Sarah's child (Chapter 2)

It was a good thing the next day was Saturday, because after a horrible night spent alternately crying and staring at the ceil-ing, Sarah slept late and rose still feeling tired, her eyes heavy-lidded, her movements slow. She forced herself to do her routine chores, then that afternoon flopped down on the sofa, too tired and uninterested to tackle anything else. She needed to shop for groceries, but simply couldn't face the hassle. A quick mental inventory of her cabinets reassured her that she wouldn't starve, at least not for a couple of days.

The doorbell rang, and she got up, answering the summons without thinking. As soon as she opened the door and looked up into Rome's dark face, a feeling of despair settled on her shoulders. Why couldn't he have waited until Monday? She'd have recovered by then and wouldn't be at such a terrible disadvantage. She didn't even have the comfort of being prop-erly dressed. Her long hair was loose and hanging down her back; her jeans were old, tight, and faded; and the oversize jersey she wore probably revealed the fact that she was bra-less. She fought the urge to cross her arms protectively over her chest, even when his eyes dropped to survey her from her feet, clad in blue socks, all the way up to her face, which was bare of even a trace of makeup.

"Ask me in," he commanded, his voice even deeper than usual.

She didn't extend a verbal invitation; she couldn't. Instead she stepped back and opened the door, and he moved past her into the room. He was dressed casually, in well-cut tan slacks and a blue pullover shirt, but he still made her feel like some-thing found in the city dump. "Have a seat," she invited, fi-nally controlling her voice enough to speak. He sat down on the sofa, and she seated herself across from him in an over-size armchair, unable to make polite chitchat, just waiting for him to break the tension by speaking.

Rome wasn't aware of any tension; he had been taken too much by surprise by her appearance, and he was having dif-ficulty dealing with this startling new aspect of her character. He'd expected her to be dressed in heels, sleek black pants, and a silk blouse, her coldness firmly in place as a barrier be-tween them. Instead she looked very young, very relaxed, and very sexy in those comfortable old clothes. She had the sleek, aristocratic grace of form and carriage that made it possible for her to wear anything, even an old football jersey, with ca-sual elegance. He knew that she and Diane had been the same age, so that made her thirty-three, but there was a freshness about her bare face that took at least ten years off her age. This was how he'd often imagined seeing her, or at least a varia-tion on the theme. The remote poise he'd expected was gone, and he realized that he had her at a disadvantage. With relish, he looked her over again, his eyes lingering on the obvious freedom of her breasts beneath the jersey, and to his surprise and intensified desire, a warm blush heated her cheeks.

"I'm sorry about last night," he said abruptly. "At least, about what I said. I'm not sorry I kissed you, or that I almost went to bed with you."

Sarah looked away, unable to meet his intense gaze. "I un-derstand. We were both – "

"Upset. I know." He gave her a crooked little smile as he interrupted her. "But upset or not, I kissed you the second time because I wanted to kiss you. I'd like to see you, take you out to dinner, if you can forgive me for what I said."

Sarah wet her lips. Part of her wanted to jump at the oppor-tunity, any opportunity, to spend time with him, but the other part of her was cautious, afraid of being hurt. "I don't think it would be a good idea," she finally said, choking the words out of her dry throat. "Diane…Diane would always be in my mind."

His eyes went black as pain assailed him. "And in mine. But I can't lie down and die with her; I have to keep living. I'm attracted to you, and I'll tell you up front that I always have been." He ran an agitated hand through his dark hair, dis-turbing the lock that usually fell over his forehead. "Hell, I don't know," he burst out in confusion, "but last night, for the I could talk about them. You knew them, and you understand. It's all been dammed up inside me, and I can talk about it with you. Please, Sarah, you were Diane's friend. Now be my friend."

She sucked in her breath, staring painfully at him. What irony, that the man she'd loved for years should come to her begging for her friendship, because he felt he could talk to her about his dead wife. For the first time she resented Diane, re-sented the hold Diane had on Rome that hadn't loosened even in death. But how could she say no to him, when he was star-ing at her with desperation tightening his features? How could she say no to him regardless of what he asked her? It was the raw truth that she couldn't deny him anything.

"All right," she whispered.

