Головна In Serena's Web

In Serena's Web

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Рік:
1987
Видавництво:
Loveswept
Мова:
english
Серії:
Hagan
Файл:
EPUB, 157 KB
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1

Illegal Possession

Year:
2008
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 165 KB
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Contents

Synopsis

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten





Synopsis




With her fallen-angel smile, Serena Jameson looked like a cross between a temptress and a teenager, but she could be gently ruthless when it came to getting Brian Ashford to make his move! The handsome industrialist was determined to play Galahad and protect her from danger--danger in the form of rakish playboy Joshua Long. But when Serena pleaded with Brian to teach her how to seduce a man, she ignited a primitive heat that shattered his control...and hers. A captive of her own desires, could Serena escape the tangles of her bewitchingly woven web?





One




She watched the tall, dark, undeniably handsome man enter the restaurant, watched his graceful progress through the crowded room. She watched the fawning waiters and noted the interested stares of fellow diners. She studied the man's companion for a brief moment. Blondes, she thought. Always blondes. Doesn't his taste vary?

She looked across the table at her own companion. Another blonde. But the face she studied now was the opposite in every way—except one—from the face belonging to the blonde across the room.

The one similarity was beauty.

Masculine beauty met her thoughtful gaze as she studied her companion. His was an arresting face: lean, classical of feature, tanned, with a determined jaw and humor playing about the curved lips and gleaming in green eyes. A face capable, certainly, of haunting dreams and breaking hearts.

He was a tall man, athletic, with broad shoulders and a lithe way of moving. Thick, silvery blond hair. A man in his mid-thirties who was obviously strong, tough, and determined.

She looked once again at the dark man across the room. Slowly she began to smile.

"You're smiling," her companion observed in a tone of immense foreboding.

She laughed softly and looked across the table at him, her gray eyes as deceptively unthreatening as a silent mountain fog.

"Why are you smiling?" he demanded, anxiety mixed w; ith amusement in his deep, pleasant voice.

"I'm not blond, and I don't have blue eyes."

"That's why you're smiling?" He glanced at her wineglass suspiciously, obviously wondering how much was too much.

Her smile widened. "Brian, you're a lovely man. I don't know what I would have done without you these last weeks."

Far from being flattered by these soulful remarks, Brian Ashford began to frown in earnest. "Rena, you're up to something," he said uneasily. "The last time you told me I was a lovely man, I had to bail you out of jail the next day!"

Serena Jameson waved a slender hand in a dismissing gesture. "That was a misunderstanding."

"You bet it was! You misunderstood that cop when he arrested you, so you punched him in the eye!"

Serena gave him another of the gentle, unthreatening smiles he'd learned to mistrust. "He was going to arrest Sam, and I couldn't allow that."

Brian sighed. "I know, I know. Sam was in trouble, so you got yourself into trouble to keep him out of trouble—which is the way your mind works! You're frightening, d'you know that?"

"Nothing terrible's happened, so—"

"I know nothing terrible's happened ... this week. Unlike last week. And the week before. Rena, I'm going to apologize to your father if I ever live to see him again. I believed—truly believed—that he was showing needless concern by requesting someone to accompany you from Europe to New York and then on to the West Coast."

"Brian—"

"I never thought," he went on cordially, "that six weeks in the company of a rather lovely twenty-six-year-old woman could hold anything remotely resembling danger. Piece of cake, I thought. Oversee the travel arrangements, keep the lady company, see some of the country I've never seen, and Just make sure the genius's daughter doesn't fall down and break a leg during the trip. Easy. Simple. Safe."

"Brian—"

"However, no one warned me that you bleed when somebody—anybody—gets cut. No one warned me that your gentle smile and soft voice cloak the heart of an army general bent on victory. No one warned me that the genius's daughter inherited more than her fair share of the parent's brains, and his lack of common sense! And no one warned me that you get into more trouble than a shipful of sailors on liberty!"

Serena looked mildly shocked. "Not that kind of trouble, Brian."

Brain gazed imploringly toward the ceiling and whatever lay beyond. "She's going to get me killed," he murmured.

Reaching across the table to pat his hand comfortingly, Serena said, "Daddy won't blame you, Brian, whatever happens. He's used to me."

Brian employed his free hand to rake through his thick blond hair. "No man in his right mind could ever get used to you," he told her frankly. Then he shook his head as if to clear it. "Look, Rena—your father is very important to my company. If that electronic brain he's developing really works, it'll definitely revolutionize the computer industry. And I really don't mind taking an extended vacation and accompanying you across the country. I could even enjoy it, except for the fact that I'm slightly concerned about two possibilities."

"Which are?" She was gazing thoughtfully across the room, her hand still resting gently on his.

Brian waited until she returned her gaze to him. "One, that you'll get me killed. Two, that I'll murder you."

Serena sat back, her hand sliding smoothly over his as it withdrew. She was still smiling. "Nonsense, Brian." She summoned a waiter with a glance, a trick she had learned from her charismatic father. "You'll feel better after a good night's sleep."

As if he were approaching senility and needed extra sleep, Brian thought irritably. "Rena—" He broke off with a sigh as the waiter approached.

With the gently wistful smile that always won her instant slaves of the male sex, Serena spoke to the waiter. "Would you please have a bottle of your finest champagne sent over to Mr. Long's table and put it on my bill?"

"Certainly, Miss Jameson."

The waiter, Brian observed sourly, was ready to die for her. Then her request sank in, and he began to feel seriously alarmed.

Serena added sweetly, "And when he asks who sent it, just tell him an admirer, would you, please?"

"Of course. Miss Jameson." The waiter, a silly smile on his face, departed.

"What," Brian asked evenly, "was that all about? Who's Long?"

Wide gray eyes gazed at him innocently. "Joshua Long," she murmured. "He's staying here at the hotel, in case you haven't noticed."

Brian glanced across the room and frowned. He waited until the waiter appeared again, following the man's progress as he carried champagne to another table. When he got a good look at the recipient of that expensive bottle, his frown deepened. "I know the name." Then he looked back at her quickly. "Of course I know the name! Rena. he's the closest thing this century's seen to a rake!"

"Exciting, isn't it?"

He stared at her. "I knew you were up to something. Dammit, what're you up to?"

Serena returned the stare, her expression utterly guileless. "Well, Brian, you've convinced me that I need . . . someone to take care of me."

"And so?" Foreboding was heavy in his voice.

"I thought I'd get married," she told him in the casual tone of one deciding which wine might go with dinner.

After a long moment Brian—not trusting his voice—sent an inquiring glance toward Long's table before staring again at Serena.

She nodded. "I should think he'd know how to manage me, wouldn't you?"

Brian ignored the question to ask one of his own. "And is he aware of the treat in store for him?"

If Serena was irritated by his sarcasm, it certainly didn't show on her lovely face. "Not yet. But he will be soon. Very soon."

"Rena, we're going on to Flagstaff tomorrow," he reminded her carefully.

"You can, if you want," she murmured in an absent tone, her eyes once more fixed on the table across the room. "I like Denver. I think I'll stay on here for a few days. Or a week."

"Rena—" Brian began to rise as she did, but he was delayed by the necessity of signing the check. By the time he could catch up to Serena, she was already halfway out of the restaurant. With a choice of two exits, she had chosen the one across the room, which meant she would pass Joshua Long's table. And pass it she did, Brian reflected, unsure of his own emotions as he watched her gliding, graceful movements. She walked, he thought, the way Eve must have walked for Adam.

Long's gaze was drawn away from his blond companion to appreciatively observe that walk, and Brian was near enough to see the arrested expression in the other man's cool blue eyes as Serena sent him a glance over her shoulder.

Catching up to his wayward charge, Brian grasped her elbow firmly and steered her hastily from the restaurant.

"You spoiled the effect," she told him in mild annoyance as they stood inside the elevator and he released her arm. She rubbed the arm, sending him a reproachful look, and added, "Brute."

"I am not," he said coldly, "going to let you get into trouble again. Especially not with Joshua Long. You were unattached when I met you in London, and you'll be unattached when I deliver you to your father in California."

"Deliver me, "she murmured. "Like a parcel all tied up with string."

Something about her gentle voice sent Brian's inner alarms—sharpened by the past three weeks —jangling. He backed up rather hastily. "I didn't mean it like that."

"Didn't you?" The deceptively tranquil gray eyes studied him for an unnerving moment. "I believe you did, Brian."

He could think of no response until the elevator let them out on their floor. Then, as he walked beside her down the hall, he said carefully, "Rena, we've gotten to be friends these last weeks, haven't we?"

She sent him a glance. "You've threatened to murder me at least half a dozen times. I suppose that constitutes friendship. Of a sort."

Brian cleared his throat strongly. "The point is that friends watch out for each other. And I wouldn't be much of a friend if I let you . . . get involved with a man like Long. My responsibilities to your father aside, Long would only hurt you."

Serena halted at her door, digging in the spangled evening purse for her key. "I can take care of myself, Brian. I am, as you pointed out earlier, twenty-six, and I've seen something of the world." Locating her key, she unlocked the door and sent him a last, direct look. "I don't need a Galahad."

Brian gritted his teeth. "Long was with someone. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

Reflectively she said, "I'm not planning to dye my hair blond, so I suppose I'll have to teach him to love brunettes."

"Rena, he'll only hurt you!"

"You forget, Brian,"—she stepped inside the door and smiled very gently at him as she started to close it—"I'm not in his web. He's in mine. Good night."

Serena tossed her bag on the wide bed and stood for a moment in her dimly lighted room gazing at her reflection in the mirror over the dresser. Her thoughtful gray eyes met the reflected ones briefly, then went on to study the rest of herself methodically and critically.

The thick hair piled atop her head was an unusually dark, rich brown, almost black at certain times, but showing coppery highlights in strong light. Her face was delicate, the features finely formed; her large, tranquil gray eyes gave her the unguarded look of a kitten.

She was a tiny woman who appeared amazingly fragile, but her slender figure boasted startling curves that were shown to advantage in the midnight-blue dress she wore; it was low cut and clinging, and though jeans inevitably made her look sixteen, a dress such as this one turned her into a smoky-eyed siren.

Serena sighed softly and shook her head. She wasn't given to longing for what she didn't have, but a few more inches of height and ash-blond hair would have served her purpose better at the moment.

Remembering the blondes Joshua Long had escorted around the hotel during the past three days, Serena sighed again. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand and then sat down on the bed. He'd bribe the waiter to tell him who had sent the champagne, she knew, and would either call or knock on her door. In the meantime, however, she really should talk to her father.

Before Brian did. Serena knew her parent too well to think he'd give Brian permission to spirit her away to California, but she'd always kept him informed of her plans, and this plan was no exception. She placed the call, and shortly heard her father's vague, affectionate voice.

"Hi, honey. Brian hasn't murdered you yet?"

