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Death Angel (Chapter Thirty-two)

JACKSON WAS SILENT AS HE AND COTTON WALKED DOWN the street toward their car. He was patient, waiting until they had closed the car doors behind them and buckled their seat belts before he asked, "What was that about?" He couldn't think of any reason why Cotton would deliberately mislead Drea Rousseau-he had a hard time thinking of her as "Andie" anything-about the feasibility of any plan involving using her as bait. If Salinas were in hiding and they were trying to draw him out, maybe, but that wasn't the case. Physically, they could put their hands on him at any time. Their problem was getting evidence against him that would stick, and short of filming him killing her, there was simply no way to use her. The Bureau wasn't going to set her up as a sacrificial lamb, so the whole idea was a nonstarter.

Cotton studied the street, the people around them, before asking mildly, "You didn't recognize him?"

"Recognize him? Should I have?"

"He's the man on the balcony."

Jackson stared at Cotton, astonished. "The man on the balcony," as they called him, had been a source of frustrated conjecture for months. He had simply vanished, and they'd never discovered how. Jackson sat back in the seat and looked straight ahead as he mentally compared the man in his memory to the one he had just seen standing in the park. "I'll be damned. Good eye, Cotton." He drummed his fingers on his leg. "She's probably been with him all this time."

He hoped she had been, anyway. He'd never admit it to anyone, but he had a kind of soft spot for her. When she'd been with Salinas, he'd pitied her, because she'd been like this pretty, useless doll that Salinas dragged out whenever he wanted to play with her, but otherwise had no interest in her. Whoever the balcony guy was, though, she loved him. Jackson was a hard-core realist, but being a realist meant he recognized what was right in front of him. When the guy had appeared right behind them, as silently as a damn ghost, both he and Cotton had damn near had coronaries, but when she'd turned around her face had taken on a luminous expression-exasperated, but luminous, as if the sun had just come out in her world. She might be a tad pissed off at the sun, but she was glad to see it all the same.

She was different, and it wasn't just the shorter, darker, straighter hair. It wasn't that she no longer dressed to show. In a way she was more eye-catching now than she had been before, but not because of the flash. There was something in her expression, a serenity, that hadn't been there before. Sometimes her attention seemed riveted to something in the distance; once he'd turned around to check if someone was behind him, but there was nothing, and when he turned back she had refocused on him. That was another thing: when she looked at a person, she really looked, deeply and thoroughly. With that stare turned on him, he'd had to fight the compulsion to look down and check his zipper, to see if that was making her study him so intently.

Reading the guy wasn't as easy as reading her. Hell, his expression hadn't so much as flickered, and the damn sunglasses hadn't helped. He'd been as blank as a store-window mannequin. But Jackson had looked back and seen the guy take her hand and link their arms, and something in the way he'd touched her told Jackson that the feeling between them was mutual.

Jackson was glad, for her sake. From the conversation she'd had with Salinas on the balcony that day, they knew that he'd given her services to the guy as if she were just a whore to him. They knew she'd been extremely upset. Then, the next day, she was gone. They knew she hadn't packed her clothes and moved out, because they kept track of everyone who entered and exited the apartment building. The last time they'd seen her, she had gotten into a car with one of Salinas's thugs, and when he came back she wasn't with him.

When she'd disappeared, there had been a lot of upheaval in Salinas's routine, and Jackson had wondered then if she'd been killed and her body disposed of, for reasons they could only guess at. Thinking of those days immediately following her disappearance, he suddenly made another connection. "Hey! Remember that meeting Salinas had in Central Park? We couldn't get a shot of the other guy's face. Remember? I think that was him, then, too-the man on the balcony."

Cotton considered the possibility, dredging his memory for the few details they had of the man Salinas had met, and he gave a single, considering nod. "I think you're right."

What that meeting could have been about was anyone's guess. Remembering the chain of events, though, Jackson thought Drea had walked out on Salinas and gone to the other man, and Salinas hadn't had any idea where she was. Maybe he'd arranged the meeting to ask, or even to hire the other man to find her. The Bureau had no idea who the man was, or what he did, so the possibilities were endless.

He couldn't resist a challenge, never had been able to. His agile mind began running through all those possibilities and scenarios, testing them against the few facts available, discarding some, expanding others, entertaining himself so thoroughly that it wasn't until later that he realized Cotton hadn't answered his question.

