মুখ্য Outlaw Derek

Outlaw Derek

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এই বইটি আপনার কতটা পছন্দ?
ফাইলের মান কিরকম?
মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
সাল:
1988
প্রকাশক:
Loveswept
ভাষা:
english
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
Hagan
ফাইল:
EPUB, 172 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 172 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
1

Mysticism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for The Perplexed)

সাল:
2009
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
PDF, 915 KB
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2

Pepper's Way

সাল:
2008
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
EPUB, 162 KB
0 / 0
Contents

Synopsis

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine





Synopsis




Shannon Brown was running for her life! Touched by the fragile stranger, Derek Ross agreed to help her elude her pursuers. He never could resist a lady in distress, but the ferocity of his desire for Shannon stunned him... and mystified her. She'd known so much hurt -- how could his promises be more than words written on the wind? Derek's voice calmed her fear, but his touch excited her, made her long to be held, to hear another heartbeat beneath her ear. When he called her beautiful, she knew it couldn't be true -- and yet in the mirror of his passion-shadowed eyes, she saw that it was. Shannon felt reborn in the arms of the man who lived by no one's rules, but feared trusting Derek might cost her more than her heart. Drawn into an elusive world of danger and deception, Shannon felt her soul's scars healed by the wildfire of ecstasy, but she had to know the truth: was the man who'd made her a woman hers to keep, or only a cherished illusion?





One

Derek Ross struggled up through the heavy layers of jet-lag exhaustion with an awful buzzing in his ears. Rolling over in a tangle of bedclothes, he started to reach for the phone on the nightstand, but then recognized the sound he heard. Sitting up instead, he raked his fingers through his hair.

The door. In the middle of the night. No. He looked blearily at the clock on his nightstand. At four a.m. A visitor? Even in exhaustion, his mind automatically considered and rejected possibilities of felonious intent. It wasn't likely. In general, the guys in the black hats didn't lean on door buzzers to announce their arrival, especially at four in the morning, when stealth tended to be a prime consideration.

He kicked the blankets away and got up, finding his jeans in the darkness and struggling into them to the accompaniment of a few sleepy curses. He turned on lights as he made his way through the apartment to the front door, and, when he reached it, said in a voice litt; le more than a growl, "Yeah, what?"

"Mr. Ross? I need to talk to you."

Standing well to one side of the still-closed door, Derek frowned. A woman whose voice he didn't recognize. In his business, that tended to be a bad sign. He realized that he had tensed. "It's four o'clock in the morning," he said shortly. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

"Mr. Ross, please, I - I have to see you. It's very important."

Derek hesitated, then leaned forward cautiously so that he could look through the security peephole. He was taking a chance, because the door was composed of only a few flimsy layers of plywood, which wouldn't stop a bullet or withstand even a well-placed kick. His view through the tiny hole was distorted, but he saw enough to make him relax - if only a bit. "Hold your hands where I can see them," he said curtly.

Outside in the well-lighted hallway, the woman held both hands up at shoulder height, palms out toward him. She didn't seem surprised by his extreme caution, but then, she was obviously too distraught to be surprised by anything.

"Keep them up," he said, and drew back away from the door as he unlocked and opened it. Instantly, the woman came into the apartment, her hands still held at shoulder height. Derek closed and relocked the door.

"I'm not armed," she said softly.

He was reasonably sure of that: it was why he had relaxed. The silk dress she wore clung like a second skin and left little to the imagination. She couldn't have hidden a bullet under the garment, much less a gun. But he hadn't lived to be thirty-five by being reckless or taking unnecessary chances, so he kept his distance while watching her intently. "All right. Into the den, straight ahead."

Following her, Derek observed thoughtfully that her walk didn't fit the dress. She had the carriage of an athlete or dancer, fluid and graceful in spite of an obvious limp. The dress, on the other hand, was designed to emphasize curves and wiggles, in fact to make it nearly impossible for a woman to walk in it without wiggling. She managed, however, despite the limp; the slight sway of her hips was utterly feminine, but in no way exaggerated.

Still seductive as hell, though.

She stopped by the couch, continuing to hold her hands as he'd instructed. "Can - can I sit down?"

Derek circled slowly until they faced each other. "I don't know," he said dryly. "Can you?"

She blinked, then glanced down at the bright red, skintight sheath. A flush lightly colored her pale face. "Oh. I haven't sat down since - Well."

"Try," he invited her.

She did, gingerly. And managed the feat, although the strapless bodice might have slipped downward half an inch or so. An unconscious relief filled her expression as the weight was removed from her legs. Slowly, she lowered her hands until they twined together in her lap.

For a long moment, they studied each other in silence. She saw a big man, barefooted and beard-stubbled, his wheat-gold hair tousled and a thick mat of golden hair covering his powerful chest. He had very dark and lazy eyes and a way of standing that was seemingly relaxed and negligent, but gave an impression of latent strength casually under control. And he had a face that would fascinate women and artists, because it was starkly male, diamond-hard, and utterly beautiful, even though he was obviously very tired.

He saw a young woman somewhere in her twenties, of medium height and slender in a way most women wanted to be and few were; she was full-breasted, her hips curved gently, and there wasn't an ounce of excess flesh anywhere. Her hair was a rich dark brown with red highlights, falling past her shoulders in a thick mass of loose curls. Her face was heart-shaped and delicate, and she had large eyes so light brown they were almost amber, eyes with haunting shadows of pain. She looked lovely, fragile, gentle… and scared. Scared to death.

"Who are you?" he asked abruptly.

"Shannon." Her gaze flickered. "Brown."

"Well, it's better than 'Smith,' I suppose."

"It's my name, Mr. Ross."

He let it go. "And how do you happen to know mine?"

"I - someone gave me your name."

"Who?"

She worried her lower lip with small white teeth for a long moment. "I was told not to mention his name if I could help it."

"There's the door," Derek told her politely.

Her eyes seemed to grow larger. "He said you were hard," she murmured. "Tough without having to act like it. But he said you'd help me if I ever needed help. I need help."

"Who?" Derek repeated.

She sighed. "William Franklin."

"Governor Franklin?"

"Yes. He - over a year ago, he gave me your name. He said you could be trusted, no matter what the problem. And he said you were very good at what you do."

"Did he happen to mention what I do?" Derek asked, no expression at all in his deep voice.

Her eyes flickered, then steadied on his face. "He said you were sort of a troubleshooter. For different government agencies sometimes and freelance sometimes. He said that you take care of problems, any kind of problems. He said…"

"What?" Derek asked when her voice trailed into silence.

Very softly, she said. "He told me you could be a - a bastard when you wanted to, but you were honest. And that you weren't afraid of anything."

Derek shook his head. "That sounds like him." He remembered several years back when a blackmail threat had almost cost Franklin his political career. Looking intently at Shannon "Brown," he said slowly. "The governor's happily married, or was the last time I saw him. What are you to him?"

"He's a friend."

"Uh- huh." '

Her chin lifted and the big eyes flashed gold. "He was right." she said in a shaking voice. "You can be a bastard!"

Very dryly. Derek said. "Look, Miss Brown, mine isn't a name that people like governors hand out to casual acquaintances. If Franklin gave you my name a year ago, it was either because you and he are very, very close, or else because he knew you were in some kind of trouble, or likely to be, and it was the kind that required my brand of problem solving. Which is it?"

She bit her lip. "All right, then. We are close, but not the way you obviously think. He's my uncle."

Derek sat down in a chair, relaxing in a boneless manner that was totally deceptive. "Blood uncle?" His face indicated nothing, neither belief nor disbelief,

"Yes."

"You just wrote a new chapter in science."

She blinked. "What - what do you mean?"

"Franklin's an only child. So's his wife. Try again."

Shannon slumped, and her lips twisted in a painful little grimace. "I don't want to lie! But you won't believe it was innocent -”

"Try me."

After a moment, she nodded. "All right, I worked on his campaign, that's how we met. I was just another campaign worker at first. But then I - I got hurt. Anyway, he's a kind man, and he felt sorry for me. After the campaign, he got me a job with Civatech. Do you -?"

"I know of Civatech. High-security firm. They have an in-house think tank and an unsurpassed record at designing and manufacturing electronic toys for the military to play with. And your job?"

"Secretary, receptionist. I have a low-level security clearance: I don't work with highly classified information. I just type correspondence, answer the phone. That sort of thing."

Derek was frowning. "So you've been with Civatech about eighteen months?" He waited for her nod. "I gather Governor Franklin keeps in touch with you?"

She nodded again. "A call now and then. And he invites me to private parties he and Annie have."

"Does he ask about your work?"

Her chin lifted. "He didn't put me at Civatech to spy for him, if that's what you're implying. There's no reason he should have; Civatech usually contracts with the military, not state government. William wouldn't -”

"I didn't say he would," Derek Ross interrupted mildly. "In fact. I'm reasonably sure he wouldn't. I'm just trying to put this together. Why did he give you my name?"

She hesitated, staring at him, then appeared to make up her mind. "About a year ago, while I was having dinner with William and Annie. I mentioned that some of the letters I'd been typing seemed odd. I'm a good typist, and I read what I type instead of just scanning the words. If you know what I mean?"

"Yes."

"Two or three of the letters bothered me because they didn't seem to make sense to me. It was nothing definite, just a sentence here and there that seemed out of place. I mentioned it to William."

"What was his reaction?"

It was impossible to tell whether Derek believed her or not, but she didn't let doubt throw her off balance. "He seemed a little puzzled at first. Then he was more bothered by it. A couple of weeks later, he asked me if there had been any more letters like that. I said no. That was when he told me about you. He made it - conversational. We were alone in the room and he was offhand about it, even laughing. He said you'd helped him out of some trouble once, and that you were very good at what you did. He said if I was ever in trouble, I should tell you all about it."

"It didn't surprise you that he should talk that way?"

"Yes. Oh, yes. But he was so casual! And I could tell he didn't want me to ask questions, so I didn't." She hesitated, then added, "Several times these last months if no one could overhear, he'd ask kind of teasingly if I remembered who to go to if I needed help. I'd say your name, and he'd say, 'Don't forget it.' So I didn't forget."

After a moment, Derek rose abruptly and left the room. He returned seconds later with a light blanket, which he dropped around Shannon's bare shoulders. "You look frozen," he said somewhat gruffly. "Coffee?"

"Please," she said gratefully, drawing the blanket around her. She got up and followed him into the kitchen, beginning to feel less cold in more ways than physically. There was something comforting, she thought, in the mere presence of this man. He was hard and blunt and suspicious, but there was something infinitely understanding in his eyes, tolerant, as if nothing she or anyone could ever say would surprise him, and she felt safe for the first time in hours.