He sat there for a moment; then her words sank in and he closed his eyes in relief. What if she'd refused? In a way he couldn't understand, it had become vital to him that she not freeze him out. She was his last link to Diane, and more than that, the night before he'd finally broken the ice that sur-rounded her and found that she wasn't cold at all. He wanted to do that again. The thought of bringing her to passion in-terfered with his breathing and made his loins grow heavy.

To take his mind off his growing desire, he looked around the condo and was again surprised. There was no glass or chrome, only comfortable textures and soothing colors. Her furniture was all sturdy and overstuffed, inviting to a tired body. He wanted to stretch out on her sofa, which was long enough to accommodate his long legs, and watch a baseball game on television while idly munching on freshly popped, salty popcorn, with a can of frosty beer in his hand. The room was that soothing, that comfortable. This was where she let her hair down, literally, he thought, surveying with pleasure the pale tumble of her hair. When she pulled it back into the tight, severe twist she wore at work, she subdued all hint of curl, but now he could see that her hair wasn't weed-straight. The weight of it pulled most of the curl out, but the ends had a tendency to form frothy, bouncy curls. She was so blonde, it was startling.

"I like this room," he said, his eyes on her.

Sarah looked nervously around, aware of how much of her-self was revealed in the atmosphere she'd created for her pri-vate lair. Here she'd made a home that gave her the warmth and security she craved and had lacked all her life. She'd grown up in a home that had provided physical comfort, but left her out in the cold when it came to love. The house had been immaculate, and "done" to perfection by a hideously ex-pensive interior decorator, but the coldness of it had made Sarah shiver, and she'd invented excuses, even as a child, to escape it. The coldness had reflected the hostility of the man and woman who lived there, each of them so bitter at being trapped in a loveless marriage that there had been no warmth or laughter for the child who, though innocent, had been the chain that held them together. When they finally divorced, only a few weeks after Sarah had entered college, it had been a relief for all three of them. Never close to her parents, since then Sarah had drifted even farther from them. Her mother had remarried and lived in Bermuda; her father had also remar-ried, moved to Seattle, and was now, at fifty-seven, the dot-ing father of a six-year-old son.

The only example of warm home-life Sarah had known was that provided by Diane, first with Diane's parents, then with the home she'd made with Rome. Diane had had the gift of love, a warm outpouring of affection that had drawn people to her. With Diane, Sarah had laughed and teased, and done all of the normal things that a teenage girl did. But now Diane was gone. At least, Sarah thought painfully, Diane had died without ever knowing that her best friend was in love with her husband.

Suddenly she collected her manners and scrambled to her feet. "I'm sorry. Would you like something to drink?"

A cold beer, he thought. And salty popcorn. He'd bet any-thing he had that Sarah wasn't a beer drinker, but he could pic-ture her curled by his side, sipping on a soft drink and delving her hand into the bowl for popcorn. She wouldn't talk during the game either, but during the commercials he'd tip her head back and kiss her slowly, tasting the salt on her lips. By the time the game ended, he'd be so wild for her, he'd take her there on the sofa, or maybe on the carpet in front of the television.

Sarah shifted uneasily, wondering why he was watching her so intently. She put a hand to her cheek, thinking that she could dash into her bedroom and do a fast cosmetic job on her face. Anything would be an improvement over nothing.

"I don't suppose you have beer?" he asked softly, not tak-ing his eyes from her.

Despite herself, she chuckled at the question. She'd never bought beer in her life; all she knew about it was the catchy jingles on television. "No, you're out of luck. Your choice is limited to a soft drink, water, tea or milk."

His eyebrows rose at that. "No spirits?"

"I'm not much of a drinker. My metabolism can't handle it. I found out in college that I'm the world's cheapest drunk."

When she smiled, her face took on an animation that made him catch his breath. He shifted uncomfortably.Damn! Everything she did made him think of sex.

"I think I'll pass on a drink, unless you're inviting me to dinner?" His eyebrows rose in question.

Sarah sank back into her chair, unnerved by the speed with which he presumed on their newly formed friendship. How could she invite him to dinner? It was already late in the af-ternoon, and she hadn't bought groceries. The most nutritious meal she could offer him would be peanut butter sandwiches, and Rome didn't look like a peanut butter man. What did he like to eat? Frantically she tried to call to mind the type of meals Diane had prepared, but Diane had been such a total disaster as a cook that her efforts had been limited to the sim-ple things she could prepare without too much risk, and which reflected necessity rather than anyone's preference. Sarah was an excellent cook, but there was a limit to what could be done with a partial loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.

