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"Raphael will be waiting for you in the alley behind the hotel," Nancy Rodriguez said briskly as she deftly maneuvered the Toyota through Houston's heavy early-evening traffic. "If the coast is clear, he'll take you right up to the suite and let you in with a passkey." She grimaced. "If not, you're on your own, Honey."
"Fine," Honey Winston said absently, anchoring a strand of white-gold hair firmly back away from her face with a hairpin.
"Fine!" Nancy exclaimed, shooting her a glance of intense exasperation. "Caramba! You're crazy, do you know that? If they catch you, the least they'll do is take away your license. They might even throw you in jail." She tapped the folded newspaper lying between them on the seat. "The mayor is really rolling out the red carpet for Prince Rubinoff and his cousin. He's not going to be at all pleased if you provoke any unpleasant publicity."
A frown creased Honey's brow. "Even royalty has no right to behave as unscrupulously and heartlessly as he has," Honey said indignantly. "That poor woman was almost beside herself."
"That 'poor' woman is heiress to a coffee plantation the approximate size of Ecuador," Nancy said dryly. "And if you ask me, Se–ora Gomez appeared just a little too upset."
"How can you say that?" Honey asked with a frown. "She was crying as if her heart were breaking."
"And you melted, as usual." Nancy sighed, her dark eyes affectionate. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that private detectives are supposed to be hard-boiled?"
"My secretary is at me constantly about that very thing." Honey grinned teasingly, her blue eyes twinkling. "But how can I believe her, when she's such a marshmallow herself?"
"Marshmallow!" Nancy squeaked. "Me?"
"You," Honey affirmed. "You wouldn't even take a salary if I didn't practically force it on you."
"I get along," Nancy said crossly. "Which is better than you do. When I was over at your apartment last week, there wasn't anything in the cupboard but peanut butter. No wonder you've lost weight lately."
"Peanut butter is very nourishing," Honey said defensively. "All the nutritionists say so."
"Not as a sole diet, darn it," Nancy argued. "Do you know how it makes me feel to take money from you, when I know that you barely have enough to survive? Why can't you be sensible?"
"We agreed that the week I couldn't afford to pay your salary was the week you'd look for another job," Honey said, a stubborn set to her chin. "It's bad enough being poor as a church mouse. I won't accept charity."
"It wouldn't be charity, blast it," Nancy argued. "I'd be a fool if I didn't realize by now how independent you are. It would be a loan." She made a face. "Knowing you, you'll probably even insist on paying me interest."
"We've gone through all this before," Honey said gently, her eyes warmly affectionate. "The answer is still no."
"Madre de Dios!" Nancy exclaimed in exasperation.
Watching her, Honey hid a smile of amusement. If Nancy's hands had not gripped the steering wheel, she would have thrown them in the air with her usual Latin expressiveness. "Why do you have to be so damned dedicated and idealistic? It wouldn't hurt you to accept a little help. Why do you have to be a private investigator anyway? With your looks you could be anything you wanted. Why the hell can't you want what normal women want?"
Honey's lips twitched. "And what do 'normal' women want?" she asked solemnly, her eyes dancing.
Nancy cast her a glance of extreme irritation. "Fame, riches, and multiple O's," she pronounced impressively, then looked greatly insulted when Honey burst into giggles. "It's not funny." Then her own lips curved in a reluctant grin. "Well, maybe it is to a little Puritan like you."
"Wrong on both counts," Honey protested, still chuckling. "No one in her right mind would call me little, and I'm not a Puritan, merely discriminating."
"A virgin at twenty-four is not a Puritan?" Nancy lifted her eyebrows skeptically. "You've got to be kidding."
"Why did I let you ply me with those margaritas and encourage me to tell you my life story?" Honey asked gloomily. "You've been throwing that up to me ever since."
"If I remember correctly, you needed all the comfort you could get that night," Nancy said dryly. "How was I to know you were practically a teetotaler? You forgot to mention that when you were mooning about the injustice of a system that allowed the sexual harassment of dedicated young sleuths like one Honey Winston."
"I guess I was pretty maudlin that night," Honey confessed sheepishly. Even now, thinking back on that day, she felt a twinge of anger. "I simply couldn't believe that a reputable investigator like Ben Lackland would fire me just because I wouldn't go to bed with him."
"That's because you're green as grass, Little Nell," Nancy said cynically. She shook her head wonderingly. "It constantly amazes me how a girl who was first in her class at the Police Academy and spent two years on the force could still be so blasted naive. Everyone in Houston knows Ben Lackland is a chaser as well as a king-sized rat, but you thought he was being fatherly toward you!"
