A/N: Another warning. Yes, this is an extra-long last chapter *le sniff*, but there are plenty of reviewer responses and what-not at the end, so it's not quite as long as it looks. Pretty close though – a good twelve pages or so. Also, those of you who don't read the post-notes, I'd recommend you check out the very last point of business on the page before heading off. ;) Anyways, onward to the end…
* * * * * * * * * *
Ever on the hunt for a good joke, Carson sighed dramatically. "And here I thought you were going to carry me back."
For a moment she actually took him seriously. Carson had to physically step back to avoid her, nearly tripping over the crutch in the process. He met her stern look dead on and said flatly, "If you ever carry me again, I'm going to kill myself."
Sahara rolled her eyes. It took a few seconds before Carson let her approach him – he wasn't taking any chances. Briefly, he thought he heard her mutter something about a certain male ego under her breath, and narrowed his eyes. "What?"
And without another word, she nudged him off down the road toward a doctor and, doubtless, an extra-fragrant bubble bath.
* * * * * * * * * *
Three weeks later, Carson woke to the soft whisper of a kiss across his lips. He allowed himself a slow smile before opening his eyes to find Sahara sitting on the edge of the bed beside him, dressed in two parts of a three piece business suit. The matching jacket hung on a hook by the door, waiting for her. Carson sighed, wondering where she had to go today. But rather than ask and ruin the moment, he widened his smile into a grin and commented, "The wake up calls have improved drastically around here, have I told you that yet?"
"Mmhm," Sahara replied with a rather smug smile of her own, bending to kiss him again. Unconsciously, her fingers took up their usual occupation of playing lightly with his hair. "How are you feeling?"
"Alright," he answered with a hint of longsuffering martyrdom in his voice, thoroughly enjoying the resulting glint of sympathy in her eyes. Despite the fact that she hadn't made any attempt to hide them from him since that night outside Mercalli's ex-warehouse, Carson never got tired of observing her emotions. Then he remembered that he couldn't keep her very long, and shifted unhappily. "I'd be better if you didn't have to go somewhere again today," he grumbled, eyeing the suit jacket with distaste.
Sahara sighed. "I don't like it any more than you do, Morgan, but the world keeps turning. And speaking of turning," she reached for a bottle of cream on the bedside table, "roll over."
He did, careful not to put any pressure on his left arm, and turned his head on the pillow to face the alarm clock as Sahara began thoroughly rubbing whatever the stuff was into his shoulder. The green numbers blinked at him. 9:20 a.m. Smiling to himself, Carson closed his eyes and enjoyed the massage.
Yes, mornings had definitely improved around here.
After a few minutes, Sahara's hands roamed elsewhere, over his neck and down his back. She did this daily and he'd never asked why, afraid she'd limit herself to his shoulder, should he voice his curiosity. But today he decided to risk it. If she stopped…well, after three weeks, he could hardly whine about not getting his money's worth. "Not that I'm complaining – at all – but what's wrong with the rest of my back?"
Despite the fact that he couldn't see her, Carson had no doubt that a wry smile had materialized on her lips before she half-mumbled, "Anything to touch you."
With almost childish hopefulness, Carson seized the opportunity to start up what was becoming a somewhat repetitive conversation between them. "Why –"
"Dr. Rodriguez said to avoid strenuous activity," Sahara cut him off in her sternest lecturing tone.
Carson twisted into a semi-sitting position so he could look at her. "Right. Since when is sex considered a strenuous activity?"
Sahara graced him with what could only be described as a very wicked grin. "You don't really expect me to be gentle with you."
Grinning back, Carson started, "Well, no, but –"
"But nothing. We've made it this far, we can last another week or two."
"Speak for yourself," Carson muttered, looking exactly like a petulant child.
Laughing, Sahara kissed him again and stood up, reaching as she did so for the hand towel she'd set next to the bottle of cream on the bedside table and wiping her hands. "What're you going to do today?"
"Depends. What are you going to do?"
Sahara rolled her eyes, her neck, and her shoulders all at the same time. "Got a meeting with a few CIA officials to discuss technicalities." She snorted. "In other words, they're too stupid to understand written reports so they need me to read them aloud for them." She pulled a watch out of her pocket and snapped it onto her wrist. "Then the commute's an hour and a half, one way, so I won't be home till late, probably."
"Great. That's just wonderful," Carson said sarcastically, entirely disgruntled.
