Iris Johansen is the New York Times bestselling author of many novels, including Killer Dreams, On the Run, Countdown, Firestorm, Fatal Tide, Dead Aim, and No One to Trust. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia.
"There he is! That's Zack Damon's car!"
With a nearly inaudible swoosh the Silver Shadow Rolls Royce drew to a halt before the auditorium. Photographers and reporters converged on the car with an eagerness they hadn't displayed for either the rock star who had just gone into the lobby or for the governor, who was still lingering outside to shake hands with his constituents.
The reaction of the press was perfectly understandable, Kira Rubinoff thought as she carefully drew the hood of her black velvet cloak forward to shadow her face. Both the star and the politician constantly made themselves available to the media, while Zack Damon was almost as publicity shy as Howard Hughes had been. Perhaps wariness of the media was a trait shared by billionaires in America, where as much attention was paid to self-made tycoons as it was to royalty in Europe. Yet Damon was known to be exceptionally reclusive in that elite set of the reclusive. The only public functions he had attended this year were selected benefits and special fund-raisers for various American Indian welfare groups. By poring over newspaper and magazine articles in The New York Public Library reference room, Kira had learned a great deal about him, including the fact that he'd be attending this benefit. The Damon Foundation was a sponsor of the Indian Heritage Center; the Center had used Zack Damon's name and clout to pull in the galaxy of stars who were to perform tonight.
As the door of the Rolls was being opened by a uniformed chauffeur, Kira quickly stepped back into the shadowy mouth of the alley leading to the stage door. It was highly unlikely that Damon could spot her even if he were looking for her... which, most definitely, he was not. After all, he didn't even know her. Still, it didn't hurt to be cautious. In this, her first glimpse of the flesh-and-blood man, she definitely wanted to see, yet remain unseen.
Power. The word struck her like a blow as she watched him get out of the car. Quiet, effortless power. She knew from the articles she'd read that he was in his thirties, but he could well have been any age. He was tall and broad shouldered. Long, sleek muscles lent grace to the movements of his big body. By contrast, his face seemed brutal: black brows slashed across his forehead to frame eyes as night-black as his hair, and broad Slavic cheekbones ran parallel to a jawline that was firm and determined. That face, that composed, strong face revealed a man who had endured and waited, gathering about him forces only he could control.
He wore a black tuxedo with the casualness of one accustomed to evening wear, but who was still impatient with its necessity. And, she thought, he was handling questions from the reporters with much the same attitude he displayed toward the wearing of the tuxedo: accustomed, but impatient. Kira listened closely, not really interested in Damon's answers so much as the manner in which he gave them.
"You're not with Mallory Thane this evening. Does that mean your liaison is over?"
"I have no liaisons."
"It was reported that she stayed the weekend with you in Acapulco."
"I have no liaisons."
Blunt, impassive, soft-spoken.
"Is it true that the AirFlow merger is being fought by the unions?"
"You'll have to ask them."
"Are you half or quarter Apache, Mr. Damon?"
"Half. My grandfather was shaman of his tribe."
"You're also illegitimate. Right?"
That question obviously struck a nerve. Damon's gaze fastened on the reporter who'd asked the question. The man took a hasty step backward. "Yes, I'm both a bastard and a half-breed," he said softly. "Considering what I've made of myself, I'd say that speaks well for being both. And just what have you made of your life to date, Mr... ." He looked at the man's press badge. "Carter?"
The reporter didn't answer. He bent his head hastily over his notebook. Kira didn't blame him for avoiding Damon's challenging stare. She wasn't sure she would have had the courage to look Damon in the eye at that moment. How unnerving to experience the lethal swiftness with which he could change from neutrality to attack.
Another reporter spoke up. "You've been fighting for better education and employment opportunities for Indians for the last twelve years. Though I'm sure it's very laudable, don't you believe that a lot of what the American Indian experiences today is due to resentment of his savagery in the past?"
"No," Damon responded quietly. "I think his present situation is due to the fact that he wasn't savage enough."
But he would have been savage enough to hold what was his, Kira thought. She shivered. Oh lord, what had Marna gotten her into?
