Setting Him Free
by Alexandra Marell
Released: Dec 2006
As Quality Control Manager for Exotic Resorts Inc., Danielle Radley’s life is one long round of sun, sea and sand. Unfortunately, it also involves airplanes and Danielle hates flying with a passion. Flying home from a tropical resort, she finds herself sitting across the aisle from an enigmatic man handcuffed to the seat. A man who fascinates her more than he should.
Taylor Bradford is a broken man. Tired of running, he’s glad the end is near. That is until he catches Danielle’s eye on the plane. A moment of instant connection awakens feelings he thought long dead. When the plane gets into difficulty and starts going down into the tropical rainforest below, he reaches for her hand…
Setting Him Free is now available to read free.
Copyright © 2005 Alexandra Marell
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Here we go again.
Engines screaming, the small jet hurtled down the runway while Danielle Radley gripped the armrests of her seat and closed her eyes, desperately trying to remember the hypnotherapist’s advice.
Butterflies, the sick feeling of panic – despite years of therapy, they were still all there. Yet the only alternative to these few hours of pure terror was to give up her job. And not just any job, Quality Control Manager for Exotic Resorts Inc. was a dream of a job. One long round of sun, sea and sand. Gourmet food and luxury hotels. Beautiful people. Worldwide travel which, unfortunately, involved flying.
The plane tilted sharply, her stomach lurched and she began her mantra.
“It’s worth it, it’s worth it, it’s worth it.”
The island paradise fell away as the plane climbed towards the flawlessly blue sky on its four-hour journey to the mainland airport. Three-and-a-half if they were lucky. Danielle opened her eyes when she felt the aircraft level out. It’ll soon be over. In a few hours she’d be on safe, solid land again. Time for a few days of rest and to sort out the next project – then the worrying would start all over again.
The Langhams ACG corporate Jetliner seated twenty-eight, but today it was virtually empty with only seven passengers on board. Danielle counted them, then sat back, swallowed down her nerves and checked her watch. Damn, only five minutes into the flight. Sweat trickled between her breasts, and what had been a smart blouse only two hours ago was now a limp, sorry excuse for business-wear. She rubbed at her neck, lifting her pony-tail away from sticky skin, and blew out a long breath.
A single row of seats ran down her side of the plane with doubles across the aisle, some forward-facing, some facing each other. Normally the outbound flights were packed with the party-elite still on their post-vacation high. Danielle liked to fly with the clients – pretending to be one of them was the best way to do her research – but today she’d given up her seat on the commercial flight to a man who needed to return home for a family emergency. After resigning herself to spending an extra night at the resort, finding the special charter scheduled for the mainland had been a stroke of luck. Her next trip, to Singapore, involved a tight turnaround back in the States.
Two nuns sat across the aisle at the front of the plane. What the blazes were they doing at the Tropicana? The small airport really only served the few outlying islands and the hotel complex, well-known as one of the wilder, more exclusive resorts. A picture of the holy sisters dancing on Fetish Night popped into her mind, making Danielle smile. Of course, they would have blended right in.
The obligatory businessman sat one seat behind them. She’d passed him on boarding, amazed at the way he’d started checking through a thick sheaf of papers the moment he was settled, looking completely unconcerned that this giant tube of metal not only needed to achieve the extraordinary feat of getting itself off the ground but was also required to cruise through the sky for four hours, then land safely at the other end.
The other three people sat on the other side of the aisle, in seats facing each other. People were her thing, and playing guess-who at least helped to pass the time. Two of them could have been clones with their identical dark suits and sunglasses. One produced a handkerchief and wiped his face. The other sprawled back, looking anything but relaxed. Fingers tapping insistently on the window ledge, his steady gaze was levelled firmly at the third member of the trio sitting opposite him in the aisle seat.
Interpol, Danielle decided. Or CIA, MI6? Probably on some top-secret – or, in their case, rather obvious – mission, since they were doing a terrible job of blending in. Danielle thought about moving, but knew that changing seats would just be tempting fate. She could see the headline, now. If only the woman had remained in the same seat.
Calm down, they’re not concerned, so why should you be?
She turned her attention to the third man, sitting only a few feet away across the aisle, and realised it wasn’t only his clothing that set him apart from the other two. The trio sat together, but they weren’t together. Yet they were connected somehow. Danielle unclipped her seatbelt and settled back, glad of the distraction, flicking sideways glances so he wouldn’t catch her looking. A lot harder to fathom, the man was already seated when she boarded, and she couldn’t have failed to notice him in his all-black attire. The sweat-drenched tee-shirt clinging to his chest, the jeans and boots told her that here was a man who didn’t waste time on his wardrobe choices.
Light-brown hair, cropped short, darker at the roots as if growing out a colour. A lean face, toned body, the muscles well-defined against his tight tee.
And his expression? Verging on tragic, she decided. And not just in the arrangement of his features. No, this came from deep inside.
He stared straight ahead, as if in a trance, silent and remote. The man had keep off written all over him. Danielle checked him out, more than curious, unable to look away. A man staring at the world with eyes that didn’t seem to see. Why?
The man twisted a little, as if trying to get comfortable without attracting too much attention, and her gaze dropped to his left arm, the one resting loosely between him and his companion. Handcuffs? Her heart gave a jolt. One around his wrist, the other clipped to the metal strut of the arm-rest.
How had she missed that?
Now she understood. He looked like a man standing on the edge of a cliff plucking up the courage to jump, everything about him tightly focused, determined, hard. A slight trembling on every exhale, and the compulsive flexing and contracting of his trapped fist were the only signs of any underlying anxiety.
When he slowly turned his head a shiver chased over her skin. He stared directly at her and for a split second a spark ignited in his eyes. Deeply penetrating, his gaze swept the length of her, appraising, challenging. Making her want to jump and run to another seat, fate be damned.
The shiver turned into a knot of panic.
He knows I’ve seen it.
He continued to stare, almost daring her to look away. She couldn’t. He needed her to see. Whatever pain he was in, for some reason he was sharing it with her.
What did he want? Comfort, understanding? Condemnation? What the hell had he done to end up handcuffed to a seat on a plane? As they gazed at each other her mind conjured a picture of a bird, beating its wings against the bars of a cage. Her brother had trapped one once and presented it to her. Then he’d laughed at her because all she’d wanted to do was set it free.
A ghost of a smile flickered across the man’s features, almost as if he were reading the image in her mind. With a shake of his head, he turned away, retreating back into his shell. Danielle felt him go. The brief moment of connection severed so abruptly she had to catch herself. She almost reached out to stop him, the pull was so strong. Then the flight attendant appeared, pushing a small cart, and stood between them, blocking her view. Danielle accepted the drink, helped herself to a packet of cookies. Wondered what colour the mystery-man’s eyes were. Realised they were blue.
When the attendant moved on, Danielle picked up the in-flight magazine, needing a barrier between them. She didn’t want him looking at her again. Not like that. She returned to mentally helping the pilot to fly the plane, concentrating on engine noises, searching the attendant’s face for signs of concern. A quick glance at her watch told her they were still only ten minutes into the flight, so she kicked off her shoes and stared grimly at the page.
Anything, but look at him again. Whatever he’d done, he’d pay. He didn’t need her pity. That puppy-dog-at-the-pound expression probably had women falling at his feet. Well, not this woman. Fear of flying was the only thing that marred Danielle Radley’s perfect life, and when she got back to the States that problem would be sorted once and for all. Then her life would be perfect. And God-help-her, it was going to stay that way.
* * * *
Taylor Bradford stared at the seat in front of him, trying not to think about the tattered remnants of his life. A painful cramp tightened his arm. Without moving too much, he tried to twist into a more comfortable position, taking in a deep, calming breath as he fought against the hysteria momentarily threatening to overwhelm him. You wanted this, he thought grimly and closed his eyes because the woman with the bouncy pony-tail and the neat little business suit was still giving him that wide-eyed look she’d adopted on spotting the handcuffs.
He couldn’t hide them so he let his mind go blank and endured her look, of what? Pity? Concern ? Whatever it is, I don’t want it. Why can’t she be scared of me? I could cope with that.
Inspiring fear was his gift and what had made him so good. It was what made him a survivor and what had brought him to this. But every look that told him what a sad, pathetic creature he’d become, ripped out another little part of him. Put up another bar to his cage. A bad place to be.
Even with his eyes closed, he could still feel her gazing at him. What was it with women and tragic figures? He could be a mass murderer for all she knew, and yet here she was, giving him that I could be the one to reform you look. What the hell would she do if he gave her a real eyeful, let her see exactly what he’d become. An empty shell. Nothing.
The policeman sitting next to him prodded him with his elbow, something he’d been doing periodically to show who was boss. Taylor shifted in his seat, raised his eyebrows and lifted his handcuffed wrist a few inches to show he wasn’t going anywhere. The man flashed him a toothy grin and leaned across to take a drink from the attendant.
Stupid man. Jacket gaping open, gun on display for God’s sake. Surely they’d been properly briefed? Didn’t they realise he already had it planned? Two seconds, that’s all it would take. Grab the gun, point it at the nuns. Get the pilot to fly him somewhere safe. Easy, but then what?
It would start all over again. That’s what.
Pair of incompetents, the both of them; should have had him in the window seat at the very least. Hell, they shouldn’t have let other passengers on the flight. But then they all knew how this would end. They were all willing participants in this carefully plotted charade.
Taylor chose a whisky, downed it in one and saluted the policemen with his empty glass. The man beside him muttered something under his breath. The other ripped open a packet of peanuts and tipped back his head to pour them into his mouth. They thought they had his number. A pussy-cat on a lead? He was here only because he wanted to be. Taylor closed his eyes and leaned back against the seat. They really were stupid, stupid men.
And the blonde-haired woman, who was now hidden behind a magazine? He hadn’t expected her to make him smile. A long time since he’d smiled. Perhaps there was something left in him, after all.
Only another two hours to go. Danielle checked her watch again and closed her eyes. With so few passengers the cabin was quiet. Nothing to do but listen to the sound of the engines and wonder when they would drop off the plane. And to top it all, the attendant was suddenly sporting a decidedly worried look which definitely hadn’t been there at the beginning of the flight.
Maybe she has indigestion? Or maybe not, the voice in the back of Danielle’s mind insisted.
Danielle turned to the window, but within minutes was leaning out into the aisle to get a better view, wondering if she should call the attendant over and ask her outright if there was a problem. The attendant stood near to the door separating the flight deck from the rest of the plane, nodding and talking rapidly to one of the crew. Danielle pushed her call button. The young woman looked up. Briefly she spoke again, before closing the door and smiling at Danielle.
“Can I get you anything, miss? Another drink, perhaps?”
“Is everything okay? I thought I felt a bit of a jolt back there.” Danielle watched her carefully. She’d tried this one a dozen times and always got the same answer. “No problem miss, planes do that, there’s nothing wrong.”
Only this time she detected a slight hesitation before the reassuring words. Danielle was a world-class expert on disaster movies. The woman was stalling her.
“Are you sure, because I definitely felt…”
“There is nothing wrong, miss. Please calm down or you will scare the other passengers.”
The attendant hurried back to the front of the plane and disappeared through the door into the cockpit. Danielle looked around. Apart from a brief glance from one of the men in black when she’d pressed the call button, none of the other passengers seemed to be the slightest bit concerned. The nuns hadn’t moved from their seats. The businessman’s hand hung limply over the aisle armrest as if he were asleep. How could they be so casual? One of the men in black was asleep too, mouth open, snoring lightly. The other alternated between staring at Danielle’s legs and looking out of the window. And the man in handcuffs had returned to the catatonic position he’d been in for most of the flight.
Ten minutes later, the plane gave a lurch and banked steeply to the right. Danielle grabbed at her armrests and looked wildly about her. What the hell was that? The plane levelled abruptly as her shoulder hit the window. The attendant reappeared and this time there was no mistaking the fear clouding her face.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she began in a shaky voice, “We may have a small problem.”
Small problem? Danielle’s heart started a heavy thudding that accelerated with each beat. Problem? There couldn’t be. Her hypnotherapist had insisted the odds of a plane actually crashing were – well, she couldn’t remember exactly, but they were tiny.
The attendant raised her arms. Crash position? What the hell was she talking about crash positions for? This couldn’t be happening.
Only it was, because the man in handcuffs was suddenly alert and paying attention. Leaning out into the aisle, watching the flight attendant intently, he looked not exactly scared, but definitely concerned. And if he, who had hardly blinked during the flight, was showing emotion, then it must be serious.
Their eyes met again. He pointed to her seat belt and then spoke to her. If she hadn’t been seated, she would have taken a step back at the sound. Not a single word had passed his lips for the whole flight and now he was speaking to her in a low, slightly clipped, English accent. A little rough around the edges – like the kind of accent that might have changed over the years.
The plane gave another lurch. One of the nuns screamed, long and loud. Danielle kept her eyes squarely on the man’s face. His mouth opened and closed. She was too terrified to make out the words. Jolted out of her seat, she hit the floor thinking that it must be something important, but she’d never know because they were all about to die.
* * * *
“Do your seat belt up!” Taylor shouted across at the woman who was looking at him, but didn’t seem to be hearing him. “Your seat belt, do it – hell!” He watched her fall into the aisle, made a grab for her and missed. Stretching as far as he could, he tried to reach her. The policeman sitting next to him shouted at him to sit down, tugging on his tee-shirt to pull him back. Taylor pushed him off and reached out again. The one sitting opposite them barked something at his hysterical partner and unclipped his seatbelt. Standing unsteadily, he stepped into the aisle, shoved unceremoniously past Danielle, and made his way to the cockpit. Taylor put everything he had into one final stretch and managed to lock a hand around her wrist and pull her up towards him.
“Can you hear me?” he shouted above the noise of the now-screaming engines. The plane banked again. He pulled her hard against him, knowing that if he let go she’d be seriously injured. Her hands closed around his arms, her nails dug into his flesh and he heard her sharp intake of breath. Saw the terror in her eyes, only inches away from his, desperately seeking reassurance.
How could he tell her he didn’t have it in him to feel the same fear? That this impending disaster was most-likely for his benefit and he didn’t care if the plane crashed and they all died? It banked steeply again and he wasn’t sure whether the pain of her grip on his arms, or her tears, falling freely now, were what made him realise that was no longer true. Their survival was already linked. He had to save her life, and in doing so she might just save his.
For the first time in two years Taylor wanted to live, instead of die. Bloody ironic. Regaining the will to live moments before the plane he was in fell out of the sky and killed them all? Probably the funniest thing that had happened to him in years. The laughter was totally inappropriate, but once started, he couldn’t stop. The woman raised startled eyes to his while he lowered his forehead to her arm and fought for control.
Hell, this was turning into one heck of a day.
* * * *
Laughter? What kind of idiot is he? Danielle gripped the man’s arms. Screams and frantic prayers competed with engine noises, while the plane continued to lurch from side to side. It levelled again. Her head slammed into his chest and strong fingers clasped the back of her neck, holding her steady. He stopped laughing, abruptly as if suddenly aware of the effect it was having on her.
His solid warmth was a lifeline to which she clung with everything she had. Grabbing a handful of his tee-shirt, she pressed her face against the damp cloth and breathed in the mixture of smoke and sweat. The hammering of his heart told her he wasn’t nearly as calm as he appeared. She lifted her head, desperate for him to say he would save her from this, already knowing he couldn’t.
“What’s your name?”
She stared at him, noticing for the first time that he needed a shave.
“Your name, sweetheart. What is it?”
Her mouth opened twice before any sound came out. “Danielle. Danielle Radley.”
“I’m Taylor. Now be a good girl and get back in your seat. And do your seat belt up.” He spoke slowly and deliberately. “Can you do that for me, Danielle?”
“I. I can’t.” Her grip tightened. “Don’t let go of me.”
His expression softened, and for a brief moment his eyes showed the pain she’d seen earlier. “You’ve got to, Danielle. Come on, you’re stronger than this. Go now, we may not have much time.”
“What do you mean?” Danielle tightened the grip on his tee-shirt, pulling herself so close she smelled the whisky on his breath. Then she was being pushed away to land hard against her seat. Falling into it, she fumbled with the belt. Glanced back at him. Saw his approving smile.
He has a nice smile. Should smile more often.
His companion yelled again. The plane continued to lurch and bank. No sign of his double. The attendant was on her knees in the aisle, grimly trying to pull herself into a seat. One moment the blue of the sky filled the window, the next the green of the tropical rainforest below growing larger and larger with every passing second.
Was the pilot trying to land in the forest? They were almost down now, the force of the descent jamming her into the seat, the tops of the trees clearly visible.
A loud bang shook the plane and Danielle covered her ears to shut out the sound of everyone screaming at once. For a split second the plane hovered silently in mid-air.
Then the nose tipped and it dropped.
“Get your head down, Danielle.” Taylor bent forward, an arm above his head.
She copied him, arms bracing her head, with no idea if she was doing it right. She, who had memorised every safety procedure, every position, suddenly couldn’t remember any of it. Her stomach seemed to be flying out of her mouth. Wasn’t her life supposed to flash before her eyes? Her mom, her dad– she tried to picture them but they wouldn’t come. There was only Taylor and the way he’d held on to her, even though she’d hurt him with her long nails. Instead of closing her eyes she turned her head, looked over at him and found him still watching her. When he nodded, she reached out her hand and his strong grip clasping her wrist was the last thing she was aware of as the plane hit the thick forest below.
