Αρχική σελίδα Time After Time

Time After Time

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Έτος:
2009
Εκδότης:
Bantam
Γλώσσα:
english
Αρχείο:
EPUB, 150 KB
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Contents

Synopsis

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten





Synopsis




At first he heard only her voice in the darkness. Then, when the lights clicked on, Noah Thorne knew he was in for something just a little wild! The revelation that interior designer Alex Bennet had been a lion tamer for four years both delighted him -- and put him on guard. But it was the siren look in her green eyes that promised to cage his heart forever. Alex Bennet was a woman whose past held more than one delicious secret, more than one unusual gift. And when their nights became filled with shockingly vivid dreams of the two of them in other times and places, they wondered if Fate was the ringmaster guiding their passions...





One

"Miss Cortney-Bennet?"

From some distant corner of the very dark room a tiny, gentle voice reproved him. "It's just Bennet. Most Americans don't use hyphenated names."

A bit rattled for several reasons, he stepped inside the loft and half-closed the door behind him. It was so dark that he had the eerie feeling of having been swallowed up by something huge and dimly threatening. It didn't help that rain lashed the high windows or that thunder rumbled distantly.

"Sorry. Uh—I got a message about a problem."

There was a long silence broken only by a muffled crash as he took an unwary step forward, tripped over something unyielding, and found himself sprawled across what seemed to be a large box. The tiny voice reached him through his muttered curses.

"A slight problem. You may have noticed that it's dark."

"The whole building's dark," he retorted, peeling himself off the box.

"Well, you own the building. Can't you do something about it?" Suspicion abruptly entered the ridiculously small voice. "You do own the building, don't you?"

"Not at all," he responded politely, barking his shin on what felt like a boulder. "I just stopped by to rape and pillage."

"Perfect weather for it,&q; uot; she murmured.

"Look, where are you?" he demanded, trying to home in on that small voice.

"I'm not sure. I was in the shower when the lights went out, and I haven't been able to find my flashlight. I just barely found the phone."

Before he could stop himself, he asked, "Did you find any clothes?"

"I found a robe." Her voice turned reflective. "Or maybe it's just the towel Caliban chewed a couple of holes in. It feels like a robe, though."

Fascinated, he took a step toward her voice, tripped again, and found himself hugging something tall, unyielding, and furry. Recoiling violently, he tripped going backward and sat down hard on yet another box.

"What the hell?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I just ran into something with fur," he managed to say.

"Is it alive?"

"I sincerely hope not!"

"Oh, well, that was Fluffy. He's a bear. A stuffed bear," she added rather hastily.

He took a deep breath. "Oh."

"Yes. Don't you have a flashlight?"

He decided to remain where he was on the box because there was something definitely unnerving in encountering a bear—be it ever so stuffed—in total darkness. "I couldn't find my flashlight," he explained, adding, "I just moved in yesterday myself."

"You're a lot of help," she told him severely. "What is your name, anyway? I've forgotten."

"Noah Thorne. And you're Stephanie Alexandra Cortney Bennet," he said, remembering not to hyphenate the surnames. "It stuck in my mind."

"Impressive, isn't it?" she agreed cheerfully. "I was born with it, but use it only professionally. To my friends, I'm just Alex Bennet."

For some time Noah had been conscious of a wry feeling about his mental image of the lady with the impressive name. Now he was certain that image was slightly off. They had never met face to face, or even talked on the phone; he had seen some of her interior decorating and had hired her through correspondence to handle the decorating of his building.

And Alex Bennet, upon learning all the details of the conversion, had instantly requested a loft for herself. She had decided to relocate to San Francisco from the East, and both the job and the loft had sounded perfect to her. But he had been gone all day while she moved in, and they still hadn't met.

Neither of them knew the building at all well—she because it was her first day here, and Noah because he'd been out of town working on a commission while the conversion took place.

It was an old building, a warehouse recently and very roughly converted to lofts. There would be five lofts eventually, although only two were presently habitable: the one he had moved into on the top floor yesterday, and the one Alex Bennet had taken on the first floor today. Neither loft was much more than bare floors and brick walls at this point.

Noah had tired of his apartment in a vast complex downtown, and had instantly decided to move here when the warehouse-conversion idea became feasible. He planned to manage the building himself, taking the top floor as both living and work areas. It would allow him plenty of space and time for his photographic work, he'd decided.

He wondered now if he was being optimistic about having plenty of time. Everything that could go wrong had already, and he'd been here only since yesterday. He'd had the plumber out only hours after moving in to fix various clogged drains, requested the building contractor to return in order to close up a doorway somebody had officiously added to the plans, and now it most certainly looked as though the electrician would have to be called.

He sat on a box in a very dark room, wary of moving because of a stuffed bear, and growing more and more curious about his decorator/tenant. He had checked his answering service after leaving his studio late in the afternoon, stopping by a phone booth because his home phone hadn't been connected yet, and his studio phone had just been disconnected since it was his last day in the place.

There was little he could do about the situation, but when his service reported a problem with his tenant, he'd felt honor-bound at least to find out what the problem was. Encountering darkness upon entering the building, he'd felt his way cautiously up the three flights of stairs to his own loft, searched fruitlessly for a flashlight, then felt his way back down the stairs to Alex's loft.

For all the good it had done either of them.

Suddenly aware of the silence, he suggested, "Matches? Candles?"

"Are you kidding? I couldn't even find my clothes."

Noah calculated the position of the bear, carefully got off his box-chair, and made another attempt to work his way toward her voice. When his outstretched fingers encountered fur, he jerked his hand back, silently damned his sense of direction, made a ten-degree correction, and went on.

The next few minutes were strange, to say the least. Locating a wall by nearly running headlong into it, he felt along it until he found a door. Opening the door was an instinctive reaction—and so was hastily shutting it when a deep and eerily menacing growl issued from within.

"What in heaven's name—?"

"That's just Caliban. You said I could have a pet," she reminded him anxiously. "He's very well-trained."

Noah decided not to ask exactly what kind of pet Caliban was; judging by the sound of his growl, he was a big one. Making another guess as to the location of his tenant, he turned and tentatively started back across the room. "It would be much simpler," he said, "if we just went out and got flashlights and oil lamps."

"Well, I hate to be a bother," she told him, "but you'll have to do that. I'm not dressed to go anywhere. At least I don't think I am. Won't the power come back on?"

"If lightning hit a transformer or something," he replied, "and work crews are out. But if it's just this building, who knows when we'll have power?"

"I called the power company; they said it was the storm."

"Did they estimate when service might be restored?"

"Apparently they didn't dare. I called your service again to let you know what they said, but you'd already checked in for the last time. I really didn't think there was anything you could do, but..." Her voice trailed off for a moment, then resumed rather stolidly. "But I've never been totally alone in a strange city before—with no lights—and I got a little nervous."

Instantly he said, "I don't blame you. A strange apartment is bad enough, but in the dark? My heart's still pounding from running into your bear."

She giggled, and since the voice sounded very near, Noah reached out an experimental hand. "Is that—"

"Yes, that's me," she said, startled and slightly breathless.

He swiftly drew back his hand. "Um . . . sorry." She had a little-girl voice, he reflected, but there was nothing childish about what his hand had encountered.

Alex cleared her throat. "Blind man's buff has its pitfalls. Look, I'm near the couch. I'll back up and move sideways, and if you take a step forward, I think we can both sit down."

Gingerly they managed the feat.

"I really should go out and find some kind of light," he said, "but, quite frankly, I'm not looking forward to making my way back to the door."

"That's why I stayed in one place," she confided. "Since the loft is basically one huge room, with only a bedroom and bath separate from it, the movers pretty much just dumped everything and left. I think Caliban was making them nervous."

Something about that name bothered Noah, but he couldn't pin it down; he only knew that every mention of the name twanged a cord of uneasy memory. "He isn't vicious, is he?"

"Oh, no. He's just big. And he looks a bit . . . um . . . unusual." Before Noah could comment, she was going on cheerfully, "I must say, I've never before met a client under circumstances like these. Or a landlord, for that matter. Are you going to be a good landlord?"

Both taken aback and amused by the question, he answered gravely. "I certainly hope so. But I'm new at it, so you'll have to bear with me—no pun intended."

She giggled, a curiously enchanting, gleeful sound, and Noah felt his interest in her growing. She couldn't be as young as she sounded, although if his encounter with womanly curves was anything to go by, she was certainly much shorter than the average woman. He decided that there was something vastly intriguing about this meeting. It was, he knew, because of the total darkness: with sight no help to him, he found himself using other senses more intensely than he could ever remember doing before.

His ears found the sound of her voice pleasant and musical, the very small and low-pitched timbre of it oddly fascinating. She smelled of herbal soap, reminding him of a dark-green forest after a spring shower. And though they were not touching, he could feel the warmth of her beside him on the couch. Questions filled his mind, and in the enigmatic darkness those questions were a tantalizing mystery.

Upon hearing the name Stephanie Alexandra Cortney Bennet, Noah had fleetingly visualized a tall and queenly woman, chic, sophisticated, and with a strong sense of style. Alex was a free-lance decorator, which meant either that she was very successful, hadn't been at it very long, or else was taking a tremendous gamble on her own abilities. He knew of two apartment buildings she'd done in the East—the work he'd seen and been impressed by—and both clients had spoken well of her.

Now that he thought about it, both those clients had also seemed a bit bemused, and the remarks, identical from both men, now rose in his memory. "She's a very good decorator." Not an unexpected remark from a satisfied customer, to be sure, Noah thought. But. . . somehow peculiar.

Unconsciously he began listening even more intently with every sense, both curiosity and a pleasurable feeling of mystery prodding him. And something else, some odd, compelling sense of . . . certainty? "Did you just get into town today?" he asked, wanting to hear more of her oddly fascinating little voice.

"Yes, this morning. It was a long drive."

"You drove?" he exclaimed. "Across the country?"

"The pioneers blazed a trail," she reminded him, amused. "I just followed it."

"But you didn't drive alone?"

"Except for Caliban. It was fun, really. I got to see a lot of the country, and whenever I needed to rest, I just pulled over somewhere and slept in the van."

In spite of darkness, reality was taking an even sharper turn away from his imaginings: She was obviously not the chic, first-class traveler he'd expected.

"So you just literally pulled up roots and came out here? What about your family?"

"Don't have one. My parents were killed when I was six, and there weren't any close relatives. I was raised in an orphanage."

"That's tough." he said, his ready sympathy stirred.

"Oh, no, not at all." Alex was cheerful. "It was a nice place operated by good people. I left about ten years ago, just after I turned sixteen. I didn't run away from there as much as I ran to something else."

