We are too civil to books. For a few golden sentences we will turn over and actually read a volume of four or five hundred pages.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tác giả: Sandra Brown
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Biên tập: Bach Ly Bang
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Chapter 8
enny Hendren had thoughtfully provided food. There were peanut butter sandwiches, oranges and apples, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. Cheese snacks and canned drinks had been kept in a portable cooler. As soon as their hunger had been appeased, most of the children dozed. All the seats had been temporarily removed from the Cessna executive plane, but there still wasn’t an abundance of space inside the fuselage.
"How is Joe?" Kerry asked Cage.
He was bending over the injured boy, checking the inadequate bandage he had placed over his thigh wound. "Still out."
"I’m glad you had that injection ready."
"So am I. He’d be in a helluva lot of pain without it. How is the other patient?"
"Ornery, bull-headed, obstinate." Immediately after her tears had dried, she and Linc had moved apart awkwardly. No longer tender and consoling, he’d reverted to being tough and abusive. "He wants to talk to you."
Cage moved over to where Linc was propped against the wall. He looked as disreputable as when Kerry had first met him. He was unshaven. His clothes were filthy and torn and blood-stained. Without the handkerchief sweatband around his forehead, he had to constantly keep pushing his hair away from his face.
"Kerry said you wanted to talk to me." Cage eased down beside the other man.
"You said something earlier about calling ahead to your wife." Cage nodded. "Do you think she could have a camera waiting for me when we land?"
"Linc had to throw his cameras in the river when we crossed it," Kerry explained. "We barely managed to save his film."
Cage, for all his reckless living in years past, looked back at them with surprise and respect. "Sounds as if the two of you had quite an adventure."
Kerry glanced uneasily at Linc. "Yes, we did. You see, the river – "
Cage held up both hands. "I want to hear all about it, but everyone else will, too. Why don’t you rest now, then tell it once for everybody?" Kerry smiled at him gratefully. "What kind of camera do you need, Linc?" he asked.
"Got a pencil?"
Cage jotted down the specifications as Linc ticked them off. "I’ll see what I can do." He inched toward the cockpit.
"Nice guy," Linc remarked, his eyes still on Cage.
Kerry laughed. "Not always, from what I hear."
"As I told you, I met Jenny through the Hendren Foundation. She was engaged to Hal Hendren when he was j shot."
"Cage’s brother?"
"The missionary?"
Linc shook his head. "I must have taken a blow on the head I don’t remember. Or is this as confusing as it sounds?"
"It is rather complicated. Jenny knew the brothers quite well. You see she grew up with them. The Hendrens adopted her when her parents were killed."
"So they were all one big, happy family?"
Linc’s eyebrows shot up and he grinned lecherously. "Sounds kinky to me."
"Hardly. They were reared in a parsonage. Cage’s father is a minister."
"Preacher’s kid, huh? No wonder I liked him immediately. Bet he’s a hell-raiser."
"Until Jenny got hold of him."
Even though Linc was bedraggled, his eyes sparkled. "I think I’m looking forward to meeting this Jenny."
Kerry laughed. "You should be, but not for the reason you think. She’s a real lady. She and Cage, who was a lady killer extraordinaire, are devoted to each other. They have one child, a little boy, and she’s expecting another. I’m sure that’s the only reason she didn’t come with Cage to pick us up."
"Well if she had come along, I don’t know where we would have put her."
Linc’s comment called attention to how cramped they were. They were sitting so close that Kerry’s knee was propped on his thigh. As unobtrusively as possible, she moved it away.
Both were remembering the kiss he had given her before the airplane arrived. There were kisses. And then there were kisses. And that kiss had been the kind a man gives a woman he wants badly. It had been ravenous and undisciplined and carnal. Each time Kerry thought about it, she trembled with aftershocks. And each time Linc thought about it, his manhood threatened to embarrass him.
"Are you comfortable?" she asked huskily.
His gaze popped up to hers. At first he thought she had read his mind, or, God forbid, noticed the rigidity behind the fly of his pants. Then he realized that she was looking at his shoulder, not his lap. "No, if s nothing," he said in a strained voice. She shivered at the blood stains on his tank top. He could have been killed so easily. He had risked his life. It would be impossible to repay him for the sacrifices he had made for her and the children, but she knew that some kind of thank you, insufficient though it would be, was in order.
