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C.J.'s Fate

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Tahun:
2007
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Contents

Synopsis

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten





Synopsis




C.J. Adams had been teased enough about her seeming lack of interest in the opposite sex. On a ski trip with her five best friends she impulsively embraced a handsome stranger, pretending they were secret lovers--and delighted lawyer who joined in her impetuous charade seized the moment to deepen the kiss. Astonished at his reaction, C.J. tried to nip their romance in the bud--but found herself nipping his neck instead! She had met her match in a man who could answer her witty remarks with clever ripostes of his own, and a lover whose caresses aroused in her a passionate need she'd never suspected. Had destiny somehow tossed them together?





One

"C.J., can't you put that book down for ten minutes?"

The exasperated voice, coming from the willowy blonde seated next to C.J. in the cab, contained more than a thread of real irritation. C.J. lifted her burnished copper head and directed a somewhat quizzical look at her friend, then sighed and marked her place, closing the heavy book and leaving it to rest on her lap. "Sorry, Jan," she murmured.

Jan leaned forward to address the third occupant of the cab, who was sitting on the other side of C.J. "Want to bet she starts reading again the moment we check in?"

The brunette on C.J.'s right shook her head with a long-suffering sigh, her brown eyes merry. "That's the trouble with geniuses—they just can't stop being geniuses."

"I'm not a genius, Tami," C.J. protested, her quiet voice mild but very slightly impatient.

"Lord knows that just looking at you no one would take you for a brain," Jan said. "You're no bigger than a pixie, and those ridiculous yellow eyes make you look like a bewildered kitten!"

"It's disgusting!" Tami chimed in, her voice lifting in mock outrage. "All the men cluster around you like bees at a honey pot, until you utterly dumbfound them by saying very serious; ly that Charlemagne was a terrific king—or whatever he was—and that the Romans were great people in spite of the orgies."

C.J. sighed again as her friends' laughter attacked her ears from both sides. They meant well— they really did. But since she had spent both school days and vacations with them all through the years, these kinds of comments were beginning to grow stale.

If asked, C.J. would have replied quite honestly that the tradition of marriage seemed a fine idea and was, after all, what one made of it. To each his own.

Her "own" was blessed singleness. The love of her life was history; no flesh-and-blood man had succeeded in peeling away so much as one layer of that set of abstractions she had long ago wrapped herself in. C.J. saw nothing wrong with that, nothing missing from her life. She was well-traveled, very well educated, and perfectly capable of holding her own in any social situation. The problem was—said her friends—that she didn't particularly care one way or the other about the normal feminine preoccupations.

Her copper hair was curly and kept short for convenience; it rarely saw a brush and never a beauty salon. She wore whatever she happened to pull from closet or drawer, usually casual slacks or jeans and, depending on the season, a sweater or T-shirt. She made no effort to cover with makeup the light sprinkling of freckles on her nose, or to emphasize the catlike slant or color of her tawny eyes. And far from encouraging the attentions of a man, she was more likely to fix him with a ruthlessly clear-seeing gaze, and demand to know what all the pretty speeches were for.

Still, her friends had tried. During the last ten years, they had "fixed her up" with one man after another. She had been ruthlessly pulled from the books in her study time after time to attend a party, see a play, hear a concert. And vacations had been riddled with seemingly casual meetings with suitable, hopefully interesting bachelors. C.J. had only the vaguest recollection of faces and none at all of names.

Four of her friends were now married and Kathy, the last to succumb to the lure of "happily ever after," was scheduled to trip down the aisle exactly one week from today.

The result, unfortunately for C.J., was that her friends were now more determined than ever to see her meet her own Prince Charming. She was aware they would give her no peace until she demonstrated herself to be a perfectly normal female and got married. Or had an affair. Even a fling would give them hope.

Jolted from her thoughts when the cab lurched on an icy spot in the road, she glanced past Jan and out the window at the snow-covered landscape. "Why," she complained mildly to the other two, "did we have to come West to find snow? Boston was blanketed with it when we left. And why does Kathy absolutely have to get married in a ski lodge? She met Patrick on a hockey field." She was referring to one of the three girls in the cab behind them.

The other two appeared to have no difficulty understanding her. Jan shrugged. "Kathy's parents were married in Aspen, so she figures it'll be a good omen. The only thing she remembers about them is that they were very much in love."

C.J. sighed. "Well, anyway, I don't see why I couldn't have flown out next weekend. The guys are."

"Only because they can't get away until then," Jan pointed out calmly. "Besides, I think we should try to get the guys out here sooner; the weathermen are predicting a blizzard for next Friday."

Sneaking a glance at Jan's face, C.J. said experimentally, "I'll have time to study—"

As she'd expected, Jan cut her off and immediately began talking about all the fun they were sure to have at the lodge, all the handsome men who were sure to dot the slopes—like ducks in a shooting gallery, C.J. thought wryly.

Listening only vaguely to the song she had heard too many times before, C.J. looked down at the book in her lap and thought wistfully of her cozy apartment and the study room of the library. She'd never be able to get any research done; the girls would see to that. They'd have her busy from morning to night.

Protesting the plans of her friends would do no good at all. Oh, she could have stopped the matchmaking with a few well-chosen words. Cold, cruel words. But she could no more have done that than she could walk on water; it wasn't in her nature to hurt anyone deliberately.

And they were her friends. They thought they knew what was best for her.

From the time they'd met as little girls in first grade, they had been friends. Twenty years lay between then and now, years of sharing little-girl things, and teenage things, and adult things. Experiences. Thoughts. Problems.

They had composed a sort of magic circle, closing ranks protectively when problems arose, and opening a place for someone that one of their number cared for. First boyfriends, and then husbands.

Staring blindly down at the book in her lap, C.J. thought of the past twenty years, and knew she could never tell her friends that she didn't want or need their help now. If it made them happy to try and find a husband for her, then so be it.

But she was nonetheless conscious of an odd restlessness within her. If there were only some way of reassuring them kindly. If there were only some way…



The lodge was a vast and modern building, square and without any of the Alpine features popular in the ski areas of Colorado. With the holidays just past, it wasn't crammed to capacity, but it did boast a respectable number of winter-sports fans.

And those fans were very much in evidence as the cabs drew up in front of the lodge. Laughing groups of men and women were shouldering skis and heading in various directions as they tramped happily from the building, making their ways to beginner slopes or to the lifts and the more advanced slopes high above them.

C.J. stood by the cab and watched the comings and goings, only absently listening to the closer confusion of her friends sorting luggage and chattering among themselves.

Nearly an hour later, she was standing in the opened door of her room and nodding patiently as Jan scolded her for the third time.

"I mean it, C.J.—no studying! You need a break, even if you won't admit it. We barely got you to come up for air during Christmas, and you were going flat out for months before that. Promise!"

"I already promised, Jan," C.J. reminded wearily.

"Sure." Jan didn't sound convinced. "Well, we're going to call the guys and let them know we made it. Dinner's not served for another hour or so, but we'll meet here in about thirty minutes so we can go down and check the place out. How's that?"

"Fine." C.J. couldn't help but smile as her friend's blue eyes swept her sweater and jeans with an all-too-familiar expression of exasperation.

"And could you please change into something a little more presentable? You look like an urchin, damnit!" Jan sighed and her eyes softened unexpectedly. "Sweetie, can't you make an effort just this once? It won't hurt and, knowing you, you'd even enjoy yourself."

C.J. looked at her curiously. "What do you mean by that?"

Jan smiled a little ruefully. "You enjoy the unexpected, C.J. Your problem is that you conquer things too quickly. I think you get bored."

"What's your point, Jan?" C.J. asked uncertainly.

"My point, my dear, is that you can never learn all there is to know about a man."

So . . . they were back to the matchmaking again. But Jan's remark interested C.J. for some reason. "Oh?" she prompted.

"Definitely. Every day brings a surprise. Try it— you might just find the opposite sex fascinating." With an odd little smile, Jan moved on down the hall to her own room.

C.J. closed her door and leaned against it thoughtfully for a moment. Then she dismissed her friend's advice impatiently. Jan was just up to her old tricks, that was all.

Unpacking automatically, C.J. put her things away with her usual neatness. And then, mindful of Jan's plea, she changed clothes. The slacks and bulky sweater were not, seductively speaking, much of an improvement over the jeans and sweater from before, but they were slightly more presentable. Truth to tell, C.J. didn't own a single article of clothing which could have been termed even remotely sexy.

She paused in front of the mirror to run her fingers casually through her short curly hair and then remained for a few moments, staring at her reflection. She turned sideways and drew the sweater tightly beneath her breasts. Without conceit, she knew that her figure was very good— and somewhat startling for so petite a woman. And her legs, according to the girls' envious remarks, were "the most spectacular pair in the group."

With a sigh, C.J. allowed the sweater to assume its normal bulky shape and turned away from the mirror. What was wrong with her, for heaven's sake? Why this growing restlessness, this odd feeling of dissatisfaction with herself? Had Jan been right? Did she become bored with something once the challenge and excitement were gone?

Not history, of course. It still was, and always had been, new and exciting. But something else? Was she bored with herself? She had watched her friends grow and change for twenty years; hadn't she changed as well? Or was she still the same slightly scruffy schoolgirl, a bit cynical and yet drawn to the adventure, the challenge, of learning?

C.J. shook her head irritably and headed for the door. Nonsense. It was just Jan putting stupid ideas into her head, and causing her to question herself for the first time in years.

She went out into the hall, leaned back against the door, and folded her arms. Resolutely she fixed her eyes on the wall across from her and turned her mind to the thesis she was working on.

"C.J., would you like to borrow my lipstick?" It was Ann, her blond curls in their normal enormously attractive disarray, violet eyes gently questioning.

C.J. blinked, automatically taking in Ann's beautifully matched sweater-and-slack set. "No, thanks," she muttered and added with certain self-knowledge, "I'd only chew it off in ten minutes."

Jan emerged from her room at that moment, and came toward them. Her first words were to C.J. "Do you call that an improvement?"

"There's nothing like a friend for a kick in the ego," C.J. murmured, as though to herself.

"You ask for it. Constantly." Jan was unrepentant.

"I did the best I could, Jan."

"Sure. And I'm the queen."

"How do you do?"

Jan sighed. "I haven't been able to get a rise out of you in twenty years. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is?"

"I can imagine."

Susan was next to enter the fray. Tall, naturally regal, every red hair of her striking head in place, she strolled down the hall toward them. Cool green eyes swept C.J. in an automatic appraisal. "Only your sense of color saves you from total disaster," she said calmly.

"Thank you," C.J. said meekly.

"It wasn't a compliment."

Kathy and Tami joined them a moment later. Tami merely groaned in exasperation when she looked at C.J., but Kathy was more voluble.

