Susan Sizemore

Excerpt


I Burn for You

by

Susan Sizemore

(From Pocket - October 2003)

Chapter One

He was growing hungry for the night. Despite decades of dwelling in both day and night, Alexander Reynard felt the longing to return to darkness stalking him. Especially right now, when driving through heavy morning traffic in bright sunlight gave him a blistering headache despite the tinted windshield and dark sunglasses. He used to enjoy the gift of being able to greet the dawn and all the bright hours after, but right now, light hurt. Alec had made himself sleep last night through stubborn tenacity, to prove that he could do it. He would not let nature conquer will. He had slept, and that may have been a mistake. In his dreams a woman came into his bed.

She had floated into his senses on a fragrant mist. Her skin had been both warm and wet. His hands had skimmed over flesh firm to the touch, slick as satin. He'd woken up hot and hard in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets. There' d been blood on his lips and molten hunger in his veins. He'd had no clue where he was. He could have been in a tomb or a hotel room, and it made no difference.

Head back, he'd howled his need into the dark. It had been a dream, but the woman was real, he was certain of that. All he had to do was find her. Claim her. It had taken all his will not to run out into the embracing night and start the search then and there.

He didn't want this now. This was not a good time or place for the beginning of a quest.

He finally found a place to park on Hill Street, turned off the engine, and checked his watch. It was a little after nine. If memory served, it was at least a three block walk through bright sunlight to his destination. If he cut through the Central Market he'd be out of the sun for a while.

##

Domini Lancer had dreamed of angels, making love, and peaches. Upon waking, the craving for peaches remained. She'd even smelled peaches while she took a long, hot shower to try to wipe the dream from her mind. She didn't forget it, or the fixed idea of where she should shop. She'd tried to ignore the urge. She really had meant to simply stop at a grocery store on her way to work, but here she was, right where her premonition demanded she be. This absolute need to follow a dream had never happened to her before, and she was a little scared. Scared that maybe she was finally going crazy. More scared of whatever it was that was going to happen. Scared that nothing was going to happen, which would be worse. And if the event to be that drew her here turned out to be the usual petty crap her visions pulled on her, instead of something momentous, she was really going to be pissed off. So was her boss. She'd called on the way in to say she'd be late.

Old Man Lancer didn't make allowances for her being his granddaughter. His deep, whisky growly voice had been annoyed when he said, "Fine," and hung up the phone. He' d comforted her when she had dreams that came true as a kid. As an adult he didn't cut her any slack, and she didn't bring up the subject of being psychic. Maybe because both of them wished she wasn't.

She heard music, and turned around. The song that caught her attention was Melissa Etheridge's Angels Would Fall was coming from a radio at a fruit vendor' s stand. A pyramid of peaches were piled high at the front of the stand, gold as the morning sun, almost shining with their own light in the rather dim market. She couldn' t help but take a step closer. The music swelled around her, bright, lively, full of aching, secret passion. Domini swayed to the sound.

She picked up the peach at the very top of the pile. Its velvet fuzz brushed sensuously across her palm, it was more tempting than Eve's apple. She felt that one bite of it might send her into a Sleeping Beauty's trance. Or make her fall in love.

She raised it to her lips. "You want to pay for that first?" the vendor asked.

The music faded into the background. Reality came rushing back in. Domini blinked. She smiled apologetically and quickly dropped the fruit into the vendor's outstretched hand. "I'll have a dozen," she said, and handed over eleven peaches to the frowning woman.

Oh, for God's sake, Domini complained to the universe that had cursed her with foresight after she paid and took the plastic bag of fruit from the vendor. She boiled with frustration as she walked hastily toward the nearest exit. Is that it?

Why had it been so desperately important to race to the Central Market when it seemed all she'd been meant to do was listen to a song on the radio?

"I could have stayed home and done that," she grumbled. Do you always talk to yourself? A male voice asked. She'd never heard a voice like his before, soft yet self-confident - caressing?

Domini turned to look for the man who'd spoken. When she moved her head something soft as a breeze, intimate as a kiss brushed against the back of her neck. It sent a cold shiver of fear down her spine and heat racing through her blood. The combination was as dizzying as gulping peach brandy. The market was crowded, yet suddenly she was as alone as if she were standing on the moon.

