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Larger Than Life

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년:
2009
출판사:
Bantam
언어:
english
ISBN 13:
9780553590579
파일:
EPUB, 122 KB
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1

Hunting the Wolfe

년:
1993
언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 170 KB
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2

It Takes a Thief

년:
1989
언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 214 KB
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Larger Than Life Kay Hooper

Loveswept Limited





Prologue


She adjusted the straps of the backpack absently and stared at the glass doors leading into the terminal. For a fleeting moment, she wanted badly to take a ship instead of a plane, but stoically she controlled her fear.

Squaring her shoulders, she walked forward. Just inside the terminal was a tall man. He detached himself from the crowd he blended with so well and fell quietly and smoothly into step beside her.

"Matt wants to see you."

She smiled wryly to herself as she halted and stood scanning the arrival and departure monitors. "I want to see him, too."

"The jet's this way."

They walked side by side through the busy terminal: a small, slight young woman dressed in faded jeans and a workshirt and a tall but otherwise undistinguished-looking middle-aged man who was dressed casually but with an indefinable air of affluence.

"You're looking well, Alex," she said.

"So are you."

If there was any censure in his calm, level voice, only the girl's sharp and experienced ears could have detected it. And she did detect it, for she grimaced faintly. She said nothing as they left the building and crossed the tarmac toward a gleaming Lear jet.

Then, suddenly, she said, "The credit card in Wanganui."

Her companion had no apparent difficulty in deciphering this cryptic statement. "You purchased some clothing and a backpack, and told the shopkeeper you were heading for Auckland. We've been here for three weeks."

She nodded slightly. "A mistake on my part, but I didn't have any cash."

"Fortunately for Matt."

She made no answer to that but climbed aboard the jet. She nodded to the pilot and copilot, both familiar faces, slung her backpack onto an extra chair in the luxurious cabin, and silently strapped herself into her seat. Alex just as silently followed suit as the pilots went forward to the cockpit.

"Why didn't you call Matt?"

"At first be; cause I couldn't." She gazed out the window, no expression on her lovely face. "Later . . .

well, I don't know why I didn't call him later."

"He's been half out of his mind."

"I don't need you to tell me that."

He was silent for a moment. "You've changed."



"Have I?" She thought about that for a while, her hands gripping the armrests rather fiercely as the jet lifted into the air; that one sign of tension disappeared, though, when the aircraft had leveled off. Then she smiled and murmured as if to herself, "I didn't change."

He looked at her quickly, sharply. And what he saw disquieted him, almost unnerved him. She had always seemed to him a flower, lovely and fragile, with no ability to live outside the pampered world so lovingly provided for her. He wondered what Matt was going to make of her. Sun-browned and reed slim, she was no longer the delicate creature her life had made her. Her step held the springiness of strong muscles, her movements the unthinking grace of a dancer or athlete. There was cool self-possession in her lovely face and restless energy in her silver-gray eyes. Even her voice had changed from soft and sweet to low and husky. Finally he said, "We'll be home soon." She gave him an unreadable look. "Will we?" There didn't seem to be anything he could say to that.

One

She was extraordinary. Compelling. Exquisite. Waves of smoldering sensuality emanated from her striking silvery eyes and slender body to hold the audience spellbound. Her sequined gown was a shimmering silver, molding to her like a second skin; the bare flesh it revealed was tanned a smooth gold.

Her thick, shining ebony hair hung about her shoulders in a living curtain of darkness. And her voice . . .

throaty, sensual, filled with an odd defiant yearning, endowing the words of the song with a wild plea that touched every person in the audience. Women, old and young alike, felt their throats constrict and eyes fill with tears as the passionate words seemed to rise from their own deepest selves. And men of all ages felt their hearts thudding dully in their ears, conscious of a desperate desire to go out and slay dragons. . .

.

The man standing in the wings felt the compulsion toward heroic deeds, felt his heart pounding fiercely.

A distant part of his mind marveled silently at the effect of the woman and the woman's voice. In liitle less than a year, she'd won over popular music fans throughout the country. The world, her manager had mentioned casually, happily, was next.

Travis Foxx, standing next to that manager now, was conscious of a dozen questions he wanted to ask. But he listened, instead, to a voice rich with a woman's passion and to words that stripped that woman's soul naked as she sang of the dearth of heroes.

"Isn't she something?" Philip Saunders asked cheerfully, clearly expecting a positive response.

Travis reluctantly pulled his gaze from the stage as Saber Duncan instantly went into another song, barely giving the stunned audience time to applaud. "Yes. Yes, she's certainly something." Travis's resonant voice added coolly, "But is she the same woman who released a couple of—in all honesty—

forgettable songs just about two years ago?"

Saunders blinked, then laughed. "You've heard the rumors, I see."

"That perhaps she isn't Saber Duncan at all, but a ringer brought in by Mosiac Records? I've heard.

And now I wonder." With an effort Travis closed his ears to that enchanting voice scant feet away, focusing his attention on the man at his side. "I heard those forgettable songs when the records were released. And that voice wasn't the one I'm hearing tonight."

"You're so sure of that?"

Travis ignored the mild question. "That voice was as sweet as honey and just as bland. No power.

Certainly no passion. And I have copies of the studio photos released to the press then. That Saber was a girl, a hothouse flower with the dew still on its petals. "



"Nice imagery," Saunders murmured, clearly amused.

He was ignored again. "This Saber—" Travis gestured toward the performer onstage—"is part jungle cat and part siren. And her voice holds more power, more raw passion, then I've heard from a performer in fifteen years." He lifted an eyebrow at the smiling manager. "Such a change in a single year? Sorry, Saunders, but I'm having a hard time swallowing that."

"Hence the book?" Saunders questioned dryly.

Travis turned his gaze back to the stage, his eyes drawn like a lodestone to the woman pouring her heart out so compellingly. "That's partly the reason," he answered honestly. "I've never written a biography before, as I told you. . . . "

"But you want to write hers." Saunders filled in the sudden silence between them with wry words. "Well, I warned you. Saber's a very, very private person. I honestly think she'll refuse to authorize you to write about her."

Shifting his weight restlessly in an unconscious movement, Travis frowned, not noticing the thoughtful gaze of the other man. "I'll talk her into it. There isn't enough material for a single chapter in that scanty bio you release to the press; I haven't been able to build a profile on her." His frowning eyes returned to the manager's expressionless face. "One thing I have been able to find out: Saber Duncan was born just about two years ago. The bio that Mosiac—or you, or she—concocted is just that. Concocted."

Philip Saunders was silent for a long moment, his level hazel eyes weighing, considering. Then he sighed. Softly he quoted, " 'You would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass.' "

It was Travis's turn to blink. "Shakespeare. Hamlet." He identified the quote easily, then the words sank in. Before he could comment, Saunders was explaining.

"That's something Saber quoted to me about a year ago, when I signed on to manage her career. When—not to put too fine a point on it—I was asking a few questions about her life before I entered it."

Travis was more than a little surprised, and slightly suspicious. "Are you trying to tell me that you're no better informed about her than the public?"

Saunders was unoffended. "That's what I'm telling you. Oh, if you want to write that high-quality stuff, like what she eats for dinner or what her favorite colors are, I could probably oblige. But if you want the sordid details of her shady past—"

Travis cut him off with an impatient gesture. "I don't want to write a damned 'Meet the Latest Superstar' book, whether you believe that or not!"

"Oh, I believe it." Saunders's voice was abruptly sober. "I've read some of your stuff, Mr. Foxx. You write exceptionally strong fiction and stunning nonfictional exposes. Your books hit the bestseller lists as soon as they land in the bookstores."

Travis's green eyes sharpened. "But you don't want me probing into your client's background?"

"She doesn't want it. And that's good enough for me. Look, Foxx, there's almost a year missing from Saber's professional life. And, as you pointed out, that professional life covers only a scant two years.

She cut two quick singles, vanished for months, then reappeared and, virtually overnight, became a star."

He folded his arms across his chest and stared broodingly at the other man. "Now I don't know where she was during those missing months, but I'm reasonably certain she went through hell; I've seen the studio pics and heard the 'forgettable' songs, too, you see."



"And you aren't curious?"

"That's a mild word. Let's set my 'curiosity' aside for the moment, shall we? The facts and obligations are clear. Saber's my client; I handle her professional commitments and try to protect her from harm.

Tonight marks the tenth city of a twelve-city tour, and I'm going to see to it that my client takes a nice long rest just as soon as this tour's over. Saber's also my friend; she's tired—and I worry about her. I worry because that incredible energy she manifests onstage is an illusion at best and a shield at worst.

Offstage she cages that jungle-cat wildness you mentioned and hides behind the bars. She's no hothouse flower, but she's vulnerable. And I won't have her hurt."

"You're so sure I'd hurt her?"

"If you dig up a past she wants—for whatever reason—to remain buried, yes, you'll hurt her."

Travis turned his gaze back to the stage, where Saber Duncan was winding up her performance. "I want to talk to her," he said.

"I'll introduce you," Saunders responded non-committally.

Thunderous applause followed her as Saber left the stage. She handed her microphone to a grinning stagehand and turned to the two men waiting in the wings.

Saunders stepped forward. "Saber, this is Travis Foxx," he said.

"Miss Duncan." He was momentarily surprised by the firm strength of her slender fingers as they shook hands; then she looked at him, and the fascination of her odd silver eyes drove all else from his mind.

"Hi," she said softly.

Travis plunged in headfirst. "I'd like to talk to you, Miss Duncan, whenever it's convenient." She was a tiny woman, he realized bemusedly; odd, she'd looked so much larger onstage.

The silver eyes were gazing up at him without expression. "Sorry, Mr. Foxx, but I'm leaving the city tomorrow morning."

"My travel plans are flexible," he said.

"I don't like interviews." Her voice was still soft.

"I'm not a reporter, Miss Duncan. I want to write a book—"

"I know. I'm not interested, Mr. Foxx."

"How can you be sure until you hear what I've got to say?"

"I am sure. Sorry. Phil, there are some things we have to go over before I leave. How about a late din ner?"

"You're on."

She looked back at Travis. "Mr. Foxx, I am sorry. It's a shame you had to come all this way for nothing. Please try to understand. I just don't want a book written about me." She smiled, a shadow of the blinding onstage grin, but curiously more real and infinitely sweeter. "It was nice meeting you." Then she took her manager's arm and vanished down the corridor to the dressing rooms.

Travis stood still for a long moment, listening without really hearing the muted roar of the departing audience. He wasn't particularly disappointed by Saber's refusal; in fact, he had expected her to refuse.

