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It had taken Max Fortune nearly a month to locate Jason Curzon's mistress. Now that he had found her, he didn't know what to make of her. Cleopatra Robbins was definitely not the sort of woman he had been expecting to find.
Max stood quietly near the roaring fire and surveyed the chaos that filled the cozy lobby of the Robbins' Nest Inn. In spite of her evocative first name, Ms. Robbins certainly did not look like a sultry charmer who made her living by seducing wealthy men old enough to be her grandfather.
She looked exactly like what she purported to be: a cheerfully harried innkeeper trying to deal with a flood of new arrivals.
Max glanced at the series of insipid seascapes hanging on the walls as he listened to the hubbub going on around him. He smiled with faint derision. It was obvious that Cleopatra Robbins was not only not a typical seductress, she was not much of a connoisseur of art. Anyone who would hang those bland views of storm-tossed seas would be incapable of appreciating the five Amos Luttrell paintings that had been left in her care.
It was just as well she preferred the seascapes, because Max intended to take the Luttrells from her. They belonged to him. They constituted his inheritance from Jason Curzon, and Max had every intention of claiming them.
He was prepared to use whatever tactics were necessary to recover the legacy. Having to fight for what was his would be nothing new for Max. Since the age of six, he had done battle for everything he had ever wanted in life. Sometimes he lost, but more often he won.
Max rested both hands on the intricately carved hawk that formed the grip of his cane. With an effort of will that was second nature to him, he ignored the persistent ache in his leg. The old wound was acting up again tonight, bringing back memories he had no intention of indulging.
He concentrated instead on Cleopatra Robbins as she bustled about behind the front desk.
Max remembered that Jason had called her Cleo. The nickname suited her much better than the more dramatic Cleopatra.
Trust Jason to choose a mistress who did not fit the stereotype. But, then, Jason had always had a gift for looking beneath the surface. He'd had the discerning eye of an intuitive collector, a man who trusted his own instincts rather than the opinion of others. The stunning array of paintings he had bequeathed to his favorite art museum in Seattle bore testimony to his unerring taste. But the five Amos Luttrells had formed the centerpiece of his collection.
Curzon had owned close to two hundred paintings at the time of his death. As far as Max knew, Cleopatra Robbins was the only mistress Jason had ever collected.
An unexpected sense of wrongness rippled through Max as he tried to envision the woman behind the desk in bed with Jason Curzon. Jason was the closest thing Max had ever had to a father. He told himself he should have been glad that the old man had had some feminine companionship during the last year and a half of his life. God knew, Jason had had many lonely years after the death of his wife.
But for some reason Max didn't like the idea that the female providing that companionship had been Cleo Robbins.
Max concluded that she was somewhere in her late twenties, perhaps twenty-seven or twenty-eight. He studied her precariously listing topknot of thick, dark, auburn hair and found himself wondering what it would look like tumbled down around her shoulders. There was no particular style to the design of the topknot. The rich mass of hair had obviously been twisted into position in a hurry, anchored with a clip, and left to flounder under its own weight.
Instead of the exotic kohl her namesake might have used to outline her eyes, Cleo Robbins wore a pair of round, gold-framed glasses. Max realized that in an odd way they served the same purpose as elaborate makeup, concealing the real expression in her wide, hazel green eyes.
The lady he had been hunting for the past month looked out at the world with the professionally friendly gaze of a successful innkeeper, but he sensed something deeper and more compelling about her.
Max had an inexplicable urge to try something that he knew from experience rarely worked. He looked into Cleo Robbins the way he looked into a painting.
To his surprise, the commotion and noise around him receded, just as it did when he was transfixed by a work of art. The world and his focus narrowed to include only Cleo Robbins. He felt the familiar stirring deep inside himself almost immediately. It made him uneasy. He was accustomed to feeling this sense of fascination and longing only when he was in the presence of the things he collected.
Jason had told Max that the talent could be applied to people as well as art and books. But Max had discovered the hard way that the ability to see beneath the surface had its limits when it came to dealing with other human beings. People were more complex than art, and all too often they had an ability to hide the deeper truths about themselves.
Nevertheless, there was no denying the kick-in-the-gut feeling he was getting now as he studied Cleo with what Jason had called his inner eye.
