by Sharon Lathan
Tricia's heart thudded painfully. Armand's voice, usually pleasant and musical, sounded harsh and grating as it penetrated the hypnotic haze that enveloped her. The dizzy bubble disintegrated; the suddenness of reality even more surreal than the strange encounter with Marcus Black.
Or had that merely been a dream? It did seem unreal. If not for the trail of fire still burning her skin wherever he had touched her, a faint tingling around her ear, and the lingering aroma of his spicy cologne she may have believed it a hallucination.
"That's what happens when you abstain from sex for six months - or has it been eight? - and then surround yourself with a ship-load of stunning rich men while the accessible one you came with would rather shag one of them too!"
"Tricia? Are you ill? You are flushed and shivering! If you vomit just make sure you keep it off the dress. It wasn't cheap."
His eyes narrowed, plump lips pursing. "What are you doing in here anyway? Did Anita come in here? Did you talk to her? Did she see the necklace?" His eyes brightened momentarily, greed infusing his voice. But just as quickly he shook his head, frowning in disappointment. "No, that couldn’t be the case. You were only gone five minutes and are alone."
Tricia jerked, his words restoring full clarity. "What are you talking about? Five minutes? And didn't you see...? I mean, you had to have seen him when you walked in!" She indicated the only other door - the stage entrance recently used by Mustafa - a good thirty feet across the room and in plain view.
She barely noted his shocked gasp since her gaze was implausibly riveted to the door she was leaning against: a door as solid, closed, and locked as it had been when she escaped through it a good twenty minutes ago. She did, however, feel Armand's painful grasp on her arms as he spun her about.
"Hey!" She yelped.
"Him who?" Armand growled. He grabbed her chin, turning her head back and forth as his frightened eyes scanned her neck.
"What the hell?" She shouted, really angry now. "Let go!" She twisted her body away, but he held on with an iron grip.
"Was it Black?" His voice was a whisper, fear evident in the question that was not really a question. “Did he touch you? Did he," gulp, voice falling even lower, "kiss you?"
"That is none of your business!" She pulled away, seriously indignant, but he was no longer holding her. His eyes were wide in terror, staring at her earlobe and apparently seeing something she couldn't.
"This is bad. This is really, really bad." He shuddered, running a trembling hand over his face, and beginning to pace in short, jerky steps. "Why didn't Alistair warn me? Olav here is trouble enough, but Black? And now he has branded her. Sweet Spirit of Travelers, what am I to do?"
He halted, pivoting back toward her. Gone was the slightly loopy, cavalier hairdresser who so brilliantly styled her blonde locks with a skill that was almost magical. In his place was a high-strung madman with fear etched in his eyes.
"Listen to me Tricia. From here on out you have to stay glued to my side. I'll move you into my stateroom and you must stay away from Marcus Black!"
"No, you listen to me Armand,” she flared. “All the intrigue and lies are getting on my nerves! I know you are paying for this excursion, and after only one day I have surely earned my fare. Those ruby earrings and that sapphire ensemble sold yesterday were enough. I am doing my required part and it does not include harassment like this. I'll be damned if I let you tell me who I can and cannot be with!"
Her grandly dramatic exit was not as regal as she might have wished. What with fumbling to locate the knob and then forgetting how easily the door swung on its well-oiled hinges so that it smashed into her toes. But she did manage a defiant toss of her head and queenly sweep of her voluminous skirts. She was feeling pretty smug about her uncharacteristic backbone, walking down the corridor with a definite swagger.
Then, typically, it went to pieces when for the second time that night she rounded a corner and barreled smack into a hard male body.