"What did you run to?" he asked, curious.

"The circus."

"What?"

She chuckled. "The orphanage took us to see the circus about a year before I left, and it kind of, well, obsessed me. So I decided to run away and join the circus."

"And that's what you did?"

"Certainly. It was a plan."

"A plan?"

"I like to plan things. So I waited until another circus passed through town, and when they left. I left with them."

"No one tried to send you back?"

"I lied about my age. Besides. I was good with animals and they needed a trainer. It wasn't a very big circus." she added ruefully.

"So you became their animal trainer."

"That's right. I trained whatever they asked me to train. Primates, elephants, dogs, horses, cats."

"Cats?"

"The big cats."

"Don't tell me you put your head in a lion's mouth?"

"You'd be surprised." she murmured.

Noah was more than a little incredulous. "How on earth did an animal trainer wind up being an interior decorator?"

"Growth."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Growth. I believe that people have to change constantly in order to grow as human beings. I left the circus after about four years because it was time for me to change, to do something else."

"And what did you do?" he asked, fascinated.

"Well, several things. I left the circus in Richmond and ran into an old friend from the orphanage; she had a business and asked me to join her, so I did. I got my high school diploma and took some college courses while I was there. When she decided to move her business—it was an arts and crafts place—I just stayed on in Richmond. After that I did different things. I worked in a bank, and a realty company, and a museum. Then I took courses in decorating, and decided to try that for a while."

The thumbnail sketch told him more, probably, than she'd intended. It told him she was versatile, strong-minded, and very self-reliant. She had spent ten years settled in an orphanage, then four years traveling the Gypsy circuit of circus performers before settling again in the East.

Though he couldn't help but believe that her life in the orphanage had been a bland one, she had more than made up for that during the past few years. And he had an odd but strong feeling that if she had gone into detail, he would have found even more fascinating enigmas.

At that moment Noah's strongest desire was for a single match. Though lightning had flashed intermittently, the high glazed windows of the loft permitted little light to penetrate—and none at all long enough for them even to glimpse each other.

And he very badly wanted to see her.

"My kingdom for a match." he muttered, unaware of speaking aloud.

Alex clearly sensed nothing personal in the remark. "It is dark, isn't it? I've never seen dark like this before. Why on earth did you leave the windows so high?"

"I didn't want to change the basic structure of the building." he answered automatically. "Will it present problems for decorating?"

"I doubt it: lofts look better without drapes anyway. But if you don't have the power company put a couple of streetlights nearby, your other tenants might complain."

Amused at the critical advice, he murmured, "The power company's coming out next week: there'll be two utility lights out front and one in back. I'll have floodlights around the pool too."

"There's a pool?" she asked eagerly.

"Just finished. It isn't huge, but since this building is miles away from a health club, I thought a pool would be pleasant and convenient."

"And there's quite a bit of cleared land around this building, isn't there?" Alex sounded thoughtful.

"A couple of acres, and fenced. It seemed like a good investment: I can always have more buildings constructed later if I decide to go that way. Apartments and lofts are at a real premium around here."

"So this is an investment for you?"

"More or less."

"You mentioned in your letter that you're a photographer, and that part of your loft will be a studio. Have you decided whether or not I'm to decorate your loft as well as the others?"

"After seeing how bare everything is—definitely. If it suits you, we'll take care of our lofts first, then you can work on the other three."

"Fine."

While the conversation had progressed casually, a part of Noah's mind had been idly considering why he had fumbled his way across a dark room just to be near her. He remembered reading of various city-wide blackouts during which people had tended to stick together and form quick friendships—most of which had instantly dissolved when the lights came back on. Was that it? A very human tendency to find companionship in order to ward off the inherent danger of darkness? Rather the way cavemen must have huddled together around a fire with deadly wilderness at their backs . . .

There was something about total darkness that stripped away the caution most people felt upon encountering strangers. Unable to see, there was no need to guard expressions or to wonder worriedly if dinner had left a stain on an otherwise clean shirt.

There was only darkness that seemed to intensify each sound, each shift in movement.

Noah wondered if his own fascination would dissolve when the lights came back on, wondered if Alex Bennet would be nearly as interesting when he could see her.

And then his questions were answered.





Two




When his eyes had stopped squinting from the sudden light. Noah found that Alex had recovered her own vision with the quickness of a cat. She was looking at him, wide-eyed, and her obvious surprise gave him a few moments to try to cope with his own.

For an instant he felt a hazy yet jarring sense of déjà vu. Another face flashed across his mind. But the memory fled before he could know anything except that it was not this face. The eyes were the same, though, the enchanting green eyes. Or perhaps the soul behind them . . .

A violent mental shove sent the unnerving idea spinning away, and Noah forced himself to think only of this face and this woman. It was not, in the end, very hard to do.

Stephanie Alexandra Cortney Bennet was a woman tiny enough to match her voice; she might have been five feet tall on her very best day and wearing three-inch heels. She had on a white robe that looked more like a scanty beach cover-up, the lapels barely covering curves that were startlingly generous for so petite a woman, the hem only just reaching the middle of her thighs. She was tanned a golden brown over every inch of exposed flesh.

And she possessed the kind of delicate, fragile beauty that would always turn heads and stop conversations in mid-sentence. Blond curls, thick and with the texture of spun silk, tumbled to her shoulders, framing a face that was right out of a dream. It was an oval face, golden and flawless. Delicate brows winged above large, expressive eyes of such a clear green that Noah half-expected to see a siren beckon to him from their depths; dark lashes tangled in a long, curling thicket that was a sooty frame for the green. Her nose was finely etched and straight, her mouth gently curved with humor and vulnerability.

Noah caught himself leaning instinctively toward her, and felt a jarring shock. There were sirens in her eyes, he thought dimly, innocent sirens beckoning with guileless smiles and the timeless grace of ancient seas. Then she spoke, and although the sirens continued to exist in green depths, now they laughed like forest sprites. . . .

"I thought you'd be short, fat, and balding!"

"Thanks," he shot back, conscious of the huskiness in his own voice.

"Sorry, Noah, but I was going by past experience; all the photographers I've known have looked like that."

Trying to distract himself from the sirens, Noah tore his gaze away to look around the room, and he succeeded very well when he saw Fluffy. "Good Lord!"

Incredibly the stuffed bear was of the polar variety, standing very tall and wearing a fierce grimace of bearlike rage. Noah marveled fleetingly that the stark white had been so invisible in the darkness, realizing that the room had been even darker than he'd thought. His gaze flitted over the confusion of boxes, crates, and furniture, absently noting that the "boulder" he'd barked his shin on was in actuality a large crate that lay open and empty except for a pile of clean straw.

Straw? he thought. Now, why on earth—

"It's nice to meet you," Alex said solemnly, holding out one small hand.

"Same here." Holding that soft slenderness in his own hand, Noah found it impossible to believe—"Are you sure you tamed lions?" he blurted out.

"Very sure." Her amused smile made it quite obvious that she'd heard that question before.

Noah found himself wondering if the sirens in her eyes had bewitched even jungle beasts, and hastily pushed the speculation away. He also released her hand when he became aware that he'd held it longer than necessary. He felt rattled again and wasn't at all sure he liked the sensation. Alex didn't seem to notice.

She rose to her feet, smiling. "Let me get changed and I'll put on some coffee. Unless—?" Her lifted brow made the question clear.

"I'd love some coffee, thanks," he responded. As he watched her move gracefully through the jumble toward the bathroom, Noah told himself that his desire to remain was simply a landlord's intention to get to know a tenant, and a client's desire to better know his decorator. He told himself that several times, more firmly with each repetition.

And he believed not one word of it.

By the time he made his way up the stairs to his own loft over an hour later, Noah had stopped pretending even to himself. Alex Bennet was the most captivating woman he'd ever met in his life, and even after seeing the polar bear she clearly meant to keep in her own loft, he felt no misgivings about her decorating ability; she could have done every loft in the building in bamboo and stuffed wildlife and he wouldn't have said a word against it.

He'd even given Fluffy an absent pat on his way out.

It wasn't until much later, sliding between the sheets of his bed and reaching to turn out the lamp, that Noah wondered about Caliban. Alex had not suggested that he meet her pet, and he had been too intrigued by the woman herself to care about anything else. Now he wondered, but only fleetingly. He lay back and closed his eyes, looking forward to tomorrow.

He dreamed of mermaids and sirens, his dream-self incredulous that Ulysses had lashed himself to a mast instead of leaping happily overboard. . . .

Noah woke once in the night, and during the hazy moments between abandoned dreams and wakefulness, he could have sworn he heard a voice. The voice was feminine, familiar yet strange, and the accent was one he'd never heard before. And his sleep-fogged mind told him the girl spoke to him—but to someone else as well.

"Oh, see! Our lifelines match! We are bonded, my love. Fated to share all our lives together!"

And then he was awake.

Noah frowned into the darkness, feeling an oddly displaced sensation. Green woods, he thought, not a dark bedroom . . . Then he shook his head, pounded his pillow, and fought to recapture sleep.

But he never recaptured the dream.

Alex puttered about her loft for a while after Noah left. She let Caliban out of the bedroom and fed him, reminding herself to be sure to go shopping early the next day. It was late, the storm long gone, and she waited restlessly for her pet to finish his dinner so that she could take him out for his much-needed exercise.

Absently unpacking a box filled with decorative pillows, she piled them on the couch and then sat down among them, finally thinking about what she'd been trying to avoid considering. There were several things, and heading the list was her new client and landlord.

The return of electricity had brought a definite shock, one she still hadn't entirely recovered from. Her supposedly short-fat-and-balding client was no such thing; in fact, any comparison with that mythical gentleman was ludicrous.

Noah Thorne was a man somewhere in his mid-thirties, somewhere over six feet tall, and somewhere over a ten in the half-serious rating system Alex's friends always used.

Alex had never even met a ten before, much less a man who would easily jolt the needle over the top.

He had the kind of hawklike good looks one never expected to encounter in a real person, and if that smile hadn't been breaking hearts for a good many years, she mused, then Noah Thorne had met a lot of blind women. His thick hair was raven-black and stick-straight, his eyes a curious light blue that was almost gray and almost silver—but not quite.

Half the women Alex knew would have killed to possess his long eyelashes, and the other half would have killed to possess him. After seeing him move around the loft, Alex had been reminded irresistibly of a warrior walking cat-footed on the hunt, silent, dangerous, and nearly as wild as the game he stalked.

