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The party was lousy, Josh thought as he made his way to the door. He would have thanked his hostess, except that he had no idea who she was. He was in Los Angeles on a whistle-stop tour of some of his businesses—a hotel here—and had been invited to this party by a man interested in buying into the hotel business. Josh had been bored, and the party had sounded better than any other activity he could think of.
It hadn’t been, however. And his distaste had increased an hour before when Leon Travers had arrived to be welcomed servilely by the evening’s host; Josh could think of numerous ways for a businessman to advance himself, but selling his soul to the devil was not on the list. His host, it seemed, thought otherwise; he obviously believed the sun rose behind Leon Travers’s silver head.
Josh could have disabused him of that idea, but knew only too well that people had to make their own mistakes.
Now, as he made his way through the crush of glittering people, he felt definitely jaded. He was supposed to leave Los Angeles tomorrow, and he found no regret in putting this city behind him. But no longing for the next city, either, and no longing for home.
Home. He owned four homes. A penthouse condo in New York, a ranch in Montana, a vacation lodge in the Catskills, and a lonely cliff-hugging aerie on the coast of Oregon. None of them held any appeal for him at the moment.
He found his coat with some difficulty, then squeezed his way out the front door of the hotel suite. For a moment, he stood in the hallway, allowing his ears to adjust to the relative silence. Then he strode down the hall. Occupied with dark thoughts, he only dimly heard the muffled bell of the elevator around the corner. Walking briskly to catch it, he was abruptly hit by something warm and soft, yet with a force that knocked him backward to measure his length on the carpeted floor. The fall jarred him, but it was when he looked up at his attacker that he lost his breath.
In a flashing instant, what he saw sparked a double reaction within him. His body throbbed strongly, searingly, in an instantaneous arousal; never in his life had he felt such desire so quickly or powerfully. And deep inside him, another response to what he saw caused his heart to turn over with an almost-painful lurch. He thought of all those years of caution and avoidance guided by his conviction that he had only to keep his hand firmly on the wheel of his ship and his eyes away from brunettes to control his destiny.
While his heart and body grappled with powerful new feelings, Josh could regard the situation only with ironic amusement. How else could a reasonably intelligent man react to the knowledge that the fates were probably laughing themselves silly?
“Oh, hell,” he muttered despairingly. “I knew it. I knew you were out there somewhere. And I was so careful.”
She wasn’t listening.
“Ye gods and little fishes! The saleslady said this dress would knock men flat, but I don’t think this is what she meant. Damn, and I’ll bet you broke something too. Listen, I don’t believe it’s ethical to sue one’s fellow humans. And in this case it’d hardly be fair because we were both moving. I mean, it isn’t as if my car hit yours when it was parked. Right?”
He raised himself on his elbows, crossed his ankles, and stared up at her in utter fascination.
She was tall, he judged, and blessed by the Creator with a body that could—and most likely did—stop traffic; it was certainly stopping his heart about every third beat. She seemed in imminent danger of escaping from the blue silk dress she wore, yet there wasn’t an ounce of excess flesh on her slender frame. Full breasts, narrow waist, curved hips.
Unconsciously, he swallowed hard.
Her long legs were not only eye-catching, he decided wistfully, but painted vivid images in his mind of strong silken thighs wrapped around him. . . . He swallowed hard again and gazed at the crowning glory that had so swiftly and completely blasted his so-called control into pieces. Impossibly blue-black hair swung free and beautiful to the small of her back.
Her face was not beautiful, but having seen it once, no one would ever forget it. She was striking. Elegant. Wide, merry violet eyes, an aristocratic nose, and lips curved with laughter were the features that would always be remembered.
And Josh, never one to waste time, sighed and abandoned himself to fate. “I’m Joshua Long,” he said. “Marry me.”
“Oh, you hit your head when you fell, didn’t you? Here, let me help you up.”
He accepted the offered hand and climbed to his feet, never taking his eyes from her elegant face. “What’s your name?” he asked, holding on to her slender hand and amazingly conscious of the contact.
“Raven,” she answered, her voice soothing. “Horrible, isn’t it? Were you leaving? I’ll get you a cab; you shouldn’t drive in your condition.”
“Raven.” He was delighted. Her eyes were incredible. He hadn’t seen eyes like that since—he’d never seen eyes like that. “Marry me, Raven.”
“Oh, damn, I know I’m going to get sued,” she moaned, allowing him to continue to hold her hand as she led him gently toward the elevator. “Maybe I should take you to the emergency room.”
“I didn’t hit my head,” he murmured as they stood in the elevator. Then, suddenly panicked, he lifted the hand he was holding—her left—and stared at it. Panic faded, along with the dizzying rush of peculiar savagery he’d abruptly felt. “You aren’t married? Engaged?”
“What’s taking this damn thing so long?” she asked, stabbing at a button with one finger. “No, I’m not married. Or engaged. D’you have a doctor? Should I take you to your doctor?”
“Have a drink with me instead,” he countered. Then, reflecting, he added, “Or I’ll sue.”
