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The ground shuddered under Michael Forest as he stood guard on the only approach to Summer's position high on the sea cliff.
For the last three days, he'd stayed nearby to help and protect her as she'd scrambled up boulders and delved into deep fissures, healing ley lines along this stressed central California coast.
Ley lines -- lines of magnetic power deep in the earth. Michael shook his head at how improbable it seemed for Summer or anyone to manipulate them, even when he'd seen her sister, Charity, perform equally incredible feats using paranormal power.
Shifting his position to scan the surrounding area, he recalled the first time he'd observed Summer as she'd worked with a power he couldn't see, hear, or feel, except by its influence on the earth's fault lines. The moment she'd announced the ley lines were once more clear, the ground had stopped moving. Even more, there had been none of the aftershocks that normally followed the first set of shakes.
The last few days, he'd seen that proven over and over again.
Another earthquake rolled under his feet. Rocks and boulders clattered down the fractured cliff. Obviously, she hadn't tamed the lines, yet, this time.
"Damn," he muttered, heading up the narrow path toward her. Whether she wanted to or not, she was leaving her unsafe perch even if he had to throw her over his shoulder.
Michael climbed steadily through the light and shadows, ignoring the ache in his right leg. He'd learned long ago to work past pain and keep going.
Just before he reached Summer, she rose, still facing out to sea. Wind molded the white sweater and natural linen pants to her slenderfigure. Moonlight changed her pale blonde hair into silver fire. Tonight there was an air of sad determination in her squared shoulders.
He cleared his throat to warn her of his presence. "Time to go before the cliff falls apart under your feet."
She turned to him, the wind whipping strands of concealing hair across her face. "Don't worry. It'll hold."
"Sure, but the quakes can shake you off the top."
Three more steps and he was on the narrow platform of rock beside her. He touched her shoulder. A flare of sensual heat swept through him, but he clamped down on his reaction.
"Listen, you're wearing yourself out. Time to call it a night and head back to the house."
She gave him a whimsical smile. "You sound like my oldest brother, Daniel."
Her brother? He didn't feel brotherly, but it was best for her to see him like that.
Suddenly, the back of his neck prickled. The muscles between his shoulder blades tensed. He stepped up between Summer and the unknown threat. "Let's move. You're too exposed here."
"You felt it, too?"
"Somebody watching? Yeah." He clasped her arm to help her negotiate the steepest parts and to shield her as much as possible. "I caught a gleam just now of binoculars. He's careless. Probably thinks we don't know he's there. Act casual, but be ready to hit the ground."
As they reached the bottom of the trail, Michael drew her closer, still keeping his body between hers and the watcher. He wouldn't draw his weapon yet. That would tip-off the unknown person.
Summer shivered. Her face looked pale in the moonlight, her breath was labored.
Charity, Summer's sister, had cautioned him that when Summer used her gifts it drained her energy, but they had to keep moving. His instincts, sharpened in shadow wars, insisted she was in danger.
Finally, in the temporary safety of deep shadows under a twisted cypress, he stopped her. "You're cold and exhausted."
He pulled off his black leather jacket. "Put this on."
"Being tired goes with the job." She held her wind-whipped hair away from her face. "I can't take your jacket. You'll freeze in this chill."
"Not me. I've been in a lot colder places. Don't waste time arguing." He held the supple leather ready for her to slip her arms into the sleeves.
Her chin came up. "It won't be the first time I've been chilly."
"Yeah, and it won't be the first time I've had to carry someone over my shoulder when they were injured or sick because of sheer stubbornness."
Summer gazed at him for a moment, and nodded. "You win."
He helped her into the jacket, inhaling her unique fragrance of spring flowers. "This feels great. Thanks." She smoothed down the supple hide.
The rattle of dirt and pebbles on the rise of land just beyond the rocky clearing brought Michael to higher alert. A startled bird took flight, squawking its protest.
"We'd better go, Michael. It sounds like the watcher is getting close." She zipped up the jacket, spun on her heel, and headed down the trail.
Pulling his Sig Sauer 9mm from the holster at his back, Michael joined Summer, tucked her close with his left arm, and propelled her through the low jumble of boulders and down the long slope.
After a quick survey of the area, they crossed the dirt road while moonlight tossed shadows around them. Then they melted into the sharp-scented darkness of the eucalyptus grove and stopped a short distance from the rented Bronco.