Taylor opened his eyes, biting back the sharp pain that ripped through his left arm. He righted himself slowly, wondering how bad his injuries were. Amazed to still be alive. A man with a death wish had survived a plane crash. Was someone up there trying to tell him something? He flexed his right arm, moved his legs and took a couple of deep breaths. Everything else seemed normal. His left arm was broken, judging by the pain, and his head hurt. But if that was all then he’d got off lightly.
Danielle. He almost had to force himself to look at her seat. The last thing he remembered were two enormous eyes, silently pleading with him to do something, and the strength of her grip on his hand.
She was still in her seat, head to the side, not moving. The lights were all out and the trees that had cushioned the impact surrounded the plane, telling him they’d come down somewhere in the rainforest. Some of the branches reached in through the shattered windows, and for a moment Taylor kept very still and listened for sounds of movement. A plane caught high up in the canopy might drop at any time. He couldn’t be sure, but it felt stable and he had to trust that the creaks and groans punctuating the silence were just branches rubbing against metal.
She’s not breathing. Taylor reached across and took Danielle’s wrist, feeling for a pulse. For an agonising moment he felt nothing. Stretching across made his broken arm hurt like hell, but he needed to know. She couldn’t be dead. He tried again, finding it hard to concentrate against the roaring pain in his head. At first he’d been numb, but now every part of his body throbbed, protesting against being dropped out of the sky.
Twisting back into his seat, he reached into the inside pocket of the dead policeman’s suit and felt around for a key to the handcuffs.
Taylor spared the dead man no sympathy, as he’d been given none. The man still had a surprised expression frozen on his face at the moment the jagged piece of window glass had ripped through his neck.
A cell phone but no keys. Taylor willed himself calm. Which of the policemen had pocketed them? A quick glance at the twisted and shattered front of the plane told him the other man wasn’t coming back.
No signal. He dropped the phone onto the seat, breathing through the pain.
Christ, have I survived this only to die of hunger and thirst next to a corpse?
Yes, there they were. He found the set of keys after what seemed an eternity and, with a shaking hand, twisted one in the lock and pulled the handcuffs apart, easing away the metal which had bitten into his skin. After a couple of steadying breaths, he carefully lifted his arm, inhaling sharply at the pain slicing through him. The arm needed immobilising, if he could find a first aid kit. First, though, the grim task of checking on the other passengers.
Another look at the crushed tangle of metal that was once the front part of the plane left him in no doubt about their fate. How could anyone have survived that? Then there was Danielle. Taylor twisted out of his seat and placed a trembling hand on her chest.
Movement. Thank God. Slowly but surely, her chest rose up and down. He leaned in and listened. When her warm breath fanned his face, his legs gave way with the sheer relief and shock of it all. He fell to his knees beside her, still not knowing if she was badly hurt. Only that she was alive, and that somehow it was important to him. The sounds of the rainforest started up quietly in the background; insects and birds, startled into silence by the crash, resuming their business while he stared at her wondering why he cared.
Not a religious man, but he had done some praying in the past two years. Prayed for his life back, all too soon realising that no-one was listening and no-one cared. And now this. Connection with another human being. Something he’d despaired of ever feeling again.
Probably the shock and the adrenaline pumping through his system. He’d been in enough hairy situations to know what that could do to you, how it made you feel. Good sex, getting drunk, tearing up the town. All great ways to burn it off. None of those an option now, though.
He reached for Danielle’s wrist again, feeling the pulse strong and steady, and held on, resting his head on the arm of her seat. Just a woman and he’d known plenty of them. Why did she feel so special?
The fact that they were alone together in a life-threatening situation? He laughed softly to himself. Yes, that was enough to make her special. The next few days would throw them together; make them dependent on each other. The plane had some sort of homing beacon, but if they’d come down in the thickest part of the forest it might be days before they were found.
As he studied Danielle, Taylor realised that her being alive was a double- edged sword. If she’d died, he’d have been out of there. With his survival skills, the jungle posed no threat to him. One more attempt at disappearing, only this time do it properly. He couldn’t leave her, though, or take her with him.
Taylor glanced again the front of the plane. There may be someone in there, badly injured – he should go and check now, but his shaky legs wouldn’t let him. Twisting them under him, he sat down in the narrow aisle, let his head drop between his knees, and felt his blood pressure falling.
Hell, not the time to pass out. If he had a bad concussion he could be in trouble.
Breathing desperately, he flopped against the seat behind him and tried to fend off the nausea. In front of him Danielle stirred. He called out to her in a voice that sounded thick and distant. His vision turned misty and he was only dimly aware of Danielle, on her knees now, repeating his name over and over, her fingers frantically searching his face.
Grabbing her hand, he tried to stay with her, but his body had other ideas and he slipped away. It’s okay. She’s alive. Now sure of that, he could stop fighting so he closed his eyes and let the darkness take him.
* * * *
“Taylor.” Danielle unsnapped her seat belt and slithered to the floor, heart lurching at the bloody sight of his companion sprawled across the opposite seat. Blood everywhere, trickling down the man’s arm to splash onto the floor. Staining his white shirt. She shut out the image and returned her attention to Taylor. He could be dying, right in front of her. No, he couldn’t die. If everyone died, she’d be all alone.
Poor Taylor, with his sad eyes. He shouldn’t die, here, like this. It didn’t seem fair. If he hadn’t thrown her back into her seat, she’d have been in the aisle when the plane went down. He saved her life. That must count for something with the powers-that-be.
She watched his ashen face anxiously and, when he started to move, breathed such a sigh of relief it made her tremble right down to her toes. He’s alive. I won’t be alone, she thought murmuring a grateful prayer of thanks. Sitting with him in the cramped aisle, she grasped his hand, stroking it gently, feeling his fingers grip hers as he came to. She hadn’t been big on hand-holding before, but it seemed the most natural thing in the world to be holding his. Her thumb drifted over his wrist while he struggled to open his eyes.
His voice was a hoarse whisper, and he sounded in pain. When he shifted, she noticed the awkward way he held his left arm.
“How bad is it, Taylor?” Please don’t be badly hurt. She didn’t want to see him in pain but, selfish as it sounded, she also needed him whole, to look after her. She was an expert at partying, people and having a good time. A wicked organiser and hard-nosed businesswoman. But jungle survival? Not a clue. There were snakes out there, and wild animals. Taylor looked like the kind of man who would know what to do. They’d need food and water, too. Danielle glanced towards the galley, wondering how well-stocked the plane would have been for such a short flight. Whatever food was on board would soon spoil in this heat.
“My arm, left one.” He screwed up his face and cupped the elbow with his right hand. “Must have got yanked against the cuffs when we hit. That, and I feel like I’ve been in a plane crash.”
He was studying her intently as her gaze flicked to the discarded handcuffs and back to him. She’d almost forgotten, but now he’d drawn her attention to them, almost as if testing her, she knew he must be wondering how safe she felt around him.
“Let me see.”
He flinched when she felt along the length of his arm, as gently as she could, with no real idea of what she was looking for. People did this in movies. It seemed the right thing to do.
“Needs a sling,” he said. “Can you go find a first-aid box? Got to be one. In the galley, maybe, at the back? And check your cell phone if it’s still around. See if you have a signal.”
For the first time since she’d recovered consciousness Danielle thought about the other passengers and the crew. The rear part of the plane remained intact, virtually untouched apart from a few broken windows. The front was crushed almost beyond recognition. How could anyone have survived that? Someone needed to go check it out. Maybe she could get through to them if she crawled on her hands and knees? The thought made her stomach lurch.
“Sit down, Danielle. The sling can wait.” Taylor rested his broken arm on his lap and held out his good hand. “Come over here. Shock will get you if you don’t sit down for a few minutes. Think you’re okay and then wham, it hits you. Concussion is a given, but if you start to feel really bad, tell me.”
He was right. Her limbs were shaking, her stomach watery. If either of them had hit hard enough to cause a brain bleed they could be dead before any hope of rescue.
“Not much we can do about that, is there?”
“I’m no danger to you, Danielle. Come sit with me.”
She swallowed down the lingering doubts. The broken arm wouldn’t have stopped him running. Why had he stayed if he didn’t feel some sort of concern for her?
“Okay, cell phone’s in my purse. Let me see if it’s still on the seat.”
No sign of her purse, but her carry-on bag was, miraculously, still jammed under the seat. Yanking at the zipper, she pulled out a tube of candy and a bottle of water. Had her purse slid from the seat to the mangled front of the plane?
“Haven’t yet seen a problem that couldn’t be solved by large doses of sugar.”
That got a chuckle out of him. She pulled out a fruitdrop and offered it to him. He hesitated for a moment before opening his mouth. Popping one into her own mouth, she leaned back against him, closing her eyes. His lips had brushed her fingers as she’d fed him the candy and she still felt the small shiver that had passed through her at the contact.
Be careful, Danielle. It would be too easy to be carried away with this. Hero and heroine in great danger. Adrenaline pumping, Taylor was some sort of criminal, a desperado. She had no idea what he’d done. He shifted to make her comfortable and she felt his strength, despite the injuries. No option but to trust him. With a sigh, she let herself do that.
“Will the man in black have a cell?”
“Checked it already. No signal.”
“Is the plane going to blow up?”
She didn’t care, either. She just wanted to sit and reflect on the fact that they were both still alive. A dull ache started on one side of her head, and she leaned it carefully against Taylor’s shoulder. Five minutes. Just five minutes, sitting here with him, then she’d go fix a sling for his arm and check on the other passengers. Too quiet, no sound from them at all.
What a rare luxury. It had taken a plane crash to get her to sit still in a man’s arms and not be thinking about the itinerary, the next hotel, or what to wear to the club so she’d blend in with the clientele. None of that seemed important any more. No, not just a luxury, it was a gift.
She let go a little more and listened to the steady beat of Taylor’s heart. Her gaze dropped to the dark red mark circling his wrist. True, the downside was that they were in a wrecked plane, somewhere in the tropical rainforest. Taylor was hurt. Maybe they wouldn’t be found and they’d die here. But, right now she wouldn’t trade these five minutes to be anywhere else. Crazy though it seemed, the only place on Earth she wanted to be was here, doing this, with him.
“Can you hear the sea, Taylor?”
“Huh?” He tilted his head and half-smiled.
“Close your eyes,” she ordered. “Right now, we’re on an endless beach of white-gold sand. The sunset looks as if it’s melting into the earth. There’s no wind, and the surf’s making those funny little sucking noises. And it’s warm, and it’s safe. Can you see it, Taylor?”
“Yes.” His hand squeezed her shoulder.
“Just the two of us, and everything will turn out fine. And…” She sniffed and wiped at her face with her fingers. “Sorry…”
“I’ll meet you there someday. When I’ve got my life back, we’ll go to that beach and – hey, come on. Don’t cry…” Taylor’s voice trailed off and he lapsed into silence.
Danielles groped in her pocket for a tissue and blew her nose. “I’d like that. Get your life back, and I’ll be there.”
Her five minutes were up. Time to get on with surviving this ordeal. Something they’d already started by giving each other the most important thing they could. Strength. Together they’d get through this. But Taylor wasn’t coming with her if and when the rescue came, she’d already decided that. When that happened, Danielle wanted him as far away as possible.
She wanted to set him free. But would he go?
Taylor sat quietly while Danielle fixed him a sling.
“Tell me if I’m hurting you.”
“I’ve had worse.” Taylor inhaled and let the breath out slowly. The arm hurt like hell, but there wasn’t much they could do about setting it. “I need to keep it as still as possible until the rescue.”
Danielle glanced at him briefly before resuming her task. “Are the painkillers working yet?”
“Yes, the head’s feeling better.”
“Do you think the plane’s radio is still intact?”
“Finish up, I’ll go check, and see if anyone’s still alive up there.”
“I’ll do it. You can’t get through there with a broken arm.”
“No, not something you need to see.” It was bad enough that they still had the gruesome spectacle of the policeman behind them. Taylor glanced at the body. They needed to get rid of him if they aimed to use the plane for shelter.
None of this worried him. Blood and gore didn’t give him pause, but Danielle? This would be new to her.
He held the broken arm still against his chest while she slid hers around his shoulders to fasten the sling, hissing softly when she pulled it too tight.
She stilled. “I’m sorry. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
The compassion in her eyes made him want to lay his head on her shoulder and stay that way forever. Let someone else be the strong one for a change. So tired. So bloody tired of everything. And then, hell, stop being such a wimp.
“No, it’s okay. Go ahead.” He leaned forward to give Danielle more room to work. When a loose lock of her hair brushed across his cheek he kept very still and breathed in her perfume, memorising the feel of the gentle fingers tending him. Something to take with him when this was all over.
Danielle sat back and surveyed her handiwork. “All done,” she said watching him carefully. Her gaze moved to the front of the plane. “Do you think we should go look?”
Taylor put out his good arm and stopped her. “I’ll go. I should be able to get through that gap.”
She pulled him back. “No, Taylor. You keep that arm still. Let me.”
“It’s not something you need to see, Danielle. Won’t be pretty.”
“Neither is he.” She pointed to the dead policeman, at the same time averting her eyes.
Taylor had already noticed she’d been carefully avoiding the body. Should have covered him up. God knows what the sight of mangled, dead nuns would to do to her.
“Do you ever do as you’re told?” he said, already knowing the answer. This was a woman used to getting her own way. She’d do it anyway, with or without him.
“Not really. Look Taylor, let’s do it together, okay?”
He gave a brief nod. “Deal. But let me go first.”
Taylor crouched and turned sideways to squeeze himself through a gap in the crushed seats near the front of the plane. He reached through to help Danielle, who wriggled after him. He kept hold of her, letting his eyesight adjust to the dim light. It no longer looked like a plane and he didn’t want her stumbling over any of the bodies.
“Stay with me.” He felt for her hand and looked around, taking in the crushed bodies of the two nuns and the businessman behind them. No sign of the pilots. No sign of the cockpit. Instead, a tangle of metal and a gaping hole. He pushed Danielle behind him to stop her falling through. Spotted the flight attendant’s body at the same time she did. Felt her hand tighten in his, heard her sharp intake of breath.
“Go back, Danielle.” One look at her stricken face and he urged her back, breathing a sigh of relief when she went without question. He knew what she must be feeling. Disbelief, that what you’re seeing can’t be real. He wasn’t worried about the dead. They were beyond anyone’s help, but he’d hoped the radio might still be intact. The black box flight recorder would have some sort of homing beacon in it, but he’d have preferred a working radio.
Taylor checked the bodies for signs of life, found the business-man’s mangled phone, wondering where the pilots and the second policeman were. Knowing that they needed to get the dead away from the plane before they attracted any wild animals.
Danielle’s eyes widened in silent question when he reappeared. She moved tentatively towards him as he shook his head. Watching her face crumple a little as she fought back the tears, he envied the compassion she had to spare for complete strangers, while he was struggling to feel anything at all. He knew that he needed to keep this woman safe, but beyond that – nothing. No thought for himself. Right now she was all he had. His only reason to be here.
She had no idea how much he needed her.
* * * *
Danielle didn’t cry – it would open floodgates that couldn’t easily be closed. There weren’t enough tears for what she’d seen in there.
“You were right,” she said quietly, “I shouldn’t have looked. But I’m glad I did. I’d only have spent the whole time worrying that one of them was still alive.”
“I know. Try not to think about it.”
Danielle pressed her lips together and nodded. Death had never walked so closely to her before. Only pure luck separated her fate from that of the battered and broken bodies all around them.
“You’ve pulled off your sling,” she said clicking her tongue as if Taylor were a naughty child. “After all my hard work.” Reaching out to smooth it back into place, she busied herself with the mundane – the rest was almost too much to comprehend.
She fretted over him, and he stayed very still, as if he understood her need to anchor herself somehow. To feel something warm and real, not cold and dead like the others around them. With the sling back in place, her hands continued moving across his chest, gliding over the soft cotton of his tee-shirt, feeling his hard muscles twitching beneath them.
Is it really me doing this? she thought. It felt unreal, like watching herself in a movie.
But there he was, warm and hard beneath her fingers. With wide-eyed fascination, she watched her hand skim over his shoulders, and only now was their situation really sinking in.
“We’re alive, Taylor.”
She shivered when his hand moved too and his feather-light touch left a trail of goosebumps from her wrist to her shoulder. Breathing was suddenly an effort for both of them. She could feel his chest rising and falling, and when she looked up his face was set, entirely focused on the movement of his hand.
More than sexual, it was an affirmation. Proof that she wasn’t imagining this. He really was alive. Which meant that she must be too, or how could she be feeling this? They’d both survived. Luck or destiny? Who knew? Who cared? The two of them were here, and the others weren’t. Danielle thought she’d been alive before, but was only just realising what being alive meant. How it really felt.
She circled her arms around Taylor’s waist and pressed her cheek to his chest. Listening to the steady thudding of his heart, she realised that normal rules didn’t apply any more. A dead body lay just a few feet away and all she could think of was the hot, hard man in her arms. The feel of his hand moving over her skin. The tangy smell of his damp tee-shirt filling her senses.
One move, that’s all it would take. Danielle closed her eyes. This was a dangerous attraction.
* * * *
Christ, the feel of her hands . Pure lust coursed through Taylor. When she’d fixed his arm, it had been vaguely erotic. Small pulses of feeling, drowsily relaxing. Her nearness, the way her fingers fluttered over his skin, her scent, they’d worked on his senses in a pleasurable, controllable way. But this, her hands moving over him, sure and determined, the force of it slammed him in the gut, and he wanted to have her, right there in the aisle, with the dead body next to them. Hard and fast, until she screamed out his name. It would be good, something they both needed, and – he squashed the feeling down – unfortunately, something they’d both probably regret like hell.
