মুখ্য Raven on the Wing

Raven on the Wing

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এই বইটি আপনার কতটা পছন্দ?
ফাইলের মান কিরকম?
মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
ক্যাটাগোরিগুলো:
সাল:
1987
প্রকাশক:
Bantam
ভাষা:
english
ISBN 13:
9780553590593
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
Hagan 1
ফাইল:
EPUB, 155 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 155 KB)

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

Rafferty's Wife

साल:
1987
भाषा:
english
फ़ाइल:
EPUB, 139 KB
0 / 0
2

Captain's Paradise

साल:
1988
भाषा:
english
फ़ाइल:
LIT , 254 KB
0 / 0
Books by Kay Hooper





Hagan Series

--1 Raven on the Wing (1987)

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Epilogue





Hagan Series


--1 Raven on the Wing (1987)--


Loveswept #193





One


The party was lousy, Josh thought as he made his way to the door. He would have thanked his hostess, except that he had no idea who she was. He was in Los Angeles on a whistle-stop tour of some of his businesses—a hotel here—and had been invited to this party by a man interested in buying into the hotel business. Josh had been bored, and the party had sounded better than any other activity he could think of.

It hadn't been, however. And his distaste had increased an hour before when Leon Travers had arrived to be welcomed servilely by the evening's host; Josh could think of numerous ways for a businessman to advance himself, but selling his soul to the devil was not on the list. His host, it seemed, thought otherwise; he obviously believed the sun rose behind Leon Travers's silver head.

Josh could have disabused him of that idea, but knew only too well that people had to make their own mistakes.

Now, as he made his way through the crush of glittering people, he felt definitely jaded. He was supposed to leave Los Angeles tomorrow, and he found no regret in putting this city behind him. But no longing for the next city, either, and no longing for home.

Home. He owned four homes. A penthouse condo in New York, a ranch in Montana, a vacation lodge in the Catskills, and a lonely cliff-hugging aerie on the coast of Oregon. None of them held any appeal for him at the moment.

He found his coat with some difficulty, then squeezed his way out the front door of the hotel suite. For a moment, he stood in the hallway, allowing his ears to adjust to the relative silence. Then he strode down the hall. Occupied with dark thoughts, he only dimly heard the muffled bell of the elevator around the corner. Walking briskly to catch it, he was abruptly hit by something warm and soft, yet with a force that knocked him ; backward to measure his length on the carpeted floor. The fall jarred him, but it was when he looked up at his attacker that he lost his breath.

In a flashing instant, what he saw sparked a double reaction within him. His body throbbed strongly, searingly, in an instantaneous arousal; never in his life had he felt such desire so quickly or powerfully. And deep inside him, another response to what he saw caused his heart to turn over with an almost-painful lurch. He thought of all those years of caution and avoidance guided by his conviction that he had only to keep his hand firmly on the wheel of his ship and his eyes away from brunettes to control his destiny.

While his heart and body grappled with powerful new feelings, Josh could regard the situation only with ironic amusement. How else could a reasonably intelligent man react to the knowledge that the fates were probably laughing themselves silly?

"Oh, hell," he muttered despairingly. "I knew it. I knew you were out there somewhere. And I was so careful."

She wasn't listening.

"Ye gods and little fishes! The saleslady said this dress would knock men flat, but I don't think this is what she meant. Damn, and I'll bet you broke something too! Listen, I don't believe it's ethical to sue one's fellow humans. And in this case it'd hardly be fair because we were both moving. I mean, it isn't as if my car hit yours when it was parked. Right?"

He raised himself on his elbows, crossed his ankles, and stared up at her in utter fascination.

She was tall, he judged, and blessed by the Creator with a body that could—and most likely did—stop traffic; it was certainly stopping his heart about every third beat. She seemed in imminent danger of escaping from the blue silk dress she wore, yet there wasn't an ounce of excess flesh on her slender frame. Full breasts, narrow waist, curved hips.

Unconsciously, he swallowed hard.

Her long legs were not only eye-catching, he decided wistfully, but painted vivid images in his mind of strong silken thighs wrapped around him. ... He swallowed hard again and gazed at the crowning glory that had so swiftly and completely blasted his 'so-called control into pieces. Impossibly blue-black hair swung free and beautiful to the small of her back.

Her face was not beautiful, but having seen it once, no one would ever forget it. She was striking. Elegant. Wide, merry violet eyes, an aristocratic nose, and lips curved with laughter were the features that would always be remembered.

And Josh, never one to waste time, sighed and abandoned himself to fate. "I'm Joshua Long," he said. "Marry me."

"Oh, you hit your head when you fell, didn't you? Here, let me help you up."

He accepted the offered hand and climbed to his feet, never taking his eyes from her elegant face. "What's your name?" he asked, holding on to her slender hand and amazingly conscious of the contact.

"Raven," she answered, her voice soothing. "Horrible, isn't it? Were you leaving? I'll get you a cab; you shouldn't drive in your condition."

"Raven." He was delighted. Her eyes were incredible. He hadn't seen eyes like that since—he'd never seen eyes like that. "Marry me, Raven."

"Oh, damn, I know I'm going to get sued!" She moaned, allowing him to continue to hold her hand as she led him gently toward the elevator. "Maybe I should take you to the emergency room."

"I didn't hit my head," he murmured as they stood in the elevator. Then, suddenly panicked, he lifted the hand he was holding—her left—and stared at it. Panic faded, along with the dizzying rush of peculiar savagery he'd abruptly felt. "You aren't married? Engaged?"

"What's taking this damn thing so long?" she asked, stabbing at a button with one finger. "No, I'm not married. Or engaged. D'you have a doctor? Should I take you to your doctor?"

"Have a drink with me instead," he countered. Then, reflecting, he added, "Or I'll sue."

"There's a tavern around the corner," she said hastily. "We can walk. Can you make it that far?"

"Just don't let go of me," he answered deviously.

"No, I won't do that," she promised, leading him from the elevator and across the lobby.

It was a good thing she didn't let go of him, Josh thought as they made their way along the lighted sidewalk. He paid no attention at all to where they were going, but instead gazed at her profile. He no longer felt jaded. In fact, he'd never in his life felt so captivated. Everything about her, every quality, every word, charmed him completely.

And since he was a grown man with at least some control over the urges of his body, he man-aged not to lunge at her. Barely. But the instant throbbing he'd felt upon looking up at her had not lessened; he could feel that slow, constant pulse of desire more vividly than ever before in his life. His body felt heated, abnormally sensitive; all his consciousness seemed focused on her with an intensity that left room for nothing else.

She led him through the door of a small tavern and into the dark, smoky interior, waving her free hand at the huge, burly bartender. "Hi, Jake!"

"Raven! What can I get for you, kid?"

She glanced at Josh, then looked back at Jake. "Brandy. Two of them. We'll be in a booth."

"Right," he called back.

Raven led Josh to a booth, waving cheerfully at a few of the other patrons in the crowded bar, but being careful never to lose her grip on his hand. When they were seated, she attempted gently to reclaim her hand. Josh held on.

"I think you're going to need both hands for your glass," she told him patiently.

"I didn't hit my head, you know," he remarked idly, staring at her. He couldn't stop staring at her. "Raven what?"

"Isn't that an insane name? I told Pop when I was ten that he shouldn't have let Mother get away with it. But he said he'd felt guilty because he had all the fun and she did all the work. So he feels guilty and I get stuck with the name of a bird and a long, rambling poem."

" 'Once upon a midnight dreary,' " Josh remembered.

She shuddered. "Right. D'you know how many times I've heard that poem in my life? Every guy I ever went out with memorized the damn thing. You obviously know it. Don't recite it. Please."

"All right," he said equably; he wanted to please her and would have quite literally done anything she asked. "Are you hungry? Do they serve food here?"

"I've eaten, thanks. But—"She looked up as Jake materialized at their booth holding brandy. "Jake, could we have some chips or something?"

"Sure. Another stray. Raven?"

Josh looked at him. "She's going to marry me."

The bartender looked at Raven. "Is he serious?"

"I knocked him down," she explained. "I think he hit his head."

"I'll get the chips," Jake said, and vanished.

"Drink your brandy," Raven told Josh firmly. "You need it."

After a swallow of the fiery liquid. Josh found his thoughts focusing on the situation. "Why won't you marry me?" he demanded fiercely. "I'm perfectly all right, and I have pots of money."

"Just like a leprechaun," she murmured.

"That's pots of gold." he corrected her. "I have cold hard cash. And businesses and things. Hotels. Property. Marry me."

Clearly, she was intrigued; he could tell from the way she looked at him.

"Listen, do the authorities know you've escaped? I mean, normally I'd be too polite to ask, but if there's a reward or something, I wouldn't mind collecting it."

"I'm not crazy," he assured her. but silently amended the thought. He didn't think he was crazy.

"Of course not," she agreed sympathetically. She looked at his glass. "Maybe brandy wasn't such a good idea."

"Marry me," he said.

She sighed and spoke in the soothing tone of one humoring a rather sweet lunatic. "Gee, I'd really like to, but I have to get my hair done."

"Waste of money," he said. "It's beautiful."

"Thank you." She was polite, clearly not flat-tered. "Should I call someone for you? Someone who might worry that you're loo—uh, missing?"

"Don't you believe in love at first sight?" he asked anxiously.

She gazed at him, the merry violet eyes rueful. "It sounds just lovely," she said. "So do fairy tales. Look, mister—"

"Josh."

"Josh, if you're looking for a teeth-rattling night, cruise the bars. I'm not interested in a fling."

"I'm not interested in a fling either," he told her patiently. "I want to marry you."

"You don't know me."

"I," he said, "believe in love at first sight. Now." He studied her elegant, polite face, then sighed as Jake returned with a basket of chips. "She won't marry me," he told the other man.

Jake looked fiercely at Raven. "Why won't you marry him. Raven?"

"Go back to the bar, Jake."

He grinned and winked at her. "Just thought I'd ask." Then he turned and walked back toward the crowded bar.

Josh yelled after him to bring two more brandies. He had a vague idea of getting her drunk just so he could propose, she could—would? maybe—say yes, and he could hold her to her word tomorrow.

After finishing her third brandy, matching him easily, she leaned toward him conspiratorially over the hand he was still holding, and said, "It won't work, you know."

"What?" he asked.

"Trying to get me drunk. I could put you under this table. I could put you, everyone in this bar, and the Russian Army under the table. Drinking straight vodka. On an empty stomach."

Josh possessed a hard head and a cast-iron stomach. Most of the time, anyway. He wasn't so sure about now. However ... He had never in his life been falling-down drunk. So he was confident. Overly confident.

He yelled for more brandy.

