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The Glass Shoe

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年:
1989
出版社:
Loveswept
语言:
english
系列:
Once upon a Time...
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EPUB, 150 KB
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Contents

Synopsis

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Epilogue





Synopsis




Beautiful heiress Amanda Wilderman insisted she didn't believe in princes, yet shed agreed to attend the masquerade ball as Cinderella; dashing entrepreneur Ryder Foxx had no use for fairy tales but made an impossibly handsome Prince Charming. He never expected to meet a mysterious, masked enchantress who would steal his heart in a moonlit garden--and leave only a glass slipper behind to persuade him she'd been magically, passionately real! Amanda reveled in Ryder's fierce possession, adored being pursued for herself alone and not her wealth, but she knew the fantasy would end as the clock struck midnight... or would it? When Ryder arrived without warning at her Wyoming, ranch Amanda wondered how long her secrets would be safe from this hero whose caress overwhelmed her – and made her dare to dream. Ryder's love was a prize worth winning, but could she trust this dangerous, irresistible knight enough to admit she longed for happily ever after?





Chapter One




"This is the most absurd idea either of you has had. Ever." The only reason the statement wasn't wailed was that Amanda Wilderman hadn't been heard to wail since her infant days, some twenty-odd years before.

"It's an excellent idea," Amanda's seventeen-year-old cousin Samantha countered, "if only to get you out of your jeans and off your horses. Dammit, Manda, put your foot in!"

Amanda obeyed, but when she stepped into the other shoe and looked down at what was adorning her small, narrow feet, she really came close again to wailing. "You're out of your minds!"

Her other cousin, sixteen-year-old Leslie, giggled as she stood back, observing the effect of the costume Amanda wore. "This is going to be great!"

"It won't work," Amanda said, her voice taut as steel. "I've seen the guest list for this damned masquera; de, and I know for a fact there are at least fifty women attending who can, and no doubt will, knock the socks off even so jaded a man as Mr. Ryder Duncan Foxx. So what makes you think I'm going to bowl him over?"

Samantha and Leslie exchanged glances, and the former said dryly, "Don't tell her; it’ll only make her head swell."

Amanda gave both her cousins a disgusted look. "Funny. That's funny."

"Look, Manda," Sam said gravely but with a twinkle lurking in her eye, "you gave your word, remember? Any favor short of breaking the law, which this isn't. We've been collecting IOUs from you since last Christmas, and tonight's your night to pay up—in full."

If Amanda gnashed her teeth, at least it wasn't audible. "I should have known you two were up to something when you taught me to play poker. Why can't I just pay up in cash like any normal person?"

"Because we play for favors. You agreed."

"I agreed to too damned many things, it seems." Amanda frowned suddenly. "I have an awful hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Have you two been planning this for six months? No... not even you—"

"Guilty." Leslie grinned. "That's when the masquerade was announced."

In a reasonable tone Sam said, "Ryder Duncan Foxx is absolutely perfect for you, but you'd shy away in a minute if he knew who you were. This way he won't know anything about you. All hell see is a mysterious, beautiful young woman who’ll steal his heart."

Amanda made a sound. It was a choked little sound, a sound that was an odd mixture of anguish and horror. "You two aren't safe. You aren't sane. And I hereby revoke any deals made with you on the grounds of insanity. Yours. Not mine. Also on the grounds that neither of you is of legal age yet. God help the men of America when you do come of age, but that's their problem, not mine. Get me out of this costume."

Sam frowned. "No. A deal's a deal. Come on, Manda, what's one lousy night? You can leave on the stroke of midnight. In fact, we insist you leave before the stroke of midnight, otherwise it won't work."

"Otherwise it won't work," Amanda repeated dazedly. "I never realized that when I was reading fairy tales to you ten years ago they would corrupt you. Uncle Ed has to have you committed. Immediately."

Briskly Leslie said, "Manda, if you're so convinced it won't work, why are you protesting this much?"

Amanda pulled herself together. "You're right. Absolutely. What do I have to be upset about? I'm going to a costume ball, where I shall find at least a score of Cinderellas and an equal number of Prince Charmings. I shall dance and have my glass slippers trod upon. I shall drink champagne, and promptly flee before the stroke of midnight. The man you two demons have decided is my Prince Charming will never even know I was there."

Sam started to examine her fingernails. "Well, not exactly. Only one Prince Charming, you see. And only one Cinderella."

Amanda felt that hollow feeling again. "What?"

"Hmm," Les muttered, "we could hardly let anyone steal your limelight, could we? Ryder Duncan Foxx is coming as Prince Charming because he was asked to by the committee. Of course we couldn't have other Cinderellas there, so we booked up all the Cinderella costumes in town months ago."

"That," Amanda said, "must have cost you two a bundle."

Cheerfully Sam said, "Our allowance is in hock until the turn of the century anyway. Besides, one must expect a considerable cash outlay in any investment. You're ours."

"You sound like Uncle Ed." Amanda got a grip on herself again.

Samantha was pleased. "Thank you."

"Except that he's the sanest man I know." Amanda drew a deep breath. "Okay, fine. If your prince manages to find me in a crowd of two hundred people, he can have his dance—if he wants one—and I'll do my best to gladden your sweet little hearts and vivid imaginations. And that's all."

"He'll find you. You're going to make an entrance," Les intoned dramatically.

Amanda closed her eyes briefly. "I knew you were going to say something like that, you little monster. " She was, by this time, resigned. Sighing, she said, "At least I can wear pink tonight."

"That's why we made you a blonde," Les explained. "With your red hair, you never wear pink. And everyone knows it. Honestly, Manda, nobody'll recognize you. Even your voice is different."

A little dryly Amanda said, "Because I've just gotten over a cold, and I'm still hoarse from coughing. Don't tell me you planned that."

"No," Les said, faintly dissatisfied. "We couldn't, of course. We were going to have you speak very softly, but this is a much better disguise."

"And the best disguise of all," Sam said, "is your contact lenses. We knew your spare set was tinted blue, so when you took the other set out to clean them last night, we—um—switched them."

Amanda sighed. "I wondered. Thought I was going nuts. So my eyes are now blue-green instead of merely green."

"Actually," Les said, "they'll look completely blue. The mask is black, so your eyes will look darker. And Ryder Duncan Foxx will find himself dancing with a blue-eyed blonde instead of a green-eyed redhead."

"Maybe he doesn't like blondes," Amanda suggested with a faintly hopeful air.

"Well, actually—" Leslie broke off with a yelp as Samantha kicked her.

"Actually, he loves blondes," Sam said.

Amanda eyed her cousins suspiciously. "Actually," she said, "I wonder how you demons know that."

"We must be overusing the word," Samantha said innocently to her sister.

"Must be," Leslie agreed in a murmur, rubbing her abused shin.

Amanda clasped her hands together in front of her and glanced down at the spangled pink silk ball gown that was, in all fairness to her cousins, something straight out of a dream. Then she cleared her throat and spoke carefully.

"I really hate to burst your pretty bubble, kids, but there are a few tiny elements missing from your plan."

"Such as?" Sam asked.

"Have you looked out a window lately? Surprise! We're in the twentieth century. Ryder Duncan Foxx is not, from all I've heard, a prince in search of his princess. In fact, I imagine anything out of a fairy tale would get pretty short notice from him; by all accounts, the man is quite firmly rooted in the logic of business. And, in case it escaped your attention, I don't believe in princes."

"We know." Samantha's voice was suddenly and unexpectedly soft, and her eyes were very bright. "You've had that knocked out of you."

Amanda was conscious of a lump in her throat. "Well, don't sound so unhappy about it, dammit," she said irritably. "I'm twenty-eight; if I haven't learned about the absence of princes by now, I should be locked in a padded cell."

Sam smiled. "Manda, you've been like our big sister our whole lives, and we love you. Tonight is our present to you. Tonight you're Cinderella. When the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella leaves the ball, as anonymous as she came. And tomorrow, when the society press does its bit about the latest charity affair, they wont have their usual paragraph about Miss Amanda Wilderman and how much money she has in the bank."

Amanda managed a smile. "It's a lovely present, Sam, Les. Thank you." She forced herself to keep quiet this time about her inevitable doubts.

"Just remember," Les said firmly, "you must leave before midnight. If you have to take your mask off, everything's ruined. We'll be waiting in the limousine out front at eleven forty-five."

"We wanted a pumpkin coach," Sam explained, "but we couldn't find one anywhere."

"But it is a white limousine," Les said with an air of having made the best of things.

"Where do I drop the glass slipper?" Amanda asked, chuckling.

"Anywhere you like," Sam murmured.

Amanda eyed her cousin but wasn't sure if she was supposed to take that seriously. She decided not to; it was just too absurd—even for Samantha.

Ryder Duncan Foxx had finally gotten accustomed to his costume, although he still thought it was damned silly. While dressing he had mentally composed a letter to the committee, in which he made it plain in blisteringly polite language that the next time they chose his costume, should there be a next time, he would inspect it before agreeing to wear it.

For tonight, however, he was stuck in this one. Prince Charming indeed! He didn't mind the paste-jewel crown so much, or even the short cape, but the glittering tunic could have used a few more inches; he was hardly ashamed of his legs, but encasing them in white tights wasn't his idea of suitable evening wear for a man of thirty-two.

He would have been more upset about it, but there were at least a score of other men in tights of varying colors, so he took comfort in the knowledge that he wasn't suffering alone.

Perfectly aware that he was considered one of the five most eligible bachelors in the country, Ryder found the committee's choice of costume for him ironic in the extreme. Since most of his energy had been channeled into his business these past ten years, he hadn't had time or energy for being charming. And he had yet to encounter a woman who sparked in him even the faintest inclination to slay dragons or foil the evil spell of some demented witch.

Or the modern version of either, whatever that might prove to be.

Still, it was amusing to play the part, complete with royal dignity and princely bows, and somewhat surprising to discover he was really quite good at it.

The committee had pulled out all the stops. Thomas Brewster's garden had been transformed with the aid of a temporary wooden floor and innumerable lanterns into a ballroom fit for any fairy tale. The weather had cooperated nicely, supplying a cool, dry autumn night complete with stars and a full moon. And the orchestra had apparently been given every suitable piece of romantic music for the occasion.

The guests, paying charity for the privilege, were dressed to the teeth and having a grand time.

As co-host for the evening along with Thomas Brewster, Ryder did his duty and, for the most part, enjoyed it. Everyone at the ball had learned to dance immediately after the first uncertain steps of childhood, so it was a pleasure to have such accomplished partners. A few mothers, hoping perhaps for something more lasting than a dance, steered their unmarried daughters his way, but Ryder, experienced, coped easily and with disinterested courtesy.

