5,995
23.12.2018

The Greenbriar Art Gallery was a small, fussy pair of rooms near the Potomac that stayed in business because people always buy the ridiculous if the price tag is high enough.

It was run by a crafty little man who rented the ramshackle building for a song and promoted his eccentric reputation by painting the outside puce. He favored long, unstructured jackets in rainbow hues, with half boots to match, and he smoked pastel cigarettes.

He had an odd, moon-shaped face and pale eyes that tended to flutter when he spoke of the freedom and expression of art. He tucked his profits tidily away in municipal bonds.

Magda P. Carlyse was an artist who became trendy when a former first lady had purchased one of her sculptures as a wedding present for the daughter of a friend. A few art critics had suggested that the first lady must not be too fond of the newlyweds, but Magda's career had been launched.

Her showing at the Greenbriar Gallery was a huge success. People crammed into the room dressed in furs, denim, spandex, and silks.

Cappuccino was served in thimble-sized cups, along with mushroom quiches the size of quarters. A seven-foot black man wrapped in a purple cloak stood mesmerized by a sculpture of sheet metal and feathers.

Tess took a long look at it herself. It made her think of the hood of a truck that had passed through a migration of unfortunate geese.

"A fascinating combination of mediums, isn't it?"

Tess rubbed a finger over her bottom lip before she glanced up at her date. "Oh, absolutely."

"Powerfully symbolic."

"Frightening," she agreed, and lifted her cup to disguise a giggle. She'd heard of Greenbriar, of course, but had never found the time or the energy to explore this trendy little gallery. Tonight she was grateful for the distraction this gathering provided. "You know, Dean, I'm really delighted you thought of this. I'm afraid I've been neglecting my interest in popular, ah, art."

"Your grandfather tells me you've been working too hard."

"Grandpa worries too much." She turned away to study a two-foot phallic tube that strained toward the ceiling. "But an evening here certainly takes your mind off everything else."

"Such emotion, such insight," a man in yellow silk bubbled to a woman in sable. "As you can see, the use of the broken light bulb symbolizes the destruction of ideas in a society that is driven toward a desert of uniformity." Tess shifted away as the man gestured dramatically with his cigarette then glanced at the sculpture he raved about.

It had a G.E. seventy-five-watt bulb with a jagged hole just off center. The bulb was screwed into a plain wooden base of white pine. That was it, except for the fact that the little blue sticker indicated it had been sold. The price had been twelve hundred seventy-five dollars.

"Amazing," Tess murmured, and was rewarded by a generous beam from Mr. Yellow Silk.

"It is quite innovative, isn't it?" Dean smiled down at the bulb as if he'd created it himself. "And daringly pessimistic."

"Words escape me."

"I know just what you mean. The first time I saw it, I was struck dumb."

Deciding against making the obvious comment, Tess merely smiled and moved on. She could do a paper, she thought, on the psychological implications-mass hysteria-that prompted people to actually pay for esoteric junk. She stopped by a glass square that had been filled with various size and colored buttons. Square, round, enameled, and cloth covered, they huddled and bumped together in the sealed box. The artist had called it "Population, 2010." Tess figured a Girl Scout could have put it together in about three and a half hours. The price tag read a whopping seventeen hundred fifty.

With a shake of her head she started to turn back to her date, when she saw Ben. He was standing by another display, his hands in his back pockets and a look of unconcealed amusement on his face. His jacket was open. Under it he wore a plain gray sweatshirt and jeans. A woman in five-thousand-dollars worth of diamonds swept up beside him to study the same piece of sculpture. Tess saw him mumble something under his breath just before he glanced up and saw her.

They stared as people passed between them. The woman in diamonds blocked the way for a moment, but when she walked on, neither of them had moved. Tess felt something loosen inside her, then grow tight and uncomfortable again before she made herself smile at him and nod in a friendly, casual greeting.

"… don't you agree?"

"What?" She jerked herself back to Dean. "I'm sorry, my mind was wandering."

A man who lectured hundreds of college students a year was used to being ignored. "I said, don't you think this particular sculpture shows the true conflict and eternal cycle of the man-woman relationship?"

