The fiery embers of sunset blazed their reflection across the glass-fronted structure, joining Alanna Evans’ own slender reflection as she crossed the parking lot of the medical center’s newest wing and entered its lobby. Her honeyed head held high with confidence, she approached the elevator, pushed the up button, and waited.
After a day of nonstop business, she welcomed the moment’s pause and breathed deeply to savor it. All sound was subdued in the quiet lobby. A faint hum of conversation trickled from the lounge to her right, the intermittent beeping of the hospital paging system echoed from the reception desk to her left, and the muted rustle of a passing white-garbed practitioner served to emphasize the stark immobility of the shiny doors before her.
She dropped her gaze to look through the lighter bottom of her tinted glasses to the deep blue carpet, against which her gray pumps looked properly subtle. Absently, she straightened the soft pleats of her skirt, adjusted its matching jacket, then shifted her overnight bag to rest the strap more comfortably on her shoulder. As the purr of the elevator signaled its approach, a man joined her silently, standing perfectly still. Her peripheral vision absorbed no more than his remarkably tall, dark-suited form before a gentle chime heralded the elevator’s arrival. Seconds later, the door slid open.
Moving simultaneously, both prospective passengers stepped forward. Then each paused to let the other pass. When a chivalrous hand gestured her forward, Alana smoothly entered, pressed the button for her floor, then turned to stand with her back to the wall. The man followed, glancing briefly at the single number already lit on the command panel before stationing himself opposite her in a stance both casual and alert.
With a soft thud the door closed and they were alone. Drawn by an enigmatic impulse, Alana looked across to meet his gaze head-on. His back rested lightly against the wall, his hands thrust in the pants pockets of his finely tailored suit. He seemed a study in contrasts—white shirt against dark gray wool, brown hair flecked with gleaming gold highlights, broad shoulders tapering to lean and narrow hips. And he continued to stare at her.
While Alanna was an unusually attractive woman, well used to the admiring glances sent her way by men and women alike, this particular glance was different. Even the subtly defiant tilt of her chin could not discourage it. Charcoal eyes, deep and intense, studied her closely, evaluating her much as she had done him and remaining uncomfortably persistent. With a cool determination born of practice she broke the contact, raising her eyes to the horizontal panel above the doors. Two. Three. Four.
The elevator glided to a gentle stop. As soon as the doors rolled open she straightened her shoulders and stepped forward. Again his movement paralleled her own. Again she halted, but this time it was Alanna who gestured, with an indulgent dip of her head, for the man to precede her. With an imperceptible nod, he stepped ahead, but not before she noted the distinct twitch of amusement at his lips. Her eye followed his broad back as he disembarked, turned and disappeared through a set of swinging doors to be swallowed up by the long hospital corridor beyond. Only then did she breathe deeply once more, bolstering her composure to approach the nearby nurses’ station.
She stood patiently for a moment, respectful of the urgent nature of hospital business and slightly disconcerted by her own upcoming role here. The white-capped head before her was downcast, lost in the deciphering of scrawled doctor’s orders. Finally, as if with the sudden realization of Alanna’s presence, the nurse looked up.
“May I help you?”
“Yes, please. I’m Alanna Evans. I’ll be participating in the IAT study. I believe Dr. Henderson is expecting me?”
Recognition lit up the nurse’s face, her broad smile mirroring the white of her uniform as she stood and extended a warm hand, which Alanna clasped readily. “Ms. Evans, welcome! I’m Sylvia Frazier, the night nurse heading the unit. We weren’t quite sure just when you would arrive.”
Reassured by the woman’s friendliness, Alanna relaxed. “I wasn’t quite sure myself. It’s been a hectic day. Fortunately, I was able to escape from the office at seven.” She glanced at the clock and noticed that it was barely seven-thirty; she had made good time.
“Then you haven’t eaten?”
Alanna smiled ruefully. “No. But that’s nothing new. I’d half hoped to be able to grab something in the cafeteria here, either before or after I spoke with Dr. Henderson. Is she free now?”
“I don’t think so, dear.” The older woman shook her head, then frowned. “I believe she may be with one of the other participants. Let me check.”
