All the Queen's Men by Linda Howard


  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 compos
e 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, who didn’t look at all pleased by her reaction. She couldn’t understand it herself. She knew it played well with John’s plans, but . . . she wasn’t acting.

  “Joseph,” said John.

  “I—I beg your pardon?”

  “My name is Joseph.”

  “Joseph . . . Joseph Smith?” She blinked, trying to swallow the sudden bubble of laughter. At least he hadn’t chosen Brigham Young for a name. “You’re an American.”

  “Yes.” Somehow he had her hand, his fingers hard and strong around hers. “Dance with me.” It was more command than invitation.

  She gave Ronsard another dazed, helpless look, but this one was over her shoulder as John led her onto the dance floor. He didn’t just put his hand on her back, he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close, anchoring her to him. He clasped her hand in his free one, holding it against his chest. He began moving in a smooth rhythm and she had no choice but to follow.

  He bent his head close to hers. “I fell in love with you on sight,” he murmured.

  “Did you?” She quivered as she fought back another laugh. “Joseph Smith?” She ducked her head against his shoulder to hide her expression. She had been bored, chatting with people with whom she had nothing in common, but now energy was flowing through every cell in her body.

  “Joseph Temple, actually. I told him to introduce me as Mr. Smith.”

  “Temple,” she repeated, burning the name in her brain cells. The one thing she couldn’t do was slip up and call him John.

  “Where’s your room?”

  “It’s in the east wing. It’s called the Garden room, and it has its own private balcony.” She had counted the doors, so she could tell him exactly how to reach it. “Go up the stairs, take the hallway to the right. Go down ten doors, turn left, and it’s the third door on the right.”

  “Leave the balcony doors unlocked.”

  “Why? Locks don’t mean anything to you.”

  His arm tightened around her waist in a punishing squeeze for her teasing. Beneath the silk of his tuxedo, his chest was like iron. He was holding her so closely her breasts were flattened against him. The heat of his body seeped through the layers of clothing between them, and the scent of him wrapped around her, warm and masculine and flavored with some subtle cologne.

  “You’re holding me too close,” she said, faint panic welling up in her, because the pleasure she felt was far from safe. Her hands pushed against his chest, not hard enough to be noticeable but enough to lever her upper body an inch away from him.

  He simply gathered her back in, the strength in his arms overpowering her without effort. “I’m in love with you, remember? And you’re helplessly fascinated by me.”

  How did he know? The question seared through her brain, a split second before she remembered the scenario they were enacting.

  The pattern of the dance had brought them near the open French doors. He made a swooping turn and she found herself out on the patio. The night was warm, but still cooler, and much fresher, than the air inside, with so many people in one room. There were people sitting at the small tables scattered about the patio, talking and laughing, but the noise level dropped dramatically.

  He stopped dancing and led her down the steps into the garden. The sweet, peppery scent of roses filled the air. Small gravel crunched under their shoes as they walked a little way down one of the paths. Though the grounds were too well-lit for there to be complete darkness, the garden provided at least some semblance of privacy.

  “This is far enough,” John said, stopping and turning to face her. “He can still see us.” Before she had any idea what he was about to do, he framed her face with his hands and kissed her.

  Automatically her hands came up and locked around his wrists. Her breath stopped for two long heartbeats, and her knees went weak. She felt as if he were supporting her only with the warm clasp of his hands on her face, though the pressure was too light to do any such tiling.

  His kiss was light at first, a tender tasting, an exploration. She stood motionless, dazzled by the pleasure of the simple caress, then returned it with gentle pressure. He slanted his head more and deepened the kiss, his tongue probing her mouth. Then something hot exploded inside her, and she sagged against him. He released her face and folded her in his arms, tighter than before, closer, so close she was welded to him from breast to thigh.

  His mouth was ravaging, devouring. He kissed her the way he shouldn’t, the way she hadn’t let herself imagine: deeply, intensely, the way a man kissed a woman right before he rolled her on her back and slid between her legs. And she accepted those kisses, welcomed them, returned them. Her tongue played with his, her arms lifted to twine tightly around his neck. Her body reached to his, and she discovered he was rock hard, his erection pressed against her stomach.

