메인 Unmasking Kelsey

Unmasking Kelsey

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이 책이 얼마나 마음에 드셨습니까?
파일의 품질이 어떻습니까?
책의 품질을 평가하시려면 책을 다운로드하시기 바랍니다
다운로드된 파일들의 품질이 어떻습니까?
년:
1988
출판사:
Loveswept
언어:
english
시리즈:
Hagan
파일:
EPUB, 256 KB
다운로드 (epub, 256 KB)

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책에 대한 리뷰를 작성하거나 귀하의 독서 경험을 공유할 수 있습니다. 다른 독자들이 귀하가 읽은 책에 대한 의견에 귀를 기울일 것입니다. 개인적으로 책이 마음에 들었거나 그렇지 않았거나 정직하고 상세한 호평은 다른 독자들이 자신에게 적합한 책을 찾는데 도움이 됩니다.
1

Touching Evil

Année:
2001
Langue:
english
Fichier:
EPUB, 343 KB
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Contents

Synopsis

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Epilogue





Synopsis




When Kelsey answered a mysterious call for help from a small southern town, he was prepared to charm or seduce Elizabeth Conner into telling him what he needed to know. But once his primitive male instinct sensed the wild spirit hidden beneath her delicate facade, he knew he would -- he must -- possess her! With unaccustomed savagery he swept her into a wild, hot, frantic embrace, revealing himself as he had with no other woman. Elizabeth feared letting any man know her soul, but daring to respond to Kelsey's explosive demands was a danger she just had to taste. Her quicksilver knight vowed to protect her, but as she could never catch the wind or chain the lightning, she knew her elusive lover was like a force of nature -- and not to be controlled. Though Kelsey promised that forever was too short a time for what they shared to last, Elizabeth saw the real test: until she knew how it felt to slay a dragon, she'd never be sure of his love....





One

"Move it or lose it, buddy!"

If Kelsey had obeyed his common sense, he would have moved it. However, as the command woke him up quite abruptly from a sound, exhausted sleep, and as he was feeling a bit irascible because of it, he chose to force the issue. So, in his best Bogart Imitation, he growled, "Scram!"

The wisdom of that response was instantly in doubt when he felt the cold hardness of a gun barrel against his neck.

In a matter-of-fact voice that was musical and yet held all the softness of an angry drill sergeant's, the woman said, "Any last words? A cigarette and a blindfold, maybe?"

Sitting very still, Kelsey chose to respond to the steely voice rather than the flippant words. "Uh - can we back up a little? I don't know who you are, but -”

"That makes us even, doesn't it? All I know is that this piece of junk is parked on my land and you're in it. I get jumpy when strangers park on my land."

Kelsey wa; nted badly to turn his head and look at the woman, but didn't dare. "Look, I'm harmless," he insisted in his most bland and unthreatening voice. "I drove all night and I was tired, so I just pulled off the road to sleep. I didn't know this was private land."

"Now you do. Move it out."

"Did anybody ever tell you that you have a wonderfully light conversational touch?"

"I said beat it!"

She had her hand through the window in back, he realized, so, opening his door suddenly wouldn't throw off her balance. Then he caught a sudden glimpse of her hand in the rearview mirror, and he almost laughed. Instead, he reached over his shoulder abruptly and took her "gun" away from her. It was an empty soft drink bottle, and he stared at it in disgust. Of all the childish tricks to be taken in by! Muttering to himself, Kelsey tossed the bottle through the window, then opened his door and got out of the car. He fully intended to pour his wrath all over her, but when he turned and got his first look at his attacker, wrath was the last thing on his mind.

She stood confronting him, stiff and angry, magnificent green eyes blazing with temper. Her Incredibly pale silver hair was piled atop her head in what he vaguely recognized as a chignon, with tendrils escaping to frame her face. And Kelsey had never seen such a stunningly beautiful woman in all his life.

No one - man or woman - would ever call her merely "pretty." She had the rarest kind of beauty, the beauty of bone structure and coloring that would remain with her all the days other life. Her eyes were large and almond-shaped, fringed with long dark lashes, and their color was so vivid a green, they were almost iridescent. Her every feature was finely sculpted, and each blended so that her face was quite simply perfect.

"Close your mouth!" she snapped.

He did, then opened it again to laugh. "Damn, but you're lovely!" he said. And he was intrigued to note that not even a scowl could make her face less than beautiful.

She put her hands on her hips, continuing to glare. "Am I going to have to call the cops to get you off my land?" she demanded.

Kelsey was trying to ignore the effect she was having on his senses, which was rather like trying to ignore a tornado while standing just under the funnel. "Um, you just might," he confessed, feeling somewhat dazed. And in the back of his mind, behind all the rational, logical reasons why he just couldn't, not now, a little voice was groaning, Oh, hell, what lousy timing!

She blinked, and humor shone briefly in her eyes before temper rose up again. She turned her head and whistled sharply between her teeth.

Her teeth were lovely, too, he noticed. And the jeans and T-shirt she wore did absolutely nothing to hide the fact that nature had been as wonderfully generous below her neck as above. Kelsey decided he was dreaming. He decided he didn't want to wake up. Then he became aware that something was growling near his left hip, and he tore his gaze from her to look down.

He woke up. In a hurry.

It was disguised as a dog, but from the sound it was making, Kelsey deduced that it was either a grizzly bear or a Tasmanian devil. Its fangs looked perfectly capable of devouring a whole steer, a redwood tree trunk, or Kelsey's leg - which was what was closest at the moment.

Careful to keep his voice mild, Kelsey asked, "What the hell is that?"

"My dog. His name is Lobo. That means wolf. Lobo doesn't like strangers, either. Now, unless you can show me a badge - state or federal - and a warrant, along with a gun big enough to frighten Lobo, you'd better clear out."

"Right." He edged carefully back into his car and shut the door with absolute quiet, but then hesitated. Looking at the face he knew he'd never forget if he lived to be a hundred, he said quietly, "At least tell me your name."

She stood with one hand on the bristling ruff of her dog and stared at him for a long moment. "Elizabeth Conner," she said, and seemed surprised that she'd said it.

"Thank you. My name's Kelsey," he told her, and then started his car and drove away.



* * *



The town was named Pinnacle, and it had never lived up to its christening. A sleepy little village with a city limit that was about a mile long and half as wide, it was tucked away in the countryside like a trail forgotten by time. The nearest interstate highway was ten miles away, the nearest city of any size a hundred, and if it was on any state map, it boasted only a pinprick with which to mark its location.

But as Kelsey drove his battered Ford slowly through two caution lights on Main Street, he decided that Pinnacle had, somewhere, an ace up its sleeve. He had spent nearly two hours driving all around Pinnacle before venturing in, and from that had concluded that the town would be a stagnating, dying one.

There appeared to be few income-producing resources in the rural county. Scant acres of usable, productive farmland, no river or stream of any size, nothing to attract tourists, one lone industrial plant called Meditron operating about five miles from town, and if a company or private individual was cutting timber, it was well-hidden.

So Kelsey had expected a dying town, one being slowly choked to death by its own limitations. He expected to see few young people, no new businesses or construction, and signs of decay everywhere.

He was wrong on all counts.

The downtown area boasted several establishments of considerable size, all in excellent repair and, judging by traffic along the busy sidewalks on a weekday, flourishing nicely. At a rough estimate the population on the streets today had a median age of thirty and an income way above average, leaving folks with a lot of money to spend on themselves. Most of the cars on the picturesque street were late models, and there wasn't a weed, a broken-down building, or crooked street sign anywhere to be seen.

"Damn," Kelsey murmured. He continued down the main street and out of the downtown area, looking left and right to study some fine old homes and tasteful new ones, a compact little shopping center doing brisk business, an obviously new high school, and other signs of a healthy economy.

A county sheriffs patrol car cruised past in the other lane, and Kelsey looked in the rearview mirror and watched as it pulled into a parking lot, backed out again, and fell in behind his own car.

"Double damn," he muttered. It could have been coincidental, of course, but he doubted it. Kelsey didn't have a great deal of faith in coincidence. And he remembered, then, that Elizabeth Conner had ordered him off her land unless he could produce a badge -”state or federal." So, didn't the beautiful, bristly lady trust the local police? Now, that was interesting.

That was interesting as hell.

Kelsey found a small, neat motel about two miles from the city limits and pulled in there, nearly rammed head-on by a flashy sports car that was exiting at the same moment. Hanging his head out the window, he roared a few choice expletives, saw a faintly apologetic salute from the other driver, and parked his car with half his attention on that task and half on the patrol car that had departed, siren wailing, after the sports car.

He grinned a little, then got out of his car and went to acquire a room for himself. The result was a room, no more and no less; it was neat and clean and impersonal, and he barely glanced at the bland colors and sturdy furniture before dumping his bag and busying himself in showering and shaving.

He hardly looked at the face in the steamed mirror while he shaved automatically, but thought instead about everything he had seen and the conclusions he had reached. And he told himself that Elizabeth Conner figured prominently in those thoughts only because she looked like a good place to start. That was all, of course.

Sure it was.

Kelsey changed into clean clothes, faintly amused at himself for even thinking to check the shine of his shoes before leaving his room. He returned to his car, chose a less public road to leave the small town, and made only one stop before finding his way back to the place he had parked for sleep that morning. He took the precaution of parking his car out of sight behind a thicket of brambles, then moved cautiously up the dirt road, which led to a sprawling farmhouse in the distance.

He was automatically taking stock as he went, noting that all the acreage on one side of the dirt drive was given over to a flourishing orchard; peaches, he guessed uncertainly, since he wasn't familiar with the spring blossoms covering the short, gnarled trees planted in neat rows. On the other side of the drive was pastureland surrounded by a barbed wire fence; there was an elusively bare look to that land, as if little time or money had been spent in cultivating the thick stand of grass there. From that evidence, he concluded the pasture was not a money-making proposition, but merely used for the three or four horses he could see in the distance near a tumbledown barn.

Kelsey was still a good hundred yards away from the sprawling white house when he was confronted by the growling, clearly hostile Tasmanian devil disguised as a dog. Promptly, he sat down in the middle of the dusty drive, reached into the paper bag he carried, produced a large soup bone, and began talking to Lobo.





* * *



"Yes, but who was he?"

Elizabeth brushed a strand of silvery hair from her hot brow and frowned at her younger sister. "I didn't ask, Ami. Just some man who pulled off the road to sleep. Now, would you please stop waving that knife around and use it on the potatoes?"

Ami, who at fourteen was coping with the physical uproar of adolescent hormones and who was glumly convinced she was the ugliest creature since the proverbial duckling, looked at the older sister who had virtually raised her and felt depressed. Not that any woman, she thought vaguely, wouldn't be depressed when she looked at Beth.