He didn't seem to find it surprising that she followed him, merely gesturing for her to sit on one of the low stools at the breakfast bar. "How did you find my apartment - the phone directory?"

"Yes. William said you kept a listed phone number, even though you shouldn't."

Derek got the coffee started, then leaned back against the counter and studied her silently and quite openly. There was a package of cigarettes and a lighter on the counter, and he reached for them without looking, lighting a cigarette while continuing to look intently at her.

"You… you do believe me?" she asked.

Without answering that, he said, "No purse, no coat or wrap of any kind. A dress that would get you arrested if you stood on the right corner - and especially if you stood on the wrong one. And you've done a hell of a lot of walking in shoes not designed for that. So tell me what happened in the last ten hours or so that brought you to my door at four a.m."

Shannon hugged the blanket tighter around her body and took a deep breath. "Today - yesterday - just before five, I took one of those odd letters to my supervisor. It was odd in a different way from the others: it was referring to a design that was scrapped months ago, and discussed the shipment of the finished product, which was a prototype, to a foreign company I couldn't find listed in our computer, or in the city where it was supposedly based."

"Two suspicious items," Derek mused. "A supposedly nonexistent product shipped to a nonexistent company. What did your supervisor say about it?"

"That he'd look into it. He seemed impatient and I was afraid he'd dismiss it without checking, so I mentioned the other odd letters."

Derek half closed his eyes and nodded. "Uh-huh. So you very honestly told him about things you should never have noticed. And I suppose all these odd letters came from the same source?"

Shannon nodded. "From Civatech's director of design, Adam Moreton."

"Do you always take care of his correspondence?"

"No. Only when his private secretary is sick."

He nodded. "Okay. So what happened then?"

"I went home to my apartment." Her face went completely white then, and her eyes looked enormous. "There was a party I was supposed to go to, and I went by a friend's house first to change into this dress; it's hers and she wanted me to wear it. I walked to my apartment from her place to finish getting ready, and unlocked the door. I had just pushed it open when my landlady called me from the first floor to tell me she'd signed for a package. I went to get the package. It was from my mother," she added inconsequentially.

After a moment, Derek said quietly, "What happened after you went downstairs?"

She looked at him blindly. "The explosion… knocked me down as I was coming back up the stairs… everything was bright… when I got up… and hot… and the apartment - my apartment - was just gone…,"

Derek turned to jab his cigarette into an ashtray on the counter before reaching into a cabinet and pulling out a bottle of whiskey. He poured a small amount into a glass, then stepped to her side. "Drink this."

She was still gazing blindly at where he had stood a moment before, and tears spilled from her huge eyes to trail down her ashen cheeks. "Why did they do that?" she whispered. "Why did they blow up my apartment?"

Derek slid one big hand around her neck under her hair and then used the other to guide the glass to her lips, forcing her to take a healthy swallow of the whiskey. She choked and began coughing, but her eyes cleared of the dazed look. He put the glass in her hand. "Drink the rest," he ordered quietly.

Looking up at him, she obediently finished the whiskey, her faint grimace of distaste automatic. "I don't drink much." she told him softly.

He took the empty glass, a little startled to realize that his hand had remained on her neck beneath the warm curtain of her hair, that his fingers lightly stroked her satiny skin. He removed his hand slowly, very conscious of that soft skin, then stepped back and half turned away, fixing his attention on the coffee that was nearly ready.

"It was meant to kill me." she whispered.

He poured the coffee into two cups, adding whiskey to both. In a calm tone intended to keep her on balance, he asked, "You take cream and sugar, don't you?"

Shannon blinked. "Yes."

He fixed her coffee silently and handed her the cup: he picked up the cup he poured for himself, sipping it black. Watching her, he saw her wrinkle her nose at the taste of whiskey in her sweet coffee, but she sipped it slowly. He waited a few moments, until he was sure she was as calm as she could be under the circumstances, until the tears dried on her cheeks and a bit of color returned to her pale skin. "All right. Shannon. What happened next?"

She put her cup carefully on the counter beside her, then drew the blanket tighter around her body, looking steadily at him. "It all seemed so unreal. The apartment was on fire and the alarms were going off. People were rushing out of the building. I went too. Outside. And I knew it wasn't an accident. I knew. They'd put a bomb in the apartment. Then I heard someone running, and I saw a man coming toward me from across the street. He - I thought he had a gun. It looked like a gun. And he was looking at me, like he wanted to - his face was all twisted and furious. So I started running."

"He chased you?"

"Yes. I couldn't think. I wanted to call the police, but -”

"But what?"

Shannon bit her lip, then raised her chin and met his eyes steadily. "A few years ago, I worked for a company in another city. Some money disappeared from the office cash box, and I was accused of taking it." Her lips quivered slightly. "Nobody believed me. The police were sure I'd taken it, and my boss was sure. It was awful."

"What happened?" he asked softly,

"I was arrested. I couldn't afford ball. A few days before I would have gone to trial, another girl in the office was caught stealing money. They let me go."

But not, Derek realized, before a great deal of damage had been done to an innocent woman. He took a deep breath. "I see. So you were afraid that somehow this whole thing could have been blamed on you?"

"I don't know. I just couldn't call the police. I thought I'd gotten away from the man following me, but I wasn't sure. So I kept moving. For hours. I'd lost my purse and didn't have any money. I didn't dare go back to the apartment. And I was terrified to go to anyone I knew."

"Afraid they'd be in danger?"

"Yes."

"So you just kept moving until you thought of me?"

She nodded. "I was across town when I remembered what William had told me. It took a long time to find where you lived."

"I'm surprised you weren't arrested roaming the streets in that dress."

Shannon flushed vividly and drew the blanket tighter. "I hid every time I saw a patrol car. This - I don't usually dress like this, but my friend… this dress has a jacket, but I was carrying it when the apartment -”

"All right," he said gently, a little puzzled by her obvious discomfort with what was, definitely, a beautiful dress and one she wore extremely well. "I understand, Shannon. And you were smart not to go back to your apartment, or to anyone you knew. Considering how fast they moved to get you out of the way, I'd say we're up against pros."

"We?" Relief came into her expression. "You'll help me?"

In a light tone, he said, "I could never resist a lady in distress."

"I don't know how to thank you."

"Thanks may not be in order. We'd better wait and see if I can help. But first things first. You need to take a long, hot bath and then get some sleep."

"But -”

"It won't do either of us a bit of good if you wind up with pneumonia. You've been out in the cold for hours, you're exhausted, and you're in shock from what happened." He set his cup aside and moved to take her arm, easing her from the stool. "Come on, and don't argue with me. I know what I'm doing. Were you hurt?" he asked abruptly.

She flushed again, avoiding his steady gaze. "No. I limp because I was in an accident when I was a child."

Derek nodded, realizing quickly that she was very sensitive about the limp, which was undoubtedly much worse than usual after the night she had had. He led her through the apartment to the neat bathroom, turning on the light for her. "Have you eaten anything?"

She was gazing around, but looked back at him then, very small and pale in the engulfing blanket. "Not since lunch yesterday. But I couldn't -”

"You'll eat," he told her with calm certainty. "I'll go find something for you to wear, then fix an early breakfast. Make the water hot and soak until I tell you to get out."

For the first time, she smiled. "Yes, sir."

A bit unnerved by that smile, Derek rummaged in a linen cabinet and produced a bottle of bubble bath, looking at it with the baffled frown of a man who isn't quite sure where it came from. "Put some of this in," he instructed. "It's supposed to relax you."

Shannon nodded. "All right."

He backed out, shutting the door, and stood there a moment until he heard the water running. Then he went into his bedroom and found a flannel shirt and a pair of sweatpants with a drawstring waist. He carried them back to the bathroom and knocked briefly on the door before opening it a few inches and thrusting them inside. "Clothes," he called.

They were taken from his hand. "Thank you."

Derek closed the bathroom door and headed for the kitchen, tiredly rubbing the nape of his neck and wondering what in hell he'd gotten himself Involved in this time.



* * *



She slid lower in the water, resting her head on the lip of the tub, and sighed without being aware of it. The lavender fragrance was soothing, and the hot water felt wonderful. The coldness was leaving her, seeping away, and with its leaving she became more aware of a steadily worsening pain. Automatically, she rubbed her aching hip, knowing she had badly overstrained the joint and her muscles. And he had noticed, of course. People always noticed. Especially men.

Shannon felt the warm trickle of tears escaping from the corners of her eyes, and made no move to wipe them away because she was too tired. But you're alive, idiot! Alive. How many times had people said that to her while she was growing up? You're alive. Be thankful. You could have been killed like your father. The leg brace is nothing, after all. What's a limp? At least you can walk.

So what if her apartment and every single thing she owned except the underwear she wore had gone up in smoke? She was alive. So what if somebody's trying to kill you.…

She wanted to draw herself into a small knot and pass unnoticed by the world. And don't forget to turn your crippled hip to the wall! She jeered silently at herself. Don't ever forget that, don't ever forget to hide the flaw. Wasn't that what her mother had told her over and over, even after the brace was gone and the limp a slight one? Walk straighter, Shannon. Wear a lift in your right shoe, Shannon, and never wear very high heels because they make you look awkward. Move slowly, Shannon. Hold your head up. Shannon. Look people in the eye. Shannon.

Years. Years of being gently told by the beautiful mother who couldn't bear Imperfections that there was something wrong with her, something flawed. Years of submitting to the conspicuous matchmaking attempts of her mother, and of watching the dutiful boys and, later, men avoiding any glance at her leg. And, finally, escape to a life of her own, only to discover painfully that there was still something wrong with her. That men still avoided glances at her leg and never asked her to dance, even though she could because of her mother's determined lessons.

And she hadn't told Derek Ross all of it. She hadn't told him that Civatech had been her fourth job in as many years. She hadn't told him that after that first devastating job two more had been lost because she wasn't perfect, because she limped. Because she was a lame duck in a world of swans.

‘Stop it.' she told herself. She was healthy. Alive. Even if somebody was trying to kill her. A giggle escaped her, and Shannon opened her eyes to stare fixedly up at the ceiling. She was getting hysterical, damn-lit. Tired. She was just tired, that was all, that was all it was. And so sleepy. The bath was making her sleepy. Her eyes slowly closed again, and disjointed images whirled behind her lids.

