মুখ্য Golden Threads

Golden Threads

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Once upon a Time...
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The Glass Shoe

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The Haunting of Josie

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Imprisoned by fate-and the FBI-in a strange town with a new identity, Lara Mason longed to escape the painful memory of her father's murder. Playing Rapunzel in a local production would distract her, she hoped-until broodingly sensual Devon Shane was chose as her prince in the play...and cast himself as her bodyguard when shadows from her past threatened her. Captured by his sapphire gaze and a voice that compelled her surrender, Lara had trusted no one with her secret, but Devon drove her wild with sensation, demanded and took what belonged to him. Furious at being a pawn in his dangerous game, Lara told Devon she wouldn't run anymore--but could he keep her safe? Desperate to end the limbo that denied them a future, Lara was willing to gamble with her life... but not his love. Devon had scaled her tower and won her, but now he had to set her free. Could she show him that taming his savage heart was the only happy ending she wanted?


"Next!" Nick Rhodes glanced at the man sitting beside him and added in a much lower voice, "That makes eleven we've seen, and the last three could have—"

"No." The voice was deep, rich; the dark eyes twinkled gently in a benign face. "I haven't seen her yet."

Sighing, Nick nodded toward his assistant to bring the next potential Rapunzel onto the stage. He wanted to swear over the lengthy selection process, but the old man beside him possessed the trick of making those around him mind their tongues. Besides that, he was putting up the money for the play—which meant that he called the shots. Nick glanced at Cyrus Fortune again, thinking that he probably got chased down streets by children. Put him into a red suit, and he'd be the image of Santa Claus.

"This is a small town," Nick reminded Mr. Fortune. "Not many actresses to choose from, and half of them are completely wrong for the part. If we don't find her soo; n—"

"There she is." Mr. Fortune was gazing toward the stage. He was beaming happily. "There's our Rapunzel."

Nick's head swiveled toward the stage. He was prepared for almost anything, since Cyrus Fortune struck him as such an odd man. Now, seeing the young woman onstage, cautious relief was his strongest emotion. She waited somewhat nervously for instructions and could have been any age between twenty and thirty. She matched his mental vision of Rapunzel. She was petite, almost fragile, her pale gold hair pulled back from her face and held with a ribbon.

Nick studied her with the critical eye of a director. A lovely face, he decided judiciously. And there was something about her, a quality he could see or sense even from his seat in the empty, darkened auditorium. Wariness? A look of loneliness? His gut reaction was that she would know just how to play a forlorn maiden locked in a tower. If she could act, of course.

He leaned forward, propping his forearms on the seat in front of him. "What's your name?" he called.

"Lara." Her voice was soft but curiously clear and distinct, reaching him easily. "Lara Callahan."

"All right, Miss Callahan. If you'll read page twenty, please? Tim will cue you." He nodded toward his assistant. Then he settled back and listened as Rapunzel pleaded with the witch to allow her to go free. Lara Callahan's voice was sweet and unbearably sad, her plea so eloquent that Nick felt a feathery chill brush his spine.

Cyrus Fortune was nodding, beaming. Above the bushy white beard, his cheeks shone like polished apples. He was leaning forward slightly in his seat, his elegant hands resting on the gold-handled cane between his knees. "There," he said softly. "There."

There, indeed, Nick thought. He wondered why Lara Callahan had never auditioned for him before. Was she new to the relatively small town of Pine-wood, Virginia?

"Fine, Miss Callahan," he called as soon as she had finished the scene. "Rehearsals start day after tomorrow. Monday, six p.m."

She looked almost comically startled. "You mean I got the part?"

"Didn't you want it?" Nick laughed a little as Tim, clipboard in hand, led the bemused Rapunzel into the wings. "Tim," he called, "ask the crew to wait for a few minutes, will you?"

"Sure, boss," Tim replied.

Turning to face Mr. Fortune, Nick said, "The biggest part cast. Now we just have to worry about the parents and the witch."

"And the prince," Fortune reminded him.

Nick was conscious of his impatience, and tried to repress it. "Four actors showed up to audition for that part, and you dismissed all of them. We have to pick one of them—"

"You replaced the notice on the front of the building?"

"Yes," Nick admitted. "You told me to. But I don't see what you hope to gain by it. We ran a notice in the papers for three days setting today only for auditions. No one will wander in off the streets to read for the part, not this late."

"You never know," Cyrus Fortune murmured. "I’ll make my decision by the end of the day. Have you assembled the stage crew?"

Nodding, Nick said, "Of course. Most of them are people I've used before, though I couldn't get my usual foreman. They're moonlighting, like the actors. Most of the sets will be built while we're rehearsing in the evenings, and on Saturdays. As usual. You've approved the set designs and the script; I have the costume sketches in my office, if—"

Cyrus Fortune heaved himself to his feet with a considerable effort. "Certainly, certainly." His voice was a gentle baritone. "Your wife is an excellent designer and seamstress, Nick. I'm sure I'll have no complaints."

Following the impressive bulk of his backer down the aisle toward the stage, Nick reflected that Susie had indeed done a fine job with the costume designs — but what was Fortune's knowledge of her reputation based on? Nick had certainly never heard of the man, not until he's appeared at this theater a few weeks before with a proposition. He would provide the financial backing for a production of Rapunzel, he'd said, with all profits going to local charities.

Rapunzel, of all things! Susie had been delighted by the opportunity to design romantic costumes for a fairy tale, but Nick had nearly torn his hair out over the script. He had persevered, mainly because his generous backer had made a large deposit to the theater's bank account and—except in the area of the principal players—was placidly uncritical and did not interfere.

And so, the Pinewood Community Theater was due to stage a production of Rapunzel in less than a month.

Provided, of course, that a prince could be found.

Nick hardly shared his backer's sublime belief in the intervention of providence to supply them with a suitable prince, but he was somehow unsurprised the following morning to look up from his desk at the sound of a knock—and behold Rapunzel's prince.

"Mr. Rhodes?"

"Yes?" Nick rose to his feet. "What can I do for you?"

"One of the workmen said to see you. Have you completed auditions for your play? I saw the notice out front."

Nick hoped that Fortune wasn't the type to say I told you so. "We have one part left," he admitted. "The prince." Nick half-expected this big, powerful-looking man to turn and leave, for he didn't seem the type to contemplate with anything but a sneer the idea of playing the role of a prince in a fairy tale.

"May I read for it?"

Nick decided that he was getting old; his intuition wasn't what it used to be. "Certainly," he murmured. And, again, he was unsurprised when Cyrus Fortune beamed happily upon seeing the dark prince.

"Now then," Fortune said softly, nodding. "Now then, we'll see."

Nick didn't have the nerve to ask what they would see.

On Monday evening, Lara sat on one side of the stage, not quite in the wings. She had meant to study the script, which she hadn't yet read since Nick had just handed her a complete copy, but found her fascinated attention on the stage crew milling about. What they were doing—hammering, bellowing at one another, carrying bits and pieces of lumber here and there—looked like total chaos, but she assumed there was a logical pattern to the activities. She reminded herself that there were at least three very different sets to be constructed, and wondered how on earth they could be built in the time available.

"You're sitting on our tree."

Startled, she blinked up at an extremely handsome masculine face in which blue eyes danced merrily. He was standing, hands on slim hips, directly in front of her.

"I beg your pardon?" she managed to say.

"Our tree." He gestured to the bogus log she had chosen to sit on. "I wouldn't bother you about it, but we're trying to build the garden first, and we need the tree."

Lara got up hastily. "Oh. Sorry."

"No problem." His deep voice was cheerful. "I'm Luke Brady, by the way, foreman of the stage crew."

"Lara Callahan," she said.

"I know. Rapunzel. Lovely golden hair and all."

"Are you sure your last name isn't Blarney?" she asked dryly.

He grinned. "I'm sure."

"But you do admit to being Irish?"

"Oh, of course. Would I be tryin' to deceive a fine Irish lass like yourself, darlin'?"

She couldn't help laughing; the brogue was marvelous. And with his flaming red hair and wicked blue eyes, he had doubtless been a heartbreaker for years. "I wouldn't bet against the possibility," she told him.

Luke Brady assumed a wounded expression. "It's cruel you are," he said sadly.

"Luuuke!" one of the other men wailed desperately.

Moving quickly out of his way, Lara said, "You'd better get your tree before somebody over there has a fit."

Chuckling, he bent and got the tree, tucking it easily under one brawny arm. "I am the foreman, you know," he said, dispensing with the brogue. "If anybody has a fit, it's going to be me."

Lara watched him stroll back toward the other side of the stage, carrying the tree. She knew it was hollow, of course, little more than a shell with the appearance of solid wood, but he looked as though the real thing would have presented no problem.

"Lara?" Nick appeared from the wings, looking harassed. "We're going to try a read-through backstage, so—" He broke off, staring across the stage, then yelled, "Luke! The tree's for the outside of the tower, not the garden!"

"Sorry," Luke called back, standing the tree on end and leaning it against the skeleton of a cottage. He sent Lara a wink.

She felt herself flush. Had it been an excuse to talk to her?

"Study the set designs, people," Nick requested in a voice that held despair. He took Lara by the arm and began drawing her backstage. "Half those guys don't know what they're doing," he said under his breath.

Lara glanced at him as they made their way through a tangle of ropes and electrical cords, props and lumber. He was a man somewhere in his forties with a salt-and-pepper beard and dark eyes; he was fast-moving and prone to get excited about things. Lara didn't know what kind of producer and director he'd be, but his script for the play was just beautiful, she thought. He had taken a brief fairy tale and fleshed it out, giving it humor and substance. She liked him for that alone.

"Here we are," he said briskly as they reached a long, scarred wooden table placed as far out of the path of chaos as possible. "You've met everybody, Lara, except for your prince. Lara Callahan—Devon Shane."

He's going to climb up a rope made of hair? was Lara's first thought, as the big, dark, coldly handsome man with brooding sapphire eyes rose politely from his chair.

"Hello, Lara," he said, studying her with a detachment that made her feel as if she'd been stripped naked, weighed and measured, and was about to be examined coolly under a stark fluorescent light.

"Hello," she murmured, taking the chair Nick indicated on the other side of the table from Devon. She felt wary, disturbed—and couldn't have said why, except for that dispassionate sapphire stare. She'd been instantly comfortable with everyone else she'd met since getting the part, but Devon Shane made her acutely uncomfortable.

