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Pepper's Way

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Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten


The classified ad was provocative yet innocent, and the man who read it on a whim felt compelled to meet its creator. But Thor Spicer was unprepared for Pepper, the beguiling dynamo who checked him out, liked what she saw -- and warned him that she had designs on his heart. Intrigued by her challenge, Thor decided to take her dare -- even though it meant constantly tripping over her gentle Doberman and outwitting the Chihuahua who guarded her door. It wouldn't be easy to strip away the layers of mystery surrounding their very private selves -- but Pepper declared that it was the only way....

Chapter One

WANTED: MAN. Must be over six feet tall and weigh at least two hundred pounds. Must own large house on considerable acreage. Must like animals. Must have job with flexible hours. Preferably single. Call Pepper.

He wouldn't have given the ad a second glance if he'd found it in the personals column of some trashy magazine. It certainly sounded typical of that kind of publication. And yet... Thor looked at the ad for the fifth time in as many minutes. Well, he fit all the requirements. And he was dying to find out what kind of woman would place such an ad in a large daily newspaper.

He'd seen the ad every day this week, and had grown more and more curious. And since he knew very well that the newspaper in which the ad was running didn't pander to lonely hearts or practical jokers, he couldn't help but wonder exactly what it was all about. A publicity stunt or something. Had to be. But if it wasn't... well, then, what was it?

He possessed two overwhelming sins, neither of which was appropriate in his profession: curiosity and a love of the absurd. Sighing, he reached for the phone and dialed the number printed after the name Pepper.


It was a sweet, childish voice, presently filled with suspicion. She so; unded as though she might possibly be five years old... on her next birthday.

"Pepper?" he asked cautiously.

"Yes?" Definitely wary now.

"I'm calling about your ad," Thor began.

"Oh, Lord—another one! Listen, I'm pulling that ad tomorrow, so forget it! I've been listening to obscene suggestions all week, and I'm fed up! So, whoever you are, get your kicks somewhere else!"

The voice, he reflected, was still sweet and childish, but this was definitely no little girl he was talking to. Curiosity grew. Mildly, he told her, "I didn't call to make obscene suggestions."

"You didn't? Then what do you want?" she demanded.

"I thought it was a matter of what you wanted," he murmured. "A man over six feet tall, two hundred pounds—and so on."

"Do you fit?" she asked, still suspicious.


"How old are you?"

"Does that matter?"

She sighed, irritated. "I've had calls from four high school quarterbacks this week, and I didn't like any of their questions."

"High school is definitely behind me," he responded, then asked in spite of himself, "What did they ask you?"

Clearly aggrieved, she said, "Well, one of them asked if I like leather. The other questions weren't repeatable."

Trying not to laugh, Thor said, "Your ad is a bit... suggestive."

"It is? But I spent so much time on the wording just to get the proper effect!" she wailed softly.

"The effect you got was far from proper. What, by the way, is the ad all about? You'll notice," he added virtuously, "that I'm not leaping to conclusions."

"I'll bet you leaped to plenty before you picked up the phone," she muttered, and then sighed again. "You see, it's my dog."

"Your dog?" Thor echoed.

"Uh-huh. My landlord found out. That is, he'd known that I had a dog, but he got all upset with me last week. Said something about not realizing that I fed it hay. Anyway, I can't keep my dog in this apartment anymore."

"I see." The matter was, indeed, becoming plainer to Thor. "Which is why you advertised for a large man with a house in the country."

"Right." She sounded relieved. "I mean, a small man would feel intimidated by a Dobe, don't you think?"

Thor, whose mind couldn't instantly identify Dobe to conjure a picture, agreed wholeheartedly. "Certainly. I suppose you'll want to know how large my house is?"

"You mean, you're interested?"

"Of course." Thor looked around at his large, spotless living room and heard his housekeeper banging pots in the kitchen. Ah, well. He could keep the dog outside; he needed a watchdog anyway. Pepper's voice intrigued him; he would have offered to look at a Bengal tiger if she'd asked. "Are you selling the dog, or—"

"Oh, no!" She was shocked. "I wouldn't do that!"

So she was just finding the dog a good home. Odd how some people felt better about giving away their pets rather than selling them. "I see. Well, Pepper—" He hesitated. "I'm sorry, but you didn't tell me your last—"

"Oh, everybody calls me Pepper," she assured him cheerfully. "Who are you, by the way?"

Thor found himself smiling. "Thorton Spicer. My friends call me Thor."

"I'll bet you have red hair."

Surprised, he confirmed her guess. "Yes, I do, but how did you know?"

"Vikings," she said cryptically, then went on as if no explanation were necessary. "Do you have a large house?"

"Four bedrooms, two baths, living room, den, study—"

"That sounds perfect! Land?"

"Fifteen acres." He was growing more and more amused. But he warned himself not to develop a mental picture of Pepper; whenever he did that, he was always disappointed. Of course, his mind was already busy drawing. Pepper, it decided arbitrarily, was about five feet tall with blond hair and big blue eyes. He told his mind not to be so damn sure. She was probably six feet tall with black hair and played hockey.

"Perfect!" The little breathless voice sounded delighted. "Oh, but, you'd better—"

"See the dog," he finished dryly. "Yes, perhaps I'd better. I'm heading into town this afternoon; if you'll tell me where you live, I'll stop by."

She gave him clear, precise directions to her apartment building, which rather surprised him; she had sounded a bit feather-headed. Then she finished with, "You can't miss it"—which made him immediately distrust the directions. But he promised to drop by around three o'clock.

Before she could respond, there was a loud crash from her end, and she said hurriedly, "Oh, heavens! Brutus! What're you—? Look what you've done! Um, I'll see you at three."

Thor found himself listening to a dial tone, and assumed in amusement that the last sentence had been intended for him. He hung up the phone, chuckling quietly. Well, it would certainly be interesting meeting Pepper. And he did need a watchdog. Brutus? He scaled his mental image of a Dobe up a few inches. Obviously a large dog. And why did the name keep ringing warning bells in his mind?

"Your lunch is getting cold," Mrs. Small told him dourly from the doorway of the room.

Mrs. Small wasn't. By any stretch of the imagination. She was only a little over five feet tall, but made up for the lack in other areas. All other areas. And she was the exception to the rule that all plump people were jolly souls. In five years Thor had never seen her so much as smile. He'd even given in to the lesser side of himself and tried a few practical jokes, only to be told coldly that he was too old for such nonsense.

Thor looked at her now and decided not to tell her about the possible addition to his household. "I told you not to bother," he said instead.

"No bother, as long as you eat it."

He wondered vaguely if Mrs. Small would ever call him by his name. Either of his names. She never had. He was almost terrified of the woman. "I'm coming," he said hastily, noting that her habitual frown was assuming thunderous proportions.

She deepened her glare, nodded briefly, and turned away.

Thor sighed and got to his feet. He headed for the dining room—Mrs. Small would never feed him in the kitchen!—wondering if Pepper would live up to his mind's optimism.

At exactly three o'clock Thor was standing before the door marked 3-B and silently bracing himself to be disappointed. He looked down at his neat dark slacks, white shirt, and sport jacket, and thought wryly that most people probably didn't care how they dressed to meet a dog. But then... he was meeting a woman. At least he hoped she was a woman.

He made a mental note to write to the friend from his college days, who now ran a rather lucrative dating service. If Jim hadn't tried inserting peculiar ads in newspapers, he was missing a good bet....

Thor knocked on the door. A deep-throated "Woof!" and various other indefinable sounds came from within. Then the door swung open.

"Come in," a sweet, breathless voice invited. "If you're Thor, that is."

"I'm Thor," he managed, stepping inside automatically. The door closed behind him while he tried to collect himself. It wasn't easy; his mental picture of Pepper had been uncannily on target.

Since she was in socks only, he could gauge her height nicely; if she was stretched on a rack for ten minutes, she might possibly be five feet tall. Her hair was so light that silver was the only color that could describe it, and it fell nearly to her hips. Her face was finely drawn and delicate, and flattered the word beautiful. Only her eyes varied from his image, and he was glad they did; plain blue could never begin to compare with that glorious pale violet.

And—though tiny she certainly was—the mature and somewhat startlingly voluptuous curves filling out her jeans and knit top belonged only to a woman.

"I'm glad you found the place," she was telling him in that ridiculously intriguing little-girl voice. "Would you like to sit down, or—"

A loud thump from somewhere in one of the other rooms interrupted her, and she half turned from Thor, exclaiming fretfully, "Oh, damn, he got out!"

Before Thor could ask the foreboding question in his mind, a two-pound fury hurtled across the carpeted floor, uttering a hysterical yapping sound, and attached itself ferociously to his trouser leg. On closer inspection the fury turned out to be a Chihuahua that would have had to be dipped in milk and rolled in bread crumbs to weigh two pounds. It was light brown in color, and obviously possessed the temper and general disposition of a drunken marine.

In patient silence Thor shifted his weight onto his unencumbered leg and raised the other about a foot off the floor. The fury clung tenaciously, growling and trying fiercely to bring down its intended prey, entirely unperturbed by the fact that it was hanging in midair. Thor returned the foot and attached dog to the floor and lifted his eyes to Pepper. She was, he noted, looking down at the tiny dog with a fondly exasperated expression.

"What's it doing?" Thor asked politely.

Pepper looked up, surprised. "He's attacking you, obviously. He's an attack dog."

Thor looked hard for mockery on the lovely face, and found only solemnity. "Oh. Do you mind calling him off?"

"Well... I can't."

"You can't?" Thor decided that if both Pepper and this Lilliputian canine thought that it was an attack dog, who was he to argue? "I thought there was a command to call them off."

"There is," she agreed cheerfully. "It's 'break.' But Brutus ignores it; he always has."

Incredulously Thor dropped his gaze to the tiny creature. "This is Brutus? You can't tell me your landlord objects to this little mite!"

"Of course not. Fiji's the problem."

"Fifi?" Thor decided that he had wandered through Alice's mirror by accident. The scary part was that he was enjoying it. "Uh... where's Fifi?"

Looking surprised again, Pepper half turned and gestured toward the couch a few feet away. Thor's gaze followed her pointing finger, and he immediately understood her surprise; his only excuse for having missed seeing the creature until now was that he'd been too fascinated by Pepper to look at his surroundings.

"Fifi" was a respectably sized mountain of short gleaming black and tan fur, quivering from pointed little ears to stub of a tail. It was lying on its belly with its face thrust underneath the couch, and a quick and rough calculation told Thor that it would be nearly three feet tall on all fours.

It was a full-grown and heavily muscled Doberman pinscher, which Thor had always considered one of the wickedest-looking dogs in creation. And it weighed every ounce of a hundred pounds.

The landlord's horror, he reflected, was now perfectly clear. He tried to picture the expression on Mrs. Small's face when she saw Fifi and hastily abandoned the effort when the first fleeting image came to his mind.

