მთავარი Rafferty's Wife

Rafferty's Wife

,
0 / 0
როგორ მოგეწონათ ეს წიგნი?
როგორი ხარისხისაა ეს ფაილი?
ჩატვირთეთ, ხარისხის შესაფასებლად
როგორი ხარისხისაა ჩატვირთული ფაილი?
ენა:
english
სერია:
LS-219; Hagen 3
ფაილი:
EPUB, 1,93 MB
ჩატვირთვა (epub, 1,93 MB)

შესაძლოა დაგაინტერესოთ Powered by Rec2Me

 
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
შეგიძლიათ დატოვოთ გამოხმაურება წიგნის შესახებ და გააზიაროთ თქვენი გამოცდილება. სხვა მკითხველისთვის საინტერესო იქნება თქვენი მოსაზრება წაკითხული წიგნების შესახებ. მიუხედავად იმისა მოგწონთ თუ არა წიგნი, მასზე გულწრფელი და დეტალური მსჯელობა, ადამიანებს მისცემს საშუალებას იპოვონ ახალი წიგნები, რომლებიც მათ დააინტერესებთ.
1

The Haviland Touch

ენა:
english
ფაილი:
EPUB, 204 KB
0 / 0
2

Raven On the Wing

ენა:
english
ფაილი:
EPUB, 2,00 MB
0 / 0
FOUR

HER FACE SEEMED to quiver for just an instant. Tonelessly, she said, “I’m not going to seduce him, Rafferty. I’m just going to distract him long enough for us to get that information. That’s my job.”

Rafferty realized then that she was scared, that sheer bravado had carried her this far and that precious little of her fragile courage was left now. He reached out, suddenly hating himself for badgering her, but she pulled away stiffly.

“I have to finish unpacking.”

He refused to let go of her wrist. “I know I hurt you,” he said steadily. “I can never take back what I said, but I didn’t mean it. I’m afraid Sereno will hurt you, and I’m afraid of losing you.”

Sarah pulled her wrist from his grasp, and this time he didn’t try to stop her. She went over to lift a pile of folded lingerie from the suitcase lying open on the bed, then paused to gaze at him with bewildered eyes. “I don’t understand you,” she said softly. “You talk as if you expect me to be attracted to him. This is a job, Rafferty. I don’t like anything about it, least of all him. If only half of what’s suspected about him is true, the man’s a charming monster. Are you so willing to believe I’d crawl into bed with that?”

Rafferty went to her quickly, his hands finding her shoulders. “No. No, Sarah.”

“Then why? Why do you keep talking as if you do believe it?”

He hesitated for only a moment. “Because … you said it yourself, Sarah. You’re in an unfamiliar situation, playing an unfamiliar role, and under those circumstances it’s hard to hold on to reality. Because if you’re really the image of the woman he loved so obsessively, he’ll love you the same way—and he is a charming man, they say. And because a new Sarah was born on a moonlit beach. I can’t help wondering if maybe it was the beach, and not me.”

Sarah jerked away from him and went to place the armful of silk and lace in a drawer. Then she turned back toward him. “I was afraid of Andrés Sereno until now,” she said in a small, still voice. “But I’ve no need to be afraid of him. He ; can’t hurt me, Rafferty. Not the way you just did.”

“Oh, hell, Sarah—”

Her face was white, and her green eyes blazed in a surging tangle of emotions. “It’s nice to know what you really think. At least now I know where I stand with you. So something started an itch on that beach, and I don’t care who the hell scratches it? It was the right time and place, I suppose, and you just happened to be there? Or maybe I got drunk on moonlight, and I’m still a little mad? And anything male with a charming smile is going to sweep me right off my feet?”

“I didn’t mean—”

“You did. And you were right when you said we didn’t know each other well. We don’t know each other at all.”

Rafferty stared at the spot where she had stood, listening to the outer door close with deadly softness. Then he listened to the silence, and his own confused thoughts. He had been so concerned about Sereno taking advantage of Sarah’s fragility that he hadn’t even considered the fact that he himself could hurt her for exactly the same reason.

“Dammit,” he said very quietly.

Sarah stood at the bow, letting the warm wind dry her cheeks and clear her mind. She felt shaken, drained by emotion. The old Sarah, cautious and tentative, suggested that she might have wronged Rafferty, might have read unintended meanings into his words. But this new Sarah, suffering an imperfect control over her emotions, was only too sure she had been right.

He actually believed that Sereno, reputed to be charming and charismatic, could—and would—sweep her right off her feet and into his bed. And if not that, then he was half-convinced she had been sent on this assignment under orders to sell herself for the price of stolen information.

Half-convinced she would take such orders …

Sarah had never in her life felt so wildly furious, so bitterly hurt, and so utterly bewildered. Unaccustomed to extreme highs and lows of emotion, she felt overwhelmed. The battering was too much, just suddenly too much. For the first time in her life, she had taken a chance and risked being hurt, and Rafferty had hurt her deeply. Like a child burned by the heedless touch of a flame, she shied violently from a second experiment.

Using the only defense mechanism left in the confusion of her thoughts, she simply turned everything off.

[image: ]

By the following morning, Rafferty had realized that more than apologies were needed. Sarah had avoided him, and when they were more or less forced to be together—dinner, for instance—she had been utterly silent. And she wasn’t giving him the silent treatment, he realized. She simply wasn’t there.

And when, some hours later, he had left the deck to go to their cabin, Sarah had been in bed and asleep, so far over on her side of the bed she was in danger of falling off.

He hadn’t awakened to find her in his arms this time.

Rafferty himself was silent during breakfast, aware that Harry looked at them both anxiously while he served another of his truly excellent meals. But the cabin boy said nothing.

Sarah went up on deck after the meal, and Rafferty followed. He almost forgot the stone wall between them as he watched her discard her caftan for the astonishingly brief bikini she wore underneath and lie down on a padded lounge. It was a good five minutes—during which he drank in the sight of her curved body—before he reminded himself that Sarah was slipping rapidly beyond his reach.

“We have to talk.” He sat down on a matching lounge, forcing his mind away from vivid mental images.

She looked at him, her pale green eyes as enigmatic as seawater, her face immobile. “Do we?”

Rafferty was silent for a moment, not weighing what he was about to say but questioning the timing of it. Not that it mattered; he had no choice. “I read something once—couldn’t tell you where, but I believe Virgil wrote it—about falling in love. He remembered the sensation vividly, remembered being swept away by the madness of it. Madness. There’s nothing rational about love, Sarah. Nothing predictable. There’s just a madness, filled with hopes and fears, literally impossible to control.”

Sarah frowned a little. “Just because I look like his Sara doesn’t mean Sereno—”

Softly, Rafferty said, “I wasn’t talking about him.”

For the first time since she had retreated into herself, Sarah began to feel again. “We don’t know each other,” she said in a curiously suspended voice.

“Do you think that matters? Do you think it matters that this is the wrong time and place, and Lord knows the wrong circumstances for anything as fragile and unpredictable as love?”

“I don’t—”

“Sarah, what I’m trying to tell you is that it doesn’t help me to know you’d never sleep with Sereno to get that information. It doesn’t help to know he’d be the last man in the world you could feel an attraction for. It’s because love isn’t logical or rational that I said what I did yesterday,” he finished simply, “because I love you, and I was scared.”

She chewed on her lower lip unconsciously, staring at him. And feeling again was painful because the ascent from despair and anger to a giddy, half-frightened happiness was just as abrupt and unsettling as it had been the other way around. And somewhere in that earlier journey, some of the old Sarah had come creeping back in, cautious and wary.

“Rafferty, in a few days, we’re both going to be playing parts. A couple on the verge of ending a brief marriage. And I have to try and fascinate a man who’ll likely make my skin crawl. You have to meet with an undercover agent and get that information from him.” She swallowed hard, wondering what he was thinking behind the glow of his tawny eyes. “In spite of what happened in Trinidad, we can’t let our personal feelings control us in this. We can’t afford the luxury.”

He smiled suddenly. “What am I seeing now? A fusing of two Sarahs? Enough of the new to contemplate vamping an island dictator, and enough of the old to warn me off?”

She managed a faint smile of her own. “That’s stating it too simply and you know it.”

“Maybe. But it’s essentially the truth. And it won’t work, Sarah.”

“It has to.”

He shook his head. “The human element, remember? The scenario you and Hagen have apparently concocted just won’t work. I might be able to fake an argument with you; I might even be able to act furious and uncaring for a while. Maybe a day. And then what? If I come within twenty feet of you and Sereno sees me, he’ll know I love you. How will he react to that if you’ve been busy fascinating him?”

Sarah felt a sudden chill. There were, she realized belatedly, many holes in Hagen’s scenario. Although, to be fair, he hadn’t planned on “the human element” interfering this time.

Dryly, Rafferty said, “Now you see it. At best Sereno might try to talk you into divorcing me. At worst, he could decide to eliminate one bothersome husband.”

The thought of something happening to Rafferty brought her heart up into her throat, and Sarah swallowed hard. “No. No, I won’t let that happen. I’ll make certain he knows that—that I love my husband. I won’t try to fascinate him, I’ll just sympathize because he lost his Sara. I’ll cry on his shoulder. If he knows I love you, he won’t hurt you. He won’t.”

Rafferty was watching her, curiously still. After a tiny pause, he said, “No. Perhaps he won’t. I think any man would act against his own nature for you, Sarah.”

“I’m ordinary.” She looked out over the water, very conscious of what still hung in the air between them. He had said he loved her, and she had said nothing. She couldn’t think, and what she felt was too new and violent to be channeled sanely.

He moved suddenly, sitting on her lounge with a hand on either side of her hips. “Ordinary? If you were ordinary, Sarah, you wouldn’t be here. And I wouldn’t be here asking if it matters at all that I love you.”

She looked at him finally, trying desperately to cope with the wild recklessness of what she felt. “Don’t. We can’t—I can’t let myself—”

Rafferty swore softly and his eyes glittered. “I can’t be kind, Sarah. I can’t promise to give you time. I can’t afford that luxury. If I know you care, know there’s a chance for us, then maybe I can play my part in all this. But I have to know that.”

Sarah didn’t know what she would have said then, and was grateful they were interrupted.

“Excuse me,” Captain Siran murmured silkily.

Rafferty looked at him, a hard look that didn’t invite him to linger. “What is it?”

“We are ahead of schedule,” Siran said in a precise tone. “I therefore took the liberty of changing course slightly. There is a small uninhabited island just ahead. Perhaps you would care to go ashore for a few hours? The lagoon is perfectly safe for swimming, and it is a lovely island.”

“All right,” Rafferty told him. He looked down at Sarah as the captain left them alone again. “I’ll go down and have Harry fix us a lunch while I’m changing.” His gaze skimmed her bikini. “You’re … just fine as you are.”

Sarah remained where she was for a few minutes after he went below, then got up and slowly pulled on her caftan. She had sunglasses, lotion, and a few other things in a colorful straw beach bag on deck, and she picked it up absently.

Hours alone with a handsome man on a deserted island—the stuff of real romance.

