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Authors: Heather Graham

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BOOK: Tempestuous Eden
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It was an excruciating eternity, but he finally quipped, “I’m decent.”

Blair hadn’t known she was holding her breath until she let it out. She turned to find him watching her with open speculation as he reached into his pocket to produce cigarettes and a lighter.

“Smoke?”

“Yes, thanks.” She accepted a cigarette, noting with approval that her fingers were steady. Their eyes met, very close, as she leaned toward him to accept a light. Smoke plumed into the air, yet still they held, assessing each other, which for a minute neither attempted to hide.

“American,” Blair said with appreciation, studying the cigarette.

Craig chuckled. “Yes, I brought a few other American goodies with me for the entire crew.”

“Oh?” Blair said. By mutual agreement they sank to sit casually on the grassy embankment. “What are you, independently wealthy?” Dr. Hardy would have her neck for that one.

Taylor wasn’t offended. “Not independently, I’m afraid. I inherited a nice little trust fund.” So far he wasn’t lying. He had purchased everything he brought himself, and also made a sizable contribution to the main offices of the organization. But he could hardly pat himself on the back for that; he did have money, inherited money, that he could take a lifetime to spend. “What about yourself?”

He didn’t have to ask the question; he knew everything academic that there was to know about Blair, not only the date of her birth, but the exact minute and even her mother’s hospital room number. But all the dossiers in the world couldn’t really give him an answer to just what this fiery, independent, and determined woman was
herself.

Blair inhaled deeply on the cigarette and shrugged, thinking out her reply carefully. “Guilty of the same, I’m afraid. I grew up in the lap of luxury.”

“And you’ve repudiated it all?” A smile touched his lips.

“No,” she grinned dryly in return. “I have nothing against responsible wealth. I never wanted to throw it all away. I think a lot of good can be done with money channeled correctly, and, as the saying goes, it takes money to make money.” She laughed a little in admission. “Besides, I’m extremely fond of good plumbing systems, lobster Newburg, and, when available, silk sheets.”

“Then what are you doing here?” Craig demanded.

“I said ‘I’m fond of,’ not ‘I can’t live without,’” Blair reminded him. Damn! She was doing all the talking. Time to reverse the questions as he had.

“What about you?”

He shrugged, inhaling deeply. “I ran away from home once twenty years ago, but ran back for dinner.” His eyes were alight with amusement. “You appreciate the silk sheets and the lobster Newburg a whole lot more when you’ve been away. I did a stint in ’Nam, saw a bit of Europe and the Middle East, and also learned that you could live without what you’re fond of.” That also was basically truth.

Yet they really hadn’t told each other a thing.

Craig crushed out his cigarette and hopped lithely to his feet, once more reminding her of something leonine. “I’d better leave you to your bath,” he said with a grin, walking cheerily away.

Round one was over.

Blair rose slowly in his wake, unbuttoning her shirt as she watched his broad back disappear through the brush-strewn trail. Her betraying fingers began to quiver, and she fumbled with her clothing.
Damn, what is with me?
she groaned to herself.

The more she talked to him, the more she saw him, the more she wanted him. And she didn’t really think he’d be averse to the idea—the problem was in letting him know …

She jumped into the stream.

The cool deliciousness of the water soothed the heat of her flesh, which wasn’t only from the sun today. She chuckled dryly as she imagined herself being deadly honest with Craig.
Excuse me, Mr. Taylor, I feel I should tell you first that I don’t trust you as far as I could spit nails, but I think I’d like to go to bed with you. I say
think,
you see, because I’m just slightly terrified. You see, I had everything once … and I lost it and I’m scared and would you mind being very gentle, and very tolerant?

“Hey! How’s the water?”

Kate interrupted those shockingly lascivious thoughts as she approached the stream, unabashedly shedding sweat-soaked clothing while still on the trail.

“Nice and cool, Kate,” Blair replied.

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite cool enough.

Craig Taylor had promised to provide a “special treat” for Friday’s dinner, and he had certainly come through. The wine was French, and there were several bottles of it, somehow smuggled through in his duffel bags.

It wouldn’t last long. But it did provide them with one night of real feasting.

