She watched the tall, dark, undeniably handsome man enter the restaurant, watched his graceful progress through the crowded room. She watched the fawning waiters and noted the interested stares of fellow diners. She studied the man's companion for a briefmoment. Blondes, she thought. Always blondes. Doesn't his taste vary?
She looked across the table at her own companion. Another blonde. But the face she studied now was the opposite in every way--except one--from the face belonging to the blonde across the room.
The one similarity was beauty.
Masculine beauty met her thoughtful gaze as she studied her companion. His was an arresting face: lean, classical of feature, tanned, with a determined jaw and humor playing about the curved lips and gleaming in green eyes. A face capable, certainly, ofhaunting dreams and breaking hearts.
He was a tall man, athletic, with broad shoulders and a lithe way of moving. Thick, silvery blond hair. A man in his mid-thirties who was obviously strong, tough, and determined.
She looked once again at the dark man across the room. Slowly she began to smile. "You're smiling," her companion observed in a tone of immense foreboding.
She laughed softly and looked across the table at him, her gray eyes as deceptively unthreatening as a silent mountain fog.
"Why are you smiling?" he demanded, anxiety mixed with amusement in his deep, pleasant voice.
"I'm not blond, and I don't have blue eyes."
"That's why you're smiling?" He glanced at her wineglass suspiciously, obviously wondering how much was too much.
Her smile widened. "Brian, you're a lovely man. I don't know what I would have done without you these last weeks."
Far from being flattered by these soulful remarks, Brian Ashford began to frown in earnest. "Rena, you're up to something," he said uneasily. "The last time you told me I was a lovely man, I had to bail you out of jail the next day."
Serena Jameson waved a slender hand in a dismissing gesture. "That was a misunderstanding."
"You bet it was. You misunderstood that cop when he arrested you, so you punched him in the eye."
Serena gave him another of the gentle, unthreatening smiles he'd learned to mistrust. "He was going to arrest Sam, and I couldn't allow that."
Brian sighed. "I know, I know. Sam was in trouble, so you got yourself into trouble to keep him out of trouble--which is the way your mind works. You're frightening, d'you know that?"
"Nothing terrible's happened, so--"
"I know nothing terrible's happened . . . this week. Unlike last week. And the week before. Rena, I'm going to apologize to your father if I ever live to see him again. I believed--truly believed--that he was showing needless concern by requesting someoneto accompany you from Europe to New York and then on to the West Coast."
"I never thought," he went on cordially, "that six weeks in the company of a rather lovely twenty-six-year-old woman could hold anything remotely resembling danger. Piece of cake, I thought. Oversee the travel arrangements, keep the lady company, see someof the country I've never seen, and just make sure the genius's daughter doesn't fall down and break a leg during the trip. Easy. Simple. Safe."
"However, no one warned me that you bleed when somebody--anybody--gets cut. No one warned me that your gentle smile and soft voice cloak the heart of an army general bent on victory. No one warned me that the genius's daughter inherited more than her fairshare of the parent's brains, and his lack of common sense! And no one warned me that you get into more trouble than a shipful of sailors on liberty." Serena looked mildly shocked. "Not that kind of trouble, Brian."
Brian gazed imploringly toward the ceiling and whatever lay beyond. "She's going to get me killed," he murmured.
Reaching across the table to pat his hand comfortingly, Serena said, "Daddy won't blame you, Brian, whatever happens. He's used to me."
Brian employed his free hand to rake through his thick blond hair. "No man in his right mind could ever get used to you," he told her frankly. Then he shook his head as if to clear it. "Look, Rena--your father is very important to my company. If that microchiphe's developing really works, it'll definitely revolutionize the computer industry. And I really don't mind taking an extended vacation and accompanying you across the country. I could even enjoy it, except for the fact that I'm slightly concerned about twopossibilities."
"Which are?" She was gazing thoughtfully across the room, her hand still resting gently on his.
Brian waited until she returned her gaze to him. "One, that you'll get me killed. Two, that I'll murder you." Serena sat back, her hand sliding smoothly over his as it withdrew. She was still smiling. "Nonsense, Brian." She summoned a waiter with a glance, a trick she had learned from her charismatic father. "You'll feel better after a good night's sleep."
As if he were approaching senility and needed extra sleep, Brian thought irritably. "Rena--" He broke off with a sigh as the waiter approached.
