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Year:
2015
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9780804181099
Series:
Hagen 10; Loveswept 312
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It Takes a Thief is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

2015 Loveswept eBook Edition

Copyright © 1989 by Kay Hooper

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

LOVESWEPT is a registered trademark and the LOVESWEPT colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

eBook ISBN 9780804181099

Cover design: Caroline Teagle

Cover photograph: © CURAphotography/Shutterstock

Originally published in paperback in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in 1989.

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Contents




Cover

Title Page

Copyright



Prologue



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10



Epilogue



By Kay Hooper

About the Author

The Editor’s Corner





Prologue


He was a rotund little man, an unashamed paunch straining the seams of his tailored vest. Shiny wing-tipped shoes were on his small feet. He had a great leonine head with a cherub’s face, small brightly twinkling eyes, and pouty lips. He was very much a caricature of a strutting bantam rooster pleased with his own importance; few of the people he casually encountered would see more than a vain little man.

There were those who knew better. A small number, certainly. They had learned their lesson, and knew that the man who called himself Hagen was as harmless as a battleship, as innocent as a shark in bloody waters, as foolish and inconsequential as an atomic bomb. They knew, in fact, that he possessed a Machiavellian mind of frightening ruthlessness, an absolute vision of justice, and an inability to give up even when the cause seemed lost.

And he was a rotten loser.

On this clear summer afternoon he was harshly;  reprimanding one of his newest men. “You were unforgivably clumsy. You set off an alarm that roused the entire building. Your orders were to verify that Josh Long had not returned to his apartment—and that was all! You were not told to attempt entry of the apartment.”

Brady Seton had been a marine; he had grown up in one of the roughest sections of Chicago; and no one had ever called him a timid man. But now, standing stiffly before his boss’s desk, he felt decidedly shaky. He had loused up badly, and he knew it; his first, relatively simple, assignment as an operative in the agency Hagen ran looked as though it would be his last.

“Excuses?” Hagen inquired sharply.

Seton knew what excuses were worth. “No, sir.”

“Then draw your pay.”

Seton left.

In general, Hagen was rarely hard on the people under his control. Manipulative, yes, but not unfair. However, he was in a bad mood, and had been for some time now. His plans were in disarray, he had just been passed over for the position of director of the FBI, and his small agency had suffered a number of losses in manpower over the past two years. In fact, he had lost his two best agents, and those people he had occasionally borrowed from other agencies had suddenly become unavailable to him.

And, worst of all, Hagen’s greatest plan seemed to be in ruins about his ears. His idea—brilliant, he had thought—had been to fake a kidnapping of Josh Long, an exceedingly wealthy and powerful man, for the express purpose of sending Long’s impressive security force, his very talented wife (one of Hagen’s former agents), and his friends after the man Hagen had intended to implicate in the kidnapping—an international terrorist known simply as Adrian.

Adrian, once leader of the terrorist group called the Final Legion, was the single criminal Hagen had gone after but not succeeded in capturing. The failure was a raw wound to his vanity.

His plan would have worked, Hagen knew. Raven Long had been one of Hagen’s best agents, and the people surrounding her and her husband were a highly talented group perfectly capable of tracking down Adrian and capturing him. It would have worked. But Hagen had been forced to be extremely careful, because all those people had strongly developed survival instincts. And he had been forced to employ agents who were not the best.

Josh Long, born and bred in a world where his great wealth and power made him a constant target, had very good instincts indeed. Somehow, he had realized another attempt was about to be made. He and the key men on his team had vanished weeks ago, leaving no trail, and leaving Hagen hamstrung.

And things had gone from bad to worse. Seton, a new agent, had botched his job, and Hagen had to assume the idiot had left fingerprints. Raven would waste no time in having those checked out. And she could. Long Enterprises had the best nonofficial information network Hagen had ever seen. She would get Seton’s name within hours. Hagen’s only comfort was that Seton’s name had not been linked in any way with his own.

Small comfort.

He was left waiting for something to happen, and Hagen hated waiting. He was also uneasily aware that, for the first time in his checkered career, he might well have underestimated his prey. He had not hesitated to make use of the talents of Josh Long and members of his group in the past. Of course not a single member of that inner circle had ever been his target. And, though he had often misled one or the other of them, they had clearly understood his motives.

This time, he doubted they would.

Hagen had always been the dog, never the fox. He had never even considered the feelings of that hunted creature.

Now, he did.





Chapter 1


Jennifer Chantry wandered casually down the hallway, smiling at the occasional person she encountered without seeing anything but a jumble of facial features. She had spotted at least half a dozen plainclothes security men, and her heart was pounding frantically beneath her calm facade. How on earth was she going to get herself out of this mess? The bracelet was cutting into her palm as her fingers held it tightly. She should have gone to the cloakroom instantly and put it into her small clutch purse, but that would be the first place one would search.

She saw one of the security men at the end of the hall, and felt hunted. It was a strange, unsettling feeling. There was a set of double doors to her left, and she opened one of them and slipped into the room, hoping desperately that the action didn’t reflect her wild desire to run.

The room was a study, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a big mahogany desk, a few chairs, and reading lamps. To Jennifer, the room was achingly familiar. It made her throat hurt, and she blinked back sudden tears.

A lamp burned softly at the desk, Jennifer noted before realizing that the room was also occupied by a total stranger. Quickly, she murmured a vague apology and turned toward the door, but then went still.

The door handle was turning slowly, stealthily, and her heart lodged in her throat. Someone had seen her. And Garrett Kelly would just love to call the police, and they’d put handcuffs on her, and—

She heard no footsteps, but the big man who had been standing behind the desk crossed the room quickly and, reaching her, unhesitatingly pulled her into his arms.

“Sorry about this,” he whispered cheerfully, just before his lips captured hers.

Too astonished to struggle in the first instant, Jennifer was only dimly aware of the door opening, and then softly closing again. She felt the fine material of his cream-colored tuxedo beneath her fingers, felt powerful arms and a hard chest, and long legs pressed to her own. And she felt an instant, helpless response uncurl in the pit of her belly, spreading throughout her body in heated ripples.

“On the other hand,” he murmured when he at last raised his head, “I’m not sorry at all. Hello.”

Jennifer stared up at him dazedly and, even in bewilderment, felt her heart catch. Good heavens, the man was beautiful. Violet eyes lit from within, a strong, handsome face, a smile to make a woman forget her very name.

She cleared her throat in a small, bemused sound. “Hello.”

His eyes laughed down at her.

Jennifer made a determined effort. “Let go of me,” she ordered in a voice better suited to calling kittens.

“Do I have to?” he asked solemnly.

She thought about it, then hastily got a grip on herself. “Yes, of course. Let go of me!”

“Your wish is my command, ma’am,” he said, stepping back and raising her hand to his lips with a graceful half bow.

Jennifer hadn’t thought there was a man left alive who could say things like that and kiss a woman’s hand, but this man did it awfully well. And then he smoothly removed the bracelet from her nerveless fingers.

“Give that back,” she gasped, anger and panic warring inside her.

He was holding the bracelet up to take advantage of the faint light, looking at it through suddenly narrowed eyes. “What have we here?” he murmured.

“It’s mine!”

“Hush,” he warned absently. “You want to have the security people bursting in here?”

It was the last thing in the world Jennifer wanted, and she quickly lowered her voice to a whisper. “Give me the bracelet,” she insisted.

He looked down at her, his lips curving in that incredible smile. “It isn’t considered very polite to rob your host,” he told her gently.

Jennifer bit her lip. “I didn’t—I mean, it’s…Oh, you wouldn’t understand!”

“You’re undoubtedly wrong about that,” he murmured. “But since I’m on a tight schedule, I don’t have the time to insist. How were you planning to get the bracelet out of the house?”

She blinked up at him. “Umm. My purse.”

He was shaking his head. “First place they’ll look.”

“Well, I thought that, but—” Jennifer blinked again. “Please give me the bracelet!”

He eyed her ruby gown thoughtfully. “Are you wearing garters, by any chance?”

“Am I what?” she managed faintly.

“Garters. Those sexy little devices from bygone days used to hold up stockings? They came before some total moron invented pantyhose.”

Fascinated, she stared at him. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Why?”

“I love Southern women.” Abruptly, he went down on one knee and swept her clinging skirt up above her knees. “Great legs,” he told her.

She stared down at his dark head and felt carried along by an irresistible force beyond her power to stop. “Thank you,” she murmured.

“Hold the skirt up,” he instructed briskly.

Meekly, Jennifer held the skirt up. She could feel his warm fingers on her thigh, then the cooler metal of the bracelet. He was fastening the bracelet to her garter, she realized in astonishment.

He rose easily to his feet and stepped back, frowning slightly as he gazed at his handiwork. “Drop the skirt, and let’s see how that looks,” he instructed.

Jennifer obeyed.

He nodded in satisfaction. “Fine. No one should notice it under the skirt. Unless our host decides to search his guests, you should get it out all right.”

Wondering if she had tumbled through Alice’s mirror by accident, Jennifer stared at him. “You aren’t going to try to stop me? Or tell security about this?”

He crossed his arms over his broad chest, violet eyes laughing again. “Well, that might be a trifle awkward, you see.”

After a baffled moment, she looked past him, remembering where and how he’d been standing when she’d first seen him. “You were at the safe,” she said slowly. “Trying to open it.”

“Not at all. I’d just closed it. And since I don’t want anyone checking for missing valuables…Well, you understand.”

“You’re a thief,” she said wonderingly.

Lifting one flying brow, he said in a pained tone, “Now, that’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

“I’m not a thief!” Jennifer shook her head. “Oh, never mind. I’m leaving.”

If she had expected this very peculiar man to try and stop her, she was disappointed. But when he spoke just as she was about to open the door, his words caught her off guard.

“Mind telling me your name?”

“Yes, I do mind,” she snapped softly.

“That’s all right,” he told her, unperturbed. “I’ll find out what it is.”

She looked back at him, frowning. “Why? To report me later?”

“No. But I’ve got to hear the story of the bracelet.” Before she could respond, he added musingly, “Besides, I definitely fell in love with your legs.”

Jennifer escaped while she could, unnerved to hear the sound of soft, deep laughter behind her.

With no security guards in sight, she took a familiar route, making her way carefully and silently along deserted service corridors and small, unused rooms, until she left the house the way she’d come. The room was a small parlor, the furniture draped in dust sheets, and Jennifer went out through a window with a broken lock.

She was in the side garden, an area that had once been beautiful but was now overgrown, and she thought with a pang what a difference a few years could make. She slipped along the almost invisible path, holding her skirt up, all her senses straining for any sound. Carefully, she worked her way around the house and back to the front, skirting the parked cars and keeping her distance from the front entrance.

