Marry A Man Who Will Dance

"Ms. Major has created a story full of emotional explosions and lessons in love. I found myself sympathizing with the main characters and hoped they could overcome the obstacles thrown in their way by vengeful family members and friends." Marilyn Puett Writers Unlimited

PROLOGUE

Houston, Texas
April, 2001

            The Harley roared and bucked and writhed under his muscular thighs as wildly as a fresh border whore.  And since he was half-Mexican and half-Anglo, and oversexed to boot, Roque Moya was just the man to know.

            Not that anyone in Texas called him Moya.  Here he was Blackstone, a name he hated, a name most people hated.  But not nearly as much as they feared it.  His father had seen to that.

            The stripes that divided the interstate lanes blurred into a fluid white line flying beneath his wheels.  His thickly lashed eyes flashed on the speedometer.  One hundred and ten.

            He was in too big of a hurry to slow down.

            Only when he passed the world famous R.D. Meyer Heart Institute on the outskirts of Houston a few miles later, and the traffic began to thicken, did he use his left foot to gear down.

            Fury knotted his gut.

            Don't think about her!

            Cities.  It was cities he hated.  They always seemed like filthy jails.  Even up here in el norte, on this side of the border, where they were supposed to be safer, cleaner, and more respectable, they were still prisons.

            Especially this city which happened to be where his once-rich daddy had made himself so notorious by manipulating juries he despised with his well-told lies.

            She lived here.  She'd married another man and hidden from him here.

            His black leather glove gripped the throttle with a vengeance.  Thoughts of her ahead, in addition to the soaring speed of his bike, gave him an adrenaline rush.

            He had a funeral to get to.  And he was late.  A funeral he was very much looking forward to.

            Her husband's.

            Ritz.

            He thought of Ritz at the damndest times.  Thought of what she'd done . . . and what she hadn't.  Thought of her glorious yellow hair blowing in the wind, thought of her blue eyes, how they could change from blue to violet when she got hot for him.  She didn't think she was sexy, but she was.

            He had to know why she'd crawled into his bed two months ago, why she'd been so eager to sleep with him, her warm, silky body aquiver.  She'd been a perfect fit, better than before.

            And yet . . . she'd kept secrets that night.

            If it had been half as good for her as it had for him, why had she gone home to her husband?

            Since that night, he'd done some research.

            Were all the sordid stories Josh had spread about her true?

            Border saint?  Or border tramp?  Or something in between?  Someone far more complex?  She wasn't a girl anymore.  She was a woman.

            And a widow now.

            Time to find out who she really was.

            He'd waited a hell of a long time for his turn.

            Thumpty-thump.  His big wheels hit cracked pavement.  Big piles of dirt, earth-moving equipment, and cranes littered either side of the interstate.  Houston seemed to be falling apart.  In the shimmering heat beneath a white soupy sky, the downtown skyscrapers undulated like strippers to the frenzied tempo of his bike.  On either side of the freeway, office buildings, signs, restaurants, strip shopping centers, malls and huge parking lots whipped by.

            Progress?  Were they going to pave the whole damn world?  For a second or two he felt like Mad Max roaring to his doom on a crotch-rocket across some crazed, futuristic landscape.

            He should have noticed the lanes narrowing, the traffic beginning to hem him in.  But he was flying past the blinking yellow lights on the orange barrels and all those little white signs that warned the freeway was under construction before he really saw them.

            His mind was on Ritz and the telephone call he had received six hours ago on the ranch.

            " . . . dead!"

            "But I thought   . . . "

            "Caught us by surprise. too, Roque.  Nobody thought he'd go this fast!"

            "How?"

            "In his sleep . . . painlessly."

            "How's she . . . taking . . . "

            " . . . too devastated . . .  to even call me!  Frankly I'm worried . . .  And she's sick.  A stomach virus or something."

            For no reason at all that news had gotten him edgy.

            "How sick?"

            "Threw up everywhere.  Been at it a week."

            After all she'd been through nursing a dying man, her formerly rich, famous husband . . . His old nemesis, Josh.

            So . . . she'd loved Josh after all.  The realization hit him hard.

            Ten thousand taillights blazed blood red.  As if on cue, six lanes of vehicles slammed on their brakes all at once.

