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Chapter 12

Orchid rolled onto her side, propped herself up on one elbow, and looked down at Rafe, who was sprawled on his back beside her. "Are you awake?"

"I am now." He curved one hand behind his head. The light of the twin moons pouring down through the glass dome revealed the faint curve of his mouth. "So are you, obviously."

"I've been thinking."

"By an odd coincidence, so have I."

She settled herself more comfortably. "You're thinking about Quentin Austen, aren't you?"

"Among other things. I've been wondering all day why he chose to take a sudden, mysterious vacation. Now I think it's safe to assume that he's in this up to his syn-psych diploma."

"Do you think he might have arranged to have poor Theo murdered?"

"I can't say for certain yet." Rafe drew one fingertip along the curve of her shoulder. "But my instincts tell me Austen is probably not the killer."

"What makes you so certain?"

"Austen appears to be a novice at this kind of thing. If he had more experience, he would have done a more thorough job of getting rid of anything that linked him to Theo Willis."

"You're saying he isn't the brains behind the operation?"

"I'm not sure yet. He was smart enough to panic when he got a call out of the blue from someone who wanted to talk to him about some so-called investments. And he did think to yank Willis's file before he took off on vacation."

"What about that illusion-talent and prism team we keep running into?"

"They're not operating under hypnotic instruction," he said with grave certainty. "They're hired pros."

Orchid shuddered. "Yes."

"Austen must have sent them to keep watch on Theo Willis's house and then ordered them to find Willis's letter and get rid of your friend, Morgan Lambert."

"This is getting more complicated by the minute."

"No, we're finally getting somewhere. We've got some firm leads to follow."

She felt the strat-talent energy vibrating through him. The hunter had caught the scent of the prey. She wondered if this aspect of his nature ought to disturb her. It did not. Perhaps because she could sense the control he wielded over his talent.

"I'd like to know what it was in Theo's file that made Austen think he needed to remove it," she said.

"Speaking of missing files," Rafe said softly.

"Hmm?"

"Theo Willis's is not the only one that seems to have disappeared recently."

Something in the low tenor of his voice alerted her. Orchid dragged her thoughts back from the problem of Theo's connection to Quentin Austen and the missing relic.

"What are you talking about?"

Rafe turned onto his side, levered himself up on his elbow, and gently but firmly pushed her onto her back. He leaned over her, eyes gleaming in the darkness. "Your file at Affinity Associates is gone."

She was so surprised she could only gape for a few seconds. When she finally got her jaw working again, she swallowed twice before she asked very cautiously, "How do you know that?"

"I checked."

"Why?"

"Call it professional curiosity."

"Professional curiosity, my foot."

He ignored that. "Did you take it?"

"Huh? Me?"

"Yeah, you. Did you steal your own file so that you wouldn't run the risk of a bad match?"

"Steal my file? Are you nuts? Until I met you, I didn't even know how to do stuff like that. There must be some mistake." Orchid broke off when she caught the all but imperceptible trace of invisible psychic energy shimmering in the air between them. "Stop that this instant."

"Stop what?"

"You're trying to use your strat-talent to see if I'm telling the truth. Admit it."

"Everyone knows that there's nothing to those old stories about strat-talents being human lie-detectors." He lowered his mouth to hers.

Orchid hesitated briefly, tempted to continue the argument. But when she felt the hard outline of his thigh against hers, she groaned and put her arms around his neck. She would save the lecture until later, she thought. And the mystery of her missing file could wait, too.

Right now the heat of Rafe's aroused body was warming her through the sheet that separated them. She was suddenly, desperately aware of his fingertips on her nipple.

No one had ever touched her the way Rafe did. No one had ever aroused the exquisite, almost painfully intense sensations in her that he aroused. She shivered and felt his immediate response.

When they came together like this it was as if they had been made for each other.

The joy of knowing that she had the same passionate effect on him infused her with a heady excitement. She kneaded the sleek contours of his shoulders.

His mouth moved to her throat and then to her breast. She arched in his arms. His hand slipped beneath her. He clenched his fingers around her hip, squeezed gently, and then found the impossibly sensitive places between her legs.

Heat swelled.

"Rafe."

He rolled onto his back and pulled her down on top of him. When she opened her eyes she saw that his face was set in unrelenting lines of fierce desire. She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm.