She paused at the top of the driveway, looking down the long lane that was flanked by tall oak trees dangling Spanish moss. Then she looked back at the house, biting her lip. Who was that man? Was he going to be trouble? He was there for some nefarious purpose of his own, certainly, and a large part of her cheered him on if it meant any loss to Garrett Kelly. At the same time, she hardly wanted the house looted of its treasures.

And she couldn’t help wondering if that strange man really meant to find her—either because he wanted to be told the story of the bracelet, or because he’d fallen in love with her legs. In either case, the potential for trouble was great.

Still holding her skirt up, Jennifer hurried along the very dark lane, and softly muttered, “Mother, you’ve really done it this time!”

—

Some ten minutes later, Dane Prescott rejoined his companion for the evening in the crowded ballroom downstairs. He neatly took her away from two slightly inebriated and adoring gentlemen, neither of whom felt able to fight for her.

“You’re better than a Doberman,” Raven Long told him admiringly, accepting his arm and beginning to stroll with him toward one of the many hallways the party had spilled into. “One look at you and troublesome men suddenly feel a daunting lack of muscles.”

He looked down at her in amusement. “Does that include your husband?”

“My husband isn’t troublesome,” she reminded him. “And I’ve never noticed a lack of muscles.”

“Neither have I,” Dane said with some feeling.

Two pairs of violet eyes met, and Raven laughed. “Did he make that strong an impression?”

“I’ll say. You’d expect a business tycoon to be old and crusty, or at the very least young and flabby. Josh looks like he works for a living, and then works out for fun. And I’d hate to get him mad.”

“Somebody else did that,” Raven pointed out. “And they got me mad too. I don’t like it when some faceless enemy tries to get at my husband. And that, in case you’ve forgotten, is why you and I are attending this party.” Her musical voice never changed expression as she asked lightly, “Find anything?”

Dane was leading her down a long, well-lighted hallway that served as a portrait gallery. He stopped at her question, looking at the painting nearest them for a moment, then glancing around to make certain they were alone.

“I was interrupted,” he told her, “but I did find something interesting. And not what I expected to find. I’ll tell you about that later.”

Raven frowned a little, but accepted his enigmatic words. “Who interrupted you?”

Leaning a shoulder against the wall beside the painting, Dane crossed his arms over his chest. “A lady with a stolen bracelet in one hand.”

“Somebody else planned to burgle the place tonight?”

“No. I don’t think that was it. I didn’t have much time to talk to her, but she didn’t strike me as a thief.”

Raven began to look amused. “You two hit it off, huh?”

“She looked scared. So I helped her hide the bracelet.”

“Should I ask where?”

“I wrapped it around one of her garters.”

After a blink, Raven said, “Oh. You certainly had an interesting interlude in the study.”

“Bear with me.” Dane smiled. “I think we’ve stumbled into a mystery here. Thing is, I don’t know if it’ll help us find what we’re after.”

“I’m listening.”

Dane brooded for a moment, then began speaking softly but rapidly. “First of all, I think the young lady crashed this party; I can’t be sure, but my instinct says yes. I noticed her earlier, and she was jumpy as hell. Second, the gown she was wearing, though it was beautiful and suited her well, was about ten years out of date, and had been recently altered. The garters she was wearing were made of very old lace, not elastic.”

Raven nodded slowly. “So she’s possibly from a family that was once very well off, but isn’t now.”

“That was my reading. And she moved the way Kyle does,” he said, referring to one of Raven’s close friends.

Beginning to look even more interested, Raven said, “That expensive private school look. Every inch the lady.”

“Right. Now, all this in itself doesn’t mean much—at least probably not to us. But there were a couple of other things. She knew there was a safe behind the desk, even though I’d put the painting back in place before she came in. I implied I was in the room with dishonest intentions; she immediately looked at the safe and suggested I’d been trying to open it. And I recognized her.”

“Who is she?”

“I don’t know her name yet, but she’s the living image of the woman in this portrait.” Dane nodded toward the painting they were standing in front of.

Raven turned her head to study the painting, her eyes widening a bit. It was the portrait of a young woman done just after the turn of the century. The woman’s gown was a soft rose color with a modest neckline and tightly cinched waist. She held a single pink rose in slender white hands, and wore no jewelry. Her hair was golden, her eyes a clear blue, and there was a look of mischief behind her half smile.

“She’s lovely.” Raven looked at the brass nameplate attached to the ornate frame, and read aloud, “Jennifer Louise Chantry.”

“I checked the other paintings a few minutes ago,” Dane told her. “The majority of these family portraits are Chantrys. Garrett Kelly, unless through a female line, doesn’t have an ancestor to boast of on these walls.”

“So why does he own the house?”

“That’s what I was wondering. Granted, a lot of these old Southern places have changed hands a number of times, but it doesn’t feel right to me.”

Raven was silent for a moment, then asked, “What’s your feeling about the girl in the study?”

“I think she was taking back something of hers.”

“Kelly’s a compulsive gambler,” Raven reminded him. “Maybe she lost it to him.”

“He won’t play cards with women,” Dane said flatly.

After a moment, Raven shook her head. “As you said, I don’t see that this helps us. At the same time, all we have to go on is that Kelly’s head of security tested our defenses at least once. We knew somebody was trying to get at Josh, and during that attempt a couple of weeks ago, he left a nice, clear thumbprint on the apartment’s electronic lock. Clumsy, to say the least.”

“I suppose there’s no question about the print’s being Brady Seton’s?”

“None. Zach triple-checked. No criminal record, but Seton was in the military, and his prints are on file. His last known, and present, employer is Garrett Kelly.”

“How about a little icing on the cake?” Dane said dryly.

“What?”

“In Kelly’s safe, I found, and removed, one half of a set of plates used to counterfeit one-hundred-dollar bills. And it wasn’t made by an amateur.”

Raven’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she murmured.

“I’ll say. Aside from his gambling, Kelly doesn’t have a smear anywhere on his name. Not even an unpaid parking ticket. So what’s he doing with a counterfeit plate? And where’s the other one?”

“And how, if at all, does it tie up with an attempt to get at Josh?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” Dane confessed. “But I have to admit I’m intrigued.”

A bit restlessly, she said, “Damn. I wish I didn’t have to fly back to New York first thing tomorrow.”

“The whole point of your being here tonight,” he reminded her, “was to find out if this lead was worth pursuing. I’d say it’s a definite yes. I’m in now; Kelly’s already invited me to one of his pseudosecret card games tomorrow night. We agreed from the beginning it’d be best to let me work this joker.”

“I know. But I really hate leaving you alone down here with no backup. If Kelly’s counterfeiting on any scale at all, then he’s into some pretty big stakes. It could turn out to be a real mess, Dane.”

He hesitated, then smiled. “Well, I won’t exactly be alone. Remember that friend of mine who helped us out down in Florida a few weeks ago?”

“The one we never saw?” she asked.

“That’s the man.”

“He’s here?”

“Close. And he…um, knows a bit about counterfeit plates and the like.”

“You know, I always suspected you wore more than one hat, pal.”

“Who, me?”

She didn’t push it. “Just tell me this friend of yours is a good backup, that’s all.”

“Rock solid.”

Raven sighed, then shrugged. “I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do at the moment. We’ve had two near-leaks since Josh and the guys vanished from the public eye. If anyone finds out the head of Long Enterprises has disappeared, then a number of stocks are going to go into tailspins. I have to get back and hold down the fort.”

“You could be a drawback here anyway,” Dane reminded her. “If Kelly is behind the attempt to get to Josh, and if he finds out who you are, our hand’s tipped for sure.”

She nodded reluctantly. “I know, I know. And you’re the best man for this job.”

“Thank you.” Dane was obviously moved.

“Unless,” she added gently, “you get distracted by stray blondes with stolen bracelets.”

“I’m a professional,” he protested in a wounded tone.

Raven’s violet eyes gleamed. “Yes, I know.” Then, as she began turning away, she added with amusement, “It’s just that I’ve always wondered what, exactly, your profession is.”

Dane whistled “Waltzing Matilda” under his breath and didn’t respond. Not that Raven expected a response of a different sort. If she’d learned anything in her years as a federal agent, it was not to ask too many questions.

It was often safer not to know.

—

“Jennifer!” The accent was still thick after nearly thirty years on this side of the Atlantic, but tended to pass almost unnoticed in Louisiana, where both French and Spanish influence had been felt so heavily. But anyone who spent more than ten minutes with Francesca Maria Modesta Lorenzo Chantry realized she was Italian to her bones.

She was a tall woman, still beautiful in her fifties, with coal black hair and flashing black eyes, a husky voice that could switch from madonna to shrew in an instant, and a voluptuous figure that never failed to turn heads. And she embodied every volatile trait attributed to her hot-blooded ancestors.

Jennifer had often wondered if her mother did that deliberately, but since her own cool blond surface concealed a number of volatile traits she could only have inherited from Francesca, she had eventually recognized the truth. The mercurial temperament was perfectly real; it was just that Francesca enjoyed a dramatic nature to boot.

“Jennifer, the bracelet?”

Moving into the tiny living room of their small house about two miles from the plantation, Jennifer collapsed into a somewhat shabby chair and hauled her skirt up. Unfastening the bracelet from her garter, she said sternly, “Mother, you’ve got to stop doing things like this!”

Ignoring the command, Francesca watched curiously. “Why did you put it there?”

“Because it was the only way I could think of to get it safely out of the house.” It was impossible to tell her mother the truth, Jennifer reflected.

Her mother laughed infectiously. “So smart, my baby! Oh, my bracelet, my bracelet!”

Jennifer handed it over, sighing. Useless to try to persuade her mother that what she had done was wrong—especially since it was perfectly understandable. Taking one’s own belongings back, Francesca would declare, was not stealing. And Jennifer knew her own arguments would lack force for the very reason that she was half Italian herself, and she understood.

Francesca clasped the diamond bracelet around her slim wrist and held it out admiringly. Then, in one of her lightning changes of mood, her sparkling eyes filled with tears. “Your father gave this to me as a betrothal present, my baby. He put it on me with his own hands. That horrible man has no right to it, no right at all! He must be punished, Jennifer!”

“I know, Mother.” She brooded about that, forgetting, for the moment, the events of tonight. “If we could just prove he cheated in that card game. I know he did, I know it. But none of the others saw him cheat. And Daddy signed over the plantation. What else could he do?”

“A duel,” Francesca declared. “My Rufus should have challenged him to a duel.” Then, obviously deciding she was being overly critical of her adored late husband, she added magnanimously, “But he was ill, my poor darling.”

He had been dying, in fact, though neither Jennifer nor her mother had known that four years ago. Losing his family’s plantation, Belle Retour, had been more than his overstrained heart could bear. He had died two months later.

And Garrett Kelly had taken possession of the house immediately after the funeral.

