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Charlotte Mayweather eyed the canopy of gray clouds that darkened the Kansas City sky beyond her front door and shivered. She pretended the goose bumps skittering across her skin were in answer to the electricity of the storm simmering in the morning air rather than any trepidation about stepping across that threshold into the world outside.
But with a resolve that was as certain as the promise of the thunder rumbling overhead, she adjusted her glasses at her temples and stretched up on tiptoe to kiss her father. "Bye, Dad. Love you."
Jackson Mayweather's gaze darted to the flashes of lightning that flickered through the thick glass framing each side of the mansion's double front doors. "Are you sure you want to go out in this? Looks like it's going to be another gullywasher."
"You know storms don't bother me." Charlotte cinched her tan raincoat a little more snugly around her waist, leaving the list of things that did bother her unspoken. "You can't talk me out of going to the museum. I want to get my hands on those new artifacts from the Cotswolds dirt fort before anyone else does. I have to determine if they're of Roman origin or if they date back to the Celts."
Her trips to the Mayweather Museum's back rooms and storage vaultswhere the walls were thick, the entrances limited and locked up tight, and she knew every inch of the layoutwere the closest she'd ever come to experiencing an actual archaeological dig. Unpacking crates wasn't as intriguing as sifting real dirt through her fingers and discovering some ancient carved totem or hand-forged metalwork for herself. But it brought more life to her studies in art history and archaeology than the textbooks and computer simulations by which she'd earned her PhD ever could.
It was normal for an archaeologist to be excited by the opportunity to sort and catalogue the twelfth-century artifacts. And it had been ten long years since she'd felt normal about anything.
Her father scrunched his craggy features into an indulgent smile. "Those treasures will still be there tomorrow if you want to wait for the storm to pass. Better yet, I can arrange to have them brought here. I do own the museum, remember?"
Thunder smacked the air in answer to the lightning and rattled the glass. Charlotte flinched and her father tightened his grip, no doubt ready to lock her in her rooms if she showed even one glimmer of hesitation about venturing out into a world they both knew held far greater terrors than a simple spring thunderstorm.
Wrapping her arms around his neck, she stole a quick hug before pushing herself away and picking up her leather backpack. Go, Charlotte. Walk out that door. Do it now. Or she never would.
She plucked a handful of short curls from beneath the collar of her coat and let them spring back to tickle her mother's daisy clip-on earrings. "I'll be okay." She pulled the check she'd written from her trust fund out of her pocket and waved it in the air. "I'm paying to have those artifacts shipped from England, so I intend to spend as much time as I want studying them."
"I don't like the idea of you being alone."
She zipped the check into the pocket of her backpack. Alone was when she felt the safest. There was no one around to surprise her or betray her or torment her. There was no second-guessing about what to say or how she looked. There were no questions to answer, no way to get hurt. Alone was her sanctuary.
But he was a dad and she was his daughter, and she figured he'd never stop worrying about her. Still, when he'd fallen in love with and married his second wife just over a year ago, Charlotte had vowed to venture out of her lonely refuge and live her life somewhere closer to normal. Giving her father less reason to worry was the greatest gift she could give him. What years of therapy couldn't accomplish, sheer determination and a loyal friend who'd survived his own traumatic youth would.
"I won't be alone." She put two fingers to her lips and whistled. "Max! Here, boy."
The scrabbling of paws vying for traction on the tile in the kitchen at the back of the house confirmed that there was one someone besides her father in this world she could trust without hesitation.
A furry black-and-tan torpedo shot across the foyer's parquet tiles, circled twice around Charlotte's legs and then, with a snap and point of her fingers, plopped down on his tail beside her foot and leaned against her. She reached down and scratched the wiry fur around his one and a half ears. The missing part that had been surgically docked after a cruel prank had triggered an instant affinity the moment she'd spotted his picture online. "Good boy, Maximus. Have you been mooching scrambled eggs from the cook again?"
The nudge of his head up into her palm seemed to give an affirmative answer.