Serena laughed and leaned against the pillows banked up behind her. "Not yet, Daddy. He's threatened to, though."

"Yes, he's called every other day or so," Stuart Jameson said in an absent tone. "He seemed to think I'd be angry that he hadn't kept you out of jail and out of the Mississippi."

"He's being very stuffy," Serena told her father severely.

"Rena, stop playing your tricks on the man!" Her father's tone matched hers now. "I've had twenty-six years to learn how to cope, but he hardly knows you."

"He's learning." She was unrepentant.

"In self-defense, I'm sure!"

She laughed. "He's holding up, Daddy. He may be calling you tonight, by the way."

"What've you done now?"

"Nothing," Serena answered placidly. "Not yet, anyway. It's just that I've decided to get married, and Brian thinks I've chosen the wrong man."

As her father had said, he had been granted some years to become accustomed to her sudden fits and starts. So he didn't deafen her with exclamations of horror or surprise. He merely said politely, "You're getting married?"

"I thought I would."

"And who is it that Brian disapproves of?"

"Joshua Long."

There was a long silence, and then her father murmured, "Joshua Long. I see. He's in Denver? You are still in Denver?"

"Yes to both questions."

"And you told Brian you'd decided to marry Joshua Long?"

"Uh-huh."

"He believed you?"

"He doesn't know me very well," Serena explained tranquilly. "Not yet, anyway."

"I see," her father murmured. "I think. Brian disapproved—uh—strongly of these impending nuptials, I take it?"

"Well," she said, faintly dissatisfied, "not strongly enough. But I expect he'll get better at it."

"With a nudge from you?"

"That," she said, "is the plan."

There was silence, and then a soft chuckle. "Rena, when you were a child, I believed you'd gotten few of my brains but all of your mother's sweet temperament. Through the years, I've had to revise that deduction. You got your mother's temper, all right—and my brains—and the cunning of the two pirates and three politicians on the family tree."

"Thank you," she responded gravely. Then her amusement faded. "Daddy? Any more calls?"

Stuart Jameson sobered as well, but his voice was reassuring. "No mention of you since New York, honey. You've lost them, I'd say. Does Brian know—?"

"No, I haven't really found the right opportunity to tell him. I think it's time, though. He's going to be angry when he finds out he's been in the dark during all of this."

"I have a feeling," the elder Jameson said dryly, "you'll know how to handle him."

"Well. I'll certainly try. D'you think it'll be all right for us to stick around here for a while?" "Yes, but keep your eyes open. honey."

"I always do." Serena smiled to herself. -"Well stay awhile, then, Daddy."

He laughed again. "Then I won't look for you until I see you. Should I start shopping for a wedding present?"

"Just be ready to give me away."

"I hope you know what you're doing," he offered dryly. "Otherwise I'll have to get ready for a funeral. Yours. One of them's bound to kill you."

"Oh, I think I know what I'm doing. See you, Daddy."

" 'Bye, honey."

She had barely cradled the receiver when a knock sounded on her door. Smiling, she went to answer it, and found a tall, dark, undeniably handsome man leaning against the jamb.

"Thanks for the champagne," he drawled, blue eyes quizzical.



* * *



Coat and tie discarded, Brian paced his room restlessly. He was briefly tempted to call the genius who was in charge of the research and development division of Ashford Electronics and give him a piece of his mind. Several reasons kept him from making that call, one of which was Stuart Jameson's probable response. He'd laugh.

Brian had already given up attempting to understand the workings of Jameson's mind. On the one hand, he'd seemed indulgently amused by Serena's plan for a leisurely trip across the country; on the other hand, he had hinted strongly that if someone—unnamed—didn't watch out for his daughter, he wouldn't be able to concentrate on his work. His important work.

He was not the type of genius who threw temper tantrums in order to get what he wanted, or threw his weight around in any other fashion;

Brian simply assumed strong paternal feelings and volunteered to escort Serena home from Europe. Jameson accepted the offer instantly, fixing Brian with his vague gray eyes and assuring him that he knew his daughter would be safe in his hands. Completely safe.

The last comment Brian had taken to mean that Jameson wasn't worried his daughter would acquire an electronics magnate as a lover along the way. It hadn't been an implied warning; Stuart Jameson never implied anything. He either said something flat out or said nothing at all. If he said his daughter would be safe in Brian's hands, then that was what he meant. Period.

Finding his charge waiting for him at Heathrow in London, Brian had mentally reminded himself of Stuart's confidence. He'd had no idea of Serena's age then, and had assumed she was leaving school in Europe to come home. When he'd found her in the airport surrounded by the baggage she'd just brought over from Paris, he'd seen instantly that Daddy's little girl was little only in terms of physical size; there was nothing small about her effect on people. Particularly men. Like an oasis of calm in a violent storm, she sat atop a large suitcase and listened with apparent interest while a Frenchman and an Englishman argued in earthy terms about who would have the privilege of carrying her luggage out to the taxi queue. Since both men were dressed in immaculate three-piece suits, Brian gathered they didn't usually do this sort of thing.

Their meeting, Brian knew now, should have warned him of things to come. She had sweetly dismissed her knights-errant upon spotting Brian —she'd seen his picture in the newspapers, she told him blithely—and two skycaps had appeared out of thin air when she glanced around once with a lifted brow.

"Would you have let them fight it out?" Brian had asked her curiously on the way to the hotel they would stay in for several days.

Serena had smiled guilelessly at him. "Of course not, Brian."

She hadn't explained how she would have prevented it, but Brian knew—now—that she would have.

They were three weeks into the trip at this juncture, and Brian had learned that Serena Jameson could do just about anything she wanted—the consequences be damned. He had bailed her out of jail for punching a policeman in the eye, fished her out of the muddy Mississippi River—"But I've always wanted to swim in it, Brian!"—watched her single-handedly start a soup kitchen for street people in one large city and refurbish an orphanage in another city, and carried her bodily from a picket line she'd joined after hearing ten minutes of passionate rhetoric on a street corner.

He was torn between an urge to tie her up and load her instantly on a plane to California, and the fascinated desire to see what she'd do next.

Serena never tried to get into trouble, Brian thought with a sigh as he paced. She was soft-spoken, sweet-natured, tenderhearted, polite . . . and somewhere underneath all those gentle layers was the soul of a kamikaze pilot.

She could punch a cop in the eye for threatening to arrest a derelict old man (whom Serena had just met), then tie on an apron and ladle out soup in a kitchen founded—in a single afternoon out of Brian's sight—in an abandoned building while various bewildered businessmen found themselves unloading their personal cars full of contributions of canned goods or their personal wallets of dollars for Serena's cause.

She could dive gleefully over the side of a steamboat on the Mississippi because she wanted to swim, then offer to baby-sit three toddlers so that their mothers could have an hour or so of peace on the boat. She could defeat Brian soundly at poker by dealing with a dexterity that would have had her instantly blackballed in any casino in the world, then drag him to a movie during which she could cry silently over the death of the hero.

She could stand up to the Scrooge-like administrator of a tumbledown orphanage and call him names that had made Brian blush, then sit among a group of enthralled children while telling gentle fairy tales.

Three weeks . . .

Brian felt that he hadn't quite dared to breathe during those weeks. It was an emotion somewhere between fascination and horror, leaving him with sleepless nights but a smothered chuckle somewhere deep inside him.

And now—now—this enigma of a woman, this gentle, kind, compassionate, sweet, ruthless woman had her sights set on the playboy of the Western world. She thought she'd get married. As simple as that.

Restless, Brian paced over to the sliding glass door leading out to his balcony. He went out into the warm night, leaning against the railing and gazing absently over the secluded garden three floors below. Moments later he stiffened unconsciously, his eyes following two people as they walked along one of the winding paths.

The man was tall but virtually unrecognizable in the soft lights concealed in the shrubbery, but

Brian knew the woman; he would have known that midnight-blue evening gown anywhere.

He barely felt the railing cut into his hands as he gripped it, and only half heard the soft curses that escaped without his volition. Damn the woman, he thought, she was really going to do it.

She was going to try to catch a rake.





Two




Brian wasn't quite sure that Serena would show up as usual for their breakfast together. He was early himself, primarily because he'd decided to stay up until after five a.m., watching the sunrise with a jaundiced eye. That was sometime after he'd grown tired of reminding himself that Serena was certainly of age, and it was no business of his if she didn't return to her room until after dawn. ...

If she returned to her room while he was staring moodily at a truly spectacular sunrise, he didn't hear her. And he had his door ajar. Accidentally, of course.

Showering and shaving had given Brian time for reflection, but it hadn't really helped. After three weeks of Serena's nerve-racking company, he could hardly feel anything other than a strong sense of responsibility toward her. She was, he told himself fiercely while narrowly avoiding the amputation of his right earlobe, as incapable, of taking care of herself as a week-old kitten.

Never mind, his intellect sneered, that she appeared to have survived quite intact for twenty-six years. That was different. He hadn't known her then.

He did now.

By the time Brian was dressed and on his way downstairs, however, he had realized—however reluctantly—that his responsibilities to Serena's father had little to do with his own anxiety. The truth was, he conceded bitterly, he was more than just anxious. And for the simple reason that she had spent the night with another man. Period.

And even though he felt a strong measure of relief when the hostess took him directly to a table in response to his question and he saw Serena waiting for him, Brian quite naturally greeted her with a scowl.

"Good morning, Brian." Serena was cheerful, bright-eyed, and appeared to have slept a solid eight hours.

Brian knew better. With controlled violence, he took his seat, accepted coffee from an attentive waiter, then waved the young man away before he could offer to take their order. Barely waiting for the waiter to absent himself, Brian snarled, "Well, are you proud of yourself?"

"For what?" she asked innocently, sipping her coffee.

Belatedly remembering that they were in a restaurant that was rapidly filling with hotel guests, Brian lowered his voice. But the snarl, though muted, carried considerable force. "For handing Long another scalp to wear on his belt!" he snapped softly.

"Did I do that?"

"Dammit, Serena—"

"You have a very low opinion of my morals." Her voice was extremely quiet, but something about It drained Brian's anger.

"You didn't sleep with him?" he asked bluntly.

Being Serena, she didn't blush or appear to resent the personal question. "No, I didn't sleep with him. I came back to my room a little after midnight."

Brian studied her downbent head, feeling suddenly as if he had wounded something small and defenseless. And the apology came unbidden. "I'm sorry, Rena," he said gently. "I guess I was thinking more of Long's reputation than of your . . . standards."

"You don't know what my standards are." Clearly Serena was unwilling to forgive so quickly. The misty gray eyes lifted briefly to meet his, and there was something sad in them.

"Don't look at me like that!" he exclaimed involuntarily.

She glanced around to summon the waiter. "Why don't we have breakfast, Brian," she suggested softly.