Her skin felt deliciously soft under his roving hand, which had no business being there, doing that. She wasn’t stopping him and he was having a hard time stopping himself. His fingers moved towards the curve of her shoulder and slipped under the open collar of her blouse. He caressed her slowly, deliberately, needing to prove to himself that he did still have control. That he could resist this wild, primitive feeling as long as he had to. But when she laid her head so trustingly against his chest, he felt suddenly lost. When they finally said goodbye he would never forget this woman.
Sliding his palm to the middle of her back, he pulled her close and let her feel exactly what she was doing to him.
Why couldn’t I have met her before all this? She might have saved me. He rubbed his cheek against her hair, making her tremble.
She might still.
* * * *
“What do we do now Taylor?”
Danielle leaned back. Her hands stayed where they were, lightly resting on his hips. Every passing moment brought a new awareness of danger, and she needed this reassurance he offered so freely. He made a circle of safety with his arms, and she stepped into it, without hesitation. Would she have felt like this if it had been one of the others who had survived and Taylor who’d died? She would have helped any of the survivors without pause, but this was different. More than just two people thrown together in a dangerous situation. They’d known each other a couple of hours, so why did she already feel as if she’d been in this man’s arms a lifetime?
She caught a flash of something in his eyes, flaring for a split second before he masked it. Her breath caught, and her fingers tightened on his hips. Intense longing with an edge of unashamed lust told her he wanted her as much as she wanted him.
Too tempting. They both stood on the very edge of control, and she thought fleetingly about giving in. Who would know? Who was there to judge whether this was right or wrong?
The problem wasn’t that and he knew it too. With a sigh of regret and a smile that caused small crinkles at the corner of his eyes, he lifted his hand and touched his palm gently to her cheek. Danielle caught it with hers and held it there. Whatever happened, they couldn’t be together. If they started anything now, all they’d have would be memories. Better to step away now, and save both of them the heartache. To persuade him to run she needed to be detached. Emotion would only cloud the issue.
Stepping back was hard. His eyes narrowed when she let go of his hand and moved away. With a small nod of understanding, he turned his attention to the dead policeman. “Reckon we need to move him.”
Danielle hugged herself while Taylor walked over to the body and searched through the policeman’s jacket. A small feeling of panic welled up inside her when he methodically stripped the corpse of its personal possessions. Wallet, watch, ring, was he stealing them? Had she been wrong about him after all? He held the items out to her.
“Find a bag or something to keep these in. Going to need them for ID.”
She hesitated for a moment before taking them. Relief filtered through the panic. Of course, the next-of-kin would want the things back. They’d need to know that their loved ones really had been on the plane.
“There’s a carrier-bag in my hand luggage.” Danielle accepted the items, thinking they looked sad sitting there in her hands. These few things that said nothing about who the dead man really was. “Do you need to get the rest?”
“In a bit.” Taylor had hold of the body and with a tug, rolled it to the floor. Using his good arm, he grabbed the back of the man’s collar and dragged the corpse the few feet to the exit door. After a few moments of struggling with the catch, he shoved at the door with his shoulder. It gave with a sharp crack and the body rolled unceremoniously over the edge. Taylor stepped back, letting the door close again under its own momentum.
The body hit the ground with a soft thud. Danielle looked away because she didn’t want Taylor to see the look of horror on her face. How could he be so cold, so disrespectful? A human being, probably someone’s husband and father, treated now like no more than a sack of potatoes.
When she turned back, Taylor was wiping his hands on the back of the seat. He caught her expression.
“Sorry, Danielle. It needed doing.” He continued wiping his hands, face impassive. “He’s dead, and he’ll attract flies or maybe something bigger. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.” He turned to face her.
Yes, she could see that. All this death and gore didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest and she had to wonder how someone could get to a stage where none of this touched them. The front of his tee-shirt and the sling were streaked with the man’s blood now. It made her stomach churn.
“You’ve got blood all over you.” She pointed to his chest, remembering how she’d touched him and shuddering at the thought of touching him now.
Taylor grabbed the bottom of his tee-shirt, looked at it, and pulled a face. “Need to get this off.” He glanced at her almost apologetically. “Could you help?”
Danielle’s fingers trembled. Whether from the idea of touching him again, or because of the blood, she wasn’t sure. Maybe both. How did they remove the shirt without hurting his arm? No problem slipping it off his good arm, but getting it past the sling was another matter. The last thing she expected was to hear the giggle that escaped him when her fingers brushed over his side. A strange sound to be coming out of such a hard-looking man. She raised her eyebrows in astonishment, and couldn’t resist. Her hand went back to his side and, sure enough, there it was again, along with a wriggle of his hips as he tried to evade her.
“Hey, cut that out!”
Danielle moved her hand again, then away quickly, smiling at the way she’d made him flinch. Totally inappropriate behaviour for two people who, only a few moments ago, had been preoccupied with dumping a dead body out of the door of a crashed plane. Or for two people who were becoming more and more attracted to each other with every passing moment. They were making their own rules now. The dead man was already out of her mind. She pushed the tee-shirt up, and over Taylor’s head, and pondered how to get it past the sling.
Taylor hissed in a breath when she slipped the shirt down his broken arm. He raised a hand to show that he was okay. Danielle felt her cheeks heating up at the sight before her. Lean and powerful, hard, a few jagged scars standing out in relief. Exactly how she’d imagined he’d look.
Another tee-shirt, she thought, frantically wondering where she might find one big enough for him. She caught sight of her carry-on, which was stuffed with giveaways. She dropped to her knees and rummaged through.
“There,” she said, holding up a white tee-shirt emblazoned with the Tropicana logo. “This should fit. Let’s get it on you.”
Taylor backed sharply away, one hand raised to ward off the offending garment. “You have to be kidding. Look, I’m okay without a shirt. It’s hardly cold.”
“Don’t be such a baby,” Danielle scolded, a hand threaded through the neck of the tee-shirt. “Get your head in there.”
“I’m fine, really I am.”
The poor man looked as if he might make a run for it, but what could she say? I need you to put this on because the sight of your bare chest makes me want to throw myself at you? Because those rippling muscles are doing funny things to my insides and I want to start touching you and never stop?
“Just get it on, will you? Believe me, you need this on.”
She wasn’t sure if he’d caught her meaning. He relented and bowed his head so she could slip the clean shirt over. Not as tricky as getting the stained one off, although the ritual was the same. Fingers grazing sensitive flesh, and heat. She was so hot her cheeks were on fire.
Luckily, the shirt made him look utterly ridiculous and broke the tension. With his good arm held out, he stood for her approval and, as she tried to stifle a giggle, she realised that it just didn’t make him look silly, it made him look normal. Like any other tourist. If he’d wanted to disappear, he could have, easily. Why on earth was he at the Tropicana dressed in that black get-up, advertising to the world that he was there? The black didn’t look like a costume or a disguise. It looked like him.
He’d set himself up, she realised with a jolt. Wanted to be caught. But why?
Taylor disappeared again through the gap in the wrecked front of the plane, saying only that he wanted to sort out the rest of the passengers. Danielle didn’t ask questions. She made her way to the galley and busied herself foraging for food instead. Taylor obviously knew what he was doing. The details, she didn’t want to know.
Laughing inwardly at the fact that they’d already reverted to primal roles, she opened the small refrigerator and assessed the meagre contents. A milk carton, some rather sorry-looking vacuum-packed sandwiches, an assortment of canned soft drinks and a stack of gourmet cheese slices. Not much, but they ought to eat the fresh food before it spoiled in the heat. She grabbed a tray and loaded it with a meal of sorts, hoping Taylor wouldn’t reappear covered in blood again. The thought made her stomach turn over.
Thank God she wasn’t alone. She muttered a quick prayer of thanks. Waiting alone for rescue surrounded by maimed corpses didn’t bear thinking about.
Back in the aisle she peeped out of the tiny window, its ledge already crawling with insects pouring in through the cracked glass, and tried to work out where they’d come down. Five islands made up the small group, but two hours of flying time meant that they’d probably come down on the mainland, somewhere in the tropical rainforest. Even if the plane did have a homing beacon, without a radio it could be days before they were found.
And man, the heat. Her short cotton skirt and blouse were plastered to her like a second skin. Oh to be able to take them off and wander around in her underwear. Not very sensible with the way Taylor had been looking at her. She’d undone the buttons and knotted the blouse under her breasts to bare her midriff, but she knew there would be no respite until the daily downpour.
She looked around for a place to set up the meal, amazed at how untouched this part of the plane was. Apart from a few broken windows and a slight tilt to the floor which made walking and balancing a tray slightly more difficult than she’d anticipated, everything appeared almost normal. A can of cola suddenly slid towards the edge of the tray and, before she could react, it rolled off and disappeared under a seat. Danielle put down the tray and crouched low, arm extended, feeling around for the precious drink. It was still cold, a luxury they couldn’t afford to miss out on.
Her hand found something metallic, but not the smooth cylinder of a drinks can. Slowly she pulled the object out, staring with amazement at the gun, which she could only suppose had come from one the enigmatic men in black. Sitting back on her heels, the can of cola forgotten, she glanced towards the front of the plane.
The gun had been tucked under a seat near the exit. Only Taylor could have put it there. Why had he felt the need to hide it? Danielle weighed it in her hand. The first time she’d handled one. With a morbid fascination, she wondered if it was loaded and whether she’d be ever be able to kill something, or someone, if forced to.
A snake yes. She hated snakes and wouldn’t think twice about that, but a human being? All it took was a small squeeze. How did they do it in films? Bring your other hand up, brace your arms straight, then sight along the barrel. Bang, you’re dead. Easy as that. Stretching out her arms, she closed one eye and pretended to fire off a shot.
“Christ. Danielle, don’t move!”
Taylor stood in front of her, right in her line of fire, good arm raised, palm forward. She’d been so intent on the gun she hadn’t noticed him reappearing. For a split second he’d looked terrified.
“Taylor?” The gun trembled in her hands and she knew she ought to lower it, or drop it, but now every muscle in her body seemed to have frozen.
“Over there,” he said in the same quiet, measured tone he’d used to reassure her just before the plane went down. “That’s a good girl. Point it towards the window for me.”
Her finger still rested lightly against the trigger. She felt it twitch at the same time Taylor moved, so swiftly that her face was jammed against the seat and her arm twisted painfully behind her back before she’d even registered it. The air left her lungs in a rush. She struggled for breath. Heard the gun clatter to the floor. And then Taylor’s clipped tones.
“What the bloody hell do you think you were doing?”
* * * *
Collecting personal possessions and bagging them seemed right to do, despite not really caring about any of the dead. Cash and condoms from the business man. ID cards. A ring and a cross each from the nuns. A few items of jewellery from the flight attendant. Taylor threw them into the carrier bag with the policeman’s possessions.
He glanced over the edge where he’d dumped them all. Still no sign of the pilots or the radio. and all that was left of the second policeman were the tattered remnants of his suit jacket, hanging listlessly from a tree branch.
The last thing he expected to see when he squeezed back through the gap was Danielle with the gun, kneeling down and waving it about with no idea what it was capable of. Instinct and years of training kicked in. He was on auto pilot by the time he’d disarmed her with a flick of his wrist, and kicked the gun away.
Didn’t she know how easily these things went off? Of course she didn’t; why should she? He didn’t know if the safety was on or off, and his heart hammered painfully at the thought of what could have happened.
Danielle whimpered quietly into the seat-back and he knew that he was hurting her, but he was still angry. Angry at what he’d seen her do, and angry at himself for showing her a side of him he’d rather have kept hidden.
“Danielle?” He slowly released the pressure on her arm and turned her to face him. Her eyes were huge with both fear and shock, and his heart sank as he searched for words to explain why he’d reacted so violently. He kept a firm hold of her hand. She looked as if she wanted to be as far away from him as possible.
He closed his eyes, and took a few calming breaths. When he spoke, his voice was shaking.
“Danielle, love, what were you doing?”
She stared at him as if he’d turned into a monster. He tried again.
“Danielle, what were you doing? Half scared me to death.”
She shook her head a little. At least it was a reaction. Taylor slipped his hand behind her neck and held her still, his face close to hers. “Don’t ever mess with a gun like that again. You had your finger on the trigger, for God’s sake. Do you hear me?”
“I wasn’t, I didn’t… I was just playing. Taylor?”
“Say it. Tell me you heard me.”
“I hear you, Taylor.” Danielle’s eyes flicked briefly to the gun lying in the aisle, then back to him. “No harm done, right?”
“Right.” Taylor nodded, anger turning to relief. “Not this time, but I’ve seen it, Danielle. What these things can do. Friend of mine was messing about, laughing, joking. Next minute he was dead. Happens in a heartbeat, and I haven’t survived this to lose you before…before…”
“Before what?” Danielle blinked. It came out as the barest whisper, and at the same time her hands drifted over his shoulders. She hesitated for a moment then tugged gently, pulling him down to her.
“Before what?” she repeated. “This?”
The tip of her tongue moved slowly over her lips and in her eyes he saw question, invitation, and challenge. It was unbearably exciting. The air around them sparked with tension. He was as hard as hell, every muscle in his body rigid with need. Blood pounded in his ears and his focus narrowed swiftly, until all he could see was her.
He wanted her. They both had bucket-loads of tension to work off, and it would get worse. But would one kiss be enough to dampen the fire building between them?
Hell, it was going to happen, why was he even having this conversation with himself? Because, afterwards, when she’d calmed down and started thinking rationally, she’d say he’d taken advantage of her. And she’d be right.
Taylor let his hand slide into her hair, smoothed it back and threaded his fingers into her long pony-tail. The silky hair slipped through his fingers and, as he rested his cheek against hers, he scrunched the golden strands in his fist and rubbed them against his face. A delicate hint of shampoo mingled with her light perfume, and he breathed in the soft warmth of her and clawed back his control.
When she tried to turn her face to him, he held her firm.
“No, no, it was me, I was being stupid. Taylor?”
For a moment his lips rested against her salty skin and letting go was hard. He sat back on his heels. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I know.” She looked slightly dazed by what had happened, and confused by what hadn’t happened. “I didn’t see you coming.”
It wasn’t a question, but she needed an answer. What the hell did he tell her? She gazed at him. Expectant, wary. He owed her an explanation.
He sighed and then spotted the tray of food behind her on the floor of the aisle. Reaching over, he placed it between them and twisted round to sit more comfortably.
“Looks like I got me a dinner date,” he said, attempting a smile. “Here.” He opened a sandwich pack and offered her one. It looked a little dry. She paused for a moment before taking it. Taylor took a bite of his, chewed, swallowed, then said, “Okay, what do you want to know?”
* * * *
He’d moved like lightning, and pinned her to the seat without a pause. All with one arm. Avoiding his gaze, Danielle chewed on her sandwich. Whatever he was, he’d done that before and whatever he told her wouldn’t include teddy bears and pressed flowers, that was for sure.
Do I really want to know this?
The canned drink fizzed when she popped the tab. She took a swig and passed it over to him. Where to start? What did she say? By the way, are you a serial killer? And what if he said yes?
“I enjoy myself for a living,” she began. “Must have the best job on earth.” The only downside is that I’m afraid of flying, which you probably noticed. I always knew the plane would crash, and I was right, wasn’t I?” That got a small smile from him. “Do you like flying?”
“Never really bothered me.” Taylor took the can and tipped his head back for a drink. The gun lay on the floor where it had landed. She suspected he hadn’t forgotten about it.
Why didn’t he kiss me? She closed her eyes, cringing inwardly at the way she’d grabbed him. He must have known I wanted him to.
Opening her eyes, she avoided his gaze and concentrated on her sandwich. For a few moments they ate in silence. He wasn’t picking it up, and she was usually so good at this. Getting people to open up was her job. He’s English. So ask him where he’s from. That’s always a good one.
Before she could voice the question, he spoke.
“I used to kill people for the British Government.”
No emotion. Just words. He continued eating, as if he’d simply made a comment about the weather.
“Oh.” It was all she could think of to say, and she was never stuck for words. But then, she’d never heard that one before. Before she could stop herself she replied automatically. “Did you enjoy it?”
His sharp laugh made her jump. Hell, what a stupid thing to say. She closed her eyes, mortified. When she opened them he was looking directly at her, his gaze unwavering.
“What would you say if the answer was yes?”
The very last thing she wanted to hear. Danielle went very still. Carefully, she placed the sandwich on the tray.
“I’d say how could you?”
Was that why he hadn’t kissed her? Because he knew that when she discovered his secret, she’d regret it? Feel contaminated and wish she hadn’t.
“Enjoyed maybe isn’t the right word, but I found it easy, at first. They picked me out while I was in the army. Said I had potential. Hell, I proved them right.” Taylor shook his head, as if remembering, his mouth curving into a dry smile. “Not that different from soldiering. Just a bit more personal, that’s all.”
“At first?” Danielle reached for her sandwich, although the hunger had vanished. A knot of tension twisted in her stomach, making her feel slightly queasy. Part of her had clung to the hope that his crime had been something safe, like embezzlement or tax evasion. She hadn’t expected to hear this. And yet, looking at him now, his words made perfect sense.
Somewhere inside the broken shell of a man she’d glimpsed before the crash was the hard man who talked so casually about killing. For that he’d need a heart cold as ice. And yet it didn’t square with the man who’d looked at her with such concern and touched her so tenderly.
“You said, ‘at first?”
“I was a regular 007. Licensed to kill, and all that. Adventure. Glamorous women. That’s how I met my wife.”
Wife? Something else she hadn’t been expecting. She felt an irrational twinge of jealousy.
He acknowledged her look of surprise. “Yes, wife. Didn’t last long though. She’s dead. That’s what this is all about.”