SIMON FELT THE chill of his old friend Death creeping over him. He wasn't a man who agonized over his choices; he identified them, analyzed them, and then made the best one and moved on. This choice, however, left the tang of bitterness in his mouth. It wasn't that he regretted it, because he didn't, couldn't. But he didn't like it at all, didn't like being forced into it, even though he'd have made the same choice without outside intervention. He would protect Andie, period. That was his bedrock.

He took her back to the Holiday Inn and escorted her to her room; he had to see for himself that she was safely there and that no one had broken in. Then he framed her face with his hands and kissed her, long and slow, letting the taste of her and the feel of her soothe him.

"I have things to do," he said when he finally lifted his mouth. He wanted to take her straight to bed and lose himself in the hot clasp of her body, but he was nothing if not disciplined. "Don't wait up for me. I don't know how long I'll be."

Her blue eyes darkened with concern as she stared at him. "Don't go," she said suddenly, even though she had no idea what he'd be doing. He'd noticed that her instincts, always sharp, had gone beyond sharpness into another realm, as if she knew things that she couldn't possibly know. Was she even aware of how much time they spent staring into each other's eyes, until he sometimes felt their separate identities blur? He didn't think so. In most ways she was still very much of this world-a little crabby, a little impatient, a lot sexy-but every now and then she went away, not inside her head but somewhere out in the ether, and when she came back she always looked a little more radiant.

However it had come about, she read him better than anyone ever had, as if she had an inside track to his head.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," he said, kissing her again. "Wait for me. Don't let those FBI assholes talk you into anything before I get back. Promise me."

Her brows snapped together and she opened her mouth to blast him for demanding a promise from her when he wouldn't honor her request. He laid a finger across her mouth, his eyes crinkling at the corners in amusement. "I know," he said. "Promise me anyway."

She narrowed her eyes at him, then turned to look at the clock. "Give me a definite time. I'm not buying that 'I have things to do, I don't know how long I'll be' crap. Two hours? Five?"

"Twenty-four," he said.

"Twenty-four!"

"It's a definite time limit. Now promise." Twenty-four hours wasn't a stretch, either; he'd need every one of them. "This is important to me. I need to know you're safe." That got to her, because she loved him. She loved him. The unreality of it shook him, yet the rightness of it went straight to his core.

Because she loved him, she grudgingly said, "All right, I promise," even though she didn't like it one little bit. He kissed her again and left, standing out in the hall until he heard her chain the door and turn the deadlock. By the time he got to the elevator, he'd already placed the most crucial call of all.

"This is Simon," he said when Scottie answered the phone. "I need a favor, probably the last one ever."

"Whatever you need," said Scottie promptly, because it was due only to Simon that his daughter was alive. "And it's your call whether or not it's the last one. I'm always here, for whatever you need."

He explained what he needed. Scottie thought a minute, then said, "You got it."

That taken care of, he began analyzing the situation more minutely. The two things you needed in order to kill someone were a weapon and the opportunity. All the other details fell into one of those two main categories. Getting a weapon was no problem; getting an untraceable weapon, and a good one, was easy if he had enough time, but time was the one commodity he didn't have. Normally he would spend days working out the details, the logistics. This had to be done fast, then he would grab Andie and get out of the country while he could.

That pissed him off, too. He didn't like being forced to leave his country, and he knew going into this that he might never be able to return. If he worked everything just right, maybe. Only time would tell.

If he'd maintained his apartment in the same building as Salinas, he wouldn't have any problem, but he'd let it go months ago and relocated to San Francisco. Likewise he didn't have time to establish Salinas's routine, so he'd have to initiate the meeting. Drawing him out wouldn't be a problem, because Salinas had already been trying to contact him about another hit. Now he'd never know what big scheme Salinas had going on, he thought, then gave a mental shrug because it didn't matter. Salinas wouldn't live to see it through. Somewhere in the world, someone would live another day.

He'd have to do a street hit, which greatly increased the risks. On the plus side was the weather, which was still cool enough that coats were needed. On the minus side was that he'd not only have to carry his weapon, but adding a sound suppressor to it greatly increased the weapon's visibility by doubling the length.

