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The Darkest Hour, Page 22

Maya Banks

Page 22


  He took her hand and pulled her into the hot sun. She’d sworn that if she ever had the chance she’d never live where it was hot. It was a vow she’d made during the long, unbearable days in the hot box in her prison. But this was different. She wasn’t baking in a dark hole. She was in the sunshine, the golden rays spreading as far as the eye could see. She was free.

  For a moment she stood there, pulling taut against his hold as she turned her face into the sun and closed her eyes. Never had freedom felt as sweet as it did right now.

  When she opened her eyes, she looked down at the bikini top, cutoff shorts with strings hanging from the hem and the pair of flip-flops. She was barely wearing more than she had during captivity, but this was her own life and it brought her comfort. How many times must she have worn these clothes to swim from Sam’s dock?

  If she closed her eyes again, she knew she could recall the horseplay. Garrett throwing her into the water. Her coming up with a mouth full of lake water and shrieking in indignation and finally helpless laughter.

  Ethan diving in after her. Them racing from the dock toward the middle of the lake, where the current was stronger. The many barbeques on the worn wooden deck. Watching the sun go down after long summer days.

  “Rachel, are you all right?”

  Ethan’s voice drifted through the hazy memories, and for a moment she resented the intrusion. Then she smiled and looked at him.

  “I was remembering. This place makes me happy. There are a lot of happy memories here. It’s nice to be able to grab onto a few of them, to know they’re real and not some fantasy I’ve conjured in a hallucinogenic state. ”

  He drew her to him, cupping his hand behind her neck as he tilted her up to meet his kiss. He didn’t act as reserved as he had before. Not since she’d kissed him this morning in bed. Maybe he’d been waiting for her to make the first move.

  “I’m glad you have happy memories. How about let’s go make some new ones? I’ll even let you throw me in. ”

  She grinned and then darted around him, instinctively going down the stone path that led around the house to the back. She’d wanted to ask him why he’d quit the SEALs and why he wasn’t working for KGI, but now she was loath to ruin the lighthearted mood they found themselves in.

  When she rounded the corner and bounded onto the deck, she stopped in her tracks at the gorgeous sight before her. No wonder she’d loved it here so much. The water sparkled like a million diamonds under the veil of sunshine. Rich blue with a fringe of white on the tops of the gentle swells. It looked inviting, and suddenly she couldn’t wait to get in.

  She glanced over at Ethan and bit her lip to keep the mischievous smile at bay. She eased from her flip-flops and then bolted down the ramp toward the dock.

  “Last one in is a rotten egg!”

  She couldn’t remember the exact depth of the water from the dock, only that she’d been thrown in more times than she could count, so she sailed off the end feet first and landed with a splash several feet away.

  The cold exhilarated her and stunned her. She came up gasping for air and shrieked at the chill.

  “Serves you right,” Ethan called from the dock.

  She looked up to see him removing his tennis shoes. She gave a little shiver and then started back to the dock. He stripped off his shirt, and she caught a glimpse of his chest silhouetted against the sunlight.

  He was, in a word, magnificent.

  Then he executed a perfect dive into the water beside her. Barely a ripple disturbed the surface. He came up several yards away and shook the droplets from his short hair. White teeth flashed in a broad grin. He ducked underneath again, and the next thing she knew, she was being lifted in the air.

  She laughed as he held her high out of the water while treading water.

  “How on earth are you able to do that?”

  He dropped her with a splash, and when she came up, he gathered her close.

  “I’m a SEAL, remember? We do the impossible, and we do it in the water. ”

  She rolled her eyes and then her question came back to her. Cocking her head to the side to let the water drain out of her ear, she peeked at him from under her lashes. “Why did you quit the SEALs? I don’t think you’ve ever said. I mean I’m sure you did,” she added hastily. “I just can’t remember. ”

  Darkness flickered in his eyes, momentarily chasing away the sun’s rays. “You needed me. I needed to be here. ”

  “Why didn’t you go to work with KGI? Is that why you quit, so you could go to work with your brothers?”

  He shook his head and then dove beneath the surface. She watched the swirl of water that signaled his presence underwater and followed it a good distance from the dock.

  Somehow she’d stumbled onto unwelcome territory. Either he was unhappy with his decision to quit or there was some other reason she didn’t know. More than ever her lack of memory frustrated her. How was she supposed to forge a future when the past lay silent?

  Determined that the day wouldn’t be ruined by things beyond her control, she swam after Ethan, colliding with him midway in a tangle of arms and legs.

  Laughing around mouthfuls of water, she beat at his shoulders. “You planned that!”

  “You two having fun?”

  Rachel looked toward the dock to see Sam standing there at the end, watching them with amused eyes. Today she couldn’t remember why she was so guarded around him, and she let her good mood take over.

  “Come in,” she said with a wave. “The water’s not too cold. ”

  “I know exactly how damn cold—”

  He was cut off midsentence when he pitched forward into the water. Rachel stared in shock as Garrett doubled over laughing from the end of the dock where he’d shoved Sam over.

  Sam came up sputtering, and he turned with a shout in Garrett’s direction. “You son of a bitch! I’ll get you for this. Kelly motto number two. Don’t get mad, get even. ”

  Garrett just howled louder. Donovan ambled behind him and gave both brothers a curious look.

  “Dude, it’s better to wear swimming trunks. Getting wet jeans off is a bitch. ”

  “Oh fuck you, Van,” Sam grumbled.

  Rachel couldn’t control herself any longer. Laughter bubbled up and spilled over. She laughed so hard, she had to reach down to grab her sides and then sputtered when her head sank below the surface.

  Ethan yanked her back up and held her by the arm as she laughed and spit simultaneously.

