By Sheila Harper <email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted August 2000
Summary: What if … Clark Kent doesn't arrive in Metropolis for another year? Lois Lane has become Lois Luthor, and her journalism career as destroyed as the Planet building. But when these two reporters meet, sparks fly as they embark on the investigation of their lives — bringing down Lex Luthor. A Charity Fanzine story.
A Charity Fanzine story, first released summer 1999
What if … Clark Kent doesn't arrive in Metropolis for another year? Lois Lane has become Lois Luthor, and her journalism career has been as destroyed as the Planet building. But when these two reporters meet, sparks fly as they embark on the investigation of their lives — bringing down Lex Luthor.
Whistling, Clark Kent stepped off the elevator into the newsroom of The Metropolis Star—and shied back as a newspaper was shoved into his face.
"Hey, Clark, Mike led with your story! Congrats!"
Clark's dazzling smile flashed, and he pushed the paper to one side to reveal Paul Banning's gapped-toothed grin. "Thanks, Paul." He had already seen the morning paper, but it was nice to have his co-workers recognize his achievement.
"Kent! In my office!" the editor, Mike Nichols, called.
Paul clapped him on the shoulder as he turned away. "Good going, kid."
Clark nodded and continued across the newsroom. At 28, he'd been in the newspaper business for half a dozen years; he'd had front page stories in papers all over the world, but here he was a newcomer, and maybe from Paul's vantage point of twenty years, he *was* just a kid. He shrugged, his tweed sports jacket sliding loosely over his coarse cotton shirt. Okay, so maybe the other papers weren't great metropolitan newspapers, but The Star was no Daily Planet, either. "Hi, Mr. Nichols," he said as he entered the editor's office. "What's up?"
"Sales." Mike Nichols reached across his desk to shake Clark's hand. The editor was a dark, intense man in his late forties with a blue-collar sartorial sense, and he had already shed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
"I just got word that three stands are already sold out and a dozen more are getting low. I've had to order a second print run, Kent—thanks to your story."
"Thank you, sir," Clark said faintly. His boss held the firm belief that competent writers didn't need attaboys to do their job, so his comment on Clark's story was high praise. "Miss Taylor gave me a good interview."
"And you backed it up with solid research and wrote one hell of a story. Now, what are you working on next?"
"A follow-up, but not just a report on what the police are doing. I'd like to investigate how a sex slave ring could get started here in Metropolis, what conditions make it profitable—that sort of thing."
The editor considered for a moment. "That isn't just the work of a day or two, Kent. I can't spare you for as long as it would take, but you can work on it when you're done with your other assignments."
Clark nodded. He hadn't really expected anything else. "So, what d'you have for me today?
"Find out what the police are doing with this sex slave ring. Then I want you to report on that literacy fund-raiser tonight."
"Literacy … ?"
"Yes, the bash that Mrs. Luthor's hosting for her pet charity. And I want an interview with her to go with the story."
Clark swallowed. "You want me to interview … *her*?"
"C'mon, Kent, her husband may be the richest, most powerful man in Metropolis, but she can't eat you." Nichols waved him away. "Get after it."
Clark turned to leave, then hesitated at the door. He looked back, but his editor waved him away again, and he reluctantly headed into the newsroom. It wasn't her husband or social position that troubled him. How could he tell his boss that he was embarrassed to display his skills as a journalist to the woman who was his idol?
Even at breakfast, Lex Luthor looked like he'd stepped off the cover of GQ. As he wiped his mouth on the linen napkin and stood up, he appeared ready to chair a board meeting, which, in fact, he was scheduled to do in an hour. "Chef Andre surpassed himself this morning," he noted. "Mrs. Cox, remind me to increase his salary."
The beautiful black woman dipped her head in a gesture that seemed more regal than dutiful. "Yes, Lex."
He turned to the woman who sat on his other side. "Are you going to work today, my dear?"
Lois took a sip of rich, full-flavored coffee and felt a sudden nostalgia for the strong, black brew that they had consumed by the gallon at The Planet. "No," she said at last. "My assistant can handle anything that comes up." Somehow, after her wedding to Lex, she had been promoted to some kind of producer, and she no longer wrote or researched stories. She didn't even assign stories to other reporters or head up story meetings like Perry used to. People occasionally dropped by to ask her opinion about one story or another, but that was it. She had never felt so useless.
After the destruction of The Daily Planet three months ago, her world had collapsed. Lex had been there to pick up the pieces, but in the debacle, Lois Lane, world-class investigative reporter, had vanished and never come back.
She swirled her coffee, staring into the tiny vortex as if it could tell her where Lois Lane had gone, and shook her head. "I won't be going to work," she repeated.
Lex studied her through narrowed eyes, then said briskly, "Very well. Mrs. Cox and I have some reports to go over before the board meeting. I'll see you this evening at dinner."
Without looking up, Lois raised her hand in a half-hearted wave. "Bye, Lex." The door closed behind them, and she picked up the paper, glancing down at the lurid headline: "I am a fugitive from a sex slave ring." Her mouth twisted. Perry never would have let a headline like that go out on his paper, but The Star had always been more sensational than The Planet.
Three paragraphs into the story, she had changed her mind, and she looked back at the by-line. Clark Kent. She didn't recognize the name, but whoever he was, he was no tabloid hack. Returning to the story, she lost herself in the narrative, following the terrifying ordeal of Melissa Taylor, a college coed who was kidnapped on her way to a night class and found herself drugged and forced into prostitution as a sex slave. Without sensationalizing his subject, this Clark Kent brought the girl to life, and by drawing his readers into her story, he made a stronger statement against the horrors of forced prostitution than a dozen editorials or sermons could have done.
Lois set the paper down. This was what she'd dedicated her life to: attacking crime and corruption in this world by exposing it to the blinding light of public scrutiny. But now, after ten weeks of marriage, she was little more than a society matron, enhancing her husband's prestige by showing up at fund-raisers for worthy causes.
The phone rang as she sipped her coffee, and she started, spilling coffee on the article. <Oh, no!> She gently blotted the coffee stain with her napkin and reached for the phone with the other hand. "Hello."
"Hello, Mrs. Luthor? This is Clark Kent with The—"
"—The Metropolis Star," Lois interrupted. "Yes, I know." He had a light, pleasantly masculine voice. "You wrote a terrific story for today's Star."
There was a brief pause; then he said, "Thank you." He cleared his throat. "That means a lot, coming from you."
"Lex Luthor's wife?" she asked, with a hint of bitterness.
"No. Lois Lane."
Oh god. Her eyes flooded, and she caught her lower lip between her teeth to stop her tears. "Thank you," she whispered, then took a deep breath and held it for a moment to get herself under control. "How can I help you, Mr. Kent?"
"I'll be covering your Team Literacy fund-raiser this evening, and I'd like to interview you…" He hesitated and added, "If you don't mind."
If she didn't mind? A reporter needed to lose that kind of deference in a hurry. "I won't have time today, but I'm sure I can find some time at the fund-raiser tonight."
"I'll see you there," he said, his voice cheerful.
His pleasure was contagious, and she smiled and asked, "How will I know you?"
She could almost hear his answering smile over the phone line. "I'll know you."
Mrs. Cox tossed down a copy of The Metropolis Star on Lex's desk, one long, lacquered nail pressing into the newsprint under Clark Kent's name. "What do you want to do about this?"
Lex glanced down at the headline then blew a contemptuous smoke ring. "Nigel can tell Jameson to put the operation on hold until the noise dies down. Don't worry about Kent. He's no Lois Lane, and The Star's no Daily Planet."
"Speaking of which …" She flipped rapidly through the papers in the folder she was holding. "The insurance on The Daily Planet finally paid off." She handed him a computer print-out.
His mouth curved with satisfaction, and he took a long drag on his cigar. "Seventy-five million. That was one of my more profitable ventures."
"Even after … expenses, you netted over fifty million from the demise of The Daily Planet." Mrs. Cox sounded as sleek as a cream-fed cat.
"And removed an investigative thorn from my side and won Lois's hand in marriage in the bargain," Lex added.
"Another trophy for your collection."
He smiled, a cold smile that any normal person would have found terrifying. "I enjoy possessing rare, exotic objects." His hand slid up her mini-skirted thigh and curved around her hip.
"Mmmm, Lex," she murmured.
Lois silently closed the door between their rooms and Lex's office and leaned her forehead against the hand-rubbed teak. After Clark Kent's call, she had gone to the office to tell Lex that she would be out for dinner—and that she was going to work after all. But Lex's mention of her name and The Daily Planet had stopped her in mid-knock, and she had cracked the door open to hear better.
The same investigative skills that had driven her to listen at the door now moved her back to the small office Lex had set up for her, where he couldn't suspect she'd been eavesdropping. She felt numb, turning over the implications of that short conversation as she passed through the elegantly appointed rooms she shared with Lex.
Surely he wasn't—but he *was*. He hadn't; he couldn't—yet he *had*. Everything she most loved in the world had been destroyed, and he had engineered it. Her stomach rolled, and she hurried past her office and fled to the bathroom, where she promptly lost her breakfast.
A quick call to Inspector Henderson had given Clark the facts he needed for his story on the sex-slave-ring investigation, and he called the mayor, a couple of city council members, and Melissa Taylor's family to see if they had any statements to make on the investigation. Quotes and facts in hand, he turned to his computer … and hesitated.
Even after his other calls, Mrs. Luthor's voice still rang in his ears, reminding him of the curious sense of connection he had felt during their conversation, as if they knew each other, and he gave in to an irresistible impulse. Opening his web browser, he clicked on a bookmark and watched as the photo of a beautiful, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman filled the screen. His eyes traced the shape of her lips and eyes, the curve of her cheek and throat. Oh, yes, he would certainly know her when he saw her tonight.
Tonight. He minimized the screen and, opening his word-processing program, began to turn his notes into a coherent article.
Cleaned up, makeup refreshed, and dressed in a dark suit for work, Lois breezed into Mrs. Cox's office, tripping the light in Lex's office that alerted him to visitors. His tall, elegant personal assistant stepped out of his office and surreptitiously straightened her skirt when she saw who was there.
Lois kept her face expressionless, but she hadn't missed the woman's signal, and she wondered if this was how her mother felt when she found out about Mrs. Belcanto. Pasting a condescending smile on her face, she said, "Is Lex still in?"
Mrs. Cox nodded and stood aside, her arm extended as if she were granting a favor by giving Lois access to her husband's sanctum. Lois brushed past the tall woman. "Lex, you're still here. I'm glad I caught you."
Lex turned from the sliding glass door that overlooked Metropolis, straightening the collar and lapels of his suit coat. "Ah, Lois," he said, coming forward to meet her. "What did you need?"
Kissing past his cheek, Lois avoided actual contact. "I forgot to tell you that I won't be home for dinner tonight. I have that literacy fund-raiser this evening, and they'll be serving dinner there."
"You're leaving me to Chef Andre's tender mercies? Well, if I'm batching it, this might be a good evening to visit my club," he said, smiling as he spoke.
Try as she might, she couldn't see any deception in him, any sign of a cheating spouse, any consciousness of guilt, anything but a husband's gentle teasing of his wife. It was incredible; it was impossible, but maybe he didn't think he was doing anything wrong.
"Perhaps we can manage lunch," he suggested. "I'm not sure when I can get away, though. I could give you a call."
"That might be difficult. I've decided to go to work after all, so I'm not sure when I'll be free, either."
Something flashed in his brown eyes. "Another time, then. Oh, by the way, the Beth Chrysler Center sent me the bill for your mother's care," he said casually.
The non sequitur confused her. Her mother had overcome her alcoholism years before, but she had relapsed just after Lois and Lex's wedding, and she was now recovering at the Beth Chrysler Center in California—at Lex's expense. Lois turned her head and glimpsed Mrs. Cox, an interested spectator. What did he want? Thanks? Feeling like the words would choke her, she managed, "Thank you for paying for her treatment, Lex. Mother asked me to thank you for your kindness the last time I called her." Then she swept out of the office, wondering if she'd just imagined the veiled threat in his comment, the ugly reminder that he was paying the bills and could stop paying them if he chose.
Since his story was already turned in, Clark was nominated to get donuts for the rest of the staff. He strolled down the street, enjoying the sunshine, two full sacks of donuts held easily in his right hand. As was his custom, he was people-watching, imagining stories for the interesting faces he passed, when the sharp crack of pistol-fire disturbed the quiet morning. Half a block ahead of him, two women screamed, and people in the crowd began to shove, trying to get away from the gunfire.
Clark stood like a boulder in the river of people flooding past him. He lowered his glasses and scanned the store fronts down the block—and saw one person slumped against a wall, holding a hand to his crimson arm, while a man with a nylon stocking pulled over his head waved a pistol threateningly at what appeared to be the owner of a sporting goods store. Forcing his way down the street against the flow of people, Clark wished he could openly use his powers and just fly to the store and stop the robbery that was taking place. But he had no desire to lose his private life and find himself caged in a government research lab, being studied or, as his dad always feared, dissected like a frog, so he tried to be discreet when he helped people.
But it made rescues difficult, and people that he could have helped got hurt. Monitoring the scene of the robbery over the top of his glasses, he saw the gunman draw down on the store owner, and Clark began to run, dodging through the crowd with the agility of a professional running back. With a burst of faster than human speed, he reached the door just as he heard the crack of another shot.
"No!" he howled, stricken by the result of his fear of revealing himself, and the gunman jerked around, loosing another shot that blew out the front window. Clark lowered his head and dove at the robber in a flying tackle that would have made his college football coach proud. The thug crumpled, hitting his head as they landed on the floor, and lay there, dazed.
Clark firmly gripped both the gunman's hands while he looked for some way to secure him. A teenage girl held out a package of rope, and he gratefully took it and tied the man's hands, wryly thinking that this probably wasn't what his scoutmaster back in Smallville had had in mind when he taught him to tie knots. He stood up. A scan of the two gunshot victims told him their wounds weren't dangerous if they got immediate medical care. "Has anyone called 911?"
When Lois showed up at LNN that morning, her assistant had expressed surprise at her appearance—in point of fact, the girl's mouth had dropped open, and she had gasped, "What are *you* doing here?"
"Research for a story," Lois answered, unlocking her office door. She turned back to face her flabbergasted assistant. "And I don't want to be disturbed," she added, shutting the door in the girl's face.
That had been two hours ago. In the meantime, her assistant—what *was* her name, anyway? Tiffany something?—was probably telling everyone at LNN what a bitch Lois Luthor was, but she didn't care. She'd never had the knack for making friends with her co-workers, and since Perry White had retired after Lex bought The Planet and Jimmy had vanished into the limbo of a new job somewhere, no one was left whose opinion she cared about.
Besides, LNN was Lex's channel, and right now, she didn't have very warm feelings toward anything associated with Lex Luthor. However, the LNN computer network gave Lois access to records that she couldn't have hacked into with her little laptop, and there was a certain justice in using Lex's own tools to bring him down.
She had confirmed Lex's purchase of additional insurance on The Daily Planet before the bombing, which not only provided full replacement coverage but also contained a clause covering terrorist attacks and acts of God like floods and lightning strikes. Not exactly what he'd told her when she asked him about insurance before they were married:
<Lois … The Planet was pitifully under-insured. I mean, rebuilding makes no economic sense. I wish I could, but I can't. I have the stockholders to think of.>
<But everyone is so lost. Nobody knows where or if they'll find another job. Perry is threatening early retirement.>
<What's wrong with that? Perry deserves retirement. He's worked too hard for too long. Let him enjoy life for a change.>
<His life was The Planet. Mine, too.>
And then he had comforted her when she cried over the loss of the paper that had been more than a job to her—it had been home and family and her personal source of validation.
Lois was crying again, whispering, "Bastard, bastard," as she methodically tore up every picture of Lex in her office. Scrubbing the tears from her eyes, she sat down to her computer again, this time looking for the evidence to nail him for the bombing.
The staff at The Star never did get their donuts, but Mike Nichols was delighted with Clark's eyewitness account of the thwarted robbery and double shooting. He sent the young man home for the rest of the afternoon, which was how Clark happened to be at his apartment at two in the afternoon, cruising websites that mentioned Lois Lane or Lois Luthor. He had already downloaded the files on her from The Star and read through them at superspeed, and checking the Web was the last stage of his research. If he was going to interview the most famous print journalist since Woodward and Bernstein, he wasn't going to waste her time by asking questions she had answered before.
As he waited for a graphics-intensive site to come up, he studied her photo, trying to imagine what made a woman at the top of her field give up her career for marriage. It was such a traditional, world-well-lost-for-love sort of choice, but it left Clark dissatisfied. Maybe he was an idealist, but he thought marriage was supposed to let each partner give everything they were to the other, not take away from each other. Besides, Lois Lane just didn't seem like a traditional-marriage kind of woman.
He looked at her picture again. She also didn't seem like the kind of woman to marry for money, but he couldn't find any pictures or quotes that indicated that she was passionately in love with Lex Luthor, either. He shook his head. <Lois Lane, what makes you tick?>
Lois was inserting the last pins in her upswept hairdo when Lex walked into their enormous bedroom. "You'll eclipse them all tonight, my dear," he said, and she jerked around at the sound of his voice, her pulse leaping like a startled deer.
He strolled toward her and flicked a careless finger through the tendrils of hair hanging down by her ears. "You wore your hair this way the night we met," he said.
She nodded, her throat constricted. He always noticed those little things that mattered to a woman. It was part of his charm, part of what had drawn her to him: that he had given her the compliments and attention that her childhood had left her starved for. "At the White Orchid Ball."
He dipped his head to nuzzle the side of her neck. "You were almost as beautiful then as you are tonight."
Lois met his intense gaze in the mirror, prudently suppressing the memory of what she'd learned today. "Thank you," she whispered.
His hands were at her throat, caressing yet disquieting, even vaguely threatening. "But this dress needs something more," he said, and reaching into his suit pocket, he pulled out a necklace and fastened it around her neck.
Sapphires surrounded by diamonds, forming a string of blossoms in a choker that probably cost him a quarter of a million dollars. Lois didn't need to fake a reaction. "Oh, Lex, it's beautiful!" she gasped, reaching one hesitant hand to touch the exquisite piece of jewelry. While he was watching her so closely, she tried to ignore the soft voice that whispered, <Easing his conscience.> "Thank you, sweetheart. What's the occasion?"
"No occasion. Since I wasn't with you, I wanted to give you something to take in my stead."
The choker suddenly felt like a chain around her neck. Lex had always made such extravagant remarks, and she had taken them as compliments, an expression of his feelings for her. Yet now she seemed to hear a suggestion of distrust in his words.
Lois raised her gaze back to his and saw that he had felt something, seen something in her expression, perhaps. She hurried to cover her lapse. "You don't think it might be too much … for a charity fund-raiser?"
He smiled with satisfaction. "My dear, that bit of rock and metal doesn't speak half as loudly as this one does." He raised her left hand and kissed the finger below her wedding set.
He didn't suspect anything. She relaxed and smiled more naturally. "I know. It's just—I'm still not used to …" She waved her other hand to indicate the bedroom, the penthouse, all of Lex's empire.
"Are you nervous about tonight? I could go with you for moral support."
She camouflaged her involuntary shudder by laughing lightly. "And then I'd be so worried about performing well in your eyes that I'd be a complete wreck."
Judging by his smile as he stepped away, he only got the message that his opinion mattered more to her than anyone else's. He didn't hear the other side: that she didn't trust him to support her if she wasn't perfect. And why should he have heard it? *She* hadn't even been aware of the ugly subtext to their relationship until today.
Finding a tuxedo at such short notice was difficult. Finding one that would fit a lean-waisted but well-muscled frame was almost impossible. But a kind fairy godmother must have been watching out for Clark Kent because the third shop he called had a plain black tux in just his size.
Standing behind the crowd of Metropolis's upper crust, Clark diligently took notes on who was attending. But he forgot everything else when he saw Lois Lane—Luthor, he reminded himself, Lois *Luthor*—enter the room and move from one group to another, welcoming her guests and thanking them for showing up to support the Team Literacy project. She was beautiful and elegant and gracious, and he found himself floating slightly.
<Whoa!> He eased his feet back onto the floor and slid a finger inside his collar as if his bow tie had suddenly becometoo tight, cutting off his breath—an experience he had never had, but it seemed to describe the sensation that overtook him. He read himself a stern lecture on the necessity of professionalism and the foolishness of an infatuation with a celebrity—especially a *married* celebrity. Feeling virtuous and back in control, he watched Lois take her seat at the head table, when she suddenly looked up and caught his eye … and he promptly melted.
As the servers took meals around to the guests, Clark resigned himself to endure the tantalizing odors since, at $1000 a plate, neither he nor The Star could afford to pay for dinner. He shoved his hands in his pockets and, leaning against the wall, settled down to watch the great and near great of Metropolis enjoy the evening's entertainment.
"Excuse me, sir."
Startled, Clark looked up to see the maitre d' and began to fumble for his press card. "I'm not a gate crasher; I'm with The Star—"
"No, that's all right, sir. I'm here to show you to your table."
He froze in mid-explanation. "I'm— Sorry?"
"Mrs. Luthor asked that you join her other guests for dinner."
"But I'm not—"
"Please." The maitre d' indicated that Clark should follow him to a table with an empty chair.
Puzzled, the reporter looked across the room to the head table—and again met Lois's gaze. But this time, she smiled faintly and nodded, and he shrugged, adjusted his glasses, then smiled in response and followed the maitre d' to one of the tables.
"… your support for Team Literacy, even when it means paying $1000 for a $25 meal and the privilege of listening to a speech on literacy that is only slightly less painful than having a root canal…"
Amidst the chuckles from the 250 attendees, Clark raised his eyebrows in surprise. He had expected her speech to be well-written: a reporter didn't receive a Kerth award, much less three of them, if she couldn't write. He *hadn't* expected her to be a poised and confident speaker with a delightfully dry sense of humor.
"… can't be successful business people without understanding that prevention is more cost-effective than …"
And yet … there was no fire in her. The articles of hers that he'd read were passionate and vivid and had awakened something in him—a longing, a hunger for something he'd never known, something he'd thought was beyond his reach, something he'd hoped to find in Lois Lane.
But Lois Lane wasn't at the Team Literacy fund-raiser; Lois Luthor was. And she was beautiful and poised and elegant and … cool. Disappointment gripped his throat. What had happened to the Kerth-winning reporter who flung herself into her stories as if each one was the piece that would finally make the world the better place she demanded it be? The passion he'd expected was completely damped.
No, not completely. It surfaced for an instant when she told the story of one of the women helped by Team Literacy providers. "… struggled to support three children with a minimum-wage job. Her child-care costs ate up almost everything she made, and some months she had to choose between feeding her children and making her rent payment. She could have given up and gone back on Welfare …"
In that instant, Clark saw that he was right: an intensely passionate woman hid beneath that sleek, gracious facade. But something had nearly squashed it out of her. Marriage?
She finished her speech with an invitation to her guests to take advantage of the dance floor and band and again thanked them for coming to support Team Literacy. As people got up from their tables and drifted toward the ballroom next door, Clark approached Lois. "Mrs. Luthor?" he asked.
She glanced at him over her shoulder. Her gaze caught his, lingered, and she smiled, a slow, sultry smile that made his heart thud heavily. "I'll be with you in just a moment, Mr. Kent." Then she turned back to the person she had been speaking with.
She knew his name? He took a slow, deep breath, trying to get his pulse and breathing back to normal and recall the first of the questions he intended to ask her.
As she turned to face him, she tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. "Did you enjoy the dinner?" she asked.
Somehow, they were walking toward the ballroom, and Clark was too bemused to notice. "Yes, I did, thank you. But—"
"—why did I pay for a reporter's dinner? How did I know who you were?" she asked, her dark eyes sparkling.
"Yes. To both questions."
She shrugged, the movement drawing his attention to her slim shoulders, bare above the off-the-shoulder straps of her dress, and a flush of heat rushed through him. "Research is the lifeblood of investigative reporting," she said. Her teeth briefly caught her lower lip. "And," she continued, "I've covered my share of dinner functions like this—and listened to my stomach rumble too many times."
"Thank you," he said softly. They passed through a doorway, the light dimming abruptly, and Clark finally realized that she had taken him into the ballroom. "I thought you were going to give me an interview," he said.
Her smile was impish, and his heart lurched again. "Oh, I am. But I feel like dancing first." She hesitated. "You do know how to dance, don't you?"
Clark slid one arm around her waist and took her hand in a gentle clasp as the strains of a waltz drifted across the room. He swept her onto the floor, guiding her with a smooth confidence that raised her eyebrows in surprise. Smiling down at her, he said, "I learned ballroom dancing from a Nigerian princess."
"A princess? How did you meet a princess? And where?" She hurled questions at him like a pitcher throwing fastballs.
His smile became reminiscent. "In London. I was baby-sitting her while her parents attended the embassy ball, and she decided I would be an acceptable escort for our own private ball."
Lois laughed. "But you couldn't dance then?"
"Not the waltz or tango."
"She must have been a good teacher."
He bowed his head, acknowledging her indirect compliment. "She was. She stood on my feet and chanted the beat for me and scolded me when I misstepped."