When he smiled, that lethal image was overshadowed by charm and humor, but Alex felt faintly unnerved by the instinct telling her that nature had intended just that; even the wildest of beasts could look cuddly and unthreatening at times, lending a feeling of safety that was, to say the least, misleading.

Alex was determined not to be misled.

However, it was one thing for her to tell herself that, and quite another thing to ignore the instant attraction she'd felt. She'd seen the ridiculous images in her mind of Cleopatra meeting Antony, of Guinevere gazing upon Lancelot, of Cinderella raising her eyes to meet those of Prince Charming. . . .

Ridiculous! She was twenty-six years old, on her own for ten years, and she certainly knew better than to indulge in childish dreams and unrealistic expectations. Men were men; the best of them possessed annoying habits and beliefs, and the worst of them had some redeeming trait. Period.

Still, there was just something about the man. She'd had the odd feeling that they had met before, yet his face had struck no cord of memory.

Alex drummed her fingers silently on a particularly colorful pillow and tried to think reasonably. He was a very attractive man, and in the moment of surprise following the darkness she had seen his interest in her. He had drunk her coffee and gazed at her almost constantly, making her feel breathless and curiously unlike herself—and that was a danger signal.

In fact, it was a hell of a potential problem.

Because Alex wanted very much to get to know him better. It wasn't his looks that prompted that desire, although they had certainly been a jolt to her system. No, she thought, it wasn't because he was a handsome man. It was because of the humor in his deep voice and the charm and danger of his smile.

Danger. Alex knew then why she was so attracted to him. For nearly four years, while most girls her age had been playfully experimenting with boys, Alex had learned to handle creatures of the wild. She had learned to read the signs of rage in the posture of a big cat, in the abrupt movement of a bear, and in the flashing eyes of a stallion. And she had survived those years and experiences unscathed because she was very good at reading such signs.

Smiling a little to herself, Alex allowed that instinct to search her impressions of tonight's meeting with Noah, and her instinct summed up the situation neatly. A caged lion, a tethered hawk, a chained bear . . . call him what you will, Noah Thorne is a dangerous man.

Not dangerous to life and limb, of course, but dangerous to something far more vital. Alex had the strong feeling that any involvement with Noah would literally change her life forever.

So what? You approve of change, a voice in her head pointed out reasonably.

So there was a problem. Caliban.

Alex looked up as he padded silently around the low partition dividing the kitchen from the rest of the loft, and rose to her feet. "Ready to go out, boy?" Caliban rumbled something that might have been a yes, his big yellow eyes gazing at her with a gentleness she could read and no one else would ever believe.

"Now, look," she told him, scrabbling through a box for his collar and leash, "we can't let anyone know you're here. So you behave yourself, all right?" After nearly six years of successfully hiding her pet, Alex normally would have had little fear of exposure. Except that now she'd met Noah.

Whether he would keep her secret or not she didn't know, but both her job and her interest in him promised a closer involvement than she'd ever had to deal with during the past six years. Noah had her definite interest, but Caliban had her heart—and sooner than lose him, she knew she would quietly fold her tent and steal away into the night.

Sighing, wondering how long she could keep Caliban's presence a secret from her landlord—to say nothing of future tenants—Alex fastened the heavy collar around his thick neck and snapped the leash in place. Then, while he waited patiently, she went through the routine of finding out whether or not there was anyone in the vicinity outside the building.

Feeling fortunate to have a ground-floor loft with a back entrance, Alex checked the rear of the building and felt even luckier. The pool was to the right of her back door, new wooden decking surrounding it and a decorative fence surrounding that; the gate stood open, giving her a good look inside since the moon now shone in a cloudless sky.

Directly outside the sliding glass door was an equally new deck matched by another several yards away for the other ground-floor loft. Looking up, she could see that each loft boasted a deck with a view of the pool. Alex sighed, hoping that neither Noah nor any of the future tenants would spend late nights out on their decks. Then she gazed at the fenced land surrounding this building.

For what was basically a city dwelling, she thought, there was an abundance of empty land, which was just great for her purposes. She stepped out far enough to look up toward Noah's loft, assuring herself that it was dark and that he wasn't on his deck. He might well have been inside in darkness, gazing through his own glass door, but she doubted it.

Ten minutes later she and Caliban were exploring, and she was patiently teaching her pet where his boundaries were. They roamed among the dripping trees and wet, overgrown grass for more than an hour before she finally led him back inside the loft and got ready for bed.

Later, lying sleepily in the darkness of her bedroom, she automatically moved over as Caliban climbed into the bed. She patted his broad head and listened to the grumbling sound he made in contentment. Just as she was dropping off to sleep, she found herself wondering idly how her pet would react to a man in her bed.

Odd . . . the question had never occurred to her before.

She had taken Caliban out for a run at dawn, then accomplished her shopping before most of the city was even awake; all-night grocery stores, she thought with amusement, were certainly a godsend for people with unusual pets. So was the ability to sleep no more than four or five hours a night, an ability she had possessed as long as she could remember.

Leaving Caliban in the bedroom to sleep off the morning's exertions and his breakfast, she put away her groceries and began to get her kitchen in order while she watched the sun rising outside. Several hours later she fixed a late breakfast for herself and gazed in approval at her new home. The kitchen was in order and her living area arranged neatly, a profusion of pillows piled on her long sectional couch and two overstuffed chairs. Several large decorative candles graced her inlaid oak coffee table—she'd never again be caught here in the dark for long!—and ceramic and porcelain lamps sat on the end tables that matched it.

Fluffy stood in a corner near the door with two large potted rubber plants flanking him. Alex had efficiently and as quietly as possible erected her sectional bookcases along the broad wall on the other side of the door, and small boxes of books stood ready to be put into place.

She had taken apart Caliban's crate and stored the panels in the capacious closet between the bedroom and bathroom doors before stuffing the straw into a large garbage bag along with other assorted trash familiar to anyone who had ever moved. Empty boxes were piled neatly near the door awaiting removal.

It was a good start.

Moving about the loft, thoughtful, Alex carried her coffee cup and planned. The raised platform that took up half the open loft space and ran the length of the streetside wall, she decided, would hold her working materials. It already did, in fact, since she'd asked the movers to leave her working table, desk, and various tools of her trade up there. A wide set of three steps led up to the platform, and Caliban sprawled to block the way.

Amused, she watched as he methodically licked the bedraggled face of the large teddy bear he clutched between his front paws. "I'm glad the doll finally disintegrated.'' she told him, smiling. "That bear's bad enough, but the doll made your instincts look suspect." He blinked sleepy eyes and began washing the bear's face again.

Remembering the large doll her pet had dragged around for nearly two years. Alex smiled. But then a knock sounded at her door, and her smile vanished. "Cal!" she hissed, heading for the bedroom door.

He got up and lifted the bear in his huge jaws, obediently following her and going into the bedroom. She watched him climb onto her bed with his toy, then carefully closed the door and went to find out who her visitor was.

Noah.

He stepped into the loft with a cheerful smile, saying. "Good morning. Alex. I thought you could probably use some help—" Then his eyes widened as he took in the neatly arranged living area of the loft. "You're a fast worker, aren't you?" he observed, surprised.

"An early riser." Alex smiled as she closed the door behind him. "I'll have it to do all over again, probably, when the painters come, but I wanted to get an idea of how it'll look. Coffee?"

"Thanks." He followed her into the kitchen area, his eyes drawn irresistibly to the lovely picture she made dressed in snug jeans and a colorful peasant blouse. A bright bandanna held her thick hair away from her face, making her look even more fragile than she had the night before. And the sirens, he decided, were still present in her eyes, but this morning they were wistful creatures with gentle smiles.

Bewitched. He was definitely bewitched, and he wondered distantly why that didn't disturb him.

"Do all the lofts have the same floor plan?" she asked him, handing over a cup of coffee.

He nodded. "Except mine, which basically has double the space."

Her green eyes were bright as she looked around her own loft. "Possibilities. Definite possibilities."

They had moved back into the living area, and he laughed as he looked at the profusion of pillows. "I've never seen so many before," he replied to her inquiring look. "D'you collect them?"

"No, I throw them," she answered casually.

Noah sat down on the couch at her gesture, watching her get comfortable a foot or so away and wondering if he'd missed a turn somewhere in the conversation. "You throw them?"

"Uh-huh."

"Why?" he asked blankly.

"It's better than breaking things, isn't it?"

He took a sip of his coffee. "You've lost me."

She smiled suddenly, and the sirens became mischievous sprites. "I have a terrible temper, and when I'm mad, I have to do something. I broke an awful lot of things before I discovered the pillows: they satisfy my urge to throw things, but nothing breaks."

Noah became conscious of a sudden desire to watch her get mad. It was a totally unreasonable urge, and he didn't want to make her mad: he just wanted to see her throw pillows. He fought the urge.

"Oh. Um . . . you just throw the pillows?"

"And yell." she added happily.

Imagining that tiny voice roused to a yell was almost more than his mind could grasp: it seemed an impossible thing. Both the yelling and the pillow-throwing, in fact, seemed impossible, given her tiny, fragile appearance.

Clearly Alex saw his disbelief. "It's true." she assured him. "I used to have the most famous temper tantrums in the orphanage, and even now my friends hide behind things when I get mad."

"Should I take that example to heart?"

She smiled, but there was something about the smile implying a definite warning. "You'd better."

"I'm not planning to make you mad." he told her.

"Best-laid plans, and all that. Something is bound to make me mad sooner or later."

Noah thought about that for a moment, flipped a mental coin, and didn't even bother to see how it landed. "Do amorous photographers make you mad?" he asked gravely.

Alex sipped her coffee, and the sirens in her eyes seemed to laugh at him. "Noah." she asked dryly, "are you making a pass?"

"I planned to be more subtle than that." he told her, pained.

Her eyes were definitely laughing. "Oh. Well, to answer your question—as I said before, all the photographers I've known have been short, fat, and so on. Fatherly in fact. I've never met an amorous photographer, so I don't know how I'd react."

"Best guess?"

She reflected. "Best guess—I doubt it. On principle, you understand. Of course, there's no saying for sure. The amorous photographer in question could easily do or say something to set me off."

"For instance?"

"Oh, any little thing could do it. The wrong word or gesture. A frown instead of a smile. Who can say?"

"Then you'd throw pillows."

"And yell."

He nodded, still grave. "Any jealous suitors hanging around likely to cause trouble?"

"You mean you wouldn't be willing to fight for me?" she asked, wounded.

"How could I impress a lion tamer with my fighting ability?" he asked, a suitably rueful expression on his handsome face. "I'm defeated before I start. And answer the question, please."

"Suitors? There weren't any the last time I looked."