“You killed her?” Her voice was a bare whisper. Please don’t say you killed her
“No. They say I did. But I didn’t. Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know.” Danielle searched his face for evidence of the truth. How did she know whether to believe him or not? Just because she was attracted to him didn’t mean he was safe to be around. Some women formed obsessions with killers. Wrote them letters in prison. Was she doing the same because he was attractive, sexy and strong and she desperately wanted to believe him?
A hardened killer who went home at night to his wife and played ball with his kids in the park on Saturday morning? Could you be both at the same time?
“Why didn’t you let me kiss you just now, Taylor?”
His eyes narrowed. “Danielle…”
“Was it because you thought I’d regret it once I found out about you?”
“I suppose so.” He picked up the drink can again and stared at it. “How would you have felt knowing you’d kissed a killer?”
“I won’t know until I try it.”
He snapped his head up. “Danielle, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that if I have nothing to fear from you, then you can kiss me right? You didn’t kill your wife so prove it to me. You don’t like killing any more? Show me. Make me know I won’t have anything to regret.”
Insane logic for an insane situation. Trapped in the middle of nowhere with dead bodies, a killer and feeling no fear? She bit back the hysteria.
I’m doing this for him. To show I trust him.
Hell, who am I kidding? Everything about him called to her in a way she’d never experienced. Her insides were still tingling with the anticipation of the nearly-kiss. Her emotions in a tailspin. If he didn’t make a move soon she’d explode.
She knelt up, and pushed the tray out of the way. “Well?” Her knees trembled slightly. What would this really prove other than that they were both horny as hell?
When he made his decision and dipped his head towards hers, Danielle closed her eyes and grabbed his tee-shirt, to steady herself as well as to anchor him in place. He seemed to be hovering on the edge of something. His slight hesitation made her tighten her grip, silently willing him on.
Surprisingly, nothing like she expected. Instead of a dam-breaking, passionate torrent of a kiss, he gave her the sweetest, most heartbreaking kiss she’d ever experienced. A brief touch of his lips on hers, and the question “Do you trust me?” whispered so quietly against her cheek she thought she’d dreamed it. And when he sat back, and she opened her eyes, he looked drained. Like a man who had nothing left to give and for whom nothing mattered, except the answer to his question.
Hell, she’d got it so wrong. No black and white in this, no question of right or wrong, justification or condemnation. It was way more complicated than that. Leaning towards him, Danielle gathered him up, feeling him let go his resistance, his good arm sliding around her back. He needed her strength, too and she’d been dumping it all on him. Expecting him to look after her, because he was a big strong man and she was a woman.
Poor man was tired, and not just physically. She felt it in the way he held her. Almost like a child who needed silent reassurance that everything was going to be okay. She couldn’t give him that; she had no idea what the future held for him. She could only give him this.
“I’d trust you with my life, Taylor.” Threading her fingers into his hair, she stroked the short strands, soothing and caressing. Taylor held on, giving no indication he’d heard the words.
“Rest,” she whispered. “That’s what you need. Just now there’s nothing to worry about.” Danielle sank back against the side of the seat, letting his weight fall on her. His hair tickled her cheek and she continued stroking, a little overawed at his trust in her. “None of it matters any more. It’s just you and me, and nothing else.”
Taylor hardly moved except to breathe. Danielle continued stroking his hair, his shoulders, his back until his weight became so heavy, she thought he’d gone to sleep.
Some loose part of the plane clanked rhythmically as the wind increased and the sound of the wildlife gradually became quieter. A rumble of thunder caught her attention. The heavens were about to open and the rain come thundering down. It would stop as abruptly as it started; usual for this part of the world, and Danielle thought with longing about peeling off her sweat-stained clothes and stepping under the torrent of water. Soaping her body, shampooing her hair, letting the rain rinse it all off. Only a few hours had passed since her morning shower and already she couldn’t remember what if felt like to be fresh and clean.
Taylor was stuck to her. A pool of liquid heat soldered their bodies together. He didn’t smell any better than she did. Not a complete turnoff, though, which she found surprising. They smelled like a couple who’d just had sex on a very hot day, only without the sex.
Tipping back her head, she closed her eyes, remembering the last man she’d been in that position with. Poor Marc. On the face of it, the perfect man for her, kind and generous, offering a comfortable lifestyle, unconditional love. He’d doted on her, treated her like a queen and she’d tried to so hard to pinpoint why that was never enough.
Then Taylor had fallen into her arms and held onto her as if he never wanted to let her go. And now she knew.
From that first glance, Taylor had called to her on a level that almost scared her in its intensity. Everything about him touched some sensitive part of her, and set it on fire. His voice, the touch of his hand on her face. His lips brushing across hers. The way he trusted her enough to lie quietly in her arms and let her give him comfort.
Marc had almost smothered her with caring, loving to sweep her off her feet at the most inopportune of moments. Fun at first, but then it just made her feel powerless. She wanted to be swept off her feet by a man who couldn’t help himself, not by one who thought she was too delicate to walk. She’d maybe watched Gone With The Wind once too often, but Marc had never once carried her to bed.
Had Taylor had ever carried a woman to bed? She could probably bet her life on that certainty. After a while he lifted his head to look at her drowsily, a little sheepishly.
“That was nice.” Taylor pushed himself up, groaning as he adjusted the position of his broken arm in the sling, and then leaned back against the seat beside her.
“Thank you.” He spoke very quietly, a tinge of self-consciousness in his voice now. Resting his right elbow on his knee, he stared down at his feet.
A few moments of silence as if neither of them knew what to do or say next. Danielle pulled at the knotted tails of her blouse, freed them and flapped the hem in an effort to cool herself. She stretched her arms above her head, working out the kinks, needing to do something to fill the awkward gap between two people being so intimate and then suddenly not being. Too hot to be so close, but the loss of contact was startling, like the moment he’d pulled his gaze away before the crash. She wanted to reach out, hold him some more and make the most of this time together.
Soon he would be gone and she’d never see him again.
Instead, she heard herself saying “You’re welcome, Taylor.” And, hell, that sounded awful. Why had she turned so formal all of a sudden?
A hint of a smile on his face, as if he understood what she was feeling. “Need to go to the bathroom?”
“Yes, but I don’t suppose we can use that one?” Danielle tilted her head towards the back of the plane. Taylor shook his head.
“Strictly outdoor plumbing, I’m afraid.” Another low rumble of thunder rattled the plane. Taylor pushed to his feet, shoved the gun back under the seat with the toe of his boot, and stretched out a hand to her. “Let’s go cool off.”
She let him haul her up and lead her to the exit, stepping in to help him when the door wouldn’t open as easily as it had earlier when he’d dumped the dead body. The activity smoothed the transition from intimacy to more practical matters. It was quite a drop to the ground. Danielle stared down in dismay. A few splintered tree trunks held the plane in place. Perhaps she could use them as steps? And how would Taylor cope with his broken arm?
“Think you can do it?” he said, narrowing his eyes and mentally measuring the distance. “You go first. Then if that first branch is too low I can pull you back in.”
“Okay.” Danielle sucked in a breath and steeled herself. There would be snakes out there, and goodness knows what else. No, don’t think about that. The body would be there too. When she looked dubiously back at Taylor, he squeezed her arm.
“It’s all right, love. I’ll be right behind you. You can do it.”
Love? The word rolled off his tongue so easily. Didn’t mean anything, of course, but it made her feel good all the same. She took another deep breath. No dignified way of doing this so might as well get it over with. She knelt down and rolled onto her stomach. Taylor held onto her as she inched backwards until her legs were paddling in mid-air, her feet feeling for the first branch. Then she grasped the edge of the floor and lowered herself.
Where had the body landed?
Taylor crouched in the doorway. Her face was level with his boots. “Can you make it, Danielle?”
“I think so. We will be able to get back in, won’t we?”
“Looks easy enough, but climb down carefully. Try not to scratch yourself on the twigs.”
Climb down? She placed her foot on a lower branch, and found there were no more convenient footholds. So she took in a steadying breath, released her grip on the plane, and jumped. When she hit the ground she stumbled sideways and nearly stepped on the body.
For a few seconds she could only stare, wide-eyed, unable to tear her eyes away from the horror of the dead policeman’s vacant stare. A knot of panic rose in her throat, and when another sharp crack of thunder split the air she let out a small scream, stuffing a fist into her mouth to stop the sound, ordering herself to look away. She couldn’t. That might have been her lying there with ants crawling from her mouth, her eyes.
Behind her she was aware of Taylor jumping down, and then his arm around her, pulling her away, shoving her face against his chest. She breathed against him, grabbing handfuls of his tee-shirt, twisting them into her fists until her panic subsided. Around them the forest fell silent. Soon random raindrops started falling softly here and there, filling the air with a different kind of music.
Taylor took a step back, concern in his eyes. Danielle let go, and held her hands up. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” she said letting go one last shudder. “God, that’s gruesome.”
Taylor steered her away from the body. “Not a pretty sight. Try not to look.”
“I’m okay, really.” She wasn’t, though. Every nerve ending was on edge. All she needed now was to meet a snake and she’d be running around screaming and flapping her arms above her head like everyone’s stereotypical, hysterical female. The thought made her smile. Taylor gave her an encouraging hug.
“You’re a good girl.”
“I’m not a girl. You had noticed that?”
“Oh, I’ve noticed. Which tree do you want?”
“The one with hot and cold running water, the flushing toilet and the hot tub.”
“Over there, then.” He pointed to the left. “Mine’s the one with the marble tub and the gold taps. Be quick.”
Danielle hugged him back. “Now you’re getting it,” she said with a wink.
* * * *
The rain took its time in coming. A drop here, a drop there, almost as if it couldn’t make up its mind. Taylor hunkered down on the end of one of the branches wedged beneath the plane to wait for Danielle. She reappeared, hair loose and flowing about her shoulders. Tilting back her head, she stood quietly and let the raindrops wet her face. Then the drops gathered momentum, and she abandoned herself to the downpour. Taylor cradled his broken arm, mesmerised by the sight, torn between needing to get her back into the safety of the plane and wanting to see her soaked to the skin, clothes moulded to her body.
“Come and cool off, Taylor.” He barely heard the words above the din of the torrent now pounding everything in its path.
Hesitantly, he stood and moved towards her. Danielle leaned back when she felt him behind her. He slipped his good arm around her waist. She seemed to understand him on some instinctive level he couldn’t fathom. They hardly knew each other, yet they fitted together perfectly.
His mind raced on. Yes, they would fit together perfectly doing that too and there it got mighty complicated.
“Isn’t this heaven?”
He had to agree. Whether they were talking about the same thing, he had no idea, but if there’d ever been an idea of celestial bliss in his mind it was in the feel of her hot, wet body pressed softly into his. The sound of her panting breath and laughter as the rain half-drowned her. And the sight of her flushed skin, clearly visible through her soaked blouse. He tightened his hold on her waist and bit back a groan when she wriggled and pushed back against him.
Perhaps he had died in the crash after all and, inexplicably, was in heaven instead of the hell he was expecting. For those few moments when she’d held him on the plane all his earthly cares had slipped away. Every stroke of her hand had lifted another bit of the burden he’d hefted around for so long, and he’d wanted to stay like that for the eternity it would need to make him whole again.
How could he refuse such a gift, so generously offered? Up until this morning, simply getting through the day took every ounce of his willpower. So lost in despair, he’d practically walked into the police station by himself. But this, here, gave him a reason to go on, for the next few days at least. Made him feel stronger than he had for a long time.
The rain stopped abruptly, as if someone had turned off the shower. They stood together, neither of them speaking while the trees steamed around them.
With his mouth pressed against her ear, he whispered, “You’re beautiful, Danielle.”
“What, like this?” She shivered and laughed and tipped her head right back, looking up at him with glittering eyes.
“Especially like this.”
Slowly, they rocked back and forth, and soon the rainforest wasn’t the only thing steaming. Kiss her, a voice in his head urged, but still he held back. What right did a killer have to kiss an angel? None at all, a different voice said.
“Let’s get back inside. Reckon it’ll be dark soon. They won’t be looking for the plane until tomorrow now.”
Daniell’s mouth flattened a little. Her eyes clouded over.
“They’ll find us.” Taylor smiled and touched a finger to the end of her nose. “Couple of days, tops. If not, I’ll get you to safety. Stop worrying.”
“What if I said I didn’t want to be rescued?”
She spoke so quietly that he leaned down and tilted his head in question. Danielle blinked and turned away. When she turned back he wasn’t sure if it was rain or tears making her eyes shine. “Can’t stay here,” he said, gently, because suddenly she felt like the fragile one, like a little lost bird quivering in his hands.
“I know,” she replied and stepped away.
Taylor followed her back to the plane, amazed at her capacity to keep going after all that had happened. Her resolute stride and the way she pulled him back into the plane when he found it more difficult to climb back in than he had to jump out, made him smile fondly, even as he caught his breath and rode out the wave of pain in his broken arm.
“I need a drink.” Danielle’s mood lightened and a look of child-like glee crossed her face at the sight of the refreshment cart tucked away at the back of the plane. “What can I get you, sir?”
Taylor followed her and reached for the whisky bottle. Danielle dropped to her knees and rifled through the contents of the small cupboard underneath the cart. While he poured himself a generous glass of Scotch, she filled her arms with cans of cocktails.
“Blue Lagoon, Pina Colada, what’s it going to be?”
Taylor held up his glass.
“Boring. I’m trying every one of these. Sure you don’t want one?”
“I’ll stick to this, thanks.” Taylor picked up the bottle and tucked it under his arm. “So where’s the party?”
Danielle got to her feet, balancing the cans in the crook of her elbow. “Not much room for dancing, is there? How about here?” she said pointing to the pair of double, facing seats at the very back of the plane. “Wait, I’ll get us some snacks.”
“There’ll be a towel in the galley. Want to dry off?”
“No,” she said and shook her head like a wet dog, spraying droplets all around her.
Taylor took a big swig of whisky, welcoming the burn in his throat. He sat and tipped back his head. “You’re crazy, do you know that?”
“So I’ve been told.”
Danielle slipped into the seat opposite, and threw him a bag of nuts. It hit him squarely on the head since he was unable to field it without spilling his drink. Rainwater dripped into his eye from his wet hair. He wiped it away with his elbow. “Hey, what’s with you all of a sudden? Found some happy pills?”
“No,” she said and popped the tab on a can. “Just an extreme reaction to an extreme situation.” Danielle planted her feet on the seat next to him, and then downed her cocktail in one. “I don’t know. I just feel a bit crazy all of a sudden. I wish we had music so we could dance. Want me to fix you a fresh sling?”
Taylor shook his head, understanding perfectly how she was swinging between despair and elation while trying to make sense of their situation. Right now she was definitely on an up. Putting on a brave face, bravado, whatever you wanted to call it.
And then he remembered the kiss, and her disappointment when he’d pulled back instead of doing what he’d really wanted to do, which was to kiss her senseless so she’d put up no resistance when he made love to her. It would have been cheating, somehow, when she was so vulnerable, and feeling so sorry for him.
Shaking his head, he thought he might as well join her in happy-land. Here there was nowhere to run and no-one to run from. They could just be themselves. He almost found himself wishing they did have some music so that he could dance with her. He was definitely feeling more peaceful and relaxed than a man in his situation should be. That would be her doing. The way she’d held him, and just let him be, had been exactly what he needed. After two years of slowly turning into a ghost he suddenly felt real again. When she looked at him it felt as if she could really see him, and, for the first time in what seemed like an age, Taylor let a small spark of hope ignite deep in his heart.
Why this, why now? Of all the bizarre twists and turns of the past few years, this was the only one that had made him stop and think instead of wanting to run. Almost as if an unseen hand had grabbed him by the collar, swung him around and set him down on a completely different path. The question was, what did he do next? He knew what he wanted to do, and he knew what he ought to do.
But he had no idea which path he should choose.
* * * *
Danielle popped another can and took a big swig, grateful for the temporary high of the alcohol. The interior of the plane looked a little hazy and another drink would probably send her to sleep, but Taylor was smiling indulgently and she liked seeing him smile. So she wriggled her toes and wiggled her shoulders, then wrinkled her face as she caught a whiff of sweaty armpit despite their impromptu shower.
Taylor laughed out loud this time. The sound warmed her deep inside. Laughter was good medicine, and something she suspected he hadn’t indulged in the past few years. Toeing off her sandals, she moved her foot to rest beside his thigh. Merely a comforting touch, the alcohol making her bold. With a devilish grin she slid her foot up Taylor’s side and tickled him with her toes.
Taylor spluttered, almost dropping his glass. Unable to put it down, he was almost helpless, so she took full advantage and tickled him again. Flirting with him, she realised. Making something happen.
“You little…” He drained the glass in one and sent it with a sharp flick under the seat. In a blur of movement, a hand circled her ankle. Danielle bit back the hysterical scream that nearly came out full-force, barely able to make him out in the dim light. His expression at that moment told her exactly who was now in charge. Eyebrows raised, a hint of a smirk evident, Taylor straightened slowly and, still holding on, he contemplated the foot. Danielle made a futile attempt to back up in her seat, but Taylor had her firm. There was nowhere to go.
He raised his eyes to her. She stared back, her own eyes wide, heart racing in anticipation of his next move. She was ticklish too, as she suspected he was about to find out, and braced herself for the assault. Might as well cave in to the building hysteria. It would be a release of sorts, something she needed after that kiss. It had been sweet, but frustratingly brief, and had left her wanting more. But that wasn’t what he’d needed then.
Now, however, she could feel his mood changing.
