Lover's Bite Chapter 5

When her eyes fluttered open at sunset, Topaz stretched and rolled onto her side. Someone was there-a familiar someone-and, still half-asleep, she nuzzled his lips with her own. His hands buried themselves in her hair, and his mouth captured hers. A mouth she knew, one she relished, one she loved kissing. And so she did. Her lips parted, her arms wound around him, and the kiss heated and grew until they were trying to devour each other.

And then, suddenly, she pulled free and lay there gasping, panting, hungering-and wide awake.

"Don't stop," Jack murmured. "Baby, don't stop. Not now." He reached for her.

She held up a hand, palm facing his chest. "You promised you wouldn't touch me, Jack."

"And I haven't."

"What do you call trying to swallow my tongue just now, then?"

"You started it."

"I did not."

"You kissed me first, Topaz." He got off the bier and pushed both hands through his hair, heaving a sigh. "Hell, woman, I'm only human."

"No, you're not."

"You know what I meant."

Reluctantly, she nodded, unable to meet his eyes, knowing he would see the naked hunger glowing from her own.

"Topaz, come on. We both want to. You know it's the truth."

"Forget it."

"You can't deny what just happened. It's freaking explosive, what's between us."

"So's dynamite. Doesn't mean I'm going to put a stick down my pants and light the fuse." She shook her head hard, trying to drive her insistence into her own mind as much as his. "You broke my heart, Jack. I'd be stupid to give you a chance to do it again."

"So keep your heart out of it. You hate my guts now. It shouldn't be too hard. Let's just have sex."

She shot him a look, then got up. Without another word, she located her clothes and put them on.

"Fine," he said. "Deny it. Delay it. But it's gonna happen. Sooner or later, it's bound to happen, Topaz, and I think you know that every bit as well as I do and want it just as badly as I do. It's inevitable."

"Not if you leave."

"I'm not leaving."

She finished dressing, then snatched his clothes up and handed them to him. "Get dressed, will you?"

"Can't resist me without my clothes on, right?"

"I want to get back to the mansion. Take a shower, get some fresh clothes, do my hair and makeup."

"And what do you have planned for after midnight?"

"Very funny. I want to start talking to the men who were in that file. The ones the police thought looked good for my mother's murder."

"And your landlord?"

"I haven't decided what to do about him yet. If we tip him off that we know about the bugs in the house, he's liable to throw us out, or, worse, let us stay and find some other method of eavesdropping."

"I hadn't thought of that."

"Let's just find the bugs and watch what we say until we do."

Jack nodded. "Actually, I have a few errands to run while you're primping. I'll see if I can find us a sweeping device, so we don't miss any."

Topaz frowned at him. "Where would you find something like that in the middle of the night?"

He averted his eyes to begin dressing. Or maybe that was just the excuse he wanted to use. "I have no idea."

She had a feeling it was a lie.

What he wanted from her, Jack decided, was forgiveness. Okay, sex would be good, too, but forgiveness was tops. He'd been racking his brain to figure out what had drawn him here to her, made him feel as compelled to help her find her mother's murderer as he would have been to protect one of the Chosen. It wasn't love, certainly. He didn't believe in love. Love was a con man's most powerful tool, but it wasn't real. His reason for being here wasn't physical attraction, either-or at least it wasn't only that. It was something more, and it had been bugging him that he didn't know what.

Now, as he stood in a nearly empty parking garage, waiting for his contact to show up, he thought he'd figured it out. What he was feeling was guilt, plain and simple. And no wonder it had taken him so long to identify it. It wasn't something he'd ever felt before. But he felt it over her. If he'd known that all her life she'd been plagued by people who claimed to love her while coveting her money, he would never have chosen her as a mark.