The small house Jennifer and her mother now occupied was, in a sense, a part of Belle Retour. Like most huge old estates, the plantation had suffered runs of bad luck in the past, requiring that parcels of land be sold off from time to time. This small house had been built twenty years before on a ten-acre parcel that had been sold to a cousin. When the cousin had died and willed the house and land back to Rufus Chantry, Jennifer’s father had deeded the place to her.

She had used it during her teen years as a studio, where she had worked on her dream of becoming a great artist. In the years between high school and college, Jennifer had faced reality. She was a good artist, but not a great one. Reluctantly giving up her dream, she settled for being a commercial artist.

Now she and her mother lived in the house, and Jennifer more or less supported them both with her work. Her father had been insured, though little of that money was left now. Jennifer and her mother lived comfortably. But neither had ever been reconciled to Kelly’s possession of Belle Retour, and neither had given up the determination to get their plantation back.

“I should not have taken the bracelet,” Francesca said suddenly.

Jennifer looked at her warily. Such statements from her mother rarely indicated a sense of guilt. “You shouldn’t have?” she inquired in a careful tone.

“No. I should have taken one of your father’s guns from the cabinet in the study,” Francesca decided. Her black eyes snapped. “Yes! Then I could shoot that bastard.”

Jennifer winced, but more because she remembered what had been going on in the study tonight than out of any real dismay at her mother’s words. Long experience with Francesca’s way of reasoning made her appeal to her mother’s maternal feelings rather than her good sense. “You’d be arrested for murder, and I’d be all alone. Do you really want that?”

“My baby!” Francesca sat on the arm of her daughter’s chair and hugged her tempestuously. “Of course, I would never abandon my baby—even to shoot that man in the heart. But we must get our Belle back, Jennifer. We must!”

“We will,” Jennifer assured her. “I’ve promised you that, Mother.”

“Vendetta.”

“Well, the American version, anyway.”

Francesca looked at her suspiciously. “You sound like your father, my baby. How can you wish for less than that despicable man’s blood? He killed your father and stole our home!”

Jennifer didn’t deny the accusations, even though she could have pointed out that no one had forced Rufus Chantry at gunpoint to play poker, much less to put up the deed of Belle Retour when he had lost practically everything else. She had loved her father, but gambling had been his weakness and she knew it too well.

“We’ll get even with Kelly, Mother. And we’ll get Belle away from him. I promise. Just please promise me that you won’t do anything yourself. I have to come up with a plan, and if you try to steal, I mean take anything else out of the house, it’ll just make it more complicated for me.”

Francesca looked doubtful. “If you say so, but I cannot wait much longer for revenge.”

Much later, as she lay in her small bedroom and stared at the dark ceiling, Jennifer accepted the fact that she was now on a deadline. Her mother’s patience these last years had indeed been remarkable, and due partly to the fact that she and her daughter had gone to Italy to spend months with her family after the death of Rufus. A return to her native land had reminded Francesca of just who and what she was.

She was Italian, and her family was known for at least one vendetta that had lasted half a century. So Francesca would be content to wait for her revenge—as long as she was sure she would get it.

Jennifer was half Italian, and though the years in expensive schools had added a ladylike polish to her cool blond looks, under the surface her mother’s blood ran strong in her. And without the calming influence of her father, who had been quite adept at handling the tempests of Latin temper and impulsiveness, Jennifer knew she was apt to be reckless.

But she wanted revenge, and no amount of sensible thought had changed that. She wanted her home back, she wanted to prove Garrett Kelly a thief and a cheat, and she wanted to keep her mother out of it if at all possible.

Which was why, of course, she had crashed the party at Belle Retour tonight in search of her wayward mother. And thank God she had found her before Kelly knew either of them was there.

Remembering that, Jennifer suddenly recalled the big stranger with the laughing violet eyes. A thief? What had he taken from the safe? Who was he? She remembered his kiss, and shivered suddenly, unsettled.

Just a stranger, of course, and she wasn’t likely to see him again. Still, she couldn’t help wondering what he had taken from the safe….





Chapter 2


In a large hotel on the outskirts of Lake Charles, Dane Prescott turned from the window of his sitting room and lifted a questioning brow at the man seated on the couch. “Well?”

“It’s a beauty all right.” The man was turning a counterfeit plate over in his hands. “Someone with real talent made this. And you took it out of Kelly’s safe?”

“Yeah. I’ve never heard a whisper of his name connected with counterfeiting operations; how about you, Skye?”

“No. But it wouldn’t be the first time a pristine reputation covered something dirty.” He looked up suddenly. “Or the opposite. You did say Raven had gone back to New York?”

“First thing this morning.” Dane smiled. “She knows you’re here backing me up, but she doesn’t know who you are.”

Skye shook his head. “We’ve been running this scam for too many years,” he said. “It can’t go on forever. I figure our time’s running out.”

“Probably,” Dane agreed. “We’ll have to see if we can pull it off one more time. This is a case that demands both of us work on it. I can get into Kelly’s house, I may even be able to look around a little, but if we’re going to tie Kelly to a counterfeiting operation, we’ll need more than the plate. If he’s printing money himself, where’s the press? How’s he passing the fake money?”

“His infamous poker games?” Skye suggested.

“Maybe. I may have that answered by tonight. We’ve got to nail it down, though.”

“Agreed.” Skye looked thoughtful. “By the way, I’ve got the answers to those questions you called in last night. Belle Retour is owned by Kelly, legally. It was officially listed as a transfer for ‘debts owed.’ For that, you can read poker losses.”

“He won the plantation?”

“Four years ago, from Rufus Chantry. The place had been in his family for two hundred years. Chantry was apparently a compulsive gambler, or at least close to it. He lost the plantation and everything else he owned in a single high-stakes poker game. Two months later, he died of a heart attack. He left behind a widow who wasn’t allowed to take anything but her clothes out of the house, and a daughter who was in college at the time.”

Dane was looking very intent. “A daughter?”

“Yeah. Your guess about the portrait was on target. Jennifer Louise Chantry is the great-granddaughter of the woman in the painting. She’s twenty-six, a commercial artist, and lives with her mother in a small house that was once a part of Belle Retour. Her father deeded it to her on her sixteenth birthday, apparently for a studio.”

After a moment, Dane said reflectively, “I don’t think I like Garrett Kelly very much.”

“He was certainly a dyed-in-the-wool bastard about the plantation. Mrs. Chantry, who’s very Italian, by the way, wasn’t even allowed to take her jewelry. Kelly maintained that every last rock was part of the ‘house and contents’ signed over to him by Chantry, and the law backed him up because the insurance inventory of jewelry listed everything as a part of the family property rather than Chantry’s personal belongings, assigned historical value.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t sue him on that one,” Dane commented, frowning.

“I bet she wanted to. Word has it she’s a combustible lady. She didn’t go to court over it, though, and I couldn’t find out whose idea that was.” Skye rubbed his nose, suddenly amused. “I managed to get a bit of gossip from some of the locals this morning. It seems most everyone in the area has been waiting, with bated breath, for Mrs. Chantry either to haul off and deck Kelly, or else to stab him when he isn’t looking.”

Dane lifted an eyebrow. “She’s that Italian, huh?”

“In spades. And people around these parts figure she’s waited as long as she can stand it to get even.” Skye grinned. “We’re sitting on a powder keg here.”

“Maybe. But I’m not willing to pull out. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m game.”

“Good.” Dane went over to the compact bar to fix two drinks, then carried them to the couch and sat down. Handing one to Skye, he said thoughtfully, “We have to find out about that security man of Kelly’s, Brady Seton, and if Kelly gave him orders to try and get to Josh Long. If so, why? What’s his game? We also have to find out what Kelly’s doing with a counterfeit plate, if he’s running a press somewhere, if he’s passing the money and how, and if he’s on his own.”

“Tall order,” Skye commented.

Dane nodded, but said, “The counterfeiting business first, I think. If we can get Kelly tied to that, it’ll give us a lever to find out what his interest is in Josh Long.”

“So what’s your plan?”

With a wry laugh, Dane replied, “To do what we do best, of course.”

—

Jennifer tried to concentrate on the advertising layout she was working on, but her mind wandered. She looked around the tiny extra bedroom that had become her studio without really seeing it. Vendetta. Her mother meant the word in its fullest sense: a blood feud, an all-out, hell-for-leather taking of revenge, no matter what the cost.

The problem was, a part of Jennifer wanted that as well. She tried to temper the desire, assuring herself that no blood need be spilled, that just getting the plantation back would be enough. But the few times she’d seen Garrett Kelly she had been unsettled by the powerful urge to leap at him and scratch his eyes out.

Her mother would have approved wholeheartedly.

Jennifer wanted to get even, but she didn’t know how. All her efforts to prove Kelly had cheated in the poker game had come to nothing. Her father had signed over the deed before reputable witnesses; the law was on Kelly’s side. And though Francesca periodically accused the man of being the worst kind of crook, Jennifer hadn’t been able to find evidence that he was anything but a model citizen with a taste for private gambling.

Vaguely, she was aware of the doorbell ringing. She just didn’t know—

“How dare you!”

She heard those words from her mother and leaped up, hurried out of her studio, down the hall and toward the front door. That particular tone in her mother’s voice was reserved for Garrett Kelly, and if that man had dared to come here, her mother was perfectly capable of killing him.

She stopped at the end of the hallway, knowing she couldn’t be seen by whoever was outside, while she could see clearly. Francesca had the front door blocked with her stiff body, every angle showing proud outrage. And Kelly’s angry voice was perfectly audible to Jennifer.

“You were both there last night, and don’t deny it! But I’m prepared to be generous. I won’t press charges against you, but I will have my property returned.”

“Your property?” Francesca’s voice rose to a magnificent soprano, steady as a rock. “You soulless cur, the bracelet is my property! Mine, do you hear? My dear husband gave it to me, and I will not see it in your hands!”

“Bracelet?” Kelly sounded surprised, but his voice quickly hardened again. “I don’t give a damn about any bracelet. I just want what you took from my safe.”

“Your safe? It is not your safe! It is my husband’s safe, my safe, and my daughter’s safe! It is our house! You stole it from us, you thieving son of a—”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Kelly exploded. “Where’s your daughter? Maybe she knows how to talk sense.”

Francesca drew herself up even more stiffly, and her voice dropped suddenly, even and deadly. “You will not touch my baby. You will not enter our house. If you come near us again, I will cut your heart out.”

After a long silence, Kelly said furiously, “This isn’t over. I’ll get my property back.”

“No,” Francesca told him gently. “We will get our property back.” She stepped back and slammed the door, locking it with an audible click.

“Mother?” Jennifer moved forward, shaken by the hatred—and the danger—she had heard in Kelly’s voice.

Her mother turned to her, perfectly calm, and held out a small ruby clutch purse. “You left this at the house last night.”

“I’d forgotten all about it.” Jennifer took the purse. “No wonder he knew we’d been there. I drove the car partway, so I took my license.”

