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Dare To Love Eileen Nauman Mills & Boon M&B Dare to LoveHow could she be in love with her captor?The instant Kai Easton was kidnapped from a posh Houston suburb, her life changed drastically. She was the wrong victim, but Matt Travis wouldn't let her escape.Kai didn't even want to run from Matt. His eyes told her intimate secrets, and his embrace was passionate and true. She longed to believe in him, because within twenty-four hours she'd learned to want him forever… Travis Trilogy Dare to Love How could she be in love with her captor? The instant Kai Easton was kidnapped from a posh Houston suburb, her life changed drastically. She was the wrong victim, but Matt Travis wouldn’t let her escape. Kai didn’t even want to run from Matt. His eyes told her intimate secrets, and his embrace was passionate and true. She longed to believe in him, because within twenty-four hours she’d learned to want him forever… Dare to Love Lindsay McKenna www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents 1 (#u0ae52d85-0a71-5f19-99b7-d5f4aa97ce75) 2 (#u89ef2fb1-8690-5653-9f8f-6081d3458422) 3 (#u79887849-1494-5cdc-b8dd-a36501d4bd09) 4 (#u2bf9b69c-4df6-596b-93f2-f613ed44d75e) 5 (#litres_trial_promo) 6 (#litres_trial_promo) 7 (#litres_trial_promo) 8 (#litres_trial_promo) 9 (#litres_trial_promo) 10 (#litres_trial_promo) 11 (#litres_trial_promo) 1 TEARS STUNG her eyes. Kai blinked them back and compressed her full lips to halt the threatening deluge. “What’s the matter, Kai? Can’t you take a little good-natured ribbing?” her half brother drawled. He leaned against the door and watched her through hooded eyes. “Are we too good for you? You’ve been on Christmas leave exactly one day, and you’re already trying to escape.” She walked out on the red brick patio, which was enclosed by a huge wrought-iron fence that guarded the multimillion-dollar house. True to form, Frank was beginning to needle her unmercifully. “I know you find jogging a boring, plebeian pastime, Frank, but I enjoy it. And I’m not running away from anything,” she muttered, crouching to tighten one shoelace that looked suspiciously loose. Her green eyes glittered with hurt as she avoided Frank’s amused gaze. Why did it always stun her that he enjoyed torturing her with his carefully veiled barbs that appeared on the surface to be sibling teasing? Or reminding her that she was the major heir to her father’s massive oil wealth? Because, her mind railed, Frank and his two sisters, Susan and Audra, wanted it all. Well, money was only a means to an end, not a god as they worshipped it. She longed for the days before her father had wildcatted his way to this incredible wealth. Since then, money had been a constant reminder of interfamily greed and jealousy, which festered around her whenever she came home. “Most rich women wouldn’t dream of working up a sweat.” Frank grinned. “At least you and Susan have jogging in common. She does it to keep svelte, and you do it to get away from our wonderful family atmosphere. Or do you jog just to show everyone that you’re one of ‘them’ and not one of us? A hardworking, white-collar type who picks up a paycheck every two weeks. Prejudice in reverse. God, Kai, I’m glad you come home for Christmas every year. You break up the monotony of my existence.” She wanted to be as insensitive and cruel as Frank. He was three years younger than her own twenty-nine, and he had the emotional maturity of a three-year-old. Still, Kai was grateful to Susan for allowing her to borrow one of her jogging outfits. It was one of the few civil gestures she had bestowed on her half sister. Kai had disdained the designer suits Susan now wore in favor of a very old, worn pair of gray sweat pants and teal blue top. It was raining. Normally Susan would have joined her for her daily three-mile trek through Royal Oaks. But not today. No, Susan hated getting wet. So Kai would take her normal route. She slowly rosé and slipped a red sweatband around her forehead. Turning, she looked out over the Royal Oaks section of Houston. It had become a meeting ground, where the old rich and the new rich rubbed elbows and lived. A mist was beginning to fall from the gray sky. Grimly she swung her attention back to Frank. “If it wasn’t for seeing my dad, I wouldn’t bother coming down here to be the entertainment for you, Frank.” He was the least tolerable of her father’s second family. Susan was a snob. And Audra had some face-saving humanity that came to the surface in moments of weakness. Kai smiled to herself. Well, at least her father had found a sliver of happiness the second time around with Vera. And that was what counted. So Kai gritted her teeth to endure Vera’s three very spoiled children from her first marriage. Frank’s laugh was low and taunting. “Ah, but loyal, responsible Kai has to come. You’re like that watch Paul gave you last night, Kai—predictable, stable and forever reliable.” He gazed up at the leaden sky, and an amused look lingered on his long face. “Didn’t you know the rich melt when they get rained on? Susan thinks you’re crazy.” Kai quelled her tormented emotions. “Are you implying that we white- and blue-collar workers don’t care if we get wet?” Frank studied the carefully manicured fingers on his soft hands. “You hit the nail on the head. Sweat or rain. What’s the difference? Both make us look disheveled.” “Speak for yourself,” she growled. “I like good, honest sweat. I like earning a living, too.” “You aren’t getting rich on that nursing paycheck you bring in twice a month.” Kai swallowed a torrent of comments that would be appropriate for Frank’s needling, but that she felt were beneath her. “I consider myself rich in other ways, Frank. Ways that money could never buy. Besides, I don’t think you really care what happens to me.” He shrugged, giving her an appreciative look. Kai was tall, well-proportioned with an inbred grace that reminded him of a ballerina. She looked positively grotesque in that set of baggy gray sweat pants and bulky shirt. Only her richly colored auburn hair, which had been captured and tamed into a ponytail, gave any contrast to the drab outfit. She looked a bit like Susan in that moment, although his sister was decidedly more beautiful. Frank brightened as he perused Kai’s face. There were her glorious green eyes flecked with gold. And her mouth. Oh, yes, her mouth. Why hadn’t she ever married? Grudgingly he admitted she was a stunning-looking woman. Although not as pretty as his sleekly bred sisters, Kai had an unusual face that complemented her flawed attractiveness in a unique and arresting way. He would have to pursue the topic, at a later date, of why she wasn’t yet married. During breakfast, perhaps, when everyone would be present…. She always squirmed when he put her under his sights at family gatherings. “Well, don’t be long. You know father wants you back here in time for the official ‘Welcome Home, Kai, Breakfast’ at ten.” Kai pushed her wispy bangs out of her eyes, glancing at the watch on her wrist. It was eight-thirty. She opened the gate and then locked it with a key that she deposited in her pants’ pocket. “Three miles takes twenty-five minutes, Frank. I’ll be back in plenty of time.” He grinned and watched her from between the wrought-iron grillwork. “Wouldn’t want you to miss your homecoming, darling.” Kai refused to expend a glare on him. “Somehow, ‘darling,’ if I dropped over dead today, I suspect you’d celebrate.” “That’s unkind, Kai.” She held on to the anger that warred with the simultaneous urge to cry. She detested Frank’s continual sarcasm. “The truth always hurts,” she replied. With that, she started off at a lope down the wet, deserted sidewalk. Why did she even bother coming home? Christmas would be in three weeks, and she’d have to endure the Holts until after the holiday. Then she could escape to the serenity of her father’s Del Rio ranch for the last week of her military leave. Hitting stride, Kai glanced down at the Rolex. It had been a gift from her father, a twenty-five-hundred-dollar gift, Susan had cattily informed her. Recently Kai had broken her other watch at the hospital. For a moment she stared down at the fourteen-carat gold and stainless steel. Her father had given it to her because of her nursing duties. Didn’t a nurse always have a reliable, practical watch? Paul had asked, smiling. A slight warmth buoyed Kai’s sagging spirits: Rolex put out another model of the same type that was made entirely of fourteen-carat gold. Her father had had the wisdom and insight to realize she wouldn’t have accepted a gift that was such an obvious symbol of wealth. Of course, Frank and his sisters would have wanted nothing less than the most expensive model. And then it would have been merely a bauble, something to coo over, flaunt and wear for a week before becoming bored with. Kai would wear this watch forever…. Grimly she bent her head as the rain began coming down more heavily. She would be soaked by the time she returned home, but she preferred the fresh air and cleansing rain to Frank’s torment. After the first mile she was thoroughly warmed up, her legs loosened, her heart beating a strong, steady rhythm in her breast. Running was an exhilarating lift, and Kai raised her head and challenged the slash of raindrops while a smile played on her parted lips. This was a little slice of heaven! The irritating honk of a horn intruded on her glorious reverie. Kai pulled her scattered thoughts together and looked to her left, slowing to a walk. A dark olive-green van pulled up beside her. The driver, a heavily built man, rolled down the window and gave her an apologetic smile. “Excuse me, but we’re trying to find Westheimer Avenue. We’re new to the Houston area.” He pulled the map toward Kai as his companion handed it to him. “Could you tell us where it’s at, miss?” He unfolded the bulky map as she walked across the strip of grass to the curb. Kai leaned over, studying it intently. Finally she found the