Never Love a Naked P.I.
To Scott and Nancy and Kate, my most ardent supporters, who gave me the freedom to write.
And Ruth, Rose, Alyssa, Cathy and Tina; my most ardent critique group, who helped shape what I did write.
And to you, my new readers, may you enjoy the ride as much as I did writing it.
Thank you all.
New York, NY-2000-A new beginning
“ARE YOU ready for the naked hunk?”
An expensive scent flooded over Amanda as the attractive older woman at the next easel leaned in close, her carefully made-up eyes sparkling with wickedness.
Amanda suppressed a smile at her classmate’s comment. “And is a nakedhunk, as opposed to a naked anything else, supposed to make us draw any better, Christine?”
Amanda had forgotten there was to be a new model for the life class tonight. She tucked a stray lock behind the bandeau that held her auburn waves in place. Christine could have lacquered a Chinese table with the amount of effort she had expended on her face and hair and Amanda had barely remembered to freshen her makeup after work before the evening’s class.
“A handsome man is always good for revving the engine, love,” Christine said, as she winked, giving her raven locks a toss. Amanda rolled her eyes, expelled a short, indulgent chuckle and returned to sharpening a drawing pencil.
“All right,” Christine huffed. “If an intelligent, hard-working junior exec like you chooses to remain outside the social whirl of male/female inter…action, so be it. Though I think you’re soon going to realize, classy New York business women can anddo have their cake and…” She paused, brushing an imaginary morsel from her lips. Amanda shook her head and sighed.
OUTSIDE THE classroom door, Marc waited with the instructor.
This is it, he thought.
“Are you ready?” the older man in the neat, trimmed Van Dyke beard inquired, nervously kneading his hands.
“Yeah. I’m fine. You don’t look so hot.”
“I’m not used to this-how does your profession put it?-covert operation. Now that we’re here, I’m a little anxious.”
“You’ll be fine.” Marc shook his arms gently at his sides and lightly bounced on his toes as he drew drafts of oxygen deep into his lungs. “My ‘profession’ doesn’t usually put its ass quite so prominently on the line.” He rubbed his hands firmly over his backside. “You’re gonna owe me, buddy. Big time.”
The older man observed him for a moment. “This has been good for you. No matter what happens. You’re not as…angry as you were.”
“Yeah.” Marc’s grin was easy. “And I look damn good, too.”
AMANDA followed the quick turn of the raven head of her classmate at the next easel as the noise of the opening classroom door stopped Christine mid-maxim.
David Parkerson, senior instructor in life drawing at the Art Students League in New York City, entered the studio immediately followed by a taller, muscular young man in a dark sport shirt and worn jeans, carrying a gym bag. The young man strode confidently into the room on long, powerful limbs. Certainly not like the diffident or bored subjects that usually appeared to pose for the class.
The expensive perfume wafted quickly in Amanda’s direction again. “My God, he’s gorgeous.” Christine’s wide eyes never left the model as he disappeared behind a dressing screen.“That ought to catch your attention.”
Amanda blinked and felt herself flush. The new model certainlyhad caught her attention.
“Christine,” she said, as she felt her jaw tighten, “you remember very well the reason I came to New York was not to spend my days and nights pursuing the hottest pair of pants around.”
Or lack of pants, she added to herself as she fumbled with clamps attaching a large pad of drawing paper to the slanted wooden surface of the easel.
“You say that now, my twenty-something toddler.” Christine adjusted the neckline of her silk blouse. “But the day will come when you’ll have achieved your self-sufficient goal and will look around to find there’s no one to share the good times with.” Her voice grew steely. “Grab it when you can, babe, and then hang the hell on.”
Her grim observation was instantly overridden by a much more practical concern. “And speaking of hanging the hell on, I can hardly wait to see what this one has to offer. I swear, old Maurice was…”
“Christine! That’s more than enough.” Amanda’s pencils snapped smartly into the easel’s tray to join the bouncing conté crayons. “I come from a house full of men. Male flesh, per se, is not all that exciting to me.”
“Lord, would that I had been as fortunate.” Christine fanned her cheek with a limp hand, eyeing her fellow artist carefully.
Amanda smoothed the paper of her drawing pad carefully, feeling its comforting fine tooth under her moist palm.
The new model was attractive: a luxurious head of dark curls, richly tanned skin-probably Italian or some interesting mixture-and wonderful facial structure. He would be great to sketch with his high cheekbones and classically sculpted lips.
But more startling were his dark, intense eyes. On his way through he had quickly swept the room, as intent on observing the artists as they were him. He seemed to want to…draw them in.
Amanda took a deep breath and concentrated on the instructor’s opening remarks as Parkerson implored the class to observe, pay attention to detail, note the chiaroscuro, the play of light and shadow over the model and to scrutinize line.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” He tapped lightly on the screen. “May I introduce…Antonio.”
The young man reappeared from behind the screen, a white terry robe loosely wrapped around his body. With a swift, sure movement, he removed the garment, tossed it aside and stepped naked onto the modeling platform. Standing in an easy stance, he again surveyed the room as he waited for the teacher’s instructions.
“We’ll begin with two-minute sketches,” Parkerson said. “And then move on to five and fifteen, and finish with a half-hour pose. If you please, Antonio.”
The finely-delineated, muscular torso lowered as the model stretched one leg back. Calf muscles elongated, thigh muscles bunched. Thrusting the opposite arm behind him he twisted his torso and raised a crooked arm chest-high for balance. His biceps strained with tension. The tumble of dark curls lifted as the intent brow and firm jaw focused toward a distant target. His back hand curled powerfully around an imaginary circular flat stone as the muscles in his forearm swelled with anticipation. His stance froze.
Amanda’s eyes widened. Her breath stopped in her throat. The re-creation of bronze and stone became flesh and blood, tense with anticipation, throbbing with urgent life.
In a flickering wave of her imagination, she was transported across time and space. Before her, hot sunlight glittered off the moist sheen covering the taut, golden skin. The perfect, toned musculature, scraped clean of hair by sacred sharpened crescents of horn, burned with an incandescent fire in the wavering Greek heat as the roar of thousands of masculine voices in the huge amphitheater swelled to fill Amanda’s ears. She forced her limbs to remain relaxed and easy on the marble tier even as her pulse raced and she focused on the amazing athlete.
She had never seen anything so…perfect, so blindingly full of life. Blinking her eyes to clear her vision, her fingers tightened around the rough linen that hung loosely around her, helping to obscure her feminine outline. It had been worth the foolishness, the danger, the stubborn insistence that she must dress as a man and join the bellowing throngs to witness the Olympics herself.
If she were discovered, it would be disgrace, banishment…worse. She might lose her immortal soul, but she would die fulfilled. She was seeing with her own eyes naked power straining toward ultimate grace; an athlete blessed of the gods striving for the surely unattainable goal of athletic perfection.
He embodied everything Amanda had hoped to witness. His body coiled to unwind like a crouching panther, the chiseled muscles stretched to their fullest extent ready to sweep the gleaming discus forward spiraling into the cloudless Grecian sky, sailing toward the home of the gods.
The pitiless sun baked her throbbing temples, barely shadowed by her short-cropped hair. The roar in the crowd soaked into her skin and slowly faded to silence. A film of heat and moisture slid over her wide, staring, unbelieving eyes.
Suddenly, with a shiver, Amanda became aware of a breath released and then the hurried, excited soft hiss of a pencil on paper; next, the rasping whoosh of chalk; then the slosh of water as a brush was readied. She was back in the present and the class was excitedly responding to the model’s pose.
All around, her fellow artists began to work feverishly knowing the pose was a precious moment in time that would soon vanish.
“Thank you, Antonio. May we have another, please.” Parkerson began to move about the room.
Amanda forced herself to look at the blank paper in front of her. She hadn’t put a stroke on the sheet. She looked up. A new image emerged on the platform. This time the model was a steel worker, proud and exhausted at the end of a day of violent and exhausting toil. She, the faithful wife, awaiting his return, alert and attentive to his needs, her day filled with fulfilling her part of the contract that made their combined efforts one. She had seen the sculpture in the American Wing of the Metropolitan and been profoundly moved. It had galvanized her there: the small bronze capturing toil, pride, hope, power, surety.
To see it replicated before her in naked, pulsing flesh and urgently-throbbing blood and to feel a part, a necessary co-creator of its physical creation was beyond all she had ever allowed herself to imagine that the practice of art might accomplish.
The instructor stood next to her. Her sketch pad was still blank.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” said Parkerson indulgently. “Take your time. Study the line. There’s no hurry. Another pose, please, Antonio.”
At the end of three poses, Parkerson gave the model a rest. The powerful, muscular body slipped into his short terry robe and wandered among the artists. He moved lightly on strong bare feet over the ancient wooden floor impregnated with chalk dust, oil paint and pencil shavings from generations of intent students.
Never, Amanda thought, could those boards have felt the imprint of such a unique sensibility. He had galvanized the class. Challenged the class to put down on paper what he had brought to life. He had stunned Amanda.
Everyone seemed to be trying to chat with the handsome young man at once. Christine was effervescent, flushed, and laughing.
The model glanced toward Amanda. An electric current jolted through her. She snapped her head away. One hand gingerly moved up to touch her cheek. Her eyes darted around the room.
Everyone in the class was enthusiastically occupied with chattering with each other or busy trying to engage the model.
She forced herself to look back. He had moved on to view Professor Angeli’s work but was watching her out of the corner of his eye. She sat down heavily on her stool, feeling her pulse rise.
The young man nodded appreciatively at the professor’s work, then turned and started toward Amanda, an intent look in his dark, piercing eyes before their instructor headed him off and announced to the class it was time to begin again.
The fine, chiseled profile glanced back at Amanda over broad shoulders.
Focus, dammit, focus on the job at hand. You’ve spent months preparing for this moment. Don’t blow it now!
Marc had not prepared himself for this. He had prepared himself for having his naked body stared at by a room full of men and women intent on observing him as, he hoped, a very special subject worthy of trying to capture on paper. He had particularly prepared himself for being stared at by sexually interested and sexually interesting women.
What Marc had not prepared for was the look on the face of the dark-haired, young woman who seemed to see right into his head and connect with his thoughts. Her liquid, dark eyes seemed to be in perfect empathy with the hopes and dreams of the athlete, the exhaustion of the steel worker, the hauteur of the Roman god.
It took his breath away. He hadn’t expected such…connection.
This one he had to meet.
The sudden warmth in his chest was doused by an instant cold realization. This one also might be the very one they were looking for.
Amanda could hardly get through the next 15 minutes. The man’s performance-that was the only word for it-was miraculous. He kept transforming himself into works of art, into stunning amalgamations of flesh and stone and paint.
She was transfixed and barely made a mark on her pad. She was torn between wanting to speak to the model, to see if he could possibly be as focused as he seemed to be and almost hoping he would turn out to be a perfectly normal, if very well-turned-out, guy. One who might even make a pass at her so she could then dismiss him as not being… What? What was she afraid of him being?
Amanda knew perfectly well. She was afraid of a nude male model being a man who had touched her soul.
At the end of the next session after Parkerson called the break, Amanda watched with a wave of trepidation as the model tied his robe and headed straight for her.
He moved like a tiger on his naked feet, silent, sure, concentrated. He was within a foot of her, his aura blazing out like a summer’s day. He looked at the almost-pristine drawing pad and turned to her with a look of concern.
“Are the poses okay? I’m…trying for something special.” His voice was low, rich with urgency. “I wondered what you thought.” He suddenly seemed almost shy.
How astonishing, thought Amanda. Naked before the entire class he couldn’t be more completely in control and yet, now with her…
He had asked a simple question.Answer it.
“You are astonishing.” Suddenly she was confident, at ease with the powerful, beautifully muscled man who stood before her and whose heat seemed to radiate and warm her. Knowing he was naked beneath his robe, she imagined the rough terry cloth stroking the smooth, flawless skin.
“I have never seen such wonderful poses. I can’t do a thing,” she said and laughed, indicating her blank paper, “except look.”
“Hey,” he said, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his robe and shuffling lightly, “you’re being too good to me.”
Amanda’s eyes narrowed.
“Isn’t he an excellent model, Miss Emerson?” Their instructor put his hand on the broad shoulders and guided him away. “Come, Antonio, let me show you Mr. Wilde’s watercolors and young Nathan’s charcoals. Perhaps in our next session Amanda will find more in your pose to put down on paper.” He threw an indulgent smile over his shoulder as they moved away.
Amanda let the oxygen flood back into her lungs. This had never happened to her before. This sudden, instant, overwhelming infatuation.
Christine’s painted eyes focused narrowly on Amanda. One edge of her shimmering mouth lifted and amazingly, to Amanda’s great relief…she kept it shut.
THE REST of the class was a joyous blur. The powerful young man transformed himself into a Fra Angelico angel and finished the class with the pose of a muscular, intent nude from the Sistine ceiling.
At each break he started directly for Amanda but, as the evening had progressed, the students had become friendlier and more enthusiastic and kept waylaying him.
The end of class brought spontaneous applause. Antonio went behind the screen to dress as, surprisingly, Mr. Parkerson urged them all out of the studio. He praised them for their enthusiasm and the evening’s accomplishments, but nonetheless pressed them to gather their things and vacate quickly.
Normally, the class would hang around chatting with their instructor and commenting to each other about the evening’s session. The next class would slowly feed in, and eventually Amanda and a small group of fellow artists would find themselves reassembled outside the classroom as their other classmates dispersed.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Emerson,” Parkerson said gently, guiding her out the door as he helped her zip her portfolio. “I’m sure next week will be better.”
