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The Lady and the Lion

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Year:
1990
Publisher:
Loveswept
Language:
english
Series:
Once upon a Time...
File:
EPUB, 169 KB
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Contents

Synopsis

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Epilogue





Synopsis




The Mysterious Spellbinder...



At first she was only a voice in the darkness before dawn, but soon Keith Donovan was haunted, obsessed by the woman who'd listened to his cynical, desperate murmurings, and shared secrets of her own troubled heart. He'd never expected her to be so impossibly lovely, nor did Erin Prentice imagine that her powerful, anonymous companion of the night could fill her with recklessness...and sweep her into his dangerous quest for revenge. Something beyond reason bound her to this man, whose ruthless passion overwhelmed her in a tidal wave of primitive demand that thrilled and terrified her. Keith was her destiny, her crossroads - and Erin knew she had no choice but to welcome the fire that flared between them, even if he could never promise her always. But when he was forced to choose between love and rage, between tomorrow and yesterday, would the untamed spirit that first drew her to him find the courage to surrender his grief?





Death is afraid of him because he has the heart of a lion. —Arab proverb





Prologue




"Who is he?"

"Says his name's Duncan. Claims to represent a cartel operating out of Colombia."

"What do you think?"

"His boat's Colombian registry; so's the jet. He spends money like water, and throws parties almost every night. He has the locals eating out of his hand."

"Drug money?"

"Looks that way."

Guy Wellman drummed his fingers against the desk, frowning. He was a middle-aged man, in good shape, with distinguished gray hair and a self-satisfied expression stamped into his heavy features. That smug expression had eroded over the past months, so that now he seemed more petulant than impressive.

His assistant, a quiet man with a hard face and shuttered eyes, watched his boss unemotionally.

"And he wants to meet me?" Wellman asked finally.

"Says he has a business prop; osition for you."

"I don't touch drugs," Wellman said emphatically.

"I gather he knows that. My bet is that he wants to smooth the way for his cartel. He said he needed a man of influence and respectability to deal 'properly' with officials."

Wellman scowled. "That bastard Arturo's already using me—why should I ask this one to do the same?"

After an almost imperceptible hesitation, his assistant said, "If his cartel is as powerful as he says, it wouldn't hurt to listen to the proposition."

"All right, all right. Arrange a meeting."





One




The clock on her nightstand softly chimed the hour as Erin Prentice hung up the phone, but she didn't need to glance at it. Five A.M., ten A.M. in London. It was the best time to catch her father—just after breakfast and before his full schedule of morning meetings. After so many years, she knew his schedule, often to the minute. And though he hadn't asked it of her, she had automatically suited her schedule to his.

Ironic, she thought. She wasn't supposed to be on a schedule; that was the point of this vacation. One of them, anyway. But habit died hard. By placing the call at this hour on her first morning in Miami Beach, she had tacitly agreed to call him every morning at the same time, and he would expect her to continue to do so.

Restless, Erin rose from the chair by her phone and went out into her sitting room, absently tightening the belt of her robe. She opened the French doors leading onto her balcony, and stepped out into the coolness of the predawn quiet that was broken only by the pounding of the waves. The balcony overlooked Miami's famous expanse of white beach. First light was seeping in the east, beginning to separate the horizon into sky and ocean.

It was peaceful. She could see that, but couldn't feel it herself. What she felt was frustration, guilt, and a grinding uncertainty about the direction her future should take. But above all, she felt isolated.

The realization had barely crossed her mind when Erin heard a soft sound, the creak of a chaise as weight was shifted slightly. She looked quickly to the right, the first stab of unease fading as she remembered what the desk clerk had told her. Her suite connected to the one next to it, big double doors between the rooms could be opened if a guest wanted a much larger suite. Now the balcony was shared, so a stout latticework screen fashioned of steel strips was bolted firmly in place in the center to provide privacy to both occupants of the suites. For good measure, there were additional folding screens on either side of the divider to be used if even more privacy was needed.

The latticework of the steel screen was closely woven, so that Erin could see nothing at first. Then a faint red glow became briefly visible, and an elusive aroma of tobacco told her that her neighbor was smoking. Erin hesitated, wary of speaking to a stranger, but both her background and her overwhelming sense of isolation drove her to acknowledge the presence of someone else.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she said, resting her hands on the waist-high masonry wall and turning her attention back toward the shimmering grayness of the sea and sky.

After a moment, a man responded, "Very beautiful. Very peaceful." His voice was deep and low, with a slight hint of restraint or tension.

Erin unconsciously tilted her head a bit as she listened to the voice rather than the words. In her father's world, where gamesmanship was subtle and careful, she had learned to pay more attention to tone and nuance, to all the things never spelled out in words. It was second nature to her to do so.

And what she heard in this man's voice intrigued her. The tension, she thought, seemed more physical than emotional, as if he were too tired or too edgy to relax. There was strength in his voice as well, power, a kind of certainty that told her he was very sure of his place in the world around him. Erin wanted to hear more, wanted to define the other things she heard, the shades and shadows and undercurrents. She forgot about merely being polite and courteous.

"I've always been an early riser," she said, keeping her own voice carefully neutral. "You too?"

As before, a moment passed before he answered. "I work nights. This is the end of a day for me."

Which explained the tension, Erin decided. He hadn't yet wound down enough to rest. She wanted to ask what his job was, thinking with mild curiosity that it must be temporary work of some kind since he was staying in a hotel, but she didn't want to seem too nosy. "I'm on vacation," she offered, still gazing out at the dark ocean. "And even now I can't make myself sleep late."

"Habits are difficult to break." His voice was a shade more relaxed now, but still slow and measured, reminding her of the tone her father used when he was talking to someone he hadn't quite made up his mind about.

She nodded, even though she knew he couldn't see her as anything more than a shadow. "Habits. Schedules. Sometimes I think the worst thing mankind ever did was invent a way of measuring time. We've become slaves to clocks." Listening to herself, Erin had to laugh. "Sorry. Dawn brings out the worst in me."

"It's a time of transition," the man said quietly. "It doesn't exist in itself except as a few minutes between night and day, a time when we ask ourselves the tough questions."

She thought he had probably asked himself a lot of tough questions. It was in his voice, something subtle she had heard only in the voices of highly intelligent, very powerful men. It was the sound of an intense inner drive that wasn't ambition for its own sake but rather a profound desire to accomplish something of importance.

"But when do the answers come?" she murmured.

"Another dawn. If we're lucky."

Still listening more to his voice than the words, Erin deliberately lightened the subject. "I'm not so sure I believe in luck. I always lose at card games. Now is that bad luck or just an inability to play cards?"

"Is your memory good?" he asked.

"Very good."

A thread of amusement entered his voice. 'Then you're simply not paying attention to the cards. Skill at card games is almost entirely a matter of concentration."

"I do tend to let my mind wander," she admitted, smiling as she watched the sky lighten. "Winning a card game never seemed very important."

"Not unless you bet the kingdom," he said.

She laughed softly. "I never bet more than I can afford to lose."

"Wise of you."

Dawn was, as he'd observed, minutes only; light was gaining strength. Erin felt a sudden and peculiarly vivid regret at losing the anonymity of darkness. As brief as this time had been, she felt more at peace now. And, perhaps oddly, she had no inclination to see the face of her neighbor, or ask his name. It was pleasant, the lack of any demand in the faceless, nameless conversation, and she felt no need to change their relationship.

In her experience, knowledge brought demands between people, and that was the last thing she wanted right now.

Trying to keep the regret out of her voice, she said, "I should let you rest. Besides, another habit of mine is running every morning."

"You should be careful," he said. "This isn't the safest part of the world."

She could have told him that she had taken her daily run in places where soldiers patrolled. Where, in fact, wars had raged outside carefully marked and guarded neutral ground. But what she said was, "Thanks, I will. It's been nice talking to you."

"Likewise."

Erin retreated from the balcony, closing the French doors and automatically locking them. She went to change into her sweatsuit, glancing, this time, at the double doors leading into the other suite; the doors were securely locked, of course.

Her father would have told her she'd been foolish in talking to a strange man, in telling him she ran every morning on the beach. She wondered why she'd done it. Not that it mattered. She had a feeling her neighbor was as disinclined to meet her as she was to meet him, so he was unlikely to pursue a friendship.

Changing into her sweatsuit and running shoes, Erin amused herself by imagining the most likely—or unlikely—face and personality for her quiet neighbor. He was probably on the shady side of fifty, she decided, and his "work" was some high-stakes poker game played in a dark and smoke-filled room somewhere.

The talk of card games must have put that into her head, she realized.

He'd left a wife and kiddies back in Topeka while he followed some obscure poker circuit, winning and losing fortunes over the years....

Erin frowned slightly, pulled from the fantasy by the instincts that were telling her she was way off base. There had been too much strength in his voice to allow for the transient, risky life of a gambler, too much depth to permit him to be anything so trivial.

She glanced at the big double doors again as she passed through the sitting room on her way out, and ruthlessly ignored her growing curiosity. Absurd. Her own isolation was putting ridiculous ideas into her head, making her speculate without any good reason. Her neighbor was just a man, that was all, a man who had talked to her for a few quiet moments on a dark balcony.

She took her key and left the suite, determinedly ignoring the door just down the hall as she headed for the elevator. But she noticed the Do Not Disturb sign he'd hung out. Symbolic, she decided. He didn't want to be disturbed—and neither did she.

As the slender young woman took the walkway to the beach and broke into an easy jog, a very old man stepped from the shadows near a cabana and watched her. The first rays of the morning sun touched him, illuminating his white suit and his thick, snowy hair and beard in a way that seemed just a bit unreal. He propped elegant hands on a gold-headed cane, the pose suggesting thoughtfulness rather than infirmity.

After a few moments, he turned his head and looked upward, his dark, benign gaze searching until it located a particular balcony a dozen floors up. There was a figure up there that might have been a man, his attention fixed on the beach and the young woman taking her morning run.

The old man watched the younger for some time, his stillness complete, dark eyes very intent. It was as if he were listening to some soft, far-off voice that demanded his utmost attention. Then, imperceptibly, he relaxed, and a singularly sweet smile curved his lips.

"Now then," he said in a rich, gentle baritone, nodding slightly to himself. "Now then, we'll see."