"Just one moment, Mr. Partridge. I'll have someone take your luggage up to your room." Cleo gave the irritable-looking Mr. Partridge a spectacular smile as she banged the silver bell on the desk.
"About time," Partridge muttered. "Took me nearly three hours to get here from Seattle. Don't know why in hell the company had to pick an inn way out here on the coast for this damn fool motivational seminar. Could have held it at one of the big hotels in the city. "
"I'm sure you'll find that at this time of year the Washington coast provides a wonderful setting for an educational retreat." Cleo glanced anxiously toward the staircase. "I'm afraid my bellhop is busy at the moment. I'll give you your key, and you can go on up to your room. I'll have the luggage brought up to you later, if you don't mind."
"Forget it. I'll carry it myself." Partridge snatched up the suitcase at his feet. "Can I at least get a drink somewhere around here?"
"An excellent selection of Northwest wines and beers is available in the lounge, Mr. Partridge."
"Damn. What I really need is a martini." Partridge snatched up his key and stalked toward the staircase. The next three people in line behind him surged forward in a wave.
Max watched as Cleo braced herself for the onslaught. He saw her glance again at the stairs. When the missing bellhop did not materialize there, she turned back to face the wave with a warm smile of welcome.
The lobby door slammed open with a crash. Max saw lightning crackle across the night sky. Rain, wind, and two more drenched inn patrons blew into the hall. They joined the crowd milling around in front of the hearth.
"Lucky Ducky go swimming."
Startled by the high, squeaky voice that came out of nowhere, Max looked down. A small boy with a head full of blond curls looked up at him. He was dressed in a miniature pair of jeans and a striped shirt.
He appeared to be no more than five years old, and he had a thumb stuck in his mouth.
"I beg your pardon?" Max could not recall the last time he had conversed with a child.
The small boy yanked his thumb out of his mouth long enough to repeat his statement. "Lucky Ducky go swimming." Jamming his thumb back into his mouth, he gave Max an expectant look.
"I see." Max sought for a suitable response. "It's a cold night for swimming, isn't it?"
"Uncle Jason said ducks can swim anytime, anywhere."
Max's hands tightened around the hawk-headed grip of the cane. "Uncle Jason?"
"Uncle Jason's gone," the child confided with a wistful expression. "Cleo says he's in heaven."
"Jason Curzon in heaven?" Max contemplated that. "Well, anything's possible, I suppose."
"Did you know Uncle Jason?"
The boy took his thumb out of his mouth again and gave Max a bright, toothless smile. "My name is Sammy Gordon. Did you know my daddy, too?"
"I don't think so." A staggering thought occurred to Max. "Not unless your daddy was Uncle Jason?"
"No, no, no," the child said, clearly impatient. "My daddy isn't in heaven like Uncle Jason. My daddy's lost."
Max realized he was beginning to lose the thread of the conversation. "Lost?"
Sammy nodded quickly. "I heard Mommy tell Cleo that he had to go find himseIf."
"He never did, I guess."
Max did not know what to say to that. He glanced across the crowded room and saw a pretty woman with short, honey-blond hair emerge from the office behind the front desk. She went to give Cleo a hand.
"That's my mommy," Sammy volunteered.
"What's her name?"
"Sylvia Gordon." Sammy eyed Max's cane with deep interest. "Why do you have to lean on that? Did you hurt yourself?"
"Will you be all better soon?"
"I hurt myself a long time ago," Max said. "This is as good as I'm going to get."
"Oh." Sammy was intrigued.
"Sammy?" Cleo came around from behind the desk. "Where are you?"
Max's head came up swiftly. Jason's mistress had a rich honey-and-cream sort of voice, perfectly suited to a Cleopatra. Another jolt of awareness went through him. He could almost hear that warm, sensual voice in bed.
"Here I am, Cleo." Sammy waved a wet thumb at her.
Max's eye was caught by a glimpse of silver as Cleo emerged from the crowd. He glanced down and frowned when he saw that Jason's mistress favored shiny, silver-toned sneakers with glittering, metallic laces. The rest of her attire was not nearly as tasteless, but it wasn't particularly inspiring, either. It consisted of a yellow oxford cloth buttondown shirt and a pair of faded jeans.