The ball began well. It was nine-thirty, and all the guests had made their way down the marble steps to the dance floor in the garden. Stealing a break from dancing, Ryder was standing on the far side from the steps, watching the couples moving decorously and half listening to the music. Even as his brain registered from which musical this particular tune originated, he looked up toward the steps—and lost all interest in music.

Ryder was striding toward the steps before he consciously realized he was even moving, his eyes never leaving the delicate enchantress who was moving gracefully down the steps.

He didn't know why, not really. There was nothing logical about his reaction to her. He wasn't particularly susceptible to feminine beauty, so it wasn't that. And he had already danced with a number of ladies who were strikingly beautiful. Granted a moment to think about it, he would have admitted a preference for brunettes or. even more, for redheads. So his desire to go to her was somewhat baffling. Still, he felt no inclination to resist his own impulse.

He decided vaguely that the music must have gotten to him. Or maybe the absurd crown he wore.

She saw him, hesitated almost imperceptibly, and then continued toward him.

He reached the bottom of the steps first, and waited.

The ball gown she wore was a soft pink, the spangles on the full skirt catching and reflecting the light in a brilliant shower of stars. Above the skirt, pink silk molded her impossibly tiny waist and caressed the full curves of her perfect breasts. The neckline was off-the-shoulder and its standup lace trim framed the creamy flesh of her shoulders and throat. Her slender, graceful neck was bare of jewels and needed none; only diamond earrings glittered at her lobes. And the fragile silver webbing of a diamond tiara, like a crown, caged her golden hair in an upswept style that was the essence of femininity.

A black butterfly mask hid much of her face from him, but he could see the gleam of brilliant blue eyes, and below the mask the lips were delicate, curved in a secret, enigmatic smile.

He had already seen the glass slippers on her small feet, but he had needed no confirmation of who she was tonight. Cinderella.

Without a word Ryder offered his hand when she reached him, and he was oddly moved to feel her elegant fingers quiver in his gentle grasp. He lifted them to his lips, still silent, and then led her out onto the dance floor.

He was beginning to understand how Prince Charming had felt.

She went into his arms naturally, gracefully, and danced as though the music were a part of her. She seemed content to be silent, but Ryder was not. However, though it was highly unusual for him and not a little surprising, he found himself considering and rejecting various comments and questions before he voiced them. He was astonished to realize that he felt like a boy on his first date, tongue-tied and terrified of making a mistake.

"You dance well," he finally offered in a sincere but decidedly lame attempt to break the silence between them.

"Thank you." Her voice was husky, musical; the glance she sent upward held a laugh.

Ryder smiled. "Does it show so plainly?" he asked in mock resignation.

"Does what show?"

"My lost wits."

She laughed very softly. "I've noticed nothing missing. Perhaps you just mislaid them?"

"No, I'm afraid they're lost for good. After all, how often does a man find Cinderella in his arms? And I'm at a disadvantage too. You can hide behind your mask, but I'm not wearing one."

"You're one of the hosts."

"It's a stupid rule. Take off your mask," he urged her.

"Not until midnight."

Ryder thought about it, keeping step perfectly with the music without having to pay attention. "Cinderella ran away," he said finally. "I recall that distinctly. She left on the stroke of midnight, and the poor prince was desolate."

"It served him right," she said solemnly. "Princes always have things too easy."

"Dragons," he protested.

"The dragons always lose," she pointed out.

"Because princes are heroes."

"And usually not very bright," she said gently.

"On behalf of princes everywhere," Ryder said, "I resent that."

"I'm not surprised. But it's true. Think about it for a minute. Would you carry a glass shoe from house to house, having promised to marry whomever it fit?"

"She had very tiny feet," Ryder explained.

"A number of women have tiny feet. I wear a small size myself—and there must be a dozen women here tonight who could wear these glass shoes of mine."

He considered that. "You have a point. I'll admit that the prince might have found himself married to the village shrew. But it turned out all right."

"Yes. Happily ever after."

Ryder heard the rueful note in her voice, and his own tone became more serious. "So you believe Shakespeare more than fairy tales? "Put not your trust in princes'?"

The music stopped just then, and she stepped back, then gave a slight curtsy. "Cinderella knew only one prince," she said lightly. "If she'd known a few more, she might have been more wary. Thank you very much for the dance, Mr. Foxx."

"Oh, no," he said, catching one of her hands and tucking it into the crook of his arm. "We aren't finished yet."

As he led her toward one of the garden paths, she protested, "You can't leave the dance floor. You're the host."

"I've done my duty. Now I plan to enjoy myself with a Cinderella who doesn't believe in princes."

Amanda was more than a little surprised, but she made no attempt to escape him. It appeared that she had indeed caught Ryder Foxx's interest—but not in the way that Sam and Les had hoped for. Of course, they hadn't expected Amanda's own bitterness to filter through Cinderella's masquerade.

At that moment, for the first time, Amanda decided simply to enjoy the evening... to be the innocent, trusting maiden she was supposed to be. Every woman should have the chance to be Cinderella for one night, she thought somewhat wistfully. Yes, every woman deserved the chance to possess a starry-eyed faith in princes and love and happy endings. What was wrong with that for just one night?

So, quite without being conscious of its existence, Amanda allowed the chip on her shoulder to fall away. She was Cinderella, walking beside a tall, dark, and handsome prince through a moonlit garden on a magic night when impossible things were possible.

"You're very quiet," he said as they strolled down the neat path of the formal garden.

"Now I've lost my wits," she murmured, and felt a dim astonishment at the shyness she heard in her voice. Shy? Amanda Wilderman?

They had reached the center of the garden, where wrought iron benches ringed a tri-level stone fountain. The gentle splash of the water was soothing, and the music from the dance floor no more than a soft counterpoint.

Amanda sat down, grateful to be off her feet; the custom-made shoes were comfortable, certainly, but since she usually scorned high heels, they were still a trial. She was too conscious of Ryder's closeness as he sat down beside her.

"Tell me who you are," he said quietly.

She looked at him. The moonlight stole color, but his face was revealed clearly, even starkly, by the light. It was a lean face, handsome by any standards. A wide, intelligent brow, high cheekbones, firm jaw. His striking pale gray eyes were colorless in the moonlight, but the unusual vividness of them still was obvious.

Amanda drew a short breath. "Tonight I'm Cinderella," she said.

"Who will you be tomorrow?"

"Someone else." She hesitated, then said, "That doesn't matter."

"But—"

"Please. I don't want it to matter."

"So you are hiding behind the mask?"

Amanda laughed softly. "Of course. I crashed the party."

It was a reasonable explanation. The guest list for this event had been decidedly exclusive. And it wouldn't be the first time that a gate-crasher had taken advantage of a masquerade.

"I won't tell anyone," he promised solemnly.

"A true gentleman. Thank you."

"If you remove your mask, that is."

She laughed again. "I take back the first part; gentlemen don't resort to blackmail."

"Don't let the costume fool you," he said. "I'm no gentleman." He captured one of her hands and held it against his thigh firmly. It trembled in his grasp, and the impulse to remove her mask himself died before he could make the attempt. His free hand had half lifted toward her, but he slowly lowered it again.

Hearing her soft sigh of relief, he said, "You wouldn't have stopped me."

"No. Either you believe in the magic or you don't."

"And you do?"

"Tonight I do."

After a long moment he said slowly, "All right. But promise me you won't leave at midnight."

Amanda hesitated, but he had left her an out. She wasn't going to leave at midnight. She was going to leave before. If, that is, she decided to finish her role the way it was written. So she gave him her word. "I won't leave at midnight." And before his keen brain could begin examining that for a loophole, she added dryly, "The coach won't turn into a pumpkin, the horses into mice—or my gown into rags."

"Your fairy godmother must believe in overtime."

"She has a union."

To her surprise, Amanda thoroughly enjoyed the next couple of hours. Ryder Foxx was a charming man with a highly developed sense of humor, and was willing—at least until midnight—to accept his role in a modern fairy tale. They walked in the garden and talked, discovering that they shared a number of opinions and beliefs as well a quick wit and a somewhat ironic way of looking at the world around them.

They also disagreed amiably on a number of topics, which was another step in getting to know each other.

"Snails," Ryder said when the subject of culinary preferences came up.

"Yuk," Amanda said.

"You should try them."

"I have. That's why I said yuk."

He chuckled. "Grasshoppers?"

"Don't tell me you've—"

"No. I just wondered if you had."

In an aggrieved tone she said, "If I don't like snails, what makes you think I'd like bugs?"

"Not even covered in chocolate?"

"Not even covered in gold."

"That," he said gravely, "seems to take care of gourmet delights. Shall we move on?"

"Please."

"Well then, let's hear your opinion on the state of the world."

"Ill tell if you'll tell," she said in a teasing tone.

He laughed again. "I get the feeling we agree. The world's going to hell, but with a little luck won't get there until the sun goes nova."

"That about sums it up. And if you want another pocket summation, I'm for space exploration, rainy days, fewer taxes, baby animals of all kinds, good books, museums, flowers left in gardens instead of stuck into vases, old movies, spicy food, and the poetry of Keats."

"And what are you against?"

"Snails and bugs being termed edible."

"I got that the first time," he said reprovingly, and the hand lightly holding her arm slipped down to warmly grasp her hand. "What else are you against?"

Amanda couldn't quite recapture her light tone. "Oh... music with words I can't understand. Cruelty. A social security system running out of money. Hunting anything that can't shoot back. Cheating at solitaire. War. People who don't signal before they turn."

His hand tightened on hers. "And princes?"

She was very conscious of the man walking beside her, aware that something was happening between them. It was unexpected, and she couldn't quite define it. She felt uncertain, a little breathless, oddly excited.

"No," she said finally. "I'm not against princes. I just don't believe in them. How can you be against something that doesn't exist?"

"You have to believe," he said slowly. "Somewhere inside you. Otherwise you wouldn't be here."

She drew a breath. "But I'm not myself tonight. I'm somebody else. And she believes in princes."

For a long silent moment Ryder walked beside her, wondering why her denial affected him so strongly. He grew curious then about who had destroyed her illusions so thoroughly, and why the very thought of someone doing that to her made anger rise in him. He felt oddly that she was somehow unreal herself, that she was wearing more than a mask as a disguise. And when he spoke at last, he was surprised at the words that emerged.

"Does she believe in love?"

"I suppose she does." Her voice was low, curiously tentative. "I suppose she has to. She's a... a piece of a story about love and princes. What else has she got to believe in? It's all she is."

He stopped walking suddenly and turned to face her, his hands lifting to her shoulders. "What if I want her to be more than that?" he asked quietly.

What if I need her to be a flesh and blood woman?"

Amanda had been the focus of a man's charm before, but it had been many years since she had been able to accept that charm at face value. Her illusions had begun crumbling before she had left her teens, when her first serious relationship had ended badly, and the years after that had done nothing to shore up fragile ideals.

