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By Rosemary Heim
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRyan Williams ran as if the devil was dogging his tail. Too bad some devils couldn't be outrun. Like memories of betrayal.
He slowed from his flat-out run. Wave-packed sand gave a little with each step, cushioning his bare feet as he raced along the shoreline. Bloodred fingers of light streaked the sparse clouds as the sun breached the horizon.
The thought raised goose bumps along his arms in spite of the tropical warmth.
Day two of his leave and he hadn't shaken the images from the last mission yet. Dealing with a traitor was never easy. It became doubly hard when innocent people were hurt. Thank God everyone was going to be okay.
And thank God for well-to-do friends who issued standing invitations. Once again, Jamie's "guest cottage" offered Ryan refuge, a safe place far away from the Bureau and all its intrigues. The north shore of Oahu was about as far away from Quantico as he could get. He needed every inch of that distance.
His breathing approached normal as he continued slowing down, cooling off from his customary five-mile run. He rounded the small bend in the shore, passing the tall palm trees that marked the final leg of the course he'd laid out four years earlier on his first visit.
He headed away from the ocean, winding through the small grove of coconut palms. He loved the quiet of the beach at sunrise, the solitude, the freedom. It provided exactly the break he needed.
He cleared the tree line high on the beach, skidded to a stop and quickly stepped back behind the nearest trunk. Up ahead, a figure crouched in the sand.
Who the devil was that? Ryan wasn't particularly pleased with the idea that someone had managed to invade this private stretch of heaven.
A quick scan of the surrounding area came up empty. No other intruders staked out on the beach. No boats in the water. No movement among the trees. No vehicles within eyesight. Not much could have gotten past the estate's security defenses, even this early in the morning. So how had this intruder gotten so close?
Regretting the absence of his gun, he left the tree cover and crossed down the beach to confront the intruder. The shushing waves masked what little sound his footsteps made.
From behind, he couldn't tell much about the person except that it was female. Long black hair lifted on the gentle breeze, seeming to defy gravity. He had a brief view of a slender back, narrow waist and softly rounded hips before the breeze died. The hair settled back into a solid curtain.
Oh yes. Definitely female. Interest of another sort stirred.
He adjusted the angle of his approach so he could get a better look at her. It didn't do much good. An expensive-looking 35mm camera obscured the woman's face. A large black camera bag rested in the sand next to her. She kneeled, facing the water, motionless except for her fingers on the camera lens and shutter release.
He glanced out over the horizon, searching for what held her attention. Just empty water met the morning sky. The few clouds stretched and shredded colors as the sun rose higher.
Was that what held her attention? That play of color?
When was the last time he'd been so engrossed by something as simple, as innocent as a sunrise?
He stopped a few feet from her and waited for her to notice him.
A minute passed. Then several more. The sun rose higher, breaking free from the ocean. Still the woman kept taking pictures, not stopping until she ran out of film. She never looked away from the rising sun as she quickly rewound the film, opened the camera back and removed the film cassette.
Ryan's eyes narrowed as he watched her quick movements. It took her less than a minute to reload the camera and begin shooting again.
She must be nuts. All alone on a deserted beach and she was oblivious to everything but the horizon. That was a good way to get hurt. Or worse.
Unless she wasn't alone. He performed another recon of the beach and nearby tree line. Still empty. All appeared as it should.
He stepped closer. When that failed to draw her attention, he cleared his throat. Still no response. Finally he spoke. "Excuse me, miss. This is a private beach."
She hesitated long enough to glance in his direction. He caught a glimpse of one pale gray eye edged with thick black lashes as she gave him a thorough up and down. She turned back to her camera and the sun without a comment.
Such a dismissal might have irritated Ryan if he hadn't noticed other details. She wasn't as unconcerned as she tried to appear. He could see her chewing on her lower lip and her throat worked around a swallow.
Good. She should be nervous. He stepped closer.
"Thirty-eight seconds. That's all I need."
He stopped short as her soft voice floated to him on the morning sea breeze. He checked his watch, noted the sweep of the second hand, marked the time. The old habit, left over from days of split-second, life-and-death missions, hadn't faded with the passage of time. He made another quick scan of their surroundings. The last thing he wanted was to be the sitting duck caught by this pretty decoy.
She finally lowered her camera, clipped the lens cap in place and returned her equipment to her camera bag. Ryan glanced at his watch. Thirty-eight seconds, exactly.
"As I was saying, this is private property. How'd you get here?"
The woman glanced around. A small frown creased her wide forehead. "I ... walked."
"That's a fair piece of walking. It's a few miles from the nearest road. Unless you crossed the estate grounds." He stepped closer.
She closed the quick-release catches on her bag and stood with a fluid movement. He got his first good look at her and a tiny alarm went off.
Her T-shirt and leggings were black and snug fitting, like something worn to hide in nighttime shadows. The pale skin of her bare feet blended into the sand. Her left hand clutched the wide black nylon strap of the bag over her right shoulder, her right hugged the bag close to her hip. "Then I'd better be on my way."
A haunted look passed over her finely molded features as she looked around the beach. She didn't move.
Something was definitely off here. She looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi. Ryan didn't need Jamie's psychic powers to feel the waves of panic rolling through her. The need to protect, a need rooted deep in his childhood, rose up, stronger than his government training of self-preservation. He held out one hand and stepped toward her. "I'm staying with a friend. His place is just up the beach. I could give you a lift back to your car if you'd like."
"No!" She backed up a step. Her right hand slipped into the wide front pocket of the camera bag.
"What's wrong? I maybe could be of some assistance to you." He kept his voice soft, calming, letting his southern-gentleman drawl come on thick. That sometimes did the trick when he needed to get around personal defenses.
"No. I ... I didn't mean any harm. I didn't see anything.... Just ... let me go."
"I'd like to oblige, miss, but my mama raised me to be a gentleman. She'd tear a strip offa me a mile wide if I left a woman on a deserted beach to fend for herself." He smiled, hoping to reassure her.
It didn't work.
Excerpted from Memory Reload by Rosemary Heim Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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