মুখ্য Taken by Storm

Taken by Storm

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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.
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Taken by Storm

زبان:
english
فائل:
EPUB, 438 KB
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2

Taken By Storm

سال:
2006
زبان:
english
فائل:
EPUB, 879 KB
0 / 0
Taken by Storm

Kay Robbins (Kay Hooper)





For Debi

And the long childhood afternoons

of make-believe





Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Copyright





Chapter 1


“You’re Casey Mallory?”

Accustomed to the reaction—one of the penalties both of her name and of being a female petroleum geologist in a man’s world—she merely stared warily at the redheaded, tawny-eyed man filling the doorway of her office, and confirmed quietly, “I’m Casey Mallory. Something I can do for you?”

Having learned the hard way to size up men quickly and accurately—in business, at least—Casey decided in that first moment that the man standing in the doorway and surveying her with unabashed masculine appreciation was going to be a definite threat to her hard-won professionalism. Tugging her white lab coat around her in an unsuccessful attempt to conceal her impressive—or so she had been told—measurements, she automatically stood, harboring a vague notion of approaching a more equal footing with this impossibly large man. In her low heels she stood exactly six feet tall.

Despite the imposing stature that might have cowed a lesser man, she was still being openly regarded as though she were a prize exhibit at the local slave market. Casey lifted her chin and gazed levelly at her remarkably silent visitor. “Are you going to stand there and stare at me all morning,” she demanded, abandoning pleasantries, “or tell me who you are and what you’re doing in this highly security-conscious building?”

“I think I’ll just stand here and enjoy the view, princess,” he responded outrageously, his drawling voice warm and caressing. Without waiting for her reaction to that, he went on to add casually, “Tell me something. How many men bump into doorjambs or trip over their own feet when you walk by?”

Casey folded her arms over her breasts in a defensive gesture and answered coolly, “Only the occasional uncoordinated one.”

A gleam of laughter lit his golden ; eyes. “It must get tiresome,” he commented solemnly.

She appeared to consider the matter. “Not really. A bit dangerous at times, though.”

“Dangerous?” He lifted a questioning brow.

“That’s right. A man at the gym last week dropped a fifty-pound weight on his foot.”

“I suppose you walked by in a leotard?”

“A towel, actually. I was on my way to the sauna.” It occurred to Casey that this was a ridiculous conversation to be having with an absolute stranger, but she found herself somehow enjoying it.

He looked her up and down consideringly. “Even in the lab coat,” he murmured almost to himself, something in his eyes completing the sentence silently. More strongly, he added, “The last time I saw a body like that, it was in a centerfold. Believe me—I feel for the poor guy with the slippery hands.”

Casey’s enjoyment instantly evaporated.

“Look,” she snapped angrily, “I don’t know who you are, but I wish you’d state your business and leave! I have work to do.”

His steady gaze had never left her face during the outburst, and a peculiarly satisfied gleam entered his tawny eyes. “Calm down, princess,” he murmured. “I was just wondering how the men around here manage to keep their minds on business.”

“They are professionals,” she pointed out with a certain smugness. “And stop calling me that!”

He laughed, a rich, deep sound that seemed to fill the room. “Sorry, honey, but you remind me of some magnificent Amazon princess.”

Ignoring what was obviously meant to be a compliment, she said evenly, “My name, as I said, is Casey Mallory. You have yet to tell me yours.”

“Carmichael. Storm Carmichael.”

She sank into her chair a bit weakly as she gazed into the shrewd golden eyes. Oh, God—so he was the troubleshooter Apollo Petroleum had called in to investigate their recent problems. And she was supposed to watchdog the man! “I see.”

He came into the room and dropped into the chair in front of her desk, ignoring the creak that warned of a seat designed for smaller visitors. “And you’re my liaison with the company,” he observed complacently.

“For the duration,” she confirmed somewhat bitterly. “And why it had to be my section of the lab that went up in smoke—”

“Tell me about that,” he interrupted in a suddenly businesslike voice.

She narrowed her eyes as she stared across the desk at him. “How do I know you’re who you say you are?” she demanded suspiciously. “Because if you are, you should already know about the explosion.”

Apparently not the least bit offended, he asked wryly, “Would I claim a name like Storm unless it was really mine?” When she didn’t respond to the mild attempt at humor, he sighed and said, “I’d be glad to show you some identification, princess, but why don’t you just call up the head of your department—Dr. Porter—and ask him to describe me? We’ve spent the past two hours talking in his office.”

“Stop calling me princess!” she snapped, and she immediately reached for her phone to call the head of the research division. Two minutes later she replaced the receiver and said tersely, “Okay, Mr. Carmichael, what do you want to know?”

“A little paranoid, aren’t you?” he observed shrewdly.

Casey sat back in her chair and smiled thinly, absently putting up a hand to check the heavy braid of honey-colored hair lying low on her neck. “With the trouble we’ve been having the past couple of months, Mr. Carmichael, I could hardly be anything else.”

“Storm—please.”

Ignoring the request, she went on calmly, “As for the explosion, the fire inspector believes it was an accident. And since Apollo doesn’t desire bad publicity, no one here has corrected him.” That didn’t, she realized, come as a surprise to the big man sitting in front of her. Obviously Dr. Porter had been serious when he’d told her on the phone: “Be honest with him, Casey—I have.”

“It couldn’t possibly have been an accident?” the troubleshooter asked intently.

Casey shook her head. “No one was using chemicals that day, flammable or otherwise.” Evenly, she went on, “I was the last one to leave the lab for lunch, and I automatically checked to make sure that nothing dangerous had been left untended. Nothing had.”

“Did you lock the door?”

“No. We never do, except at night.”

He was silent for a moment, the long-lashed tawny eyes watching her expressionlessly. “Who normally has access to the lab?”

“Everyone on this floor. Roughly two dozen people.”

“You’re fairly new here at Apollo, aren’t you?” he asked musingly.

“Four months.” Her voice was perfectly calm, but someone who knew her well would have caught the almost imperceptible hint of strain in it. She studied his face, as he appeared lost in thought, mentally pegging him in his mid-to-late thirties and looking it. He was not a handsome man, but quite definitely striking in a rough, aggressive sort of way. He exuded a compelling, magnetic virility. Like a Viking warrior, she thought vaguely, with tiger eyes.

“There was some trouble at the last place you worked, too, wasn’t there?”

Casey gasped in spite of herself as his quiet question jerked her from her straying thoughts. Right between the eyes, for heaven’s sake! Feeling tension seep into her body, she made a mental note: this man didn’t pull his punches. Coolly, she related the bare facts of the story.

“Eight months ago, I was working on a government-funded research project in Virginia. We were trying to develop alternate and more efficient energy sources from petroleum. The work wasn’t classified, but we were understandably concerned when we discovered that someone was systematically going through our files and reports. Security was tightened, but not before several vital bits of research came up missing. All of us were under suspicion, but especially me, because I had lived in the Middle East several years ago.”

He continued to watch her with those shrewd eyes, saying merely, “You resigned.”

“That’s right,” she confirmed without inflection. “Please note, however, that I was not asked to resign, nor did I do so until I was cleared of suspicion.”

“Why did you resign?”

“Personal reasons.”

A flicker of a smile hovered around his rather hard-looking mouth. “And if I asked what those reasons were?”

“I’d tell you to go to hell.”

“That’s what I thought.” He settled back in his chair, again ignoring the warning creak. “Did they ever find the guilty party? As I remember, the whole thing was hushed up.”

“Like you said—it was hushed up.”

He smiled crookedly. “You’re not very forthcoming with information, are you, princess?”

Having finally realized that this irritating man was going to go on calling her by that absurd name in spite of anything she might say, Casey merely acknowledged the question. “Not very, no. At the moment, I happen to be interested only in Apollo’s problems.”

He opened his mouth to respond to that, only to be interrupted by a cheerful voice from the open doorway.

“Casey, love, have lunch with me!”

“She’s booked,” Storm Carmichael said immediately, rising endlessly from his chair and turning to confront the blond young man standing in the doorway. Ham Frazier’s smile wilted visibly as he stared into the golden eyes, and, though by no means a small man himself, he actually took a step backwards.

“Oh. Well, some other time then, Casey,” he mumbled, backing up and turning so suddenly that he nearly ran into the doorjamb.

Watching her usual lunch date disappear in something of a dither, Casey finally recovered from her speechless state and surged to her feet, slamming her hands down on the desk so hard it hurt. “Dammit! Just where do you come off doing something like that? I will not be dictated to, Mr. Carmichael—understand that!”

He turned to look at her, stretching like a great, lazy cat, the amber eyes containing warm laughter. “Have lunch with me,” he said softly. “Please.”

Disarmed by the soft plea, and frustrated by her own instinctive response to it, she gritted out, “My personal time is my own.” Absently, she noted that the top of her head barely reached his chin. Good heavens, he was tall!

“Shall I pull rank?” he asked casually, that gleam of laughter still in his eyes.

“Mr. Carmichael,” she said very quietly, holding on to her temper with an effort, “my instructions regarding you included only business hours; I was not told to hand myself over to you on a silver platter.”

In an outrageously calm tone, he said, “Well, I’ll talk to Porter; maybe we can have that worked in as well.”

Casey stared into the smiling golden eyes and fought back a sudden impulse to laugh. The nerve of the man! The women’s movement might have shaken the confidence of some males, but it obviously hadn’t dented this man’s ego in the least. Adopting a sweetly mocking tone, she said, “Dr. Porter is happily married and a born matchmaker; please don’t give him any ideas. He’s so old-fashioned he’d never see that your intentions were less than honorable.”

“Did I say they were?” Carmichael asked mildly. “For all you know, I may well have fallen in love right off the bat and be dreaming of orange blossoms and ‘O Promise Me.’ ”

“Sure,” Casey agreed dryly, “and I believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.”

“You have no faith in love at first sight, huh?”

“Hardly.” Bitterness crept into her voice. “I’m twenty-eight, Mr. Carmichael; I’ve learned to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. And the reality of this situation is that you’re a man on the make—and I’m not interested.”

Apparently unscathed by her withering words, he continued to study her thoughtfully. “Something tells me that you’ve been burned.”

For one unguarded moment, Casey was nearly impelled by that gentle voice to tell him just how badly she had been burned. But then she lowered her cool reserve over her face like a veil, and she was in control again.

But only outwardly. Inwardly, she was shaken and uneasy. Shaken because her heart had been tapping away in double time since she’d first looked up and seen him standing in her doorway; uneasy for the same reason.

This man was strangely attractive to her, and that was the last thing she needed. Her instincts were loudly clamoring that he was both intelligent and dangerous. Would he—could he—add up certain items in her past and begin to wonder, as she herself had wondered these past weeks? But no, that was highly unlikely. What had happened in Virginia had been, as he’d said, “hushed up.” No one not directly connected with the project knew what had really happened.