Even before he opened his eyes. Josh remembered the night before. Sort of. He remembered very clearly asking Raven if he could drink champagne from her shoe, and he remembered her reply that open-toed sandals weren't too good for such a thing. He remembered challenging another patron of the bar to an arm-wrestling contest; in retrospect, he decided that had been dumb. His arm felt dead except for the pain in his fingernails.

He remembered telling a long and somewhat involved story to anyone and everyone who would listen, including a wooden Indian standing in a corner. He remembered chasing Raven around a table. Or three. He remembered solemnly offering her four homes, six Learjets, the Hope diamond, southern Montana, a mink coat, a Porsche, and the rest of his drink if she'd only marry him. He remembered she'd laughed.

She'd laughed a lot.

After that, things got really hazy.

He tried to open his eyes. Some idiot, he discovered, had sandpapered the lids. And another idiot had hung the sun right in front of him: it was hellishly bright. He closed his eyes and tried to groan, discovering that sound had a disastrous effect on his head: little men with sledgehammers were building a skyscraper in there. He bit back a second groan, fearing the skyscraper would collapse and squash his brain.

A pleasing herbal scent wafted to him.

"Can you sit up?"

His lids snapped up, and raw eyes moved to locate her, finally, standing by the bed. In spite of his body's abused condition, the throb of desire was instant and sent a shaft of exquisite agony all the way to the top of his head. He didn't mind the pain. She was wearing jeans and a bulky knit sweater, and he fell in love all over again. Being in love, he wanted to please her. Except—

"My left arm's dead," he managed to croak.

"I'm not surprised." Her voice was very soft; clearly, she knew the condition of his head. "You arm-wrestled a man who looked like the starting lineup of a pro football team. All by himself."

With a tremendous effort and more than a little help from her. Josh managed to sit up. He told himself fiercely he was hardly in any condition to ravish brunettes, and so was able—barely—to control urges leaping through him at the first touch of her helping hand. Pillows were banked behind him while he discovered he was wearing only his trousers. He indulged briefly in a rush of heated Images in which Raven undressed him, then pushed the thoughts away; in that direction, he decided, lay madness.

He was in a soft bed in a bright, cheerful bedroom, and it was sometime the next day.

She handed him a cup of herbal-smelling brew and sat gingerly on the side of the bed. "Drink that. It'll help."

Somewhat to his surprise, the hot, strong herbal tea did help. His head even began to clear. Suddenly puzzled, he looked down at his numb left arm. "I'm right-handed," he said. "Why on earth did I use my left to wrestle?"

The smile in her merry eyes spread to twitching lips. "Well," she murmured, "you were handicapping yourself. To be fair."

Laughing hurt his head, but Josh didn't mind very much. "Hell," he finally gasped, "I've disgraced myself and embarrassed you to death, I'm sure." He was both relieved and disappointed to realize that he probably hadn't disgraced himself by attacking her; relief won, mainly because that would have been something he would certainly choose to remember.

She was still laughing softly. "Not at all. Lots of my friends have tried to drink me under the table through the years; I've learned to cope. And you weren't that bad. You stayed on your feet through the whole thing."

He thought hard. "I distinctly remember offering you my kingdom if you'd marry me. You laughed."

"Forgive me," she said solemnly. "But before that, you'd offered your kingdom for a horse; you told everyone you wanted to slay dragons for me. You also bet the kingdom in the arm-wrestling contest."

"I didn't sign anything, did I?" he asked warily.

"No, but you bought everybody drinks. I finally took control of your money clip before you could buy the tavern." She nodded to the nightstand. "There's quite a bit left, mainly because Jake was horrified at the way you were throwing money around and helped me get you into a cab before you could bankrupt yourself."

He gazed at her elegant face in which warm violet eyes shone cheerfully, and felt his heart lurch in the almost-painful manner it had so lately learned. "If you won't marry me," he said urgently, "then live with me! I'll convince you to marry me later."

She blinked. "You know, you slept more than ten hours, so I have to assume it isn't liquor talking. And even if that knock on the head gave you a concussion–"

"I didn't hit my head!" he protested.

"—you should be better by now. So either you aren't better, or you're mad as a hatter. I don't know whether to call an ambulance or a padded truck."

Josh balanced his cup and saucer on his lap long enough to run a hand through his hair. It struck him somewhat belatedly that he probably looked just dandy for marriage proposals; hung over, bare-chested, morning stubble, and hair flying every which way. Not to mention having clearly convinced her last night that he was either concussed or suffering from lunatic delusions. He tried to think of some way to combat all these deficiencies.

"Raven," he said finally, keeping his voice as level as possible and meeting her eyes steadily, "I am cold sober, not concussed, and perfectly sane. I'm thirty-five years old, which means I generally know my own mind. The moment I saw you, I knew I wanted to marry you. I am not joking about that. I'm not handing you a line.

"I am also aware that you barely know me. My mind tells me that I should, therefore, not expect you to marry me immediately."

She started giggling.

Pained, he stared at her. "All right, I know it sounds arrogant. After knowing me better, you could well decide you'd rather join the Peace Corps or the Foreign Legion."

"Or go into a nunnery," she said, entering into the spirit of things.

He frowned at her. "Anyway, what I'm saying is that I would appreciate it very much If you'd take me seriously."

Raven took his empty cup and rose to her feet. "This tea usually helps a hangover. Why don't you have a hot shower, and I'll fix a late breakfast."

Josh considered food, and found that his stomach didn't reject the idea outright. "Well, but—"

"The bathroom's through there," she said, gesturing toward a doorway. "There's a razor in the top left-hand vanity drawer, and your clothes are on that chair. If you don't want to parade around In a dinner jacket at ten in the morning, check the closet; you might find something to fit. I'll be in the kitchen."

She left.

Moving carefully, Josh took a shower and shaved, then returned to the bedroom to check the closet. What he found sent him immediately to the kitchen of the small apartment wearing nothing but a towel and holding black murder in his heart. Not for her, of course. For the owner of the clothing.

"I hope you have a brother," he announced with what he vaguely realized was inordinate ferocity, waving a handful of clothing at her.

She turned from the stove and stared at him. After a moment, she said dryly, "No, I don't have a brother. I also don't have a lover. This isn't my apartment: it belongs to a friend. The clothes be-long to her husband."

"Oh," he said. Black murder gave way to sudden curiosity. He recalled a thought that had occurred to him in the shower. "Where did you sleep?"

"On the couch. Go get dressed."

Josh retreated.

Turning back to the stove. Raven automatically continued preparing breakfast. Looney Tunes, she decided, smiling. The man was obviously Looney Tunes. But he was, at least, an amiable lunatic;

other than a fierce glare at his opponent in the infamous arm-wrestling match, he hadn't once lost his temper during the previous evening.

And he'd been flatteringly attentive—except when he'd gotten some story into his head and insisted on telling it to everyone. He'd been indignant when the wooden Indian hadn't laughed.

Raven swallowed a giggle.

No, she decided, all in all the evening had been fun. She didn't even regret missing the party, in spite of whatever consequences might develop. She should, of course, have regretted missing it, and reminded herself of that. There would be questions. A distant, shrewd part of her mind began formulating answers, examining each for flaws.

The rest of her mind concentrated on him. And she wondered what she was going to do with her lunatic. He'd seemed reasonably rational this morning—but then, he'd sounded rational last night. Sort of. His voice had been oddly husky whenever he spoke to her, but his tone had been perfectly reasonable, his enunciation clear, no con-fusion or forgetfulness; it was just that he'd kept proposing and laying his kingdom at her feet.

His imaginary kingdom ... or so she supposed. Granted, the man had certainly thrown money around with abandon. And he was well dressed. But when a stranger started offering a woman Learjets and Hope diamonds, it was, thought Raven, time to be wary. Amused, but wary.

Raven knew very well she was no victim of the Cinderella complex. She neither expected nor de-sired some handsome prince to sweep her off her feet and into a life of leisure. In the first place, twenty-eight years of life had convinced her that princes, handsome or otherwise, were in short supply in the circles in which she often found herself. In the second place, a life of leisure would drive her mad within a week.

Reluctantly, then, she remembered Josh Long clad only in a slipping towel. Tall and lean, his broad-shouldered and muscled frame spoke convincingly of a busy, physically active life. And his strikingly handsome face, with its sensual mouth and warm, vivid blue eyes had been designed for women to stare at.

There was about him an aura of confidence arid power that had not been lessened in the least by inebriated proposals, comical one-sided discussions with wooden Indians, and a fiercely competitive arm-wrestling match. Drunk or sober, he moved like a cat... or a king—gracefully, proudly, powerfully, deceptively unhurried. He was the kind of man whom others would instinctively make way for.

Raven shook her head bemusedly. Impossible to ignore the man. If he wasn't a prince, he was certainly every woman's image of tall, dark, and handsome. And she had to admit to being flattered that even in his concussed and/or demented state he'd focused the power of those warm blue eyes on her.

The bacon was burning. Swearing, Raven turned the strips.

However, she simply hadn't the time or energy to cope with a lunatic suitor with delusions of grandeur, no matter how handsome and charming he was.

His straightforward charm, though, was what she would most regret losing. Granted, she favored blue eyes and dark men, and she was woman enough to fully appreciate handsome men, but it was his charm she found so intriguing. The men who peopled her own world tended to have little charm, and the games they played were dangerous ones.

Games. Deadly serious games.

Raven sighed and put visions of Intensely blue eyes out of her mind. There was no time, just no time for personal wishes.

Sighing, Raven arranged the bacon on paper towels to drain.

And, having decided to put unproductive thoughts out of her mind, she promptly began musing once again on his behavior of the night before.

She was a tall woman, yet he was taller and certainly much stronger; he hadn't used that strength in order to get what he clearly wanted— she'd seen desire in men's eyes before, and had recognized it in his Intense gaze. He had pro-posed countless times in various ways, chased her playfully around a table or two, and told any-one who'd listen that she was going to marry him. By turns grave and comical, he had gotten every-one in the tavern to cheer him on.

But at no time was his pursuit in any way clumsy or crude. If he swore, it was mildly and with no heat. Far from making any physical pass, he had touched only her hand—and that with a curious kind of courtly deference and restraint that had been strangely moving and had made » her oddly aware of restraint. Not a single vulgar word or crass joke had escaped his lips. And in spite of her amused rejection of his proposals, he had remained amiably determined.

All that—and he'd been quite wonderfully drunk.

"Marry me."

He didn't seem to be much different sober. Raven turned and surveyed his tall, dark, and hand-some self as he stood in the kitchen doorway. Jeans, she decided, suited him admirably. In fact, if they'd suited him any more admirably, he'd have gotten mobbed in the streets by rabid women.

