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“Somebody ought to put her in one of the display cases. Talk about an eye-poppin' show."
Morgan West stopped in her tracks to lift an eyebrow at a suddenly flustered workman. "Voices carry in museums," she said gently. "You might want to keep that in mind."
"Yeah. I mean--yes, ma'am. Sorry, ma'am. No offense meant."
"None taken. It's always been my ambition to be a museum display."
He cleared his throat. "Priceless things. That's all I meant. Treasures. Works of art." He eyed her, then sighed. "I'm not gonna win, am I?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"I'm a sexist pig."
"This woman anyway. Yes, I'd say that was what you were doing."
"I apologize, Miss West."
Perfectly aware that the other workmen near enough to overhear this exchange were hiding grins, Morgan knew when it was time to let her prey off the hook on which he'd impaled himself. "Accepted. Have a nice day."
"Yes, ma'am. You too."
Morgan strolled away, knowing that laughter would erupt the moment she was out of sight. Which it did.
Her measurements had been causing her problems since her thirteenth birthday, so by now she should have been at least somewhat accustomed to it.
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 rest.
Probably something Freudian about it.
Or something infantile.
At any rate, her centerfold measurements had caused her more trouble than joy. A lot more. 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 strayed to her chest.
Which was often.
And that explained one reason why Maxim Bannister had won her intense and total loyalty. He had, to be sure, gulped visibly when she'd first walked into his office, but he had also conducted the hour-long interview without allowing his gaze to stray to her chest--and without making her feel it required all his concentration to avoid staring. And since that time, he had managed not only to make her feel completely comfortable in his presence but had even responded with genuine sympathy when a particularly degrading experience with a date had caused her to unburden herself in an explosion of temper.
She liked Max a lot. He was one of the very few male friends she'd ever had, and she was delighted by the knowledge that, while he was no less appreciative of nature's bounty than the next man, his awareness and interest were detached rather than hormonal. He also had an unerring eye for color and style, and during the months of preparation for the Mysteries Past exhibit, she had gradually abandoned her dark-colored, loose blouses and multilayered outfits in favor of more elegant and flattering clothing.
When Max told her she looked good in something, she knew it was the truth. He'd said once that she was a queenly woman, the observation made in an assessing rather than complimentary tone, and Morgan had, quite unconsciously, begun walking without the slump she had just as unconsciously adopted in her teens. In a few short months, he had very quietly and gently and unobtrusively eradicated both Morgan's bitterness and the chip on her shoulder. Thanks to him, she was as proud of her body as she was of her mind.
Which wasn't to say it no longer caused her problems. In fact, masculine appreciation of her measurements was, indirectly, to blame for a predicament that was destined to occupy her for quite some time.
But on this mild Thursday afternoon, Morgan was blessedly unaware of the storm clouds building up on her own personal horizon. As the director of the forthcoming Mysteries Past exhibit, her mind was entirely focused on business.
"You're frowning," Wolfe Nickerson noted when they encountered each other in the lobby. He was the security expert Lloyd's of London had sent to oversee both the preparations for the exhibit and the two-month showing itself.
"I'm not surprised. Do you believe in intuition?" she asked.
"I've been known to get a hunch now and then. Why? Are you feeling intuitive?"
"Yeah. At least--I guess that's what it is. There's something out of focus, Wolfe. Something not right."
"With the preparations for the exhibit?"
"I don't know. Maybe." She sighed. "God, I hate it when I get one of these feelings. It's like I saw something out of the corner of my eye, you know? Something I didn't look at as closely as I should have."
Wolfe nodded. "Yeah, I've been there. But you know as well as I do that it's pretty much impossible to guard against a threat when all you've got to go on is a feeling. We're doing everything we can to protect the collection."
"Maybe not everything. Would pulling up the drawbridge and flooding the moat be out of order?"
"Well, it might make things a bit difficult for visitors."
Morgan hugged her ever-present clipboard and rested her chin on the top, matching his gravity when she said, "Yeah, but do we really need visitors? They come, they gawk--big deal."
Smiling, Wolfe said, "You really are bothered, aren't you?"
"A little bit, yeah."
"But there's nothing here yet to steal, remember? I mean, none of the collection. All those nice display cases the workmen are building are going to be empty for weeks yet."
"I know, I know."
"But . . . something's wrong." Morgan shook her head with a faint grimace. "The place just doesn't feel right. I did a walk-through a little while ago, and I could swear I was being watched."
Wolfe eyed her, a little amused. "Well, you usually are."
"No, not that way." Morgan was intent on making sense of her own feelings and hunches. "Watched. Almost . . . I was going to say stalked, but I don't mean it in the modern way, with some half-crazed guy who thinks he's in love with me dogging my every step."
"How do you mean it, then?"
"More of a . . . predatory thing. As if I was being tracked, shadowed, my strengths and weaknesses sized up."
Wolfe's eyebrows rose, but more in surprise than disbelief. "That's a fairly primitive image. And a very specific threat to feel intuitively."
"I know. That's why it's creeping me out, big time."
He frowned. "All right, Morgan. I'll have the extra guards do a sweep of the building at the beginning of each shift, as well as halfway through the shift. Good enough?"
"I hope so." She shook her head again, obviously annoyed by worries too elusive to put into words, then added, "I'll be in my office. I'm going to go study the museum blueprints again."
"Listen," Wolfe said, "don't let the responsibility of being in charge while Max is off on his honeymoon blow anything out of proportion, okay? Whether you're right about somebody watching you or the preparations for the exhibit, the collection is safe and we are doing everything possible to make damned sure it stays that way."