She had tried not to become cynical, but had finally come to the conclusion that either she'd had enormous misfortune in the men she met, or else it truly was impossible to encounter one solitary individual who had no interest in her money.

Amanda Wilderman didn't believe in princes.

And yet here was a prince. A handsome, humorous, charming man who kept her on her toes with his sharp intelligence. And he hadn't the faintest idea who she was.

But then something happened that she hadn't anticipated. A very simple and natural thing, given a man and a woman virtually alone together in a moonlit garden. And now she didn't know how to answer his question.

"I warned you I wasn't a gentleman," he murmured.

Amanda might have anticipated the kiss, natural under the circumstances. But her reaction to it went far beyond anything she could have predicted. She'd been kissed before, and by some "gentlemen" for whom the art was their stock-in-trade; but she had never felt anything like what she felt when Ryder kissed her.

His lips were hard, warm; there was no attempt to gently seduce or charmingly sway. He was no supplicant. He kissed her as if she were his for the taking, as if there were no need for preliminaries between them.

A wave of pure raw heat swept over Amanda, as if she'd stepped out of a cool room to stand under the blazing sun of a hot summer day. It was a shock at first, and her hands lifted to push at his shoulders. But before she could even try to escape, a second wave of pleasure shuddered through her. She was hardly aware of a soft sound purring in the back of her throat, and didn't realize that she had moved until she felt the heavy silk of his hair under her fingers and the hard strength of his arms around her.

Those sensations gave her the willpower—albeit, just barely enough—to push herself back from him and try to turn away. But he refused to release her completely, drawing her against him and holding her firmly.

"Let me go," she ordered him huskily, staring down at the arms around her waist. She could feel the hard strength of his body at her back, and fought desperately to ignore the weakness of her own.

He kissed the nape of her neck, and said somewhat thickly, "It must be the moonlight. Do you think that's it, Cinderella? Moon madness?"

"Definitely," she managed to say with a shaky laugh. Then she caught sight of the luminous dial of his watch, and a chill chased the last of the cobwebs from her mind.

Eleven-thirty.

Where had the time gone? Until that moment she had half made up her mind to end the farce at midnight. But she couldn't. When her mask came off, everything would change. Her own guard would go back up, because, of course, Ryder would change once he knew who she was. The unburdened pleasure of strangers would be gone.

She couldn't see it end, not like that.

"Now I know how the prince felt," Ryder said. "I could get obsessed about you."

Amanda felt a pang, and recognized it somewhat ruefully for what it was. She hadn't expected it to be painful to have awakened interest in a man from behind the anonymity of a mask.

"You've let the moonlight go to your head," she said. "And so have I."

"Does it matter?" he asked.

"I guess not." This time Amanda managed to pull completely away from him. It was time; she had to leave while she still had the willpower for it. But how could she distract him? She took a few steps to a handy bench and sat down, adding in a light tone, "You've also forgotten your manners."

"Have I? In what way?"

"You haven't offered me champagne," she said reprovingly.

He stood gazing down at her for a moment, then said, "More evidence of moon madness. Would you care for a glass of champagne, milady?"

"Very much. Thank you."

"And will you wait here for me?"

"I promised I wouldn't leave." She wasn't lying, after all, she reassured herself. She had promised not to leave at midnight. And she wouldn't.

"Good enough. I'll be right back."

Amanda sat perfectly still until he was lost to sight on the other side of the shrubbery. A glance around was enough for her to orient herself, and she offered silent thanks that she was familiar with the garden. She picked a path that would take her around the makeshift ballroom as quickly as possible, then removed the glass shoes, snatched up her skirts, and ran.

She held the shoes tightly in one hand, unwilling to drop them despite Samantha's gentle request to the contrary. Her only other thought was to get away as soon as possible, and she took a shortcut through the Brewster house that led straight to the front door, racing past a number of startled servants.

Some of them had been en route to the ballroom with their hands full of various things. Amanda heard at least one crash from behind her and winced, but didn't stop.

She burst out the front door and caught a glimpse of the white limo waiting at the bottom of the steps. But before she could make good her escape, a very large and very old gentleman dressed all in white, like a Kentucky colonel, crossed her path.

They tangled unaccountably, and Amanda felt one of the shoes slip from her grasp.

"I am sorry," the old gentleman said in a gentle, apologetic baritone. "Did I hurt you?"

"No, of course not," she replied distractedly, then caught the sounds of approaching footsteps hurrying in her wake. Where was the shoe? Her skirt was so full she couldn't see—"

"Oh, hell," Amanda muttered, and fled. She raced down the steps and dove headfirst through the open door of the waiting limo.

The old gentleman, large, bulky, smilingly benign, chuckled softly as he gazed down at the delicate glass slipper.

"Now then," he murmured to himself.

And with a speed and silence astonishing for a man of his size and age, he faded back into the shadows.





Chapter Two




"I see you dropped it," Samantha said.

Amanda sat up and stared at her cousins. They looked very solemn. No doubt, if she could have brought herself to look at the driver—who had lost no time in closing the door, getting behind the wheel, and driving away from the house—he would have looked solemn as well.

Amanda felt like an utter fool.

She didn't try to pick herself up from the floorboard. The position, she thought, was eminently suitable. She tossed the remaining shoe into Samantha's lap. "Here. If I ever see that thing again, I won't be responsible for what happens to it. Understand?"

Samantha certainly did understand, and swiftly hid the shoe away in her voluminous shoulder bag. "Didn't you enjoy the ball?" she asked guilelessly.

Gritting her teeth, Amanda said, "Oh, of course. I even danced with your prince. Which means that all debts are now paid in full."

"But what happened?" Leslie asked.

"I dropped the damned shoe" because somebody ran into me," Amanda muttered.

"That isn't what I meant, and you know it."

"Nothing happened," Amanda said. "I went, he saw, we danced. End of story."

Leslie was about to demand more details, but Samantha elbowed her surreptitiously and said in a soothing tone, "All right, Manda. All debts paid. But at least tell us if you had a good time."

After a moment Amanda said, "I enjoyed it very much. It was interesting to be somebody else." Then she cleared her throat strongly. "I don't know what possessed me to run like that. I should have just stayed and taken off the mask." She took it off then and frowned at it. "Anyway, it's over now, arid that's that."

"Of course," Sam said.

A couple of hours later Leslie crept into her sister's room, and found Sam sprawled out on her bed wearing an overlarge football jersey and a grimace.

"In case I haven't mentioned it before," Leslie said, "stop kicking and elbowing me!"

"Then stop blurting out things when you shouldn't," her sister returned, unrepentant.

"Ill admit that it would have been a mistake to tell Manda that Ryder Foxx actually prefers redheads, but there was no reason for you to elbow me in the car."

"Manda didn't want to answer your questions, couldn't you see that? It was best to let it drop. For the time being, that is."

"I guess you're right."

Samantha grunted abstractedly, then said, "This is going to be more difficult than I thought."

"Why? You said that if Manda left the party still masked, it'd be a good sign."

"Yeah—and she dropped the shoe, which is another good sign."

"She said somebody ran into her."

Samantha gave her sister a superior look. "She wouldn't have dropped it if she hadn't wanted to. That was just an excuse. Trust me."

Leslie did trust Samantha. "Okay. So why is it going to be more difficult than you thought?"

Chewing on her thumbnail, Sam said, "Because Manda's so convinced that no man could possibly love her for herself. I hadn't realized how strongly she felt about it."

"Ryder Foxx doesn't know who she is," Leslie said.

In a suddenly practical manner Samantha said, "Yes, but I doubt he fell in love with her at the party; that would be just a bit too much to hope for. I'm sure he was intrigued, and he'll probably try to find out who bought the shoes and where the costume came from, but that isn't enough."

"I think it's too much," Les said with some feeling. "If he finds out we were behind this whole thing—"

"I told you not to worry about it. Everything's set up on the contingency that he does try to find out. And anyway, we're going to keep them both so busy they won't have time to wonder about glass shoes or anything else."

"Plan B?"

"No. No, I think we're going to have to skip directly to plan C."

Since the following day was Saturday, Ryder didn't feel the need to go into his office. He often did work on weekends, but he also had an office set up in his house outside Boston. He was there on Saturday, but he wasn't working. He was standing at the window, gazing out at a colorful profusion of fall leaves and wondering how in hell a man of his age and experience could be so idiotic.

As if pulled by a lodestone, he turned his back to the view outside and stared at his desk, where the symbol representing his idiotic thoughts rested.

A shoe.

A glass shoe.

He still couldn't believe he'd picked the thing up, much less brought it home with him. Surely the woman didn't think he'd be so besotted by one dance and a bit of moonlight in a garden that he'd lose his reason?

She didn't really think he'd cling to his princely role like a moron and charge all over Boston and half the Northeast in search of one pair of dainty feet? Especially after she had mocked the very idea. And she certainly couldn't believe that a couple of hours of conversation—fascinating conversation—and one kiss—an admittedly fiery kiss—could inspire in him a devotion so complete that he'd overlook the transparent ploy to gain his attention?

And it was a ploy, of course. What else could it be? Mysterious Cinderella shows up, uninvited, according to her, dances with Prince Charming and walks with him in the moonlight, melts in his arms for one kiss—one admittedly fiery kiss—and then flees before midnight.

Leaving a glass slipper on the front steps.

Questioned, the parking valet for the ball had said Cinderella's coach was a white limo. The modern version of a pumpkin and six white mice, Ryder assumed. But, sorry, sir, the valet hadn't noticed the tag number or anything memorable about the driver. The butler had not admitted her, he claimed, and so had seen no invitation.

After that Ryder had given up, drawing a mental line at questioning his co-host or the other guests. He wasn't, he'd told himself, that far gone.

He kept expecting somebody to offer the punch line of the damned joke.

He'd had a few lures cast out to him in his time, some of which had been rather creative, but women tended to be far more straightforward these days. He couldn't believe that any woman would go to the trouble and expense of a costume and rented limo just to rouse his interest. It was absurd. It was ridiculous.

It was working.

"Idiot," he muttered aloud to himself in the empty room, and went to his desk. He picked up the shoe and examined it minutely, as if he hadn't done it before. Just a pump-style woman's shoe made of glass. Water cushions in the bottom, fashioned in clear plastic. There was no logo or label anywhere, nothing to indicate the maker's name or business location.

But from how many places could one rent—or buy—glass slippers?

Ryder went around the desk to his chair and sat down, placing the shoe to one side. He looked up the number of the costume shop where his infamous tights as well as the rest of the costume had been rented, and placed a call.

The shop was open and likely doing a brisk business in returning costumes after the masquerade. Ryder asked for the manager, then waited and silently repeated to himself that he wasn't being at all idiotic about this.

"Yes, sir?" the manager inquired politely.

