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"Ten bucks says you can't do it."
Serena Smyth lifted an eyebrow at her friend, her catlike green eyes alight with amusement. "You're on."
It was one of many bets between the two young women since they had met in high school years before, lighthearted and, as usual, challenging Serena's uncanny ability to get information, or anything else she wanted, from a man.
Jane Riley, an attractive and vivacious brunet, giggled, but then suddenly looked nervous. "I don't know. Maybe this isn't such a good idea. Serena, Jeremy Kane uses his column to trash anybody he hates, and since that model broke up with him, he hates every woman still alive and breathing. There's no way he'll dance with you, let alone spill the beans about the grant. And if he realizes you're just after information, next week's column will make you look like the whore of Babylon."
"He'll never guess what I'm after," Serena retorted confidently.
"Oh, no? Look, friend, we both know he's virtually pickled after years of drinking, but he was a crackerjack investigative reporter once upon a time, and some of the old instincts might still be there."
Serena shrugged. With the frankness that often startled people because her appearance made them believe she was too elegant and haughty to ever speak bluntly, she said, "I don't think he could find his butt with both hands and a flashlight."
Jane, knowing her friend rather well, began to regret her own impulsive challenge. "Serena, why don't we just forget the bet this time? If you go and do something crazy, Richard will never forgive me."
"Forgive you? Don't be silly, he knows me too well to ever blame anyone else for my tricks. Besides, you know you're dying to find out if Seth gets the grant."
Jane couldn't deny that. Seth Westcott was her live-in lover, an artist with a difficult temperament, and Jane knew their cluttered loft would be much more peaceful if she could tell him that the fifty-thousand-dollar grant from Kane's newspaper was going to be his. More peaceful for a while, at least.
But she hesitated, mostly because of Serena's uncle and onetime guardian, with whom her friend still lived here in Seattle. Richard Merlin had always made Jane feel just the tiniest bit uneasy, though she couldn't have said exactly why, since he'd always been perfectly pleasant to her. It might have been his dramatic appearance; his slightly shaggy black hair, austere, rather classical bone structure, and startling black eyes gave him the appearance of a man who might have been anything from a poet or maestro of the symphony–to a serial killer.
In actuality, he was a businessman, involved in various real estate ventures, and both well known and highly respected in the city. A rather ordinary kind of career, certainly, and he had never done anything to call undue attention to himself or any of his actions. But Jane still felt curiously in awe of him, and it always made her nervous when Serena cheerfully did something they both knew her uncle would not be happy about.
Shaking her head, Jane said, "Of course I want to know if Seth gets the grant, but I'd rather not see your name in bold print in Kane's column."
"Oh, that'll never happen." Serena spoke absently, her attention elsewhere as she scanned the well-dressed crowd. The occasion was a dinner-dance charity benefit, and since the charity was a good one, the crowd was happy to be here. Both the food and the band were first-rate, and the party was being held in a hotel ballroom, so none of the guests felt the automatic constraint that came with being in someone's home.
The huge room was very noisy.
Serena finally found what she'd been looking for: Richard's tall form on the other side of the room. He was talking to the mayor, his attention firmly engaged, and was unlikely to notice what she was up to.
"If you're so sure Richard won't care what you're going to do," Jane said suspiciously, "then why did you check first to make sure he was across the room?"
Serena rose to her feet, leaving her wrap over the back of the chair and her evening purse on the table. She was a bit above average height and slender, but by no means thin. In fact, she could have earned a healthy income posing for the centerfold of any men's magazine, and the backless emerald green evening gown she was wearing displayed that eye-catching figure to advantage.
The gown also set off her bright red hair, currently swept up in an elaborate French twist, her translucent complexion, and her vivid green eyes. She was a beautiful woman, her features exquisite and deceptively haughty, and a considerable intelligence made her able to hold her own in most any situation.
Smiling, she looked down at her friend and said, "I never said he wouldn't care. I just said he wouldn't blame you."
Watching her friend move gracefully among the tables toward her intended target, Jane felt a brief, craven impulse to find Seth in the crowd and announce that she wanted to go home. But he'd be suspicious, and she'd have to confess she had dared Serena to do something dangerous. Again.