"It sounds like she knew what she wanted and went after it."
Her great dark eyes were fringed with impossibly long lashes. He swallowed and blindly guided her around the floor. "Yeah. The same attitude that made Lois Lane the best reporter in the business."
At his comment, she looked down, but he glimpsed something—regret?—before she lowered her eyes.
The music faded into silence, and he reluctantly released her from his embrace. "May I have that interview now?" he asked.
Lois shook her head and laughed briefly, without amusement. "I can't tell you how odd that sounds. I'm still not used to being on the receiving end of media attention." But she started back toward the dining hall, apparently confident that he would follow.
"Then why did you give it up?" he asked. "Why aren't you still on the front lines competing for stories?"
She turned back and gave him a searching look. "On the phone this morning, I thought you were too soft. But now I'm not so sure."
"Let's wait until we're someplace more private."
They sat at a corner table in the dining hall, and a server brought Lois another glass of wine. "Do you want something?" she asked Clark.
"Sparkling water with lime."
When the server left, she said, "Wise man," and took a long swallow of her wine. The alcohol heated her stomach, joining the glass she'd had with dinner and the one she'd had before leaving the penthouse.
"Mrs. Luthor—" he began.
She interrupted him. "Lois. I've only been married a couple of months, and I have a hard time answering to 'Mrs.' anything." And after what she'd learned today, just the sound of "Mrs. Luthor" made her sick. Of course, three glasses of wine on top of two bites of lettuce and a saltine cracker might have the same effect. Not a wise move before an interview.
"Lois," he said, his voice soft, almost reverent.
That gentle tone yanked her gaze back to his. He had the kindest eyes she'd ever seen, she thought, to the absolute disgust of her inner voice. <Yeah, and you thought Lex was a golden boy, a philanthropist. Quit acting like a moony-eyed cheerleader, you dope. He's *interviewing* you!>
She shook her head as if she were trying to wake up and focused on the tortoise-shell frame of his glasses so she didn't look directly into his eyes. "Yes?"
Taking a deep breath, he asked, "How could you bear to give it up? You're a three-time Kerth winner, one of the most esteemed reporters in the country—"
"One of?" she interrupted, with a burst of her old spirit.
His devastating grin flashed, then disappeared as he continued, "—and you gave it up when you married Lex Luthor. Did you really count the world well lost for love?"
"I guess it looks that way," she said, straightening her wedding set with her right hand, "but that isn't what happened. I don't know if you were here when The Planet blew up—?"
"I arrived in Metropolis the day after the bombing."
She studied him for a moment. "Did you plan to apply for a job at The Planet?"
"Yeah. It was the sort of paper I'd always wanted to work for." He smiled faintly. "You know," he said, "I think you're interviewing me instead of the other way around."
Her smile twisted slightly. "Old habits die hard."
He cleared his throat. "Sounds like you miss it."
"I do," she said, then cursed her openness. What was she doing, giving a reporter honest, unguarded answers?
"You were saying something about the Daily Planet bombing?" he prompted.
"Oh … yes. Lex had bought The Planet just before that and he chose not to rebuild … because it was 'pitifully underinsured' and he had 'a duty to the stockholders.'" She heard the sarcasm in her voice, so she hurriedly added, "Everyone was so lost. Perry White retired, and I went to work for LNN…"
"Why didn't you go to another paper? Any newspaper in the country would have been delighted to have you."
"Because there wasn't another paper in Metropolis like The Daily Planet."
"Metropolis isn't the only city in the world."
"I know." Her answering expression was rueful. "But Lex had just asked me to marry him, and I didn't want to leave before that was settled. And then I told him 'yes', and Metropolis was the headquarters for LexCorp, so …" She shrugged.
"Okay, so you went to work for LNN. Why aren't you turning out the kind of stories for them that made you a star at The Planet?"
That was harder to answer … at least without revealing her own stupidity or the way Lex manipulated her: she had finally figured out that he was behind her promotion to producer. And that certainly wasn't a story she wanted in The Star. She temporized. "Mr. Kent—"
"Clark," he interrupted.
She nodded. "Clark. When I first joined LNN, I was in the midst of planning a huge wedding—as well as trying to figure out how TV journalism worked. And after Lex and I got married, we went on a month-long honeymoon. We've only been back about six weeks."
"How long had you been at The Daily Planet before you had a scoop?"
And she'd thought he was too soft to ask the tough questions. "I was a reporter at The Planet. At LNN, I'm a producer—which is more like an editor than a reporter—so I don't *do* stories any more."
"What a waste of material," he muttered.
"Well …" She shrugged. "That's something I want to change."
Then she realized what she'd said, and she reached across the table to touch his hand. "Please don't print that, Clark." At his puzzled frown, she added, "About me wanting to change my position, I mean. I haven't mentioned it to Lex, and I don't want him to find out by reading it in the paper."
His gaze softened tenderly. "Lois, I wouldn't write anything to hurt you."
What was it about him that made her want to believe him? She was losing herself in those gentle eyes again, and her inner voice whipped back into action. <Yeah, right, we've heard that one before. Just like Lex: 'You looked like you could use a friend.' It's always a lie or a line> She sat back up and tried to change the subject. "So, what else did you want to know?"
He sighed and glanced down at his notebook. "Why do you support literacy?" Then he gave her a crooked grin and continued, "And if you tell me it's a worthy cause, I'm outta here. The world is full of worthy causes. Why does this one speak to you?"
Damn, he was good. An appreciative smile played around her mouth, and she settled back in her chair as she began to answer him.
The streets between his apartment and the Wyatt-Viceroy Hotel were dark and frequented by gangs, and there were plenty of blind, windowless alleys along the way. Clark Kent walked a couple of blocks before he ducked into one of those alleys, where he shed his ordinary, Earth-bound persona and soared into the night. Executing a smooth barrel roll far above the city lights, he grinned as he leveled out, picturing the incongruity of a flying man in a tuxedo. It didn't matter. He arced through the sky like an otter playing in a lake, one fist thrust ahead of him, then both, then both arms at his side as he rocketed toward the edge of the atmosphere fifty miles above the city, where the stars shone clear and steady. Laughing soundlessly, he held his arms out to embrace the distant specks of light, then flipped over backwards, somersaulting and twisting in a dive that would have won him a gold medal in any Olympic competition. Tonight he had met Lois Lane and danced with her and gotten the material for a good story. And after he finished the interview, they sat and chatted like friends and danced again before her duties as hostess took her away.
When his jacket began to smell hot, Clark slowed his earthward plunge, but that didn't damp the joy welling inside him. In all his travels, among all the women he had met, he had never experienced this feeling before, this instant connection, this sense of familiarity so strong that he nearly asked her where he knew her from. It wasn't even that they had the same personality … and yet—somehow—she matched him. They were, he thought, like two pieces of a puzzle, stamped with parts of the same picture, but made to be complements that fit together perfectly.
God, he was sappy, but tonight he didn't care. Tonight, he would just enjoy the exhilaration of having met … his soulmate. Tomorrow was soon enough to be sober and cautious—tomorrow, when he would have to remember that she wasn't Lois Lane but Lois Luthor and that he couldn't do anything that might break up her marriage. Tomorrow, he would stuff his feelings into a tiny corner of his heart and lock them away. He would be the friend to Lois that she needed, that she'd told him she wanted, and he would forget his dreams.
But tonight, Clark didn't care. He had caught a glimpse of how it could have been between them, and he imagined himself with her: partner, lover, husband. He rolled onto his back, floating effortlessly in the darkness, out of the air traffic lanes, above the lights of the city and the flight paths of the news and medical helicopters. She would like it up here, he thought, imagining her laughter as they made up new constellations and told each other silly stories about each one. Putting his hands behind his head, he sighed heavily. Maybe there was something to that "world well lost for love" idea after all.
The enormous apartment felt stifling, and the city lights beyond the penthouse beckoned her irresistibly, so Lois stepped onto the balcony and, leaning against the half-wall, took another sip of her wine. The highest point in the city, Lex had boasted, reveling in the fact that everyone else had to look *up* to him. But for her, its value lay in the view, that she could see the whole city and imagine herself ferreting out the secrets that lay out there. From this high point, she was invisible and all-seeing—perfect attributes for a journalist who wanted to discover everything worth knowing.
She turned away from the wall, ignoring the dust on her evening gown. A journalist. Ha!
For a moment, she toyed with the idea of going to The Star for a job, being a working journalist again—even if it was for a newspaper she'd once characterized as fit only for fishwrap. But Clark worked there, and—no doubt of it—he was a real journalist. Maybe between the two of them, they could drag the paper's standards up to the level that The Planet had enjoyed.
She could already hear Lex's voice, see the roadblocks he'd put in her path: 'But it would take you away from me so much. What would happen with those important dinner meetings if you were off writing up a story or meeting with a source? I remember what a workaholic you were, Lois. Do you really think that a return to that sort of position and pressure is in our best interests? Think about it.' And that would be the first, low-key response. After what she'd learned today, she knew that other things would happen. Her cell phone would suddenly have dead batteries; her Jeep would suffer some mysterious mechanical breakdown when she needed to meet a source, and Lex's ten other vehicles would be in the shop for periodic maintenance; files would vanish from her computer, or the hard drive would inexplicably crash; phone messages would disappear, the answering machine carefully edited to hide the erasure: a thousand and one irritants that would make it harder and harder for her to do her job.
And face it: if that didn't stop her, if she kept working, the mysterious accidents might escalate. A man who could order the bombing of a newspaper—just to collect the insurance and maneuver a woman he wanted into marrying him—was capable of anything.
Lois closed her eyes. She had written articles on this kind of abuse; she knew the warning signs of controlling men and what they did to the women in their lives. And she had walked into this situation anyway. She, The Daily Planet's star investigative reporter, had not only married an extremely controlling man, but one who, for all she knew, was a career criminal.
Oh God. She tipped her head back, recklessly draining her wineglass. The choker Lex had put around her neck lay heavily against her throat, and she grabbed it, intending to yank it off her neck. But that was stupid—unless she intended to alert him to the change in her feelings. The wine might be buzzing in her head, but she wasn't *that* crazy. Instead, she carefully unhooked the clasp and set the jewelry on the nearest flat surface, the balcony wall.
She stared at the glittering bauble. It wasn't even like she had loved Lex and gladly given everything up to be with him. He had paid her compliments, made her feel like she mattered to someone, treated her like she was special. It was incredibly flattering to attract the attention of one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, and after her previous disastrous relationships, it had been so nice to feel like a success instead of a failure.
None of which was reason enough to marry him. She could still hear herself saying, when he proposed, 'But, Lex, I hardly know you.' She hadn't realized how true that was, how much he kept from her, how much she closed her eyes to.
But he hadn't won; he hadn't convinced her that she was helpless and incompetent. Lex might have made her doubt herself, but once she saw him for what he was, she hadn't run away. She'd fought back, searching for evidence to hold him accountable for what he'd done.
Lois sighed. Lex was such a depressing subject. Clark, on the other hand … On the phone and at the fund-raiser, Clark had seemed like such a gentle man, and she wondered if he were a fighter, too. Then she remembered his pointed questions and smiled. He was more like her than she'd thought.
Still smiling, she sat on the edge, and her hand carelessly brushed against Lex's necklace, knocking it off the top of the half-wall. Instinctively, she lunged for it, her fingers brushing the cold metal as it fell. Then, with a terror that brought a cold sweat to her skin and sobered her completely, she realized that she had reached too far and lost her balance. Slowly, slowly, asif time itself had stumbled to a crawl, she felt herself tipping over the edge of the wall. She flung her arms toward the wall, grabbing desperately, but she had already slid too far over.
"No-o-o-o!" she screamed—and fell.
Clark was drifting lazily in the night sky when he heard the terrified shriek. <Lois!> he thought, fear gripping his heart like a fist, and he rocketed in the direction of her cry. His vision cut through the distance, through the darkness, to see her plummeting earthward. In his head, a clock ticked off the seconds to impact, and he streaked toward her, straining for every ounce of speed he had.
He hurtled recklessly toward the ground, his heart racing, terrified that he would be too late. Flattening his dive scant feet above the pavement, he stretched out, reaching … and caught her in his arms. He soared sharply upward. It was a moment before he realized that Lois was staring at him in shocked silence … and another moment before he realized that he had completely given himself away. He changed his mind and turned from the penthouse atop the LexCorp tower, toward his own small apartment.
"Good evening, Mr. Luthor." The middle-aged doorman touched the bill of his cap in an abbreviated salute.
"Good evening, Carlton," Lex said automatically, heading for the express elevator to the penthouse.
"Mrs. Luthor got back about half an hour ago," Carlton continued. "She sure looked nice in that fancy dress."
Lex nodded. "She is a beautiful woman." Nigel had let him know when she left the Wyatt-Viceroy and when she arrived at the LexCorp tower, but it was always good to have the confirmation. As he stepped into the elevator, he wondered if Lois was aware of the constant surveillance she was under, but he decided not. She might not be as independent and feisty as she had been when they married, but he was certain that *that* would have triggered an explosion. Ah, well, he was a firm believer in "need to know" and "what they don't know won't hurt him." Smirking at his pun, he tapped in his private code and watched his mirrored reflection as the elevator doors closed.
"What are you?" Lois whispered.
Her arms still clung to Clark's neck, and she was soft and warm in his arms, but her muscles were tense, and she held herself stiffly away from him. Very different from the yielding woman he had held in his arms on the dance floor earlier. His heart ached at the change in her attitude toward him, and it took him two tries before he could answer her. "A-a friend … I hope," he said at last.
She bit her lower lip and swallowed, but her voice still came out as a whisper. "Y-you're flying … without a hang-glider or even flapping your arms."
A brief, unamused smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "It was a surprise to me the first time it happened, too." He turned his head to look at her, her face just inches from his. "Can we wait to talk about this until we get to my place?"
"My apartment," he said.
"You have an … ?"
"Apartment? Yeah, and a job, too."
Silence stretched between them, which Clark finally broke to say, "Are you okay?"
She stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"Did I hurt you when I grabbed you? I mean … I didn't have a lot of time for finesse."
"No, I—" She relaxed slightly against his supporting arm and studied his face. "I'm fine. Thank you," she added.
The prim courtesy brought a faint smile to his face, and he swung his gaze from the cityscape ahead of them to meet her curious eyes. "You're welcome." He dropped out of the night onto a dark balcony facing an otherwise featureless alley and gently set her on her feet.
Lois tugged her bodice up from the marginally legal position it had slipped to when she fell, adjusted her straps, and smoothed her skirt down to cover her legs as Clark felt in his trouser pocket for his keys. When he opened the door and flipped on the light in the mud room, he turned back and gestured for her to step inside, but she balked. "Why are we here?" she asked.
He sighed. "To talk. I figured you'd have some questions for me."
She studied his face again while he tried to look as unthreatening as possible. "What if I said, 'take me home'?"
"If that's what you want. Do you want me to call you a cab?"
Her gaze was fixed on his face. "I could write this up—to get myself back into the business again."
His throat moved painfully as he swallowed. "I hope you won't. I hope I can convince you otherwise, but … you do what you have to do."
Lois relaxed suddenly and laughed. "Wreck your life and make a joke of mine when you disappear?" She shook her head. "I was right the first time. You're too soft for this business." She walked into the unprepossessing entry and turned back to look at where he stood, stunned, at the door. "Are you coming in or not?"
Lois paced in front of the couch, then stopped and looked at Clark, who was sitting on the sofa, bent forward with his forearms resting on his knees. He had taken off his jacket, bow tie, and cummerbund. "So you really don't know *what* you are: alien, Russian experiment, what?"
He shook his head. "Mom and Dad told me they found me in a little spaceship." He tried to smile. "I guess that leaves out 'mutant.'"
That stopped her for a second, and she considered, then resumed pacing. "I can't imagine a mutation bumping you that far up the evolutionary ladder, anyway."
Her enthusiasm and excitement were probably scaring Clark … who looked as depressed as she had felt earlier. She let her hands drop to her sides, and she smiled faintly and stepped around the coffee table to sit beside him. "Up the evolutionary ladder," she repeated, taking one of his hands in hers. "You don't have any idea how … special, how wonderful you are, do you?"
His chagrin was easy to read, and he protested, "Lois, don't—"
"And I'm not talking about the flying or the speed or strength or—or invulnerability or any of your other powers. Although, those are … extraordinary," she said, coaxing him to smile. "But, look at yourself." At his quizzical glance, she added, "And I'm not talking about your looks, either … although …" She took a deep breath. This was not the time to get distracted by his enormously distracting appearance. In his white dress shirt and black tuxedo slacks and suspenders, with his sleeves rolled back and shirt collar open to reveal a strong throat and forearms, he was as sexy as any man she had ever seen.
"Anyway," she hastily continued, "I mean, here you are: Clark Kent, journalist, world traveler, baby-sitter of princesses, rescuer of falling women …"
He raised his head, a wry smile quirking his mouth, and Lois elbowed him in the side. "And that's 'falling women,' not fallen," she teased and when his grin widened with genuine amusement, she went on, "But you're an ordinary guy with a job and an apartment. And with your abilities, you could be *anything.* You could—literally—rule the world or be richer than Lex or be the best … the best football player in the NFL … or *anything.*"
He shrugged. "I wouldn't wanna do any of that."
"And that's what makes you so special. Clark, I don't know another man who wouldn't use powers like yours to his advantage."
"Yeah, well …" He ducked his head in embarrassment. "I didn't pay any airfare when I was traveling."
For a moment, she stared at him. She was talking about forcing people to his will—with his looks and powers, he could have any woman on the planet, willingly or otherwise—and he was worried that flying when he traveled the world was cheating somehow. "God, you are *such* a boy scout! But it's nice to know you've got some flaws. I was starting to think you were too good to be true."
Puzzled, he half-laughed in that charming, self-deprecating way of his. "You've lost me."
"Boy scouts have a bad habit of doing the right thing at exactly the wrong moment," she explained airily. "Which, you have to admit, is a serious character flaw."
He leaned against the back of the couch, relaxing for the first time since he had swooped out of the darkness and given her back her life, the amused twinkle returning to his eyes. "Very serious," he agreed.
"*Much* worse than being headstrong or impulsive," she added.
He gave her his quick, incendiary smile, and she felt herself melting into a puddle inside. He had a beautiful face and a strong, graceful body and a sexual magnetism that was partly his incredible capableness and partly his sheer physical perfection, but it was the smile that got her every time.
And she was married.
She changed the subject. "Seriously, Clark, what *do* you do with your powers?"
His grin had lingered. "You mean besides shower in three seconds or float in mid-air while I'm watching football?"
Lois nodded faintly.
He continued, "I try to help. There're so many people out there—" his outstretched arm seemed to include Metropolis, the United States, the whole planet— "who need what I can do. Lives I could save … But I can't act openly, not like—" he inclined his head toward her— "tonight … or people'll find out, and then—"
"—and then you won't have a life of your own, and your family and friends will be in danger from every wacko who wants you to use your powers for his advantage."
"Yeah." A wry, almost sad smile touched his mouth. "But I can't seem to stop myself. Sooner or later, I do something—help someone—and give myself away, and I have to move on."
A thought occurred to her as he was speaking. "You—you aren't going to … move on now because *I* found out, are you?"
He flashed her an unreadable glance and shook his head. "No … I'm staying." Another quick, sidelong glance. "Unless you decide to write up what happened tonight."
Lois placed her hand against his solid shoulder. "Your secret's safe with me, Clark. Even if I thought the public had a right to know about you, I *know* it isn't in the public interest to drive you away from Metropolis." She smiled. "I think we need more boy scouts in this city."
Until he relaxed at her words, she hadn't realized how tense he had been, how intently he had waited to hear her decision. "I just wish *I* could do more," he confessed.
"Well …" She considered for a moment. "Maybe you should go undercover—like investigating a story." A reminiscent smile curved her mouth. "Like when I dressed as a man to get the story on a car-theft ring."
Clark's gaze slipped down her body, and his eyebrows lifted above his glasses. "You? A man?"
Smiling proudly, she described her transformation. "Mustache, hair shoved under a stocking cap, baggy clothes—" At his sideways glance at her decollete, she added, "—and a chest band, and voila! Instant man."
He still looked skeptical, and she lifted her shoulders in a "so-sue-me" gesture. "Okay, so I changed my walk and my voice, too, but … people see what they expect to see. So …" She paused, her gaze sweeping down his body, then lifted her eyebrows expectantly.
"You think I should get some kind of outfit? A disguise?"
Lois nodded. "Something that you wear when you use your powers in public. Something people can associate just with this man who flies."
His gaze grew distant; then he focused on her and smiled. "It might work."
"Then where is she?" Lex demanded, pacing toward the glass door behind his desk and spinning back to face his assistant. "Her shawl is on the bed, but she isn't in the penthouse, and no one saw her leave the building."
Mrs. Cox shrugged. "Maybe she's wandering around one of the other 149 floors. Do you want security to conduct a search?"
He hesitated—and frowned. "No. Have your team do it."
Inclining her head, she said, "As you wish. We can complete a search within two hours."
Lex dropped into his desk chair and tilted back, swiveling to look out over the city. "Get started."
"You nearly died for a piece of jewelry?" Clark asked incredulously.
"I didn't think about it. I just … grabbed for it when it started falling." Lois shrugged, her expression almost sheepish. "I've always dived in without checking the water level." Despite her attempt to dismiss the experience, her eyes went dark, and she shuddered. "I'm just glad you were flying by."
He saw nightmares behind those great, doe-like eyes, and he tentatively put his arms around her. "I heard your scream."
She turned within his embrace, burying her face against his shoulder, shaking, her shoulders heaving with sobs she refused to voice. He tightened his arms and pressed his cheek against her soft hair as he rocked her and murmured reassurances. "Shh, shh, it's okay, Lois… It's okay… Relax. Relax… I've got you, honey. You're not gonna fall." The endearment slipped out unthinkingly while he comforted her, but when she heard it, she began to cry in deep, wracking sobs. He started to pull away, afraid he had gone too far, but Lois clung to him, burrowing her head into the hollow between his shoulder and chest. She murmured his name with each ragged breath, and he gathered her closer, cradling her as if his arms could hold off whatever demons chased her tonight.
Her weeping finally slowed and stopped, and sighing, shuddering breaths shook her for some time, but eventually she calmed down. When she spoke, she kept her face pressed against his chest, and Clark had to use his super hearing to distinguish her whisper. "Lex is the one who had The Daily Planet bombed."
He froze, horrified, first thinking he must have misheard her and then realizing that he hadn't. Demons, indeed. "Are you sure?"
Her head snapped up, and her glare told him he had insulted her. He let go of her and sat back, putting a little distance between them. "I found out after we spoke this morning," she said.
"What're you gonna do?"
"Do?" she echoed. Her dark eyes flashed with a rage that made Clark thankful it wasn't aimed at him. "When I can prove that he did it, I'm going to write a story that'll strip away that phony 'benefactor' facade of his and make sure he gets put someplace where he'll never hurt decent people again."
"You're one of the ones he hurt," he whispered.
She swallowed, and angry, mortified tears glazed her eyes. "He destroyed everything that mattered to me … cut me adrift from friends, work … and then presented himself as my savior. And when I was stupid enough to fall for it …" She closed her eyes, and a teardrop slid down her cheek.
Clark brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek, tenderly wiping away the tear track, but another followed, and then another. Pain clenched his heart; he would have given anything to stop her tears. The muscles in his cheeks flexed as he clenched his teeth. "He hasn't—?" He broke off, recognizing that the question was too intimate for him to ask.
"Hasn't … ? Hit me?" At his single nod, Lois shook her head. "He … prides himself on his control. It would shame him to lose it. But he doesn't have to…" She bit her lip, her shame apparent at confessing to what she saw as her stupidity. "He outmaneuvers me. He puts me in situations where I feel foolish or incompetent. He … got me promoted."
"And squeezed the fire and the—the passion out of you—and made you think it was your fault it was gone." Clark clenched his fists as if he were squeezing Luthor's neck.
She tilted her head and studied him curiously. "How do you know?"
"I saw it at the fund-raiser tonight. Lois Lane didn't give that speech. Lois Luthor did. A beautiful mannequin. Besides," he added, a little embarrassed at revealing how closely he'd watched her, "I've done a story on controlling men—and what they do to the people in their lives."
"So have I." She took a deep breath. "I can't go back there—to the penthouse. Not tonight. I couldn't pretend … and he'd get suspicious. I can't risk that." She glanced around his apartment, anywhere except his still face. "I shouldn't be here, either. If he found out, I don't know what he'd do to you."
"Lois." He waited until she looked at him, then locked his gaze with hers, trying to see beyond her surface emotions to what lay beneath. "Don't worry about me. He can't do anything to hurt me," Clark said. His certainty was a matter of faith rather than experience, but she didn't need to know that. "What would he do if he found out how much you know?"
She started to shrug the question off, but his clear, honest gaze held her. "Punish me," she whispered. "I don't think he'd do anything that would show on the outside—nothing that would damage my looks. He values them too much. But …" She drew a deep, shuddering breath, her eyes focused on something he couldn't see.