Alanna’s inner tension was betrayed only by the white knuckles gripping the strap of her overnight bag. Determinedly, she relaxed her fingers. Looking slowly around, she shuddered, for a fleeting moment recalling her past hospital experience, the long, painful vigil at her mother’s bedside so many years ago. Mercifully, she herself had never been sick, truly sick, a day in her life. Her present problem was an annoyance more than anything else. A grave annoyance. As a woman who prided herself on self-command, she was frustrated.
Her attention snapped back to the present as Sylvia Frazier returned. “It’s as I suspected. She’ll be tied up for a little while. It’s slow going at the start. Why don’t you go down and have a good supper?” Her eye skimmed the slim figure before her with kind, almost maternal concern. “You could use several pounds, I’ll warrant. But,” she shrugged with a guilty grin, “perhaps that’s just the envy in me speaking. I’ve been at the other end of that ‘ideal weight’ chart for too long. Run along now. I’ve told the doctor where you’ll be. You can leave your bag here. And enjoy your dinner.” She emphasized the words, smiling knowingly.
Given the circumstances, and the fact that they would be seeing quite a bit of each other, it was nice to know that Sylvia Frazier had a sense of humor. Alanna laughed. “That bad, eh?”
“Oh, not too bad … for institution fare. But it is institution fare.”
“Any recommendations?” She arched a blond brow mischievously.
The nurse’s choice was instant and from the heart. “Apple pie, à la mode.” Then, catching herself, she feigned sternness. “After a healthy helping of chicken or fish, of course. Now, go!” Her gentle order was reinforced by the shooing motion of her hands. Alanna went.
Five minutes later, seated alone at a corner table in the sparsely filled cafeteria, she cast a plaintive glance at the junior sirloin before her. Had she really wanted it, or the fries and salad accompanying it? Or was she merely hoping for sustenance to help her through the night ahead?
Only after she took several perfunctory bites did she realize how hungry she was. When had lunch been? An eon ago. Or, to be precise, an executive board meeting, three separate conferences, two endless proposal forms and a dozen phone calls ago.
Slowly, as the meal before her disappeared, she began to unwind. It might have been a trying day, but it had been a good one. Hard work was an integral part of her approach to life. Alanna thrived on it. Her penetration into the elitist ranks of the male-dominated executive level at WallMar Enterprises had been—contrary to recent rumor—the result of long hours, persistence, innate ability and sheer hard work. Realism held taut rein over bitterness in her musings; despite all recent advances against sexism, a woman still had to work twice as hard to achieve a niche comparable to her male counterparts in the corporate structure. But, it was worth it. As Vice-President of Development her days were challenging and rewarding, petty aggravations and innuendo notwithstanding. Why, then, her present dilemma?
Insomnia. Millions of Americans suffered from it, yet that fact held small solace when, in the middle of the night, she awoke to find sleep an elusive quality. The pattern was always the same. For no apparent reason her sound sleep would be shattered at one, perhaps two, in the morning. Tossing in bed, she would think, wonder, brood, awaiting the imminent slumber that grew less imminent with each passing moment. For the longer the wakefulness persisted—and it frequently lasted for two or three hours—the more annoyed she became, keying herself up in a way that denied sleep even further.
It was a self-perpetuating nuisance. And Alanna Evans was not one to suffer nuisances willingly, particularly one that rendered her groggy and irritable at seven o’clock each morning, when her alarm rang. Granted, her good nature was usually in order by the time WallMar saw her at eight-thirty, but as the day wore on it became harder and harder to maintain. A steady year of tension and exhaustion was enough; she had finally taken the offensive. Hence the IAT study.
Recalling her immediate purpose, Alanna sat back in her seat, nibbling on a thick steak fry as her eye skimmed the room. There was a scattering of hospital personnel in small clusters here and there and a fair share of visitors. There was also—her teeth clamped down into the soft potato and held—a man walking directly toward her, his dark suit, exquisite physique and daring height identifying him instantly. Had they not, his charcoal eyes would certainly have done so, for they captured her gaze with the same glittering depth and intensity she had fallen victim to in the elevator, and they held unwaveringly as he moved with animal grace through the maze of tables to her corner.