street and traced the route with her wet, slender finger. “Sure,” she gasped, “you’re on Maconda right now, and—” She felt a sharp, stinging sensation in her right thigh and became vaguely aware that a man stood nearby. Kai blinked and straightened, her hand automatically moving to her leg. She heard the driver snarl an order. The world tilted. She frowned. What was going on? Danger! her instincts screamed. Kai tried to take a step away from the man hovering close by, but her legs refused to obey her. She gave the driver a puzzled look. He was grinning tightly, watching her as a cat would its intended prey. A small cry escaped her as she felt her knees begin to buckle. Before blackness swallowed her, Kai saw another man emerging from the van, his face set. It was the expression in his gray eyes that registered on her spinning senses. He looked grim, his mouth molded into a hard, flat line. But his eyes broadcast a silent concern and unspoken terror for her just as she lost consciousness…. * * * THE COLDNESS and shock of water being thrown on her face revived her. She groaned, dimly aware that her hands were tied tightly behind her. Pain was the first feeling to register in her drugged brain. The warmth trickling down her wrists toward her fingers could only be blood. “Come on, rich bitch. Wake up!” More water was thrown on her, and Kai struggled to gain a foothold on consciousness. She forced her eyes half-open. The nakedness of the solitary light bulb suspended from the ceiling made the grimy plywood walls seem surrealistic. She winced from the strong glare. She was a nurse, and she knew that something was desperately wrong with her. Nothing would come into focus. Voices were distorted as if they were bouncing in an echo chamber. Nausea threatened to engulf her, but she forced herself to concentrate on her current condition. Kai was lying on her side with a wiry wool blanket beneath her. It was a bunk of some sort or a makeshift bed that she was lying on. Kai saw the legs of the two men, who were standing very close to the bed. Panic began to seep through her dulled state. “Hey!” a man with black hair and dark brown eyes snapped. He leaned over, gripping her shoulder in a viselike hold. He gave her a shake that made her feel as if her neck would snap off. “I said wake up! Now if you know what’s good for you.” “Easy, Bennie,” the second man cautioned. “You heard Taylor. He don’t want no rough stuff with the broad. She’s gotta be left in good condition.” “To hell with Taylor. He’s Garcia’s boy, not mine.” “Yeah, well Garcia is runnin’ this operation, Boyce. He put Taylor in charge, not you.” Boyce grinned, running his hand down her wet arm, allowing it to come to rest on the long curve of her thigh. He squeezed her leg with his splayed fingers. “This ain’t hurtin’ her, Wright. Is it, honey?” Kai felt his strong, cruel fingers massaging her thigh. Sheer terror coursed through her. She couldn’t even lash out, since her ankles were securely bound. Stiffening, she screamed weakly, but only a muffled protest was audible. The gag they had placed in her mouth was so tight that she was beginning to drown in her own saliva. Her eyes enlarged, Kai shrank back against the wall, trying to find escape. The door was jerked open, and the shadow of a third man loomed over Kai. “Get your hands off the merchandise, Boyce.” Boyce slowly straightened and removed his hand. “Ah, come on Taylor, ease up. I was only having a little fun.” Kai sobbed, tears streaking down her pale, drawn face. Her vision was blurry, but she recognized those same gray eyes. Eyes that now sought her out. Trembling violently, Kai gave him a pleading look for help. Taylor glared at the two men. “Get out. Both of you.” “But—” “I told you to untie her, Boyce, and make sure she was kept warm.” “Well,” he growled, “we were gettin’ around to that.” Taylor jerked his head. “Get the hell out there and keep watch. We don’t need any nosy security guards dropping in on us unexpectedly.” Kai closed her eyes, barely able to maintain a thread of coherent thought. She heard the door slam shut. Moments later she felt his hand on her. Automatically she shrank from his touch, her eyes wide with terror. He scowled, his dark brown brows dipping as he leaned over her. “I won’t hurt you.” In seconds he had released the gag, and threw it with disgust on the dusty wooden floor. His touch remained gentle as he ordered Kai to roll over onto her stomach so that he could untie her hands. “Damn,” he muttered. Kai clenched her teeth. No matter how careful he was in releasing the biting ropes that bound her wrists, that wasn’t careful enough. Tears of pain squeezed from beneath her tightly shut eyes. Her wildly beating heart began to calm. Just his presence assuaged some of her fear. Who was he? Why wasn’t he like the other two? Oh, my God, Kai thought disjointedly, who are they? What do they want? The last rope gave way; suddenly her numbed, cramped arms were free. They fell to her sides as if she were a rag doll. Pain soared upward through her extremities, and Kai felt blackness engulfing her once again. Just the thought that the stranger named Taylor was nearby gave her solace as she slipped over the welcome edge of oblivion and escaped the living nightmare…. Matt knelt down beside the bunk, his hand resting protectively on the damp shoulder of her sweat shirt. She had fainted. Compressing his lips, he pushed several strands of auburn hair away from her tear-stained cheek. Dammit, this shouldn’t have happened. He knew little about Boyce except that the ex-con had a history of sexual assault. He had fought unsuccessfully to keep him off the kidnapping, but Garcia had insisted. Matt’s gray eyes narrowed. Garcia, he reminded himself. This is the last step in getting to Garcia…. As his gaze settled on her wrists, Matt winced. Boyce needn’t have trussed her like an animal. Getting to his feet, Matt looked around the small, squalid room. There was one dusty blanket on the bunk. The room smelled musty. What unused warehouse wouldn’t? Worriedly he shifted his concern back to the woman. Had she fainted from pain or from the drug? It shouldn’t be the drug. She ought to be recovering from the effects of it by now. He leaned down, placing his fingers along the exposed part of her slender neck to check the pulse at the carotid-artery point. His frown deepened; her pulse was rapid and weak. Her skin was clammy, small beads of perspiration dotted her forehead and upper lip. Cursing silently, Matt straightened up. Was this a drug reaction? Either Boyce had shot her up with too much of it, or she was allergic. Either way, she could end up dead. He studied her tense, drawn features, and his heart wrenched unexpectedly in his chest. She was attractive in an unusual way. Shaking himself, Matt continued to stare down at her. They had just successfully kidnapped the daughter of one of the richest oil tycoons in Houston. And the woman was affecting him in a way he never would have expected. Angry with Boyce and disgruntled by rampant feelings Matt thought had died within him long ago, he quietly left the room. But not before shedding his own jacket and placing it across Kai’s shoulders in an effort to keep her warm. * * * FORTY MINUTES LATER Matt reentered the room with another blanket and a small sack of supplies. Exhaustion shadowed his gray eyes as he covered her with the blanket. Guilt plunged through him. She had curled up into a tight fetal position for protection. Tucking the blanket around her body, he felt the pulse at the base of her neck again. This time it wasn’t so jumpy. That was a good sign. As gently as possible, Matt brought her arm up to examine it. There had been no reason to mar her flesh. Her skin was smooth, reminding him of the velvet quality of a ripe peach. Reaching down, he pulled out a bottle of antiseptic, some cotton and gauze from the sack at his feet. Kai moaned. She had felt someone’s hand on her lower arm. Nausea brought her back to consciousness. Drowsily she forced open her eyes. She looked up only to meet his concerned pewter gaze. A rush of warmth flowed through her, and immediately Kai relaxed. She was safe with him. Though she opened her mouth to speak, only a croak came out. His gaze grew more intense as he studied her in those heart-stopping seconds. “Water?” Kai gave a weak nod of her head. Why did her body feel as if she’d been in an accident? She was vaguely aware of Taylor as he changed his position and gently gathered her into his arms. Kai’s head lolled against the hard, well-muscled wall of his chest. She felt as if she had sawdust in place of her bones. “You’re weak,” he cautioned her, supporting her so that he could maneuver the paper cup to her parted lips. Kai was conscious of his strong, slow heartbeat. It gave her a sense of stability. Eagerly she consumed four cups of water before her thirst was quenched. She felt his hand tremble as he awkwardly caressed her hair in a gesture meant to give her some comfort. Her mind told her she should remain on guard, and she stiffened in his embrace. He smelled of rain, and that combined with the masculine scent of his body was like a perfume to her reawakening senses. She saw the corners of his sensual mouth curve slightly upward. “More?” His voice vibrated through her, telling Kai this man was different from his companions. She groped to understand why he was being kind. And yet, he was her captor. “N-no.” “How are you feeling?” “Awful….” He carefully placed her back on the bed. “They shot you up with too much of the drug,” he said as he briskly placed the blankets over her once again. He lifted her arm and rested it across his thigh so that he could cleanse the rope wound. Kai licked her lips and forced her jigsaw thoughts into some semblance of order. “Please, what’s going on here? Where am I?” She stared up at him, her vision continuing to improve. His face was somewhat narrow. There was an intensity to his handsomeness. It showed in his well-placed cheekbones, which