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Authors: Patricia Rice

Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance

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BOOK: Lure of Song and Magic
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Chapter 12

Oz preferred anger to pain. Sitting back in the bar booth, he punched Conan's number into the BlackBerry. He frowned as an elderly man tottered into the tavern wearing a black sombrero embellished with silver and little dancing balls around the brim.

“Pancho,” Pippa whispered, leaning over the table. “He claims he's the Cisco Kid, whoever that is. Nice old guy.” She lifted a finger at him, and the old guy nodded solemnly and cruised on to the bar, politely not intruding on their tête-à-tête.

Conan didn't answer his phone, which didn't mean he wasn't available. It just meant he didn't want to be bothered. Oz left a demand for him to call back.

The door opened, and a trio of muscular ranchers trailed in, nudging one another and glancing in Pippa's direction. Or Oz's. If the men had any brains in their heads, they'd be looking at Pippa, but they were probably married and broke and looking for work like Cisco.

Oz kind of liked the sombrero. Rubbing his forehead, he eyed the scalding pizza with disfavor, but it looked like it would be a long night. If the only reward he was getting was seeing Pippa in an almost-normal outfit, he'd better fuel up.

“Here come the Donner sisters. They sing in the church choir.”

“Union cards?” he asked grumpily.

She smiled in their direction and turned back to Oz as if they were in deep conversation. “Of course not. They've never worked outside their homes. Their husbands have decent jobs so they're looking for excitement. And to show off.”

“Would they wear chicken costumes?” He tried the pizza again. This time, it went down better. If there were bean sprouts, he didn't see them, but the oregano was nicely done. He should have brought a bottle of his wine.

Pippa giggled. She actually giggled. He looked up at her in surprise, and a smile was tugging that gorgeous mouth. He almost swallowed his pizza bite whole. Her whole presence
glowed
when she lit up like that. He'd give good money to see her smile again.

“Chicken costumes should end everyone's delusions of grandeur,” she agreed with a laugh. “Have someone sketch up the costumes for the show, and we'll post them in a window. They'll scatter to the winds so fast you won't even see their dust.”

Oz studied the sombrero and the little old ladies who jingled in wearing red cowboy hats and boots and spurs. Ideas spun inside his head, ideas he'd rather consider than thinking these people had conspired to bring him up here by using his son.

His cell played a few notes of the “Baby Elephant Walk,” and he hit the button. “We have a situation,” he said without waiting for Conan to speak—without giving a single thought to how much he would have to tell his brother.

“Bring it on,” Conan replied.

“First, is it possible to copy a computer file without changing the date it was last opened?”

“Sure. Basic. I hope it gets better than this.”

“Depends on whether I have to put my fist through your mouth if you scoff.” Oz watched a Hispanic woman enter, shepherding twin boys about the age of nine. They'd been spit polished until they shone. She sent Pippa an anxious glance. Pippa gave her a thumbs-up, and the woman smiled in relief before taking a table in the center of the room.

The evening was making it blatantly obvious that Pippa wasn't a recluse. These people knew her and accepted her as she was. She simply needed a safe place and familiar faces to be comfortable. And anonymity from her former life. Oz filed that information in his mental banks while Conan protested his threat and implied insult.

“Pippa's computers files have been hacked without opening them,” Oz volunteered when Conan wound down. “Someone has been sending me text messages with snippets of information from those files.”

“Give me your CrackBerry, you friggin' asshole!” Conan shouted. “Why the hell didn't you tell me this earlier?”

“Because I need my BlackBerry?” Oz said with a hint of irony. “Bring me a new one, do your magic so my files get transferred, and you can have this one.”

“I want more info than that. Where the hell are you? It sounds like a tea party.”

“I believe the Donner sisters are warming up for an impromptu audition. And if I'm not mistaken, the Cisco Kid is taking a lariat off his belt. I can't decide whether to escape now or watch the show.”

“I've got your GPS signal. I'll find you.” Conan hung up.

“That went well,” Oz said, sliding the PDA back on its clip and reaching for his cooling pizza. “How do I tell your friends that the director gets to do the hiring?”

“You don't.” She shrugged slender white shoulders and turned to watch Cisco whirling a rope near the ceiling. “They're entertaining one another, and Lizzy's income is getting a much-needed boost.”

“I like the old guy in the hat. And the biddies in red boots. Don't suppose you're thinking what I'm thinking,” he asked.

She tilted her shapely head, and Oz noticed for the first time that she wore small gold and diamond musical notes on her ear lobes. In an evening gown, she'd be a knockout.

