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If he got killed because of this evening’s little adventure, Tarl was never going to forgive himself.
He vaulted a well-trimmed hedge and dove into the inky shadows of the building on the other side, then slowed to a walk, relieved at the silence and the enfolding dark. His heart hammered painfully in his chest. His lungs labored to drag in air. Three weeks of indolence were proving more detrimental than he’d expected.
Unfortunately, the five men from Internal Security who had pursued him so intently over the past half hour showed no signs of slowing down. If they’d been reasonable, rational men like him, they would have given up long ago.
Tarl didn’t think much of unreasonable, irrational people. Especially if they seemed as determined to cause him severe bodily harm as these men did.
When the first one had found Tarl slinking through the disreputable back streets of Diloran Central, he’d opted for the shoot first, ask questions later approach to public relations. The four who eventually joined in the chase weren’t much for asking questions,
either. In Tarl’s opinion, that sort of attitude was not only unproductive, it was downright difficult to live with.
He hated to think what the men would have done if they’d known about the government arms now slowly disintegrating in the acid bath into which he’d carefully and with malice aforethought dumped them.
An energy beam hit the building wall only millimeters from Tarl’s head, showering him in chips of plascrete. The wall glowed in the dark with the dispersing energy.
Tarl swore, then ducked behind a nearby tree trunk. If the energy beam had hit him, he’d be dead by now. The patrol was shooting to kill.
Not a nice thing to do to the man who would soon be the leader of the entire planet...assuming he lived long enough.
Tarl peered around the tree. Nothing. At least, not that he could see in the dark. He couldn’t hear anything except the faint rustle of leaves in the night breeze. Whoever had shot at him wasn’t moving. Until he did, Tarl had no chance of spotting him among the lush gardens surrounding the buildings of the main government complex—the gardens he’d counted on to cover his return to his personal quarters.
Frowning, he studied what little he could see of the nearby buildings through the heavy foliage. The columned glass-and-plascrete edifices, so beautifully airy and open by day, stood shrouded in shadows, virtually untouched by the dim illumination of hidden lights. The building he was aiming for, the palace of the Controllor of Diloran that had been home to his family for generations, lay several hundred meters farther on, out of sight and, right now, clearly out of reach.
Being caught outside his quarters at this hour of the night would not go down well, especially while dressed in stark black clothes undeniably intended for activities of which the official government in general—and his uncle in particular—would not approve. Of course, if he were dead, the difficulties of explaining his actions would be considerably lessened.
He glared at the fading red heat trace on the wall. When he’d left Diloran thirteen years earlier, Internal Security had possessed short-range stunners. Now standard equipment included projectile rifles and longer-range energy guns like the one that had almost killed him. The change was a poor commentary on the course of Diloran politics under his beloved uncle’s control.
Another shot—wide, but still too close for comfort—reminded him his uncle’s methods of government weren’t the primary concern at the moment. Tarl crouched lower, then scuttled into the heavy undergrowth at one side. At least the bushes and densely planted flower beds provided a more effective cover to his retreat than the open streets he’d navigated earlier. More effective, that is, so long as he didn’t make any noise.
Not an easy achievement, Tarl soon realized. Either he’d been a lot smaller when he was a boy and trying to elude his irate parents and tutors, or the bushes themselves had grown considerably since he’d left. Worse, he wasn’t having nearly as much fun as he’d had all those years ago.
A sharp cry warned him he’d been discovered. Tarl swore and burst from the confining bushes. Halfway across the open area he realized he’d taken the wrong tack entirely.
Too late. Three of his five pursuers were after him again. He’d no idea where the other two might be. Ahead. Behind. To the side. It didn’t matter. He had no choice but to keep going.
The fourth man lunged at him out of the darker shadows to the right, with the fifth man right behind.
Tarl caught the dull glint of the men’s weapons before he dodged to the left, into the blackness of an alleyway that ran between trees so old and massive they shut out all light. Overarching branches created a tunnel that sucked him deeper into the darkness. The path, heaved by the ancient roots that twisted beneath the surface, grabbed at his feet in the dark, threatening to trip him.
Instead of slowing, Tarl redoubled his efforts. He knew where he was now.
Almost without thought, he counted. One. Two. Three. The seventh tree, there on the right. The tummocky grass muffled the sounds of his footsteps. He slowed abruptly, turned on the ball of his foot, and leapt for the broad, low-hanging branch that had so often served him on his more youthful expeditions.
