Diamond Bay (Chapter Three)

It was three o'clock in the morning. Honey had left half an hour before, and Rachel had held her weariness at bay long enough to take another much needed shower and wash the salt out of her hair. The heat of the day had finally abated enough that the air was comfortable, but soon it would be sunrise, and the heat would begin to build once more. She needed to sleep now, while she could, but her hair was wet. Sighing, she propped herself against the vanity and turned on the blow-dryer.

The man was still asleep, or unconscious. He was definitely concussed, but Honey hadn't thought it was severe, or that he was in a coma; rather, she'd decided that his continued unconsciousness was due to a combination of fatigue, loss of blood, shock and the blow to his head. She had taken the bullet out of his shoulder, stitched and bandaged his wounds and given him a tetanus injection and an antibiotic; then she and Rachel had cleaned him up, changed the bedding and made him as comfortable as they could. Once she had decided to help, Honey had become her usual capable, unflustered self, for which Rachel would be eternally grateful. Rachel felt that she'd strained herself to the limits physically, yet from somewhere she'd found the strength to help Honey during the nerve-racking operation to remove the bullet from the man's shoulder, then repair the damage done to his body.

Her hair dry, she put on the clean shirt she had brought into the bathroom with her. The face in the mirror didn't look like her own, and she stared at it curiously, noting the colorless skin and the mauve shadows under eyes dark with fatigue. She was punch-drunk from weariness, and she knew it. It was time to go to bed. The only problem was: where?

The man was in her bed, the only bed in the house. She didn't have a regular-sized couch, only two matching love seats. There was always the possibility of making a pallet on the floor, but she was so tired that even the thought of the effort involved was almost beyond her. Leaving the bathroom, she stared at her neat bed with its snowy white sheets, and at the man who lay so quietly between those sheets.

She needed to sleep, and she needed to be close to him so she could hear him if he awoke. She was a thirty-year-old widow, not a trembling ingenue; the most sensible thing to do would be to crawl into bed beside him so she could rest. After staring at him for just a moment longer she made her decision and turned out the lights, then went around to the other side of the bed and slipped carefully between the sheets, trying not to jostle him. She couldn't prevent a low moan as her tired muscles finally relaxed, and she turned on her side to put her hand on his arm, so she would wake up if he became restless. Then she slept.

It was hot when she awoke, and she was drenched in sweat. Alarm flared briefly when she opened her eyes and saw the dark masculine face on the pillow next to hers; then she remembered and rose on her elbow to look at him. Despite the heat he wasn't sweating, and his breathing seemed a little too fast. Quick concern rose in her, she sat up and put her hand on his face, feeling the heat there. He moved his head restlessly, away from her touch. He was feverish, which wasn't unexpected.

Quickly Rachel got out of bed, noticing that it was past noon. No wonder the house was so hot! She opened windows and turned on the ceiling fans to get some of the hot air out of the house before she turned on the air conditioner to cool things even more. She didn't use it that much, but her patient needed to be cooled down.

She had to take care of him before anything could be done. She dissolved two aspirin in a teaspoon of water, then gently lifted his head, trying not to jar him. "Open your mouth," she crooned, as if he were a baby. "Swallow this for me. Then I'll let you rest." His head lay heavily against her shoulder, his black eyelashes still resting on his cheeks. His hair was thick and silky beneath her fingers, and warm, reminding her of his fever. She put the spoon against his mouth, noting the clear-cut line of his lips; the spoon pressed down on his bottom lip, opening it just a little. "Come on," she whispered. "Open your mouth." How many levels of consciousness were there? Did he hear her voice? Make sense of the words? Or was it just the low, tender tone that got through to him? Was it her touch? The warm, sleepy scent of her flesh? Something reached him. He tried to turn toward her, his head nuzzling against her shoulder, and his mouth opened a little. Her heart pounded in her chest as she coaxed him to swallow, hoping that he wouldn't choke. It worked so well that she managed to get three more teaspoons of water down him before he lapsed back into deeper unconsciousness.

She wet a washcloth in cold water, folded it and placed it across his brow, then turned the sheet back until it was low across his hips and began sponging him down with the cold water. Slowly, almost mechanically, she drew the wet cloth over his chest and shoulders and down his powerful arms, then to his lean, hard belly, where the hair on his chest narrowed to a thin, silky line. Rachel drew a deep breath, aware of the slight trembling in her body. He was beautiful. She had never seen a more beautiful man.