Having to suppress the sound added all sorts of complications to his plans. To begin with, using a pistol meant he had to be close, and Salinas was always surrounded by his men. Because of how their mechanisms worked, a suppressor could turn a semiautomatic pistol into a single-shot weapon by preventing the slide from unlocking, but because a pistol meant close work, he had to have more than one shot available to him, in case one or more of Salinas's men were trained well enough to function through the surprise and initial confusion. He'd need an advanced suppressor that overcame that problem, or he'd have to use a different type of weapon.

The more the sound was suppressed, the harder it would be for them to pinpoint the location of the shooter. He'd go with a smaller caliber weapon, he thought, a blowback design with a fixed barrel; they were more effectively suppressed. He'd never yet seen a real weapon that could be suppressed to Hollywood standards, but with all the street noise added in, the resultant sound wouldn't immediately be recognized as gunfire. Most bystanders would have no idea they'd heard a shot, at least at first, because it was neither the soft "spit" of what they'd heard in movies, or the sharp crack of unsuppressed gunfire. When Salinas fell and his men grabbed for him, the bystanders would be confused, and they'd either mill around watching or they'd rubber-neck but keep walking. Salinas's men would pay more attention to the walkers, figuring the shooter would be among them, trying to slip away. Instead he would be right there in the middle of them, under their noses.

Between now and then, however, he had a gargantuan number of tasks to accomplish.

A LITTLE AFTER noon, Rafael Salinas emerged from his apartment building, surrounded by his usual coterie of seven men. His driver was parked at the curb, motor running. One guy, his long hair tied back with a thin strip of leather, came out first, his head swiveling in all directions. He surveyed the street and the pedestrian traffic, though most of his attention was reserved for cars. Seeing nothing suspicious, without turning around he gave a brief nod of his head, and seven more men exited the building: Rafael Salinas walking in the middle of six men who used their bodies to block sidewalk traffic so Salinas could go in a direct path from the door of the building to the open door of his car. People stalled, tried to side-step, growled "Get out of the way!" or worse, all of which was ignored. One bent old guy with a cane lurched a little off-balance.

A bus rumbled by and there was a barely audible pop over the roar of the diesel engine. Rafael Salinas stumbled, his hand going out as if to catch himself. A second pop, right on the heels of the first, made several people look curiously around, wondering what that noise was. Salinas went down, a red spray arcing from his throat.

The first man out of the building realized something was wrong and wheeled in a half-circle, his hand already emerging from his jacket, clutching a semiautomatic.

Pop.

The first man, a red blossom growing on his chest, reeled back into the driver. The weapon fell from his suddenly limp hand and went spinning across the sidewalk. People realized something was wrong and a few random screams pierced the air, followed by a flurry of pedestrians suddenly running or diving to the sidewalk. The old guy with the cane was pushed down and he landed behind the back bumper of Salinas's car, half on the sidewalk and half in the street, his cane several feet from his outstretched hand. His lined face wore a startled expression as he tried to crawl for his cane, only to sprawl on the ground when his strength gave out.

"There! Go!" One of the remaining men pointed down the street, where a young guy was flying through the crowd, trying to get as far away as possible. Two of Salinas's men took off in pursuit. All of them had weapons drawn by now, pointing them at first one person and then another in a serious lack of muzzle discipline. They circled around Rafael Salinas as if they could protect him now, despite the evidence of their eyes. The red spray from Salinas's throat had stopped; his heart had beat only a few more times after the first bullet ripped into him. The second shot, thrown off by Salinas's sudden lurch forward, had caught him in the throat.

The old guy tried once more to get his feet under him. "My cane," he kept bleating. "My cane."

"Here's your fucking cane," one of the goons said, kicking it toward him. "Get outta here, gramps."

The old guy picked up the cane, his gloved hands trembling, and with difficulty levered himself to his feet. He hobbled behind the next parked car and stood there staring around as if he didn't understand what was going on. "What happened?" he asked several times. "What happened?"

No one paid any attention to him. Sirens began blasting as New York's Finest tried to bull their way through traffic. The old guy worked his way through the crowd and continued on down the street-back in the direction he'd come from. Fifteen minutes later, a uniformed cop found the murder weapon, a pistol with a sound suppressor threaded onto the barrel, lying on the pavement under Rafael Salinas's car.

SIMON CALLED ANDIE'S cell phone. "Get packed," he said quietly. "We're leaving."

"Leaving? But-"

"Salinas is dead. You don't have any reason to stay. Now get packed, because we have to move fast."

