메인 The Fall of Lucas Kendrick

The Fall of Lucas Kendrick

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년:
1987
출판사:
Loveswept
언어:
english
시리즈:
Hagan
파일:
EPUB, 240 KB
다운로드 (epub, 240 KB)

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2005
언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 274 KB
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Contents

Synopsis

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Epilogue





Synopsis




Time was supposed to obscure memories, but when Kyle Griffon saw the sunlight glinting off Lucas Kendrick's hair, she knew she'd never stopped waiting for him. Ten years before, he'd awakened her woman's passion, and when he left without a word, her quicksilver laughter had turned to anger, and her rebel's heart of a wild flirtation with danger--anything to forget the pain of losing him. Now he was back, and he needed her help in a desperate plan--but did she dare revive the flame of desire that once had burned her? Lucas had never stopped loving Kyle, wanting her, but could she forgive a man who made mistakes, who was not the perfect hero of her girlhood dreams? Once she'd trusted him enough to answer his savage demands with wild elation, echoing his fierce need with her own. Now could she show him she was strong enough to hold him in the fortress of her love?





Prologue




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

Lucas Kendrick was one of the few; he knew from past experience that the federal agent calling himself Hagen was about as harmless as a battle-ship and just as tough. So he stood in the dingy hotel room gazing out a dirty window for long moments before turning to cut off the droning voice of the federal honcho. "All right." Hagen blinked. "All right? Just like that?" Lucas leaned back against the window frame and smiled sardonically. "There was really no need for all this cloak-and-dagger stuff," he said. "Meeting secretly like this. But you have to play your little games, don't you?"

&quo; t;Mr. Kendrick, this is a serious matter," Hagen retorted in his best official manner. "And I felt it only fitting that you complete the job your friend Steele began a few weeks ago. The stolen artwork must be recovered and Rome prosecuted—"

"Sure he has them?"

"Positive."

Lucas didn't question the assurance. "Okay. So how do I get inside his estate? He has more security than we do."

The we Lucas used referred to Josh Long's worldwide financial empire, something that hardly needed clarifying between him and the federal man. Lucas was the chief Investigator for Long Enterprises, and Hagen had spent the past year and more involving Josh and his men in various "assignments" for his agency.

The federal man looked somewhat searchingly at Lucas now, seemingly disturbed. "You're willing to accept the assignment, no questions asked?"

"Plenty of questions," Lucas corrected. "But why fight it? I'm the only one you haven't grabbed for one of your assignments; it was a matter of time. If I turn you down, you'll either talk me into it somehow, or you'll get me involved whether I like it or not. So how do I get onto Rome's estate?"

Hagen's cupid lips pursed slightly, but he responded readily enough. "Rome's having a week-end party soon; he does that from time to time, and his guest list is rather exclusive. There is a past... connection between you and the only single woman on that guest list. If she agrees, you'll be accepted onto the estate as her escort."

Lucas's expression never changed, but some tautness crept beneath his classical features, and his sharp blue eyes, flecked with gold, hardened. "Oh? Who is she?"

"Kyle Griffon." Hagen’s small eyes were very wary.

Softly Lucas said, "What past connection are you talking about, Hagen?"

"We both know the answer to that, Mr. Kendrick."

"And just how the hell do you know? Her name was never in any of my reports."

"No, it wasn't. She was never linked to your undercover operation. You did an excellent job."

Lucas decided not to repeat his question. He really didn't want to know the answer. Instead he asked tersely, "What's the plan?"

More than an hour later Lucas again stood gazing through a dirty window. He was alone now, Hagen having left, and he looked back over his shoulder at the shoddy room. He had almost for-gotten that secretive men met in dingy hotel rooms to discuss and plan dangerous operations.

Almost forgotten.

Ten years hadn't changed his memories, just made them more distant. He could still remember the cardboard taste of burgers and cold coffee, the stiffness of sitting for too long in cars, and the grinding frustration of political games having no place in his vision of the role of the law in human affairs.

He could remember undercover operations during which he literally had become someone else, and the disorientation of returning to the real world with memories of junkies and glittering life-styles and violence in the back of his mind. He could remember triumphs and tragedies, a little laughter and a lot of pain, and people briefly known.

He remembered Kyle Griffon.

Lucas half closed his eyes, shutting out the sight of a dingy, rainy street seen through a dirty window. And only sagging furniture marred by cigarette burns and too many hard years heard his low murmur.

"Oh, hell, Kyle, how am I going to face you?"





One




Lucas Kendrick's heart leapt into his throat. He rolled with that old but familiar feeling, annoyed that he still remembered how to ride an emotional bronc. It had been a long time. He clamped his teeth together and watched through narrowed eyes, telling himself he would have felt the same way while watching anyone with a death wish. It didn't help.

He hadn't really expected it to.

The triangular sail was about eighteen feet across and colored bright red and blue; dangling on a flimsy harness and steering the thing with a flimsy control bar was a small figure dressed in drab green.

Objectively speaking, he thought, it was a glorious sight. The hang glider banked and dipped and lifted as the strong mountain winds kept it aloft, its brilliant colors contrasting beautifully with the rich, varied, early-winter shades of green and brown in the valley and the distant snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lucas watched the glider, fists jammed into pockets and heart pounding in his throat, expecting a treacherous downdraft to snatch the flimsy craft and batter it to the valley floor far below. He couldn't take his eyes off it even long enough to fully appreciate a rare glimpse of a bighorn ram as it perched briefly on a rocky crag nearby and then vanished.

He knew the instant she spotted him, and he saw the glider bank in a tight turn and then hesitate for an instant before it began losing altitude in a long, sweeping descent toward him. He backed up automatically, giving her room, feeling himself tense even more. She cleared the edge of the cliff by inches, and her feet lightly touched ground.

She had to run only a few steps before she could stop the glider. The pointed nose of the thing tipped forward to rest on the ground, and she shrugged out of the harness, only then turning her head to study the visitor.

Without a noticeable expression, startling turquoise eyes scanned him from his windblown, silvery blond hair to his booted feet, taking in the backpack and rugged clothing he wore. Then casually she said, "Hello, Luc," and bent to collapse the hang glider and roll it up for carrying.

Well, what had he expected? Lucas wondered. He knew the answer, of course. Despite everything, because of everything, he'd expected a stronger reaction from her. Rather than a polite hello, he'd braced himself for something more along the lines of venom or hatred. Anger. Something.

And from any other woman that's what he would have gotten, even though it had been ten years.

At the very least, he decided with a little bitterness of his own, she might have asked why he'd come miles into the wilderness to find her—as it was patently obvious he had. And why he'd come now, after ten years. But not her.

Not Kyle Griffon.

She could trace her ancestry back hundreds of years, and even now the Celtic bone structure and dark coloring marked her indelibly as Welsh, no matter what other contributions had been made to her family's genetic pool. Her forefathers had been among the landed gentry back when such things counted, and five separate titles had graced her family name at various points in its history. And though her family hadn't arrived on American shores with the Mayflower, they'd probably been on the next boat.

Behind them they'd left their titles and land, and with them they'd brought generations of aristocratic breeding, shrewd intelligence, courage, utter composure, and all the family treasures they could hire people to carry. In the ensuing generations canny Griffons built various empires from those bits of silver and gold, glittering gems, and priceless paintings, and they hadn't looked back.

Lucas watched the slender figure in the drab green jumpsuit working expertly to bind up the glider into a compact bundle. He wondered if defying death was Kyle's way of dealing with her august lineage. In a family generally described as sober and businesslike, Kyle was a rebel and a rogue. Looking at her, it was easy to see that family traits had survived to bloom in her: She was enormously intelligent, composed no matter what the circumstances. Innately proud without being arrogant, and courageous. Courageous, Lucas thought, sometimes to the point of insanity.

Unbidden, he also remembered the woman-child she had been all those years ago. Remembered her laughter and excitement, the spontaneous bursts of affection. Remembered a slender body locked to his own and blazing like a pure white flame, burning him. Searing away all doubt and uncertainty. At least for a while. At least while she touched him.

Lucas shook away the memories with an effort that was almost physical. But the heat of them lingered, teasing his mind with a ghostly touch and the fey sounds of quicksilver laughter.

He moved forward as she finished with the glider, and lifted the long bundle onto his own shoulder, saying only, "Let me." And his voice sounded normal, he thought.

Kyle didn't protest, but there was a faint glint of amusement in her blue-green eyes as she stepped back. "Just leave it by the porch, then," she directed, gesturing toward the snug log cabin a few yards away. She walked ahead of him, then paused on the steps until he'd set the bundle down. She held open the door of the cabin.

Lucas saw what he'd expected to see inside. It was modest but comfortable; all the modern conveniences but no luxuries. The overstuffed furniture stopped just short of being shabby, and colorful rugs dotted the shining wood floor. One big open room with a loft above for sleeping occupied most of the cabin, a kitchen divided from the main room by paneled walls, and a bathroom tucked away in back.

She could have built a castle.

He shrugged out of his backpack and left it by the door, still unsure of how far his welcome stretched. With Kyle, he reflected, it was difficult to be sure of anything. And he wondered then if he had imagined her feelings ten years before. Or had that seventeen-year-old girl greeted his departure just as she seemed to view life in general— with a shrug and a reckless smile?

No, he thought, not that. He had meant more to her than that, at least before he had left.

"Coffee's hot. Want some?"

"Please." He followed her to lean against the breakfast bar and watch her economical movements. And that hadn't changed, he thought; her grace hadn't changed, except to have matured somehow, become more fluid. The jumpsuit she wore showed him that the slender lines of a seventeen-year-old had become the fuller curves of a woman, and he tried to fight the knowledge that he wanted her now more than ever.

It was impossible, and he knew it was. There was too much between them, far too much, to allow them to return to being the people they once had been—even if both of them wanted to.

He watched her, aching inside.

She wore no makeup, and her thick sable hair was tousled, but she had spent too many years being carefully groomed in various expensive schools for her launching into moneyed society to be able to shed the peculiarly "finished" look instilled by the process. No matter what she wore or what she did, Kyle Griffon always would look aristocratic.

Pushing the thoughts away, Lucas accepted the cup she held out and realized with a jolt that she remembered how he liked it. Sugar, no cream. She drank hers black. Disturbed by the realization that he wasn't alone in remembering, he followed her into the living area, watching her while she sank gracefully into an overstuffed chair, kicked off her light shoes, and curled up like a lazy cat.

"So. To what do I owe the honor of your presence on this sunny afternoon?" she asked.

Lucas sat down on the couch and looked at her, trying to see past those serene turquoise eyes. What was she thinking? Feeling? When he finally spoke, it wasn't in answer to her question. "When did you take up hang gliding?"