Wielding her knife efficiently. Ami sent sidelong glances at her beautiful sister and thought disjointedly that Beth shouldn't be stuck way out here in the middle of nowhere. She should be a model, or actress… or… or a queen. There should be a gallant prince for her, one who wouldn't mind baby sisters with a lot of growing left to do before they could leave the nest. A prince with broad shoulders and a laugh in his eyes, one who could carry Beth's burdens and take away that awful strained look in her eyes.

A prince who would punch Blaine Mallory in the nose.

"Ami."

"Hmmm?" Dwelling on the lovely vision. Ami blinked and saw her sister holding up a potato denuded of much more than its skin. "Oh, I'm sorry, Beth, I just -"

"I know." Elizabeth smoothed her sister's long pale hair and smiled a little. "Daydreaming. But could you keep your mind on this until we get supper finished, sweetie?"

"Okay." Ami was intensely grateful that Beth never made fun of her daydreaming, or her constant bouts with awkwardness as she tried to adjust to the added inches that had come upon her with startling suddenness. And Beth never got mad at her for blurting out whatever popped into her head, like when she had asked Blaine Mallory why he smiled with his teeth but never his eyes.

If she had to have a gorgeous sister, at least she was glad it was Beth. Now, Meg, on the other hand -

"I see the chickens are going to get a lot more potato than skin again, half-pint. Where does your mind go?"

Ami bristled instantly. "It was your turn to do this, Meg, but you had to parade those shorts of yours in town hoping Jeff Mallory would see!"

"That's enough," Elizabeth said mildly before Meg could voice the retort hovering hotly on her lips. "Here, Meg, take this and set the table, please." She handed her younger sister a handful of silverware, meeting the mutinous blue-green eyes steadily until Meg turned away with a flounce.

Under her breath. Ami muttered, "The whole town's talking about her, Beth."

Elizabeth sent her a small smile, but said nothing. Still, Ami could see the increased worry in her sister's eyes when they rested on Meg, and it infuriated her. What was wrong with Meg, adding to Beth's troubles like she did? She seemed hell-bent to prove she was as beautiful as her sister, and it just wouldn't happen. Not that Meg wasn't pretty, Ami decided with reluctant fairness. She was. She had the pale hair of all the sisters, and her blue-green eyes would be lovely if only they weren't so sulky, and her face was delicate. Her figure was good, too, except that she insisted on dressing it scantily in shorts, tops, and jeans that were indecently tight.

She was sixteen, and certainly old enough to know how dangerous her games were. She flitted from one boy to another, reckless, dissatisfied with them after a short while. She wore too much makeup and swore too much, and she both drank and smoked when she was out of Beth's sight. She thought Beth didn't know. Idiot, Ami decided irritably. Of course Beth knew.

"Are the potatoes ready, sweetie?"

Ami handed over the peeled and sliced vegetables, and she felt absolutely wild for a moment. They were increasingly common, these violent emotions; she often burst into tears when something upset her, astonished by her own lack of control. It would get better in time, Beth had told her gently. When her mind and emotions caught up with her maturing body, it would get better.

But for now, she made an incoherent sound and then said intensely, "I have to go outside, Beth! I can't stand it when Meg acts like this! I just can't!"

"All right, honey." Beth smiled at her, understanding. "But don't go far. Supper in half an hour."

Ami nodded, rushing out the back door as if some demon pursued her, and managing to make it around the corner of the house before she burst into tears. She swiped at the wetness angrily as she stalked toward the, driveway, feeling so frustrated and worried that she didn't know where to turn. She couldn't tell Beth about part of it, because her sister would only worry more if she knew that Ami had overheard a few conversations she shouldn't have and had guessed what was going on; Beth, as always, was trying to shield her younger sisters, and had accepted the burden onto her own shoulders.

And it just wasn't right, dammit!

"Hello."

Ami nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked up - a long way up - and felt her breath catch on a last sob. Heavens, but the man was big! He reminded her of a soldier she had seen once, large and powerful but with a way of moving and even a way of standing that made you forget he was huge. And he had a lean face that was smiling, a not really handsome face but oddly pleasant. His hair was a rusty shade of brown and his friendly eyes were a color somewhere between blue and gray. And even though Ami felt - knew - instantly that here was the prince she had hoped for, a shrewd part of her mind was wary.

Kelsey had seen the girl bolt around the corner of the house as if she were running from something, and he had had a few moments to take stock as she approached him. Definitely a sister, he had decided; she was too old to be a daughter - fourteen or fifteen, he guessed. Her slender body showed hints of womanhood but was still ungainly in the transition of adolescence. Her long hair was pale and baby-fine, her thin little face filled with the sharp angles that promised later beauty in bone structure but presently made her features ill-matched; she would be as lovely as her sister, he knew, within a few years.

"Hello," he offered. Intentionally low-key and friendly. And he studied her as she stood staring at him. Haunting eyes, he thought, more blue than green and presently anxious beneath the surprise. She stood poised like a startled fawn, and he felt a curious and unaccustomed gentleness soften something deep inside him.

She was just a baby, a worried and anxious baby troubled by more than the chaos of her maturing self.

"I was here this morning," he went on in the same low, pleasant tone, seeking to ease her wariness. "Your sister - must be your sister - ran me off. Elizabeth?"

"Yes." Her voice was soft, curiously wondering. "Beth. I'm - I'm Ami."

The instant he heard her voice, his eyes narrowed briefly, but his own voice remained friendly. "Hello, Ami."

"Why did you come back?" she asked, not as if she didn't know the reason, but as if she wanted confirmation of some private deduction.

Kelsey debated briefly, but found that no inner decision was necessary. Honestly, he said, "I wanted to see Elizabeth again. I think she's worried about something, and I want to help her."

Ami's wide gaze dropped to bemusedly watch his fingers moving in the ruff of the big dog beside him. "You made friends with Lobo? He's always hated men. He bit Blaine once," she confided with an air that was half pleasure and half guilt.

"Blaine?" His interest quickened; it looked as though his Irish luck had come through yet again.

Ami chewed her lower lip, her gaze returning to his face. Instead of responding to his question, she asked one of her own. "Who are you?"

"My name's Kelsey, Ami."

She didn't appear to find the answer lacking. "Kelsey. I like that. Would you stay for supper, Kelsey?"

Laughter leapt to his eyes. "I'd love to. But don't you think we should ask Elizabeth about that?"

There was a stirring gleam of amusement in her own eyes, as if she were hugely enjoying herself. "It's my house too. You'll be my guest, okay?"

"Okay." He accepted the slender little hand that reached trustfully for his own, vaguely conscious that this was hardly something he had bargained for. This little fawn had seemingly adopted him with startling swiftness, and he couldn't help but believe that her older sister was not going to like it. Still, it was incredibly lucky that he had stumbled into just the place he needed to be.

"Why were you crying, Ami?" he asked as they walked toward the house with Lobo pacing silently beside them.

"Because I'm a teenager," she said baldly with a rueful shake of her head. "I cry over everything. But Beth says I'll grow out of it. I just hope it's soon."

Both amused and sympathetic, he said, "It's rough, isn't it? You feel like yelling or crying, and your body doesn't want to work right and nothing fits anymore."

She looked up at him, grateful. "Yes! Just like that. And I suppose one has to go through it, but it's terrible."

He smiled down at her. "You live here with your parents?"

Ami shook her head. "Our parents were killed in a car crash ten years ago. I was just four, so I hardly remember them. Beth raised me - and Meg, who's sixteen. I guess she raised Jo too; Jo's twenty-three now and doesn't live at home much anymore." She frowned broodingly, her anxiety increasing. Then she shook off whatever disturbed her. "I'm glad Beth was old enough then to convince the judge we didn't need anyone else, but she was only sixteen. It hasn't been easy for her." Ami looked up at him with faint entreaty. "So if she snaps at you - or acts all prickly like brambles - you'll remember that, won't you? That it hasn't been easy for her?"

"I'll remember. Ami," he told her gently, and thought to himself that "Beth" had done a good job in raising this one. "So there are four of you?"

"Uh- huh."

Something tugged at him. "Your names… there's something familiar about them."

"Little Women." Ami grinned. "I doubt you read the book; most men won't admit to it even if they did. But you probably saw one of the movies. We weren't named in order, since Beth is older than Jo, but Mama loved that book. I think she changed the order because she was superstitious; Beth died in the story, you know."

He remembered then. "Of course. I did see a movie."

"We get teased sometimes," Ami confided. She led him up onto a wide front porch and through the door into the house, allowing the dog to come in with them.

It was a comfortable house. Old enough to possess the rabbit warren of small rooms that had been common when it was built, it had clearly been remodeled within the past few years. The rooms were large and airy, with pale walls and shining wood floors dotted here and there with thick rugs. The color scheme was mostly pastels, cool blues, and greens with occasional splashes of brighter colors. There was a great deal of quiet taste in the decorating, and Kelsey's shrewd eyes saw also that whoever had done the house had been working with a limited budget and had done wonders with the place.

Then he was being led into a bright kitchen, and Kelsey found himself confronting the beautiful Elizabeth. She turned from a stove from which appetizing scents wafted, and froze the moment she saw him.

And Kelsey had a conflicting set of impressions and feelings. She was, he saw, even more beautiful than he remembered. Even obviously hot and a little tired, she was lovely. Strands of silver hair clung to her damp brow and throat, her iridescent green eyes were wide and angry, her magnificent body stiff. She didn't want him here, didn't want him here at all, he realized, and this was where he had to be. Where he suddenly wanted to be - and not for professional reasons.

As with Ami, he could see an underlying anxiety in her eyes, and there were hints of strain he hadn't noticed before; at that first meeting, he'd been too overwhelmed by her to see much more than surface beauty. But now he saw. He saw the evidence of stress on her face, the faint shadows beneath her eyes and the look of utter control holding her features. He saw a mouth innately curved with humor but held in a tight line, saw from the fit of her jeans that she had lost weight recently.

He wanted to help her. Suddenly, more than he had ever wanted anything in his life, he wanted to help her.

"Hi," he said lightly.

Before Elizabeth could utter a word. Ami said firmly, "This is Kelsey, Beth. You remember him from this morning. I've invited him to supper."

After a moment, Elizabeth said, "Ami, Meg went up to her room. Could you go and tell her supper's ready, please?"

Her younger sister hesitated, then nodded. And the glance she left Kelsey with was full of entreaty. Unconsciously, he braced himself and returned his gaze to Elizabeth.

"What do you want?" she asked tautly the moment Ami vanished.

All Kelsey's Instincts told him that this woman would not be put off with vague reasons. So he folded his arms across his chest, leaned back against the doorjamb, and met her eyes squarely. "I want to know," he said quietly, "why you distrust the local police. I want to know what it is you're worried stiff about." He reflected for a moment, seeing her tension increase. "I want to know who Blaine is, and why Ami was happy that Lobo bit him."

"Get out of here."