With the gently wistful smile that always won her instant slaves of the male sex, Serena spoke to the waiter. "Would you please have a bottle of your finest champagne sent over to Mr. Long's table and put it on my bill?"
"Certainly, Miss Jameson."
The waiter, Brian observed sourly, was ready to die for her. Then her request sank in, and he began to feel seriously alarmed.
Serena added sweetly, "And when he asks who sent it, just tell him an admirer, would you, please?"
"Of course, Miss Jameson." The waiter, a silly smile on his face, departed.
"What," Brian asked evenly, "was that all about? Who's Long?"
Wide gray eyes gazed at him innocently. "Joshua Long," she murmured. "He's staying here at the hotel, in case you haven't noticed."
Brian glanced across the room and frowned. He waited until the waiter appeared again, following the man's progress as he carried champagne to another table. When he got a good look at the recipient of that expensive bottle, his frown deepened. "I knowthe name." Then he looked back at her quickly. "Of course I know the name. Rena, he's the closest thing this century's seen to a rake."
"Exciting, isn't it?"
He stared at her. "I knew you were up to something. Dammit, what're you up to?"
Serena returned the stare, her expression utterly guileless. "Well, Brian, you've convinced me that I need . . . someone to take care of me."
"And so?" Foreboding was heavy in his voice.
"I thought I'd get married," she told him in the casual tone of one deciding which wine might go with dinner.
After a long moment Brian--not trusting his voice--sent an inquiring glance toward Long's table before staring again at Serena.
She nodded. "I should think he'd know how to manage me, wouldn't you?"
Brian ignored the question to ask one of his own. "And is he aware of the treat in store for him?"
If Serena was irritated by his sarcasm, it certainly didn't show on her lovely face. "Not yet. But he will be soon. Very soon."
"Rena, we're going on to Flagstaff tomorrow," he reminded her carefully.
"You can, if you want," she murmured in an absent tone, her eyes once more fixed on the table across the room. "I like Denver. I think I'll stay on here for a few days. Or a week."
"Rena--" Brian began to rise as she did, but he was delayed by the necessity of signing the check. By the time he could catch up to Serena, she was already halfway out of the restaurant. With a choice of two exits, she had chosen the one across the room,which meant she would pass Joshua Long's table. And pass it she did, Brian reflected, unsure of his own emotions as he watched her gliding, graceful movements. She walked, he thought, the way Eve must have walked for Adam.
Long's gaze was drawn away from his blond companion to appreciatively observe that walk, and Brian was near enough to see the arrested expression in the other man's cool blue eyes as Serena sent him a glance over her shoulder.
Catching up to his wayward charge, Brian grasped her elbow firmly and steered her hastily from the restaurant.
"You spoiled the effect," she told him in mild annoyance as they stood inside the elevator and he released her arm. She rubbed it, sending him a reproachful look, and added, "Brute."
"I am not," he said coldly, "going to let you get into trouble again. Especially not with Joshua Long. You were unattached when I met you in London, and you'll be unattached when I deliver you to your father in California."
"Deliver me," she murmured. "Like a parcel all tied up with string." Something about her gentle voice sent Brian's inner alarms--sharpened by the past three weeks--jangling. He backed up rather hastily. "I didn't mean it like that." "Didn't you?" The deceptively tranquil gray eyes studied him for an unnerving moment. "I believe you did, Brian."
He could think of no response until the elevator let them out on their floor. Then, as he walked beside her down the hall, he said carefully, "Rena, we've gotten to be friends these last weeks, haven't we?"
She sent him a glance. "You've threatened to murder me at least half a dozen times. I suppose that constitutes friendship. Of a sort."
Brian cleared his throat strongly. "The point is that friends watch out for each other. And I wouldn't be much of a friend if I let you . . . get involved with a man like Long. My responsibilities to your father aside, Long would only hurt you."
Serena halted at her door, digging in her spangled evening purse for her key. "I can take care of myself, Brian. I am, as you pointed out earlier, twenty-six, and I've seen something of the world." Locating her key, she unlocked the door and sent him alast, direct look. "I don't need a Galahad."
Brian gritted his teeth. "Long was with someone. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Reflectively she said, "I'm not planning to dye my hair blond, so I suppose I'll have to teach him to love brunettes."
"Rena, he'll only hurt you."
"You forget, Brian"--she stepped inside the door and smiled very gently at him as she started to close it--"I'm not in his web. He's in mine. Good night."