She hadn't let herself think about it the night before, when it had been important to get help for him and tend to his wounds, but she had realized even then how attractive he was. His features were even and well formed, his nose thin and straight above the mouth she had just touched. That mouth was firm and strong, with a finely chiseled upper lip that hinted of determination and perhaps even ruthlessness, while his lower lip curved with disturbing sensuality. His chin was square, his jaw firm and darkened with a stubble of black beard. His hair was like thick black silk, the color of coal and without any blue shininess to it. His skin was darkened with an allover tan, a deep, olive-bronze hue.

He was very muscular, without having the off-putting bulk of a body-builder. His were the muscles of hard work and physical exercise, the muscles of a man trained for both strength and speed. Rachel picked up one of his hands, cradling it between both of hers. His hands were long fingered and lean, the strength in them apparent even though he was completely limp. His nails were short and well tended. Lightly she felt the calluses on his palm and fingertips; and she felt something else, as well: the hardness of his flesh on the outside edge of his hand. Her breath became shorter, and wariness prickled along her spine again. Cradling his hand against her cheek, she reached out tentatively and touched the scar on his flat belly, a curving, silvery line that almost glowed against the darkness of his tan. It went across his stomach and around his right side, curving down out of view. That wasn't a surgical scar. She went cold, visualizing the terrible ferocity and viciousness of a knife fight. He must have whirled away from the blade, leaving it to slice his side and back.

A man with a scar like that, and with those tell-tale calluses on his hands, wasn't an ordinary man working an ordinary job. No ordinary man could have swum to shore wounded the way he was; that had required incredible strength and determination. How far had he swum? She hadn't been able to see any lights at sea, she remembered. She looked at his hard, lean face and shivered at the thought of the mental toughness hidden behind his closed eyelids. Yet for all his toughness, he was helpless now; his survival depended on her. She had made the decision to hide him, so it was up to her to nurse and protect him as best she could. Her instincts told her that she had made the right decision, but the uneasiness wouldn't leave her until she had some hard facts to back up her intuition.

The aspirin and sponging had lowered his fever, and he seemed to be sleeping deeply, though she wondered how to tell the difference between sleep and unconsciousness. Honey had promised to come by again that day and check him, to make certain the concussion wasn't worse than she had first thought. There was nothing else Rachel could do, except go about her normal business.

She brushed her teeth and combed her hair, then changed into khaki shorts and a sleeveless white cotton shirt. She started to change in her bedroom, as she normally did, then cast a quick glance at the sleeping man in her bed. Feeling foolish, she went into the bathroom and closed the door. B.B. had been dead for five years, and she wasn't used to having a man around, especially a stranger.

She closed the windows and turned on the air conditioning, then stepped outside. Ebenezer Duck and his band of waddling followers rushed up to her, with Ebenezer squawking his displeasure at having to wait so long for the grain she usually scattered first thing in the morning. Ebenezer was the grouchiest goose living, she was sure, but there was a certain majesty about him, so big and fat and white, and she liked his eccentricities. Joe came around the back corner of the house and stood watching as she fed the geese, keeping his distance from them as he always did. Rachel poured Joe's food in his bowl and filled his water dish with fresh water, then stepped away. He never approached while she was still near his food.

She gathered the ripe tomatoes from her small garden and checked the bean vines; the green beans would need gathering in another day or so. By that time her stomach was rumbling emptily, and she realized that it was hours past her normal breakfast time. Her entire schedule was shot, and there didn't seem to be much point in trying to regain it. How could she concentrate on writing when all her senses were attuned to the man in the bedroom?

She went inside and checked on him, but he hadn't moved. She freshened the wet cloth and replaced it on his brow, then turned her attention to her growling stomach. It was so hot that anything cooked seemed too heavy, so she settled for a sandwich of cold cuts and slices from one of the fresh tomatoes she had just picked. With a glass of iced tea in one hand and her sandwich in the other, she turned on the radio and sat down next to it to listen to the news. There was nothing unusual: the standard political maneuverings, both local and national; a house fire; a trial of local interest, followed by the weather, which promised more of the same. None of that offered even a glimmer of an explanation for the presence and condition of the man in her bedroom.