Keith Donovan leaned his forearms on the balcony wall and watched the lone figure running along the beach. He was too far away to have a clear look at her. All he could be certain about was how slender she was and how long her red hair was.

And an incredible voice. A slight accent, very faint—more cosmopolitan, he thought, than anything else. But that voice... musical and oddly haunting, unusually expressive, it had pulled at him in a way he'd never felt before.

He told himself he was just tired. The past months had left him feeling so disconnected that a sweet voice on a dark balcony had seemed a lifeline. That was it. That was why her voice had affected him this way.

It wasn't a reassuring thought. He couldn't afford any distractions, couldn't spare the emotional energy for—for what? Keith frowned, his gaze still on the tiny figure now almost out of sight. What was he worried about? She certainly hadn't indicated that he was anything more than a neighbor she had spoken to out of politeness. The conversation had been brief, and she had neither offered her name nor asked to know his.

So why did he feel so affected by her? The question was troubling, and Keith brushed it away almost violently. He forced himself to turn away, to retreat inside his room and firmly close the balcony doors. With a long, tense night behind him, he needed sleep, but he had discovered it was difficult for him to wind down, to drop his guard and rest. That was why he'd developed the habit of sitting out on his balcony and watching the dawn each morning, needing the interlude of peace.

The conversation with the woman had helped him to relax, he knew, but he didn't like it. Still, having learned to take what came, he blanked his mind and went to bed.

It was afternoon when he rose, and he quite deliberately avoided going out onto his balcony even though his curiosity about the woman had increased. He ordered room service, remaining in his suite because that, too, was habit, cautious habit. Careful, wary habit. The fewer people who saw him, the less chance there was of the wrong person seeing him in the wrong place and out of character.

But today, for the first time, he was edgy, restless. He left the suite only once, going to the hotel's gym to work out as he sometimes did, needing the exercise but, even more, needing an outlet for tension and excess energy. Today, it didn't seem to help much. The hours between waking and leaving to go to the boat seemed to stretch forever, and it was a relief when he finally left his suite just after eight that evening. As usual, he took the stairs and left the hotel unobtrusively by a side exit.

He changed between hotel and boat: He changed his clothes and hair, his posture, his voice. He pushed from his mind a quiet hotel suite, a darkened balcony, a soft voice, and peace. When he stepped onto the boat, he was someone else. Someone whose laugh held a reckless, ruthless, dangerous edge.

It was after four the next morning when he returned to his silent hotel suite. He showered, washing away the clinging scents of cheap perfume, smoke, and liquor, then wrapped a towel around his waist and went out onto the dark balcony. He was as weary as usual, yet this morning was different and he was conscious of the difference only after he'd settled into the chaise.

He was listening, he realized. He was waiting for the soft click of French doors opening on the other side of the security screen, for the whisper of silk as she moved. He had heard both the morning before, despite the muted roar of the waves far below, and he was listening for the sounds now.

Keith shook his head slightly. This was absurd, he told himself. And dangerous. He'd chosen, eyes wide open, to stand alone in this, and he had no right forming even a transient relationship with anyone who wasn't involved in what he was doing.

He stared out at the dark ocean, telling himself to go back inside, to simply cut the tenuous connection before it could become something too important to lose. But even as the wary voice inside him murmured that warning, he couldn't help but question it. What was he risking, after all? A few minutes of dawn peace shared with a stranger. And besides, she probably wouldn't even come out again.

The thought had barely registered when he heard the soft click of her balcony doors, the whisper of silk as she moved. He felt her presence on the other side of the screen with an intensity that took him by surprise, and he couldn't stop himself from greeting her.

"Good morning."

"Good morning."

She was disturbed, he realized instantly; it was in her voice, a tremor that could have been pain or anger—or both. He found himself turning slightly toward the screen, staring at it as if he could penetrate it and the darkness. But he couldn't, of course, not with his eyes.

"Bad night?" he asked quietly.

A kind of laugh reached his ears, a sound that held very little humor. "No, the night was all right."

He was silent for a moment, then spoke in the same quiet, undemanding tone. "Sometimes, it's easier to talk to a stranger when we're upset. And easier to be honest in the darkness."

"Dawn questions?"

'"Only if you want me to ask them," he told her. "I'll listen, if you do. Maybe the answers will come."

If she hesitated, it was momentary, and when she spoke again her voice was taut. "How do you tell someone you love that you can't be what he wants you to be?"

Keith felt a strange pang that he refused to acknowledge. "What does he want you to be?

"There." She laughed, again with no humor. "Just there, on the edge of his life. Playing the role he wants me to play. Shaping my life to fit his."

"And you can't do that?"

"I have. For a long time. And it's... smothering me. The demands and expectations. It wouldn't be so bad if I felt useful, that I mattered. But all his attention is devoted to his work, and sometimes I think I'm invisible to him. I have to break away. At least, I think I do. But I don't know how to tell him without hurting him. And I don't know what I'll do after."

"What do you want to do?" Keith asked.

She sighed. "I don't know. That's one reason I'm here, to try and figure it out. And now... This morning, when I called, he told me to come home. Back to London. He can't find anything, he said, and his secretary is hopeless. He needs me to keep his life running smoothly."

"That doesn't make you feel that you matter to him?"

"No. Someone else could do what I do. It isn't me he values, it's what I do for him."

Keith hesitated, then repeated, "What do you want to do?"

"I don't want to go back. Not yet. It's such a strong habit, to be what he expects, that I'm afraid I'll just take the path of least resistance if I go back now."

He couldn't help but wonder, with another strange and unacknowledged pang, if they were discussing her husband or lover. It sounded that way, he thought. He didn't want to ask outright, wary of being something other than the disinterested and impersonal voice he had promised to be. So he kept his voice soft, his questions dispassionate.

"Did you tell him?"

"No. I told him I was enjoying my vacation, told him I need the break."

"Why can't you tell him the truth?"

"I don't want to hurt him."

"You're hurting yourself by remaining silent. Wouldn't that hurt him if he knew?"

"I don't know."

She sounded a little lost now, and he responded instinctively to that pain. "You aren't sure he loves you?"

"No, I'm sure he does. It's just... well, his career is the most important thing in his life. I think he expects it to be the most important thing in my life too. You see, I'm something of an asset to his career. He's told me that more than once. Others have told me as well."

Keith was too curious to let that pass. "How are you an asset?" he asked. For a long moment, it seemed as though she wouldn't answer, but then she did, her voice holding a hint of constraint.

"It's difficult to explain. There were people he was having trouble making connections with until I began to act as his hostess at dinners and parties. People would tell me things they wouldn't tell him, things he needed to know. He says I have the knack of listening."

Frowning in the darkness, Keith said, "He's using you." There was a slight sound on the other side of the screen, as if she moved almost instinctively in protest.

"It didn't seem so at first. Meeting people, talking to them. I never got information damaging to anyone, just little things, bits and pieces that might have given him an edge. I was willing to do it. It's important, what he does, and I agree with his goals. Usually."

"But not always." It wasn't a question.

"No. No, not always." Her voice turned rueful. "But he says that I don't understand the large picture, the long-term view of things. That my duty is to tell him whatever I learn and let him decide what's to be done with the knowledge."

"How do you feel about that?" Keith asked.

"Patronized." The response was instant and sharp. After a moment, she laughed a bit shakily. "It all began to build up inside me, that's why I left." She hesitated again, then said, "I'm sorry. I have no right to dump all this in your lap."

Keith, who had been thinking even as he listened, ignored her words. Slowly, he said, "Someone you love expects you to play a part that makes you uncomfortable, to be a pipeline for information that helps him in his career. He expects you to fit yourself into his life in a way that satisfies his needs rather than yours. You feel you don't matter to him except in that role. Even more, his demands are smothering you. Your own thoughts and opinions aren't valued, your life isn't yours to live."

"Did I say all that?" Her voice was small.

"I think you did."

"I'm sorry."

Turning his gaze out toward the ocean and the graying darkness that heralded daybreak, Keith said, "Don't be. I'm just here to listen to the tough dawn questions, remember? And the most important question, I think, is—what are you going to do about your problem? Running away hasn't solved anything."

"Running?"

"It's what you did. You couldn't tell him how you felt, so you just left. But now he wants you to come home, so what are you going to do?"

"I'm not going home. Not yet. Maybe if I stay away long enough..."

"Hell change? Do you really believe what you're saying?"

"No." She sighed almost inaudibly. "I don't. He doesn't even recognize a problem. And he won't until I confront him. That's what you're saying, isn't it?"

"You said it."

"I'll hurt him. I don't want to hurt him."

Keith hesitated, then said, "Do you realty believe it's better to go on hurting yourself? To go on living a life you don't want, being a person you're not? If he knew what this was doing to you, do you believe he'd choose to enrich his life at the expense of yours?"

Answering the last question, she said very quietly, "I hope not."

They were both silent for several minutes while the sky lightened in the east, and then she stirred slightly. "Tough questions. It doesn't help much that I know the answers."

"Sometimes," he said, "knowing the answers gives you nothing except more questions."

"Until another dawn?" Her voice was wistful.

He hesitated, then said, "Don't force it. Take the time you need and let the answers sort themselves out. We always know what's best for us, if we'll just be patient and allow our instincts to tell us."

"Then I'll try. Thanks. I had no right to impose, but you've been a lot of help."

"No problem." He resisted the urge to keep the conversation going, telling himself firmly there wouldn't be any more morning interludes like this one. Already, he'd gotten involved despite himself, her problems worrying him, and he just didn't have the energy to spare. It had to stop.

"Well... thanks again," she murmured, and he listened in silence to the soft sounds of her leaving the balcony.

He sat gazing out at the dawn, watching the first reddening of the horizon become a blazing sunrise. He did get up and look down on the beach where she was beginning her morning run. Red hair. Beyond that, he didn't think very much. After a while, he went into his suite and to bed.

He didn't go out onto his balcony the next morning.

Erin spent most of the day just thinking. She walked on the beach, swam in the hotel's pool, treated herself to a sauna and massage. It was rare for her, this luxury of time to herself, and she enjoyed it. The sense of guilt she felt at so abruptly having deserted her father was still with her, but fainter now and much less painful than it had been.

Other problems didn't seem so overwhelming now, and she was even able to feel a kind of wry amusement at the number of male hotel guests who apparently felt she shouldn't be alone. It was something Erin had coped with since her teens, and the stage of being flattered by the attention was long past. She had learned, often painfully, that her looks drew men who were never interested in seeing beneath the centerfold proportions and striking features... men who never cared about her ideas or her feelings.