As if he hadn't heard, Kelsey went on. "I've come to a few conclusions on my own. I drove through Pinnacle today. I have a room there, by the way. And I was absolutely fascinated to see what should be a dying town flourishing. Obviously, it's a company town, and obviously the company pays well. But it's odd, Elizabeth Conner, because that company isn't very well known."

"I said -"

"Doesn't look all that big, either." Seeming to ignore her interruption, he was watching her intently. "Meditron, a company listed as manufacturing medical equipment. Their books show a modest profit, nothing spectacular. I drove by there today. They have a surprising amount of security; it isn't exactly usual for armed guards to man an entrance gate for such a small company - unless they're doing something inside that they don't want people to know about."

"That has nothing to do with me," she said tightly. "I don't work at Meditron."

"I know." He ventured a small smile. "You raise peaches and sisters. I haven't met the other two, but it's obvious Ami is worried to death because you are worried. Now, since this is a tight-knit company town with the local law enforcement quite probably company-owned, I have to wonder."

"Who are you?" she whispered.

After a moment, he shrugged. "If I told you who I worked for, it wouldn't mean anything to you. We aren't listed in the phone book and don't offer guided tours of the home office. We're - uh, troubleshooters, for want of a better word. We got a tip that something was rotten in Pinnacle. A call from a distraught young lady was recorded by the FBI - the Washington office, by the way. It seems she wasn't even sure of the state boys, so she called the national office. She was too frightened to leave her name, and she was virtually incoherent. But it was clear she was worried about something going on at Meditron. They were doing bad things out there, she said. And she said other things. That they were hurting people. Particular people."

Elizabeth was frowning a little, wariness in her eyes.

"The matter was passed on to us," Kelsey went on. "I got the job. Turning up on your doorstep was a piece of luck I hadn't counted on."

Her frown deepened. "I told you, I don't -"

"Ami made the call, Elizabeth."

She went white. "That's crazy! Ami is fourteen, and she never goes around Meditron. She wouldn't know -"

"No," Kelsey agreed softly. "She wouldn't know, would she? Unless she had… overheard something? Unless she was convinced that your anxiety was tied up with Meditron. Unless she had realized what had happened to worry you so. Where's your other sister, Elizabeth? Where's Jo?"

She was utterly still, dead white, and there was anguish in her eyes. Then it was gone, and she was in control again. "Get out of my house," she said flatly.

"Let me help you."

"Get out."

Kelsey drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "And if I did leave? I'm still on this job, Elizabeth, I still have to find out what's going on, whether you help me or not. It's what I do. I stick my nose into things and I turn over rocks to see what crawls out from under them. I shake the cage until something rattles loose. And if your sister's in that cage, she could get hurt." He paused. "Of course, you could stop me. You could call Meditron - or Blaine Mallory; he runs the place, doesn't he? You could call him and warn him about me."

"Stop it," she whispered.

He could see she was trembling suddenly, and it hurt him. Unconsciously, his voice deepened and gentled. "Don't you see that I have to know how your sister is involved in this? I have to know, Elizabeth, so I can help her too. If you don't tell me, I'll have to find out for myself - and she could get hurt. I don't want that."

"I can't tell you anything," she said from between stiff lips. "Anything at all."

"You're too damned independent for your own good," he said softly. "Too proud to ask for help. Or is it something else? Are they holding Jo somewhere as a hostage, Elizabeth? Is that it? Have they threatened her if you don't keep quiet?"

"Please leave."

"You can't go it alone, don't you see? It's obviously tearing you apart. And there's Ami. She's worried too. And maybe your other sister knows more than you think. If it's blackmail, I can help; if they're holding Jo, I can help."

"You're a stranger." She spoke in the same soft, stiff voice.

"Yes. So you'll have to decide to trust me, won't you? Trust me, and let me help you."

A door banged sharply at the front of the house.

"Beth?" a deep masculine voice called briskly.

Kelsey glanced over his shoulder, then quickly at Elizabeth.

"It's Blaine," she murmured, a riot of emotions in her eyes.

Taking two quick steps to stand before her, Kelsey reached to grasp her shoulders and draw her stiff body into his arms. "Trust me," he whispered, and covered her startled lips with his own.

He could feel her resistance at first in the tautness of her muscles, feel her hands come up to his chest as if she would have pushed him away. Her eyes were wide at first, panicked. But then he felt a shudder pass through her. Her dark lashes slowly veiled the iridescent green eyes, and the tension drained from her body.

And in the space of a heartbeat, Kelsey's half-formed plan became less professional and much more personal. He stopped thinking about knocking Blaine Mallory off balance and flaunting his own presence innocently as a man interested in Elizabeth Conner. He stopped thinking about all the possibilities in this situation, the overtones and undercurrents of danger. He stopped thinking of why he was here. He stopped thinking.

Some distant part of him admitted silently that he had wanted to kiss her, and never mind professional needs.

She was warm and soft in his arms, her body melding bonelessly against his with no more than a slight pressure from his hand at the small of her back. Her mouth came alive in an instant, opening to him, her arms sliding slowly upward until her fingers lost themselves in his hair. And he pulled her suddenly even tighter against him, everything forgotten but the need to feel her body close to his.





Two




"Dammit, Beth, will you call off this brute of yours -” The man's voice broke off abruptly.

Kelsey, drowning in sensation, didn't want to hold his head above the water. And the woman in his arms seemed utterly unconcerned about having an audience. He heard the sound of footsteps, a jerky feminine exclamation, and a startled giggle from Ami. He also heard a vicious, suppressed sound from a man.

Slowly, he lifted his head, staring down into Beth's vivid eyes and wondering distantly if he looked as dazed as she did. Probably. He didn't give a damn about it, though. And then he heard Ami's innocent voice.

"That's Kelsey, Blaine. He came to see Beth."

And Kelsey heard a deep growling sound, along with the visitor's voice, distracted but still vicious.

"Somebody call off this damned -”

"Lobo," Kelsey murmured, allowing one hand to leave Elizabeth and fall to his side. Almost immediately, he felt the thick ruff of the dog beneath his hand. And he didn't know if it was sheer, primitive male instinct that had made him show his mastery over the dog to the other man. Probably.

Elizabeth was drawing slowly away from him, a wave of faint color sweeping up her throat. She looked shocked, confused, and he touched her cheek with gentle fingers before he allowed her to leave his arms. It was up to her now.

In a soft voice she said, "I didn't expect you, Blaine." She was still gazing at Kelsey.

"Obviously!" Blaine snapped.

She blinked, but seemed unconcerned by his anger. "Blaine, this is - Kelsey. Kelsey, Blaine Mallory."

Kelsey turned slowly to face the other man. He saw a man about his own height but a good twenty pounds lighter. A strikingly handsome man somewhere in his thirties with jet black hair, a lean face, and an obvious habit of dressing well. A man with chilly blue eyes and a face whose muscles were tightly held in anger. Still absently petting Lobo, Kelsey said casually, "Hello. A friend of the family?"

Blaine's nostrils flared slightly, then he seemed to dismiss Kelsey as if he were less than human. "Beth, I want to talk to you," he said sharply.

In a polite tone, Kelsey said, "We're about to sit down to supper, you know. Much better if you come back later. And call first next time, will you?"

"I'll show you out, Blaine," Ami said brightly, sending Kelsey a quick look brimming with satisfaction.

Blaine opened his mouth to speak, but when Kelsey put an arm around Elizabeth and she came to him as If she belonged at his side, his mouth closed with a snap and he turned on his heel to stalk back through the house with Ami helpfully following.

Kelsey looked at the other sister, who was staring at him with her mouth open. She was a typical teenager, her clothes too tight and her makeup lavishly applied with a less than expert hand. She was also a pretty girl with a discontented expression and sulky blue-green eyes, and Kelsey guessed shrewdly that she was less surprised at his presence than displeased to find her sister in the arms of any man.

"Hello. You must be Meg," he said casually. "Why don't you and Ami wait for us in the dining room, okay?"

"I -” Meg turned abruptly and left the room.

Elizabeth pulled away from him again. "I - I don't understand." Her voice was shaking.

Kelsey knew only too well that she was fighting to resurrect her barriers, shocked by him and by herself, quite literally knocked out of kilter by what had happened. And no wonder, considering all she must have been through before today. He took her hand gently, pulling her around to face him again, and his free hand lifted to touch her hot cheek.

"I know. I also know," he added with intentional dryness, "that you probably would have slapped my face under ordinary circumstances. But the circumstances aren't normal for you, are they? You're tired and tense, and undoubtedly scared - and I took advantage of that. I'm sorry, Elizabeth. Not for kissing you. I could never be sorry about that. Just for the timing, that's all."

She was looking up at him, baffled and uncertain. Not yet balanced enough to be embarrassed. "You… you acted like you wanted Blaine to think -”

"Yes, I did. I wanted him to think I was interested in you. Maybe even that I had a prior claim. That is what he has in mind, isn't it?"

In a low voice, she said, "He wants me to many him. His persistence is like water dropping on a stone."

"Is he threatening Jo to blackmail you?" Kelsey asked bluntly.

She winced, but shook her head. "No. He doesn't think he has to be underhanded or ruthless about it. He thinks he can - can have me any time he really tries."

Kelsey was a fairly even-tempered man, not given to emotional outbursts and certainly trained and experienced enough to control what he did feel. He was a little surprised at himself that he should feel a definitely savage urge to go after Blaine Mallory and beat the hell out of him. But he leashed those emotions, aware that Elizabeth couldn't take much more, at least not today. Cheerfully, he said, "Well, then. I'll just be your buffer."

She had regained some other control, and looked at him with misgivings. "And what will I be?" she asked warily, drawing her hand from his as if she had just noticed.

Honestly, he said, "You'll be a buffer for me. A reason for me to be here, unconnected with Meditron." And so much more, so much that he hadn't planned on.

Elizabeth turned away and began automatically to transfer the food from cooking pots to serving dishes. "I don't know what to believe," she murmured. "I can't trust you. I just can't!"

"Yes, you can," he insisted quietly, beginning to help her. "You have to, Elizabeth. If you don't want to tell me about your sister yet, then well wait on that; we have a little time, I think. Mallory isn't suspicious of me, and won't be if we get our story straight -”

"What story?"

He saw her hands shaking, and gently took a serving dish from her. Forcing his voice to remain casual and cheerful, he said, "The story of how we met, of course. Mallory has to believe I came out here to court you, and he's bound to ask you questions. So we'll come up with something to satisfy his curiosity - and Meg's, since I could see she didn't think much of me. Ami will be easy, I believe."

Elizabeth almost smiled. "She likes you. Meg… Meg is going through a rough period right now. She's rebelling. Both of them missed having a father…" Her voice trailed into silence.

"Well, maybe they can use a big brother," he observed in the same light tone. "I'll see what I can do."