"Fifi?" Pepper called softly, and the dog quivered even more, not moving an inch.

"What's it doing?" Thor asked curiously.

"She's hiding."

"What's she hiding?"


"But I can see—"

"Shhh!" Pepper made a hasty gesture to silence him. "She thinks she's hiding. Since she can't see you, she thinks you can't see her."

Thor decided to let that pass; for the life of him, he didn't know how to respond. He realized suddenly that he was still being savaged. "Look, can you get this dog off my leg? I'm going to look a little peculiar walking around with him attached to me like this."

Pepper looked down at Brutus, frowned for a moment, then stepped closer. She bent over and swatted the tiny dog firmly on the rump. Immediately he whirled to contend with the surprise attack, and she snatched him up and tucked him under her arm. Apparently still blind with rage, Brutus was on the point of sinking his teeth into her arm when her voice stopped him cold.

"Don't... you... dare," she told him in an unexpectedly icy tone.

Pointed ears that were overlarge on the tiny head perked up, and there was such a ludicrously expressive "Oh, it's you\" look on the dog's face that Thor burst out laughing. Brutus immediately threw a snarl his way, clearly trying to save face.

"What do you feed him—gunpowder?"

"Of course not. I told you he was an attack dog." She waved a hospitable hand toward the small living room they were literally standing in. "Why don't you sit down? On the couch there, by Fifi. She'll come out once she gets used to your voice."

Thor went over to the couch, making a lengthy detour around Fifi's ample rump to sit a prudent distance away from her. He was taking no chances.

Pepper sat across from him in a chair, holding the ever-growling Brutus firmly in her lap. "Are you still interested?" she asked wryly.

Looking at her instead of the dog, Thor murmured, "More than ever."

If she heard anything in his voice to suggest that it was she, rather than her dog, that Thor was interested in, Pepper didn't show it on her face. She was completely natural, and obviously didn't possess a single coquettish bone in her body.

And she didn't, Thor reflected thankfully, weigh him with a speculative and unnerving eye, as so many women seemed to do these days. He wondered suddenly if she were as old as her body suggested.

"How old are you?" he demanded abruptly.

Pepper seemed neither surprised nor offended by the question. Instead, she released a long-suffering sigh. "Et tu, Brute? I'm twenty-eight." At his obvious surprise she added dryly, "I have to carry a special police identification card because nobody ever believes that. Shall I show it to you?"

Thor grinned. "No need; I'll take your word for it."

"Thanks. And you never told me how old you are, by the way."

"Thirty-four. And nobody ever disbelieves that."

She studied him with a total lack of self-consciousness. "I can see how they wouldn't," she said ingenuously. "You have a rough sort of face; it has a history."

Thor immediately felt at least ten years older than he was. History? Glancing aside to collect his thoughts, he found himself under scrutiny from a pair of panicky brown eyes that widened in even greater panic and then disappeared. Fifi was hiding again. Thor looked at Pepper, and she shrugged, giving him a rueful smile.

"She'll get used to you."

"She's a coward," he observed dryly.

"Well... I guess you could say that. She barks once and then hides."

Thor remembered the deep-throated bark he'd heard. "Uh-huh. Some watchdog she's going to make."

Pepper smiled at him happily, the bottomless pools of her violet eyes oddly riveting. "Are you saying that you want her?"

He didn't even hesitate. "Definitely. But I don't know about taking her with me today. She's so nervous, and my car—"

"What kind of car do you have?"

"A Corvette."

Pepper winced. "That'll never do. Tell you what. I have a van, so why don't I do the relocating? We can come tomorrow."

Convinced that Pepper wouldn't abandon her pet totally, Thor nodded and smiled. "Sounds great. You can help her with the—uh—transitional period."

"Wonderful! What time tomorrow shall we come?"

"Any time after noon."

"We'll be there." Pepper looked down at the huge, quivering dog, and smiled fondly. "I'm sure she'll be braver in the country."

Thor blinked and then looked down at the dog as well. He'd nearly forgotten about Fifi. "Uh... yes. I'm sure she will be."

Chapter Two

Gray eyes. Pepper thought, leaning back against the closed door and staring absently across the room. He had gray eyes. Combined with his red-gold hair and deeply tanned skin, the gray eyes were startling. They were also sharp, intelligent, and held a lurking twinkle.

Releasing her pent-up breath in a long sigh, Pepper bent to set Brutus on the floor. She saw that her hands were shaking and wasn't surprised by that. But she was surprised by her reaction to Thor Spicer. At twenty-eight she'd ruefully decided that she would probably remain unattached, because she had not, in all her travels, met a man whose voice set her heart bumping and raised goose bumps on her flesh.

Almost reluctantly she lifted an arm and examined her lightly tanned skin. Uh-huh. Gooseflesh.

And heaven knew her heart was bumping against her ribs as though she'd been running.

Still leaning against the door, she watched Fifi rise, shake herself, then wag a happy bob tailed rear end and follow Brutus toward the kitchen and their food dishes. Pepper shook her head slightly. What had her brilliant newspaper ad gotten her into? Simply because she'd wanted to find Fifi a good home with a kind man...

The truth floated into her consciousness gently, unthreateningly: like most of the schemes and plans her active mind spawned, this idea had looked innocent and logical on the surface. Experience had taught her that her "logical" plans generally possessed hidden pitfalls. However, she'd never given up her scheming just because of a few minor stumbling blocks.

Cal's voice surfaced suddenly in her mind, a little desperate and a lot wild: "You're dangerous, you know that? You're ruthless and, God, who'd guess it by looking at you?"

Pepper grinned to herself. That had been wailed at her just moments before Cal's wedding to Marsha five years ago, and just after a long and somewhat involved courtship in which Pepper had played a vital role. Matchmaker. She was good at that.

After all, Cal and Marsha were still married, and very happily so from the looks of it. And the other matches she'd engineered over the years were still going strong, not a divorce or separation in the lot.

This time Johnny's voice popped into her mind: "Let's all band together and get Pepper settled; it'd be poetic justice! She's the only one of the gang still footloose and fancy-free."

Absently Pepper moved over to sink down on the couch, drawing her legs up and tucking her feet under a cushion. The gang was indeed all settled. Most within driving distance of one another in the Northeast; she, herself, was the farthest north at the moment, living in Maine. Her original college crowd numbered nearly a score—and that wasn't counting the strays she'd happened across on her travels and brought home to be matched with her friends.

Ruthless? She thought about that for a moment. Certainly she was ruthless. But she would never do anything to hurt a friend—which was probably why she had so many of them. She was also a helluva lot smarter than she looked, and perfectly capable of taking care of herself even in the turmoil of Third World countries.

So, being a smart and ruthless lady, she had never yet hesitated to go after what she wanted, be it a seat on a booked airline or some trinket requiring haggling in a language she didn't speak.

But a man? No, she'd never gone after a man. Heaven knew she had plenty of male friends spread out over the world. But no gooseflesh. Until now.

She grinned to herself. "Okay, Pepper," she murmured out loud, "how do you propose to do the thing? And never mind the idea. The idea is dumb... and dangerous." She brooded silently for a moment.

"He's interested. That was obvious. I don't know why, but he is." She winced as Fifi clambered up onto her lap—all hundred pounds of her. Stroking the sleek fur, Pepper gazed sternly into mild brown eyes. "He didn't want you, old girl. I'm sure he'll give you a good home, and love you once he gets to know you. But curiosity brought him here. He wasn't interested in a hundred-pound lap dog.

However... he said he wants you. I wonder if he realizes I won't totally abandon you to a stranger?"

Fifi whined what could have been taken for an agreement.

"I wonder exactly how far his interest goes?" Pepper mused to her sympathetic canine friend. "He doesn't look like the home-and-hearth type. I was right; his face has a history. That little scar above his left eye... And he looks tired. I wonder what he does for a living? Something out in the weather. That's not a swimming-pool tan, and his hands have seen rough use. And he's strong."

Fifi saluted her mistress's cheek with a tongue the size of a hand towel and smiled all over her face.

"Thank you," Pepper told the dog dryly. "I'll certainly try to justify your faith in me." She managed to worm her way out from under Fifi, knowing from experience that it was much easier to move herself than to move the huge dog. Absently she paced over to the sliding glass doors that opened onto her balcony. Then, turning away a moment later, she caught her reflection in an ornate mirror on the wall and paused to study herself critically.

"If only you were a few inches taller," she told the frowning reflection mournfully. "And brunet. And busty." She turned sideways and stuck out her chest experimentally. The experiment wasn't a complete success; she looked decidedly off-balance and rather ridiculous.

Sighing, Pepper turned away from the reflection and assumed her normal posture. "Face it," she told herself aloud in a firm voice. "You'll just have to do the best you can with the material available."

She paced restlessly around the room, only vaguely noticing that Brutus had returned from the kitchen and taken up a heel position, pacing along beside her like a diminutive sentry. She thought back over the years, reviewing the personalities and appearances of various men who'd crossed her path and expressed a preference for pint-size blondes.

Pepper had received more than one proposal during the past ten years and quite a few propositions, none of which she'd felt even mildly tempted to accept. For the most part, she reflected, men tended to treat her like a kid sister, but the ones who had felt romantically inclined had certainly tried hard enough to arouse the same reaction in her.

Self-confident without being at all vain, Pepper was always surprised by interest from a man; it was never something she expected. Generally content with her own appearance, she nonetheless fell prey to wishful thinking whenever confronted by a tall, graceful brunet woman. She was ruefully aware that it was impossible to be either graceful or striking when one was possessed of a snub nose and less than five feet of height.

The desire to change both characteristics had never been more than wistful... until just a few minutes ago... when she had opened the door to admit Thor Spicer. At that moment she had wanted desperately to grow six inches and acquire a thin, aristocratic nose.

The shrill demand of the phone yanked Pepper from her thoughts just then, and she went over to an end table to life the receiver.

"Hello? Oh, hello, Mr. Jacobs. Well... yes, I still have the dog, but— Yes, I know when I sublet the apartment I agreed— Yes, but— Mr. Jacobs, if you'll just let me tell you— I know how long it's been— Look, I'm trying to tell you—"

She felt an unaccustomed anger growing inside of her as she listened to the annoyed and repetitive voice of the building manager. And the idea she had firmly discarded, she realized later, began prodding her subconsciously... or at least that's how she excused herself forever afterward.

"Mr. Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs! Enough with the threats, all right? Nobody's complained to me about the dog except you, and I think— What? There's no need to be abusive! Fine. Fine. But you'd damn well better not rent this apartment to anyone else, because Miss James has a lease and it's paid up for months! And another thing: You're responsible for her furniture until she returns from Europe. I'll call her attorney tomorrow, and he'll be over to inventory every stick of furniture and every ornament in the place. And every bit of it had better be here when she gets home! Goodbye!"