She moved to the railing and watched the small dot of green grow larger as they neared, only half aware that Tom and Dick were preparing to lower the small launch into the water. She had scant time to find an answer for Rafferty, but it wasn’t time she needed. She knew the truthful answer.

And she was afraid. Too afraid to let herself believe what she felt. It was true that Rafferty could hurt her far worse than Andrés Sereno ever could. And that was frightening. But what frightened her far worse was the memory of a professional agent who had lost her life and that of her partner because she had dared to love. Because she had taken that chance. And if she hadn’t been able to cope with the madness of love in the midst of a dangerous assignment … what chance had Sarah?

The human element. They hadn’t chosen this, but they had to deal with it.

The fatalism born on a moonlit beach crept over Sarah again as she waited for him, and she welcomed it. Of course it wasn’t love. She couldn’t let it be love. It was passion, and that could be dealt with. She closed her mind to thoughts of what lay beyond the island they approached. That other island was still days away.

This was the one that mattered.

Siran watched the launch until it reached the island, then selected a particular channel on the radio and made a call. It was answered promptly.

“Go.”

“They are on the island,” Siran reported tonelessly. “Their plan is to remain several hours. Over.”

“And the other boat? Over.”

Siran glanced down at an unusual bank of equipment. “Not visual yet, but I have them on the scope. The boat will see us clearly, but will approach from the other side of the island as projected. Over.”

“Do nothing—repeat, nothing—to interfere. When your passengers are aboard again, proceed on course for Kadeira. Report to me again on Thursday morning. Understood? Over.”

“Understood. Over and out.”

Siran turned off the radio and sat back. Reflectively, he lit a cigarette. Still and silent as a lazy cat, he waited, dark eyes scanning the horizon.

Rafferty watched her swim, his own motions automatic. She had pulled a rubber cap over her beautiful hair and swam with expert ease, but her delicate face held an abstracted expression. For his part, Rafferty used the swimming as exercise badly needed to burn off some of his restless energy.

He knew he had pushed her with his insistent question on board the yacht, but he also knew he no longer had a choice. Finding out what part Sarah was slated to play in the coming assignment had changed everything. She was vulnerable now, and in the fabric of pretense surrounding them, Rafferty had to be certain that she held the same thread of reality as himself.

They were real. What they felt was real.

The reckless fatalism he had recognized in her earlier had posed no threat—then. By proposing a game in which she could have tested herself and the limits of that newfound daring, he had ensured that she would have the time she needed to discover for herself what was real. But that was no longer possible, he thought.

How could he make her understand what he feared? He feared for her because she would be so dangerously close to a man the world called a monster. He feared for her because that man would likely be even more unpredictable where she was concerned. And he feared for her—and himself—because a man with the sheer magnetism of Andrés Sereno could prove a formidable rival. Particularly when the woman both men wanted was enmeshed in a web of falsehood and deceit and imbued with a reckless fatalism.

It didn’t matter, Rafferty thought, that Sarah felt distaste for Sereno and his methods. The point was that she had nothing real to hold on to. Even her own emotions and reactions were unfamiliar to her, and heaven knew the situation facing them threatened to produce the kind of tension and anxiety that was virtually guaranteed to batter certainty about anything.

Rafferty followed her with his gaze, trying to decide what to do, trying to ignore the effect her black bikini was having on his senses. Not that he could.

They had been silent all the way to the island, and she had gone into the lagoon to swim without a word. He watched her, and thought: What will be, will be.

Rafferty followed her at last to the wide strip of white beach. He was aware that he was no nearer to solving the problem. He had the faintest flicker of an idea, but didn’t know if it would work; still, he had to try. He had no choice. If there was time … perhaps. If there was in Sarah some deeply buried stubbornness, some reluctance to surrender herself totally to a destiny uncontrolled by herself.

Perhaps.

They had drawn the launch into shallow water in the lagoon and tied it to a twisted palm, and they’d spread out a blanket on the sand. It was a secluded spot; they couldn’t see the yacht because the mouth of the lagoon was narrow and virtually hid the open sea beyond. And the island was quiet, with only a soft breeze rustling the palms and the faint twittering of birds to be heard.

Rafferty dried off with one of the towels they’d brought along, watching while she did the same. It was cooler here, shaded, and Sarah had pulled on her caftan after releasing her hair from the swim cap. He shrugged into a pale green shirt, but left it unbuttoned.

They were sitting on opposite corners of the large blanket, and he felt wryly amused for a brief moment. But only for a moment. “Anything to drink?” he asked finally.

Sarah opened the basket Harry had sent along. She gazed at the contents, then said unevenly, “Harry’s a romantic; he sent wine for lunch. However …” She reached in and withdrew two cans, handing one to Rafferty. “Soft drinks too.”

Rafferty took a swallow of his drink, mentally and physically bracing himself. “You’ve had time. Does it matter at all that I love you?”

“Of course it matters.” She was staring at her drink, then she lifted shy eyes to meet his.

“How does it matter?” He deliberately kept his voice impersonal, forcing all his thoughts to focus on what he was trying to do. To let nothing else distract his mind. During his work in the criminal courts he had learned to do just that, to concentrate all his energies on the intent to pull a desired response from a witness. Sometimes it worked.

“It matters … because I know you—you believe that.”

“That’s all?”

She made a helpless gesture, beginning to look troubled and unsure. “All? No, it’s not all. You know very well I’m not—not indifferent.”

He laughed shortly, forcing the sound out and keeping his eyes coolly focused on her.

Her chin lifted at his derisive laughter. “All right, then. I want you, Rafferty—is that what you want to hear? You know it’s true. We’d be—we’d be lovers now if you hadn’t proposed that little game.”

“Forget the game,” he said in a hard tone. “That fell apart when Sereno entered the picture. You can hardly try to seduce me while convincing him you’re on the fine edge of being available, now can you?”

“I said I wouldn’t—”

“We’re here alone together on a deserted island,” he went on as if he hadn’t heard her, his voice deliberately stony. “Nice timing, huh? We’ve got the whole day. No one to bother us. No one to interrupt. And we want each other.”

Her eyes were filling with tears, her delicate face revealing how bewildered she felt. And Rafferty hated what he was doing. But he gritted his teeth and forged ahead, gambling his future on the instinct telling him this would work if anything would.

“You said you wanted to take full advantage of the voyage, remember, Sarah? You also said it was me that changed things on that beach, and not a full moon and a strip of sand. Not just an itch anybody could scratch, remember? Well, since we’re fated to work our way through this passion of ours, maybe we’d better start.”

“I don’t understand—”

“Oh, I think you do.”

Sarah tried to draw a breath, discovering it did nothing to slow the panicked thumping of her heart. All during their swim, she had been conscious of excitement, stealing glances at him but finding his own lean face preoccupied. Still, she had expected Rafferty to follow up on the declaration he’d made on the yacht. And she had been prepared to abandon herself, to let these fateful hours alone with him carry her where they would.

But Rafferty wasn’t the same man somehow. His handsome face was impassive, his voice all but indifferent. He spoke of love and passion in an utterly matter-of-fact manner, as if those emotions were simply knotty problems to be dealt with in order to get on with more important matters.

But Sarah was remembering a moonlit beach and glittering tawny eyes, and her body was heavy and tingling. If he had reached for her, held her, she would have forgotten everything but him. This implacable “discussion” shocked and confused her, and her body’s reaction to him made the rest all the more bewildering.

She got to her feet shakily, hardly aware of setting her soda aside, watching as he did the same and rose to regard her with shuttered eyes.

“What are you saying?” she managed at last.

He lifted an eyebrow at her, the perfect expression of polite disbelief altering his face for an instant. “It has to be spelled out? All right. What I’m saying, Sarah, is that since you aren’t prepared to fight fate, we might as well begin this passionate affair of ours. That is what you expect, isn’t it? A shipboard romance, over at journey’s end? You’ve never for one moment believed there could be more than that between us.”

“Rafferty—”

“I tell you that I love you, and you’re completely convinced that I mean it—for the duration. Fine. If I have to say good-bye when this is over, I at least want a memory. And since the remainder of this voyage promises to be a bit cluttered for you, it looks like this is my best chance. Oh, you don’t have to worry,” he went on casually. “I won’t be a problem for you. Unrequited love is so boring, isn’t it? I’ll just count this madness of mine as a learning experience. Next time I’ll make certain I don’t fall in love at the wrong time.”

Panic was still rising, and Sarah had the peculiar feeling that a stranger confronted her. A frightening stranger. And when he reached for her, his face still impassive, panic choked her. This wasn’t—this wasn’t right. She couldn’t do this, couldn’t let her body’s reaction to him fling her into a cold-blooded affair meant to last only until …

“No.” She backed away from him, her denial choked, her face white and dazed. “No, I can’t—you said you loved me.”

“But that doesn’t matter to you,” he said remorselessly. “You don’t really believe it. So it isn’t important, is it? The only thing that’s important is this attraction we feel. We were destined to be lovers, Sarah, you know that. And there’s no use fighting fate, is there?”

Baffled, hurt, Sarah tried to make sense of what she was feeling. Her recklessness surged, along with the willingness to be carried away on a tide of emotion. And in that moment the fusion Rafferty had relentlessly striven for took place.

The heedless abandon born on a moonlit beach collided violently with a lifelong caution and prudence, and the vastly different traits merged simply because they could coexist no other way. A transition that should have been gradual was forced, hurriedly and painfully, leaving Sarah shaken and curiously numb.

She wasn’t aware that she was crying at first, feeling only a dim grief for the giddy, brief freedom of recklessness. Then she realized that Rafferty was holding her, that he had picked her up and then sat down to cradle her on his lap, and that he too was shaking.

“I’m sorry,” he was murmuring unsteadily into her hair. “I didn’t want to hurt you. I never want to hurt you.”

“Why—?” she whispered, wondering why she didn’t blame him for the distant pain.

He held her closer, tighter. “Darling, I don’t want you to say yes because you feel powerless to fight this. I can’t let you feel that way, because you’re going into a situation where it could destroy you.” His voice was low, intense. “Destroy us both.” He drew a deep breath. “Lord knows I want us to be lovers, but it’s because I love you. I don’t want just a memory, and I’ll fight like hell to make certain I’m not left with only that.”

He tilted her face up and kissed her gently, his eyes as shadowed as her own. “A good friend taught me a lot about control,” he told her soberly. “He controlled obsessively, and it nearly destroyed him. But there’s a middle ground, Sarah, and that’s where we have to stand. If we let ourselves be powerless, we’re asking to be carried along on someone else’s tide. We have to fight to discover what’s real, and what we really want.”

She gazed at him, wondering at the change in his expression. No longer impassive, his eyes no longer shuttered, he was looking at her now with a face haggard with emotion and eyes that held pain and remorse and driven determination. She swallowed the lump in her throat, grappling with what he was telling her, understanding even before she consciously realized it.

“You did that deliberately. You wanted me to be responsible. To decide.”

