The very texture of the fog-bound night altered abruptly for Rafe as his psychically sharpened senses steadied with the aid of the focus link. Scent, sound, and that indescribable sensation, awareness, oriented him as easily in the darkness as sunlight did in daylight.
The mist was as thick as it had been a few seconds earlier, but it no longer mattered that he was partially blinded by it. He had other ways of seeing now.
There were two of them. He located them precisely in the fog. They closed in simultaneously from opposite directions. Experienced predators.
The first man swam out of the fog with the lethal intent of a shark-cuda. He wore a black ski mask. Rafe saw the glint of mist-refracted light on the blade of a knife.
The case had taken a serious turn. Next time he would bring along the pistol he sometimes wore in an ankle holster.
He shifted to the side, briefly concealing himself in the fog.
"Bat-snake shit." The knifeman whirled, seeking his prey.
"Where'd he go?" The second man emerged from the mist. He, too, wore a ski mask and gripped a knife. "Cut some of the damn fog, Jink. I can't see a thing."
Rafe went in low. He crashed into the first man. The impact took them both to the ground.
The uncanny, blinding mist vanished in a heartbeat, leaving behind only the natural, wispy tendrils of fog that had cloaked the city all evening. Rafe felt Orchid's startled surprise even through the focus link, but the crystal clear prism she had crafted did not waver.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw that she was still on the ground, propped on her elbow. She turned to stare at the violent scene unfolding in front of her.
Rafe ignored the shock on her face. She was holding the focus and at the moment, that was all that mattered.
The man Rafe had brought down was an expert. He heaved himself to the side, managing to partially free himself. The knife in his hand sliced out in a short, vicious trajectory aimed at Rafe's midsection.
Rafe spun away, leaping to his feet in the same motion. He kicked out at the hand that held the knife. There was a dull crunch. The man on the ground yelled in pain. His weapon flew off into the darkness.
The second man threw himself forward, knife arm outstretched. But he had to jump over Orchid's prone form in order to get to his quarry. Rafe saw Orchid's foot lash out in a curiously graceful, well-aimed movement that connected with the man's thigh.
The unexpected blow threw the assailant off balance. His legs snarled. He toppled, staggered, and went down.
Rafe leaped for him.
"Fog." The second man steadied himself, scrambled back to his feet and whirled to face Rafe. "Damn it, Jink, give me some fog. He's coming right at me."
The first man lurched to his feet. The mist thickened abruptly. Rafe ignored it, concentrating with his other senses.
"Shit, it's like he can see right through this stuff," the second man yelled.
"Let's get out of here." The first man pounded off into the darkness.
The second man did not argue. He was already running after his friend.
Power still surged through the prism. Rafe's para-heightened senses strained eagerly. Every instinct urged him to pursue his prey. It would be so easy to bring down at least one of the fleeing men.
"Rafe. I can't see you. Where are you?"
Rafe wrestled with his natural strat-talent inclinations. He could not leave Orchid. She was his first priority.
The artificial fog dissolved as quickly as it had reappeared. Orchid started to climb to her feet. She looked around in wonder as the mist cleared.
"Are you all right?" she demanded.
"Yes." Rafe cut the flow of his talent through the prism.
He assessed her mood quickly. She was badly shaken, but she was in control. It occurred to him that a lot of people, male or female, who had just survived a knife assault would be in hysterics about now. "What about you?"
"I'm okay." She fumbled around on the ground for her fallen purse. "My God, Rafe, they tried to kill you. It was two against one."
The outrage in her voice made him grin. "No, the odds were even. Two against two. I had you for backup."
"Kind of you to give me some credit." Orchid brushed off the knees of her jeans as she got to her feet. "But I don't think I was a whole lot of help. Psynergy, Inc., employees are trained to handle a wide variety of focus situations. But I don't think this kind of thing fits into the more sophisticated, upscale image that Clementine is going for."
"Then she probably shouldn't sign contracts with strat-talents. We're not exactly up-market clients." He listened to the fading footsteps of his fleeing prey as he took Orchid's arm.
Adrenaline still pounded through his veins. He knew from past experience that it would take a while to dissipate. Even though he was no longer focusing his talent, he was still intensely aware of the myriad sensations of the night.
He was also acutely aware of the very smooth skin of Orchid's hand. He could feel the warmth of her, the slight, unmistakable, utterly unique scent that was hers alone. A restless hunger hummed in his gut.