And every damned man in L.A. would recognize her. Even with short red hair instead of long platinum little-girl locks. Ten years had taken her from cute to stunning. Not beautiful. Her mouth was too wide, her cheekbones too prominent, and her coloring too pale. But she was too striking not to turn every male head in the room.

So much for hoping he could use her on the show without everyone recognizing her.

“You're thinking we can use real characters instead of costumed ones,” she decided, in answer to his question. “That could work. Kids would relate to grandmas and grandpas. And to singing aunts and annoying little brothers.”

He still wanted Pippa for the main character. She would light the show with magic. But he owed her for this intrusion into her world. He'd pay what he owed before working out how to make the show happen.

His hopes had been crushed before to the extent that he didn't have them anymore. Working was what he did best in the vacuum that his life had become. Someday, if he was really lucky, maybe Donal would become a misty memory of his past.

Sometime after Oz was dead and buried, maybe.

***

Pippa laughed until she cried at the impromptu comedy routine that followed Pancho's lariat roping two of the ranchers, followed by the Donner sisters singing louder and louder to cover the ensuing cursing. Maria had had to hustle the twins out of the bar. Realizing they were behaving badly, the ranchers fell to cracking jokes with Pancho. Lizzy turned on the music, and Pancho and the ranchers were now dancing with the red boot ladies.

Even Oz was smiling, although he radiated tension. She didn't know what he'd made of her hacking theory, but he wasn't happy. She couldn't blame him. Some worm had raised his hopes about finding his son alive, and now it was eating him from the inside out. She almost felt relief when Oz's brother finally showed up. He must have taken some hairpin turns at high speed if he lived in L.A.

Conan slid into the seat next to her, forcing Pippa to scoot over. Oz scowled but handed over his BlackBerry without argument.

Conan was about the same height as Oz, but he had a leaner build, with ropey muscles and a lanky swing of long arms as he scooped up the PDA. Apparently the sunglasses he'd worn the other day weren't an affectation. He donned dark-framed reading glasses now. He had a long, sharp nose, and his hair didn't possess his older brother's golden salon sheen, but their tight-lipped smiles were identical. She knew Oz could apply charm when needed, but right now, they were both focused on business.

The excitement in the rest of the bar had about died down. Pancho and the red boot ladies were having a gabfest. The Donner sisters had gathered their scattered dignity after the lariat incident and called their husbands to join them for dinner. Lizzy was smiling as if she were in seventh heaven. She loved entertaining a crowd, even if the crowd didn't pay much.

“You can trace Oz's whereabouts from his BlackBerry?” Pippa asked in curiosity, when it became obvious the men didn't intend to talk.

“Cross-checking cell towers. Can't pinpoint exact location without better equipment, but it's hard to miss the bright lights that follow Oz,” Conan said dryly, removing a new BlackBerry from his shirt pocket and then popping the back off the old phone.

“We call Conan the Bloodhound. He used to track us even without equipment. We've decided he has an overly developed sense of smell.” Oz leaned outside the booth and caught Lizzy's eye, making a gesture that indicated he needed the tab.

Pippa wasn't certain how to take that. Brotherly ribbing, she supposed, although she had little experience with it. “How can someone hack my computer without opening a file?” she asked, trying to keep the subject impartial and not the devastating invasion of privacy it was.

“If you're connected to the Internet and someone cracks your passwords, they can dig around in your computer's guts, but they can't read a file unless they open it. So someone had to have copied your files and opened them elsewhere.” Conan talked as he apparently uploaded information to the Internet and then swiftly exchanged tiny parts from the backs of the phones. “Who has access to your computer?”

“No one. Ever. I had the place I bought it from transfer my data, and that's it. I keep it password protected and behind locked doors. The files accessed are over nine years old, as far as I can tell, and they haven't been opened since. They're not even important files, just personal.”

“Where are your backup files? If you've had them for nine years, you're not using the same machine, are you?”

“I pay for Internet storage, so if anything happens to my studio, the files are still out there in the cloud.” She kept up on her reading. She knew about cloud computing. She had no clue how it worked.

Both men sent her identical sharp looks. Pippa didn't know whether to preen or hide. Nervously, she clasped her hands around her water glass.

Lizzy arrived with the bill. “I wish the two of you could stop by here every night. I haven't had so much fun in forever. Hello, handsome, can I bring you anything?”