Silently, he led her to a half-circle of fractured granite tall enough to hide a man. Sycamore and eucalyptus spread branches over the top.
"Wait here," he said in a low murmur. "No matter what happens, don't go anywhere near the car until I come for you, and you know I'm alone."
"I'll go with you now. Two people on the lookout are better than one."
"Not this time. If I have to worry about you, it'll slow me down. I'm the one with security training. Let me do my job."
He handed her his cell phone. "If anything odd happens, call Hawk's number and follow his instructions."
When she hesitated, he clasped her wrist. Filled with a sense of urgency, he repeated his advice, adding, "Promise me."
Her face was an oval blur in the deep shadows. "I promise. Be careful," she said in a low voice.
After handing a pocket flashlight to her, he ducked around the brush hiding the narrow opening into the rocky shelter and walked down the trail to the Bronco.
With his black T-shirt, jeans and hiking boots blending into the night, he became just another shadow among the trees.
He'd left the sports utility vehicle in a spot where moonlight filtered through the leaves enough for him to see nearby objects. The beige trunks of the eucalyptus, pale in the dim light, would betray anyone crossing in front of them.
He moved to the black Ford and gave it a quick once-over with his sensitive fingers, examining the surface for wires, scratches, anything that might be hooked to a bomb.
He hadn't survived years in covert work or the more recent corporate battles without learning the ingenuity of people trying to destroy someone else.
With his spare, shielded flashlight, he examined the car once more looking for subtle signs of forced entry or any indication of an explosive device that could tear flesh from bones in one searing moment.
Like a man searching in the dark for a scorpion or pit viper, he held his breath and slowly opened each door, then inspected under the hood, the trunk interior, and inside the wheel wells.
Finally he was satisfied that nothing had been added to the Bronco but dampness from the night air and his own fingerprints.
He exhaled in relief and rushed up the rise toward Summer.
Waiting in the dark, she had watched through an opening in the bushes as Michael's shadowy figure moved around the Ford. When she realized he was looking for a car bomb, her stomach knotted. She wanted to run after him, tell him to come back and call the sheriff's office. Let them take the risk.
It seemed like an eternity before his familiar black shadow slipped into the rocky bowl with her.
Turning on his flashlight, Michael held out his hand. "Ready to go?" he said as if inviting her for a stroll.
"Just like that? Let's go? No explanation why you went over the car so carefully?" This is the first time I've seen you check it that thoroughly."
She searched his shadowed expression for evidence of trouble. "Is everything all right?"
"No problems." Clasping her arm just above the elbow, he led her into the thick dark. In spite of his guiding hand, she stumbled over sprawling roots and fallen branches.
"How do you see where we're going?" she asked, careful to speak only loud enough for him to hear.
"I've always had good night vision. A little stint in Feo's Fleabag hotel helped sharpen my ability to see in the dark."
Fleabag hotel? She puzzled over the odd name. Who'd want to stay at a place with that name? It was a joke, of course. She frowned. Still, there'd been a strange note, a hint of remembered pain in his voice. She wished she had her sister, Charity's, empathic gift -- the ability to know what another person was feeling and to heal their pain. Then she would know how to heal whatever made him so sad and grim.
When they reached the SUV, Michael carefully scanned the area, then circled the Bronco, shining his flashlight on the ground.
"Looks safe." He opened the passenger door and she slid in.
Settling into the driver's seat, he started the engine, and directed the Bronco between trees and onto the dirt road.
When he'd rounded the SUV, Summer had noticed he was limping more heavily. Concerned about his old injury, she touched his arm. "We walked through some pretty tough country today."
"Good exercise." He rested his other hand on hers briefly.
Summer didn't know if it was the sound of his rich voice or the press of his strong fingers that set her pulse pounding.
She watched his long, well-shaped fingers on the steering wheel as he maneuvered the Ford along the rutted dirt pretense of a road.
How many times over the last few days had those hands helped her down steep trails, across boulders slippery with ocean spray, and up invisible pathways of crumbled sedimentary rock where only the ancient tribal people had traveled?
Michael Forest, a strong name for a strong man, she thought. They'd met for the first time over a year earlier at Charity's wedding. Michael, wearing a black tuxedo that contrasted with the gold highlights gleaming in his light brown hair, had held the hand of eight-year-old Brianna, talking to her as if she were the most special person in the room.
