Authors: Deborah Smith
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
Stretched out on his stomach along the couch in front of her fireplace, Kyle shifted his legs slowly and winced. He felt Sara's hand pat his shoulder gently, and her sympathetic attention made his embarrassment even more acute. During the course of his old career he had outwitted some of the smartest terrorists in the world; now he couldn't outwit a flock of fat, waddling birds.
"What happened?" she asked.
He tried to sound grandly disgusted. "I came back, cleaned up, and decided to bring in some firewood."
"You should have taken my geese seriously after the way they chased you this morning."
"I thought they were all honk and no action."
Sara sat cross-legged in the floor, near enough that he could touch her if he wanted. He always wanted even now, when the comers of her mouth kept curling upward at his expense.
"I only wanted to bring in some firewood. To be a good guest."
"I know. I promise not to laugh out loud anymore."
"I brought in two armloads from the woodpile without the geese noticing me. Then I got greedy. I went back for a third load. They noticed."
"They took revenge for every quill pen and down pillow ever made. They pinched me with those damned beaks. I haven't been grabbed so much since I rode to the top of the Empire State Building in an elevator full of drunk women."
"Would you like some liniment for your pained dignity?"
While she was out of the room he got up and gingerly padded to the huge hearth where he'd stacked his first two loads of firewood. The third lay scattered around the base of the tree he'd climbed.
By the time she came back, carrying a mysterious jar, he'd built a fire. The aromatic scent of burning oak filled the castle's great room. The room was suspended between pleasant shadows and the last of the afternoon sunlight that filtered through the tall windows on the southern side. Kyle leaned against the fireplace and thought how appealing the room was, especially when Sara stood near the windows, backlit with a halo of sunshine.
She had changed into a soft blue sweater and stretchy white ski pants with the instep straps turned up around her ankles. The outfit revealed a small, slender body curved with muscle. She was little but not fragile. Still, a man would want to be very gentle when he held her in bed.
Kyle's reverie dissolved as he pictured the imprints his ridged scars would leave on her skin. He'd never kiss her again; he wouldn't dredge up the subject of his ugliness. And he'd try not to daydream any more than he could help. But unbidden new images tormented him already. He and Sara, curled up together on the couch, sharing a mug of hot cider, her arms slipping around his neck, her mouth tasting of apple and cinnamon
"Lie down again," she ordered him, her expression fathomless. "And tell the nice sorceress where the trolls nibbled at you."
"I can manage alone." Feeling troubled when he realized that she meant to rub the liniment on him, he decided that belligerence was a good defense.
She rolled her eyes. "After you came down from the tree you mentioned that your lower back hurt. You can't rub liniment on your own back."
"Maybe I have double-jointed arms."
"Maybe you have a thick head. Pull your shirt off. Lie down. Quit grumbling."
He eyed the jar she held. It was full of a slimy white substance. "You're going to turn me into a garden slug. When I walk I'll leave a trail. What is that stuff?"
"It's the juice of a plant that grows in the Amazon rain forest. It's been used for centuries by the Indians there. It won't hurt you."
"My sister Millie said that to me once, when we were kids. A Surprise never turns down a chance to take chances. We taste-tested some swamp water. I don't want to go into the ugly details, but the people who sell milk of magnesia made a lot of money as a result of that experiment."
She looked at him patiently but tapped a bare, dainty foot on the scroll pattern of a richly ornamented rug. "I haven't got all afternoon, Kyle."
Before the incident in Surador he had never been self-conscious about his body. He had kept himself in good shape, admired the results in a full-length mirror occasionally, but otherwise never thought about it except when someone. Invariably female, offered a compliment. Confidence, not vanity, had made him feel comfortable.
Now he had to grit his teeth to keep from hesitating any longer. Kyle jerked a ribbed white sweater over his head and lay down on the old couch, feeling its cool,
soft leather meet his scarred chest and stomach. He wished that the loose brown corduroys he wore didn't hang so low on his waist.
He pillowed his head on one forearm and stared resolutely at his own bicep, trying not to think about the fact that Sara had just knelt on the thick tapestry rug beside the couch, that she must be grimacing at what Diego de Valdivia's well-trained dogs had accomplished.
"I I think you're right," she said abruptly. "I think you can put the liniment on without my help." She set the jar on the floor and vaulted to her feet as Kyle raised his head to stare at her. "I'll be in my lab until six. Your chili fixings are waiting for you in the kitchen."
She turned and left the room quickly, without looking back. Kyle's hands knotted into fists as humiliation and sorrow poured through him. Now try to tell me that you don't mind my scars, Sara .
Noelle mouthed a spoonful of crushed ice and frowned. Tears still gleamed in her dark eyes, and her face looked ready to crumple again at any second. Sara rocked her in a big chair next to the nursery window. Exhausted from the day's traumas, Sara meditated on the sunset and nearly dozed off.
"Mice," Noelle told her.
. Sara dipped the spoon into a cup on the windowsill. Noelle took it eagerly and held her mouth open as Sara rubbed a bit over the tiny nubs of two front teeth. In all of medical science there ought to be something to treat sore teeth.
For two hours Noelle had alternately eaten ice and cried. Lying on the sill was the tiny, flesh-colored transmitter Sara had been wearing in one ear when the teething crisis began. Her ear still rang from Noelle's high-pitched walls.
Poor Kyle, he must have been disgusted at her for changing her mind about the rubdown. But there had been no way she could ignore Noelle's angry shrieks, especially not when the transmitter had magnified and then focused them on one lone eardrum. She had almost run from the room because she feared that the transmitter was so loud Kyle could hear Noelle too.