He was such a big man, she thought drowsily. He made her feel safe. Made her feel, for the first time in many long years, that she… that maybe… her hip throbbed and ached. She rubbed it harder, the growing pain of it fighting off drowsiness. It hurt, and she was just too tired to tell herself it didn't. Her muscles, sustaining their strength as long as possible, had finally given in; they twitched in painful spasms, knotting, making her entire leg tremble, jerk. And the joint felt raw and hot, hurting until she bit her lip.

"Shannon?" He knocked softly on the door.

She swallowed hard. "Yes?"

"Breakfast in ten minutes."

"All right."

She pulled herself from the tub and let the water out while she was drying off. Any weight at all on her right leg was almost unbearable now, and it was difficult for her to draw on the sweatpants. Even sitting down hurt. She finally got the pants on and tied the drawstring, trying to find some amusement in the extremely baggy fit. The flannel shirt was also ridiculously large: she rolled up the sleeves over her forearms and thought idly that she certainly made a fetching sight.

She left her things in the bathroom and moved toward the kitchen, gritting her teeth in order to walk. Hold your head up. Shannon. Move slowly. Shannon. Walk straighter. Shannon. And, for God's sake, look people in the eye!

She looked Derek in the eye as she entered the small kitchen, and he instantly came to help her to the breakfast bar, supporting her totally. "Here, sit down. What have you done to yourself?" he asked roughly.

Shannon blinked back tears as he eased her onto a padded stool at the bar. Fooling no one, as usual, she thought tiredly. "I'm all right," she murmured. "I'm just not used to so much walking. The bath helped."

He looked down at her with a frown, then went to pour coffee, and set the cup and a plate containing an omelet before her. "Eat." He fixed his own coffee and carried it and his plate to the bar, sitting across from her. "How did you hurt your leg?" he asked bluntly.

Shannon was looking fixedly at her plate, trying to eat enough to satisfy him although she hurt too much to feel hunger. "A car accident when I was four." she answered, a little relieved by his open notice of her flaw. At least he wasn't tactfully avoiding the subject.

"Is it the leg or the hip?" he asked in a casual tone.

She stole a glance at his face and found it Intent but relaxed, the dark eyes gentle. He had put on a shirt, she realized vaguely, a dark sweatshirt that set off his blond handsomeness and' made her disturbingly aware of him. "Both," she said finally. "They thought I'd lose the leg for a while, but I didn't."

"You shouldn't have been wearing those heels," he told her, not in criticism, but understanding. "High heels throw the hips forward and the spine out of alignment. It looks sexy as hell, mind you, but I've noticed that fashion tends to put women in uncomfortable clothes, and shoes most of the time. And it's worse for you because of your hip."

Shannon found a smile from somewhere despite the fire in her hip. Other than the friend who had bullied her into agreeing to go to the party last night, no one had ever talked to her so matter-of-factly about her flaw - especially not a man. Men tended to avoid any mention at all of her leg. She ate most of the omelet, more to please him than anything else, trying to keep her mind off the worsening pain.

When she had finally laid her fork aside, Derek reached a long arm to the counter, getting a bottle of pills she hadn't noticed until then. He shook one small white pill into his palm and held it out to her. "This is for pain. It's mild, but I couldn't give it to you on an empty stomach. Take it."

She looked at him, hesitant even though she realized that the pain had brought tears to her eyes again.

"It's all right. Shannon."

After a moment, she took the pill and swallowed it with coffee. He has the eyes of an old soul. So wise. She trusted him without even wondering why she did. She had almost literally put her life in his hands, after all.

Derek rose from his stool and came around to her, bending to gather her into his arms.

She was startled: her voice emerged breathless as she said, "You don't have to -”

"Yes, I do," he said calmly, handling her slight weight very easily and very gently. "You're in agony every time you move: you've overstrained your hip with all that walking, and it's getting even with you. Now, shut up," he added politely, "and relax."

Shannon felt very small and very confused, but her arms had automatically encircled his neck and she shut up. He carried her through the apartment to his dark bedroom, laying her very gently in the center of the rumpled bed. Before she had realized what he was going to do, he rolled her smoothly onto her left side so that she was facing away from him, and she felt the bed give as he sat on it.

"What -”

"Shhh." One big hand rubbed the small of her back in a soothing rhythm, and the other came to rest on her aching hip. "Don't worry." he said quietly. "I was a masseur in a former life. Close your eyes. Shannon." The hand on her hip moved gently and surely, and when the pain almost instantly lessened Shannon was so surprised that she relaxed.

"You must have been a good one."

"Better?"

"Yes." She drew a shuddering breath. "Much better."

"Good. The pill will take effect soon, and you'll sleep for a good long time. When you wake up, we'll talk about what to do next, all right?"

"Mmmm." She didn't even notice when he smoothed the tail of the flannel shirt up to her waist so that only the thin material of the sweatpants separated her flesh from his gentle touch. She was aware only of his soothing hands and the magic of them. "Where did you get the pills?"

"From my doctor." He rubbed her hip slowly, very conscious that the back of her thigh pressed warmly against his hip. "I wrenched my shoulder a while back. And you're supposed to be trying to sleep."

She laughed sleepily, completely relaxed now in the darkness. He was a warlock, that's what he was. "I know. Why are you being so kind to me, Derek? You shouldn't be kind to me. I'm a lot of trouble."

"Are you?" He kept his voice soft, aware that she was almost asleep and hardly knew what she was saying.

"Oh, yes." She moved a little under his hands, like a cat shifting lazily to find the sun.

"How are you trouble?" He moved both hands to her hip, then slid one down over her thigh, his sure, steady touch easing the muscles that were in spasm.

"Things happen to me," she said, sighing with contentment as her taut leg relaxed slowly and the ache in her hip faded to a dull throb she hardly felt. "I'm bad luck, just bad luck, always. That money… and then William… and now somebody's trying to kill me."

She had relaxed totally under his touch, and Derek knew she was asleep. He gazed down at her, his hands still massaging gently for long moments until he was sure she was deeply asleep. Then his hands went still - but didn't leave her.

She was, he thought, like a beautiful, fragile bird with a badly mended wing. Somebody had once - or many times - told her she could never fly again, and she was completely convinced that it was true. It was in her eyes, her haunted eyes, that she felt she had an open wound that would never heal.

Derek drew away slowly and rose from the bed, bending to pull the covers up over her. He straightened and stood looking down at her in the gloom, dawn's light struggling through the curtains. Then he silently and swiftly left the room. In the den, he turned on the television low, intending to see if there were early news reports of the explosion at Shannon's apartment building. He sat on the couch and lighted a cigarette, staring broodingly at the television screen.

God, he was tired. The situation in Algeria had nearly turned into a fiasco despite his best efforts, and getting out of the country after everything hit the fan hadn't been fun. Add to that too many long hours in a drafty, noisy cargo plane and a bare four hours' sleep before Shannon's predawn arrival at his door, and "exhausted" was merely a mildly descriptive word with little relevance to his condition.

And that was why, of course. That was why he'd felt so unutterably moved when she had met his gaze in the kitchen, her own big gentle eyes suffering silently. That was why his chest had ached intolerably and something inside it throbbed with a feeling it had never known.

Oh, yes, he was tired. Tired enough to wonder why certain parts of his body didn't know about tired. Tired enough that he still felt her body beneath his touch, branded in his mind. Tired enough that he wanted to return to the bedroom and crawl in beside her, hold her, feel her naked against him.

Derek swore softly. She was lost, alone, in shock and pain, and he wanted to… of course he wanted to. And if he found that Shannon wasn't alone, that there was a lover in the wings somewhere whom she carefully hadn't drawn into danger while she had roamed the streets last night, lost and desperately afraid, he would very probably tear the poor bastard limb from limb.

But she had come to him for help, and that was the important thing, no matter how he felt. Few knew better than he that the situation between them was tailor-made for the right kind of emotions sparked for all the wrong reasons. All her defenses - assuming she had any - were down, splintered around her. And even without the threats against her, Derek was all too aware that she was a fragile woman, a hurt woman.

And with that wounded spirit threatened by faceless people for enigmatic reasons, she was even more vulnerable, more fragile. She was lost and he was her lifeline; if he moved too quickly, that delicate thread binding them together would snap, and once that happened it could never be repaired.

He stubbed out his cigarette and sat up straighter, leaning forward to catch the drone of the television as the early news came on and the scene shifted almost immediately to a gutted apartment in a building across town. He watched carefully, listening intently to the reporter's statement that the fire marshals had found evidence of arson, in fact, of an explosive device. No one had been hurt in the blast and resulting fire, but a tenant was missing. Police were searching for the missing tenant. Shannon Brown, whom they wanted for questioning.

Derek sat back and glanced at his watch. He wondered how early he could phone the governor.





Two




"You're sure she's all right?" William Franklin's voice had lost the last vestiges of sleep, and he sounded worried as hell.

"I'm sure. She's asleep in my bed right now."

There was a beat of silence, and then the governor's voice came over the telephone line more calmly. "I knew you'd look after her if anything happened."

"Uh- huh, and you knew something would happen, didn't you? That's why you gave her my name. Is there anything you'd like to tell me, Governor?"

"Stop being so darned formal," Franklin ordered peevishly. "You're beginning to sound like a government operative, and heaven knows you never have before."

Derek took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. "William, my doorbell rang at four this morning, and I found a very frightened, very vulnerable lady on my doorstep. I'm functioning on about four hours' sleep, I have a monumental case of jet lag, a pounding headache, and what I suspect is the beginning of a hellish problem. Play games with me, and I'm coming over there to tear your heart out."

Franklin chuckled. "Now you sound like yourself."

"William."

"All right, all right. Just remember this: You take care of that lady. She's something special."

"I caught that. Why's she special to you?" A blunt question, but Derek was a blunt man.

Calmly, Franklin said, "Partly because she took a bullet meant for me."

"What?"

"You heard me. There was a private party about two years ago for my key campaign workers. Some maniac decided to kill me, and Shannon saw what none of the security people did. She threw herself at me, knocked me down. I didn't get hit, but she did, in the shoulder."

Slowly, Derek said, "There was no publicity."

"No."

Derek decided not to ask how that had been arranged: as it was, he knew more than he cared to about "political realities."

"I see. That's why you got her a job at Civatech?"

"One of the reasons. While she was recovering from the wound, Annie and I also grew very fond of her." Franklin hesitated, then asked, "Have you ever met someone who'd been slapped down so many times they'd learned to expect another slap?"

"Yes." Derek cleared his throat. "At four this morning."

Franklin sighed. "It's obvious, isn't it? That damned limp and some bad luck, and the poor kid's convinced she's just taking up valuable space in the world. Sometimes she forgets it all. And then she remembers, and it's like watching a flower close up."

