THE GAME WE PLAY
Hideous creatures crouched in the darkness.
Faith Cody, her mind seeking consciousness, struggled against the clinging tentacles of that drugged darkness.
Her body twisted in the throes of nightmare, and she moaned, the deep-chested sound dragging her into the light. But when she opened her eyes, a monster waited there as well.
Light and shadow undulated around her in a drugged blur, but she could distinguish enough corners and shapes to know she lay in a strange bedroom. Rainy afternoon gray light billowed through thin, white curtains, and she could smell the sea and the freshly laundered sheets of her bed. The ceiling above her was spattered with large shadows of raindrops she couldn't see on the windows.
A man, a blur of flesh tones and angles, leaned over her. His hand became solid shape as it reached her face. Her nameless dread became terror, and she cringed away, expecting rape.
She struck out with the edge of her hand, but the self-defense blow which should have smashed his windpipe was as clumsy and slow as the rest of her drugged body. He caught her wrist in steel fingers.
His hard-voiced command spurred her from her hopelessness, and she raked at his eyes with her free hand. His hand loosening her wrist, he dodged. Yanking free, she came to her knees in bed. She wore only a large tee shirt.
Shocked by her vulnerability, she paused before attacking again or fleeing. In that moment, he threw himself at her, pinning her to the bed, his hands manacling her wrists to the sheets.
Her knee seeking his genitals, she twisted, but her knee glanced off his inner thigh. Screaming like an angry jungle cat, she writhed beneath him as she tried to hit him again with her knee.
"Damn it, woman." He pinned her attacking leg with his own, his weight imprisoning her. "I don't want to hurt you."
This time pleading for mercy, she moaned "no" again, and closed her eyes awaiting violation.
"I'm not going to rape you. Be still. Don't attack me again."
Too afraid of retaliation to fight, she remained still.
His body eased off hers, but he didn't free her wrists. "You're one hell of a street fighter, lady."
Trembling, Faith unclenched her eyes and studied the man above her. Her struggle had burned away the last of the drugged haze, and she realized that part of her vision problem had been the lack of her glasses. He hovered so close she could see him clearly now.
His obsidian eyes captured hers.
His breath caressing her cheek, he stared back. His face had the fine-boned features of an aristocrat, an intellectual, and a champion of lost, noble causes. As black as his eyes, his straight, thick hair was laced with white although he couldn't be forty.
"You have purple eyes!" He grinned reassuringly at her, and his grip relaxed on her wrists.
When his charming smile curled crookedly at his left cheek she finally realized who he was. She knew a seven-year-old, almost perfect copy of him. "Poppie."
Ice glimmered in his eyes, and he tightened his grip. "Only my son calls me that." He shook her. "Where's Tommy? What have you done with my children? Where the hell are my children?"
Remembering what she'd tried to forget, her body heaving with reaction, she groaned and turned away from him.
He spread a towel on the bed and cradled her head and shoulders as she vomited what little had been in her stomach then retched for several interminable minutes. Barely aware of his hand stroking her damp hair and his voice murmuring comforting banalities, she sagged back onto the bed.
He took the towel away then returned in a few moments and began to daub her sweating face and body dry with a clean cloth. This intimacy, which minutes before would have been intolerable, she accepted without flinching, too lost in physical and emotional misery to care.
The sheets were pulled back over her body, and he moved away.
She rolled onto her stomach, closed her eyes, and let herself float into half-sleep. After a brief time, the sound of footsteps forced her lids open. A short, gray-haired man stood behind her companion's chair near her bed and rested a hand on his shoulder. Nicholas Price shared a bleak smile with him and squeezed his hand.
"How's our drowned kitten?" the older man asked.
"Awake. She puked her guts out from that poison they put in her. She's got hypodermic tracks and bruises on her."
"Poor girl. I brought you some dry clothes. They're in the bath."
"Thanks." Nicholas disappeared out of the chair.
The older man tapped her shoulder. "Miss?"
Her horn-rimmed glasses dangled before her nose, and she captured them from him and slid them on her face. "Thank you."
"I'll be back in a few minutes."
When he'd gone, she propped herself up with pillows and brought the sheets back over her, ready to face the world now that she could see it, and brushed futilely at the curls which had reappeared from the dampness in her long brown hair.
