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Page 1

Chapter One

"This entire plan," Verity Ames announced, "is a really stupid idea. When it came to giving out common sense, the good Lord obviously overlooked you two. Or maybe he just overlooked men in general."

She glared across the table at the two men who sat opposite her. One was her lover and one was her father. She loved them both but right now she could cheerfully have strangled them. That she could be so fond of a pair of chauvinistic, bullheaded rogues probably indicated a serious character flaw in her.

"Now, Red, just calm down. I've told you there's absolutely no reason to worry. It's gonna be a cakewalk. No sweat." Her father's teeth flashed from the depths of his bushy, graying red beard, and his aquamarine eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. Emerson Ames, part-time author and full-time adventurer, was a big man with a huge appetite for life in the dangerous lane.

Verity had gotten her flaming hair and curiously striking blue eyes from him. Emerson had raised her single-handedly after her mother's death, and he'd seen to it that his only child grew up with a thorough, if eclectic, education, and the ability to take care of herself. One of the things Emerson had not managed to instill in her, however, was his unquenchable desire to wander the far corners of the earth. Verity valued home and hearth.

"Don't try to reassure me, Dad. I've listened to the whole scheme and I still think it's stupid and risky.

Samuel Lehigh got himself into this mess. Let him get himself out of it. There's no need for you and Jonas to get involved."

"Lehigh's in real trouble this time, Verity. He needs help. He needs someone he can trust," Jonas said.

He extended one arm with unconscious grace and picked up the glass of vodka in front of him. That smooth, masculine grace was an intrinsic part of Jonas Quarrel, a manifestation of the quiet power within him. Verity imagined it was the kind of power one might have seen in a sixteenth-century Renaissance nobleman—a civilized savagery.

Although he had the grace and power of a Medici, Quarrel certainly did not dress like one. Tonight he wore his usual attire—blue denim work shirt, jeans, and scuffed boots. The leather belt around his waist was supple from years of wear. While he might not dress like a Renaissance aristocrat, Quarrel did possess the unique talents of a Medici or a Borgia. He was, in other words, equally capable of quoting poetry or wielding a dagger.

He was definitely overqualified for his present job, Verity thought wryly. Jonas Quarrel was one of the few dishwashers around with the right to put Ph.D. after his name. His field of expertise was Renaissance history; specifically, the weapons and strategies of that era.

He was not a handsome man, but men of power and grace have never needed to depend on anything as superficial as masculine beauty. Whenever she looked into the depths of his eyes—eyes the color of Florentine gold coins, filled with intelligence and the shadows of ghosts—the last thing on Verity's mind was how Quarrel rated on a scale of one to ten. He could seduce her with a touch or a look. She was deeply, passionately in love with him.

And now he was getting ready to leave her.

"Lehigh wouldn't have asked for help if he didn't need it," Jonas continued reasonably in his rich, dark voice. "He made it clear on the phone that Emerson is the only one he can trust to handle the ransom payoff. Emerson has no choice. He has to go down to Mexico to deal with the kidnappers. Do you really want your father to go alone?"

Verity had realized hours ago that she had lost the battle, but she struggled on hopelessly. "The Mexican police can deal with the situation."

Emerson shook his head. "Come on, Red, I raised you smarter than that. The last thing Lehigh can afford is to have the cops brought in, even if he could trust 'em not to take the ransom and run. And let's face it, when you're dealing with the upholders of law and order in Mexico, you're playing with a stacked deck. No, old Sam knows this has to be handled privately."

"And there's absolutely no one old Sam can call on to handle the payoff besides you?" Verity asked suspiciously.

Emerson gave a huge shrug. "No one he can trust."

"That certainly says a lot about old Sam's lifestyle and choice of friends, doesn't it?" Verity muttered.

"Imagine living to the ripe old age of eighty and not having another person on the face of the earth he can call on in an emergency."

"How do you think he got to the ripe old age of eighty?"

Emerson drawled. "Not by trusting the wrong people, that's for damn sure."

Verity gazed at Jonas for a long moment. He sipped his vodka quietly and looked back at her, his eyes steady and intent. She knew there was no point in arguing any further. She had been trying to talk them out of the venture since Lehigh's call on the restaurant phone yesterday morning.

It wasn't so difficult to accept her father's decision. Verity was accustomed to Emerson's restless, adventuring ways. But when she thought about Jonas going away, she could feel a knife twisting deep inside.

"What about your writing, Dad?" she tried, knowing it was a futile attempt. "You said you had a deadline for that first futuristic western. You'll miss it if you go chasing off to Mexico."

"I can probably get an extension," Emerson replied easily. "But if the editor doesn't want to give me one, he can shove it."

Verity winced and turned to Jonas. "You were just starting to make some real progress in learning how to cook. I had great hopes for your lentil stew. The customers love it."

Jonas's mouth crooked slightly at one corner. "When I get back you can finish giving me cooking lessons."

Verity put both palms flat on the table. "So," she said, accepting the inevitable with bad grace, "when will you be leaving?"

Jonas studied her for a moment. "Tomorrow morning. Early."

Verity nodded. "Well, good luck. Tell Sam Lehigh I said hello." She pushed herself to her feet abruptly.

She was dazed at the implications of having lost this battle. If this was not the end, it was surely the beginning of the end.

Perhaps it would be better if Jonas made the break a clean one. Then again, maybe it would be infinitely harder. The thought of never seeing him again filled Verity with despair, but the idea of having him drift in and out of her life over the next fifty or sixty years was equally hard to accept. The vision of a lifetime filled with uncertain farewells and greetings almost overwhelmed her.

Dammit, I'm getting maudlin, Verity thought as she swept a couple of glasses off a nearby table. She walked through the empty restaurant and into the kitchen of the No Bull Cafe, angrily blinking back the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks.

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