And she hadn’t lost her position there. She’d resigned completely voluntarily, exactly as she’d told Carmichael. No pressure had been brought to bear on her. It had been her own shame and disgust that had caused her to …

Realizing abruptly that the troubleshooter—and there was a word!—was still waiting for a response to his questioning comment, she straightened and half shrugged away the weight of her too-recent memories. “It’s simply a question of self-protection, Mr. Carmichael.”

“If you don’t start calling me Storm,” he objected mildly. “I’m going to take drastic measures.”

Her feminine instincts understood the warning with no trouble at all, but her curiosity got the better of her. “And just what kind of drastic measures did you have in mind, Mr. Carmichael?” she asked, deliberately baiting.

“You’re woman enough to know what kind,” he responded softly, the tiger eyes laughing. “In fact, I’d say you were more woman than most men would know what to do with.”

“But not you?” She heard the breathlessness in her voice, knew that her face was flushed, and was irritated with herself for responding, even unconsciously, to his seductive tone.

“Not me,” he agreed, something besides laughter now darkening the golden eyes. “I’m man enough to take you on, Princess. And the sooner you realize that and stop fighting me, the better it’ll be for both of us.”

“You’ve got a hell of a nerve,” she managed weakly, the utter certainty of his voice literally stealing her breath. It didn’t help the rapid-fire pace of her heart very much, either.

He chuckled softly. “Don’t worry, honey, I won’t rush you. Much. Now, shed that lab coat and let’s have lunch.”

A lifetime with an autocratic father had conditioned Casey to respond automatically to the voice of command—and this man had it down pat. She had slipped out of the white coat and hung it on the rack by her desk before she remembered that he was neither her father nor her boss, dammit, and what was she doing obeying him? “Now, look,” she began heatedly, turning back to confront him. But she never finished the sentence, because the expression in his eyes made her forget whatever she had planned to say.

“Good Lord, woman,” he muttered in an oddly choked voice, “you should be arrested for wandering around like that!”

“I’m wearing slacks!” she defended in an indignant squeak.

“Honey,” he murmured, eyeing her close-fitting dark brown slacks, matching tailored vest, and long-sleeved cream blouse, “you could get arrested wearing a choir robe.”

Casey stared at him for a moment and then turned silently back to the rack and reached for her blazer. How could a woman remain decently mad at a man who said things like that—and sounded as if he meant them, too? Heaven knew she’d heard all the lines. The old saying about men not making passes at six-foot lasses might well have been true in most circumstances, but it couldn’t be proven by Casey.

Granted, she’d stood head and shoulders above most of the fellows in high school. But once she’d hit college—with a burning determination to follow in her father’s scientific footsteps—she’d discovered quite a few men who liked women on the large side. And they had all made use of flowery phrases and eons-old flattery.

But this man … His compliments—if they could be called that—were bluntly stated, not in the least flowery, and held a disturbing ring of honesty. The look in his tiger eyes was different, too. It wasn’t that calculating, time-to-make-a-conquest look. It was something deeper and … and something she didn’t want to think too much about.

Casey suddenly became aware that he had stepped closer, helping her with the blazer, and she tried not to stiffen as his hands fell onto her shoulders. The next moment, though, she was whirling with a smothered exclamation when one of those hands seemed to tangle in her hair, freeing the neat braid from its confinement.

She reached for the tortoise-shell clasp he held, muttering, “Dammit. Now see what you’ve done! It’ll take ten minutes to put it back up, and—” She halted abruptly, feeling the heavy braid unwind itself and simultaneously realizing that his action had not been accidental.

“Why do you wear it up?” he queried absently, watching the honey-colored hair fall past the flare of her hips. “It’s gorgeous. I knew it would be.”

“It gets in my way!” she snapped, acutely aware of his nearness, and feeling, for one of the few times in her life, physically small and vulnerable.

“Nonsense. Leave it down.” He dropped the clasp into his coat pocket and took her by the hand. “Let’s go.

“Will you stop ordering me around?” she practically wailed, more as a matter of pride than out of any real expectation of having him listen to her. When he only laughed and pulled her toward the door, she added an irritated, “My purse!”

“You won’t need it,” he assured her, tugging her—there was no other word for it—out into the hall.

“There’s a brush in it, and my hair—”

“You look beautiful, princess.”

Abandoning that unproductive tack, she began another. “Don’t pull me along like an added appendage, dammit; someone will think I’m being kidnapped!” She tried to plant her feet firmly, but ceased the useless resistance when one of the workmen came out of the lab at the end of the hall and goggled at them. Waiting until they turned the corner and were past the staring man, she hissed, “Mr. Carmichael!” And then, desperately, “Storm!”

“Ah!” He halted immediately and turned to look down at her with a glinting smile. “That’s what I was waiting for, princess. You have only to ask—the right way—and I’ll gladly do anything for you.”

“Does that include releasing your death grip on my hand?” she asked coldly, staring fixedly at his loosened tie and trying to ignore the promise in his voice. “I can’t feel my fingers.” She blinked as the pattern of his tie sank into her brain, and she felt an astonished giggle try to push its way past her tightly clamped lips.

“Your wish is my command!” The words were old-world gallant, but his laughing voice made them come out with a peculiar, gentle mockery. He drew her hand through the crook of his arm and continued down the hall at a more sedate pace.

Her mind momentarily diverted from rebellion, Casey took her first really seeing look at her escort’s clothing and fought back another giggle. Lord, but this man had a strong personality! One of the first things she normally noticed about people was the way they dressed. But when Storm Carmichael had entered her office, she’d noticed everything else: his eyes, hair, size, the honey-and-steel voice. Not his clothing.

Now she took note of the fact that he’d apparently dressed in the dark. Either that or he was color-blind. His tie had spots. Big spots. Big red spots. Which would have been fine, except that his jacket was olive green, his slacks brown, and his shirt … She sneaked another peek at the yellow shirt and couldn’t quite stop the giggle this time.

“What’s so funny, princess?”

Casey looked up at his quizzical smile and realized that he’d caught that last peek. “Nothing. It’s just—where did you get that tie?” Belatedly she realized the personal nature of her question and wished that she could call it back. But he was laughing.

“You’ll have to take me in hand, sweetheart. My sartorial sense is virtually zero.”

“I’ll do no such thing!” she gasped, promptly spoiling the outraged exclamation by adding amusedly, “I wish I could see the rest of your wardrobe.”

“Any time,” he offered immediately. “I’ve got most of it with me at the hotel. If you’d like—”

“No!” she said hastily. “I wouldn’t like! I don’t even know why I’m going to lunch with you, for heaven’s sake!”

“Because I asked you,” he explained gravely.

“You didn’t ask me, you just took me,” she countered, her earlier irritation returning as he led her past the security guard near the door and out of the building.

“I didn’t take you, honey,” he said cheerfully, leading her across the parking lot. “When I do that, there won’t be a single doubt or question in your mind.”

Casey opened and closed her mouth a couple of times and then murmured a bit wildly, “Oh, my God!” And it was hard to tell whether that was a reaction to his casual, utterly outrageous promise, or to the car he was just that moment unlocking. It was a Ferrari, fire-engine red and shrieking of luxury.

She found that she was clutching his arm, and she hastily released it as he opened the passenger door.

“Hop in, princess.”

She paused long enough to give him a goaded look and then got into the car, muttering, “I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

“We’re progressing!” He grinned as he shut her door and went around to the driver’s side. “That’s the first time in at least ten minutes you’ve made that request.”

“I didn’t think you’d noticed,” she said dryly, watching him wedge his large frame into the seat with practiced ease.

“Sure I noticed.” He obviously took note of her awed interest in the car, and added, “Don’t let the car throw you, sweetheart; it’s my one luxury. I’ve only had it a few months’, and nobody drives it but me.”

There was a wealth of possessive pride in those last few words, and Casey looked at him speculatively as he started the car with a roar. “Would you let me drive it?” she asked innocently, confident that he would refuse.

“Of course,” he answered immediately, his hand on the stick shift as he turned to look at her. “Would you like to drive it now? Just say the word and—”

“No, not now,” she declined hastily, feeling thoroughly baffled as she watched him put the car into gear and head toward the main gate. “You don’t even know what kind of driver I am,” she muttered.

“I trust you, sweetheart.”

“Stop calling me that,” she sighed. “Princess was bad enough.” She noted that the guard at the gate merely waved them by with a smile, which Storm returned, and she irritably remembered the guard inside the building, who had also grinned and waved. A few hours and Storm Carmichael already owned the place!

With her window rolled down, Casey breathed with pleasure the cool air deliciously scented with the tangy smells of an Arkansas autumn. She stared out at the gently rolling pine forests on either side of the road and wondered vaguely if she’d ever want to live anywhere else again.

Pushing the idle thought away, she glanced at Storm and asked, “Storm, where are we—”

“I love the way you say my name,” he interrupted with a sidelong smile.

“It’s not a name,” she objected immediately, “it’s an act of God. And you didn’t let me finish my question. Where are we going?”

“Where’s the best place to eat in El Dorado?” he asked cheerfully, ignoring the remark about his name.

“The best place wouldn’t let you in,” she returned caustically, vaguely determined not to be nice to him. Unfortunately, he didn’t appear to notice her determination.

“Every time I hear the name of this town,” he went on in the same cheerful tone, “instead of skyscrapers and industrial buildings, I expect to see horses tied to hitching posts and John Wayne riding down a dirt main street.”

Casey smiled in spite of herself. “I know what you mean. When I told a friend of mine that I was moving here, she asked me if I was bringing gifts for the natives.”

“And did you?” he asked with a laugh.

She shook her head. “I knew better. El Dorado may sound like the back of beyond, but it’s a fair-sized city.”

“Tell me about it,” Storm said ruefully. “I had to ask directions twice before I finally found Apollo.”

“And you call yourself a troubleshooter?” she mocked.

“I’m very good with other people’s troubles,” he told her firmly.

The statement was an unfortunate one as far as Casey was concerned, because it reminded her of just why she’d met him. Falling silent, she only dimly noticed that he was taking the highway directly into town.

How long would it take him to find out who had set fire to the lab and why? Was his apparent interest in her only a means to that end? Did he suspect her? And why did something inside her hurt to believe that?

Unconsciously, her hands knotted together in her lap, the fingers of her right hand began rubbing the ring finger of her left hand. With more perception than she’d given him credit for. Storm noticed the absentminded movement and uncannily traced it to its roots.

Softly, only barely audible above the roar of the powerful car, he said, “Porter told me that you were engaged a few months back.”

Casey shot him a quick, hard look. “I didn’t think he knew,” was her only response.

“Your father told him, apparently.”

She turned her gaze back to the road, feeling a cold finger trace its way down her spine. How much did he already know—really know? Her father couldn’t have told Porter the whole story, surely. Would he have ignored her wishes just to … ? Casey felt bitter resentment well up inside her as she thought of the father who would neither accept nor admit that the heavy weight of his influence was no longer needed in his daughter’s life.