"When I got tired of skydiving."

He felt his teeth gritting again and fought to relax taut muscles. But his voice was nonetheless sharp. "And before that it was mountain climbing. And before that what? You were a stunt pilot, you raced cars in Europe, you went on some bloody dangerous safari in Africa and were nearly killed—"

One delicate brow rose, but there was no inflection of surprise in her casual voice. "You've been reading the supermarket rags."

He ignored that, mostly because it was true. "What is it with you, Kyle? A death wish?"

"A life wish, more like." She smiled a little.

Lucas felt another jolt. Her answer was just what he had replied years before when a friend asked why he risked his life as an undercover cop. But that was a long time ago. Now he was the chief investigator for a string of companies and corporations that spanned the globe. And there was a certain amount of danger in that from time to time. But he never risked his life recklessly. Kyle did.

She was still smiling. "You know, Luc, I've been wrong all these years. I thought when you walked out on me, you'd forget me in a week. But it seems you didn't. You've been feeling guilty, haven't you? Why? Did you think I'd developed some kind of complex, that I've been trying all these years to kill myself because of you?"

Lucas started to deny that but found he couldn't. It had crossed his mind more than once, because she'd gotten even wilder after... But by leaving her he had stopped at least one of her insanely reckless games. All he could manage to say, though, was, "You were very young."

She looked squarely at him, her serenely beautiful face unchanged by the passing of a decade. "Oh, I see. You were worried that you'd seduced an Innocent kid." Something flickered briefly in her eyes and then was gone. "Want me to ease your conscience?"

"Dammit, Kyle!"

Her mouth twisted wryly. "Sorry. Low blow. I think I was entitled to that, though, don't you?"

After a taut pause he relaxed suddenly and smiled. It was over. Past. So play it her way, he thought. Play it light. Pretend it hadn't mattered. "You're entitled to more than that. What took you so long?"

"Ah. So you came up here expecting to be drawn and quartered? Not my style, I'm afraid. If I remember, I had a violent tantrum, cried for all of an hour, then called home and asked my father to have you killed." Her voice was light, dryly mocking, as if she hadn't cared.

"You've never had a tantrum in your life," he murmured.

"No," she agreed. "Mother wouldn't allow them. So undignified."

"I'm still alive," he offered, wondering if an irate father had asked Josh Long, "Is that why I should send her to Europe?"

"Hit men are expensive, especially to gratify wounded vanity."

Somewhat to his surprise Lucas found that old frustration could return as easily as all the other old feelings; beneath her flip response he could find nothing. What had she felt? "Kyle—"

"You don't want the truth, Luc," she said abruptly.

"Yes, I do." He was firm.

"Punishing me or yourself?"

He was surprised, rattled. Did she know what he had done for her? No. No, he had made certain she wouldn't know. There was only one thing she could know, and there was no hint of that knowledge in her face. "Why would I want to punish you?"

She didn't answer. "Look, it was ten years ago. We were different people then. Now, I know you didn't hike up the mountain just to rake up old memories after all this time. So why are you here?"

Given little choice in the matter, he reluctantly let it drop. For now. He pushed his own pain, his old feelings of confusion and uncertainty out of his mind and into the locked room where they had lived in darkness for ten years.

"I need your help, Kyle."

She looked mildly surprised. "Oh? With what?"

"There's a house—an estate, really—I need access to it socially. I need to be inside at least overnight, preferably for a weekend. It's Martin Rome's estate."

After a moment and in a completely expressionless voice she said, "Ten years ago I got involved with a young man who was supposedly a student at my college. Storybook stuff. I was swept right off my feet. And then he was gone. Really gone. According to the records, he never attended that college, and I could never find out anything at all about him. Now, ten years later, he appears in my life again and asks that I get him into the home of one of the wealthiest people in the country."

Lucas said nothing.

Kyle nodded, as though she'd expected silence. "So I have to wonder, Luc. I have to wonder why you want access to that home. And I have to wonder why in hell you think I'd help you to get it."

Lucas studied her, weighing the thought, wondering himself. Remembering a seventeen-year-old college freshman with a reckless smile; remembering a twenty-seven-year-old woman with a ten-year history of wildness hanging from a glider.

He wasn't reckless very often, but he decided then to take a chance. On her.

Lucas reached for his wallet and extracted a business card, handing it to her.

Kyle studied it for a moment, then looked at him. "Chief Investigator, Long Enterprises. Assuming I believe this, Luc, Joshua Long could get you into Rome's house just as easily as I could. So why won't he?"

He held her gaze steadily with his own. "He would. But it wouldn't do me any good. Because Josh is known to have... interests in stopping criminal activities. Luckily, being an investigator keeps me out of the limelight; we've taken care that my name's never been linked publicly with the company or Josh. If he or any friend or employee of his were to approach Rome, there wouldn't be a scrap of evidence to be found."

"Evidence of what?"

"Illegally acquired artwork. Artwork bought from criminals for the price of a shipment of guns, also illegally acquired. We believe he has the art hidden— probably in a vault—somewhere in his house."

"We?"

Lucas hesitated.

Dryly she said, "I never knew who you were, Luc, and I certainly don't know you ten years later. So if you want my help, you'll have to tell me the whole story, or you might as well hike back down the mountain."

After a moment he nodded. "All right. I'm working temporarily for a government agency."

"Which one? FBI?" There was neither belief nor disbelief in her voice, only mild interest.

Lucas shook his head slightly. "No. This agency isn't listed in the Yellow or the White Pages. For all I know, it doesn't even have a name, official or otherwise. It's headed by a man who calls himself Hagen; that's probably not his real name. He spins webs like some damned poisonous spider—well, never mind. The point is, I'm working for him temporarily. I have to find that stolen art, or at least get enough evidence to indict Rome. And I have to go into his house socially; his estate employees are thoroughly screened."

"Wouldn't your background stand up to that?" she asked in an idle tone.

His blue gaze hardened, but he went on as if she hadn't spoken. After all, he could hardly blame her. "Normally Hagen would have a pristine background and impeccable references manufactured for a case like this, but there hasn't been time for it."

"Who came up with my name?"

"Hagen. He managed somehow to get hold of a guest list for a weekend bash Rome's throwing in two weeks. Your name was on it."

"Did he know you and I had... had met before?"

Lucas hesitated, then nodded. "He knew. I don't pretend to know how; Hagen doesn't give up his secrets or his methods. In any case, he picked you because of our past association and because you are the only single woman on the list. He figures you could bring a date without raising eyebrows."

"It would raise Martin's eyebrows," she said.

For an instant, a heartbeat, Lucas felt a dizzying sense of déjà vu. He was cold inside. It couldn't be happening again; she couldn't be involved in this... He didn't want to have to make that kind of choice. Not again. Then the hard-won self-control of years kicked in, and he was calm. "You don't have an official connection with Rome," he said coolly. "No engagement, no attention by the press. An affair the society-press watchdogs haven't sniffed out?"

Kyle looked at him for a moment, expressionless, then said, "Nothing so definite. Let's just say that Martin doesn't give up easily, and has two strong beliefs. First, in the power of his own charms, and second in the reliability of erosion from water dropping on stone."

Lucas felt relieved and hoped it didn't show. "I see. So he'd be surprised if you showed up with another man. But not terribly surprised?"

"A defensive move on my part, you mean? It's not my style, but he doesn't know that. He'd buy it if I turned up for his party with a buffer, I suppose."

They were -silent for long moments, both sipping coffee, neither willing to ask or answer the flat question that had brought him up here to her mountain retreat.

Finally Kyle spoke. "It's a nice little story. Luc. Is that your real name, by the way?"

"Yes." He kept his voice even. "Lucas Kendrick."

She lifted an eyebrow briefly. "It was Lucas Kendall before, wasn't it? Well, never mind. A nice story. Lots of intrigue. Mysterious government agencies and agents, stolen art, wealthy criminals."

He had earned that disbelief, he supposed. "Look, do you trust Josh Long's word?"

"My father does. I've never met the man."

"Josh will vouch for me. And Hagen and the agency. I didn't want to involve him in this, but I don't seem to have a choice. Get in touch with him, Kyle, before you make a decision."

"I will." Her voice was flat with certainty; obviously she wasn't about to trust him blindly. Not this time.

Kyle stood by the window and stared out as moonlight painted the stark shapes of mountain scenery. It was dark in the loft, and she had moved with cat-footed softness to the window seat where she often sat. Lucas was sleeping on her couch and the cabin was silent.

She sat down on the cushioned seat and drew her legs up, hugging her knees as she looked out blindly.

Josh Long had vouched for Lucas Instantly when she'd called, telling her with utter conviction that she could trust Luc and that he was Indeed working for a man named Hagen who ran a secretive— and secret—government agency. He did have to get into Martin Rome's house, because the man was suspected of possessing stolen artwork purchased from criminals and paid for with illegal guns.

Kyle didn't doubt Long's word, and his faith in Lucas had been expressed too firmly to be in doubt, which left her with a great many disturbing questions.

Josh Long was no fool, and she knew from her father that he rarely erred in his judgment of men. Lucas had worked for him for "a number of years," and there was clear respect on both sides of that relationship. It was a vote of confidence that would instantly open doors in almost all social or business circles.

But it didn't—it couldn't—open Kyle's door.

She had closed down, put her feelings in a deep freeze, almost the moment she had looked down from her soaring glider and seen the sunlight glinting off his silvery hair. Even at that distance, his features indistinguishable, she had known it was he. And in that first flashing instant she also had known that she had been waiting for him to come back.

It shocked her.

For the first time in her life Kyle had cause to be thankful for a cold, distant mother who had taught her, if nothing else, to keep her emotions buried beneath a serene surface. Her mother would have been proud of her, she thought now with a pang of bitterness. When her feet had touched solid earth and she'd turned to Lucas, she had obeyed neither of the conflicting emotional reactions battling inside her.

She hadn't lashed out at him in bitterness, and she hadn't thrown herself into his arms.

Kyle closed her eyes and leaned her head against cool glass, allowing herself to remember, trying to understand what she felt now and what she had felt then.

Ten years ago he hadn't seemed much older than she, although he was supposed to have been a senior. She judged him to be in his mid to late thirties now, so she realized he had been older then than he'd pretended to be. Older and charming and heartbreakingly handsome with classical features and blue eyes that were more striking than any she'd ever seen...

She opened her eyes after a moment and caught the silver chain at her throat with one finger, drawing the plain oval locket from its resting place between her breasts. A flick of her thumbnail opened the locket, and inside was revealed only a single polished stone. It was an opal she'd found in Australia five years ago. An opal that was blue with tiny flecks of yellow.