"It's not my fault the Central Intelligence Agency is lacking intelligence, Carson!" Sahara turned on him in exasperation. "This isn't even something I usually do, it's always been Vi –" she broke off in mid-sentence. As it did every time Violet's name came up, her gaze turned bitter and rooted itself to a corner of the floor. Carson took her hand and held it silently for a few moments, understanding, before tactfully changing the subject.
"I don't know what I'll do today. Probably work on constructing more of that new shield with Marvin. Again," he sighed in a tragic voice.
Sahara conjured a small smile. "At least he doesn't stutter anymore."
"Doesn't stutter as much," Carson corrected.
"Regardless, the improvement is notable," Sahara stated, trying and failing to conceal her amusement. Glancing at her watch, she sighed. "I have to go."
"Really?" In one swift movement Carson had his good arm around her waist and had yanked her onto the bed, grinning at the surprised yelp that escaped her as she landed on his lap.
"Morgan," she growled, trying to pry his arm away without hurting him, "let go of me, I have to go –"
"Do you?" Carson buried his face against her neck and kissed the flesh above her collarbone slowly, knowing full well that there was no better way to distract her.
"Yes. I'm…going to be late…as it is," her voice sounded more and more drugged with every successive word, and Carson couldn't stop the low laugh in his throat. There was nothing more entertaining that seducing Sahara, he decided. Unfortunately, despite its being barely more than a faint rumble, the laugh seemed to snap her out of it and she tugged away from him, quickly stepping out of reach. Shooting a quick glare in his direction, she crossed the room and took her jacket off the hook.
"What happens if you're late?" Carson asked in an attempt to detain her further, reclining smugly against the pillows as he watched her try to act unaffected.
"Then I get fired," she stated bluntly, sending him an accusatory glance.
Carson yawned…deliberately. "So?"
It earned him another glare. "So I'll be essentially homeless, seeing as my job and my home are inconveniently linked."
Grinning, Carson suggested, "You could just move in with me."
"In case you've somehow forgotten," Sahara pointed out dryly, "You happen to live here, too."
"Not really," he corrected. "I've just been residing here to take advantage of…the recuperation facilities. But, in actuality, I live somewhere else."
A look of concern crossed Sahara's face and she paused with an arm halfway through her jacket sleeve, as though she hadn't realized that before. Amused, Carson said nonchalantly, "No worries, O'Brian. I have a plan."
Instantly, the concern on Sahara's face morphed into wary suspicion. "What plan?"
"Well, technically I'll have to run it by Stratford first, but I don't see how he'd object. Do we have an appointment with him yet?"
"He'll be back from the east coast in two weeks, and this is his first stop," Sahara answered cautiously. "Why, what's your plan?"
Carson sighed dramatically. "I'd tell you…but aren't you already late as it is?"
Glancing at her watch again, Sahara cursed under her breath, grabbed her keys and unlocked the door. "Don't do anything to strain your arm, Morgan," she warned.
"Hey, don't I get a kiss goodbye?"
"No," she said flatly, obviously unwilling to risk being held hostage again.
Releasing another dramatic sigh, Carson tried to pull an authentic pout. "Fine, but I'm putting it on your record."
"The 'Kisses I Owe Carson' Record. You'll owe me two when you get back."
"Two?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Dropping the pout, he grinned cheerfully at her. "One Goodbye Kiss and one Hello Kiss. Respective lengthinesses to be determined."
In spite of herself, Sahara smiled and shook her head, muttering something under her breath, before snatching her motorcycle helmet off the table and slipping into the hall, closing the door behind her.
Propping himself up on his 'bad arm,' Carson counted to fifteen, then pushed himself out of bed with the aforementioned bad arm and began rummaging through his closet. A couple minutes later he heard a knock on the door and called for the visitor to come in without bothering to turn around. "Morning," he said cheerfully once the person had entered.
"Good morning," Marvin replied, somewhat less cheerful.
Tugging a shirt over his head, Carson turned around and smiled at the little man before crossing to sit on the bed with the purpose of pulling on some socks. "All clear?"
"Yes, Ms. O'Brian has departed from the facility for the remainder of the day," Marvin reported, looking uneasy.
Carson picked up on the uneasiness. "You alright?"
"Aside from the standard apprehension that your resolution to perform this routine daily behind Ms. O'Brian's back, uh, incites," Marvin's dry, nasally voice mourned, "Yes, I am in fact quite well, thank you."
Carson groaned. "You're not still on about the whole 'behind her back' thing."
"Unless matters have altered, uh, substantially over the course of the past two weeks, I believe I am not mistaken in assuming that you are, in actuality, going behind her back by doing this."