"God, those are ugly glasses. A person can't see you have eyes, let alone that they're exotic purple." Studying her, Nick leaned against the bathroom door frame. His jeans and polo shirt fit his well-muscled body like a second skin, and he began to move toward her with the controlled power of a dancer.
Before he reached her, the older man announced, "Ginger ale," from the door, maneuvered himself around Nicholas, and plopped himself on the side of her bed where Nicholas had been heading. He gave her the glass.
She nodded thanks and began to sip the cold drink.
"I'm Austin Abbott, and this is Nicholas Price, young lady."
"Who the heck are you, Faith Cody?" Nicholas settled back into the chair beside her.
"An eleventh grade English teacher from Arlington, Virginia. Mrs. Adam Glencourt paid me to be Tommy and Annie's governess while they were visiting their grandfather."
Austin snorted. "They've never needed a governess before when visiting me during the summer. Mrs. Reid and I have been good enough until now."
Only a slight twitch in his cheek gave away Nicholas's anger. "The presence of the children's father made the difference. April thinks I might harm my own children."
Faith made no comment because it was true.
"Did April come with you?" Austin asked.
"No. The doctor wouldn't allow it. That's one reason I was sent."
"Well, thank God for that. I was so afraid...."
"What do you mean the doctor wouldn't allow?" Nick sat up. "What's wrong with April?"
"She's pregnant," Austin replied.
"Pregnant! But the doctors ordered her not to have another baby." Nicholas' face went blank with shock and distress as if someone had slapped him unexpectedly.
"What happened to you and the children?" Austin asked Faith.
"We were on the plane. The children were surprisingly quiet. I began to feel strange. We got off the plane and...."
"And," Austin prompted.
"I don't remember anything more. I woke up terrified, feeling as if something horrible were happening. Mr. Price was leaning over me.... I don't remember anything else."
Nicholas came half out of his chair as if to strangle the truth out of her. "I can't believe that. Nothing."
"Memory lapses from the drugs, Nick?"
"Could be. I have big blank holes from...." He smacked the chair's arms with his fists. "Dandy. Just dandy."
Faith asked Austin, "What happened?"
"We arrived at the airport to meet your plane. They were announcing Nick's name. There was a note at the ticket counter which said April and the kids had taken a later flight and wouldn't be in for another hour and a half. We killed the time, then another announcement and another note. This one was the standard kidnap one--they had April and the children, not to call the police or they'd kill them, etc., etc. We were to go home and await instructions.
"We found you and all the luggage when we got here. The luggage they left safe and dry on the covered porch, but you the bastards left in the yard in the pouring rain. There was a note attached saying that they'd returned you.... They thought you were April. They'd returned you as a gesture of good faith, and that we were to await further instructions."
"It makes no sense," Nicholas insisted. "If they thought they had April.... Adam's one of the biggest lawyers in Washington. He can afford as exorbitant a ransom as I can."
"It makes sense." With a sigh, Austin pulled out an envelope from his pocket. "They called while you were tending her. They left this in the mailbox."
"How much money?"
"I wish it were money. Here."
Nicholas opened the letter and read. "My God, I can't do this." In intense emotional distress, he leaned forward and buried his head in his hands.
Her eyes questioning, Faith rested her hand on Austin's.
"He has to steal some documents owned by one of the most intelligent, dangerous criminals of the 20th Century. The documents are all that protect this man from death from other dangerous men so he guards them with absolute protection. If Nick doesn't steal them for the kidnappers, Tommy and Annie will be killed."
"How could Nicholas steal? He's a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist."
"He's probably one of the few people in the world who can get close enough to steal them. You see, Clement is Nick's best friend."
Curling more comfortably in the deck chair, Faith tucked her long gown and robe over her bare feet. This view from her bedroom balcony outweighed the discomfort of the chilly June night air. The almost full moon had risen and was reflected on the ocean waves and on the long strand of white beach below her high perch. The air smelled of salt with a faint aftertaste of fish.
Tonight was part of what she'd thought she'd experience during her two months of babysitting April Glencourt's children. She'd considered these weeks a paid vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with the added pleasure of having those two wonderful children with her.