And someone was watching her.

Domini turned slowly around, alert to anything out of the ordinary, to any threat. The routine of running a visual sweep of her location helped calm her.

The market was a huge open space, full of noise, bustling with people shopping at aisle upon aisle of stands, breakfasting at the snack bars. Despite overhead lights, neon signs, and sunlight flooding in from entrances on all four sides, there was a shadowed quality about the warehouse-like building. Nothing inside seemed out of place. It was a normal morning with people going about their business and enjoying the sights and sounds of the place. There was no threat within.

Domini turned her attention to the entrance, and saw him in an instant, standing in the doorway just across the street from the Angels' Flight sign. He wore sunglasses, yet she knew the eyes behind the dark lenses were fixed on her. She stared boldly right back.

His tall, broad-shouldered silhouette was haloed by California sunshine. His features were shadowed by the brim of the sort of hat that reminded her of Indiana Jones. All she could really make out was a square jaw and cleft chin, covered by dark beard stubble.

But how could he be the one who spoke to her, when he was half way across the market? Unless…

Unnerved, Domini turned and hurried for the opposite entrance. She didn't know what to make of all this, all she knew was that she had to get out of here right now ! It was all she could do not to run, or look back over her shoulder to make sure he wasn't following her.

##

Alec watched the tall beauty go. He was left with a memory of long dark hair, a wide, full-lipped mouth, long legs and lithe movement. As she fled, he fought down the urge to follow with all the will he could muster. Her confusion and fear clawed at him. He kept still while the pain surged through him, wanting her with all his soul, bleeding inside at knowing she rejected anything to do with him. He told himself she had every right to run, and didn't let the primal response to flight take him. He stayed on the leash, though breathing came hard and every muscle in his body tensed solid as stone.

Let her run. It will be all right. Even as he told himself this, the shrouded part of him hated her for running. That creature believed in soul-bonding passion at first sight. But Alexander Reynard was more civilized than that. Or so he must believe, for the woman's sake even more than for his own.

What was happening to her was beyond her ken. Very nearly beyond his, at least at this point. If they touched now it would be raw and rough. He hadn't expected to find her so soon. Losing her instantly dealt a blow to his soul. He wanted to throw back his head and howl, the way he had last night. He would live with the loss for now, fight down the arousal their brief touching of minds brought him. Or at least live with it until he could offer her a man, not a monster.

He could have followed her easily. Her scent perfumed the air, her aura cut a bright swath easily discernable even in the tangled mix of lifesigns within the crowd. He deliberately turned his back on that path. He had a meeting at a nearby hole-in-the-wall joint that was his purpose in coming into downtown Los Angeles. He would stick to that purpose, endure alone what needed to be endured.

Maybe seeing her, knowing she existed, was meant as a sign of hope. Yeah, right, the woman was to be his reward for doing what needed to be done? He wouldn't belittle her, or himself, by thinking that way.

Alec made his hands relax from tightly held fists. Then he made himself walk through the market and out the other side, just as he'd planned.

Chapter Two

Many towns and all the big cities had a meeting place for the fringe peoples of the world. In Chicago, it was a boutique hotel. In New York, it was a bookstore. In New Orleans, it was an outdoor café famous for its coffee and donuts. In Los Angeles, the meeting place was a bar in the seedy side of downtown. It had a dilapidated, sleazy look to it that was supposed to put off unwanted customers, which included most of the population. The bar’s clientele paid very well for the privacy, and learned not to complain about the dirt and aromas to the place’s touchy proprietor.

While the establishment never closed, Alec was the only customer at the moment. He sat at a small scarred table in the center of the room, and nursed a drink that looked like, but was not, a beer.

Alec hated to be kept waiting, and every now and then glanced toward the door with a look that grew more laser sharp with annoyance.

Finally, Alec made himself stop watching the door. He concentrated on slowly, carefully bringing the glass to his lips and swallowing its contents without gulping it just to get it over with. The dark brew looked like a dark, rich stout, but was an herbal concoction that tasted something like – no, he didn’t want to think about what it tasted like. Alec sipped from the glass because what was in it was good for him, not because he liked it.