Who was he? Alanna felt a twinge of familiarity, yet she couldn’t quite make the identification. Nor did she have time to ponder it for, too soon, the man reached her side. In his hands he held two cups of a steaming brew she half suspected to be his own secret potion. Without even sipping it, she felt under an inexplicable spell.
“I see you haven’t had coffee. Will you join me?” His voice was as smooth as the rest of him. Alanna was entranced by his aura of command, so much so that she hadn’t moved a muscle since she’d first seen him approaching. Now, snapping back to life, she bit through the steak fry and chewed slowly, pensively, as she regained her poise. What was it about this man that was so compelling? Almost from instinct, with years of training behind her, she steeled herself against his charm.
“I’m sorry,” she answered calmly, rising to his subtle challenge, “but I don’t drink coffee in the evening. It disturbs my sleep.” When she would have looked away in dismissal she found herself challenged anew. For the smugness of her refusal brought an equally cocky smile to the face across from her.
“Then I’m glad I ordered it decaffeinated. Cream? Sugar?” Her headshake was meant as a refusal of his company, but he chose to make a different interpretation and the black coffee was beside her plate before she could protest. Deftly, the man eased his long frame into the chair opposite hers. “It seems we share the problem. How was your dinner?”
With this stranger now firmly ensconced at her table it occurred to Alanna that she’d been given absolutely no say in the matter. “Not bad,” she spoke evenly, eyeing the man through her tinted lenses. “I was enjoying the solitude. Time to oneself is a precious thing nowadays.”
“And I’ve shattered it…?” Silvery sparks of humor glittered in his eyes.
“Let’s just say you … intruded on it.” This man needed no ego reinforcement; that he could easily shatter the peace of mind of many a woman was a given. “Are you always this aggressive?”
“Not usually. Actually, I surprised myself right now. I, too, usually enjoy being alone when I have the chance … which isn’t very often. Aggressive?” He frowned, seeming to consider the word. “Only when I want something badly enough.”
“You want something?” she asked innocently. She looked around in a mocking search. “I don’t see much that’s available. Am I missing something?” Underlying her tone was a streak of amusement. Alanna relished good verbal sparring; this man had the potential to be a worthy opponent. Not to mention the fact that his voice was deep and resonant … and very pleasing.…
“I believe you are,” he countered, “but it’s not your fault. You had no reason to be on the lookout for it in as improbable a setting as this. In time you’ll understand.”
Alanna took refuge behind the rim of her coffee cup, sipping slowly as she studied the stranger. By all rights she should ask him to leave. In fact, it surprised her that she hadn’t. She sensed something different in him—something she had felt in the elevator that was even more pronounced now. There was an arrogance about him—but a depth as well. He challenged her.
“What do you see?” he asked, surviving her scrutiny unscathed.
Alanna put down her cup, shifted in her seat, and cocked her head in contemplation. “I see a man, perhaps thirty-seven or thirty-eight—”
“Thank you. Thirty-nine.” She stifled a grin. “Tall—oh, say six-three or so?”
“Close enough.” He nodded, smiling faintly.
“Weight … I won’t even make a guess, since I’m no expert at that and since it’s quite unimportant.” She narrowed her gaze, fully involved in the game. “Athletic build, however. I’d guess you either work out regularly or play tennis—”
“That’ll do.” She smiled sweetly, feeling immune to his charm as long as she could describe him dispassionately. “Classic features—no, more rugged than classic. Brown hair with sandy highlights,” she continued, glancing at the overhead light responsible for the last, “a nose that has been broken at least once, firm lips that express a distinct stubbornness,” she grinned as the items in question twitched, “and eyes of charcoal gray that can be even more eloquent than that very glib tongue.”
“No offense intended, of course?”
“Of course,” she agreed drily, taking another sip of her coffee.
“Go on.” Truly enjoying himself, he sat back in his chair, the fabric of his shirt stretching enticingly across his chest.
Alanna ignored the latter with a shrug. “What more is there to say?” She wasn’t about to sum him up as perhaps the most handsome man she had seen in years, though it was the truth.
“Use your imagination,” came his soft command. “I’m curious to see how the female mind sizes up its adversary.”