Deciding not to identify himself, Ryder merely asked, "Do you rent Cinderella costumes?"

"Yes, sir. We have three in stock; they've just come back in today. If you'd like—"

"Are any of them missing the shoes?" He made the question as cool as possible.

The manager showed signs of losing his. "Shoes? No, sir. The costumes were returned just as they were picked up yesterday."

"So you have three pairs of glass shoes in stock?"

"Glass? Oh, no, sir. The ladies don't like glass. Dangerous, if I may say so. And too uncomfortable."

Ryder resisted the impulse to tell him about shatterproof glass and water cushions while he gazed at what was definitely a glass shoe on his desk. "Cinderella wore glass slippers," he reminded the manager, trying not to laugh at his own absurdity in this.

Badly rattled by now, the manager said, "Well— um—we use fabric or leather shoes covered with sequins. They sparkle like glass." He seemed a bit aggrieved at the implied aspersion on the store's reasonable facsimile of a difficult concept, as if to say they'd done the best they could after all.

"I see." Ryder cleared his throat and kept his own voice brisk. Given any luck at all, the poor man wouldn't think he was dealing with someone with a foot fetish. "I assume your costumes were rented for the masquerade at Brewster House last night?"

"Most of our costumes were," the manager admitted.

Ryder dropped his voice to a confidential note. "The thing is, I believe one of my friends played a trick on me last night, and she was in a Cinderella costume. Do you understand?"

"Of course, sir," the manager replied, still clearly at sea over the matter.

"Good. Now, what I need to know is whether my friend rented her costume from you. So, if you could—"

"I'm sorry, sir."

Dear Lord, was he going to have to go there in person? With visions of bribes and the like dancing in his head, Ryder said, "Look, even if your records are confidential—"

"It is against company policy to make our records available to anyone, sir, but that isn't the problem in this case."

"Then what is?" Ryder demanded.

"The, uh, size of the young lady's deposit made it possible for one of our clerks to ignore procedure, sir. Since the amount covered replacement of the costumes if necessary, there was no need to, uh, take the young lady's name."

"A cash deposit?"

"Yes, sir."

Quite an investment, Ryder thought, and then suddenly realized what he'd been told. "Wait a minute. You mean one young lady rented all three Cinderella costumes?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you remember what she looked like?"

The manager cleared his throat. "The circumstances made me notice her, sir. But I'm afraid I can't tell you much about her. It was a windy day; she wore a scarf over her hair, and a rather bulky coat. And sunglasses. And she, um, arrived in a limousine."

"A white one?"

"No. Black."

"Dammit," Ryder muttered.

"I beg your pardon, sir?"

"Nothing. When did she rent the costumes?"

"Months ago. Just after the ball was announced." Somewhat apologetically, as if it were a slur cast on himself, the manager added, "No one else had indicated interest in Cinderella so early, you see."

"The ball," Ryder said, "had a fairy-tale theme."

"Um, yes, sir. But it was early. And we had very few requests afterward. Today's women seem to resist that particular fairy tale."

"That's what you think."

"Sir?"

"Nothing. Well, thanks for your help."

"Yes, sir. Anytime."

Ryder cradled the receiver and then stared at the glass shoe on his desk. "Curiouser and curiouser," he murmured. Then, with a determined air, he consulted the Yellow Pages and made a list. He'd check the costume shops first, he decided. Then the shoe stores. Glass shoes were apparently rare beasts, and somebody had to own up to having made, rented, or sold a pair.

He shook his head at himself, and began calling.

In the heart of Boston a harried store manager looked up from a neatly typed list of instructions and gave his grinning assistant a somewhat wild-eyed glare. "Those Wilderman girls," he said definitely, "will be the death of me!"

"Wonder what they're up to?" the assistant mused.

"I don't know, and I don't want to know." The manager tore his list in half.

"Better not," the assistant offered. "He might call again."

The manager looked at the phone as if it might rear back and bite him any minute. He moaned. "Oh, Lord help me."

Amanda Wilderman spent the following week wishing she'd never committed the utter stupidity of reading fairy tales to her cousins when they were little girls. Because little girls, she decided grimly, grew into bigger girls with minds warped from fairy tales.

It was only small things at first. Subtle things. Her bookmark replaced by one displaying a frog and words to the effect that it was sometimes necessary to kiss a number of toads before discovering a prince. An illustrated volume of fairy tales left on her bed. A tape that just happened to be one of the filmed versions of Cinderella in the VCR playing as she entered the room.

But when a recent business publication with a full-color photo of Ryder Duncan Foxx on the cover just happened to find its way into her lingerie drawer, Amanda had had enough.

She knew her cousins too well to attempt to stop them. No, she decided, escape was the only possibility. Years of Samantha and Leslie's peculiar high jinks had taught her nothing if not that her cousins would weary of their new game and give up— eventually.

Besides, Amanda wanted to get away for her own sake. She caught herself thinking too often of moonlit gardens and tinkling fountains. And kisses. She caught herself wondering if he'd found the shoe, and tossing in her bed at night because even if he had, the man certainly hadn't been bewitched enough to launch some harebrained search....

And, because of all this, she was feeling a bit wild when she burst into her uncle's study exactly one week after the cursed ball.

"I'm leaving," she announced.

Edward Wilderman looked up from his cluttered desk, surveyed his niece for a moment, then asked mildly, "Where are you going?"

"I don't know yet," she admitted, calming down.

"They're still inundating you with fairy tales?"

"You don't miss a thing, do you?"

"It's safer that way," he admitted.

"That damned masquerade," she muttered. "I'll never hear the end of it, at least until they've gotten it out of their systems. I have to get away."

He hesitated, then said, "Vacation, or do you want to be busy?"

Amanda dropped into one of the leather chairs before his desk. "I want to be busy. Say you have something for me to do, Uncle Ed."

He smiled at her, a man in his early forties with graying copper hair and bright green eyes. He had welcomed Amanda into his home when his brother and sister-in-law had been killed, had raised her and treated her as he had his own daughters. And he had been very glad of her presence and quiet strength when his wife had died five years before.

Now, gazing at Amanda across the desk, he wished he had some words of wisdom to offer her. There was a shell surrounding her now, one that hadn't been there ten years earlier and, he thought, would become unbreakable in time. It troubled him deeply to watch her fiery spirit become trapped in a cage.

Poor little rich girl. Amanda would be the first to mock herself. But Edward knew only too well that extreme wealth was a burden, especially to a young and beautiful woman.

But he might not have given in to Samantha's pleas even then, except that he had developed a somewhat rueful faith in his elder daughter's schemes. She had a disconcerting habit of pulling off the most unlikely strategies, and he never knew whether to laugh or be absolutely appalled. Leslie would no doubt have been horrified at how much their father knew, but Sam had always confided in him about her plans, however absurd they appeared to be, and he trusted—and prayed—she always would.

"Uncle Ed?"

He made up his mind. "Sorry, honey. I was wondering if you're up to this."

"Tell me, and we'll find out."

"All right. I mentioned that ranch in Wyoming?"

"The one you're trying to put in the black? Sure."

"Well, the repairs and remodeling have reached the point where I need someone on the spot to oversee the decorations, a manager, really. I'd planned to hire a decorator, but I'm a bit wary of whatever trend is currently popular, especially after that fiasco you had to straighten out for me at the inn last year."

Amanda smiled. "Starkly modern decorations did look a bit out of place in a Vermont inn."

Edward winced. "Ill say. And you did a beautiful job with that place, Amanda. Still, this ranch house will be a tough job. It could take months. You might even find yourself snowed in out there."

"Ill take lots of books," Amanda said.

"Thanks, honey, I really appreciate this. Now, do you want to be the boss's niece, or a professional there simply to do a job?" He wondered if he was laying it on too heavily; she wasn't a fool.

Amanda was thinking of how pleasant it had been to be someone else. "A professional, I think," she said slowly. "Ill use Mother's name. Since you had that duplicate identification fixed up for me, I'll have a driver's license, checkbook, and credit cards in the name of Trask."

"Good, that's fine. Now, we can go over a few things quickly, and then you can start packing. I do hope," he added politely, "that you aren't planning on catching the first westbound plane."

She grinned at him. "Monday will be soon enough —if, that is, you can keep Sam and Les away from me."

"I will do my poor best."

Amanda eyed him. "Uh-huh. Confess. You have a sneaking admiration for Sam's schemes."

"Admiration?" Edward thought about it for a moment, then said judiciously, "She absolutely terrifies me."

Samantha hung up the phone and stared at it as though it had become a very puzzling and contrary instrument.

"Well?" Leslie demanded.

Tucking a strand of copper hair behind one ear, Sam focused bemused green eyes on her sister. "I don't get it."

"You don't get what? That was Ryder Foxx's secretary you were talking to, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

"Well, where is he?"

"He is," Sam said slowly, "en route to Wyoming. Seems he's going to spend a couple of weeks or so out there on a ranch."

"Our ranch?"

Samantha nodded.

"Hey, you did it!" Les exclaimed.

"No. I didn't."

Leslie leaned back against the headboard of the bed and stared at her. "What d'you mean, you didn't?"

"I didn't send him out there. Les, I'd only just figured out a possible way to do it. But when I called to see if he was in today... well, he wasn't. He's already on his way to the ranch, and I didn't send him."

The sisters stared at each other for a long moment, and then Samantha smiled.

"Sort of makes you believe in fate, doesn't it?"

The Broken R Ranch was north of Casper, Wyoming, the ranch house proper located about fifty miles from the city. Amanda rented a car as soon as she arrived and set out for the ranch, mentally going over the information her uncle had provided for her. The Broken R had originally been part of the Patterson spread, a somewhat legendary ranch occupying hundreds of acres but known mostly for its rather eccentric family.

The last surviving member of that family, Helen Patterson, had moved out of the ranch house more than twenty-five years before, divided her land in half, and built a new house for herself nearby. She'd sold her old home but, Edward Wilderman had discovered, had kept an eye on the place.

Under new ownership the Broken R had managed to show an occasional profit as a dude ranch, but Edward's offer had been accepted with alacrity. No money had been spent on the place for more than a decade, which meant that Edward's renovation plans were extensive.

Amanda knew that most of the major structural repairs had been completed, but there was still enough to be done that Edward hadn't planned to officially welcome guests until mid-summer of the following year. But a half dozen guests had already made reservations when he took over the place, and all were scheduled to arrive in the next few days.

Edward Wilderman had explained the repairs by letter and offered to return deposits, but none had taken him up on it. It was a hardy breed, her uncle had said with a grin, who would choose to vacation in Wyoming on the edge of winter, so there was no need to disappoint them.

Amanda was pleasantly surprised to find the exterior of the house looking so inviting, but once she went inside, she discovered that fresh paint over new siding covered a multitude of sins.