Morgan squared her shoulders and nodded. "You're right. But I still want to study those blueprints."
"Have at it. If you see anything that'll help increase or perfect security, I'll be the first to thank you for it."
"I just want to be sure," Morgan said.
"It's not that I'm questioning your competence--"
He waved that away. "I never thought you were. We're both responsible for protecting the collection, Morgan, so don't think you're stepping on my toes by double-checking everything, including your own hunches. I'll do the same."
"Okay. Just so we're clear."
"We are." Wolfe watched her head off toward her office, and added under his breath, "We're also both worried. I know why I am . . . but why are you?"
Carla Reeves was still astonished she'd been able to get a job with a security company. And somewhat amused.
Security? Yeah, right.
But unless she wanted to flip burgers or bag groceries, she'd had to take the chance and apply. It was her good luck that Ace Security had been in crying need of a few employees with a security background--and that a guy at her last place of employment had owed her a big, big favor, and had provided a glowing recommendation for her.
Still, you'd think a fucking security company would have at least checked for a police record before they hired somebody.
Thanking the universe for small favors and large ones, Carla settled happily into the new job, and within a number of weeks was feeling quite at home there. She was also trusted and given increasing responsibility, which was another amusement but nevertheless appreciated, since it led to a raise.
Carla liked her job. And she had no plans to fuck things up by doing anything she shouldn't have. She had learned the hard lesson that a one-time big score was seldom worth the risk of getting caught. Besides, she didn't need to do that anymore.
No, Carla's life was progressing nicely. So nicely, in fact, that she had absolutely no suspicion that everything was about to hit the fan.
She left work a bit later than usual that evening, mostly because she'd wanted to earn a few employee bonus points by doing some extra work on a security system being designed for a private home--of a personal friend of her boss.
She walked around the corner to where she'd left her car parked, smiling as she thought of the praise that would be heaped on her in the morning. Bonus points were fun.
She was fumbling in her purse for her key ring with its remote keyless entry gadget when a pleasant voice stopped her in her tracks.
It wasn't a familiar voice, but Carla had grown up literally on the streets, and she recognized a threat when she heard one. Still too far from her car to make a break for it, she turned very slowly and looked at him.
He was smiling at her. He was also holding an elegant little gun in one gloved hand.
"Oh, don't worry, Carla. I don't have rape in mind. Or even robbery."
She swallowed hard. "Then what do you want?"
"Just a little information, that's all."
"Come now, Carla, let's not pretend. You know what I want. And you know how to get it. After all--you've done it before, haven't you?"
Carla stared at him, understanding everything he didn't say. "Yeah," she answered dully. "So I do know what you want."
It was Morgan's habit to be at the museum very early each morning, long before it was open for business, and the next morning was no exception. Also as usual, the first thing she did was to conduct her own sweep of the building.
It wasn't that she didn't trust the guards, it was just that she trusted her own eyes and other senses more.
After all the months of preparation for the exhibit, she was very familiar with the cavernous halls and labyrinthine corridors of the museum. So much so, in fact, that she probably could have found her way through with the aid of a flashlight--no mean feat, given the size and complexity of the building.
Until very recently, she had never felt uneasy being alone in any area of the museum. But as her heels clicked against the polished marble floors, she once again had the oddest feeling that she wasn't as alone as she should have been. She stopped several times, gazing around her with a frown, but no one was there. She was sure no one was there.
"Morgan, you're losing it," she muttered finally.
Since this was a museum of historical art, it wasn't nearly as creepy as some she'd worked in. No stuffed or skeletal beasts loomed, and there weren't any exhibits such as Prehistoric Man at the Hunt with figures of man and beast frozen in bloody confrontational poses.
There was statuary, however, and more than once Morgan caught herself frowning uneasily at a manlike figure in a dim corner that she only belatedly recognized as some artist's work in marble or bronze.
"Definitely losing it." The sound of her own voice startled her somewhat, and Morgan quickened her steps, even though she kept searching for whatever was bothering her. And found nothing. Or at least found nothing that looked like anything.
"I don't even know what I'm looking for," she admitted half under her breath.
But as she turned to retrace her steps, Morgan's uneasiness intensified. The place still didn't feel right to her. She tried to focus on what she was feeling, but it was vague and unformed. Just anxiety and an odd sense of apprehension.
Morgan stopped at the entrance of the wing and looked back down the echoing corridors. A little laugh escaped her. "We're about to bring a priceless collection of art treasures into this place," she reminded herself aloud. "Of course I'm uneasy about it. That's all. That's all it is."
With those reassuring words, she turned and headed back for the lobby, her heels once more clicking briskly against the marble floor.
The sounds were fading away when, in a dim corner Morgan had passed by twice, one of those manlike figures stirred and stepped out of the shadows. He stood gazing after Morgan for several moments, then turned and headed deeper into the museum, his movements utterly silent and almost feline in their fluid grace.
If anybody had been there to hear, they wouldn't have heard a footstep. But they would have heard a soft, amused chuckle.
At thirty-six, Wolfe was two years younger than Max Bannister; 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. It was one of the reasons Max had specifically requested Wolfe when Lloyd's, which insured the Bannister collection, had insisted on having one of their representatives on the scene during the exhibit and the preparations leading up to it.
One of the reasons. The other reason was that Wolfe was very, very good at his job. Good enough so that he took the worries of the Mysteries Past director seriously--even if she didn't think so.
"Morgan, all I said was--"
"All you said was that I'm nuts." She planted both hands on her hips and glared at Wolfe.