But he'd hardly become known as a brilliant journalistic writer by giving up whenever a subject refused to confide in him.

So rather than wasting energy in being irritated, he thought carefully instead. He thought about where Saber and her manager would likely go for a late dinner. Then he turned on his heel and hurried toward the stage door.

As he'd expected, his subject returned to her hotel to dine, where the late night quiet and relative dimness of the restaurant lessened the odds of her being recognized. Watching them from across the room as he finished his own meal, Travis noted that she'd changed into slacks and a silk blouse but had not chosen to sport sunglasses, a hat, or any of the other traditional—and usually ridiculous—trappings of disguise.

His chance came when the pair he watched had reached the coffee stage of their meal and Saunders left the table with an audible request to his client to please get some rest before her morning flight.

Grabbing his opportunity, Travis rose quickly and crossed to her table, where she was going over sheet music.

"May I join you?" he asked, sliding into a chair.

She gazed at him for a long moment, a look of irony in her silver-gray eyes. "Oh, please do," she invited gently.

"I hate rudeness in strangers, don't you?" he said conversationally.

"It's trying," she agreed.

"And it's so hard to get rid of the determined ones, I find."

She sighed. "Mr. Foxx—"

"Travis, please."

Giving him another of those direct, ironic looks, she sighed again. "Travis, you have what I can see is a well-deserved reputation for tenacity. I can admire that. In fact, I'm that way myself. But to even the most tenacious eventually comes something that's . . . out of reach."

"In your experience?" he inquired politely.

"A truth of life, let's say."

"Saber— You don't mind if I call you that, do you?"

"Strangers do," she murmured.

He couldn't help but smile at her left-handed acceptance. "Saber, I adhere to another truth of life."

"I'm going to hate myself for asking, but what's that?"

" 'He can who believes he can.' I learned that at my father's knee."

Saber sat back, smiling a little. "From what I've read, your father nearly invented that philosophy. He was a self-made man, wasn't he? Built a knowledge of electronics into a world-renowned firm?"

"He did indeed."

"You chose not to follow in his footsteps?"

"I prefer writing. My brother runs the firm."

"I didn't realize you had a brother. Other siblings?"

"Two sisters. . . . "

Later, Travis realized with something between shock and amusement that he'd allowed himself to become the interviewee rather than the interviewer. And the amusement in those silvery eyes revealed that she had deliberately planned to turn the tables on him. She now knew far more about his life and past than he knew about hers.

"Very good," he noted dryly with a small salute.



"Thank you."

"I don't suppose you'd consider a fair trade of information?"

"I don't think so."

Travis's hunting instincts were now fully roused. He studied her keenly across the table. "Mind if I make a few guesses?"

"Go right ahead."

He sat back, mentally processing what very few observations and impressions he'd been able to acquire. "And just out of a sense of fair play, you understand, would you correct me if I go too far off base?" He was banking on her lack of concern over what he might guess, trusting in the inevitable human leaning toward complacency.

After a moment, she nodded slowly. "All right, Travis. If any of your guesses is glaringly wrong, I'll point that out."

Mere recognition of wrongness rather than correction was not quite what he'd hoped for, but he settled for it. Gathering his thoughts, he began.

"Saber Duncan is not the name you were born with. You've led—up until two years ago, at any rate—

a very sheltered life. You're very well educated, partly outside this country, I think. And two years ago, shortly after you cut your first two records, something happened to you, something that changed your voice, your style . . . even your life. Right so far?"

She was smiling faintly. "Not glaringly wrong."

He took a deep breath and began calling forth more personal observations and perceptions. "I don't know what happened to you during those missing months. Saber, but I'm sure it was devastating in some way. Because the lovely, fragile hothouse flower with the sweet, passionless voice became something—someone—far more complicated. I think you walked through fire."

There was something now behind the serenity of her eyes, a glimpse of that part of her she kept caged offstage. But she was still smiling. " 'I am ashes where once I was fire'?" she murmured.

He shook his head, staring into her eyes as he tried to find and catch that elusive wildness behind the silvery curtain. "No. You're fire now . . . where once you were something cool and dry."

"And that's what interests you, isn't it?" Abruptly, she was distant, matter-of-fact. "What happened to the girl who became a woman? What happened to a hothouse flower to make it grow in the harsh outdoors? That's why you're hell-bent to write a book about me. Not because of who and what I've become, but because you don't know how that happened, and you hate unsolved mysteries."

Travis gazed at her for a long moment. He could hardly deny the quiet accusation, because it was true.

But he realized now that the man was as intrigued by her as the writer. "Will you answer one question honestly?" he asked at last.

"I'll have to hear it first."

He nodded, expecting nothing else. "Are you the Saber Duncan who recorded two records two years ago?"

"Yes."

"If you'd answered no," he said quietly, "I would have lost the desire to write about you. Because you're quite right: what fascinates me isn't that you're a 'star' or even that now you have the most incredible voice I've ever heard. It's that two years ago you were a girl with a sweet, bland voice, and now you're a woman whose larger-than-life stage presence is matched by something I sense in you offstage. Something equally larger than life."



"That's honest, anyway." Her voice was curiously husky.

He leaned forward intently. "I write about people, Saber. Fictional characters or factual lives— but always people. What motivates them, what drives them. How they've become what they are. In a way, it's like that song of yours. There are so few larger-than-life people, so few heroes and heroines. I write about the people who become heroic."

"I'm not heroic."

"One of the definitions of heroic is larger than life." he said softly. "And you are that, Saber."

She shook her head, denying the words or any reference to herself in them.

After a moment, he said, "I can promise that you will have final approval of the manuscript. I won't allow anything to get into print that you don't want in print."

"Then you'd have no book," she said quietly. "Because what I don't want in print. . . is most of my life."

Two

The silence stretched between them for long moments. Then Travis spoke slowly and thoughtfuly.

"The past—anyone's past—is important only in that it shaped the present. Can you accept that I need to know about your past in order to understand your present?"

"I certainly can. I just can't accept the necessity of seeing my past in print."

"It doesn't have to be seen in print. As long as / understand what's gone before, I can put the present into perspective."

"No. Not my present."

"Because without your past, there isn't a present?"

She smiled slightly and gently shook her head. "Travis, try to understand how I feel about this. Certain .

. . events in my life over which 1 had little or no control shaped me into who and what I am.

We could get into a long discussion over the importance of pasts, but right now, in this moment of my present, I'm very tired. And my past doesn't seem important to me, much less to the world."

"You avoided answering my question," he said softly.

She sighed. "I suppose I did. I'm not quite up to your weight tonight, I'm afraid. So I think I'd better go up to my room; I have an early plane tomorrow."

He rose to his feet as she did. "I'm not giving up."

"I wonder why that doesn't surprise me," she said dryly.

It wasn't difficult to discover what Saber's travel plans were—not, at least, for a man experienced in unearthing information. In fact, by ten the next morning, Travis knew that Saber's band members were on a commercial flight to Detroit, her manager on one to Los Angeles. He knew that Saunders was cutting short his participation in the tour with two performances left to go because of business appointments in L.A. And he knew that Saber would fly to Detroit in a small private jet.

It was a bit more difficult to get himself aboard that jet before she arrived, but he managed, conscious of his own wry amusement at what he was doing. He had realized during the night that his interest in Saber was no longer purely literary, but he was more than a little surprised to discover that his growing fascination was almost wholly due to her eyes. Or, more correct, what shone in her eyes. Beneath the silver-gray serenity of her gaze lay something else, something that had reminded Travis irresistibly of a wild thing crouched in waiting behind iron bars. There were secrets imprisoned behind those cool, serene eyes, secrets and a powerful but elusive part of her that Travis suspected had been born during the year of her disappearance. He was positive that the published accounts of her life up until she'd begun singing were wholly fictional, but of that missing year not even a. fictional report had been given. Saber the performer had ceased to exist; Saber the woman, he felt intuitively, had walked through some kind of metaphorical fire.

He meant to find out exactly what had happened. And he was bemused to discover that his professional interest in that question had become very personal indeed.

He shelved that thought for the time being as he slipped aboard the jet and hid himself in the tiny bathroom. His patient wait consumed three-quarters of an hour before he heard Saber's low, cheerful voice speaking to someone else. He listened to the noises of the jet's engines and of the door being closed. The jet taxied for a bit, paused, then taxied again before increasing speed and lifting from the runway.

Travis waited until the aircraft had leveled off before he quit his hiding place. Out in the cabin, however, he experienced a considerable shock. It was empty. No Saber. No anybody else. If she wasn't here . . . Frowning, he gazed toward the closed door leading to the cockpit.

When he opened the door and squeezed his way inside, he found Saber Duncan alone and at the controls.

She swung her head around to stare up at him, surprise widening the silvery eyes. "What're you doing here?" she asked.

"I think it's called stowing away." Gingerly, he took the copilot's seat, careful to touch nothing. "And I'd appreciate it if you kept both eyes on the road."

Saber turned her attention forward again and, to his surprise, laughed quietly. "Well, I'll say this for you: you don't give up easily."

Travis studied her for a long moment. Gone was the sequined, explosively powerful performer of the night before. Gone was the soft-spoken and somewhat weary lady of the silk blouse and veiled eyes.

This lady was casually dressed in jeans and a workshirt open over a cowl-neck sweater, her tiny feet encased in scuffed western boots. The only jewelry she wore was a broad, masculine watch on her left wrist, and her delicate golden face was bare of any makeup.

She looked amazingly small, incredibly young, and as frail as the hothouse flower he'd compared the earlier Saber to. Yet there was something about her, something he sensed more than saw.

"You'll know me if we ever meet again," she said dryly.

Travis blinked and forced his mind away from the speculation. "Sorry. It's just that. . . you seem so different."

She obviously had no trouble following his vague comment. "From the stage performance, you mean?

That's because I am different. Every performer has two sides, one for the stage and one for the personal life. We can't be 'on' all the time, you know."

He frowned a little, listening to the soft, educated voice, the crisp, clean tone. "I know that. But you aren't. . . 'off now. You're just different."

Her light eyes moved ceaselessly over the instrument panels and her small hands gripped the controls a little too firmly. "Does it matter?"

Travis noted the signs of tension and made a surprising discovery. "You're afraid of something, aren't you?"

She threw him one startled look and then returned her attention to the controls, making an odd little grimace. "Very perceptive of you. And since," she added wryly, "I'm not particularly concerned with the nerves of my stowaway, I'll confess that what I'm afraid of, Travis, is flying."

"You're afraid of flying?"

"That's right. Almost a phobia, in fact."