He brushed a strand of red-gold hair away from her face, his lips tightening briefly as if in anguish. “I had to. Because if you once let yourself be swept away without fighting, Sarah, it’d be easier to give in next time. Easier to just take the simple way, the reckless way. And that wouldn’t have hurt you with me, because I’d wait until you finally faced it, and I’d do my damnedest to help you through it. But if you did take the easy way with me now, there’d be no time for that. No time to work through it. Because you have to deal with Sereno so quickly, and he won’t wait.”

She stiffened and started to pull away, but Rafferty held her firmly, and his voice was flat.

“We’re not talking about sex, Sarah. We’re talking about emotions. And if you don’t think you can fight me—how you feel with me—then how could you possibly think you’d be able to fight him?”

Hovering on the edge of anger, Sarah was drawn back by the sudden understanding of what he meant. He wasn’t accusing her of having no moral standards, nor was he implying that she was so sexually susceptible even a charming animal could get her into his bed. What he was saying was that if she allowed herself to remain passive in a man’s arms once … then it would be the easiest thing in the world for that to happen again.

Appalled at the realization, she asked a little breathlessly, “Are you telling me to fight you?”

“Yes.” His response was instant. “I don’t want to sweep you off your feet, Sarah. I don’t want a blind lover. I want you to know what making love with me will mean. Not an affair, not a shipboard romance, and not a fling because we’ve been thrown together in an impossible situation and it’s easier to give in rather than understand.”

Sarah’s eyes widened. “That’s what—I was afraid it’d happen to us. Afraid that if my mind was involved, I’d somehow get us killed when there was danger. I thought if—if we were lovers without being in love …”

Rafferry remembered her agent friend, and understood. He nodded slowly. “You wanted to be swept away, because you’d convinced yourself that if it was only passion, there was no danger. You weren’t afraid ours would be a passing affair, Sarah. You wanted it to be just that. Nothing dangerous. Nothing threatening. We’d part when it was over … but we’d both be alive. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“I think it is,” she whispered, staring at him. “Rafferty … I’m sorry.” She buried her face in his neck, her arms slipping inside his shirt to hold him.

His arms tightened, and his voice was husky. “I’m just glad you realize that now. Sarah? I do love you.”

Because she knew he was waiting, she looked at him finally, and felt her heart turn over. “I—thought I was feeling so much before, but I wasn’t letting myself feel at all.” But now she was feeling, and it was in her eyes.

“Sarah …” His head bent, slowly, and his lips found hers. For an instant he was gentle, tentative, but then the ragged emotions of the past hour overwhelmed restraint and his mouth slanted across hers, deepening the touch.

He could feel her melt against him instantly, her hands sliding over his back, her mouth opening to him in a surging response. Through the thin silklike material of her caftan he could feel the heat of her flesh, and he moved without even thinking about it, lifting her, placing her on the blanket and lying next to her.

They had shared a bed. They had shared a burst of flame on a moonlit beach and agreed on a lighthearted game to cope with the fire. They had weathered the first deceit, each believing the other beyond reach. They had laughed together and argued. They had spent this interlude on a deserted island tautly stripping away pretense and illusion. They had even been cruel to each other.

And for the first time, they were truly themselves together, vulnerable, still not quite certain what had burst into life between them and still not quite certain how to cope.

Sarah had been told to fight, but that was beyond her at the moment. At the same time, she was no longer being carried blindly away by desire; she knew very well what was happening. Her body was responding in a fiery urgency to the man holding her, kissing her, and what she was feeling was more than passion.

She didn’t want to fight that.

Rafferty kissed her as if he were starving for her, and her response only deepened the hunger. He explored the warmth of her mouth, his tongue possessing starkly. One hand tangled in the silk of her hair while the other slid down along her side, and the slight friction of thin material between his flesh and hers reminded them both of maddening barriers.

Sarah couldn’t breathe even when his lips left hers to trail down her neck; she tilted her head mindlessly, her hands stroking his back, probing strong muscles that were hard with tension. For the second time an interlude on a beach was awakening astonishing feelings in her body and mind, but this time she was not conscious of the risk in taking an unexplored road; being with Rafferty was the most natural, inevitable thing in the world.

“Dammit, fight me,” he murmured against her ear, and there was a strained thread of humor in his deep voice.

She smiled when he lifted his head to gaze down at her, unaware that her own eyes were darkened like his, dazed like his. “I don’t want to fight you,” she said huskily.

“You’re so beautiful,” he told her in a thickened voice. “And I want you so much.… For heaven’s sake, tell me to stop, tell me you need time to think things through.…”

“You changed the rules on me,” she complained. “You were supposed to fight me off, remember?”

“Somebody else changed the rules.” He kissed her briefly, hard. “Damn Hagen.”

Uninterested in anyone else at the moment, Sarah brushed her fingers up his spine slowly, glorying in his instant response. “What would you say … if I said I didn’t need time to think things through?”

Rafferty half closed his eyes, his expression midway between pain and pleasure. “I’d say it’s too soon. You have to be sure, Sarah.”

“We’ll be in Kadeira soon,” she reminded him softly.

He sighed a bit raggedly, his eyes flaring at her. “I know. Still, we have a little time.”

“Rafferty—”

“Excuse me?”

The sound was a shock, since it was a third voice on an island supposedly containing only two people. And the fact that the voice, while deep and utterly male, was also soft and effortless did nothing to cushion the blow. The shock factor on a scale of ten was several points over the top.

After the first second Rafferty turned his head slowly. His face was frozen with astonishment. “I don’t believe it,” he murmured.


PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF KAY HOOPER

BLOOD TIES


“Hooper’s darkly riveting Blood trilogy comes to a terrifying climax.… The chilling intensity of this novel is sure to haunt your dreams!”

—RT Book Reviews




“Series fans and newcomers alike will appreciate the appendixes, which include bios of Special Crimes Unit agents and definitions of their various paranormal abilities.”

—Publishers Weekly



BLOOD SINS


“Disturbing … Hooper pulls out all the stops.”

—Publishers Weekly




“Fans of Kay Hooper won’t be disappointed.”

—The Romance Reader




“Another solid entry.”

—Booklist



BLOOD DREAMS


“You won’t want to turn the lights out after reading this book!”

—Romantic Times




“A good read for fans of other serial-killer books and the TV show Criminal Minds.”

—Booklist




“Spectacular … With its fast pace, high-adrenaline plot, cast of well-developed characters, and fluid dialogue, Blood Dreams fills every expectation a reader could have.… I highly recommend.”

—Romance Reviews Today



SLEEPING WITH FEAR


“An entertaining book for any reader.”

—Winston-Salem Journal




“Hooper keeps the suspense dialed up.… Readers will be mesmerized by a plot that moves quickly to a chilling conclusion.”

—Publishers Weekly



CHILL OF FEAR


“Hooper’s latest may offer her fans a few shivers on a hot beach.”

—Publishers Weekly




“Kay Hooper has conjured a fine thriller with appealing young ghosts and a suitably evil presence to provide a welcome chill on a hot summer’s day.”

—Orlando Sentinel




“The author draws the reader into the story line and, once there, they can’t leave because they want to see what happens next in this thrill-a-minute, chilling, fantastic reading experience.”

—Midwest Book Review



HUNTING FEAR


“A well-told scary story.”

—Toronto Sun




“Hooper’s unerring story sense and ability to keep the pages flying can’t be denied.”

—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine




“Hooper has created another original—Hunting Fear sets an intense pace.… Work your way through the terror to the triumph … and you’ll be looking for more Hooper tales to add to your bookshelf.”

—Wichita Falls Times Record News




“It’s vintage Hooper—a suspenseful page-turner.”

—Brazosport Facts




“Expect plenty of twists and surprises as Kay Hooper gets her series off to a crackerjack start!”

—Aptos Times



SENSE OF EVIL


“A well-written, entertaining police procedural … loaded with suspense.”

—Midwest Book Review




“Filled with page-turning suspense.”

—The Sunday Oklahoman




“Sense of Evil will knock your socks off.”

—Rendezvous




“A master storyteller.”

—TAMI HOAG



STEALING SHADOWS


“A fast-paced, suspenseful plot … The story’s complicated and intriguing twists and turns keep the reader guessing until the chilling end.”

—Publishers Weekly




“This definitely puts Ms. Hooper in a league with Tami Hoag and Iris Johansen and Sandra Brown. Gold 5-star rating.”

—Heartland Critics



HAUNTING RACHEL


“A stirring and evocative thriller.”

—Palo Alto Daily News




“The pace flies, the suspense never lets up. It’s great reading.”

—Baton Rouge Advocate




“An intriguing book with plenty of strange twists that will please the reader.”

—Rocky Mountain News




“It passed the ‘stay up late to finish it in one night’ test.”

—The Denver Post



FINDING LAURA


“You always know you are in for an outstanding read when you pick up a Kay Hooper novel, but in Finding Laura, she has created something really special! Simply superb!”

—Romantic Times




“Hooper keeps the intrigue pleasurably complicated, with gothic touches of suspense and satisfying resolution.”

—Publishers Weekly




“A first-class reading experience.”

—Affaire de Coeur



AFTER CAROLINE


“Harrowing good fun. Readers will shiver and shudder.”

—Publishers Weekly




“Kay Hooper has crafted another solid story to keep readers enthralled until the last page is turned.”

—Booklist




“Kay Hooper comes through with thrills, chills, and plenty of romance, this time with an energetic murder mystery with a clever twist. The suspense is sustained admirably right up to the very end.”

—Kirkus Reviews




Contents


Cover

Praise for the Novels of Kay Hooper

Other Books by This Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Epilogue


NINE

“YOU’RE ALL DAMNED lucky you didn’t get killed.” Josh Long’s voice was very definite.

The group assembled in the luxurious main “cabin” of the Corsair tried in various ways to look properly contrite, but none of them pulled it off. Except for the captain and crew of the Thespian, who were all on their way back to Trinidad, everyone involved in the matter was present.

Everyone, that is, except for Hagen, who had a lively sense of self-preservation, and the long-suffering Kelsey, who had elected to return with the crew of the Thespian.

Sarah, safe in the circle of Rafferty’s arm, studied them all with thoughtfully appraising eyes, particularly the two she’d just met.

Joshua Long had surprised her a little. For a captain of industry he was absurdly young, somewhere in his mid-thirties, she thought, and remarkably casual and informal for all his wealth and power. He was also every woman’s dream. He was tall, dark, and handsome, although his face, she thought, could be hard if he chose.

He didn’t choose to appear hard when he looked at his friends with a faintly exasperated expression of camaraderie, nor when he looked at his wife—which was often.

Raven Long was a tall, striking brunette with violet eyes and a warm voice. She was naturally graceful, instinctively charming, and completely spontaneous. Within ten minutes of their coming aboard, she had sworn at all three of her husband’s friends for disturbing their honeymoon, instantly followed with a demand to be told what had happened on Kadeira, and finished up by cheerfully damning Hagen and asking Rafferty when the wedding would occur.

Interrupted honeymoon or no, both Josh and Raven were obviously in no need of cementing the first critical stage of a marriage. Their shared glances held the warm glow of a deep and abiding love, and their plain gold wedding bands were worn with the ineffable look of permanence and certainty.