She eyed him cautiously as they got ready for the read-through of the script. Shane... another Irishman. But this one wasn't cheerful and fiery like Luke; this man was Black Irish—a dark, brooding Celt, with all the signs of a dangerous temper only an insanely reckless person would willingly rouse. He was hardly the pretty, charming prince of fairy tales, despite being so handsome. Yet Lara knew this man would appeal to any woman far more than a bloodless fairy tale prince would.

They wanted happily ever after, Lara reflected of her own sex, but there was that part of every woman that longed wistfully to tame the heart of a savage man.

As for herself, Lara wanted nothing to do with savage men. She'd seen enough violence, too much. She wanted peace, wanted a normal life without the darkness of potential danger hovering over her like a vile shadow.

"All right," Nick said as his nervous hands smoothed open the plastic-bound script on the table before him. "Let's get started. Act One, Scene One..."

Lara paid little attention, since her own part didn't begin until the second act. Instead, trying to keep herself from becoming too absorbed with the dangerous-looking man across the table, she studied the other players as they spoke their lines.

The parents of Rapunzel were played by Sonia and Pat Arnold, a couple in their thirties with an obvious passion for amateur theater. Nick had explained that they often acted in the plays he produced, delighted merely to have minor roles. Sonia was a cheerful blonde with a trim figure, and Pat was a handsome man with a friendly smile and an amazing baritone voice.

Melanie Stockton, a newcomer to the area, was slated to play the witch. Melanie, with her black hair and exotically slanted brown eyes, had a deep and sultry voice that could sound utterly wicked. Nick had chosen her to play the part because he'd given the part a neat, modern-day twist—his witch wouldn't be an old crone, but a woman of evil glamour.

As for herself, Lara had no idea what she was doing in this theater. She had come to the audition on impulse. The walls of her apartment had been closing in on her, as they so often had these last months, and she had wanted badly to escape, to find something radically different for her life. She was tired of being alone, tired to being wary and afraid.

And here, in the midst of this noisy turbulence, she felt more alive than she had in a long time. She had never thought of herself as an actress and had been certain she'd suffer from stage fright, but from the moment she'd begun reading at the audition she had felt natural, comfortable. She hadn't been Lara Callahan; she'd been Rapunzel, alone and lonely. Pleading to be set free, to be allowed a life outside her dark tower.

Lara felt her lips twist as she silently admitted just how well the role fit. The difference lay only in Rapunzel's ability to plead her case; Lara had to bear her own isolation in silence, because no one could simply open a door and set her free. But at least she could pretend.

"Great, great," Nick was saying happily. "That was fine. Act Two, Scene One. Lara, can you sing?"

Turning the pages of her script to get to the right place, Lara said distractedly, "I don't know, Nick. I've never tried."

"Want to?"


He grinned at her. "Okay. I hadn't planned a song anyway. We’ll use some kind of music to lure the prince, though. Do you play an instrument?"


"How well?"

Lara started to tell him she'd competed as a teenager, then remembered that it had been in her other life. A long time ago. She felt a flash of pain, but ignored it. "Well enough," she answered briefly.

Nick nodded and made a note on the legal pad lying beside his script. "Well get a piano, then, and dress it up to look fancy. Well decide on the right music later."

She half-nodded an agreement, and then a prickle of awareness made her glance across the table. Devon Shane's eyes were fixed on her face. Lara tried to look away, but she felt curiously trapped by his sapphire gaze, caught by something she couldn't define. For an instant she thought of the fascination people had with gems, with their coldly luminous glow....

Then she realized that Devon's eyes were neither hard nor cold. They were bottomless, burdened eyes, filled with shades and shadows. She was conscious of a bone-deep ache, of something disconnected and alone and wary. It was a jolt, seeing those qualities in his eyes, an almost primitive shock of recognition and affinity.

"Lara? It's your line." Nick sounded impatient.

She broke Devon's steady gaze and stared down at the script. Her line. Rapunzel's line. In a voice that shook, Lara read, "Why may I not leave this place, Mother? I wish to—"

Melanie broke in with the voice of the witch, soothing and authoritative, her cold smile for the benefit of the audience rather than the trusting Rapunzel. "My child, the world outside this tower is a cruel place, and I would keep you safe from it. I will bring you a nice pet, shall I? You will have a companion when I leave each afternoon."

"Damn!" Nick muttered.

"I wasn't finished," Melanie told him in her own voice.

He shrugged apologetically, but said, "I just remembered how much trouble we had the last time we needed an animal. Maybe I can find a bird or something."

Lara was still trying to ignore the man across the table, and said almost absently, "We can use my cat."

Nick looked at her. "A cat? Lara, if your cat's anything like Susie's, it won't take kindly to stage direction."

"You don't know Ching."

"A Siamese?" Nick asked with foreboding.

She had to laugh. "Yes, but not—not at all catlike. I'll bring him in if you like, and you'll see what I mean."

"Worth a try," the director said. "Bring him in tomorrow night, will you? Okay, Melanie, go on."

Melanie went on with the witch's lines, and Lara concentrated carefully on following and reading hers. At this early stage they were just reading, occasionally trying a certain tone or inflection. Nick interrupted from time to time and suggested a slight change in wording or a different emphasis, and they all made notes right on the script.

Lara's concentration increased as the reading continued, until she was virtually unaware of the banging and thumps out on the stage; she didn't even notice when the workers packed up for the night and left. But when Devon Shane spoke his first line, her thoughts scattered like leaves blown by a wind. His earlier brief greeting hadn't prepared her for the effect of his voice. It was deep, compelling, curiously haunting; and the single, simple line he spoke was a plea that made her ache inside.

"Rapunzel, let down your hair...." Let me know you. Let me be with you. Let me love you. It was all there, an appeal to break a woman's heart.

As Lara looked up from her script to stare across the table at him, she realized she wasn't the only one affected by that dark velvet charm. Both Melanie and Sonia were looking at Devon with a kind of unconscious fascination; Pat gazed at him in surprise; and Nick wore a peculiar expression of baffled delight.

"Good," he said blankly. And then, as Devon looked at him somewhat enigmatically and without comment, Nick added more briskly, "Very good. Now, I skimped on the stage direction at this point, but here's what I've planned...."

What Nick had planned deviated slightly from the fairy tale. Rapunzel was trusting, he pointed out, but hardly an idiot and not at all deaf; she was bound to be able to differentiate between the prince's voice and the witch's. So he had decided that Rapunzel would lean out the tower window to see who was calling to her rather than meekly lowering her braid. The first meeting between the potential lovers would take place with the prince still outside Rapunzel's stone prison.

They talked to each other, two lonely people. Rapunzel was innocent and curious, needing what she couldn't put a name to, and this prince, like all fairy-tale princes, was falling rapidly in love with her beauty and purity.

Lara spoke her lines, gazing steadfastly at her script and trying to ignore the effect Devon's husky voice was having on her senses. But as they progressed to the next scene, where the prince charmed Rapunzel into lowering her braid, Lara slowly realized that Nick had chosen to portray the lovers realistically. She remembered, now, that in at least one version of the fairy tale, Rapunzel had borne twins by the end of the story.

Nick, adapting the tale for what would be an audience made up of adults, had decided to focus on the developing relationship, building sensuality as well as love and tenderness between them. By the beginning of the third act, Rapunzel and her prince were lovers in every sense of the word.

There would be no nudity, but the embraces Nick described with enthusiasm were passionate and sensual in the extreme. It was not something Lara had been prepared for—fairy tales tended to limit sexuality to chaste kisses—and she wasn't sure how she felt about the matter. Nor was she able to guess how Devon felt about it, since the expression on his darkly handsome face remained enigmatic despite the emotion in his haunting prince's voice.

She heard her own voice quiver with uncertainty as they continued reading lines, and wondered what the others heard in it. Nick, at least, seemed wholly satisfied, even delighted.

He glanced at his watch as they finished the first scene of the third act, and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "It's after nine. I think well leave the rest until tomorrow. Is anybody going to have a problem showing up by six every night?" He looked around the table, then nodded. "Good. Okay, then, same time tomorrow. Take your scripts home and study them if you get the chance."

Lara gathered her script and rose, fighting a craven impulse to tell Nick he'd have to find another Rapunzel. She was, she reminded herself, a grown woman, and it was only a play, for heaven's sake. An adult version of Dress-up or Let's Pretend, with costumes and fake kisses. She could handle that. And she needed it, needed the focus in her life right now.

She'd been working sixteen hours a day for too long, exhausting herself just to be able to sleep without nightmares. When the inevitable crash had come, weeks ago, it had left her limp and unable to work; the walls had started closing in on her, and she'd wanted to run—somewhere. Anywhere.

Anywhere except home. She could never go home again.

It had hit her suddenly, a cruel blow battering her in her exhausted state. That she was totally cut off from her past, rootless in a present she hadn't chosen for herself. The numb acceptance of months had shattered, leaving her raw and scared and alone.

She had tried to see a future for herself, and had found only walls and aloneness.

Lara didn't know what she would have done if she hadn't seen the advertisement in the newspaper. Her only thought as she'd read the notice of auditions at the community theater had been to go, to escape the enclosing walls of her apartment.

So here she was. There were people around her who were brisk and friendly, who accepted what she seemed to be with utter unconcern. There was life around her, the chaos of creativity, the thudding pulse of activity. And it had helped her. She had felt herself steadying, calming, rediscovering her lost balance.

"Good night, Lara."

"Good night. See you tomorrow."

She responded automatically to the farewells, rolling the script up in one hand and using the other to fish in the pocket of her jeans for her car keys as she left the now deserted stage and headed up the dim aisle toward the front of the building. She had parked out front, learning later that everyone left their cars behind the theater. Absently, she made a mental note to park around back tomorrow night.

The lobby was silent, the dim light throwing eerie shadows into the corners. Lara walked a bit faster, conscious of those walls leaning in at her; she felt relieved when she pushed open one of the heavy doors and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

Pinewood was a small town, and like all small towns, it closed early. The theater was on Main Street, where, now, three traffic lights blinked an idle yellow caution above deserted blacktop. Shop windows glowed faintly from single lights left on to discourage theft, and old-fashioned parking meters dotted the curbs like lonely sentinels.

Lara's small car was parked across the street by one such meter, which she'd fed quarters into. Still, she half-expected to find a parking ticket fluttering on the windshield.

She was no more than three steps into the street when she heard the screech of tires. From the north end of town, a battered pickup truck suddenly careened around a corner and roared toward her, fishtailing wildly.

Blinded by the headlights and pinned in their glare, Lara waited numbly like a rabbit staring at a diving hawk.


Lara couldn't make a sound. She couldn't move or think. All she could do was stand frozen and stare at the vehicle bearing down on her. It couldn't have been more than twenty feet away when she was suddenly yanked back out of the street and held in powerful arms against a hard body.