“Adversary,” she echoed. “Very good.” So, he knew how she saw him, did he? Well then, she decided, she would let her imagination roam free. “All right.” She cleared her throat. “I see a man used to giving orders without having them questioned.”
“Would you question them?”
“You bet your life I would!” she flashed back with more vehemence than she had intended. Quickly she caught herself, steadying her voice. “I like giving an order or two myself on occasion. But that’s beside the point,” she added, reluctant to offer much about herself. “And speaking of that shirt, it and your suit are of very high quality—private tailor, perhaps?”
Alanna nodded, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. “Europe. I’m sorry I questioned that.” A slender finger pushed her oversized glasses higher on the bridge of her nose. “Then, of course, you must be quite successful at what you do … to be able to shop in Europe.…”
He nodded, more modest than she would have expected. “I’ve been fortunate.”
On the subconscious level, his vague familiarity got to her. Tilting her blond head, she frowned. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“You’re great!” he laughed softly, sparring still. “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”
“Tradition, my dear sir,” she replied unfazed, “is irrelevant in this day and age. Well…?”
“Look.” She sat forward with a sigh of impatience. “I really don’t make a habit of talking to strange men.”
Any discomfort she felt was totally her own. This strange man was quite pleased. “I’m glad to hear that. One less thing for us to argue about.”
Alanna leaned down to retrieve her purse. She had begun to feel her control of the situation slipping and she was disquieted. “Please, either identify yourself or I’ll be on my way.” She paused. “Actually, I do have an appointment in another few minutes. Every game has to come to an end and this one is beginning to wear thin.” She paused, her cocoa gaze narrowing. “You walk around as though you own this place and everyone in it. It’s a very subtle air—but very much present. Well, you don’t own me. And I think you owe me the courtesy of an introduction.”
His deep, charcoal eyes grew suddenly more serious, remaining as intense as ever. Formally extending his hand across the table, he introduced himself. “I’m Alexander Knight. Alex.”
Alanna hesitated, yet somehow her slim hand found its way into his larger, stronger one, warmth spreading through her. Only after several moments did his identity sink in. And with the realization came a heightened flush of pink to her cream-soft cheeks. Her smile crept out unbidden. “So you do own the place—or practically. I understand that the new wing—the Knight Center—was your doing.” Her hand remained in his. She was aware of the strength he exuded and found it strangely comforting.
“Only in part. My family made the original gift. The rest was the work of other donors and members of the hospital staff. They deserve most of the credit.”
“Ah, such modesty,” she chided, though her teasing was gentle, her voice soft. His smile was quite disarming—as was his touch. He continued to hold her hand, even faintly caress her fingers. Clearing her throat, she smiled. “My hand, please?”
He released it reluctantly, his eye falling to its partner with curiosity, even a certain tension. “No rings?”
“No.” Her gaze now held his with confidence.
She didn’t actually hear his sigh of relief when he paused, yet he chose his words with care. “Any particular reason? I mean, you are striking enough…”
She overlooked his compliment in the urgency of expressing her deepest feeling. “I’m unattached because I choose to be so. It’s as simple as that … and as irrevocable.” The last was added in warning; it had always been quite effective in the past. Now, however, it merely elicited a broad white grin from amid his tanned features.
“I’ll enjoy seeing you eat those words one day.”
“I doubt it.” She was equally as calm and composed. “But,” her pause was punctuated with a frown, “I’m curious as to why you seem so sure of that. You don’t know anything about me.”
“Well, then, we’ll just have to do something about that, particularly since you’re going to be my wife one day.…”
If he had expected an outburst of disbelief or indignation, even fury, he did, indeed, have much to learn about Alanna Evans. She was given to neither, particularly on a subject about which she felt so sure of herself. Her laugh was light and airy, as though it had flitted off the wings of a butterfly on a warm spring day.
“I may have a name for the face, now, Alex,” she said melodiously, “but you’re still strange! Whatever would put such a bizarre thought in your mind?”
“There’s nothing at all bizarre about it,” he returned, equally as good-humored, yet oddly sober. “You will marry me.”
