Faking It: Chapter One

Matilda Goodnight stepped back from her latest mural and realized that of all the crimes she’d committed in her thirty-four years, painting the floor-to-ceiling reproduction of van Gogh’s sunflowers on Clarissa Donnelly’s dining room wall was the one that was going to send her to hell. God might forgive her the Botticelli Venus she’d painted in the bathroom in Iowa, the Uccello battle scene she’d done for the boardroom in New Jersey, even the Bosch orgy she’d painted in the bedroom in Utah, but these giant, glaring sunflowers were going to be His Last Straw. “I gave you a nice talent,” He was going to say to her on Judgment Day, “and this is what you did with it.”

Tilda felt her lungs tighten and stuck her hand in her pocket to make sure she had her inhaler.

Beside her, Clarissa wrapped her thin little arms around her size two chenille sweater and squinted at the brownish-yellow flowers. “It’s just like his, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Tilda said with regret and handed her the museum print of the original.

“The flowers look so . . . angry,” Clarissa said.

“Well.” Tilda closed her paint box. “He was nuts.”

Clarissa nodded. “I heard about that. The ear.”

“Yeah, that got a lot of press.” Tilda shrugged off her paint shirt. “So I’ll take my completion check–”

“Did you sign it?” Clarissa said. “You need to sign it. I want everybody to know it’s a real Matilda Veronica mural.”

“I signed it.” Tilda pointed the toe of her paint-stained canvas shoe at the bottom where she’d scrawled “Matilda Veronica.” “Right there. Now I have to be going–”

“You didn’t sign it ‘van Gogh,’ did you?” Clarissa bent down. “Wouldn’t that be forgery?”

“Not unless he had a Kentucky mural period we don’t know about.” Tilda tried to take a deep breath. “So I’ll take that check–”

“Write your name bigger,” Clarissa said, straightening. “I want everybody to know you painted this. I’m going to keep the magazine right here, too. So they know that it’s a real Matilda Veronica–”

Clarissa’s enthusiasm for her as a brand name had lost its appeal many days before, so Tilda changed the subject. “Well, Spot was certainly a champ about the whole thing.” She nodded at Clarissa’s elongated little dog on the theory that people were always pleased when you talked about their animals.

“His tail is almost hiding your name,” Clarissa said.

Tilda let her glasses slide down her nose a little and looked over the rims at Spot, quivering at her feet. She’d done some dog face-lifting in the mural since Spot’s beady eyes almost met over his long knife-edged nose. She’d softened the gray that streaked his dark, shaggy coat, too, so he didn’t look so much like a very small, mutant wolf.

“You have to sign it again,” Clarissa said. “Sign it up at the top. Bigger.”

“No,” Tilda said. “Everyone will see it because they’ll be comparing Spot to the painting. People always do that, look at the dog and then look at the painting–”

“No they won’t,” Clarissa said, triumphant. “He goes back to the pound today.”

“You’re taking your dog to the pound?” At Tilda’s feet, Spot pressed against her, shedding on her jeans.

“He’s not my dog,” Clarissa said. “You always put dogs in your murals–”

“No, I don’t,” Tilda said.

“–it said so in the magazine, so I had to have one, too, or people wouldn’t think it was a real Matilda Veronica, so I went and got the only purebred they had.”

“Spot’s a purebred?”

“Silver dapple, long-haired dachshund,” Clarissa said. “He’ll be fine back at the pound. He’s used to it. I’m the third person who’s adopted him.”

Tilda pulled out her inhaler and inhaled.

It made sense when she thought about it. Clarissa was exactly the kind of woman who’d go to Rent-A-Dog and get a designer second for fake warmth in her faux Post-Impressionist wall painting. Spot looked up at her now, shaking, almost as pathetic as he was ugly.

I am not going to rescue you, Tilda thought, capping her inhaler. I can’t save everybody, I’m asthmatic, and I don’t want a dog, especially not one who acts like he snorts coke and looks like he rolls in it.

“Sign it again up here,” Clarissa said. “I’ll get you a Sharpie.”

“No,” Tilda said. “I signed it. It’s done. And I’ll take the completion check now, thank you.”

“Well, I don’t know, that signature–” Clarissa began, and Tilda pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and turned steely eyes on her. Clarissa nodded. “I’ll go get that check then.”

Left alone with Spot–a hell of a name for a dog that had none–Tilda tried to think of something else besides the pound. There was the mural, another success, another chunk of money off the family debt, another two weeks painted from her life by ripping off art history–

Her cell phone rang and cut short her stab at optimism. Tilda flipped open the cover. “Hell-o.”