Numbly she closed the phone. Rafael was dead.

She wasn't stupid; she didn't need things spelled out for her. Horrified, she realized exactly what Simon had done. In a daze she gathered her toiletries and dumped them in a suitcase; as she hadn't unpacked, getting ready to go took only minutes.

Simon appeared at her door within half an hour. The closed, set expression on his face kept her from asking questions. He took the suitcases and she followed him in silence, her eyes as bleak as his.

Two hours later, they took off from a small private airfield in New Jersey, with Simon in the pilot's seat. Andie had never been in a small plane before, and she didn't like it. She sat frozen, her hands gripping the edge of the seat as if she could keep the plane up by keeping a tight hold on it. The late afternoon sun was at about two o'clock in her window, telling her they were heading southwest.

As time wore on and they didn't crash, she lost the sharp edge of terror that had paralyzed her. She managed to say, "Where are we going?"

"Mexico. As fast as possible."

She absorbed that, looking at his stony profile. He wasn't angry with her, but he had shut himself off, and she felt helpless to reach him. "I don't have a passport," she finally said.

"Yes, you do," he replied. "It's in my bag."

Silence fell once more, a silence she couldn't seem to overcome even when he had to land to take on more fuel. Life as she had known it was over, and she thought there probably wouldn't ever be any going back. Simon would be wanted for murder, and she wouldn't let him take his chances in a courtroom. He had done that for her; she wouldn't let him sacrifice anything more, not one minute of freedom, no matter what.

No matter what.

***

"YOU AIN'T GONNA believe this," the tech said, swiveling around in his chair. "That camera's out."

"What?" Jackson turned on him in disbelief. He could almost feel his hair lift as anger surged through him. "Are you telling me the one feed we need the most, out of all the cameras in the city, is out, and no one fucking noticed? How can you people not notice a fucking blank screen?"

"Because the fucking screen isn't blank," the tech shot back at him, his tone hot with annoyance. "Don't get in my shit, buddy." He swiveled back to his keyboard and began furiously typing commands. "Here, come here and see for yourself. Look." He pointed at the screen, at the silent black-and-white images marching with unknown purpose.

Jackson forced himself to rein in his impatience. Getting this guy's back up wouldn't accomplish anything, and the hell of it was, he thought whoever had killed Salinas deserved a parade. He wouldn't turn this into a personal crusade, but he had to do the investigation. "Is that the camera?"

"That's it."

"Looks to me like it's working," Jackson said, but he dialed back the sarcasm until it was barely noticeable.

"That's because you aren't paying attention, Special Agent." The tech was as good at sarcasm as Jackson was. "Okay, there. See that guy drop his briefcase?" He stopped the action, backed up, played it again. Jackson watched a portly businessman trying to balance a drink, eat a hot dog, and carry his briefcase without breaking his stride. When everything began slipping, he held on to the drink and hot dog, and let the briefcase drop to his feet and go skidding across the sidewalk.

"I see him. What about it?"

"Keep watching. I'll speed it up for you."

The tech tapped a key, and the people onscreen began scurrying around like ants. About ten seconds later he tapped another key and they slowed down to normal speed. A few seconds more, and Jackson watched the portly businessman sacrifice his briefcase again.

"Shit," he said. "Shit! It's a damn loop!"

"That's right, it's a damn loop. Somebody got into the system and got the feed, looped it, fed it back to us. Whoever it was is damn good, is all I can say."

"Thank you for your help," Cotton said quietly, giving Jackson an inscrutable look. "Mister-?"

"Jensen. Scott Jensen."

"Mr. Jensen. We'll get back to you if any other questions come up, but I imagine you have your own housekeeping to do for the time being."

Scottie Jensen said, "You got it," in a grim tone, and turned back to his keyboard.

Jackson looked startled at Cotton's lack of pursuit down an avenue that should definitely have been investigated, but he quickly masked his reaction. As they silently returned to their car, a more thoughtful look replaced his agitation.

What he was thinking was out there-way out there. The Rick Cotton he knew was a by-the-book guy, as straight-up as anyone he'd ever met. He didn't have any evidence, and if he voiced his suspicions to anyone he'd be laughed out of the Bureau. All he had was his instinct, and it was shouting at him.

