She stepped into the hall.

Before she could take a second step, a form materialized behind her. A bare arm clamped tight around her neck. Hoarse words barked at her ear. "Don't move."

Never one to obey, Lisa drove her elbow into the gut of her attacker.

A satisfying oof and the arm fell away. The attacker fell back through the embroidered brocade drapery across the doorway, tearing it down with his weight. He landed on his backside.

Lisa spun, crouched and ready to run.

The man wore only a loincloth. His skin was deeply tanned but roped here and there with old scars. Lank black hair, disheveled, half-obscured his face. From his size, musculature, and broad shoulders, he appeared more Native American than Tibetan monk.

Then again, it could just be the loincloth.

With a groan, he looked up at her. Ice blue eyes reflected the lamplight.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"Painter," he said with a groan. "Painter Crowe."


MAY 16

6:05 a.m.


What was it with bookstores and cats?

Commander Grayson Pierce crunched another chewable Claritin tablet as he left Hotel Nyhavn. Yesterday's research among Copenhagen's bibliophile community had led him through a half dozen of the city's literary establishments. In every bookstore, colonies of dander-rich felines seemed to have taken up residence, lounging on counters, prowling the top of teetering bookshelves filled with dust and moldering leather.

He suffered for it now, stifling a sneeze. Or maybe it was simply the beginning of a cold. Spring in Copenhagen was as damp and cold as any New England winter. He had not packed warmly enough.

He wore a sweater he had purchased from an overpriced boutique neighboring his hotel. The turtleneck was corded merino wool, undyed and plain. And it itched. Still, it warded off the early morning chill. Though dawn was an hour past, the cold sun in a slate-gray sky offered no hope of a warmer day. Scratching at his collar, he headed toward the central train station.

His hotel was located beside one of the city's canals. Gaily painted row houses—a mix of shops, hostelries, and private homes—lined both sides of the waterway, reminding Gray of Amsterdam. Along the banks, a motley assortment of watercraft were moored tightly together: faded low-slung sloops, bright excursion boats, stately wooden schooners, gleaming white yachts. Gray passed one with a shake of his head. It looked like a floating wedding cake. Already at this early hour, a few camera-laden visitors wandered about or took up posts along the bridge rails, snapping away.

Gray crossed the stone span and followed the canal's bank for a half block, then stopped and leaned against the brick parapet that overlooked the waterway. His reflection in the still water appeared below, startling him a moment. Half-shadowed, his father's face stared back up at him; coal black hair hung lankily over blue eyes, a crooked cleft divided the chin, the planes of his face were all sharp angles defining a stony Welsh heritage. He was definitely his father's son. A fact Gray had been dwelling on a bit too much lately, and it was keeping him up at night.

What else had he inherited from his father?

A pair of black swans glided past his position, disturbing the waters, trembling apart the reflection. The swans headed for the bridge, their long necks sashaying, eyes searching with a nonchalant air.

Gray followed their example. Straightening, he feigned interest in taking a photo of the line of boats while actually studying the bridge he had just crossed. He watched for any stragglers, any familiar faces, anyone suspicious. It was one advantage of residing near the canal. The bridges were perfect squeeze points to observe anyone trailing him. By crisscrossing the stone spans, he would force any tail into the open. He watched for a full minute until satisfied, memorizing faces and gaits, then continued on.

On such a minor assignment as this one, the habit was more paranoid than necessary, but he carried a reminder around his neck of the importance of diligence: a chain from which hung a small silver dragon charm. It had been a gift from an operative playing on the other side of the fence. He carried it as a reminder. To be wary.

As he set off again, a familiar vibration stirred in his pocket. He retrieved his cell phone and flipped it open. Who was calling him at this early hour?

"Pierce here," he answered.

"Gray. Good, I reached you."

The familiar silkiness of the voice warmed through his morning chill. A smile softened his hard features. "Rachel…?" His steps faltered with concern. "Is something wrong?"

Rachel Verona was the primary reason Gray had asked for this assignment, winging across the Atlantic to Denmark. While the current investigation could have been handled by any low-level research assistant at Sigma, the mission offered a perfect opportunity to reconnect with the beautiful dark-haired lieutenant of the Italian carabinieri. The two had met while working a case last year in Rome. Since then they had fabricated whatever excuse to meet. Still, it had proven difficult. Her position kept her landlocked in Europe, while his position with Sigma Force limited his time away from Washington.

It had been almost eight weeks since they'd last been together.

Much too long.

Gray pictured their last rendezvous, at a villa in Venice, Rachel's form silhouetted against the open balcony door, her skin aglow in the light of the setting sun. They'd spent that entire evening in bed. Memories washed through him: the cinnamon-and-chocolate taste of her lips, the rich perfume of her damp hair, the heat of her breath on his neck, the soft moans, the rhythm of their entwined bodies, the caress of silk…

He prayed she remembered to pack that black teddy.

"My flight's been delayed," Rachel said, interrupting his reverie with reality.

"What?" He straightened beside the canal, unable to keep the disappointment from his voice.

"I've been rerouted on a KLM flight. I now land at twenty-two hundred."

Ten o'clock. He frowned. That meant canceling their sunset dinner reservations at St. Gertruds Kloster, a candlelit restaurant nestled inside the medieval monastery vault. He'd had to book it a full week in advance.

"I'm sorry," Rachel said, filling his silence.

"No…no worries. As long as you get here. That's all that matters."

"I know. I miss you so much."

"Me, too."

Gray shook his head at his lame response. He had so much more in his heart, but the words refused to come. Why was it always like this? The first day of every rendezvous required overcoming a certain formality between them, an awkward shyness. While it was easy to romanticize that they would simply fall easily and immediately into each other's arms, the reality was different. For the first hours, they were merely strangers with a shared past. They would certainly hug, kiss, say the right things, but the deeper intimacy required a span of time, hours necessary to catch up on each other's lives on either side of the Atlantic. But more importantly, they sought to find their rhythm again, that warm cadence that would smolder into the more passionate.