“Tilda,” her mother said, “we have a problem.”

“Really,” Tilda said, staring at the sunflowers. “Who’d have guessed?”

“It’s bad,” Gwen said, and Tilda stopped, taken aback by the seriousness in her mother’s voice. Gwennie did muffins and double crostics, not serious.

“Okay, so whatever it is, we’ll fix it.” She looked down at the dog again, and he gazed back at her, desperation in its eyes. “What is it?”

“Nadine sold a Scarlet.”

Tilda jerked her head up as her stomach cramped. In the background on the phone, she heard her sixteen-year-old niece say, “I still don’t get what I did wrong,” and she went cold all over.

“There aren’t any Scarlets.” Tilda tried to draw a deep breath while not throwing up. “Dad sold them all.”

“Not the first one,” Gwen said grimly. “Remember? He couldn’t because it was of our building. Nadine found it in the basement. And the woman who bought it won’t give it back. I asked.”

Clarissa came back with the check and Tilda took it. “Thank you,” she said to Clarissa and then spoke into the phone. “Ask again.”

“I tried. She hung up on me and I called again and Mason Phipps answered. She’s staying with him.” Gwen’s voice grew slower. “Mason was an old friend of your father’s. He’s the one who told her about Scarlet and the gallery. And he invited me to dinner tonight.”

“Oh, good. One of us will have a hearty meal.”

“So I thought I’d go and distract them and you could sneak in and steal it,” Gwen said. “And then we can bury it in the basement again.”

Tilda turned away from Clarissa and whispered into the phone. “You do realize you don’t get muffins in prison?” She tried again for a deep breath, fighting back the nausea. “And when we get it back, we’re burning it. If I’d known it was down th–”

“Something wrong?” Clarissa said from behind her.

“No,” Tilda said to her. “Everything is peachy.” She spoke into the phone. “I’m coming home. I’ll be there in four hours. Do not do anything until I get there.”

“We never do,” Gwen said and hung up.

“I certainly hope everything’s okay,” Clarissa said, looking avid.

“Everything is always okay,” Tilda said, bitterly. “That’s what I do. I make everything okay.” She stuffed the check in her shirt pocket and looked down at Spot, trembling on her foot. “Which is why I’m taking your dog.”

“What?” Clarissa said, but Tilda had already scooped Spot up, his long body drooping over her arm while his feet tried for purchase on her hip.

“Just saving you a trip to the pound,” Tilda said. “Have a lovely day.”

She carted her paint box and the dog out to her beat-up yellow van, simmering with exasperation and another emotion she didn’t quite recognize but thought might be fear. It put an acrid taste in her mouth, and she didn’t like it. Once on the passenger seat, Spot simmered, too. “Oh, calm down,” she said to him, as she put the van in gear. “Anything’s better than jail.” Spot looked at her strangely. “The pound. I meant the pound.” She talked to him all the way home, and by the time she pulled into the fenced lot behind the Goodnight Gallery, Spot was asleep and she was calmer. When she shut off the motor, he jerked awake, his eyes like marbles, and she carried him, now heaving with anxiety, into the shabby gallery office and deposited him on the floor in front of her mother and niece, both of them looking blonde and blue-eyed and cute. So not like me, Tilda thought. Behind them, Gwennie’s bubbler jukebox played “No, No, Not Again,” by The Three Degrees.

“This is Spot,” she said to Gwen and Nadine. “I’m finding him a home where people will treat him with dignity and not sell him down the river while his back is turned.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Nadine said, her pretty face defiant under her mop of pale curls. She was wearing a black T-shirt that said, “Bite Me” in Gothic letters, but she still looked like Shirley Temple in a snit. “Nobody told me we couldn’t sell paintings. We’re an art gallery, for cripe’s sake.” She crouched down on the worn Oriental rug to pet Spot, who backed away, still heaving, his eyes peeled for a getaway. “What is wrong with this dog?”

“So many things,” Tilda said. “About the painting.”

“While you were in Iowa,” Gwen said to her, “Nadine broke curfew and Andrew sent her down to clean the basement as a punishment.”

Tilda took a deep breath and thought of a few choice things to say to her ex-brother-in-law.

“You can stop looking so mad,” Nadine said. “Dad didn’t let me in the locked part. I still don’t know what’s in there.”

“Storage,” Tilda said.

“Right.” Nadine rolled her eyes.