"But he had such a sweet wife," Honey protested. "And he never actually tried anything until that last night in the office."
"They all have very sweet wives," Nancy said, her tone ironic. "It's an excellent insurance policy. Remind me to tell you about my ex-husband sometime. He was a great one for insurance."
"He was also crazy as a loon to ever let you get away." Honey spoke fiercely. "Some men don't know their luck."
Nancy gave her an impish grin. "Don't worry. I've made sure that every man since knows what a prize I am." She made a left turn into Fannin and then a right into the alley that ran alongside the towering white hotel that was their destination. She brought the Toyota to a halt a little distance from a wide double door, obviously used for deliveries. She flicked off the headlights and then reached up to turn on the dome light.
"Honey," she said, her face suddenly serious, "forget about this. You don't need the money badly enough to take a risk like this. There will be other jobs."
"I haven't noticed anyone beating down our door," Honey said dryly.
"It's only been six months since you opened your own agency," Nancy said persuasively. "Give them a chance. You're good, really good. The only reason Lackland didn't try anything before was that you were the best agent he had. You'd be there now if his ego weren't bigger than that pea brain of his."
"And we'd both be eating better," Honey replied ruefully. She shook her head. "You know that we need this job, no matter what the risks, Nancy. I won't even be able to pay the rent next month without this fee." She tried to smile reassuringly, despite her own apprehensions regarding this night's task. "It's not all that dangerous. It will probably be only thirty minutes' work once I'm in Prince Rubinoff's suite. All I have to do is to locate Se–ora Gomez's letters and be on my way." Her lips curled scornfully. "A man like that probably keeps them under his pillow, so he can bring them out and gloat over them."
Nancy chuckled. "I doubt that. With as many women as 'Lusty Lance' is reputed to have—and have had—that could prove a trifle inconvenient." She picked up the newspaper and looked at the picture critically. "Heavens, he's a handsome stud. Just look at that face. Adonis . . . with a little touch of the devil."
"More than a little, according to the gossip columns," Honey said caustically, glancing at the picture.
Grudgingly, she had to admit that Nancy was right. That face, with its strong, regular features and beautifully shaped mouth, was arrestingly attractive, and the mischievous grin and dancing eyes saved it from being too handsome. "I'm sure that Se–ora Gomez would agree with them."
Nevertheless, she reached over and took the paper from Nancy, fascinated in spite of herself by that compelling face. Not that she was alone in that fascination, she assured herself quickly. Prince Anton Sergei Lancelot Rubinoff exerted a powerful charisma that was acknowledged worldwide. The younger son of the royal house of the Balkan state of Tamrovia, he had been a godsend to the media since he was a college student at Oxford. They had dubbed him 'Lusty Lance,' and that nickname had not only pertained to his formidable bedroom activities. Lance Rubinoff also had a boundless lust for adventure and life itself. In his early thirties, he had been in more scrapes than Honey could remember.
It was rumored that their Majesties were less than approving of their errant son, as was the Crown Prince Stefan. That they exerted little control over his activities was principally due to the partiality of his Uncle Nicholas, another black sheep, who unexpectedly had had the surprising good sense to marry the only daughter of Sheik Karim Ben Raschid. Young Lance had spent much of his childhood with his uncle in Sedikhan, and the sheik, ruler of a staggeringly oil-rich sheikdom, had developed a fondness for young Lance. He had deeded him a few choice acres on his twenty-first birthday, which produced enough oil yearly to buy Tamrovia outright. The cousin mentioned accompanying Rubinoff on his visit to Houston must be Nicholas's son, Alex Ben Raschid, Honey thought idly.
"Can it be that Lusty Lance is stirring a little fire under that cool facade?" Nancy asked archly, her eyes on Honey's absorbed face.
Honey quickly closed the paper and dropped it back on the seat. "Nonsense," she said briskly. "I was checking to see what time the party the mayor's giving him begins. It's at nine, and they'll undoubtedly be dining with the mayor before the party." She checked her watch. "It's eight-ten now. It should be safe to go up to the suite. You're sure that this Raphael can be trusted?"
Nancy nodded. "He's a friend of my younger brother's. The only thing you have to worry about is Raphael's luring you into a vacant hotel suite and trying to make a pass. He's got a thing for big, beautiful blondes."
Honey made a face. "Haven't most men?" she asked wryly. "I've been fighting that particular problem since I left the orphanage when I was sixteen. They all think just because I look like some damn fertility goddess that my sole role in life is destined to be flat on my back in bed, preferably their bed."