gave his face breadth. She saw his mouth tighten when she asked the questions. His nose had been broken, her nurse’s observation told her—at least twice. He glanced up briefly from his duties, and Kai detected a haunted expression in his eyes before he veiled it. She tensed then. Matt froze, realizing he must have hurt her. “Sorry,” he said gruffly, “but these cuts have to be cleaned.” Kai avoided his stare. “I’ll try to be braver.” “For being Susan Easton, you sure aren’t the society witch I thought you’d be.” “Susan?” “Yeah. You’re Susan Easton. Or has the drug erased your memory, too?” he taunted. “N-no. I’m not Susan. I’m Kai Easton. Susan is my half sister.” He reared back, surprise mirrored in his expression. Then, just as suddenly, the flicker of shock was gone, and only that gray, opaque stare remained. “Susan Easton has red hair, she is five feet seven inches tall and weighs one hundred twenty pounds. And she jogs that same route every day, seven days a week. Boyce has been keeping track of her movements for three weeks now…. He couldn’t have made that kind of mistake.” An then Matt pulled out a black-and-white photo from the pocket of his shirt. It was a poor, partly blurred photo of Susan jogging in one of her tailored outfits. He held it near Kai’s face. “You do look similar with your hair pulled back by a sweatband,” he groused, shoving the photo into his pocket once more. “Susan didn’t jog today because it’s raining. And I just got home on leave yesterday. I borrowed one of her outfits because I forgot to pack mine.” Matt combed his long, strong-looking fingers through his hair. “If you’re telling the truth…dammit.” Kai would have burst out laughing if the situation hadn’t been so serious. “Did you kidnap the wrong woman?” she managed dryly. He shrugged his broad shoulders. “It doesn’t really matter,” he muttered. “You’re an Easton. Susan just happened to be our target because she was the most visible.” Then regret came to his eyes. “You’re the physical-therapist nurse.” “Yes.” Ruefully Matt shook his head. “For all your red hair and freckles, you sure as hell don’t have any Irish luck, lady.” Kai grimaced, watching as he babied the lacerations around her wrists with antiseptic. “Believe me, ever since my father remarried, my luck’s gone down the tube.” She bit back any more of a response, realizing how quickly and intimately they had established a rapport. Kai withdrew her wrist. He raised his chin, staring at her. In that fleeting second he appeared…different. Kai could easily imagine him in a military uniform or in a business suit. Everything about him shouted that he was a man who was above the act he had taken part in. “You haven’t answered my questions. What’s going to happen to me?” she asked, her voice hoarse. “We’ve kidnapped you for money.” “My father will pay it. Any amount.” “Four million?” Kai drew in a sharp breath. “Four—” “You’re worth it,” he muttered cryptically, reclaiming her wrist. Anger tinged her drugged state. “But why? I’m just a nurse! I’m a U.S. naval officer who lives in Bethesda, Maryland. This doesn’t make sense, Mr.—” “Matt Taylor’s the name.” Her look was scathing. “Is that your real name?” What kidnapper would stupidly give her his real name? She could relay that vital information to the police once they freed her. “That’s as close as you’re going to get.” “At least you have some manners, even if you do have to resort to lying.” His look made her feel as if she’d just been shot. “Look, Kai, the game we’re playing with each other is necessary. I’m sorry we kidnapped you and not your sister.” Suddenly Kai sobbed. It was unlike her to be overemotional. She had been a nurse for almost six years after winning her navy commission out of college. She loved her work and her patients. But this was too much. They had wanted Susan—not her. Her lips parted as tears rolled helplessly from her eyes. “I—I’ve never hurt anyone. At least not intentionally. And neither has Susan.” Well, that was a bald-faced lie. Susan effectively cut up everyone with her royally bred tongue. When she was in one of her shrewish moods, she made everyone who didn’t come up—or down—to her standards feel like a case of the urban blight. And Frank’s perverse moods made Susan’s look like the pranks of a child in kindergarten. Kai turned her head toward the wall, trying to escape the mortification of crying in front of her captor. She felt Matt Taylor’s fingers come to rest on her chin, gently drawing her head back toward him to meet his gaze. She stared up into his anguished gray eyes. “Believe me, no one’s sorrier about this than I am, Kai.” He brushed her cheek dry with his fingers. “You’re Easton’s daughter by his first wife.” “Y-yes.” A slight smile hovered at the corners of his mouth. “The love child?” He posed the question softly. Kai winced. “Please….” Her voice was strained. “My father’s second wife and her three children remind me of the circumstances every time I come home on leave. I’m a bastard to our mutual family.” She blinked back the tears. Why did she have the feeling he knew about love? And yet he was her kidnapper. She had seen loss reflected in the depths of his eyes as she’d spoken. 2 MATT TORE HIS GAZE from her. He had found himself falling helplessly into those wide, understanding emerald eyes. Kai’s compassion for others jarred him to the core. He had expected a twenty-three-year-old woman who had a reputation in Houston for being a spoiled brat. Instead they had captured Kai, who seemed to be a diametric opposite to Susan. What a pity, he thought. He could at least have reconciled himself to the fact that the experience might have made her a bit humbler. He had rubbed elbows with the wealthy enough times and found them an interesting lot. They lived by a different code, a different set of principles. He returned his attention to Kai. “Feeling any better?” “A little more coherent. My right thigh aches, and my wrists—” “There was no need to hurt you.” A shiver coursed up her arm from where his fingers rested. My God, did Matt affect her that much? Quickly she reorganized her thoughts and began focusing on her plight. “So you’re the boss?” Her voice was whiplash taut. “That’s right.” Kai was annoyed with herself. She prided herself on her ability to judge people. If Matt Taylor had masterminded this whole fiasco, then he was the worst of the lot! She jerked her wrist away. “You bastard.” She struggled to sit up, suddenly aware that as the blanket fell away, her sweat shirt was revealed, clinging to her like a second skin and outlining her full breasts, flat stomach and slender waist. Heat rushed from her throat up into her face. She was blushing. As much as the recuperating military officers and enlisted men ogled her in the hospital words, or teased her good-naturedly, she never blushed. But this man made her excruciatingly aware of her femininity, exhilarated and uneasy all in the same breath. Infuriated with herself and frightened, Kai was not in full control of her emotions, and her anger ballooned. “I take that back. I’m a true bastard. But you—” her voice shook with feeling “—you’re the worst kind of human being. You’re a parasite. Someone who bleeds off people’s losses and misfortunes.” Matt resigned himself to the tirade. Color had rushed back to her cheeks, and her eyes had a flicker of life in them once again. It appeared that she was beginning to throw off the effects of the drug. He drew an inner sigh of relief, willing to have her recuperation compensate for her anger. “Let me finish cleaning your wrists,” he told her in a level voice that was meant to defuse her rage. “I’ll do it myself! Just hand me that—” “You’re shaking like a leaf, Kai. You couldn’t even hold—” She drew her knees up against her chest, her body pressed to the wall. “I don’t want you to touch me!” she cried fiercely. That was a lie. Matt’s touch gave her an instant’s reprieve from this unfolding nightmare. He imparted strength, stability and some intangible emotion that made her feel protected. His eyes grew cold and unreadable. “Tough. Knock it off, and give me your wrist.” They stared at each other with the silence engulfing them. Exhaustion was thinning Matt’s reserve of patience; he hadn’t slept in the past twenty-four hours. He didn’t believe in using unncessary force, either. Especially on a helpless child or a woman. “You’re upset. We’ve got a long way to go, Kai. Don’t start fighting me now. I’m not going to hurt you. I’ll try to make it easier on you. After I get you bandaged up, I’ll find you something to eat. Are you hungry?” Kai tucked her trembling lower lip between her teeth, afraid she would begin bawling in earnest. Just the rough velvet of his voice destroyed the anger she had aimed at him. Matt groaned inwardly. Why the hell did she have to look like a helpless, vulnerable child in that moment? She was tearing down defenses he had erected two years ago. He cocked his head, studying her, trying to ferret out the answer. Her ponytail had loosened, the auburn hair framing her square face with softened waves. Her eyes were large, the color of flawless emeralds. High cheekbones gave her eyes almost a tilted, catlike appearance. She was exotic looking. Her mouth was generous and asymmetrical, one corner curving up more than the other. He liked her nose, patrician but with a slight hump, making it a bit less than perfect. An arresting face filled with contrast. The sort of face he could spend the rest of his life mapping with his eyes. “Please,” Kai quavered, breaking into his thoughts, “let me go. My father will pay the ransom. All I want to do is go home….” She was little-girl scared, and that fact tore yet another wall away from his heavily guarded heart. He hung his head momentarily. “I can’t do that. There’s much more at stake here than you realize.” Matt closed his eyes. He knew this whole operation was going to be tough. But he had never envisioned this kind of emotional impact on him. Kai Easton was magically affecting him on every