"Maybe they couldn't compete with a lion tamer either."

She giggled suddenly. "I never noticed anyone trying. You've got lion tamers on the brain. Noah. It was quite a few years ago, you know, and I rarely pick up a whip and chair to demonstrate my skills. How about you? Any ladies lurking about?"

"Not recently," he told her, deadpan.

"That's good. I'd better warn you that I never stand in line for anything but the movies. One of my little quirks, I'm afraid."

"Jealousy?"

Instantly she shook her head. "No, that isn't it. Life's too short to take second place to anything. If I get involved with a man, it has to be a blue-ribbon affair, or it won't be any more than a beginning."

"If you get involved." He was watching her intently now, surprise in his blue eyes. "You haven't, have you?"

She looked at him for a moment, then shook her head with a faint smile. "I haven't. Nobody waved a blue ribbon." Abruptly sober, she added, "A few of my friends used to call me a vanishing breed, but they stopped laughing after a while. They'd wake up in the morning to an empty bed and a note on the pillow after one of their casual 'encounters,' and the night before didn't seem as enjoyable as it had at the time."

Noah gazed at her silently as he absorbed her meaning. It wasn't that her standards were too high, he realized. Not who but how. She carried no dream of Prince Charming, no image of physical perfection; all she asked—demanded—was the kind of committed caring that most people realized their need for only after much trial and error. And her next quiet words confirmed his thoughts.

"I'm not looking for a ring and a promise, but it has to be more than just the moment. It has to be important. So I'd warn the . . . amorous photographer . . . that I'm still looking for that blue ribbon, and I won't settle for less."

He smiled slightly. "Will you know it when you find it?"

"Yes." The one word, calm and simple. She would know.

Noah shook his head. "You're an unusual woman. Alex."

"Not at all. Just between you and me, that little spiel of mine has scared off a few would-be suitors."

Noah wasn't deceived by the flippant comment, but he could see that she was growing uncomfortable with the light, humorous flirtation that had become too serious. Besides, he knew only too well that they were still virtual strangers, and a part of him was wary of instant attraction.

They had time.

Alex was astonished at herself. Why on earth, she wondered, had she taken the opportunity of Noah's teasing to offer a very serious warning? Oh, she knew that he had been more than half serious himself, knew that he'd cloaked definite interest in light words. So why had she turned the tables on him? Instead of remaining in the well-defined role of possibilities-should-be-lightly-explored. Alex had instantly stepped out of her part to deliver the warning generally presented much later.

According to her rulebook of new relationships— her own private experience of how relationships tended to progress—first came the light probing she and Noah had ventured into. Next came a different and more serious kind of probing along the lines of likes and dislikes and similarities between the two. Somewhere during these two steps, Alex had found, either attraction or disinterest developed with the inevitable physical closeness or a parting of the ways. That was where she'd always given her warning.

Beyond that point, she'd never gone.

Alex knew that men were attracted to her—past experience told her that quite plainly—but she was quite aware that she was either too demanding or else was less attractive on closer association. It had caused her no heartbreak in the past because she herself had never been interested enough in a man to care when he either became a friend or else faded into the misty night.

During the past years men had told her in tones varying from bewilderment to desperation that she was an unusual woman. She had never been sure precisely what that meant, and no one had offered to enlighten her. Noah had made the comment, and she wondered what he meant by it.

Unusual? Like dodos and dinosaurs, a relic of a bygone age?

Alex didn't know, and didn't plan to ask him. She was too concerned with her own skipping of steps, too bothered by a warning that had come too soon.

And an attraction that had come too soon. She had felt it instantly, first a strong curiosity about a stranger's face in the darkness and then breathless surprise when that face had been revealed to her. After seeing that face, surprise at her own attraction had faded. Of course she was attracted to the man: she'd have to be blind or made of stone not to be.

So why had she warned him? Because past experience told her that interest always faded within a short time? Or had she warned him because her own intense attraction to him frightened her? Because she knew that Noah could be the most important man in her life—or hurt her terribly?

Alex had faced lions without fear. She had helped to tranquilize a bull elephant run amok. She had more than once waded into a group of angry tigers to separate them.

But when she thought of Noah Thorne, of hawklike good looks, a silent, Indian-file walk, and a smile that was charm and danger, Alex felt a sudden urge to pick up a whip and chair.





Three




The next few days hardly bore out her misgivings. She and Noah were very occupied, each in settling into new homes and both in discussions and plans about decorating those homes. Noah was casually friendly and companionable, but no more, and Alex was grateful for that.

She was grateful for that primarily because she was having a very difficult time as it was in keeping Caliban hidden from her landlord; if she'd had to deal with romantic interludes as well, she would have gone quietly crazy. Luckily her pet slept long hours during the day, and was perfectly content to remain shut up in her bedroom . . . usually.

In the past, Caliban had always shown only disinterest in people other than Alex. Perfectly friendly in a face-to-face encounter, he never sought out other people.

Until now. To Alex's intense frustration and worry, it seemed that Caliban was curious about the only other occupant of the building. Coming down from Noah's loft late the second day to find some material swatches, she encountered Caliban on the stairs and hastily led him back into her own loft. A moment's inspection showed her that the bedroom door had a tricky latch, and that she had apparently failed to secure the front door; there were no claw marks, no indication that her pet had forced either door.

At that moment Noah called down the stairs to ask if she needed help in finding the swatches, and Caliban, attracted by the voice, started back toward the front door. Alex had a hell of a time wrestling the four hundred pounds of her pet back into the bedroom.

And that was only the second day.

Half a dozen times during the next week Caliban remained a secret only by the skin of Alex's teeth. For six years an exceptionally obedient pet, he now seemed determined to get both himself and his owner in a great deal of trouble. Escaping Alex outside late one night, he dashed through the open gate and gave a roaming German shepherd a near heart attack. The next day he apparently discovered—for the first time in his life—that he had claws, and proceeded to sharpen them on trees outside and doorjambs inside; it took some frantic work with sandpaper and putty by Alex to hide the long gouges he made on the bedroom doorjamb, and she could only cross her fingers and hope no one noticed scars on the trees outside.

A water-loving oddity of his kind, Caliban discovered the pool on the fourth day and thereafter demanded a swim every morning. And when painters and paperhangers began their work, they had to be reassured by Alex that the eerie moaning they heard came from a harmless pet.

Noah seemed to notice nothing unusual, or at least that's what Alex thought. Until midway through the second week.

The painters in Noah's loft made staying there uncomfortable, and Alex had reached the point of strictly avoiding his presence in her own loft. It was an unusually hot and sunny day, and since the pool offered coolness, she suggested they take advantage of it. She regretted the suggestion, however, when Noah took the opportunity to voice his puzzlement.

"I heard the oddest noise last night," he told her, floating lazily on his back.

"Really?" Alex managed to say after treading water fiercely long enough to stop the coughing brought on by swallowing a mouthful of water.

"Yeah. Howling—no, moaning. Gave me the strangest urge to look over my shoulder. Africa."

"Africa?" she queried faintly.

Noah, his eyes closed against the sun's brightness, looked thoughtful. "Well, it made me think of Africa. Those movies you see with all the weird animal noises, I guess."

"Oh." Alex began to methodically swim laps. She stopped after a lap and a half for two reasons: Because it occurred to her that if Caliban heard splashes, he might decide to join them, and because Noah changed the subject.

Or did he?

"When do I get to meet Caliban?" he asked abruptly.

Alex saw both her new job and her new home disappear in front of her eyes. "Oh, I don't know," she answered vaguely.

"Does his name fit him?"

"His name?"

Noah shifted position, no longer floating but treading water to face her. "If I remember correctly," he said, "Caliban is a character in Shakespeare's Tempest. A savage, deformed slave, I think."

"Not my Caliban," she said lightly. "Besides, I didn't name him." She tried to decipher the expression Noah wore, realizing that it was something akin to determination.

"Alex," Noah said very gently, "is there something you aren't telling me about your pet? A special something, I mean?"

Staring into the compelling blue of his eyes, Alex knew a fleeting sensation of panic. Not for Caliban, but for herself. The secret of "taming" wild animals was twofold: first, convincing the creature to accept a trainer as one of its own kind, and then, to persuade that creature—through the skillful art of bluff—that the trainer is superior, dominant.

Gazing into Noah's eyes, Alex recalled the peculiar image of how the big cats had so often looked at her in submission—but this time she was gazing through the cat's eyes at Noah. And he wasn't bluffing.

What she had only sensed intuitively before now hit her with the force of a blow. She was attracted to Noah because of the element of danger she sensed in him, and that frightened her because she now recognized a strength greater than any she had faced before.

In the circus there had been a very old trainer who had taught Alex the skills she had needed, and she suddenly remembered a pet theory of his. He believed that only "alpha" or dominant personalities ever became successful trainers. Because, he said, only those innately strong people could convince a savage creature to bend its proud neck. He had said that Alex was an alpha person, a rarity among women.

And he had predicted lightly, casually, that it would be difficult for her to find a man she could "run in harness" with. Only an equally strong alpha could match her, he'd said, and they were uncommon indeed. She would, he'd said confidently, know when she met one.

She knew.

There was no need of some feat of strength from Noah, no need of the beating of chest or shouting of power. What she saw in his eyes was a quiet, understated strength, but beneath that was a flaring of something sharp-edged and primitive. It was as if the strongest cat she had ever faced looked at her now with blue-gray eyes.

And Alex felt an equally primitive flaring within her. It was not in her to submit, and her clamoring instincts were telling her now that she was in danger of doing just that. He was stronger. Somehow, he was stronger, and she knew now that his casual companionship of the past days had been the deadly patient waiting of a wild thing.

"Alex?"

She blinked, looking at him, seeing how deceptively civilization could cloak in gentle colors the heart and spirit of a wild thing. She had forgotten his question, and when a shout reached them from Noah's balcony, relief swept over her.

"Alex!" one of the painters yelled. "We need you up here!"

She stroked quickly to the ladder and pulled herself up, mumbling something that might have been an "Excuse me" as she reached for her lavender cotton cover-up and donned it without bothering to towel off.

Noah watched her disappear through her sliding glass doors, then pulled himself from the water and sank down on a recently purchased lounge chair to stare broodingly into the sparkling water of the pool.

Since he had taken a few weeks vacation to settle into his new home and set up his studio, there had been far too much time for thinking. Noah would have preferred to be busy, devoting only part of his time to coming to terms with the fascination he felt for Alex.

She was a puzzle, and he had always enjoyed delving to the heart of any mystery.

