She told him about her brilliant husband and her equally brilliant father. How she'd never been able to keep up with that brilliance, try as she would. "A lot of hard work just doesn't compensate for lack of genius," she said with a half smile. "Not in their world." "But it does in the corporate world?" Jordan asked shrewdly. "It seems to go much farther in the business world, yes," Alyssa agreed. "Or perhaps what abilities I have are just more appreciated in that world. Whatever the reason, I will be earning more than my father did or Chad ever will one of these days. I may not be a genius, but I will be successful. Very, very successful." Her voice grew firmer as she talked. Her successful, profitable future stretched out before her. If only she could make certain it wasn't destroyed by her reckless action in going to Vegas. "And the gambling?" Jordan prodded gently. "Where does your new hobby fit in to your career-oriented future?" "It doesn't." She sighed regretfully. "I should never have let myself be seduced by the fun I had." "Or me? Do you wish you'd never let yourself be seduced by me, either, Alyssa?" She came to a sudden halt in the sand, turning to stare up at him. She wanted to yell at him, to tell him that was exactly what she wished. But it was unexpectedly hard to look up into those questioning, golden eyes and loudly affirm her disgust or her regret. She found herself vividly, unnervingly aware of the vulnerability in his gaze as he asked the question, and somehow, in that moment, Alyssa couldn't find the will power to tell him he had guessed correctly. "We'd better be getting back to the house, Jordan. I promised the McGregors we'd bring a salad this afternoon." Very firmly, she started back along the beach. Obediently, Jordan fell into step beside her.
David and Mildred McGregor had a magnificent home in an expensive subdivision that was just off the ocean. The development had been planned so that every owner had a private boat slip, and the McGregors, Alyssa knew, had a yacht in their slip that nicely complemented the home above it She watched as Jordan leaned over the balcony railing and admired the beautiful boat below. David McGregor was more than happy to expound on the virtues of his prized possession, and Jordan, Alyssa had to admit, was a very complimentary listener. He was well into his role this afternoon. She felt a wry tug of amusement at the knowledge, and there was a soft smile in her eyes as she turned to help Mildred McGregor set some snacks within easy reach for the coming game of bridge. "I'm so glad you and Jordan could make it this afternoon. I know it was awfully short notice," Mildred was saying chattily as she set out the deck of cards and the score pads. "But David had this flash of inspiration over breakfast, and I said, Why not? Go ahead and give Alyssa a call. If she and Jordan don't have anything planned, perhaps they'd like to join us!" "It was very kind of you," Alyssa murmured, wishing privately that her boss's flash of "inspiration" had been reserved for another time. She didn't trust the way he was zeroing in on Jordan over there by the railing. Ostensibly, they were still discussing the boat, but Alyssa knew there was a subtle probing behind each casual question. "Well, I think we're about ready," Mildred called cheerfully to the two men. "I'm really looking forward to this, you know. David and I just love bridge. We normally play at ieast once a week." "Is that a warning?" Jordan grinned good-naturedly as he took a seat opposite Aiyssa. "Are Alyssa and I about to get trounced by a couple of professionals?" Alyssa closed her eyes in silent prayer. No jokes, Jordan. Please, no jokes! "Oh, we're just friendly players, aren't we, David?" Mildred smiled brightly across the table at her husband and partner. "That's right, my dear, just friendly," McGregor agreed as he picked up the deck of cards and began shuffling. "Jordan, here, was telling me this is his first visit to Ventura, Alyssa." He dealt the required thirteen cards per player as he spoke. "Uh, yes. Yes, it is. At least," she added sweetly, "it's his first visit for the purpose of seeing me." "I'm anticipating many more in the near future," Jordan drawled, his eyes gleaming in subtle amusement at her attempt to imply that their relationship was not overly intimate. "This is a beautiful stretch of coast along here." "Will your work allow you to visit frequently?" McGregor inquired pointedly as he finished dealing the cards. "I see no problem. It's easy enough to get a flight from Nevada, you know. And I'm counting on Alyssa wanting to come visit me occasionally, too, while I'm working there." Alyssa flashed him a warning glance as everyone picked up his or her hand of cards. Fortunately, the bidding portion of the game came next, and no one would be expected to carry on idle chatter. It was during the bidding that Alyssa first became aware of an unexpected aspect of the game being played. She and Jordan were turning out to be natural partners. By the