“Good work, Christine,” he called out to the disappointed group waiting in the hallway. “Next session perhaps you’ll enlarge your horizons?” And the door to the studio was firmly closed.
“Well,” a disgruntled Professor Angeli intoned to the group, “our esteemed instructor seems intent on keeping the young Antonio to himself.”
Mr. Wilde smiled beatifically, his large bulk snug in his expensive overcoat, the polished leather portfolio clasped tightly to his expansive chest. “Young Antonio was truly inspiring. I do think I’ve done my best work so far.”
The youngest member of the group, a young man who considered himself the art world’s answer to Marlon Brando’sThe Wild One, punched an annoyed Christine lightly on the shoulder. “Ha! Didja hear, guys? ‘Enlarge your horizons,’ babe! Didja see how this one whipped through a whole sketch pad never getting above our hot stud’s navel or below his knees.”
Christine tugged her fur tightly under her chin and adjusted the strap of the portfolio hanging from her shoulder. “I’ve never seen a better developed set of six-pac abs. It deserved all the attention I could give it. And you, fat boy,” she said, as she firmly slapped the back of her gloved hand against the tight, button-fly denim below his short leather jacket, “might take a lesson, if you would ever learn to recognize the fact that someone else inhabits this planet other than your self-centered self.”
Haughtily, she pushed her way down the steps onto 57th Street, the small group regrouping around her.
“Now, Christine,” Professor Angeli soothed the waters, “young Nathan was more than likely a bit intimidated by our rather spectacular model. The peripatetic Maurice and the fulsome Pauline have not exactly led us to expect such a beautifully developed specimen to sketch.”
“Yeah. Specimen,” grunted a scowling Nathan, settling his leather cap over his lank, unkempt hair. “C’mon, cutie,” he grabbed Amanda’s arm. “Let’s go for a brewski and let these bozos slather over their wine spritzers about Mr. Hot Nuts. You didn’t seem so damned impressed.”
Amanda felt as if her life had been put into fast-forward. Absently, she pulled the bandeau from her head and pulled on a knitted cap. She wanted to hit the pause button, to be back in ancient Greece, to be greeting the steel worker, to be crouched at the foot of the Messenger of the Gods. It took a moment to will herself to hear what Nathan was saying.
She pulled her arm away. “Thanks, Nathan, I don’t think so. Not tonight.”
Wilde peered at her carefully. Recognizing a kindred reaction, his beaming countenance was suddenly replaced with a scowl as he turned to face Nathan. “You see,” he stated, pulling his fine white eyebrows together tightly, “our junior executive was more than impressed. And needs, I believe you call it, space. Back off, young Angry One.”
Professor Angeli chuckled, knowing the young man revered the young Brando and that Wilde’s reference would more than mollify him.
“Do you want to come with us, Amanda?” Christine asked. “Or are you more in the mood for your famous wandering the streets of noire New York.” Nathan snickered. Christine’s eyes narrowed. “You’ll miss my using a perfectly good martini to dash the smile off this surly stud’s kisser.”
Amanda laughed. She could use some air. She did need…space. The early spring night was cold and crisp and hopefully would be just what she needed to snap her back to reality.
She hugged Professor Angeli, her healthy body enveloping his thin frame.
“You will be careful, my dear…this city, you know.” He glanced around the mobbed nighttime street warily.
“Of course.” Amanda hugged Mr. Wilde, stretching to envelop his large bulk. The group knew that her nocturnal forays were very carefully planned, sticking to well-lighted and well-filled streets. She was too much of a city girl not to be careful.
Knocking fists with Nathan, she said, “Belt one back for me, graphic genius. And don’t be late for work in the morning.” She waved goodbye. Christine came close as the men moved away.
“Something really got through to you tonight, didn’t it?”
Amanda looked into Christine’s shining eyes. “Yes.”
And what she needed was time and space to figure out just what it was.
Amanda watched the group disappear east on 57th Street, headed for the tratorria where they would gripe and admire and complain and discuss art theory until Nathan would say something to enrage Mr. Wilde or Christine and send them all into the night to their respective parts of Manhattan.
She walked toward the Coliseum Bookstore past the chaos of the Hard Rock Cafe and, after a pause trying to decide whether to cross Broadway or not, swung back and returned to the door of the Art StudentsLeague. The physical proximity of the earlier events of the evening seemed to sharpen all her senses anew. She admired the examples of instructors’ and students’ work displayed in the high windows of the venerable institution, imagining the young model’s powerful presence captured there.
Abruptly she turned away and jaywalked across 57th, her heart pounding in her chest. As she stood outside the art supply store window, the implements of her avocation floated before her eyes: easels, portfolios, drawing pens, crayons, papers, wooden manikins.
Smoothly turned sections of hard wood bolted together to form a flexible human shape were capable of being manipulated to achieve any pose an artist might need. The gleaming wood erupted into the musculature of perfectly-sculpted living flesh. The round faceless knob sprouted a dark mass of curly hair.
On the cool New York nighttime street, Amanda felt a great longing for heat, for the noise of masculine voices shouting in her ears. She longed for her eyes to once again see him.
In a nearby upscale diner she downed two glasses of wine so quickly the bartender looked at her with concern. “Rough night?”
She shrugged. He held up a bottle of whisky and she laughed. “Not that rough. Yet.”
The wine warmed her chest, working its way comfortingly into her solar plexus. She wanted to keep the memory of being brightened by his quick glance in her direction, the radiance of his smile, the aura of his presence.
“Foolish,” she muttered to herself with disgust and, with a resigned sigh, headed for the subway.
Her train was pulling into the station as she pushed through the turnstile. Dashing through the crowd of disembarking passengers, she slipped inside the closing doors and eased into a vacant seat near the center of the car.
Amanda glanced around at the late-night passengers. Her breath caught in her throat. Seated toward the other end of the train was the man who had sent her head whirling.
MARC SAT grumbling to himself, his jaw tense. What the hell did David mean, hustling everybody out of the drawing class. Wasn’t “Antonio” supposed to get to know the artists who seemed the most likely suspects? Wasn’t the model guise supposed to shock someone into a fatal revelation?
Marc wanted to get back to the girl, Amanda Emerson, to talk to her, see what was in her eyes. See the color of her eyes.
Maybe she was the one. No one else had reacted the way she had. That’s what they had wanted, right? To trigger something that might give the perpetrator away. Perpetrator.He sounded like some TV cop, for God’s sake.
He opened the art book on his lap and stared at the pages.
Angry. Still angry. He thought he had a handle on it.
He and David had gotten into a heated argument after class. He should have known they couldn’t work together on this job without squaring off at each other. Marc sighed deeply. A lot of bad history. A lot of garbage left to clear up yet.
Meditation. Tai chi. I gotta get back to those damn classes. Concentrate.
He focused on the open book. Concentrate on which picture, which pose might trigger a revealing response.
And not on wondering whether her eyes were deep brown or inky black.
AMANDA felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She didn’t like what she was doing: watching someone who had no idea that every move was being scrutinized, every gesture analyzed. She shook herself and turned away. He drew her back.
Underneath the down parka and worn jeans was the naked body she had all but memorized earlier that evening. Wide, strong shoulders stretched above the smooth, flat pectoral planes. Powerful thighs pressed tightly against denim. The chest, firm and hard, slowly rose and fell. She remembered the nipples, the darker circles of pebbled flesh that the taut nubs sprang from.
She swallowed and looked away, feeling her body flush. She smoothed her hands over her slacks, the heat from her own thighs radiating into her moist palms. She could feel his flesh under her hands, lean muscles contracting and elongating, stretching and undulating under her firm fingers. She ironed her slacks with her palms harder, beginning to feel the heat of the Greek sun on the back of her neck.
She pressed more firmly, imagining the imprint of his naked skin pulsing against her pressing palms. Dreamily, her eyes drifted over the landscape of his body. Every inch golden toasted. Every muscle sharply defined. His body scraped clean. Except for the puff of dark, shining pubic…
At the other end of the subway car the model shifted in his seat, the muscular buttocks and powerful legs straining the fabric of his faded jeans. He glanced up from the book he was immersed in and looked right at her! Even from this distance the rich darkness of his eyes shot through Amanda with a physical force. She turned away, her hand quickly reaching to prod at her knitted winter cap. She felt instantly foolish.
What could she say to him? He would think she had followed him from class! An infatuated art student with a silly, school girl crush. She fumbled awkwardly with her portfolio, unzipping it and blankly rearranging drawings inside.
Damn it!Amanda zipped the portfolio closed with a rush of meshing teeth. She may just be an infatuated student struggling to capture three-dimensional magnificence in scribbling two dimensions, but the fully-round male at the end of the subway car was what she wanted to learn more about more than anything she had ever wanted before. She raised her head and looked firmly back at those staggering dark eyes.
He was focused on infinity, staring vacantly in Amanda’s direction. He sighed, reached to tug at his hair and absently scratch his scalp through the tangle of black curls.
He looked back at his book.
He hadn’t even seen her.
AT THE opposite end of the car from the object of Amanda’s careful observation, a pair of steely eyes was taking their own careful note of the young woman: her tentative touches to her cap and hair, her furtive glances to keep the model in her sight through the late-evening subway crowd, her odd smiles as though responding to some inner directive. The young woman was being more carefully watched than she was watching.
Suddenly, Amanda realized she had no idea where she was. A local station whizzed by the windows of the train, the station designation meaning nothing. She must have passed her stop long ago. A wave of unsettling disorientation washed over her. She quickly looked around for a subway map.
How could she have been so foolishly distracted by a Greek Olympian, a Roman god-by naked flesh? Rising young executive Amanda Emerson was not pleased with herself. She hadn’t finally gotten away from a house full of overbearing males in Pittsburgh to get tangled up with a bare-assed New York model.
The subway train pulled into a station.
Canal Street? That’s somewhere in lower Manhattan, isn’t it? She paused at the doorway.
“Hi, remember me? You okay? You look lost. Can I help?”
The deep, concerned voice shot through her like a velvet cannon. Amanda whirled. The amazing model was mere inches away. Even swathed in his late winter clothes, his aura bathed her in a flush of warmth. His eyes were the deepest, darkest brown she had ever seen. And with those cheekbones he must be Northern Italian or…geography swirled in her head…Black Irish maybe.
“I forgot to get off at my stop. I don’t know where I am.” She stammered. So much for the in-charge, rising young executive.
He laughed, his teeth blindingly perfect. As well they should be in that perfect mouth…perfect lips…perfect chin…
“Welcome to the club. So did I. Good.” He chuckled. “Now I don’t feel quite so dumb myself. I don’t know where my mind was. Well, yes, I do know where my mind was,” he said with a mischievous grin. “But it obviously wasn’t on where I was going. Do you live in the Village, too? We can go back together, okay?”
“No. I’m in Chelsea. I’ve been meaning to get to the Village, but…” She took a deep breath. She needed more air.
The car doors closed on them and within seconds the train was charging deeper and deeper into the depths of Manhattan.
“No big deal. When I asked David about you tonight…” He stopped himself. For a moment his look froze, then he turned a relaxed smile on Amanda. “He said he believed you were new to the city.” He glanced at the subway map. “We can change back to the uptown train at Chambers Street.”
Next to her, his body heat was like the spring sunshine that would flood the city in a few weeks, reawakening life.
As she scrutinized his face, he seemed more mature than she had at first thought. Fine lines gathered at the corners of his dark eyes.
“I can see you back to your place if you like. Or we could stop in the Village and have a bite.” He smiled. Relaxed. At ease. “Or both. I’ll even take you on a little tour of the Village, if it’s not too late for you. I can point out the really seedy places to avoid, when you finally get down our way…or head for,” he cocked a knowing eyebrow, “if you’re feeling adventurous.” His grin was teasing.
Amanda was trying hard to remember they were deep in the bowels of present-day late-winter Manhattan, for the heat of an Olympian sun was beginning to color her cheeks again.
Farther down the car, buried in a winter great coat under a pulled-down hat, the watcher noted how warmly the two seemed to be getting on. A frown furrowed an anxious brow.
The model was pouring on the charm. “I’m offering to take you on a semi-date and I’m not even sure of your name. David seems to be taking great pains not to let me too near any of his students.” He laughed. His gaze held on her eyes for a long moment then the sweep of dark lashes shadowed his cheeks as he dropped his look to contemplate his hands, suddenly seeming ill at ease. Or shy.
“I would like very much to have a bite to eat, and a quick walk through the Village sounds terrific.” Amanda smiled as openly and charmingly as she could manage, hoping the pounding of her heart was at least muted by the subway’s roar. “And since I have to get up early and go to work in the morning, maybe we could continue the tour later?”
She felt her cheeks flush at her obvious hint for another meeting with the handsome model. She couldn’t be much more straightforward than that, she thought. Well, she could, but she didn’t have the experience to fling herself at him more forcefully than she already was doing.
She held out her hand for a proper introduction. “I’m Amanda Catherine Emerson and you can…”
“ACE! What a great set of initials. I’ll bet everyone’s called you that since you were a kid. May I, too, or are you sick of it?”
No, no one has ever called me that. Except me.Her heart skipped a beat. “That would be great. Most people just call me Amanda, but Ace would be…fine. Uh, Antonio?”
For an instant he looked blank, then suddenly brightened, “Yeah, sure…Antonio. If It’s not too much of a mouthful. Most of the time I’m, uh, just called Tony.”
“Antonio seems to suit you. Like Anthony or Angelo. You seem to require multi syllables.”