"Figures," her father added with a grin. "When we rescued him from the shelter, I had no idea I'd be spending more on eggs than dog food." He bent down and petted the dog as well. "But you're worth every penny as long as you keep an eye on our girl, okay?"
Her father's cell phone rang in his pocket and Charlotte instinctively tensed. Unexpected calls were one of those phobias she was working to overcome, but until her father pulled the phone from his suit jacket, checked the number and put it back into his pocket with a shake of his head, Charlotte held her breath. When he offered her a wry smile, she quietly released it. "It's your stepbrother, Kyle."
"You could have taken it. Maybe there's a crisis at the office."
"With Kyle, everything's a crisis. That boy is full of innovative ideas, but sometimes I wonder if he has a head for business."
"Come on, Dad." It was easier to defend the family member who wasn't here than it was to stand up for her own shortcomings. "How long did it take you to learn all the ins and outs of the real estate business? Kyle's only been on the job at JM for a year."
He understood the diversionary tactic as well as she did. "No one is going to think less of you if you decide not to go in to the museum today. I don't want to rush your recovery."
A sudden staccato of raindrops drummed against the porch roof and concrete walkway outside. Clutching both hands around the strap of the pack on her shoulder, Charlotte nodded toward the door.
"I'm fine." Well, fine for her. After ten years of living as a virtual recluse, she was hardly rushing anything by going to the museum today. She caught his left hand in hers and raised it between them, touching her thumb to the sleek gold band that commemorated his marriage to Charlotte's stepmother. "You're moving on with your life. I am, too."
"I don't want anything Laura and I or her children do to make you feel guilty, or push you into something you're not ready for. I know you feel more comfortable at the house"
"Dad." Charlotte pulled his fingers to her lips and kissed them. "I'm happy for you and Laura. I know Kyle will turn out to be a big help to you at the office and Bailey is, well " She flicked her fingers through the golden highlights that her stepsister had put in to turn her hair from blah to blond. "We're becoming friends. I've seen you smile more in the past few months than in the ten years since the kidnapping. Think of your marriage as inspiration, not something to apologize for." She released him and retreated a step toward the front door. "My hours may be a little funny, but I'm going to workjust like millions of other people do every day of their lives."
The silver eyebrow arched again. "You're not like other people."
No. She'd seen more, suffered more. She had a right to be wary of the world outside her home. But therapy and a loving parent could take her only so far. At some point, she was going to have to start living her life again.
And stop being a burden to her father.
"There's no miracle happening here, Dad. It's not like I'm going to a party. I'm taking advantage of the museum being closed for the weekend, and this endless weather keeping crowds off the street. I know my driver and don't intend to go anywhere but the car and the back rooms of the Mayweather. I'll be fine once I get to work."
"I can see you've thought it through, then. Are you sure you don't want me to call the security guards in to watch over you?"
Her no was emphatic. "If I don't know them on sight, then"
"you don't want them around." His smile looked a little sad that that was one phobia she'd yet to overcome, but she had plenty of reasons to justify her fear of strangers. "Make sure all the doors and windows are locked while you're workingeven the doors into the public area of the museum. Double-check everything."
She jingled the ring of keys hooked onto her backpack.
The front door opened behind her, the wind whooshed in and Charlotte instinctively ducked closer to her father. Just as quickly, she eased the death grip on his jacket and smiled at the retirement-aged chauffeur closing the door. Richard Eames collapsed his umbrella and brushed the moisture off the sleeves of his uniform. "The car is ready, Miss Charlotte. Just a few steps from here to the driveway."
Her father nudged Charlotte toward the man who'd been with the family for more than twenty-five years. "Richard, you take good care of her."
"Yes, sir." Richard took the backpack off her shoulder to carry it for her, then opened the door and umbrella.
For a moment, Charlotte's toes danced inside her high-topped tennis shoes, urging her to run outside the way she once did as a child. It had been years since she'd felt the rain on her face. She lifted her gaze to the dramatic shades of flint and shale in the clouds overhead and breathed in deeply, tempting her senses with the ozone-scented air.