"Well yeah…but only because it's impossible not to do it behind her back," Carson stood and slapped Marvin good naturedly on the shoulder a couple times. "Come on now, Marvin, be a good sport."
"It is my firm opinion that I, uh, have been a 'good sport' as you say, recently." If possible, his naturally nervous voice became more nervous, and he threw a glance over his shoulder at the door, as though fearing Sahara would burst in like a hellhound at any moment, declaring she'd heard every word of their forbidden conversation.
"You're afraid of her?" Carson taunted, smiling broadly.
"You're not?" Marvin countered, looking less than pleased.
Shrugging, Carson set about finding his shoes. "In a couple weeks I won't have any reason to be, will I? Ah, there it is," he pulled one of the lost shoes out from under his bed by the laces. "Because I mean, think about it. Right now, the only thing she's got on me is strength."
"Really?" Marvin said dryly, obviously unconvinced.
Briefly, Carson shot him a dour look. "Yes, really."
Evidently, Marvin had no desire to argue, and Carson elected to save his persuasive skills for another day.
"If it makes you feel any better, she's not going to be back until late. She told me so. There's no way she'll even come close to catching us." He found the other shoe wedged between the CD rack and the TV and proceeded to put it on. "Do you have the schedule?"
Marvin nodded and patted his shirt pocket, then pushed his owl glasses up on his nose and ventured timidly, "I suppose it has failed to occur to you that Dr. Rodriguez may have intended his instructions to be interpreted seriously when he advised you not to undertake any strenuous activity?"
"Oh for Christ's sake," Carson vented in annoyance, "fending off the two of you is more strenuous than anything I could do physically. It was only a flesh wound; the bitch knew better than to seriously injure me until she didn't need me anymore. And I'm only using my right arm," he added pointedly.
"Exactly," Marvin countered, "Perhaps you should take into account the fact that when Ms. O'Brian constructed this schedule it was meant to be utilized by two, healthy arms."
"Simple division, Marvin," Carson countered smoothly. "Since I have no intention of deliberately disobeying the illustrious Dr. Rodriguez's orders, I am thereby left with only one 'healthy' arm to 'utilize.' Hence we divide each designated weight on the list by two, and use a brilliant little invention called a dumbbell instead of a bench-press. For example, the three hundred and eighty pounds I'm supposed to be lifting by," he snatched the schedule out of Marvin's pocket and scrutinized it, "Tuesday, when cut in half, comes out to be an even 140 pound dumbbell."
"I am perfectly capable of mentally executing simple division equations," Marvin snapped irritably, then sighed, apparently coming to terms with the fact that nothing was going to shift, delay, or otherwise alter Carson's goal of finishing Sahara's weight program by the time he left this place in a couple weeks. "But you do realize that this might not work out, technically speaking," he pointed out reasonably as they left Carson's room and headed in the direction of the main gym.
Marvin glanced at the written weight that marked the final goal of the program, and smiled faintly. "You might run out of dumbbells."
Smiling and noting the final weight himself, Carson conceded, "So I might."
"Have you considered," Marvin asked hopefully as they boarded the elevator, "simply informing Ms. O'Brian that your left arm is essentially healed? Because it seems to me that, should you do so, she'd be likely to assist you in this endeavor herself, and I daresay she'd constitute a superior, uh, what was the term? Spotter? Yes, yes that was it. I daresay she'd be a far superior spotter than myself."
Carson raised a very skeptical eyebrow at his associate before the elevator doors opened to reveal the main gym and he headed in the direction of the dumbbells, calling over his shoulder, "And go back to waking up at 5 a.m.? I think not."
* * * * * * * * * *
Mr. John Stratford, President of the NTDA, finished reading the condensed report of recent happenings and lowered the paper to stare, bewildered, at the couple seated across from him. They stared back at him, perfectly calm, as though the entire organization he'd spent the majority of his life establishing hadn't very nearly just come crashing down overnight. Why had no one told him about this? True, he'd been immersed in a conference of world leaders for the past month or so. And he had given specific instructions not to be interrupted…for anything.
Good god, he was an idiot.