How to convince her of that was the big question. He was going to give her back the money. He had intended to all along, deep down, and he realized that now. It was why he'd been unable to spend a nickel of it, why he'd carried it with him in cash ever since he'd been with her. So that he could return it intact. But he couldn't just hand her back the money-not yet, or she would realize he'd had it all along, and that wasn't likely to earn him the absolution he needed from her. Besides, if she got the money back now, she might send him packing, and he didn't want that to happen, either. Not while she could be in danger.

His feelings about Topaz were enough to drive him insane. Trying to figure them out and understand them was even worse.

Headlights cut into his thoughts, and he ducked back into the shadows and waited. The Lincoln stopped, and CIA Special Agent Frank Magnarelli got out, leaving his door open. His patent leather shoes tapped on the concrete floor, then stopped. It was Jack's first face-to-face contact with the agent in charge of tracking down and capturing Reaper-former agent Raphael Rivera, that was. Up to now, they'd only talked by phone. Magnarelli had a face like rough pavement, a graying brush cut and a scar on his chin. He lit a cigarette, took three consecutive puffs, then dropped it and crushed it under his heel.

Nodding at the agreed-upon signal, Jack stepped out into the light.

"What have you got for me?" Magnarelli asked.

Jack looked him up and down. He was a tall, well-built man with ice-cold eyes and an attitude to match. "Depends. What have you got for me?"

"I gave you everything we had on the DuFrane case already."

"Don't even think I'm naive enough to believe that. I know you have more. And I'll get to all of it eventually. But for right now, I want to know who fathered DuFrane's little girl. Tanya, wasn't it?"

Those cold gray eyes darkened with suspicion. "Why are you so into this shit, Heart?"

Jack only shrugged, but Magnarelli lifted his brows. "You're helping her, aren't you? That tabloid bit about her being back from the dead to seek vengeance is the truth. Is Tanya DuFrane of you?"

"That's not the information we agreed to trade. And it's none of your business. Find out who fathered her, and I'll tell you what I have for you."

"Well, shit, it's not like I know off the top of my head. I'll find out, assuming it's even possible."

"You're the CIA. Anything's possible. But I'll settle for your promise to look into it, and a small parting gift."

Magnarelli shifted his feet, looking frustrated. "I'll look into it."

"And the gift?" Jack asked.

"Quit playing games, Heart, and just tell me what kind of gift you have in mind."

Jack grinned. Magnarelli was afraid he was going to demand a little sip from his veins. He didn't know that by reading the agent's mind-this particular CIA operative was a master at blocking his thoughts. Jack had discovered that in the time he'd been talking with the man. That was probably why they sent him when it came to dealing with the undead. But it didn't take mind reading to know what the fellow was thinking. Jack just loved messing with the guy.

"I need a sweeping device," he said at length.

Magnarelli's brows, steel-gray like his hair and eyes, arched, forming deep creases in his forehead. "Why?"

"Again, none of your business. You have one on you?"

Magnarelli sighed and lowered his head briefly. Then he turned, aimed his key ring at the Lincoln and started toward it. The trunk opened, and he leaned in and rummaged around. A moment later he came back with the device, handed it to Jack and quickly explained how to use it.

"Perfect," Jack said. "Thank you."

"Thank me by giving me something in return. Something I can use this time, Jack. That first bit, about Rivera heading north from Savannah was almost useless. By the time we got to the location you gave us, he'd been gone a day and a half already."

Jack shrugged. "I'm doing the best I can. Maybe this one will pan out for you." He tried to inject sincerity into his tone but wasn't sure he was successful. He dipped into his jeans pocket and extracted a slip of paper. "I know for a fact he was here."

Magnarelli glanced at the note. "Virginia Beach, huh? And you say he was there. How long ago?" He was still squinting at the paper in the dim glow of the parking garage, as if it might have more to tell him if he just looked closely enough.

"As recently as twenty-four hours," Jack said. "It's the best I can do."

"The best you could do, Heart, would have been to give it to me twenty-four hours ago. When you got it."