But they did want to talk to her. Oh, yes. They talked as if a dam had burst. They spilled out words in a torrent tending to stare at her while doing so, telling her things she had no right to know. That was the "asset" her father appreciated so much. Even men with high security clearances who certainly should have known better told her things they shouldn't.

To impress her, according to her father.

Her quiet balcony-neighbor had been right; her father was using her to further his own ambitions. Perhaps she'd feel differently about her talent if it were important in her own career or project to be able to glean information—but she doubted it. Seldom willing to hide her own motives or intelligence for any reason, she was unlikely to choose a career that demanded an ability to interrogate or dissemble.

So what did she want to do with her life? A tricky question—especially for a woman of twenty-eight who should have made her choice long ago.

The answer came to her that night as she lay awake in bed, drifted into her mind and settled firmly. She wanted a simple life. Love, a home, children.

She had grown up in a lifestyle so many people seemed to think was glamorous. The expensive schools, living and vacationing in exotic places, wealth. She had worn jewels and designer gowns, sailed on yachts, flown in private jets. She had, quite literally, danced with princes.

But she had never felt she quite belonged in that life. More comfortable with her hair loose and her face free of makeup, wearing jeans or sweatpants, she had turned herself into a part-time lady to please her father. Now, tying awake in her quiet bedroom, she knew it had been a loving gesture that had backfired. She could be a part-time lady, but she could never replace her mother and she couldn't go on submerging so much of herself out of guilt.

She wanted a home and family. She wanted a simple life. She wanted to paint.

That last was so surprising a thought that she actually caught her breath. Paint? Well, sure, she'd painted in school; in fact, her art teacher had said she was quite good. But she'd never been conscious of the desire to go on with it. Had she?

Erin let the tantalizing thought follow her into sleep, quite wary of making a quick—and possibly wrong—choice.

She woke up around four and ordered coffee and juice sent up, grateful for twenty-four-hour room service that delivered her order promptly. It helped her to be awake and clear-minded when she called London a few minutes later. The call went through quickly, and she kept her voice calm and casual when she greeted her father.

"Hi, Dad." Characteristically, her father had more important things on his mind than a polite greeting.

"Erin, I can't find next month's schedule. Where on earth did you put it?"

"It's in the center drawer of your desk." she answered automatically. "Dad—"

"They want me in Turkey in six weeks. Burleigh's retiring, and I'm to fill the post for at least a year. It means packing up and moving again, but there shouldn't be a problem, you've gotten quite good at it. The residence is furnished, of course—"

"Dad." Erin drew a deep breath. "I won't be going with you, to Turkey or anywhere else."

"Nonsense, of course you will." Richard Fane Prentice, Earl of Westford and the ambassador Britain chose to utilize for temporary duty in sensitive areas of the globe, sounded merely impatient. "There's a great deal to do, Erin, so you'd better come home right away."

"No," she said softly.

Silence, utter and astounded, greeted that simple word.

Erin took another breath. "Dad, I didn't choose a diplomatic career. You did. It's your life we're talking about, not mine. I have to live my life. I'm not even sure I want to stay in England. I've always felt more at home in the States." She hesitated. "I'm a coward to tell you like this, I know, but I just didn't know how to say it. I don't want to hurt you, or disappoint you, and I don't want us to fight—"

"Erin, what are you talking about?"

She winced at the grimness she heard in his voice, and forced herself not to weaken. "I'm talking about choices. I have to make my own, Dad. I have a lot of thinking to do, but I know that the one choice I won't make is to fit myself into your life because that's where you want me to be. I'm sorry."

"Come home," he said quietly. "We obviously need to talk, and not like this."

She managed a faint laugh. "No, I'm not brave enough to come home just yet. The habit of doing what you want is too strong. Besides, I know you'll ask questions—and I don't have all the answers. I will, but I need time to myself to find them."

"Erin, we have to talk about this."

"Yes. But not just now. I only wanted to tell you that I won't be coming home today—or in two weeks. I'm going to stay here for a while. Maybe go up to New England and visit Mother's family. And I won't be calling every morning. Your secretary isn't hopeless, Dad, and you aren't nearly as absent-minded as you think; you don't need me to keep your life in order."

He was silent.

There was a great deal Erin would have to tell him eventually. As he'd said, they needed to talk face to face. But even though she'd managed to say more than she had expected to be able to, she wasn't yet ready to confront the problems head-on. She'd given him something to think about, and that was enough for now.

"I'll call you in a few days."

"Erin—"

"In a few days. Dad. I love you. Bye." She cradled the receiver and stared at the phone for a few moments, feeling that a weight had eased even if it hadn't completely disappeared. She wasn't sure her father would patiently wait until she decided to call him again, but she hoped he would. And she brushed aside the faint pang of guilt she felt at having hit him with this just when he was preparing to take on a new assignment. Where her father was concerned, there would never be a "right" time, she knew.

She rose from the edge of the bed before she realized where she was going, but wasn't very surprised that her steps led her directly to the balcony doors. He had given her the courage to begin confronting her problems, and she wanted to tell him that. She opened the French doors and went out into the cool darkness.

He wasn't there. She knew. She felt it. There was an absence, an emptiness on the other side of the security screen. Still, distrusting her own senses, she couldn't help but ask softly, "Are you there?"

Silence, except for the muted sound of the waves below.

Disappointment and an odd sense of hurt swept over her, and Erin chided herself for the feelings. What was wrong with her? It wasn't as if they had an appointment out here, or that she could expect anything at all from him.

"Idiot," she muttered to herself. Maybe he'd gone straight to bed, tired after work. Or maybe his job had ended and he'd checked out of the hotel.

He was a stranger, after all. Just a quiet voice in the darkness that had eased her anxiety and shown her the right path to take. She didn't know him. Not his name. Not even what he looked like. And why did he matter to her? It was ridiculous. She'd wanted no demands, no obligations or expectations, and here she was upset because he wasn't where she'd expected him to be, where she wanted him to be.

She reminded herself of all that. But she waited. The eastern horizon lightened, graying toward dawn. The first purple and pink tendrils of light turned red and then gold. The sun peeked over the rim of the ocean cautiously, then lifted, finally, to announce a new day.

He didn't come.

Keith hadn't expected it to be so difficult. He'd told himself firmly he wouldn't go out onto the balcony the third morning, and he managed not to. Instead, he had remained in his sitting room, gazing at the balcony doors, watching the dawn from that silent, lonely vantage point. When he finally went to bed, he didn't sleep well.

His first clear thought on waking in the afternoon was of her. He wondered if she'd called the man in her life, if she was still worried. He wanted to know those answers with an anxiety that unnerved him—and made him angry. What on earth was wrong with him? For months, he'd been single-minded to the point of obsession, all his thoughts and determination, all his emotions, fixed immovably on the plans he had so cautiously put into motion.

And now... He was so close he could almost feel hot breath on the back of his neck, the end of it all finally in sight, and at the very point when he most needed every thread of his concentration he couldn't get this woman out of his mind.





Two




Dangerous wasn't the word for it.

He didn't know what it meant, this fixation on a woman whose name he didn't know, whose face he'd never seen. The timing couldn't have been worse, he didn't like what was happening to him. He didn't like it because he couldn't seem to control it.

Keith left the hotel earlier than usual and went to the marina, becoming that other man because he was untroubled by a sweet voice on a dark balcony, by unfamiliar feelings and troubling thoughts. The man who called himself Duncan wore his expensive silk suits, diamond rings, and Rolex with careless assurance and laughed often, though his eyes remained hard and enigmatic. Duncan owned a boat named Ladama and a Lear jet, both with Colombian registry. Almost every night he threw a party on his boat, one glittering affair after another where only the best food and wine were served.

But no drugs. Duncan had told Guy Wellman, a wealthy and powerful businessman who'd attended last night's party, that it wasn't wise for a man such as himself to let it be known he had access to drugs. Not wise at all. There was no need to advertise the fact and invite inconvenient attention from the law, he'd said with a laugh.

On this evening, at a small, rented apartment halfway between his hotel and the boat, Keith became Duncan, slipping into the skin of his alter ego with the ease of nightly practice, and thoroughly submerging his own personality. He moved among his guests when they arrived at the boat, expertly nursing one drink while giving the appearance of drinking a great deal, talking to everyone without saying anything of importance, his reckless laugh heard often. As the night wore on he became, outwardly, even more careless, betting and losing ten thousand dollars on a single throw of a pair of undoubtedly loaded dice one of his guests produced, and paying his losses blithely.

No one could have guessed he was playing a carefully constructed role, and certainly no one could have looked beneath that glittering shell to the fury, bitterness, and grief that had marked its creation.

It was near midnight when Guy Wellman arrived at the boat, bringing with him a man "Duncan" had requested to meet. The party was incredibly noisy by then, the introduction almost shouted, but Keith heard it clearly. Offering his hand to Vincent Arturo, he cordially greeted the man who had destroyed his family.

At four A.M. Keith let himself into the silent hotel suite. Guided only by the faint bedside lamp, he made his way through the sitting room to his bedroom, where he undressed. He took a long, hot shower, washing away the remains of that skin he wore nightly and its taint of smoke and corruption. When he at last felt reasonably clean, he donned a robe and went out into the dark sitting room.

He found a bottle of juice in the suite's wet bar, drinking from it as he sat down in a chair and tried to unwind. His gaze strayed to the closed balcony doors, but he was so tired, so utterly bone weary that he couldn't even swear at himself.

And there was, besides, something else. During this long, tense night, he had realized just how fragile his hold on sanity was. He had politely greeted a man he wanted to strangle with his bare hands, and in that moment he had known how terribly easy it would be to give in to the rage. It wasn't the way he wanted his justice, not with blood on his hands. The urge to release his savage emotions had shaken him badly.

He'd been so close to killing in fury with his own hands that, even now, he wasn't sure what had stopped him. He was even less sure that whatever it had been would stop him next time.

Keith stared at the balcony doors, seeing what he didn't want to see and understanding. He needed an anchor, something to hold him centered when all the wild emotions yanked at him. He hadn't planned for it, hadn't realized it would be necessary. But it was, he saw now. Too much alone in this, too disconnected, he needed a reminder of sanity to keep him from making the all-too-easy step over the edge.

