t going to be easy.

And it wasn’t—which only made him more determined. He was very careful not to hound her. He’d simply appear when
she least expected it, making no demands. He’d just watch her, knowing she felt the same pull he felt. Knowing that sooner or later she’d get tired of fighting it, and he’d have her.

He thought he’d have more time. He’d made his plans carefully, baiting his trap, waiting for her to return to Georgetown after her first easy mission. But that easy mission had gone suddenly, horribly awry, and he’d taken off in the dead of night to try to salvage some part of it. And the part he wanted most to salvage had been Maggie Bennett.

He loosened his tie, kicked off the handmade Italian shoes, and sipped the brandy that was older than he was. The hotel room was the best money could buy, but it was barren, anonymous, and empty.
Lonely
was a word he never used, refused to use, but it was dangerously apt. He took another slow sip of the brandy, leaned back against the feather pillows, and gave himself up to the indulgence of remembering Maggie.

“I don’t feel right about leaving Jim,” she’d said when she’d woken up two hours later. It had been almost six in the morning, and she had looked like a sleepy kitten, rumpled, hungry, and utterly delectable. Randall had always liked sleek, well-groomed women, every hair in place, makeup perfect. Maggie’s wheat-colored blond hair was a tousled mane around her pale face, and when she yawned, stretching with uninhibited abandon, he’d almost driven off the side of the road.

“You didn’t have any choice in the matter,” he said repressively.

She looked up at him. “No, I suppose I didn’t. How long before they pick him up? I hate to think of him alone there when he’s in such pain.”

“They?”

She was bright enough, he had to grant her that. She simply didn’t have much experience with how brutal intelligence work could be. “They,” she repeated. “Your backup people. The ones sent over to rescue us. The ones who are going to get
Jim out and get him back to the States and to medical treatment.”

“I’m the only one who was sent over.”

She’d stared at him, her face growing paler. “His contacts had disappeared. They couldn’t help him.”

“No.”

“Then you were willing to let him be picked up by the local police? He’s been in and out of a coma—how do you know he won’t say something incriminating?” she demanded. “And how long will he have to wait there for help?”

He’d considered lying to her. But it wouldn’t work—he could see there in the back of those wonderful eyes that she knew. She just didn’t want to believe it.

“He won’t need any more help,” he said, and his voice sounded cold, distant. He’d known Jim Mullen for five years, had worked with him, had his life saved by him. He was damned if he was going to let the woman next to him know what he’d gone through in the last few hours. Knowledge was power, and he couldn’t afford to give her that power. His long, slender hands clenched the steering wheel of the Mercedes, then relaxed. “Jim’s dead,” he said.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t be naïve, Maggie. You saw what kind of condition the man was in. Even with the best of American medical technology, he wouldn’t make it. He’d been holed up in that shack for days before you got there. If we had tried to take him with us, we would have walked straight into the arms of the secret police.”

“At least then he would have gotten some help.”

Randall laughed, a singularly unpleasant sound. “He would have been tortured to death, Maggie. It’s better this way, and Mullen knew it. It sounds melodramatic, but cyanide capsules are standard issue on any undercover mission, no matter how innocuous they seem.”

“Code thirty-seven,” she said in an odd little voice.

“Exactly.”

“And you let him do it,” she said, her voice rich with loathing.
“You did absolutely nothing to try to help him, to get him out of there. You just left him to die.”

He looked across at her, his face enigmatic. “I brought another capsule in case he’d lost his.”

She hit him then. She’d gone for him, dry-eyed and furious, pounding on him, scratching, punching, but in her exhausted state it had taken little effort for him to subdue her, even with having to control the vehicle at the same time. He drove into a ditch, slammed it into park, and caught her arms. He twisted them just enough to bring sanity back.

Finally she had subsided, sinking back against the seat limply, her eyes still wide with dazed hatred. “You’re a murderer,” she said in a low voice.

Slowly he released her arms. “Yes,” he agreed. “Though not in this case.”

It had shocked her out of the last remnants of fury. She was looking at him, he thought, as if he were Dracula about to bite her neck. The idea had a certain charm. He found that the deathly depression that had settled around him when they’d left Mullen was beginning to lift. “Life is like that, you know,” he’d continued. “It’s not clean and pretty and fair. Good people die, bad people prosper, and you do filthy, rotten things to survive. And if you can’t accept that, can’t do the same, then you’ve picked the wrong career.”

She didn’t hesitate. “I picked the wrong career,” she said. “Where are we going?”

“A little industrial town near the western border.”

“Does it have an airport?”

“It does. We, however, are not going to make use of it. At least, not right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Jim’s body will be found within the next few hours, and then the hunt will be on. They’ll suspect he wasn’t here alone, and they’ll be wanting to find out who was with him. We’ll have to lie low for a day or two, until they decide he didn’t have anyone with him.”

“Oh, God.”

The quiet sound of those words had sent an answering surge of tension through him. “What?”

“I left my phony passport behind. Jim took it when I got there, and I don’t even know where he hid it. Should we go back?” She shuddered at the thought.

“No.”

“Maybe they won’t find it.”

“They’ll find it. I suppose it has your picture on it?”

“Most passports do,” she snapped.

He nodded. “All right. There’s nothing we can do about it for now. We’ll figure something out once we get to the safehouse.”

“Is there such a thing?”

“Our friend Vasili arranged for an apartment down by the railroad tracks. People leave you alone down there, he said. As long as we lie low, we’ll be all right.”

“For how long?”

He’d looked at her then, at the stubborn, angry set to her mouth, the pain and sorrow still lingering around her fine eyes. “That’ll depend on how long it takes to get you another passport.”

