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Authors: Kay Hooper

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BOOK: Always a Thief
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It was ten interminable minutes before she heard a quick, soft knock at her door and went to let Max in. She had turned on more lamps, so he was able to see Quinn clearly the moment he stepped into her apartment.

“The doctor should be here any minute,” Max told her, shrugging off his jacket and tossing it over the couch before moving quickly toward Quinn. “How is he?”

“The same.” She followed and knelt on one side of the unconscious man while Max knelt on the other. His long, powerful fingers checked the pulse, and then he eased the blanket back and looked under the cloths with which she had covered the wound. His hard face rarely showed emotion of any kind no matter what he may have been feeling, and his voice remained dispassionate.

“Nasty. But not fatal, I think.”

If a doctor had said the same thing, Morgan probably would have doubted him, but she had known Max long enough to have implicit faith in his judgments. The cold tightness of fear eased inside her, and she felt herself slump a little. “He—he looks so pale.”

“Loss of blood.” Max replaced the cloths and drew the blanket back up to Quinn's throat with a curiously gentle touch. “And shock. The human body tends to resent a bullet.”

“It's still in him.”

“I know. Lucky for him that it is. If it had gone straight through him, he probably would have bled to death by now.” Max looked at her for a moment, then said, “I think he'd be more comfortable off the floor.”

“If we can get him to my bed—”

“You go get the bed ready. I'll bring him.”

Quinn was by no means a small man, and unconscious he was a deadweight, but Max was unusually large and unusually powerful, and he seemed to feel little strain as he carried the thief into Morgan's bedroom and eased him down on the bed. Morgan helped pull his soft-soled boots off, then eyed the remainder of his lean, black-clad form hesitantly.

“Maybe I'd better do the rest,” Max said.

She nodded and backed toward the door. “Maybe you'd better. I'll—go make some coffee.”

She had just filled her coffeemaker and turned it on when the doctor arrived. He was a middle-aged man, with steady eyes and a soft voice, and seemed quite matter-of-fact about having been pulled from his bed to secretly treat a gunshot wound. If Max said it was the right thing to do, he told her comfortably, then that was all he needed to know.

Someone else with implicit faith in Max's judgment, it seemed.

Morgan pointed the way to the bedroom but retreated to the kitchen herself. She didn't know how much more she could take but was fairly sure her fortitude would crumble if she had to watch a bullet being extracted from Quinn.

She could hear the low voices of the doctor and Max, and once a faint groan caused her to bite down hard on a knuckle. She turned the television on to CNN but remained in the kitchen and was working on her second cup of coffee by the time Max came out of the bedroom a few minutes later.

“The bullet's out,” he reported quietly. “It went in at an angle, apparently, so it was more difficult to get at than it would have been otherwise. But if it hadn't entered the way it did, it probably would have killed him.”

Morgan poured him a cup of coffee and gestured toward the cream and sugar on the counter, then said rather jerkily, “I heard him— Did he—”

“He came to in the middle of it,” Max explained. “It wasn't very pleasant for him, I'm afraid. But he doesn't want anything for pain, and he's still conscious.”

“He'll be all right?”

“Looks like it.” Max sipped his coffee, then added with a hint of dryness, “So you'll have a wounded cat burglar in your bed for a few days.”

It occurred to Morgan that Max had been amazingly incurious about all this, and she felt heat rise in her face. Clearing her throat, she murmured, “I . . . uh . . . sort of ran into him a few times, and he . . . more or less . . . saved my life. Twice, probably.”

“Did he?”

She nodded. “So I owe him. Giving up my bed for a few days isn't much of a price to pay.”

Max was watching her steadily. “No, if he saved your life I'd say it was a bargain.”

“You won't—” She cleared her throat again, and said with difficulty, “I overheard something I probably shouldn't have at the museum, Max. The night you got back to town after your honeymoon.”

“I thought you might have.” He smiled slightly. “I saw your name in the museum's security log when I signed out, Morgan. I had a hunch you'd overheard Jared and me talking and had figured out what we were planning.”

“Yeah, well . . . after Quinn saved my life, I . . . warned him. About
Mysteries Past
being bait for a trap.”

“I see.”

