"It's not as if the great love affair of the century has come to an end," she scolded herself forcefully as she prepared the papaya, avocado and artichoke salad. "You only had one weekend with the man. For heaven's sake, you should be thanking your lucky stars that it didn't go beyond a single weekend!" But there was no point thanking one's lucky stars when one didn't really believe in luck. Alyssa set the plates and silver on the serving table, arranging the Sonoma County Chardonnay and the Napa Valley Merlot wine bottles attractively behind the glassware. Jordan believed in luck. Gritting her teeth, Alyssa remembered the way he had told her to drop the quarter in the slot machine that first night. He'd said something about believing in luck when one had been in his world as long as he had. He must have been feeling lucky to have picked up a woman so easily for the weekend. No doubt his luck had been just as good Sunday night after she'd left! The chafing dish was ready for the pasta and smoked salmon dish, and the mushroom tart looked delicious, Alyssa surveyed the final preparations and was unable to summon up the satisfaction she ought to have been feeling. All she could think about was the anger that grew steadily inside her. Visions of Jordan with another woman, one who had made him decide to ignore his original plans for this weekend, flitted through her mind. Damn it, she ought to be grateful! Grateful! Think how much worse she would have felt if she'd spent another weekend with him and then realized how faithless he was! This way at least she'd been warned in time to cancel her return flight. What would she have done if she'd arrived at the airport in Las Vegas this evening and found no one waiting for her? Alyssa winced and went into the kitchen to heat the crusty French bread. Half an hour before her guests began arriving, Alyssa dressed, not really thinking about what she chose from her closet. The blouse was beautifully pleated down the front and along the full, full sleeves. It was of white silk with a neat black collar and wide black cuffs. Automatically, she slipped on black velvet trousers with a high waist that defined her slenderness and a pair of small, black patent-leather slippers. With her hair brushed into two shining auburn curves that framed her face, she turned once to glance in the mirror. Her thoughts were so full of the pain and outrage she felt that she missed entirely the effect she made in the mirror. For with the dashing black and white outfit, she had managed to create unconsciously a charming parody of a casino dealer's uniform, right down to the neat black bow tie. The guests began arriving early. Alyssa was glad to see the first of her coworkers arrive because it gave her an excuse to throw herself into being the perfect hostess. "I told Alice I wanted to get here early so we could see the sunset." Dirk Banning grinned as he escorted his attractive, middle-aged wife out onto the front porch. "This house is made for summer-evening entertaining!" Alice exclaimed, charmed by the sight of beach and sky. Alyssa graciously put a drink in the woman's hand and made a polite remark. The house was perfect for entertaining, she thought a few minutes later as the others arrived and immediately gravitated toward the porch with its spectacular ocean view. People loved the open vista, and the restless sea seemed to inspire conversation and a convivial atmosphere. With the assistance of the setting and a determined effort on her part, no one would guess the rage that seethed inside her. Her boss, David McGregor, handsome still at sixty-three, arrived accompanied by the gracious, silver-haired woman who was his wife. Alyssa was in the process of greeting them both in the open doorway when she glanced up and saw the last couple arriving. The gleam of feminine hatred in Cari Davis's eyes as she came up the steps beside her husband, Hugh, caught Alyssa totally off guard She had only a few seconds in which to be sure of the expression in the other woman's face, and then it was gone, hidden behind a beautiful mask. No one else even noticed. Almost immediately, David McGregor was turning to greet his other employee, his jovial attitude giving no indication of whether he favored Aiyssa or Hugh for the promotion that was in the offing. Years of experience in the world of corporate management had given McGregor a polish that completely belied the ruthless ability underneath. At this stage of the game, no one would be able to hazard a guess as to which of the two he would ultimately recommend for the open managerial slot Under cover of the flurry of polite greetings, Cari Davis turned to smile at her hostess. Only Alyssa seemed to realize that the smile never reached the other woman's eyes. "Covering all the angles, are you?" "I beg your pardon?" Alyssa glanced at her blankly, not understanding the waves of cold dislike emanating from the other woman. "Oh, I was just referring to the fact that you're making sure your future career is well protected regardless of whether it's Hugh or yourself who gets the promotion," Cari retorted lightly, turning back to smile brilliantly up at McGregor. Alyssa remembered to close her mouth just as Mildred McGregor said something about the view. "You're