Authors: Iris Johansen
She felt waves of surprise roll over her. “Mark was involved with a subversive organization? That’s crazy. He would never had sup ported a group like that.”
“It wasn’t a subversive organization. He didn’t belong to any group that posed a threat to the government.” He paused. “But he did belong to a group under suspicion, and the NIB isn’t known to wait patiently while their suspicions are checked out. The National Intelligence Bureau can be quite ruthlessly effective in their actions.”
“Are you saying the NIB might have had Mark … killed?”
“No,” he said quickly. “Mark’s death was entirely natural. The NIB didn’t become active in the investigation until later.”
“I don’t understand any of this.” She shook her head in an effort to clear it. “Mark wasn’t even interested in politics. He was a professor of English on sabbatical. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Do you believe me?” he asked quietly.
Yes, she believed him, she realized. And that was even more incredible than what he had told her. There was no avoiding the naked sincerity in his gaze as he looked at her. “Are you sure?” she whispered.
She was silent for a long time, as she tried to sort reason out of chaos. “Then I believe you. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be in any danger. I’ll just explain I know nothing about Mark’s political activities.”
He shook his head. “Bardot is a fanatic. He’s been biding his time, but now he’s ready to make his move.”
“Karl Bardot, NIB.”
“You appear to be very well informed.” Her
expression was wary. “I don’t suppose it’s possible that you belong to the same organization as Mark did?”
She had expected the answer. “Oh dear, I was afraid you were.”
“Why afraid?” He frowned. “I told you there was no threat involved. Particularly not to you. All you have to do is come with me, and I’ll see that you’re taken care of.”
“I can’t do that. This is my home. I don’t even know you.” Her fingers ran distractedly through her nut-brown hair. “You walk in here and tell me I should leave everything that’s dear and familiar to me just because—”
“Mark told you to trust me.”
“Not with my baby.” Her tone was suddenly fierce.
A faint smile touched his lips. “Does that mean you’d trust me if the child wasn’t in volved?”
“I think so.” Her expression was troubled. “Oh. I don’t know. I believe you mean well, but it’s all so bizarre. If I’m innocent, there can’t be any danger to me. This is America, for goodness’ sake.”
“You won’t come with me?”
She shook her head. “You have to be mistaken. I’m sure I’ll be fine once I’ve explained I don’t know anything about all this.”
“I didn’t think you would, but it was worth a chance.” He set his cup down and pushed his chair away from the table. “You’re tired and hungry. I’ll leave now so that you can have your meal and get some rest.”
“You’re leaving?” She didn’t know why she experienced a sudden panic.
“I’ve said what I had to say.” He stood up and shrugged into his coat. “I’d like you to promise me something before I go.”
“I want you to promise me you won’t let Bardot lure you out of the cottage on any pre text, that you won’t get in a car or even go for a walk with him.”
She felt a cold chill ripple through her. She smiled tremulously. “That won’t be difficult. I probably won’t even meet the man.”
“Do you promise?”
“I promise,” she whispered.
“You look like a big-eyed little girl,” he said softly. “Don’t worry. You’re making it very difficult for me, but I won’t let anything happen to you. That’s what I’m here for.”
She stood up, suddenly feeling a ridiculous sense of profound relief and well-being. “Are you staying in Albany?”
He shook his head. “I’ll be around.” He fastened the buttons of his jacket. “I can find my own way out. Don’t see me to the door, it’s too
cold outside. The weather report said we should expect snow tomorrow night. That might be interesting.”
Snow, interesting? What a curious turn of phrase. “You’re obviously not from upstate New York or you wouldn’t find the possibility of a November snowstorm very interesting.” Her expression became wistful. “I’ll be sorry to see the first snow. I love the summer. I spend most of my time outdoors from April until September.” She suddenly grimaced. “I guess you can tell. I’m positively covered with freckles.”
“Yes, I can tell.” He turned away. “Goodbye, Beth, I’ll see you soon.”
“Beth?” She raised an eyebrow inquiringly. “My name is Elizabeth. No one calls me Beth.”
“Not even Mark?”
There was a flicker of satisfaction on his face. “Goodbye, Beth.”
Not waiting for a reply, he turned and left the kitchen. A moment later she heard the front door close.