"Then what the hell are you doing flying this jet?" he demanded incredulously.

"A very wise man told me once that a person should always try to control fear. And since the only way I can control my fear of flying is by doing the thing myself, that's what I do. I am a licensed pilot. I learned to fly years ago. I'm fairly new to jets, though."

"Great." But in spite of his doubtful tone, Travis was impressed by her method of handling fear. It told him a great deal about her personality; she was one who would always confront a problem head-on and set about solving it. And his silent observation was proven when she took her present problem by the horns.

"I told you I didn't want a book written about me, Travis. I haven't changed my mind."

"And I haven't given up."

"Obviously."

"All I'm asking," he said with persuasive charm, "is a chance to get to know you. Saber. No probing questions, I promise. I just want to get better acquainted with a very beautiful and talented woman."

"D'you generally get results with that line?"

So muchjor my vaunted charm, he thought, not without a trace of self-mockery. "Sorry," he muttered.

"I didn't mean to try, uh—"

"You have a very effective voice," she observed. "Just the right blend of coolness and charm. I'm not surprised your exposes are so penetrating; it would be very easy for your victim to forget that you're always after some little tidbit of information."

He stiffened, then relaxed suddenly. "But not this victim?" he drawled.

She was smiling, though still not looking at him. "No, not this one. You can save your subtly probing tactics, Travis, for your next expose. My life is my business. I accept that my profession puts me in the public eye, but I see no need of sharing my life before I stepped onstage. You go ahead and write an unauthorized version of my life," she added imperturbably.

"And what'11 you do if I uncover the real story of your life?"

"You won't."

"You're so sure?"

"Quite sure. I'm not throwing down the gauntlet, you understand; I'm simply stating a fact. You won't find out anything I don't want you to know."

After a moment, Travis said softly, "That kind of cover-up demands money."

She was mildly surprised. "Did I mention a cover-up?"

"That's what it amounts to."



"Not at all. You just won't know where to look, that's all."

"I know where I'll start."

"Oh? Where?"

"With the lady herself."

"In case you've forgotten," she said politely, "I happen to be on rather a tight schedule. A performance in Detroit tonight, then one in Chicago tomorrow night."

"Then a vacation."

Saber threw him one quick glance, annoyance warring with reluctant amusement in her light eyes. "So you know that, do you? Phil must have let that slip."

"Yes. To do him justice, I don't think he realized just how determined I am."

"Well, be that as it may, the information won't help you."

"Really? I find most information useful— eventually."

She was quiet for a long moment. Then, in a curiously dry voice, she said, "Short of pushing you out, I can't stop you from coming to Detroit. And though I'll take good care you don't board this jet again, I can't stop you from taking a commercial plane to Chicago. But from that point, Mr. Foxx, you'll be at a standstill. My flight plan will be filed, of course, but—for security reasons, you understand—you won't be able to find out where I've gone. If you're a betting man, bet on that."

Travis was well aware of the dangers of arguing with a woman who literally held his life in her hands, but the cool and certain strength of her voice intrigued him past the point of worrying about it. He gazed forward for several minutes, his keen mind working. The struggle he had with himself was brief, then his idea for the book was cast into the limbo of things unremembered and unregretted.

"I am a betting man," he said finally. "In fact, I'm a bit of a gambler, and when I want something badly enough, I'm quite prepared to pay the price."

"And so?" She sent him a curious glance.

"And so . . . I'll make a deal with you, Miss Duncan."

"I've a feeling I'm going to regret this—but what kind of deal?"

"Something for something. You agree to allow me to accompany you until, say, midway through your vacation. In the interests of our getting to know each other, you understand."

Noncommittally, she said, "And your part of the deal?"

"I'll agree—in writing if you like—to write nothing about you. No book, no article . . . nothing at all."

Saber was frowning. "There's a clinker in there somewhere," she said.

"Not at all. I'll promise not to write about you if you'll promise to let us get to know each other . . .

without prejudice."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would you give up your idea for a book that has been your driving motivation to this point just for a couple of weeks in my company?"

"Because you were right about me. I hate unsolved mysteries. What the public does or doesn't know about you doesn't particularly concern me, but I very badly want to understand you."

She was still frowning. "Why?" she asked again.



"Because . . . you fascinate me," he answered, turning his head to study her profile. "Maybe it's that larger-than-life part of you—"

"Stage presence," she dismissed impatiently.

"No. No, there's more to it than that. Saber, you wouldn't believe me if I explained what I'm feeling, and I'm no more anxious than any other man to look like a fool. So you'll just have to accept that I want to get to know you. Period."

For the first time, Saber's attention to piloting the jet was only automatic; she was entirely caught up with what Travis was saying. After a long moment, she said, "Maybe you'd better define your idea of'accompanying' me for a couple of weeks."

Bluntly, he said, "I'm not asking you to sleep with me to avoid my writing the book. No strings, Saber.

The only promise I demand is that you treat me as you would any man who was interested in you as a woman. The only promise I'll give is that I won't write about you."

As blunt as he, she asked, "You're trying to tell me you're attracted to me? That's why you're willing to give up the book idea?"

Amused at her dispensing with the euphemistic niceties, he nodded. "That can't surprise you, surely?"

Saber, with a year of superstardom behind her and twenty-five years before that of male attention, wasn't surprised; men found her attractive, and she would have had to be blind not to know that. But to say that she distrusted Travis Foxx's professed admiration of her would have been a gross understatement.

"I don't trust you," she said matter-of-factly.

Travis chuckled. "I know that. But you have a choice, Saber. You can refuse my terms, which will only make me very determined to find out what I can about your mysterious past—and I think it only fair to warn you that I have sources of information you wouldn't think possible. Or you can accept my terms, thereby keeping your past hidden as long as you want."

Saber was smiling now. "I wonder," she said thoughtfully, "if you're counting on the well-known feminine response to a challenge. Which are you hoping for? That I'll dare you to uncover my sordid past? Or that I'll invite your wonderfully uninquisitive self into my life—however temporarily?"

"Touche!" he replied, laughing. "You're a very sharp lady, Miss Duncan. We both know I plan to get my answers by whichever path. So it's up to you."

"Isn't it, though." Her tone was dry.

Sobering, Travis said, "In all honesty, I'd rather spend time with you than spend time researching you.

And in the former case, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your past will remain hidden to the public."

"You're very sure you can . . . persuade me to tell you all about myself, aren't you, Travis?"

"Quite sure," he said coolly.

Her smile widened. "I wonder which of us is more stubborn," she murmured.

"Shall we find out?"

Saber was not a reckless woman, but the challenge in this man's green eyes was impossible to ignore.

"Let's," she said suddenly, briskly. "And devil take the hindmost."

Travis smiled and nodded. That the lady looked upon this as a challenging game was obvious; that his own motives in playing were quite serious was something he had no intention of trying to persuade her at this early stage.



An expert sportsman, Travis was hunting this time with more than a story at stake. Much more.

The Detroit performance went off without a hitch, as Travis was privileged to see from the wings.

Saber had treated him casually and com-panionably all day, allowing him to watch the rehearsal and take her to lunch. She'd seemed not the least bit on guard, but Travis had realized that her serene silver-gray eyes were shields in and of themselves.

As for himself, he shelved questions about the past and simply absorbed the present. He noted that the members of Saber's band treated her with affection and respect. The feeling of family was unmistakable and, for Travis, significant, considering that these people lived in the fast-paced and—as far as the public was concerned— decadent world of popular music. They were also quite protective of her: more than one suspicious eye had been cast at him when she'd casually introduced him.

Travis met suspicion with blandness and watched quietly from the sidelines studying Saber's professionalism and marveling at her talent. He didn't attempt to flatter her but acknowledged to himself that her manager had been quite right in his belief that the world would fall at her feet.

After a late and somewhat quiet dinner at their hotel, Travis left her at the door to her room. And when the Lear departed Detroit the next morning, he was beside her in the cockpit.

The day in Chicago went pretty much as the day before, with rehearsals and a flawless performance, then a late dinner and polite good-nights.

It didn't occur to Travis until then that he didn't know where "they" were going on Saber's vacation.

Nor did it occur to him that since he'd made no reservation at this hotel, a room couldn't be found for him. But so it was. Five separate conventions were being held in the hotel, and even the broom closets, the desk clerk assured him in a harassed voice, were occupied.

Silently berating himself for not having arranged things earlier in the day, Travis recovered his bag from the luggage room. Then, after a glance at his watch and a moment's thought, he headed for the elevator again. Five minutes later he was knocking on Saber's door.

After a moment, the night chain rattled and she pulled the door open, having obviously looked through the security peephole. "Hello," she said politely.

Intellectually, he realized there was nothing even remotely sexy about her nightgown. It was a flannel affair, high-necked and long-sleeved, deep blue in color and reaching down to her ankles. Still, curiously, Travis felt his toes curl inside his shoes and concentrated on straightening them out; he was so astonished at his own reaction that it was several long moments before he remembered why he was standing there.

Clearing his throat, he said, "You have a two-room suite. Right?"

"Right." She leaned against the doorjamb, gazing at him with elaborate politeness.

"Then would you mind very much if I borrowed your couch?" He assumed his best beaten-spaniel look. "The hotel doesn't have a closet to spare, and since it's past midnight. . . "

"Did you plan this?" she asked in a mildly interested voice.

"No, I swear."

She nodded and stepped back with a slight gesture. "You're welcome to the couch."

Her immediate acceptance surprised Travis somewhat, but when he'd followed her into the sitting room and placed his garment bag over a chair, he saw what he'd missed before: she was exhausted.

"I ordered some coffee," she said idly as she sat down at the table by the window. She picked up a cup from the tray in front of her. "There's another cup if you'd like some."

Travis crossed slowly to sit down in the chair across from hers, his eyes intent, concerned. "I'd say the last thing you needed was coffee."



She sipped the hot liquid, her faintly smiling eyes meeting his over the rim of her cup. "It helps me stay awake long enough to unwind," she said. "Otherwise I sleep, but I don't rest."

He realized abruptly what this tour must have cost her. Twelve performances, twelve cities, twelve days. Her face, bare of makeup, was so pale it looked translucent, the cool tautness now relaxed in weariness. The strength and power of her onstage and her cheerful energy offstage had deceived him into believing she was almost invincible.

Saber smiled a little beneath his scrutiny. "I look like a hag, huh?" she asked, her tone one of wry self-realization.

"You look—very tired."

"What nice manners you have, sir."

Travis ignored the gentle mockery. "Your manager ought to be shot for putting you through this kind of tour," he said flatly.