"Hmmm." What she saw was a jangle of copper and tin that may or may not have been welded into metallic copulation.

"I'm thinking of buying it for my office."

"Oh." He was a sweet and absolutely harmless English professor whose uncle played an occasional game of poker with her grandfather. Tess felt an obligation to lead him away from the sculpture, as a mother might lead a child whose allowance was hot in his hand away from a shelf of plastic, overpriced model cars. "Don't you think you should look around a bit, consider some of the other…" What did one call them? "Pieces first?"

"The stuff's selling like hotcakes. I don't want to miss out." He glanced around the sardine-packed room then began to edge toward the owner. Greenbriar was hard to miss in an electric-blue suit with headband to match. "Excuse me, just a minute."

"Hello, Tess."

Cautious, calm, she looked up at Ben. The fingers around the miniscule handle of her cup dampened. Tess told herself it was the body heat in the overcrowded room.

"Hello, Ben. How are you?"

"Terrific." He was lousy, had been lousy for exactly one week. She stood in the midst of what he considered the pomp and the pompous and looked as cool and virginal as a vase of violets among a forest of orchids. "Interesting gathering."

"At least." Then her gaze slid over to the woman at his side.

"Dr. Court, Trixie Lawrence."

Trixie was an Amazon in red leather. In heeled boots, she stood an inch over Ben, with a mane of improbable red hair that exploded around her head in spikes, corkscrews, and kinks. The army of bracelets on her arm jingled as she shifted. On her left breast was a tattoo of a rose that peeked out from the low V of her vest.

"Hello." Tess smiled and offered her hand.

"Hi. So you're a doctor?" For all her size, Trixie's voice was only a breathless squeak.

"I'm a psychiatrist.

"No shit?"

"No shit," Tess agreed as Ben made a business of clearing his throat.

Trixie took one of the quarter-sized quiches and swallowed it like an aspirin. "I had a cousin in the loony bin once. Ken Launderman. Maybe you know him."

"No, I don't think so."

"Yeah, I guess you see a lot of people with their batteries low."

"More or less," Tess murmured, and glanced over at Ben. No trace of embarrassment there, she noted. He was grinning like a fool. Her own lips twitched before she lifted her cup. "I'm surprised to see you here."

Ben rocked back on the heels of worn tennis shoes. "Just impulse. I busted Greenbriar about seven years ago. Little artistic business with checks. When he sent me the invitation, I thought I'd drop in and find out how he was doing." He glanced over to see his host embrace the woman in diamonds. "Seems to be doing just fine."

Tess tasted her cooling cappuccino and wondered if Ben kept on such friendly relations with everyone he'd arrested. "So, what do you think of the show?"

Ben looked over at the case of buttons. "Such blatant mediocrity, in a society that has singles' night at the supermarket, is bound to be rewarded with tremendous financial gain." He watched the light bloom in her eyes, wishing he could touch her. Just once. Just for a moment.

"That's what makes America great."

"You look terrific, Doc." He yearned. It was the first time he believed he understood the true meaning of the word.

"Thanks." With the clear-minded intensity she hadn't felt since childhood, she wished she looked terrific.

"I've never been to singles' night at the supermarket," Trixie put in as she inhaled a plateful of quiches.

"You'll love it." Ben's smile faded a bit when he looked over Tess's shoulder and saw the man she'd been standing with before. "Friend of yours?"

Tess turned her head, then waited until Dean worked his way through the crowd. Her neck was long, slender, circled by pearls that made her skin seem only more delicate. Ben could smell her cool, quietly sexual scent over everything else.

"Dean, I'd like you to meet Ben Paris and Trixie Lawrence. Ben's a detective with the local police."

"Ah, one of the city's finest." Dean gave him a hearty handshake.

The guy looked like a cover of Gentlemen's Quarterly and smelled like a Brut commercial. Ben had an irrational urge to grip his hand Indian-wrestle style and go a round. "You one of Tess's colleagues?"

"No, actually I'm on the staff at American University."

College professor. It figured. Ben stuck his hands in his pockets again and took a small, telling step away from Tess. "Well, Trix and I just walked in. We haven't had a chance to absorb yet."