Pepper slammed down the telephone and spent a few moments breathing quickly and feeling mildly surprised at her own anger. By nature she was a peacemaker and not given to outbursts—least of all with someone who had every right to be angry at her. She sat down on a chair and looked thoughtfully at her waiting canine audience.

"I believe I just burned my bridges," she told them slowly. "With a vengeance. My friends, we're about to embark on an all-out frontal assault. We're going to storm the battlements... march on the citadel... with banners flying and cannons at the ready." She giggled suddenly, nervously, at her own imagery, then sobered.

"I only hope that laugh I saw in his eyes was for real. Otherwise he's going to repel this invasion with the greatest of ease!"

Thor found himself going to the front window for the tenth time in as many minutes, and swore softly. But he didn't leave the window. He stood looking out over his neatly manicured front lawn and thinking absently about the hours spent raking leaves over the past week. A calming pastime, and one he enjoyed whenever he was home. He'd be home now for several weeks. Time enough, he thought, to get to know a tiny blonde with the most incredible violet eyes he'd ever seen.

A motion on the edge of his line of sight caught his eye, and he turned his head to see Lucifer's sleek black head lift above the split-rail fence bordering the yard. The stark white diamond in the center of the stallion's forehead pointed toward the house, and he seemed to be watching intently. Thor pulled one hand from the pocket of his jeans and swept the drapes aside, giving the horse an indication of his presence.

Immediately Lucifer shied violently away from fence and house, a movement prompted by spirit rather than fear. He patrolled the fence for a few moments, head high, nostrils flaring, and long black tail held like a banner of pride, looking toward the window as if in invitation. Then he took off in a burst of speed, galloping toward his open stable in the little hollow below the house.

Thor felt a sudden uneasiness. Other than himself, Lucifer hated every living thing, and dogs topped his list of enemies. How he would react to "one of the hated" living with his master, Thor didn't even want to guess. He comforted himself with the reminder of Fifi's cowardice; she probably wouldn't go near the pasture, he decided. He hoped.

He started to turn away from the window when a motion from the opposite direction caught his attention. And as soon as his eyes focused on the predominantly white object, he realized that Pepper had arrived to effect the relocation of her pet.

She'd said she had a van, he remembered, but... "Good Lord," he murmured to himself, fascinated. Anyone, he decided, who could call that vehicle a van was prone to vast understatement. He made an absent mental note to remember Pepper's penchant in that regard and then stared at her vehicle again.

In the first place, it was not a van at all, but what was commonly called an RV—a recreational vehicle. And it was thirty-five feet long. Custom built from the looks of it, it boasted tinted windows along the sides; cheery bumper stickers and more prosaic state travel stickers were plastered everywhere; a blue and white awning was rolled up and tied in place above the door; and the whole was liberally splashed with mud.

Wondering how a woman as tiny as Pepper could wheel that monster into his driveway so neatly, Thor left the window and headed for his front door. And if he'd been fascinated yesterday, he was even more so now. From childhood he'd been drawn to the offbeat, the unusual—and it had led him into trouble more than once. It could, he knew, be leading him into trouble now. But the realization didn't cause him to falter.

He enjoyed trouble. Usually.

Shutting the front door behind him, Thor left the house and went down the walk to the paved driveway. He enjoyed the ludicrous contrast of his sleek Corvette and the hulking monster Pepper had parked behind it. The side door of the RV opened just as he reached it. Brutus leaped out first, lifting a lip at Thor but not wasting time with an attack because of his obvious desire to explore new surroundings.

Pepper got out of the vehicle in a no less sedate manner, jumping down without bothering to use the built-in step. Thor almost sighed aloud at the lovely picture she made in her neat jeans and pale blue sweater, her long hair caught up in a casual ponytail. And he forwent polite greetings out of the necessity to give a hasty warning.

"Better not let Brutus go near the pasture. If he attacks Lucifer, he'll learn how to 'break' the hard way."

"Lucifer?" she questioned over her shoulder, somewhat occupied with half lying inside the door of the RV and hanging onto the collar of a reluctant Fifi.

"My horse," he murmured, watching the struggle with interest and silently betting with himself on the outcome.

He lost the bet. Pepper emerged victorious from the struggle, hauling the hundred-pound dog out of the vehicle. Fifi immediately hid her face behind the woman, quivering.

"Is the name descriptive?" she asked, one delicate eyebrow rising.

" 'Fraid so."

Pepper looked around quickly and spotted the tiny dog near the rear of the RV. "Brutus, heel!" she ordered in that disconcertingly icy voice of command, and the voice was heeded as Brutus came to sit by her ankle.

"I thought he didn't obey," Thor noted in surprise.

"He obeys everything but 'break,' " Pepper told him cheerfully. "And I think he only ignores that because he likes attacking." Before he could respond, she was speaking once again in that little-girl, breathless voice that utterly fascinated Thor.

"Just look at the trees! They go on practically forever. You know, after I lived in a desert for six months, I learned to absolutely adore trees. I guess you can never know how much you will miss something until it isn't there."

"I guess." Thor watched her reach back to shut the door of the RV, feeling his mind drift gently into that bemused sphere that Pepper seemed to carry around with her. "You lived in a desert?"

"For a while. Never really liked it though. No trees. And I hate camels. What a beautiful house! I love the bay window. And that rock chimney! Is the fireplace rock?"

Trying not to laugh, Thor followed Pepper as she began to explore the outside of the house and the yard. "It's rock," he barely had time to answer, and then she was off again.

"Is that the barn down there in the hollow? Of course. What a beautiful horse! He looks so proud. Do you ever show him? Oh, I love your patio! What do you cook in that barbecue—a whole steer? Heel, Fifi, and stop being so silly; no one's going to hurt you! Out of the shrubs, Brutus, and heel, blast you!"

Having given up on his intention not to laugh, Thor just enjoyed the stroll around the house. He listened to Pepper's questions but didn't again try to answer them, content just to watch her profile and hear the lovely sound of her voice. And he wondered to himself if it would be possible to get to know this woman in a few short weeks.

And then her words penetrated, and he felt slightly bewildered for a moment to hear her voice his thoughts.

"... and it'll only be for a few weeks, after all."

They had completely circled the house by then, coming to a halt back where they'd started beside the vehicles. Thor blinked and tried to concentrate. "I'm sorry. You were saying...?"

"That it'll only be for a few weeks, three months at the most," she responded cheerfully. "When Kristen comes home, I'll be on my way again, so it's just until then. That English breeder carried her off with him just for the season, he said. Anyway, I think that paved area beside the garage will be perfect for the van. But we never discussed rent. I'll be quite happy to pay what the apartment was costing, if that sounds reasonable to you."

"Rent?" Thor managed blankly, wondering with an unfamiliar sense of desperation when he'd lost the thread of the conversation.

She looked surprised. "Of course! I mean, I wouldn't think of parking the van on your property and living here for weeks without paying rent. I'll need bathroom privileges too. I can hook up to that outside receptacle for power, but it's really not practical to hook up the water or septic tank for such a short time, don't you think?"

With her inquiring violent eyes on his face, Thor could only answer in one way. "Uh... of course. It's not practical at all."

Pepper nodded. "That's what I thought. Here, let me go ahead and park the van in place, so it'll be out of your way. Stay!" she ordered the two dogs firmly, casually guiding Thor's hand to grasp Fifi's collar. And then she opened the RV's door and climbed inside.

Thor found himself leaning back against the hood of the Corvette, holding a quivering Doberman by the collar and staring down at an obviously hostile and watchful Chihuahua. He lifted his gaze to watch Pepper, looking absurdly childlike through the driver's window, maneuver the RV expertly into place beside the garage without once getting into the grass or near his car.

Bemused, bewildered, and ruefully convinced that he'd wandered back through Alice's mirror, Thor was conscious of only one thought: It couldn't be this easy!

It can't be this easy, Pepper thought a little wildly, parking her van neatly beside the garage. She felt a giggle rise in her throat and let it emerge. Oh, his face! The poor man; she really should be ashamed of herself for barreling over him like a steamroller!

He'd taken it well, though, she thought in amusement. A blank look and then a blink—and then she'd seen that really marvelous gleam of laughter rise in his eyes.

And she didn't regret a thing. In fact, she'd never before been so glad that she'd followed her instincts and jumped headfirst into a situation without a lot of planning. Of course, it was quite possible that nothing would ever come of it.

Pepper felt something in that moment that she'd never felt before. A surge of emotion blocked her throat, and she hesitated for a minute before leaving the van.

What if nothing came of it?

A gambler at heart, and quite prepared to pay whatever price was demanded for the chances she took, Pepper was fully and completely conscious for the first time of just what she was doing. She had never gambled for such high stakes, or bet so heavily on herself.

The game—for now, at least—was blindman's buff. Each bit of knowledge and understanding she could gain of him would light a dim candle, and with those candles she would have to find her way. The more she learned, the brighter the light to see by... to see if what she'd instantly felt for him was real... and to see if he could learn to feel the same for her.

Pepper squared her shoulders and reached for the door. Well, she had played more dangerous games—more dangerous to life and limb, that is. Not more dangerous to the heart. Danger didn't bother her. If one risked nothing, one gained nothing, after all.

So she was risking everything, her whole self, on one throw of the dice. And if what she felt was real, she meant to chase Thor as long and as far as it took. Until he caught her.

Emerging from the van and crossing over to where Thor and the pets waited, Pepper choked back a laugh at his still-bemused expression. She quickly began to speak. "You know, it's a good thing you answered my ad yesterday. My landlord called right after you left and threw me out. Wasn't that mean of him? He was supposed to give me more time."

Thor roused himself from some inner speculation. "I meant to ask why you lived in an apartment at all. Since you have the RV, I mean. Or isn't it yours?"

"Oh, it's mine." Pepper bent to pick up Brutus, tucking him under an arm. "The apartment wasn't though. Not really. I sublet it from Kristen, primarily so that I could take care of her furniture and things while she was in England."

"A friend?" he guessed, feeling his way.

"A good friend. We met at Madison Square Garden in New York a couple of years ago at a dog show."

Thor glanced down at Fifi, who was sitting beside him and looking less nervous than he'd yet seen her. Then he looked at Brutus. "Which one were you showing?"

"Oh, neither. I was handling another friend's Great Dane. Kristen was handling a Dane, too, for a client of hers. We got our leashes tangled on the way to the ring, and one thing led to another. We've been friends ever since."

Thor nodded as if the meeting made perfect sense to him. "I see. Uh... why don't we go inside the house? I n— that is, I'd like to have a drink."

He thought that he saw a quick gleam of laughter in her eyes, but it was gone too rapidly for him to be sure. She looked anxiously from one dog to the other, then back up at his face.