sensory level. And in those precious seconds of discovery, Matt realized he felt the first stirrings of wanting to live again. “Kai, you have to trust me. Just do as I ask. Those two guys out there are hard. They won’t listen to your pleas or—” “Or feel sorry for me like you do?” she hurled back contemptuously. Matt leaned forward, gently recapturing her arm. “Lady, what I feel is hardly pity,” he warned her in a vibrating voice. Matt’s touch was electrifying, and Kai bit back a gasp. His strong, tanned fingers wrapped firmly around her forearm, and she surrendered, remaining silent. After cleaning her wrist, he gave her an apologetic look. “All I’ve got is Vaseline so those cuts won’t stick to the gauze.” He allowed her to pull back her wrist while he drew out the ointment and smeared it across the dressing. Kai said nothing, trying desperately to ignore him and his sensual touch as he carefully wrapped her wrist. He looked satisfied with the attempt. “Not hospital-recommended,” Matt conceded, “but it’ll do for now.” His gray eyes lightened as he sought her approval. “You’re a nurse. What do you think?” Kai glared down at her wrist. “Blood poisoning is a good bet,” she muttered, refusing to be drawn into his banter. Anger was replacing her wooziness. Right now all she wanted to do was slap his handsome face. Kai instantly regretted the thought. She could see exhaustion shadowing his pewter eyes. He had saved her from the humiliation of Boyce’s advances. She gave him her other wrist to clean, and the silence heightened unmercifully between them. “At least tell me where I’m being held.” “You’re at an abandoned warehouse near the gulf.” Kai could hear the rain pelting against the roof and slashing against the sides of the empty building. The hollow, drumlike sound intensified in her head. Her burgeoning headache was growing to mammoth proportions. She closed her eyes, tipping her head back against the wall. “Kai?” She barely opened her eyes, the garish light hurting them. Matt Taylor’s concerned expression came into view. “What?” Kai sounded churlish. Ordinarily she never allowed her feelings to show. How many times had she coaxed, cajoled and needled her injured patients into trying to walk again? Kai had urged them to their feet when they had thought it an impossibility. And sometimes, especially at first, they had glared at her, cursed her and cried with her. She tried not to take their harsh words or looks personally. But she did at times; she was only human. She had forced herself to try to become detached and allow their epithets to bounce harmlessly off her. That technique didn’t always work. With Matt, she took everything he said personally and then some. Kai felt helplessness and anger welling up inside her like a volcano, and she wanted to lash out at him. She wanted to hurt him as much as he had already hurt her. “Come on,” she heard him say, “lie down. You’re getting pale again.” Stubbornly Kai raised her head and glared at him, no matter how much it hurt to open her eyes. “Go to hell.” One corner of his mouth quirked inward. “If you don’t lie down you’re going to collapse. You have a headache?” Kai couldn’t deal with his kindness. “Just leave me alone!” “Look,” he said in an exasperated tone, “we’ve already contacted your father. He knows how much we’re asking in ransom. As soon as he gets the four million together, I’ll meet with him. You’ll be home in no time.” She grimaced. “That’s really funny, Taylor. The captor trying to comfort the victim.” She placed her fingers against her brow and forced out, “Who are you?” Matt smeared the Vaseline on the gauze. “What do you mean?” Kai tenderly rubbed her temple, which seemed to assuage the needlelike pain stabbing at her. “You know what I’m talking about. You’re not like those other two criminals.” “Afraid I am.” She opened her eyes, giving him an irritated look. “You’re not a very convincing liar, Taylor. In my business I’m trained to see men at their bottom line, and I can see through the games and manpulation you’re pretending with me.” Matt carefully knotted the gauze around her other wrist. He scowled as he got up and retrieved a thermos filled with coffee and a chipped plastic cup. He poured her some. “Here, you’d better start drinking this.” He reached into the pocket of his pale blue shirt, producing a tin of aspirin. “And take a couple of these.” At the door he turned and looked back at her. Even in the damp, unflattering jogging clothes, she had a look of refinement. Matt smothered the wistful images he conjured up of her in a long, sophisticated gown with her rich auburn hair arranged in a tasteful Gibson-girl hairdo. “Elegant” was the word that came to mind to describe Kai Easton. Maybe the rich were different. But Kai differed from her half sister. Susan epitomized the enfant terrible attitude that stalked some of the wealthy, whereas Kai’s lack of snobbery placed her at the opposite end of the spectrum. Matt reined in his rampant thoughts; he had to keep his mind on the business at hand. Kai Easton’s life was at stake in more ways than she could possibly fathom. “I’ll be back later. Lie down and rest and don’t try to leave the room.” He motioned toward one corner. “The social amenities aren’t much, but they’ll have to do.” Kai’s heart gave a resounding thud when she thought of Boyce. “They’ll leave me alone?” Matt opened the door. “They won’t lay a hand on you.” He saw the momentary relief in her dark jade eyes. His scowl deepened as he closed the door and made sure it was locked. Boyce and Wright raised their heads. Both sat around a dusty table shuffling a deck of cards. The grayness filtered through the shattered windows and afforded them precious little light to play poker by. The warehouse was one of the oldest on the dock; a broken-down wooden structure surrounded by newer ones with corrugated aluminum skins. Matt had chosen it because of its proximity to the gulf. If things to got too hot, they could escape in the forty-foot cabin cruiser floating in a nearby quay. “How’s my girlfriend?” Boyce asked, grinning. Matt’s eyes turned the color of charcoal. “Forget about her, Boyce.” Boyce placed his cards on the table. He was a large, hulking man, half again Matt’s size. “Look, I don’t like these society dames, Taylor. The rich always think they’re better than the rest of us.” “You screwed up. We kidnapped Kai Easton instead of her sister, Susan. Both of them have red hair and are the same height.” Boyce looked momentarily shocked and then shrugged noncommittally. “Doesn’t make any difference. She’s an Easton. One’s as good as another.” “Kai Easton’s a nurse. She works for a living.” “You’re breaking my heart, Taylor. Now she’s Miss Goody Two Shoes. What she needs is a real man to show her what life’s about.” Matt glanced at his watch. Boyce couldn’t be trusted. And he had to meet with Drummond in forty minutes. “Make that second phone call to Easton’s home. Be sure—” Boyce slowly rosé. “I know. Make it from a different phone booth each time. Don’t worry, Taylor, I know my job.” He flashed a disdainful look. “This is my sixth kidnapping. It’s your first. So don’t try to tell me what to do. You’re supposed to coordinate and pick up the money. It’s my job to make the calls and take care of the broad.” Matt’s face remained closed and unreadable. “Let’s go,” he ordered, motioning Boyce toward the corrugated door located at the other end of the warehouse. The rain was coming down in earnest, soaking Matt’s shirt and stretching the thin material across his muscled back before he could reach the car at the end of the wharf-side dock. As always, he and Boyce split up, each taking a different route and vehicle. Even in the gloom of the shroudlike morning, Matt restlessly combed the deserted strip of wharf for any suspicious activity. No one but Drummond knew of their whereabouts…. He shut off his thinking there, allowing his instincts to override his mind. With his five senses Matt scanned the area. No sight, sound or smell escaped his abilities, honed to radar precision. It seemed he could almost feel danger, too—taste it when it was in the air. For the past two years he had lived and behaved like an animal, rubbing elbows with the criminal element. A grimace pulled at his mouth as he peered through the slashing rain. His human side remained in hibernation. Until now…. Kai Easton was responsible for its reawakening. My God, why now? Why her? She was out of his league in every sense of the word. She was born rich. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. According to Drummond, Kai’s wildcatting father had had every last penny riding on one last oil well. The day Kai had been born, Paul Easton had gained a red-haired baby daughter, a multimillion-dollar producing well and had married his love hours after Kai’s birth. Two days later he had lost his adored wife, Rae, to post-labor complications. Matt hesitated at his dark blue Toyota Celica. His sharpened gaze missed nothing as he looked over the sports car. Satisfied that it hadn’t been tampered with, he slipped the key into the lock and opened the door. Water trickled down the length of his strong jawline as he leaned over, placing the key in the ignition. One more look around the area and Matt slowly drove away from the wharf, heading toward the prearranged destination point. He saw Boyce’s black Mustang easing out from another entrance. Matt braked to a crawl, wanting to make sure Boyce was heading in the opposite direction before turning left into the dreary noon-hour traffic. Drummond would be waiting…. * * * BOB DRUMMOND slid into the Toyota Celica, his meaty face a dull red as if he was experiencing a high-blood-pressure attack. He slid a glance over at Taylor. “How’s it going, Matt?” “Murphy’s Law is in effect.” “Yeah, I heard you got the wrong Easton girl. She okay?” “Boyce roughed her up. She’s still coming out of a drug overdose, and her wrists are in bad shape. She’ll have scars there the rest of her life.” “Let’s just get her out