Dropping his head into his hands for a moment, Stratford groaned tiredly. He was getting too old for this. Steepling his fingers, he raised his head to rest his chin on his hands and returned to staring at his company. The woman he already knew: Sahara O'Brian, one of his top agents, who'd been with the agency for more years than he could keep track of. The man in the chair next to her had introduced himself as Carson Morgan…and not just any Carson Morgan. No, as it turned out, this man sitting in front of him – with one arm in a loosely tied sling and the other breaching the gap between the chairs to hold Sahara's hand – was none other than the reputed technological prodigy of the millennium he'd been hearing rumors about for years now. It was bizarre that the guy had ended up here without Stratford ever having lifted so much as a finger to initiate his coming. Stratford glanced back at Sahara, who seemed vaguely torn between shaking off Carson's hand for the sake of preserving her reputation and allowing herself to enjoy his touch. The NTDA's director watched her for another moment, but she didn't pull her hand away, her expression becoming almost content in spite of herself. Reattaching his gaze to Carson, Stratford mused vaguely that the man must be brilliant with more than just computers, if he'd managed to win Sahara O'Brian over…But then he jarred the thought. Whatever their personal relationship, the important thing was that between the two of them they'd managed to salvage his life's work…not to mention three thousand innocent people and the President of the United States.
He had absolutely no idea how to even begin to thank them.
After another long minute of silent staring matches, Stratford cleared his throat. "So."
Sahara tilted her head to the side slightly. Carson raised his eyebrows a little in polite enquiry. Neither of them spoke.
Releasing a long sigh, Stratford ran a hand over his eyes. Well, best to start with business. "We're still uncertain as to whether or not Mercalli survived the explosion?"
"We're uncertain as to whether or not he was there at the time of the explosion," Sahara corrected evenly, adding, "If he was in the explosion, there wouldn't be much question about whether or not he survived it." The ever-so-faint hint of sarcasm wasn't lost on Stratford, but he opted to let it slide. After all, she'd had a lot to deal with lately. Nodding and deciding to go into depth on the subject by himself at a later time, he drew in a deep breath and turned to Carson.
"Well, Mr. Morgan, although Vivi – ah, that is, Miss Delahue – failed to notify me of your arrival here, I believe I owe you a very sincere debt of gratitude for your services over the past weeks. It'd be my pleasure to offer you a position with us. Ah, officially this time, of course."
Smiling faintly, Carson nodded his head once in acceptance and said seriously, "Thank you, sir."
"Splendid, splendid. I'll have Mrs. Botts send you the paperwork immediately. And Miss O'Brian," he turned to Sahara, who met his gaze without blinking, "You have demonstrated an amazing amount of competence, devotion, and, ah, foresight over the past…years," he said lamely, trying and failing again to recall exactly how long Sahara had been working for the company. But in the essence of getting to the point and avoiding making a complete fool of himself, he sucked in a breath and pressed on brightly, "With Miss Delahue, ah…gone, I'll be needing someone trustworthy to take her place as assistant director. I'd be honored if you'd accept the position."
Mildly surprised, Stratford watched the woman almost physically recoil at the suggestion of a desk job. "Thank you for the offer, sir, but it's my firm belief that I can be much more useful to you where I am," she answered unwaveringly. "Although," and this time there was a spark in her voice, as though she'd been waiting for her chance to say this forever, "I would like to make a request regarding the current communications system within the organization."
"By all means," Stratford said encouragingly, gesturing for her to continue.
"Carson and I discovered that Viviane's loyalties were settled elsewhere almost as soon as we undertook this mission – before you checked into your conference," Sahara explained, "But there was no way to notify you, since all messages from the general staff need to be relayed through the second in command for approval before they're sent to you personally. I'd request that, at least when the circumstances demand it, each of your employees be granted a secure line on which to contact you."
"Absolutely, certainly, a perfectly reasonable request," Stratford agreed without hesitation, trying to overlook his own stupidity for not having arranged something like this before. "But you're sure you don't want the promotion?"
"No, thank you, sir."
"A raise then," Stratford stated firmly. A very, very big raise. "I am, after all, very much in your debts."
"Actually, sir, there is one other person whose debt you could be in, if you're really in our debts to begin with."
Groaning inwardly, Stratford raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Marvin Harold," Carson took over the conversation, explaining, "He managed to escape Mercalli's custody and ended up with us, before the attack. We didn't know about Violet Bretton's…insincerity, at the time, and left him in her charge. She physically tortured him – as well as his wife, in front of him – in an attempt to keep him quiet about what he'd learned in Mercalli's headquarters, but he put the mission first at great expense to himself. If he hadn't instructed me to use the bilateral helix system to construct the protective shield around the opera house's back-up security system, Violet would have been able to hack through it, and her attack would have been executed according to plan. He had as much a hand in saving those people as we did –"
"And we'd like to recommend him to you as a potential candidate for the second in command post," Sahara finished.