            An eighteen wheeler's trailer loomed ahead like a solid wall of silver.

            "Híjole," he whispered, easing off the gas, gearing down, braking so fast, his bike went into a skid.

            G-forces hurled his powerful, leather-clad body straight at the mirrored trailer.  To avoid slamming into it, he put his bike on its side.  Sparks flew off his crash bar across the asphalt.

            Hanging on and hunkering low, a jagged rock sliced his cheek as he hurtled under the eighteen-wheeler.  A second later he shot out the other side across two congested lanes of stalled traffic.

            An exhaust pipe blistered his stubbly jaw with a wave of hot fumes.  A strip of black leather flapped loose from his shoulder.

            But he was alive.

            "You, son of a bitch!" a man yelled at him.

            Gears ground.  Brakes slammed again as Roque skidded to a halt just short of the guardrail.

            Only when he was stopped did Roque notice the hole in his black jacket and see the blood oozing from his chest.

            He was alive.  And so was she.  All of a sudden he felt a hell of a lot better.

            Sudden longing wrenched his being.  He saw violet eyes and golden hair spread all over his pillow.

            She was free again and so was he.

            He lifted the silver St. Jude medal he'd worn around his neck for good luck and kissed it.

            Then he began to shake.

            "Shit."

            He rolled the throttle and made his rice burner roar.

            Where the hell was her house in River Oaks?

            Ritz Keller Evans was to the manor born.  She was a real lady.  Elegant.  A princess.

            At least she was supposed to be.

            She patted her stomach uneasily.

            Today she'd certainly dressed the part she was pretending to play — that of Josh's wealthy, grieving widow.

            She wore a black sheath.  No jewels.  Not even her gold wedding band.  That she'd slipped off her finger, maybe a little too eagerly to be buried along with Josh in his coffin.

            Her honey-blond hair was swept back.  Her skin was so pale and her expression so reserved, few people dared to intrude upon her grief.  Very few of the mourners spoke to her.  Her own mother and father had refused to come.

            Ritz was a Keller, of the legendary Triple K Ranch of south Texas, the last of the big-time, fairy-tale, ranch princesses.  And since Texas is founded on the lie that a kingdom of a million acres, thousands of cows and a lot of oil wells should make any girl happy, the headlines about her fascinated a lot of people.

            What if they knew the truth?  That she was estranged from her family?  That she'd slept with her old boyfriend, Roque, the virile cowboy she'd spent years avoiding.  Not just any cowboy, but Roque Moya Blackstone, son of odious Benny Blackstone, whom Roque had gotten disbarred.  Roque himself was a self-serving multimillionaire developer of the impoverished colonias she sometimes visited as a nurse.  Not so long ago she'd even gotten him fined for building inadequate houses without utilities.

            Even if he was Blackstone's son, being half-Mexican, how could he prey on poor Mexican immigrants?

            Better question: knowing who and what he was — how could she have crept into his bed and used him as a stud?

            Had she hoped lightning would strike her twice?

            Josh's funeral had her second-guessing herself.  She was broke.  She hadn't known what to do with herself when Josh had lost everything and their marriage failed.

            Now all she wanted was this baby.

            Until Josh's business had failed and he'd left her, everybody had thought she led a charmed life.  Then he'd taken her back, only to die fast.  Naturally everybody was curious.  Naturally she was photographed, written about, gossiped about.

            She'd believed in love, and marriage and children.

            In babies.

            How strange that Josh, whom she'd known from childhood, the son of a rancher, should have ended up the richest dot.com king in Houston, only to lose everything as swiftly as he'd made it.  Still, for five years she'd lived in this castle in River Oaks, Houston's most reputed, posh enclave for its millionaires and billionaires, especially those who have a flair for high drama or scandal.

            Unconsciously, she pressed against her thickening waistline.  Just as quickly, her slim fingers fluttered away before Mother Evans or any of Josh's friends could see.

            Nobody could know.  Not her estranged family, Not Josh's.  Not Jet, her long-time girlfriend, nor Jet's saintly father, Irish Taylor.

            Nobody.

            Especially not the baby's real father.

            Not until Josh was properly buried and all his friends and family had gone home; not until Ritz was long way from Texas and the gossips who watched her every move, would she breathe easily.

