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By Ruth Wind
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2005 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOne day earlier - Monday, October 4
Somehow, Kim Valenti fell asleep next to her lover. It was not something she ordinarily allowed. Maybe it was the long days trying to break a troublesome code. Maybe it was the cold, nearly winter night. Maybe just general weariness. Whatever.
And as often happened these days, the nightmares came. Jason, laughing and joking, his big hands and goofy smile - suddenly beheaded. A casualty of war.
He'd been a professional soldier, after all. Sometimes soldiers died in the line of duty.
The dream yanked her out of sleep, her hands raised, her legs thrashing, a yell of protest on her lips. This time, her lover caught her in his sturdy arms.
"Hey," Marc said quietly. "You okay?"
Blinking, shuddering as if she'd nearly fallen off a cliff, Kim wiped her face. "Yeah."
Kim's mother, Eileen, had been plagued by nightmares throughout Kim's childhood, and the children had learned never to awaken her in the usual way, by grabbing a shoulder or an elbow. If she fell asleep on the couch after work, they'd simply stand beside her and call her name quietly until she stirred. To do otherwise was to risk a sharp fist to the face as the soldier she'd been reacted to a threat long past.
Now that she'd lost a son to war, Eileen said she never dreamed at all anymore. Kim had wearily confessed one night, over plates of pasta, that she'd taken it on for her mother. She had regular nightmares about her brother Jason. Her mother had squeezed her shoulder. Sorry, sweetheart.
"Argh!" Kim said, rubbing her eyes. "It's this damned code! It's driving me nuts!"
"You're having nightmares about codes?"
She shook her head. "Not exactly." She couldn't discuss it. Her brother's death was something she didn't talk about, and the code was something she wasn't allowed to discuss with a civilian.
The two things were feeding into each other tonight: Jason, dead in Iraq two years ago, and the Arabic code running through her mind. Endless ribbons of delicate, graceful lettering flowing across the back of her eyelids. Over and over. Almost clicking into place, then sliding away from her.
Kim swore. She wasn't going to be getting any sleep tonight. Even less if she didn't get rid of her lover.
"We're not supposed to be doing this anyway," she said, easing away from him. "No sleeping over."
He groaned, and buried his well-chiseled face into the pillow. Glossy black hair splashed over the white linens. His shoulders, round and smooth, stuck out of the sheet. "Don't make me go."
"You know the rules."
Marc faced her. "What would it hurt if I slept over just once?"
"Nyet, nope, not a chance." She rolled away, slid into the robe she'd left at the foot of her bed. As she tied it, she tried to soften up her line a little bit. "You don't want this to get serious any more than I do. We'd make each other crazy in a week."
He rubbed his perfectly grizzled jaw. "I know, I know."
She liked Marc just fine. He was a safe, warm companion, who made her laugh. They'd dated off and on for more than two years, and neither of them saw anyone else, particularly, but they didn't intend to be serious. No one in his life knew she existed, and no one in hers knew he did. They kept company, sometimes made love, kept each other on track about getting too serious. They were both very ambitious and had no intentions of getting sidetracked from their careers into something as ordinary as love and marriage.
If he'd had a few more brains, he might have been good long-term material, but his IQ just about matched his job: he was a model for a major men's clothing line. Beautiful to be sure, but not someone she felt she could trust for the long haul. It was the perfect arrangement for the short haul.
Marc buried his face. Made a noise. Kim slapped his very nicely shaped butt. "Get moving."
"C'mon. Have a heart." He reached out a big hand with elegantly manicured nails that somehow managed to look rugged anyway. "I'm tired, Kim. Really. It's cold out there. This bed is so comfortable."
She headed for the bathroom. "Nope. You've got to get moving because I've got to work."
"Work? It's nearly midnight. Won't it wait until morning?"
"No. Do you want a shower?"
"No, thanks." Reluctantly, he tossed the covers off and stood up, stretching. Kim allowed herself to admire him. Too bad he wasn't brighter, she thought wryly. He was Italian, handsome, kind, and she had no doubt he'd be a good father. And she could look at him for hours. Trouble was most women could, and he'd age well. She suspected he would be married many times as the years went by.
Just a gut feeling.
He put on his jeans and wandered over to put his arms around Kim. He kissed her neck. "Thanks for a great evening. You know I'm crazy about you."
She patted his hands, allowed the kiss. "Yeah, yeah, Spinuzzi."
Against her neck, he asked quietly, "Did you have a good time, Kim?"
It was unexpectedly vulnerable. Kim cursed inwardly. One of these days, she was going to have to remember that men were not as tough as they wanted women to think they were.
She turned and kissed him. "Always, Marc. I enjoy your company, and you're a great guy. We're just not couple material and you know it."
He squeezed her shoulder and nodded. "You're right, you're right. Go take your shower and I'll call you in a few days."
Excerpted from Countdown by Ruth Wind Copyright © 2005 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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