"The dogs are very well mannered, but—"

"They're invited too." Thor sighed and started up the walk, automatically retaining his hold on Fifi's collar. "My housekeeper is off today, so she can't object."

"You have a housekeeper?" Pepper was walking beside him. "What's she like?"

Thor didn't answer until he'd opened the front door and stood aside for her to precede him. "Difficult, " he pronounced finally.

Pepper halted in the doorway to give him a mischievous smile. "Ah. Your home is her castle?"

"Something like that." He followed her into the entranceway and shut the door behind them before releasing Fifi. A bit uneasy, he watched Pepper set Brutus down on the carpeted floor. "If he attacks me again..."

She looked back at him in surprise. "Of course, he won't. This is your house, not his. He may be a bit protective around the van once he realizes that we're staying here, but he won't attack you inside your own house."

Thor watched the little dog guardedly for a moment, then realized that Pepper knew what she was talking about. Brutus showed no disposition to savage his host, but set about immediately getting acquainted with the house.

"Let's have that drink first," Thor murmured finally. "Afterward I'll show you around the house if you like."

"I like." She smiled and then obeyed his slight gesture, preceding him and stepping down into the sunken den. Looking around the neat room, Pepper sighed with pleasure. It was decorated in shades of brown and rust and contained the comfortable overstuffed furnishings appropriate for a big man. "I don't know about the rest of the house, but this room is terrific."

"Glad you like it." Thor moved toward an unobtrusive bar in the corner by the bay window and sent a questioning glance toward her. "What's your poison?" he asked, his mind only half on the query as he realized how right she looked in his home. It was a very disconcerting observation.

"Oh, whatever you're having."

He paused for a moment. "I'm having whiskey. Straight."

"Fine." She laughed at his expression. "Thor, I'm old enough to drink, you know. In fact, those who know me best claim that I have a cast-iron stomach." Wandering over to stand before the lovely rock fireplace, Pepper continued to smile at him. He seemed to be concentrating on fixing the drinks, and his next abrupt question nearly caught her off guard.

"Why did you advertise for a 'preferably single' man?"

Pepper waited to answer until he looked at her and appreciated the wry expression on her face. "Well, I hardly think a wife would welcome my camping out on her doorstep, do you? Of course... there's always the possibility of a girlfriend or fiancee objecting." It was a question, and Pepper didn't bother making any bones about it. The stakes were too high.

Thor picked up their glasses and carried hers across to her. When he handed her the glass, he shook his head slightly, and there was a tiny smile in his eyes. "Not in this case. My job takes me away from home too often to encourage... long-term relationships."

Pepper was quick to hear the note of constraint in his deep voice, so she passed on asking the next logical question. So he was touchy about his job, eh? Well, she could find out about that later. She raised her glass in a slight toast. "Then there's no problem."

His glass clinked softly against hers. "No problem at all."

She knew very well that he realized she hadn't initially planned on moving herself as well as the dog out here, and hoped that her mention of the landlord's having thrown her out would cover that. However, the whole situation was still full of holes, and her biggest hope was that Thor simply wouldn't question it.

Feeling suddenly breathless under the gaze of steady gray eyes, Pepper turned away and went over to sit down on the comfortable couch. The phone on the end table beside her set up a train of thought, and she looked across at Thor. "By the way, do you mind if I let my friends know where they can reach me by phone?"

"Of course not."

She grinned. "It's only fair to warn you. They're a talkative bunch. I'm liable to get calls pretty regularly. I'd hate to tie up your line."

Leaning against the mantel and watching her with a faint smile, Thor shrugged. "That's okay. I have another line in my bedroom for... important calls."

Again Pepper let the subject pass without a question, although she nearly had to bite her tongue to do it. "Great. Oh—we never settled on the rent."

"There's no hurry." Glancing toward the doorway, he found himself under scrutiny from Fifi's ridiculously worried brown eyes, and had to chuckle. "Unlike your former landlord, I won't kick you off the place."

"Whatever you say." Pepper sat back and sipped her drink slowly, wondering how to say what had to be said. She hesitated to assume an interest that had not yet been put into words, but she would have been less of a woman than she was to misinterpret the look in Thor's gray eyes.

His seemingly offhand remark about his work had told her two things, and she was sure that one meaning, at least, had been deliberately sent her way. He probably hadn't realized that she'd picked up some undercurrent concerning his job. Definitely, though, he had meant her to understand that long-term relationships weren't a part of his plans.

That didn't daunt Pepper; either he would change his mind or he wouldn't. And this man, she knew intuitively, would neither be pushed or led down the aisle. He would take that trip of his own free will, or he simply wouldn't go. And she wouldn't have had it any other way.

"You're very beautiful," he said suddenly, and immediately looked surprised, as if he hadn't intended to say those words aloud.

Pepper felt her heart give a bump, and sternly tried to control it. He had given her the opening she needed, and she had to take advantage of it. She looked down at the drink in her hand, then steadily back at him.

"I'm not very comfortable with oblique comments, Thor. I'm not very good at tiptoeing verbally around a subject. And since this situation is a bit out of the ordinary, well... I'll be blunt." She felt herself smiling wryly. "My friends say I'm good at that."

"Not interested, huh?" he asked lightly, but Pepper could feel his sudden tension. She didn't answer the question directly.

"I have rules, Thor."


She looked at him steadily, and the honesty in her eyes told him that she was serious, that she meant whatever she was about to say.

"Rules. They're my rules, and they have nothing to do with morality. It's only that I know what would or wouldn't work for myself. And an affair wouldn't work for me."

"I see. Commitment."

Pepper dropped her gaze to the glass in her hand, and when she went on, her voice was quiet, musing. "There have been occasions during the last ten years when the opportunity was there. But something inside of me always said that what was right for the moment wouldn't be right for long. And I don't like regrets. Life's too short for regrets."

Watching her, Thor felt suddenly that there was a very definite reason for her last almost inaudible sentence. Her eyes were hidden from him, but her face was very still, and her voice seemed to have come from a great distance. She had some reason to avoid regrets, he thought, and wondered what it was.

She looked up suddenly, the violet eyes blurred for a moment. Then they were clear, and she was speaking in the same quiet, thoughtful voice as before.

"Commitment... yes. Something that's right for more than just the moment. Usually when people talk about a commitment between a man and woman, they mean marriage. Well, marriage seems to be entered into very lightly these days by a lot of people. But I don't happen to believe marriage is something you decide on with the idea in the back of your mind that it's a contract easily and amicably dissolved in court if it doesn't work. When I say 'till death do us part,' I expect to mean just that.

"And I am looking for that kind of permanence, Thor. I don't know if I'll find it—how can I know that? But one thing I do know: If I climb into a man's bed, or he climbs into mine, it has to be with the knowledge that I think I've found what I'm looking for. And he has to feel the same way."

She laughed suddenly and shortly in wry amusement. "And if that puts me in the company of dodos and dinosaurs"—she lifted her glass in a slightly mocking toast—"then here's to things past... but not forgotten."

After a moment Thor lifted his glass in an answering toast. In doing so, he was silently complimenting her honesty. But, more than that, he was admiring clear-sighted knowledge. She knew what she wanted, and she was unwilling to settle for less. And how many people, he wondered, were that lucky? How many people were spared blind searching because they had the foresight, the certain knowledge, of what they were searching for?

He watched her sip her drink, remembering suddenly the stillness of her face and the remark about no regrets. That expression had been oddly in contrast to his first impression of her. But, then, he had been constantly revising his first impression with every moment spent in her company. And the question that escaped him now was a little rueful, and more than a little bemused.

"How many women are you, Pepper?"

She looked at him, something unreadable flickering in her eyes. And then she was smiling, her smile as twisted and rueful as his own. "As many as I have to be." She finished her drink and set the glass down on the end table beside the phone.

"That admission is a challenge to any man," he pointed out softly. "Like looking at a diamond with countless facets, or a puzzle with countless pieces. Something that has to be—must be—understood."

"Some puzzles can't be solved because they're interpreted different ways by different people." Pepper looked intently at him, determined in her innate honesty that he wouldn't think her rules were easily overcome. "Like the Lady and the Tiger. If you were that man, Thor, and you opened the door your princess had told you to open, what do you think you would find?"

Thor looked at her searchingly, aware that she was telling him something. And he felt that what she was trying to tell him was important. Slowly he said, "I think if I opened the door she told me to open, I'd find the lady behind it."

Pepper rose to her feet, sliding her hands into the pockets of her jeans and shaking her head slightly. "And I think you'd find the Tiger. Princesses—women—were ruthless in those days, Thor. We still are. Abstract reasoning doesn't appeal to us much. We decide things by feelings more often than not. Our own feelings."

"What are you telling me?" he asked bluntly. "That your rules are yours, and therefore inviolable?"

Peeper laughed suddenly. Only a few candles had been lit, but already she saw her way clearly. And, true to her nature, she stepped forward boldly to begin the journey.

"What I'm telling you, Thor, is—be warned. If you decide to study the diamond's facets, or put the puzzle together, you may be biting off more than you can chew. Lord, we're mixing metaphors right and left. Because while you're looking for solutions, I might very well decide that you're just what I've been looking for."

Thor was slowly beginning to smile. "And so?"

"And, so, I'm a ruthless woman. I hate to lose." Pepper smiled at him very sweetly. "I'd chase you to hell and back, O god of thunder. And not even Odin—or your magic hammer—could save you."

Chapter Three

Thor's laugh began as a rumble deep inside his chest, growing slowly into the delighted sound of pure enjoyment. She'd flung the gauntlet at his feet, the little witch! She'd neatly picked up his earlier hint of no long-term involvement, flatly laid down her own rules, and then gently dared him to match wits with her. Challenged him... and he'd never had a more intriguing challenge.

Still chuckling, he put his empty glass down on the mantel and moved slowly toward her with the unthinking grace of a cat. "You realize, of course," he told her conversationally, "that I can't possibly ignore your challenge."

"The thought did occur," she murmured, watching his approach and still smiling. Not quite as calm as she appeared. Pepper was tautly aware that this would be the moment of truth. In the next few minutes one of two things would happen.

Either she would know that she'd been wrong about her feelings for this almost stranger—in which case she would fold her tent and steal quietly away—or she would discover that the feelings would indeed be there. And there would be no turning back.

"I've always loved challenges. I would have wanted to open Pandora's box," he said, halting less than an arm's length away and looking down at her with lazily smiling eyes.

"Never know what might jump out at you," she warned softly, tilting her head back to look up at him.

Thor reached out slowly, one large hand nearly encircling her neck, his thumb brushing along her jawline. "I think," he murmured as his head bent toward hers, "I'll take my chances."

Pepper didn't know what she had expected. A pleasant tingle, perhaps. A firecracker or two. She'd even wondered if Marsha had been right with her "Bells, my dear—ringing their little clangers off." But, being realistic, she had expected nothing so drastic. Just a sign, a preview of marvelous things to come.