"You shouldn't have gotten all dressed up just for us." She tucked a strand of long auburn hair behind one ear and sent a brown-eyed glare at C.J.

Meditatively, C.J. said, "I think I'll put an ad in the paper when we get back to Boston. 'Five friends for sale, rent, loan, or take over payments. Cheap.' "

Ignoring this defensive shot, Jan announced to the others, "Girls, we have to do something about C.J." She gestured for the others to huddle across the hall from their victim. Kathy broke from the strategy session a moment later, exclaiming that she'd forgotten her sweater and dashing down the hall to her room. The others continued to plan.

Accustomed to these tactics—and not the slightest bit offended by them—C.J. watched rather wearily. Around and around in her mind raced her earlier, incompleted wish. If only . . .

She fished her key from her pocket and unlocked her door with some vague idea of going back inside and putting on lipstick or something to appease her friends. Holding the door slightly open, she paused to stare down the hallway toward the elevators. That was when she saw the man, and a wave of uncharacteristic recklessness surged through her. Along with a wild idea.

Well, why not? There was enough romance jammed into her history-inclined mind to fake a romance. Wasn't there? A mysterious stranger and secret meetings . . . star-crossed lovers, perhaps? And at least it would get her friends off her back!

The man was tall, casually dressed in sweater and slacks, and moved with easy, loose-limbed grace.

When he was abreast of the crowd, his eyes flicked over her friends and then met C.J.'s intent gaze. He smiled, and that was all C.J. needed.

Still holding the door partly open, C.J. took a step forward, caught the startled stranger's hand and drew him quickly toward her. Looking up at him with an unintentionally bewitching smile, she said in a low, breathy voice just loud enough for her friends to hear, "Darling, I'm so glad you could make it after all!" Before the girls could see his bemused expression, she pulled him swiftly into the room.

She left the door open a crack, then said sweetly to her stunned friends, "Excuse us . . . please." And gently shut the door.

Unaware that she was still holding the stranger's hand, C.J. put her ear to the door to listen to the numb silence outside.

"Uh . . . pardon me—" the stranger began in a deep voice.

"Ssshh!" C.J. warned absently, her lips curving into a delighted smile as the silence outside broke into a babble of disbelief.

"Was that C.J.?"

"Why didn't she tell us, damnit?"

"Who is that gorgeous man?"

"I didn't think C.J. even knew how to look at a man that way—"

"What's going on? Where's C.J.?" It was Kathy, apparently newly emerged from her room.

"I need a drink," Jan said firmly.

"I need two," Tami chimed in, her voice dazed.

"But what's going on?" Kathy's wail faded as she followed the others down the wide corridor to the elevators.

Grinning in delight, C.J. turned away from the door. That was when she realized that she was holding a strong male hand. Swiftly, she released it. Her eyes traveled hesitantly up to the stranger's face, and widened slightly. Her grin died a startled death.

He was handsome by anybody's standards. He looked, she thought vaguely, rather like an Indian. Raven's-wing black hair, unreadable dark eyes set beneath slanted brows, high cheekbones, lean jaw, and the most sensuous mouth she had ever seen. And he was regarding her with a speculation she found extremely disconcerting.

"I—I suppose you want an explanation?" she ventured, the note of hope in her voice telling him clearly that she wished he'd just leave.

"Oh, I think I already have one," he said coolly, and without another word pulled her firmly into his arms.

Astonished both at the suddenness of his action and at the unfamiliar sensation of being crushed against a masculine chest, C.J. fought to organize her vocal cords into productive speech.

"What—what do you think you're doing?" she managed to squeak at last.

"Why, taking advantage of your somewhat blatant offer, of course," he responded as though she had just hung out a red light and a shingle.

"I didn't!" she protested indignantly.

"Sure you did," he murmured, dark head swooping and sensuous lips unerringly finding her startled ones.

Shock kept C.J. powerless in his embrace for long minutes, that and the strange quivering in her knees. She felt his mouth moving expertly on hers, his tongue probing with the stark thrust of possession, and a sudden heat enveloped her.

Her arms were beginning to creep up around his neck when sanity abruptly asserted itself. Oh, for heaven's sake—! She twisted suddenly, escaping his hold and ducking under his arm to retreat to the middle of the room. "Get out of here!" she ordered, hearing with a small astonishment the breathlessness in her voice.

He turned and came toward her, a peculiar little smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "Don't be ridiculous."

She retreated another step and cast a harried glance toward the phone by her bed. "I'll call the manager."

"You can't reach the phone," he taunted softly, still coming toward her. "Not without going through me."

Panicked, C.J. took another step backward and came up against the bed. Her eyes widening, she said quickly, "I'll scream," and opened her mouth to do just that.

And then, suddenly, she was falling back on the bed with the stranger for company. He caught most of his own weight on his elbows, but C.J. nonetheless had the sensation of having the breath knocked from her.

Staring down into shocked tawny eyes, the stranger said solemnly, "Little girls shouldn't invite strange men into their bedrooms. Especially beautiful little girls with copper hair and tawny eyes and a smile like Venus herself. It's just not safe."

C.J. was suddenly, burningly aware that this man had been having a bit of fun at her expense. "I'm not a little girl!" she snapped. "And get off me!"

He rolled away to sit on the edge of the bed, grinning now. And that grin, C.J. noted unwillingly, softened his stern Indian-face into something charming and strangely endearing. With a shock of black hair falling over his forehead, he looked like a playful little boy.

She shoved the impression aside and raised herself on her elbows, glaring at him irritably. "Do you want an explanation now?"

"The timing seems right for it," he murmured, but held up a hand when she would have begun.

"Wait. Strangers should be introduced. I'm Fate Weston."

"You'd have to be," she muttered. Fate, for heaven's sake!

"I beg your pardon?" His lurking grin showed that he'd heard her quite clearly.

"Nothing. I'm C.J. Adams."

"What does the C.J. stand for?"

"None of your business."

"Oh." He didn't seem noticeably dashed. "Well, on with the story."

C.J. toyed with the idea of throwing something at him after the somewhat mocking remark. Since nothing was within reach, she contented herself with deepening her glare. It didn't seem to bother him, so she sighed and explained the situation. She went rather more into detail than she'd planned, mainly because Fate inserted a question now and then, and she answered automatically.

She explained that they were here in Aspen for Kathy's wedding, that they'd be joined on Friday (barring a blizzard) by four husbands and one fiancé. She provided thumbnail sketches of her friends, and the matchmaking which had caused her to pull a stranger from the hallway and invent a spur-of-the-moment, mysterious romance.

Feeling more and more like a fool—an unfamiliar sensation—she silently blamed her impulse on sheer insanity and hoped that he'd leave so that she could go soak in the bathtub and quietly drown herself.

Fate didn't laugh at her, however, but listened gravely. "So you wanted to teach your friends a lesson and get them off your back," he summed up when she had finished.

"Something like that," she said, and moved around to sit on the foot of the bed. She intended to tell him politely that since he had his explanation he could leave now, but he didn't give her the chance.

Getting to his feet, he paced slowly over to the window, slanted brows drawn together in a thoughtful frown. "This," he said consideringly, "is going to take careful planning."

"What is?" she asked blankly.

Fate turned to look at her, propping his shoulder against the window frame. "Our romance, of course," he said solemnly.

C.J. said the first thing that came to mind. "Are you crazy?"

"Now, darling," he said reproachfully, "you shouldn't say things like that to your one true love!"

"You . . . you ..." she sputtered ineffectually.

Fate went on as though she were listening eagerly. "There has to be some reason why you've been hiding me all this time. Star-crossed lovers? Maybe I have a wife somewhere. ... No, that wouldn't make you look too good, would it? Or me either."

"If you think—"

"Parental disapproval? No, we're both a little old for that. At least—How old are you, by the way?"

"Twenty-six. You—"

"Well, I'm thirty-four, so that disposes of the parental disapproval bit. How about a conflict of interests? What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a research librarian. I'm not going to—"

"I'm a lawyer. I don't see any conflict there, do you? Unless you don't like rough winters—I work in Denver. . . . But that can't be because you're here in Aspen."

C.J. took a deep breath and, tired of being interrupted, spent a good five minutes swearing at him in half a dozen languages, using words her professors never taught her. She even came up with a lovely medieval insult, and then capped off the whole with some choice gutter French.

And even in the midst of her tirade, she was astonished at herself. C.J. didn't swear. Her friends would have been stunned to hear such words coming from their quiet, inoffensive C.J.—particularly since none of them had been able to rouse her to temper after twenty years of needling.

Fate Weston had accomplished the feat in a little less than twenty minutes, with no effort at all.

In spite of her red hair, she was a very even-tempered woman—or had been up to now. In twenty-six years, her most violent anger had taken the form of mild irritation.

Until now.

Fate listened with twitching lips to her tirade, then asked interestedly, "How many languages do you speak?"

"Six," she replied from between clenched teeth.

"That's fascinating. But, back to the romance. Why haven't you introduced me to your friends? They're going to ask, you know. And we have to come up with a reasonable, logical—"

"There's nothing even remotely reasonable or logical about this farce! And no matter what you may be thinking right now, I did not come here to provide entertainment for bored lawyers!"

Fate folded his arms across his chest and smiled gently at her. "Then what will you tell your friends?"

C.J. opened and closed her mouth a few times, then said triumphantly, "I'll tell them we had a lovers' quarrel and broke up!"

"And don't you think," he suggested mildly, "that your friends "will try to get us back together again?"

She could feel the threads of the tangled web slowly drawing her in. He was absolutely right— damn him! "Then I—I'll tell them I made the whole thing up," she managed weakly.

"And be teased unmercifully for the rest of your vacation about accosting strange men in hallways?"





Two




Even with only thumbnail sketches of her friends, Fate had managed to put his finger right on the crux of the problem. C.J. would have been willing to do almost anything to avoid more teasing from her friends. After twenty years, she was thoroughly fed up with that. And only just realizing it.

She rubbed her forehead fretfully. "Oh Lord, how did I get myself into this mess?" she moaned hopelessly.

"Spilled milk," he murmured. "But since you are in this mess, the least I can do is help you out of it. Now, how did you and I meet? They're bound to ask that."

"I don't know!" she wailed, glaring at him.

"You're not helping, C.J."

"Look, this is not going to work! I can't pretend that I'm in love with you—I don't even know you!" Something inside C.J. gave a little quiver as she realized that she was actually considering the idea . . . seriously.

Smiling oddly, he said, "You did a pretty good job of pretending out in the hall." He obviously enjoyed her confusion, then went on in a reasonable, matter-of-fact tone. "It shouldn't be any problem for either of us, I think. All of you will be pretty busy getting ready for that wedding on Saturday, so we won't have to spend much time together this week, especially after your friends' husbands arrive. So all we have to do is to appear together from time to time and hold hands or something, then disappear and trust everyone to be nice and tactful."