After a moment, Derek said, "So tell me about Civatech."

"Not much I can tell you." Franklin accepted the shift in subject. "Shannon could probably tell you a lot, even more than she realizes she knows. She's observant and perceptive. All I know is that some of those odd sentences she picked out of a few letters sounded suspiciously like the codes I remember from my Army days. And with a high-security firm like Civatech, I just had to wonder."

Derek told him what Shannon had reported to her supervisor about the nonexistent product and the nonexistent company. "What do you think?"

Worried, Franklin said, "Dammit, I don't know. Some of their products are not exactly nice toys. If a design was scrapped, it was probably because there was something that made it unworkable, uncontrollable, therefore, quite dangerous. If some idiot has built a prototype from a defective design and means to peddle it to the highest bidder - Damn. I can -”

"No, you stay out of it. If something happens and I think I'll need your clout. I'll let you know. Civatech is a private company with a lot of military contracts: we should keep you out of this, if possible. I'll protect Shannon while I do some checking. I know a few sources."

Reluctantly, Franklin said. "If you say so. But keep me advised. And, if something goes wrong, Derek -”

"If something goes wrong," Derek said steadily, "I'll see to it that Shannon gets to you safely."

"All right." The governor's voice was somber. "Take care. And take care of her."

"I will." Derek cradled the receiver and then ran a hand round the back of his neck. The first thing he had to do, he acknowledged, was to get some sleep, otherwise he wouldn't be worth the bullet to shoot him. He looked at his watch, calculating that between the pill and her exhaustion Shannon probably would sleep at least another six hours. Trusting that she had indeed lost her pursuer of the night before, he stretched out on the couch and mentally set his internal clock to wake him up.

Then he went to sleep. All of him did, except the watchful part that never slept.



* * *



Across the street, a tall man who had stood with utter stillness in the shadows of waning night and the chill of a gray dawn straightened as the street became active with the bustle of day. He stepped out of the alley where he had waited so watchfully for several hours and strolled casually across the street, into the lobby of the apartment building that had been the focus of his attention.

There was a row of mailboxes in one wall, and he stood scanning them intently, his peculiarly colorless eyes coming to rest at last on a single name. One brow lifted and he whistled softly, tonelessly. He reached up to tap a knuckle against the nameplate thoughtfully, then glanced toward the stairs. After a silent debate, not one argument of which showed on his expressionless face, he turned away and retraced his steps.

He didn't pause at the alley this time, but moved along briskly, nothing setting him apart from other pedestrians… except that those other early-morning people sent the tall man unconsciously wary glances and instinctively gave him plenty of room on the sidewalk. He didn't notice or, if he did, found nothing unusual in the reaction.

He hailed a cab at the end of the block, changing taxis three times before finally reaching his destination. And, even then, he waited across the street, watching the traffic pass for nearly an hour before he strolled over and entered a second apartment building, this one more shabby than the first. He ignored the elevator, taking the stairs and climbing to the third floor, knocking lightly on the door of a corner apartment. It opened for him almost instantly, and he went inside.

"Well?" she asked tensely.

"The girl found sanctuary," he said a bit dryly.

"What? With who?"

"Whom," he murmured.

She frowned at him, her thin little face angry. "Stop correcting my grammar!" Like him, she had no accent of any kind, but a perceptive observer would have realized that neither of them had spoken English from childhood. "She got away from them? Where did she go?"

"To our old friend from Prague."

She caught her breath, and a flush came and went quickly on her small face. "Him? But he was out of the country, you said -”

"It appears he has returned."

"How did she know to go to him?"

"I have no idea. She went directly to his apartment after checking a telephone directory, so I assume she knew who she was going to." He shrugged out of his coat and went into the kitchen, returning with a cup of coffee. "It is difficult to judge," he went on thoughtfully, "how much or how little she may know. However, since they destroyed her apartment. It is reasonable to assume she knows something."

"And so?"

"We wait."



* * *



Shannon was still sleeping when Derek woke exactly six hours later. He checked on her and then went to take a shower. The rest had done little more than take the edge off his weariness, but he was accustomed to much less sleep during an assignment and tended to be grateful for what he could get. He felt almost human after showering and shaving, more so after hot coffee, and by the second cup was able to think more clearly than he had during the small hours of the morning.

The most important thing was Shannon's safety, which meant that he had to discover who was after her and why. He could do a little basic research from his apartment by making a few calls, but sooner or later he'd have to do some reconnoitering at Civatech and find out just what was going on there. And Shannon would have to be with him, since he wasn't about to leave her alone if he could help it. She'd be safe enough with William, but Derek felt uneasy for several reasons when he considered that alternative.

Since they had moved so quickly to get Shannon, and since they had not even bothered to make the explosion look like an accident, Derek had to assume they were both nervous and unaware of her closeness to the governor. If they had not been nervous, the explosion would certainly have appeared accidental, and if they had realized just how close to William she actually was, they might have hesitated to go after her at all. It was public knowledge that William Franklin was a good friend and a very bad enemy, and he was hardly the type to keep quiet if someone he cared about was hurt or killed.

However, now that they had indeed tried to kill Shannon, it was extremely doubtful they'd give up on that intention, even if they chanced to find out about her relationship with William. As Derek had told him on the phone, he was their ace in the hole, a considerable amount of clout in an emergency, so Derek was reluctant to hide Shannon away in the, governor's 'mansion unless it was absolutely necessary.

He poured more coffee and stared down at the breakfast bar where the morning paper lay, still neatly folded: he'd remembered to get it from the hallway, but hadn't read it. He lighted a cigarette, frowning down at the paper without really seeing it. Shannon and he probably didn't have much time, he was thinking. Since there was no past or present connection between him and Shannon, it was reasonable to assume she would be safe with him. Except for one small thing.

Who he was. There weren't twenty people - counting Shannon and the Franklins - in Richmond, Virginia, who knew who and what Derek Ross was; the bad thing was that a good fifteen of the twenty wore black hats. If the people at Civatech had "street" connections and knew the right questions to ask. It would only be a matter of time before someone alerted them that a government agent known on both sides of the street as something of an outlaw lived in the city. They'd check him out automatically as a possible danger, and since he had long ago learned that anyone could be found if the search were careful enough and professional enough, he rarely bothered to hide his whereabouts behind unlisted phones or assumed names. So he would be easy to find.

Shannon wouldn't be safe here for much longer.

That was something Derek acknowledged and accepted. So they'd have to leave soon. Which meant Shannon had to have clothes: she'd stand out far too much wearing his too-large clothing, and even if it were safe to return to her apartment, he doubted there was anything left there to salvage. The problem was, Derek didn't want to leave her alone, nor was he ready to endanger her by taking her out in public, at least until he had a better idea of what was going on at Civatech.

Absently, he unfolded the paper and began scanning the headlines, wondering if there was anyone who could - his glance caught and held on a photo, and his eyes sharpened as he read the caption and the accompanying short article. "Well, well," he murmured thoughtfully. "Nice of Lady Luck to help me out."

The phone directory was equally helpful, and he placed a call to a rather well-known hotel in the city. Unsurprised, he waited patiently while he was switched from one person to another, perfectly aware that he was working his way progressively through the layers of careful security that tended to surround wealthy and famous people. It took a good ten minutes to reach the center of all that protection, and when he did he commented a bit dryly, "I'd have found it easier to reach the President."

A warm chuckle came from the line. "Derek, it's good to hear from you! Sorry about the gauntlet, but Zach insists. He's gotten even more protective, especially the last couple of months."

.Soberly, Derek said, "Yes, Kelsey told me about Teddy. How is she, Raven?"

Sighing, Raven Long said. "Physically, recovered. Emotionally is something else. She and Zach really wanted that baby."

"Tell them both how sorry I am, will you?"

"Of course." Her voice lightened. "What are you doing in Richmond?"

"I live here."

"Oh?" She laughed. "Well, how could I know? You had a flat in London, a place in Hong Kong, and - what was that? A chateau in France?"

"A very small chateau. I also have an apartment in Richmond."

"Any port in a storm," she murmured.

Her tone was rather deliberately gentle, and Derek chuckled. "Heard about Algeria, have you?"

"I have very good ears."

"I'll say," he observed dryly.

"You made a big bang over there," she explained. "For someone who scorns firearms, you tend to make a lot of noise sometimes." Before he could comment, she was going on briskly, "By my calculation, you should have just barely returned from there, and even iron men have to sleep. So why are you awake when you should be blissfully unconscious?"

Derek grinned. That was Raven - right to the crux of the matter. "I need a favor," he told her.

"Oh, good, I was hoping you did." Her voice was cheerful now. "Josh and Zach are busy with a union strike, and since they claim I'd be a distraction at the bargaining table I've been sitting here twiddling my thumbs."

"A waste of your vast talents," he agreed solemnly.

She made a rude noise. "Never mind the editorial comments, just tell me what you want."

"I need you to do a little shopping for me."

"Anything interesting?" she inquired hopefully.

"Ladies' wear."

Raven laughed. "Get your story ready, pal, because this I've got to hear. Sizes and colors, please."

And Derek, who had a good eye for such things and who had also checked the clothing Shannon had left in the bathroom, recited sizes, suggested colors, and gave her his address. "From the skin out," he finished, then added hastily before she could comment on that, "It's possible this building is under surveillance, so act accordingly."

"Good heavens," she said, but not as if the prospect of trouble daunted her.

In fact, she sounded rather pleased, and Derek said severely. "You're not in this, understand? I know that gang of yours loves trouble, but if you all come in on this I'll have Hagen on my back and that's the last thing I need."

Without responding, she said casually, "Where is the maestro of stealth and deceit, by the way? We haven't heard from him lately."

"Last I knew, he was foaming at the mouth because some smart lady had ruined one of his plans. I think she snuck out the back door while he was sauntering in the front."

After a moment. Raven said slowly, "Her name wouldn't be Sara, would it?"

"I don't know. Friend of yours?"

"In absentia," Raven answered in a distracted tone. "I think maybe our Sarah should check on that; if that son of a worm is hounding the poor girl…" Briskly, she said, "I'll get the clothes, Derek, and be at your place as soon as possible."

He didn't ask questions. "Great. And, Raven - thanks."

But she had already hung up. She was like that, he reflected, cradling his own receiver. She helped automatically because she didn't know any other way to be.

Lady Luck had gifted him with a number of friends like that.



* * *



Shannon knew as soon as she opened her eyes that she had slept a long time: a glance at the clock on the nightstand confirmed the feeling. It was late in the afternoon. It was also not her nightstand.