"You don't know what you do to me," he whispered.

When his hand moved up the inside of her leg she cried out and stiffened. His finger, wet and slick with her own moisture, moved across her straining clitoris. A great tightness seized her. She sank her nails into his shoulders and gripped him with her thighs.

He did not thrust into her until the first ripples of her climax began. And then, just when she thought she was at the pinnacle, he entered her, deeply, fully.

The feel of him stretching her and filling her so completely at that moment was almost too much to handle on top of the already effervescent sensations that were sweeping through her.

And then she felt his questing talent searching for her on the psychic plane. She responded to it instinctively, joyously, with a sense of absolute tightness.

Power crashed through the perfectly tuned prism.

She heard Rafe's hoarse shout of release, but she could no longer even open her eyes. She was lost in the synergistic vortex of energy and sensation that engulfed her.

Rafe lay awake for a long time after Orchid fell asleep in his arms. He watched the twin moons move across the arc of the glass dome until they disappeared. His mind teemed with mysteries. He had encountered a great number of them lately. One way or another, they all seemed to revolve around Orchid.

But the biggest mystery of all was Orchid herself.

No, he thought. The most enigmatic mystery in all this was his own reaction to her. He had never experienced anything like it before in his life. So how was it that he could sense the lightness in it?

The following afternoon Orchid drove into downtown with the vaguely guilty exhilaration of a young truant skipping school. It had not been easy escaping from Rafe for even an hour. After the attack on Morgan Lambert he had scarcely let her out of his sight. It seemed to her that he was always prowling nearby, watching over her.

But she had finally managed to convince him that it would be reasonably safe for her to drive to Psynergy, Inc., alone to collect her check.

"Nothing's going to happen in broad daylight on Founders' Day," she had assured him. "Whoever these people are, they obviously prefer to do things in secret. A couple of guys wearing ski masks in downtown New Seattle won't go unnoticed. You've got stuff to do here. There's no need to chaperone me."

Rafe had been reluctant, but in the end he had conceded that she had a point. He stood on the front steps and watched her drive out through the high gates. In the rearview mirror the grim expression of concern on his face was clear. She knew that he was already regretting his decision to let her go into town by herself. She put her foot down very hard on the gas, half afraid that he would find some way to stop her at the last minute.

A peculiar mix of relief and anxiety plagued her as she drove down First Avenue. This business of sharing space with Rafe was turning out to be more complicated than she had anticipated. She was not accustomed to having a man underfoot all the time. The experience left her with mixed feelings. On the one hand, she was grateful to have his strat-talent expertise on her side while they worked to untangle the mysteries surrounding Theo's death and the missing relic.

But her own emotions concerning her lover-client were rapidly becoming more convoluted and complex than the case itself.

She had an unnerving suspicion that this was how it felt to fall in love.

The downtown section of New Seattle was festively decorated for Founders' Day. Banners snapped in the breeze. Restaurants advertised first generation-style beer and old-fashioned Founders' burgers and traditional pear-berry pie. Signs were posted warning that the streets were to be cleared of all parked vehicles two hours before the evening parade began.

The Friends of the Library had erected a display of a huge book made entirely of various colored flowers in front of the public library. It represented one of the first generation hand-made books that the colonists crafted in their desperate attempt to preserve some of the knowledge trapped in their disintegrating computer data bases. Orchid was forced to blink rapidly for a few seconds as she drove past the inspiring flower sculpture. Everyone was entitled to a few tears of pride on Founders' Day, she told herself.

Fifteen minutes later she walked through the door of Psynergy, Inc.

"Happy Founders' Day, Byron. Got my check?"

Byron looked up from the gossip column of his favorite tabloid, Synsation. He stared at her over the rims of his purple spectacles. His expression was one of fasci nated horror.

"Run. Run while you still can," he hissed as he glanced wildly over his shoulder toward the closed door of Clementine's office. "Run for your life. Save yourself."

"I'm not running anywhere until I get my paycheck.'' Orchid walked to the desk, pushed aside a stack of "Think Exclusive" posters, and glanced down at the open page of Synsation. "What's the big news today? Any more alien abductions reported?'"

"Nothing so tame and ordinary." He stabbed at a picture on the page. "Take a good look."