"Oh…ah, absolutely, yes. Yes I'll definitely consider him. Ah, thank you."
They nodded in unison. Stratford took a breath and ran a hand through his thinning hair. The details of this would have to be sorted out and examined individually, but that was something he could do on his own. Goodness knew it was going to take longer than a brief office meeting to do it. Clearing his throat, he tried to turn the conversation to a lighter subject.
"So, Mr. Morgan, I'm thrilled, obviously, that you'll be taking a job with us. Did you have a particular branch in mind? That is, where you'd want to set up physically, of course. We do have a few establishments across the country, if you'd like to pick the one closest to your family. Not that you aren't perfectly welcome to stay here, naturally," he added, noting the way Sahara's fingers laced themselves with Carson's almost protectively, as he spoke.
Stratford watched the two of them exchange a knowing look. Then Carson turned back to him, and leaned forward earnestly. "As a matter of fact, sir, we were thinking…"
* * * * * * * * * *
Sahara shoved open the door to Carson's apartment with her shoulder and walked in. Dropping the heavy duffel bag that had been slung over her shoulder onto the entryway floor, she brushed a strand of hair out of her face and gave the flat a once over.
It was simple and spacious…though none too tidy, she thought, a wry smile turning up the corner of her mouth. A cushy looking off-white leather couch faced a big screen TV in the living room, as did a likewise cushy recliner sitting next to a stereo system. To the right, a doorway led to the kitchen, next to which there was a staircase leading to a second story. Posters of bands dotted the otherwise bare walls sporadically.
"Well?" Carson asked behind her, though she hadn't heard him come in.
"It's nice," Sahara appraised with a shrug, "But it could use a few touch ups."
Carson groaned. "Do you really have to bring all the pink fluffiness?"
Turning, Sahara crossed her arms over her chest and faced him with a glint in her eyes. "You can have all of me or none of me. Take your pick."
He sighed once in amused exasperation before tilting her chin up and grinning down at her. "I'll take every – last – inch of you," he decreed, kissing her between words.
Sahara allowed herself to be kissed for a few moments, but stopped him before he could drown out her train of thought with them. Looking him in the eye, she asked seriously, "Are you absolutely sure you don't mind doing this?"
"What? Letting you move in with me?"
"No, you don't have much say on that. I mean letting your apartment double as an NTDA safe house."
A thoughtful look crossed Carson's face and he squinted at the ceiling over her head, apparently thinking to himself. "Hmm…yes…yes I'm pretty sure that's the ninth time you've asked me that. Although we could count the time I cut you off before you could finish asking as a half-ask, and round it up to ten –"
"I'm serious, Carson," Sahara said, unamused. "This isn't a small decision –"
"It's going to change your life –"
"Both our lives –"
"And you can't go back on it," she pressed stubbornly, "There's no changing your mind if you don't like it after a week or a month or –"
"Sahara," Carson gripped her shoulders and bent so that he was quite literally eye to eye with her and returned her serious gaze, saying slowly and deliberately, "As long as you're with me, you can do whatever you want to my place."
Holding his gaze for another long moment, Sahara scrutinized the intense gray eyes, searching for any shred of doubt to call him on. But there wasn't any. At length, finally convinced that this was really what he wanted, she let her severe features relax and smiled wickedly at him. "Good. Because I intend to do whatever I want to it…decoration wise." Pulling away before he could petition her 'pink fluffiness' again, Sahara picked up the duffel and took a step in the direction of the staircase. "I'm going to take this upstairs and start unpacking. Just leave the other suitcases in the car, for now."
"Here, 'lemme get it for you," Carson offered, trying to take the duffel out of her hands, but she maneuvered it away from him easily, scoffing.
"I carried you for a much longer distance than a few stairs. Do you honestly think I can't handle this one teensy tiny little bag?"
Carson made another swipe for the bag – missing – and said in a miffed tone that suggested he didn't appreciate being reminded of her carrying him, "I never said you couldn't. All I said was I'm going to get it for you."
"It's my bag."
"It's my house."
She couldn't keep back a small smile as she reminded him lazily, "Not anymore."
Pulling a fake lunge, Carson twisted in the opposite direction and managed to get hold of one of the bag's handles, to Sahara's consternation. The scuffle quickly became a full-fledged tug of war, each of them knocking the other off balance on occasion but neither letting go of their respective handles. Inwardly, Sahara marveled at what a strong grip he had – particularly considering his injured arm. "Let go, Morgan, you're going to hurt yourself."