It wouldn't take much to pull him back, he thought. Not much. A sweet voice in the darkness talking of sane things, a soft laugh, the whisper of silk. A distraction, yes, but one this side of madness, to keep him rooted here. He knew it was dangerous, but the greater danger lay in what he might do if he forgot what peace and pleasure felt like.

She probably wouldn't be there, he thought. She'd probably checked out and gone home, back to the man who wanted her to be with him. The gentleness in her voice as much as her words had told Keith she would go a long way to avoid hurting anyone deliberately.

And tonight, he had felt the urge to kill.

He got up and set the empty juice bottle aside, crossing the room to the balcony doors and opening them. He went out into the cool darkness and settled onto the chaise, looking straight ahead without seeing, but listening intently. And as soon as he heard her, he spoke.

"Good morning."

"Good morning," she responded a bit breathlessly. "I thought you must have gone. Yesterday, I mean."

Keith rested his head back against the chaise, feeling his tense muscles begin to unknot. "No. there was... something I had to do." I had to stay away from you. But I can't.

"You sound tired," she said, the concern in her voice obvious.

"Too tired to sleep. I need to unwind." He wondered, vaguely, if she felt the effect of this as strongly as he did, if she realized how easily they perceived each other's moods—not as strangers, but as friends.

"Do you want to talk?" she asked, a bit hesitant.

Closing his eyes, Keith said, "Your voice is very soothing. If you wouldn't mind—?"

One of her soft laughs escaped her. "I don't mind, but you might. You're so easy to talk to that I probably won't know when to shut up. Just tell me when, and I will."

He smiled slightly. "Agreed."

"What do you want me to talk about?"

"Anything you like." Anything sane. "Tell me if you've found any answers for those dawn questions."

"All I'm sure of," she said wryly, "is that I've found more questions. But I did call London, and I told him I wouldn't be coming home."

"For good?" Keith asked, only then aware that he wanted her to say yes.

"Surprisingly enough, that's what I said. He was... stunned. He says we have to talk, but I told him I needed time to myself. I don't know how patient he'll be." She paused, then laughed suddenly.

He was intrigued by the sound. "What?"

"Oh, it's absurd! I guess I felt a little self-conscious before, and didn't want to explain. I mean, well, I'm twenty-eight years old; I hardly wanted to say that Daddy had called and ordered me home."

Keith felt a jolt of relief, the depth of which disturbed him. But he managed to say lightly, "Understandable. But there was more, wasn't there? Another reason. You didn't want me to think you might be available?"

"That was part of it," she answered frankly. "So many men seem to think every single woman is looking for involvement. Sometimes it's very annoying. But for some reason, I wanted you to know the truth. It is my relationship with my father we've been talking about."

"I see."

"You aren't offended?"

"No, of course not."

"Good," she said with a sigh.

Keith knew an impulse to ask her name or offer his, but ignored it. If he could keep the peculiar relationship between them like this, dawn meetings on a dark balcony, then perhaps he could limit the danger to him—and to her. If he could control at least the depth of this...

"In a way," she said reflectively, "you remind me of my father."

"God forbid," Keith said before he could stop himself.

There was a startled silence on the other side of the screen, and then she said, "I meant the tone of your voice sometimes. And your perception."

"Your father is perceptive?" Keith swore inwardly, telling himself grimly to keep his distance, to remain detached and impersonal.

"About everyone except me. Do you think that's common between fathers and daughters?"

Unbidden, thoughts of his own father and his sister darted through his mind, so painful they might have been knives. "I don't know," he said finally. "My sister... always said Dad was her best friend."

"I'm sorry."

Her voice was soft, and so expressive that Keith had to swallow hard before he could speak. "For what?"

"Reminding you of something painful. Sometimes I think people should carry maps with the sore places in their lives marked out in red ink."

"Here there be dragons," Keith said.

"Yes. And then we'd all know to keep out."

Unless you're invited. He didn't say it. He couldn't say it, even though he was finding it impossible to remain impersonal and detached. Her voice pulled at him. He opened his eyes and stared at the graying horizon, resisting; if she pulled him too far back from the edge, he'd never be able to do what he had to do.

If she got too close...

"I've decided to take up painting," she said lightly, having obviously judged the worth of his silence and realized she'd been warned off. "I was pretty good at it in school. Maybe it won't come to anything, but I want to try."

"That's the important thing," he murmured. "To try."

The conversation went on in the same vein for a few more minutes, casual but cautious, and by the time the sun rose she had gone back inside. The interlude, as strangely painful as it had become, nonetheless left Keith feeling more grounded, more securely connected to his own reason. Somehow, she was able to do that for him. He didn't know how, but he knew it was something he couldn't afford to give up.

Every morning, they met and talked during the quiet transition of dawn. For the most part, they were relaxed, but at odd moments something else crept between them and caused one or the other to back off warily, to pause and change the subject. Still, the conversations wove a curious web of intimacy between them that deepened day by day.

For nearly a week, Keith found what he needed on the dark balcony. But as the days passed he discovered his thoughts were turning to her more and more often, even at night when all his concentration should have been focused on the role he played. He tried to block the thoughts out, but it grew more difficult with each passing day and night. Even the sure knowledge that she wanted no involvement didn't seem to make a difference. It did no good to tell himself that she seemed satisfied, that she had no desire for a closer relationship. There were no demands in this, no expectations between them; what they had was as transitory as the dawn itself—and yet just as constant.

He might have been able to be content with that, at least for a while longer. She had become his transition between the two lives he was leading, enabling him to keep his balance. He dared not risk losing her. But then one night, the demands of "Duncan's" role went on past dawn, culminating in a subtle game of verbal cat-and-mouse between him and Vincent Arturo that strained Keith to the breaking point.

By the time he returned to his hotel and showered, the sun was well up, and the safety-valve of the quiet morning conversations had been denied to him at a time when it was badly needed. He was days away from seeing an end to it, one way or another, and the tension inside him was so great he felt as if he might explode.

If he had made a different choice, if he'd gone directly to bed instead of stepping out onto his sunny balcony, perhaps everything would have ended differently.

But he did go out to the balcony, knowing she wouldn't be there, wondering if he might see her on the beach. He leaned against the wall and looked down, searching intently. Far up the beach, her red hair shining like a beacon, she was walking along the high-water mark back toward the hotel. It was likely there were other redheads in the hotel, possibly several who ran or walked on the beach in the morning, but he knew her.

Keith went back inside his suite and got dressed. He didn't think about what he was doing until he was crossing the lobby toward the beach, and by then the awareness could only slow his steps— not stop his need for her. He found the path that led to the beach and waited there beneath a curving palm.

Just a look, he told himself reassuringly. To see her face, her eyes. That was all. She'd walk right past him, a stranger, but knowing what she looked like would substitute for their missed conversation this morning.

He wondered, almost idly, if he had finally gone over the edge.

He hadn't expected the instant jolt of familiarity he experienced at the sight of her coming up the path toward him. And he hadn't expected her to stop, no more than a few feet away, her eyes locked with his and holding a shocked expression. He hadn't expected her to be so beautiful.

Beautiful. A pale word to describe her. Her bright hair was a silky mass of loose red curls falling below her shoulders, framing a face so exquisite it stopped his heart. There was no conventional prettiness in those delicate features, nothing of the girl next door, and none of the glamorous "perfection" of a high-fashion model. She possessed the kind of singular beauty that no one, man or woman, would ever question or debate, a rare combination of bone structure, coloring, and features that marked her as a woman who would be lovely all the days of her life.

Keith saw that, acknowledged it vaguely to himself. But it wasn't her overall beauty holding him spellbound, it was her eyes. They were a color he'd never seen before, a pale, almost iridescent green, their depth and clarity so great that they were literally hypnotic.

The sweet voice that had pulled at him combined now with those remarkable eyes. Yes, he understood why her father would consider her an asset. People would talk to her. People would tell her things they wouldn't mention to another soul. The realization went through Keith like a knife.

Abruptly, he turned away.

Erin stood perfectly still, her heart racing. When he turned away, she almost darted forward in protest, but his jerky movement stopped her. He stood with his back to her, his broad shoulders tense, as if he wanted badly to go on but couldn't somehow.

He might have been any age between thirty and forty; his thick, night-black hair was lightly frosted with silver but his lean face was unlined. He was not handsome, but any woman would choose to look at him rather than at beefcake photos in a magazine. Once seen, his face would never be forgotten. His features were strong, from his high cheekbones and aquiline nose to the stubborn jaw and slightly cleft chin. Violet eyes were hooded by heavy lids, enigmatic but curiously brilliant, and set beneath flying brows that lent his hard face a saturnine air at odds with the generous curve of his mouth.

She knew who he was, even though everything about him was unexpected. Erin was a tall woman, but he towered over her. She guessed he was at least three inches over six feet. And he had the imposing build to match his height. The jeans and casual knit shirt he wore did nothing to disguise commanding shoulders, a massive chest, hard, narrow waist and hips, and powerful thighs. His vitality and force were obvious, as was the fact that heredity and an active life had given him a natural strength few men could command no matter how many hours they worked out in gyms.

Time had seemed to stop. It could have been hours or seconds only, a minute perhaps before he turned slowly back around to face her.

If, at that moment, Erin had been asked to define the word dangerous, she would have pointed unhesitatingly at him. Not because he was so obviously powerful physically, but because she could feel the danger in him, like an aura that was almost visible. She had felt that only once before in her life, while gazing in fascination at an adult male lion through the bars of his cage; a beautiful creature, seemingly so lazy and unthreatening, but holding in his eyes the look of an unpredictable beast that could be caged but never tamed.

This lion wasn't caged, but despite her awareness of danger Erin felt no fear of him. And she wondered if he felt it, too, this strange bond between them, a thing of instinct and emotion rather than knowledge or understanding.

"Good morning," he said, his deep voice the way it had been that first morning, a bit guarded. "I'm Keith Donovan."

There was no need at all to add explanations, she thought. Names and faces might be strange, but they knew each other. "Erin Prentice," she said, her own voice a little husky.

He half nodded. "Will you have breakfast with me, Erin Prentice?"

Fearless of him or not, she should have at least hesitated, but it never crossed her mind to do so. "Yes, I will."