            This time she had to carry her baby full term.  That would be her atonement.  What else did she owe him?

            She was equally determined there would be no nasty rumors or newspaper smears, no counting up of months, no wondering how Josh could have gotten her pregnant in his condition.

            Ritz had known she was pregnant even before there had been any symptoms or visible signs.  One day she had awakened in this house of death and broken dreams, and opened her window.  The sweet peas that climbed her trellis had glowed brighter and smelled sweeter.  She had breathed in their fresh fragrance and felt queasy, and she had known.

            She'd whispered the name, "Roque," and touched her stomach.

            Then she'd shivered and snapped the window shut, realizing he was the last person she could ever tell and the last person she could ever desire.

            Fear of him made her heart flutter when a very tall, dark masculine figure opened her front door.  But it was only Irish Taylor, her father's brilliant foreman.  His craggy face was kind as he nodded at her.

            Before the baby, Ritz would have said she wished she'd never met Roque Moya Blackstone.  Roque, biker, cowboy, horseman, womanizer.  Roque, who was way too sexy whether he covered his black hair with a red bandanna and rode his bike or whether he wore his Stetson and sat astride a prized stallion.                                 

            Daddy had always said he was the reason her life had gone wrong.  She had learned a long time ago that nothing was as simple or as black and white as Daddy had said.

            Sometimes Ritz wondered what would have happened it she hadn't seen him dance by firelight on that long-ago summer night.  If some shiftless cowboy hadn't left the Blackstone Ranch gate open the next afternoon.  What if the Kellers and the Blackstones hadn't been feuding?  And what if Jet hadn't given into temptation and locked Ritz inside "the forbidden kingdom?"

            What if Jet hadn't seen Roque naked and stolen his clothes?  What if Ritz hadn't been so curious?  What if Roque hadn't been so stormily virile and turned-on all the time?

            What if he hadn't stolen Ritz's mare, Buttercup?

            What if he hadn't put his hands around her waist and lifted her up beside him, whispering in that sexy, velvet voice of his, "Do you want to fly?"

            But he had done all those things . . . and more.

            She'd only been fourteen.

            Too young to fall in love.

            Then he had to go and pretend to get hurt saving her and winning her heart.  She'd given him her treasured St. Jude medal, and of course, he'd refused to give it back, and ever since, she'd been caught in the tangle of his dark spell.

            Yes, looking back, Ritz could pinpoint the exact moment her life took its fatal turn.  It had been the night she'd watched Roque Blackstone dance like a savage half-naked on that beach.  The driftwood had burned like fire and gold, and she'd felt something alien and thrilling; she'd come alive and been changed . . . forever.

            And a woman is prone to look back, especially at her husband's funeral — when she's made huge mistakes, especially man mistakes, that seem to grow, and compound and haunt. Mistakes that keep on rebreaking her heart until she loses all hope of peace of mind and has no faith that she can ever get her life right — at least where men are concerned.

            But now she had his baby to think of and plan for.

            Just because she made bad choices, did that mean that her entire life was ruined?  That she couldn't be a good mother?  That she couldn't start over?  Somewhere far away from Texas, the scandals of her marriage and the grandeur of the Keller name?

            One thing she knew — her heart was broken in so many pieces; it would take her a lifetime to pick them all up.  She was through with men, marriage, wealth, and fame.

            Most of all, she was through with Roque Blackstone, the man who had shattered her as a girl and had the power to shatter her again.

            If she could just get through the funeral, she would finally be free to make her own choices.

            Until then she had to pretend.

            Her lavish ballroom with its elaborate commode, twin fauteuils, and nineteenth century bronzes was so redolent with the cloying sweetness of white roses, Ritz almost gagged.  Tables of crab, shrimp, and salmon were piled high.  Unthinking, she caressed her stomach protectively.

            The organist was playing "Amazing Grace."  The newspaper obituary had been long and impressive.  Everything about the grand River Oaks funeral, even his young widow in black, about whom so much had been written, was just as the deceased had planned it — solemn, stately, regal, in a word — perfect.

            As outwardly perfect as the sham that had passed for his life.