Finally she turned up her palms helplessly. "My cupboards aren't bare, but they're the next thing to it. I can invite you to dinner, but it will be a late one, because I'll have to go shopping first."

Her candor delighted him, and he laughed, a genuine laugh that made his dark eyes dance with light. Sarah caught her breath. He certainly wasn't handsome, but when he laughed, Rome Matthews could charm the birds out of the trees. That dark velvet laugh made her spine tingle, and she thought of lying in bed with him in the darkness, after making love. They'd talk, and his voice would wash over her, the rumbling tones making her feel secure and protected.

"Why don't I take you out to dinner instead?" he offered, and suddenly Sarah knew that he'd planned that all along, but had decided to tease her first.

"All right," she accepted softly. "What do you have in mind?"

"Steak. If we can't find the world's biggest steak in Texas, then it can't be found. I haven't had lunch," he confessed.

Because he was so hungry, they had an early dinner. Sarah sat across from him and chewed her steak without really tast-ing it, her mind on Rome and every nuance of his expression, every word he uttered. She felt bemused by the turn of events; she simply couldn't believe she was eating dinner with him, making normal conversation, as if the abrupt, searing mo-ments in his arms the night before had never happened. She'd been out to dinner hundreds of times before, but always with men who had never ruffled her layers of indifference. She wasn't indifferent at all with Rome: she felt bare, exposed, though it was an inner vulnerability that wasn't revealed by her calm expression. Her nerves were quivering, and her heartbeat was accelerated.

Still, she managed to make normal conversation, and it was inevitable that the talk should turn to their work. Sarah's boss, Mr. Graham, the senior vice president, nominally outranked Rome, but it was no secret that when Mr. Edwards, the chair-man of the board, retired, Henry Graham wouldn't be the one who advanced to the chair. Rome was young, but he was a brilliant corporate strategist, and he understood every phase of the company. Sarah thought he was perfectly suited for such a high position of authority; he had the forceful person-ality, the intelligence, the charisma, needed to handle the job. In the years she'd known him, she'd only seen him lose his temper once while at work, and that display had sent people scurrying for cover. He had a temper, but it was usually under iron control. That made it doubly surprising that he'd lost his temper with her the night before, with so little provocation.

At first Rome was a little stiff, as if wary of saying too much to her, but as the hours wore on he relaxed with her, leaning forward over the table in interest, his gaze fixed in-tently on her face. Sarah didn't generally volunteer her opin-ions, but she was unusually observant, and her years of concentration on her job had given her a lot of insight into the hidden mechanisms of office politics, and the capabilities and weaknesses of the people they worked with. With Rome, her usual guards were gone, wiped completely out of her con-sciousness. She simply responded to him on all levels, too happy just being with him to think of protecting herself. Her face, usually so remote and shuttered, became alive under the glow of his attention, and her Nile-green eyes lost their shad-ows to sparkle at him beguilingly.

The conversation didn't lapse when he drove her home, and they were so intent that, when he stopped the car in front of her condo, they sat in the car like teenagers reluctant to end a date, rather than going inside for coffee to finish the evening. The streetlights illuminated the interior of the car with silvery light, washing away all shades of color except for the dark-ness of his hair and eyes and the pale sheen of her hair. She was ethereal in the artificial moonlight projected by the street-lights, her low voice gentle in the darkness.

Rome suddenly reached out and took her hand. "I've en-joyed this. It seems like forever since I've been able to talk to a woman. I haven't had a relationship with a woman since Diane died. I don't mean sex," he explained calmly. "I'm talk-ing about being able to be friends with a woman, to talk to her and enjoy her company, to relax with her. I think I've missed that the most. Tonight… well, it's felt good. Thank you."

Sarah turned her hand in his and squeezed his fingers lightly. "That's what friends are for."

He walked with her up to her apartment. Sarah unlocked the door and opened it, reaching inside to turn on the light be-fore she turned to face Rome again. Her smile was gently sad, for she hated to see the night end. It had been, for all its lack of drama, one of the best times of her life. "Good night. It's been fun." More than fun. It had been heavenly.