Since the waiter, no more immune than the rest of his kind to Serena's glances, was already at their table, pencil poised, Brian could do little but give his order after she had indicated her own choices. Then he stared at the top of her sable head for a few moments before he fully realized that he had irretrievably lost something by leaping to conclusions.

And it hurt, that loss. It hurt to realize that she would never again gaze at him innocently and confidingly, that she would now hesitate before reaching out to touch him. He had, with his accusation, lost a large portion of her trust.

Gone, he thought. Or was it? Serena was the most generous soul he had ever encountered, and perhaps . . . perhaps there would be no irretrievable loss.

Brian reached across the table to cover her slender hand with his own. "Rena"—his voice was very gentle—"I'm really sorry. After what you said last night, the only thing I was certain of was that you intended to marry Long. And I ... I was angry. I'm so afraid you'll be hurt, and I don't want that to happen. I was worried about you, that's all. Will you forgive me?"

The misty gray eyes lifted to his again, and they were curiously shy this time. "I will. If ... if you'll help me."

"Anything," he promised rashly, even as a little voice in his head warned him desperately. Those eyes, he thought, mesmerized, those damned eyes.

In the sweet, gentle voice that sounded like satin and could stop an army in its tracks, Serena said, "Teach me how to seduce a man."

She made it sound normal, he realized dimly. Ordinary. Not in the least dangerous. She made it sound matter-of-fact and Innocent and entirely reasonable. She made it sound so reasonable, in fact, that Brian could not immediately think of a reason why he shouldn't do it.

Brian took a deep breath. "Rena," he said carefully, "there are some things you simply don't ask."

"Why not?"

He raked fingers through his hair. "Rena, you know damned well why not! You have to know! Asking me to teach you how to seduce a man is like—" Gazing into those inquiring eyes, Brian forgot what he was going to say. He cleared his throat and tried again. "You," he said very dryly, "are twenty-six. You've spent the better part of four years in Europe. Correct?"

Serena nodded, her brows still lifted Inquiringly.

"You've certainly dated?" He waited for her nod, then nodded himself. "Then you have to know the effect you have on men. Most men, in fact."

"But you're my friend," she said, as if that made a difference.

At the end of his metaphorical rope, Brian fell back on brutal honesty. "Rena, if I taught you how to seduce a man, I'd be the man you seduced!"

Serena didn't respond for a few moments, since their waiter was busy placing their meal before them. Then, in her matter-of-fact way, she said cheerfully, "Well, that's all right with me, Brian. I don't think Josh would be pleased by a virgin in his bed anyway. So you can teach me how to seduce a man and please him in bed. And since we're friends, you won't be too rough with me, or—"

"Serena!"

She gazed at him, wide-eyed. Then those misty eyes grew even more misty, and her expression revealed how hurt she felt. "Oh. I see. I understand, Brian, really I do. You don't have to say anything more."

"I don't think," he said from between gritted teeth, "that you understand at all, Rena."

"You don't want me. I understand."

"It isn't that." He swore roughly. "I'm responsible for you. How could I face Stuart after seducing his only daughter?"

"He wouldn't have to know," she offered, her tone one of anxious entreaty.

Brian stared at her for a long moment and then, very belatedly, remembered just who he was dealing with. A woman who had punched a policeman in the eye. A woman who had blithely jumped into the Mississippi River. A woman, he had learned, to his cost, who had taken the meaning of the phrase "iron hand in a velvet glove" to new and staggering heights.

He lifted his fork and began eating. Stalling for time.

"You do want me, don't you?" Serena asked with all the natural curiosity of a child. "I mean— the thought of seeing me naked isn't giving you the horrors, is it?"

Brian choked on his blueberry pancakes and reached hastily for his coffee. "Will you"—he wheezed—"for heaven's sake learn to give notice of loaded questions?"

"Well, is it giving you the horrors?"

Brian's principal reaction to the image her words had instantly provoked was hardly one of horror or revulsion, but he didn't think the breakfast table was quite the place to give vent to his emotions. Not, at least, in a restaurant.

"Serena," he said in a tone that had been compared by various of his friends to the sound of a saw biting into wood, "if you say another word not directly related to breakfast, I won't be responsible for my actions."

She stared at him for a moment, then cleared her throat with an odd little sound and addressed herself to eating the meal before her.

Brian ate automatically. His bland expression was the product of stem control. But his thoughts —and his imagination—refused to be governed. He had spent the past three weeks, he now realized, subconsciously reminding himself that Serena was, in the truest sense of the words, off limits. Not only was she the most enigmatic lady he'd ever met and completely out of his experience, but she was also the daughter of a man he greatly respected—and who trusted him implicitly.

Also, since her behavior had been as wayward, innocent, and troublesome as that of a child, he had been able to regard her, for the most part, in that light.

But since her incredible decision last night, Brian had found it impossible to think of her without remembering, however reluctantly, that she was very much a woman. And with that wall breached, he was painfully aware of just how attracted to her he was.

Attracted? he thought, with something akin to a mental groan. More than attracted. Fascinated. And she had only to smile at him to make him forget his name.

He didn't have to look at her to see the delicate face and mesmerizing eyes, or the slender body that her own words had stripped naked for him. Serena naked . . . God, he could see her that way so vividly that his entire body tensed and the blood began rushing hotly through his veins. His heart was pounding, his breathing roughening, and he fought the abrupt and primitive urge to snatch her up into his arms and ...

Realization washed over him like an icy wave. Serena wanted Joshua Long. She had asked Brian to teach her how to seduce a man because she wanted Long. Asked him to teach her how to please a man because Long wouldn't want a virgin in his bed.

Virgin?

Brian felt his throat tighten, and a knot formed somewhere inside him. He pushed his plate away with controlled violence, staring at her downbent head with a gaze he knew to be savage.

Hell, didn't she know what she had asked of him?

He said nothing until the meal was finished, the check signed, and they rose simultaneously in unspoken agreement to leave the restaurant. Brian didn't dare take her arm or touch her in any way, but she remained silently beside him as they crossed the lobby and entered the elevator. And when they reached their floor, she unlocked the door to her room and preceded him inside.

Brian barely waited for the door to close behind him, but did manage to infuse his voice with dry mockery.

"So you've decided on strategy, Rena? You plan to learn how to tempt Long into your . . . web, didn't you call it?"

Serena sat down on the foot of her bed and stared up at him. Dressed in slacks and a silky blouse, she looked like a cross between temptress and teenager, and Brian was having a hard time keeping his urges leashed.

"I plan to learn," she answered matter-of-factly. "If you—someone—will teach me."

Brian paced over to the wide expanse of windows and stared out, unable to continue meeting her steady gaze. "And just how many lessons d'you plan to take, Rena?" he snapped. "How many nights? How many times would you sleep with me before going to him?"

"I suppose that would depend on how quickly I learned, wouldn't it?" she replied musingly, clearly undisturbed by the harsh questions.

He swung around to stare at her, his hands jammed in the pockets of his slacks. "Tell me something." He forced the words out and kept his feet rooted to the floor. "Has it occurred to you that it requires a certain amount of desire between two people? I assume you want Long, but you haven't said a damned word about wanting me."

Serena blinked, then said reasonably, "Well, I can hardly be sure of that, can I, Brian? You haven't even kissed me, for heaven's sake. But I'm sure an experienced man like you knows very well how to ... turn a woman on. Don't you?" she added anxiously.

Brian knew that he should just leave her room. Immediately. He should have been able to treat this entire situation like the slightly amusing joke she probably intended it to be. He wanted to be able to do that. To laugh and speak lightly.

But he couldn't. He couldn't leave, and he couldn't treat this like a joke because it wasn't one to him. And because what she was offering him was something he wanted with every screaming nerve in his body.

There had never been a lack of women in Brian's life. He was attractive to women, he knew, and his personality was generally pleasant. Since he avoided long-term ties, his previous relationships could be summed up accurately as brief affairs. No strings, no promises, and no regrets when an affair was over.

So why, he wondered, was he hesitating now? Not, certainly, for the flimsy reasons he'd made up. Not because she was an enigma; that was, if anything, an inducement. And not because she was Stuart Jameson's daughter; she was of age, after all, and Stuart was hardly the type of genius who kept his head buried in the sand.

Brian gazed at Serena while she waited patiently for an answer to her question, and he tried to ignore the signals his body was sending urgently to his brain.

"I won't do it."

Where, he wondered, had those words come from?

She said nothing for a moment, her delicate face still; then she nodded and rose to her feet. "All right, Brian."

"What . . . will you do?" He couldn't leave it alone.

"I'll learn," she said simply.

"From whom?"

"That's my problem, Brian. Don't worry about it."

"Dammit, Serena . . ." He was standing in front of her before he'd even realized he had moved, and his hands were gripping her shoulders tightly. "You're going to be hurt, don't you realize that? And sleeping with one man to learn how to seduce another—my Lord, that's insane!"

She met his hot eyes steadily, unflinching. "Is it? Not in this day and age, Brian. I want to learn a ... talent, if you will, because I need that talent. And since I know you don't want entanglements, it seemed to me that you'd be a good teacher."

"What makes you think I don't—"

"You told me," she interrupted calmly. "The day we met, in fact."

He couldn't recall that, but pressed on anyway. "That's beside the point, Rena."

"No, it's just the point. You haven't said, but you might want to sleep with me: however, you don't want more than that. And I want to learn how to please a man. So what's wrong with the idea of you and me having an affair? Josh is leaving tomorrow for about a week, but he's coming back, and he'll be here for at least two weeks after that. So we could—"

Obeying the urging of his body even as his mind continued to struggle, Brian pulled her suddenly against him. His hands slid down to the small of her back and then her hips, pulling her closer, nearly groaning aloud when her soft body curved instantly into the throbbing hardness of his own. He shook his head slightly, bewildered, wondering at the power of this newly discovered desire for her. And when he felt her arms slide around his waist and her hands stroke his back lightly, he made a last desperate grab for reason.

"Rena," he said huskily, "there's nothing I want more than to lay you down on that bed and—" He broke off abruptly, his eyes closing as he fought for control; her body had moved against his, innocently and seductively, and he couldn't breathe for the wild need she'd ignited. When he forced his eyes open finally, he found hers gazing up at him with a wondering kind of pleasure.

"You don't have to kiss me, Brian," she murmured. "I know that I want you now. I knew as soon as I felt you against me."

Brian drew a single, harsh breath, then bent his head abruptly, his mouth finding hers. He couldn't have stopped himself even if he'd wanted to. And when her soft, cool lips warmed beneath his, opening to him, the last tendrils of reason vanished.

One hand slid up her spine to tangle in her thick, dark hair, holding her as close as possible while his lips slanted hungrily across hers. When his hand moved down her back to her waist, he could feel her move beneath the touch like a kitten pleasurably arching as it was stroked. That Innocent movement, and the image it brought to mind, was just enough to jar him to his senses.