He didn't say anything, not then. He kept silent after they returned to Federal Plaza, went through all the expected motions. Details turned over and over in his head, nuances of expressions that he'd caught, the timeline involved. Everything fit. Nothing was provable-hell, he didn't know that he wanted anything to be provable, or that he'd act even if there was-but he knew what had happened, knew it down in his bones.

And so did Cotton.

He waited until the day was finished. Cotton headed home to his wife, and Jackson ate dinner in the city, then walked some, absorbing the lights and constant movement around him. There was always something new around the corner, wasn't there-with people as well as with things. More so with people, come to think of it.

Reaching a decision, he fished his cell phone from his pocket and punched in a number. When he heard Cotton answer, Jackson said, "He did it, didn't he? You knew he would."

Cotton was silent a moment, then very calmly asked, "What are you talking about?"

Jackson disconnected the call, not wanting to say anything more. He walked some more, his hands in his pockets. The night air was getting colder by the minute, but he needed to walk a while longer.

First and foremost was the decision he had to make. Would he say anything? The immediate answer that resounded in his head was a firm "Hell, no." There wasn't a damn thing he could prove, even if he'd been so inclined, and he wasn't.

The guy who'd killed Salinas deserved a parade, not an investigation. He'd done it to protect the woman he loved, and, hell, there was something noble in that, wasn't there? Cotton had sensed something right away, when their meeting with Drea had been interrupted, and going on pure instinct had set the wheels in motion by intimating that the FBI might want to use her as bait. That had been pure bullshit; Jackson knew damn good and well that had never been an option. The only way they could ever have built any case, using her, was if Salinas went bat-shit crazy and killed her-and the guy from the balcony knew that. He loved her, and he wouldn't risk her, so he'd taken matters into his own hands.

How had Cotton known the guy was capable of doing something like that? The plan had been slick, but the execution of it had required not just a big set of balls but some titanium ones. They didn't even know the guy's name, or anything about him. They didn't have a fingerprint to run, or a facial analysis to try to pin him to any of the locations where shit had gone down. But Cotton had summed him up in one brief, very brief, meeting, and within seconds had a human weapon aimed directly at Rafael Salinas.

In that one moment, Rick Cotton had performed above his own capability, and all Jackson could do was mentally salute. "Way to go," he murmured to the night.

RICK COTTON SLEPT well that night. Soon he'd be retiring from a long and undistinguished career, but this one time he'd gone beyond his own limits and he felt good about it. He would go even further, doing what he could to stonewall any investigation. Those two deserved their chance at happiness, and he'd try his best to make certain they got it.

Sometimes there was a difference between the law and justice, and sometimes justice had to step outside the law. The proof of that, he thought just before he fell asleep, was that he didn't work for the Department of Law; he worked for the Department of Justice…and Justice had been served.

THE LAST FEW days had been strained, as if they didn't know how to act with each other, which Andie supposed they didn't. On one level their intimacy went deep; their acquaintance had been marked by drama and passion, and deep pain. On a more mundane level, there was a lot they still didn't know about each other, and only time would remedy that. For now, they walked cautiously around what felt, to her, like a huge elephant in the middle of the room, not speaking of it or acknowledging it was there even though they both went out of their way to avoid it.

She didn't know what he was thinking, what he was feeling. He was self-contained anyway-that was the understatement of the year-and since they'd left New York he'd walled himself off, emotionally. It hurt her to be around him and not be able to touch him, but not being with him would hurt even more. Oh, she could touch him physically, but the mental barrier he kept between them reminded her of the afternoon in the penthouse, when she had tried desperately to reach him and he'd turned away.

She knew him better now, knew she had nothing to fear from him-the opposite, in fact. No matter what, this man would place himself between her and danger without a second's hesitation.

Watching him one afternoon, watching him prop his shoulder against the door frame and stand motionless for long minutes at a time, staring out at the sea, her heart squeezed with pain for him. He was so alone, so willing to take all the risks himself in order to protect her, yet once he'd taken those risks he had distanced himself from her. Did he blame her, for forcing him to kill again after he'd sworn he wouldn't?

She knew how she would feel if someone forced her to do something that would keep her from returning to that perfect place of joy and seeing her son again. She would feel bitter, and alone, and as if there was no longer any point in trying. Was that what Simon was dealing with now?

She stared at his back, trying to read his mood, get some impression of him, but he was as closed to her as she was to herself. He was too close, she supposed; she couldn't get any insights into his future any more than she could her own.