"You can't go back there," he said, appalled, using words to blank out the horrifying images her words conjured in his mind. "Not ever."
Lois looked up, showing surprise at his vehemence. "I have to."
"You can't do it. It's too dangerous."
"Clark. I can't leave until I've got proof I can take to the police. If I move before that … *that's* what'll be dangerous. He'll find me and drag me back… I can't face that," she admitted.
"I can take you someplace safe. Someplace he can't find you."
She studied him, her expression soft and wondering. "You can really do that, can't you? Take me someplace and not leave a trail for Lex to follow." She touched his cotton-clad shoulder. "Thank you, Clark … but that wouldn't help."
"I don't want to live in hiding. And until Lex is behind bars, that's what I'd have to do."
He started to protest, and she pressed her fingertips to his mouth, stopping him. "Besides, if I disappeared, I'm afraid he'd get suspicious and cover his tracks so well that he could *never* be convicted. And the Daily Planet bombing's the only thing I've got on him."
She was right, and this was the choice that the Lois Lane he had longed to meet would make, but he wasn't any happier. That he couldn't help her, couldn't protect her, made him unhappier still. Playing the most dangerous double game of all, she would be hiding in plain sight inside the enemy's stronghold, always balanced on a knife-edge between discovery and victory.
And, face it: beyond the fear for her that chilled him in a way that the most brutal winter could never do, part of him was sick at the thought that she would be 'sleeping with the enemy.' He had no business, no right … she wasn't his—might never be—but jealousy ate at him, and it took every bit of control he had not to ask how she was going to handle her husband's sexual demands. "Then what about tonight? What'll happen if you don't go back now?"
She took a deep breath. "It'll be okay. I used to be a pretty good liar. I'll make something up—something to explain where I've been. But I can't go back tonight. I could hardly sit still when he put the necklace on me this evening. Right now, if he laid a hand on me, I'd probably scream." Lois rubbed her forehead. "I don't know why I'm telling you this."
He sighed, and his body sagged in relief. "I hope it's because you feel safe with me."
She looked at him curiously. "I do. For the first time …"
"Yes, sir, she had dinner at the head table, gave her talk, and then danced with …" Nigel St. John consulted his notes, the receiver cradled between the side of his face and his shoulder. "… with Clark Kent. A reporter for The Metropolis Star. Afterwards, they returned to the dining hall and spoke for nearly an hour."
Lex bit down on his unlit cigar, then took it out of his mouth. His hand clenched on the phone receiver. "An hour? What did they talk about?"
"No one was close enough to hear, but he was taking notes at least part of the time. I suspect he was interviewing her."
"Find out. Visit this Kent and see what he knows of her plans for this evening."
Nigel let a breath of sympathy appear in his voice. "Mrs. Cox's search proved fruitless?"
The cigar snapped in half. "Not entirely," Lex said. "We know for certain that Lois is not in the building."
"Indeed," Nigel said, surprised. He, above all, knew the degree of surveillance Lois Luthor was under. "I will contact you after I've … spoken … with Mr. Kent."
Lois stepped out of Clark's bathroom to find his bedroom empty, the covers turned down on the bed. She had changed into the oversized T-shirt and shorts he had lent her and was cinching up the shorts so they didn't hang off her hips. She had taken down her elegant hairdo, and her hair was a sleek, dark wing along her jaw. Hesitantly, she peeked around the corner into the living room. Clark, who had also changed into a T-shirt and shorts, was making the couch into a bed. She stepped out of the bedroom, hands clasped behind her back, trying to act nonchalant.
He looked up as he tucked the sheet in—and froze.
"Hi," she said, swiveling her upper body back and forth. The shirt and shorts covered her completely, but there was something extremely intimate about wearing a man's clothes, especially to bed. A stray thought crossed her mind: she had never worn any of Lex's clothes.
"Hi," he answered slowly, his approving gaze sliding over the shapeless garments and pausing on her bare legs. He glanced back up at her freshly scrubbed face. "You look terrific, even without being dressed up."
"Thanks." A little embarrassed by his admiration, she tipped her head down to look at the couch. "Is that for me?"
"What?" Her question startled him, and he dragged his gaze from her face. "Oh, this? No. I'm gonna sleep here while you take the bed."
"Clark, you can't do that," she protested. You're too tall and too … too …" She raised her hands and held them apart to indicate the width of his shoulders. "… big to sleep here."
"Don't worry about it, Lois. I float half the time anyway, so it doesn't really matter where I sleep."
"Float?" She half-smiled. "Could you … show me?"
"Okay." He drifted up about three feet, then leaned over and stretched out like he was lying down on his side. Head propped up on one hand, he looked for all the world like a man reclining on a couch or bed.
"Wow!" She stepped closer and ran an experimental hand through the air under and above him, just to confirm that he was really floating.
He gave her a quizzical look. "What was that for?"
"Just making sure that I wasn't drunk or crazy before." She tilted her head, studying him for a moment. "What does it feel like?"
Clark held out his hand. "Here."
She laid her hand in his … and suddenly the demands of gravity fell away. He gently tugged her up. "Lay down," he instructed.
Hesitantly, afraid she would put a hand down and it would break through the air the way she had once broken through thin ice, she lay back, trying to imagine that she was floating in water. She moved stiffly, afraid of falling, afraid to trust this stranger with the gentle grip on her hand—and she collapsed in a v-sit. In the water, that would have plunged her under the surface, and she tensed automatically … but nothing happened. She continued to hover three feet off the floor in an awkward half-sit; Clark continued to hold her hand.
He gently touched her shoulder with his other hand. "I've got you, Lois. Relax. You're not gonna fall. Just lean back."
Trust me. He didn't say it, but she could hear it in every word, and she almost smiled at the irony. Look what happened the last time she trusted a man. 'Married to the Mob' had nothing on her.
But she couldn't put Clark in the same category with Lex. Looking into those warm brown eyes, she felt that crazy connection again. Her body relaxed on its own, and she lay back, stretching out alongside Clark.
His eyes danced with delight, like a little boy on Christmas morning. But he was obviously trying to hold it in, trying not to force his own response on her. "What d'you think?" he asked.
Think? All she could do was feel. Lying next to him, wearing his clothes, his hands maintaining that reassuring contact … He had shared a secret, intimate part of himself with her, and she longed to snuggle closer in his arms and lay her head onhis chest and feel safe and treasured in a way no man had ever made her feel. And that was …
Impossible. Abruptly, she straightened up and, letting go of his hand, dropped to the floor in an awkward sort of scramble.
"Hey, what—? Are you okay?" he asked, righting himself and drifting down to the floor.
"No—yes—sure. I'm fine. That was great. It was like scuba diving, but freer. No suit—" Oh God, that brought such an image to her mind, and she ruthlessly forced it into the back of her mind and babbled on— "No air tanks and breathing mask. How do you do that? I mean, you weren't lifting me—it's like gravity just quit working. Like some kind of anti-gravity effect. Is that how you fly, too?"
His expression shifted rapidly from disappointment to bemusement and then to laughter, and he stuck out his hand like a new acquaintance shaking hands. "Hi, I'm Clark Kent. You must be Lois Lane."
When Lois realized what he was saying, she smiled wryly, delight struggling with tears. "I guess that's who I am," she said.
As was his habit, Nigel did some preliminary scouting before he visited his target. As he took up a position on the roof across the alley from 344 Clinton, he was able to see through the slanting windows into Clark Kent's apartment. Two people were moving around in the apartment, and his lips thinned with irritation—he hadn't planned on a witness to his visit. Even worse, he noticed that one of the pair was female and apparently going to bed, and he reached into his pack for a small but powerful pair of binoculars. Just as he put the field glasses to his eyes, the apartment lights went out, obscuring his view. He swore mentally. Lex Luthor didn't care how Nigel got his information, but he was adamant that there be no witnesses. However, the matter of Mrs. Luthor's disappearance was too important to leave until morning.
Nigel twisted around and took a pair of infra-red binoculars from his pack and focused on the bedroom. No matter how he adjusted the focus or the infra-red sensitivity, he could only see one person in bed—and the body was too small for Clark Kent. Nigel turned the binoculars on the living room. The angle was wrong; he could barely see into the room. But a glimpse of body heat showed up, and he lowered the night glasses thoughtfully.
If he was going to act, he had to do it soon. The problem was … Kent was a reporter, and a late-night visitor asking after Lois Luthor's whereabouts was just the sort of grist that a mill like The Star used. Nigel hesitated, then pulled out his cell phone and, checking his notebook, dialed Kent's number.
"Yes, sir." Nigel continued his report. "He said he had interviewed her, and they discussed their experiences as journalists, but she said nothing about her plans for the evening."
"Was he lying?" Lex asked. The only problem with having assistants handle such tasks was that he had to rely on their ability to determine whether someone else was lying or hiding something. He snapped another $100 bill off the stack in his hand and flipped it into the fireplace, where the flames devoured it.
"I don't believe so. However, as soon as I rang off, he went to the bedroom, where the woman was sleeping. They're talking now."
Lex dismissed it. "Probably reassuring his guest that the call wasn't an emergency. Can you identify the woman?"
"No. The lights are still off, and her back is to me. However …"
"Before the lights went out, I glimpsed her." Nigel hesitated. He had no proof, nothing but a gut-feeling, but he had no other lead. "She was slender and dark-haired … like Mrs. Luthor."
Lex stopped in mid-toss, the $100 bill slipping from his slack hand to land at his feet. "Can you confirm that?"
"Not tonight … without breaking and entering."
Luthor hesitated. He hadn't become the de facto King of Metropolis by being careless. Kent was a reporter, and if the woman *wasn't* Lois … "Stay where you are. Make sure they don't leave—and get that confirmationfirst thing tomorrow."
"He's searching for you," Clark said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
His face was a pale oval in the darkness. Lois swept her hair out of her face. "I expected that. Was that him on the phone?"
"No. Nigel … St. John, I think he said."
"If Lex has a hit man, Nigel's it." She leaned toward the bedside lamp, but Clark stopped her before she could flip the switch. "What's wrong?"
He hesitated, then said, "Someone's on the roof of the building across the alley."
She started to turn around, but he stopped her again. "If he has night glasses," he told her, "he can see us, and I don't want him identifying you—in case your husband sent him."
Lois caught her breath. "Lex might have. I don't know." She looked at him curiously, wishing she could see his expression in the dark. "How do you know someone's there?"
She vaguely saw him tap one forefinger next to the corner of his eye. "Nigel's call seemed … odd, so I took a look around."
"Do you see him now?" she asked, and at his nod, she slid further under the covers.
He faced the window. "He's had binoculars up to his eyes the whole time we've been talking." Clark fell silent for a moment. "And he's been talking into a cell phone since I spotted him."
"Can you hear him?"
As he tilted his head, Lois held back the questions and comments that flooded her mind. She wasn't sure exactly how this hearing thing of his worked, whether he could block out closer sounds while he focused on distant ones, or whether he simply amplified everything. That thought made her conscious of her quickened breathing and rapid heart rate, and she tried to stay still and breathe slowly. But that was hard when she felt anxious about Lex discovering her whereabouts, and she was relieved when he turned back toward her. "Well?" she demanded.
He shook his head. "Nothing. But he's packing up. I don't know if he's changing positions or leaving."
"*I* should leave," she said and grabbed the edge of the covers, preparing to throw them back.
"I agree," he said, surprising her. "Your husband can't do anything to me, but I'm afraid of what'll happen to you if he finds out you spent the night here." He covered her hand with his. "Let's get you to a hotel."
While they waited for their observer to move from his spot overlooking the apartment, they discussed how to cover her disappearance. Clark suggested Lois pretend to have gone to a movie, so she took a newspaper into the bathroom where she could turn on the light and check theaters within walking distance of the LexCorp tower. Once the observer was out of sight, Clark zipped outside to find Nigel's new location while she changed back into her evening gown.
"Well?" she asked when he returned.
"He's in a car parked across the street, watching the front door."
She smiled. "So the coast is clear for a quick exit off your balcony."
"Absolutely. Did you find a movie you'd seen?"
She nodded. "The Carrington had a late showing of 'An Affair to Remember.'"
"Good." He put one arm around her and bent down to slide the other under her legs. Straightening up as he walked, he carried her onto his balcony, her arms draped around his neck as she studied his face. He gave her a quick, sidelong glance. "You look … fantastic … in this dress."
She smiled faintly and nearly reached out to smooth that drooping lock of hair off his forehead before she remembered that she was married. She tightened her arm around his shoulders. "Clark?"
"Can I see you tomorrow?"
"See me?" he asked, puzzled; then he said, "Hold on. I'm taking off fast."
When he rocketed into the sky, too swift for curious eyes to see clearly, Lois expected to black out, but something protected her from the stress of the G-force. He slowed when they were above the city lights and answered her, "I don't understand what you mean by 'see me.'"
She blushed as she suddenly realized what he thought she'd said. "Not '*see* you' see you. But … meet with you. Clark," she added desperately, "I'm going up against Lex—without The Daily Planet or Perry White or—or anyone backing me up. And I'm not sure I can do it alone…"
He glanced down at her, his expression visible in the glow of the city lights. If she believed in love at first sight, she would have thought that was what she was seeing on his face. But the attraction was plain, and she knew he respected her as a journalist and was willing to be her friend. "I'll help you any way I can, Lois," he said softly.
"Thank you," she breathed. "Lunch?"
"Give me a call," he said and landed in a blind alley, where he gently set Lois on her feet. "There's a coffee shop around the corner. You can call for a cab from there."
She took a step away from him, then turned back, unwilling to end this time with him. "Will you wait?"
"Until your cab comes," he agreed.
In the elegant hotel suite, Lois paced restlessly, unable to settle down. Their plan had gone off without a snag. The $20 that Clark had slipped into her hand had covered the cab fare, and the manager of the Wyatt-Viceroy had been delighted to extend Mrs. Lex Luthor a line of credit. But now, alone in her suite, her fear of Lex and his organization and her worry about whether she would be able to carry off the masquerade of a loving wife seemed overwhelming. It finally occurred to her that Clark was the one who had kept these fears at bay earlier. Against her will, she had trusted him at the fund-raiser, revealing herself as she never had in an interview, and after he saved her, she had trusted him with the secret of Lex's perfidy, knowing that she was putting her life in his hands.
His hands. Hands strong enough to snatch her from death on the pavement, but gentle when he wiped the tears from her cheeks or lifted her to float beside him. She sighed.
Oh God. Lois spun away from the bedroom, where she had been staring at the antique four-poster bed and imagining those hands on her body. She had to get control of herself. She'd never be able to pretend everything was okay between Lex and her if she didn't quit thinking about Clark.
Two steps into a sitting room that was larger and more elegant than her old living room had been, a "whoosh" that she was starting to recognize stopped her. Her heart began to pound heavily, and a hot blush suffused her skin. "Clark?"
He stepped down from the open windowsill, still in his T-shirt and shorts. "I'm sorry to disturb you," he began.
She interrupted, "You didn't. It's okay. I was still awake."
He grinned, only a fraction of his hundred-megawatt smile, but it warmed her like a hug. "Yeah. I noticed—" he tipped his head toward the table lamp— "the light." He walked further into the room and held his hand out. "I thought you might need this before you went back."
She tore her gaze away from those warm brown eyes and glanced down. A quarter of a million dollars in gemstones and gold glittered on his palm. "Oh!" Her eyes lifted to his, and she threw her arms around his neck. "Clark, you found it! Thank you so much! I'd forgotten all about it!"
"That's what partners are for," he said, hugging her hard in return. He pressed his cheek against her hair while his free hand came up and clasped the back of her head. But after a moment, he gently disengaged himself from her embrace, put the choker into her hand, and closed her fingers around it. "A couple of the stones popped out, but I found them and straightened up the settings," he explained. "It's light enough that the fall didn't really hurt it."
She nodded, not really paying attention to his explanation, still focused on his earlier statement. "Partners?" she asked hesitantly, feeling somehow bereft without his arms around her.
"If I'm going to help you bring Luthor down, I figured we might as well make it official."
She smiled. "Partners."
A sharp knock at the door dragged her gaze from his, and she slowly went to the door and opened it, leaving the security chain on. "Yes?"
"Housekeeping. I have the night shirt and extra towels you asked for."
"Oh, yeah." Lois closed the door, removed the chain, then reopened it. "Thank you." She took the towels and plastic-wrapped package the middle-aged woman handed her. A pink nightshirt. Oh well, it was only for one night.
The maid looked beyond her to where Clark was standing by the couch. Her gaze swept him from head to toe. "Is that enough?"
"Sure," Lois said and closed the door, both on the maid and on the unruly imagination that kept presenting her with an image of Clark in nothing but a towel.
The sitting room in her suite was lit only by the flickering light of a late-night telecast of 'West Side Story.' Lois sighed.
"What?" Clark asked softly. His arm lay along the back of the couch, and she was slouched close enough to him that the top of her head rested against his upper arm.
"Oh, I was just thinking… Before Lex and I were married, I was writing a novel," she said, her voice low and sleepy.
He felt a sharp pang at her use of the past tense. "What about?"
She squirmed a little—in the way that he had noticed meant she was uncomfortable—then continued sadly, "About … about a woman who dies without ever meeting her true love."
Clark would have reassured her that that wasn't going to happen to her, but at the last instant, he realized that that might not be appropriate when she was already married. Even if her husband *was* a sleazebag. "Is that worse than finding your true love and having him die in your arms?" he asked, nodding toward the TV.
"Like Maria." Her sigh turned into a yawn, and she burrowed her head against his shoulder. "I don't know."
She was silent for another minute, and he glanced down to see if she was watching the movie again. Another yawn shuddered through her. "Or finding him after you're married," she murmured. Her head lolled toward his chest.
"Lois," he whispered against her hair as he tightened one arm around her shoulder. If he hadn't had superhearing, he never would have heard her, so he had to assume that comment wasn't for his ears, but still … a quiver of joy ran through him.
Clark watched 'West Side Story' to the final credits, unwilling to miss one moment of this night when he could still pretend that Lois wasn't married, that there was a future for them. But when the movie was over, her bobbing head and faint snore reminded him that her position might not be comfortable. He gathered her into his arms and effortlessly carried her into the bedroom, studying her beautiful face and daring to lean down and brush a kiss over her parted lips.
But she didn't awaken, and the disappointment he felt told him something about his real motive in kissing her. He stood by the bed for a moment, looking down at her in his arms, fighting the desire to lie down with her and hold her for the rest of the night, and wondering what had happened to his long immunity to sexual temptation. A long, slow breath later, he set Lois on the bed, whispered, "Goodnight," and began to straighten up.
Except her arms tightened around his neck.
"Don't go," she murmured.
"I can't stay, Lois," he replied, his voice thick with the intensity of his desire to keep her in his arms and never let her go. "You're married," he added desperately.
She ignored his refusal. In fact, he wasn't sure that, half asleep as she was, she heard him. She muttered something, her voice so slurred that even super-hearing was no help.
"What did you say?" he asked.
To his surprise, Lois spoke again, and this time he could make out most of her words: "You (mumble) the dreams away."
You keep the dreams away? Clark's soft heart melted, and he shushed his conscience without hesitation. He knew too well the monsters that peopled her dreams, and he let himself down on the bed next to her and drew her into his arms.
She snuggled against him, her head settling into the hollow between his shoulder and chest as if she'd always slept there. A slim hand covered the swell of his nearest pec, and one leg sprawled across his. A slender, fine-boned woman, clinging to him like a child, she didn't look like the kind of person who made powerful men tremble.
At least in his case, Clark thought wryly, it wasn't fear that shook him. He tried to quiet his ragged breathing and relax, but with her hand on his chest and her warm breath on his collarbone, he had as much chance of doing that as he had of stopping a hurricane. He reminded himself repeatedly that she was married, but his body persisted in readying itself for the sexual activity that he couldn't stop thinking about.
Giving in to temptation for just a moment, he brushed a kiss across her hair, breathing in the spicy scent of her perfume while he stroked her bare arm. That didn't make anything easier, and Clark vainly wished that his shorts weren't made of such soft, revealing material. He wondered if a pinpoint blast of supercold breath would help.
But self-control was Clark Kent's strong suit, and he tried to stop imagining how the soft curves pressed against his side looked without her nightshirt or felt against the palm of his hand. Seeking a distraction, he extended his senses and listened to the late night talk show on the TV that he'd left on in the sitting room. Eventually, bored by a discussion of the line of beauty care products being hawked by the guest celebrity, he relaxed into Lois's embrace and slept.
High above the city lights, they floated on their backs, star gazing. "That's Cyclops. You can see his one eye shining in his head," she said, pointing to the bright star. "And there's his arm …"
He shook with laughter, and she continued, "Okay, so he's got *really* long arms."
"And a pin-sized head," he added, grinning, and lifted her to lie on top of him, her body softly yielding on his. He threaded his fingers into her night-dark hair and raised his head to kiss her. She tasted of cloves and the night air, and he clasped the back of her head, holding her closer. Joy raced through his veins like sunlight as her lips parted, inviting him in. His tongue touched her full lower lip, then pressed on past her teeth, into the sweet warmth of her mouth. Her tongue met his, stroking and teasing him even as she caressed his chest and sides.
They kissed long and slow and deep, while his hands slid restlessly down her bare back. Free of the constraints of gravity, as relaxed and confident as if she, too, could fly and had no reason to fear falling, they made love.
Afterwards, he held her close, whispering her name. In the moonlight, her delicate features had an almost unearthly beauty, her smooth, slender limbs and graceful body bleached white, her eyes and hair mysterious shadows that his super-vision couldn't penetrate. But when he reached out to touch her face, she vanished, leaving him alone with the stars.
Clark awakened abruptly to find his face pressed against a mass of silky dark hair. Disoriented, he lay still for a moment, trying to figure out where he was. The bed was unfamiliar—too hard—and a woman's curves filled his arms … and hands.
Lois, he thought dimly, remembering that he had carried her to bed after the movie. Then he recalled his vivid dream of making love above the clouds, and he suddenly realized that he was holding her with a lover's intimacy. Heat flooded his cheeks, and he jerked his hands away. *What* was he doing?
She stirred, murmuring sleepily if incomprehensibly, and burrowed her face against his shoulder. A wave of tenderness and longing swept over him, and he gently cupped his hand over her cheek. She was real and brave and caring, and she didn't vanish at his touch. He closed his eyes, struggling with the desire to sweep her up in his arms and fly away with her, to take her away from the danger, from—
—her husband. He opened his eyes and saw the pearly light that preceded sunrise entering the window. Morning had come; the magical night was gone and he could no longer pretend that she wasn't married.
Sighing, Clark drifted upward, taking Lois with him as he eased his arms out from under her. He lether down as lightly as a dandelion seed falling to earth, and she curled up against the pillow, a frown creasing her forehead as her hand searched the bed beside her. He set her hand on his pillow, and her restless motion stopped, but the tiny frown between her brows remained. He smiled wistfully then leaned down and pressed a kiss on her cheek. "Goodbye, Lois," he whispered and, opening the window, launched himself into the dawn.
High above Metropolis, Clark drifted to a stop over his apartment building. He didn't usually fly during daylight hours because he had to be so careful that no one saw him, and he rebuked himself for recklessly staying in Lois's hotel room until daylight.
<Not just her hotel room,> his long-ignored conscience reminded him. <In her bed, holding her and touching her like you were lovers.>
He squirmed at the accusation. <But I was asleep,> he protested. <I didn't have any idea what I was doing.>
<Didn't you? Wasn't that why you kept holding her after she went back to sleep?> his conscience continued relentlessly.
<She was afraid of nightmares—and she wanted me to stay.> But Clark didn't have to hear the voice of his conscience to know that that was just an excuse, and whether she wanted him to stay or not, it certainly wasn't reason enough for him to abandon the principles of a lifetime. Last night, he had stayed and watched the movie with her, telling himself that he wasn't doing anything wrong, that it was okay for friends to spend some time together. And that was true—but it hadn't been what was happening between them. They had cuddled together on the couch and he had lain in bed with her for the rest of the night—
—and she was married.
<But Luthor's a criminal,> his heart protested, and his conscience answered, <That's beside the point! She didn't make her vows under duress, did she?>
He swallowed hard. There was no answer for that, not for a man who had learned his principles from Jonathan and Martha Kent. It was too late to change what he'd done, but he could make sure that he didn't make it any harder for Lois to respect her marriage vows.
Unhappily, Clark scanned the area around his apartment building—and with a shock, he recognized Nigel St. John sitting across the street in his car. Oh god, how could he have forgotten? Luthor was looking for her, and if he found out that Clark had been in her hotel room last night …
Clark couldn't even conceive of the danger she'd be in, and it would all be his fault. A roar of fear and frustration swelled in his chest and he closed his eyes, his fists clenched in front of his face as he fought back the yell.
This wasn't helping. This wasn't keeping her safe. <Think!> he commanded himself.
Okay, he had to return to his apartment and make sure St. John believed that no one had left all night, and therefore, that Lois had never been there. Jaw set in determination, he opened his eyes and rocketed into the back door of his apartment, unseen and unheard in the city's quiet dawn.