Like his eyes.

The moonlight streaming through the window picked out only the yellow flecks in the stone, causing them to gleam brilliantly but with no color, and Kyle absently rubbed the stone with her thumb before closing the locket and allowing it to slip back inside her silk pajama top.

Darkness and moonlight obscured colors, she thought. Time was supposed to obscure memories.

Ten years had changed him. He was broader across the shoulders, physically more powerful. His face was leaner, something under the surface of those classical features harder now, tougher. His voice was still low and curiously compelling, but there was, she thought, a shade of remote-ness in it that hadn't been present a decade before.

Or maybe that was just when he talked to her.

What had he been then? She wondered now, as she had wondered since. And why had he pre-tended? Why had he masqueraded as a college student? And why, after a night of searing passion when she had given herself to him without reservation, had he vanished while she slept?

Without even leaving a note...

After the first agony had turned to numbness, Kyle had reached for any reason at all to excuse his behavior. He would have had a reason, she had decided, a good reason. And that had helped the hurt.

She wondered now, with the same shock as when she'd seen him this afternoon, if she had always really believed in the back of her mind and the deepest part of her heart that he would come back to her someday.

It was a strange shock, a frightening shock, and Kyle shook away the feeling for a second time. Ridiculous, of course.

She had been different then. Escaping to a large college from the cloying protection of her wealthy family, she had been wild with the reckless need to distance herself from the essentially cold, dignified, and unemotional aspects of her upbringing. All her emotions had been dammed by a wall of forced reserve, and when that wall had burst, she had nearly drowned in the floodwaters of release.

Did a woman ever really forget her first lover? Kyle knew only that she would never forget hers—because he was Lucas, and because he had been a part of that glorious period of freedom. She had loved him the way only a woman-child could love a man, with a reckless abandon that scorned possible hurt.

All her caged romanticism had burst forth in that long-ago flood during her first year of college. She had loaded her schedule with poetry and literature and history, and had memorized every great love poem history boasted. Madly idealistic, she had adopted one cause after another, throwing herself into each with boundless enthusiasm.

And she had fallen in love.

Now, from a distance of ten years, Kyle realized that loving Lucas had been a part of that freedom but not caused by it. She had been ripe for love, but what she had felt for him had not been born of mindless rebellion. It had never occurred to her then or since that he might not have won the approval of her family. She had given him all the pent-up affection and passions of her life, and he had responded. He had loved her in return. She had believed that.

Then.

She hadn't experienced that kind of freedom again. The skydiving, mountain climbing, hang gliding—none of it had been any more than a series of gestures. Outwardly reckless but with no burning fire of resentment and glorious release blazing behind it, she had been searching for something she could feel deeply about.

For the better part of ten years, she realized with a distant jolt, she had been going through the motions of rebellion and feeling... nothing. Except empty searching.

She could remember vividly the months of college and the weeks with Lucas. Remember feelings so vast, so powerful, that they had overwhelmed her.

And at the end the aching bewilderment of desertion that had, as the days turned into weeks, frozen her inside. With no explanation offered to her, she had made up various excuses for him, and that had kept a girl's love safely stored intact somewhere inside her. But he was gone; he had vanished from her life without leaving a trace. So she had obeyed her father's request a few weeks later and left college after a year, going to Europe and the finishing school her family thought proper. Years in limbo. And then a second rebellion, this one outward, while she'd remained frozen inside.

Kyle stared out at the peaceful mountains. Why? Why? If only she'd known what had been behind Lucas's actions then, perhaps, she could put it all in the past where it belonged. But she had never known, and even then the scope of his deception had bewildered her. He pretended he attended the university; he had a room on campus; he participated in activities. Why? What had been behind all that?

She had wanted desperately to ask him outright. She needed to know what had been more important to him than their feelings for each other. But it had been ten years, and somehow she couldn't bring herself to ask.

And now, knowing that he was working for a secret government agency, the questions became even more disturbing. Had he been doing some-thing similar then? Both Lucas and Josh Long had made it clear that Lucas was working for Hagen only temporarily; this wasn't, apparently, the usual sort of job he undertook for Long Enterprises.

She had instinctively trusted Lucas ten years ago, and the results of that betrayal of trust had been devastating. Now he was back in her life, however briefly, asking for her trust again. Kyle felt more alive and aware than she had in too many years. But she was terribly afraid of trusting him. Afraid of allowing him back into her life. And that had nothing to do with Martin Rome and his alleged criminal activities.

She was afraid Luc would turn her life upside down again and then leave her, with no warning, to pick up the pieces alone. Again.

After she had talked to Josh Long, Lucas had asked for her decision, and she had stalled—there was no other word for it. The party was two weeks away, she'd said, and she wanted to think about it for a day or so. It had not been spelled out that he would remain here in her home until then, but both of them knew he would.

Feeling chilled, Kyle crept back to her bed. She knew why she had stalled. Because she needed time to work up the courage to face him with what had happened ten years ago. It wasn't possible to pretend to herself it didn't matter. She had to understand the series of events that had haunted her since then.

He had said he loved her, and in the morning he had been gone. She had to know why.

The faint sound of the shower woke her, and Kyle listened until she heard Lucas moving about downstairs in the kitchen. Then she rose and dressed, feeling edgy and tense. There was no conscious decision to confront him now, this morning, but when she went downstairs and into the kitchen, finding him leaning against the counter drinking coffee, the words emerged unbidden.

"Why did you leave me?"

And it seemed that he, too, was ready to talk, because he answered immediately.

"You know why."

"No. I don't. I've never known."

Lucas gave her a look of disbelief, something hard in his eyes, his jaw tense. "All right, maybe you didn't know why. Not completely. But you had to have a damned good idea when you found the suitcase missing. You had to know my leaving was connected to that."

Kyle shook her head slowly, confused. "Suitcase? What suitcase?"

"Oh, hell, Kyle—the heroin!"





Two




The suppressed violence of his rough outburst went through Kyle's body like an icy knife, leaving her numb. And his words made no sense at all.

"Heroin? Luc, what are you talking about?"

His eyes were hard, glittering, his face so wiped of feeling, it was like a mask. And when he answered, his voice was no longer violent but some-thing far worse, because it was as empty as his face. "I'm talking about the suitcase stuffed full of white powder I found in your closet, Kyle."

Her mind was anesthetized; she could think of nothing but trivialities. "What were you doing in my closet?"

"Looking. Searching." His tone became clipped. "Trying to find evidence to clear you." He lifted his coffee cup in a jerky, mocking toast. "That's not what I found."

The gesture focused her scattered thoughts, and she moved automatically to find a cup. Coffee, of course. This would all make sense when she'd had some coffee. She always needed coffee to wake up. She poured some and sipped, barely feeling the pain when she burned her tongue. Then she looked at Lucas and found that coffee didn't help at all.

She heard a stranger's voice emerge shakily. "Clear me of what?"

"Selling heroin to other students. Pushing."

"I didn't." Her denial sounded strangely weak and unemphatic to her own ears, just the way an Innocent's denial always sounded when the accusation was one too wild and horrible even to contemplate.

"I saw you, Kyle." His voice was roughening, the words coming more rapidly. "I had photographs. A dozen times I watched while you met a supplier and exchanged money for drugs. I never saw you pushing, just buying, but you didn't use the stuff yourself and you were buying it weekly you had to be pushing. Obviously for kicks, since you didn't need the money. And I saw you get the suitcase. I saw you. A week before. And that night, I had to know. So I looked for it while you were sleeping. And I found it."

Kyle's hand came out blindly and felt the solid comfort of an oak kitchen chair. She sat down automatically at the table and set her coffee cup before her trembling fingers dropped it. "No," she said numbly, shocked. "I never bought—or sold— drugs. Never."

"I saw you."

Belatedly her mind began to work. "You were a cop, weren't you?"

He met her unfocused gaze, his own eyes beginning to reflect a soul-deep uncertainty that had haunted him for a decade. Her shock and surprise were genuine; he could feel that. Then, what he had done... He pushed the thought away. "I was a cop. Undercover to find a campus link to a major dope dealer. The dealer was found dead a few days before—before I left."

"And you thought I was the link," she murmured.

"I saw you." The three stark words held the sound of something repeated so often and with such grinding force that they had been chiseled in stone.

Kyle remembered the suitcase now, remembered getting it; the incident had been so trivial, she hadn't thought of it since, or ever even missed the case. And she thought she understood. Drawing a deep breath, she said slowly, "You thought I was the link; you were sure of it. But I wasn't arrested or even questioned. Ever. Why not?"

He was silent, his gaze dropping to the cup in his hand. "Why not, Luc?"

"You were seventeen," he said, still staring at his cup. "Wild, a little spoiled. Thoughtless. It was just a game to you, like all the other games. You didn't realize what you were doing. You didn't stop to realize it would have ruined the rest of your life."

She was staring at him. In a slow, wondering tone she asked, "What did you do?"

His mouth twisted in an unconscious, painful movement. He didn't want to tell her, but he had to. It seemed that this was the day to open up the past.

"Luc?"

"I was the only one who had proof, and I hadn't reported to anyone. I destroyed the photos and the heroin. There was a small-time pusher on campus, another student; he'd sold a little here and there to support his own habit. About the time you'd gotten the suitcase, he was found off campus, dead of an overdose. I reported to my superiors that as far as I could determine, he was the only one dealing on campus. I wasn't terribly popular with my superiors, and when I refused to answer questions about any of my findings, they decided I was hiding something. I would have resigned, anyway. They didn't give me the chance."

Kyle felt a jolt that took her breath away. "You... you were protecting me? You gave up your career to—"

"I was sick of the job," he said, interrupting flatly. "I'd already decided to quit and accept the position Josh had offered. I gave up nothing, Kyle."

She felt another jolt, this one far deeper and much more painful. She wouldn't have understood ten years before, she knew, because at seventeen there was no perception of such things. Lucas had indeed given up something to protect her, she thought, something far more important than a career.

He had given up his honor.

And it was only this realization that kept her from lashing out at him now for the terrible hurt inflicted on them both. For a fleeting instant she was tempted to let him go on believing that his sacrifice had gained something for someone, that he had indeed protected her from the results of insane folly, because she was afraid of what it would do to him to find out the truth. But he had to know.

No matter what it did to them, to each of them alone and to both of them, he had to know.

"Did you know I had a brother?" she asked suddenly. "He lived off campus until our father called him back home. That was just before you left."

Lucas frowned a little, thrown off stride by the seeming non sequitur. "I knew. He was killed a few months after you went to Europe, wasn't he? A car crash?"

"Amazing what money can do." Her voice was quiet and flat. "A car didn't kill my brother."