"They won't be," C.J. said wearily, her thoughts chasing one another in panicky circles as she tried to come up with another way out of this mess. "You don't know my friends. They'll ask questions. And questions. And they won't rest until they know the whole truth. I won't have a moment's peace and neither will you; believe me, they won't be the slightest bit reticent about questioning you."

Fate didn't seem daunted by the prospect. "Then we'll have to get our story straight, won't we?" He sat down in a chair near the foot of the bed and smiled at her.

C.J. looked at him for the first time with real curiosity. "Why are you doing this? I mean, you could simply leave me to sink or swim and not bother."

"Would you believe love at first sight?" he asked with a hopeful expression.

"Not hardly," she responded dryly.

"Oh. Well . . . let's just say that I'm a frustrated actor at heart. Most lawyers are, you know."

C.J. had the curious impression that he was laughing at her . . . but kindly. As if there were some private joke concerning her that he wanted her to see for herself. Maybe it was that odd little smile she kept glimpsing.

Without the slightest bit of self-consciousness, she stared at his face thoughtfully. Although she certainly had noticed his good looks, things had been happening too rapidly for her to really take in the individual features. Curious about what sort of man would throw himself cheerfully into the small deception of a woman he'd never meet before, she studied him now.

If character was truly revealed in one's face— and C.J. had never been completely comfortable with that theory—then Fate Weston had a great deal of it. His mobile mouth was not only sensual, but filled with humor. There were faint laugh lines at the corners of his dark eyes which added to the impression of humor, and she was almost positive she'd seen an elusive dimple in one lean cheek.

Point one, then: the man possessed a sense of humor.

The dark eyes gazed calmly back at her as she thoughtfully considered these supposed windows to the soul. Heavy-lidded, intelligent, and perfectly capable of concealment, she mused silently. There was a native shrewdness in them which told her that this man hadn't needed college or a law degree to be considered intelligent. She found herself wondering exactly what color they were. Blue? She peered a bit more intently. No—purple. How odd! Deep, velvety purple. She filed the information away.

Point two: he was intelligent and wouldn't reveal his thoughts unless he chose to.

Unaware of the silence which had descended upon the room, C.J. continued her scrutiny, still without self-consciousness.

His jaw was firm without being overly aggressive, his chin slightly stubborn but not obstinate. The set of his head told her that he was proud—perhaps even arrogant. Bone structure was very good: strong, well-molded, creating stark planes and angles which were striking at first glance . . . and fascinating with each succeeding glance. A solemn Indian-face, turned to boyishness with a smile.

Point three: he was very attractive, and probably perfectly well aware of that fact.

Her eyes glided over the relaxed body in the chair. Having come into rather abrupt contact with that body, she could attest to its muscled firmness. If he wasn't an athlete, then he certainly took good care of himself.

Which only added to point three.

And when all three points came together, they added up to something which quite easily could turn a woman's world upside down before she could grab something to hold on to.

C.J. was startled at the unquestionably feminine thought, and even more startled when her tawny eyes slid back up Fate's body and came into contact with his purple gaze. There was an unsettling warmth in those eyes, along with a faint question.

She looked away hastily, shaken without knowing why and fighting a bewildering sudden, unfamiliar urge to reach out and touch him. She had never been so aware of another person in her life, and it gave her a strangely naked, vulnerable feeling. A feeling that she didn't like at all.

"Satisfied?" Fate asked softly.

"I don't know what you mean." C.J.'s eyes skittered across the room and collided with her reflection in the mirror. The tawny eyes staring back at her were feverish, oddly shocked. Unfamiliar eyes that belonged to someone else.

"With the inventory," he elaborated a bit dryly, and then went on briskly, "Facts, Miss Adams, we need facts. Now, where could we have met?"

C.J. made a desperate effort to pull herself together, and forced her gaze to meet his calmly. Every instinct she possessed—latent feminine instincts neither needed nor wanted until now— warned her not to play any kind of game with this man. But the warning was a challenge in itself, and C.J. never refused a challenge.

And that lifelong pull of the new and exciting quite suddenly made up C.J.'s mind for her. Her mental warning wasn't the only challenge floating around in the room at the moment; there was also a coolly amused, half-mocking challenge in the purple depths of Fate's eyes. Sparks of gold defiance glittered in her eyes unconsciously as she met the challenge halfway.

"You don't seem to see the pitfalls looming in front of us," she warned. "I'm what's known as a 'studious' person." She hated the word, and offered it with a faint grimace. "My friends and I have known one another practically since the year one. It won't be easy to convince them that I've been having a romantic fling or whatever in the study room of the library."

His lips twitched slightly in that way which was beginning to fascinate her.

"What about vacations?"

"We've spent every vacation since high school together."

"What a chummy group," he remarked. Before she could respond, he went on easily. "Well, then, let's come up with some period during which we could have met. A romance such as ours . . . two months, I'd say. Where were you two months ago?"

C.J. thought for a moment, getting interested in his plotting in spite of herself. "Two months ago, I was at a librarian's conference in New York."

He brightened. "Terrific! At the same time, I was in New York on business. And I stayed at your hotel. Now, how did we actually meet?" He paused, then grinned at her. "Pity we can't at least be truthful about our meeting—that's one experience I'll treasure for years!"

C.J. flushed and glared at him briefly. Then, sighing, she got up and walked around to the side of the bed. Glancing his way, she was faintly surprised at his sudden stillness, the watchful eyes, but paid little attention to it. Since his plotting was obviously going to take a while, she stretched out on the bed on her stomach, head at the foot of the bed, and propped her chin in her hands. "Go on, Maestro . . . how did we meet?"

An odd little sigh came from Fate, almost unconsciously it seemed. Very softly, he said, "Thought you were going to call the manager for a minute there, pixie."

C.J. felt a flush creeping up her cheeks, and hoped devoutly that her fingers hid the evidence that she'd never even considered it. "Oh, darn," she managed to say regretfully, "missed my chance." Judging by the glint in his dark eyes, he wasn't deceived, but Fate ruthlessly turned the conversation back to the original topic.

"Let's say we were introduced by a mutual friend." He steepled his fingers over his lean waist and stared at them thoughtfully. "How does that sound?"

"Fishy. I don't have many friends in New York."

"One will do," he pointed out patiently.

"Touché," she said with a reluctant sigh.

"Okay. We tumbled headlong into love and had a passionate week."

"Weekend. I was only in New York for the weekend."

"That's not very much time," he protested, wounded.

"Sorry, Maestro. But Jan knows when I got home, because I had dinner with her and Brian."

"Now why the hell did you have to do that? You're ruining my chain of events!"

Amused, she said again, "Sorry. But how was I to know I'd be called upon to have time to fall in love?"

Fate lifted an eyebrow at her and reflected. "Well. . . what the hell. We had a passionate weekend. Threw caution to the wind. Became so engrossed in each other—"

Before he could warm further to his theme—as he showed every sign of doing—she interrupted to say practically, "But I was busy with the conference both days. I barely had time to eat, much less—"

"You're just not entering into the spirit of this, C.J.," he interrupted in an aggrieved voice. "Your friends weren't—I hope—with you, so they don't know what you did."

"That's true," she said, reluctantly. "So we had a passionate weekend. Then what, Maestro?"

"We parted," he answered with great relish. "Tearing out our souls in agony."

"If it tore out our souls to part," she said, regarding him with utter fascination, "then why did we?"

He waved a hand with grand impatience. "We'll get to that later. Here comes one of the sticky places: how did we manage to keep this powerful love of ours aflame for two months? Passionate phone calls and stolen weekends?"

"Passionate phone calls, maybe. But stolen weekends—" She broke off abruptly and frowned. "Wait a minute. There have been three weekends since the conference that I've been out of town.

Some business with my father's estate . . . and I went to visit my sister . . . and an old professor invited me to stay with him and his wife while I was using some of his rare books for research."

"Now you're getting the hang of it. By the way— you didn't happen to call up one of your friends during those weekends, I hope?''

C.J. looked surprised. "No. But what would it matter if I had?"

He shook his head pityingly. "People engaging in passionate, stolen weekends don't call up their friends to chat. I have it on the best of authority."

C.J. didn't probe. "I'll bet. Keep spinning, Maestro; the web's nearly complete."

His lips twitched again, and again she watched with fascination. "Now for the second of the three sticky points," he said wryly. "Why didn't you tell your friends about me? If you're so close? Or are you the secretive type, cherishing love quietly in your heart and unwilling to lose the magic?"

She frowned at him. "That doesn't sound like me at all. Not that I'd shout it from the rooftops, but I would tell my friends. Especially since they've been matchmaking for years."

"There is that." He frowned. "Well, well just have to tie up the secrecy in the reason we tore out our souls."

"What?" she asked somewhat blankly.

"The reason we can't be together always," he explained patiently. "The reason we parted in New York and had to settle for stolen weekends and passionate phone calls."

"Which is?" When he continued to stare at her, she said, "I can't wait to hear this one."

He sighed. "That's the third sticky point. And, at the moment, I can't think of a way to explain it."

Fate rose to his feet and began pacing the narrow walkway between the door and the window. C.J. allowed her eyes to follow him back and forth, feeling rather like a spectator at a tennis match. Against her better judgment—which didn't seem to be in control today, anyway—she found herself trying to think of some logical reason why they couldn't be together. Nothing occurred to her.

He halted at last by the window and turned to stare at her. "I can't think of a thing. We'll just have to look pained and refuse to discuss it."

"Jan will do everything in her power to worm it out of me," C.J. said despairingly. "She always roots out secrets. And Brian's a policeman!"

"So?" Fate looked amused.

"So Brian's taught her to think logically. At least as logically as she can think, being Jan. She won't rest until she knows exactly what's going on, Fate." C.J. used his name quite unconsciously for the first time, and missed the sudden gleam in his dark eyes because she was scrambling off the bed.

"We'll muddle through somehow," he said cryptically.

She pushed her hair off her forehead and glanced at the broad masculine watch on her wrist. "It's almost dinnertime. I'd better go face them and get it over with."

"Why don't we have dinner together," he suggested, moving slowly toward her. "We need more rehearsal time."

C.J. shook her head, not without a certain amount of regret. "They'll be hurt if I don't tell them something. You could be waiting in your room for a phone call or something—" She broke off and looked up at him guiltily. "I'm sorry. You probably have plans of your own. This is going to ruin your vacation!"

