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CHAPTER ONECopyright© 2003 by Kay Hooper
Morgan West was beginning to get tense about the entire situation. The Bannister collection of priceless artworks and gems would be moved to the museum within days, which meant the bait would be in the trap. Neither Max Bannister nor anyone else had deigned to inform her that there was a trap, information she knew only because of an overheard conversation. And she hadn't seen--or felt--a sign of Quinn in weeks.
It was maddening.
She didn't fool herself into believing that Quinn wasn't uppermost in her mind. Once she'd gotten over her fury at having been presented with a concubine ring (though she fully intended to give him a piece of her mind about that little item when next they met), she had gone back to spending an hour or two of her evenings parked outside some likely museum or jewelry store, hoping to be able to sense him, feel him, whatever the hell she'd been able to do before. But he hadn't been kidding when he'd said if he didn't want to be found, not even she would be able to find him.
The most elusive thief in the world seemed to have no difficulty in eluding her.
She had read the newspapers front to back and had kept her ears open during her days at the museum, but if Quinn had robbed anybody they apparently didn't know it. There had been no splashy headlines about the world-famous cat burglar, and no breathless news bulletins on television.
In fact, nobody had reported a jewel or art robbery of any kind since Max Bannister, his half brother Wolfe Nickerson, and Interpol agent Jared Chavalier had captured a psychotic thief bent on murdering Storm Tremaine, the exhibit's computer expert.
With that leader of an organizedgang of thieves out of business and the gang scattered and inactive, anybody with valuables to protect in the city had heaved an almost audible sigh of relief.
In Morgan's own museum, the Mysteries Past exhibit space was nearly ready for the priceless collection of gems and artworks now being cleaned and appraised in its vault. And barring a definite undercurrent of tension between Wolfe and Jared, things had been downright peaceful.
Morgan told herself she should be happy about that state of affairs. It was best for all concerned. Quinn had quite probably gone back to Europe, especially after she'd warned him about the trap.
Something she hadn't mentioned to Max.
Still, in spite of common sense and logic, she had the nagging feeling that Quinn hadn't left San Francisco. He was here somewhere, and if he hadn't committed a robbery it was probably because he was waiting for a chance to grab Max's collection--trap or no trap.
That was why she kept looking for him, she told herself. Because if the first warning hadn't worked, maybe she could come up with one he would pay attention to. It was, after all, her responsibility to guard the forthcoming exhibit from harm, and Quinn undoubtedly posed a threat she should guard against.
Yeah, right! she sneered at herself.
She was an idiot, there was no doubt about it. She should be doing everything possible to put his ass behind bars and never mind warning him.
She could have provided the police with a very accurate description of him. Did he know that? Of course he did. Did he worry about it? No, because he knew all too well she wouldn't say a word to the police about being able to describe him.
She refused to wear the concubine ring--no matter how beautiful it was--but she hadn't exactly dumped it in the garbage either. In fact, she had a habit of taking it from her jewelry box and staring at it for long minutes each night before she went to bed.
And wouldn't Freud have a field day with that.
On this particular Thursday night, Morgan had, with difficulty, talked herself out of her usual search for Quinn. She had occupied herself with paperwork and a late movie, then showered and dressed for bed in her usual comfortable sleepshirt. She paid a brief visit to her jewelry box and studied the glowing, square stone of the concubine ring, said a few heartfelt words about Quinn's probable ancestry out loud, and, her feelings vented somewhat, went to bed.
When she woke with a start, the luminous display of her alarm clock proclaimed that it was twenty minutes after three in the morning. It was very quiet, but she found herself lying rigidly beneath the covers, wide awake, her ears straining. Something had awakened her, she knew that. Something--
There. A faint sound from the front of the apartment, from the living room. A scratching sound, then a very soft creak, the way a floorboard protested weight.
Morgan held very strong views about guns. She believed that the vast majority of the people who owned guns probably shouldn't have been trusted with a slingshot, and she believed that anyone who had both a gun and a child of any age in the same house was guilty of criminal stupidity.
But she had also been on her own for too long to take dumb chances. So she had learned to handle guns, from experts, and she had bought an automatic to keep in her apartment. Twice a month, she went to a target range and practiced scrupulously to keep her aim true. She was, in fact, a crack shot.
So it was almost a reflex to slide very carefully from the bed, ease open the drawer of her nightstand, and take out the gun. It was another reflex to thumb off the safety and hold the weapon in a practiced two-handed grip.
Of course, it probably would have been smarter to creep into the bathroom with the gun and her portable phone--also on the nightstand beside her bed--lock the door, and call the police. But she didn't even think of that until much later. Instead, she crept toward the door of her bedroom, ears straining, trying to be utterly silent.
The hallway was short, and she lingered close to the wall just outside the living room, searching the dark room for any sign of movement. There--by the window. It was only a shadow, indistinct, but it didn't belong there.
Remaining close to the wall for cover, her eyes fixed on the shadow, Morgan managed not to startle herself with the clear strength of her own voice. "I have a gun," she warned in a grim tone. "And I'll use it, believe me."
"I believe you." The voice was deep, masculine, and somewhat dry. "However . . . since American authorities haven't yet . . . put a price on my head . . . I'd rather you didn't. Shooting me for profit . . . makes perfect sense . . . to me . . . but I'm not . . . quite . . . ready for a mercy killing."
She slumped. "Quinn."
"Don't sound . . . so damned relieved, Morgana," he reproved in an even dryer voice. "I may not . . . be a murderous fiend, but you should . . . at the very least . . . consider me . . . dangerous. I am . . . a known felon . . . after all."