The little blonde, daughter of Michael's friends, Quinn and Heather Archer, beamed up at Michael, clutching a bouquet of pink, miniature sweetheart roses.
Later, Summer learned he often brought what Brianna called, baby roses, to her.
The image lingered in her mind of the gentle man and the adoring child. Since then, she'd learned he was far more complex. Guardian, business man, warrior, and according to her brother-in-law, Hawk Adams, hell-on-wheels in battle.
When Summer was formally introduced to Michael, she'd seen dark brown eyes filled with sharp intelligence in a face too strong-featured to be called handsome. It held lines etched by pain and cruel experience, but softened by gentleness and compassion.
Her thoughts returned to the present as they reached the coastal highway and turned south toward the small town of Cypress Cove.
"Won't be long until we get to your place." Michael glanced at her. "We've left the person shadowing us behind. Chances are, he'll be waiting for us back there tomorrow. Move your work to a section south of town, and we might shake him. Keep him out of our hair."
"I can't do that. There's a break in the ley lines under the cove. I have to repair that before it causes trouble."
"Postpone it until I can track down the watcher and assure myself he's not a threat to you."
She tapped her leg in annoyance. "It has to be tomorrow morning. The moon will set a short time before sunrise. I can use the combined energy of the moon and sun to restore the magnetic flow under the cove."
He turned his dark gaze on her before facing the road again. "Wise up. Your safety is more important."
"Nothing is more important than preventing a disaster."
"You mean stronger earthquakes?"
"That and more. I'll explain later." She folded her arms against her chest, chilled by the image of catastrophic damage.
"It's your show for now," Michael said. "But this guy watching you changes things. I'll call Hawk for a back-up team."
"No. I don't want Charity to worry." Summer shifted in her place. "Besides, the watcher hasn't interfered in my work. Maybe he was just curious, and won't be around tomorrow."
Michael turned onto the road leading toward her rented house. "I wouldn't bet on it."
Neither would I, she thought, but she couldn't have a lot of people around. She already worried about Michael getting caught in a potential backlash if he got too close.
"Michael, please don't call in anyone. Too many near me will complicate my connection to the magnetic lines."
Briefly, his face turned toward her in the dark, and she felt his silent questions.
As the road curved south, paralleling the ocean, she looked out her side window. The water stretched west, north, and south for thousands of unbroken miles. White caps foamed against dark troughs. Waves rushed toward the land, curled high, caught the moonlight in green and aqua bands, then tumbled down, crashing against pale sand and black rocks. The retreating tide had left shells once torn from underwater seabeds by storms far south of them off the coast of Baja California.
Tonight, Summer felt like that ocean -- restless, unable to stop a destructive force, dependent on the influence of the moon. And every time the damaged ley lines groaned, she felt the ache through the ever-present connection.
She pressed her fingers against her forehead, battling to seal away the link into one corner of her mind. Minutes passed as she struggled to impose her will on the mindless energy. At last the connection was silenced, and she sighed in relief.
A few minutes later, Michael pulled into the driveway and stopped behind her metallic navy blue Firebird parked at the side of the small house.
She unsnapped her seat belt. "Do you want hot tea or cocoa tonight?"
"Cocoa sounds good." Michael slid out and came around to her side. As she stepped out, he cupped her elbow in his strong hand and moved with her up the moon-dappled walk. Zinnias and yellow calendulas planted against the long porch made bright sparks of color amid shadowed greens.
The brisk ocean breeze, laden with salt-water scents, swirled around them. Moist air touched her face like a blessing.
How could it seem so peaceful when an uneasy sense of peril prowled just below the surface of her mind?
In a low voice, Michael said, "I'll go in first." He held out his hand for her key.
Summer pressed it into his palm. After three days, she was accustomed to the routine. This time, however, he led her into the shadows behind the porch swing, and she sensed a greater tension coiled in his body.
"Wait here," he murmured.
Michael, aware that he was Summer's only protection at the moment, opened the door and stepped inside away from the moonlight. He waited for his night vision to sharpen, and then studied every part of the room he could see from his position.
He listened intently for any sound that would betray another person's presence, more cautious than ever because of the watcher. Sampling the air, he breathed in the fragrance of roses and sandalwood. Same as usual. No hint of a stranger.