"I wondered where you were, Sammy." Cleo smiled at the boy, and then her eyes met Max's.
arHe saw the startled expression that appeared in her soft hazel gaze. For a few seconds her gold-framed glasses afforded her no protection at all. In that brief moment she was as open to him as a work of art, and he knew that she was as aware of him as he was of her.
The impact of the flash of raw intimacy stunned Max. It was a dangerously disturbing experience, completely unlike anything he had ever known with another human being. Until now the only things that had had a similar effect on him were extraordinarily fine paintings and very old books. Desire, fierce and completely unexpected, swept through him. He fought it with all the willpower at his command.
Cleo's gaze slipped briefly to Max's cane, breaking the spell. When she looked up again, she had her professionally hospitable expression firmly in place. Her eyes were still very lovely, but they were no longer as clear and readable as they had been a few seconds earlier. The lady had stepped back behind her veil, and Max had himself under control once more.
"We'll be right with you, sir," she said to Max. "As you can see, we're a little busy at the moment."
"He's a friend of Uncle Jason's," Sammy volunteered.
Cleo's eyes widened. The professional politeness in her expression disappeared. It was replaced by a brilliant, welcoming warmth that made Max's insides tighten.
"You're a friend of Jason's?" Cleo asked eagerly.
"That's wonderful. Don't worry, I'm sure we can find room for you. Make yourself comfortable while Sylvia and I finish the check-in. I didn't catch your name."
"Right. Sammy, show him into the solarium. He can wait there."
"Okay." Sammy looked up at Jason. "You can follow me."
Max kept his eyes on Cleo. "If you don't mind, I believe I'll wait here. I wanted to speak with you."
"Of course," Cleo said easily. "Just as soon as I have a free minute." She glanced down at Sammy. "Honey, you know where Benjy is?"
"Benjy's gone "
Cleo was clearly nonplussed. "Gone?"
Sammy nodded. "That's what Trisha says."
"She must have meant he was busy," Cleo said.
"Nope." Sammy shook his head with grave certainty. "He's gone."
"Good grief. He can't be gone," Cleo said. "He's supposed to be here tonight. He knew we had this group arriving. "
"Cleo? Where are you?" A young woman who appeared to be no more than nineteen or twenty approached with a stack of towels in her arms. She, too, was wearing jeans. She also had on a loose-fitting plaid flannel shirt. Her light brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, and her attractive features were marked with fine lines of tension.
"Right here." Cleo frowned in concern. "Are you okay, Trisha?"
"Sure, just real busy."
"I don't know." Trisha's eyes slid away from Cleo's. "We've got a problem in two-ten. The toilet's stopped up."
"Just what I needed," Cleo muttered. "Benjy's the master plumber around here. Where is he when I need him?"
"Want me to work on it?" Trisha asked.
"No, you finish making up the rooms. I'll get someone else on it." Cleo swung back around and pinned Max with a hopeful look. "What did you say your name was?"
And you were a friend of Jason's?"
"A good friend?"
Cleo gave him a dazzling smile. "Then that makes you practically one of the family, doesn't it?"
"I don't know," Max said. "Does it?"
"Of course it does. Jason would never have sent you out here to meet us unless he considered you family. At times like this, family pitches in around here. Jason always did his share when he was staying with us. Do you mind?"
"I'm afraid I don't quite follow, Ms. Robbins."
"No problem. I'm sure you'll figure it out soon enough. This way."
"Ms. Robbins, I'm here to talk to you."
"Later. Like I said, I'm really swamped right now." Cleo led the way down a short hall.
A strange sense of disorientation gripped Max. "Ms. Robbins, if you don't mind, I'd rather wait out here."
"Everyone helps," Sammy said. He took his thumb out of his mouth again and grabbed a fistful of Max's Italian-designed, hand-tailored jacket. The fine silk-and-wool-blend fabric crumpled beneath the devastating assault of the little fingers.
Max gave up trying to argue and allowed himself to be tugged down the hall. Cleo was already well ahead of him. She had a closet door open at the end of a corridor and was peering inside.