"Then what did?"

"Heroin. He died of an overdose."

Lucas began to feel curiously chilled inside. A cop's training took over, sifting through new facts and old ones. A brother who used heroin and died from it—and who had lived in an apartment near the university campus where his younger sister attended classes. A sister who was wild and a little spoiled but didn't use drugs...

Kyle kept her eyes fixed on his face, and her voice was soft. "I adored him. You said I was a little spoiled; Dorian was a lot spoiled. Our father instilled in him all the beliefs of the family, but Dorian twisted them to suit himself. He thought that wealth and power meant everything. Ultimately he believed he was invincible. And since he was the heir, he was indulged. He never would admit to a fault when we were kids; if something happened—a rock breaking a window, or a vase shattering—he always blamed me. And I took the blame because I adored him and it seemed right that I take his punishment for him."

She sighed softly. "I was blind. The packages, the suitcase, they were his. I was used to doing things for him, without question. And since I was... well, rather involved with what was happening in my own life then, I wasn't much interested in what all the favors really were. I never looked in the packages, the suitcase. Maybe if I had—"

If I had, he might still be alive. If I had, I would have confided in you, and ten years of our lives would have been different.

Lucas set his cup on the counter and walked out of the kitchen. Kyle didn't turn, but she heard the front door open and shut quietly. She closed her eyes, and in the silence of the house her voice sounded as though it were wrenched from the depths of her body.

"If I had, you wouldn't have sold your honor for me."

Kyle was a realist; she knew it hadn't been completely her fault. She had been young, thought-less, and in love. Too preoccupied with the dam-burst of her own feelings to notice that Lucas had grown quieter those last couple of weeks. Too self-involved to understand why she'd sometimes caught him looking at her with a brooding expression. Too accustomed to doing things for her brother to notice anything unusual about the pack-ages she picked up for him.

And Lucas... Considering what he had sacrificed for her, he clearly had been in love with her. He hadn't lied about that. But even though he had been an undercover cop, what had happened to them was also his fault. Trust was a part of love; he should have doubted the evidence at least enough to confront her with It.

But Lucas hadn't loved enough, or doubted enough. And she had loved her brother too blindly to question. And because of that, each of them bore a wound that was raw and bleeding. Her wound was less, she thought, because knowing what Lucas had done for her would start the healing now. He hadn't left her lightly. But Lucas... His wound was a deep and terrible one, damaging an integral part of his very self.

She had the comfort of knowing he had not loved or left her lightly, that he had sacrificed something of himself for her. But Lucas had the devastating awareness that he had sold his soul for nothing.

If ten years hadn't separated them, Kyle would have gone out then in search of him, all her instincts telling her that a man shouldn't be alone while facing such a terrible truth. She had earned the right to go after him all those years ago in a single night of passionate giving.

She wanted to go after him, even if her comfort could be no more than presence or a simple touch. But she couldn't. What he had done for her had changed him in ways she might never fully understand, had made him less than he was—and more than he was.

Far back in a dark corner of her mind was another reason she couldn't go after him now. Love was perhaps the strongest human emotion of all—and also the most fragile. And it was less likely to die a quiet death than to alter itself to bitterness and regret. Sacrifice always cost someone something. Lucas might have learned to hate her in ten years.

He might have learned to hate her in ten minutes.

Kyle got up slowly and went into the living room. She sat on the couch and picked up the phone, dialing a number even more familiar than her own. Her father was an early riser, and the household staff as well, but even the butler sounded sleepy when he answered.

While she waited for her father to come to the phone, Kyle fretted about the phrasing of her question. There had been little between her and her father; Dorian had been the pride of his life. To her, Phillip Griffon had always been a strict authority figure, and what she felt for him was made up more of respect than affection. A calm, humorless man who sat at the head of both boardroom and dining tables, he had made no secret of his disapproval of her, his disappointment in her.

She had never learned how to talk to him.

"Kyle?" His voice was as dry and precise as always, as unhurried and without much inflection.

"Hello, Father." There was no need, she knew, to ask how he and her mother were; he would consider that a waste of time. She stared fixedly at her fireplace and tried to find the words. "I—I need to ask you about something."

"What is it?"

"It's about Dorian."

There was a long silence, and then his voice came through the lines flatly. "Your brother's dead."

Kyle half closed her eyes. "Yes. Did you know he was using drugs while I was at the university?" Like all hard questions, hers came out quickly, bluntly, and without tact, as she had been afraid it would.

"I won't allow his name to be dirtied," Phillip Griffon said. "Has some scandal sheet approached you, Kyle? Your family name is important, even if you don't think so."

She felt cold and lonely. "Nothing like that, Father. I just need to know. It's been ten years— don't you think I have the right to know? Was he using drugs then? Is that why you called him home?"

"Kyle—"

"Father," she said evenly, "I've just found out that I was almost arrested because of what Dorian was doing. I have the right to know."

"Just found out?" His voice sharpened. "From whom?"

"An ex-policeman. I want to know if you knew about Dorian's life then. Did you?"

"Who is this ex-policeman? What has he told you about your brother?"

"Will you answer me, please?" She felt like screaming at him but didn't, of course. "Did you know before you called him home that Dorian was using drugs? Selling them?"

"I suspected," he said finally, briefly. She was looking blindly at nothing.

"I see. Why did you send me to Europe? Did you suspect me too?"

Again he hesitated. "No harm in telling you now, I suppose; I was warned that drugs were common on campus and that it wasn't a safe place for a sheltered seventeen-year-old."

She felt detached. "Who warned you?"

"Joshua Long. It seems he had a friend on campus who warned him about the problem."

Meaning Lucas, she knew. What had it cost his pride, she wondered, to turn to his new employer and request a favor such as that one?

"Who is this ex-policeman?" her father asked sharply.

"Never mind."

"Really, Kyle, have you no thought of your family's name or my position? If this man has information potentially damaging to us, I must be made aware—"

In a still, remote voice she said, "Oh, don't worry, Father. He doesn't need to sell information to the scandal sheets. And blackmail isn't his style. He won't disturb the precious family name." And she quietly cradled the receiver.

Her father didn't call back. But then, she hadn't expected him to.

Suspected. Her father had suspected that the apple of his eye was using and selling drugs. So he had yanked him back home, so quickly that Dorian hadn't been able to reclaim the suitcase full of his latest purchase. Knowing Dorian, he had shrugged off the loss of those drugs, quickly found a supplier closer to home, and never even thought to warn his sister to drop that damning suitcase into a river.

And three months later he was dead.

Kyle was beyond assigning blame to anyone for any part of that tragic series of events. It was over, ten years over, and they all had to learn to live with the results.

Her father had learned to live with whatever he felt by never mentioning his dead son by name and by acting as if he had no offspring; from her years in Europe on, Phillip Griffon had taken no further interest in Kyle. And her mother coldly blamed Kyle for the loss of Dorian. She should have been able to do something; after all, hadn't she always watched out for her brother, even if he was two years older?

But what of the other two who had suffered— Kyle and Lucas?

She didn't know, not really. Not now. Not yet.

Hours passed before Lucas came back into the cabin. Kyle was on the couch, curled up before a blazing fire drinking coffee. She didn't look at him, just told him that coffee was in the kitchen. He was probably chilled to the bone, she thought, because it had suddenly turned cold outside, the way it sometimes did in the mountains. The radio was playing softly, and the weather forecast had just been announced. Snow within twenty-four hours.

She heard him go into the kitchen where faint sounds indicated he was ready for some kind of warmth, at least. In a little while she felt him sit on the couch a foot or so away from her. Still, she didn't look at him.

Softly, wary of disturbing the high wire under her feet, she asked, "Do you have a family?"

"No." He didn't elaborate.

"Have you ever been close to anyone?"

"A few friends. You."

It surprised her so much that she turned her head to look at him and found his gaze steady on her face as he sat half turned toward her. And she was even more surprised when he went on in a quiet, musing tone.

"I think I went a little mad when I met you. You were... someone very special. You were at a crossroads in your life, suspended between woman and child. I don't know, maybe if I'd had sisters and watched them grow, you wouldn't have affected me quite so strongly. I think that was a part of it, watching you turn into a woman before my eyes. And you were—forgive me—starved for affection."

Kyle nodded slowly, unable to take her eyes off a face that had grown worn and haggard these last hours but was still incredibly beautiful and no longer a mask. And with all he must be feeling himself, he still thought of her feelings. She swallowed hard. "I guess I was."

"Me too." He smiled just a little, but then the smile died and there was something bleak in his vivid eyes. "I was nine years older than you; I'd been a cop for five years. And when you work undercover, you—there's a danger of losing yourself. But I forgot all that when you were with me. You were so untouched. So damned innocent of cruelty. You were just waking up to life. There were no shadows in you, no nightmares in your memories. You jumped on every bandwagon that passed, just for the joy of the ride."



"And you believed selling heroin was another bandwagon." She hadn't meant to say it, realizing only then that there was a wound because he hadn't trusted her enough.

"No." His response seemed to come from deep inside him, where there was no question. But then he shook his head. "I don't know. It's haunted me because I could never be sure. I had never faced you with it."

"And now? Looking back?" She gazed at him steadily. "Why did you do it, Luc? Because you thought you loved me?"

"Because I knew you loved me. Or loved what you thought I was." His voice was low, tentative, as if it were a recent discovery. He looked down at the cooling coffee in his cup. "You looked at me like I was a god, Kyle, did you know that? Like I'd just stepped down off Olympus. And that's heady stuff. Seductive stuff. I'd spent months at a time rubbing elbows with the scum of the earth, and sometimes all that dirt weighed me down. But I had to be worth something, because Kyle looked at me like that.

"But I knew I had feet of clay." He looked at her then, with a crooked smile and a sheen in his eyes. "And I think I was less afraid of being disappointed in you than of having you be disillusioned by me. You thought I was special, and I didn't want to have to tell you I wasn't. That I was just a cop trying to do a dirty job. That I was watching you and following you to do that dirty job."

Kyle stared at him. "So it didn't matter whether I'd done what you suspected? It just mattered that I not find out you weren't what I thought you were?" She felt bewildered, felt somehow hurt and... cheated. "Luc, girls grow up. And they find out that men aren't gods. Even the ones they think they love."

"I know." He half closed his eyes. "Kyle, I can't give you a clear list of reasons why I did what I did. It was a jumble then. And now. I was feeling too much to sort one thing from another. And since then I've felt a lot of bitterness because I turned my back on my responsibilities and walked away from my job."

"And me? What did you feel about turning your back on me, Luc? How did you feel leaving my room and knowing I'd wake up alone, my one-night lover vanished without a word? Did you even consider just how brutally I found out about gods with feet of clay?"