Because he couldn’t look at her without his desire running rampant, he had leaned his head against the wall of the aircraft and closed his eyes. Now, when she spoke his name with such appeal and laid her cool, dry hand on his arm, his eyes opened slowly and he turned his head to look at her.
"What you did back there…" Her voice trailed off and she lowered her eyes. "I want to thank you for everything. I… I…" The right words wouldn’t come. She couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t come close to sounding like a declaration of her love. Unwisely, she blurted out the thing that came to mind. "I’ll give you a check for the fifty thousand as soon as possible."
He sat perfectly still for several moments. It was the calm before the storm. He violently jerked his arm from beneath her hand. He wanted to tell her to keep the goddamn money. Money! Is that all she thought this had meant to him?
"Go to hell."
"You heard me."
"But I don’t understand."
"You’ve got that right, lady, you don’t understand."
"Why are you snapping at me? I was only trying to thank you." By now, Kerry, too, was angry. There was just no un* derstanding this man. He wouldn’t let someone be nice to him. He was an unfeeling barbarian.
"So you’ve thanked me. Now drop it."
"Gladly." She started to scoot away, but noticed the fresh drops of blood oozing down his chest. "You made your shoulder bleed again."
Indifferently, he looked down at it. "It’s all right."
She took a square of gauze from the first-aid kit. "Here, let me-"
He caught her wrist before her hand made contact with his injured shoulder. "I said it’s all right. Just leave me alone, will you? As you’ve been so quick to remind me, we have a business arrangement only. That doesn’t include tending my wounds." He lowered his voice. "Or kissing. Why’d you let me kiss you back there?" He moved his face closer to hers. "Why’d you kiss me back? Baby, your tongue was just as busy as mine. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Well, you could have spared yourself the trouble. I would have run just as hard, shot off just as many rounds of ammo, if you hadn’t."
Kerry’s cheeks were hot with indignation. "That’s a horrible thing to say."
"Maybe. But not as horrible as making sexual promises you don’t intend to keep." His lip curled with contempt. "We’re even now, Sister Kerry. I hired out to do you a service. As soon as you pay me, I’m gone. Finis. I’ll click off a few shots of the kids getting off the airplane for their first sight of U.S. soil, then I’ll split. This whole goddamn mess will be history, and frankly, it can’t happen soon enough for me."
Kerry snatched her hand out of his grip, glaring at him with patent dislike. Never in her life had she known anyone so hard and insensitive. "Goddamn mess." That summed up what he thought of the orphans, their ordeal, and her. The disillusionment was cruel, but she had suffered disillusionment before. It was painful, but not fatal. One could survive and live to tell about it.
She put as much distance as possible between herself and Mr. Lincoln O’Neal, found as comfortable a space as the crowded fuselage afforded, and settled down to sleep for the remainder of the flight.
Cage nudged her awake. "We’re about fifteen minutes out, Kerry. I thought you might want to rouse the children."
"How’s Joe?" The boy was moaning. His eyes were still closed, but he was fitfully rolling his head from side to side.
"Unfortunately he’s coming around. But Fm not going to give him anything else. I’ll let the doctor take it from here."
"Cage," she said, catching his sleeve when he moved toward the cockpit again. "I don’t want to face a crowd of reporters right now. The children will be frightened enough already. We’re all so dirty and tired. Can you arrange it?"
He rubbed the back of his neck. "You’re big news, Kerry, because of – "
"I know," she interrupted quickly, aware that Linc could overhear everything they were saying. "But I’m sure you understand why I prefer privacy. For me and the children, not to mention the couples who are going to adopt them."
"I understand, but I’m not sure the media will. Reporters have been camped out in La Bota for days, waiting for your arrival." He saw her distress and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "But if you don’t want to be interviewed or have the children exposed to that kind of mayhem, that’s the way it’ll be. I’ll radio the sheriff now and tell him to cordon off the airport."
"Thank you."
The children, who were all wide awake now, were chattering excitedly as they peered out the windows. Kerry laughed at their bewildered comments about the flat West Texas landscape, which was so different from the jungle terrain they were accustomed to.