Raven ignored her weak knees just as she'd ignored them when he had appeared in a towel. "Coffee's over there," she said, gesturing. "Help yourself. Breakfast is ready."

Josh headed for the coffee, apparently undisturbed by this continual rejection. "Do you need coffee to start the day?" he asked with interest. "I do."

Setting two filled plates on the neat oak table, Raven murmured, "Then maybe you'll be rational in a little while." She didn't sound very hopeful.

"I'm rational now," he said, holding her chair.

Disconcerted, Raven sat with more haste than grace. She'd met men with manners, yes, but at breakfast?

He set coffee before them both, then took his own chair. "So tell me why we're in an apartment that isn't yours," he said chattily.

Raven gazed into his warm blue eyes for a moment, then began eating. "We are here," she said, "because I'm staying here while my friends are back east. You're here because the only identification you were carrying last night didn't name a Los Angeles address. You don't even carry a driver's license with you—just business cards with your name and a phone number."

Josh didn't tell her that he rarely needed any other identification. "I'm visiting," he explained, digging in to his own meal with every sign of enjoyment.

"From where?" she asked, wondering at her own curiosity. Was it because she wanted to get rid of him? Or because she wanted to understand this strangely intense, completely charming man?

"I spend most of my time in New York. How about you? A native of Los Angeles?"

"No," she said. "Where are you staying?"

"A hotel. Where are you from, then?"

"Back east. Which hotel?"

"Downtown. Where back east?"

Parry and thrust.

Raven bit back a giggle. Placidly, she said, "I was born in a Gypsy caravan in Romania, except that really I was the child of a baron, stolen by the Gypsies. He'd thrown them off his land, you see, so they decided to get revenge by stealing me. But they already had too many mouths to feed, so they sold me to an Irishman who needed a dancer in his tavern. Then one day while I was dancing on the bar. a Greek shipping tycoon wandered in and offered me a job being the target for a knife thrower in his circus. The Irishman wouldn't sell me, so the Greek bought the tavern with all con-tents included—meaning me—and spirited me away to London, then to the States. For a year I dodged knives, until the knife thrower pierced my left ear by mistake and I ran away. I ended up on a Mississippi riverboat, where a dissolute gambler taught me how to cheat at cards and look good in feathers. But it turned out that I was allergic to feathers and my nose quivered revealingly when-ever I stacked a deck, so I left there and became a guide taking tourists to the floor of the Grand Canyon on muleback. After three trips I became a victim of vertigo, so that ended that job. I then hopped a freight train, headed west, and fell in love with Los Angeles at first sight. There didn't seem to be much demand for tavern dancers, targets for knife throwers, untalented gamblers allergic to feathers, or mule riders, so I ended up being a computer programmer at IBM."

Josh burst out laughing.

Raven, who had talked very quickly as she'd spun the tale out of thin air and a vivid imagination, took a deep breath, a sip of coffee, then asked gently, "And how was your life?"

"Boring, compared to yours," he told her.

"You mean you're not going to give me any of the details?" She was Incredulous. "After I bared my soul and past to your cruel laughter?"

"I'm trying to entice you with my mystery," he explained gravely.

"It isn't working."

"Well, dammit, you seem to be above bribery; you were hardly impressed by the offer of my king-dom. An aura of mystery isn't getting me anywhere. My bare and manly chest obviously didn't affect you: you removed half my clothes last night and apparently felt not one pang of lust, and when I paraded before you clothed only in a towel, you never so much as blinked."

Raven choked on a laugh.

"I see I haven't been going about this the right way." Purposefully, Josh rose from his chair, came around the table, and took her arms to pull her up from her chair. "Clearly, what is needed here," he said sternly, "is a little old-fashioned persuasion." And he bent his dark head to hers.





Two


Caught off guard, Raven didn't have a chance to struggle. And, bewildering though the thought was, she wasn't at all certain that she would have struggled, given the chance. His lean, handsome face filled her vision, his arms closed around her, and Raven found her body swaying toward this stranger as though drawn by an irresistible magnet.

Even remembering his exemplary behavior of the night before, she half-expected an onslaught, a passionate demand. But when his lips met hers, it was with a gentle, seeking, almost tentative touch, soft and warm. Her body, braced for abrupt shock, found instead an insidious sweet warmth, and she felt her bones melting. Seduced, her mouth opened to his and her arms lifted to encircle his lean waist.

His head lifted a moment later, and Raven gazed rather dreamily into blue eyes that were hot now instead of warm. "This," she said, "has got to stop." Something told her the statement should have emerged more forcefully, and she tried again. "I mean it. I don't kiss strangers. Especially first thing in the morning." Not much better, she decided critically.

Josh smiled very slowly and his head bent again. And this time the demand came, hot and urgent. His lips slanted hungrily across hers while his hard arms pulled her so close she could feel the strong male contours of his body imprinting themselves on her own quivering flesh. Her senses exploded in a violent burst of inner sparks, the stark possession of his tongue and the pressure of his body against hers igniting something red hot and powerful deep inside of her.

She made a soft sound in the back of her throat without meaning to, her hands clutching his back, moving unconsciously to press herself even closer.

For a moment it seemed as though he would accept her mindless invitation. His mouth grew even more fierce, his arms tightening around her— and then he suddenly lifted his head and stared down at her with feverish blue eyes. "That doesn't happen between strangers," he said roughly. "Marry me, Raven."

There was nothing playful or amiable about him now, nothing to be taken as an amusing jest: he was utterly and completely serious, and she knew It. Within two seconds she also knew she was in trouble. The distant cool part of her mind began working with its hard-won logic, presenting one problem after another to her with depressing clarity. And there was no time ... no time at all. She carefully dropped her arms and stepped back away from him, gathering the threads of control tight until her breathing steadied and she could trust her voice.

"Sometimes it does," she said, and made it sound like a statement of experience. "They call it chemistry. Finish your breakfast. Josh."

He sat down as she did, but didn't seem perturbed. "I'll convince you," he said easily. "I'm a patient man, and I've got all the time in the world." He wondered, on some dim and distant plane of his mind, how on earth he could sound so calm. His heart was pounding, and every thudding beat of it urged him to take her in his arms again and finish what he'd started.

Raven wanted to tell him that he might have time, but she didn't. However, experience had taught her only too well the dangers of confiding in anyone. She made her protest a dry and commonplace one. "I'm afraid I have little spare time," she told him. "I have to earn my living, which demands the bulk of the day."

"What do you do?" he asked casually.

"I'm a secretary." She had long ago stopped crossing her fingers while saying that. It no longer bothered her to lie. "A temporary secretary; I tend to have odd hours, and I take jobs within a three-hundred-mile radius of Los Angeles. What do you do?"

He grinned suddenly, his expression peculiarly amused. "Told you. I run a kingdom."

"Oh, right." She shook her head with the air of someone who'd forgotten some tiny detail. "You did tell me that. Is it an international kingdom, or domestic?"

"Domestic mostly," he explained In a conversational tone. "But I do own most of an airline, and It's international."

"Uh-huh."

"You don't believe me."

She smiled gently. "How often does a woman meet a prince?"

He chuckled. "Well, it doesn't matter. You aren't the kind of woman to be impressed by money or power."

Finishing her breakfast more by rote than any sense of hunger. Raven rose and carried her plate to the sink. Along with all the other violent emotions tangling inside her, she felt vaguely uneasy. Josh Long didn't strike her as a braggart, and his talk of wealth was just a bit too matter-of-fact to be a delusion. Still, she told herself, it hardly made any difference. He'd be out of her life very soon now.

That was a depressing thought, she decided.

"You haven't told me your last name," he observed, carrying his plate to the sink.

Her hesitation was fleeting. "Anderson. Look, I have a lunch appointment for this afternoon. I can drive you to your hotel."

"Thank you," he said gravely.

All Raven's instincts warned her that there was absolutely nothing meek about this man, warned that he had no intention of vanishing from her life. She ignored the warning, and ignored the scornful voice that told her why she was ignoring it. "Keep the clothes," she offered lightly. "Jud won't miss them."

"Jud?"

"My friend's husband."

"Ah." He nodded, then stepped over to the phone on the kitchen wall, lifted the receiver, and briefly studied the plastic-covered strip bearing the number. Then he replaced the receiver and smiled at her. "Got it. I assume you want to leave now? I'll get my things." And he strode from the kitchen.

Frowning a bit. Raven stowed the plates in the dishwasher. She didn't doubt he'd memorized the phone number; he would probably make a mental note of the address when they left. "Damn," she murmured.

Oddly enough, the curse didn't sound as fierce as she wanted it to. Not nearly as fierce . . .

Almost half an hour later, she pulled her battered Pinto to a halt before the imposing glass-and-steel hotel he had named. The doorman, his well-trained face impassive, came forward, only to be waved away by Josh. Turning in the bucket seat, he gazed intently at her.

"Go out with me tonight?"

She kept the smile on her face. "Sorry, I'm booked."

"Then I'll call you." He leaned toward her suddenly, kissing her gently but with more than a hint of the raw fire he had earlier unleashed. "Tonight."

Raven said nothing. She watched him gracefully unfold his length from the cramped little car and shut the door, then waved vaguely and drove away. Several blocks down the street and out of sight, she pulled her car over to the curb and sat for a moment, contemplating her shaking hands. "What lousy timing," she murmured. "Damn."

She thought of the night before, of laughter and an easy companionship she'd never known before. She thought of warm blue eyes and a passion that still tingled within her. She thought of proposals, drunken and sober. Then she thought | of a phone ringing in an empty apartment.

Swearing in a soft, toneless voice, she pulled back out into traffic and went on her way.

"I never made it to the party," Raven said. She was sitting at a picnic table, the paper clutter of lunch between her and the man opposite. Absently, she poked a finger at the horn-rimmed glasses slipping down her nose.

"Why not?" His voice was low and deep and his face boasted the open, ingenuous expression of a man with no secrets and few wits. It was a deceptive expression, to say the least.

Raven studied him for a moment in silence, although she knew his face almost as well as her own. "Well, ridiculous as it sounds, Kelsey, I knocked a man down in the hall at the hotel."

Kelsey ran blunt fingers through rusty hair. "You would. Did you kill him?"

"Funny." She decided not to explain the remainder of the night. "Anyway, I missed the party."

"There'll be questions."

"Yes. I know what I'll say, don't worry." He nodded, then pushed a flat envelope across the table toward her. While she casually studied the contents, he studied her. Not a strand of her long black hair showed beneath the drab brown wig she wore, and her loose blouse and shabby jeans effectively shrouded a figure that normally caught every eye in passing. The heavy-rimmed glasses changed her features remarkably, leaving her with a curiously harried, fretful appearance, which was enhanced by her frequent, seemingly nervous gesture of pushing the rim up her nose.