Switching to the scanner, she listened for almost an hour, but again there was nothing. It was a quiet day, the heat inducing most people to stay inside. There was nothing about any searches or drug busts. When she heard a car coming to a stop in front of her house she turned off the scanner and got up to look out the window. Honey was just getting out of her car, carrying still another grocery sack.

"How's he doing?" she asked as soon as they were inside.

"He still hasn't moved. He was feverish when I woke up, so I managed to get two aspirin and a little bit of water down him. Then I sponged him off."

Honey went into the bedroom and carefully checked his pupil responses, then examined her handiwork on his shoulder and thigh and rebandaged the wounds. "I bought a new thermometer for this," she muttered, shaking it down and putting it in his mouth. "I didn't have one for humans."

Rachel had been hovering worriedly. "How does he look?"

"His pupil responses are better, and the wounds look clean, but he's a long way from being out of the woods. He's going to be a sick man for several days. Actually, the longer he stays quiet like this, the better it is for him. He's resting his head and not putting any stress on his shoulder or leg."

"What about his fever?"

Honey counted his pulse, then took the thermometer out of his mouth and read it.

"A hundred and two. Not critical, but like I said, he's going to be very sick for a while. Give him aspirin every four hours and get as much water down him as you can. Keep sponging him off with cool water to keep him comfortable. I'll be back tomorrow, but I can't come too often or it'll look suspicious."

Rachel managed a tight smile. "Are you sure your imagination isn't running away with you, too?"

Honey shrugged. "I listened to the radio and read the newspaper. There wasn't anything to account for this guy. Maybe you're rubbing off on me, but all I can think is that only two scenarios are left. One is that he's an agent, and the other is that he's a drug runner hiding from his own people."

Looking down at him, at his tousled black hair, Rachel shook her head. "I don't think he's a drug runner."

"Why not? Do they have identifying tattoos, or something?"

She didn't tell Honey about his hands. "I'm probably just trying to reassure myself that I've done the right thing."

"For what it's worth, I think you have. Last night I didn't, but today I've thought about it, and I struck up a chat with a deputy this morning. He didn't mention anything unusual. If your guy is involved with drugs you'll have time to find out before he's in any shape to be dangerous. So, I guess you were right."

There was still another possibility, one that Rachel had thought of but had no intention of mentioning to Honey. What if he was an agent…for someone else? A drug runner, an agentneither of those was very savory, considering what she had learned about both occupations while she'd been a reporter. Rachel had been a very good reporter, an ace, digging for the facts even in the face of danger. She knew, far more than Honey did, just how dangerous it was to hide this man, but there was something in her that was incapable of simply washing her hands of responsibility and turning him over to the sheriff, then letting events take their course. She had become responsible for him the second she had seen him feebly swimming in the Gulf, and turning him over to someone else wouldn't change that fact. As long as there was a possibility, however remote, that he was deserving of her protection, she had to offer it. It was a risk she had to take.

"How much longer will it be before he wakes up?" she murmured.

Honey hesitated. "I don't know. I'm a veterinarian, remember? With the fever, the loss of blood, the knock on his head…I just don't know. He should be hooked up to an IV, getting fluids. His pulse is weak and fast, he probably needs some blood and he's shocky, but he's coming out of it. He may wake up at any time, or it may be tomorrow. When he does wake up he may be disoriented, which isn't surprising. Don't let him get excited, and whatever you do, don't let him get up."

Rachel looked at him, at his powerfully muscled torso, and wondered if there was any way on earth she could prevent him from doing anything he set his mind on doing. Honey was taking gauze and tape out of her bag, "Change his bandages tomorrow morning. I won't be back until tomorrow night, unless you think he's getting worse and call me, and in that case you'd be better off calling a doctor."

Rachel managed a taut smile. "Thanks. I know this hasn't been easy for you to handle."

"At least you brought some excitement into the summer. I've got to go now, or Rafferty will tear a strip off me for keeping him waiting."

"Tell John I said hello," Rachel said as they stepped onto the porch.