In the year since she'd met seven-year-old Tommy and five-year-old Annie Glencourt, she'd maternally lusted after those beautiful children as only a childless widow could. Both had been so special, so apart from the other children in her YMCA gymnastics classes. She'd fallen in love with both--Tommy with his laughing black eyes and droll little-boy wit and wisdom, and solemn little Annie with her absurdly adult questions, perfectly shaped nose, and happy shriek three times bigger than she was.
Faith's many hours as their babysitter had deepened her feelings. She loved them with an intensity which surprised even her. Blinking away tears, she forced her misery and terror into a corner of her mind as she'd learned to do when her mother had been dying from cancer during her college days. This selective amnesia had helped her survive many hellish events in her life.
The living room's sliding glass door opened, and steps echoed across the wooden boards of the deck under hers. Rocking chairs creaked with weight and shifting bodies.
"You're set on it, then?" Austin's voice asked.
Nick's deep voice replied, pain obvious in every word, "Was it ever not set? If it's a choice between my kids and Clement.... There's nothing or no one I wouldn't betray for my children."
Faith straightened to rise and leave the men to their private conversation, but curiosity glued her to her chair. Since this afternoon, she'd learned nothing about what was happening. She'd been politely but thoroughly ignored by both men with even her supper an afterthought on the part of the grandmotherly housekeeper, Mrs. Reid. Her stake in this tragedy might not be as high as the two men's, but she had a right to help and know what was going on.
"I've got two tickets for tomorrow's flight for Las Vegas," Nick continued. "Clement's extended his hospitality to me and my latest girl friend."
"I'm taking Faith Cody up on her offer to help. She's coming with me."
"You have no right to risk that girl's life."
"I told you there was no one I wouldn't sacrifice for the children. She must realize the risk."
"I should come. She's no earthly good to you."
"No. You're my wild card, my free agent outside Clement's estate. I want you to make a more secretive departure to Vegas after we're gone."
"What good's a schoolteacher to you? Leave her here in safety."
"I don't trust her. I want her where I can watch her. If she's exactly what she says she is, she'll be loyal to April. The first chance she gets, she'll call April and upset her. Do you want to risk April and her baby's lives like that? Plus, Adam would put his lawyer hands into the situation. I won't risk that."
"Adam is rather straitlaced."
"Adam is a devious, two-faced bastard. I don't want him involved."
"About our drowned kitten. April told me this afternoon that she'd sent the girl. I caught her just before she and Adam left. They're going on a belated honeymoon. They'll be out of touch for several weeks."
"That will make it easier to keep April in the dark about this. She won't be calling here ever day to talk to the children."
"It's just like her not to tell me any of this. Springing a governess on me for a whole summer."
"Anything to avoid a scene or confrontation. That's our April. She may have sent her, but who's paying her? She might be in the kidnapper's pay."
Austin's appalled silence echoed within Faith's heart. She wanted to scream out her innocence, but she bit her tongue.
"Why did they mistake her for April?" Nicholas continued, "The two women look nothing alike. And if they did mistake her, why did they know what the children looked like but not April? And why did they return her? April is as powerful a hostage as the children." He paused. "But suppose Faith Cody's a spy for them. That answers a lot of unanswered questions."
"And if she is a spy reporting back to them?"
"They want me to succeed, I want to succeed. No conflict of interest there. They'll only find out I'm doing what they want, and that should satisfy them and keep the children alive a little longer."
"And if she's just what she looks like--a schoolteacher who walked in on an ungodly situation, you're condemning her.... I like Clement, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to be his enemy. To his enemies he's as cold and implacable as--"
"I still don't like it. The girl doesn't fit the situation. Let's face it. She's a plain, dowdy schoolteacher, not some femme fatale. She's the type an accountant brings home to mother, not the mistress playboy Nicholas Price takes on a jaunt to Las Vegas."
Nicholas snorted, whether at his description or hers Faith couldn't tell. "Let me tell you about that schoolteacher. You didn't have the pleasure of undressing her like I did. Under those ugly glasses, awful hair cut, and even worse clothes, she's got a body that won't quit--purple eyes... like sunlight through claret, high cheek bones, a face which could grace a makeup commercial, long sexy legs that go on forever, and the most beautifully shaped breasts... like grapefruits, and her butt and--"
Faith gasped with embarrassment.
Austin interrupted, "I get the point. You're rather smitten with the girl."