“Casey?”

Anxious to avoid the dangerous subject he had raised, she said brightly, “There’s a good restaurant.”

Silently, he turned where she indicated and pulled the car into a parking space. He switched the engine off and then grabbed her wrist when she would have gotten out of the car. “Casey?”

Casey stared down at the large, powerful hand gently but firmly holding her wrist, and wondered again just how much he knew. He had a reputation for being thoroughly ruthless at his job; that much she knew. Was he ruthless enough to pretend an interest in her because he suspected her?

“Casey, love, were you badly hurt when your engagement ended?”

Startled by this new endearment, her eyes flew to his as she struggled to comprehend the question. “Hurt?”

“Hurt,” he confirmed softly. “Were you very much in love with him?”

He tipped her chin up with his free hand, and the golden eyes probed hers with a force she found both unsettling and strangely exciting. Then, with a smile like a satisfied cat’s he murmured, “No … you’ve never loved. Not that way.” Storm laughed huskily. “He wasn’t the right man for you, sweetheart.”

Not unreasonably annoyed by the certainty in his voice, she snapped, “What makes you so sure?”

“Because I’m the right man, of course.”

Before she could even gasp, she was in his arms, being held against his massive chest. The gear console prevented more intimate contact, but she was nevertheless aware of him through every pore of her body. And the feelings that washed over her in that moment were frightening in their dizzying intensity.

His mouth found hers immediately with a scorching male demand and hunger, undeniably possessive and disconcertingly expert. Shocked into immobility by the suddenness of his action, Casey instinctively allowed him to part her lips. After all, no resistance was possible … or desirable. As if she were someone else, she felt her fingers clutching the lapels of his coat with a will of their own.

Storm wasted no time with the normal first-kiss gentleness. They might have been lovers for years—he was that possessive.

Casey was dimly astonished to realize that her tongue had joined his in a passionate little duel. She forgot that they were in an open car at a public restaurant, forgot that he was a virtual stranger—and a dangerous one at that. His hands were beneath the unbuttoned blazer, moving over her back, spanning her small waist. And then they slid up slowly, somehow parting the buttons of her vest, and warmly cupped her breasts through the thin silk of her blouse.

She gasped when his lips left hers to feather lightly along her jawline, but she made absolutely no attempt to dislodge his probing fingers. Something strange and exciting was stirring in the pit of her belly; she had a peculiar sensation of déjà vu, as though she’d always known this feeling was possible but had never yet experienced it.

The fingers clutching his lapels moved up to tangle in the thickness of his copper hair as she felt his teeth tugging gently at her earlobe, and her nipples rose tautly, almost painfully, in response to the circling motion of his thumbs.

“Much as I hate to say this,” he grated hoarsely into her ear, “any more, sweetheart, and we’ll be arrested. Never the time and the place . . . ”

“ . . . and the loved one all together,” Casey’s mind automatically completed the quotation even as the words acted as a cold shower to her heated emotions. With a smothered oath and flaming cheeks, she hastily pushed him away, knowing that he let her, and hating the both of them for that. A stranger! A stranger, dammit, and she’d …

“Is there a church nearby?” he asked in a whimsical voice.

“No!” she snapped, quickly fastening her vest and stubbornly refusing to look at him.

“How about an Air Force base?”

“No. Why?” Unwillingly curious, she shot him a glance, and discovered that he was looking around with a faint frown.

“Because I distinctly heard bells. And rockets. Didn’t you?”

It took her only a moment to realize what he meant by that, and she promptly ignored the allusion. In a voice of shaking rage she spat, “Is this how you do your job, troubleshooter?”

“We’re not on the clock, princess.” He ran a finger down her flushed cheek, grinning cheerfully, and then got out of the car.

Casey sat in smoldering silence and watched him walk around to her side of the car. She had never felt so embarrassed in her life. Or so frightened. Because if what had just happened was an example of Storm Carmichael’s troubleshooting tactics, she was going to have to find a defensive position very quickly and dig in deep.

Because it was going to be one hell of a siege.





Chapter 2


By five o’clock that afternoon, Casey was even more certain that she was in danger. Exactly what kind of danger she didn’t want to think about. She had tried during lunch to project an aura of arctic coldness, but Storm took no more notice of her attitude than he had of her earlier demands not to be called by that ridiculous name. He had talked lightly and cheerfully throughout the meal, exhibiting the knowledge of a well-educated and traveled man, and surprising more than one laugh out of her with his droll comments about past jobs and experiences. He never once referred to Apollo’s problems or Casey’s past, and that made her extremely nervous.

Back at the office, he commandeered Casey’s services for a tour of the entire Apollo complex, switching gears from pleasure to business with an abruptness that threw Casey off her stride yet again. His only lapse was the still-liberal use of endearments, spoken in an abstracted tone and delivered no matter who happened to be present.

Casey wore a permanent blush for most of the afternoon.

Somewhere around four-thirty, she decided wrathfully that there were probably words to describe men like Storm Carmichael. Unfortunately, the best one she’d been able to come up with was his own first name. Whenever he came near her, she felt as though she were in the eye of a hurricane, and she had the disquieting suspicion that the part of the storm still to come was going to be far worse than the part already past. The sea was quiet and still—now. But rough times were ahead, and her lifeboat was a frail thing at best.

Not exactly the thoughts of a scientist with a keen, analytical mind, but Casey had the distinct feeling that the scientist in her had somehow gotten misplaced early in the day. Not that Storm treated her with a lack of professional respect. It was just that she had a great deal of difficulty keeping her mind on a professional level and off that passionate interlude in the car.

She followed him when he inspected the burned-out lab, listening as he questioned the research assistants and the other scientists. Porter accompanied them on part of the tour, and it was he who showed the troubleshooter exactly where the fire had started. The workmen had already begun rebuilding the virtually destroyed lab, but they hadn’t yet started on the section that had borne the brunt of the explosion. It was there that Casey saw Storm pick something up from the clutter on the floor and put it into his pocket.

Porter was talking to the foreman and didn’t notice. Casey said nothing about it, but she wondered.

At five, she slipped away from Storm and Porter and returned to her office, hastily gathering up her things and making a determined dash for the front door. She didn’t know why she was creeping all over the place like a nervous child, except that she had the odd notion that Storm meant to stick to her like glue.

And he was waiting just outside the front door.

“Hi, princess. Running away?”

“Going home.” Casey gathered her dignity around her like a cloak and added, “See you tomorrow, no doubt.”

He fell into step beside her as she started across the parking lot. “No doubt. By the way, you’ll have to count on me for a ride home. Your car sort of vanished. You left the keys in it. Not a smart thing to do.”

“That’s impossible! This lot is so well protected, everyone leaves the keys in their cars. The security guards—” As the light suddenly dawned for Casey, she stopped dead in her tracks and turned to stare at Stone. In a resigned voice she said, “You stole my car.”

He smiled disarmingly. “Not exactly. I just had someone drive it home for you. The guard was extremely gracious.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“You’re getting used to me.”

“What an awful thing to say.”

He laughed and took her arm, leading her toward the Ferrari, and Casey didn’t object. If she had learned anything today, it was that this man was deaf to arguments.

“I suppose you know where I live,” she murmured once they were in the car and had left Apollo behind.

“Yep.” He grinned faintly. “I read your personnel file. Rather thoroughly. So I know when your birthday is, where you went to school, what honors you took in college. I know that your father is highly respected in the field of petroleum geology, and that you lived with him in the Middle East three years ago. I also know that your security clearance is very high, so you obviously know how to keep a secret.”

Casey gave him a thoughtful look but said nothing, and after a moment he went on.

“I know that you grew up all over the world, speak several languages fairly well, love music and flowers and animals. I know that you’re renting a house here in El Dorado, own an MG, and tend to drive too fast. And I know that you don’t get along with your father.”

The last statement, thrown haphazardly in with the rest, turned Casey’s mood from faintly amused to guarded in the wink of an eye. “You didn’t get that from my personnel file,” she declared suspiciously.

Quietly, he murmured, “No, I didn’t. That was an educated guess on my part, and you just confirmed it.”

Swearing silently for having fallen so unguardedly into that trap, she tried to recover lost ground. “What do you mean, ‘educated guess’? What makes you think I don’t get along with my father?”

Storm didn’t answer for a long moment, weaving the little car in and out of the rush-hour traffic. Then, in a pensive tone, he said slowly, “The way you tense every time I mention your father, and the bitterness I’ve seen in your very green eyes.”

Casey stared straight ahead until the car stopped at a traffic light. “We get along just dandy,” she said finally, “as long as there are a few thousand miles between us.” It was the first time she’d admitted the friction between her and her father to anyone except herself, and the fact that she’d admitted it to Storm only added to her growing uneasiness.

“Where is he now?”

She blinked at the question, noticed that the car was moving again, and replied, “He’s in the North Atlantic.”

“Where in the North Atlantic?”

“Sorry. Classified.”

“Oh.” He grinned faintly. “So he’s that kind of scientist!”

“Something like that. He’s not just a petroleum geologist, you know. He’s also a physicist. And energy’s the thing these days.”

“True. Is that why you chose your field—because energy’s the thing? Or do you compete with your father?”

“I wouldn’t stand a chance in any competition with my father,” she said flatly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he murmured. “I bet you look a damn sight better in a bathing suit.”

Absurd as it sounded, it was still the right thing to say, and Casey’s tension eased. Lightly, she said, “Well, you seem to know everything there is to know about me. What about yourself? Because if you think this inquisition is going to be all one-sided, you’d better think again.”

“Is that what this sounds like? An inquisition? Sorry. Didn’t mean it to.”

“You’re evading the subject.”

He laughed softly. “Okay. What do you want to know?”

“I didn’t say that I wanted to know anything. I just thought that a fair exchange would be nice. Start with the vital statistics.”

“Anything the lady wants,” Storm said cheerfully. “My size is self-explanatory, I believe, and needs no mention. I’m thirty-six, unmarried—”

“Ever?” she interrupted.

“Ever. I’m a Scorpio, if you happen to be interested in astrology. A Texan, if background is important.”

“Thought I recognized the drawl,” she murmured.

“Don’t interrupt. It isn’t polite. I graduated from MIT after a short stint in the army, then decided that I didn’t want to be tied down to a nine-to-five job. So—presto—I became a freelance troubleshooter. I’m not a geologist, by the way, but since I have the knack of picking up useful information, I am fairly well versed in the subject.”

“What did you major in?”

“Electronics. With a minor in computer science. Are you going to keep interrupting me?”

“Sorry.”

“So you say. Let’s see, now … I love animals, music, and children, have a brown thumb, and will eat anything that’s put in front of me. I like lots of fresh air at night, know how to sew buttons, and was taught to pick my socks up off the floor.”

