Principale Captain's Paradise

Captain's Paradise

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When Robin Stuart was plucked, drenched and shivering, from the stormy seas, she clung desperately to the arms that had reached for her - but had she escaped from one terror into another? She'd been too close to danger not to recognize it again in the savagely beautiful man who'd pulled her from the water. Michael Siran was tough, fearless, confident - and an expert at playing dangerous games, but from the moment the terrified siren with bewitching eyes grabbed him and held on tight, he was captured by something he could never let go. Michael trusted no one, but Robin insisted on sharing his mission, determined to prove herself by facing the demons that had always pursued her. Michael knew the odds were against them, but when the heat of Robin's need fed his own fire, a passion born in turmoil and fueled by peril made hedging his bets impossible...Could he make her understand that heroes are human, that her courage ran as deep as his love?


Hagen was annoyed. He was always irritated by delays in the execution of his plans, and since this was a particularly vital plan, he was more than usually annoyed.

"Where?" he demanded, speaking flatly into the mouthpiece of his telephone, equipped with a scrambler.

"Just gone, and his men with him." The voice that replied to Hagen's question sounded hollow because of the scrambler, yet not even the technological device to prevent interception of telephone conversations could leach from it all indications of a strong and dynamic personality.

"You can't even tell me where?" Hagen asked.

A rueful sigh came over the wire, and the voice replied with an underlying layer of mockery that made Hagen grit his teeth. "No, I can't. I've been tracking that bunch for months, as you very well know, but this time they've given me the slip. Sue me. Now, if you want the women—"

"No," Hagen said, allowing him; self to grimace since he was alone in his office. "That's the quickest way of committing suicide I know." He muttered the comment, but his voice was clear and distinct nonetheless.

"That's was my reading of the situation. In any case, the bait for your trap is momentarily out of reach. I'll keep looking if you like, but I have to tell you the chances are slim until he decides to surface again. I wouldn't be surprised to find out he'd gone to ground."

"What?" For the first time, Hagen was honestly shaken. "Impossible!"

"Chief, every soul in that whole bunch has terrific instincts. You may think your little tests these last months have been subtle, but what you left out of the plan was a culprit."

"There was no need to—"

"No?" the voice interrupted sardonically. "You think they aren't going to get suspicious when some unnamed enemy tests their security more than once? If I were in the place of any one of them, I'd be very busily trying to find out what the hell was going on. You'd better take it as a yes—that's what they're doing."

Hagen was silent for a moment, then offered what he knew was a weak objection. "They wouldn't leave the women unprotected."

"Unprotected? Remember what Kipling said about the female of the species, Chief? Take that as a yes too. Those ladies need protecting about as much as a battleship does. You want my advice, you'd better back off for a while."

Hagen ignored the advice. "Where's the yacht?"

"Corsair? No sign of her in her usual area. They may be aboard her, but she could be in the South China Sea for all I know."

"Have you checked with Captain Siran? He may—"

"Sorry, Chief. He's unavailable."

Hagen's voice began to lose its forced patience. "Why is he unavailable?"

"Took a leave of absence for personal reasons."

"What aren't you telling me?"

There was a brief silence, and then the voice said, "Just that you can't count on Siran at the moment, Chief. He has his own fish to fry."

Hagen heard more than the words. Bluntly he asked, "Daniel, what's going on?"

The sigh this time wasn't wry or mocking; it was weary. "What goes around comes around. The captain has his hands full with a specter out of his past."

"He's alone?"

"He didn't even give me a chance to argue with him."

After a moment Hagen said, "If anyone can handle himself, it's Siran. I could have used his help, however."

"Yes. Well, your plans are on hold for the time being."

"You're absolutely sure you can't locate them?"

"Afraid I can't. You wouldn't think a public figure of his prominence could disappear so quickly or so thoroughly, but he does seem to have the knack of it. So you have two choices, Chief. Either wait until he shows himself—however long that takes—or try to find out where he is from one of the ladles. The former being preferable to the latter, if you ask me."

Hagen swore softly. "Agreed. If I show any interest at all, Raven will be onto it instantly."

"You train your agents too well," Daniel noted dryly.

"That wouldn't bother me so much," Hagen retorted irritably, "if only they'd remain my agents." He sighed. "I don't suppose you'd be interested?"

Daniel chuckled softly. "No. You and I would no doubt lock horns. No, thank you; I'll stick to my own bailiwick."

Unsurprised, Hagen said, "It was worth a try. Well, keep me advised. And, if you hear from Siran, let me know."


The connection was broken.


When she was plucked, drenched and shivering, from the angry gray-green Atlantic, her first instinct, her only instinct, was to cling with all her remaining strength to the warm, wet arms that had saved her. And cling she did, like a desperate thing, until the man managed to break her grip and wrap her in a dry blanket.

A part of her consciousness was aware of being stripped of her wet clothing, swiftly and efficiently, of being dried briskly and dressed in something loose that was thick and warm. A cup was held to her lips and a fiery liquid flowed between her teeth, stopping their chattering. Then the softness of bedding was beneath her.

After that, only blackness, but it was blessedly warm and dry.

Her sluggish, weary mind surfaced a few times, vaguely aware of a faint light, of the lifting/falling motion of a boat on the sea. But nothing really registered, no single impression demanded that she think, and so she did not. She slept.

When she finally woke to the dim understanding that she was not where she should be but that where she was was better, the soft light still burned and the rocking motion had lessened. In an instant she identified the tiny cabin of a boat.

She was on a boat. But . . . she had escaped from the boat. Terror stirred in her sluggish mind, thick and suffocating. Or had it been a dream?

A dream. All a dream, of course, especially the bad parts. It was such a comforting notion that she accepted it instantly.

"Drink this."

It was a command, uttered in a hard masculine voice. Inured to commands delivered by hard masculine voices, she obeyed. Pushing herself into a sitting position, she accepted a cup from a sun-browned hand. Sipping, she identified coffee laced with brandy. It tasted good. Only then did she raise her eyes to look hesitantly at the man.

The rest of him was sun-browned too, she saw. And since he was wearing only swim trunks and an unfastened windbreaker, she could see a great deal of his muscled body. It looked as hard as his voice and obviously possessed the kind of raw strength that could never have been earned in a gym. He had almost-black hair and sharp eyes and was, she thought, the most handsome man she had ever seen.

Still, she had been too close to danger too recently not to recognize it in this man. It was apparent not only in his tight jaw and firmly held lips and in the strange, shuttered gleam of his gray eyes; danger was an almost visible aura surrounding him, enclosing him.

Detached, she transferred the thoughts to images, and saw steel forged in a white-hot crucible, still dangerous to the touch.

"What the hell," he asked in a quiet, rough voice, "were you doing floating in the ocean miles from shore?"

"Which shore?" she asked, feeling a flicker of interest.

He was sitting on the edge of her bunk leaning toward her. His eyebrows shot up at her question, then drew together in a frown. "Florida," he said brusquely.

"Oh." She considered the information, then answered his original question simply. "I don't know."

After a moment he said in a flat tone, "You're covered in bruises and have a few minor cuts. There are no signs of a head injury." He reached out suddenly, taking her right wrist and stripping back the sleeve of the heavy flannel shirt she was wearing. "Judging by these and your dilated pupils," he said harshly, "I'd say you decided to fly without wings and jumped off somebody's yacht."

She looked down at the bruised injection sites on her inner arm, and her mind fought to throw off the sluggishness. But it was difficult, and trying to concentrate made her head ache sickly. He thought she was someone's party girl, she realized, and had the dim recollection that she'd been wearing an evening gown when he had pulled her from the water.

"Did you see a yacht?" she asked, meeting his gaze.

"No." Almost absently he pulled the sleeve down and smoothed the material before releasing her arm. "But, as I said, you were miles from shore. And right in the party crowd's playground."

"It might have been a yacht." She frowned at the cup in her hand, trying to think, trying to remember. "I believe it was a yacht. A big one."

His breath escaped shortly in an impatient sigh. "Was the party in full swing, or will someone have reported your disappearance?"

Her mind was clearing slowly. "No. No, I doubt there was any report."

He swore, the sound angry and abrupt. "Then I'll have to alert the Coast Guard. Is there anyone else—"

"You don't understand." She stared at him, wondering with a paranoia inspired by the last weeks if she could trust him. While he stared at her impatiently, she made up her mind. She needed a place to rest and gather her thoughts, to plan. It wasn't over yet; she couldn't let it be over. But she needed time. If she surfaced too soon—

"What don't I understand?" he demanded.

She took a long sip of the laced coffee. What a strange voice he had, she mused. Quiet yet hard. She drew a deep breath. "There wouldn't have been a report, but not because there was a party. There wasn't a party. They saw me go overboard. They . . . they shot at me. I was escaping," she ended in a rush.


Seeing the disbelief in his face, she realized dismally how it all sounded. Melodramatic. Unreal. Like something between the covers of a novel or in cinematic Technicolor.

She looked down at her flannel-covered arm and spoke softly, tonelessly. "They kept us drugged so we'd be quiet. But the drugs didn't work on me at first. That's why the bruises. I didn't know what was going on most of the time, but when I came to once, there seemed to be a storm. The others were still unconscious, but I thought I could get help if I could just get off the boat. Everyone was busy because of the storm. I managed to get topside and . . . and jumped. I heard a yell, and then guns, but the water was rough and it was raining. . . . With any luck, they think I drowned."

The man stared at her for a long moment, his gray eyes unreadable, something strangely taut in his expression. Then he stood, filling the small room, and took a step away from the bunk to reach for a bottle and glass on a nearby shelf. He splashed liquid into the glass and drank. Only then did he ask tersely, "White slavers?"

She was surprised at his quick comprehension, and wondered if he was just humoring her. But something about his hard face denied that possibility. When he turned to stare at her again, she nodded slowly.

"How many besides yourself?"

There was, she thought briefly, an element of unreality about the entire situation—conversation and all. This man was not reacting as she would have expected; he was neither disbelieving nor horrified. Nor did he seem sympathetic about what she had clearly been through. Instead, his tone was blunt and matter-of-fact, his expression remote.

"There were five of us," she said, trying to analyze his reaction, fit it into some niche in her mind. "All blondes and—and redheads." Her hand went briefly to her long, thick auburn hair.

"Did you know any of the other girls?"

The question confused her, which was hardly surprising, she thought, considering the befuddled state of her mind. "Know them?"

"Names," he said impatiently. "Ages, backgrounds. Did you know anything about the other girls?"

"No. Not when we were first taken aboard. We were strangers. We didn't have much of a chance to talk; they started the drugs right away. I know the other redhead's name was Marcy."