"I didn't get it until tonight," Jack lied. "And I couldn't get away sooner without arousing suspicion." He tried again to look sincere. "Look, I'm doing the best I can here. And you're getting information you wouldn't have had otherwise, so I don't see why you should be complaining." He shook his head, turning away in manufactured frustration and taking long strides toward his car. "Fuck this. I'm working my ass off here, but it's never good enough for you assholes. I'm outta here. Find yourself another-"

"Hold on, hold on now." Magnarelli's shoes came tapping after him. Everything about him had changed: his tone, his walk. Even the granite face seemed to have softened. All phony as hell, Jack knew, but so was every word that passed between the two of them. "This intel is fine," the agent said, like he was talking to a ten-year-old who'd just failed a spelling test. "I just wish it was fresher, but it's good. You keep it up, okay?"

Jack stopped walking, his lips curving into a slow smile, which he doused before he turned. "I really am doing my best here, Frank."

"I know you are. In fact, here." The agent tugged an envelope from his inside coat pocket. "A little bonus. You call me when you have anything else-the minute you have anything else, if it's humanly, er, if it's possible."

"You have my word on it," Jack said. And he didn't even cross his fingers behind his back.

Conning the CIA was the biggest game he'd ever run. And probably the most risky, because they were the best con men on the planet themselves. Then again, he'd always loved a challenge.

"Well, that didn't take long," Topaz said when Jack returned to the house. She wished it had taken just a bit longer. She was still in a satin bathrobe, with a towel on her head.

"I told you it wouldn't." He tugged the sweeping device from his pocket and held it up, carefully cupping it in his hand to block it from any video cameras, since they were undoubtedly working just fine. The thing was, a vampire's image wouldn't show up on tape, but the device might, unless he kept all its bits in direct contact with himself. "And I got what we needed."

"You know how to use it?"

"It came with a free demonstration. Why don't you finish getting ready and I'll, uh...sweep up."

She nodded, turned to head for the stairs, then paused and faced him again. "Are you going to tell me what your mysterious errands entailed?"


The bluntness of his answer made her blink in surprise. And then it made her wonder. "Are you seducing some wealthy, needy woman out of her life's savings, Jack?"

He frowned and leaned slightly forward, as if trying to see her more closely. "Is that a hint of jealousy I detect, Topaz?"

"In your dreams. I just can't bear the thought of some other woman going through what I did."

He moved closer, lifting his hands as if to stroke them down her outer arms, but then he paused, obviously remembering their deal. Instead of touching her, he looked directly into her eyes and said, "It's not another woman."

She hated the relief that surged through her with so much force that it left her knees weak. Hated it. But couldn't deny it.

"You're not going to tell me what it is, are you?"


"Is it legal?"


When he said that, the dimple in his chin appeared, along with the twinkle in his eye that had melted her heart so many times. She wanted to throw herself into his arms with everything in her, as he held her gaze steadily and his smile slowly died. Some unseen force crackled between them. She felt herself leaning toward him, being pulled, and it startled her so much that she turned and bolted up the stairs, down the hall and into the master suite. She surged through it into the bathroom and closed the door hard, as if shutting out Lucifer himself.

And then she leaned over the sink, hands braced, and stared into the mirror, wishing she could search her own eyes in its reflection. But she couldn't. "What's the matter with me? Why am I still so drawn to him, when I know he's the worst possible choice for me? Why, when he's the biggest mistake I ever made? Am I stupid?"

The answer to that, she decided, was a resounding no. She wasn't stupid. She was broken. She'd never known any kind of love in her life, except the false, using kind. And so, naturally, that was what she attracted and was attracted to. The same kind of bullshit she'd always known. Even as a vampire, she was repeating the same cycles that had been ingrained in her since childhood.

She needed to break those cycles.

And she'd better hurry the hell up, she thought.

When she returned downstairs, looking drop-dead gorgeous in her own not-so-humble opinion, Jack was waiting at the foot of the staircase, holding a handful of tiny electronic thingies in his palm.

Topaz blinked down at them. "Are they...?"