What she got was the main attraction, and she very nearly forgot who had challenged whom.

For a still, timeless moment his lips rested on hers with the weight of a feather and the force of a sigh. Warm, undemanding, faintly questioning— and she was astonished at her response. The shivering tingle began somewhere near her middle, sweeping outward in ripples of curiously hot-cold sensation. She was only dimly aware of her hands leaving the pockets of her jeans and sliding up around his neck, helpless to prevent her lips from parting and inviting his exploration.

And the hot-cold sensation blazed suddenly white-hot, sizzling through her veins and scorching nerve endings as he abruptly accepted her invitation. His lips slanted across hers with driving hunger, demanding, compelling, sapping the strength from her legs.

Pepper was conscious of an aching emptiness within her, a throbbing hollowness she had never felt before. It seemed to fill her being, hot and hurting with an unfamiliar pain. She felt driven to be closer to him, hungry to touch him and have him touch her.

The sensations frightened her in their intensity; they swept aside logic and rationality to leave only raw emotion. But what frightened her even more was that the raw emotion was stronger than fear, stronger than her ability to fight it. She couldn't break away from him even with her instincts for self-preservation clamoring a desperate warning.

Those instincts told her that she'd met her match this time, that the stakes were higher than she had known. Her challenge had left her vulnerable to an intensity of feeling she'd not been prepared for, and she wondered dimly what price would be demanded of her this time for the reckless chance she had taken.

Then the fire in her veins blazed over fear, and she was conscious only of her need for this man. She had no strength left, no power over her own body. She was weightless and adrift on a churning sea, and there was no life preserver to save her from drowning....

Thor's lips left hers as she was going down for the second time, and he drew a deep breath as if he, too, had nearly drowned.

Pepper stared dazedly into storm-clouded gray eyes and, incurably honest, said exactly what she was thinking. "Pandora's box. I think we're both in trouble."

"I think you're right," Thor said a bit raggedly. "Good Lord, for such a little thing, you pack one hell of a punch, lady."

"You know what they say about dynamite." She wondered idly how she could possibly be having a perfectly rational conversation while looking eye-to-eye with a man who'd just demonstrated the Fourth of July in the middle of October.... Eye-to-eye? That wasn't right!

Leaning a bit sideways, Pepper looked down and realized only then why she felt so weightless: she was being held a good foot off the floor for Pete's sake. Returning her gaze to Thor's still-bemused face, she requested politely, "Could you put me down, please?"

"No," he said simply.

Pepper stared at him. "Why not?"

Thor kissed her very lightly. Then he kissed her lightly again, wearing the pleased expression of a man who has discovered a wonderful new hobby. "Because, like Brutus," he murmured, "1 ignore the command to 'break.' "

She bit her lip to hold back an ill-timed giggle. "I did say please."

"I can't seem to hear that either. Although, if it were stuck in the right sentence—"

"Forget it, chum." She unlocked one hand from his hair and waved a threatening finger beneath his nose. "Remember the Alamo!"

He lifted an eyebrow. "No quarter?"

"No quarter. No mercy. One of us is going to break. And, as the man said, it ain't gonna be me."

"Want to bet?"

"We already did."


"Are you going to put me down?"


"You're vulnerable, you know. There are pressure points in your neck. And, of course, I could always resort to the old both-hands-clapped-to-the-ears trick. It shatters the eardrums, I'm told."

Thor looked at her consideringly. "You've learned to take care of yourself."

"Yes." She didn't elaborate.

"I get the feeling you've had an interesting life."

"Perhaps. But, interesting or not, I have no intention of discussing my past while dangling in the air."

"Will you discuss it if I put you down?"


"Uh-uh." Thor shook his head. "If I've learned anything at all about women it's that 'maybe' means a variety of things, none of which is 'yes-

"You've learned that, huh?"

"I've also learned that in these days of women's lib and whatever, a man needs every edge he can find or steal. And since I happen to be considerably larger than you, I plan to use that advantage every chance I get."

"Are you going to turn me over your knee?" she asked interestedly.

"Don't give me ideas."

"Wouldn't think of it," Pepper drawled. "Never give the opposing side a gun; it leads to uncomfortable things. Like defeat."

"You don't like to lose?"

"Not if.1 can help it." She stared at him and frowned. "We seem to have digressed somewhat from the point."

"What was the point?" He kissed her again.

Pepper fought for breath and cleared her throat determinedly. "The point. Ah. This macho attempt to use your muscles—that's the point. It's unfair."

" 'All's fair in...'Well, you know the rest."

" 'Love and war,' if I remember correctly. And it's going to be the latter with a vengeance if you don't put me down."

Thor looked virtuous. "It was your challenge, therefore I choose the weapons. It's a rule."

"Look, I'm not used to this altitude, and I'm getting dizzy. Why don't we sit down and discuss the rules?"

Thor appeared to think about her request, then nodded, making a complicated maneuver that ended with him sitting on the couch and Pepper sitting in his lap.

"This wasn't quite what I had in mind," she noted dryly.

"It's what I had in mind. You were saying something about rules?" He seemed to find her ponytail fascinating, winding the silky hair around his hand and apparently watching light play on the silvery strands.

Or maybe, she thought wryly, he was adding insurance to the arm resting across her lap. Since he obviously didn't intend to let her escape, Pepper, characteristically, got on with the matter at hand.

But it was damnably hard to ignore the hard thighs beneath her....

"The rules. Well, you said it was up to you to choose the weapons, but any contest of physical superiority ends right here."


"Definitely. It's too unequal. Brute strength wins out in the end, and we both know it," she said seriously.

He looked at her for a long moment. "That's a lesson usually learned in a hard school; my curiosity about your past is growing by leaps and bounds."

Pepper felt a peculiar little mental shock and wondered silently at his perception. But she wasn't ready to talk about hard schools or pasts, and skated over the subject lightly. "When one is pint-size, it's a lesson easily and quickly learned. So—no physical domination, okay?"

In an odd little gesture his free hand lifted to lie along the side of her neck, the thumb moving gently beneath her ear. His expression was totally and completely serious. "I'd never hurt you, Pepper. That's one thing you can always be very sure of."

Swallowing hard—for some reason there seemed to be a lump in her throat—Pepper decided to accept that for agreement. "Fine." She decided to lighten the atmosphere. "And since that washes out your strongest weapon—no wordplay intended—what do you choose instead?"

Thor's lazy smile indicated an approval of her light question, but his reply made her realize suddenly that her own strategy was marching inexorably over quicksand.


"I see." She wondered where her own unwary steps had led her, and how he defined honesty. "No punches pulled. No quarter asked... or granted."

"You said it first." He was still smiling, but watchful now, gray eyes probing. "No quarter. No holds barred. And since honesty is the weapon"— his smile grew—"I’ll be the first to employ it. Tell me something, Pepper. Were you looking for a place to park your RV for a few weeks? Or were you looking for a home for Fifi?"

"Dammit." Pepper was torn between a desire to laugh and an urge to hit him with something. "That's not a fair question!"

He shook his head reprovingly. "You can't cry foul whenever something doesn't suit you. Come on now, 'fess up! Your gauntlet was well hidden, but you were bent on challenge yesterday, weren't you?"

Pepper felt a smile tugging at her lips. This was honesty with a vengeance! "Well, since you obviously aren't taking to your heels, I'll admit that I could have found somewhere else to park the van."

"Not good enough."

"You want your pound of flesh, don't you?"

"Something like that."


"To the core. Well?"

"All right!" She glared at him; her expression was part mockery and part amused exasperation. "I was... interested. Satisfied?"

He was openly grinning now. "It'll do. Damn, you must have been born with a poker face; you certainly didn't give anything away yesterday. I figured you didn't have a subtle bone in your body."

"You call this subtle?" Pepper looked at him with a lifted brow. "If my fellow women found out about this, I'd be drummed out of the sisterhood."

"What sisterhood?" Thor looked puzzled.

Pepper decided that if he wanted honesty, he was going to get it. It was a tactic that, according to theory, was guaranteed to give most men nightmares, but she was intuitively certain that it was the right one with this particular man. Not total honesty, of course. There would always be guarded areas of any individual's privacy in which intrusion would neither be forgotten nor forgiven. She sighed. Oh, well, he knew that as well as she. Honesty in intent, though—well, that was different.

"News for you, pal," she told him with a gentle smile. "Women have always done the chasing; we just never let you guys know it. Subtle, you see. Which is why the sisterhood would disown me if this got out."

Thor stared at her for a long moment. "What have I gotten myself into?" he murmured.

"Trouble." She bit back a giggle. "With a capital T and a capital all the other letters too. You've opened a Pandora's box, remember."

"What about you?" The intent, probing expression in his gray eyes belied his easy smile. "Aren't you putting yourself in a vulnerable position by admitting interest so early in the—uh—game?"

"You mean, 'what price honesty'?" Too serious, she thought, and gave him a light answer. "Well, I've always paid my own fare. And, besides, it seems to me that a lot of the problems in human relationships arise out of trying to hide what's painfully obvious." She smiled a little. "I'd be an idiot to deny interest after the way I reacted to your—uh—physical response to my challenge. Wouldn't I?"

Something flickered in Thor's eyes, an expression that might have been admiration or approval—or bewilderment. When he spoke, his voice was a curious combination of all three emotions.

"I asked for honesty, but I didn't really expect it, Pepper. The closer I look at the puzzle, the bigger and more complicated it gets." Almost whimsically he added, "Are you real? Or will I wake up and find you were a dream?"

Pepper didn't delude herself into thinking that the question meant what it seemed to mean: that her honesty made her more imagined than real, something he'd needed but never expected to find. She wasn't that complacent about herself or that certain of him. So she simply answered the first question and tried to ignore the second.

"I'm real. And you'd better remember that honesty's a double-edged sword; it cuts both ways. You have to be honest too."

"And so?"

"And so... the chase is on. Do you feel hunted?"

He appeared to consider the question seriously. "Oddly enough, no. I suppose because I feel certain that you'd chase, but not trap. And I'd be a fool if I weren't flattered by your... interest."

Pepper was honestly surprised. "Why?"

Thor was clearly amused. "My ego, I guess. I've never been chased by an angel before."

Instead of taking the remark as the compliment it was obviously intended to be, Pepper was shaken by it. "Thor... don't put me on a pedestal. I'd lose my balance. I'd fall off."

In that moment Thor felt a curious need to reassure her. He didn't know why, but the need rose with a certainty not to be questioned. And he didn't question. He simply drew her closer, resting his chin against her hair and wrapping both arms around her. "You look like an angel," he told her quietly. "I don't expect you to be one. In fact, I wouldn't know what to do with an angel."