She stood there for a while, her mind a wild jumble of tattered impressions and half-formed thoughts. Jon Sandell had been there less than an hour, she realized, but he had managed to throw her into a state of complete
confusion. Her heart was pounding, and her skin was tingling as if she’d just been through a Finnish sauna. Fear. Yes, fear and something else which was not so easily defined. Suddenly she was jolted out of her confusion by the most basic action possible: Andrew kicked her with force and precision.
Her hand went to her abdomen. “All right, I can take a hint. I should think good thoughts and eat dinner. Right, kid?” She turned briskly and walked toward the counter where the Crockpot still bubbled. “Nag, nag, nag.”
She didn’t have much hope for good thoughts, but she did feel better after she’d had a bowl of stew and another half-cup of coffee. She gazed wistfully out the window as the tap water filled the sink, and she prepared to wash the dishes. It was entirely dark outside, and she could no longer see the narrow ribbon of the stream or the woods that lay beyond the meadow.
“You’ll have to get a blanket so I can lay him down.”
She whirled with a startled little cry. Jon Sandell stood in the doorway of the kitchen. In his arms was a mass of lean, tawny fur and … blood.
“Sam?” She could barely speak. “Oh, no!”
“He’s not hurt badly. You should take him to the vet tomorrow to have a preventive shot,
but after you clean the wound he should be fine. The blanket,” he prompted.
“What?” she murmured in distraction, her gaze still fixed agonizingly on Sam. “Oh, yes, right away.” She moved at an amazingly fast pace from the room to the bathroom closet and grabbed the first blanket she could find from the shelf. In an instant she was back in the kitchen, doubling the blanket and spreading it on the hearth. “You’re sure he’s not badly hurt?” she asked anxiously. “There’s a vet just—”
“He’s fine.” Jon knelt and put the dog down carefully on the blanket. His big hands were gentle as he arranged Sam’s legs and settled his weight more evenly. The animal gave a low whimper, and Jon immediately stroked his long sleek nose. “Easy. You’re home now, boy.”
Elizabeth could feel hot tears stinging her eyes. “What happened to him?”
Jon pointed to the ugly red gash that ex tended in a straight line from behind Sam’s front paw to the middle of his back. “Bullet. It only grazed him, but he’s not going to feel like chasing rabbits for a while.”
Elizabeth could feel the blood leave her face. “A hunter?” She moistened her lips with her tongue. “It must have been a hunter who mistook Sam for a deer.”
“Perhaps.” He gave Sam a final pat and rose to his feet. “Would you like me to stay, or can you manage by yourself?”
“I can manage. Where did you find him? On the road?”
“In the woods.”
She turned in surprise to face him. “What were you doing in the woods?”
“I was searching for your Heinz 57. I knew as soon as you had time to think about him that you’d be out looking for him yourself. I didn’t want you stumbling around in the dark.” He met her gaze. “Was I wrong?”
“No,” she whispered. “Thank you, Jon.”
He smiled with surprising gentleness. “He’s a brave dog. I like your Sam, Beth.” He turned away. “Take good care of him.”
The door had scarcely closed behind him when she was kneeling beside the dog, cleaning the wound with soap and water. Jon was right. Though the wound was shallow it had to be very painful for poor Sam. Yet the dog was mutely patient, and he gave only an occasional whimper as the antibiotic cream Elizabeth applied stung the wound.
a good dog, aren’t you, boy,” she murmured. “He likes you. Do you know that? And that provides him with some pretty heavy credentials for good taste in this household. As
for the rest, he’s still a bit of a mystery. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The night was clear and frigid, and each breath Jon drew released a wisp of smoky vapor into the air. He opened the door of the pickup, stepped up into the cab, and slammed the door. He sat for a moment gazing at the lights gleaming from the windows of the cottage. Elizabeth in the firelight. The memory lingered with an aching sharpness, reaching deep into his mind and triggering responses better left unexamined. He finally tore his gaze away and reached for the mobile phone beneath the dashboard.
Gunner Nilsen answered on the second ring. “Yes?”
“I’ve made contact.”
“She refused to leave the cottage.”
“Well, you expected as much. You told me yourself it wasn’t likely you could persuade her to trust you that far.”