It was a big, sprawling place, built more than fifty years before, when large families had been the norm. The central section was a square three-story-high structure of wood siding with a steeply pitched roof; two wings built of river rock stretched out behind it with an overgrown garden between them. Both wings boasted only one floor, but there were a considerable number of rooms in each.

Only the central section of the large ranch house was even habitable, the rest being made treacherous by ladders and lumber and a crew of busy carpenters. And even the central section was unfinished, a number of rooms bare and smelling strongly of paint or plaster. That meant Amanda and the skeleton staff of cook/housekeeper and a single maid had limited space to work with to meet the needs of the half dozen guests expected within the next few days.

Strictly speaking, it wasn't Amanda's job to help deal with the domestic chores, but since the workmen needed to make more progress before she could begin her own tasks, she was more than willing to help out. She paused only briefly after arriving to unpack just a few things before pitching in.

It wasn't until she was going over the list of guests in order to assign them rooms that she saw, with horrified eyes, the trick fate had played on her.

Halfway down the list with an arrival date of the following day was the name of Ryder Duncan Foxx.

"Miss Trask?"

Trying to gather her scattered thoughts, Amanda looked up as the cook/housekeeper approached. She conjured a smile. "Make it Amanda, Mrs. Elliot, will you?"

"Then I'm Penny."

"Penny it is. What's up?"

"I hate to bother you, since you're just settling in and all, but I was wondering about Nemo," Penny Elliot said, leaning against the high counter that served as a front desk. She smiled, her blue eyes pleasant. She was a middle-aged widow with a capable manner and an air of unruffled placidity.

"Nemo? Who's that?"

"Well, he—"

Before the housekeeper could explain, Amanda felt something cold and wet touch her ankle. She started in surprise and jumped back. There was a sudden heavy thud, and she looked down to find a very large dog sprawled bonelessly at her feet.

"What on earth?"

Penny leaned over the counter to look down. "Oh. That's Nemo. Don't worry, he's just fainted."

Amanda let that sink into her bemused mind for a moment while she studied the dog. He was a brindled black and tan mastiff and clearly weighed nearly two hundred pounds. While she watched, he stirred and sat up, blinking. He looked up at her, arid his tail thumped against the floor. In his black-masked face, the heavy wrinkles around his big eyes made him look like a startled octogenarian, she thought.

She looked at Penny. "He fainted?"

"Well, yes. Whenever he's startled or scared, he faints. You must have startled him."

"I didn't know dogs fainted," Amanda said after considering the matter dispassionately.

"He's the only one I've ever known to do so. The vet in town says he's never seen it either. Anyway, that's why he washed out of the army; they were training him to be a guard dog, which obviously wasn't going to work."

"Obviously. So why've we got him?"

Penny rubbed her nose. "The former owners of this place bought him about four years ago. When they cleared out last summer, they sort of forgot him. On purpose. He's an aloof dog, and doesn't take to many people. No meanness in him, though. I've been taking care of him, but I was wondering what Mr. Wilderman wants to do about him."

Amanda looked down into Nemo's big, mild eyes, then looked somewhat helplessly back at Penny. "Don't you want him?"

"He doesn't like me well enough. Since you came out here to manage the place—"

"Just until the renovations are complete," Amanda protested.

Penny smiled at her. "Well, you're the authority here for the time being. Your decision."

Amanda glanced at the dog again, then shook her head. "I'll get in touch with Mr. Wilderman later. In the meantime, just—well, just keep feeding Nemo, I guess."

"Okay. Which room do you want for our first arrival?"

"Um... well put him on the third floor in the room at the end of the hall."

Lifting an eyebrow, Penny said, "That's the coldest room in the house; the furnace people haven't figured out where it is yet, but there's a blockage in the system."

Briskly Amanda said, "Then have the maid, Sharon, put an extra blanket on his bed."

"You're the boss," Penny said, still a bit surprised.

When the housekeeper had gone, Amanda stared down at the list of guests and bit her lip. It wasn't, she told herself firmly, that she was trying to drive Ryder Foxx away. It was only that the room in question happened to be the farthest from her own second-floor bedroom.

She also told herself she was being an absolute fool about this. Ryder Foxx couldn't possible know she was here; these reservations had been made months earlier. Uncle Edward had simply forgotten to mention he was one of the guests. And, at any rate, Ryder wouldn't recognize her as the Cinderella from more than a week before.

If he even remembered that woman.

Still, Amanda couldn't help but feel defensive and decidedly unnerved. Even though the masquerade hadn't been her idea, she was conscious of an absurd sense of guilt. She argued with herself during the remainder of that day and well into the night, and her defensiveness won out over guilt. After all, she told herself, she'd feel like a total fool if she admitted to having been Cinderella—and he didn't even remember.

The next morning, edgy and a bit heavy-eyed after her sleepless night, she kept busy helping out wherever she was needed. She was somewhat hampered by the determined presence of Nemo, who had slept outside her bedroom door and now followed her every step.

"He likes you," Penny said.

Amanda nudged the dog out of her path with one knee while she struggled to position a ladder in the entrance hall. "He gets in my way," she said, but kept her voice even and casual; she'd discovered that brusque voices hurt Nemo's feelings, and watching him slink out of sight with his tail between his legs made her feel guilty.

Penny smiled at her, then went upstairs when Sharon called down to her in a harassed voice. Alone in the entrance hall except for her canine companion, Amanda propped the ladder against a wall and looked at it doubtfully. She wanted to examine the strip of molding across the top of the doorway leading into the den; the molding was an original part of the house, but she thought it looked peculiar where it was. If it could be taken down in one piece, undamaged, she had an idea that it would be perfect trim for the mantel she was having made for the den.

The thing was, Amanda strongly mistrusted ladders, and this one looked more than usually rickety. She started to call for someone to come and hold it for her, but the crew members were busy in other parts of the house and both Penny and Sharon had their hands full getting rooms ready for the guests. So, anchoring the ladder as firmly as she could, she cautiously climbed up the rungs.

She was slightly to the right of the doorway, and held the jamb with one hand while she leaned over carefully to examine the molding. She wasn't the slightest bit unbalanced, and the ladder held steady. Everything would have been fine if the front door hadn't banged open just then.

With all his concentration apparently fixed upward on the mistress he had adopted, Nemo was startled by the sound and collapsed into one of his peculiar faints. Unfortunately his massive body brushed against the base of the ladder as he went limp.

Amanda felt the ladder shift abruptly, and lost her balance. Things happened very quickly. She began to fall, and cried out in surprise. But instead of landing on the polished hardwood floor, she found herself caught and held in powerful arms that were like iron.

Even in her shock at the near accident she was conscious of a sense of fatalistic certainty, and looked numbly up into the shrewd gray eyes of Ryder Foxx.





Chapter Three




"You scared him!" she snapped.

For a minute or so Ryder didn't respond to the puzzling accusation. He was struggling with another puzzle just then. He had acted out of pure instinct when he came into the hall to see this petite redhead on the point of tumbling off her ladder, but from the moment he caught her in his arms he'd been conscious of an odd sensation.

The sensation wasn't odd in itself; he'd certainly felt desire before. But the suddenness of the attraction he felt for this woman was very unusual in his experience and more than a little baffling. She was certainly a lovely woman, and he'd always been partial to redheads, but the jeans and bulky sweater she wore was hardly sexy attire. He couldn't understand why he felt so much so suddenly.

And aside from that, when she had first looked up at him, her bright green eyes had held the strangest expression he'd ever seen. For an instant he'd felt an urge to assure her that everything was all right because she'd looked curiously overcome, but then her expression had gone wary and her eyes had shown sparks of temper.

"Put me down," she muttered now, more than a suggestion of gritted teeth in her tone.

Instead of obeying the command, Ryder glanced at the dog stirring at his feet, and her earlier accusation sank in. "I scared him?"

"Yes, you scared him. Put me down!"

Ryder looked at her for a moment, enjoying the way she felt in his arms, then took his time putting her down. "You could have broken your neck," he told her, more than a little surprised at his own scolding tone. "Hasn't anyone ever taught you how to climb a ladder?"

"I was doing just fine," she snapped. "If you hadn't crashed through the door and scared Nemo, he wouldn't have bumped the ladder when he fainted."

"When he what?"

"Fainted." She glared up at him, daring him to comment.

Ryder glanced at the dog and decided not to say anything. "Oh. I didn't crash through the door; I nudged it with my suitcase and it flew open like something possessed. What kind of guest ranch is this anyway?"

"One that isn't ready for guests," she said with a certain amount of relish. "However, since you and a few others chose to disregard the warning about the renovations, you'll have to take the place as you find it."

He opened his mouth to retort that he hadn't received any information or warning at all, but she went on before he could speak.

"All meals will be served in the dining room down the hall there, and if you aren't on time, you're out of luck. No room service. The heat works, except when it doesn't, and you might have hot water for a shower, except when you won't. The only telephone is on the desk down here. The work crew has the undisputed right of way in this house for the duration, so if they say move, do it. Any questions?"

Ryder stared down at her. She stood squarely before him, hands on her hips, so belligerent that he found himself torn between amusement and exasperation.

"Yeah," he drawled finally. "Who the hell are you?"

Stiffly she said, "Amanda Trask. I'm managing the place until the renovations are complete."

"Am I allowed another question?" he asked politely.

Even more stiffly she said, "Ask away."

"Did the competition send you in here undercover to sabotage this place?" For a brief instant he thought she was going to laugh, but the gleam in her eye vanished quickly.

"No. I'm being honest, Mr. Foxx. I assume that's who you are."

"That's who I am," he admitted dryly.

"Fine. I just want you to know that if you expect to get first-class treatment here, come back next summer. "

Ryder thought of a possibly very important and lucrative business deal, but that wasn't what decided him. He shrugged. "Understood. Where do I register?"

"This way," she said, turning toward the high counter near the stairs.

He followed her, and waited until she was behind

the counter before saying gently, "You're welcome,

by the way." ,

She looked at him for a moment, baffled, and then flushed slightly. "Thanks," she said somewhat ungraciously.

"I was just being heroic," he said in a modest tone.

Her uncomfortable look vanished as the glare returned. "It was your fault that I fell anyway," she said.

"I've already explained that, Miss Trask. Or may I call you Amanda?"

She opened an old-fashioned leather-bound register, and thrust it across the counter at him. "I'd rather you didn't. Sign."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, and signed.

"You'll have to carry your own bags," she added in a very sweet and polite tone. "No bellmen, I'm afraid. Your room's on the third floor; turn right at the top of the stairs, end of the hall. Number 304."

"You've been so kind," he said, closely matching her tone. She didn't unbend, but he was sure he saw her lips twitch.

"I'm afraid you've missed lunch," she told him with the same spurious apology. "Supper's at seven."

