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A burst of automatic rifle fire in the grand ballroom shattered the band's bright dance music like a crow-bar smashing glass figurines from a shelf.
People screamed. Men in tails and white ties and women in elegant evening gowns threw themselves to the floor or clung to each other and trembled. Heads turned to stare at the half-dozen black-hooded men in loose green-and-black camouflage-pattern clothing who had burst in like wolves among pheasants.
And here I am practically naked in this ridiculous dress, Annja Creed thought, arched over backward with her hair almost brushing the elegant blue-and-gold carpet and only Garin Braden's strong right arm keeping her from falling.
SHE HAD THOUGHT the evening had started inauspiciously.
"How good of you to join me," Garin murmured when she presented herself at his table. Actually, she was presented by a bowing and scraping steward who acted as if he were giving a supermodel as a gift to a maharajah. Except a maharajah would probably not have received quite such deferential treatment.
Annja felt eyes sticking to her like clammy clumps of seaweed. She felt exposed in the clinging sheath of flame-colored silk he had picked out for her. Her long chestnut hair had been swirled atop her head by the cruise ship's expert staff of hairdressers. She suspected it made her look as if she had a soft-swirl ice-cream cone for a head. Around her slender neck she wore a delicate gold chain with an emerald pendant that Garin assured her would bring out the green highlights in her amber-green eyes. She knew it was exquisitely tasteful, just too small to be gaudy. But she could practically feel the weight of the money it had cost. It felt like an anchor.
"As if I had a choice," she said snidely as she allowed herself to be seated.
Garin laughed a rich baritone laugh. He was a charismatic devil, she had to give him that. And devilishly handsome. The catch was the consistent way devil kept creeping into her thoughts about him.
"There's always a choice, my dear," he said. "That is one thing life has taught me in no uncertain terms."
As always Annja felt conflicted about Garin, as she smiled and accepted the menu from the head-waiter. In his immaculate tuxedo with the star-sapphire stickpin, his black hair and goatee and dancing black-diamond eyes, Garin was admired by every woman in the room. He was charming, breathtakingly well-read and witty. He was vigorous, and as CEO and majority shareholder of the monster oil company EuroPetro he was, officially, richer than God. He was what most women in her position would consider one hell of a catch.
But hell was the operative word. That was the catch.
First of all, Annja had sworn off having affairs with men significantly older than she was. Not that he looked over the limit. Annja was in her mid-twenties. Garin appeared to be in his early thirties. But his real age belied that appearance by centuries.
And then, of course, there was the fact that, while he sometimes helped herindeed, she was paying off one of those debts at that momenthe also had the unfortunate habit of trying, at entirely unpredictable intervals, to kill her.
Around them people chatted and drank wine from immaculate crystal and ate five-star food. The cruise ship Ocean Venture was the most modern and luxurious ocean liner yet built.
"I can't believe I let you blackmail me to serve as arm candy for some business negotiation," she said.
"Blackmail is an ugly word," Garin murmured over the top of his menu. "Besides, I believe extortion is more correct under the circumstances."
She glared at him through slitted eyes.
"You really must try the Pinot Noir. A splendid vintage. In any event, if you wish to keep your scruples inviolate, you can always choose to believe that you are here of your own free will. It's true, of course."
He held the crystal goblet up, where the light from the chandelier struck bloody highlights through the wine. "See? As I've told you, my dear. There's always a choice."
He ordered for them. She didn't mind. It was the role he was playing. She was secure enough in her own independence not to feel threatenedleast of all by him.
She did have something he wanted. And she did keep it coyly and carefully hidden from public view. But it wasn't what most people would think.
It was a complicated dance they danced.
The food was excellent but Annja ate mechanically. Distracted by circumstances, she scarcely noticed what she consumed. Growing up in an orphanage in New Orleans' French Quarter, she had learned not to be picky about what she ate. As she spent more time on the Crescent City streets she had learned to appreciate good food. Subsequently, as a graduate student and then archaeologist on innumerable digs, and in the last few years trotting the globe as staff talking head and resident voice of reason on Chasing History's Monsters, she had learned to be quite adventurous about what she ate.
She was preoccupied, on the evening of the first full day at sea in the Caribbean.
"So why do you have me here?" she asked.
Garin smiled. "Reasons of my own."
The reason she was there was that he had called in a favor. A big one. A save-your-life favornot to mention the life of an innocent girl who'd depended on her.
Of course in the process of doing her that favor he had increased his wealth and influence almost exponentially. To his mind that failed to diminish the moral obligation one iota. What was worse was, he knew full well it didn't in her mind, either.
At some point in the future, when she wasn't still miffed about having her arm twisted, she would have to admit to herself there were worse fates than getting a free ocean cruise with a movie-star-handsome man who happened to be one of the world's richest. If she was a captive bird her cage was very well gilded by any standards.And her captivity, to call it that, would last no more than the four days of the cruise. But her fiercely independent nature bridled at it anyway.
"Come on," she said, spearing a piece of asparagus. "You owe me a better explanation than that."
He shrugged a broad, tuxedoed shoulder. "Perhaps you're right, Annja dear. I have no wish to torment you, after all. I am not a cruel man, you knowI worked that out of my system long ago."
She tried not to shudder, and tried harder not to envision just what he meant.
"Although I'm maintaining a low profile on this voyage," he said, "and the world at large still does not know my facean expensive status to maintain, but well worth the investmentI have a certain image to project to those with whom I'm carrying out a certain, most delicate negotiation."
His accent was vaguely and indeterminately European. She suspected it was an affectation. He no doubt could speak English better than she could. He'd had long enough to practice.