"If it does, I'll have only myself to blame, won't I?" His lips twitched again in that odd, suppressed smile C.J. found so completely fascinating. He reached up, two large, warm hands framing her face, a smothered, soft laugh escaping from his lips. "Don't look so confused and nervous, pixie. As adorable as it makes you look, I just won't have it. We'll come through this with flying colors—see if we don't."

Before C.J. could respond, he bent his head, his lips touching hers so gently that it felt to her like a sigh. A strangely shocking sigh. Over almost before it began.

Staring up at him with even more confusion in her eyes as he drew back, she fought to keep her voice steady, and to ignore the hands still framing her face. "Why are you doing this?" she asked again, wary, perplexed—and not sure whether she was questioning his active participation in her charade ... or the kiss.

"I fell in love." His voice was whimsical, velvety dark eyes caressing. "Apparently I do very strange things when I fall in love with a beautiful pixie." Without the slightest change in his tone, he added, "You go and have dinner with your friends. I’ll make an appearance later for the first act of our play."

C.J. found herself sinking back on her bed as the door closed behind him. Her eyes connected with her reflection in the mirror again, and again she suffered shock. How strange she looked! A not unbecoming flush lightly colored her cheeks, and her eyes appeared huge and startlingly bright.

Had he really said that she looked adorable? And had he really called her beautiful? Twice? Why was her heart thudding against her ribs like a jungle drum gone mad? She felt both hot and cold, and she was quivering from head to toe. And the room suddenly felt very, very empty.

Oh, but he was good! He'd accepted with enthusiasm the role of lover, thrust upon him by her own reckless action. And he was absolutely perfect in the part. Practicing, that was all. Not that he needed it. He'd even practiced telling her that he loved her. And she had not the slightest doubt that her friends would believe that much, at least. That he loved her.

For one heart-stopping moment, she'd believed it herself.

And now she had to act as though she did believe it. She had to convince her friends that she was a woman in love. That realization sent panic bouncing around in her mind, adding to the confusion of Fate's effect on her senses.

She stared toward the door, tearing her gaze from the stranger in the mirror. Maestro. She'd called him Maestro. And he was a master in this particular art. The art of skillful deception. Pulling all the threads together to insure that the entire web didn't fall apart. And suddenly, she wished that she'd agreed to have dinner with him. Not because she wanted to, of course.

She needed more coaching from the master.

"Who am I fooling," she muttered despairingly to the empty room. "I couldn't act my way out of a paper bag. I couldn't act like I was drowning if I was. I couldn't act..."

She was still muttering to herself—rather like whistling in the dark—when she left her room. And she devoutly hoped that the stranger she'd seen in the mirror remained there. She didn't know that woman. She was afraid to know that woman.

That woman had the look of someone waking up. The look of a butterfly coming out of its cocoon, soft and vulnerable. And ready to test its wings for the very first time.

And, no . . . C.J. didn't want to see that woman again. Flying was a dangerous business. A scary, dangerous business. She wasn't ready to test her wings yet. Not yet . . .



As soon as she entered the huge, rustic dining room off the lobby, C.J. spotted her friends seated around a table in the far corner. She began threading her way through the crowded room, only dimly noting the pine-paneled walls dotted with paintings of snow-covered landscapes and the thick carpet beneath her feet.

Her insides felt like jelly, and panic had fogged her brain until she couldn't think at all. The only fact that kept dancing through her mind was that she was going to regret until her dying day her first impulsive, reckless action in twenty-six years.

She slid quickly into the empty chair at the table and smiled with what she devoutly hoped was gentle apology. "Sorry I'm late." She was astonished at how calm she sounded.

Immediately, she came under the battery of five pairs of eyes of various colors, holding identical expressions of lingering shock, disbelief, and not-so-quiet anger.

"C.J. Adams, who was that man, and why didn't you tell us about what is obviously a hot-and-heavy love affair?" Jan demanded irately.

C.J. all but jumped out of her chair, casting nervous glances at several nearby, startled diners. "Why don't you yell a little louder, Jan, and wake the dead?"

"Well, who is he, C. J.?" Ann asked softly. "You've never said a word about him!"

"She still hasn't said a word," Kathy offered flatly, tossing her auburn hair and aiming a challenging glare at C.J.

"You haven't given her a chance," Susan pointed out coolly.

When an expectant silence finally fell, C.J. toyed uneasily with her water glass and tried to remember the master's farcical story. "His name's Fate Weston," she managed at last, stubbornly refusing to meet anyone's eyes.

"Fate? What a marvelous name!" Tami bubbled.

Ignoring the interruption, C.J. went on firmly, determined to get the story over with. "He's a lawyer and he lives in Denver. We met two months ago—that weekend I was at the conference."

"What was a lawyer doing at a librarian's conference?" Jan asked skeptically.

"Nothing. I mean—he wasn't. He was just staying at the same hotel. A mutual friend introduced us and—and that's all there is to it." Her brief explanation wouldn't have mollified a curious three-year-old, and nobody knew that better than C.J.

Kathy was frowning at her. "C.J.—what about the last two months? If he lives in Denver, and you live in Boston, how've the two of you managed to meet? And when?"

C.J. was sorely tempted to say something soulful about stolen weekends and passionate phone calls, but didn't trust herself to. Striking a happy medium, she said vaguely, "There's Ma Bell, you know. And there were several weekends ..."

"You said you were visiting your sister!" Tami exclaimed.

"And seeing to your father's estate," Jan added wryly.

"And doing research," Susan murmured.

"Now for the sixty-four-dollar question," Kathy put in, looking rather intently at C.J. "Why didn't you tell us?"

"There were reasons." C.J. was still trying desperately to come up with a few. "I didn't mean to hurt any of you, it's just that . . . there were reasons," she ended lamely.

Her friends weren't, of course, satisfied with that, but C.J. stuck to her non-explanation with unusual tenacity. During the next hour she got a great deal of practice in fielding unanswerable questions and talking without saying much. She devoted most of her attention to her meal and made vague replies to curious questions without looking up. Later, for the life of her, she couldn't recall what she had eaten.

Normally calm even in a crisis, she found her nerves growing more and more taut as the meal stretched interminably. She was still very much disturbed by the changes she was afraid Fate had brought into her life, and her friends' probing was only making matters worse.

Finally she felt she had pushed the food on her plate around enough, and escaped from the table with a few murmured words that could have been taken to mean anything. At the door of the dining room she realized with dismay that her stubborn friends were right behind her.

She wandered into the large lounge at the back of the building's ground floor, reluctant to escape to her room where the stranger in the mirror waited. She glanced at the comfortable chairs and divans placed in conversation-inspiring groupings around the two huge stone fireplaces in the room, and headed immediately for the warmth of a blazing fire.

"C.J., can't you tell us what the problem is? My God—we've known each other since we were snotty-nosed brats!"

"Is it something about him? Does he—Oh, C.J., does he have a wife or something?"

"Honey, you can tell us!"

"You look so strange, C.J.—not at all like yourself!"

Her friends.

Quite suddenly, her nerves stretched to the limit and snapped. Turning with the abrupt movement of someone who has to move or jump out of her skin, she exclaimed, "Damnit, will you just leave me alone!"

The silence was sudden and devastating. The girls couldn't have looked more shocked if she had pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot them. A part of C.J. wanted to laugh, but another part of her wanted to cry hysterically.

"I'm sorry." There was a wealth of bewilderment in her quivering voice. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me ..."

A hand gripped her arm just then, and C.J. turned with an instinct older than time to bury her face in the soft wool of a sweater. It wasn't until she was breathing in the tangy scent of Fate's cologne that she understood her body had known it was him. She had turned to him like a confused child seeking comfort and security.

Oh, God, what he must be thinking! Embarrassed by her abandoned gesture, she was nonetheless powerless to pull away from him; she just couldn't face her friends right then. She heard Fate speaking over her head, introducing himself to her friends, and then heard the voices of her friends returning the courtesy.

He had his arms around her, she realized dimly, and she felt her heart begin its thunderous knocking again. Oh, what was wrong with her? There were tears on her cheeks, wetting his sweater, and she didn't remember shedding them. What was wrong with her?

A large white handkerchief was thrust into her hands. They gravitated to the divan. She sat beside Fate, in the circle of his arm, automatically wiping her eyes with the handkerchief he had given her. Her friends were sitting in a little semicircle around them, watching her as though she were a total stranger.

Fate began speaking to them, and C.J. noted with relief that their attention turned immediately to him.

"You'll have to forgive her if she's seemed a bit distracted since I arrived," he told them with a grave smile. "You see, until then, she hadn't known why we couldn't be together."

"She didn't?" five voices exclaimed.

"I didn't?" Fortunately C.J.'s bewildered voice got lost among all the rest.

Fate's sheltering arm drew her a bit closer. "Poor darling—she's had a shock, I'm afraid. It was good news, but when she found out what I'd been keeping from her all this time ..."

"And what was that?" Jan's suspicion was offset by definite interest.

"When we first met, I knew that C.J. was the only woman in the world for me. She looked up at me with those great yellow eyes . . . and I thought the building had fallen in on me. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, needed her desperately."

Fate's deep voice throbbed with such passionate sincerity that C.J. stared at him in utter astonishment. Rather hastily, he gathered her into his arms, one hand on her head firmly—and ruthlessly—pressing her face into the curve of his shoulder.

"But I had to let her go," he told his listeners thickly, holding C.J. in what looked like a desperately adoring embrace. "I just couldn't bear to tell her the truth ..."

"What was the truth? What was wrong?" Jan's voice had lost the suspicion and now held only sympathetic anxiety.

"I was in New York for tests . . . medical tests. I'd been told weeks before that I had only a few months left ..."

"Oh, no!"

"You poor man!"

"And you couldn't tell C.J. How sad!"

"You mean you're—you're—?"

"Of course he isn't! He said it was good news."

Amazement warred with a powerful desire to burst out laughing as C.J. listened to Fate's absurd story. The tears of only moments before were gone and forgotten. She was incredulous that he thought himself able to get away with such a ridiculous tale, and dumbfounded to realize that he was getting away with it.

Her friends were not fools. Ann and Susan had graduated from Wellesley, and both Jan and Kathy had gone to Radcliffe—although neither had finished—with C.J. They were intelligent, well-read, well-traveled, very aware women.

But they were buying Fate's story.

And that, she knew, was due to his delivery. He was so obviously moved—so utterly convincing and so damn believable—that C.J. had to remind herself at least twice that it was all one big fat lie. She found herself breathing in the fine wool of his sweater, and realized suddenly that her mouth was hanging open. And no wonder!

She struggled to raise her head and stop the whole thing before her friends figured out that they were being led down the proverbial garden path, but Fate's strong hand kept her face hidden with vastly irritating ease.

"Don't cry, darling," he murmured soothingly into her hair as though she were sobbing her heart out. "It's all over now."