He smiled, the curve of his mouth softening his hard face into one that was surprisingly charming. "I hoped you would. The terrace restaurant here serves the best food. Shall we?" He didn't offer to take her hand or arm, but merely gestured slightly.

Suddenly conscious of her windblown hair, baggy sweatpants, and overlarge T-shirt, Erin said, "I should change—"

"You must know you're beautiful," he said.

She felt a faint shock, not because of what he said but of how he said it. He sounded matter of fact, if not indifferent. Taking little notice of her own appearance when she was alone, Erin had nonetheless been taught all her life to show her best face to the world, and since it had been drummed into her that her face and smile were her best—if not only—assets, this man's dispassionate acknowledgment of her looks was as rare as it was welcome.

She closed the distance between them slowly, at a loss to know how she could respond to his statement. He didn't appear to expect a response, however, and they walked across the lobby to the terrace restaurant in silence.

It wasn't until they were seated on the terrace, once more in the sunshine, that he spoke again. "Did I offend you? I didn't mean to."

Erin shook her head a bit helplessly. "How could you have offended me?"

His smile dawned again. "I might have been implying that you were vain and had to know how beautiful you are. I wasn't, though. It's just that I imagine you've been hearing compliments on your looks all your life."

She was granted a few moments to pull herself together after that curiously impassive statement, since the waiter came to pour coffee and take their orders. Grateful that he wasn't the kind of man who automatically ordered food for his companion, she gave the waiter her order and then watched Keith as he did the same.

When they were alone again, she said lightly, "It's only a matter of good genes."

"Yes, I know."

Erin felt a spurt of annoyance, and had to laugh at herself. To his questioning look, she said wryly, "I've always hated being taken at face value—but I seem to have gotten used to it."

"Feeling insulted because I agreed you had nothing to do with how you look?"

"Yes. Absurd, isn't it?"

His strangely vivid gaze rested on her face, but was still shuttered and impossible for her to read.

"No, not if you've been taught to believe how you look is the biggest part of who you are."

It occurred to Erin then that Keith Donovan would never tell her what he thought she wanted to hear. He would not make pretty speeches, pay charming compliments, or say anything he didn't honestly mean. She was accustomed to dealing with all kinds of people, but in the social and diplomatic circles in which she'd come of age, Keith's brand of candor was something she had never encountered.

She felt herself smiling. "I think that's been one of my problems. It doesn't seem to be one of yours. Are you impervious to attractive women, Keith?" She thought she saw something in his eyes flare when she said his name, but there was no other change of expression on his faintly smiling face.

"To call you attractive," he said in that dispassionate tone, which robbed his words of compliment, "is like calling the ocean wet; the word doesn't begin to describe the subject. Am I impervious to beauty? No. Even a marble statue would turn his head when you walked by. Would I have asked you to breakfast if you'd been ordinarily pretty or even plain—probably. I wanted to meet you. Believe that or not, it's up to you."

"You were attracted by my mind?" she murmured.

"Your voice," he replied calmly. "I don't know enough of your mind. Yet."

Erin looked at him wonderingly. "Ninety-nine men out of a hundred in my experience would have swallowed that bait without even bothering to chew on it."

Real amusement gleamed in his eyes. "I don't doubt that's just what you have experienced."

"What makes you different?"

He seemed to hesitate, then spoke slowly, the amusement gone, his eyes dimmed. "My sister was beautiful, like you. Different coloring, but.. heads turned when she walked by. People stared at her in absolute astonishment. I know what she went through. I know what you've gone through, Erin."

Erin could see the sign warning her of dragons, but the pain she sensed made her ask, "Is your sister—?"

"Killed. In a car... accident. Over a year ago."

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Keith."

A quick smile, the automatic acknowledgment of sympathy, was his only response as he leaned back to allow the waiter to serve him. Erin wondered if he would say anything more about his sister, but when the waiter had gone he reverted to the discussion about beauty.

"Most people firmly believe that extreme beauty is a blessing, that it opens doors without effort. It isn't true, of course, but even that isn't the worst of it. We've all been conditioned to judge by appearance. We wrap presents in shiny paper and package cereals in colorful boxes, and stick nice, neat labels on everything we possibly can. Your label reads 'beautiful.' So ninety-nine men out of a hundred will never see past that label even while they assure you it's your mind they were attracted to in the first place."

"And the hundredth man?" Erin asked softly.

Keith dropped his gaze to his plate for an instant, and when he looked at her again there was something almost grim in his expression. "The hundredth man heard a sweet voice on a dark balcony," he said, his own voice one she'd never heard from him before.

Erin wasn't a blushing woman, she'd been flattered by too many men and stared at by too many strangers to be easily disturbed or embarrassed. But she felt heat rise in her face now, and it was strangely difficult to catch, her breath. The sudden change from dispassionate to grindingly intense emotion had thrown her off balance, but it was more than that, and even though she knew it she couldn't define what it was.

One somewhat grim statement, delivered in a voice that had been harsh around the edges, and she felt... What did she feel? Confused, she bent her head over her own plate and began eating her breakfast, though she had no idea at all of what it was she was eating.

What is this? The question was loud in her mind, bewildered and not quite, but almost afraid. In the first moments of meeting him, her mind had been so active she hadn't allowed herself to realize that a mental response wasn't the only thing she felt toward him. But now she could feel that deeper, more primitive response in every throbbing nerve of her body, and she was at a loss to account for it.

She had never admired very big men, feeling overpowered by them; she had preferred fair men to dark as far back as she could recall; and this man's hawklike face, though certainly compelling, was not handsome and was even—without the surprisingly charming smile—rather harsh. In addition to all that, she was still in the process of adjusting her responses to a man who said he was—and certainly appeared to be—indifferent to the way she looked. As welcome as that might be, it was something she had never encountered before and had found a bit unnerving.

And he hadn't said anything to do this to her.

Had he? If any other man had said that about a sweet voice on a dark balcony, she thought she would have laughed. But when he said it, she felt as if some barrier inside herself had melted instantly in the face of an explosion of heat. What was wrong with her?

"I didn't plan on this," Keith said roughly, almost angrily. "I thought it would be enough, just to talk to you. But it isn't, Erin. It isn't enough. What have you done to me?"

"I—I didn't do anything."

"Yes, you did. You haunted me until I couldn't think of anything else, until—" He broke off abruptly.

She waited, head bent, conscious of the most amazing sensations inside herself. She felt hot and cold, tense yet strangely weak, her heart thudding wildly. The desire in his stormy voice was as clear as if it were etched in stone or blazing in neon, and she wondered dazedly how he could be making love to her without either touching her or uttering a single caressing word.

The strange, angry urgency in his voice made her think of some half-savage creature who knew he needed and yet struggled fiercely not to give in.

"Erin?"

She looked up shyly, meeting his steady gaze.

"I'm sorry." His voice was even, the harsh edges smoothed away, and his face was completely expressionless. "I had no right to push."

"Was that what you did?"

"We both know it. You've made it plain you aren't looking for involvement. I have to respect your decision."

Erin realized she should accept what he said. She should nod and change the subject so that this breakfast would be, like the dawn discussions, just an undemanding interlude. But somehow, without her volition, she heard herself ask, "Are you looking for involvement?"

"I wasn't." He hesitated, then added in a hard tone, "I shouldn't have come down this morning. It would have been better if things had gone on the way they were."

She felt an odd pang, but kept her voice quiet. "Why would it have been better? Nameless... faceless..."

"You can't deny you wanted it that way."

"No, I can't. At first, that was what I wanted. But not now. Not for days." Her voice became a little unsteady as his expression became remote. "I'm sorry if you don't like hearing that, but it's the truth."

"Erin—"

She managed a wry laugh, dropping her gaze to her half-empty plate. "Well, that ought to teach me a lesson. I should thank you, and I do. For the first time in my life, what I look like doesn't seem to matter—and there's obviously nothing else about me to matter. A very valuable lesson."

"Erin, stop it." He reached across the table suddenly, his powerful hand covering her slim one and grasping it strongly. "It has nothing to do with you."

"Doesn't it?" She looked up at him, a tiny frown between her brows. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

Keith knew, and he knew it was his fault. Her beauty had been her shield, and since no one had apparently tried to get past that barrier, her emotions had remained largely untouched. Whether courted or rejected, she had been able to tell herself it was because of that, because of the way she looked. Then he had said her beauty was a fortunate combination of genes and nothing more, and with the shield gone his seeming rejection had touched her rawest vulnerability.

He hadn't meant to blow hot and then cold, to make his desire so obvious to her that she had, surprisingly and shyly, responded before he could withdraw without hurting her. He had hurt her, and he knew it. What he didn't know was where it would end if he didn't back off right now.

"There's nothing wrong with you," he told her, his voice steady.

She was still frowning. "There must be. I feel so strange." Abruptly, she pulled her hand free and leaned back, her face settling into a polite mask. "I'm sorry. I must have forgotten how to flirt. I was taking it all too seriously, wasn't I? Never mind. It's funny, though; I've danced with princes and never lost my head when even Dad thought I might."

"Erin, the timing's lousy, that's all. It has nothing to do with you."

She smiled. "Stop frowning, Keith. I obviously misunderstood, and there's no harm done. Shouldn't you be getting some rest?"

Keith signaled the waiter and signed the check, but when they rose he took her hand firmly in his. She didn't protest or say anything at all until he led her through the lobby and back toward the beach.

"Where are we going?"

"We have to talk."

An uncertain laugh escaped her. "The men in my life always want to talk."

He led her partway down the path, then angled off away from the cabanas and the increasing activity on the beach. In this area, the hotel provided a small gardenlike area with a neat lawn, well-tended palms and shrubs, and cozy little benches scattered invitingly in the shade. No one else was taking advantage of the invitation—not that Keith would have given a damn.

Stopping near one of the benches, he turned to face her, releasing her hand because he didn't trust himself to go on touching her. It had hit him with brutal force as he looked at her across the table, a wave of desire so powerful that he had only barely been able to control it. Until then, he had been fine, he thought, completely able to think of the shared breakfast as just another interlude. Her eyes and voice had tugged at him, but he had managed to hold himself steady.

He was a long way from steady now, and he knew it.

"Keith, there's no need to talk about this," Erin said in a firm voice. "It isn't important—"

"The hell it isn't. You did misunderstand, and I don't know how to convince you without making bad worse." He hesitated, then said flatly, "Dammit, Erin, I want you. Do you understand that? I want you."