of this alive, shall we? That damn Boyce. I’m sorry we didn’t take him out before.” “I can’t stay long, Bob. Boyce tried getting smart with her already.” Matt rubbed his reddened eyes. “How’s it going from your end?” “We’ve got a special team from the police department assigned to run you down. Trammel’s got it.” “And my people?” “Inspector Anderson from the local FBI office is interfacing with Trammel. We’ve got more federal agencies involved in this than you can shake a stick at. After five kidnappings in a row, you know they want to solve this one real bad.” “God, that’s got to be a picnic for Anderson. I feel sorry for him.” Drummond managed a sour grin. “My office is staying clear, like I promised your people back in D.C. when we first hatched this plan.” “Good, then your chief of police isn’t aware of the undercover operation at all?” “Nope, just you and me at the local level, friend. I’m filing a report back to your D.C. office as soon as we conclude this meeting. Has Garcia contacted you yet?” “Not yet. I don’t think he’ll surface until we’ve got the money.” Drummond shook his massive gray head soulfully. “Look, I don’t mean to put more pressure on you, Matt, but you realize the five women kidnapped before you got involved were murdered. You can provide Kai Easton with the protection she needs. It’ll be the last kidnapping of this kind. I only wish we could tell Paul Easton the truth. Maybe he’d take this a little easier.” “Even with me there isn’t any guarantee. Boyce could get rabid and put a slug through me just as easily. I didn’t get involved soon enough to foil the other kidnappings. I got a last-minute call from Garcia’s right-hand man, Emilio Dante, and he told me to take a flight out here to Houston. Boyce met me at the airport, and then we waited for the Easton woman to go jogging as she always does.” He grimaced. “Boyce made a hell of an error in mistaking Kai for Susan Easton. All we can do is ride this one out.” Bob agreed and handed him a sheaf of neatly typed papers. “You’re lucky you were at the right place and time at all, so quit bitching. It’s not every day we’re lucky enough to get a deep-undercover agent in place behind the lines. Take a quick read. I got these reports through your Washington office. It’s a profile on Kai.” Matt glanced up momentarily from the report. “How’s the rest of the family taking it?” “According to Trammel, Kai’s half brother and sisters are pretty upset about the whole thing. I guess he overheard Frank Holt bewailing the fact that the four million Garcia’s demanding is going to be waisted on Kai.” Matt’s nostrils flared, and his gray eyes turned black. “No wonder Kai doesn’t stick around Houston. I wouldn’t either, overwhelmed by that kind of family welcome. She’s been brave, and she’s a fighter. It’s a crying shame her family doesn’t appreciate her courage.” “You see family problems like that all the time around here, Matt. We have special trouble with Houston’s ‘new rich.’ The families either get possessive wives or greedy children as a result of money flowing in by the millions. Kai just happens to be one of the many who are wounded in action over this type of thing.” Matt completed the report, lifting his head. “I wonder how in the hell Kai came out ‘normal’?” “Ask her. You got plenty of time on your hands until Easton can get the money together to buy her back.” Matt glanced at his watch. “I’m going to have to stick closer to her than I had originally planned, Bob. Boyce is dangerous.” “Yeah, stick real close. Just for your info, Easton’s having trouble putting the four mil together. Holidays and all. Trammel thinks the old man is gonna have a stroke before this is all over. You know he’s sixty-eight.” “Judging from this report, he and Kai are close.” “Yeah, I guess they are, and just thank God you were already undercover in Garcia’s operation before they pulled this sixth kidnapping. Otherwise, I think we’d stand every chance of loosing Kai just like we did the other victims.” Matt gave him an unfathomable look. “I’m going to get Garcia. I’m close. I’ve waited two years working my way up to that slime, and Kai Easton’s my ticket to him. I’ll make damn sure she comes out of this alive.” “Make sure you both come out of this alive,” Drummond growled. “If you don’t have the money by tomorrow, I’ll meet you at Bilbert’s at ten in the morning. By then, this operation should have shaped up, and we can get your people in place to nail Garcia.” * * * KAI GROGGILY TURNED onto her back. Pain was throbbing incessantly through her wrists. Her mind focused on Matt Taylor and his sensitive nature despite the bizarre situation they found themselves in. He wasn’t like the others, she told herself, while the remnants of the drug made her head pound. She needed two more aspirin to quell the ferocious headache. Struggling into a sitting position, Kai drew her legs across the bunk and sat up. She held her head between her hands, allowing the pain to recede before moving. Disoriented, Kai stared at the Rolex for several moments before the time registered on her foggy brain. It was 4:00 P.M. The door opened, and she raised her head with a great deal of effort. A small gasp escaped. Bennie Boyce grinned at her as he silently slipped into the room, shutting the door behind him with finality. “Admiring your Rolex, honey?” he asked silkily. Her heart began a slow, dreaded pounding in her chest. Kai licked her dry, chapped lips. His feral eyes rested on her breasts, and she wanted to cross her arms in defense of his ruthless gaze. “No,” she said, her voice unsteady. “I wanted to see what time it was.” “Liar. I’m surprised you don’t have a gold Rolex. What made you settle for something less? Couldn’t be money. Your old man is busy forking over the four mil for ya right now.” He pushed himself away from the door, walking with deliberate strides to the bunk. Kai’s breathing became forced, and she winced as he lifted his hand and pushed his fingers through her unbound hair. “You like all the rest of the rich women, honey? Bored with their husbands? Got a tennis pro on the side you’re lying around with?” She inhaled sharply, pulling her head away. “Leave me alone!” Boyce laughed. It was a low, gutteral laugh. “Why, here I’d thought you’d be like all the rest, bored and wanting something different. Well, I’m different, doll face. And just your type.” Before Kai could move, Boyce wound his fingers through her shoulder-length hair, yanking her back on the bed. A cry of anguish tore from her lips; she lashed out with her right hand. The sharp slap of flesh meeting flesh sounded throughout the room. Boyce jerked back, grunting in surprise, and released her. Panic set in. Kai scrambled off the bunk, making a lunge for the door. She ripped off fingernails frantically twisting the doorknob. Instantly Boyce assaulted her from behind. His fingers dug into her shoulders. He hauled her down onto the dusty floor. Blackness rimmed her vision. Kai struggled beneath him and screamed weakly, unable to stop him. “Benny!” Wright bellowed, charging past the door, “you crazy—” Kai felt Boyce’s weight suddenly lifted off her. She lay gasping, tears running down her face. “You heard Taylor, dammit! Now come on, leave her alone,” Wright begged. Boyce touched his smarting cheek where she had hit him. “No way, Hank. I want to tame her. Put her in her place once and for all.” Wright looked down at the woman; Taylor would kill both of them. His grip on Boyce tightened. “Look,” he hissed, “when we got the money and Taylor’s gone, we’ll have the woman the way you want. Like you had all the rest, Benny. Now come on, Taylor’s gonna be back anytime….” The door slammed shut. Dazed, Kai dragged herself to the nearest corner, fear pushing away every shred of rational thought. She shut her eyes tightly and turned her face to the wall, wrapping her arms around her trembling body. 3 MATT NOTICED Boyce sulking over his cards when he reentered the warehouse. Wright raised his head, a guilty look etched in his eyes. Tucking the sack of food more firmly under his arm, Matt stopped in front of them. “You make that second phone call?” Boyce barely nodded, not bothering to look up. If he did, the welt of Kai’s handprint would become visible. “And?” Matt prodded, his lips thinning with displeasure. “And Old Man Easton’s scramblin’ to get the money. He’s cryin’ the blues about the holidays making it tough to get the banks to cooperate in gettin’ the four mil.” “Is he going to meet our midnight deadline?” “Dunno.” “Dammit, Boyce—” “Look,” he snapped, raising his head and glaring, “we’re supposed to call him back at—” he glanced at his watch “—seven tonight.” “What happened to your face?” Matt asked, his voice deceptively soft. “What do you think, Taylor?” Matt’s heart took a terrifying lurch in his chest. He gripped the sack tightly. “I told you—” “The bitch slapped me,” Boyce snarled in self-defense. “Ask Wright. Tell ‘im, Hank!” Wright refused to be drawn into the conversation, hanging his head. Matt cursed, moving around the table and heading to the room where Kai was being held prisoner. Dread hung in his chest, the suffocating feeling increasing as he jerked open the door. Shutting it behind him, Matt looked to his left. Kai sat huddled like an animal in the corner. Her hair was disheveled, hiding her face from him. She was filthy with the dust from the floor, crouched into a ball, trying to hide. “Kai?” he called, moving across the room. He set the sack near the bunk. In moments Matt was kneeling at her side. His stripping gaze missed nothing. Her knees were drawn up tightly against her body. She was trembling like a rabbit cowering before a wolf. His mouth compressed with pain as he saw the bloody scrapes on the backs of her hands and the broken fingernails…which explained the handprint on Boyce’s face. Had he raped her? His throat tightened, and he felt nausea rising as he looked toward the bunk. The covers were tangled in the wake of their struggle. Matt returned his attention