Vaguely hearing the truck roar past, Lara didn't try to free herself. The man held her tight. His fingers bit into her arm, and she was absurdly conscious of the faint, musky scent of his after-shave or cologne. Her face was pressed into his shoulder, and the arms around her were so strong....

Those powerful arms loosened suddenly, and one of his hands gently turned her face up. "Are you all right?"

His eyes were colorless pools in the faint light, his hard, handsome face still and unreadable. Lara drew a deep breath, too numb from the shock to feel much else. "Yes. Yes, I think so. It must have been a drunk driver." Her voice sounded normal, she thought. Too normal.

A frown drew his flying brows together. "What else could it have been?"

"Nothing else. Of course, nothing else." She was still holding her script and keys, and bemusedly looked down at her hands. "Thank you for pulling me out of the road. I couldn't move for some reason. Stupid."

"Natural," Devon Shane corrected, that haunting voice of his cool and calm. "You shouldn't drive yourself tonight; I'll take you home."

"You don't have to—"

He ignored the protest. "Will you need your car tomorrow?"

"No. But I can't leave it here."

Devon took the keys from her nerveless fingers. "I'll park it around back so you won't get a ticket. Wait here."

She half-turned to watch him stride across the street, but waited obediently on the sidewalk. Obedient. Obedient. Her mind began working again, and she felt a pang of self-disgust. When had that happened to her? When had the numbness of shock and grief become this apathetic willingness to do only what she was told, to wait for others to guide her?

She had never been that way—before. She had charged at life, taking responsibility for her own sometimes reckless actions and stubbornly resisting any guiding hand. But then all control over her life had been snatched away from her, leaving her rudderless and stunned, and she had been forced by the sheer madness of the situation to accept guidance.

That had been natural, she thought now, and reasonable; she couldn't have coped on her own, and she knew it. But somewhere in these last months, acceptance had become a kind of mindless docility, and that was wrong. Wrong.

Lara started slightly as a car drew up to the curb before her, but she didn't move as Devon got out and came around to open the passenger door for her.

"Get in," he said.

She found herself taking a step toward him, then stopped jerkily. Who was he, after all? A stranger. Just a stranger with a haunting voice and burdened eyes. Just a man she didn't know, a man she couldn't trust.

"Lara." He held out one hand to her. "Come on."

She couldn't see his face clearly, and his curiously moving eyes were only dark pools, but his voice... his haunting voice. She saw her hand reach out slowly until his long fingers closed around it, and his strong, warm touch was like a lifeline.

Seconds later, waiting for him to move around to the driver's side after he closed her door, Lara thought vaguely, She would have let down her braid, Nick. Without looking. Without even hesitating. Any woman would.

"Where do you live?" Devon asked, sliding into the car beside her.

"About two miles away." Her voice was steady. "On the main road. Just head south."

He put the car in gear, but didn't release the brake. "Do you want to report it to the police?"

"No. I couldn't identify the truck. Unless you—?"

Devon turned the wheel and pulled the car away from the curb, heading south. "It happened too fast," he said. "I didn't see enough to make an identification either."

There was silence for a few moments, and Lara was so aware of the man beside her that she could hardly think. What on earth was wrong with her? "I—I've never seen you around here." Not that she got out much, but, still, it was a small town. And she would definitely have noticed him.

"I've been here only a few days," he said. "I was transferred from the West Coast."

She glanced at him. "Oh? What do you do?"

"I work at Com-Tech. Do you know it? The big plant on the other end of town."

Lara nodded. "It's an electronics plant."

"Right. I work in conceptual design." He sent her a brief look. "How about you?"

"I work in design too. A different kind. I'm a commercial artist, an illustrator."


"Yes. I work out of my apartment." She hesitated, then said, "It was an impulse, auditioning for the play. I've never done any acting before. Have you?"

"In college. It's a good way to meet people when you're new in town."

New in town. She wondered if the driver of that truck had been new in town. Until now, the lingering shock and Devon's effect on her senses had kept her from thinking about the near miss, but she couldn't block it out any longer. She could feel inner tremors building, the numbness of shock giving way to the first icy prickles of fear. A drunken driver? Or something else, something that hadn't been random, hadn't been accidental?

Had Devon saved her from an accident—or a murder attempt?


She clenched her teeth to prevent them from chattering. "It's just up ahead," she muttered. "The apartment building on the left." She could feel the glance he sent her, but he said nothing as he guided the car into the parking lot beside the big, five-story building.

"My keys—" she began, but Devon was turning off the engine, getting out of the car. She waited until he opened her door, then got out herself and said, "Thank you for—for everything."

"I'm coming up with you," he said briefly, shutting the car door and taking her arm.

"You don't have to." The forced calm in her voice was deserting her, leaving a wavering sound behind it.

"I know that." His fingers tightened gently around her arm. His free hand pushed open the entrance door for them, and he frowned slightly as he guided her inside. "Which floor, Lara?"

"Third. Apartment 304." She answered automatically, wondering in bewilderment what it was about his deep voice that tugged at her so.

There was no elevator. They went up the carpeted steps of the central, well-lighted stairwell in a silence broken only by the occasional faint sounds of music or television from inside the apartments they passed. When they reached her door, Devon produced her keys and unerringly selected the correct one.

Lara had left the living room lamps on. She always left a light on, even during the day, reluctant to take the chance of returning to darkness. Her apartment was decorated in soft pastels, the furniture was comfortable. And yet, it was an impersonal place, lacking a sense of its occupant. The framed prints on the walls were the kind that could have been found in any hotel room, and the color scheme blended with the bland touch of professional decorating.

Only the drafting table set up in one corner near a window struck a somewhat personal note, with drawings still pinned to it, and a clutter of supplies beside it.

Devon glanced briefly around the room, then guided her to sit at one end of the couch. He dropped her keys on the glass-topped coffee table. "Where's your kitchen?"

She nodded toward the short hallway leading off the living room, not trusting herself to speak. She didn't look at him as he left the room, just remained where he'd placed her with her fingers tightly laced together in her lap. A very quiet and sane voice in her head told her that she had every right to feel frightened, that it was a bit too coincidental that an anonymous driver had so narrowly missed her tonight.

But it just didn't make sense, she argued with the voice. It didn't. It was such a chancy thing, hit and run, with so many possibilities of failure. Guns, a bomb, that made sense; she would have expected something like that. In fact, had expected it.

Lara felt her lips twist bitterly. But what did she know about it, after all? Books, television, the movies. She didn't even know enough to be sure there was a reason for her fear.

A distraction from her chaotic thoughts presented itself as Ching crawled out from under the couch and leapt lightly up onto the coffee table. He was a strange cat. Technically he would be labeled a tabby-point Siamese. His thick coat was a pale shade between cream and gray, and the markings on his face, paws, and tall were faint blue-gray stripes. He wore a leather collar with a silver bell that never made a sound unless he wanted it to.

In the five years that Ching had condescended to live with her, Lara had heard more than one baffled attempt to describe him; none of them quite hit the mark. Not only was he oddly colored and unusually large at almost twenty-five pounds, none of it fat, but he was uncatlike in behavior and in language; no sound even resembling a "meow" had ever escaped him. Oh, Ching talked. He muttered, he grumbled, he commented, he even cooed to wary birds outside the apartment windows. He always sounded polite, except when he was being profane, and his pale, aqua-blue eyes were eerily human in their expressiveness.

Now, sitting on the coffee table so that his long, ringed tail hung over the edge and swung slowly like a pendulum, Ching glanced toward the hallway and then at Lara. There was a question in the look.

"Company," she murmured. She'd stopped feeling peculiar talking to her cat, deciding that anyone who lived with Ching would have talked to him. It was a compulsion. One just couldn't help it, somehow.

Ching half-closed his pale eyes and lifted his chin. "Yah," he said softly. He was smiling. Most cats, Lara had decided, wore an almost permanent smile because their faces were made that way. But not her cat. Ching smiled only when he wanted to. And, despite his Oriental antecedents, his pointed face was wholly scrutable. Right now, he was pleased.

Lara eyed him uncertainly. What did he have to be pleased about? Surely not Devon's presence. Ching's habit of hiding under furniture whenever there were visitors had been born in kittenhood; a gregarious cat when he was taken outside his own domain, he tended to be suspicious of invaders and disliked being visited himself.

Before she could react to the unusual pleasure of her cat, Devon returned to the living room and sat down on the couch beside her. He was holding two cups and handed one to her.

"Tea?" she asked, accepting the cup.

"Hot and sweet. Drink it, Lara."

She sipped cautiously, unwilling to look at him; they weren't in the dark any longer, and she felt wary of seeing that strangely moving pain shadowing his eyes. Forcing her voice to remain even, she said, "The traditional remedy for shock. Do you think I'm in shock?"

"I'd be surprised if you weren't. You could have been killed a little while ago."

"I—I would have been, if you hadn't—"

"My pleasure," he interrupted.

Lara frowned at her tea. "What were you doing out front, by the way? Your car was parked in back."

"Nick asked me to check the front door and make certain it was locked."

Perfectly reasonable, of course. Lara told herself not to be so damned suspicious. Devon certainly hadn't been driving that truck. She looked at Ching, finding his gaze fixed meditatively on Devon. Unable to help herself, she stole a glance at the man, and saw that he was returning the cat's steady regard.

"Ching, I gather?" he murmured.


"Hello, Ching." Devon's voice was conversational.

"Prroopp," the cat responded politely. His smile widened, curling up at each end. Suddenly, he reminded Lara of the Grinch, evilly bent on stealing Christmas—or whatever else wasn't nailed down.

She took a hasty sip of her tea, stole another glance at Devon, and found herself caught. He was looking at her, and with only a foot or so separating them, his eyes were far too intense. She felt a pang she couldn't define, a strange tug inside her, as if he held one end of a link that was connected to some vital part of herself.

"Was it just an accident, Lara?" he asked softly.

His voice wasn't fair. It wasn't fair. "What else could it have been?" she managed to ask unsteadily.

"You tell me."

"It was probably a drunk driver."

"Was it?" His lean face, so expressionless until then, changed, softened somehow as a faint smile curved his lips. It wasn't a humorous smile, and yet it held a curious charm. "Then why are you afraid?"

"I'm shaken up. You said it yourself—I'm in shock." She had gained control of herself by then, refusing to give in to panic or fear or him.

"And I'm a stranger," he said.

"Now that you mention it, yes." She lifted her chin much as Ching had done, but she wasn't smiling.

