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The New Houdini 13

Max watched covertly as Chuck gazed out the window, the back of his neck stiff under his pristine collar. He had smiled his trademark grin when they got into the car but had lapsed into a troubling silence, observing the traffic flowing by. The afternoon light edged his hair in gold.

"I bet you took forever deciding what car to use."

Chuck ignored her and pointed to a brown paper bag at her feet. Inside sat a fresh-baked blueberry muffin, still warm. She smiled ruefully; he really did know what she liked. She was halfway through the muffin when he finally spoke. He shifted in his seat, the soft leather barely protesting.

"You'll be in fine form today, I hope?"

She tilted her head, the loose strands of hair from her bun tickling her face. "Will there be much for me to do? The plan is admirably simple."

The plan was direct, to her relief. Vincent, the driver, was already taking them to an auction during which the amber would be on the block. All they had to do was buy it before anyone else did. Stealing it was too difficult, the amber was too well-protected to crack with their meager skills. Chuck had no hindrances from digging into the deep Quentin coffers and even fewer scruples about spending. She hoped they would not have to dig too deep. It wasn't exactly money she could pay back.

A slow smile spread across Chuck's face, warm and so genuine that Max couldn't help but answer with a smile. She was puzzled for a moment; did she compliment him so rarely? Perhaps. She felt a twinge of guilt and the smile faded.

"You'll be playing my girlfriend, of course," Chuck said blithely. "The amber would make a lovely gift for you."

Max flushed. "I'm a social secretary, an intern for the summer."

"Same thing." He didn't bat an eye.

"Chuck," she said, and she tried to inject the word with as much warning and weight as it could bear.

He shrugged delicately. "Your way is extremely boring, you know."

The driver broke in before she could throw the remains of her muffin at Chuck's head. "We're here, sir."

Outside the tinted windows of the Continental Max saw the glass skyscrapers of the Financial District rising over the highways, the older, stouter colonial-style buildings that littered almost every part of Boston tucked between them like boulders among trees. The skyscrapers glimmered blue in the light, reflecting the sky and the water of the nearby harbor.

The auction, she knew, would be in one of those sleek towers, and she felt a sharp moment of trepidation. She'd never been in one of those buildings, had never given them more than a curious glance or ever thought she'd have a reason to enter one of them. Chuck laid a hand on her shoulder, a reassuring, feather-light touch that both calmed her nerves and set a warm spark in her skin that made her frown. He gazed out the window, cool and unruffled and his eyes darkening to a deeper blue at thoughts she could not fathom. Max took a deep breath and steeled herself against the unease she felt since she had woke this morning, and of which she hoped to spare Chuck from knowing.

They pulled up the curb and Vincent scrambled out of the driver's seat to open the door on Max's side. She got out, tugging her skirt down in discomfort, and Chuck followed. She moved to tug open one of the wide, sparkling glass double doors that served as the tower entrance when Chuck admonished her with the slightest shake of his head. She dropped her hand. She watched through the glass walls as a doorman in a suit strode toward them to open the door with a gloved hand. She stepped through first as she knew she should and swallowed the urge to thank the doorman, nodding to him instead.

The doorman's eyes passed over her without care and halted on Chuck. Chuck met his eyes steadily.

"Mr. Quentin, sir," the doorman said gravely. "Eighth floor."

Chuck smiled at him, his thoughts still shuttered behind his eyes. It led to an odd expression that Max had never seen before, kindly but distant instead of manic and teasing, a smile that was a shield. "Thank you."

Startled she followed him wordlessly to the elevator.

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