“Nadine.” Tilda pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and looked down at her, and Nadine swallowed and sat up a little straighter. “You are not in a position to push your luck here. The painting.”

“Dad made me clean the back storeroom,” Nadine said. “It was full of furniture painted with animals. Dad said you did it when you were my age. It was pretty cool, especially the bed when we’d cleaned it off and set it up–”

“We?” Tilda said.

“Ethan and me,” Nadine said. “You didn’t think I cleaned that whole place out by myself?”

‘So Ethan knows.” Tilda consigned Andrew to the lowest circle of hell for criminal stupidity, in sending not only his daughter down there but also her non-family best friend.

“Well, he knows there’s furniture down there, yeah,” Nadine said. “What is it with you and the basement? It’s furniture.”

“Right.” Tilda realized her lungs were closing up again and got her inhaler out. “Are we close to the painting yet?”

“It was in there,” Nadine said. “It was wrapped in paper and stuck in a cabinet, the one with the turquoise monkeys on it. Did you really paint all those animals?”

“It’s junk. I was going through a phase.” Tilda hit the inhaler. “So you pulled the painting out and then what?”

“We thought it was good,” Nadine said.

“So you sold it,” Tilda said.

“No. We put it back in the cabinet and put dustsheets on everything and went to the Book Loft and Cup O’ Joe’s. And then today, Grandma had to go to the bank, and this Mrs. Lewis came in and asked if we had any paintings by somebody named Scarlet, and I said, no, all we had was Dorcas Finsters.” Nadine turned to Gwen. “Are we ever going to get rid of those? I know she lives here, but they’re really depressing, and I think we could–”

“Nadine,” Tilda said.

“Okay.” Nadine crossed her arms. “And Mrs. Lewis said no, she wanted paintings that looked like a kid had painted them, and she started talking about checkerboard skies and stars, and Ethan was here and he said, ‘That’s like the one we found in your basement,’ and she would not leave until we showed it to her.”

“Ethan said that,” Tilda said.

“Or maybe me.” Nadine squinted at the ceiling. “I’m not sure. Ask Ethan.”

“Like Ethan wouldn’t lie down on burning coals for you,” Tilda said. “So you went and got the painting . . .”

“And she offered me a hundred dollars for it and I said no,” Nadine said virtuously.

“And yet, the painting is not here,” Tilda said.

“She kept offering and I kept saying no and when she got to a thousand I caved,” Nadine said. “Now will somebody tell me why that was bad?”

“No.” Gwen sank down on the couch next to her granddaughter, looking much like Nadine was going to look in forty years, pale-eyed, graying, and gamine.

“Where’s your mom?” Tilda asked Nadine. She turned to Gwen. “Why wasn’t Eve watching the gallery?”

“She had a teacher’s meeting,” Gwen said. “Summer school. She’s aiding again. Look, this Lewis woman is not going to return it. And the more fuss we make, the more suspicious we look.”

“Suspicious about what?” Nadine said. “Nobody tells me anything.” She reached down and scooped Spot off the faded rug, and his tremors picked up again. “If you don’t tell me stuff, you can’t blame me when I screw up.”

She stuck her chin out at Tilda, defiant as she patted the dog, and Tilda thought, She’s right. She pulled out the ancient desk chair so it was facing Nadine and sat down, wincing as it creaked. “Okay, here it is.”

“No,” Gwen said. “She’s sixteen.”

“Yeah, and how old was I?” Tilda said. “I can’t remember a time I didn’t know.”

“Hello?” Nadine waved. “I’m right here. Know what?”

“Do you remember how successful the gallery used to be, when Grandpa ran it?” Tilda said.

“No,” Nadine said. “I was a kid when he died. I wasn’t really into the gallery thing then.” She relaxed her hold on Spot, who struggled out of her lap, hit the rug with a splat, and recovered by putting his paws up on Tilda.

“Well, one of the reasons we were successful was that Grandpa sometimes sold fakes,” Tilda said flatly.

“Oh,” Nadine said.

“That’s good,” Gwen said, her hands gripped together in her lap. “The more people who know that the better.”

“I won’t tell,” Nadine said.

“Some of the paintings that were real were by a man named Homer Hodge,” Tilda plowed on, “and Grandpa made a lot of money off him legally. But then he and Homer had a fight, and Homer stopped sending him paintings, so your grandpa got the bright idea of inventing a daughter for Homer named Scarlet, and he sold five paintings by her, making a big deal out of the fact that she was a Hodge.”