Adrenaline aftermath, he reminded himself. A natural chemical cocktail created by violence had flooded his bloodstream. The fact that the potion had a powerful synergistic affinity for the chemicals of sexual desire was a well-documented, scientific fact.
The difference between man and beast, he reflected grimly as he put Orchid into the car, was not as great as many people liked to think.
Orchid looked at him as he got behind the leer's steering bar. "One of those two men was an illusion-talent, wasn't he?"
"Yeah. Probably a little higher than mid-range. Class six or seven, maybe. That mist he generated was a very strong illusion."
"He had help from the natural fog that was already in the vicinity," Orchid murmured. "My friend, Amaryllis, works frequently with a very strong illusion-talent."
"That would be her husband, Lucas Trent." Rafe eased the Acer away from the curb.
Orchid shot him a quick, searching glance. "You know Lucas very well, I take it?"
"Well enough." Rafe had a fleeting memory of a night in the Western Island jungles when he and Lucas and Nick Chastain had tracked a band of pirates to their lair. It had been Lucas's incredibly real illusion of driving rain which had given the three men the edge they needed to herd the renegades into a trap.
"I see. Well, Amaryllis says that it's always easier to graft an illusion onto an already existing chunk of reality than it is to create it from scratch."
"In other words, it's simpler to produce an illusion of fog when there's already a lot of fog around."
"Something to do with the fact that the human eye sees what it expects to see." Orchid gazed through the windshield at the misty street. "On a fog-bound night, you expect to see a lot of fog. A bit more comes as no big surprise."
"You were the surprise tonight."
He glanced at her. "That kick you used to topple the second man. That was meta-zen-syn."
"You never mentioned that you were a practitioner."
She made a face. "I was raised in Northville. I was taught meta-zen-syn exercises before I could walk. But I don't think of myself as a practitioner. Practitioners are obsessive-compulsive about their exercises and they wear a lot of white."
She shot him a quick, speculative glance. "You were using a form of meta-zen-syn, too."
"Yes." Rafe flexed his hands on the steering wheel. "My father is a practitioner. He taught me. Said I'd need the exercises to help control my talent."
"Well, at least you don't run around in white."
Rafe smiled slightly. "No, I don't wear much white."
"It's very hard to wear white, you know. I never could understand how everybody in Northville except me managed to keep their clothes so spotless. Mine always got dirty five minutes after I put them on."
Rafe suddenly felt extraordinarily cheerful. "Did they?"
"Yes." She frowned down at her hands. "Unfortunately, I don't know how to use meta-zen-syn to make my fingers stop shaking."
"It's the adrenaline. It will fade in a few minutes. If it's any consolation, I'm feeling the after effects, myself." And how.
"You don't have to be condescending about it."
"What?" Her sarcasm startled him. "Who's being condescending? I told you the truth. I am feeling the effects."
"Hah." She glared at him. "Look at the way you're driving."
"What's wrong with my driving?"
"Nothing." She sounded seriously aggrieved. "That's the whole point. You're as steady as a rock."
"Don't try to tell me what I'm feeling. I know damn well what I'm feeling. The fact that I can drive this car does not mean that I am not experiencing the same adrenaline effects that you're experiencing."
"Don't shout at me. I've had a very difficult evening."
"I'm not shouting at you."
"Your voice is rising."
He started to defend himself, then shook his head when he realized she was right. "Damn. Listen to us. This is a really stupid argument we're having."
"Yes, it is." She scowled. "Why are we having it?"
He sighed. "It's all part of the adrenaline jag. This, too, shall pass."
"Don't," she warned, "start up again." But there was a rueful smile in her voice.
He glanced at her. In the light from the dash he could see the very sensual, very soft curve of her mouth.
Desire tugged at him. It was growing stronger, not weaker. He used every ounce of self-control he possessed to squelch it. This was most definitely not the right time or place. Orchid had been through a very traumatic experience. He had to respect that fact.
"You know," he said thoughtfully, "we made a pretty good team."
"Yeah. We did." She paused. "Now that we are no longer arguing, I have a question. What, exactly, do you think was going on back there?"
"Isn't it obvious?" He exhaled slowly. "Someone doesn't want us asking questions about Theo Willis."
"I was afraid you were going to say that."
Half an hour later, Orchid sat curled on the massive, elegantly curved Later Expansion period sofa in Rafe's library. She watched him with serious, troubled eyes as she sipped moontree brandy.
"What do we do next?" she asked.