He almost missed. The half-forgotten childhood memories that told Tarl where the branch was forgot to remind him he was a child no longer and considerably taller than he’d once been. He hit the branch with his elbow, hard, then had to scramble for a more secure grip. As he swung up into the leafy cavern above him, Tarl promised himself a good, solid round of cursing at the pain shooting from his abused elbow. Later.
Right now, he’d have to be satisfied with hearing his pursuers thundering by beneath him, swearing and stumbling and staggering over the uneven ground. He grinned. Pity he didn’t have a bag of ice water like the one he’d once dropped on a persistent tutor who’d been cleverer than most at figuring out his tricks. The men were gone too quickly in any case, swallowed up, still cursing, in the distant depths of the alleyway.
With a fond smile for his long-ago transgressions, Tarl climbed higher into the tree, then carefully maneuvered his way along another branch that provided access to the top of a tall wall. The wall surrounded the private gardens of the Palace guest quarters which would provide a way back to the Palace itself and his own comfortable suite of rooms.
A minute’s search revealed the depredations of some inconsiderate gardener—the gnarly vine Tarl had once used to climb down was gone. The drop to the garden itself was too great, even for a grown man. That left him no choice but to work his way along the top of the wall—no easy task in the dark—until he found an equally sturdy tree inside the garden that provided a way down.
Unlike the ground outside the garden wall, the grass inside was as flat and carefully trimmed as a carpet. The night air stood still, heavy with the mingled scents of flowers that must be massed in beds on all sides but which now lay hidden in the encompassing darkness. Tarl breathed deep, savoring the delicate sweetness, letting his heartbeat slow and his muscles relax.
The guards might eventually figure out where he’d gone. Or they might not. In any case, he ought to have enough time to find an open window or door that would give him access to the guest rooms. As a boy, he’d often found that visitors headed to evening functions frequently neglected to lock the windows and garden doors to their rooms. Such negligence had proved useful on more than one occasion when his regular line of retreat was blocked. Once inside the guest quarters, it was a relatively simple matter to reach the subterranean service tunnels that led to the Palace.
Moving carefully so as not to fall in any flower bed some perfidious gardener might have placed in his way, Tarl headed toward the building that was no more than a black, shapeless mass at the far side of the garden. As he got closer, the changing angle allowed a hint of light from beyond the trees to creep through. The light reflected dully off the dark rectangles of doors and the broad panes of glass belonging to each of the six-sided, ground-floor chambers jutting out from the bulk of the building like so many large, elegant boxes. These were the quarters reserved for the favored guests, and the most easily accessible.
Tarl tried the first door, then the second, the third, and all the windows in between. Locked, every one. He could finagle his way past a lock, but a window or door obligingly left open required much less effort. He kept trying.
The third chamber from the end provided what he sought. The windows stood open, dark and gaping without the warmth of an interior light to soften their stark flatness. The room’s occupant was gone, then. Or asleep. Tarl crept to the base of the nearest window and paused, straining to catch any sound from inside, however faint. Nothing. The room was empty and his way clear.
He could see better at this end of the garden where it was unprotected by the massive trees that surrounded the farther end. Here, too, underwater lights in a lily pool half hidden among the shrubbery contributed their own vague luminescence, softening the dark. It was a simple matter to find a purchase for hands and feet as he hoisted himself over the sill and into the room beyond.
Tarl was five steps into the room before he realized that it wasn’t vacant after all. As his senses registered a human presence standing in front of the farthest window, Tarl spun around, preparing to vault back out the way he’d come.
“I will kill you before you’re halfway out that window.”
A woman. Tarl grinned and relaxed, ever so slightly. Maybe his luck hadn’t gone bad, after all. He’d met few women he couldn’t convince to see things his way—certainly none who possessed a voice as sweetly tempting as hers. Threats just added spice to the exchange.
He turned back slowly, taking care to wipe any hint of a grin from his face. It wasn’t wise to let even the gentlest of the sex think you didn’t take their threats seriously. And then he froze.
The weapon she held was unmistakable, even in the dark. The small disruptor would be silent and far more effective than even the laser rifles the Internal Security patrol had used against him. He’d be dead before he knew she’d fired.
As for her...
Tarl swallowed, hard, fighting to get his lungs working and his pulse under control.
She was magnificent. A vision of erotic dreams clothed in pale light and shadow and nothing more.
She was stark naked.
Except for her hair. Could you call a woman naked if she was only partially visible through a midnight-black cloud of curly hair that fell free over her shoulders and breasts and down below her hips? Hair that caught the hint of light from the window behind her and transformed it into an enticingly sensual aura around her that revealed the feminine outlines of her body even as it concealed the even more alluring secrets.