She sat up, staring around the bedroom that wasn't hers either. This wasn't her plain little room with its colorless pseudo-oak furniture, shabby drapes, and bland carpet. This was a larger room with heavy drapes and deep carpet, and the furniture was dark and massive and obviously not pseudo anything.

Frowning, she looked down to see the very large flannel shirt and baggy sweatpants she was wearing. Also not hers. Then, even as she pushed back her tousled hair and swung her legs from the large bed, she remembered.

Civatech. The explosion. An eternally long night of walking, frightened, in pain, alone. And then finding a big, tough, blond man with wonderful dark eyes who had listened to her, fed her, put her to bed, and rubbed her aching hip until the pain went away and she could sleep.

Shannon drew a deep breath and rose to her bare feet, relieved to find that her hip was stiff but not hurting. She went to the closed door, eased it open, and heard the murmur of voices from the den. Biting her lip, she hesitated, then slipped from the room and moved toward the sound.

There were two people in the den. Derek was standing, leaning his hands on the back of a chair while he talked. He was dressed in dark slacks and a gray shirt, and looked more handsome than she remembered. On the couch was a woman, and Shannon instantly became aware of her own disheveled hair, baggy clothing, and bare feet: this woman probably always had that effect on other women. Her long black hair gleamed almost blue and was worn casually in a ponytail high on her head. Her face was striking, not perfect or even particularly beautiful, but somehow lovely and unforgettable. She had wide, merry violet eyes and a warm smile - directed at Derek, at the moment. She was dressed simply in slacks and a silk blouse, a single gold chain at her throat, but she could have worn the same outfit to a diplomatic ball, and no one would have considered her underdressed. Style. The lady had style.

Another swan, Shannon thought miserably.

"Shannon." Derek came to meet her, and his dark eyes searched her face. "Feeling better?"

She nodded. "Yes, thank you." Her voice was soft and toneless, without expression.

He frowned fleetingly as he took her arm lightly and guided her to the couch, introducing her to Raven Long. Then, when she sat down, he said, "I'll get you some coffee," and briskly left the room.

"It seems you've had a rough time," Raven said, looking at her gravely.

"He - he told you?"

"He told me. We worked together in the past."

Shannon looked at her, unwilling to acknowledge how relieved she felt because she had just noticed that the other woman wore a gold wedding band. "I see."

Raven gestured to a stack of boxes on the floor by the couch. "He didn't want to leave you alone, and since your clothes went up in smoke, he asked me to get a few things for you." She studied the other woman, ignoring her suddenly flushed face. "The sizes should be about right, I think, and he was on the mark with colors."

A bit unsteadily, Shannon said, "I don't know how to thank you. But I'll pay you back -”

Raven smiled at her warmly. "You don't worry about that, all right? Time enough later for the unimportant things." She would have told Shannon to forget the debt entirely, but she was all too aware that this woman would find gifts difficult to accept; she was a hurt person, and hurt people clung to pride. "First, we have to get those creeps off your back -”

"Take yourself out of that we," Derek said firmly, returning to the room and placing a cup of coffee on the table before Shannon. "I told you, you aren't involved. Raven." She smiled at him.

"I mean it," he insisted, sinking down in a chair. "Josh would have my head on a platter, and Zach would serve it to him!"

"I told you, they're busy." She looked at Shannon, explaining, "My husband and a friend of ours."

"They wouldn't be busy long," Derek said, "if you got involved in this. Not, at least, with a union strike. They'd be busy either taking me apart or else getting hip-deep in the situation themselves. No, Raven." She shook her head. "Still an outlaw."

"I earned the name," he agreed dryly.

Shannon looked from one to the other, puzzled, and Raven explained after smiling, again. "Derek doesn't like other people's rules. He's infamous for his ability to go into tricky situations without backup, and come out with his skin Intact… and with whatever he went in after. He also - though he'd die rather than admit it - spins some of the most intricate tactical webs it's ever been my pleasure to see, resulting in whole governments at each other's throats by the time he waltzes out of their countries."

"That's enough," Derek said mildly.

Raven was still smiling, and her eyes were alight. "Shannon should know what she's gotten herself into. She should know that you despise guns and don't know karate from chop suey, which makes the rest of us wonder how on earth you've managed to stay alive this long."

"I throw a mean punch," Derek murmured.

"He does that," Raven told Shannon. "He also swims like a fish, has eyes like a cat, and if you dropped him in the middle of a desert he'd find the only oasis within a fifty-mile radius in under an hour. He never gets lost or ruffled, never walks a straight line if he can find a curve or an angle, and never, never gives up."

"The queue to pay homage forms to the right," Derek told Shannon dryly.

Raven grinned at him, "Hey, pal, I started that line years ago. I think it was when you saved me from having to say 'comrade' whenever I addressed someone."

"Just because I thought it'd be a shame to hide all that hair underneath a babushka," he told her.

Shannon was staring at Raven. "You mean -?"

Cheerful, Raven said, "If Derek hadn't had such good instincts. I would have been grabbed by a double agent and taken to the other side as a prize."

Shannon turned her gaze to Derek. "I don't think I really believed it until now," she said wonderingly. "It all seemed so unreal."

He looked at her for a moment, then said, "Why don't you go try on the clothes Raven brought. I may have been wrong on the sizes, and we might have to exchange something."

Obediently, Shannon gathered the boxes and carried them into his bedroom, closing the door softly behind her. Derek lighted a cigarette, frowning, while Raven watched him.

Usually, Derek smoked in a lazy, almost careless manner. He would frown critically at smoke ring after smoke ring, searching, he said, for the perfect one. It was not an affectation, but a subtle and deliberate bit of sleight of hand; anyone watching tended to pay attention to what he was doing, which left him free to observe what was going on around him without seeming to look at all.

Lacking Kelsey's inborn chameleon gifts, Derek had mastered several subtle sleight of hand distractions in body language, and used each so skillfully that only another agent or actor would have noticed.

Raven, a former agent and innate actress, noticed. She also noticed that Derek was smoking now in a quick, hard manner that was not at all deceptive. "Worried, pal?"

He leaned his fair head back against the chair and stared at the ceiling. "You weren't followed?"

"No. And there wasn't a hint of anyone watching this place. Combat jitters?"

The phrase was common among agents and referred to something that might have been instinct or Intuition; a good agent could often sense the seemingly eternal moment right before everything hit the fan - as Derek had in England years before.

He shrugged a little. "No, not that. I just wonder what it's all about. What's so important that they moved that quickly to get Shannon out of the way permanently, and simply because she noticed some puzzling phrases in a few letters? Why not give her an unexpected holiday and keep an eye on her, or hire a couple of dumb goons to grab her and hold her incommunicado for a while?"

"Maybe she knows more than she's aware of, enough so that they couldn't take any chances."

"Then we're talking about something very big involving some very ruthless people." He sighed roughly. "Dammit."

After a moment, Raven gathered her handbag and rose to her feet. "You weren't wrong on the sizes, so I'll be leaving. I promised Josh I'd come straight back," she added absently.

Since he knew Josh Long, Derek grimaced. "That doesn't sound like him," he said, putting his cigarette out in an ashtray on a table beside the chair. "Is there something you haven't told me?"

Raven waved him back when he would have gotten up, then turned toward the door. She didn't answer until her hand was on the knob, then paused to look back at him. "Nothing at all." she lied easily, smiling at him. "Call if you need anything, pal. Anything, no matter what. If you need a safe house, Long Enterprises has a warehouse or two in the city, and I've a friend in Europe at the moment who offered his loft. Just let me know." Then she slipped out of the apartment.

Derek stared after her for a moment, then rose and paced restlessly over to the window. He didn't see Raven leave the building, but he hadn't expected to: she was too good to make her exit obvious even to him. He studied the street below, then scanned the building across the street. His gaze came to rest finally on the narrow entrance to a dark alley. A good place from which to watch. But, hell, there was always a good place somewhere.

He sighed and turned away from the window. Impossible to predict the turn of every card. Had Shannon lost her pursuer of the night before? Probably. Did the people who were after her know where she was? Unlikely. Not yet, at least. Were there a couple of wild cards in the deal, fate's giggle at them all? Who knew? Anything was possible.

"Is she gone?"

He had been standing in the center of the den looking at nothing. At the sound of Shannon's hesitant voice, he focused on her where she stood just inside the room. "Yes. She had to get back."

Raven's taste in clothes, he reflected, was right on target. And his suggestion of colors had been perfect as well. Warm colors, he had said, reds and golds and creamy browns; no cool blues or greens. Shannon was wearing ivory-colored slacks belted at her small waist, with a red silk blouse, full-sleeved and tightly cuffed at the wrists.

"She even got shoes," Shannon said a little breathlessly, looking down at the toes of her cream-colored pumps. Then she looked back at Derek, unable to read his still face and dark eyes. "Everything fits. It's… it's too much, though. She got several outfits and sleepwear and - and everything. Even a hairbrush. I don't know how to thank both of you for helping me like this. I'll never be able to repay you. I'll try, though, I'll -”

"Shannon."

She bit her lip. "What?"

"You're beautiful."

Shannon felt as if someone had kicked the breath out of her, and her heart thudded. He was just standing there, hands in his pockets, looking at her steadily. Simply being nice, of course, he was simply being nice because he had kind eyes, infinitely understanding eyes, the eyes of an old soul.

"Thank you." she whispered, because it was the right thing to say.

He smiled. "You don't believe me." It was a curiously gentle, chiding statement.

Her eyes skittered away from his, but her chin lifted. "There are mirrors. I know what I look like."

Derek shook his head. "No. you don't. Someone cracked your mirror a long time ago, and now that's the one you carry with you all the time, the only one you look into."

She gave him a baffled glance and moved uneasily toward the couch. Why did he keep looking at her like that? And why was he talking about mirrors? She knew all about mirrors. A lifetime of mirrors. "Shouldn't we be talking about Civatech?" She sat down and sipped her lukewarm coffee.

"I've put out a few feelers." he murmured. "There isn't much we can do until I get a response."

Shannon was carefully not looking at him, although she could feel his gaze. "Feelers? You mean you called someone?"

"A couple of friends in the high-tech business. The scientific community likes to gossip as well as the rest of us, and failures are a prime topic."

"Failures?"

"You said it was a supposedly scrapped design,"

"Oh." She nodded nervously. "Yes, of course. Then you believe your friends may have heard of the design?"

"It's a possibility worth checking into. Shannon, are you afraid of me?"

Startled, she looked up at him. "Afraid of you?" There was astonishment in her voice, and it occurred to her only then that he was a man many would be afraid of. Odd. She had felt no fear of him at all, not even in those first tense moments. She trusted him without even thinking about it. "No. I - I'm not afraid of you."