"What about the blondes?"

She looked at him, feeling a stab of uneasiness. There was something wrong with the question, and she didn't know what it was. She couldn't read his face. She wondered if anyone could. It was a closed face, giving away nothing. Slowly she said, "One was named Susan, I think. I'm not sure about the other two. They were—well, they looked like models. Mid-twenties, long fair hair, almost white. Sun-bleached, I guess."

"Both of them?"

"Yes." She stared at him, increasingly puzzled when she sensed more than saw this reaction to that. She could have sworn he was disappointed. Then he shrugged, as if to himself, a curiously wry twist to his lips.

"Any idea where you were bound?"

"I couldn't get the route; they didn't talk that freely in front of us. But from what they said, I gathered our destination was somewhere in the Middle East."

His expression had grown preoccupied, his gaze distant when he put the empty glass aside and sat on the edge of the bunk again. After an unblinking appraisal of her, he said dryly, "And just how did you manage to get yourself shanghaied?"

Not quite ready to be that trusting, she said, "I went to a nightclub. In Miami."

He appeared to accept her explanation. Slowly he said, "I suppose you'll want to notify the police—"

"No!" Realizing how sharp her response had been, she held her voice calm with an effort. "No, I don't want to report it. Those men . . . they play rough. If I went to the police, I'd be a loose end, a target. They think I'm dead. I want to leave it that way."

His eyes had sharpened, and now searched hers intently. "I see. You're probably right. What's your name?" he added, abrupt again.

It was, curiously, an out-of-sync question; normally it would have been one of the first asked. She wondered about this man's priorities. "I'm Robin Stuart."

"Well, Robin Stuart, my name's Michael Siran. I fished you out of the water about eight hours ago just off Key West. It's now six a.m. and we're approximately five miles off Key Largo, dead in the water."



She nodded, trying to sort through her thoughts. "I wish I knew where ..."

"Where the yacht went? It'll have to stick fairly close to land for a few days; if they planned a water route anywhere, they'll have to postpone the trip or make other arrangements." He sounded preoccupied again, as if something disturbed him.


He looked at her, gray eyes shuttered. "Because the Coast Guard and various other law enforcement officials are patrolling very heavily. Rumor has it that an indecently valuable shipment of drugs is coming into the country via water. Everything that floats is being inspected bow to stern, and nobody leaves or enters U.S. territorial waters without due inspection unless they're very, very lucky." His expression was unreadable. "I was searched last night a couple of hours before I found you. I'd guess that the slavers are lying low for a while."

"But that's just a guess," she said steadily. "If it's realty that—that hot, they may kill the girls. We were on that boat for at least two days before I got away. They can't hope to keep the others hidden indefinitely, and if they can't send them wherever they're supposed to go ..."

For the first time, a flicker of what might have been sympathy showed on his hard face; her sudden guilt was obvious. "You couldn't have helped them," he said quietly.

Robin stared down at her empty cup and chewed her bottom lip. "They're just ordinary women," she said softly. "With ordinary lives. In Florida on vacation, most of them. No family, no one to worry or make trouble over their disappearance." She looked up at him suddenly, surprised by a fleeting look of pain on his face that was instantly gone, as though it had never been.

"There was nothing you could have done," he maintained flatly. "Your getting away was sheer luck. And since you never saw the yacht—"

"Maybe I did see it," she interrupted, staring at him, banking a great deal on that brief pain she'd seen. Or thought she had seen. "And maybe with a little help I could find it. Then I could tip the police, and they could search the boat."

After a moment he said levelly, "Around a thousand miles of coast in Florida alone, and you expect to find one yacht?"

She held his gaze determinedly. "One very large yacht. It's big, I know that. Manned by a large crew." She took a deep breath. "Judging by where you found me, it looks as though that boat sailed down along the keys. Their heading—would you guess South America?"

After a slight hesitation he nodded.

"But they can't get safely out of U.S. waters now. So they'll probably hole up somewhere near the Ten Thousand Islands south of Cape Romano."

"You know the coast." It was neither approval nor question, but simply a statement of fact.

Robin was still pursuing possibilities. "There's too much traffic near the keys; they wouldn't want that. And the southeast coast of Florida of congested. But they'd want to remain far enough south to run for it if necessary. It has to be the islands. If they still have the women, they have to be there."

Michael Siran shook his head. "It isn't a case of have to be anything. They could have slipped through the net, gotten away free and clear before they were spotted. Or they could be sailing calmly up the coast, where they'd find a plane somewhere to fly the women out."

"But there's a chance the yacht is lying low, waiting," she insisted softly. "Isn't there?"

He nodded reluctantly. "A slim chance. But no chance at all of finding it," he added.

"Help me," she said simply.

He ran a hand through his thick dark hair, staring at her impatiently. "Didn't you hear me? You haven't a chance in hell of finding that yacht! With or without me. It could be anywhere. It would take days to search the western coast, and it wouldn't be a thorough job even then. And looking for a boat in these waters! Even if you found one you suspected, you don't have the Coast Guard's authority to board and search."

"I'll recognize at least three of the crew," she said flatly, repressing a shudder. "I'll never forget them."

Michael stared at her for a moment, then said roughly, "Those bruises. Did they—"

"Rape me?" She shook her head. "No, not that. Apparently our buyers wanted their merchandise untouched." Her tone was bitter. "But they seemed to feel that a few bruises would heal before we were delivered. I fought the drugs, and them, so I was punished a few times."

"All the more reason—" he began.

Robin felt desperate. She couldn't leave the girls to the less than tender mercies of those slavers. She just couldn't. She hadn't meant this to become personal to her, but after sharing a terrified, drugged haze with young women who had no one else to care about them, the matter had become personal. Very personal. But she needed help in order to help them. And something told her that if she could only sway this man, his help would prove to be invaluable.

"Please," she said.

He was shaking his head, an impatient frown drawing his flying brows together. "No. Everybody in these waters is jumpy as hell right now, and it's no time to play detective. Look, I'm sorry. I'll take you back to Miami, and that's all I'll do."

She searched his face for a moment, looking for something she didn't find. No softening, no hesitation. He seemed almost angry, definitely brusque. He was also, she realized, worried about something, and he was tired. Very tired.

Robin looked down at the cup she was still holding. The coffee was cold. "They're so alone." She wasn't trying to convince him, just talking. "We all had that in common, being alone. And being afraid. And there was—" She stopped suddenly, remembering. "There was someone else, I think. At least one other girl. I heard her crying one night, in the next cabin. She sounded awfully young, like a kid ..." Her voice trailed off, and she blinked back the hot pressure of tears. When she looked at Michael Siran, his face seemed to waver, to grow indistinct.

Robin blinked harder and felt her heart lurch oddly. He was looking at her, a sudden pallor obvious beneath his tanned face. His gray eyes were chips of steel, and his lips were pressed so tightly together they seemed carved of granite. She almost shrank away from him, conscious of an instinctive fear that was primitive, as if she had stepped into a cage where some savage beast crouched in wait.

It took only that instant for Robin to realize that he wasn't seeing her at all. It was something else he saw, something dreadful. But before she could begin even to guess what it was, the terrible expression was gone.

"All right," he said flatly.

* * *

Robin wasn't entirely sure she had done the right thing in asking Michael Siran for help. Something about the man bothered her, made her wary. He neither moved nor spoke quickly, yet there was something almost electric about him, like a force of nature imperfectly contained. And all her senses reacted to that force, even in her dazed state, just as they would have reacted to a storm. She was aware of him on some level deeper than thought, curiously made more aware of her own body, her own beating heart. She didn't trust the sensation.

She didn't really trust him.

Still, there wasn't much she could do alone, so there had been no choice. But she was disturbed by the entire situation. It would have been nerve-racking enough to try fighting her way through this mess alone; being unexpectedly partnered with a strange man who had had a sudden and Inexplicable change of mind about helping her was even more unnerving. And he didn't offer to explain his change of mind. Immediately after agreeing to help her, he told her she could join him on deck if she felt up to it, and that she could find clothing to fit her in one of the built-in drawers beneath the bunk.

Left alone, Robin slid off the bunk and stretched sore muscles. She didn't know how long she'd been in the water the night before; it had been dark when she'd jumped overboard. The sleep had done her good, but she was still a bit tired and groggy.

In the bunk drawers, she found a pair of cutoff jeans that were close to her size—obviously not Michael Siran's—and a black T-shirt. The clothes fit her better than the baggy sweatpants and flannel shirt he'd dressed her in the night before, and she changed with relief. The evening gown she had worn had been ruined by the saltwater; she felt no regrets at losing it, but she wished now that she had been wearing a bra.

Still, she acknowledged wryly to herself, it hardly mattered. After all, Michael Siran had stripped her naked. The realization made her a bit self-conscious, and she pushed the feeling away only with effort.

She went slowly up on deck, finding herself on a relatively small cabin cruiser. The sun was still low in the east, and she saw no other ships near them. As far as she could tell, they still headed in the direction of Miami. The Inboard motor started as she stood gazing around, and she made her way toward the small bridge. She paused only once, catching sight of an old-style life preserver hanging beside the cabin door. The name of the boat was stenciled on the white doughnut shape, and it made her pause in more ways than one.

Black Angel.

Great. That was just great. Robin wasn't overly suspicious of omens, but it struck her with a chill that she was Involved in a dangerous situation, partnered with a stranger she hardly trusted, and aboard a boat named for the angel of death.

She blamed the chill on her still-groggy state, squared her shoulders, and went on to the bridge. He was at the wheel, gazing ahead with a slight frown. She took the opportunity to study him unobserved, unsettled to discover that she was abruptly aware of her heartbeat again. There was something compelling about this man, something that kept her gaze on him like iron filings to a magnet. Tall, lean, and hard, he reminded her again of a storm, caught in a moment of stillness, like lightning in a photograph. It was hard to breathe suddenly, and she fought off the sensation with determination.

"Are we going to Miami?" she asked.

He glanced at her, the brief look taking in her change of clothing without comment, then looked ahead again. "Yes."

"Why? The yacht wouldn't have sailed toward a congested port— "

"There's someone I have to get in touch with."

Robin waited, but he didn't elaborate. She stifled Impatience, beginning to realize that this man wasn't going to be very communicative. "Who?"

For a moment it seemed he wouldn't answer, but then he said, "Someone who may be able to tell us something."

At least he had said "us," she thought. "You mean something about the yacht I was on?"


Robin folded her arms beneath her breasts and leaned back against the doorjamb. "For instance?"

He glanced at her again, one eyebrow rising. "You sound annoyed," he noted dryly.

