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The Touch of Max

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년:
1993
출판사:
Loveswept
언어:
english
ISBN 13:
9780553443622
시리즈:
Men of Mysteries Past 1
파일:
EPUB, 184 KB
다운로드 (epub, 184 KB)

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1

The Touch of Max

년:
1993
언어:
english
파일:
LIT , 207 KB
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2

Masquerade

년:
2011
언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 76 KB
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Books by Kay Hooper





Books By Kay Hooper

Men of Mysteries Past

--1 The Touch of Max (1993)

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Epilogue





Books By Kay Hooper


The Bishop Trilogies

1 Stealing Shadows 08-2000

2 Hiding in the Shadows 10-03-2000

3 Out of the Shadows 10-31-2000



1 Touching Evil 08-2001

2 Whisper of Evil 06-2002

3 Sense of Evil 06-2003 (paperback)



1 Hunting Fear 08-2004

2 Chill of Fear 07-2005

3 ??



The Quinn Novels

1 Once a Thief 10-2002

2 Always a Thief 06-2003

3 Lady Thief 03-2005



Romantic Suspense

Amanda 08-1996

After Caroline 09-1997

Finding Laura 07-1998

Hunting Rachel 09-1999



Classic Fantasy and Romance

On Wings of Magic 12-1994

The Wizard of Seattle 05-1993

My Guardian Angel (anthology) 01-1997

Yours to Keep (anthology) 10-1999





Men of Mysteries Past


--1 The Touch of Max (1993)--


Loveswept #595





Great things are done when men and mountains meet.

–William Blake





Prologue


It was a fairly typical San Francisco night. Outside the penthouse, darkness hid the fog that had rolled in and now clung wetly to the city. Inside, antique furniture glowed in the soft lighting of several lamps. And in the sunken den, the brisk crackling of flames in the big marble fireplace was the only sound that broke the tense silence.

Frowning, the man on the couch stared into the fire, then spoke without looking at his visitor. "What makes you think you can catch him? So far, nobody's come close. A whisper of a name, that's all he is."

The visitor had prowled the room as he talked, but now sat in a nearby chair. Like his host, he kept his voice low. "With the right bait, you can catch anything. And anyone. The bait you have to offer is guaranteed to draw him out."

"It's guaranteed to draw every thief you could name out of the woodwork. They'll be tripping over each other."

"It won't be as bad as that. Tough security will weed out all but the—um—serious contenders."

"Tough securit; y?" The man on the couch laughed softly. "We both know security's an illusion, even with state-of-the-art technology. Sure, the petty thieves will be discouraged, but it still leaves a fairly large field of hopefuls."

The visitor nodded. "I know, but there really aren't many ambitious enough to go after any part of the Bannister collection. It'd be damned difficult for any thief to unload something so well known and so priceless. The risk outweighs the potential profit. I really believe the bait would draw a collector, not just a thief out for a quick score."

"Some thieves ore collectors."

"Not many. But the one we're after is. And look at his track record. Every piece we know he's taken in the last three years is one of a kind and has a colorful past, and most have so-called curses attached to them. Just like the Boiling diamond. One whisper that the Boiling is out of a vault and on public display is going to make his mouth water." The visitor shifted restlessly and added, "I don't want to risk the whole collection. This madman's greedy enough to take everything if we make it easy for him."

"I can't display the Boiling alone. It's part of collection, and I've said publicly more than once I'd never exhibit any single piece alone. If I had a sudden change of heart now, any thief worth his salt would smell a trap."

"Dammit, I didn't know you'd said that. I can't ask you to risk the entire collection, it's too dangerous. A single piece I could protect, but if everything's together in one place, and he gets past me ... he could get it all."

"The bait and the fish gone forever." Returning his gaze to the bright fire, the man on the couch said quietly, "It's taken my family almost five hundred years to assemble the collection."

"I know." A long silence followed, and then the visitor said, "It was a lunatic idea. I'll try something else, Max."

Maxim Bannister sent the visitor a wry look. -There's nothing else to try, and you know it The lid of bait you need is rare. Offhand, I can't think of another collector who'd be willing to take the risk.

"I can't ask you to take it."

"What choice do you have?"





How happy is he born and taught, That serveth not another's will; Whose armor is his honest thought, And simple truth his utmost skill!

–Sir Henry Wotton

The Character of a Happy life





One


There wasn't much light, but he could see her clearly as she crept along the hallway. Crept. An accurate description, Max decided since she was moving with all the caution of someone who had something to hide. He was standing in the shadows himself, invisible to her, but he had a legitimate reason for being in the wing of the museum where his collection would soon go on exhibit.

Dinah Layton did not.

He watched her as she came nearer, and even though he was troubled by her presence here, he wasn't surprised to find he was interested in her in a far more simple and basic way. The truth was, he couldn't take his eyes off her. What little light there was revealed that she was not a woman who would ever be able to fade into the shadows.

Her hair was the vivid, true red that no bottled hair color would ever produce, and even under the faint illumination in the vast rooms and corridors of the museum, it gleamed with sparks of red and gold. Her skin was creamy pale and flawless, providing a stunning contrast to both her vibrant hair and the remarkable depth and clarity of her sapphire-blue eyes.

She was a beautiful woman, something Max had noticed the first time he'd set eyes on her. Nothing unusual about that, of course; he would have had to be blind not to notice her looks. Or to take note of how gracefully she moved and how innately sensuous her slender but richly curved body was—despite the fact that he knew she had lost some weight during the past couple of weeks.

None of which explained his obsession with her. Beautiful women had crossed Max's path on a fairly regular basis for twenty years and more without stirring his emotions into the kind of turmoil Dinah Layton had inspired. In general, he wasn't overly susceptible to physical beauty, and though he tended to make up his mind quickly about the people he encountered, that was a long way from becoming obsessed with a woman he knew nothing about.

As she came nearer, Max slipped back through the shadows, avoiding the clutter left by the workmen, never taking his eyes off her. She was clearly preoccupied, worried, or frightened. Her eyes seemed enormous in a strained, unusually pale face, and Max felt something inside him turn over with an almost painful lurch.

Big, sad eyes and a long, sad story.

Could it be that simple? Was his obsession with her really nothing more than his certainty that she was in trouble? His instinct was to help if he could, to aid rather than blame or judge or accuse—no matter if by doing so he risked something of his or even himself. Was that why he was here in a darkened museum long after the doors had been locked to the public? Why he was creeping around like the Shadow, watching her without giving his own presence away? Or was he just fooling himself?



If he hadn’t caught her, she would have broken her neck. There wasn’t a doubt of that in Dinah Layton’s mind. The museum was dimly lighted this late at night, and she was still a bit unfamiliar with the labyrinth of rooms, hallways, and galleries—to say nothing of the obstacles left by workmen in this wing. One such obstacle, a low stack of lumber, had caught her completely unaware, and she tripped over it. Since the lumber was half blocking the top of the marble stairs, she certainly would have fallen all the way down from the second floor to the first.

If he hadn't caught her.

He came out of nowhere, shocking her with his sudden presence as much as the rescue. He must have been close, but she hadn't seen him or any sign at all of his nearness.

"Careful." His voice was so deep and low, it was almost a growl, but there was a softness to it as well, and his powerful hands steadied her with surprising gentleness. "This is no place to be hurrying, especially in the dark."

As soon as Dina got her feet under her, she pulled stiffly away from him, her heart pounding from more than the near fall. She recognized his voice, though this was the first time he'd spoken to her. During the past month—her first as assistant curator of the museum—he had been in and out of the offices near her own, which had been set up for the forthcoming Mysteries Past exhibit.

His exhibit, for all intents and purposes. He was Maxim Bannister, and he owned the Bannister collection of priceless gems and artworks that would make up that exhibit.

"Thank you," she managed in a somewhat stifled voice. "I—I'll be more careful." She wanted to edge away from him but stood her ground, looking up at his shadowy face with more steadiness than she felt.

He was an unusually big man, several inches over six feet and powerfully built, and would have been intimidating in the daylight and in innocent surroundings, but at night in the dimness of the museum, he seemed inherently dangerous. Not threatening exactly, but simply dangerous the way any man would be if he had a strong and forceful nature combined with uncommon physical size and the innate authority that came with having been taught early in life how to command others.

Still, despite all her chaotic anxieties and fears, and his imposing presence, Dinah felt peculiarly safe with Max Bannister. She might even have been able to relax, except for the small matter of her inability to explain what she was doing in a part of the museum where she had no business.

He had released her, but hadn't moved away "You're working late tonight, Miss Layton." It wasn't a question, but something in his pleasant tone made it one.

Dinah was surprised for a moment that he knew her name, but then figured he probably knew every employee of the museum by name. In fact, he probably knew a great deal more. The security arrangements for his upcoming exhibit were extremely detailed, and no doubt included background checks on museum employees. A little chill chased down her spine at the realization.

God, why hadn't she thought of that before? If she had, she might not have taken this job, and if she hadn't taken the job, then maybe none of it would have happened. . . .

"Paperwork," she said as steadily as she could, answering his implied question. "There's so much of it with all the construction and the new exhibit, and ... I want to do a good job here."

If he wondered what paperwork she could possibly have been doing so far from her office and in the wing that was closed off while it was being readied for his exhibit, he didn't ask. Instead, he took her arm firmly and began leading her down the wide marble stairs.

"It's after eight, Miss Layton, and Ken doesn't expect his assistant to put in such long hours," he said, referring to Kenneth Dugan, the museum's curator. "Besides, the security guards are a little jumpy these days, and would rather have none of us spend our evenings wandering the halls."

Dinah's impulse was to immediately apologize— give way, give in, avoid any kind of conflict—but she fought off the urge. It was more difficult than it had been a month ago, and cost her in added stress, but she managed.

"Because of the robbery last week at the modern art museum, you mean?" she asked, keeping her tone as casual as his.

"Partly, yes." They had reached the bottom of the stairway and, still holding her arm, he paused momentarily and glanced down at her before turning to cross the lobby toward the hallway of offices on the far side. "I'll wait while you lock up your office," he added.

"That really isn't necessary, Mr. Bannister. I have a few more minutes' work, and—

"Work for tomorrow." His tone remained pleasant. "You've been here nearly twelve hours, and you didn't take a break for lunch. I think your day's been long enough, Miss Layton."

Dinah felt another little chill. She had been told that Max Bannister never missed a thing, but how did he know she'd been here all day? She hadn't seen him today, not until he'd caught her on the stairs.

