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Madeline Mercy Delacourte quite liked looking at near-naked men. She had her favourites, of course. Smooth-skinned willowy young men were easy on the eye and heaven knew Singapore was full of them. Well-preserved older men could also command attention on occasion, although general consensus had it that they were far easier to admire when they kept their clothes on.
No, for Madeline's moneyand she had plenty of moneyby far the most appealing type of near-naked man was the hardened warrior, complete with battle scars and formidable air. The ones who wore the githe loose martial arts robesas if they'd been born to them. The ones who didn't bother with shirts in Singapore's sultry heat. Instead they let their glistening skin caress the air and please the eyes of those who knew where to find them.
Right now, as Madeline's eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the shabby little dojo in the heart of Singapore's Chinatown, she had the definite pleasure of happening upon not one shirtless warrior, but two.
The first was Jacob Bennett, a raven-haired steely-eyed Australian who'd found his way to Singapore around the same time Madeline hadover ten years ago now and never left. They understood each other, she and Jacob. Survivors both, no questions asked. This was his dojo Madeline was standing in and if he had a softer side to his formidable façade, well, she'd never seen it. He'd scowl when he saw her. He always did. That was what came of asking a kind man one too many favours.
Madeline had never seen Jacob's opponent before. Not in the dojo, not in Singapore. She'd have remembered if she had. He had an inch or so on Jacob when it came to height, but when it came to muscle mass and the way it wrapped around bone the men looked remarkably similar. Same cropped black hair and skin tone too. A brother perhaps, or a cousin, and certainly no stranger to the martial arts. He had Jacob's measure, and that was saying something.
They had the long sticks out, the Shaolin staffs, and they fought with the grace of dancers and the ferocity of Singapore's famous Merlion. Each man appeared intent on annihilating the other but where Jacob was ice, his opponent was fire. Less contained, thoroughly unpredictable. Reckless, even.
Reckless warriors were her favourite kind.
Jacob saw her and scowled. Madeline blew him a kiss.
'Is that him?' said the ragamuffin boy standing beside her.
'He doesn't look pleased to see us.'
'He'll get over it.'
Jacob's opponent must have heard them speaking or followed Jacob's gaze, for he looked their way as well.
Bad move. Moments later the unknown warrior landed flat on his back, swept off his feet by Jacob's long stick. Madeline winced.
Jacob looked their way again and he really should have known better because the moment he took his eyes off his fallen opponent the warrior struck and Jacob too went down. A heartbeat later, each man had his hand wrapped around the other's throat.
'He looks busy,' said the boy. 'We should come back later.'
'What? And miss all this?' Besides, she figured the warriors were just about done. With a reassuring smile in the boy's direction, Madeline sauntered over to the two men, the heel of her designer shoes satisfyingly staccato against the scarred wooden floor. She crouched beside the warring pair and poked the mystery man's sweat-slicked shoulder with her fingernail, barely resisting the urge to trace a more lingering path. 'Excuse me. So sorry to interrupt. Hello, Jacob. Got a minute?'
The mystery man had expressive amber-coloured eyes; the predominant expression in them at the moment being one of incredulity. But his grip on Jacob's throat loosened and Jacob stopped sparring altogether and raised his hands in the universal gesture of surrender. Madeline smiled and offered the mystery warrior her hand, primarily to ensure he removed it from around Jacob's neck. 'Madeline Delacourte. Most people call me Maddy.'
'Often they just call her mad,' rasped Jacob.
'Flatterer,' said Madeline.
The warrior's eyes lightened and he smiled a dangerously charming smile as he rolled away from Jacob and offered up a warm and calloused hand. 'Luke Bennett.'
'A brother?' And at his nod, 'Thought so. You fight very well. Tell me, Luke Bennett ' she said as she withdrew her hand and rose from her crouching position. Both men followed suit and got to their feet, seemingly none the worse for the bruising. 'Which one of you wins these fearsome little encounters? Or do you both pass out at around the same time?'
'It varies,' said Luke. 'I can hold my breath for longer.'
'Handy,' murmured Madeline. He really did have the most amazing coloured eyes. 'And Jacob's advantage?'