Again she laughed. “I’ve never heard anything so improbable! I don’t know you, nor you me. You’ve never laid eyes on me before now. Besides, you happen to be talking to a confirmed bachelor-ess!”
“Even the most confirmed of bachelors can change.” His dark gaze broke through her veneer of humor with its raw intensity. “I have.”
“On a moment’s notice?” Incredulity replaced amusement, covering up a more significant emotional spark.
“Not just a moment’s notice.” He spoke with a velvet tongue and frightening conviction. “I’ve had years to ponder who and what I want. I’ve never even caught sight of it … until now. And now that it’s finally appeared I have no intention of letting it slip through my fingers.”
“It? You sound as though you’re referring to a business deal. If that’s the case, this is one business that’s not on the market.”
“Perhaps not on the open market,” he persisted softly, “but available, to say the least. It may just take you awhile to acknowledge it.”
“You’re incredible!” Her eyes widened. “You don’t even know my name!”
“Ah-ah,” he chided, “never underestimate the opposition. Your name is Alanna Evans … soon to be Knight.”
For the first time Alanna felt threatened. If he had seemed less sure of himself, less arrogant, she might have taken it all as a joke. But this man was no crank if his reputation, or his family’s, was worth anything. She was usually able to keep on top of things, yet the fact of hearing her name from Alex Knight’s tongue was upsetting. Or, she wondered fleetingly, was it in the warm inflection that his tongue gave to it…?
“How did you know that?” she asked, fighting for composure.
“Sylvia Frazier is a friend. And there aren’t too many blond-haired beauties with owl-eyes who drop by the clinic at this hour.” He paused, savoring the brief unsureness in her expression before directing his attention to her face. “Do you always hide behind them?”
Alanna frowned in puzzlement. “Behind what?”
“Those glasses. They’re very large and, there at the top, the part through which you’re glaring at me now, very dark. They must be convenient for hiding your emotions from the world. Are you frightened of what the world might see?”
To her chagrin, dark lenses notwithstanding, Alanna realized that she was glaring. Quickly she forced a smile. It was part of the game, she mused, meeting the challenge with a steady hand that reached up, slowly, toward the tortoiseshell frames. Smiling now in gentle defiance, she removed the glasses to reveal large eyes of a deep, soft brown.
“I wear these glasses for one basic reason,” she explained carefully, playing on his sense of expectance. Her pause was deliberate and drama-filled.
“And what might that be?”
“I’m nearsighted.” The words flowed forth in a provocative drawl. Alanna grinned, then rose to the challenge as the man across from her presented several straightened fingers for her to count. “Three,” she proclaimed proudly. “I’m not that bad, though I hope I’m not disappointing you. I do manage to live quite well with the weakness.”
A mocking eyebrow rose. “I never doubted it for a minute. I’m just surprised you haven’t tried contact lenses. Most women prefer—”
“I’m not most women. My glasses and I get along just fine.” The object under discussion lay, temporarily forgotten, on the table.
“You have lovely eyes.” His teasing tone was gone and Alanna’s mouth felt suddenly dry. Though she sipped the last of her now-cooled coffee, she refused to let his relentless gaze intimidate her. Then, with the twinkle of an eye, his humor made a comeback. “It’s actually gratifying to know that, while the world sees only your specs, I’ll get to see the gems beneath.”
“You presume quite a bit.”
“Not without good reason.”
He could match her, word for word, argument for argument. Though there was an undercurrent of teasing now, there was something else—something that gave Alanna pause.
“You are serious, aren’t you?” she asked, puzzled, blunt.
Her bluntness was matched by his response. “Dead serious. I intend to marry you.” Everything in his expression—from the deep set of those charcoal eyes to the matter-of-fact angle of his head to the firm slant of his lips, which monopolized her gaze for a hypnotic moment—reinforced his earnestness.
Exasperated, she shook her head. “Please, Mr. Knight—”
“Alex … you may be serious, but please believe that I am, too. I have no intention of marrying you or anyone else. My life is just fine the way it is.”
“Is it?” He sat forward, challenging her afresh. “Is that why you’re here? Is that why you can’t sleep at night?”
