All the Queen's Men by Linda Howard


  “Thank you,” he said dryly “But I wasn’t worth that much back then. I had high-level security clearance, so I was of some use to her, but she had her own clearance and access to a lot of classified documents.”

  “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you.” Ineffable sadness was in her voice. She squeezed his hand again, trying to tell him without words how sorry she was for ever opening that particular can of worms.

  He glanced down at her, then his head tilted up and he looked beyond her. He drew her closer to a huge flowering shrub, as if he were trying to shield them from view. “Brace yourself,” he warned and bent his head.

  His mouth settled on hers, his lips opening, molding, fusing. She put her hands on his shoulders and clung to him, her pulse pounding in her ears, her heart racing. Her entire body quickened with painful urgency, and she stifled a moan. His tongue was doing a slow, erotic dance in her mouth, advancing and retreating. He put his hands on her hips and drew her to him, lifting her, holding her so that they were groin to groin. She felt him getting erect, and she shivered with pleasure even while her inner alarm began clanging insistently. She fought to keep her legs under her and not sag against him like a limp noodle, which he definitely wasn’t.

  He lifted his mouth, holding it poised over hers. She stared up at him, dazed, and wished he wasn’t wearing sunglasses so she could see his eyes. Still clinging to him she whispered, “Who’s there?”

  This time he did smile, his mouth curling upward. “Nobody. I just wanted to kiss you for being so damn sweet.”

  Violently she shoved away from him. “Sneak!” She stood with her lungs heaving, glaring at him. She really, really wanted to punch him, but instead she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

  “Guilty as charged.” Taking her hand again, he resumed their walk across the lawn. “But what did you expect? I tell you something that proves I’m the ruthless bastard everyone says I am, and you apologize to me. Of course I had to kiss you.”

  “I thought it was for the job.”

  “Not always,” he said, not looking at her. “Not everything.”

  CHAPTER

  TWENTY-ONE

  High heels would be a definite liability, Niema thought, going through her wardrobe in case she had overlooked a pair of shoes that was both dressy and flat-heeled, though she was certain she hadn’t. High heels made too much noise, and it was impossible to run in them. A pair of ballet slippers would do nicely, but of all the different kinds of shoes John had had delivered to her, none of them were ballet slippers.

  She stared at the gown she had planned to wear. It was a sleek black sheath with inch-wide straps that gradually widened to form the bodice, with the lowest point of the neckline squarely between her breasts. A sunburst of black cultured pearls was sewn at that strategic point, with strings of black pearls swinging from the sunburst. She had other gowns, but she wanted to wear the black so she would blend better into the shadows, if necessary.

  Other than the sexy black heels, she had only one other pair of black shoes with her, and they were rather casual sandals, with stretchy straps. She pulled them out and stared at them, trying to think what she could do to dress them up. They would definitely be more comfortable to dance in than the high heels, but they looked like what they were: casual. Niema Jamieson wouldn’t be that careless with her dress. She had classic taste in clothes and was never less than impeccably attired.

  “Why couldn’t you have been a slob?” she muttered to her alter ego.

  She examined the gown again. It was sophisticated and understated, even with the dangling strings of black pearls, which glistened with a midnight iridescence that caught the eye. She reached up and flicked the strings with her finger, setting them to swaying. They would constantly call attention to her breasts.

  She looked at the black sandals, then back up to the pearls. Curiously she examined the sunburst. The swaying strings weren’t attached to the sunburst, but under it.

  “Now we’re cooking,” she muttered and got up to get her tools. She knew why she was obsessing about her shoes, of course; so she wouldn’t think about John and what he’d said about not everything being for the job. How was she supposed to take that? Was he referring to her or to something else entirely? There was so much in his past that he literally could have been talking about anything. Some guys led normal, open lives, with nothing more to hide than how many beers they had on the way home. John’s past was so closed and convoluted no one would ever know all the bits and pieces of what made him who he was.

  Obsessing about the shoes had obviously failed in its purpose, because she couldn’t stop thinking about him. Losing Dallas had been difficult enough, almost too much to bear; what must it have been like for John, to not only lose his wife but for it to be by his own hand? She tried to dredge up some feeling, some sympathy, for his wife, but nothing was there. The woman had been selling out her country, costing other people their lives. To Niema’s way of thinking, that didn’t make her much different from the terrorists who used poison gas or random bombs to kill. Dallas had died stopping people like her.

  Tonight might be the last time she ever saw John.

  That thought hovered in the back of her mind all the while she worked with the sandals, using glue from her tool kit to attach the pearls to the straps. There had been other times she’d known could be the last time: When he left just before she came to France; when he was only a voice on the phone and she knew she might not be invited to the villa. But this was somehow more definite. Once he got the computer files, he would leave immediately.

  She would stay until the end of the house party and leave as scheduled; by this time next week, she would be home and back at work, and this would be a fantastic story she could never tell anyone.

  But for right now she felt vibrantly alive, more than she ever had before. Her very skin was more sensitive than she had ever before noticed. She took a long, relaxing bath in water scented with the bath crystals provided with her room, and washed her hair. She even took a nap, something she rarely did, but the events of the day had been taxing. She gave herself a manicure and pedicure, painting her nails a deep scarlet. If she never saw John again, by God, he’d remember how she looked.