Her own mother would have passed her without a glance.

"Travers having you followed?" he asked.

Raven shook her head, still gazing down at photographs. "No, not now. He was at first, so I stayed close to the penthouse and perfected my ice-maiden act. He relaxed a bit after a few days." She looked up at Kelsey, expressionless. "The background checked out, I imagine. I'm still being careful, though. No need to take chances now."

Kelsey snorted softly. "I certainly hope the back-ground checked out. God knows it took us enough time. When will you make your move?"

She returned the photographs to their envelope and pushed it back across the table, stirring restlessly. "I don't know. He's leaving L.A. tonight, and last time he had men watching my place while he was out of town. I bet he will again. So I'll behave myself while he's gone, then see how things look when he gets back."

"Watch your step," Kelsey warned needlessly. "He's a barracuda with a full set of teeth."

She smiled a little. "I know. I'll be careful."

"You've got the pictures?" he asked.

"Of course." Raven tapped her forehead lightly with a finger. "Right here. I'll know when the time comes."

It was Kelsey's turn to move restlessly. Almost to himself, he said, "If he sticks with his normal mode of operation, the merchandise will leave the country within the next month or so. You don't have much time, Raven."

She knew.

Late that afternoon. Raven drove her battered Pinto into a private garage and parked it beside a gleaming silver Mercedes. The garage was deserted, and she moved swiftly and expertly within the car before getting out and stowing a small case where the spare tire should have been at the rear of the Pinto. She stood there for a minute, smoothing her long black hair and adjusting the silk dress. Then she put on a pair of mirrored sunglasses, slung an expensive leather handbag into the Mercedes, and got in herself.

She drove uptown to a towering apartment building and pulled up in front, smiling politely at the doorman, who rushed to open her door. "Thank you, Evan," she said, her tone low and cultured.

"My pleasure, Miss Anderson." The doorman escorted her up the tiled steps while a valet appeared from thin air and hurried to tenderly drive the Mercedes to its secluded parking place. A uniformed guard at the front desk rose respectfully to his feet as Raven entered, murmuring a greeting as he handed her a sheaf of messages.

"Mr. Travers is waiting for you. Miss Anderson." The sunglasses hid Raven's expressive eyes that might have revealed how entirely unwelcome this information was. "Oh? Thank you," she commented. Gracefully, she moved to the elevator, where another uniformed man punched the but-tons so that she wouldn't strain herself.

The door opened onto the top floor, and Raven stepped out of the elevator with the gliding, feline movements she'd perfected. The grace was wasted, however, since she was forced almost immediately to jump to one side to avoid being run over by an untidy stack of papers and files with legs.

"Oh!" A harried, timid voice came from behind the obstruction, and a pale, thin face peered around at Raven. "Miss—Miss Anderson! I'm so sorry—"

"No harm done," she murmured, tempted, as always, to abandon her role, but resisting because experience had taught her caution. It certainly was difficult, though, to maintain her cool detachment in the presence of Leon Travers s assistant-or-whatever; she'd never been clear on the relationship.

Theodore Thorpe Thayer III was the optimistically grand name bestowed, possibly by a lisping mother, some thirty-odd years ago on the child who could never hope to equal it. Theodore—never Ted, Raven had decided—was about five foot four and might have weighed a hundred pounds on one of his hearty-eating days. He was pale, and his thin face invariably wore the expression of a hunted rabbit. And behind the cruelly distorting lenses of his glasses, spaniel-brown eyes pleaded with the whole world.

How on earth the amazingly inept man had secured a job with Leon Travers had been a total mystery to Raven until Leon had explained in a long-suffering tone that Theodore was related to him and, as he pointed out, who else would hire him?

Bringing her mind back to specifics. Raven asked coolly, "What are you doing here, Theodore?" The question was mild enough, but Theodore looked crushed.

"I'm—I'm sorry. Miss Anderson, but I thought Leon—I mean, Mr. Travers wanted to work here. I could have sworn he told me, but I was wrong." The spaniel eyes blinked rapidly behind thick lenses.

Raven glanced back over her shoulder, where the elevator operator, expressionless, was still waiting. She looked at Theodore. "Did you really think you could accomplish all that anyway?" she asked dryly, gesturing to the stack of work he clutched to his chest.

Theodore promptly lost himself in a morass of unfinished sentences and stuttered explanations, none of which made the least bit of sense.

Raven waved it away. "Never mind. The elevator's waiting, Theodore."

He nodded miserably and scurried into it.

When she stepped into her penthouse apartment a few moments later. Raven smiled far more welcomingly than she had at the doorman, but there was an almost imperceptible chill in the curve of her lips, stamped there, it seemed, as a glacier permanently stamped its mark on the soft earth beneath it.

"Hello, Leon."

"I used my key," he said.

The phone rang endlessly in the empty apartment.

Josh counted the rings, hanging up when he reached twenty. She wasn't there. He had called from ten P.M. last night until two this morning, then had given up. Waking after a restless night, he had begun calling at eight this morning; it was Saturday, she shouldn't be working.

Three hours ago he had driven his rented car to the apartment she was supposed to be living in. The manager had been shocked by the very idea; the tenants were back east, she'd said, but there was no sublet, no helpful friend watching the place for them. Raven Anderson? She'd never heard of her.

Josh lit a cigarette, not, by far, the first of the day, and stared broodingly at the phone. Well, hell, he hadn't imagined it. He remembered ripe curves and warm lips far too clearly for it to have been a dream or a drunken delusion—and he wasn't given to imagining things.

Nor had his body forgotten. He still felt that new, strangely vivid sensitivity, the feeling that everything inside him was focused intensely on her. Restlessness and frustration were making him jittery, uncomfortable—and he had never been a man to let his emotions manifest themselves physically. But these emotions were growing more powerful by the moment, even without the sight or touch of her to feed the hunger; his mind was filled with vivid images that had haunted him since he had first seen her.

Images of beautiful violet eyes and gleaming black hair, of tender lips curved in amusement and faintly swollen from his passion. Images of full breasts lovingly restrained by a blue dress and lending a seductive shape to a bulky sweater. Images of curved hips and long legs ...

He lifted his gaze to look around the penthouse suite, barely taking notice; he had been in too many far too similar suites for the architecture or decor to make any impression on him.

The desk where he sat was near wide, floor-to-ceiling windows running the length of one wall. The floor was sunken, an off-white pit grouping allowing seating space for a small convention and a fireplace offering more than electric or gas heat. A far-from-compact bar stood in one corner, and two closed doors hinted that there were at least that many bedrooms and quite likely more. In short, it was a very large suite. From one of the bedrooms stepped a man whom most people would cross the street to avoid. It wasn't only that he was several Inches over six feet and tended to fill doorways; it wasn't even that a wicked scar twisted down his lean cheek. What it was about the man that frightened even the stouthearted was a palpable aura of leashed power and an atmosphere of cold menace.

He moved like a big cat as he came into the room, as if he walked on dried leaves and wished to be silent. And he would have been silent even with dried leaves underfoot. The immaculate business suit he wore did absolutely nothing to conceal the danger of him, nor did the calm, almost bland expression on his rugged face or the serene gray eyes.

Josh focused on the man. "Zach," he said slowly, "I've got a job for you."

His security chief, sometimes bodyguard, and friend of fifteen years eased his considerable bulk into a chair by the desk. "We aren't going on?" he asked equably.

"No. I've canceled the remainder of the trip."

"Then put me to work." The big man's voice was curiously soft.

Having made up his mind, Josh began speaking rapidly, concisely. "I want you to do a back-ground check on a woman named Raven Anderson. Waist-length black hair, violet eyes, tall, striking. Late twenties, I'd say. Says she's from back east somewhere." He described her car and rattled off the license plate, then gave the address of the apartment and phone number. "The manager claims the apartment is empty, not sublet, but Raven knew where everything was in the kitchen."

Zach had not made notes, but he wouldn't forget; he possessed a phenomenal memory. He didn't ask Josh why he wanted the background, nor did he think for a moment that it was because of personal interest. His friend and employer's aversion to brunettes was well known, and had stopped being a joke years ago.

"Pull some of the team in if you need to," Josh was saying as he restlessly lit another cigarette. "I don't care what it costs. Just find out."

"Right." Zach rose soundlessly from his chair and left the room, prepared to do anything on the right side of legal to get the information. Josh Long was perhaps the only truly honest man Zach had ever known. Left to himself, Zach would probably have crossed into the gray area that was the despair of judges and courtrooms, but he knew his employer too well.

And because of Josh's somewhat unusual background, it wasn't necessary. In every major law enforcement agency the country could boast, Josh Long merely had to ask to be granted instant and complete cooperation.

Los Angeles was no exception.

Still, it took hours. Zach decided not to call in the team of investigators and security men he had built over the years to handle some of the more complex aspects of Josh Long's empire. Instead, he requested of hotel management—and was instantly granted—a small office off the lobby complete with computer and phone linkup, and went to work.

Computers were one of Zach's many areas of expertise, and he carried in his mind access codes the federal government tended to be possessive about. He hardly expected to find anything earth-shattering ... but what he found was quite definitely interesting.

Just before midnight, Zach returned to the sunken den of the suite, carrying a computer printout of some length. He found Josh seated at his desk, having obviously just hung up the phone, a frown on his face.

"Well?" Josh never snapped, but that came close to it.

Zach came forward to place the printout before his boss. He was understandably pleased with himself, since he had spent hours not only gathering information from several data centers, but also confirming every fact. "I wouldn't recommend reading this before bedtime," he said in his soft, pleasant voice. "Give you nightmares."

Josh sent him a sharp look, then bent his dark head to study the printout.

Zachary Steele, in the opinion of all who knew him, was afraid of nothing that walked on earth. But as he watched Josh reading, he began to feel very edgy. He knew his employer and friend well, but he had never seen anything like the utter stillness slowly gripping that lean face. He quite unconsciously braced himself, powerful muscles growing taut, and had sudden visions of heads lopped off and flying across hotel rooms. One head, at least. His own. He was abruptly glad he had made up his will years before.

Josh looked up, "What the hell is this?" he asked softly.

It took all the will Zach could command not to blink at the fixed, intense rage in those normally cool and calm blue eyes. But he had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Background on Raven Anderson. I verified every fact."

"Then you've got the wrong woman." Josh's voice was flat and hard.

Zach hesitated, then reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and unfolded a sheet of stiff paper. "I called and requested a wire photo. Picked it up a little while ago." He placed the sheet on the desk face up.

Josh could scarcely bear to look. Through his mind swam the madness of what he had read. A long list of aliases going back ten years. Indictments—but no convictions—for grand theft, forgery, fraud, solicitation for the purposes of prostitution ... The FBI listed her as a possible subversive, linking her with a terrorist group but claiming no proof. And the CIA believed that now she was representing "international interests" in the area of white slavery.