He almost flinched from the sudden bitterness in her voice. "Yesterday," he murmured, "I felt frustrated because I didn't know what you were thinking or feeling."

Kyle tried to reclaim her surface calm but found it gone, out of reach. "Yesterday I didn't know what I was thinking or feeling," she said tightly. "And this morning I felt shattered because I thought you'd sold your pride, or your honor, or something, to protect me. And now I'm just plain mad, because what you did was for all the wrong reasons!"

Lucas was gazing at her with an odd, searching look, and he made a rough sound that might have been a laugh. "When did I stop being godlike, Kyle? Ten years ago when you woke up alone? Or ten minutes ago when I admitted I made some human mistakes? What hurts worse—that I left without a word or that I left for purely selfish reasons?"

She felt a shock that was almost physical, a painful jolt that knocked anger and disillusionment completely aside. "No. I—"

"I suppose we all do that," he said quietly. "Rationalize to protect our self-images. Ten years ago I told myself I was protecting you, I was doing something noble, when all the time what I was trying to protect was your very attractive image of myself. I couldn't tell you who I was without shattering that image. So I walked away. And what did I leave you with? Your own rationalizing."

It was true and she knew it. And because he was being so painfully honest, she could be no less.

"It was a mystery," she said slowly. "No record of you at the university. No one who knew where you'd gone. A mystery. Strange. And I built on it. I told myself over and over that you wouldn't have left without a word unless you had a strong reason. I imagined wild things."

He didn't ask her to elaborate, saying, "And this morning you suddenly had a reason. I left to protect you, sacrificing—what was it you said?—my honor or my soul in the process? I wasn't the only one who painted myself noble."

Kyle nodded, surprisingly unembarrassed, but said after a moment, "I think you did sacrifice something, though."

"I did," he agreed immediately, wryly. "I sacrificed whatever may have evolved between us. And perhaps I gave up a part of my—oh, honor, for want of a better word. I turned my back on the responsibilities of my job. But it felt like an even trade then. That part of me for your image of me."

She felt as if she were looking at him for the first time, a stranger met while rounding a sudden corner. "We never knew each other at all, did we?" she asked wonderingly. "You knew a kid trying too hard to be a woman, and I knew an image in my mind."

He smiled another twisted smile. "It's taken me these ten years to see myself clearly," he said. "And the last of that noble image shattered when you told me I left for nothing. What about you?"

"I don't know. I think I'm just beginning to see myself." She was silent for a moment and then, jerkily, she asked, "Did you plan that last night?"

"No." Then he swore softly. "I don't know. I knew you were untouched. That's an old-fashioned word, but it fit you. Maybe I wanted that. You said it yourself. Girls become women and find out that men aren't gods. I think I wanted to make love to you before you found out."

Slowly, quietly, the last lingering remnants of that godlike image faded away. He had fallen off the pedestal she had put him on all those years ago, and she didn't know what he was now. And Lucas seemed to read her mind—or the expression on her face.

"I'm just a man, Kyle," he said quietly. "I've made more mistakes in my life than I like to think about, but I hope I've learned from most of them. What I did to you was cruel, and if I could go back and change it, I would. But I can't."

Kyle stared into the fire, feeling cold and painfully aware of a tearing grief. He hadn't been real. She had given herself, everything she was, to a man she had made up in her own mind. And ten years couldn't soften that blow. Ten years had made it worse, because that image had lived in her mind so long, it had seemed even more real. And now he'd torn it out by the roots, and the bare spot hurt terribly.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"It doesn't help," she snapped.

"I know."

She looked at him then with burning eyes. "You should have stayed away."

"So you could go on loving a god?" he asked bleakly.

"It didn't hurt, not like this. At least there was no one to tell me that you weren't real."

Lucas shook his head. "But I was real, dammit. I am real. Kyle, I needed that image of yours then, because there was so much dirt in my life and I was tired of it. Call me a bastard, a heel—anything you want. I deserve it. But I didn't deliberately set out to hurt you. I never wanted that."

He looked at her with restless eyes. "Sometimes through the years I wanted to see you so badly, I ached. I looked for your name in the magazines and newspapers, and some of the things you were doing scared the hell out of me." He hesitated, then said, "There was never any hint of a man in your life, though."

She knew what he was asking, and her smile was bitter. "What man could live up to the memory of a god?"

"Kyle—"

"I know. You're sorry."

His smile was bitter too. "You forgave me for leaving you, Kyle. Ten years ago. You just can't forgive me now for being human."

He rose and carried his cold coffee to the kitchen, then returned to gaze down at her with no expression. "I'll tell Hagen we'll have to find another way into Rome's house."

Kyle had forgotten about that. She looked up at Lucas and felt a sudden, searing anger. "Just like that? So for a second time you're going to waltz through my life, drop a couple of bombshells, and then simply leave?"

"What the hell do you want me to do?" he demanded, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his face tightening. "We're strangers, Kyle. And once upon a time this stranger hurt you. What do you want, atonement? There's nothing I can do to change what happened. I can't even try, because you won't forgive me for being human."

Kyle automatically set her cup aside and stood up, facing him. And she didn't know what she would say until the words emerged. "I want to know what I missed, Luc. I'm a woman now, and we both know I don't believe men are gods anymore. I think I deserve to know who really walked away from me ten years ago."

Lucas gazed at the lovely face that wasn't serene anymore; ten years hadn't aged or changed her surface tranquility, but the shattering of illusions had. She looked older than yesterday, the new maturity making her more beautiful than ever. And he had a sudden premonition that this time it would be he who would be left hurting and alone.

"So, I don't walk out that door?" he asked steadily enough.

"I don't know. Do you? It's two weeks until Martin's little weekend party. Is that long enough for two strangers to get to know each other?"

"What have you got in mind?" He was trying not to remember a slender body flaming with awakened passion. Trying not to remember how badly he had hurt himself by leaving her and how long he had hurt. She probably wouldn't believe him. Probably wouldn't believe he still woke sometimes reaching out for her.

Kyle shrugged. "I don't know. I think I want... I want time to heal. I trusted you then, and I haven't trusted anyone since. No other man could ever measure up to what I thought you were. Even though part of me kept you on your pedestal, another part of me never wanted to be hurt like that again. So I just stopped feeling. I want to feel again, Luc."

His smile was forced, stiff. "Hate me. That's feeling."

"I don't want to hate you." She looked at him searchingly, wondering what she did want.

He wondered too. "Then what? Just two nice grown-up, adult people on a two-week date? To see if we click?"

"Maybe we would," she said soberly. Lucas walked over to the window because he had to move, had to stop looking at her. He looked outside instead.

"And if we did?"

She didn't know. Did she want to take such a risk? A god, with all his thunderbolts, couldn't hurt a girl the way a man could hurt a woman. Kyle felt confused, afraid. "I don't know," she said finally, almost inaudibly. "Do you?" She watched his shoulders square, as if he were bracing against something.

"I left you once," he said, very low. "Tell me to go and I'll leave you now. Later I may not be able to leave you, Kyle."

"Why not?" She was suddenly tense, aware that a great deal depended on his answer.

He turned to face her, leaning back against the window frame. He looked as drained as she felt. "If I stay, we'll very probably end up being lovers. I hope you know it."

She hesitated, then nodded slowly. A day for honesty. Indeed. "I know. It's possible."

"Are you willing for it to happen?" His voice was terse, controlled.

Kyle met his gaze steadily. "You wanted to make love to a girl who didn't know the difference between men and gods; maybe I want the possibility of making love to a man knowing the difference."

"You may not want the man I am."

"I want to find out if I do."

"While I wait patiently?"

"While you find out if you want a woman who's no longer a girl, Luc. I'm not her anymore. You may not want me now."

"I do."

She blinked, felt a sudden heat course through her body. "You do?"

On a sigh he said, "Kyle, I never stopped wanting you."

Dropping bombshells, she thought. He was good at that. "How can you know? You don't know me."

"It doesn't matter. I knew how I felt yesterday when I watched you soaring around out there hanging under that glider. I was scared to death you'd fall. Just like I've been scared all these years every time I saw a picture of you or read an article about you. Scared you'd wreck the damned race car, or get hurt or killed jumping out of a plane or climbing a mountain."

Kyle realized then that her arms were crossed over her breasts, that she had been trying unconsciously to hold him off, close him out, stop what he was saying. Because with her illusion of him gone, it was hard to believe what he was telling her. Hard for a woman to grasp that a girl's dreams of a god were shallow and insignificant when com-pared to a man's emotions that had lasted ten long years.

She had stored her dream in a deep freeze, but it seemed Lucas had lived with his.

Ignoring the body language that he understood fully, Lucas said softly, "And that's why I couldn't leave you later, Kyle. I never said good-bye to you, so I never really lost you. If we were lovers and you wanted me to go, I'd have to say good-bye, be-cause I could never leave you the way I did before. I'd have to say good-bye and lose you completely, and that's something I just don't think I could do."

Kyle couldn't seem to breathe very well and she was shaking inside. "You make it sound so important," she whispered. "So terribly important."

Lucas pushed himself away from the window slowly and crossed the room to stand before her. His hands slid from his pockets and lifted to hold her shoulders carefully—too carefully. "It is important," he murmured, and bent his head until his lips touched hers.

He didn't kiss her like a stranger. A flood of memory rushed through her mind and triggered a storm of sensations, memory of hot, possessive kisses and hands that had made her body his own, Imprinting her with the very essence of himself. And her body, attuned to his as instantly as it had been so long ago, swayed toward him.

She was aware of rough flannel and hard muscles under her fingers as her hands slipped around his lean waist and moved slowly up his back. Her heart smothered her with its pounding, and strength flowed from her limbs as if something inside her, some barrier, had ruptured, given way. The slow, stark possession of his tongue ignited a curl of fire deep inside her where no fire had burned for a decade, and she barely heard the faint, hungry sound that tangled in the back of her throat.

As her body moved to be closer, his hands slipped down her back in a lingering caress that left a trail of stinging awareness. It had been like that before, she remembered dimly; he had always made her more aware of her body, her senses. He had always been able to bring her alive with no more than a look or a touch. Her body remembered...

But the touch of his body felt slightly different, she realized. He was harder, stronger. His kisses were rougher, more demanding, his desire more direct. She was different, too, but neither of their differences changed her reaction to his passion. Her breasts were fuller, her hips more rounded in the womanly figure gained by years, but she remembered. And all her senses, frozen for so long, recalled only too vividly sensations known but briefly.

Nothing else mattered. Not ten years, or old and new hurts, or illusions shattered. She didn't know this man, but her body knew him, wanted him, and willpower was a frail thing overpowered by sheer, burning need.