Her face closed down suddenly. "No," she said evenly, "don't do that. It'll be worse for them when you're gone."

Kelsey watched her for a moment as she piled warm rolls into a linen-lined wicker basket. "Where could we have met?" he asked, thinking it wiser to change the subject. And he almost held his breath, hoping either that Mallory had become too insistent for her to feel confident about fighting him, or else that she realized she really needed his help in this situation. Whatever. As long as she accepted him.

She was silent for a moment, then shrugged jerkily. "Charleston, I suppose. I go there sometimes. Shopping and just to get away."

"Charleston it is, then. I'll take those." He took two of the dishes from her, then followed as she led the way to the dining room, more relieved by her response than he had expected. Damn Hagen, he thought distractedly. Intentionally or not, it looked as if his boss had borrowed Cupid's bow again. The man really ought to abandon his federal machinations and open up a dating service.

"Just who the hell are you?" Meg demanded angrily the moment he came into the small dining room.

Kelsey ignored the faint sound of protest from Elizabeth. He pulled her chair out for her, then took one for himself and smiled easily across the table at the angry girl. "I'm Kelsey, and I came to Pinnacle to visit your sister," he told her calmly.

"It's funny we never heard of you before," Meg said suspiciously, her sulky eyes narrowed.

Ami opened her mouth, then intercepted a look from Kelsey and shut it, addressing herself to the meal.

Cheerful, Kelsey said, "Maybe she didn't think I was worth mentioning. I came out here to prove her wrong, though."

"Meg, please," Elizabeth said in a low voice.

Kelsey could hear the strain, and the smile he sent Meg then was underlaid with steel. "We won't talk about it right now," he said gently.

Meg glared at him, but nonetheless began eating without further comment. And after a gleeful look at Kelsey, Ami began talking casually about the events of the previous school week. She fetched more ice tea from the kitchen when it was needed, even pouring some for Meg with the long-suffering look that only a fourteen-year-old could perfect. And Ami kept talking lightly, seeming not to notice Elizabeth's silence or the frequent glances Kelsey directed to her bent head.

When Kelsey realized that Elizabeth was just going to keep shoving the food around on her plate without eating much of it, he pushed back his chair and went around to hers. "Come on," he said softly. "We'll go sit on the porch swing for a while. The girls can clean up."

"I have a call -” Meg began to wail, but Ami's sharp kick under the table silenced her.

"Of course we will. You go on, Beth." Ami smiled sunnily.

Silently, Elizabeth allowed Kelsey to pull out her chair, and she led the way from the house and onto the front porch. She sat down in the swing, stiffening slightly when Kelsey joined her, but not looking at him.

After a moment, Kelsey said, "The FBI got that call over a week ago. How long has it been, Elizabeth? How long have you been under this kind of pressure?" And, when she didn't respond, he sighed. "Long enough. You haven't had a decent night's sleep or a good meal in too long."

Elizabeth stiffened even more when he put an arm around her and drew her head to rest on his shoulder. But his voice was inexpressibly soothing when he murmured, "Sleep, Elizabeth. You're not alone now. I'll keep the villains at bay with my trusty sword, I promise."

She almost smiled. He was moving the swing gently, creating a soft breeze and a soothing motion, and his hard body was a curiously comfortable resting place. Too tired to think anymore, she gradually relaxed, and soon her eyelids became too heavy to hold open. Finally, she slept.

Kelsey held her gently, moving the swing automatically and gazing off into the deepening twilight. It had all just caught up with her today, he realized. He had seen too much strength in the angry woman of this morning to believe that she was knocked off balance very often, or for very long. He doubted it was in her nature to lean on someone else and certainly not on a stranger. He guessed that tomorrow would be very different.

So, being Kelsey, he tried to marshal his arguments now. Though it was, he conceded, damned difficult to think at all with her warm body pressed to his side. He rested his cheek against her soft hair, scowling ferociously in an effort to stop thinking about that. And he was successful. Barely.

So. What would he say to her tomorrow? The pieces he had put together in talking to her still gave him very little in the way of a completed picture. He was certain that Meditron - meaning Blaine Mallory - was doing something shady, perhaps highly illegal, and very likely dangerous. He was also certain that Elizabeth's sister Jo was somehow involved; she was obviously being used as a lever to keep Elizabeth silent, but why? Had she somehow found out what was going on at Meditron?

Ami had definitely been the one to call the FBI; he had recognized her voice immediately. And one thing that frightened young voice had said on the tape was branded in his mind: They've got my sister. Such a lost voice, desperate with fear and worry.

He didn't know how much Elizabeth knew, but did know that it would take time for her to trust him enough to talk about it. If they had that time. And if she didn't build new walls against him after what had happened between them in the kitchen.

What had happened between them? He thought he knew - but did she? Would she recognize the emotion he was increasingly certain of? Or would she, hounded by Mallory who, Kelsey thought, would hardly be subtle or gentle, decide that he was merely the lesser of two evils, the attraction purely physical with no demanding emotional issues?

"Damn," Kelsey murmured, rubbing his cheek half consciously against her soft hair. For a fleeting moment he wondered if Elizabeth had already given in at least partially to Mallory, and he felt something inside him knot painfully. No, no, of course she hadn't. She hadn't slept with the man. She wouldn't give in even physically to a man endangering her sister.

What about before? He tried to ignore the question, but it wouldn't go away. According to his research, Blaine Mallory had been in charge of Meditron for years, and he'd lived in Pinnacle all his life. Like Elizabeth. And she was so beautiful, of course the bastard would have tried…

Kelsey wanted to break something. Mallory's neck, he decided, would fit the bill nicely. He wished he could laugh at himself for this unaccustomed savagery, but it didn't feel very amusing.

The very nature of his job had allowed little time for romance, no room at all for commitment, and precious little energy for either; he wasn't used to dealing with feelings like these. Even so, the thought of a rival had never disturbed him, even when one had existed. He had shrugged away desire and moved on, uninterested in fighting for what he wanted. And God knew he had never worried about a woman's past or possible lovers, rightly deciding it was none of his business.

And it wasn't his business now, except that he had the strong feeling that if he discovered Mallory was the kind of rotten scum who could sleep with a woman and then deliberately endanger and use her sister, he would quite certainly break the bastard into tiny pieces and scatter him to the winds.

"Is she asleep?" Ami had come out onto the porch, hovering uncertainty.

"Yes," Kelsey murmured, pulling his mind from violent thoughts and smiling a little.

Ami eased into a ladder-back rocking chair near the swing, and in the faint light from the living room window, her young face was serious. "She's tired. We had a rough winter; a late freeze damaged some of our peach trees, and that's worried her." Her voice was soft. "And, lately, Blaine's been pestering her. He's been after her since before she graduated from high school, but she never cared about him. But he's always coming around now, smiling and sweet-talking, those cold eyes of his looking at her until I want to hit him -”

"It's all right. Ami." More than all right, because she had told him something he needed badly to know. "I won't let him hurt Elizabeth anymore."

A tremulous smile curved Ami's lips. "Gosh, does it happen that fast? I mean - well, you must lo - care about her?"

Very conscious of the woman sleeping in his arms, he said softly, "Very much. So I guess it does happen that fast." And something in him shook on its foundations suddenly in a warning rumble that baffled him. He didn't know what it was, that feeling of foreboding, but his arm tightened around Elizabeth almost compulsively.

Ami tilted her head to one side. "But you want everyone to think you've known her for longer than a day?"

He pulled his mind back to the conversation. "That's very perceptive of you, little fawn. And quite right. So don't talk about it, all right? It'll be our secret."

Ami nodded and stood up, then looked a bit startled. "What was that you called me?"

"Little fawn."

"But why?"

"It's what you remind me of. A little fawn, shy and delicate, all legs and sometimes awkward. With big eyes and a face that'll break hearts someday."

Ami drew a deep breath. "Really? You aren't just saying that to be kind?"

He laughed almost soundlessly. "No, honey, not to be kind. You're growing so fast that your skin can't keep up with those lovely bones - but it'll catch up. And when those high school prom queens look into mirrors and realize all the beauty is behind them, you'll just be blooming."

Ami made an inarticulate little sound and rushed from the porch, surprising him.

Elizabeth raised her head and pulled gently away from him just then. "Thank you," she said quietly. "You convinced her when I've been unable to. She thinks she's ugly, and it's hard for her to believe she'll be lovely one day."

"Was she crying -?"

"Yes, but don't worry. You don't know it, but you just won yourself a devoted little sister." Elizabeth sighed softly, her gaze skittering away from his.

Steadily, Kelsey said, "No matter what happens between us, Ami has a friend in me as long as she needs me." And he wondered why he questioned a possible future when a large part of him was so very sure.

Although she hadn't slept very long, it seemed the nap had restored Elizabeth's balance somewhat. She gave him a very direct look. Both of them were clearly visible to the other in the light from the living room window. "Nothing is going to happen between us."

He hesitated, then said quietly, "Something already has, and we both know it."

Her lips firmed stubbornly, "No. You said yourself that you took advantage of …”

"That's how it began," he interrupted. "But it turned into something else. Elizabeth, I didn't come here planning on romance. And if I had a choice, I'd sure as hell pick another time, because when my business and romance clash, there's apt to be quite an explosion. But I don't have a choice. And I don't think you do either."

Elizabeth looked at the big, quiet man gazing at her so steadily, and felt her heart lurch. Oh, damn, how had this happened? Why couldn't she tell him with sure belief that it was his imagination, that of course there was nothing between them. That she would never think of getting involved in any way with a stranger, much less a stranger who had appeared abruptly in her life claiming that he wanted to help her? A stranger with heaven only knew what kind of past. "Go away," she whispered.

"I can't."

She forced a shaky laugh. "Because it's your job."

"Partly. Because it's my job. Because your family is in trouble and I want to help. Because I held you in my arms and… I wanted you."

She felt an odd, warm shiver somewhere deep Inside her, and a part of her recognized that this man, this stranger, possessed a kind of charm she had never before encountered. Charm and something else, something she felt to be honest, and yet frantically mistrusted. Something… caring.

He rose to his feet then, and pulled her gently up. "You need to think, I know," he said quietly. "Think about everything, Elizabeth, but one thing especially. I can help you. I swear to you, I can help."

"With your trusty sword?"

He smiled a little. "That, and a few other little tricks. I know you're afraid for your sister, afraid that if you do anything at all, tell anyone, it'll just be worse for her. But you're wrong. The most important thing to me is making sure she's safe as quickly as possible. Then I'll worry about what Meditron is up to. Do you understand that, Elizabeth?"

Inconsequentially, she said, "Everybody calls me Beth."

"I know."

She gazed up at him and, after a moment, nodded. "All right. I'll think about it."

He hesitated, then slipped his arms around her and drew her slowly toward him. "And think about this," he murmured as his head bent toward hers.