Basking in the glow of her own love, Sarah listened as Rafferty responded to Josh’s statement.

“Well, you could have helped us out a little more, you know. That cryptic remark about ‘shades of gray’ wasn’t very much to go on.”

“I was almost completely going on instinct,” Josh told him. “And I met him several years ago, after all. An afternoon’s conversation. He was ruthless then, and I knew damned well that hadn’t changed. Still, there was just something about the man.” He looked at Sarah and smiled. “He turned his back and let you walk away.”

She nodded. “I had a feeling he might. And I think I’ll call his Sara when we get back. She might like to know that.”

“I think you’re right,” Josh told her, smiling at this delicate lady who had captured Rafferty’s heart.

Rafferty looked steadily at his friend and boss. “Hagen had no right to ask you to do what you did. And, dammit, you had no business at all agreeing to it! Josh, when Sereno calls in that favor—”

Joshua Long lifted a cool eyebrow at him, at that moment every inch the tough businessman, and said calmly, “He won’t ask for more than I’m willing to give.”

“How can you be sure of that?”

“Fifteen years spent in boardrooms.”

“Josh, he’s a dictator.”

“He’s a businessman.”

Interrupting what promised to be a standoff between Josh and Rafferty, Raven said in a cheerful voice, “I think we should celebrate.”

“Our survival?” Zach asked.

Raven made a rude noise. “You guys are like cats—you always land on your feet. No, we’ll celebrate Sarah and Rafferty’s forthcoming marriage.”

So they broke out the champagne.

A considerable time later, in the cabin allotted to them, Sarah blissfully allowed Rafferty to undress her. She couldn’t help, mainly because she had celebrated with a future bride’s happy enthusiasm and was, therefore, wonderfully limp and unconcerned.

Another word for it would have been “drunk.”

“You have no head for champagne,” Rafferty observed, sliding Raven’s borrowed jeans down Sarah’s lovely legs with difficulty, while those legs moved to some imaginary music.

She sat up abruptly on the bed and made a grab for him, looking puzzled when she missed. “Where did you go?”

“Right here, darling,” he muttered, unbuttoning her blouse and trying not to laugh. This side of his Sarah was definitely endearing and somewhat fascinating. He didn’t think he’d ever forget the image of her standing before Zach, so tiny next to his bulk, while she solemnly reproved him for having deceived Rafferty years before.

It was mean, she’d said.

Zach had looked rather sheepish, which was astonishing in itself.

Sarah peered at him owlishly. “You weren’t there a minute ago, dammit.”

“Sorry about that.”

She blinked, then squinted. “Which one are you?” she asked, apparently afflicted with a distressing case of double—or triple—vision.

“The one in the middle,” he told her gently.

She let him remove her blouse, then aimed carefully with both hands and managed to find his face. “There you are. Hello.”

“Hi.” Stoically, he removed her bra and then pulled a borrowed nightgown over her head.

“You’re dressing me,” she realized.

“Uh-huh.”

“But that isn’t right. Don’t you want to ravish a drunken wanton?” she asked, then repeated the question to herself as if it didn’t make sense.

“I want you to take a little nap.”

“But I’m not sleepy.”

“Lie back and close your eyes, and I promise you’ll be sleepy. Trust me.”

“But it isn’t even dark yet.”

“This too shall pass. Go to sleep, darling.”

Drifting away, Sarah said sleepily, “It doesn’t work when you say it, does it? Only when I say it.”

“Only when you say it, darling,” he agreed tenderly.

“Trinidad looks different,” she said, “when you aren’t here pretending to be something you’re not.”

Rafferty joined her on the balcony, slipping his arms around her and pulling her back against him. “I’ve noticed,” he agreed. “So, Mrs. Lewis, you’re enjoying your honeymoon?”

“If you have to ask, Harvard produced a dud.”

“A little reassurance never hurts,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck.

“Then be reassured. I’ve never been happier.” She smiled and covered the hands lying on her stomach with her own. “And your idea of honeymooning here was just perfect. We couldn’t have found a better place.”

He hugged her. A little curious, he said, “I never asked, but what did Hagen say when you asked for the time off?”

“That I’d earned it. He seemed relieved when I told him I wasn’t quitting, just transferring to the New York office. He said, by the way, and very reprovingly, that he really didn’t think he—meaning the agency—should have to pay for a fishing boat.”

“To which you replied?”

“I told him to take it up with Zach.”

“I don’t imagine he will.”

“Hardly. He signed a voucher on the spot.”

“Ummm. I don’t suppose you asked him—?”

Sarah turned to gaze up at him, smiling. “No. I guess I was afraid he’d deny it.”

Rafferty touched her cheek lightly. “You really did care about Sereno, didn’t you? You don’t want him to be a dyed-in-the-wool villain.”

Not for the first time during the last few weeks, Sarah tried to get it clear in her own mind. “It’s just that what I believe makes so much sense. I’m not saying he would have let us escape if it hadn’t benefited him in some way, but I have to believe he was glad that’s how it worked out.

“Just think about it. He arrested Kelsey just before the terrorists would have gotten him and killed him, even though Kelsey hadn’t done anything at all to justify the charge of spying on Sereno’s government. Kelsey was treated more like a guest than a prisoner. Sereno refused to turn him over to the terrorists, even though he supposedly wanted and needed their goodwill.

“And then there are the keys. Who but Sereno could have not only gotten them, but also got them to Hagen? I don’t think we had a second agent in Kadeira. I think Sereno himself was in touch with Hagen, and more or less told him to get his agent the hell out of the country before Kelsey got himself killed and Sereno was blamed for it.”

“It makes sense,” Rafferty admitted. “Especially if he wanted to get Kelsey’s information out of the country as well as his dangerous hide.”

“I really believe that he hates terrorists. Remember what I told you about that last day, and what he said to me? That’s when it all started to make sense to me. Shades of gray. He’d allow terrorists to have a base in his country and take money from them for the privilege, pour the money into his economy, and then help get information about the organization out to people who intend to stop them.

“And all the while, he had perfectly logical explanations to hand the terrorists. Kelsey was in jail on a legitimate charge. We were there because Sereno was eager to do a very powerful man a simple favor. A very believable attack by the rebels drew his soldiers away from the prison, which allowed us to break Kelsey out. And at the end …”

“At the end,” Rafferty finished, “he simply couldn’t allow the image of the woman he loved to come to any harm. Something his men very obviously knew, judging by their faces. So he turned his back and walked away.”

Sarah nodded. “So he comes out on top. The terrorists are angry but unsuspicious. Joshua Long owes him a favor. Hagen owes him a favor. And, best of all, America isn’t up in arms against him.”

Thinking of the terrorists, Rafferty said, “He’s still in bed with the devil, though.”

Smiling, she said, “I’m not trying to paint him all white, you know. I just don’t think he’s a monster anymore.”

“You were smiling at him that last day,” Rafferty remembered. “As if you finally understood him, and weren’t worried about it anymore.”

“That’s about the way it was.”

“I wanted to deck him.”

Surprised, she said, “It didn’t show.”

“I’m a great poker player.”

“Darling, you know—”

“Oh, lord,” he muttered, bending his head to capture her lips. And when he carried her into their bedroom, it was caveman style, over one shoulder.

“You said that deliberately,” Rafferty decided sometime later in a drained voice.

Sarah raised herself on an elbow to smile down at him, mischief sparkling in her sea-green eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You did. I was well on my way to developing an inferiority complex regarding Sereno, and you set out to cure me of it. And very nicely, too.”

“Well,” she said innocently, “when a woman knows which button to push, it’s a little hard to resist pushing.”

He opened one eye and stared at her. “Yeah.”

She giggled. “You remember when we were celebrating on the Corsair? I almost said it then.”

“I know you did. That’s why I kissed you and then managed to get you to our cabin so fast.” He sighed. “I can just see what’s going to happen. Every time we have a fight, you’ll look at me with those lovely eyes and call me darling, and I’ll forget my name.”

“I could call you at the office—”

“Don’t you dare! At least, don’t call me darling over the phone. I’d kill myself getting home to you.”

“Or show up in court—”

“I won’t tell you when I’m going to be in court. Besides, I don’t have to be there often these days.”

“Boardrooms instead?”

He looked at her warily.

Sarah giggled. “I won’t, I promise. Besides, if you push a button too often, it’ll wear out. I wouldn’t want that, now would I?”

Rafferty pulled her over on top of him, smiling. “I hope not.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “And I wonder if you have a button.”

“Of course not,” she denied stoutly.

“No?”

“Absolutely not.”

After a few moments, she added breathlessly, “Well, not a verbal one, at any rate.”

Rafferty smiled.


TWO

WHAT WAS HE doing here?

Rafferty fixed himself another drink and went over to the window, no more pleased than before to confront the sparkling white expanse of beach outside. He wasn’t happy. What was he doing here pretending to be married to a woman he’d just met, and about to stroll casually into a hostile country to retrieve stolen information?

Damn Hagen.

He could admit the truth to himself. And the truth was that he was less bothered by the coming foray into Kadeira than he was by his pretended marriage to Sarah. Only a fool, of course, would have discounted the dangers of going into Kadeira, and Rafferty wasn’t a fool. He had found himself in physical danger before and knew that his instincts and reactions were good, reliable. And that was all a man could depend on.

But the minefields laid all around this make-believe marriage promised a more thorough danger to his peace of mind.

How on earth could he pretend an intimacy he wanted to be real? How could he force himself to consider this a necessary arrangement with no personal feelings involved, when it wasn’t?

He could, he thought, make a decent stab at being a husband, and his own feelings would look convincing because they were based on a strong reality. But what would his performance and her own do to Sarah? And what about all the practical little problems?

Half turning, Rafferty measured the couch with his eyes and sighed. Great. He’d end up permanently crippled if he slept there. And what about aboard the Thespian? Luxurious though it could prove to be, he doubted the yacht would boast a couch of any size, and the possibility of two beds in one cabin was doubtful. And they were supposed to be married, dammit. Happily married. Which meant they should share a bed.

He turned back to the window and lifted a hand to drum his fingers absently against the pane. How did Sarah really feel about the situation? She seemed to consider it merely a part of her job, yet he had seen uncertainty—and perhaps fear—in her vivid eyes. And tears. Rafferty felt a stirring inside him then as he remembered her tears, and he absorbed the sensation with something near wonder.

An impossible situation? Dear heaven …

He had, in some vague part of his mind, always assumed that he would one day fall in love. That some positive fate would grab him by the shoulder and point, saying, “That’s the one.” Yet he had watched a close friend lose the control built over a lifetime and flounder in a desperate emotional turmoil when fate had grabbed him, and Rafferty had assured himself that his own way would be easier.

So much for certainty.

Fate had grabbed him and pointed, gleefully, to a woman who had recently and tragically lost a cherished husband. To a woman whose job it was to pretend Rafferty was her beloved husband for a few weeks, so that they could slip into a dangerous place to retrieve dangerous secrets.

Blindly, Rafferty stared out the window. Weeks.