In spite of his limp, he moved silently through the room until he knew it was safe for Summer.
Opening the door, he gestured for her to enter. "Stay here away from the window until I check the rest of the house."
"I will," she said in a low voice.
He continued his security sweep of the kitchen, the bathrooms, and the bedroom where he'd slept the previous two nights.
Then, as always, he hesitated in front of the door to Summer's room. He didn't want to violate her privacy, but for her safety, he had to enter and look around.
Moving inside, he inhaled the feminine fragrances -- powder, lotion, and the sweet scent uniquely hers.
A picture formed, unbidden, of Summer lying on rumpled sheets, hair spread out on the pillow like a fan of light. For a blinding moment, he saw her open her arms to him in welcome as he slid into bed against her silken skin.
With a silent curse, Michael jerked his thoughts back to the present. He continued his security check with the knowledge that he could protect Summer, but never claim her for his own.
Finally satisfied the house was safe, he returned to her side, switched on the light, and gave her the key.
Her green eyes held a soft glow as she smiled at him. "You've done your job, now I'll make the hot chocolate."
As she disappeared into the small kitchen, Michael settled on the wheat-colored couch against the pale green Irish linen throw smoothed across the back.
One of Summer's sculptures, a whimsical terra cotta statue of a sea otter family, sat on the coffee table. Beside it, an earthenware bowl of polished stones invited him to choose one. He selected an agate and enjoyed its swirls of subtle color.
He felt a rare peace in the house, but put it aside as he mentally reviewed the new potential danger. This was the third day he'd hiked with Summer. Until this evening, the days had been uneventful, if you could call observing her operate her amazing paranormal gift uneventful.
The moment he'd sensed the presence of the mysterious person, warning bells had sounded in his mind. He'd learned early on in his service training to pay attention.
Another, darker memory slid into his thoughts. If only he'd sensed a warning then...
Pushing to his feet, Michael returned the agate to the bowl and limped to the west-facing window. He braced one hand against the frame, holding back the curtain. Through the glass, he heard the muted roar of the ocean.
After a careful survey of the area visible from his position, he stared out at the moonlit water and sky, his thoughts returning once more to the year he was twenty-one.
His selfish choice then had set him on a path that changed his life forever and brought him to this moment. There had been times when he'd agonized over difficult choices, the horrors he'd seen, the necessary violence he'd committed. Tonight he was glad for those painful lessons because they'd equipped him to guard Summer.
Her warm voice came from the kitchen. "The cocoa's almost ready. I'll bring some cookies."
"Sounds good." More than good, he mused, returning to the couch. It sounded like home and family, a dream he'd never be free to claim.
Summer entered with a tray and placed it on the coffee table beside the sculpture.
"Help yourself." She sat in the chair opposite him across the low table.
Just her presence brought light to the room. He allowed himself the pleasure of gazing at the picture she made seated on cushions patterned with bright yellow flowers in the white wicker chair.
She smiled gently. "Penny for your thoughts."
"Whatever you have in this room, you should bottle it and make a fortune. I don't know when I've felt this relaxed."
"Just a good, old-fashioned potpourri of rose and sandalwood." She lifted her cup in a gesture of appreciation.
Michael, uneasy with his attraction to Summer, chose a handful of peanut butter cookies and settled back with the cup of hot chocolate. "This reminds me of cold nights in front of a blazing fire at home when I was a kid."
Summer sampled a cookie. "Umm, me too. My dad chopped wood for three fireplaces. He said the exercise kept him fit. It must've worked because he's still swinging the axe and piling up logs."
"I can't picture my father chopping wood. As an Ambassador, he spent most of the time hacking out agreements between countries or chairing endless meetings."
Summer's eyes sparkled with interest. "An Ambassador? Did you travel a lot with your parents?"
"My mom had packing down to a fine art. Even when Dad was stationed at one post, they traveled a lot within that country. Most of the time, they left my little sister, Teri, and me with a nanny and the residency staff."
"That must've been hard." Summer sipped her cocoa. "Do you see them often, or are they overseas?"
Michael's gut ached with the sense of loss. "They're dead," he said in a flat tone.
"Oh." Summer reached toward him, then drew back her hand. "I'm sorry."
"It happened a long time ago." He set his cup on the saucer with careful control. "We have to talk about the person who was watching us this evening. Do you have any ideas?"