Pepper was surprised by his reaction to her plea, but warmed by it. She wanted him to think of her as a flesh-and-blood woman, not the china doll some men wanted her to be. A china doll was placed on a shelf and displayed proudly; it was rarely touched or even held. Pepper had discovered in the last few minutes just how much of a woman she was, and she didn't want to risk the loss of Thor touching and holding her.

Wary again of being too serious, of delving into too many unfamiliar emotions, she tried to lighten the mood. "You said something about giving me the nickel tour," she murmured, highly conscious of his big arms around her.

"It's gone up to a dime," he responded gravely. "Inflation, you know."

"Really? Well, I guess it'll be worth it."

"That remains to be seen."

"True." She made an experimental attempt to remove herself from his lap, both relieved and disappointed when he allowed her to get up. "Lead on."

Thor rose to his feet slowly and stood looking down at her for a moment. "I am flattered, you know," he said suddenly.

Pepper was deliberately obtuse. "Just because I think the tour'll be worth a dime?" she asked lightly.

"No." He touched the tip of her nose with one finger. "Because I'm being chased."

"It's early days yet," she told him wryly. "This time next week you may be running in fear of your very life."

"Somehow I don't think that's likely. In the meantime, however... This, ma'am, is the den. And, if you'll come this way..."

The house was beautiful. Downstairs was the living room, den, study, kitchenbreakfast nook, formal dining room, and one of the three bathrooms.

The rooms were spacious and airy, decorated— Pepper's discerning eye for such things told her— professionally, but with instructions to lean toward comfort rather than style. The furniture was composed of sturdy woods and comfortable cushions, nothing delicate or spindly. Colors varied from room to room, mostly earth tones brightened by greens and blues.

The study held her interest the longest, particularly since she was looking for clues to the man himself, and experience had taught her that work areas in the home offered the most insight for those who cared to look.

It was carpeted in deep brown, paneled in birch, and filled with bookshelves that were filled, in turn, with books of every type. Pepper could find no preference that would aid in her deductions, except that he seemed to have a fondness for mysteries. The huge oak desk in one corner was neat; no clutter of papers or objects to indicate that work was done there.

Two high-backed chairs were grouped with a table and reading lamp in another corner. In the center of the large room was a game table, suitable for card games or jigsaw puzzles, or whatever. It was bare.

In the remaining corner was a baby grand piano. Gleaming a velvety black, its polished surface spoke of loving care, but whether that was due to Thor or his housekeeper, Pepper couldn't tell. She touched a sparkling ivory key with one finger and wondered silently.

"You play, I gather," she said aloud.

"Indifferently. How about you?"

"When I get the chance."

"Feel free."

"Thanks; I just might take you up on that."

They left the matter there and went on with the tour. The laundry room held no interest for Pepper, but a good-size room with a door through to the garage did. It was bare except for a storage cabinet and a large deep sink, and appeared not to be in use.

"What's this?"

"In the plans it's called a mudroom."

"You don't use it for anything?"

"No. Why?"

Pepper eyed the size of the room, paying close attention to the sink. "I was just wondering... well, if you don't need it for anything, d'you mind if I use it while I'm here? I promise to leave it just as I found it."

Thor looked at her curiously. He wondered why she needed a large bare room, but decided that the reason would become apparent in time. "I don't mind. Help yourself."

"Thanks." Pepper smiled a little, wondering how he would react to the second invasion he would suffer shortly. She hoped it would be humorously; never before, she was reasonably sure, had a man been the victim of such an honestly declared and inwardly devious chase.

If nothing else, she thought with humor, her methods were original. She was being totally honest in her goal—permanence—and utterly absurd in her methods. One of them would win... or Thor would murder her, resulting in a sort of victory by default.

"Why the Mona Lisa smile?" Thor asked a bit uneasily.

"Oh—no reason. Is the tour taking us upstairs now, or shall I imagine the rest?"

"Heaven forbid. After you." He gestured for her to precede him, still wondering about that smile but lacking the nerve to ask again.

They went up the staircase in the entranceway so she could view the four bedrooms. They were accompanied by Fifi—who'd been with them from the first of the tour, and by Brutus—who'd caught up with them in the kitchen. All the bedrooms were beautifully decorated, one containing a huge king-size waterbed. There was a central bathroom opening into the hall, and another off the master bedroom.

That room itself was the largest, and possessed a tremendous oak four-poster bed that Pepper would have needed a stool to climb onto. It looked like an antique, along with the long dresser and tall chest of drawers. The room also boasted a walk-in closet, and the bathroom contained a sunken bath deep enough to satisfy a giant.

Passing up the opportunity to call him a sybarite, Pepper made only one remark. "Awfully big house for only one person," she murmured as they were going back down the stairs.

"Mmm. I like space."

She considered his reply as they went back into the den. And a glance around at the room made her remember that she'd seen few indications of "personality" in the house. No clutter or mess, which merely indicated that he was either very neat or that his housekeeper was. More surprising—and perhaps more revealing—was the lack of personal touches.

The prints and paintings throughout the house were ambiguous as to taste, mostly landscapes and seascapes. No adventurous abstracts or romantic portraits, no favored artist. There were few ornaments, and what there was seemed more the touch of a decorator than a declaration of personal taste. Where were the souvenirs of places visited? Photos of people related or known?

Pepper wondered just how often his job took him away from home. Now, she asked herself, which one of them was putting a puzzle together? She or Thor?

"Another drink?" he asked, pulling her from speculation.

"No, thanks." She slid a hand into her pocket, absently retrieving a worry-stone and beginning to "worry" it rhythmically.

Thor watched her curiously for a moment, then stepped closer and caught her wrist. "What's this?"

Realizing only then what she'd been doing, Pepper opened her hand and watched him lift the smooth stone to examine it. "It's a worry-stone," she said.

Thor turned the object in his fingers. It looked like quartz and was roughly two inches from end to end and about a quarter of an inch thick. Oval in shape and smoothly polished, it was flat on both sides and had a slight depression in one end which was, he saw, perfectly suited to be rubbed by a thumb.

He placed the stone back in her palm, his fingers lingering on hers. "Are you worried about something?"

Rather hastily Pepper slid the stone back into her pocket. "Of course not. I quit smoking a few years ago. Some people chew gum—I play with a worry-stone."

"I see." He didn't look convinced.

Pepper decided to change the subject. "Look, it's almost suppertime, according to my stomach's clock. I think I'll take advantage of those liberated tendencies you blanketed us females with and ask you to share my meal. I can bring some stuff over from the van, since your dining room's larger than mine. Or else we can go somewhere. If you're interested, that is."

"I'm interested. But why don't we just make do with whatever's in the kitchen here? Mrs. Small usually keeps the place stocked."

"Fine with me. What were you planning to have tonight?"

"A TV dinner."

Pepper lifted a brow at him. "Is that your usual fare?"

"On Mrs. Small's day off it is."

She shook her head mournfully. "It's disgraceful to reach your advanced years without being able to cook."

Thor decided to ignore the first part of her sentence. "Don't expect me to be perfect. I suppose you can cook?"


"Well, that was a flat answer."

"You asked a flat question," she reminded him.

"No modest disclaimers, huh?"

"We're being honest."

"So we are," Thor said.

"Will Mrs. Small mind us invading her kitchen?"

"We just won't ask her."

"Devious man."

The rest of the evening was companionable, and if they felt the undercurrents, neither mentioned it. They observed a tacit agreement not to delve any further into their sudden relationship, treading instead around lighter topics with the wariness of fencers. They talked casually about various subjects in the curious give-and-take probing of new acquaintances, neither giving much away.

What emerged was that Thor preferred blue and enjoyed football and soft pop music and hated snails, while Pepper loved the color wine-red and also enjoyed football and pop music and could take or leave snails. Both agreed that Maine was a beautiful state and that the latest best-selling novel was fascinating and that neither nervous Dobermans nor inquisitive Chihuahuas belonged in kitchens.

After a totally deadpan preparation of hot dogs and French fries by Pepper and a joint clean-up in the kitchen, a murder mystery on television topped off the evening. Thor sided with the detective while Pepper seriously defended the murderer's motivations.

Pepper firmly dissuaded him from walking out to the RV with her, refusing his offer to help in hooking up the vehicle to his electrical supply and condescending only to accept a flashlight. After a comically grave handshake she thanked him solemnly for the meal, the flashlight, and the place in which to park her van, gathered the dogs firmly to heel, and strolled off into the darkness.

A while later, as he was lying in bed and staring up at a darkness-distorted ceiling, Thor wondered how on earth such an emotional and challenging afternoon had turned into a disconcertingly calm and companionable evening. Questions floated around in his mind, their answers beyond his reach because he didn't yet know Pepper well enough to even guess.

Was her honesty as real as it seemed? Had she indeed decided that he might be what she was looking for and, if so, how did he really feel about that? What had happened in her life to teach her that brute strength always wins in the end? Why the worry-stone? What events in her life had shaped a woman who could challenge a man with honesty and humor?

The last question occurred just as he was dropping off to sleep, and it bothered Thor more than all the others.

Why had she not invited him for a nickel tour of her own home? In fact, without being in the least rude, she had made certain that he had not seen the inside of the RV. Was it because it contained some of the pieces he needed to put the puzzle together? And while Thor was suddenly, if sleepily, consumed with an intense desire to do so, he knew that he wouldn't set foot inside the vehicle without Pepper's invitation.

The thought followed him into dreams in which distorted RVs loomed mockingly and spewed forth countless jigsaw puzzle pieces while a cowardly Doberman looked at him with panicky brown eyes, a savage Chihuahua attempted to maul him, and the maniacal laughter of Odin fell derisively on the ears of a hapless, earthbound god of thunder....

Rising earlier than usual after a restless, disturbed night, Thor decided to take the coward's way out and leave home before Mrs. Small arrived for the day. He would have dearly loved to be a fly on the wall during the meeting of his housekeeper and Pepper, Brutus, and Fifi; at the same time, the thought of likely chaos sent him out of the house after a breakfast of coffee.

Feeling both guilty and amused, he fed Lucifer and then cranked the Corvette as quietly as possible, noting that Pepper's RV was hooked up to his garage and seeing no sign of the dogs. Presumably then, she was still asleep.

He'd given her a key to the house the night before and told her to treat it as her own, and her Mona Lisa smile of the day before came suddenly back to haunt him. What would he find when he returned?

Pushing the useless speculation from his mind, Thor backed the low-slung Corvette out of the driveway and headed toward town. He had errands to run, he assured himself silently. And he'd left Mrs. Small a note to explain Pepper's presence. Sort of explain anyway.

"Coward," he muttered aloud.

When Thor parked the Corvette in his driveway later that afternoon, he saw that the only difference in the appearance of his home was the presence of Mrs. Small's little VW. He felt relieved that she hadn't, apparently, quit, but wondered what kind of reception he would get from her. Steeling himself, he headed for the front door.