to Kai. He tried to keep his tone steady as he called her once again. “Are you all right?” He heard the quaver in his own voice. “Kai?” She only trembled more, and that tore at his heart. Unthinkingly Matt reached forward. The instant his hand touched her bruised shoulder, she shrank back, gasping. Before he could react, Matt saw her lash out. The blow landed solidly against his jaw. He reared back more in surprise than pain, temporarily off balance. Kai was breathing hard, her chin raised with defiance, jaw clenched as she glared at him. Her green eyes were dark with pain, glazed with shock. Matt regained his balance, crouching before her, his hand outstretched in a gesture of peace. “It’s all right,” he soothed. “I’m not going to hurt you. Come on, let’s get you up off the floor.” Kai’s eyes rounded as she saw his hand slowly come forward again. A small, pitiful cry broke from her glistening, contorted lips, and she shrank away. “Don’t—” Matt blinked back his own tears. He halted, stunned by his own reaction to her plea. One part of him wanted to go and kill Boyce. The other part said, Stay, help her. Kai needs you…. “Come on.” He stretched his fingers outward until he just touched her bare arm. Her flesh was cool to his touch. He allowed his hand to rest lightly against her, making no other move. “Good,” Matt praised, watching her closely. Her eyes were wounded holes of shock as she stared back at him. “Come on,” he coaxed, “let’s get you to the bunk, Kai. Can you walk?” Kai found it impossible to speak. Just the touch of his hand sent a feeling of security through her. She tried to convince herself that Matt wouldn’t hurt her. But fear overrode her heart’s whispering. His fingers wound gently around her upper arm. “Can you get up?” She fought to shake off the shock of Boyce’s attack. But it wasimpossible to do. Huge tears rolled from her eyes as she stared across those scant inches at Matt. Her heart wrenched as she realized his eyes were suspiciously wet. Crying…he was crying for her. It shook her to her very soul when she realized the anguish she saw mirrored in Matt’s eyes was for her. Speech was impossible; her throat was raw and constricted. Kai gave a bare nod of her head. She was instantly rewarded with a smile from Matt that would have made a rainbow appear on a rainy day. “That’s it. I’ll help you stand….” She felt his grip become firm as she struggled to rise. Halfway up, her knees buckled. A gasp escaped her. Instantly Matt’s arms were there, steadying her and helping her to her feet. Clutching at the torn fabric of her sweat shirt, Kai leaned heavily against him, her head against his shoulder. Matt Taylor represented protection. Her fear fled, and she sagged into his arms, shutting her eyes tightly as she entrusted herself to him. Matt pressed a kiss to her dark russet hair, aware of the faint scent of lilac. “Okay?” Kai barely nodded, relying on his strength and guidance. Once she was safely on the bunk, he reluctantly released her. Picking up the jacket he had given her previously, Matt drew it around her hunched shoulders. “Here,” he said hoarsely, “put this on. Lie down, if you want.” She raised her head, watching him straighten and walk to the door. A shiver of dread wove through her as she saw an awful light in his steel-gray eyes. The door was shut with finality behind him. Kai shakily pulled the torn sweat shirt off over her head while an ugly wave of humiliation washed through her. As she slipped on the lightweight blue jacket, she heard Boyce and Taylor arguing heatedly. No, she didn’t want to hear it! She hated violence. Numbly she worked the zipper with trembling fingers until it cooperated. Drawing the zipper up to her neck, she lay down, shutting her eyes tight. Suddenly she heard both men fighting. The sounds invaded her state of shock. Violence. That was all any of them knew. Covering her ears in an attempt to block out the noise, Kai sobbed. They were all little better than animals. * * * AFTER WHAT SEEMED an eternity to her, quiet settled in, with the exception of Taylor’s harsh voice issuing orders. Kai blinked back the tears. There was no sense in crying. She had to get control of herself even if she couldn’t control the situation she was embroiled in. Sitting up, Kai tried to comb her disheveled hair into some semblance of order with her numb fingers. The door quietly opened, and she jerked her head up. It was Taylor. Relief shadowed her features as he closed the door behind him. Thank God it wasn’t Boyce. She stared at his bloodied and scraped knuckles. The nurse in her saw the slight swelling along his lower left jaw. He pushed several locks of hair off his forehead and straightened his shirt, which had been torn open in the struggle with Boyce. Despite her own trauma, she found herself reaching out to him. “Are—are you all right?” “I should be asking you that question,” he muttered, tucking in the shirt. He walked over and sat down. But not as close as before. “Don’t worry, I’ll survive.” “Won’t we all,” she whispered, drawing her knees up against her chest and huddling against the wall. His look was apologetic. “Yeah, I suppose we will. It’s just the nature of that survival that I’m concerned about right now.” He leaned down, retrieving the sack he had brought with him. “Dinner.” Her stomach rolled threateningly. “I—I can’t eat…not right now….” Matt gave her a sharp glance. “You haven’t eaten all day.” Kai stared back blankly. God, he could be blindly insensitive when he chose to be. What else could she expect? He was an animal incapable of humanity. That’s not true, her heart protested. One look into his concerned gray eyes and Kai felt a twinge of guilt about her feelings. She swallowed an angry retort laden with venom. He didn’t deserve it. “I’m not hungry.” “Dammit, I don’t need you getting temperamental,” he said, ripping open the sack and pulling out one of the cold hamburgers. “Temperamental?” Kai croaked, trying to find her voice. Rage surged through her, erasing her fear. “How would you feel if Boyce had pawed and drooled all over you? I’m not some animal you can beat into submission!” Disgust tinged her voice. “But that’s all you are, isn’t it? Little more than animals.” She swallowed back the tears that wanted to fall. “I take that back, even animals don’t treat one another like you’ve treated me.” Matt winced inwardly, forcing himself to meet her accusing emerald eyes that were filled with fire. He had never envisioned that the problems entailed in this kidnapping would grow to such magnitude. He had to survive this undercover assignment. Two years ago it had been easy to remain impervious to human suffering. Not anymore. Maybe some of his hate and anger toward Garcia was abating. He stole a look at Kai. Or maybe it was because of her. He wasn’t sure. “You’re right,” he admitted. He wanted to reach out and take her into his arms and simply hold her. To give her a measure of protection. Matt recalled those brief moments of contact with her before, the yielding softness of her body against the hard length of his own. “Boyce will leave you alone.” “Well,” she goaded him, “if you’re the boss, it’s obvious Boyce doesn’t respect what you tell him.” “He’s not in any shape to bother you again.” He didn’t enjoy fighting, but if he had to do it, he went in with the idea of winning. And Boyce had been the loser in this last skirmish. What he couldn’t deal with was the injured look in Kai’s face. The real damage had been done to her emotions and spirit. Nothing could take that back. He throttled his bitter hatred of Boyce. Soon, he promised himself, soon he would be in a position to nail Garcia and his cutthroat gang. That thought was his only consolation for the misery Kai was experiencing. Maybe at a later date she would understand. He found himself wishing she would forgive him. But that was chasing an idealistic dream. Life consisted of one bitter interlude after another. He watched as Kai wrestled with the trauma. Striving to erase the terror he saw in her face, he tried to choose a benign topic of conversation. “You have someone special in your life?” Kai threw a look in his direction. Matt’s voice was gentle, without its previous harsh quality. “My father. Not that you really care.” He half smiled, slowly unwrapping the hamburger. “I meant like a fiance or something.” “Why? Were you going to bribe him for more money if I did?” “No.” Matt shook his head. “It’s tough imagining a woman of your quality not having a man in her life, that’s all.” Now Kai was confused. His tone was intimate, inviting her to try to relax. “My career gives me a great deal of satisfaction, Mr. Taylor.” “Call me Matt,” he urged. “Tell me about your work.” Kai hesitated. Just having him near mended her frayed nerves. He represented a barrier between her and Boyce. Suddenly she was grateful for his continuing presence. But the wary part of her reared its head. Did he want her just as Boyce did? Was he using different tactics to achieve the same goal? Kai searched his exhausted face. Her brain screamed, don’t trust him. Her heart won the battle. “I’m a nurse in the navy. I work as a physical therapist at the Bethesda, Maryland hospital.” “Why the navy?” “My father was in the navy when he was younger, before he started wildcatting for a living. It felt right to follow in his footsteps.” Matt smiled, dividing the hamburger and offering half of it to her. At first she stared at it and then reluctantly took it. A genuine smile crossed his face. Kindness was a rare commodity in his world, and it was a pleasure to exercise his more human side. Maybe he wasn’t a complete animal, after all. He bit into the hamburger. It was cold but edible. “Try it,” he coaxed. “It doesn’t taste as bad as it looks.” Her stomach was growling. She hadn’t eaten anything since the night before. Lifting the hamburger to her lips, she took a taste. Instantly nausea rosé in her throat. Kai shut her eyes, handing it back to him. “I’m sorry, I can’t….” Matt retrieved it from