The security guard at his desk in the lobby looked up but didn't challenge them as they passed. Dinah doubted that her companion was challenged very often by anyone in any situation, and he certainly had the run of this museum no matter what the hour. In fact, he could do pretty much what he wanted to. She wondered vaguely what it was like to walkthrough life like that, sure of yourself, unafraid, able to command resources other people couldn't even comprehend.

Safe.

They were now in the well-lit hallway where the offices were located. She sneaked a glance up at his ruggedly handsome, rather hard face, and swallowed with difficulty. He was incredibly wealthy and, though he kept a low profile, he was financially and socially powerful in San Francisco. Rumor had it that he was a wonderful friend and a very bad enemy. She knew she wouldn't want to cross him in any way.

As soon as they reached her office, she went across the small, windowless room to her desk to get her purse and coat. He remained by the door, both unnervingly large and imposing in his dark raincoat, and she was conscious of his steady gaze on her. She could still feel the light grip of his hand on her arm, as if he had marked her somehow.

"I'll take you home," he said.

Dinah had just taken her coat off the wooden coat tree, and swung around to look at him in surprise. His steel-gray eyes were unreadable. She hoped her own were, but was very much afraid they showed the alarm she felt. She would have been grateful for a ride from almost anyone else, but with him she felt nervous, tense, and guilty. The last thing she wanted was to be alone with him in a car.

"Thank you, but that isn't necessary," she said hurriedly. "I live only a few blocks away, and this is a safe neighborhood. I always walk."

He shook his head slightly, his eyes never leaving hers, and repeated, "I'll take you home." There was nothing autocratic or commanding in his tone, yet something in it didn't invite argument.

She looked away from his unreadable gaze and began to shrug into her coat. He immediately took three steps into the room and held the coat for her, г gesture of courtesy that was quite probably impersonal, she told herself, even though she couldn't help stiffening. And she jumped when his warm fingers touched her neck as he gently drew her long hair over the collar of the coat.

Calm down! she urged herself silently as she got her purse from the desk. The advice only half worked, but half was good enough for the moment. She was able to turn out the lights in her office and lock the door without fumbling while he stood by silently. She even managed not to jump again when he took her arm and led her back down the hallway. He released her long enough to sign them both out in the security logbook, speaking pleasantly to the guard at the desk, then took her arm again. Another security guard was passing through the lobby on his rounds, and let them out with a polite good night, addressing them both by name. His smile was approving, which baffled Dinah until she wondered if the guards had told Bannister she'd worked very late every night for more than a week. If that was the case, he might have remained late tonight himself to check on her.

But why? It was, strictly speaking, no business of Max Bannister's if she chose to work until midnight. He didn't own the museum—at least, she didn't think he did—and had nothing to do with the running of it, barring the arrangements for his own exhibit.

Grappling with the uneasy thoughts, she barely noticed the chill wind outside. Silent, she got into the passenger seat of the Mercedes parked at the curb when he opened the door for her. When he got behind the wheel, she offered directions to her apartment building and then fell silent again. She couldn't seem to come up with any small talk.

The sedan drove almost noiselessly, the engine purring, and inside it was so quiet that Dinah jumped slightly when he spoke, even though his voice was still low.

"You haven't been in San Francisco very long, have you, Miss Layton?"

She shot a glance at him, but it was too dark to see his face clearly. Every time they passed a streetlight, however, she could see his hands on the steering wheel. They were large hands, almost brutally powerful, and yet they were beautiful, too, and she felt no fear of them. Odd. That was very odd, she thought.

Clasping her own hands tightly together in her lap, Dinah finally answered him. "No, not long. A few months."

"Where are you from?"

The question was probably an innocuous one, and was certainly asked in a casual tone, but it nevertheless caused more tension to seep into Dinah's body. She was tempted either to be vague or to lie outright, but when she replied she wasn't surprised to hear herself give him the truth. There was just something about him, something that evoked honesty.

It was a bit frightening.

"Boston," she murmured.

"Is that where your family is?"

A traffic light had halted them, and Dinah stared at it. One of Murphy's laws, of course: If you wanted to get somewhere in a hurry, every light would stop you. Not that she was in a hurry to get home, what she wanted was to get away from Max Bannister's so-casual questions.

"Miss Layton?" He was looking at her. She could feel it.

In the most neutral, indifferent voice she could manage, Dinah said, "I don't have much family. An older brother. He lives in Boston with his wife and kids."

After a moment, Max said, "I gather you two aren't close."

"You could say that." She felt a flicker of relief when the light changed, and added quickly, "The light's green."

The Mercedes moved forward smoothly, and his attention was once more fixed on the road. But he startled her by murmuring, "I'm sorry you're uncomfortable with me."

If she had been thinking clearly, Dinah would have met that statement with silence, allowing him to believe it. But she wasn't thinking clearly. At least, that was what she told herself when she heard her surprising response.

"It isn't that. I mean . . . I just don't know you." "Then there's hope." Before she could respond to the lightly spoken words, Max added, even more lightly, "I really can't help it if I look like a thug, but I can assure you it's a deceptive appearance. I can even produce quite a few references attesting to my character, if it'll make you less wary of me."

"That isn't necessary." Her voice was a little stiff, and she stared straight ahead at the second traffic light to halt them. She didn't understand why he was talking this way. Why would her opinion of possibly matter to him?

"I think it is." His voice was quiet now. "I don't want you to be wary of me."

Dinah felt the cold touch of panic, and couldn't entirely hide the strain when she spoke. "Mr. Bannister, since I have nothing to do with the exhibit of your collection, there's no reason why you should concern yourself with my feelings."

"In other words, I should mind my own business?" he said wryly.

Something in his tone made heat rise in her cheeks, and she felt absurdly defensive. "The light's green," she muttered.

He didn't speak again until he pulled the car to the curb before her apartment building.

"I wish you could trust me."

It was almost a plea, and it unnerved Dinah more than anything he'd said. What did he mean? How much did he really know? And why did she suddenly want to cry? This man was a stranger, for God's sake. How was he able to arouse such strong reactions and emotions in her?

Struggling to hold on to her composure, she ignored his appeal because she didn't know how to respond to it. "Don't bother to get out, please. Thank you very much for the ride, Mr. Bannister." She didn't give him a chance to respond, but immediately got out of the car and hurried up the sidewalk to the well-lit entrance. The car remained at the curb, she knew that, but she didn't look back.

Max stared at the building for some minutes after she'd gone inside, then allowed his gaze to track upward to the second floor, where he knew her apartment was. There had been a light on when they arrived, and now other lights came to life behind drawn curtains. Feeling unusually restless, he tapped his long fingers against the steering wheel as he watched her windows for a moment. A slight frown pulled at his brows. Slowly, he scanned the building from one corner to the other. At the far corner, he caught a glimpse of movement and the blink of a pencil flashlight. Relaxing slightly, he put the car in gear and drove away heading for his own apartment.

When he got home he sat before a blazing fire in the marble fireplace, as he had months before when he had first agreed to risk his collection. But this time he wasn't thinking of his priceless heritage.

Big, sad eyes and a long, sad story. It was a joke among his friends, a catch phrase meant to remind him that sometimes sad eyes were calculating, and some sad stories had little basis in fact. It had been years since his compassion had proven to be wasted, but his friends were good ones and they worried still.

Max knew that. But he trusted his instincts, and his instincts told him Dinah Layton was in trouble.

The problem was, his heart was telling him even more. There was no question this time of objective compassion.

Miss Layton. He'd made a point of addressing her that way, even though he'd been thinking of her as Dinah from the moment he'd first seen her. He had spent more time than necessary at the museum this last week, simply because he had hoped to find an opportunity to talk to her. The opportunity hadn't arisen until tonight; each time he'd found some excuse to speak with her, Ken Dugan had appeared out of nowhere before Max could get near her office, eager to help with the "problem."

Max reflected now that Dugan was a good man; he was also ambitious, and clearly assumed that getting in good with Max Bannister could benefit him on some future day when he might need a favor. He certainly wasn't the first to believe that, and he wasn't wrong. But his timing was lousy.

Max shifted restlessly on me couch and frowned, accepting the fact that his own timing wasn't the greatest. Especially when the lady who was beginning to haunt his every thought quite obviously had secrets of her own.

"Why were you in the exhibit's wing tonight, Dinah?" he murmured to himself as he stared into the fire. "What are you afraid of?"



Dinah looked at the ringing phone for several moments, terrified of answering, more afraid not to. It wouldn't do any good not to answer, she knew. The last time she had ignored his call, he had left her a message: A single, wilted lily outside her door. That had been more frightening than the phone calls, because it had reminded her of how easily he could get to her. How close he had been. Just outside her door.

She picked up the receiver with icy fingers, then said, "Hello?" in little more than a whisper.

"You did very well tonight, Dinah." His voice was low, without emotion. Indistinct and anonymous, it could have belonged to any man—or only one man. It was a voice she'd heard in her nightmares for nearly two years.

"Leave me alone. Please, leave me alone." Her own voice was a thin thread of sound, stretched taut by hopelessness.

He chuckled. "You know I can't do that, Dinah. There are things I want you to do for me. The way you did tonight. You did fine, just fine. It earned you a reprieve. If you go on being a good girl, I might even disappear from your life forever. But if you aren't good, Dinah, you know what I'll do to you. Do I have to tell you again?"

"No," she answered, the sick threats and promises he had made echoing inside her head, tangling with the dreadful memories she couldn't escape.

"I'm glad we understand each other. You just go on being a good girl and do as you're told, and I won't have to hurt you. The way I did before."

Dinah's fingers were so icy and numb, she dropped the receiver a few moments later when she tried to put it back on its cradle. On her third try, she got it into place. Then in the brightly lit living room, she sat in a chair in a corner so she wouldn't have to keep looking over her shoulder. Legs drawn up, her eyes moving around ceaselessly, she could see the double-locked front door and the closed windows. The silence was loud, and she listened with all the rigid alertness of a hunted animal for an alien sound.

Dawn was hours away.



Though he had no reason connected with the exhibit for going, Max arrived at the museum early the next morning, before it was even open He knew there was something wrong when a guard let him in-the worried expression on the man's face told him that. Max didn't question him, however. He stepped into the lobby and stood gazing around, taking note of the unusual activity and the fact that the night guards were still present, two of whom were standing near the offices talking to Ken. Dinah was there also, though she didn't seem to be saying much.