Struggling against a desire stronger than any he'd ever known, he managed to tear his mouth from hers and push her away from him. He was rougher than he'd meant to be, unbalancing her with the push, so that she sank down on the bed behind her.

He stared down at her for an endless moment, trying to catch his breath, trying to ignore the enticing image of Serena flushed and breathless, her eyes shimmering darkly with desire. Then, aware of how weak his determination actually was in the face of her unhidden response, he muttered a curse and strode from the room, slamming the door behind him.



* * *



Serena gazed at the closed door for a long time while her breathing gradually steadied. She stretched her slender body like a graceful cat. Odd, she thought, how different she felt physically. Every nerve in her body seemed to have been transformed. Alive . . . aware. Deliciously aware.

She lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, a faint frown between her brows. Complications, she thought. Nothing was ever simple, of course; the world was complicated, and people were complicated . . . and plans had to be complicated.

The situation might well have discouraged another woman, especially in the face of Brian's rejection, but not Serena. She enjoyed untangling things. Of course . . . sometimes it was necessary to tangle them even more before beginning to separate the various threads.



* * *



Brian attempted to work out his frustration on the hotel's tennis court, and succeeded at least in exhausting himself temporarily. After a shower he checked Serena's room, to find her gone, and anxiety started gnawing at him again as he went down to the lobby. A glance through the glass expanse fronting the lobby showed him a picture that stopped him in his tracks. Joshua Long stood by a black limousine, dressed for travel in a three-piece business suit. His head was bent attentively and a crooked smile softened his hard face as he spoke to Serena.

She had changed since the morning, Brian realized, coming to the depressing conclusion that although slacks were obviously good enough for himself, pursuit of Long demanded clingy silk dresses. And the green silk dress she wore certainly clung in all the right places . . . and a few wrong ones that aroused both Brian's protective impulses and his so-carefully banked desires.

He stood silently and waited, something in him tightening as he waited for the dark man to kiss Serena good-bye. And he did kiss her. Brian's blood pressure only rose a few degrees, however, since the kiss was clearly light and brief.

The limo pulled away and Serena came back inside the lobby, a faint smile curving her lips. She saw Brian and approached him, hiding the smile, but not quickly enough.

Brian felt savage.

"I hope you didn't wait to have lunch with me," she said cheerfully. "Josh had to go into town for a meeting this afternoon, and since he'll be gone until tonight—"

Gesturing impatiently, Brian cut her off. He really didn't want to hear about her lunch date. What he wanted—no, had to do was reestablish their earlier relationship. It was either that or, he knew, become the first lover in her life. A temporary lover. A teacher. And that understanding brought a bitter bile to his throat in a reaction he didn't care to probe.

"We have to talk," he told her.

"Well, we can go up—"

"No." Brian caught her elbow and led her toward the corner of the huge lobby that was sometimes a bar and always a place where people could sit and relax. He found a small grouping of chairs and love seats that was deserted, and gestured for Serena to sit down. "We aren't going to your room. Or mine."

Serena sat down, and watched as he took a chair at a right angle to her own. "Don't you trust yourself, Brian?"

For an instant, a single, fleeting moment, he caught a glimpse of the real Serena, the woman beneath all the innocent layers. It was in her eyes, something he'd never seen before but instinctively recognized. The look of a woman who knew exactly who and what she was: one hundred percent woman.

It made him dizzy, that look, and his desire lunged on its leash with a primitive strength. She was a woman in the prime of her life gazing at a man she wanted, and he could feel the knowledge blaze through his body like a river of fire.

And then the look was gone, and Serena's lovely face was tranquil again.

"You want to strangle me, I know," she elaborated. "Don't you trust yourself not to if we're alone?"

Brian knew—he knew—that Serena had deliberately changed the meaning of her question. And somehow he couldn't let her do that. He couldn't allow his recognition of that to pass unnoticed.

"No, I don't trust myself," he said evenly. "And you know it. You know damned well what you do to me."

She smiled a slow, fallen-angel smile that could, Brian realized glumly, put life into the Petrified Forest. "I don't know why you're fighting it," she said softly. "You act as if I've asked you to commit murder, Brian. I know you want me. I know I want you. So what's the problem?"

Brian didn't realize that his honest thoughts were going to surface until they did. And once they did, he didn't bother to halt them. "The problem is that it's too damned cold-blooded," he told her fiercely. "You decide you want to seduce Long into your bed and into a marriage, so you ask me to teach you! It's a cold, cut-and-dried plot, and sex should never be either."

Serena seemed not the least insulted at the unflattering picture he'd drawn of her intentions. Instead, she chuckled, honestly amused. "Considering your track record," she said cheerfully, "you're the last man I'd expect to make that objection, Brian."

"My track—" He stared at her. "Now, just what d'you mean by that?"

"Well, unlike Josh, you don't subsist on a steady diet of blondes, but I'd call it a steady diet. At least according to the papers."

Brian gritted his teeth and objected strongly. "I'm not cold-blooded about my relationships."

"Aren't you?" Her unwavering gaze was disconcertingly perceptive. "You know each , . . relationship . . . will end even before it begins. Isn't that a bit cold-blooded?"

He didn't quite know how to respond to that, and it bothered him. Was he cold-blooded? "No," he said finally. "It's simply a firm understanding of my own goals and an ... an honest attitude toward adult relationships."

"Neat," she said approvingly, faintly mocking. "Covers all the bases nicely, I'd say." Before he could explode she added softly, "Now apply those same words to my situation."

It stopped him, but only for an instant. "That's—"

"Different? Is it, Brian? Is it really?"

Cornered, he fell back on a specific protest. "Rena, you're planning to use sex to get Long to the altar, and if that isn't cold-blooded, I don't know what is!"

"Oh, but I'm not!" Her smile was angelic. "I know sex is only a part of any relationship, and I'd certainly never use that as a weapon or reward. No, Brian, you misunderstand. I want to learn how to please Josh, that's all. I have another plan entirely for getting to the altar."

"What plan?" he demanded. When she only smiled seraphically, his frown deepened. "Rena, you aren't thinking of—"

"Trapping him? Of course not, Brian. I happen to believe a marriage should begin with two people—not three. I've taken precautions."

"You don't know what the word means!" he accused bitterly.

She leaned forward, one hand coming to rest lightly on his knee with a touch he could feel through to his bones. "Stop worrying about me," she whispered. "Look, why don't you go on to California? I can finish the trip alone; Daddy will understand."

For a single Instant, worried and angry, Brian considered that escape from the situation. But it wouldn't be an escape, and he knew it. He'd go crazy wondering if Serena had gotten in over her head—which he considered an ironclad certainty— with no one on the spot to help her. The thought of her reaching California after a successful "plan" had netted her a husband was something that was strangely hurtful to him, and he was unwilling to leave her to her plots and schemes.

"No," he said finally. "I signed on for the duration. I stay. I promised your father I'd look after you."

She sat back, her hand slowly trailing from his knee. "You'll stay, but you won't help me?"

"Serena, you—"

"I know you want me."

"That's beside the point," he managed to protest after drawing a deep, steadying breath.

She frowned briefly. "I see what it is. You prefer to do the chasing yourself."

"No, that isn't it! In fact, I'd be nattered . . . under normal circumstances. But this situation is hardly normal."

Serena didn't appear to be listening. Musingly, she said, "Maybe I should try seducing you."

Leashing his urges fiercely, Brian muttered, "Lord, you're dangerous!"

"It'd be good practice," she said, still musing.

"Serena, stop it! Just stop it, all right?"

Her smile was that of a mischievous sprite, and the gleam in her eyes definitely unnerved him. "I'll try seducing you completely against your will. How does that sound?"

"Like insanity!"

"You know what they say about resistance," she murmured. "It Just makes the chase more determined. So you go ahead and run, Brian."

Almost to himself Brian muttered, "I thought I was assuming responsibility for a flighty kid whose worst fault was probably that she'd been spoiled rotten by her doting father. Instead I wind up with a beautiful, softhearted, ruthless woman who wants to practice the art of seduction on me so she can catch another man." He stared at her. "I must be out of my mind."

"Because you're going to let me do it?" she asked hopefully.

"No, I'm not going to let you do it!" he practically roared. Then he glanced around at a few startled faces and lowered his voice. "I must be out of my mind because I haven't tied you up, gagged you, and loaded you on the first plane to California!"

"You do have a temper, don't you?"

Since it was obviously a rhetorical question, Brian didn't bother to respond to it.

"I want you, Brian."

The soft words went through him like a hot knife, burning and hurting, and he found his eyes locked with her wistful gray ones. In that moment Brian understood fully and completely just how dangerous Serena Jameson really was. Because nothing mattered. When she looked at him, nothing mattered but the ravenous need she could ignite with a few soft words and a glance. "You want Long," he said hoarsely.

She smiled. "Right now I want you."

Brian rose to his feet, and every part of his body protested because he was going to leave her. "You don't need to learn a damn thing about seduction," he told her. "You've got it down pat!"





Three




Somewhat to Brian's surprise, Serena had no date with Long for dinner that night. Instead she knocked on his door and sweetly invited him to dine with her.

For a moment Brian was unable to answer, since he was busy wondering if it was a physical impossibility for the human heart to turn flips like a landed fish. When he was finally able to accept her invitation, he was unsurprised to hear the hoarseness of his own voice.

She was wearing a silver gown that had been designed with a creative flair and a total ignorance of the laws of gravity. It was backless to the flare of her hips, strapless, and the long skirt was slit up the side almost to her hip. Material that looked like nothing so much as a gossamer silver web—appropriate, he thought dimly—clung to her slender body to emphasize every curve, every hollow . . . and every breath she drew.

They were in the elevator descending to the lobby when he had a very belated realization. "Dammit, you're starting!"

"Starting what, Brian?"

Another guest was in the elevator, and Brian only just managed not to blurt out what she was starting. Instead he contented himself with glaring at her briefly, then turning the glare on the stranger, who was staring at Serena. Encountering that stony gaze, the stranger hurriedly looked away.

Serena slipped her hand into the curve of his elbow and smiled up at him. "You have a nasty, suspicious mind," she told him placidly. "I'm just taking this opportunity to wear some of the gowns I bought in Paris."

"Is that what that is?" he questioned rather grimly. "A gown?"

"What did you think it was?"

"Ammunition." Under his breath, he muttered, "Why aren't you shooting at Long?"

"Brian, you're being cryptic. I'm not shooting at anybody at all."

Very conscious of her hand on his arm, Brian led the way through the lobby and into the restaurant. And he wasn't at all surprised to see heads turn and eyes widen as Serena preceded him to follow the waiter to their table. He also saw Long seated a few tables away from them. With a gorgeous blond companion.

Serena didn't appear to notice.

"You are shooting at him," Brian noted evenly the moment their waiter left. "Or at his date."

"I think I'll have the chicken," Serena murmured, gazing at the menu thoughtfully. "It sounds good. What about you, Brian?"