"I am annoyed. I'm not just along for the ride, you know."

After a moment he said, "You lost the first bout with these animals; sure you want to try for two out of three?"

Robin kept her voice even with an effort. "No, I don't want to do that. I want to beat them this time. I don't want them in jail, I want them under it. I asked for your help, I didn't ask you to do this alone. I can—"

"What can you do?" he interrupted. "Can you handle a gun?"

"If I had to, I'm sure I could."

"If you had to? Life or death, you mean?"

"Yes, I suppose that's what I mean."

"And when will you make up your mind about that?"

She frowned at him. "About what?"

"About when this becomes a life-or-death situation." He didn't wait for her to respond. "You were kidnapped, drugged, beaten, and shot at when you tried to escape. Now you intend to look for those same men and put them away for the duration of their natural lives. Needless to say, they won't accept that fate meekly. They may decide, given the chance, to shoot at you a bit more. Is that when you plan to shoot back?"

"If it comes to—"

He swore roughly. "Little fool."

Robin stiffened. Angrily she said, "You have no right to say such a thing! You don't know anything about me or my abilities."

He half turned to stare at her, keeping one hand on the wheel. "No, I don't know you," he agreed flatly. "But I know them. I know their kind. They don't give a sweet damn about the sanctity of life, Robin. They solve every problem with guns and violence, and they'll solve the problem you present the same way."

She almost flinched from the hardness of his voice—especially with the memory of too many other hard voices still rawly alive in her mind—but made herself remain still. Her chin lifted. "And I know that. I'm not a fool, whatever you think, and I'm not stupid. But whether you like it or not, I'm a part of this. For one thing, I know what that yacht looks like."

"Do you? One yacht looks pretty much like another."

"I can identify some of the men."

"If you get close enough."

Robin's frustration grew, and she tried to keep her voice calm and level. She felt cold inside, and afraid and alone, and the thought of facing those men again terrified her, but she couldn't let him see that. "Mr. Siran—"

"Michael," he interrupted, adding sardonically, "since we're in this together."

She ignored the tone. "Michael, you weren't with those girls. I was. I felt the needles, and the cruelty, and the terror of being kidnapped. I felt the horror and anguish of believing I'd be bought and used and sold like a piece of merchandise." Robin was hardly aware that her voice had gone flat and steely, but it didn't escape the man beside her.

She took a deep breath. "This is my fight a hell of a lot more than it is yours. I'll do anything I have to do to stop those men. Anything. That's something you can count on."

"I see."

Robin wondered if he believed her. She wondered if she believed herself. She was so afraid. And this time her fear could endanger others rather than just herself. This time her fear could get someone killed.

"Robin . . ."He hesitated. "I understand how you feel. You were degraded, even dehumanized, by what happened to you. And now you're mad, and you want to get even."

"I want justice."

"Be honest with yourself." He turned his head to give her a long, steady look. "You want to get even."

Reluctantly she admitted, "That's part of it. But not all. I want to help those other girls, and I want those men stopped."

Michael turned his gaze forward again. "All right. But this isn't a game for amateurs."

Her curiosity about this man had been growing, and she took advantage of the opening. "Which you aren't?"

He was silent for a moment, and then shrugged. "Which I'm not," he agreed flatly.

"You're an—expert at dangerous games?" When he remained silent, she probed determinedly. "You weren't surprised by white slavers; most people would be. You talk about men of violence as if you know them well. You sail a boat named for the angel of death. Tell me something, Michael. What do you do for a living?"

He smiled. "I run a charter service."

Robin silently weighed his tone, which was flippant, and studied the quick, somewhat menacing smile. Oddly enough, she wasn't afraid of him, but she thought a great many people would be. "Are you a smuggler?"

Michael didn't seem surprised by the question. "No."

"Gun runner?"

He shook his head slightly, and seemed amused. "I notice you've placed me squarely among the bad guys," he commented.

"Am I wrong in that?"

His look of amusement faded. "No. No, that's where I generally tend to be. Among the bad guys."

On impulse she said, "But you wear a white hat?"

He glanced at her, and his face hardened. "Dirty gray, maybe. White hats don't stay clean very long, Robin. Filth rubs off."

It was a disturbing comment, but because of her own background Robin was less unsettled than many would have been; she came from a long line of police officers, and knew what Michael meant. It was a dirty business, policing your own people, especially when the minority of those people, the lawbreakers, were often in the filthy business of using their own kind as a means for profit.

But it nonetheless bothered her that this man could well be the kind of man prevalent in her own family: the tough, fearless, confident kind of man who was a born police officer. In the last few years she had learned to resent some aspects of that kind of man, particularly the trait of fearlessness. They made it look so easy, those men, and at times she had hated them for it.

Because what came so easily to them was something Robin would have given anything to possess: courage.

She looked at his big, powerful hands on the wheel, and felt her throat tighten, her mouth go dry. Damn . . . Oh, damn . . . She dragged the traitorous thoughts back into hiding, refusing to give in to this mad attraction. Fiercely, she concentrated.

"Are you a cop?" she asked, almost hoping for a negative response.

Michael seemed to consider for a moment, then shrugged. "Something like that."

"DEA?" she asked, remembering his knowledge of the "rumored" shipment of drugs in these waters. If he was one of those men, she thought painfully, then he certainly had courage In spades. The people who worked in drug enforcement had the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs of all.

"I've done work for them from time to time. Miami has been known to be a center for drug trafficking, and this boat gives me a certain amount of mobility."

"Are you working for them now?"

"You're a very inquisitive lady."

Robin refused to be put off. "On a need-to-know basis, I think I need to know. Is that why you suddenly decided to help me find that yacht? Because those animals could be running drugs as well as being slavers?"

"I'm not working for anyone at the moment," he answered finally. He was gazing forward, frowning.

"But you aren't a captain."

"Of course I am. I even accept charters occasionally." His voice was dry again.

Robin's journalistic talents were at the forefront now, and she probed with careful concentration. "So it's just a cover?"

"What were you doing in Miami?" he parried.

"Vacation. Are you based here?"

"If anywhere. Where are you from?"

"San Francisco. And you?"

"The East."

"The Far East?" she asked gently.

He smiled a little. "No. East Coast."

Robin reflected that he was adept at not answering questions, but that only increased her curiosity. "About your work," she began determinedly, but was cut off.

"Miami is a long way to come for a vacation," he said smoothly, "when you're from the West Coast. Why here?"

She gritted her teeth, but her voice remained calm. "You know what they say about summers in San Francisco; I wanted to bask in the heat down here."

"L.A. would have been closer."

"Smog," she dismissed promptly.

"There are other cities on the West Coast."

"I wanted to visit Miami," she said irritably, even more annoyed that she was losing her calm. "Look—"

"Robin." His voice was quiet, but it still possessed the peculiar trait she had noticed before, like something hard and dangerous covered with deceptive softness.

"Yes?" She felt oddly uncomfortable.

"If you want the truth from someone else, you'd better not offer lies yourself."

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

"Don't you?" He half turned to face her, expressionless. "You aren't down here on vacation. You have some kind of background in police work, otherwise you wouldn't have asked the questions you did with such calm. Most people don't have the faintest idea what the DEA is. And if an average vacationing young woman got herself shanghaied, managed to escape, and was pulled from the ocean by a stranger, she wouldn't calmly ask him if he was a smuggler or a gun runner. And it isn't likely she'd decide to take on her kidnappers with or without his help. The most likely reaction to what you've gone through, Robin, would be to file a report with the police and then bolt for home as fast as you could."

She stared at him mutely.

Michael turned to face the front again, adding, "So before you go on questioning me, why don't you explain just who and what you are."

Robin was shaken, angry—and defensive. But she could hardly defend herself, because he was right. Stiffly she said, "I'm a freelance reporter. I usually work the police beat. And I came down here after a story."

He nodded, seeming unsurprised. "I see. A story on white slavery, I suppose."

"Yes. It all started when a friend of mine introduced me to a girl who'd been kidnapped and had managed to get away." Reluctantly Robin added, "And she'd done pretty much what you said, except that she didn't report it to the police. She was too scared; she just ran for home. But she talked to me. She told me about the club she'd gone to—it's the Serendipity, by the way. I thought there was a story, so I came looking."


Robin hesitated, then replied, "I sent the information to a friend and told her to take it to the police if she didn't hear from me in three days."

"How long ago was that?"

"She would have received the packet three days ago."

Michael half closed his eyes. "Great."

Robin felt defensive again. "Look, I wanted some insurance. If I hadn't managed to get away—"

"I know, I know." He sighed. "It was a smart move. As far as it went."

"I can call Teddy," Robin said, "and let her know I'm fine. Then we can—" She broke off suddenly, realizing something. "You don't want the police involved in this, do you?"

"Not if I have a choice, no," he admitted, frowning.

She stared at his admittedly handsome profile and frowned herself, beginning to put certain things together as her mind began functioning with something like its normal clarity. "You're looking for someone, aren't you? A woman. That's why you suddenly agreed to help me."

After a moment he said lightly, "Either I'm slipping, or else you're too perceptive for your own good."

Robin was still grappling with her thoughts. "You didn't show any interest in helping me until I mentioned the other girl on the yacht. The young girl who was crying. Who is she, Michael?"

"How could I know?"

"You think you know. Who is she?" When he didn't answer immediately, Robin said, "I've been honest with you. The least you can do is tell me what you know."

There was a moment of silence, and then Michael said tightly, "All right. There's a chance I know who she is."

"And who might she be?"

"My sister."


On the fifteenth floor of a gleaming high rise in New York City on a fine Saturday morning, a security officer sat at his desk and looked up expectantly as the elevator bell dinged. The first to disembark from the elevator was an extremely large and shaggy Irish wolfhound who ambled over to the desk and displayed an impressive set of canine fangs in an amiable grin.

The security guard kept his poker face, and dutifully wrote in his log the visitor's name and identification badge number, attached to his collar. "Hello, Wizard," the guard murmured.

"Hi, Phil." Fortunately for Phil's sanity, the salutation didn't come from the dog but from his petite, redheaded mistress, who was second out of the elevator.

"Morning, Mrs. Steele," Phil said in greeting, while the wife of Long Enterprises' security chief signed the log herself.

"Teddy, Phil. I've told you and told you to call me Teddy."

"Yes, ma'am."

They both knew he'd go on addressing her formally.

"Are Raven and Kyle here?" Teddy Steele asked the guard.

"Yes, ma'am. In the computer room."

"Thanks, Phil."