Backlit like he was, she couldn't make out his features, but he was surrounded by a nimbus of light that turned his thin white shirt translucent, letting her clearly see the lean, muscled shape of his body. She stared at him, feeling the blood drain from her head until she swayed on her feet and the world around her slowly faded away until there was nothing but him and the light.

He had stood between her and death one other time, his pain and love shielding her, sending a signal, perhaps, that had weighted events in her favor. She had loved, and she had been loved. Her love for her child had been the biggest factor in the decision to let her have another chance, but Simon's love for her had also been felt.

They were linked; what she did affected him, and what he did affected her. If anyone had asked her if she'd fallen in love with him that afternoon they were together for the first time, she'd have said an emphatic no, but the truth was she had felt their link even before then and that was why she'd been so terrified of him. She had recognized him, somehow, on some molecular level that defied logic, and known that he would force her to once again take the chance of loving. But if he hadn't, would she be here now? Or would there have not been enough love to balance the emotional wasteland she'd become?

Conversely, by loving him, was she also shielding him as he'd shielded her? He loved, and he was loved. How much difference would that make in his life? Already, she would say, the difference was huge, but love was like an aggressive ground cover, spreading and taking up more and more space, choking out weeds. Because of love, he'd stopped hiring out his services as a hit man. Because of love, he was trying-and she sensed what a gargantuan effort it was for him-to open himself up to her, to let her inside the iron shields that separated him from the rest of the world. He was more comfortable alone, but for her he was willing to step outside that zone in a big way, to live the rest of his life exposed and vulnerable.

For her, he was willing to kill again, and count the cost well worth it, so long as he was the one who paid and she didn't have to.

She didn't think she made any sound, no gasp or sob. He'd known she was in the room behind him, of course, because she hadn't been trying to sneak, and the house was small anyway, so small he probably knew where she was every minute. But he was so attuned to her that abruptly he turned, every muscle alert, ready to go into action once he identified the source of whatever had upset her. He saw her swaying there, her face paper white, and reached her in a few quick strides to wrap those strong, supporting arms around her.

"What's wrong? Are you sick?" Even as he spoke he was lifting her off her feet, cradling her to his chest. There was no distance between them now, no reserve in those dark eyes that could look so icy.

"No, I'm fine," she said, winding her arms around his neck and holding him close, holding herself close to him, two actions that might look like one but were very different in intent. "I love you, Simon Goodnight. Simon Smith. Simon Jones. Simon Brown, Simon Johnson, whatever your name is, no matter what, I love you."

His arms tightened around her and she saw something ease inside him, some burden get a little lighter. "No matter what? Even if my real name was Clarence or Homer or Percy?"

"Well, then I might have to rethink this," she said promptly, just to tease him, and was rewarded by one of his little smiles.

"Cross," he said, so easily that for a split second she missed the significance of what he was saying.

"Cross? That's it for real? Truly?"

"Truly."

She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. "Thank you," she said, because the trust represented in that simple action, telling her his name, was enormous. "You can let me down. I'm all right."

"You looked as if you were about to pass out."

"No. You know how it hits you sometimes, how much you love a person, and it's almost too much for you to hold in? Like that." She pressed her lips to the underside of his jaw, loving the smell of him, the feel of his skin cool under her lips but with his vital warmth just below the surface.

He released his hold on her legs, letting her slide down to a standing position, but he simply rearranged his grasp on her and pulled her fully against him as he bent his head to kiss her. She went on tiptoe to meet him halfway, her hands clasping around his neck, stroking beneath his collar. His erection pushed against her and a heated mixture of excitement and anticipation began stirring deep in her belly. Though they had slept together since arriving here, he hadn't made love to her, and she hadn't felt able to bridge the distance between them to reach him.

She felt able to now, though. He was right there, in her arms. Sliding her hands from his neck, down his chest and belly, she unfastened his jeans, slid his zipper down, and discovered he was commando. Humming a little with delight, she wrapped both hands around his length, wringing a guttural sound from him that made her shiver.

Moving swiftly, once again he hoisted her in his arms, breaking her grip on his penis. "Bed or couch?" he asked.

"Bed." Oh, the bed. She needed room to do to him everything she wanted to do.

