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Illegal Possession

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年:
2008
出版社:
Bantam
语言:
english
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EPUB, 165 KB
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Contents

Synopsis

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten





Synopsis




The light in the library flicked on without warning, and cat burglar Troy Bennett was caught in the act! With her green eyes daring him to stop her, she came face-to-face with the righteous Dallas Cameron, whose dark virility left her breathless. Dallas demanded the reasons behind her unlawful actions - and the chance to know her better than anyone. Troy thrived on the risk of her secret work - yet her feelings for Dallas sparked a sense of danger she'd never faced. But her work and his scruples divided them...perhaps forever.





One




She checked the line for the third time and then swung out over the guttering, lowering herself cautiously until her feet were firmly placed on the lintel protruding slightly above the top window. She had no fear of being seen from within; this was the attic window, a round conceit fashioned in bogus stained glass and certainly opaque from paint if not from plain old dirt. Her soft kid boots gripped the stone securely, and she looked down over her shoulder to pinpoint her target one last time. Yes—there it was: a raised window sash on the second floor.

Her gaze continued downward until she noted the grass directly beneath her, noted indifferently and with but a glancing thought how that grass would welcome a body falling five stories into its grasp. It would have been easier, she thought, to climb up to the second floor rather than climb down to it, but inconveniently placed shrubbery lighting cast a distinctly unwelcome spotlight on the entire first floor. Only a suicidally bold thief would have taken the chance.

Troy was bold—but she was also shrewd and cautious. And luckily she could belay herself down faster and more quietly than nine out of ten men could have climbed up. Decision made.

Balancing easily on the narrow ledge, Troy reached up to roll down her ski mask to cover her face. That done, her gloved fingers moved automatically over her compact tool belt, ticking of; f each tool in its proper place. Then she gripped the line, expertly bent her knees, and pushed away from the building, swinging out and down with the speed and control of an experienced mountain climber. The first fall took her down to the third floor, her booted feet touching the brick wall with the lightness of a feather and the silence of a cat. Knees bent, she allowed her joints to absorb force and sound for a split second, and then pushed off again.

Her second jump took her exactly to target: the open window sash was at waist-level and to her right. Again, flexed knees took the force of her landing, absorbing sound. Troy paused for a moment, head turned and eyes fixed on the sentry who'd just rounded the corner of the building. She watched in silence, not a sound betraying her to the man or to the alert Doberman that was pacing on a short leash at his side. Both passed her position, some feet below her, and moved on, the man swearing quietly to his canine companion about the absurdity of patrolling on a night as cold as a witch's broomstick and as black as the Earl of Hell's waistcoat.

Troy turned her head to watch them move out of sight around the opposite corner of the building. She saw mist rise in front of her eyes and realized absently that she'd held her breath, but her lungs hadn't complained; Troy could hold her breath for a long time. She locked the line in position and used the niches in the bricks to pull herself sideways until she could peer between the crack in the drapes.

She had highly developed night vision so her eyes saw as much of the interior of the room as was possible through the narrow crack. A chair, a desk, what looked like a game table, and—ah! Books on shelves. The plans had been worth what she'd paid for them then; this was the library. The safe should be to the left of the desk and probably—unoriginally—behind a painting.

She braced her feet even more carefully and slid a hand inside the open window. Sensitive fingers gloved in form-fitting kid searched slowly and delicately for any indication of wire or trip device, and found none. Still cautious, Troy unhooked a small electronic device from her belt and pushed a button, her eyes fixed unwaveringly on a small green light as she moved the device all around the window frame.

A moment later Troy returned the device to her belt, her brows lifting silently and invisibly behind the ski mask. No alarm system. Then it was true that the man relied on his patrols and dogs for protection. Odd, she thought. But maybe not so odd. This man was somewhat new to the acquire-art-at-any-cost breed; his collection probably wasn't extensive enough yet to demand state-of-the-art protection. Or perhaps he just hadn't realized that he could be a target.

Behind the ski mask a smile appeared, and Troy let it have its way. By this time tomorrow night, she thought with real amusement, he might be calling me to rig up a security system for him. That thought almost brought a giggle, but hanging two floors up on a line suspended from the roof wasn't quite the place to indulge in humor. Troy swallowed the giggle and got on with the job at hand.

Slender, startlingly powerful hands slid beneath the sash, gripped, raised. With a silence born of long practice she lifted one leg over the sill until she was sitting astride it. She unhooked herself from the line, making sure that it was within easy reach outside the window, then swung the other leg over and straightened up inside the room.

She stood for a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the very slight difference in the texture of the darkness, then moved swiftly. Avoiding furnishings as though it were her own living room, she crossed to the door and stood for a moment with her ear against it. Silence. Turning away, she produced a pencil flashlight and pointed it toward the floor, going back to lower the window to its former position and completely close the drapes; Troy took no chances with a sentry's wandering gaze. Only her rope remained outside, and it blended in perfectly with the wall.

In seconds she was standing before the painting she'd expected to find. One sweep of the light showed her that it was a rather commonplace print, and she grinned again behind the mask. What thief would bother with this painting? Only one who suspected something behind it! A brief inspection told her that the man didn't stint on inside protection; the framed print was wired. After a moment's thought she rolled her mask back up and placed the narrow flashlight between her teeth, reaching for tools and getting to work.

In a space of time that would have embarrassed a certain security company, Troy had the alarm disconnected and the hinged frame swung open to disclose the safe behind it. And with a speed that would have won the admiration of half the safecrackers in the world, she opened the safe. Still holding the flashlight in her teeth, she reached in and swiftly found what she was looking for. The painting was rolled up in a cardboard tube. She grimaced. Granted, that cardboard tube made things easy for her, but to treat an Old Master this way . . . !

And then the lamp in the corner spilled golden light over the room.

Troy had only a few seconds in which to think and plan, but it was enough; she was nothing if not quick on her feet. Holding the painting again rolled up and ready to slide into its tube, she turned her head toward the door and studied the intruder with an insolence not a whit marred by the flashlight still gripped between her teeth.

He was dressed in pajama bottoms and a robe, and seemed disgustingly wide-awake and aware for two a.m. Well over six feet tall, he had thick black hair brushing his collar in back, shoulders that a football player would have envied, and a face that half the women Troy knew would have murdered spouses to have lying on the pillow next to theirs. It was a lean, intelligent face with keen eyes that were presently staring at her with a sort of fascinated wonder, high cheekbones and firm jaw, and a mouth that was curved with innate humor and more than a spark of sensuality.

Troy had never seen him before, and was reasonably sure that he wasn't a resident. In her five days of studying the layout of the house and the comings and goings of its occupants, he hadn't crossed the threshold. Just her luck, she groused silently, that he'd turn up for the night and then go looking for something to read!

Making the best of things, Troy grabbed the ball and ran with it. Taking the flashlight from her mouth, she hissed, "Shut the door!"

Automatically he did so, then seemed to collect himself. "What the hell—" he began.

"Shhhh!" she hissed again. "You want to wake up the whole house?"

Unconsciously whispering, he hissed back, "I think I'd better!"

"Don't be ridiculous." Troy calmly closed the safe and hid it behind the print, still holding the painting and cardboard tube in one hand.

"Now, look—" he began in a fierce whisper, but she cut him off again.

"You're not a friend of the owner of this house, are you?"

Advancing a little farther into the room and placing himself absently or by design (Troy thought the latter) between her and the window, he glared at her and answered, still in a whisper. "No. He wants me to join him in a business venture, but—" This time he broke off himself, looking somewhat bewildered. "Why the hell am I talking to you instead of calling the police?" he demanded in a wrathful mutter.

Troy ignored that. "I wouldn't take him on as a business partner if I were you," she advised, her voice not a whisper but still soft enough to be mistaken for one.

The stranger stepped closer, looking her up and down with an expression that covered a wide range of emotions—surprise, bemusement, appreciation, anger. Clearly he was seeing the definitely feminine attributes advertised by her form-fitting black sweater and pants, and the delicate features that would have dazzled a movie mogul, and was wondering what a girl like her was doing robbing a safe in the dead of night.

Before he could give voice to his emotions, Troy unrolled the painting and displayed it in front of her. "He wouldn't be very trustworthy, you know," she told the stranger conversationally. "The master of the house, I mean."

Shifting his eyes from her face, the stranger sent a cursory glance down at the painting. Then his gaze grew intent. He stepped closer. "Isn't that—"

"Yes, it is. Stolen from a private collector in Paris two weeks ago."

The stranger stared at her as she began rolling the painting back up. Then he seemed to feel that some defense of his host was called for. "John couldn't have known it was stolen when he bought it," he said a little uncertainly.

Troy laughed softly. "Bought it? Well, I suppose you could say that. He paid a man to steal it for him."

The stranger pounced. "How do you know?"

Coolly she answered, "Because the collector paid me to steal it back. And since he's a very well-known and trustworthy man, I'll take his word over your John's any day."

"He isn't my John," the stranger corrected irritably. He stared at her for a long moment. "Why don't we just call the police and turn the matter over to them?" he suggested mildly.

Troy strolled over to the desk and leaned a hip against one corner. Swinging her leg idly, she smiled at the suspicious stranger. "Why don't we? Go ahead—do it. I might have to spend the night in jail, but once this painting is identified and my employer contacted, John'll be the one explaining things to the police. If he sticks around, that is."

Her challenge met with a cautious response; the stranger didn't go near the phone. "I can't just let you leave the house with that painting," he said finally. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"

"You don't."

"Well, convince me, dammit!" he snapped softly.

Troy couldn't help but smile wider. She cocked her head to one side like an inquisitive bird. "You wouldn't have gone into business with him, would you? I don't think you trust him."

"That's beside the point," he said.

"Hardly."

He glared at her.

Troy returned his glare with a thoughtful look, then nodded slightly as she came to a silent decision. "Okay then; since you won't trust me, I'll trust you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he inquired warily.

She held out the cardboard tube. "You take it. Put it under your pillow or in your suitcase or something. If John calls the police in the morning, you'll know he's legit and that I lied. If that happens, wipe your fingerprints off this tube and drop it in the umbrella stand, where it'll be found quickly."

The stranger made no move to accept the painting. "And if he doesn't call the police—assuming, of course, that he discovers the painting gone?"

"Oh, he'll discover it gone. I'll bet he drools over it every morning and again before he goes off to bed. He's probably built—or is building a secret room down in the wine cellar for this first acquisition and all those he hopes will follow."

"And so?"

"And so, when you find John at breakfast tomorrow morning gnashing his teeth and hear him giving his security people hell—and not bellowing about his loss over the phone to the police—you'll know he was responsible for having the painting stolen initially or that he was well aware of the fact he'd made an illicit purchase. Then, if you decide to trust me to return the painting to its rightful owner, we can meet somewhere."