He sat watching her and her canine buddy move down the hall, smiling. As far as Phil was concerned, this had always been an enjoyable company to work for, but the fairly recent addition of several wives to the executive floors made it even more so. Not only were they beautiful women, but they had brought a dash of the unexpected into Long Enterprises. To Phil's mind, they didn't seem to typify executive wives, but since their husbands weren't typical executives, that just made things all the more interesting.

You just never knew, Phil reflected happily, what these interesting people were going to be up to next. ...

* * *

Teddy went into the huge computer room with its massive central brain and data base, which was currently deserted except for two other women at a worktable near the floor-to-ceiling windows. The woman nearest Teddy was tall and lovely with sable hair and vivid blue-green eyes; the wife of Lucas, Long Enterprises' chief investigator, Kyle Kendrick possessed the aristocratic features and background of a society deb and the courage and daring of a stuntwoman. She was also enormously intelligent.

The second woman, also tall, had blue-black hair and merry violet eyes, was striking rather than beautiful, and was perfectly capable, in her husband's absence, of running the worldwide financial empire that was Long Enterprises. She was also nerveless, daring, smart, and quite experienced in walking the dark side of the streets. She was Raven Long, wife of Josh Long, and currently in charge of her husband's empire.

"Hi," Teddy offered, signaling with her hand for her canine pal Wizard to lie down.

"Hi yourself," Kyle responded, smiling. "What's up?"

"I've got a problem," Teddy told them.

Raven grinned at her. "Don't tell me. Zach heard— somehow—that you went with us to that diplomatic bash last night and is having a long-distance fit."

"I wouldn't be surprised if he heard. The man has built-in radar that never fails to tell him when I'm being 'stubborn' by sticking my head out a window without a bulletproof shield. Honestly! Besides, if he does find out, I can argue there were more guards in that place than you could find in Fort Knox."

"Well," Raven said reasonably, "with the guys all out of the country, they're bound to worry. Somebody had to stay and mind the castle, and they could hardly expect us to pull up the drawbridge and flood that moat while they're gone."

"I just wish they'd find out something," Kyle said, frowning a little. "No enemy would go to all the trouble of testing the company's security without following through." She shook her head and, since there was nothing any of them could do about the fact that all three of their husbands were busy searching for a faceless enemy hiding in shadows, she tried to stop thinking about it.

"They'll be all right," Raven said, and if the words were calm and certain, her voice might have wavered just a bit. Of them all. Raven had the most experience of the darker side of life—and of the darker side of human nature; in addition, she had the added burden of knowing it was Josh their faceless enemy had targeted.

"Of course they will," Teddy said, having implicit faith in all their men.

Raven smiled quickly. "With the office pretty much closed for the weekend and no business crises in the offing, we have too much time to brood. We need something to occupy our minds. So . . ." She looked at Teddy. "What's your problem?"

From her huge and rather overstuffed shoulder bag, Teddy unearthed a large manila envelope. "A friend of mine from San Francisco sent me this three days ago," she told them, and began spreading papers out on the worktable.

Raven's merry eyes went grim as she studied the papers, and after she'd read the handwritten note attached, she looked at Teddy with a sober expression. "You haven't heard from her, I take it?"

"No. Not a word."

"Background," Raven requested, and Kyle looked up from the papers attentively.

Teddy put her shoulder bag aside and lifted herself up to sit on the worktable. "Robin and I grew up in the same neighborhood," she told them. "She comes from a long line of cops; her father's been the head of some kind of domestic intelligence organization for about ten years now. It's very hush-hush; I wasn't supposed to know about it, but girls talk."

Raven smiled suddenly. "Ah. Now I see where those 'connections' of yours come from."

Kyle, remembering also, said, "Right. When Kelsey was in trouble in Pinnacle, Teddy got the floor plan of that plant."

Teddy nodded. "I called Daniel Stuart, Robin's father, and he got the floor plan for me."

"A nice friend to have," Raven noted. "Go on about Robin."

"Robin always wanted to be a cop," Teddy said. "From the time we were kids, that was her one and only ambition. And she's always had the nerve of a burglar. I mean, she'd do anything on a dare, and she wasn't afraid of anything that walked, talked, or dug holes."

Raven and Kyle laughed.

"Some pretty mean beasts dig holes," Teddy assured them solemnly.

"You'd know," Kyle murmured, referring to Teddy's affinity with animals of all shapes and sizes.

Teddy grinned. "Anyway, we all expected Robin to join her father, brothers, uncles, and God knows how many other relatives in becoming some kind of cop. She was the only girl in the family with that ambition, by the way. She was taught from infancy to handle guns, and she knew the police handbook verbatim. So ... she was accepted into the police academy."

"And?" Raven prompted.

"She failed the written exam. Twice. Nobody who knew her could believe it. Not only is she as smart as a whip, but she knew that stuff."

Slowly Raven said, "Maybe she didn't want to become a cop. I mean inside, where it counts."

Teddy shrugged helplessly. "I don't know; she wouldn't say a word about it to me. The next thing I knew, she'd cut all ties with her family, moved to the other side of the city, and become a freelance reporter—covering, of all things, the police beat. I know a homicide detective in that area, and when I called him last night, he said Robin has the reputation of being not only fearless, but reckless. He says she'll go anywhere to get a story, and that she has the nose of a cop."

"Have you called her father?" Kyle asked.

Teddy shook her head. "As a last resort, I will. I don't think Robin's even seen him in several years. Daniel isn't the kind of father to push; when she made it clear she was on her own, he gave her the space. But I know he's been worried about her. He seems to think that Robin feels she's failed him somehow."

"By not becoming a cop?" Raven asked.

"I guess. The point is, though, that she's wrong about that. Daniel doesn't care what career she picks as long as she's happy. And she always adored him; he raised her after her mother died fifteen years ago. To cut herself off from him so completely had to be like cutting off an arm."

Kyle, who was still virtually estranged from her own parents, spoke slowly. "Generally we see only the outward trappings of a relationship; it's hard to know what really goes on. No matter how he feels, if Robin's certain she disappointed him by twice falling a test she should have passed, it could have hit her awfully hard. That kind of failure can mark you for life."

Teddy sighed. "All I know for sure is that she's in trouble, and I'm the one she trusted. I have to do something."

Raven picked up several of the papers on the work-table and leafed through them slowly. "She did her homework," she noted thoughtfully. "Even before she went to Miami, she'd gotten plenty of information on the Serendipity, the owner, and most of the staff." She looked up suddenly. "Is she attractive, Teddy?"

"Beautiful," Teddy answered. "And she has the kind of coloring those white slavers reputedly love: auburn hair and green eyes. You think she's learning about slavery from inside it?"

"I think I wouldn't bet against the possibility," Raven said soberly.

Kyle said, "Let me have the names connected with that nightclub. It doesn't look as if Robin ran them through to NCIC; maybe the Crime Information Center will have something."

Raven handed over the papers and they watched Kyle move to a computer console and begin working. All of them knew how to operate the computers and how to access an almost unlimited variety of data bases; their men had insisted on their having access to as much information as possible in the event of need. And all of them had accepted that need as a definite possibility at any time. Theirs was a dangerous world sometimes.

As they watched their friend work at the computer, Raven said quietly, "After our jaunt down to Kadeira last time, I got Kelsey to tell me all about Captain Siran; he seemed like a good person to know. He's generally in the Miami area, and he works for Hagen only occasionally; officially he's on the payroll of another organization. Maybe he could be our ace. And I have another source down there."


"Mmm. A man who generally knows what's going on anywhere around Miami, especially if it's illegal. He's helped me out with information from time to time in the past." She looked at her friend. "Assuming we decided to, we could be down there by early afternoon."

Teddy smiled a little. "The guys won't like it," she murmured. "If we go down there, I mean."

"They won't like it," Raven agreed. "But they'll understand."

And that was, after all, the important thing.

* * *

Michael Siran was annoyed at himself. He had no business accepting a partner, however temporarily, and especially when that partner seemed to possess just enough knowledge, experience, and anger to make her dangerous. He didn't doubt she had picked up useful information as a reporter, but that hardly qualified her to play police officer or detective.

And Michael was also annoyed at his own inclination to trust her, to talk to her. That was a fine trait to develop in his work, a wonderful trait; he'd end up getting himself killed. It was especially galling since he knew without doubt that Robin Stuart was holding out on him. There was something she hadn't chosen to tell him, and he didn't like it.

"How did your sister get herself kidnapped?" Robin was asking him.

"Through no fault others," he very nearly snapped. "She wasn't looking for a hot story three thousand miles from home."

"I didn't mean—" Robin began stiffly.

Michael gestured abruptly, cutting her off. "Never mind. I'm sorry I said that." Damn. Now I'm apologizing! He glanced aside to find Robin looking at him with the most beautiful pair of green eyes he'd ever seen, and hastily turned his gaze forward again. This wasn't going to work, it wasn't going to work one bit, he couldn't even keep his mind on—

"She'll be all right," Robin said, obviously trying to reassure him. "They won't hurt her. At least..."

"At least not badly?" he finished in a grim tone. "My sister's in a different position from the other girls, Robin. Lisa wasn't snatched for sale to the highest bidder. She was taken to use as bait."

After a moment Robin said slowly, "Bait ... to catch you?"

"To catch me," he affirmed.

"Then you know who has her?"

"In a manner of speaking." Inwardly cursing himself for telling her all this, he heard himself go on. "I've made a few bad enemies, but there was one in particular. Because of some work I did a few years ago, this man was exiled from his own country. He swore he'd get even, swore he'd steal what I cared about the most.

"Your sister."

"Yes. Lisa."

"If you knew he might try to get his hands on her—"

"Why didn't I do something to prevent it?" Michael felt, as always, a tightening inside at that question, a surge of emotion that was compounded of fear for Lisa and disgust with himself. "I thought I had," he said finally, roughly. "I put her in an extremely private boarding school in Europe three years ago, and she's had special security around the clock. An army couldn't have gotten to her. But Sutton did."

"Edward Sutton?" Robin nearly flinched as steely gray eyes fixed on her.

"You know him?" Michael asked softly.

Robin cleared her throat. "His was one of the names I got while I was nosing around the Serendipity."

"Connected to the club?"

"Very loosely, according to what I heard. There was a hint he was more strongly connected to the illegal gambling going on in the back room."

"Did you ever see him? At the club or on the yacht?"

Robin shook her head. "Not that I know of. Certainly not on the yacht."

Michael was silent for a moment, piloting the boat automatically, his mind working hard. He kept his eyes off Robin. "Gambling," he mused softly, almost to himself. "One of Sutton's hobbles was always high-stakes poker." Abruptly he asked, "Do you know anything about boats?"