He carried her into the small, sunlit bedroom and dumped her on the large bed that took up most of the space in the room. She laughed, trying to shuck off her own jeans while she was still bouncing. He stripped off his shirt and stepped out of his jeans and that was it for him, so he turned his attention to helping her with the rest of her clothes.

She wasn't wearing a lot, herself; the heat was too intense for layers and layers of clothes. Jeans, underwear, and a loose tank top was all she could tolerate. He pulled the top off over her head, then immediately palmed both her breasts. "These are so pretty," he murmured, brushing his thumbs over her nipples and making them flush with color as they firmed beneath his touch.

He made her feel pretty all over, the way he looked at her as if he could lick her from head to foot. She had never felt pretty, even though the mirror told her differently. Sometimes she had looked like a million bucks, but inside she'd felt worthless. But when Simon touched her, when she felt the tenderness with which he handled her, as if she were something precious beyond reason, then-then-she felt pretty.

He spread her legs and moved over her, settling his heavy weight into the vee of her thighs. She sighed in contentment. She could have done with some foreplay, but she also enjoyed his urgency, and the sense of pressure, of being stretched, as he slowly pushed into her mostly unprepared body. Her legs quivered around him, then tightened as her body lifted to his and she took him deeper.

Magic. Making love with him had been like magic, right from the start. Her body soared in response, in delight, in sheer, bone-melting pleasure, because that was the difference-not having sex, not fucking, but making love, so caught up in being with him that her protective mechanisms had shut down and she had just let go.

She did so now, flying from unprepared to orgasm so fast she felt she would have spun apart if he hadn't been holding her locked tightly to him. When her brain cleared and her body relaxed in utter contentment she returned the favor, holding him steady with arms and legs as he stiffened and shuddered and lost himself in pleasure.

They dozed, and when Andie woke it was to the uncomfortable reminder that they weren't using condoms. Most men would simply be happy they weren't having to suit up, but Simon wasn't most men, and she wondered if he was hoping they might have children. Her heart constricted, because some pains never lessened, never went away.

"I can't have children," she said into the silence, and put her arm over her face so she wouldn't have to see his if disappointment shadowed it.

"Neither can I," he replied calmly.

Stunned, she lay frozen for a few seconds, wondering if she'd heard him correctly. When she could move, she peeked out from under her arm to find him lying there watching her with something like relief in his eyes. "What?"

"I had a vasectomy years ago. I didn't think my genes were something that needed to be passed along."

He was probably right, she thought, and burst into tears. Damn the man, he could make her cry when nothing else in the world could. But wasn't that something he'd do, calmly analyze the situation and then take steps to protect the world from his progeny, which might carry the peculiar combination that made him so lethal, but without his coolness of thought, his restraint?

"I-I had to have a hysterectomy when I was fifteen," she said, hiccuping and crying and talking all at once. She got up and went into the bathroom, got a tissue to blow her nose. While she was there, she took care of another area that needed attention, then wet another washcloth and took it to him.

"My own genes aren't anything to brag about," she said, still sniffling a little. "It took a miracle to get my attention, and you can't count on miracles all that often."

"One to a lifetime, probably." He gave her a wry, crooked smile. "And I've already had mine…with you."

She lay down beside him again, cradling her head on his shoulder and placing her hand on his chest. Feeling the strong, steady beat of his heart made her feel better, more secure. She would always feel better when he was near, their bond making her stronger; she hoped she had even half that effect on him, because it wouldn't be fair if she got all the benefits and he gave and gave with nothing coming back to him.

"I don't expect much," he murmured, staring at the ceiling while he stroked her hair. "At the end. If remorse is a requirement for redemption, then I'm not there. I don't imagine I ever will be. All I can offer is…revenge, maybe, and retribution. I can offer restraint-unless you're threatened, and then all bets are off. But I don't feel remorse. Some people need killing, and I did the job. So…this life with you is probably all I'll have, but it's enough, sweetheart. It's enough."

The damn tears started again, and Andie smiled at him through the blur as she leaned forward to kiss him. His heart beat strongly beneath her fingers and she flattened her palm over that vital, rhythmic surge. "Don't count yourself out," she advised. "I have inside information, and in the end, I think, you'll be fine."

It would be a long road for both of them, she thought, suddenly seeing a span of years stretching out in front of them. She got only a sense of time passing, no specific incidents, but years and years and years. They had time, and they had each other.

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