Before Max could approach them, Morgan West, clipboard in hand and clearly upset, crossed the lobby toward him. She was the director of his forth- coming exhibit, a position of responsibility for which she seemed too young. Her long black hair was pulled back casually in a ponytail, the style emphasizing the fine bone structure of her face, and the gold sweater she wore over dark slacks clung lovingly to a set of measurements that drew a guard’s admiring and wistful attention.

Max waited until she reached him before quietly asking, "What's up?"

"Maybe a tempest in a teapot," she replied in her vibrant, musical voice. "Then again, maybe not. When the morning guards came on duty, they found an open door, Max."

"Which door?"

"In the back, one of the service entrances. The one near the basement."

After a moment of thought, Max said, "The door farthest from any of the museum's exhibits."

"Yeah. Peculiar, isn't it? If anybody wanted to break in, why would they choose an entrance so far from anything of value? Especially since they'd have to get through at least three corridors protected by laser alarms."

The security devices Morgan spoke of were activated after the museum's doors were locked to the public. The guards, senior employees, Max, and Morgan all had magnetically encoded cards enabling them to shut off corridor sensors when they needed to pass through. Only the head curator had the code that shut off security devices protecting individual exhibits.

"I gather nothing was taken?" Max asked.

"As far as we can determine, nobody came in," Morgan replied. "The door was ajar, but not a single alarm was tripped. And since the new computer isn't on line yet, we have no way of knowing if anyone used a security card for that corridor, or when. But the door alarm was deactivated—from inside."

Max had donated to the museum a computerized security system that would, among other things, provide a log of all alarm shutdowns, but it was still being installed. The existing system, while a relatively good one, allowed anyone with a security card to deactivate corridor alarms and sensors at will and leave no record of when and where it had been done. As for door alarms, they were individually coded because so many of the staff had to be able to get in and out without leaving all the doors unlocked.

Slowly, Max said, "So unless someone accidentally forgot to reactivate the door alarm earlier in the day, one of us could have used a security card to get through the corridor and open it sometime later. But why? Why leave the door ajar but the corridor alarms active?"

"It doesn't make sense," she said, clearly worried. "You think somebody might be testing our security?"

"It's a possibility. Have you talked to Wolfe?"

"He's on his way in." She grinned suddenly. "And you should have heard his language when I called him. I don't think I woke him up, but I have a feeling he wasn't alone."

"He seldom is," Max said dryly. He glanced around and spotted Ken approaching with a frown. In a lower voice, he said, "Morgan, do me a favor and occupy Ken for a while, will you? If he starts in on explanations and reassurances, I'll be here all day.""Sure, boss." Her large amber eyes held a gleam of amusement. "She went back to her office, by the way."

"Who?" Max asked, his pretense of ignorance unconvincing even to him.

"Dinah." Morgan lifted an eyebrow, then took a few quick steps away to intercept the head curator. "Ken! Just the man I want to see. We're having a few problems installing those pressure plates for the exhibit, so if you could take a look?" "But, Morgan, I wanted to talk to—" "It's very important we get those plates right, Ken, and you're so good with things like that. It'll only take a minute, I promise. Max'll be around for hours, you can talk to him later. Nice suit. It brings out the color in your eyes." "Thank you, I'm glad you like it, but—"

Smiling a little, Max watched the flustered, flattered, and thoroughly controlled Ken being led away. Morgan despised being treated like a bosomy nitwit, but she was too intelligent not to use her figure and big, kittenlike eyes to good effect when necessary. She was also damned observant, Max thought. Or had he merely been wearing his heart on his sleeve?

Pushing that disturbing possibility out of his mind, he turned and went toward the hallway of offices. What was he going to say to her? At first, he had considered her merely shy, but gradually realized she was afraid. Now, despite what she had said in the car the night before, he knew she was afraid of him as well as something else.

He was aware that he could both look and sound forbidding, which was why he'd mentioned it somewhat mockingly to Dinah, but he certainly hadn't intended to come across to her as threatening. Given time, he hoped he could convince her he wasn't an ogre – but time might prove to be a luxury couldn't afford.

Dinah had been somewhere she shouldn't have been last night: The exhibit's wing. And although that section was nowhere near the door they'd found open this morning, the question of what she'd been doing there remained. Since the background information she'd provided the museum was so sketchy, and since she'd made it a habit to work late hours unsupervised, Dinah looked suspicious even to Max who very much wanted to believe in her.

Which meant that Max had to find out the truth about Dinah before she ended up at the top of everybody's list of suspects. The question was, how could he persuade Dinah to confide in him without adding to her fear?

He hesitated in the open doorway of her office. She was at her desk, gazing down at a stack of papers on the blotter—and if ever guilt was written on anyone's face, it was written on hers.

He knew then she had opened the service entrance door.

"Good morning," he said quietly.

She looked up with a start, so unnaturally pale that the only color in her face was the dark, haunted sapphire of her eyes. She didn't say a word, just stared at him, frozen.

There were so many questions he needed to ask her. So many. "Miss Layton- ' He stopped, shook his head slightly at the ridiculous formality, then began again. "Dinah, do you believe in love at first sight?"





Two


If nothing else, his words wiped the fear out of her eyes."I—I beg your pardon?" she ventured hesitantly.

"It's a simple enough question." He came into the office and sat down in a visitor's chair, smiling at her across the desk. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"

"Mr. Bannister, I—"

"Max, please."

Clearly baffled, and not a little wary, she half nodded but didn't address him by name. "No, I don't believe in it."

"Any particular reason?"

"Because it isn't possible. You can't love someone you don't even know, it's absurd."

"I used to think that," he said. "But when an impossible thing happens to you, it's a little absurd to go on calling it impossible, don't you think?"

Dinah's expression asked silently why on earth he'd brought up the subject, but she didn't say it. She merely shrugged. "I suppose."

"So you do agree that some things are impossible only because we haven't experienced them yet?"

She stared at him for a long moment and then, with a touch of dryness in her voice, replied, "Philosophically speaking, yes, I do agree with that."

"Good. Have lunch with me."

Instantly, the wary look returned to her eyes "Thank you, but I have a lot of work to do."

"Dinah, this museum won't fall into ruins if you take an hour off for lunch."

"I know that," she said a little stiffly. "But I prefer to work through lunch, Mr. Bannister."

"Max," he corrected. "Please."

"If you insist. Max."

Max didn't lose his smile, though it took effort. He wanted to remain and find a way through her wall of reserve, at least convince her to have lunch with him, but he caught the distant sound of a voice he recognized. At the moment, he judged it was more vital to intercept Wolfe. Getting to his feet, he went to the door and then turned back to look at her.

"Are you afraid of me, Dinah?" he asked quietly.

A hint of rose came and went in her cheeks. "How could I be afraid of you. I don't know you."

"That's what I was wondering." He paused a beat, then added. "Don't work too hard." Without waiting for a response he was pretty sure he wouldn't have gotten anyway, he headed down the hallway toward the lobby.

About two steps from the hall, he effectively but unobtrusively blocked Wolfe's passage. "You look grim," he noted mildly.

"I'm not exactly happy," Wolfe Nickerson agreed. At thirty-six, he was two years younger than Max. They were half brothers, raised by their fathers on opposite coasts of the country, and had gotten to know each other well only as adults. But even though their knowledge of each other went back less than fifteen years, there was an unusually strong bond between them.

Physically, they didn't look alike at all—except that both were well above medium height. Wolfe was about six feet tall, with powerful shoulders and was obviously athletic. He had thick auburn hair steady blue eyes, and a charming smile that drew women like a magnet. He also shared with Max a low deep voice, but his had a menacing edge to it sometimes Like now.

"Any ideas about that open door?" Max asked. "Just one. According to the guards, Dinah Layton's been wandering around the museum after hours, including last night. I'm going to talk to her now."

"Talk to me first," Max suggested. He took Wolfe by the arm and turned him toward the main entrance of the museum.

As soon as they were outside at the top of the wide steps, which were deserted that early in the morning, Wolfe stopped. "Max, what the hell is going on? It's barely dawn, it's freezing out here, and 1 haven't had my coffee."

"I'll buy you a cup," Max said. "There's a cafe around the corner."

Wolfe didn't move. Standing there with the collar of his black leather jacket turned up and a scowl on his face, he looked more like a ruffian than a security expert and representative of Lloyd's of London. "Morgan didn't roust me out of bed so you could buy me coffee. What's up, Max?"

Max slid his hands into the pockets of his coat and debated silently for a moment. Then he sighed. "You think Dinah may have opened that door?"

"Yes, I do," Wolfe replied flatly.

Calmly, Max said, "I'm reasonably sure she did."

Wolfe blinked. "Okay, so why did you cut me off when I was going to question her?"

"Because she's scared."

"If you were a thief's accomplice, you'd probably be scared too," Wolfe said. "So what? She's a hell of a lot more likely to talk if she's rattled."

Max shook his head slightly. "Wolfe, have you ever seen genuine terror in someone's eyes? Or the trapped look of a hunted animal?"

"Once or twice." Wolfe wasn't scowling any longer. Instead, he studied Max thoughtfully. "I gather we're still talking about Dinah Layton?"

"Yes. You've spent most of your time these last weeks dealing with the security company, so you haven't been around the museum very much. But I have. Dinah seemed a bit nervous when she first came to work here about a month ago. Understandable since she was new to the job and didn't know any of the people here, and the place is in an uproar getting ready for the forthcoming exhibit. Then, about three days later, nervous became scared. Over the past few days, scared became terrified. If she opened the door, it was because she was forced to."

"Blackmail?" Wolfe offered. "I was going to tell you today that the background check I ran on her has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Maybe she has a secret someone's holding over her head."

Max thought about it briefly, then shook his head. "I don't think so. That look in her eyes . . . I've seen something like it in trauma victims. She's been hurt, and she's been terrorized. I think someone's threatening her physically."

Crossing his arms over his broad chest, Wolfe brooded for a moment. "Okay, when it comes to people, your intuition's better than mine. Maybe you're right. But we still need to know for sure, and we need to know who's pulling her strings. I have to talk to her."

With a faint smile, Max said, "No offense, but if you start barking questions at her, she's sure to be even more afraid than she already is."