"Fair's fair. It was my idea; Phil tried to discourage me."

"Then you should be shot!"

She shook her head. "A little tiredness is a small price to pay for the exposure."

He studied her thoughtfully. "Funny, but I get the impression you don't care a bit for your fame."

"I don't." She met his gaze, her own unwavering. "But I do care for my success."

"You're a star. You perform for sellout crowds; your records sell in the millions; you'll never be able to spend all the money you've made. What more is there to work for?"

Saber, more weary than she'd realized, answered without remembering that Travis was a man to be wary of. "Not more. Never less. I have to prove—" She broke off, vaguely aware of danger.

"Prove what?" he asked softly. "To whom?"

"Prove I can do it," she answered. "Prove to him I can make it—" For a moment, her tired gray eyes stared into his. Then a veil dropped. She set her cup down and rose to her feet. "I'm going to bed," she said distantly. "See you in the morning."

Travis, on his feet in an instant, reached out a hand to catch her wrist before she could turn away.

"Saber, I'm sorry. You're too tired to think, and I had no business taking advantage of that." Honestly contrite, he was aware that his voice was anxious but was too worried over having unthinkingly probed to be concerned that he might be betraying himself.

She looked at him, a little puzzled, a little bemused. "You're . . . a strange man, Travis," she said. "I can't quite figure you out."

He lifted his free hand to touch her cheek. "Then don't try," he urged softly. "Just accept that I . . .

care about you." It was more than he'd meant to say, but she looked so tired and worn and he couldn't stop the words.

Conscious of the warmth of his hand against her skin, Saber was finding it difficult to think. She gazed up into green eyes that were warm and concerned and something else she couldn't identify, wondering dimly why the room had shrunk so that he seemed to fill it. He was taller than she'd realized, his eyes greener, his face more handsome.

Why hadn't she noticed that before now?

Travis stepped forward abruptly, his hand cradling the nape of her neck, his fingers tangling in her thick hair; he bent his head, and his lips found hers. He kissed her as if she were something infinitely precious and fragile, a tender kiss over almost before it began.



"Good night, Saber. Sleep well."

Silently, she turned to the bedroom. Closing the door behind her, she leaned against it for a moment.

She needed to think, there was something very important she needed to think about, but her mind was blank. Vaguely she heard Travis on the phone requesting an extra pillow and blanket. She couldn't think about that, either. Sighing unconsciously, she got into bed and turned out the lamp on the nightstand. She was asleep almost instantly.

In the other room, Travis placed a second call, this one to the harried hotel operator to ask if Saber had requested a wake-up call. Learning that she had placed one for eight am., he canceled it, representing himself as her manager. The operator, with a hotel full of merry conventioneers, accepted his authority without question.

Then Travis settled back to brood over the identity of the "him" Saber was so determined to prove herself to.

When he finally fell asleep, after lying awake long into the night, Travis slept hard. And he was considerably disgruntled when a hand shook his shoulder and ruthlessly yanked him from a pleasurable dream involving gray eyes and a ridiculously sexy blue flannel nightgown.

"Travis? Travis?'

Growling peevishly, he pulled his pillow around his ears to shut out the sadistic voice, groping mentally for his lost dream. Recapturing the image of gray eyes and blue nightgown, he soon became engrossed in the natural progression of things, only to sit bolt upright with a yelp, wide awake, when icy water was dumped unceremoniously on his face.

"What the hell!"

"Good morning," Saber offered sweetly. She stood gazing down at him, holding an empty glass in one hand and smiling without an ounce of compunction.

Travis wiped the water from his face and glared at her, automatically taking note of her jeans and sweater and of the fact that she was wide awake and seemingly well rested. "What's the big idea?" he demanded.

"When you sleep, you don't fool around, do you?"

"So you poured water on me?"

Saber waved the empty glass in a slight gesture. "Well, since I couldn't wake you up any other way, and since the brunch I ordered is due to arrive in about half an hour, I thought I'd try the water. Worked, too."

"Brunch?" he ventured, belatedly remembering where he was.

"Uh-huh. Oddly enough, I didn't get my wake-up call. It's now ten-thirty, and you have half an hour to make yourself presentable."

"I'm not presentable?"

"You have a morning stubble," she said.

Travis found himself grinning. "Not very diplomatic, are you?"

"The word is honest. If you want pretty speeches, you've got the wrong girl."

He cast aside his blanket and swung his long legs to the floor. "Funny, I dreamed I had the right one.

She was wearing a ridiculous flannel nightgown and worshiped the ground I walked on."

"Fancy that. Must have been a lady of scanty intellect."



"You've already poured water on me; don't compound the felony."

She indicated the bathroom with a finger not wrapped around the glass. "Would you please go shave and put on something a bit more decent than those pajama bottoms?"

"Are they getting to you?" he asked with a mock leer.

"No," she replied, deadpan. "But one never knows how other people will react, and the waiter's coming, after all."

Travis sighed and held up a hand in surrender. "Uncle! From now on, I'll know better than to fence with you in the morning."

Saber inclined her head in gracious acknowledgment. She put the glass down and began folding the blanket as he gathered his things and disappeared into the bathroom. When he emerged some moments past the allotted time, he was shaved, showered, and dressed, and the door had just closed behind the departing waiter.

She greeted him with, "Hope you don't hate omelets," sounding as if she didn't much care whether he hated them or not.

"No," he said politely, taking his seat across from her at the table. "Love them, in fact."

Pouring their coffee, Saber sent him an amused look. "A question?"

"By all means." He noted that she was fixing his coffee just as he liked it, after having seen him drink coffee only once.

"Did you cancel my wake-up call?"

Travis accepted the cup she held out. "Guilty. I thought you could probably use the sleep."

"Thoughtful of you. Is that your game plan, by the way?"

Picking up his fork, he looked at her, then smiled. "You're a suspicious wench."

"You'll have to forgive me. It's just that I've learned one of life's ironclad rules."

"Which is?"

"People who claim they're after nothing are always after something."

Serious now, Travis studied her as she apparently concentrated on her meal. "And so you think I'm after more than your company?"

"It crossed my mind."

"Such as?"

"I haven't figured that out yet."

"The truth about your past, perhaps?" he offered dryly.

"I know you're after that. And something else as well."

"You re a very perceptive lady."

"Thank you." She looked at him. "What are you after, Travis?"

"Would you believe me if I said I was chasing a dream?"

Something flickered briefly in her eyes, then died. "No."

"Cynical," he mocked softly.

"I don't make pretty speeches," she said. "I don't like hearing them."



"Yes," he said thoughtfully. "I imagine you've been flattered quite a lot in your life, haven't you?" When she said nothing, but only continued to gaze at him steadily, Travis sighed. "And you don't take any bait dangled in front of you, do you?"

She answered that, a twinkle in her eyes. "No, I don't. I've done a bit of fishing, Travis, and I'm well aware that bait always contains a hook. So why don't you just reel your line in?"

"I will . . . if you'll drop your guard."

Saber tossed her napkin aside and sat back, studying him intently. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, I would," he replied. "Because as enjoyable as it is to fence with you, Saber, the mental exercise isn't bringing me a bit closer to the woman I want to know. No pretty speeches. No Spanish coin. I want to get to know you very badly, and this past of yours—which we've both made too damn much of—is standing in my way."

"So if I drop my guard," she murmured, "you'll leave my past where it belongs—in the past?"

He nodded. "For the time being, at least. I'm being honest. There may well come a time when I'll need to know who you were yesterday; right now, I want to know who you are today."

"Revising our bargain somewhat?"

"No. The bargain was that I'd agree not to write about you if you agreed to treat me simply as a man who's attracted to you. That hasn't changed."

After a moment, Saber spoke very slowly. "During the past few months, I've held to a grueling schedule in the recording studio and on the road. I planned a month's vacation in a quiet place, where I intend to relax and forget schedules." She took a deep breath. "I don't want to have to be on guard for two weeks out of that month. I don't want to be afraid that every innocent word I say will be probed and examined as a possible clue to my past. If I find that happening, Travis, then I'll consider that I've fulfilled my end of the bargain—and that'll be the end of it."

"Agreed," he said promptly. "All I ask is that you make allowances for a naturally . . . inquisitive nature." He grinned. "I may well ask questions about Saber Duncan, but I'll do my best to forget she was ever anyone else."

Three

Saber gazed at him for a moment, weighing, measuring. For an instant, she was tempted to end it here and now. A single phone call would put an army at her back, a quietly efficient army that would move Travis out of her life with no fuss or bother to herself.

To a man of Travis's intelligence, however, that action would be not only a stimulus to search out her past, but also a clue to finding that past.

Saber dared not take that chance.

Slowly she nodded, accepting his word and accepting the responsibility of protecting herself on her own. Protecting herself. . . .

"You look so lost," he said quietly. "Why?"

Saber's throat tightened as she stared at him, and she fought a second impulse to end it now. She was vulnerable, tired and vulnerable, and he was too dangerously perceptive a man to gamble her life on.

"You're seeing things," she said, resisting the impulse again.

"You were going to drop your guard," he reminded her, still quiet.

Looking into the depths of his serious green eyes, Saber felt the same sensation as last night. The room was shrinking, he was filling it with his presence, and she heard herself respond to his eyes rather than his voice. "When you guard . . . anything . . . long enough, it isn't easy to stop."

After a moment, he tossed his napkin aside and rose. Stepping around the table, he bent to grasp her hands and pulled her to her feet. Softly, he said, "You're a beautiful woman, Saber. A woman who can haunt a man's dreams even wearing a flannel nightgown. A woman who makes a man remember he is a man. Can't we forget everything else for now?"

Saber tried to collect her thoughts, but it was impossible: she was too conscious of the warm hands holding hers. No man had ever come so close, said such words, gazed at her with such intensity. She was torn, a lifelong wariness leaving her feeling threatened and a newfound awareness stirring excitement somewhere within her.

"I don't know," she said at last. "Can we?"

Travis gazed down at her, a muscle tightening in his jaw. He knew that he, at least, could forget everything but what she was in this moment—a woman he wanted until his body ached with desire.

Huskily, he said, "I want you. I know that." Before she could make more than an instinctive attempt to pull away from him, Travis released her hands only to draw her suddenly, powerfully, against the hard length of his body. "I'll make you forget everything else," he breathed, and then his mouth found hers.

Saber had believed until then that she knew what desire felt like, but the distant memory of a man's arms around a girl faded to nothing as Travis held her. Panicked, she tried to douse the flames rising inside of her, fighting to keep something as wild as unreason caged deep within her. It was as if she were onstage, a part of her seeking an outlet in the faceless audience. But Travis was not faceless or nameless

. . . or safe.