"Aha. Here we go." She reached into the closet, hauled out a plunger, and held it triumphantly aloft. "Trisha said it was room number two-ten. Sammy can show you the way, can't you, Sammy?"
"Okay," Sammy said happily.
Max eyed the plunger. It dawned on him just what was expected of him. "I think there is a misunderstanding here, Ms. Robbins."
She gave him an inquiring look. "You did say you were a friend of Jason's, didn't you?"
"That's what I said." Max eyed the plunger grimly.
"Jason was always terrific about lending a hand when one was needed," Cleo said encouragingly.
Max looked at her. He didn't know what to make of Jason's mistress, but he knew that until he found the five Amos Luttrell paintings, he was going to have to bide his time. "I'll see what I can do."
"Wonderful. I really appreciate this." Cleo thrust the plunger into his hand and gave him a smile of deep gratitude. "Run along with Sammy, now. I've got to get back to the front desk. " She turned and hurried down the hall without a backward glance.
"This way." Sammy yanked on Max's jacket. "There's stairs in the back."
Max set his teeth and allowed himself to be dragged off, plunger in hand, toward an unknown destiny. He felt as if he'd accidentally stepped into another world, where the laws of nature were slightly altered. Jason, what the hell were you doing out here, he asked silently as Sammy led him up the back stairs to the second floor.
"In here." Sammy pushed open the door marked two-ten.
The room was empty. Max swept the frilly, fussy, overstuffed furnishings with a single glance and dismissed everything, including the picture of the spaniels that hung over the bed. It was a classic example of Victorian sentimentalism and extravagance at its worst.
Max walked across the ugly flower-pattern carpet and glanced warily into the white-tiled bath. He was willing to acknowledge that the Victorians had known how to do bathrooms. He approved of the huge, white, claw-footed tub.
He did not, however, like the way water lapped at the edge of the toilet bowl, threatening to spill over onto the floor. At least it appeared to be clean water, he thought. He supposed he should be grateful for that much.
"Lucky Ducky go swimming," Sammy reminded him again.
Realization dawned on Max. "In this particular toilet?"
"Ducks can swim anywhere."
Max resigned himself to the inevitable. He leaned his cane and the plunger against the wall while he shrugged out of his expensive jacket. He hung the jacket carefully on the hook behind the door. Then he unfastened his gold cuff links, put them in his pocket, and rolled up the sleeves of his handmade white silk shirt.
Family pitches in at times like this.
It was an odd thing to say to a man who had not been part of a real family since the age of six. As far as Max was concerned, the series of foster homes he had lived in after his mother was killed in a car accident did not count.
He had never known his father, a faceless figure who had walked out of his life before he was even born. Max had never bothered to search for him. He had no interest in locating a father who did not want to claim him.
It was after he had been shunted off to the second foster home that Max had begun collecting things. Things didn't reject you, he had discovered. Things didn't walk away from you. Things didn't tell you in a thousand subtle ways that you weren't good enough to be a member of the family. Things could be taken with you when you moved on to the next temporary location.
It had been books at first. Surprisingly enough it was easy to collect books, even if you couldn't afford them. People were astonishingly eager to give them to you. Teachers, social workers, librarians, foster mothers they had all been delighted to give books to young Max.
For a long while he had worried that someone would eventually ask for them back. But no one ever did. Not even the librarian who had given Max his very first volume of Dr. Seuss.
Most of the other children had quickly grown bored with their free books and had traded them to Max for what seemed to him like ridiculously low prices: a candy bar, a toy, a couple of quarters. Each book had been a rare bargain as far as Max was concerned. It was something that belonged to him. Something he could keep forever.
When he was young he had hoarded his treasures in his suitcase. They were always packed and ready for the next, inevitable move. He had asked his social worker for a lock and key for the dilapidated piece of luggage. She had smiled an odd, sad smile and given him one without question.
Max was sixteen when he discovered what was to become the grand passion of his life: modern art. He had skipped school one afternoon to wander through Seattle's Pioneer Square. For no particular reason he had walked into several of the galleries. In two of them he had seen paintings that had reached straight into the secret center of his being. For the first time he understood that there were others in the world who had nightmares and dreams that resembled his own. He had never forgotten the experience.
When he was in the presence of paintings that touched the raw core inside himself, Max did not feel quite so alone.