“There’s a tavern around the corner,” she said hastily. “We can walk. Can you make it that far?”
“Just don’t let go of me,” he answered deviously.
“No, I won’t do that,” she promised, leading him from the elevator and across the lobby.
It was a good thing she didn’t let go of him, Josh thought as they made their way along the lighted sidewalk. He paid no attention at all to where they were going, but instead gazed at her profile. He no longer felt jaded. In fact, he’d never in his life felt so captivated. Everything about her, every quality, every word, charmed him completely.
And since he was a grown man with at least some control over the urges of his body, he managed not to lunge at her. Barely. But the instant throbbing he’d felt upon looking up at her had not lessened; he could feel that slow, constant pulse of desire more vividly than ever before in his life. His body felt heated, abnormally sensitive; all his consciousness seemed focused on her with an intensity that left room for nothing else.
She led him through the door of a small tavern and into the dark, smoky interior, waving her free hand at the huge, burly bartender. “Hi, Jake.”
“Raven. What can I get for you, kid?”
She glanced at Josh, then looked back at Jake. “Brandy. Two of them. We’ll be in a booth.”
“Right,” he called back.
Raven led Josh to a booth, waving cheerfully at a few of the other patrons in the crowded bar, but being careful never to lose her grip on his hand. When they were seated, she attempted gently to reclaim her hand. Josh held on.
“I think you’re going to need both hands for your glass,” she told him patiently.
“I didn’t hit my head, you know,” he remarked idly, staring at her. He couldn’t stop staring at her. “Raven what?”
“Isn’t that an insane name? I told Pop when I was ten that he shouldn’t have let Mother get away with it. But he said he’d felt guilty because he had all the fun and she did all the work. So he feels guilty and I get stuck with the name of a bird and a long, rambling poem.”
“?‘Once upon a midnight dreary,’?” Josh remembered.
She shuddered. “Right. D’you know how many times I’ve heard that poem in my life? Every guy I ever went out with memorized the damn thing. You obviously know it. Don’t recite it. Please.”
“All right,” he said equably; he wanted to please her and would have quite literally done anything she asked. “Are you hungry? Do they serve food here?”
“I’ve eaten, thanks. But—” She looked up as Jake materialized at their booth holding brandy. “Jake, could we have some chips or something?”
“Sure. Another stray, Raven?”
Josh looked at him. “She’s going to marry me.”
The bartender looked at Raven. “Is he serious?”
“I knocked him down,” she explained. “I think he hit his head.”
“I’ll get the chips,” Jake said, and vanished.
“Drink your brandy,” Raven told Josh firmly. “You need it.”
After a swallow of the fiery liquid, Josh found his thoughts focusing on the situation. “Why won’t you marry me?” he demanded fiercely. “I’m perfectly all right, and I have pots of money.”
“Just like a leprechaun,” she murmured.
“That’s pots of gold,” he corrected her. “I have cold hard cash. And businesses and things. Hotels. Property. Marry me.”
Clearly, she was intrigued; he could tell from the way she looked at him.
“Listen, do the authorities know you’ve escaped? I mean, normally I’d be too polite to ask, but if there’s a reward or something, I wouldn’t mind collecting it.”
“I’m not crazy,” he assured her, but silently amended the thought. He didn’t think he was crazy.
“Of course not,” she agreed sympathetically. She looked at his glass. “Maybe brandy wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Marry me,” he said.
She sighed and spoke in the soothing tone of one humoring a rather sweet lunatic. “Gee, I’d really like to, but I have to get my hair done.”
“Waste of money,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She was polite, clearly not flattered. “Should I call someone for you? Someone who might worry that you’re loo—uh, missing?”
“Don’t you believe in love at first sight?” he asked anxiously.
She gazed at him, the merry violet eyes rueful. “It sounds just lovely,” she said. “So do fairy tales. Look, mister—”
“Josh, if you’re looking for a teeth-rattling night, cruise the bars. I’m not interested in a fling.”
“I’m not interested in a fling either,” he told her patiently. “I want to marry you.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I,” he said, “believe in love at first sight. Now.” He studied her elegant, polite face, then sighed as Jake returned with a basket of chips. “She won’t marry me,” he told the other man.
Jake looked fiercely at Raven. “Why won’t you marry him, Raven?”
“Go back to the bar, Jake.”
He grinned and winked at her. “Just thought I’d ask.” Then he turned and walked back toward the crowded bar.
Josh yelled after him to bring two more brandies. He had a vague idea of getting her drunk just so he could propose, she could—would? maybe—say yes, and he could hold her to her word tomorrow.
After finishing her third brandy, matching him easily, she leaned toward him conspiratorially over the hand he was still holding, and said, “It won’t work, you know.”
“What?” he asked.
“Trying to get me drunk. I could put you under this table. I could put you, everyone in this bar, and the Russian Army under the table. Drinking straight vodka. On an empty stomach.”
Josh possessed a hard head and a cast-iron stomach. Most of the time, anyway. He wasn’t so sure about now. However . . . He had never in his life been falling-down drunk. So he was confident. Overly confident.
He yelled for more brandy.