"You're a lunatic." Automatically, she pointed the pistol at the floor as she eased the hammer back down and thumbed on the safety. She stepped into the living room and put the gun on a table by the wall, then turned on the lamp there.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the sudden light, but when they did she found him near the window, his gloved hands resting on her high-backed reading chair. More disappointed than she wanted to admit to herself, she noted that his usual all-black cat-burglar costume included the ski mask that effectively hid his face. Why was he hiding his face from her when she'd already seen it?
"What are you doing here, anyway?" she demanded.
"Happened . . . to be . . . in the neighborhood," he murmured.
Morgan took a step toward him, then another, frowning. He was standing too still, she thought, too stiffly. And something about the way he was speaking wasn't right. "Oh, really? And you just happened to climb up my fire escape and pick the lock on the window?"
"Lousy lock," he said, his voice growing softer, almost slurring. "You . . . ought to get another."
Forever afterward, Morgan was never certain at what moment she knew what had happened. But she began moving toward him more quickly, covering the space between them with hasty steps. Maybe it was pure instinct that told her what was wrong--the primal sensing of blood and weakness--but she knew with utter certainty that he was very badly hurt. As soon as she was closer to him, the fact was obvious.
"No police, Morgana," he muttered in that soft, thickened voice. "Doctors have to report . . . report--" He swayed, and she was barely able to reach him in time to keep his head from striking the floor when he fell.
A light breeze was clearing out the fog, but the night retained that swathed-in-cotton silence the mist usually provided, so she was careful to make no noise as she glided away from Morgan West's apartment building.
Interesting. Very interesting indeed.
And surprising. So the seemingly infallible Quinn had a weak spot? An unexpected vulnerability in the armor of his heart--and his brilliant mind?
She made her way to the car parked several blocks away and slid inside, only then allowing a soft laugh to escape her. She had come to San Francisco with one goal.
Now she had two.
"Quinn? Quinn?" The black of his sweater showed a dull, wet gleam high on his chest and on his left shoulder. A spreading gleam. And when she pulled the ski mask off, his lean, handsome face was ghostly pale and beaded with sweat, his flesh chilled. His eyes were closed.
Morgan had never felt so cold with fear, but first-aid training took over as she felt for the carotid pulse in his neck. His heart was beating, but faintly and the rhythm was all wrong; he was going into shock.
He was far too heavy for her to move. Keep him warm and elevate his legs, she told herself with a calm inner voice that came from God-knew-where. She dragged a heavy blanket from her bed and covered him, then lifted his legs carefully until they rested across a low hassock.
She didn't want to look at the wound but knew she had to, and Quinn's last mumbled words kept ringing hauntingly in her ears. She couldn't call a doctor, because doctors had to report violent wounds to the police, and the police wanted Quinn in the worst way.
Even so, Morgan knew with absolute certainty that Quinn alive and in jail would forever be her choice over Quinn dead and still an enigma to the police; if she had to make that decision, it was already made.
She used her sewing scissors and carefully cut his sweater open far enough to expose the wound. She didn't know much about this kind of thing, but she was certain she was looking at a bullet wound. One glance was enough; she made a thick pad of several clean cloths and pressed it gently over the sluggishly bleeding wound, fighting a queasy feeling. But that cool inner voice remained calm inside her head.
Not so bad. The bleeding's nearly stopped. Unless there's an exit wound . . . She slipped a hand under his shoulder and didn't know whether she should be relieved that the bullet was still lodged in his body. It isn't near the heart or lung. I think.
"Damn you," she muttered, hardly aware of speaking aloud. "Don't you die on me, Quinn. Damn you, don't die."
Those absurdly long lashes of his lifted and, even now, a gleam of amusement lurked in the darkened green eyes. "If you're going to swear at me," he said in a voice little more than a whisper, "then . . . at least use my first name."
"I don't know it," she snapped, holding on to her ferocity because she suspected it was the only thing that kept her from falling apart.
"Alex," he murmured with the ghost of a laugh.
Morgan didn't feel any sense of triumph at all, even though she was certain he wasn't lying to her. Alex was his name, his real name, and that knowledge put her several jumps ahead of just about everybody who was chasing Quinn. But she didn't feel any elation because he'd trusted her with the information. She was very much afraid that it might well be along the lines of a deathbed confession. Her voice held steady and grim.
"You die on me, Alex, and I'll hunt your ghost to the ends of the earth."
His eyes closed, but a faint chuckle escaped him. "I can save you . . . the search. You're quite . . . likely to find me . . . in the neighborhood . . . of perdition's flame . . . Morgana."
She tasted blood and realized she'd bitten her bottom lip. "I have to get a doctor for you--"
"No. The police. I can't . . . let them put me away . . . not now . . . I'm too close."
She didn't know what he was talking about. "Listen to me. You're in shock. You've lost a lot of blood. You have a bullet in you, and it has to come out." When his eyes opened again, she was even more alarmed by the feverish glitter stirring there. Quickly, she said, "Max. I'll call Max. He'll be able to get a doctor here quietly, without the police having to know."
It didn't strike her until much later how wonderfully ironic her solution was: a wounded cat burglar bleeding in her living room, and the only man who might be able to help him was the man who owned a priceless collection that would soon bait a trap designed to catch that cat burglar.
Ironic? It was insane.
Quinn looked at her for a long minute, and then a sigh escaped him. Relief, acceptance, regret, or something else--she wasn't sure what it was. But the smile that briefly curved his lips was a strange one, twisted with something other than pain.
"All right. Call him."
Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, Max answered his private phone line in a clear, calm voice and listened to Morgan's hasty explanation without interruption. When she was through, he simply said, "I'm on my way," and she found herself listening to a dial tone.