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mounted the steps, a tall, tuxedo-clad man approached. "Mr. Temple," he said in a crisp British accent. "Mr. Ronsard will see you now. Follow me, please."John silently followed, not inclined to exchange pleasantries. He could hear music, and people in formal dress stood in small groups, laughing and chattering in a mix of languages. The women glittered in jewels, and so did some of the men. His own tuxedo was severely cut, without a frill or ruffle in sight, but the cut and fit shouted that it was custom made for him. Several women glanced his way, then looked again. When he wanted, he could pass through a crowd completely unnoticed, but tonight he wanted people to notice. He walked with a silent, graceful saunter, like a panther that has seen its prey but knows there's no need to hurry.The elegant flunky led him to a small anteroom off the foyer. The room was comfortably furnished with a sofa and two wing-back chairs, a cozy little selection of books, a small fireplace, and a selection of spirits. Considering that the room was no more than eight feet square, and that the door had a sturdy lock, John guessed that it was there more for quick and furtive lovemaking than it was for any other purpose. A good host always provided for his guests, after all."Monsieur Temple." Ronsard rose to his feet asJohn entered. He nodded a dismissal at the other man, who silently closed the door behind him as he left. "I am Louis Ronsard." He extended his hand, every inch a gracious host.John let a fraction of a second lapse before he took Ronsard's hand. Not a flicker of expression crossed his face. "Why am I here?" he finally asked, his tone low and controlled. "This . . . meeting wasn't necessary.""I think it is." Ronsard was slick about it, but he was carefully studying John's face. "I don't like dealing with unknown factors. Moreover, you knew about a compound that is very new and supposed to be unknown. Would you mind telling me how you came to hear of it?"John regarded him silently, eyes at half-mast. "I don't like to be called by name in the middle of a crowd, and my definition of a crowd is any number greater than two." Let Ronsard wait for his answers; he wasn't in the mood to be cooperative."I assure you, no one here has any idea who you are.""And I assure you, there's always at least one person at parties like this who is making a list of names, to be sold afterward.""I deal harshly with betrayal," Ronsard said softly. Evidently deciding Temple wasn't a man who could be charmed, impressed, or intimidated, he indicated the chairs. "Please, be seated. Would you like a drink?"John chose one of the wing-back chairs. "I don't drink."Ronsard paused with his hand on a decanter, his eyebrows lifted, then moved his hand to a bottle and poured himself a small amount of wine."I apologize if you think coming here has jeopardized your cover. But I'm a cautious man too, and handling this compound is not without its own risk. I do so only when I am assured that this is a legitimate order and that I am not being set up. So, given the secrecy surrounding the compound, I think you understand why I am interested in learning how you heard of it."John steepled his fingers, staring unblinkingly at Ronsard for a long moment. He saw Ronsard's gaze flicker to the ring of entwined snakes on his left hand. "Flight 183," he finally said."The plane crash? Yes, that was unfortunate. I suspected it was a ... test, shall we say? I wasn't aware beforehand.""I don't care if it was a test or not. It worked.""But how did you find what explosive was used?""I ... obtained a copy of the NTSB preliminary chemical analysis. I have access to a very good lab in Switzerland. The chemical fingerprint was similar to RDX. The NTSB found no evidence of a detonator. It's self explanatory," John said, his tone bored."Do you really think I would believe you put all this together by extrapolation?" Ronsard smiled gently. "No, someone told you. A second party has also approached me wanting to buy a quantity of the compound, someone who has no access to the NTSB. How could he know, unless by the same leak?""Ernst Morrell," John supplied. "I told him."Ronsard stared at him a moment, then drank his wine. "You surprise me," he murmured."Morrell will provide a ... distraction. Anything that happens will be laid at his feet.""So he is a decoy." Ronsard shook his head, smiling. "Mr. Temple, I salute you. That is truly devious."John relaxed, subtly but visibly. The stony expression on his face eased. He let himself blink. "If I'm lucky, the bastard will blow himself up. If I'm not lucky, he'll still bring so much heat down on himself he'll be caught. Either way, he won't step on my toes again.""So you've met Morrell before?""No, but he's a blundering idiot. He interfered in a job."Ronsard laughed, his handsome face lit with real amusement. "Monsieur Temple, I think it will be a pleasure doing business with you. We'll talk more, but I've been away from my guests too long, and I must get back to them. Come, I'll introduce you around.""Introduce me as Mr. Smith.""Smith," Ronsard repeated. He