"Completely disabled. I decided we were better off just pulling them. Figured I can always tell our landlord to forget he ever planted them. I got them all, checked three times just to make sure. The only room left to go through is your bathroom. I thought I'd better wait until you came out to do that."

"Being that the alternative would have been pretty painful for you, Jack, I think that was a wise decision."

"Sure." He took the first two steps up, then glanced over his shoulder at her. "You look incredible, by the way. Do we have plans that I don't know about?"


"No? So that's all just for me, huh?"

"You wish." She smoothed a hand over the skirt of her black halter dress and wished his compliment didn't make her feel warm all over.

He shrugged and continued up the stairs. He was back minutes later, declaring her bathroom "clean."

Then they got into the car to head to the home of former State Senator Frederick Ramirez.

"I don't believe he's expecting you." The man who answered the door was more bodyguard than butler, but Jack wasn't concerned.

"No, that's true, he's not," Topaz said. "Would you please tell him that Mirabella's daughter is here and wants to speak to him?"

The man frowned, but gave a nod. "Wait here." And he left them standing outside, on the wide concrete steps of the impressive home.

"Friendly fellow, isn't he?" Jack glanced down at Topaz, noting the tension in her jaw. And the way her hair was as smooth as mink, hanging loose and sexy around her shoulders. "Relax. It'll be fine."

"Who said I wasn't relaxed?"

"I did." Then he glanced at the closed door. "He's coming back. The senator will see us."

"I just hope he's as easy to read as his man Friday."

The door opened, and the butler/bodyguard stepped aside. "He'll see you. Follow me."

The place was shamelessly opulent and colder than ice. They moved through a foyer, then turned to traverse a long hall, every footstep echoing. At the end, a pair of double doors stood open, leading into a book-lined office that smelled of leather and aging volumes. Their escort stopped outside the doors and waved them in.

Jack could feel Topaz's tension build as they walked through those doors. The senator stood near a large fireplace, his eyes on Topaz as she entered. Then he plastered a warm and mostly-sincere smile on his face, and came toward them, reaching out his hands.

He clasped hers in both of his. "Tanya. My God, I thought you were dead."

"Everyone did."

He held on to her hand as his eyes roamed her face. "You look so much like your mother."

"Thank you."

"It must be cold outside. Your hands are freezing." He was still clinging to her hands, and Jack was getting a bit hot under the collar about it. Not that he had any reason to be. The guy could be her father, after all. But if he wasn't, then he'd damn well better let go, and soon.

As if on cue, Ramirez did, turning toward a sofa and several chairs that formed a half circle around the fireplace. "Sit, please. Be comfortable. Can I have Rodney get you anything? Wine, tea, coffee?"

"No, thank you," Topaz said.

"We never," Jack quipped. Topaz elbowed him in the rib cage, but discreetly, as they both sat down on the brown leather sofa.

The senator glanced at the door. "That's all for now, Rodney."

Nodding, the man-at-arms pulled the doors closed and left them alone. The senator glanced at Jack. "I'm sorry, I seem to have forgotten my manners. I'm Frederick Ramirez."

"Jack Heart," Jack said, extending a hand to shake his.

"Tell me, what brings you here?" the senator asked, turning his attention back to Topaz.

"Well, two things really. I'm curious as to who my birth father truly is. And I'm even more curious to learn who murdered my mother."

Ramirez was silent for a moment, thoughtful. Then he said, "And I imagine you consider me a suspect on both counts."

"I just wanted to talk to you about it," Topaz said. "I'm not accusing you of anything."

He sighed and nodded.

"You must have thought you could have fathered me. You tried to gain custody after my mother's death."

"I did. Because I cared for her." The older man drew a deep breath and met her eyes. "The truth is, Tanya, I knew I couldn't have been your birth father, because I was, am, sterile. I wanted to raise you anyway, out of love for your mother. And I hoped the courts would never know about my deception. But they found out."