Madness ...

"Her present address," Zach said woodenly, feeling skewered by those eyes and wondering why Josh hadn't looked at the photo, "is a penthouse in a very exclusive highrise here in L.A. The lease is held by Leon Travers."

Slowly, every inch a stabbing agony. Josh looked down at the picture. It was grainy, but clear for all of that. A young woman with icy eyes holding a numbered card in front of her. And below the photo was printed height, weight, coloring, general description. The report of an identifying scar on her lower back, the wound gained during a knife fight.

It was Raven.

"Thank you, Zach." Josh's voice was toneless now. "Your usual ... thorough job."

Zach hesitated for a moment, then turned and silently left the room, bothered by what he had left behind.

Josh drew out his lighter and held the printout to the flame. When the last charred ashes in the glass tray on his desk heaped to overflowing, he burned the picture. Not that it mattered, since the efficient Zach would have made duplicate copies of both. And he couldn't burn the words or the image in his mind of a striking face with merry eyes, an image not even the harsh photo could replace. He turned off his desk lamp and sat in the darkness, gazing sightlessly out over the glittering lights of the city far below.

"Man was here asking about you. Raven." She unlocked the apartment door, but paused to smile at the manager. "When, Liz?" "Saturday. Told him the apartment was empty and I'd never heard of you." Her sharp brown eyes were steady on Raven's face. "Seemed a bit upset, but a very nice man." She described Josh Long briskly, adding in satisfaction, "A hunk."

Raven laughed. "You've been watching too much television! And stop guarding me like a cat with one kitten and trying to marry me off."

Liz sniffed. "High time you were married, at your age."

It was a frequent comment, and Raven only smiled, waved, and disappeared into her apartment. Then she poked her head out as Liz was turning to leave and whispered conspiratorially, "He is a hunk, though, isn't he?"

She thought about her own words later, disturbed by the flare of excitement she'd felt in knowing Josh had come searching for her. But that would never do. He'd ruin everything if he started asking questions about her. She felt a j sudden chill, thinking of another handsome face, I this one topped by silver hair and wearing a constant, beneficent smile.

Though dangerous, it was entirely necessary for her to return here from time to time, here, where there was no taint of Leon Travers's deceptively charming presence, and where she could relax her ever-present guard. He would be in meetings all day today, so she had a few hours to relax and unwind before she had to be back at the pent-house to meet him for dinner tonight.

The thought of hours without the strain of performance made her voice light and cheerful when she answered the pealing demand of the phone. "Hello?"

There was an instant of silence, and then deep, oddly husky voice. "Raven? It's Josh."

She caught her breath and silently commanded her heart to quit pounding so erratically. "Oh hello, Josh."

"You've been gone."

Raven licked her lips nervously, wondering what Kelsey would think of the betraying gesture. "Yes, a job out of town."

"I'd like to see you."

She watched her fingers twisting the phone cord, "I have plans for tonight."

"How about now? I'll get a picnic lunch and we can go somewhere."

"All—all right." Was that shy voice really hers? A part of her mind was working swiftly. Where could they avoid being seen? "I know a place."

"Pick you up in an hour." He hung up. Raven cradled the receiver slowly. So. She was, she knew, being incredibly stupid, rash, and insanely reckless. She was putting lives in danger, including her own.

And Josh's.

She looked around the bright, cheerful apartment, and became conscious, not for the first' time, of walking a tightrope between two worlds. Her neighbors in this area and the other few friends she had made considered her a laughing and carefree young woman with a penchant for taking in strays—animal and human. Someone who was quick to offer a loan and who, when not out of town on one of her frequent "business trips" was always willing to watch neighborhood kids for an hour or take shut-ins out for groceries or a visit to a park or theater.

And at that other apartment building across town she was known as a wealthy, somewhat mysterious woman with a chill manner. A woman, it was also known, whom the police would have given much to question at length and without the limitations of law. A woman representing those who trafficked in human lives and who was herself Invisibly but unalterably tarred with their evil brush.

A woman who might or might not be Leon Travers's mistress.

Abruptly, Raven hurried through the apartment toward the shower. She felt dirty.

When Zach came into the den, he walked even more lightly than usual. For the past several days he had walked lightly even for him. It was not that Josh had been throwing objects or roaring his displeasure; Zach could have accepted that, though it would have surprised him, since open temper was not a part of his friend's personality.

No, what had been happening these last days was much quieter and far more devastating than temper. Josh was not given to excess, but Zach had watched him drinking steadily; what was so unnerving about it was that he never got drunk. He had eaten what was put before him without seeming to notice his actions, yet had lost several pounds and it all showed in his face. He was, Zach thought, finely honed, sharpened, stretched almost to the breaking point.

Zach had seen men under stress of battle who looked like that, and he knew the dangers of it. But he was powerless. Josh had faced too many unpleasant truths in his life to allow someone else to cushion a blow for him—even if that were possible.

But now, moving lightly into the den, Zach was relieved to find something had changed. Josh was freshly showered and shaved, and he was talking, on the phone, asking the hotel to pack a picnic lunch for two. Zach waited, and since he was not a man who had to be brained with a two-by-four to see something that would have been obvious to a blind man, he was not surprised by his friend's flat statement to him.

"I don't believe it." Josh stood by his desk, one hand still resting on the phone, and his eyes were clear for the first time in days. "I can't be that wrong about someone. Zach, pull in the team. Pull every string you can find, call in every favor. I want every fact in that damned dossier verified by a dozen sources, and then I want them verified. Don't take anyone's word for anything. Get our investigators checking her background in person." He drew a deep breath. "This is a very personal matter to me—and I don't care who knows it."

Zach opened his mouth to speak, but Josh was gone. The big security man stood frowning for a moment. He had never known Josh to miss a point, but Zach thought he might have missed f this one because he was too close to the problem. Still, Zach got on the phone and began calling out the troops. But he had reservations. If Raven Anderson's background somehow had been fabricated, the question uppermost in Zach's mind was why.

Why would she need a background like that?

During the first hour he was with Raven again, Josh was conscious of a feeling of unreality. She was the woman he'd met in the hallway of a hotel, lovely and cheerful, with a wry sense of humor and laughing eyes. With little help from him, she kept the conversation going, never referring to her absence or betraying, by so much as a flicker other eye, the double life she might well be leading.

And his body, at least, didn't give a damn whether or not she was leading a double life. The increasingly familiar aching throb of desire intensified the moment she opened the apartment door, and grew steadily moment by moment. Tension wound tightly within him and his mouth was dry.

The stress of the last days had left his emotions ragged and painful, and the growing desire found a firm hold. He was half out of his mind with wanting her, and he was dimly aware he needed some kind of reassurance that she was what he believed her to be.

Following her directions, he drove to a serene little park, where they spread a blanket beneath an oak tree and enjoyed the lunch his hotel's chef had provided.

Josh couldn't take his eyes off her, and struggled to maintain the certainty he'd felt earlier. She was dressed in jeans and a sleeveless sweater, her glorious hair unbound and shining; her striking face was free of makeup and needed none.

Solicitation for the purposes of prostitution ...

"Your apartment manager said she didn't know you," he said abruptly, looking down at the blade of grass he was twisting between his fingers.

Raven smiled easily. "I'm sorry. I should have warned you. Liz is very protective. A couple of weeks ago, some nut followed me home a few times, then tried to find out from Liz which apartment I lived in. She called the police, and they advised her to deny that any single woman lived in the building."

"I see." It was, he thought, plausible.

"It backfired once," Raven added. "There's another single woman who lives upstairs, and when a rejected boyfriend came calling, Liz told him the place had been sublet. What she didn't know was that, to put it mildly, the guy was on the shady side. He broke in one night and grabbed every-thing he could carry—and he honestly didn't know it was his former girlfriend he was ripping off."

She studied Josh, wondering what was different about him. He looked leaner, she thought, and somewhat preoccupied; there was an almost imperceptible distance in his manner, a guarded distance. With an unexpected twinge of pain, she realized that his intent though cheerful pursuit of her apparently had burned itself out within these last days.

Telling herself that was for the best did absolutely nothing to ease her depression.

"Are you subletting?" he asked in an idle tone. "Or just staying in the apartment while your friends are gone?"

"Just staying there." She forced a smile. "How about you? About ready to leave L.A. and go take care of the kingdom?"

Josh's face was oddly still when he lifted his gaze to meet hers, and his smile seemed not to touch unreadable blue eyes. "No, I'm staying here for a while. I have to find out if my ... my Waterloo will break me in the end."

Raven felt her heart lurch, but told herself that he couldn't possibly mean what she thought he did. "Cryptic comments over the potato salad," she said lightly, gesturing toward the repacked wicker basket on the corner of the blanket.

"Was I cryptic? Sorry." This time the smile did touch his eyes. "Just thinking of that old saying that every man meets his Waterloo sooner or later. I met mine the other night in the hallway of a hotel."

He did mean ... Raven cleared her throat. "Josh—"

"You said you didn't have a lover."

She couldn't look away from those intent, searching eyes. "No. But I'm involved in business right now. I don't have time for a relationship."

"Make time."

It was hardly an imperious demand, she reflected. It was something else. Something urgent and with a curious undertone of entreaty. Deep within her, she felt guarded walls begin to waver, and hastily shored them up again. It was dangerous—too dangerous—to get involved with him. There were too many problems.

"You're about to say no." Josh moved suddenly, stretching out beside her where she lay on her side, guiding her gently until she lay on her back. "Don't say no."

He kissed her before she could speak, trying not to show her the desperation he felt, trying not to reveal the tangled threads of doubt and certainty, love and fear, belief and disbelief. And when her mouth warmed beneath his, responding instantly) to him, he tried to forget everything but her .., the touch of her ... the taste of her. ...

"Josh." It wasn't protest or Invitation; it was simply the heart's driven instinct to say aloud name that meant too much to say silently. She could feel muscles rippling beneath her fingers as he moved, the heat of him burning her even through the fine linen of his shirt. Burning. She could feel his fire, and every instinct warned that he was almost out of control. His lips seared a path down her throat until her sweater halted his progress, and she felt one of his hands slipping beneath the sweater at her waist.

Raven wanted to abandon herself, but then she caught a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye; there was someone in the trees only a few yards away. Even as she realized, her hand caught Josh's wrist and she felt like screaming in frustration. Kelsey. Damn him.

Josh had obeyed her hand, his own lying still on the warm flesh of her midriff. He kissed her, a hard and possessive kiss, then lifted his head to show her darkened, flaming eyes. "Not here, I agree," he murmured.