The experienced pilot made another perfect landing. When the plane taxied to a stop, the f irst priority was to get Joe to the waiting ambulance, which would rush him directly to the hospital. Cage jumped to the ground and conferred briefly with the doctor.
Linc swung down and looked for a pregnant lady with a camera. She wasn’t difficult to spot. Kerry was right. Jenny Hendren spelled lady from the top of her glossy brown hair to the toes of her shoes. "Mrs. Hendren?"
"Mr. O’Neal?"
They smiled at each other and she passed him the camera he had ordered. "A Nikon F3 with Tri-X film. I sent Gary to Amarillo to pick it up. We had to call around before finally locating one there."
"Sorry for putting you to so much trouble."
"I just hope it’s all right," she said anxiously. "I barely know which end of a camera to point."
Linc didn’t know who Gary was, but he was damned glad to have a camera in his hands again. "It’s perfect, thanks. I’ll settle up with you later."
He tore into a package of film and loaded it mechanically. He raised the camera to his eye just in time to snap off pictures of the paramedics lowering the stretcher bearing Joe out of the airplane. He moved toward it. The boy’s eyes were open now. He spotted Linc, the only familiar face among those surrounding him. Linc said, "Hang in there, trooper." For the first time since Linc had met him, Joe smiled. Linc captured that wan smile on f ilm.
The doctor climbed into the ambulance after the stretcher had been loaded. When he turned to close the door, he noticed Linc’s wound. "You should have that attended to."
"Later." Giving his minor injury no more thought, Linc swung his camera around toward the door of the airplane.
Inside it, Kerry was speaking with soft reassurance to the children. "Everything will seem different, but don’t be frightened. You are very special to the people here. They want you."
"Are you going to leave us?" young Mike asked.
"No. I won’t go until I’m sure you are all happy with your new families. Are we ready?" Eight heads nodded solemnly. "Good. Then let’s go."
She assisted them to the ground. Cage and Jenny Hendren escorted the pitiful parade toward a waiting van. Kerry did her best to ignore Linc as he took pictures of her. She also tried to ignore the stab of envy she felt when Cage took his wife in his arms, held her close, and kissed her.
Jenny’s relief that Cage had returned safe and unharmed was apparent, as was his concern that she was overtaxing herself in her advanced stage of pregnancy. While both dismissed the other’s worry, their love shone around them like an exclusive sun.
When all the children had been loaded into the van, Kerry and Jenny embraced. "It’s a dream come true," Kerry said to her friend. "Thank you for everything. For making all the arrangements. You’ve both been wonderful."
"Hush now. You need rest and nourishment. We’ll have plenty of time to talk later. Cage," she said, turning to her husband, "why don’t you and Mr. O’Neal climb into the back with the children? I’ll drive."
"Uh, excuse me, Mrs. Hendren," Linc said. "I’ll just get a cab to the nearest hotel and – "
Simultaneously Cage and Jenny burst out laughing. "We only have one cab in town," Cage explained. "You’d be lucky to get him here the day after tomorrow if you called right now. And there’s no hotel, although there are several motels."
"Besides," Jenny chimed in, "I wouldn’t let you leave without thanking you for all your help. Now get in before we collapse from this heat."
And that, it seemed, was that. Linc got in the back of the van with Cage. Little Lisa, her face a study in uncertainty, held her arms up to him. He settled her in his lap for the ride to the Hendren’s house.
"I held the reporters at bay with the promise of a press release, Kerry. You can prepare it whenever you feel like it."
"Thank you, Jenny."
"And, of course, you’re staying with us," Jenny added.
"What about the children?"
"We’ve been loaned several mobile homes. They’re at the ranch," Cage said. "We’ve also got nurses standing by to check them over to the immigration department’s satisfaction. It’ll take several days for the paperwork to be completed and the adoption papers finalized. That will all be taken care of before their families arrive to pick them up." Cage looked at the circle of young faces surrounding them. "Which ones are the sisters?"
Kerry pointed out Juan’s two sisters. Cage smiled at them and told them in Spanish that their new parents were already at the house. "They’re waiting for you. You’ll meet them as soon as we arrive."