  The discovery so shocked her that she tore herself out of his arms, staggering back. He grabbed her arm to steady her, then immediately let his hand fall to his side. They faced each other in the scented garden, the dimness of the light not dim enough. She could see the cool, focused expression in his eyes, and the realization was another punch in the stomach. Those kisses had rocked her foundation, but John, despite the automatic response of his body, had only been doing his job. Working. Pretending to be smitten.

  And Ronsard was watching them, weighing what had just happened. Niema swallowed, trying to decide what she should do. Slap John’s—Temple’s—face? She had been a willing participant, and Niema Jamieson wasn’t a hypocrite.

  Forget Niema Jamieson; she was too shattered to play a role right now. She reached down into who she really was, Niema Burdock, and found that the two women were much the same. Had John planned that deliberately, made Niema Jamieson’s history so close to her own so she was essentially playing herself?

  But it was Niema Burdock who gathered her dignity around her, turned, and walked quietly away. No histrionics. She made her way back up the path toward the patio and saw that Ronsard was indeed standing just outside the ballroom doors, watching them. With the bright light behind him, she couldn’t read his expression, but she braced herself and approached him.

  He was silent, looking down at her. She met his gaze, inwardly flinching at the cynical disillusionment she knew she would see there, but instead all she could find was concern. Her lips trembled, and suddenly tears blurred her vision.

  “Oh, God,” she whispered. “How?”

  Ronsard extended his arm to her and she took it, and he walked her back inside as if nothing had happened. He didn’t appear to hurry, but still their progress across the crowded room was mercifully fast. Her fingers dug into his arm as she clung for support. Her legs were shaking. Her entire body was shaking, fine tremors rocking her muscles.

  A sumptuous buffet had been set out in another room, with tables set for those guests who wished to eat there, or they could take their plates out onto the patio or into the pool courtyard. Ronsard settled her at one of the empty tables and went to the buffet, where he loaded two plates and brought them back. At a signal from him, a waiter appeared with two glasses of champagne.

  “I noticed earlier you weren’t drinking,” he said. “Try it; my champagne is infinitely superior to that swill the prime minister served. Besides”—he gave a crooked smile—“you need the sedative.”

  She drank the champagne and ate the strawberries on her plate. He cajoled her into trying the delicious pate, too, though her throat kept t
hreatening to close.

  “I see I was too much of a gentleman,” he said, amusement rich in his voice and eyes. “I should have simply grabbed you and kissed you, overwhelmed you with my animal magnetism. But really, my dear, that isn’t my style.”

  “I—I didn’t think it was mine, either” She could barely speak.

  “One can never predict chemistry, though somehow we always underestimate it.” He patted her hand. “And now I’m going to do something I have never thought I would do. I’m so astonished at myself I may never recover.”

  “What?” Ronsard’s humor had a steadying effect on her. So she had responded to John with a shattering intensity—that was what she was supposed to do. It was part of their scheme. John wouldn’t, couldn’t, know that there hadn’t been anything deliberate about her response, that for a few searing moments she had been lost in the physical pleasure she had been trying to resist since the moment John Medina had reappeared in her life.

  “Mr. Smith—”

  “He told me his real name,” she broke in, rubbing the spot between her eyebrows, partly to shield her expression and partly because tension was beginning to give her a slight headache.

  “Then . . . you know he wouldn’t be using a pseudonym if there wasn’t good cause. He isn’t a celebrity, my dear; quite the opposite. Every law enforcement agency in the world would love to have him in its custody.”

  She stared at him while she pretended to work it through. “He—he’s a terrorist?” Her voice was almost soundless.

  Ronsard let his silence answer for him.

  She drank more champagne, but that didn’t loosen the knot in her throat. “He’s the only man I’ve kissed since my husband—” Five years. Five years since Dallas had died, and she hadn’t been able to feel even a flicker of response to any of the very nice men she had occasionally dated. She hadn’t been able to let any of them kiss her, not because it felt like a betrayal, but because it hadn’t seemed fair to them to pretend even that much. The lines between role and reality had blurred again, with Niema Burdock speaking, trying to work her way through what had happened to her in John Medina’s arms.

 
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