“I'm sorry, Max, but—”

“It's all right,” he soothed, but before he could say more, the doctor emerged from the bedroom with positive news.

“Constitution of an ox,” he said, gratefully accepting the coffee Morgan offered. “And an unusually high tolerance for pain. He's also a quick healer, unless I miss my guess. Probably be on his feet in a day or two.” He looked at Max and added, “He wants to see you, and I doubt he'll rest until he does.”

Max set his cup on the counter, gave Morgan a slight, reassuring smile, and left the kitchen as the doctor was beginning to give her brisk instructions on how to care for the patient during the coming days.

When he entered the lamplit bedroom, Max stood for a silent moment studying Quinn. His upper body was slightly raised on two pillows, the covers drawn just above his waist so that much of his broad chest and the heavily bandaged shoulder was clearly visible. His eyes were closed, but they opened as Max looked at him, clear and alert despite the pain he was undoubtedly in.

Curiously, he didn't look incongruous in Morgan's bed. She hadn't gone overboard with frills in decorating her bedroom, since she wasn't a frilly woman, but it was quite definitely a feminine room; despite that, Quinn seemed to fit among the floral sheets and ruffled pillow shams without sacrificing any of his maleness. It was an interesting trait.

After a minute or so, Max reached behind him to push the door shut. Quinn watched silently as the big, dark man moved gracefully over to the window and stood looking out on the dimly lighted street below.

“I gather Morgan doesn't know,” he said quietly.

“No, she doesn't,” Quinn responded, his voice subtly different from the careless one Morgan was accustomed to hearing.

“What kind of game are you playing with her?” Max asked, still without turning.

There had been no particular inflection in that deep voice, but Quinn shifted restlessly on the bed nonetheless, grimacing slightly as his wound throbbed a protest. “You must know it isn't a game.” There was an inflection in his voice: defensive, maybe even defiant. “I don't have the time or the emotional energy for games.”

“Then keep her out of it.” This time, the tone was Max Bannister's boardroom voice, the sound of an authority rarely challenged and even more rarely defeated. But a quiet challenge came from the bed.

“I can't,” Quinn said.

Max stiffened just a little. “In some ways, Morgan's fragile. And she always roots for the underdog. You could break her heart.” His voice was flat.

Quinn said even more quietly, “I think she might break mine.”

“Stop it. Now, before . . . either of you has to pay too high a price.”

“You think I haven't tried?” Quinn laughed, a low, harsh sound. “I have.” He cleared his throat, and went on with a stony control that did nothing to diminish the meaning of what he was saying. “I've tried to stay away from her. You'll never know how hard I've tried. I don't even remember deciding to come here tonight. I just . . . came. To her. If I was going to die, I needed—I had to be with her.”

Max turned then, leaning against the window frame, and the defeat was in his voice. “It's a hell of a mess, Alex.”

Quinn's long fingers tightened their grip on the covers drawn up to his waist, and his mouth twisted as he met that steady, curiously compassionate gaze. “I know,” he said.

 

Morgan had begun to worry when Max still hadn't left the bedroom after more than half an hour. The doctor had gone, leaving her with instructions, antibiotics and pills for pain, and a list of supplies she'd need to care for the patient, and all she could do was pace the living room and eye that closed bedroom door nervously every time she passed the hallway. She couldn't hear a thing; what was going
on
in there?

It was nearly dawn, well after five o'clock, when Max finally came out. As usual, he didn't show whatever he was feeling, but she thought he was a bit tired.

“How is he?” she asked somewhat warily.

“Ready to sleep, I think.”

Morgan was nearly dying of curiosity, but before she could ask why Quinn had wanted to see him, a sharp knock at her door distracted her. “Who could that be? The doctor coming back for something?”

“No, I don't think so.” Max went to open the door, and Jared Chavalier strode in.

Morgan moved almost instinctively to put herself between Jared and the door of her bedroom, but her eyes went to Max, and it was to him her thin question was directed.

“How could you—”

“It's all right, Morgan,” he said quietly with a reassuring smile. “Trust me.”

Before she could respond, Jared's low, angry voice drew her attention. He looked a bit pale—probably, she thought, from fury, since his eyes blazed with it.

“Has anything changed from what you told me on the phone?” he asked Max.