She stared up at him, faint color blooming and then fading in her cheeks, confused and beginning to be angry about it. "No, I don't understand! Is this pity? Are you trying to be kind to a stupid woman who threw herself at you?" It occurred to her, vaguely, that she and Keith were still reacting to each other as if they weren't strangers, but her own emotions were so chaotic that she hardly paid attention to the uniqueness of the entire situation.

"You didn't throw yourself at me." He was trying very hard to keep his voice calm. "I'm the one who crossed the line, and I shouldn't have. Erin, you don't know me, but I sure as hell do. I'm no prize even in a good mood, and I'm a bad-tempered bastard most of the time. I'd hurt you without meaning to, and I'm not going to let that happen."

"Oh, excuse me, I didn't realize you were being noble," Erin snapped, too angry to wonder where it was all coming from.

He gritted his teeth visibly, his striking eyes more brilliant than ever under heavy lids. "Nobility might fit those princes you danced with, but don't throw it at me."

"It certainly doesn't fit you," she shot back at him. "So why don't you stop trying to be something you aren't?"

"All I'm trying to do is keep you from making the worst mistake of your life! What do you want, Erin, a fling? You want to go up to one of our rooms and climb into bed with a man whose name you didn't know until an hour ago? Is that the way you mean to prove to your father that you aren't his little girl any more?"

She slapped him.

In the utter silence that followed, they stared at each other, both pale, the reddened imprint of her fingers marking his cheek. Her eyes were wide, almost blind, her breasts rising and falling rapidly beneath the thin cotton of her T-shirt. His face was stony, his mouth a grim slash.

Then an odd little sound escaped Erin, not nearly a laugh, and she said unsteadily, "It must be that, mustn't it? The reason. Because it doesn't make any sense. You are a stranger. And I can't feel like this about a stranger without some reason. So it must be that. It must be—"

Keith closed his eyes briefly, then reached out and pulled her roughly into his arms. "I'm sorry," he muttered in a rasping voice, holding her strongly against him.

She was stiff, but not struggling, her hands lying still on his chest. "No, if I hadn't been so stupid, you wouldn't have said it—And it was the truth, I shouldn't have hit you for telling the truth—"

"Shhhh." He turned her face up, one big hand surrounding it with surprising gentleness. "It wasn't the truth. Look at me, Erin."

Tumbling from one emotion to another since she had first seen him, Erin was by then almost numb. The arm holding her so close to him was hard but not painful, the hand on her face gentle, and his deep voice softer than she'd ever heard it. She wanted to cry, but obediently raised her eyes to meet his.

"It wasn't the truth," he repeated quietly. "If you don't know you could never be so reckless, well at least I do."

"Then why did you say it?" she whispered.

A nerve throbbed at one corner of his mouth. "Maybe I wanted it to be true. Maybe I hoped it would shock you enough that you'd realize how insane this is and tell me to go to hell."

She conjured a rueful smile. "I don't seem to have enough pride to tell you to go anywhere at all."





Three




The arm around her tightened, and his hand slipped down to enclose her throat. Fleetingly, Erin thought that he could break her neck quite easily. She might have been forgiven for wondering if he meant to because his face looked as stony as it had when she'd slapped him, almost cruel in its fixed expression of grim anger. But Erin didn't wonder. She met his glittering eyes with no fear in her own, and she reached out to touch his lean cheek.

"Don't be angry," she murmured. "I can't help it." For the first time in her life, she felt totally comfortable in revealing her own emotions, and if there was surprise in that, she didn't think about it, because everything seemed so natural with him. Talking to him, fighting with him, touching him—it all felt incredibly familiar. Her deepest instincts told her their tranquil dawn interludes had woven a link between her and this man, and a certainty beyond reason insisted the connection was terribly important to them both.

For an instant after her soft words, his face remained unyielding, but then something changed. It wasn't a lessening of intensity, but a shifting. Anger was replaced by another emotion that gleamed in his eyes.

"Dammit, Erin," he said roughly, his hand slipping to the nape of her neck, beneath her thick hair. He lowered his head and covered her parted lips with his own.

He had stated with utter certainty that she wasn't reckless enough to sleep with a stranger in order to prove a point to her father, but Erin knew she was reckless enough to follow blindly wherever this might lead. Or maybe it wasn't recklessness. Maybe it was conviction. All she knew for sure was that she had to be in his arms. She had to.

It wasn't a first kiss, a seeking, tentative thing; he kissed her with stark desire, the force in him that was vital and compelling, sweeping over her in a tidal wave of demand. She had believed she wanted no demands, no expectations, but everything in her rose explosively now to meet his passion.

Her arms slid around his lean waist as she pressed herself even closer, something in her delighting in the sensation of being small and enclosed in his powerful embrace. His body was so hard, and hers fit so well against him. Heat spread through her in pulsing bursts and all her senses seemed to come rawly alive as though nothing had ever touched them before.

If she had been granted a moment to think then, Erin might well have run from this, from him. She was, ordinarily, a woman of mild feelings, unaccustomed to violent highs and lows; if it had been otherwise, she could never have accepted her father's control over her life for so long. She had never understood turbulent emotions because she had never felt them, had never believed herself capable of such wildness, and the very thought of losing control emotionally was frightening to her.

But she was given no time to feel wariness or fear, no chance to turn away from this and run. The force of him overwhelmed everything except the instant, searing strength of her own response.

With her senses so vibrantly alive, she heard a faint little sound and felt it in her throat, a purr of pleasure that was alien and dimly shocking because she had never before made a sound like that. Her fingers were exploring the hard muscles of his back, and her breasts throbbed almost painfully against his massive chest as if all the veins had expanded and filled with hot blood. The thrust of his tongue was a small possession she welcomed eagerly, and her body moved unconsciously, seeking and inviting a much greater intimacy.

Keith hadn't meant for this to happen. With what little coherent thought left to him, he told himself that his own lack of control was due to his tension, the pressure he was under, and the long months of obsessive planning that had left no room for a personal life of any kind. He was a sensual man by nature, not accustomed to denying himself, and that was why... It was just physical desire, only lust.

Nothing else made sense.

But the same thread of reason to which he grimly clung insisted there was more to it than simple lust. Much more, even though he couldn't put a name to it. What his body demanded wasn't mere release—it was joining. He wanted, needed, to become a part of her, to merge the two of them together until there was no separateness, until they were bound immutably together. And he thought she wanted the same thing. She was so alive in his arms, so utterly responsive, and he wanted her with a reckless, heedless need almost impossible to fight.

Almost. But the thread of sanity held in his mind, and it was enough—barely—to give him the will to end that scorching kiss and set her away from him. He kept his hands on her hips, holding her away, trying to control his ragged breathing enough to say something, anything, that would stop them before it was too late... before he pulled them both over the edge.

She was staring at him, her eyes wide and dazed, her parted lips a little swollen from the fierce pressure of his. Pushed back away from him, she had grasped handfuls of his shirt as if unconsciously determined not to let go of him.

"No," he said finally, his voice little more than a hoarse rasp.

"Why?" she whispered, not even vaguely surprised that she was, quite definitely, throwing herself at him now. It didn't make any sense, none of it did, but she was caught up in something that was rushing forward and she couldn't stop it, couldn't stop herself. She couldn't even stop the naked words, "I want you too. You know that. You have to know it."

Keith managed to get his breathing under control, but his willpower was still hanging by a mere thread and she wasn't helping any. "Erin, you don't know what you want. You've cut one tie to a domineering man, don't be so quick to form another."

"Is that what you are? A domineering man?" She wondered why he was doing this, because that didn't make sense either. He wanted her, but was obviously determined that they wouldn't be lovers, and she didn't understand why.

"Bet on it."

"I don't think so." She shook her head as if it didn't really matter, but her beautiful face expressed puzzlement and hurt, a dawning realization. "You just don't want—complications. Is that it? You're afraid I'd cling." She seemed to notice her deathgrip on his shirt for the first time, and slowly released the material. "Maybe you're right. I don't seem to have any pride at all."

"Erin—"

In a very steady voice, she said, "Tell me you've got a wife and kids back in Topeka. Or that you're a convicted ax murderer or gunrunner or something. Tell me something, Keith. Tell me why."

He forced his hands to let go of her. In the most even voice he could manage, he said, "Erin, this is happening too fast, you know that. You aren't thinking clearly."

"But you are?"

"I have to. I don't want to hurt you, and I think that's what would happen. I wouldn't be good for you. I wouldn't be good for anyone right now."

"Would I be good for you?"

"I don't know."

"Is there a wife? Kids?"

Keith shook his head, angry at himself because he was unable to tell her the one thing that would probably make her run from him in horror. The truth. I came here to destroy two men. He couldn't tell her that. He couldn't stand here and see her face change if he told her that.

Erin crossed her arms beneath her breasts, almost hugging herself as she stared up at him. The rosy flush of desire had faded, leaving her pale. "You wouldn't be good for me. Why can't I simply accept what you say?" She chuckled, the uncertain sound of someone stranded in a boat that had lost its rudder.

He instinctively lifted a hand toward her, but she stepped back quickly.

"Damn you, don't be kind." Her voice was low and rapid. "I feel enough of a fool without that. I—I'm sorry. Sorry about the whole thing. Goodbye, Keith."

He took two steps after her before he could stop himself, then stood gazing across the little garden at nothing. He felt like the worst kind of bastard because of what he'd done to her. And to himself. No matter how many times he told himself it was better this way, that he would surely have hurt her even if the danger of the situation around him had never touched her, the emotional certainty he should have felt was absent.

It was against his very nature to avoid facing anything, no matter how disturbing or painful, and in pushing her away so forcefully he was trying to evade something that promised to be both. But what choice did he have? Even assuming that Erin could be content not knowing where he disappeared to every evening, that she wouldn't eventually expect the truth from him, what right did he have to become her lover when a single misstep could mean his death? It was his risk, not hers, and he couldn't make her a part of his life when any future at all was so uncertain, when even the present was dangerous and unpredictable.

Even setting that aside, the violent emotions trapped inside him—the grief and fury and bitterness—made his temper brittle, and the role he had to play left him so edgy he could hardly live with himself. All his emotional energy was bound up in maintaining his balance in that other life he was leading; there was very little left for a normal life. What would that do to her? How could he be a lover when so many of the emotions driving him were negative ones?