He had watched her unobtrusively these last days, his photographer's eye catching unguarded moments when he had yearned for a camera in his hand. Like the moment when she had stood in a group of large, coveralled painters, dwarfed by their size yet curiously dominant because all heads had been bent attentively to hers. And the moment coming down the stairs from his loft when she had suddenly thrown a leg across the railing and slid gleefully downward, the green sprites in her eyes laughing up at him.

And other moments. Pensive moments, humorous moments. Moments of frowning concentration and moments of odd, elusive wistfulness.

She seemed a dozen women in a single lovely skin, and she haunted more than his dreams. After her deliberate warning Noah had carefully backed off and settled down to wait, something in him certain that the time would be well spent.

Yet she had looked at him just now with a startling intensity, as if she had rounded a corner to face a threat looming in front of her. He had forgotten his own question as he'd gazed into green eyes flaring with turbulent emotion and felt something in himself stir to wakefulness.

Now he was restless, on edge. What had he said to provoke that reaction in her? He'd asked about Caliban. Just that. In fleeting moments during the past days he had wondered idly about Alex's pet, still faintly bothered by the name. Then he had traced the memory to Shakespeare, and had still been only mildly curious.

After her reaction to his question, he was determined to find out what was going on.

It was sometime later that Noah moved slightly in his lounge chair, only half conscious of the itching tingle between his shoulder blades. He wanted suddenly to turn and look behind him, feeling just as he had after he'd heard the eerie moan in the night.

Then he heard the sound again, this time in broad daylight.

His scalp tingled a primitive warning, and muscles bunched in the instinctive reaction to a threat more sensed than seen. Slowly, carefully, Noah turned his head—and then froze.

The animal standing only a foot away was a yellowish-gray in color, and was somewhere around nine feet long. It weighed every ounce of four hundred pounds—all of it clearly muscle. Shaggy hair a shade darker than the rest framed a large, square head in which yellow eyes surveyed Noah with interest. And a long tail with a tuft of black hair on the tip waved gently.

Noah knew a moment of incredibly clear thought— sharpened by fear, he decided later—and realized that this was Caliban. And there was indeed something special Alex had neglected to mention about her pet.

She hadn't mentioned he was a lion.

Logic told him that she would hardly make a pet of a savage creature, but logic instantly amended the thought. What would Alex, an animal trainer for four years, consider a savage creature?

Then Caliban yawned mightily, and Noah suddenly relaxed.

Where sharp teeth should have been was only the clean pink line of gums. He didn't have a single tooth in his head.

"As you can see." Alex said quietly, having obviously just reached the pool. "Cal would have a hard time turning into a man-eater."

Noah tore his gaze from the lion and looked at her. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?" he demanded softly.

Caliban padded to the edge of the pool, crouched, and jumped into the water.

Alex sat in a lounge chair beside Noah's, tense with the worry that her landlord and employer might report her. She didn't think he would, but she wasn't at all sure of that. And even though a part of her cursed her own forgetfulness in neglecting to fasten the screen at her patio door, another part knew that Noah would have found out soon anyway.

"Why?" he repeated after an incredulous glance toward the swimming lion.

"Because it's illegal." she said simply. "If the animal control people knew about Caliban, he'd be put in a zoo—or destroyed."

"How long have you had him?"

"Six years."

"Since the circus?" Noah shook his head bemusedly. "But how—"

"I stole him." Alex sighed. "It's a long story."

"I've got time."

After a moment Alex nodded. "All right. But I have to go back to the beginning. Caliban's beginning. He was born in a private zoo and hand-reared because his mother died. The man who owned the zoo let Cal roam free in his house and treated him like a child." She smiled faintly, gazing toward the still-swimming lion. "As far as Cal was concerned, he was people—he didn't know he was . . . king of the beasts.

"You see, mother nature made a slight genetic error when she created Cal. She put the soul of a kitten into a lion's body. Even years later, when the zoo was closed after the owner's death and Cal was bought by a circus, he never showed an affinity for other lions. He never even learned how to roar.

"By the time I joined the circus, they'd given up on making him seem ferocious. He was too lazy to perform in the ring; they used him as a comedian, because he'd always roll over to have his belly scratched and make the crowd laugh."

"Why did you steal him?" Noah asked, watching her profile intently.

For a moment Alex didn't answer. She waited until Caliban caught the top step of the ladder and nimbly pulled himself out of the pool, then came to sprawl in a wet and lazy heap beside her lounge chair. Then she looked at Noah.

"Just before I left the circus, Cal lost all his teeth. It was partly age and partly a gum disease. He was old even then. The owner decided he'd be too much trouble to feed, so he planned to have him destroyed.'' Her hand dropped to rest on the broad head of her pet. "I couldn't bear that. Except for the loss of his teeth. Cal was perfectly healthy. So, the night I left the circus. I took him with me."

"The circus didn't report it?"

"No. The owner was something of a shady character: he wouldn't have dared report the loss of a big cat to the police. Besides, he knew. He knew I'd taken Cal."

She looked back down at the lion, then stared at Noah defiantly. "Lions rarely live to be twenty: Cal is thirty-one. Thirty-one. He has never in his life so much as scratched another living creature, and when they put him in a cage with a lioness, all he wanted to do was wash her face, as if she were a pet. He doesn't know he's a lion."

Noah realized that she was waiting for him to announce his intentions. Would he report the lion or join her in a quiet conspiracy? Instead of doing that. Noah asked another question. "How've you managed to hide him for six years?"

Alex took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Caution, planning—and a little help from a few friends. Cal's own nature helped. Male lions tend to rest and sleep nearly twenty hours out of every twenty-four, and Cal is very obedient. He tends to stay where I put him. I take him out for exercise very early and very late. And I've been lucky."

"What d'you feed him?"

"Mostly baby food, but he'll eat anything as long as it's finely ground. Left to themselves, lions eat only about once a week—and then they stuff themselves. But Cal's fed twice a day." She took another deep breath, then asked tightly. "What will you do?"

Noah gazed at her for a long moment. What he saw was a beautiful, delicate woman who might have weighed a fourth of what her pet weighed, a woman who had kept a lion safe, happy, and secret for six years—in a city. That alone spoke volumes for her strength and determination.

He rose to his feet and reached for the pale-blue terry-cloth robe lying over the back of his lounge chair. "Why don't we take Cal inside." he said mildly, "before one of the painters looks down here and has a heart attack."

Alex got up as he did, and if he had wanted to be rewarded, her glowing smile was more than he would have asked for. "You won't report it?"

"Report what?" he asked blandly. "As far as I'm concerned, your pet's just a big cat."

"Thank you. Noah."

"Don't mention it."

As they headed for the deck outside Alex's loft. Noah thought ruefully that this situation would have been a prime source of blackmail for an unscrupulous man. But Noah was neither unscrupulous enough, insensitive enough, nor stupid enough to attempt that ploy. Practically speaking, the two strongest reasons to avoid blackmail were clear: An unwilling, coerced Alex in any man's bed, he suspected, would be a dangerous, unpredictable thing indeed; and it would obviously be nothing short of insanity to blackmail a woman with her own lion— however toothless.

"What're you thinking?" Alex asked curiously as they stood in the living area of her loft.

He looked at her. "I was thinking of the possibilities of blackmail," he answered honestly, wondering how she'd react. Being Alex, of course she avoided any exclamations of horror and mistrust.

"You wouldn't," she said definitely, then added calmly, "Iced tea?"

"Thank you." Noah grinned to himself as he tossed his robe over a chair then sank down among the pillows on the couch. "What makes you so sure I wouldn't?" he asked, half-turning to watch her over the partition as she prepared the tea in the kitchen.

Alex didn't answer until she had handed him a glass and sat down at the end of the couch. She was more than a little disconcerted by the nearness of his lean, tanned body, especially since it was clothed only in dark-blue trunks. It occurred to her vaguely that her preoccupation with Caliban's safety had quite blinded her these last days to Noah's incredible attractiveness.

Wary of giving herself away, Alex unconsciously and automatically underwent a subtle transformation beneath Noah's fascinated gaze. Her own awareness of his attraction sent a danger signal to her brain and that brain, conditioned to meet danger with an appearance of calm and confidence, instantly sent its own signals to her body.

Her tense shoulders relaxed: her head rose with the poise of calm pride: the faint frown disappeared from her brow: and the turbulent green eyes subsided into serenity.

"Because you wouldn't blackmail me." she answered finally, dispassionately. 'You wouldn't enjoy dominating me like that."

Noah, still fascinated, barely heard her. Since in his own mind her lion-taming past seemed incredible, he was very conscious of that part of her life: he immediately understood her transformation, and a part of him was elated to elicit that reaction from her. She was wary . . . but she was aware.

After a moment he cleared his throat and murmured. "Should I growl or roll over or something?"

Startled, she blinked at him. Then, as realization sank in, she bit her lip unsteadily. "Um. I beg your pardon?"

"The whip and chair weren't physically present." he decided thoughtfully, "but somehow they were here."

"Don't be ridiculous." she managed to say, avoiding his eyes to pretend to watch Caliban as he dragged his bear from the bedroom.

"Alex." Noah said very gently. "I'm not a threat. Am I?"

She leaned forward to place her glass on the coffee table, mainly just to have something to do. Then she sat back and reluctantly turned to meet his steady, inquiring gaze. Softly, compelled to be honest by something in his eyes, she said. "Very few creatures are a threat—until they turn on you. But the possibility is always there."

"And you guard against possibilities."

"After four years in cages I don't have a scar anywhere," she said, steady. "Because I was always alert to the possibilities."

"I would never hurt you." He heard his own voice emerge quietly and was dimly aware that the tables had been turned on them again—by his doing this time; what could have been light was now very serious.

"You know what they say about the road to hell."

"Being paved with good intentions?" He hesitated, searching her face intently. Once more he had an odd feeling of déjà vu; their words seemed to echo in his ears as if he had heard them before and, curiously, a line from The Tempest whispered in his mind: "What's past is prologue."

"You're staring at me," she murmured, uncomfortable.

Noah shook his head slightly, not denying her accusation but rather trying to throw off the peculiar thoughts. When he gazed into her green eyes, the thoughts—any thoughts—vanished of their own will. "It just isn't fair," he said huskily, leaning forward briefly to set his glass on the coffee table.

"What?" she asked, bemused.

His hand rose to touch her cheek. "That anyone should have eyes like that."

Alex couldn't look away, not even with her instinct for self-preservation clamoring a strident warning.

And none of her other instincts would surface to protect her now because no bluff could overpower his own strength. "Noah ..."