"No, I'm going to hurt you," Carson corrected. "And I really don't want to do that, so just give me the bag Sahara."
"Alright," he reasoned finally, "I say we play for it."
Sahara narrowed her eyes at him. "Play what?"
"What else?" he grinned at her.
Rolling her eyes and giving the bag another hard tug – simultaneously sending Carson stumbling into the staircase banister – Sahara drawled, "Oh, of course, because arm wrestling would never put any strain on something like, oh say, your arm."
"My left arm was the wounded one," Carson pointed out, tugging the bag himself and making Sahara bump into the side of the couch, "I'm right handed."
Sahara sighed and gave him a tired look. "You'll lose," she mentioned logically.
"That's to be determined."
Another moment passed in which they stared at each other like the stubborn mules they were. Finally, Sahara growled, "Fine. On the count of three, let go of the bag – I will too," she assured him when he seemed about to protest, "and take a step back. And if you try to steal it from me, so help me Morgan, you'll regret it." Carson fabricated a look of total innocence, to which Sahara narrowed her eyes further before continuing, "Alright. One. Two. Three." The bag landed on the floor with a thump.
Gesturing for Carson to lead the way, Sahara followed him into the kitchen and sat down across from him at the small round table. He seemed unduly pleased with himself for some reason. It was rather suspicious, but she'd deal with it later. Right now, all she wanted to be done with this so she could head upstairs and settle in already. With a distinct 'let's get this over with' sigh, she extended her hand…but Carson drew his back at the last moment and looked her dead in the eye, saying in a solemn voice, "Don't hold anything back."
Something about this seems familiar…Sahara thought to herself as her suspicion level bumped itself up another notch. But she nodded just as solemnly, and took his offered hand.
Holy shit, she caught herself a fraction of a second later as Carson very nearly smashed her hand against the tabletop – her knuckles hovered a centimeter or so above the surface. It took every speck of willpower and strength she had to force them back to an even position. What the hell? She shot a glance at Carson, whose eyes were flooded with the same unimaginable intensity that had hypnotized her countless times before. She looked back at their clasped, white-knuckled hands to keep from falling under the familiar spell and losing the match. Well, at least this wasn't coming easy to him. Still…he shouldn't be able to put up this much resistance at all…
What exactly was going on here?
The match stretched on…well past his previous 43 second record. Sahara clenched her jaw and poured her focus into the contest. The initial recovery push had taken a lot out of her – he'd taken her off guard, despite his warning not to hold back – and that had to be the reason they were on even footing right now. But still, even not suspecting it, Sahara hadn't been going easy on him at the start of the match. After not having worked out for more than a month, there was no way in hell he could possibly have enough strength to gain so much on her.
Her eyes narrowed more with every minute that passed…after about six of them, they were barely more than slits. He couldn't be this strong if he hadn't been working out. And he couldn't have been working out because of his shoulder wound. No, he hadn't been working out. "You haven't been working out," Sahara voiced her thought and raised her gaze to meet his eyes again. He looked back at her without answering. "You haven't," Sahara reiterated flatly, her statement again meeting with silence. It wasn't possible…he'd been shot…she'd been keeping an eye on him… "Have you?" she asked finally, in a quietly dangerous voice.
Slowly, Carson's taught mouth relaxed…and proceeded to grin lazily at her.
"Why you," Sahara started, but couldn't force another word out of her mouth as she glared furiously at him. What a bloody idiot! He could have seriously hurt himself, working out before he was fully healed! And without telling her…without telling anybody…Ah, there was another hurdle. How had he gone from 43 seconds to this without help? Oh yes, more people than Carson were going to die before the day was out. "Who helped you?" she snarled lowly through clenched teeth.
Carson only grinned more widely at her. "You did."
"Answer the fucking question, Morgan."
His eyebrows rose slightly. "I did."
"Honestly," she snapped, tightening her hold on his fingers in an attempt to remind him what had happened the last time he'd tried to cross her, waking up after a hangover in the middle of the desert. If fracturing his fingers again was what it was going to take to get the truth out of him, so be it.
"I did!" he protested, reaching into his pocket with his free hand as though searching for something.
"I'm only going to say this one more time, Carson," Sahara warned, her grip tightening further, "Who –" but she stopped in mid question as a somewhat familiar piece of paper appeared on the table in front of her. Was that…?