"Depends on his mood." Honey grinned, her eyes lighting with the pleasurable prospect of battle. She and John Rafferty had been warring ever since Honey had set up practice in the area; Rafferty had made plain his opinion that a woman wasn't strong enough to handle the job, and Honey had set out to prove him wrong. Their relationship had long since evolved into mutual respect and a continuous wrangle that they both enjoyed. Since Honey had a long-standing engagement to an overseas engineer, with plans to marry during the winter when he returned to the States, she was also safe from Rafferty's legendary torn-catting, because one thing Rafferty didn't do was poach.

Joe stood just at the corner of the house, muscles tight as he warily watched Honey get in her car and drive off. Ordinarily Rachel would have spoken soothingly to him, but today she, too, was tense and wary. "Guard," she said softly, not knowing if he would understand the command. "That's a good boy. Guard the house."

She managed to work for a couple of hours on her manuscript, but she couldn't really concentrate on what she was doing when she kept listening for any sound from the bedroom. Every few minutes she went in to check on him, but each time he was lying just as he had been the time before. She tried several times to get him to drink something, but his head would loll against her shoulder whenever she lifted him, and he didn't respond at all. Late in the afternoon his fever began to rise again, and Rachel abandoned all attempts to write. Somehow she had to rouse him enough to give him more aspirin.

The fever seemed worse this time. His skin burned to the touch, and his face was flushed with hectic color. Rachel talked to him as she lifted his head, crooning and cajoling. With her free hand she stroked his chest and arms, trying to rouse him, and her efforts were rewarded when he suddenly groaned sharply and turned his face against her neck.

The sound and motion, from someone who had been still and silent, startled her. Her heart jumped wildly, and she was unable to move for a moment, simply holding him and feeling the scrape of his growing beard against her neck. It was an oddly erotic sensation, and her body quickened in remembrance. A hot flush colored her cheeks; what was she doing, reacting like that to the unconscious touch of a sick man? Granted, it had been a long time for her, but she'd never considered herself love starved, so hungry for the touch of a man that the most inadvertent contact could turn her on.

She reached for the teaspoon with the dissolved aspirin in it and held it to his mouth, touching his lips with the spoon as she had before. Restlessly he turned his head away, and Rachel followed the movement with the spoon. "No you don't," she crooned. "You aren't getting away. Open your mouth and take this. It'll make you feel better."

A frown puckered his straight black brows and he fretted, evading the spoon once more. Persistently Rachel tried again, and this time she got the bitter aspirin into his mouth. He swallowed, and while he was cooperating she spoonfed him several ounces of iced tea before he began to sink back into a stupor. Following the routine she had begun that morning, she patiently sponged him down with cool water until the aspirin began to work and the fever subsided again, allowing him to rest.

His response, fretful as it had been, gave her hope that he would soon be waking up, but that hope died during the long night. His fever soared at intervals until she could give him more aspirin and bring it under control again. What rest she got that night came in brief snatches, because she spent most of the time bending over him, patiently wiping him with a cold wet cloth to keep him as cool as she could, and doing all of the other things that were necessary for a bedridden patient.

Toward dawn he groaned again and tried to turn onto his side. Guessing that his muscles were aching from lying in one position for so long, Rachel helped him to roll onto his right side, then took advantage of the new position and sponged his back with cold water. He quieted almost immediately, his breathing becoming deep and even. Her eyes burning and her muscles sore, Rachel continued to rub his back until she was convinced that he was at last resting, then crept into bed herself. She was so tired…. She stared at his muscled back, wondering if she dared go to sleep and how she could possibly stay awake a moment longer. Her eyelids drooped heavily, and she immediately fell asleep, instinct moving her closer to his warm back.

It was still early when she awoke; the clock told her that she had slept a little over two hours. He was lying on his back again, and had kicked the cover into a twisted heap around his left leg. Disturbed that his movements hadn't awakened her, Rachel got out of bed and went around to straighten the sheet and pull it back over him, trying not to jar his left leg. Her gaze drifted over his naked body and hastily she jerked her eyes away, flushing again. What on earth was wrong with her? She knew what naked men looked like, and it wasn't even as if this were the first time she'd seen him. She had been nursing him for almost two days now; she'd bathed him and helped sew him up. Still, she couldn't stop the warm feeling that swelled inside every time she looked at him. It's just lust, she told herself firmly. Plain, old-fashioned lust. I'm a normal woman, and he's a good-looking man. It's normal to admire his body, so I've got to stop acting like a giggly teenager!