Elizabeth could have pulled away; he gave her the time and his hold on her was gentle. But she knew she wouldn't, even as her arms slid up around his neck, even as her body swayed toward his helplessly. She knew she wouldn't. And when his mouth covered hers, she felt more than heard the faint sound in the back of her throat.

And trapped somewhere in her mind was the incredulous thought that she was twenty-six years old and hardly unkissed; why had she never felt these feelings before?

She could feel her heart -pounding through every square inch of her flesh, feel the blood rushing through her veins with a new heat. Her body was molding itself to his in an unconsciously seeking, hungry movement, the hard response of his body a strangely intimate shock that weakened her legs. And she could feel him moving against her now, subtle movements that inflamed all her senses and trapped yet another faint sound in the back of her throat.

His hair was like silk. She thought dimly, threading her fingers through it compulsively. And his body was so large and hard, his arms so strong as they held her. Her breasts were aching. She wanted him to touch them with his hands, his lips. She pressed even closer to him, no room left for shock at the wildness of what she was feeling.

Kelsey made a rough sound, his arms tightening, his lips slanting suddenly across hers to deepen the kiss. He was fast losing control and knew it, knew if he didn't stop this soon he wouldn't be able to. He hadn't been prepared for her instant response… or his own. Blindly, caught up in something beyond his experience, he kissed her as if that alone was an act of possession. And when his lips left hers at last with a wrenching effort, it was only so that he could explore the soft skin of her throat.

"Elizabeth," he muttered hoarsely, aching. The sound of his own voice, the sound of her name, helped him to regain some control over raging desire. This was not the time or the place, and his mind forced his body to remember that. Gradually, slowly, his embrace became less fierce, and he cradled the back of her head with one hand so that her face rested against the hollow of his neck.

She was boneless against him, trembling slightly, and he could feel her warm breath coming quickly against, his skin. And he barely heard her quiet, husky voice over the pounding of his own heart.

"What are you… that you can do this to me?"

Kelsey pressed his lips briefly to her forehead, then rubbed his cheek against her hair. "What are you," he repeated roughly, "that you can do this to me?"

Elizabeth drew back slowly, looking up at him with eyes that were dazed and wondering. "I - I don't -”

He stopped her words with a gentle finger over her lips. "Just think about it, Elizabeth. Think about all of it." The last thing on earth he wanted was to leave her, but he had to. He turned away and moved slowly to the steps, then paused for a last long look at her. "I'll be back," he promised.

She stared after him for long moments, then went into the house, her steps guided by habit, not thought. She found Meg standing just inside, smiling derisively.

"Necking on the front porch - at your age! My, Beth, how very grown up of you!"

Elizabeth looked at her for a moment. "Have you done your homework?" she asked more or less by rote.

"I didn't have any. And it's Friday anyway. Beth, what's got into you? Or do we both know the answer to that?"

Elizabeth stiffened, and she had never felt the ten years between them more than at that moment. Very quietly, she said, "I can hardly control your language or manners when you're out of my sight, Meg, but you will remember both inside this house. In future, keep remarks like that to yourself."

Meg's eyes flashed. "So I'm in the wrong again? It's fine for you to criticize my boyfriends and look at them like they were dirt under your feet, but I'm not allowed to say a word when my prim big sister is out on the front porch practically laying down for some man she hardly knows -”

"Meg!" The worst of it was, Elizabeth reflected unhappily, she could hardly argue the point. And another voice saved her just then from having to respond.

"Why you rotten little cat!" Ami exploded, descending the remaining stairs to glare at Meg. "You're just furious because a really terrific man kissed Beth instead of you! Kelsey makes those creatures you hang out with look like the pathetic animals they are, and you know it. You can't stand it, can you, Meg? It drives you crazy. You only flirt with Blaine - who's old enough to be your father - because it's Beth he wants, and you wiggle around In front of his brother because you know she can't stand him."

"That's enough." Elizabeth had control of herself again. And when she looked at Meg's furious, white face, she regretted that Ami had been so frank. "Meg -”

But Meg had whirled away, rushing up the stairs and slamming her bedroom door violently.

"Sorry," Ami said gruffly. "I know you don't like for me to do that. But she makes me so mad."

"I know, sweetie." Elizabeth wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers up over her head. She sighed, then smiled at her youngest sister. "Thank you for cleaning the kitchen. I should have thanked Meg."

Dryly, Ami said, "That's all right; she didn't do anything. I fed Lobo, too, and the horses." She looked at Elizabeth searchingly, then said, "I like Kelsey."

"I know you do."

"You - like him too, don't you?"

With absolutely no idea of how to answer that, Elizabeth found another smile somewhere. "I'm a little tired, sweetie, so I think I'll turn in early. You should too if you're going to ride Minnow over to Susan's house in the morning."

"Okay." Then, offhandedly, she asked, "Is Kelsey coming tomorrow?"

"I don't know. I'll lock up down here."

Ami nodded. "Good night, Beth."

" 'Night, honey."

Without thinking, Elizabeth checked doors and windows, let Lobo out for a last run and then went up to bed. She showered and changed for sleep in the same unthinking manner, and it was only when she lay between cool sheets that she could no longer avoid her thoughts and feelings.

Especially her feelings.

Why? Why had that stranger affected her so powerfully? She had never in her life lost control like that! Not like that… She turned restlessly in the bed, stingingly aware of the heavy, aching tautness of her breasts, the dull ache somewhere near the pit of her belly. She remembered his hands on her, his lips against her skin, and the very memory prompted a hot flush she knew was very real.

She was just confused, she tried to convince herself. Yes, confused, that was all. Blaine had been bombarding her for weeks now, and his practiced seduction had merely taught her senses, awakened them.

You didn't feel anything with him. Nothing at all.

It was true - unless she cared to count a certain revulsion. There had certainly been no positive response. Blaine had managed a few kisses and touched her often, yet her only emotions had been disgust and aversion, especially in recent days. And as for her senses, her body had remained unaffected by him. Coldly unaffected.

But Kelsey… Kelsey. Was that his first name of last? Who was he? What was he? Could she trust him as he wanted to be trusted? Did she dare?

He was so kind with Ami, so gentle and comforting, speaking to her as an equal and a friend. Blandly undisturbed by Meg's rudeness. Polite, but steel-strong with Blaine. And with her he'd been disconcertingly perceptive. Quietly insistent. Confident that he could help her. Sensitive of her weary state of mind. His strong arms so warm and comforting… then so passionate… so wildly passionate.

He seemed a dozen men. A dozen baffling, fascinating, charming men.

Dear heaven, what should she believe? Was he using her in order to find out about Meditron? Could a man be so convincing that his body shook with desire? Could he pretend such an intensity of feeling that it had hoarsened his voice and swelled his body against her?

Don't think about that, she told herself fiercely, aware that the mental images stirred her senses to life again. Don't think about it!

What should she do?

She was still going over it all in her mind when sleep tugged at her unexpectedly, and she gave in gratefully. But there was little comfort in her dreams, even though she was blessedly unaware that she tossed and turned all night while her subconscious and her body remembered.



* * *



Kelsey automatically checked his motel room, his mind only half on the procedure until he found the electronic bug poorly hidden in a lampshade. He looked at it for a moment, then turned on his television set, his professional instincts mildly disgusted by the poor placement of the listening device. Dumb, he thought, to put it so near the television set.

He stood thoughtfully for a moment, then checked the parking lot out front with wary eyes from behind a curtain before leaving his room quietly. He moved with the silence of a predatory animal along the concrete walkway and around the side to the row of rooms at right angles to the front. He knocked softly at one of the doors and waited.

The door opened a moment later, revealing a very large blond man with serenely expressionless dark eyes and a hard, handsome face. The man stepped back to allow Kelsey to enter the room, then closed the door behind him and went to stretch out lazily on the bed. "Room's clear," he said softly.

"Mine's not," Kelsey said in response, taking the chair by the window.

"I'm not surprised." The blond man looked faintly amused. "Two members of the local constabulary tossed it a couple of hours ago. You didn't leave anything in there to furrow their law-abiding brows, did you?"

"No." Kelsey stretched out his long legs and contemplated them somewhat grimly.

The blond man lit a cigarette, his hooded eyes watching his guest. "Then," he suggested mildly, "I assume you did something to catch their attention? They didn't search or bug my room, so we can take it they don't generally do things like that to their occasional visitors."

Kelsey lifted his gaze to the other's face. "You don't have to try and be so damned subtle, Derek. Just ask."

Derek smiled a little. "Okay. Whose nose did you put out of joint while you were supposed to be unobtrusive?"

"Mallory's."

After a moment of silence during which he blew a smoke ring and studied it critically, Derek said in a placid voice, "I assume you had a reason."

"I thought so." Kelsey didn't elaborate; instead he said, "He was quick, I'll grant that. And now we know the local boys are definitely in his pocket. How'd they get into my room, by the way? The manager?"

"Nothing so obvious. They picked the lock. I happened to be near your room while they tossed it; they didn't say anything of value. Then one of them went to the office, where he checked the register. A 'routine check,' he told the manager."

Kelsey grunted. "The cops in that patrol car you distracted from me earlier probably got my tag number. And if they didn't, one of the others soon will. They'll find out everything matches."

Derek blew another smoke ring and contemplated it. "Um. Think our local boy might have national connections?"

"You mean Intelligence connections? It doesn't have that feel, does it?"

"No. It feels like a case of local boy makes good and pleases the community by pouring money into his hometown. Got to know where that money's coming from, though. Whatever he's selling can't have a local market, I'd bet."

"I'd be willing to cover that bet." Kelsey looked even more grim. "He's playing some nasty games, too. That call the FBI got. I've found the girl. Fourteen, and worried sick."

"Her sister's missing?"

"Looks that way. And the setup's perfect for strong-arm pressure." Hardly aware that his voice had grown savage, and that Derek's eyes had narrowed slightly, Kelsey went on. "Four sisters living away from the town, orphaned years ago, and trying to make a go of it alone. The oldest not out of her twenties. Elizabeth doesn't dare ask for help because that bastard's threatening her, two younger sisters at home to take care of and one of them a rebel with more temper than sense."

"Elizabeth?"

"Conner. Ami's the one who called, and Meg's the troublemaker. Mallory showed up; Ami says he's been after Elizabeth since she left school, and now he's holding some threat to Jo over her head and trying seduction. One look, and you know he's a shark. He sure as hell didn't waste any time in having his boys check me out."

After a moment, Derek said softly, "You've found out a great deal, it seems."'

Kelsey scowled at him. "I told you not to be subtle. I hate that."

Derek laughed almost soundlessly. "All right. Let me see if I understand the situation. You found - heaven only knows how - the girl who alerted us. You also found her older sister, Elizabeth, who seems to have knocked you pretty well off your feet. Aside from the fact that one of her sisters seems to be missing and possibly held as hostage against her good behavior, she's also being forced to cope with the dastardly attentions of Mallory, whom you would dearly love to throttle. Right so far?"