The stranger appeared to be nearly as quick at making up his mind as Troy was; he reached out to accept the painting. "An honest man," he said ruefully, "wouldn't hesitate to call the police."

"Scruples are hell, aren't they?" she noted sympathetically.

"Do you have them?" he asked ironically.

Cheerfully Troy said, "I used to. But it occurred to me that I was missing a lot in life, so I threw 'em away."

Baffled fascination grew in his dark eyes. "Who are you?"

Troy made a slight gesture that a Shakespearean actor would have envied in its controlled insouciance. "Just a thief passing in the night."

"Quit it," he ordered irritably.

Amused, Troy realized that he was fast on his way not only to condoning, but even defending her chosen occupation. Swallowing a giggle, she fought hard to infuse her voice with an air of mystery. "Where shall we meet? In a dark, dingy bar with greasy cutthroats glaring in shifty-eyed malevolence?" She warmed to her theme while the stranger gazed at her in baffled silence. "There'll be a man with a face like a bulldog tending the bar, and the clientele will look as if they belong on the Ten Most Wanted list, and nobody will meet our eyes when we look at him. Mr. Big will be in the back room with his hit men, and he'll have one of them peer through a two-way mirror to make sure we're not wearing white hats. And then—"

"Enough already!" The stranger groaned softly.

Solemnly Troy said, "Not your type of habitat, I gather. Oh, well. Then we'll just pick up our lamps like what's his name and go in search of an honest man. What say we meet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?"

"What's your name?" he demanded, ignoring all else.

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "Don't you mean my alias?"

"Dammit!"

In her relatively eventful life Troy had learned many useful lessons, not the least useful of which was that it wasn't safe to wave a red cape at a bull on the point of charging. Somewhere after that lesson came the one about taunting strange men. So she quit while she was still in one piece.

"I'm Troy. What about you?"

"Dallas," he murmured. "Dallas Cameron."

There was a moment of silence. Reflectively Troy said, "Better known as 'Ace' Cameron—because you always have an ace up your sleeve in a business deal."

He looked startled. "You've heard of me?"

"Even cat burglars read the newspapers," she explained apologetically.

Dallas Cameron ran fingers through his hair in a gesture probably originated shortly after man first met woman. "You are the damnedest—Troy what?" he demanded suddenly.

"Just Troy."

"Now, look—"

"As interesting as this little meeting's been"—she cut him off calmly—"I really should be on my way. One of the security men checks this room every two hours, and his last check was an hour and a half ago. I'd suggest you go back to your room and forget that you were in here tonight; if the security man finds you after I've gone, your host is apt to be rather suspicious in the morning."

"How are you getting out?" Dallas asked, staring at her. "For that matter, how'd you get in?"

"Turn off the light and I'll show you." Before he could reach the switch beside the door, she added, "Wait a second," and removed the small flashlight from her belt again. "Better take this so you won't bump into the furniture. Point it at the floor if you don't mind."

Accepting the flashlight, he muttered, "And if I do mind?"

Ignoring the disgruntled question, Troy waited serenely for him to follow her requests. Commands? When darkness had once more claimed the room, she waited until the darting beam of light—pointing toward the floor, she observed with amusement— reached her. Then she moved silently toward the window. She pulled the drapes apart and slid one leg over the sill, leaning out and reaching for her line.

Dallas barely had time to note these activities before she had disappeared through the window. Startled, he only just remembered to keep the flashlight hidden inside before poking his head out the window. "What—"

"Shhh." It was only a sibilant whisper, as were the words that followed. "Don't move. Don't make a sound."

He could just make out her face in the darkness, and his eyes slid sideways and down, following the direction of her gaze. Into his line of sight came a guard and a vicious-looking Doberman.

In his place at the head of a boardroom table Dallas "Ace" Cameron was a man widely known for his nerves of steel. Nothing, both friends and enemies had said at various times, had ever shaken his iron composure. But now, as his eyes followed the progress of the watchman below, Dallas felt his heart stop.

Here he was, leaning out of his host's library window in the wee hours of the morning, holding a stolen (from whomever) painting in one hand, a thief's flashlight in the other, and highly conscious of the woman clinging to the brick wall to his right with the ease of a damn fly. And when the watchman chose to dawdle leisurely directly below them, Dallas felt his heart begin to beat again. It sounded like a jungle drum to him.

He also had to sneeze. Badly.

For an agonizing moment the watchman remained directly under them, his voice reaching them in the cold night air as he complained absently to his companion about lousy working conditions. It seemed to be an old refrain to the Doberman, because he paid little attention to his handler. Instead, he gave Dallas a very bad moment by sniffing around the bushes close to the house.

But then the guard had called the dog to heel, and they wandered on around the corner of the building. Dallas let himself breathe again, conscious of an overwhelming sense of. . . relief? He looked at Troy, wondering if the brush with certain discovery had shaken her composure.

She was smiling at him.

"The Lincoln Memorial," she whispered. "Tomorrow—I mean, today—around two in the afternoon. Okay?"

Instead of replying, Dallas leaned farther out and let his gaze follow the rope upward to where it disappeared over the edge of the roof. Then he looked back at the most unusual cat burglar he was ever likely to encounter. "The Lincoln Memorial. At two," he murmured, defeated.

"Leave the window open about an inch," she instructed efficiently. "And the drapes as well. See you tomorrow." Then she began to move up the rope hand over hand, her feet walking up the wall as easily as if it had been a floor.

Ten minutes later Dallas was back in his bedroom. He found himself staring at a rolled-up painting and a flashlight. Muttering to himself, he thrust both under his pillows, taking care not to press down on them when he tossed his robe aside and got into bed. He turned off the lamp on his nightstand and lay back, staring up into darkness. And he said only one more word, a word that seemed to his bewildered mind to sum up exactly how he felt about the entire situation. "Hell."

Some time later, and two miles away from the isolated house she'd left behind her, Troy climbed into a waiting helicopter. She strapped herself in and then donned headphones to talk to the pilot over the roar of the aircraft as it lifted off.

"Home, James," she said cheerfully.

"I don't see the painting." It was a bear-rumble of a voice, exactly suited to the broad, stolid face of the middle-aged man at the controls.

Troy finally allowed the evening's accumulated giggles to escape. "It's being delivered, Jamie. Tomorrow at the Lincoln Memorial."

A grunt was Jamie's only response until the helicopter was well on its way to an airstrip near a fashionable suburb of Washington, D.C. When he did speak, the bear-rumble voice was amused, affectionate, and rueful. "You've found another stray, eh?"

Swallowing another giggle, Troy said casually, "I'd hardly call Dallas Cameron a stray. Would you?"

The helicopter dipped slightly at an ungentle jerk on the controls. Jamie's incredulous eyes stabbed at her across the dimly lit cockpit. "Dallas Cameron?" he asked faintly.

"Uh-huh."

"Scrupulously legal Dallas Cameron?"

"The very same."

"The one they call 'Ace' to his face and 'Genghis Khan' behind his back?"

"Yep."

"Oh, God."





Two




Dallas Cameron had lived in Washington for nearly two months now. He'd moved his main office from the heart of the Silicon Valley in California to D.C. slightly more than six months ago, and had spent those first few months commuting between the two offices. Now the West Coast office was in capable hands, and Dallas had chosen to remain in the East.

He'd discovered that he enjoyed the hectic pace of life in the nation's capital, enjoyed being surrounded by historic sights and the multilingual, multinational people who lived and worked there. His house was out of the hands of decorators now and was beginning to feel like a home to him, and he'd already landed a rather substantial contract with a certain government department to supply electronic components for aircraft and spacecraft.

Now, sitting on the wide steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dallas wondered dispassionately what the odds were against his being in the most policed city in the country with a stolen painting in his hands and not getting caught.

"Idiot," he muttered to himself, watching his words assume a frosty shape in the cold air and then dropping his gaze to the cardboard tube held in his gloved hands. He asked himself if he was here because he'd believed Troy's story about the painting, or simply because he wanted very badly to see her again, in broad daylight this time, without the sense of unreality he'd felt during last night's meeting.

He knew the right answer.

Thoughtfully Dallas gazed out across the long pool separating the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, his eyes following the string of Japanese cherry trees lining the Reflecting Pool. Their limbs were bare now, not yet ready to flower into the beautiful blossoms that would draw the eyes of tourists and natives alike. Lovely blossoms.

What color were her eyes? And her hair? How old was she? And how, for God's sake, had she stumbled onto her extremely odd occupation? Did she ever, he wondered, steal paintings from their rightful owners?

Uneasily Dallas shifted slightly, the movement due not to the cold marble beneath him but to uncertain thoughts.

Although no one in his or her right mind would ever call Dallas naive, more than one of his less scrupulous business associates had accused him of being unworldly in certain views and judgments. To Dallas there was right and there was wrong, and a man took his stand on both. He could be utterly ruthless in business, but Dallas Cameron would never step outside the morality he'd established for himself. He didn't break laws, and he didn't break people; there were no footprints on other backs from Dallas's climb to the top. Not many successful businessmen of thirty-six could claim that they had never hurt another human being through business practices, intentionally or not; Dallas, had he been asked, could say just that with absolute honesty.

There had been hurt that he realized he was responsible for at least in part in his personal—which was to say romantic—life. But those hurts had been unintentional and were, even now, deeply regretted. That was a major reason why Dallas, as the saying went, played the field. Dallas wanted no scalps dangling from his belt.

Still, a man could control certain aspects of his life, he believed. A man made choices. He decided whether or not to abuse alcohol and drugs. He chose a certain life-style. He obeyed laws or broke them. He treated people with honor or he didn't. And sometimes he set himself a moral code he believed in, and he lived within it.

Troy. Whether her intentions sprang from the best or worst of motives, she nonetheless broke the law. Stealing, for whatever reason, was legally and morally wrong.

Dallas heard himself laugh shortly.

"That's odd; you laughed, but you look as if you were contemplating throwing yourself into the Reflecting Pool."

The voice was cheerful, a breath of spring on a winter day, and before Dallas could rise, she was sitting on the step beside him. He half turned, ridiculously eager to see Troy in the honest light of day. And his first thought was that the shadows of last night had cheated him. Badly.

She was smaller, for one thing; not much over five feet tall, he guessed. She was wearing a sheepskin jacket over a black turtleneck sweater and faded jeans, her small feet encased in scuffed desert boots. Her face was as delicately lovely as he remembered, her smooth ivory complexion untouched by freckles and radiating a rare translucence. Her large eyes were tilted at the outer ends in a catlike manner, and were green with gold flecks. Or . . . gold with green flecks. Odd; he wasn't sure which.