But her father's cell rang again, shutting down the urge.
She clung to Richard's arm while her father took out his phone and sighed. He held up his hand, asking her to wait while he answered. "Yes, Kyle. Uh-huh. Your assistant didn't inform you of the conflict? I see. Of course, the meeting with the accountants is more important. No. I'll handle your mother. You'll report this evening? Good man."
"Is everything okay?" Charlotte asked as he put away the phone.
"Richard." Instead of giving an answer that might worry her, Jackson turned his attention to the chauffeur. "Clarice Darnell and her assistant Jeffrey Beecher are coming to the house this afternoon to go over the estate layout and setup requirements for Laura's spring garden party and some other events for the company. Kyle was going to handle the meeting, but I'll be taking it now. Be sure to return Charlotte to the private entrance at the back of the house. That way she can go straight to her rooms and avoid our guests."
While Richard and her father discussed her trip to and from the museum, Charlotte dropped her gaze from the sky and scanned the grounds outside the white colonial mansion. The trees she'd climbed as a child had been cut down to allow a clear view from the house to the wrought iron fence and gate near the road. She searched the intricate maze of flowers and landscaping her stepmother had put in for any sign of people or movement.
"I saw on the news this morning that some of the creeks south of downtown are closed due to the flooding. Do you have alternate routes planned?"
Richard nodded. "I've been driving in Kansas City going on fifty years now, sirI think I know my way around. I'll find a dry street to get Miss Charlotte to the museum."
"Good man." Jackson turned to his daughter. "You have your list of numbers to call if you sense any kind of threat or discomfort?"
"Programmed into my phone and burned into my memory."
Jackson reached down and wrestled the dog for a second before scooting him toward Charlotte. "Keep Max with you at all times, understand?"
"And Richard, I'll double your wage today if you stay with her."
The older gentleman grinned and held out his arm. "I don't charge extra for keeping an eye on our girl, Mr. Mayweather."
Jackson reached out and brushed his fingers against her cheek, as though reluctant to let her out of his sight. It was up to Charlotte to summon a smile and face her fears for both of them. "Bye, Dad."
She set her shoulders, linked her arm through Richard's and took that first step out the door.
The second step wasn't much easier. Nor the third.
With a nervous click of her tongue, she called for Max. The dog bolted ahead and jumped inside the backseat of the BMW as soon as Richard opened the door. She paused, clinging to the roof of the car, fighting the urge to dive in after the dog. "Is he still watching?"
She didn't need to say her father's name. Richard knew what this brave show was costing her. "He's standing on the porch."
A drop of cool water splashed across her knuckles, momentarily snapping her thoughts from her father and her fears. Almost of their own volition, her fingertips inched toward the drops of rain pooling on the Beamer's roof. How she missed being outside in the
"Miss Charlotte?" Richard prompted, as the rapid patter on top of the umbrella indicated the real deluge was about to hit.
The impulse to reach out vanished and the paranoia returned. Curling her fingers into her palm, Charlotte climbed in and slid to the middle of the leather seat. Richard set her backpack beside her and closed the door, saluting a promise to her father before shaking off the umbrella and slipping behind the wheel.
Charlotte pushed the manual lock as soon as he was in, even though the automatic locks engaged when he shifted the car into gear. Hugging Max to her side, she turned her nose into his neck. The moisture that clung to his wiry coat was as close as she'd come to feeling the rain on her cheek once more.
Richard found her gaze in the rearview mirror. He smiled like the caring Dutch uncle he was. "Breathe, Miss Charlotte. I know you're leaving the estate for your father's sake, but try to enjoy your day out. The car is secure, my gun is in the glove compartment and I'm driving straight from here to the museum. I'll walk in with you to make sure everything is secure, and I'll wait outside the door until you're ready to come home. I promise you, it's perfectly safe to leave the house today."