"It's almost too much to take in in one evening." Dean cast a proprietary eye at the mangle of copper beside him. "I've just bought this piece. It's a bit risque' for my office, but I couldn't resist."

"Yeah?" Ben looked at it, then stuck his tongue in his cheek. "You must be thrilled. I'm going to stroll around and see if I can pick up something for my den. Nice meeting you." He slipped an arm around Trixie's sturdy waist. "See you, Doc."

"Good night, Ben."

It was still shy of eleven when Tess stepped into her apartment alone. The headache she'd used as an excuse to cut the evening short had only been half a lie. Normally she enjoyed her occasional dates with Dean. He was an undemanding, uncomplicated man, the kind of man she deliberately dated in order to keep her personal life equally undemanding and uncomplicated. But tonight she just hadn't been able to face a late supper and discussion of nineteenth century literature. Not after the art gallery.

Not after seeing Ben, she made herself admit, and slipped out of her shoes two feet inside the door. Whatever progress she'd made in soothing her ego and alleviating the tension since that last morning she'd seen him had been blown, quite simply, to smithereens.

So she'd start from scratch. A hot cup of tea. She took off her fur jacket and hung it in the hall closet. She'd spend the evening in bed with Kurt Vonnegut, camomile, and Beethoven. The combination would take anyone's mind off their problems.

What problems? she asked herself as she stood listening to the quiet of the apartment she came home to night after night. She had no real problems because she'd made certain she wouldn't. A nice apartment in a good neighborhood, a dependable car, a light and consistently casual social life. That was precisely how she'd planned things.

She'd taken step A, and made certain it led to step B, and so on until she'd reached the plateau that satisfied her. She was satisfied.

She took off her earrings and dropped them on the dining room table. The sound of stone hitting wood echoed dully in the empty room. The mums she'd bought earlier in the week were beginning to go. Bronzed petals lay fading against the polished mahogany. Absently Tess picked them up. Their scent, sharp and spicy, went with her to the bedroom.

She wouldn't look at the files on her desk tonight, she told herself as she pulled down the zipper of her ivory wool dress. If she had a problem, it was that she didn't allow herself enough time. Tonight she would pamper herself, forget about the patients who would come to her office on Monday morning, forget about the clinic where she would have to face the anger and resentment of drug withdrawal two afternoons next week. She'd forget about the murder of four women. And she'd forget about Ben.

In the full-length mirror inside the closet, her reflection leaped out at her. She saw a woman of average height, slim build, in an expensive and conservatively cut white wool dress. A choker of three strands of pearls and fat amethyst lay against her throat. Her hair was caught back at the temples with pearl-trimmed ivory combs. The set had been her mother's, and as quietly elegant as the senator's daughter had been.

Her mother had worn the choker as a bride. Tess had pictures in the leather-bound album she kept in her bottom dresser drawer. When the senator had given the pearls to his granddaughter on her eighteenth birthday, they had both wept. Every time Tess wore them, she felt both a pang and pride. They were a symbol of who she was, where she had come from, and in some ways, what was expected of her.

But tonight they seemed too tight around her throat. She slipped them off, and the pearls lay cool in her hand.

Even without them the image changed little. Studying herself, she wondered why she had chosen such a simple, such a suitable outfit. Her closet was full of them. She turned to the side and tried to imagine how she would look in something daring or outrageous. Like red leather.

She caught herself. Shaking her head, she slipped out of the dress and reached for a padded hanger. Here she was-a grown woman, a practical, even sensible woman, a trained psychiatrist- standing in front of a mirror and imagining herself in red leather. Pitiful. What would Frank Fuller say if she went to him for analysis?

Grateful she could still laugh at herself, she reached for her warm, floor-length chenille robe. On impulse she bypassed it and took out a flowered silk kimono. A gift, rarely worn. Tonight she was going to pamper herself, silk against her skin, classical music, and it would be wine not tea she took to bed with her.

Tess put the choker on her dresser then pulled out the combs and lay them beside it. She turned down the bed and fluffed the pillows in anticipation. Another impulse had her lighting the scented candles beside her bed. She drew in a whiff of vanilla before she headed toward the kitchen.