            His mother, queen for the day in her rustling black silk and showy diamonds, was a whirlwind of decorum and efficiency mincing from room to room in that tippy-toed gait that made Ritz want to scream.  Mother Evans smile was even more fixed and pompous than Josh's had been in his coffin, and she greeted everyone, except Ritz, with moist eyes and a soft, saccharine voice.  From time to time she even brushed a nonexistent tear from her well-powdered, parchment cheek.

            No wonder Josh had been unable to love Ritz or make her feel as Roque had.  But there was no going back, no changing Josh . . . or his mother.  Or herself.

            Plump old Socorro knew the truth and sympathized.  But then she had always had a soft spot for Roque.

            Poor Socorro.  Usually, she spent her days ironing upstairs where she could smoke and hide out and watch her telenovelas.  Today Mother Evans had Socorro racing in and out of the kitchen with heavily laden trays.

            The good reverend could not seem to stop with the Bible verses, either.

            Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life . . . Look at the birds of the air . . . consider the lilies of the field.

            One more verse and Ritz was afraid she'd pop out of her black sheath.

            Grief?  Nerves?  Guilt?  Terror?

            All of the above.

            But it was her fear of Roque that turned her fingers into claws around her china coffee cup and made her head drum.

            What if he did come?

            Not much longer . . . and this day that Josh had so painstakingly planned would be over.  Ritz had tried to talk him into a simple ceremony, but he'd selected his favorite Armani suit, saying he wanted his embalmed body to rest in state in the grand salon of their mansion for the whole day before the funeral.

            So, all of yesterday, legions of Houston dignitaries had trooped by his polished casket to tell Ritz how wonderful he looked and how exhausted she appeared, poor dear.  She's stood there, enduring hugs and murmured condolences, feeling sicker and sicker, until Josh's owlish, gray face in the casket had started to spin, and she'd fainted.

            The dead roses along with the aroma of smoked salmon were really getting to her.  So, she moved out of the dining room.  Oh, how she longed to breathe fresh air — to never ever come back inside this ostentatious house that she couldn't afford on six acres in Houston's posh heart.

            "She's shameless . . . all that bleached yellow hair," pronounced her busybody neighbor, Mrs. Beasley to Mother Evans as Ritz glided past them.

            The scarlet poppy on Mrs. B's big black hat swished back and forth like a conductor's wand.

            Mother Evans fixed Ritz with a chilly smile.

            "I live next door."  The old lady's voice lowered to a whisper, assured that everybody including Mother Evans would stop talking and listen.  "The things that have gone on in this house since he married her — "

            Ritz stared at a vase of roses on the fabulous commode by Riesener that Josh had found in Paris.

            "--all those young boys --"

            When?  Oh when would it ever be over?

            One minute Mrs. Beasley was queen of her gossipy little clique.

            " — never loved your poor boy — "

            But I thought I did.

            "-- high school sweethearts — "

            Socorro let out a muffled cry.  The front door slammed open, and a gust of hot, humid air swirled inside along with the tall, lean man clad in black leather.

            Noses high in the air, everybody turned to gape at the biker with the windburned face, who stood framed in the rectangular white glare.

            Only when he knew he had their attention did he shut the door, and so quietly, his gentleness was hostile.  Like a magnet, he pulled every well-bred woman's gaze into his bad-boy orbit.

            "Roque . . . . "

            A green wave of nausea hit Ritz.  Her heart began to pound like a rabbit's.  She didn't know whether to freeze or run.

            It wasn't him —

            Who else had high cheekbones that looked like they'd been hacked with blades?  Who else would show up at a funeral with a red bandanna tied like a skullcap over his head to hold back blue-black hair that was way too long?  Who else would sport a silver stud in his earlobe? .  in River Oaks . . .  on such a sacred day?

            Her head buzzed.

            Or show so little respect to a man of Josh's stature as to wear a black leather jacket with a four-inch rip at the shoulder?

            Roque's black-lashed, green eyes drilled Ritz.  The frank sexuality in them turned her insides to water as they had that first night when he'd danced so wildly before that leaping fire.

           

            She fought to look anywhere but at him.

            Impossible.

            She winced and had to hold herself in check when she saw that there was blood on his cheek and that he was limping a little.

            A dozen voices interrupted Mrs. B.