She glared from the weight schedule she'd designed for him, to Carson, to the schedule, to Carson, to the schedule, and back to Carson again. Was he out of his mind? That schedule was as intense as weightlifting got – not something to be undertaken by the only partially healthy or recently wounded, and certainly not to be tried without her direct and careful supervision. "You bench pressed 500 pounds?" she hissed, utterly incensed. "You idiot!"
"Hey!" Carson started to defend himself, but Sahara cut him off.
"Do you know, do you have any idea what kind of permanent damage you must have done to your shoulder by doing this, Morgan? Five hundred pounds –" her grip had officially gone into fracture mode, but not because she'd intended it to. Rather, it had gained free reign as a result of her being, put simply, pissed as hell.
"Okay, first, I didn't bench press anything," Carson interrupted before she could mangle his hand further. "I used dumbbells. Second, I didn't get to 500 pounds; I was only at 480, well technically 240, by the time we left – but that's Marvin's fault for losing the stupid schedule last Wednesday. It threw me off. And third, my damned shoulder was healed weeks ago, and I wouldn't have hurt it even if I had decided to go with bench pressing."
Sahara stared at him blankly for a few long moments. Then, "Your shoulder's healed."
"Your shoulder's been healed for three weeks," she sucked in a deep, would be calming breath, "and you didn't tell me?"
Perfectly cheerful once again, Carson explained, "Why would I want to sacrifice my mornings of sleeping-in bliss? Or the backrubs," he added with a lopsided – and rather adorable – grin.
"Carson," Sahara began calmly, though her teeth were grinding against each other quite loudly, "What exactly happened to the 'no more secrets' rule?"
His eyes widened innocently. "You'd call that a secret? I'd put it under the Surprise category, myself."
Torn between laughing and lapsing back into absolute rage, Sahara continued to simply look at him for another thirty seconds. He frustrated the hell out of her sometimes, but – particularly at moments like this, for some reason – there was no denying that she loved him.
As though sensing the vulnerable spot in her thoughts, Carson seized the moment to bend over their still clasped hands, and proceeded to press kisses into the hollows between Sahara's knuckles, suggesting, "What do you say we call it a draw? I mean, you'd win eventually, since I can't lift as much…yet. But that would take a long time, and I think it would be to our mutual benefit to move on to more pleasant activities."
In spite of herself, Sahara felt her remaining anger begin to melt away. Strange…his lips against her skin seemed to have the unique power of being able to clear her mind of extraneous thoughts – like unquenchable fury, for example. What was done was done, right? And as for the duffel bag…she had a feeling that it wouldn't be moving anywhere for a good long while. "Depends," she mused. "What more pleasant activity did you have in mind?"
"Oh, I don't know," his lips brushed lightly across the top of her hand and over her wrist as he spoke, "You haven't seen the bedroom yet…" more kisses, "If you want we could go up there and I could, you know," this time he tilted his head to look up at her mischievously, "give you a tour?"
"Hm," Sahara managed vaguely, enjoying the little leap her heart gave as she met his dancing eyes. "Yes…yes, I could definitely go for that idea."
They stopped the match and stood from the table, though Carson didn't release her hand. Instead, he pulled her around the curved edge and into his arms, bringing his mouth down to cover hers in a somehow pleasantly suffocating kiss, and letting his fingers travel slowly down the length of her back.
Winding her own fingers in his hair, Sahara returned the kiss whole-heartedly, relishing the freedom of not having to hold anything back. When he finally pulled away slightly to breathe, she leaned her forehead against his, affectionately cupped his face in her hands, and met his eyes. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you," he copied in the same hoarse whisper. And she kissed him then as he'd kissed her before: with a slow sincerity, a fierce intensity, and absolute tenderness, as though sealing a pact. Carson moaned lowly against her mouth. Sahara smiled.
"So," she said, dusting kisses along his jawbone, ending at his earlobe, "tell me about this bedroom."
It was Carson's turn to trail kisses, over her lips…her chin…her neck… "It has a bed," he murmured finally against her collarbone.
As though summoned by Merlin himself, the same magical butterflies peeled away from the sides of her stomach – and proceeded to dance with wild abandon. Swallowing, Sahara managed, "Oh? What else?"
Carson raised his head to look at her, his eyes deep enough to drown in, before asking in a husky voice, "What else matters?"
Sighing contentedly, Sahara went back to nuzzling his neck. "At the moment? Nothing, actually." A second later, strong arms swept her up and headed toward the staircase, deftly avoiding the predictably forgotten duffel bag.