The phone stopped her. Tess sent it an accusing glance, but went to her desk and picked it up on the third ring.

"Hello."

"You weren't home. I've waited such a long time, and you weren't home."

She recognized the voice. He'd called her before, at her office on Thursday. The thought of a self-indulgent evening at home slipped away as she picked up a pencil. "You wanted to talk to me. We didn't finish talking before, did we?"

"It's wrong for me to talk." She heard him draw in a painful breath. "But I need…"

"It's never wrong to talk," she said soothingly. "I can try to help you."

"You weren't there. That night you never came, you never came home. I waited. I watched for you."

Her head jerked up so that her gaze was frozen to the dark window beyond her desk. Watched. She shivered, but deliberately moved closer to look out at the empty street. "You watched for me?"

"I shouldn't go there. Shouldn't go." His voice trailed off, as if he were talking to himself. Or someone else. "But I need. You're supposed to understand," he blurted out quickly, accusingly.

"And I'll try to. Would you like to come to my office and talk to me?"

"Not there. They'd know. It's not time for them to know. I haven't finished."

"What haven't you finished?" There was only silence as he dragged his breath in and dredged it out again. "I could help you more if you'd meet with me."

"I can't, don't you see? Even talking to you is… Oh, God." He began to mumble. Tess couldn't understand. She strained her ears. Perhaps Latin, she thought, and put a question mark on the pad, circling it.

"You're in pain. I'd like to help you deal with the pain."

"Laura was in pain. Terrible pain. She was bleeding. I couldn't help her. She died in sin, before absolution."

The hand on the pencil faltered. Tess found it necessary to ease herself into the chair. When she found herself staring blindly at the window, she forced herself to look down at her pad again, and her notes. Training clicked into place, and she schooled herself to breathe deeply and keep her voice calm. "Who was Laura?"

"Beautiful, beautiful Laura. I was too late to save her. I hadn't the right then. Now I've been given the power, and the duty. The will of God is hard, so hard." He almost whispered here, then his voice became strong. "But just. The lambs are sacrificed and the clean blood washes sin away. God demands sacrifices. Demands diem."

Tess moistened her lips. "What kind of sacrifices?"

"A life. He gave us life and he takes it. 'Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of their eldest brother, when suddenly a great wind came across the desert and smote the four corners of the house. It fell upon the young people and they smote them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.' I alone," he repeated in the same terrible blank voice he had used to quote. "But after the sacrifices, after the trials, God rewards those who remain innocent."

As if she would be graded on them, Tess concentrated on mak-ing her notes clear and even. Her heart hammered away in her throat. "Does God tell you to sacrifice the women?"

"Save and absolve. I have the power now. I lost faith after Laura, turned my back on God. It was a blind, terrible time of selfishness and ignorance. But then He showed me that if I were strong, if I sacrificed, we would all be saved. My soul is tied to hers," he said quietly. "We're bound together. You didn't come home that night." His mind was swinging back and forth. Tess could hear it in the shifts of his voice as much as in the content of his words. "I waited, I wanted to talk to you, to explain, but you spent the night in sin."

"Tell me about that night. The night you waited for me."

"I waited, I watched for the light in your window. It never came. I walked. I don't know how long, where. I thought it was you coming toward me, or Laura. No, I thought it was you, but it wasn't. Then I-I knew she must be the one… I put her in the alley, out of the wind. So cold. It was so cold. Put her out of sight," he said in a terrible hiss. "Put her out of sight before they could come and take me away. They are ignorant and defy the ways of the Lord." His breath came in jagged gasps now. "Pain. Sick. My head. Such enormous pain."

"I can help the pain. Tell me where you are, and I'll come."

"Can you?" A frightened child being offered a night-light during a storm. "No!" His voice boomed out, suddenly powerful. "Do you think you can tempt me to question God's will? I am His instrument. Lauras soul is waiting for the remaining sacrifices. Only two more. Then we'll all be free, Dr. Court. It isn't death that's to be feared, but damnation. I'll watch for you," he promised, almost humbly. "I'll pray for you."