"Good night." But he didn't leave. Instead he stood in the doorway, soberly regarding her. He lifted his hand and stroked her cheek with his forefinger, then slid his hand around to cup her chin in his palm. He leaned toward her, and Sarah went weak with anticipation, her eyes widening as fevered delight shot through her. He was going to kiss her again. Lightly his mouth touched hers, his lips moving with tender expertise over her parted, breathless mouth. His warm taste filled her, and Sarah's lashes fluttered, then slowly closed. With a zephyr of a sigh she swayed into his arms; he needed no more en-couragement than that. Locking his arms around her, he pulled her up against his chest and gradually deepened the kiss, as if he were wary of going too fast for her, giving her time to accept or reject each new move.

There was no question of her rejecting him. It wasn't in Sarah's makeup to say no to Rome in any way. She felt the heat of his body burning her through the layers of their cloth-ing, and the warmth was a beacon that drew her closer. She wound her arms around his neck and eagerly accepted the more intimate intrusion of his tongue. A naked, wanting heat began building in her, and she wanted to be closer to him, to mold herself against him so tightly that his flesh would be hers.

His hands moved restlessly over her back, wanting to seek richer ground but restricted by the tight control he kept on him-self and the situation. Sensing her safety with him, Sarah kissed him with undisguised hunger, not caring that he might look beyond the obvious explanation for her behavior and ar-rive at the correct conclusion that her attraction to him went beyond sex. But sex with him would be so good, she thought giddily, clinging to him. His experience was obvious in the firm but gentle way he touched her, the leisure with which he ap-proached every caress. If he'd taken her into the bedroom right then, she'd have followed him without a murmur of protest.

But he lifted his mouth from hers, though he sighed and rested his forehead against hers for a moment before reach-ing up and disentangling her arms from about his neck, then setting her away from him. "Now it really is good night. I'm going to be in bad shape if this goes on much longer, so I'm stopping it here. I'll see you Monday morning, at work."

Quickly Sarah reached for her composure, drawing it about her like a garment, and she tried to disguise the raggedness of her breathing. Her body felt betrayed, but he was right: it had to stop there, or it wouldn't stop at all. "Yes. Good night," she breathed, before stepping into her apartment and quietly closing the door.

Rome went to his car, but sat in it for a long time before starting it and driving away. No, she wasn't cold at all, despite the way she looked and that ice-queen manner she used. He hadn't wanted to leave her; all his senses had been clamoring for the comfort to be found in her soft, warm body, but to his surprise, he'd found that he couldn't take her as casually as he'd taken the other women who'd been with him the last two years. She was Diane's friend, and Diane had loved her; his conscience wouldn't allow him to treat her as a sexual con-venience. Besides, he really had enjoyed having dinner with her. She had a surprisingly keen sense of humor, and when she relaxed, she was really lovely, with her eyes sparkling and her soft mouth curved into a smile.

And when she kissed him, she'd kissed him as if she meant it. The unquestioning response she'd given him had almost driven him beyond the boundaries of his control. The feel of her soft hips pressing into him was enough to make him for-get everything but the warm female body in his arms. Far from diminishing on closer acquaintance, the physical interest he'd felt in her for years was intensifying every time he saw her. He'd seen her long white-gold hair in a shimmering halo around her shoulders, and now he wanted to see it spread across a pillow as she lay waiting for him, her slim, graceful body bare, her mouth swollen and pouty from his kisses. A possessive surge made him grind his teeth, and he thought of the cold shower he'd have to take before he'd be able to sleep. If he'd stayed with her, he'd be relaxed and sleepy by now, all of his tensions drained out of him.

But she wasn't just any woman. He couldn't use her and then toss her aside. Apart from the fact that they had to work together, he wanted more from her than that. A one-night stand wouldn't do it with her; he wanted to unlock all her se-crets, thrill time and time again to the sweet, hot way she melted against him. He thought of having an affair with her, and was surprised to suddenly find himself wondering if an affair would be enough to satisfy him. He wanted to know everything about her; he wanted to completely shatter her cool control and learn all the things that he could do to give her pleasure. He was adrift, and he needed Sarah right then more than he could comprehend, in all ways.