Max had been twenty-three when he and Curzon had met. That had been twelve years ago. Max had just gotten out of the Army and had taken the first job he had found. It was manual labor for the most part, but Max had liked it right from the start. The work consisted primarily of crating, transporting, and hanging the paintings that an art dealer named Garrison Spark sold to his clients.
Max hadn't particularly liked Spark, whose ethics were questionable at best, but he had been transfixed by some of the art he was allowed to handle. Spark, in turn, found Max's unerring eye for art extremely useful. The two made a pact. In exchange for the job, Max promised not to voice his opinions on the authenticity of certain paintings that Spark sold unless the client asked for that opinion.
Max had delivered two paintings, both genuine, to Jason Curzon before the event occurred that had changed his life. The moment was still crystal clear in his mind.
He had just uncrated a large canvas, a dark, abstract picture purported to be the work of a new and rising artist whose paintings Jason had been eager to collect. Max had stood politely aside, allowing Jason to examine the picture in silence.
Jason had gazed into the painting for a long time before he had turned to Max with an enigmatic expression.
"What do you think?" Jason asked.
Max hid his surprise. In his experience clients never solicited the artistic opinion of the man who delivered their purchases.
Max looked at the painting. He had seen three other works that had been created by the same artist. He had been immediately compelled by the others. This one left him unmoved. He weighed his answer carefully. He knew Jason had paid a huge sum for the picture.
"I think it's a fake," Max finally said.
Jason gave him an appraising look. "So do I."
"A very good fake," Max said quickly, mindful of his treasured job. "After all, it fooled Mr. Spark."
Jason had merely arched his brows at that remark. He sent the painting back to Spark with no explanation other than that he had changed his mind. But the following month he had invited Max to view his private collection.
Max had been enthralled by the visions that hung on Jason's walls. At the end of the tour Jason had turned to him.
"You're smart and you think fast on your feet. Most important, I think you've got the inner eye," Jason said. "You ever think of doing something a little more intellectually demanding than crating and uncrating art for Garrison Spark?"
"Like what?" Max asked.
"Like coming to work for me. I'll put you in charge of buying art for Curzon hotels. You'll report directly to me, and you'll answer only to me. It will mean travel, an excellent salary, bonuses, and mingling with the corporate hierarchy. Interested?"
"Why not?" Max said. He knew a turning point in his life when he saw one, and as usual he had nothing better waiting for him in the other direction.
Jason surveyed Max's cheap brown suit, permanent press shirt, and frayed tie. "First we're going to have to polish you up a bit."
Jason was as good as his word. He taught Max everything he needed to know in order to move in the rarefied circles of the international hotel business. Max learned quickly. He copied Jason's exquisitely polished manners and wore his expensive new clothes with natural ease.
After having fought his way through the foster care system and the Army, he was not intimidated by the highpowered corporate types with whom he came in contact. Jason wryly observed that the situation was just the opposite. Most people were intimidated by Max.
"An extremely useful talent," Jason said a year after Max had been on the job. "I think we should make use of it."
Max knew how to make himself useful when it suited him. It suited him to please Jason Curzon.
Within six months he had become much more than the curator of Curzon International's art collection. He had become Jason's right-hand man.
His responsibilities had evolved swiftly. Someone else was eventually appointed to manage the art collection. Max was put in charge of gathering intelligence on the competition and reporting on the suitability of potential hotel sites. From the beginning he made it his goal to learn in advance everything Jason needed in order to make far-reaching decisions regarding potential acquisitions: local politics in foreign locations, including the names of the specific officials who expected to be bribed before construction could begin on a new hotel; the reliability, or lack thereof, of certain members of Curzon management; sites that were ripe for development or, conversely, needed to be abandoned before they started losing money. Max had made himself an indispensable authority on all of those things.
For all intents and purposes, he had been second-in-command at Curzon.
In the process he had learned the correct way to drink tea in Japan, coffee in the Middle East, and champagne in France. He bought his shirts in London, his suits and shoes in Rome, and his ties in Paris. And he bought art and books wherever he found them.