Alanna stiffened. “I thought dealings with doctors were supposed to be confidential. Whoever is feeding you your information is out of line.” The indignance in her tone was unmistakable. “And if you have any power at all in this hospital you should see that the breach is sealed.”
“Perhaps,” he drawled deeply, “it’s precisely my power that caused the breach to begin with.”
“Then it’s that much less excusable!”
To her dismay Alex smiled, enjoying her unease. The warmth of his gaze melted her resentment, even against her will. “You really have nothing to worry about, Alanna. That’s all I know—your name and your reason for being here. And there was no breach of confidence by any doctor; Sylvia spilled the last, as well. Anything further, I guess I’ll have to ferret out of you. Believe it or not, this hospital is closemouthed.”
“That remains to be seen,” Alanna commented wryly. Looking away, she caught the glint of the overhead light as it cast its tawny highlight on the fine hairs on the back of his hand. It was an image she thrust from her mind as being far too sensual, far too appealing. Grasping for an escape, she brightened. “Tell me … what can you learn from surface information? Since you don’t know me, whatever makes you think you’d want me as a wife?”
“For starters,” he began without hesitation, “I know that you’re part of the IAT study—that was what Sylvia told me. It says a lot.”
“Such as that you’re a working woman—a businesswoman—at the executive level.” At her look of surprise, he explained. “The IAT study—this phase, at least—deals with a very specific group. Executives. Under pressure. Between the ages of thirty and forty-five. I’d say,” his gaze raked her form with astounding thoroughness, pausing longer on her lips before returning to the anticipation in her eyes, “that you are at the bare bottom of that scale.”
“You’re right. I just turned thirty-one.”
“And that says a lot more.”
“The fact that you offer it so freely. Some women are very sensitive—”
“I’m not some women.”
“Which tells me even more. You’re a nonconformist. You’re self-confident, intelligent to have gotten where you are, and at least moderately aggressive.”
“Moderately?” she asked, amused by his evaluation.
“Actually, with regard to the factor of aggression you’re still an unknown factor. You may be very aggressive in the office; in … ah … other fields you may not have been put to the test yet.” The dark gleam which flickered in his eye spoke clearly of the fields he had in mind. Alanna’s reaction was instant.
“Do you really think that you’ll be the one to test me?”
“Don’t hold your breath,” she warned softly. “I’ve fought my way from the bottom up, parrying similar threats all too often. Fighting you would be no different than fighting those others who’ve tried before you.”
Even as the words hit the air she wondered at their truth. From that first visual exchange in the elevator she had sensed something different in this man. A fight with him would push her to her limits, of that she was certain. Would it come to that? Despite his claims and her renunciation of them, would she be seeing him again?
“And that’s another thing I like about you,” he went on, totally ignoring her declaration. “You’ve got spunk. That’s good.”
“You’re nuts! Do you know that?”
He chuckled. “I’ve been told so on occasion—but I’ve usually gone on to prove myself totally sane. Are you interested in putting me to the test?”
“What test—proving you sane?” When he shook his head with deliberate slowness she amended her guess, once again with disbelief. “Marrying you?”
“Ummm.” His gaze began to move over her face in a visual caress that was utterly sensual. Beginning with her flaxen-sheened hair, pulled sedately back, his eye-touch stroked the creamy richness of her skin, the delicate symmetry of her nose, the sudden vulnerability of her lips. Awareness coursed through her in echoing ripples.
“I told you,” she argued defensively, her stiff tone belying the helpless cocoa of her eyes, “that I’m not the marrying type. Marriage has nothing to offer me that I don’t already have.”
“Which brings me to my original question. Why do you have insomnia?”
“Insomnia has nothing to do with marriage,” she asserted boldly.
“No, but if your life is as perfect as you seem to feel, you shouldn’t have insomnia. What causes it?”
Exasperated once more, Alanna sighed. “If I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t be here right now. In fact, I’m not quite sure why I am sitting here listening to you!”
“You’re listening to me,” Alex informed her without a second’s pause, “because I challenge you. Because I don’t ‘yes’ you all over the place, as I’m sure most of the men you’re used to dealing with do. Because I dare to question you. Because I interest you.”