Later, maybe, if he was lucky he’d be able to enjoy a beer again, maybe something stronger, but for the immediate future he’d been told to abstain for medical reasons.

If things didn’t work out – if the worst happened, and he went feral – it wasn’t alcohol he’d be craving.

He rolled back the cuff of his white shirt and looked at the small tattoo of a stylized fox on the inside of his left wrist.

Then the door opened, slammed, and Shaggy Harker bounded up to the table and swung into the other chair before Alec could roll his sleeve down over the mark.

"Hey, buddy!" Shaggy’s deep voice boomed through the room, the sound filling all the shadowy spaces. "Long time, man."

Alec was so startled he very nearly snarled at Harker, and that could have turned a meeting of old friends into a bloody mess with both of them reacting on primitive instinct rather than thought. Alec’s mouth and fingers ached as he controlled the reaction.

He almost managed to smile. "Long time," Alec agreed. "You look – hairy."

Shaggy threw back his head and let out a bark of laughter. "You look like shit."

"I feel like it, too," Alec acknowledged. With a swift move Shaggy wrapped his big hand around Alec’s left arm. His grasp was surprisingly gentle. Alec went very still as Shaggy studied the fox tattoo.

"Ink’s fading," Shaggy finally judged. "Bummer."

"Yes," Alec agreed after a long silence.

Shaggy loosed his hold and sat back with his arms crossed over his wide chest. Most werewolves were not bikers, despite the stereotype that they were. Shaggy Harker just happened to be a werewolf biker. He was big and bearded; his long silver-streaked hair tied back with a red bandanna. He was dressed in leather and denim and an old black T-shirt. A faint musky aroma washed across the table to tickle Alec’s sensitive sense of smell.

Whatever Shaggy looked and smelled like, he was smart, perceptive, and very much had his nose into everything in his territory. If someone supernatural blew into Los Angeles needing something, Shaggy was the one who could fix you up. If it was legal.

"You in town for the cure, man?" Shaggy asked, after the bartender brought him a beer that was really a beer. "The docs at the clinic do good work," he added after gulping down the cold brew. "You’ll be fine."

Alec had little patience for sympathetic reassurance, but he let it go with only a cold look. His nerves were strung tight, which was his only excuse for acting so prickly. Or acting like a prick, to be more precise.

He signaled the bartender to bring Shaggy another drink. Then he made himself finish the glass he’d been nursing.

"I have an appointment at the clinic later this morning. There are stipulations about receiving treatment."

"Yeah, yeah," Shaggy said. "I know the drill for your folk. Part of your 12-step is that you have to have a job, one that serves humanity."

Alec bristled at this casual comment. "I am a Prime of the Reynard Clan," he reminded the werewolf he’d met on a mission to rescue embassy hostages several decades before, and lifted his head proudly as he said, "The Clans serve. We are guardians, protectors."

"And touchy," Shaggy added. "I’ve never known anyone who could get bent out of shape faster than a vampire. Thanks," he said as the bartender deposited another beer on the table. He gulped down the brew, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Good thing you’re buying, Al—" "You used to call me colonel."

"Yeah, but that was before you went into Delta and got all casual." It was true that the members of the army’s elite covert fighting force acted like civilians much of the time, and rank was generally a non-issue. But… "I didn’t know you knew about my transfer."

"Guessed when you disappeared so sudden like." Shaggy shrugged. "We’re both civilians now. You are out, right?"

"Unfortunately." Alec had reluctantly resigned his commission when the symptoms started. Delta Force was no place for a vampire when the drugs that let him function in the daylight world were losing their potency. "You need a job?"

Alec rubbed the back of his neck, then rolled his head from side to side. "I need a job," he answered, when he’d worked some of the tension out of his muscles. The memory of seeing his woman in the market rose before him for a moment, but he pushed it away. "I very badly need a job."

"Think I might have something for you," Shaggy told him. "Heard old man Lancer’s looking to add to his team. Your resume hold up to a background check?"