What might have been a glint of amusement stirred in his eyes. "In some cultures, saving a life means it belongs to you afterward."

"Not in this one."

"Yes. Pity."

Lara felt a little puzzled, and very wary. She had seen purely male interest in a man's eyes before, and was startled to recognize it in Devon's. Her own reaction to such interest in the past had been somewhat tepid, leaving her with the conclusion that she wasn't a sensual woman. But that unsettling warmth in Devon's eyes awoke something she'd never felt before, something that made her ache. She remembered the stark feeling of his hard, powerful body against hers, and heat curled in the pit of her belly.

She jerked her gaze from him, staring down at her cup. Dangerous. Lord, how dangerous it was for her to feel this for a stranger.

"Lara?" He watched her, aware that she was shaken not only by the near miss, but by him as well. He had felt it himself, that strange, instant affinity; he didn't like it, and he didn't trust it. He was tired, she was vulnerable. It was just that. Only that.

But he couldn't stop looking at her, couldn't block this intense awareness of her. Not what he had expected. What had he expected? A shattered woman, perhaps? She certainly wasn't shattered. Her pale green eyes, a shade as bright as new grass, held no defeat; she was wary and controlled, but it was obvious the numbness was dissolving. Would she panic now that someone was bent on disrupting the stalemate of months? Somehow, he didn't think so. Panic, he thought, was alien to this woman's nature.

"Lara, look at me."

She did, her gaze steady and guarded. No, he thought, there was no panic. Shadows, yes. Pain. Loneliness that came of being set apart from others. But shrewd intelligence and humor and perception lurked in her eyes.

He told himself that he was a bastard; it wasn't the first time such a thought had occurred to him. He smiled. "Have dinner with me tomorrow night, after rehearsal?"

"I don't think—"


Lara found herself nodding, and she was hardly surprised by her acceptance. That dark velvet voice... She got up when he did, waiting while he took his cup to the kitchen.

"Housebroken," he offered with a smile when he came back into the living room.

"Only because you want to be," she said involuntarily.

He chuckled, but didn't comment. Instead, he said, "Since your car's back at the theater, I'll pick you and Ching up tomorrow for rehearsal. We can bring him back here before we go to dinner. Quarter to six?"

"Fine," she murmured, wondering if she was out of her mind. Almost certain that she was.

"See you then." And he was gone.

Lara locked the door after him, then went back into the living room and stared at her cat. "You were a lot of help," she told him with a shaky little laugh.

Ching sat on the coffee table exactly as he had the entire time Devon had been there. His long tail waved slowly below him; his chin was up, his eyes were half-closed, and there was a distinctly unfeline smile on his pointed face. "Yah," he said softly.

"You're weird. You're a weird cat."

He blinked seraphically and began to purr. Ching's purr was no more feline than his other sounds, since it resembled a cross between a human's tuneful hum and the flutter of a bird's wings. It was also extremely loud. Lara had gotten used to it, but it tended to unnerve others—particularly since the hum held a definite but elusive tune, always the same one, that no one had yet been able to identify. A veterinarian had once confided to her that a cat's purr was one of the mysteries of science; he wanted to do a paper on Ching.

Lara moved about the apartment getting ready for bed. She kept her mind blank, unwilling to think about the confusing day behind her or the potentially troubling ones ahead. Still, she was conscious that whatever happened, the limbo of these past months was ended.

She wasn't sure how she felt about it. Emotions couldn't exist in a limbo. No pain or fear, no grief. It provided a kind of peace, even if that was only an illusion.

Sometimes, she thought, illusions were better than reality. Sometimes, illusions were the only havens left.

Out of habit, she turned off her bedside lamp before moving across the dark room to open the drapes. Also because of habit, she looked out first. Since her apartment windows faced front on the main street of town, it was well lighted outside. Across the deserted street was another group of apartments, this one set at right angles; the sidewalk there was in shadow. A faint motion caught Lara's attention, and she stood perfectly still, her eyes straining.

At the corner of the apartment building directly across the way, a patch of darkness moved slightly. Lara waited, holding her breath unconsciously. She stood there for a good five minutes, but couldn't be sure if she had seen someone leave. Or arrive. Or if she had seen anyone at all. Was someone watching her building? Perhaps even this window?

She left the drapes closed and crawled into bed feeling distinctly uneasy. Ching was already stretched out under the covers. She stroked his warm flank and listened to his rasping purr, and stared at the dark ceiling.

At one end of town near a shadowed street corner, a call was placed from an unlighted phone booth. The caller, insubstantial in the dimness, waited for a response, and then offered a flat statement as greeting.

"It's started."

The voice on the other end was impersonal. "Does she know?"

"She's no fool. What do you think?"

"You'll have to move fast then."



"No. Not yet."

"It's your call." The voice was accepting. "Keep in touch."

"Right." The caller hung up, then glided away from the dark booth like a shadow.

On the opposite end of town, another call was placed, this one from a lighted booth at a convenience store. As before, the conversation was terse and largely without emotion.

"Are you in?"

"Yes. She's taking part in a community theater production. So am I."

"Anything yet?"

"I threw a scare into her tonight. I have a few more planned. We'll see."

"Search her apartment."

"Of course."

"We have to have those documents."

"I know. If she has them, I'll find them. If she doesn't have them—"

"Kill her."

There was a pause, and then the caller said slowly, "That wasn't the deal, unless she proved to be a threat."

"It is our new understanding," the voice said with forced patience, "that she could conceivably know more than we realized. Even without the documents, she's a threat. Make certain about the documents first—then kill her."

"Another thousand."

"You'll get it. When she's dead."

"Very well."

"Keep in touch."

"Right." The caller hung up, then strolled away from the convenience store, whistling softly.

When Devon arrived at Lara's apartment the following evening, she was waiting with a calm she had wrestled into place. After lying awake half the night, she had abruptly fallen into a deep sleep, from which only Ching's insistent demands for breakfast had roused her. She had managed to work a couple of hours during the day, and had thought a great deal.

The result was her state of calm, and it was different from that of the last months. She wasn't sure how exactly, but it wasn't a limbo, and even though some part of her longed to feel that mindless peace again, she was ready to begin living once more.

"Hi," Devon greeted her casually as she opened the door to him.


He looked at the big cat in her arms. "Does he have a carrier? I don't know about cats being loose in cars."

"He has a carrier," Lara admitted, feeling Ching stiffen at the hated word. "But I wouldn't subject you to that."

"What do you mean?"

"Within half a block, there'd be a report to the police that you were torturing somebody in your car."


"Trust me. Ching doesn't sound like a cat when he howls. And he would howl." She smiled a little at Devon's look of amused surprise. Odd, she thought, that her first impression of him had been one of an enigmatic lack of emotion; his lean, handsome face seemed very expressive to her now. "He's well trained," she added. "He’ll behave."

"A trained cat," Devon murmured, stepping back so she could come out into the hall. "I always thought that was a contradiction in terms."

"With most cats, it is," she agreed, leaving her apartment and watching him firmly close the door. "Not with Ching."

A few moments later, Devon had to agree that Lara's cat was well trained. Ching sat on the seat between them, his head as high as Devon's shoulder, since he was sitting up. The cat obviously needed to see where they were going. His front paws dangled, and his pointed face was lively with interest.

"He looks like a rabbit," Devon said after a glance.

Ching mumbled something, but didn't look at the man.

"Did he just swear at me?" Devon asked, startled.

"Probably. He doesn't like rabbits. Ching, behave!"

Devon's lips twitched. "Why do I get the feeling he's going to steal every scene?"

Lara smiled ruefully. "He just might."

When they reached the theater, it became clear that Ching was going to steal the hearts of almost everyone involved in the production—whether or not he stole scenes from the actors. From the moment Lara carried her cat backstage, he was the center of attention.

Hardly an indiscriminate cat, Ching developed a different attitude toward each person. He beamed at Nick's wife, Susie, but was politely unresponsive to the director's attempts to charm him. He was somewhat suspicious of Tim, was affable with Pat and Sonia, and hissed at Melanie when she tried to pet him. He took an active dislike to two of the stage crew, including Luke, whose tickle beneath the cat's chin provoked a muttered comment from Ching that was so profane it easily crossed the boundaries of language.

"Cats usually like me," Luke said in surprise.

Ching, sitting on one end of the old wooden table, tilted his head to look up at the man through slitted eyes. "Yah!" he said with distinct animosity.

Luke took a step back, almost comically bewildered. "What'd I ever do to you, cat?"

"I'm sorry, Luke, Melanie," Lara said helplessly. "He just doesn't take to some people."

"But will he take to stage direction?" Nick asked, eyeing his newest actor with foreboding.

Lara nodded reassuringly. "He has a large vocabulary, Nick, and he enjoys participating. He'll be fine."

"A large vocabulary? Show me," Nick requested.

As always, and totally unlike most cats, Ching went through his paces flawlessly. He knew all the standard canine obedience commands—though Lara prudently made them requests—and in addition was familiar with an impressive number of commonly used words.

"How long will he stay in one place once you've told him to?" Nick asked.

"Until I call him."

"You're sure?"

"Unless something's about to fall on him, he'll stay put."

Susie, who had watched intently, sighed and said, "Lara, I wish you'd tell me your secret. My cat barely knows his name."

Lara smiled a little. "Sorry, it wasn't my doing, not really. Ching learned most of this on his own. I just happened to notice one day. He's a bit... unusual."

Ching began purring.

"I'll say," Nick muttered, staring at the cat. "There's a—that's a definite tune. Isn't it?"

"I think so," Lara admitted. "But I've never been able to identify it."

They all listened intently for a few moments while Ching purred and gazed at them beatifically.

"Beats me," Luke said finally, and hearing a call from one of his men on stage, he wandered away.

Lara glanced at Devon, who had taken a chair at the table and was frowning slightly as he looked at Ching. The frown gave his handsome face a hard look of danger, and she felt unsettled by it. Then he seemed to feel her gaze, and the frown vanished as he looked at her and smiled.

The smile unsettled her even more.

"I can't get the tune," Nick said with a shrug. "Maybe one of us'll get it eventually. In the meantime let's run through the rest of the script, and then Susie wants to measure you for costumes. Sonia, Pat, you two go ahead, since you aren't in this act."

Ching remained where he was on the end of the table, seemingly paying close attention as the remaining actors went over their lines with Nick. He continued, to purr until the director spoke firmly to him.

"Ching, we can't hear ourselves over your music."

The cat studied him for a moment, then stopped purring and began washing a striped forepaw.