"I choose to take offense," Wolfe retorted. "I'm not a cop, I don't depend on bright lights and rubber hoses to get answers. And if you believe I'd ever terrorize or knock a woman around, all I can say is you need a reality check. Aside from a personal aversion to that kind of thing, if Mother thought any of us had raised a hand against a woman, we'd be carrying our heads around in paper bags."

"That's a good point," Max admitted, his smile widening. "I take back the offensive remark. But I still think I should be the one to talk to her." "Why? Because you've fallen for her?" Max stared at him, then said, "Is it branded on me somewhere, or what?"

Grinning a little, Wolfe said, "Hey, if you think I haven't noticed you haunting the museum for no good reason, think again. Even if I wasn't here much myself, I recognized the signs days ago." Then he sobered. "If things are as bad with her as you seem to believe, I don't envy you. Especially if she's being pressured to help a thief get at your collection."

"I know. She's right on the edge. If I push too hard . ."

"Yeah, but if he pushes too hard, the same thing's going to happen. We have to know for sure, Max. And soon. Even though the opening's still eight weeks away, and even though the collection won't be taken out of the vault until shortly before that, we can't afford to have a thief with eyes and ears inside the museum. Especially now while we're installing all the security."

"I don't think last night was a test of our security," Max said slowly. "I think it was a test of Dinah."

"To see if he could control her?" Wolfe nodded. "If you're right about her, that makes sense. It would explain why he did it so long before the exhibit's in place—so we wouldn't be unduly alarmed. It would also explain why he picked an entrance so far from anything of value and didn't even attempt to come in."

"That was my conclusion," Max said.

After a moment, Wolfe continued. "The simplest thing to do in order to protect both Dinah and your collection would be to remove her from the museum.

If she can't help the thief by being on the inside, the threats would likely stop."

"If it comes down to her safety, that's just what I intend to do. In the meantime, I have someone keeping an eye on her."

"Someone?"

Max said lightly, "A hired gun, you might say. Don't worry, he won't get in your way."

Wolfe was frowning slightly, and his eyes searched his brother's intently. "So . . . you're going to try to find out how Dinah's being threatened and by whom, while I sit on my hands?"

"While you continue to get the bugs out of the computer system and think up a few more cute tricks to protect the valuables," Max corrected.

After a moment, Wolfe nodded. "Okay. I'll play along for now, Max. But just so we understand each other—as long as Lloyd's holds the policy on your collection, I'll do whatever I have to do to protect it."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Max said honestly.



When Max showed up in the doorway of her office just before noon and asked if she was ready to go to lunch, Dinah wondered if he was playing some kind of cat-and-mouse game with her. Nothing else made sense. He knew she had opened that door. He knew it. She'd seen it in his eyes this morning. Yet he hadn't said one word about it.

And in the museum it was business as usual, as if nothing threatening had occurred. The night guards had gone home, the day guards were in their accustomed positions, and visitors wandered through the halls and galleries. Ken Dugan had convinced him self the open door had merely been an acciden and, after cautioning the employees to be more careful, appeared to have put the matter out of his mind.

Wolfe Nickerson had been around briefly during the morning, but he hadn't talked to anyone except Max and Ken, and had been gone now for over an hour. Dinah had been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When she looked up and saw Max, she heard the thud.

"Are you ready?" he repeated, his tone pleasant. And before she could offer an excuse, he added, "There's something I need to talk to you about, and as soon as possible. It's still chilly out, you'll need your coat."

With her nerves already stretched to the breaking point, Dinah didn't have a hope of winning against his determination. There was even a part of her that wished he would get it over with and make the accusation, so she wouldn't have to keep waiting for it. She rose silently from her desk and got her coat, tensing when he came into the office to hold it for her but managing not to jump out of her skin.

Fifteen minutes later, with scarcely another word having been spoken between them, they were seated at a secluded table in a quiet restaurant a few blocks from the museum. When Dinah had shaken her head silently in answer to the waiter's query about before-lunch drinks, Max had ordered coffee for them both and the waiter left them alone with menus. There was a spectacular view of the bay through the window beside their table, and Dinah kept her attention in that direction.

"Dinah?"

"Yes?"

In a deliberate tone, he said, "Just so it won't be left hovering in the air between us, I'm pretty sure you opened that door last night. I believe you were forced to do it by someone who's threatening you."

Dinah turned her head with a jerk and stared at him in astonishment.

He nodded. "I need you to trust me. I want to find out who's doing this to you."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said tonelessly.

"Dinah, listen to me." He leaned toward her, the expression in his eyes compassionate and his voice gentle. "I know you're afraid. I know this bastard has you convinced he can hurt you. But I'm not going to let that happen."

She wanted to believe him. She almost did. She'd forgotten what it felt like to be safe, to not be afraid, and the possibility that a haven was in reach was tempting. But Dinah had learned a hard lesson two years before. Safety was an illusion, and a horrifyingly frail one at that. Locks on the doors and windows, security devices, a police guard—nothing could keep a person safe if someone wanted badly enough to hurt her.

Admitting nothing, she said steadily, "If I’m under suspicion, it would probably be best that I resign from the museum." The caller had made threats about what he'd do to her if she took that easy way out, but what choice did she have? All she could do was run. Again.

Since their waiter returned with coffee then, Max couldn't respond until the man had left. As soon as they were alone again, he said, "No one wants your resignation, Dinah. I want to help you. Can't you believe that?"

She shrugged jerkily. "I had heard you were a philanthropist. But with your own collection at risk ... no, I can't. And even if I could believe it, there's nothing you can do to help me."

"What makes you so sure?" he demanded.

Dinah looked at him with eyes that were too old for her lovely face, and replied softly, "Experience."

Max had intended that today would be only a beginning. A chance to convince her he wanted help. It hadn't been in his mind to press for too many answers, because he didn't think she would confide in him easily. It would take time, that was only natural. But now, looking into those shadowed eyes, he knew he couldn't wait. He had a great deal of patience, but she was in pain and he couldn't bear that.

He couldn't even attempt to help her until he knew what had happened to cause her pain.

After a moment, he summoned their waiter and lunch was ordered. Dinah seemed to choose at random from the menu, and only picked at the food when it came. Max talked casually, asking no questions and saying nothing of any importance. He wanted to put her at ease, but knew that wouldn't happen. They had been strangers yesterday, and today he needed to know what secret caused her such awful fear. That meant he would have to break down the normal barriers between strangers as well as the one she had built around her secret.

He had no intention of making that attempt here. So he waited until the meal was finished—or, rather, until it became obvious Dinah wasn't going to eat anything more. When they left the restaurant, he put her into his car but, instead of driving back to the museum, he stopped at a small park about half a mile away. He would have preferred a more private location, but every instinct told him that even the suggestion of their being alonetogether would frighten Dinah.

"Why are we stopping here?" she asked nervously as he cut off the engine.

Max hesitated, then got out of the car and came around to her side. Opening her door, he said, "Our talk isn't finished, Dinah. Why don't we sit on that bench over there in the sunlight for a few minutes?" "I have to get back to the museum," she protested. "It's all right. I told Ken I might keep you out a little longer." Dinah wanted to be angry, but she felt so damned powerless. He made use of his own power without thought, possibly even without realization, to get what he wanted. He wasn't blatantly high-handed about it, but that hardly made the situation better from her point of view. The truth was, he could have her fired, arrested, almost anything, and she couldn't fight him.

She couldn't fight at all.

Ignoring the hand he offered, she got out of the car and walked the short distance to the bench he'd indicated. She sat down at one end, trying to think of a way out. Her hands were in the pockets of her coat not because it was chilly, but because they were shaking and she didn't want him to see that. She gazed off absently toward a group of preschoolers in the distance playing some game while their mothers watched.

Max sat down with only a few inches of space between them and half turned to look at her. Casually, he said, "You didn't tell me much about yourself last night, even though I asked. There's something I'm especially curious about, since you cut all your ties to come out here. Your family. Is there any particular reason why you and your brother aren't close?"

"Is this part of the talk?" she asked.

"Yes."

Get angry, she told herself. It's the only way you'll be able to keep him away. But it was difficult to be angry when all her energy was taken up by fear. If he hadn't been with her, she would have been looking constantly over her shoulder, jumping at every sound. As it was, she was abnormally sensitive to her surroundings. Every sight and sound was filtered through her fear and worry, examined and weighed carefully for a threat, and the tension was a constant drain on her strength. She was so tired, she could barely think straight. "No," she said finally, lying, not looking at him. "Sometimes siblings are just too different to be close.

That's the case with Glenn and me. We have . . . nothing in common." "And your parents?"

"They were killed when I was in college. A boating accident." "I'm sorry."

It took effort, but she managed to keep from looking at him. "Are we finished now? May I get back to work? Or do I go directly to jail?"

"Dinah, if I'd wanted you arrested, you'd be in jail now." His voice was still quiet, calm, infinitely patient—yet somehow relentless. "I only want the truth. I want to know what happened to make you discard your past. And I want to know who's threatening you now. Let me help you."

"What makes you think I've discarded my past?" It was the first thing she could think to say, as panic began to close up her throat. "People move across country all the time, that doesn't mean they're running away from anything. Just because I came here—"

"You come here to start over," Max insisted. "A year ago, Dinah Layton didn't exist. Driver's license, social security number, bank accounts, and credit records—none of them more than ten months old. You changed your last name, Dinah. You got rid of your background, cut all ties to your past. And people don't do that unless they are running away. From something."

Her throat was tight, her eyes burning. She could feel the tension inside her winding tighter and tighter, and in the pockets of her coat her nails dug into her palms painfully. With no one to confide in, the fear, anguish, and horror locked within her had no outlet at all, and the pressure was becoming unbearable. She was afraid to move, certain the slightest motion would shatter her into a million pieces. Couldn't he see that? Or had sheer practice made her so adept at hiding what she felt that even now when she was on the ragged edge of control, there was no outward sign?

"I'd like to leave now, please," she said in a thin voice.

"Dinah—" He reached to touch her shoulder.

She flinched violently, drawing into herself, and turned her head to stare at him with wide eyes.

Max froze, his fingertips barely half an inch away from her shoulder. Slowly, he drew his hand back, holding her gaze with all the will he could command. "Who hurt you, love?" he asked softly. "Who was he?"

She didn't hear the endearment. She didn't hear anything at all. Something had happened, something beyond her control, It was the strangest sensation, as tangible as a physical touch. A tugging at all her senses and emotions, as if he held one end of a line connected to her deepest self. She felt curiously protected, guarded . . . safe. Everything else seemed to retreat until it was too distant to be disturbing.