"Of course," Alec answered. "What sort of team are we talking about?"

"Lancer Services, I think that’s the classy name he calls his company these days. Used to be Lancer Protection Service, but he’s raised his prices and gone very low key in his promo. Attracts a more elite clientele that way, I guess."

Alec tried his best to keep a rein on his impatience. "You still haven’t told me what sort of job I’d be doing."

"Personal protection."

"Bodyguard."

"You got it. To the rich and famous. Protecting a movie star is an honorable enough job for a Clan boy, right?"

Alec wanted to snarl that a Prime was not a boy, but that was only his medication needing adjustment talking. He managed to joke, "Depends on the movie star."

"I’ll get a friend of a friend to set up an appointment with Lancer for you," Shaggy said. "Maybe even for later today. That okay with you?"

"I appreciate it." He briefly looked the werewolf in the eye, a sign of respect rather than challenge from an alpha male of one species to the alpha of another.

Shaggy nodded. "I’ll call when I know anything."

Alec felt a small measure of relief at having set one item of his agenda in motion. He was almost beginning to look forward to his first visit to the very private medical facility that was his next stop. His senses, physical and psychic were growing painfully sensitive. For example, he was uncomfortably aware of the werewolf’s rising pheromone level.

Shaggy looked around restlessly, and glanced at his watch. "Can’t hang around and talk over old times." He grinned as he stood. "Got to get home. My old lady’s in season and we aren’t getting any younger."

That explained the pheromones, but also told Alec far more than he wanted to know about werewolves’ private lives. He got to his feet as well. "I have to be going myself. Good seeing you again."

"I’ll be in touch." Shaggy waved a casual farewell, and was out the door faster than he’d come in.

Alec donned jacket, driving gloves, sunglasses and hat before walking out into the daylight. There was a time not that long ago when he hadn’t needed all this paraphernalia to face the sun. He felt like an invalid needing it now. He could only hope that the doctors at the clinic could bring him back to his normal life.

Then he could find her.

##

"Why, if it isn’t Domini the Dominatrix finally sauntering in."

"I have never sauntered in my life," Domini informed Andy Maxwell, who lounged against Nancy’s reception desk in the front hall.

As usual when off duty, Andy looked at her with a salaciousness that was entirely uncalled for. He wasn’t really a sexist pig, but a good friend with a twisted sense of humor.

She pointed sternly to the white marble floor. "On your knees when you speak to me, slave."

Andy promptly obeyed. He looked up at her with anticipation.

Domini laughed. It felt good to be behaving in such a silly fashion. It made her feel normal.

Nancy peered over the top of her glasses. "You two stop that."

They both knew who the real dominatrix was in the company. "Yes, ma’am," they answered together. Andy bounced to his feet, and leaned against the desk again.

"Your grandfather wants to see you," Nancy told Domini.

"Right now?"

"I buzzed him as soon as I saw you get off the elevator." Domini glanced back through the wide glass wall and door that fronted the office suite of Lancer Services. Nancy had a very good view of the long hallway that led to the gleaming copper doors of the elevators at the end the building.

"And you go back to your cube," Nancy told Andy. "Before I tell him you asked me for a date again."

"I just came out for staples," Andy protested as Domini walked out of the reception area. "And to flirt a little bit—"

Domini shook her head with amusement as she drew out of earshot. Andy was a flirt, all right, but he liked his job too much to break the old man’s rule about no fraternizing among the staff. Concentrate on business or get out, was Grandpa’s philosophy.

That usually wasn’t a problem for Domini, but she was having a hard time getting the image of the man she’d seen watching her out of her mind.

Domini knocked and then walked into her grandfather’s office. The Old Man was on the phone, so she grabbed a bottled water out of the small fridge, took a seat in the deep brown leather chair in front of his desk and blatantly listened to Benjamin Lancer’s side of the phone conversation.

"D-boy is just out, eh? How civilized is he? Any PPA training? Good. We can polish him up quick enough. Can he wear a suit? Okay. Send him over." "Found someone to replace Hancock?" Domini asked after her grandfather put down the phone.