Happy chattering and ribald compliments cheered his effort on as Craig loosened the first cork and Blair knew she had never attended an affair of state that offered such honest-to-God pleasure and amiable camaraderie. The illusion of luxury was more glittering than a hundred-tiered chandelier.

“All we need are the silk sheets!” she laughed to him as she handed him her tin cup to acquire her portion of wine. He glanced at her, and she realized the possible implication of her statement. She hoped the heat of the fire hid that of her face, and her lashes dropped quickly, rich crescents of deepest auburn against her cheeks. Yet before she shielded her vision, she caught something in his remarkable lion eyes that hadn’t been there before, that bore no resemblance to danger, query, or lust….

It had been tenderness, but a tenderness touched by a wincing pain.

And it had disappeared completely, as if it had never been, by the time she steadied her cup and looked back up.

Craig filled his own cup with wine and helped himself to a plate of stew, the crew’s fare for that night.

“Let’s take our dinner over by that oak,” he suggested, balancing his plate and tin of wine as he indicated a heavily dipping tree that offered semiseclusion and privacy.

Blair found herself mutely nodding, and preceding his indicated lead.

The light of the fire was some distance from them as they took their seats on the ground, erecting a wall of partial darkness between them and the others who laughed and chatted nearer the tents of the compound.

Craig clinked his mug to hers, and the tin gave off a sharp rap. “To those of us who can admit we prefer silk sheets,” he toasted. “And by the way, when do you plan to return to yours?”

“A few more months,” Blair replied, digging immediately into a portion of stew composed mainly of vegetables and native potatolike roots. One of the benefits of the Hunger Crew was the impossibility of getting fat while being a member. “I signed up for two years. I’ll go back when my stint is over—and when my replacement arrives.”

“Anybody waiting for you to come home?” Craig asked nonchalantly.

“No,” she murmured, concentrating on her food. “Well, yes. My father.”

“Other than a parent,” he said softly. “I know that you’re a widow, but it’s been a while. Is there a friend, a lover—”

“No,” Blair interrupted him quickly. “No one like that.”

Craig said nothing, continuing to chew. He knew his questions were too personal; they might be painful. He was treading in dangerous waters, pushing, maybe too far. He didn’t know why he had voiced the questions in the first place, except, as a man, he’d wanted to hear answers from her own lips. They couldn’t expect him to always
think
like a damned machine.

“Your turn.”

“Pardon?” He glanced from his food to Blair to find her openly meeting his eyes.

“Your turn,” she repeated blandly. “Have you anyone waiting for you. A wife … a lover … ?”

“No. I’ve always traveled a great deal. I’ve never thought it fair to impose myself on a wife.”

Blair saw him suddenly stiffen; his keen yellow gaze went instantly alert and scanned the foliage near them as he quietly set down his plate.

“Wha—” she began in puzzlement.

He touched a finger to her lips and indicated the dark brush behind them, then hopped to his feet silently, the leonine agility never more visible and chilling as he moved without a sound. He took a few steps, and his arm lashed out through the trees.

He pulled forward a trembling Miguelito. “My God, boy! What are you doing sneaking up on people through the trees?” Craig demanded, giving Blair a surprise as he spoke in Spanish far superior in accent to hers.

The boy stood shaking, terrified of the towering man. His eyes turned to Blair, pathetically seeking mercy. Blair glanced from the boy to the man, shaking her head just slightly and hunching her shoulders. She gave her full attention to the child, speaking with reassurance. “No one is going to hurt you, Miguelito. You startled us, you frightened us by crawling around. You should be home in the village with your mother. Why are you out here?”

The simple story came out in broken bits and pieces. Miguelito had smelled the food. The enticing aroma had been too much for his young discipline, and he had doubled back to the camp as if pulled by a string.

“Oh, hell!” Craig muttered. “Is that it?”

“What were you expecting?” Blair asked him, her arm protectively and defensively around the boy.

Craig merely shook his head, dismissing the subject. He stooped down for his plate and offered the untouched stew to the little boy. “Enjoy it, Miguelito, but don’t tell your
compadres,
huh? There isn’t any more tonight where this came from.”