Her brows, too, were slanted, giving her an uncanny air of mystery. Well-molded cheekbones, a delicately straight nose, a firm jaw and chin, a long slender neck—and a beautiful mouth curved with pure laughter. And she was a redhead.

Dallas didn't doubt for a moment that Troy was a true redhead. Her vivid hair was the color of a flame, the color women and their hairdressers strove for in vain because it could never come out of a bottle. Falling to just below her shoulder blades, her hair was styled simply; parted in the center, it was thick and slightly wavy, curling under at the ends. And it shone like burnished bronze, Dallas thought, looking vibrantly alive even in winter's weak sunshine.

"Finished with the inventory?"

Dallas blinked and tried to concentrate enough to string a few words together that made reasonable sense. She wasn't, he realized, either annoyed or disturbed by his scrutiny. If anything, she was simply amused. He looked into the strangely shifting colors of her eyes and found no conceit there, not even an awareness of her own beauty.

Impossible, he told himself. She couldn't possibly not know. . . .

"Sorry," he muttered, unable to stop staring.

Troy leaned back against the step behind her, resting her weight on her elbow. "Did you know that this memorial is made of Colorado marble?" she asked conversationally. "It has thirty-six Doric columns, which represent the number of states in the Union when Lincoln was killed."

She wore no rings, he noticed, and her hands were slender with long, clever fingers and unpolished nails that were neat ovals. "No," he said finally. "I didn't know that."

Troy nodded toward the pool and the Washington Monument. "Did you know that the monument was dedicated in 1885 and designed by Robert Mills?"

"No." Dallas frowned suddenly. "Why're you making like a tour guide?"

Her green-gold/gold-green eyes laughed at him. "I had to say something. You sure weren't holding up your end of the conversation."

To his surprise and intense annoyance Dallas felt himself flushing for the first time in years. "Sorry," he repeated stiffly.

Troy waved a hand in another of those oddly controlled yet expressive gestures. "Forget it. By the way—did your host rather casually ask you this morning if you'd ever tried to crack a safe?"

A smile tugging at his mouth, Dallas said, "You're a smart lady, aren't you? As a matter of fact, John did. I've never claimed to be an actor, but I must have shown the proper amount of bewildered surprise, since he dropped the subject immediately."

"How'd you get the painting out?" Troy asked, her own smile showing even white teeth and one elusive dimple.

Fascinated by the dimple, Dallas almost forgot to answer. "Under my coat." He handed her the cardboard tube suddenly. "Here—take the damn thing. I've been looking over my shoulder ever since I left John's house this morning."

"Thinking he'd come after you?" Troy asked dryly, accepting the painting.

"No," Dallas told her. "Thinking about all the police in this city."

"I would have confessed if they'd nabbed you," she said solemnly.

Dallas wasn't amused. He was, in fact, more disturbed than he could ever remember being in his life. He had a flashing vision of endless nights haunted by dreams of beautiful redheaded cat burglars, and winced. "Dammit," he swore softly, yet roughly. "Why'd I have to walk in on you last night?"

The smile left her face but not her eyes; the smile there was tiny and uncomfortably perceptive. "Scrupulously legal Dallas Cameron," she murmured.

He looked at her steadily. "Stealing is wrong."

"Even for the right reasons?"

Disregarding that, Dallas said, "The rightful owner should have gone to the police. Then John would be behind bars, where he belongs."

Troy shook her head slightly. "He did go to the police." The smile had not left her eyes; it seemed to belong there as an innate, permanent thing. "But do you know how many art objects are stolen every year? The police don't even know for sure, because private collectors of stolen paintings sometimes steal from each other, and the thefts, of course, go unreported.

Thefts from museums and legitimate collectors number in the hundreds—even thousands—each year. Most are transported out of the countries they were stolen in. Interpol does its best, and its best is very, very good. But sometimes there are no clues, and the art objects never surface."

Interested in spite of himself, Dallas asked, "Is that what happened in this case?"

"More or less." Troy looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, then went on calmly. "When the collector got in touch with me, I called my contact at Interpol in Paris. He told me that they had no leads, either on the thief or the painting, and that they didn't recognize the thief's M.O.—modus operandi; I'm sure you recognize the term from cop and detective shows on television. Anyway, he told me to have at it. And wished me well."

Dallas felt floored—and looked it. "You mean, he actually told you to try and steal the painting?"

"He told me to recover it if I could." For the first time there was the faintest hint of steel beneath Troy's easy manner. And the eyes that looked at Dallas, still containing their smile, were suddenly more green than gold. "Breaking as few laws as possible along the way." The last was said with a touch of sarcasm.

Stubbornly, perhaps suicidally, Dallas kept digging. "You're telling me that an officer of an international police organization gave you his approval to break into a private home and steal something?"

Troy watched him for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to respond to his question. One corner of her mouth was lifted in a crooked half-smile that was, any of her friends could have warned Dallas, a distant rumble of thunder before a violent storm. The tiny smile still glinted within her definitely green eyes. She sat up abruptly, holding the painting negligently in one hand. "Mr. Cameron—"

"Dallas," he corrected automatically, and the look in her eyes then made him feel suddenly small and oddly in the wrong.

"Mr. Cameron," she repeated with absolutely no inflection in her voice. "Like many redheads, I have hell's own temper. I also believe that my work is necessary, and I enjoy it. And if that isn't enough for you, then listen to this: You walked in last night on—in your own interpretation—a crime. If it'll make you feel better, go to the police. But don't preach at me. I'm a second-story woman; I can live with that. You don't have to."

Dallas looked away from the compelling green of her eyes. He saw a massively built man stumping determinedly up the steps to their right and several steps below them, the intense expression of a tourist on his broad face. But Dallas paid little attention to the man. Instead, he focused on the only part of her level speech that he could respond to. "Second-story woman?"

"Another term for cat burglar," she said dryly.

"Shhhh!" he hissed as the tourist drew level with them, then moved on up the steps.

"Why not expose me to the world?" Troy asked him coolly. "This is your chance, Mr. Cameron. Look— there's a cop. Will you flag him down, or shall I?"

Dallas turned his head to glare at her; oddly she was smiling again, and her eyes were shifting in color from green to gold. "Dammit," Dallas muttered, feeling a furious rage because the expletive wasn't strong enough.

"Well?" she taunted softly.

He reached out suddenly, one gloved hand curving around the back of her neck and pulling her toward him with a jerk that should have unbalanced her. But it didn't. When his lips found hers, Dallas felt a moment of tension in her, a moment during which, he realized dimly, she was on the edge of exploding into action with the ferocity of a wildcat. Then she relaxed, her lips softening and warming beneath his. But she made no effort to touch him of her own volition.

Dallas kissed her as if he would pull something from deep within her and make it his own. He kissed her with the fury and gentleness of a man who sought something he couldn't put a name to, something too powerful to fight and too elusive to understand. And when he finally drew back, his dark blue eyes were almost black, and his breath came harshly.

"Does that answer your question?" he rasped.

Troy leaned back slowly away from him, her own eyes dark gold and her breathing quick. She looked at him steadily as his hand fell away from her neck, no pretense in her eyes of not understanding him. "It's impossible," she told him quietly, her voice husky. "You must see that. I'm a thief. For whatever reason, in your eyes I'm a thief. And I won't stop being what I am."

"Troy—"

"Thinking of reforming me?" In control again, her steady gaze was both rueful and ironical. "That only happens in bad novels and worse movies. Why should I give up something I feel is right just because you—a virtual stranger—think it's wrong?"

His eyes were restless, impatient. "Look, if you had a legitimate career, I wouldn't think of asking you to give it up, but—"

"As it happens," she interrupted calmly, "I do have a legitimate career. I develop and set up security systems for people. Isn't that funny?"

"For God's sake," Dallas said blankly.

Troy watched his astonishment for a moment, then spoke again. "I don't know exactly what you have in mind, Mr. Cameron—"

"Dallas!" he exploded. "Dammit to hell, call me Dallas!"

She compromised: she didn't call him anything. "—but whatever you have in mind wouldn't work. You won't abandon your scruples, and I don't have any."

"Will you stop waving that at me like a banner of pride?" he demanded wrathfully. "It's nothing to brag about!"

Troy sighed, beginning to be honestly amused. "You know, I've run head-on into some moral walls in my time, but yours rivals the Great Wall of China. And though it'd probably be quite interesting to knock a few blocks out of the thing, I just don't have the patience. You'll have to look somewhere else for your fling."

"That wasn't what I had in mind," he told her irritably. "And what makes you so damn sure it's my wall that needs to come tumbling down?"

"Not tumbling down. It just needs a few blocks knocked out of it to let the fresh air in."

Dallas strove with himself. "What about your wall?"

"Don't have one. Just lots of wide open spaces." She smiled easily. "It's called being broad-minded."

"It's called being a thief!" he snapped.

Troy shrugged. "Call a spade a spade. Doesn't bother me."

Dallas reached desperately for an argument to combat her calm certainty. "You're paid money to steal. You gain from theft. Don't you see how wrong that is?"

After a moment Troy said neutrally, "And if I didn't gain? Would that make it more acceptable?"

"Hell—I—maybe. I don't know. It's a moot point anyway. You were hired to steal that painting from John. What he did by hiring someone else to steal it for him doesn't excuse what you did. Two wrongs don't make a right, dammit."

Troy would have laughed at the cliche, except that she could hear the struggle in his deep voice. She kept her own voice level. "In this case, at least, two wrongs do make a right. John was punished by the loss of his money as well as the painting, and Interpol will keep an eye on him from now on; not a thing could be proved against him in court—"

"It could have if you hadn't stolen the evidence!"

"There were no grounds for a search warrant," she said flatly. "Remember the law? The police couldn't get inside his house to find the evidence. Suspicion isn't enough."

Balked, Dallas tried again. "What about the thief John hired? He gets off."

"Only for the moment." Troy smiled slightly. "I had to track him down in order to find out who'd hired him; Interpol now has a nice little eight-by-ten glossy of him. And since I'm reasonably sure he pulled off that jewel heist in London last week, I'm sure they'll get him."

Dallas stared at her silently.

"All out of arguments?" she asked dryly.

"No. It's wrong to steal. It's wrong to gain by stealing."

Troy sighed. "Look, never mind. You go your way and I'll go mine, okay, pal? Life's too short for this kind of a debate."

"I can't walk away," he said, his voice grating softly.

Troy fought to ignore the leap of her heart. "It's the novelty, don't you see that? You've never met a cat burglar before—much less a woman cat burglar."

"So?"

"So it'll pass. And you'll be glad you didn't try to reform a hardened criminal."