The little girls, who had been inconsolable when Kerry gave them their brother’s parting message, clung to each other fearfully and looked to both Kerry and Linc for guidance. He gave them the thumbs up sign and an exaggerated wink. That made them giggle.
Kerry was impressed with the Hendren’s house and surrounding acreage and commented on it as they turned off the main highway and drove through a gate.
"Thank you," Jenny said. "Cage had started refurbishing the house before we got married. We’ve done a lot more work on it since then. I love it."
Cage Hendren had been a wildcatter, and still laid claim to several producing oil wells. But when the price of crude began to drop, Cage could see the handwriting on the wall and began cultivating other businesses, including real estate and beef cattle ranching. He also had a stable full of quarter horses. When the economy shifted, he suffered no tremendous setbacks. They lived modestly by choice, not out of necessity.
There were three mobile homes parked end to end on the near side of the horse barn. Before the van had pulled to a complete stop, Roxie Fleming emerged from one of them at a run, her husband Gary, close behind her.
"That’s Roxie," Jenny told them.
"You wrote me about her," Kerry said.
Roxie, buxom and boisterous, would have launched herself at them, had not the easy-going, affable Gary caught her shirttail and held her back.
Cage and Jenny introduced Kerry and Linc to the Flemings. Roxie acknowledged them politely, but distractedly. She was eagerly scanning the faces of the children. "Which ones are Cara and Carmen?" Her voice was about to crack.
Kerry pointed the two girls out. Roxie extended her hands. A tense moment elapsed before the girls separated themselves from the tight little group and baby-stepped their way forward to timidly take Roxie’s hands.
As discreetly as possible, Linc took pictures of the heart-wrenching scene. The most poignant photograph he got was one of Kerry Bishop, the person who had made this miracle possible. He knew it would be a good photograph. The reflected sunlight had made diamonds of the tears standing in her eyes.
Kerry descended the staircase with inexplicable nervousness. Perhaps it was because she was wearing a dress for the first time in ages. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She had worn a dress the night she had abducted Linc from the bar, but that wasn’t quite the same.
Maybe her heart was pounding because this was the first time he had ever seen her with her hair clean, soft and glowing, her skin smooth and free of grime and her nails buffed to a polished shine.
For whatever reason, her knees threatened to collapse with each step she took.
It seemed that a lifetime had passed since their narrow escape from Montenegro. Yet it had happened only that morning. The day had been spent getting the children settled into their temporary quarters. They had marveled over the "luxuries" they had found in the mobile homes. They had all been given clean bills of health by the nurses. Months ago, when the idea of their being adopted in the United States was first conceived, Kerry had seen to it that each child was vaccinated in accordance with U.S. regulations.
With the aid of the Flemings and Cage’s parents, Bob and Sarah Hendren, all the children had been soaped and scrubbed and shampooed and outfitted in spanking new clothes donated by a La Bota merchant. Thanks to members of Bob Hendren’s congregation, there was enough food in the kitchen to make the tables and countertops groan. The children had already eaten two full meals.
Roxie couldn’t keep her hands off her adopted daughters and had brushed their hair so many times that Gary, almost as guilty of overindulgence as his wife, had warned her that she was going to brush them bald if she wasn’t careful. Kerry only hoped that the rapport between all the children and their new families was established as easily.
At her request, Cage had driven Kerry to the hospital. The staff, carefully guarding her privacy, had let her slip in a back entrance to visit Joe. The surgery to remove the bullet from his thigh had been completed. He was groggy from the anesthetic, but he recognized her. The doctor assured her that his leg hadn’t suffered any permanent damage.
When Kerry returned, Jenny had insisted that she spoil herself with a long bubble bath. Without a trace of reluctance, Kerry had stripped off the vile clothes she had lived in for almost four days.
Only when she untied the bandana from around her neck did her fingers falter. Since Linc had given it to her, she regretted having to remove it. She laundered the handkerchief in the bathroom sink and hung it up to dry. Unless he asked for it back, she intended to keep it as a memento of her one wild, brief, unconsummated, but no less ardent, love affair.
Now, voices drifted to her from the dining room. Her stomach was queasy with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Bolstering her courage, she stepped through the arched doorway into a mellow pool of candlelight and hesitated on the threshold. Jenny was the first to spot her.
"There you are."