Tess didn't move when the phone clicked in her ear, but sat perfectly still. Outside the stars were clear and close and bright. Cars moved by on the street at a sedate pace. Streetlights pooled onto the sidewalk. She saw no one, but wondered, as she sat near the window, if she was seen.

There was sweat on her forehead, cold and sticky. She took a tissue from the corner of the desk and carefully dried it.

He'd been warning her. She wasn't sure if even he was fully aware of it, but he'd called to warn her as much as to ask for help. She would be next. Her fingers trembled as they lifted to where the pearl choker had lain. She couldn't swallow.

Slowly, and with infinite care, she drew the chair back and eased out of it, and out of the sight of the window. She'd put a hand to the curtain to draw it closed when the knock on her door made her slam back against the wall in an animal panic she'd never before experienced. Terror swam into her as she looked around for a means of defense, a place to hide, a way to escape. She fought it back as she reached for the phone-911. She had only to dial it, give her name and address.

But when the knock came again, she looked at the door and saw she'd forgotten to put on the chain.

She was across the room in seconds, heaving her weight against the door and fumbling with the chain, which suddenly seemed too big and unwieldly to fit into the slot. Half sobbing, she threw it home.

"Tess?" The knock came again, louder, more demanding. "Tess, what's going on?"

"Ben. Ben, oh, God." Her fingers were even clumsier as she pulled to release the chain. Her hand slipped on the knob once, then she yanked open the door and threw herself against him.

"What is it?" He felt her fingers dig into his coat as he tried to draw her back. "Are you alone?" Instinct had him reaching for his weapon, closing a hand over it as he looked around for someone, anyone who might have tried to hurt her. "What happened?"

"Close the door. Please."

Keeping one arm around her, he closed it and dealt with the chain. "It's closed. You'd better sit down, you're shaking. Let me get you a drink."

"No. Just hold me a minute. I thought, when you knocked, I thought…"

"Come on, you need some brandy. You're like ice." Trying to soothe, to stroke, he started to steer her toward the sofa.

"He called me."

The fingers on her arm tightened as he turned her around to face him. Her cheeks were white, her eyes enormous. Her right hand still gripped his coat. He didn't have to ask who. "When?"

"Just now. He called me at the office before, but I didn't realize it was him. Not then. He's been outside. I saw him one night, on the corner, just standing on the corner. I thought I was being paranoid. A good psychiatrist knows the symptoms." She laughed, then covered her face with her hands. "Oh, God, I have to stop this."

"Sit down, Tess." He relaxed his fingers on her arm and kept his voice calm; the same tone he'd use to interrogate a shaky witness. "You got some brandy around here?"

"What? Oh, it's in the buffet there, the right door."

When she was sitting, he went to the buffet, what his mother would have called a server, and found a bottle of Rimy Martin. He poured a double into a snifter and brought it to her. "Drink some of this before you start over."

"Okay." She was already pulling herself back, but drank to help things along. The brandy shot into her system and dulled the remaining fear. Fear had no place in her life, Tess reminded herself. Only clear thought and careful analysis. When she spoke again, her voice was level, without the bubble of hysteria. She gave herself only a moment to be ashamed of it.

"Thursday night I had a late appointment at the office. When it was over and I was packing up for the day, I got a call. He sounded very troubled, and though I didn't think it was a current patient, I tried to draw him out a bit. I didn't get anywhere, he just hung up." Brandy sloshed gently as she moved the bowl of the snifter around and around in her hands. "I waited a few minutes, but when he didn't call back, I filed it away and went home. He called back tonight."

"You're sure it was the same man?"

"Yes, I'm sure. The same man who called before. The same man you've been looking for since August." She sipped the brandy again, then set the snifter down. "He's falling apart, rapidly."

"What did he say to you, Tess? Tell me everything you remember."

"I wrote it down."

"You-" He stopped and made a quick movement with his head. "Of course you did. Let's have a look."

She rose, steady again, and went to the desk. Tess brought the yellow pad over and handed it to Ben. Here was something positive, something constructive. As long as she could think of it as a case, she wouldn't fall apart again.

"I may have skimmed on a few words when he was talking quickly, but I got most of it."

"It's in shorthand."