“No,” Max replied. “Serious, but not fatal. He'll be all right in a few days.”

Jared laughed shortly. “I might have known—he has more lives than ten cats.”

Still calm, Max said, “You'll want to talk to him. He got close this time. Too close. He believes that's why he was shot.”

Morgan stepped away from the hall and into the living room as she realized there was no threat to Quinn from the Interpol agent, her bewilderment growing. “I don't understand,” she said to Max. “What's going on?”

Max replied, “The exhibit
is
bait for a cat burglar, Morgan, but it isn't Quinn. He's working with Interpol to help catch another thief.”

CHAPTER

TWO

S
lowly, she began to smile. “How about that.”

Jared looked at her and, harshly, said, “Don't get any fool romantic notions about nobility into your head. Quinn's helping us to keep his own ass out of jail—and that's it. If we hadn't caught up with him, he'd still be looting Europe.”

Morgan met that angry glare for a long moment, her smile fading. Then, speaking pointedly to Max, she said, “I'll go and make some fresh coffee.”

“Thank you,” Max said. When she was out of the room, he looked at the other man. “Was that necessary?”

Jared shrugged, scowling. He kept his voice low, but the anger remained. “Don't tell me you
want
her to fall for a thief. Aside from the fact that he's about as stable as nitro and damned likely to end up in prison or executed—not to mention shot by someone with a better aim—he's just perfect for her. Hell, Max, you know he'll drift right out of her life the minute this is finished—if not sooner.”

“Maybe not,” Max said quietly. “He was hurt bad last night. Bleeding, in shock. He didn't come to me for help, and he didn't come to you. He came here. To Morgan. He doesn't remember consciously making that decision.”

“Then,” Jared said crudely, “all his brains are below his belt.”

“I hope you know better than that.”

After a moment, Jared's eyes fell. “All right, maybe I do,” he said. “But I thought I knew him ten years ago, and I was sure as hell wrong about that.”

Max sat down on the arm of a chair near Jared and looked at him steadily. “What makes you more angry—that he became a thief, or that he didn't confide in you about it?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it does. If you're angry at what he chose to do with his life, that's concern for him. If you're angry because he didn't tell you, that's your bruised ego.”

“Ego, hell. I'm a cop, Max, an officer in an international police organization. So how do you think I felt to find out that my brother was the crafty thief who had topped our most-wanted list for the better part of ten years?”

Morgan came back into the room just in time to hear that astonishing information and was so startled she spoke without thinking. “Brother? You mean, you and Quinn are—”

He looked at her with those pale, angry eyes, and for the first time she saw an elusive resemblance between his handsome features and Quinn's. “Yes, we're brothers,” he confirmed flatly. “Do us all a favor and forget you know that.”

She didn't get angry at him in return, because she was both perceptive enough to see the anxiety underneath his simmering fury and shrewd enough to have a fair idea of what a difficult position Jared must have found himself in when the infamous Quinn turned out to be his own flesh and blood. There was, clearly, reason enough for him to be a trifle put out.

“Consider it forgotten,” she murmured.

Jared didn't look as if he believed her but directed his question to Max. “Is he awake?”

“He was a few minutes ago.”

“Then I'd better talk to him.”

“Max, you said he was ready to sleep. Can't it wait until later?” Morgan protested.

“No,” Jared told her briefly, and headed for the bedroom with a determined stride.

Morgan stared after him for a moment, then looked at Max. “Don't you think you'd better go in there too? Jared has blood in his eye, and Quinn's lost too much of his own to be able to defend himself.”

“You're probably right.” Max was frowning slightly, but he didn't waste any time in following Jared.

 

It was after eight o'clock that morning before Max and Jared emerged from the bedroom.

“Wolfe'll have a fit when he finds out what happened,” Jared muttered gloomily, his anger apparently gone but his mood not much improved.

“I'll handle Wolfe,” Max told him.

“Good. He's still pissed at me.”

“Why should he have a fit?” Morgan asked curiously. “Good lord, does
he
know Quinn too? I mean really know him, the way you two do?”

“Ask Quinn,” Jared growled, and stalked from her apartment.

Morgan was feeling her virtually sleepless and very eventful night by then, a state not helped by numerous cups of coffee, and nearly wailed at Max, “And all this time I felt guilty because
I
knew him!”