Noelle nestled her head against Sara's chest and sighed as Sara's fingers stroked her hair soothingly. Too tired to fight sore gums any longer, her eyes drooped shut. She was asleep by the time Sara put her in the crib and kissed her softly on one cheek.
Sara looked at her watch. Almost six o'clock. Good timing. She could eat dinner with Kyle and make certain that he hadn't read anything odd into her actions. She couldn't judge their effect herself; her senses were numb from the day's events. She did know one thing despite the risk and inconvenience of having him as a guest, she felt a tingle of anticipation that made new energy hum through her veins now.
Sara tucked the transmitter back into her ear, pulled several wisps of hair over it, and checked the listening unit that hung on the wall beside Noelle's crib. Thank goodness for technology. Unlike people, it behaved in predictable ways.
The kitchen was full of cheerful light and delicious smells. Kyle sat at the table by the bay window, his feet propped on the window seat and his hands latched behind his head. After Sara padded silently into the room she realized that he was either watching the sunset intently or was so lost in thought he hadn't heard her approach.
A pair of leather hiking boots lay upended on the floor, and his feet were covered only in white crew socks. He presented a relaxed, unforbidding image,
but hardly a tame one. His torso looked trim but powerful in the handsome white sweater, his long legs provoked her interest even encased in loose brown trousers, and his tousled hair was a sensual lure for her fingers. "Hello," he said without turning around.
Sara jumped. "How did you know I was here?"
He pulled his feet down and swiveled in his chair. "We highly trained James-Bond types pick up on the tiniest nuance of sound." He added dryly, "And I saw your reflection in the window."
She was puzzled by the expression in his eyes. Even though he sounded cheerful he looked sad, or maybe resigned. She couldn't tell for certain. Her gaze moved to a pair of empty beer bottles on the table. Obviously he was in the mood for something stronger than his whimsical chocolate sodas.
Sara fumbled for neutral conversation. "I did get the right brand of beer, didn't I? And the Coco-Moos? That was right?"
She went to the stove and lifted the lid on a large pot. "Oh, Kyle. Oh. Hmmmm. You outdid yourself. To a person who would starve if it weren't for frozen food and microwave ovens, homemade chill is heaven."
"Well, Jeopard couldn't cook and Millie wasn't very good at it either. I was the designated chef when we were growing up. Do you want to eat at the table with me, or are you going back to the lab?"
"I have time to eat with you."
"Look, it's okay if you don't. I understand. I've been here only one day. I know it's going to take a while for you to, well, to adjust to me."
She chuckled. "You make yourself sound like a strange new pet."
"A different sort of dragon, maybe."
"You're no dragon," she corrected him, frowning at his choice of descriptions. She nodded toward the stove and smiled awkwardly. "I smell enough chili powder to make me think we'll both be able to breath fire soon."
"My chili is good for what ails you. I think it kills germs. Or maybe it just scares the hell out of them."
"Speaking of ailments, how are your goose bites?"
"Fine. That liniment did help."
"Did you get enough of it on your back? I'll be glad to"
"It's fine," he said quickly.
"I'm sorry I ran out on you. I'd forgotten about an experiment I needed to check."
"No explanation needed." He rose, looking restless. There were times, such as now, when Sara glimpsed the intensity that he hid under his casual facade. This was, after all, a man who had lived dangerously for most of his adult life. She feared that he was already bored by his Good Samaritan role and its confinement.
"There's a portable television set in one of the bedrooms," she told him. "The reception inside these walls isn't too great, but there's a VCR, too, and I have a big collection of tapesmostly classics and PBS specials but you're welcome to watch them if you want."
He looked at her ruefully and put his hands on his hips. "What? No Popeye cartoons or reruns of Gilligan's Island for us ordinary folks to enjoy?"
"I wasn't trying to imply that you wouldn't appreciate highbrow entertainment. Why are you so defensive tonight?"
He shook his head, and his shoulders slumped a little. He looked apologetic. "I'm just moody these days. Remember, I'm here to rehabilitate my own attitude as well as yours."
Sara crossed her arms over her chest with mock command. "Tell me what's wrong with your attitude."
He eyed her warily. "I make chili as a way of expressing myself. Understand my chill, and you'll understand me."
"You won't be a mystery for very long, then. Let's eat."
She set the kitchen table with heavy crockery bowls and pewter serving pieces engraved with the Scarborough family crest. Kyle got another beer; she opened her first, in fact the first one she'd had since before her pregnancy. Being the sole caretaker of a baby, a castle, and a research lab was a constant responsibility; she was afraid to mellow out, even a little. She always had too much to do.
But tonight was special. Kyle ladled chili into their bowls and carried the pot back to the stove. After he sat down he raised his beer and said, "A toast. I'll make one, then you make one."
"Okay." She held her bottle up.
He clinked his to it. "To better times for us both."
Tears stung the comers of Sara's eyes. "To good memories rather than bad."
"To the future of plastic surgery."
Sara eyed him gently. She tapped her bottle to his with a little too much force. "To the happiness that exists in the present."
He glared at the way she brandished her beer bottle. "What is this, a challenge? The duel of the Budweisers?"
Chuckling, Sara put her beer down and ate a spoonful of chill. She glanced up and caught Kyle watching her closely. "Well, what do you think?" he demanded.
"About your attitude, as expressed in your chili? Hmmm. Pretty hot, but so well-balanced that it doesn't burn. Patiently prepared. Contains a few unexpected ingredients that make it more complicated than it seems on the surface. All in all, I'm quite impressed."
He looked pleased. "But the important question is, does it make you hungry for more?"
Hungry? She was starving, but not for chili. "Oh, ho. A leading question. It strains the comparison too far."