He was still wondering at her motives. "Trying to make him jealous? Or the blonde rabid?"

"Why don't we have wine?"

"Serena." He waited until tranquil gray eyes lifted to his. "Dammit, which one of us is it tonight?"

She folded the menu and leaned forward slightly, her hand reaching to cover his clenched one. "Brian," she said softly, infusing his name with the sound and flavor of an endearment, "you're the only man in the room."

He knew—he knew—that she was doing it deliberately. But for some inscrutable reason that knowledge did nothing to slow his racing pulse. Carefully reclaiming his hand, he fixed his gaze on his menu and muttered, "You're a threat to mankind!"

Serena sat back and laughed, but made no comment. Instead she began to talk in the easy, companionable manner she had during the last three weeks. Brian, somewhat relieved, responded as best he could while striving to keep his gaze off her enticing décolletage.

A very sane and analytical part of his mind recognized that it was totally absurd for an experienced man of thirty-six to feel as callow as a smitten schoolboy in this woman's admittedly seductive presence. That same portion of his mind also questioned the validity of intelligence quotient tests; his I.Q. supposedly qualified him as highly intelligent.

Odd how quickly intelligence could desert a man.

For her part Serena was her normal sweet, tranquil self. She made no further remarks Brian could have called suspicious, nor did she flirt with him. She talked quietly and casually, and it wasn't until dessert had been set before them that a warning bell rang in Brian's head.

"I'm sorry—what did you just say?" he asked cautiously.

Guileless eyes smiled at him. "I said that the Bishops are going into the city tomorrow afternoon, and I promised to watch the kids for them."

He took a deep breath. "Who are the Bishops, and how many kids did you promise to watch?"

"Brian, I'm sure you've seen the Bishops. They've been staying here as long as we have. They're the couple down the hall from us with the little boy and girl."

He remembered. He remembered two towheaded kids of about six and eight years old who looked like angels and behaved like creatures possessed by mischievous demons. The hotel staff already went in terror of the little monsters.

Those two . . . with Serena?

Brian looked down at the delicious-looking strawberry shortcake before him, and pushed the dish away with a sigh. He'd lost his appetite. He couldn't Imagine why.

She giggled suddenly. "You don't have to help, Brian; I can take care of the kids myself. And it's only for a few hours."

"Wars," he noted, "have begun and ended in a few hours. Rena, do you have to do this?"

"I promised."

"Did the Bishops ask you?" He knew the answer.

"No, but I knew they hadn't had much chance to be alone together. They tried one of the hotel sitters once, but haven't been able to get one since. They're always busy."

He saw the gleam of laughter in her eyes, and realized that Serena knew why the hotel sitters were all booked up when it came to the Bishop children. He sighed again. "Great. That's just great. If I have to bail you and two kids out of jail, I know I'll murder you."

"You worry too much." Serena had finished her own dessert under his unconsciously fascinated eye; she ate enough, he'd noticed, to feed three people, and never gained an ounce, that he could detect.

"I've been working on an ulcer," he agreed dryly. "For about three weeks now."

"Are you going to eat that?"

Silently he slid his dish across to her, and watched her dig in. "Where d'you put it?" he asked wonderingly, bemused.

Unoffended, Serena smiled at him. "Daddy says I have a peculiar metabolism. One of these days he plans to find out how it works so he can market the results and get rich."

"He's already rich."

"Richer, then. Besides, he wants to win the Nobel Prize, and he figures that'll do it."

"You never talk about your mother." He didn't know why he brought that up, except that he was curious.

Serena didn't respond for a moment, but then she pushed the half-eaten dessert aside and gazed at him steadily. "Mother was killed sixteen years ago."

He returned her gaze, sensing more from her even tone than from the words that there was a larger story behind her mother's death. His hand slid across the table to cover hers instinctively. "What happened?"

With her free hand Serena toyed with the stem of her wineglass. "It isn't a matter of public record," she said quietly. "It was listed as an accident. And it was that; they meant to get Daddy."

"What?" An icy finger traced his spine.

"Mother was going shopping. She left the house and drove Daddy's car; he'd had to take an emergency trip, so his car was there. She was just going shopping. We lived in the mountains, and the road into town was . . . one you had to be careful driving on. The police decided she'd just lost control on one of the curves. The car went over a cliff."

Brian's hand tightened on hers. "But you don't believe it was an accident?"

"Daddy was with a government think tank at the time. Since he was working on some . . . some very special projects, they sent out an investigative team of their own. The local police had determined that the car's brake line could have been severed in the crash, but the team didn't agree. Somebody had thought Daddy was going to be in that car, and only an emergency summons from his group had saved him.

"They didn't know if the group's security had been compromised or if it had been just a matter of someone's wanting to destroy a mind that couldn't be bought. Anyway, a cordon of security was thrown around Daddy and me."

"Did they find out who—?"

"No. Daddy was working in the field of physics then; it could have been any number of groups or organizations. Or countries." She sighed softly. "A couple of years later Daddy told them what they could do with his security clearance, and went to find work in the private sector. And he changed fields; it wasn't difficult for him. He went into engineering first, deciding it was a less-threatening area. Then he specialized in electrical engineering and computer technology. You know the rest."

Brian sat in silence for a moment, thinking of the man he'd known for two years and—he realized now—barely knew at all. A tall, still-handsome man with graying hair and mild gray eyes. A man who spoke little about himself and less about his past.

"I never knew," Brian murmured.

Serena's gaze was far away. "He doesn't talk about it. His love for Mother was very special. She'd been married before, very young, and her husband had died after only a few years. She and Daddy met a couple of years later. He loved her from the first. She was small and delicate, with the sweetest temper of anyone in the world. She was also wealthy—in her own right as well as by marriage. Daddy was working, making a name for himself, but not much money. It was another year before he got up the nerve to propose."

She laughed suddenly. "Can you imagine? Daddy nervous?"

"It does seem out of character." Brian smiled, but then, as the implications of what she'd told him sank in, he frowned. "Rena, even though he's no longer so much of a target—at least I assume he isn't—didn't Stuart worry about your touring Europe alone?"

Serena seemed lost in the past again. "Of course he worried. Still does. But neither one of us could stand being fenced in for long. I wanted to see Europe; he understood that. He'd made a point to keep me out of the public eye. Since I'm not a newsworthy person, I'm as safe as anyone is in these troubled times."

"Then why," Brian said evenly, "did Stuart insist on having someone accompany you home from England?"

Her smile died, and Serena's gaze dropped to the fingers still toying with her glass. After a long moment she said softly, "That project he's doing for you, Brian—if it's successful, it could change the way computers are designed and built. Yes?"

"Yes." He was beginning to understand, and that icy finger traced his spine again.

"Well, I'm sure your security is excellent; otherwise Daddy would have told you. But there are a lot of companies, a lot of big names, scrambling to get on top in the computer industry. The wave of the future. And a man of Daddy's reputation working for an innovative company like yours— well, it could start people thinking."

"Rena." He stared at her, waited until she met his gaze. "What aren't you telling me?"

Obviously choosing her words carefully, Serena said, "Daddy isn't worried about my physical safety, Brian. I mean, hiring bodyguards would have been ridiculous, aside from defeating the purpose by calling attention to me. What was needed was just a leisurely, unplanned trip with a very loose itinerary. And he wanted me to have company, to be on the safe side—"

"Serena."

She sighed. "He got a few calls, Brian, that's all. A man's voice. The caller didn't say anything except the name of my hotel in Paris. Daddy alerted me; I changed hotels. The next day he got another call; my new hotel was named."

"My God, Serena—"

Her hand turned beneath his to clasp it firmly. "Brian, Daddy's lived with this kind of thing before. So have I. That caller just wanted him to know that I could be found if necessary. Daddy's gotten a few very lucrative offers in the last months; he thinks one of those who has made an offer is behind it. Someone wants him, and badly. And that someone is warning him to think carefully before he refuses the next offer."

Brian was no stranger to the concept of industrial spies, since he'd dealt with one or two in the ten years of his company's existence, but this kind of quiet, dangerous maneuvering was beyond his experience. "You should be somewhere safe," he muttered, his fingers tightening around hers.

"I am somewhere safe." She smiled at him. "I'm moving from place to place on the map, quietly and with no fanfare. In a rented car on anonymous highways and scenic roads off the beaten path. Never in any one place long enough to leave a trail. And, what's more important, I'm giving Daddy and his contacts time to follow their trail. When we reach California, Daddy will know who wants him so badly, and why. Once he knows, he'll be able to deal with it."

He didn't, Brian realized dimly, know Stuart Jameson at all.

"Why," he wanted to know, "wasn't I told this from the start?"

Serena hesitated. "I'm sorry, Brian, but that was my idea. I didn't know you, remember. And—to mangle a quote—I've never relied on the kindness of strangers. Or looked to strangers for protection. Daddy wanted it known you were traveling with me, and he sent you straight to London to give himself time to arrange things back here. When we reached New York we were registered at the hotel for four days—and left after two. They lost us after that; Daddy got a call placing me in New York, but they haven't mentioned me in the two calls since."

Shaking his head, Brian said Incredulously, "Why me, for God's sake? If he wanted it known you had a companion, why not at least one bodyguard? One unobtrusive bodyguard, with an unobtrusive gun or two?"

"I don't like guns," Serena said firmly. "And no matter how unobtrusive he tries to be, a bodyguard always looks like a bodyguard. And that provokes questions. 'Why on earth d'you suppose the little lady needs a watchdog? Maybe she's somebody the local paper would pay a few dollars to find out about.' And so on. I've seen it happen. This way, all anyone knows is that I'm traveling with a very handsome man, important enough to garner a few front-page headlines, whom my father happens to work for."

Then, a suddenly mischievous glint in her eyes, she added blandly, "A man, moreover, who's well known for his ability to take care of himself, and anyone else who rears a troublesome head. He's athletic, has a black belt in karate, and is a licensed pilot capable of flying any and all private aircraft. He earned a few marksman's medals in the army, where he distinguished himself remarkably for peacetime, by the way."

Brian had a dim feeling his mouth was hanging open.

"His favorite color is blue," Serena went on gently, "he drinks Scotch but prefers wine, takes his coffee black and strong, and loves Italian food and semi-classical music. He keeps his very nice condo neat without benefit of anything but once-a-week help, the leaning toward neatness possibly a holdover from the army but more likely the result of being raised by a Scots-Irish mother and a German-English father, who is presently a retired general who does the Sunday Times crossword in an hour flat."

"Serena—"

"Their paragon of a son," she finished innocently, "is also adept at difficult crossword puzzles —and other kinds of puzzles—since he boasts an I.Q. that ranks him as something of a minor genius."

"Minor—" He stared at her. "What's your I.Q.?" he demanded abruptly.

"Same as yours," she murmured.