Conan looked up with a blank expression. “A beer, thanks.” He returned to putting the phones back together as if Lizzy's dazzling smile was aimed at someone else.

“If your evenings are always this entertaining, I'll have to stop by more often,” Oz said with a smile that made up for Conan's cluelessness and melted Lizzy with its charm. “The pizzas were fantastic. Do you have a menu?”

“I've never needed one,” she admitted anxiously. “I could come up with one. The regulars just know what toppings are available.”

“Experiment,” he suggested. “Use fancy computer paper, and you can print up new menus whenever you want to change them. Open the curtains and let in some light, and you might get more families.”

“What about the film crews?” she asked, narrowing her eyes and studying the tatty curtains. “Won't they want a dark tavern?”

“This isn't Hollywood, and I'm not filming movie stars,” Oz explained. “My director is likely to bring his family up here whenever school's out. The camera crew is a husband and wife team with a toddler. A kids' show calls for people who like kids.”

Lizzy nodded. “I can do that. I've got kids of my own. Thanks.” She wandered back to the bar, her brow knit in thought.

“Thanks for that,” Pippa murmured. “She's had a hard time of it since her ex quit paying support. I can't say I approve of bars, but this is all she has.”

“She could turn it into a family restaurant that serves alcohol. No harm in that. But it would take money,” he admitted, glancing around at the battered decor.

Conan shoved the new phone across the table, apparently oblivious to their discussion. “Details. What am I looking for on here?”

Oz looked unhappy as he punched up his computer menu on the new phone. “Look for the messages from the Librarian. One refers to ‘The Silly Seal Song' that doesn't seem to exist anywhere except on Pippa's computer. And the other is a reference to a book about Ronan that's never been published.”

“But you've backed them up to the cloud?” Conan asked, turning his sharp glare on Pippa.

“They're password protected,” she protested. “Someone would have to know the website address, the email address I use, and my password to break into my library.”

Oz's head jerked up from his keyboard. “Library?”

The Librarian had sent the messages. Pippa blanched and covered her mouth as she thought of all the files of anguish and sorrow she'd poured into her personal cyberspace library over the years. And a
Librarian
could access it?

“They can't, can they?” she whispered. “No one can read my cyberspace files, can they?”

Both men looked grim enough for her to believe that someone not only could but had.

Chapter 13

Conan dropped the old BlackBerry into his shirt pocket and turned to Pippa. “I don't suppose you'd let me play with your computer?”

Oz watched her freeze into the fragile icicle he'd first met. He reached over and clasped his hand around the ones crushing her water glass, instinctively reassuring her. That she didn't immediately jerk away said she was retreating into her cave.

“Conan is hunting for your parents,” he explained. “He knows more about you than you do, is my bet, and he'd probably explode into molecules before revealing anything he didn't want anyone to know. But you don't owe him anything.”

She nodded as if she understood, but her brilliant eyes were wide and unseeing as she dived into that mysterious abyss inside herself. What the devil did she keep in that computer?

“I'll need the address to the cyberspace library if we're going to find this scumball,” Conan said as if he hadn't noticed anything wrong. “So I probably don't need your hard drive. I just wanted to see if he left cookies to scoop up anything in your personal files that aren't in storage.”

Pippa looked as if she wanted to bolt in panic at that possibility. Releasing her hand, Oz reached over the table and hit the heel of his hand against his brother's forehead. “You're scaring her, doofus.”

Conan batted him away and turned back to Pippa. “If someone has access to your computer, they've kept it quiet so far. I'll make certain they're permanently shut down.”

That brought her back to life, Oz noticed with interest. She released the water glass and pulled her hands out of sight—and touch.

“How?” she demanded. “How can you shut down someone who has access to all my secrets?”

“We don't know that they have that kind of access yet,” Conan reminded her. “For all we know, someone sneaked into your computer room one night, copied a few files, and never bothered looking at them until lately. Or we could be totally wrong, and there's a simple explanation for the messages.”

“How?” she repeated. “If we're right and someone has hacked my cyberspace library,
how
will you stop them?”

Conan sent Oz a look asking how far he could go. Oz nodded his permission. Pippa needed to know.

Conan flipped out his wallet and showed her his ID. “Call me Cyber Agent 007. No one knows this, so now you know my secrets, too, okay?”

She studied the ID, rubbing her thumb over the seal to verify its reality. “You're the law? You can shut them down and lock them up?”

“I can find them, and the law will shut them down, if they're doing anything illegal. I'm unofficial, off the books, behind the scenes, but legit, and I know the right people in the right places.”

