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Layne Hamilton felt the man's presence even before she saw him. Up at the lecture podium, she leafed slowly through her text on Cantonese Chinese, casting a prudent glance in his direction. Her unruly black hair tumbled across her shoulders as she leaned over, pretending to hunt for something in her notes.
He was older than everyone else, although he didn't appear to be over thirty. Perhaps it was his piercing blue gaze or his resemblance to a lean, hungry wolf that made him stand out from the other students. His tanned, square face was unreadable as he lounged with deceptive ease at the rear of the room. His broad brow topped wide-set eyes, a straight nose and a firm chin. Only his mouth suggested leniency, the corners turning upward instead of down. Layne's fingers trembled perceptibly as she thumbed through her lecture. It fit. It all fit. He was one of them: a CIA agent.
Layne felt her heart tighten in her breast. Compressing her lips, she tried to put a lid on the cauldron of escaping memories. When she raised her head, she narrowed her eyes as she looked at him again. He was a Company man just as Brad had been. They never referred to themselves as agents, operatives or the CIA. No, within that elite group they called themselves the Company.
She stared at the intruder in her class. He didn't fool her. Coiled power emanated from the dark-haired stranger, and Layne found her throat closing with tears, her vision suddenly blurring. Oh, damn! She couldn't cry! Not here. This was her first class of the fall quarter. Anger suddenly swept through her, drying the impending tears. Damn him! Damn them all! She had told Chuck Lowell she never wanted to see or speak to anyone from the Company again. And now one of his men was watching her from the back of the room, a curious flame burning in the recesses of his steel-blue eyes. What did he want from her? She was simply a widow of a Company employee who had died in the line of duty—nothing more.
"Well?" Chuck Lowell demanded, leaning in his rich, burgundy leather chair. "What do you think, Matt? Is she up to this assignment?" He steepled his fingers, watching Talbot closely.
Matt placed his hands on his hips, a giveaway of his Air Force training. "No," he replied, adding to himself, but she's unforgettable. His mind returned to his observation of Layne Hamilton earlier that day. He had tipped his head back against the wall, listening to her low, cultured voice. Nice, he'd thought as he studied her. But there was nothing to suggest she could possibly handle the assignment. She was attractive, yes. But was she a survivor?
Her voice had been soothing, pacifying his raw nerves. Like warm, liquid honey. The black hair framing her tanned complexion accented her luminous eyes and full mouth. Matt had found himself staring at her, surprised at his strong response. He had to admit that Layne Hamilton was indeed a woman of substance: a dangerous mixture of femininity, vulnerability and elegance nicely rolled into one very appealing package.
He'd had to mentally switch gears in order to recall his real purpose for being there. According to the data he'd been given, Layne had been widowed nine months ago. He could still see the ravages of that period. She was thin, as seen in the too-hollow curve beneath her lovely high cheekbones. And her clothes were loose on her five-foot-eight-inch frame. The khaki-colored Kathryn Hepburn-style trousers bagged slightly at her slender hips.
Looks were often deceiving; he knew that from many years of experience. But if this was one of the top Chinese language experts in the country, Layne Hamilton could have fooled everyone. She had been associated with George Washington University since her marriage to Brad Carson, and in spite of two prestigious scholarly books to her credit, she didn't look at all like a professor.
Matt could see her as a model for one of those women's fashion magazines… or maybe as the gracious wife of a career diplomat. Her throat was deliciously curved, and his eyes had followed the thoroughbred lines of her graceful body. She might have been a ballerina. But not a full professor at a university.
His mouth thinned. He couldn't see her as a combatant by any stretch of his imagination. And action was vital on this mission— including lightning reflexes that could mean life or death. He'd known when he received the shattering news at Nellis Air Force Base, where he was stationed, that it was going to be bad. And now it had turned from bad to worse. The vulnerable woman up at the lectern couldn't fight her way out of a paper bag, much less handle a mission involving—enough! Matt refused to think about the crisis or about his brother. He'd just do as he'd been ordered: check out Layne Hamilton to see if she could do what was needed.
"Are you sure?" Chuck now demanded, breaking into his reverie.