Brian drew a deep, slow breath. "D'you mind telling me," he managed to ask politely, "just where you got all that information about me? I don't recall being asked to fill out a questionnaire."

"Oh, here and there."

"That's no answer."

"I asked Daddy."

"Stuart's never been to my condo, and he doesn't know my favorite color. Try again."

"Daddy. Seriously, Brian. He knows an awful lot that he doesn't seem to know. And a man in his position, well ... he found out all he could about you before he ever signed on; it's habit, after all these years."

Brian was trying manfully to grapple with all the surprising, disturbing information that had capped a deceptively peaceful meal. "Let me get this straight. Person or persons unknown intend to hire your father away from my company by fair means or foul. The 'fair' includes dollars on a scale I don't want to ask about; the 'foul' includes possible kidnapping and/or bodily harm threatening yourself. Right so far?"

"That was just lovely. You do have a way with words," she said admiringly.

Brian ignored the plaudits. "In an attempt to remove you from circulation, your father has sent you on a cross-country jaunt with me as watchdog, while he busily, heaven only knows how, tracks down these unknown people."

"That sums it up nicely."

"And—and—while all this is going on, while you are presumably safest moving from place to place, and while your father and his mysterious 'contacts' attempt to track down these equally mysterious people, while I'm being led by the nose down a blind alley filled with thugs, for all I know—" Under stress, Brian lost track of his sentence and hastily backed up to the point. "While all this is going on, you're planning to stay here in Denver for at least three weeks? Stay in one place? The worst thing you could possibly do at the moment?"

"I thought I would," she confirmed cheerfully.

Brian made a sound indicative of despair.

"Why don't we walk in the garden?" she suggested.

"You'll catch your death in that gown," he retorted.

"I never catch cold."

"Who said anything about a cold?" he muttered, signing the check and then following behind as Serena glided—there was no other description for the way she walked—from the restaurant. As they passed Long and his blond companion, Brian saw the other man shoot Serena a quizzical look, eyebrow lifted and amusement gleaming in his eyes; since Brian was behind Serena, he couldn't see her response. But she had probably, he thought sourly, given Long a come-hither look to end them all.

Brian was feeling somewhat put-upon. Being an honest man, he acknowledged inwardly that he was also feeling angry, sorely abused, bewildered, slightly anxious over the possibility of a kidnapping in the near future, and jealous. And he wanted Serena Jameson until he couldn't think straight anyway.

He was hardly in the mood for a quiet stroll through a discreetly lighted garden. But when Serena slipped her hand beneath his arm and when he looked down at the top of her sable head and at the silver gown she hadn't bothered to cover with a wrap, he couldn't seem to form a protest.

"Why is it," she asked thoughtfully, "that we always seem to fight in restaurants? Have you noticed?"

"We weren't fighting. I was just trying to hold on to my sanity," he corrected.

They walked slowly in silence for a few moments. Then Serena stopped, turning to gaze up at him almost as if she'd never seen him before. The whitewashing moonlight and shrubbery lighting might have been deceptive, but she looked both pale and oddly uncertain. And she spoke with unusual seriousness. "Go back to California, Brian."

He was more than a little startled, since her voice sounded shaky, and very small. He saw an expression on her delicate face he'd never seen before: a strange, masked vulnerability.

She looked up at him, her expression naked. "Go back," she repeated softly. "I'll be all right here. Daddy said they were closing in on whoever it is. I'm not in any danger now. And you've put up with me long enough."

"I told you." He found his hands lifting to her bare, tanned shoulders. "I'm in for the duration."

"You said that," she agreed wryly. "But you didn't know then what the duration entailed. You deserve combat pay, Brian. Even for just this far, these last weeks. I've put you through hell." She laughed shakily. "I've said and done ridiculous things, I know. Oh, I know." Her chin dropped, and there was something bewildered and childlike in the gesture. "I get things all tangled and confused. Sometimes," she confessed softly, "I do it deliberately. But not always."

"Rena—"

She cut him off, speaking rapidly, her voice suddenly taut. "Dammit, I'm trying to warn you. I play tricks, Brian. I plot and I scheme—and I always get my own way. You don't know—"

"I know," he interrupted gently, "that you're kind and softhearted and generous. I know that, Rena."

Her chin lifted and her gray eyes shimmered wetly. "You're not listening to me!"

He was, but more than that, he was looking at her. Looking at her and wondering if the dredged-up memories of her mother and her mother's violent death had opened the wound he saw hurting in her eyes. Brian had felt protective impulses toward her before, but those impulses had always been tinged with exasperation. Not this time, not now.

He wanted to draw her into his arms and hold her, protect her. And that feeling swirled oddly among the tendrils of the desire he felt for her, confusing him with the tenderness both combined to produce. He'd never felt this way before.

His hands lifted to frame her face warmly. "Why are you telling me this now, Rena?" he asked gently, gazing into her wet, shadowy eyes. "Because you feel guilty that I was named watchdog without being told about it? Is that it? Because if that is it, you may as well shut up. I'm not leaving you."

Her hard voice contrasted sharply with the wet misery in her eyes. "I'm after Josh, remember? You'll just get in my way, Brian!"

He might have been hurt or angered by the words, but he was concentrating on trying to understand what reasoning lay behind them. Serena was suddenly wearing a new hat, one he'd never seen or even suspected she owned before, and it intrigued him. Was it deliberate? Somehow he didn't think so.

"I'm not leaving you, Rena." He found a smile. "I couldn't if I wanted to. And I don't want to."

Her eyes closed briefly, and she spoke in an oddly suspended voice. "What would you say if I told you I loved you?"

He felt his heart stop, then begin pounding against his ribs. "I'd say: then why're you after Long?"

"Maybe you'd better think about that, Brian." Her arms went around his waist beneath his jacket, and her warm body pressed against his. "Maybe you'd better think about it."

He couldn't think about anything except the touch of her, the feeling of her against him. And the sight of those enigmatic gray eyes gleaming up at him filled his vision. If his body had been stone, he might have resisted her; being human, he just couldn't.

"Rena ..." His head bent, his lips seeking and finding hers in a touch that was gentle only for an instant. Her response was immediate, total; she became a slender flame that scorched him until every nerve ending shrieked awareness. He felt the smooth skin of her back beneath his hands and the thud of her heart against his chest, and his mind reeled with a wave of hot, savage desire. Her lips returned his kiss fiercely, as hungry as his own, as desperate.

And then, wildly, she wrenched away from him. There was something pagan about her as she stood staring up at him, breasts heaving and eyes flashing.

"I won't lose control," she gasped out, anger and bewilderment filling her voice. "Damn you, I won't lose control of this!" And then she was gone, disappearing around a bend in the path leading back to the building.

Brian stood where she'd left him, his body taut and his mind bewildered. After a while, slowly, he started back to the building. Thinking. Wondering.



* * *



Serena was still moving quickly, though no longer running, when she reached the lobby. And when she met Josh as he was coming back into the hotel, her voice emerged as brittle as fragile crystal.

"What? You mean you didn't even invite her to stay the night? Josh, I'm surprised at you!"

"Not every evening," he said dryly, "has to end in a bedroom." He looked down at her for a moment, then caught one of her cold hands and tucked it into the crook of his arm. "Come on. I'll walk you up to your room."

"Thanks." She stared straight ahead, not speaking, while they went up in the elevator. Still in silence she unlocked her door before glancing up at him.

"How about a nightcap?" he asked quietly.

Serena nodded, preceding him into the room and closing the door behind them. While he wandered over to the window and stared silently out, she fixed two drinks at the compact bar. She didn't ask what he wanted, but automatically prepared straight Scotch for them both. Then she handed him a glass and sank down on the foot of the bed to swallow half her drink.

Still gazing out the window, Josh said softly, "The watchdog has teeth, eh?"

Serena gazed at her glass without answering.

Josh crossed to half sit on the low dresser in front of her. "Serena?"

Reluctantly, wryly, she met his steady gaze.

"You caught a tiger by the tail this time, didn't you?"





Four




Serena grimaced. "The laugh's on me," she said, her voice low. "Go ahead. Josh; you said you would laugh."

"When you got tangled in one of your own plots?" He looked at her, grave. "It's odd, but I don't seem to find it very funny. What happened?"

Serena finished her drink and stared at the empty glass. "I don't know. He asked about Mother during dinner, and I told him all that. I also told him the rest."

"About Stuart's troubles?"

"Yes."

"How'd he take it?"

"He was angry. Worried." She smiled a little. "Feeling a bit ill-used, I think."

"Can't blame him for that."

"No." She sighed, then added abruptly, "I told him ... In the garden I told him to go back to California."

Josh's rather hard blue eyes sharpened. "That doesn't sound like you," he commented, thoughtful. "Did Ashford decide to leave?"

"No. Oh, no. He's an honorable man, you know. He promised Daddy, and he's staying."

"You think that's his reasoning?" Josh asked mildly. "That he's just keeping a promise?"

"Well, he isn't staying for love of me," she retorted bitterly. "Dammit, he's got more walls than you have."

"Which explains, I take it, why you decided on this very tangled web you have us all enmeshed in?"

Serena gestured helplessly with one slender hand. "It seemed like a good idea at the time." She brooded silently for a moment, then looked up to find him watching her intently. "It did seem that way, Josh. After three weeks I knew— Well. I knew. But it was painfully obvious he thought of me as some troublesome kid with half a brain. Kid!" she finished incredulously.

"I don't think," Josh commented, "anyone else has treated you as a kid since you were seven. Troublesome, yes. A kid, no."

"Well, I did give him a lot of trouble," she said fairly. "I mean, I really pulled out the stops and chewed the scenery. But I just wanted to make sure he could handle it. When I get like that, I mean."

"And did he handle it?"

"Oh, he handled it beautifully. Even when he yelled at me, he didn't really lose his temper." Smiling suddenly, she added, "But you should have seen his face when he bailed me out of jail!"

"You are a difficult woman," Josh observed judiciously.

"I know." She sighed.

After a few moments of silence—brooding, on Serena's part—Josh spoke again. "How is the jealousy ploy working?"

Serena looked at him. "I wish I knew."

"What?" He laughed. "You mean he isn't a victim of the green-eyed monster, and isn't filled with visions of decking me for corrupting the innocent?"

"I think he's wanted to deck you once or twice," she answered thoughtfully. "But that's probably just his sense of responsibility working overtime."

"No green-eyed monster, though?"

She was silent for a moment. "I don't think so. He's attracted. I don't have to tell you about chemistry."

"No," Josh said very dryly. "You don't have to tell me about that."

"Yes, well ... He got quite stiff about the whole situation when I asked him to teach me how to seduce you, and—"

"When you asked him what?"

Serena avoided his incredulous stare. "It seemed like a good idea. At the time."