Frowning, she shook her head. Light from the floor lamp shimmered on her hair. "He wasn't here last August when I stayed a month."
"Get packed and we'll leave early in the morning."
Her lips tightened and she set her cup in the saucer with a loud clink. "Wait a minute." Her voice rose. "I thought we'd settled this. I can't just pick up and go. I have to return to the cove tomorrow."
"The cove is off-limits to you. You'd be too vulnerable."
"I don't have a choice. The ley lines are damaged and the land is already deteriorating."
Michael surged from his chair and paced to the window and back. He stopped beside her, deliberately invading her personal space. "Dammit, Summer. Nothing is so important you have to risk your life."
Summer stood and faced him, realizing this was a critical moment. "It's not your choice. Risk is part of life. I'll be the judge of what I should and should not do."
His face hardened. His brown eyes, once so warm, now glittered with the cold intensity of a rare cinnamon diamond. Gripping her shoulders, he said, "Hawk gave me the assignment to guard you and I promised your sister I'd protect you. I keep my promises."
"I know you keep your word, Michael, but hear me out. I'm not asking you to break a promise. I am asking you to listen. Charity and Hawk both know that obligations and hazards are part of being gifted. They'll understand my commitment."
Releasing her, he folded his arms, an implacable expression on his face. "Go ahead. Talk."
She inhaled and let the air out in a long breath, collecting her thoughts. "You're trying to protect one person -- me. It's my duty to protect far more."
Turning her back to him, she struggled for control of her emotions. Deep below, a ley line licked toward the surface, a fiery snake of power seeking her life force.
With a flare of personal energy, she stopped the line, strengthened her internal safeguards, and collapsed into her chair.
Still shaken from the silent battle with the rogue line, she picked up her cup and drained the last of the cocoa.
Outside, the muted roar of the nearby ocean was broken by the sharp cry of a night bird, but in the quiet room, tension thickened the atmosphere.
When she was sure she could speak calmly, she said, "It's vital I complete my repairs below the surface of the cove tomorrow."
She watched Michael stalk back to the couch and sit. He stared at her through narrowed eyes. "Wait until I run down the guy who's watching you. Then go ahead and do your stuff."
Frustrated by his suggestion of a delay, Summer rubbed the narrow puckered scar on the inside of her left wrist. "We've been over this already."
A muscle jumped in Michael's jaw. He ran a hand through his hair. "Here's the bottom line. It's dangerous for you to be out in the open. My job's to keep you safe."
"You can't stop me. Healing the major lines is too important."
Michael's expression darkened. "Dammit, I'll do whatever's needed to protect you if I have to lock you in your room."
With an effort born of painful practice and experience, Summer held her temper. "You've been with me these last few days as I checked the lines of power and corrected problems, but I never stopped to explain their importance."
He nodded. "Go on." Leaning back, he stretched out his legs as if relaxed, but Summer wasn't deceived. The coiled tension in his shoulders and his alert air showed his instant readiness.
She rubbed the bridge of her nose searching for the words to give him a clear image. "The lines of magnetism and energy deep in the earth's crust travel in all directions. They help keep the surface in balance, just as blood circulating through our bodies keeps us healthy. My birth gift is the ability to sense those lines and heal any blockages or breaks in them."
Frowning, Michael asked, "What's so urgent about correcting the lines immediately? To stop the aftershocks we've had the last couple of days?"
"That's right, to prevent or moderate earthquakes. Some earth movement is a natural part of the planet's vitality, but there's a fine balance between what's beneficial and what's destructive." She shifted in the wicker chair, listening to the faint creak as the resilient fibers adjusted to her change.
"If the ley lines are blocked, the land goes out of balance. When that happens, the water table can change or drain away all together. Can you imagine the disaster caused by the sudden loss of water?"
"Yes, but there are other ways to bring in water."
Summer rose, moved quickly around the table, and gripped Michael's hands.
She paused, shaken by a new awareness of his overwhelming masculinity.
Closing her eyes, she fought to keep her churning emotions from affecting the ley lines.
Michael's fingers tightened on hers.
She looked into his eyes now shadowed with concern. "The lines below the cove continue deep under the ocean. The building pressure will trigger an earthquake and generate tidal waves from Big Sur to Baja California. For six hundred miles along the coast, people and houses at sea level will be swept away. I can't let that happen."
Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Clark