It was more than just physical, he realized abruptly. He could talk with her; she was intelligent, amusing, but there was the added bonus that he didn'thave to talk to her, because she had a quality of serenity that made silence possible. When-ever he looked into the shadows of her exotic green eyes, he had the feeling she understood everything, without words.

But she was a dedicated career woman; she'd made it pretty clear over the years that she did just fine on her own, thank you, without a man making demands on her time. She'd probably reject out of hand any hint of seriousness from him, so he had to keep it light, casual, let her become accustomed to being in his company. He had doubts, though, about his ability to keep it light whenever she turned into his arms and answered his kisses so ardently. He wanted to throw her across a bed and kiss her from her head to her feet, feast his senses on the sleek womanliness of her body. But what would she say?

Maybe she wouldn't reject an offer of an affair. She was, after all, a modern, adult woman; if her response to him was anything to go by, she was willing to have sex with him, but he knew from working with her that she kept her personal life strictly separated from her business life. That would be one strike against him, but he thought he could eventually convince her. He'd take it slowly with her, not rushing her, letting her lower all those defenses of hers. He couldn't say why, but he sensed that she was wary with him, deep inside where he couldn't see. Perhaps she was wary with all men. Diane had wondered aloud sometimes if Sarah hadn't had a married lover and been burned pretty badly by him.

There was a well-camouflaged vulnerability about her, and he wondered what fool had been stupid enough to have all that pale glory in his bed and let her slip away from him.

Sarah hadn't expected to hear from Rome again that weekend, so when she answered the phone the next afternoon and heard his voice, a thrill of pleasure sang through her. Be-fore she could do more than say hello, however, he cut across her greeting.

"Sarah, Henry's had a heart attack, a bad one."

Shocked, Sarah almost dropped the phone, and she tight-ened her grip on it. Her boss hadn't seemed the sort to be struck by heart trouble. He was a small man, wiry to the point of thinness, and very active. He was an avid golfer, jogged every day, and in Sarah's memory had never indulged in any of the excesses people were warned against. He wasn't the dy-namic man that Rome was, but Sarah was fond of him. "Will he live?" she finally asked quietly, going straight to the most important question.

"It's touch and go. His wife called me; I'm at the hospital now." Someone in the background said something to him, and Rome said, "Hang on a minute." He covered the receiver with his hand, reducing his words to a muffled jumble of sounds. Then he came back to her, his voice brisk. "He took some re-ports home with him this weekend that we'll need Monday morning. Can you go over to his house and pick them up? The housekeeper will let you in."

"Yes, of course," she agreed automatically. "Which reports do you need?"

"The Sterne financial statement, and the projected growth pattern. Look, go through his briefcase and pull out whatever you think we'll need. I'll see you in the morning."

"But what hospital is he in – ?" Sarah began, only to be cut off by a click. Well, there wasn't anything she could do now anyway. She'd find out more the next morning, and perhaps then there would be a more definite prognosis than "touch and go." Distressed by her boss's sudden illness, she quickly combed her hair, then drove over to his house. As instructed, the housekeeper let her in, and the tiny little woman told Sarah the details. Mr. Graham had seemed fine that morning, and had played nine holes of golf. After lunch, he'd com-plained of pains in his left arm, then abruptly collapsed.

"It can come at any time," the housekeeper said solemnly, shaking her head. "You just never know."

"No, you never do," Sarah agreed.

It was the next morning, when she was called to an un-usual meeting in Mr. Edwards's office, before Sarah realized that Mr. Graham's heart attack could drastically affect her own job. Rome was present too, his dark eyes concerned as he watched her.

Sarah darted a quick glance at him, quivering as she thought of the way he'd kissed her, then just as quickly looked away. She couldn't meet the intensity of his gaze and keep her mind on her job, and that was distressing. No matter how much pressure she'd been under, she'd always been able to perform her duties; it was upsetting to realize that Rome could throw her off balance with just one look.

"Sarah, sit down, please," Mr. Edwards invited, his shrewd eyes kind as he watched her. Sarah had always got-ten along with Mr. Edwards, but he'd never before asked her to attend a meeting. She sat down and calmly folded her hands in her lap.

"Henry won't be back," Mr. Edwards said gently. "I've talked to his doctor personally. If he takes it easy, avoids stress, and doesn't have another attack, he may live a num-ber of years, but he won't be able to work. He's going to take an early retirement. Rome is being promoted to senior vice president."