Nonetheless it did contribute to making him devastatingly sexy. Curse him anyway, she thought. This could turn out to be a very long voyage.
"Aren't you concerned about doing that under the noses of the Venezuelans?" she asked. The Ocean Venture had just steamed past Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles, and was scheduled to make landfall at Willemstad on the island of Curaçao the next morning to allow sightseeing and, of course, a spree of shopping. Venezuela's north coast lay less than a hundred miles to the south.
"How do you know those aren't the ones I'm negotiating with? Their oil holdings might prove of interest to EuroPetro. They certainly do to the Chinese."
She looked at him hard. "Am I just arm candy?" she asked. She shook her head in almost reflex negation. "You could have your pick of supermodels or Hollywood stars. If you crooked one finger, Nicole Kidman would kick Keith Urban back into rehab and fly at you like somebody's wristwatch to the inside of an MRI machine."
He laughed with a gusto that made heads turn. He paid no mind. He did few things by halves. "You've a gift for unexpected expression," he said. "Indeed, you've a positive gift for the unexpected. Is it not enough to know that I savor that? Because I do. Not to mention your beauty, which to my sorrow you constantly denigrate, and which possesses, to these jaded old eyes, a freshness few celebritiesespecially the flavors of the weekcan match."
Annja snorted in a most unladylike way. "Flattery," she sputtered.
He scowled and she recoiled slightly. She feared a lot of things and a lot of peopleshe had seen and experienced far too much not tobut she was intimidated by no one. He came close, though.
"Please, my dear," he said, softening a degree or so, "never say such a thing again. I never flatter." Then that grin, youthful and ageless, returned. "It implies I need to."
"Point taken." Finding her plate empty, she set down her fork, propped her elbows to either side, laced her fingers in their flame-colored long gloves and rested her chin on them. "Now, give. Why is it so important to have me along?"
"Perhaps I feel the need of additional security," he said, with a roguish twinkle in his eye. Well, even more than usual. "You make a most exemplary bodyguard, as well as ashall we saydisarm-ingly lovely one?"
She snorted again. "I don't want to set off that touchy Renaissance pride again," she saidshe was something of an authority on the Renaissance, it being her period of professional specialization as an archaeologist and historian. "But that seems rather hard to believe. You can afford to travel with a phalanx of top security men. And you doI've spotted a few of them on the boat. Immaculately dressed bald guys with wires in their ears."
"Ship," Garin corrected automatically. "Without meaning to denigrate your own falcon keenness of perception, don't you think potential evil-wishers can do at least as well spotting such men? Whereas you are an extraordinarily gifted amateur, some of them are lifelong professionals at the craft."
"Hel-lo," she said quietly, "you're immortal." He chuckled. "Being immortal doesn't necessarily mean I can't die," he said. "It just means I haven't."
He made an easy gesture with one hand. "I am extraordinarily tough to kill, I grant. But there are certain fates that might make me wish I could die. What if I was trapped at the bottom of the sea? So that I was perpetually drowning, but couldn't quite die? That would be like hell, would it not? So you see, I've plenty to fear. And of course, there is always my concern, now that you've claimed the sword, that my giftthe one that old rake Roux perversely prefers to consider a curseof immortality might evaporate."
Annja's blood ran cold. She could never forget that Garin wouldif he couldwrest the mystic sword of Joan of Arc away from her and break it to pieces again, as had the English soldiers who had captured St. Joan so many centuries before.
"Fear not, fair lady," Garin said, eyes dancing as he finished his wine. "So long as I continue to wake up each morning feeling hale and wholeyou can continue to wake up in the mornings. Shall we dance?"
"You're a bastard," she told him as he held her chair and helped her to her feet.
"Born that way," he acknowledged, "although I like to think I've earned the title on my own merits, over the years."
When the band, perched on its podium to one side of the great ballroom, struck up a tango,Annja thought for sure the evening couldn't possibly get any worse.
"I don't know how to tango," she snarled in Garin's ear.
"You'll be fine," he said. "You're a natural athlete. And a trained martial artist. Remember your taijiquan balance training."
"I don't do taijiquan in heels," she said. She knew now why they called them stilettosthey were like daggers stabbing her feet at every step. As much experience as she had wearing heelsvery littleshe walked in them with all the grace of a drunken baby duck. Whereas she danced in the high spike heels, she thought, like a water buffalo on skates. But a tango "I'll break an ankle!"
He laughed softly. "Follow my lead," he said. "It's worked splendidly for you so far."
She struggled to keep her irritation from showing on her face. Her gown was backless, and its bodice consisted of what she tried not to think of as bunny ears from just south of her navel upward, diminishing to bitty strings tied behind her neck. It was held in place either by some kind of surface tension, like a bubble, or through magic. And she didn't believe in magic.
She'd seen the tango sequences in True Lies. She secretly identified with Jamie Lee Curtis, a sort of standard-bearer for gawky women who could still be darned sexy. But once Garin started flinging her around she feared it would be mere seconds before her boobs came flying out of the dress like startled pigeons.
"Trust me," Garin said with a wicked grin.
"Yeah," she whispered furiously. "It's not like you've tried to kill me."
"Not recently," he said. "And most assuredly not here."
The preliminary violin strains died away. She felt his hand burning at the small of her bare back as if heated in a forge.
The tango began in earnest. He leaned forward. In response she leaned back, bent over his strong grasp. She felt her breasts ride up her rib cage and thought, This is not good.
That was when the terrorists barged in and fired a burst into the ceiling.