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The attack came in low, but he was prepared for it. He easily evaded what might have been a lethal blow with a feint to the right, and then, in a move as precise and disciplined as a classical dancer's, spun left and caught his opponent in midfollow-through, squarely behind the knees. The attacker, expecting a death-dealing blow to the throat or sternum, went down like a sack of rocks.
Down, but far from out.
Corbett Lazlo had little time to enjoy his moment of triumph. Before he could deal a follow-up blow, his assailant arched his body like a bow and was on his feet again, circling in a half crouch, his eyes hard as bullets, a slight smile playing over his lips. Corbett stood at ease, balanced on the balls of his feet, smiling back. It wasn't a nice smile.
The next strike came like lightning, and, even though he'd been prepared for it, delivered a glancing blow to Corbett's ribs. There would be a bruise tomorrow. He went down, exaggerating the effects of the injury, and when the follow-through came, he rolled and twisted his body like a fighting cat and came up on top, his opponent pinned with Corbett's knee against his throat. He was now at his mercy; only a slight increase in pressure and the larynx would be crushed. The match was his.
After the briefest of pauses, Corbett removed his knee from the other man's throat, rose and offered him a hand. When both men were on their feet, he bowed respectfully over his own clasped hands and uttered the traditional words of respect by the student for the master.
The other man returned the obeisance, then beamed upon Corbett a wide, delighted smile.
"Bested by my own move! Excellent. It is the moment every teachercherishes, when the student surpasses the master."
Corbett grinned back, an expression that transformed his austere features in a way that sent a jolt of desire through the woman watching from the screened-off doorway of the dojo.
To Lucia Cordez the jolt was a familiar sensation, as was the ache of longing that came with it. Corbett Lazlo had been the most important person in her life for nearly ten years, but in so many ways he was still a mystery to herlike smoke, she sometimes thought. Visible and real, but emotionally elusive, impossible to grasp.
Careful to keep her feelings well-hidden, she stepped around the carved wood screen and made her own obeisance to the master as he passed her on his way out.
"Ahthere you are." Corbett's features had settled once more into lines resembling those commonly found on ancient Roman coins. It was his customary expression when looking at herimperious, impersonal aloof. "You have news for me, I assume? Might I hope it's good news for a change? Tell me you've traced the source of the e-mails that have been threatening me with so many ingeniously hideous deaths." His tone was light, even a bit sardonic.
Lucia shuddered and said faintly, "Corbett, please." He paused in the act of mopping his face with a towel to look at her, eyebrows raised. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not the least bit amused by what's been happening. To my organization, to my agents. These breaches of security must be stopped. Will be stopped. So? What do you have for me? From the look on your face, I assume it is not good news."
She shook her head, biting her lower lip. "I'm sorry, Corbett. Our safe house in Hong Kong was hit last night."
Though she wouldn't have thought it possible, his features hardened even more. His ice-blue eyes looked as if they could etch glass. "Anyone killed?"
She let out a breath. "No. Both our agents managed to escape. But"
He moved suddenly, tossing the towel away with controlled violence. "Not now. I'll read your report later. Come" he motioned her out onto the mat with a hand gesture and a jerk of his head "go a round with me. I want to see if you're keeping up with your skills."
"Now? But" But it wasn't a suggestion. Even if it had been voiced as one, Lucia knew that from Corbett Lazlo a suggestion was as good as an order.
"Master Liu tells me you haven't been to your last two sessions."
"I might have had one or two other things on my mind," she said stiffly. "Tracing those e-mails"
"is high priority, but no excuse for letting yourself get soft." His eyes traveled over her body in dispassionate appraisal.
Soft. She felt the look as if he'd touched her.
She shook off the feeling, gathered her defenses. "Oh, all right. Although," she added in a grumbling undertone as she turned to go to the locker room to change her clothes, "I don't see why it matters, when you won't let me work in the field anyway."
Corbett's voice, sharp as the sound of icicles breaking, stopped her in her tracks.
"I doubt an assailant is going to have the courtesy to wait while you don your workout clothes. Comeas you are. Now."