"You mean, what do I do next." He poured a second glass of brandy. "You're out of it as of tonight."
"Wait a second, I thought you said we were a team?"
He was surprised by her glowering look. "This thing has turned nasty." He carried his glass across the room and lowered himself into the massive, ornately carved reading chair. "I don't want you involved any deeper."
"You mean, now that it's no longer some sort of game, you want to go hunting alone."
"It's no game. It never was a game." He watched her, brooding over the satisfaction he felt having her here in his home.
The decision to bring her back to his big house on the hill overlooking the city had been a simple one. He had an excellent excuse, he told himself. Orchid should not be left alone after what she had just been through tonight.
"Damn it, I've had enough." She put her glass down with grim precision. "I think it's about time you told me what this is all about."
"What do you mean?"
"It's perfectly obvious that, until things got serious tonight, this business of chasing down the lost alien artifact was just another excuse to hire me. You haven't really needed my services at all in any of your cases. At least not until tonight when those two men jumped us."
"That's not true."
"Don't lie to me, Stonebraker. Now, when it's obvious you've got a real case that may take talent-focus teamwork, the first thing you want to do is fire me."
"I just think it would be a whole lot safer for you if you got out of this before it gets any rougher."
"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on. I think, after what I've been through tonight, I've got a right to know. Why did you insist on hiring me so frequently this past week?"
He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. What the hell could he say to her? He had run out of glib excuses. "You've got a point. Maybe it's time I put my cards on the table."
He opened his eyes and looked at her. "Okay, the fact is, I need a wife, or at least a fianc'ee, in less than two months. Synergistic Connections doesn't seem to be able to come up with a suitable candidate, so I decided to go hunt—uh, looking for one on my own."
"A wife?" Her voice was a mere squeak of sound but her eyes were huge.
"I knew that, among other things, I wanted a full-spectrum prism who wouldn't faint when she discovered that I'm an off-the-chart strat-talent. So I went out and hired a lot of full-spectrums until I met you."
Orchid shook her head in disbelief. "This is a joke, right?"
"Believe me," he put his brandy glass down very deliberately, "whatever else it is, it's no joke."
She stared at him. "You just decided to try out a lot of full-spectrum prisms until you found one you thought might work out as a wife?"
"I'm a little desperate at the moment."
"How very flattering. Lovely to know that you've been driven to checking me out as a potential wife because you're a little desperate."
Rafe began to feel cornered. "Well, it's not as if you've got a dozen potential husbands beating a path to your door, either. You told me yourself that Affinity Associates hasn't turned up a single candidate the whole time you've been registered. Why shouldn't we take a second look at each other? There doesn't seem to be anyone else around for either of us."
"You said you've got two months to produce a wife or a fianc'ee?"
He gripped the arms of his chair and shoved himself to his feet. He stalked to the fireplace. "That's right."
"Mind if I ask why?"
"It's a family thing." The ever-popular, all-purpose, unarguable, excuse on St. Helens. A family thing.
Orchid glared at him. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Good grief." She shook her head in stunned amazement. "This is like that old ice-fairy tale, the one in which Prince Charming takes a glass slipper around the kingdom until he finds a woman whose foot fits into it."
"I don't exactly envision myself as Prince Charming."
"Neither," she said, "do I."
He winced. "This is probably not a good time to discuss this."
She gave him a steely smile. "I can tell you right now, there won't be a better time. Is there anything else about this bizarre situation that I should know?"
He rubbed his jaw. "No, that's pretty much the whole of it."
"Tell me, please, I can't leave without knowing. How in five hells did I make the cut? Out of all the full-spectrum prisms you must have hired from all the focus firms in New Seattle, why me?"
"I don't know." That sounded weak. He sought for a more logical response. "Why not you?"
"You're right. Prince Charming, you're not."
Rafe spun around to face her. "Look, I'm trying to be honest here."
"Oh, great. No wonder Synergistic Connections is having a hard time finding a match for you. That kind of honesty probably has an extremely limited appeal."
"Yeah? Well, what about you? Your appeal must be somewhat limited, too, if Affinity Associates can't come up with a match after all this time."
She leaped to her feet. "I don't care if they never find me a match."
"Well, I'm not real keen on the idea of being saddled with a deadline for finding a wife."
"I can certainly understand that. Talk about pressure. Well, I wouldn't want you to waste any more of your valuable time on me." She whirled and started toward the door.
She was leaving. Desperation rolled over him in a wave.
"Orchid. Please. Don't go."