Matt looked his superior squarely in the eye. "Positive. She's a rabbit. And we're going into a wolf situation."
Lowell frowned, then returned his gaze. "Rabbit or not, she's got contacts we don't have. Look, go back and study her once more before you make your final decision. I'm afraid Layne Hamilton is the only person who can help us at this point."
"Well, how was the first day?" Millie Hamilton sang out as Layne stepped from the foyer into her mother's living room.
Layne tried to smile but it didn't work. She dropped her books on the coffee table and set her briefcase down beside the sofa.
"It was horrible," she admitted, sitting down dejectedly.
Millie stood poised at the kitchen door. At fifty-nine she looked ten years younger, her short crop of black hair barely sprinkled with gray. But now her brow creased with concern. "What happened?" she asked gently.
Layne nudged off her low-heeled sandals and propped her feet up on the table. She gave her mother a helpless look. "There was someone from the Company there, Mom."
"Oh, honey, are you sure?"
A tidal wave of suppressed emotion surfaced in Layne at last, and her voice broke. "I'm positive. He was wearing a jacket. You don't wear a jacket on a ninety-degree day unless you're wearing a gun at the back of your belt. And his look…" She shivered, shutting her eyes tightly. Hot tears scalded her lids, and she took a deep breath to try to steady herself. "He just looks like one of them, Mom—restless, piercing eyes, lean strength—giving the impression that if he moved, he'd explode like a bomb."
Millie came over to sit next to Layne and stroked her hair. "I believe you, honey. But why? After Brad died…"
Layne rose, unable to sit still an instant longer. She paced the length of a living room filled with Oriental memorabilia— memories of her family's past, of her growing-up years as an Air Force brat, of a famous father stationed in the Orient. Layne stared at the photo on the mantel of her father with his arm around her mother and herself. Bob Hamilton: Air Force test pilot extraordinaire, made of the Right Stuff. He had tamed the most sophisticated supersonic jets in the world until one had finally claimed his life five years earlier. Both of the men in her life had been snuffed out by metal. The exotic skin of an aircraft buckling under testing stresses had claimed her father's life; and Brad had been ripped away from her by an enemy bullet, unexpectedly freeing her from the prison of their marriage. She took a deep, ragged breath, fighting a threatening wave of tears and guilt.
Layne sensed more than saw her mother rise and move to her side to place a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Perhaps it was a mistake," she soothed. "Perhaps this man just looked like an agent. It's probably nothing, Layne. Why would they send someone from the Company to sit in on your class? You know Chuck Lowell would come over if they wanted something."
Layne raised her face, her amber eyes misty. "That's right. Their rule is 'Never use the telephone, it might be bugged.
Always try for face-to-face contact.'" Her head felt heavy. "God, Mom, I can still hear Brad saying that," she whispered.
"I know, sweetheart, I know…"
Taking a steadying breath, Layne muttered, "I just hope you're right, Mom. I'm still not over Brad or the CIA. Why doesn't it fade with time?"
Millie squeezed her shoulder. "It will, honey. First, you have to let go of all that bottled-up anger you had toward Brad. No one could have known how cruel and insensitive he would turn out to be. You need to let go of the guilt, Layne. It's eating you alive."
"I hate the CIA," she whispered rawly.
Millie gave her a small shake. "The way Brad turned out is not the CIA's fault, Layne."
Layne looked up in disbelief. "Since when are you siding with them? Brad was ruthless because of the CIA!"
After all this time her mother was defending the Company? Layne stared at her. "I suppose you're an authority on them?" She hated the surly tone of her voice but felt powerless to stop.
"Listen to me carefully, Layne," Millie replied in a low voice. "I've kept out of your handling of Brad's death. I felt that you would eventually understand that the CIA had nothing to do with Brad's behavior toward you. They don't mold men and women into coldhearted robots! They're anxious to see that their employees' families understand the rigors and pressures of their work. They don't condone or even encourage Brad's type of behavior."
Defiance rose in Layne. "Oh, really? And how do you know?"
Millie released her arm. "Common sense tells me that. Brad was like a bad apple, Layne, rotten at the core. And no one knew it until it was too late. Place the blame where it rightfully belongs, work through your anger and hurt," she counseled. "And then let it go, and get on with the business of living."