One of his rare smiles swept across Max's hard face. “Morgan, since Alex is asleep and will probably sleep for hours, why don't you stretch out on your couch and take a nap. I think you need one.”

That suggestion held too much appeal for her to argue, and it wasn't until she'd closed the door behind Max, briefly checked on her sleeping patient, and curled up on the couch with a pillow and blanket that something occurred to her.

Max had directly referred to Quinn by name only once, and then it had been his real name—Alex. She tried to think about that, but she was just too tired, falling asleep almost instantly.

 

Storm Tremaine, tiny and blond, with fierce eyes and a lazy Southern drawl, didn't look anything at all like a cop—or even a technical specialist. But she happened to be both—an agent with Interpol, specializing in computers and security.

In any case, Jared Chavalier, senior Interpol agent and her boss on this assignment, had known her too long not to know that she was small only in physical stature, not ability or self-confidence.

“So Max is talking to Wolfe, huh?” She glanced at the computer screen on her desk from time to time as the security system she had designed and installed was currently running its diagnostic program. But otherwise she kept her gaze on Jared, who was moving rather restlessly around the very small room.

“Yeah.”

“And since you know Wolfe is still furious at you, you're hiding back here with me.”

“I am not hiding.”

“Right. You just love pacing about six square feet of floor space. Where I come from, that's what we call going nowhere in a hurry.”

Jared turned to stare at her, but after meeting her amused gaze, he finally sat down in her visitor's chair with a sigh. “I've been expecting him to pull the plug ever since you were attacked and he found out about the trap. After what happened last night . . . God knows what he'll do.”

“Whatever Max wants him to do.”

Jared knew that Wolfe was completely in love with Storm and she with him, and he also knew there were—now—no secrets between them, so he said bluntly, “He knew about Quinn before this, didn't he?”

“Yeah, but not because I told him.”

Jared lifted an eyebrow, but Storm shook her head with a smile. “I gather he got in touch right after he found out about the trap, but he didn't say how. Just that he and Quinn had a little . . . meeting.”

“And Quinn told him the truth?”

“Wolfe thinks he did.”

“What do you think?”

“I think . . . Quinn is the sort of man who always has an ace or two up his sleeve. Maybe even a rabbit. And never tells anybody the whole truth.”

Jared grimaced. “That's what I'm afraid of.”

“But you do believe he's working with you rather than against you this time?”

“Christ, I don't know. Before all this started, I would have said Max was the last man on earth who'd have to worry about Quinn stealing anything from him. Now . . . I just don't know.”

“This trap . . .” Storm pursed her lips, then went on slowly. “Interpol doesn't know about the bait, do they?”

“Interpol isn't in the habit of using priceless private collections of gems and artworks to bait traps.”

“Umm. That's what I thought. But they do know that Quinn is working with you to catch this thief they're calling Nightshade, an arrangement they approve because Nightshade is by all accounts way more vicious and deadly than Quinn is. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“And because when he finally did get caught, Quinn was quietly given a choice between rotting in prison for the rest of his life or putting his skills to good use playing on Interpol's team. So you're supposed to be holding the leash.”

“Supposed to be,” Jared said grimly, “is a good description. He claimed to need more freedom in order to do his
job,
so I let the leash play out and gave him what he wanted. God knows if I could even reel him in now.”

“Mixing your metaphors,” Storm murmured, then went on before Jared could do more than glare at her. “His working with Interpol is recent, right?”

“Right. Other than some . . . intelligence he's provided, this is the first active case he's been on. First time out on a leash, so to speak.”

“So you can't really know if this is going to work on any level. But you said he gave you his word he wouldn't try to escape you—or Interpol.”

“He did.”

“You also said his word was worth something, that he never breaks a promise.”

“That's what I keep telling myself.”

“You think he'd run if he got the chance?”

“Not before we catch Nightshade. It's personal for him.”

“How—”

“Don't ask; I don't know the details. I only know that Quinn wants Nightshade. Badly.”

“Umm. Well, in the meantime, I can see how Interpol might be a bit upset with you if they find out exactly what's going on over on this side of the pond. And I imagine Lloyd's of London wouldn't be very pleased if they knew about the trap either, since they insure the collection. And Wolfe is definitely risking his job with them. I guess I'm most surprised at Max being willing to take the risk. It took his family five centuries to build the collection, and every piece is irreplaceable.”