Ryder went to get his two bags where he'd dropped them at the door, then walked to the stairs. Hesitating at the bottom, he looked across at her. "Black tie?" he inquired gently.

"Come as you are," she replied in the same tone.

"But company manners, surely?"

"Do you have any?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing," he said.

She widened her eyes at him, mildly surprised. "Why, Mr. Foxx, I'm wearing my company manners now."

He bit back a laugh, keeping his expression one of polite inquiry. "Are you sure you weren't hired by the competition to drive guests away from the Broken R?"

Leaning an elbow on the desk, she contemplated him with a total lack of expression. "I'm sure. But if you find your bed short-sheeted, please remember that we have only one maid, and she's very young. Inexperienced."

"111 keep that in mind, Miss Trask. Anything else you want to warn me about?"

"No, I don't think so. Just watch where you walk. I'd hate for you to put your foot through a rotten board or trip over something. The last thing the Broken R needs right now is a lawsuit."

Ryder contented himself with a nod and climbed the stairs, deciding that the honors had gone to Miss Amanda Trask in the first round. He had no idea why her attitude toward him was so bristly, but he intended to find out. Of course, she might well be hostile to everyone because of her normal temperament, but somehow he didn't think so.

Short of ordering him off the place, the lady had done her level best to get rid of him, and he wanted to know why. It was partly simple curiosity, but he was also all too aware of the fact that he was quite definitely attracted to that surly redheaded spitfire.

And he had caught more than one glimpse of a sense of humor in her, which appealed to him.

He'd have a few days before Cyrus Fortune arrived, according to the message he had gotten just before he left Boston, so there was time to find out what made Amanda Trask tick.

He found his room easily enough, and looked around with wry eyes. It looked fairly comfortable, he supposed, but it was certainly bare. The walls had been freshly painted, he could smell it, and there were absolutely no decorations. A double bed with a faded plaid spread, a nightstand with a single lamp, a dresser, and a chest made up the plain and somewhat battered furniture. A newly refinished hardwood floor sported two worn Navaho rugs, the tiny closet held half a dozen wire hangers, and the bathroom was missing a shower curtain.

It was also definitely chilly in both rooms.

He was not, Ryder decided, going to complain. About anything. He refused to give Miss Trask the satisfaction. He unpacked methodically and put his things away. He left only one item out, and eyed it as he changed into jeans and a bulky sweater.

What on earth had possessed him to bring the damned shoe along? He couldn't remember packing it, but wasn't surprised that he had. Nobody had ever defined an obsession as something rational, after all. He placed the shoe on the shelf inside the closet and shut the door firmly.

Enough of that. He was too far from Boston to continue his search for Cinderella even if he had a clue as to what steps he could take to find her. And, truth to tell, he realized with a faintly guilty feeling that his first encounter with Amanda Trask had pushed both fairy tales and business to the back of his mind.

Puzzling over his own apparently fickle nature, he left his room and went downstairs. The second floor landing provided a view down into the entrance hall, and he paused there as he heard voices from below. He leaned somewhat cautiously over the banister, and saw that Amanda was engaged in talking to another lady. Or, rather, she was engaged in being talked at.

The other lady was small, spare, and silver-haired. She appeared to be well past sixty. Beyond that rough estimate Ryder found it impossible to guess her age. She was in faded jeans and wore a thick fleece-lined jacket with scuffed western boots on her small feet. And she talked a mile a minute.

Amanda was leaning against the high counter as if she needed its support. Nemo was sitting at her side, and she petted the dog's massive head in a rhythmic manner as she listened to the older lady's rapid voice.

"They were dreadful people, my dear, just dreadful. Weren't willing to spend a dime on the place, and of course that's idiotic. I was so pleased when the new owner bought it and started fixing things up right away."

"Miss Patterson," Amanda said in the firm tone of someone who'd been trying to get a word in.

Helen Patterson laughed. "Oh, they call me Miss Nell around here, child. And you're Amanda? Such a lovely name. It means 'worthy of love,' you know. Or 'beloved.' It depends on which book you're looking it up in."

There was a faint frown between Amanda's delicate brows, and a somewhat dazed look in her eyes. Ryder felt a flicker of amusement as he realized that in "Miss Nell" Amanda had met her match.

Miss Nell took a few brisk steps to the doorway of the den and peered in, her expression birdlike. "Oh, good, you've left it the way it was. This was my favorite room, you see, and I feel a bit sentimental about it. But where's the mantel, child?"

Amanda blinked. "The—? Oh. I'm having a new one made, Miss Nell."

"But you won't change the fireplace?"

"No. We'll probably have to sandblast the bricks, but—"

Miss Nell tut-tutted disapprovingly. "You'll change the tone of the room if you do that. I always thought this was such a warm room, so cozy, especially with the bricks all smoky from so many nice fires. My father hauled those bricks in a wagon behind four mules and built the fireplace himself. Fifty years ago, it was. Goodness. I was just a girl."

Amanda cleared her throat. "Miss Nell—"

"There isn't much furniture," Helen noted critically as she continued to gaze into the den. "And that sofa looks quite lumpy. If you want my advice, child—"

This time it was Amanda who broke in firmly. "Miss Nell, the new furniture is coming only when the rooms are finished. We'll make do until then. That room still has to be painted, the floor refinished, and the fireplace cleaned up."

Helen pursed her lips. "I like it the way it is," she said, turning to eye Amanda severely.

In a cheerful tone Amanda said, "The new owner wants it fixed up." Before Helen could say anything about that, she went on in the same friendly voice. "You didn't ride over here, did you, Miss Nell? The wind's picking up and it must be nearly freezing outside. Why don't I have one of the men drive you back home?"

"It's only three miles or so, child; I'll be fine. Heavens, I've spent days in the saddle in my time. Don't worry about me." She was moving toward the door as she spoke, briskly drawing on a pair of suede gloves. "You just give me a call if you need anything. Anything at all. I'm a good neighbor; anyone will tell you that."

"Thank you, Miss Nell," Amanda murmured.

As soon as the door closed behind Helen, Amanda heard an uncertain laugh escape her. Uncle Edward, she acknowledged silently, hadn't exaggerated; Miss Nell Patterson quite definitely kept an eye on her former home. She'd blown through the door like a miniature storm, bent on finding out exactly what had been done to the place and offering innumerable criticisms and suggestions.

Under different conditions, Amanda would have enjoyed Miss Nell, since eccentric personalities appealed to her. But Ryder Foxx had shaken her off balance and she was having a difficult time regaining it. She was feeling more than a little daunted. Carpenters everywhere, a big dog constantly at her heels with an unnerving habit of fainting, a strong-minded neighbor with definite opinions about this place and no hesitation in expressing herself, five more guests due to arrive in the coming days, and— and—Ryder Duncan Foxx.

Amanda muttered to herself, relieving her feelings with a few colorful words and phrases since she thought herself alone. But she wasn't alone, and the sound of a low laugh made her look up quickly toward the second-floor landing.

"Not very ladylike," Ryder said mockingly.

She watched him come down the stairs, wondering what she had ever done to the fates that they'd do this to her in revenge. The man looked indecently handsome in his casual clothing, she thought, the jeans too form-fitting for her peace of mind and the thick, dark blue sweater setting off the powerful width of his shoulders.

"Didn't your mother ever teach you not to eavesdrop?"

"Certainly she did," he returned promptly, a disquieting gleam of enjoyment in his eye. "I even paid attention to the lessons. I wasn't eavesdropping, Miss Trask, I simply didn't want to intrude. Who is Miss Nell?"

"She used to own this place," Amanda replied, watching him guardedly as he reached the bottom of the stairs and came toward her. "I hope you find your room... satisfactory," she added politely.

"You hope nothing of the kind," he told her in a pleasant tone. "Tell me, Miss Trask, are you this hostile to everyone, or do I deserve your special attention for some reason?"

"Some people," she said in a freezing voice, "simply don't hit it off."

"But there's usually a reason," he said with a slow, fallen-angel kind of smile. "I'm curious about that. Do I remind you of a discarded lover, is that it?"

She had the uneasy feeling that she wouldn't like where he was going with this conversation. "I have work to do."

"And you think I might interfere with your work?"

A wise little voice in Amanda's head told her that if she'd only keep her mouth shut, Ryder Foxx would rapidly tire of the sparring and leave her in peace. But she wasn't very surprised to find herself ignoring the voice.

"Mr. Foxx, the staff here—such as it is—has no time to provide entertainment for you. There's a grimy deck of cards around here somewhere if you want to play solitaire. There are horses out in the corral if you ride, but please leave a trail of bread crumbs so none of us is forced to disrupt the work by having to go look for you."

"You have quite a chip on your shoulder. I wonder why," he said thoughtfully, that gleam of enjoyment still present in his eye. "It might be worth my while to find out."

Amanda felt a definite shock. She recognized that speculative tone in his voice, and it shook her. Totally against her will, she felt a rush of heat from somewhere inside her, and her legs went weak.

No, she thought blankly. Oh, no...

She squared her shoulders and glared at him. "I have a job to do here. So whatever you've got in mind, you can forget it."

No more than a couple of feet away from her, he leaned an elbow on the counter and looked her over quite deliberately from her running shoes to her bright red hair. "Didn't your mother ever teach you not to throw down a gauntlet?" he drawled.

Amanda fought a sensation of half-excited panic. The only effect her rudeness seemed to have on him was to encourage him even more, and she didn't know what to do about it. She couldn't deceive herself into believing that she didn't enjoy the sparring, but she was too conscious of this man to allow any kind of relationship to develop—even an argumentative one. Particularly when all her instincts told her that getting involved with him on any level would be like striking a match in a room full of explosives.

She got a grip on herself. "Any gauntlet you see is imaginary, Mr. Foxx."

"Is it? Well, we'll find out soon enough, won't we, Miss Trask? In the meantime don't let me keep you from your work."

Amanda managed to keep her face expressionless as she turned away from the counter and headed down the hall toward the south wing of the house, but it was difficult. She felt definitely bested in the encounter, and found her thoughts divided between wry amusement and panicked bewilderment.

Her sense of responsibility made it impossible for her to call her uncle and ask him to find someone else for the job, and that meant she was stuck for the duration. And she was uneasily aware that her hostility toward Ryder Foxx had done nothing except pique his interest.

The man had been at the ranch less than two hours, and already her nerves were on edge. She told herself that her only option was to ignore him as much as possible and keep herself busy, to stay out of his way. It was good advice. She only hoped that she could take it.

"You missed supper, Miss Trask."

Amanda felt herself tense. So much for good advice, she thought wryly. She'd managed to keep out of Ryder's way for several hours, surrounding herself with the work crew while they were there, then retreating into the den with paperwork. She'd built a fire in the old fireplace to combat the chill of the room, and was curled up at one end of the couch looking over furniture catalogues.