Blair was feeling a pang for having wolfed down her own meal so quickly that she’d had nothing to offer the boy. She was still feeling tingles race down her spine from having watched Craig. She hadn’t heard a thing from the trees—the natives could run through the countryside as quiet as mice—but Craig had been so instantly alert and prepared that it was more chilling than the thought of being secretly observed.

He had been in ’Nam, he had told her. He most certainly had learned the intricacies of jungle defense there.

And it was hard to be suspicious of a man who had just turned his own meal over to a hungry waif.

“What are you going to eat?” she asked Craig in quiet English.

He shrugged indifferently. The keen light of danger had left his eyes; a subtle mask of amusement replaced it. “I eventually get to go back to the lobster Newburg. Miguelito doesn’t.”

Yes, but not tonight,
Blair thought with a touch of admiring respect. Craig had done the work of a bulldozer during the day. With his physique, there could be little doubt that the kindly act of giving away his food would cause him some serious hunger pangs during the night.

The child ate voraciously, and when he finished, the look he gave Craig was nothing short of adoring.
“Muchas gracias, señor,”
he said shyly.
“Muchas gracias.”

“De nada, de nada,”
Craig returned a little impatiently. “Now get on home little Miguel,
pronto!
No more crawling in these bushes; it could be dangerous.”

The little boy disappeared into the darkness, heading like a fleet-footed deer for the village. Craig and Blair both took their seats beneath the tree again, a little less easily than originally. Blair heard herself in an echo of the question Doc had thrown to her the day before.

“Do you know something I don’t? Is it dangerous here?”

“No,” Craig assured her, his yellow eyes blankly innocent. “Last I heard, the new government is fully in power.” That was true, there was no danger to the Hunger Crew. There probably was no danger to Blair. But he had been assigned her protection, and his instincts were highly sharpened. Years in turbulent areas had left him able to detect the lightest change in a breeze, the lifting of a single leaf. “I just worry about kids out alone after dark,” he said with a shrug.

“He really shouldn’t be out,” Blair murmured. “But I’m glad you gave him the stew. These kids get so little.”

That bland, innocent look was back in his face. The boy next door. No, not the boy next door. He was still too overwhelming for that. His yellow eyes still perceived too much.

And being next to him was too disturbing.

“How about more wine?” he queried with an idle grin. “We do have a few extra bottles, I believe.” He slipped her dented tin cup from her fingers with a gallant flourish. “Allow me, madam.”

He left her to join the others at the fire and refill their wine “glasses.” As she watched him she heard an easy bantering; he had enchanted the entire crew. And why not? she asked herself dully. He would have been a rare find in a populated, civilized world. Out here he was nothing short of a miracle.

Bright, powerful, generous, uncomplaining, unshirking. Keen wit. Polite, courteous, and friendly. Breathtaking to look at.

Was there really such a man as Craig Taylor?

Oh, yes, he did exist. He was very real, coming back to her with bright, appreciative, sparkling eyes. Ruggedly, tautly, excitingly handsome in the simple tan shirt and tight jeans. He transferred the cups so that he held both in one hand and extended the other to her.

“How about a walk in the moonlight?”

Blair glanced skeptically at the sky, where a sliver-thin crescent made a feeble effort at illumination.

“All right.” He chuckled at her doubt. “How about a walk beneath the stars?”

There were a few dotting the heavens.

“I don’t know,” she said, rising even as she demurred. “Should big kids be out after dark?”

“Only with me,” he replied suavely with a slight lift of a brow. “I’ll bet the stream is beautiful at night….”

They did walk, they did talk, they did meander down to the stream and sit upon the bank where they had been earlier. The little jungle haven seemed like a paradise at night, the hibiscus emanating a soft red glow, the grass a smooth, cloudlike carpet, the waterfall rushing gently into a pool that caught that slender moon and glistened beneath it like a diamond-studded sea.

Blair found herself forgetting where she was, who she was. She even forgot to wonder who
he
was … it was easy. They discussed books, music, movies. Food. Nothing highly personal, nothing controversial. And as they talked it was very natural that his arm came around her. She didn’t protest the movement, and in time it was very natural that she began to touch his fingers, idly running her own along them.

BOOK: Tempestuous Eden
4.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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