His eyes roamed over what he could see of the soft curve of shoulder and breast and hip. The long, clean line from hip to knee to...
Well, he couldn’t see her feet in the dark. Only those tantalizing curves, those taunting hints of beauty, of...
Of sex, he wanted to say. No. Sexuality. And passion.
Certainly passion. Or was that just his own physical reaction?
Tarl shook his head, trying to drive out the tormenting images flooding his mind.
Her hold on the disruptor hadn’t wavered by so much as a heartbeat. Whoever this unknown guest was, she was accustomed to holding a disruptor. He’d bet she was accustomed to using it, too.
After due consideration, Tarl raised his hands. Slowly. “I didn’t realize anyone was in.”
“No. I was just...passing through, so to speak.”
Tarl assumed his most engaging smile. The effort was wasted. She probably couldn’t see his expression any better than he could see hers. If she could, then he’d have to assume she didn’t think much of engaging smiles. Pity.
He tried again. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll just—”
“You’ll stay right where you are.”
The hand holding the disruptor came up a fraction, just enough so his head, rather than his heart, was the target. Not that it would make any difference, of course.
Not to be outdone, Tarl raised his hands a little higher, too.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, her voice as coolly steady as if she were asking his choice of wine at dinner.
“Like I told you, just passing through.”
“I wasn’t aware the Controllor’s guest quarters were commonly used as a public thoroughfare.”
“Well, not commonly, no. The thing is...”
Tarl started to lower his hands and take a friendly step forward, but the slight tensing of her body, the barely perceptible tightening of her grip on the disruptor, convinced him otherwise.
“The thing is,” he continued, hands back at shoulder height, palms out, “I got lost. My quarters are in the palace, but I went out for walk and...got lost.” He shrugged. “I didn’t relish the idea of just knocking at the front door, so I thought I could find a way back without troubling anyone. You know how it is.”
His light, slightly teasing tone of jolly camaraderie didn’t work. She hadn’t moved. Not even in so much as a slight trembling of her hand.
Tarl frowned. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t right that she should be so cool and unruffled. Granted, she held the disruptor, not him, but he was a stranger, a male, and an intruder. He was clothed and she most certainly was not. He was bigger than she was, stronger, and probably faster.
None of those considerations appeared to have occurred to her for she stood, still and calm, like a statue of the virgin goddess sculpted of light and dark and the cool night air, as unconcerned by her nakedness or her vulnerability as if she were surrounded by a dozen armed guards.
Tarl’s frown deepened. Was that it? Were there guards outside the door, armed and ready to burst in at her slightest cry? Then why the disruptor? And why hadn’t she called for help, even if she didn’t appear to need any?
She wasn’t likely to offer any explanation, so it might behoove him to supply one that would satisfy her, instead. He was growing decidedly uncomfortable with that disruptor pointed at him so unwaveringly.
“All right,” he admitted. “I wasn’t lost. I was out with a woman whose friends, mmm, disapprove.”
“Dressed in what looks like a Galactic Marine’s night battle dress?”
Tarl winced. Talk of the clothes he was wearing could be more damaging than any rumors that he’d been outside the palace in the first place. “You have to admit I blend well with the shadows.”
“Why were you sneaking into my room? There’s no one here but my father, my maid, and me.” The words were scarcely out of her mouth before she stiffened with the realization that she’d made a serious mistake. “And our guards,” she added hastily.
No guards, then. That was some comfort, at least. And it was nice to know she wasn’t quite as calm or as accustomed to confrontations like this as she appeared. She wouldn’t have blundered so badly, otherwise. Not that he was going to make the mistake of letting her know that he knew she was virtually defenseless.
Except for the disruptor, Tarl reminded himself. Even in her surprise at the slip of her tongue, her hand hadn’t wobbled. Not even a little.
“My rooms are in the palace,” he said, letting just the tiniest hint of a wheedle creep into his voice, “but that’s so closely guarded I thought it would be easier to try the service tunnels beneath this building, instead. I didn’t hear any sound from your room, so I figured it was empty and—”
His recital of half truths was broken off by the distant buzzing of a bell, immediately followed by the thunder of fists hammering on the outer door of the building. Tarl tensed, his attention divided between the disruptor and the sounds of angry, righteous men balked of their quarry. The patrol had clearly given up their fruitless pursuit outside and were determined to search for him elsewhere, starting with the first building near where they’d lost him. Eventually their tempers would cool and they’d realize that disturbing the Controllor-Regent’s guests could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a career enhancing move. Right now, however, they were too enraged to think of anything but capturing him as quickly as possible, regardless of protocol.