She was vulnerable, he knew. Hers was a gentle heart, and he'd never forgive himself if he did anything to damage her. He had felt her surprise at the intensity of her own response to him, and it told him more than she probably realized. For whatever inexplicable reason—and he didn't pretend to understand either her feelings or his own—his reckless desire triggered hers in a way she'd never felt before, and the sheer power of her desire had overwhelmed her.

He knew that was true, because it had happened to him too. The difference between them was that he knew all the odds against them—and she didn't.

After a while, realizing his weariness was making thoughts chase each other around in his head uselessly, Keith went back into the hotel and up to his room. He wasn't planning on going out tonight, but knew it was smarter to sleep when he could just in case.

Needing to sleep, however, was one thing; being able to was something else. It was past noon before he finally slipped into a restless, uneasy sleep, and when he woke around six he wondered if it had been worth the effort. A shower chased away most of the cobwebs and coffee scattered the rest, but he found it no easier to think now than he had that morning.

Even though common sense told him to, he knew for certain he couldn't leave things the way they were between him and Erin. Leaving it alone, just letting it end so abruptly, was impossible for him. He couldn't stand the thought of knowing he had hurt her. Yet she was too firmly in his head, distracting him until he could hardly think of anything but her; she had gotten too close.

Unfortunately for both of them, pushing her away physically had done nothing to change the situation. In fact, it was worse now, because there was a beautiful face and haunting eyes to go with the sweet voice, and all of her was so damned unforgettable.

He didn't go to the connecting doors, but out into the hallway to her door. He thought as he knocked quietly that she had every reason to tell him to go to hell, and no reason at all to want to see him again. But the door opened.

"May I talk to you?" he asked. She was wearing some kind of lounging outfit, pants and a loose, peasant-type top made of terrycloth, the same pale green as her eyes. With her creamy skin and bright hair she was a heartbreakingly gorgeous sight. For the first time, he wondered if her absence from his side was why there had been a constant ache in his chest since this morning. Quickly, he pushed the thought aside.

Erin hesitated, then stepped back to allow him to enter. He went into the sitting room, absently noticing a large sketchpad on the table near the balcony doors and remembering that she had decided to take up artwork. There was a charcoal drawing on the top page, but he didn't go near enough to see what it was. He turned to face Erin, and she spoke before he could.

"You didn't have to come here, you know." Her voice was soft, her face expressionless. "I've already decided to leave, so—"

"Don't," he said involuntarily.

She shook her head. "What was it you said about me, that I didn't know what I wanted? That seems to be your problem."

"I know what I want. I also know what I can't have."

Erin's chin lifted slightly and a spark of anger showed in her eyes. "Do you mind? I really don't want to hear that kind of statement again. I don't know what game you're playing, Keith, but you can count me out. I may have thrown my pride to the winds with you this morning, but I've stopped that now. I'm not a masochist."

Keith shoved his hands into his pockets, fighting the insane urge to reach out and yank her into his arms. "I'm sorry, Erin. I never meant to hurt you. And it wasn't—isn't—a game. You have to understand."

She didn't understand, and hours of grappling with her own emotions had left Erin in a precarious balance on the edge of control. She was baffled by him, by the contrast between his words and his actions. He kept saying no and yet he couldn't seem to stay away, couldn't close the door between them. She had the consolation of knowing that this was difficult for him, but it didn't help at all because she didn't understand why he was fighting so hard.

And complicating the whole thing was her confused certainty that he really was concerned about her, that he was convinced he would hurt her, and was determined not to. His sensitivity argued against his own words. If he cared so much about not hurting her, then how could he be capable of doing it? Erin had held her own with men who had made careers of being enigmatic, but Keith had her totally bewildered.

During the last hours, she had told herself he'd been right this morning; she didn't know what she wanted. He was the first man she had felt so—so overwhelmed by, and thinking clearly about him seemed beyond her. All her instincts told her there was a great deal of anger in him, that he was a dangerous man, and yet she didn't feel the least threat from or fear of him. What she felt, more than anything else, was a sense of certainty, of conviction.

She sighed. What good was her confidence when he struggled so hard against it? No good.

Erin squared her shoulders and met his intense gaze with all the coolness she could muster. "If you've said what you came here for, then please leave. I have to finish packing."

"I don't want you to go," he said.

She wasn't given to emotional gestures, but if there had been something heavy nearby, Erin would have thrown it at him. Instead, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts and counted silently to ten. Then, carefully, she said, "I want to go."

"Do you?"

"Stop it, Keith!" She looked around a little wildly, but there was nothing heavy close by.

An odd laugh escaped him. "I know—I'm not being consistent."

"Consistent? You're driving me crazy!" She controlled herself with an effort. "I don't want to do this. Do you understand? I don't want to feel like this. Maybe you enjoy stormy, bewildering relationships, but I don't." Even as her normally soft and gentle voice rose on the last words, Erin was completely unconscious of the transformation taking place inside her; she couldn't know that by tapping into the depths of her emotions, Keith had opened a door she hadn't realized was there.

Born into an elegant and ordered life, Erin had been insulated by her environment as much as by her looks. Molded first by the private schools whose job it was to turn out gracious and accomplished ladies, and then by the coolly dominant father who favored tranquil voices and graceful manners. Erin had never even suspected there was fire in her nature. She had never cared enough about anything or anyone to fight.

But here was Keith. He was so strong that his drive was like a visible aura, so complex that he confused her totally. Far from talking to her almost unconsciously and unguardedly as so many men did, he was blunt, abrupt, intense, and enigmatic. There was anger in him, and danger, and nothing in Erin's experience had taught her how to cope with such an explosive combination.

All she had left was instinct.

If there had been no fire in her own nature, being engulfed in his force could have burned her badly, leaving her, by this point, totally shattered and wanting only a dark corner in which to hide and lick her wounds. If she had been the completely gentle woman they both believed her to be, she could never have held her own with him. But by running hot and cold, Keith had blown on smoldering embers neither of them had recognized, and that fire was burning now.

"I will not play games with you," she said, almost spitting in her anger. "And I'm not about to stick around here while you make up your mind whether you have the inclination to get involved with me."

"I think you know what my inclination is," he murmured, eyes narrowed as he gazed at her.

Her eyes flashed at him. "There you go again! Saying yes in one breath and no in the next. Well, forget it, Keith. I value myself slightly above a doormat. I might have acted like one earlier today, but don't expect a repeat performance."

"You didn't act like a doormat," he said. "You acted like a very passionate woman. I should have paid closer attention."

Erin took three rapid steps away from him and then returned to glare at him. In a conversational tone, she said, "Why am I not calling the manager and having you hauled out of here?"

"Because you're three parts spitfire," Keith said, still gazing at her in fascination.

She made a sound that might have been mistaken for a snarl, and said between gritted teeth, "Go away. Leave."

Even more than before, Keith was torn. This new side of her, promising definite fireworks, was mesmerizing, and something his own vigorous nature was strongly attracted toward. If he had felt drawn to her before, it was nothing compared to the pull he felt now. Only the magnetism of her had changed—but none of the rest seemed so important now, while he was with her.

"Did you hear me?" she demanded.

"Loud and clear."

"Then why are you still here?"

He almost smiled at that aggrieved question. "Erin, would you like to have dinner with me?"

"No," she snapped.

"Would you like to go to bed with me?"

Her mouth opened and then closed, and she stared at him for at least half a minute before saying, "You are the most maddening man I have ever met in my life."

"Then you're forewarned." This time, he did smile. "I'm afraid I won't be good for you, but I can't seem to be reasonable about this. I have tried... You look surprised," he added, trying not to laugh.

"Then my face is kinder than my thoughts," she said in a wondering tone of voice. "I feel amazed. Staggered. Stunned. You actually believe I'd go to bed with you after all this?"

"I'm lower than scum for suggesting it, I know," he said.

Erin turned away abruptly and went to the open balcony doors. Her back was stiff, and she didn't turn around to face him. "I think I hate you," she said coldly.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised."

"Arrogant bastard."

"Undoubtedly."

"Any woman crazy enough to get involved with you deserves everything she gets."

"Uh-huh. Eight o'clock okay with you for dinner?"

"Aren't you working?"

"Not tonight."

"Oh."

"Is eight o'clock all right?" he repeated.

"Yes."

"I'll come back for you in an hour," Keith said matter-of-factly, and left before she could change her mind.

It was a good minute before Erin turned to stare at the empty room. "I'm out of my mind," she said in a judicious tone. "I am certifiably mad." Moving carefully, she sat down at the small table and stared at her opened sketchpad.

The sketch, done in a fury of confused emotion during the afternoon, was of Keith. Without conceit, Erin knew it was good. The stark black-and-white portrait showed a complex man whose compelling face was brooding and sensual. There were secrets in the hooded eyes and a devilish tilt to the eyebrows, and his mouth was curved in a dangerous smile.

"I should have drawn horns on you," she muttered, and firmly closed the sketchpad.

Erin had never felt so many diverse emotions all jumbled together inside her. Passion, hurt, fury, indignation, and a wholly unwilling and somewhat staggered amusement at the sheer nerve of the man. Since the morning, she'd ridden an emotional tidal wave, and had no idea where it was taking her.

It was unnerving to discover she was unwilling to save herself, and she was actually looking forward to the rest of the ride.

She thought about that while she was getting ready, unable to reach any conclusion except that she was obviously demented. The man was a devil, evidently amusing himself by yanking her around on the end of an emotional string, and she ought to have her head examined for letting him get away with it. On second thought, she didn't need her head examined; she knew she was crazy.

She was also crazy for choosing to wear a gold dress that shimmered faintly with every move she made. It was vaguely Grecian in design, leaving one shoulder bare and clinging closely to her body from breasts to hips before falling more loosely in a knee-length skirt. She knew the color suited her, and the style emphasized every curve. Delicate sandals showed off trim ankles and slender legs, and her loose hairstyle implied less control and dignity than was at all wise.

Dressed for battle, she thought somewhat grimly, and didn't like to consider what that might mean.

The flowers that arrived at a quarter to eight didn't do much to clarify her mood—they just disconcerted her even more. He'd sent roses. White roses. She hoped the choice had been automatic or that of the hotel florist; as well as she remembered, white roses symbolized eternity. No message on the card, just his name, bold enough to belong to any villain.