He felt an impulse to turn and walk away from both the situation and the woman, but knew that the action would solve little, even if it were possible. And it wasn’t possible. Not now. He was trapped, not by patriotism, not because he had given his word, not even because he hated terrorism with a vengeance. He was trapped because there was nothing in him that would allow him to walk away from her.

A rational man, whose profession had instilled in him strong emotional control and taught him the benefits of cultivating an easy and unthreatening body language, Rafferty wasn’t prone to letting his emotions dictate his actions. But now, even though reason told him to walk away, emotions refused to grant him that logical solution.

“Did you make reservations?”

Rafferty turned slowly to look at her, wondering if his face looked as stiff as it felt. He thought it probably did. He gazed at the slender, curved body caressed by coral silk, at shimmering hair arranged in a curiously seductive, yet innocent style. He looked at the delicate face, lovely and poignant, into pale green eyes shadowed with nervousness.

He remembered reading somewhere that men made their own hells, and now he agreed with that. Hagen might have shaped this one and cannily tempted him to enter, but Rafferty had made it his own. Finishing his drink, he set the glass aside and headed for the bedroom door. “Reservations for seven. I’ll get ready.” He wondered if his voice sounded as hoarse to her as it did to him.

Sarah stood very still in the center of the room, looking at nothing, hearing the door close quietly behind him. They couldn’t go on like this, she thought wildly. She was no actress, and it was clear that Rafferty was disturbed by the pretense surrounding them. They were strangers, and she was very conscious of her reaction to him, very aware of its futility.

Pretense … they were surrounded by it. Pretending they were newlyweds, pretending this trip was an innocent one. How were they supposed to do their job with so many tensions straining between them?

During dinner in an elegant restaurant, it became obvious to her that Rafferty had come to the same conclusions. He began talking quietly, looking at everything but her, clearly trying to ease the tension between them.

“Hagen threw us into this,” he said, “and he obviously felt we could be successful; if nothing else, I’ve learned to respect the man’s judgment. So it’s up to us to work out some way of playing our parts effectively. Agreed?”

She toyed with her wine glass. “Agreed.”

When Rafferty continued it was in a cautious tone. “I’m sure we both realize that it’s … needless under the circumstances to venture too far into each other’s pasts. What we have to concern ourselves with is the present. That’s all that matters.”

Sarah nodded.

“We’re in an awkward situation, forced to pretend, and all we really know about each other is what we’ve been told by Hagen.” Rafferty frowned suddenly.

Seeing only the frown, Sarah spoke hurriedly. “I’m sure we can work out something agreeable to both of us.”

Rafferty stared at her then, and she saw a puzzled, hesitant look in his eyes. “Yes.” He spoke slowly. “Yes, I’m sure we can, Sarah. My name, by the way, is Rafferty.”

A little startled, Sarah realized that she had yet to call him by name. “I—I know. It’s an unusual name.”

He was silent, waiting.

After a moment, she repeated, “Rafferty.”

He nodded, but still seemed to hesitate, watching her. Then he spoke in the same slow tone as before. “We have to maintain the illusion of a happily married couple, which will place certain demands on us. We’ll be expected to be relaxed and at ease with each other at the very least. Be expected to—touch each other. Expected to share a bed.”

Rafferty noted that her eyes skittered away from his and that a faint flush lightly colored her cheeks. But what he had expected to see in her eyes was absent. He began to wonder, with a surge of hope that made him dizzy and threatened to block his throat.

“Yes. I understand that,”

“It’ll be harder on the boat,” he said softly. “Closer quarters, more intimate surroundings.”

“Yes, I—I know.”

“Are you afraid of me, Sarah?”

She started. Her eyes lifted to his and widened. “It isn’t that. I just—I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t know how to pretend, what to say or do …”

“No—experience of being married?”

Puzzled by something in his voice, Sarah shook her head. “No, of course not.” To her astonishment, Rafferty suddenly grinned, and it was an expression of heartfelt relief.

“That’s what I thought. Damn Hagen. I’ll strangle him if I ever get my hands on him. Now I know how Josh felt.”

Sarah stared at him, then felt a peculiar uncertainty. “You mean he told you I was married?”

“Widowed,” Rafferty confirmed dryly. “And recently.”

She began to feel less uncertain, definitely used, and ridiculously happy. If Hagen had told Rafferty that she was widowed … “Have—have you ever been—?”

“Married? No. Let me guess. He told you I had been? A tragic story, and you weren’t supposed to mention it to me?”

“Yes. Exactly.” Sarah let out pent-up breath in a long sigh. “Take a number. I’m going to strangle him first.”

Laughing, Rafferty shook his head. “I should have guessed sooner. I have it on the best authority that Hagen is as devious as a barrel of snakes.”

“But why would he do such a thing? I don’t understand his motives.”

“I think I do.” Rafferty explained how he had come to meet the government agent, and how Hagen had nearly gotten himself throttled by a furious Josh Long because he had neglected to share certain information. “Maybe it was just his mania for secrecy, but whatever the reason he kept us all in the dark about too many facts, and in so doing, put the woman Josh loved in danger—unsuspecting danger. When Hagen finally told us all the truth, Josh went berserk. It was understandable, but Hagen hadn’t thought of that.

“It was the personal factor that threw him,” he finished. “He’d forgotten—or maybe just didn’t think—that people deeply involved with one another don’t always react predictably. I’ll bet he decided to prevent that possibility this time by making each of us believe there was no chance of personal involvement. He intended us to be totally professional about this assignment, and told both of us things he believed would achieve that end.”

It made sense in a roundabout way, Sarah decided. Finding Rafferty’s gaze fixed intently on her, she concentrated on her wine glass. “I suppose,” she said, “he meant it for the best. I mean … we have to get that information. And there isn’t much time. I’ve heard that—that getting involved with someone undercover is like a shipboard romance. It only lasts until you return to your home port.”

“Unless you want it to last longer.”

She stirred in her chair, restless and uneasy. “I suppose. But undercover operations, like trips on board ships, tend to intensify time spent together. It isn’t natural time. The circumstances tend to make people feel things they wouldn’t otherwise have felt. That’s dangerous. And—and painful when the trip comes to an end.”

“Josh and Raven are on their honeymoon,” he told her.

“There’s always an exception to the rule. But rarely more than one.”

“Warning me?” he asked gently.

Sarah didn’t want to meet his gaze, but something compelled her to. She wondered, vaguely, how it was possible for a man to have such golden eyes. “Maybe I’m warning myself,” she confessed almost inaudibly. “I’m out of my element on this assignment, Rafferty. It’ll be hard enough to cope with that.”

He drew a deep breath. “I understand. At least something in me understands. But I don’t think I can be professionally detached about this, Sarah.” He hesitated, then said, “I want you.”

Swallowing hard, she felt heat uncurl within her, spreading outward from some previously undiscovered core deep inside and sending warm ripples all the way through her. She could suddenly feel her heart beating in her throat, each throb an echo of his blunt statement.

“Sarah?”

She glanced around at the dim restaurant, bewildered by her own feelings, by the temptation to follow impulse for the first time in her life. “What—what am I supposed to say to that?” she asked, and the confusion in her voice was real.

His soft laugh was a little unsteady. “Say that I’m not the only one feeling more than a professional interest in my partner.”

She met his gaze, her own disturbed. She wondered if she was prepared for this, and knew she wasn’t. There was no distinction in her mind between heart and body; they were two halves of one in her experience. What her body felt was an echo of her heart’s yearning and … dear heaven, that was hazardous.

And shocking in its unexpectedness.

Her voice, soft and stark, emerged without her conscious control. “I had a friend who was a field agent. And she was good. Very, very good. She had years of experience, lightning reflexes, and wonderful instincts. For a special assignment, she was paired with someone from outside the agency.”

She hesitated, then went on. “Our agency … well, what we do isn’t written down anywhere. Reports are verbal, not taped or put on paper. Certain necessary messages are sent to base in code, then decoded. As soon as they reach the proper level, they’re destroyed. If—if I hadn’t been decoding that day, I would never have known exactly what had happened.”

Rafferty thought he knew. “What happened?”

Sarah’s eyes filled with tears as she remembered. “It wasn’t her partner’s fault. It wasn’t her fault. Except that … she had gotten emotionally involved with him. Walked into a trap because her mind wasn’t on her work. She was able to send a last message, taking the blame. She was the pro; she should have known. But she hadn’t been careful. And neither of them came home.”

Reaching across the table, Rafferty covered her restless hand with his own. Gently, he said, “Answer something honestly for me, Sarah.” He waited for her hesitant nod, then said, “I’m not the only one feeling more than a professional interest in my partner, am I?”

Sarah looked down at their hands, seeing her fingers twine with his without her conscious volition. She wanted desperately to lie to him, but she just couldn’t somehow. Almost whispering, she said, “No.”

His fingers tightened, but his voice remained quiet and gentle. “Then that’s something we have to deal with. The human element, Sarah. We didn’t ask for it. Given a choice, I doubt that either of us would pick now, this situation, to become involved with each other. But it’s happening.”

“Rafferty—”

“It’s happening, Sarah. And in our particular situation, we can’t ignore it. Given our cover, fighting this would be the worst possible thing we could do. We’re supposed to be a happily married couple.”

She saw his point, but remained unconvinced. He didn’t know, didn’t know it all. What they had to do. “And if things get bad? Either between us or—or with the assignment? Don’t you see that one or both of us could get killed if at all times we aren’t keeping our minds on what we’re supposed to be doing?”

There was a moment of silence, and then Rafferty quickly sat back and signaled for the check. Sarah, her eyes down and her hands feeling strangely cold, said nothing and made no objection when they rose from the table and left the restaurant. He had chosen a place near their hotel, within walking distance, but once they were outside he guided her toward the beach, at this hour a pale strip in the moonlight.

Sarah paused once to remove her sandals, accepting his supporting hand in the same silence with which it was offered, then walked wordlessly beside him. The beach was nearly deserted. There were only a few couples strolling along, presumably taking advantage of the moonlight and the muffled roar of the ocean that provided an atmosphere of romantic intimacy.

It made Sarah’s heart ache.

Finally Rafferty spoke, his tone conversational but strained. “As I see it, we have two choices. Either one or both of us pull out, or else we go on. I’m not pulling out without you, Sarah. And I have a feeling you mean to go on with this assignment.”

“Yes.”

“Then we go on. Together.” He found her free hand with his own, and their fingers laced together instantly. “And we deal with this.”

Walking beside him across sand damp from the last high tide, sand unmarked because no one else had chosen to walk just where they walked, Sarah felt a curious and unfamiliar sense of fatalism. Despite everything, the pretenses and dangers, despite Hagen’s determined attempts to prevent an involvement between them, something had drawn them together almost instantly.

Gazing down at the damp, blank sand, she thought of a Robert Frost poem. Both of them, she thought, were looking at a forked road that was all but unmarked. A road neither had walked before.

No matter which they chose, regrets were likely, even inevitable. But Sarah thought that she would regret it more if they chose the safer, well-trodden path. She had always taken the safe way, the sure and predictable way, the familiar way. Until this assignment.