It had been fun during their teenage years, because Serena had accepted even the wildest dares and because peculiar things always seemed to happen when she did.
Like the time Jane had dared her to approach the famous rock star who'd been performing in Seattle. Serena had gotten past the guards at the stage door with incredible ease, emerging in triumph ten minutes later with an autograph. She had been wearing a stage pass, impossible to buy or fake, and had only laughed when Jane had demanded to know how she'd gotten it.
Later Jane had heard an odd story. The sprinkler system backstage had been acting up just when Serena had been there, going on and off in different areas randomly, drenching equipment and driving everybody nuts.
Serena, of course, had come out perfectly dry.
And there had been another occasion Jane had never forgotten. A mutual friend had taken the two girls out on a fishing boat, and he had bemoaned the fact that the small family fishing businesses such as his were a dying breed; they simply couldn't compete with the huge commercial operations. He was on the verge of going under financially, he had confided, and during this particular week the catch had been truly abysmal.
Jane had happened to look at Serena just then, and she'd been struck by her friend's expression. Gazing out over the water, Serena had chewed her bottom lip in a characteristically indecisive gesture and then, looking both guilty and pleased, had nodded to herself, her eyes very bright.
There had been no opportunity to ask her friend what was going on, because their host had begun to haul his nets in. To his obvious shock, the catch was the best of the season, incredibly good; the boat rode low in the water with the weight of the fish. It seemed his luck had turned. In fact, after that day he had only to cast out his nets to be rewarded by all the fish he could handle.
Jane had never asked Serena about that, just as she'd never asked her about a few other peculiar things, such as why light bulbs had an odd tendency to blow out near her and computers often went haywire, or why she couldn't wear a wristwatch (they went crazy or simply died on her), or why the weather always seemed to be good when she wanted it to be. Jane simply accepted the good fortune of Serena's friends and privately decided that she was three parts witch.
But she was nervous about this bet, and watched anxiously as Serena reached Jeremy Kane's table. The newspaperman had been drinking steadily all evening, and had more than once gotten so loud that those at nearby tables couldn't help overhearing him as he caustically held forth on a number of subjects. But he hadn't left his table even once to dance.
Jane saw her friend lean down to speak to Kane, but she didn't get the chance to observe his reaction, because her own date returned to their table just then.
"Sorry to be so long, honey," Seth said as he sat down beside her. "Thompson's wife had to tell me in great detail how she wanted her portrait to look." He was a tall, very thin man with average looks and deceptively mild brown eyes, and possessed only two unusual physical characteristics. His voice was so beautiful, it was nearly hypnotic; and his hands were incredibly graceful and expressive.
Jane had no trouble in fixing her attention on Seth; she was absolutely crazy about the man. "Megan Thompson? If she has any sense, she'd just ask you to make her look like somebody else."
Seth grinned at her. "Meow."
"She has mismatched eyes," Jane insisted. "Besides that, her ears are set too low, and she has dark roots."
Leaning back away from her in exaggerated caution, Seth said, "Whew–what's with you? If I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous. But I do know better, so I has to be something else."
"I just wish you didn't have to take commissions from people like that," Jane muttered.
Seth frowned suddenly. "I know that's the way you feel, Janie, but it isn't what's bugging you now. You look guilty as hell. What've you done?"
A sudden burst of laughter that was audible even over the music drew Jane's attention, and she saw Serena dancing quite gracefully in the arms of Jeremy Kane, even though he was indisputably drunk and loudly amused with something.
"What's Serena doing with Kane?" Seth wanted to know.
"Smartass. You know damned well what I meant by that. It's bad enough that the man's a mean drunk, he also happens to write a syndicated column that's nothing less than a weekly character assassination. Serena's got no business anywhere around that son of a bitch."
Since Seth had seen his character assassinated in Kane's column some years previously, his bitterness was understandable.
Jane cleared her throat and tried not to look even more guilty. "Well, Kane's on the committee handing out that grant, you know."
Seth closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. "You dared her to go pump him for info, didn't you?"
"I didn't mean to, it just slipped out. Seth, do you think maybe you should go get her?"
