"I'll remember that," Jonas said quietly. He seemed preoccupied with his vodka.

Verity caught the odd tone in his voice and wondered at it. Something wasn't quite right but she couldn't put her finger on it. For some reason, it gave her an uneasy sensation to realize just how little she really knew about this man. She turned back to her father.

"Okay, Dad, let's have it. What brings you to Sequence Springs?"

Emerson contrived to look hurt. "Can't a man get a paternal hankering to see his one and only child?"

"Sure, but you could have seen me two months ago down in Mexico if seeing me had been all that important to you," Verity pointed out carelessly. "It certainly would have been a lot more convenient for you. But the fact that you've come back to the States without any warning makes me wonder just what you're up to."

Emerson sighed and again looked at Jonas. "That tongue of hers gets sharper every time I see her. It's getting to the point where she can make a man bleed with a few well-chosen words. She used to be such a sweet, good-natured little girl. Now she's turning into an old maid before my very eyes."

Verity's mouth tightened ominously. "Odd that you should say that, Dad. Jonas was just making a similar observation not more than a few hours ago."

Jonas narrowed his eyes. "You should be grateful we're both concerned about your future."

She wasn't altogether certain he was teasing her. Deliberately she smiled at him. "Don't worry about me.

If either of you had any common sense you'd spend your time worrying about your own futures."

"Hah," her father muttered. "My future will take care of itself. It always has. But if I let you continue to go your merry way, I'm not going to have any grandchildren to bless my old age and that's a fact."

Verity fought back the warmth in her cheeks. Jonas was smiling faintly. It was time to press the attack.

"Answer my question, Dad. To what do I owe the honor of this midnight visit?"

Emerson swirled the vodka in his glass and looked pained. "Well, Red, to tell you the truth, I need a place to cool my heels for a while."

"Dammit!" Verity exploded. "I knew it. You're in trouble, aren't you?" Her hands tightened painfully around her glass. "Well? What is it this time?" It was all she could do to keep from hurling the glass across the room. She sensed Jonas's brooding, watchful gaze, and the knowledge that he was witnessing her loss of control made that loss even worse. "Go on, tell me. Did you get caught with someone else's wife? Did you try your hand at smuggling refugees out of some hole-in-the-wall country again? Get behind on your gambling debts? Or is your presence here simply the end result of some barroom brawl that you lost? Who's looking for you?"

Emerson cleared his throat. "You see how it is?" he complained to Jonas. "No respect. No compassion.

No concern for her old man. Just demands for explanations and answers, and when she gets them she'll probably spend half an hour chewing on me."

Jonas's faint smile broadened briefly but the intent look in his eyes did not lighten. "What is the explanation, Emerson?"

The big man shrugged. "What can I say? I owe a man a few bucks, that's all. A debt of honor."

"Debt of honor, my foot," Verity muttered. "A gambling debt is a gambling debt. No need to dress it up the way they did two hundred years ago by calling it a debt of honor."

Her father shook his head in woeful regret and turned back to Jonas. "You'd think after all the history I had her read, she'd have more respect for the subject, wouldn't you?"

"So you owe a man a few bucks?" Jonas prompted calmly.

"I do and he's getting a tad anxious, I'm afraid. I told him he'd have to wait awhile, and he told me if he was forced to wait too long, he'd send a few people out to rearrange my face. I deemed it prudent to depart from Mexico and then from Rio. My research was finished down there, anyway."

"What research?" Verity asked tightly,

Emerson's eyes brightened. "Didn't I tell you? I'm starting a new series of books, Red. Futuristic westerns."

"Futuristic westerns?" she asked blankly.

"Sure. It's a natural. Just think what I can do with the combination of traditional western story components and an exotic, extraterrestrial background."

Verity didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She told herself she should be accustomed to her father's ways by now. "You were in Mexico researching futuristic westerns?"

"Great locale and atmosphere. I was just about done, so I called you up to see if you could take a few days off and come down for a visit. You always did like Mexico. But right after I called you, I got the message that this gentleman to whom I owe a certain sizable sum was impatient. I couldn't reach you to call off the trip, but I figured you'd understand when you arrived and found me gone. In the meantime I thought I'd give Rio a whirl. Hadn't been there in a while. As it happens, all my problems were solved in Rio. Or almost solved, I should say. There are a couple of small details to work out, which is why I'm here to visit you for a while."

"What details?" Verity asked with deep suspicion.

"I have to complete a certain transaction," her father explained. "When it's finished, I'll have the cash I need to pay off this rather persistent gentleman who has been hounding me for the past three months."

Verity went cold. "What kind of transaction?" she whispered.

Emerson gave her a compassionate look and then shook his head at Jonas. "Look at her. Now she's convinced I'm running drags."

"For a spinster, she's got an active fantasy life," Jonas observed gently.

"Shut up, both of you," Verity snapped. "Tell me about this transaction, Dad."

"I have come into possession of a very unusual item, Red. It's in my bag, which is still outside in the car.

I'm told this item is extremely valuable. Normally such things are sold through auction houses, but I haven't got time to set up a deal like that. I also lack the kind of paperwork and guarantees of authenticity an auction house likes to see. I need to unload this item quickly for obvious reasons."

"You need a private collector," Jonas said quietly. "One who is passionately devoted to his hobby and who won't ask a lot of unnecessary questions."

Emerson looked at him with respect. "Exactly. A discreet collector. Preferably one for whom cost is no object. I thought it would be easiest to find one here in the States. But first I need to get the item appraised. I want to know exactly what I'm dealing. So far I've only got the former owner's word that the item is valuable."

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