About half way up the steps, however, Sahara stopped him, the sparkle in her eye undermining the seriousness of her expression. "But I'm warning you, Morgan: if I don't like it, I'm converting it into a weight room for your improvement."
The characteristic, roguish grin was back on Carson's face instantly. "Don't worry." Deliberately, Sahara was sure, he bent and kissed her with so much undiluted passion that she actually felt dizzy, before raising a cocky eyebrow at her and heading up the stairs again, muttering tauntingly against her lips, "You'll like it."
YEOW! Check it out people, I have just completed my very fist book!!! *dances* And no, I never could have done it without my utterly AMAZING reviewers, so without further ado, I give you: THE REVIEWER AWARDS! *much buzzing*
Behold the GODDESSES who reviewed EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER of this story:
Not Sure Yet
*wild applause, whistles, confetti and hugs all around*
Ah chicas, you are my backbone, and there shall never be enough words to adore you with. Everlasting thanks and worship go your way.
The award for LONGEST REVIEW EVER, coming in at a whopping 10kb and actually sending my inbox warning level into the red storage-capability wise goes to the one and only:
And there isn't a hug big enough to suffocate you with, unfortunately, but I shall try my very best ~ ((((((((((((HUG)))))))))))) What would I do without you?! Ahh! *more hugs*
And extra special thanks go out to the wonderful beyond wonderful reviewers who showed up in the middle and reviewed from that point onward ever so diligently:
Never Knows Best
All reviews encourage me, obviously, but it's the constant feedback that's really motivational ~ I owe you guys the world.
Now, of course, even the occasional reviewer is a sunbeam of inspiration, hence each and every one of you gets a whole-hearted thank you!! FrayedGalliano, kaika switched, eRzuLiE109, Megan, Champion's Fire, on with the kill, Clever Fox Club, Steph, Single White Rose, darkness falls, ShadowDame, hummer, Sherwoodkitten, unbeliever, Nickety, flake, skibummat, spurs0203champs, Simple Confusion, nyyrocks, RWP, Spooky152, penster, Lemonhead754, annchick1273, Charlotte, Niamh, sanna, CrEePYoBsEsSiOn, Shooga, Shayley Rain, Ana, Katsy, mystikwolfguardian, FearlessMoore21, enigmaschild, Sailacel, obsessivecompulsivedisorder, ski1118, BSK8BALL23, Night of the Raven, fire-fem, Chaotic Mind, Lieschen (!), Voodoo Fairy, sapofbks2004, Les Yeux Violets (!), NightSeeress, FrenzyFan78, pinkandpurpleskies, blue-wall, Lady Thorn, marin, Give Me The Gun, and jitterrue.
And for a not-so-off-topic random thought of the day: approximately 75-80 people are reading this story at this point in time. (!!!!?!) ----- ah yes, behold my initial reaction. So, I definitely try to avoid review-begging, as it bugs me, but I'm going to cross my fingers and hope that some of you guys are those kind of readers who just wait for the last chapter and comment on the story as a whole ~ because seriously, having just finished a first book, overall comments would be very nice to ponder/appreciate. ;) ----*le wink*
Goodness we ARE close to the 300 review mark, aren't we…*AH!* who thinks they know how happy I'd be to actually hit it? Hm? ;)
I also have to give credit to a couple stories: "Samantha," by Mystified and "Queen of Glass" by S.J.Maas (both on my fav's list). "Samantha" in particular inspired me to start writing this around Christmas, and the kickass main character in "Queen of Glass" was that extra little boost. So to both those authors, despite the fact that in all likelihood they'll never read this (lol), thanks. ;)
And now, the ever anticipated, final, SURPRISE:
(which is also the reason I'm more excited than disappointed to finish this story)
…you're either going to really love me, or really hate me for this…
Well, here goes nothing people.
SUMMARY: Tiptoeing through minefields, intercepting toxins, and hunting ruthless terrorists across Europe ~ quite a schedule, but the most terrifying thing in Sahara O'Brian's life might just be…a diamond ring?
(And don't worry ~ it's going to be much more than it seems. I'm not into cheap spin-offs. Promise. ;) If all goes according to plan, I should have enough of it prewritten to start posting in late September or early October, latest. Wish me luck!
I realize I haven't given any definite dates here, so if anyone would like to be notified via e-mail as to when I actually post Break II and/or Winter Blade (the other new story), leave me an address and I'll let you know. ;)
Thanks for reading, everyone!!