"Why?" he asked, surprised.
"If she's in over her head–"
With a short laugh Seth said, "Janie, you ought to know your friend better than that. With the possible exceptions of Richard and myself, Serena can wrap any man in the room around her little finger–including Jeremy Kane, drunk or sober."
"Then why'd you say she had no business anywhere around him?" Jane asked, a bit indignant.
"Because it's true. I don't doubt she'll get whatever she's after from him, but she may be opening Pandora's box to do it. In case you haven't noticed, almost every curious eye in the room is on them. After the little stunt she pulled with that actor last year, her reputation isn't exactly the greatest. Flirting with Jeremy Kane won't help."
Ever loyal, Jane said, "I still say it wasn't Serena's fault that guy fell for her and made a fool of himself. What was she supposed to do when his publicist kept slyly hinting there'd soon be wedding bells?"
"She might have just waited until it all blew over," Seth noted dryly. "But, no, not our Serena. She had to take matters into her own hands. Calling a press conference to announce in no uncertain terms how hilarious she found the very idea of marrying the poor guy wasn't exactly subtle."
Jane started to respond, but changed her mind. Though she'd never said so to either Serena or Seth, Jane had the odd idea that some, if not all, of Serena's very public "affairs" during the past few years had been nothing more than a whole lot of smoke disguising little or no fire. As if she had quite deliberately painted the portrait of a woman who enjoyed men without getting serious about any of them.
That press conference, for instance–Jane found it completely out of character. Serena was a private woman, yet she had deliberately sought out public attention and had presented herself as, at best, a woman careless with both her good name and the feelings of others. It was a wildly inaccurate characterization, as any of her friends would have attested, yet Serena had seemingly cultivated it.
For some reason known only to herself, Serena coolly and methodically sacrificed her reputation in order to protect something more important to her.
That was the feeling Jane had, but as close as they were, Jane had never challenged her friend on that point. Serena had a way of laughingly, but quite firmly, discouraging questions about topics she preferred not to discuss, and her love life was definitely hands off even to her best friend. Yet Jane wouldn't have been terribly surprised if Serena had confessed to being a virgin; there was a look of innocence in those bright green eyes, something unawakened, untouched.
Probably what attracted men so wildly, Jane had decided.
"Look at that," Seth was saying disgustedly. "She practically had to pour him into his chair. Huh. She has muscle under that lovely skin."
Jane wasn't dismayed or made jealous by the remark; she had learned a long time ago that Seth's appreciation of other women was aesthetic and impersonal.
"D'you think she'd sit for me?" he asked absently as he watched Serena coming toward them. That this sudden interest in Serena had come about because she had surprised him was characteristic of him. He generally preferred to paint people he didn't know rather than those he did, claiming that foreknowledge of a subject clouded his artistic perception.
"Only if you appeal to her sense of self-discovery, not her vanity," Jane advised. "Tell her you can show her something about herself she can't see in a mirror, and I'd bet she wouldn't hesitate to sit for you."
Seth nodded slightly and rose to hold Serena's chair for her, but when he spoke, it wasn't to entice her to pose for him. "It would serve you right if he drooled all down your neck," he said severely.
With a low laugh Serena said, "Well, he didn't. I'll have a slight bruise on the rear where he pinched me, but otherwise he was almost a perfect gentleman." Then she lifted an eyebrow at Jane. "You owe me ten bucks."
"What did he say?" Jane asked, forgetting everything but her eagerness to know about the grant.
Serena looked at Seth with a smile. "Congratulations."
His thin face lit up, but he shook his head. "How much faith should you place in the word of a drunk?"
"Very little," Serena agreed. "Which is why I'm glad he has the rough draft of the announcement in his pocket. The grant's yours, kiddo."
"I'm gonna go find some champagne," Seth said delightedly. He kissed Serena's cheek, then strode off in search of a bottle to celebrate his good fortune.
Jane had a streak of uncompromising logic in her nature, and that made itself apparent when she asked, "Why would he have a draft of the announcement in his pocket? It won't be made until next week."
"I don't know," Serena said, totally unconcerned. "But he has."