just in time for the sunset," Alyssa told the other woman quickly. "Let me get you a drink before you go out onto the porch. What will you have?" My God, she thought as she poured the requested drink, Cari Davis must be very anxious for her husband to gain that promotion. So anxious that she suddenly hated Alyssa? They had never been close friends, but there had always been conventional politeness between them on the various occasions when they came into contact with each other. Never had she been aware of such outright dislike on the part of the other woman. Clearly, she was going to have to tread warily, Alyssa decided as she shepherded the last of her guests out onto the porch and passed around a plate of cream cheese and chutney canapes. She had no wish to become embroiled in an embarrassing skirmish with Hugh Davis's wife! She was deeply involved in a discussion with Mildred McGregor on the care and feeding of ferns when the doorbell chimed one last time. "Excuse me." She smiled politely, stepping back into the living room and heading for the door, a tiny frown drawing her auburn brows together. Everyone she had invited had already arrived. Surely a neighbor wasn't complaining about the noise already? "I'm sorry if we're disturbing—" Alyssa began brightly as she flung open the door. But the remainder of the automatic apology died on her lips as she stared up at the apparition on her doorstep. "Jordan!" she exclaimed, stunned. "Good evening, Alyssa," he murmured in a dangerously polite voice. "Don't stand there looking as if you've just seen a ghost, sweetheart. Didn't I warn you once not to make the mistake of thinking I was an illusion?" He was, she realized belatedly, quite furious.
"Didn't you . . ." Alyssa delicately moistened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue and tried again. "Didn't you get my message?" She didn't seem to be able to move, her hand clutching the edge of the door for support. He stood in front of her, all dark, masculine intimidation in a black suede jacket, dark slacks and black shirt The brown hair seemed almost black, too, in the fading light, and the golden eyes gleamed like those of a hunting cat at night. Alyssa's first instinct was to run, just as she would have run from a real night prowler. "Of course 1 got your message," Jordan growled gently, stepping over the threshold and forcing her back a couple of paces. "That's why I'm here instead of waiting for you at the Las Vegas airport." "Jordan, I don't understand." Alyssa's head moved in unconscious denial of his very real presence. "You never phoned back. I expected you to call after you got my message." Eyes wide and anxious, she stared up at him, seeking some sort of explanation. Jordan put out a hand, and his strong, aware fingers stroked the line of her throat once. "I didn't call," he explained with cool precision, "because what I really wanted to do was beat you senseless after I got that message. The telephone simply wasn't adequate for a full expression of the way I was feeling." "Jordan!" "I waited until I had overcome the urge to strangle you before I decided what to do next I told myself that I should just forget about you, that a woman who casually remembered 'previous engagements' after making a date with a man wasn't worth beating, let alone pursuing." "But I wasn't trying to change my mind about the weekend!" "When I cooled down a little and had a chance to think things over, I began to realize what was really going on in your head," he continued in a dark, quiet, utterly relentless tone. "And that's why I'm here tonight." "I don't understand," she wailed, feeling threatened and intimidated and generally abused when by all rights she should have been the one demanding explanations. "If you think you're going to get away with beating me—" "That part might or might not come later," he advised laconically, his eyes flickering over her speculatively. "Depending on how I feel after I've taken you to bed!" "Jordan, this is ridiculous. I can't stand here listening to you make threats! I'm entertaining my boss and my coworkers this evening!" Alyssa gasped. Take her to bed? "You're supposed to be in Las Vegas," she wound up uncomprehendingly. And that was where he was supposed to make love to her. Las Vegas. Not here in her home in Ventura! Not here in her other Me. "Ah, yes, the 'previous engagement,' I presume?" he drawled, glancing out through the open windows at the crowd of people hovering cheerfully on her porch. "It wasn't a lie," she defended herself hotly. "I'd had this buffet planned for two weeks. I simply forgot about it when I was getting ready to leave Las Vegas last weekend. I phoned you as soon as I could to explain, but you were very difficult to get hold of!" "I was busy," he retorted simply. "I'll bet!" "Exactly what I was doing. Betting. It's my profession, remember? But you were busy remembering that you have another life and other commitments that come before an affair with a man you met one weekend in Las Vegas, weren't you?" "Jordan, it was the truth! I didn't just dream up this buffet party on Monday morning as an excuse not to go back to Vegas tonight!" "No, I believe you," he gritted, and then went on perceptively. "I'm sure this party was planned