A burst of automatic rifle fire in the grand ballroom shattered the band's bright dance music like a crow-bar smashing glass figurines from a shelf.People screamed. Men in tails and white ties and women in elegant evening gowns threw themselves to the floor or clung to each other and trembled. Heads turned to stare at the half-dozen black-hooded men in loose green-and-black camouflage-pattern clothing who had burst in like wolves among pheasants.And here I am practically naked in this ridiculous dress, Annja Creed thought, arched over backward with her hair almost brushing the elegant blue-and-gold carpet and only Garin Braden's strong right arm keeping her from falling.SHE HAD THOUGHT the evening had started inauspiciously."How good of you to join me," Garin murmured when she presented herself at his table. Actually, she was presented by a bowing and scraping steward who acted as if he were giving a supermodel as a gift to a maharajah. Except a maharajah would probably not have received quite such deferential treatment.Annja felt eyes sticking to her like clammy clumps of seaweed. She felt exposed in the clinging sheath of flame-colored silk he had picked out for her. Her long chestnut hair had been swirled atop her head by the cruise ship's expert staff of hairdressers. She suspected it made her look as if she had a soft-swirl ice-cream cone for a head. Around her slender neck she wore a delicate gold chain with an emerald pendant that Garin assured her would bring out the green highlights in her amber-green eyes. She knew it was exquisitely tasteful, just too small to be gaudy. But she could practically feel the weight of the money it had cost. It felt like an anchor."As if I had a choice," she said snidely as she allowed herself to be seated.Garin laughed a rich baritone laugh. He was a charismatic devil, she had to give him that. And devilishly handsome. The catch was the consistent way devil kept creeping into her thoughts about him."There's always a choice, my dear," he said. "That is one thing life has taught me in no uncertain terms."As always Annja felt conflicted about Garin, as she smiled and accepted the menu from the head-waiter. In his immaculate tuxedo with the star-sapphire stickpin, his black hair and goatee and dancing black-diamond eyes, Garin was admired by every woman in the room. He was charming, breathtakingly well-read and witty. He was vigorous, and as CEO and majority shareholder of the monster oil company EuroPetro he was, officially, richer than God. He was what most women in her position would consider one hell of a catch.But hell was the operative word. That was the catch.First of all, Annja had sworn off having affairs with men significantly older than she was. Not that he looked over the limit. Annja was in her mid-twenties. Garin appeared to be in his early thirties. But his real age belied that appearance-- by centuries.And then, of course, there was the fact that, while he sometimes helped her--indeed, she was paying off one of those debts at that moment--he also had the unfortunate habit of trying, at entirely unpredictable intervals, to kill her.Around them people chatted and drank wine from immaculate crystal and ate five-star food. The cruise ship Ocean Venture was the most modern and luxurious ocean liner yet built."I can't believe I let you blackmail me to serve as arm candy for some business negotiation," she said."Blackmail is an ugly word," Garin murmured over the top of his menu. "Besides, I believe extortion is more correct under the circumstances."She glared at him through slitted eyes."You really must try the Pinot Noir. A splendid vintage. In any event, if you wish to keep your scruples inviolate, you can always choose to believe that you are here of your own free will. It's true, of course."He held the crystal goblet up, where the light from the chandelier struck bloody highlights through the wiArcher, Alex is the author of 'Provenance (Rogue Angel Series #11)', published 2008 under ISBN 9780373621293 and ISBN 0373621299.