He was right. She could simply have stood and excused herself when he arrived at her table, and certainly immediately after he popped his half-baked notion that she would one day be his wife. Yet he did interest her … and he was obviously interested in her. With a quivering in her limbs that she would have liked to attribute to fatigue but could not, Alanna knew she had to leave. Standing quickly, she shouldered her purse and reached for her glasses, slipping them deftly onto her face.
“I really must go, Alex. I have an appointment.” She glanced at her watch and saw, to her horror, that she’d been a full forty-five minutes in the cafeteria. “Oh, no, she’ll be waiting.”
“She’ll find something to keep her busy,” Alex drawled. He, too, had risen and made to escort her. “I presume you are talking about Ellen Henderson?”
Alanna was too aware of Alex’s closeness to react naturally to this knowledge of her. Quickening her step, she nodded. “That’s right.”
“Then I’m very happy that Ellen is a she. I’m not sure I’d enjoy having you pour your heart out to a him. Unless it was me, of course. I tend to be the jealous type.”
As they reached the door of the cafeteria Alanna turned to face him. “Alex, it was nice meeting you, but I really have no time to continue the game. My life is filled to bursting as it is. I hope that you can simply put this weird compulsion of yours out of your mind. We’d both be healthier.”
“Would we?” Taking her arm, he guided her in the direction of the elevator, holding her gently but firmly until the car arrived, entering with her and pushing the button for the proper floor. As fate would have it there were, again, no other passengers. After the door blocked out the rest of the world he looked down at her. “I think you’re wrong. This is the healthiest thing I’ve done in years.”
Without a further word he drew her to him, his hands grasping her arms, his head lowering. She hadn’t expected such suddenness. Stunned, she had no time to muster a protest before his lips touched hers. They were warm and gentle, as teasing as his nature. She stood perfectly still, refusing to yield to the pressure as it increased, yet unable to pull away. When teasing turned to seduction she struggled harder to remain indifferent. For, as with everything else about this man, his kiss, too, was different. His lips were vibrant, smoothly awakening her long-dormant senses. The warmth that began in her toes inched slowly upward, slowly and with growing heat as it made its way through her limbs. Her fingers itched to touch, her lips to respond. But his arrogance stayed her; she would no more give in to his cocksure demand than she would agree to his absurd marriage declaration. In the next instant, however, he slyly altered the ground rules.
“Bet you can’t do it,” he drawled softly against her lips.
“Do what?” she whispered, tipping her head back to study him.
“Kiss me with everything you’ve got … then turn and walk away.”
Alanna felt abruptly light-headed. She loved a challenge and this was the perfect out. She could maintain her dignity and meet his dare, all the while giving in to the very tempting lure of his male-strong lips. While a small, private voice within asked if she was the crazy one for what she was about to do, that more husky public voice accepted. “You’ve got yourself a bet.”
As though squaring off for a wrestling bout, Alex dropped his arms to his sides. Beaming indulgently down on her, he waited. Alanna’s hands found their way to his shoulders, then around to his back, exploring his strength as she brought her lips tentatively to his. With a mixture of curiosity and growing boldness she pressed sensuously against him—then caught her breath and pulled back in reaction to both the heady jolt of excitement that coursed through her veins and the opening of the elevator door.
Mercifully, there was no one on the other side to witness her momentary loss as she grappled for the poise that had been suddenly shattered. “Oops,” she gasped. “It looks like … we’ve been … thwarted.…”
“Saved by the bell is more like it,” he countered with a knowingly wicked smile. “Come on.” A strong arm about her shoulder pulled her from the elevator.
“Where…?” Numbly, she kept pace; she literally had no choice. They moved a few yards to the fire door, then through it, to the stairwell. “Alex, what are you doing?”
“I don’t think I can stand the suspense. You have a point to prove, I believe.” He moved her gently against the wall, satisfactorily placing the breadth of his back as a shield against any unwanted intrusion. “Now,” he cleared his throat, “that kiss…?”
“But … I did kiss you.”
“Ah-ah. That was no kiss,” he teased, his tone seductive in itself. “That was a taste … a peck. Now I want the real thing. The bet wasn’t for a half-kiss; it was for a whole-kiss.”