She could feel the strength of his body against hers, feel his heart pounding beneath her hand. And the lips slanting hungrily across hers drew desire from an unsuspected well at the core of her being. Who she was, what she was, what she had been—none of it mattered. In that moment, nothing mattered but the flames she felt licking at the bars of a cage.

Of their own volition, her hands slid up his chest until her fingers could tangle in the silky darkness of his hair. She wanted to be close to him, closer; she needed the strength of him. Caution withered in the heat blazing almost out of control.

Saber drew a ragged breath as his lips left hers, her eyes opening slowly, heavily. She stared up into green eyes gone impossibly dark, and an old instinct told her then that Travis threatened her future with more than knowledge of her past. He threatened her future with himself. If this stranger could make her feel this way . . .

As if he saw or sensed the beginnings of withdrawal, Travis kissed her again, fierce but oddly teasing as well. And with his kiss, the passion that had flickered uncertainly, then died to embers, now blazed anew.

It was curiously more compelling than outright hunger, bringing her senses alive in a surging rush of feelings. A heated tingle swirled to life somewhere inside her and spread outward in ripples of sensation.

A kiss, she thought dimly, astonished. Just a kiss!

When Travis lifted his head again, his breathing was rough and uneven, the darkened eyes hot. "That's what we have, what we are," he said hoarsely. "It's all that matters right now, Saber. We can forget the rest."

Stunned by her own response, Saber allowed her arms to fall away, backing a step as he released her.

She wanted to tell him to leave, to get out of her life, but something stopped the words— something she couldn't fight. And that frightened her because she had learned to fight elements stronger than any man could ever be.

"We can forget the rest," he repeated, steadier now.

Saber stared at him, uncertain. But when his eyes flickered downward to focus briefly on her mouth, she felt an instant surge of longing. "For now," she murmured. "We can forget. . . for now."

Travis drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "That's all I'm asking, Saber. For now, we'll forget everything except that we're a man and woman with something between us." Determined to hear her admit it, he added, "You can't deny that."

It wasn't a question: Saber knew it was a demand. And his eyes drew the truth from her before she could even consider evasion. "I can't deny that."

Travis smiled at her, his eyes still darkened and warm. "Where do we go from here?"

She decided to take the question literally and was just about to tell him where her vacation retreat was when the phone rang. With a slight gesture, she went to answer it, a bit startled to find the caller was her manager.

"Hello, Phil. What's up?"

Travis only half listened to her end of the conversation at first, too occupied with watching her lovely face in profile and trying to calm his still racing pulse. Not that he could do that while his eyes rested on her and his thoughts were filled with her. Then she half turned to glance at him, and something in the depths of her silvery eyes drew his attention to the conversation.

"No, no, you were right to let me know. Yes, but the exposure's worth it. What about the band?" She glanced at her watch. "They should be arriving in L.A. about now. Oh, have you? No, I don't think we'll need that. Tell them to take it easy until late tomorrow afternoon; we'll run through it once, but I don't think we need more than that. Right. Oh—and Phil?" Her eyes lifted to Travis again fleet-ingly. "Book two rooms for me, wil you? Two separate rooms. No questions. All right. I will. Bye, Phil." Saber cradled the receiver slowly.

"What was that all about?" Travis asked.

Saber sat down at the end of the couch and looked at him thoughtfully. "We've been trying to get a booking in Kansas City for the past year, but all schedules were filled. They've had a cancelation for tomorrow night. Phil's already put the band on a plane out there; he knew I'd want it. They'll advertise heavily on radio and television to alert the public."

"Another concert?"

"That's right."

Travis was conscious of a curious feeling then. Not jealousy, but an inexplicable conviction that she would slip away from him once she stepped onstage again. She was guarded and elusive once more, the brief conversation with her manager having partially erected the walls he had fought his way through only moments before; she was hiding again behind a serene veil.

Bothered by that and by the weariness he had glimpsed in her eyes, Travis focused on the concrete.

"Saber, you've done twelve cities in twelve days already. You need to rest. "

"I'll fly out this afternoon and rest tonight," she said. "A short rehearsal tomorrow afternoon, then the performance."



Whether she intended it or not, Travis caught the subtle intimation in her words. She would fly out today; she could admit to there being something between them, but she would link them together in no other way. He sighed roughly. "I see. Is the extra room for me?"

"I'd hate for you to have to sleep on a couch again. If you're coming, that is."

"We've settled that." He was abrupt and tried to dampen the frustration he felt.

"All right, then," she said softly.

"Saber . . . "

"What?"

"Don't look at me like I'm a stranger."

She quickly looked away, almost hating him because he kept slipping through her guard. "You are a stranger. Look, why don't we go ahead and get an early start to Kansas City? We can—" She rose as she spoke, breaking off abruptly when he crossed to stand before her and grasp her hands firmly. He said nothing for a moment, just lifted their hands until she could see them. And she saw before she felt: her fingers had twined instantly with his of their own volition. Slowly, she met his steady gaze.

"You're so damned elusive," he said in a soft, raspy tone of voice. His fingers tightened on hers. "But you don't want to be, Saber. The way you respond to my touch tells me that."

She stared at him mutely, unable to deny or defend. She was tired and she knew it. Too tired to do a show in Kansas City. Too tired to cope with bewildering new feelings and unnerving fears. And Travis must have realized because the expression on his face softened.

"All right," he said on a sigh, squeezing her hands gently before releasing them. "I'll try to back off a little. But it won't be easy." His gaze dropped to glide down over her body. "It won't be easy at all."

Saber took a step back, startled because when his eyes had touched her it was as if his hands had.

She turned away, hoping to hide the reaction, speaking automatically. "Why don't we get started?"

Thinking back on it, she decided later that that had been a loaded question.

They talked little until the Lear had left Chicago far behind, and even then the silences were long between them. Saber, always tensely occupied with controlling her fear before flying, found on this trip that awareness of a man could push even this strong a fear aside. She was almost painfully conscious of him sitting by her side, aware of words and silences and the woodsy scent of his cologne.

She had fought hard to gain control of her life, and what was happening to her now, she knew, was beyond her ability to control. The caged part of her surged and throbbed toward an outlet, toward freedom, and only the stage offered that. Until now. Now that restless force within her had been stirred to life by Travis, and it leaned toward him like a flower to the sun.

Saber wished the performance were only scant hours away, wished she could step out onto a stage instantly and free the wildness before it overwhelmed her. Before that part of her broke free of its own strength and reached for the outlet Travis offered.

She pushed that thought away violently even as steady hands landed the jet with automatic awareness.

But she wanted to find a corner somewhere and creep into it, hide, until she understood what was happening to her.

By the time they reached their hotel and checked in she had found that corner. In a sense. She had always faced her fears, but what she felt now was too nebulous to confront; so Saber turned away from it, ignored it. She clung to the one reality she knew to be certain—that of living from heartbeat to heartbeat. And if each beat throbbed a man's name, she was unwilling to face that now.

Phil had reserved separate rooms all right. A two-bedroom suite. A large and expensive suite that was very beautiful and very private. Saber avoided the look she felt directed at her from Travis, hoping vaguely that no gossip-hungry reporter found out. And, she reminded herself, it was only for two nights.

What could happen in two nights?

"You should rest," Travis said when the bellman had gone.

Saber moved restlessly to turn a blind gaze to the view outside their sitting room window, knowing from experience that rest wouldn't help her. Only an explosive performance would drain her to the point of not thinking and hardly feeling—which was what she wanted, needed.

"I'm not tired," she said, and it was only partly a lie. She wasn't tired enough. Unconsciously, she tried to ease tense shoulders, stiffening even more when she felt his presence behind her and his hands move to gently probe taut muscles.

"You're tense," he said quietly.

She closed her eyes, his touch half pain and half pleasure. "It's just. . . preperformance jitters."

His long fingers continued to knead firmly and gently, soothing even as she was made more sting-ingly aware of him. She could feel the heat of him through her sweater and fought the urge to lean back against him. One of his hands slid down to probe the small of her back, stroking in a tiny, gentle circle until she felt weakness invade her knees. She wanted to tell him to stop, but when his other hand slipped beneath her hair to rub the nape of her neck, she could only let her head fall forward in mute acceptance.

There had been little touching in her life, and she realized only dimly that a part of her was hungry for touch. His touch. Wary of that, she forced her body to shift away from him. But the hand at her back moved around to encircle her waist, holding her in place.

"Travis—"

"You're such a tiny thing." His voice was soft, his tone whimsical. His hand lay over her flat stomach, fingers spread, the thumb just beneath the swell of her breasts. "Onstage you explode like a tiny dynamo, sending current in a dozen directions at once. And offstage . . . offstage you hold that inside as if it's a life force you're afraid to waste. Where's the switch, Saber? What turns that current on? Is it the singing itself? Or do you reflect the power an audience feeds you? Is it yours . . . or is it theirs?"

Saber bit her lip against the cry, Mine! I earned it! He wouldn't understand, and she would not fling what she was at the feet of a stranger. But he didn't seem to expect an answer.

"When I touch you," he murmured, "I can almost feel that power. Like fire surging just beneath the skin. It's addictive, Saber. I have to touch you."

"What do you want from me?" she cried suddenly, breaking away and whirling to stare at him. Intense green eyes met hers.

"That," he breathed. "The part you only give an audience. That's what I want."

Saber shook her head. "You don't know what you're talking about," she said huskily.

"Do you?"

It was an odd question, and she stared at him in bewilderment.

Travis reached out to touch her cheek, his fingers lingering. As if to himself, he murmured, "No, you have to be aware of it. You have to know it's more than stage presence."

Trying to defend that hidden part of her, Saber unwillingly faced what she wanted to avoid. "You said we'd forget everything except what's between us," she reminded him.

"But that's it, Saber," he told her, intensity creeping into his voice. "That is what's between us. Don't you see? That's why I have to touch you, and why you have to respond."



She took a step back, feeling cornered, both excitement and fear flickering inside her. For a moment, she wondered if he did somehow spark that caged part of her. Then she denied the possibility with inner violence. If he was right, it would change her life forever. If he was wrong . . . if he was wrong . . .

"I'm going to take a shower," she said with forced calm. "Do whatever you like about dinner; I'm going to order room service."

"I'll order for both of us," he said. "No need for them to make two trips."

Saber headed for her bedroom and closed the door behind her, shutting out him and his last quiet words.

"Elusive. Always just out of reach."