"I've crewed on a sailboat the last three summers."

"Good enough. Take the wheel while I change, will you?"

Robin stepped forward to obey, suddenly conscious of the cramped space on the bridge. She caught her breath as he brushed against her but stood gripping the wheel firmly and staring straight ahead. She didn't trust her voice enough to speak.

For a moment, neither did Michael. He had, with an effort, managed to keep his mind off the lovely body he had stripped naked last night, but the tight confines of the bridge made her closeness and his surge of memories inevitable. She affected him like no woman he'd ever met before, both physically and emotionally. Emotionally, her unusual combination of toughness and vulnerability tugged at something inside him. Physically, he was all too aware of a desire for her more powerful than any he'd felt before, a hunger he could only just control.

His arm still burned from the accidental contact of her breast, and his belly had knotted as if a fist had hit him there. He wanted to reach past her and turn off the engine, allow the boat to drift where it would while he took her below and ... He shook off the thought with iron control.

"Just keep her on course," Michael muttered, and left.

One of the things Robin knew about herself was that she was generally attracted to very strong men. She knew that—and she didn't like it. At least twice during the past few years she had been briefly Involved in relationships that had never gotten off the ground because she had quickly begun to resent the very strength that had first attracted her in a man.

She was afraid it was happening again, and it couldn't have been at a worse time. She didn't have the emotional energy for it, even assuming Michael became attracted to her.

"Another hero," she muttered between gritted teeth, reminding herself. "He saved your life in the best tradition of heroes, and now he's going to help you bury the bad guys. Great. Just great. Give him a medal, but don't, for God's sake, give him ..." Your heart.

It was a good piece of advice. Robin just hoped she could accept it.

As the boat began nearing Miami, traffic on the water increased, and she forced herself to concentrate. She watched the course steadily and began drawing tight all the threads of self-control she could muster. She was afraid she'd need every edge she could get.

* * *

Michael hesitated just outside the bridge when he returned, watching her while she couldn't see him. She was handling the boat well, and he wasn't concerned about that. What he was concerned about was his own willingness to involve her in a situation that promised to become even more dangerous before it was over. If he had any sense to all, he reminded himself, he'd make sure she remained in Miami when his boat headed back out to sea, probably on tomorrow morning's tide. But he was somehow reluctant to abandon her.

She had very likely been on the same yacht with Lisa; she had gone through much the same thing as Lisa; she was a link to Lisa. And that was all there was to it, he firmly told himself, and it accounted for his feeling that he couldn't abandon her.

She turned her head suddenly to look at him, green eyes vivid but shuttered against the creamy pale complexion of a true redhead, and he knew he was lying to himself. He wanted Robin, and that had nothing to do with Lisa. This was inside himself, a heavy ache that intensified with every passing hour. And he didn't know how long he would be able to ignore it.

"How long have you been there?" she asked, sounding rattled.

"Just got here." He stepped inside to take the wheel, consciously trying to avoid touching her—and in consequence touching her all too firmly. She moved a bit awkwardly to get hastily past him, and he heard a muttered "dammit" as she passed with her head bent.

She felt it too, he realized, and that understanding made it more difficult than ever for him to control his desire.

Michael took the wheel and said suddenly, "Look, Robin, this isn't just a fun game you seem willing to play, and if you're with me, you're as much a target as I am. If Sutton gets one look at me, we're both probably dead."

Robin ignored that. She had taken in his change of clothing, noting the faded jeans and the T-shirt he now wore under his windbreaker. With forced calm she said, "If we're going ashore in Miami, I haven't any shoes."

He hesitated, then shrugged with a resigned sigh. "Go below and look in the locker by the cabin door. I think Lisa left a pair of running shoes and a windbreaker the last time she was aboard during her school vacation."

Robin escaped, thankful on two counts: that he wasn't, apparently, going to order her to stay aboard once they were in the marina, and that she'd managed to utter a coherent sentence while her heart was still pounding from an unexpected and somewhat shocking physical reaction to him.

She stood out on deck for a few moments to allow the breeze to cool her hot cheeks, urging herself to overcome this Idiotic obsession with strong men before it destroyed her. Then she squared her shoulders and went below, emerging a little while later wearing a black windbreaker and running shoes.

As she returned to the bridge, she spoke instantly, reluctant to allow any silence in which to think idiotic thoughts. "Did you say there was someone you needed to see in the city?"

Michael didn't look at her, but he nodded. "I've changed my mind about who, though," he told her. "If Sutton's still playing high-stakes poker, I know someone who just might have played against him."

"How could that help us?"

"The name of Sutton's yacht, if we're lucky."

Robin frowned, trying to think. "But if you have contacts with any law enforcement officials, they could get the name of the yacht." Then, before he could respond, she added, "Oh—no police. Right?"

"Partly right. No police. But anyway, it's doubtful Sutton registered the yacht in his own name. Extremely doubtful. Chances are, the police have no idea it's his. Sutton's a wanted man, and he wouldn't take a risk that stupid."

"So the police couldn't help. But how would this friend of yours know the yacht's name?"

Michael smiled slightly. "If I know Dane, he probably lost the yacht to Sutton in a poker game."

Robin blinked. "Really? I thought things like that only happened in the movies."

"With Dane, things like that happen every Saturday night. It's not always yachts, of course." He looked reflective. "I haven't seen him in a couple of years. The count must be up to three or four by now."

"What are we counting?"

"Fortunes. Dane's made and spent several by now. 'Made' being a term not to be confused with 'earned.' "

Robin thought about that. "He didn't earn his fortunes? Then how did he get them?"

"Won part of them. Probably stole the rest; I've always suspected he's a first-class cat burglar."

Robin thought about that. "Does this friend of yours help the police from time to time?"

Michael's smile widened. "Dane goes his own way. However, the Intelligence community in this country is a relatively small one, and since Dane has the unique ability to unearth skeletons from locked closets, he sometimes has information available to certain interested parties."

"Like yourself?"

"He's never been able to beat me at poker. And I always cut a higher card. For some reason known best to himself, that makes him indebted to me."

Robin was growing more and more amused. "He doesn't sound like a garden-variety informant."

"No. Oh, no. Dane's one of a kind. A hundred or so years ago he would have been a pirate. Go back further, and he would have been a king."

"So in the modern day world he's a gambler."

"That's one facet. An occasional word dropped in the right place is another. Maybe he's a cat burglar. Maybe not. Maybe he's rich today, or maybe he's shooting craps for his next meal. With Dane, you just never know for sure."

* * *

It appeared that Dane was having an off week. They found him after several hours of Michael questioning some of the shadiest-looking people Robin had ever seen in the seediest part of the city. She watched it all with interested eyes, sticking close to Michael and keeping quiet. She was propositioned twice by passersby, both "gentlemen" retreating hastily after one hard look from Michael; she finally zipped up her windbreaker to hide the lack of a bra, adopted a slouch, and tried to go unnoticed.

"It isn't working," Michael told her as they moved purposefully down the crowded sidewalk.


He took her hand to guide her around a finely dressed pimp with an interested look on his face. Calmly Michael said, "Your attempt to look less attractive. So far I've had four offers for you. It must be those legs."

She glanced down at her long, bare legs, and swore softly. "I can't help that," she muttered. "The shorts were all I could find." Then, despite herself, she asked curiously, "What did they offer?"

Solemnly he replied, "The best was forty percent of your future income."

Robin didn't know whether to laugh or swear. In the end she just shook her head, glancing aside at Michael to find him smiling a little. Highly conscious of his large, strong hand firmly holding hers, she hastily changed the subject. "Did you find out where Dane is?"

Michael turned them right suddenly into an alley. "Here. I hope." He led her down the dark alley for some twenty yards, then stopped at a battered wooden door that was the only opening in a sad brick wall.

Robin looked at it doubtfully. "Do we knock?"

"No. They'd think it was a raid."

She found herself giggling nervously but followed close behind as Michael released her hand, yanked the warped door open, and entered. They were in what looked like a cluttered storage room with boxes piled high, and made their way to a doorway that led to a dark, narrow hall.

After that Robin lost track of direction in a maze of hallways, all dark and empty. They climbed two flights of stairs and finally wound up at the end of yet another dark hallway and before another warped wooden door. This time Michael knocked with what was obviously a rhythmical signal.

There were several moments of silence, and it wasn't until Robin felt the unsettling sensation of being watched that she noticed the tiny peephole in the door. When the door was audibly unlocked and pulled open, she followed Michael into what felt distinctly like a set for a grade В movie.

It was a small room, thick with cigarette and cigar smoke, and dark except for the single shaded light hanging low over a round table in the center. Half a dozen men were grouped around the table seated in folding chairs, all in their shirt-sleeves. With the exception of one younger man, they were middle-aged. There was a profusion of glittering diamond rings, unidentifiable drinks in thick tumblers, and several overflowing ashtrays.

There was also a pile of money in the center of the table, and none of the bills was less than a hundred.

The man who had let them in relocked the door in silence and returned to the table, and out of the dimness surrounding the low circle of light a deep, beautiful voice spoke sadly.

"Michael, your timing is lousy."

Robin couldn't see the man's face very well from where she was standing beside Michael, but she thought he was younger than the rest, and he was exquisitely dressed in white trousers and vest and neatly knotted tie. He was in his shirt-sleeves, with his suit jacket over the back of his chair, and his hands were beautifully long-fingered and graceful holding the cards.

"Finish the hand," Michael said. "Then we have to talk, Dane."

Robin stood beside him in the shadows near the wall, listening silently as the men continued playing, talking in low voices as the pile of money in the center of the table grew. It was another half hour before the hand finally ended, and it had come down to just two players: Dane and an unnamed man with about six diamond rings and a harsh voice.

"Four of a kind," the harsh voice said, laying down four nines.

There was a beat of silence, and then Dane sighed and stacked his cards neatly facedown before him. "My luck," he said mournfully, "seems to have deserted me today."

With no sign of triumph the winner raked in his money, and the other men gathered their belongings. In a loose group they moved to the door, escorted by Dane, and within moments were gone. Dane crossed the room and snapped up the three shades at the windows and the small room was abruptly flooded with light.

"It better be important." he said cheerfully to Michael.

Robin made her way to the table and sank down in the chair Dane had recently vacated, staring at him. He was a man women would always stare at, she acknowledged silently to herself, feeling a bit numb. He was absurdly young to have made and lost several fortunes, being somewhere in his mid-thirties, and . . . God, the man was beautiful.

