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Sydney Gordon stared at the engagement ring glittering in the candlelight and wondered what to say. What to do.
What to feel.
One thing she shouldn't be feeling was panic. No woman in her right mind would have this lung-squeezing, temple-throbbing reaction to a proposal from sweet, stable, handsome Henry Barlow, an attorney with a beautiful new home, a solid investment portfolio and an excellent chance of earning a partnership with a law firm in Truckee, California, before the end of the year.
Which meant she must be going crazy.
Even now the proof was bubbling through her, right along with the champagne in her nearly empty flutethose same fizzy, self-destructive impulses that had driven her from one disaster to another after her father had died four years ago and left her an unexpected insurance benefit and the means to go down in well-financed flames. Dropping out of her postgrad work in Education to dabble in Theater Arts. Leaping into an affair with an actor and dashing off to a regional Shakespeare festival. Playing an infamous seductress onstage and getting her heart stomped to pieces behind the scenes. Adding several more strands of gray to her mother's carefully coiffed hair. Getting duped, dumped, ditched, disillusioned and nearly disowned, though not necessarily in that order.
"Do you like it?" asked Henry.
"The ring?" Sydney gulped the rest of her champagne and gave him a brilliant smile. "It's beautiful. Absolutely perfect."
Henry would never disillusion her. Just look how carefully he'd staged this moment: the sunset view of Lake Tahoe from the restaurant window, the champagne tilting in an ice bucket, the jazz trio playing his sentimentalrequest.
And that fabulous ringthe one-carat emerald-cut diamond with four baguettes set in a platinum band. She knew all this because Henry had just finished explaining it in great detail, along with a brief lecture on the importance of cut, clarity and something else she'd forgotten already.
She bit her lip, trying to remember. No good. Whatever he'd said, it was gone now.
"I'd like you to wear it while you're gone," he said.
"Gone?" She blinked. "Ohthe tour. Um "
He reached for her hand, his grip as warm and steady as always. She hoped hers wouldn't seem clammy and limp by comparison.
"I'm going to miss you," he said.
"I'll only be in Europe a couple of weeks."
Two weeksnot much time to erase any lingering unease over those minor glitches during her substitute teaching stint and replace them with the image of an organized, responsible educator. Two weeks to chaperone a group of high school students on an early-summer tour through England and France, to make an excellent impression on the North Sierra school administration and secure that full-time position in the English department. To make a success of herself, at last.
Henry gave her fingers a gentle squeeze, and she realized she'd been drifting. She smiled again and reminded herself to be grateful she'd found a man like this, a man who cared enough to arrange every detail of this romantic setting. A man who would help her smother her impulses to be well, impulsive.
There certainly was nothing impulsive about Henry. Witness his smooth wind-up: a minor adjustment of his stylish silk tie, that perfectly confident smile as he refilled her flute with champagne. Henry was so so
Not that perfection was a problem. Her mother, for instance, approved of Henry and reminded Sydney of that fact repeatedlywhen she wasn't reminding Sydney of her rapidly approaching thirtieth birthday. Lately her mother was fixated on the concept that Sydney's birthday, Henry's suitability and the state of matrimony were in some sort of cosmic alignment.
Poor Meredith Gordon. Sydney's mother had spent most of her adult life bandaging the family financial situation after each of her husband's inventions and subsequent development schemes had drained away most of their savings. She probably viewed Henry as the perfect match for a daughter who seemed to display a tendency to follow her father's eccentric, erratic example.
No, the problem wasn't Henry's perfection. The problem was that Henry was well, that he the thing was, Henry was so
That was it: he was persistent. And lately his persistence about setting a wedding date had been scraping at her ambivalence like fingernails on a chalkboard. She glanced down at the fingers of the hand Henry wasn't holding as they drummed on the linen, and she curled them into a silent, polite fist.
However, Henry's persistence could be considered an admirable quality, even one point in his favor. She snatched up her wine to take another sip, relieved to have found something to stick in Henry's plus column.
Point two: timing. Henry's was excellent. Look how cleverly he'd timed this proposal for the evening before she left on the tour. And it was sweet of him to give her this ring to wear so she'd think of him while she was thousands of miles away.
Now, if she could just round up a few more items for her Reasons To Marry Henry list before he finished his lectureer, his proposal
The proposal. Oh, dear. Drifting again. She'd almost missed his pitch: perfectly beautiful words spilling from perfectly bowed lips above a perfectly square jaw. She smiled so hard, appreciating him so much that one of her eyes began to twitch.
They'd discussed marriage before, but never with anything approaching this degree of formality. Of finality.
And it was inevitable that she'd say yes, of course. Marrying Henry made perfect sense. They complemented each other surprisingly wella perfect match, in so many ways.
The spasm in her eyelid intensified, and she hoped Henry couldn't see it and guess at the panic-driven insanity bubbling up inside her.
No, no, she told herself as she struggled with her ambivalence. No, no, she thought as she held her breath to strangle a particularly sneaky and senseless impulse, right up until the moment she opened her mouth and, riding a gust of pent-up air, out popped the one word neither of them wanted to hear: "No."
"No! I mean not no." Sydney jabbed a finger against the corner of her eye and tried to shovel her way out of the muck of her latest impulse. "What I mean is "
Henry gave her hand a comforting pat before withdrawing his. "That's okay. You don't have to tell me what you mean."
"We both know what we want," he said. "That's all that matters."
"You're right." She sighed with relief. Henry was nearly always right.
He snapped the lid over the ring and slid the little velvet box back into his pocket. "This will be here waiting for you when you get back," he said with a reassuring smile. "Just like me."