She turned back slowly, chin cocked in futile defiance. "Not fair. You'll have the advantage." She nodded toward him. He stood relaxed and confident in the center of the mat, feet a little apart, baggy workout pants riding low on narrow hips, arms folded on his well-muscled chest. The way he looked at her, staring down the length of his aristocratic nose, he reminded her of Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, except for the thick silver-streaked mane of hair, the slick of sweat and the patches of red on his upper body where Master Liu's blows had hit home.
His lips curved in a small, arrogant smile. "Then you'll have to fight harder to overcome it, won't you." He made an autocratic cupped-hand gesture. "Come. I'm waiting."
Oh, how she wished her heart wouldn't race so. And pound, sending waves of heat into every part of her body. Thankful for the café-au-lait skin that at least partly camouflaged blushes, Lucia locked eyes with the man who was at once the nettle in her garden and the love of her life. Slowly, she reached for the top button of her jacket and simultaneously stepped out of her flat-heeled shoes. Corbett Lazlo's eyes followed her fingers downward, pausing when they did at the cleavage beneath her pale blue silk blouse. Did his eyes flicker slightly, or was it only wishful thinking? She freed the last button and let the jacket drop to the floor on top of her shoes.
As she stepped onto the mat, she felt the thump of her pulse in her throat, heard the rush of it inside her head. And beyond that the quiet voice of Master Liu: "You must train your mind, as well as your body, Lucia. Your body is only the weapon. Your mind must choose when and how to use it."
Quiet descended. Her focus narrowed. She saw only a pair of ice-blue eyes, heard only the whisper of her own life forces: blood, adrenaline and that intangible something Master Liu called chi. I am weightless. Invincible.
There. The slightest flicker in those diamond eyes. She feinted so that the blow only grazed her side, and her mind ordered her body not to feel it. She whirled and aimed a kick at Corbett's glistening chest, which he blocked easily. She heard a soft chuckle of approval as she twisted around, regained her balance, shifted on the balls of her feet to meet the counter attack.
The battle was short but hard fought. Neither asked for nor gave any quarter, and it ended, as it always did, with Lucia flat on her back, pinned to the mat by Corbett's hard hands and lithe body.
Eyes closed, she fought to block the bombardment of her senses: the crazy rhythm of out-of-sync heartbeats, the scent of clean man sweat, the feel of healthy male hide, warm and slick, salty-sweet to the tongue .
Of course, the last was only her imagination. She fought for the courage to say something flippant and flirty, knowing it was a lost cause. Breathing hard, she had to settle for, "Someday I'm going to beat you."
Corbett's deep voice vibrated from his chest to hers, hinting at a smile. "I'm looking forward to it."
Lucia opened one eye. "If I beat youwhen I beat youthen will you give me a field assignment?"
The thin, sensual lips, suspended enticingly out of reach above hers, twitched the smile into oblivion. "I have better uses for your talents. Speaking of which" he raised his head to glance at the large clock on the wall above the door "hadn't you better be off? I should imagine you'll need some time to dress for our date this evening."
Lucia looked into his eyes, and it was anger she did battle with nowanger mixed with helpless longing. She masked them both, she hoped, with a teasing smile and an airy, "Oha date? Is that what we're calling it?"
A small pleat of frown lines appeared between Corbett's black eyebrows. "You are accompanying me to a holiday ball at the British embassy, my dear, in full formal regalia. What else ought we to call it?"
Lucia snorted, deliberately inelegant. "That's only because there've been two attempts on your life in the past few months, and you're hoping the assassin will strike again so the army of agents you have planted all over the scene can nab him. You can hardly put one of your usual um debutantes in the middle of a take-down operation, now, can you?"
She enjoyed a nice sense of satisfaction when he looked taken aback and didn't reply. Knowing the victory would be only temporary, she seized the moment to twist out of his grasp and regain her feet, pleased with the toned muscles that made the motion as smooth as that of a trained gymnast. Call it a date, if you like, she thought as she scooped up her jacket and shoes. I prefer to call it my first field assignment.
She slipped around the screen, nearly colliding with the man just entering. Adam Sinclair stepped out of her path with exaggerated care, grinning broadly. "He's all yours," Lucia said tartly, and she sailed out the door with her nose pointlessly in the air.
Adam found Corbett sitting in the middle of the mat, gazing at the screen, knees drawn up, arms propped on top of them.
"She's right, you know," he said to his best friend and long-time partner as he offered him a hand up.
Corbett grunted and stooped to pick up a towel from the mat. "You heard that, did you? How long have you been lurking?"