“He’s a horrible worm,” Francesca said. But she sounded content, and Jennifer knew it was because her mother had definitely enjoyed the confrontation.

But Jennifer was worried. She hadn’t liked the sound of Kelly’s voice; he had sounded both enraged and, curiously, panicky. It was hardly a stable combination. Realizing suddenly, she said slowly, “What could have been taken from his safe? That other man…perhaps he…”

“What man?” her mother asked curiously.

“Someone at the party.” Jennifer’s voice was absent. “And he said something about not wanting anyone to search for missing valuables. But, what was it?”

“I took nothing that did not belong to me,” Francesca stated virtuously.

Jennifer nodded, again absently. “Yes. Mother, I need to make a few calls, then I may have to drive into town.”

“Fine, my baby. I shall read a book. And tonight, we will have a celebration because I drove that worm from our door.”

Almost wincing, Jennifer reflected that her mother’s celebrations tended to be hard on the stomach. Italian or not, Francesca couldn’t cook—but refused to stop trying. Still, culinary pursuits kept her mother happily occupied, and Jennifer was willing to put up with whatever was necessary to keep her happy.

Returning to her studio, Jennifer called a familiar number and smiled as a bright voice answered.

“Jennifer! I saw you at the party last night. It’s a good thing that Kelly person was busy with his poker game in the back parlor. What on earth were you doing there?”

“Guarding the family silver, Sharon,” Jennifer replied lightly.

“Oh, I’ve been doing that for you, sweetie. Why else would I go to that awful man’s parties?”

Sharon LaCoss had been Jennifer’s best friend all through school, and they were still close. Sharon also knew everyone in the area, and she was infamous for her ability not only to spot a stranger in her orbit, but also to find out exactly who the stranger was within hours.

“Sharon, I need your help.”

“Just ask,” her friend said instantly.

“There was a man at the party I’ve never seen before. Big, dark, very good looking, and he was wearing a cream-colored tux. I have to talk to him.”

“No problem,” Sharon said cheerfully. “I’d have had to be blind not to notice that one. He came in with a lovely brunette on his arm; didn’t spend too much time with her, though.”

Jennifer felt a pang she refused to acknowledge. “Do you know who he is?”

“Rick found out for me,” Sharon said, referring to her fiancé of two months. “The guy’s name is Dane Prescott, and he’s staying at a hotel here in Lake Charles. Seems one of Kelly’s poker buddies brought him along to the party and introduced him. He’s supposed to be some hotshot gambler from Florida, with a lot of bucks.”

“I see.”

Sharon’s voice wavered between curiosity and teasing. “If you’re worried about the brunette, I’d say there’s nothing there but friendship. They acted like buddies, not lovers. No romantic spark, you know?”

Jennifer bit back an instinctive denial of interest in Dane Prescott as a man, since the truth was a bit too complicated to go into at the moment. “We’ll see. Um…exactly where is he staying, Sharon?”

So Sharon told her. Exactly.

—

The knock on the door caused both men to go still. Skye looked at Dane, and asked softly, “Expecting anyone?”

“No,” Dane replied just as softly. “No one.”

Skye rose and moved soundlessly across the room toward the bedroom, carrying the counterfeit plate in one hand, and his drink in the other. “I’ll wait in there.”

“Right.” Dane slid his sketch of Kelly’s house off the coffee table and placed it in the top drawer of the desk, then went to the door and looked through the security peephole. He glanced back over his shoulder to make sure the bedroom door was closed, then opened this door and stepped back.

“Hello again, Miss Chantry.”

She came into the suite with a determined stride, and Dane could hardly help being amused as he closed the door behind her and followed her into the sitting room. Today, she was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved blouse, her golden hair swept up casually in a ponytail; she looked younger than last night, but just as lovely and considerably less frightened.

He had a vivid memory of the way that ruby gown had clung to her every curve, and his body remembered too well those curves pressed against him.

“What can I do for you?” he asked politely, leaning back against the bar with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Why were you at Belle Retour last night?” she demanded.

“There was a party. You may have noticed.”

Her blue eyes took on a glint of anger. “That isn’t what I meant, and you know it. What did you take from the safe?”

“Nothing of yours. Or your mother’s.”

She was silent for a moment, staring at him. How much did he know about her and her mother? A great deal, it seemed. Then, slowly, she said, “You took something of Kelly’s. Something important.”

Dane raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

“Because he thinks my mother and I have it. He came to our house a couple of hours ago, demanding we give it back. He threatened my mother. I don’t like it when someone threatens my mother.” She drew a deep breath. “I’d side with the devil if Kelly were storming hell, but I won’t have my mother hurt. So I want to know exactly what you stole from Kelly.”

“Damn,” Dane muttered, frowning. He hadn’t expected Kelly to blame the theft of the plate on anyone specific. Considering how crowded last night’s party had been, anyone could have gotten in and out of the study. But it made sense for him to suspect Jennifer and her mother; that safe hadn’t been changed in twenty years, so of course they’d know the combination.

“What did you take out of the safe?”

Dane ran a hand around the back of his neck and looked ruefully at her. “I can’t answer that, I’m afraid.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not in a good position here,” he said. “I certainly don’t want Kelly to find out I got into his safe. In fact, that’s the last thing I want him to know. So why should I blithely tell you what I took out of that safe?”

Jennifer saw his point, but she hadn’t come here prepared to take no for an answer. She gritted her teeth. “Word has it you came here to play poker with him. I can tell you right now he won’t welcome you if I tell him you were in his study last night, and that you had the safe open.”

“What would you gain by doing that?” Dane asked slowly.

“My mother’s safety. Kelly’s desperate to get back whatever it was you took. And I don’t much care who he’s after as long as it isn’t my mother or me.”

“Reasonable,” Dane agreed dryly. He studied her for a moment in silence. “The grapevine around here is pretty good. What else have you found out about me?”

“That you’re a gambler from Florida with a lot of money to lose. I already knew you were a thief.”

“Just like I knew you were a thief.”

Jennifer stiffened. “I am not! I just—”

“Appearances,” Dane murmured, “can be deceptive. Never assume, Miss Chantry. Or may I call you Jenny?”

She blinked at him, suddenly doubtful. Was he only a gambler and thief—or was he something more? She didn’t know, couldn’t be sure. “Nobody calls me Jenny,” she said at last.

“Then I’ll be the only one. Good.” Before she could respond, he went on calmly. “I’ve been listening to the grapevine too. And I heard that both you and your mother want Belle Retour back. Also, I understand that you would dearly love to get your hands on a means for revenge against Kelly.”

It was all common knowledge in the area, but Jennifer wasn’t happy he knew. “So?”

He drew a breath and let it out slowly. “So, maybe we can work together.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“You’ll have to decide for yourself about that. All I can tell you is that the prospects are good for Kelly going to jail for a long, long time. And not for cheating at cards.”

“For what?”

“First,” Dane said calmly, “you have to decide whether you trust me.”

“How can I know? Tell me something to convince me.”

Dane grinned. “Well, I could tell you that my heart is pure, but I doubt you’d believe me.”

Ridiculously, Jennifer felt herself torn between giggling and snorting in disbelief. Oh, this man had charm. Why, she felt she could almost pluck it out of the air, like a raindrop. She steeled herself against the appeal of him, remembering the need for revenge against Kelly, remembering her mother, remembering a “lovely brunette.” “You’re right. I don’t believe you.”

He rubbed his nose, looking at her thoughtfully but with those vivid eyes laughing. “I was afraid of that. And I don’t suppose swearing on my honor would do any good either?”

“If I don’t know whether you’re trustworthy,” she pointed out, “then why would I believe you have any honor?”

He sighed. “That is a point. Look, Jenny, one of us is going to have to trust the other, or we won’t get anywhere.”

She lifted her chin. “Then you trust me. Since you seem to know so much about my background, you must have guessed that the bracelet I took last night belonged to either me or my mother. It should be fairly obvious that I have every reason in the world to want to get Garrett Kelly. It’s your reasons that are in doubt here.”

Dane sighed again. “All right, dammit. Sit down; we’re going to be here for a while. Would you like a drink, coffee?”

“No, thank you.” She sat down a bit gingerly on one end of the long couch, and watched him sit a couple of feet away. And her guard was back up, because something told her this abrupt giving in of his had been expressly designed to win her trust.

Conversationally, he asked, “Do you know that your eyes turn almost gray when you’re suddenly having misgivings about something?”

Jennifer blinked. “What?”

“Well, it’s obvious you think I’m trying to trick you in some way.” He was half turned toward her, one arm along the back of the couch between them. “I’m not that devious, I promise you.”

She reserved judgment on that, trying to ignore the beautiful, long-fingered hand so near her shoulder. “Just tell me what this is all about, all right?”

“All right.” Carefully, Dane began by saying, “I was asked by a friend to check the contents of Kelly’s safe. And, before you ask, what I was looking for had nothing to do with valuables; I wanted to find some paper connection between Kelly and another man. Since that has nothing to do with you, and since it isn’t my story anyway, you’ll have to take that much on faith.”

She accepted that for the moment, but had what seemed to her a pertinent question. “Do your friends often ask you to break into other people’s safes?”

Dane was smiling. “Well, let’s just say that sometimes my friends need to know things about people and I happen to be good at getting information.”

“By breaking into safes?”

“Whatever it takes.”

Jennifer felt baffled. This didn’t sound like a garden-variety thief or gambler; but then, how many of those had she met? “All right. For now.”

“Suspicious Jenny.”

She wasn’t sure she liked the way he said that shortened version of her name. It sounded like a caress. “Just finish the story, would you, please?”

“Certainly. I didn’t find that paper connection I was looking for in the safe. But I did find a plate used to counterfeit hundred-dollar bills.”

She felt her eyes widen. “What?”

“Interesting, isn’t it? A fine, upright citizen like Kelly making his own money. If he is, of course.”

Jennifer was trying to think clearly. “There’s a question about that? I mean, why else would he have this…this plate?”

“He could have been holding it for a friend; he could have found it himself and be busy blackmailing someone. You see, Jenny, we need two more items to prove Kelly’s making money himself. The other plate, because it takes two to print a bill, and the press to do the printing.”

“I see.” She mused about that for a moment, then frowned at him. “What’s your angle in this?”

“Justice?” he suggested in the tone of a man who didn’t expect to be believed.

“Try again.”

Dane shrugged. “All right, then. I have a friend in the Treasury Department, and I owe him. After I found the plate last night, I gave him a call. He asked me to try and find the other two items, and to see if I could discover whether Kelly’s passing phony money at his poker games. I said I’d do it. I hate debts,” he added almost parenthetically.

Those were the first words he’d said that held a ring of truth for Jennifer. She believed him. Her father had been the same way about debts; she wondered idly if it was a trait peculiar to gamblers. “So what’re you planning to do?”