  She didn’t want to have to come back to her room for her tools and equipment, but neither could she carry everything in the tiny excuse for a purse that was her evening bag. It had room for a credit card, a lipstick and compact, and a key. That was it. She tried to think of someplace to hide the tools and pistol, but she didn’t know the estate well enough, plus it was crawling with people.

  There was no way out of it; she had to come back to the room to retrieve the things. She wrapped everything, tools and pistol, in the black silk stole that matched the gown she was wearing and placed the parcel under her lingerie in the built-in drawers in the large closet. Then she took a deep breath, braced her shoulders, and prepared for a final act for the audience.

  He was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs when she went down. He straightened, his blue gaze sweeping over her in a perfect imitation of an infatuated lover. Out of the corner of her eye Niema saw Ronsard watching them, his expression a mixture of ruefulness and concern. She waited until she caught his eye and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. He spread his hands in an “I tried” gesture.

  John followed her smile and his eyes narrowed, menace all but oozing from him. God, he was good. He should have gone to Hollywood; with his talent, he would already have a couple of Oscars to his credit and be making a lot more money than he was as a government employee.

  She could do a little acting of her own, she thought. She slowed as she neared John, as if reluctant to take those last few steps. He frowned slightly and held out his hand to her in that arrogant gesture that demanded she come to him.

  She did, silently putting her hand in his, and he led her into the ballroom where the same crowd as the night before was doing the same thing they had done the night before
, only wearing different clothing. She went into his arms and he held her close, their feet barely moving, his head bent down to hers in the classic pose of a man who is totally absorbed in the woman in his arms.

  “I had to leave the things in my room,” she said in a low voice, the words muffled against his shoulder. “I couldn’t carry them in this.” She indicated the tiny evening bag.

  “What? You couldn’t put everything in your bodice with the SIG?” He glanced down at the fabric clinging to her breasts and the deep V of the neckline.

  “Careful,” she warned. “I’ve got a knife in there and I’ll use it.” She felt the movement of his lips against her temple as he smiled. “What kind of distraction did you arrange?”

  “I didn’t. I was afraid you’d scalp me. We’ll take our chances.”

  “I’m good at taking chances.” No sooner had the words left her mouth than she almost recoiled in shock. No, she wasn’t good at all at taking chances. She used to be, but not now. Not any more.

  He felt her stiffening in his arms and reacted by bringing her closer. “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing,” she said automatically.

  “Nothing you’re going to tell me,” he corrected.

  “Right.”

  Again there was that movement against her temple. After a moment he commented, “You’re shorter than you were last night.”

  Trust him to notice something like that. “I’m not wearing heels. I doctored a pair of sandals so they match the gown.” She stuck her foot out so he could see the pearls adorning the narrow straps.

  He looked a little pained. “You butchered a Dior to decorate your shoes?”

  “It’s okay,” she soothed. “Wearing sensible shoes was more important than the gown. Besides, black ops is off-budget; you don’t have to account for what’s spent, do you?”

  “No, thank God.”

  “So, what time do we do it?”

  “No set time. We keep an eye on Ronsard, and make our move when it looks as if he’s occupied.”

  “What about Cara?”

  “Taken care of.”

  “I hate to tell you this, but she’s standing just over there.”

  “She won’t be for long.”

  Cara was wearing a dazzling white tube gown, with her long blonde hair hanging straight down her back and rhinestones dangling from her ears. She knew she looked Hollywood flashy, but there was no way she could compete with these people in terms of jewelry and couture gowns, so she didn’t try. California sexy was the style she tried for and achieved.

  She flirted with several men, but the sexy Frenchman with whom she had played tennis that morning was safely anchored by his wife. Deciding to troll, she began moving around the room, stopping only to talk to likely prospects. She wasn’t going to worry about Hossam’s feelings one minute longer; he had no claim on her.

  She didn’t see it coming. Someone turned too abruptly, and a glass of red wine sloshed all over her white gown. She looked down at the awful stain in dismay, knowing she would probably have to throw the garment away. “I’m so sorry,” the woman who had splashed her apologized, her face contorted with dismay. “I don’t know how this happened; someone jostled me.”

  “It’s perfectly all right,” Cara soothed, even though it wasn’t. She didn’t want to upset any of Louis’s guests. “I’m sure the stain will come right out. I’ll just run to my room to change.” She brushed away the woman’s offer to pay for the dress and kept a smile on her face as she left the ballroom. She seldom used the elevator, preferring the stairs in order to get in some exercise, but tonight she chose the fastest route to her room.

  The smile was gone and irritation in its place when she got off the elevator on the third floor. The long hallways were deserted, with only indirect lighting from the sconces, but she was glad no one was there to see what a mess she was. Taking the key from her tiny evening bag, she jammed it into the lock and pushed her door open, her hand unerringly finding the light switch and flipping it on.

  Light flooded the room at the same time a large hand clamped over her mouth and an arm around her waist lifted her off her feet. The door was kicked shut.