“Apologise.” A tone of voice she hadn’t heard him use before – calm, but with a silky, deadly edge. She shivered, briefly and then stuck out her tongue.
“I’m not ticklish,” she gasped when he hauled her towards him. She slid forward, and her wet skirt went the other way, hiking itself almost to her waist. She managed a token tug, knowing he was openly ogling her exposed thighs. And that she was moving them in a way that would make him want to look.
It was almost comical. Him holding her foot, her lying practically at his. She wasn’t sure how much he could see of her in the gloom, but she could feel the energy coming off him in waves. The sexual predator and the prey. Only she wasn’t sure which of them was which. Every time she wriggled her legs his grip on her foot tightened and his breathing became a little more uneven. If they didn’t stop this soon, neither of them would want to.
* * * *
Taylor narrowed his eyes, trying to focus on her gorgeous legs. The invitation couldn’t be clearer. She was making no effort to cover up, and the sight of her white lace underwear made him pulse with need. Danielle wriggled again, reminding him that he still had hold of her foot, and she hadn’t apologised for tickling him. He ran his thumb lightly across the arch, causing her to convulse in an explosive giggle.
“Are you going to apologise?”
She certainly had spirit. Knowing what he was, a cold-blooded killer, and still letting him do this to her. For a moment he found her trust in him so touching it almost disarmed him. But, not quite. This was a challenge, and he wasn’t one to back down.
“You’re asking for it, Danielle.”
No hesitation in her voice, nothing but a simple honesty. She’d caught the double meaning, and told him what she wanted. What they both wanted.
So here they were at the point of no return. The mood shifted subtly from playful banter to one of surrender to the inevitable.
He heard her quiet sigh when his lips touched her ankle and his tongue traced a lazy, wet trail along her calf. When he couldn’t go any farther he slid from the seat to his knees and pushed apart her thighs so he could continue kissing and lapping at her salty flesh. His hand followed the wet trail and, all the while, she remained so still and quiet, as if she didn’t want to break the spell.
Taylor breathed in the almost overwhelming scent of her, kneeling up to grope for her in the darkness. When Danielle caught him by his broken arm he bit back the pain as his mouth found hers in a kiss that made him forget everything but the sweet, wet slide of her lips and tongue. She kissed him with exquisite care and such a depth of emotion it almost made him weep. He wanted to go slow and taste every inch of her, already knowing that, even if he made love to her all night, it still wouldn’t be enough.
“Danielle,” he whispered when she finally let him go. “I want to learn you from the inside out, but this will lead to nothing but heartache.”
“Don’t want to hear that. You’ll break it anyway, might as well do it this way.” Danielle kissed him again, a little frantic, now. He gave back with the same desperation, knowing he should stop. After this he’d never forget her.
“Me too,” he managed shakily.
The final barrier fell away. If he didn’t finish this he’d never forgive himself.
It was exactly what she’d been afraid of. Nothing in her life would ever match this, a situation so unlikely she might have been dreaming. Uncomfortable, hot and sweaty, and on the verge of having sex with a self-confessed killer – yet everything about the way he touched her seemed so right. In between breathless kisses she murmured his name over and over. A name she’d learned only a few hours ago.
It’s him. Somewhere in the back of her fogged-up brain the thought took root. It’s not what he’s doing, it’s because it’s him doing it. That was what made this so different. Somehow in the way he touched her, kissed her so reverently and with such need, he managed to say things she’d never heard before, leaving her limp and helpless with wanting him.
Crazy yes. Regrets, none. Taylor stopped to catch his breath. Danielle slid from the seat and onto his lap, needing to be closer still. She heard his surprised grunt. Pushed him back, reached for his belt and opened it with shaking fingers. He undid the button, she pulled down the zipper. Then she was touching him, running frantic fingers over the hot, hard length of him, making him groan and suck in a sharp breath, knowing she must be hurting his arm, they were pressed together so tightly, but she needed him too much.
“Wait, love, there are condoms.”
“Where? Where are they?”
“Carrier bag. On the seat, opposite. Let me…”
“No.” Pushing him down when he tried to rise, she reached over, upending the plastic bag, spilling the contents onto the floor. “There. Put it on.”
It was almost a demand, the delay so frustrating she wanted to scream. And then, at last, he was lifting her, filling her and she was trying to remember a time when they weren’t doing this. A time when she had no idea he existed. Was it only this morning they first met?
The sheer relief of it made hot tears sting her eyes. With a groan, Taylor thrust again and she pressed her face against his neck and clung to him, uncaring that she probably looked and sounded like a crazy woman. She’d happily go crazy if it felt like this.
“Taylor. Oh God, Taylor.” Desperate kisses punctuated the words. “We don’t have enough time for how much I need you right now.”
“I know. Me too.”
The words came out as jerky, staccato sounds as he ground into her, hardly able to move in the tight space, the seats pressing into their backs. He came with a dark, shuddering groan, telling her over and over that he needed her and wanted her. Promising he’d never forget her.
Biting her lip to force back the tears, Danielle tried to imagine they were on that beach right now, just as she’d imagined. Warm, and safe. He wasn’t wanted for murder. She didn’t have a life to go back to that didn’t include him.
She tried but the picture just wouldn’t come.
* * * *
Danielle was holding him so tightly, he couldn’t move. Much as he loved holding her, his broken arm couldn’t be ignored for much longer. The pain threatened to override the lingering waves of pleasure still lapping at his senses. Taylor fought to hang on to the pleasure, to savour it as he slipped off the condom, but he could tell Danielle was crying, and trying to hide it, and the thought of her shedding sweet tears for a worthless wretch like him made him feel like sliding into despair all over again.
“Don’t cry, sweetheart.” He slid his fingers into her hair, lifting her head from his shoulder. His night vision was good, and now adjusted to the dark he could just about make her out. “Let me tell you how amazing that was. How there aren’t words to tell you how I feel about it.”
“Yes?” It was no more than a shaky whisper.
“Yes.” He brushed a kiss against each of her cheeks and tasted the salty tears. “You know what? I think I died in the crash, and this is my own special heaven. Can’t for the life of me work out what I did to deserve it, though.”
Taylor tolerated the pain in his arm because to move now would look like a rejection. Danielle rested her chin on his shoulder, keeping very still. Apart from the occasional sniff, she remained silent, absorbing his words. Both of them way past the need to question any of this.
Accept it. In a life so empty, any crumb of happiness was a bonus. Only now did he realise how starved of happiness he’d been.
“Let’s get a bit more comfy, shall we?”
Danielle lifted her head from his shoulder. “Oh, Taylor, I’m hurting you.” She shifted back and levered herself awkwardly onto the seat behind her. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t have words for it, either. I wish I did. I really wish I did.”
Her mouth, so gentle on his, her tongue delicately outlining his lips, making him want her all over again.
Needle-sharp pain shot through his legs as the blood rushed back when he straightened them. The pain in his arm had settled into a dull ache. He pushed back into the seat and reached out, fumbling for Danielle’s hand in the darkness, trying to pull her across to him.
“Danielle, sit with me for a while.” Yes, he wanted her, but with the day catching up with him big-time, a repeat performance was out of the question. The spirit was very willing. The flesh, however, was hurting like hell. What he really needed, more than anything, was sleep.
“Let me get you some more painkillers first.” Her hand slid from his. Turning, she groped for the edge of the seat. “There’s a flashlight on my keychain. You stay right there.”
Exhausted didn’t begin to cover it. With his eyes half-closed, Taylor settled back into the seat. As weird days went, this was a good one. Waking up in a police cell, feeling mildly insulted they’d only assigned two stupid policemen to escort him back to England. He knew why. He wasn’t destined to reach England, let alone stand trial. Somewhere along the way someone like him would be waiting to tidy up this mess. A single bullet, or a fatal accident. He knew the drill. But he wouldn’t see it coming, and that’s what he’d wanted. This morning he’d said goodbye to life, resigned to his decision and stepped out into the unknown.
Taylor drifted into sleep, mumbling a prayer of thanks to no god in particular. Even if they caught him tomorrow, he cherished this extra day. Not as empty as he’d imagined, nor as hopeless. With that thought, he could almost die a happy man.
* * * *
The cabin stank of lovemaking and hot, sticky bodies. Danielle felt for the small flashlight on her keychain and located the wet-wipes in her carry-on. Taylor would need one too, and those painkillers. He must be desperate for them, poor thing. She’d paid his broken arm no heed when they’d made love. So caught up in taking what she’d wanted the pain hadn’t crossed her mind.
Hell, it had been a frenzy of need and want. A desperate struggle to get as close to each other as possible. Scary. If she felt like this with him a few feet away, how would it be when he’d disappeared from her life?
She’d been certain she wanted him to run, but now wasn’t so sure. How selfish could she get? With a pang, she noticed the ring, the two crosses, a billfold, littering the cabin floor along with the rest of the condoms. Thrown down with no regard to the dignity of the dead passengers. Lighting her way with the small flashlight, she gathered them up and replaced them in the bag, all except two of the condoms, an apology on her lips.
This wasn’t only about what she wanted. So much more was at stake. Taylor had to leave and knowing that made tonight more important than ever. It could be their only night together.
Rooting through her carry-on, she quickly pulled out the wipes, painkillers and the bottle of water and in the thin thread of light, made her way back to the seat.
Taylor was fast asleep, leaning into the corner of the seat, his features relaxed, looking almost peaceful. She placed the painkillers on the spare seat, the condoms in her pocket. He needed the sleep more. And she needed to clean herself up.
In the cramped bathroom she stared at the reflection in the tiny mirror with some trepidation, wondering who she’d see. Not the same woman who’d boarded the plane earlier today. That person had survived a plane crash and met one of the most amazing men she’d ever know. She had condoms in her pocket because she wanted him again and wasn’t afraid to ask. That had to change her.
A surprise to discover she still looked like Danielle Radley. A bit strange in the flashlight’s glow, hair lank and greasy, dark circles under the eyes, but she was still there. Maybe the changes were on the inside? Something she’d notice when the rescue came and returned her to civilisation?
Rescue? That thought gave her goosebumps. Being here with Taylor already felt more normal than her real life, and the thought of going back strange and slightly alarming.
And, hell, she looked tired. Even worse when she wiped away the last traces of her make-up. Time to go snuggle up with Taylor and make the most of him while she could. The rescue might come early in the morning, and that would be the end of this.
No, don’t start crying again. He hadn’t wanted her to cry, she could tell.
She found the change of underwear in her carry-on, suddenly worried they might unexpectedly be rescued in the night and she ought not to be found like this. The thought made her smile. Then a more sobering thought popped into her mind. The authorities must know there was a wanted man, a killer, on board the plane. They would be anxious to know if he’d died in the crash, and worried about the safety of any surviving passengers if he was alive. Taylor needed to get away, and soon. First thing in the morning, he should go. Couldn’t afford to hang around for the rescue. He should get as far away as possible.
She slipped into the seat and leaned against him, careful of his broken arm. Listening to the steady beat of his heart, feeling the rise and fall of his chest, she decided to stay awake and keep vigil. That’s what he’d wanted before she’d scuttled off for the painkillers. She refused to sleep this precious time away.
If this was her only night with him, she would appreciate every last moment.
* * * *
Taylor stretched out his legs as best he could and squinted at the luminous dial of his watch. Twelve-thirty a.m. Stiff and still in pain, he didn’t feel as if he’d slept at all. Adjusting himself so as not to wake Danielle, he yawned and wondered where she’d stowed the now-long-overdue painkillers.
“Hey.” She was awake, whispering to him in the darkness.
“Hey, reckon I need those painkillers about now. Did you find some?”
“Yes, they’re here.” Her warm body moved away and then he saw her face in the glow of the flashlight. “Hold out your hand.”
He took the tablets and downed two of them, hoping they’d get to work fast.
“How are you feeling, Taylor?”
“Like shit. You?”
“Good, considering. Couldn’t sleep.” She settled herself against him and he lifted his arm around her, drawing her close. “Didn’t want to after…”
“No?” He dropped a quick kiss on the top of her head. “Did I thank you for that?”
“You don’t have to thank me, Taylor, it was wonderful.”
“Oh, I do, sweetheart. Sorry about earlier. Went out like a light. Had big plans for tonight, too. ” He gave a small laugh. “Didn’t want to waste it sleeping.”
“Me neither, but you needed it. That arm won’t heal if you don’t rest.”
“It’s no big deal.” He sighed, remembering. “Becomes part of you after a while, you know, the pain. You get used to it.”
“What happened to you?”
Her hand drifted over his side, just short of tickling him. He managed to keep still with a little effort. Being so ticklish – not very macho.
“How did you get to be handcuffed to a seat on a plane?”
How did he answer that one? Danielle continued stroking him while he worked out which version of this sordid tale to tell her. Too much knowledge might be dangerous for her. He knew how ruthless his cronies were. He’d been one of them. They’d eliminate her without question if they thought she knew too much. On the other hand, he owed her nothing but the truth. And he found himself wanting to tell her. Needing to unburden to someone who would understand without judging him too harshly. Whatever conclusion she reached, he knew she’d never do that. Not because she was a soft touch but simply because she seemed to understand him in a way few ever had.
Where to start?
“I told you I enjoyed killing that wasn’t strictly true.” How can I explain this? “It wasn’t that different from soldiering. Just something I could do, not exactly cold-bloodedly, but I always got the job done. Then I slept at night, no problem. There weren’t many who could do that. Most ended up either dead or in the psycho ward. I always said that would never happen to me, and I did last longer than most.”
“You couldn’t do it any more?”
She was a good listener. Seemed to know that he needed to tell this story, even though he could feel the tension building in her as he spoke.
“It was more what they started asking me to do. Because I was so good, I started getting all the shit dumped on me. The jobs no-one else had the guts for.” He rested his chin on the top of her head. “They don’t care about you, Danielle. Just use you up, and dump when you’re finished. Took me a while to learn that little lesson.”
“So, you refused to do a job? Is this what it’s all about?”
“Diplomat and his family. Had to make it look like murder. Government, yours and mine, wanted to start something. Had it all lined up, too. And then I just couldn’t do it. I’d reached my limit. Christ, one of them was just a kid.”
“That’s terrible. They wanted you to kill children?”
“You don’t know the half of what goes on. Anyway, that was me basically burned out. I jumped ship, lugging what was left of my conscience after me, and that made me really dangerous.”
“But couldn’t they get someone else to do it?”
“Doesn’t work that way. I covered my back, made it my business to know what they were up to. Always made copies of files, hid them away, just in case. Bloody file, all my back-ups disappeared, and so did any hope in hell of me living to tell the tale.
* * * *
Danielle’s heart ached for him, even as in her mind she tried to excuse his past. She couldn’t say he was a good man because he only killed adults or bad people. Killing was killing; it didn’t matter who the victims were. They were all someone’s children, husbands, fathers, mothers, even. She could say that he was a better man because he wouldn’t do it any more, but then he didn’t exactly sound remorseful for his past.
She prompted him to continue, guessing he hadn’t found many sympathetic ears in the past and certainly not lately. The best she could do was listen without passing judgement.
“I’m trying to make sense of all this, Taylor. Trying to understand.” Danielle lifted her head and brushed a soft kiss onto his cheek. “I’m guessing you wouldn’t have survived even if you’d done the job.”
“You’d be right. I was a valuable asset, but everyone’s expendable. It was too big a job to let me walk away once I knew about it. Hell, when they hand you something like that, you know your number is up. That’s why I needed the file, to know who was involved. Figured I could blackmail them into letting me go start a new life somewhere.”
This time she kissed him on the mouth and tried to put some passion into it. The way he kissed her back, too desperate, groping blindly for every crumb of comfort made her heart ache. Poor guy, so lost.
Let him finish. He’ll feel better for it.
“Your wife? Where does she come into all this?”
“Helen? She had no idea what she was taking on when she married me. Married for six whole months, we were, then she disappeared. Wasn’t hard to track her down, by which time she’d taken up with an insurance salesman in Argentina. She was hysterical when I turned up, so I said yes to a divorce and left them to it. Next day the cleaner found them both dead. So now I’m wanted for murder and every police force in the world is looking for me.
This had to be the plot of some lurid spy movie. Only Taylor was actually living it. And now, so was she. Whether she liked it or not, she was part of this, regardless of how much danger that put her in.
“They killed them both because they couldn’t catch me. Figured they needed a helping hand. So all they had to do was sit back and wait for whichever international agency to do it for them.”
“But you wanted to get caught. Why?”
He chuckled at that. “You’re a very perceptive lady, you know that? By the way, loved you in that red wig.”
“You knew it was me? I don’t remember seeing you at the resort.”
“Recognised you when you got on the plane. And, no, you wouldn’t see me unless I wanted you to.”
“So you just gave up running?”
“Pretty much. It all started as a game. Seeing how close I could get without being caught, then somewhere along the line it turned into a death wish. I just wanted it over.”
“But the file, you could still use it, right?”
“If I knew where it was.”
Danielle pulled herself up and knelt beside him, her face level with his, her heart pounding now with excitement. With a hand on either side of his head, she held him still. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t see him properly. She needed his attention. Simple enough, really. All he had to do was find the file.
“Listen to me, Taylor. You’re finding that file, and you’re getting your life back. And I’ll hear no more talk of giving up.” He tried to push away. She held onto him and leaned in even closer. “Are you hearing this?”
“Do you think I haven’t tried?”
“Then try harder.” It came out a bit harsher than she intended. All this talk of giving up, it was scaring her. No one was giving up on her watch.
“What does the file look like? Tell me?”
“What does it matter?”
“It matters. Tell me.”
“Okay, I’m looking for the flash drive. A flash drive I’ll never see again.”