A small, graying man with a wide smile on his plump face had gotten out of the front seat of the Rolls. He was also dressed in a tuxedo, and he spoke as he stepped between Damon and the reporters. "Mr. Damon will give you a statement about his involvement with the Indian Heritage Center during the intermission. I'm afraid you'll have to excuse him now. It's time for him to go to his box."
He plowed ahead, running interference for Damon with the media, fending questions as fast as they were fired. As they entered the lobby the crowd closed around them, hiding Damon from Kira's view.
She drew a deep breath and tried to relax the muscles of her shoulders. Until Damon had vanished from sight, she hadn't realized how tense she'd become while observing him. Maybe it would have been better "to beard the lion in his den" without any prior knowledge of him. At least she wouldn't have been nervous. Heavens, how silly she was being. She'd been dealing with powerful people since she was a child, and shouldn't be intimidated at all by Zack Damon. But then, she had never been a supplicant before. Begging for help for the first time was bound to put butterflies in anyone's stomach, she reassured herself.
In a swift gesture of bravado, she tossed the hood of her cloak back. A mass of riotous auburn curls tumbled over her shoulders. She stepped quickly out of the alley and walked briskly down the street to where her taxi was waiting. The time for hiding in the shadows was over. It was time for her to act with her usual forthrightness and to accomplish her task.
Perry Bentley firmly closed the door of the box, shutting the reporters out. His genial smile vanishing, he turned to his employer and spoke rapidly. "Jansen called on the car phone just after you got out. Princess Rubinoff was in the crowd in front of this auditorium."
Damon's gaze flew to Bentley's face. "Here?"
"At the mouth of the alley. She was wearing a black velvet cloak, obviously trying to go unrecognized."
"Jansen followed her from her hotel. He couldn't be more sure."
Zack turned away to hide his expression from Perry, whose eyes revealed unabashed curiosity about this situation. It would take little encouragement, Zack knew, to cause Perry to unleash that curiosity in a barrage of questions. Perry wasn't at all intimidated by him, as most other people seemed to be, and most of the time Zack appreciated that quality in his assistant as much as his loyalty. But not in this particular matter. "How did she get here?"
"A taxi. She had it waiting for her around the corner from the thater."
"A taxi!" Zack muttered a brief, explicit curse that caused Perry to lift his brows in surprise. "What the hell is her brother thinking of to let her go running around the world without security?"
"Princess Rubinoff has the best security that money can buy," Perry reminded him mildly.
"But good King Stefan doesn't know that."
The savage tone of voice Zack used caused Perry's eyes to widen. He hadn't heard Zack speak so harshly in the seven years he had been working for him. Zack was usually quite soft-spoken. There was no need for a man to raise his voice when everyone was more than eager to listen.
"How stupid can the man be?" Zack snarled.
Perry shrugged. "I've heard he's not the most enlightened of monarchs, but then Tamrovia is so small, maybe he doesn't have to be."
"Get on the phone and call Jansen back. I want to know where she goes in that taxi."
Perry nodded and slipped out the door of the box.
The houselights went down; a spotlight was thrown on the velvet curtain at center stage. Zack sat down in a plushly padded chair in the rear of the box, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the master of ceremonies, who walked into the spot.
Why was Kira here? Zack wondered. She had been only a few yards from him and he hadn't even known it. After all these years she had finally been almost close enough to touch. He could have crossed the space between them in seconds. No, the space between them couldn't be measured by distances. Even if he had crossed those few physical yards, they would still have had a very long way to travel to meet each other. He mustn't get overeager just when it was most important to keep control. He knew about patience and control. Events could be shaped and worlds conquered by a man who possessed those two qualities. He drew a deep breath and concentrated hard to regain a sense of peace and tranquility. It took longer than usual to accomplish, but he had succeeded by the time Perry came back to the box.
"Well?" he asked his assistant.
"The taxi is heading north on the Santa Catalina Highway toward the Santa Catalina Mountains. If her destination is the one I think it is, she's going to have one hell of a taxi fare."