Sydney drained her second glass of champagne, coating one layer of fizziness with another.
At least the twitch was gone.
NICK MARTELLI leaned one shoulder against a limestone building in the Bloomsbury area of London and peered around the corner. A block away, an airport shuttle bus lumbered and shuddered to a stop in front of his hotel.
Using his crackerjack skills of observation, ace investigator Jack Brogan committed to memory every detail of the scene with one brief glance: the limousine gliding to a stop at the casino's entrance, the telltale bulge of a semiautomatic pistol in the doorman's uniform jacket, the silhouette of a gun barrel emerging from the inky gash of the nearby alleyway
Nick narrowed his eyes as he considered which fictional character might be aiming the second gun and winced. He lifted a hand and gently tested a bruised and puffy cheekbone, a memento of his firstand laststakeout with a private detective. There were safer, easier methods of researching story ideas for his novel-in-progress.
Methods like this trip to Europe.
He glanced at his watch. It was later than he'd realizedhis brother had probably come in on an earlier shuttle and checked into the hotel. Joe was escorting half a dozen Philly high school students on a Tour of Two Cities, and Nick had offered to come along for the ride. Hanging out with Joe was one of his favorite things to do, and they hadn't shared an adventure for years.
He slipped his hands into his pockets and headed toward the hotel entrance, stopping at the corner to wait for a chance to cross. The shuttle driver stepped down, opened a compartment and unloaded luggage for the teenage tourists and tired-looking adults who streamed from the bus to collect it.
A few minutes later, one oversize case remained unclaimed on the sidewalk. The driver frowned at it, and then pulled a cigarette from his pocket and stepped behind the bus for a smoke.
The traffic signal changed, and the whooshing packs of taxis paused before him, but Nick stood staring at that case.
Jack recognized the driver who'd exited the midnight-black vehicle: a double agent he'd shadowed in Trieste, a man who'd snapped the neck of a friend at the order of a traitor, a man who would undoubtedly kill again without remorse. No passerby would have noticed the subtle signal that passed between the two men near the entrance, but Jack possessed an uncanny ability to detect the slightest subterfuge.
The agent opened the limo's rear door to extend a white-gloved hand to the vehicle's lone occupant. One long, slim, shapely leg ending in a stiletto heel slowly lowered to the curb, a siren-red sequined dress sliding tantalizingly up a shapely thigh. The mouthwatering thigh was attached to a drop-dead gorgeous blonde
Make that a drop-dead gorgeous redhead.
No, a blonde.
Nick puckered his split lip and produced another wince instead of the soft whistle he'd intended. He hoped the drop-dead gorgeous strawberry-blonde who'd stumbled off the shuttle was a member of the Two Cities tour group.
She paused to shift the strap of a bulky purse higher on her shoulder and then whacked it against the side of the bus as she turned to retrieve a carry-on case on the step behind her. The bag caught on the shuttle's door, and she gave it a sharp tug. No usestuck tight.
A frazzled female in need of assistance. An attractive female with ringless fingers. An opportunity for a casual introduction, which might be followed by any number of casual developments.
The traffic rolled to an idling halt again, and Nick's lips twitched in a half grin as he stepped from the curb. His own powers of observation weren't too shabby, either.
SYDNEY SUCKED in a deep breath and tried again to pry her carry-on from the shuttle door. Her feet ached and her stomach growled, the hair that had sprung from its clip was either tickling the sides of her face or plastered to her forehead, and she suspected her deodorant had quit on the job somewhere over the Atlantic. Not that she wanted to check too closely.
Someone tapped her back, and she glanced over her shoulder at a shocking mess of a face, battered features twisting in some distorted, devilish version of a grin. Whatever the terrifying stranger said to her was drowned out in the blare of a passing car's horn, and all she could manage was a tiny squeak and a confused nod as she scrambled to process what was happening.
He reached past her to grip her case and unhook it from the door. She grabbed for the dangling zipper tag and yanked hard, trying to snatch it away. A tactical error. Toiletries and lingerie geysered up and rained down over the pavement of Tottenham Court Road.
He loomed over her intimate apparel, his shaggy black hair waving around his five-o'clockno, forty-eight-hour shadow, the startling white of his crooked grin slashing through a deeply tanned complexion, and his dark eyes glinting with whatever muggers' eyes glinted with.
He certainly was a good-looking criminal specimen. But he was also eyeing the lacy pink bra draped over the curb. That made him either greedy, or a pervert, or both.
A greedy pervert with a slightly swollen purpled eye and a nasty gash in his upper lip. Someone had recently given him some trouble. And at that moment she was jet-lagged and caffeine-charged enough to want to give him some more, especially when he reached for her underwire with the front clasp.
"No!" she shouted as she leaped into action to rescue her bra. The strap on her shoulder slipped, and her hefty tote swung in an accidental but impressive arc. A thick London street guide, electronic organizer, tour paperwork, collapsible umbrella, camera, bottled water and the latest Dick Francis mystery novel connected with his jaw. It all made a satisfying thwack. He grunted and staggered, and then slipped on her black half slip and went down, hard.
"Help! Thief!" she yelled.
"Hey! Ms. Gordon!" Two of her students raced down the steps at the entrance of the Edwardian Hotel. The teenage boys skidded to a stop and stared, wide-eyed, at the stranger. "This is so, like, whoa, you know?" said Zack.
Sydney knelt to cram her bra back into the wreck of her carry-on. "I hit him with my purse."
"Cool!" said Matt. He pulled a video camera from his fanny pack. "Hit him again."