Alanna was caught up in more than one game, for to their verbal sparring had been added the factor of raw physical need. Tingles deep within her attested to it. “There’s a difference?” she floundered, buying time, hiding her growing turmoil in mock innocence. If that had been a half-kiss, she mused with alarm, she’d never have a chance in the world of winning the bet. This man had a touch, no doubt about it. She’d never been so affected before. Even now, as her hesitant gaze met his, she felt the draw. In her knees. Her chest. The deepest nooks and crannies of her body. All seemed suddenly aroused.
Alex moved closer, a long forefinger stroking her cheek, “Oh, there’s a difference, owl-eyes,” he murmured, seemingly entranced by her lips. “Let me demonstrate.”
If only she had pulled away then, before his demonstration, she might have saved herself. But she was mesmerized, held immobile by his hands, drugged by the manly scent that encompassed him as surely as his aura of command, and lost in, yes, a web of sheer desire.
Alanna Evans was not an inexperienced woman. Yet Alex’s touch was new, his kiss exciting, his nearness an intoxicant she had never before known. Now, as his lips gently sampled hers, slanting tentatively across them, coaxing them apart with subtle promises, she had no wish to resist. Rather, her nascent response was an invitation to a depth of passion she could only imagine. A shudder ran through her at the touch of his tongue exploring the curve of her lips and the softness within. If her knees grew weak, it was of no import. For his arms circled her, drawing her from the wall and against the long, hard-muscled support of his body.
The moment was isolated in eternity in Alanna’s wheeling mind. She felt overwhelmingly alive and fresh, electrically charged, drawn from dormancy to heaven. Her arms stole beneath his to his back, her hands reveling in the corded strength there.
Then her pulse hammered loudly as he leaned back. His smoky gray eyes studied her indolently, savoring the flush on her cheeks. “Now it’s your turn,” he whispered, a deeply crooned challenge. Holding his face just so far from hers, he demanded that she take the initiative to steal another kiss.
Alanna was powerless against the drive stirring within her. Her usual manner was neither coy nor hesitant. She had always been honest with herself. When she wanted something, she went after it. And, at that moment, she wanted to kiss Alex Knight, to push that budding passion even further. Eagerly she leaned closer, her slender body as pliant against his manly lines as layers of raw silk draped across a bronze statue. Her lips parted in search of his, reaching, playing only until she felt his ragged gasp, then, forgetting play, moving in nearer, deeper, harder.
Neither Alex nor Alanna was aware of the door opening not far from them. A throat cleared. “Excuse me.…” A forced cough. “Ah … Mr. Knight … excuse me … Ms. Evans…”
Alanna wasn’t quite sure when she finally recognized the presence of a third person. Alex, however, recovered sooner. Though his arms held her still, he raised his head.
“Yes, Sylvia?” he asked thickly.
Sylvia Frazier cleared her throat once more before speaking in a stage whisper which carried a hint of chiding. “Dr. Henderson is waiting to see Ms. Evans. I saw you two get off the elevator. I really think—”
“Thank you for the reminder, Sylvia.” Alex didn’t turn. His gray eyes glittered into Alanna’s with a pointed message and, slowly, she grasped reality. She felt the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the pounding of blood through her veins, the eerie weakness in her legs. But there was, still, that last part of the bet.…
Straightening, she took a deep breath. “I’m coming now, Ms. Frazier. Please tell Dr. Henderson that I’ll be right along.” As Alanna gently extricated herself from Alex’s arms the nurse diplomatically disappeared, her job done. But Alex’s strong hand stayed Alanna before she, too, could return to the floor.
“You lose, you know,” he grinned mischievously. “If Sylvia hadn’t come along just then you wouldn’t have left.” He paused, his nearness continuing to affect her. As she looked up at him his gaze grew enigmatic. “Would you?”
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips as she lifted her golden head a bit higher. While she refused to admit defeat, she could not lie. “We’ll never know, will we?”
But the sureness of Alex’s answer made a mockery of her smugness. “Oh, we’ll know. And you can bet on that!”
With a hard swallow, Alanna turned and left.
Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Barbara Delinsky