By the time she went to answer the knock on her door at eight, Erin was in a tenuous state best described as guarded. The man was a warlock, and she was bewitched—there was no other explanation for it.

When she opened the door, Keith took one look at the dress she had chosen to wear and said simply, "Gold is your color."

"Thank you. And thank you for the flowers."

His crooked smile dawned. "I would have brought them myself, but I figured you'd throw them in my face."

"Perceptive of you."

"She's still feeling hostile," he murmured, stepping back so she could come out into the hall.

"Do admit she has reason," Erin retorted, pulling her door shut behind her.

"I’ll admit it." He took her arm in a light grasp as they walked toward the elevator. "I'll even admit that I'll probably get worse before I get better."

Vaguely wishing he didn't look so devastating in a formal suit and tie, Erin said in a very polite tone, "Oh, are you planning to get better?".

He chuckled. "I'm hoping you can reform me."

Erin glanced up at him, very conscious of the intensity lurking beneath his composed surface. She was wary of this new mood of his, and painfully aware of how quickly and easily she'd caved in when he asked her to dinner. She hadn't even been able to pretend she had any pride left. Bewitched, that was it. The man had her bewitched and beguiled, and she wasn't even sure how he'd managed to do it. She didn't respond to his comment, remaining silent as they took the elevator down and walked across the lobby to the most elegant restaurant the hotel boasted.

She could feel the stares as they were conducted to their table, and while that was a familiar sensation, what she sensed in Keith was not. He was, she realized in surprise, focused on her totally. He was completely indifferent to the eyes on them, and there was nothing proprietary or arrogantly possessive in the way he held her arm. Having been regarded by many men as an ornament they displayed proudly in public, Erin had grown to hate entering any crowded room on a man's arm; they always seemed to feel that there was some kind of male triumph in being the escort of a woman other men watched.

She was accustomed to most men acting differently when they were with her in public. The most quiet and unassuming man tended to become more assertive, to sit taller and speak louder, while the ones with natural confidence surrounded her with an air of intimacy as though they were lovers.

But not Keith. He was exactly the same in public as in private, and as maddening as she found him she was very grateful for that evidence of consistency.

"You're smiling," he noted as the waiter left with their drink orders.

She looked him in the eye, and said calmly, "You have your secrets—I have mine."

"Which is as it should be," he said.

Erin decided not to pursue the subject.

"Have you canceled your plans to leave?" he asked, as if he hadn't expected her to reply to the statement.

"Not exactly."

"What does that mean—exactly?"

She sighed. "It means that I have airline reservations for tomorrow afternoon."

He gazed steadily at her, his expression unreadable. "I see. So tonight will determine whether you'll get on the plane."

It didn't sound like a question, but Erin knew it was. She managed a shrug, and hoped she didn't look defensive.

Keith didn't say anything until their waiter had delivered the drinks and left, and when he did speak his voice was very quiet. "I know you're angry, and I can't blame you. I can't even explain why I've been so... contradictory."

"Try," she requested evenly.

He shook his head a little, more, it seemed, at himself than at her. "Erin, my life is very complicated right now. I'm under a lot of pressure, and it's having a negative effect on me. On my emotions, my temper."

"Pressure? From what?" As curious about the careful way he was telling her this as she was about what he was saying, Erin listened intently as she tried to pick up subtle nuances in his deep voice.

"From my work. Work I don't want to talk about. I know it isn't fair to you, and I'm sorry, but that's the way it has to be. I'm not a criminal. I'm not doing anything illegal. In another week, two at most, my work here will be finished."

"And then?"

That, Keith thought, was a loaded question. To see the end of what had obsessed him for nearly a year... what would it do to him? How would it change him? Could he ever go back to being the man he had been before all this began? He didn't know. And all he could do was to answer Erin's question in the simplest way possible.

"Then the pressure will be gone. I have a home in New York, a business. A normal life."

Erin gazed at him, trying to understand. "What you're doing here isn't a part of your normal life?"

"No, this is something else. Something I have to do."

"A man of mystery," she murmured.

"Hardly. The point is, I won't be a very good... companion until my work's finished. I know that I should escort you to the plane tomorrow, let you go. Later, when I'm through here, I could follow you."

"But?" Erin prompted when he fell silent and looked at her broodingly.

"But... no matter how many times I tell myself to do that, I can't seem to listen to reason. This is the worst possible time to begin any kind of relationship, but I don't want you to go. I'm selfish, Erin. I want you with me. On my terms."

The waiter came to take their orders then, allowing Erin a few moments to gather her thoughts. She ordered automatically, hardly paying attention to her choices, her mind in turmoil.

His terms? She thought she knew what those would be. No commitment, no demands—and no questions. Any woman would be a fool to accept that, she knew. Where he went and what he did at night would be none of her business, that half of his life closed to her. Even if it were only a week or two, she had heard the strain and edginess in his voice during their dawn conversations, had sensed the smoldering anger in him, and even though she wasn't afraid of him, how could she cope with emotions like that when she had no understanding of the source?

He wasn't a criminal, he'd said, and what he was doing was not illegal. But he wouldn't talk about it, except to say the pressure was having a negative effect on him. It wasn't a part of his "normal" life, it was something he had to do. Alone. Something that was, she was very much afraid, tearing him up inside. And he wouldn't share that with her, wouldn't explain what was going on.

And what was he asking of her, really? Did he want no more than a brief affair, an outlet for the physical tensions left by these unnamed pressures? Did he want her only because of the explosive passion they'd both felt? Had it really been her voice on a dark balcony that had drawn him, or had he merely needed a woman and sensed her vulnerability?

The questions were hateful ones, and she hated them.

"Erin?"

She looked up, realizing that the waiter had departed and that Keith was gazing at her with his enigmatic eyes, his face revealing nothing of his thoughts. He wouldn't give an inch, she mused vaguely, not an inch. He wouldn't offer bedroom lies or empty promises. He was hard, paradoxical, uncompromising, secretive, angry— and altogether dangerous.

If she had a grain of sense, Erin realized, she would walk away from him and never look back. Instead, she heard herself say evenly, "Your terms. Which are?"

"Which are brutally unfair." His voice was still quiet and matter of fact. "My work comes first, Erin. It has to. And you aren't involved in it. No questions. And no ties. I don't want a love affair. I don't want a relationship. I just want you. For as long as it lasts—and I don't know how long that will be. I can promise not to be cruel, but I can't promise to be kind. I can't say I won't hurt you, because I probably will."

Erin drew a deep breath, her eyes locked with his. "You are a bastard, aren't you?"





Four




"Sometimes." There was no apology in his deep voice. "Often, these days."

Erin took a swallow of her drink and wished she'd ordered something stronger. "You expect me to accept all this? Meekly agree to have a— what? A fling? Sleep with you because all you want from me is sex? Why should I agree to that, Keith?"

Very softly he said, "Because you want me too."

She didn't say another word. The lifelong training that had taught her to show her best face in public always and to keep her private emotions to herself served her well now. She wanted to hit Keith with something, to storm at him and rant and walk out. But the low hum of conversation all around them in the restaurant steadied her, and her social mask held. Just.

She wondered if he knew he should lay out his "terms" in a public place where she was unable to react as she wanted to. If so, that was as unfair as all the rest, because not being able to vent her emotions meant that her first negative impulses had to be fought and reined, and that gave her far too much time to become aware of other much deeper feelings.

When their food came, she ate as automatically as she'd ordered, and couldn't have said later what she had eaten. He was as silent as she, but she could feel his eyes on her almost continually, and she wondered what he was thinking.

That was the most difficult part of this entire situation, not knowing what was driving him. She could feel his emotions sometimes, so intense they were almost shocking, but his thoughts were a puzzle to her. She believed what he had told her was honest—but not the whole truth. This mysterious "work" of his was the most important thing in his life right now, and whatever it was, he had no intention of telling her anything at all about it. His terms made it clear. He could—and certainly wanted to—share his bed with her, but everything else was off limits. No promises at all.

It should have been easy to say no, Erin thought miserably, confronted by her own confusion and uncertainty. Few women would have hesitated when presented with such unjust conditions, not if they valued their self-respect. And she did. But it wasn't easy at all to allow the hurt and indignation to voice a flat refusal.

For the first time in her life, Erin began to understand how some people could be carried so far from reason, from logic and sense, when emotions drove them. Because that was it. No matter what her mind told her, her emotions tugged her wildly in the opposite direction. Even knowing that she had precious little chance of emerging from this unscathed, she wanted whatever she could get from Keith, and the realization was as terrifying as it was humiliating.

And it made her angry. Angry at him and angry at herself. What was wrong with her? Why couldn't she treat his proposition with the contempt it deserved?

Because it hurts him too.

Erin examined this sudden, new idea, and realized it was more than just a wistful hope. All this time, she'd been listening to more than his words; that was why his anger hadn't frightened her, and why she'd been so confused by what he was telling her. Despite his curt recitation of terms, Keith was deeply disturbed by his own feelings for her, and hated making the proposition both because he knew the unfairness of it and because it wasn't what he wanted.

But he wanted her. The desire that had exploded between them had overwhelmed him just as much as it had her.

She had heard that in his voice, heard it in the subtle shades and nuances she had learned to listen to in her father's world. All her instincts told her that although he was clearly obsessed with this work of his, he was also obsessed with her.

Erin didn't know what that would lead to. Perhaps nothing. Even if she agreed to his proposition... especially if she did. Perhaps all he needed was to let the passion run its course, to get her out of his system in the most basic and simple way possible—by taking her to his bed. But would that be the result if they became lovers? Could he allow her to know him in the most intimate of ways without also exposing other parts of himself to her—even if he didn't want to?

And what about her? Could she risk so much, gamble her self-respect, possibly even her future, on the chance there was more between them than passion?

What did she want? Only an affair, a chance to explore desire she had never felt before? Or had this tenuous bond she sensed between them tied her to him in ways she hadn't begun to understand? That connection she thought, had been forged in the dawn hush of nameless, faceless conversations, when a much more gentle Keith had spoken quietly and perceptively. No masks were needed in the darkness. The man he really was revealed himself only in those talks at dawn.

But that door had begun closing the moment they saw each other in the brightness of day, shutting firmly by the end of their breakfast together, and Keith clearly had no intention of opening it again. Could she? Could she find the source of his pain and anger even if he didn't want her to?

Totally wrapped up in her though