“Well, I think I’ll be going, now,” Tarl said lightly. He lowered his hands and backed up slowly, one careful step at a time, toward the window through which he’d entered.
His captor watched him take one step, then two, then glanced toward the door of her chamber, listening to the continued hammering on the main door and the sound of servants scurrying to answer before the Controller’s distinguished guests should be disturbed. Her head dipped slightly and Tarl thought he could see her eyes half close as she concentrated, trying to sort out the sounds. When he took the third step, her head snapped back up, eyes wide open and firmly fixed on him, like dark holes in dark.
“I didn’t say you could go.”
Tarl shrugged helplessly. He couldn’t afford to wait for her permission much longer. He took another cautious step backwards, then another.
“Who are they?” she demanded, her attention torn between his stealthy retreat and the noise outside the room. The hammering ceased abruptly, to be immediately followed by angry voices only barely restrained from rising into shouting. “What do they want with you?”
“They’re Internal Security,” Tarl said. He ignored her second question and posed one of his own. “Do you really want them to find me here? Under the circumstances?” He nodded slightly in her direction—more specific references to her state of undress were surely unnecessary. “I could easily claim you invited me. By the time they sorted it out....”
Tarl took another half step back, keeping his weight on the balls of his feet, ready to whirl and dive out the window as soon as he was close enough.
“You haven’t answered my question. What do they want with you?”
The irate question was interrupted by an angry shout of protest from outside in the hallway, followed by the scuffle of feet as the Internal Security patrol forced their way into the building over the objections of the defending servants. Only an occasional word came through clearly in the confusion, but those few were enough.
“Criminal...followed...associating with the Tevah.... Traitor!”
Tarl’s captor had turned slightly toward the door, straining to catch the jumbled, muffled conversation from the corridor. At mention of the Tevah, the secret society that common gossip said was working toward the overthrow of the Diloran government, her head snapped back toward him.
“You’re a member of the Tevah?”
From along the corridor came the sound of doors being burst open, of irate protests and even angrier demands from the patrol for the servants to get out of their way.
Too late to flee. They’d catch him in the garden before he could get back up that tree and over the wall. All they had to do was turn on the external lights so they could see clearly enough to shoot. This time around, they’d be sure not to miss.
He’d always held by the belief that a wise man knew when there was no fighting the inevitable. Tarl let his hands drop to his sides, forced his muscles to relax. The patrol wouldn’t kill him if he didn’t try to fight or run away. He had no doubt he’d get as rough a handling as they could manage while they took him into custody, however.
Once his identity was established he’d be set free, but by then it would be too late. The carefully crafted persona he’d worked so hard to assume over the last few weeks would be utterly destroyed and he would be forced to confront his uncle and his uncle’s supporters in the government before he was ready.
Well, this whole, crazy charade was becoming a bore, anyway. Maybe he should be grateful for the excuse to get the brewing confrontation over and done with.
“Take off your shirt.”
The hissed command startled Tarl out of his thoughts. He blinked, then stared at the woman in front of him. It took a moment for his brain to register the fact that she was no longer pointing the disruptor at him, but had turned its barrel toward the door, instead.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Take off your shirt. And your boots, too, if you can get them off quickly.” She wasn’t paying attention to him or his befuddled state, however, because she was already half way across the room. Before Tarl could say anything, she was fumbling with the complex electronic and mechanical locks at the door. He could hear the snick and clip of metal against metal, even if he couldn’t see her clearly.
“What are you doing?” Tarl demanded, too loudly.
“Be quiet, you fool.” She hesitated. Tarl had the impression she ran her hands over the lock system, then tugged at the door itself, but he couldn’t be sure in the dark. “Just do as I say. Then get in bed. The far side. Under the covers.”
She took a second to wave imperiously toward the broad, heavily curtained bed that filled one corner of the room, then bent and pressed her ear to the door as if straining to hear more clearly.
This was crazy. Had she locked, or unlocked the outside door? If she’d locked it, why had it been unlocked before? He couldn’t think of an explanation for her unlocking it, unless she thought it was easier—and safer—to explain a man in her bed rather than a man cowering under it.
Not that he had the luxury of worrying, anyway. The sounds outside the room were getting louder and coming uncomfortably closer.
With a slight hiss of exasperation, Tarl tugged off his shirt and flung it over the far side of the bed, out of sight. There was no time to worry about his boots. He ripped back the heavy covers on the bed, then slid in, boots and all.