time the thirteen tricks had been played and the McGregors had fulfilled their contract, Alyssa was sure of it Between them, she and Jordan had very neatly allowed the opposing team to score the opening points. As everyone started chatting again and jotting down the score, she caught Jordan's eye across the table. He smiled back blandly, but there was a hint of laughter in the golden eyes. Between the two of them, they could just as easily have conducted a strong defense, one that would have prevented the McGregors from taking the needed tricks. Playing bridge with Jordan was like playing with someone whose mind she could read and who could read hers. It was a strange and surprisingly intimate experience. "How long have you been working for the Nevada firm, Jordan?" David McGregor inquired as the cards were collected for the next game. Alyssa held her breath, waiting for Jordan's response. "Not long." Jordan smiled, taking a sip from the soft drink he'd requested from Mrs. McGregor. Alyssa guessed that, out of habit, he simply didn't care to risk drinking while he was working. And playing a "friendly" game of bridge must still seem like work to him, especially since she'd given him strict instructions as to the outcome of the afternoon's game. "You know how a contract assignment is. One just does one's job and then goes on to the next assignment. I expect I'll be there a few more weeks and that will be it" "I see," McGregor murmured as Alyssa took her turn at dealing the cards. "Then you move around a great deal in your line of work?" Alyssa didn't like the direction of the questioning. Was McGregor fishing to see if Jordan was only a temporary fixture in her life, or was he trying to estimate the chances of her marrying Jordan and leaving Ventura to follow him on his various contract assignments? She had to make things very clear in that regard. "Poor Jordan, always having to take off for unknown parts," she chirped breezily as she rapidly dealt the hand. "Not like me. I'm quite happy having a stable home life and friends and career. I've just fallen in love with Ventura since I moved here four years ago. I'll bet you have, too, haven't you, Mildred?" Mildred McGregor moved unconsciously to her assistance, rhapsodizing about her work with the iocal museum and an artists guild. The enthusiastic monologue carried them through the dangerous moments between games, and then, mercifully, play commenced once again. But Jordan had not been delighted with the way Alyssa had interceded to field McGregor's question. She caught the admonishing glitter in his gaze just before he deliberately won the bidding. She knew he'd done it deliberately, and she was helpless to forestall what happened next. He took the huge number of tricks he'd contracted for, and they won the game handily. There was1 no way she could halt him. Since McGregor had doubled the bid, Alyssa and Jordan scored twice the number of points they would have otherwise. The whole thing had been an object lesson for her. If she wanted Jordan to cooperate in the final outcome of the rubber, she had damned well better let him do his own talking. He had made his point. She sent him a resentful glance, but it was met by narrowed eyes that only promised more trouble if she interfered again. If only she could have deliberately sabotaged his move, but she knew it would have been far too blatant on her part to do so. The McGregors would have wondered what in the world had gotten into her. Losing had to be done in a more subtle fashion, and in this case it took the cooperation of both partners. The not-so-subtle probing on David McGregor's part continued as the game wore on. It was difficult giving her attention to the game and having to worry about how Jordan would handle the next question he received from McGregor. It was worse than taking a man home to meet your father, Alyssa decided disgustedly. Her boss was determined to ascertain her future plans, and Jordan insisted on making all his answers ambiguous. Yes, he certainly traveled a great deal in his job, but no, he didn't think that was going to stop him from being able to see Alyssa frequently. "Nothing could stop me from seeing her frequently," he murmured with a lover's smile as he glanced at the lady in question. Alyssa seethed silently, helpless to set the record straight. It was really getting to be too much, she decided grimly as Jordan reached for the deck of cards to take his turn at dealing. First he had taken it upon himself to upset her nicely structured life by showing up on her doorstep last night, and now he was doing his best to convince her boss that he had a continuing role in her future. The problem, she realized with a flash of insight, was that he was enjoying himself while creating this fantasy. Just as he had enjoyed himself last night. Jordan was painting a pleasant, respectable picture of himself, and he wasn't going to abandon the task willingly. He was having too much fun. So he wanted to play at being domesticated, did he? When the