“The first thing we have to do,” he said, “is get the plate back into Kelly’s possession without making him suspicious.”

“Is that possible?”

“It better be. We have to divert suspicion from you and your mother, and at the same time keep it far away from me. As you pointed out, Kelly would hardly invite me into his house if he found out I’d rifled his safe. And I have to be able to come and go at the house, or we’ll never find the evidence to put him away for good.”

Jennifer was quiet for a moment, then said, “I don’t suppose this is going to get Belle Retour back for Mother?”

Dane hesitated. “I don’t know. But I have to tell you it’s doubtful. The plantation was legally transferred into Kelly’s name. Chances are, the property’s his no matter what happens. There’s a slim chance, though, that if he were convicted and the government slapped a hefty fine on him as well as a prison term, he would have to sell Belle Retour to raise the money.”

“Couldn’t we prove he cheated my father?” Jennifer asked. “A person isn’t allowed to profit from crime, and he did!”

“That’s a sticky point to prove in court when it comes to gambling.”

Jennifer had kept her hopes up these last years, convinced that she could do something to restore Belle Retour to the family. Now, for the first time, she realized how impossible a dream that had been. Her home, lost to her. Her promise to her mother, just so many empty words.

“Damn,” she whispered. “We can’t get it back. We can never get it back.”

“Yes, you can,” Dane said suddenly. “And you will.”

She looked at him, blind for a moment, her eyes full of unexpected tears. “What? How?”

He smiled an odd, crooked smile. “On that point, you’ll again have to trust me. But I promise you, Jenny, before this is over, you’ll have Belle Retour back.”

She didn’t believe him. But, at the same time, she realized that her only chance of revenge against Kelly lay in helping to find evidence against him for counterfeiting. If she could do that, it would be enough. It would have to be enough.

“Okay. So what do we do?”

“First, I want you to pay a little visit to Kelly.”

“I hate that man,” she said.

“Good. Make sure he sees it. You’re furious with him. He came to your house and threatened your mother, all because he thought she took something from his safe. Tell him your mother went nowhere near that study, but you saw other people going in and out all evening. Even one of his security men went in at least three times—you saw him.”

Jennifer was listening intently. “Why am I pointing at the security guard in particular?”

“He’s as good a target as any. Besides, I still have to check on that connection I mentioned. So you be sure and direct Kelly’s attention that way. And he’ll find the plate hidden in the guard’s room.”

“How will—Oh. You’ll put it there?”

“Right. By the way, since Kelly didn’t tell you what had been stolen, be careful not to let on that you know.”

“He knows Mother—I got the bracelet.”

Dane didn’t appear to notice the slip. “Fine. Go on to him about that—that it was just a lousy bracelet, nothing to make such a fuss over. Really give him hell. How’s your temper?”

She managed a smile. “I’m half Italian. My temper’s a force of nature.”

He laughed softly. “Perfect.”

“What happens after he finds the plate, assuming he believes me and searches the guard’s room?”

“Then I go to work trying to find the other plate and the press. It’s very likely that it is somewhere in the house, or nearby.”

Jennifer was silent for a moment, then offered, “I could sketch a floor plan for you. It might save time.”

Dane rose and went over to the desk, returning with several blank pieces of hotel stationery and a pencil. He sat down—a bit closer this time—and handed them to her. “Thank you, Jenny,” he said quietly.

She reached for a large hotel menu on the coffee table and slid it under the papers on her lap, then bent her head and began sketching. “I don’t know why I’m trusting you,” she muttered, half angry. “You’ll probably steal everything but the drapes.”

“No, I won’t do that.”

She sketched for a few moments, but the silence began to bother her. And she could feel his eyes on her, not laughing now but lit from within as always, like candlelight through fine violet china. Like sunlight through purple clouds, after a storm. “Why did you become a gambler?” she asked abruptly.

For the first time Dane found that question difficult to answer. And he knew why. Her father had lost her home gambling; she couldn’t have a high opinion of that particular form of “recreation.” He knew, in fact, that it was his gambling she mistrusted more than his possible talent at stealing.

“No answer?” she asked dryly.

“I happen to be good at it,” he said finally. “I have a great memory and excellent concentration, and I’ve been playing cards since I was a kid. I’m a professional gambler, Jenny. Not a compulsive one.”

“Is there a difference?”

He studied her delicate, serious profile, aware suddenly of a jumble of emotions. He didn’t want her to believe the worst of him, but he had little choice other than to continue telling her the variety of half-truths he had lived with and protected for more than ten years.

No choice.

“There’s a difference,” he told her. “I never believe bad luck will turn with the next card; I never believe good luck will last; and I never bet everything. Never.”





Chapter 3


“Are you lucky?” she asked without looking at him.

“Usually.”

“Do you cheat?”

The question didn’t offend him, not when he knew her own story as well as he did. “I know how,” he said steadily. “And I know how to spot others cheating.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

He couldn’t answer with a lie. “I never have. But I suppose I would, if the stakes were high enough.”

“What price honor,” she murmured.

That did bother Dane, and though there was no sound, he could almost feel Skye move restlessly in the next room as he too heard the cut that went deeper than the protective armor of a masquerade. “ ‘His honor rooted in dishonor,’ ” Dane said a bit roughly.

Her fingers stilled over the developing sketch, and Jennifer turned her head to look at him. “Tennyson.”

Dane half laughed, though it wasn’t a sound of amusement. “Yes. If I remember, the next line is, ‘And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.’ Paradox.”

“Is that what you are?” she asked curiously. “A paradox?”

“I’m a gambler,” he said in a flat voice.

After a moment, Jennifer went back to her sketching. She was disturbed. Not by what he had said, but by the way he had looked when he said it. Grim. She got the feeling somehow that he didn’t like labeling himself a gambler.

When she finished sketching the house a little later, it had taken a sheet of paper for each floor, and Jennifer handed him the three sheets. “There’s a cellar. I’ve marked the stairs, but it’s cluttered wall to wall with two hundred years of storage. The attic’s the same way, filled with trunks and boxes.”

Dane was studying the floor plans intently. “We’ll save those for last, then. Thank you, Jenny. This’ll be a great help.”

She nodded. “When should I confront Kelly? You’ll need time to replace the plate.”

“He’s invited several other men and myself to dinner tonight before the game; we’ll be there by six for drinks. If you could come around six-thirty, that should give me enough time.”

Jennifer’s slightly puzzled frown cleared. “Oh, I see. You’ll slip out while I’m there and put the plate in the guard’s room.”

“Right,” Dane said, though he knew that Skye would most likely do the actual skulking.

She nodded and got to her feet, looking at him a bit warily as he too rose. “All right, then. Will you—is there some way you can let me know what Kelly’s reaction is? Later, I mean?”

“Of course. In fact, why don’t you meet me on the grounds before you leave.”

“But won’t Kelly notice you’re missing?”

“Not if you rattle him enough. Besides, if he asks, I’ll tell him I went out into the garden for some air.”

“All right. Where should we meet?”

“You know the place better than I do. You’ll have to move your car as if you’ve left. Anyplace between the house and the road where we aren’t likely to be seen.”

Jennifer thought briefly. “As you start down the lane toward the road, there’s an old, rutted track that leads off to the left. It winds up to the main road. I can pull the car off there, and meet you just inside the woods. You’ll be about a hundred yards from the house.”

“Good enough.” He walked with her to the door, and opened it for her. “We’ll get Kelly,” he told her.

She looked at him, half puzzled and quite uncertain, then shrugged almost helplessly and left. Dane closed the door behind her and slowly returned to the sitting room.

“A friend in Treasury?” Skye asked in a pained tone.

“Well, I’m bound to have at least one,” Dane told him.

“And what was that about promising to get her plantation back for her? Dane, are you out of your mind?”

“Probably. Don’t rub it in.”

Skye half closed his eyes. “Great.”

“There has to be a way to do it,” Dane said.

“And you did promise,” Skye murmured. “I hate it when you do that. I always end up getting shot at.”

“Very funny.”

“It’s true. You’re hidebound about promises; once you make them, you have this uncomfortable habit of doing whatever is necessary to keep them.”

“Oh, shut up. I have an idea.”

“I was afraid of that.”

—

Jennifer had a restless afternoon. With several hours to kill before her visit to Garrett Kelly, she returned to the house she shared with her mother and went back to work. Or tried to. She couldn’t seem to keep her mind off Dane Prescott.

She was intuitive, a trait strengthened by her artistic work, yet she had never felt such a jumble of puzzling, conflicting impressions of a person. Even at that first meeting last night, an interlude she had carefully blocked out of her mind while with him today, Dane had baffled her. Startlingly handsome, with a heartbreaking smile and the most alive eyes she’d ever seen, he had been smoothly charming, humorous, and remarkably offhand about her theft of the bracelet and his own larcenous activities. He had held and kissed her, obviously as a ploy to fool the person opening the study door; yet his action, begun in an almost comically polite manner, had changed in those few seconds to something a great deal more personal.

That had been last night. Today there had been a subtle difference in him. Jennifer found it hard to pin down, except to feel certain that she had seen more of him, as if some protective layer of himself had been discarded. He had been more serious, even grave at times, treating her as an intelligent woman rather than taking advantage of her bewilderment as he had last night. He had been obviously disturbed that she and her mother had been blamed for the rifled safe, and quick to suggest a way of repairing that damage.

And after her dig at his honor, Jennifer had seen as well as sensed a reaction she hadn’t expected from him. He had felt that cut, and felt it deeply. His quote from Tennyson had held bitterness, and when she looked at him, the light behind his eyes was absent for the first time.

A professional gambler, a thief—and honorable? It seemed impossible, and yet…Would a man with no honor give a sweet damn if he were accused of having none? Jennifer didn’t think so. But a man who was highly conscious of his personal integrity and who, perhaps, lived a life that all too often tested that integrity might well be sensitive about accusations.

Jennifer had been raised by such a man. Rufus Chantry had been, in many ways, a man out of his time. His instincts had harked back to the days when gentleman was more than a word; it was a way of life. Yet his increasing addiction to gambling, stronger every year, had first bent and then finally broken his honor. That was why he signed over his family’s home without protest, and why he made both his wife and daughter promise not to try to disturb that “gentlemen’s agreement” in open court.

He had staked his home in a card game; he had lost it. Like a gentleman, he paid the debt. It never occurred to him that Kelly might have cheated to win, and the stain he felt on his honor had come, not from having lost the plantation, but from having staked it in the first place.

Jennifer, having been raised by a man with that old-fashioned, almost extinct kind of integrity, was far more sensitive and understanding of it than most modern women. And she was appreciative of it. It had been her father’s strength, just as gambling had been his weakness.