Again Sarah risked a quick glance at Rome, to find him still watching her with that unnerving intensity. He leaned for-ward in his chair and offered, "I can't hire you as my secre-tary. Kali has been my secretary for years, and of course she'll move up with me."

That wasn't a surprise. Sarah gave him a gentle smile that ripped through his insides, causing his fist to clench sud-denly. She hadn't expected to be his secretary; it would never have worked anyway. She simply couldn't have worked so closely with him, every day. It had been bad enough just see-ing him occasionally. "Yes, of course. Am I being fired?"

"Good lord, no!" Mr. Edwards said, startled. "No, don't think that at all. But we wanted to give you a choice. I'm bringing a man in from Montreal to replace Rome, and his secretary doesn't want to relocate. If you want the job, it's yours, and he's agreeable. If you'd rather transfer to some other department, just say so. You've done an outstanding job for Spencer-Nyle over the years; the choice of jobs is yours."

Sarah thought of transferring, but she really liked the intense atmosphere of the executive offices, where decisions were made that affected thousands of people. The challenge kept her in-terested, and though she was in proximity to Rome, the fast pace of her work tended to keep her mind off him during the day.

"I'd like to be his secretary," she finally answered gravely. "What's his name?"

"Maxwell Conroy. He's been directing our Montreal office very competently. I believe he's English."

"Yes," Rome confirmed. Probably Rome had already pulled Maxwell Conroy's personnel file from the computer and memorized every word of it.

"Good," Mr. Edwards said heartily, rising to his feet and signaling that they were dismissed. Rome followed Sarah out the door, but didn't return to his own office. He was close be-hind her as she went into her office, and he closed the door behind them. Feeling absurdly nervous, Sarah moved away from him and sought refuge behind her desk.

"I want you to know," he murmured, leaning over the desk and bringing his face close to hers, "I want you for my sec-retary… badly… but my common sense tells me that I'd never get any work done. I'd be the stereotypical boss who chases his secretary around the desk, so for the sake of the company, I suppose I'll have to keep Kali."

Sarah stared at him, losing herself in the dark wells of his eyes. "I understand," she whispered.

"Do you?" He straightened, his smile quizzical as he looked down at her. "I'm not so certain that I do. Maybe you can explain it. Will you go out to dinner with me tonight?"

She normally didn't make dates during the week, as she never knew when she would have to work late, but when Rome asked her, her usual caution flew out the window. "Yes, please." She couldn't hide the pleasure in her eyes, and he stared at her for a moment before he leaned down once again and kissed her once, hard.

"I'll pick you up at eight. How does Chinese sound?"

"Wonderful. I love Chinese."

Her hands shook after he'd gone when she tried to get through her routine paperwork. This was beginning to look like a serious relationship, and there was no way she could back off from it, no way she even wanted to. She thought of Diane, and her eyes closed briefly. She would have died in Diane's place, if she could have, but no one had been given a choice. Rome was free now, physically and legally if not emotionally, and whatever chance she had with him, Sarah meant to take it.

* * *

If he didn't have a business dinner scheduled, Rome took her out every night that week. Sarah didn't question her good fortune; she simply enjoyed every moment she had with him. Reminding herself that he'd asked only to be friends, she tried not to say anything or make any gestures that he could interpret as being flirtatious, though sometimes that hardly seemed to matter. When he kissed her good night, his light kiss would linger, as if he were inexorably drawn to the soft warmth of her mouth, and soon she'd be locked in his arms as they kissed with all the pent-up fervor of teenagers. But there was no more than that; he always drew away before any deeper intimacy developed between them, and Sarah took that to mean that he didn't intend any serious relationship to grow between them. He seemed content with things as they were; he had companionship and lively conversation from her, as well as the comfort of shared interests. She wanted more; she wanted everything he had to give, but perhaps hewas giv-ing her all he had. She knew that Diane was never far from his mind, and whenever they talked about her, as they in-evitably did, his expression would grow bleak.