The desk was a wide, modernistic glass-topped affair; a present from a grateful corporate client a few years back. It didn’t suit the Old Man’s taste, but it, and the rest of the office’s décor, set a low-key but expensively professional tone that reassured the company’s usually skittish clientele. A sleek new flat-screened computer and the telephone took up one side of the desk. The Old Man generally propped his feet up on the other side of the desk when there weren’t any clients around. Nancy made it part of her job to see that the desk was clean and gleaming before any client meetings.

He put his feet up. "Looks like," was the gruff answer.

"That’s a relief. A team leader type?"

"Won’t know ‘til I see him, will I?"

Domini shrugged.

People came and went a lot in this business. Lancer only hired the best, and the best eventually tended to go freelance or start their own agencies. Tommy Hancock had taken an offer from the Secret Service, so there was a certain amount of pride, and no hard feelings, about his leaving. But replacing someone of his caliber was proving harder than usual. The old man had been starting to be frustrated about it. He didn’t look frustrated now, which pleased Domini on several levels. Though he seemed to thrive on stress, she wished he’d take life a little easier. God forbid she should suggest this, however.

Though he didn’t look a day over a very fit sixty, Old Man Lancer was pushing eighty. There was more silver than brown in his hair and beard. His skin was tanned, and the only wrinkles that showed were deep crow’s feet around surprisingly blue eyes. She’d heard someone describe Ben Lancer’s eyes as neon blue, and they were the one physical feature she’d inherited from him. There was maturity in his voice rather than age. The tone was deep, dark and had a rough timbre to it, sounding like the taste of good whiskey. Whiskey was also a drink he tended to overindulge in once a year, on the anniversary of losing Domini’s grandmother.

With that date looming over the horizon, Domini was glad the Old Man had one concern off his mind. Especially as she might be about to present him with another one.

Remembering that he’d sent for her, she first asked, "What’s up?"

"Holly Ashe called," he answered.

Domini smiled. "Called the house? She knows I have my own place now, and my cell number even if we haven’t seen each other in over a year."

She and Holly had been best friends from pre-school all the way through high school. Domini went on to college, Holly went on the road. They kept in touch, but when Holly’s singing career went white hot, contact had been less frequent. There had been a lot of phone calls and emails when Holly broke up with her long-time lover, but that had been a year ago, when Holly was touring Europe.

"So why did Holly call you?"

"Her management’s looking to beef up her security. She remembered her old friend’s family business, and took it on herself to make the call. She wants you to be her bodyguard."

Domini slugged down half the bottle of water. "I suppose you told her that isn’t exactly how it works."

He nodded. "Took the assignment for the company. You’ll go through her people to set up the details."

Domini almost dropped the bottle. "You want me to run a detail for a friend?"

Those sharp blue eyes narrowed. "I want you to do the workup and briefing for the team. That all right with you?"

When Benjamin Lancer asked a question like that he only expected one answer. "Yes, sir. How large a detail? Duration of contract? Who’s your point person?"

A slight smile creased his weathered face. "I noticed you didn’t ask if you were going to be on the team."

She smiled back. "I assumed that Holly insisted that I would be." He nodded. "Good girl."

A compliment from him was rare, so Domini basked in it for a moment. She was also relieved. Doing groundwork would mean several days spent mostly in the office. That should give her plenty of time to recover her equilibrium from the weirdness of the last few hours. She wanted to be sharp, focused, and above all, behaving like a normal human being while in the field. People’s safety depended on her out there.

For a moment she hesitated telling her grandfather about the incident, since it now looked to be a non-issue. But this profession demanded honesty, and her grandfather expected her to be honest. He’d raised her that way.

She cleared her throat. "I need to tell you something."

"I noticed your butt’s still in the chair when you’ve got work to do." Domini grinned mischievously. "Don’t you want to see my pretty face first thing in the mornin’, Grandpa?"

He glanced at his watch. "Not exactly first thing, is it? What’d you want to tell me, girl?"

"I had a dream last night. It wasn’t a normal dream. It was a premonition—"

"Thought you didn’t get those anymore."

"I don’t talk about them, it’s not the same thing."