For once in her life she had followed an impulse undoubtedly created by Hagen, choosing to leave her safe office for the dangerous waters of a dangerous game. She had chosen. And she had met Rafferty. Hours ago. Only hours? If so much in her life could change within hours, how much more during weeks? And she wanted change. She realized then that she wanted change with everything inside her.

Anyone who knew her would have laughed uncontrollably at the mere thought of Sarah Cavell being incautious. Cautious, they would have said, didn’t begin to describe her. And there had been nothing in her experience to jolt her from the safe and predictable niche she had made of her life.

“Yes,” she said suddenly.

Rafferty looked down at her by his side, seeing something in her moonlit face he hadn’t expected, yet somehow wasn’t surprised by. The delicate beauty was still there, the poignancy remained. But her expression was subtly different. The smile curving her lips was reckless.

He drew them to a stop, turning so that they faced each other. “I know we’re taking a chance with all this,” he said huskily. “We don’t know anything about each other. But I think we’ll learn all we need to know during the next few weeks. Maybe by the time our ship reaches its home port …”

She looked up at him, still smiling. “It’ll be the beginning instead of the end? Maybe. The only thing I’m sure of, Rafferty, is that when I walk off that ship, I have to know that I took full advantage of the voyage.”

His free hand lifted to touch her cheek, skimming over soft flesh until it lay against her neck. Whimsically, he said, “I get the feeling this is more of a gamble for you than it seems on the surface.”

She hesitated, then laughed a bit unsteadily. “It is. Fair warning—I don’t think I know myself very well. I haven’t taken many chances in my life. It could blow up in your face.”

“I’ll take that chance,” he told her.

Sarah could feel the slow, pounding pulse of the ocean seeping into her consciousness as though some invisible dam was being eroded. It was like nothing she’d ever felt before, as if she were being swept away by something that was beyond her ability to fight. She stared up at his face, unconsciously marking each feature in her mind, fascinated by golden eyes even the moonlight couldn’t rob of color or intensity. Her body seemed to have a mind of its own, stepping nearer to his in response to the gentle pressure of his hand.

She barely heard her own breath catch when her body touched his. She was too involved with the abrupt rush of sensation stinging every nerve ending. After the first gasp she couldn’t seem to breathe, and despite the barriers of her silk dress and the fine linen of his white shirt, she could feel the heat of his flesh when her breasts touched his chest.

He had released her hand, his own moving to the small of her back to press her even nearer, and her hands lifted to slide beneath his jacket and encircle his lean waist, her shoes falling unheeded to the sand.

Sarah found her eyes focusing on his lips, and she felt a strange transformation beginning inside her. The tentative heat that had uncurled earlier at his blunt statement of desire seemed to spread now and intensify, flowing throughout her limbs, filling her until she was conscious of nothing but warmth and a slow pounding pulse that echoed the ocean’s eternal rhythm.

“Sarah …”

She stared at his face as it lowered to hers, losing herself in the enigmatic glitter of his eyes. And when warm lips found and captured her own, liquid heat became molten fire and seared a body that had never before known passion’s flame. She was lost, totally and completely lost, and her astonishment was a small, frail thing in the face of her overwhelming response.

She could taste the ocean’s salt mist and feel its cool dampness in the ever-present breeze off the water. The pounding of the surf seemed louder in her ears, elemental in her veins. The moonlight stole color from everything but his eyes, his glittering, compelling eyes.

Her chest hurt, and she wasn’t certain if it was because she couldn’t seem to breathe or because her breasts were crushed against his hard chest. But there was pleasure even in the ache, and Sarah was shocked that a man’s body pressed to her own could feel so wonderful. She could feel muscles in his back rippling beneath her fingers, and when his legs widened she instinctively moved closer, between them, her body molding itself to his.

All her senses went wild as she clung to him, rational thought seared away. Between one heartbeat and the next was born the overwhelming, mindless need to belong utterly and completely to him. Nothing else mattered. Her body craved his with the madness of starvation. Every inch of her flesh throbbed to life, and if she had been capable of thought she would have realized then that the possibility of dealing with this had never existed.

There had been nothing tentative in that first kiss, nothing hesitant. It was the touch of a lover, bold and demanding. Her response, instant and total, wrenched a smothered groan from Rafferty, and his lips slanted across hers to deepen that bold touch with growing hunger.

Her mouth was warm and responsive, and he could feel the way her body moved unconsciously and instinctively to be closer to his. His heart thudded in a quickening rhythm, the rhythm spreading outward to heat his flesh and clench his muscles in a spasm of need. The thin silk dress she wore was a tactile delight, the material sliding across her skin as his hand moved over her back and down to mold her hips, and his swelling body ached with the warm yielding contact of hers.

Rafferty had forgotten where they were; it didn’t seem to matter. The rush and pounding of the ocean was no more than a subliminal reminder of the surging desire he felt, drowning out other sounds even as his passion drowned out all reason. The taste of her lips was sweet as wine, the scent of her something heady, warmly potent, and her soft, curved body seduced him wildly.

And when the first crash of thunder came, Rafferty hardly recognized it as something outside the stormy world their embrace had created. But a sudden gust of wind, tasting strongly of salt and decidedly wet, all but knocked them from their feet, and startled gazes met in near darkness when the moonlight was blotted out by fast-moving clouds.

They were drenched before they could even step apart, the capricious wind whipping madly at their clothing and snatching Sarah’s hair loose from the pins that had held it. Lightning split the sky, and Rafferty bent quickly to get her shoes. While cold rain beat at them, they raced back up the beach holding hands, fighting wind and wet to get to their hotel.

They were laughing when they ducked inside the door of the lobby, even as others caught by the storm were laughing. Sarah wasn’t the only guest to reach shelter barefoot and trail sand across the lobby to the bank of elevators.

Curiously enough, neither Rafferty nor Sarah felt a sense of constraint upon reaching their suite. The sudden storm had halted passion, chilling heated flesh and blowing a cold wind through dazed minds, but a part of them remained forever out on a moonlit beach.

He gave her a gentle push toward the other room the moment they were inside the door, trying not to think of how the silk dress clung to her body like a second skin. But it did cling, and he did think about it, tortured by visions of her naked and passionate; he couldn’t shut out the thoughts, but he managed somehow not to act upon them.

“A hot shower, now. You’ll catch pneumonia otherwise.” Laughing, Sarah disappeared.

She returned to the sitting room less than fifteen minutes later, wearing a thick terry robe, her hair bound up in a towel. “Your turn,” she told him, faintly surprised to discover that her shyness had been lost on the beach.

While he was in the shower, Sarah stood before the wide windows looking out at the storm, absently towel-drying her hair. She didn’t want to think. Always before in her life, rational thought had crept in to dissuade her from some impulsive action, guarding her from her own folly. But there was something different now, she realized.

She had decided to take that unexplored path, and the interlude on the beach had set her feet firmly on their way. There was, she noted with a sense of relief, no going back now. She felt curiously free, unfettered by the caution and reserve of a lifetime. She had left behind her the woman who had built a wall of shyness and hidden behind it, the woman who had avoided closeness because she felt safer alone.

Hours before she had wanted to strangle Hagen, but now Sarah only wanted to thank him. He had pitchforked her into an uncomfortable situation, forcing her to accept a kind of intimacy with a stranger, and the jolt of that and her instant attraction to Rafferty had been enough to set her free. The passionate interlude on the beach had completed the cure.

She didn’t feel familiar to herself, and though that was unsettling, it was also pleasing. She could be anyone, test herself beyond the limits she had come to accept until now.

In a peculiar way—and not consciously recognized by herself—Sarah had only now, belatedly, come of age. She had been pushed by circumstances beyond her control. A personality dampened firmly by rational caution had just received a heady breath of fresh air and freedom, and like any unfamiliar atmosphere, it was rapidly going to her head.

Rafferty found her by the window when he returned from his shower, and he stood gazing at her for a moment. Her tousled hair, still damp, flowed about her head and shoulders in dark gold strands, its natural tendency to wave untamed. The white robe she wore was long, but it parted around a tanned leg as she scuffed her bare toes in the thick carpet, and her slender fingers toyed with the towel she held in front of her.

Rafferty felt his mouth go dry as his eyes watched the terrycloth rise and fall with her breathing, and he knew that neither the sudden storm nor the shower had done anything at all to cool his heated blood. The memory of her instant passion wafted through his mind, torturing him.

He wanted to finish what had begun on the beach, wanted to sweep her off her feet and into the bed in the next room. He wanted to feel her silky legs cradle him, wanted to … wanted. He wanted so much to make love to her. Needed to so much … but he had no intention of conducting a “shipboard” romance, two strangers meeting on a temporary voyage and indulging in a temporary passion. He could never, he knew, be satisfied with that. He wanted Sarah in his bed, not a stranger who would wave farewell at journey’s end with an indifferent smile.

He didn’t want a memory.

But when Sarah turned and smiled at him, he fought an impulse to take whatever he could get. Going over to her, he took the towel from her hand and began using it with intentional briskness to dry her hair. “I don’t want a sick wife,” he told her, pleased by the casual sound of his voice.

Laughing a little, she peered up at him with bright eyes through the damp red-gold tangle. He was wearing slacks and a knit shirt, and though Sarah had no experience in matters such as this, she instantly recognized the signs that Rafferty was more levelheaded than she was at the moment.

Curiously enough, she felt no sense of rejection, and her own reckless enjoyment didn’t diminish a bit. If anything, it increased dramatically. She felt aware, sensitized, and the possibilities seemed endless and fascinating to contemplate. And this new Sarah said something that should have surprised the old one. But, somehow, it did not. “Your wife in name only, from the look of it.”

If Rafferty hesitated in his task, it was only for a fleeting instant. Lightly, he said, “Restraint is supposed to be good for the soul; I’m trying to build my character. Don’t mess it up for me, huh?”

“I wouldn’t know how to be a siren,” she confessed, unaware that her eyes certainly knew.

Shrewdly, Rafferty said, “But you’d enjoy the opportunity to try?”

A little startled, Sarah realized he was right. She’d gone too far to resurrect shyness, but a faint flush did color her cheeks. “I suppose. I never thought of myself like that.” Then she blinked. “Oh, that’s ridiculous, Rafferty. With all we have to do …”

“I don’t know,” he murmured. “It might be fun.” Mentally, he apologized to a body appalled by the very thought. He was, he knew, inviting torture and sleepless nights. There was much about Sarah Cavell that intrigued him, but seeing that dawn of feminine enjoyment in her eyes fascinated him utterly. Having had no sisters, Rafferty had never watched a woman become aware of her own powers. He had a very strong feeling that he was seeing it now. “You’ve never gotten involved with a man before, have you?” he asked slowly.

She gave him a hesitant smile. “Well, no. I always thought I was cold-natured.”

Rafferty did an exaggerated double take, which sufficed to hide his very real astonishment. Were all the men she had known morons? “I beg your pardon?”

She giggled, flushing again as she remembered her response on the beach. “I did. I just wasn’t interested.”

“It must have been my charming smile,” he said.

Sarah cleared her throat. “Must have been.”