He leaned toward her slowly, his fingers still lightly touching her cheek. "I'm not a lion, Alex." he whispered. "I'm just a man."

As his lips found hers, she had time only to absorb the vast understatement he made with such confidence. Just a man? Then she was conscious of nothing but his touch, his kiss, and of the incredible force of the feelings rising instantly within her.

No one had ever warned her.

Vibrant colors pinwheeled before her closed eyes, so bright and shining that they made her ache. She could hear the roar of a rain-swelled stream, and smell the dark green of a forest. Then the crackle of a fire and the warm shelter of strong arms held her spellbound, enchanted. A fierce certainty gripped her body, the certainty, the familiarity, of coming home...

Alex opened her eyes, dazed, to look into his equally blurred and bewildered stare. Very slowly Noah sat back, his uneven breathing obvious.

"I'll risk it," he said finally, deeply.

She swallowed. "Risk what?"

"The possibility that I'm . . . not your blue-ribbon affair."

"Noah—"

"I'll risk it, Alex. Will you?"

The blue of his eyes compelled her, pushed her past any thoughts of safe uninvolvement. "I . . . don't think I have a choice."

"Because you're not sure? Because I could be?"

She nodded. "I thought I'd know right away." It was a tacit denial of the knowledge, and only partly a lie. She knew it was a blue-ribbon affair for her. But was it the same for him?

Noah seemed to relax. "We have time," he murmured as if to himself. He studied her for a moment, then smiled and abruptly changed the subject. "Tell me, did you learn to tell fortunes in that circus?"

Alex blinked at the change of subject, but was grateful for the opportunity to avoid serious thought. "Not really. Oh, there was an old woman with the circus who claimed to be a Gypsy—and might have been, for all I know—but that stuff's mostly fake. She talked to me a little about palmistry."

He held out his right hand, palm up, and the blue eyes laughed. "Then tell me if I'll meet someone tiny, blond, and beautiful. . ."he challenged her.

She laughed in spite of herself, but bent forward to study his hand. One neat oval nail traced the line curving at the base of his thumb, hesitating for an instant before continuing on until the line met those at the inside of his wrist. "You have a long lifeline," she murmured.

"Is there a blonde in it?" he asked gravely.

Alex sat back and smiled easily at him, her muddled emotions held strictly under control. "If there is, she didn't announce herself."

"Some fortune-teller you are," he complained.

The thud of footsteps on the stairs outside the loft caught their attention, and Alex glanced at a nearby clock. "Lunchtime; the painters are leaving. I wonder if they've finished with your loft."

"I'll take a look while I change," he said, getting up and reaching for his robe. "If so, and your loft is next, we can put Caliban in one of the other lofts until they're finished. That okay with you?"

"Fine," Alex replied casually.

"How d'you feel about hamburgers for lunch?" he asked, shrugging into the robe. "I have a grill. Somewhere."

"Mine's unpacked, and I feel just fine about hamburgers. Go change."

Noah smiled at her, a new and disturbing intensity in his eyes, then cheerfully left her loft.

After a long moment Alex slowly lifted her right hand and stared at the palm. Then she got to her feet and headed for her bedroom. "I am going round the bend," she told Caliban as she passed him, her voice definite. "The man's driven me crazy; that's the only answer." Leaving her pet alone while she went to change, Alex wished she believed her own words.

Because she didn't believe in fate.





Four




"Your brothers would kill me if they found us here." She laughed and tossed her head, black curls falling down her back and green eyes brilliant with the half-wild spirit he loved. "They don't trust you," she confirmed merrily. "They say the son of an earl would never wed a Gypsy girl."

"They're wrong," he said huskily, pulling her down beside him on a bed of green moss. "You're mine, Tina. You'll always be mine."

She laughed again softly, exultant because he would always be hers. . . .

Alex came awake with a start, her heart pounding erratically. Sleeping in the middle of the day? But she never napped and—Lord!—what dreams!

"You were smiling in your sleep," Noah said softly. "What were you dreaming about?"

She sat up on the lounge and self-consciously tugged the slipping neckline of her peasant blouse up over a bare shoulder. "Oh, nothing important," she said evasively.

They had grilled hamburgers outside and then hidden Cal in one of the empty lofts before the painters returned from their own lunch. The paint smell still remained in Noah's loft, and since the painters were now in Alex's loft, they could hardly remain there. Shaded by a makeshift awning beside the pool, they'd elected to stay outside.

Noah, raised on an elbow in his own lounge chair, was smiling at her. "You look very young when you sleep. Very innocent."

Alex wanted to avoid the warmth in his vivid blue eyes, but found herself unable to look away. Disturbed by the thought of him watching her sleep, she changed the subject. "You never told me what kind of photographic work you do."

"Didn't I?" He was still smiling, but allowed the change of subject. "Basically I photograph whatever I'm asked to. Hotels and resorts for their postcards and brochures. Buildings for advertisements. People, of course: family groups, publicity stills and the like. Even animals."

"I'll have to see how you do with Cal as a subject."

"He's probably a ham."

Alex laughed. "As a matter of fact, he is."

"I'd like to photograph you," Noah said.

A shout from her loft saved Alex the necessity of responding, and she was soon busy inside the building. The painters were working quickly to get the first two lofts finished, and a crew of carpenters had started the finish work on two of the other lofts. The foreman of the crew had to consult both Alex and Noah on the placement of walls and doorways since Noah had discovered that his architect had taken liberties with the plans, rendering them almost useless.

Decisions made, the crew got down to work. Alex was kept busy between the painters and carpenters, especially since Noah had approved several inexpensive additions she had suggested to individualize each loft. She spent an hour dashing up and down the stairs with the sketches she'd drawn up for the workers' benefit, busy out of habit, interest in the subject, and a desire to avoid thinking about anything else.

As usual, she did more than her own work. Union representatives would most likely have been appalled, but not a single member of either crew objected.

In the middle of everything Noah went upstairs, unpacked and loaded one of his cameras, and then came back down to literally blend in with the woodwork until no one noticed him. It was innate, that ability, but also one he had worked to perfect: both people and animals, he'd found, responded much better to a camera they weren't aware of.

So Noah made himself virtually invisible, the soft sounds his camera made undetectable in the general melee. And at several points during the afternoon he wished he had a tape recorder as well, because the process whereby Alex turned herself into both a painter and a carpenter boasted sound effects and dialogue every bit as amusing and fascinating as the images he was steadily capturing on film.

"Who told Alex she could use pliers to get nails out of the walls?" "She didn't ask, boss, or I would've—" "Never mind. Here, Alex, take this hammer. No!

Don't— It's all right, Alex, I'm sure you didn't break Willie's toe. No, he's always that color. Aren't you, Willie?"

"You said green for this room, Alex. What? That is green! Well, maybe not green green, but— All right, all right. Just get off the ladder, please."

"Here, Alex, wear these coveralls. Because I'm paying my men to work, not look at your legs, that's why."

"Boss, we'd never—"

"Shut up, Willie. You were looking harder than anybody. See, Alex, I told you he was always that color."

"Sam? Sam? Alex, what'd you do with Sam? Well, what's he doing in the closet? Hiding from you? Nonsense. Sam, come out of there. Where'd you get the shiner? Oh. Well, it isn't Alex's fault you ran into her elbow; you shouldn't have been in her way."

"Alex! Where'd you learn words like that? Wipe that grin off your face, Willie!"

"The wallpaper isn't upside down, Alex, I promise. I'm sure. I'm positive. Do the flowers in my garden do what? Oh. No, I guess they don't grow upside down at that. Fix the wallpaper, Sam."

"Get off the ladder, Alex. Because my insurance doesn't cover you, that's why. Look, I don't care if you did trapeze work in a circus— What? You did? Well . . . there's no net. Get down from there."

By the end of the afternoon Noah had used several rolls of film. He had also come to a better understanding of the bewildered expressions two of Alex's former clients had worn. Throughout the day he had watched her win the exasperated affection of a dozen working men, had heard her tiny voice swearing with the cheerful fluency of a sailor, and had seen her throw herself into the work with enthusiasm—never mind that she didn't know what she was doing half the time.

Any of these workmen, Noah thought in amusement, would have been happy to go out and slay dragons for her. But after a day in her company, each would have made certain she was locked in the castle before they sallied forth to do battle for her.

Otherwise there would have been a few roasted knights.

Alex had always had the capacity to focus all her attention on whatever she was doing at the moment, particularly if it was something she was interested in, or something new to her experience. Because of that, she was aware of Noah's activities with his camera only at the end of the day when—she strongly suspected—he decided to let her know what he was doing.

The painters and carpenters were packing up for the day, and Alex returned the coveralls loaned to her before turning to find Noah leaning against a wall with his camera hanging around his neck.

"You didn't say I couldn't," he reminded her, grinning.

"How long have you been taking pictures?" she asked uneasily.

"All afternoon. Got some dandy shots too."

They were in her loft, which was cluttered again since all the furniture had been pushed into the middle of the large room and covered with huge sheets of canvas. Alex wandered over to her couch and lifted a corner of the canvas. She picked up one of the colorful pillows and held it in both hands as she gazed at Noah consideringly.

"That." she told him. "was not nice."

Noah found himself instinctively looking around for something to hide behind, and had to grin again. "Are you going to throw the pillow at me?" he asked politely.

With a sigh Alex dropped the pillow and sank down on the couch. "When I decide to start throwing pillows, you won't have any warning. You won't even have time to duck."

"I can hardly wait."

Alex gave him a rueful look, then frowned as her eyes turned to the couch.

"What is it?" Noah asked, coming forward.

She was watching the canvas covering the couch. Or, more correctly, she was watching something underneath the canvas. "We've got company." she observed thoughtfully.

Noah watched a small lump move erratically beneath the canvas beside Alex. Before he could suggest she move in case it was a snake or something, she swept back the canvas to reveal their "company." It was a tiny white kitten with a smudge of black on his nose and brilliant green eyes. With a squeak the kitten lurched the remaining few inches to Alex, climbed fiercely into her lap, and began to purr with astonishing volume.

"Where'd he come from?" Noah asked.

"Beats me." Alex got up, holding the kitten securely in one hand, and went into the kitchen to find food.

"The doors have been open all day; I suppose he just wandered in." She watched the thin little creature hungrily lapping milk after nearly falling headfirst into the bowl, then lifted her gaze to Noah. "If I can't find out whom he belongs to, I'll have to keep him."

"I had a feeling," Noah murmured. "You aren't the type to cart him off to the animal shelter. How will Cal react?"

"Oh, he loves babies," Alex answered, looking back down at the kitten. "He'll probably try to wash the fur right off this one."