The Old Man gave her a glower that should have had a trademark symbol on it, it was so definitive of Ben Lancer. "Hmmph. Go on."

"This dream was way different than anything I’d had before. It was…" She didn’t want to say erotic, because she wasn’t sure the word was big enough to fit the sensations that had overcome her. Domini settled for, "Disturbing. I woke up with this need…craving—"

Her grandfather’s boots hit the floor with a shocking thud as he sat up straight. Those bright blue eyes held hers with laser intensity.

"Compulsion?" he asked. "Somewhere you had to be at a certain time?"

If she didn’t know him so well Domini would have sworn that was fear she heard in his voice. His tone made her nervous. "Yes," she told him. "How’d you know?"

"How do you feel now?"

Domini shrugged. "Better. Steadier. But I was really disoriented until I got out of the market." She stopped herself from rambling and took time to organize her thoughts. "What I normally get are very low level premonitions. It’s not like I see important events before they happen—"

"You did once, when you were three. You woke everybody up screaming shake! Shake! We barely got out of the house before the quake knocked it down."

Domini was startled. "I don’t remember that."

"It happened, whether you remember it or not. You said market?"

Domini took a deep breath, and went on. "The Central Market," she told him. "That was where I was – okay – compelled – to go. I needed to buy fresh peaches."

"You were late for work because you needed fruit?" His disgust was palpable. He sat back in his chair. "I thought you were forced to go there to meet someone."

Again, she was surprised. "There was a man." Even speaking about him sent a shiver through her. "How did you know?"

He was leaning forward, hands flat on the thick glass desktop, studying her intently. "Tell me about him. What did he look like? Did he approach you? Speak to you?"

Domini was more shaken now than she had been before. "Forget it. I don’t want to talk about it." She stood and turned toward the door.

"Wait—"

Domini bolted out the door.

"Just what I don’t need," she muttered as she hurried to her own desk. "One psycho psychic in this family is more than enough."

Chapter Three

"Yeah?" Domini answered the ring of an internal phone line.

"Get back in here," The Old Man answered.

"Be right there." She promptly hung up and headed back to the boss’s office.

He wasn’t alone.

A man standing beside the desk turned when she opened the door. Though the room was brightly lit, all she made out at first was a silhouette of a man, tall, broad-shouldered, standing unnaturally still but exuding grace and strength and power all the same. He wasn’t wearing a hat. Then Domini blinked and he came into focus, but the impression of danger did not go away.

He was not the handsomest man she’d ever seen, but he was the most – something. The word that came to mind was strong, not just in the physical sense. His features were certainly strongly defined, his square jaw and high cheekbones could have been chiseled. There was a deep cleft in his square chin, and he had green eyes, which she couldn’t quite make herself look into directly, it would seem too much like an alpha challenge to do so.

"Domini, you’re staring."

"Well, who wouldn’t?" she heard herself mutter. The alpha smiled slightly. Which brought her back to herself with a jolt. She was so not acting normal today.

Define normal?

She ignored this thought and addressed her grandfather instead. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Would I have told you to come in, if I didn’t?" Her grandfather’s gruff rudeness told Domini that the stranger was not a client. She’d realized that anyway. He would never be the one in need of protecting. Standing perfectly still with a totally neutral expression on his face he was the most dangerous person in the room – which said a lot, considering that neither she nor her grandfather were mild-mannered kittens. So, this was the D-Boy.

"Alexander Reynard," he introduced himself. "Interesting name, Domini."

He spoke softly, and his voice had a velvety rumble. It was the caressing kind of voice that tempted one to lean closer and listen closely.

"It’s an old Scottish name," she answered. "It’s a term for a school teacher."

"Oh?" he asked. "I thought it was a variation of Domanae, which means mistress."

Domini blushed, remembering her teasing relationship with Andy Maxwell. Had this new guy been talking to the staff already?

"Never mind what her father decided to call her," the Old Man broke in. "Domini, how Mr. Reynard around. You’ll be supervising his orientation for the next week, starting tomorrow morning."