            "What's Blackstone doing here?"  Irish, Ritz's father's foreman, demanded almost savagely.

            Roque's green eyes never left her.

            Ritz felt as if electric currents vibrated in the air around her.

            When she stiffened, the lines under his eyes tightened imperceptibly.

            His skin was so brown.  Everybody else was so white.

            "Excuse me," she whispered to no one in particular, desperate to get away from him and everybody else's prying eyes.

            A waiter held up a platter of lobster and pink salmon on a bed of parsley and offered to make her a plate.  The fish odor made her throat go dry.  Hot little salty drops popped out on her forehead.

            She couldn't breathe.  "No . . . please . . . just . . . take it . . . back to the kitchen . . .  anywhere . . ."

            She fought the urge to be sick and then bent double.

            The last thing she saw was Roque.  His swarthy, piratical face went white and his green eyes brightened with fierce concern.  Then he rushed to help her.

            "No . . . no . . . ."

            Tight spasms sent the contents of her stomach roiling up her throat.

            The shock of his warm fingers at her waist made her forget everything else.

            "Don't touch me!"

            "You okay?" he rasped.

            Her cup and saucer smashed to the floor.

            She tried to stand up and spin free of him, but his hand locked on her arm like a vise.

            She expected his nastiest, most mocking smile.

            The tenderness in his rough voice took her breath away as he dabbed her mouth with his bandanna.  His black hair fell in wild disarray around his shoulders.

            "Are you going to have a baby?"  His voice was raw; his glittering eyes stark and naked.

            No.  No.  Just say no.

            But she couldn't.  All the lies she should have shouted died in her throat.

            "So it's mine."  Again, his eyes met hers squarely, honestly.

            "No.  Of course not."  She fought to loosen herself from his bruising grip.

            "You owe me the truth — this time!"

            Still, she could only stand there, mute, agonized.

            Finally, she pushed against his chest, but the more she fought, the more like steel his hands and arms and huge body became.  She kicked at him and lost her balance, the leather sole of her shoe sliding on the polished floor.

            Her hand hit the parquet floor before he could catch her.  A sliver of china slashed her arm.  Blood pooled.

            Somebody screamed.

            A woman.

            Surely not her.

            Then why was everybody staring at her?  And why was Roque's brown face spinning like a carve god's in the midst of Josh's shocked friends?

            "I've got you now," he said gently.  "You've cut yourself."

            Livid red dribbled from her arm onto his brown hand then to the white china chips.  He lifted her to her feet.

            Jet and Irish, dark figures in black, raced through the fascinated throng of mourners.

            "-- darling!  Your coffee cup — " Somehow Mother Evans and Irish deftly pushed Roque aside.

            "-- shattered it!" Jet said.

            "Your arm!  Oh, dear!"  Mother Evans began to fuss.  "And you were sick again . . .  Your dress!"

            "I don't think it's broken," Irish said, examining her arm, and although he was a cowboy, he would be the one to know.

            Jet took over.  "Socorro, get me a towel."

            And still, Mrs. Beasley couldn't stop.

            "-- Josh was a gardener, grew all his own roses.  She cut every one for the funeral, and then forgot to put them in water and let them wither — "

            " — too bad she couldn't be faithful — "

            " — big money — "

            " — hers.  Keller money, you know — "

            " — thought they cut her off — "

            Through it all, Roque stared at her.  Only at her. 

            " — all that messy yellow hair.  She doesn't look like a border saint to me — "

            " — there's too many of them — "

            " — overrunning us — "

            " — her work at the colonias was just her excuse to get away from Josh so she could sleep with all those other men — "

            Roque's aquiline features hardened.

            Her own nerves clamored as if every cell in her being was tuned to him.  Only to him.

            She was pregnant . . . with his child . . . again.  And he knew it.

            He wasn't a powerless boy from Mexico, the despised son of his evil rich white father anymore.

            Jet had the towel around Ritz' arm now and was squeezing.  "It's just a scratch.  You'll be fine in a minute."

            "Thank you," Ritz whispered brokenly.  "I — I think I need to go upstairs and lie down."

            " — didn't shed a single tear at the wake," came the unstoppable Mrs. Beasley.

            "I did, too!"  Ritz whispered.  "When I was chopping onions . . .  for Mother Evans caviar."