"Tell me," he said.

She had no choice. She had to tell him, just the way she had to go on breathing. "I don't know who he was—is. They never caught him," she murmured in a faraway tone. "Even though it's been nearly two years since—since it happened."

The chill inside Max spread and grew colder. He'd been afraid it was that, afraid she'd been hurt in the most vicious way a woman could be hurt. His chest ached, and he felt a rage at the thought of any man causing her such terrible anguish. He wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her, wipe away the pain and fear. But he didn't dare. Instead, very slowly, he lifted his hand again and touched her shoulder. He could feel her tense even with just that unthreatening contact, but her gaze was still fixed on his and she didn't draw away.

"He followed me here," she said. "The police said he wouldn't, that men like that don't . . . don't return to the same woman a second time. But 1 was so afraid he would, and they couldn't swear to me he wouldn't ... or protect me if he did. When I couldn't stand the fear anymore, I left Boston. I moved all the way out here and started over. I didn't want to take any chances so I was careful. I changed my name. I changed everything. But it didn't do any good. He found me."

Max forced himself to speak calmly, even though it was hardly how he felt. "How do you know it was the same man, love?"

She blinked and looked vaguely puzzled for an instant, but her answer was unhesitating. "Because it's just like before. The phone calls first. A voice I'll never forget, so whispery and cruel. The . . . gifts. Wilted flowers, left outside my door during the night. Then, a few days ago, he–"

She blinked again, this time holding back tears, and her voice shook uncontrollably. "I woke up, and he was there. On ... on top of me in the bed. He had a knife. Like before. He said ... he said he'd do it again, hurt me again, worse this time. Unless I did what he wanted."

The image she'd drawn in his mind made Max want to kill another human being for the first time in his life. And it made him angry at himself. A few days ago, before he'd had anyone watching over her, that was when the sick bastard had terrorized her. Damn, why hadn't he moved faster!

"I was so afraid," she whispered. "I—I couldn't think. The police couldn't stop him, I knew that. They didn't stop him before." "Did they try?" Max asked gently. "In Boston?" The tears she'd been holding back trickled down her ashen cheeks. "At first, when he began calling and leaving the—the gifts, they said they couldn't do anything, because he hadn't actually hurt me. But then another woman was raped by someone who had called and left gifts for her, and they thought the same man might be after me."

"What happened?"

"They set a trap," she whispered. "I agreed because I wanted them to catch him. Because I wanted to ... to do something. And . . . they said they could protect me. There were police all around my apartment, and they had my phone tapped. But he never stayed on the line long enough for them to trace his call. And the days went by without a sign of him. When . . . when he finally did come after me, it was obvious he was just amused by what the police were trying to do."

She drew a shaky breath. "He ... he got in without tripping the alarms. And he had a little box with him, like one of those machines that makes a soothing noise to help you sleep. He left the box for the police to find, as if he didn't care, as if he were taunting them. They said it made something called white noise. It blocked all the microphones and listening devices the police had put in my bedroom. So—so they couldn't hear what he was doing to me. They were right outside, just yards away, and they couldn't stop him because they ... they didn't know he was there. They didn't know he was hurting me."

Dinah's eyes held an expression Max wished he had never seen—the pain of a wound so deep and still open even after nearly two years. The last thing he wanted to do was make her go through all this, but it was too late to stop.

"How long did you stay in Boston after that, Dinah?" he asked gently.

"I stayed for months," she answered tonelessly, as if all feeling had been squeezed out of her. "Everyone—all the doctors and counselors—told me it would get better. They said I'd heal and stop being so afraid. My friends said so too. And my brother, Glenn. But I never felt safe, no matter how many locks were on the doors and windows. And the fear kept growing. Finally, I knew I had to get away from Boston. I knew I had to start over." "So you came here?"

She nodded. "A friend at the trauma center told me how I could change everything—my name and the records. I had a little money from my parents' estate, enough to move out here and get settled. Enough to let me get by until I could find a job. The curator of the museum where I worked in Boston wrote a wonderful reference for me, and he was understanding enough to be willing to use my new last name. So I was pretty sure I could get a good job.

"The rest was simple. I moved out here last fall. I found a part-time job, and kept it while I looked for something better. When I got the job at the museum last week ... I thought I was really going to be able to start over."

"But then he called?"

Dinah shivered violently. "He called."

Max felt even more reluctant to go on with this, but he had to find out everything and he hoped it would be better for her to get it all out at once. "Dinah, are you sure it was the same man?"

"He whispered." Her answer was nearly Inaudible. "I'll never forget that voice. As soon as I heard it, I knew it was him, that he'd found me. At first, I thought it was another nightmare, but ... it was real."

Max wanted to pull her into his arms, hold her. He wanted to promise her she was safe now, that he'd take care of her. But after what had happened with the promises of the police two years ago, he knew she wouldn't believe him. The rapist had done more than hurt and terrorize her—he had shattered her trust, her ability to feel safe, and her faith in promises. "I wanted to run again," she said unsteadily, "but . . . but he said he'd only find me. And kill me I believed him. So I did what he wanted. I opened the door last night. And I went into the exhibit's wing, to see where the nearest entrance was. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but I didn't know what else to do."

"It's all right, Dinah. I don't blame you. No one will blame you." He put every ounce of reassurance he could muster into his words, and held her shoulder very gently.

"I didn't want to do it," she murmured. "But I was so afraid. So afraid ..."

"I know. Don't worry about it anymore. I won't let him hurt you again, love, I promise." The vow slipped out before he could stop it, driven by his intense need to reassure her that he could protect her. But, just as he'd expected, Dinah simply didn't believe the promise.

"You can't stop him. The police tried to stop him, they had lots of men and equipment—"

"Never mind the police." She was exhausted, he could see that, and what she needed most of all was rest. She was still gazing at him as if she couldn't look away, and he took advantage of that fragile connection. Softly, he said, "I need you to trust me, Dinah. You're very tired, and you need to rest. I can't take you back to your apartment, because you won't be able to sleep there. You haven't slept much in days, have you?"

She shook her head. "No. Because he might get in." In those simple words were echoes of stark terror.

"I want to take you somewhere he can't get in. To a place where you'll be safe, where you can rest. Will you let me do that?" "Where?"

"My apartment." He felt her stiffen. "It's all right, love, I promise. My housekeeper's there, and she'll stay with you. I only want to make sure you sleep tot a while. Will you let me do that? Will you trust me? "

Trust him? She thought she did, but she couldn't seem to reason clearly at the moment. Nothing in her head made much sense, all she was sure of was the weariness dragging at her. She felt herself nodding slowly in answer to his gentle question, and didn't protest when he rose from the bench and drew her up as well. She allowed him to put her into the car, and sat silently beside him when he got in.

He was right, she needed sleep. Maybe when she woke up, she'd find that all this was just a dream, a nightmare. She heard his voice, realizing he had called someone from the car phone, but she didn't listen to the words. He asked her gently what her name had been before she'd changed it, and she told him it had been Lockwood.

Or maybe that was only in her mind. The possibility of all this being a nightmare made her frown, and she struggled to understand why that likelihood didn't seem pleasant.

Oh. Him, of course. Max. If all this were no more than a dream, then obviously she'd dreamed him too. It made sense that he was part of the dream. Wouldn't any woman in her position dream such a dream? As in the childhood fairy tales she remembered, a prince appeared to save the poor, cursed princess, and they lived happily ever after.

Except that dreams ended when sleep did.

Dinah's foggy mind refused to allow any more thought. She was vaguely aware of the car stopping, of Max helping her out. There was a building and the sense of space, then the movement of an elevator. Max kept talking to her, but she didn't listen to the words, only to their soothing sound. After a while, there was another voice, a woman's voice, kind and motherly. Max stopped speaking, but the nice woman went on talking to her gently. Someone helped her undress and put her into a soft, warm bed.

She felt safe, and it was such a relief that she completely let go for the first time in a very long time The nice woman's voice faded away, and the shaded room became the silent darkness of total peace. She slept so deeply, she didn't even dream.

Eventually, the blackness seemed to lessen, and she did have a dream. At least, she thought it was a dream.

She dreamed that she got out of bed and made her way across a dim and unfamiliar room to the door, because voices had awakened her. She opened the door only a couple of inches, but instantly the voices reached her clearly, and she could see a light down the short hallway that must have been coming from a den or living room. There were two voices. One was Max's. The other, also male, was unfamiliar to her, unrecognizable.

". . . and that's all there is to it," Max said in a rough tone that didn't invite argument.

"I didn't suggest anything else. Calm down. Max," the other man said quietly. "Obviously, you're not about to use Dinah to reel this guy in. I understand that, and I agree. All I'm saying is that he went to too much trouble finding someone inside to give up just because you've cut his string. He wants the collection, and he'll try again."

Max's response sounded distant for a moment, and then clearer, as if he was moving around the room restlessly. "You agree with me, though? He isn't the bastard who hurt Dinah two years ago?"

"I'd say not. Rapists don't usually become thieves, according to all I've heard."

"I want both of them," Max said with chilling mildness. "That animal two years ago, and the sick bastard who's terrorizing her now. I want them both roasting in hell."

After a slight pause that felt very tense to Dinah, the other man said reasonably, "Max, we might-stress might—be able to get the guy here, but the one in Boston? You read the police reports, there wasn't even enough evidence to find a single suspect He was damned sophisticated. He knew they had her staked out, but he came after her anyway—with some state-of-the-art electronics of his own to neutralize their bugs."

The visitor sighed audibly. "He thumbed his nose at them, but he wasn't careless. He didn't leave tracks. And there hasn't been another attack matching the M.O. since what happened to Dinah—at least not one that was reported to the police. If the bastard didn't get run over by a bus, then all we can assume is that he's either changed his M.O. or he's stopped. Either way, he's out of reach." "You sound like a cop."

"Perish the thought. And, hey, don't shoot the messenger, all right? I'm just pointing out what you already know yourself. Unless he surfaces in a very public way, that animal in Boston is out of your reach."

"I can't accept that," Max said.

"You have to. Besides, think of Dinah. She'll never feel safe if you go digging around in what happened two years ago. Let it He. Our best bet is to concentrate on what's been happening here."

Max was silent for a long moment, then sighed audibly. "All right, you've made your point. So ... how do we get him without using Dinah to do it?"

"Like I said, he wants the collection. He'll try something else. We'll just have to be ready for him."