“You will, Taylor. Find it and get your life back.”
“Bossy bint, aren’t you?”
“Bint?” Danielle relaxed the grip on his face, leaving her hands resting loosely on his cheeks, caressing them gently with her thumbs. “I wish I could see you properly. What kind of word is bint?”
“It’s a…The hell with this.” Taylor hooked his arm around her neck and yanked her in for a kiss that left her lips burning. “Too much bloody talking,” he mumbled against her mouth. “Not enough of this.”
“Painkillers have kicked in, then?” Danielle sucked in a breath and slid her hands under his tee-shirt, gliding over the hard-packed muscles beneath his smooth skin. His jeans were still open. She dipped a hand into the waistband.
“Ahh, Danielle,” he groaned when she started stroking him to a painful hardness. “Reckon this is our window. Come here.” His mouth came down on hers again and he hauled her onto his lap. Danielle hooked a knee over his thighs, careful this time not to disturb his broken arm.
“Help me,” she said tugging at her underwear. It took a bit of manoeuvring, and made them both giggle, especially the moment when she triumphantly revealed the condom. Practical Danielle, even in the throes of passion.
Danielle stopped for a moment, to tenderly stroke his cheek, overawed that, no matter how desperate the situation, they’d managed to find some joy in it. Taylor leaned into her hand and covered it with his.
“Danielle,” he whispered, low and husky against her palm.
She held her breath, wondering what he was going to say.
“Bet you’ve got beautiful breasts,” he said. “Let me see.”
“I have good night vision.” He fingered a button. “Let me take this off you.”
How much he could really see, she didn’t know. The blouse slipped from her shoulders and she felt him fumbling with the catch of her bra, cursing under his breath while trying to undo it one-handed. The bra, too, fell away. His thumb brushed her nipple and she let out a shivering moan.
“Do that again,” he said. There was laughter in his voice.
“Only if you do.”
“Oh, I can do better than that, love. Give me that condom and let me show you.”
It was sinful, what he could do with his mouth. Danielle abandoned herself to the rasp of his tongue and moved in time with his gentle suckling, almost unaware of the moment he slipped inside her. She abandoned herself to the feel of him and let the wave take her. And this time they found the real passion that had been simmering under the surface since that first, meaningful glance. Now she knew who he was, and she still wanted him. Gone was the desperation of earlier and there were no tears. Just two people lost in pleasure, wanting and giving. Lost in the incredible feeling of a perfect moment.
Danielle was on that beach with him, and she could hear the sea, and feel the sun on her back. Somehow, one day, it would happen. She pressed her face into the curve of his shoulder and knew no-one else would ever come close. How could they, after this?
Taylor woke early and lay still, watching Danielle sleep. Today should have been his first day in hell. The first day of an eternity of paying for his unspeakable crimes. Yet he was alive, and lying next to this beautiful woman. As he contemplated her, he realised that he was looking at the face of his salvation. Redemption, but with a sting in the tail, a price. Hell, there always was. Even if she saved him, they could never be together.
This little bit of heaven had set him on the right path, but Danielle was too vibrant and full of life for him to expect her to follow. She was willing, no doubt of that. Trouble was that he could never ask it of her. Redeemed or not, he didn’t have much of a life to look forward to. If he could do what he needed to get the file – and it was a big if – the best he could hope for was a new identity. An obscure life hidden in some quiet corner of the world, always with the risk that someone with a grudge would find him. Governments, the criminal underworld, organised crime neither forgave nor forgot, and they’d get him. One day when he wasn’t looking. Not the life for her.
He brushed the hair from Danielle’s face and traced a finger down her nose, across her mouth, her chin, hoping she’d wake up. This time together was definitely too precious to waste sleeping.
She stirred and stretched out her arms, arching her bare breasts enticingly towards him. In the soft morning light, half-naked and with the crazy tangle of hair forming a golden pool around her head, she looked like something other-worldly. A divine gift sent to sooth his shattered soul. Only a madman would refuse this.
Catching one of her hands, he placed a lingering kiss on the palm and watched her mouth curve into a lazy smile as she moved from the world of dreams to waking. He turned his attention to her wrist and kissed it slowly, thoughtfully, learning how she tasted first thing in the morning.
Without realising, she gave him the greatest gift of all. Her trust in him. Her belief that something could be salvaged from his shipwrecked life. With her eyes still closed, Danielle moulded herself to him, pushing him on to his side so he wouldn’t have to lean on his broken arm. Her calf slid sensuously around his thigh. She pulled him down for a soul-searching kiss and her lips were warm and sweet and made him forget who he was.
Just for a few moments he could imagine he was Mr. Ordinary, with the wife, the house, the kids and the dog. And a job that didn’t involve spilling people’s brains with a high-powered rifle, or watching their lives drain away when he cut their throats. A life that didn’t involve hiding in the shadows, so ashamed of what he’d become he no longer recognised himself.
As he slipped inside her welcoming heat and abandoned himself to the incredible feel of her surrounding him, he desperately wanted to be that man. And just for a short while, as the flames of passion flared and consumed them both, he was.
* * *
Danielle dreamed of drowning in kisses. A warm mouth caressed her, a smooth tongue slid against hers. Someone moaned softly and her skin caught fire at the touch of gentle hands stroking sensitive flesh. A deep, husky voice enticed and seduced with words of dark passion. Swept her away with the wonderful feeling of abandonment that comes when you are so completely overwhelmed that all you can do is go with it and trust you’ll survive.
He made love to her in her dream, and when her eyes fluttered open she thought she must still be dreaming. It was too good, too perfect. Like nothing she’d ever felt before. He touched every part of her, and she knew it was his goodbye.
Taylor shifted away and Danielle sat up, running fingers through her hair, rubbing eyes gritty with lack of sleep, adjusting to the new day. A day that would be the most difficult she’d ever faced. She glanced at her watch. Already eight o’clock. Rescue teams would be out looking for the plane. They probably didn’t expect to find survivors, but they were going to find one.
A guarded expression clouded Taylor’s face as he handed over her clothes. Danielle had no idea what he was thinking and felt surprisingly self-conscious in the cold morning light. She dressed quickly with Taylor staring at her, his brow slightly furrowed, as if trying to puzzle something out.
His finger hooked under her chin and she stayed very still while he studied her intently, staring into his dark blue eyes, trying to show him how she felt. Tried to pour into that look all the love she dared not speak, because surely it was too soon to be talking of love? How could she be falling in love with a man she’d only met yesterday? Things like that only happened in books and films, not in real life. It didn’t, she told herself firmly, and then felt panic rising in her chest because maybe it was true, and it did happen in real life, and it was happening to her.
The scent of him was already familiar. Danielle slipped her arms around his back and pressed her face against his neck, inhaling on a shaky breath.
“You must go. You know that,” she whispered against his damp skin. “I don’t want you to go, but you must.” Even as she said the words that would send him away, she held on to him with a quiet desperation. Go? Stay? Two impossible choices. One only marginally better than the other. Both of them offering a good possibility of him being killed. She couldn’t bear it. Tears fell once again, and this time she didn’t think she’d be able to stop them.
As he listened to her quiet sobs, Taylor felt as if his heart might finally do what it had been threatening for the past two years, and shatter beyond repair. For an all too brief moment after the crash, he’d really believed the Fates had taken pity on him and decided to cut him a very much needed break. Not only that, they’d thrown Danielle into the bargain and made him feel something akin to hope. But they’d merely been playing with him. He realised that now. Showing him a tantalising glimpse of what might have been, and now that he’d seen it and lived it, they were tearing it away from him.
He had to know perfect happiness to feel perfect despair, and he knew now that he would be in hell regardless. Needed to pay for those sins, and then some. And that death wish he’d been nursing for so long was still there, lingering in the back of his mind, squashing down the hope, trampling on any dreams of a future. It hadn’t gone away, only taken a brief holiday.
He wound a handful of Danielle’s hair around his fist, pulling it too tight, causing her to look up at him with tear-blinded eyes, and he kissed her hard and long, bruising her lips with the intensity of his need. He tasted tears, and didn’t know whose they were.
* * *
He was giving up again. Danielle could feel it, almost as if she could read his thoughts. How could she let him go like this? No telling what he might do. The thought frightened her beyond belief. She’d never been depressed before, but she’d watched a close friend cycle in and out of hope and despair. Had spent hours on the phone convincing her that life was worth living, and it was that contact with another human being that had saved her.
It was what Taylor needed. Only she didn’t have days, just a few hours – maybe not even that – to convince him he wasn’t alone, he could get his life back, and that she would be waiting for him when he did. More than anything, she had to let him know that this was worth the fight.
Time for her to be the strong one again. She wiped away the tears, and took his hand in hers.
Yesterday she hadn’t really known what to do other than hold him. Now she knew exactly what he needed.
“Please, you can do this, and I’ll wait for you, no matter how long it takes.”
Taylor pulled his hand from hers and wiped his forearm across his eyes. He sniffed and shook his head. “Hell, I’m a wreck, Danielle. I should be dead now. Had it all worked out and wanted it. Then you came along, and I was glad I wasn’t.” He looked sideways at her, lifted his hand and dropped it back to his lap. “And now I want to be again.”
“Why?” Danielle’s heart started a heavy, panicked thudding. What if I can’t convince him? What then?
“Because I’m tired of it all. I’ll never get anywhere near that file, and without it I can’t have a life or be with you. So what’s the point?”
“The point is…” She angled her head and placed a soft kiss on his lips. “This.” She did it again. “And this. Don’t you feel it? Isn’t it worth fighting for?”
Taylor turned away, covered his face with his arm and leaned back against the seat. “That just makes it worse, don’t you see? Knowing what it could be like, and knowing I can’t have it. I actually woke up happy this morning. For the first time in so long, I woke up and heard the birds singing, and I sat and looked at you and felt like a love-struck teenager all over again. But this isn’t real life.” He dropped his arm and stared at the roof of the plane. “That’s what’s waiting out there for us out there.”
“And you’ll get yours back. You’ve got to believe it.”
“It’s not just the file. It’s me. All those things I’ve done. I can’t take them back. Can’t say sorry. I have to live with it. And it’s hard, too bloody hard.”
“I know it’s hard. Come here.” Danielle tried to gather him to her. He resisted and pulled away.
“Please, Taylor, let me.” She traced the line of his arm, tugging gently until he gave up and let her pull him in for a hug. She wasn’t sure who needed it more at that moment. All this talk of giving up was scaring her to death. She wanted him to leave, but part of him seemed to have gone from her already. She needed to get it back before she could let him go properly.
“Look.” How do I play this, gentle or stern? She didn’t know if he needed to be pushed or pulled, only that what she said next was important.
“I’ll come with you.”
“You can’t. Too dangerous.”
“Yes, I know I’d be a liability. I’d come if I could, though. You need to know that. I believe you’re still a good man. You’re just a bit lost, that’s all.”
She let him take it in, holding him quietly while he fiddled with the fabric of her blouse, bunching it in his hand, letting it go. It might not be love, but she felt as if both of them had taken a tentative first step towards something important. Too unfair to burden him with such talk yet. One step at a time.
“Tell me which beach, Taylor. I’ll meet you there on a date we can both remember. Your birthday. When is it?”
“August the fifteenth.” His hand continued its restless exploration. “Yours?”
She breathed a sigh of relief. At least he sounded vaguely rational again. “August too, the second. That gives you four months. Will it be enough?”
“Will it be enough? Answer me. We could leave it till next year, but I’ll be there whenever you want me to be. Say you’ll try.”
“I wish I had your strength and determination, love. You’re scary when you get going.”
“Better believe that. It’s why I’m so good at what I do.” She took his hand again, lacing her fingers in his, gripping tightly. “See this. We have a connection, you and me. I don’t know why, and I’m not stopping to question it, but” – she looked away because the words sounded so melodramatic. “I think I was meant to save you.”
He brought their intertwined fingers up to his mouth and kissed the back of her hand. “I think you were, too. And you might have. I just don’t know. ”
“Stop with the ‘I don’t know’. You will meet me on that beach. Say it. Promise me right now. Say the words.”
A resigned sigh, a long look. “I wish I’d met you before all this. I can’t promise you, but I’ll try. Will that do?”
It would have to. He couldn’t make that kind of promise. Anything could happen in the next four months. He might not even be alive by then. No, don’t go there. He will be. But he’d try, and it was more than she’d hoped for at the start of the conversation.
“I want you to think of me every night at ten o’ clock, and I’ll be thinking of you. Wait.” Reaching under her hair, she unclipped her plain gold chain. “Wear this for me, so you won’t forget.”
He looked at the chain, then at her. Eventually, when she was beginning to think he wouldn’t take it, he dipped his head forward and let her fasten it around his neck.
“Then you have this,” he said, and pulled the signet ring from his little finger. He slipped it onto the third finger of her left hand.
Danielle studied the ornate crest on the face of the ring with astonishment. “You’re not a lord or anything, are you? Because, American here, so seriously impressed.”
“There’s a title somewhere in the family. It’s a load of pretentious crap anyway.”
“No, it’s beautiful. Lady Danielle.” She mimicked his accent, then bit her lip, realising what she’d said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.”
“I wish you could be.” Taylor gave the ring one last look and touched the gold chain she’d given him. “I’ll think of you every night at ten o’ clock.”
“And I’ll do the same.” Her voice cracked. “So we won’t be apart really, will we?”
* * * *
Taylor watched Danielle searching her carry-on, emptying the contents on the floor, muttering about packing him supplies, lengthening the strap so it would be more comfortable for his larger frame. If only he could feel her enthusiasm for what he had to do. There was a way of getting the file back. That hadn’t really been the problem. He knew where it was, heavily guarded, of course. The problem was what he had to do to get it.
One more job. The diplomat and his family had been taken care of. He hadn’t told her there was always someone willing to step into a dead man’s shoes, to make a name for themselves. But there were always other, similarly messy jobs. If he begged they’d be prepared to bargain and, if he was lucky, hand over the file. As long as he kept his back properly covered this time, he’d be safe enough.
Watching Danielle strip the businessman’s billfold of the cash and stuff it into the bag, he thought she’d have made one hell of a spy. And Catch 22 didn’t even come close to covering it. If he didn’t do the job they’d want in exchange for the file he couldn’t be with Danielle. If he did, he’d lose his soul again and become that monster he’d come to hate. She deserved better than that.
What alternative did he have? The best he could do was walk out of her life and never come back, despite the hurt it would cause her. She hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend, but a woman like her must have one. Probably some sophisticated business type. Someone who could give her the house with the dog and the kids. Taylor shuddered. Christ, he wanted her. Part of him wanted her so much it was willing to do that job. Take a risk she’d never find out. But could she ever forgive him if she did?
* * * *
He needed to change. Danielle found a white tee-shirt with a more discreet logo in her bag and threw it to him. “You’d better put this on. That one’s just a big ad for where you’ve been.”
Taylor caught it, nodding in approval. “Do you have a whole store in there?”
“Perks of the job. Reps give me samples. I usually hand them out to friends. Will that fit?”
“Should do. Will you help me?”
“Try and stop me.” Danielle pasted on a smile and hopped up. Time seemed to be speeding up, moving relentlessly towards the moment when he’d walk out of her life. Soon this interlude would be nothing more than a dream. The thought made her grab hold of him in panic. Still so much she didn’t know about him, so much she wanted to find out. Rescue could come at any moment, and there were still places she hadn’t touched him. “Come here,” she said tugging at his tee-shirt, slipping her hands under the hem.
She pulled up the soft cotton, fingertips gliding over the smoothness of his skin, the scars, feeling the powerful muscles flex in response to her touch. A hard man, undoubtedly, someone not to be messed with. A killer with a heart of ice, which somewhere along the line had melted and left him wondering who the hell he really was. The same man whose kisses were soft as down.
The tee-shirt fluttered to the floor. Danielle lifted her hands to Taylor’s face and carefully traced his features, learning him by touch as well as sight. Knowing that if she didn’t imprint him in her mind, the memory would fade too quickly for her to hold on to. Oh, she’d never forget him, but she wanted the memory to be clear and sharp, not a vague impression of someone who’d touched her then walked out of her life.
And she wanted him to do the same. Selfish though it was, she didn’t want him to forget her, either. Whether he’d meet her on that beach, she still didn’t know. Better to seal the memory now than rely on the promise of a future that might never happen.
“What colour are my eyes, Taylor?”
“They’re grey,” he said, taking her face in one hand and holding her still. “Darker round the edges, a little misty, kind, understanding.”
“Yours are the colour of the sea, just off the coast of Bali. Have you ever been to Bali?”
“Yes, I have.”
“How did you get this?” she asked outlining the scar that skimmed his hairline, refusing to contemplate whether Bali had been business or pleasure.
“Fell off a roof when I was a kid. How about you?”
“How about me, what?” Danielle looked up at him, puzzled.
“Scars, distinguishing marks. What about you?”
“Nothing, I’ve led a very boring life compared to you. Unless you count this.” Danielle took his hand and placed it over her heart.
For a moment he stared at it. “Oh,” he said very softly before pulling her against him in a crushing hug. “Shit, Danielle, I never meant for this to happen to either of us. I’m so sorry.”
“You’re sorry we made love?”
“No, not that. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I just wish…”
“I know. Don’t say it, Taylor. I wish it too. You can’t stay, and you can’t take me with you?” It came out as a question, even though she already knew the answer.
Taylor shook his head and she turned away. He caught her, turned her back. “I would if it was possible. You know that, don’t you?”