"Not throttle. Tear apart."

"Uh- huh. And because of these various and sundry things, your attention has shifted somewhat from Meditron. To be blunt, you don't give a damn what they're up to out there. Your priorities have changed. First, you intend to restore the missing sister to her family, thereby removing Mallory's lever against Elizabeth. Second, if at all possible disarranging Mallory's face somewhere along the way. And third, you want to find out what's going on at Meditron, so that you can hopefully lock Mallory away for the duration of his natural life."

"Anybody ever tell you that you talk real good?"

"Constantly. Is my summation fairly accurate?"

"On the nose."

"Um. You going to tell the boss all this?"

"Are you out of your mind?" Kelsey demanded with polite incredulity.

"It was just a thought. He signs the checks, after all."

Kelsey had a brief suggestion as to what Hagen could do with his paychecks which, after consideration, Derek observed to be anatomically impossible…

"So it is," Kelsey agreed. He stared at Derek.

Derek stared back.

"Well?"

Derek shrugged. "It's your show. Where do we start?"





Three




"Raven, my favorite partner and dear old friend, how are you?"

After a moment, her voice reached him mildly through the long distance connection. "Why, I'm fine, Kelsey. And you?"

"Top of my form, love, top of my form. How's Josh and that commando crew of his?"

"Flourishing." There might have been a trace of amusement in her voice, but for the most part it remained placid. "Rafferty and Sarah have a little boy, did you hear? His name's Patrick. Zach and Teddy are well and obviously happy. Lucas and Kyle are fine. And Josh and I are just dandy. It's spring in New York, and the Mets will do great this year if they can straighten out their pitching staff. Does that cover it?"

"Yes." He cleared his throat. "Um, Raven -”

"Spit it out, Kelsey." She was definitely amused now. "You never were much on small talk."

He sighed. "Uh-huh. Look, friend, I need a favor."

"You've got it."

"I haven't told you what it is yet!"

"Since when did that matter?"

Kelsey smiled a little. "All right. Thanks. What I really need at this point is information, and quickly. I need everything you can find on a town called Pinnacle, a company named Meditron, and a man named Blaine Mallory. All are connected."

"Anything in particular you're looking for?" Her voice was brisk and businesslike now.

"The usual stuff. Hints of shady dealings, more money than there should be, investigations on the state or federal level. You know the drill. I've done some basic research, but there are a few cloudy areas I didn't have time to probe; see what you can dig up. Oh, and I need the blueprints and a recent floor plan of Meditron, from the ground up."

"Got it." A bit dryly, she added, "Should I ask why you aren't going through official channels for this?"

Kelsey hesitated, then cleared his throat a bit uncomfortably. "Well, the boss won't expect me to check in for a while yet, and I'd rather not do so until I have to. If I use my clearance to get the information, he'll know about it. And, anyway, I haven't got anything solid to report, so -”

"Kelsey."

"What?"

"What is it you don't want Hagen to know?"

He sighed. "Hell. If you must know, old friend, I don't want him to find out he's done it again. He's gotten so paranoid about losing agents that he might just pull me if he finds out too soon. I can't risk that."

"What's her name?" The amusement had returned to Raven's voice, but it was warm now.

"Elizabeth Conner. I think Hagen's a warlock. I also think I'm not ready for this, not one bit."

"None of us ever are," she observed.

"No, I suppose not. Well…"

"I'll get the information for you, Kelsey. Do you object to Josh and the others knowing?"

"Hell, no. Turn Zach loose with his computers and see what he can uncover. Rafferty and Lucas might hear something from their intelligence contacts. And Lord knows Josh can move a mountain of bureaucratic red tape when he wants. I don't mind at all. But I'm on a tight schedule. There's a girl missing, and I have a very bad feeling about Meditron." He briskly rattled off a phone number and added, "You can reach me here; it's the number of Derek's hotel room."

"Outlaw Derek?" she murmured.

"The very same."

"Um. Tell him hello from me, and that I haven't forgotten England."

"What happened in England?"

"Ask Derek. I'll be in touch as soon as we have something."

"Right. And, Raven - thanks."

She made a rude sound and hung up.

Kelsey cradled the receiver and sat staring at Derek. "I didn't know you'd worked with Raven."

"Yes."

"She said hello, and to tell you that she hasn't forgotten England."

"She wouldn't have."

Kelsey frowned at the blond man still lying lazily on the bed blowing smoke rings. "Well?"

Derek made a "tsk" sound when a smoke ring emerged imperfectly, then looked at his partner. "It was one of those cases where our dear, benevolent boss kept too damn much to himself. Raven's contact, unknown to us, was a double agent. I tumbled to that just in time to get her out before he defected; he'd planned to take her with him as a nice prize for the other side."

"Ah." Kelsey reflected. "We should have let Josh strangle Hagen. I knew it at the time."

"You'll have to tell me that story one day."

"I will. In the meantime…"

"Yes. Tomorrow will be a long day."



* * *



When Elizabeth rose from bed early the next morning, she felt better, stronger, and half convinced that at least part of the preceding day had been a dream. She showered and dressed, and as she was standing before the mirror in her bathroom putting up her hair, she tried to fully convince herself it had indeed been a dream.

Because things like that didn't happen to people like her. Ordinary, rational, responsible people like her. Besides, women just weren't swept off their feet by large masculine strangers these days; it was an age of caution between the sexes for one thing, what with the confusion in roles and various other puzzlements. And for another thing, men with the ability to sweep a rational woman mindlessly off her sensible feet were hardly found on every street comer - in this or any age.

Elizabeth glared at her reflection, only then realizing that she was wearing a pretty green silk blouse and white shorts that were short indeed. "Dammit," she muttered.

She didn't need his help, of course. She didn't want his help. Even if he could help, which he couldn't. Trusty sword notwithstanding. Heaven knew the man looked capable of slaying dragons or anything else that came along, but some dragons were just too damned dangerous to mess with, especially when a dear hostage was hidden in his cave.

Elizabeth shook away a tremor of fear and went downstairs, reminding herself that she was taking the only course of action available to her. She was waiting, as patiently as she knew how, for this whole thing to be over. Blaine had so much power locally that if he couldn't resolve this quickly, no one else would be able to. And even if she could get an outsider in to help there was no way to move fast enough. With the guards and electronic security at Meditron, they would always have warning and time enough to… bury the evidence.

Oh, God, no, she prayed fervently.

She fixed a light breakfast for herself automatically, taking note of the signs that both her sisters had been before her. Ami would be at Susan's now, since they were practicing for an upcoming horse show, and Meg - as usual - would be with her friends in town.

Cleaning up after herself, Elizabeth found her thoughts turning again to Kelsey, and swore softly. It was all just so complicated! Who was he? What was he? Riding into her life in his beat-up car and making noises like her knight in shining armor. Dammit. That was garbage, that's what it was. Just garbage. Knights had died with Camelot.

The silence of the big house and her own muddied thoughts finally drove Elizabeth outside for fresh air and something to occupy her. She made her way to the bam and whistled for her horse, a big chestnut gelding the color of a vibrant sunset. Buddy willingly stuck his head into the light nylon bridle and stood patiently while she strapped a bareback pad on his broad back. She hardly needed the pad's strap for balance, but used it mostly for the sake of her white shorts. She swung aboard the horse, then bent and removed her sandals, setting them on a handy fence post near the road as they passed.

Elizabeth had wondered from time to time what kind of woman she would have become without the responsibilities of raising her sisters and keeping the peach orchard in business. She was not, she knew only too well, a sedate person at heart. Her control had become ingrained over the years, but sometimes her emotions went winging away from her, wild and uncontrollable, as if some deeply buried part of her knew they had to fly occasionally or else forget how to do it.

It happened no more than once or twice a year, a brief period when she felt the abandoned singing of her emotions, her senses. She had to fly, had to, and the next best thing to wings of her own was a fleet horse with racing Arab blood in his veins and the willingness to fly for her.

They went over the wooden pasture gate in an easy leap, crossing the driveway in one stride as Buddy settled down happily to run. Barely guiding him with her knees, Elizabeth leaned forward to silently urge him on as they raced along one of the wide lanes between the blooming peach trees. She felt her hair snatched by the wind of their speed, aware that pins had scattered and that It flew out behind her like a banner.

She didn't care. Faster and faster, pausing only momentarily to turn a corner from one lane to the next, they flew. Her heart was thundering, the wind whistling in her ears, and she laughed aloud with the glorious sense of freedom. Nothing troubled her for these brief, precious moments, no problems, no dangers to heart or family. She was not a woman who had been alone too long with her responsibilities, but a soaring spirit refusing to be caged long enough to forget how to fly.



* * *



Kelsey heard the hoofbeats before he saw her, and he stood by his car in the driveway scanning the orchard keenly. She was at first only a distant flash of fiery red and green and white, the horse's big body moving so swiftly the colors were only a blur. But they were working their way back toward the drive, and Kelsey felt his heart stop when he could see her clearly.

Her spun- silver hair flowed out behind her, long and shining in the morning sunlight. Her lovely face was flushed from the wind, her long golden legs seemingly a part of the horse's gleaming sides. Horse and woman emerged from the surrounding peach blossoms, the vital aliveness of summer after the hazy dream of spring.

Kelsey had moved into the lane as they approached, and stood his ground while the horse stopped with a head-swinging, sliding motion that was curiously graceful. The big animal stood still, snorting softly, flanks moving quickly, and Elizabeth looked down at Kelsey with something wild in her eyes.

"One brief shining moment," she murmured huskily.

Kelsey stepped closer, resting a hand on the horse's shoulder as he looked up at her. "What?"

The wildness in her eyes refused to settle, like a falcon ignoring its handler's commands. "There was a place called Camelot," she said. "But it didn't live long. Like all dreams, it died too soon."

Kelsey reached up, his big hands encircling her waist easily as he drew her slowly from the horse. He kept his hands at her waist when she stood before him, and looked into the vivid, unhooded eyes of a soaring falcon.

"The world remembers," he told her quietly, almost hypnotized by those eyes, very conscious that he was looking into the iridescent depths of an unguarded soul. And aware that she would not have chosen to let him see, not a stranger, not a man she didn't fully trust. But he saw, and was deeply grateful that he saw.

"Who are you?" she asked then.

"I'm the man who wants to help you," he told her.

She tilted her head a bit, vivid eyes questioning. "Why?"

"Because… it's important to me. Because I don't ever want you hurt again." He wondered, vaguely, what had happened to the bull about his job. Who cared? And he fiercely ignored another shudder from something inside him that was like an earthquake ripping through solid rock.

Her eyes were settling a bit now, finally but slowly. "But who are you?" she asked intensely. "What are you? I know your name, but I don't know who you are. And I have to know who you are, because -”

"Because?"