Orchid studied the grainy photo. It showed a couple getting out of a car in front of a large, sprawling mansion. The picture had obviously been shot from a long distance. Nevertheless, the car looked vaguely familiar. So did the sleek set of the shoulders of the man whose face was turned partially away from the camera. When she looked closer she was almost certain she recognized the vee that dipped to the waist of the slim-fitting gown the woman wore.

"Good heavens, that isn't?"

"You and Rafe Stonebraker?" Byron grinned malevolently. "Indeed it is, my dear. The Stonebraker birthday party is one of the social events of the year and," he paused for emphasis, "you were there."

Orchid grimaced. "I can't imagine why anyone bothered to take a picture of me."

"I hate to be crass about it, but I doubt if anyone would have bothered to get a shot of you had you not been on the arm of the heir apparent to the Stonebraker dynasty."

"Oh, yeah. Right. I forgot about that part." Orchid straightened, chuckling. "Thanks, Byron. You do know how to put a person in her place. Got my check?"

"Yes, but I don't think there's any big rush to give it to you."

"Why not, pray tell?"

Byron winced as Clementine's door crashed open. "Because the boss is going to murder you long before you ever reach the bank."

"What?" Orchid looked across the room, straight into the face of a charging buzz-saw. "Uh oh."

"Five hells, Orchid Adams, I ought to fire your ass," Clementine slapped a copy of the New Seattle Times against her leather-clad thigh. "How could you do this to me? After all I've done for you."

"All you ever did for me was give me a part-time job, Clementine. You were in desperate need of a full-spectrum ice-prism, as I recall. So were a number of other focus agencies in town." Orchid glanced at the newspaper. "What seems to be the problem here?"

"Problem?" Clementine's voice rose. "I'll tell you what the problem is. You went to the hottest social event in town last night and the damn newspapers got everything wrong. You screwed up the single most important opportunity anyone at Psynergy, Inc., has had in recent memory to project our new exclusive image, that's what's wrong."

"The real question," Byron murmured behind his newspaper, "is did she also screw the single, most important client Psynergy, Inc., happens to have at the moment. Enquiring minds"

Orchid glared at him. "Shut up, Byron, or I will personally stuff every single one of those 'Think Exclusive' posters down your throat."

"Yes, ma'am." He buried his nose in Synsation.

Orchid turned back to Clementine. "What do you mean the newspapers got everything wrong?"

"You're identified as Rafe Stonebraker's agency date," Clementine said in ominous tones.

"So?"

"The damned society reporter makes it sound as though you were from a matchmaking agency, not a focus agency. What's more, he didn't even get Psynergy, Inc's name into the article."

Orchid exhaled deeply. "Clementine, I'm working undercover, remember? Rafe wanted to pass me off as a marriage agency date last night. He doesn't want anyone to know I'm working with him on a professional basis."

"But it was such a perfect opportunity to promote Psynergy, Inc., as an exclusive focus agency."

She looked so woebegone that Orchid felt sorry for her. She crossed the room to pat Clementine's broad shoulder.

"There, there. I promise that when this is all over, I'll get Rafe to mention Psynergy, Inc., to some of his friends. Okay?"

"I guess that's the best we can hope for now that you've wasted this incredible opportunity."

"That's the spirit. Now, can I please have my check?"

"Sure, sure. Give her the check, Byron." Clementine eyed Orchid closely. "Uh, there's just one other small thing."

Orchid took the envelope Byron handed to her. "What's that?"

"All that stuff in the paper about Rafe Stonebraker parading his so-called agency date in front of his family and the members of the board of directors of Stonebraker Shipping?"

"What about it?"

"That was just part of the cover you and Stonebraker established, right? There wasn't any truth in it, was there?"

"Don't be ridiculous." Orchid walked very quickly toward the door. "Have a great Founders' Day."

She flung the door open and fled down the hall to the elevator.

By the time she reached the street, she had herself firmly under control. The sign above the entrance to the espresso shop across the street caught her eye.

The decision to waste a few minutes having a coff-tea latte by herself was an impromptu one. As soon as she sat down at one of the small tables however, she knew she had done the right thing.

She needed to think about Rafe. She could not do that very clearly when he was in the vicinity.