She pulled the sheet up to his chest, then coaxed him into taking more aspirin. Why hadn't he awoken by now? Was the concussion more severe than Honey had thought? Yet his condition didn't seem to be getting worse, and in fact he was a little more responsive than he had been; it was easier to get him to take the aspirin and liquids now, but she wanted him to open his eyes, to talk to her. Until then she couldn't be assured that she hadn't harmed him by making the decision to keep him hidden.

Hidden from whom? her subconscious jeered. No one had been looking for him. The jitters she had been suffering from seemed foolish on this bright, cloudless morning.

While he was quiet she fed the animals and worked in the garden, gathering the green beans and the few tomatoes that had ripened overnight. There were a few yellow squash ready to be picked, and she decided to make a squash casserole for dinner. She weeded the garden and around the shrubs, and by that time the heat had become stifling. Even the usual breeze from the Gulf was missing, and the air lay hot and heavy. She thought longingly of a swim, but didn't dare leave her patient unattended for that long.

When she checked on him again she found the sheet once again kicked down, and he was moving a little, his head turning fretfully. It wasn't time for more aspirin, but he was hot; she got a bowl of cold water and sat on the bed beside him, slowly sponging him with the cold water until he was cool and resting again. When she eased off the bed she glanced down at him and wondered if she would be wasting her time to cover him up. It was simply too hot for him, as feverish as he was, even though she'd left the air conditioning on and the house felt cool to her. Carefully she untangled the sheet from around his feet, her touch light and fleeting; then she paused and her hands returned to his feet. He had nice feet, lean and tanned, masculine and well tended, like his hands. He also had the same tough calluses on the outside ridges of his feet that he had on his hands. He was a trained warrior.

Tears burned her eyes as she pulled the sheet up to his waist and left it there, deciding to compromise. She had no reason to cry; he'd chosen his life and wouldn't appreciate her sympathy. The people who lived on the edge of danger did so because that was what they wanted; she had lived there herself, and she knew that she had freely chosen to accept the perils that came her way. B.B. had accepted the

danger of his job, counting it as the price to be paid for something he thought was worth doing. What neither of them had counted on was that it would be her job that would cost him his life.

By the time Honey came that night Rachel had long since controlled herself, and a fragrant squash casserole greeted Honey's nose when she came in the door. "Umm, that smells good," she breathed. "How's our patient?"

Rachel shook her head. "Not much change. He's moving around a little, fretting, when the fever gets high, but he hasn't woken up yet."

She had just twitched the sheet up over him again a few moments before, so he was covered when Honey went in to check on him. "He's doing good," Honey murmured after looking at his wounds and checking his eyes. "Let him sleep. It's just what he needs."

"It's been so long," Rachel murmured.

"He went through a lot. The body has a way of taking over and getting what it needs."

It didn't take much to get Honey to stay for dinner. The casserole, fresh peas and sliced tomatoes did a lot of convincing by themselves. "This is a lot better than the hamburger I'd planned on," Honey said, waving her fork for emphasis. "I think our boy is out of danger, so I wasn't going to come by tomorrow, but if you're cooking again I can always change my mind."

It felt good to laugh, after the tension of the past two days. Rachel's eyes sparkled. "This is the first meal I've cooked since it got so hot. I've been living on fruit and cereal and salad, anything to keep from turning on the stove. But since I've been running the air conditioning to keep him comfortable, tonight cooking didn't seem so bad."

After they'd cleaned the kitchen Honey checked her watch. "It's not too late. I think I'll stop by Rafferty's and check on one of his mares that's due to foal. It may save a trip back out as soon as I get home. Thanks for feeding me."

"Anytime. I don't know what I'd have done without you."

Honey regarded her for a moment, her freckled face serious. "You'd have managed, wouldn't you? You're one of those people who do what has to be done, without fussing about it. That guy in there owes you a lot."

Rachel didn't know if he would see it that way or not. When she came out of the bathroom after showering she watched him intently, willing him to open his eyes and speak to her, to give her some hint of the man behind those closed lids. Every hour that passed increased the mystery that surrounded him. Who was he? Who had shot him, and why? Why was there nothing being mentioned in the news media that could apply to him? An abandoned boat found floating in the Gulf or washed up on shore would have made the news. A missing person's report would have been in the newspaper. A drug bust, a prison escape, anything, but there had been nothing that would explain why he had washed in with the tide.