Multi syllables!Poetic…to a man she barely knew.Oh, please.
Of course, bare was what she did know of him.
“Antonio never sounded so right.” He continued to look into her eyes until Amanda felt as naked as he had been posing in front of the class.
But, amazingly she felt no unease. She was as comfortable and contented in Antonio’s gaze as if the two of them were alone on a secluded postcard-perfect beach of a warm tropic isle or in an ancient Grecian courtyard.
Toward the center of the car, hidden behind people getting up to get off at the next stop, their watcher frowned at their intimacy.
The subway car’s brakes squealed, the doors whooshed open and Amanda and the model scrambled out onto the platform, Amanda clutching her portfolio, Antonio clutching Amanda. Taken by surprise, their observer leapt off the train by another door and followed from a distance, keeping the crowd between them.
Antonio led Amanda upstairs as a train going in the opposite direction pulled into the station. He put his arm around Amanda’s waist and guided her into the car.
The great-coated figure following them slipped into the next car and watched the couple through the glass of the connecting doors.
“The good, old, New York subway system, sometimes it works like a charm.” The young man’s dark eyes danced over Amanda. “And tonight things seem to be working really well.”
With a deep electric hum, the train moved forward. Antonio settled comfortably next to Amanda, stretching his arm to rest behind her shoulder.
“In a few minutes we’ll be back in the Village. I know a terrific little place…”
He chatted casually about his favorite Village restaurants. People in New York always seemed to be concerned about where to eat, Amanda dreamily thought.What a perfect night.
What a disaster!Face glowering under the concealing hat brim, hands clenched in leather-clad fists in the pockets of the great coat, the grim observer of the happy couple contemplated the next move.
WITH A firm hand at her waist, the handsome young man guided Amanda off the train at the Christopher Street stop, up the stairs and into the night-time Village crowd.
“The famous Circle in the Square theater used to be right there.” He indicated a grocery store on the ground floor of a high rise. “And the Theater of the Ridiculous was over there. You ever seen ‘em? Nutty. C’mon, we’ll start at the center of things.”
They walked east, her guide pointing out various shops and favorite places to eat, and entered Washington Square Park, its tree-lined walkways converging on a large circular fountain, not yet filled. Further, at the northern entrance to the park, a large triumphal arch marked the beginning of Fifth Avenue.
“Reminds me a little of Paris,” he explained, “with the arch lit up at night. Do you know Paris?”
Amanda shook her head no.
“A beautiful city.” His dark eyes looked deep into hers with the implication that Paris would be even more beautiful shared with her.
Amanda looked away, trying to ignore her heightened pulse, admonishing herself to keep her mind on the immediate tour at hand and stop making up romantic scenarios.
“The city’s cleaned up the park here a lot, but I still wouldn’t suggest touring the place alone at night. Better be safe…” His voice trailed off. Amanda glanced at him and caught a moment of introspection before his handsome face turned a mischievous smile on her. “But then, I don’t usually go for safe myself.”
Pools of light and shadow dappled strolling couples and quiet groups of the night inhabitants of the park. Pairs of foot patrolmen were in evidence to see that things remained peaceful.
“NYU’s almost taken over this part of town buying up buildings and putting up university high rises,” her guide ruefully remarked. “I like the little streets. Okay?”
He guided her south. What an amazing collection of contrasts, Amanda thought. Huge avenues filled with thundering traffic slashing through neighborhoods of barely navigable, narrow side streets spider-webbing in all directions. Small, dark brownstones nestled low, elbowed by glass and steel structures rising high into the air. And everywhere, busy, purposeful people.
On Sullivan Street he indicated a small theater in the basement of a brownstone,“The Fantastics. It’s been running since the beginning of time but it’s still one of the sweetest shows in town. They’re talking about finally closing it. Of course,” he said, and laughed, “they talk about closing it every ten years or so and it’s still running. It’s charming and romantic and I betcha you’d like it.”
“I’ve seen Fantastics. It’s a favorite with amateur groups. I saw it at Carnegie-Mellon, I think. It was terrific.”
“Yes. Formerly of.”
“And like the hero in the play, you’re seeking greener pastures elsewhere.”
He seemed less and less Amanda’s conception of a man making his living as a nude male model. She chided herself for having such a narrow view of the profession. How hard it had been for her to break through the constrictors she had faced as a female executive, a daughter, a sister, a fiancée.
Perhaps he’s a writer gathering material; an adventurer on a lark; maybe a handsome fugitive on the run, hiding from his former life and striking out for a new one. She chuckled to herself at the fantasy.Hiding in plain sight.
“The hero inThe Fantastics,” she answered, “discovered the grass was anything but greener on the other side, as I recall. So far, the grass in New York has proven to be remarkably healthy under my somewhat tentative feet.”
“Oh, right. David says you’re a rising executive in the corporate world.”
“I don’t know that I’d put it that way. But, so far, so good. Have you known David long?”
“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate.
As they walked back toward the West Village, he pointed out current favorite shops and former haunts now gone.
“That was a great bookstore; now it’s a not-so-great restaurant. Remember midnight movies?The Rocky Horror Picture Show ran at the 8th Street movie house forever. What great times. I thought it was amazing. My buddies even dragged me up on stage once. Now, no more movie house.” And no more buddies, his darkened faraway look seemed to indicate. “But the movie runs all the time and the stage show is making the rounds again.” His face brightened.
Amanda’s brothers had taken her to seeRocky Horror and she had insisted on being taken back two or three times. “I could imagine you as the blond Adonis created by the mad Dr. Frankenfurter.”
He gave a derisive snort. “Not in those days! I played the nerd with horn rims. Knew every line.”
“Now, no more nerd,” she noted, slyly. “You must have lived in the Village a long time.”
“Off and on. I grew up on the west side. Left the city. Came back. Left. Came back. Like a bad penny.”
“Are you here for good?”
“No. For good and bad: short-term lease.”
“I don’t think I’ll be going back to Pittsburgh. Not to stay.”
“Gonna take a chomp outta the Big Apple?”
With this handsome, secure man at her side, she could do anything. “Gonna try.”
“Good.” He held her hand tightly for a moment. Then let go. “There’s a terrific gym just around the corner.” He took up his tour guiding again. “They have great revues at that club with clever, original stuff!”
A group of loudly chattering teenagers with spiked hair, streaks of color emblazoned on their faces, wearing outfits that hadn’t yet been appropriated by scavenging designers and extolled inW, clattered by, obviously headed for the latest rave.
Amanda smiled indulgently. It hadn’t been that long ago.
It had been longer for the model. “Being cool. So very important.”
“It’s exciting to see kids experimenting, trying to find themselves, living such full lives.”
“Sometimes too full.” His look flattened, but almost instantaneously broke with a chuckle. “They’re probably on their way to a nostalgia party.”
The light from the store windows sent glints reflecting off his tumble of dark curls. What a surprising man, Amanda thought. Mercurial and obviously more complicated than she had at first thought.Everyone is more complicated. Even you…Ace.
“More than likely they’re from Jersey or the Island. I’m afraid most of us around here are just your standard-issue displaced souls trying to make sense of life and hopefully earn a buck or two in the process so we can pay the escalating rents.”
She certainly hadn’t thought of him as a displaced soul. He seemed as secure as a rock. He certainly looked as solid. She remembered his muscular naked body and warmed. But he didn’t seem to have the self-centeredness that she had always assumed a body-conscious man would have. He seemed completely at ease in his finely-shaped skin.
She looked around. “It truly is a small village, isn’t it?”
“Bunch of neighborhoods. Now, the West Village here is the quiet side, family-time, kids.”
“Do you have a family?” she asked.
“Oh God, no. Well, at least not a wife and kids, if that’s what you mean-at least not yet. How about you?”
She smiled. “No, no wife and kids, either.”
He guided her deftly around a sleeping lump on the narrow sidewalk. “Could be your famous ‘drunken sailor’ or a homeless genius. More than likely a little of both: a homeless, drunken genius.”
His accent became pure stand-up Noo Yawk. “Now you take your East Village.” His thumbs hooked the pockets of his jeans and his strong body slumped, his face mock serious. “Even scares me sometimes. I nevah go dere.”
She laughed and he shifted her portfolio’s strap that hung from his shoulder to gently slide his hand around her waist, his voice shifting easily to a professional instructive lilt. “Unless I feel like a really unusual meal, want to do some bizarre window shopping, or check out the latest in transsexual cross-dressing.”
“You really love it here, don’t you?”
“The Village pretty much let’s you be what you want to be.”
A group of flashily under-dressed girls clattered by gesturing and chattering among themselves with great abandon.
“They must be freezing,” Amanda noted.
“Guys usually have a higher metabolism than girls, plus the wigs keep their heads warm and the effort of trying to stay upright on those heels keeps their adrenaline pumping.”
“Oh.” She watched the retreating group. “I admire people who are determined to be themselves.” Even in Pittsburgh’s most wanton neighborhoods she had never seen quite so flamboyant a group. And the guys-girls-looked so striking.
“Also,” the head of dark curls tilted toward her and the edge of his beautiful mouth lifted, “there’s probably plenty of foam rubber to help keep away the cold.”
The slightest blush played over Amanda’s cheeks as she peeked up at the beautiful man on her arm. “Well, we know someone who obviously doesn’t need foam rubber to look good.”
He stopped and looked down at her, his deep eyes wide with pretended surprise. “Why, Ace, you almost make a guy want to take off his clothes in gratitude for your appreciation. Thanks.”
They were both quiet for a moment as they gazed into each other’s eyes. Amanda wondered if he was repressing the same naughty response that was running through her head. The model’s look of repressed amusement faded. His broad brow furrowed and his dark eyes clouded. With a purposeful press of his hand on her hip, he headed them up the street.
Another strange moment. More and more complex, she thought.
“Oh good, we’re here.” He was all enthusiastic charm again. “I’m starved. What about you?”
They had stopped in front of an unmarked door in a small row house. Amanda felt a surge of excitement. She had heard of special places to eat tucked secretly away in the depths of the Village, known only to their privileged clientele.
“It’s late.” His hand was on the doorknob, “but everybody knows me here…” Suddenly he hesitated.
“On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.” He stepped away from the door, looking around. “Uh, the kitchen has probably stopped serving.” And he hurriedly propelled the disappointed Amanda away.
The dark figure following the couple watched in horror from a nearby doorway as the young man had reached for the door. A hand shot up in involuntary protest and an impetuous step was taken toward them but instantly, as they paused and then continued past the restaurant, the great-coated figure melted back into the shadows with a sigh of relief.
Finally, some sense. Surely he’s beginning to realize…
“Oh, I was hoping…” Before Amanda could began a feeble protest, they were around the corner and into another narrow street.
“There’s a beautiful courtyard in that apartment building, fountain and all.” His tour-guide voice again. He pulled her closer to him and instantly Amanda forgot her disappointment.
“And on your left, a fine old church that even I have been known to bend a knee in.”
Amanda was surprised to see it wasn’t a Catholic Church. She had expected, with his obvious Latin heritage…
“A naked heathen like you,” she teased.
“I have been known to pray,” he pontificated in mock solemnity and then turned to her, his voice quiet. “Sometimes…very hard.”
Amanda’s grip tightened on his arm.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“What about soup?” His voice changed the subject. “There’s a terrific soup and sandwich place right around the corner and I’m pretty sure it stays open late.”
But it didn’t. Taped to the inside of the glass was a scribbled note: “I can’t take this rotten weather any longer. When spring returns, so will I. In the meantime, there’s an Italian joint up the street that’ll probably be open no matter what.”
He grinned. “That’s what I love about this city. Let’s go for some steaming pasta.”
“AH, ANOTHER late-night S and S referral,” the young, dark-browed waiter noted as he seated them in a cozy, back, wooden booth. “Yeah, Rick said a couple of weeks ago he was gonna take off for the Keys until we drop him a postcard promising…” He broke into song, “Spring is here! I guess I should learn to do that In Italian,” he mused as he acknowledged the couple’s smiles and the man’s request for two glasses of burgundy. He looked at Antonio expectantly.
“La Primavera e arrival,”the model replied with a nod.
“On second thought,” The waiter resumed his singing. “Spring-ga is-a here-a!”
He bowed to their laughter and applause. “Sorry. Probably not politically correct.” With a knowing look, he changed the subject. “The garden should be open in a couple of weeks. The buds are starting to break and,” he arched an eyebrow at them, “the sap is beginning to rise. In the meantime, have a couple of extra candles for atmosphere.”
He grandly scooped two tiny votive lights from nearby empty tables to add to the one centered on the checked tablecloth. He made an OK gesture with his thumb and forefinger, pleased with himself and, humming quietly, left.
Amanda watched the smiling Antonio slipping out of his jacket. Her eyes traveled over his broad chest. The plaid flannel shirt fit him comfortably. Open at the throat, it revealed the powerfully corded neck that, Amanda remembered with a heat rising in her center, led to the swelling broad planes of his pectorals.
“What would you like?” He took her coat from her and hung it on a nearby rack as she shook her hair loose from the knit cap and tried to push the unruly dark mass into what she hoped was a semblance of order.
I must look a mess, she thought grumpily, but was instantly caught up in the expression of the handsome man seated across from her.
His eyes seemed filled with her. “You look great.” His voice was low and rich with innuendo.
“I…I can never keep straight what all the different pastas are,” she busied herself with the menu. “I’m…not really all that hungry, now that I…”
A golden glow had centered in her midsection that she wasn’t sure she wanted to disturb with food, but the wine which the humming waiter delivered with a flourish made the glow even stronger. She ordered soup and a salad.