Raven knew why Kelsey had caught her attention; she didn't have to look at her watch. Gazing up at Josh and feeling torn almost in two, she said huskily, "I told you. I have an appointment tonight."

His slight smile vanished. "You won't break it. " Not a question.

"I can't. I'm sorry. Josh. It's—it's business." For the first time in his life Josh wanted to lose control. He wanted to take her right here, now, lose himself in her until he went out of his mind with pleasure. He didn't want to think. He wanted her willing and wild beneath him her body sheathing his in the heat of a primitive joining that would sear away all thought, all doubt.

But he fought silently and fiercely for control, knowing that to follow those instincts would be to betray her. And if he possessed her with such motives driving him, it could well destroy him.

When she began moving away, he didn't stop her. Instead, he rose also and helped her to gather up the blanket. Abruptly, compelled by his doubts and fears, he asked, "Do you know Leon Travers?"

Raven was bending to get the basket and answered idly, "I suppose everyone knows of him, but we've never met." She didn't see Josh wince as though she'd struck him.





Three


Raven didn't have time to contact Kelsey and find out why he'd been following her. Shortly after a very distant Josh had dropped her off at the apartment without saying good-bye, she drove her Pinto to the garage, exchanged it for the Mercedes, and transformed herself quickly and expertly for the role she had to play.

She was still quivering inside with the desire Josh evoked, and her heart pounded slowly and heavily with the realization that she could no longer even temporarily set aside thoughts about Josh Long. He was in her blood, in her mind and heart. She couldn't seem to think straight, and only the certain knowledge of how dangerous that was enabled her to head for the penthouse with some semblance of her normal control.

If only Josh would be patient for just a little while, she thought. A few weeks at most. Then they could be together without all this ... trouble. Holding the steering wheel tightly, she wondered if she could find a way to get him out of town until this was finished. Maybe when she got a chance to contact Kelsey, they could find a way.

She thought of Josh's likely reaction to what she was doing, and shivered slightly. He wouldn't like it. No man would like it. So many lies she'd have to tell him, had already told him. And lies were hardly a foundation for a relationship, although the truth was even more dangerous. Instinct told her he was not a man who would care to be deceived; he could well learn to hate her once the truth was out.

Raven gripped the wheel even tighter and pulled into the drive of the towering apartment building. She couldn't think of that, couldn't let herself think of that. Drawing threads of control taut within her, she concentrated on the role.

Control, Zach decided silently. That was why they were sitting in a car an hour past midnight watching the front entrance of the apartment building across the street. They were here because Josh Long had what amounted to an obsession about keeping control of his life, and the woman presently in the penthouse of this building was shaking that control.

Zach glanced at the man in the passenger seat and silently amended the thought. Destroying that control. This strained, intense man was not the one who had come to Los Angeles. Zach tried, again, to dissuade his friend from what he planned to do. "There'll be a guard inside—"

"You studied the plans, didn't you? There has to be a quiet way past him."

Reluctantly, Zach said, "There's a service en-trance, likely quiet this time of night." He paused, then added hopefully, "I'll have to bypass the alarm system to get you in."

"Then that's the way."

If Zach had been given to double-takes, he would have done one then; in fifteen years, he'd never known Josh to permit any of his people to break the law. The very thought had been anathema to him. "Illegal entry," Zach reminded him, but no longer hopefully; Josh was clearly willing to do whatever it took to get up to that penthouse secretly.

Josh didn't respond.

"If anyone sees you going into Leon Travers's building," Zach commented, "it'll really hurt your reputation as an honest businessman. Why don't you just call the lady and meet her somewhere?"

"I want to see her there," he said in a low voice, his gaze riveted to the entrance to the building. She told me she'd never met him; I want to face her with that where she can't deny it." He wasn't entirely sure why he was so adamant about reaching the penthouse unseen; perhaps it was simply because Travers was a dangerous man and Josh wanted to take no chances. There was, at least, that much of his control left. "Going to tell her about the dossier?"

"No." Josh lit a cigarette. "I want her to tell me."

"Think that's likely?"

Josh swore, every word harshly expelled with smoke. "How the hell do I know? She seems to be living a damned double life, and there must be a reason for it."

Zach sent him a guarded look, then said carefully, "If the dossier was legit, maybe she just needs a clean place to wash off the dirt." He thought he'd gone too far for a moment; even in the darkness he caught the stabbing glance from the other side of the car.

"The report's wrong," Josh said gratingly. "Wrong. There's an explanation for it. There has to be."

His friend tried another tack. "And we'll find it, if it's there. Why don't you go on and finish the trip while we look into it? By the time you head back this way, we'll know. There's no hurry, is there?"

Josh stared briefly up at the lighted windows of the penthouse. "Travers is up there," he said savagely. "With her. If he's had his filthy hands on her—I have to know, Zach. About that, at least, I have to know."

"And the rest?" Zach deliberately made his tone of voice harsh. "D'you think you can live with that, if it's true? D'you think you could even touch her knowing she was a liar, a thief ... a whore?" A choked sound came from the passenger seat, but Zach pushed on relentlessly. "You know what I found out today. You know that so far every-thing checks out. What if it all checks out?"

"It won't!" Josh drew a deep breath. "You haven’t met her; I have. That file is about another woman, it has to be. Or it's a pack of lies."

"I guess we'll find out." Zach was staring toward the building's entrance. "There's Travers." They both watched the silver-haired man step into a gleaming limousine that drove away without lingering. "I guess you'll find out at least part of it tonight."

When Leon had gone, Raven took a quick shower and got ready for bed. She habitually wore a silk and lace teddy as sleepwear, and dressed now in a violet creation that left little to the imagination. Feeling a bit chilled in the air-conditioned penthouse, she also donned a white silk robe.

She went into the kitchen and made a pot of cocoa, then carried her cup into the den and gazed around restlessly. She didn't want to sleep, didn't want to dream. She debated between television and a book, deciding finally to read and listen to music. But instead of using the built-in stereo system the penthouse boasted, she got a portable tape player from her bedroom and set it carefully on a low table beside a large arrangement of silk flowers.

Though it hardly looked it, the small tape player had one special quality that Raven depended on whenever she felt it necessary to confuse listening ears: it was designed to damp out reception by electronic bugs like the one planted among the silk flowers.

Raven had made a habit of playing the tape recorder whenever she felt like listening to music. Habitual behavior tended to allay suspicion; by checking with his security people, Leon would know that she was alone, and had no reason to guard against being bugged. And she also needed at least occasional moments free of the sensation of some-one listening to every sound she made.

Leon had examined the player—apparently casually but with real thoroughness—after she used it the first night. After that he had ignored it. Undoubtedly his electronics experts had assured him that the tape player was harmless, that it was beyond the present state of the art to build a machine that could overcome electronic listening devices. The expert who had built this one had assured her that his breakthrough invention was top secret.

When the doorbell rang, Raven froze. The guard downstairs had not announced a visitor. Kelsey? She went quickly to the door and peered through the peephole—and the frozen sensation she'd previously experienced was nothing compared to the cold she felt now. Icy hands moved to unlock and open the door, and she stared at Josh with a horror she could not conceal.

He brushed past her without a greeting, going into the den and turning in a slow circle to stare at the blatant wealth all around him. He looked at the stark white carpet that was ankle-deep, at the plush gray pit grouping, at glass-topped tables and oil paintings and fragile lamps and vases. Then he turned to stare at her as she came slowly nearer. "So you don't know Leon Travers?" His voice was taut, the savagery held in check barely below the surface.

Raven drew the lapels of her robe tightly together and crossed her arms over her breasts, trying to think. "What are you doing here? How did you—" "Answer me!" The lash of that voice was enough, just barely enough, to jolt Raven's mind. She thought fleetingly of the man who after several drinks had laid his kingdom wistfully at her feet, comparing that gentle man—and gentleman—with this tautly controlled but obviously savage stranger. Not two different men, just two sides of one man.

She kept her voice steady with a tremendous effort. "I know him. I'm doing some work for him."

"What kind of work?"

Raven's chin came up swiftly, and only years of discipline enabled her to stop herself from reacting to the scorn and disgust in that final word. But it took everything she had ... much more than she had ever needed before.

She spoke In a measured, impersonal tone. "Work. Since you seem to know this is his building— which, by the way, isn't commonly known—then you must be aware that Mr. Travers is very security-conscious. I wouldn't have a job very long if I told anyone who asked what my work entailed."

"This is his penthouse."

"No. He holds the lease, but if you're implying what I think you are, that he stays here, you're wrong. He sublets the place on a temporary basis to people who work for him. Like me."

"He left half an hour ago."

"We sometimes work here. Like tonight."

Josh wanted to believe her. God, how he wanted to. But he knew too many other apparent facts to let go of this so easily. "And the clothes?" he asked tightly, gesturing to her expensive sleep-wear. "The car downstairs in the garage? Does he sublet those too?"

He watched her face drain of its remaining color, fighting the instincts urging him to go to her, gather her in his arms, tell her that he hadn't meant it, could never think she was—

"I'm not a whore." Her voice was very soft, toneless. The laughing violet eyes were dark and still, and her face was expressionless. "But you think what you like. You will anyway. Get out, Josh. Before I call the security people and have you thrown out." It was a bluff: the last thing in the world Raven would have done was call attention to his presence here.

Josh reached out to catch her shoulders, all but shaking her. "I don't want to believe it," he said thickly. "But you're here ... dressed like this ... and he just left. ..." The smell of herbal soap rose from her skin, and Josh felt dizzy suddenly; his heart told him the woman he held couldn't possibly be what the dossier claimed, but the cool brain that had added immeasurably to an empire reminded him that some dirt couldn't be seen. "Raven ..."

"Get out." Her voice was no longer steady.

"I can't." He thought distantly of Zach's warning and wondered what it would do to him if he found out she was what the report said she was. It didn't bear thinking of. "It's too late for me to get out."

She didn't understand what he meant; her mind had stopped working. And her protest was only a faint broken cry when he pulled her suddenly against him and captured her lips with an odd, despairing hunger.

Raven tried to fight, struggling in his arms with the devastating knowledge that he believed her to be something terrible. Others had believed the same thing; she had made certain of that. But for Josh to believe it hurt her dreadfully. She didn't want to respond to his passion ... didn't want to feel this for a man who thought her a whore.

But the seductive magic of his touch sapped even horror, and her body responded mindlessly. She felt him pulling aside the silk robe, and his lips pressed her shoulder, her throat. Her knees were weak, and she slid her arms around his neck, seeking the strength that he had and she had lost.

His mouth found hers again, his head slanting to deepen the contact, his tongue touching hers and demanding a response. He kissed her as though she were his for the taking, and he In-tended to take ... and take... . Raven had never felt such utter certainty radiating from a man, such primitive determination, and she couldn't fight him or the shivers of pleasure and excitement that were shaking her body.