Lucas tore his mouth from hers with a hoarse sound, and his hands dropped to pull her hips fiercely against his lower body. "It is important," he said thickly. "I haven't felt like this for ten years, Kyle. And I've learned too much since then to throw it away without a hell of a fight."





Three




Kyle tried to get hold of herself, but it was difficult when she was so aware of his arousal and her own. She wanted to back away, put some distance between them, but her body refused to al-low that escape. So she rested her forehead against his shoulder and tried to think. She was so tired and drained, and she wanted him so badly.

But then she thought of everything that had happened between them, and strength returned. There was a slow, grim anger inside her, a resentment at how he had cheated her, how she had cheated herself. She backed away from him abruptly until they stood apart, and looked at him with her chin lifted.

"I'm not a girl anymore, Luc. And I won't fall into bed with a stranger this time."

"Kyle—"

"I mean it! Because it isn't that easy. Being lovers isn't an automatic step for us; it may never happen."

"It'll happen," he said roughly. "Don't try to tell me I imagined your response, Kyle. I'm the one who stopped, not you. We wouldn't have made it to the bedroom!"

Her voice emerged soft and firm, and there was more emotion in that quietness than Lucas would have thought possible.

"I gave you everything ten years ago. No matter what I thought you were, I gave you everything I was. And you gave me nothing, Luc. Not even honesty. I won't let that happen again. I want to find out who you are, and who you were, and then I'll decide if I want you to have who I am."

After a moment Lucas nodded. She had the right. And he knew he was willing to gamble on something he hadn't dared to ten years ago. He was willing to gamble that Kyle could learn to love him with the intensity that she had loved that image in her mind.

"I love you," he said, and he was startled because the words had emerged totally against his will.

Kyle looked at him, a curious, searching look. She didn't know if she believed him. But whether she did or not, she felt—nothing. "I don't seem able to feel much of anything about you right now," she said slowly.

"You want me." His voice was tight.

"Maybe I want the only thing left of that image." Kyle shrugged suddenly. "I don't know. But I mean to find out, Luc. If you stay."

"I'm staying." He drew a deep breath. "I don't seem to have much choice."

They were strangers, strangers with a past and a strong awareness of physical desire. They were cautious, tentative, both wary of moving too fast. And they were very careful to avoid touching. But they were able to find a neutral ground, and both clung to that prosaic space.

They fixed a late lunch in the kitchen, avoiding getting in each other's way and being almost pain-fully polite. They ate, making bland conversation about the weather. They cleaned up after the meal with studied casualness.

This state of affairs might have lasted indefinitely—or might have blown up in their faces. However, a distraction presented itself. Actually two distractions, making a suitably dramatic entrance.

Kyle, more attuned to the sounds of her home than Lucas, heard it first and went out to stand on the front porch. He went with her, hearing what she'd heard as soon as they were outside in the crisp air.

"Helicopter."

She looked at him. "I'm not expecting company. How about you?"

"No." But he was frowning, and when a sleek white craft set down yards from the cabin, he wasn't surprised to see the logo etched in blue.

"Long Enterprises," Kyle said, sending him an-other glance.

Lucas slid his hands into his pockets and said nothing, watching while the helicopter lost power and the thumping rotors slowed to silence. Two men climbed out of the craft and approached the cabin briskly.

Kyle watched curiously as they neared, one slightly ahead of the other. The first man was rather large and clearly powerful, his lean face open, almost ingenuous, unremarkable but curiously pleasant. His hair was a rusty shade of brown and his eyes somewhere between blue and gray. The second man was tall and leaner than his companion, with copper hair and light brown eyes. His face was humorous, his smile somewhat lazy— but he moved with a kind of wired tautness that spoke of an incredible amount of energy.

As the first man reached them he said, "Wow!" rather inelegantly as his gaze swept over Kyle, then he addressed Lucas. "No wonder you didn't report in."

Sighing a little but looking annoyed and somewhat impatient, Lucas murmured, "Kyle, this is Kelsey—better known as Hagen's right arm."

"I am not," Kelsey instantly denied, offended. "Snakes don't have arms. I just slither along beside him sometimes," he confided to Kyle. "How do you do?" she murmured gravely. Just as grave, he replied, "I'm not really sure. I think I win about half the time." Kyle found herself smiling and wasn't surprised. "And this other character," Lucas said, "is Rafferty Lewis. He's Josh's attorney, and I don't know what the hell he's doing here."

"I flew the bird," Rafferty said, as if that explained everything. He smiled at Kyle. "Hello."

"Hi." She glanced at Lucas, noting his somewhat mutinous expression, then back at the visitors. "Why don't you gentlemen come inside?"

Kelsey looked at Rafferty. "You see? I told you I was a gentleman, but no, you wouldn't believe me. Kyle is obviously a woman of great perception."

"She doesn't know you yet," Rafferty chided.

"I want to know what the hell you're both doing here," Lucas said as they went inside the cabin, effectively cutting short the discussion of Kelsey's personality.

"Hagen," Kelsey said.

"Josh," Rafferty said at the same time.

They looked at each other and scowled.

Kyle tried not to giggle as she sat in a rocking chair by the fireplace. She remained silent, mostly because she was relieved by the Interruption these men presented, but also because they were clearly friends of Luc's and would therefore give her an opportunity to learn a little more about him. Or at least she hoped so.

"Let's have it," Lucas demanded.

Kelsey made an "after you, Alphonse" gesture to Rafferty and then sat down on the couch, looking Innocent.

Rafferty used a shoulder to prop up the fireplace across from Kyle and smiled. "Nothing earth-shaking," he told Lucas placatingly. "When Kelsey asked for a ride. Josh just thought I should come along and hear what he had to say."

Lucas looked at Kelsey. "You mean you had the nerve to ask Josh to lend you a chopper and pilot?"

"Hagen had the nerve," Kelsey explained, somewhat indignant. "Said he was on a tight budget. Come on, Luc, you know he has the nerve of a burglar. And Josh could have said no. If you people would just say no a few times, Hagen might leave you alone." He mused silently, then said in a wistful tone, "I hope I'm around to hear it, though."

"Where's the boss?" Lucas asked Rafferty.

"New York." The lawyer shrugged. "He's tied up with that merger. Jed's handling it. My partner," he explained to Kyle, who nodded. Rafferty looked back at Lucas. "Raven and Sarah are trying to find out if our federal friend has his usual little surprise in store for you."

Lucas sat down in an armchair and looked at Kyle. "Raven is Josh's wife," he told her. "She's also Kelsey's ex-partner. Sarah is Rafferty's wife, and she currently works for Hagen's agency doing research. Unless—" He returned a questioning gaze to the lawyer.

"Her leave starts this week," Rafferty told him. "The baby's due next month."

Kyle looked at the men, puzzled. "Is this a group effort or what?"

"They're like that," Kelsey told her in a confiding tone. "Actually they were recruited when Josh met Raven in the middle of a sticky operation. Things just kind of snowballed from there. The bottom line is, Hagen found himself an almost unlimited source of unpaid manpower. He's been drafting these guys one at a time, but they all get into the act sooner or later." Kelsey blinked, then looked at Lucas. "I meant to ask, is Zach still on his honeymoon?"

"Supposed to be." Lucas lifted an eyebrow at Rafferty.

"Well..."

"Him too," Kelsey said, unsurprised.

"Dammit, Rafferty—"

"Hey, it's not my fault," Rafferty said dryly. "And Josh didn't tell him. He and Teddy got back to New York yesterday, and when you weren't around, Zach knew you'd been drafted. Hell, he expected it."

Lucas shook his head but said, "Well, this time it can hardly be a group effort. Kyle can get me into Rome's house, but the rest of you—" Then he looked at her. "You know, you never said you would."

Ignoring the deeper question in his eyes, she said lightly, "I'm getting intrigued. So, why not?"

Plaintively Kelsey said, "And I'll have to skulk around as usual."

"On the estate?" Lucas asked him, looking away, from Kyle with an obvious effort. "What about, Rome's security?"

Mildly offended, Kelsey said, "You forget. Unlike you amateurs, I am a professional. Highly skilled and trained. With years of experience. I can pick any lock, disarm any bomb, finesse my way through any security system. My talents are vast, my stealth unsurpassed—"

"Thinks he's the Shadow," Rafferty murmured.

Finding himself the focus of fascinated eyes, Kelsey grinned suddenly and descended to normality. "And if all else fails," he said cheerfully, "I'll just shinny over the fence."

Lucas stared at him for a moment, then said suspiciously, "Just why'd you want a ride out here, anyway?"

Kelsey linked his fingers together over his flat stomach and leaned back, looking innocent again. "Well, Hagen just recently found a new bit of in-formation he thought you should have. So that you'd be fully aware of all relevant facts in the case," he said blandly.

Lucas looked at Rafferty. "Did Raven and Sarah find out anything surprising?"

"Just one thing," the lawyer muttered, watching Kelsey.

Kelsey appeared hurt. "Stop staring at me like I'm on the witness stand," he told Rafferty severely. "I don't know what Raven and Sarah found out, but Hagen has promised to come clean this time."

"He usually doesn't," Lucas told Kyle.

"Never does," Rafferty amended.

"Well, this time he will," Kelsey stated. He looked at Lucas. "What he found out is that you may have to deal with a rather unpredictable character at Rome's estate. She appeared on the scene before the artwork was stolen, and she seems to have Rome completely under her thumb. But we have no idea what—if anything—she has to do with the theft."

"Who is she?" Lucas asked.

For the first time Kelsey seemed honestly uncomfortable. "Well, she apparently claims to be a reincarnated Aztec princess."

Lucas blinked. "Uh-huh."

"I swear."

Lucas looked at Rafferty, and the lawyer nodded, "It's true enough. Calls herself Princess Zamara. A somewhat flamboyant personality, to say the least."

"I thought Rome was supposed to be a hard-headed businessman," Lucas said in surprise. "You mean, he's buying her act?"

"How d'you know it's an act?" Kelsey asked.

Lucas stared at him.

Kelsey grinned. "All the way to the bank," he said. "He's spent a fortune on the woman in just a few weeks. She seems to have convinced him that his destiny is tied to the fortunes of the Aztecs. Or something like that."

Lucas turned his gaze to Kyle. "Does that sound like Rome?"

"No, not really. But I haven't seen him in six months." Kyle thought for a moment, then added slowly, "He always seemed to have a strong belief in fate, though. And after his first wife died about five years ago, rumor had it that he was consulting mediums pretty often. Still, I wouldn't have said he'd believe in reincarnated Aztec princesses."

Running a hand through his thick, silvery hair, Lucas muttered, "How's all this going to affect my job?"