She shook her head a little, and the last of the wildness vanished into guarded depths. She looked at him then, really looked at him, and anger stirred. She removed her hands from his forearms and stiffened. "I don't know why you came back here. I can't help you."

Kelsey pondered for a moment, then said coolly, "I don't need your help."

She backed away from him warily. "No questions about Meditron or Blaine?"

"No. It isn't necessary. I can get the information I need from another source."

"Why did you come back here then?"

"I wanted to see you."

"Oh, right." She laughed softly, scornfully. "One look at me and this great passion was born?"

He smiled a little. "Something like that."

Elizabeth said something derisive, and it wasn't "malarkey."

"I've heard that line too many times, pal; It had ivy growing on it when my grandmother was a girl. She didn't believe it, and I don't believe it. If you think I'm going to -”

"I think," he interrupted mildly, "that I'll be in your bed before the weekend's over." He caught her wrist easily before her hand could make contact with his face, holding it firmly. And holding her enraged eyes with his own, he added in the same blandly certain tone, "You know it as well as I do."

She jerked her hand away, her face white. "Bastard."

"I've been called worse." He wondered then which Elizabeth he would find in that bed. This one, he thought, this angry woman who would fight him every inch of the way - with perhaps a bit of the falcon thrown in. He didn't doubt that he would, sooner or later, end up in her bed; what was between them was just too damned explosive not to consume the both of them eventually. He only hoped that neither the falcon's wings nor his own suddenly vulnerable heart got singed in the blast.

"Get off my land!"

He sighed. "We've been through this, Elizabeth. I'm not leaving."

"I don't want you here, can't you get that through your head?"

Kelsey grinned suddenly, unable to help himself. "I think I got that, yeah. You made it very clear. It's a good thing I don't have a fragile ego."

"You have a monumental ego!"

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Possibly. It's taken a few knocks, you understand, but I generally get what I want in the end."

With a curious, smothered sound that might have been a reluctant laugh, Elizabeth turned away and grasped her patient horse's reins. She snagged her sandals from the fence post as she passed, leading Buddy to the gate she hadn't bothered to open earlier. The bareback pad was unbuckled and left on the fence along with the bridle, and Buddy trotted away through the pasture to join another horse grazing near a barn in the distance.

Elizabeth put her sandals back on, looking up as Kelsey joined her to ask irritably, "Are you still here?"

"Certainly I'm still here," he said, wounded. "Faint heart never won fair lady, you know."

She gave him a baffled look and headed toward the house, with Kelsey following along behind.

"Did you," he wondered conversationally, "wear those shorts for you or for me?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" she snapped over her shoulder.

"I was just going to say that if you wore them for me, I certainly appreciate them," he explained apologetically.

Elizabeth bit her lip to contain her smile, glad he couldn't see and suddenly very conscious of his presence behind her. Oh, damn the man, why did he keep changing on her? Didn't he know she was so off balance now that anything - Know? Of course he knew!

Just inside the living room, she whirled and jabbed a finger into his chest. "It won't work!"

He had been continuing to admire the shorts, and looked up hastily. "What?" Pulling on his most innocent expression, he waited for her to explain.

"Your little game, that's what." She stared up at his face, ignoring his guileless expression. "You think I'm such an idiot that I can't figure it out? You could charm a snake, pal, but you aren't going to charm me into telling you anything."

"I'm not?"

She glared at him. "No, you're not!"

Kelsey tilted his head to one side and asked hopefully, "Can I seduce you into telling me something?"

"No, dammit!" She was trying desperately not to laugh.

"Well, hell, you haven't left me many options," he told her indignantly. "We federal agents only have so many methods to work with, you know. I mean, if you take away charm and seduction, how am I supposed to do my job?"

Elizabeth was biting her lip and gazing up at him with an unconsciously fascinated expression. She cleared her throat carefully. "I couldn't say."

"You know, you should leave it down all the time."

She blinked. "What?"

"Your hair. You should leave it down." With an effort, she ignored the non sequitur. Evenly, she said, "I'm telling you to get the hell out of my life, understand? Get into your car and drive off my land. Stay away from my family. We don't need your help."

Kelsey looked at her for a moment, then stepped over to a chair and sat down on the thickly padded arm. He took due note of the increasing anger in her expressive face, but headed off whatever she was about to say by speaking in a calm and thoughtful voice. "I can see we have several problems here that need very badly to be resolved."

"Oh, you noticed that?"

"It was a little hard not to notice. First of all, you deny that anything is wrong here, despite the fact that your sister is missing."

"Jo's staying with an aunt," Elizabeth said flatly.

"You don't have an aunt."

She stiffened and her eyes flashed. "What did you say?"

He sighed. "I said, you don't have an aunt."

There was more than anger in her vivid eyes now, something like fury. Her voice shook a little. "And just where did you get that information?"

"It's amazing what information you can dig up if you know where to look. Pinnacle has a newspaper, Elizabeth, and like all newspapers it keeps back issues on microfilm. I looked up the accounts of your parents' deaths, and your court battle to keep what was left of your family together. According to those accounts, the judge was persuaded to let your sisters be put into your custody because there weren't any other relations. No aunts, no uncles, no cousins."

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. "When did you look it up? Today's Saturday; the newspaper office is closed."

Kelsey rubbed his jaw, studying her. Then he sighed. "Place has a flimsy lock," he offered.

"You broke in?"

He winced. "Let's call it entry without the proper permission, shall we?"

She pressed her lips together, but said nothing.

Kelsey eyed her for a moment, then nodded, satisfied. "As I said, the first problem is that Mallory apparently has you convinced that if you just keep quiet, Jo will be fine. The third problem is that you trust me about as far as you can throw your horse. And the fourth problem is that you very obviously suspect I'd do just about anything - using you included - in order to get what I want."

Elizabeth remembered that first kiss in the kitchen and the shocking interlude on the porch last night, and lifted her chin. "Suspect? I know you would!" she snapped.

For the first time in his professional career, Kelsey was torn. He knew the most important thing was to get Jo back safe and sound; there was no doubt of that. But as important to him as a young girl's life was Elizabeth's opinion of him. And in the back of his mind in that alert place born years ago out of necessity, a clock was ticking away vital moments.

He sighed. "Elizabeth, sit down, please. We need to talk."

"We've already talked."

"No." Kelsey shook his head wryly. "We haven't. And now we have to, because there isn't much time."

Unwillingly impressed by the gravity of his face and his sober gray-blue eyes, Elizabeth moved to the couch and sat down. "What do you mean - not much time?"

Kelsey remained where he was, looking at her and wishing everything were different. She suspected his motives, and he couldn't blame her for that. Only time would teach her to trust him, and how much time did they have? And what would happen if the desire he could feel throbbing constantly throughout his body, a desire he knew she shared, caught them both before she learned to trust him? What would that do to them?

"Elizabeth…" He sighed roughly. "I don't want to scare you, but I've been in this business a long time, and I've seen a great many hostage situations. They're potentially explosive for many reasons. If a hostage knows who the captors are, there's always the possibility of testifying later in court. And if a hostage is held because of some information she has, she isn't going to just forget it. Not, at least, as far as her captor is concerned."

She stirred a little on the couch, staring at him with mistrust on her face but anxiety in her eyes.

Kelsey hurried on. "If Mallory's holding Jo only until he gets something done - gets the evidence out of the way of whatever he's doing - then maybe he will let her go, because then it would just be her word against his. But I don't know that. I can find out what's going on at Meditron, but without your help, I'm searching blindly, and Jo could get hurt because of that. If I push the wrong button because I don't have Information I need, I could stampede Mallory, cause him to move too fast. Do you understand that?"

"Yes," she whispered through stiff lips.

"Then trust me," he asked softly.

"I don't know you." She hesitated, then blurted, "It's my sister's life we're talking about! How can I trust you with that?"

"How can you trust Mallory?" he countered. She bit her lip. "I've known him all my life."

"He's a shark," Kelsey told her flatly.

Elizabeth almost smiled. "But a shark I know."

Kelsey half nodded to acknowledge the point. "As in 'better the devil you know than the one you don't'?"

"Yes."

He tried to ignore the inner sense of time rushing, and concentrated on this moment. Abruptly, without even realizing he was going to, he said, "My father was an agent. I remember I was sixteen when I found out; until then, I'd thought he was just a businessman. But that time, he came back from one of his "business" trips with his arm in a sling and a bullet hole in his shoulder. That's when I heard the real facts of life." He smiled a little.

Elizabeth was interested despite herself and felt oddly moved because there was something constrained in Kelsey's voice; this was not, she realized, something he had told many people. She waited quietly, hands folded in her lap, studying the face that had gone blank and hard after the smile died.

Another face. Another face he was showing her. "For a few years we pretended everything was normal. My mother died and Dad threw himself into his work. I was in college, busy with my own life. Then I came home for summer vacation in my junior year, and Dad wasn't there. Weeks went by. I finally called the "emergency" number he'd given me. The next day, I got a visit from his boss, Hagen."

Kelsey was hardly aware that he had slipped back into the past, barely conscious that he was twisting the big signet ring around and around the third finger of his right hand.

"It was so unreal," he mused almost to himself. "If you could only see Hagen. He's a round little man with a cherub's face, a walking caricature of the self-important banty rooster. And this unreal little man was telling me that my father was on an unreal assignment, and they'd lost contact with him."

"What did you do?" Elizabeth asked softly.

He looked at her, his face still hard and remote. "I was twenty-one, reckless. I demanded that Hagen let me look for my father. He agreed; I've never known why. Anyway, he gave me the information I needed, swore me in as an agent, and three days later I found myself charming my way into an international smuggling ring."

When he said nothing more, Elizabeth said, "Kelsey?" very softly.

Kelsey, even with the remembered pain and bitterness tearing through him, heard her use his name - really use it - for the first time, and he was unaware of the longing in the look he gave her.

Inexplicably, she flushed, and asked him huskily, "What happened?"

"I enjoyed it," he said, face remote and voice bleak. "At first. It was exciting in a way I'd never known. And at twenty-one who thinks of dying? What kid ever thinks it can happen to him or to someone close to him?"

"Your father?"

Kelsey drew a deep breath and released it slowly, raggedly. "He'd infiltrated the ring just as I had, but he hadn't been so lucky; they found him out. Maybe he said the wrong word or gave someone a wrong look. Sometimes that's all it takes. Anyway, they decided to make an example of him days before I got there. And they were creative about it. We were aboard an old freighter on the open sea, and I hadn't been able to search the hold. I found out why when they brought… what was left of him up and threw him overboard."

"Oh, my God," Elizabeth, whispered. She rose without thought and went to him, drawn as she would have been drawn to any wounded animal with anguished eyes. She placed one other hands gently on his shoulder, and he took the other in both his, staring down at it blindly.