Dallas made a slight, almost unconscious gesture, as if to sweep her last word into oblivion. "It won't pass. And I'm not through trying." His blue eyes bored into hers. "I want to know who you are, where you live, whether you like animals. I want to know your favorite colors and your favorite foods, and if you play tennis or bridge. I want to know where you were born and grew up, where you went to school, and who cleans your teeth.

"I can find that out, Troy. No life leaves no traces. If I don't learn you from you, then I'll hire detectives— every detective in the damn city if that's what it takes—and I'll find out everything I want to know about you."

Troy's face was very still, the smile in her eyes briefly extinguished. But then it surfaced again. "You know," she said slowly, "I'm . . . almost . . . tempted to call you on that."

"It's not a bluff," he warned evenly.

"Why?" she asked. "Why so determined?"

"You know. You're woman enough to know."

She tamed the leap of her heart again. "You're asking for trouble," she warned in turn. "I honestly don't believe that two people as different as you and I could ever find common ground. And I'm past the age of believing that chemistry can form the basis of anything except experiments in a laboratory."

Dallas ignored that. "It's your choice. Either you let me find out about you in the . . . acceptable way, or else you force me to employ other methods."

"What do you expect to find out?" she asked, suddenly curious. "That I was twisted by heredity and environment and turned into a criminal? That I lead a life of shadows, a life filled with shady meetings and surreptitious phone calls? That I live in a house filled with stolen loot and cringe whenever a police officer passes?"

"I want to find out what's there," Dallas said flatly.

Troy looked at him for a long moment. Then she shrugged. "All right. If you're so damn determined to look into the nooks and crannies of my life, feel free. Believe it or not, I've nothing to hide."

Dallas almost relaxed. "Fine. Where do I pick you up for dinner tonight?"

She bit back a laugh. "Arrogant, aren't you? Give you an inch and you run away with it."

"You didn't answer the question."

"Was that a question? It sounded like a command. If I must have a sparring partner, you'd better know the rules. And rule number one is that I won't be ordered around. Period."

"Pardon me. Would you please have dinner with me tonight?"

"No."

"Dammit!"

Dryly Troy said, "Look, last night was a long one, and it didn't end for me after I left you. In fact, I haven't been to bed. I intend to go home and have a nice nap, after which I'll call the collector in Paris. Then I plan to fall back into bed and sleep all night."

Dallas controlled himself. "Tomorrow night then?" He only just remembered to make it a question.

"I'm giving a party. You're welcome to come; the address is Three-oh-nine Oak Street. It starts at eight or thereabouts. Formal." When Dallas looked at her suspiciously, she shook her head slightly. "I'm not giving a phony address; I don't lie. Funny little quirk of mine."

He finally nodded. "All right."

"Don't expect to meet the cream of thieving society," she warned lightly. "You're more likely to see diplomats, politicians, Army and arty types, maybe a few senators or congressmen . . . judges. I'm a democratic hostess."

When he recovered from that, Dallas said wryly, "Maybe I'd better ask something before I come to your party."

"Ask away."

"Among the distinguished types mentioned, there isn't a husband, is there?"

"Scores of them. But none belonging to me."

"You're not married?"

"Someone's going to have to get me pregnant first," she said sweetly.

"I'll remember that," he shot back calmly.

Troy remained seated while he rose to his feet, thinking that she was going to regret this. As a sparring partner, he lacked nothing; but sparring partners didn't exactly make for comfortable relationships—and Troy found all the excitement she needed in her work.

"Eight," he said, looking down at her.

"Or thereabouts," she responded easily.

He kept looking down at her. "You haven't called me by my name yet," he noted neutrally.

"Is that a prerequisite to being investigated?" she asked dryly.

"Troy."

She was never able afterward to explain to herself what it was about his voice that got to her. It might have been the yearning note that, she was certain, echoed only in her imagination. It might have been that no one else had ever said her name in quite that way. Whatever it was, it got to her.

"Okay. I'll see you around eight—Dallas."

A smile curved his mouth, something warm kindling in his dark blue eyes. "I'll see you tomorrow night, Troy." Then he turned and made his way down the steps.

As Troy watched his lean figure disappear into the distance the big man who'd been waiting, silent and watchful, among the Doric columns at the top of the steps came down to join her. He sat beside her, joining her in looking after the man who'd just left.

"You walked past us very pointedly," she observed absently.

"You were smiling your dangerous smile," the big man explained in a voice that sounded like an angry bear at the bottom of a deep well. "I thought I'd better pass by to remind you not to light into Cameron."

"I nearly did, Jamie," she said ruefully. "He was needling me about stealing being wrong."

Jamie looked at her curiously. "Even after you explained that you don't gain by it?"

Troy slid a look at her big companion. "Yes, well—I didn't exactly tell him about that."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. Yes—I do know. He was so damn complacent about his belief and so utterly unwilling to listen to mine. To hear mine. I think he wants to reform me, if you please. And I have a terrible suspicion that he's going to try and blame my unlawful ways on heredity and/or environment. He probably thinks my father was a Skid Row bum and my mother a hooker."

Jamie hid a smile at her disgusted tone. "You've met others who wanted to place your delicate feet on the straight and narrow," he said mildly.

"I know. But dammit, he makes me mad!"

"Then tell him the truth."

"That he makes me mad? He knows that."

"No, mon enfant—tell him about yourself."

"He wouldn't believe me."

"Show him."

"That's his idea." Troy sighed, then muttered abruptly, "I think I own stock in his company!"

Jamie burst out laughing at the sudden astonishment in her voice, his own tone even more of a bear-rumble in amusement. "Well, he left calmly enough, at any rate. You must have said something to placate him."

"I invited him to my party," Troy said woefully.

Remembering the kiss he'd seen, Jamie said rather carefully, "Was that wise, chérie?"

"No." She sighed. "It wasn't a bit wise. But he said that either he'd find out about me from me, or else he'd hire detectives. And I don't think he was bluffing, Jamie."

"May I ask why he's so determined?"

Troy looked at him with a comical mixture of caution and amusement. "Well, don't go all stuffy and protective, but I'm reasonably sure he has designs on my virtue."

Jamie, the memory of that kiss strong, was more than reasonably sure. He was certain. "I promised your father I'd look after you, mon enfant."

"You've taught me to look after myself," she reminded.

"True. And you're over twenty-one. But be careful. Cameron strikes me as being an honest man, but he's not known for his fidelity."

Troy got to her feet, holding the almost-forgotten painting securely. "Fidelity doesn't interest me, Jamie. I'm not ready to settle down."

Jamie rose more slowly, his face concerned as he looked down at her. "You've never been in love, chérie. But when you fall, you'll fall hard. I just don't want to see you hurt."

The talents of a genuinely great actress must have been passed down to Troy; her laugh sounded sure and heart-whole even to herself. "Love? Jamie, Dallas Cameron thinks I'm a thief, and nothing's going to change his opinion. And I could never fall in love with a man who thought me immoral. It just isn't possible." She started down the steps confidently.

"Besides, as soon as the novelty wears off, he'll be gone."

Moving after her, Jamie muttered, "Uh-huh. When pigs grow wings and hell freezes over."

If Troy heard him, she gave no sign.

The house on Oak Street was nestled in among the towering trees that had given the street its name. It was a tall and stately house, a generation older than Troy, and it boasted some thirty rooms. The mansion—a well-cared-for Colonial—was beautiful.

When Troy briskly entered the house through the front door, Bryce was there to take her jacket, as always just a moment too late to open the door for her as he thought proper. Troy hid a grin at the slight crack in his butlery composure, silently admonishing herself, as always, that she really should stop bolting into the house and upsetting the poor man.

"Three messages, Miss Troy," he announced in his clipped British accent, holding the much used and despised (by him) sheepskin jacket as though it were a mink coat. "The French gentleman called again and asked that you return his call at your convenience."

"Uh-huh."

"Mr. Elliot called to inform you that he is bringing the ingredients for his—punch—to the gathering tomorrow night."

Bryce said punch as if it were a blow from a fist rather than a drink, Troy thought in amusement. She smothered a yawn behind one hand, the exhaustion of too many hours without sleep beginning to catch up with her. "Fine. And the third message?"

"A gentleman," Bryce said, his emphasis proclaiming that he had his doubts about the noun, "called and asked if Troy lived here. Then he demanded to know your last name."

"You hung up on him, of course?" Troy murmured, thinking that Dallas had worked fast to get her unlisted number. How on earth had he managed?

"Of course." The butler unbent enough to say somewhat sternly, "Mrs. Miller is preparing something light for your dinner. Miss Troy. I would suggest that you lie down for a few hours before the meal."

Amused, Troy said, "I'm way ahead of you, Bryce."

Ten minutes later Troy had stripped and slid between cool sheets in her French Provincial bedroom. Just as she was relaxing into sleep, a sudden thought made her sit up and reach for the phone on her nightstand. She placed a call, asked one brief question, listened to the answer, then expressed her thanks and hung up.

Lying back on the pillows, she thought with drowsy irritation, Damn, I do own stock in his company!





Three




The alcove at the top of the stairs was a perfect place from which to observe comings and goings, and Troy used it for just that. None of her guests would expect her until they saw her; it was neither lack of punctuality nor any desire for theatrics that made her invariably late for even her own parties, but merely a life filled to overflowing with things to be done. As it was, she'd only finished getting ready five minutes before, and the party had been in full swing for almost an hour.

So she paused in the alcove, shielded by shadows from the eyes of her guests below as she took a moment to catch her breath and gaze down on the cream of several different crops of Washington society. The military was represented in all of its branches and most of its ranks; the occasional wafting upward of foreign words and phrases indicated the presence of members of the diplomatic corps; strident "discussions" of the economy hinted at government representatives; glittering jewels and evening dresses announced fashionable society.

It was a sight to gladden the heart of any hostess, but Troy merely noted the guests with cursory interest. Familiar faces all, and though she was always glad to see friends, she was looking for a particular face at the moment.

And there he was.

Troy felt her heart leap, and fiercely steadied it. Of course, he'd come; the man was determined if nothing else. Shatteringly handsome in a black dinner jacket, he strode through the huge sitting room, clearly visible to her through the archway across from the stairs.

He moved like a cat, she thought vaguely, like a slightly aloof and innately arrogant Siamese. And the crowd that was filled with important people, with world movers and shapers, seemed automatically to give way before him in an unconscious acceptance of superiority.

Troy frowned at that. Not even her dearest friends would have ventured to call her pliant or self-effacing, and when two arrogant and stubborn personalities met head-on . . .

Now she was frowning at herself. Idiot, she thought. Dallas Cameron would very shortly lose interest in a thief met in the night, so there was really no need for this unsatisfactory comparison of personalities. Besides, what they didn't have in common would fill volumes, and she'd probably never see him again after tonight.