Gwen slumped back against the couch and stared at the ceiling, shaking her head.

“Invented a daughter?” Nadine said. “Cool.”

“No, not cool.” Tilda picked up Spot, needing something to hold onto for the next part, and Spot sighed and curled his long, furry body to fit her lap. “The painting you sold was the first Scarlet, a fake painting by a fake artist. And that’s fraud and we could go to jail. And people are going to realize it’s a fake because Homer was from a farm in southern Ohio, and the painting you sold is of this building.”

“I thought it looked familiar,” Nadine said.

“So once they figure out that one’s a fake, they’re going to come back to the gallery and ask questions.” Tilda felt her stomach twist again. “They might look at all the paintings Grandpa sold them for thousands of dollars and find out that some of them are fakes, and they’re going to want their money back, and we don’t have it. And we could go to jail for that, too, and lose the gallery and this whole building which means we’d all be out on the street.”

“Wait a minute,” Nadine said, perking up, evidently undeterred by the news her grandpa was a crook and she might soon be living in the gutter. “I didn’t know it was a fake. The only person who knew it was a fake was Grandpa. So we’re off the hook. We can blame him. He’s dead!”

“That’s been pretty much my plan for the past five years,” Gwen said, still staring at the ceiling.

“Nice try, but no,” Tilda said, feeling sicker. “The gallery as a business is still liable. And there’s one other person who knew and could go to jail. The person who painted them.”

“Oh.” Nadine grew still. “Who painted them?”

“I did, of course,” Tilda said, and got out her inhaler again.

It had taken Davy Dempsey four days to track his ex-financial adviser from Miami, Florida, to Columbus, Ohio, and now he leaned in the doorway of a little diner and watched his prey pick up his water glass, survey the rim, and then wipe it with his napkin. Ronald Abbott, a.k.a. Rabbit, was born to be the perfect mark: pale, semi-chinless, and so smug about his superiority in all things having to do with money, art, and life in general that he was a sure thing to con. Which made it doubly annoying that he had taken all of Davy’s money.

Davy crossed the diner and slid into the booth, and Ronald looked up in mid-sip and then inhaled his water in one horrified gasp.

“Hello, Rabbit,” Davy said, enjoying the gargle. “Where the hell is my three million dollars?”

Ronald continued to choke, strangling on tap water, guilt, and terror.

“You know, a life of crime is not for everybody,” Davy said, taking one of Ronald’s French fries. “You have to enjoy the risk. You’re not enjoying the risk, are you, Rabbit?”

Ronald swallowed some air. “It’s your own fault.”

“Because I shouldn’t have trusted you?” Davy nodded as he chewed. “Good point. I won’t do that again. But I want it back, Rabbit. The whole three million. And change.” He took another fry. The diner didn’t look like much, but the cook clearly knew his way around a potato.

“It wasn’t your money. You stole it.” Ronald looked around, apprehensive. “Where’s Simon? Is he here?”

“Simon is in Miami. I will be beating you up on my own. And you know it was my money, you saw me make it playing the same stocks you did–”

“The million you started with wasn’t yours,” Ronald said, and Davy grew still, struck by the three-year-old memory of a beautiful, enraged blonde.

“Clea.” Davy shook his head. “Did you have a good time, Rabbit?”

“See, you don’t even deny it.” Ronald was virtuous in his indignation. “You stole that poor woman’s inheritance from her father–”

Davy sighed and reached for the salt. If Rabbit had embezzled in the heat of Clea, it was going to be difficult to cool him down again. “That woman is not poor, she’s greedy. She inherited a chunk of change from her first husband and the last I heard she’d married some rich old guy in the Bahamas.”

“You stole her money,” Ronald said, sticking to the high ground. “She’s innocent.”

Davy pulled Ronald’s plate over to his side of the booth and reached for the ketchup. “Rabbit, I know she’s a great lay, but not even you could believe that.”

Ronald drew himself up. “You’re talking about the woman I love.”

“Clea is not the kind woman you love.” Davy said grimly. “She’s the kind of woman you think you love, but then it turns out you were just renting her until somebody else came along with an option to buy.”

“I believe in her,” Ronald said.

“You also believed the tech ride was going to last forever,” Davy said. “Like my daddy always says, if it seems too good to be true–”

“We’re not talking about money,” Rabbit said. “She loves me.”

“If you’re talking about Clea, you’re talking about money. It’s all she cares about.”

“She cares about her art,” Ronald said.

“Her art? That’s what she calls one cult movie and two porn flicks? Art?”