And Josh, holding the vital, responsive woman tightly against his own hardening, heating body, knew dimly that he was again on the edge of totally losing control. He was no longer conscious of even faint surprise that she held the power to do this to him, the power to ignite his body and shake his mind. He was aware only of building need, the surging fire of a ragged and overpowering desire.

And it wasn't just a woman he wanted. He wanted her, Raven. The muscles of his belly contracted and his legs were rigid with tension as he widened them and pulled her even closer, one hand sliding over her silk-clad back to her hips, pressing her yielding warmth into full and aching contact with his swelling body.

"I don't believe it," he muttered hoarsely against her skin. "I can't believe it. I couldn't feel this way if you weren't what I think you are."

"Josh ..."

He was moving against her subtly, one hand pressing her hips to his strongly, the other tangled in her long hair, kissing her deeply again and again. "I want you until I can't think straight," he breathed. "Until I can't see anything but you, feel anything but you."

Every breath rasping harshly in his throat, Josh held her, kissed her, touched her compulsively. But even though she responded to every touch, he could feel, at first dimly, that she was holding back. And he remembered belatedly what he had accused her of, remembered that he had all but said aloud what no man should ever say to a woman. Not something she could forget, even in the mindless heat of passion ...

His tongue caught the salt of tears on her cheeks, mute testimony that he was right, and it shook him badly. "Don't! I'm sorry I hurt you."

Hurt. It gave Raven the strength to pull away from him, the thought of who would be hurt if she allowed Josh to distract her from what she had to do. Crying ... why was she crying? She hadn't realized. She turned away, rubbing her wet cheeks with the backs of her hands and retying her robe, then sank down on the couch with an unsteady sigh. "Get out," she whispered.

He sat down beside her, catching her hand when she would have moved away. "I can't, Raven. I can't leave while you think—I'm sorry about what . I said. So sorry. Please believe that."

She shook her head a little, trying to think. "I believe you're sorry, but you can't take back the words. Or the doubt. It doesn't make for a good beginning, Josh. Just let it stop here, all right?"

"No." He lifted a hand to her face, making her look at him. His breathing was only beginning to steady, and his voice was deep and husky. "I told you I was a patient man; somehow, I'll make it up to you for what I said tonight. I won't walk out of your life. Raven."

Raven looked at him and knew she was lost, knew she would do everything in her power to keep him safe—except let him walk away. She couldn't do that. Not even to save either of them. "Then there's something you have to understand. And something you have to promise me."

"Anything," he said instantly.

She glanced around at the opulent apartment. "This part of my life is separate. You can't be a part of it. When I'm in the other apartment, I can see you. But not here. Never again here."

He was frowning. "But you won't tell me why?"

"I can't. For—for security reasons. If you can't accept that, then it's no good." Tell me you can't accept that! Walk away from me before I destroy us both!

"Raven—"

"I mean it! I know it's a lot to ask, that—that everything looks and sounds bad, but you'll Just have to decide if you trust me. And that's all." A lot to ask! Her mind sneered at her. With the evidence all around him, no man would trust her as she asked. No man could trust her.

Josh looked into those steady, beautiful, hurting violet eyes and knew right then, in that moment, that no matter how bad things appeared, he did, in fact, trust her. Doubts and uncertain-ties faded away. "All right." He smiled crookedly. "I think I forgot to mention it, but I love you,"

She was shaken, and looked it. "Josh, don't say that. Everything is so complicated right now. I can't even think."

"I have to say it." He leaned forward to kiss her gently. "But I won't say it again until you're ready to hear it." He released her, then reached into his pocket and withdrew a business card and a pen. He turned the card over and jotted a number quickly, then handed her the card. "This is my phone number at the hotel. Will you promise to call me as soon as you're back in the other apartment?" She nodded, unable to do anything else.

He rose to his feet, then hesitated as he looked down at her. Dear Lord, he couldn't bear to leave her! "Will it be very long?"

Raven met his look as steadily as she could. "Days. I'm usually here for days at a time."

His jaw tightened, but he nodded. "I'll wait." He headed for the door, pausing when he reached it to turn and gaze at her. "No one will know I was here; I came up the back way, and that's how I'll leave." Then he was gone.

Raven stared at the door for long moments, still aware of the warmth of his touch, still seeing the sudden gentleness of his eyes. She was vaguely conscious of the music that had played steadily while he was with her, the machine automatically restarting itself after playing one side of the tape. And in the back of her mind, a small voice spoke up wryly. No wonder Hagen said I'd be no good to him once I fell in love.

She had taken that step; there was no going back. None of her painfully won defenses had been able to stand against him: she couldn't fight what she felt. And Raven wondered what—and whom-she might have sacrificed to love a man.

"No more cavorting in parks," Kelsey told her cheerfully when they met quietly two days later. "You seemed a bit distracted, so I thought you might have needed reminding that we're on a. tight schedule."

"I'm glad you did." They were in a museum, and Raven was gazing at the large abstract painting on the wall near the bench on which they sat. The huge room was deserted except for them.

Kelsey sent her a thoughtful look. "I couldn't help but wonder who he was."

"Don't give me that. You ran his license plate." He chuckled. "So I did. Car's a rental."

"Yes. So?"

"So," Kelsey said softly, "I got back a lot of gibberish from the computer."

Raven turned her head slowly and stared at him. "The rental company would have had an agreement—"

"You'd think. But I couldn't trace that plate. Oh, the company acknowledged the car was theirs, but they said it was being serviced, not rented." The hollow feeling inside Raven grew. "His name is Joshua Long," she said quietly. "At least that's what he told me, and I saw an ID." She remembered then, and added slowly, "Just a business card with his name and a phone number. A New York number, I think." He'd given her a card; but Raven didn't have it with her and couldn't remember the phone number.

"Rings a bell." Kelsey frowned. "He's not from LA.? Where's he staying?"

She told him. She was simultaneously close to laughter and tears now that it was her turn to suspect Josh of being something other than he seemed. She didn't like the uncertainty. She didn't like it at all.

"How'd you meet him?"

"He's the man I knocked down in the hotel." Plainly worried, Kelsey ran fingers through his hair.

"I'll check him out. Meantime, I hope you sent him on his way." When she remained silent, his voice sharpened. "Raven?"

"I'll see him only at home," she said softly, not about to tell Kelsey that Josh had found her in Leon Travers's penthouse.

Kelsey felt faint surprise, but only because it hadn't happened until now; he'd always known Raven would fall hard when she finally did fall. "I'll check him out—quickly," he said.

"I still don't understand what I'm doing here," Rafferty Lewis complained to Zach as they sat in the den of Josh's suite. "I'm an attorney, not a detective." His humorous brown eyes flicked a glance at the third man in the room, a rather strikingly handsome gentleman with a leonine mane of blond hair and sharp blue eyes. "Lucas is the detective."

"You've got to remember," Lucas Kendrick told the lawyer in his curiously compelling voice, "that the boss didn't send for us. Zach did. And though I've been here only a day, I agree with him. There's something very fishy going on."

"Well, what?"

Zach, never stirring from a deep chair where he somewhat grimly contemplated the remainder of the brandy in his glass, told the newly arrived lawyer everything that had happened up until that day, finishing with, "Lucas has been following the lady; he'll tell you the rest."

The chief investigator for Josh's empire took up the story. "I asked questions about her at the apartment building where the manager denied to Josh that lady lived there; she made the same denial to me. Claimed the place was empty. Then I checked out the other apartment, and it is leased to Travers, not sublet. The staff wouldn't talk.

"She left the penthouse this morning, did a quick-change routine in a garage, and met a man at a museum. If I hadn't known to look for the Pinto, I would have missed her, because she looked that different. It was definitely a prearranged meeting, maybe for some kind of exchange of information. I couldn't go into the room to overhear them. I would have been too obvious; the room was empty except for them."

Rafferty's normally humorous face was sober, as was his voice. "And then?"

"Then she returned to the garage, changed back to her glamorous self, and went back to the penthouse." He shook his head, frowning. "I managed to find a talkative maid in the cleaning service for the building—not easy, believe me. Their security is pretty tight. But the maid said Raven Anderson is very quietly known as the Ice Maiden. She's been there only a few weeks. None of the staff believes she's Travers's mistress; they think he'd have more luck with a glacier."

"And domestic help usually knows that kind of thing," Rafferty observed almost to himself.

"Damn right they do." Lucas sighed. "So it looks like the boss was right about that, anyway."

Zach stirred a bit and looked at the other two. "Maybe he's right about the rest. When he came out of the penthouse the other night, he believed her. Somehow, she'd convinced him. And we all know how many women have tried to con Josh in one way or another through the years. He's no-body's fool. I think he's right about her back-ground being fabricated."

Rafferty looked at him sharply. "Because Josh believes in her? Or was there something that finally turned up in her background? You said it checked out."

"Oh, it did." Zach nodded morosely. "On the surface. We dug deeper, and it checked out. Then we kept digging—and a funny thing is happening."

"Don't keep us in suspense," Josh drawled from the doorway.

The three men watched as he came out of his bedroom and moved to lean against the desk. None of them got to their feet, but only because Josh disliked formality. Besides, their respect for Josh needed no outward signs to be apparent.

Rafferty, the newest arrival, blinked when he saw his friend and employer of several years. Josh had lost weight, he realized, and there was some-thing different in his eyes, something almost haunted. "Hello, Josh."

"Rafferty." Josh smiled a little. "Come to keep me out of jail, or what?"

"You been ignoring your parking tickets?"

"No."

"Well, then, I'm just here as an advisor. I think." He looked at Zach, who nodded.

"I thought he should be here, Josh. Things are beginning to look damn complicated."

Josh crossed his arms over his chest and laughed faintly with no humor. "I might have known I couldn't even conduct a private courtship without trouble of some kind." His life was a public one, and Josh had learned over the years that nothing could be simple for him. Then he shot Rafferty a quick look. "In case they didn't convince you, that dossier on Raven is a bundle of lies—or some awful mistake."

"They convinced me."

"Fine." Josh looked at Zach. "So what's funny?"

"Well, as I said, we dug deeper. And all of a sudden, people aren't talking to us. With a vengeance. And Lucas's contact in the intelligence community just closed down tight as a drum."

"I couldn't get the time of day from him," the investigator confirmed. "It smells, Josh."

Josh, who knew quite a bit himself about intelligence games, frowned. "A coverup?"

"No, just dead silence. And my instincts are yelling that we're about to be warned off. Some-body doesn't want us digging into Raven Ander-son's background,"

"Travers?"

"The odor doesn't drift from that direction. Federal, I'd say."