inevitable, direct question finally came, it was from Mildred McGregor, not her husband, who would probably have tried a little more subtlety. Mildred, however, was simply curious, with a woman's curiosity about a romance. "Tell me, Alyssa, dear. Since it's obvious you and Jordan are very close, when do you expect to get married? Surely you're going to want a home with him soon?" Alyssa was watching Jordan's hands as he picked up the cards and prepared to shuffle. At the word "married," she could have sworn that his sure, confident movements faltered a fraction. Mrs. McGregor's question had shaken her, but it was apparent that it had had an equally unnerving affect on Jordan. Well, it was his own fault that they were confronted with the problem, she told herself furiously. If he hadn't spent the afternoon implying a comfortable future together Mildred would never have asked the forthright question. Very well, if the man wanted to play at being respectable, Alyssa decided in vast annoyance, she'd make him look eminently respectable! "How very perceptive of you, Mrs. McGregor," she drawled politely, her eyes locked with Jordan's now-unreadable gaze. "Jordan and I were just discussing marriage this morning, weren't we, dear? I think Ventura would make a very nice home base for him. After all, I couldn't possibly follow him around all over the world, and I do have my work and my friends here. But marriage would give him a place to call home, too, and I think it might work out rather well." There was a short, stunned silence from the other side of the table as Jordan began to shuffle. He wasn't looking at the cards in his hands, however; he was staring at Alyssa. "Marriage?" he finally repeated as if the word were totally alien to him. "Why not, darling?" she murmured, taking an enormous amount of satisfaction out of having forced him to confront the results of his fantasy playing. "Can you think of any reason why we shouldn't go ahead and tie the knot?" There was a hissing, snapping sound as fifty-two cards went slithering across the table. Everyone stared automatically at the confusion on the table, but only Alyssa could begin to guess how deeply shocked Jordan must have been to have lost his inevitable, perfect control. He, too, was staring, dumfounded, at the fifty-two scattered cards as if he couldn't believe his skilled, near-magic hands had let him down in such a fashion. Alyssa could have swom that the dark-red stain along the high bones of his cheeks was one of pure embarrassment. "Excuse me," he murmured very meekly as he collected the cards. "It's been a while since I've played." Like about two days, Alyssa thought vengefully. McGregor chuckled jovially. "Sure it wasn't the notion of marriage which jarred you there, Jordan?" He winked at the younger man as Jordan dealt the hand with great care. But nothing, not even a discussion of marriage, could put a professional gambler off his stride for long. Jordan dealt the last of the cards and grinned at his host in a very man-to-man fashion. "The jarring part was hearing Alyssa say it might be a good idea," he declared gently. "Do you realize how hard it is these days to convince a woman who thinks she's got everything to get married?" He shot a sudden, terrifyingly straight look at his partner. "All this time I've been wondering how to convince her, and here she is proposing to me over a game of bridge." Alyssa drew in her breath, abruptly frightened at the results of her reckless desire to teach him a lesson. Now they were both trapped in the new fantasy. The only thing to do was play it to the hilt. "Now that you've convinced her," David McGregor said evenly, picking up his cards, "are you going to run off with her?" Alyssa froze. Jordan could ruin everything with his next answer. If he decided to punish her for having forced the fantasy to such an awkward conclusion, she could kiss her career good-by. McGregor would not be interested in promoting a female who was in danger of leaving her job to follow her husband. He would consider the time spent training her an expensive waste. She knew Jordan was aware of the tension in her; he must have seen the whiteness around her knuckles as she held the thirteen cards in her hand. Besides, he could almost read her mind, couldn't he? She waited in an agony of anxiety for him to salvage the situation. "I would never take Alyssa away from the job she seems to love so much," Jordan said softly. "And, as she said, I need a home base, anyway. There's no reason it shouldn't be here in Ventura." "Oh, David, isn't this lovely?" Mildred burst out happily. "Just think! We may have been instrumental in bringing about a marriage!" "Oh, I get the feeling it was inevitable, my pet." David smiled indulgently at his wife. "Wouldn't you say so, Jordan?" "Inevitable," Jordan agreed dryly, and firmly began the bidding. "Just the same," Mildred declared, unwilling to be squelched so quickly, "I think I'll break out that bottle of champagne I've been saving. It will go nicely with the steak."