Dressed in a suit and tie, his brows drawn together thoughtfully, Clark Kent stepped out of his apartment and latched the door behind him before starting down the sidewalk toward The Star. From the shelter of a seven-year-old Chevy across the street, Nigel lowered his newspaper enough to watch the young man out of sight, then slipped across the street and knocked on the apartment door. "Cable repair," he called, his distinctive British pronunciation replaced by a harsh Brooklyn accent.
No answer. He jimmied the lock with well-practiced ease, poked his head in the door, and called again, "Cable repair!"
Three minutes later, he was on his cell phone. "No, sir, no one entered or left all night."
"What about the back door?" Lex asked, frustration apparent in his voice.
"It lets onto a balcony and fire escape, which leads into an alley with only one exit—next to the front door." Nigel hated failure and intimately knew the consequences Lex exacted for it—he was, in fact, Luthor's hand in such matters—so he made very sure that he had done everything humanly possible to prevent such an outcome. Someday, even that might not be enough, but he had a contingency plan in the event he ever ran afoul of Lex Luthor's temper. "No one left the apartment building."
There was a pause; then Lex said, "Perhaps she is somewhere else in the building."
"If so, she is in another apartment. I searched the public areas before I called."
Another pause, but this time, the line went dead, and Nigel knew he had been put on hold. When Lex came back on, there was a gritted-teeth sound to his voice. "Apparently we were watching Mr. Kent with, perhaps, a neighbor of his. My wife just walked into the building."
Lois strode down the hall of the penthouse, heading for her bedroom, eager to get out of her evening gown. She passed the side door to Lex's office and glanced in to see if he were there, trying to be casual but suppressing a shudder when she glimpsed his dark, elegant figure behind his desk. It was hard to imagine how she would act if she were simply angry with him, so she pretended she hadn't seen him and continued toward their bedroom.
"Lois!" Lex called, following her into the hallway.
She turned to face him. He looked tired, but the rage was visible in his tightly clenched jaw. "What?"
Her impatient response stopped him, and she saw him throttle back his anger. After a pause, his face settled into an expression of worry and concern. "Where have you been? What happened? Why didn't you come home last night?"
Damn. In setting up an alibi, she had forgotten to come up with a reason why she needed it. "I needed some time alone … to think … so I went to a movie."
"And then?" he persisted.
With the lie past, the truth came easily. "And then I stayed at the Wyatt-Viceroy," she said.
Lex studied her for a moment, his dark gaze locked with hers. "Darling, what's wrong? There's plenty of room here. You could have been alone if you wanted."
She bit her lip. He appeared so caring, so concerned. But it was an act, she reminded herself. He was maneuvering her into feeling that she was in the wrong so he could control her, just as he had done dozens of times since they married. Fortunately, he reminded her of that fact with his next words: "I was worried about you. Why didn't you let me know where you were?"
Let him know where she was, when he had people spying on her? Her quick temper flared up. "Why should I bother? Couldn't Nigel find a quarter for a phone call?"
The words were no more out of her mouth than she wished them back. After Clark spotted their watcher last night, it hadn't taken much to realize that Lex probably had her under surveillance all the time. But that wasn't knowledge she had intended to let him know she had.
Something flashed in his dark eyes—surprise?—and he reached for her hand. "It's for your safety, darling. I have enemies who wouldn't hesitate to use you to control me."
Her eyes glittered with anger. "Good story, Lex, but a little late if you want me to believe your spy is really a bodyguard."
His hand tightened on her wrist, and the civilized veneer fell away, leaving something dark and dangerously possessive. "Don't toy with me, Lois. I won't put up with anyone taking what's mine."
Thank God she hadn't stayed at Clark's apartment. She didn't know what she would have done if Nigel had reported she was there—or discovered that Clark had stayed in her hotel room with her until she fell asleep. Dimly she remembered him carrying her to bed after she dozed off in front of the TV. Had she clung to him, refusing to let him go? She thought so; certainly, her last waking memory—or was it a dream?—was of snuggling against his shoulder within the shelter of his arms. But she had awakened alone in her hotel bed this morning—and now her angry husband held her wrist in a painful grip. She suddenly saw how she could use Lex's warning about infidelity to end this confrontation. "Feeling cranky, Lex? I'm sorry; I thought Mrs. Cox could occupy you … satisfactorily … while I was gone." She shook her head in mock dismay. "Maybe a subtle hint about cutting her salary will get her mind back on … business."
Lois pulled away from him and swept down the hall, calling back over her shoulder, "And, yes, since you offered, I want to be alone."
Maybe that was enough. Maybe it would take him a few minutes to decide how to deal with her. Maybe her apparent jealousy would be enough of a sop to his vanity that she could get changed and escape. She hoped so.
As Clark wrote up the story on the literacy fund-raiser and the interview with Lois, he kept remembering her in his arms—dancing, flying, sleeping. And even though he knew that it was wrong to feel that way about a married woman, he couldn't stop the rush of joy at each memory.
Paul Banning slapped his shoulder on the way to the coffeepot ten feet from Clark's desk. "Good night, huh, Clark?"
"Yeah …" Then he heard the satisfaction in his voice and mentally shook himself. "Yeah, the … uh … fund-raiser seemed to go off pretty well—" God, that was lame. He fumbled for a better response. "And—and I got some good quotes in my interview with Lois … um … Luthor. Lois Luthor."
Paul seemed to be trying to hide a smile. "Lane's a real babe, isn't she?"
The offended anger that surged through Clark at Paul's leering tone startled him. Where did *that* come from? He and Lois had agreed to be partners in their effort to bring Lex to justice, but that didn't give him any rights regarding her. He took a shaky breath and held it. "Mrs. Luthor's a beautiful woman," he said reprovingly. "And she was stunning last night. I hope Mike sent someone to take some pictures."
The older man snorted in amusement and turned away. "Yeah, I'm sure that's what you're hoping."
Clark ducked his head a little. Okay, so maybe his secret fantasy was to develop a relationship with her, but that didn't mean he didn't also hope Mike had some pictures to go with his article. He glanced at his watch, then looked back at his screen and scanned his story at superspeed. He began to type quickly, careful not to exceed 80 wpm as he committed the public part of his evening to words. It wasn't near deadline yet, but he had several other irons in the fire: following up on the sex-slave-ring story, helping Lois find evidence on Luthor, keeping her safe from the consequences of his stupidity last night, and—he glanced at his watch again—covering the mayor's press conference this morning. He'd better get focused in a hurry.
Lois made her escape from the LexCorp tower without seeing Lex again, but she didn't kid herself that that meant he had forgiven or was ignoring their confrontation in the hallway. The back of her neck prickled—her reporter's instinct, Perry had always called it—with the certainty that she was being watched. She slammed into her silver Cherokee and squealed the tires for good measure as she tore out of the parking garage. Let her observer and Lex make of that what they would. Until her husband was safely in prison, she was going to assume that she always had a tail, that her phone calls were monitored, that—she glanced down at her purse, her eyes sweeping the interior of her vehicle—everything she owned was either wired for sound or tagged for tracing.
Maybe she watched too many spy movies. But this wasn't a game. If she screwed up, the consequences could be … catastrophic. Abruptly, she swung a sharp U-turn, ignoring the irritated blare of horns from the cars she cut off as she headed back to the department store she just passed.
"Mrs. Cox!" Lex snapped over the intercom.
The door between their offices swung open immediately. "Yes, Lex?"
He stared down at Nigel's report on Lois's activities of the previous evening. His eyes were black and stony, his expression cold. "Danced together … the interview … danced a second time?" he read aloud. The page crumpled as he clenched his hand, and he spun his chair to face his waiting assistant. "What do we know about this reporter, this Clark Kent?"
She calmly opened the folder she had brought into the office with her. "He came to work for The Star four months ago. He gets along well with his co-workers. His employer thinks very highly of him. A bachelor, lives alone, pays his rent on time, very quiet tenant." She looked up. "That was just the initial check. We can look closer if you wish."
Lex tapped impatient fingers on his desk. He didn't bother to comment on his assistant's report, nor the fact that she had apparently anticipated his wishes. That was, after all, one of the reasons he paid her such an extravagant salary. At length, he said, "No, let's wait. If he appears again, that'll be soon enough for you and Nigel to take him apart. We know where to get hold of him."
He glanced back down at the paper crushed in his fist. "However …" he began, "our Mr. Kent needs a lesson on the foolishness of inviting my displeasure."
Mrs. Cox raised slender, arched brows. "He doesn't own a car. Shall I have his apartment burgled?"
"Too impersonal." Even if Kent didn't get the point, Lex's stubborn, wayward wife should. It appeared he had been too subtle, too soft with her, and she was as much in need of a lesson as her dupe, Kent, was. "Send some men over to rough him up—but nothing that needs a trip to the hospital."
She inclined her head. "I'll take care of it."
Lois left the department store in an entirely new set of clothes—including shoes and underclothes—of the same color and style as the outfit she had put on at home. With any luck, she thought, dropping the sack of used clothes behind the seat of the Cherokee, her tail would never realize that she had changed, and if she left her purse and clothes locked in the Jeep, she could continue her investigation without having to wonder about listening ears. Thinking of the need for caution, she started down the street toward the city library, not her office at LNN. At LNN, she was pretty sure that Lex could get a copy of her computer activity from the network administrator, so she prayed he wouldn't check on what she had done yesterday, but there was no sense in tempting fate, not after her absence last night.
However, after she had been at the computer for two hours, she was beginning to wonder why she had bothered with such precautions. The trail was old and cold, and nothing out of the ordinary appeared in the city or county records. Which meant she was looking in the wrong place.
She stared at the screen, mentally sifting through possible sources of information when the beep of her watch alarm startled her. Eleven-thirty. She needed to call Clark to tell him where they could meet for lunch.
Lois was already on her way to the pay phones when it occurred to her that a watch was a logical place to put a bug—and this one had been a present from Lex. She slipped the delicate timepiece off her wrist and studied it. It looked like a slim white-gold bracelet, but it had several functions more common to a man's digital watch than to a piece of fine jewelry. And where there was one hidden function, there could be two.
She cupped it in her hand, weighing the risk. All right. Lex probably had a tail on her, so he would know where she had lunch and with whom. So … limit the conversation to a discussion of where to eat—and then leave the watch in the Jeep with her purse.
She sighed. Considering consequences was foreign to her personality, and she was afraid she might slip up and let Lex know she was on to him. She would just be so glad when she nailed him and could get back to her normal life. Maybe Clark would have some suggestions at lunch that would help.
Clark strolled into the restaurant, casually searching for Lois over the top of his glasses.
"One for lunch?" a hostess asked.
He waved her away. "I'm meeting a friend," he said and started across the dining room toward the booth where he had spotted Lois. He also noticed a man at a small table beyond the booth, reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee. The man's location was such a good one for keeping an eye on Lois without being in her line of sight that Clark swiftly scanned him, immediately noticing a cell phone of the same type Nigel had used the previous night. Not proof, but …
"Hi," she greeted him, her smile bright and welcoming.
"Hi, yourself," he answered, slipping into the bench seat on the opposite side of the table. "I think we've got company," he added, inclining his head toward the man with the paper, who was seated out of earshot.
She glanced over her shoulder. "Oh. I wondered what he looked like."
Her casual acceptance of a tail surprised a half-smile out of him. She really was the most amazing woman he had ever met. Moment by moment, she seemed to be shedding her 'Mrs. Luthor' chrysalis as Lois Lane emerged with strong, beautiful wings.
Wings. Flight was natural to him, but he'd never thought of another person as a flying creature before. She turned back and noticed his expression. "What?" she asked.
Clark shook his head. "Nothing." How could he tell a woman he'd met only about 15 hours before that he thought she was the perfect mate for him? "How'd it go this morning?"
"A big fat nothing. I think I'm clear of any little friends—" she briefly cupped her ear to indicate a listening device— "and I've got a list of the board members who sold The Planet to Lex, but that's it. I guess I'll start calling them this afternoon and see if anyone has anything to say."
He frowned thoughtfully. "That might work. If you'll think of yourself as Lois Luthor—not Lois Lane, investigative reporter."
"Oh, and pretend that I know all about Lex's little ploy? That's a good idea, Clark." She slanted him a teasing glance. "Sort of like going undercover while looking completely open and undisguised."
"Yeah." Swift understanding was so natural to her that she hadn't noticed how quickly she picked up on his suggestion—just as she had done last night when they planned her alibi. God, he would love to have a partner like her at The Star. Together, they would be unbeatable.
"Okay, so how was *your* morning?" she asked, breaking across his pleasant, yearning thoughts.
"I wrote up your Team Literacy fund-raiser story and covered the mayor's press conference. I'll finish that one when I get back; then I'll try to turn up something on the sex-slave-ring story."
She studied him intently. "You're not happy with what's happening on that story."
"No, I'm not. I've hit a dead end, and I can't figure out where to go from here," he admitted.
The waitress arrived with two French dips, fries for him, fruit for her, and two iced teas. Clark lifted his eyebrows.
"The French dip's good, so I ordered for both of us," Lois explained.
He tried a bite. She was right, and he chewed on the crusty French roll as she continued, "I have a source—a snitch—who might be able to help. Bobby's the best. If he doesn't know it, no one does."
His brows soared again. Snitches and other contacts were more than a reporter's bread and butter; they were often the difference between writing a scoop and playing catch-up with every other news source. As a result, they weren't shared—with anyone. This was trust indeed. "Thank you, Lois."
"Wait to thank me until he comes up with something. Besides, he can be expensive."
"You *pay* your snitch?"
"Not in cash—The Planet had strict rules against that. But Bobby isn't called Bigmouth because he blabs everything he knows. He is—literally—a bottomless pit." She shook her head. "I never saw *any*one eat like he does, although," she added, eyeing the remains of his sandwich, "you might come close."
Clark glanced down at the heel of the roll still in his hand. He had been so focused on what Lois was saying that he had absentmindedly eaten most of the roast beef sandwich. Ducking his head, he blushed a little. "You should see me when I'm in a hurry. Mom hates it when I inhale my food."
"And you don't get a stomachache or put on weight?" She eyed his lean, muscular physique, her expression revealing more than clinical interest.
"No. No matter how much I eat."
Lois sighed wistfully. "Too bad you can't package it. It'd sure beat rabbit-food and hours in the gym."
Clark lifted his shoulders in an apologetic, can't-help-you gesture. "Don't you like working out?"
"Clark," she said in exasperation, "that was your cue to say something encouraging or uplifting like, 'But you'd miss all those lessons on discipline and self-control.'"
"Oh." He considered what she'd said. "You mean you don't enjoy eating healthy food or exercising? Then why do you do it?"
She laughed. "Because I like chocolate, and if I didn't eat right the rest of the time and work out every day, I'd weigh two hundred pounds."
<Two hundred—?> His gaze slid over her sleek, delicious curves. She had … the most beautiful body he'd ever seen, but he'd met a lot of beautiful women and none of them had made him feel like this. He looked back into her coffee-dark eyes. Slim or heavy, she would still be brave and passionate and caring. "Would you be happier if you stopped worrying about your weight?"
"It isn't a matter of my being happier or not." She looked away, laughing nervously. "You must've missed my series on overweight people—the minority everyone feels justified in mocking and discriminating against."
"Lois." When she turned back to him, he reached out and touched her hand—and what he was going to say vanished completely. Her gaze locked with his; he felt like he was losing himself in her eyes. The clatter of silverware and chattering voices receded as his senses narrowed and focused on this woman.
"Clark," she whispered, and he leaned toward her, drawn like a magnet to its north. Time hung suspended; he drew closer to her, inch by slow inch.
"Did you want dessert?" a nasally voice asked, breaking into their private world.
Lois blinked and looked at Clark with wondering eyes, then turned to look at their server. "What?"
"Our special is a hot fudge brownie sundae," the waitress continued.
Clark glanced up sharply, then saw Lois's appalled expression, and the bubble of laughter inside him burst out.
Then they were both laughing, and the waitress was swinging her head back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match. "Does that mean yes or no?"
"Yes, Mr. Luthor. At Tremayne's. They were there about forty-five minutes." The man Clark had noticed at the restaurant had found a bench at the shopping mall where he could keep an eye on Lois while he called in his report.
"What did they say?" Lex demanded. Kent, again.
"I—uh—I dunno. I wasn't getting anything from the bug in Mrs. Luthor's purse. The line sounded like it was open, but I couldn't hear anything."
Lex barely held back a scathing comment. Incompetents! The idiot was probably tuned to the wrong frequency. "Keep an eye on her, and report back if she meets with anyone else."
He stabbed the disconnect button, feeling a sort of savage glee in imagining he was jabbing at Clark Kent … who was starting to turn up like a bad penny. He slammed his fist down on the call button for Mrs. Cox. <Take that, Kent.>
She was carrying an appointment book and two file folders when she entered. "Yes, Lex?"
"I want a full report on Clark Kent. Everything. How much he makes, what he spends it on, whom he sleeps with, how much he drinks, what Internet sites he visits … any weakness we can exploit."
"What about the lesson we had planned for him?"
He hesitated. "Make sure he survives."
She nodded, then opened one of her files. "About how Mrs. Luthor got out of the building last night … Security should have picked her up at the front or back doors. If she took the fire stairs, she should have set off an alarm when she left the building. Since none of that happened, I can think of two ways she might have slipped past security. She could have gone down to the second floor, broken into one of the offices there, and gone out a window. Or she might have gotten a key to one of the ground floor businesses and gone through it and out the back door."
"An awful lot of trouble to get out of the building unseen," Lex observed and took a long drag on his cigar.
Mrs. Cox shrugged slim shoulders. "She may have been trying to escape your surveillance."
Recalling his wife's words when he greeted her this morning, he blew two perfect smoke rings and nodded. "That, unfortunately, sounds like Lois. Determined to elude it once she realized she was under observation." Which might explain last night's events as well as their argument this morning.
He put the cigar in the crystal ashtray, the picture of an elegant, controlled gentleman, but inside he was seething. He had known she would be furious if she discovered that he was having her watched, but knowing that didn't temper his rage over her actions. It had been a very long time since anyone had deliberately thwarted Lex Luthor.
"You think I can trust him? I mean, he's not gonna try to stiff me and eat all the pepperoni off the top of the pizza or pick the globs of chocolate off the eclairs, right?" Bobby Bigmouth's chewing and gulping was audible, even over the phone.
Lois fired up. "Bobby, it was only one piece, not *all* the pepperoni!" Wisely, she ignored the chocolate allegation, knowing that she had no defense there.
He snickered. "Tell him I'm in the mood for Thai."
She heaved an exaggerated sigh. "I gave him the phone numbers of all your favorite take-out places. And by the sound of it, the delivery boy from Ralph's Pagoda has arrived."
"Love their slippery shrimp," he mumbled around another mouthful.
"I don't buy you this stuff just for the pleasure of listening to you eat. Give."
"You sure you know what you're doin'? People who stick their noses into your hubby's business don't stay healthy for long."
Lois tapped on the phone receiver so it would be audible on his end. "You know, Bobby, I *was* going to call the Fudge Castle and have an ice cream pizza sent over, but …"
"Okay, okay. Several of The Planet's former Board members are showin' signs of what you might call con-spick-you-us consumption."
She frowned. "What d'you mean?"
"Like drivin' around Ferraris and buyin' some knock-out jewelry that doesn't end up around the wifie's throat, if you get my drift."
"Names, Bobby." She wrote furiously, focused like a hunting dog with a clear trail to follow. "One more thing," she added.
"Wha's'at?" Bobby asked.
"I'm looking for someone who might have sold a chunk of C12 during the ten days before the Daily Planet blew up."
"That'll be tough, Lois. Those kinda guys don't talk to reporters or police."
"Try anyway, Bobby." If she could just get something on Nigel, he might be willing to turn state's evidence for a reduced sentence. That was a big if. But when she hung up, it was Lois Lane who walked away from the phone. Lois Luthor—that depressed, submissive, but beautiful mannequin—was fading into a dim memory.
Clark watched in fascination as Bobby Bigmouth wolfed down his second box of the Thai noodles and cabbage that Clark had brought from Bangkok. The informant must have had a super-charged metabolism to eat as he did and stay so thin. Or a tapeworm, Clark thought, remembering some of the things he'd seen on his travels.
"This is great stuff," Bobby said around a mouthful of the spicy food. "Where'd you get it?"
"A little place out of town." Clark changed the subject. "Lois—Mrs. Luthor—told me you might know something about the sex-slave ring I've been investigating."
The sound Bobby made was muffled by another mouthful of noodles, but it sounded like a snort or maybe a snicker. "What?" Clark asked.
Bobby swallowed and gulped down half a glass of milk. "You. Callin' her Mrs. L. A little formal for partners, doncha think?"
"Partners? Wha—? How'd you—?"
The snitch smirked, his lips shiny with grease from the noodles. "I know everything worth knowin' in Metropolis."
Not quite everything. But paid informants weren't a hazard Clark had considered, so he made a mental note to be very careful. "Then tell me about the sex-slave ring."
"Rich guys who're tired of doin' it straight, so to speak. Someone's makin' big bucks fulfilling private fantasies for guys who can afford to pay for it."
"So why are they kidnapping and drugging college girls? There're women who are willing, who'll do almost anything for a price."
Bobby shook his head. "It's a power thing, Kent. They pay a woman; she decides she doesn't wanna do it; she walks away. The slave can't leave. She has to do what they say."
Clark felt almost as nauseated as he did when he interviewed Melissa Taylor. "You're saying they want it *because* it's rape."
"I tol'ja they were guys who were bored with 'straight' sex." He rooted in the bag, looking for anything he might have missed. Disappointed, he looked up. "Word is Rollin Jameson is the one who puts these bored rich guys in touch with … someone."
"Do you know the 'someone's' name?"
"I can get it—but Jameson is the contact guy. You go through him or you don't go anywhere." He looked Clark up and down. "But I wouldn't try to force him to give you that name. You're a big guy, Kent, but someone's makin' enough dough to hire *real* muscle."
"Nigel's working on Kent's private life, and he should have a report tomorrow. So far, we have very little," Mrs. Cox said. "Born in Smallville, Kansas, 1966. Parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. Graduated from Midwest University in 1988. Worked as a freelance journalist for the past six years—and has developed something of a reputation as an up-and-comer in the field. Traveled a lot, but there's no record of his name on passenger lists for flights or ships re-entering the country during the past year."
"Should there be?" Lex asked.
"He had articles published in London and Paris newspapers last year—local stories—so he was in England and France before he came to Metropolis."
"Hmmm." Definitely not what he'd expected. "What do you think? Using an assumed name?"
"Maybe." Mrs. Cox shrugged. "But he might have worked for passage on a steamer, so he wouldn't show up on either crew or passenger lists."
"I hope not. I'm looking for a vice, a secret, something to hold over him if necessary."
His assistant took several photos from the folder and handed them to Lex. "I had Nigel's pictures developed. The top one is probably the best if you want to know what Kent looks like."
It was a black and white photo of Clark dancing with Lois, and it gave Lex an unpleasant shock. The young man was extremely handsome and appropriately outfitted in a tuxedo, but it was the way he and Lois looked at each other that made Lex want to hit something.
"Send a cameraman with the men who are giving our young Mr. Kent his lesson this evening. I want to see how it goes." There was a certain satisfaction in being able to see the results of his orders, as he had done with Antoinette Baines. He occasionally pulled out the tape of the exploding helicopter even now.
Mrs. Cox nodded and, scooping up the photos she had given to Lex, slid them back into Clark Kent's file. "I'll take care of it myself," she said.
The Star's morgue had only come up with one mention of Rollin Jameson—in a photo of a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the mayor of Metropolis and Lex Luthor, among other notables. Luthor, Clark noticed in disgust. He peered over his glasses at the photo, enhancing the image, searching for any clue to this Jameson person. A glimpse of white against a dark suit caught his eye and he focused on it. A security pass with … Jameson's name and that of ArLex Laboratories.
Clark shoved his glasses into place and sat back. ArLex. One of LexCorp's subsidiaries, he guessed—and Rollin Jameson worked for it—and, ultimately, for Lex Luthor.
He knew what he was thinking was unfair. Luthor employed tens of thousands of people in Metropolis alone. The odds were good that any person randomly chosen had *some* sort of connection with him, but … For one moment, Clark admitted it to himself: he *wanted* to get something on Lex Luthor, to send him to prison, and he was eager to follow any lead in that direction. He returned to his search program and started looking up ArLex Laboratories.
The hesitation in Richard Urbanowicz's voice when she suggested a meeting time set off an alarm in the back of Lois's head, and, ignoring her Jeep parked outside the library, she grabbed the first passing taxi and took off toward his house. She forced herself not to look back for her tail, but at the first opportunity, she hopped out of the taxi when traffic was stopped at a light, crossed the median, and nabbed a taxi headed the other way. Three blocks further on, she directed the driver back toward Urbanowicz's house via the crosstown expressway, then leaned back against the seat to plan her next move.