“No, but I had to try.” There was weariness threading his voice. “She’s with child, dammit. I wanted to make it as easy as I could for her.”
“I know, Jon.”
“How is it up there?”
“The lodge is comfortable and the location exactly what you wanted.”
“You covered your tracks?”
Gunner chuckled. “I not only covered them, I buried them. As far as the leasing agency is concerned, the lodge is being rented by a Wall Street tycoon for his snow-bunny mistress. Did you hear it was going to snow tomorrow? I’m looking forward to it. I bought skis from the sports shop in town.”
“Wonderful,” Jon said ironically. “All we need is for you to break your leg on one of the slopes.”
“It can’t be that much different from sand skiing,” Gunner protested. “I’ll be careful.” There was a short pause. “Is she the person you expected?”
Jon turned the question over in his mind. He had a sudden vivid picture of Elizabeth Ramsey as he’d last seen her. She’d been standing in the kitchen, her body seemingly too fragile to support the burden of the child she was carrying, her straight brown hair shining richly in the firelight, the sleeves of her loose blue shirt rolled up to reveal strong, shapely arms. She had said herself that she wasn’t pretty, and perhaps she wasn’t by classic standards. The slightly upward tilt of her nose and the golden freckles dusting her face weren’t conventionally attractive.
Freckles touched by the summer sun she loved. She was the kind of woman anyone would want to touch, to leave a sign of affection upon in passing so she would remember … and smile. Lord, he loved her smile. He had expected it, had known how warm and lovely it would be, but he had still found him self staring at her like a gaping boy. He’d found himself glancing away quickly in order to resist the impulse to reach out and trace the source of that smile with his finger.
Mark had probably done that. Jon felt a hot surge of possessive rage at the thought. Mark had touched her breasts, stroked her hair. He had thrust into her body and … Jon drew a deep breath and tried to block out the thought. He mustn’t think of Mark and Elizabeth together. He had to forget those images. He had to keep the savagely possessive aspect of his nature under control. Mark was a part of her past. Elizabeth was his now. She didn’t know it yet, but she would soon. All the glowing warmth and gentle humor that was Elizabeth would belong to him.
He forced his hand to relax on the receiver of the mobile phone as he quickly collected his thoughts and answered Gunner’s question. “More. She’s much more, Gunner.”
“That’s good.” Gunner’s voice was gentle.
“I’m happy for you. When will you be arriving here?”
“By tomorrow night, I hope. Bardot’s showing signs of impatience. I think he’ll approach her directly and try to use the element of surprise to get the information from her. If the bastard acts with his usual charm and tact, hell probably scare her into jumping in our direction.”
“What if you’re wrong? What if he brings help and forces her to go with him to the farm?”
“I don’t think we have to worry. Bardot’s superiors are already doubting his credibility. Hell want proof if he can get it.” His voice roughened. “And if I’m wrong, you can forget all that bilge they gave us about nonviolence and a low profile. I won’t let Bardot take her.”
“They put you in charge. No one is going to say anything if you find it necessary to change tactics.”
“They’d better not. I’ve run out of patience too. The cost has been too high already.” Jon’s gaze returned to the cottage. “I’ll let you know if we have to switch gears.”
“Do that. I can’t say I’ve liked this waiting game we’ve been playing any more than you have. I could use a little action.”
“You speak as if action’s an unusual state,” Jon said dryly. “I’ve never known a time when
you haven’t preferred trouble to the serene life.”
“It’s a quality you’ve always found useful in the past,” Gunner drawled. “If I remember correctly, you’re the one who saved my neck when those guards in Said Ababa decided to separate it from my magnificent body.” He paused. “Be careful, Jon. If you have to go on the offensive, make it clean.”
Jon didn’t need Gunner to warn him of the consequences of leaving loose ends on this project. “I’m neither a novice nor a fool, Gunner. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He hung up the receiver and started the motor and then backed out of the driveway.
He drove only a short distance down the road before turning off into the woods and positioning the truck to get a clear view of the cottage. He switched off the ignition and the lights, and leaned back in the seat. It was going to be a cold night, much colder than the previous ones he’d spent sitting there guarding Elizabeth and her unborn child. He turned up the collar of his coat and concentrated for a moment, blocking the cold from his consciousness. Even in the protection of the cab he could see his breath mist before him.