“How old are you?” he asked suspiciously.

“Twenty-six.”

In mock surprise, he said, “And you’ve never exercised your feminine wiles? How long has Hagen had you sequestered in that information retrieval office, anyway?”

“Since college.” She lifted her chin and met his gaze squarely. “Before that—I told you—I just wasn’t interested.”

He removed the towel and studied the tangled mass of her hair for a moment, then flopped the towel back over her head. “Find a brush for that,” he instructed briskly. “It looks like a rat’s nest.”

She pushed the towel back, laughing. “Thanks!” But she went and found her brush, lingering in the bedroom long enough to smooth the knots from her hair before returning to the sitting room. As soon as she came back, Rafferty spoke.

“I think it’s a good idea.”

Sarah lifted a brow at him. “What is?”

“Letting you vamp me.”



To my brother, Jimmy—
for all those early-morning drives to the airport




FIVE

“THIS IS BECOMING a habit,” Zachary Steele commented about a minute later. “It’s the second time in a couple of months I’ve had to interrupt a pair of lovers at what I judge to be a critical moment.”

Rafferty and Sarah had disentangled themselves and were sitting side by side on the blanket, both gazing at their visitor. They were too bemused to be embarrassed, and the abrupt end to their interlude alone had left them feeling somewhat suspended.

Sarah, who had recognized Zach’s name when he’d politely introduced himself, studied him with surprise. She didn’t know what mental image had formed when Rafferty had described this friend, but his appearance was rather startling. He was big, for one thing—four or five inches over six feet—and built to fill doorways. He was a potentially dangerous man, she thought, despite the almost bland expression on his rugged face and his serene gray eyes. And the long narrow scar on his left cheek hinted at dangerous things he’d done in the past. Wearing only swim trunks, he exuded a peculiarly animal vitality, every inch of tanned flesh covering corded muscle; the smooth expanse of bronze was broken only by the jet-black hair covering his chest and lightly furring his long powerful legs.

In a detached manner, Sarah thought that most women would find him utterly riveting physically and curiously fascinating otherwise; he was unquestionably masculine from head to toe. If they’d met on a street corner, she didn’t doubt he would have frightened her, but here on a tropical island and seeing a gleam of amusement in his eyes, she decided she liked him very much.

“Oh, good, lunch.”

Amazed, Sarah looked up at their second visitor, who had emerged from somewhere behind Zach and was now cheerfully exploring the picnic basket. She barely heard Rafferty sputtering beside her.

This, she decided, would have to be Lucas Kendrick, Rafferty’s other friend. The investigator. He, too, was a big man, a bit over six feet and broad-shouldered, with the beautifully defined muscles of a very active man. He was also strikingly handsome, with classical features and a leonine mane of silvery blond hair. That hair, Sarah decided thoughtfully, could easily inspire a woman to want to run barefoot through it. And if he didn’t exude quite the raw force of Zach or the keen intelligence of Rafferty, he could certainly talk the devil out of hell with that charming voice.

Sarah was mildly pleased with herself because these two men aroused no more than a spark of interest and a detached curiosity in her. Attractive though they undoubtedly were, she would have instantly traded them and every other man she’d ever met for Rafferty.

Andrés Sereno, I’m ready for you! she thought in satisfaction.

“What the hell,” Rafferty was asking coldly, “are you two doing here?”

Lucas took it upon himself to answer, elaborately casual and still looking through the basket. “Oh, we were in the neighborhood. Just passing by. Would you look at this spread? That boat of yours must have some chef.”

Rafferty turned his stony gaze to Zach, who had settled himself on the blanket and now returned Rafferty’s stare blandly. And it occurred to Sarah that both visitors shared a healthy respect for Rafferty, and that each was somewhat wary at the moment, despite calm expressions and casual words.

These men, she thought, were certain of what she had sensed in Rafferty: that understated power of his. She made a mental note to discover more about their friendship. Apparently, it had weathered a few storms.

Infinitely patient, Rafferty said, “Just passing by, huh? Passing by a supposedly deserted island in the Caribbean? How far’d you have to swim to just pass by?” He looked pointedly at the wet trunks both men were wearing.

“Our boat’s anchored offshore,” Zach told him. “On the other side of the island. Don’t worry, I doubt your skipper saw us. And if he did, we’re just fishermen.”

A little fiercely, Rafferty said, “You are supposed to be in California.” He turned his stare on Lucas, adding, “And you in New York. Who the hell’s minding the store?”

“By now, Josh,” Zach answered. “He got tired of people interrupting his honeymoon and said he might as well come home.”

That surprised a laugh out of Rafferty, but he was almost instantly grim again. “Now I know how he felt when we butted into his business. Look guys, go home.”

“And miss the opportunity to fish off the shores of Kadeira?” Lucas asked, his tone ironic.

Sarah giggled, but hastily straightened her face when Rafferty gave her an offended glance. She was enjoying this immensely, and had the sneaking suspicion that Rafferty wasn’t quite as angry as he seemed. From the sound of it, these three made it a habit to watch out for one another, and she liked that. Their kind of friendship was rare in her experience.

Still striving for patience, Rafferty told his friends, “You’ve both helped enough. Besides, this is a difficult situation. You two can’t possibly get into Kadeira without attracting just the kind of attention we’re trying to avoid.”

“You couldn’t pass for a native,” Zach observed. “Neither could Sarah.”

Hearing her name, Lucas looked up long enough to charmingly introduce himself. Sarah responded gravely, trying not to laugh in the face of Rafferty’s comical despair.

“Hagen arranged—”

“Oh, Hagen did,” Zach said in a surprised but somehow odd tone, as if he were implying something.

Rafferty gritted his teeth. “All right, so he’s sneaky as hell and prone to keep certain things to himself. I know that. And I’m none too happy about this scheme, but—” He glanced at Sarah, then swore under his breath.

He wouldn’t tell them, Sarah realized, because it was her assignment too. So she told them, trusting them because he did, and because she liked them. She told them the plan, explaining everything—except one tiny detail even Rafferty didn’t know yet, and which she couldn’t tell him until they were on the island.

She told herself that it was hardly professional to disclose so many particulars of their assignment—let alone to strangers—but she was following instinct. She was also half-consciously rebelling against Hagen’s secretive orders, plans, and general disposition.

Zach looked at her, then at Lucas, who had also listened intently to the story. “That seems to let us out,” he commented.

The blond man made a faint grimace of agreement. “Seems to. Too many nosy Americans on the island could gum up the works nicely, I’d say.”

“Let’s have lunch,” Zach suggested.

Rafferty regarded him suspiciously, and it was Sarah who responded. “Harry packed enough.” She measured Zach’s huge frame with a musing gaze, adding, “I think.”

Zach’s smile was surprisingly gentle. “Oh, I don’t eat much.”

Lucas, who was examining the bottle of wine with a critical eye, did an exaggerated double take and stared at the big man incredulously. “You don’t what?”

“Luc, would you care to swim to the nearest country that’ll have you?”

“He eats like a bird,” Lucas told Sarah somewhat hastily.

Sarah was trying not to giggle, and Rafferty seemed resigned to the situation. But he wasn’t nearly as glum as he appeared, because he winked at Sarah when neither of the other two was looking.

Lunch was enjoyable, even though there weren’t enough plates or glasses to go around, and Zach and Lucas took turns drinking from the wine bottle. Sarah was fascinated by the friendship of the three men. They were utterly comfortable with each other, and with her, and though rude remarks and cheerful insults seemed the order of the day, there was also an obvious closeness among them.

And there was, she learned not entirely to her surprise, a fourth friend present in spirit.

“Is Josh really back at the helm?” Rafferty asked the other two.

“He got in touch this morning,” Zach affirmed. “Told us very politely that since we’d all decided to be idiots, he thought he should come home.”

“Heard Raven laughing in the background,” Lucas added.

Rafferty frowned a little. “Wait a minute. Got in touch how?”

Zach was intently studying what remained of a drumstick. “By radio,” he murmured.

Sarah, startled, said, “But then he’d have to be—”

“Not in the South Pacific,” Rafferty said. “And not in New York. Don’t tell me—”

Lucas was grinning a little. “The Corsair, we think. His own yacht. And since Zach wired that boat, anybody could run anything from it. So, Josh is minding the store. By remote control.”

“Where is he?”

“He wouldn’t say,” Zach replied. “My guess is that he’s somewhere here in the Caribbean. But he knows the situation on Kadeira, Rafferty, and he won’t get anywhere near the place. He’s just standing by.”

“In case I get into trouble,” Rafferty muttered.

“In case any of us do. He’ll call out the troops if something goes wrong. And we all know that when Josh calls out the troops, things happen. Hell, he even knows Sereno personally.”

Both Rafferty and Sarah blinked. “He does?” she asked.

“He does. The guy wanted businessmen to invest in his country a few years ago, just after he came to power, and Josh was at the top of his list. That was when the political situation on Kadeira was better—relatively speaking, of course.”

“Josh actually met with him?” Rafferty asked, clearly surprised.

“Yeah. You were over in Europe straightening out something for Rena—Josh’s sister,” he explained in an aside to Sarah. “Sereno was in New York. He called and asked for an appointment. Then he came to the office, and not thirty minutes later Josh canceled his appointments for the rest of the afternoon. Sereno and Josh spent hours talking.”

Still incredulous, Rafferty said, “Now there’s something I wouldn’t have believed. Josh is so rabid against anyone with that brand of ruthlessness. And even then Sereno was known for his ruthlessness. I’m amazed he met with Sereno at all, much less spent hours talking to him.”

Zach looked at him thoughtfully. “Josh sent a message to you, by the way. Said you should keep it in mind while dealing with Sereno.”

“What?”

“ ‘Shades of gray.’ ”

[image: ]

The Thespian got under way just before dusk, and Rafferty and Sarah remained on deck to watch the fiery sunset. The atmosphere between them was both better and worse than it had been before their trip to the little island. It was better because they had cleared up some of the tensions resulting from their situation, and worse for the same reason.

The clock was ticking away their private moments together.

“Shades of gray,” Sarah mused, standing beside Rafferty as they gazed out on blue water touched with crimson. “Did he mean what I think he meant?”

Rafferty, too, was troubled by that cryptic message. “That a man painted black still has shades of gray in his character? I can’t think of another meaning. I know Josh, and he wouldn’t have spent any time at all with Sereno unless there was something positive in the man. Something redeeming.”

Sarah looked at him curiously. “Would he have known? I mean, is he that perceptive?”

“Josh? Oh, yes. He’s a world-mover, Sarah; he’s dealt with powerful men most of his life. And he’s a prime target for every sort of con, every kind of sob story you could name. People have always tried to win him over for one reason or another—mostly financial ones. If he met with Sereno at all, it was because he was willing to listen. And the fact that he did listen for hours tells me that it was a difficult decision for him to make. He didn’t invest in Kadeira, but he had to think it over carefully before he decided not to.”

“I wonder if Sereno’s bitter about that.”

“Who knows.”

She thought awhile, thought about complex men and world-movers. Then she looked at Rafferty and smiled. “Tell me something?”