"Do you trust me?"

"Yes." She tried to lessen the importance of that Instant response by adding defensively, "William does, after all."

Derek nodded slightly. He was still standing in the middle of the room, hands in his pockets as he watched her intently. "I may have to ask you to trust me unconditionally. Will you be able to do that, Shannon?"

"What do you mean, unconditionally?"

"Just that. No reservations, no hesitations. If I tell you to do something, you have to do it - no matter what. Our lives could depend on it."

Shannon was afraid now, but not of him. "I don't understand."

"We'll be leaving here in a day or two: it won't be safe to stay longer." His voice was calm, steady. "They don't know you're with me, but if they know the right people to ask they'll find out I'm a possible threat. So we'll have to keep moving. I know a few places, safe at least for a while. But the important thing is that you have to trust me. We may have to move very quickly, with no warning."

"All right," she said steadily.

He smiled. "No hesitation?"

"What choice do I have?"

"True." He stopped smiling.

"I'm sorry." Suddenly she wanted to cry. "I shouldn't have said that. You took in a stranger, and you didn't have to. You didn't have to be so kind or decide to get involved in this mess -”

"Shannon?"

She put her cup down, wondering why she'd been holding it, then met his gaze. "What?"

"You're beautiful."

The two simple words had the same impact on her this time; she couldn't breathe and her heart thumped heavily. "Stop saying that," she managed to say.

"Unconditional trust, remember?"

The room was suddenly getting small, very small, until she thought she could reach out and touch the walls, stand up and bump her head on the ceiling. It was small, and full of him, and she couldn't look away from those dark eyes. Her throat was tense, tight, and her shaking fingers twined together in her lap.

He just stood there, Just stood there waiting, as if he were prepared to wait forever if that's how long it took her to answer. Her hands were cold and there wasn't any space at all between her and him, he filled it somehow, made it thick somehow with emotions she didn't understand.

"Stop it." she whispered, not even sure what she was asking him to stop.

"No." His voice remained calm, his face still, and he made no move toward her. "This is important, Shannon. You carry a cracked mirror around with you long enough, and everything begins to show a distorted reflection. You have to see what's there - beginning with your own true reflection."

"I can't -”

"I know you can't. Not yet. That's why you have to trust me to see for you until you learn how. Do you trust me to do that?"

She stared at him, somehow aware that this was important, and not because she needed to believe she was beautiful. It was important, she realized, because her trust in Derek did indeed have to be absolute. If she doubted him in any way, hesitated to believe anything he said, her own indecision could conceivably put them both in greater danger.

Her head understood that, but her heart… how could anyone trust that completely? And she had known him barely twelve hours, knew so little about him.

"Trust me. Shannon." His voice was softer now, deeper, and curiously compelling. "Trust me to tell you the truth always, no matter what. You're beautiful."

"I limp." It was an automatic response, her greatest doubt given voice.

"No, you don't."

What was the matter with him, was he blind? Of course she limped, she wouldn't deny reality! No one could trust that much, no one at all!

"You don't limp. Last night you did, because you were exhausted and you'd strained your hip. Today you're walking with no sign of a limp. It isn't something that's always with you. Shannon, and no one sees it but you. A part of that distorted reflection."

Was it possible? No. no, her mother would have told her. Her mother would have - and then she remembered her friend Janie, she of the red dress and gentle bullying.

"You only limp when you're thinking about it, Shannon, or when you're tired. Half that limp's in your mind - and in your mothers"

"Mother says I limp," she whispered, remembering. Remembering her last visit, when her mother had scolded her gently for not walking slowly enough.

"Then her mirror is cracked too," Derek told her softly. "You were hurt once, and she can't forget it. That doesn't mean she's right. Shannon. I'm right. Trust me."

Shannon stared into those quiet dark eyes, those infinitely wise eyes, and the room was small again, so small she could barely breathe. And despite that closeness, or because of it, she suddenly felt as if something heavy had been lifted away from her.

"All right." It was said on a sigh.

"You're beautiful. Shannon." He was smiling.

She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, and this time she said it not because it was the thing to say, but because she meant it.

"Thank you."





Three




They remained in his apartment the rest of the afternoon and evening, and if some hurdle had been cleared by his insistence on absolute trust and her conscious surrender to that, something else had happened as well. Shannon couldn't really put her finger on it except to realize that she was more aware of him now, more alert to his every movement, his glances, his smile. As if, by declaring her trust, she had thrust aside the wary veil that people inevitably hid behind in the presence of a stranger.

The odd thing was that she felt Derek had not thrust his veil aside simply because he never hung one between himself and other people. She was seeing him clearly, but she knew instinctively that he had seen her that way from the first. Maybe it was his eyes, she thought, those tolerant, ancient eyes. Maybe his old soul had outgrown the need for disguises and veils.

"You look bemused." He sat down beside her on the couch, his expression quizzical.

Dinner, efficiently prepared by him, was over and the apartment was quiet except for the soft semi-classical music coming from his stereo. Shannon felt… peculiar. Her throat was tight and her heart thudded unevenly, and she had a mad impulse to reach out and touch his gleaming blond hair. She looked fixedly down at her hands, folded together in her lap, wondering what was wrong with her.

"Shannon?"

If it were possible to bottle his voice, she thought distractedly, somebody could make a million bucks selling the stuff to airlines and hospitals; it would instantly reassure passengers and patients that nothing bad could ever happen. Ever. "I was just thinking that you - have an old soul." Oh, great, Shannon, now the man's going to think you're a flake!

"Sometimes it feels that way."

She looked at him hesitantly, discovering that he was watching her with no sign of amusement on his hard, handsome face. "I meant -”

"I know what you meant." He smiled. "Maybe it's true. I've always liked to believe we're given the chance to correct the mistakes we make."

"And be rewarded for the things we do right?"

He shrugged. "I suppose. The mistakes are more important, though."

Which, she thought, said a lot about this man. He was less interested in being rewarded than in correcting his mistakes. She didn't think he'd make many mistakes.

"You have an old soul too," he said abruptly.

Shannon was startled by the comment, and her laugh held no humor. "Then I must have made somebody important in my last life very angry," she managed lightly.

"That cracked mirror," he murmured.

She looked away, disturbed. She trusted that he had told her the truth when he said she was beautiful, but that was only his opinion, after all. Everyone was entitled to his own opinion, no matter how bizarre. And there was her flaw, something she never forgot. No matter what he said about that, she knew the limp existed.

"Shannon -”

The phone rang, cutting off whatever he'd been about to say, and she could only be relieved by that. She felt unsettled, confused. She half listened to his end of the conversation, concentrating on stifling the unusual tangle of emotions she was feeling. And it was unusual for her, because she had long ago found a relatively stable position, an even keel for her emotions. If she never allowed her emotions to overwhelm her, she had reasoned, then nothing could hurt too much.

But the past twenty-four hours had held too many emotions for her defenses to stand against. Though she felt physically safe with Derek, there was, on the periphery of awareness, the frightening, numbing sensation of being hunted, like an animal. There was the sense of loss after the destruction of what had been her home. There was the terrifying realization that this virtual stranger beside her was her only lifeline in a treacherous storm. And there was the confusion she felt because he said her mirror was cracked, the reflection she had looked at for so long a distorted one.

Shannon wanted, needed, a moment in which to sit back and catch her breath. A quiet moment in a safe comer somewhere. A moment free of handsome men with ancient eyes, and faceless men who wanted her dead, and a corporation that seemed to be doing something illegal. She needed the safe haven of her drab apartment, as comfortable as a worn shoe and as unthreatening. She needed the secure routine of her ordered life, uninteresting though it was. She needed to get another African violet, -because the one in her apartment was dead now…

"Shannon?"

Stupid, she thought, to feel like crying for an African violet. "Was that one of your technician friends?" She looked steadily at her laced fingers.

"Yes. Shannon, what's wrong?"

She could feel him lean closer, and stiffened without even thinking about it. Too close. He was too close. The room was getting small again, closing itself up, filling itself with him, and she could barely breathe. Her throat hurt. "Nothing. What did your friend say?"

Derek moved again, but he was leaning back away from her this time. And his voice was calm and impersonal when he answered her unsteady question. "He said there was some talk a while back about Civatech's 'billion-dollar bust.' They'd apparently gotten military funding for the project, and then reportedly couldn't make the design work."

"What kind of design?" She continued to gaze steadily at her fingers.

"Some kind of sophisticated robotics gadget. Word has it the design was supposed to be practically indestructible, and completely lethal. There was even a rumor circulating at one point that a technician had been killed because the thing ran amok. It seems they couldn't control it, so the design was scrapped. Supposedly."

"And the military Just wrote off the loss?" The question was an automatic one, just words to fill a silence.

"Probably. It wouldn't be the first time. But we have to assume that thing is still in one piece, and that somebody's planning either to use it or sell it." He reflected for a moment, frowning. "Probably sell it; it makes more sense. And any fanatical group or army in the world would just love a weapon like that. For a great deterrent, if nothing else. It's a little unsettling to go into battle if you know the other fellow's got a bigger gun."

Derek studied her averted face for a moment, aware that she was tense, guarded. Like watching a flower close up. He had reached her, briefly, and that tenuous thread of trust, he was convinced, remained intact. But it was such a fragile thing, that bond, as fragile as she was herself. Even his leaning toward her in an undemanding physical closeness had tautened it, made her warily conscious of a threatened intrusion.

He kept his voice dispassionate, calm. "We'll have to find out exactly what this design is, and who's planning to use it or sell it. Jeff said they called it Cyrano -” He broke off abruptly, because Shannon looked at him then.

"No," she said in a surprised voice, her eyes widening. "Not Cyrano. C.y.R.A.n.O.W. Camouflage Robotics Armory Offensive Weapon."

After a moment, Derek asked her quietly, "How do you know that, Shannon?"

"I saw it." She shook her head slightly. "I never thought - but that was what was written on it. When I came back from my supervisor's office yesterday, I saw it moving down a hallway. I stopped and watched it. There are all kinds of electronic devices in the building, and I never thought it might be somebody's restricted project. It was in the unrestricted part of the building. But this one was almost funny. Like the gadgets in those science-fiction movies. It was about as high as my shoulder, and had armlike extensions, and it rolled on concealed wheels or something."

"What happened then? Did it just go past you?"

"No. No, a man came hurrying down the hall before it quite reached me. He had a little box in his hand, a remote control, I guess, and he looked angry and - and almost frightened. Shaken. He gave me a hard look, and I turned away and went back to my office."

