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For The Taking
By Lilian Darcy
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis time they met in a bar.
Loucan was at home in places like this. He'd worked in one, a long time ago, for about six months. The yeasty tang of beer in the air was familiar, and the other drinkers didn't think there was anything strange about two men sitting hunched over their filled glasses in the darkest corner of the establishment, locked in conversation.
"So, how is married life?" he asked Kevin Cartwright. It sounded like a casual question, but it wasn't.
"Uh, you know, it's okay," the big man answered. "It's not bad."
Yeah, right! The guy was actually wrestling with his uncontrollable grin, and the grin was winning. It just wouldn't stay off his face, no matter how hard he tried. Marriage to Phoebe Jones was clearly a lot better than "not bad."
"I've brought some wedding pictures, if you want to see them," Kevin added.
Loucan didn't waste any time. Ignoring the mention of such a trivial thing as wedding pictures, he pounced at once. "Because I get the impression it's too much of a distraction," he said. "What progress have you made in locating Thalassa since your marriage?"
Kevin sat up straight, gulped some beer and swore. "Where is this coming from, Loucan?" he demanded. "I thought we were here to celebrate threesuccesses, not fling accusations about one failure."
Loucan ignored him. "Have you narrowed down the search?" he asked. "You've been working on this for four years, on and off. Phoebe, Kai and Saegar have all been found. Yes, that's success, but it doesn't mean anything without Lass. She's your sole focus now. I need results, and I have to wonder, is wedded bliss with Phoebe taking the edge off your hunger to close this case?"
"Easy, Loucan ...!" Kevin slumped back in his chair. He shook his head slowly several times as he swirled the beer in his glass.
Loucan wasn't fooled by the apparently relaxed posture. They were both strong men. Direct. Sure of themselves. He'd gone on the attack with the deliberate aim of getting the straightest possible answers from the man he'd hired to track down the four farflung Pacifican royal siblings.
Kevin didn't disappoint him. Leaning forward again with new energy, he took another long gulp of beer, fixed his deep blue eyes on Loucan and said, "Okay. You want the truth? The only thing that finding the other three has done is made me face facts."
"What facts?" Loucan said. "I'm interested in facts. I like them."
"Loucan, we have nothing left to go on. There weren't many avenues to pursue to begin with, and those turned into dead ends real fast. Thalassa and Cyria are both unusual names, but I ran searches through every database and archive I could think of in two hemispheres, and the handful of hits I turned up didn't pan out. Australia and New Zealand, where you think they're located, both have small populations compared to the United States, but that didn't seem to help. I've told you all this."
"Tell me again. Tell me what point you're at now."
"I'm guessing Cyria changed her name, and maybe Lass's as well. I'm guessing she got them each forged identity documents - birth certificates - through some South Pacific nation where bribes get results. We found the other three mainly through luck. Now it seems like our luck has run out."
"You're throwing in the towel?" Loucan felt his scalp tighten with anger. "Giving up the search? This is because of Phoebe!"
"It's not," Kevin insisted. "And I'm not throwing it in. I've got one thing left to suggest, the only thing I believe can get a result."
"Yeah? Then I want to hear it. Straight."
"You knew Thalassa," Kevin said. "How old was she when you left Pacifica that first time?
Loucan shrugged impatiently. "That was twenty-five years ago. She was eight and I was fourteen. What does that have to do with anything?"
"You knew her then," Kevin repeated. "And you knew Cyria, who was her guardian. And whatever has happened to both of them since, there are ways in which people don't change. Think, Loucan!" It wasn't quite a command, yet much more than a plea. "You're the one with something to go on. Memories. Impressions. Things you couldn't communicate to me even if you tried, because you're not going to realize what's significant until you're actually living the search."
"Me? Living the search? You want me to find her?"
"Yes. If anyone can find Thalassa after all this time, it's you."
Kevin's eyes blazed intently, and he'd balled one hand into a fist. Given the kind of man Kevin Cartwright was, that meant the idea deserved at least Loucan's consideration.
He nodded slowly and narrowed his eyes, thinking, struggling....
Memories? Impressions? Lord, it was hard! He'd last seen Thalassa twenty-five years ago, back in Pacifica, when he was just a boy. Since then, he'd had adventures enough for three lifetimes.
He'd spent ten years, and more, roaming the world. He'd swum with pods of whales on their great migrations around the Pacific rim, until he knew every current in that vast ocean. Living on land, he'd worked as a commercial fisherman, an Arizona ranch hand and a Wall Street bond trader. He'd swapped identities easily, and he had hungrily absorbed knowledge and understanding from every experience.
He'd never done anything seriously illegal, but he had been in prison once for several days, arrested by mistake. He'd even been married. That wasn't a memory he liked to dwell on, since it carried with it so much guilt and grief.
For the past fifteen years, he'd spent most of his time in Pacifica, relearning its ways, working to bring together the two warring factions that had divided the mer people for a generation. But before all of that ... Yes, he realized. He still had memories. One in particular flooded into his mind as he sat and thought, his beer untouched on the table in front of him.
His parents and Thalassa's had been friends once, before Lass's father, King Okeana, had come under the malign influence of an evil, manipulative merman named Joran, and his dangerous ideas. The friendship had already begun to fracture by the time Loucan reached his teens, but the two women, Okeana's wife, Wailele, and Loucan's own mother, Ondina, were still managing to hold it together, the way women sometimes did. There had been no open rift, and no violence, as yet.
The two families had left the safe confines of Pacifica's underwater world and gone on a picnic together, at a secret coral island beach. Around a closed fire made from phosphorus distilled out of the ocean itself, they'd feasted on freshly cooked marine delicacies as well as the exotic and expensive treats of earth-grown foods - bananas, coconuts and baked yams.
Excerpted from For The Taking by Lilian Darcy Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.