Unfortunately, she discovered as she sipped her latte and stared at the poster-covered wall, it was not easy to think clearly about him when he was safely out of sight, either.

A shadow fell across her tiny table. Visions of ski-masked men flashed before her eyes. She jerked, spilling several drops of her latte.

"Sorry," Selby Culverthorpe gave her a cool smile. "Didn't mean to startle you."

She composed herself and carefully set down her cup. "Did you follow me, Mr. Culverthorpe?"

"I did some checking this morning. There was some confusion last night about which matchmaking agency you're registered with."

"Is that so?"

"In the process of sorting it out, I discovered that you work part-time at Psynergy, Inc. I was on my way there to see if the staff would help me contact you when I saw you walk out the door and head for this espresso bar."

"Mr. Culverthorpe"

"Call me Selby. After all, we were properly introduced last night. Mind if I sit down?"

She could not come up with any reason to refuse. The introduction to Selby and his wife, Briana, at the party had been fleeting at best but it had been made by Rafe's grandmother. Orchid knew she could not be rude without a very good excuse, which she did not yet have.

"Of course not." She indicated the seat on the other side of the tiny table. "Why were you looking for me?"

"Because you and I need to talk, Ms. Adams." Selby sat down across from her. "We have a mutual problem."

"What problem is that?"

"My cousin Rafe." Selby smiled again. His eyes glinted behind the lenses of his stylish glasses. "Fortunately, I have a solution."

"I don't understand."

"I'll get right to the point. The Stonebraker board is a very conservative bunch, Ms. Adams. They would never appoint a C.E.O. who was not married or, at the very least, engaged to be married."

"Is that a fact?"

"Yes," Selby said. "It's a fact. But I strongly suspect that you are already aware of it. I admit that, until recently, I've been working under the assumption that my cousin has no interest in Stonebraker. But I may have figured wrong."

"What changed your mind?"

"Seeing you with Rafe at Uncle Alfred G.'s birthday party last night. I can think of only one reason why my cousin would suddenly spring an agency date on the family. I think he's decided to try to take back what he walked away from all those years ago when he quarreled with Alfred G."

"Why are you telling me all this, Mr. Culverthorpe?"

"Because I don't think you know what you're getting into, Ms. Adams. Rafe may have found you through a matchmaking agency, although, I have some doubts on that score. But even if it's true, I'm willing to bet that it's not a high-probability match."

"What do you mean?"

"If it's a real match, my guess is that he applied pressure to his agency counselor to force him to come up with a candidate." Selby paused deliberately. "But it's equally possible that Rafe found one for himself and bribed her to play the role."

"Are you implying that Rafe would resort to intimidation or bribery?"

Icy amusement flared in Selby's gaze. "Don't look so shocked. I know my cousin. Rafe will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, if he wants it badly enough."

"What makes you so certain Rafe and I might not be a good match?"

"Give me a break, Ms. Adams. I'm not a fool. My cousin is a strat-talent."

"So?"

"He's an exotic. A high-class one at that. The agencies don't have much luck matching people like him. Even if you were told that you might be a halfway reasonable match, I'm surprised you'd considered it at all. Very few intelligent women want to risk marriage to a hunter. Too many unknowns. Marriage is a life sentence, Ms. Adams."

"I'm well aware of that. But Rafe's grandfather is a strat-talent and from what I saw last night he appears to be happily married."

"Uncle Alfred G. is only a class-four strat-talent. Rafe is a six. I suspect he may even be much higher." Selby's eyes narrowed. "Furthermore, I'll let you in on a little family secret. Uncle Alfred G. and Aunt Ellen were not introduced through an agency."

"Is that true?"

"It was a marriage of convenience that took place over fifty years ago. Aunt Ellen's father owned a company that Uncle Alfred G. wanted. Ellen's father wanted his daughter to marry into the Stonebraker family. They struck a deal. Aunt Ellen went along with it."

"It looked like a good match to me."

Selby dismissed that with a casual hit of one shoulder. "Occasionally unmatched arrangements do work out. Hell, if legend is to be believed, that's the way marriages were routinely handled back on Earth in the old days before colonization. They say divorce was routine, also."

"And families were routinely destroyed because of the system. Fortunately our Founders were smart enough to establish a different way of doing things here on St. Helens," she murmured piously.