“Italian food is easy,” her escort explained. “Pasta is pasta. It just comes in different shapes. What really matters is how you dress it up.”
Or undress it, Amanda thought, smiling, allowing the rich heat of the wine to further escalate her imagination.
“It’s Near-Eastern that baffles me,” he said. “I’m never sure what I’m eating.”
“You and me both,” the returning waiter interjected. “By the way, since it’s late, your choice is spaghetti or tortellini.”
Amanda watched the model as he ordered and continued discussing food. He was such an easy person to be with. She felt that hopeless drift that she knew led straight to complete comfort. A soft, mellow comfort that she hadn’t felt in such a long time.
There was a lot to be said for home and hearth. But life-a deep sigh settled her more deeply into the comfortable cushion of the enveloping booth-life was much more complicated than that. Particularly if you had to make something of yourself; had to stand on your own two feet. Sometimes that meant you had to give up something special in order to get something more special.
The room-temperature, dark red liquid was lush on her tongue and stroked the back of her throat with its salty, musky taste, her salad was crisp and crunchy and the small, fragrant bowl of soup floated thick with firm vegetables.
The model attacked his tortellini drenched in sun dried tomatoes with gusto. He was so beautiful, masculine and sensitive. The perfect prince. Amanda felt a sudden pang.
How utterly immature she was being. There was no way this could possibly fit into the life she had ordained.
The rising female executive made a determined decision to very practically push her questioning thoughts aside for the time being and revel in the nearness of the man across from her invoking such dangerously suggestive reveries.
Enjoy it while it lasts. Who knows, Ace?
Outside in the cold shadows, the figure keeping close watch briskly rubbed gloved hands over the arms of the great coat to keep warm. Directly opposite was another restaurant. From a table by its window the couple could be observed. The figure quickly took up a warmer place of surreptitious surveillance.
“Tell me about yourself, Ace.” The model had finished his plate and was starting on his salad. “Was David right? Are you new in town? I would guess you must be if you live in Chelsea and have never been down to the Village. We’re just a couple of stops away,” he noted, invitingly.
“I was waiting for the right tour guide.”
His eyes softened. “You know, you draw pretty good, lady. Once you get started. You’ve been at this for a while, haven’t you?”
Amanda was startled that he had taken note of her totally inept false starts tonight.
“It seemed like every time I tried to get close to you,” he continued, “someone would drag me away to show me their work. But I finally got to see what you were doing. You make great choices.”
Amanda felt her cheeks brighten even more as his eyes rested steadily on her.
“Some of the students in the class are impressively talented. And,” the clefts in his cheeks grew deeper as he took another sip of wine, “some, pretty blatant.”
“You mean Christine.” Amanda felt her already warm cheeks burn.It must be the wine. Christine Atkinson had spent the entire session sketching, with great slashing strokes, the nude model’s sexual organs from every possible point of view.
“She said to David, Mr. Parkerson-Christine said she had to get it out of her system before she could look at the whole figure objectively. She’s quite a woman. Quite an artist. Sometimes, I wish…”
An array of fine lines appeared at the corners of the dark eyes. “I have her phone number.”
“She gave it to you!”
“Yep. And not to invite me up for a private posing session, either. She made it quite clear her intentions were totally dishonorable.”
Amanda frowned. He laughed easily, obviously enjoying her surprise and the pleasure a man must feel being admired by an attractive woman. For Christine, for all her outrageousness and angst, was an attractive woman.
If only I had the guts, Amanda thought glumly.
“Don’t worry, she’s not my type,” he reached over the table to stroke Amanda’s hand.
She felt a rush of adrenalin and pulled her hand away quickly. Her voice came out much harsher than she had intended. “Why should I care what type you prefer?” She stuffed a cold slice of garlic bread into her mouth.
The startled man sat back in the booth.
Amanda’s eyes bored into her salad plate. It was empty. The bread basket was empty. Her glass of wine was empty. The silence was deafening, except for the throbbing in her ears.
“May I have another glass?” She shot her eyes defiantly at the man seated across from her.
His dark eyes leveled at hers. His moist full lips fell slightly apart; the tip of his tongue brushed them in concentration.
“It’s true,” she hurried on as matter-of-factly as possible, unable to hold his look, “you do have a… an… they are… uh…” She swallowed. “But you also have a beautiful… everything else. Your poses were… superb. Christine didn’t have to be so… narrowly focused,” she quoted Mr. Parkerson. “So blatant!” she quoted the man opposite her. Amanda gritted her teeth in frustration. “Professor Angeli did some really remarkable sketches of you. All…of you.”
She dared to look in his eyes again.
His gaze was direct and soft. “You’re jealous,” he said quietly, surprise and delight in his voice.
Amanda’s entire body reacted.How dare he!
She opened her mouth to tear into this self-centered, egotistical, brazen…
He slid his hands, palms up, toward hers. “That’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me in years.”
Amanda sat open-mouthed. She felt totally bathed in spring sunshine.
“You’re not just being nice to a naked man with a ‘beautiful…everything else?’” His grin spread from ear to ear as he pretended sudden concern.
Amanda’s spine relaxed along with her face. She curled her hands into his welcoming palms. His strong fingers pressed securely and solidly around hers.
“You’re impossible,” she muttered, totally chagrined and yet delighted at his easy playfulness. “But I suppose if I were as well-shaped as you are, I’d be impossible, too.”
His thumbs rubbed her palms suggestively. Amanda felt the hairs on her neck rise. “I’m looking forward to finding out just how well-shaped you are.” He brought her fingers to his mouth and brushed his lips gently over them, his breath electrifying the nerve endings of her fingers.
“Although I have to admit,” he continued, appraising her from under thick, dark lashes, “from what I see already, you are in great shape.”
“Oh, come on, Antonio, you know you’re a good looking man…”
“Ace, you’re being too good to me. Well, maybe not too good, just yet.” The sparkle in his eyes was totally teasing, seductive enchantment. “And I’m really glad you like the way I look. Coming from a fine artist, that’s high praise.” He paused.
He was the most changeable man, Amanda noted again, as his dark eyes flickered away from her and then resolutely returned.
“But I’m a lot more concerned about what you think of me,” the mischievous grin returned, “with my clothes on. Because I think you are…”
“Well, well, well, what a pleasant surprise.”
The voice boomed down at them from the great-coated figure that suddenly loomed over their table. Whipping off the dark fedora, he revealed a handsome older face with a salt and pepper Van Dyke beard.
“David.” The young man’s voice was tight.
“Mr. Parkerson, what a surprise,” Amanda said.
“But I’m afraid you’re keeping our Miss Emerson up much too late…Antonio.” The instructor turned pleasantly toward Amanda. “Didn’t you tell me your position required you to be at work early?” Amanda had the embarrassed feeling she had just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. She looked to the young model for support but his dark eyebrows were knitted tightly together as he stared angrily at the instructor.
Parkerson looked from one to the other, then began to take off his coat. “I see you’ve finished eating, perhaps we can all have a quick good-night cup of coffee and then we’ll see about putting Miss Emerson in a cab to her apartment.”
He smiled comfortably at the nonplussed couple as he smoothly slid into the booth next to the model and gestured to catch the waiter’s attention.
THE APARTMENT door slammed with a crash.
“It’s after one! For God’s sake, you’ll wake the neighbors,” David Parkerson admonished.
Marc’s tone was low and deadly. “I don’t care if I wake the goddamned dead! If you ever do that to me again, David…”
“Is that how you supposedly ‘gather information'?” The instructor’s harsh sarcastic tone brought the scowling young man up short. “Is your intelligence totally located in your…”
In a flash Marc’s powerful grip seized the collar of the older man’s great coat and lifted the wearer to his tiptoes.
“Don’t you ever use that tone talking about Ace, David, or I swear…” He brandished his other fist in front of the stunned face. “Or I swear I’ll show you where my intelligence does lie.”
“Ace?” David Parkerson tried a stumbling attempt at maintaining the upper hand. “The girl’s name is Amanda Emerson. Don’t tell me you’re already into cozy diminutives. What does she call you, her ‘big and brave and handsome Romeo’? You’ve got to stop this thing now.” His voice took on a pleading, mollifying tone. “You know that, don’t you?”
His eyes flicked back and forth between Marc’s still-scowling countenance and the clinched fist. “You… you wouldn’t… really…”
With a sharp exhalation of exasperation, Marc released his powerful hold. “I haven’t in a long time, have I?” He started to turn away and then spun back. “And you deserve being knocked around now the same way you did then, no matter how much older and supposedly smarter you are now.”
He gave an irritated snort and pulled the tangle of dark curls from his head. “Sneaking around in the shadows like some tacky made-for-TV thriller all the way from Columbus Circle. Cheap theatrics.” His scrubbing fingers raised his flattened, neatly-cut, dark-blond hair released from underneath the wig.
“You knew I was following?”
“It’s my job, David. What I normally do for a living.” Marc tossed a baleful look over his shoulder as he carefully pulled the net base of the wig over a head-shaped form. “I do not normally bare my ass and everything else in hopes of routing some self-centered, self-important artist from his million-dollar lair.”
“I didn’t intend to follow you,” David expostulated, shucking his great coat. “I happened to get on the same subway car as you and Emerson. At first it was charming to see how totally taken she was with you, but then I realized you seemed to be just as smitten with her. I had this feeling in class,” he interjected, trying to suppress his accusing tone, “but I couldn’t believe you would…”
Suddenly he stopped. “From Columbus Circle? You knew I was following all along?” There was a surprised hint of additional respect for the young man’s subtle observational abilities.
“From the moment you got on the subway.” Marc’s pinched eyebrows evened out and lifted as he spread his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger and gingerly popped the dark-colored lenses from each eye, revealing clear blue irises.
And from the moment she got on the train, too, he remembered, a moment of pleasure suffusing his tense body.
He blinked, his pupils narrowing at the added light. “At least you could see. I felt like I was stumbling around Washington Square in a blackout. Okay, cards on the table time.” He placed the fragile lenses carefully away in a plastic case and went into the kitchen area off the living room. “You don’t want me getting involved on a personal basis because I haven’t exactly had a great history of handling my women as well as I do my cases.”
Marc pulled two beers from the refrigerator, snapped off the tabs of both cans and returned to place one, along with a glass, in front of the frowning instructor.
“Nothing interferes with a case, David, nothing,” he said, his voice cold. He took a deep swallow of the dark ale, gripping the cold aluminum tightly, feeling the tangy sting sharpen his taste buds and, hopefully, cut through his annoyance with himself. Something had interfered with his concentration. He had let down his guard. He didn’t need David to tell him. Her brown eyes flecked with glints of auburn and gold had shone through the color-dulling tint of the dark contacts and settled deep inside him.
He slumped into a nearby easy chair, legs wide, his finely tuned body collapsed. He remembered the rapt attention she had given to his 50-cent Village tour; the open enjoyment of what must have been his erratic company. She had seemed totally entranced and had even hinted at having a more extensive “tour” later.
He had lapped it up like a hungry dog. He had been taken in, he sharply rebuked himself, because he had wanted to be taken in, because he was so totally taken by her.
Marc sighed. His powerful shoulders sagged.
David pressed his advantage. “It’s important that we keep focused on the enterprise at hand.” His conciliatory professorial tone caused the dejected young man’s angry countenance to soften. “I don’t mean to interfere with your personal life, Marc. Yes, I know you don’t like being reminded, but we have been through this before. If the charming Ms. Emerson turns out to be our evil doer, though of course I don’t think she could possibly be, I don’t want you getting,” he took a contemplative swallow from his glass, “upset.”
Marc released a short, harsh laugh.“Upset? David, you do know how to slam a busted heart into the most innocuous cubby hole, don’t you?”
Where it will curl up and heal hopefully, he added to himself. Though there was a good chance it would curl up and atrophy. It had seemed for a brief moment that the golden brown eyes might have been able to bring him to full life again.
He stood, kicked off his shoes and began unbuttoning his jeans. “I do not need protecting, in your best Spanish duenna mode, from the clutches of a sloe-eyed seductress from Pittsburgh.” He smoothly thumbed the well-fitting denim down his muscular thighs, off his legs and onto a nearby chair, followed by his pair of heavy gray work socks. The white cotton jockey shorts remaining on his body contrasted sharply with his deeply-tanned skin.
Before Marc could think to do so, David gathered the strewn clothes, his face set. “You’re right, of course. I have no right to interfere with yourmodus operandi. You’ve made an incredible effort to make this whole scheme work and I’ll never be able to express my gratitude enough.” He tried a mollifying tone. “Did you…did you learn anything?”
Marc walked into the bathroom of the one-bedroom apartment and began to rub cold cream onto his eyebrows. “Nothing you hadn’t already told me. She left Pittsburgh to make something of herself in New York.”
David’s eyebrows arched. “So did Andy Warhol and God knows he created havoc enough. Though I don’t think he ever took up this particular… avocation.”
Marc stared into the mirror, concentrating on wiping the dark color from his own light eyebrows. He closed his eyes and smoothed the cream into his lashes. Behind his lids he remembered the concentration in Amanda’s brown eyes that had responded to his every pose. Those same gorgeous eyes had later reflected back the same light-hearted laughter and deep-seated joy he had felt in her presence. The Village would never be quite the same.
The older man carefully pulled off his shirt, hung it and replaced it with a silk lounging robe. “It’s my nerves.” He kneaded his hands, pulling a deep draft of air into his lungs as he went to stand at the open door of the bathroom. “I’m not used to this.” His tone was slightly petulant. “I especially don’t like the idea there may be danger involved. It seemed so simple at first to come up with a scheme that would attract the attention of our culprit. It seems to get more complicated with each step in the process.”
