"Why not?" Tucker said again, and a hint of steel underlay the easiness of his tone. He wanted an answer, and she suspected he usually got what he wanted.
Oddly, though, she wasn't intimidated. Part of her even relished this little showdown, getting their animosity out into the open and going one-on-one with Tucker.
"What difference does it make?" She returned his cool look with one of her own. "Regardless of my suspicions about you, I'm doing my job and keeping my mouth shut. My reasons aren't any of your business. But I'd bet the farm your real name isn't Darrell Tucker."
He grinned suddenly, surprising her. "Dallas said you were stubborn. Not much of a reverse gear, was the way he put it," he said, settling his shoulders more comfortably against the wall.
Because Niema had heard Dallas mutter something very close to that, after one of the few times they had gone head to head about something, she found herself smiling, too.
In that more relaxed atmosphere he said, "What makes you think my name isn't Tucker?"
"I don't know. Darrell Tucker is a good-old-boy Texas name, and every so often I hear a little bit of Texas in your accent, so the accent and the name fit -- but you don't, somehow."
"I've traveled a bit since I left home," he drawled.
She clapped her hands twice in mocking applause. "That was very well done. A homey piece of phrasing, the accent a little heavier."
"But you don't buy it."
"I bet you're very good with a lot of accents."
Amused, he said, "Okay, you aren't going to believe me. That's fine. I don't have any way of proving who I am. But believe me in this: My priorities are getting that building blown and all of us safely home."
"How can you get us home? We're splitting up, remember?"
"By doing all my preliminary work right, by anticipating as many problems as I can and taking steps to counteract them."
"You can't anticipate everything, though."
"I try. That's why my hair is going gray; I sit up nights worrying."
His hair was as dark as her own, without a silver thread showing. His sense of humor was wry, tending toward the ironic; she wished he hadn't shown it to her, wished he had maintained the silence between them. Why hadn't he? Why now, of all times, had he suddenly breached the armed truce?
She whirled to the radio set as the whispered words came plainly through the speaker. Incredulously she checked the time; thirty minutes had passed since she had last looked. She had been so focused on her confrontation with Tucker that she had forgotten to fret.
Like a flash, she knew: That was why he had done it. He had distracted her, using the one subject he knew she wouldn't be able to ignore.
Tucker was already at the radio, slipping on a Motorola headset. "Any problems?"
That was all, just three whispered words, but they were in her husband's voice and Niema knew that for now, at least, he was all right. She leaned back and focused on her breathing, in, out, keeping the rhythm regular.
There was nothing Tucker could do now to distract her, short of physical violence, so he left her alone. She checked the radio settings, though she knew they were right. She wished she had checked the radio detonator one more time, just to be certain. No -- she knew it was working perfectly. And Dallas knew what he was doing.
"Has Dallas ever told you about his training?"
She flicked an impatient glance at Tucker. "I don't need distracting. Thanks for doing it before, but not now, please."
A faint quirk of his brows betrayed his surprise. "So you figured it out," he said easily, and she immediately wondered if distracting her had indeed been his intention. Tucker was so damn elusive that even when you thought you had him read, it was possible you were reading only what he intended you to read. "But this is more in the way of reassurance. Do you know about his training?"
Copyright © 1999 by Linda Howington. Published by permission of the publisher, Pocket Books.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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