C.J. managed to work one hand around where the others couldn't see it and fiercely pinched the flesh over his ribs. She felt him jump slightly, but he went on talking as if nothing had happened.

And as he continued, C.J. began to make muffled choking sounds which probably sounded like crying. She only heard about half of what Fate told the girls, but that half alone made her feel desperately in need of someplace quiet and dark where she could laugh herself silly.

Apparently, he'd picked up some kind of wild, rare parasite in Egypt (Egypt?) months before, and then came back to the States to be told that the bug was going to kill him. No cure. No hope. An experimental treatment being offered in New York had been his only hope. A treatment with . . . laser beams.

Laser beams? Laser beams? For two solid months, laser beams and parasites had warred within his frail body. It was a wonder he didn't light up a dark room all by himself. Clinging hopelessly to his love for C.J., he'd borne the painful, nauseating treatments in brave silence. With a nobility which would have done credit to a saint, he'd hidden the truth from her, sustaining himself on the rare phone calls and stolen weekends they shared. They couldn't be together, he'd explained to a wonderfully trusting C.J., but he couldn't tell her why. He could only tell her that he needed her desperately.

Poor man. His body ravaged by parasites and bombarded by laser beams. In love for the first time in his life and doomed to lose that love. Stoically enduring the constant mental and physical pain. Hoping against hope that the bugs would give up and vacate.

And then, finally, being told that the treatments had been a success. Rushing here to tell C.J. it had been her love that had cured him. The love they were now free to shout to the world . . .

He didn't tell the story quite that way, of course. In some peculiar way, he made it believable.

C.J. heard sniffs and admiring murmurs from her friends, and vaguely pondered the gullibility of women being charmed by a handsome lawyer/ actor who had obviously never had a sick day in his life. But she kept her face hidden against his shoulder, needing no urging at all from him now.

The wide grin on her face would have ruined his story.





Three




"Civil or criminal?"

C.J. was sitting on her bed in her room, exactly where Fate had set her after carrying her all the way from the lounge—accompanied by her friends as far as the door. She was staring at the fiend who was leaning against her dresser and gazing at her with a gleam of unholy laughter in his purple eyes.

"I beg your pardon?" One slanted brow rose questioningly.

"Your profession. Law." C.J. managed to hold on to her expressionless tone with a tremendous effort. "Civil or criminal?"

"Criminal," he answered.

"That explains it." She took a deep breath, and added in a refined scream, "You've been associating with degenerates too long!"

"I'm a defense attorney, pixie; I don't consider my clients degenerates."

C.J. ignored the information. "You're not playing with a full deck, do you know that? Your pilot light's gone out. All the sand's sifted through your bucket. You don't have both oars in the water!"

"Are you trying to say I'm crazy?"

"I'm not trying to say it, I'm saying it! Oh, I'll bet the men in the little white coats are looking for you."

"I gave them the slip in Denver," he said.

"Laser beams? To treat parasites?"

"What will they think of next?"

C.J. buried her face in her hands, a muffled growl of frustration escaping from between her fingers. Then she started laughing. She laughed so long and hard that her throat hurt.

When she finally lifted her face, tears of laughter sparkled in her eyes. Not even her intense, growing awareness of this man could hold the amusement at bay. Realizing that she was still clutching his handkerchief, she waved it like a flag of surrender.

"I give up! Maestro, my compliments. I have no doubt that you sold my friends on your unbelievable, ridiculous, utterly absurd story."

The fiend had turned into a mischievous little boy. A grin slashed across his dark face, revealing even white teeth. Modestly, he said, "Like I always say—if you're going to tell a lie, make it a whopper!"

"Uh huh." She choked on another laugh. "God, I thought I was going to die. And you, you monster, shoving my face into your sweater like that! I could barely breathe!"

"Sorry, pixie, but I had to do something fast. Your face was a dead giveaway."

Suddenly aware that he'd carried her all the way from the lounge without even a token protest from her, C.J. felt her face growing hot. She told herself that she could hardly have protested with her friends dogging Fate's heels, but that was small comfort. She had an awful feeling that, given an opportunity, she would have remained silent.

Hastily repairing the omission, she said severely, "You shouldn't have carried me all that way. It was completely unnecessary."

"Like I said, your expression would have given the show away," he responded, unrepentant. He studied her flushing face with interest. "You look cute as hell when you're embarrassed."

"What makes you think I'm embarrassed?" she fired up immediately.

"You're blushing."

"I am not!"

"Then you're running a fever. Your face is a very fetching shade of pink."

C.J. fought an impulse to peer past him into the mirror. "I am not running a fever," she gritted out. "And I'm not blushing, either. If my face is red, it's only because I'm absolutely furious. How dare you tell such a story to my friends!"

"You thought it was funny a minute ago," he pointed out.

"Well, it isn't now." She swallowed a last giggle and tried to keep the glare on her face. "They'll have you drawn and quartered when they find out the truth, and I shudder to think what they'll do to me!"

"There's no reason why they have to find out the truth," he said easily. "So we're both safe."

"Of course they'll find out," she retorted irritably. "When this never-to-be-sufficiently-regretted vacation is over and we go our separate ways, they'll figure out it was all a sham!"

Very gently, he said, "You weren't listening to my story very closely downstairs, pixie."

"Stop calling me that!" she snapped and then added, as curiosity got the better of her, "What did you say to them?"

"I set the date."

"The date?" C.J. ran a bewildered hand through her copper curls and stared at him. "The date for what?"

For all the world as though he were discussing the possibility of snow, Fate replied casually, "The date for our wedding."

Assuming that he was joking, she exclaimed, "Did you have to add that little bit to the story, for heaven's sake? I'll look like an utter fool when I'm left at the altar!"

"But you won't be left at the altar."

The deep, gentle voice slowly sank into C.J.'s brain as she blinked at him a couple of times. There was no longer a trace of little-boy mischief in his dark eyes, she realized. He looked serious, grave.

He meant it.

For a split second, a surge of unfamiliar, unidentifiable emotion blocked her throat. But then the unreality of the situation came to her rescue. And the C.J. she knew, slightly cynical, not at all naive, came rapidly to the fore.

"It's customary," she informed him calmly, "to ask."

"True." He rubbed the bridge of his nose with a thoughtful frown. "The thing is, you see—if I ask, you'll only turn me down. You haven't known me long enough to appreciate my sterling qualities. And I can't bear rejection."

She smiled sweetly. "You'll have to learn to."

"Oh, I don't think so. Your friends are no doubt already planning the wedding, pixie. We're due to marry on Valentine's Day."

"How romantic," she said evenly.

"I thought so."

"It won't happen."

"Of course it will. You have a whole month to get used to the idea."

"You're being ridiculous, of course."

He smiled. "No. Just going after what I want."

"Meaning that you want me?"

"Of course." He straightened, a gleam in his dark eyes. "I'll be glad—more than happy—to show you just how much I want you."

Rather hastily, she said, "I'll take it as read!"

With unflattering speed, he resumed his lounging posture against the dresser. "Suit yourself."

C.J. wondered why she suddenly wanted to throw something heavy at him. Determined to keep things as light as possible under the circumstances, she said dryly, "You're going to look a little silly standing all alone at the altar."

His grin was a charming, rueful thing to watch. "I've sized up your friends pretty well, I think. If I don't manage to talk you into marrying me, they'll deliver you to the church anyway—bound and gagged if necessary."

Cynical C.J. decided to employ brutal tactics. "Why," she asked starkly, "do you want to marry me?"

"Natural progression," he answered solemnly. "With this burning love affair behind us, marriage is obligatory."

She chewed that one over for a moment or so, then lifted a wry brow at him. "You mean you gave my friends a date just to make your tale seem more convincing?"

"No," he said gently, "I gave them a date because I intend to marry you. On Valentine's Day."

C.J. decided quite sanely that she was probably tired enough to be imagining things. Had to be. No man proposed to a woman after a mere six hours' acquaintance. "I can't deal with you tonight," she said. "Go away."

A gleam of laughter lit his eyes at the irritable dismissal, but he made no move to leave her. "I haven't been here long enough. As a matter of fact, I shouldn't leave here at all."

"What?" She was so tired that her voice emerged almost mild.

He looked thoughtful. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't—Jan, is it?—have the room next to this one? The tall blonde?"

C.J. nodded. "Yes, Jan's next door. Why?"

"Because as convincing as my whopper was"—he bowed modestly—"I don't think that Jan quite believed it."

"She sounded as if she did. What makes you think she didn't?"

"Well ... you certainly know her better than I do. But I've had a lot of practice watching the faces of a jury. Jan is suspicious. She said all the right words and made all the right noises . . . and she's going to be watching us like a hawk."

"So?" C.J. just didn't see the point.

Dryly, he told her; "A man and woman having a passionate love affair don't sleep in separate rooms. And Jan's probably listening to find out when I leave."

This time, the point sank in. "You are not spending the night in my room," she managed at last.

"I have to," he explained patiently. "To preserve the charade. But I'll creep out by dawn's light to keep your reputation intact."

C.J. thought longingly of the not-so-distant past when she had been wrapped in abstraction and safe from situations like this. "No. You're not staying here." She took a deep breath. "If six hours of pretense does this to me, I'll be a basket case by the end of next week. I'm telling the girls the truth in the morning. Goodbye."

He chuckled softly. "As simple as that, huh?"

"That's right."

"You must be tired if you think it's that simple. If you tell them the truth, we'll both look like fools."

"At this point, I don't particularly care."

In a coolly mocking tone, he said, "So you're going to do the cowardly thing. You don't believe that you have the ability to carry off a simple charade; you can't act like a woman in love. So you'll tell your friends it was all a lie, and be safely back in character."

For some reason, his comments stung, and C.J. had an uneasy feeling that he'd planned it that way. Defensively she told him, "It's the only sensible thing to do! I've never been a very good liar, and I don't want to start now."

"You're a coward," he insisted softly, flatly.

"It isn't cowardly to tell the truth!"

"It's cowardly to start something and not follow through."

"Not if what you started was a deception!"

He was silent for a moment, studying her with the curiously veiled purple eyes. Then, calmly, he told her, "I threw down the gauntlet, pixie, and you picked it up. You're not about to let me win by default."

Instantly, C.J. knew that he meant the challenge she'd seen in his eyes hours before. Recklessness surged through her yet another time, but this time she managed to keep a tight rein on it. "You win," she said lightly. "By default."

Musingly he said, "And what if I tell the girls you're lying?"

"They won't believe you."

"No, they won't. But they won't be able to understand the situation. Here's a total stranger playing the lover and insisting that you and he have been having a passionate love affair for two months.