Noah turned and headed purposefully for the door.

"Was it something I said?" Alex asked, half-laughing.

"I'm out of film," Noah said over his shoulder. "And I have to have photos of this meeting!"

Noah got some wonderful shots of the tiny white kitten, back arched and tail bristling, meeting a distant cousin many times his size. Photos of the cautious, gentle advances of Cal. And finally, within an hour or so, he got photos of a tiny, purring bundle of white fur curled trustingly between the tremendous paws of an adoring lion.

Noah spent half the night setting up his darkroom.

"I love this one."

Alex reached for the picture that had collected four wolf whistles as it was passed from hand to hand among the carpenters. She had been gone all morning running errands in town, arriving back home only seconds before to find all the men gathered in the hallway grinning over a stack of eight-by-ten photographs. For a fearful instant Alex thought that Noah might have forgotten himself and handed over the pictures of Cal and the kitten. But she immediately saw that all these photos were of people.

Mostly her. The picture that all the men were admiring was of her. She was halfway up a ladder, bent forward over the top and waving a sheaf of papers in the patient face of the foreman. He had his hands on his hips, his face nearly level with hers in spite of her added height, and Noah had snapped the photo at the exact instant the foreman had cast a wary glance at the hammer Alex held in her free hand.

What the men had whistled at, she realized, was the part of the picture showing long golden legs exposed by a pair of just barely decent shorts. She leafed through the remaining pictures, finding herself the focus of each one. And she realized that either Noah was a very good photographer or else had been awfully lucky, because every shot was a beauty. The one she stared at the longest was of herself. Noah had captured something she'd never even seen in a mirror.

In the photo she was leaning back against a doorjamb and glancing up as a shaft of bright sunlight fell on her from one of the high windows. Alex couldn't remember the moment, but she realized that she must have been deep in thought, her mind caught up with plans. Her eyes were wide, her face dreamy and wearing a wistful half smile. She looked more beautiful than she knew herself to be, curiously softened and elusive. But there was something in her eyes, a glint of something that was more than mischief or spirit.

Or maybe that was just a trick of light.

Alex gazed at the picture for long moments, feeling a peculiar sense of seeing someone else instead of herself. Then she shook the feeling away and looked up to discover that she was alone in the hallway; the crews had returned to work.

Leaving her various parcels where she'd dropped them, Alex headed up the stairs. She checked in on Cal and the as-yet-unnamed kitten, making certain they were still safe and safely locked in one of the lofts. They were fine, both sound asleep and the kitten curled up in Cal's mane as he sprawled on his side. She went on up and finally tracked Noah down in his darkroom; his front door was open and paperhangers were busy in the bathroom. The door to the darkroom was closed, a sign hand-lettered on a piece of cardboard and thumbtacked to the door announcing merely: keep out!

Alex knocked. "It's me, Noah."

"Out in a second." he called.

She leaned against the wall, still holding the photos and glancing around the loft. Noah's loft was double the size of the others, running the entire length of the building. It was divided in half, the hallway door opening into the living area. Where the rest of the building had solid brick walls dividing two lofts on each floor, Noah's was divided by a plasterboard wall and an arched entrance into his work area.

Alex was in the work area; the darkroom had been converted from what would have been a bedroom. The second bathroom on this floor had remained, Noah said, because he sometimes used models in his work and a room for them to change or apply makeup was necessary. The raised platform along the street side was cluttered with large filing cabinets, various bits of furniture and other props, but the remainder of the large room was mostly bare. There was no kitchen on this side, which added to the floor space.

Alex was gazing around and thinking vaguely of white walls to increase available light and large screens of various colors that Noah could use as backgrounds if he chose. The painters had already finished with the living area of this loft, but had yet to reach the work area.

She jumped in surprise when arms surrounded her from behind and a kiss landed just beneath her right ear.

"Hello," Noah said gaily. "Errands finished?"

Alex silently ordered her heart to quit pounding. It didn't work. "Um . . . yes. I've got more swatches and wallpaper samples for you to look at."

"Later," Noah suggested.

She turned to face him, managing to step back and wave the photos in his face to distract him. "You wasted film."

"I don't consider it a waste." He looked suddenly hurt. "You don't like the pictures?"

"I didn't say that. I said you wasted film. Do all photographers take so many shots of one subject?"

Noah crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall. "They do," he said, "if one subject wears many faces."

She frowned at him.

"That's one face," he noted consideringly, a gleam of laughter in his almost-silver eyes. Then he laughed aloud. "Sprite, you wear more faces than a gallery of paintings."

Alex managed to hold on to the frown. "Sprite?"

He nodded. "An elf or pixie. 'Course, it also means a ghost, and you do have a—haunting way about you."

She chose to take him literally. "I don't rattle chains in the night."

"No, but you haunt my dreams."

Alex cleared her throat strongly and looked down at the pictures she still held. "This one's very good," she murmured.

"It's my favorite," he agreed. "Five parts wistful innocence, three parts elusiveness, and two parts evil."

"Evil?" Alex stared down at the picture of herself, then looked at him. "I don't see any evil."

"You wouldn't." Before she could respond, he was going on judiciously. "Just a touch, mind you, a certain look in the eyes. It's no easier to define than Mona Lisa's smile, but any man would call it evil. If I could photograph a siren, she'd have that look."

Alex had the feeling it was a compliment, but wasn't at all sure. And she didn't want to ask. "Oh."

"I like it," he told her in a consoling tone.

She was trying hard to define the look in his eyes. It was, she thought dimly, rather like the way a hurricane would look trapped in a silver-blue bottle; a tremendous force of nature caged. It made her nervous.

Noah smiled slowly. "You've picked up your whip and chair again," he said.

"You were roaring." Alex knew it was a ridiculous comment to make, but Noah was laughing.

"Was I? Funny, I didn't hear anything."

She swallowed a laugh of her own. "You saw my whip and chair; I heard your roar."

"What is this, Wild Kingdom?" asked a bewildered voice from the archway leading to the living area.

Alex and Noah turned hastily, both momentarily uncomfortable because their imagery was definitely private and not for outsiders. They found themselves confronting a petite young woman walking toward them. She was dressed as casually as they in jeans and a light sweater with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. Her bright hair was so red it looked unreal, and overlarge horn-rimmed glasses framed big, spaniel-like brown eyes.

No one would ever call her beautiful, but there was an endearing freshness about her cute face. She was the "girl next door."

And Alex had the oddest impulse to say, but you should be taller! Bewildered by the urge, she pushed it out of her mind.

"The guys downstairs told me I could find the owner up here," she told them briskly, the earlier question clearly a rhetorical one.

"I'm the owner," Noah said, and accepted a business card from her automatically. He looked at the card. His lips twitched once, but his glance at Alex was grave as he handed her the card. He introduced himself and Alex as she read the card.

Alex instantly understood his brief amusement; the name on the card read: Theodora Suzanne Jessica Tyler. Good Lord, Alex thought, another little woman cursed with a big name! But then she read the remainder of the card, and her amusement was chased away by a chill.

Department of Animal Control.

"What can I do for you, Miss Tyler?" Noah asked politely.

"I'm checking on a report of some kind of large animal. Have either of you seen anything?"

"I saw a German shepherd this morning," Noah offered. "He was big."

Theodora Suzanne Jessica Tyler gave him a look. "Not a pet, Mr. Thorne. According to the report, this animal may have escaped from a circus or zoo. The lady who called in was definitely rattled, but she thought what she saw may have been a lion."

Alex wished their visitor had overheard anything except the wonderfully suggestive lion-tamer imagery. She kept her face politely blank with an effort, her heart pounding.

Noah was frowning. "A lion? Loose in San Francisco?"

"Could be. No report of one escaping, but sometimes people are funny about reporting things like that."

"We'll certainly keep an eye out, then."

"Thank you." The response was automatic and polite, but the shrewd brown eyes were glancing between them thoughtfully. Then she changed the subject, and her voice was friendly. "So you're converting this building to lofts?"

"In the process," Noah said easily.

"I'm looking for a place. When will you be ready for tenants?"

"A few weeks, I think."

"Good. I'll check back with you. As a matter of fact, I'll probably be hanging around for a while. The neighborhood, I mean. There aren't too many places a lion could be hidden, but there are a few. Large, mostly empty buildings. Like this one, for instance."

Noah's laugh sounded perfectly natural. "I think I'd know if there was a lion hiding out in this building, Miss Tyler."

She smiled brilliantly. "Yes, I suppose you would at that. Well, it was nice meeting you. If you see anything, give me a call."

"Sure."

They stood perfectly still for long moments, then Noah headed for the hallway to make certain their visitor had left. When he came back, he found Alex sitting on the edge of the raised platform, her face a little pale.

"That," she said softly, "is the closest brush I've ever had."

He sat down beside her. "I hate to say it, but I don't think that's the last we'll see of her, Alex."

She glanced at the card still in her hand, then showed him a crooked smile. "Ladies with impressive names tend to try to live up to them. I can vouch for that. She'll be back."

Noah was worried about Caliban's possible exposure, but he was more worried that Alex would fade into the misty night in order to save her pet. He looked at her steadily. "D'you plan on . . . living to fight another day?"

She laid aside the photos and business card, then slid off the platform and began pacing restlessly. "You mean am I going to run?"

"It crossed my mind that you might leave," he said evenly. "After all, Cal's been a part of your life for years. I can barely claim a few weeks."

Alex stood in the archway, listening as the sounds of shouts and laughter echoed up the stairs; the workmen were heading for lunch. "If they find out about Cal, you'll be in trouble too," she reminded him.

"I'm not afraid of trouble." Noah joined her in the archway.

She moved slightly, a restless, troubled gesture. "I don't want to turn you into a liar, Noah."

He chuckled softly. "It's reversed."

"What?" She looked at him.

" 'Would she could make of me a saint or I of her a sinner,' " he quoted. "It's reversed for us. But I don't mind, Alex. If you were endangering anyone, I'd mind. But you aren't. And I'm more than willing to help you hide your lion and keep him safe."

". . . soldier in the barn . . . must keep him safe ..."

Alex blinked, seeing, for a jarring instant, a dusty blue uniform and blue eyes shot with gray that gazed on her with quiet thanks. Then the image vanished and it was Noah looking down at her, his gray-blue eyes steady.

She opened her mouth to ask him something. But the question never even formed in her mind. He'd think she was crazy, she decided. And maybe she was. Or maybe. . . maybe she had hidden Noah once, a very long time ago, and now he was returning the favor by helping her to hide Caliban.

Or maybe she needed her head examined. By an expert.

"Alex?" He was holding her shoulders gently.