            Just then Roque's dark, masculine eyebrow flicked upward in sardonic mockery.

            "Shh," Jet said.

            "I promised Josh I would cry.  That's why I chopped . . . ."

            "It doesn't matter," Jet said, pulling her gently away from the others.

            "No . . . not that way . . . " she pleaded when Roque stepped in front of them.

            But it was already too late.

            "I'll take it from here," Roque said, blocking their path.  His jaw was square, his fierce eyes dark emerald.  The cut of his cheek blazed.

            Everybody held their breath, but anyone who expected a scene was disappointed.  Jet stepped meekly aside.  And Ritz let herself be led by Roque Blackstone upstairs to her bedroom.

            Not even Irish attempted to rescue her.

            The minute they were in her room Roque closed the door, his eyes zeroing in on the pile of slashed strips of black fabric scattered messily all over the floor and then on her open suitcases spread across her bed.

            Ritz went white.  Why hadn't she thought?  She should have directed him to any other room.  But she'd been too upset to think.

            Roque knelt and lifted a scrap of black wool and then another of silk and waggled them beneath her nose.  "What the hell is going on?"

            "Nothing."  She took a breath.  "While you amuse yourself, I'll go brush my teeth."

            Her cheeks heated.  "Give those to me!"  When she tried to snatch her panties from him, he held on, stretching the elastic.

            "Nice panties," he said.  "Fit for a princess."  He let them go with a snap.

            "I — I . . .  went to the closet to hunt for a black dress . . . to wear today," she began in a rush, wadding her panties, throwing them at her suitcase.

            "Really?" he drawled even as he absorbed every detail about her, every nuance of expression — reading her.

            She turned her back on him and headed to the bathroom to brush her teeth.  She wasn't about to tell him she'd been like a crazy woman last night.  That suddenly she'd been snipping, first her best black silk, then her favorite black wool jersey, not that she could have worn anything that hot today.

            She'd cut and torn — until she had piles of tiny squares that she couldn't cut any smaller.  Even then she'd started shredding the remnants.

            Hours later, Jet, who was a fancy lawyer now, had found her in the middle of the bed, yanking at the tangles of black threads like a madwoman.

            "What are you doing?"

            "I can't cry and I'm supposed to wear black.  Only I cut up my best black dresses," Ritz had said.  "Even my slinkiest black nightgown."

            "Well, you wouldn't want to wear a slinky nightgown to a funeral."

            Ritz had started laughing and hadn't been able to stop.

            When Ritz came out of the bathroom, Roque's face was hard.  Every muscle in his body was like a coiled spring.  No, Ritz couldn't tell him any of that.

            Sudden she burst out laughing just as she had last night with Jet.

            "Get a grip," he said quietly, rushing toward her.  "It's a good thing you're packed."

            "I don't understand."

            "You're pregnant with my child."

            "No . . . ."

            "A very simple test will prove me right."

            "You wouldn't . . . ."

            His hard eyes lingered on her belly.  "I would do anything to protect my unborn child this time — even marry you."

            "I . . .  I'm never ever getting married again."

            "Oh, yes, you are.  Very soon.  to me, querida."

            "No!"  Blood pounded in her head.  This couldn't be happening!

            "Why, are you doing this . . .  You . . . you . . . don't love me . . . ."

            "You couldn't get pregnant by your fancy husband, could you?" he whispered, his low voice dangerously smooth.  "Or by any of your other lovers?  You needed a stud.  Someone you knew for sure could get you pregnant — even if I am a Mexican."

            She began backing away from him toward her bed.

            "You slept around on him, didn't you?"

            Her stiff steps were awkward, but she didn't deny what he accused her of.

            "Didn't you?"  he demanded in a harsher tone.  "I was nothing to you.  Then you went back to him so you could pass my kid off as his."

            "No . . . . "

            "How many others did you sleep with . . . before you crawled into my bed?"

            "That's not what happened and you know it."

            He grabbed her, crushing her arms as he pulled her into a tight embrace.  "Don't lie to me — ever again."

            Her breathing was rapid and uneven.

            "You still think you're the princesa and I'm the Mexican lowlife."

            She couldn't look up at him, not even when his hand lifted her chin and she felt him stripping her with his eyes.