As they rounded the corner at the end of the block, she saw a dark Mercedes sedan pull away from Urbanowicz's house, and on a hunch, Lois had her driver follow the car at a discreet distance. Which was how she ended up hiding behind a large ficus plant on the tenth floor of the Lexor Hotel an hour later, taking pictures of Richard Urbanowicz and his tall, blonde, beautiful business appointment as they exited the hotel room. The woman, who bore no resemblance to either his wife or two daughters, gave him a kiss which included an oral examination that would have done a dental hygienist proud. Snapping pictures furiously, Lois recorded their linked progress all the way to the elevator.
Urbanowicz let the woman go down the elevator alone, then pushed the button to call another car while he patted his flushed, well-fed face with a handkerchief and smoothed back his thinning gray hair. When the elevator opened, Lois slipped in with him and, wearing her most innocent smile, said, "Richard, what a nice surprise!" She held out her hand, trying not to laugh at his fish-out-of-water bulging eyes. "You remember, it's Lois Lane—Lois Luthor now. We can just meet in the lounge downstairs instead of driving back to your office. How lucky that I happened to be at the Lexor today! Tell me, how is your wife doing these days?" she added maliciously.
"Clark, I wish you could've seen his face when I asked about his wife!" Lois crowed. "He looked like the poster child for 'Cheating Husbands Anonymous.'"
He laughed, the sound warmly comforting even over the cell phone. "Where are you now?"
She snuggled deeper into the couch in the reading area. "At the city library. I'm having him fax me the transcript of the meeting when Lex bought The Planet. And in the meantime, I'm having two sets of the photos developed at a one-hour place down the street."
"Yeah, I'm giving him the negatives and one set."
"Lo-is," Clark said in exasperation. "That's unethical if you've promised him the film in exchange for the transcript."
"It's also practical," she shot back. "I may need some insurance before I'm done."
He was silent for a moment. "Maybe you shouldn't risk it," he finally said.
"Bobby gave me a lead on this sex-slave ring that's pointing to someone with ties to your husband. Maybe you should just let me work it from this end."
"Let go of my story? Don't be ridiculous. Besides, ties to Lex aren't enough. He's got a battery of lawyers, and we won't get close to him unless we've got real proof."
"Yeah, I know. I just … Lois, I don't want you getting hurt. Won't you let me take you someplace safe?"
She started to speak, but he continued over the top of her, "I'm gonna visit my folks this evening. I could take you with me, and Luthor'd never find you there. And they're really nice people. I think you'd like my mom a lot, and they have plenty of room—"
"No, Clark. I'm not going into hiding," she said firmly. "I have to see this through. I have to prove to myself—" Her words caught in her throat, and she swallowed hard.
"—that Lex Luthor didn't succeed in destroying Lois Lane," he added gently.
"Yeah," she whispered.
He sighed. "I know. Just … be careful, okay? Check the water level before you dive in."
"I'll try." She hesitated, then asked softly, "How long will you be there?"
"I'll be back tonight. Do you have a pen?"
Lois dug it and a notepad out of her purse. "Got it."
"Let me give you my parents' number. If you need anything … if anything happens … give me a call. I can be back in Metropolis in less than a minute."
Less than a minute from Kansas. She closed her eyes, reeling not only at the thought of such speed but also because he had recognized her uneasiness and immediately acted to relieve it. She had never dreamed of such a partner, and she addressed a silent "thank you" toward heaven, to whomever had sent him her way. "Okay, go ahead."
The tension between Mr. and Mrs. Luthor was thicker than the vichyssoise they were eating, and Lois felt a cloud of depression settle over her. She took a deep breath, unwilling to give in to those feelings again. Her safest path lay in placating Lex, making him think she was harmless, but the thought of coaxing him out of his anger, of once again submitting to his arrogance made her ill. <I can't do it,> she thought, even as she began to chatter artlessly about the article on illiteracy in Metropolis that was her cover for the story she was really writing.
"I spent all day at the library looking up statistics. You wouldn't believe how much information is still on micro-fiche instead of being on-line." She stopped as if suddenly struck by an idea. "Lex, have you thought of funding a project to get the library files on-line? Then I could look them up on my computer instead of hanging around the library all day."
Lex raised a sardonic eyebrow and took a bite of the veal parmigiana that Nigel had just put on the table, so Lois shrugged and went on with her description of her day. It was hard to appear relaxed and chatty without slipping into real babbling from nervousness, and she drew on every ounce of acting ability she possessed. "I met Clark Kent for lunch."
Lex froze, and she pretended not to notice but continued, "He's the reporter from The Star who covered the literacy fund-raiser last night. It turns out he's interested in literacy, too. Since he's done the background work for the fund-raiser story, he volunteered to help me if I wanted. So he's doing the legwork, as my assistant, sort of like Mrs. Cox—"
She broke off abruptly and put her hand to her mouth, lowering her gaze to her plate. Lex frowned. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
Lois shook her head. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.
"Sorry?" She wasn't imagining the satisfaction in his voice. "For what?"
She drew a careful pattern on the edge of the gold-trimmed china plate. "Yesterday—when I went to your office to remind you that I wouldn't be home for dinner … Mrs. Cox—" She stumbled to a halt, then tried again, "Mrs. Cox …"
He tilted his head curiously and reached out to cover her hand with his. "What? What is it, Lois?"
"She as good as said that you were … that she was … that you two …"
Lex sat back in his chair, the knuckle of his index finger resting against his lips. "That we were …?" he prompted.
Lois took a deep breath, as if she were trying to find the courage to say the words. "Intimate." She lifted her head, her eyes reddened—from biting the inside of her cheek, but Lex didn't know that. "And that's why I went to a movie and why I stayed at a hotel last night. I'm sorry," she added in a small voice. "I was very angry."
He leaned forward and took her left hand in his, lifting her fingers to his mouth. "Lois, darling, I've always felt that our pasts were just that. Past. But I won't lie to you. I wasn't a monk. Before you and I got … close, I took pleasure in a lot of women—among them, I'll admit, Mrs. Cox. But I swear that was over long ago. Lois—" he kissed her fingers one by one— "you have no reason to be jealous. You're the only woman in my life."
What she had once seen as a courtly, romantic gesture now seemed disgusting, like she was touching something rotten, and she tried to hold back the shudder of revulsion that ran through her. Only two days ago, she had willingly accepted his touch, even if she just went through the motions, but now everything was over. Lex had been more right than he knew to keep his criminal activities secret from her.
Despite her experience with undercover operations, she must have let something of her real feelings show because he was watching her with a frown of concern. "Darling, what's wrong? Don't you believe me?"
Lois shook her head. <Of course I don't, you lying scumbag.> "No, it isn't that. It's … Mrs. Cox must still have feelings for you … or why would she have tried to make me think you were … sleeping together?"
His face went blank for a moment; then his dark eyes focused on her again. "What do you want me to do? Get rid of her?"
She leaned toward him impulsively, yet careful not to touch him. "Oh, Lex, would you do that for me if I asked?"
He relaxed and smiled that shark's smile that meant nothing to him, apparently believing her wariness was a result of her jealousy and anger toward Mrs. Cox. "Lois, I want you to be happy."
"Thank you, sweetheart," she said, briefly squeezing his hand and quickly releasing it.
He leaned toward her and pressed a series of small kisses along the side of her neck. Lois tilted her head away, which bared her neck to his caress at the same time as it moved her face further from his. "I can think of a better way for you to thank me," he whispered.
Nausea rose in her throat, and she began to breathe quickly to overcome her urge to throw up, yet the hurried breathing made her sound aroused at the same time. She couldn't afford to refuse him, but she was afraid that she wouldn't be able to hide her revulsion, and that would immediately give the game away. Maybe she could deflect him instead. "Oh, sweetheart …" She let her voice trail off and followed it with a heavy sigh as she laid her hand on his suit-coat-clad shoulder.
"My period started today."
He paused, then lifted his head, his nose wrinkling fastidiously. "Isn't it a little early?"
"A couple of days." She shrugged and stroked her hand across the fine wool of his suit jacket. "It always seems to come at the most inconvenient times."
"Yes," he agreed dryly and sat back, taking a long swallow of his wine. "Since it appears we won't be providing our own dessert, perhaps we should see what Chef Andre has come up with."
"It's hard to say what she's like. She's so many different things, all at once," Clark told his mother and father between bites of meatloaf and peas. "When I first saw her, I thought she was just a doll—beautiful, but lifeless. But when we talked and danced together, it was like she was coming alive, and she was passionate and caring and funny and brilliant and … stubborn and domineering," he admitted, a faint smile pulling at one corner of his mouth.
Martha exchanged a worried glance with Jonathan. "And *married*, honey."
"Yeah, I know, Mom. But her marriage is over, now that she knows about Luthor's criminal activities—"
"'My marriage is over.' 'I'm getting a divorce.' Clark, those aren't cliches just because they show up in fiction all the time."
He raised his hand against her further protest. "That's why I'm just gonna be a friend to her. She needs one so much. Luthor's cut her off from all of her friends at The Planet, from her work, even from her family."
"Her family?" Jonathan asked. "How'd he do that?"
Clark shook his head. "Lois's mom is a recovered alcoholic. She has been for years. And suddenly, the week after Lois's wedding, she fell off the wagon, and now she's confined to a rehab center in California. You tell me what it looks like."
"It could be a coincidence, son."
"Maybe. But since Lois overheard Luthor admit that he engineered the destruction of The Daily Planet, and with my investigation into that sex-slave ring turning up names of his associates, I'm not gonna bet the farm on it."
"Clark, you're talking about Lex Luthor? The same man who heads up all those charity drives and gives millions to medical research and education?" Martha was incredulous.
"Sounds crazy, doesn't it? I don't know if he just steps outside the law when he can't get what he wants legally or if he does it because he gets a kick out of getting away with it, but for all his philanthropy, this guy's as bad as the head of the Mafia."
"And Lois knows this? Then why's she staying with him?" Jonathan asked.
His son sighed and raked his hand through his hair. "Because she's trying to get the evidence to convict him for The Daily Planet bombing, and she doesn't want to spook him into covering it up."
Martha covered her mouth in horror. "Oh, Clark, you can't leave her there. If he caught on to what she was doing …"
"That's what I tried to tell her. She's scared, but she won't leave, even when I offered to bring her here tonight. So I gave her your number in case anything happens."
Jonathan and Martha exchanged another glance, and he said, "If something happens, son, you'll be in Smallville, and she'll be in Metropolis. She should call the police."
"No, I can get there faster than 911 can dispatch a car. She knows that."
His parents spoke in a horrified rush. "She *knows* that?" Martha repeated, while Jonathan warned, "Clark, you've gotta be careful in the city. There're people everywhere, and some nut with a video camera could see you pulling one of your super-stunts—"
"Mom, Dad, I know, but I couldn't help it. Lois fell off the penthouse balcony—and I saved her. I *had* to. I couldn't just let her die."
"No, no, of course not, honey," his mother soothed while she shot his father a fierce look. "So, you're her back-up while she's investigating her husband?"
Clark nodded. His gaze grew distant, and he smiled softly, reminiscently. "I like Lois knowing. It's nice having someone—besides you guys—that I can be myself with." Then he focused on his parents' concerned faces, his expression mirroring theirs. "But I can't really do anything to help her or everyone'll know about me, and then I won't have any kind of life. Even if they *don't* put me in a lab and dissect me like a frog." He looked up at his dad with a gleam of amusement.
Jonathan shrugged. He was a worrier, and nothing was going to change that.
"So what're you going to do?" Martha asked, practical as always.
"I think I need … some kind of disguise. Something I can put on so no one'll know it's me when I go to save someone. Mom, does your sewing machine still work?"
"It did last time I tried it."
"And that would have been what year?" Jonathan teased.
"Hush up, Jonathan," she said and got up, stopping behind Clark's chair to rest her hands on his shoulders in a considering, measuring way. "C'mon, let's try it."
"I think it needs to be skin-tight," Martha said, measuring Clark's bare chest, shoulder to shoulder, "to cut down on wind-resistance."
"*Skin* tight?" he echoed. Memories of the other football players' comments on the ballet that he'd attended for a humanities class still rang in his ears. 'Wimp' was the least offensive remark they'd made about the male ballet dancers bouncing around in tights. "Mom, I'll look silly. People'll think I'm Peter Pan or something."
"You'll look a lot sillier if your pants get torn off because they were loose and snagged on something."
"All right," he grudgingly agreed. He might not like being the object of rude, mocking comments, but he could recognize a necessity when he saw it.
She slid the tape under his arms and measured his chest. "Forty-four inches. I didn't realize you'd gotten that big." The tape slid down to his waist.
He twisted around to see where she was pulling the tape together. "What is it?"
"Hold still." Martha marked the measurement in a little notebook she was holding. "Thirty-two. I guess all those Ding-Dongs and Ho-Hos aren't hurting you any." She looked back up at her tall son. "Do you want a mask or cowl or something?"
He hesitated. "I don't think so." Lois had described herself as going undercover but looking open and undisguised. Maybe he should do the same. "If I cover my face, people'll think I'm hiding something, and they'll be afraid to trust me. And I'm strong enough to be pretty scary."
"That's true," she said thoughtfully. "Besides, without a mask, who would think you were anything but this strong, fast, flying man?"
"Exactly." His idea couldn't be too crazy if his mom was thinking the same thing. "If people don't think I'm hiding anything, they won't be trying to find out who I really am."
"Okay, no mask. And, honey … I think you should go with long sleeves and long pants. It'll look less casual."
"Whatever." That was the sort of fashion stuff women worried about. "Just make sure I can get in and out of it easily."
"Doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't take drugs, doesn't gamble, no visits to video porn sites on his credit card, no girlfriends—or boyfriends—except that woman you saw—" Lex threw down Nigel's report in disgust. "What is he, a poster boy for bucolic living?"
"He does have a talent for being where unusual occurrences are, sir," Nigel offered diffidently.
"Of course he does," Lex said. "He probably has one of those police scanners and chases ambulances to convince himself that he's alive."
"Sir," Nigel began, "doesn't that seem … odd … for a healthy, personable, attractive young man? He was successful in college, both academically and athletically—" At his employer's raised eyebrow, he broke off to explain, "He played football in college and received several awards."
"And he has been successful in his chosen career—one which, I might add, requires considerable people skills. This is *not* the profile of—what are those pathetic introverts called?—a nerd."
Lex steepled his fingers, staring blankly ahead. At last, he looked up. "Nigel, you're right. He's hiding something. And I want to know what it is."
Mrs. Cox leaned on the doorbell. Her team was in position: two men flanking her, ready to force the door open and grab Kent when he came to the door; two more men at the back door, waiting to assist in delivering Lex's warning not to touch what was his. Everything was ready … except Kent wasn't answering the bell.
Her lips tightened with vexation, and she let the mini-camcorder dangle from its wrist strap as she reached into her pocket for her lock-picks. She was nearly as fast as Nigel, and in another minute, her entire team was inside the apartment, searching for whatever it was that Kent was hiding. Flashlights looked suspicious from outside, so Mrs. Cox drew the blinds and casually turned on the lights.
"Must not be much of a cook," the man in the kitchen called. "Doesn't have any hot pads."
"Sure not a hypochondriac, either. Nothing in his medicine cabinet," the man in the bathroom added. "No aspirin, Band-Aids, first aid creme, nothing."
That piqued her interest, and she looked up from the bills she was sorting through. "Is it just a front—to make people think someone lives here?"
"Nah," the man in the kitchen responded. "He's got trash in here … cleansers … the bottles and boxes of food are half-eaten."
"And the books up here," the man in the loft added, "are written in—notes in the margins… Hmmm, that's interesting. He actually has a copy of the 'Kama Sutra… Whoa! You should see this."
"Put it back," Mrs. Cox ordered. "We're not here to look at sex manuals." However, she took a moment to note it down before she continued through the bills and papers next to the phone. "Are you finding anything?" she asked the man who had sat down at the laptop computer.
"This is where his notes and articles are," he said. "Give me a few minutes while I save the history on his most recent net searches. Then I'll copy his files and we can look at them later."
Mrs. Cox nodded. Her man out front hadn't signaled that Kent was approaching, so theyhad a few minutes before they needed to turn out the light and wait for his return. "Don't waste any time."
Clark softly landed on his balcony. The costume his mom had come up with had worked well when he wore it home, and he was inclined to agree that she had been right to insist on skin-tight spandex. He wasn't so sure about the cape, although *she* had thought it would look good when he was flying. At least it covered his backside so he didn't feel so much like he was walking around nearly naked. The red briefs helped, too. Without them, the spandex fit like a second skin—and revealed nearly as much. As it was, his mom had already teased him that no one was going to be looking at his face, and that wasn't a thought designed to make him feel comfortable in his new costume.
Lost in thought about the costume, Clark reached for his back door—and almost missed the gleam of light shining through his blinds. <What?!> He scanned the apartment and swiftly located a black-leather-clad woman and four men searching his possessions. He drifted off the balcony and hovered by the sloping windows of his bedroom, out of sight in case anyone decided to search the balcony.
"Ahh!" the woman said, and Clark focused on the object in her hand.
His notebook. He barely suppressed a groan. She was reading the last page, with the information from Bobby Bigmouth and his own discovery about ArLex Labs. He focused closer still, reading the page from the back side and committing the address and phone number to memory, just in case.
The woman carefully tore the page out of his notebook and put it inside her jacket. "Are you done?" she asked the man sitting at Clark's computer.
"Ninety-three percent," he said. "Four … six … eight … nine … There we go." He pulled a disk out of the floppy drive and held it up triumphantly.
Dammit, those were *his* files. Clark concentrated on the disk, and a small burst of his special vision demagnetized it, sending the contents into electronic oblivion.
The woman, who was apparently the leader of the group, called the other men to her. "Find hiding places," she said. "Kent still hasn't had his lesson."
They scattered obediently, and Clark soared above the apartment building where he pulled out his cell phone and, calling the police dispatcher, reported a breaking-and-entering. From his vantage point, he kept an eye on his silent reception committee. They were remarkably still until the sound of approaching sirens brought them to their feet and the woman hissed, "Out the front."
Just as he'd expected. The five piled into an ordinary-looking white van across the street while, high above them, Clark followed them to an underground parking lot—below the LexCorp tower. He smiled to himself. It was nice to know his hunches were on target.
"Kent is tracking down Jameson? And he's already connected him to ArLex Labs? Well, well." Lex sat back in his chair and swiveled back to look out the glass doors over the city. "Our Mr. Kent surprises me. I trust you left him in no condition to do any investigating for a few days."
Mrs. Cox didn't show any signs of nervousness. "No, we didn't, Lex. He never came home."
"What?" He spun around to face her, his face distorted with anger. "Why didn't you stay there until he showed up?"
"Someone called the police—"
A pulse hammered furiously in the veins at his temples, and he swept the desk clear of papers. "I am *tired* of hearing excuses for why my staff seems incapable of carrying out my orders!" He stabbed at an intercom button. "Nigel, get in here."
Lex's face was dark with rage when Nigel entered the room. "Yes, sir?" the former British agent asked.
"Kent is getting too close to Jameson. Get rid of him."
Nigel hesitated. "Jameson or Kent?"
"Jameson!" Lex exploded. "Mrs. Cox will take care of Kent—won't she?" he added, turning to the silent woman.
She nodded briefly and left the room with Nigel. Once the door closed behind them, Nigel murmured, "He's losing control."
Mrs. Cox added, "It's her. He was a fool to marry her."
Lois was on the stair-stepper in the gym in her bedroom suite when she heard a soft tapping on the pane. She hopped off the exercise machine and flung the window open. "Clar— Wow!" she exclaimed in a penetrating whisper, her gaze sliding over his new costume. "You look …" The first thing she thought of was 'sexy,' but she was afraid it would make him feel uncomfortable with his new disguise. The stylized "S" on his chest gave her an idea. "Super!"
"Thanks." He smiled briefly and stepped inside the room, his arms crossed over his chest. "Luthor sent someone to my apartment tonight."
Her eyes widened as she immediately focused on business. "Why?"
"They searched the place, and then they were going to 'teach me a lesson.'"
She didn't consider the fact that she was married, that they were standing at the door of the room she shared with her husband. She clutched his arms, her hands rubbing up and down as if to assure herself that he was unhurt. "Are you okay?" she asked.
He nodded. "I'll stay with my folks tonight. Those thugs couldn't hurt me, but I don't want them to find that out." He grasped her elbows. "Lois, Luthor knows I know about Jameson—the middleman in the sex-slave ring—and he's sent Nigel to take care of him."
"You've got to stop him," she said urgently.
"I will. I'm headed there now. But … what if he finds out about your source?"
"Urbanowicz?" She frowned. "Maybe I need to reel him in, too." She paced toward the stair machine and back. "But he isn't enough. I've got to get someone who can tie Lex directly to the bombing." Raking her damp hair away from her face, Lois faced Clark. "I need to get Nigel or Mrs. Cox."
"Do you think either of them would turn state's evidence?" he asked.
"Maybe. If their necks were on the block."
He let out an explosive sigh of exasperation and shook his head.
"I could have gotten Mrs. Cox for breaking and entering tonight—if I'd kept them from leaving before the police got there."
She placed her hand on his arm, feeling the steely tension in his muscles through the thin spandex. "Maybe. But that's small potatoes, and I bet Lex would have had her out in an hour. We need something bigger."
They looked at each other helplessly.
"Mr.—Clark, was it?" Rollin Jameson was about thirty-five, a self-important man whose improbably blond hair was carefully styled and whose sweater and slacks looked as if they came from Luthor's closet.
"Kent. Clark Kent," Clark repeated. He didn't like the man, but that had nothing to do with saving his life.
"Yes, of course. Well, Mr. Kent, that was a fascinating story, and I'm sure you're a good enough writer to turn it into a best seller, but that's all it is. Pure fiction. So, if you'll excuse me, I have other things to do tonight."
"Mr. Jameson, if you don't listen to me, I can guarantee that this will be the last night of your life. Nigel St. John is on his way over here with orders to get rid of you—because I'm getting too close. You're a loose end, and that makes you expendable."
Something flickered in the man's pale blue eyes. "How do you know that? And if you know so much, why haven't you gone to the police?"
Clark met his eyes directly. "All I have on your bosses is my word against theirs, and if I went to the police now, you're the only one who would go down." In his mind, a clock measuring the time it would take Nigel to get here ticked its way toward zero, and in desperation, he added, "Losing you wouldn't slow this operation down by more than a week."
Jameson caught his breath like he'd been hit in the face. "But they wouldn't— I'm not—" His protests died under Clark's level gaze. "What do you want me to do?"
"Come with me. I want to take you someplace safe."
They took a cab to a motel by the edge of town, and oblivious to the listening cab driver, Jameson talked the whole way, a whining mixture of self-justification and self-pity. Each time the man complained of his bad luck, of how he wasn't the one doing anything wrong and how unfair it was that he take all the blame, Clark recalled Melissa Taylor's still, white face, her eyes dark with horror. The younger man closed his eyes, his hands flexing unconsciously. If listening to this garbage and saving this pitiful excuse for a human being kept even one other girl from sharing Melissa's experience, it was worth it, he told himself. It was worth it, he repeated, resting his fingers lightly on the mini-recorder Lois had given him, feeling for the slight vibration that told him the tape was turning—and recording, he hoped. He supposed that was one comfort in Jameson's garrulous disregard of the cab driver's presence: if the tape didn't pick up this confession, maybe the cabby could serve as a witness.
"Where did you say he took you?" Lex asked, leaning forward and gesturing to Mrs. Cox to pick up the extension.
"The … Sleepytime Motor Inn," Jameson answered. "Room two-seventeen. I know I wasn't supposed to contact you directly, Mr. Luthor, but I thought it was important to let you know how much this Clark Kent knows about our operation."
Lex's voice became smooth, soothing. "Thank you, Rollin. I appreciate associates who understand how to be 'team players.' Rest assured that your loyalty will not go unrewarded."
He cut the connection, then punched a speed-dial number. "Nigel? I've discovered where our missing bird has flown."
Clark had looked so delicious in his costume that it had been all Lois could do to keep her hands off his strong, graceful body. The physical hunger for him that flooded through her had shocked her. Despite a couple of past lovers and ten weeks of marriage, she had never known the heated, knee-weakening desire that he provoked in her so effortlessly, and she distrusted the unfamiliar emotion. It distracted her and clouded her judgment at a time when she needed to be sharper and more focused than she had ever been, and she deliberately set aside the erotic thoughts that his appearance triggered.
But after Clark left and she started a bath to clean up after her workout, her unruly mind kept bringing up images of him in—and out of—that oh-so-revealing costume. When she lifted her arms to put her hair up, she could so clearly picture him stepping into the bathroom behind her that she expected to feel his hands slide inside her open bathrobe and cup her breasts. Her eyes drifted shut, and she could almost feel his lips tracing the side of her neck. In her mind, he turned her to face him, and warm chestnut-brown eyes smiled at her; eager lips caressed hers; the hands that slid her bathrobe off her shoulders were large and as gentle as they were strong. Her arms looped around his smooth, brawny shoulders, and she felt the muscles in his back flex under her hands. "Lois," he murmured, and she clutched him and sighed, "Oh, Clark."