"Yes. Oh, I'll read it to you." She started at the beginning, making sure her voice was detached. Words were there to give the psychiatrist a clue to the mind. She remembered that and pushed back the horror of knowing they'd been directed at her. After the biblical quote, she stopped. "It sounds like the Old Testament. I imagine Monsignor Logan could place it."

"Job."

"What?"

"It's out of Job." His gaze was on the far wall as he lit a cigarette. Twice he'd read the bible through, when Josh had been sick. Looking for answers, Ben remembered, to questions he hadn't even formed. "You know, the guy who had everything going for him."

"And then God tested him?"

"Yeah." He thought of Josh again, then shook his head. Josh had everything going for him, before 'Nam. "Too happy, Job? How about some boils?"

"I see." Though it was painfully obvious she didn't know the bible as well as he, she saw the parallel. "Yes, it makes sense. His life was well set, he was content, in all likelihood a good Catholic."

"Never had his faith tested," Ben murmured.

"Yes, then it was tested in some way, and he failed."

"The some way would have to do with this Laura." He glanced down at the pad again, frustrated not to be able to read it himself. "Let's have the rest."

As he listened to her read, Ben fought to think like a cop and not a man caught between infatuation and something deeper. A killer had been watching her. Ben's stomach tightened into a maze of tiny knots. He'd been waiting for her the night Anne Reasoner was killed, the night Tess had spent in his own bed. The cop recognized the warning as quickly as the doctor had.

"He's focused on you."

"Yes, that seems to be the situation." Abruptly cold, she tucked her legs up under her before she set the yellow tablet aside. It was a case. Tess knew it was vital to think of it, to analyze it as a case. "He's drawn to me because I'm a psychiatrist and part of him knows how desperately he needs help. And he's drawn to me because I fit the physical description of Laura."

It had been the voice, she remembered, that had been the most frightening. The way it had swung from pitiful to powerful, in quietly determined madness. She folded her hands together, tight. "Ben, what I want you to understand is that it was like talking to two people. One of them was weepy, desperate, almost pleading. The other-the other was aloof, fanatical, and determined."

"He's only one person when he strangles women." He rose and walked toward the phone. "I'm calling in. We'll want to put a tap on your phone, here and at your office."

"At the office? Ben, I often talk to patients over the phone. I can't jeopardize their right to confidentiality."

"Don't give me grief on this, Tess."

"You have to understand-"

"No!" He whirled to face her. "You have to understand. There's a maniac out there killing women, and he decided to call you. Your phones get wired, with your permission or with a court order, but they get wired. Four other women didn't have the chance. Captain? This is Paris. We got a break."

It took less than an hour. Two cops in suits and ties came in, did what seemed to be a few minor adjustments to her phone, and politely refused the offer of coffee. One of them picked up the receiver, punched a few numbers, and tested the tap. They took Tess's spare key to her office and went out again.

"That's it?" she asked when she and Ben were alone again.

"These are the days of the microchip. I'll take some of that coffee."

"Oh, sure." With a last glance at the phone, she went into the kitchen. "It makes me feel exposed, knowing that whenever the phone rings, someone with a set of headphones is listening to everything I say."

"It's supposed to make you feel protected."

When she came back in with the coffee, Ben was standing by the window, looking out. She saw him deliberately close the curtain when he heard her behind him.

"I can't be sure he'll call back. I was frightened, I'm sure he sensed it, and dammit, I didn't handle it very well."

"I guess you lose your standing as supershrink." He took the coffee, and her hand. "Aren't you having any?"

"No. I'm already too wired up."

"You're tired." He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. She looked so fragile all at once, so pale and beautiful. "Look, why don't you go in, get some rest? I'll bunk out on the couch."

"Police protection?"

"Just part of our campaign to improve community relations."

"I'm glad you're here."

"So am I." He released her hand to run a fingertip down the closure of her silk kimono. "Nice."

"I've missed seeing you."

The movement of his finger stopped. He looked at her again and remembered that earlier in the evening she'd worn earrings, and a stone at her throat that had matched her eyes. And he'd wanted to touch her so badly that it had hurt, bone deep. Now, as he had before, Ben backed off.