He's bewildered and dejected because the woman he loves is claiming they don't even know one another. And after she greeted him so happily, too! Of course, he'll ask her friends what's wrong, and enlist their aid to straighten out everything. And of course—"

"They will!" C.J. finished bitterly, glaring at him. Jan may not have totally believed his story, she thought despairingly, but the others had. And they would think it just like their C.J. to panic and deny everything. The romance of a love affair would have fascinated C.J., and her friends knew it. But if Fate had truly "set the date," her friends would also believe that the thought of marriage had panicked her.

She could see the whole vacation before her like a nightmare. Whether or not her friends believed her denials, they'd still do everything in their collective power to shove her down the aisle.

"Let the play begin," Fate murmured in a satisfied tone, obviously seeing her thoughts written on her face. "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't, pixie. Might as well take the easy way out and enjoy your courtship."

"And get married on Valentine's Day," she finished dryly.

"Sure."

C.J. wasn't the slightest bit worried about an actual wedding taking place. In two weeks, she'd be safely back in Boston, working for her doctorate. All this would seem like a bad dream.

"Well? Do you agree that my way is best?"

She wondered dimly if she were imagining the tension she sensed within him. Why was he so determined to carry through with this ridiculous charade? Pushing the useless speculation away, she said evenly, "I'll agree to the charade. But it stops when the vacation stops."

For a moment, he seemed about to protest, but then he seemed to see the utter determination on her face. A peculiar smile creased his lean face, and something mischievous stirred in the purple eyes. "All right. The . . . charade . . . ends in two weeks."

C.J. gave a little sigh of relief. No more talk of marriage, then. But she wondered at his hesitation before and after the word "charade." Her victory had an oddly hollow feeling.

"So I have to spend the night here," he pointed out.

Determined not to act like this was the first time she'd ever entertained a man in her bedroom—even though it was—C.J. managed an unconcerned smile. "Fine." She gestured to the two uncomfortably modern chairs flanking the window. "Hope you'll be comfortable."

He sighed. "I was afraid you were going to say that."

"It's your choice—the chairs, the floor, or your own room." She got up. "Excuse me."

Bowing to her polite words, he moved aside so that she could get her sleeping gear from the dresser. "I don't suppose," he murmured in a wistful tone, "that I could convince you to share the bed? With a pillow between us?"

"Not even with the Berlin Wall between us," she said, and was startled at the grimness of her own voice.

A sudden laugh escaped him, as though in surprise. "Is the courtship getting to you already?" he demanded with a theatrical leer.

Not rising to the bait, she said, "I sleep alone," and felt faintly uncomfortable at the primness she heard. Before he could say anything else, she hastily unearthed the oversized green football jersey she slept in, and added, "I'm taking a shower and going to bed. It's been a long day. You're on your own."

He didn't say another word, but watched with veiled eyes as she headed for the bathroom. C.J. took her shower in a weary state of semi-consciousness. She didn't think because she didn't want to think. Tomorrow, when her mind was fresh, she'd sit down and figure out what was going on. And then she'd probably call somebody and have this lunatic hauled away. But tonight, she seemed to be stuck with him.

The stranger C.J. had seen in the mirror earlier— and felt within herself—had apparently gone back into hiding. But she surfaced with bewildering suddenness when C.J. came out of the bathroom to confront the "lover" in her bedroom.

He had slid the two chairs together near the foot of the bed with the folding luggage rack between them, making a peculiar-looking sort of lounge-cum-bed. His sweater had been discarded and lay over the back of the chair his feet were propped on, his shoes were neatly by the dresser. A blanket and pillow had been abstracted from the bed. He was looking perfectly comfortable, hands linked together behind his neck and white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest.

The room was suddenly shrinking around C.J.

Tugging at the white piping at the bottom of the thigh-length football jersey, she found her eyes skittering away from his steady gaze as she approached the bed. She could feel his sweeping look, and tugged again at the jersey. She became aware of her heart thudding again, and silently cursed the stranger who occupied her body in this bewildering way.

"Goodnight, pixie."

She jumped at the husky sound of his voice and, finding that there was no graceful way to slide into bed wearing a jersey, opted for speed over grace. "Goodnight," she muttered, reaching swiftly to turn out the lamp on the nightstand.

Lying still in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, she listened to her heart pound and stared into darkness.

"Cynthia Jean," he murmured suddenly.

Baffled, she frowned at the darkness. "Having sweet dreams?" she asked him quizzically.

"Trying to figure out what the C.J. stands for," he responded in a musing voice. "Cynthia Jean?"

"No." She couldn't help but smile, feeling wide awake and amused by the guessing game that so many others had played.

"Carly Jo?"

"Sorry."

"Catherine Joanna?"

"Wrong again."

"Constance Julia?"

"Nope."

His sigh reached her easily. "I'll ask your friends in the morning. They'll take pity on me."

"Want to bet?"

"I've never met a woman yet who could keep a secret."

"You shouldn't make blanket statements." She giggled softly. "My friends and I have known each other for twenty years, but they've only known my name for eight years. It was my graduation present to them when we all finished high school. And since their own husbands haven't gotten it out of them, I doubt that you will."

"It must be a dilly of a name."

"Why else do you think I've had it stricken from every record except my birth certificate?" she asked wryly.

"Mmmm. Something exotic, then. Cleopatra Jacqueline?"

She choked on another giggle. "No, thank heavens. My mother wasn't deranged, just groggy from the anesthetic."

"So when she really woke up, she decided to call you C.J.?"

C.J. was silent for a moment. "No. My uncle did. I was called by my first name until I was four. Then my parents were killed in a plane crash, and my sister and I were raised by my father's brother."

"I'm sorry, pixie." His voice was sober.

"Don't be." There was a smile in her own voice. "I can barely remember them. And John was very good to Siri and me."

"John?"

"My uncle." She laughed softly. "He taught us never to call him 'Uncle John.' Said it made him feel old."

"Siri is your sister?"

"Yes. Another unusual name. And, before you ask, it isn't short for anything. My father just liked the sound of it."

"It was his turn to do the naming, huh?"

"After the disaster of my name, he wasn't taking any chances."

"It can't be that bad."

"It can. And is."

"Now you've got me on my mettle. I'll have to figure it out."

"Be my guest." C.J. smothered a yawn with her hand. "But I'm going to sleep."

"I'm not sleepy," he protested.

"Tough." She turned on her side, realizing only as she did so that she was facing him. "Sleep waits for no man. Goodnight."

"Let's play twenty questions," he suggested.

"No."

"Then I'll tell you a story."

"You've told too many stories today. Goodnight."

"But—"

"Goodnight!"

With a heavy sigh, Fate lapsed into silence. C.J. lay and listened to her travel clock ticking softly.



As Jan had pointed out earlier, C.J. had been working hard for months—too hard for too many months. She tended to push herself hard whenever she was working toward a goal, the self-imposed pace tiring her more than she realized. It caught up with her occasionally; yearly vacations were very necessary to her, and long hours of sleep were usually needed to recharge her energies.

The deep sleep C.J. slipped into was not unusual. Normally a light sleeper, there were infrequent nights such as this one when she experienced an almost coma-like unconsciousness. Very little would rouse her from the peculiar state. Deep, dreamless, totally relaxed, she might have been light-years away from the world.

But this night's sleep was different. She dreamed. C.J. was aware that she was dreaming, vaguely puzzled by it, but knew she wouldn't be able to wake herself up. The dream was odd, though, and seemed very, very real.

Purple stars were shining down at her, purple stars with exciting promises in them. C.J. didn't know how she understood the promises, but they were very clear to her. Purple promises bright with a challenge she'd never grow tired of. She wanted to lose herself in the stars, throw herself into them and become the heart of an exploding sun.

And there was an Indian somehow inside the stars, calling to her softly to come with him, to take his hand and become a part of him. His voice was the low rumble of a storm, his black hair flying in solar winds. The gray light of morning gave his form a striking silhouette and made her ache inside at his beauty.

Strong, sun-browned hands tenderly drew away the hazy clouds covering her body, the purple stars becoming eyes that saw her in a way she'd never been seen before. She reached out a hand to touch the Indian's face wonderingly, feeling the warm strength of it beneath her fingers and aching even more because he wasn't—couldn't be— real. He was carved from her dream.

Lips like rough velvet brushed her wrist, slid down her inner arm with torturing slowness. She turned her face aside as the lips reached her shoulder, sacrificing the sight of the Indian's face for the feeling of the lips on her throat.

She felt his thick, soft hair beneath her fingers, and stroked the darkness lovingly. Her other hand found a muscled shoulder and molded the smooth flesh with a need beyond reason. The heavy weight of him bore her down into the cloud beneath her back, and she absorbed this new sensation with delight.

He was whispering sweet, magical words to her in many languages, his breath warm in her ear. Telling her that he adored her, that she was beautiful and wonderful. Telling her that she was the other half of himself.

Kisses fell on her closed eyelids, no heavier than snowflakes, and she heard her soft voice pleading with him until his lips found hers with devastating need. Ignited by the flames in him, her body took fire, burning and torturing her with its aching emptiness.

She twined her arms around the strong column of his neck, her body arching beneath the wonderful weight that trapped her. Willing but inexperienced lips returned the raw desire of his mouth, her tongue exploring fervently.

She felt one of his hands surround a throbbing breast, and a moan ripped its way from the depths of her being. Sparks of light cartwheeled wildly behind her closed eyelids and a roaring filled her ears. When his lips left hers, she felt bereaved, adrift and alone. But he held her close, his hands gently stroking her back, lightly touching her face. Soothing. Calming.

A soft, beloved voice rumbled adoring promises. He'd take care of her, never leave her. She would walk by his side always.

Gradually, the nearly painful tension drained from her body. She clung to him, fearing that the dream was near its end and reluctant to lose this special closeness. Eyes firmly closed, she begged him wistfully to take her with him when he went back to the purple stars. He laughed softly, ruefully it seemed. Promised to return.

The dream was slipping away, and C.J. fought desperately to hold on to it. His deep voice was growing fainter, darkness was closing in on her. The purple stars were the last image in her mind, bright with the promises she'd heard. And then even they dimmed, and she realized sadly that she was alone again. Tears flooded her eyes and wet the cloud as she turned her face into it in despair. . . .



Her bedroom was filled with sunlight when C.J. at last opened her eyes and reluctantly greeted the day. She sat up, stretching and yawning. Staring toward the two chairs neatly flanking the window, a blanket and pillow placed on one of them, she wondered what was wrong with the scene. And then she remembered.

Fate.

Breaking off in mid-yawn, she stared warily around the room. It was empty. Turning to look at her travel clock, she felt her eyes widen in surprise. Well, no wonder he was gone; it was nearly noon. She'd slept half around the clock.