Marc glanced at the nervous reflection in the mirror. “You’ve got a pro on the job, David. Nobody’s going to get hurt.” He hoped.
Keep your eyes open, keep your senses sharp and the job will get done with the least amount of hassle.His eyes moved back to his totally transformed reflection.Yeah, right. Like the first pretty face that had showed him some understanding…
“The adventurous young investigator can laugh in the face of danger if he wants to,” David strained for a lighter attitude. “But this older, though-not-necessarily-wiser professor would prefer to live out his remaining years in the quiet of the studio with no more excitement than perhaps a toppled easel or a chipped plaster cast. Getting around Manhattan is excitement enough, thank you.” He wandered back into the living room and sat on the fold-out sofa, a pall of worry and distraction on his features.
Marc pulled off his shorts and stepped into the shower. Streaks of dirty, brown color ran down the drain, soon washed away by hot, clear, soapy water.
Those trusting brown eyes… What would she think when she discovered he was nothing he had represented himself to be?
AMANDA hesitated at her apartment door, her heart still racing, the blood throbbing in her temples. Even with the placating, light attitude Mr. Parkerson had attempted in striving to pacify the seething Antonio, the quick coffee they had shared in the Italian restaurant and the cab ride to drop her off at her Chelsea apartment had been a torturous example of conflicting silences and suppressed furies.
Please, please, she silently pleaded to the antic gods that had turned a magical evening into a shattering, embarrassing one, don’t let Cissy be in. Let her still be out having a wonderful time.
All Amanda wanted was to desperately plunge into a hot tub and try to soak away the romantic nonsense that had allowed her vaunted in-charge executive attitude to be totally demolished.
By a nude male model.
How utterly unprofessional of her, she tried to force herself to believe as she fumbled for her keys. But the images of the warm, comforting chocolate of his amazing eyes, lit and shadowed by the magical lights of the Village and the gleam of the mop of lustrous dark curls that framed his strong Italian face-one errant fat tendril spiraling down his forehead- kept interposing themselves between her annoyed, practical self and the warm, internal glow that refused to be diminished.
Handsome, strong, funny, clever, and with a depth that ignited her fascination. He was too perfect. Too wondrous to be believed. And yet… he was all too real.
Her fingers curled over the hard metal in the depths of her pocket. Instead of the impersonal cold of her keys, she could almost feel the silken stroke of his lustrous curling hair sliding through her threading fingers.
Suddenly her body stiffened at the memory of the senior instructor swooping down on them, shattering their beautiful cocoon, clucking his disapproval.
Even her father, in his most annoying moments, had never been as devastating in his disapproval of her dates. Her brothers, yes, but she knew how to handle them, how to retaliate.
She shoved the key into the lock with a sharp rasp of raising tumblers and gave a final silent plea.
The model’s odd response when they had passed the Village church came back to her. It had referred to his praying- how had he put it?-sometimes very hard.
The night was filled with more questions and more memories than she could deal with. Even the thought of facing her overly-solicitous roommate became almost comforting.
Cissy meant well, and was probably as good a roommate as one could hope for in this very expensive city, but the young woman’s insistent helpfulness could sometimes be difficult to fend off, especially when Amanda didn’t feel like sharing her every intimate thought.
Amanda slipped as quietly as she could through the door and instantly realized her luck for the evening had obviously been trammeled underfoot beginning with the intrusive instructor at the Italian restaurant.
“Oh myGod, honey lamb, where have youbeen!? I have been worriedsick! I couldn’timagine what might have happened to you! Of course, I could imagine what might have happened tome, but that would be nothing to worry about at all!” She giggled girlishly.
Cissy collected Amanda’s portfolio, coat and hat. “Honey, you are never out this late, at least not on a school night.”
How Cissy could make her attendance at a professional level art class sound like a high-school elective taken in the desperate hope of meeting boys always amazed Amanda. But then meeting “boys” was Cissy’sraison d’etre; that and driving her simple-minded, exhausted roommate right up the wall with her well-meaning, unctuous instructions on how to live her life.
Oh dear, Amanda reprimanded herself, Cissy wasn’t really so bad. Shallow and insensitive and meddling, maybe, but basically a heart of gold who only wanted the best for her supposedly lacking-in-experience roommate.
“Well, honey,” Cissy kissed her on the cheek, “my Mandy is obviously fine and dandy, or is she?” She peered at Amanda’s face with exaggerated concern.
“Honey, you are looking absolutelytrod upon.” Her face a mask of tragic concern, she shook her head in benevolent exasperation, turned and trotted away, tossing Amanda’s things onto a nearby chair. “No, I think it’s just that awful make-up. One of these days we havegot to do something about your face!”
Cissy bounced behind the L of the kitchen counter off the living room. “I’m going to fix you a nice cup of tea. Or,” she asked, in an attempt to entice, “are you going to finally join me in a glass of sherry?”
Cissy did love her sherry. Amanda assumed it was in the genes, like the accent and the body.
“As a matter of fact, Cissy, honey lamb, I think I could use one.”
In an instant her roommate was beside Amanda with the two glasses, her eyes wide. “Somethingdid happen! Ithought I detected a piquant flush flooding those sallow, executive cheeks. Don’t tell me Mandy had an adventure? Oh Lord,” she gasped in horror, “I hope it wasn’t just some awful thing with one of those foreign cab drivers.”
Amanda could imagine Cissy perched on the back seat of a cab in her skin-tight mini-skirt earnestly attempting to explain where she wanted to go, and could more than understand why some poor bug-eyed, dry-mouthed cab driver might have trouble concentrating on mere directions.
And Amanda remembered ruefully that Cissy, for all her complaints about awful cabdrivers, had certainly managed to turn the occasion to her advantage more than once.
The mind-numbing sweetness of the sherry flooded her taste buds and she envied Cissy with simple, green-eyed envy.
Cissy would certainly have turned this night to her advantage. She would more than likely be in bed with Antonio right now instead of glumly wondering what she would say to him if she ever saw him again.
That was a shocking thought. Not the part about being in bed. That part ignited Amanda’s senses more than the sherry ever could.The part about never seeing him again. Amanda felt an overwhelming tangle of conflicting emotions swell to threaten to drown her again.
What if David decided not to continue to use Antonio as a model because the chance of him getting involved with a student was too great.
Well, why should David care who Antonio got involved with?
She downed her sherry which her hovering roommate instantly refilled. Cissy bored in for the kill.
“C’mon, honey, tell Aunt Cissy everything.” Cissy sat entranced, hardly able to get the questions out fast enough. “Did something happen in that art class? You said there was supposed to be a new model…was that it?” She squealed at the brightened expression on her roommate’s face. “Tell me, tell me!”
“Well,” the sherry sharpened Amanda’s delineation of the model’s many physical assets, “Greek god would be a good description, though it was more like classical Roman…shoulders this wide; hips this narrow…” Her palms moistened at the thought of what her spread hands represented. “Magnificent gluts-oh, Cissy, a butt to die for,” she giggled. Yep, giggled-the sherry was getting to her. “Hard, flat pectoral muscles. Absolutely smooth, like living marble.”
The descriptions rippled over her tongue. She lavished praise on his powerful thighs, the shapely calves, the finely arched feet, the large strong hands.
“Ooooh, honey,” Cissy sat forward on the edge of her seat. “You know what they say about big hands and big feet. What about…?”
“Well, of course he was well-endowed,” Amanda airily gestured, slugging down another swallow of the bottomless glass. Although she wasn’t really that sure what well-endowed meant. Certainly compared to Maurice, the other 50-something, not-in-the-greatest-shape, male nude model that David had provided for the class, Antonio was more than adequately proportioned.
Amanda’s experience with real, live, totally naked males was somewhat limited and the examples that had presented themselves to her so far could hardly be construed as perfect. But, that’s exactly what Antonio was, she remembered morosely, her center warming to join the radiating heat of her slightly buzzing brain.
Perfect. From head to toe. Beautifully proportioned. All over. Muscles not too big, limbs not too small… just right… for Auburnlocks, she thought dreamily. With a brain. Concerned. Witty. Amusing. He seemed delighted to be in her company. The touch of his hand had been gentle, caring. The look in his melting, dark eyes straight-forward. Sincere.
And yet moody, too. Darkly intriguing. Like a black-and-white Olivier movie.
“Honey, don’t worry about it. He’s probably gay!”
Well. Cissy certainly did have a way of slapping a pleasant fairy tale back to cold reality.
Her worldly roommate expounded on a series of possibilities of the model’s sexual orientation as Amanda woozily brushed and flossed, staggered into her flannel nightgown and threw herself into bed.
She supposed it was possible that Antonio was being kept by the instructor. She had long ago given up trying to figure out who was what these days. At least David would know how to truly appreciate such a fine work of art, she decided, her lolling head nodded sagely as she attempted a sophisticated attitude.
She battered her pillow into submission and flopped groggily onto it. She remembered Antonio’s touch, his looks that plunged deep into her soul, his concern, the sexual heat that he battled with gentlemanly manliness to suppress.
Your cup maybe ain’t gonna be runneth-ing over anytime soon, Ace, ole girl, but it won’t be because the guy is gay.
Somewhere in the distance Cissy chatted on, commiserating all the while, and then there was a final pat on her head and an, “I’ll just have one more little one,” before she turned out the light and left Amanda to her own morose dreams.
David Parkerson’s bearded head topped Cissy’s sleek, little, half-naked body. Cissy’s head was on a burly Spanish duenna’s. They were both fighting to keep Amanda and Antonio apart, who were stamping and desperately trying to gore each other in a scalding hot Greek arena with a group of male art students cheering them on.
Which dissolved into them being on separate ice floes and he was desperately trying to reach her. Black and white. “Help me, Ace, save me… You can do it… Believe in us- things are not what they seem.” Curlicued title cards. She sat pondering on the broken ice, chin in hand, as he called to her in the misty distance.
And overhead Christine floated, drawing pad in hand, busily sketching his crotch, urging Amanda to leap to the handsome Italian’s rescue. “A quickie’s better than slow death.” And on her other side Cissy hovered above. “We could whip him into shape, honey lamb. He would make a very nice addition to the household.”
She didn’t want a quickie. She didn’t want whips.
What did she want?
Antonio called from the mists, “Believe in us. Save us…”
How had she suddenly become the one to save anyone? He was supposed to be her Prince Charming. She, his Auburnlocks. The blazing Athens sun began to melt the ice floes. It was too much to deal with. Too many wonderful feelings had surfaced. Too many unanswered questions had swelled to overwhelm them. Too many emotions she hadn’t intended dealing with at this stage in her life had suddenly forced themselves into the harsh light of now.
She woke in a cold sweat, gasping, exhausted-feeling truly trod upon.
AND IT was worse at work. Someone had broken into her office. And shockingly enough, because only a few items had been disarranged, it looked like it might have been an inside job. Even more depressing, she thought she might know who had done it.
Amanda’s mind was in turmoil. The shattering of her well-ordered emotional life last night and this morning’s discovery that her well-ordered business life had also been invaded did not make Amanda a happy camper.
The euphoria of Antonio was fading quickly, dragging her silly Olympian fantasies with it. She set to straightening her files.
He’s a nice enough guy. Yeah, and a really buffed-out hunk of male flesh. Interesting, moody, obviously has a checkered past and God knows what kind of present.
Exactly the kind of heart-breaker who did not fit into her well-ordered plans. She slammed a file drawer shut, satisfied nothing was missing, though the files had obviously been gone through.
Some young- well, maybe not as young as she had thought- good-looking, curly-haired stud who easily dropped his pants and whose melted-chocolate orbs intensely burrowed into her soul was definitely not on the agenda.
Raising her brothers with an overprotective dad, it had been hard enough to convince herself men were more than over-sized kids who needed a strong hand to keep them from making total fools of themselves.
And the boyfriends back in Pittsburgh-Heaven help her, one of whom she had almost married-weren’t much help in convincing her otherwise.
New York guys were different. Opportunistic, self-absorbed, career-oriented. Not exactly life-partner material. She had finally taken charge of her life by striking out on her own. The last thing she needed was to get involved with someone. Maybe once she felt secure in the business world…
Amanda sighed and settled into the upholstered chair behind her desk. Her fingertips pressed gently against her closed eyes. She willed him away. A few deep breaths, a final lung-full of mind-clearing oxygen and her eyes opened and her back stiffened with fresh resolve.
She quickly riffled through the disordered papers on her desk. Nothing missing there, either. She got up and checked the rest of the office. The sofa, the easy chairs, the homey knick-knacks were in place. On the walls, several of the framed, dramatically-colored, blow-ups of violent covers of the illustrated novels it was her job to see to publication had been shifted. There had been an attempt to dislodge the backing of one of the illustrations, as though the prowler had expected to find something hidden between the print and its backing.
Amanda perched on the flower-patterned sofa across from her desk and fiddled with an action figure of the hero of one of the novels. She recapitulated: there was so sign of a break-in, yet her files had been gone over with a fine tooth comb. What were they looking for? Someone had badly wanted to find something. Surely it had been no one from the company, yet who else could have had such easy access to her office?
She felt a sinking sensation. If it had been Nathan, on drugs again and in need of ready cash, what had he hoped to find to hock by going through the firm’s records? That made no sense. She felt ashamed for even thinking such a thing. Besides, she noted practically, there were any number of pieces of equipment he could have more easily taken from the work carrels outside.