*Clark!* Her eyes flew open. What was she doing? Standing naked in her bathroom, picturing another man in her arms while her husband was in his office down the hall? There was an ugly word for what she was imagining … adultery.
She stepped into the Roman tub and sank into the warm water, bubbles tickling her chin, her hands swirling the water in aimless patterns while she tried to figure out what was going on. After a moment, she realized that she didn't feel guilty. Lonely, yes. And scared. But not guilty. From the moment she had realized that Lex had blown up the Daily Planet, destroying her life and killing an innocent employee, she had seen her marriage for the sham it was, a cheat from the very beginning, and the man who was legally her husband was no more than her keeper. No wonder she didn't feel guilty thinking about Clark. However, she knew how Lex would react to her change of heart, and she shivered and visually checked that her bathroom door was locked.
If thinking about Clark made her less afraid, then Lois was all for it, and when she closed her eyes this time, she let her thoughts drift to the young man with gentle, caring eyes. In her mind, he lay beside her in the oversized tub and said the words she knew he would never say in reality: "Lois, I love you. I want you." He clasped her head in his hands and bent to press soft kisses on her upper lip.
She imagined herself gripping his shoulders and pressing against his body, the springy black hair on his chest rubbing against her breasts as their kiss grew deeper and more passionate. Clark's mouth trailed down her throat and across one bare shoulder where it rose above the bubbles. "You're so beautiful." She could almost hear his murmur while his hands explored her curves, cupping and stroking the soft flesh, and she arched into her phantom lover's touch as he made love to her.
With a gasp, Lois lay back in the water, her thoughts a confused whirl as she tried to get her hurried breathing under control. She had long since decided that she was frigid; after two lovers and a husband, shouldn't she have learned to be more responsive? But hot, yearning desire had been elusive. Reluctantly, she started bathing, noticing that her skin was unexpectedly sensitive, the touch of the soapy bath puff sending little quivers of delight to her groin.
Why hadn't her other lovers been able to satisfy her? Even Claude, whose French accent had given her shivers, had left her feeling cold and disappointed afterwards and wondering what all the fuss was about. She had enjoyed kissing Lex when they were engaged, but she had never felt any desire to go any further, and during their honeymoon, she had discovered an unexpected talent for faking it—at least, Lex hadn't seemed to notice that anything was wrong. By the time they returned to Metropolis, she had given up any hope that she would ever learn what was missing in her sex life.
Until Clark Kent walked into her life.
Of course, she had to admit as she washed her hair, despite the feelings he stirred in her, it was all her imagination; he'd never even touched her. For all she knew, he was a selfish, controlling, inept lover—who just *seemed* like the kindest, gentlest man she had ever met and who awakened feelings she'd never known before. She sighed and rinsed her hair, then reached for a towel.
In her room, Lois crawled into the huge canopy bed and tried to go to sleep, certain that she would be unable to relax enough to let herself drift off. But she needed to try. If she were asleep, she didn't think Lex would approach her sexually, and she wouldn't have to worry that she might reveal her revulsion. She sighed and closed her eyes.
The bed dipped behind her, and Lois forced her suddenly rigid back to relax, knowing that her tension would give away her wakefulness. "Goodnight, my dear," her husband whispered.
She felt warm lips against her shoulder and nearly bit through her lower lip trying not to flinch. Calling on every bit of experience she'd had in maintaining a cover, she let her head loll forward and sleepily murmured, "Nigh'."
Lex was still for a moment, watching or studying her, she assumed, and she kept her breathing slow and steady. But there was nothing she could do about the pulse that drummed frantically in her throat, except pray that it wasn't visible in the dim light. The moment stretched out, drawing her nerves tight, until she thought she had to move or go mad, and still she felt his gaze on her. Only her determination to outlast him saved her. Forcing her breathing into a slow in-two-three, out-two-three pattern and sending frantic relax-*relax* messages to every muscle, she continued to feign sleep until, eventually, he rolled over and turned off his bedside light.
Balancing a cup of coffee and a plastic container of orange juice in one large hand and holding a sack containing a breakfast burrito in his mouth, Clark tried the motel room door. Jameson wasn't answering his knock, and the door was locked, so Clark dug through his pants pocket for the extra key. Pushing the door open with one shoulder, he called, "Hey, wake up, Jameson. I've brought breakfast."
The figure on the bed didn't move, and Clark set the food on a table near the door and started across the room. Silence answered him, silence so profound that he listened with his super-hearing … and heard no heartbeat, no breathing. In an instant, he was at the side of the bed, but as soon as he touched Jameson's cold shoulder, he realized there was no need to hurry. Clark pulled out his cell phone and called 911.
The pavement rolled past under her sneaker-clad feet, and Lois stretched a little further, ran a little harder. She usually used the step machine or worked out to an aerobic video, but today, she needed to get away from the LexCorp tower. Her gray tank-top was soaked with sweat, and she dragged the back of her hand across her forehead, but the fresh air felt good against her hot skin. She glanced behind her, noticing with satisfaction that her "shadow" was nowhere in sight. He must be in a car several blocks behind her—which would make him easy to ditch if necessary.
On that thought, she felt her pager vibrating against her leg. She slowed to a walk and dug the small device out of her pocket. Clark's cell phone number flashed at her. Lois glanced around, looking for a pay phone.
"Hi, partner," she greeted him, keeping an eye on the street from the phone kiosk. "What's up?"
"Jameson's dead," he said bluntly, "and I'm gonna be tied up with the police for another couple of hours."
Lois didn't normally swear, but an obscenity slipped out. "Nigel?" she asked.
"Probably. I've told the police why Jameson was at the motel, but they won't get anywhere." He lowered his voice. "I got him on tape last night. That may be the only lead we have."
"You haven't given it to the police, have you?"
"No, but—I don't feel right about withholding it."
"This is a boy scout moment," Lois warned him. "Is that tape enough to convict Lex?"
"Well, no, but it'd give the police a direction to look."
"And give Lex a chance to cover his tracks. You want another Jameson on your conscience?" she demanded.
His silence was eloquent, and wisely, she left her argument at that. "How do you think they found him?" she asked.
"He called Luthor," Clark said simply.
"The motel's one of those places where you have to pay for local calls, so I checked his phone records while I was waiting for the police."
This was beyond swearing. She stood there for a moment, reeling as if she'd been struck in the face. It was one thing to suspect her husband of heinous crimes; it was another to hear evidence that he was a murderer.
"Lois? Are you okay?" The concern in Clark's voice brought her back to the present.
"Umm … yeah. I just …" She cleared her throat and raked her hair away from her face. "I'll just—get cleaned up and go see Urbanowicz."
She heard a voice in the background, and he broke off for a moment. When he came back on the line, he was nearly whispering. "Look, I have to get to work after I'm done here. Give me a call to let me know what you're gonna do with Urbanowicz. I'll give you a hand if you need it."
"Sure," she said softly, grateful for his forbearance. He could have discussed Lex's culpability, but he didn't. Instead, he worried about how she was taking the news. God, why hadn't *he* been the one to walk into her life last year instead of Lex? "I'll call you," she promised.
Lois was at Richard Urbanowicz's office within an hour, prepared for battle, but when she told him what had happened to Jameson, he demanded that she keep him safe. "You got me into this, snooping around, sticking your nose in where it doesn't belong. You get me out!"
She stared at him blankly. Unlike Clark, she couldn't just take him someplace, not with a tail on her. As soon as her shadow reported in, Lex would know she had seen Urbanowicz—and she didn't want to make him any more suspicious than he already was. "Get out your checkbook."
"I want you to make out a check for a thousand dollars to Team Literacy."
"What! Is this whole thing a setup to get money out of me?"
"Don't be a fool," Lois snapped. "I need an innocent reason for seeing you … unless you want Lex's hounds on your trail as soon as I step out of this office."
The businessman paled and scribbled names and numbers on a check. He tore it out and handed it to Lois. "There! Is that enough to get you out of my life?"
She barely glanced at it before she nailed him with a stern look. "Don't blame me, Richard. You're the one who accepted Lex's shady business deal." And she turned on her heel and walked out.
And she was the one who had gotten into bed with the devil. Who was more foolish?
Lois burst into the LexCorp tower, trying to imagine how excited she would have been last week if she had gotten such a donation for Team Literacy. Was it on a par with her third Kerth nomination, or should she tone it down some? She smiled and waved the check at the security guard at the front door as she hurried to the elevators, but her smile vanished when the elevator doors closed behind her. The whole purpose of returning was to see Lex so she could forestall any suspicions about Urbanowicz, but she could hardly face the thought of meeting her husband. Last night, her skin had crawled when he kissed her shoulder, and thankfully, he had already been up and at work before she got up this morning.
Let this be over soon, she prayed, then pinned a smile back on her face as the elevator doors opened at the penthouse level and she stepped out to face the lions.
"That didn't take long," Lex greeted her with a smile.
She sat in one of the chairs opposite his desk. "Well, I have to go out again, but I wanted to tell you what happened. Do you remember Richard Urbanowicz? One of The Planet's old board members? Anyway, I went to get his perspective on the need for literacy, and look what I came back with!" She leaned forward and tossed the check in front of him.
Lex glanced at the slip of paper. "I see I'm not the only financier in the family."
The amused condescension in his voice made her teeth ache, but she gave him the self-deprecating smile he expected. "I don't think you need to worry about competition from me."
Her acknowledgment of his superiority made him smile again, and, reaching across the desk to take her hand, he continued, "What about lunch today, my dear?"
She didn't want to; she absolutely didn't want to spend another minute with him. But too many refusals—even for good reasons—would make him suspicious. "Do you know when and where? Or do you want to page me?"
He glanced down at his day planner. "Chez Philipe at … two o'clock?"
"I'll be there." Lois got up and leaned forward to kiss past his cheek. "See you then."
He grasped her arm in one surprisingly strong hand and pressed a hard demanding kiss on her lips, then tipped his head back to look at her. "Don't get so caught up in your story that you forget," he murmured. "I remember how you get when you're on a story." He let go of her arm and lifted her hand to his mouth for a courtly kiss. "But I've hardly seen you these past few days, and I'd like to make up for that."
She swallowed. The best she could manage was a small, trembling smile. "I won't forget."
Mrs. Cox slipped into the elevator just before the doors closed, and Lois looked up at the taller woman in surprise. In the ten weeks she had been married to Lex, she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she had been alone with his personal assistant—and none of them had been initiated by Mrs. Cox.
"You're not right for him," the other woman hissed, turning to glare down at her. "All you do is cause him trouble."
Lois felt her jaw drop and fought a sudden, insane desire to laugh. For an instant, she thought she had wandered into a soap opera, where the evil, seductive mistress plotted against the virtuous wife. Then, remembering the fantasy she had had last night about Clark and how it felt to fall asleep in his arms the night before, she grew a little warm. Okay, maybe the wife wasn't so virtuous. She wanted to tell Mrs. Cox to take Lex with her blessing, but that wasn't something Lois wanted to get back to her husband.
"I don't think that's any of your business," she finally said. Looking the tall, elegant woman up and down, Lois added, "I'm the one he wanted enough to marry."
Seeing Mrs. Cox flinch from that, she pressed her advantage. "And I seriously doubt *I'm* the one he offered to get rid of if it would make *you* happy."
That 2x4-in-the-face look on Mrs. Cox's beautiful features was a balm to Lois's spirit, and she concluded with, "You're not the first woman Lex has dumped when she started thinking she had a claim on him." Miranda's wild talk about a woman scorned and her pitiable cries of 'Lex, I love you' had been only a few months earlier, and Lois remembered the incident clearly.
The elevator doors opened, and Mrs. Cox glared again as she stepped off. Meanwhile, Lois settled back in the elevator. If she were lucky, she had driven a small wedge of distrust between Mrs. Cox and Lex. Too bad it hadn't been Nigel.
The elevator continued to the ground floor. That pheromone compound of Miranda's had been interesting, Lois mused. Instead of going to work, she had spent two days crying over old episodes of "The Ivory Tower," eating double chocolate fudge ice cream, and working on her novel. Even when Lex came to see her, she hadn't become lovesick like Perry and Jimmy but had ignored him and focused on the imaginary hero her heroine had met.
She sighed. She should have realized what it meant when the pheromone compound didn't cause her to fall madly in love with Lex.
The soft buzz of her cell phone disturbed those depressing thoughts. "Yes?" she answered.
"Lois, I need you to get over to the Sleepytime Motor Inn right now. It's off the 110 at the Cottonwood Drive exit," Clark said, his voice terse and businesslike.
"Okay," she said. It didn't occur to her to hesitate or worry what Lex would think if he found out. Clark said he needed her, and that was the end of it. "What's going on?"
"Inspector Henderson's here, and I think he can help us."
"Mr. Kent tells me that this murder is connected to a story you two have been working on," Bill Henderson said, his laconic manner indicating that he had been working homicide for so long that he could carry out the procedures in his sleep.
Lois's eyes widened, and she turned an incredulous look on Clark. "Are you crazy?" she whispered without moving her lips.
"Lois," Clark said earnestly, "they found a witness who can place Nigel here last night."
Even if he hadn't been able to hear her leaping heart rate, her expression would have told him she understood its significance. He lowered his voice and turned toward her, away from the inspector. "But I need your permission to tell Henderson how I happened to be on your balcony so I could overhear Luthor order Nigel to eliminate Jameson."
She watched his eyes closely, and he prayed that she understood the message he was trying to give her. "You mean," she began slowly, "how I smuggled you into the LexCorp tower through that second floor window so you could bypass security, and afterwards, when Lex got back from his meeting, I hid you on the balcony so he wouldn't find you?"
He relaxed. She was the most brilliant, incredible woman in the world. "That's it." He hated lying; he especially hated a lie like this that could hurt Lois's reputation. But he couldn't tell the whole truth without revealing himself to the world, and he couldn't put the people he loved in that kind of danger.
Lois patted his arm and turned to face the police inspector. "Henderson, I don't know what Clark's told you so far, but I'll guess that it hasn't been much … because I swore him to secrecy."
"And why did you do that?" Henderson asked. Skepticism seemed to be his normal tone of voice.
"Because the story we're working on involves Lex, and I don't want him to find out about it," she said.
Clark was startled. How much of the truth was she going to tell? "Lo-is. Are you sure you want to—?"
She patted his hand this time. "It's okay," she said. "I can trust Henderson." But her eyes held a warning.
Henderson grunted. "Huh. Sounds like an unnecessary risk when you have an office at LNN to meet in. Or when you can just make a phone call."
"Except Lex records all calls to and from the penthouse … and he has me followed whenever I leave the LexCorp tower," Lois said in a low voice. She looked down.
Clark heard her pulse surge again, and he realized that she wasn't pretending the embarrassment she showed to Henderson. He gently gripped her shoulder, assuring her of his support, and her hand came up to cover his.
Henderson followed that by-play with apparent disinterest, but he said, "Maybe he has a reason to distrust you."
Whoa! Clark thought, seeing the fire flash in Lois's dark eyes. But the inspector looked relaxed and unalarmed, waiting for a response, and Clark realized that the comment had been an attempt to rattle her. He moved behind her, placing his other hand on her shoulder, trying to encourage her to stay calm.
She took a deep breath. "No, but I'm sure that's what Lex would think if he saw Clark and me meeting."
"What's your story about, Lois?" the police inspector asked.
She hesitated. "We're working on that sex-slave ring."
Henderson's eyes widened briefly, and he focused on Clark. "You have some information that points to Luthor?"
"To Jameson. One of Luthor's employees. I got a tip that he was the contact for getting sex slaves." Clark hesitated, then pulled the micro tape out of his pocket and handed the tape recorder back to Lois, who snapped a new tape in and dropped it into her jacket pocket. "Jameson sort of confessed to his involvement in the sex-slave ring—"
"And you just happened to get it on tape?" Henderson said dryly, but he reached for the tape.
"Pretty much," Clark admitted.
"So, while you were sneaking around Luthor's penthouse, you heard something, right, Kent?"
Clark blushed at the other man's sardonic tone, but he was determined to do as well as Lois had in telling the truth without revealing what he needed to hide. "I was out of sight outside Luthor's office, when I heard Mrs. Cox come in …" He repeated the conversation concisely and accurately.
Henderson listened in silence. "Luthor sent this Nigel St. John to take care of Jameson? At his home? How'd the body end up here?"
Clark glanced down at Lois, and feeling his gaze, she looked up at him and patted his hand. "I told Lois what I'd heard," he continued, "and we decided that I needed to get Jameson someplace safe. So I … left the way I'd come and went straight to his house and brought him here—in a taxi."
"And he called Luthor after you brought him here." At the couple's quick exchange of glances, Henderson added drily, "I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. The girl at the front desk was *very* impressed with the handsome young 'detective' who checked Jameson's phone records before I arrived." He studied Clark through narrowed eyes, his glasses effectively hiding his expression. "Kent, you think like a cop—"
"—or an investigative journalist," Lois interrupted.
Henderson appeared to ignore her. "—but if you let this corner-cutter corrupt you, you're going to be a permanent resident at the Graybar Motel."
"Corner-cutter?" Lois said indignantly.
The inspector had half turned away from them, but at her words, he looked back. "Last I heard, breaking and entering was still a criminal offense. And so is impersonating an officer," he said, looking at Clark. "Lois, you've tracked down as many criminals as my best officers, but you take shortcuts that we can't—shortcuts that I'd have to bust you for if I ever caught you." He glanced up at Clark. "That goes for you, too, Kent."
Lois tipped her head back to look at Clark, who smiled ruefully. "If you're done with the lecture," she said, "we'd like to know what you're going to do about Nigel—and Lex." At Henderson's raised eyebrows, she added, "It does sort of affect me directly."
"As long as you realize that this information is *not* for publication. Got that, Kent?"
"Inspector, I wouldn't—"
"Maybe not. But *she* would."
"Damned straight, Henderson," Lois said, "and 'not for publication' isn't good enough. We'll sit on it until you've got your men in custody, but that's it. And then we get the exclusive. That's the deal."
Clark grinned at her, then looked at Henderson, and for an instant, the mournful lines of the inspector's face lifted into something approximating a smile. "Nice to know some things don't change."
"Yes, Mr. Luthor, the Sleepytime Motor Inn. The place is crawling with cops, but she walked right in like she knew what she was doing… Kent? No, I haven't seen him… Okay. I'll let you know when she leaves."
Lex cut the connection and looked up at Mrs. Cox, who stood patiently by the side of his desk. "I don't believe in coincidence."
"Neither do I."
He turned in his chair and looked out over the Metropolis skyline. "I suspect," he said, turning back to face his assistant, "that my wife isn't as interested in literacy as she would like me to believe." He fiddled with a dagger-like envelope opener. "She said she stayed at the Wyatt-Viceroy the night before last. See if she checked in alone."
Clark loosened his tie as he dug through his pocket for his key. God knew he was no clotheshorse, but wearing the same clothes for two days made him feel grubby. He stuck the key in the lock, then hesitated. Luthor had sounded pretty angry last night when Mrs. Cox told him Clark hadn't come home.
He lowered his glasses and took a quick look inside—and immediately spotted four men hiding behind his furniture. This was getting ridiculous. Easing the key out of the lock, he silently stepped back and slipped far enough down the hall to be out of earshot. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. "Inspector Henderson, please." He waited. "Henderson? You were saying something about breaking and entering being a crime?"
"Sir," the man crouching behind Clark's refrigerator whispered into the cell phone, "someone came to the door a minute ago. I thought it might be Kent, but whoever it was left."
Nigel's voice was a hiss. "You fool, get out of there! He probably guessed you were there and has gone for the—"
The man slammed the receiver shut and called to his companions, "Out the back, everyone. Operation's over." He cast a quick glance around to make sure they'd left no evidence of their presence as he followed his team out the back door—
—and ran nose-first into one of his men's back.
He swore softly, putting his hand up to cradle his aching nose. "What the hell are you doing? We don't have any time to waste."
"B-boss … look."
He raised his head and saw a man dressed like a circus performer standing arms crossed over his chest, blocking his team's retreat. The team leader pulled out an automatic and shoved his way forward. "Get the hell out of our—"
Then he saw what had stopped his men. The circus performer, gaily dressed in blue spandex and a red cape, wasn't standing on the ladder of the fire escape. He was floating several feet beyond it.
The leader blinked, then dismissed the notion that he was seeing a man fly. He turned back to his men. "Don't be idiots," he said. "It's a hologram or hallucination or something." He waved the pistol toward the brightly clad figure. "I'll show you," he continued when his men still hesitated. He drew down the red-and-yellow 'S' on the apparition's chest.
"I wouldn't, if I were you," the floating man said, and, startled, the leader squeezed off the shot. Almost simultaneous with the crash of the shot was the high whine of a ricochet, and the four men on the balcony ducked.
Faster than they could see, the flying man reached out, and when they looked up, he opened his fist and let a small, flattened bullet fall out. "You're lucky I'm fast enough to catch it. The ricochet would have hit one of you." Then he moved again, in a red-and-blue blur that their eyes refused to accept as a person, and when he stopped this time, the four intruders were neatly tied like chickens ready for a spit.
"What are you doing?" the team leader protested. "This is our apartment."
The flying man shook his head. "I don't think Clark Kent would agree. But you can try telling it to the police and see if they believe you." He stepped away and lifted gently into the air, then rocketed out of sight. Behind him, four men stared into the sky in utter disbelief.
After the team's last communication, Nigel turned on the police band scanner in his car. If those fools got caught, he wanted to be ready. Particularly, he realized, sweat cooling on his neck, if a detective thought to check the re-dial function on that idiot's cell phone.
The scanner crackled to life. "Metro 24, this is unit 37."
"Metro 24. Go ahead, unit 37."
"Responding to the B&E call at 344 Clinton, we found four males tied up on the fire escape." The officer's matter-of-fact voice lost its professionalism. "All four of them are babbling like brooks, and—you won't believe this, Bev—they're claiming they were caught by a guy who could fly! Jeez, these guys should've laid off the crack before it fried their brains."
The scanner continued to relay the officer's report, but there was no one to hear it, and the Chevy, which was parked downtown within a few blocks of the bus and train stations, was hauled in as an abandoned vehicle two days later.
Lois was back at the library, the most innocuous place she knew, trying to think of what she could do next. The police were searching for Nigel, and she certainly didn't want to be anywhere near Lex when the officers arrived with a search warrant. If they found him, a murder-one charge should do it: with that sword hanging over his head, surely Nigel would bargain down to a lesser charge in exchange for evidence on Lex.
She picked up a magazine and thumbed idly through it, trying not to feel disappointed that her own investigation hadn't come up with anything. Sure, she had evidence that Lex was engaged in shady business practices, but refuting those charges would be little more than an inconvenience to him. She tossed the magazine down. Had she lost her edge? Was she a has-been?
Her cell phone buzzed softly, and she pulled it out of her pocket. "Yes?"
"Lois, this is Bobby. I got a line on that explosives sale."
She caught her breath. "Oh, Bobby, I love you!" She flipped her small notebook to an empty page and waited, her pen poised over the blank paper. "Go ahead."
"Emmet Forbes. He's got a little gun shop down in Suicide Slum. 417 Kensington."
"Was he able to ID Nigel?"
"Nigel? Whaddaya talkin' about?"
"You know," Lois said impatiently, "Lex's man servant. Older man, tall, gray hair, mustache and goatee, British accent."
Bobby crunched on something that sounded like an apple. "That ain't the buyer, Lois. Forbes said it was a babe. Tall, dark-skinned, a real looker. Talked real swank, too, you know?"
She blinked, and her pen fell from her hand. Mrs. Cox? "Thanks, Bobby. I owe you for this."
He snorted. "Don't owe me. Just send me three supreme pizzas from Pizza Heaven. An' don't forget the breadsticks and somethin' to drink."
"On the way," Lois said absently and pressed one of her speed-dial numbers after he rang off.
"You were right, Lex," Mrs. Cox said, strolling through the open doors onto the balcony.
His hand slipped; the top of the bonsai tree he was carefully trimming sailed onto the ground. For a moment, his face was thunderous, and his assistant stayed by the doorway in prudent silence. Then his expression cleared, and he turned away from the potted plant. "He checked in with her?"
"No." She crossed the balcony to his side. "She checked into the Wyatt-Viceroy alone at approximately 11:30 p.m. However, she ordered a night shirt and extra towels, and when the maid delivered them around 12:15 a.m., she said thisman—" Mrs. Cox tapped the photo of Clark and Lois dancing together— "was there."
Lex spun around to face her, glancing at the photo long enough to confirm that his assistant was referring to Clark Kent. "But Nigel was watching him in his apartment at that time."
Mrs. Cox shrugged. "The maid is certain. He seemed to have made quite an impression on her."
Lex paced along the balcony wall. "Then it *could* have been Lois that Nigel saw at Kent's apartment. But how did they manage it?"
"Perhaps they left the apartment when Nigel moved to watch the front door," she said dispassionately.
"Or perhaps Nigel wasn't telling me the whole truth."
Lois's hand tightened on the cell phone with frustration as the unwelcome buzz of a dial tone hummed in her ear. Bobby had been all too right. She had called Emmet Forbes, offering him full immunity from prosecution if he would testify about Mrs. Cox, and he had laughed at her.