And she was bothered now, because she sensed that same rock-solid core of integrity in Dane. Whether or not he was conscious of it, she believed it existed. It could be something as focused as a personal code of honor, a set of rules and limitations defined by him for his own reasons and having little to do with law or accepted morality. Or it could be something broader and looser, a set of lines he would cross only reluctantly—and, as he had said, if the stakes were high enough.

What price honor, indeed.

Until she discovered Dane’s answer to that riddle, she couldn’t trust him fully.

“Jennifer! You’ll strain your eyes.” Francesca came into the room and turned on the lamp over Jennifer’s drafting table.

After a hasty glance at her watch, Jennifer relaxed. It was only a little after five. She had forgotten to open the blinds in the room, and since the late afternoon sun was partially blocked by the trees outside, it had gotten steadily darker without her noticing.

“You’ve done no work since you came back,” her mother noted, casting a practiced eye over the sheets Jennifer had pinned to the table. “What troubles you?”

Jennifer hesitated, reminding herself of her decision not to tell her mother about the attempt to get evidence against Kelly. It was best not to raise her hopes, and besides, Francesca was all too likely to jump into the situation herself with gleeful recklessness. But she had to say something, so Jennifer again played to her mother’s maternal and feminine instincts.

“I was just thinking about that man,” she said lightly. “The one I met last night.”

Francesca’s bright dark eyes became even brighter. She had been trying to get her daughter matched up with a suitable man since her late teens, and had refused to give up hope despite Jennifer’s independent nature. “Who is he, my baby? Is he handsome? Can he take care of you properly?”

Jennifer almost laughed, but wondered uneasily if she was creating a monster here. “Mother, I just met him—”

“He is unmarried, is he not?” Francesca demanded suspiciously, her accent thickening as she became more Italian. “You would not become the lover of a married man! Unless he were very rich, of course,” she added.

Long accustomed to her mother’s slightly nontraditional views of male-female relationships, Jennifer said patiently, “I’m not going to be anybody’s lover, rich or not. I told you, Mother, I hardly know the man. All I know is that he doesn’t wear a wedding ring.”

“Ah! That means nothing; some wives are stupid to allow such nonsense. We must discover if there is a wife.”

“And then poison her?” Jennifer murmured.

“Divorce is easier,” Francesca said, unmindful of irony.

Jennifer looked at her in amusement. “I thought marriage was forever?” she said, curious to see how her mother would rationalize her rapid dismissal of an inconvenient wife when her oft-stated view was that a wedding ring never came off.

Francesca gave her an intent look. “Well, of course, my baby. When it is right. But, obviously, this woman interferes with your destiny. She must be made to release your man. It will all be arranged—you will see.”

Feeling a kind of fascinated horror creep over her, Jennifer hastily said, a bit desperately, “I don’t even know if there is a wife! And he isn’t my man, Mother. I just think he’s interesting, that’s all.”

“Interesting?” Francesca gave the word four distinct and appalled syllables. “You would use such a pale word to describe this man? He does not cause your blood to run hot through your body? Your heart does not pound at the sound of his voice? You do not melt when he touches you?”

Jennifer said rather weakly, “Well, I’ve hardly been with him long enough to know.”

Francesca threw up her hands in a purely Latin gesture of disgust. “I lose all patience with these modern men! There is not a real man to be found. Not since your father. Not one knows how to make love to a woman, how to fill her senses with the very essence of himself!”

“Mother…” Torn between laughter and astonishment, Jennifer was also coping with the innate shock of an adult daughter confronted by a whole new insight into her parents’ relationship.

“And you!” Francesca’s eyes were snapping. “I cannot believe I have raised you to be so tame, so—timid. In-ter-es-ting! Is that a feeling of passion, of love? No! Is that a feeling of desperation? No!”

“But, Mother, I—”

“You must feel this for your man! He must fill your senses, your heart, and your soul. He must be everything for you, or he is not for you.”

“I’m sorry I started this,” Jennifer said rather blankly.

Her mother ignored the statement. She reached out suddenly, her nimble fingers plucking the elastic band from Jennifer’s ponytail so that her hair fell loosely around her face. “Why do you wear your lovely hair this way? Such a forbidding style! And those horrible trousers—”

“Jeans. Mother, I’m working.”

“This man must see the woman you are, my baby. Go and put on a skirt; he must see your legs.”

Jennifer suppressed a wild desire to blurt, He’s seen them, and thinks they’re great. “I’m not going to chase after a man to show him my legs. Mother.”

But her mother had already nudged her out of the chair and was leading her firmly toward her bedroom. “You must see him, of course, as soon as possible. You must know if he is the one. Discover if there is a wife, for if there is we must remove her at once. Unless he is not the one. She may keep him if that is the case.”

“Generous of us,” Jennifer murmured. She would have continued to protest her mother’s determination, but she had seen that steely persistence too often in her life not to know the uselessness of holding back floodwaters with a paper dam. So she obediently changed into a prettier blouse—pale blue with a deep V neckline—and a silky print skirt. She flatly refused to wear hose, compelled by a sudden memory of fingers on garters, and her mother accepted that cheerfully.

Fifteen minutes later, dressed, hair brushed, and filled with a rueful sense of great-oaks-from-little-acorns-grow, Jennifer found herself being almost literally pushed out the front door. She had to leave anyway, since it was time for her confrontation with Garrett Kelly, but she paused a moment to direct a stern command at her mother.

“Don’t send out wedding invitations, dammit!”

Unperturbed, Francesca smiled widely and said, “Of course not, my baby. We must first discover if he is the right man for you.”

Jennifer sighed. “I’ll probably be back in an hour or so.”

“That is not enough time,” her mother said critically.

Wanting to reply to that, but finding no words to do justice to her thoughts, Jennifer shook her head and went out to her small car. She headed toward Belle Retour, trying to work up a good head of steam for Kelly’s sake, but having a difficult time.

Her mother. If there was another woman in the world like Francesca, Jennifer thought, it would be a miracle. Her words might not have been pearls of wisdom, but they were eccentric enough to be marked indelibly on the memory of anyone who heard them. Generally leaning toward the traditional view that marriage, between the right people, of course, was forever, she was still perfectly capable of seeing her beloved daughter as the mistress of a wealthy man. She was firmly convinced that no woman was complete without the adoring attention of a man, whether in or out of wedlock.

Jennifer could have argued that point, having come of age in a world considerably different from that of her mother’s generation, and being very American in her attitudes. She had made no attempt to air her own views because of her love for Francesca—and the rueful knowledge that her mother would never accept them, perhaps not even understand.

Jennifer pushed the last of those thoughts out of her mind as she turned the car into the oak-shadowed lane leading to Belle Retour. Angry. She was supposed to be angry. She filled her mind with thoughts of what Kelly had done to her father, to her mother, and herself. And she got angry.

She got furious.

In fact, in her zeal to play the role assigned her, Jennifer quite unconsciously abandoned the restraints placed on her since childhood in a variety of expensive private schools. Those schools had imposed their very definite ideas of what a lady should be, and Jennifer had accepted them partly because the discipline needed for control had interested her. She had also cultivated a calm surface because the memories of childhood temper tantrums had convinced her she needed that control.

Now, in a fury, she stopped her car before the house and stormed up to the front door, ignoring the bell because the brass knocker made a more satisfying noise. When the door swung open, she pushed past the surprised butler who had sneaked candy to her as a child, demanding loudly, “Where is he?”

“Miss Jennifer, you shouldn’t—”

“I want to see him, Mathews! Where is he?”

“In the parlor, Miss Jennifer, but—”

She didn’t wait to be announced. Before Mathews could stop her, she went directly to the closed parlor doors and shoved them open, glaring around the room.

It wasn’t a room worthy of a glare, since it was beautiful and spacious; but that didn’t placate Jennifer because her own mother had decorated it. She saw men standing and sitting, their heads turned toward the door and their eyes startled. There were six or eight men present, some dressed more casually than others. Various ages, from the early thirties to the mid-sixties. All held drinks in their hands, and she knew most of them if only by name.

Dane was standing by the fireplace with two other men, dressed in a three-piece white suit that made him look peculiarly devilish. His brows were raised in an expression of polite surprise, but his eyes were laughing.

Jennifer’s glare didn’t pause on him, but swept the room and settled on another man. “I want to talk to you!” she snapped.

Garrett Kelly was a fair man in his fifties, with the profile of a hawk and oddly colorless eyes. He had either been born a gentleman or else cultivated that facade; Jennifer had long ago made up her mind it was the latter. He enjoyed parties and the company of other men with a like taste in gambling, and as far as anyone in these parts could tell, his past was obscure.

“I have guests, Miss Chantry,” he said, now in his even, toneless “company” voice.

“Oh, I don’t mind them hearing what I have to say,” Jennifer told him with biting politeness. “But you might.”

After a moment, Kelly glanced around at his guests and said, “Excuse me, gentlemen.” They nodded and made courteous murmurs, wearing the stiff expressions of people who were intensely curious and trying to hide it.

Jennifer turned and strode back out into the hall, waiting impatiently while Kelly came out and closed the doors behind them. “My study,” he murmured.

“Your study,” she said bitterly.

“It is mine, like it or not,” he told her, leading the way to a secondary hallway on the other side of the house from the parlor. He opened the door of the study and gestured for her to enter, his well-kept hands making a mockery of the courtesy.

She swept past him, head high, having no idea of what, exactly, she was going to say to him, and too furious to care. And before he could even get the door closed behind them, she swung around, making no effort to lower her voice.

“Just what the hell do you mean by accusing my mother of anything?” she demanded violently.

—

In a quieter section of the house, the area reserved for storage and servants, Skye moved silently. It had been a simple matter to find a side window with a rusty latch, and no one had observed his stealthy progress. Jennifer’s sketch had been clear enough, and this area of the house had showed the exact location of rooms and small suites set aside for staff.

Including the security staff. There were currently two full-time security men on the grounds, a fact Skye knew whether Jennifer was aware of it or not. Her family had worried little about security for the house itself except during social occasions. Kelly, a more paranoid and cynical man than his predecessor, kept his two plainclothes guards in or close around the house at all times, and hired part-time help during his frequent parties.

Skye had noted the fact that one of the guards seemed assigned to patrol the upper floors; the second guard, Brady Seton, appeared to roam with more freedom, and it was his room Skye was in search of. He moved with no sound, his rubber-soled shoes as soundless on polished wooden floors as they were on carpet; for a big man, he moved like a cat.

He had briefly entered and discounted several rooms in the bare five minutes since he had come in through a window: the butler’s suite, the suite occupied by a housekeeper and chauffeur—a married couple—and several apparently unused rooms. He finally located a small suite with two bedrooms that seemed to be the correct ones. The first bedroom he checked held a number of articles belonging to a man, and Skye discounted it when he found a wallet with credit cards in a drawer: this room belonged to the other security man.