As the door swung inward he heard a deep-throated "Woof!" and saw Fifi disappearing in the direction of the kitchen. As he closed the door behind him, he saw Brutus sitting squarely in the middle of the entranceway and lifting a lip at him.

Thor stood staring down at the tiny dog. "Make up your mind, pal," he told Brutus calmly. "Either you accept me or you don't; we aren't going through this little charade every time we see each other."

The lip descended to cover pointed teeth, and Brutus returned the stare. Then he got up, wagged a tail, and trotted off after Fifi. Feeling mildly pleased with himself, Thor followed the canine parade.

When he reached the kitchen door, he felt tremors in the very foundation of his world. Mrs. Small was smiling. Smiling. And even as he watched and listened in incredulous fascination, he heard her laugh for the first time in five years. It was an odd, deep laugh, seemingly rusty from disuse, but it was definitely a laugh.

She was leaning against the refrigerator and stirring something in a large mixing bowl, unperturbed by the Doberman trying to hide behind her as she listened to Pepper's cheerful little-girl voice. And Pepper was sitting on the end of the counter wearing jeans, ridiculously small boots, and a red and black plaid shirt over a black sweater.

Thor watched her gesture to illustrate some point he wasn't taking in, wondering dimly how she had managed to pile all her hair on the top of her head to achieve that tousled, impossibly sexy look. Then she glanced toward the door and saw him, breaking the trance he seemed to be swimming in.

"Hi, Thor," she said casually.

"Hi," he managed.

She tilted her head to one side like an inquisitive robin. "Are you all right? You look strange."

"I'm fine," he murmured, deciding not to explain that he'd expected a mushroom cloud and gotten Alice's mirror instead.

He wasn't sure he understood it himself.

Chapter Four

Before another word could be spoken, a head popped out of the doorway to the hall leading to the mud and laundry rooms. It was a masculine head roughly seventeen years old, with an attempt at a mustache, fairly long brown hair, and the mild brown eyes of a hopeful spaniel.

"Jo Jo's done, Pep. Want me to start on Dickens next?"

While Thor was pondering the meaning of these mysterious words, Pepper answered cheerfully, "Give him a few more minutes to settle down; Mrs. Shannon just brought him a little while ago. I'll take care of Jo Jo while you work on Ladama's nails."

"Right." He vanished.

Pepper slid down off the counter, using every ounce of her control to keep from laughing at Thor's bewildered expression. Studiously refusing to look at him, she smiled at Mrs. Small instead. "After I've finished, I'll go and dig out that recipe, Jean. You may not be able to find all the ingredients around here, but I have most of the raw spices."

Mrs. Small nodded. "I'd love to try my hand at it."

"Great. See you later." With a wave to Thor Pepper disappeared through the doorway.

He stared after her. Jo Jo? Dickens? Ladama? He looked at Mrs. Small. Jean?

Cryptically Mrs. Small said, "Sukiyaki. Authentic. I'll need to borrow her wok though." She turned back to her mixing bowl with an absent "Move, Fifi." As the Doberman shifted slightly sideways and continued to regard Thor with uneasy eyes, the housekeeper added even more cryptically, "A little Japanese village."

Shaking off the growing conviction that this was a continuation of his wild dream, Thor headed purposefully for the mudroom. He didn't know what was going on in his house, but he meant to find out.

The mudroom had been transformed. Along the garage side of the wall were several wire kennels of various sizes, four of them occupied by three poodles and a cocker spaniel. On a makeshift table sat a disdainful collie whose paw was being bent over by the strange young man with the attempt at a mustache. A collection of bottles sat on the wide counter beside the sink, along with several crumpled towels and a stack of neatly folded ones.

Another table, this one entirely professional, had been set up on the other side of the sink. On shelves beneath it were three hair dryers; a variety of electric clippers, brushes, and combs; and a tasteful selection of narrow, colorful ribbons. On the top of the table stood a silver-gray miniature poodle, eyes half closed in blissful enjoyment as two brushes were worked steadily through his thick coat.

Wielding the brushes with the casual, easy precision of an expert was Pepper. She didn't look around as the door opened, but simply said firmly, "Out, Brutus."

Thor looked down to see the tiny Chihuahua turn stiffly and stalk from the room. He shut the door and leaned back against it, staring again around the room. "What the hell?" he muttered.

"Thor, this is Tim." She gestured toward the young man with the nail clippers, still without looking around. "Tim, our host."

Tim looked up briefly. "Hi." Then bent again, his full attention back on the collie's nails.

"Hi. So this is what you wanted the room for?"

"Obviously. You don't mind, do you? It's Kristen's business, you know. She had a little place in town, but since the lease was up, I decided to work out here instead."

"Does Kristen know?" Thor asked dryly.

"No. But then, she thinks she's coming back to the States."

"And she isn't?" Thor pulled fragments of conversation into his mind. "I thought you said you planned to move on in a few weeks."

Pepper glanced at him, wondering in amusement if he was beginning to feel trapped. "That's what I plan. I think Kristen will come back only to pack up her things. That English breeder had something permanent in mind when he swept her off, I just know it. They'll be happy together."

Thor pondered the information. "I see. Did you— uh—introduce them, by any chance?"

"Sort of. You don't mind about this, do you?"

A neat change of subject, he decided. "No. No, if Mrs. Small doesn't mind, then I don't."

"Jean loves dogs."

"I didn't know that," he mumbled.

"Mmm. Anyway, we'll be out of your hair within a few weeks." Pepper sent an amused glance his way. "So you don't have to panic."

"I wasn't," he told her, sending a glance toward the younger man and hoping that the conversation was too cryptic for him to follow.

"Of course not. The thought of my moving in bag and baggage doesn't daunt you a bit, does it?"

Thor decided to use one of her tricks and change the subject. "What's this about a little village in Japan and sukiyaki?"

She was blandly casual. "Just a recipe I picked up a few years ago. I'm about to turn on the clippers here, which will make conversation totally impossible. And I think Jean has your lunch ready."

Thor smiled wryly at the far from subtle hint. "Okay, okay. No help from you in the god of thunder's quest, I take it."

Pepper chose a set of clippers and plugged them into the outlet beside the table, giving Thor a limpid smile. "Fair is fair. When the quarry turns to confront his huntress... well, who knows?"

His smile went a little crooked. Respect for her grew as he realized that the lady was far from dumb. She saw that, however willing he was to be chased, he wasn't yet ready to explain his reasons for running. With a slight inclination of his head that was half acceptance and half salute, he murmured, "Just call you Diana."

"Goddess of the hunt?" she queried lightly, demonstrating a knowledge of Greek as well as Norse mythology.

"Goddess of the hunt. Join me for lunch?"

She shook her head slightly. "I have to finish up my friends here before five."

"You have to eat," he reminded.

"I usually skip lunch."

"Bad habit."

"I never claimed to be perfect. See you, Thor."

Giving in to the nudge, Thor sighed softly and left the makeshift grooming parlor, hearing the clippers begin to buzz loudly.

Mrs. Small—Thor couldn't bring himself to think of her as Jean—served him cheese enchiladas, and since it wasn't her habit to experiment with "foreign" fare, he looked at her questioningly.

"Mexico," she responded in answer to the look. "Pepper's recipe. Authentic."

Thor sampled Pepper's recipe. "Delicious," he said honestly. Before Mrs. Small could return to the kitchen, he decided to do a bit of unscrupulous digging. "When was she in Mexico?" he asked casually.

"Last year." The housekeeper picked up a china vase from the sideboard and apparently decided to take it back to the kitchen for a wash rather than a dusting. "The same time as you were there."

Thor looked up quickly. "Does she know I was there?"

"Didn't mention it." She left the room.

Staring after her, Thor wondered which of them hadn't mentioned it—Pepper or Mrs. Small. His housekeeper had never struck him as the type to talk about her employer, but he wasn't sure, after today, that she wouldn't answer a direct question if Pepper asked. And he couldn't help but wonder if Pepper had decided to do a bit of unscrupulous digging as well.

He also wondered about her presence in Mexico. Clearly the lady had done a bit of traveling; the recipes from Japan and Mexico, and she'd mentioned spending six months in a desert with camels. Not that she'd put it that way, of course, but desert and camels suggested Arabia or northern Africa, both of which he, too, had spent time in.

She hadn't traveled the world grooming dogs, he knew. So what did she do? Was she wealthy? Heaven knew she neither looked nor acted it, but he'd quickly learned not to stick any kind of label on Pepper, and that RV hadn't come cheap.

It was another piece to the puzzle and he didn't know where to fit it.

Five o'clock had just passed when the last of the dogs had been picked up by admiring owners and Tim had left with the girlfriend who'd come to get him. Pepper finished cleaning up the mudroom, leaving it neat before wandering out into the kitchen. An appetizing scent led her to the oven, where she discovered lasagna bubbling away.

Pepper grinned faintly, noting that the lasagna recipe and the ones for cheese enchiladas and sukiyaki were tacked to a small cork board above a counter work area. She hoped that Thor didn't mind this culinary experimentation, since Jean seemed determined to try every recipe in Pepper's rather crowded recipe box.

Still smiling, she left the kitchen. Both Thor and Jean had told her to treat the house as home, and she felt no uneasiness about doing just that.

Besides, she had to find the pets; they seemed to have disappeared in the last few hours.

The muffled roar of the vacuum cleaner told her that Jean was finishing up the bedrooms upstairs, but no other sound led her to the pets or Thor. Puzzled, she went from room to room, ending up in the empty study. Nothing. She crossed to the window with a view of the pasture, pulled the heavy drapes aside and looked through.

And she couldn't help but grin.

Fifi sat off to one side, wary and keeping her distance as she watched Thor throwing a small stick for Brutus to fetch. The difference in size of Thor's six-feet-three two-hundred-pound frame and Brutus's seven inches and less than two pounds was utterly ridiculous. But both seemed oblivious to the comical aspects of their game.

Pepper watched for a few moments, then rose on her tiptoes to look down toward the hollow and Lucifer's stable. The bottom half of the Dutch door was closed, she saw, and the stallion shut inside. So... Thor really was worried about his horse hurting the dogs. She'd have to do something about that. Tomorrow. Maybe before Thor woke up in the morning.

Pleased that Thor was making an effort to get friendly with her pets, but wondering if it was only because he wanted to save wear and tear on his nerves, she turned away from the window. The baby grand in the room drew her like a magnet, and she went over to sit on the padded bench.

Her fingers moved over the keys lightly, fluidly. She played a bit of Mozart from memory, then began a soft pop song that was a favorite of hers. The piano was beautifully tuned, and Pepper lost herself in the enjoyment of having the chance to play. Leaving her piano behind was the one sacrifice she'd had to make in launching her gypsy life-style.