Nemo, her constant companion, was sprawled out on the frayed hearth rug snoring softly.

She watched as Ryder came around the end of the couch and sat down, annoyed with herself because she couldn't help thinking that he moved with a cat's unconscious grace.

"Am I interrupting?" he asked innocently.

"Yes," she said.

"You can't work all the time. It's bad for your health, to say nothing of your temper."

"Mr. Foxx—"

"Ryder," he suggested.

Enough, Amanda decided, was enough. She looked him straight in the eye. "Why don't we save ourselves a lot of time," she proposed.

"I'm all for efficiency."

"Okay. I don't know you, Mr. Foxx, but it seems fairly obvious that you've decided I make a dandy sparring partner."

"Among other things," he said.

"What other things?" she demanded baldly.

He smiled slowly.

When it became obvious that was going to be the only answer he gave her, Amanda drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "Mind telling me why? I mean, do you have some masochistic need to go after any woman who's pointedly not interested?"

"No." He spoke casually, as if the conversation were about the weather. "There's just something about you, I guess. Your sharp tongue or your red hair. Something."

Amanda stared at him and felt an unexpected flash of amusement. "Chemistry?"

"For want of a better word. Don't you believe in chemistry, Miss Trask?"

"Sure, in a laboratory."

"But not between a man and a woman?"

That little voice in Amanda's head was urging caution; she ignored it, and didn't stop then to wonder why. "Look, I'm not responsible for your, er, chemical reactions."

"In this case," he said calmly, "you certainly are."

"You know what I mean."

"Are you married?"

"No."

"Engaged?"

Amanda shook her head.

"Anybody special?"

"Not at the moment. Mr. Foxx—"

"Let me guess. You've had a tragic past romance and now you're very bitter toward men."

She dropped her gaze to the catalogues in her lap. Damn the man, why wouldn't he stop this? With an effort she held her voice even. "Can't you just accept the fact that I'm not interested?"

"Only if you give me a good reason." He studied her lowered head, watching the shimmer of firelight on her hair. It occurred to him vaguely that he was pressing too hard, that for some reason this was terribly important to him, but he didn't question that. He'd always listened to his instincts, and right now they were telling him to break through her guard even if he had to use strong tactics to do it.

She looked up at him, and Ryder felt his insides tighten. She was lovely, he thought, and there was something almost fragile about her—not physically, but emotionally. He had the feeling that the chip on her shoulder had been earned, that his light remark about tragic past romances had been closer to the target than he'd expected.

"Mr. Foxx—"

"Ryder." He heard the change in his voice, the note that wasn't mocking or casual but something very serious. And she heard it too; he saw her green eyes widen slightly. "Please," he added quietly.

Amanda tried to keep her guard up, but he was being unfair by suddenly switching tactics like this. It was shockingly difficult to maintain a belligerent front when the man looked at her with an unexpected gentleness in his gray eyes.

"Dammit," she muttered.

Quick amusement curved his firm mouth. "Is it so hard? Just a name, two syllables. And since Miss Nell isn't the only one who knows the meaning behind some names, 111 admit that mine means 'knight' or 'horseman.' "

"Figures," she said, half to herself.

His smile widened. "And yours means 'beloved.' I suppose I could call you that since you won't let me call you Amanda."

"Make it Amanda," she said somewhat hastily, choosing the lesser of two evils.

He lifted an eyebrow and waited.

She eyed him for a moment, then gave in reluctantly. "All right. Make it Amanda... Ryder."

"That's a step in the right direction," he noted. "Now for the next one. Do you think we can be friends, Amanda?"

It was her turn to lift an eyebrow. "Friends?"

"Well, for a start. I'm a reasonable man, after all. I don't expect it to be easy."

She shouldn't have said it. She knew that, but Amanda heard the question emerge from her lips. "Don't expect what to be easy?"

"Getting you into my bed."

Amanda blinked. She had heard a number of propositions in her time, but most had been couched in charming euphemisms. Oddly enough, she found his bluntness refreshing. And she didn't know whether to be angry at her own reaction or absolutely appalled.

"That's in the nature of a friendly warning," he explained gravely.

"And I'm supposed to agree to befriends with you after hearing it?" she asked dryly.

"Of course. You can always say no when we get to the next step. But—another warning—I don't give up easily."

She shook her head slightly. "I'm not in the market for a fling, thank you very much."

"Did I say anything about a fling?"

"I don't hear you singing 'O Promise me.' "

Ryder chuckled softly. "No. That would be a little premature. We might not hit it off."

"Exactly what I've been trying to tell you," she said with forced patience.

"Yes, but you aren't willing to give us a chance." He leaned toward her slightly, one powerful arm stretched along the back of the couch between them. "Amanda, I'm a businessman. I've learned never to turn away from an opportunity without exploring all the possibilities."

"And I'm an opportunity?"

"I think we could be. But we'll never find out unless we explore the possibility."

"Did anybody ever tell you that you have the peculiar effect of water dropping on stone?"

"Constantly." He smiled at her.

That smile, she reflected somewhat helplessly, was lethal. The moonlight hadn't done it justice. She found herself shrugging in what she knew was a ridiculously weak way. "All right, dammit. Friends. But even though you may be on vacation, I'm working here, don't forget that."

Having won the battle, Ryder didn't press his advantage. Casually he said, "As a matter of fact, this isn't exactly a vacation for me."

"No?" Amanda relaxed just a bit, but continued to eye him warily.

"No. I was invited here to meet a man to talk about a possible business deal. Cyrus Fortune."

She remembered the name from the guest list. "He's due to arrive on Friday. What kind of business deal? Or is it a state secret?"

"It isn't secret—except in Boston. I wouldn't want my competitors to know about the deal before I have a chance to nail it down. Somebody could try to sneak in and outbid me, and I don't have a lot of capital to play with."

Amanda felt an odd jolt as she realized that she could be Ryder's competition. But, no, she thought, that couldn't be. Wilderman Electronics and Foxfire, Ryder's company, were on different levels of the business; they'd never been competitive. She forced herself to concentrate on what he was saying.

"I'm in the electronics business. So far, it's been mostly toys and games, and heaven knows that's been lucrative. But I want to expand the business, and for that I need an edge."

"An edge?"

"Something to put me well ahead of the competition. There's an independent computer hacker in the Northeast who's been working on a new invention. He's hardly more than a kid, but then, the visionaries in electronics tend to be very young. Anyway, he's come up with a patented new system that's pretty sure to revolutionize the computer industry. I want the rights to that system."

"And he's offering them to you?"

"No, he sold the rights to someone else. Cyrus Fortune. I couldn't find out much about the man, but he seems to be a kind of entrepreneur willing to gamble on a smaller company like mine over some of the bigger ones."

"It sounds like an important deal," Amanda said slowly.

"For my company it's vital," he said. "I don't have the capital to form a research and development team, or the patience to wait years for some kind of breakthrough. Everyone's into games and toys, and there isn't much potential for growth or a bigger slice of the market. Personal computers are the thing now, and the next logical step is a system that runs everything in a house from security to the environment with high efficiency and low cost."

Dunbar's system.

She knew about it—all too well. Though she'd never taken much interest in the day-to-day running of the Wilderman business empire, she did keep a close eye on one relatively small part of it.

Wilderman Electronics had been her father's baby. He's started it nearly thirty years before with the design and manufacture of small appliances—radios and the like. When he and his brother formed a partnership and branched out, Patrick Wilderman kept the electronics division separate from the other ventures.

Though Amanda had inherited substantial shares of the family businesses that her uncle Edward now ran, Wilderman Electronics had been left to her alone. It was a public corporation, but since Amanda controlled slightly over sixty percent of the voting stock, her decisions were the company's. In addition, Wilderman Electronics was the parent corporation for several smaller divisions, including a nationally known research and development branch.

That particular subsidiary had been trying to get Eric Dunbar on their team for several years.

Dunbar's new system wouldn't make existing technology obsolete—at least not immediately—but it would, as Ryder said, offer a distinct advantage to any company with an eye to the future. And at Wilderman Electronics's most recent board meeting less than two weeks before, a substantial chunk of capital had been earmarked for the sole purpose of acquiring the permanent employment of Eric Dun-bar, the rights to his new system, and, if possible, getting the patent itself.

"The wave of the future," she said now, trying to think. "But what if... what if you can't get the rights?"

Ryder smiled a bit wryly. "I've been scratching and clawing for ten years to build the company. I wouldn't go under without this new system, but I'd have to go on fighting just to stay afloat. It's a competitive market; I need an edge."

Though she had more than once thought it a curse rather than a blessing, Amanda had taken her personal wealth for granted. It had always been there, and a carefully handpicked group of advisers, accountants, and lawyers virtually assured that it always would be. She had never had to scratch or claw for anything she wanted.

And now she felt like the worst kind of fraud. Heaven knew she hadn't intended to deceive, but here she was, squarely behind the eight ball. Ryder knew her under a false name, and he never would have confided his business plans to her if he'd known who she was. He was fighting for a goal with limited capital; she had access to almost unlimited capital.

For him, it was do or die, with years of struggle ahead of him if he lost the deal. For her, it was a deal that would definitely make a difference—but not that big a difference. Wilderman Electronics had the resources and the time to control a healthy share of the market even without an edge.

He laughed suddenly. "I'm sorry, you can't be interested in all this."

She looked at him and felt trapped. "I—I find it very interesting. I minored in electrical engineering in college."

"What was your major?"

"Business administration."

"So you ended up managing guest ranches?"

Amanda hesitated. "I'm just here to oversee the renovation and decorating."

"And after that? Do you live in Wyoming?"

She felt as if she were skating on very thin ice. "No. As a matter of fact, I live in Boston. The owner of this place lives there; I'd done some work for him in Vermont, and he wanted me for this job."

"You live in Boston? Isn't it odd that we both had to come way out here to meet?"

"Yes," Amanda said. "Very odd."





Chapter Four




"It's not the first time that's happened to me," Ryder said consideringly. "I mean, meeting someone from Boston when we were both hundreds or thousands of miles away."

Amanda smiled. "I know, it's happened to me too. I once met a neighbor of mine for the first time in London. And we'd lived near each other for years."

As if the phrase "near each other" had reminded Ryder of the distance between the two of them, he slid closer suddenly and lifted the catalogues from her lap. "Choosing furniture?" he asked, leafing through the topmost brochure quickly.

"Just making a few preliminary decisions," she replied, trying not to think of how close he was. But he was close, and all her senses were reacting to him. She was so involved in trying to ignore her senses that she was just a fraction too late in reacting when he leaned forward to drop the catalogues onto the coffee table and then returned to her side.

It all happened very quickly, she realized somewhat dazedly. Without a wasted motion Ryder had lifted her legs across his lap, keeping one arm over her thighs and slipping the other around her shoulders. She was half lying in the corner of the couch, conscious of his hard thighs beneath hers and his powerful arms holding her prisoner.