still looked amused. "That's my secretary's last name as well.""Maybe we're related."They drew more than one interested gaze when they left the anteroom. John walked with his host across the huge foyer and into a glittering ballroom. They stopped at the top of three shallow steps, looking out over the crowd. Enormous crystal chandeliers hung overhead, glittering like diamonds, and a wall of French glass doors had been opened to the night. People moved around the room, out to the patio, back in, in a constant motion that reminded him of a hive.He looked casually around, not letting his gaze rest on anyone in particular, but he spotted Niema almost immediately. An industrialist approached Ronsard and made polite chitchat for a moment, then waited expectantly for an introduction. John had met the man before, but he'd been using a different name at the time, and with his appearance altered; his hair had been gray and he had worn brown contacts. The industrialist thought he was shaking hands with a total stranger.A voluptuous redhead, her breasts all but bared in a skintight emerald green gown, was the next to attach herself to Ronsard's arm and angle for an introduction. Ronsard, obviously amused, obliged. John became his most impassive, not responding to any of the woman's flirtatious remarks. For all her obviousness, she was no fool; after a few minutes she switched her flirtatiousness to Ronsard, who smiled and flattered her, all the while with that look of amusement still in his eyes.After the woman left, they were briefly alone. John let his gaze sweep the ballroom once again, and he went still.Ronsard noticed immediately, of course. "Do you see someone you know?" he asked, becoming subtly more alert as he looked around."No." The word sounded as if it were being dragged out of John's throat. "Someone I'm going to know. That woman-who is she?""Who?""Dark hair, blue gown. Wearing pearls. She's talking to the tall blonde woman."Ronsard's search narrowed on Niema. His face hardened as he realized she was the woman John had noticed. "She's with me," he said in succinct warning.John spared his host only a glance before once more focusing on her. He let himself greedily drink her in, admiring the way the soft light gleamed on her bare shoulders. "Are you going to marry her?" he asked almost absently.Ronsard gave a short, hard laugh. "No, of course not.""I am."The soft words lay between them like stones. Anger darkened Ronsard's eyes. "She's a friend, one I've come to cherish. She isn't for the likes of us.""Perhaps not for you. If you had some claim on her, I'd back off, but you've admitted you don't. She's free-but not for long."Ronsard was a consummate businessman. He was also astute enough to realize the man called Temple wasn't someone who could be intimidated. He took a deep breath, reaching for control. "I don't brawl over women," he said. "But neither will I allow you to force yourself on her. I say this because she . . . isn't receptive. She is a widow, and still very much in love with her dead husband. Even if she wasn't, she is one of the few principled people of my acquaintance. She frowns on people such as you and I.""She turned you down," John stated."Flat." For a moment humor quirked Ronsard's mouth. "I like her. I won't have her hurt.""Neither will I."Into the silence that fell between them Ronsard said, "You've astonished me. I wouldn't have expected you to become enamored of any woman, especially at first sight. It seems out of character.""It is." John drew a deep breath and let all the pent-up hunger of the past five years burn in his eyes. "It is," he repeated. "Introduce me.""I think I will," Ronsard mused. "This should be amusing."Niema saw the two tall, broad-shouldered men cutting their way through the crowd. Ronsard looked as dashing and debonair as usual, his long dark hair free on his shoulders, but it was the predator beside him who took her breath. John looked severe, dangerous, somehow different. His blue gaze was focused on her like a laser.Startled, she actually took a step back, her hand lifting to the pearls around her neck.She hadn't seen him in over a week. She wasn't prepared for the sudden impact of sensation, like a punch in the stomach. All the times before when she had seen him he had muted the dangerous power of his personality, she realized, because the full strength of it was blasting at her now.His gaze swept down her and she felt as if he had stripped her naked, as if he were about to eat her alive. She tried to look away from him, tried to compose herself, but she couldn't. Excitement sang along her nerves. He was here, and the game had truly begun."Niema." They had reached her, so tall their shoulders blocked out the rest of the room, even though she was wearing heels. Ronsard took her hand and pressed a brief kiss on her knuckles. "My dear, this is Mr. Smith, who begged me for an introduction. Mr. Smith, Niema Jamieson.""Niema." John said her name as if he tasted it."Mr.-Mr. Smith." She could barely speak. Her throat had inexplicably tightened. She flashed a helpless look at Ronsard,

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