Unconsciously biting her lower lip, Troy continued to watch as he progressed through the crowded sitting room and into the vast entrance hall below her.

She'd always thought that no man was ever as handsome as he could be unless in uniform, but Dallas Cameron, she acknowledged silently, didn't need the gilding. He overpowered and overshadowed every other man here tonight, even the silver-haired judge commonly considered the sexiest man in the city.

Troy smoothed unexpectedly nervous hands down her thighs, studying his cat-footed, Indian-file walk and noting, even at this distance, that his blue eyes were restlessly searching the crowd of faces. She knew who he was looking for, and a sudden tugging in the pit of her stomach weakened her composure momentarily.

But then Troy squared her shoulders and stepped determinedly out of the alcove. He was just a man, dammit, no more and no less. Just a man, and no threat to her peace. Just a flesh-and-blood man.

With a face that had haunted her dreams . . .

In spite of Troy's light warning, Dallas hadn't expected the definitely democratic mix of types at her party. In the hour he'd been here, he had already spoken to a general, two colonels, a judge, a senator, two congressmen, a society deb, three business moguls he knew well, a pro quarterback, three artists, and a very famous popular singer.

He also hadn't expected this house, although he'd driven past it twice the day before, feeling a strong sense of disbelief. And his disbelief had grown with every brief conversation held here tonight; he had smoothly and subtly questioned everyone he met about his hostess.

In a city where scandal and gossip ran rampant, and backstabbing—verbal or otherwise—was commonplace, Troy's reputation appeared to be inviolate.

She had apparently collected a variety of nicknames: Kat, Red, Honey, T.B., Tiny, and—inexplicably to Dallas—Blaze. And Tom Elliot, the popular singer and heartthrob whose function at the party seemed to be guarding a punchbowl, referred cheerfully to her as Blondie. After the comic strip? he wondered.

Dallas tried and failed to reconcile these new versions of the woman with his own ideas. Who was she? What was she, for heaven's sake?

Wandering out into the entrance hall, he continued to wonder where she was. He searched unfamiliar faces, looking for gold-green/green-gold eyes and flaming hair. (Blaze! Of course! he thought.) And then he saw her descending the stairs, and rational thought fled.

Flaming coppery hair was piled high on her head, adding a new and disconcerting dignity, and she moved like a queen. Her gown was stark black with a plunging V-neckline, and it clung to her body with more affection than a second skin. Her eyes were green-flecked gold tonight, emphasized by lightly shadowing makeup . . . and they were vividly alive. There were diamonds around her throat and circling one wrist; high heels added inches and still more dignity to an innate sinuous grace that was riveting.

Dallas swallowed the remainder of his drink and automatically set it on the tray of a passing maid.

Troy spoke lightly and casually as she reached the bottom step, refusing to allow the intensity in his eyes to disturb her. "Hello. Enjoying the party?"

Dallas found that he had to clear his throat before words would emerge. "I am now," he told her huskily.

Unlike most redheads Troy wasn't a blushing woman, but she felt heat sweep up her throat. Leaning an elbow on the banister, she strove for blasé acceptance of the compliment. "How sweet," she murmured languidly, long lashes dropping to veil her eyes in a perfect imitation of a bored society deb.

Laughter abruptly lit his blue eyes. "You do that very well," he noted approvingly. "Have you tried it on the quarterback?"

The society deb vanished and Troy fought to hide a grin. "You mean, Rick? Is he moping again?"

"If by moping you mean, is he boring everyone silly with his hangdog look and monologues about you, the answer is yes. How many other callow youths will I find entangled in your web, Miss Bennett?"

"Scores of them," she answered solemnly. "I collect them, you see." Then, abruptly serious, she said, "His team had a losing season, poor kid, so he's feeling generally morose."

Testing her reaction, Dallas murmured, "He seems to be suffering more under the weight of unrequited love at the moment."

Gazing at him with that disquieting little smile in her remarkable eyes, Troy shook her head slightly. "Trying to see me as coldhearted as well as a thief, Cameron?"

"And if I were?"

"Then you will." A crooked smile lifted one corner of her mouth and flashed an elusive dimple. "Your opinions are your own; I'm not responsible for them."

For some reason Dallas couldn't let the subject drop. And the memory of the young quarterback's besotted expression when he spoke of Troy roused something deep within Dallas from a peaceful sleep. "That kid's in love with you." he said flatly, all teasing and testing over.

Troy started to step past him, but halted to stare down at the hand encircling her wrist. Her eyes lifted slowly to lock with his, and the green fire in hers should have warned him.

It really should have.

"Mr. Cameron," she said in a deceptively mild voice. "You seem to be under the mistaken impression that I give a damn what you think. Banish it. And please try to remember that you're a guest under my roof."

"I've had a look at what's under this roof," he said roughly, still clasping her wrist, "and I can't help but wonder how you came to—uh—acquire the art treasures I've seen."

"Why, Mr. Cameron, you mean, you don't know?" With a sudden and unexpectedly powerful twist, she freed her wrist. Stepping past him, she added smoothly over her shoulder, "I stole them, of course."

Dallas could have kicked himself for provoking her, wondering with a confused mixture of anger and bewilderment why he couldn't seem to stop himself from constantly digging. He watched her move away from him, noting the immediate smiles her presence caused, and the sleeping beast, roused by the callow youth's smitten eyes, lunged on its chain.

He wanted to—had to—understand her. Never in his life had a woman ignited his body and mind the way Troy did. Never before had primitive urges tormented him awake and asleep. And never before had the two sides of his own nature, the ruthless and the sensitive, been so at odds with each other.

He had always found a delicate balance within himself. Ruthless up to a point, his sensitivity always announced itself and restrained him from injuring another or breaking his own moral code. But his ruthless side was clamoring now, demanding with a voice out of the caves of man's distant past. And the demand was for possession.

Still and silent, watching her from the bottom of the stairs, Dallas fought an inner battle that was no less violent for its absence of sound. The emotions welling up inside of him were unfamiliar, yet he understood them. And in that moment he realized for the first time in his life the meaning of the word obsession.

He was well on his way to being obsessed with Troy Bennett.

Troy deliberately and consciously lost track of Dallas Cameron. She moved among her guests, chatting and laughing, automatically performing the duties of a hostess even while inwardly seething.

How dared he judge her? How dared he? Damn the man! And to imply that she had callously ignored poor Rick's open adoration! Didn't he realize that she was well aware of the crush, and was handling it the best way she knew by treating it lightly?

She clamped a lid on her temper, and it spoke volumes for her self-control that no one she talked to realized that she was absolutely furious.

After two hours, however, with the party still in full swing, the strain of smiling and talking lightly began to wear on Troy. Refusing to search for his face in the crowd—had he left?—she slipped away and found the library thankfully empty of guests.

Wandering over to the big leather chair that had been her father's, Troy rested her hands on the high back and overcame an impulse to throw something. Then inexplicably she felt tears rise in her eyes. She was suddenly tired clear down to her bones. It all seemed so empty: the house her parents had loved, the round of parties she was expected to attend, the once heady excitement of recovering stolen property.

She wondered absently if it would have made a difference if she'd told Dallas that she was a licensed private investigator or that insurance companies often hired her to investigate thefts of art objects.

No. He had met a thief in the night, and probably nothing would alter that crucial negative first impression.

Idiot. She was just tired, that was all. How many years had it been since she'd last taken a real vacation? Too many. Yes, she was just tired.

But Troy recognized it was more than that. Brooding silently over the vagaries of fate, she heard the library door close softly, and knew who would be there even before she looked up.

He was leaning back against the door, staring across the softly lighted room at her. There was something in his gaze, a curiously beaten expression that tugged at her, and Troy wondered what it meant.

"More taunting?" she asked, her voice level.

"No." He shook his head slightly, adding quietly, "I've come to apologize."

"It doesn't matter."

"It does."

With a tremendous effort Troy managed to keep her voice impersonal. "You and I are like two flints, Cameron—bound to strike sparks off each other."

Slowly he said, "Sparks can start a fire that warms."

"Or consumes." She gazed at him steadily. "I've never put much faith in pretty speeches or euphemistic terms, Cameron, so tell me now exactly what you want of me."

"I want to know you," he answered immediately.

Troy laughed shortly. "Know me how? As a novelty?"

"No, dammit." Dallas pushed himself away from the door and crossed the room to stand beside her. "You're a fascinating woman, Troy Bennett. And I'm very much afraid that you've become an obsession with me."

Troy felt a lump in her throat, felt her heart pounding in a suddenly uneven rhythm, and looked down at her hands in an attempt to ignore the intense blue of his eyes. "Why?" she murmured, not sure she wanted to hear his answer.

Dimly, the sound muffled by walls and shelves of books, the strains of a love song came from the sitting room as the musicians returned from their break. Dallas turned his head slightly, listening, then looked back at her. Ignoring her question, he asked a soft one of his own. "Dance with me?"

Troy looked up at him slowly, disturbed by his eyes, by his oddly taut face, by his request. "I don't think—"

"Dance with me." He reached for her hand, holding it firmly as he stepped back and drew her away from the chair. "Let me hold you."

It was the last husky plea that weakened her defenses, and Troy went into his arms silently. Stiff, wary, she felt his breath softly stirring the tendrils of hair at her temple and wondered at the fluttering in her belly.

You've danced with princes, she reminded herself in confusion. With princes and sheikhs, presidents and movie stars. With men who moved the world through their actions.

Why did this man, and only this man, shake her?

He held her as closely as possible without using force, aware of her resistance. Unhurriedly he lifted both her hands to his neck, dropping his own to her waist and easily spanning its tiny girth. Inch by inch, with only a gentle pressure, he drew her even closer.

The movement was so insidious, so perfectly timed with the slow steps of their dance, that Troy became aware of the lessening distance between them only when she felt her breasts brush his dinner jacket. Her breath caught in her throat with a gasp, the silky slide of her dress over the bare flesh it covered intensified by the rough material of his jacket. She wanted to draw away, but there was a weakness in her legs and in her soul, and she experienced a sudden need for a strength not her own.

She could feel his chin move against her temple, feel his chest rise and fall in a quickening rhythm. Without conscious volition her hands curled at the nape of his neck, her fingers losing themselves in his thick black hair. Breathless, suspended, she was dimly aware of their steps slowing even more until they were barely moving—outwardly.

Inwardly Troy felt violent surges, a red-hot movement of feelings and impulses she'd never experienced before. They tore through her body with the speed and devastation of a tornado, leaving weakness and bubbling desire in their aftermath. She wanted to break free of his embrace, but didn't have the strength; wanted to speak, but didn't have the breath.