“Sounds like a sales brochure,” she commented dryly.

“Just say the word, lady, and I’m all yours.”

“How much do you cost?” Casey asked with mock gravity, thinking it a silly game.

“Oh, not much. Just your heart, mind, body, and soul.”

“Is that all?” she asked airily. “Why don’t you ask for my honor and flag as well?”

He was smiling oddly. “That would be unreasonable. Well, princess? Do I have a sale?”

“Do you do windows?”

“In a pinch.”

“Oh, well. What more could a woman want? Just think, I’ll be the first on my block to have one.”

“One what?”

“One whatever you are.”

“Ouch.”

“Well, you asked for it!” She laughed softly. “What do you expect after such a blatant sales pitch? Hey! Turn here. My house is the third on the left.”

He turned and pulled the car into her driveway a moment later. “You really do like flowers, don’t you?” he asked in amusement, eyeing the neat flower beds and decorative shrubs surrounding her small house.

“Of course. Oh, thanks for the ride.” She opened the door, both surprised and relieved when he made no effort either to stop her or to get out of the car.

“Sure.” He nodded toward her MG, which was parked ahead of the Ferrari in the driveway. “You’ll find your keys in the glove compartment. Be ready in an hour.”

“Ready?” On the point of turning away, she stared at him blankly. “Ready for what?”

“Dinner. I’ll pick you up then.”

Automatically, she said, “Better make it two hours; I want to take a shower.” Then her own words sank in, and she glared at him. “Dammit! Why do I let you do that?”

“Do what?” He was grinning, the whiskey-colored eyes filled with amused satisfaction.

“Order me around!”

“Probably because it saves wear and tear on your nerves!” He laughed. “Be ready in two hours, honey; I’ll pick you up then.”

“Well, bring a selection of ties!” she shouted as the car backed out of the driveway. “Otherwise they won’t let us in!”

But he only grinned, waved cheerfully, and drove away. Casey stared after him, an unwilling smile tugging at her lips. What a strange man! She started laughing suddenly as she realized that she’d thanked him for bringing her home after he’d virtually stolen her car! The man quite definitely had a presence!

“Casey! Who was that delightful man?”

Startled, she turned to find her neighbor, a petite brunette of about her own age, leaning over the fence separating their properties. “Debi, were you listening?” Casey demanded in mock anger.

Debi Saunders laughed. “I was weeding my flower bed and minding my own business, thank you very much! But I could hardly help overhearing. And you haven’t answered my question.”

Casey crossed over to the fence. “He’s the troubleshooter I was telling you about. Storm Carmichael. And I think he’s about to become a big problem in my life—and I do mean big!”

“I should have such problems,” Debi said enviously.

“You!” Casey laughed. “You have a husband who adores you and a beautiful baby; what more could you want?”

“Excitement! Can I help it if I like big, strong-looking men? Better hang onto that one, Casey; from the sound of it, you’ve found yourself a gem.”

“Stop matchmaking, Debi.”

“Somebody has to. Left to yourself, you’d stay in that stuffy lab and ignore the male half of humanity. You’re going to take the plunge even if I have to push you! I can’t stand single bliss.”

“He’s not interested in marriage, Debi,” she told her friend dryly.

“So? You don’t have to be married to not be single.”

Casey frowned. “There’s something wrong with that statement, but I’m not sure what.”

“Oh, you know what I mean! The world moves in pairs, or hadn’t you noticed?”

Casey’s smile faded suddenly. “Yes. I know what you mean,” she said in a flattened voice.

Debi’s brown eyes were contrite. “Oh, Casey, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to make you remember Roger. But all men aren’t cut from the same pattern, sweetie; you should know that. And you can’t go on brooding about him forever!”

Remorsefully, Casey murmured, “You wouldn’t even know about Roger if you hadn’t caught me with my spirits at low ebb one morning. And I’m not brooding about him, Debi, honestly. I’m just not too anxious to try again, that’s all.”

“Well, your Storm—” her friend began encouragingly.

“He’s not my Storm,” Casey interrupted calmly. ‘The last thing I need in my life is a dominating male.” Before her friend could say anything else, she added quickly, “I’d better go. See you later, Debi.”

“Sure.”

Casey walked toward her house, thinking vaguely that Debi’s remark had been more on target than she knew. He was her storm, all right. Her hurricane. And heaven only knew what would get dislodged by the time it was all over …



Two hours later, she opened the front door to find Storm waiting on the porch. She demanded without preamble, “Are you any good with cats?”

“Usually. Why?” He stepped inside, not the least disconcerted by her abrupt manner, and watched her close the door.

“Because my cat’s up in a tree in the back yard and won’t come down.”

“Cats can always get down from trees by themselves,” he told her soothingly.

“I know that,” she said irritably. “But I can’t leave him out tonight. Pundit’s made quite a few canine enemies in the neighborhood, and he knows how to climb the fence.” Distractedly, she noted that Storm was wearing a tan suit and cream shirt with a tie that actually matched, but her faintly amused astonishment was short-lived. “Can you get him down?”

“Let’s see.” He glanced around as they headed for the back door, commenting, “Nice place.”

The furnishings in the small house were modern without shouting about it, and houseplants ran rampant. Everything was uncluttered and neat, except for a scratching post, which was quite definitely ragged, in one corner.

Casey led the way out the back door and across the wooden deck, then pointed to the left of the steps at a large tree. “He’s up there. Unless, of course, he sneaked away while I was answering the door.”

“What did you say his name was?”

“Pundit.” Casey followed him to the base of the tree and then joined him in peering up at a pair of glittering blue eyes that were glaring down at them.

“Someone lied to you,” Storm said finally in an amused tone. “That’s not a cat—it’s a funny-looking lion.”

“He is on the large side,” Casey admitted. “And I’d better warn you about something. He hates men.”

“Really?” Storm cocked an eyebrow at her and then stepped to the tree and held up one hand. “Come on down. Pundit.”

His voice was calm and held an unmistakable ring of authority, something Casey had never known her cat to respond to. But after a long moment of staring back into Storm’s level gaze, Pundit began to pick his way delicately down the tree to the lowest branch, where he allowed Storm to pick him off.

“I don’t believe it,” Casey murmured in a dazed voice, looking in wide-eyed wonder at the purring Siamese in Storm’s arms. “The last man who touched him is still carrying the battle scars. And the vet has to sedate him every time.”

“It just takes character!” Storm grinned at her as he scratched the blissful cat under the chin.

“Mmmm. Well, bring him in.” She headed back toward the house, wondering wryly why she was surprised. Rough exterior notwithstanding. Storm Carmichael was a very charming man. Who was it who had said animals and children were the best judges of character?

Inside the house. Storm released the cat and watched as he headed toward the kitchen and his food dish. Then the troubleshooter caught Casey’s hand and carried it to his lips. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you before,” he murmured huskily, “but you look beautiful.”

Her free hand almost nervously smoothing the skirt of her lime green silk dress, she responded, “Oh, thank you. You look very nice, too.”

He grinned, still holding her hand. “I asked the valet at the hotel to make sure everything matched.”

Fighting a sudden impulse to burst out laughing, she said seriously, “You didn’t.”

“Well, of course I did! Told him that I had to look nice for a very special lady. He was only too happy to lend his assistance.”

Casey didn’t know whether to be amused, touched, or suspicious. Belatedly, she remembered her resolution, born in the shower not an hour before, not to get emotionally involved with this man. She just couldn’t afford to let him slip beneath her guard. No matter how charming he was, he was still dangerous. He was in a position to ruin her career with only a word. Being under suspicion once could be construed a mistake; twice would be considered a habit.

Gently, she pulled her hand from his grasp and turned away. “I’d better get a sweater or something; it’s getting chilly out there.”

Judging from his thoughtful silence during the ride to the restaurant. Storm was aware of this new, slightly stilted atmosphere, but he said nothing about it for quite some time.

Casey didn’t know whether it was deliberate or not, but Storm had chosen the restaurant well if he intended romancing. It was a small place with comfortable booths artfully secluded from one another by masses of greenery. The golden glow of decorative candles gave each booth an intimate air, and soft music provided just the right touch. If, that is, one wanted to be seduced.

Storm talked casually until they had ordered and their wine had been brought. Then, watching her toy absently with her wineglass across the table, he said quietly, “Why don’t we get business out of the way first, Casey? Then we can concentrate on pleasure.”

“All right.” She looked at him coolly, depending on the evasion tactics she’d long practiced with her father to hide her thoughts.

“You either know or suspect exactly what’s going on at Apollo,” he said flatly.

The abruptness of his statement shouldn’t have surprised Casey, but her eyes flew to his nonetheless. She dropped her lashes hastily to hide her eyes, staring down at the candlelight shimmering in her wine. “That’s absurd.”

“Is it?”

“Of course.” Casey worked up a healthy dose of righteous anger and made sure her voice was riddled with it. “I’m not a criminal! There’s no reason on earth that would cause me to sabotage operations at Apollo. What would I have to gain?”

“I didn’t say you did it, Casey. I just said that you know something. Or suspect something.”

“If that were the case, why wouldn’t I tell you? You can’t honestly believe that I would sit here and let you suspect me if I could clear myself, do you?”

He frowned slightly. “I don’t suspect you, Casey.”

She didn’t believe him. Why else would he pretend such an avid interest in a woman he’d met for the first time only that day? He had to suspect her; nothing else made sense! “What would I have to gain?” she repeated stonily.

He was staring at her, still frowning. “Casey, what was your section of the lab working on just prior to the explosion?” he asked, ignoring her question.

It was her turn to frown. “Nothing unusual. Routine lab work.”

“Explain it to me. And remember that I’m not a geologist.”

“Well … we were testing soil and rock samples. Routine. One of the field people brings in samples from a site he believes to be a good prospect for oil or natural gas. We test the samples to determine whether or not it would be profitable to drill.”

“What location was under consideration that day?”

Casey was silent for a moment, thinking back to the week before and trying to remember the details. “One site was somewhere here in Arkansas, I’m sure. But we were testing three different sites that day. The information would be in the main computer.”

“I’ll check it out.” He smiled faintly. “You’re not going to tell me what you suspect, are you.” It wasn’t a question.

“I don’t suspect anything.” The food arrived at that moment, and Casey, grateful for the reprieve, leaned back to allow the waiter to place her plate in front of her. She stared down at her lasagna, only dimly noticing the heavenly aroma wafting up from her favorite dish. Her mind was occupied with more pressing matters.

She couldn’t tell him what she suspected—she just couldn’t! The thoughts in her head made no sense even to herself. Roger had fled the country in the wake of the Virginia disaster, and surely he wasn’t stupid enough or reckless enough to come back.

And even if he had … how could he be responsible for Apollo’s problems? He had no “in” here, as he’d had in Virginia. No love-blind woman who’d believed in the face of all contrary evidence that the man she was engaged to was innocent. A woman who had suffered a rude awakening when her rose-colored glasses had been stripped away and she had been forced to see a man who would use a woman for his own ends, who was a thief and a traitor …

“Casey?”