"Prosecution? How about immunity from your husband's vengeance, Mrs. Luthor? I'd hafta join the witness protection program if I ratted on one of his operations."
"I could get you that," she promised, frantic not to lose him. Surely the feds would go along with it if it could bring down a kingpin like Lex.
"And why would I want to leave a flourishing business and go into hiding, just so you can get something on his doll? Me, I don't get in the middle of cat fights."
"But it's not—" she began, only to be cut off by the dial tone.
Damn. Damn, damn, *damn.* She was tempted to call Henderson and have him pick up the sleazy little weapons dealer, but that wouldn't do any good, with Forbes protesting his innocence and acting like he'd never heard of her.
She tipped back in her library chair, her eyes idly scanning the empty reading room. What could she do? After a moment, she picked up her cell phone again and dialed Clark's number. She didn't get an answer from his cell phone, and when she tried The Star, she was routed to his voice mail. She hung up, and the phone rang almost immediately. "Hello," she said eagerly and tipped forward, the chair legs dropping to the floor.
"Hello, Lois," Lex said, and she bit back a disappointed sigh, suddenly realizing that she'd hoped Clark would call instead. "Something's come up and I can't make it to Chez Philipe. Can you come home for lunch instead?"
"Oh. Yeah. Sure. Two o'clock still okay?" It was hard to sound enthusiastic, and she was afraid she was doing a miserable job at it.
"That's fine. I'll have Chef Andre fix that chocolate dessert you like so well."
She forced a laugh. "You'd better not, unless you like being married to a beach ball."
"Come on, Lois. Surely you can splurge a little after that run this morning."
Stunned, she sat in mouth-gaping silence. What was that? A reminder that he knew where she went and what she did?
But before she could respond, he said, "See you at two, my dear," and hung up.
Clark rocketed toward the Metropolis International Airport, where a Concorde was coming in on just one engine. He had heard the page for fire and ambulance assistance on a police radio outside The Star, and without thinking, he had rushed to the men's room and changed into his blue suit, then zipped out the window next to the sink. This is what the costume was for: to give him a chance to use his abilities without having to give up a normal life. He just hoped handling a crashing airliner was within his ability.
Lois tried Clark's numbers again, then called Inspector Henderson. "What's the word on Nigel?" she demanded when he finally got on the line.
"Lois, have you tried Prozac?" the inspector asked sarcastically.
She took a deep breath, clearly audible over the phone, and he continued, "Nothing so far. In fact, we can't locate him."
"Do you think he's gone into hiding?"
"I wouldn't be surprised if he had a bolt-hole somewhere," Henderson admitted. "He was a British agent, and those guys were trained to think ahead."
"But … if you can't find him …"
"We don't have a link to Lex for Jameson's murder."
"But what about Jameson's phone call? And the conversation Clark overheard?"
"Nigel could've taken the call. And without any other corroboration, Kent's testimony is so much hearsay."
"Thanks," Lois whispered and blindly disconnected. If Nigel was gone, that only left Mrs. Cox, who was apparently out of the sex-slave-ring loop. Which meant that Lois had the only lead to her—and thus to Lex.
But that lead was too fragile a thread to drag Mrs. Cox into court. Lois tipped back in her chair again. All she had was a bluff.
She reached for her phone and called Clark once more, but this time, she left a message on his voice mail.
The huge airliner canted to one side as the pilot fought to keep it level during the landing. Clark saw the wing tip trailing, dragging the jet toward the terminal. If it touched …
He streaked forward, hoping he could lift the massive, ungainly aircraft without doing more damage to it. This close, even the one engine was roaring painfully loud, and the draft of its passage buffeted him as he swooped around the plane to the wing with the dead engines. Distantly, he was aware that faces were plastered against every window on that side as he grasped the dragging wing and pushed that mental button that said, "Up."
To his relief, the wing rose with him and showed no signs of shearing off at the fuselage. He corrected the Concorde's dangerous tilt and spared a moment to glance at the cockpit, where he saw the co-pilot staring at him in stupefied amazement. Clark smiled to reassure the man. He only hoped the pilots weren't too shocked to continue their landing.
Lois tried to quiet the mad thunder of her pulse as she walked into the LexCorp tower and started up the elevator. It was okay, she thought. Either before—or more probably—after lunch, she would have a chance to talk to Mrs. Cox alone, and she could try her bluff. She just wished she were sure she could spook the woman into a confession.
Mrs. Cox was waiting for her at the door to Lex's office where he was lifting a cover to smell the dish. "Ah, my dear," he said when he saw Lois. With the sunny windows behind him, his eyes looked black and unreadable, and he stood as she approached. "Thank you for going along with the change in plan." He turned to his assistant. "That will be all, Mrs. Cox."
He looked as he always had: handsome, debonair, gallant. Prince Charming galloping in to rescue the princess from the tedium of normal life. She couldn't imagine how she had married him.
Lois turned her cheek toward him for his kiss, and he obliged with a formal salute. But when the door closed, he gripped her face in one hand, his thumb and fingers pressing into her cheeks, and turned her head toward his. His mouth pressed against hers, hard, brutal.
When he released her, she fell back in shock, her hand coming up to touch her throbbing face. "Wha—? Lex, what are you doing?"
"I don't like being played for a fool," he said coldly. "And I have no intention of being your cuckold."
"My—? Lex, that's ridiculous." Try as she might, she couldn't stop the faint flush at the memory of some of the thoughts she'd had about Clark.
"As ridiculous as Clark Kent staying in your hotel room with you two nights ago?"
Her gaze flew up to meet his, and she caught her breath. A middle-aged maid's voice echoed in her ears, and she remembered the woman's avid eyes on Clark. "I've never even kissed him."
"Neither do the whores in Beverly Hills, I hear, but that doesn't stop them from spreading their legs for strangers." His voice was like a lash.
Lois gasped, infuriated. "How *dare* you!" She turned toward the door. "I don't intend to stay here and be insulted," she threw over her shoulder.
He stayed by the table, his stillness almost more frightening than any move toward her. "You'll stay until I say you can leave."
"Oh? Watch me." She grasped the door knob and tugged—only to fall back when the door refused to move. "Unlock the door," she demanded.
"No." He tasted a morsel from one of the serving dishes. "Chef Andre did his usual excellent job." He wiped his hand on a napkin, then looked up. "I thought you would have realized by now that I always get my way, Lois." Despite his cool words, he was angrier than she had ever seen him, and a part of her cowered away from the violence in his eyes.
"What do you want, Lex?" Lois shoved her hands into her jacket pocket to hide their shaking—and banged her finger on the tiny recorder Clark had returned to her. She felt for the controls and switched it on.
He pulled out a chair and held it, waiting for her. "I want to have a little heart-to-heart talk with my wife where we won't be interrupted."
Her refusal to sit down, to talk with him, was beginning to look foolish, and reluctantly, she walked back to the table and took the seat he held for her. Lex sat down at the end of the table, next to her, and took his napkin and smoothed it across his lap. "Isn't that better?" he asked, taking a sip of wine.
Lois stared down at her plate. He was doing it again. He was the one who had all but attacked her, yet now he was making her feel like she was the one being childish and uncooperative. Her cheeks felt hot where his fingers had pressed into them, and she suspected there were red marks on her skin. She reached for a glass of ice water and lime and swallowed hastily. "I'm not very hungry," she said, only to have her stomach make a liar of her by rumbling at the delicious smell that wafted toward her when Lex lifted the lid of the heated serving dish.
Only a faint hint of a smile betrayed his amusement, but he continued as if he hadn't heard anything, "That's too bad. Chef Andre did an excellent job with the lemon chicken. I hope you'll try a bite anyway."
She handed her plate to him so he could dish out some of the chicken. It never did any good to refuse Lex because he would simply wait until she gave in, and she didn't feel like engaging in a test of wills over eating, not when she really *was* hungry. And, as usual, he was right: the food was excellent. She had missed breakfast to meet with Inspector Henderson, and after her run earlier, she was starving.
Lex ate slowly, pausing to take a sip of wine after each bite, while she dug into the chicken-and-rice dish without worrying about how it looked. He offered her some wine, but she waved it away. When they got around to the point of this encounter, she didn't want her wits blunted by alcohol.
After several minutes, the sharp edge of her hunger dulled somewhat, and she slowed down, taking a moment between bites. "I was hungrier than I thought," she said.
"I thought that might be the case." Once again, he sounded like an indulgent husband telling a slightly shatterbrained wife what was good for her.
Lois had never realized how much that attitude irritated her. Now that she'd met a man who didn't prove his manhood with paternalism or by controlling others, she had lost her tolerance for it. She drained her water glass and got up, using her movement as a cover to stop her tape and rewind it before she started the recorder again. "What did you want to talk about, Lex?"
He swirled the glass of wine, holding it up to the light to watch the swirling, glowing color. "Your investigation ends now, Lois."
"What?" She was startled, and she cleared her throat and tried to sound innocent and ignorant. "What investigation?"
"Don't play games with me. You're not very good at it. You've been working with Clark Kent on his story about the sex-slave ring, and I want that stopped."
Thank God! He didn't know what she'd really been working on. "Lex, I'm not one of your employees. You can't tell me to stop working on something."
"I thought that's what I just did."
She took a deep breath. "I mean," she said with careful patience, "you can't tell me that and expect me to pay any attention."
"Then maybe I need to *get* your attention." He stood up and strolled over to his collection of antique swords. Picking one up—a shortsword with a broad, handmade blade—he took a swipe at an imaginary opponent. "Metropolis is a hazardous, uncertain place. Traffic accidents, muggings, gang wars," he said, parrying several imaginary blows, "and you never know what might happen to someone." He slashed viciously. "Especially someone newly arrived from a small farming community …" He thrust forward as if he were plunging the sword into his opponent's chest. "… who might not be aware of the city's dangers."
The landing was rockier than Clark had expected because it was difficult to coordinate his actions with what the pilots were doing. Next time, he thought, he'd tell the pilots to cut the engines; then he'd come up under the fuselage and bring the plane down himself.
Next time … Did he really think this was going to work? Would people accept someone like him? He hoped so. Maybe he should hang around for a few minutes and talk to the pilots, make sure everything was all right and the passengers were all okay.
Icy fear grabbed her heart, then relaxed in a flood of warmth as she remembered that nothing Lex could do would hurt Clark. And with that relaxation came the memory that she was recording this. If Lex was already angry enough to make threats, however obliquely, she might be able to get him to make a confession … or at least implicate Mrs. Cox, who might then be willing to give evidence in exchange for a reduced sentence. It might be dangerous. Very dangerous, she amended, watching him dispatch another imaginary opponent. But it would be worth it to be rid of Lex forever.
"What are you saying, Lex? *Who* might have an accident?" She edged toward the fireplace, feeling behind her for the iron poker.
He lowered the sword, his head tilted to one side as he studied her. "Games again, Lois? You aren't stupid."
"Oh? I thought that's what you've been trying to convince me that I am."
She saw a flash of anger in his dark eyes, and he shook his head. "Then let me make myself clear. I don't want you working with Clark Kent any more… And I'll do whatever's necessary to make sure you don't."
"You can't keep me locked up forever," she challenged him. "Most of what Clark and I are doing is coordinating our stories, and we can do that by phone."
He caught her deliberate slip with frightening speed. "'Coordinating your stories?' You aren't working on the same story with him?"
Lois shook her head. It was all too easy to appear nervous, and she was afraid the appearance might become reality. "I told you I was writing a literacy piece."
Lex grasped her arm and pulled her against him. "Don't make the mistake of thinking I'm stupid. You don't need to coordinate a literacy story with an expose on a sex-slave ring." He studied her face closely. "What are you investigating, Lois?"
"Nothing. I—Stop it, Lex!" she protested, her voice rising sharply. "You're hurting me!"
"What are you investigating?" he repeated, ignoring her cry of pain, his fingers digging into her arm.
"None of your—ow!" She didn't intend to play his punching bag, and she stomped on his foot. His grip relaxed for a second, and she took that opportunity to yank away from him.
For a moment, they stared at each other, both rumpled, breathing heavily. "What story are you working on?" Lex demanded once again.
"Go to hell."
He walked over to her bag and, despite her outraged gasp, opened it and pulled out her cell phone. A click of a couple of buttons, and the on-screen display showed him the last twelve phone numbers she had called. "I assume those are Kent's numbers … at home and at The Star? Six of the last eight calls? Really, Lois, didn't anyone tell you that men prefer to do the chasing?"
"Give me that!" She started toward him—and stopped when his sword swung up to point at her.
"Now, this one …" He highlighted the number and punched "dial." His expression was thoughtful when he broke the connection. "Inspector Henderson. One of the Metropolis Police Department's finest. Andwhat did you and he have to chat about?"
"Nothing. I was trying to find out if the police had a lead on Rollin Jameson's murder."
"No," she said sullenly.
"Uh-huh." She couldn't tell if he believed her or not, but the sword swung up in a glittering arc when she moved toward him again. "And what about this one?"
Lois held her breath. She thought it was Emmet Forbes' number, but she couldn't be sure. Lex's expression was still as he listened to the voice on the other end of the line, but when he broke the connection, his eyes were blazing, and he let the cell phone fall to the floor. "Why were you calling a two-bit gun dealer and sometime illegal arms merchant?"
"I was—I was—" She backed away from him, toward the fireplace … and the poker she could use as a shield. Sweat cooled on her scalp. She hadn't expected Lex to keep the sword in his hand, much less point it at her, and her plan to get him to confess was starting to look like a really bad idea. "I—uh—was following a lead."
"A lead on what?"
"It was—it was a story on the arms trade in the U.S.," she improvised desperately. "One of my sources said Forbes could tell me about it."
"What happened to your story about literacy?" he continued, pursuing her across the room like a wolf tracking a wounded deer.
"I lied about it. I didn't want you to know what I was really working on."
"So it was just a coincidence that you happened to be talking to the arms dealer who sold Mrs. Cox the C12 I put in that employee's lunchbox."
"Just a—*what* did you say? Whose lunchbox?" She didn't have to fake surprise or fear. She had never expected him to confess so easily, and the thought of what that might mean terrified her.
"The print-floor employee at the Daily Planet," he said calmly.
Remembering the tape, she asked, "Are you saying that *you* blew up the Daily Planet?"
"Isn't that what you wanted to hear, Lois? Isn't that why you called on Richard Urbanowicz? To find out how I'd managed to buy out the Planet?"
He had already put the pieces together, and she tried desperately to deflect the rage she saw in his posture. "Lex, I wasn't—you can't—"
He exploded. "You're my *wife*! I loved you; I gave you everything! And you try to destroy me instead!"
His eyes were mad; he held the sword in an 'en garde' position. When he lunged toward her, she grabbed the poker and fled.
Clark no more than landed on the ground when he was immediately surrounded by passengers who, ignoring the instructions of the flight crew, poured down the stairs as soon as the door opened. Cries of "thank you!" and "you saved us!" buffeted him, and it seemed like every person on the plane wanted to touch him or hug him or shake his hand. The man he recognized as the co-pilot made his way through the crowd to shake his hand. "Thank you," the pilot said. "We wouldn't have made it without you… Who *are* you?"
The passengers stopped shoving and yelling questions at him, waiting for his answer. Clark smiled faintly. "A friend," he said.
"Yeah, but what's your name?" someone further back in the crowd shouted, and the other people took up the question.
He hesitated. In the past, he'd always hidden his super-feats, so it hadn't occurred to him that people might want a name to call him. Where was that wacky, creative partner of his when he needed her?
Lois scrambled behind a wing-back chair, shuddering as the sword hissed through the air next to her. "Lex, don't!" she pleaded. "Think what you're doing! You can't hide this."
She ducked as he thrust at her, burying the sword to the hilt in the antique chair. The point poked through the back, only inches from her face, and she flung herself away from him, diving to the other side of his massive desk. "Don't be a fool, Lex! The police'll catch you. They'll put you in a *cage*!" she cried, suddenly remembering something he'd once told her. "A *cage,* Lex! Killing me isn't worth that, is it?"
"Did Othello count the cost when he killed his Desdemona?" He yanked at the sword, but it was caught in the metal springs, and he tugged at it blindly, furiously.
"Lex, she was *innocent*!" Lois panted.
"As you are not, my sweet Desdemona," he said between gritted teeth. His calm conversation was a terrifying contrast to his mad, frantic actions.
"People were hurt—one person *died* in that bombing. Did you think that wouldn't matter to me?" She fumbled at his desk drawers, trying to find his pistol, but they were locked, and she didn't have a key. Oh, God, wasn't there *anything* lying around that could help her? She saw a cell phone on the desk and grabbed it, shoving it in her pocket.
"I thought—" he jerked at the sword again, twisting as he did, and it slid free— "you would trust me, that you would keep your nose out of what didn't concern you."
"What kind of marriage is that? If it concerns you, it concerns me." She felt for the button under his desk that opened the door onto the balcony and knew she had the right one when she felt a sudden rush of air behind her and heard the distant murmur of traffic 150 floors below.
She had thought that he would go around the desk, and she was prepared to plunge in either direction away from him. But he hurled himself across the desktop, heedless of the papers on the surface, leaving her nowhere to go but through the door onto the balcony.
"You didn't ask if it was true," he said, his sword blade driving her toward the wall. "You judged me and found me guilty, and then you started looking for evidence to convict me."
"I *heard* you!" she burst out. "You and Mrs. Cox, you were discussing the bombing of the Daily Planet and how much money you made off it." For a moment, her voice was beseeching. "*Why,* Lex? Why'd you destroy it? For the money?"
"To win you." He smiled, a mad, terrifying grin, but he quit advancing toward her. "Ironic, isn't it? The Daily Planet was your lover. My rival. I knew I could never have you while it was still there … so I killed it." He laughed briefly. "And you still betrayed me with it."
For a moment, he lowered the sword, and Lois grabbed her chance. She swung viciously at his sword hand with the poker and heard a meaty "thunk" as the iron bar struck his forearm. The sword spun away from him, and he grabbed his forearm, howling in pain and rage.
She tried to hit him again on the return swing, but his good hand flashed up and caught the poker in mid-stroke. They struggled with it; then he wrenched it away from her, flinging it against the wall behind him. He held his right arm like it hurt, like it might be broken, and Lois knew she would grab it, use the pain, if he threatened her. She was so focused on evading his grasp that she missed his sudden movement as he drove his shoulder into her stomach and raised her onto the wall.
Her breath whooshed out, and she gasped for air, clutching at him as he forced her over the wall. For the second time in two days, she felt the terrifying sensation of losing her balance with nothing below her for 1500 feet. "Lex, don't!" she shrieked.
He pried her fingers off his jacket, crushing her hands in the grip of one strong hand. "Goodbye, Lois," he said simply—and shoved.
"N-o-o-o-o!" she screamed. "Cla-a-a-r-r-r-k!"
Clark was still trying to extricate himself from the crowd when, above the clamoring voices, he heard Lois's desperate wail. In an instant, he was airborne and flashing across the city to the quarter-mile high LexCorp tower. Fear, bitter in his mouth, lashed him to greater and still greater speed until the city was a green-gray blur beneath him.
He focused on the tiny figure hurtling earthward. At his velocity, she seemed to drift down, and all at once she wasn't a tiny figure, but a terrified woman tumbling through the sky. He stretched out, reaching for her—
—and caught her in his arms. "Oh God, Lois," he whispered, clutching her tightly to his chest.
She clung to him, shuddering from the unbearable tension of the cat-and-mouse game Lex had played with her. "I was afraid you wouldn't hear me," she cried against his throat.
He slowed his steady ascent and cradled her close, rocking her in his arms. "I'll always hear you, Lois," he murmured, his lips brushing against her hair. Then, because he was Clark and he couldn't resist trying to tease her out of her fear, he added, "But you don't have to fall off a building to get my attention. 'Clark, c'mere' works fine."
A watery chuckle answered him. "I'll keep that in mind the next time a madman is trying to kill me."
"What?!" He stopped so suddenly that her head bounced against his jaw. "Trying to kill you? Luthor?"
She took a long, shaky breath and nodded. "I was trying to get him to confess to bombing the Daily Planet, so I told him I was—"
"—investigating it?" Clark finished for her.
"Yeah." He didn't say anything, but she answered his expression. "I know; I know. I should be more careful. But stories don't find themselves. Someone has to go after them. Speaking of which …"
She let go of Clark's neck with one arm for long enough to feel her jacket pocket. She sighed with relief. It was still there—and recording. Swearing, she clicked it off.
"Lex's ticket to prison. Stop for a minute," she told him.
Lois rewound it. ""N-o-o-o-o!" played back clearly, and she stopped it. "I gave you away, and I want to erase it." She dropped the tape recorder into her pocket, waited a moment, then clicked off the recorder and squirmed around to reach into her other pocket. "That should do it. Now, I need to make a call before you take me back."
"You idiot!" Mrs. Cox cried. "You can't hide this!"
Lex raked his left hand through his tumbled dark hair. His right arm dangled uselessly at his side. "Of course I can. A dozen people can attest to Lois's depression these past weeks. A properly worded suicide note, and—"
He broke off at his assistant's suddenly arrested expression. "Wha—?" He turned around just in time to see a man in blue spandex and a red cape soar over the balcony wall—
—with Lois in his arms. A Lois who was neither dead nor unconscious.
"No!" Lex cried. Returning from the dead in the arms of … a god? It was manifestly unfair!
The being landed on the balcony as softly as a moonbeam and set Lois down. She looked a little disheveled but otherwise unharmed. "No!" Lex roared again. He charged at his treacherous wife and smashed into the god-man, who had somehow inserted himself between the Luthors.
Lex reeled back. This was no yielding flesh. The impact nearly knocked him to the ground, and he felt as if he had run into a solid wall. "What *are* you?"
The celestial being crossed muscular arms across a brawny chest and said with challenging deliberation, "Your worst nightmare."
For an instant, Lex had wondered if there were any truth to the childish fables of angels, but the creature's expression was one of all-too-human satisfaction. He was so engrossed in trying to solve the puzzle of Lois's rescuer, that he nearly forgot she was there—
—until she stepped forward, a fist-sized recorder in her hand. "This is the end, Lex. You can't get away with killing or hurting people who stand in your way anymore." She thumbed the 'play' button.
"… who sold Mrs. Cox the C12 I put in that employee's lunchbox." Lex's recorded voice was tinny but completely recognizable, and Lois shut it off.
"You realize, Mrs. Cox," she continued, "that he's going to shift all the blame for it onto you."
Lex interrupted. "Don't be ridiculous. I wouldn't do that to you."
The beautiful assistant looked from one to the other, her face an unreadable mask, only her dark eyes alive in her still face. "Think back to the other women who've helped him," Lois went on. "You may think he cares, but if you go to prison for him, do you really think he'll wait for you? You'll just be one more woman who thinks he owes you something … and you know how he treats them."
"Mrs. Cox, you know where your loyalties lie. Don't let her talk you into something you knowis wrong," Lex said reasonably.
"How much is your loyalty worth if he isn't loyal in return?" Lois persisted.
The woman hesitated, her eyes flickering back and forth between Lex and Lois. In the distance, a siren wailed, drew near, and shut off abruptly. "You'd better decide," Lois told her. "The police are here."
Mrs. Cox straightened up to her full height, nearly as tall as the two men, and walked over to Lex. She clasped his face between her hands and kissed him. "Lex," she said, drawing back, "it's been a pleasure."
Lois's heart sank at that. This was her last throw. She'd gambled everything on making Lex confess and using that to get Mrs. Cox to abandon him—and it was all for nothing.
"But, to paraphrase your wife, this is the end."
Lois caught her breath, hope rising as Mrs. Cox moved toward her. She waited, and the assistant said, "I want a reduced sentence if I turn state's evidence."
Behind her, Lex had edged toward the sword Lois had knocked from his hand, and at Mrs. Cox's words, he reached down and grabbed the weapon left-handed. "The sentence for a traitor is death," he panted, lunging toward her, thrusting with the outstretched sword.
She jerked around, her eyes white-ringed with terror. "Lex, no!" Mrs. Cox cried, flinging up her arms as if they could shield her from the jab of the sharp blade.
Lois gasped in horror, expecting to see the sword plunging through the other woman's body, but a violent rush of wind and a red-and-blue blur of motion nearly dragged her to her knees as Clark hurled himself between Lex and Mrs. Cox. The blade hit him at an angle and skidded along his side, leaving his skin and costume untouched.
Lex jerked the sword back, furious but disbelieving. "Get out of my way," he demanded.
Clark folded his arms across his chest again. "I'm not going to let you hurt either of these women. Put the sword down."
"No!" Lex yelled and threw himself at the younger man, swinging wildly as if he intended to decapitate him.
Shaking his head, Clark lifted one hand to grasp the slashing blade, stopping Lex's swing in mid-stroke. The shock shuddered through the crime-lord's hand and arm, and he dropped the sword and fell back. "Who *are* you?" Lex asked, rephrasing his earlier question.