God, oh, God, what was he doing to her?

She felt his hands slide up her back, scorching the flesh left bare by the low-cut gown, then drop suddenly to mold her hips and pull her hard against his lower body with abrupt impatience. What little breath she could command left her lips in a rush as the hard throbbing of his desire ignited her senses. Troy hid her face in his shoulder in an instinctive attempt to prevent him from seeing the helpless reaction.

"Troy ..." His voice was deep, choked off somewhere in his throat, and his movements against her had become a primitive and sensuous dance needing no music.

She closed her eyes, breathing rapidly through parted lips, her fingers tangling fiercely in his hair. The kiss on the steps yesterday, she realized vaguely, had barely hinted that he could make her feel like this. He had stolen her breath then, but she sensed that he was stealing far, far more now. Her willpower. Her strength. Her soul. Herself. . . .

The familiar and comforting library vanished; time ground to a halt. The bubble of need within her grew, expanded, until it filled her entire body. It throbbed in rhythm with his desire, demanding an end to a sweet and mindless torture. She felt his hands searching, exploring, creating a sensual friction with the silky material of her gown, and the bubble of desire filled with a hot rush of hunger.

"God," he whispered harshly, unevenly, "you're not wearing a damn thing under this dress, are you?"

Troy heard the words, but the sensations in her body gripped and burned and refused to allow speech. She felt his lips moving down her cheek, along her jaw; felt the demanding heat of them stringing burning kisses down her throat. She lifted her head from his shoulder only to throw it back, the unconscious, provocative gesture allowing more scope for his explorations.

Mindless, eyes tightly closed, she stroked his silky hair helplessly and aided him in locking her body to his. Never in her life had she experienced such a burning hunger. She throbbed from head to toe, and she couldn't be close enough to him to satisfy the need to touch him.

There was no rational voice in her mind, no whisper of logical warnings. There was only this building, smothering feeling of reaching for something unknown to her. Reaching, and her body yearned to find it. Reaching, and the tension was unbearable. She heard a groan rumble from deep within Dallas's chest, and her senses spun dizzily.

And then, cutting suddenly through the layers of mindless desire and the silence of the library, the music, unheard by them for so long, now switched to a raucous, foot-tapping, jazz number.

Troy's eyes snapped open in shock, and her hands fell away from him. She felt his hands release her, saw his head lift and eyes as dazed as her own look down at her. And the shock of interruption merged with the sudden shock of awareness as she realized just how far she'd been willing to go with this virtual stranger.

Dancing, she thought dimly. We were just dancing. . . .

She stepped back, feeling the rush of air cooling heated flesh and the rush of sanity replacing blind desire. One step, two, three; she backed away from him as if from a suddenly recognized devil. The big leather chair halted her retreat, and her hand fumbled for the touch of rich leather and reality.

"Troy . . ."He hadn't moved; he stood where she'd left him with every muscle tensed, and his face was white. A nerve pulsed erratically at one corner of his tightly held mouth. "You see why I have to know you?" His voice was uneven, harsh.

She swallowed hard, her nails leaving marks in the leather she was gripping. "Chemistry," she choked, the lump in her throat refusing to dissolve.

He took a sudden step toward her, the movement filled with the tension and unfulfilled hunger that was still throbbing in the air between them. "I've felt chemistry before," he bit out tautly. "But I've never felt anything like what just happened between us. And if you're honest, you'll admit the same thing."

Troy fought for some hold over her churning emotions, some stable surface to stand on. "What makes you so sure I haven't?" she challenged shakily. "I'm twenty-eight, Dallas, and I've seen a lot of the world. I could have had scores of lovers for all you know."

"Have you?" he asked very quietly.

She stared at him, wanting to lie but sensing dimly that it wouldn't matter to him. Driven by a curiosity she couldn't fight, she murmured, "What if I said yes?"

"It wouldn't matter," he answered flatly. "It wouldn't change anything, Troy."

"You'd just add promiscuity to my catalog of vices, I suppose?"

His head jerked slightly, denying the accusation. "No. If you told me you'd had scores of lovers, then I'd have to believe that you'd . . . cared . . . scores of times."

"Generous of you," she snapped softly, reaching for anger, for anything to combat the bewildered emotions she was feeling.

Dallas swore with a violence no less fierce in its quiet intensity. "Troy, I don't want to know how many lovers you've had. Don't tell me. All I want to know is that I'll be the only lover in your life . . . now."

Her body aching, Troy looked at him in silence. Then she shook her head. She didn't want an affair with Dallas, and she knew very well that nothing else would develop—could develop—out of their attraction. Opposites could attract, certainly, but rarely did they cling permanently. "I don't want a lover . . . now," she whispered.

"Troy— "

"Don't you understand?" Her voice was soft, driven. "When I see rain, I look for a rainbow. When I see thorns, I look for roses. But when I look at this— whatever it is—between us, I see only thorns and rain. All I see are the problems."

"If you'll just give it a chance—"

"And be left bleeding when it's over?" she interrupted, vulnerable, and not caring that he should see her vulnerability.

He took another step toward her. "You're looking at endings before beginnings," he told her huskily. "No one can say if it has to end—unless and until it does."

Troy attempted desperately to make him understand, afraid of what he could take from her if he tried. "A relationship with at least a possibility of. . . continuity is worth taking a chance on. But something that's impossible from the beginning—"

"It isn't impossible!" he insisted softly.

Her smile was twisted. "Remember how we met? Remember your question not too long ago about how I 'acquired' the art treasures in this house? Your mistrust is a wall neither of us can break through."

"You don't have to be a thief," he snapped, and realized immediately and with a sinking sensation that he had unintentionally built the wall higher.

Her eyes were vividly green; she'd found the stable surface of anger to stand on. "Thief." She repeated his word with a soft and deadly emphasis. "You see? It's between us like an ocean, and I won't cross to your side, Dallas Cameron. I won't be taunted, and I won't be reformed. I am what I am, and you can't accept it. And I won't climb into bed with a man who calls me a thief." She drew a deep breath, finishing quietly, "So there's nothing to talk about, is there?"

Dallas gazed at her for a moment in silence. He fought the instincts urging him just to grab her and to hell with talk, leashing the violent emotions she had roused in him.

"Now, if you wouldn't mind leaving?" she suggested, wishing him gone because her anger had drained away and left behind it an urge to find a quiet corner and cry her eyes out. . . .

"But I would mind," he said abruptly. Before she could speak, he was going on unemotionally. "Thief. Yes, that's partly how I think of you. But if I've learned anything tonight, it's that you're a woman who . . . wears many hats. If I believed that you were just a thief, I wouldn't be standing here arguing with you; I'd be gone."

"Get to the point," she requested shortly, hanging on grimly to her composure.

Slowly he did. "I told you that I had to know you, that you were becoming an obsession with me. You're like a—a picture not quite in focus, something my eyes are straining to see clearly." He took a deep breath. "Maybe you're right, and there's no future in it; but I have to believe that myself, and I don't. If you're so sure about us, Troy, then let me be sure too. Give me a chance to see you clearly."

"As a lover?" she inquired, her voice constricted.

Dallas hesitated, the curiously beaten expression appearing in his eyes again. "I hope . . . eventually. But as a woman first, as a person. I wouldn't ask you to climb into bed with a man who called you a thief, Troy."

Troy felt the breath catch in her throat, wondering dimly at the rough unsteadiness of his final sentence. What was he asking of her? And why couldn't she look away from his intensely blue eyes? She shook her head, not certain what she was denying.

"Please, Troy." His eyes held hers steadily. "Let me get to know you. No strings; no pressure, I promise you. And no taunting. I won't try to reform you. I won't rush you into a relationship you think we aren't ready for. I just want to see you . . . wearing all your hats."

Troy became suddenly aware that the band was playing another tune now, a love song, and the seductive, throbbing sound of it was undermining her resolution. She tore her gaze from his with a force that broke something inside of her, and confusion welled up again. "Damn you," she said very quietly.

"Troy." He took another step toward her, her name a plea, a caress, a demand on his lips.

She kept her face averted. "I don't want you in my life. You're a potential heartache walking around on two legs, and you're asking me to show you everything that I am."

"I won't hurt you." He was standing directly in front of her now.

Troy chuckled, only a breath of sound, and there was no amusement in it. "I don't believe you, you know. I've heard empty promises before, and that promise has all the earmarks of being empty." She looked up at him with eyes that seemed to be pure gold, and what he saw there nearly stopped his heart. "Keep your empty promises to yourself," she spit softly.

Dallas saw pain in her eyes, an old, half-healed scar. It shocked him oddly; until that moment he would have sworn that Troy had traveled lightly through her life, avoiding hurts. But the sight of her pain and vulnerability roused in him an anger at whomever had hurt her, and a fiercely protective emotion that he didn't try to define. He reached out to capture her resisting hands, holding them securely in his own.

"I don't make empty promises," he told her flatly. "Troy, all I'm asking is the chance to get to know you."

"And then what?" Molten gold burned up at him. "A roll in the hay because spring is in the air and you've never slept with a thief before?"

"Stop it." His hands tightened on hers. "Stop making what I feel for you sound cheap, because it isn't. I want you, Troy, because you're a beautiful, desirable woman. I want to be your lover, and at this moment I don't care if you've stolen the crown jewels of England."

Troy wanted to call him a liar, but the words wouldn't come. She looked down at the large, strong hands holding her own, and knew suddenly why she couldn't accuse him of lying. And she knew then that Dallas Cameron was going to hurt her, and hurt her badly.

Opposites could and did attract. The passion that was still a stubborn weakness in her body told her that. Opposites did attract ... for a time. And she was drawn like a moth to the flame that would destroy it. Dallas had taken something from her, something she would never be able to recover. And when he left her one day . . .

"All right," she heard herself say quietly.

"Troy?" he breathed softly.

She met his gaze steadily. "You've got your chance. We'll get to know each other. But I won't let you interfere in my work." Because it's all I'll have left when you've gone, she added silently.

His chest moved with a sudden deep breath. "That's all I want—a chance," he said huskily.

Troy very gently pulled her hands from his grasp. "Now, since my guests will soon be drifting out, I should be there to say good night."

Dallas nodded. "I'll say good night now," he told her with an odd gentleness. "May I see you tomorrow?"

"I've got a busy week planned," she hedged.

He smiled a little. "Mind if I tag along?"

"What about your company? Shouldn't you be minding the store?"

"I haven't had a vacation in years; what's the use of being the boss if I can't take some time off?" he asked lightly.

Troy summoned a smile from somewhere. "All right then. But you'll probably be bored silly."

"I doubt that. What time?"

"Eight tomorrow morning."