Why wasn’t Antonio some master detective that she could call on to race to her rescue?
Amanda sat bolt upright. What was happening to her? What was happening to her vaunted self-sufficiency, that with the first crack in her carefully constructed new life, she crumpled.
But it wasn’t the first crack. That had occurred last night when she had allowed a dark-eyed Italian to disrupt her life.
She tightened her jaw and steeled herself. She had dashed through the outer cubicles gaily waving hello this morning, allowing no one and nothing to stop her, not even the smell of freshly-roasted coffee. The others knew she had an important meeting scheduled with a potential backer and, she hoped, would stay at arm’s length, assuming she needed to prepare.
What Amanda had needed was a few moments alone to try and put her thoughts concerning the last fifteen hours in some manageable order-an impossible hope at the apartment this morning. Cissy must have run out of Prozac; she was certainly in no mood to be civil.
Amanda reached for the intercom. There was one person whose shoulder would always be available.
A gentle patterned knock on the door told Amanda the intercom wouldn’t be necessary. “Please, professor, please come in.”
Professor Angeli slipped quietly into the room.
“I told Jimmy, your ever-faithful watchdog, I would only be a moment. I know this is a vital morning. I just wanted to wish you the best of luck and perhaps share a moment or two in remembering what an extraordinary gift we were given last evening. Nathan, of course, has done nothing except denigrate the entire experience. I do think…” He stopped and stepped forward, adjusting his glasses as he peered closer at his executive director. “Oh, my dear, you must be under terrible pressure.”
Amanda could feel the sting behind her eyes and realized she was making an effort to keep her lower lip from trembling. The gentle, supremely-gifted artist was the only one she ever allowed to see the weakness in her determined facade.It must be the Daddy thing.
“Not even your morning coffee, yet? Allow me.” He flicked the intercom on the desk. “Jimmy, our esteemed Lady Lochinvar desires her morning decaf to prepare for the ordeal ahead. The usual, please.”
He tilted his trim white head and stared down at the collapsed shoulders. “Do we need a hug to fortify us?” Amanda stood and clasped his fragile frame close.
“He was amazing, wasn’t he, professor? So absolutely powerful. I’ve never seen such energy, such belief- I never expected to…” She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose.
“I knew you were as moved as I.” The elder artist observed her carefully. “Perhaps even more so. He is an extraordinarily handsome young man.”
Amanda cleared her throat. “Yes. He is that. But,” she forced her mind to switch tracks, “I certainly never expected to have such an experience when you and Nathan talked me into taking the class. Maybe I’ll be more productive next session.”
She forced a rueful laugh as she went to check her make-up in a nearby wall mirror before turning back to the professor. “But that was last night. This morning I discovered someone gained access to my office and went through my files. Have you any idea who might do such a thing and why?”
The look of utter shock and instant fear that flooded the old man’s face was as palpable as a slap. Amanda raced to him in utter dismay to put a protective arm around the narrow shoulders.
“It’s a terrible thing to say, but with Nathan’s history, I was afraid…”
“No!” The professor pulled sharply away. “It’s not Nathan. I’m sure. He’s promised me he’s clean. Has been. Promised. I’m sure it’s not he.”
The door burst open before Amanda could respond to his extraordinary reaction and Jimmy, the Jimmy Olsen of their division of AA Enterprises, burst in, his fingers hooked around three mugs of coffee.
“I figured if the Ancient Mariner could bug you, I could at least listen in before the barracuda you’re gonna face this morning leads you to the chopping block.” Amanda laughed. Her head writer tended not only to mix his metaphors but to embellish them luridly.
“Nathan’s been besmirching your rep with Tales of the Naked Hunk from last night,” Jimmy continued eagerly, “and I thought maybe I should get it from the horse’s mouth- or is it mare?” He arched an eyebrow. “Before I spread the ugly gossip at the coffee counter that our fair boss has been smitten by a muscle nudie.”
“Thanks, gang. Just the kind of back-up I need to face a hard-nosed venture capitalist.” Amanda took a deep swallow of the foul brew that Mindy, the receptionist, managed to concoct each morning. “‘Smitten by a muscle nudie?’ Wasn’t that a lead story inHeartfelt Confessions, Jimmy? Our beloved sister publication a couple of floors down? Doing a little moonlighting on the side, are we?”
“How appalling,” the professor muttered, taking his mug from the young writer and shooing him out the door.
“Perhaps it was the clumsiness of an overzealous cleaning person who upset your files. At any rate, I’m sure young Nathan had nothing to do with it.” He glanced at the clock on the wall that told time with the bulging muscular arms of a superhero. “The time grows nigh. I’ll leave you to yourself for a moment. If any of us can provide any backup, you know where our dungeons lie.”
Amanda nodded gratefully and the professor left. She felt more annoyed than ever with her faithful Jimmy going along with Nathan’s smarmy suggestions and the professor being less than helpful in suggesting she might be overreacting.
She retrieved the draft of her proposal for the imminent meeting and began going over figures in her mind.
The intercom buzzed. It was Jimmysotto voce, “He’s coming. Shall I send him right in?”
“Fire when ready.” Amanda straightened the papers on her desk, touched her hair and stood, as the door opened and Jimmy ushered in an attractive blond man wearing horn rim glasses. She held out her hand.
The stranger turned to watch Jimmy shut the door behind him.
“He said you were expecting me. I’m glad. I was afraid after last night…”
Amanda felt the blood drain from her head. It was Antonio’s voice, the same rich velvet tones, but the man it was coming from wasn’t Antonio. She felt her inert hand gripped with the same strong and secure clasp she had felt in the Village restaurant. But the man in the beautifully-tailored, dark gray suit wasn’t Antonio. Her hand dropped from his and she fell back into her chair.
“I got the name of your office from David, but I had to look up the address. The man knows nothing. I’m sorry about not calling first. I… I was a little nervous about how you’d react. I didn’t know,” he glanced toward the office door with concern. “I didn’t know the old guy and kid worked here. David didn’t tell me that. Thank God, my contacts were bugging me this morning and I wore my glasses. Maybe they won’t notice it’s me.”
“What the hell is going on here?” The loud crack of the flats of her hands slamming onto the desk, as she drove herself upright, stung her palms and startled the stranger backward. The intercom buzzed.
“Uh, Amanda, there’s a guy here who sayshe’s the one who has the appointment with you. Uh, what should I do? Who’s the first guy? And what was that noise? You okay?”
“Oh, I’m just peachy,” Amanda punched a sharp finger at the intercom. “Sure, send him in…now! This one is leaving.”
The blond businessman opened his mouth to speak.
“I don’t even want to begin to think about what stupid game you might be playing.” Her heels clunked sharply as she went to the door and grabbed the doorknob. She could hardly believe it. This… man… was the model. “But I’ve a very important business meeting right now, whoever the hell you are, and I would appreciate it if you would never darken my doorway again with your absurd play-acting. I’ll find my own damn tour guide, thanks a bunch. And from now on if I need naked, I’ll checkPlaygirl.”
She swung open the door and faced a severe-looking, heavy-set businessman carrying a briefcase.
The blond man reached over and closed his hand around the edge of the door. “Not quite, yet,” he said grimly to the man and shut the door in his face.
Amanda’s mouth dropped. “How dare you? Who the hell are you!”
“My name is Marc Parkerson. David, your art instructor, is my older brother. I’m a private investigator and I have no intention of letting you turn me out of this room until I’ve had a chance to clear up some stuff.”
“Stuff!” Amanda’s voice choked on the understatement of the year. “Look. Here, Mr… Parkerson,” she said evenly. “I’ve got a business to run, a very important meeting to take right now… very important, and…”
“Is the guy outside a money man?”
“Well, yes, but…”
Marc opened the door. “It’s taking a little longer to make my proposal clear to Ms. Emerson than I had expected.” His voice was tight. “If you’d rather not wait…”
Amanda stepped forward quickly. “Mr. Untermeyer, I do apologize. I expected to have… finished with this meeting by now.” She glowered at the determined man standing next to her and glanced past the startled Untermeyer to the professor and Jimmy hovering nearby.
“Professor Angeli and my personal assistant will be happy to show you around our den of inequity. The efficiency of our production team should be of great interest to you and your business associates.” She turned sharply to Marc. “Five minutes,” she snapped and marched smartly back to her desk leaving him to give the slack-jawed businessman a baleful look and close the door as the fawning professor and Jimmy quickly descended.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Amanda looked at him blankly.
“I noticed a coffee shop downstairs. I shouldn’t have come here in the first place. Stupid. I’m really losing it. Now’s a good time to sneak out while the old guy’s busy with Mr. Money Bags.” He eased the door open to survey the outer room. “Where’s the pseudo young Brando?”
Amanda looked toward Nathan’s cubicle and saw he was intent on distracting the young woman who worked in an adjacent cubicle.
“Five minutes,” Marc said. “You gave me five minutes.” He grabbed her hand and tugged. She felt his firm hand at her waist.
“What is this place?” he asked, looking around at the large, violent drawings depicting dramatically-posed muscular heroes and heroines adorning the walls as Amanda allowed herself to be guided hurriedly through the room full of artist’s cubicles.
“You can read,” she muttered. She informed Mindy, the receptionist, where she would be, and gave firm instructions to be paged in five minutes.
“Yeah, I see the name: Ahn-sel of the 21st Century. What’s that? Some kind of comic book?”
“Illustrated novels. Philosophical, angst-ridden, super-hero and requisite attendant super-heroine. Started about ten years ago by a kid drawing in the basement of his farm house in Minnesota. Guess it was the long, hard winters.” She stepped smartly into the elevator.
“The kid was eventually discovered by mega-publisher AA Communications and was swept off to the Big Apple, or at least this Park Avenue South slice of it, to do battle against the likes of Marvel and DC Comics.”
He was giving her his undivided attention. As if he cared a whit about what she did with her corporate life.
“His hero was re-named Ahn-sel and, unlike the Edsel, of which the kid had never heard, limped along for a number of years and then suddenly for no discernible reason exploded into ‘overnight’ success.”
They entered the restaurant and were ushered to a back booth. Another secluded booth.
I gotta check my horoscope.
She ordered tea with lemon and a bagel with light cream cheese from the waitress. He ordered tea with milk. Somehow, with his outfit, she had expected him to order a martini or something equally sleek.
His eyes weren’t the deep, lush, dark chocolate she had found so inviting, but they were a decent blue behind the horn rims. Horn rims. She didn’t know anyone wore horn rims anymore. He reminded her of Clark Kent. Another fake.
Amanda continued the story of her corporate life. “I came along about the time they needed a good office manager, got pretty much involved in running the place, and a few months ago was promoted to Executive Producer in Charge of the Series. Which basically means, my ass is on the line if we don’t pull a profit. The guy upstairs is a ‘money man’ who hopes he and his associates are going to be buying into another Batman franchise.”
“The kid doesn’t happen to be Nathan, does he?” Marc’s attitude was less grim now that the tenseness between them had eased a bit.
“Lord, no. Nathan’s the chief illustrator of the series. The kid, who has returned to and now owns the lower half of Minnesota, doesn’t even draw anymore. He approves everything and makes lots of suggestions via faxes and email. Lots of suggestions. Meaningful ones.” She chuckled and took a healthy bite of bagel. The scent of the fresh, meaty bread combined with the slightly pungent cheese gave her a sense of security. Home and hearth, again.
“I’m surprised Mr. Parkerson didn’t know Professor Angeli and Nathan and I work together.” Though, not really. Parkerson was a good instructor, but he always seemed distracted, as if the class were a bit beneath him. “The professor and Nathan talked me into taking his classes at the League, saying it would help me communicate better with the artists here, and because I once used to draw a little,” she added modestly.
“The professor draws moody super-heroes, too?” His clear blue eyes, bulls-eyed by the dark frames, peered over his cup of tea.
“No,” she said, with a smile. “He’s a colorist. Absolute genius. Amazing eye. I had no idea he was also a brilliant artist until I saw his work.” She munched on her bagel, scooping up crumbs on the tip of her finger. “Okay, now it’s your turn.” Her eyes narrowed and her voice hardened. “As I recall, my exact words were: Where are the curls?”
After a moment’s confused hesitation, Marc smiled. The same gleaming white flash, if not set off quite so dramatically by his now only lightly-tanned skin.
“Obviously. And the eyes?”
He spread his hands and shrugged.
“Contacts.” They answered in unison, both nodding.
“Well,” Amanda shook off her incredulity at their similar reactions. “At least I know the rest of you is real. Or is it… foam rubber? Or surgery?”
Marc laughed, his powerful body shifting into a more comfortable position in the booth.
“I wish to God it were. If you knew the hours I spend in the gym… the months… and the sun tanning. Only my dermatologist knows what I’m doing to my skin. There wasn’t time to get it dark enough, so I’m using some body stuff. I even wear mascara.” His handsome face soured. “Do you know what it’s like for a guy to figure out how to use mascara just because David said Italians all have thick black lashes? Jeez.” He chuckled and took a healthy swallow of his tea. “What an asshole I must seem.”
Well, Amanda thought, whoever he is-did he say his name was Marc? -he does have a sense of the absurdity of it all.He doesn’t seem all that bad. In fact, she could almost begin to see her beloved, dramatic Antonio lurking inside the neatly trimmed, dark-blonde, well-turned-out business man seated across from her.
Oh, yeah, right, Ace. Ten minutes ago you were dumping your ‘beloved’ Antonio. Remember?