"I'd like to hear the answer to that one, too," a new voice said. Inspector Henderson strolled onto the balcony, hands in his pants' pockets. Three uniformed officers followed him, and with a tilt of his head, he directed them toward Lex and Mrs. Cox. He bent down and ran a finger along the edge of the sword, then hissed in a breath when he cut himself.
Lois glanced back at Clark, who had defended her and let her play her hand to the end. Before he could answer and give away his identity, she blurted out, "He's my rescuer. He caught me when Lex shoved me over the edge."
With exaggerated patience, Henderson straightened and asked, "Does he have a name?"
She glanced at Clark again, but this time her gaze fixed on that 'S'-shaped symbol on his chest. "S-superman," she said.
Clark flushed, and Henderson looked skeptical. Lois muttered under her breath, "Fly," certain that Clark would hear her.
The newly christened Superman scooped her into his arms and gently lifted into the air. "If you want," he said, hovering about three feet above the balcony, "we can meet you at the police station, and Lois can give her statement there."
Henderson and his officers stared, mouths agape, and Lex chose that moment to make his break. Tearing free of the dumbfounded officers, he shouted, "Lex Luthor will not live in a cage!" and dove over the balcony wall.
Before the others could react, Clark had set Lois down and disappeared over the wall in a streak of blue and red, and a moment later, he landed back on the balcony with Lex tucked under one arm like a sack of flour. "You need to keep a close eye on him, sir," he told Henderson.
"Yeah… Yeah, we'll do that," Henderson said and added, "Superman."
By Lois Lane
Metropolis, August 1, 1994—The world held its collective breath yesterday when a genuine superhero made his debut in Metropolis…
FBI JOINS MAN-SERVANT MANHUNT
By Clark Kent
Metropolis, August 2, 1994— Today the FBI joined the search for Nigel St. John, who is being sought in connection with the Metropolis sex-slave ring and the murder of Rollin Jameson. St. John, formerly valet to Lex Luthor …
WE DON'T BELIEVE YOU, SAYS GRAND JURY
By Lois Lane and Clark Kent
Metropolis, August 28, 1994—Today the grand jury bound Lex Luthor, last year's Man of the Year, over to trial for the bombing of The Daily Planet last May…
LUTHOR TO SING JAILHOUSE ROCK
By Lois Lane and Clark Kent
Metropolis, Dec. 12, 1994—After five hours of deliberation, the jury in the Lex Luthor bombing trial returned a verdict of guilty on two counts of attempted murder and 27 counts of …
"What about lunch?" Clark asked. He hitched one hip on the corner of his partner's desk and leaned over to see how close her story was to being finished.
Lois banged the keys noisily, muttering under her breath at a string of typos, but plunging ahead toward that final period. She stopped, bit her lip as she read, then pushed herself back from the keyboard. "What d'you think?"
He was already smiling, his eyes flickering across the screen. "I like it," he said. "That's a good phrase there. Wraps it up well." Despite his praise, he reached for her keyboard and corrected a couple of typos she had missed.
She rolled her eyes. "You sure you're not a closet copy editor?"
His smile became sheepish, and he shrugged. "It's hard to see your own errors."
"Let me at least spell-check it." Lois dragged her keyboard back. "Were you saying something about lunch?"
At his silence, she looked up and saw his head tilted slightly, a faraway look in his eyes as he listened to something far beyond her senses. "Umm, Lois," he began, his hand creeping up to the knot of his tie.
She waved her hand. "Go. I'll leave a message if I go out for lunch."
He nodded distractedly and jogged toward the stairs. Lois sighed. Her boy scout. Her teasing comment that first night they met had been truer than she imagined. For almost five months, he had been her best friend. He had listened to her rage against Lex, reassured her when she cursed her stupidity, held her when she cried over her lost friends and career, and let her vent over the frustration of her notoriety. He had teased her and laughed with her and cooked for her and helped her turn her million dollar annual stipend over to Team Literacy. When he thought she was wrong, he stood up to her, but when she wouldn't change her mind, he stood by her. Throughout the trial, throughout her repeated attempts to get Lex to sign the divorce papers, Clark had been with her, a rock at her side, but he had never made a move to suggest he was anything but a friend.
She absently tapped the keys that sent her story to Mike. She might have believed Clark wasn't interested in a romantic relationship if she hadn't seen the disappointment in his eyes each time Lex refused to sign the divorce papers. Yet he managed to avoid slow-dancing with her after that first night, and she never again got him to lie down in bed with her and hold her until she fell asleep. He was, she had suspected, too much of a boy scout to pursue a romance with a married woman.
But sometimes, alone in the darkness of her bedroom, she worried that he really wasn't attracted to her. She worried that she was deluding herself when she thought she saw hunger flare in his eyes after she had driven him too far with her teasing. As long as Lex refused to consent to a divorce, she had no way of finding out the truth. Clark would behave the same way whether he was uninterested in her romantically or taking the moral high ground by just being a friend while she was still married. But the longer he resisted her, the more she feared he was uninterested.
She sighed again. Lex had spitefully refused to sign the divorce papers—just because *she* wanted the divorce. However, now that the judge had pointed out that his conviction for attempted murder of his wife gave her the right to dissolve the marriage without his consent, Lex might give in to the inevitable. God, she hoped so!
Her desk phone rang, and Lois picked it up, absently muttering, "Lois Lane," as she went over a mental list of possible restaurants for lunch.
A moment later, however, her distraction had vanished, and her startled, "What!" drew the attention of all the reporters in that part of the newsroom. "Oh God, he did? Are you sure?" she demanded. "Okay. Thank you *so* much." She frantically scribbled a note and dropped it on Clark's desk as she hurried to the elevator.
"Where you going, Lois?" Paul Banning asked.
"Tell Mike I've gone home for a few hours," she said, and the elevator doors closed on her palpable excitement.
Dressed as Superman, Clark hovered outside Lois's window and tapped on the glass, then stepped through the open window. He didn't even have time to change into his regular clothes before she hurled herself into his arms, hugging him as if she never intended to let him go. Her breathing was swift and uneven, and he tightened his arms around her. "What is it?" he asked, concerned. "Are you okay?"
She looked up at his voice, and he saw that she wasn't crying but shaking with something that looked like … joy? "I'm terrific," she said, a smile breaking across her face. "Carol called."
Clark felt suddenly breathless, and the floor beneath him seemed to rock. Carol was her lawyer. "He signed?" he guessed.
"Yes, yes, yes!" she exclaimed, laughing as he swept her into his arms and spun them around, his cape floating like a kite.
"Oh God," he said as he came to a stop and let her down. "I was afraid he'd never sign, and you'd be Mrs. Lex Luthor forever." He pressed his forehead against hers. "When is the judge writing the final orders?"
"Already done. Carol ran them by as soon as Lex signed."
"Then you're … ?"
"Free. I'm single again. He's finally, *finally* out of my life."
He hugged her tightly. "Lois … oh, honey." He could hardly keep his feet on the ground for joy, but he also knew that divorce only severed the legal ties, not the emotional ones. "No regrets?"
"None," she answered promptly, then shook her head, shrugging a little. "I just feel stupid for being taken in by that honest businessman/philanthropist act of his."
Clark stroked his thumb across her cheek. "You weren't the only one. He was very, very good at it. Besides, give yourself some credit. You're the one who finally realized what he was *and* the one who brought him down."
Lois rested her hand on his chest, stroking his solid muscles with her fingertips, each gentle touch sending an electric jolt through him. "With some super help," she said. "We make a good team, partner."
"A good team," he echoed, and they stood for a moment, looking at each other. Finally, he bent down and touched his mouth to hers, and their lips clung for a moment as their eyes drifted shut. At almost the same time, they pulled back slightly, eyes still closed, breathing in the scent of the other. His hands came up to cradle her face as he lowered his mouth back to hers, covering her lips in a deep, open-mouthed kiss. Their breathing became quick and ragged, and she snuggled closer to him.
At length, he lifted his head, and Lois opened her eyes, heavy-lidded and dreamy, her mouth soft and kiss-reddened. "Mmm," she sighed, her fingers tightening on the hair at the back of his neck. "I guess that answers the question of whether you were interested in being more than a friend or not."
Clark threaded his fingers through her silky, dark hair. "Lois, I fell in love with you about two minutes after we met."
Tears shimmered in her beautiful eyes. "That was while we were dancing, wasn't it?" She smiled, teasing him, "If I'd known you were that susceptible, I'd have tried harder to get you to dance at the party after the Kerths."
"I'm glad you didn't. It was hard enough to stay away from you as it was."
"So, does that mean you'll quit staying away from me now?" she asked archly.
"I guess that's up to you." Their kiss had answered some of his questions, too, and his eyes were hopeful, his body fitting snugly against hers. "But, Lois, my life in Metropolis, my job, even being Superman, would all be meaningless if you weren't part of it."
"Oh, Clark!" she cried, flinging her arms around his neck and kissing him passionately.
At the touch of her tongue on his, he moaned while he slipped one hand down her body to cup over her bottom and press her firmly against him. She wriggled her hips against his, smiling against his mouth when he gasped in pleasure.
"I love you, too," Lois whispered. "And I don't want you to stay away any more." She laughed suddenly, tipping her head back. "Actually, I haven't wanted you to stay away for nearly five months."
Five months. So the irresistible attraction he had felt from their first meeting hadn't been one-sided. He gave in to temptation and drew a line of open-mouthed kisses down the smooth curve of her throat. She made soft, welcoming sounds as her pulse skittered under his lips, and he felt his heart rate thunder in response. "That's good," he managed at last, "because even Superman couldn't tear me away from you."
It was just as well that she didn't know what that gasping little giggle did to him. "That'd sound more impressive if you weren't still wearing the Suit," she said.
"Am I?" he asked absently. He had found the hollow at the base of her throat and was absorbed in licking off every trace of the perfume she wore.
She giggled again, the soft feminine sound sending another surge of heat to his groin, while her fingers sought the fasteners that held his cape on. "Not for long."
Clark caught his breath and lifted his head to look at her. "Honey, are you sure?" Only the week before, she had admitted that both of her sexual relationships before Lex had also been disasters, and her willingness to risk her vulnerable heart awakened his desire to protect her. "You don't have to do this to please me," he said softly, tracing the outline of her lips with his thumb. "I don't expect sex as some kind of reward for telling you I love you."
She kissed the pad of his thumb. "My boy scout. The right thing at the wrong moment." But she was smiling.
"Lois … I don't wanna—"
"—pressure me into something I'm not ready for? Make love with a woman who's faking it? Clark, quit being so noble. I want you. I've wanted you for *months*, and now that I'm a free woman again, I don't want to wait any more." She grasped the sides of his head and pulled him down for a kiss that rolled his eyes back and sent the blood roaring through his veins.
She pulled back abruptly, and he saw uncertainty growing in her eyes. "Unless," she began, "you *don't* want to—?"
It had never occurred to him that she would think he was rejecting her when he was only trying to avoid pressuring her. "God, no, Lois. I'm ready for this step if you are."
She relaxed against him, smiling. "Oh, I'm ready, all right. I told Mike I'd be gone for a few hours. Which reminds me …" She took the receiver off the phone, tucked it under a cushion, then cuddled back into Clark's embrace.
He grinned at her unexpected attention to detail and planted kisses from the corner of her mouth to her ear. "Think that'll be long enough?" he murmured.
"Depends on whether you're faster than a speeding bullet or not," she answered saucily, looping her arms around his neck.
He scooped her into his arms and started down the hall to her bedroom. "There's one way to find out," he murmured suggestively as he bent down to kiss her.
Despite the strength that carried her so effortlessly, Clark's embrace didn't make Lois feel helpless or like he was flaunting his power over her. Maybe it was because he wasn't afraid to let her see how vulnerable he was: his kiss was hungry, needy, and she had no doubt that he wanted her desperately. But with his lips caressing hers and his tongue stroking the inside of her mouth, she felt hungry and needy, too, and she sighed in delight as she felt him sit down and set her next to him on the edge of her bed.
Her eyes opened slowly as his lips left hers, and she watched him from under her thick lashes, smiling as she realized that he was still in his costume. His fingers stroked across her cheek, sliding into her silky hair. "What?" he asked.
She ran one hand over the 'S' on his chest, and her smile broadened. "Just thinking how many women fantasize about being where I am right now."
He glanced down at her fingers tracing the red-and-gold satin stitching, and when he looked back at her, his expression was teasing. "What? On your bed?" Lois rolled her eyes, and he continued, his voice soft and low, "Are you one of them?"
"Who fantasized about … kissing Superman?" she asked. She had intended to let him know that she had fantasized about making love with him, but at the last moment, she chickened out. Despite their friendship, despite her certainty that he loved her, she couldn't be that direct. Not yet. At his nod, her hand stilled on his chest, and she said softly, "Yes, but not as much as I dreamed about kissing Clark."
His breath whooshed out as if he'd been holding it, and he leaned toward her and captured her mouth in a searing kiss. It quickly flared out of control as they tried to bury themselves in each other while their hands sought entry under the other's clothes. Clark already had Lois's blouse untucked and half her buttons undone when he finally pulled back. She reached for him, her mouth half-opened for another kiss, but he shook his head and said breathlessly, "You were joking earlier—about the faster than a speeding bullet thing—but …"
"But?" Her hands slid up and down his forearms, and she let her tongue trail around the inner edge of her lips.
He swallowed, his gaze fixed on her mouth, and she smiled at the effect of her actions. Then he shook himself and said, a little desperately, "This is gonna be over real fast if we don't slow down a little. If you don't mind … ?"
She stared at him incredulously, then tipped her head back and laughed. "Mind? Gee, Clark, I don't know if I can deal with a man who wants to go slow and make sure I'm really ready."
Lois pressed her lips against his, but she was still giggling, so it didn't work too well as a kiss. "It's a good thing you're a Boy Scout," she said, "or you'd be too perfect for words."
He grinned, keeping his head in position so their lips were barely touching. "I guess that means you don't mind going slower." His mouth left hers to drift across her cheek and down her throat. When he leaned toward her and bumped against the side of her hip, he pressed his hands against the inside of her thighs, his murmur of pleasure taking on a querying note. She spread her legs at his gentle signal, and he got off the bed and knelt between her knees where he continued to trace his lips over her collarbones.
The warmth of his body between her legs, the solid strength of his hips against her thighs, the moist touch of his tongue on her skin sent her arousal soaring, and she caressed his neck, fingertips stroking his short, black hair. The back of his fingers brushed against her chest as he unfastened her blouse; her breath caught, and she clutched at his back. But the thick gathers of his cape kept her from feeling his body, and she made a small sound of protest.
He lifted his head, his expression dazed and a little unfocused. "What?"
"Can you get rid of this?" She lifted the heavy cape with both hands.
Clark smiled suddenly, that singularly sweet smile that always made her feel like melting, and he drew her hands down to the fasteners under the front of the neck opening of his suit. "Velcro straps," he explained.
She found the fastening and pulled it free, then lifted the cape, the strap hanging from the edge. "Over the front of your shoulder and under your arm?" she asked. "I guess you don't have to worry about it chafing."
"One of the perks of invulnerability."
As Lois worked on the strap on the other side, he peppered her face and neck with kisses while he continued to unbutton her blouse, distracting her and getting in her way. "Cla-ark!" she protested, laughing, and he smiled against her throat but didn't stop kissing or undressing her. The strap came free, and his cape slithered off his shoulders, revealing the zipper fastening in back to her exploring fingers. A stray thought suddenly occurred to her: she was undressing Superman. No matter how much she thought of him as Clark, this was Superman. She hadn't thought about it before, but maybe— "Are you invulnerable to … other things?"
His muttered, "Yeah," against her cleavage was distracted and the touch of his lips nearly drove the thought out of her head. But this could be important, she reminded herself and said, "I mean … *other* things."
Her tone eventually got through to him. "What 'other things'?"
Damn. She'd hoped he would understand without her having to explain. Lois trailed her fingers down his chest and stopped at the yellow belt around the top of his briefs. Then she looked at him with a hesitant smile. "You don't chafe. Can you feel a … lighter touch okay?"
To her astonishment, he blushed and looked away from her. "Uh—yeah, I—" He cleared his throat and started again. "If I couldn't, I wouldn't get much out of kissing you, and … trust me, I get a *lot* out of it." Clark leaned toward her and demonstrated with a passionate, breathtaking kiss.
By the time he lifted his mouth from hers, she was lucky to remember what her name was, and she pulled him in for another kiss, her fingers tugging at the zipper on the back of his costume. His skin was warm and sleek, and she could feel the muscles in his back flex as she peeled the spandex from his back and shoulders. He moaned softly, and a shiver raced through her at his responsiveness to her touch. She hastily stripped the top of his suit off, eager to see his body—and stopped, staring in shock. "Your chest …"
He looked puzzled. "What?"
Lois stroked her fingertips across his smooth, beautifully defined pecs. "I—I just pictured you with a hairy chest." Without hesitation or regret, she cast away the romance-novel image of a hairy-chested hero. Reality was velvety soft skin over brawny muscles, and she itched to explore every inch with her mouth.
"Hairy … ? Why'd you—?" He broke off. "Does it matter?"
She had been deciding where she was going to start kissing him when she heard the uncertainty in his voice. "What? Oh, no, Clark! Skin is—" she eyed his chest again and flexed her hands over the swell of his pecs— "so much nicer to kiss than hair." Was that sultry purr really hers?
Clark closed his eyes for an instant, then cupped both hands around her face and kissed her. "I love you, Lois," he said. "I've dreamed of this so much."
"You have?" She smiled and stroked his chest. "How did you picture me?"
He grinned. "Not with a hairy chest."
That startled a laugh out of her, and she suddenly realized that she'd never before laughed during sex or foreplay. And yet it seemed so right with Clark. "C'mon," she said, "you can be more specific than that."
He flushed and looked away. "Beautiful," he finally said, lifting his gaze back to hers. "All slender curves and long legs and … mystery."
Beautiful and mysterious … His words touched her on a level she'd only dreamed of before. Catching her breath, she leaned forward and kissed him.
"I just want it to be perfect for you," he whispered.
Perfect? Troubled, she drew back from the kiss and rested her forehead against his. She should have realized that the man who called her beautiful and mysterious would have romantic expectations. She hoped he wasn't picturing some rafter-shaking, simultaneous response. Maybe they needed to talk about what he was expecting. "Last week, you remember I told you that all my relationships had been federal disasters?" At his nod, she took a deep breath and continued, "It was more than that. I've never actually … youknow … ummm …" She looked away. "Had a … a … been satisfied—by a man," she finished in a rush.
"Never? But you've been ma—" He shook his head. "What am I talking about? Never mind."
Putting a finger under her chin, he gently tipped her face toward his. "Honey, it doesn't matter. Regardless of what happens, this'll be perfect because … because you love me and I love you … and what matters is showing each other how much. Anything more than that is just icing …" He smiled. "And practice."
Lois laughed. "Practice I can do… So-o-o … no expectations?"
"No expectations," he agreed.
"We just … love each other and enjoy each other?"
"And not worry about what happens. Just do what you feel like doing."
His eyes were solemn but tender, and she reached up to stroke his cheek. "Thank you," she said softly; then she smiled. "You're starting to lose your Boy Scout image, you know."
"Lose?" A quick frown gave evidence of his puzzlement; at once, his expression cleared. "Oh. The right thing at the wrong time. Am I getting better?"
"By the minute. But now you're approaching too good to be true."
He relaxed and grinned. "Would it help if I said I'm not being completely unselfish?" When she lifted her brows in question, he continued, "It relieves some of the … the performance anxiety for me, too."
"You were worried, too?" She hadn't expected that. It hadn't really occurred to Lois that men might worry about sex. Intellectually, she knew they did, but she wasn't sure that any of the men she had known had thought beyond getting to the payoff as fast as possible.
Clark nodded. "About pleasing you … when I don't even know what you like yet."
She blinked. That made such sense, and at the same time, it made her want to hug him and spread kisses all over his face. Why not? Hadn't he told her to do what she felt like doing?
She slid her arms around him and brushed her lips across his smooth-shaven cheek, aiming for his ear. "I think it's time to start enjoying each other," she whispered, and she licked his ear and pulled at the earlobe with her lips.
The shudder that rippled through Clark rocked her, and so did the kiss that exploded between them. He was lowering her to the bed when a thought seemed to strike him, and he paused and said, "Should I—? Are you—?
"Am I what?"
"Using any protection?"
She laughed. "I've been on the Pill for a long time, just in case you changed your mind," she told him and held out her arms.
"Good." He laughed as he kissed her.
For a long moment, he lay on his side with her cradled in his arms, pleasure rumbling in his throat at the feel of her skin against his and the touch of her hands on his back, clutching him. "Oh god, Lois," he whispered against her silky hair. "That—" His heart was still thundering, his body shaking. "Oh, wow."
"I never thought—I didn't … oh, wow," she said at last, echoing him. She lifted her head from his shoulder. "And I was afraid I was … frigid."
He shook his head in disbelief and smoothed a damp lock of hair off her face. "If you'd been any more responsive … I don't know if I could've survived it."
She laughed. "Boy, do I know how to name them or what?! Superman is the *perfect* name for you!" She half purred, half giggled her compliment. "I don't think you know how different you are — and how great it is. Your ex-girlfriends must be kicking themselves for letting you out of their beds!"
Lois suddenly seemed to hear what she said, and she frowned, raising up on one elbow. "Wait a minute … your ex-girlfriends aren't going to put two and two together and come up with … with … Superman, are they?"
He looked up at her, his mouth open in surprise. "No—no! They—there isn't—I-I—" He tried to reassure her without revealing his secret, and his response collapsed into unintelligibility. He ground to a halt and tried to regroup. What was he worried about? It might be a little embarrassing, but it wasn't worth worrying her about threats to his secret identity. Besides, he thought, brightening, it wasn't true anymore.
Clark took a deep breath and started again. "Lois, no one's gonna guess that I'm Superman."
"How can you be so sure?" she demanded. "Sure, it might have been one thing when no one knew about Superman—I mean, super powers aren't the first thing that comes to mind in this particular situation—but there's no denying that you look a lot like Superman, even with the difference in hair and the glasses and all, which usually isn't an issue because who would ever imagine that an ordinary guy with a job and a boss and bills to pay would really be this super powerful flying man, but if you've done something super, then it wouldn't be too big a leap—"
"No one else knows," he interrupted.
"—to go from Clark to—What did you say?"
"No one else—"
"—knows?" She finished his answer. "How could they miss it?" Lois suddenly stopped. "No one else?" she echoed softly.
He shook his head.
"You're the only one," he admitted.
She stared at him blankly, as if she were thinking of something else; then she patted his chest, stroking her hands over it with an air of possessiveness. "Oh, my!" she murmured, then asked, as if for confirmation, "Your first time?"
He nodded tensely, and a curious little smile curled the corners of her mouth. "My, my," she said again and bent forward to drag her lower lip across his chest. His breath caught at her slow, seductive movement. "Unexplored territory," she observed with satisfaction, her palms rubbing over the hard swell of his pecs. She giggled suddenly. "This is like … Lewis and Clark discovering the wonders of a mighty continent."
Clark rolled his eyes, but he couldn't help grinning at her silly pun. "Boldly going where no one has gone before?" he suggested breathlessly as he lifted his head to kiss her.
She laughed, that sassy, teasing tone that always made his heart swell with joy. Then her smile was replaced by a look of tenderness and wonder, and she pressed a kiss against his mouth. "I love you, Clark. I never thought I'd meet a man like you. Someone who would love me and still let me be myself. But you … Since the first time we met, you've encouraged me to use my talents and be the best I can be. You're the strongest man in the world, but you don't treat me like a helpless little female."
His smile was tender, but amusement quirked the corners of his mouth. "Lois, you're probably the least helpless person I know. Just ask any of the criminals you've exposed and helped put behind bars."
"Well …" She smiled, unsuccessfully trying to hide her pride. "You know what I mean. You don't try to control me or tell me what to do or turn me into what you want me to be."
"Except when I tell you to stay put and not go into danger," he said, ruefully aware that she'd never let him keep her as safe as he wanted to.
"But you know I don't pay any attention if it's important, and besides, you don't do that very often." She sobered as she added, "Being with you makes me more than I was before. I don't feel like I have to hide who I am or—or prove myself anymore."
His hand stroked up and down her arm. "That's how you make me feel, too. I don't have to hide anymore, and I'm not alone anymore, either."
"Oh, Clark." They kissed again, long, slow, deep kisses that re-ignited the arousal sizzling between them. She pulled back breathlessly to say, "Maybe we should get cleaned up …"
He eyed her consideringly. Was she suggesting that they try making love in the shower? He casually responded, "A shower or bath sounds like a good idea."
Lois giggled and patted his shoulder. "C'mon, lover man, let's find some water. I bet you look cute in a bubble bath."
Clark made a token protest as he gathered her into his arms, but he was grinning. Life with Lois would never be boring. In bringing Luthor down and getting her marriage dissolved, they'd managed to do the impossible just to reach this point, and he figured they'd face more than their share of danger and problems in the years to come. But together, they could overcome anything. So when she asked, "Cherry Almond or Orange Spice?" he just laughed and let her choose.