Josh thought of the keen intelligence in violet eyes. "You think it's possible she might be an operative for one of the agencies?"

"It's possible. It's also possible," Lucas said evenly, "that they've got an eye on her and don't want us mucking around and screwing up their gameplan."

"No."

Lucas slid a glance toward Zach, then said very softly, "I lifted a few prints off the car this morning. They match the file."

"The file's fabricated. I don't know why, but I know it's fake." Utter certainty.

Glances were exchanged between the security man, the attorney, and the investigator and a decision silently reached and affirmed among the three of them.

"All right," Zach said. "We go from there. And working from that premise. Josh, I say we back off. Now."

"I agree," Rafferty said, and Lucas nodded.

It took Josh only a moment to realize why the suggestion had been made, and he went cold all over. He should have seen it, would have seen it except that he'd been too involved, too bent on finding out what was going on.

"If we keep digging—" he murmured, breaking off.

Rafferty spoke quietly. "If she's undercover—the only logical explanation for a fabricated background like hers—and we work like hell to expose that cover as a fake, we could put her in very great danger. Especially with a man like Leon Travers involved. Whatever's going on, he's at the hub of it."

"Look at it this way," Lucas said. "It's been rumored for years that Travers is very heavily into white slavery, but nobody's been able to pin a thing on him. Now, within the last few weeks, a lady enters his life. A lady with a rock-solid criminal background and a CLA report that she represents international interests in that area. Now, if that background and that report are false, then there's only one good reason for it. I think some-body's setting Travers up. It's the only thing that makes sense."

"And if we poke our noses in ..." Rafferty murmured.

"He could turn on Raven," Josh murmured, his face gray, fear for her twisting his guts and sending ice through his veins. "Smell a set-up and decide to cover his tracks."

Josh had seen the results of evil minds at work far too many times in his life, and the thought of Raven trapped unsuspectingly, at the mercy of one such as Travers, filled him with agony. There were so many things a brutal man could do to a woman, so many ways to hurt her, scar her inside and out for life . . . even to the point where death would be a welcome release.

"You're at risk too," Zach said, going on even when Josh gestured dismissively. "Travers has his own intelligence network, and from all reports it's damned good. We've taken the usual precautions in checking into her background, but we didn't know what we were up against. If Travers got suspicious, he'd find out quick enough that you're behind it. And he knows damned well who you are. Josh. He knows you've helped law enforcement and intelligence agencies before, and he knows how you feel about criminal activities on his grand scale. He could decide to go after you."

"I would, in his place," Lucas said flatly. "You're more than just a threat to him, Josh. You're a deadly danger. You have very powerful friends, and you could make a hell of a lot of trouble for him if you decided to."

It was Rafferty who added the clincher. "And if Travers should discover that your interest in Raven is personal, he'll have a lever to use against you."

"I have to see Raven," Josh said hoarsely, reaching for the phone. "Warn her. I have to tell her what I've done—"

"What we've done," Zach said.

Across town in a shabby apartment building, and roughly an hour before Josh and his lieu-tenants had reached their conclusions, Kelsey hunched forward, staring at a computer screen. His eyes widened as information scrolled past for endless moments, then he swore softly and reached for the telephone.

"Hello?" a cool voice answered.

"Is Susan there?" Kelsey asked cheerfully.

"You have the wrong number," the cultured voice of Raven told him.

"Sorry." He hung up, knowing that this had been as good a time as any to use their emergency, one-time-only code; he had to see Raven, and quickly.

He reviewed the information his computer offered, shaking his head unconsciously. Damn. Double damn. How in hell were they going to deal with this mess? Trust Raven to go and fall in love with the one man who could ruin everything!

It was only a matter of time, he thought, until Travers found out from his intelligence network that Joshua Long had been digging into Raven's background.

The Joshua Long, dammit, known far and wide as an extremely brilliant, powerful, wealthy ... and honest man.

What could they do? Bluster it out, find some reason for Long's interest in Raven that wouldn't send Travers berserk? Recruit Long and somehow make the situation reasonable and no threat to Travers? Push up the timetable and trust to blind luck that they'd have the job done before Travers knew anything at all?

Kelsey made a second call, scrambling it at his end and routing it so that it would take endless time to trace.

He needed advice from the top.





Four


All four men jumped in surprise when the door of the suite was suddenly assaulted by clearly angry fists. Absolutely furious fists. Zach, who was nearest, went to peer cautiously through the peep-hole, then swore audibly in a surprised tone and quickly opened the door. A second later, he found himself shoved rather unceremoniously aside to allow the entrance of what was obviously an avenging fury.

"Out of my way!"

Josh, who had been chain-smoking and listening to the endless ringing in his ear, dropped the receiver home, stubbed out his latest cigarette, and rose to his feet swiftly. "Raven!"

Flashing violet eyes seared past a lawyer and an investigator, both climbing to their feet, and fixed on Josh. "You!" She advanced on him. "Do you know what you've done? Do you have any idea what you've done? I ought to—"

Heedless of both her anger and the fascinated presence of his lieutenants, Josh yanked her some-what roughly into his arms and kissed her thoroughly, his relief almost overpowering. She was safe. For now, at least, she was safe.

For an instant. Raven melted against him, but then anger resurfaced and she fought free of him. "No, dammit! Now I know why you're so good at this! You're a damned playboy, you've been practicing for years!"

Varied deep tones of laughter jerked her attention away from Josh, and she whirled to stare at the three men she'd barely noticed until then. "Who the hell are you?" she snarled. In her present mood she would have made the same furious demand of the devil if he'd stood before her breathing fire and complete with horns and pitchfork.

Josh rested his hip on the edge of his desk and grinned despite himself. This new aspect of Raven's personality intrigued him, and he eyed her as he murmured introductions.

Hands on her hips, magnificent eyes blazing, Raven turned her attention to a suddenly uncomfortable Lucas. "You asked questions at my apartment," she accused him. "And you followed me; I thought I'd lost you."

"I've had a lot of practice," Lucas muttered, more than a little annoyed with himself for having been spotted.

"So have I," she retorted, plainly angry. "And at more than losing a tail; follow me again and you'll find out a few other things I've had practice at. I can promise you they're painful."

Settling his bulk back into a chair, Zach said, "If the jury were still out, I guess that'd bring it in quick enough. We were right, Josh."

Raven was still too angry to guard her tongue, not in the least because finding that Josh Long actually did have a kingdom, an empire, really, had shaken her more than a little. She skewered the big security chief with a glare. "Jury? You'd all be hung for what you've done! And I'd hold the damned rope! Months—months!—of work down the drain because lover boy here couldn't resist throwing his weight around!"

Willingly, Josh drew the inevitable explosion to himself rather than to his lieutenants; he was nothing if not fair, and it had been his fault that they'd probed into her background. He said, "If you'd been honest with me—"

Raven turned to give him a look that should have shriveled him on the spot. "I didn't know you from Adam's housecat," she snapped, ignoring a choke of laughter from behind her. "And I don't shoot my mouth off every chance I get!" Belatedly realizing that in fact she was doing just that. Raven fell silent and continued to glare at him.

Josh looked past her at his friends. "Would you excuse us?"

Rafferty, the last out the door, glanced back to say solemnly, "Maybe I should stay, Josh. You might need somebody to uphold your rights."

Josh lifted an eyebrow at him, holding on to his dignity as much as possible after having been violently labeled a playboy and "lover boy" in front of his men. Rafferty laughed and closed the door softly as he left.

Looking at Raven and fighting the desire to take her back Into his arms. Josh said quietly, "I was trying to reach you just now before you came in." He nodded toward his absent friends. "They made me realize what I'd done. I'm sorry, Raven. I wasn't thinking. That fabricated dossier on you just ... I almost went out of my mind."

Raven turned abruptly and walked to the window, staring out. When Kelsey had summoned her with their emergency code, she hadn't even bothered to assume a disguise; she had simply switched cars and taken pains to make certain she wasn't followed. And since Leon was at a board meeting, she'd felt reasonably safe in charging over here to confront Josh.

She was dressed as she'd been when Kelsey called, in a white silk dress that clung lovingly to her breasts and waist before flowing out in a full skirt to brush her knees. And she was wearing the makeup for her role, nothing heavy, but a suggestion of catlike mystery slanted her eyes due to soft shadowing, and the planes of her face, expertly contoured, seemed sharpened, curiously exotic.

Very softly, Josh said, "I could guess the role you're playing even without the file on you. A woman of mystery, seductive but never seduced. Igniting fire, but never burning herself. Spinning the threads of a web that never catches her." Abruptly and on a rueful note, he added, "You should meet my sister."

Raven ignored the apparent non sequitur. Instead, she thought of his summation of her role, and almost laughed. Judging by the performance she just enacted for his men, she wasn't as good an actress as Josh seemed to think. Damn him for making her lose control, she thought, but there was no venom in the reflection, not even anger.

"Raven—"

"Why couldn't you listen to me," she asked, striving to keep her voice even. "Why did you have to probe?"

"It was too late to stop," he answered soberly. "We had already been digging into your background. And after I left you at the penthouse, I was so afraid you were in over your head, so afraid you'd get hurt."

"I was perfectly safe." She looked at him. "Then."

Josh drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Raven, I'd give everything I have to take back all the probing, to get you out of the danger I've put you in." She was, he thought dimly, looking at him rather oddly.

"Tell me something," Raven requested. "Just what is it you believe I'm involved in?"

He didn't hesitate. "I believe you're working with or for someone who wants to put Leon Travers behind bars for good. Probably on charges relating to white slavery."

She never changed expression; her professional mask was in place now. "I see. Well, Kelsey seemed to be convinced you'd figure it out quickly."

"Kelsey?"

"My partner."

Questions leaped to Josh's mind, but he held them back. He'd done enough damage already with his questions. "It was the only thing that made sense," he said. "Zach turned up that file on you pretty quickly and I—couldn't believe it. You were gone, out of reach; all I had was that damned file burning itself into my brain. I had to disprove it. That's why I went to the penthouse."

"You thought I was Leon Travers's mistress."

"No," he said quickly. "I knew there had to be a reason, an explanation—".

Raven laughed, a sound with no amusement. Her eyes, briefly, were hard with remembered pain. "That wasn't the impression you gave me in the penthouse."

He took a step toward her, then halted as she stiffened visibly. "Raven, please try to understand. I had fallen in love for the first time in my life with a wonderful, beautiful woman with laughing eyes. All I knew was that I loved her. And then, with no time granted to get closer to her, she's gone. And in front of me is a file, and a picture, and the certainty that she's staying in Travers's penthouse."

"You believed it." She knew she wasn't being fair, knew all too well the evidence had been damning. But the pain was still in her and she couldn't be professional about it.

He took another step, his eyes direct and steady,