"I should be so lucky," Nancy said teasingly, gazing enviously at Honey as she opened the door and got out of the car. "I'd almost give up sex to look like you." Her brown eyes twinkled. "Of course, if I gave up sex, I wouldn't need to look like you."
In a black leotard and sheer lycra tights, Honey Winston did resemble the fertility goddess she'd derided so scornfully. Standing five feet nine in her stockinged feet, she was built along voluptuous, queenly lines, with full, high breasts, a slim waist, and long, shapely legs that most women would have given their false eyelashes to possess. Even her face had a certain sensual earthiness, owing to the passionate curve of her lower lip and the slightly slanted deep violet eyes that gave her a curiously smoldering look. Her hair was a shimmering white-gold, and she tried to detract from its rather spectacular effect by wearing its luxurious length swathed severely about her head. She'd tried cutting it once, but she'd found that when it was short, it persisted in curling riotously about her head and only augmented that provocative sensuality.
"I hadn't noticed that you're having any problem attracting admirers," Honey retorted.
"I'm not bad," Nancy admitted with a wink. In her late twenties, Nancy Rodriguez was attractive rather than pretty, with the smooth olive skin and big, dark, flashing eyes that revealed her Mexican heritage. Her medium-length brown hair was permed into a riot of gypsy curls, and was very becoming to her piquant features. "Are you sure you don't want me to wait for you?" she asked.
Honey shook her head. "After I get the letters, I'll grab a taxi back to the apartment." She smiled soothingly. "I'll call you as soon as I get home."
"You'd better," Nancy said grimly. "Or I just may come knocking on Prince Rubinoff's door." She pulled a face. "Though I'd probably have to take a number."
Honey chuckled. "Kama Sutra twenty-two?" she asked teasingly.
"Something like that," Nancy agreed absently, her expression suddenly very sober. "Be careful, Honey."
"Always," Honey said lightly. She slammed the car door and waved reassuringly before turning and walking briskly toward the wide double doors.
The portable dining table moved smoothly over the plush hunter-green carpet of the hall, despite the added weight of the passenger occupying the bottom storage shelf. Why couldn't she have been one of those petite five-foot-nothing types? Honey wondered gloomily, trying to keep her long legs curled under the sheltering confines of the over-hanging white damask tablecloth.
"Okay?" Raphael called down to her cheerfully. "We're almost there, Miss Winston. It's just down the next corridor."
"I'm fine," Honey lied, knowing she'd scarcely be able to walk when she was able finally to uncurl from this pretzel-like position and get off this blasted shelf. There wasn't any use complaining to Raphael. He had done the best he could under the circumstances.
When she had met the young Latin bellhop inside the delivery doors forty minutes ago, she had been deluged by bad news. Security for the hotel's famous guests had been tightened unexpectedly, with the locks changed on the VIP suite, and only the security officers had been given passkeys. In addition, Prince Rubinoff had canceled his plans to dine with the mayor this evening, and he and his cousin were having dinner in their suite before leaving for River Oaks to attend the party.
Honey had scarcely had time for the disappointment to sink in when Raphael had come up with an alternate plan. He had persuaded the usual waiter from the dining room to let him substitute, and he was going to smuggle Honey into the suite on the shelf under the dining table. She could hide there while Prince Rubinoff and Alex Ben Raschid dined. Once they'd left the suite, she would be able to slip off the trolley and go about her business. He had clearly thought his solution a stroke of pure genius, and Honey had fallen in with the plan out of sheer desperation. It might not be foolproof, but it was the only plan in town.
The trolley had halted now, and she heard Raphael knock softly on the door. Then there was a murmur of voices and the table was once more in motion. This time the carpet was even plusher, and of a rich russet shade, she noticed before the trolley once more came to a halt. There was a murmur of voices once again. Raphael's and two others', and then the soft closing of a door.
She was on her own. Now all she had to do was to keep absolutely still for perhaps another forty-five minutes and she would be home free. It might not be all that easy, she thought ruefully. She was already getting a cramp in her left thigh. Why didn't they sit down and eat their dinner, damn it?
The gentlemen were obviously not willing to oblige her, for she heard the soft clink of crystal across the room. Marvelous. They were going to have a cozy predinner drink. They must have carried their drinks across the room, for though their footsteps were silent on the thick carpet, their voices were suddenly clearly audible.
"You know that his honor the mayor isn't going to be pleased about this, Lance," a deep voice drawled casually. "He's not a man who's used to being stood up."