Chapter One

"You bastard! You creep!"

Knocked off-balance by the screeching female body hurtling into him sideways just as he reached the refuge of his doorway, Zach Slater let out a muffled curse of his own. Instinctively reacting to the surprise attack, he let his attaché case and keys drop to the ground while swinging toward and grasping his assailant around the neck. Before she could utter another squeak, he had her pinned flat up against his door.

Just as instinctively, while still restraining her with his outstretched arms, Zach pivoted back on his heel one split second before the she drew up her knee and launched it at the space his groin had just occupied.

"Pig!" She spat. "Slime!"

The insults bounced harmlessly off his psyche, but Zach sighed wearily at the waste of his valuable free time this encounter promised to be. After too many typically demanding days overseeing the running of his casino, he'd been foolish enough to look forward to a rare quiet, solitary evening at home—so much so that he'd faced the long drive to his cold condo rather than use his luxurious casino suite. He'd needed a change of scene.

It seemed he'd gotten one, if not the one he'd anticipated.

"Let me go or I'll scream!"

"Go ahead," Zach encouraged her. "The security camera over your head is recording everything."

But beneath his coolly imprisoning hands and gaze, Zach was alert to the weakening of his struggling assailant. Her only weapons appeared to be invective, unless he counted the sparks from her eyes attempting to singe him. Deciding she was absolutely no physical threat to him, Zach released his grip from her neck, although he maintained his alert stance.

His unwelcome visitor regarded him fearlessly and with such utter loathing that a tiny, perverse glimmer of admiration lit Zach's consciousness. Despite the stupidity involved in attacking a man twice her size, he had to hand it to Kendall Hart for never hesitating to rush in where even demons feared to tread. Would the two of them ever, one of his own, equally perverse, demons whispered to him, have what amounted to a normal conversation?

Kendall rubbed her freed throat, swallowing dramatically. "You choked me!"

"You're still breathing," Zach pointed out reasonably.

His dead calm seemed to set her off again. "Why? Everybody else is out of your way now! Why don't you just kill me like you killed them?"

Even a man like Zach, a man who both courted harsh public opinion and flaunted his contempt for it, was averse to being called a killer after a sixteen-hour day. Kendall would never know she'd aroused his curiosity, if not his alarm, with this strange new murder charge. If that's what it actually was, instead of her indulging in her usual histrionics. If for no other reason, the fact that Zach's son Ethan could tolerate such a drama queen made Zach question how he could ever have fathered the boy.

Casually retrieving his attaché and keys from the ground, Zach nodded at Kendall with a flippant, "Don't tempt me."

She remained planted in his doorway. "That sounds like a threat, Zach."

During Zach's stay in Pine Valley he'd been subjected to enough such suspicion that a lesser man might actually have been driven to murder. Fortunately for his detractors in general and for Kendall right now in particular, Zach was not a murderous man. It was just that he didn't suffer fools gladly, and most people weren't perceptive enough to make the distinction. And in that respect, his brief glimmer of admiration for Kendall had entirely dimmed. Zach simply elbowed aside her slight form, inserted his key in the lock, and prepared to enter his condo as if she'd ceased to exist for him.

That was when Kendall made her next move. As lithe and slender as Zach was tall and broad-shouldered, she slipped swiftly as a cat through the narrow space between him and the doorjamb. Before he had time to flip on a light, she already stood in the center of his living room, facing him with arms folded firmly across her chest, her big blue eyes glaring now with such unabashed revulsion that even Zach was momentarily taken aback.

"Old habits die hard, eh?" he remarked, callously reminding Kendall that she'd once been a frequent visitor to this condo, when it had been occupied by his late unlamented brother Michael. "But your place is across the courtyard. Now run along." Zach tossed his attaché toward a Mies van der Rohe leather chair, following it with his charcoal-gray cashmere overcoat.

"I'm not so easy to get rid of," Kendall insisted. "I'm not leaving until you tell me what you did with them, Zach Slater!"

By now he'd shrugged off his pinstriped Armani suit jacket and was tugging at his tie, giving the illusion of composure. "You'd know more about disposing of bodies—if that's what we're talking about?— than I would, Kendall."

"Well, some people belong in the dump and your brother was one of them!" she retorted. "After what he did to my sister I don't regret my part in putting him there. But some people—some people—" To Zach's surprise Kendall's strident voice suddenly caught on a sob and her eyes filled with tears. She suddenly seemed very vulnerable.