Curzon Hotels was a family-owned business that had been bequeathed to Jason and his brother, Dennison, by their father. Jason had always held the reins of the company, not only because he was the elder brother, but because he had the savvy intelligence required to manage the business. Dennison had not liked being relegated to second place, but he had tolerated it because there was no doubt that Jason was the natural leader in the family.
Now, with Jason gone, Dennison was determined to demonstrate that he had as much business acumen as his brother.
While he was alive, Jason had given Max the illusion that he was almost a member of the Curzon family. Three years ago Max had made the mistake of thinking he was going to become a real member, but that promise had dissolved in the ruins of his relationship with Kimberly Curzon, Dennison's daughter.
Six weeks into the engagement, Kimberly had come to her senses and realized she could not marry a man with no background or family connections. She had married Roarke Winston, instead, the heir to a large industrial empire.
Max had realized then that he would never be a member of the family.
He had handed in his resignation the day after Jason had died of a massive heart attack. A week later he had set out to find the legacy Jason had spoken of on his deathbed.
"Five Amos Luttrell paintings," Jason had whispered after ordering his brother's family from the hospital room for a few minutes. "They're yours, Max. They don't go to the museum with the others. I wanted you to have them. Your inheritance from me. You understand? It's in my will."
rdMax had gripped the old man's hand, hanging on to him as if he could draw him back from the brink. "Forget the Luttrells. You're going to pull through this, Jason. You're going to be okay."
"Bullshit. I'm eighty-three years old, and this is it. Better to go out this way than some of the ways a lot of my friends have gone. Been a good life for the most part. I had a fine wife for forty years, and I had a son I could be proud of."
"A son?" Max had been startled by the revelation. He had been told that Jason and his wife had never had children.
"You, Max. You were the son I never had. And you're a damned good one." Jason's gnarled fingers bit into Max's hand. "Those paintings and everything else you find out there on the coast with them are yours. Promise me you'll go get them."
"Take it easy, Jason." Max could feel the unfamiliar dampness in his eyes. It was the first time he had cried since his mother had died. "You've got to rest."
"Left 'em with Cleo."
"What? The paintings? Who's Cleo?"
Jason's answer had been lost in a wracking, wheezing cough. "Met her a year and a half ago. Amazing woman." His frail fingers grasped Max's with unnatural strength. "Been meaning to introduce you. Never had a chance. You were always off somewhere. Europe, the islands. Always busy. Too late now. Time goes by so fast, doesn't it?"
"Jason, try to get some rest."
"You find her, Max. You find her, and you'll find the paintings and everything else."
"Jason, for God's sake...."
"Promise me you'll go after them."
"I promise. But don't worry about that now. You're going to be all right."
But Max had no longer been able to keep Jason back from the edge. Jason's hand had gone limp then, and the ghastly wheezing had finally stopped.
Max pushed aside the memories. He had found the mysterious Cleo, and soon he would find his Luttrells. He picked up the plunger and took aim at the toilet bowl.
"I'll help," Sammy said.
"I think it would be best if you supervised."
"Okay. I'm good at that. Cleo lets me supervise a lot."
Max went to work. Five minutes later, amid a great deal of gurgling, a yellow plastic duck popped to the surface.
"Lucky Ducky," Sammy exclaimed in delight.
Max eyed the plastic duck. "Very lucky. From now on Lucky Ducky had better do his swimming somewhere else."
Cleo appeared in the doorway, breathless and more disheveled than ever. She was heavily burdened with luggage in both hands. Several tendrils of hair had escaped the topknot and were hanging down in front of her eyes. She blew them out of her way. "How's it going in here?"
"Max saved Lucky Ducky," Sammy said.
"My hero," Cleo murmured.
"I believe the toilet will flush properly now," Max said coldly.
The bathroom light sparkled on the lenses of Cleo's glasses as she grinned at him. "I'm really very grateful to you. This is Mr. Valence's regular room, and I was afraid I'd have to shift him to another one. He doesn't like to be shifted around. He's kind of fussy. Tends to get upset when things deviate from the usual routine."
rdMax held the dripping plunger over the toilet. "Look, if you don't mind, Ms. Robbins, I would very much like to speak with you now."
"Just as soon as I've got this lot settled and dinner has been served. In the meantime, I seem to have lost my bellhop. Any chance you could lend a hand?"