'Stubbornness.' Those golden eyes took on a speculative light. 'But then, you probably already know that about him.'
Madeline smiled non-committally. She was, after all, about to ask the stubborn man a favour. She dragged her gaze away from Luke Bennett and focused on Jacob instead. Jacob's eyes were a bright piercing blue. It was like trading old gold for a slice of midday sky. 'I hear you're looking for a new apprentice.'
'You heard wrong,' said Jacob, his gaze sliding to Po, still hovering just inside the doorway. 'Besides, the last one you found for me stole everything that wasn't nailed down and most of the things that were.'
'He gave it all back, didn't he?' countered Madeline. 'And he became your best student and won an Asian championship or ten for you.'
'Yeah,' said Jacob dryly. 'Right before the Hong Kong film industry came knocking and filled his brain with bright lights and tinsel.'
'See? I knew you needed a new apprentice.' Madeline bestowed upon him her most winning smile. 'Hey, Po. Come and meet the sensei.'
Po headed towards them warily. Small boy, somewhere in his early teens as far as Madeline could tell. That particular piece of information had never come her way and neither had Po's surname. For Po there was the street and his ability to survive on it, nothing more. It had taken Madeline six months to get the boy to even consider that there might be other lifestyle options open to him.
Jacob sighed heavily. 'Why me?' he muttered.
'Because you're a good man?' offered Madeline helpfully. 'Because if I put this one with anyone else he really will rob them blind?'
'You could always put him back where you found him,' offered Jacob. 'You can't save them all, Maddy.'
'I know.' But she could save some. And Jacob had been known to help her. 'Po's a pickpocket who works Orchid Road Central. He has a talent for annoying dangerous people. He needs to move on.'
'Why am I not surprised?' Jacob gave Po his full attention. 'Do you even want to learn karate, kid?'
Po shrugged. 'I want to live.'
'Can't argue with that,' said Luke Bennett cheerfully.
'You take him, then,' said his brother.
'Sorry.' Luke's lips curved unrepentantly and Madeline suddenly found herself ensnared by a man in a way she hadn't been for years. Rapid heartbeat, a curling sensation deep in her belly, an irresistible urge to bask in the warmth of that lazy smilethe whole catastrophe. 'You're the upright citizen. I'm the homeless one with the specialised skill set. I'd only corrupt him.'
'What exactly is it that you do?' Madeline asked.
'Mostly I examine sea mines and weaponry for the military.'
'Mostly when they're about to go boom,' added Jacob dryly. 'Life expectancy is a problem.'
'What's life without risk?' countered Luke with a glance in her direction. Amber eyes could be warm, she discovered. As warm as a lazy smile.
'I'm guessing that particular line of reasoning works for you a lot,' she said. 'I'm guessing you're inclined to categorise women into two main groupings. Those who run screaming when you smile at them and say that. And those who don't.'
Jacob guffawed, never mind that it landed him on the receiving end of a flat golden glare.
'This way, kid,' he said, still grinning as he turned and strode towards the far door. 'I offer a room with a bed and a pillow, one set of linen, provisions for three square meals a day, and below minimum wage. In return I require loyalty, obedience, honour and dedication from you. If you're not interested, feel free to go out the way you came in.'
Jacob didn't turn to see whether Po had chosen to follow him. Jacob knew street kids. He knew the boy would follow, if only to see if there was anything worth stealing later.
Luke Bennett watched Po and his brother walk away, his expression a mixture of exasperation and reluctant pride. Madeline watched Luke. It wasn't a hardship.
'You do this to him often?' he asked, turning and catching her examining him. She didn't blush.
'Do they stay?'
'Are you in love with my brother?'
'That's a very personal question.' Not one she felt inclined to answer. 'Why do you ask?'
'Jake doesn't let down his guard very often. He let it down for you.'
Madeline shook her head. 'The outer perimeter, maybe.' But Jacob Bennett's heart was locked down tight and Madeline knew with blind feminine instinct that she didn't hold the key to it. 'What would you do if I said yes?'
'Lament,' he said. And on a more serious note, 'I don't poach.'
'How very honourable of you. But then, I'd expect nothing less from a brother of Jacob's. Tell him I had to be going.'