She looked up to find Storm watching her intently, and she quickly picked up her fork. “Sorry. I was woolgathering.”

“Can’t you trust me, honey?” he asked gently.

“Trust you with what?” she asked with forced lightness.

“Your suspicions. Your fears. And you are afraid, sweetheart. Of something or someone. Whether you tell me or not, I intend to find out. I will find out. But I’d rather hear it from you.”

Avoiding his eyes, Casey began her meal, barely tasting the delectable pasta. She didn’t doubt for a moment that he meant what he said. He would do whatever it took to find out what he thought she was hiding.

And he wanted her to trust him. That was really funny. Just hysterical. Oh, trust was an easy thing to give. But once given and abused, it was like a dagger turning slowly in a vital organ. Casey was an expert in abused trust. And in pain.

She wasn’t going to give this man a chance to hurt her.

They ate in silence, and, though she was aware that Storm was sending her several searching looks, Casey made no effort to start up a conversation. It wasn’t until they were in the car again and heading back toward her house that she finally spoke.

“How long do you think it’ll take you to find out what’s going on at Apollo?” she asked quietly. It was impossible to read his expression in the dark car, but she saw him shrug.

“A few days. Or a few weeks. It depends on what I find.” As he pulled the car into her driveway a few moments later, he asked softly, “Are you going to invite me in for a nightcap, princess?”

“Do I have a choice?” she asked dryly, thinking of his steamroller tendencies.

“Sure you do.” His grin was a slash of white in the darkness. “You can ask me in, or I can come in uninvited.”

“That’s what I thought,” she sighed.

“You see”—he chuckled as he came around to open her door—“you are getting used to me.”

“Perish the thought.” She accompanied him up the walk and handed over her keys silently. He unlocked the door and opened it, and she stepped past him to walk into the living room and turn on a lamp. “What would you like—” she began.

“Well—”

“—to drink,” she finished firmly.

His tawny eyes were filled with laughter. “What have you got?”

Casey dropped her purse and shawl onto a chair and frowned at him. “Not very much, I’m afraid. White wine.”

He appeared to consider the matter. “I’ll have white wine, I think.”

She smiled in spite of herself and headed for the kitchen. “Make yourself at home,” she called over her shoulder.

“Thanks, I’ll do that. Hey—you have a fireplace. Does it work?”

Reaching for the glasses in the cabinet, she replied, “Beats me. I haven’t lived here during the winter.”

“Let’s try it, then.”

Casey scrabbled irritably through three different drawers, silently cursing her habit of acquiring various kitchen gadgets she had absolutely no use for. Where was the corkscrew? Distractedly, she called out to Storm, “What are you going to use for wood?”

“The stuff that’s here,” he called back. Almost immediately, he added, “Where’s the—oh, there it is.”

Casey heard the muffled thump of the flue being opened just as the corkscrew emerged from behind two wire wisks and an egg separator. Pulling it from the drawer, she reached for the wine bottle. “That wood’s supposed to be decorative,” she informed him through the open kitchen door.

“Well, it burns just like the functional kind.”

Various snaps and pops coming from the living room indicated that the wood did indeed burn correctly. Casey struggled with the stubborn cork and wondered absently if he’d used today’s paper to start the fire. Probably, since she hadn’t read it yet. She pushed the rueful thought aside as the cork finally gave, and she carefully filled the two delicate glasses.

Emerging from the kitchen with the glasses, she found that he’d removed his coat and tie. She took in his comfortable position on the fluffy rug in front of the fireplace, back against the couch and legs stretched toward the fire, and asked politely, “Comfortable?”

“You told me to make myself at home.”

“I did, didn’t I?” She handed him a glass and would have sunk down onto the couch, but he grasped her wrist firmly and pulled her down beside him on the rug. With his arm around her shoulders and his hard chest pressed against her, she had the dizzying feeling that she had better make some kind of stand while she still could. Maneuvering for another inch of space between them and not succeeding very well, she asked defensively, “Don’t you think you’re moving awfully fast?”

“Not at all.” He pulled her a bit closer and sipped his wine, watching her with hooded tiger eyes. “In fact, I think I’ve been remarkably patient. Especially since I’ve been wanting to make love to you since the moment I saw you.”

Casey could feel her pulse speed up and her heart begin to beat uncomfortably fast, but something small and cold deep inside her thought. Ah ha! So he was prepared to carry on the charade. How far would he take it, she wondered. Just how far was he prepared to go in order to get his damned answers? She decided grimly to give him enough rope to hang himself.

“You made up your mind rather quickly, didn’t you?” she asked lightly, sipping her wine and avoiding his eyes.

With apparent seriousness, he replied, “I’m old enough to know what I want, honey, and I knew you were it two minutes after I saw you.”

“Oh?” Casey stared into her wine, watching the leaping fire through the liquid. “And just what was it about me that sparked this—uh—interest?”

“Your temper,” he answered simply.

It wasn’t the answer she had expected, and Casey turned her head involuntarily to look at him. “My temper?” she repeated blankly.

“Well, that clinched it. Of course, I would have had to be blind not to notice first of all that you had a face and body that Helen of Troy would have killed for. Then those lovely green eyes started shooting fire … and I was a goner.”

She hastily returned her gaze to the fire, hearing a new and vastly disturbing note in his voice. He was a consummate actor, that was all, she told herself firmly. In his job, he had certainly learned to convey emotions by nuances of voice, to inspire others to trust him. That was all she heard—an actor’s superb ability to convince any listener that he was what he claimed, that he spoke the truth.

And even if he did mean what he said, it didn’t change anything. “Making love” was simply a euphemistic term, a smokescreen to cover up good old-fashioned lust. Next, he’d probably start talking about what a terrific relationship they could have.

“I know that you’re a little off men at the moment, honey,” he was saying in a soothing voice that grated on her nerves, “and I know I promised not to rush you. I just want you to know that I won’t be waiting very patiently.”

Casey very carefully drained her glass of its last drop of wine, fighting to keep her face under strict control. Her thoughts were running riot, and none of them made very much sense. Analytically, she had to admire his technique. He had kept her off guard and off balance since first walking into her office, and she had to assume that that had been his intention. But enough was enough!

Pulling away from him far enough to set her glass on the hearth, she asked, “Waiting for what?” And her voice was a masterpiece of casual unconcern.

“For you, princess.” He sounded amused.

In that split second, Casey’s control shattered. She couldn’t go on playing this stupid game—she just couldn’t! There was suddenly more at stake than her career. Twisting violently, she escaped from his loosened embrace, struggling to her feet and moving jerkily away to put a considerable distance between them.

“You’ll wait ‘til hell freezes over,” she said coldly, turning to watch him rise slowly to his feet. “I’m in no mood to play games, troubleshooter, so you’d better change your tactics.”

“Tactics?” He placed his glass on an end table and moved toward her, his rugged face curious, puzzled.

A consummate actor, indeed.

Ignoring his question, she went on furiously, “I don’t know what information or suspicions you think I have about that damned explosion, but you’re wrong!”

Casey meant to say more—a great deal more—but the change creeping over his face made her suddenly wary and not a little bit nervous. During this incredibly long day, she had seen this man wear many faces: cheerful, calmly businesslike, shrewd, teasing, passionate. Until now, she had not seen him angry. And she knew, with an instinctive realization, that he was not acting. Not now.

“You think I’m using sex as some kind of damned lure to trick you into telling me something?” he practically roared.

She took an involuntary step backwards, momentarily flinching but almost immediately regaining control over herself. “Your reputation preceded you,” she told him in a very level voice. “You are a ruthless man, Storm—ruthless enough to pretend an interest in a woman if you believe she knows something.”

“And that’s what you think I’m doing?” he bit out. “Pretending an interest in you? What about those few minutes in the car before lunch? Was I pretending?”

Casey’s lips twisted, and her eyelashes flickered with the force of an uncontrollable bitterness. “Oh, a man can pretend passion,” she said acidly. “He can say all the right words and make all the right moves—and have it all planned cold-bloodedly beforehand!”

Abruptly, his hands fell to her shoulders before Casey could avoid him, and she glared up into violently disturbed golden storms that vaguely resembled eyes, wishing suddenly that she hadn’t started this. She had wanted to spark a response of some kind, to see his mask of pretense shattered, but this … this was like seeding clouds for a little rain and getting a flood.

“I am not a liar, Casey,” Storm grated with awful control. “And if it takes me the rest of my life, I’ll convince you that my desire for you is very, very real.”





Chapter 3


She had expected a defense of some kind, but that he should continue to play his games came as a surprise. Didn’t the man realize that she’d changed the rules?

“Since you’ve finished your drink, please leave,” she requested tightly.

He gave her a little shake, gleaming eyes boring into her own. “Oh, no, princess, you won’t get rid of me that easily. Not until we get this straightened out.”

“There’s nothing to straighten out—”

“You’re wrong,” he interrupted flatly. “What is it with you, Casey? Do you have so little regard for yourself that you find it impossible to believe a man could want you? Or are you just paranoid because of a guilty conscience?”

Refusing to answer his questions, she snapped, “I told you this morning: I’m just not interested! I don’t want an affair or a fling, or whatever it is you have in mind!”

Coolly, he said, “That wasn’t the impression I got in the car before lunch.”

Casey pushed fiercely at his chest and found him as immovable as a great oak tree. “Well, you were wrong!”

“Was I?”

Casey had always considered herself a strong girl—since her father had raised her like the son he had wanted, she could hardly have been anything else—but it didn’t take her three seconds to realize that in Storm Carmichael she’d met her match. No, more than her match. He drew her abruptly and easily into his arms, taking no more notice of her attempts to escape than if she were a tiny puppy fighting the leash.

And just before his lips met hers, Casey realized with a sinking sensation that she was fighting herself as well as him. Since that first embrace, hours before, she had been waiting for this, hoping for it. She had responded to a stranger in that car—an irritating, maddening, fascinating stranger—a man she had known less than an hour. And she had been quivering inside ever since that moment.

The logical, coldly analytical part of her mind voiced a stern warning now, a silent reminder that Storm played dangerous games, that she could lose much more than a career in playing by his rules. But the warning went unnoticed and unheeded. The colors of passion were blinding Casey to everything but sensation.

His lips moved on hers gently, teasing, not at all hard and angry, as she had expected. Feather-light, they traced a path from one corner of her mouth to the other, his tongue darting out to caress the sensitive inner flesh of her lips.

“No,” she whispered, trying desperately to remember what she stood to lose, but her mouth was opening invitingly, treacherously, and her fingers were curling into the material of his shirt with a need beyond thought, beyond reason.

“Yes,” he murmured huskily, immediately accepting the invitation of her lips by deepening the kiss in a single devastating surge of desire and need.