Pippa glanced at Oz, and he could see her finally absorbing what he'd told her earlier about their family connections.

“Friends in high places?” she asked steadily.

“Cyberterrorism is high priority,” Oz confirmed when Conan said nothing. “If someone is using cyberspace to steal your information, then they can also have access to information vital to this country's security. I still don't think we're dealing with any more than a mediocre blackmailer who stumbled across a few files, but it won't hurt to let Conan do his thing.”

Pippa drew a long, slender finger through the moisture droplets on her water glass, meeting neither of their gazes. “If he couldn't find your son…” She let the rest of the question dangle there.

Conan shoved from the booth. “I didn't have federal clearance a year ago. I got official when I saw what a botch the cops were making of the trail. But you're right, I'm not perfect.”

He stalked away. Oz let him go. Conan had his own problems. He was a big boy and could handle them on his own.

Pippa, on the other hand… Oz ran his fingers into his hair and tried to defuse the tension.

“Conan recommended the nanny I hired,” Oz explained. “He performed a routine search and found nothing dangerous in her background. Since then, he's traced her all the way to her parents in Europe, but every trail is dead.”

“Which is why you're both ready to believe these messages are part of a bigger crime than bringing you up here on a wild-goose chase?” She didn't look any more certain, but she'd at least returned from the brink.

Oz left a stack of cash to cover their tab, slid out of the booth, and held out his hand to help her out. “I don't want to believe anything. I just want to find my son, whatever it takes. In the meantime, I have to work, and this kid production has my interest. I've quit looking beyond the moment.”

Which wasn't the total truth anymore. He was looking beyond the moment for an opportunity to take Pippa to bed, to lose himself in her luscious lips and slender curves and whispering need.

Even he knew that would be a mistake, but the production wasn't enough to keep him occupied this time. He needed more than just work.

***

“You don't have to walk me home,” Pippa objected when Oz steered her past the B&B. “I have a black belt and could break anyone who tried to touch me.”

She feared his company more than she feared walking in the dark at midnight. The big man's tension was almost palpable, and she suspected it was because of the topics they'd been discussing more than her.

Except she couldn't ignore the electricity that crackled when they touched. She wanted to tug his head down and kiss away his guilt and assuage her own needs at the same time.

She knew better. Oz didn't. He foolishly thought she was normal. Or just a little unbalanced. He didn't know the depth of her evil. She didn't think he'd believe her if she told him. Oz was above all else a practical man.

“I need to walk,” was all he said, falling into step with her as she hurried toward home.

She nervously clutched her elbows, forcing him to keep his hands to himself. “You think I should give my computer to your brother?” she asked rather than let him bring up more personal subjects.

Oz shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. His white shirt gleamed against the dark silhouettes of buildings, emphasizing his straight posture and broad strength. He didn't seem aware of the impression of assurance he gave off as he considered her question.

“I don't know what you keep on your computer,” he said warily. “But if you give him the address of your cyberspace storage, then he will have access to everything anyway. All your hard drive will do is give him clues as to who else might have tapped into it, I think. I'm not the geek.”

“There are files on there too painful even for me to open,” she admitted, trying to make them sound as if they were merely emotional experiences and not the destructive tools they were. How could she possibly warn these eminently logical men that listening to her Voice could cripple and damage them for life? She hadn't held back the anguish on those recordings.

“I don't think he has to open the files. Admittedly, Conan can be pretty ruthless if he's after a criminal, but he has no curiosity about what makes people tick, just computers. He works on the hidden files, and those aren't likely to be your personal folders.”

“Could I take all my personal folders out before I give the hard drive to him?” she asked, knowing the answer but desperately looking for a way to avoid what he wanted.

“You could, but it wouldn't matter. There are echoes of them still on there, plus your online backup.” He glanced at her with curiosity as they crossed the day care parking lot. “Unless you have files on there admitting your guilt in some crime, you're safe in his hands.”

Pippa sighed. “He's not safe in mine. No one is. Unless I know he won't listen to any of those files, I can't turn it over. I just can't.”

The flowers on the ice plants lining the walk had closed for the night. She hurried over the dirt and stones to the safety of her sanctuary, praying he wouldn't question, that he'd just leave her alone at the door. Even she knew that was a stupid hope.

His big shadow followed hers. The moon was still nearly full. She had memories of a beautiful moonlit night on a Mexican beach, a night when she thought she'd finally learned what love was about. A night with a beautiful boy who had made her heart sing. How had it all gone wrong when it had felt so right?