“Sure.”

“In your work, you’ve faced off against both male and female attorneys in court. Right?”

“Of course.” He looked at her curiously.

“Would I be right in assuming that you usually win against men, and usually lose against women?”

Rafferty was obviously startled. “Well, yes, as a matter of fact. I’ve never been able to figure it out. Honestly speaking, I’ve won against male attorneys I knew were better lawyers, and lost to women I knew weren’t particularly strong. I assume you mean won in the sense of courtroom tactics, where a case depended more on the presentation of facts rather than the facts themselves?”

“That’s what I mean.” She laughed a little when he lifted a questioning brow. “Yes, I think I know why.”

“Why, then? I’ve always wondered. I don’t think I treat a female opponent any differently.”

“No, probably not. But I’ll bet they treat you differently, Rafferty.”

“In what way?”

“They don’t underestimate you.”

For a brief moment, there was a curious gleam in the depths of his golden eyes. Then it was gone, and he slid his arms around her to pull her close. “Ah. And do you underestimate me?”

Her hands crept beneath his unbuttoned shirt until the warm flesh of his back was smooth beneath her palms. “I hope not,” she murmured. “Underestimating you would be very dangerous, I think.”

His arms tightened, and Rafferty’s eyes focused on her mouth. When he spoke, his voice was husky. “One of these days, you’ll have to explain that to me.”

Drawn inexorably by those topaz eyes, Sarah had begun to move up on tiptoe to be even closer to him when her peripheral vision caught sight of Tom or Dick—she could never tell which was which—moving past them with an armful of ropes. She drew back a step.

Rafferty had seen him as well. “Damn. When this is over, you and I are going someplace where we can be alone.” He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek. “Really alone.”

Sarah rubbed her cheek against his warm, rough palm, feeling very conscious of both their lack of privacy and the heavy ache deep inside her. She wanted him. And there was no hiding or disguising that hunger when she looked at him.

He caught his breath, and the last rays of the setting sun painted his lean face with a hot reddish light. For a timeless moment he did indeed look dangerous, his features carved out of fire and his eyes ablaze. There was a hardness in his face, a driven strength. There was something primitive and savage.

She watched the transformation, as one would watch the rippling of subtle muscles beneath the gleaming skin of a caged tiger, with wonder and fascination but no fear. It was not a trick of light, she thought dimly, but something else, some momentary revelation of what lay beneath his civilized exterior. He had hidden that part of himself, and she wondered why it had escaped now, never realizing that she had looked at him with naked hunger for the first time.

The hand against her cheek trembled slightly even as the last of the sunlight vanished, and Rafferty’s face was his own again. Almost his own. There had been a subtle alteration during the moment of blazing light, leaving that inner core of him nearer the surface, more exposed. The deceptive layer of easygoing softness seemed to have been partially stripped away, and he was visibly more powerful, stronger, tougher.

She wondered, vaguely, if men would underestimate him now.

She didn’t think so.

“Sarah …” He drew a ragged breath, as if his lungs were starved for air, and in the deepening twilight it was easy to see he was shaken. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?” she murmured, still fascinated by him.

Hoarsely, he said, “Like we’re in bed together with nothing between us.”

After a moment, she slowly moved back away from him. It was not a rejection, or even a denial of his words. She was smiling a little, unconsciously sensual. “I think I’ll go—wash away the sand and salt.”

He swallowed. “I’ll be along later.”

Rafferty moved slowly to the bow, welcoming the cool, brisk wind on his face. His entire body was throbbing, slowly and heavily, and he stared at the darkening horizon without really seeing it.

There were a hundred things he should have been thinking of. The coming poker game with Sereno, danger, the presence of his friends, Josh’s cryptic message. But what he thought of was Sarah, and the question branded in his mind was whether the interlude on the island had truly freed her, strengthened her.

Gripping the chrome railing, Rafferty acknowledged to himself that the answer to that question made little difference now. It was clear she wouldn’t “fight” him, wouldn’t resist the passion between them. Only time would tell if that decision was wise, and the right one. Only time would tell if Sarah was indeed in control of her destiny.

Rafferty didn’t know how long he stood in the cooling wind, but at the same moment he became aware of darkness and of a presence at his side. And he tensed, an instinctive recognition of power, feeling physically what he had only sensed before now.

“Mr. Lewis?”

Danger. Siran was dangerous. In the darkness especially, he was dangerous. “Yes?”

“Harry asked that I tell you dinner is served.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Rafferty felt rather than saw Siran vanish, and he was both elated and bothered by that. Elated because this newfound instinct boded well for the coming foray into Kadeira. And bothered because he didn’t know what had unleashed it. He knew only that he had never felt so aware, so acutely sensitive to his surroundings.

Rafferty made his way below deck and into their cabin, surprised to find the lighting dim and the room apparently deserted. And then she spoke, from the shadows.

“Harry’s serving dinner in a few minutes; I told him you’d probably want to take a shower first.”

“You were right.” He cleared his throat, not seeing her clearly, but very aware of her presence. She was still and silent now. After a brief hesitation, he headed for the shower.

When he returned to the main cabin, wearing slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up over his forearms, he found a table set for two, the dishes under silver covers and wine chilling on ice. Harry was absent, and when Sarah came forward and into the faint light, Rafferty realized that she had planned this.

“Pushy lady,” he murmured, but his gaze was moving over her hotly. Obviously, Sarah had decided that subtlety was a waste of time. Her hair, falling loosely over her shoulders, gleamed richly, and her creamy skin was a perfect foil for the stark black creation she had chosen to wear.

The negligee was silk, shimmering in the half-light. The sleeves were long and full, caught tightly at her wrists, and they were fashioned of lace that allowed the warmth of her flesh to show. The negligee fell straight from her shoulders to the floor, and beneath it her gown boasted a deep V-neck and was gathered tightly beneath her breasts. Her every movement caused the thin fabric to mold itself against her, outlining the delicate curves of her hips and thighs.

“We were interrupted on the island,” she said softly, her eyes glowing with the mystery of a cat’s. “But not tonight. Harry has his orders.”

Rafferty glanced at the table awaiting them, and he knew he’d never force food past the tightness of his throat. He looked back at her, watching her as she moved closer, and he could hardly breathe. But he managed a last reluctant, automatic protest.

“This is—definitely blatant.”

Sarah halted barely an arm’s length from him, smiling. “No more rules,” she reminded him. “You stopped that game, remember? So you have nothing to lose.”

Rafferty tried to think of practicalities. “Sarah, I can’t protect you. I just haven’t been thinking—”

Her eyes softened even more. “Don’t worry. It’s a requirement for female agents on field assignments. He might not know much about the human element, but Hagen does anticipate some human failings.”

Not even conscious of moving, Rafferty watched as his hands came to rest on her shoulders, feeling the silk and the warm flesh beneath. “I love you,” he murmured huskily as the last thread of his willpower snapped.

They stood as they were for an eternal moment, as if each was giving the other a last opportunity to draw back, to stop before anything irrevocable happened. But neither drew back. Instead, Sarah stepped closer, lifting her face, long dark lashes shadowing her gleaming eyes. Rafferty’s head bent, and his lips touched hers. At first his kiss was a whisper, a gently tentative caress, but that wasn’t enough for either of them.

Sarah felt his fingers tighten, and her own hands lifted to slide around his waist. The heavy ache inside her intensified, spreading throughout her body, and she pressed against him suddenly in an attempt to ease that hurt. Her mouth opened to the fierce demand of his, and all her senses whirled at the thrusting possession of his tongue.

What she felt was still new to her, wonderfully unfamiliar, yet Sarah recognized what was born in her then, and accepted the inescapable, overpowering need to belong to him. There was no future, no past, there was only this night. And it was not fatalism that bred her need, but rather something far deeper and utterly feminine.

His hands slid down her back and to her hips, shaping the rounded flesh and pulling her closer, until she could feel the swelling demand of his body. Her hands clutched at his back unconsciously, and she gasped when his mouth left hers to trail fire down her throat. Her head fell back to allow more room for his exploration, her heart hammering out of control.

The slight motion of the boat, which had been before just a sensation in the back of her consciousness, seemed to fill her now with a rhythm that surged and eased and throbbed, until her entire body seemed in motion. She was dizzy and breathless, and hollow with the need for him.

With a sudden impatient sound against the warmth of her throat, Rafferty lifted her into his arms and turned to stride toward their cabin. Sarah felt an instant’s panic in that moment, a purely instinctive fear of the unknown, and pushed it aside fiercely. When he set her on her feet beside the turned-down bed her hands lifted to fumble inexpertly with the buttons of his shirt, and she concentrated on that task, and on the desire she felt, to keep the fear at bay.

Rafferty pushed the robe off her shoulders, his lips caressing her soft skin, and Sarah pulled her arms free of the lacy sleeves before struggling with his buttons again. She tugged the shirt from the waistband of his pants and slid her hands beneath the material, touching the smooth flesh covering his ribs. He seemed to tense even more at her touch, and his head lifted. Darkly flaming eyes gazed into hers, and the hard need in his face was softened into gentleness.

His hands caught hers and drew them to her sides, and his lips touched hers softly, again and again. “You’re afraid,” he murmured. “I don’t want you to be afraid, my Sarah.”

She realized only then that her hands were cold, that not even overwhelming desire could completely obliterate nervousness. She wanted to deny what was obvious, to reassure him of her own need, but no words could emerge past the tightness of her throat. She tried to tell him with her lips, responding eagerly to the touch of his, but the unknown was a watchful presence and they both sensed it.

Rafferty eased her back onto the bed, ignoring the trembling tension of his own body. One of his hands lay on her stomach, undemanding, and he stroked her hair back delicately with fingers that traced her face, her features, with a soft touch. His lips moved featherlight over her flushed skin, pressing her closed eyelids, grazing her cheeks, teasing her lips apart with gentle insistence.

Sarah was only vaguely aware that they lay in a pool of faint light spilling in from the other room, and she barely felt the softness of the bed beneath her. All her consciousness was focused on his lips, the nearness of his body, hard and warm. She couldn’t breathe but didn’t much care, and she was deeply grateful to the man she loved for the soothing caresses that were quieting her nebulous fears.

She tentatively lifted a hand when his lips reached the pulse pounding in her throat, touching his forearm and then his shoulder, understanding then that his care was costing him, because his muscles were tensed, rigid, and his skin was feverish. That more than anything partially laid her fears to rest, and her touch became firmer, stroking his shoulder and back compulsively, probing the taut, rippling muscles.

Rafferty murmured something low in his throat and gently guided her arms back to her sides, and she understood by his action that his control was strained unbearably by her touch. Obediently she lay still and restless, watching his face through desire-dazed eyes. Her fingers curled tightly into the sheets and she bit her lip to hold back the mindless sounds rising from some flaming core within her.

He was pressing kisses over her breastbone, and the lace straps of her nightgown were pushed slowly off her shoulders and down her arms. Then his hands slid up over her narrow ribcage until the swelling flesh of her breasts filled them, and she gasped at the intimate touch, losing what little breath s