her outstretched hand, placing it back in the sack. “How about some coffee instead? Maybe that will stay down,” he muttered in apology. “I’ll try it.” “It’s black.” “That’s the way I like it.” Their fingers grazed as he handed her the paper cup. Kai was acutely aware of the contact and quickly took the coffee. She sipped it cautiously. “Is it going to stay down?” The warm liquid slid down her raw throat, soothing it. “It tastes wonderful,” she murmured gratefully. Her response pleased him for no particular reason. The huskiness in her voice was like balm to his darkened soul. A slight smile played on Matt’s mouth. “Did you pick up your love of coffee in the navy?” Kai nodded. “Actually, it was a matter of survival. If you didn’t drink it first, the coffee would come hunting you.” Matt grinned, relieved to see that her humor was surfacing. “You still haven’t really answered my question. Why the navy? You’re a woman who could make it anywhere on her own terms, I’ll bet.” Perhaps it was the coffee soothing Kai’s jittery feelings, making her feel more relaxed. Her shoulders drooped, and she released a sigh. “I wanted to see the world. I thought it would be a great way to meet people and at the same time be of service to others.” “You enjoy helping people?” “Yes. Why are you giving me that look?” He shrugged. “It’s hard to believe someone born with a silver spoon in her mouth would admit to something like that.” “We’re all supposed to be selfish snobs, is that it?” “Don’t take what I said personally.” “Oh, of course not. That’s like me saying a criminal is an animal, even though you’ve displayed some humanity. How do you like being classified like that?” “I am one,” Matt said simply. Kai quirked her lips. “Yes and no. You aren’t like Boyce, thank God.” “I’m like him in many other ways.” “Then why haven’t you tried to rape me?” Matt glanced at her. “It’s not my style.” Kai stared at his mouth. It was a mouth drawn in at the corners by…pain? She couldn’t identify the emotion. The timbre of his voice flowed through her. Yes, she could imagine his mouth on her lips, his hands intimately touching her. Kai shook herself, shocked at her thoughts. She had almost been raped by Boyce. How could she be thinking of lovemaking with Matt Taylor less than an hour later? Agitated, Kai remained silent, mulling over the complexities. She sipped the coffee for nearly five minutes before breaking the silence. “You have a streak of humanity in you,” she told him quietly. “Maybe all criminals aren’t alike.” “Like all rich people aren’t snobs?” “Exactly.” “Maybe we’re both horses of a different color.” “I know I am,” Kai murmured. “And if my instincts serve me, so are you.” “The lady runs on her feelings, eh?” “Don’t most of us?” He enjoyed her indignation. “Don’t nurses have to be pretty objective so that they don’t get hurt while dealing with their patients’ suffering?” Kai grimaced. “Who told you that?” “Just an observation.” She shook her head. “I don’t know a nurse alive that hasn’t shed tears for the patients in her care. And there are times when we want to yell back at them like they’re yelling at us. Or cursing us because we’re asking them to move their bodies which are already in pain. It’s a thankless job sometimes.” Her voice lowered. “But a worthwhile one, I think.” He reached over, grazing her cheek, erasing the last tear. “You’re easily touched, Brat.” Kai froze, stunned by his simple gesture. Matt’s strong fingers had touched her cheek like the kiss of a butterfly, and her flesh tingled afterward. Just the way he uttered the nickname “Brat” made it an endearment meant for her alone. Taking a deep, shaky breath, Kai forced out in a whisper, “Who are you?” Matt dropped his gaze to avoid Kai’s pleading look. In that instant, he wanted to kiss away those tears forming in her eyes. And kiss her deliciously shaped mouth that was begging to be caressed. With a supreme effort, he tore down the burgeoning dream of someday loving Kai. She was a woman of immense emotional capacity. Money could neither buy nor make the unique person who sat before him. Only life experiences had made her special. “Who am I?” Matt shrugged. “Two years ago I might have been able to tell you who I was. I can’t anymore.” Kai tilted her head, detecting carefully hidden pain in his voice. It was reflected in the depths of his charcoal-gray eyes, now opaque. She watched Matt shake his head as if trying to cast off a haunting memory. “Who hurt you?” Matt regarded her for a moment. “I lost someone two years ago.” “I’m sorry.” Silence engulfed them. Suddenly not hungry, he stared down at the half-eaten hamburger. “She was quite a woman,” he admitted quietly. He raised his head, meeting her emeral gaze. “A little like you. Special.” “Ask Frank, and he’ll call me something other than special,” she parried grimly. “Family jealousy?” “That’s part of it. I wasn’t really raised with that silver spoon you talked about. The one oil well dad brought in when I was born made him ten million. He turned all that money into another well and sunk a dry hole. I was fifteen before he was financially stable. Even then, we weren’t really rich.” “So you didn’t go to the rich kids’ school to become a snob?” Kai shook her head. “No, good old public school like everyone else. When I wasn’t in school, I was out in the oil fields with my dad. I was at his side many a time.” Matt grinned, seeing her in a new and interesting light. “So you were a tomboy?” “With pigtails and freckles to boot.” He looked closely at Kai and saw a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Her eyes were breathtakingly alive as she spoke of her past. Matt found himself caught up in her life story. “When your father married again, you inherited a new mother and a couple of half sisters and a brother?” “When Vera Holt married my father, her children knew they were rich beyond their wildest dreams. They took advantage of my dad’s generosity.” Kai pursed her lips. “And they tried to play me against him. It hasn’t stopped to this day.” “Is that why you joined the service? To escape the family pressures?” His perception was unsettling. Kai’s brows dipped. “Yes. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a chicken when it comes to family dissension. I felt the best solution to the problem was to leave.” She gave him a sad smile. “Every year I come home on my thirty days of leave and visit dad.” “You could have handled things differently, you know.” “How?” “Stayed and fought for your position in the family.” Her green eyes grew tender. “I’m not good at fighting for myself. I learned that long ago. I’m great at helping other people fight their battles, but I don’t enjoy manipulating people to get what I want. If you love someone, there shouldn’t be a need to fight for the right to share him.” Matt nodded thoughtfully, digesting her statement. Kai Easton was like a well of unfathomable depth; he saw the world in simpler terms. “Sometimes, though, you have to give plenty to the person you love,” he countered, thinking back to his own marriage, before it had been condemned to death. “Haven’t you ever had to fight for the man you loved?” Kai’s expression became less readable. “I thought I was in love twice in my life. Both times with military officers who were pilots.” There was hurt lingering in her eyes. “But you didn’t marry?” How could any man allow her to escape? She laughed ruefully. “Let’s put it this way. They loved their aircraft more than me. Both of them were carrier pilots. They lived to fly, Matt. How could I compete with the sky and their planes? I did fight for their love. But I lost.” “Yeah, a woman never wants to come between a pilot and his plane, that’s for sure,” he muttered. “A plane is like a mother-in-law. You get one with every marriage if you marry a pilot. I know. My brother is a Marine Corps aviator who’s currently stationed aboard a naval aircraft carrier. He lives, eats and breathes flying. More than one woman has fallen for him, only to find out later that he loved flying more than he did her. I know what you’re talking about.” Kai gave him a strange look. “Your brother’s in the military? And you’re making a living as a kidnapper?” “Always a bad apple in every barrel. Didn’t you know that?” “I may be ignorant, but I’m not naive,” Kai countered strongly. “It’s hard to believe that if your brother is so straight, you’d turn out like this.” “Like I said, every family has a skeleton in the closet. I’m it.” “But I hear the pride in your voice when you talk about your brother.” “Oh, I’m proud of him, all right. He’s top stick in his squadron. One hell of a pilot. He’s so damn good that they’re going to send him to test-pilot school next year. That’s really something.” “Did he ever marry?” Matt grinned. “No, he’s smart enough to realize that his love affair with flying would interfere with a marriage. It’s a matter of choice to him, like it was to those guys you dated. He’s not celibate, as I said. Cal always has women around whenever his carrier pulls into a port.” Kai gave him a sour smile. “I wish I had had the sense to realize that about carrier pilots before I made my fatal mistakes.” “I think they were both fools to pass you up,” Matt said quietly. “Any man in his right mind would grab you and never let you go.” A warm blush swept up into Kai’s face. Leaning back, she felt the accumulated tension flowing out of her limbs. “As you get older, you get wiser. No more relationships with carrier pilots, believe me. I learned my lesson the hard way.” The silence was ebbing between them. “Why is it so easy to talk to you?” “Chemistry, maybe,” he murmured, watching the tension drain from her face. “Feeling better?” “Yes.” “Well enough to eat?” “N-no.” His gray eyes grew dark. God, why did Boyce have to attack her? There was no need. Matt studied Kai closely. She was a fighter. In this case, a good trait to possess. Her survival might hinge on her ability to think in a crisis. “How about more coffee? Looks like you’ve finished off that first