"If you think we can pull it off," she said huskily, "I'm willing to give it a try. It's not easy to hide a four-hundred-pound lion though."

"We'll manage. I promise you we will." He smiled down at her. "Now, why don't you go check on your cats while I start lunch?"

It stormed again that night, and the building lost power once more. Prepared this time, Alex and Noah retreated to his loft and built a fire in the fireplace the mason had unblocked the week before. The two cats remained in Alex's loft with a battery-powered lantern for company.

The firelight cast strange shadows in the huge room, and since the storm had brought suddenly cold wind with it, they were both glad to sit close to the hearth with pillows borrowed from Alex's couch and a thick quilt to guard against the chilly floor.

"Carpet," Noah said firmly.

"But the floor's beautiful wood and you had it refinished," Alex objected.

"It's cold. Carpet."

"You were going to carpet only the platform."

"I changed my mind. I'm going to carpet from wall to wall."

"Well, I want wood floors in my loft."

Noah sipped his wine and grinned at her. "Then I hope you plan to have a rug by your bed, or you'll get a nasty jolt every morning. Or do you sleep in socks?"

"No, I don't sleep in socks. But this place has central heating."

"Central heating that goes out during a storm— and I'll bet we're going to have plenty of storms."

"Pessimist."

"Realist. Now that I've become a landlord, I expect everything to go wrong."

Alex giggled, then looked suspiciously at the level of wine in the nearly empty bottle nearby. "Are you trying to get me drunk?" she asked Noah bluntly.

"I am wounded," he said, not looking it. "Wounded to the core. My withers are wrung. My sensibilities have been trampled."

She waited for a moment to make certain he was finished, then repeated, "Are you trying to get me drunk?"

"Yes."

She choked on another giggle. "That," she told him, "is very underhanded and devious of you."

"A desperate man will go to desperate lengths."

"Who said that?"

"I just did."

"Oh. Well, Shakespeare said something that just might apply to this situation. 'Tempt not a desperate man.' Maybe I'd better go home."

"Stay here and tempt me. Please."

"Stop looking pitiful."

"It was worth a try."

Alex cleared her throat. "Noah, if you take advantage of me when I don't know what I'm doing, I shall kill you in the morning."

He eyed her thoughtfully. "You'll never convince me that you don't know what you're doing. Your eyes are clear, your hands are steady, and you're having no trouble whatsoever in articulating."

"I can't convince you I'm drunk?"

"No."

Alex thought her sigh went unheard. It didn't.

"I see what it is," he told her. "You were hoping you could beg me to ravish you and then in the morning plead drunken temporary insanity."

"I was not."

His sigh was gusty. "Pity. I was hoping you were hoping to do that."

"I'd never beg a man to ravish me."

"Then I'll beg. Ravish me. Please."

"Women don't ravish men."

"Set a precedent. Join the distinguished ranks of trailblazers."

Alex looked at him, at the handsome face that was shadowed and highlighted by the fire's glow, and she felt a sudden urge to do a bit of trailblazing. The wine or the teasing, she thought. Or something. Remembering the flashing instant of something that might have been a memory, she wished she could recapture the image of the blue-clad soldier. Had their association ended when the need to be hidden was past? Had he ridden off on a horse she had given to him, on his way back into a war that had torn a country apart?

Had he come back to her?

Dragging her mind from useless speculation, Alex focused again on Noah. He was massaging his left shoulder as if it ached, an unconscious movement as he gazed into the fire. And Alex felt a sudden certainty.

"Lousy weather," he murmured.

"Maybe you were . . . wounded?"

"No, I was never hit," he returned absently.

"Hit?"

"Vietnam." He looked at her, puzzled by her sharp tone.

"I didn't know you were there," she said, pushing aside a dim memory of blood and bandages.

"That's when I decided to become a photographer." He was gazing into the fire again. "There was so much ugliness and brutality. I hated that war. Looking at it was like . . . like looking at a memory I wanted to forget and couldn't. As if I'd seen it all before."

Maybe you had seen it before. She didn't say it, of course. He'd think she was nuts.

Alex drew a breath. "It's late."

"Stay with me awhile." He looked at her, not teasing now.

Without thought Alex reached out to brush a strand of black hair off his forehead, understanding only on some distant level of herself that his vulnerability was a far more potent weapon than his strength. She knew how to fight strength.

"I'm not drunk," she reminded him softly.

He caught her hand and held it against his cheek. "And you're still not sure."

"I have to be sure." It was almost a plea.

"I know." He smiled slowly. "A blue-ribbon affair."

Alex could feel herself dissolving, weakened by that smile. "If you were a memory," she whispered, "a memory I regretted, I don't think I'd be able to stand it."

Noah's smile faded and his blue eyes were shot with silver. "Neither would I. I don't want you to regret me, Alex. Ever. But I think … if I can't hold you tonight ... I won't be able to stand that either."

He set both their glasses to one side. She made no objection when he drew her down beside him until they were lying close together with the quilt wrapped warmly around them. Pillows cushioned their heads and the fire crackled softly not far away.

Alex was conscious of an ache of desire deep inside her, but, even more, she was aware of an incredible sense of belonging. Of coming home. His arms around her and the crackle of a fire, the muted sounds of a storm outside—it all felt so familiar.

And maybe she was as mad as a hatter, but she'd known this man before. She had risked her own safety to protect him and perhaps she had loved him.

Perhaps . . .





Five




He could see between the slats, watch as the rebel soldiers questioned the slender woman standing before their horses. It was hot and dusty within the barn, and especially here in this corncrib. He could feel the bristly weight of the corncobs, smell the dry, musty scent of them.

Thank God they didn't need feed for their mounts.

His shoulder ached and he wanted to shift position. He knew he was bleeding again, and that he was feverish. The woman would change the filthy bandage when the soldiers were gone.

If she didn't turn him in.

He was desperately tired. And hungry. But, more than anything else, he was sick of war. He longed for the beauty of rolling green pastures and the sweet smell of cut hay drying in the summer sun. He kept his squinting eyes on the woman, unable to look past her at fields devastated by war, or at the house behind her, the house that had once looked graceful and dignified but now bore scars of war in its broken windows and pitted bricks.

Why was she helping him? Because he reminded her of a brother the war had taken from this place? Or a husband? How many of her men, he wondered, had she lost in a cause that was hopeless?

The sound of hooves recalled his feverish wits, and he heard his own ragged sigh as he watched the mounted men riding away. The woman stood where she was until even their dust was gone, then hurried into the house. He waited, too weary to push himself out from under the pile of corn. He waited and, after a time, he saw her come out of the house and hurry toward the barn, a bundle in her arms.

And the sun shone down on her blond hair, reminding him of golden wheat in a rolling field. . . .

Noah woke abruptly, feeling disoriented. Dreaming, he thought. But whose dreams? Rebel soldiers and a blond woman? He shook his head, puzzled, only then becoming aware of the warm woman whose head rested on his shoulder. He looked down at blond curls and then rested his chin in the softness, vaguely aware that the power was back on and a couple of lamps lighted the room. He could barely hear the hum of the central heating, and wondered when the fire had gone out.

Not that it mattered. They were warm. He tightened his arm around the slender body at his side, marveling that he was able to sleep while holding her. He wanted her. Dear heaven, how he wanted her! Just the sight of her made his body ache, and his mind . . . His mind! He couldn't think straight in her presence, and it always surprised him that he could string words together to make a coherent sentence.

He felt like a teenager tripping over his feet and over his tongue, uncertain of himself and awestruck by her. His blood pressure skyrocketed and his pulse hammered like a machine-gun when she smiled at him, and every instinct he could claim shrieked at him to grab her and hold on forever.

Noah had never felt so strongly before. His own emotions washed over him like an ocean's relentless waves, nearly drowning him.

How much longer could he pull on a cheerful smile or dredge up teasing words when he wanted so desperately to groan out his love and his need and carry her away somewhere?

For as long as it took.

A blue-ribbon affair? She was that to him. And so much more. She was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Spring after a harsh winter. The lovely, rain-washed quiet after a storm.

He wanted to tell her that, but caution held him silent. She was a woman who believed life was built on change; how long could he hold her? How could he dare to hope this lovely, wandering sprite would choose to remain at his side?

Noah swallowed hard and felt the harsh rasp of his dry throat. Determination welled up inside of him, easing the ache born of fear. He'd find a way. Somehow, he would convince her to stay.

If it took forever.

He held her close and shut his eyes, holding her for now.

When Alex woke to find herself clinging like a limpet to Noah's sleeping body, she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was encouraging to realize that he was holding her rather tightly, but the possibility of him awakening to find her so close made her feel oddly shy.

She had never in her life slept in a man's arms.

Carefully, gently, Alex moved away and slipped from beneath the quilt, pausing only when he murmured something and followed the words with a curiously broken sound. She knelt gazing at his face for a few moments, absorbed by the shadow of his morning beard, the long lashes that were dark crescents against his tanned skin.

After a while she rose and silently left his loft, going down the stairs to her own. It was nearly dawn, a chill, silent dawn, and she felt as if she were the only living soul awake and aware. It was a very lonely feeling, and it surprised her because she had always gotten up early and alone.

In her own loft she found a Windbreaker and took Cal out for his run, leaving his small friend lapping milk in the kitchen. She was more cautious than usual, eyes and ears straining to catch any indication of trouble. Whoever had reported seeing a lion, she thought, must have been up late at night or early in the morning; she would have to be doubly watchful from now on. She took special care to hide or erase all signs of her pet's morning romp.

She looked up just as they turned back to the building, and saw Noah silhouetted by the lamps behind him as he stood at his balcony doors. It was dawn, and she was sure he could see them. She lifted a hand and watched him acknowledge the gesture with a wave, then she headed for her loft.

Back inside, she fed Cal and then took a long, hot shower, trying to shake off the last of the night's peculiar feelings. But they wouldn't go away. She stood before the vanity in her bathroom and stared at the fogged image of herself, restless.

Restlessness had always meant it was time to change. To move on, to try a different job or cut her hair or move the furniture. Now, for the first time, Alex wondered if she had gotten her own motivation wrong all these years. Was it change her restlessness had urged, or had she been searching for something she hadn't been able to name?

For ten years she'd been either literally or figuratively on the move. Ever since a visit to a circus had tugged at the mind and heart of a sixteen-year-old, she had moved from place to place, from one job to another. Contentment for a while, then restlessness and change.

Today she was restless, but she didn't want to move on. This, she thought, was a different kind of uneasiness. Not discontent, but rather the tense hesitation of someone about to make an important decision. A part o