“Don't remind me. I think it's a lunatic idea and I have from the beginning.”

“Then it wasn't your idea. Why did you agree
to it?”

“Max agreed. Once he did, there was nothing I could do about it except go along.”

Storm couldn't help but smile. “Sounds like you've got a pit bull at the other end of that leash. It was Quinn's idea, wasn't it? His plan?”

Jared nodded, and hesitated for an instant before saying, “If it had been anybody but Nightshade, I never would have even allowed Quinn to approach Max. But to stop a thief and murderer like Nightshade, almost any risk can be justified.”

“Even your brother's life?”

Jared's face tightened slightly, but he replied in a steady voice. “He's been risking his life for ten years or more. The only thing that's changed is the reason why.”

“Has he ever been shot before?”

“No. He says not. Injured a few times and beaten up more than once, but never shot.”

“So that's changed. And one more thing has changed, Jared.”

He waited, silent.

“This time, Quinn's on a leash. Something a man accustomed to total freedom might well find to be a problem. A deadly problem.”

“Yes,” Jared said. “I know.”

 

“The doctor said you have to take the pills. They'll help prevent infection.”

“Not with milk,” Quinn said firmly, frowning up at her. “I hate milk, Morgana.”

She sighed, faced with the first real mutiny from her patient after slightly more than twenty-four hours of tranquillity. He had slept most of that time, waking only briefly every few hours and accepting without protest the broth she had spooned into him. He had watched her steadily, his green eyes quiet, thanked her gravely for any service she performed for him, and was otherwise a model patient. Until now, anyway.

Given his personality as she knew it, she hadn't expected the placidity to last, of course, but she had hoped for at least a couple of days before he began to get restless.

“All right, no milk,” she said agreeably. “But you have to take the pills. How about juice?”

“How about coffee?”

“The last thing you need is caffeine.”

“Coffee,” he repeated, softly but stubbornly.

Morgan debated silently, then decided it wasn't worth a fight. It was more important that he take the pills—no matter what he washed them down with. Besides, she was almost sure she had a can of decaffeinated. “All right, coffee. It'll be a few minutes, though; I have to make some.”

He nodded, those absurdly long lashes veiling his eyes so she couldn't tell if he was gloating over her capitulation. She retreated from the bedroom with the unwanted milk, vaguely suspicious although she didn't know why.

Fifteen minutes later, she returned to the bedroom to find the covers thrown back and the bed empty and realized she must have read his intentions subconsciously if not consciously. His minor rebellion was escalating. The bathroom door was closed, and there was water running in the sink.

She set the cup of coffee on the nightstand, went to the door, and knocked courteously. “Alex, what are you doing in there?”

“It's not polite to ask that, Morgana,” he reproved in a muffled but amused voice.

She leaned her forehead against the door and sighed. “You're not supposed to be out of bed. The doctor said—”

“I know what the doctor said, but I'll be damned if I ever let myself get
that
helpless. There are some things a man prefers to do for himself. Do you have a razor?”

“You aren't going to shave.”

“Oh, yes, I am.”

Morgan took a step back and glared at the door. “All right. I'll just wait out here until you get dizzy and fall on your ass. When I hear the thud, I'll call Max and ask him to come over here and drag your carcass back to bed.”

There was a moment of silence, and then the water stopped running in the sink and the door opened. He stood there a bit unsteadily, a towel wrapped around his lean waist, his green eyes very bright, and that crooked, beguiling smile curving his lips. He had slid his left arm from the sling meant to ease the weight on that shoulder and braced his good shoulder against the doorjamb.

Judging by the dampness of his tousled hair, he had washed up a bit, doing the best he could when he could hardly stand and couldn't get his bandaged shoulder wet. As for the towel—he probably hadn't felt steady enough to get into any of the clothing Max had sent over, even though the stuff was neatly folded in plain view on the storage chest at the foot of Morgan's bed.

When Max had stripped him, he had removed everything; Morgan knew that because she had washed the pants and shorts and thrown the ruined sweater in the trash.

BOOK: Always a Thief
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