His hands lazily probed the length of her spine, traveling up and down in a curiously erotic message, playing her body as though it were an instrument being tuned to his touch. Casey felt cool air on her back and realized dimly that he had unzipped her dress, but it didn’t seem particularly important. When he pulled the dress off her shoulders, she automatically allowed it to slip free of her arms, her fingers almost at once returning to his shirt.

But she hesitated at the first button, drawing a deep, shuddering breath when his lips released hers to move hotly down her throat, feeling a last faint flicker of sanity. What was she doing?

“Touch me, Casey,” he whispered hoarsely against her throat. “Undress me.” His hands dropped to her hips, pulling her lower body against his and making her all too aware of his desire. “Can’t you feel how much I need you?”

The longing in his voice, combined with the pulsing desire she could feel in his body and her own drowning need, shattered the last vestige of Casey’s resistance. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons of his shirt, tugged to free the garment from the waistband of his pants. She was barely aware of his shrugging it to the floor, hardly noticed when her bra rapidly followed.

Her next sensation was of floating as Storm picked her up and stepped over to lower them both to the softness of the rug in front of the fire. Not since childhood had any man picked her up as if she weighed nothing, and instead of being reminded of her own vulnerability where this man was concerned, Casey felt strangely cared for. And passion warred oddly with amusement when his heavy weight bore her down into the thick pile of the rug.

“My word!” she gasped. “How much do you weigh?”

The golden eyes gleamed down at her. “Too much for some women,” he murmured, sweeping her body with a dark and hungry look. “But not you, sweetheart. My God, but you’re beautiful!”

The expression in his tiger eyes sparked something primitive and very, very feminine in Casey’s nature, and she wondered suddenly about her ability to arouse him further. Cautiously, she raked her nails gently down his back, feeling muscles clench beneath her touch and hearing, with a sense of power and pleasure, his deep groan.

“Witch,” he muttered, his hands coming up to cup her naked breasts even as his eyes devoured them. “Siren. Do you know what you do to me? Of course you know … women were born knowing.”

“If I’m a witch, then you’re a warlock,” she murmured, gasping when his thumbs found her nipples and sensuously teased them. Her legs moved restlessly until they were trapped and held by his, and she moaned when he began to drop light, tantalizing kisses over her creamy breasts.

Between the teasing little nibbles, he murmured, “Does that mean that I turn you on, princess?”

Past trying to defend the response of her body, Casey bit her lip as his tongue flicked out to probe a hardened nipple, and she gasped, “What do you want me to do—belabor the obvious?”

“I want you to admit that you want me,” he whispered, one hand sliding down her hip to explore teasingly beneath the elastic band of her bikinis.

Casey dug her nails into the strong muscles of his neck, her body arching instinctively beneath his. “Oh!” Dizzily aware of just how close his hand was to the very heart of her aching desire, she would have told him anything in that moment. “I—I want you! Please . . . ” Blindly, her hand found the belt of his pants, desperate to do away with that frustrating barrier.

His hand closed over hers abruptly, preventing her from unfastening his belt. For a moment, his grip was painfully tight, and his voice was more than a little ragged when he said, “Self-denial has never been my strong suit, honey, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get you.”

Bewildered, Casey watched him climb to his feet and reach for the discarded shirt. He’d do whatever it took to get her? But he’d had her! Or at least he could have had her. What was going on here?

“Storm? Are you—are you going?”

He tucked the shirt into his pants and reached for his coat before glancing down at her. His face tightened as he took in her nearly nude body, painted golden by the firelight, and he replied in a very determined voice, “I’m going. See you tomorrow, sweetheart.”

Forgetting that she was clad only in panties, Casey sat up and stared as he headed for the door. Questions chased one another through her mind chaotically, but the only one which emerged was a stark, “But why?”

Storm halted with his hand on the doorknob, looking back at her with an expression that showed his reluctance to leave her. “Because I want you,” he told her softly.

Well, now, that made a hell of a lot of sense! Her bewilderment must have shown clearly, because he smiled and went on quietly.

“I want you, princess—all of you. And when I make you mine, I want to know that you are mine. I want to know that you love me, and need me … and trust me. I want it all, Casey.”

Staring blindly at the door, she realized he’d gone only when a draft of cold air chilled her bare body. A split second later, a colorful pillow from the couch hit the door with a disappointingly quiet thump. Feeling the sting of humiliated tears in her eyes, she told the empty room fiercely, “I won’t cry! I’m Irish, and the Irish never cry! But I’ll get even with Storm Carmichael if it’s the last thing I ever do!”

Pundit entered the room at that moment, eyeing his mistress with Oriental inscrutability and a feline detachment born of the age when cats were kings. Casey glared at him, accusing bitterly, “And where were you when the lights went out?”

Pundit continued on to the kitchen and his food dish. It was safer in there.



Casey was perfectly calm the next morning as she wheeled her little MG into the parking lot at Apollo and left it neatly in her slot. But the sharp tapping of her heels on the sidewalk should have warned even the unwary that hers was the quiet of a volcano just prior to a massive eruption. She had spent most of the night alternately cursing herself and then Storm, along with the majority of mankind. The remainder of her sleepless night had been spent in weaving plans for getting even with Storm for his humiliating leave-taking.

His parting words she more or less discarded. The only relevant part of the whole speech, in her mind, had been the part about trust. And she trusted him about as far as she could pick him up and throw him.

No way was she going to put a weapon like that into his hands! After trust came love … and she was through giving love, only to have it thrown back in her face.

“Morning, Casey.”

She stopped abruptly, staring at Hamilton Frazier’s lean form as he stood propped against the wall near the door. “Morning, Ham. Why aren’t you working?”

Brushing a strand of blond hair from his eyes. Ham grimaced wryly. “Because your troubleshooter’s in the computer room.”

“He’s not my troubleshooter,” Casey defended irritably. “Apollo called him in—not me.”

“Whatever.” Ham sighed, his pleasant face slightly distressed. “He’s got my staff bending over backwards to help him, and since I felt useless, I cleared out for some air.” He fell into step with Casey as she entered the building.

Casey gave him a sympathetic smile, thinking of Storm’s high-handed but peculiarly charming way with people. “He does have a certain presence,” she murmured.

“I’d prefer that he had a certain absence. Outer Mongolia, maybe. Just when we were doing so well, too.”

She pushed open the door of her office and went inside, her mind only half on the conversation. “Doing so well? What are you talking about, Ham?” she asked inattentively as she hung up her jacket and picked up the white lab coat.

“You and me. Us.” He collapsed into her visitor’s chair and stared across the desk at her. “At least I thought we were doing well. It took me two months to talk you into going out with me, but we’ve been seeing each other pretty steadily since then.”

Shrugging into the coat, Casey gave him a thoughtful look and responded lightly, “Nothing’s changed.”

“Oh no?” Ham lifted an eyebrow and waited until she had seated herself behind the desk before saying flatly, “I was here yesterday, Casey—remember? Mr. Troubleshooter rolled in like a tidal wave and swept you right off your feet.”

“That’s not true,” she objected immediately. “I’m long past the age of being swept off my feet, and I want nothing whatsoever to do with domineering men, thank you very much!”

Ham didn’t look convinced. “And what about all the cute little nicknames?” he asked dryly. “Princess. Sweetheart. Honey.”

Casey felt herself flush, but she kept her face expressionless. “It’s just his way. Doesn’t mean a thing.”

“Uh huh.” Ham didn’t sound convinced either. “Well, then, how about lunch?”

“I’d love to,” she accepted promptly.

He brightened. “Terrific! Is it too much to hope for tonight as well?”

“What did you have in mind?” she teased.

“I’d get my face slapped for what I have in mind!” He grinned, then went on, “Dinner and a movie?”

“Sounds great to me.” Casey felt a moment’s compunction at the realization that her main reason for going out with Ham was to provide an object lesson for Storm, but she pushed the thought aside. It wasn’t as if she were going to marry Ham, after all. And she had to show Storm that she wasn’t wearing a ring either in her nose or on her finger, and he certainly had no control over her.

Pleased, Ham was saying, “We’ll decide which movie during lunch, okay? I’ll meet you here about one.”

“I’ll be ready.” She smiled, but her smile faded as a cool voice spoke from the open doorway.

“Frazier, you’re needed in the computer room.”

Rising immediately, Ham winked at Casey, murmured, “I’m on my way,” and then strolled casually past Storm’s imposing form.

Storm watched the younger man head down the hall, then turned and propped a shoulder against the doorjamb, staring across the room at Casey. “That sounded like a date,” he observed calmly.

“That’s what it was,” she confirmed evenly.

“For lunch?”

“For lunch. And dinner. If it’s any of your business.’

He smiled very slightly, the amber eyes shrewd and watchful. “It won’t work, you know.”

Casey stared at him, taking in the jeans and flannel shirt that made him resemble one of Apollo’s field people, and kept her face impassive with an effort. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know. But just to clarify things, I’ll put it into words. Using another man as a buffer between us won’t work. And I really can’t let you try, princess. You see, I’m a very possessive man. What’s mine is mine.”

The arrogance of his speech deprived Casey of words for a long minute. Then, coldly, she told him, “Since I don’t belong to you, the problem doesn’t arise, does it? And for your information, I’ve been seeing Ham for quite a while. I might even marry him!” she added defiantly.

“Are you sleeping with him?”

Again, Casey was wordless for a moment. “That’s none of your damned business!” she snapped violently.

“Do you go crazy in his arms the way you do in mine?” he asked softly, insistently. “Does your lovely body quiver with desire when he touches you, your mouth open for his kiss?”

“Stop it!” That awful, empty ache in Casey’s belly began to throb as his words brought back memories of the night before, and she hated him with a sudden, wild rage for what he was doing to her.

“I’ve seen you with Frazier, princess,” Storm went on, ignoring her strangled command. “You’re friendly, companionable. But there’s no spark there. Nothing like what we have. He’d bore you to tears in a month. And you’d shock the hell out of him if you really let yourself go—if he could manage to tap that well of passion inside you.”

Struggling to ignore what he was saying, Casey opened a file on the desk and pointedly began to study it. “You’d better get to work, troubleshooter. You’re being paid an exorbitant fee to find out what’s going on around here, and you won’t earn your money standing around.”

He sighed. “Fair warning, Casey: if you go out with Frazier, you’ll suffer the consequences.”

“Threats?” she queried lightly, her eyes still fixed on the report in front of her.

“Promises. I’ll stamp Carmichael on you so thoroughly that no other man will dare to come near you.”

Her mouth falling open, Casey looked up, but he was gone. She stared at the doorway for a long moment, her anger laced with sheer incredulity. He was so sure of himself, dammit! So utterly and completely certain of getting what he wanted. But why was he still insisting that he wanted her? And what exactly did that mean? An affair? He had said that he wanted her to need and love him, but he certainly didn’t indicate that he returned or would return those feelings.