In a monotone, he went on. "I could see he was dead; nothing human could have lived like that. And the worst of it was that I couldn't react, couldn't let them see what I felt. There were thirty of them, and we were in the open sea. I wasn't armed. What could I do? I watched them throw my father overboard, and I turned as if it didn't matter to me and walked away. And I guess I was convincing, because they never suspected me. We made port a few days later, and Hagen had an army out there an hour after I called him."

"Kelsey, I'm sorry."

He was still holding her hand gently in both his, gazing down at it. "I went home. Back to college. I guess I even tried to act like a normal kid again. But I didn't fit anymore. I'd seen something I could hardly bear to live with, and it would be with me for the rest of my life. There were CIA recruiters at my college; when they offered me a job, I accepted. I worked for them about five years. Then Hagen came back into my life, and reminded me that he had sworn me in first and asked what the hell I was doing with the Company. He offered more freedom. I took it. And I fit in his world too.

"I think that, for a while, I got some kind of satisfaction out of defying death. I became a danger junkie. I just didn't give a damn what happened. I took the most insane chances."

Elizabeth found that she was softly kneading his shoulder, instinctively trying to ease taut muscles. Her eyes were burning and there was a lump in her throat.

Kelsey shook his head a little. "God knows what would have happened if I hadn't had the luck of the Irish and several outstanding partners over the years. My luck held long enough for those partners to straighten me out." He looked up at her then and forced a small smile. "I've been an agent almost fifteen years."

Elizabeth hadn't realized she was standing so close until he looked up at her. She was, she realized then, standing between his knees. Too close… too close. But she couldn't move away, couldn't break the hold of his slate gray eyes. She cleared her throat. "Why did you tell me?"

He shrugged. "You said you didn't know me. Now you know more about me than most of the friends who've known me for fifteen years. Maybe that'll count for something." He sounded almost tired, and his face had the strained look of something held still for too long.

She didn't know what to think. Trust him - or not trust him? Which was the real Kelsey? This quiet man with pain in his eyes, or the one who would lightly charm and passionately seduce? Unaware of the confusion in her voice, she said, "I don't trust you, Kelsey."

"I know you don't. But I wish like hell you would."

"You confuse me. You say you want to help. But you also said that this weekend we would -”

"Be in your bed." He sighed softly. "I didn't count on this, Elizabeth. I didn't count on you. In my business, you don't get close to anyone involved in the situations you're investigating, because it puts you in danger. In danger of losing your objectivity. In danger of caring too much about the 'wrong' things. In danger of forgetting all the training and years of experience."

He released her hand, finding her waist and gently pulling her down until she was sitting on his thigh. His voice became lower, deeper, his eyes intent as they searched her face. "A good agent has to be virtually autonomous, able to act instantly and think only of resolving the situation. When you're… self-contained, nothing can hurt you. You do your job and walk away. But when you lose that autonomy, when there's someone involved who means too much to you, it makes the job harder. It makes you doubt yourself."

"I don't understand what you're telling me," she managed.

"I think you do. You're too much a woman not to."

Elizabeth was very conscious of his hard thigh beneath her, of the latent power of his arms, one around her back and the other lying still across her bare thighs. "I can't help wondering if you'll -”

"Walk away from this job when it's finished?"

She nodded mutely.

"No," he said, and felt again that inner shudder, that rumble of warning.

Shaken, Elizabeth protested, "How can you know? You said that you found your work exciting, dangerous. Once this job is done, there won't be any danger here, Kelsey. It's a small town in the back of beyond; there isn't anything here!"

"You're here."

Elizabeth swallowed hard, and she was only distantly aware that she was speaking at all. "You can't catch the wind," she whispered. "Chain the lightning. And you're as elusive as those elements. Somehow, I know that." So many faces. So many men he had shown her.

Kelsey understood what she was saying; the problem was that he wasn't entirely certain if she was wrong. Some rational part of his mind just didn't know for sure. Would he be content without the harried dangers of fifteen years? Could he step out of Hagen's world where he fit so well and into Elizabeth's where he might not fit at all?

His hesitation was telling. "I - I don't know, Elizabeth. I won't willingly walk away, I know that."

"What do you want from me?" she nearly walled. He hesitated again, torn between agent and man, wondering if there was, after fifteen years, any real boundary line between the two. "Trust me. Let me help you. Let me help Jo."

"And that's all?"

"You know it isn't."

Elizabeth tried to draw away from him, but stopped when his arms tightened. "It can't be both," she said tautly.

"It is both." He could feel his iron control slipping, and there was a raw sound to his voice. "Dammit, Elizabeth, I want you! I can't just turn that off."

Bewildered as much by her own feelings as by him, she let anger shape her words. "I imagine it's happened before in fifteen years, hasn't it? Autonomous or not, I'm sure there's been a little sexual tension here and there. We're both adults; why not call a spade a spade? Blaine has the same problem, I'm afraid. But at least he pretends to love me." She wasn't really sure, but she thought she heard Kelsey curse bitterly just before his lips captured hers.

And Elizabeth was bitter herself, furiously bitter, because her mind and body, for the first time in her adult life, seemed jaggedly separate. Confusion, mistrust, and anxiety were a jumble in her mind, but her body responded with instant flaming desire to his searing kiss. Her hands moved slowly up corded forearms, touched the short sleeves of his shirt, slid over the smooth material until she could feel the muscles padding his shoulders and back.

She was feeling with every sense, aware as if all the nerve endings of her body were sensitized by his touch. But, even more, she felt his feelings; with a powerful empathy she had never known before, she could feel his anger and his need, feel some terrible battle taking place inside him. And she had the strange, overpowering impression that Kelsey himself wasn't completely aware of that inner war, or that if he was aware, that he was fighting to ignore it.

His lips left hers finally to trail down her throat in a hot demand, and Elizabeth spoke huskily without even thinking about it. "No. You're angry."

"Yes, I'm angry," he said thickly against her throat. "I'm angry because I've got no business staying on this job. I should leave, let another agent take over. But I can't leave. You matter too much. Dammit, Elizabeth."

She was aching all over, fighting a mad desire to give in to the emotions storming through her with frightening force. But her mind could no longer control the separate entity that was her body, that hungering, splintered part of herself that wanted him beyond all else. Her fingers tangled in his thick hair and her head fell back, allowing him more room to explore, and the heat of his mouth on her flesh sent a wild tremor through her.

"Kelsey…"

He murmured wordlessly, a raw sound, and one big hand cupped the back of her head as he abandoned her throat to fit his mouth to hers again. He kissed her with a hard, driven passion, exploring her mouth, taking it fiercely. And when that devastating kiss ended, Elizabeth couldn't even reclaim the breath he had stolen from her.

"You belong to me," he said flatly, hoarsely.

She looked at his hard face through dazed eyes. "No," she whispered, distantly terrified of losing herself in the elusive complexity of this man. How could she belong to him when she didn't know who or what he was? How could she risk the most vulnerable part of herself by placing it in his keeping? No. She couldn't.

He held her eyes with his own, knowing he walked a knife's edge, knowing he was moving too fast. But he had no choice. There was no time, no time for the patience and rituals of courtship. "You belong to me," he repeated. "You know it, and I know it. Say it, Elizabeth. Admit it."

She swallowed hard, caught in the slate gray of his eyes. She was confused, aching, frightened by the intensity of his demand and by her own instinctive urge to admit what he demanded. "I… No, I can't… I won't."

"You have to," he said ruthlessly, driven by the impersonal ticking of his inner clock. "Stop thinking. Elizabeth, and feel. Your body knows you belong to me. Do you want me to prove it? If I carry you up those stairs, will you be able to say no?"

She closed her eyes, a ragged sigh escaping her. "Damn you. Oh, damn you."





Four




The admission, dragged from her totally against her will, was too devastating to let stand alone and vulnerable, and Kelsey knew it. Quietly, he said, "Feel me shaking, Elizabeth. Feel what you do to me. There hasn't been a moment since we met that I haven't been on fire with wanting you."

She looked at her fingers, still tangled in his thick hair, and forced her hands to move downward. But they would only move as far as his shoulders where they rested, feeling the hard padding of muscle over bone. And she could feel his hands, one still at her waist and the other at the back of her head, gentle fingers moving in her hair almost compulsively. She could indeed feel him tremble.

"It's just physical," she said finally, almost inaudibly.

The muscles in his jaws tightened, but his voice remained quiet. "Is it? Whatever it is, it isn't going to go away."

Elizabeth had never felt so torn. She wanted the man and mistrusted the agent - if that was what he really was. And, whatever he was, he had made her no promises, nothing she could hang on to. Was he using her to get information? Whatever his body felt, was his mind coldly calculating, probing the strength of her resistance? Why else would he have forced her to admit she couldn't say no to his desire?

She didn't know what to do!

In the same still, quiet voice, he said, "I could carry you up those stairs, Elizabeth. I could make you mine so completely you'd never doubt it again. We both know that. But you'd hate me for it, and fight me all the way. Not physically, but emotionally. I don't want that."

"You want information," she said dully.

Kelsey hesitated, then swore softly. "Yes, I do. But that's apart from us, apart from what we feel."

"No, it isn't."

"Elizabeth -”

"I'll tell you." She broke away from him with an abruptness that caught him off guard, moving to a window on shaking legs and staring out blindly. Would she be putting Jo into even greater danger? She didn't know, couldn't know. But she did know that she could no longer bear being torn by the question of whether Kelsey was bent on seduction simply to get the information from her.

She had to know!



* * *



Several hundred miles away in a high-rise office building in Manhattan, the weekend quiet of a certain floor was broken by Zachary Steele's disgusted voice.

"That's it. Far as I can take it."

Of the several people quietly watching his labors on the computer, only Raven spoke up. "And?"

"And nothing." Zach sat back, looking at the others thoughtfully. "I just ran head-on into a military code lock."

Josh Long, sitting close beside Raven on a vacant desk, frowned at his security and electronics expert, and friend of more than fifteen years. "Military? Now, that's a bit… unexpected, isn't it?"

Raven looked at her husband, worried. "What on earth has Kelsey stumbled into?"

Lucas Kendrick, chief Investigator for Long Enterprises, turned away from another computer and shook his head at their Inquiring looks. "No dice. Blaine Mallory's so clean he squeaks. Personal bills paid off or current, business accounts up to date. An A1 credit rating, and a pillar of his community. The IRS has no complaints with his returns, and if he's living above his Income, he's hiding "it very well. He hasn't put a foot wrong. Not even a traffic ticket."

Kyle, who was sitting on a low counter beside Luc's computer, looked baffled. "I don't get it. Mallory comes up clean, Meditron is protected by a military code lock, and Pinnacle turns out to be a nice little Southern town. What gives?"

Teddy, assuming her usual position in Zach's lap, said definitely, "Something fishy.