"Wow!" Cage whistled appreciatively. "A little soap and water can do wonders."
Linc said nothing. He was caught in the act of lifting a can of beer to his mouth. It stayed poised there hi midair for several counts, before he actually drank from it. Kerry went in and took a chair across the table from him.
"This is so nice of you, Jenny." She gazed in awe at the flower centerpiece, the bright, sterling candlesticks, the china and crystal and silver.
"I thought the two of you deserved a quiet, leisurely dinner. Lunch was rather hectic. Relax and enjoy yourselves. The report from the trailers is that the children are asleep."
"I just hope I don’t disgrace myself," ferry said, running her fingers over the handle of her salad fork. "I’ve lived in the jungle for so long, I hardly remember how to use silverware properly."
"It will all come back to you," Jenny said with a gentle smile.
"And if it doesn’t, we won’t mind." Cage passed her a plate filled with food. "We’re used to eating with Trent. His table manners are atrocious."
"Cute kid," Linc commented. "He made the others feel right at home."
"Yeah," Cage said. "He taught them by example how to attack a bowl of homemade ice cream."
Laughing, Kerry asked, "Where is he?"
"Blissfully asleep," his mother said wearily. "Eat quietly."
Kerry was surprised at how rich and deep Linc’s laughter could be when it wasn’t tinged with cynicism. It rolled over her like a wave. Apparently Cage, who was of the same broad-shouldered, slim-hipped build, had lent him a pair of jeans and a shirt. He had showered, and his hair, though it could still stand a trim, had been washed and brushed back. His face had been closely shaved. Without the stubble, his jaw looked even more unrelievedly masculine than before, which was a disquieting thought. She detected the faint outline of a white bandage beneath his shirt.
While they ate, their conversation centered mainly on the orphans. "I distributed copies of your press release to the disgruntled reporters."
"Thank you, Cage."
"We’ll tell you about the applicants for adoptions, but tomorrow is soon enough for that."
"Thank you again. I’m so tired, I don’t think I could assimilate anything tonight," Kerry admitted. "I’m sure you screened the couples carefully. Are all of them as wonderful as the Flemings?"
"Gary and Roxie are special friends, so we’re biased. But we think the others will be super parents, too."
After a pause in the conversation, Jenny smiled at Linc and said, "I never guessed that I’d be so honored as to have a celebrity at my table."
"Where?" he asked, comically turning his head from side to side as though searching for the celebrity.
The Hendrens continued to prod him until he enlightened and entertained them with stories of his adventures as a photojournalism He downplayed the danger he frequently encountered and embellished some of the more humorous anecdotes.
"But," he said, pushing aside his dessert plate after eating two helpings of apple pie, "this latest escapade in Montenegro was about the scariest situation I’ve ever been in."
A major portion of the afternoon had been taken up by their recounting their tale. Cage and Jenny, the Flemings and Cage’s parents had listened with disbelief as they told them all that had happened to them on their way to the border.
"I’m in no hurry to go back," Kerry said now.
"Neither were we once we got out," Cage said.
Linc looked at him in surprise. "We? You were there? When?"
"After my brother was executed."
"I’m sorry."
"No, it’s all right. Jenny and I had to go down there and identify Hal’s body and escort it back." He reached across the corner of the table and took her hand, squeezing it. "It was an unpleasant experience for both of us." He stared into space reflectively. "Although, if it hadn’t been so spoiled by the civil war, Montenegro could be a beautiful place." He gazed at his wife. "The tropical climate was rather sensuous as I recall."
Because Cage and Jenny were looking at each other with such absorption, they missed the fleeting look that passed between their guests. Both Kerry and Linc vividly remembered a night spent beneath the shelter of a vine, a heavy rainfall that surrounded them with a pounding as fierce as that of a heart on fire, and the seductive perfume of jungle flowers, naked skin and earth combined into a potent aphrodisiac.
That night seemed unreal now. It could have happened to two other people in another lifetime. They couldn’t have lain together so closely and be this remotely detached from one another now. He couldn’t have quieted her fears and dried her tears then and hurt her as he had this morning with his cruel words.
Kerry looked across the table at Linc; he was a stranger. They had shared cups of water and scraps of bread, passionate kisses and equally passionate arguments, and yet she knew so little about him.