"Damn," Nick muttered, then cleared his throat. "Fine. Okay—um—Lara, it's your line."

The reading continued without incident. They finished with this first run-through less than an hour later. Susie commandeered Devon for measurements and took him back to the dressing rooms, and Lara wandered out on stage. She'd left Ching to be petted and talked to by Sonia and Pat while a wary Melanie watched and Nick frowned over the notes on his script.

"How'd it go?" Luke asked cheerily, approaching where she stood near the wings.

"Fine, I guess." Lara slid her hands into the pockets of her denim skirt and shrugged. "I've never been in a play before, so I'm not really sure. The stage is looking good." She studied the garden scene, where the witch was to make her evil bargain with Rapunzel's father.

"I'm waiting for Nick's approval," Luke confessed. "I've never been involved with a play either."

"You haven't?" She looked up at him. "I thought community theaters would use the same stage crews every time. I don't know why I assumed that, but—"

"They usually do, I understand," Luke agreed. "But Nick's foreman was out of town or something, and he advertised. I happened to be passing through town—I'm sort of a gypsy at the moment—and I answered the ad. Which is why I'm here losing my heart to Rapunzel."

"Blarney," she scoffed, accepting his words as lightly as they were uttered.

Luke assumed a hurt expression. "Now, is that any way to treat a man who lays his heart at your feet? Of course, I realize that I'll have to win over Ching first, but I have plans."

"Good luck."

He eyed her. "You don't think I can do it?"

"I imagine you could," she said politely. "And I imagine the sun could rise in the west, given a slight change in the earth's orbit."

Luke winced, but rallied quickly. "Tomorrow, I'll come armed with tuna. In the meantime, have dinner with me tonight."

She smiled. "Sorry. I have plans."

"Tomorrow night then?"

"Why don't we wait until tomorrow?"

He sighed heavily. "I know what it is. Somebody else got here before me, damn him. No ring, so it can't be a husband. Fiancé? Boyfriend? Just tell me the scoundrel's name, and I'll beat him to a pulp."

"I don't approve of violence," she said, still casual.

"Lara, Susie's ready for you," Devon said, emerging from the shadows of the wings.

"Thanks." She smiled apologetically at Luke, who shrugged cheerfully and went back to work. She walked past Devon, giving him another smile, which he returned, then headed backstage toward the dressing rooms. Wondering suddenly how much Devon had heard of her conversation with Luke, she glanced back over her shoulder at him just before he was out of sight.

He was standing with his hands in his pockets, gazing across the stage toward Luke. He wasn't smiling any longer. His handsome face was still and hard.

And dangerous.


Lara told herself that her own uneasiness was making her suspicious of everything, but it didn't help much. That look on Devon's face bothered her; it hadn't been jealousy or dislike of another man's attentions to her, of that she was sure. It had been something else, something she couldn't define.

She stood in the dressing room while Susie measured her, then draped fabric around her, barely aware of the other woman's occasional enthusiastic comments. She kept remembering her first impression of Devon as enigmatic and dispassionate, and reminded herself that he could well be a natural actor with the ability to cloak his true nature. But what was his true nature? Was he as complex as she was beginning to believe? Were his motives for the apparent interest in her as straightforward as they seemed?

He had listened to her conversation with Luke; she was sure of it. But what did it mean? That hard stare at Luke... Not jealousy or possessiveness, but—what?

Was she imagining things?

Almost an hour later, as she sat across from Devon in a booth in one of Pinewood's few restaurants, she still wasn't sure. Devon was smiling at her, but not even the easy charm he could apparently turn as if with a switch could hide the shadows in his eyes; and his burdened look tugged at her, virtually making her forget her vague suspicions.

"You're very quiet," he said. "Is it because Ching was upset with us for abandoning him at your apartment?"

"No." She smiled. "He knows just how to make me feel guilty, but I've gotten used to it."

"Then what is it?"

Lara realized she was pushing the food around on her plate and eating very little. "I'm not very hungry, that's all."

"Sure it's not the company?" he asked lightly.

"No, of course not."

"Polite. But is it the truth?"

"Why would I lie?"

"Never answer a question with another question."

She managed a laugh. "Sorry. I wouldn't be here with you if I didn't want to be. How's that?"

"Better." His smile faded slightly. "But I'd be happier if you could bring yourself to say my name."

She looked at him, startled.

"You haven't, you know."

"I'm sorry, Devon."

"I hope it gets easier with practice. Especially since we're supposed to be lovers. Eventually."

Lara had the strong feeling that he wasn't talking about the play. But before she could comment he was going on in the same easy tone.

"Nick did a good job adapting the fairy tale, don't you think? I read the original version last night; it's strictly a bare-bones kind of story."

"Most fairy tales are," she said, matching his tone. "Just moralistic fables for children."

"Nick's story isn't for children. How do you feel about that, Lara?"

The sudden change from the general to the specific caught her off guard, and she couldn't look away from his intense eyes. She cleared her throat with a husky little sound. "As you said, Nick did a good job of adapting it for the stage."

"And for adults." His smile went a bit crooked. "Lots of passionate embraces in his version. Before we begin rehearsing on stage, I thought we should talk about that."

"Oh?" She managed to yank her gaze from his, looking around the almost-deserted restaurant with what she hoped was careless interest. "I don't see why."


That haunting voice. Tugged at irresistibly, she found herself meeting his gaze again. She'd never been so conscious of her name as when he spoke it, and she had never been so aware of her body as when he looked at her. "Stop it," she whispered, not even sure what she was demanding.

His face seemed to harden slightly as he looked at her, as though everything inside him went still for an instant. His eyes darkened, something hot and primitive flashing in their shadowy depths. "No. I can't stop it. And neither can you."

Lara felt a stab of stark excitement, so piercing it stole her breath. He might as well have spoken a rawly sexual invitation, one her body responded to like kindling to a match. It was there, in his voice, something so utterly male it held the ancient sounds of battle and struggle and mating, as if it came from the caves.

Dear God... He wasn't touching her; there was a table between them. He was totally still, yet she felt enclosed by him. Her heart was hammering, and every nerve in her body felt as if it lay exposed and quivering, as if he had stripped her naked and left her achingly vulnerable. She had never in her life felt desire for a man, and she now had a single, awed thought: If he can do this to me with just his voice...

She should have been frightened. It was too soon for them and too new to her for this to be something she could possibly understand or accept. But that peculiar link between them, the tugging inside her, left no room for fear. There was only want, filling her until she ached with it.

Devon swore roughly beneath his breath and slid from the booth. Lara automatically matched his movements, vaguely aware that he had dropped money on the table, vividly aware of his big hand grasping hers in a strong, warm hold as he led her from the restaurant. She felt dazed, shocked by her response but not willing to fight it.

There was enough light in the parking lot for her to see his face as he stopped beside his car and turned to her. She had the sudden realization that he was angry, and that perception was borne out when he released her hand and lifted both of his hands to frame her face. His hands were hard, yet his touch was gentle.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," he said in a low voice that grated. "Dammit, Lara—"

She wasn't afraid of him. She thought dimly that perhaps she should be afraid of him, because the anger in him was dark and powerful and violent. But he wasn't angry with her, she knew that somehow, and it was enough. Staring up into the dark pools of his eyes, she managed a shaky smile. "I—I didn't expect it either."

He was very still, gazing down at her. She could almost feel a struggle going on in him, a terrible silent battle, and she was suddenly afraid that she would be on the losing side. She didn't want to lose, even though she couldn't have defined what her loss would have been; she knew only that she needed something in him and didn't care what it might cost her.

Her hands lifted to his chest, fingers probing compulsively to seek hard muscle beneath the bulky wool of his sweater. "Maybe I'd better ask if—if you're involved with somebody," she murmured. His broad chest moved as he sighed roughly.

"I am. I'm involved with you." The words were terse, almost reluctant, but his deep voice was husky.

Some part of Lara's mind told her that this was insanity, that she had no right to get involved with any man, much less this virtual stranger. But he made her feel so alive, and she wanted to go on feeling that way.

"Devon—" She had no idea what she was going to say, but whatever it was she never got the chance to say it. His powerful arms closed about her, pulling her fully against his hard body, and his mouth captured hers.

Captured like something he thought might escape him.

He didn't waste time with the slow, tentative explorations of a first kiss; there was no hesitation in him, no supplication. With a certainty she couldn't begin to fight, he demanded—and took—what belonged to him.

Lara had never been kissed like that before. His lips were passionate, insistent, holding a stark need that seared her to her bones. The sensations and emotions rushing through her body and mind were so wild she almost cried out with the force of them. Her mouth opened willingly to his, her arms going around his lean waist and holding on to him.

She didn't give a damn that they were standing in a parking lot in full view of anyone who happened to look, and she didn't feel the faint chill of the fall night. All she could feel was the heat blooming inside her and the hard strength of his body. And she could only stare up at him dazedly when he finally lifted his head.

Devon drew a deep breath and muttered an oath. He set her away from him firmly, then opened the car door and put her into the passenger seat without another word. Lara said nothing, at first because she wasn't sure she could speak and later because she didn't know what to say. So the drive to her apartment was a silent one.

Lara honestly didn't know what would happen once they reached her place. Despite his unhidden hunger, she thought that Devon was still struggling against something, still fighting not to give in to his own passion. It puzzled her. Did he expect her to demand some kind of commitment, was that it? Or was the burdened look in his eyes an indication of past hurts?

She didn't know how to ask him.

It was Devon who spoke first, taking her arm as they went up the stairs to her apartment. And though there was no evidence of strain on his hard face, the sound of it was in his voice.

"Tell me you don't want this, Lara."

They were at her door. She watched as he took her keys and unlocked the door, then looked up at him. His words had been a request rather than a challenge; he wasn't asking her to deny the desire between them, if she could, but to refuse to do anything about that desire.

She felt bewildered, half angry, and both emotions were reflected in her voice. "We aren't in high school, Devon," she said, keeping the words low because they were still standing before her unopened apartment door. "And I won't accept the sole responsibility of saying no. But I don't have to, do I? You've already said it."


She snatched her keys from his hand and pushed open her apartment door, stepping inside and half-turning to shut him out.


Lara had heard such a note in her cat's voice only once before, and the memory of that night would haunt her for the rest of her life. She went motionless, one hand on the doorknob and the other holding her keys and gripping the jamb with whitened fingers. She didn't have to look for Ching; he'd be under the couch.

Devon's hand covered the one on the jamb. "Lara? What is it? What's wrong?"

"Someone's been here," she whispered. "In the apartment."

Swiftly, he pushed the door farther open and stepped inside. In a low voice, he said, "Stay here, and don't close the door."