"Beats me," Kelsey replied.

Rafferty stirred. "Zach had information for you. When we found out about this Zamara, he remembered that one piece of artwork stolen was a solid gold Aztec death mask. And Sarah did a little research. It seems this mask is supposed to confer enormous power on whoever owns it. It has quite a history too. Several owners—including two who stole it—amassed a great deal of wealth after it came into their possession. But the last owner lost everything he had, and the mask ended up in a museum. He was rumored to have said that the thing was cursed rather than blessed. It gathered dust in the museum until a couple of months ago when it was stolen, along with a truck-load of other priceless gems and artwork."

For long minutes the only sound in the small cabin was the crackle of the fire. Then Lucas sighed and shook his head. "I don't believe in coincidence," he said. "Has anyone suggested Rome may have wanted that truckload of art just be-cause the mask was one of the pieces?"

"It seems incredible," Kyle said. "You told me he'd paid for the artwork with a shipment of illegal arms. That sounds like an awfully complicated way to get his hands on the mask."

Rafferty said dryly, "Well, here's the kicker. Zach found out where Ryan was being held and went to see him this morning. Ryan," he added to Kyle, "was the ringleader of the art thieves. He and Zach have an odd sort of enmity. If it weren't for Zach and his new wife, Teddy, Ryan would probably still be running around loose, but he talked to Zach this morning."

Musingly Kelsey said, "We really should use Zach to interrogate prisoners more often. He scares me when he smiles."

Lucas gave him an impatient look, then asked Rafferty, "What did Ryan say?"

"He said—off the record—that he'd been commissioned to take everything in a certain room of the museum. Just for the hell of it, he took more, then upped his price. Originally he was supposed to be paid in cold, hard cash. He decided he wanted guns instead and demanded them."

"And got them?" Kyle asked. Intrigued.

"Actually we've got them," Kelsey answered absently. "Thanks, I regret to say, to these clowns."

"I should have left you in jail," Rafferty told him.

"I wasn't in jail. I was being held incommunicado as a political prisoner."

"In a room with bars on the windows. That wasn't jail?"

"Just a highly security-conscious hotel."

Rafferty said something impolite.

"Can we get back to the point, please?" Lucas asked with awful patience.

"Gladly." Kelsey frowned at him. "What was it?"

Kyle choked back a laugh. Since Lucas seemed too irritated to respond, she murmured, "Um, I think it was that Martin apparently wanted just the mask."

"Well, he kept it all," Kelsey told them, serious again. "He hasn't moved anything larger than his car keys out of that house in weeks."

"Sure?" Rafferty asked.

Kelsey winced, as if the mild question had jabbed a sore spot. "Yes, dammit, I'm sure! Three agents have had the place under surveillance around the clock since the shipment got there."

"Don't you two get started again," Lucas warned the men.

Instantly transferring his attention to the blond man, Kelsey said, "You know, I've never seen you like this, Luc. Who licked the red off your candy?"

Kyle choked on a laugh.

Kelsey looked at her. "Have you been irritating our Lucas?" he asked sternly. "He's usually such a cheerful soul."

"Dammit, Kelsey!" Lucas snapped.

Undeterred, Kelsey said to Rafferty, "You've known him longer than I have. Is it the mountain air, d'you think?"

With a wary eye on his fuming friend, Rafferty said, "You'd carry a torch into a room full of gun-powder, Kelsey. Kyle, the only real talent Kelsey can claim is the ability to make coffee. I think we could all use some, if you wouldn't mind?"

"Of course." She rose and led the way into the kitchen, curious but a bit wary of the sudden undercurrents in the room.

When they were out of earshot, Lucas murmured, "Thanks."

"Don't mention it." Rafferty's voice was equally low. "He's right, though. You seem a little frayed around the edges."

Lucas didn't say anything for a moment, then sighed a bit roughly. "Ever have something from your past come back to haunt you?"

"We all have, I think." He studied his friend's suddenly haggard face, then said softly, "So Kyle's the one. I always thought there was someone you couldn't forget."

Lucas grimaced. "My great poker face."

"No, not your face," Rafferty told him. "Something in your eyes, maybe. This isn't going to be easy for you, is it?"

Gazing off toward the kitchen, Lucas murmured, "No more than I deserve."

"Can I help?"

"No." He shook his head. "But thanks."

In the kitchen, Kyle found that she was entirely comfortable with Kelsey, as if she'd known him forever. And that, she decided shrewdly, was probably a part of the man's effectiveness as an agent. He had the instinctive knack of putting people at ease, which made his behavior toward Lucas all the more surprising.

"Do you always needle Luc like that?" she asked, too curious to avoid the subject.

Kelsey was measuring coffee into the percolator and didn't answer until he'd finished. Then he leaned back against the counter and smiled at her. "Who, me? I was just making an observation."

She realized quite suddenly that despite his cheerful demeanor and his mischievous personality, this man was dangerous. She wasn't afraid of him but began to feel a bit wary because a part of his danger, she decided, lay in perceptiveness. She had the uneasy feeling that he saw people much more clearly than they would find at all comfortable—including herself.

"I'm harmless," Kelsey murmured.

Kyle started, then managed to hide her surprise. "That isn't the word I would have chosen," she said slowly.

He made a slight grimace, a bit wry but otherwise cryptic. "Maybe not. Doesn't fit you, either. You've got poor Lucas tied up in knots."

She stiffened. "That isn't your business."

Coolly he said, "I'm a government agent, Miss Griffon, and I take my job very seriously. I do my homework."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that I know very well you and Luc have a history. Now, that is none of my business, except where this assignment is concerned. There's just one thing I wanted you to be aware of. He probably made it sound simple, but for Luc to go into Rome's house is one hell of a risky proposition. If Rome finds out who he is and what he's doing there, things are liable to get just a little ugly."

Quite suddenly Kyle felt cold. "What do you mean?"

"He could get killed."

"Martin's civilized," she objected instantly. "He wouldn't kill a man just like—"

"He has before."

She stared at him.

Kelsey nodded. "Oh, yes. We can't prove it in court, you understand—no evidence. And he didn't dirty his own hands with murder; he had it done, which, to my mind, is the same as pulling the trigger himself."

"Why did you tell me?" she asked after a moment.

"Because I knew Luc wouldn't."

"Does he know?"

"Of course he does." Kelsey smiled just a little, but his eyes were steady. "He's very protective of those he cares about—and uncommonly gallant about ladies. He'll spare you the harsh realities whenever possible."

He didn't before, she thought. Or had he? She just didn't know anymore. Tightly she said, "I don't need protection or chivalry."

"No, I didn't think you did." His voice was quite cool and calm. "Unlike Luc, I've had the great good fortune to work with a number of women in dangerous situations over the years, and I've learned that toughness comes in all shapes and sizes. You see, I happen to believe you'll be a greater help to him if you know just what he's involved in."

"So now I know."

"Now you know. You don't entirely believe me about Rome, of course, but you'll be more alert than you would otherwise have been, and that always counts for something."

She looked at him, a little puzzled. "And you don't think—because of what I may believe now— that I'll alert Martin that something's wrong by behaving differently toward him?"

"Hell, no." Very dryly he explained, "It didn't take me five minutes to realize you don't give away anything."

Kyle couldn't protest that, as much as she wanted to. And though she didn't ask Kelsey, she had to wonder if she appeared as frozen as she felt. It wasn't a nice thought. It wasn't a nice feeling.

"I like your friends," she told Lucas late that afternoon when the other two had gone. She sat watching him as he knelt at the hearth building up the fire.

"Do you?" He remained where he was, brushing his hands together and gazing at the flames.

"They seem as though they're very unusual men."

Lucas rose but continued to gaze into the fire. He seemed far away.

"So do you," she added.

He turned his head to look at her and his mouth twisted. "We both know what you think of me."

"No, we don't, not really. Why didn't you tell me that Martin was dangerous, Luc?"

He didn't say anything for a moment, just continued to look at her. "Kelsey," he muttered finally.

"You wouldn't have told me. He knew that. He thought I should be prepared, and he was right."

"There was no need for you to know." Lucas returned his gaze to the fire, frowning.

Abruptly she asked, "Why did you have my father send me to Europe, Luc?"

"What makes you think I did? I don't know your father."

"And Josh Long doesn't know me. He's something of a humanitarian, I hear, but ten years ago he was also a playboy. So why did he concern himself then with a seventeen-year-old girl he'd never met? Unless someone asked him to."

After a moment Lucas said, "Josh is a good friend. He didn't know me very well at that time, but he didn't ask questions."

She heard the tacit admission and sighed. "Did you want an ocean between us, Luc, was that it?"

He closed his eyes briefly. "I wanted you off that campus, away from the drugs."

Kyle thought about that for a moment. He had left her to preserve an illusion between them, and yet he had done his best to protect her. He had destroyed evidence that would have taken her to court, if not to jail, had had her sent far away to a school where drugs were more rare than dinosaurs. It seemed a contradiction in character, and yet she felt it wasn't.

"I don't understand you," she said.

"Do you want to?"

"I already—"

"I know what you said."

She met his steady gaze, her own unwavering. "I meant it. I do want to understand you. I have to, Luc, or the past will never be—well, just the past."

He nodded, but she couldn't tell from his expression what he was thinking or feeling. He smiled suddenly, that faintly crooked, charming smile she remembered so well. "Then we go on from there, don't we?"

"I guess we do."

It was two days before she began to feel more natural around Lucas. She knew he was aware of her guardedness, just as she was aware that he watched her often. But gradually she began to feel less tense. It would have been too much to say that she forgot her wounds, but the past seemed to be retreating in importance, day by day.

The situation was helped in part by her preoccupation with discovering just who Lucas Kendrick really was. Instinct told her he was a good man, whatever had motivated him in the past, but she found it difficult to trust her instincts where he was concerned. So she watched him, asked questions, and listened.

Her one legacy from her father, given to her in the childhood days when she had tried to win his affection, was an ability to understand and play chess, and she recalled that her father had often said a man's chess game spoke much about the kind of man he really was. So she played chess with Lucas, unsurprised to find that he did play, and played well.

He had a strong instinctive grasp of tactics, she discovered, and the ability to make seemingly reckless intuitive leaps virtually guaranteed to take his opponent off guard. He was a gracious winner, a cheerful loser.

In the following days she found out other things about him. He didn't mind silence. He enjoyed walking in the light covering of snow, chopping wood, listening to music. He could cook, and did, and he did more than his share to help keep the cabin neat. He could stand so still sometimes that a wild bird would alight and eat bread crumbs from his hand with perfect trust.

He had nightmares.

