Ryan sat opposite him.
He’d chosen it for the atmosphere. Ryan was certain of it the moment she saw the house on the cliff. It was stone gray and solitary. It turned its back on the Pacific. It wasn’t a symmetrical structure, but rambling, with sections of varying heights rising up here and there, giving it a wild sort of grace. High at the top of a winding cliff road, with the backdrop of an angry sky, the house was both magnificent and eerie.
Like something out of an old movie, Ryan decided as she shifted into first to take the climb. She had heard Pierce Atkins was eccentric. The house seemed to testify to that.
All it needs, she mused, is a thunderclap, a little fog and the howl of a wolf; just some minor special effects. Amused at the thought, she drew the car to a stop and looked the house over again. You wouldn’t see many like it only a hundred and fifty miles north of L.A. You wouldn’t, she corrected silently, see many like it anywhere.
The moment she slid from the car, the wind pulled at her, whipping her hair around her face and tugging at her skirt. She was tempted to go to the seawall and take a look at the ocean but hurried up the steps instead. She hadn’t come to admire the view.
The knocker was old and heavy. It gave a very impressive thud when she pounded it against the door. Ryan told herself she wasn’t the least bit nervous but switched her briefcase from hand to hand as she waited. Her father would be furious if she walked away without Pierce Atkins’s signature on the contracts she carried. No, not furious, she amended. Silent. No one could use silence more effectively than Bennett Swan.
I’m not going to walk away empty-handed, she assured herself. I know how to handle temperamental entertainers. I’ve spent years watching how it’s done and—
Her thoughts were cut off as the door opened. Ryan stared. Staring back at her was the largest man she had ever seen. He was at least six foot five, with shoulders that all but filled the doorway. And his face. Ryan decided he was, indisputably, the ugliest human being she had ever seen. His broad face was pale. His nose had obviously been broken and had reknit at an odd angle. His eyes were small, a washed-out brown that matched his thick mat of hair. Atmosphere, Ryan thought again. Atkins must have chosen him for atmosphere.
“Good afternoon,” she managed. “Ryan Swan. Mr. Atkins is expecting me.”
“Miss Swan.” The slow, barrel-deep voice suited him perfectly. When the man stepped back, Ryan found herself fighting a reluctance to enter. Storm clouds, a hulking butler and a brooding house on a cliff. Oh, yes, she decided. Atkins knows how to set the stage.
She walked in. As the door closed behind her, Ryan took a quick glimpse around.
“Wait here,” the laconic butler instructed and walked, lightly for a big man, down the hall.
“Of course, thank you very much,” she muttered to his back.
The walls were white and draped with tapestries. The one nearest her was a faded medieval scene depicting the young Arthur drawing the sword from the stone, with Merlin the Enchanter highlighted in the background. Ryan nodded. It was an exquisite piece of work and suited to a man like Atkins. Turning, she found herself staring at her own reflection in an ornate cheval glass.
It annoyed her to see that her hair was mussed. She represented Swan Productions. Ryan pushed at the stray misty blond wisps. The green of her eyes had darkened with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. Her cheeks were flushed with it. Taking a deep breath, she ordered herself to calm down. She straightened her jacket.
Hearing footsteps, she quickly turned away from the mirror. She didn’t want to be caught studying herself or attempting last-minute repairs. It was the butler again, alone. Ryan repressed a surge of annoyance.
“He’ll see you downstairs.”
“Oh.” Ryan opened her mouth to say something else, but he was already retreating. She had to scramble to keep up.
The hall wound to the right. Ryan’s heels clicked quickly as she trotted to match the butler’s pace. Then he stopped so abruptly, she nearly collided with his back.
“Down there.” He had opened a door and was already walking away.
“But . . .” Ryan scowled after him, then made her way down the dimly lighted steps. Really, this was ridiculous, she thought. A business meeting should be conducted in an office, or at least in a suitable restaurant. Show business, she mused scornfully.
The sound of her own footfalls echoed back at her. There was no sound at all from the room below. Oh, yes, she concluded, Atkins knows how to set the stage. She was beginning to dislike him intensely. Her heart was hammering uncomfortably as she rounded the last curve in the winding staircase.
The lower floor was huge, a sprawling room with crates and trunks and paraphernalia stacked all around. The walls were paneled and the floor was tiled, but no one had bothered with any further decoration. Ryan looked around, frowning, as she walked down the last of the steps.
He watched her. He had the talent for absolute stillness, absolute concentration. It was essential to his craft. He also had the ability to sum up a person quickly. That, too, was part of his profession. She was younger than he had expected, a fragile-looking woman, small in stature, slight in build, with clouds of pale hair and a delicately molded face. A strong chin.