"Really?" Jack asked. "Because I didn't see any note of that in any of the court documents."

"I'm a powerful man, Mr. Heart. With powerful connections."

"That much is obvious," Jack said, with a pointed glance around the room. "Clearly all this wasn't acquired on a state senator's salary."

The senator chose to ignore that remark. "Suffice it to say I had enough influence to ensure that my sterility was never recorded in the public documents, but the judge was aware of it." He returned his full attention to Topaz. "I wish you had been mine. I honestly do. And if it will put your mind at ease and help you in your quest for the truth, I'll gladly cooperate with DNA testing. Hell, I'll even pay for it."

Jack knew it wasn't necessary. The man wasn't too tough to read, and he knew Topaz was picking up on the same things he was. Ramirez was telling the truth. Jack saw the disappointment in her eyes and felt a rush of emotion that was totally unlike him.

He cleared his throat, forced his gaze back to the senator. "What do you know about the murder, Mr. Ramirez?"

Ramirez dropped his gaze. "It's been a long time, but it's etched in my memory. I loved her, you know. I wanted to marry her, but she wouldn't be tied to any one man. She was such a free spirit. I always suspected that one of the men she was seeing killed her in a jealous rage. But the police investigated thoroughly and, while I hate to say it, Tanya, if they failed to find the guilty party, I don't hold out much hope that you'll be able to."

"Maybe not," she said. "But I have to try."

He nodded. "I will tell you this. I had no reason to wish her harm. None. I wouldn't have hurt her for the world. I even put up a substantial reward for information at the time."

Topaz glanced at Jack, met his eyes. He's not lying.

I know.

"Do you have any theories about what might have happened to her body?"

"That was a desecration. I don't know. Some crazed fan. Some obsessed lover. I just don't know, Tanya."

The telephone shrilled once, then stopped. A moment later, the butler was back, poking his head in. "It's the governor, sir."

Ramirez nodded, held up a hand for patience and addressed Topaz. "Is there anything else you want to ask me?"

"I have something," Jack said, when she shook her head. "Right after Tanya arrived here and the tabloids blasted their gossip about her mission, the house where she's staying was broken into. Possibly by someone very nervous about what we might have learned. Do you know anything about that?"

Ramirez's brows drew together. "I know it's not a good sign. Tanya, it could be that the killer is still nearby, living locally, close enough to be a threat to you." Then he shot his attention Jack's way. "I can get you some Secret Service people. Talk to the police and see to it you have-"

"That won't be necessary," Jack said. "Believe me, I can protect her."

Topaz shot him a quick glare. Jack grinned. He really did know her well, he thought. "Let me amend that. She can protect herself. I'm just the backup."

Topaz rose from the sofa, so Jack and the senator got up as well. "Go ahead and take your call, Senator. We have what we came for," she said. "Thank you for taking the time."

"If there's anything else you need, don't hesitate to call. I'll instruct my staff that any calls from you are to be put straight through to me."

"That's kind of you."

"It was wonderful meeting you, Tanya. I hope I'll see you again." Then he glanced at the butler. "Rodney, show our guests out."

"You're disappointed," Jack said, as he drove them back toward the mansion.

"Yeah, kind of. He seemed like a decent person."

"'Seemed' being the operative word. There is that bit about him accepting contributions from mob bosses."

She nodded. But her face was shaded with sadness, and he found he couldn't stand to see it there. Odd. Empathy had never been a strong point of his. Still, he was compelled to distract her from her sadness.

"You never told me your story, Topaz."

"Which story would that be?"

"The story of your transformation. Who made you and when, and how it came about."

She slanted him a sideways glance. "You really want to know?"

Oddly enough, he did, and he told her so.

She shrugged and shifted in her seat a little, leaning back as if getting comfortable. "There's not a lot to tell, but I suppose it's one of the more unusual makeovers you'll hear about."

"Makeover, huh? That's a cute way of putting it."