Remembering his penchant for tall tales and his promise to talk to the girls today, C.J. felt suddenly very uneasy. The girls were early risers and she was willing to bet he was too; he'd had hours to talk to them. The dear Lord only knew what they'd told him!

Thrusting back the covers, she swung her legs from the bed, tugging at the jersey which had ridden up during the night. Something about the gesture caught her attention, and she sat on the bed in frowning stillness as she tried to remember.

The dream. Purple stars and a magical Indian. Closeness and need and desire. Passion and . . . love.

Bemusedly, she watched every detail of the dream float lazily through her mind. How odd—she'd never before remembered a dream so clearly. She felt her heart begin its jungle-pounding and her skin tingle at the memory of rough hands touching her tenderly, warm velvet lips kissing her with adoring passion.

The breath escaped her in a little sigh as the room came into focus again. For heaven's sake— the man had her so rattled she was even dreaming about him. And what a dream! She only hoped that the sounds she remembered uttering had emerged only in her mind.

What the dream really meant, she didn't want to think about. She wasn't about to analyze the deep impulses that had triggered it.

The phone on the nightstand rang shrilly just then, and C.J. frowned at it a moment before reaching to pick up the receiver. "Hello?"

"Are you awake?" Jan demanded without preamble.

"Of course I'm awake." C.J. frowned at her reflection in the mirror across the room, not liking the softened, dreamy expression in her eyes.

"There's no 'of course' about it, damnit. I've called you twice since eight o'clock this morning, and you answered the phone both times. But you weren't awake. You've got Fate all shook up; he's not used to these weird sleeps of yours."

"Um . . . he's with you?" C.J.'s voice was a masterpiece of casual unconcern.

"He's been with us all morning. Shame on you, C.J.—you haven't told the poor man a thing about yourself!"

"If you told him—" C.J. began heatedly.

"No, of course we didn't tell him your name," Jan broke in soothingly. "But you'll have to tell him sometime, sweetie, for the marriage license if nothing else." She laughed suddenly. "I must admit that listening to him try to charm the name out of us was some experience! That's quite a man you have there."

"Yes," C.J. murmured in a flattened voice. "Quite a man. He—uh—he asked you about me?"

"All about you. From the cradle onward. And we told him everything we knew. Under the circumstances, we didn't think you'd mind." There was something half triumphant and half questioning in Jan's voice.

"No. I don't mind ... at all." C.J. wondered vaguely if Fate was, in fact, an Indian. If so, she couldn't understand how the Indians had managed finally to lose the war.

"I was a little suspicious last night," Jan went on cheerfully, "but after he spent the night in your room, I realized that the whole thing was on the level."

Score one for Fate! C.J. thought, amused in spite of herself. He'd neatly pegged Jan.

"You've got some explaining to do, my girl!"

"Didn't Fate explain?" C.J. asked hopefully, reasonably certain that he had, but half afraid of what he might have come up with.

"Why you didn't tell us? He said it was probably because you weren't quite sure what was going on yourself. Everything happened so fast, and he couldn't tell you what was wrong. Was that it?"

"Yes," C.J. murmured with a faint sigh, "that was it." She was relieved that Fate had answered that question. It was going to be hard enough to play her role of a woman in love without having to elaborate on his absurd story.

"You still should have told us," Jan scolded gently. "It can't have been easy for you, C.J. In love for the first time and not knowing why you couldn't be together. We could have helped."

"I know. And I'm sorry. I was just so confused." C.J. felt like the worst kind of liar. Damn her stupid impulses, and damn Fate for throwing himself wholeheartedly into the charade!

"Well, at least it's over now. And you'll be walking down the aisle next month. I never thought I'd be saying that, sweetie!"

Hastily, C.J. said, "Let's not talk about that now. This is Kathy's time, remember? We have to get through her wedding first."

"We could make it a double wedding," Jan pointed out suggestively.

"No!" C.J. knew that her voice was too sharp, and rushed on before Jan could notice it. "Like you said, Fate doesn't know too much about me. And I don't know much about him. We need a little time, Jan."

Jan sighed. "You're right, of course. But it would have been perfect. Oh, well." The mouthpiece was muffled as she apparently spoke to someone nearby, and then she came back on the line. "When are you coming down? We want to have lunch and then hit the slopes."

"Fifteen minutes," C.J. managed lightly.

"Great. See you in the lobby."

C.J. replaced the received slowly and stared at the phone for a long moment. So Fate had worked his way into the magic circle. He had charmed her friends, and spent the morning asking them all about her.

That put him one up on her; she still knew nothing about him.

She got up and began getting ready to go downstairs, a frown drawing her brows together. In for the duration, with Fate one step ahead of her. It made her very uneasy.

She was halfway to the door when a sudden thought stopped her in her tracks.

"Don't be ridiculous," she said nervously to the empty room. "It was a dream. Wasn't it?"





Four




Forever afterward, C.J. maintained that that day was among the worst in her life. Pitchforked into a role she had absolutely no idea how to play, she cringed inwardly beneath the watching eyes of her friends and silently cursed Fate in every language she knew and a few she made up.

And he took advantage of the situation, the fiend. When the girls showed rare tact and offered to leave them alone together, Fate wouldn't hear of it. He organized ridiculous games on skis, keeping them together and laughing; he issued challenges the girls couldn't resist; and he managed adroitly to keep C.J. with or near him at all times.

He hugged her, held her hand (even on skis), sprinkled his conversation with endless endearments. He teased her in what C.J. imagined must be a loverlike manner. He kept trying to discover her name, and seemed crestfallen when his guesses were wrong.

"Cheryl Jane?"

"No." C.J. firmly pried her hand from his and used her poles to push off down the slope. It was an advanced slope, and she hoped that it would discourage both Fate and the girls from staying too close to her. But they were all expert on skis, and Fate was Olympic-team material.

They didn't leave her alone for a minute.

It went on that way for the rest of the day and into the evening. C.J. kept a smile plastered on her face and looked daggers at Fate whenever she was reasonably certain the girls wouldn't see. Not that it made the slightest impression on him.

She left dinner early pleading a headache, and gritted her teeth as she saw Fate wink at the girls before rising himself. He kept a loverlike arm around her until they were in the elevator and C.J. shrugged it away.

She stared stonily at the doors as they rode upward, aware that he was leaning against the wall with his arms folded and his eyes fixed on her. She didn't return the steady, smiling gaze. She was torn between screaming at him in frustrated rage—an unfamiliar emotion—and throwing herself wantonly into his arms, compelled by an altogether different emotion.

She felt like a see-saw, a yo-yo. Up and down, back and forth, tormented by crazy impulses she'd never felt before. And it was all his fault, damnit. Even telling herself that the day's cherishing touches and teasing words were just a part of his charade, she'd been fighting her instinct to respond to them all day.

"You look like a sulky little girl," he said as the doors opened and they left the elevator on their floor.

Not rising to the bait, she said tautly, "And you're definitely a long-legged beastie."

"I'm a what?" He halted beside her as they reached the door to her room and she fished in the pocket of her slacks for her key.

"Haven't you ever heard that old Scottish prayer?" Refusing to look at him, C.J. unlocked the door. " 'From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night— Good Lord deliver us.' "

"I take it that wasn't a compliment." He sounded amused, grasping her arm when she would have entered the room.

"Bingo." She stared fixedly at some point near the middle of his chest. "Charade's over for the night. I'm going to soak in the tub and read a good book; you're on your own. The girls will never know you aren't in my room. Goodnight." She heard the elevator bell ding softly.

"Too late," he murmured. "They're coming now." Before she could utter a protest or sound, he drew her swiftly into his arms.

She looked up, filled with unreasoning panic, just as his lips covered hers. In those first few moments, she struggled inwardly against shrieking nerve endings and disordered thoughts, her body remaining stiff in his arms. Her mouth was closed desperately to resist his invasion, and she fiercely called upon the concentration she'd taught herself so many years ago.

But her concentration had never run head-on into Fate.

His lips played on hers with the delicate touch of a master, soft and pleading for a response. She felt the tip of his tongue probing gently, insistently. Strong arms pulled her even closer, one of his hands sliding down her back to her hips, pressing her against the lean strength of his body until she could feel the throbbing desire he made no effort to hide.

An ache began in the pit of her belly, startling her with its suddenness. She felt her arms sliding around his waist, her lips parting with a will of their own, and realized in dismay that she had little control over the need he aroused in her.

And then Fate suddenly released her. Blinking dazedly, C.J. saw two total strangers pass them with politely averted eyes. Slowly she understood that he had lied about the girls coming.

Leaning against the doorjamb and all too aware of the unsteady legs supporting her, she stared at him. He appeared perfectly calm. Hands in the pockets of his slacks, he returned her stare with a slight smile. The purple eyes were glowing.

"Goodnight, pixie."

Had she imagined the slight hoarseness in his voice? C.J. took a deep breath and straightened to her full height of barely five feet. "If I were you," she said evenly, "I'd guard my back. Someone's liable to do you a mischief."

"I’ll keep that in mind," he responded gravely.

C.J. turned, went into her room, and closed the door behind her with unnatural care. She stood perfectly still for long minutes, until she was sure that he had gone. Then she made a peculiar little sound rather like the snarl of an enraged, frustrated kitten.



Monday and Tuesday were two more candidates for C.J.'s list of one lifetime's very worst days. Fate continued to ingratiate himself with the girls and smother her with loving attention. He pulled out all the stops in his act of devotion, and it was driving C.J. to the brink of insanity.

And he left her at her door each of the nights with a kiss that kept her awake, alone in her bed, long into the morning hours.

On Wednesday, she was finally granted an opportunity to be alone. Fate excused himself after lunch, pleading important phone calls and leaving C.J. with a passionate kiss which should have branded her for life. She was staring after him dazedly when Jan reminded her that they had planned to go into Aspen to pick up a few last-minute things for the wedding.

Ruthlessly pulling herself together, C.J. said, "I think I'll stay here. See you later."

Tami gave her an arch look, "You're just hoping Fate's phone calls won't take long!"

"I don't blame her." Ann sighed softly. "He's such a sweet man, C.J. Anybody can see he absolutely adores you!"

C.J. managed a weak smile. "See you later," she repeated. Sweet? she marveled silently. The man was about as sweet as a cruising shark! Not that her friends could see that; Fate had them thoroughly charmed. All they saw was a man head-over-heels in love with their friend. He was handsome and utterly masculine but not the least bit afraid to be gentle or silly, not the slightest bit self-conscious while uttering loving words. . . .

She found herself thinking about him as she rode the elevator alone up to her room. In fact, he had never been totally out of her thoughts since the moment she'd met him. And that was scary.