And, heaven knew, they weren’t required for an affair. These days, it was hello, how are you, and head for the nearest bed. But Casey wasn’t like that. Her rosy dreams of love had been shattered by Roger, but she was too intelligent to believe that hopping from bed to bed would cure the ache inside her.

As that thought occurred, Casey felt a chill. Because the ache inside her was not the one she had lived with all these months, not the ache of love destroyed, which Roger had left her with. This pain was a new one—hollow, empty, and yet hurting. As if something vital had been torn out by the very roots. And that could only mean …

Fiercely, she pushed the half-formed thought away. Ridiculous. Of course it was ridiculous.

Dazedly watching the pencil in her hand tap an irritated rhythm on the desk, she forced her mind to more important things—like how to keep Storm from interfering in her dates with Ham. She wouldn’t put it past him to make some sort of scene, which would be acutely uncomfortable for all concerned.

Various plans were considered and discarded before Casey realized that she was going about this the wrong way. One step at a time—that was the ticket. And the first step was to get through the lunch date. With a distinctly feline smile, Casey picked up her phone and called Ham, casually moving their lunch date back to twelve-thirty. After hanging up, she checked her watch and then got down to work.

She used the computer terminal in her office to retrieve some information she had filed days before, and worked steadily until lunchtime. It was tiresome checking and double-checking lab results, and even more so since she was verifying an assistant’s work. More than once she found herself irritably wishing that she had some control over who worked on her staff. Several of the people under her would have been happier and more productive in another department. However, her work was scientific rather than administrative, she reminded herself, and she pushed her personnel concerns aside.

She saw no more of Storm during the morning. But then, she hadn’t expected to. He had issued his ultimatum. Now he would wait to see if she would give in … or thumb her nose at him.

Casey wondered vaguely if bullfighters felt this way. There was something exhilarating in taunting a dangerous creature.

At twelve-twenty-five, she picked up her phone again and called Dr. Porter. Reasonably sure that Storm hadn’t mentioned it, she innocently told the head of the department that she was just calling to find out if Mr. Carmichael had discovered anything from the bits of wire and plastic he had picked up in the lab yesterday. Expressing surprise. Porter promised to find out, then hung up.

A moment later, as she was exchanging the lab coat for her jacket, Casey smiled when she heard Storm being paged on the public address system. That should tie him up nicely for a while, she thought with an inner chuckle.

And, of course, it did.

Ham dropped her off at the door of her building slightly more than an hour later, not stopping since he was going on to one of the other buildings. Casey made her way to her office, not at all surprised to find Storm leaning casually against the doorjamb.

“Hi,” she offered breezily. “Have a nice lunch?”

“Sure,” he replied dryly, a hint of laughter in his tawny eyes. “Porter was a charming companion. Not the one I had in mind, though.” Softly, he added, “That was a dirty trick, princess.”

With a sweet smile, Casey asked disdainfully, “So who promised to fight fair?” and went on into her office.

“That can go both ways, you know,” Storm informed her, following her into the office.

Not bothering with the lab coat, Casey put her purse away and sank down behind her desk. “Oh, have you been fighting fair? Funny, I didn’t notice.”

“I always fight fair, honey. By my own rules, of course.” He sat down in the visitor’s chair with all the air of a man prepared to stay awhile.

Irritated for some reason by his amused reaction to her ploy, Casey forced herself to adopt an indifferent attitude. “One of these days, I’ll have to ask you what the rules are. But for now, satisfy my curiosity. What did you pick up in the lab yesterday?”

Sobering, he replied, “It was an electronic timer—or what was left of one.”

“You mean someone timed the explosion to happen when it did?”

He nodded. “Obviously, whoever set it up just wanted to put the lab out of commission but not hurt anyone. The timer was set for the staff’s regular lunch hour. I’m betting that plastic explosives were used, but I won’t know until the report comes back.”

“Report?”

“I sent the timer to a friend of mine who specializes in demolition,” he explained. “He’ll be able to tell me what explosive was used and whether there was anything unusual about the timer. If there was anything unusual, we may have something to work with.”

Casey frowned slightly. “Sounds like a long shot,” she commented quietly. “Explosives are used fairly regularly in this part of the country, aren’t they?”

“Between the petroleum and mining industries they are,” he agreed. “But we have something else to go on as well. I discovered this morning that someone’s tampered with the main computer. Every site being tested that day has been neatly cut out of the memory, and false data supplied. So either our culprit knows computers as well as explosives, or else he brought a friend.”

“Or already had a friend inside to do his dirty work,” Casey added in an even voice.

“Or had a friend inside,” he confirmed.

Her mind whirling with disjointed thoughts, Casey stared at him and said slowly, “I have a background in computers.”

“I know you do,” he said calmly.

“And yet you don’t suspect me?”

“Not at all.”

There was a long silence, and Casey stared into his eyes, wishing that she could read the thoughts hidden behind the faint amusement. For the first time, she wondered if she should tell him what she suspected, but the words wouldn’t come.

“Casey,” he said very quietly, interrupting her thoughts, “don’t go out with Frazier tonight.”

She pushed aside one problem to deal with another. “I’ll go out with anyone I want to.”

“You’re only doing it to spite me.”

“Don’t flatter yourself!” she snapped. “I happen to like Ham, and I won’t stop seeing him just because you think you own me!”

“Casey—”

Cutting him off ruthlessly, she said coldly, “You’re not my parent or my husband; you have absolutely no right to tell me what to do or whom to see!”

“But I plan to be your lover, sweetheart, and that gives me the right,” he said simply.

Casey leaned an elbow on her desk and rested her forehead on her raised hand. It was a gesture of despair, and she found herself fighting an inner battle to keep from laughing hysterically. Oh, damn the man! Why was she generally torn between laughter and rage whenever he was around? Was the curious effect just another sample from his bag of tricks?

Slowly, spacing each word for maximum emphasis, she told him, “I don’t want a lover.” And in case that didn’t get through to him, she added, “Haven’t you ever heard that trite but true little thing about the best-laid plans of mice and men?” She raised her head and glared at him.

“Oh, I’ve heard it.” He was smiling cheerfully. “I’ve always believed, though, that if a man wants something badly enough, he should be prepared to go all out to get it. Hell for leather, so to speak. And I do want you, princess.”

“Tell me something,” she requested teasingly, trying to treat the whole thing lightly. “Have you ever set your mind on something, only to find out you couldn’t get it?”

“Once.” Abruptly, he looked ridiculously sad. “When I was ten, I had a terrible crush on my teacher. I was determined to win her heart, but discretion got the better part of valor when I saw her husband. He looked like a bull elephant in a temper.”

Casey quickly bit her lip to keep back the giggle, and asked, “You mean you’ve gotten everything you ever wanted since the age of ten?”

“I’m very patient, you see,” he explained almost apologetically.

She took a firm grip on her amusement, reminding herself sternly that there was nothing even remotely comical about this man. And he was about as innocent as a shark in bloody waters. Even assuming that he had no ulterior motive and simply wanted her, he would have to be handled carefully. Casey decided abruptly to go on that assumption. Because if this was all just an elaborate plot to find out what she knew or suspected about the explosion, she would accomplish nothing by continually defending herself.

So. She was faced with the problem of a man—a very attractive man, she reminded herself—who wanted to become her lover. He was charming, amusing, flatteringly attentive. He was, in fact, everything she had believed Roger to be. The only difference was that this time her eyes were wide open.

“You’re looking bitter, honey,” Storm offered quietly.

Casey sat back in her chair and stared at him, green eyes calm. “I won’t let you or anybody else run my life for me,” she told him very quietly, ignoring his comment. “It took me a long time to learn to take control of my life. And I won’t give that up. Not for any reason. Not for anyone.”

He was silent for a long moment, his light eyes probing her shuttered expression. “Your ex-fiancé—he tried to dominate you, didn’t he? That’s why you’re so wary.”

She smiled bitterly. “He didn’t have to try.” She wondered vaguely if being in love made all women weak, or just her.

Storm leaned forward, his expression very serious. “Princess, I don’t want to dominate you. Don’t you understand that? I want you because your strength matches my own. I knew that two minutes after I saw you.”

“And what about all your talk of rights and possession, and what’s yours is yours? You don’t consider that domination?”

He frowned. “No, of course not. Honey, my woman will be mine, and I’ll be hers. I won’t expect any more from her than I’m willing to give, and I won’t accept any less.”

“A partnership, in fact,” she jibed lightly.

Immediately, he objected. “Oh, no! I have no intention of being half a couple, living under the same roof and yet leading two separate lives.”

Casey wondered irritably why she was intrigued by his comments, then pushed the thought aside. Would it help to reason with him? Probably not, but it was worth a try. “Storm, try to understand—I don’t want a relationship of any kind. It isn’t anything personal; I just don’t want to get involved.”

It didn’t help.

“Like I said, princess, I’m a patient man. I’ll wait. As long as it takes. Just don’t expect me to stand by and watch you date other men.”

She gritted her teeth. “I’m not getting through to you, am I? You’re not listening to a word I’m saying.”

Before Storm could respond, one of the computer technicians stuck his head in the door with an apologetic smile. “Excuse me, Mr. Carmichael, but you wanted to be notified when we tracked down that information on the missing sites.”

“You have it?” Storm asked, rising from his chair.

“Mr. Frazier does.”

Storm nodded and watched the young man disappear back down the hall, then turned to give Casey a long look. “Don’t go out with Frazier tonight.”

“Is that an order?” she asked levelly.

“Call it a request.” His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, which were unreadable. “Even patience has its limit, honey. Don’t push me past mine. My red hair should tell you something.”

“That you have a temper?” Casey smiled thinly. “Tell me, will you punish me if I don’t come to heel?” She thought that she had carried off the light routine very well, but something in her voice must have given her away, because his eyes immediately narrowed.

In a strangely tautened voice, he told her, “You and I are going to have to have a long talk about that ex-fiancé of yours, Casey. I have a feeling that he was a first-class bastard. Did he hit you?” With scarcely a pause, he added, “You don’t have to answer; I can see it in your eyes. Casey—”

“They’re waiting for you in the computer room,” she interrupted, with what control she could muster.

He stared at her for a long moment, then swore softly under his breath and turned on his heel to leave the room, saying flatly over his shoulder, “We have to talk, Casey—and soon.”

Casey stared after him, wondering if that had been a threat or a promise. And wondering how her resistance to his commands had somehow turned into something far more personal.



She didn’t see Storm again that day. At five, she left the office, determined to go out with Ham no matter what. Somewhat to her surprise, nothing occurred to prevent the date. Ham picked her up on time, cheerful as always and obviously intent only on having a good time.

They had dinner and went to a movie, and Casey didn’t realize until Ham drove her home that her distraction had not quite escaped notice. Pulling his car into her driveway. Ham made no effort to either turn off the car or get out. Turning to half face her, his valiant grin was evident even in the darkness.