            "You used me as a stud — Well, querida, this Mexican stallion comes with a stud fee.  And that fee is marriage . . . to me."

            "But you don't want this baby.  You just want the ranch."

            He drew a long contemptuous breath.  "Do you ever think about that little grave with all the buttercups on top of it?"

            She whitened.

            "You're not killing another baby of mine."

            His voice was so sharp and hate-filled; his words cut her like blows.

            She gasped.  "You're crazy."

            "Yes, I am," he murmured, drawing in a harsh breath as he pulled her closer.  "Kiss me and we'll seal this crazy deal."

            "What?"

            "We're going to be married.  Man and wife.  And all that that means."

            "I — I just want to be by myself.  Me.  For once.  Not somebody's wife.  Never yours!"

            "You should have thought about that before you used me to get pregnant."

            She mistrusted the look in his eyes and the hardness in his voice.  But before she could twist free, he crushed her body into his.  Even as she fought his lips covered hers.

            There was domination as well as the desire to punish in his devouring kiss.  Always before he'dbeen so gentle, so infinitely tender.

            And yet, even as his mouth ravaged hers, underneath this assault, surely this brutal stranger was Roque.  Roque whose bronzed body was made of molten flesh.  Roque, who was so fantastic and tender in bed.  Roque, who always made love to her for hours.  Roque, who turned her into a wanton.  Roque, who made her forget why their love could never be whenever he so much as touched her.

            The last time they'd made love, he'd kissed every inch of her skin from the hollow beneath her throat to the tips of her toes.

            On a shudder she nestled closer to him, opening her lips to his endlessly, inviting his tongue.  When she arched, his body tensed.  He groaned.  In the next breath, he ripped his mouth from hers.

            Always, always he made her want and ache and need.  She sighed, starved for more, so much more, and yet hating herself because she felt that way.

            "Marriage is the only way I know how to stop you," he said hoarsely, warningly, as if he despised both her and despised himself.

            "You can't be serious . . . about this.  About . . . us."

            His fathomless eyes bored into hers.  "Are you going downstairs to tell them our happy news?"

            When she hesitated, his gravelly tone grew ever more bitter with sarcasm.  "Or do want me to do it?"

            Nobody could peel their eyes off the white marble staircase.  But like any audience when the stars go offstage, Josh's mourners were getting restless.

            "— simply awful . . .  her up there . . .  all this time . . . with him— "

            " — today of all days — "

            "I really need to pick Chispa up at the groomer's before he closes.  If I leave her there too long she always potties on the front seat."

            "We can't just go . . . not without telling her goodbye.  How would that look?"

            "As if she cares about that?"

            The idle chatter caused a mad rushing in one person's ears.

            Then a door clicked open upstairs, and two tall, black-clad bodies appeared on the white marble landing beneath the glittering Murano chandelier and stood there for a long moment, waiting.

            The voices and laughter died abruptly and a brittle hush settled over the house.  Everybody, especially the observer, was impatient for the final curtain of Ritz's little farce.

            Something was dreadfully wrong.

            Blackstone's dark hand gripped Ritz's as he dragged her forward to the railing.  Her yellow hair had come loose and spilled like butter over her shoulders.  Her stricken eyes glowed like dying purple stars in a porcelain doll's face.  She was so white.  He was so dark.

            She was the perfect tragic queen.

            Beautiful.  Spellbinding.

            Even if she was heartbroken, Roque made her come alive.  She seemed ablaze.

            Had the horny bastard screwed her up there in the bedroom?  Did he think the Triple K was already his?

            Blackstone.  The name alone made the observer's flesh crawl.  But a practiced smile masked the wild hatred as well as the other dark emotions that flare so easily in the damaged soul.

            When a look of terror flashed across Ritz's face and she tried to free herself, Blackstone yanked her closer.

            His triumphant eyes roamed, meeting the observer's ever so briefly, causing as always that involuntary little shudder of fear before the rage took over.

            Had he seen what was there?

            No.  Ritz wasn't the only one who could pretend.

            The smile, the perfect facade was in place.

            Nobody suspect.  Not Ritz.  Not Moya.

            Nobody would — until the killings started again.

            Then it would be too late.