  Panic screamed through her, making everything around her go dim for a moment. She heard her own muffled screams and knew the sound wouldn’t carry beyond the room. She clawed at the hand over her mouth, kicking and squirming in an effort to escape.

  “Hush, my love. There’s no need to be frightened.”

  Hossam! Panic turned to rage in the space of a split second. She slammed her head backward in an effort to smash his mouth, but he only chuckled and tossed her onto the bed, then landed on top of her before she could control herself enough to scramble off the bed.

  “You bastard,” she hissed, no longer trying to scream.

  He only laughed again, sitting astride her and capturing her fists. With no more effort than if he were handling a child, he looped a scarf around her wrists, then pulled her arms over her head and tied the scarf to the headboard.

  “You bastard!” she said again, louder this time, shrieking it.

  “Shhh, be quiet.”

  “I’ll kill you for this! I’ll tear your balls off—ummmph!”

  “I told you to be quiet,” he murmured, tying another scarf over her mouth. He sat back, eyeing his handiwork, and a smile spread over his dark face. “Now, my love, let’s see if the magician knows any new tricks.”

  He took a knife from his pocket and pressed a switch. A gleaming blade shot out, the light catching the razor-sharp edges. Cara’s eyes widened as she stared at the knife, then at him. She began bucking, trying to throw him off, but he squeezed her body between his thighs and ruthlessly held her still.

  Muffled screams came from behind the scarf as he slipped the blade under the clingy material covering her breasts and slashed downward. The two halves of the gown parted as if it had been unzipped, baring her breasts.

  Hossam paused to admire the view. Still holding the knife in one hand, he fondled her naked breasts, cupping them and stroking his thumb over her nipples, admiring the way they tightened. Then he levered himself off her. “Be still,” he commanded. “I might accidentally cut you.”

  She forced herself to stillness as he slit the dress all the way to the hem and pulled the rags away from her. She wore nothing underneath. Modesty wasn’t her strong suit, but now she squeezed her legs together in a useless effort to protect herself. Oh, God, was he going to kill her?

  He stepped back and began removing his clothes. Wildly she shook her head, hot tears burning her eyes.

  “Don’t be frightened,” he repeated, stepping out of his pants and standing naked over her. His penis jutted out from his body, telling her how ready he was. Desperately she kicked at him, trying to catch him in the balls, though she had no idea what good that would do since she was still tied and gagged.

  Clicking his tongue in reproval, he grabbed her by one ankle and gave it the same treatment he had her wrists. Another ten seconds and her other leg was bound, and she was lying with her hands stretched upward and her legs spread obscenely wide.

  “What a wild thing you are,” he crooned, crawling on the bed between her legs. “Sweet and wild and . . . mine. Never forget that. You’re mine.”

  She expected to be swiftly, brutally raped and had already braced herself for the violation. It didn’t happen. Instead he bent down and pressed his mouth between her legs, and began loving her.

  The contrast between what she had expected and what he actually did was so great that she couldn’t stop the soft moan that vibrated in her throat. She arched, and he cupped her bottom in his big hands to hold her still.

  The bright overhead light dazzled her eyes. She stared upward as pleasure zinged through her body, unable to raise her head to see. This was . . . this was so totally unexpected she couldn’t quite grasp it was happening. He brought her to a hard, rapid climax that left her gasping, her eyes tearing from the force of it.

  “That is just the
first one,” he murmured, leaning over her. “You know I would never, never hurt you. Tonight we will discover all the ways I can pleasure you, as no other man can.” His dark eyes twinkled at her. “And afterward, perhaps I will let you tie me to the bed.”

  She moaned and arched as his long fingers slid into her, stimulating nerve endings that were still sensitive from her climax. Her fear had faded, because his hands on her were loving instead of brutal, and in place of fear a deep excitement was blooming. This was different, and kinky. She had never been helpless before during sex. Usually she dominated, because that was how she liked it.

  But she liked this too, she found. She was totally at his mercy, naked and exposed in the bright light. He could do anything to her he wanted, and her mind reeled at the possibilities. Hossam was so big and powerful, and he tended to be slow at sex anyway. This was going to be a long night—wonderfully, deliriously long.

  “It’s time,” John breathed into Niema’s ear.

  Her pulse leaped. She took a deep breath and felt herself steady. She tilted her head back and gave him such a vibrant smile that he physically checked, staring down at her.

  Who was she kidding? The moment of clarity was almost blinding as they left the ballroom and climbed the curving staircase to the second floor. She was a risk-taker. She loved every minute of this. She didn’t want to go home and resume her job; she wanted to stay in fieldwork, where she belonged. She had paid penance for five years, but John had wrenched her back into the life for which she was truly suited and she never wanted to leave it again.

  She felt almost breathless with discovery, with an inner joy that spread through her as if she had finally returned to life, to being herself.

  The long hallway was empty. With no one to watch them, they walked briskly down to her room. She retrieved the wrap from the closet and held it folded so the tools and pistol were in a pocket of fabric against her body, with the loose ends draped over her arm. “How about this?” she asked.

 
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