“Well, I’d say that the three of us had a pretty good time, wouldn’t you?”

“Three of us?” she asked blankly.

“Uh huh. You, me … and Carmichael. I’ve been aware of his ghost all evening.”

Casey felt herself flush, wanting to deny his disheartened accusation but knowing that the denial would be a lie. “I’m sorry, Ham.”

He sighed. “Never mind. I’ve known for quite a while that I wasn’t making a dent in those walls of yours. Maybe he’ll tell me his secret someday.”

“His secret,” she retorted, “is sheer irritation!”

“Sure,” he scoffed lightly. “That’s why he’s been on your mind all evening.”

Refusing to discuss it, Casey opened her door and said calmly, “I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Good night, Casey.”

She watched his car drive away, then went up the walk to her front door. Ham was wrong, she thought vaguely. Storm hadn’t been on her mind. Not really. She was tired, that was all. Opening her front door, she went inside and started to turn off the porch light.

That was when she realized that the lamp she had left burning in the living room was no longer on. Frowning, she flipped on the overhead light.

The living room was a shambles.





Chapter 4


After the initial moment of horror, Casey’s first thought was of her cat. “Pundit? Pundit, where are you?” she called, dropping her purse on a chair and stepping over two pillows and an overturned plant. Her cat dashed down the hall at that moment, eyes wild and a growl rumbling from deep in his throat.

As he leaped she caught him in her arms, realizing two things simultaneously. The first was that her cat had tangled with something or someone, evidenced by his wild-eyed state and a nick on one ear, which was bleeding slightly. Her second realization was that the intruder could very well still be in the house.

Conditioned reflex took over in that moment, and, still holding her growling cat, Casey stepped over to the small Oriental table by the hall and reached for the top drawer. Inches from the handle, she hesitated, muttering, “Fingerprints,” and cautiously used a fold of her skirt to open the drawer. Her revolver—a present from her father ten years before—lay on top of a stack of magazines, apparently untouched.

She hesitated again, then muttered, “The hell with fingerprints,” and picked up the gun firmly. Gun in one hand and cat in the other, she started through the house—determinedly, but not without a certain amount of trepidation—turning on lights as she went and searching thoroughly.

Ten minutes later, the house was lit from one end to the other, and Casey was convinced that the intruder was gone. Common sense told her that a common housebreaker wouldn’t have torn the covers off her bed or pulled her books off their shelves, and she had a sinking feeling that this night’s work had something to do with Apollo’s problems. As well as she could without touching anything, she tried to establish if anything had been stolen. The fact that nothing appeared to be missing only confirmed her suspicions. The intruder, then, had been looking for something. But what?

Trying to decide whether or not to call the police, she located a bottle of peroxide and cleaned the cut on Pundit’s ear. She had just started toward the phone—once more holding both cat and gun—when there was a loud knock at her front door.

After a panicky moment, she murmured, “Don’t be ridiculous, burglars don’t knock … do they?”

The door rattled again. “Casey?”

The feeling of relief that swept over Casey as she recognized Storm’s voice caused her knees to go weak, and she leaned against a chair for a moment before hurrying to the door.

“Why’s the house lit up—” he began as soon as the door was flung open, then broke off abruptly as he took in her pale features, the disturbed cat, and the gun. “What the hell?” He glanced over her shoulder at the shambles in the room behind her, stepping inside immediately and catching her in his arms. “Honey, are you all right?”

Prudently holding the gun aside, Casey said into the flannel of his shirt, “Yes, I’m fine. But I’ve lost three houseplants, dammit.”

Storm tipped her chin up to examine her features narrowly, then smiled. “For a minute there,” he remarked, “I thought you were going to fall apart on me. But you’re perfectly calm, aren’t you?”

“Reasonably calm,” she corrected, moving away to place her gun on the table and set her cat on the floor.

“Have you called the police?”

“I was just about to.”

Storm closed the front door and came into the room. “I’ll do it. Where’s the phone?”

Casey pointed silently and then stared down at her feet, where one of her favorite plants lay, uprooted and already beginning to brown around the edges. “So destructive,” she murmured. “And so useless. What could be hidden in a plant?”

The question was more or less addressed to herself, but Storm, having just hung up the phone, heard it. He came to stand before her, the shrewd golden eyes questioning. “You think he was looking for something?”

“Don’t you?” Casey stared up at him. “I’ve checked, Storm; there’s nothing missing. I haven’t been robbed. Whoever broke in here was looking for something. And he wanted whatever it is badly enough to tear the place apart.”

Storm didn’t seem surprised by her deductions. “You’re probably right,” he agreed, adding, “the timer, most likely.”

“But I don’t have it!”

“He couldn’t know that, though, could he? And even if he knows that I’ve got it, I was over here last night, remember.” He sighed. “One thing’s for sure: you’re not staying here alone. Not after tonight.”

“Now, wait a minute,” she began, profoundly mistrusting the gleam that had appeared in the tawny eyes.

“We’ll discuss it later,” he promised soothingly.

“We’ll discuss it now! Storm—”

“Are you sure nothing’s missing?” he interrupted innocently. “Maybe you’d better check again. The police’ll want to know.”

“Storm—”

“Jewelry? Family silver?”

“My family preferred stainless steel, and I’ve never been fond of jewelry! Will you—”

“Stamp collections or the like? Grandmother’s savings in a sock?”

Casey all but stamped her foot in frustration, even while fighting back an inappropriate attack of the giggles. “My grandmother kept her savings in a bank, and Dad sold his stamp collection when I was two! Stop this, and—”

“Old love letters?” Before she could respond to that, he added calmly, “If you have any of those, by the way, better chuck ‘em into the fire. I have a short fuse.”

With great dignity—and veering away somewhat from the original point of the conversation—Casey said, “Please don’t expect me to believe that you’d get upset about every little boy who carried my books to school, because I won’t! Believe you, I mean.”

He looked wounded. “I begrudge even thoughtless little boys the pleasure of your company in the past. I was, however, referring to impassioned letters from older gentlemen. Have any?”

Casey placed her hands on her hips and glared at him. “If I do, they’re none of your business! And stop changing the subject!”

The radiant eyes teased her gently. “Who, me? Perish the very thought. And those love letters—”

“Never mind the love letters! Storm, you’re not staying here tonight. And I mean it!”

Ignoring most of her statement, he said cheerfully, “Well, I’ll forget the love letters for now. Let’s get back to your other missing treasures.”

“I don’t have any missing treasures!”

“No need to shout, princess.”

Casey opened her mouth to let him know what shouting really was, but the sound of the doorbell cut her off. The police had arrived.

“Saved by the bell,” Storm muttered, turning away to head for the door.

Subsiding onto the arm of the couch, Casey mentally counted to ten and then promptly spoiled the calming effect by wondering wrathfully why she let him get away with being so damned arrogant. He was not staying the night. No way!

It was more than an hour later when the two of them were alone again, and Casey picked up where they had left off. “I’ll be all right here alone,” she announced as Storm came back into the living room after escorting the last policeman to the door. “I’m not afraid, and I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself!”

Disarming her immediately, he said softly, “I know you are, sweetheart, but humor me. Your visitor might decide to come back and try again; I wouldn’t sleep a wink knowing you were here alone.”

“Look, I don’t want—” she began desperately, but she was interrupted by his cheerful voice.

“I can just bunk down here on your couch for the night. Do you have an extra pillow, honey?”

Casey sat down on the arm of a chair and stared at him. In a resigned voice, she said, “You’re taking advantage of this situation. You realize that, don’t you?”

“Of course.” He smiled at her. “But please note that I haven’t said a word—yet—about the fact that you went out with Frazier tonight after I asked you not to. I think we can tackle that subject tomorrow, after you’ve recovered from your unexpected visitor.”

“That’s big of you,” she said sardonically.

“The pillow, honey.”

Short of physically evicting him—a feat beyond her abilities—there wasn’t much that Casey could do. And, though she admitted it only to herself, she did feel uneasy about staying here alone. Accustomed to carrying her own burdens, she was more than a little surprised to discover a certain relief in allowing someone else to assume a little responsibility for her. And she had no doubt that Storm was doing just that.

Sighing, she murmured, “I should clean up in here; the place is a disaster area.”

He crossed the space between them, taking her hand and drawing her to her feet. “What you should do is go to bed, sweetheart; you look exhausted. I’ll straighten up in here.” He tipped her chin up and lightly kissed her, then turned her toward the hallway and gave her a little push and a swat on the behind.

Other than throwing him an indignant look, Casey made no protest. She headed for her bedroom, muttering to herself about steamrollers and troubleshooters, located an extra pillow and blanket, and carried them back to the living room. “Here,” she said, dumping them onto the couch.

“Thanks. You go on to bed now, honey.” He was already busy righting her bookshelf.

It had been a long day. Casey was tired, a little unnerved, and slightly resentful about the way her life had literally been turned upside down since this man had entered it only the day before. “Stop treating me like a child!” she snapped.

He straightened and regarded her with a glint of warning in his eyes. In a husky voice, he told her, “Princess, I’m fully and completely aware of the fact that you’re a woman. That’s something I’m trying very hard not to think about right now. Because if I do think about it … you won’t be sleeping alone.”

It came to her then, with a devastating clarity, that she would have liked nothing better than for him to sweep aside whatever protests she might manage to make and carry her off to bed. She could feel a fluttering in her belly at the thought, and heat rushed through her body. And it was scary as hell.

As she stared at him, Casey realized that she had somehow given herself away. Either that or Storm had read her thoughts with uncanny accuracy. Those incredible tawny eyes darkened; tension flowed visibly into his large, muscular frame.

Very softly, he said, “Go to bed, Casey—before I forget myself and give in to the desire that’s been eating at me since I walked into your office yesterday.”

For a moment, Casey was tempted almost beyond bearing. He was so blunt about his desire that he made it almost impossible for her to ignore the need coursing through her own body. Finally, winning—or perhaps losing—the inner battle, she turned away silently. But she paused at the hallway, knowing that the question had to be asked. “Storm?”

“What is it, honey?”

She didn’t look at him. “Why?”

He didn’t pretend to misunderstand the question. “Why am I sending you off to bed alone? Because you’re tired, honey. You’re tired and probably a little scared. When I come to you, I want to know that it’s because you know your own mind.”

So. She had her answer. “Good night,” she whispered.

“Good night, sweetheart.”

Casey went on to her room, automatically going through the routine of getting ready for bed. She went into the bathroom first, washing away her makeup and brushing her teeth, then went back down the hall to her bedroom, hearing Storm talking softly to Pundit in the living room and thinking, he talks to animals just the way I do. Unconsciously choosing her prettiest nightgown, she changed and then crawled between the dark green sheets.

She had left her door open just a bit, expecting her cat to come in and take his accustomed place at the foot of her bed. But the cat apparently preferred sharing the c