"Am I right in thinking he isn't the one you're after?" Max asked.

The other man sounded a bit wry. "Unfortunately, yes. My target works solo, he never uses an accomplice or a tool. Was it you or me who said thieves would be coming out of the woodwork once you decided to exhibit the collection?"

"I don't remember, but it seems to have been prophetic."

"I'll say." The stranger sighed. "I'm sorry, Max. I didn't realize it would get so damned complicated. There's still time to cancel the exhibit, if you'd rather."

"No, I'm in for the duration. Just do what you can to put a name or a face to this bastard, all right? And we'll weed out at least one of the thieves."

"You mean you will."





Three


Dinah didn't recollect much more of the dream, except for closing the door again and returning to bed. When she finally woke, sunlight streamed through the draperies and her internal clock told her she'd slept for a long, long time.

She sat up slowly and looked around, unable to figure out for a moment where she was. This wasn't her room, her bed. She was in a lovely old four-poster bed, which was only one of the gleaming antiques in the bedroom. The draperies and bedspread were a floral design, with pastel colors, and she had the sense this was a woman's room rather than a man's. She looked down at herself, baffled and a little unnerved to see she was wearing a simple but beautiful silk nightgown.

It wasn't hers, any more than the room was hers.

Then the last tendrils of fog drifted out of her mind, and she remembered. Max. She had told him all of it; somehow, he had pulled the truth out of her. She was in his apartment, and had been since just after they'd had lunch. But how long had that been?

"Well, good morning."

Dinah looked around quickly, the voice touching a chord of familiarity in her. The woman standing in the doorway was middle-aged and plump, her graying hair neat and her face kind. For the life of her Dinah couldn't recall if any introduction had been made.

"Morning?" she ventured hesitantly. Surely it wasn't Saturday morning?

"It's nearly eight o'clock."

It was Saturday morning. For heaven's sake, she'd slept more than fifteen hours!

The woman smiled. "I'm Mrs. Perry, Mr. Max's housekeeper. You probably don't remember much of yesterday. Are you feeling better?"

"Yes, thank you." Dinah glanced back down at the nightgown, and added, "Just—a little puzzled. Have I been asleep since yesterday afternoon?"

"You needed the rest, if you don't mind my saying so." Briskly, Mrs. Perry added, "The bathroom's right over there if you'd like to shower before breakfast. Your clothes are on that chair, cleaned and pressed. Mr. Max has one of his business calls right now, but he'll join you for breakfast. It should be ready in about half an hour."

Feeling distinctly overwhelmed, Dinah murmured, "Thank you." Then, as the housekeeper began to turn away, she said. "Mrs. Perry? What about this?" She fingered the silk nightgown.

Understanding all the shades of meaning in the question as any other woman would, Mrs. Perry smiled. "I helped you into that yesterday. It belongs to Mr. Max's mother. She's a delicate thing, like you. Still beautiful, and still has men bending over backward to please her. He keeps this room ready for her, since she passes through San Francisco several times a year."

Which, Dinah thought as the door closed quietly behind the housekeeper, answered most of her questions about the nightgown. But as she slipped from the comfortable bed and went to shower, all the other questions crowded into her mind.

Max had been amazingly kind, and she didn't know why. Had he called her love? More than once? Surely not, that didn't make sense. He'd spoken to her for the first time only two days ago! He'd said something in her office yesterday about love at first sight—but he hadn't meant himself. Had he? Men like Max Bannister didn't fall in love with strange women who hid their past and helped criminals. The very idea was ridiculous.

She was imagining things. That had to be it. He was just a kind man. Exceptionally kind. He'd felt sorry for her, and he'd brought her back here to get some rest.

Having reached that logical and reasonable conclusion, she felt unaccountably depressed. She got out of the shower and dried off, then got dressed. She found a brush to untangle her damp hair, and a new toothbrush obviously left for her.

When she was finished in the bathroom, she put her shoes on and ventured out into the hall. She was a little wary, but much more her normal self than she'd been in days. She looked around curiously, counting three bedrooms aside from the one she'd used, and emerged from the hallway into a huge and beautiful sunken den complete with floor-to-ceiling windows with a spectacular view of the bay and a marble fireplace. Antique furniture was mixed with contemporary pieces, creating a perfect blend of quiet good taste and comfort.

An archway led to a dining room, the massive oak table set for breakfast for two, and another doorway in that room led, presumably, to the kitchen. There was a set of double doors beyond the fireplace, one of which was open about a foot, and Dinah could hear the murmur of Max's voice.

She slid her hands into the pockets of her slacks and moved slowly in that direction with no idea of what she could—or would—say to him.

". . . since I approved the plans months ago, I don't see why you need me now," Max was saying as she stepped into the room. He was half-sitting on the corner of an intricately carved oak desk, the phone to his ear and his gaze turned toward another splendid view of the bay through the windows in this room.

Dinah didn't listen to what he was saying, but looked around the room. A workingman's home office, not just for show, she realized. The books on tall shelves bore the multicolored dust jackets of books purchased to be read rather than the embossed leather bindings of expensive "libraries" intended to impress others. Near the desk were two oak filing cabinets and the latest thing in computer work stations, with the computer screen alive with scrolling lines of neatly grouped words and figures. A drafting table was set up next to the windows. There was also a long leather couch grouped with several matching chairs, and a low, wide coffee table that held a jumble of magazines and newspapers.

"Do your best, David. If I have to, I'll fly out next week. All right."

Dinah looked back at Max just as he hung up the phone, and she still didn't know what she was going to say to him. He looked different, casual in a sweater and jeans rather than the suits she'd seen him wear. He seemed subtly more powerful, more . . . masculine. That she was so aware of him, so conscious of his physical presence startled her. And when he turned his head and saw her, when she met the instant warmth in his gray eyes, she felt the most peculiar little leap of her heart.

"Good morning," he said, straightening and smiling at her.

"Good morning." A part of her wanted to look away, but she couldn't. "This is taking philanthropy a little far, isn't it?"

"You've thought it through, and that's the о answer you can come up with?" he said lightly.

"Something like that."

"Do you need coffee in the morning?"

Dinah stared at him. "Yes."

"Then let's go have breakfast." He came toward her, still smiling. "Maybe after coffee and a meal, you'll be able to think of something better."

She allowed herself to be guided from the room, increasingly baffled. The rest had left her calmer and less apt to jump out of her skin, but with a clearer mind she couldn't help wondering if his motives were neither philanthropic nor romantic, but simply practical. After all, if someone was trying to use her to get to his collection, he'd naturally want to find out who that was. . . .

The dream came back hazily, and as she took her place at the table she tried to remember more clearly. Max, talking to another man whose voice she hadn't recognized. Max saying implacably that he wouldn't use her to get to the thief, that he wanted the thief and the animal in Boston roasting in hell. . . . What if it hadn't been a dream?

She watched as he filled her coffee cup from a silver pot, her mind suddenly still and cold. Two of them? As horrible as it was to believe a rapist had followed her for two years and across three thousand miles, it was somehow worse to consider that a ruthless thief had learned of her pain and terror and had used both to his advantage.

"Dinah?"

She looked at him and forced herself to ask the question. "Is the man here . . . the one from Boston?"

Max, seeming to realize how difficult it was for her to ask, replied quietly, "It's unlikely. Rape is an act of violence, with no motive except sickness. Men like that don't suddenly turn to large-scale theft—or not rape again when they have a victim at their mercy."

Dinah had always flinched from any talk of what had happened to her, and most people who had known about it avoided mentioning it. That attitude had only worsened her inevitable feelings of shame and guilt, and allowed no outlet for her anger. Even her brother ... She brushed the memory' away hastily, unwilling to recall that other pain.

Max was different. He didn't look at her with speculation as if wondering what she'd done to get herself raped. His sympathy and compassion weren't uneasy or forced, and there was an odd look of pain and muted anger in his eyes, as if what had happened to her had somehow hurt him as well.

To say she felt comfortable talking about it would have been a considerable overstatement, but she found herself able to talk about it—and it was the first time she'd felt that way.

"Then the man here was acting a part? He wouldn't have hurt me?"

Max hesitated. "1 believe he was acting a part, but I can't say he wouldn't have hurt you. If he is after the collection . . . It's priceless, Dinah, people have been killed for a lot less. Even if he isn't the one from Boston, any man cruel enough to do what he did to you is capable of anything."

"Then, if I hadn't done what he wanted—?" "He might have followed through on his threats. If he believed you were his only hope, there isn't much doubt he would have been even more ruthless. From his actions, it's clear he thinks of you as a means to an end, that's all. A tool to help him get what he wants."

"But . . . why me? And how did he find out about . . . about Boston?"

Max studied her for a moment as if judging her state of mind, then answered matter-of-factly. "My guess is that he'd already checked the backgrounds of the other museum employees, and couldn't find a handle anywhere. No possibility of controlling any of them with fear or blackmail. Then you were hired, so he checked your background and ran into a wall.

People discard their pasts only for a reason, and he went looking for yours. It isn't too difficult to track someone if you have at least one fact—he knew you'd worked for a museum in Boston. The reference is on file at the employment office, remember, and he obviously had access to those records."

She drew a breath and let it out slowly, accepting that Max was probably right. "He did everything just the same way. Even how he spoke . . ."

Max reached over and covered one of her hands with his, gripping it firmly. "Dinah, every one of the facts was in newspaper articles and police reports. Everything, even the fact that the Boston rapist whispered. A male voice whispering is virtually unidentifiable even though it may sound distinct, and he obviously knew that. It's the whisper you remembered, not the voice."

It made sense, but Dinah was still confused. "The police reports? He could get those?"

"It's possible, even likely. All he needed was a computer and a few contacts to get the information.

After we came back here yesterday, I was able to get all the information within a couple of hours."

His hand was heavy and warm, and she didn't try to pull away. "You? You know ... all of it?"

"I didn't want to invade your privacy," he said, explaining his motives. "But I felt I needed to know whatever the thief knew about you, and I didn't want to have to question you anymore. Do you understand?"

Dinah half nodded, then looked away and gently pulled her hand from under his as Mrs. Perry came into the room. The housekeeper was quick and efficient, setting their plates before them and telling them cheerfully to let her know if they needed more coffee, then left them alone again. Dinah didn't usually eat breakfast, and her appetite lately hadn't been strong at all, but she found herself hungry now.