She was annoyed, he noted, and not a little apprehensive. A smile tugged at his mouth. Even after she began to wander around the room, he made no move to go to her. Very businesslike, he thought, with her trim, tailored suit, sensible shoes, expensive briefcase and very feminine hands. Interesting.
Ryan jolted, then swore at herself. Turning in the direction of the voice, she saw only shadows.
“You’re very prompt.”
He moved then, and Ryan saw that he stood on a small stage. He wore black and blended with the shadows. With an effort, she kept the annoyance from her voice. “Mr. Atkins.” Ryan went toward him then, fixing on a trained smile. “You have quite a house.”
He didn’t come down to her but stood on the stage. Ryan was forced to look up at him. It surprised her that he was more dramatic in person than on tape. Normally, she had found the reverse to be true. She had seen his performances. Indeed, since her father had taken ill and reluctantly turned Atkins over to her, Ryan had spent two entire evenings watching every available tape on Pierce Atkins.
Dramatic, she decided, noting a raw-boned face with a thick, waving mane of black hair. There was a small scar along his jawline, and his mouth was long and thin. His brows were arched with a slight upsweep at the tips. But it was the eyes under them which held her. She had never seen eyes so dark, so deep. Were they gray? Were they black? Yet it wasn’t their color that disconcerted her, it was the absolute concentration in them. She felt her throat go dry and swallowed in defense. She could almost believe he was reading her mind.
He had been called the greatest magician of the decade, some said the greatest of the last half of the century. His illusions and escapes were daring, flashy and unexplainable. It was a common thing to hear of him referred to as a wizard. Staring into his eyes, Ryan began to understand why.
She shook herself free of the trance and started again. She didn’t believe in magic. “Mr. Atkins, my father apologizes for not being able to come himself. I hope—”
“He’s feeling better.”
Confused, she stopped. “Yes. Yes, he is.” She found herself staring again.
Pierce smiled as he stepped down to her. “He phoned an hour ago, Miss Swan. Long-distance dialing, no telepathy.” Ryan glared before she could stop herself, but his smile only widened. “Did you have a nice drive?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“But a long one,” he said. “Sit.” Pierce gestured to a table, then took a chair behind it.
“Mr. Atkins,” she began, feeling more at ease now that business was about to begin. “I know my father has discussed Swan Productions’ offer with you and your representative at length, but perhaps you’d like to go over the details again.” She set her briefcase on the table. “I could clarify any questions you might have.”
“Have you worked for Swan Productions long, Miss Swan?”
The question interrupted the flow of her presentation, but Ryan shifted her thoughts. Entertainers often had to be humored. “Five years, Mr. Atkins. I assure you, I’m qualified to answer your questions and negotiate terms if necessary.”
Her voice was very smooth, but she was nervous. Pierce saw it in the careful way she folded her hands on the table. “I’m sure you’re qualified, Miss Swan,” he agreed. “Your father isn’t an easy man to please.”
Surprise and a trace of apprehension flickered into her eyes. “No,” she said calmly, “which is why you can be sure of receiving the best promotion, the best production staff, the best contract available. Three one-hour television specials over three years, guaranteed prime time, with a budget that ensures quality.” She paused only for a moment. “An advantageous arrangement for you and for Swan Productions.”
He was looking at her too closely. Ryan forced herself not to fidget. Gray, she saw. His eyes were gray—as dark as was possible without being black.
“Of course,” she continued, “your career has been aimed primarily at live audiences in clubs and theaters. Vegas, Tahoe, the London Palladium and so forth.”
“An illusion means nothing on film, Miss Swan. Film can be altered.”
“Yes, I realize that. To have any impact, a trick has to be performed live.”
“Illusion,” Pierce corrected. “I don’t do tricks.”
Ryan stopped. His eyes were steady on hers. “Illusion,” she amended with a nod. “The specials would be broadcasted live, with a studio audience as well. The publicity—”
“You don’t believe in magic, do you, Miss Swan?” There was the slightest of smiles on his mouth, the barest trace of amusement in his voice.
“Mr. Atkins, you’re a very talented man,” she said carefully. “I admire your work.”
“A diplomat,” he concluded, leaning back. “And a cynic. I like that.”
Ryan didn’t feel complimented. He was laughing at her without making the smallest attempt to conceal it. Your job, she reminded herself as her teeth clenched. Do your job. “Mr. Atkins, if we could discuss the terms of the contract—”
“I don’t do business with anyone until I know who they are.”
Ryan let out a quick breath. “My father—”
“I’m not talking to your father,” Pierce interrupted smoothly.
“I didn’t think to type up a bio,” she snapped, then bit her tongue. Damn! She couldn’t afford to lose her temper. But Pierce grinned, pleased.
“I don’t think that will be necessary.” He had her hand in his before she realized what he was doing.
The voice from behind had Ryan jolting in her chair.
“That’s just Merlin,” Pierce said mildly as she twisted her head.