Sensing her distress was genuine, the climate in the room changed subtly for Zach. He didn't like it. It made him feel sympathetic, on a level he didn't care to acknowledge. Her allusion to what Michael had done to Bianca, which he had given her the opening for, deservedly chafed. Yet Kendall was the one laboring under incomprehensible and unwarranted delusions about him, perhaps potentially damaging delusions; she'd provoked this confrontation. She didn't deserve to be humored by him. She needed to be defused.

"And some people belong in bed," Zach said, motioning toward the hallway that led to his bedroom. "Maybe that's your problem. I offered once before to solve it for you. Care to take me up on it now?"

The deliberately crude invitation restored the climate back to icy. The blue glare became even more laser-like and her voice turned back to steel. "That's right, Zach, trash me like you usually do, but that won't fly with the police. I already called them. They should be here any minute."

For the first time, Zach frowned. If she was telling the truth, it was time to call his own chief of security and quietly put him on whatever Kendall was getting at, before things mushroomed. But first, he'd try to call her bluff. "The cops? They must have been delayed. There's the phone. Try again, and be sure to mention the breaking and entering problem in this neighborhood."

Kendall stalked to the phone on the end table he indicated. "This is your last chance, Zach," she threatened, cradling the handset. "Tell me exactly what you did with them—or I really am calling Derek Frye."

"What I did with whom?"

Against all possibility, her wide eyes widened even farther. "Give it up, Zach! My god, even an unfeeling bastard like you can't be cold enough to keep pretending you don't know what I'm talking about."

The scene was beginning to take on an almost surreal quality that Zach might have enjoyed in his perverse way, if he wasn't really beginning to scent trouble. "I'd be pretending if I gave you the impression I did. Or that I cared." Leaving Kendall standing with the phone in her hand, he headed toward his bedroom, camouflaging his increasing apprehension with nonchalance. As she sputtered, he paused to add over his shoulder, "Give Chief Frye my regards."

"That's it? Okay, Zach, sweet dreams, before they come to haul you away and throw you in the deepest, darkest prison to rot for the rest of your life! But where you really belong is hell." Then Kendall aimed one last arrow in her quiver, the one that stopped Zach dead in his tracks, knocked his mask of indifference from his face, and brought him back to her side in a few long strides. "All you've ever done from the moment you stepped foot in Pine Valley is pretend," she hissed. "You pretended you cared about Bianca, you pretended you cared about Ethan. You even pretended you cared about my mother when she made the huge mistake of working at your casino in Las Vegas. Well, Erica's paid for that mistake with her life! They all have! My mother…my sister…your son, they're all dead—I know they're dead, and it's all because of you, you beast!"

Forcing himself to take a deep breath and steady his voice, Zach demanded, "I'm only going to ask this once, Kendall. Where are Bianca, Ethan, and Erica right now?"

Kendall's laugh was tinged with hysteria. "Where are they? Oh, that's rich! You're asking me? How should I know? They're wherever the Cambias jet you sabotaged went down! I guess you don't listen to your car radio. It was just all over the news!"

Without another word, Zach crossed to his entertainment center and turned on the local radio news channel, in time to hear the announcer say, "There's been no new word on the missing Cambias company jet expected to arrive four hours ago at Montrose Regional Airport in southwest Colorado. The jet carried Cambias co-CEO's Ethan Cambias and Bianca Montgomery, Ms. Montgomery's mother Erica Kane, and Ms. Kane's fiancé, former Pine Valley district attorney Jackson Montgomery, now chief counsel for Cambias. No contact with the plane has been reported since a routine communication with the tower at Denver International Airport earlier today, but no decision regarding a search has been announced. In other news—"

Zach clicked it off, numb. BiancaEthan…. "Miranda? Where is she?" he asked in a terrible voice reflecting the fear in his eyes.

"That's where you screwed up," Kendall cried. "You only got rid of one of the Cambias heirs. Ethan's gone, but Miranda—oh my god, you'll never get your dirty hands on my niece!"

Zach recoiled as if she'd struck him. Their situations had entirely reversed, now Kendall had the upper hand, the one she'd had from the instant she barreled into him tonight, only he'd been too blinded by his offhand arrogance toward her to see it. As always, he would pay for the lapse, but any soul-searching would have to wait until he could get to the bottom of this. He needed another deep, calming breath before he trusted himself to speak.

"Miranda's my niece, too, Kendall. I'd never harm her or anyone she loves. I am going to put my people on it right now, and if there has in fact been an accident—"

"If there's been an accident!" she echoed in disbelief. "We both know it wasn't an accident! As if anyone in their right minds would trust 'your people' not to cover up for you, you lying scumbag."

A muffled siren whined outside, followed by car doors slamming and a measured knocking on the door.

"Well, what do you know. It sounds like the real cops are here," Kendall said triumphantly.