"Just suspicious. She's not what she appears on the surface. Why would a beautiful woman like that come across like she does? She's a Playboy centerfold hiding in a plain brown wrapper."
"Trust me. With a little work, she'll deceive even Clement. I must admit I'm looking forward to plying my charms on her and playing house."
At Austin's shocked tone, Nick's full, rich laugh filled the night air.
"She's a nice young woman, whatever she looks like. Don't you dare play with her feelings."
"It's high time you stopped mooning over April and tomcatting around. Find yourself some nice young woman and start a new family."
Nick's voice became sober. "Let me save my old family before I start a new one." A rocking chair scraped against board. "Can you suggest someone who'd make a good Professor Higgins to our Eliza in the plain brown wrapper?"
Austin began to drone some names and suggestions, but, too busy fuming at the things Nicholas Price had said about her, she wasn't really listening.
A cold hand touched her bare throat.
Shrieking, she struck at the hand.
"Missed me," Nicholas taunted and stepped from behind her chair.
She glared up at him. "How did you get up here?"
"I climbed up the side of the building onto the balcony. Enjoy eavesdropping, Miss Cody?"
"It's Mrs. I was only interested in hearing about the children. I don't have the least interest in your highly inflated opinion of yourself or low opinion of me."
Nicholas chuckled. "Thanks for the diversion, Austin. Good night."
"Get some sleep, Nick," Austin answered from below then hastened to add, "alone."
"Yes, Mother." The sliding door closed before Nicholas spoke again. "Mrs.? Let me guess. Divorced. Your knee to the groin had to be learned in divorce court."
"Widowed. Sam died after a long illness."
"Whatever you think of me, I want to tell you where my loyalties lie. They're not with April, or her new husband, or with those bastards who have the children, or even with you, Mr. Price. My one loyalty is to the children. You won't believe me, but that's the truth. I love those children. I have for a year. If I'd had any of my own, I don't think I could love them any more. I'll follow you through hell because you can save the children, but I don't give a damn about you or your feelings about me."
"You're a street fighter with your mouth as well as your knee."
"Your ex-wife chose me because I wouldn't be cowed by your smart mouth or...."
"Or your looks and charm. She warned me you'd use them to get your way."
"So she sees me as a seducer of governesses." He grinned ruefully then smirked. "But you must not be so sure of yourself. Otherwise why hide your looks behind all that brown paper."
Kneeling beside her chair, he studied her, "Take these ugly glasses, for instance," and pulled them off her nose.
"They're not fake. I'm quite blind without them."
He peered through the lenses then handed them back to her. "Honest so far." His gaze roamed down the length of her. "That long, shapeless cotton gown and robe belong on a twelve-year-old girl, not on a voluptuous woman."
Stifling her anger, she tugged her robe closed. "They are comfortable as well as inexpensive, and I was not intending to entertain in them. Furthermore, my bedclothes are none of your business."
The tight lines of stress around his eyes relaxed, and he beamed. "I'm going to enjoy sparring with you almost as much as playing house." Capturing her head before she could dodge away, he brushed a kiss on her cheek. "Good night, my little street fighter. Sleep well. I think I'll wait till tomorrow to peel away that plain brown wrapper."
He came to his feet with elegant ease and sauntered through her bedroom and out into the hall.
Faith adjusted one of the spaghetti straps of her new white silk blouse and eyed herself in the full length mirror in her bedroom. After some thought and several safety pins, she'd used an old bra as support beneath the thin silk. Now she didn't look quite so naked. Nicholas Price, that leering.... He'd intended she wear only the blouse. It had been obvious from the way he'd presented her with the silk blouse and the gorgeous wine-colored linen suit for their plane trip to Las Vegas.
Certain that ticking bombs of the same sort were among those clothes Nicholas and his fashion expert had picked out for her, she glanced toward her bed where a new suitcase filled with new, expensive, and unexamined clothes lay. If only she'd been able to shop with them, but she'd been too busy being victimized by beauticians, who'd tried to undo the last four years of neglect.
Not quite believing what she saw in the mirror, she touched her reflection with her fingertips. In front of her stood a ghost from the past, herself. She'd forgotten what lay beneath the last years of scrimping every penny and denying herself even the tiniest luxury so she could pay the overwhelming debt left by Sam's foolishness and his death. She'd forgotten what she'd wanted to hide from some other man who'd hurt her as Sam had.