His brows rose in faint surprise. "After a late night?"

"After a late night."

"I can take it if you can," he said wryly.

Troy watched him hesitate, observing that he had nearly bent his head to kiss her and wondering why he had apparently decided against it. But she didn't ask. Her eyes followed as he moved slowly to the door, absorbing the cat-footed grace that would rivet her gaze even in a crowd.

He half turned to look back at her. "Good night, Troy."

"Good night, Dallas."

She stood alone in the silent room for a long moment, her mind a blank. And when her own voice shattered the stillness, it roused her as if from a trance.

"Who's the thief, Dallas? Me or you?"

Squaring her shoulders, Troy went to see if Tom Elliot's punch had as much of a kick as he'd promised.

It was better than kicking herself for being a fool. . . .





Four




When Troy dragged herself out of bed at seven the next morning, she vowed between gritted teeth to get even with Tom Elliot before either of them was much older. Her head was going to fall off, she knew it was going to fall off, and there was not a damn thing she could do about it. She staggered into her bathroom with one hand clutching the throbbing weight and the other groping blindly.

Steaming hot water pummeling her in the shower helped, and the aspirin she swallowed promised relief, even though it dissolved sadistically on her sensitive tongue. By the time she'd managed to dress in jeans and a gold cowl-neck sweater and brush her hair gingerly, she felt almost human.

Standing before the steam-clouded vanity mirror in her bathroom, Troy cleared the glass enough to see her reflection and camouflage her reddened eyes with makeup, trying to think dispassionately about the events of last night. In the inebriated hours before dawn, her best tactic had seemed to be a fast charge through forward enemy positions. She had definitely arrived at that decision at some point, although she couldn't remember exactly when or exactly what it had meant at the time.

But Troy realized that she would just have to play it by ear. She frowned at the reflection of a woman who appeared paler than usual, remembering the sense of loss Dallas had left her with.

It all seemed unreal now, those abandoned and confusing emotions he had ignited within her. But she knew that it had been real, because even as she thought about it, her body ached emptily. She leaned her weight on the hands braced on the vanity and stared at her reflection.

"Have an affair with him," she told herself fiercely. "Take what you can get before the novelty wears off and he gets bored with you. You're twenty-eight years old; Lord knows, you're entitled to a fling if that's what you want."

But was it what she wanted? Did she really want to break a long-held rule and follow in the footsteps of so many of her friends—living for the moment rather than the future? Did she want to allow this man into her life and into her heart, knowing full well that she would suffer for it?

Because, dammit, she was already half in love with him. . . .

That was what had shocked her last night in the arms of a man she barely knew—not morals or scruples, but the sudden and certain knowledge of what she was beginning to feel for him.

"He thinks you've had a dozen lovers," she told her reflection with faint bitterness, "and it doesn't matter to him. That should tell you something, idiot. He may be obsessed with you, but it's a lead pipe cinch he won't take you home to meet his mother!"

With uncharacteristic violence Troy shoved the painful revelation away. He wanted to know her? Fine. She'd show him Troy Bennett wearing all her hats, and if his obsession survived the onslaught, she'd think of some other way to get him out of her life. She wouldn't let Dallas Cameron hurt her.

Bryce had done his usual perfect job in clearing up after the party; the only evidence of the night before were the flowers, sent to the hostess this morning, that were now decorating the entrance hall and sitting room. On her way through to the dining room Troy checked several of the cards accompanying the arrangements.

"The hospital as usual. Miss Troy?"

She looked over her shoulder as she paused in the doorway to the formal dining room, no longer able to be surprised by the butler's soundless approach. "Send them around later this morning, Bryce," she said, glancing back at the colorful flowers. "The geriatrics wing, I think."

"Yes, miss; I'll take care of it."

"Of course, you will," Troy murmured, stepping into the dining room.

Jamie was seated halfway down the long table, a newspaper spread out before him and a cleared plate pushed to one side. He looked up as she entered, his blue eyes bright and appraising. "Morning, mon enfant."

"Morning." Troy went immediately to the antique sideboard, and poured out a cup of steaming black coffee.

"The punch?" Jamie questioned sympathetically.

Troy threw him a grimace as she sat down across from him at the table. "It's not supposed to be so obvious; the cosmetics companies claim that they can hide anything."

"Try those eyedrops that 'get the red out' instead," Jamie suggested, deadpan.

"Breakfast, Miss Troy?" Bryce asked from behind her.

"No, thank you. Just the coffee."

"She'll have toast and fruit," Jamie instructed.

Bryce left the room, and Troy stared across at her very large and very dear friend with a faint smile. "Jamie—"

"You have to eat."

"And you're mother-henning me again, friend."

"Somebody has to."

Troy sat back in her chair and sighed softly. "Maybe you're right: I can't seem to take care of myself these days."

Jamie looked at her steadily for a moment, then calmly folded his paper and set it aside. "Not entirely the punch," he said slowly. "Something else is bothering you, chérie?"

She didn't answer until Bryce, after silently placing fruit and toast in front of her, had left the room again. Ignoring the fruit, she picked up a piece of toast and nibbled absently. "Someone," she replied finally.

"Cameron," Jamie guessed in the tone of a man who knew it was more than a guess. "I saw him last night."

Troy summoned a smile. "Before or after you disappeared into Daddy's den with your cronies for the game?"

"Before. He was talking to the general, and I had to wait to gather the last of my 'cronies.' '

She nodded, knowing that the general had spent the larger part of the evening—along with several other men—in the den with Jamie, playing poker. "Did the general win as usual?" she asked idly, finishing the toast more to placate Jamie than out of hunger.

"As usual, and stop changing the subject. Is Cameron going to be a problem?"

"Going to be?" Troy smiled in spite of herself. "He already is a problem. But he's my problem, Jamie."

"You're going to see him again?" Jamie asked carefully.

Before Troy could answer, Bryce stepped opportunely into the room. "Mr. Cameron to see you, Miss Troy."

"Send him in." Troy shrugged rather helplessly at Jamie's startled look. With the first real amusement of the morning she wondered what the two men were going to make of each other.

Dallas strode into the room a moment later wearing a blue turtleneck sweater over dark slacks, his black hair a little windblown, and Troy felt her heart skip a beat. Oh, damn, how was she going to be able to keep things from getting serious when just the sight of him affected her like this?

"Good morning—" Dallas began cheerfully, breaking off abruptly as he saw Jamie rising from his chair.

"Dallas Cameron," Troy murmured, "James Riley." Deliberately she didn't add any explanatory information. The two men shook hands, eyeing each other, she thought wryly, like stray cats preparing to be either amiable or hostile, depending upon how things went.

Deciding to avoid the issue, she asked Dallas briskly, "Have you had breakfast?"

He nodded slowly, still eyeing Jamie thoughtfully. "Yes, thanks."

"Fine. Then we'll be on our way." She rose from her chair.

Jamie resumed his own chair, donning the inscrutable expression he wore whenever his "enfant" was about to get herself into trouble. He addressed himself to Troy in his deep, lazy voice. "Making the rounds today as usual?"

Troy realized what he was asking. "Uh-huh. Mr. Cameron is . . . tagging along for the day."

Jamie's penetrating light blue eyes shifted to Dallas. "Mmm. Well, he looks to be in good shape. Might even be able to keep up with you."

Biting back a laugh at Dallas's rather stiff expression, Troy hastily made her way from the room. "See you later, Jamie," she called over her shoulder.

"Take care, mon enfant," Jamie called back meaningfully.

Troy snared her sheepskin jacket from Bryce's hands before he could offer to help her into it, and had the front door open before the butler could perform the task. Clearly aggrieved, Bryce did manage to halt her characteristic rush with a message.

"Mr. Elliot just phoned, Miss Troy. He asked me to remind you of the rehearsal this afternoon."

"Lord, is he up already?" Troy murmured, more to herself than anyone else. She shrugged into her jacket, highly conscious of Dallas standing just behind her. "The man's stomach must be cast-iron, and I hate to think of what his head is made of. If he calls again, Bryce, tell him I'll be there."

"Of course. Miss Troy."

She breezed out the door and down the steps to the front drive, with Dallas right behind her.

Parked in the drive with the engine already running was a low-slung, audibly powerful Porsche. It was strikingly, gleamingly black, top down, and promising hell with the lid off.

Troy paused a moment to watch Dallas's face assume a somewhat guarded expression as he saw the car, and she challenged coolly, "D'you mind being driven by a woman?"

"Not at all," he answered immediately. "In fact, I'd consider it an honor."

"Then get in." She climbed in the driver's side and waited while Dallas, who'd politely closed the door for her, went around to the passenger side and carefully folded his tall length into the cramped quarters.

His door shut firmly, Dallas looked across at Troy with lifted brows. "Where are we off to?" he asked cheerfully.

She put the car into gear and sent him a wicked smile. "First, we're going to pick up a monkey. You get to hold him."

"Great," Dallas murmured rather faintly, his fingers digging reflexively into the dashboard as the little car erupted from the driveway and into the quiet street with a roar.

It didn't take ten minutes for Dallas to find out that Troy was the wildest driver this side of the Indy 500. Not unsafe—just wild. And in a city filled with innumerable cops, they weren't stopped once. She waved cheerfully at uniformed officers she encountered, and all of them waved back, their faces set in the identical expression of resignation.

By the time they reached the pet shop that was obviously their destination, Dallas had managed to get a grip on himself. He did not like being driven—by anyone, man or woman. It was, he'd long ago decided, a dislike of surrendering control to someone else. He'd even accepted that dislike to the point of learning to fly the company jet himself rather than sit back and let the company pilot earn his pay.

And he had a sneaking suspicion that Troy knew, or had guessed, his particular phobia. The little witch . . .

As the car stopped in front of the pet shop he forced his hands to assume a relaxed pose on the dashboard. "Where," he asked carefully, "did you learn to drive?"

"Learn?" Her smile was gentle. "Why, it came naturally. D'you want to wait here while I go get the monkey?"

Dallas nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak. Watching as she disappeared into the shop, he reviewed the list of questions branded into his brain since he'd walked into her house only a few minutes before.

Who was James Riley? What "rehearsal" had Elliot called to remind Troy of? Why was she getting a monkey? How was it that all the cops in D.C. seemed to know her to the point of being clearly resigned to her wild driving?

After a moment Dallas wryly elected to keep his questions to himself. He'd already seen the results of provoking her; it was not something he cared to see happen again. Besides, he fully expected this day with her to answer some, if not all, of the questions. Those that went unanswered, he decided, he could deal with. Maybe.

The monkey, complete with red jacket and hat, was named Jinks, and busied himself by combing through Dallas's hair during the blessedly brief trip to their next destination, an orphanage.