Something in his voice must have pierced her outrage. She stopped but she did not turn around. She reached out to grip the door jamb with one hand. Her spine was an elegant, unyielding line.
"I don't think it would be a good idea for me to stay," she said starkly.
"I've made a hash of this. I'm sorry." He took a breath. "But I was under the impression that you're at least mildly attracted to me."
"So I'm more than mildly attracted to you. A lot more."
"That," she said brusquely, "is not a good enough reason for marriage, especially marriage without a confirming match from a proper marriage agency."
"I know." He hesitated. "But it's a good enough reason for an affair, isn't it?"
Her hand tightened visibly on the door jamb. Her knuckles went white. "You don't have time to waste on an affair. You need a wife."
"Tonight I need you."
She turned slowly around to face him. Her eyes were shadowy pools that veiled a thousand secrets. "Do you?"
"Yes." This was a fine time to get the shakes. He had not felt this unsteady after the brawl in Theo Willis's front yard, he reflected. "But it's no good if you don't want me, too."
"As you said earlier, we're a good team when it comes to some things."
"Is this one of those things?"
"Yes," she said slowly. "I think it is."
A joyous relief that he had no business feeling at that moment swept away every other sensation except desire.
Rafe covered the short distance that separated him from Orchid in three long strides. He lifted her up into his arms and carried her through the doorway and down the hall.
She smiled tremulously and put one arm around his neck as he started up the broad staircase that led to the darkened floor above. "I could walk, you know."
"Somehow I get the feeling that none of your heroes would allow your heroines to walk up the stairs to the bedroom before they made love for the first time."
"You really did read one of my books, didn't you?"
Rafe reached the landing and paused long enough to kiss her again. Hunger surged through him. He hoped he was not actually panting with lust. So very primitive.
He carried her down the hall to the shadowed doorway at the far end.
"Oh, my," Orchid whispered when he walked into the room with her in his arms. "You said you had a window in the ceiling. This is incredible."
He smiled as she tilted her head back to gaze in wonder at the glass dome above the bed. The fog that blanketed the city had not climbed this hillside. Overhead their private night sky was clear. Stars glittered in the velvety darkness.
The bed had come with the house. It was a massive circular creation with an elaborately carved base of gold-enleaf wood. Rafe stepped up onto the dais with a sense of impending destiny. He set Orchid down on the spider-frog silk quilt.
For a few seconds he simply stared at her, adjusting to the reality of having her here in his bedroom.
"Something wrong?" she asked.
"Are you having second thoughts?"
"I can't think at all at the moment," he said.
A troubled expression passed across her face. "We're not doing this because of that adrenaline rush we got during the fight with those two men at Theo's house are we?"
"No." Who cared why they were doing it? he thought. They were doing it. That was all that mattered.
"I've heard that the synergistic reaction that sometimes occurs in the human bloodstream after a fight is not very different, chemically speaking, from the reaction caused by sexual attraction."
"I would take it as a great favor," Rafe said, "if you would save the lecture on synergistic blood chemistry until later. I don't think I can follow it at the moment"
Her eyes gleamed with sensual amusement. "Sorry."
With a groan he lowered himself to the bed and gathered her into his arms.
Orchid's soft laughter floated up to the domed ceiling, as weightless and bright as the starlight overhead. Rafe leaned over her, caging her between his hands, and kissed her until she stopped laughing.
Her mouth opened beneath his. With a soft, muffled exclamation, she wrapped her arms around him. He felt her sudden fierce need all the way to the bone.
She wanted him.
His own smoldering hunger leaped into full flame. An exultant sensation stormed through him. Tonight she was his.
In an exuberant frenzy of happy lust he rolled with her across the wide bed, rumpling the quilt and the sheets until all was chaos. When they at last came to a halt, Rafe was once more stretched out on top of her. Her jean-clad legs framed his. She looked up at him, breathless. Her eyes were brilliant, starlit pools in which he would willingly drown, in which he could not wait to drown.
He could feel the heat of her body through the denim. It carried her scent, which was mingled now with the unmistakable fragrance of feminine desire. The night, the time when his senses were sharpest, when he was most keenly aware of that other part of himself, called to him. He was alive as he had never been before in his life.
He lifted himself off Orchid long enough to get a grip on the hem of her T-shirt. He managed to shove it up above her breasts and then over her head. Her soft hair got whipped into a wild tangle in the process. One silken lock fell across her face, giving her a sultry, mysterious look.