"Neither of you has explained how you came to be teamed up," Jenny said. "How did you become involved with Kerry’s work, Linc?"
Kerry jumped as though she’d been struck with an electric cattle prod. She met Linc’s hard gaze across the table. His expression was smug. He might have cleaned up on the outside, he might look prettier, but he was still rotten to the core on the inside. He was as cunning and calculating as ever, a ruthless street fighter who never cried uncle.
"I think Kerry should be the one to tell you that," he said. If she dares. That remained unspoken, but Kerry clearly read the challenge in his eyes.
It was a challenge she didn’t dare back down from. Setting her chin at a stubborn angle, she said, "I recruited him." He made a rude, scoffing sound. She flashed him a poisonous look. "All right, I… I…"
"Shanghaied," Linc supplied drolly.
Kerry sprang to her feet, furious with him for airing their quarrel in front of the Hendrens. "You just won’t be nice about this, will you?"
He bolted from his chair. "Nice? Nice? You kidnapped me, lady. You deliberately destroyed a month’s worth of hard work. You made me miss my plane out of that godforsaken hellhole. You got me captured by a bunch of cutthroats, chased, shot at, nearly drowned and you expect me to be nice about it?"
Chest heaving with agitation, he pointed at Kerry accusingly as he addressed Cage and Jenny. "She dressed up like a whore and lured me out of a tavern. That’s how she ‘recruited’ me. I went with her, thinking I was gonna get laid and… Oh, sorry, Jenny."
"That’s all right," Jenny mumbled.
"He’s failed to mention that he was drunk at the time," Kerry sneered. "And I didn’t lure him, I dragged him because he couldn’t stand up under his own power."
"And that makes it okay?" Linc yelled across the table.
"I thought he was a mercenary," Kerry told their avid listeners. "And he is. He’ll get paid for his time and trouble," she said scathingly. "Before you go pinning any medals of valor on him, maybe you should know that he didn’t do anything out of largesse. I had to agree to pay him fifty thousand dollars so he wouldn’t turn me and the children over to El Presidente."
"That’s not why I demanded to be paid, and you damn well know it." Linc moved forward menacingly, as though he was going to climb over the table to get to her. "The money was to repay me for the film you destroyed. That’s about how much revenue you cost me. But it doesn’t begin to reimburse me for having to put up with you for the last four days." He tossed his napkin down beside his plate. "Cage, would it be too much of an imposition to ask you to drive me into town?"
Jenny Hendren sprang from her chair. "You’re not leaving?"
"I’m afraid so, Jenny." Linc liked Cage’s wife very much. They had been on a first name basis since earlier that afternoon. She was gracious and kind and straightforward, soft, womanly, and even tempered – everything that Kerry Bishop was not. "Not that I don’t appreciate your hospitality."
"But you can’t leave," Jenny said imperiously. "Not now." Everyone was surprised by the intensity of her outburst and looked at her inquiringly. Embarrassed, she hastened to ask, "You took all those pictures today to go with the story of your escape, right?"
"Right," Linc answered hesitantly.
"And I’m sure that since Kerry has declined to be interviewed, she’s going to grant you exclusive rights to the story. Right, Kerry?"
Kerry hesitated. "Uh, right."
"Well, the story isn’t over yet," Jenny said. "Don’t you want to photograph the children as they meet their new parents? And you can’t leave without knowing how Joe is going to fare."
Linc considered his dilemma. Jenny was right hi one respect. The story would be better if he stuck around till the end of it. He’d been on the telephone to several magazines that afternoon and was taking bids from editors who were eager to get their hands on the piece. And, by God, he was entitled to exclusive rights to it, whether Kerry had granted them freely or not.
But he didn’t think he could stay under the same roof with her for another hour. He’d either make love to her or murder her, and, for entirely different reasons, he was sorely tempted to do both. The balance was precarious. A slight tip in one direction or another and wham!, he was going to cook his own goose.
"I don’t know," he hedged. "I guess I could get a room in town and – "
Jenny’s exclamation brought all eyes around to her. She clutched her distended abdomen with both hands, cradling the precious burden it carried.
The Devil's Own The Devil's Own - Sandra Brown The Devil