"Yeah, I'm a cute person." She shrugged. "When I turned twenty-five, I got control of my own money for the first time. And there was a lot of it. By then I was well aware that my father-the man who'd raised me-was more interested in my fortune than in me. I'd been living with that knowledge for years. In fact, it seemed to me then that everyone in my life who was supposed to love me only cared about my money."

Regret burned through his veins and straight into his heart. He'd been one more in a long line of those who had used her.

"I was sick by then. The belladonna antigen's effects were kicking my ass. I was depressed, tired all the time, lethargic, weak, dizzy. The doctors knew what caused it, said it was par for the course. But they said there was no known treatment, much less a cure. I was basically told I wouldn't live far past thirty."

"And you knew nothing about what else that antigen meant-that you could live forever?"

"No, I didn't know there even were vampires, back then."

"Well, few people do." He was watching her face, glancing at it often while driving. He'd meant to distract her from her sadness, but it seemed to him that this conversation was only making her sadder than ever. Maybe he should change the subject, but she was into her story and he didn't know how.

"I decided to take off," she said. "I decided to take every bit of money I had and just blow it all. I was going to party until I dropped."

"I suppose you needed to rebel."

"I hated that money. Because of it, I thought I would never find anyone who could love me for just me. I went to Mexico. A resort on the Gulf Coast. I spent six months there, most of them so drunk I could barely walk. And it took its toll on my body. I think I shortened my life expectancy to almost nothing-to absolutely nothing, in the end. I got weaker and weaker. I barely ate, I just drank and partied and had sex with anyone who wanted me."

"That would have included anyone who saw you."

She sent him a quick look, and he thought her lips tightened slightly at the corners, as if a smile were lurking just beneath the surface. A sad one. But it pleased him that he'd elicited it with his compliment. He had never given her enough of those, he realized.

"One night I staggered out of a cantina and into the street, and just collapsed there. I could feel myself dying, I think. I thought so at the time, anyway. I thought it was all over. And my only regret was that I hadn't managed to put much of a dent in my inheritance, so some undeserving asshole would probably end up with all of it."

"You were suicidal," he said. "Only instead of a gun, you were using a bottle."

"Many bottles," she corrected.

"So what happened?"

"It's a blur. I only remember it in small bits, like a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I remember a woman gathering me up from the dust and into her arms. It seemed odd, how easily she lifted me. I didn't weigh much at that point, but she wasn't much bigger than I was. I remember her breath on my throat. Her hands were so soft, and so cold. And her voice was just a whisper, but one that got through to me and gave me comfort, somehow. When I woke, I was in my bed in the room I had rented. The windows had all been completely covered. I felt so different. Not sick or weak, but strong and powerful, strong like I'd never felt, even before I got sick."

"It's a rush in the beginning, isn't it?" Jack asked.

She nodded.

"And the woman who brought you over?" Jack asked.

"Gone," she whispered. "All she left me was a note."

He was turning the car into the driveway of Avalon by then. And even as he shut it off and killed the headlights, Topaz was digging in her handbag. She pulled out an old-fashioned silver cigarette case, with the initials MD engraved on its face.

"Was that your mother's?" he asked.

"Yeah. I've had it forever. I never smoked, so I use it to keep special things in." She opened it, and though she kept it turned toward her, he glimpsed the little cards that had been attached to the flowers he'd sent her on occasion when they were dating. She'd kept them. God, he really had meant something to her once.

"Here it is." She took out a folded sheet of paper and snapped the case closed, returning it to her purse. "You want to read it?"

He nodded, and she handed it to him. He unfolded it there in the dark, intimate interior of the car. He didn't need lights to see. He glanced at the resort stationery, and then at the elegant scrawl of the handwriting.

Dear Fledgling,

I'm very sorry that I have to leave you to learn of your new nature on your own, but I had no choice. So I'm leaving you this note to tell you the most important things, the ones you need to know in order to survive. When I found you last night, you were near death. You would not have seen another day, and though I could not manage to get your consent, I did what I sensed you would want, had you been given the choice. I made you into what I am-a vampire.