"And never gave it another thought." Derek sighed heavily. "That was it, I'll bet. If you had just noticed a few oddities and discrepancies, in correspondence, they could have explained it away somehow. But you saw their 'scrapped' design alive and well. And they couldn't explain that."

"You mean, just because I saw -”

"It has to be that. Shannon. It was bothering me that they moved so fast and ruthlessly to get you out of the way with apparently so little reason. But if you accidentally saw their gadget on top of everything else, they couldn't take any chances. They couldn't afford to wait, to see if you managed to connect everything."

The phone rang, and Derek half turned to scoop it up quickly from the end table. "Yeah?"

Shannon, watching him, still bewildered, heard the scratching of a shrill voice from the telephone, unintelligible to her. But she listened to Derek's end of the conversation, looking at his face and feeling the tendrils of those unfamiliar emotions fluttering inside her. What was wrong with her? Why did she feel so… so restless? So unlike herself.

"Johnny? All right, if the information's worth fifty, I'll leave it in the usual place. What is it?" He listened for a few moments in silence, his face going still. And his voice was flat when he said, "Are you sure? All right. Yeah. I'll leave the money for you. Thanks, Johnny." He cradled the receiver slowly, looked at Shannon for a long moment in silence, then sighed softly.

"Well. It's started."

She felt cold suddenly, something in the flat timbre of his voice alerting her. "What?"

"That was a friend. On the streets. He has good ears, and he just heard there were some unfriendly out-of-towners fresh off a plane trying to find out if I'm in Richmond, or still out of the country. They're also asking about a lovely brunette and flashing a picture of you around."

"A picture? Of me? But, how -”

"You had to get security identification at Civatech, right? An identification with photo?"

Shannon nodded, then frowned. "Unfriendly out-of-towners? What does that mean?" She was afraid she knew.

Derek answered gently, as if he would have softened the blow if he could have. As if anyone could have. "Hit men, Shannon. Assassins."

"But I didn't do anything!" she cried.

"That doesn't matter with people like these," Derek told her steadily. "You could do something. It's all they know - and it's enough. More than enough. It's a threat to them, and one they have to take care of."

She drew a shuddering breath. "This isn't happening."

"I wish it weren't. But it is. Get your things together. Shannon; we have to leave now. Pack your clothes in that bag I showed you in the bedroom."

His steady voice calmed the panic she felt, and she rose slowly to her feet. He was on his feet as well, facing her, and she looked at him in unconscious pleading, forgetting everything except the terrible need for a sense of stability in a world that had gone mad without warning.

He reached out to touch her shoulders lightly. "I won't let anything happen to you. Shannon."

She tried a smile that didn't quite come off. "Promise?"

"I promise." He smiled. "Now, go pack."

Derek stood where he was until she disappeared into the bedroom, then raked his fingers through his hair as he headed for the hall closet and the bag he kept packed for emergency exits such as this one. Promises. Like a damned bloody fool, he kept making promises, driven to ease the fear in her eyes. And no one knew better than he that promises made in a situation like this were just words written on the wind.

Derek carried her bag and his own down the service stairs of the building and through a maintenance door he unlocked with a key. He guided her to a dimly lighted parking lot just down the street, stopping only once, briefly, to jam a fifty-dollar bill underneath a pot containing a drooping coleus that was trying rather pathetically and vainly to decorate a low brick wall lining the sidewalk.

He moved quickly, but not so quickly that the pace was too difficult for her to maintain. An unassuming, rather battered Ford was parked nearby, and he unlocked the passenger door and helped Shannon Inside. Within minutes of leaving the apartment, they were driving down brightly lighted streets.



* * *



It was nearly midnight when a small, dark woman joined a tall companion in the sheltering darkness of an alley between two quiet buildings in a renovated business district. "You have good Instincts," she said grudgingly. "How did you know he'd move tonight?"

The tall, athletic man with the colorless eyes continued to stare across the street at an old warehouse recently given a much-needed face-lift and converted to spacious lofts. "Know? I didn't know. How could I? But the pawns in this game seem to be moving with unusual speed. He should have been able to count on another day at least before being forced to abandon the apartment. Interesting."

"You're sure he left because they were too close?"

"He wouldn't have moved otherwise. The girl is - too fragile, I think, to move needlessly."

"And he'd care about that, of course."

The tall man looked down at his companion, his flicker of amusement lost easily in the darkness. "Jealous, Gina?" he asked gently.

She stiffened. "Don't be ridiculous! I'm merely concerned that his emotions not… not cloud his judgment. There's too much at stake for such things."

Her companion nodded gravely, the darkness still hiding his expression. "I see. An admirable caution."

She fumed in silence.

He chuckled softly, and changed the subject. "If we are very, very lucky, he saw no sign that he was followed here."

"It's almost impossible to spot a tail if two different cars share the duty," she pointed out in a sharp voice, still obviously annoyed. "And traffic was certainly heavy tonight. He didn't see us, Alexi."

"Perhaps." Softly, as if to himself, Alexi added, "But I have learned never to underestimate his skill - or his instincts. He's been hunter and hunted far too often not to have learned well the tricks of the chase."

Gina looked up at him, frowning slightly. "Sometimes I think you actually like him. Certainly you admire him."

"Is that what you think?" Alexi murmured, and then added, "I'll take the first watch. Relieve me at dawn."

She hesitated, but turned away. And she was making herself as comfortable as possible in her car, parked around the corner, when it occurred to her that Alexi hadn't really answered her implied question about Derek Ross. Not really.



* * *



The loft was huge, open, and airy. It was bi-level, with a raised platform supporting a large, old brass bed, a polished antique mahogany wardrobe, and an equally old rolltop desk; a bathroom and walk-in closet had been built into the upper space in one corner, and a lively schefflera spread its umbrellalike leaves to provide greenery in another corner.

The lower level held a compact kitchen partitioned from the living area by a waist-high counter, and the remainder of the room was casually furnished with a long, overstuffed couch, two comfortable chairs, a wooden rocking chair with a hassock in front of it, end tables, and a coffee table. There were bright rugs on the polished wood floor, the kitchen was stocked with food, and the bed was made up. The place had a lived-in air, but a curious waiting air as well, as if It weren't occupied on a dally basis.

Shannon, sitting in the rocking chair and keeping it moving slowly, watched as Derek made hot cocoa in the kitchen. "Who does this place belong top-He looked across the counter at her, taking in her methodical rocking, which obviously hadn't relaxed her. She had been silent all the way here, withdrawn. He couldn't really blame her for that, but he knew how dangerous it was for her to retreat into herself rather than face what was happening. He had to reach her, had to strengthen that tenuous bond between them.

"It belongs to me," he said finally. "But it isn't in my name, and it would take weeks to trace the deed back to me. We're safe here for a while."

She was looking at him, but her eyes were focused on something else, something locked away somewhere inside her. "We moved a lot while I was growing up," she said softly. "Packing and unpacking, a different house or apartment to get used to. Different school. People I didn't know around me. I could never have a pet. And I always felt I - I wasn't a part of anything. That I didn't belong anywhere."

Derek hardly realized he was moving toward her: he knew only that the desolate, lost sound of her voice pulled at him like a magnet. He found himself sitting on the hassock and holding both her hands even when she would have instinctively pulled away. Even when she" stiffened. His forearms rested just above her knees, and he could feel her tremble.

"Shannon, honey, I know this is hard for you. It would be difficult for someone a hell of a lot tougher and harder than you could ever be. I know you feel lost, confused, scared: you'd have to be made of stone not to. But you aren't alone. Do you understand that? I'm with you. I won't leave you, no matter what. And I won't let anyone hurt you."

She looked down at her hands, lost in his, and the sensation of things whirling out of her control gradually slowed, steadied. She felt less dizzy, less cold. Less alone. She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Derek. You're being so kind and I'm falling apart like an idiot -”

"Not like an idiot," he interrupted to correct her. "Like a normal human being, Shannon. You've had one hell of a rug yanked out from under you, and it's only natural to be disoriented and scared. Especially when we had to leave the apartment so suddenly, and you know we may have to move quickly again." His voice altered suddenly, became light and rather pained. "And would you please stop telling me how kind I am? You're going to give me a complex." He squeezed her hands gently, then rose and returned to the kitchen to get the cocoa.

Shannon discovered she was smiling. Had he really called her honey? No. No, of course not. Her imagination. "A complex? It was a compliment."

"Was it?" he asked, carrying two cups from the kitchen and handing her one before sitting at one end of the long couch. "And if I called you a 'dependable sort,' I suppose that would be a compliment?"

She thought about it, and her smile became stronger. "No. No, it wouldn't be."

"Exactly."

After a moment, still smiling, she started rocking again. This time the motion wasn't tensely methodical, but lazy and relaxed. "What happens tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow," he said, "we take it easy. I'll make a couple more phone calls, see if I can find out more about this Cyrano gadget. And we'll go on from there."

Shannon nodded, and he watched her, very conscious of her vulnerability. More relaxed now, she was nonetheless too withdrawn for his peace of mind. Last night, she had been too exhausted and frightened to hide within a shell, too desperate to keep herself from reaching out to someone else for comfort. And now, when she badly needed comfort, needed to be certain she was no longer alone, her wounded self wouldn't allow her to accept reassurance.

He wanted to hold her. But even if she were willing to accept that - and he knew she wasn't - he didn't trust himself. The desire that had coiled in his weary body last night had grown stronger, closer to the surface with every passing hour, and he was fighting to control it. Even assuming she could feel the same for him, such powerful emotions now would very likely send her even deeper into her shell.

Derek had walked many fine lines in his life, performed many a balancing act between safety and danger, but he had never felt such caution within himself as he did now. With Shannon. To say that this situation was the worst possible one in which to begin building a relationship was a vast understatement.

To say that he wanted that relationship more than he had ever wanted anything in his life was a vast understatement.

"I think I'll take a shower," Shannon said, rising to carry her cup into the kitchen.

Derek was too aware of her movements behind him in the kitchen. He watched her climb the stairs and knew she must be taking the silky pajamas Raven had bought her out of the suitcase. He heard her close the bathroom door.

He set his almost-untasted cup of cocoa on the coffee table and frowned at it. He wanted something stronger, but didn't get up to get it. There was, he reflected broodingly, little he could do about the situation at Civatech until he knew more. He'd have to go out there eventually, slip into the place somehow, but he wasn't ready to try that just yet.

Was it less than twenty-four hours ago that Shannon had come into his life? Odd that events had a way of stretching time in improbable ways. Still, it was something he had seen happen more than once. He wasn't sure if he had lived a week's normal time at any point during the past ten years or so. One of these days he'd have to drop back into normal life, with its hectic but predictable schedule, and he'd probably suffer jet lag from the shock to his system.