“This disguise…” His strong hands curled around the mug of tea. “It seemed to make sense under the circumstances. I just didn’t think the caper would get so complicated. I didn’t expect to…” His eyes locked on hers. “Meet you.”
Amanda felt light-headed. The gods of Olympus, casually watching, instructed her to pay attention; this could be important.
“Ace- Amanda- I know this whole business seems strange, but believe me there’s a good reason. I don’t run around trying to be somebody else. I don’t want anything to come between our getting to know each other… better. Bear with me. It’ll just be a few more weeks and then everything should be settled.”
She thought for a minute. “Is this going to hurt anybody?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Is it legal? Whatever it is you’re…”
He laughed. “We’re the good guys, Ace!”
“We? How much does Mr. Parkerson have to do with this? Are you in… whatever this thing is… in this together?”
“Oh, yeah! This is pretty much his operation. He’s the one that figured it out. I’m just,” he grinned, “the muscle.”
She pronounced the name slowly. “Marc Parkerson.”
He nodded sheepish. “Marc Richard Parkerson. I’m sorry, Marc isn’t even ‘multi-syllabled.’” He remembered her romantic comment regarding Antonio. “Marcus Antonius? Antonio- get it?” He was gratified to see her wrinkle her nose at the pun.
“Yeah. David’s my older brother. Means well, but he’s a little over-anxious. He’s already pretty upset with how I’m handling this case.” He held her hands lightly, but firmly.
“You’re a private investigator?” She had wished Antonio might be someone to whom she could turn for help.Be careful what you wish for, girl. “What’s wrong at the League? What does it have to the with the class?”
“It’s no big deal. It’ll be cleared up in a few weeks. Earlier, if we’re lucky. Just don’t say anything, okay? To anybody. It’ll be safer.”
“What do you mean… safer?”
“There’s no danger involved. I mean this whole thing is pretty important to David.” One side of his broad, sculpted lips twisted up. “And we already know he’s not too keen on…us.”
The other side of his handsome mouth rose to join the first. “I think in the long run, David could care less about us. Just, not now.” He leaned toward her. “You’ll play along for now?”
Well, he’s got nice eyes and the hair’s not too bad. And the body’s for real.
The gods of Olympus smiled.
She’d play along… for now.
AMANDA tried hard to concentrate on what the handsome man across the table was saying. He seemed earnest. He certainly wanted to keep the relationship going.
But this was shaky ground. He had pretended to be someone he wasn’t and allowed her to become attracted to that fabrication. Why should she trust him now? He could have let her in on his little secret last night or at least prepared her for the eventual discovery that he wasn’t exactly what he seemed.
She had felt an excitement and rush of energy from “Antonio” that she had never felt before. He had swept her imagination up to almost transportable heights with his amazing portrayals of powerful masculine works of art and then had swaddled her in personal charm, sensitivity, attentiveness and humor. She had liked that…a lot. What more could a woman ask of a man?
If he and the art class instructor were involved in some sort of undercover investigation, that could explain his odd shifts of mood last night and she could understand why he might have hesitated in exposing his true identity.
“Exposing” his true identity.Amanda forced the upward-tugging smirk on her lips into a downward-turned scowl of concentration as the earnest blue eyes behind the Clark Kent horn rims continued to plead their handsome owner’s case.
It was, after all, a great body.As Cissy had so vividly pointed out, Amanda would be foolish not to give it a chance.
Cissy had dragged her to deafening and blinding rock clubs and all Amanda had to show for it was several nights of energetic dancing with good-looking guys. But it didn’t take an MFA to figure out the guys were no more interested in long-term commitments than Cissy was and that Amanda was totally out of her element.
Long-term commitment. Boy, did that sound like Pittsburgh. And, what was wrong with a one- or two-night stand? Especially if the body you were going to take your stand with was built like a Cellini bronze? Christine would be proud.
Marc looked at her questioningly.
Amanda realized she hadn’t the remotest idea what he had been saying for the last few minutes.
“Does that sound all right?” he asked earnestly.
She waved his question aside. “If you promise me what you and David are doing is on the up and up and that nobody is going to get hurt, then I guess I’ll go along with your… operation. But if I find that whatever it is you’re doing is fishy, I’ll blow the whistle on you in an instant.”
He flashed an Antonio sigh-of-relief grin that she recognized in the “Marc” face. Amanda searched the blue eyes. She was beginning to connect the two personalities.
“Thanks, Ace,” he reached across to run his fingers down her jaw. “I promise when this is over, and it will be soon, you’ll be proud.”
Although, Marc thought to himself as his fingers touched her delicate skin, Ace might not be so happy to find that one of her friends is an international… miscreant. His fingertips reveled in the silken touch even as he allowed himself the possibility of a worst scenario.
He had been intent on presenting his case. This woman had attracted him like no other and he wanted to follow this relationship to the end. Foolhardy, he knew. It could very well be that her response to his poses last night might ultimately reveal her as the culprit that would exonerate David and secure his own reputation. Marc’s jaw tightened at the prospect.
Damn it. One thing’s got nothing to do with the other. So what if she was a brilliant artist who had gone astray?
She was still the funny, charming and sexually exciting woman that had totally captivated him. He traced the line of her lush lower lip as she stared mesmerized at him, her delicate jaw slack. He had a job to do and, as much as he resented David’s assessment, this luscious, auburn-haired rising-female-executive certainly had the ability to, at the very least, confuse the issues. He peered into the dark brown apprehensive depths.
“I’m sorry about the fake hair and the eyes, but the rest of me is very real.”
Amanda was still reacting to the line of electric sparks that his finger had produced on her skin. Clear, guileless blue eyes looked back at her. Like a mountain stream. Full of immediate, rushing life and sparkle, alive with directness and honesty. They seemed like honest eyes.
“What are you looking at?” The slashes under his high cheekbones deepened and fine triangles of lines appeared at the corners of his eyes. Without the dark, smoothing makeup, his skin took on the changeable texture of an older man, more mature, less perfect. More interesting.
“I’m trying to see who you really are in there.”
“When I can explain what this is all about, you’ll like what you see.” He paused. “I like what I see. I’m not giving it up easily.”
The dark Italian model faded further into the distance as the handsome grave man in front of her took his place.
He looked at his watch. “I’m sorry about fouling up your meeting with the money guy. I’ll be getting out of here, now. I’m meeting David at the Met.”
“The Metropolitan Museum?”
“Yeah. He’s involved in a big deal there. He’s been asked to help curate a new exhibit they’re installing. I told him I’d meet him and we’d go over our observations about last night’s class. How about dinner this evening?” The fine lines deepened. “I know a really out of the way place in the Village where a big brother can’t pull his Spanish duenna routine.”
Amanda’s heart skipped a bit. A small, startled laugh escaped from her throat. They seemed to have more and more in common.
“What are these ‘observations’ you and David are supposedly making?” she asked defensively. She wasn’t sure she liked the idea of being surreptitiously ‘observed’.
He looked around melodramatically and leaned closer. “Can’t give away my P.I. secrets, babe.” His Humphrey Bogart impression was very well done. “But I should try to pump ya about your classmates, now that I got ya in my confidence.”
Amanda laughed. Whatever it was couldn’t be all that serious if he kept making jokes. “Christine should be the one you’re ‘pumping’.” She blushed at his suggestively raised eyebrows. “She can tell you more than you’d ever want to know about our group.”
“Who’s ‘our group’?” His smile was seductively easy.
“Professor Angeli, Mr. Wilde, Nathan, me and the ever-observant Christine, of course. The professor and Mr. Wilde seem to have decided we three were the most…” she paused to choose the words, “easily influenced in the class and gathered us under their critical wings.”
“Does your group also comprise the best artists in the class?”
“The professor is a brilliant draftsman, and despite Christine being a bit of a dilettante, when she puts her mind to it she can really draw. Nathan drives us all crazy. He can be an inspired craftsman, but he’s incredibly erratic. I’m always amazed he’s so focused at work- after he tires of his macho posturing.”
“What about Wilde?”
Amanda’s eyes glowed. “Absolute genius. I’ve no idea why he isn’t internationally known. He’s very well off, you know. Maybe he simply doesn’t need the recognition and he certainly doesn’t need the money. But you must have heard all this from David.”
“David isn’t particularly observant outside of what he sees you all put down on paper. Tell me more about the wealthy Mr. Wilde.”
“Sorry to interrupt, honey. You got a call.” The waitress approaching the table looked concerned.
“Oh, good heavens, Mr. Untermeyer, my venture capitalist! Thanks, Phyllis, tell Mindy I’ll be right up.” Amanda began to slide out of the booth.
“It’s not her. I think it’s your roommate. She sounds really weird.”
A moment of dread enveloped Amanda. Surely Cissy hadn’t relapsed into one of her alcohol and drug stunts. She had been so diligent lately. Amanda picked up the receiver of the pay phone.
“Honey,” Cissy’s tremulous voice was barely above a whisper. “Somebody’s in the apartment. I’ve locked my bedroom door so I’m okay, but I thought if you’d come quick, maybe you could scare him away.”
“Cissy, call 911 right now!”
“No, no. No police! Maybe you could bring one of those nice, big men from work with you. I think I better hang up.”
Marc was at her side the instant he saw her look of shock.
“It’s my roommate. She thinks someone’s in the apartment and she wants me to come scare him away.” Amanda gestured distractedly. “She also could be… hearing things. She doesn’t want the police involved. I must go. Could you take care of the bill?” She started out the door.
Marc caught up with her as she waved a cab down and he hastily crawled in beside her. “Are you totally crazy? Scaring away a break-in? Are both you and your roommate loony? Call the cops!”
“It’s only a few blocks away,” Amanda explained more to herself as the cab sped away. “I usually walk to work.” Her mind was racing. “It also may be nothing, but she’s upset and I should try to calm her.” She looked at Marc as though she had just realized he was in the cab. “You’ll be late for your meeting with Mr. Parkerson. You should go.”
Marc held her hands solidly in his. “No. I’m here with you.” His voice was firm.
Amanda felt a rush of relief. She nodded thanks.
They dashed up the front stairs and she let them into the outer vestibule. Quietly and quickly she led Marc up the stairs to the second-floor apartment.
He held her back. “The door’s been forced. Very professional. Get back.” He pushed her back against the hallway wall and pulled a small hand gun from the pocket of his suit jacket. “He may still be inside.”
Amanda felt icy as the possibility of violence occurred to her for the first time. She started to protest, but Marc suddenly kicked the door open and leaped into the room in a crouched position, the gun pointed in front of him.
There was a scream from the bedroom. “He’s hurting Cissy!” Amanda dashed into the living room in the direction of the bedroom door. Suddenly her large drawing table in the dining alcove leaped at her, scattering drawing paper and art paraphernalia and sending her sprawling to the floor.
“Hold it,” Marc’s voice demanded harshly, as another scream from Cissy’s bedroom split the air but the table swerved in his direction and crashed into him as a large form separated from the battering wooden rectangle and dashed through the open door.
Marc threw the table aside and hurled himself through the doorway after the intruder. “Stop! I have a gun!” He paused, glancing back with concern at the fallen Amanda as Cissy’s voice cut through the racket.
“Oh, honey, is that you?! What’s going on? Was somebody here? Is he gone? Who’s got a gun?” The downstairs door slammed. Marc stood frozen in the hallway.
“Are you okay?” he called to Amanda, his voice filled with concern for her. “I could run after him.”
“No!” Amanda pulled herself upright, appalled at the instant mess the usually neat living room had become. At the bedroom door, she called out, “We’re okay out here. Cissy, are you all right? Please…” she turned to Marc, “put the gun away.”
Cissy’s bedroom door tentatively opened and a wide-eyed, disheveled, short-blond head peeked out.
“I was in thebathroom,” she announced to Amanda, “And I’d just gotten out of the shower, when I thought I heard something. You know hownoisy this place can be sometimes. I didn’t think athing about it until I put on a robe and wrapped my head in a towel.” She stooped to help Amanda gather the scattered drawing materials. “And I came out here to fix myself a cup of broth. Honey,” she said earnestly, “I have not had asingle drink this morning. Oh, my…” She noticed Marc righting the drawing table and touched her hand to her still-damp head.
“I justfelt something was wrong,” her voice rose dramatically as she continued her recitation of events. “So I sort of ‘tsk-tsk’-ed to myself and said ‘oh dear, how silly of me’ and nonchalantly sashayed back into the bedroom.” She turned to Marc as he straightened a fallen lamp. “Where I closed the door like I was looking for something behind it? And slid the bolt ever so quietly.” She turned back to Amanda. “Honey, you wereso right to have those bolts installed.”
Back to Marc. “She is so clever, so clever, no wonder she’s doing so well at work. And then I listened at the door,” she re-enacted for them both. “Andheard something. Well, I could have fainted dead away, but I thought I’ll be brave, I’ll call my very practical roommate who will know exactly what to do. And you did, you saved me. You both did.”
Exhausted, she sank onto the sofa and, having finished her recitation, immediately gave her whole attention to Marc. He repositioned the drawing table in its original position as Amanda took deep breaths of relief and continued to straighten the room.
“Who on earth areyou, you handsome thing?” Cissy was her old seductive self. “How will Iever repay you for being such a knight in shining armor. Amanda, honey, you are indeedtwice blessed. Especially after last night,” she added coyly.
At Marc’s questioning look and wry smile, she leaned forward. “Did she tell you about the most extraordinary…”
“Cissy! You might want to go…check your hair while we see if anything’s missing.” Amanda’s firm tone segued into a lilting cadence. “We’ll see about the lock before we go. How did the person get in?”