It didn’t take a full second for him to realize the boots were a mistake. They were big and clumsy and they caught on the sheets, making it difficult for him to slide to the far side of the bed. Tarl was pulling at the covers, kicking at the sheets, and swearing ferociously under his breath when his captor, disruptor still firmly clasped in her hand, lifted the edge of the covers and slid in beside him.
Tarl had thought he was prepared for it. But the reality of a warm, curvaceous, and totally naked female body in the bed beside him was...unsettling, to the say the least. That he could scarcely see her in the shadowed depths of the curtained bed only made the matter more enticing. So what if she found the task of hiding her disrupter in the folds of the bed curtains more appealing than exploring his delightfully masculine charms? Given a chance, he could change her priorities.
Before he could say anything, she tugged at the covers, pulling them out of his hands, then slid closer. Tarl’s head was swimming, his body automatically responding to the possibilities inherent in the situation, when she put her hand against his side and shoved.
“Eeyah! Your hands are cold!”
“Move, you idiot. Do you want them to find you?”
“Well you didn’t have to—”
She snorted in disgust and shoved harder. “I should have shot you when I had the chance. Move!”
Tarl moved. Or tried to. The sheets tangled around his boots didn’t seem in favor of the idea, however. He kicked harder, which only managed to pull the sheets free and let a cool whoosh of air under the covers.
“I told you to take off your boots!”
“There wasn’t time!” Tarl protested, digging both elbows into the mattress and dragging himself bodily to the side. Sheets and covers came with him, jerked free at the end by his thrashing. It would be a whole lot easier if he could see what he was doing, if he could just stop for a minute to get untangled.
“There would have been time if you’d done what I told you when—”
Whatever else she might have said was cut short by the hammering of a fist on her door.
The hammering signaled an attack, so far as Tarl was concerned. Before he had a chance to react to the shouted demand for entrance, she fell on him.
Or, rather, she pounced. One minute Tarl was fighting to straighten the covers, the next minute he couldn’t think, and he certainly couldn’t fight, because her warm, full breasts were crushed against his chest, her hands were cupped about his face, and her lips were pressed to his in a kiss that, to his dizzied senses, seemed as real and passionate and demanding as any kiss he’d ever experienced.
Tarl gulped, blinked, and flailed helplessly at the air before his instincts finally took over the battle his rational mind was loosing. He breathed deep. That pressed his chest firmly against hers. In place of helplessly batting at the air, he wrapped his arms around her and drew her even more tightly against him. Instead of wasting the opportunity on gulping and gaping, Tarl let his open mouth soften, welcoming her touch, her lips, her warmth.
By the time the Internal Security patrol broke into the room, Tarl could scarcely remember who they were or what was going on. Involuntarily, he tightened his hold around his...partner, shaken and ashamed that he could have forgotten so easily.
Not that he had much time for contemplating his failings. With a squeal of indignation, the woman in Tarl’s arms pushed herself into a sitting position, shoving off from his chest with such decisive energy she knocked the wind out of him and made him gasp.
“Who are you?” she demanded, turning to face the open doorway at the same time she slid back in the bed, closer to him.
Tarl blinked and swallowed hard. She was so close her bare bottom was pressed tight against his side, warm and round and firm yet—
“What do you want? What are you doing in my room?” With each question, her voice rose higher, became more breathless and helplessly fluttery. As though she’d just remembered her nakedness, she gasped and grabbed for the tumbled covers, dragging the edges up to cover her breasts.
At least, that’s what Tarl assumed she was doing. He couldn’t see anything because in grabbing the covers, she’d rocked back until the small of her back was only inches from his face and the wild, curly mass of her hair covered his head, effectively blinding him. The faint scent of sweet herbs that lingered on her skin and in her hair, mingled with her own human, feminine warmth, bid fare to overcome whatever pitiful remnant of his wits he still possessed.
He breathed deep, struggling for control, only to be further disconcerted when she jerked the brocaded coverlet off him—and almost succeeded in dragging everything else with it. Tarl gulped and grabbed for the sheet and remaining covers, then slid deeper into the shadows cast by the heavy curtains. Even in the dark and the confusion, and with the added distraction of a naked woman to addle their brains, the patrol might sense something amiss if they discovered he’d worn his pants and boots to bed.
“Your pardon, Lady,” one of the patrol members managed to choke out at last. “We’re looking for a man, a—”
She shrieked. Even Tarl flinched, and pressed himself flatter against the bed. “A man? A man!” She grabbed the pillow beside her and flung it at the intruders with clumsy force. “Get out!” she shouted. “Get out!”
Abandoning the coverlet, she jerked the second pillow out from under Tarl’s head. Thus armed, she bounded out of bed and charged the five heavily armed men standing in the open doorway.