She didn't move, just leaned back against the jamb and watched as he went silently down the short hallway that led to the kitchen and bedroom. She knew she should go to the telephone and call the number she'd memorized. Anything suspicious, they'd told her, anything at all. They'd check it out, and if it proved to be a threat to her safety, she'd be protected.

Moved again. Uprooted, vanishing from this life only to appear in another one. Like a penciled line disappearing under the stroke of an eraser, Lara Callahan would simply cease to be.

No... not again.

Ching muttered softly from under the couch, and Lara closed the door and came into the living room. There was no one here now, she knew. She dropped her keys on the coffee table and gazed around the room for a moment, then crossed to her drafting board and stared at it.

"Nothing," Devon said, emerging from the hallway. "What makes you think someone was here?"

"Ching told me," she murmured.

"Where is he?"

"Under the couch."

There was a moment of silence, and then Devon called the cat's name firmly. Lara half-turned to watch her feline friend emerge from beneath the couch and leap lightly to the coffee table, where he sat with flattened ears and a lashing tail.

"Yah!" he said in an emphatic tone.

Devon studied the cat, then looked at Lara. "He's obviously upset, but he was when we left."

Lara reached to unpin a drawing from the board, holding up the two pieces so that Devon could see them; a dreamy watercolor of a castle had been cut from corner to corner. "Just something I was doing for myself," she said in the same even, detached tone. She put the ruined picture down and added, "The knife cut right into the board."

"Are you going to call the police?"

"No. Nothing's missing. There won't be any fingerprints."

Devon took a step toward her, and his voice was taut when he demanded, "Lara, what the hell is going on?"

She went over to the couch and sat down, suddenly aware of trembling legs. "What makes you think I know?"

"Don't give me that. I want an answer."

An answer, she thought. Well, she had her answer now. This wasn't a vague suspicion. This was fact. Someone had broken in to her apartment, had searched neatly and professionally through her belongings, touched her clothing. She felt violated. And frightened. And alone.

"Lara." His haunting voice was quiet now. "Let me help you."

She couldn't trust him. She couldn't trust anyone— and how stupid of her to have forgotten that. "You're confusing the play with reality, Devon." Her voice sounded calm, she thought. "In real life, the prince never comes storming to the rescue."

He moved around the end of the couch and sat down beside her, not quite touching. "Give me a chance."

She didn't look at him; she didn't dare, wary of losing her precarious control. "I don't want this," she said clearly, giving him an answer he had demanded earlier. "You said you couldn't stop it. You said I couldn't, even though you wanted me to. But I will. I'll stop it. I don't want you in my life, Devon."

"You're lying," he said flatly.

Lara could feel the tension growing inside her, quivering like glass about to shatter. With all the will she could command, she kept her voice even and detached. "No. But it doesn't matter, does it? You wanted me to say no, and that's what I'm saying. Now, please leave."

"Look at me, Lara." When she didn't move, he leaned over and grasped both her shoulders, turning her firmly.

She wanted to flinch away from his touch, his gaze, because she knew her will could never stand against his. Not when he looked at her. Not when he touched her.

"Stop it," she whispered, just as she had in the restaurant. She was caught again, tugged at in that profound, overpowering way, and she couldn't fight it.

"I won't leave," he said. "I won't walk out because you're determined to face this, whatever it is, alone. I want you, Lara. And you want me. Admit it."

She had no choice. Even now, with the shadows of fear closing in on her, she couldn't deny the effect he had on her. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, to be enclosed by him and revel in his warmth and strength.

"Yes," she admitted finally, defeated. "But you said—"

"Never mind what I said." A muscle tightened in his jaw. "Even if you'd told me you didn't want this, I probably—" He broke off, shaking his head. "Just never mind. We'll talk about all of it later."

Lara remained half-turned toward him as he released her and sat back. She knew what he wanted to talk about now, but she was still uncertain. Tell no one, they'd said. And she didn't know him, after all, no matter how he could make her feel. But he'd been with her; he couldn't be involved in it.

Could he? An accomplice could have done the dirty work while Devon charmed his way into her life... her bed.

"Don't look at me like that," he said in a sudden, low growling tone of voice.

She shifted her gaze to the hands clasped together in her lap, then looked back at him because she couldn't help herself.

He sighed roughly and half-lifted a hand as if to touch her. But the powerful hand fell back to his thigh and clenched briefly into a fist. "The truck last night," he said tersely. "Now your apartment. What's going on, Lara?"

Those burdened eyes. What would he do, she wondered dimly, if she offered him her own burden? Would his desire for her force him to share it? Or would her troubles quite effectively provide the no he had wanted her to utter?

"Dammit, Lara, tell me."

She felt a sigh escape her, but tried to warn him. "In real life, there are worse things than witches with spells... and prisons aren't always made of stone."

He looked at her for a moment, then asked quietly, "Are you imprisoned?"

"In a way."

"Tell me."

Was he involved? She didn't know, couldn't know. She gave him her trust blindly. And there was a certain relief in finally telling someone.

"A year ago I was living with my father in another state. He was working for an electronics company, where they designed state-of-the-art computers. The company held several government contracts, so everyone was upset, very upset, when it was discovered that some of their designs had been pirated."

"Industrial spies," Devon said. "It's been known to happen."

Lara remembered only then that he worked for an electronics company himself. "Yes. And if it had been only that, it would have been bad enough. But my father and others were working on several top secret projects, and when one of those designs came up missing, there was a general panic."

Devon waited for a moment when she fell silent, then prompted, "And so?"

She took a breath. "Security was tightened, and the government sent in investigators to try to find out who was responsible. My father was heading one of the research groups, so he worked closely with the investigators. They found nothing. The general belief was that someone on the inside had been selling the designs, but they couldn't discover who it was."

"Did your father agree with the general belief?"

"No. He didn't think someone on the inside had been seduced; he believed that one of his own people had been working for someone outside the company."

"Did he know who it was?"

"He suspected. Then, a few weeks later, he found something." Lara shook her head unconsciously. "I don't know how. I'm not even sure exactly what it was; the FBI talked about documents, but I never saw them. But Dad did tell me..."


'That it was bigger than they'd suspected. That a... he called it a cartel of criminal businessmen had developed a system of planting spies into the most top secret high-tech government installations in the country."

"He was sure of that? He had proof?" Devon's face was intent, his eyes fixed on hers.

"He said so. He said he'd found the link, that he knew who the plant was inside his company, and that he'd learned the names of several people in other companies. I wanted to call the FBI right then, but he said he wanted to give them the whole package. That's the way he phrased it, 'the whole package.' I'd never seen him so upset, furious, and, I think, afraid."

After a moment, Devon asked, "What did he do?"

"He went out several times during the next week, and came back late. He spent hours locked in his study, working at his computer. He wouldn't tell me anything, just that he was tying all the loose ends together." She stopped, not sure she could tell Devon the rest of it.

He reached out and took one of her hands, holding it in a strong, warm grasp. "Tell me, honey."

The endearment startled her, and for the first time she understood why that word was an endearment. Like the substance it named, it was golden and unutterably sweet, with the cloaked wildness of something given by nature rather than man-made.

Her fingers twined unconsciously with his. "I don't think Dad suspected the cartel was on to him," she said unsteadily. "Otherwise, he would have sent me away. That night... I went out with some friends. When I came home, I didn't know there was anything wrong until I opened the front door. Ching howled, the way he did tonight."

"Yah," the cat murmured from his seat on the coffee table, apparently in response to his name.

Lara glanced at him blindly, then turned her unseeing gaze back to Devon. "Later, the FBI found out—I don't know how—that Dad had gotten some kind of warning. A phone call, maybe. They wouldn't tell me. But they were sure he'd had at least a few minutes to hide whatever evidence he had gotten together. They were sure of that."

Devon's fingers tightened gently around hers.

She hardly felt it. Her voice had become a monotone, each word dropped into place starkly. "I went across the hall and knocked on the study door. There wasn't an answer. The door wasn't locked. The room was a shambles, furniture overturned, books and papers scattered everywhere. Dad's safe was open— and empty.

"He was lying on the floor beside his desk. He was... they'd beaten him."

Devon muttered something under his breath and pulled her into his arms, holding her close against him. Lara, cold and aching, accepted his comforting and his warmth, realizing only then that no one had ever held her to let her grieve for her father. She'd had no other family, and the FBI had given her friends no chance to contact her. She didn't cry, because there were no tears left in her for the memory of that night, but she burrowed closer to Devon with a shudder that shook her entire body.

"It's all right," he said softly after a few moments. "It's all right, honey."

"No, it isn't." Her voice was thick, unsteady. "It'll never be all right again." She pushed back away from him, but didn't object when he kept one arm around her shoulders.

Devon was a little pale, but his mouth curved in a kind of wry self-mockery. "I'm sorry; I know platitudes don't ease the pain. No words could."

His burdened eyes told her he knew all about pain. Drawing a deep breath, she said, "I called the FBI. Dad was... there was nothing anyone could do for him. Agents came. And they just took over. They moved me to an apartment across town; they let me pack a bag and take Ching, but nothing else. Later, they talked to me, questioned me, for hours."

"They said that Dad had gotten a warning, and that since the whole house had been searched he must not have told those men where the evidence was hidden. They thought I knew. But I didn't know." She sighed raggedly. "They finally said that the cartel might believe I knew something, and that I was a target. So they put me in their protection program. Callahan isn't my real name; it's Mason. I get a new name, a new identity every time they move me in the protection program."

After a moment, Devon said quietly, "Imprisoned."

"I didn't realize at first," she murmured. "I was numb. I didn't care. It just hit me a few weeks ago. That I was cut off, rootless. And now..."

"Now, it looks like the cartel has found you. Is that it?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

"Maybe? Lara, you were nearly run down last night. Your apartment's been searched. What else could it be?"

"I just don't see the point," she told him, saying aloud what had been running through her mind. "The cartel has to know the FBI would be suspicious of any accident, so why try to run me down with a truck?"

"To scare you."

Lara grappled with that for a moment. "Because I might somehow lead them to the evidence against them?"

"They searched your apartment," he reminded her. "And they meant you to know it, because the only sign they left was that drawing cut in half."

She felt cold again. "Damn. Why can't everyone— the FBI, those criminals—realize that if I knew anything at all, I would have said so?"

"Maybe they think that you might know something you aren't consciously aware of," Devon suggested slowly.

"How could that be?"

He shook his head. "I'm not sure. Something you saw but didn't really notice; something you heard but didn't really listen to. I don't know."