"My lodge." It was a statement, not a question.
Perry nodded. "It makes sense. According to the report, she flew into New York City from Tamrovia yesterday afternoon. She made one long stop at The New York Public Library and then hopped on another plane. She arrived in Tucson today, the day you just happened to be here, showing up outside this theater. Now she's making a beeline in the direction of your lodge on Mount Lemmon." He cast Zack an inquiring glance. "Do the security guards at the gatehouse have her on their list for automatic clearance?"
"No." It had never occurred to Zack that she might ever come to him. "You'll have to call security and set up clearance for her. Have Juana make her comfortable until I can get there. Tell one of our people to check her out of her hotel and bring her luggage to the lodge. She'll be spending the night."
He was tempted to leave now and to hell with the gala, but he had promised his full support of the event to the people at the Heritage Center. He would stay until the intermission was over and then have Perry help him slip out through the stage entrance. It wouldn't hurt to let Kira wait. With her volatile temperament she probably couldn't bear to wait for anything or anyone, he guessed. Her nerves would be tuned to a fine pitch and that would be to his advantage. Unlike her, he had had to wait for everything he'd ever wanted.
Perry was once again opening the door of the box. "I'm surprised her name's not on your clearance list," he said, clearly puzzled. "She's been protected by your security system all the time I've been working for you."
It's been far longer than that, Zack thought, his expression passive as his gaze flicked idly to the musical extravaganza now taking place on the stage. "There's no reason why she should be on the list. We've never met." The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. "Yet."
Getting into this house had been too easy, Kira realized as the door of the library closed behind the Indian housekeeper. Billionaires had tight security and strangers, even titled strangers, simply didn't walk right into their homes. But she had. Why, she hadn't even been asked for identification! Both the guards at the gatehouse and the Indian servant who had opened the door had acted as if they expected her. Well, maybe they did, Kira thought. Perhaps Marna had managed to invoke one of her spells to make all doors open for Kira. That wasn't likely, however, since Marna had problems with even short distances and it was a very long way from Tamrovia to Arizona. No, Kira's visit wasn't a surprise.
Or rather, a visit by a lady wasn't a surprise. Kira had learned from those frustratingly scanty articles she'd read in the library that a lady's presence in Damon's house and bed were not unusual. A number of beautiful and well-known women were rumored to have been his mistress at various times over the years. She didn't doubt even one of those rumors now that she had seen him. A raw sexuality radiated from him along with his aura of power, and both of those fierce, elemental qualities in him had disturbed her. Oh, dear, it would be just her luck to interrupt a lovers' rendezvous and have Damon toss her out before she even had a chance to talk to him. Well, he'd just have to wait to take Mallory what's-her-name to bed. Kira's problem was a good deal more important than Damon's immediate sexual gratification.
She might as well make herself comfortable, she decided. There was no telling how long it might be before Damon showed up. She shrugged out of the black velvet cloak and tossed it on the long couch before an open fieldstone fireplace. She smoothed the amber chiffon of her gown with quick, trembling fingers, then realized how the gesture betrayed her nervousness, and deliberately stilled her hands.
Good heavens, she was acting as if she were Damon's date for the night instead of that gorgeous actress. Why had she worn this gown anyway? Maybe it would have been better to be cool and businesslike. She had instinctively armored herself for the coming interview in the only way she knew: by making herself look as alluring as possible. Enough men had told her she was attractive for her to believe that it was at least partially true. Some of them hadn't even had anything to gain by telling her, so maybe... Oh, what difference did it make? She wasn't in some kind of competition. Damon either would or would not do what she wanted.
She settled herself comfortably on the couch and gazed around the room, searching for a clue to the personality and character of the man who used it. The contemporary furniture was all in earth colors-browns, beiges, and rusts. The lines were clean and comfortable yet austere. No clues there. The paintings on the walls also told her little. The works of El Greco, Delacroix, Titian, Russell, and Remington hung side by side. Damon evidently had varied and definite tastes. The painting over the fireplace, hung in a position of prominence, could be presumed to be a favorite of Damon's. Perhaps it revealed something of the man.