"Exactly my point, Ms. Adams." Selby leaned back in his chair and gave her a meaningful look. "The risk factor is huge in an unmatched marriage. And there is no escape through divorce here on St. Helens."

"Everyone knows that."

"You'd better think twice about a low-probability match, too, Ms. Adams. Even if your prospective groom is rich."

"You're so sure that Rafe and I are a bad match."

"You may think it's worth the risk. Maybe you're assuming that if things don't work out after the wedding, you and my cousin can live separate lives. Maybe you think you can have it all, the Stonebraker money, social position, and a few discreet affairs on the side. But it won't work that way."

"Why not?"

Selby smiled grimly. "Because my cousin is a strat-talent. Take it from me, strat-talents aren't real sophisticated and modern-thinking when it comes to matters of wifely fidelity. There's a reason they're called throw-backs, Ms. Adams."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I would have thought you'd know all this. You're a trained, professional prism, after all. Strat-talents are primitive in more than just the paranormal sense. If you're planning on a marriage of convenience, think again."

"Is this a warning?"

"Yes, Ms. Adams, it is." Selby leaned forward. "I've got nothing against you, personally, but I've worked too hard and planned too long to let you or anyone else get in my way. I'm going to destroy Stonebraker. If you don't step aside, you'll get hurt."

"Tell me," Orchid said gently, "why are you so determined to destroy the company? You're part of the family, after all."

"My reasons are none of your business."

"I disagree. I think I've got a right to know why I'm being threatened by a rich and powerful man such as yourself."

Selby frowned. "I'm not threatening you. I'm simply telling you how things are."

"I feel threatened. I want to know why before I make any decisions."

Selby drew back, scowling. "I'm sure as hell not going to tell you a lot of private family information."

Orchid stirred her latte with a tiny stick. "Tell me, Selby, what did Rafe's side of the family do to your side to make you so angry?"

It was as if she had pulled a sandbag out of a dike that held back a wall of flood water. Selby's face contorted with sudden fury. Sharp, short bursts of energy came and went quickly on the psychic plane. A sure sign of paranormal power not under firm control. Orchid recalled Rafe telling her that his cousin was a tech-talent.

"Maybe I should tell you what happened," Selby said. "Maybe the truth will convince you of just how dangerous a strat-talent can be, especially if he also happens to be very wealthy and powerful."

"I'm listening."

"Uncle Alfred G. is responsible for my father's death. That's what the Stonebraker side of the family did to my side. Satisfied, Ms. Adams?"

Orchid's hand froze on the latte stick. "That's a very serious accusation."

"Unfortunately it's one I can't make in a court of law because there is no evidence. Alfred G. saw to that. But I have crafted my own justice, Ms. Adams. Don't get in the way."

"What makes you think your father was deliberately killed?"

Selby hesitated. Orchid watched him as he visibly reasserted his self-control. She sensed that he already regretted the fierce outburst.

"My mother told me the whole story when I was a child."

"What did she say? What happened to your father?"

Selby shook his head once, as though ridding himself of the last remnants of a spell. "This is none of your affair. You don't need to know the details. All you need to know is that men like Rafe and Alfred G. Stonebraker are dangerous."

"I only want to understand."

"You don't need to understand anything except that if you don't get out of this thing while the getting is good, you'll be hurt." He pushed back his chair with an abrupt movement and surged to his feet. "There won't be any more warnings, Ms. Adams."

"Wait, please."

Selby had himself back in hand now. The seething emotion that had blazed briefly in his face was gone. He looked down at her with cool speculation. "You appear to be a smart woman. I would have thought you'd know better than to get involved with a strat-talent. If you're in this for the money, I sympathize. But there are other ways to get rich without risking marriage to my cousin."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm a wealthy man now, but I'm going to be far richer after I carry out my plans for Stonebraker. I'll make it worth your while to drop out of the picture."

"Oh, wow." She opened her eyes very wide. "No one's ever tried to buy me off before."

Selby's jaw jerked. "Think about my offer, Ms. Adams. Think about it very carefully. Because one way or another, I'm going to win."

He turned and walked out of the espresso bar without another word. An invisible wake of old rage and pain churned in the air behind him. Orchid picked up traces of it on both the physical and the metaphysical planes.


Chapter 11 | Orchid | Chapter 13



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