Her unremarkable light brown hair had been highlighted with gold until it dazzled in the sunlight, and it had been cut, not to straighten the natural curls in the long strands, but to bring them out. Her hair billowed out like the mane of a lioness.
But the ghost of her former self had changed too. Her face, no longer that of the girlish bride, belonged to a grown woman, stronger and less likely to break in tragedy. Remembering the happiness as well as the unhappiness, she blinked tears.
"You're worth staring at." Nicholas's reflection appeared behind her in the mirror.
"My door was closed. You could have knocked."
"Knocking's not for such close friends." He wrapped his arms around her waist. "God, you're beautiful."
She stepped away from him. "I turn back into a toad at midnight."
"So do I." He held her again. "Want to make tadpoles?"
The sound bubbling up from deep inside her soul, she laughed.
"You have a beautiful laugh too, like monastery bells." He nuzzled her hair. "I knew there was gold under that plain brown wrapper. Why did you hide what you were?"
With a shrug, she pointed at her reflection. "Would you want that woman to teach your teenaged boys English? Would April Glencourt have sent that woman to spend two months with an exhusband?"
He touched her cheek with a finger. "You've been crying. Why?"
"My contacts are bothering me."
"The contacts were yours already. They wouldn't bother you. Tell me the truth. We're allies going into enemy territory. We should be honest with each other."
"Because.... It's none of your damn business. Being allies gives you no right to my soul."
Lifting her hand, he kissed her newly manicured fingers. "For a moment I thought I'd lost my little street fighter with the new look, but she's still there. Are you ready to go? We should be going to the airport."
He hefted her new suitcase. "This seems heavier."
"I added a few personal items--bomb defusers, things like that." She picked up her suit jacket and slipped it on, then collected her new pocketbook and compact case.
"Sorry I asked."
They walked down the stairs to the living room where Austin waited for them. When he noticed Faith, he stood and gaped at her. "Austin, our drowned kitten has become a tigress."
"You look radiant, Faith."
"Thank you." She followed Austin outside and stopped a moment to stare at the blue ocean and sky, the white dunes, and a circling sea gull. She might never see this beautiful place again. With a sigh, she slid into the back of the car.
Nicholas and Austin seemed unwilling to break her silence. Austin drove without comments, and Nicholas stared moodily out of the car's front window at the passing beach houses. His expression gave away little, but his hand on the back of the seat kept tensing and flexing.
She wondered if she should talk to him to draw him out of himself. Their sexual teasing and bickering had already proved a pressure valve for them both in this intolerable situation. She struggled for some light topic, but none came.
After they had checked in at the terminal, Austin gave them both quick hugs and left. With trepidation Faith watched the only sanity and protection she had in this whole situation depart.
"Just you and me, kid." Nick rested an arm on her shoulder.
She flinched away.
Light flared dangerously in his eyes, and he yanked her into a nearby empty waiting area and glared down at her. "You listen to me. From now on, you're my adoring lover. Your life and the children's lives depend on your ability to play the part given you. I'm a very physical person. I touch people I care about, and from now on, you'll accept that touch like you enjoy it."
"I'll accept it in public, but if you put your hands on me in private, I'll show you dirtier fighting than you've ever seen."
"I stand warned." He grinned, and his hand snaked under her hair and stroked her neck. "I'm not into public exhibitionism, but since I don't care to talk with a soprano voice, I should get this out of my system." Holding her head still, he brought his lips to hers. "We now have an audience. Show me how well you can act."
His lips teased hers. Faith relaxed against him and slid her arm under his suit jacket and around his waist. Her other hand caressed the line from his ear to his collar. The tip of his tongue began to explore her lips. She opened them to accept him, her tongue meeting his. The kiss deepened.
Her body trembled with reactions long buried, and she clung to Nick to stay on her feet. His face flushed with passion, he finally pulled his lips from hers. "Holy Moley. I expected that, but not that!"
As if not as strongly affected, she replied blandly, "I did theater work in college."
"Me too, and some dangerous undercover work since on stories. I must admit I want you under covers worse than any story I've ever done."
"Can you sing that in soprano?" She grinned wickedly.
"I certainly hope not." He wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and she accepted it meekly.
"We've got a plane to catch. Let's get going."