In Brady Seton’s room, Skye searched quickly and thoroughly out of habit, then drew the counterfeit plate from its hiding place inside his black leather jacket and, after a moment’s deliberation, placed it on the top shelf of the closet at the very back against the wall. He cast a professional glance over the seemingly undisturbed room, then turned to leave.

The main door to the sitting room opened with a soft click.

In fluid movement, Skye was against the wall beside the door, a silenced automatic held in his right hand. He listened intently as footsteps moved through the sitting room, but didn’t move himself until Brady Seton walked into the bedroom.

“Hello.”

Seton turned quickly, a hand reaching toward his lapel as if to draw the gun nestled under his arm. But he froze, the movement half completed.

“Rotten timing,” Skye told him softly.

Seton was an ex-marine, had grown up rough, and knew a variety of self-defense tactics. He had also learned, somewhere along the way, at which moment in a dangerous situation it was wisest to simply give in and think about living another day. This was that moment.

The man he faced was smiling, but Seton trusted that smile the way he would have trusted the polished molars of a shark. His first impression of a big man dressed all in black with a businesslike—and silenced—automatic had been perfectly accurate, and had his impression stopped there he might well have attempted a defensive move. Dangerous men he was accustomed to facing.

But the eyes stopped him cold. They weren’t particularly menacing eyes, not cold or hard; they weren’t the empty, flat-black eyes of a soulless killer, or the mad eyes of a man beyond the limits of reason. In fact, they were very alive and intelligent eyes. But they were…reckless. Careless. They were almost an impudent invitation for Seton to try something.

Try something. Go ahead. And we’ll both have a little fun.

Brady Seton didn’t move a muscle. He had seen eyes like that before, in the faces of incredibly courageous and lucky men. Men who had led other soldiers into battle, men who had braved burning buildings to rescue trapped occupants. Men whom fate seemed to have touched with a kind of aura, like impenetrable armor.

“Let’s have the gun. Carefully.”

With extreme and utter caution, Seton handed it over.

Skye stuck the gun inside his belt, then sighed a little ruefully. “You have botched the plan, friend. What am I going to do with you now?”

Seton didn’t venture a suggestion.

After a moment, Skye said, “Well. No choice, I’m afraid. Pack a bag—and you’re in a hurry, so don’t bother to be neat about it.”

Seton packed a bag.

—

For the men who remained in the parlor after Garrett Kelly left, the next quarter of an hour was somewhat uncomfortable. They were all too curious to completely ignore what was going on, especially since they could hear the faint echoes of Jennifer Chantry’s voice even through closed doors and sturdy walls. Their own conversations dried up after a few murmured attempts, and they were left contemplating their drinks and each other.

“That one’s a shrew,” one man finally observed.

“She’s got reason,” another said, and grinned faintly.

“You ought to hear her mother.”

“Who is she?” asked one of the few in the room who had no knowledge of the past events.

“She grew up here at Belle Retour,” the first man told him. “Her family owned this place for two hundred years, until Garrett won it from her father in a poker game.”

“Hell, the stakes better not be that high in tonight’s game.”

Very conscious of the verbal battle going on several rooms away, and the presumed activities in another part of the house, Dane said, “The word I got was that Garrett’s been on a losing streak. He may have to stake this place trying to recoup his losses.”

“I’d rather play for cash,” one man said plaintively.

An older man shook his head disapprovingly at Dane’s comment. “You should never stake everything unless that’s what you’re prepared to lose,” he said.

Dane smiled slowly. “Isn’t that the truth?”

The conversation died away at that point, but when Garrett Kelly reentered the room five minutes later, he didn’t seem to notice. They had all heard the slam of the front door and a car roaring away minutes before; he said nothing about that. He was perceptibly distracted, frowning a bit. But his voice remained calm and even when he addressed his guests.

“Dinner will be served in an hour, gentlemen. Please make yourselves at home. I have a few calls to take care of, and then I’ll rejoin you.”

There were more polite murmurs following him back out the door.

Dane set his untouched drink aside and said, “I think I’ll walk in the garden before dinner.” He didn’t wait for anyone to offer to join him, but went out through a set of French doors leading onto the veranda.





Chapter 4


Dane moved lazily until the overgrown garden hid him completely from anyone in the parlor, then quickened his pace. It was a simple matter to cut through the garden toward the front of the house, and he was easily able to keep out of sight in the wilderness of untended plants and trees while he circled around and headed for the patch of woods to the left of the lane where Jennifer had agreed to meet him.

And she was waiting for him, her small car parked just inside the woods on a rutted track. She wasn’t sitting in the car; she was pacing violently beside it.

Dane approached her just a bit warily, intrigued by the sheer unexpectedness of her temper. Granted, she had said that her temper was a force of nature, but her cool blond loveliness and serene grace had painted a rather different—and deceptive—picture.

“Are you married?” she inquired fiercely the instant she caught sight of him.

He blinked, stopping by the car. “No, I’m not.”

“My mother wanted me to ask.” Jennifer was still pacing, obviously so angry she was hardly paying attention to what she was saying. “I’m glad you’re not. Mother probably would have poisoned your wife.”

Dane leaned back against her car and folded his arms, patiently waiting for the storm to subside even while thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. “Why would she have done that?” he asked.

“To get her out of the way, of course. She said divorce would be easier, but I know my mother. Poison in the tea, or something. The Borgias were Italian, you know.”

“Yes, I remember that.” Dane was having a difficult time holding back laughter, but at the same time he was fascinated by what Jennifer seemed to be telling him.

“Then beware,” she said darkly, still pacing. “As far as I know, Mother isn’t related to them, but you just can’t be sure about these things. I can’t control her. We’ll be lucky if she hasn’t already ordered wedding invitations.”

“Whose wedding is she planning?” Dane asked.

“Ours,” Jennifer snarled. “Damn. And just because I had to say something when I hadn’t gotten any work done. How was I to know she’d go all maternal and Italian on me just because I said I was thinking about a man I’d met? I couldn’t have known she’d do that, could I?”

“Definitely not,” Dane said solemnly.

“She doesn’t even know you, and she’s probably thinking up names for babies. I’ve never heard such—Desperation, she said. Passion. Real men, she said, and essences.” Jennifer stopped pacing suddenly, an expression of uncertainty passing over her face. “Essences?” she repeated, as if the word sounded odd.

“Sounds fine to me,” he offered helpfully.

Jennifer stared at him for a moment, and the doubt vanished to be replaced by a return of her glare. “What price honor?” she demanded intensely.

That one appeared to come straight out of left field, and Dane coped with it in some bewilderment. “Hypothetically?”

“No, not hypothetically! You. Your honor. How can I trust you if I don’t know that?”

It was, Dane realized, a serious question despite the apparent mental contortions that had brought her to it. Before he could frame an answer, she was going on fiercely.

“Would you sell your honor if the stakes were high enough? How high is high enough? Or is your integrity too important to you? Are there prices you aren’t willing to pay, no matter what it costs you? Or do you bet your honesty the way you bet money?”

“No.” He hadn’t meant the answer to come so harshly, and paused a moment before he continued, looking seriously into her startled eyes. “No, I’ve never gambled my honor—integrity, self-respect, whatever you want to call it. That price has always been too high to pay. Winning was never so important that I had to bet everything. Losing was never so important that I had to bet everything.” He drew a breath. “But I’m a gambler, Jenny. And every gambler knows that sooner or later he’ll have to pay—whatever the cost. Even if the price is everything. Even if he staked his honor.”

Jennifer stared at him for a long moment, then turned jerkily away. She was more shaken than she could remember ever having been before. Had that been she, that rambling, fierce woman? God, what she had told him! “I’m sorry,” she managed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Dane knew. The storm had passed, leaving her a shipwrecked survivor of her own tempest, and reaction was setting in. He straightened away from the car and went to her, but didn’t try to make her face him. Instead, he rested his hands gently on her shoulders.

“Why should you be sorry?” he asked.

Stiffly, she said, “Look, just forget everything I’ve said, all right? I wasn’t thinking, and—”

“No, don’t do that,” he interrupted.

“What?”

“Slip back into your glossy shell.” His hands tightened on her shoulders, but his voice remained light. “I didn’t realize that’s what it was, until you cut loose at Kelly.”

“I told you I had a temper.”

“And I should have believed you. But that calm surface of yours had me fooled. Is it the Italian blood, do you think, or was your father’s family known for their passions?”

She thought his word choice had been deliberate, and it made her uneasy. “My mother takes the credit,” she murmured, very conscious of his hands on her. “Or the blame, depending on your point of view. Umm…I really should be going.”

“Not yet.” He turned her to face him, keeping his hands on her shoulders.

Jennifer felt a sense of panic. “All those things I said about my mother and—Well, it’s just a misunderstanding, that’s all. She’s a little volatile, and she just got carried away with the idea—the wrong idea—that I was interested in you.”

“Is it a wrong idea?”

“Of course it is! I hardly know you.”

“I’m very interested in you,” he said, and then added, thoughtfully, “A tame word, that.”

Remembering her mother’s opinion of the same word, Jennifer didn’t know whether to laugh or swear. “Well, it doesn’t matter,” she said with a touch of desperation, “because I’m not in the market for a fling at the moment.”

“Who said anything about a fling?” He was smiling, violet eyes glowing in that characteristic way, his hands holding her shoulders firmly. “Do you realize that you haven’t once said my name?”

Jennifer couldn’t break the hold of his gaze. She felt curiously trapped, something alive captured in resin and imprisoned for eons. As if it were some phenomenon she observed apart from herself, she was aware of suddenly quickened heartbeats, of a rising heat that sapped strength, of dizziness. And then her detachment snapped, a rubber band stretched too tightly, and it was herself she felt reacting this way, like never before. It was her own body that was unfamiliar.

“How are you doing that?” she managed to ask, baffled.

“Doing what?” he murmured, the charm of his eyes still holding her, a lure she couldn’t resist.

With an effort that left her even more shaken, Jennifer yanked her gaze away, staring fixedly at the open collar of his white shirt. “Never mind. I have to go. Now.”

“You sound like a scared little girl, afraid to stop playing dress-up and try the real thing.”

Her chin came up in instinctive anger—and her eyes were caught again by his. As unwillingly fascinated as a rabbit watching a circling hawk, she stared into changeable eyes, purple, blue, dark, light, compelling. “Stop that,” she said.

“Say my name.”

In some part of her mind, Jennifer recognized that his was a conscious ability, and one he was completely aware of. He used it the way another man might use any particular talent, always aware of using it. Like flipping a switch. A siren’s voice trapped in violet, a visual sorcery. And her instinct was to fight that, to fight him, as if he threatened to take something from her she was unwilling to give. If the lure of his eyes had offered only seduction, she could have fought him; she was both too intelligent and too independent to mindlessly give in to a purely physical demand.