Alec watched as Domini curbed both surprise and irritation. She was busy. He disturbed her. It took great effort for him to reach through the dull fog surrounding him to read her. It would be better to save his energy, sod after a few more moments he broke off the contact.

Her gaze flicked Alec’s way for only a moment and darted away again. "Yes, sir," she answered her grandfather.

Mistress indeed, Alec thought. A prize. Mine.

For an instant he held an image in his mind, a vision of how in ancient days his kind were rewarded for mighty deeds with the bodies of the most beautiful women in the world. Long before his time, of course, but he knew the legends of the good old days. No one was going to bring this woman to his bed but him, and that suited him. He only wished that she was somewhere else right now.

It didn’t surprise him to find her here. Fate loved cruel jokes. To be so close and utterly distant… He dared not touch her, or taste her, or make any claim. Not in his condition.

He was all right for now, with a cocktail of drugs pouring through his system. The doctors had dosed him with a temporary fix to get him through the interview and the rest of the day, but because of the drugs, he could barely touch the senses of the woman meant to be his. He was grateful, in a way; it was only the drugs that kept the fury of having to be drugged in check. Catch-22, vampire style.

While she talked to her grandfather, Alec stared at her quite as blatantly as she had at him a few minutes before. The old man noticed without even looking Alec’s way. Alec kept from smiling at Lancer’s protectiveness, for if he did the smile would be predatory.

When he’d seen Domini in the market, it had been her spirit more than her physical appearance that he’d noticed. Then he’d seen that she was tall and dark haired. This close to her he could appreciate her long-legged athlete’s body, but too much perusal of all the curves and lines of her figure was not wise right now, not even numbed as he was by the drugs. Later, when he had time to slowly strip her naked and look, he would caress and taste to his utter satisfaction. For now, Alec concentrated on Domini’s face.

She was not classically beautiful in any way. Certainly not Hollywood beautiful, for which he was thankful. Not blonde, not a size zero, nothing had been surgically altered or injected to try to make artificial perfection out of the perfectly lean and lithe form given her by nature. She was a hard body, which was something that took hard work, sweat and dedication. He appreciated that, admired it, wanted –

Face. Concentrate on her face before you get hot and bothered and do something stupid.

Domini’s eyes were amazing, bright blue surrounded by thick, dark lashes. Her chin was sharp and stubborn. Her skin pale and flawless but for one mole to the right of her lower lip. The beauty spot added a rather saucy air of wantonness to a mouth that was already more than amazing. Those full, ripe lips were made to be kissed for at least several hours a day. A man could make a full-time job of worshipping that soft, sensuous mouth.

"Come on, I’ll find you a desk and show you around," Domini said.

"Thank you," he answered. He exchanged a long glance with Ben Lancer. Lancer’s look held a warning that no fraternization was allowed, especially with his granddaughter. Alec nodded, though it was acceptance of the risk of breaking the rule, rather than agreement to abide by it.

For Domini, the walk down the corridor that led to the warren of office cubicles had never seemed so long. She felt like she was being tailed, almost stalked. Maybe he disturbed her because she couldn’t hear him behind her, though she was very aware he was there. The corridor was not carpeted, he was not wearing soft-soled shoes, so why were there no footsteps? Why couldn’t she hear his breathing? She was good; was a Delta Force veteran that much better?

Stupid question, of course he was, or she would know he was there. When his hand touched her shoulder, Domini was shocked, literally. Sensation burned through her like a bolt of electricity. A gasp caught in her throat as she spun to face him, hands held up defensively. Only to find herself facing a mildly surprised, very good looking man, who said, "Sorry."

She should have been the one to apologize, but she felt stupid – and – scared. Something else as well, something that sent her heart pounding in her ears, and the blood sizzling through her veins. She didn’t know what it was, but she knew Mr. Alexander Reynard caused it.

"Cat got your tongue?" he asked after silence stretched taut between them. Domini was quivering inside from the sound of his cool, lilting voice. Looking at him made her knees go weak. And – she wanted him to touch her again.

She turned around. "Come on." It was a victory that her voice didn’t shake when she spoke.

It was only a few more steps to the large room partitioned into a dozen low-walled cubicles. Here she felt on firmer ground. Here she actually could find something reasonable to say to the man.