She fought the knowledge that the man had charmed her as well as her friends, but lost the fight. He had charmed her. She had experienced more emotional ups and downs in the past three days than in her entire life, but there had been moments of sheer absurdity. And, to her surprise, she had discovered within herself a love of the absurd.

Fate made her angry, frustrated her, set her senses in a bewildering spin, shamelessly took advantage of the situation she had created. And he made her laugh. She had to stay on her toes with him; very little got past him.

And there was, she admitted to herself, a certain delight in that. Until now, she'd had very little experience in the art of verbal fencing. But now . . .

The sparring had taken place quite often in the last three days. Sweetly barbed words from her, smiling responses from him. Usually murmured in undertones, since her friends were nearby. Double-edged comments, ironic asides, sotto voce remarks.

C.J. thought with surprise that she had never felt so alive, so aware of everything around her. It was another scary thought; a change in her that Fate was responsible for. Fiercely, she pushed him into a corner of her mind and slammed the door on him.

She remained in her room only long enough to find a heavy book in her bag, then headed downstairs again. Due to happy skiers on the slopes on this sunny afternoon, the lounge was deserted.

At last—alone!

C.J. propped her feet on a hassock, smiled happily at the roaring fire in the huge stone fireplace, and opened her book. With a little luck, her friends would be gone for hours, and she could lose herself in history.

Time passed without notice as she absorbed the flavor and color of medieval England. The author of the book was a master storyteller, and dry facts leaped off the page vibrant with life.

She was only dimly aware of shadows passing around her from time to time. Voices bounced off her consciousness without making any noticeable dent. But then one voice began to irritate like a buzzing insect, annoy like a song one couldn't forget.

"C.J.?"

She tuned it out.

"Hey, lady!"

She frowned and concentrated harder.

"Earth calling Miss Adams!"

She flounced around and away from the voice.

"I hate to disturb you, but the couch is on fire."

The laughing male voice finally had the desired effect. With an exasperated sigh, C.J. slammed the book shut. Her glaring yellow eyes slowly traveled up the jean-and-sweater-clad length of a masculine body, settling at last on a solemn Indian face. "Did you want something?" she asked with awful politeness.

"Funny you should ask."

She glanced at the broad watch on her slender wrist and then back up at Fate. "Look, I've only got another hour at most. Will you—"

"Another hour for what?" he interrupted.

"For enjoying myself before the girls come back, whereupon I will become the center of the all-time favorite indoor sport."

"Which is?" His lips twitched.

She smiled very sweetly. "Watching C.J. make a total ass of herself."

Fate laughed and sank down beside her on the couch. "Is that what you've been doing? I hadn't noticed."

"You should have. 'It takes one to know one.'"

"Cruel. You're a cruel lady." He reached over to pluck the book from her hands. "What were you so engrossed in?"

With a certain perverse pleasure, she watched his eyebrows shoot upward and a bemused expression cross his face as he read the book's title aloud.

"A Study of Medieval Times."

"One of my favorites," she told him limpidly.

There was an odd gleam in Fate's dark eyes as he looked up from the book to meet her gaze.

"What did you think of Miller's Guide to the Medieval Age?" he asked casually.

"I. . . it was . . . fascinating." C.J. couldn't have been more surprised if he'd suddenly started talking to her in Middle English. Other than actual students of medieval history—precious few of them—she'd never met a man interested in the subject. "You . . . like medieval history?"

"All kinds of history." He sat back, carelessly throwing his arm across the back of the couch. "As a kid, I wanted to grow up to be King Arthur; the interest grew out of that. Every elective I could work in during college was on the subject. I couldn't decide whether to become a lawyer or a history teacher."

"But law won." C.J. was burningly aware of the long fingers resting casually on her shoulder.

"In the end. I come from a long line of lawyers, and I wanted to help people in trouble." He shrugged, smiling wryly. "Idealistic maybe, but what the hell. I haven't regretted it."

"Tell me about it." She smiled at his quizzical look. "I want to know—really. Your cases, clients."

"The degenerates," he said teasingly.

C.J. had the grace to blush. "Sorry about that. I was mad."

"I know you were. I seem to have the knack of enraging you, pixie. You spit like a kitten at me."

Not certain that she liked the comparison, C.J. frowned at him. "You were going to tell me about your work," she prompted.

"Was I?" His fingers began playing with the curls around her ear. "I can't imagine why. It's dull, most of it. Boring research and trying to convince reluctant witnesses to testify and arguing precedents in courtrooms."

"No Perry Mason dramatics?" she asked with mock disappointment.

His lips twitched. "So far, no. And no cases needing the genius of Sherlock Holmes to unravel. Just steady, plodding work." He turned his gaze to the fire and the mockery fell away from him as he frowned slightly. "Although there was one case ..."

C.J. listened, fascinated, as he told her of a man on trial for his life. A murder trial. Fate had spent months sifting through facts and statements from witnesses, prowling the area where the crime had taken place. Convinced of the innocence of his client.

He downplayed his own intelligence in discovering the real murderer, but C.J. wasn't deceived. The real murderer had been totally unsuspected, and she knew that Fate's task had been more than difficult. But a certain amount of courtroom dramatics and a novel-like last-minute revelation of uncovered evidence had cleared his client and pinpointed the real killer.

Asking intelligent questions, C.J. heard more about Fate's cases during past years, and then they wound up talking about history. They discussed C.J.'s topic for her doctoral thesis, exchanged favorite little-known historical facts, argued over which ruler had done the most for his country and civilization as a whole.

It was like pulling teeth, but she even managed to get Fate to talk a little about his background. His family was "average," he said. His younger brother was in college, his parents lived in Wyoming. His father was a retired lawyer, and his mother, also retired, a commercial artist.

They compared childhoods briefly, and talked about schoolday pranks and teenage miseries. Colleges were discussed, and how boring a job could sometimes be, and how irritating it was to have to cook for just one person.

They were no longer—could no longer be—two actors on a stage.



That fact didn't hit C.J. until the next day. High winds made the slopes both uncomfortable and unsafe, with the result that most of the lodge's guests remained inside. The place was by no means too crowded, but one had to take care not to bump into someone while moving through the halls or lounges.

C.J. and her friends were busy getting ready for the wedding on Saturday—to be held in the lodge's lovely chapel—and Fate made himself amazingly useful. Kathy had invited him, days before, to be a part of the ceremony. So he would be ushering C.J. down the aisle a bit early—she a bridesmaid and he an usher.

It was Fate who suggested to Kathy that the entire lodge be invited to participate in the event, pointing out that everyone loved weddings and, besides, the guests would probably welcome a change in their routine. To C.J.'s surprise, Kathy approved of the idea wholeheartedly, and immediately posted a notice on the bulletin board in the lobby.

That instant acceptance of Fate's idea caused C.J. to step back and take a new look at her friends. They all liked Fate. No—more than liked him. They loved him like a brother. In a few short days, he had won them over completely.

C.J. tried to think of him as simply an actor, playing out a role, but the serious man she had talked to the day before kept intruding. From the very beginning, she'd seen him as an attractive man, but the role he played had prevented her from seeing the man himself very clearly. Now she saw the man rather than the actor.

She was still fighting the attraction she felt for him, but she was no longer able to tell herself firmly that she wasn't about to get involved with an obvious lunatic. The man who had talked to her about law and history had been a highly intelligent, perfectly sane man. The fact that the man clearly relished his role as a lover was, therefore, a puzzling mystery.

The only explanation C.J. could come up with was his own: lawyers were apparently frustrated actors at heart.

That oddly angering thought was in her mind on Thursday afternoon when Fate stepped from the elevator just as she was getting ready to enter it. Her arms were full of flowers—silk flowers— which she was going to take to the chapel on the top floor of the lodge. Fate paid absolutely no attention to the colorful burden as he caught her in an abrupt, bone-crushing hug, swinging her around and off her feet.

The elevator doors hissed softly closed as C.J. emerged from the bear hug more than a little breathless. "What was that for?" she asked dazedly. "You win a lottery or something?"

"Every human being," he began, tapping her nose with his index finger to emphasize each word, "needs a minimum of three hugs per day. To ensure mental health."

C.J. blinked with each tap. "Oh, yes? Do you dabble in psychology as well as law and history?"

"I don't dabble in anything," he corrected austerely. "History is a hobby. And every good lawyer studies psychology."

"Every good lawyer shoots bull, too."

"I've never shot a bull in my life."

"Cute, Maestro. That's cute. All you need is a stage and footlights to be right in your element."

"Uh oh." He slid his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, head held to one side consideringly. "She's mad at me again," he announced, as though to a third person. "After twenty-four glorious hours of not being mad at me, I've done something to set her off again. Whatever could I have done?"

"Just being you is enough," she said sweetly.

"Ouch." He looked wounded.

"You're making fools out of my friends—and me!" she accused, feeling herself building toward a full head of steam. That her anger was irrational in a situation she'd brought on herself, she didn't consider. It was enough that the emotional upsets of the past days had taken their toll, and she wanted somebody to suffer the consequences. And since it was his fault, he could suffer.

"I did that?" he queried innocently.

"You know exactly what you've been doing! My friends think the sun rises and sets on you. They don't know you're an utterly unscrupulous, conniving, deceitful—"

"Into the trenches and guard your back, man," he warned himself lightly. "She's about to commence a pitched battle!"

"Stop laughing at me!" C.J. all but stamped her foot. "You should get an Oscar for this performance, d'you know that? You play the part of lover better than Romeo did! And I'm fed up with—"

"So that's it!" he exclaimed softly, a spark of something very like satisfaction glowing in the purple eyes.

"So what's it?" she demanded irritably.

"You're mad because I've played my part too well. The courtship's really beginning to get to you, isn't it, pixie?"

"Don't flatter yourself!" she snapped.

"Admit it—you're beginning to believe that a passionate love affair wouldn't be such a bad idea after all. I've got you so confused, you don't know what you want."

This time, C.J. did stamp her foot. "Quit twisting things around!" she snarled. "This whole idea was a bad one from start to finish, and you know it as well as I do!" She felt tears of frustration rise in her eyes, and was astonished by this display of weakness.

"Poor baby." Fate was abruptly grave, remorse showing on his face and in his eyes. "I really have got you upset. Would it help to apologize on bended knees?"

"No," she muttered, uncertain whether or not the remorse was real, but suspicious.

"How about if I apologize a la Valentino?" Without giving her a chance to respond, he suddenly caught her around the waist with one arm, bending her back until he was supporting most of her weight and she was very nearly horizontal from the waist up.

Blinking up at him and clutching his sweater instinctively, C.J. stared up at dark eyes dramatically narrowed to veil an imaginary desert sun, and choked back an irrepressible giggle. The sudden absurdity had drained away her anger, and she almost hated him for that. "You'