She knew, and it was all her fault.

Oz caught the courtyard gate before she could open it. Holding the tall planks shut, he glared down at her, meeting her gaze with controlled fury. “It's not all about you,” he reminded her. “Is your precious privacy worth my son's life? Worth letting a kidnapper free to steal another child? Worth letting a freak invade our lives at will?”

Pippa wanted to hit him, to strike back, to shove his words down his throat, but he was right. For what little he knew, he was right. She just couldn't tell him that what she held secret was worse than cyberterrorism.

“It's not all about me,” she murmured in protest, facing the gate, hoping he'd release it so she could escape. He stood so close; she could almost hear his heartbeat. She could smell the heat of his skin. Feel the slight distance between his chest and her shoulder blades. “I'm protecting your brother and you and anyone else who might accidentally hear the files.” When he still didn't budge, she defiantly gave him the rest. “I killed Robbie with my Voice. I don't want to hurt anyone else.”

She tried to say it unemotionally, but it was impossible to be nonchalant about tragedy. Her grief and anger raised her voice an octave, and the Beast roared. She winced when she felt his body respond with a jerk, waited for the bellow of pain or outrage or whatever her Voice instigated.

She got silence.

“You have bigger problems than I thought,” he finally said, pushing the gate open but following right behind her so she couldn't lock him out. “I hope you're talking to a shrink about this messianic complex of yours.”


Messianic?
” she asked in outrage, swinging around to glare at him in the faint light from her porch lamp. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“The Messiah saves souls. You're trying to save ours. Ain't happening,” he said with a shrug. “Just like in the fairy tales, if Conan ignores the warnings and listens to your files when he shouldn't, then it's his own fault if he fries his brains. You have nothing to do with it.”

“You don't believe me,” she said flatly. “You think it's a joke. That
I'm
a joke.”

“I'm not a shrink. I can't give you the fancy name for what's wrong with you.”

Astonishingly, he faced her without flinching, even though she'd unleashed her furious Voice.

“But if you've got a bee in your bonnet, believing what you do is responsible for the actions of others,” he continued, “then you're wrong. Your husband died because he was fried out of his skull. Unless you physically poured the alcohol down his gullet, shot him full of coke and steroids, and glued his hands to the steering wheel, you had absolutely nothing to do with his death.”

Pippa punched him. She balled up her fist and hauled her arm back as far as it could go and plowed her knuckles into Oz's flat, hard abdomen.

She nearly broke her hand. He didn't wince, just caught her fist and twisted it behind her back, so she couldn't hurt herself again. Then he frog-marched her up to the door, threw it open, and shoved her inside.

“He did all of that because of
me
!” she shrieked, not trying to restrain her inner Beast, her Voice, wanting to hurt him as he'd hurt her. Striking out as she'd trained herself not to do.

She waited in trepidation to see how Oz would strike back. Or if he would crumple to the floor or run off to avoid the dagger she'd twisted in his heart.

He merely stood there in the porch light, looking down at her as if she were a pathetic piece of hysterical flotsam.

“You could have horsewhipped him within an inch of his life,” he said calmly, showing no effects from her anger. “You could have walked up and down his spine in spikes and broke his head, and
none
of that would have forced him to do what he did. What he almost did to
you
. Get over it. The fact is, you were better than him. Stronger. More talented. And he wimped out. Not you. You survived. That's what you are, a survivor. It's damned painful, being a survivor. But there's got to be a reason you're still standing here and he's not. Find it.”

Without warning, Oz grabbed her waist with both hands, hauled her up against his wide chest, and planted his mouth across hers.

Pippa almost swooned at the intoxicating warmth of strong, competent human hands touching her, holding her up, absorbing her into his physical warmth as their mouths twisted, fought, and finally locked together. Oz's breath breathed life into her. His kiss renewed hungers she'd forgotten.

She fit against him as if she belonged there. She flattened her hands against his chest to push him away, but the heat of him beneath the thin cotton melted her frost, stripped her of the icy exterior she'd maintained all these years.

Oh, God, he was hard and strong and muscled, and she wanted to burrow into his arms and never come up for air. She needed him to take her away from herself.

The minute he took a step across the threshold, she panicked, shoved away, and slammed the door in his face.

Leaning against the heavy timber, she sobbed and choked on the pleasure she'd stolen, the pleasure she didn't dare share with anyone, the pleasure she craved and had never thought to know again.

BOOK: Lure of Song and Magic
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