One of these days.

His mind, never very far from Shannon, focused on her more intently as he heard the shower running. Cautious as he was toward her, he knew only too well that he couldn't allow her to remain withdrawn. He had to reach her somehow. There was, inside that guarded, wounded woman, a vividly alive and laughing woman hidden away. He knew it. He felt it.

She was stronger than she knew - she would have had to be to weather the shocks and pain of her life. She was innately a very strong woman: yes, he knew that as surely as he knew his own strengths and weaknesses. But she was so accustomed to being alone inside herself that withdrawal had become a part of her personality rather than a simple defense mechanism. And how could he teach this hurt, guarded woman to allow him close enough to share the careful space she had marked out for her own?

It was what he had tried to do in explaining that she had to trust him. And though that first step had forged a tenuous bond. Shannon refused to let him close the distance between them. She needed time alone, safe time, he knew that. She needed to find a balance, to catch her breath. The problem was, he couldn't give her that.

The only safe time he could give her would be fleeting and uncertain, with the probability of fast action and danger hovering over them like a sword.

Derek knew rationally that he was in no shape for this. It was beyond his experience. He was adept at functioning on little rest under stressful conditions, but he had never before had to do so with a fragile victim depending on him for her very life. And if he had been asked theoretically if he could have done so while also being emotionally involved with that fragile woman, he would have answered with an unequivocal no. But the question was hardly a theoretical one.

He was here. She was dependent on him for her safety, her life. And he was emotionally involved with her despite every atom of good sense.

"Derek?"

He looked over at the steps of the platform, where Shannon stood hesitantly. The pajamas she wore provided adequate coverage, since they were long and plainly styled, with a top that was buttoned all the way to her throat. But the cream silk lent the outfit its feminine appearance as it clung like a living thing, and the slender curves of Shannon's body were as seductively obvious to his intent eyes as they would have been clothed only in a brief silk teddy.

Score one for Raven, Derek thought vaguely as he felt his belly knot in a sudden rush of heat. He'd told her that Shannon had injured a leg and was sensitive, and had asked the other woman not to buy too-revealing clothing that might make Shannon feel uncomfortable. He hadn't said anything about not making him uncomfortable, though.

"I can sleep on the couch," Shannon offered a bit breathlessly, disturbed by his steady look and silence. "You couldn't have gotten much rest last night, and -”

"You take the bed." He smiled. "The years have trained me. Like most soldiers, I can sleep anywhere, probably even standing on my head."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive." Derek wondered if he was imagining that he could smell a delicate floral scent wafting to him from her: there was no soap with that scent in the loft. Had Raven taken care of that too? If so, he could blame her for a quick rise in his blood pressure. He cleared his throat strongly and concentrated on keeping his expression neutral. "I'll probably be up for a while. Will the light down here bother you?"

"No." She hesitated another minute, then turned away toward the bed.

Derek got up to turn off the overhead light anyway, leaving only the lamp by the couch on. He was unusually aware of the rustle of bedclothes in the silence, and reminded himself he was a grown man and perfectly capable of controlling his hormones. It didn't help. He hadn't really expected it to.

He went into the kitchen to the hidden control box for his security system: Shannon hadn't noticed and he deliberately hadn't pointed it out to her. The box was concealed behind what looked like just another section of the painted brick wall, opening to his familiar touch by a hidden spring. He set the system with the necessary codes, activating the alarms set at both downstairs doors and all the windows. Another switch activated timers in the three other lofts in the building so that lights would come on and go off at irregular intervals, suggesting the lofts were inhabited, which they weren't.

He set three final switches: One to activate pressure alarms on the roof, one to turn on motion-sensors and cameras placed strategically around the building, and the third switch to alert the building's very dependable caretaker, who lived nearby, that Derek was "in residence" and not to be disturbed.

Shannon didn't know it, but she was sleeping in a virtual fortress.

Having done everything possible to ensure an advance warning for them in case of visitors. Derek moved back toward the couch. It wasn't until he glanced at the bed and saw Shannon sitting up that he realized she had watched his actions.

"Who are you, Derek?" she asked softly.

The light provided by the lamp barely reached her, and she was only an insubstantial shape, her silky pajamas reflecting the light in a faint shimmer. Derek sat on the couch because he didn't dare remain standing: his body was having ideas that his mind found difficult to deny. "You know who I am."

"I wonder if anybody does. William would be surprised if he saw this place, wouldn't he?"

Derek didn't think it likely. "In a fox hunt," he said quietly, "the fox always has more than one way out of his burrow - if he's smart. I've been hunted before. Shannon, so I've taken the idea a step farther. More than one burrow. And always more than one way out of each."

"What's the other way out of this burrow?"

He smiled faintly. "There's a trap door inside the closet, and a tunnel leading to an outbuilding. James Bond stuff," he mocked himself lightly.

Shannon hugged her upraised knees and watched him, not yet ready to sleep because she was afraid she'd dream. "Has it been exciting - your life?"

"I wouldn't have stayed in this business otherwise," he answered. "There are always benefits to my work. I've seen parts of the world the tourists will never see, for instance."

"And the drawbacks?"

Derek fished a package of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one. "Those too."

After a moment of silence, she said. "You don't want to talk about the drawbacks?"

No. he didn't. Not to her. Not now, at least, when she was living under the threat of some of those drawbacks. "You should get some sleep, honey."

Shannon slid down in the bed and drew the covers up, gazing at a shadowy ceiling. He had called her honey this time. But it probably didn't mean anything. She wished it did. Wished she could tell him how afraid she was to sleep, because she wasn't too tired to dream tonight. Wished she could ask him to just hold her because -

She felt shaken suddenly. Shocked. When had she ever asked anyone for that kind of physical closeness? It was hardly something she was used to. Her mother wasn't a physically demonstrative woman, and Shannon had always felt stiff and uneasy whenever someone came too close. Why was she longing, now, for strong arms around her and the comforting sound of another heart beating under her ear?

Because she was afraid? Or was it something else, something about Derek? Was that longing for his touch all tangled with her stark awareness of him? Stupid. Stupid! She'd been hung around his neck like an albatross, and that was all. The poor man was being forced to cope, no only with threats against him because of her, but with her fears, and -

"Shannon?"

He was standing by the bed, silhouetted by the lamp behind him on the lower level, his very outline unnervingly masculine and heart-catchingly powerful. And her heart jumped into an uneven rhythm as it thudded against her ribs. How had he known? What was he that he always seemed to know how she was feeling?

"I'm all right," she said, and they both knew she wasn't.





Four




Derek sat down on the edge of the bed and gently captured one of her hands that was twisting on top of the covers. Her hand was cold and tense in his for a long moment, but gradually relaxed. Quietly, he said, "It's always worse at night, isn't it? The darkness closes in, and it's easy to feel like you're alone. But you aren't. Shannon."

"I'm sorry." she said jerkily. "You're in this mess because of me, and I can't even make it easier for you. I want to be strong, but I can't stop thinking about them out there looking for us as if we were animals being hunted! And I know I'm one of those drawbacks you didn't want to talk about, tied around your neck and just weighing you down -”

"Stop it. Shannon." His voice was abruptly sharp. "Do you really think you'd be with me if I didn't want it that way? I could have had you hidden away in a protective custody somewhere until we got this whole thing sorted out. I could have sent you with Raven: the security system set up around her and her husband is one of the best I've ever seen. Hell. I could have called the cops and had them take care of you. You're with me because I want you with me."

"Just because you feel responsible -”

"No." He hesitated, then said dryly, "Maybe it's my ego saying I can take care of you better than anyone else. Maybe it's those big brown eyes of yours - or the way you looked in that damned red dress." He felt her hand tense again, and wondered if he'd gone too far. How far could he go to get close to her without pushing her even farther away?

"It wasn't even my dress." Her voice was low, shy.

He laughed softly, and purposely kept his voice light and unthreatening. "It was yours once you put it on. A dress like that on a woman like you could make a grown man cry. Or start writing sonnets in his mind. Unfortunately, I have no creative ability when it comes to words, and that dumb macho ethic kept me from breaking into tears."

She laughed shakily. "So what do you do?"

"I bit down on a knuckle when you weren't looking," he told her solemnly.

Shannon laughed again, honestly amused. "I can't see you doing that."

"I don't want you to see me doing that," he said in a reproving tone. "It ruins my tough manly image. I debated whether to cook for you, but decide in the end that since there are so many male gourmets, I was pretty safe."

"You showed talent as a masseur too," she reminded gravely.

"Masseur." He corrected her pronunciation in a grand French accent. "If you know the French for a thing, it takes away any gender connotations."

"I would have thought it was the other way around," she said with a little choke of laughter. "The French seem fairly conscious of gender."

After a deliberate moment, Derek said consideringly, "You could be right there. I may have sacrificed my tough manly image by - no, I forgot, that was in another life. Just some residual technique left over for this life. So I'm safe." Her hand was relaxed now in his, and warm, and her laugh was rich with humor. A part of him was elated, but there was another cautious part that reminded him it was easier to find closeness in the dark than in the light.

"I think you really are a magician," she said suddenly in a surprised tone.

"Well, legerdemain is a nice, masculine talent," he allowed seriously. "I won't object to that."

She chuckled and said, "I feel better now. Thank you, Derek."

He didn't want to leave her, even though it was costing him to remain there. Common sense and caution won out over the demands of his body, and he squeezed her hand briefly before rising to his feet. "Good. Now get a good night's sleep, honey." He was at the steps when she spoke again.

"Derek?"

He paused and looked back at her.

"What did you mean - a woman like me?"

He didn't need the question clarified. "You're beautiful. Shannon," he said quietly. "Some day I'll teach you to believe that."

After a moment, she whispered, "Good night."

"Good night, honey." Derek returned to the lower level and sat down on the couch, trying consciously to relax taut muscles in an effort he knew to be worthless.

How much more easily she responded to him in the darkness! As if darkness were the only wall she needed then, and light brought her self-made walls rising instantly. Only in the darkness had he heard her laugh: only in the darkness had he heard the intriguing note, in her voice that was so vividly alive it made his heart stop.

That was the real Shannon, he thought, coming alive in the darkness like some rare and fragile flower that showed its blooms only to the night. Was it because of her leg? Partly, he thought; the core of that characteristic could probably be found in her constant awareness of her flaw. In the darkness she couldn't be seen, and her self-consciousness vanished.

He could reach her then, in the darkness. Clos