"Got an extra blanket?"

She knew withdrawal when it smacked her in the face. As he had, she took a step back. "Yes, I'll get it."

When she'd gone, he swore at himself and stood straining against his own contradictions. He wanted her. He didn't want to get involved with anyone like her. She pulled at him. He pushed back. She was cool and lovely, in the way of pink-and-white delicacies behind bakery store windows. He'd already had a taste of her, and knew certain delicacies could be habit-forming. Even if he had room for her in his life, which he didn't, she would never fit. But he remembered again how she'd leaned against his windowsill, laughing.

She carried a blanket and pillow back in and began to make up the sofa.

"You don't act like you want an apology."

"For what?"

"For last week."

Though she'd been determined not to mention it herself, Tess had wondered if he'd bring it up. "Why would I want an apology?"

He watched her tuck the ends of the blanket neatly under the cushion. "We had a pretty fair argument going. Most of the women I-most women I know want to hear the old 'I'm sorry I was a jerk.' "

"Were you?"

"Was I what?"

"A jerk."

He had to admit she'd maneuvered him very nicely. "No."

"Then it would be foolish for you to say you were, just to hold up tradition. There, that should do," she added as she gave the pillow a final fluff.

"All right, dammit, I feel like an idiot about the way I acted the last time."

"You were an idiot." Tess turned from the sofa to smile at him. "But it's all right."

"I meant a lot that I said."

"I know you did. So did I."

Opposite sides, Ben thought. Opposite ends. "So where does that leave us?"

If she'd known, she wasn't sure she could have told him. Instead she kept her voice friendly. "Why don't we just leave it that I'm glad you're here, with all this…" Her gaze drifted to the phone.

"Don't dwell on that now. Let me take it from here."

"You're right." She linked her hands together, then pulled them apart. "If you think about something like this too much, you go-"

"Crazy?" he suggested.

"To use a loose, inaccurate term." She moved away then, tidying the desk to keep her hands busy. "I was surprised to see you tonight, at the gallery. I know it's a small town, but-" It struck her then; the confusion and panic had obscured it before. "What are you doing here tonight? I thought you had a date."

"I did. I told her I had an emergency. I wasn't far off. What about yours?"

"My what?"

"Your date."

"Oh, Dean. I, ah, told him I had a headache. I almost did. But you didn't tell me why you came by."

He shrugged that off and picked up her paperweight, a crystal pyramid that ran with colors as he turned it. "Looked like a real upstanding citizen. College professor, huh?"

"Yes." Something began to settle inside of her. It took Tess a moment to recognize it as pleasure. "Your Trixie. Her name was Trixie, wasn't it?"

"That's right."

"She looked charming. Loved her tattoo."

"Which one?"

Tess only lifted a brow. "Did you enjoy the show?"

"I'm fond of pretentious bullshit. Apparently, so's your professor. Great suit. And that natty little tie bar with the little gold chain was so distinguished." He set the paperweight down hard enough to make her pencils jump. "I wanted to push his nose into his forehead."

She beamed at him. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it." After a gulp of coffee, he set the cup on the desk. It would leave a ring, but she said nothing. "I haven't been able to think of anything but you for days. Got a name for that?"

She met his angry look with a smile. "I like obsession. Such a nice ring." She walked closer. There was no need for nerves any longer, or for pretenses. When his hands came up and took her shoulders, she continued to smile.

"I guess you think this is pretty damn funny."

"I guess I do. And I guess I could take a calculated risk and tell you I've missed you. I've missed you a great deal. Would you like to tell me why you're angry?"

"No." He pulled her against him, felt her lips curve then soften, then yield against his. The silk of her kimono rustled as his arms went around her. If he could have walked away, then he would have, without a backward glance. But he'd known when he found himself at her door that it was already too late.

"I don't want to sleep on that frigging couch. And I'm not leaving you alone."

She made the effort to open her eyes, but for the first time in memory she would have been willing to be swept away. "I'll share the bed with you on one condition."

"Which is?"

"That you make love with me."

He drew her against him so that he could smell her hair, feel the way it brushed over his skin. "You drive a hard bargain, Doc."