Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate (23 page)

She was alive.

She looked down at him with the same incomprehensible relief he felt taking over his own features.

He opened his mouth to say
Wait, I’ll come help you,
or on second thought after a wise glance at those steps,
Wait, let me get help.

Selena shook her head. Not the short, sharp gesture he expected from her, but a more careful movement—the movement of someone trying desperately to keep herself in one piece. Quite clearly—a voice stronger than any he expected to come from that exhausted shell of his wife—she said, “No. Stay there. This is one set of steps that I fully intend to
walk
down.”

It might just have been the hardest thing Cole had ever done…but he waited. He watched her careful descent, he ached and bled for her, and he waited. And when she reached the bottom, he didn’t care about all the cameras aimed their way, all the commentary suddenly building to applause and cheers. He put his arms around her and he said, “Welcome home, Lena.”

Welcome home
—and everything that it meant between them.

And barely standing on her own, she lifted her head from his shoulder and whispered, just for the two of them, “Home for good.”

 

 

 

“Beep, beep?” Cole asked again, his mouth close to Selena’s ear and his breath a delicious tickle. Carefully, achingly, she eased closer to him. The bed wasn’t theirs and it wasn’t entirely comfortable; nor was this tiny room on base at Ramstein in Germany—where they’d both been flown, treated and released, and now faced the first rounds of debriefing. The bed wasn’t theirs…but they were together in it. Spooned in the luxury of simply being together. Cole kissed Selena’s neck and added, “You really said that?”

“Mmm-hmm.” She curled her hands over his arm where it pillowed her head, stroking down to meet his hand and clasp it lightly. “Lightly” was their watchword. Selena was stitched and bruised and even cracked in a place or two, from the initial damage to her face and arm through the battering she’d taken in the bathroom and the final insult of the bullet that had deeply furrowed her forearm. Cole’s concussion had been declared mild; his leg rested heavily in a cast on which she’d already written a lewd suggestion.

His free hand traced a path over the curve of her hip, one of the few freely touchable places available. He settled his hand and tugged her back slightly, sighing down her neck as her bottom made contact with an obvious but gentle arousal. “And that Post-it note I found? You really wrote ‘You lose’?”

“Mmm-hmm.” She kissed his arm. Lightly, oh yes. Her face still looked like a battlefield.

He rested his head on hers, taking a deep, slow breath that came out in a sigh and meant he’d been reveling in the scent of her hair. After a moment he said, “I’m done with fieldwork for a while, you know. Possibly forever.”

“Because of the cameras.” She’d wondered. Even in her weary, painful daze, she’d been aware of the cameras recording her every step on the way down to Cole. Her statement about walking down the Death Steps had already been splashed across international headlines. And though the stills showed mostly the back of Cole’s head, the broadcast cameras had captured his distinctive profile and the bright gold glint of his hair.

He shrugged, his chest moving against her shoulders. “I’d do it again. No-brainer. Besides, they’re asking me to consider training recruits at the Farm. After my leg heals, maybe some of the survival camps. Maybe Tory can get her interview after all. And it strikes me as a good thing for a father to do.”

“But—”

But he wasn’t. They weren’t. The little pee-on-a-stick kit had been smugly certain of it. Selena’s fatigue, her illness…just the results of stress set off by bad food and followed up by way too much in-her-face death. She’d cried at that, as she hadn’t cried in the past horrible days.

“No buts.” He gently rubbed her stomach, avoiding the three stitches that closed the wound there. “We’ll get there. And it’s better this way.”

She didn’t immediately absorb the statement, still lost in the thought of his job changing…and of her own. “The CIA called me today, you know.”

He stilled, his soothing gestures coming to a standstill. She missed them immediately.

“Not to worry,” she said. “They want me for Langley. They need a new chief in counterterrorism interrogation and analysis. I guess I impressed them.”

Cole’s laugh was short and quiet. “Honey, you impressed the
world.

She’d impressed
someone,
anyway. The CIA hadn’t been the only one to come calling. Delphi herself had called, on a secure cell phone that had been hand delivered only moments before. The women of Athena Academy, she had said, were fulfilling their promise—Selena among them. And it was time to pull together in a more organized fashion, pooling their talents across agency lines to prevent incidents just such as the one Selena had survived. As soon as Selena returned to the States, she and certain other Athena graduates would gather to meet Delphi for the first time—and to formally initiate the organization that Delphi called Oracle.

“Langley,” Cole repeated after moments of mutually quiet thought. “There’d be travel, of course.”

“Some,” she agreed, distracted enough to purr as he stroked her side, hand gently following her curves, fingers tracing the interesting features along the way—skimming the side of her breasts, her ribs, the hip bone that wouldn’t be quite so obvious once she got another good meal or two on board.

“Still,” he said. “A good job for a family woman.”

“What did you mean?” she asked suddenly. “That it’s better this way? That I’m not pregnant?”

His silence came through as uncomfortable guilt. They hadn’t talked about this, not yet. Selena hadn’t felt the burning need, not after she’d delved so deeply into her true feelings. Facing terrorists tended to peel away the superficial layers of feelings to get straight to the core, and she’d found her answers there. Her trust.

But they hadn’t talked about it, and they’d still need to do that. Cole took a deep breath and said, “I know what it did to you, seeing me in D.C. I screwed up when I didn’t tell you I was on my way back, and I don’t know that I can ever give you any details. With what we’d just been through…Well, I know you, honey. There’s this part you hardly show anyone else…the part that cares so deeply you can hardly stand it.” He kissed her neck where it joined her shoulder. “I shook that part up pretty badly. If we’d come off this incident to find you pregnant, we’d have stayed together for the sake of the baby—you know we would have.”

She stirred to protest. “We would have stayed together anyway.”

“I know,” he said, and touched her with his lips again, so light she barely felt it. “The point is, we get to show ourselves the truth of that. We get to make that decision every day, for ourselves, until we put that stupid decision of mine behind us. And also to the point,” he said, matter-of-factly, “we get to keep trying to make that baby.”

Selena laughed. “Mmm-hmm,” she said, and tipped her head back to grin wickedly at him.
“We win.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 
 

Doranna Durgin

 

Doranna Durgin spent her childhood filling notebooks first with stories and art, then with novels. After obtaining a degree in wildlife illustration and environmental education, she spent a number of years deep in the Appalachian Mountains. When she emerged, it was as a writer who found herself irrevocably tied to the natural world and its creatures—and with a new touchstone to the rugged spirit that helped settle the area, which she instills in her characters.

Dun Lady’s Jess,
Doranna’s first published fantasy novel, received the 1995 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall award for the best first book in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres; she now has fifteen novels of eclectic genres on the shelves and more on the way. Most recently, she’s leaped gleefully into the world of action-romance. When she’s not writing, Doranna builds author web sites, wanders around outside with a camera and works with horses and dogs—currently, she’s teaching agility classes. There’s a Lipizzan in her backyard, a mountain looming outside her office window, a pack of agility dogs romping in the house and a laptop sitting on her desk—and that’s just the way she likes it. You can find a complete list of books at
www.doranna.net
along with scoops about new projects, lots of silly photos and a link to her SFF Net newsgroup. And for kicks, Connery Beagle has a LiveJournal (journal name: connerybeagle) presenting his unique view of life in the high desert—drop by and say hello!

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