  Garrett grinned down at Sam. “There. That had to be worth the unexpected swim. ”

  Sam smiled good-naturedly. “Yeah, you got me there. Just, next time? You can make her laugh by going in. ”

  This she could remember. Lots of laughing and joking. Good times in the summer. Them all swimming until late in the evening. Having a beer on the dock with their feet dangling in the water. Watching the spawning bream in late spring.

  Here, happiness didn’t seem so far away. It wasn’t some distant point she couldn’t see ever reaching. It was present. It was everywhere. Hope was alive inside her. She didn’t want today to ever end.

  “It doesn’t have to,” Ethan murmured.

  She realized she’d said the last aloud.

  “We can do this over and over. You’ll see, Rachel. We can have our life back. It just takes time. ”

  She twined her arms around his neck, momentarily forgetting his brothers as they argued and joked loudly in the distance.

  “Do you really think so, Ethan? Sometimes I worry we can never get back the past. Other times like today I’m more hopeful. I hate not remembering. I hate it. ”

  He looked at her so seriously that she went silent. “The past . . . is the past, Rachel. All we can do is go forward. The past doesn’t matter. Just here and now and today and tomorrow. You’ll remember the past. You get back more with each passing day, but what’s important to us is tomorrow. ”

  She smiled and hugged him t
o her, pushing them both down toward the surface. He laughed and grappled for a moment as he fought to keep them afloat.

  “Trying to drown me, woman?”

  “You can’t drown a SEAL,” she taunted. “How embarrassing would that be?”

  “God yes,” he muttered. “Shoot me, hang me, let me die of infection from a hangnail, but don’t let me die in the water. They’d send me to hell on principle. ”

  “You two want something to eat?” Garrett hollered from the dock.

  Ethan waved him away. “Go away. I’m about to kiss my wife. ”

  And then he lowered his head and did just that.


  “ARE you sure you feel up to this? We can always skip it and stay home tonight. ”

  Rachel glanced up to look at Ethan’s reflection in the mirror then laid her brush down.

  “No, I want to go,” she said in an even voice. She understood Ethan’s concern. She even found it endearing, but her frustration grew with each passing day.

  He looked doubtfully at her, but to his credit he didn’t argue.

  “Okay, but I want you to promise me that if it gets to be too much you’ll tell me immediately. ”

  She nodded and smiled. “I will. But Ethan, I can’t keep hiding in this house. ”

  The walls were closing in on her, and what she didn’t tell him was that if she didn’t get out, she was going to go as crazy as everyone probably already thought she was.

  Marlene had planned a welcome home party, though from Ethan’s muttered remarks, Rachel guessed the event had escalated beyond a simple family gathering. In her more morbid musings, Rachel thought it should be a welcome back from the dead party.

  It still baffled her that everyone had thought she was dead for the entire year she was gone. In a lot of ways, she supposed it was the kindest thing they could have thought. They mourned. They moved on. Knowing she was alive and in captivity would have made them suffer. Like she’d suffered.

  Her fingers trembled as she tried to grasp the brush again, and she fumbled clumsily at it to keep from dropping it.

  The cravings hit her at the oddest times. Sometimes she could go days and forget about the poison that had surged through her veins with clockwork regularity. Other times she wanted it more than she wanted her next breath. But she’d never tell Ethan that. How could she?

  He worried enough without her adding more to it.

  Strong hands slid over her bare shoulders and squeezed. She glanced up to see him standing behind her at the mirror.

  There was such warmth in his touch. A comfort that she needed as much as she’d once needed the drugs.

  She sighed and leaned back into him, looking up as she did. His fingers glided up her neck to the slender column of her throat and to her jaw. Then he leaned down and kissed her forehead. Just one, brief, gentle kiss.

  She made a sound of frustration when he pulled away, and he frowned.

  “Something wrong?”

  She stood and turned, tilting her neck so she could look up at him.

  “I want you to kiss me, Ethan. A real kiss. I want it so much that it overwhelms me. I want to feel like a real wife, not some fraud you aren’t sure of. You haven’t kissed me again since that morning when I kissed you. ”

  As she spoke, she put her hands on his chest and emphasized her words with a firm push. He caught her hands and held them still over his heart.

  “God, Rachel, I want it too. I want it so much I hurt. But I’m afraid, damn it. I’m afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. I’m afraid of frightening you just because I want to touch you more than I want my next breath. ”

  She trembled, but not in fear. An odd sensation raced up her spine, spreading in a warm glow that made her muscles tighten and her nipples pucker. It was then she realized that what she felt was desire, and she almost laughed.

  She’d forgotten what it felt like to feel such pleasure, to experience the anticipation of her husband’s touch. It had been a long time since her pulse quickened with a simple glance. She missed it. God, she missed it.

  The stirrings of desire had begun the morning she’d kissed him awake. She’d felt the unmistakable ache of awareness, but this, this was so intense that she thought she might go mad if the ache wasn’t assuaged.

  “Kiss me,” she begged in a soft voice that was nearly inaudible.

  With a groan, he pulled her close until her chest was crushed again his. His hands—he had such wonderful, strong hands—slid up her arms and then up her neck until he cupped her face.

  Then he lowered his mouth to hers. Just before their lips touched, she heard his swift intake of breath, and he held it.

  The warm shock of his mouth on hers was the most pleasurable sensation she’d felt in her scattered incomplete memories. Had it always been like this? Had she lived for such intimacies when they’d been married or had she taken them for granted the way most married couples do?

  Never again. She’d savor each moment and hold it close. She knew firsthand how fast things could change, how easily a life could be shattered.

  Eager to be an active participant in the kiss, she brushed her tongue across his, and sighed as he tenderly probed into her mouth in return.