"He hurt himself." Sammy pointed to the cane leaning against the wall.
Cleo's gaze darted to the cane. A deep, embarrassed blush rose in her cheeks. "Oh, sorry, I forgot. Never mind. I'll get someone from the kitchen staff."
For some reason that rankled. "I can handle a few suitcases, Ms. Robbins."
She looked skeptical. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, Ms. Robbins, I'm sure."
Her smile was brighter than the fluorescent light over the mirror and infinitely warmer. "Terrific. By the way, please call me Cleo. I like to be on a first name basis with anyone who can unstop a clogged toilet in a pinch."
"Thank you," Max said through his teeth.
Cleo looked at Sammy. "Maybe you'd better see if they need any help in the kitchen, dear."
Sammy assumed an air of grave importance. "Okay, Cleo." He looked up at Max. "Family always pitches in at times like this."
"Well, I'm off," Cleo announced. "Got to get this luggage to the right room. See you later, Max. Grab dinner in the kitchen when you get a chance." She whirled about and disappeared around the edge of the door.
"Bye, Max. Thanks for finding Lucky Ducky." Sammy dashed out of the room in Cleo's wake.
Alone in the bathroom, plunger in hand, Max looked down at the plastic duck floating in the toilet bowl. "What the hell have you gotten me into, Jason?"
For the next three hours, Max was fully occupied. He carried countless suitcases, straightened out a logistics problem in the tiny parking lot, poured afterdinner coffee and sherry for guests in the lounge, and replaced a burned-out bulb in one of the rooms.
He didn't get a chance to go in search of Cleo until after eleven o'clock. When he finally tracked her down, she was alone in the small office behind the front desk.
She was seated with her back to him at a table that held a computer and several piles of miscellaneous papers and notes. His trained eye skimmed appreciatively over her. It was not the first time that evening that he had found himself intrigued by the subtly graceful line of her spine and the sweet, vulnerable curve of her neck. Her feet, stiff clad in the silver athletic shoes, were tucked under her, toes resting on the chrome base of the swivel chair.
He stood silently in the doorway for a moment, watching Cleo as she concentrated intently on a printout spread out on the desk. Without taking her eyes off the figures, she absently reached up to unfasten her hair clip. The simple feminine gesture triggered a heavy, pooling sensation in Max's lower body.
He stared, enthralled, as Cleo's hair fell free around her shoulders. The glow of the desk lamp highlighted the red fire that shimmered in the depths of the thick, dark stuff. Max had a sudden, urgent need to warm his fingers in the flames. Unconsciously he took a step forward. His cane thudded awkwardly on the floor.
"What?" Startled, Cleo spun around in her chair. She relaxed when she saw Max. "Oh, there you are. Come on in. Have a seat. I thought you were George."
"Who's George?" Max regained his self-control in a heartbeat.
"My night desk man. He phoned and said he'd be a little late tonight."
"I see." Max moved across the small space and lowered himself onto the chair near the window. With cool precision he positioned the cane in front of himself and rested his hands on the hawk. "I think it's time we talked, Ms. Robbins."
"Cleo," he repeated.
She smiled. "I suppose you're wondering if you can have the same arrangement that Jason had."
Max gazed at her uncomprehendingly. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's okay. I don't mind. You're a friend of his, after all. Heck, it's the least I can do. I'm sure Jason would have wanted you to enjoy what he enjoyed here."
Max wondered if he was hallucinating. He could not believe that Cleo was offering to let him take Jason's place in her bed. "I am overwhelmed by your generosity, Ms. Robbins. But I'm not sure Jason would have wanted that."
"Why would he object?"
"Jason was a good friend," Max said. "But there are limits to any friendship."
Cleo looked briefly bewildered. "You're an artist, just as Jason was, aren't you?"
Max lowered his lashes slowly, veiling his gaze while he digested that comment. Jason had freely admitted he could not draw a straight line, let alone paint. He had collected art, not created it.
"Not exactly," Max finally said carefully.
Cleo gave him a sympathetic, knowing look. "Say no more. I understand completely. You haven't been able to sell yet, so you're reluctant to call yourself an artist. I know how you feel." She hesitated. "I'm a writer."