"Neither do I. I've gone over it again and again in my mind. Do you think I could ever forget that night? Or the weeks before? I’ll never forget, not any of it!"

Devon's arm tightened around her. "Easy," he murmured.

Lara took a steadying breath, then rose and began wandering restlessly around the room.

"You should call the FBI," he said.

"And be uprooted again? Lifted out of this cage and dropped into another one?" She laughed bitterly. "No, thanks. I won't run for the rest of my life."

"Then what?" His voice hardened. "Roll over and die for them?"

"They haven't hurt me."

"Not yet. Do you really believe they'll take the chance of leaving you alive when they think you know something?"

"I won't run. I won't."

"Lara, for God's sake, be reasonable."

She laughed again, not bitterly but not amused. "How ironic that I'm about to occupy center stage in a fairy tale. It isn't so easy to be a prince in real life, is it? Stay out of it, Devon. The witch might blind you for real. Or worse."

He rose from the couch, watching her as she paced the room. "You think I'm going to run out on you," he said slowly.

"I think you should," she said in a flat tone, not looking at him. "You'd be a fool not to. In real life, I don't need a prince—I need a bloody army." She was hardly aware of her own sardonic tone.

Devon chuckled suddenly.

Lara swung around to stare at him in surprise, then heard a giggle escape her. "Hysteria," she offered as an excuse for her choked laugh.

He was smiling a little. "No, just a sense of humor. But if you aren't willing to call out the FBI's army, I'm afraid you're going to have to settle for a prince. I'm not going anywhere, Lara."

"Now who's not being reasonable?" It was the only thing she could think to say.

He slid his hands into the pockets of his pants, powerful shoulders moving in a faint shrug. "I’ll admit I've never thought of myself as a prince, but I'm willing to give it a shot."


His smile faded, then changed, reappearing as a sweet, determined expression that was indescribably male. "You know why."

Lara felt her knees weaken. The man possessed an uncanny ability to scatter what she fondly called her wits, she decided dazedly. She forced herself to make one last attempt to make him see this situation sanely. "Devon, this isn't a fairy tale; there won't be any helpful magic. It isn't a play; there won't be applause when it's over. It's real, and I can't see a happy ending."

"Maybe you're not looking hard enough."

"I don't dare look any harder." She had held her voice steady with great effort.

He came to her slowly, but didn't touch her when he stood only a foot or so away. There was an expression in his eyes she had seen before, that inward-turned anger that was so dark, and his handsome face tautened until it was almost masklike.

He's fighting again. The thought was clear in her mind, but the knowledge was bewildering. What was he fighting?


"You can't talk me out of it, Lara." He was terse, his voice clipped. "So, we'd better come up with strategy of some kind."

"For instance?" She refused to admit to herself how relieved she felt. "Pull up the drawbridge and flood the moat?"

"I don't suppose you'd consider something along those lines?"

Lara shook her head. "No, not if you mean staying put in the apartment. Besides, this is hardly an impregnable castle, as the events of tonight proved."

He frowned. "They should have put you in a building with more security; the front entrance isn't even locked."

"This is a small town. Apartment buildings don't have security here. They've never needed it."

"You need it," he pointed out.

"Not now. I have a prince." She had intended to sound sardonic, but somehow her voice had emerged with a tremor in it.

Devon made a slight movement, as if he wanted to touch her. But he didn't. "Such as he is," he said lightly, then went on, "Look, it's late; we can talk about ways and means tomorrow. Why don't you go to bed. I'll bunk down on the couch—"

"No, you won't," she interrupted, controlling her voice this time and making it sound firm. "They won't try anything else tonight. If they'd wanted to, they would have been waiting here for me."

"Not if they knew I was with you."

"I'II be fine, Devon. Go home."

"Did anybody ever tell you that you're a stubborn woman?"

"Yes." She managed a smile.

He swore softly. "I don't want to leave you."

Lara chose to interpret that as concern about the possible danger rather than something more intimate. "I'll be fine," she repeated.

Devon stared at her for a moment, then bent and kissed her quickly. "If I didn't believe that," he said somewhat roughly, "I wouldn't be leaving. Lock the damned door."

She locked the door behind him, then leaned back against it for a moment. Oddly enough, there was little in her thoughts concerning faceless enemies trying to frighten her—or worse. She wandered back into the living room and looked at Ching, still sitting on the coffee table and regarding her enigmatically.

"How about that?" she murmured to him. "I have a prince."

"Yah," Ching said softly.

In his position across the street from the apartment building, the man was virtually hidden in the shadows. He watched the lighted windows on the third floor, his gaze shifting from time to time to probe the front entrance of the building. The rear entrance was barred from inside; he had checked.

The lights in the third-floor apartment went out, but the man didn't move. He barely noticed the increasing chill as the night wore on, and when muscles protested his stillness he flexed them absently and expertly without much movement; anyone passing by him in that moment would have seen nothing.

He watched, and the night passed. No one approached the apartment building across the street.


"She doesn't have them."

"You're sure?"



"We have another problem."


"There's a joker in the deck."


Lara worked most of the next day in her apartment. Devon called around nine, saying he'd just wanted to make sure she was all right. After saying he would pick her up at noon for lunch, he hung up somewhat abruptly. She wondered if he had guessed that, given half a chance, she would have avoided the lunch date.

The truth was Lara hardly knew what she was feeling—particularly about Devon. The sense of relief she felt in having shared her secret with him was almost overwhelming, and yet she was nagged by the awareness that she shouldn't have done it. She shouldn't have broken the most rigid rule of the federal protection program: Tell no one.

And even though her confession to him had brought relief, so much else hadn't been changed by it. She still felt isolated, alone. Separate.

And wary. Wary, especially, of Devon. He had said that he wouldn't leave, had seemingly accepted both her burdens and her unwillingness to call in the authorities; and yet, he was clearly struggling against his own desire for her.

"You've gone quiet on me again," he said.

He had surprised her by producing a picnic basket and then driving to Pinewood's single park, which was on the edge of town at a small lake. The fall day was clear and warm, the park virtually deserted, and they had spread their blanket near the lake.

Lara tried to think of a response to his remark, one he would accept. They had finished lunch, and had repacked the picnic basket. He was lying, on his side, on one elbow, regarding her gravely. She thought he looked a little tired, as if he hadn't slept much.


"You have the most amazing voice," she blurted.

One of his flying brows lifted, and the sapphire eyes held a flash of laughter before shadows replaced the amusement. "Have I?"

She looked at him somewhat helplessly. When he was with her, the suspicions faded away until they didn't seem to matter; it was when she was alone that those awful doubts crept in. "Yes. It—it just isn't fair, dammit!"

"Sorry," he murmured, smiling.

Lara fumbled for another topic. Without food to occupy their attention, she could no longer even try to block out her awareness of him. And, no matter what he'd said later, she couldn't help remembering that he had virtually told her to refuse him the night before.

"Don't you have to get back to your office?" she said finally. "It's after one."

"No, there's no hurry. Schedules are very informal in the design section. I think that's usually the case on the creative end of things."


Devon's smile faded. "Unless it involves security clearances and the like. Is that what you're thinking?"

She shrugged, avoiding his intent gaze. "I guess."

He watched as she picked up a red autumn leaf from the ground beside the blanket and started twirling it between her fingers. "Is that why you've been so quiet? Because telling me about it last night brought back memories?"

Lara hesitated, then said, "What happened to my father was left unresolved, unfinished. His murderers were never identified, much less caught and tried, and the evidence he spent his last days working on was never found. It didn't have an ending. And until it does..."

"You won't be able to put it behind you," he said.

"No. That's why it's almost a relief to believe the cartel has tracked me down. Something is happening, and that's better than nothing. I wanted you to understand that."

He was silent for a moment, then said, 'I can understand that, Lara." His mouth tightened suddenly as he added, "But you're risking your life needlessly by refusing to contact the authorities."

"I told you. I don't want to be moved again, and that's what they'd do."

"I realize how you feel, but—"

"How can you?" She stared at him with burning eyes. "Have you ever had your roots cut away? Have you had to learn to answer to a strange name? Have you had to divide your life into two parts, and try to forget the first part ever existed?" She drew a shaky breath. "Every face could be an enemy, so you have to hide. You hate the fear, but you can't fight it, can't conquer it—not until there's an ending. And that ending could come tomorrow... or never."


"It's like being half-alive," she whispered. "And all you can do is wait. In limbo. Like Rapunzel in her damned tower. I can't stand it anymore, Devon. I want my name back, and my life; I can't have either until it's over."

"I'm sorry," he said softly. He was very still.

She regained her control and made her voice even. "So am I. I shouldn't be dumping all this on you. But I haven't been able to talk to anyone about it."

Devon reached out suddenly and pulled her down beside him. He leaned over her, his wide shoulders blocking the sunlight. "I want you to tell me how you feel, honey," he said softly.

She gazed up into his shadowed eyes and knew he was lying. Her pain was a burden to him. She summoned a smile. "Never mind. I'll stop feeling sorry for myself. We should be getting back; you may not have a schedule, but I have a deadline and I need to work this afternoon." It was a lie, but Lara didn't care. Her whole life was a lie. Why balk at one more?

He stared down at her for an instant, something very like frustration tightening his handsome features. Then, with a curse muttered under his breath, he bent his head and kissed her fiercely, as if she were trying to elude him and he could keep her only with the power of his kiss.

Lara knew that she should fight her own response. This extremely complex man baffled her; she had the odd conviction that he was caught up in something beyond his control, just as she was, and that it was tearing him up inside. She was half-afraid to trust him, even though she had; and she tried to remember that some part of him was fighting this.

Yet she knew, with a certainty beyond question, that he needed this, just as she did. The inexplicable bond between them was something neither could fight, as if its roots were embedded too deeply inside them ever to be torn out except at the cost of mortal agony.

And her response came from that affinity, that shared, almost desperate need. She didn't understand it, but she could no more fight it than she could willfully stop breathing.

Her arms crept up around his neck, her fingers twining in the silky strands of his black hair. Her mouth came alive beneath the insistent pressure of his, opening to him. She felt one of his arms slip beneath the small of her back to press her firmly to his chest, while his other hand tangled in her hair. She heard a soft murmur of disappointment escape her lips when his mouth left them, but the dissatisfaction ebbed as he began exploring the sensitive flesh of her throat.

"Lara..." His voice was thick, impeded. "Lord, what are you doing to me?"

She caught her breath in a gasp as his lips settled over the pulse beating in her throat and she felt a jolt of exquisite pleasure. His touch evoked a sweet, stinging ache that spread throughout her body like ripples in a pool. She couldn't seem to breathe after that single gasp, as if even that life-giving function had suspended itself in taut waiting.