Max didn't press her to talk, waiting until the meal was finished before he said anything of importance Then, pouring fresh coffee for both of themhe asked, "Have you thought of anything better?"

For a moment she didn't know what he meant, but then she remembered his earlier guess as to what she'd been thinking. The question of his motives. She sipped her coffee to give herself time to think, but it didn't help. "No," she said finally. "Unless . . . you need me to catch the thief."

"No way," he said instantly with a touch of the implacability she remembered hearing in what she'd thought was a dream. "I'm not about to let that bastard terrorize you again, or give him even a chance to hurt you more than he already has." He hesitated, then added in a milder tone, "In fact, I want you to stay here until we get our hands on him."

It was the last thing she'd expected. "What?"

Max went on talking reasonably as if she didn't look stunned. "You should be safe at the museum during the day, and I'll take a few precautions just to be sure. I'm there most days anyway, so getting you there and back won't be a problem. And the security in this building is the best in the city—aside from which this apartment has a system the world of larceny doesn't even know about yet. You'll be safe here."

"No," she said. "Of course you will."

Dinah shook herself out of the stupor. "That's not what I meant, and you know it! I can't stay here." "Why not?" He was smiling just a little. She opened her mouth, closed it, and then said a bit desperately, "I hardly know you."

"If you're worried about the proprieties, Mrs. Perry is going to stay here at night." His light tone changed when he added, "If you're worried about me, please don't. I would never do anything to hurt you or frighten you, Dinah."

She had a curious feeling of being trapped as she gazed into his steady gray eyes, and realized with a shock that she was on the verge of agreeing with his plan. Hastily, she pushed back her chair and rose, going out into the den as she silently tried to shore up her resistance. Was the man a warlock?

"Dinah." He had followed her, not giving up. He was, after all, Maxim Bannister, and he was accustomed to getting what he wanted.

She swung around to face him, one hand resting on the back of the couch as if she needed support. She thought she might, especially since he was no more than a couple of steps away. "I can't move in here with you for the duration." Before he could speak, she added quickly, "I heard— I thought it was a dream, but I heard you and some other man talking last night. Didn't I?"

He frowned slightly. "You could have. Why?"

"Because he said the only way you'll be able to get the thief is to wait for him to make another move. That could take weeks, even months if he waits until the exhibit's been open for a while. I can't stay here that long."

"Why not?"

"Stop asking me that! You know why not. Look, I—I'm grateful for what you did yesterday, bringing me here and letting me rest, but I'm not your responsibility."

"Dinah, you'll never feel safe in your apartment again, we both know that."

Just the thought of returning to her apartment made a shiver of dread crawl up her spine. The man here in San Francisco might not be the one from Boston and he might not be a rapist, but she was afraid of him and of what he could do to her. mat isn't your problem," she managed.

"Yes, it is. I made it my problem." He took halt a step closer to her. "Can't you just accept my help for the time being?"

"No." She shook her head, fighting him as well as a cowardly urge to give in. "He's been watching me I know it; he must know you brought me here. He'll think you found out, that I'll be no use to him now because you know what he's trying to do. He won't follow me when I . . .when I leave San Francisco, especially if it's the collection he wants."

"So you'll run again?" Max asked quietly.

Dinah felt a wave of shame, but lifted her chin. "You don't know what it's like," she said unsteadily.

"No, I don't know," he agreed. "I can't even imagine what it feels like to be hurt and terrorized the way you've been. But I can see the effects of it in your eyes, and I don't have to feel it myself to understand what you've been through. I do understand. I know you want to get away from the sick bastard here as badly as you wanted to escape the one in Boston, and I know running seems like the only way out— but it isn't, Dinah. If you rim now, you'll never stop."

She leaned against the back of the couch and crossed her arms over her breasts, feeling cold. "Maybe. But at least then I'll have some kind of control, even if it's only the decision of where to go next."

"You'll never feel safe." "I'll survive."

"As what? As a woman who allowed a greedy, soulless bastard to destroy her life a second time?" At his harsh words, Dinah could feel herself wavering, stung again by a sense of shame and a reluctance to see herself as a coward. She couldn't protest or deny his words, couldn't defend herself. The truth was that she was afraid.

Dinah was not, by nature, a timid woman. Her experience of violence and brutality had changed her, but the underlying strength she possessed had enabled her to take what positive steps she could to reclaim the life a rapist had stolen from her. She hadalmost succeeded, too, conquering the fear to the point that she'd been able to sleep nights and had stopped looking back over her shoulder.

But then it had happened to her again, and the traumatic shock of being forced to relive that terrible time in her life had been literally paralyzing. Her terror had been even greater this time, because she had known, without a doubt, all the horrible ways he could hurt her. Her memory had tormented her far more than imagination ever could have. And after the inability of the police to protect her the first time, she had felt utterly and completely alone and vulnerable. Powerless to do anything at all to help or defend herself.

But now, after Max's soft accusation, she realized that it could well destroy her to run a second time. To uproot herself and cut her few fragile ties to this place, to allow herself to be driven away. She would never recover, never heal from what had been done to her, if she didn't fight in any way she could to take back her life.

Knowing that, however, was easier than accepting it. And easier than accepting the help of a virtual stranger when her trust in others had been shattered so completely.

Max slid his hands into his pockets and stood gazing at her, his eyes filled with disturbing emotions she couldn't read. Then, softly, he said, "If you won't stay for yourself, stay for me."

"I told you—you aren't responsible for me."

He shook his head slightly, holding her gaze. "That isn't it. My motives are almost entirely selfish. I want you here with me. I want to see you every day, talk to you, listen to you. I want to prove to you that you can trust me." He smiled crookedly. "I can't do any of that if you run away."

Dinah wasn't sure which she believed—that his Interest in her was as personal as he'd made it sound, or that he'd found a masterly way to manipulate her. She didn't ask, because she didn't know him well enough to recognize when he was lying. Yesterday he had persuaded her to talk, to trust him, but she wasn't exhausted anymore and she couldn't afford to trust him now.

People you trusted could hurt you so terribly.

Dinah wasn't willing to risk that, not when so much else was beyond her control. But even as she began to shake her head, Max lifted a hand to stop her.

"Wait. Hear me out."

He was too persuasive, and a part of her didn't want to listen to him—but part of her did. After a slight hesitation, she shrugged. "I guess I owe you that much."

"Give me two weeks, Dinah."

She frowned. "To do what?"

"To find a way of catching this bastard. It's a reasonable request, isn't it? You said it might take months, and that you couldn't stay here indefinitely. Give me two weeks to try to catch him. Stay here for that long and give me a chance to try."

She was still frowning. "You mean, I might be able to help?"

Max began to shake his head, then stopped. "I don't know, maybe something you remember could help. That's always possible. But it isn't why I want you to stay. You need to give yourself time, find out if there are other options. You've started over here, don't let him ruin that. Give me two weeks to try to remove the threat."

Dinah didn't see what he expected to happen in two weeks. Logic said the thief would lie low for a while and consider his own options. He had plenty of time to contemplate another way of getting to the collection, after all, since it wouldn't even be in the museum for two months. But it was a reasonable requestand she couldn't help wondering if Max, even though he'd denied it, believed she could help in some way. If that was so, she did owe him the chance to find out, if only because he had been unusually kind and understanding.

And because it was a step in the right direction. A step toward getting control of her life. If she could take some part in helping to capture the man who had terrorized her, it could only help her.

Max must have seen or sensed her wavering, because his voice became even more persuasive. "Two weeks, that's all. You'll be safe here and at the museum, you won't have to look over your shoulder all the time, and if we're able to catch him, you won't have to run."

"You're very determined, aren't you?" she murmured.

Max smiled. "Very. I won't force you to stay here, but I'll do my level best to talk you into it."

Dinah had burned her bridges once before, and some maniac had found a way into her past despite that. This time, she felt a growing need to stay and fight in whatever way she could—if she could. And though she didn't want to admit it even to herself, her greatest regret in leaving San Francisco would be turning away from Max.

She didn't know him, wouldn't let herself trust him, and had her doubts about his motives, but there was something in his eyes that affected her in a way she couldn't even put a name to, something that pulled at her. She owed herself the chance to find out what it meant.

Finally, she nodded. "All right. I'll stay for two weeks. But at a hotel—"

"No, here. He could get to you in a hotel, he won't get to you here."

"Once he knows I talked to you, that I stayed here last night, he probably won't even try," she protested.

"I won't risk your life on a probably," Max said softly.

The protest had been made out of a sense of what was right, and nervousness about being in Max's home, but Dinah was glad to be overruled. One thing she was certain of was that she didn't want to stay alone. The man after her here might not be the same one from Boston—and a part of her was still unsure of that, still unwilling to totally believe it—but he was dangerous, and she was afraid of him.

"All right. Here." She hesitated a beat, then added, "Thank you."

Max was smiling again, and sounded a little hopeful when he said, "Do you think you could learn to say my name without prompting?"

She couldn't help smiling back. "I'll see what I can do about that . . . Max."

"Thank you. Now why don't I take you back to your apartment so you can pack, and we'll get you settled in here?"



Late Monday afternoon, Dinah looked up when she heard a light knock on the open door of her office, and smiled without thinking when she saw Max.

"Ready to go?" he asked.

"I need about ten more minutes," she replied, indicating the paperwork she'd nearly completed.

"Okay. I should try to catch Morgan before she leaves anyway, so I'll meet you in the lobby."

Dinah nodded and, after he'd gone, used live minutes of her allotted ten in thinking about the past few days. It was odd, but even though she knew safety was an illusion, she felt safe with Max. And completely comfortable in his home.

He had helped make the transition amazingly easy with his casual attitude and undemanding companionship. By Sunday, he'd even been making her laugh. Aside from an occasional business call, he had spent most of his time with her and had focused his entire attention on her without making her overly conscious of it, or causing her any discomfort at all. He had put her completely at ease in his presence, and she wasn't even sure how he'd done it. She had found herself talking about her likes and dislikes to him, gleefully beating him at poker, and sharing one rather heated political discussion. On Sunday morning they'd taken over the kitchen to make French toast, with Mrs. Perry a pained observer, and lunch became a picnic in the Golden Gate park.

It was only now, thinking back that Dinah realized just how swiftly and completely he had put her at ease. Even now, he had made her feel closer to the woman she had been before the rape, as if the pain and fear of the past two years were lifting away from her, loosening its grip. She had returned to work today with more confidence than she'd felt in a long time, and hadn't been terribly surprised when no one asked her awkward questions about where she had been since lunchtime on Friday.