He looked down at her elegantly curved breasts. It crossed his mind that he had never seen anything more beautiful than the spill of starlight on her skin.
She fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. Impatient with her slow progress, he reached down and finished the job himself. He closed his eyes and shuddered when he felt her fingers on his bare chest.
"Rafe." Her voice throbbed with emotion.
He opened his eyes and bent his head to kiss her. While he held her mouth captive, he unfastened her jeans. Then he worked his way down her body, freeing her from the denim. When he rose over her again she was clad in nothing but a small triangle of silk.
Deliberately he put his hand between her legs. The crotch of her dainty panties was already wet. A heady sense of pleasure shot through him, leaving him slightly dazed. He pressed gently against the silk that shielded her.
Orchid sucked in her breath at his touch, gave a wordless cry and twisted restlessly beneath his hand. When he stroked her she clenched her thighs together, forcing herself more firmly against his palm. Her breathing quickened in the darkness.
After a moment she hesitantly reached out to touch him as intimately as he had touched her and sighed impatiently when she discovered his trousers in the way.
Her touch was curiously awkward, but it was eager. Her hands tortured him deliriously while she sought and found the fastening at the waistband of his pants, undid it, and finally managed to lower his zipper.
He fell heavily into her waiting hand. When she cupped him gently he thought he might go mad. He squeezed his eyes closed for a few seconds and fought a desperate battle with his self-control.
He won the battle, at least for a few minutes. When he managed to open his eyes again he saw that Orchid was gazing at his rigid erection with an expression of wonder and intense fascination.
"You are incredible," she whispered.
He did not answer. He could not. He was too close to the edge. If he did not take her now, he would surely shatter.
He jerked her sodden panties aside, lowered himself to her once more and fitted himself to her. He caught and held her gaze. He needed to look into her eyes when he claimed her.
She watched him with an odd intensity, as though waiting for something important to happen. He prayed he would not disappoint her.
He thrust heavily into her. Felt small, delicate muscles resist, give way, and then close snugly around him. Something else gave way, too. He heard her quick, sharp breath. For a moment she went rigid. She was hot and wet and very, very tight. Too tight.
He raised his head swiftly.
"It's all right." She framed his face with her hands. "I've waited a long time for this."
"It never felt right before."
A profound sense of wonder and an exultant satisfaction mingled with the potent chemical mix in his veins. He knew exactly what she meant. Nothing had ever felt this right. He lowered his head to kiss her throat.
She did not hesitate. Out on the metaphysical plane a brilliant crystal took shape. Rafe slammed talent through the prism as he eased himself deeper into Orchid's body.
He reached down to find her small, firm clitoris. At the first touch she cried out and pressed her face against his chest. He thought he felt her teeth. The sensation was almost unbearably exciting.
He stroked gently as he rocked against her. The elemental rhythms of desire established themselves in the oldest of synergistic harmonies.
Eons later, when the effort to hold himself back had become exquisitely painful, Orchid's fingers suddenly dug into his shoulders.
"Oh, yes," she whispered as if she had just made an incredible discovery. "Yes."
He raised his head so that he could see her face when she climaxed beneath him. The tiny convulsions shimmered through her. He felt them deep inside where he was securely lodged.
Orchid's release triggered his own. A dazzling mix of physical and paranormal energy poured through him. All of his senses were riveted by the sensation. He was swept away by the glorious wildness that seized him.
Nothing had ever felt so whole, so right, so perfect.
Rafe opened his eyes a long time later. He gazed up through the glass dome and contemplated the stars. Orchid stirred and stretched beside him. Then she propped herself on her elbow and leaned over him.
"Mind if I ask you a personal question?"
He studied her gleaming eyes and tangled his fingers in her hair. "At this particular moment, I wouldn't mind if you asked me to fly or go over a waterfall in a barrel."
"In a good mood, are you?"
She folded her arms on his chest and rested her chin on her hand. "This is sort of a professional question."
"Go for it."
"Is it true that strat-talents can tell if a person is lying to them?"
He stilled. And then he started to laugh. He laughed so hard he had to sit up and wrap his arms around his midsection. He doubled over with laughter. He howled with laughter. The room rang with the sound of it.
"I didn't think the question was that funny," Orchid said.
Rafe's laughter finally faded into a grin. He sprawled on his back and pulled Orchid down on top of him.
"Let me put it this way." He thrust his fingers through her hair. "I'll know if you ever try to fake an orgasm."