Josh looked plaintively toward the heavens, wondering vaguely if Brian Ashford had noticed how men invariably tended to do that in Serena's presence. Finally he returned his gaze to her. "My dear Serena," he said politely, "you need a man who'll beat you silly. Twice a day."

She studied his expression thoughtfully. "Funny, but Brian reacted in a similar way. Different words, though. And when I just happened to mention I'd never slept with a man before, he—"

Josh closed his eyes and swore solemnly for several long moments.

"I shouldn't have told him that?" she ventured.

"I think I'll call Stuart," Josh murmured. "It's way past time to have you committed."

"Josh—"

"Serena," he interrupted gently, looking at her with the despairing gaze of a man who knows explanations are pointless, "you've just told the man you'd like him to be your first lover, with the express intention of learning how to become another man's lover. Now, don't you think that just might have bothered him a little?"

She reflected for a moment, then looked at him uncertainly. "I know it bothered him. He said it sounded cold-blooded, and that sex should never be that."

"To which you replied?"

"Well, I drew a comparison with his life. Short-term relationships he knew would be nothing more from the beginning. He defended that, just as I thought he would, by saying it was an understanding of adult relationships and his own goals. I told him to apply those words to me."

Josh sighed. "Serena—"

"I know, I know! It's different. You want to tell me how it's different?"

"You're using him," Josh answered promptly. "Or at least it seems that way to him."

After a moment Serena sighed, and gestured bewilderedly. "And I'm tangled in my own damned plot! Josh, when he said he wouldn't teach me, I wasn't worried. He—well, I knew he wanted me. But when we were in the garden, something happened. And I don't know what it was. I couldn't think. I looked at him, and . . . and I Just couldn't think. That was when I told him to go back to California. And I asked him what he'd say if I told him I loved him."

"What did he say?"

"He asked why I was after you, then. I told him he should think about it." She looked at Josh confusedly. "Why did I do that?" She felt the same bewilderment she'd felt then, the same panicky sensation of having lost the threads of her plot.

Josh leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, and gazed at her quietly. "You are tangled, aren't you?"

Serena shrugged helplessly. "I just—dammit, I as good as told him he was the one I wanted. And now I want to run. I want to get away from him. I'm afraid! I don't know why, but I am."

Josh nodded, as if to confirm some private deduction. "You looked scared in the lobby; I thought something like that had happened. I thought maybe it would happen, in fact."

"How could you think it'd happen?"

He smiled a little. "You forget. I've watched you work. You control things, Rena. People. You never hurt anyone, and I've often suspected you're perceptive enough to guide them in directions they want to go anyway. But you're always in control. Maybe even detached."

Serena looked at him, anxious. "I care about people."

"I know you do," he said instantly. "In fact, you care more about people than anyone else I know. And that, plus the brains you inherited, makes for a somewhat Byzantine personality." He smiled again. "Fascinating to watch. The point is, though, that you've never plotted for yourself. Never used any kind of scheme to get something you wanted. This time you did."

"And so?"

"And so you couldn't be detached from this one. Your own feelings got in the way. Any poet, honey, would be delighted to tell you what happens when a person falls in love. The mind goes first, I'm told."

"I can't control," she said slowly, hollowly.

Josh nodded confirmation. "That's what I'd say. In fact. I've been waiting to see if that would happen. If you could stick to your neat little plot, control Ashford and yourself, then it wouldn't be the real thing. It would be just what Ashford thought it—cold-blooded. But it isn't that. Not now. Your emotions are in control now, and no one ever claimed emotions were logical."

Serena stared at him. "Josh, d'you have to leave the hotel?"

He got to his feet, setting aside his glass, and smiled down at her. "I won't be your buffer, you know," he told her quietly. "I was willing to go along with you on the jealousy bit—mainly because I knew it probably wouldn't work. But you've pretty much shot that down anyway. You've very likely confused the hell out of Ashford, but I doubt he'll take it seriously if you go on making sheep's eyes at me. No, honey, you're on your own now."

"So you're leaving?"

He nodded. "In the morning."

Shrewd gray eyes met his for a moment, and Serena said dryly, "But you won't go far, not out of town."

For the first time Josh seemed uncomfortable. "I told you I had business—"

"And I know what kind of business." She laughed, half amused and half irritated. "Daddy played innocent too; he acted surprised you were in Denver. But it occurred to me it was just a bit too pat that you were at this hotel. I had told him earlier where we'd be staying; I knew the phone was safe. He called you in, didn't he? Reinforcement."

Josh sighed and folded his arms across a broad chest; he gazed down at her ruefully. "He just wanted me to be handy, Rena. In case. That's all."

She looked at him for a long moment, then said steadily, "This isn't a good time for my plots, is it? Daddy's worried."

Josh hesitated, but he knew Serena too well to dissemble. "He's worried. I'm. worried. Stuart's hit solid walls in trying to find out who's behind the threats, and it looks like they've traced you as far as Wichita."

For the first time since the whole thing started, Serena felt a chill. "Questions at our hotel there?"

He nodded. "Stuart pulled some strings; according to all records, you and Ashford left Denver last night on a flight to Phoenix. With any luck, they'll buy that. The rental car could be anywhere, including on the road, being used as a decoy."

She squared her shoulders unconsciously. "So you're leaving this hotel, but staying nearby. In case."

"If you leave the hotel for any reason," he instructed firmly, "call me first." Removing a business card from his pocket, he handed it to her. "Number's on the back. And you'd better tell Ashford it's more serious than we thought."

Serena's smile was a little painful. "Just when I wanted to run, I have to pull up the drawbridge and stay put. Great."

"That's not all." He grimaced slightly at her sharp look. "I know you won't like this—"

"A real watchdog." She spoke grimly.

"Sorry, Rena. Stuart's orders. The man's a P.I. with plenty of security experience. He'll just keep an eye on the comings and goings here at the hotel. You won't even know he's around."

"Want to bet?"

He grinned faintly. "Okay, so maybe you'll know he's around. But it's strictly low profile; he won't hover over you with one hand ready to reach for his gun. I promise."

"Brian's just going to love all this," Serena muttered.

"You'd better tell him. All of it."

"Who you are, you mean?" Her expression was wary. "I'm not so sure I want to do that just yet."

"When did you originally plan to tell him?" he asked, curious.

Serena reflected. "First anniversary?" she offered ruefully.

He chuckled softly. "You know, for someone whose plots are generally successful, you don't plan ahead, do you?"

She looked up at him, the same masked vulnerability Brian had seen in the garden again tightening her face. "Not this time. It looks like I haven't done anything right this time. Josh, he's going to hate me! And he won't leave, not when he finds out it's more serious. He'll stay with me—and he'll hate me!"

Josh reached for her hands, drawing her to her feet. "Somehow I doubt that, Rena. It'd take a very hard and vindictive man to hate you, and I don't think Ashford's that."

She sighed and sent him a humorous glance. "You think more of him than he thinks of you. I believe 'rake' was the kindest word he used."

Josh grinned, the tough, handsome face softening amazingly. "His judgment's faulty where I'm concerned. I'm the villain of the piece, after all."

Serena began looking thoughtful. "Maybe I can use that somehow. Until I tell him the truth, I mean. Sometimes tangling a problem even more is the way to untangle it."

Josh was unsurprised, yet still he winced. "I was afraid you were going to say that. Look, Rena, I don't mind—very much—being window dressing for you. But I'll be damned if I'll meekly let Ashford knock me into next week. Which, until he's figured you out or learns the truth, he's very likely to do."

"If you hit him I'll never forgive you," she said instantly.

"There was a humorous gleam In his blue eyes. "Honey, if Ashford slugs me—"

"Please, Josh! You both know karate; if one of you doesn't back down, you'll both get hurt!"

Josh lifted his eyes heavenward. Then he sighed. "All right. But he could probably use a good fight. Dissipates tension, you know."

Serena ignored the information. "Promise?"

"I promise," he agreed dryly. "Besides—from the look of him, if he decks me I'll be awhile getting back up. What does he eat for breakfast anyway, nails?"

She was gazing at him, obviously occupied by thoughts of her own. "How's your evil-rake-bent-on-seduction laugh?" she asked suddenly.

Josh laughed, but it was a sound of pure amusement.

"That won't do!" she told him, mildly cross.

"Honey," he said, still laughing, "don't ask me to play an impossible part, or Ashford'll smell a rat!"

"From what I've heard, it isn't at all an impossible part for you. Not evil, maybe, but you've been bent on seduction for years." She looked at him curiously. "Why blondes?"

"I avoid brunettes." He eyed her dark hair thoughtfully. "Can't imagine why."

"It isn't because of me," she said scoffingly.

Josh was already regretting his careless comment, and only shrugged. Truth to tell, it wasn't because of Serena that he avoided brunettes, but he had no intention of explaining the matter to her. An amazing woman, Serena, with a heart of gold . . . and if she knew the truth about his weakness she was perfectly capable of using that knowledge ruthlessly.

"Look," he said, "why not just be honest with him? It's been known to work."

She looked at him and shook her head a little. "I told you. He has more guards than you have. and you can't fight through walls. I couldn't think of a way over them or around them, so I decided to go through them any way I could. When we face each other on the same side of those walls, then I'll be honest."

After a moment Josh said, "And what if he decides a fling was enough? To get through his walls you'll have to drop your own. There won't be anything for you to hide behind, Rena."

"I know." She squeezed his hand and smiled in a way Brian wouldn't have recognized, because it was entirely vulnerable and a little scared. "That's . . . that's a chance I have to take."

"He could hurt you."

"Funny. He said the same about you."

"I believe it." Josh sighed. "In fact, if you have your way about it, people are going to start using my reputation to frighten children with," he commented sadly. "Clearly I'm a rotten human being."

She looked up at him for a moment, her lips twisting. "I'm using you, too, huh?"

"Only because I let you," he told her gently. "Rena, you're too softhearted to make people do what they don't want to do. It's your saving grace, I think."

"Am I as terrible as I sound?" she wanted to know in a small voice.

He grinned at her. "No. You're worse!"

Serena shook her head slowly.

"Now. Seriously," Josh said, "I think it's time you put the tricks aside for a while, don't you?"

She was silent for a long moment, then smiled slowly. Oddly. "Yes. I'll tell Brian the truth. The whole truth."

"You're still plotting!" Josh accused with the acute perception of experience.

Serena looked at him guilelessly. "I'll tell him the truth," she repeated.

"What truth?" Josh demanded suspiciously.

Obediently she said, "I'll tell him what's going on with Daddy. And I'll explain all about your being window dressing because I wanted to make him jealous." She smiled. "And I'll explain why I wanted to make him jealous."

"You will?" He was still suspicious. He knew Serena.

"Well, what else can I do?" she asked reasonably. "I've as good as told him how I feel. Why not just be honest?"

Josh could tell she was up to something, but he couldn't follow her reasoning. It wasn't surprising; he couldn't follow her tortuous reasoning half the time, and scared himself the rest of the time when he could follow her reasoning. "You'll tell him the whole truth?"