His size alone made him impressive, since he was easily six and a half feet tall with shoulders to match, and he was lean-waisted and slim-hipped. He looked athletic yet moved with lazy grace as if he couldn't be bothered to stir himself enough to move quickly. His thick, shining hair was black as a raven's wing. And in a lean, tanned face with every feature perfect, his eyes were a striking violet. Robin had never before seen such laughing eyes so vividly filled with life.

"It is important," Michael was saying, taking a seat to Robin's left and watching the other man sit across from him. "This is Robin Stuart. Robin, Dane Prescott."

"Hello, Robin," Dane said.

"Hi," she managed weakly, and tore her gaze away to look down at the cards he had left stacked on the table. She picked up the cards and looked at them, but she had only a moment before he took them from her gently and smoothly as he was gathering the rest from the table.

"What's up?" he asked Michael.

"Ever play cards with Edward Sutton?"

Dane shuffled the deck idly, looking at Michael with a slight smile. Without speaking, he placed the deck facedown between them. Michael reached out and cut the cards, producing the king of spades faceup. Dane cut and got a jack. He sighed.

"Yeah, I've played against him. A number of times."

"At the Serendipity?"

"There. And other places."

Michael glanced at Robin, then said slowly, "We're looking for a yacht we have reason to believe Sutton owns."

Dane grinned. "I called her Lady Luck. He changed the name, of course. She'd the Dragon Lady now."

"Any idea where she is?"

"No. I might know who to ask, though. Why? What's your interest?"


Dane lifted an eyebrow and waited.

"Did you know he was into white slavery?" Michael asked.

The laughter in Dane's eyes vanished, and his slight smile disappeared. "No. Are you sure about that?"

"Ask Robin."

Robin squarely met Dane's inquiring gaze, still admiring his looks but glad to feel no tug of attraction. "I was at the Serendipity a few nights ago. I had one drink, and there was something in it. I woke up to find myself with four other girls in the cabin of a boat, a yacht. They kept us drugged most of the time, but I managed to get out and jump overboard sometime last night. Michael pulled me out of the water."

"Sure it was Sutton's yacht?" Dane asked.

Michael replied, "Robin's a reporter, and she came up with Sutton's name in connection with that club. I know he's in the area because he's waiting for me to contact him; he's set a trap for me."

"What's the bait?"


Dane said something violent under his breath, and though she only half heard what he said, Robin wasn't about to ask him to repeat it.

Michael went on steadily. "Robin heard another girl on the yacht, crying. It's the only lead I've got, Dane."

Immediately Dane said, "There's a man who might know where the Dragon Lady is. Big man, with a full beard and about half his teeth. Peculiar man, very dangerous. He's a smuggler. They call him Jack, and only God is privy to what his real name is. He knows the waters around here like the back of his hand, and if anyone has illegal cargo, he'd know about it. He spends his evenings in a dive called the Gold Coast. Watch yourself in there. And don't play cards."


"They shoot the winner."

Michael smiled faintly. "Thanks, Dane."

"Say hello to Lisa for me."

* * *

A little while later, as they left the building, Robin said, "I looked at his cards, Michael. Dane had a straight flush, ace high. He won that last hand."

Michael didn't seem surprised. "Did he?"

"And there must have been fifty thousand dollars in that pot." She was bewildered. "Why would he pretend to lose?"

"I'm sure he had his reasons."

"What reason would he have to throw away all that money?"

Michael took her hand as they emerged from the alley. "I know the Gold Coast; they don't even open until after six. Why don't we find a decent restaurant—if we can around here—and get something to eat. You must be starved."

Robin ignored a sudden pang of hunger. "You didn't answer my question," she insisted.

He kept them moving but said dryly, "Dane's probably setting up the man who was wearing all the diamond rings, Robin. And since he can't hide his skill with cards, he just fakes a run of bad luck. It's an old gambler's trick. The mark wins a lot of money in the first few games and feels confident enough to keep playing; then Dane arranges one final game for huge stakes, saying he wants to try to win back what he's lost. And he does."

"Does Dane cheat?" she asked, disliking the thought.

"He doesn't have to. He was probably playing poker in his crib, and he's the luckiest man I know."

"But you said he'd already lost several fortunes."

"Sure. Lost, spent . . . and enjoyed. Dane may sometimes be down, but he's never out. His luck always returns. Now, are you hungry?"

"Starving," she admitted.


They ended up finding a restaurant in a better area of the city, and Robin used the time before their meal arrived to place a call to New York to Teddy's private number first, then the number of Long Enterprises, and drew a blank both times. There was no answer at Teddy's home, and the voice answering the company's phone merely reported that Mrs. Steele was out of town.

Robin, remembering Teddy's impulsiveness, winced as she hung up the receiver. Her childhood friend, she reflected anxiously, was entirely likely to appoint herself the cavalry and come charging to the rescue. And from what Robin had heard and read of the group of people surrounding Joshua Long, a group that included Teddy and her husband, Zach, none of them would be inclined merely to report Robin's disappearance to the police.

Worried, Robin returned to the table where Michael waited.

"Well?" he asked.

"No good. She isn't home, and when I called the company—"

"What company?"

"Long Enterprises. Teddy's husband, Zach, is security chief."

Michael was staring at her, frowning a little. Then the frown faded, and he shook his head. "Those people," he murmured in a voice that was half amused and half worried.

"You know them?" Robin asked in surprise.

"I've . . . well, I've encountered them, let's say. They keep turning up in these kinds of situations. Is your friend like the others? I mean, the type to come down here and investigate rather than call the police?"

"I'm afraid so," Robin confirmed. "But she might not have gotten the package I sent. The switchboard operator at the company just said she was out of town; she may have been gone for days or weeks."

"But she may well be on her way down here."

Robin sighed. "She may, yes." She watched his face intently, a little surprised not to see anger or uneasiness; Michael seemed more thoughtful than anything else, and it was obvious he was thinking hard. "I'm sorry, Michael," she ventured at last.

His gaze focused on her, and he smiled. "Don't worry about it. I don't know your friend, but if she brings any of that crew along with her, they won't blunder in recklessly. They're all too smart, and too careful. I did hear, though ..."

"Hear what?"

Michael hesitated, then shrugged. "That Josh Long and several of his men had dropped out of sight. Something's in the wind there, but I don't know what. Still, there's apparently nothing we can do but wait and see who turns up."

"Isn't that awfully risky?"

His smile went crooked. "Awfully." He glanced up as their waitress approached with laden plates, and the conversation was over for the time being.

Robin was as grateful for the distraction of eating as she was for the food itself. During the encounter with Dane, she had managed to keep her mind occupied, but whenever she and Michael were alone she found it more and more difficult to ignore the tug of attraction that seemed to be growing stronger. And it didn't help this time, knowing he was just the kind of man she had always resented. This time, her body and emotions refused to accept reason.

She caught herself stealing glances at him, grateful that he seemed preoccupied and unaware of her attention. She felt curiously, unusually, helpless, unable to fight this. As if something inside her knew, without doubt, that it was Inevitable. And so strong was that conviction that Robin felt tense, on the brink, waiting. He hadn't even touched her except casually or by accident, yet her body felt heavy and restless, feverish.

She could keep her mind on the dangerous situation they were involved in, yet just beneath that calm surface something was moving, slowly, like water under ice. And she was very much afraid that the ice would crack, splinter, leaving her changed forever.

* * *

Because she hadn't dared return to her hotel, Robin was without money, and she hadn't been happy about accepting even a meal or change for her phone call from Michael since she already owed him so much. But her somewhat fierce assurances of paying him back were met with grave acceptance, and that eased her mind somewhat.

Still, she couldn't help but feel that theirs was an unequal partnership; more than anything else she wanted to pull her own weight. It was just a few hours later when she got her chance. She and Michael finally had found the tavern Dane told them about.

The bar rejoicing in the name Gold Coast turned out to be just what Dane had called it—a dive. Sandwiched between two pawnshops with heavily barred windows and located on a side street in the worst part of the city, the tavern was dank, dark, filled with smoke, and echoing with the harsh sounds of coarse laughter. There were several rickety tables around which card games were going on; the long wooden bar was stained and splintered; and the bartender boasted the tattoo of a naked woman on one corded forearm and a ship's anchor on the other.

Standing beside Michael outside and peering cautiously through a dirty window, Robin shivered inwardly. The man they had come to see was easily visible at the far end of the bar, and he looked more dangerous than any other man in the room. Just as Dane had described, "Jack" was huge, massive really, heavily bearded, and when he ordered another drink, she could see that several of his teeth were missing.

She could feel Michael tensing even though his face remained expressionless, and when he began to move toward the door she quickly grabbed his arm. "Wait!" she whispered.

His voice was low as well. "You stay here. And keep in the shadows. If anything happens to me—"

Robin wrapped both hands around his muscled arm and held on grimly. "Michael, you can't go in there. We've been standing here ten minutes, and there have already been three fights. There's no way you can expect to go in there asking suspicious questions and still come out alive!"

He looked down at her, mouth tightening. "What choice do I have, Robin?"

"You're not even armed."

"They'd kill me for sure if I was."

"Wait," she insisted, turning her head to look back into the tavern. "Let me think a minute."

Michael drew a deep breath. "It won't be the first time I've gone into a place like this. I can handle it."

"I'm sure you can," she said almost absently, staring into the tavern with her eyes suddenly narrowed. "But there'd be some kind of fight. You're too dangerous; it shows too plainly. You'd be a threat to them."


She looked back at him quickly. "We don't want to draw attention to ourselves, do we? That's the last thing we need."

"Agreed. But there isn't a choice."

She lifted her chin and struggled to hide the terror she felt. "Yes, there is. I can go in."

"You?" He laughed shortly.

Robin hoped he was strong enough that he didn't feel a need to prove it with macho stand-back-little-woman-and-let-me-do-it determination. Steadily she said, "I've done something like this before. Please, Michael, trust me. I know what I'm doing. But I'll need a couple of props."

"Props?" He was staring down at her, frowning.

"Yes. That pawnshop over there is still open. Try to find a necklace with a crucifix on it—the bigger the better. And if they have any clothing, get a pair of long pants for me; it'll be better if they don't fit."

He was still frowning a little, but understanding had dawned. "What if it doesn't work, Robin?"

She managed a faint smile. "Then you're the rescue team."

Michael hesitated, but he had a good idea of what she had in mind and there was a chance it would work. If he had been partnered with a female agent on an assignment, he wouldn't have hesitated at all; as it was, he was worried about Robin and uncertain of her abilities. "Are you sure you've done something like this before?" he asked finally.

"Yes. And for the same reason. To get information."

"Wait here," he said, and headed next door to the pawnshop.