'And my question?'
Madeline considered him thoughtfully, knowing the question for what it was. A declaration of interest, an invitation to play. She'd taken only one lover in the six years since William's death. She'd still been grieving, and in retrospect she'd wanted the comfort that came of intimacy far more than she'd wanted her lover's love. He'd wanted a woman he could honour and respect. It hadn't turned out well.
What would Luke Bennett look for in a lover? she wondered. Passion? Passion hadn't touched her in such a long time. Laughter? She could do somewhat better there. Honesty? She could give him that too, for what it was worth.
And then there was honour, and that she could not do.
'How long are you staying in Singapore, Luke Bennett?'
'Long enough,' he countered. 'A person can pack a lot into a week if they try.' He shot her a crooked smile. 'You still haven't answered my question.'
'Only because I don't want to. Consider it one of life's little mysteries.'
'I hate mysteries,' he said. 'Fair warning.'
Hard not to smile a little at that. 'Enjoy your stay in Singapore, Luke Bennett. There's plenty to entertain.'
'There certainly is,' he murmured.
'There's plenty of things you'd do well to avoid too.' Fair warning. Smiling wryly, Madeline turned on her heel and let herself out.
'So what's the deal with you and Madeline Delacourte?' Luke asked his brother as they resumed their battle with the Shaolin sticks some fifteen minutes later, this time with a watchful pickpocket for an audience. 'You into her?'
'Why the interest?' asked Jake and followed through with a glancing blow to Luke's side.
Luke stopped talking and started concentrating on his defence. But the image of Madeline Delacourteshe of the knowing smile, honey-blonde hair, and long shapely legsjust wouldn't go away. 'Why do you think? I'm not asking for a kidney here. All I want is a straight yes or no answer from one of you.' He really didn't think it was too much to ask.
'No,' said Jake, blocking Luke's next blow. 'She's just a friend.'
'Is she married?'
'Not any more.'
'No.' Jake's stick caught him on the knuckles and damn near took his fingers off. 'Madeline's choosy. She can afford to be.'
'Very. Her late husband's family were British spice traders, back when the East opened up. They made a fortune and sank most of it into real estate. Maddy's husband owned a string of shopping centres and hotels along Orchid Road and half the residential skyscrapers in south-east Singapore. Maddy owns them now.'
'Her husband died young?'
'Her husband died a happy old man.'
Luke winced. He didn't like the picture Jake was painting. 'Any kids?'
'No.' More blows reached him. 'You're not concentrating,' said Jake.
'I'm still coming to grips with the trophy-wife thing.'
'Maybe she loved him.'
'How much older was he?'
'Thirty years,' said Jake. 'Give or take.'
Luke scowled and came in hard, peppering his brother with blows, his growing disillusion with Madeline Delacourte giving him a ferocious edge. The fighting ceased being a sparring exercise and became instead an outlet for emotion of the explosive kind as he went for Jake's hands, the better to rid them of the long stick. Not a berserker, not quite, but a creature of instinct nonetheless and one Jake would have no peaceable defence against.
Cursing his lack of control, Luke grounded his staff and stepped back abruptly, breathing hard as he bowed to formalise the end of the session. 'Sorry,' he muttered, and headed for the stack of towels piled on a low wooden bench over by the wall.
Jake had walked towards Po and was speaking to him in the calm quiet way that Luke had always loved about his brother. The kid nodded once, warily, and hightailed it out of the dojo door. Jake turned his attention back to Luke after that. Luke looked away and towelled his face, not wanting to meet Jake's condemning gaze, or, worse, his understanding one. Once a younger brother, always a younger brother, though he was not the youngest of the four boys in the family. Tristan carried that dubious honour.
By the time he'd finished roughing the towel over his shoulders and stomach, Jake stood beside him.
'You want to tell me what that was all about?' asked Jake quietly.
Ten rigorous years of living life in the explosive lane? Never settling down, never staying in one place for more than a few months? One too many dices with death? A volcanic recklessness that had been building and building and needed an outlet before it blew him apart? 'I changed the rules on you halfway through the match and I shouldn't have. I stopped. No one got hurt. What's to tell?'