There was a large black myna bird in a cage to her right. Ryan took a deep breath and tried to steady her nerves. The bird was staring at her.
“Very clever,” she managed, eyeing the bird with some reservation. “Did you teach him to talk?”
“Buy you a drink, sweetie?”
Wide-eyed, Ryan gave a muffled laugh as she turned back to Pierce. He merely gave the bird a careless glance. “I haven’t taught him manners.”
She struggled not to be amused. “Mr. Atkins, if we could—”
“Your father wanted a son.” Ryan forgot what she had been about to say and stared at him. “That made it difficult for you.” Pierce was looking into her eyes again, her hand held loosely in his. “You’re not married, you live alone. You’re a realist who considers herself very practical. You find it difficult to control your temper, but you work at it. You’re a very cautious woman, Miss Swan, slow to trust, careful in relationships. You’re impatient because you have something to prove—to yourself and to your father.”
His eyes lost their intense directness when he smiled at her. “A parlor game, Miss Swan, or telepathy?” When Pierce released her hand, Ryan pulled it from the table into her lap. She hadn’t cared for his accuracy.
“A little amateur psychology,” he said comfortably, enjoying her stunned expression. “A basic knowledge of Bennett Swan and an understanding of body language.” He shrugged his shoulders. “No trick, Miss Swan, just educated guesswork. How close was I?”
Ryan gripped her hands together in her lap. Her right palm was still warm from his. “I didn’t come here to play games, Mr. Atkins.”
“No.” He smiled again, charmingly. “You came to close a deal, but I do things in my own time, in my own way. My profession encourages eccentricity, Miss Swan. Humor me.”
“I’m doing my best,” Ryan returned, then took a deep breath and sat back. “I think it’s safe to say that we’re both very serious about our professions.”
“Then you understand that it’s my job to sign you with Swan, Mr. Atkins.” Perhaps a bit of flattery would work, she decided. “We want you because you’re the best in your field.”
“I’m aware of that,” he answered without batting an eye.
“Aware that we want you or that you’re the best?” she found herself demanding.
He flashed her a very appealing grin. “Of both.”
Ryan took a deep breath and reminded herself that entertainers were often impossible. “Mr. Atkins,” she began.
With a flutter of wings, Merlin swooped out of his cage and landed on her shoulder. Ryan gasped and froze.
“Oh, God,” she murmured. This was too much, she thought numbly. Entirely too much.
Pierce frowned at the bird as it settled its wings. “Odd, he’s never done that with anyone before.”
“Aren’t I lucky,” Ryan muttered, sitting perfectly still. Did birds bite? she wondered. She decided she didn’t care to wait to find out. “Do you think you could—ah, persuade him to perch somewhere else?”
A slight gesture of Pierce’s hand had Merlin leaving Ryan’s shoulder to land on his own.
“Mr. Atkins, please, I realize a man in your profession would have a taste for—atmosphere.” Ryan took a breath to steady herself, but it didn’t work. “It’s very difficult to discuss business in—in a dungeon,” she said with a sweep of her arm. “With a crazed raven swooping down on me and . . .”
Pierce’s shout of laughter cut her off. On his shoulder the bird settled his wings and stared, steely-eyed, at Ryan. “Ryan Swan, I’m going to like you. I work in this dungeon,” he explained good-naturedly. “It’s private and quiet. Illusions take more than skill; they take a great deal of planning and preparation.”
“I understand that, Mr. Atkins, but—”
“We’ll discuss business more conventionally over dinner,” he interrupted.
Ryan rose as he did. She hadn’t planned to stay more than an hour or two. It was a good thirty-minute drive down the cliff road to her hotel.
“You’ll stay the night,” Pierce added, as if he had indeed read her thoughts.
“I appreciate your hospitality, Mr. Atkins,” she began, following as he walked back to the stairs, the bird remaining placidly on his shoulder. “But I have a reservation at a hotel in town. Tomorrow—”
“Do you have your bags?” Pierce stopped to take her arm before he mounted the steps.
“Yes, in the car, but—”
“Link will cancel your reservation, Miss Swan. We’re in for a storm.” He turned his head to glance at her. “I wouldn’t like to think of you driving these roads tonight.”
As if to accentuate his words, a blast of thunder greeted them
as they came to the top of the stairs. Ryan murmured something. She wasn’t certain she wanted to think of spending the night in this house.
“Nothing up my sleeve,” Merlin announced.
She shot him a dubious look.
Dinner did much to put Ryan’s mind at rest. The dining room was huge, with a roaring fire at one end and a collection of antique pewter at the other. The long refectory table was set with Sévres china and Georgian silver.
“Link’s an excellent cook,” Pierce told her as the big man set a Cornish hen in front of her. Ryan caught a glimpse of his huge