“No,” Ronald said, looking confused. “Her art. That’s how I met her, at her family’s art museum when I was helping value her late husband’s collection.”

“Late husband?” Davy laughed. “Imagine my surprise. Rabbit, her family doesn’t have an art museum, and she turned to you when she found out you had access to my accounts. What’d the last guy die of?” He held up a fry. “No, wait, let me guess. Heart attack.”

“It was very sudden,” Ronald said.

“Yeah, it always is with Clea’s husbands,” Davy said. “Word of advice: Don’t marry her. She looks really good in black.”

Ronald stuck out what little chin he had. “She said you’d speak badly of her. She said you’d threatened her, and that you’d spread lies about her past. You lie for a living, Davy, why should I believe–”

Davy shook his head. “I don’t have to lie on this one. The truth is grim enough. Look, if you want to commit suicide, dying in Clea’s bed is as good a way to go as any, but first I need my money back. I don’t like being poor. It limits my scope.”

“I don’t have it,” Ronald said, looking affronted. “I returned it to its rightful owner.”

Davy sat back and looked at him with pity laced with exasperation. “You already gave it to her. So when was the last time you saw her?”

Ronald flushed. “Four days ago. She’s very busy.”

“You gave her the money as soon as you got it, and then she got busy.”

“No,” Ronald said. “She’s collecting, too. It’s part of our plan, to build a collection–”

“Clea’s collecting art?”

“See,” Ronald said smugly. “I knew you didn’t understand her.”

“There’s not enough fast money in art.” Davy frowned as he pushed away Ronald’s empty plate and picked up Ronald’s coffee cup. “Plus it’s a bigger gamble than tech stocks. Art is not a good way to make money unless you’re a dealer without morals which entails working.” The coffee was lukewarm and did not go well with the fries. Rabbit had no taste.

“It’s not about the money,” Ronald was saying. “She fell in love with folk paintings.”

“Clea doesn’t fall in love,” Davy said. “Clea follows money. Somewhere in this there is a guy with money. And a bad heart. How’s your heart, Rabbit? You in good health?”

“Excellent,” Ronald said acidly.

“Another reason for her to dump you,” Davy said. “You lost your fortune in the tech slump and you’re not going to be easy to kill. So who’s the guy she’s spending time with? The guy with a lot of money, a weak heart, and a big art collection?”

Ronald sat very still.

“You know,” Davy said. “I’d feel sorry for you if you hadn’t ripped me off for three million. Who is it?”

“Mason Phipps,” Ronald said. “He was Cyril’s financial manager. Clea saw his folk art at a party at his house in Miami.”

“And shortly after that she saw the rest of him.” Davy sat back in the booth, his low opinion of humanity in general, and Clea in particular, once again confirmed. “What a gal. She’s learning about art so she can dazzle him into marriage and an early grave.”

“Mason’s not that old. He’s in his fifties.”

“The one I saw her kill was in his forties. I gather Cyril was her latest victim?”

“She did not kill her husband,” Ronald said. “Cyril was eighty-nine. He died of natural causes. And she didn’t make porn. She made art films. And she loves m–”

Coming Clean,” Davy said. “Set in a car wash. She’s billed as Candy Suds, but it’s Clea. Don’t believe me, go rent it yourself.”

“I don’t–”

“But first you’re going to help me get my money back.”

Ronald drew himself up again. “I most certainly am not.”

Davy looked at him with pity. “Rabbit, you can stop bluffing. I have you. If I tell the Feds what you’ve done, you’re back on the inside. I understand why you fell for Clea, I wasted two years on her myself, but you have to pick yourself up now. I’m going to get my money back, and you’re either going to help me or you’re going to go away for a very long time. Is she really worth that to you? Considering she hasn’t called you since she got the money?”

Ronald sat motionless for the entire speech and for a few moments after, and Davy watched his face, knowing wheels were turning behind that blank façade. Then Ronald spoke.

“Coming Clean?”

Davy nodded.

“You and she . . .”

Davy nodded.

“You think she and Mason . . .”

Davy nodded.

“I don’t know how to get the money back,” Ronald said.

“I do,” Davy said. “Tell me about Clea and art.”

Ronald began to talk about Mason Phipps and his collection of folk paintings; how Clea had followed Mason to begin her own collection and was staying with him now; how she had promised to call, would call, as soon as she had a chance.

“She’s very busy with the collection,” Ronald said. “It’s taking a lot of her time because Mason has to teach her so much.”