“In other words, it’s my fault.”

“In other words, don’t complain if it takes awhile,” he said evenly, his voice showing none of his feelings. He’d seen the apartment—Vasili had insisted on showing him before he went to fetch Maggie. It was one room, with a table, two chairs, and a double bed. Randall had every intention of using that bed to good advantage while they were holed up waiting.

He saw the dislike in her eyes, and he knew why it was there. She was keeping it in place to fight off her attraction to him. He knew women too well not to recognize when one wanted him, and he knew Maggie Bennett wanted him as much as he wanted her. A day trapped in that dingy apartment hiding from the police, and middle-class morality was going to fly out the window. It was the only thing that could push Jim Mullen’s white, sweating face out his mind.

* * *

 

Randall sat up, staring around his luxurious hotel suite with unseeing eyes. For a moment he’d been back in that tiny little room with the cracked plaster, sagging ceilings, and the smell of cabbage embedded in the walls. And Maggie had been there, staring at him out of those eyes of hers, a mixture of anger and panic and something far more pleasant warring for control. He’d broken that control once, and he could do it again, fighting through her defenses until he had her exactly where he wanted her. And he would do it again, and again, and again, until he finally understood and grew tired of her—and brought the whole tangled affair to his own end.

That must have been the problem, he’d told himself more times than he could remember. He couldn’t get her out of his mind because it wasn’t over. He’d walked out on her with unfinished business between them. And because they hadn’t settled it, he’d been unable to get on with his life. But that would be over, soon. And then maybe he’d get rid of the aquamarine eyes that haunted him.

In the meantime, maybe remembering wasn’t such a good idea after all. Nor was lying alone in an empty hotel room thinking about her. He needed to be out among people; he needed distraction. He moved from the bed, headed toward the telephone, then stopped. There was no one he could call, no one he wanted to call. He was trapped, waiting. As he’d been waiting six years. With a silent curse, he turned back to the brandy.

She was getting drunk. It was a pleasant enough feeling, Maggie thought, sipping at the Scotch and smiling at the darkened living room and the sleeping figure of her sister. Hell, she deserved to get drunk—she’d faced the ghost of her past and survived. Randall Carter, in the flesh, was something she’d assiduously avoided for so long, it had become second nature to her. Then he’d shown up, the skeleton at the feast, when she was least expecting it, asking questions about grapefruit marmalade. Fancy he’d remember that, she thought,
shifting around in the chair with careful deliberation, not spilling a drop of her umpteenth drink. Why would he remember it after all those years?

The apartment had been small and squalid. Randall had left the Mercedes on a side street, where Vasili would pick it up and return it, no questions asked. They’d made it down the narrow, depressing streets and up the three flights to their room without running into anyone. And there Randall had abandoned her, with nothing but the hot plate, chairs, and the bed, while he went off and met with the underground.

If the thirty-six hours by Jim Mullen’s side had seemed endless, these were even more so. She sat in the sturdier of the spindly chairs, staring out the window into the depressing streets of Gemansk, and tried to stay awake.

In the end it had been a useless battle. She crawled into the bed, just for a few moments, and then exhaustion took over, followed by a deep, drugged sleep.

She would have been fine without the dreams, she told herself later. She’d done a great job of fending off Randall, of ignoring the insidious attraction that he’d been trying to feed. But dreams pay no attention to common sense, and she lay on the sagging bed in a cocoon of sleep, prey to the erotic fantasies of her subconscious mind. The dream was so different from any of the unpleasant sexual realities she’d experienced that she awoke, flushed, sweating, completely aroused, to hear the sound of a key in the thin panel door.

It had been dark in the hideout. Fitful light filtered in from the streets, and through the thin walls and ceilings Maggie could hear footsteps, voices, babies crying. Randall stood in the doorway, illuminated by the dim light bulb from the hall, and for the first time since she’d known him, he wasn’t wearing one of his impeccable suits. He was dressed like the workers on the street, in rough clothes and work shoes; his black hair looked longer and scruffier around his head, setting off the Slavic cheekbones. He shut the door behind him, plunging them both into semidarkness, and he came across the room to
the bed, dumping a bag on the rough little table as he moved. He still had that peculiar grace of his; it would have set him apart from the workers of Gemansk, but she had little doubt that he’d corrected that in public. She lay on the bed, bemused and unmoving, as he approached her.

“I’ve brought you some clothes,” he said, and his low, rich voice danced along her nerve endings. “Vasili will be by after midnight with some food. Until then, there’s nothing we can do but wait.”

She nodded, then thought that perhaps he couldn’t see her, so she tried to speak. Her voice came out a little hoarse. “Yes.”

She could see the flash of teeth in the dim light. The big bad wolf, she thought fancifully. What did he find to smile about in their current situation? “We have to keep the lights off. This apartment’s supposed to be empty. We don’t want any of our neighbors coming to investigate.”

There was nothing else she could say. “Yes.”

He moved closer, so that his long legs were touching the bed, and she could see that his shirt was open, exposing a strong, tanned chest. It made him desirable, and it made him irresistible. She stared up at him, her face mirroring all of her thoughts.

He knelt down beside her, and his hand reached out to touch her face. It was still his hand, strong, thin-fingered, ringless. That didn’t mean he shouldn’t be wearing one, she tried to remind herself, but failed. His hand gently stroked the side of her face, and his fingers brushed her lips. And then it was too late—his mouth was on hers, his hands had claimed her, and the darkness of the Gemansk night closed around them.

BOOK: Darkness before the Dawn
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