She got into bed beside him, hoping for at least a few hours of sleep. He was resting better, she thought, the fever not climbing quite as high as it had at first. Her fingers closed over his arm, and she slept.

The shaking of the bed awoke her, startling her out of a sound sleep. She sat straight up in bed, her heart pounding. He was moving restlessly, trying to kick the cover away from him with only his right leg, and finally he succeeded in getting most of it off him. His skin was hot, and he was breathing too heavily. A glance at the clock told her that it was well past the time he should have had more aspirin.

She turned on the lamp beside the bed and went into the bathroom to get the aspirin and fresh water. He swallowed without fuss this time, and Rachel got him to drink almost a full glass of water. She eased his head down onto the pillow again, her fingers slow to move from his hair.

Daydreaming again! She jerked herself sharply away from the dangerous direction those daydreams were taking. He needed to be cooled down, and she was standing there fantasizing about him. Disgusted with herself, she wet a washcloth and bent over him, slowly wiping his torso with the cool cloth.

A hand touched her breast. She froze, her eyes widening. Her nightgown was loose and sleeveless, with a scooped neckline that had fallen well away from her body when she bent over him. His right hand moved slowly inside the neckline, and he brushed the backs of his lean, strong fingers insistently over her nipple, back and forth, until the small bud of flesh tightened and Rachel had to close her eyes at the sharp, unexpected pleasure. Then his hand moved lower, so slowly that her breath halted in her chest, stroking over the velvet underside of her breast. "Pretty," he murmured, his voice deep, the single word slurred.

The word echoed sharply in Rachel's mind, and her head jerked around, her eyes opening. He was awake! For a moment she stared into half-opened eyes that were so black it was as if light drowned in them; then his lashes slowly dropped and he was asleep again, his hand falling away from her breast.

She was so shaken that she could barely move. Her flesh still burned from his touch, and that instant when she had stared into his eyes was a moment that was frozen in time, so imprinted on her memory that she felt branded by his glance. Black eyes, blacker than night, without any hint of brown. They had been hazy with fever and pain, but he had seen something he liked and reached out for it. Looking down, she saw that the gaping neckline of the loose, comfortable cotton shift left her breasts completely exposed to his view, and his touch; she had unwittingly invited both. Her hands trembled as she automatically continued wiping him down with the cool cloth. Her senses were reeling, her mind scrambling to adjust to the fact that he had been awake, that he had spoken, even if it had been only one word. Somehow during the long two days when he had lain motionless, even though she had longed for him to wake, she had stopped expecting him to. She had taken care of him as totally as one would an infant, and now she was as startled as if an infant had suddenly spoken. But he was no infant; he was a man. Ail man, if the frank appreciation in that single slurred word was any measurement. "Pretty," he'd said, and her cheeks heated.

Then the implications of that single word hit her, and she jerked upright. He was American! If he'd been anything else the first word he spoke, when he was only half-conscious and burning with fever, would have been in his native language. But that one word had been in English, and the accent, though slurred, had definitely been American. Part of the slur could have come from a natural accent, a southern or western drawl.

American. She wondered at the heritage that had given him his dark coloring, Italian or Arabic, Hungarian or American Indian, maybe even Black Irish? Spanish? Tartar? The high, chiseled cheekbones and thin, hawk-bridged nose could have come from any of those bloodlines, but he was definitely from the huge American melting pot.

Her heart was still hammering in her chest with excitement. Even after she had emptied the bowl of water, turned out the lamp and crawled into bed beside him, she was quivering and unable to sleep. He had opened his eyes and spoken to her, had moved voluntarily. He was recovering! A burden lifted from her shoulders with the knowledge.

She turned on her side and looked at him, barely able to see the outline of his profile in the darkness of the room, but every pore in her skin sensed his nearness. He was warm and alive, and an odd mixture of pain and ecstasy swelled inside her, because somehow he had become important to her, so important that the tenor of her existence had been irrevocably altered. Even when he left, as practicality told her he must, she would never be the same again. Diamond Bay had given him to her, a strange gift from the turquoise waters. She reached out and trailed her fingers lightly down his muscled arm, then withdrew her touch, because the feel of his skin made her heart lurch again. He had come from the sea, but it was she who had suffered the sea change.