Layne's heart sank when she entered her classroom Wednesday morning. He was there again. And he was in the same seat, with the same imperturbable look on his face. She felt beads of sweat begin to form, and claustrophobia enveloped her. Her hands trembled visibly as she jerked open the attendance roster on the lectern. For the past two nights she had experienced reawakened memories of the nightmare of her marriage. Now anger broke through her haze of fear. She hated the man in the back—hated him for what he'd slit open in her just-healing heart. And she'd been surprised at her mother's defense of the CIA. Everyone from the Company was cold. It was natural and expected for them to show nothing outwardly, not even love toward family members.
As she completed roll call her fears were realized: the man in the back wasn't on the roster. Lifting her chin, she aimed a cool look at him.
"You're not on the roster here, Mr.—"
Glacial blue eyes assessed her own, but she maintained her ground, refusing to be intimidated by a Company man. Layne wanted to force his hand. Slowly, the man's mouth curved up in amusement. "I'm auditing the course, Professor Hamilton," he drawled.
She felt heat rise within her. Like hell you are—she bit back the words. No one was allowed to audit introductory Chinese without registering; it was a university rule. The tension strung palpably between them. Layne gripped the edges of the lectern, her knuckles whitening. "Your name." It was an order, not a question.
Liar. She knew he wouldn't tell his real name even under threat of death. She glared at him, on the verge of saying just that. But there was some indefinable warning in his features that told her to back off for now. It wasn't anything specific. Just the tension around his eyes. She wrote the name down, giving him a dark look.
"Your audit papers, then, Mr. Ryder?"
"I'll bring them next time I come to class."
Layne controlled her desire to explode at him. They were simply playing a game, and they were both aware of it. She shut the roster book with finality. "Don't bother coming back on Friday if you don't have them with you, Mr. Ryder."
Matt barely tipped his head in recognition of her order and let the amusement show in his eyes. So, she did have claws. Backed into a corner, she came out hissing and spitting. Maybe Layne Hamilton wasn't going to be a rabbit after all.
Layne controlled her rage as she watched Jim Ryder soundlessly rise to his feet and leave five minutes before the end of class. Had he known she was going to openly confront him afterward? He must have. She watched him disappear like a ghost who had come out of her past to haunt her once again.
Back in her Georgetown apartment at the end of the day, Layne tried to keep busy. She had lesson plans that needed to be filled out, but she found herself unable to concentrate. As she sat at the oak desk in one corner of her living room, her head resting wearily on the palm of her hand, the doorbell rang. She roused herself, frowning. Looking at her watch, she saw that it was nearly ten o'clock. Who could it be? Her mother had been over earlier to share dinner. Getting to her feet, she smoothed out the folds of her soft peach skirt. She crossed to the door and opened it.
"May I come in?"
Layne stood frozen, a succession of emotions racing through her. Chuck Lowell, dressed in his usual impeccably tailored dark pinstripe suit with matching silk tie, offered her an apologetic smile. He looks just the same, she observed numbly. Layne would never forget the day Lowell had come to tell her about Brad's death, Brad's giving his life for their country…. She should have felt remorse. Perhaps grief. Instead, she'd dealt with an avalanche of guilt.
She winced. "Come in," she offered woodenly.
Lowell inclined his graying head toward someone standing slightly behind him. "I've brought someone with me, Layne."
She gasped as the man who called himself Jim Ryder materialized at Lowell's left shoulder. "You!"
"May we come in?" Chuck demanded tersely.
Layne's throat tightened, and she glared at Lowell's companion. "Do I have a choice?"
Chuck Lowell gave her an odd look but said nothing. They entered the apartment silently, Lowell walking easily, taking a chair in the tastefully arranged living room. Pale blue walls accented the delicate Oriental furniture. Lowell studied Layne gravely as she moved stiffly into the room after him.
"Sit down, Layne. We've got some very important items to discuss with you."
She swung her gaze angrily to meet his. "There's nothing you have to discuss with me, Chuck. I told you I never wanted to see anyone from the Company again." She shifted her look to Ryder. "And you—"