She changed her mind and took a long bath instead of a shower, hoping an immersion in hot water would draw the tension from her body. But the tension remained; what seeped away, she realized later, was a large chunk of her stubborn wilpower.

Wary of spending too much time alone with Travis, Saber didn't return to the sitting room after her bath. Only half-aware of her actions—and motivations—she chose the most shapeless nightgown in her case, not a flannel affair but one made of thick terry cloth that reached to the floor. Then she stretched out on the wide bed and closed her eyes.

Saber was not given to afternoon naps; the driving energy that had taken her to the top of her profession in a short year tended to fill her days with action, with movement. But sleep was nature's restorative, and both Saber's anxious mind and tense body demanded it.

She woke to the vague realization of hours having passed unnoticed, conscious of the lazy heaviness of her still body. Conscious of that and of the quiet green eyes watching her.

"I didn't pour water on you," he said, his voice curiously soft, his smile crooked. "Even though our dinner will be here in a few minutes."

Drowsy, Saber looked at him. Her sleep-fogged mind could identify no threat here, no reason to be guarded or wary. And her body, still gripped by the inertia of sleep, resisted even awareness. "Thank you," she murmured.

"You're welcome." His hand moved to lay gently over hers where it rested, motionless, on the bed-spread. Then his fingers curled around hers and her hand was lifted to touch his lips.

Saber watched the movement, a part of her mind idly considering his gentleness. She felt the warmth of his hand and lips, but it was a sensation hovering on the edge of her perceptions and failed to alarm her.

Watching her, Travis wanted to hold his breath for fear she would realize what she was at this moment and hide from him again. Still at the edge of sleep, she was vulnerable; she was a lovely, delicate girl with a sweet face and gentle gray eyes, and he had only seen her before in a two-year-old photo. She looked at him curious and wondering, as a girl would look upon a man she might see before her as she rounded a corner. No alarm shadowed her eyes.

The controlled woman he'd known until now fascinated him, the flickering wildness in her eyes sparking something deep within him; her every movement drew his gaze, the feline beauty of her nearly stopped his heart. But this girl, so still and quiet, her dreamy eyes pondering some mystery, this girl did stop his heart. He wanted to reach out and hold her, protect her against what the world would do to her.

He wanted to wrap her in his arms to shut out cold reality. He wanted to build a world for her.

But Travis dared make no sudden move and dared not question even silently what he felt. Carefully, he sought to hold the moment.

"Who are you?" she asked suddenly, and it didn't seem an odd question.



"Who am I?" His voice was husky, low. "I'm a man who loves children and animals and spring showers. I play tennis and swim and ride horses. I read books because ideas fascinate me,~and I listen to music because my soul needs to hear it. That's who I am, Saber."

Still dreamy, she gazed at him. "Why are you here?"

Even more softly, he said, "Because I saw a shooting star one night and heard a voice I couldn't believe."

"Will you catch the star?" she asked.

"Only if you let me," he whispered, and bent forward, still holding her hand, to kiss her tenderly.

Saber felt the soft warmth of his lips, the feathery touch that was gentle and undemanding, and something deep inside of her uncurled tentatively to bask in that glowing feeling. She touched his cheek with her free hand as he slowly drew away, a gesture without thought or will but prompted by a need beyond reason.

Not even harsh knocks on the sitting room door had the power to disturb her.

"Dinner," he murmured, looking down at her with a peculiarly intense light in his green eyes.

She nodded, feeling bereft when he released her hand and rose to his feet. She watched him leave her bedroom to deal with the waiter, then sat up and slid from the bed reluctantly. The last tendrils of sleep were leaving her, but she held on to this odd, softened mood; she could remember feeling like this, but the memory was a distant one. Not the distance of time, but the distance of experience.

Saber stood just inside the sitting room, staring at his broad shoulders as he closed the door behind the waiter. She was conscious of something fragile being in the room with them, something a careless word or gesture could destroy in an instant. Uneasiness flickered within her, a dim realization of her own vulnerability, but she dismissed it as he turned to face her.

The softened, fragile mood held—for a while. They ate their meal, watching as the night aged outside their windows, speaking quietly about inconsequential things. Travis watched her unobtrusively, still feeling as if he held his breath. The banked desires within him stirred, but he kept them under control, driven even more strongly by an urge to understand this gentle side of her.

Then, when the dinner remains had been sent away, they were left, alone with nothing to occupy them.

Nothing but each other and a growing awareness.

Saber tried to ignore the restlessness, needing the brief peace she had felt. But there was something inside of her stronger than peace, something that had napped longer than her body and was now awakening within her. She wanted to cry out in protest as she found herself pacing, found herself keeping distance between herself and Travis.

He was dangerous. That was what she had to remember. Against her will, she remembered a gentle kiss and an odd, hot tenderness in green eyes, and her thoughts shied violently.

"Saber?"

His deep voice seemed to play over her taut nerves like a physical caress, and when she turned from the window to face him it was with the stiff, jerky motion of reluctance.

Travis rose from the chair where he had watched her pacing, feeling his own face tighten as he saw the taut wariness in hers. Regret flowed through him, regret and frustration and a growing bewilderment.

"How many women are you, Saber?" he mused. "What in your life divided you like this?"

"We were going to leave my past out of this," she reminded him, holding herself still when she wanted so badly to— What? She didn't know. Except that she wanted.

He stepped toward her, the movement putting his face in shadow as the lamp behind him silhouetted his lean body. "I don't care who you were," he said, his voice strained. "Not now. I only care about who you are. But you won't let me get close. You won't let me in."

Saber took a deep breath, fighting the temptation to tell him anything he wanted to know. Dimly, she realized that what had once seemed a wonderful and exciting secret to a child had become a woman's intolerable burden. She wondered when that had happened; had it been instantaneous or a gradual thing?

Had she awakened one morning to the shocked realization of what she was, what she would always be?

Or had it come to her slowly over the years? When had her sense of power become a trap?

Dear God . . . she was so tired of hiding. And her escape from hiding had become a prison she had never intended. This was her prison. The prison of having no name, no past. The prison of gazing into a man's puzzled eyes and being unable to answer his questions.

Travis took another step toward her, his hand lifting as though he would have touched her. But Saber turned quickly toward her bedroom, her tension so great, so brittle, that she guarded herself from his touch as she would have guarded fragile crystal from a blow.

She'd shatter. If he touched her, she would shatter, and the dear Lord only knew if she could put herself back together again.

"Good night, Travis," she said huskily.

He drew a deep breath, his hand falling. "Good night, Saber."

It was a long time before Travis went into his own bedroom. He stood at the window and gazed out into the night, the ache within him now a familiar pain.

Four

Travis stood in the wings, his gaze following Saber. The powerful lights turned her sequined evening gown to liquid gold, and her sensuous movements intensified that image. Music filled the huge building, and the roar from the audience was a steadily building force that seemed a living thing.

She was giving them everything inside her.

He felt it as he had before, as the audience felt it. He felt waves of power and passion emanating from the spotlighted woman until his throat tightened with emotion and his hands gripped her wrap convulsively.

It was difficult to think clearly, but Travis forced himself to remember this long day. She had been more than elusive, more than just out of reach. She had been gone. Only a note had greeted him this morning, a brief apology that she had "things to take care of." He had come here and waited, watching the band assemble, watching the rehearsal that had been explosive itself. Then she had disappeared again, leaving her gown here and having no reason to return to the hotel until after the performance.

It had been a very long day.

Travis, with little to do but think, came to several conclusions. In spite of the ache that left him sleepless, restless, he realized he could get no relief. If he pushed Saber too hard or too fast, she would put herself forever out of his reach. He realized that she would be even more wary because he had seen the vulnerable side of her. And he realized that—somehow—he had to convince her he was no threat.

He didn't know if he had the patience. His deepest instincts urged him to hold her tightly with the first firm grasp he could manage, but his mind warned him that he would never hold her unless she allowed him to. That would take time. And trust. If it came at all.

And now. . .

Travis listened to that naked voice, everything stripped from it but raw emotion. He watched her fling that powerful, invisible part of herself out into a faceless audience with the savage release of an electric current gone wild, and it crackled around her.

He had never seen her give so much, and when she stumbled from the stage he was quickly and silently there to drop the wrap around her shoulders and lead her toward the exit. They were too quick for the fans surging around the building to get a closer look at Saber; the limo pulled away even as the first shouts reached them.

She was tense beside him in the darkness, and Travis said nothing. He remained silent during the ride to the hotel and in the elevator up to their suite. His first words came only when she returned to the sitting room after showering and changing into a loose robe to find the coffee he had ordered waiting for her.

"I still don't agree with coffee this late," he said dryly, handing her a cup.

"It works for me." Saber sat down at the end of the long couch, her face nearly translucent with exhaustion.

He sat down near her, watching her sip the coffee. "You'll burn yourself out if you keep this up."

Saber smiled a little. "No. I can rest now." Then she sent him an oblique glance. "Or can I?"

Travis linked his fingers together and gazed down at them for a long moment. When his eyes lifted, something regretful and pained shimmered there. "I pushed," he said.

She knew he was referring to the day before, which had been answered by her disappearing act today.

"You pushed." She nodded. "I don't like running away, Travis. Don't make me run away again."

"All right," he said quietly. "We'll just get to know each other. You need rest after tonight . . . after this tour. . . and we'll take all the time you need for that. I promise, Saber."

"I'll hold you to that," she managed to say. The glaze of her weariness was between them, and Saber welcomed it. She didn't want to think about anything for a while. Not what she was beginning to feel for him. Not her past or future. Nothing. At least for a while.

"Go to bed," he ordered gently. She didn't think about arguing, either. She went to bed.

Only the ringing of the phone disturbed their breakfast the next morning. Saber had awakened cheerful, her manner toward Travis light; clearly, she was at least willing to accept his word for the moment. And he was determined to make no more mistakes. Patience had become his watchword.

With a faintly apologetic gesture, she rose and went to sit on the couch, lifting the receiver from its place on the end table. "Hello?"

Travis watched her unobtrusively as he finished his meal. He saw her face change, soften, even as it turned curiously wary.

"No, it went well," she said into the phone. "Yes, I am, and I'm planning to take a rest. Cory's place; it isn't crowded this time of the year, and I've taken a cottage. . . . The landing strip in Prescott, then a car."

She frowned suddenly. "No, don't do that. I know what I— It's the back of beyond out there! There's no need to—" She listened to her caller in frowning silence for a moment, then spoke wryly. "I know there's a pad, but I'd really prefer not to make use of it! . . . I'm being unreasonable? Look, I'll arrange it, all right? Yes, I promise. Right. Bye."