She blushed. "I've got a book coming out this spring. It's called A Fine Vengeance. It's a sort of woman-in-jeopardy thing. Suspense and romance."
Max eyed her thoughtfully. "That's very interesting, Ms. Robbins."
"I haven't told anyone except the family about it," Cleo said quickly. "I'm waiting until it actually shows up in the stores, so I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention it."
"I won't say a word about it," Max promised.
"Jason knew about it, of course. So I don't mind if you know, too. The point I was trying to make is that it isn't whether or not you sell your work that makes you an artist or a writer. It's whether or not you work at your craft."
"That is a point of view, I suppose."
"Sometimes a person can be very good and still not sell. Take Jason, for instance. He never sold a single painting and he was a wonderful painter."
"Certainly." Cleo tilted her head to one side and gave Max a curious look. "You must have seen his work. Those are his paintings hanging out there in the lobby. Didn't you recognize his style?"
Max turned his head sharply and stared through the doorway at the series of uninspired seascapes. "I didn't recognize them."
"Didn't you?" Cleo looked briefly disappointed. Then she smiled again. "I love those paintings. They'll always remind me of Jason. In a way they're his legacy to all of us here at Robbins' Nest Inn. Who knows? Maybe one day they'll be worth a fortune."
Never in a million years, Max thought. "And if they do turn out to be quite valuable," he asked softly, "what will you do? Sell them?"
"Good heavens, no. I could never bring myself to sell Jason's work. It belongs here at the inn."
Max cleared his throat cautiously. "Ms. Robbins"
He ignored the interruption. "Jason owned five Amos Luttrell paintings. Before he died he told me that he had left them here at the inn."
"Who's Amos Luttrell? Another friend of Jason's?"
She was either the most accomplished liar he had encountered in years, or she was a naive idiot, Max decided. His money was on the former. He could not imagine Jason having an idiot for a mistress. In which case he was up against an extremely clever opponent.
"Luttrell was a master of neo-expressionism," Max said blandly.
"Expressionism? That's modern art, isn't it?" Cleo wrinkled her nose. "I've never really liked modern art. I prefer pictures that make sense. Dogs, horses, seascapes. That kind of thing. I don't have any modern art hanging here at the inn. It wouldn't fit in at all."
A cold anger raged through Max. There was only one conclusion. Cleo was obviously aware of the true value of the Luttrells and had decided to play dumb.
She was going to pretend she knew nothing about them. She must have realized that Max had no proof she had them in her possession.
It was a clever tactic, he admitted to himself. And one he had not expected to encounter. But, then, nothing was going quite as he had anticipated here at Robbins' Nest Inn.
"Now, then, as I was saying," Cleo continued blithely, "if you're an artist like Jason, you'll probably enjoy the arrangement I had with him."
Max raised one brow. "What, exactly, are you offering?"
"The same salary I gave Jason plus room and board any time you're staying with us in exchange for the kind of odd-job work you were doing tonight. I promise you'll get plenty of time to yourself to paint. You can have Jason's old room in the attic. It's quiet and comfortable. Jason liked it."
Room and board but not her bed, then. At least not yet. "I'm not exactly a starving artist, Ms. Robbins."
"I know that." Cleo smiled gently. "But there are a lot of different ways to starve, aren't there? You're a friend of Jason's, and that's all that matters."
"I'm not sure I would make a good Antony," Max said dryly.
"Huh?" A second later Cleo's face turned a charming shade of warm pink. "Oh, I get it. I'd better warn you that we have one ironclad rule around here. No Cleopatra cracks and absolutely no asp jokes."
"I'll try to remember that."
"So? Are you interested?" Cleo gave him an inquiring look.
The sense of unreality that had gripped Max earlier returned. He stared at Cleo for a long while, and then he made his decision.
What the hell, he thought. He had to find out what had happened to his Luttrells, and it wasn't like he had anything or anyone waiting for him in Seattle. Jason had sent him in this direction for a reason. Max decided he might as well follow the yellow brick road to the end.
Another turning point, he thought. And as usual, he had no reason to go back.
"As it happens," Max said, "I've just lost a job. I'll take the deal you gave Jason."
Copyright é 1994 by Jayne Ann Krentz