Then, suddenly, Devon released her, eased her hands away from him, and sat up. His shoulders were stiff, his face drawn. Without looking at her, he said, "Lara..."

Bewildered, she pushed herself up and sat staring at him. "What's wrong?"

In a low voice, he said, "When you believe there may not be a tomorrow, it's easy to follow your impulses. To give in to desires without dwelling on the consequences."

"Is that what you think I'm doing?"

Devon gave her an odd look, then sighed. "You have to be sure, that's all I'm saying."

She scrambled to her feet. "Fine. Ready to leave?"

He got up silently, gathering the blanket and basket and following her to his car. But instead of starting the engine immediately, he sat gazing through the windshield.

Lara couldn't help stealing glances at him, even though she felt cold and miserable. Part of her was angry that Devon was being rational about this, yet she was all too aware that he had been at least half-right, she couldn't deny her own reckless willingness to live right now, today. He made her forget everything when he held her in his arms, and she wanted that.

"Are we going?" she questioned abruptly, unable to bear the silence a moment longer.

He glanced at her, hesitated, then swore softly and started the car. When they reached her apartment building, he caught her wrist when she would have gotten hastily out of the car.

"Wait." He studied the front of the building almost absently, his gaze on a van with a landscaping service logo painted on it and two men energetically pruning bushes on either side of the front entrance.

Lara tried to pull away. "You don't have to come inside with me. I'll be fine, Devon."

He looked intently at her. "You've said that before."

"And I meant it." She kept her voice steady. "You were right. The last thing I need today is a fling. I’ll wait and see if there's a tomorrow. Thanks for lunch."

"Your car's still at the theater," he said. "I'll pick you up at a quarter to six."

She pulled her hand away and got out of the car, closing the door without another word.

Devon watched her until she vanished inside the building. He returned his gaze to the gardeners at work, who had spared him no more than cursory glances. He put his hand on the gearshift, hesitated, then put the car in gear and drew away from the curb with a bleak sigh.

It was always difficult, he reminded himself savagely. But this time it was far worse than that. Lara wasn't an enemy. She was a lonely, wary woman trapped in a situation not of her making. She was so damned vulnerable, and he couldn't help but wonder if, like Rapunzel, she was bound to fall for the first man who found a way into her prison.

It was that as much as his own deception that was tearing him apart. Did she want him? Or would any "prince" evoke the same response in her? And if she wanted him, how would she feel when she discovered what he really was?

He longed to tell her, but couldn't. Her entire life was a lie, one she hated; what would she think of his lie? The thought wasn't really a question, because he knew what she'd think. He thought it himself. "Bastard," he murmured.

"Lara, how about this?" Nick placed sheet music on the somewhat battered piano that stood center stage surrounded by the chaos of the stage crew.

She slipped onto the bench and studied the music, her pale and delicate face brightening as though someone had handed her a gift. "Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata," she murmured.

"You can play it?" Nick asked.

"Well, it's been a while," she said.


From the shadows of the wings, Devon watched as the other actors gathered around the piano. Ching sat on top, motionless as a statue with his ringed tail neatly curled around his striped forepaws; like his human companions, his attention was focused on the woman who ran her long, agile fingers over the ivories experimentally.

Devon hadn't known what to say to Lara after their abrupt parting earlier in the day, and with her attitude of aloof courtesy, she hadn't offered an opportunity to say much of anything. She hadn't sulked or displayed either anger or resentment; she had simply withdrawn from him.

Devon hated that. He needed her so badly that he ached with it, but there was no way he could explain that to her—not without being forced to explain too many other things as well. God knew he wanted to explain it all, for his sake as well as hers, but he couldn't. Not yet.

Nor could he allow this taut distance between them to remain. It was dangerous, far too dangerous, for her to shut him out right now. She had to talk to him, had to confide her feelings and fears and memories. She had to. The answer was there, somewhere inside her, hidden because she couldn't bear to think about the night her father had been killed. And Devon had to have that answer.

He hadn't dared push her—yet. But he was intensely aware that time was running out. And he was left with the bitter knowledge that he would be destroying any possibility of a future between them if he pushed Lara, demanding her deepest trust while denying her his trust.

She wouldn't be able to forgive that.

Devon found that he was watching her as she coaxed resonant notes from the old piano, something in his chest hurting. She had said he had an amazing voice, and his amusement had been brief, quickly replaced by the knowledge that his voice was one of the reasons he was here. He himself heard nothing unusual in his voice, but had accepted the consensus that he could extract information where others failed.

It was his specialty.

Lara glanced up at Nick in surprise. "It's in tune." The piano looked, to put it mildly, as if it had been rescued from a condemned building.

"Yeah, I had it done this afternoon. Play."

"The entire sonata?" she asked with a smile.

"Sure. We'll pick out the passages we want later."

Lara nodded, and her expression became intent with concentration as she began playing the piece.

After the first haunting notes of the music rose above the noise of the stage crew, Devon wasn't surprised to see the men gradually stop working on the exterior of a pseudo stone tower and begin listening. Susie appeared from the opposite side of the stage with two costume sketches held in her hands and joined the group at the piano, her pretty face reflecting pleasure.

The music went on, a bit tentative in places because of Lara's lack of recent practice. Devon wondered idly what the group would say if he told them that Lara had won an international competition with this particular sonata less than ten years before.

He knew that. Just as he knew all the statistical facts of her life.

His gaze left the woman playing the piano and roved about the stage, automatically counting and arriving at the correct number; they were all here, and had been for nearly two hours. Nothing unusual had happened since he and Lara had arrived at the theater with Ching.

But she was in danger, dammit, and hell-bent against asking for any kind of help. After he had seemingly blown hot and then cold, she wasn't about to turn to him naturally; he would have to persuade her—and the thought of that left a bitter taste in his mouth.

He was going to be damned no matter what he did.

Devon made up his mind right then. It couldn't go on this way; he had to tell her. He'd see her safely home tonight, and then he'd call—

The thought ended with chilling abruptness. Her car. It had been parked behind the theater, right out in the open for anyone to see. For anyone to get at.

After making certain that the attention of everyone on stage remained focused on Lara, Devon eased farther back into the wings and then silently went backstage. He slipped out the back exit, closing the heavy fire door behind him with scarcely a sound. He went to his own car first, opening the trunk and removing several tools and a small device designed to receive and scan a number of electronic frequencies.

It was dark; there was only one security light behind the theater, and it was located a number of yards from the parked cars. Devon turned on his flashlight as he approached Lara's car, then spent some time on the ground examining the underside of the vehicle. He was quick, but thorough.

Nothing. The scanner remained mute, which indicated there was no device such as a bomb hidden in or under the car. But Devon knew that bombs weren't the only means of wrecking a car and occupant. He got to his feet and cautiously raised the hood, then bent and very carefully checked the engine, with his sensitive touch as well as the narrow beam of light.

No more than five minutes into his search, he found it. The steering mechanism had been tampered with. He remained perfectly still as he stared at the car. Lara would have left the theater with no idea that the two-mile drive back to her apartment would prove to be a game of Russian roulette; the sabotage was such that the steering might have failed at the first turn or the fifth. And even with the lower speed limit of the downtown area, there was every chance that she could have been seriously hurt.

Devon felt an icy rage grip him. They were playing cat and mouse with her, damn them, toying with her. First the near miss of the truck, then her apartment—and now this. They were trying to scare her, panic her. That was only the first step of their deadly little plan, he knew; the ultimate aim was to remove any threat Lara presented.

Time was running out.

He bent to the car again.

"You are terrific," Luke said with obvious sincerity.

Lara shrugged a little, but smiled at him. "Thank you. I'm afraid I'm out of practice, though."

They were standing by the piano; the others were some distance away, occupied with different tasks. Nick was critically examining the "stone" tower, Susie was talking to Melanie about her costume, and Tim was going over lines with the Arnolds. Devon was nowhere to be seen.

"You really are—" Luke began.

Ching interrupted with a muttered curse, staring at the man through slitted eyes.

Luke met that malevolent gaze, then looked back at Lara with a sigh. "The tuna didn't go over at all," he said mournfully.

"You tried?" Her tone was sympathetic.

"Yes, while you were trying on your wig backstage. He acted like I was offering him something unspeakable."

"I'm sorry, Luke. He's—he's really an odd cat."

Ching displayed every one of his pearly whites as he hissed softly, still glaring at Luke. His ears were beginning to flatten, while his ringed tail was puffing to twice its normal girth in an indication of feline rage.

"Behave!" Lara told him sharply.

The cat glanced at her, then grumbled something that was clearly profane. He turned his head pointedly away from Luke, removing himself spiritually from the entire situation.

Luke shrugged. "He hates me. I don't know why, but he hates me. My after-shave, d'you think?"

Before Lara could answer, the cat muttered again. She stared at him. "Ching." He looked at her, then leapt from the piano and stalked across the stage toward the wings. His angry noises grew louder with each step, finishing with an emphatic howl that momentarily halted every other sound on stage. Then he vanished into the shadows.

Lara smiled somewhat helplessly as several startled looks were directed toward her, then she looked back at Luke as the others resumed their activities.

"He isn't a cat," Luke said. "I don't know what he is, but he isn't a cat."

Her smile turned rueful. "I've often thought the same thing."

Luke sighed, then said, "Why don't we have dinner and discuss what he might be."

Remembering only then what they had talked about the evening before, Lara hesitated. Luke seemed as straightforward as Devon was complicated, and she wished the heart was a logical organ. But it wasn't. "Thanks, Luke, but I don't think so."

He eyed her for a moment in silence, then leaned back against the piano and folded his arms. "Devon?"

Luke's clear blue eyes were uncomfortably and unusually grave, and Lara found it impossible to lie outright. "Was that a question?" she asked lightly.

"Yes. But I'll spell it out if you like. Is Devon the reason you're turning me down?"

"Does it have to be another man?" she responded, thinking that the other man wouldn't let her get away with answering a question with another question.

"No. I think it is, though."

Lara shrugged. "We've seen each other a couple of times. Outside the theater, I mean."

Frowning a little, Luke said slowly, "I don't want to sound like a sore loser, but maybe you'd better be careful, Lara."

"What are you talking about?"

"Devon. There's something fishy about him."

"You'll have to be more specific than that," she told him evenly.

He hesitated, then said, "Ask him what he was doing watching your apartment building this morning at dawn."

Lara felt a chill. "What?"

"I was driving by on my way to work. He was across the street f