The words to the song formed in her mind, her throat, and she allowed them to escape softly. Only then did she realize that it was a love song about a woman who loved beyond all reason and feared to lose that love. It wasn't a sad song, oddly enough, but one filled with determination. And, even as she was singing, Pepper wondered in amusement at the proddings of her subconscious.

The last notes trailed away into silence, and the sudden sound of a husky masculine voice threw her into confusion for one of the few times in her life.

"Was that meant for me?"

Startled, she swung around on the bench. Thor was standing in the doorway, leaning back against the jamb with his arms crossed over his broad chest, and something in his eyes made her almost too breathless to answer.

"I thought you were outside," she managed to say after a few moments of silence.

"Ah. Then it wasn't meant for me?"

He wasn't going to let her avoid answering, dammit. "I thought you were outside, I told you. The song was for me. I don't like advertising my lack of voice."

"Fishing?" he inquired with a lifted brow.

Pepper was honestly surprised. "Of course not."

"Then," he told her calmly, "you don't know ability when you hear it. You could sing professionally."

She blinked at him. "I could? Uh... I question your taste, but thank you for the compliment."

"You play beautifully too."

"Thank you," she said gravely, staring at him.

"And you look sexy as hell with your hair piled on top of your head like that. I meant to tell you earlier."

She blinked again. "You're feeling very complimentary" was all she was able to say.

"I'm also feeling unusually protective," he said conversationally. "So I guess I'd better know how you feel about that. I mean, do you object to my feeling protective, or is that one of the qualities you're looking for?"

"Would it matter?" she asked in sudden amusement, assuming that eventually he'd get around to the real point he wanted to make.

He considered her question. "I doubt it. I don't seem to be able to control it. However, if you object—women's lib or whatever—then I'll see what I can do about it. Do you object?"

"Not really. As long as it isn't taken to extremes. I mean, if you accept that I'm not helpless, we'll get along fine."

"I accept that."

"Wonderful. And so?"

"What kind of heat does that RV have?"

The point? she wondered. "I have a kerosene heater. Why?"

Thor frowned. "I don't like that."

"They're perfectly safe," she offered, still amused.

"I suppose. But... there's a cold front moving through tonight, and I won't sleep a wink. Why don't you move into the house?"

Ah. The point. Pepper bit back a giggle. "You take your time in getting around to the point, don't you?"

"I'm serious," he scolded, but there was a grin working at his mouth.

"What brought this on?" she asked dryly.

"It's getting chilly outside, and I wondered. I could be callous and say that I don't want my house burning down along with your RV, but that didn't occur to me until just now. Actually it's you and the mutts I'm worried about. Humor me. Move your things inhere."


"God knows, there's enough space. Pick any of the bedrooms—I won't even exclude mine. I won't even charge you rent. Just keep giving Mrs. Small those wonderful recipes and sing for me from time to time."

"Thor—" she tried again, but he cut her off once more.

"The mutts too. If you feel obligated or something, well work out a fair trade of services. I mean—uh, no, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Ill make you wash dishes or something...."

Pepper was laughing.

"That object you see protruding from my mouth," he told her ruefully, "is my foot. Be gentle with me; I've never asked a woman to live with me before."

She choked off a last laugh. "You haven't, huh? I never would have guessed. I think your ulterior motives are showing."

"Bite your tongue. I'm trying to be gallant."

"With the accent on the last syllable?"

"Right. Chivalrous," he said.

"It also means flirtatious."

"Just so, Diana."

"Mmm." Pepper stared at him. "Let's fall back on honesty, shall we? Thor, do you know what you're doing?"

"You think I'm being reckless?"

"Suicidally reckless. If you're counting on the home-team advantage, I should warn you in all fairness that I never need a cheering section."

Thor started to laugh. "You know, whenever we're together, the metaphors fly so thick and fast that I can barely keep up. Cheering section? I thought this challenge was just between you and me."

"You know what I mean."

"It's scary to admit it, but yes, I think I do."

"Why scary?"

"You're beginning to make sense to me; that'd scare any sane man."

"Thanks a lot."

"You're welcome. And we're digressing again. Will you move in?"

Abruptly serious, she asked slowly, "Do you really think that would be a good idea?"

He nodded, still smiling but clearly serious. "Yes. We've got—what?—a few weeks before you either catch me or fold up your RV and steal away. We should make the most of that time."

Pepper felt a smile tugging at her lips. "You really do like the idea of being chased, don't you?"

"I told you, it panders to my ego," he returned solemnly, and then relented because of the suspicious look on her face. "Okay, okay. It may be unmacho to admit it, but yes, I'm getting a hell of a kick out of the whole thing. Although I haven't seen any real evidence of chasing yet."

"Haven't you?" she murmured with another Mona Lisa smile.

He stared at her. "Am I being manipulated?" he demanded suddenly.

She gave him a "Who, me?" look of innocence.

"I think I am," he told the ceiling in mock despair. "And I thought it was all my idea."

"But it was," she told him gently. "That's the subtlety of it."

"You're dangerous."

Pepper started laughing, unable to keep a straight face after his look of sham horror. "I've been told that before. But in this case I'll confess that I hadn't planned on moving into your house. That's a bit too blatant even for my taste."

"I'm glad you admitted that. Honesty I can deal with, but subtlety unnerves me."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Do that. Are you moving in?"


"Humor me."

She stared into his smiling gray eyes. "If you'll accept a promise from me," she said seriously.

"What are you promising?"

"I'm promising not to complicate your life—more than you can stand anyway. And I'm promising that you won't have to tell me to go. If you get tired of the game"—she smiled slightly—"or take to your heels in earnest, I’ll know. I want you to understand that you won't have to ask me to leave."

Gazing at her, Thor realized dimly that this was the first time either of them had admitted that the game would have an ending, and that it might not be a happy one. "Are you moving in?" he repeated steadily.

"Are you accepting the promise?"

"If I have to," he said unwillingly.

"You do."

"All right then." Thor shook his head. "This is the strangest chase I've ever heard of. Why aren't you attacking me and tearing my clothes off?" he demanded mournfully.

Approving of the brighter atmosphere, she said reprovingly, "That's what happens when I catch you."

"Then why the hell am I running?" he demanded in bewilderment.

They stared at each other for a moment, then both burst out laughing.

"Tuck away your gallant manners, will you?"

"I just offered to help."

"Thor, I'm bringing over some clothes and that's all. They won't be heavy and I can manage nicely on my own, thank you very much."

"You might trip in the dark."


"Why don't you just admit that you don't want me in your RV and be done with it?"

She was slipping, Pepper decided, if it was as obvious as all that. She turned and leaned back against the closed front door, staring up at Thor. He wanted honesty, she reminded herself. "All right then. I don't want you in the van."

"Thanks a lot."


"Afraid I'll steal the silver?"

"None to steal."

"Afraid I'll find puzzle pieces?" he asked more seriously.

His perception caught her off guard, and for a moment she was silent. Without realizing that she was doing it, Pepper reached into a pocket of her jeans and brought out the ever-present worry-stone, her thumb moving rhythmically in the depression. "Every time we turn around," she murmured, "we seem to be stumbling over honesty."

Thor noticed her unconscious gesture, but didn't comment on it. "That's a good thing to stumble over," he said instead.

She nodded slightly. "As long as one of us doesn't fall." Before he could respond, she was going on evenly. "Okay, then. I came into your home, Thor. And I looked for clues."

"To me?"

"To you. I found a beautiful house. I didn't find clues. I didn't find you."

"I see." He gazed at her steadily. "But I'd find you in the van?" When she hesitated, he said flatly, "I won't step inside the door without your permission, Pepper. I promise you that."

She nodded again and said almost unwillingly, "You'd find me, I think. I've never looked at myself the way you do—pieces of a puzzle, I mean. But if that's what I am, then all the pieces are there. That van is my... anchor. My lifeline. Something to come back to. Someplace to store memories. Home. I believe that everything I am is in that van."

Thor took a deep breath and released it slowly. He reached out a hand, grasping hers and stilling the busy thumb. "I won't go inside without your invitation," he told her, rewording his earlier promise.

Pepper looked up at him, the honesty in her violet eyes neither a weapon nor a plea, but a simple frankness, a calm integrity that brushed aside games and left only truth. "If I ask you, it'll be because I want you to see me. With no veils, no shields, nothing hidden. I'll want you to see everything that I am. Do you understand what that will mean?"

His hand tightened around hers. He bent suddenly and kissed her briefly, a kiss that was curiously rough, almost a protest against what couldn't be denied. "Yes. I know what it will mean." His gray eyes were almost violently stormy, his voice taut.

She pulled her hand from his slowly, still unaware of the worry-stone as she slipped it into her pocket automatically. "Shall I get my things?" she asked him quietly.

"Get your things." As she turned to open the door he added, "Pepper... no matter what happens between us, I want you to remember something. You have valid reasons for your rules. I have valid reasons for mine."

She paused to look back at him, alarmed by the raw sound of his voice. What had they begun? What had they unleashed that had the power to disturb them both this way? Whatever it was, the intensity of it frightened her. "I almost wish... I hadn't challenged you," she told him, and she had never been more honest.

His smile was tight. "I almost wish I hadn't accepted your challenge. But I think we both know there's no going back now."

"Yes. That's what frightens me." She went out, closing the door softly behind her.

"It frightens me too," he murmured, staring at the door's carved panel as if it offered answers. "Dammit to hell, Pepper, why can't I tell you to leave?"

Coming back up the walk a few minutes later. Pepper glanced in the den window, where the drapes had yet to be drawn. She saw Thor sitting in a chair before a newly kindled fire, with Fifi sitting at his feet. The Doberman's long, aristocratic face was turned toward him, her chin on his knee as he pulled absently and rhythmically at her small pointed ears.

Pepper smiled at the dog's acceptance of Thor, but then she got a look at his brooding face, and her smile died. She stood for a moment, looking in and ignoring the breeze that had turned to a chill wind.

Whatever was building between her and Thor, it was happening too fast. They barely knew each other. It had to slow down, she thought desperately. If the headlong rush continued, it would stop only with a painful impact, injuring one or both of them beyond time's ability to heal.

It had not been a part of her plans, she thought dimly, this wrenching of the senses and the heart. She had thought love a warm and gentle emotion, not something that left senses bewildered and unfulfilled bodies aching long into the night. Not something that hurt and frightened. For the first time in her life she wanted to run away.

But she couldn't.

Pepper squared her shoulders and continued up the walk to the front door. Light, she reminded herself. Keep it light. No more soul-searching. Whatever is happening you obviously can't control. So don't look back, and don't look ahead. Light your candles one at a time, and just keep going, dammit.

It was good advice.

She only hoped she could follow it.

Carrying an armful of clothes and with a heavy duffel bag slung over her shoulder, she closed the front door behind her with a thud, not surprised to see that Thor was alr