"And nothing but the truth," she said, solemn. "I swear."

"I wish," he said despairingly, "that made me feel better." He wasn't surprised at her changes of mood since he'd entered her room tonight, and he wasn't entirely surprised that she'd decided to confess the truth to Ashford. What surprised him was how quickly she'd given in.

"Why?" he demanded suddenly, staring at her. "Why do you want to tell him the truth now?"

Since there had always been complete honesty between them, Serena answered honestly. "I just don't want to trick him anymore." Her smile was shaky. "I've been thinking about what happened in the garden—and that's what it was. I looked at him and I couldn't stand tricking him. So I'll tell him the truth."

Startled, Josh realized then that there was something about Serena that was guileless, something innocent. She was, he saw in astonishment, utterly and completely vulnerable—under all those plotting, scheming layers.

And if he, with considerably more than three weeks' experience of her, had been deceived into thinking her far from vulnerable, then what would Brian Ashford believe?

"All your walls down," Josh murmured. He felt a little grim, and more than a little awed. That Serena, with years of cheerful plotting and scheming at her back, should cave in abruptly because she loved a man was incredible.

Serena deciphered the expression on his lean face with no trouble. "Time to grow up," she said softly. "I can't control everything, can I, Josh? I'm not even sure I can control me. Now. With him. I think I knew that even when I said I'd wait for his walls to fall before I was honest with him."

After a moment Josh sighed. "I wish I could make it easier for you, Rena—at least to the extent of removing all these . . . outside influences. It'll be hard enough for you to deal with yourself and Ashford without having to be on guard all the time. But I can't do anything about that." He reflected for a moment, then nodded decisively. "Except stay here at the hotel and keep an eye out myself."

"You planned to leave tomorrow," she reminded him.

"That was the original idea," he agreed. "Partly because you wanted me here only a few days for the jealousy ploy, and partly because I was going to do a little snooping to find out if Stuart's would-be employers had actually lost you or were just keeping quiet about having found you."

"Did Daddy want you here at the hotel?"

"He said he'd feel better if I were. So I'll stay. Especially since you're going to tell Ashford the truth." Josh glanced at his watch, and added firmly, "Tonight."

She grimaced, and confessed ruefully, "I was hoping to use your absence for a little breathing room."

"You said you were going to be honest with him."

"Yes. But do I have to bare my soul tonight?"

Josh grinned at her. "You'll feel better with it all behind you. You know what they say about confession being good for the soul."

"He's going to kill me," she said darkly.

"You are," Josh told her, "dressed to kill—not dressed to be killed. I think Ashford will know the difference."

She sighed. "All right. I'll tell him. If he's speaking to me. Maybe he's not speaking to me," she added hopefully.

"Never put off till tomorrow. I'll knock on his door as I pass and tell him you want to see him."

"Are you sure you want to do that? The two of you haven't even been introduced. Besides, Josh, he thinks you're the villain—remember? He could—"

"He's a rational man, Rena. I'll just tell him you want to see him."

"Why don't I just go to his room—"

"Nothing's going to happen!"



* * *



Brian was in a very peculiar mood. After hearing about the men who might be on Serena's trail, he was anxious, and after the scene in the garden he was more than slightly confused. Three weeks of Serena's company had taken their toll on his nerves when they'd arrived in Denver; after the surprises here, he knew himself to be badly in need of time to stop and think things through.

Though generally a controlled and quiet man, Brian had a considerable temper, and the physical expertise to cause a respectable amount of havoc if he lost control; he was near the edge now, he knew. He needed an outlet for the various kinds of frustrations building inside him.

He paced his room, jacket and tie cast aside, sleeves rolled up. Restless. He couldn't get a handle on Serena's sudden turnabout; her motivations eluded him.

So when he answered the firm knock at his door and found Joshua Long standing there, he felt an abrupt inclination to give in to at least one of his frustrations.

And his temper took over.

As if he were someone else, he felt his face assume a mildly quizzical expression, felt himself step back and gesture for the other man to enter the room. Long seemed surprised, but he came in. Brian wondered vaguely why there seemed to be a red veil between himself and his visitor.

Josh could have explained that. He turned, and had only a moment to note that red haze. And in that instant he recognized sheer, flaming temper in the other man's eyes, and thought fleetingly and wistfully of his confident words to Serena, He barely had time to finish the thought.

"If we break the furniture," Brian said calmly, "I'll pay for it." That was his only warning.

Joshua Long remained exactly as he'd fallen, except that he sat up. Working his jaw gingerly with one long-fingered hand, he stared up at Brian expressionlessly. "Contrary to popular opinion," he said, mildly under the circumstances, "the boardroom isn't the only place I tend to come out swinging. However ..."

Brian, although he definitely felt better, was rather surprised at himself, since he couldn't remember ever slugging another man who hadn't provoked him physically. He met that steely blue stare—and every male instinct he could lay claim to told him that Long wanted badly to come up swinging this time. He really wanted to. But he sat there and rubbed his jaw, and somehow managed not to lose a single iota of dignity.

"Serena owes me for this," Long said wryly.

"Get up," Brian told him.

"I'd love to," Josh responded cordially. "I could use a good fight. Unfortunately, I promised Rena I'd be the one to back down if you started a fight." He frowned, but there was sudden laughter in his eyes. "And you did start it. Barely gave me time to turn around, in fact. Not cricket at all."

Absurdly, Brian didn't know whether to laugh and apologize or to yank Long up by his lapels and get the fight going in earnest. Lacking a stronger incentive, he gave in to temper again, verbally. "Look, I said get up, you—"

Long raised a hasty hand. "I really think," he said gravely, "you shouldn't say anything else until you've talked to Rena. Otherwise you'll want to apologize later for what you're about to say, and that'll put the both of us in a damned uncomfortable position."

Temper fled as Brian felt a bone-deep chill. The other man's words, he thought, could only mean . . .

Josh Long climbed to his feet, eyeing Brian warily. Absently straightening his tie he said, "And I think you're on the wrong track again. Talk to Serena, will you? She's in her room now, waiting to find out if you're still speaking to her."

In a kind of daze Brian followed him out into the hall. Josh gave him a last look, a faintly musing, sympathetic look, seemed about to speak, then merely shook his head and strode toward the elevators.

Brian found himself in front of Serena's door. He stared at it for a long moment, then squared his shoulders, braced himself, and knocked. She opened the door, quiet, subdued, and stepped back for him to enter.

"Did ... did Josh tell you?"

"He said you wanted to talk." Brian heard his strained, harsh tone of voice, and wished he could sound as if he didn't care.

"Would you like a drink?" She was gazing at him, a little puzzled and wary.

Brian shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks and forced himself to meet her gaze without flinching. "No. Thanks. You have something to tell me?"

For some reason Serena felt that he wouldn't want to sit down, either. She leaned a hip against the low dresser and crossed her arms over her breasts. "Um, as a matter of fact, I do. Several things." She felt nervous and acutely uneasy; she'd been right to think he was going to hate her after this. Obviously he could barely stand to be in the same room with her now. And he looked so ... grim.

She felt miserable, and her whole body hurt.

"I'm listening," he said flatly.

Serena winced. "Josh didn't tell you anything?" she ventured to ask.

Brian seemed to grit his teeth. "Just that you wanted to talk to me."

So talk! He didn't say it, but it vibrated in the air between them, impatient and harsh.

Almost inaudibly she murmured, "Daddy said you could be a hard man when you wanted to. I should have paid attention."

"Serena—"

"All right." She stared at him, bracing herself Inwardly. "I told you . . . tonight in the garden I told you that I play tricks. I do, Brian. And . . . and I played a lousy trick on you."

Brian managed a laugh that sounded like a snarl. "Don't tell me. Let me guess. You used me to make Long jealous."

Serena blinked. "No. The other way around."

A new tension stole into Brian, and his earlier confusion settled back onto his shoulders. "What?"

"I was using Josh, hoping to make you jealous," she confessed in a small voice. "I was lying when I implied that I wanted to marry him." Wary of his stunned expression, Serena rushed on. "You seemed so conscious that I was Stuart Jameson's daughter, I didn't think you really saw me except as some troublesome kid. Kid!" That rankled. "So I decided to prove to you I was a woman. It seemed like a good idea at the time," she finished desperately, very conscious of the oft-repeated refrain of her childhood.

Brian felt strangely suspended; he couldn't seem to grasp what she was telling him. "You knew Long before he came here to the hotel?"

Serena nodded.

"How long have you known him?"

Serena cleared her throat carefully. "I've known him all my life." Judging by his expression, she realized further clarification was needed. "I told you my mother had a previous marriage. Well, Josh is the sole product of that marriage."

"He's your half brother?" Brian asked faintly.

Hoping to avoid being strangled—there was a definite possibility of that, she was afraid—she hastily clarified a bit more. "Josh's father was a very wealthy man; he left most of his estate in trust for his son. Until Josh came of age, his uncle had control of the various businesses, and Josh spent a lot of time with his aunt and uncle in the East. He and Daddy are close, but they never had much in common, and they never publicized the relationship."

"Which is why," Brian murmured, "I never knew Long was Stuart's stepson. And your half brother."

"Uh-huh."

Brian took a step toward her, but only so that he could sit down on the bed. He stared at her. In spite of the sexy dress, she looked like a little girl who'd been severely scolded; he wondered if Josh was responsible for that. And he wondered why he wasn't absolutely furious with her. His principal emotion was sheer relief.

However, he wouldn't have been human if he didn't want to punish her just a bit for her tricks.

"So you pretended to be after him to make me jealous," he said. "And you asked me to teach you how to seduce a man. And you said that we could have an affair. Josh wouldn't mind; Josh wouldn't want a virgin in his bed. Was that a lie too?"

She didn't have to ask what he meant. She knew. Avoiding his intent stare she murmured, "No, it wasn't a lie. I've never had a lover."

"I'm sure it wasn't for lack of hopeful candidates," he said politely.

Serena looked at him silently.

Telling himself sternly that her guileless gray eyes weren't going to get to him this time, Brian went on, relentless. "All those wonderfully sweet and innocent comments of yours—planned. Cold-bloodedly. Like some general launching a campaign, you plotted to make me jealous. Is that the way it was, Serena?"

"Yes."

"Were you planning to push it all the way to the altar, or was an affair your goal?"

Serena sighed very softly, but made no attempt to defend herself or justify her actions. "The altar," she answered.

"You decided to marry me?"

"Yes."

"And just when did you come to this momentous decision?" he asked politely.

"In London. At Heathrow."

"Now for the biggie," he said dryly. "Why?"

"I fell in love with you," she answered simply.





Five




Her words caught Brian completely by surprise. He had momentarily forgotten her quiet question in the garden. But even if he had remembered, he would not have