But it was more than that. It was a seduction of the mind as well as the senses, a vivid invitation to fly high and laugh joyously, to live on some incredible level she had never even imagined. And it was irresistible.

“Try it,” he urged, and he didn’t explain if he meant she should stop playing dress-up and sample the real thing, or if the invitation was that other, silent one. Or if both were the same, one appeal to her mind and the other to her heart.

She heard her own voice respond, and it was not a submission but rather understanding and acceptance. “Dane.”

“The stakes are high,” he warned her softly.

“I know.” And she did. A gambler of integrity, Dane would stake some vital part of himself—but so would she. And in the end, he could win it all.

“Maybe even…everything.”

Jennifer took a deep breath, a swimmer instinctively treading water to save herself from that third and final plunge in uncertain waters. “I know.”

His jaw tightened suddenly as a muscle flexed. “Be sure, Jenny. Be very sure. Once the cards are dealt the game starts.”

“Is it a game? Only that?” She was dimly aware that her hands had lifted to rest on his chest.

“Everything’s a game, up to a point.” He drew her a step closer, his arms slipping around her. “Then it becomes real. The game can’t hurt you, Jenny. But the reality can.”

Jennifer had never in her life been tempted to stray from the safe and predictable path: school, work, the undemanding social structure of occasional dates meaning little. But Dane’s eyes promised so much more. Passion, danger, laughter, pain. The possibilities seemed endless. And the tempestuous nature she had so successfully controlled all these years wanted those possibilities with a wild yearning she had never been conscious of before.

“What happens if I win the game?” she asked finally.

“That depends on what you bet.”

“And on what you bet?” When he nodded slowly, she probed, “What are you betting, Dane?”

For a moment, it seemed he wouldn’t answer. His face was still, the changeable eyes something else now, something with stronger hints of danger, of a kind of wildness. “Too much,” he said in a roughened tone. “Too damned much this time.”

When his mouth captured hers, Jennifer again felt that instant response, the uncurling heat inside her. She felt the hardness of his body against her, the unexpected strength of his arms around her. There was nothing lazy about him now, nothing polished or suave or humorous; it was as if another layer of himself had been abandoned. He was rougher, more direct, his growing desire unhidden.

Hers wasn’t the only true self hidden inside a “glossy shell,” it seemed.

And she could no more resist that than she had been able to stand against the promises in his remarkable eyes. For the first time, she understood her mother’s reference to “essences” and how a man could fill a woman’s senses with that inner part of himself. Dane was doing that, infusing her somehow with the flickering wildness she had seen in him, igniting her own desires so that they burned brightly.

Her arms slipped up around his neck, fingers tangling in his silky black hair, and she felt his hands slide down over her back, holding her more tightly against him. The stark caress of his tongue half satisfied a terrible craving inside her, just as the feeling of his hard body pressed to her yielding one partially sated the same hunger. But it wasn’t enough.

She didn’t care that they stood just inside the woods a hundred yards from the childhood home she wanted desperately to be hers again, didn’t care that Dane had to go back there, that he would be missed soon. She was no longer questioning trust, or honor, or Dane’s enigmatic reasons for being here.

She was luxuriating in sensations. Somehow, perhaps because he was a gambler and a charming, graceful man on the surface, she had expected less physical strength in him despite his size, less power. But beneath the fine cloth of his curiously formal clothing, she could feel the solid muscles of an extremely strong and active man. His grace had become a feline thing, the fluid suppleness of a body under unthinking control. His hands, big and long-fingered, moved over her body with an almost delicate mastery, as if he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that she belonged to him.

And Jennifer knew it too. Not as a conscious decision, for consciously she would always rebel at the thought of herself as a possession. It was something else, something deeper and more absolute, an acknowledgment that went beyond thought or reason. She was his, no matter what, his by some primitive reckoning they both understood instinctively.

“No,” she murmured, an automatic protest against what was, as his lips lifted from hers.

“Yes.” He kissed one side of her trembling mouth, then the other, his big body taut against hers. “It’s too late now.” His voice was deep, husky.

“The game—?” she whispered.

He half laughed, a rough sound that was almost a groan. “Who the hell’s talking about a game…” His mouth fitted itself over hers again, possessing.

A vague sense of alarm swept through Jennifer, even as her mouth responded to his. No game…No game now, so quickly, and no chance of not being hurt if it ended badly. It was real, it was all real, and she had known it would be.

She felt one of his hands in her hair, tangling, holding her head firmly while he plundered her mouth, and a whimper of pleasure and pain escaped her at the force of him. Instantly, he gentled, the fingers in her hair caressing, his lips softening, the hard arms around her cradling.

“Dammit, Jenny,” he muttered, lifting his head and staring down at her, “how am I supposed to keep my mind on my job? Why did you have to be the one to walk into the study last night?”

“Of all the gin joints,” she managed unsteadily.

He laughed a little. “Right. You had to walk into mine. The lady in red, a stolen bracelet in her hand and panic stirring in her eyes.”

“It wasn’t stolen,” she said idly, fascinated by the way his lips shaped words. “Just taken back.”

He kissed her again, eyes restless. “Whatever. You haven’t been out of my mind since then. And now I’ve got to go back into that house and play poker with a shark.”

“Do you have to?” She had forgotten everything else, and his words implied that he would soon leave her—an implication she was passionately against.

“Yes.” He stifled a sudden groan as she moved against him in protest, her body instinctively seductive, and he slid his hands down to her curved hips, holding her firmly away from him. “Jenny,” he warned huskily.

Some part of Jennifer’s mind told her to get her splintered control back quickly before she made a total fool of herself, but it was gone, irretrievably cast to the winds. She knew he wanted her and that was enough, for now. “I want you,” she told him fiercely.

Dane half closed his eyes, fighting for a command over his body and senses that he hadn’t expected to lose, a control he had never before lost. The professional part of him that had always maintained a certain detachment had vanished. He wanted her, right now, here in the woods like some pagan act, their clothes scattered, moss for a bed. He wanted her naked against him, wild in passion, and that need burned in him like a fire almost out of control.

But it was Jenny he wanted, the very—what had she said earlier?—the very essence of her, not just a female body matching his in passion. And that desire couldn’t be satisfied by a brief and necessarily hurried joining hidden in the woods. He wanted to take her to bed for a week, a month, to learn her so thoroughly that no part of her held a surprise for him—except the surprise of eternal fascination.

“Jenny,” he said roughly, “there isn’t time.”

She went still, gazing up at him as her blue eyes shaded abruptly toward gray. Uncertain. Doubtful.

He framed her face in his hands. “I want you,” he told her in a tone that left no doubt of truth. His thumb brushed her trembling lips in a small caress, and he managed a crooked, rueful smile. “But I can’t stop other things I’ve already set in motion. And I won’t cheat either of us by trying to fit lovemaking into a schedule.”

“Because it isn’t a game?” she whispered, very aware of his emphasis on the word lovemaking.

“Because it isn’t a game,” he agreed. “A few days—and then there’ll be time for us.” His gaze moved restlessly over her face. “Do you understand, Jenny? The other things aren’t more important, they’re just—more imperative right now.”

Though her body still throbbed with unsatisfied desires, Jennifer’s mind was at last beginning to clear. And if a large part of her trusted him implicitly, there was still that rational, reasoning part that distrusted instinct and demanded answers. His discovery of Kelly’s counterfeit plates had sounded accidental when he had explained it to her; why was it now so “imperative” that it had to be dealt with on a careful schedule?

Why had he really come here?

“Jenny?”

Her hands had slipped down to rest on his chest, and she unconsciously gripped the lapels of his jacket. “What are you, Dane?” she asked, mystified.

His crooked smile reappeared, and the violet eyes, masked now, were very intent on hers. “A gambler and a thief. You’re thinking of hitching your fate to a rogue star, honey. And that’s the last warning you’ll get from me.”

She absorbed that as he took her hand and led her to the car, but when he opened the driver’s door she paused, looking at him searchingly. She felt peculiarly displaced, as if some headlong rush had left her quivering on the brink of something, half committed, still vaguely uncertain. She tried to think, wondering if that were possible right now. “Umm…you were going to tell me if I rattled Kelly.”

“You did.” Dane too seemed distracted, but his shuttered eyes never left her face. “He came back into the parlor and then excused himself again immediately. Phone calls to take care of, he said.”

“So, he’ll look for the plate? And find it in that guard’s room?”

“Very likely.”

“Then what? The guard will deny taking it.”

“Of course, since he’s innocent.”

“He’ll be fired, won’t he?”

“Maybe.” Dane hated saying that in a hard tone, hated seeing the dismay on her face. Without intending to, he added more gently, “He’ll be taken care of, Jenny. I promise. He won’t suffer for this.”

She relaxed just a bit, clearly trusting him in that. “I—I see. Then what will you do?”

“Play poker.” He shrugged. “Find out what’s going on. Look for the other plate, the press. Find out if Kelly’s passing counterfeit money.”

“Because you owe a friend in the Treasury Department?”

“Because I owe a friend.”

“Won’t Kelly be suspicious when the guard denies everything?” she asked, talking now more for the sake of prolonging their time together than anything else.

“Probably. I’ll deal with it, somehow.”

Jennifer fell silent. There seemed nothing more to ask, except the one question she wouldn’t voice aloud. When will I see you again?

“Jenny…”

“I know,” she said hurriedly. “I have to go.”

He reached out to tip her chin up, and leaned over the open car door, kissing her firmly and thoroughly. And that kiss left her in no doubt that desire was still very much present, and still very real.

“Don’t forget me,” he said softly.

Silently, she got into her car and started it as he closed the door. Then, with a last half-baffled look at him, she drove slowly off down the rutted track toward the main road.

Dane remained there until he could no longer see or hear the car, until the forest swallowed it—and her. Then he turned slowly and started back toward the house. A glance at his watch told him he still had time before dinner, that the interlude with Jennifer had spanned minutes only.

He wondered if he was being a damned fool.

A soft whistle caught his attention just as he found a way back into the overgrown garden near the side of the house, and he paused, looking around.

“Here,” Skye said in a low voice, stepping out from the early evening shadows beneath what might once, in an era of garden parties, have been an arbor.

Dane looked at him for a moment, then glanced around to make certain they were alone. There was no one in sight, no sound to be heard. Joining his partner in the dimness of the arbor, he said in an equally quiet tone, “Taking a chance.”

“Couldn’t be helped,” Skye said. “Mind if I ask you a question?”

“You will anyway,” Dane muttered.

“You’re so right. When’re you going to tell your lady the truth?”

Dane didn’t answer for a moment, or look at the other man. Instead, he gazed toward the house, senses automatically probing to alert him in case someone approached. “The truth?” he said finally. “Ten years of lies, shadows, and half-truths. What can I tell her?” Then, realizing, he shot his partner a sharp look. “You saw us out there.”

“Sorr