Robin closed her eyes briefly and commanded herself to stop shaking. Still, it took a ridiculous amount of time to remove her shoelaces because her hands trembled so. She arranged her long hair in two ponytails and used the laces to tie them just below her ears. Then she bent and rubbed her hands in the dirt that had collected against the building; some of the dirt was also transferred to her face.

Michael reappeared suddenly beside her. "I did my best," he told her, handing over a long silver chain and a bundle of dark cloth.

She put the necklace on, satisfied with the big silver crucifix that showed clearly against her black windbreaker. Then she stepped into the dark pants and pulled them up over her shorts; they were too long and the waist was far too loose, but the baggy appearance was what she'd wanted.

"How do I look?" she asked, gazing up at him.

Michael had an odd expression on his face, and his voice had rough edges. "Like the littlest hobo. Robin—"

"Good," she said, cutting him off. "I'll try to be as quick as I can." She hoped desperately that he couldn't see her fear.

He bent his head suddenly and kissed her, briefly but firmly. "Be careful," he urged.

Robin found herself at the door without being aware of moving, thinking vaguely that it wasn't at all fair of him to have done that just when she needed all her wits about her. Then she took a deep breath and went into the tavern.

Michael waited tensely by the window, never taking his eyes off the scene inside. He could feel as well as see all conversation and activity cease when she walked in, and he silently approved the timid way she glanced around. With the baggy clothing and hairstyle she looked about twelve years old, and it was clear that appearance made the men doubtful enough to do nothing while she walked slowly to the end of the bar where Jack sat.

Tensing even more now, Michael almost held his breath as the big man looked at Robin. She must have said something, for Jack nodded and she climbed up on the stool beside him, sitting with hunched shoulders and a hesitant tilt to her head.

Immediately the crowd of men seemed to lose interest, and returned to their former activities.

Michael found himself smiling in admiration. By God, she'd done it! Now if she only could get the information and get out of there in one piece.

* * *

Robin had never been so terrified in her life. It hadn't even been this bad when she had woken up to find herself in the possession of white slavers. And she knew why, of course. Because this time someone was counting on her to get the job done. This time someone else expected her to be strong.

"Who sent you to me?" Jack asked her in a rumbling voice.

She fixed her gaze on the big gold crucifix he was wearing, and didn't have to try to make her voice timid and shaky. "I think he said his name was Dane. He said you might be able to tell me where I could find the Dragon Lady."

"Whatcha want with that tub, kid?"

Inventing as she went along, Robin answered softly. "Mr. Sutton offered me a job a while back. I need to talk to him."

Jack was chewing on the stub of a cigar, his eyes narrowed against the rising curl of smoke as he stared at her. With a short laugh he said, "You don't want no job that bastard offers you, girl. Do yourself a favor and forget the idea."

With a facility that had been hers since childhood, Robin allowed tears to form in her eyes, and let her voice quaver. "I have to find that boat. Eddie works on that boat, and I have to find him."

"You don't look old enough to have an Eddie," Jack said, but in the world-weary tone that expected budding adolescents to have dangerous boyfriends. "In trouble, eh?"

Robin let her eyes skitter away from his. "I have to find Eddie," she repeated dolefully.

Jack sighed and shifted the cigar to the other side of his mouth. "Girl, Sutton's carrying valuable cargo, and he ain't going to want no crying girlfriend pestering one of his men."

"I won't pester him," she said, allowing hope to creep into her voice. "I'll just stand by and wait till Eddie's shift ends. Unless . . . they're at sea?"

Jack grunted in brief amusement. "None of us are at sea with the waters boiling like they're from hell," he muttered.

Robin didn't react to his awareness of the law enforcement activity all around the coast but merely looked at him with a spaniellike expression. "Please tell me where the boat is," she begged.

Almost angrily he said, "It's no skin off my nose if you want to get your silly ass shot off. Sutton usually anchors in a cove off one of the Ten Thousand Islands. They call that island the Maze, and for good reason."

"Thank you," Robin said breathily, sliding off the stool.

"Here." He reached out suddenly and stuffed something into one of the pockets of her windbreaker.

"Hop a bus back to Iowa, or wherever you're from. Now, get outta here."

She nodded and moved quickly back to the door, relieved to find no further attention paid her by the men in the tavern. Immediately outside the door Michael took her hand and drew her into the shadows.

"Anything?" he asked.

His hand felt very warm, and Robin knew her own was ice cold. "Yes," she murmured, trying to get the shake out of her voice. "An island in the Ten Thousand group. It's called the Maze. He said Sutton usually anchors in a cove there."

"I know where it is. Good work," Michael said sincerely, then asked, "What's that?"

Robin was staring in astonishment at two hundred-dollar bills she had pulled from her pocket. "He—he gave me this. Told me to get a bus back to wherever I was from."

Michael grinned a little. "What line did you give him?"

"I said I was looking for my boyfriend, that he worked on Sutton's yacht. He, that is, Jack assumed I was pregnant."

Still holding her hand, Michael began moving away from the tavern. "You must have touched his soft spot if he gave you two bills," he said philosophically.

"I can't keep the money!" she protested.

"You'll have to. It wouldn't be in character to give it back. Besides, do you realty want to go back in there?"

"No. But it isn't right."

Patiently Michael said, "Then we'll stop at a church somewhere and you can put it in the collection box."

Robin sighed but walked beside him without further protest. She knew she was stupid to feel guilty at accepting money from a man like Jack under false pretenses; it was probably ill-gotten gains anyway. Still, he'd been kind to her in a rough way, and she couldn't help but feel bad about it.

"How did you guess they wouldn't bother you in there?" Michael asked curiously as they walked.

"It made sense." He seemed to have forgotten he was still holding her hand, and Robin wondered why she didn't pull it away. "A girl dressed like I am, probably pretty young and down on her luck—but wearing a religious medal she could have pawned. A cop told me once that some of the roughest men still have a tendency to respect 'good' girls. I took the chance."

"You sure did." He squeezed her hand briefly. "And you pulled it off. You've got guts, I'll give you that."

Still fooling them all! Robin's bitterness grew when she realized that the aftermath of fear had left her feeling weak and shaky—as always. Oh, damn, why couldn't she conquer her fear? Why couldn't she find some hint of courage inside herself?

"Thanks," she said tautly, and immediately changed the subject because she felt like a fraud. "Are we going back to the boat?"

"After we stop for supplies, I think we'd better. And we should head for that island right away. The crackdown on boats in these waters won't last more than a couple more days, I'd guess. Once the heat's off, Sutton could decide to bolt."

For the first time, Robin wondered what he planned to do when they found the yacht. If Sutton was indeed on old enemy, then Lisa's position was decidedly precarious. From what Robin had heard, Sutton was just as likely to enter into a gun battle with a Coast Guard vessel as he was to surrender to them.

In a small voice she said, "We can't just tip off the Coast Guard about that yacht, can we?"

After a moment Michael said, "I don't know, but it's doubtful. One hint of trouble, and Sutton's likely to throw the girls overboard. And they won't be in any condition to survive that."

"Then how can we help them? How can we get them and Lisa off the boat safely?"

"I don't know, Robin." Michael walked on steadily, not looking at her. "I just don't know."

It wasn't over, Robin realized, going cold inside again. The worst wasn't over. She'd had some vague idea of alerting the proper officials and standing by while the girls and Michael's sister were safely rescued. But she realized now that it wouldn't be so easy, or so simple. Finding the yacht wouldn't be enough.

She forced her voice to remain steady. "We'll need some kind of backup once we find the yacht."

As they turned in the direction of the marina, Michael stopped suddenly and faced her. They stood before a tavern slightly more upscale than the one Robin had gone into, and the hellish glow of a red neon sign in the window lit Michael's face and made his grim expression all too obvious.

"No, Robin."

"There must be someone you can trust!"

"That isn't the point."

"Yes, it is," Robin insisted, and felt a flash of bitterness spurred as much by her own self-doubts as anything else. "But it has to be you, right? Just you alone, and never mind that you're way the hell outnumbered."


The ice was cracking, and fear was the reason. Fear for him. Nothing mattered except this terrible hunger for him, clawing at her until she was raw and helpless. He'd get himself killed, and every instinct she could lay claim to surged in protest. The feelings tangled inside her in wild confusion.

She jerked her hand away and forced a hard laugh. "I hate heroes, I really do. They make the rest of us feel so damned inadequate!" Then, horrified to have said that aloud for the first time, she shoved her hands into the pockets of her windbreaker and hurried past him. She knew he was behind her, but he didn't speak and didn't attempt to catch up. Robin was blessed with a good sense of direction, and even with her thoughts and emotions in turmoil was able to find the marina easily.

She found herself alone once she reached the boat, and realized only then that Michael must have stopped somewhere to get those supplies he mentioned. Miserable, she went below and took a shower in the tiny bathroom, making use of the first opportunity she'd had to wash away the salt of her enforced swim of last night. She found another pair of cutoff jeans and a short-sleeve green blouse, then went up on deck to allow her hair to dry in the night breeze.

The marina was well lit, and she saw Michael easily when he returned almost an hour later carrying two boxes of groceries and supplies. He didn't look at her as he jumped aboard and took the stuff below, and Robin felt even more miserable.

Typical Robin, shooting her mouth off, she thought. She'd had no right to say that. He was worried to death about his sister—and he was an agent, for God's sake; of course he was courageous enough to deal with Sutton alone. He would too; she knew he would. Heroes, sure. And she had to be attracted to them.

Especially attracted to Michael Siran.

Robin groaned inwardly and rested her forehead on her upraised knees. Oh, Lord, she was doing it again! Like ore to a magnet, she couldn't help but give in to the attraction of strong men . . . only to find herself resenting them, because she, a coward, could never feel equal in such a relationship.

That was all it was, of course. All. Just an attraction, and these other tangled feelings didn't mean anything at all. She was a dumb woman with an insane fascination of strong men. Nothing more.

Desperately, she went on lying to herself.

Eyes closed, she felt more than heard soft footsteps on the deck, and became aware that Michael had sat down on the padded bench across from the one she occupied. She heard the snap of a lighter, and looked up to find him lighting a cigarette, face expressionless.

"You want to tell me what that was all about?" he asked when the lighter was back in this pocket.

She cleared away the lump in her throat. "Nothing. It wasn't about anything. I'm sorry; I shouldn't have said it."

"I want to know why you said it, Robin."

"Just forget it, all right?"

"No." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and looked at her steadily. "There's something going on inside you that I don't like, something that's tearing you up. So what's this crap about heroes—and your feeling inadequate?"

She stiffened. "It's nothing. I told you."