long in advance and it really did just slip your mind for a while. But you remembered as soon as you got back here because this is where the most important part of your life takes place, isn't it, Alyssa? This is your real world. You just come to Vegas to play once in a while, but you always hurry back home to your job and your friends and your 'previous commitments' when you've finished playing. Only this time you made a mistake, sweetheart This time you left behind a man who doesn't want to be a weekend playmate for you. I'm not going to let you casually adjust your time with me so that it doesn't conflict with your 'previous engagements.'" "Will you stop saying that!" "Previous engagements? They're your words, remember? They were on the note you had the hotel clerk give me." "Can't we talk about this later?" Alyssa pleaded helplessly, feeling at a total loss. She had been priding herself on how well she could juggle her two separate worlds, but now they had collided, and she didn't know what to do. "Sure," he shot back with caustic indifference. "We can talk about it after dinner." He glanced toward the buffet "What is for dinner, by the way? I'm starving." "Jordan," she squeaked. "You can't stay here for dinner! I've got my boss and everyone I work with out there on that porch!" "Not anymore." He smiled blandly, glancing past her shoulder toward open sliding-glass doors. "One of them has just come inside. Good evening," he went on politely to someone standing behind her. "I'm Jordan Kyle. I appear to be the late arrival." "You're in luck," David McGregor proclaimed jovially as he came forward to shake the newcomer's hand. "We've barely begun to make inroads on Alyssa's terrific food. David McGregor. I'm Alyssa's boss at Yeoman Research." For an instant of endless vertigo, Alyssa watched in horror as Jordan and her boss shook hands. It had happened. Her fantasy life and her real life had met. My God, she thought dazedly. What have I done? Visions of her career going down in flames left her momentarily paralyzed. If McGregor realized he was greeting a professional gambler and that Alyssa had spent a weekend with him in Las Vegas . . . that she had spent several weekends in Vegas . . . Desperately, she pushed aside the image of mounting disaster. Nothing short of sheer inspiration would save her now. To her unending astonishment, it came. "I'm so glad you could make it, after all, Jordan," she managed with a brilliant smile that would have done credit to a professional actress. "I know Mr. McGregor and the others will enjoy meeting you." She turned away from the wicked light in Jordan's golden eyes to say very brightly to her boss, "Jordan's a very busy man, and I was afraid he wouldn't be able to get here. An expert in probability theory, you know. One of the best in his field. I'm sure you'll enjoy talking to him. He's been recently engaged in a hush-hush research project over in Nevada." "Oh, so you're in the same field as Alyssa, are you?" David McGregor nodded wisely at the younger man. "Why, yes, as a matter of fact," Jordan returned smoothly, his gleaming gaze still on Alyssa's desperately composed features. "We have several parallel interests." Oh, God. Was that a promise of vengeance she saw in that threatening gaze? "Wouldn't you like a drink, Jordan?" Anything to distract him, even temporarily. "Come on into the kitchen and I'll fix you something." "That sounds delightful. It's been a rather long and extremely frustrating week." Jordan murmured. "I know the kind," David said with a chuckle. "I'll see you out on the porch after Alyssa gets your drink for you, Jordan. Hurry. You don't want to miss the sunset. She's got a fabulous view from here." "I'll be right there," Jordan promised, glancing with polite invitation toward his reluctant hostess. "Perhaps a Scotch and soda?" he prompted a little too gently. Wordlessly, Alyssa swung around and made for the kitchen bar she had set up for the evening. When she reached for the bottle of Scotch, however, her fingers trembled, and Jordan reached across the low counter to take it firmly from her hand. "An excellent brand," he approved, pouring a generous drink for himself. "And since I'm not working this evening, there's no reason I shouldn't enjoy myself along with the rest of your guests." He glanced up challengingly. "Is there? Being, as I am, one of the most respected men in my field." He lifted the glass in salute and downed a healthy swallow. Alyssa licked her lips once, trying to think. "Jordan, you must see that this is going to be awfully awkward for both of us." "Not at all. I'm beginning to look forward to the remainder of the evening. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I will go out and join your other guests. Wouldn't want to miss that sunset." "Jordan . . . !" she called after him anxiously, but it was too late. With a soft, gliding stride, he was already halfway across the living room, heading for the porch. Helplessly, Alyssa stared after him and then reluctantly followed. What else could she do? She didn't know Jordan Kyle well enough to even make a guess at what he would do out there on her porch. It was rather like turning a wolf loose among a bunch of conservative sheep. By the time she reached the porch herself, Jordan was already back into conversation with David McGregor and his wife. In addition, David was cheerfully introducing him to others. Alyssa cringed inwardly as she heard the words "probability theory expert," and then her attention was being captured by Cari Davis. "Not putting all your eggs in one basket, I see," Cari murmured with a smile that would have frozen hydrogen. "Very wise. But, then, being a professional woman, I'm sure you've had plenty of experience at this sort of thing." "I beg your pardon?" Blankly, her mind still on Jordan, Alyssa stared at her guest. "I'm talking about your charming Mr. Kyle, of course. Always wise to keep a couple of men on the line at the same time, I imagine." Before Alyssa could ask her what she was talking about, Cari had moved off to join another group of guests. Reality was turning into a crazy nightmare. Unable to think of anything else to do, Alyssa grabbed a platter of canapes' and headed grimly for the nearest cluster of people. For the next several minutes, she made herself act the part of the perfect hostess, trying desperately to keep her anxious gaze from veering toward the knot of people around Jordan Kyle. "Oh, Alyssa." Mildred McGregor smiled, coming up behind her and reaching politely for a canape. "There you are. I've been looking for you. I've just met your charming Jordan. Fascinating man. Who would have thought a professional mathematician could be so interesting? I must say, when I was in school, I avoided the subject like the plague. Strictly the liberal arts type. But your Jordan is very intriguing. And so amusing!" "Amusing?" Alyssa repeated weakly. Almost simultaneously, there came a burst of delighted laughter from the group near Jordan, and she swung around nervously to stare at the far end of the porch. "Yes, indeed. He's recently finished an overseas assignment, apparently, and he has some wonderful stories to relate. Excuse me, I must be getting back. Love these tidbits," she added, holding aloft the canape she had just taken from Alyssa's tray. What in the world did Jordan think he was doing? Alyssa stood, tray in hand, and stared at his dark head, bent attentively toward Lucy Chavez from the personnel department. Several other people stood around, too, and they ail laughed again as Jordan responded to something the attractive young brunette said. Good grief! He was rapidly becoming the life of the party! For the next hour, Alyssa felt as if she were walking a tightrope. The strain of waiting for imminent disaster was almost worse than the catastrophe itself would be when it finally arrived, she told herself. Trie suspense continued as she circulated among her guests, replenishing drinks and joining in the light conversation that characterized such events. Always she was conscious of Jordan's presence, waiting for the truth to come out and appall everyone. In her growing anxiety, she found herself reaching for a third glass of wine before she remembered to announce dinner. "Please help yourselves," she instructed with false cheerfulness as the happy group began to troop toward the buffet table. Jordan was among those choosing plates and a napkinful of silverware, she realized grimly. He was playing his new role to the hilt! The last to go through the buffet line, Alyssa found it extremely difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the pasta and salmon dish or the mushroom tart. She took a little salad on her plate and was reluctantly adding a chunk of crusty French bread when Jordan's smooth, dark drawl made her whirl around. "Let me get you a glass of wine to go with that, Alyssa," he murmured, holding his full plate in one hand and deftly pouring out some chilled Sonoma County Chardonnay with the other. She found herself watching with mesmerized fascination. Such skilled, knowing hands. The memories returned in full force. "Something wrong, sweetheart?" Jordan inquired blandiy, handing her the glass. "You're blushing." "No, no, nothing. Jordan, please," she hissed, "what do you think you're doing?" "Having a good time." He paused as if considering his own words. "Make that a very good time. I can't remember ever having attended a party quite like this one." "Like this one? That doesn't make any sense! This is a perfectly normal, perfectly routine sort of buffet dinner party!" "For you. Not for me." He smiled to himself, glancing around the room. "All these people have respectable, well-paying careers with fringe benefits and retirement plans and medical insurance. And they think I'm one of them, thanks to you. In fact, thanks to you, they think I'm a leader in my fteid." "What in the world are you talking about? Jordan, I don't understand you. How much longer are you going to go on like this?" She pleaded with her eyes, desperate for some clue as to when he would say the words that would ruin the evening and her career. "I'm enjoying myself, honey. Don't you like to have your guests enjoy themselves? Now why don't you come on over to the couch and we'll have our dinner together." He sniffed appreciatively. "Smells delicious. Your talents seem to be quite endless." There was nothing else to do but follow him over to the white couch and join several other guests who had settled in the vicinity.