A week after Mr. Graham's heart attack, Maxwell Conroy flew in from Montreal. He was a tall, lean Englishman with a precise British upper-class accent, a cap of golden hair, and the liveliest, most wickedly dancing blue-green eyes Sarah had ever seen. He was more than handsome; he had an age-less, aristocratic beauty to him that held women bemused, staring at him helplessly. If Sarah had been able to see any-one but Rome, she would probably have fallen in love with Maxwell Conroy on sight, but as it was, he received only her usual polite, slightly remote smile.

He wasted no time. The first time Sarah was alone with him he asked her out to dinner.

She looked up at him with startled, wide eyes. There was no way of mistaking his intentions, not with those luminous eyes so plainly telegraphing his thoughts. She bit her lip; how could she refuse him without making things difficult between them at work? She didn't want to commit herself, though, be-cause Rome could ask her out at any time. "I don't think that would be a good idea," she finally refused, keeping her voice gentle. "We have to work together, and you know that although there aren't any actual company rules against employees dat-ing, it's generally discouraged within the same department."

"I also know that as long as people are discreet it's gener-ally ignored."

She drew a deep breath. "I'm seeing someone else."

"Would he mind?" Maxwell asked promptly, and Sarah gave a low chuckle.

"Probably not," she admitted, her laugh fading into an echo of pain that was revealed in the way the soft green of her eyes grew misty with shadows.

"Then he's a fool," Maxwell said under his breath, his eyes on her sleek, pale knot of hair. "If you should decide to give someone else a chance, do let me know."

"Yes." For a moment, she met his warm, piercing gaze. "I will."

In all truth, she was more attracted to Maxwell than she'd been to any other man in her life, except for Rome. She'd liked Maxwell on sight, and in a curious way she felt relaxed with him, for she sensed that he recognized the boundaries she'd set and would respect them until she gave him permission to go beyond them.

That afternoon Rome and Maxwell lingered in the hallway, finishing a discussion before leaving for the day. Sarah locked up the office and murmured a good night to them as she walked past, carefully not letting her glance linger on Rome.

Maxwell turned so he could watch her walk down the hall-way, his brilliant eyes narrowed with interest. Rome's dark gaze sharpened, and he too turned to watch Sarah, noting the grace with which she walked, the way her skirt moved fluidly about her lovely legs. He didn't like the way Maxwell was looking at her, like a cat lovingly surveying the canary it was about to have for lunch, and a slow curl of anger began in his stomach.

"She's a very pretty woman," he commented, probing for a response, and every nerve in his body waited for Maxwell's answer.

Maxwell shot him an incredulous look. "Pretty? She's bloody beautiful. She's so subtle, so understated, that you have to really look to see how pure and classic her face is."

Rome had seen her face glowing with pleasure, her lips swollen from his kisses and begging for more. He was pro-ceeding at an excruciatingly slow pace, waiting for a signal from her that she was feeling the frustration of ending their evenings with only kisses. Yes, she liked his kisses, but there was still an aloofness to her that he hadn't been able to break, and no matter how torridly she kissed him, she didn't invite him further. He was beginning to feel desperate, his body aching for release. He'd been devoting his evenings to her, so there'd been no casual meeting with any other woman to re-lieve his sexual urges. He hadn't come up against such a men-tal stone wall since he'd been a randy teenager, determinedly trying to seduce his virginal girlfriend every Friday night in the backseat of his car.

But if Sarah ever lost her self-control enough to give in to passion, it would be with him. He'd be damned if he'd let Maxwell see her with that cool reserve melted into primitive heat and longing. Her desire would be his, and his alone.

"I've noticed how she looks," he said evenly, but his tone signaled a warning to the other man. Maxwell looked at him sharply, then sighed.

"So, you've beaten me to her, have you?"

"I've known her for years," Rome replied obliquely.

That elicited a snort from Maxwell. "I've known my mother's housekeeper for years too, but I don't warn men away from her."

Rome laughed, something that had become easier during this past week. Despite himself, he liked Maxwell. Max might pur-sue Sarah relentlessly, but he'd never be sneaky about it; he'd simply take his chances. That made no difference to Rome's determination to have her all to himself, but he relaxed, his eyes meeting Max's with complete masculine understanding.

Max shrugged with an elegant movement of his lean shoul-ders. "I'll be waiting in the wings, if you should fail."

"I'm reassured," Rome said sardonically.

Max smiled at him wryly. "Don't be."