Max wouldn't have liked that.

The people around him gave Max their total loyalty, almost as though by instinct. Yet it wasn't something he asked for or demanded. It was something he earned. He treated people with respect, fairness, and an unusual degree of empathic understanding. He truly seemed able to feel what others felt even though he might lack their painful or disagreeable experiences.

It was a rare trait, and an endearing one. How could anyone resist a man who, when he said, "1 understand," really meant the words? How could anyone avoid standing a bit straighter in his presence, and feeling both stronger and better only because he saw something in you that you hadn't known was there?

Almost against her will, Dinah was beginning to trust him. To believe his promises. She told herself it was only because she wanted to believe, because she had accepted his help and was terrified of being disappointed yet again by broken promises and worthless "protection."

But it was more than that. She had the odd notion that he was helping to heal her not by surrounding her with safe walls, but simply by loaning her some of his strength until she was strong enough to stand on her own. And in that way, he helped to heal her pride as well as her wounds. It was a part of his unique charisma, his ability to affect those around him in ways as subtle as they were positive.

Dinah was beginning to realize that Max's strength and his beneficial effect on others came less from who he was than what he was—and discovering just what he was had become a fascinating experience.

She returned to her unfinished work, a shade of uneasiness creeping into her mind. They hadn't talked at all about the thief who was after Max's collection, but they'd have to, she knew. If he wasn't caught . . .

Out in the lobby, Max was listening to Morganexplain why one of the newly built display cases for the exhibit wasn't going to work.

"So we have to go back to the drawing board," she finished, sounding exasperated. "Damn, you'd think at least one of us would have realized the thing wasn't going to fit. And now they say redesigning that ease might affect the two closest to it." "Are we going to lose time on this?" Max asked. "No way. If anyone even suggests we push the opening back, I'll have his head," Morgan replied firmly.

Chuckling, Max said, "Then I'll leave the matter in your capable hands." He saw her glance at her watch, and added, "Have a date?"

"For my sins, yes." She grimaced slightly, then laughed a little. "He seems to be a creature of the mind, but we'll see."

Meditatively, her boss said, "I've always found that the mind can go only so far in controlling the instincts."

"Well, if he can't control his, he'll earn a right-cross. Honestly, Max, if I tangle with one more lusting beast hiding behind a puppy-dog smile, I'm going to join a nunnery."

"Keep your chin up," Max advised, smiling. "Somewhere out there has to be one man who'll value your brain as much as your body—and you'll probably fall over him while you're looking for something else."

"If you say so." Morgan sighed. "Anyway, I'd better go. Tell Dinah I'll see her tomorrow."

He nodded, and stood alone in the lobby, brooding as he waited for Dinah to join him. The mind can go only so far in controlling the instincts. ... He was learning the truth of that. His mind told him Dinah needed more time, but his instincts were in revolt. He had wanted her from the moment he'd first set eyes on her, and nothing that had happened since had changed that.

She wasn't afraid of him now, and he was reasonably sure she was at least beginning to trust him, but he didn't know what would happen when he told her how he felt. He didn't know if he could help heal what had been done to her, or if any move on his part would send her running away from him. For one of the few times in his life he was unsure, his instincts telling him the time was now and his mind insisting he should wait.

All he needed was a sign from Dinah, even the barest hint of a feeling that was more than friendship or gratitude, but he'd seen no sign at all from her. She seemed to regard him as a rather enjoyable companion; he wondered if she even saw him as a man.

Reluctant to put that question to the test, Max reined his instincts and continued to wait. The casual atmosphere between them remained un-changed as they returned to his apartment and enjoyed a quiet evening together. Max had a couple of calls to make after dinner, and Dinah curled up on the couch with a book borrowed from his office.

It was late when he came out into the den. Mrs. Perry had gone to her room, and the fire in the marble fireplace had burned down to a few flickering flames. In that soft, wavering light, Dinah slept peacefully on the couch.

Max stood gazing down at her for a long time. Her vibrant hair shimmered, red burnished by sparks of gold so that the silky strands had a life of their own. The dark crescents of her lashes lay against the flawless cream of her complexion in a vivid contrast. And her lips, slightly parted, were beautifully shaped, softly red, beckoning Max so irresistibly he could actually feel their physical pull.

He wanted to join her on the couch, to kiss her awake and hold her in his arms. To make love to her until she had no memory of violence, or pain, or any man except him.

The only thing that stopped him, the only reason he was able to control the fierce need he felt for her, was his certain knowledge of just how fragile trust could be. This woman had been terribly hurt at the hands of a man, her entire life shattered almost beyond repair, and that she could even begin to trust another man was something of a miracle.

Max wasn't about to jeopardize that.

After seeing the depth of her fear and knowing what had caused it, watching her sleep with trust and serenity in his home more than made up for his own increasingly restless nights. Still, as he sat down carefully on the edge of the couch beside her he had to hope, had to believe there was a special bond between them. Nothing else could explain how quickly she had become comfortable with him.

She had fallen asleep with the book lying open over her stomach, and as he eased it away from her, her gleaming eyes opened drowsily.

"Hi," he said softly, laying the book aside on the coffee table and smiling at her. "Did I fall asleep?" she murmured. "Yes. I hated to disturb you, but if you spend the night out here you'll have a stiff neck in the morning."

"What time is it?" "Almost eleven."

Dinah began to sit up, and Max caught her shoulders to help her. Since he didn't move away, they ended up physically closer than they'd ever been before.

Dinah was simply startled at first, but that reaction lasted no longer than the space of a heartbeat. What she felt then shocked her so much,she couldn't move. Staring into his gray eyes, she felt a strange, growing warmth inside her, and all her senses came vividly alive. It was as if a part of her that had been sleeping for a long time was now awakening.

He lifted one hand from her shoulder and brushed a strand of coppery hair off her face, his fingers lingering to stroke her cheek. "Have I told you you're beautiful?" he asked in a voice she'd never heard from him before. It was low and deep as always, but there was an intensity now, a suggestion of strong emotions held in check by an iron fist.

"No." She couldn't look away, and her skin seemed to tingle and glow beneath his touch. "You are. I thought so the first time I saw you." "Max . . ." She didn't know what she wanted to say, the words wouldn't come. Something about this happening too fast perhaps, or disbelief that it was happening at all. Her thoughts were tangled her emotions confused.

"It's all right, Dinah. I know you aren't ready for anything more, not now." His voice was gentle, but the note of leashed desire remained. "But one day you will be, I hope. And I intend to be here. Haven't you realized yet? It's why I couldn't let you run away."

Her eyes widened as he leaned closer, then drifted shut when his mouth touched hers. He kissed her with a gentleness that made her throat ache, without demand and yet without concealing his own powerful need. It was a very brief touch, but she felt changed by it, marked somewhere near her soul.

The words still wouldn't come to Dinah. Surprise, uneasiness, wonder, bafflement, and the response of her senses to him all churned inside her. But the strongest emotion was the pang of disappointment when he drew away, and that shocked her a great deal.

How could she feel this way?

Max got to his feet and held her hands to help her up, then stood looking at her for a moment before he spoke. "It's late, and you wanted to get to the museum early tomorrow. You'd better turn in. Sleep well."

Dinah hesitated, then shook her head a bit helplessly and moved away from him. "Good night," she murmured.

"Good night, Dinah."

He watched her until she disappeared into the hallway, fighting the urge to call after her, follow her, something. To stay where he was and say nothing when he wanted so badly to be with her tonight— and every other night—was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do in his life. That he was able to remain still and silent was due only to his growing hopes. He was making progress, he knew it. She hadn't stiffened or drawn away, and he had felt her tentative response to the brief kiss. For now, it was enough.



Max didn't know, then, that an unexpected meeting on the other side of the city was about to set a series of events in motion—events that would have a profound impact on a number of lives, and ultimately determine the fate of the Bannister collection.





Four


Morgan West's measurements had been causing her problems since her thirteenth birthday. She couldn't find fault with her height—which, at five feet five, was about average—and she rather enjoyed having black hair and skin that tanned easily, both courtesy of a Cherokee ancestor who had also tossed high cheekbones, a certain amount of ferocity, and pride into the genetic pool.

But the amber eyes bequeathed by the Irish branches of her mother's family tree were, Morgan thought, too large and looked ridiculous fringed by long, thick, curling, ink-black lashes that nine out of ten people automatically assumed were false. At sixteen, she had tearfully demanded that her family doctor thin them out, but he'd refused. The years had reconciled her. She never had to wear mascara, which any woman would consider a definite plus, and there were worse things than having to say "Yes, they're real," fairly often.

Unfortunately, she had never reached a point of acceptance regarding her figure.

There were men who admitted that long, shapely female legs inspired amorous fantasies; there were those who had the same basic response to the rich curves of swaying hips. But men whose primitive instincts were aroused by an ample bust, Morgan had found, undoubtedly outnumbered the others.

And hers was certainly generous. Her dates during high school and college had been so entranced by her "charms," she often wondered if they knew what her face looked like. Even the Rhodes scholar she'd briefly gone out with—hoping his mind was on a higher plane—had stuttered dreadfully whenever his gaze had strayed to her chest. Which was often.

A fortunate combination of genes had also bestowed on her a tiny waist, which many men were compelled to span with their hands in delight, making her feel absurdly like Scarlett O'Hara, gently curved hips, and a firm backside, which—according to eagerly expressed opinions—looked great in jeans. At thirteen, Morgan had been both pleased and flustered by the attention; at eighteen, however, she'd begun to feel more than a little grim.

The situation hadn't improved in the years since Morgan might have taken pride in her centerfold proportions, except that the Creator had seen fit to be equally generous with her brain. (Sitting atop a body that had on more than one occasion quite literally stopped traffic, and nestled behind big eyes with all the guardedness of a startled kitten, was an excellent mind.) In fact, Morgan's tested and re-tested I.Q. put her comfortably in the minor-genius range.

People without extraordinary beauty or extraordinary dimensions sneered at the statement that it can be a curse; still others insisted that the cover of a book must always match its contents; and to most a forty-two-inch bust indicated an I.Q. of approximately the same number.

Morgan had heard it all. She had been treated--by men and women alike—as if she were an ornament, a sex kitten, or an idiot. Or all three. Throug bleak experience, she'd discovered that proving herself as an intelligen