The privately sponsored institution was overflowing with children, all of whom welcomed Troy with a joyous enthusiasm only slightly surpassed by their welcome of Jinks. Dallas, watching in fascination from the sidelines, noted Troy's obvious affection for the kids, and marveled at her endless patience with them. Odd, he thought, remembering the short fuse to her temper that he'd encountered once or twice.

They spent two hours at the orphanage and Dallas, instinctively comfortable with children, found himself answering their questions and drawn into their games. Too constantly aware of Troy to become completely absorbed, he nonetheless enjoyed the contact with the young and lively minds.

From the orphanage, where Jinks stayed behind with the kids, the little black Porsche weaved erratically through increasingly busy streets, stopping briefly at a fast-food restaurant where Troy solemnly treated him to a burger and fries. She chatted amiably to him during the meal, quite obviously making small talk and clearly aware that he realized that. And her striking green-gold/gold-green eyes coolly invited him to have another shot at provoking her temper by resisting her clear determination to keep things casual.

Dallas responded with easy cheerfulness.

The stops following their short lunch were made in such quick succession that he was left more than a little bemused. At each halt Troy introduced him casually as "Cameron—my sparring partner." She never explained the somewhat cryptic introduction, and, although Dallas garnered more than a few curious looks, he began to realize that no one who knew Troy was very much surprised by anything she said or did.

Later the Porsche visited three private homes, where Troy briskly discussed security systems with three clearly fascinated and very wealthy men, then made the rounds of several businesses where systems had already been installed. Dallas quickly discovered that Troy was highly respected in her profession, her advice immediately accepted as the word of an expert.

Carefully and silently gathering information from words dropped here and there and from what he saw, Dallas began adding pieces to the puzzle of Troy Bennett.

Like a chameleon she blended in perfectly with her surroundings—whatever they might be. She discussed electronics with and swore fluently and amiably at electricians, spoke patiently to children without talking down to them, dealt confidently with businessmen on an equal footing. She hurled the Porsche around town as if it were a guided missile.

There were several references made as to the whereabouts of Jamie and more than one mention of an upcoming charity event in which Troy was apparently to participate. There was also a clue that Troy's business was called TB Security and was run out of her home.

Between stops Dallas clutched the dashboard and tried to keep his eyes off the dizzily passing scenery. "TB Security?" he asked once, wondering if it stood for her name and nothing else.

Troy threw him a bland look that made him acutely uneasy, especially since it took her eyes off the road, and explained politely, "Teddy Bear."

"Teddy Bear," he repeated faintly.

"Uh-huh. A security blanket—like that."

"Oh."

"I wanted to call it B and E Security, or Nickel to Dime Security. You know, B and E for breaking and entering, and Nickel to Dime for the time one generally gets for breaking and entering. Five to ten years."

"Oh, Lord," Dallas said.

"Mmm. That's what Jamie said. So I decided not."

Dallas made a sudden decision and knowingly took his life in his hands—or rather in hers, he thought—by chancing one probing question. "You can tell me it's none of my business, but—who's Jamie?"

"James Riley."

Dallas silently counted to ten. "I know. But who is he?"

She didn't look at him. "A very dear friend."

"I see."

"I doubt it," Troy murmured as she hurled the Porsche around a turn.

Deciding to leave the potentially explosive subject alone, Dallas mentally added up his list of things they had in common. He meant to prove to Troy that they had a solid basis aside from chemistry on which to build a lasting relationship.

Although now considered a businessman, Dallas had founded his own company on expertise in electronics; they had that in common. A casual word from one of her clients had told him that she was a licensed pilot; they had that in common. The Porsche told him they both favored small, powerful sports cars. They both knew, understood, and loved art. They both liked children.

It was a good list. Couples had passed their silver wedding anniversaries having less than that in common, Dallas thought.

But. . .

He had called her a thief, and that one word was standing between them. He didn't believe that she was a thief—if he ever had in the beginning. But he had called her a thief, and that could never be taken back. Of course, he could tell her that he didn't think that now. But she wouldn't believe him.

How to convince her . . . ?

The last stop of the afternoon was at an auditorium, where Tom Elliot was waiting with his band.

Dallas was a sensible man. Usually. The green-eyed monster didn't trouble him. Usually. And he was well aware of the hazards of holding a stick of dynamite in one hand and a lighted match in the other.

Usually.

"Is he another friend?" Dallas muttered as they walked down the dim aisle toward the lighted stage and the noisy confusion there.

Troy stopped. She turned slowly and looked up at him. "He is."

Unable to read her changing eyes and changing mood, and unable to stop the words and emotions rising in him, Dallas pressed on. "And is he the reason you were hung over this morning?"

She crossed her arms over her breasts. "No. He was the instrument, I suppose you could say. Not the reason." Her voice was very even.

"Maybe I shouldn't have said good night so early," Dallas said tightly.

"When I want a watchdog, I'll buy a Doberman."

"Troy—"

"You're pushing, Cameron. And it stops right here. Or everything stops . . . right here."

His eyes adjusting to the dimness, Dallas looked down into her glittering green ones. She'll never be able to hide her anger from me, he thought, and didn't know if that would turn out to be good or bad. He looked toward the stage, where the blond, handsome, very famous and charming man was cheerfully ribbing his pianist. Then he looked back down at Troy.

"I've never been jealous before," he said quietly.

Troy felt her heart jump suddenly. Oh, damn the man! Why hadn't he done what nine out of ten men would have done—exploded? Why did he have to admit jealousy openly in a quiet and rueful tone that left her without the weapon of anger?

She hadn't meant to explain anything, but Troy was not surprised to hear her voice saying flatly, "If I'd wanted to get involved with Tommy, I would have done so years ago. He's a friend. I have lots of friends."

Dallas looked down at her for a long, silent moment. Then his hands lifted to rest on her shoulders, lightly, tentatively, as though he half expected her to shrug the touch away. "Troy. . ."He shook his head slightly. "It wouldn't bother me so much if you'd just meet me halfway."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do." His hands tightened. "There's been a challenge in your eyes since I first walked into your house this morning. You've dropped bits of information and worn them like chips on your shoulder, expecting—hoping—that I'd provoke you and give you a reason to ... to call off our agreement. You've drawn a line between us, and you're daring me to step over it."

"If you don't like the game—" she began hotly.

He gave her one quick shake. "It isn't a game! That's what I'm trying to make you understand. It isn't a game. You're not winning points for being stubborn, and I'm not winning them for being patient. I want to be a part of your life, Troy, and I want you to be a part of mine."

Troy stared up at him, mentally resisting, physically stiff.

Dallas returned her stare, feeling frustration well up inside of him. "What are you afraid of?" he demanded softly. "Me?"

She stepped back, shrugging away his hands. In a voice so low, he barely caught the words, she murmured, "No. Me." Then she went down the aisle and climbed the steps to the brightly lit stage.

He followed more slowly, stopping short of the stage to take a seat in the second row. All things considered, he decided that he really didn't want to have to shake hands with Tom Elliot. And he needed the dim privacy of the seats; he needed to think.

"Hi, Blondie," Tom called cheerfully as Troy tossed her jacket to the grinning drummer and approached the piano.

"Hi," she returned calmly, picking up a tall stool on the way and hefting it like a weapon. "Any last requests before I kill you?"

"The punch?"

"In spades. I woke up with somebody else's head this morning."

Tom lifted his shoulders in a shrug and spread his hands defenselessly. "I told you it had a kick," he reminded innocently.

"Uh-huh." Troy sighed as she set the stool beside the piano and climbed up on it. "I am definitely going to kill you. Once for that damn punch, and once for roping me into what's going to go down in history as this infamous duet."

"I'd like to rope you into joining the band permanently."

"Forget it, chum."

It was Tom's turn to sigh. "Don't you think I get tired of hearing the sound of my own voice?" he asked in a long-suffering tone. "I swear if one more hostess archly asks me to sing for my supper, I'll—"

Amused, Troy said, "It's your own fault for living in a city full of parties and hostesses. Live in Hollywood instead; there are so many entertainers out there, they'd never notice you."

Tom grimaced slightly. "Not a chance."

"Not going to accept the studio's offer, then?"

"Oh, no. I've seen what happens when some misguided studio decides to turn a singer into an actor; I can deal with the potshots from music critics, but I don't need film critics blasting me as well."

Smiling at him, Troy picked up a sheaf of music from the top of the piano, "Probably a wise decision, although you'd make a terrific actor."

"Why, thank—"

"You're pure ham."

"—you very much!" Tom's pleased tone turned indignant on the last three words.

"You're welcome."

Tom leaned an elbow on the piano. "While we're attacking personalities, was that Ace Cameron I saw you come in with?"

"Whose personality are you attacking with that question?" Troy inquired dryly.

"Don't avoid the question."

"It's him."

"Mmm. Should I ask why you brought him along?"

"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't."

"In other words, mind my own business?"

"Those words cover it nicely."

"I only wondered," Tom said innocently, "because it looked as if you two were having a disagreement up there in the aisle."

"You see too much, Tommy."

"Shut up and sing, huh?"

"Exactly."

"Oh, all right. But if you need a shoulder, Blondie—"

"I'll keep you in mind."

For the next two hours, Dallas sat quietly, watching and listening as Troy rehearsed several songs with Tom Elliot and his band. Her voice, though untrained, was richly powerful and huskily seductive, and Dallas wondered idly if anyone had ever told her just how good she was.

A chameleon, that's what she was. As changeable and unpredictable as a spring storm.

And afraid of. . . herself.

Since he wasn't a vain man, Dallas didn't believe that by that admission she meant she was afraid of how he could make her feel. Troy was a blunt woman; if she'd meant, I'm afraid of how you make me feel, then that's what she would have said. No, for some reason he didn't—yet—understand, she was afraid of herself.

He turned that over in his mind, examined it from every angle, held it up to the mental searchlight that had always penetrated to truth. But there was still darkness, because he didn't yet know enough about Troy to be able to see what was there.

And then there was the matter of how to convince her that he didn't consider her a thief. Dallas Cameron, boardroom strategist, tireless planner, went to work on that problem.

With an effort that left her head aching, Troy put Dallas from her mind long enough to rehearse with Tom. But during the brief intermissions between songs, while Tom discussed various changes with the band, echoes of their conversation—confrontation?—disturbed her.

"You're not winning points for being stubborn, and I'm not winning them for being patient."

"I want to be a part of your life..."

"It isn't a game!"

She didn't look out into the dim auditorium. She wouldn't let herself look to see if he was still out there watching. But reluctantly she realized that his accusation had been deserved. She had been wearing a chip on her shoulder all day. She had behaved with a grim determination, and that bothered her suddenly.

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