Danielle nodded and closed her eyes. Drawing it out like this was unfair to both of them, especially him. Hadn’t she told herself to be strong? When she looked at him again, she realised she already knew everything she needed to know. The strong, capable hand gently lifting the hair away from the back of her neck and winding it around his fingers was also the hand that had pulled the trigger and ended, how many lives? Yet the remorse was written clearly in his sad eyes. He’d been willing to lay down his own life by way of atonement. How long would it take for the slate to be wiped clean? Danielle guessed a lifetime. Not something a person could do alone.
“You’ll never escape if we don’t stop doing this.” She pulled away reluctantly, and picked up the clean tee-shirt from the seat. Being businesslike about all this was hard, but what she was good at and what he needed. So she helped him on with the shirt, smoothed it in place, and pronounced him ready.
Taylor checked the window then sat on the seat, watching her transfer her own things into a spare carrier bag. If I beg, will he take me? No, she thought. He’d fare better on his own, physically at least. She still didn’t know if she’d made him realise he deserved some kind of life, no matter how much he thought otherwise.
Without looking up, she could feel his soul-searching stare prickling her spine, making her heart race and her fingers fumble as she attempted to close her make-up bag. She must look like hell.
“Just going to make myself beautiful,” she said, standing up. “Don’t want you to remember me like this.”
Taylor grabbed her around the waist. “I want to remember you exactly like this. You don’t need make-up to be beautiful.”
“Can I take a photo of you, then? Would that be okay?”
Taylor sat for a photograph and then she put the camera on delay and sat with him while it recorded the moment. Soon these images would be all she had of him. She stared at the camera screen. So this was what they looked like together? Good, happy even, like any normal couple.
Then there was nothing left to do but hand him his bag.
“Time to go.” I’m not going to cry, she thought with grim determination. “I’ll see you in August, Taylor. Your birthday or mine. I don’t care which.”
He shook his head. “Not leaving yet. Not until that rescue party turns up.”
Why was he being so stubborn? “You have to go,” she said. “If you stay until they arrive, they’ll see you. Please, Taylor.” She pushed him with both hands. He stood firm.
“And what if I leave you, and they don’t turn up? You don’t know how to survive out here. I do. I’m not leaving you until I know you’re safe.”
Her eyes were so misted up she couldn’t focus. She hit him weakly on the side of his good arm. “Why won’t you go? I’ll be okay.”
Then she felt herself folded against him and she held on tight and whispered over and over, “Go, don’t go, go, don’t go.” Already feeling the ache of him not being there.
They rocked together, drawing out the moment. Taylor telling her silently how much this all meant to him. Danielle answering him without words. Nothing could have said it better than this.
Suddenly he froze. She heard it, a split second later. A strange clicking sound, intruding on their moment. Quiet and distant, becoming louder and closer. A helicopter. Taylor’s eyes locked with hers. They’d come.
Again, time became liquid. His goodbye kiss was heart-breakingly slow and tender, and then he was scrambling for the bag and running for the open doorway. Neither of them had time to think past getting him away from of the plane. With one last kiss he climbed out. She watched him anxiously then threw down the bag.
“I’ll hide in the trees,” he said. “Want to make sure you get off safe. I’m not going until they’ve got you.”
“Thank you. They must have seen the plane. Now go. I don’t want them to spot you. Go!”
“Goodbye, Danielle. I’ll never forget you.”
She heard the words and then he was gone. The helicopter circled, low over the treetops, disturbing the branches, whipping up leaves. Danielle sat down, suddenly light-headed. She’d forgotten to give him her address or her phone number. So much she’d wanted to say. Not enough time. They hadn’t even decided which beach to meet on, and now they couldn’t because he was gone.
Danielle leaned back, feeling bereft and very alone. Last night she’d been so sure of seeing him again. Now? He was on his own. Didn’t have her to give him pep talks and keep him going. It would be easier for him to find her than it would for her to find him, but would he come back to her? Or would he get some stupid notion into his head about her being better off without him? Every moment they were apart made that more of a possibility.
It already hurt. All she had left of him were the photographs and the ring with the family crest. Not much, considering the impact he’d made on her, but maybe… Smiling through tears she’d been determined not to shed, she gathered up her reserves, took a steadying breath and fingered the crest on the ring. Maybe he had wanted to be found. Maybe she could find him from this? Trace the family. There had to be places, old family haunts, seaside holidays from his childhood. People were her thing. She knew human nature. Sooner or later he’d go back. One last visit, maybe make some kind of attempt to reclaim his past. She just had to narrow it down and wait. She could play the spy game too. All she had to do was find that beach.
Fifteen days later, Danielle finally made it back to the States. Fifteen days of crying and sleepless nights, holed up at one of the quieter resorts, unable to face her frantic family. Her mom called every day, begging her to come home. She couldn’t. Not yet. She needed time to make a bridge between Taylor and the real world. To sort out the tangle of feelings their meeting had left her with. And to get herself into some sort of state that would allow her to go on without him.
She missed him. That went without saying, but she hadn’t realised quite how it would be. He’d given her life a different kind of purpose. Made her care in a way she never had before. And, dammit, he needed her. How could he think of not finding her? Now all she could do was sit and wonder where he was, and whether she’d dreamed the whole thing.
Every night she slept in his Tropicana tee-shirt, remembering what a fuss he’d made about wearing it. Her mom continued to call and plead. On the fifteenth morning after the rescue Danielle finally gave in and went home to her worried family.
* * * *
Two weeks after the crash Taylor stepped off a trawler onto the north-east coast of England. It took even less time to decide what to do. Without Danielle the future was bleak, so he’d do the job. Do what was necessary. She didn’t have to know. Then he’d go find her. And his soul? That was so black, what difference would one more stain make? He stood at the window of his stone cottage, remembered that last kiss, and missed her with an intensity that made him ache.
With angry stabs, he punched in the numbers on the telephone keypad. Numbers that would make him what he was. A fair exchange. A life for a life. If some poor bugger had to die so he and Danielle could be happy, then so be it. The thought made him slam the receiver down, then pick it up again and redial. Don’t think about it. Just do the job and walk away, like you used to. No sweat.
An upper-crust voice answered, asked what he wanted.
“Lord Carrington.” Taylor put thoughts of Danielle from his mind and concentrated on the business at hand. She didn’t have to know about this. “Message for him. Just tell him I’m back.”
* * * *
“You look tired, Danielle.”
Danielle continued studying the file. “Thanks for the compliment, Marc. I can always rely on you.”
“You’re welcome.” Her boss perched on the corner of the desk. “Go take a break. You hardly had any time out after the plane crash.”
“I’m fine, really.” Danielle made an even bigger show of perusing the document. Why didn’t he just go? His concern was touching, but she didn’t need it right now. All she needed was to be left alone.
Marc deftly slipped the document from between her fingers and held it high in the air when she tried to retrieve it.
“You need to take a break. And, as your boss and friend,” he added, “I’m ordering you to take one.”
Danielle stood and snatched the file back from him. “And this work’s not going to do itself. Just let me get on with my job, Marc. That’s all I ask.”
“Danielle.” He said it kindly, gently and she couldn’t bear him being so sweet about all this, refusing to believe her protestations of being okay and back to normal. She had everyone else fooled, but not Marc. He’d never been in a plane that had literally dropped out of the sky. Couldn’t know the guilt that came with surviving when others had died. And he would never understand what she’d found and lost. But still he looked right through her and seemed to know she was hiding something.
The strain of it all was killing her. Missing Taylor, wondering where he was, what he was doing. The ritual of thinking about him at ten o’clock. Endless phone calls to England, following-up leads on the family crest. Everything focused on August.
Everyone wanted her to be okay. She knew that, so she smiled and pretended she was. Told them they could all stop worrying about her and would they please leave her alone? Most of them did. Her family, her work colleagues. They all joined in with her little deception and commented on how well she was looking, and wasn’t it wonderful how quickly she’d got over it, and hey, you’d think she’d never been away.
Everyone except Marc.
Danielle slumped back into the chair, wearily pushing her hair from her face. “You couldn’t understand what I’m going through.”
Marc lifted his hand and attempted to stroke her cheek. He let it drop when she turned away. “I think I can. Look at me Danielle. I died in a car crash ten years ago.”
That got her attention. “You did what? How?”
“Technically I was dead. Para-medics brought me back. If they’d arrived a few minutes later I wouldn’t be here now. I was the only one to survive, so yes, I do know what you’re feeling.”
Danielle nodded slowly, “I survived without a scratch and two nuns died. Surely they deserved to live more than me?”
He shrugged, and stood up. “Maybe there’s something you need to do. I don’t know. Maybe it was important that you survived and not them.” This time he did stroke her cheek, a light, lingering touch. A brief look of pain clouded his features. He quickly turned away. “I think you know what it is. Go sort out this, whatever it is you can’t tell me. I can’t bear seeing you like this.”
Danielle brought her hand to her cheek, staring at him wide-eyed.
“Marc, I can’t…”
“No, don’t say anything.” He clapped his hands together, suddenly back in full boss-mode. “Take yourself off for a couple of months. Combine it with a business trip. Look out some hotels for me. Full expenses, of course.” His voice lowered, almost to a whisper. “Remember to come back when you’re done.”
Danielle walked slowly around the desk. “Thank you.”
Marc nodded and turned back to her. “No sweat. You’re my best employee, and more. I don’t want to lose you is all.”
She managed a smile, feeling his pain, knowing this was hard for him too.
“Where will you go, Danielle?”
* * * *
Taylor stretched out his legs and leaned back against the wooden bench. A few gulls screamed and squabbled over a half-eaten burger, the sound of children’s laughter floated up from the shingle beach. He stared out at the cold, grey sea, took a long drag from his cigarette and tried to focus on what he was about to do. There’d be photographs, places, dates. All the information he needed to turn things around. Get it over with, get it done. That was the plan. Then go and find Danielle. He could do this.
He didn’t look up as the black Rolls Royce drew up alongside the promenade. Ignored the elderly gentleman who got out and shuffled painfully slowly towards him. He continued smoking and staring at the waves crashing on the beach. A typical early summer’s day in the north of England, grey and overcast. Wouldn’t have mattered if the sun had been out. He wouldn’t have noticed.
All his energy went into either thinking about Danielle or about what he had to do to see her again. He missed her with a quiet desperation. Spent what seemed like hours thinking of her, trying to remember the sound of her voice, the feel of her skin under his hands. At night he lay alone in his bed, wondering how someone he’d been with for barely a day could have made such an impression on him that it felt as if a part of him was missing. He shook his head to clear the images, dropped the cigarette and crushed it with his boot. Self-pity? He was turning it into an art form.
The old man sat down, carefully leaning his stick on the side of the bench. Reaching into his coat, he took out a large envelope. “Do you want this?” he said quietly.
“No, not really.” Taylor continued to stare at the sea. “But I’ll have it anyway.”
The old man nodded in approval. “The weapon?”
The envelope slid across the bench. Taylor picked it up and stared at it for a few moments before slipping it under his jacket. “And the file?”
“But you can get it for me?” He couldn’t keep the note of anxiety out of his voice. Knew how these people worked. What a bunch of double-dealing back-stabbers they were.
“You’ll have to trust me on that one.” The old man picked up his stick and hauled himself up. He nodded at the plaster cast on Taylor’s broken arm. “I heard it was a bad break. Is it healing?”
Taylor looked at the old man for the first time, eyebrows raised. “Like you’d care?”
“Now, now,” the old man chided. “You’re family. I worry about you.”
That made Taylor laugh out loud. “I’m touched, Grandpa.”
“No need to take that tone. You’ve caused me no end of trouble, young man. If the Prime Minister had found out, well, the scandal, you know.”
“Yes, I noticed how you stood by me. Thanks for the support.” Taylor stood up and raised his broken arm. “Soon as this is off, I’ll sort your little problem. And you’d better get me that file or the shit will really hit the fan.”
The old man’s face softened for a moment. “Taylor, you know I’d help you if I could. Do you think I like seeing you like this?”
“I don’t think you give a toss. What would it have taken? A couple of phone calls? You could have helped me.” Taylor looked away, hating having to beg. “You still can.”
The old man leaned over and patted him. “It’s too complicated, my boy. Just do the job. By far the easiest way.”
“Get me the file.” Taylor spoke so quietly, his voice was barely audible. “Don’t make me do this.”
The old man sighed and dropped his hand. “I don’t have that kind of influence any more.”
“Like hell you don’t.” Taylor heard the note of regret in the old man’s voice. Knew this was his one and only chance, and would have got down on his hands and knees if he thought it would make any difference. “Forget politics and do something real for once. You know who killed Helen. Get me my life back.”
He held his breath. There was that spark of hope again. Okay, so he’d just made a monumental fool of himself, but for a brief moment he actually believed his grandfather might do it. Might actually care.
The old man stared at him, long and hard, before shaking his head. “I can’t,” was all he said before turning and walking back to the waiting car.
* * * *
“So. Miss Wilson, is it?” The old man extended a wrinkled hand toward Danielle. “I believe you’re writing a book about the English aristocracy?”
“Yes.” Danielle stood up and shook hands, wondering if she should curtsey, or something. “Thank you for seeing me at such short notice, Lord Carrington. I know you’re a busy man.”
The old man indicated the chair. “Sit down, please. I’m never too busy for a beautiful young lady.”
Danielle nodded graciously. She could see where Taylor got it from. Lord Carrington had the same smile, and his blue eyes still had a youthful twinkle in them, even though he had to be well into his eighties. She made herself comfortable in the wingback armchair, hoping she looked casual and relaxed. Lord Carrington lowered himself into his own chair and reached for a telephone.
“Will you take tea, my dear?” He chuckled when he saw her staring at the phone. “We don’t ring those little silver bells any more. Yes, Sandra, tea for two in my study.”
He switched off the phone and placed it on the end table. Danielle continued to smile, rehearsing the story in her head. Trying not to feel intimidated by the ostentatious wealth on display all around her. The heavy period furniture, ornate silverware, the portraits boasting of a heritage going back hundreds of years. Danielle could well imagine that someone in this family had been present at every significant turn of British history. This would take every ounce of nerve she had.
Lord Carrington wasn’t what she’d expected. From what she’d managed to find out, he’d been a hard-nosed politician with a reputation for ruthlessness that would have put Attila the Hun to shame. She found it hard to reconcile those stories with this frail old man who gave off such waves of genial, grandfatherly charm.
Maybe he’d mellowed with age? In any case, it made her job easier. She’d been prepared to be scared to death by him. So, start with the family crest, then some general chit-chat about the family, bring the conversation round to traditions, rituals, holidays…
Tea arrived on a silver tray, was poured and served. The cup shook in her hand. The old man was still smiling kindly, wheezing slightly on every inhale, his fingers tapping absently on the arm of his chair. His gaze direct and unwavering. They sipped politely for a few moments, then Danielle swallowed the butterflies that were threatening to fly right out of her stomach, put down her cup, and reached into her purse for a notepad and pen.
“Can we start with the family crest? It’s a very interesting configuration. How old it is?”
“Ahh, the family crest. That dates back to the Norman invasion. I assume you mean the one on the ring?”
Danielle faltered, regained her composure and gave a little laugh. “There’s a ring?”
“Yes, there’s a ring.”
“You mean like a signet ring?”
“Exactly. A family tradition going back centuries. All the males in this family are presented with one on their sixteenth birthday.”
Danielle gripped her pen and willed herself calm. “Would you describe it for me?”
“I have a better idea.” Lord Carrington leaned back into his chair. “Why don’t you?”
There was a moment’s silence during which Danielle realised what an idiot she’d been. Like a lamb in a lion’s den. The old man stared straight back at her. Not so genial now. A hardness that hadn’t been there before set his face in stone.
“There is indeed a ring. And, I think Taylor gave it to you. He wasn’t wearing it when I saw him. Am I right, Miss Radley?”
The fact that he knew her real name barely registered. He’d seen Taylor. She couldn’t conceal her surprise. Her mind raced with the implications. Taylor was back in England.
And now, looking at Lord Carrington’s emotionless expression, she knew what Taylor had been up against. What he’d meant by danger. And he was family. What hope did she have of walking out of this?
“What are you going to do?” she said, a tremble in her voice. “Shoot me?”
The old man let out a surprisingly robust laugh for one so frail. “Either that or I’ll be offering you a job. Let’s just see how this conversation goes, shall we? Now, you are Miss Radley, aren’t you?”
Danielle nodded. He’d pulled the rug from under her feet. Quick thinker though she was, this conversation would test her skills to the limit.
“Good, I just needed you to confirm that we have the right person.” He sounded like someone ticking off an inventory, suddenly very brisk and businesslike.
“The file’s safe.” He motioned towards the desk. “I presume that’s what you’ve come for?”
You’re enjoying this, you bastard. Danielle clenched her fist and some fighting spirit returned, but she couldn’t help looking with longing towards the potential source of any chance of a future with Taylor.
“Your own grandson. His wife? How do you live with yourself?”
“Politics, my dear. You couldn’t begin to understand. And you must believe I had nothing to do with the murder. I would never condone that.”
“That was big of you.” Danielle flicked another glance at the drawer.
He followed her gaze. “Ahh, the file. I suppose I could just give it to you.”
“You could, oh,” she realised quickly that he was toying with her. He tilted his head and contemplated her. She could almost see the options running through his mind.
“Just what would you be prepared to do to get it?”
The question threw her. What would she do? She wanted it so desperately, it scared her. Then suddenly it clicked into place. Taylor wasn’t just back in England. He was back. “Oh my God,” she said, her voice rising, her blood running cold. “What’s he doing in return for the file? What are you making him do?”
“I’m very impressed, my dear. It took us two years to find him. You got him here in two weeks.”