cup in a hurry.” “Please.” Her hand trembled as she held the cup, and he wanted to reassure her that everything would be all right. Hopefully in another twenty-four hours Kai would be home, in a safe and comfortable environment. But he couldn’t say that. He couldn’t promise her anything. “I’ll bet your hospital patients think you’re pretty special,” Matt said, circumventing the anxiety he saw registering in her eyes. “They become like family to me for that three to six months when they’re recovering in the orthopedics ward.” “Then you deal with a lot of the military men who are wounded or injured in action?” “Yes, mostly pilots who ejected from their planes or guys who were injured on the decks of the aircraft carriers. Both are terribly dangerous jobs. When we get them, they’re all doped up with painkillers and usually heading for the first of three to seven operations while they’re with us.” “Not something I’d ever want to experience,” Matt muttered. “But you’d risk a prison sentence for kidnapping. I find your choice hard to understand.” He shrugged his broad shoulders, wanting to divert her from her need to know more about him. The less she knew, the better he would be able to maintain his cover in order to complete this job. “So you patch up men’s broken bodies? It’s got to be a natural high to see them get out of those hospital beds and walk again.” The first genuine smile curved her lips. “There’s no greater feeling. Unless it would be to have a baby.” Kai ran her slender fingers through her hair, trying to tame it into order. She longed for a brush or a comb. “You want children someday?” “Absolutely.” And then she shared a shy smile with him. “If I can find a man who doesn’t love his aircraft more than me.” “Maybe you’ve limited your field of choice. You could marry a civilian.” “Are you joking? What civilian male is going to get up and leave his steady, secure job every three or four years when I get orders to transfer to another military base?” “Women do it for men all the time. Why shouldn’t a man do it for the woman he loves?” “You’re serious, aren’t you?” It was Matt’s turn to smile. “Sure am.” “You’re one of the few men I’ve met who hasn’t hidden behind that particular double standard, then.” “I’m the idealist now,” he admitted. “Marriage means compromises. It won’t survive without them.” “You’re talking from experience.” He nodded. “I was married once. We each had certain priorities that had to be met. We found ourselves bending and giving. It wasn’t so tough. Matter of fact, it made the marriage better.” Her eyes grew troubled. All of Kai’s instincts told her Matt Taylor was a rare human being. Now her assumption was being proven. “With that kind of attitude, I don’t think you’re divorced.” “No, I didn’t divorce.” His voice softened, and he shook off the powerful feeling of loss. “Let’s talk about you. I’m a boring and depressing subject.” “On the contrary, you’re intriguing. I have a feeling you’re hiding much more than you’re telling me.” “Wouldn’t you if you were in my place? When this is over, you could get me identified to the cops on the basis of what we’ve talked about. I can’t risk that. It’s safer to talk about you.” Kai glanced at her watch; nearly an hour had passed. She felt more emotionally stable. “If I get out of this,” she told him throatily, “I’ll never forget you or your kindness.” “You’ve struck a soft spot in me, Kai Easton.” Matt appeared embarrassed. “I don’t know why or how, but you have. Maybe it’s your pretty green eyes affecting me.” Or maybe it was her, the woman who had reached out and touched the hidden chords of his heart and filled him once again with a vibrant life. “What do you do in your time off?” Kai leaned against the wall, sliding her arms around her drawn-up legs. “Behind the apartment where I live there’s a wooded, hilly region. I love going for long walks just to get rid of the tension. I try not to think about my patients then.” “You take your work home with you?” “There’s no one to divert my attention from it. Sometimes I’ll invite a couple of guys who are on the mend home on a Saturday afternoon and treat them to a home-cooked meal.” She smiled. “Most of them have been confined to a bed for at least three months and are then transferred to a wheelchair. They haven’t seen much sunshine or been outdoors, and they have very few visitors. I try to get them out of the hospital for a couple of hours.” “That way you maintain some semblance of home life for yourself.” Matt grinned. “Makes me almost wish I was one of your patients. But not quite.” “I’d rather you be my patient than my kidnapper.” “I’m not the type that likes to be mothered.” Kai gave him a veiled look filled with irritation. “I’m not a frustrated mother or housewife.” “Oh?” There was a glitter of anger in her emerald eyes as she met his indecipherable look. “I would hardly ‘mother’ the man in my life, for your information.” “Really?” Matt baited. “There’s a huge difference between mothering a man and being a friend to him.” “I’m teasing, Brat. Although,” he drawled, “you look pretty when you get that Irish dander of yours up.” The glimmer left her eyes. “Or are you just trying to get my mind off the present situation?” A slow smile crept across Matt’s sensual mouth. “Could be.” “Why are you afraid of being known as a good guy?” Kai demanded. He rosé stiffly to his feet. “Haven’t you heard? Good guys finish last.” “Not in my book.” He gathered up the blanket. “Don’t put me on any ‘good’ list. I’ve got feet of clay just like everyone else. Maybe more so than most. Why don’t you lie down and rest? I’ll leave the sack of food by the bunk in case you get hungry later.” Fear leaked into her voice, and she stared at him with wide eyes. “Where are you going?” “Not far. Just out into the warehouse. You’re looking tired, and I want you to get some rest.” Matt leaned down, brushing the area beneath her left eye. “You’re starting to get shadows. Angels of mercy like you need their sleep.” Her flesh tingled wildly where he had grazed her skin. Kai’s heart pounded briefly. Matt was a kidnapper. But the evil surrounding his deed didn’t fit the man who had just touched her. Kai was clearly confused, and she saw a slight smile pull at one corner of Matt’s mouth. She knew he wasn’t going to tell her anything he didn’t want her to know. He was a man of infinite depth, of many secrets. And judging from the look in his bloodshot eyes, all the secrets he carried were either sad or dangerous in nature. Wordlessly Kai lay down, drawing the blankets up over her shoulders. As she closed her eyes, Matt rearranged the covers a little and tucked her in. The light was snapped off, and Kai heard him whisper, “I’ll check in on you a little later. Try and rest.” 4 BOYCE AND WRIGHT looked up as Matt emerged from the room. The pounding rain was unrelenting, sending the hollow, pinging sound throughout the darkened interior. It increased Matt’s moodiness. “Get a little while you were in there, Taylor?” Boyce snarled softly. “Shove it.” Boyce grinned, watching Taylor in the semidarkness. The flicker of a Coleman lantern drove away the circle of blackness that surrounded them. “When you got a good-looking broad like her around, that’s all I’d think about.” Matt rubbed the bruised, bloodied knuckles on his right hand. Boyce appeared more subservient after the fight. Maybe it had been worth almost busting up his hand, after all. The swelling around Boyce’s left eye had blackened; the eye was nearly shut. “You’d better be thinking about contacting Easton again. It’s almost seven o’clock.” “Yeah, yeah,” Boyce griped. He threw the cards down on the table, picked up his jacket and shrugged it over his meaty shoulders. “I’ll be back.” Matt walked silently around the warehouse, checking out the possible entrance-exit points. The cops of Houston would be looking for them in earnest. And so would the local FBI agents. He stopped, thrusting his hands into his jeans’ pockets, surveying the steel girders above his head in the gloom. His mind swung back to Kai and their discussion. Why couldn’t they have met under different circumstances? He was drawn to her, rightly or wrongly, as sunlight was to warm, fertile earth. She was like the earth, he thought, continuing his sentrylike duty inside the building. There was a natural sensuality to Kai. Matt could imagine the military men who had been injured in the line of duty responding to her wonderful smile and melodic voice. Kai’s touch would be sure. His mind wandered over the prospect of what it would be like to love her. He imagined what her thick hair would feel like as he ran his fingers through it. He imagined the velvet feel of her pliant, youthful skin against his own. Kai was fascinating. She was the only woman since Maura who had intrigued him enough to make him want to think about living again instead of just surviving. Dragging in a deep breath, Matt forced himself back to his duties. He halted, studying an old door half torn off its hinges. The rain was slashing in, leaving large puddles on the cracked concrete floor. He stared at them in thoughtful silence. Was life always a road map filled with contours, wrong turns and dead ends? His eyes narrowed as he studied the lines radiating from beneath his feet. Didn’t it ever have a foreseeable beginning and ending, without the obstacle course that would eventually change life’s direction? No, Matt reminded himself, life was little more than a survival school composed of one gray day after another. He ambled toward Wright, who remained seated. How did Kai interpret the world? Obviously quite differently than he did. Where he saw perpetual darkness, she saw light. She did her best to heal men’s broken, torn bodies and urge them to reach out and live once more. He smiled slightly as he completed his tour. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/eileen-nauman/dare-to-love-39904266/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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