You are stronger now than any human, and that strength will only increase with age. Your senses are enhanced. You can read thoughts, and send them, and control the minds of others, given time and practice. And you must drink blood to survive. It needn't come from humans, or even living beings. Blood banks and animals will suffice. But food and ordinary beverages are no longer an option. Your body cannot and will not tolerate them.

You must never expose yourself to direct sunlight. You will sleep during the day, whether you want to or not. You are highly flammable, so be very careful around fire. And you can bleed out with ease. Those are the ways you can die.

Any injuries you sustain will heal with the day sleep. So if you can stanch the blood flow of a potentially mortal wound just until the sun rises, you will survive.

Pain is magnified. But so is pleasure.

Only humans with the belladonna antigen can become vampires. We all had it. As vampires now, we sense those humans who possess it, and we are compelled to watch over and protect them.

Those are the things you need to know. I wish you a long, powerful and happy life-eternal.

Jack refolded the paper and handed it back to her. "She didn't even sign it."

"No. And she abandoned me. But I was used to abandonment by then. And at least she didn't take my wallet with her when she left."

He winced at the barb. "I probably deserved that."

She only shrugged, making no move to get out of the car.

"You know, our stories aren't all that different," he said.

She said nothing, just sat still, waiting, so he went on. "My father died when I was a kid. I don't even remember him. My mother was a drunk, pretty much worthless. I raised myself, for the most part. When I was eight, she dropped me off at her brother's for an afternoon and never came back."

Her head lifted slowly, her gaze turning to focus on his. "You were abandoned, too?"

"Yeah. And Uncle Frank was none too happy about it-not at first, anyway. But I was a smart kid. See, Uncle Frank was a confidence man, old school. I picked up on that, and one day, when we were in the park, I made sure he was watching and then went up to some kind-looking woman with a broken waffle cone I'd found on the ground. I cried about how I'd used my last fifty cents to buy an ice cream, only to have it fall apart and melt on the ground. She handed me a dollar, patted me on the head and told me to go get another."

She was gaping now, lips slightly parted, eyes wide.

"Proudest moment in my life was when I walked up to Uncle Frank and handed him that crisp dollar bill. I remember how it smelled, and how he smiled as he took it. Then he took me by the hand-first time he'd ever done that. And he said, 'Boy, I think this just might work out after all, you and me.'"

"And you've been conning people ever since," she said softly.

"Women. I've been conning women ever since. Mostly."

She shook her head slowly, reached for the car door, pushed it open.

"If I'd known then what I know now, Topaz, about you and your past, I never would have conned you."

"That's not the question, though, is it?" she replied. She got out of the car, closed the door and walked toward the house.

He followed quickly and caught up. "If that's not the question, then what is?"

She stopped walking and looked up at him. "You don't know?"

"No. Tell me." The wind was moving her hair gently, and the stars seemed to reflect in her eyes.

"The question is," she said, her voice softer than before, "without the con, would you even have given me the time of day? Would you have bothered with me at all?"

He blinked and decided honesty might be the best course here. "I was looking for a mark, Topaz. Not a romance."

She turned away, moving toward the house again.

Again he caught up, then opened the door before she could and let her go inside ahead of him.

"But if I were looking'd be the one."

"Not anymore I wouldn't."

Her cell phone rang before either of them could speak again. Jack had a lump in his throat and a knot in his chest, and he was damned if he knew why. He'd been honest. He wasn't looking for love, hadn't been looking for it in the past when he'd met her, and he sure as hell wasn't looking for it now. It would be pointless to look for something that didn't exist.

She yanked out her phone, glanced at the screen, then flipped it open. "Reaper?"

And then she listened, and as she did, her eyes met Jack's again. But it wasn't hurt that shone from their depths this time, and it wasn't the sparkle of nighttime stars. It was suspicion.
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