Saber cradled the receiver and sat frowning at Travis for a moment.



"Is it something I've done?" he asked politely.

She blinked, then smiled. "No. Do you object to helicopters? "

"On principle, no," he answered, taking the question at face value.

"Good." She picked up the receiver again and placed a long-distance call, reaching her party almost instantly. "Cory Stewart, please. Oh, hi. . . . No, but you sounded harassed. . . . Really? Well, everybody's curious about you and you can't blame them. . . . All right, since I value my neck, I'll shut up about that!" She smiled a little, apparently listening to a somewhat lengthy response. "All right. Yes, I'll be heading your way in an hour or so. Cory, does Lee still fly his charter service? Oh, damn, I wanted to—

You did? Well, I wondered when you'd get around to it. Can I trust you with my precious skin?" Her smile widened. "Don't be rude to a paying customer! Okay, I'll call you in about an hour and let you know when we'll be arriving. . . . Just a stray I picked up: can you spare him a room?" Saber grinned as Travis made a face at her, then briskly ended her conversation. "Great. I'll call in about an hour."

"Am I the stray you picked up?" Travis demanded as soon as she'd hung up.

"Just a figure of speech, Travis."

"Uh-huh." He stared at her. "Not that I mean to pry, but who is Cory Stewart, and just where are we going?"

Saber returned to the table, sitting down and reaching for her coffee. "Cory Stewart is a friend of mine; she owns the place where we're going on my vacation. And we're going to Arizona."

"Arizona? What's in Arizona?"

She smiled at him gently. "A dude ranch."

Travis realized that his mouth was open and hastily closed it. "A dude ranch. I see."

He was still a bit bemused when the Lear taxied to a stop at a landing strip in Prescott, Arizona, some considerable time later—and not only because their destination was a dude ranch. Having accepted his word that he wanted only to get to know her, Saber had completely relaxed in his company. During the trip he'd discovered she had a mischievous sense of humor and a hypnotically sweet smile that revealed an elusive dimple.

"You'll love Cory; everybody does," she said as they stood beside the jet with their baggage. She had no time to say more but gestured slightly at the woman approaching them.

Travis blinked at the sight; he couldn't help it. From the few things Saber had mentioned about their hostess during the trip out here, he had evolved a mental image quite different from the reality. He'd imagined a brisk and cheerful woman, yes, but smaller. Considerably smaller.

Cory Stewart was dressed in jeans, a blue denim shirt, and running shoes rather than western boots, and she sported a billed cap atop a riotous mass of flaming red hair. Green-eyed and with a husky voice, she was a stunning woman somewhere in her midtwenties. And she was every inch of six feet tall.

It was obvious that the two women were good friends, and Cory looked Travis over with a critical but curiously indulgent eye as she shook hands with him briskly.

"So you're the stray, huh? Only Saber could call you that. I've read your books; you're good." Giving Travis no time at all to respond to her remarks, she directed the next few to Saber. "Jed'll guard your Lear with his life; he's even promised to wash it. C'mon—the chopper's this way." Then she grabbed a bag in either hand and strode off across the field.

"She's something, isn't she?" Saber murmured, picking up a small bag.

Travis took it away from her. "Does she command armies in her spare time?" he asked wryly.



As they trailed after their hostess, Saber replied, "The staff at the ranch would say so. For myself, I think she should work her talents on the United Nations. The world would be dazed—but better off."

He laughed, then meekly climbed aboard the blue-and-white helicopter when ordered to do so.

Earphones made conversation possible within the craft when they'd lifted off, but Travis was a bit too unnerved by Cory's seat-of-the-pants flying techniques to contribute anything to the casual dialogue carried on by the women.

He wondered briefly why Saber's avowed fear of flying apparently didn't extend to this helicopter ride, then he filed the question away and concentrated instead on watching the dizzily passing scenery of mountains and valleys. Major highways appeared few and far between, and he realized that Saber's description of "the back of beyond" had been apt.

The phrase reminded him of her call and of the unidentified person she had talked to. Travis had ventured a single question during the trip from Kansas City, to which she'd replied simply, "No, I'd rather not tell you. Sorry." He had left it at that, but to say that he was curious would have been an understatement. It was yet another item he filed away for the future . . . the near future.

So wrapped up was he in his own brooding thoughts that Travis realized only belatedly that they'd arrived at their destination. Before he could get more than a glimpse of a sprawling expanse of buildings nestled in a beautiful valley, the helicopter dipped below tree level and settled itself with barely a thump on a concrete pad.

Cory talked to them vivaciously as they made their way along a graveled walkway toward the central building. It was a large three-story house with a wide porch on two sides, whitewashed and lovely. To the left, a four-rail fence framed a view of rolling pastureland, and to the right were other graveled paths leading to smaller buildings—cottages, Travis assumed. He could also see a couple of tennis courts, and a faint, distant splash hinted at the existence of a pool.

It didn't really look like the tourist conception of Arizona, but since he'd been in this part of the state before, Travis was not surprised.

"Saber can show you around," Cory told him in her innately warm and friendly voice. "She knows the place almost as well as I do. There are trails all through the mountains for walking or riding, a pool, and tennis courts. You can have your meals in the main house, have 'em sent to your cottage, or else ask to have your kitchen in the cottage, stocked and do for yourself. We're pretty informal here; if we're having a party or special dinner, I ask that you wear shoes—otherwise you dress however you feel."

Travis laughed as they halted a few steps from the main house, then realized that Cory was eyeing them both rather sheepishly.

"There's just one—small—matter I'd better discuss with you."

"Cory, what've you done?" Saber demanded, instantly suspicious.

The glowing redhead pulled on an innocent expression. "I swear it wasn't intentional, Saber. How could it be? I didn't know you were bringing company until today."

"Out with it!" Saber ordered.

"Well, we're not crowded this time of year, but the main house is full. I'd reserved a cottage for you, of course, but the others are being redecorated. The funiture's all shoved together under covers and there are paint buckets and the like. Well, anyway, the point is that you two are going to have to share a cottage."

Saber stared at her.

"It's a two bedroom," Cory offered, ridiculously hopeful.



Travis could have kissed her, but he maintained an expressionless face and waited for Saber to speak.

"What about my good name, friend?" She didn't look at Travis.

"You're a superstar—who expects you to have a good name?"

"Cory!"

The redhead laughed. "Everybody minds their own business here, Saber, and you know it; that's why you come here. There isn't a journalist, gossip columnist, or any other kind of troublemaker within thirty miles of here. No fuss and no bother. Now, shall I make up a bed for Travis on the living room couch in the main house—where he'll quite likely be sat on—or are you going to share your cottage with him?"

Sighing, and with a feeling of trying to close the barn door after the livestock had escaped anyway.

Saber gave in. "All right! Anything to keep you from telling everyone I'm a monster. And you would. I know you!"

"I should hope so after ten years," Cory answered cheerfully.

At that moment, a harassed-looking young man appeared on the porch. "Cory, I need you!" he wailed, the fingers of both hands clutching his blond hair in a manner that appeared desperate rather than dramatic.

Cory dropped the single bag she'd managed to wrest away from Travis at the helicopter, saying obscurely, "Damn the woman. She's meddled with his paints again! It's number four, Saber." And as she dashed up the steps, she tossed over her shoulder at Travis, "D'you mind? I have to—" Then she'd taken the young man by the arm and steered him firmly into the house.

Travis only realized he was standing there with his mouth open when he heard Saber laughing. Closing his mouth, he stared down at her. "Mind telling me what that was all about?" he requested.

Saber bent to pick up the abandoned bag since Travis had his hands full with the other two. "The plea for help came from Mark," she explained, beginning to lead the way along one of the graveled paths.

"He's sort of. . . a project of Cory's. He stays here several times a year and paints. As an artist, he's quite talented, but at day-to-day living, he's utterly hopeless. He has no temper whatsoever and depends on Cory to keep his world on an even keel, which she does."

"And what woman did Cory damn for meddling with the paints?"

"Jenny, the housekeeper. She's a jewel of a housekeeper, which, I suppose, is why she hates the smell of oil paint; she's always putting Mark's paints away neatly where he can't find them. Hence his very real panic. "

Bemused, Travis shook his head. "Are the other . . . guests as strange as the artist?"

Saber turned off the main path onto a more narrow one leading through the trees. "Didn't you notice the plaque hanging at the main house? "

Travis vaguely recalled seeing a discreet sign but couldn't remember what had been written on it. "Yes, but not what it said."

"The Hideaway." Saber smiled up at him as they reached a small but lovely house tucked away in the woods. "This place was built twenty years ago by Cory's father. People come here for rest and peace.

Average people, of course, but also very important people." She opened the door and led the way into a spacious, comfortably furnished living room.

Setting the bags down by the long couch, Travis looked around approvingly. But his mind returned to Saber's comments. "So you were pulling my leg by calling this place a dude ranch," he said.

"Something like that. Any preference as to bedrooms?" She had looked in both the rooms by then.



"No. You're taking these unforeseen arrangements very calmly, I must say."

She turned to show him a solemn face. "The bedroom doors have locks; I checked."

He realized then that his voice had been mildly aggrieved, and he had to laugh. "All right, so you've surprised me! In fact, you keep surprising me. In thirty-two years, I've never encountered anyone like you."

Smiling, she picked up her bags. "I'll take this bedroom," she said, choosing the one to the right of the Hving room.

Travis carried his bag to the bedroom on the left, and they unpacked in a companionable silence broken only by occasional comments.

"You didn't come prepared for this trip like I did," she called to him at one point. "You went to the city to meet a singer and ended up crossing the country to a ranch. If you need anything in the way of clothing, there's a store on the grounds that sells everything. And the laundry service here is as good as anyone could want."

"I'll have to take advantage of both services," he called back. Finishing his own unpacking first, he went out into the living room and from there to the adjoining kitchen. He explored thoroughly, finding the cabinets stocked with snacks and the refrigerator with soft drinks and various fruit juices. When Saber came out of her bedroom, he was seated comfortably on the couch with a glass of orange juice in his hand and a second glass on the coffee table.

She picked up the second glass and sat in an overstuffed chair across from him, smiling. "Won't anyone be concerned about you? Dropping out of sight so suddenly, I mean?" she asked.

Travis shook his head. "Nope. I travel fairly often and never keep to a firm schedule. The book I'd planned to do on you was an idea I'd kept to myself, so my publisher isn't expecting to hear from me."

"No lady friend to be alarmed by your absence?" Her voice was light.

With another slight shake of his head, Travis replied, "No."