It’s my fault. Taylor’s killing again and it’s my fault. He’s doing it for me. Oh God, what have I done? I’m supposed to be saving him.
I still can.
That last thought gave her courage and, somehow, she got to her feet.
“Tell me where he is. I’m going to stop him. He doesn’t have to do this.”
“It’s too late.”
“No it isn’t. Tell me. You wouldn’t have the file if he’d already done the job. Please tell me.”
The old man looked genuinely mystified for a moment. “Why should you care so much? You knew him for barely a day.”
“Because.” What did she tell him? How could she explain what had happened, how fast it had happened? It sounded bizarre even to her. “Because…because…” She looked Lord Carrington squarely in the eye. Calm now and focused on what she had to do.
“I’m having his baby. Your great-grandchild.”
For the briefest moment Lord Carrington seemed to visibly shrink in front of her. He went from hard man to proud grandfather, and back again so quickly, Danielle almost missed it.
She felt a slight twinge of guilt before ramming home her advantage, reminding herself what this man was capable of. She’d seen his weakness, and now she could play this game too. He’d asked her what she was willing to do to get the file. Well, they were both about to find out.
His voice was very thin and frail. Only now did Danielle notice the pallor and the blue tinge to the old man’s lips. She could see what was going through his mind. Will I live to see it?
“Early next year.” Danielle kept her voice even, her gaze unwavering. Cruel, yes, but it had to be done. Too much at stake.
“A great-grandchild?” His gaze flicked down to her stomach and back to her face. “My first.”
She heard the tiniest hint of pride in his voice. Time to twist the knife. “You won’t see it. I’ll make sure of that.” Danielle dropped the notebook into her bag and extended her hand. “Goodbye, Lord Carrington. I’m sorry we couldn’t do business.”
He made no move to shake her hand. “Sit back down, Miss Radley. We need to talk. How much do you want?”
Her throat felt thick, as if her heart had crawled up and lodged there. She sat down slowly, never taking her eyes from the old man. She’d underestimated him once before and wasn’t about to do that again. “There’s only one thing I want. One thing I want to talk about.” Her gaze stayed firmly on the desk.
Lord Carrington laughed. “Have you ever thought of entering politics, my dear?”
“I don’t generally like swimming with sharks, Lord Carrington, but in your case I’m willing to make an exception.”
The old man sat there, staring at her. The silence stretched out for so long that Danielle had trouble keeping still. Her heart pounded so hard, it was painful. Everything hinged on what he said next.
“He was my favourite, don’t you know.”
“So you just used him up? How could you?”
A brief look of annoyance flickered over his features. “I’ve already told you, you have no idea how these things work.”
“I think I do, Lord Carrington. You used him to fuel your own ambitions. But you can put it right. It’s in your power to do so.” The oldest trick in the book. Let the man think it’s his idea.
“I can see what you’re doing, young lady.” Lord Carrington’s eyes glittered. “If there is a baby, I probably won’t live to see it anyway. So why should I help you? Why should I put myself at risk?”
“Because you owe Taylor big-time, and you know it. You used him and it’s time to pay back. Do the right thing for once. And I think that, deep-down, you still love him. Do you really want to die with this on your conscience?”
Another long silence.
“You might live to see your great-grandson, after all.” Push the knife in hard, give it a twist. She was learning fast.
The old man levered himself up from his chair. “Are you sure I can’t interest you in a job?”
Danielle held her breath while he fished in his pocket for a key and shuffled over to the desk. It seemed like an eternity before he unlocked the drawer and took out a very small envelope.
That was it? That’s what all this fuss was about?
Making his way back to Danielle, he stood for a moment and contemplated the envelope in his hands. “He’s a clever lad, you know, should have gone into politics instead of the army. I’m very impressed. Goodness knows how he got hold of half of what’s in here.”
Danielle swallowed. Frozen in place, she eyed the envelope. “I know that. Let me take it to him.”
He drew the moment out, whether for effect or because it really was such a big deal, she’d never know. His lips were moving, but no sound came out, almost as if he was silently weighing up the pros and cons. He glanced once out of the window, smiled very briefly, composed himself, then held out the package.
“I strongly suggest he never tries to use it.” He pressed it into her hand. “I’ll make sure the relevant people know he has it. He smiled again, at some private thought, and nodded his head. That will be enough to buy his safety. And I’ll take care of the murder charge. I’ll deny any involvement, of course.”
“Of course.” Danielle took the envelope with shaky fingers, hardly able to believe it. Her future. Taylor’s future. She raised her eyes to the old man. “Thank you,” she said. “Now where can I find him?”
* * * *
It was that dream again. Danielle, looking at him with such yearning and love. Telling him she wanted him and would never leave him. He blinked, the image shimmered and faded, and he was alone once more.
Taylor stood at the shoreline, hands in pockets. Wild, angry waves crashed over his bare feet, soaking the hem of his jeans, matching his mood. He wanted the anger. Needed it so he could do what he had to do.
The envelope was folded, in his back pocket. Still unopened. He pulled it out, already knowing what would happen when he did open it.
“It’s me or you, mate,” he muttered. “Who’s it going to be?”
Ripping the envelope open, he carefully pulled out the photograph. An unremarkable face stared back at him, circled in red ink, his smiling family around him. A soft target; he could tell that already. His grandfather had at least done that for him. Single shot should do it.
Taylor placed two fingers over the man’s face, blanking it out, leaving only his smiling family in view. Two girls, one on each arm. An adoring wife, soon to be a widow. Taylor closed his eyes. Fatherless children. Grieving wives. How many had he been responsible for? He didn’t even know. Had stopped counting a long time ago. He lifted his fingers and gave the man back to his family. Covered him again. Playing God, that’s what he was doing. All that stood between him and Danielle was this one man, who he didn’t know and didn’t want to know.
He stared at the photo one last time and pushed it back into the envelope.
“I guess this is your lucky day, mate.”
Without hesitation, he tore the whole lot into four pieces and threw them into the sea. They floated around his feet on the incoming tide, taunting him for his weakness, or strength, he still wasn’t sure which. He walked back to the cottage with no idea of what his next move should be. He didn’t know what to feel about his decision. It was hard to feel anything at all.
* * * *
There he was.
Hair longer than she remembered, and blown every which way by the stiff breeze. Hands in pockets, his white shirt billowing in the wind, sleeves folded back to his elbows. Standing and staring blankly. Two months since the crash and even from where she was standing Danielle was aware of how much he’d changed. But, she wasn’t sure who she was seeing. The man he used to be before, or the man he’d become after they’d parted. Slipping off her shoes, Danielle stepped gingerly onto the cold, hard sand and made her way towards him to find out.
She’d missed him, but not until this moment, after finally setting eyes on him again, did she realise quite how much. There’d been a hole in her life, and, as she closed the distance between them, she felt the hole closing up. And the world, which had been tilted at such an odd angle since he’d left, was slowly righting itself, like the sun suddenly appearing on an overcast day.
Her heart wanted to run ahead of her and leap into his arms. That was how she’d imagined this reunion. She reined it in, walking slowly and deliberately instead. A few more yards and he’d turn around and see her. Then she’d know if he still wanted her.
She hadn’t been going to give him a choice. He was her Taylor and she’d come to claim him. But her rational mind screamed the possibility that when he turned around she wouldn’t see Taylor at all. Just some guy she’d had amazing sex with in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.
A few feet away, she stopped and softly called his name. He was so engrossed, he hadn’t heard her coming. He turned and she knew then, that he’d always be her Taylor. The killer who’d found his soul. The man with the sad eyes who’d made such sweet love to her. Did he still want her? With a lump in her throat, she waited for his reaction.
* * * *
In another dream she’d appear to him, calling his name, but he couldn’t get to her. No matter how hard he tried, or how loud he called, she always stayed out of reach. He’d wake up, covered in sweat, as if he’d run a marathon, and every time it happened she was a little more ghost-like, and that bit farther away.
He turned towards her voice, unable to resist. If ghosts were all he was going to get, then so be it. He’d more or less resigned himself to never seeing her again. Until the deadline, he was safe. When they found out he wasn’t playing ball, it would start all over again. Then there’d be a choice. Stay? Or run again?
The sound of her voice washed over him like a familiar melody, making him shiver. He loved everything about her, and it only got worse. Absence really did make the heart grow fonder as well as more painful.
He frowned. She was almost near enough to touch. This was new. His hand went out and, instead of going right through her as he expected, it touched warm, solid flesh. Taylor pulled back as if she’d burned him. His breath caught in his throat.
“Yes.” Her fingers circled his, guiding them to her face.
“Christ, it really is you?”
Her face, the one he remembered so well, lit up. “You better believe it.”
Believe? He touched her again. Warm and solid and definitely not a ghost. Somehow, she’d found him. She leaned her soft cheek against his hand and closed her eyes.
“Danielle.” He repeated her name, as if he still couldn’t quite believe that she was there. “You found me.”
“Did you ever doubt it?”
He was quiet for a moment. Humbled by her faith in him. “No,” he said. “You were the one thing I never doubted.”
A very small smile lifted the corner of her mouth. “You are pleased to see me?”
He held out his arms. “Come here,” he said. “Let me show you how much.”
* * * *
Danielle closed the remaining distance between them and stepped into his waiting arms. The way he held her told her everything she needed to know. Pressed against her with the whole length of his body, arms wrapped so tightly around her it was almost painful. He couldn’t get close enough. Who cared if she couldn’t breathe? She’d got to him in time, and all that mattered was being here, doing this, with him.
He held her like that for a long while, his whole body hard and rigid, before she felt him start to relax and she could wriggle herself free enough to look at him properly. A little thinner, new lines around his eyes. Darker hair, different clothes. His broken arm healed, but he was still Taylor. The man she’d fallen in love with.
He still looked stunned, as if he thought she might disappear at any moment. She raised herself up on tiptoe, holding onto his elbows for support, and kissed him. He dipped his head, closing his eyes when their lips touched, tentatively at first as if they had to re-learn what to do. Building in intensity as they remembered. His hands slid around her back, pulling her against him. Letting her feel him.
A delicious, aching need began to spread through her whole body. Now they didn’t have to hurry, and it didn’t feel frantic or desperate. They had time. Only he doesn’t know that, she remembered. Doesn’t know that he’s free at last. She pushed him away, and reached in her pocket.
“I have something for you, Taylor.” He tried to pull her back in. She touched her palm to his chest. “Wait,” she said. “You’ll like it. See.”
When she held up the envelope, her heart did a backflip as he registered the gift.
His freedom. His life. And her.
* * * *
“Danielle, is that…?” Taylor’s eyes flicked from the envelope to her. She nodded, and the hope he saw in her eyes told him it was true. She’d bloody-well gone and done it. Somehow she’d got the file. He could live again. With her.
His hand was shaking so badly he had trouble getting the thing out of the envelope. “How did you get this?” He looked up. Hope shone in her eyes, and also something else that made him realise she wasn’t the same Danielle he’d met two months ago. Meeting him, coming into his world, had corrupted her in a way he’d never wanted to happen.
She looked away in response to his question. He turned her back, smoothing the wind-whipped hair away from her face. “What did you do?”
“Nothing so terrible.” The smallest hint of regret laced her voice. He didn’t miss it. She looked him in the eye, steady and unwavering. “I did what I had to do, so you wouldn’t have to.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” He pulled her close again and rested his chin on the top of her head. “I never wanted you to get involved in all this. Whatever you did, you have to live with it. It never goes away and it changes you. I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry for what? That you’ve made me feel things I never thought I’d feel? That you’ve given me a purpose in life beyond partying and having a good time?” He felt her trying to pull away again, and let her go.
“Danielle, I’m not worth it.”
She moved away a few paces, and for a heartbeat he thought she was leaving. He took a panicked step toward her. She turned back to him.
“Taylor. Don’t ever say that. I’ve come halfway around the world to find you because you are the most amazing man I’ve ever met. No, you’re not perfect. None of us is, but I love you. I think I’ve known that since the first time you looked at me.” She gave a shaky laugh. “Don’t worry, I haven’t murdered anyone. And you wouldn’t have either, would you?”
Amazing, she’d called him amazing. It didn’t begin to cover what he thought of her. He shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t have.”
“Then you weren’t coming for me?”
Hell, this was hard. She was so much stronger than he. Knew what she wanted and went for it with all her heart. He felt ashamed of his cowardice. He’d only been trying to protect her, but he saw now what it would have done to her. How it would have made her feel, knowing that he hadn’t felt their love worth the risk. Looking at her now, he knew she would have followed him into hell itself if she’d had to.
And he would have denied her the chance.
How did I get it so wrong? His stomach clenched at the disappointment creeping into her eyes.
“You came for me, Danielle. Thank God one of us got it right.”
Two steps closed the gap between them.
“You did save me,” he said. “And I need you, stay with me. Yes, it’ll be dangerous, but, hell, it’s worth the risk. I’d rather have one more day with you than a lifetime alone.”
The biggest sigh of relief left his lips. Her mouth curved into a smile. The kind of smile that would soothe his shattered nerves. Mend his broken heart. The kind of smile he hoped to see a lot of in the years to come. Taylor held out his hand, smiling back at her for the first time. Her grip on his was strong, and he knew that she had set him free. Free to love her like she deserved. Free to have a stab at a normal life.
“Thank you,” he said, pulling her towards him. “Come home with me.”
Danielle pulled the quilt around her shoulders. She snuggled into Taylor’s warm back and let her hand drift over his waist, giggling when he wriggled away.
“Hey, cut that out!”
With a contented sigh, she relaxed against him. The past few months had been hard, making this all the more precious. This small cottage was their haven, this modest little bedroom their sanctuary. They’d kept it simple, because life had been complicated enough. Pine furniture, an old brass bed, rough plastered walls. Here, in this unassuming place, she felt more connected to life than she ever had.
“Want to do it again?”
“What, tickle you?” Her hand reached out. His covered it and stopped her.
“No, the other thing. The one that makes you say stuff like this.” He turned, and whispered in her ear. His warm breath made her tremble.
Her eyes widened. “I do not,” she protested, although she knew full well she did. “Where do you get your energy?” She snuggled back into him, too comfortable to move. Listening to the wind flinging rain against the window. “You’re insatiable.”
“Let’s just say I’m well-motivated. And you don’t do too badly yourself, sweetheart.” Taylor reached over and flicked off the bedside light. “Okay, sleep it is. Come here.”
There, lying close, his arms locked around her, she felt sheltered, safe and loved. Taylor was vigilant to the point of paranoia, and she knew he needed to be, so she let him fuss and worry about her. Day by day she watched him heal and mend and start to believe in himself again.
There were even deeper shadows in the darkness that had been Taylor’s life, but here, wrapped in warmth and softness, his soul seemed to find some peace. Danielle still worried about him. She did that willingly, never forgetting to appreciate the blessings too. This was the better or worse they’d spoken about in their marriage vows just a few weeks ago, and his solid warmth reminded her always that she’d found something worth hanging on to.
This was something else he did. Chatting with her last thing before sleep. As if talking in the dark made things easier to say.
“You never told me how you got the file.”
He hadn’t pushed her on that one. She’d told him part of it. The bit about his grandfather realising he still loved him and wanting to make amends before he died. She knew Taylor hadn’t believed her, but he’d seemed content to let it go at that.
“I told you already. I made your grandfather realise what a shit he’d been.”
“Yes, but you never really told me how.”
Danielle pressed her face into his shoulder. “Is it important that you know?”
“I told him I was having your baby.”
Taylor’s whole body tensed at the words. She felt him struggling to relax, and it was a long while before he spoke. “And are you?”
She couldn’t keep the note of regret out of her voice. “No, but I want to. With all the death and destruction around you, it might give you hope, you know?”
“I know what you’re going to say, Taylor. Too dangerous, wrong lifestyle. One day, maybe?”
“Yes, one day. How did the old man take it?”
“I don’t know. It seemed to hit him, hard. The weird thing was that even though I felt sorry for him, I was still able to stand there and be the bitch queen from hell. I told him he’d never see the baby.”
“And you still feel bad about that?”
“A bit. Didn’t know I had it in me to do that to a dying man, but I had to. So I did. How long has he got?”
“Couple of months at the most, I think. Says he’s left an apology in his Will.”
“You’d take it?”
“I don’t know. He deserves to rot in hell. Seems as if he’s trying to buy himself out of it. Heck, maybe I’ll meet him there one day. The two of us can catch up on old times.”
“Don’t say that. He came through for you, with a bit of persuasion.”
Taylor released his death grip on her. “Always thought you’d have made one hell of a spy. Shall we have one?”
“You were right, Taylor. It’s not the time.”
“But when we do, how many shall we have?”
Danielle laughed. “The standard answer is one of each.”
“One of each it is, then.”
Taylor sighed and she felt him settling, starting to drift off.
“Love you too. More than you’ll ever know,” she whispered. There was no answer. His deep, even breathing told her he’d already fallen asleep. She lay awake for a while, thinking about the database of European resorts she was compiling for Marc. Good old Marc who’d come through as a true friend, inventing a job especially for her. An income she sorely needed.
Feeling herself drift off too, she went through her nightly ritual. A prayer of thanks. A kiss for Taylor. A few moments of contemplating her good fortune. A few more of panic that this was all too perfect and Fate would eventually snatch it away from them.
It would always be a possibility. She knew that, and was learning to live with it. But she’d felt it on the plane and she’d felt it on the beach. The only place she wanted to be was here, doing this, with him.
It was enough.
Copyright © 2005 Alexandra Marell
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written consent of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. The right of Alexandra Marell to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
First published 2005 Second Edition 2007 This edition 2012.
All characters in this publication are purely fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.