Trapped, she felt unnervingly helpless.

Her hands had lifted instinctively to his chest, braced to hold him off. But Ryder made no attempt to use force. Instead, he smiled down at her, a curiously apologetic smile that still managed to hold a great deal of masculine triumph.

"I couldn't stand it anymore," he explained softly.

Since she didn't have to hold him off, Amanda realized that her fingers were moving just a little of their own volition, probing through his thick sweater to find the hard flesh beneath. She tried to make them stop, but the silent command couldn't seem to reach that far.

"You're—moving too fast," she managed to protest in a strained voice.

"Am I?" He shook his head slightly. "I don't think so. I've got the feeling if I give you too much time to think, you'll run away from me."

"That's ridiculous. I'm a grown woman. I don't—I don't run away from men."

"I'm glad to hear it." His voice was deepening, growing a little rough. "Do you know there are secrets in your eyes?"

"What?" She was startled, uneasy.

The arm around her shoulders shifted so that his fingers tangled in her thick hair, holding her head firmly. "No, don't look away. Amanda?"

Warily she met his gaze again, wondering what on earth was happening to her strength of will. He seemed to have the knack of eroding it.

"Amazing eyes," he murmured, his own probing almost unconsciously. "So green. Even now, in an almost dark room, they're green. It isn't fair for you to have eyes so green."

The long fingers moving in her hair were unexpectedly pleasurable; she could literally feel her ability to think clearly slipping away, dissipating like smoke in the wind. All the things she knew she should tell him were locked inside her somewhere, and she couldn't find them, couldn't shape the words. She could only look at him and wonder on some distant level of herself what was happening to her.

"Damn those eyes," he said on a long breath, then lowered his head until his mouth touched hers.

Amanda felt a hot shiver of pure need ripple through her body at the first touch of his lips. Her mouth opened to him instantly, and she felt as well as heard the strange, muted sound in the back of her throat.

He kissed her with utter absorption, as if there were nothing in the world except the two of them and this urgent desire rising inexorably between them. His mouth was hard, yet it seduced rather than demanded, beguiled rather than forced.

She was half conscious of her arms sliding up around his neck, of her fingers twining in the thick silk of his dark hair. Never in her life had she felt anything like the need inside her; it was shattering in its intensity, and she could no more fight it than she could stop breathing. When his lips finally left hers she murmured a husky protest, not even aware of doing so.

"Amanda," he said tautly as his mouth moved slowly down over the warm flesh of her throat.

Hearing her name from him surprised her somehow, and she understood dimly that it was because her identity was overwhelmed by this passion between them. She could recall reading novels where the women had "lost themselves" in passion, and because she herself had never caught fire, she'd been able to sneer inwardly at those weaklings. But now she understood—and it frightened her.

He made her surrender to feelings she couldn't control. The need he aroused in her swamped her willpower, shattered reason until she was defenseless with want.

The realization was a shock, and if it wasn't strong enough to fully penetrate the hot veils of passion, at least it allowed her a shaken protest.

"Ryder... it's too fast... please..."

He lifted his head slowly, gazing down at her with hot eyes. His face was hard, the features masklike with intensity. "I want you," he said softly, roughly.

Amanda could feel her entire throbbing body weaken. She fought desperately for control. "It's too soon," she whispered. "We hardly know each other. Ryder—"

"Do you think that matters?" His voice was raspy. "I knew when you fell off that damned ladder and I caught you."

"I didn't know," she protested. "I still don't. I won't just tumble into bed with a stranger, dammit!"

Ryder lowered his head and captured her mouth again. And this time there was force, intensity; this time there was a stark assurance. He took her mouth as if there were no question it belonged to him, that she belonged to him.

Amanda heard that strange sound escape again, that muted sound of unthinking pleasure. She felt as if she were sinking down into something hot and dark, being pulled irresistibly by some power beyond her understanding.

He raised his head slowly, staring down at her. She looked as shaken as he felt, as bewildered. Her lovely face was a little pale, her beautiful green eyes dazed and enormous, her lips swollen and reddened from his kisses. He wanted to lift her in his arms and carry her upstairs, to find a room with a bed and lock the door and shut out the world.

He had never felt desire like this, not so all-consuming. He was conscious of a stunning, gut-wrenching need to bury himself in her, to take her so utterly and completely that even the secrets in her eyes would be his.

His own stark need shook him, and because he was a man who had marked out the paths of his life with unerring certainty, this unexpected detour made him abruptly wary. He saw the same uneasy guardedness stirring in her eyes, and even though some part of him hated that look, another part understood.

"All right," he said, surprised by the hoarse sound of his own voice. "Ill try to slow down."

He drew away from her, allowing her to sit up again beside him. The voice of caution in his head told him to back off emotionally as well as physically, but he couldn't help adding, "Don't make me wait too long."

A spark of green fire showed in her eyes, and she sent him a look that was an odd mixture of defiance and vulnerability. "Don't be so sure of yourself!" she snapped with only the slightest tremor in her voice.

Ryder stood up and pulled her to her feet, then lifted one hand to turn her face up firmly. "Shouldn't I be?" he asked her very softly.

"Damn you," she whispered, her gaze falling before the certainty in his eyes. "You're a stranger—"

"No, I'm not. You know me, Amanda. And I know you. It doesn't matter that we met hours ago."

"Lust at first sight," she said jerkily with an attempt at scorn.

"Call it anything you like. It's real, we both know that. I want you. And you want me."

She bit her bottom lip. "I'm old enough to know that what I may want isn't always good for me."

He bent his head and kissed her, keeping it light even though the strain of holding back seemed as if it might tear him in half. "I'll be good for you," he promised.

Amanda didn't reply to that. There didn't seem to be anything she could say.

He didn't seem to expect anything. "I'll walk you to your room," he said.

She watched him bend to pick up the catalogues, then walked beside him silently as they went upstairs. Nemo went with them, his presence as unobtrusive as it could be for a dog of his size.

Ryder left her at her door with a casual good night.

Amanda was more confused than ever. She piled the catalogues on her nightstand and sat down on the bed, looking around the room with eyes that didn't really see it.

"What do I do now, dog?" she murmured to Nemo.

From his position on a faded rug near the foot of her bed, the big dog thumped his tail against the floor and gazed at her with his mild, startled eyes.

"That's a lot of help," she told him.

She was an honest woman by nature, and her impulse was to tell Ryder who she was. She had meant to do just that once she'd discovered why he was here. But somehow the words got lost before she could say them.

This situation was different from any she'd had to deal with. For the first time in her adult life she was reasonably sure that a man was interested in her for herself, that he was attracted to her and wanted her because her eyes were green or her hair was red, or because of the way she looked in jeans. That he was drawn to her because of one or more of the many mysterious reasons that drew a man to a woman.

It wasn't her name or family, or the healthy status of her bank account.

Yet that same man was here for the purpose of building his company up to compete with hers.

She didn't know what to do. Tell him the truth? Explain that her being here was just a coincidence? She doubted he'd believe her. She didn't believe it herself.

Amanda rose and went to her dresser, opening the top drawer and gazing down at what she had discovered in her suitcase when she'd finished unpacking last night.

The glass shoe.

Samantha must have put it there, Amanda had realized. Another one of her gentle reminders. But she couldn't—surely she couldn't—have had anything to do with sending Ryder here? No, that was just ridiculous. Ryder had come here to meet with a man about a business matter.

Amanda wanted to forget about the Cinderella masquerade, particularly since Ryder had clearly forgotten all about it. But she couldn't. That had been the first deceit, no matter how innocent; not telling Ryder who she was now was the second deceit.

She thought he might well forgive the first because it had been innocent. But what would he think if she told him now that she was a Wilderman and controlled Wilderman Electronics?

"Why can't it be as simple as a fairy tale?" she murmured aloud.

It wasn't until she was in bed sometime later that Amanda realized something. Hostility hadn't worked. Guardedness hadn't worked. But if she told Ryder who she really was, she had little doubt that his interest in her as a woman would vanish like smoke.

How ironic. The first man interested in her for herself alone could well be the first man to be more angry than impressed by who she was.

The realization should have comforted her. After all, revealing her true identity would resolve the dilemma. She wouldn't have to be wary of being hurt again. She wouldn't have to guard her tongue or examine every word before she spoke. She could be herself again. It was a long time before she fell asleep.

"Amanda, Jeff Haynes just called me."

She kept her gaze fixed on the landing above, wary of having someone—especially a particular someone—overhear her conversation with her uncle. Since he was an early riser, she hadn't hesitated to call him at virtually the crack of dawn. "And he told you that a man named Cyrus Fortune had bought the rights to Dunbar's patent?"

There was a long silence, and then Edward Wilder-man said somewhat dryly, "So you've heard."

"Yes. What did Jeff say about it?" Jeffrey Haynes was the CEO of Wilderman Electronics, and a good friend of Edward's. He was also Amanda's godfather.

"Well, Dunbar's on the verge of signing an employment agreement, but he says the patent's out of reach."

Amanda hesitated, then slowly asked, "Uncle Edward, did you know that Ryder Foxx would be here?"

After a hesitation of his own, her uncle said, "Samantha was planning something, but I gather it fell through; she swears it isn't her doing. He's there to meet with Cyrus Fortune?"

"Yes."

Edward sighed. "When I heard Fortune's name, I remembered he was one of the guests. But Amanda, Ryder Foxx's name wasn't on the list. Cyrus Fortune made reservations for himself—and a guest, unnamed. He was asked to notify the ranch directly, to give Penny the guest's name and both arrival times."

Amanda drew a breath. "Could Fortune have planned so far in advance? The reservations were made months ago. How could he have been so sure of getting the patent from Dunbar?"

"He couldn't have been," Edward said immediately. "The system wasn't even ready then. It has to be a fluke, Amanda. When Fortune made the reservations, we didn't own the ranch. He got the rights to the patent, then invited Ryder Foxx to be his guest and talk about it."

"All right, so it's a fluke. But what now? I can't make Fortune an offer for the patent, Uncle Edward. I just can't."

"Why not? You're empowered—"

"That isn't it. Look, Cyrus Fortune knows you own the ranch because your office communicated with him about the renovations. Right?"

"Right."

"But Ryder Foxx doesn't know. The ranch is officially owned by a subsidiary based in Texas, the same one that owns the ranch down there. The Wilderman name isn't even connected to this place. I mean, granted, Ryder could have found out easily enough, but why would he? He believes he's just here to meet a man and talk about a business deal."

"So?" Edward asked.

"So Cyrus Fortune had to know that you'd know where he was as soon as the news broke about the patent. And since you own this place, he wouldn't doubt that you—or I—would send someone out here to make him an offer. It may have started out as a fluke, b