Kyle awoke twice that first week, hearing mutters and muffled groans from downstairs, hearing him toss and turn on the-couch. The sounds haunted her, disturbed her deeply. But she didn't go to him then and said nothing about what she had heard.

The third time, halfway through their second week together, she did go to him.

The first rasping groan woke her, and she was out of her bed and moving lightly down the stairs before she had time to think or question her action. She hesitated for just a moment at the bottom of the stairs, wondering why she had to do this.

The room was dim, lighted only by the dying flames in the hearth, and outside the wind whined with a lonely, fretful sound. Kyle bit her lip, undecided, and would have returned to her bed but for the soft, unsteady groan that reached her ears then. She crossed the room on quick, bare feet, and knelt on the rug beside the couch.

A half-burned log broke apart in the hearth just then with a shower of sparks, and the flames jumped higher. She could see Lucas more clearly. The covers had fallen to his waist, leaving his muscled chest bare, and his body was so tense, it trembled slightly. A fine sheen of sweat beaded his face. One forearm was thrown across his eyes, fist clenched; his other arm lay at his side, and his fingers held the covers in a white-knuckled grip. His throat worked as if sounds or words or some darkness inside him struggled to escape, but only the low groans were released from his sleeping prison.

Kyle looked at the strong hand gripping the blankets, then hesitantly covered it with one of her own. It felt like iron, she thought, burning iron, and feeling that made her hurt oddly. She bent closer, uncertain but driven, unwilling to allow him to go through whatever this was all alone.

"Luc? Luc, wake up," she said softly.

"Behind the building," he muttered suddenly, urgently. "He ran behind— Oh, dear Lord! The dumpster. He just threw her in there. Why can't I stop this? Why can't I—"

"Luc, wake up!"

He jerked suddenly, and his hand turned beneath hers, long fingers closing tightly around hers. He was still for a moment, and then the arm over his eyes lowered. He looked at her, disoriented. "You aren't a part of that," he said thickly.

"Luc, it's just a dream," she whispered.

His eyes cleared slowly but continued to move over her face almost searchingly. "No. No, it happened. It happened and I couldn't change it."

"Then tell me about it."

He tore his gaze from her face, staring at the beamed ceiling. After a moment he said, "It was the first time. I suppose after that—God help me—I got used to it. There was a woman—a kid, really— busted for possession. The D.A. promised to go easy on her if she'd give us her supplier. She agreed. But he found the wire, and we were too far back to help her. We... found her in a garbage dumpster. He had stabbed her."

Kyle's surface recklessness had taken her into some wild places these last years, but what he was telling her about was a part of life she had no experience of, except in fiction and coolly reported news stories. She felt a little helpless, overwhelmed by the pain she heard. "Luc, it was your job."

"It was a war of attrition," he said bitterly. "But the problem was, the other side kept on growing. Fourteen-year-old pushers, twelve-year-old prostitutes, pimps who'd kill one of their girls without a second thought because there were always more so easily found."

Kyle was silent.

"There was no way to make a difference," he went on quietly. He pulled her hand over to rest on his flat stomach, holding it with both his own and looking at it. "Maybe I could have kept on trying, I don't know. But too often I'd be told to stop nosing around a certain party. Somebody rich enough, or powerful enough, to have friends in the department. Too many people playing too many games. I couldn't take that."

"No one could blame you," she ventured hesitantly.

He was toying with her fingers, stroking her skin as if the texture drew him irresistibly. "Feet of clay," he murmured. "I couldn't be the white knight, so I just quit."

"Don't do this to yourself."

His mouth twisted a little. "It never bothered me so much before. Then I saw you again and had to face up to why I left you. And now I'm dreaming of things I saw all those years ago and wondering how I can live with myself."

Kyle searched for something to say to him and found it. "Luc, you told me about the work you do for Long Enterprises. You're helping people now where you can make a difference. You help keep all those companies running by investigating problems. You and your friends helped destroy a white slavery ring, brought information against terrorists out of a hostile country, and stopped that gun shipment before it could be used to hurt people. And now you're about to go into a house and find stolen artwork. You are helping. There are over half a million police officers in this country; you're doing things they can't do."

After a moment he turned his head to look at her and smiled a little, a smile that made him vulnerable. "You gave me a wonderful Illusion ten years ago when I really needed one," he said huskily. "But I don't think I could stand it if you gave me another one now, Kyle."

"I don't do that anymore," she said, her own voice unsteady. "All I can give you now is a picture of a real live man. One I've talked to and watched these past days. An extremely bright, intricate man, with more facets than a diamond." She drew a deep breath and met his shimmering gaze squarely. "I don't know how I feel about what's behind us. But there is something I know now about you, Luc."

One of his hands moved to brush a strand of dark hair away from her face, his fingers lingering on her cheek. "What's that?"

"There isn't a selfish or dishonest bone in your body," she said with certain knowledge. "When you realized yourself why you'd left me, you didn't have to tell me. But you did. And I see now that you couldn't be honest with me then, first because you were undercover and later because of the way I was. The way we were. You were in a terrible position. And I believe I understand why you left."

"You do?" he asked gently.

Her laugh was shaky, almost inaudible. "I'm not painting you noble again, I promise. And I still don't know how I feel about you now. But we were both escaping into Illusion, I think. We'd both felt things we didn't want to feel anymore. You in your job and me..."

"Your family?"

"Poor little rich girl," she said wryly, mocking herself.

"Don't do that." His hand slid beneath her hair to lie warmly against her neck. "Don't think it's your fault in any way, that you should have been happy just because you had all the so-called advantages. Material things are never enough."

He pulled her toward him and kissed her, a gentle kiss with no passionate demand. Then he held her there, against him, watching the firelight shimmer off her silk pajamas and awaken the red tint in her dark hair.

Kyle could feel tremors deep inside her, circling outward slowly, like ripples in a pool. She didn't know what had caused them and didn't care. The wind whined outside, moaning around the eaves, stirring the porch swing so that the chains creaked. She heard every sound more clearly than ever before.

And she could see awareness flickering in his eyes. It was as if something were moving with hushed force inside both of them, slowly and inexorably. Fascinated, she watched his face change subtly, become leaner, tauter. She felt that gentle hand on her neck tighten a little, and underneath her own hand his stomach tensed.

Very softly he said, "Kyle, go back upstairs."

"Why?" she asked huskily.

He seemed to be having trouble breathing, but his voice was steady. "Because I love you."

Kyle slowly rose to her feet, compelled by something in his eyes or his voice, or both. She turned away and went silently back up the stairs, sliding into her bed and drawing the covers up. She lay there for a long time with her eyes fixed on the dark ceiling, listening to the wind outside. And thinking.

What would they have lost if they had become lovers again tonight? Kyle wasn't sure, but she knew Lucas thought he was, and that was why he had sent her back to bed alone. What was it? A new and fragile thread of trust between them? A delicate bond forged in the quiet, soul-baring moments after a nightmare?

Kyle turned over on her side and closed her eyes, hardly aware that she was smiling.





Four




"I don't trust you," Kelsey told his boss roundly. "You're just acting too damned straightforward."

Hagen, sitting behind a desk that held nothing but a thin sheaf of papers and a telephone with several lines, looked up to smile angelically. "You have a suspicious mind, my boy."

Kelsey saluted him mockingly. "Learned at the master's knee." He leaned back in the single visitor's chair in the room and stared broodingly at Hagen. "As far as I can tell, you've been completely straight with Lucas. So what gives?"

"Nothing at all, I assure you." Hagen feigned humility—something he didn't do too well. "Kendrick deserves all the facts; I merely supplied them."

"Uh-huh." Kelsey pointed at the sheaf of papers on the desk. "Just out of curiosity, whose idea was it that Josh innocently call Rome to inquire about the possibility of buying that Rubens and subsequently try to get himself invited to the party?"

"His. And sound strategy, I must admit. His interest in the painting is quite real; he's known to acquire anything by Rubens that becomes available. And, of course, it was a good thing he got invited to the party. Should Rome be suspicious, he will keep a sharp eye on Long."

"Leaving Luc free to search for the stolen art?" Kelsey kept his gaze fixed thoughtfully on the revised guest list for Martin Rome's party.

"That is the plan," Hagen told him.

"And you don't think Rome will panic and move the stuff because he knows Josh is coming?"

"Not enough time. And if he does attempt to move the artwork, we'll have him dead to rights."

Kelsey lifted his eyes to Hagen's cherubic face. "A nice, simple plan. I must be asleep and dreaming."

"Why don't you go and call Kendrick," Hagen suggested. "He should be told that Long and Raven will attend the party. Also, you must arrange your nightly rendezvous with the lady and him. AH those little details to work out, my boy."

Rising slowly, Kelsey frowned at his boss. "You missed the human element again," he reminded him with a certain satisfaction. "Whatever happened between Luc and Kyle years ago, I'd say they're busy mending fences now."

Coolly Hagen said, "An entirely anticipated development."

Kelsey blinked. "You mean this time you deliberately set the scene for a romance?"

"Certainly."

After a moment Kelsey asked, "You decided to stop matchmaking by accident and do it on purpose?"

Maddeningly impervious to his agent's surprise, Hagen merely nodded.

"Why?"

"To find out if I could."

Kelsey blinked again. "Oh." He turned and went to the door, then swung around to frown at his boss. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked.

"I'm fine. Go call Kendrick."

When his baffled agent had finally vanished, Hagen leaned back in his chair and laughed softly. Every general knew how effective the element of surprise could be, after all. Let them wonder and look over their shoulders for his customary surprise. They would look in vain, he thought happily. And that would be the surprise. It would keep them all on their toes.

Hagen enjoyed keeping his agents on their toes.



Kyle unpacked in the luxurious room she had been given in Martin Rome's palatial house just outside Philadelphia, having politely refused the assistance of a maid; there were some things she preferred to do for herself. She moved around the room briskly, speculating on various things, and wasn't surprised when Lucas spoke from the connecting door to his room.

"Is this arrangement supposed to be discreet?"

She smiled a little as she stood before the dressing table, watching him in the mirror as she removed the pins from her hair. "More discreet, I suppose, than giving us a single room or letting us sneak into each other's through the hall in the dead of night. Martin obviously assumes we wouldn't have shown up together if we didn't want to be together."

Lucas leaned against the doorjamb, watching her dark hair tumble down around her shoulders. Absently he said, "Well, Rome didn't seem too upset when you arrived with me. Think this mysterious Zamara has captured his heart as well as his mind?"

"We'll have to wait and see. She might well be 'indisposed' at the moment and unable to greet guests, but I'm betting she's going to make a suitably dramatic entrance tonight." Kyle turned to face him, leaning back against the dresser. "When are Mr. Long and his wife ar