Michael began frowning. "Robin, I don't know what you think I am, but if you've got some image of armor and a white charger, you can forget it."

"Not that kind of hero." Robin heard herself, and she couldn't believe she was saying this; she had never told anybody about her stupid fixation. "Not the storybook stuff, all pretty and white and bloodless. The real thing, Michael, that's what you are. You and men like you."


"Oh, I know all about men like you." She knew her voice was shaking, but the words burst out nonetheless, like waters from floodgates. "My father, my brothers, uncles—all cops. My father. He's a cop like you, the kind of cop you don't read about in the papers. He earns scars instead of medals, just like you do, I'll bet. He hasn't any nerves and doesn't know what fear is. Like you. Pressure never gets to him, and he never doubts himself and his abilities, and he's always in control. Like you."

"Stop it, Robin." Michael suddenly rose and crossed the small deck between them, tossing his cigarette overboard and sitting down on the bench near her raised legs. "Is that what you think a hero is, some kind of superman? Robin, you just described a machine, not a human being. And you sure as hell didn't describe me."

He was too close, too near, and her body was heating slowly. Her laugh was a small, hollow sound. "Didn't I? You're going to tackle Sutton alone even though you'll be outnumbered at least ten to one. What do you call that?"

"My only option." He took a breath, releasing it impatiently. "Robin, if I thought we could get more than ourselves and this boat anywhere near Sutton's yacht unobserved, we'd have an army as backup. I'm not too proud to yell for help, but in this situation one man has a better chance of getting on that yacht without raising the alarm."

"And then?" Her voice was taut. "What, Michael? Do you think you can get those girls off the boat by yourself? Or are you going to take a cannon along to persuade all those armed men to give up peacefully?"

"I don't know what I'm going to do yet," he said, more than a suggestion of clenched teeth in his voice. "But I'll do whatever it takes to get Lisa and those other girls safely out of Sutton's hands."

"I know." She tried and failed to smile. "That's what makes you a hero, Michael. That's what fearless men do."

"Fearless?" He laughed shortly. "Fear's an old friend of mine, Robin. And right now I'm shaking inside."

She stared at him, feeling a jolt of shock. All the strong men she had known and none had ever admitted to fear. Granted, she hadn't brought the question up; because they appeared utterly fearless, she had accepted that as truth. But if this man, whose strength and courage she could almost see, like an aura around him, if this man admitted to fear . . .

"It doesn't show," she whispered.

He was still frowning, his sharp gray eyes probing hers. "Of course it doesn't show; I don't let it. Just like you don't let it show."

"It shows on me like a red flag," she told him, stubborn insistence in her voice. "And every time, every time I have to go into a bad situation, every time I have to at least pretend to be strong, the fear eats me up inside. And I know I'll freeze. I'll freeze up, and I'll get someone killed. That's why I couldn't be—" She broke off, horrified.

But it was too late. Michael finished the sentence quietly, a dawning understanding in his expression. "That's why you couldn't be a cop, like your father."

Robin tried to draw away from him, but she was hemmed in by the side of the boat and by the long legs stretched out beside the bench. She couldn't move away without touching him, and suddenly she was more afraid of touching him than of anything else.

"That's it, isn't it, Robin?"

Her arms tightened around her upraised knees, and she couldn't look away from those clear, perceptive eyes. "I went through the academy," she said almost inaudibly. "Everyone said I was born to be a cop. But I knew the truth. I knew I was always afraid. I knew someone would depend on me some-day, a partner, and I'd freeze up. I'd be paralyzed with fear, and I'd get that partner, or someone else, killed."

"Did you ever freeze up?" he asked quietly.

"That doesn't matter, don't you see? I knew I would. And I couldn't be a cop when I knew that."

"What happened? Did you drop out of the academy?"

She swallowed hard. "No, I failed the written exam. Twice. I failed it twice."

Michael looked at her for a long moment, then said, "So you stuck that label on yourself as well."

"What label?"

"Failure. Is that what your father called you?"

"No." She avoided his eyes. "I didn't give him the chance. I haven't seen him in three years. A coward to the end."

"Stop it." He reached out, grasping both her shoulders and holding them hard. "Robin, fear is natural; in a dangerous situation you'd be an idiot if you weren't afraid. And that failure of yours wasn't an honest one."

"I know what I am," she whispered, trying to ignore the hard strength of his chest pressed against her arms.

He seemed about to shake her, but then drew a breath and spoke roughly. "Do you? Well, let me tell you what others know about you, Robin. What I know about you, even though we've known each other less than twenty-four hours. I know that you went through an experience that would have destroyed most women. You were kidnapped, drugged, treated like a piece of merchandise. But you still managed to save yourself by getting away and jumping overboard. And then, when any other woman would have run to escape those painful memories, you teamed up with a stranger to try to save those other women.

"You went into a place that half the cops I've ever met would have avoided like the plague, filled with men very like the ones who kidnapped you. And you did it, Robin. You instinctively assumed the one role that provided the slight chance of success. And it worked. You went in for information—and you came out with it. You got the job done."

"I was afraid!" she cried.

"So what? You think courage is measured by the lack of fear? No, Robin, it's the opposite. Courage is doing what you have to despite fear."

"I don't believe you," she said, thinking of her father, always smiling, confident, unafraid.

Michael did shake her then, but gently. His gray eyes went steely suddenly, with the inward-turned look of self-appraisal. "I've been in this business for ten years," he told her flatly, "and I'm very good at what I do. I've worked in the Middle East, South America, every part of Europe and Asia. Dirty jobs, most of them, and hellishly tangled. I've been betrayed by people I thought were friends, captured, held prisoner. And, Robin . . . I've been afraid."

She stared at him, seeing the naked truth. "But it didn't paralyze you," she whispered. "It didn't stop you."

"No. And it won't stop you. You doubted yourself and your abilities in the beginning, and that's natural. But you seem to keep misinterpreting your own reactions to danger. The point isn't that you're afraid. The point is that it doesn't stop you."

"What if it does one day?"

"It won't."

"How can I be sure of that?"

The hands on her shoulders gentled. "Robin, you should be sure of it now. You've already faced dangers most people never encounter. You just have to accept that fear is two-o'clock-in-the-morning courage."

Feeling very shaken, she murmured, "Is that a quote?"

He smiled a little. "Paraphrase. Look it up sometime. Because that's the kind of courage you have. The rarest kind."

Robin drew a breath, aware suddenly of the quiet of the marina, of the gentle rocking motion of the boat. Of him. His long fingers were moving on her shoulders, almost absently probing; his eyes were darkening. And she couldn't look away from him. She had an abrupt memory of jumping off that yacht, of sinking into dark waters, alone and afraid.

"What is it about you?" he murmured, clearly puzzled. "I've talked more in the last twenty-four hours than I usually do in a month."

"You're . . . very alone, aren't you?"

"Except for Lisa."

Robin shook her head slightly. "That isn't what I meant."

"I know." His eyes were searching her face now, still puzzled, as if he were looking for something. "Professionally I rarely work with a partner. Personally I suppose I never thought it was fair to begin a relationship that couldn't last."

"You mean friendship? Or a lover?"

"Both. My life would strain any kind of relationship."

Robin was trying to concentrate, trying to keep her mind off the slow, inexorable awakening of her body and senses. "But you must have friendships. Dane, for one."

Michael tilted his head slightly, listening. "Maybe it's your voice," he said absently, then responded to her comments before she could react. "Dane? No, Dane isn't a friend. We don't know enough about each other for friendship. I'm secretive; he's enigmatic. He's too good a card player for my peace of mind. And even though I'd trust him with my life— and have in some situations—I'm not so sure I'd turn my back to him."

She felt a sudden pang, remembering what he had said about having been betrayed by those he'd considered friends. "You two seemed to know each other so well. And yet you still feel suspicious?"

One of his hands lifted from her shoulder and brushed a strand of auburn hair from her face, then lingered warmly against her neck. "I've always hedged my bets, Robin," he said quietly. "Because sure things sometimes stumble, and the long shots can get you killed."

"Which am I?" she heard herself ask unsteadily. "The sure thing? Or the long shot?"

"I don't know." His hand slid around to the nape of her neck, and he began drawing her toward him. "But for the first time in my life ... I don't know if I can hedge this bet."

Against her conscious volition, Robin felt her hands lifting to touch his chest, felt her legs parting so that as he drew her closer she was heavily aware of the warmth of his body in the hollow of her thighs.

"I don't think . . . this is a very good idea," she managed to say almost inaudibly.

"Of course it isn't," he said huskily. "What the hell does that matter?"

Robin forgot her objections the moment his lips touched hers. She forgot everything but him and the violent surge of emotions rushing through her. She had never felt anything like this, and the force of it shocked her. It came from him, that force, but there was an equally strong response from deep inside herself, and that stunned her; she had never before felt such power.

Her arms went up around his neck as he pulled her fiercely against him, and she felt him draw one of her legs across his, stroking the slender thigh left bare by her shorts. With a mind of its own, her body arched into his, driven to be closer.

A wild sound tangled in the back of her throat as his mouth slanted across hers, deepening the kiss, and heat jolted through her like wildfire. What did it matter, she wondered dazedly, that there would have to be a reckoning for this, that she would pay dearly in tattered emotions. What did it matter that this time she was drawn to a man stronger than any she had ever known, with a force of will that would inevitably deepen her own sense of failure.

Nothing mattered except now, this moment, and the feelings he was drawing from her deepest self.

It was Michael who pulled back suddenly, holding her away from him with iron hands on her shoulders. His face was pale except for the hard flush on his cheekbones, his eyes glittering. "I didn't plan on you," he said hoarsely.

Robin was staring at him, dazed. She forced her arms to let go of him. "Oh, damn," she muttered, realizing only then that it was too late for her to fight this. Far too late. "I didn't plan on you either."

He released her and drew away slowly, rising to his feet and staring down at her. His eyes were violent, but his face remained hard and still.

Robin spoke before he could, fighting to hold her voice steady. "You may not know which I am, a sure thing or a long shot, but you know what this is, don't you?" She didn't have to elaborate; he knew that "this" was the explosive attraction between them.

Michael nodded with stark control. "I know. It's a long shot. One chance in a million. And I don't bet on long shots."

She watched him move away and begin preparations to leave the marina, feeling hot and restless. And despite what Michael had said, she was still afraid.

She didn't bet on long shots—usually. And Michael didn't bet on them—usually. But here they were, getting ready to sail off on this small boat alone to try to rescue women being held by armed men on a large yacht.

And if that wasn't a long shot. . . then what was?


In a luxurious condo high above Miami's famous g