How you ever made a living from crime being this gullible is beyond me, Davy thought, but he knew that wasn’t fair. Clea was the kind of woman who flattened a man’s thought processes. God knew, she’d ironed his out a time or two.

Ronald went on about Clea the Art Collector, and Davy sat back and began to calculate. All he needed to do was con her address and account number out of Ronald, get her laptop, go into her hard drive, find her password–knowing Clea, she used the same password for everything–and transfer the money. It wasn’t a con but it was semi-risky, and it appealed to him a lot more than it should have. He was not looking forward to breaking the law. He was straight now. He’d matured. Crime no longer excited him.

“What?” Ronald said.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You’re breathing heavy.”

“Asthma,” Davy lied. “Give me her address and her account numbers.”

Ronald furrowed his brow. “I don’t think that would be ethical.”

“Rabbit,” Davy said, putting steel in his voice. “You have no ethics. That’s how you got into this mess. Give me the damn numbers.”

Ronald hesitated and then took a pen and notebook from his inside jacket pocket, flipped to a page, and began to copy numbers down.

“Thank you, Rabbit,” Davy said, taking the page Ronald tore from the notebook. He stood up and added, “Don’t leave town. Don’t steal anything else. And do not, for any reason, call Clea.”

“I’ll do anything I damn well please,” Ronald said.

“No,” Davy said. “You will not.”

Ronald met his eyes and then looked away.

“There you go.” Davy patted him on the shoulder. “Stay away from Clea, and you’ll be fine. Nothing but good times ahead.”

“At least admit you stole her money, you crook,” Ronald said.

“Of course I did,” Davy said, and went off to rob the most beautiful woman he’d ever slept with. Again.

Breaking into Mason Phipps house had been a bad idea, but Tilda hadn’t been able to think of a better one. Now, creeping through the Mason’s halls in the dark, she was reconsidering. She really wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. She was a retired art forger, not a thief. Plus, the place was deserted except for a caterer in the kitchen and Gwennie’s Dinner Party From Hell in the dining room, and it was spooking her out. “Drama Queen,” her dad would have said, but she had reason to be spooked. She’d searched an empty billiard room, an empty library, and an empty conservatory, and now she stood in the barren hall, thinking, I’m knocking over a Clue game. Miss Scarlet in the hall with an inhaler. Those were the days, the Golden Age, when men were men and women didn’t have to do their own second story work. What she needed was one of those old-fashioned guys who rescued women and stole things for them.

Oh, pull yourself together, she told herself and crept upstairs and opened the doors to one empty room after another until she found a bedroom full of silky things tossed everywhere, perfume scenting the air, the kind of room that fit the kind of woman that Tilda would never be. For one thing, she’d never have enough money.

Something glowed on a desk. Tilda squinted at it through her glasses and realized it was the edge of a laptop computer. Clea Lewis had closed her laptop without shutting it down. Careless, Tilda thought, looking around at everything the woman had and didn’t take care of. Really, she didn’t deserve to own a Scarlet.

Downstairs, a phone rang, and Tilda picked up speed, making a circuit of the room in the dim streetlight that filtered through the curtains, checking behind furniture and under the bed, feeling her way when the shadows were too deep to see. The Scarlet wasn’t that small, she thought as she turned to the quartet of paneled closet doors along one wall. Where the hell had Clea stashed it?

She opened the first two doors and shoved the clothes apart to search the back of the closet.

A man stood there.

Tilda turned to run, and he slapped his hand over her mouth from behind and yanked her against him. She kicked back and connected with his shin, and he swore and lost his balance and dragged her to the carpet as he fell.

He weighed a ton.

“Okay,” he said calmly in her ear, while she struggled under him, trying to pry his hand from her mouth before her lungs collapsed. “Let’s not panic.”

I can’t breathe, Tilda thought and sucked in air through her nose, inhaling a lot of dusty carpet.

“Because I’m really not this kind of guy,” he went on. “There’s no criminal intent here. Well, not against you.”

He had a grip like a vise. Her lungs seized up as his hand pressed against her mouth, her muscles clenched, the world got darker, and the familiar panic overwhelmed her.

“I just need to be sure you’re not going to scream,” he said, but she was going to suffocate, she’d always known she would some day, her treacherous lungs betraying her like everything else in the Goodnight heritage, but not like this, not in the middle of breaking the law while being mugged by some dead-weight lowlife, so as her lungs turned to stone and his voice faded away, she did the only thing she could think of.

She bit him.

Copyright © 2002 by Jennifer Crusie Smith. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.