She led him to a work area in the center of the room. A few people turned from telephones and computer screens as they passed cubicle entrances. Domini paused each time to introduce Reynard. Most of the office area was empty, so the journey to Reynard’s future workspace didn’t take very long.

The cubicle contained a pair of workstations with computers, phones and file drawers. Two very comfortable desk chairs took up most of the area’s floor space.

Domini gestured for him to have a seat. She leaned against the doorway, arms crossed, and explained, "Agents share the cubes. We’re not in the office much, so it’s not likely you’ll have company crowding you when you’re doing office work."

Domini pointed toward the workstation on the left. "This’ll be yours. Nancy will set you up with supplies and passwords and a keycard for the secure areas. We’ll go through the fun stuff tomorrow, if that’s okay with you?" She checked her watch. "I have an appointment in an hour." He nodded. "Fine. Fun stuff?"

"Hardware. Surveillance equipment. Nothing as fancy as you’re used to, I’m sure."

He gave her a genuine smile. He had dimples. "I can’t talk about what I’m used to."

Ex-special ops people always said cryptic stuff like that, if they even talked about what they’d done at all. Of course this whetted curiosity. Domini refused to wheedle for information that wouldn’t be given. It only encouraged the spooks’ sense of superiority. This man exuded so much confidence that she definitely didn’t want to stroke his ego. So, what would you like to stroke?

Where had that thought come from?

Domini stuck to business. "We have two floors of this building. Offices upstairs, fun stuff down a flight. We have a good exercise room downstairs, but most of our people also do classes at various martial arts schools. Though we don’t carry guns on our protection details, we can get you a discount at the Pherson shooting range, and we have an arrangement with Delano Defensive Driving School. You’ll be put through the driving course during your orientation. Let’s see, what else? We’re a dress-down dress-up organization with very high-end clients, so your wardrobe has to reflect their lifestyles. You’ll have a generous annual clothing allowance. Nancy has a list of recommended clothing stores and tailors."

She eyed Reynard’s suit while trying not to eye him, and not entirely succeeding. "Doubt you’ll need Nancy’s advice. Armani?"

He fingered the well-made dark suit jacket. "Found this Rodeo Drive. Wanted to impress my prospective employer."

Which brought up another question that Domini realized she should have considered before now. "How did you impress the Old Man? He usually takes a couple of weeks to vet a new hire."

Reynard gestured at the cube's other chair. Domini took a seat. Alec had managed a certain amount of mental influence on the old man, but only enough to smooth his way into the job. He hadn’t lied about his skills. Lancer could trust Alec to do the job he hired him for, even if he’d been telepathically influenced not to run a normal background check.

"Your grandfather trusts the mutual friend who recommended me for the position," he told the suspicious Domini. "And I know that you’re about to say he doesn’t trust many people."

She narrowed her extraordinary blue eyes. "Reading my mind?"

"Lucky guess."

When he didn’t take a seat, Domini rose to face him. gallantly offered her a hand, which she pretended not to notice as she got up. Too bad. He very much wanted to touch her again. Needed to, and intended to. But for now he only allowed himself the merest thought of how her skin would be warm and satin smooth against his stroking hands.

Domini’s eyes widened, letting him know that on some unconscious level she responded to his desire. She blinked and stepped carefully past him while he did not succumb to the temptation to reach for her. He didn’t know if this was a victory of the drugs or his own self-control.

"Thank you for your help," Alec told her. "So, we’ll resume the orientation tomorrow morning?"

She nodded. "You’ll need to fill out forms and get an ID photo before you go. I’ll leave you with Nancy to take care of that. Be nice to her," she added. "Nancy’s the real boss around here."

He put a hand to his heart. "I will be the epitome of charm and deference."

"That won’t work on Nancy." Domini once again led the way through the offices, saying over her shoulder, "Try bribery. She makes out like a bandit during Secretary’s Week."

"Roses and chocolates it is, then." Alec hung back a few steps, putting enough space between them to be able to fully appreciate the view as Domini walked away.

Copyright © 2003 by Susan Sizemore