The clean golden sun still burned its heat into his flesh, all along his bare chest and long legs, even though it was near sundown. The lengthening rays threw dancing sparkles onto the tips of the waves, mesmerizing him as he stared at them. No, it wasn't the glittering water that mesmerized him, it was the fact that he had nothing more important to do than simply stare at it. He'd forgotten how peace sounded, how it felt. For a long, wonderful month of pure solitude he could relax and be only a man. He would fish when he felt like it, or cruise the warm, hypnotic waters of the Gulf if he felt restless. The water drew him on endlessly. Here it was midnight blue; there it was brilliant turquoise; over there it was a pale, shimmering green. He had money for fuel and provisions, and only two people in the world knew where he was or how to reach him. At the end of the month's vacation he would return to the gray world he'd chosen and lose himself in the shadows, but for now he could lie in the sun, and that was all he wanted. Kell Sabin was tired, tired of the endless struggle, the secrecy and maneuvering, the danger and deception of his job. It was a vitally important job, but for this month he would let someone else do it. This month was his; he could almost understand what had lured Grant Sullivan, his old friend and the best agent he'd ever had, to the quiet mystery of the Tennessee mountains. Sabin had been a top agent himself, a legend prowling the Golden Triangle and, later, the Middle East and South America, all the hot spots of the world. Now he was a department chief, the shadowy figure behind a group of crack agents who followed his directions and his training. Little was known about him; the security surrounding him was almost absolute. Sabin preferred it that way; he was a loner, a dark man who faced the hard realities of life with both cynicism and acceptance. He knew the drawbacks and dangers of his chosen career, he knew it could be dirty and vicious, but he was a realist and he had accepted all that when he took the job.
Still, it got to him sometimes, and he had to get away from it, live for a little while like a normal citizen. His private escape valve was his custom-made cabin cruiser. His vacations, like everything else about him, were highly guarded secrets, but the days and nights at sea were what kept him human, the only times when he could relax and think, when he could lie naked in the sun and reestablish his link with his own humanity, or watch the stars at night and regain his perspective.
A white gull soared overhead, giving its plaintive cry. Idly he watched it, free and graceful, framed against the cloudless blue bowl of the sky. The sea breeze brushed lightly over his naked skin, and pleasure brought a rare smile to his dark eyes. There was a streak of untamed savage in him that he had to keep under tight control, but out here, with only the sun and the wind and the water, he could let that part of himself surface. The restrictions of clothing seemed almost sacrilegious out here, and he resented having to dress whenever he went into a port for fuel, or whenever another boat pulled up beside him for a chat, as people were wont to do down here.
The sun had moved lower, dipping its golden edge into the water, when he heard the sound of another motor. He turned his head to watch the cabin cruiser, a little larger than his own, cut leisurely through the waves. That was the only way to get around out here: leisurely. The warmer the clime, the slower the time. Sabin kept his gaze on the boat, admiring the graceful lines and the smooth, powerful sound of the motor. He liked boats, and he liked the sea. His own boat was a prized possession, and a closely guarded secret. No one knew it belonged to him; it was registered to an insurance salesman in New Orleans who had no knowledge at all of Kell Sabin. Even the name of the boat, Wanda, had no meaning. Sabin knew no one named Wanda; it was simply a name that he'd chosen. But Wanda was completely his, with secrets and surprises of her own. Anyone who really knew him wouldn't have expected anything else, but only one man in the world had ever known the man behind the mask, and Grant Sullivan gave away no secrets.
The sound of the other boat's motor changed as it slowed and turned in his direction. Sabin swore irritably, looking around for the faded denim cutoffs he usually kept on deck for such situations. A voice drifted to him over the water, and he looked at the other boat again. A woman was standing at the forward rail, waving her arm back and forth over her head in a manner that held no urgency, so he guessed they were just looking for a chat and weren't having any sort of trouble. The afternoon sunlight glinted on her red hair, turning it into fire, and for a moment Sabin stared at it, his attention caught by that unusual, glowing shade of red.
A frown put furrows in his brow as he quickly stepped into his cutoffs and zipped them. The boat was still too far away for him to see her face, but that red hair had aggravated some hidden little memory that was trying to surface. He stared at her as the other boat idled toward him, his black eyes glittering with intensity. There was something about that hair....
Suddenly every instinct in Sabin shrilled an alarm and he hit the deck, not questioning that spine-tingling uneasiness; it had saved his life too many times for him to hesitate. He spread his fingers on the warm wood of the deck, acknowledging that he could be making a fool of himself, but he'd rather be a live fool than a dead wise man. The sound of the other motor dropped off, as if it had slowed even more, and Sabin made another decision. Still on his stomach, with the scent of polish in his nostrils and the scrape of wood on his bare flesh, he snaked his way over to a storage compartment.
He never went anywhere without some means of self-defense. The rifle that he pulled out of the storage compartment was powerful and accurate, though he knew it would be a temporary deterrent at best. If his instincts were wrong, then he would have no use for it at all; if his instincts were right, they would have far more firepower than this rifle, because they would have prepared for this.