Peculiarly conscious of his steady gaze, Saber rose hastily. "Come on—I'll show you around the place."

Having admitted to exhaustion after following Saber through only four cities of her tour, Travis requested that they spend a couple of days just resting without taking advantage of some of the more strenuous activities offered by The Hideaway. Saber had a sneaking suspicion that he was more concerned with her exhaustion and his own promise, but she said nothing about it.

So their first few days were spent quietly together. Neither had placed an undue emphasis on sharing the cottage—Travis because it suited him perfectly and Saber because of a loneliness she would never have admitted to him—and that unplanned intimacy put them rapidly on companionable terms. They took short, leisurely walks around the grounds, talked easily about likes arid dislikes, and generally found they had enough in common to surprise them both. They argued mildfy over Travis's fixed intention of paying for half the cost of "their" vacation, spent quiet evenings in the clubhouse listening to the small band, and developed a nodding acquaintance with most of the twenty-odd guests staying in the main house.

Between the warm, soporific, late summer days and the undemanding friendship, Saber all but forgot that Travis posed any threat to her peace. She had never before known the male companionship of a brother, friend, or lover and was surprised by how much she enjoyed his company. And it was a new experience for her to spend time with a man who wanted nothing from her—except the truth.

Whether his tactics were deliberate or not, Travis was following exactly the right path toward that truth. Saber, for the first time in a long while, was tempted to confide the past he was so interested in.

She found it easy to talk to him, easy to laugh with him. A lifetime of guardedness was melting away.



Still, it was easy to be unguarded when there was no threat, easy to relax with no tension in the air.

And inevitable that there would be a change.

If asked, Saber could have pointed to the moment when her own awareness roused her from the limbo of serene acceptance. Just as the veils had lifted briefly from her eyes in weariness late one night—and in the fleeting moments when a part of her had slept—so those veils were lifted again by a few chance words. Lifted for good.

They had taken a picnic lunch out into the rolling pasture, finding a peaceful, shady spot on the bank of a small stream. Horses grazed in the distance, incurious, and a faint breeze stirred the trees and the meadow grass. The scene perfectly suited the quiet mood of the past few days, and neither of them was in a hurry to pack up the remains of lunch.

Lazy conversation had died into a sweet silence as they sprawled on the blue-checked blanket borrowed from the cottage closet. The silence was shattered, however, when Mark appeared suddenly with a large sketchpad, a handful of charcoal pencils, and a hopeful look on his amiable face.

"Would you pose for me?" he asked, looking from one to the other with his shy smile.

"Do we have anything better to do?" Saber asked Travis.

"I'm game." Travis had been formally introduced to Mark the first day, although he couldn't help but realize that to the artist every human being but Cory was no more than a possible subject.

Laying his pad and pencils aside, Mark proved the force of this realization by briskly and critically arranging his subjects as if they were a still life of fruit or flowers on a table. He placed a meek Travis on his side and raised on one elbow with his other arm lying over an upraised knee, a wide tree trunk at his back. Saber was commanded to sit demurely at his waist and lean back, turning slightly so that her back rested against Travis's raised thigh and her left forearm lay across his ribs.

The position, both silently realized, was one that lovers might have assumed. They were left gazing at one another in an amused silence that insidiously became something else.

Mark, happily unaware of having disturbed his subjects, settled himself some little distance away with his sketchpad on his knees. "I've wanted you two for days," he murmured, turning to a blank sheet and setting to work. "The perfect couple. No, don't frown at me!" he admonished Saber as she turned her head to stare at him. "It's lovely, but it isn't you. Look at Travis. Yes. Pensive. And he looks at you as he always does. Waiting. Yearning."

Saber gazed into green eyes that flickered briefly in surprise, then steadied to a faintly questioning look.

She felt breathless beneath that look, and confused. Mark's comments unsettled her; was the artist simply creating a mood, or was he, as seemed obvious from his words, merely looking for expressions he'd seen on them both these past days? And if he had seen Travis gaze at her with yearning—why hadn't she seen that?

"Oh, damn—I've broken the point on the number three! Ill have to go and get another. Don't move!"

Mark ordered his subjects, then tenderly put aside his pad and hurried off toward the main house.

Saber took the opportunity to look anywhere but into those green eyes.

"It looks like our amiable artist has let the cat out of the bag," Travis said quietly.

"Really?" She forced a lightness into her voice.

"He caught me wearing my heart on my sleeve. I should have remembered how perceptive any good artist is."

She felt the warmth of his thigh through his jeans and her thin cotton blouse, and her fingers were suddenly far too aware of the lean ribs beneath his knit shirt. Green eyes drew her gaze, caught and held her captive. "He . . . must have been mistaken," she finally managed to say.

"No. He wasn't mistaken."

Saber would have drawn away at that, but the arm behind her abruptly encircled her shoulders and pulled her so close she could feel his warm breath on her face.

"You've treated me like a friend these past few days, Saber, and I'm glad you trust me enough for that," he said huskily. "Can you trust me enough to believe that I love you?"

Stunned, Saber couldn't think. And there was no resistance in her when his hand slipped to the nape of her neck and drew her head toward him until his lips found hers. Hungry, demanding, he kissed her as though afraid he would never get another chance, and Saber could no more stand against that than she could willingly stop breathing.

She was not a reckless or naive woman, but she forgot everything in that moment. It didn't seem to matter that they'd known each other for such a short time, or that he actually knew very little about her.

The only thing that mattered was the warmth of his embrace, the compelling need of his kiss. Her body came to life in a way she'd never known before, vibrantly alive and aching with desire. Her hand lifted to touch his cheek, and Saber renounced the world.

But the world wouldn't go away.

"You moved!" Mark said indignantly. "Yes, that's very pretty, but not what I had in mind!"

Five

Saber was forced to call on all her reserves of self-control to remain placid while Mark concluded their

"sitting." Obeying the artist, she gazed into Travis's eyes, forcing her expression into the mold Mark requested. Pensive, he insisted.

Pensive? She thought about that, because it was slightly less unsettling than thinking of what the artist had seen in Travis's face. Pensive. Sad, wistfuly reflective.

What had she to be sad about? As Travis had said—she had fame, success, more money than she could ever spend. She had youth, health, friends. Why, then, had Mark seen sadness?

"Saber!"

Startled, she looked toward the young artist to find him frowning at her.

"You're moving!" he complained.

Glancing down, Saber realized that the heel of her right hand was rubbing steadily, uncon sciously, against her upper thigh. She halted the movement and turned her eyes back to Travis.

Softly, he said, "You do that often."

"What?" she murmured.

His green gaze flicked downward to a point halfway up from her knee, then lifted again to her face.

"Rub your leg as if it aches. But you never seem to realize you're doing it."

It was another mental jolt, and one Saber could have done without. Though the gesture Travis and the artist had noticed was unconscious, she knew, of course, that it had become a habit. Now, she couldn't think of anything to say in response to Travis's comment.



Suddenly the artist closed his sketchbook and rose, a look of mild disgust in his amiable face. "It's no good," he told them. "I've lost you today. Maybe we can try again later?" He didn't wait for a response but immediately headed toward the main house.

Saber occupied herself with scrambling to her feet and gathering their picnic things together. She didn't look at Travis. So Mark had "lost them" for the moment? Travis's face had gone unreadable, she'd noted, and her own expression had most likely become unreadable, too, in an effort to guard against betraying her thoughts. She wondered vaguely if Mark would ever be able to capture expressions of which both she and Travis were now painfully aware.

And why had she gazed into Travis's eyes and felt—again—that she was seeing him for the first time?

Still waters run deep. Now what, she wondered, did that cliché have to do with anything? It was just Mark making her aware, of course. Had to be.

"Saber?"

His quiet voice caught all her attention, but she still refused to look at him as she folded the blanket they'd so recently lain on. "Yes?"

"Don't let it spoil things."

She realized he was on his feet and standing close behind her. Too close! she thought, and experienced the unnerving certainty that it was not his physical nearness but something far more elusive that had panicked her. "I don't know what you mean," she said, again imposing an iron self-control.

He caught her shoulder suddenly, turning her to face him; she looked up instinctively—and wished she hadn't. There was an understanding on his face, in his green eyes, that she'd never seen before.

"You're like a touch-me-not flower," he said quietly. "Someone comes too near and you close up.

What is it you're afraid to let anyone see, Saber? What are you hiding?"

She didn't say, "Nothing!" because it would have been a lie. But Travis didn't seem to expect an answer.

He held her shoulders gently, ignoring the folded blanket she clutched almost like a shield between them. "I don't want to rush you. I don't want you to feel I'm asking more than you can give. But I can't deny my own feelings, Saber."

"You don't know me." It was someone else's voice she heard, and it was gritty with emotions she wouldn't let herself understand.

"I know what I feel," he insisted firmly. Green eyes searched her face. "I love you, Saber."

She stepped back. "No."

"Saber—"

"D'you mind taking everything back to the cottage?" She tossed him the blanket. "I want . . . I need to be alone for a while."

Clearly reluctant, his expression anxious, Travis nonetheless nodded in acceptance. "All right. But Saber . . . don't go too far?"

She knew he wasn't referring to physical distance. Nothing, she headed off through the woods, making instinctively for a mountain path she knew well. It took an hour or more before she reached her favorite spot: a cluster of large boulders that jutted out from the mountainside, providing a breathtaking view of the valley below.

Saber climbed onto the largest of the boulders, allowing her legs to dangle over the edge. She had no fear of heights, and the dizzying drop from her seat to the valley floor earned no more than a careless glance from her. She looked out over the valley, absently watching the distant movements of Cory's guests.

The panic died away only gradually; she didn't try to think until even the faintest echoes of alarm had vanished. Then, very carefully, she etched an analysis in her mind.

Travis's avowed love frightened her. Why? Because she was afraid of love? No. Afraid of him? No.

What was it he'd called her? A touch-me-not flower.

His understanding seemed to be—had to be—instinctive. He knew nothing of her past, nothing of the months "missing" from her life. Yet he saw a touch-me-not plant wincing away from contact. A flower that would open cheerfully to warmth and light but shrink from a touch. Not a physical touch, but the touch of someone . . . too close.

Was that she?

It was disturbing to think of herself in that way. She didn't want to be that way. Yet now that she considered it, she realized her entire life had molded just that trait. Guardedness, a sense of wariness where other people were concerned. Never allowing anyone to get too close, never letting her inner self be touched.

Until Travis.

Pushing all emotion aside with an effort, Saber made use of the "worst" scenario she had taught herself in order to keep things in perspective. What was the worst that could happen if she became more deeply invol