Undercover Mistress. Kathleen Creighton
Am I delirious? Am I dying after all?
Breathing slowly and deeply, Roy took stock. Nope. Not delirious. There was a woman in bed with him. He could feel the warmth of her breath on his skin, the dove-soft tickle of her hair. With the utmost care, he turned his head. A deliciously feminine scent drifted to his nostrils. Ignoring the shooting pains rocketing through his skull, he tensed his face and neck muscles and aimed his eyes downward.
A vision of tumbled blond met his gaze—winter grass touched with sunshine.
He thought, My God, it’s my angel. I didn’t dream her.
has roots deep in the California soil but has relocated to South Carolina. As a child, she enjoyed listening to old-timers’ tales, and her fascination with the past only deepened as she grew older. Today, she says she is interested in everything—art, music, gardening, zoology, anthropology and history, but people are at the top of her list. She also has a lifelong passion for writing, and now combines her two loves in romance novels.
In loving memory of HARLAND WEAVER HAND, “PAPA” to his children, and to me, lover of words, drama and poetry, teller of stories;
And with heartfelt thanks to his son, my uncle, TOM HAND, teacher and gentle soul, for encouraging me, so many many years ago, to use the gifts Papa bequeathed to me.
Celia Cross was of the opinion that if you had to suffer from insomnia, there couldn’t be a better place for it than Malibu.
On those clear nights when she found herself wide-awake at three in the morning, there was the moon path beckoning just beyond her beach house windows, stretching off across the sea like a highway to China. And though she lacked the courage to follow the lure of that glittering path, there were still the seemingly unending expanses of beach to explore at a pace of her own choosing. At three in the morning, there was only the whispering surf for company, and little likelihood of any human presence, friendly or otherwise, happening by to intrude on her solitude.
At the same time, there was just enough of a civilized presence in the dark hulks and occasional lights from the beachfront houses of the rich and famous to reassure her she wasn’t entirely alone. And on nights like this one, when the fog lay thick as cotton batting along the water’s edge, enveloping her in its cocoon of cold silence, it was easy to imagine what it might feel like to be the last human soul alive on earth.
With or without fog, Celia never felt nervous about walking or running alone on the beach in the wee hours of the morning. To be truthful, nowadays there wasn’t much of anything—anything that walked, swam, slithered or flew, anyway—she did fear, though she had a sense that fact hadn’t pleased the therapist when she’d told him during the first months after the accident.
“Why do you think that is?” the doctor had asked probingly in the annoying manner of psychotherapists. Celia had replied with something flip and meaningless because, in the annoying way psychotherapists had of sometimes illuminating unwelcome truths, deep down she’d known the real answer: Maybe I’m not afraid of anything because I really don’t give a damn.
Then she thought, mentally smacking herself like a misbehaving puppy, Bad girl. Bad thoughts.
Pushing back the hood of her sweatshirt, she broke into a determined run, veering onto the sheet of firm wet sand left by the retreating tide. A moment later, though, limited visibility forced her back to a walk to keep from tripping over the piles of rubbery kelp that littered the sand. There was more of it than usual tonight, dredged up from the undersea forests just offshore by some tropical storm way off in the Pacific. There’d been big surf earlier in the week.
An especially large clump of debris loomed ahead of her in the fog, and she angled her path to go around it. Only a few yards still separated her from the mass when she halted suddenly, and her heartbeat quickened. Had it been a trick of her eyes, her vivid imagination? Or had something in that tangled pile moved?
She stood motionless, shivers of excitement cascading through her as her eyes strained to penetrate the darkness and fog. Thoughts of sick or injured sea lions crossed her mind—people did find them on these beaches now and then, though she herself had never been so lucky. She’d heard, too, of beachcombers finding pelicans or sea gulls tangled in fishing line, and even dolphins and whales beached on the sand.
What if it is something alive…sick…hurt? What do I do?
Here she was, alone on a beach at three in the morning, and she didn’t have her cell phone with her. How stupid was that?
She didn’t recall her brain telling them to, but her feet were moving again, carrying her toward that dark and shapeless mass. Nervous but curious, wishing she had, at the very least, a flashlight, she leaned cautiously closer, peering into the pile. Okay, there was a whole lot of kelp—the smell of it was sharp and raw in her nostrils. And…oh well, shoot, it was only driftwood after all—a big piece, gnarled and misshapen, like the trees from an enchanted forest. Was that all it had been? Just a piece of driftwood? With a hiss that was half relief, half disappointment, she straightened, laughing silently at herself and her overwrought imagination.
But—about to move on, once again she froze. Okay, no doubt about it. A branch of that “driftwood” had definitely moved.
She bent closer to examine it, holding her breath, poised to leap back out of danger at a split-second’s notice—and that was when she heard it, barely audible above the hiss and sigh of the surf. A sound. A low sound, like a moan.
She sucked back a gasp, and again without conscious decision, found that her hand was moving…reaching toward…whatever it was that was buried in all that debris. Nervously, she pulled it back. Chicken, Celia! Shifting, she edged herself closer, then put out her hand again—slowly, this time, and carefully…until she touched—Oh, ick! Her fingers had touched…something. Something cold and clammy. And smooth. It felt like…skin. Not scales or feathers or fur, but skin. Human skin.
Horror washed over her, as shocking, as breathtaking as if one of the waves curling onto the sand a few feet away had crashed over her head. She opened her mouth to scream, but the sound that emerged was more like a whimper. Oh God, oh God, oh God, it’s a body—a human body. Oh God.
Okay, but not a dead body. She’d seen it move—hadn’t she? She’d heard a groan. She had. Could something that cold, that still, possibly be alive?
Whimpering to herself, Celia tore with her hands at the masses of kelp until she was kneeling close beside the inert shape. Her hands explored, gingerly at first, and then, having so far encountered nothing particularly gruesome, with more confidence. Her search revealed a head covered with short, damp hair, a jaw rough with beard stubble.