Serena tossed her bag on the wide bed and stood for a moment in her dimly lighted room gazing at her reflection in the mirror over the dresser. Her thoughtful gray eyes met the reflected ones briefly, then went on to study the rest of herself methodicallyand critically.
The thick hair piled atop her head was an unusually dark, rich brown, almost black at certain times, but showing coppery highlights in strong light. Her face was delicate, the features finely formed; her large, tranquil gray eyes gave her the unguardedlook of a kitten.
She was a tiny woman who appeared amazingly fragile, but her slender figure boasted startling curves that were shown to advantage in the midnight-blue dress she wore; it was low cut and clinging, and though jeans inevitably made her look sixteen, a dresssuch as this one turned her into a smoky-eyed siren.
Serena sighed softly and shook her head. She wasn't given to longing for what she didn't have, but a few more inches of height and ash-blond hair would have served her purpose better at the moment.
Remembering the blondes Joshua Long had escorted around the hotel during the past three days, Serena sighed again. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand and then sat down on the bed. He'd bribe the waiter to tell him who had sent the champagne, sheknew, and would either call or knock on her door. In the meantime, however, she really should talk to her father.
Before Brian did. Serena knew her parent too well to think he'd give Brian permission to spirit her away to California, but she'd always kept him informed of her plans, and this plan was no exception. She placed the call, and shortly heard her father'svague, affectionate voice.
"Hi, honey. Brian hasn't murdered you yet?"
Serena laughed and leaned against the pillows banked up behind her. "Not yet, Daddy. He's threatened to, though."
"Yes, he's called every other day or so," Stuart Jameson said in an absent tone. "He seemed to think I'd be angry that he hadn't kept you out of jail and out of the Mississippi."
"He's being very stuffy," Serena told her father severely.
"Rena, stop playing your tricks on the man." Her father's tone matched hers now. "I've had twenty-six years to learn how to cope, but he hardly knows you."
"He's learning." She was unrepentant.
"In self-defense, I'm sure."
She laughed. "He's holding up, Daddy. He may be calling you tonight, by the way." "What've you done now?"
"Nothing," Serena answered placidly. "Not yet, anyway. It's just that I've decided to get married, and Brian thinks I've chosen the wrong man."
As her father had said, he had been granted some years to become accustomed to her sudden fits and starts. So he didn't deafen her with exclamations of horror or surprise. He merely said politely, "You're getting married?"
"I thought I would."
"And who is it that Brian disapproves of?"
There was a long silence, and then her father murmured, "Joshua Long. I see. He's in Denver? You are still in Denver?"
"Yes to both questions."
"And you told Brian you'd decided to marry Joshua Long?"
"He believed you?"
"He doesn't know me very well," Serena explained tranquilly. "Not yet, anyway." "I see," her father murmured. "I think. Brian disapproved--uh--strongly of these impending nuptials, I take it?"
"Well," she said, faintly dissatisfied, "not strongly enough. But I expect he'll get better at it."
"With a nudge from you?"
"That," she said, "is the plan."
There was silence, and then a soft chuckle. "Rena, when you were a child, I believed you'd gotten few of my brains but all of your mother's sweet temperament. Through the years, I've had to revise that deduction. You got your mother's temper, all right--andmy brains--and the cunning of the two pirates and three politicians on the family tree."
"Thank you," she responded gravely. Then her amusement faded. "Daddy? Any more calls?"
Stuart Jameson sobered as well, but his voice was reassuring. "No mention of you since New York, honey. You've lost them, I'd say. Does Brian know--?"
"No, I haven't really found the right opportunity to tell him. I think it's time, though. He's going to be angry when he finds out he's been in the dark during all of this."
"I have a feeling," the elder Jameson said dryly, "you'll know how to handle him."
"Well, I'll certainly try. D'you think it'll be all right for us to stick around here for a while?"
"Yes, but keep your eyes open, honey."
"I always do." Serena smiled to herself. "We'll stay awhile, then, Daddy."
He laughed again. "Then I won't look for you until I see you. Should I start shopping for a wedding present?"
"Just be ready to give me away."
"I hope you know what you're doing," he offered dryly. "Otherwise I'll have to get ready for a funeral. Yours. One of them's bound to kill you."
"Oh, I think I know what I'm doing. See you, Daddy."
She had barely cradled the receiver when a knock sounded on her door. Smiling, she went to answer it, and found a tall, dark, undeniably handsome man leaning against the jamb.
"Thanks for the champagne," he drawled, blue eyes quizzical.