"Oh, I came in as you two were in the heat of battlejust in time for the takedown, as a matter of fact. Wasn't about to intrude on that little scene. From where I was standing "
Corbett made a soft sound that in anyone less dignified would be called a snort. "For God's sake, Adam, I'm Lucia's employer, her teacher."
"She's hardly a schoolgirl. Face it, Laz. She's a grown woman, and a damn gorgeous one, at that. And any fool can see she's got it bad for you."
"She's got a bit of a crush, maybe, and if you think I'd be such a bloody jackass that I'd take advantage of that"
"God forbid!" Adam held up both hands in mock surrender.
Neither man spoke again as they walked together through the maze of gleaming corridors, not until they were inside the elevator, a private one to which only a very few people had access. Corbett pressed the pad of his thumb against a glass plate and gave the voice command for the ninth floor. As the elevator purred silently upward, he said without turning, "Everything's in place for tonight, I assume."
Adam allowed himself a wry smile. "Since you have to ask, I take it you're concerned."
That remark earned him a heated reply. "Concerned? Why on earth should I be? This idiot, whoever has been taking potshots at me, must be a bloody poor excuse for an assassin. If he wasn't, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you now, would I?"
Adam shrugged. "You never know, he might get lucky this go-'roundthird time's the charm, and all that." He paused, and when no reply seemed forthcoming, added, "In any case, it's not yourself you're worrying about. It's her." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Lucia."
This time he waited out the silence. The elevator gave a discreet ding and came to an almost imperceptible stop. In response to another voice command from Corbett, the door opened onto a sparsely but elegantly furnished foyer.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into taking her," Corbett said in a tight voice as he stepped from the carpeted elevator onto gleaming marble.
Adam kept silent while the other man went through the biometric security measures required for entry into his private quarters. "You could always go by your lonesome," he said as he followed Corbett into the immaculate and tastefully appointed apartment. And he was struck by the silence. He wondered, not for the first time, whether the man ever felt lonesome.
Adam knew he was one of only a very few human beings in the world Corbett Lazlo trusted enough to let his hair down with, but most of the time even he had no clue what his best friend might be thinkingor feeling. He knew the emotions were there, but they were like rustlings in the shadows, unseeable and unknowable.
Corbett made an unintelligible, though vehement, remark, which Adam could only assume was in Hungarian, Corbett's parents' native tongue. He tossed the towel onto a chair as he made his way to the kitchen. Adam, close behind, heard him mutter, "You're forgetting the reason I'm attending this bloody party in the first placethe only reason."
"Ah, yesMum and Dad. Right. The M.P. and his lovely lady will be attending, I take it? What about Edward? Too busy with Josh and Prudence's wedding to put in an appearance, I suppose."
Corbett took two bottles of Perrier out of the stainless steel refrigerator and handed one to Adam. He cracked the other open, drank deeply, then smiled and shook his head. Adam knew he still found it hard to believe his favorite nephewand one of his best agents was about to marry the daughter of the British prime minister. "Oh, he'll be there. My brother never misses an opportunity to cozy up to the haut monde. My parents naturally will be expecting me to bring a date. And I mean, a believable date. If I don't, for the next six months I can look forward to a parade of nubile British damsels toddling in and out of my life, each one more lovely and mind-numbingly youthful than the last. The strain of keeping" he swept the hand holding the Perrier in a vague arc "all this " He let it trail off.
"Your secret life," Adam finished for him, nodding as he drank. On a different sort of day he knew it would have been dark-brewed German beer, but not today. Not tonight. "Yeah, I can see how that could complicate one's social life a bit. Doesn't have that effect on mine, but then, I've never minded the occasional white lie. One thing you don't need to worry about with Lucia, though, isn't it?"
After a long pause with no reply, Adam leaned one shoulder against the doorframe. "You underestimate her, you know. You trained her yourselfyou should know what she's capable of. She's as good as any agent we've got."
Corbett drank the rest of the water in his bottle before he replied. He waved the empty bottle again in a rough half circle, frowning. "Field ops isn't what I recruited her for. You know that. She has one of the most brilliant minds I've ever run across. When it comes to computersGod, I can't begin to understand the things she knows. The things she can do. It would be crazy to risk all that in the field. Insane."