Cissy looked slightly embarrassed. “It might have been me.” At Amanda’s puzzled look, she continued. “Well, you know how that kid on the third floor isalways forgetting his key and runs his hand up and down all the buzzers? I thought it must have been him, right before I went in to take my shower, so I rang back but I never heard him run past the door up the stairs, so then I thought it must be those menu people and they’re soquiet.”
“Okay, okay,” Amanda said in exasperation. “We all do dumb things. Now, you’ll know not to do that again, right?”
“Never,” Cissy said contritely, tugging at the neck of her silk, patterned robe. She gave Amanda a grateful hug. “Thanks for coming. I won’t let this upset me. I’ll be fine. I do think my hair may need the touch of a comb. I’ll only be a minute.”
“She’ll be ten, at least,” Amanda said, sotto voce to Marc as she began to check the room and he went to inspect the door. “She’s really a terrific person who has had to overcome some pretty rotten breaks. We’ll do a proper introduction when she comes back out. You can pretend to be an interested investor.” She chuckled. “Good-looking and rich. I may have to beat her off you with my poor, battered drawing table.” She began to carefully check the room.
Marc smiled and turned his attention to the door. “He used a pry bar. And he cut the chain with a lock cutter. He certainly knew his stuff. A little more prepared than a common thief looking for stuff to hock. What’s missing?”
Amanda’s face was filled with surprise at the realization. “Nothing. Except my files have been wrecked.”
He was quickly at her side. “Sit down, you look a little pale.”
“Marc, I was debating whether to tell you or not. This morning, when I got to work, I discovered the files in my office had been gone through. There was no sign either the company doors or the door to my office doors had been forced. I… I…” She hated implicating anyone. “There’s no reason for anyone in our production unit to go through my files. There are very few, if any, secrets in that office. But something odd is going on.”
Marc’s broad forehead furrowed. “Your office and now your apartment? You’re damned right something funny’s going on. I think I’d better have a talk with my older brother right now. Just to be sure he’s told me everything I need to know. The man is a ditz,” he grumbled. “You gonna be okay here? You got a super or something that can take care of the door? I’ll wait ‘til it’s fixed. Why the hell didn’t anybody stick their head out with all the racket? Damn New York.”
“To be so in love with the Village, you’re certainly short with Chelsea. Nobody’s home during the day on this floor. Everyone works.”
“Oh.” His angry look softened. He leaned closer, studying her distracted look. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“I had the strangest sensation when the man leaped out from behind the drawing table and dashed out.” She bit her lip. Dare she trust this man?
“It… he…the body shape… reminded me so much of Mr. Wilde.” She rushed on, appalled that she had actually voiced such a terrible accusation. “Which makes no sense, of course. I can’t imagine him moving that quickly; he’s almost as old as Professor Angeli. But… but I suppose with adrenaline… No! No. It’s not possible.”
“What’s not possible?” Cissy appeared from the bedroom, clad in a skimpy top and even skimpier skirt, her hair a golden casual poof topping her freshly made-up face. Amanda tensed as Marc visibly reacted with a show of pleasant surprise and interest.
“Oops. Did I interrupt something? Now, you two just go on chatting while I run down to the super’s. I am quite pulled together,” she said brightly, delicately readjusting her top so her unfettered breasts inside became even more apparent. She dashed from the apartment waving Amanda and Marc to stay seated.
“Will the super be able to handle that?” Marc’s sardonic look followed Cissy’s exit.
“Mr. Raymondo is very responsive to our needs. His wife sees to it that he’s not too responsive.”
He laughed and Amanda felt her throat tighten. She wanted so desperately to let her bottled-up feelings flood free. She had become used to tension at work, the pressure of surviving in this city, the chaos of living with Cissy. She had been in tricky situations before but she had never before felt… fear.
Marc put his arm around her and pulled her close as if understanding her sudden apprehension. He held her tight. The warmth of his powerful body, the security of his embrace, melted the tension and unleashed her tightly wound nerves. Amanda began to cry.
The raking sobs came quickly, and just as quickly subsided. That was what she needed. Just to let it out. She sucked in great gulps of air, forcing her mind toward blankness, allowing the containing grip of the male arms around her to give her the freedom to relax completely and slowly reassemble herself.
He said nothing. She felt the solid thump of his heart beat steadying her, righting her. A final shuddering sniffle and she was her old in-charge self again.
She pushed away from him, testing the surface tension between them. She was fine. She was whole again. And separate.
Marc smiled. “I liked that.”
“What? My falling apart? I don’t know what the hell’s happening to me,” she said roughly, her ego battering its wings distractedly against the bars of fear that had trapped her. “I’m certainly used to edgy situations. I guess… I guess it’s just that it’s been so unrelenting for the last couple of days. I…”
“The part about holding you.”
The ego-bird flew free into azure skies.
“I’ll go fix lunch.” She leapt up from the sofa, suddenly famished. At the fridge she could feel his powerful presence move behind her, feel the heat of his body warming her back as the cool air brushed her fevered cheeks.
“Back off, big boy.” Amanda clattered sandwich fixings onto the counter. “You and I need to get a few things straight.” He reached for her. She slid out of his embrace.
“I want to know what’s going on and what it has to do with me. And don’t give me that ‘all will be made clear in good time’ crap.” She was feeling her oats, fending off his wicked, crooked smirk, slipping away from his teasing, outstretched arms.
“I appreciate the comforting shoulder.” She pressed a knife firmly into his solid midsection, urging him back. “A lot.” For a brief moment she thought of dropping the pointed barrier between them and allowing their hormones to flow freely. His eyes were so blue, his look so warm, his comforting solidity such a refuge.
Home and hearth.
But this was no such thing. It was one hot, handsome male intent on conquest and one almost-willing female, fighting the powerful lion back onto his platform with an upraised chair.
Maybe she couldn’t make him jump through flaming hoops- just yet- but she could prevent him from leaving his marks on her, at least for now. She had no intention of fighting him back into his cage permanently.
Marc slumped against the counter, looking forlorn as he plucked a slice of chicken from the deli wrapper. He shoved the slice into his mouth. “Are you the bad guy, Ace?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t screw with me, Ace. I can handle it. We’ll work something out with the insurance company. David could learn to live with it. After all it was his class that inspired you.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Nobody reacted the way you did, Amanda.” He took off his glasses and pulled her close to him, peering deep into her eyes. Into her soul. Amanda’s pulse began to race.
“I… I really have no idea… what…” She twisted from his grip and clutched the edge of the counter. “Gee… whiz… Marc…” She swallowed, then took a deep breath and turned to face him.
“I don’t know what you mean by that ‘acted-the-way-I-did’ crack. You’re a good-looking guy,” she tossed back, returning to constructing the sandwiches. “Can I help it if I’m particularly susceptible to naked lov…”
She spun back, her eyes wide on him. “Naked… nude… men…models! ” Her body whirled away again as she seized a tomato and began to vigorously slice it. “I’ve never seen such terrific poses. I told you. It was very inspiring.”
She slapped slices of whole wheat bread down firmly, mashing the lettuce and tomato into the chicken slices. She briskly cut the sandwiches in two. Marc quickly retrieved one of the plates and delicately plucked the knife from her hand.
Her rattled brain clutched at another subject. “What are you doing with a gun?” she challenged.
“I have a permit.” He reached to spear pickle chips onto his plate.
“I don’t like guns,” she grumbled.
“I don’t either. But I like the reasons that I have to carry one even less.” He poured them each a glass of milk.
“Promise me, Ace, it ain’t you. I’m taking a hell of a risk here. Be straight with me. I could use your help.”
Her body stiffened. “If I had the slightest…”
Trust.He was trusting her. Even if she hadn’t the remotest idea what he was talking about. She unclenched her jaw and studied the narrowed blue eyes, shadowed by the intent, compressed eyebrows. The tight constriction in her chest slowly ebbed away. “I promise, Marc. It ain’t me.”
With a sigh of enormous relief he pulled her roughly to him and narrowly missed smushing the chicken sandwiches between them.
“I could lose my license for this,” he announced happily, cupping her head in his strong hand and holding her tightly against his chest. The surprise that Amanda felt at his reaching for her was instantly replaced with a wave of pleasure at being plastered securely against Marc’s strong chest.
He released his grip and held her away from his body; his face a confused mask. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to get carried away.” His eyes swept her look of quiet amusement. “No, I’m not sorry. Not at all.” He grinned wickedly. “Okay,” he cleared his throat and his voice changed to one of brusque efficiency. “Good. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s get down to business.”
“Yep… you and me, babe. We’re a team. Welcome to the P.I. biz.”
Amanda frowned. “Does that mean I’m supposed to spy on my friends, now?”
“It’s not spying,” Marc said earnestly. “God, no. I’d never ask that of you. But, Ace, somebody in the class is in a lot of trouble and it may be one of your guys. If we can figure it out before the feds do…”
“The feds?” The lunch dishes clattered into the sink.
At the same moment, Cissy appeared at the broken apartment door accompanied by a middle-aged Spanish man carrying a toolbox. With a concerned nod of greeting to Amanda the superintendent began replacing the broken lock and chain under Cissy’s watchful eye.
Amanda turned back to Marc. “The feds?” she repeated quietly. “Do you mean to tell me this is an international thing?”
Marc chewed on his lower lip and sat back in his chair on the opposite side of the small dining table. “I… I need a few more days before I blab all. Man, this is not the way I usually operate.” His broad shoulders took on the Humphrey Bogart slouch. “You’re putting me off my feed, babe.” He beamed his killer grin. “I like it.”
He shifted into yet another gear as Amanda sat down opposite him. “All I’m asking is that you pay close attention to how the group reacts to my… to Antonio’s poses. We’re going through all this hassle to see if we can elicit a specific response. After tomorrow night’s session, I should know more about whether it’s gonna work or not. You’re sharp. You’ve got a good eye and a great ear. Just tune it my way a bit more. Okay?”
“Flattery seems to be getting you everything you want.”
The edges of the beautiful, sculpted lips shot up. “We’re not at the ‘everything’ mark yet, but we’re sure as hell working on it.” He reached for her cheek again. She drew back.
“Marc… I…” Amanda feared his touch as much as she longed for it. “I’ll do what you ask, but I need more space between us, for the time being.”
“Gotcha.” He pulled his hands back and laid them on the table, palms up. The same gesture he had used in the Village restaurant the night before. Simply there. Open. Waiting for her to make the next move.
She placed her fingers tentatively in his palms. The throb in his wrist visibly quickened as he closed his hand gently over hers.
Cissy breezed over. “Mr. Raymondo is so efficient. I’m going to give him a nice tip.” She giggled at Amanda’s sharp look and Marc’s smiling leer.
“Allow me.” Marc trailed his fingertips over Amanda’s as he left the table. He exchanged a few words in Spanish with the super and tucked a bill into his hand. Mr. Raymondo’s profuse thanks trailed after him as he disappeared down the stairs.
“Give you a lift?” Marc said to Amanda. “I’m springing for a cab uptown, I can drop you.” He reached for Cissy’s hand which she turned in his grip so that he felt impelled to press it in gentle farewell rather than a firm handshake.
“Iknow we’re going to be seeing more ofyou.” Amanda suppressed a cough and Marc chuckled wickedly. Cissy looked from one to the other in feigned questioning annoyance.
AMANDA felt positively giddy.
“Is everything all right?” Professor Angeli asked anxiously as she hurried into the office. “Mindy told us the waitress said you had an urgent message from your roommate and that you and the other young man rushed away.”
“Is she okay? Cissy okay? I know how she gets nuts sometimes. She’s been hitting the booze again, right? And those damn pills. Should I go to her?” Jimmy was worried.
“Jimmy, she’s fine… now. No, it wasn’t alcohol or pills. I think she would love to tell you all about it. It was a break-in but she was very brave. We got there in the nick of time. It was very exciting.” She turned from her amazed assistant to the stunned older artist. “The other gentleman was very helpful. I was very grateful he was with me. Good Lord, Untermeyer is still here?”
“Yes,” the professor quickly explained as Jimmy rushed to the nearest phone. “Young Nathan was brilliant, charming, effervescent. He showed Untermeyer the most amazing sketches for upcoming projects. Our money man is positively drooling with anticipation and all but forcing largesse into our corporate hands. Ah, Mr. Untermeyer,” he greeted the approaching businessman. “Here is our esteemed executive returned from a rather exciting morning. I’m sure she’s anxious to continue your discussion.”
The compact man’s anxious expression morphed into the scowl of an important person extremely annoyed at having been kept waiting as he swept imperiously into Amanda’s office.
“I’m sorry, I’m not at all anxious to continue our discussion,” Amanda announced quietly as she slid behind her desk. Untermeyer’s jaw dropped. “I was called away and it’s been a difficult few hours for me. Our particular niche of the publishing business is like that, as I’m sure you can appreciate. We must move fast and make, hopefully, well-informed decisions.
“You can appreciate my wanting to meet with you when I can give your proposition my fullest attention. Perhaps you’d like to have further discussions with your partners, now that you’ve had a chance to meet our personnel and observe our operation, before you make your final offer.”
She ushered the startled man from her office. “Please give me a few days to assimilate some new developments. Jimmy will set up another meeting that will ensure my undivided attention. I’m sure you don’t feel your hours here have been wasted?”
“No, no.” The sputtering man could barely speak. “No, not at all. You got a great shop here. Just the kinda thing my guys are looking for. Don’t go with somebody else until I get a chance to pitch. Okay? Promise me that?” He held out an anxious, damp palm.
“I promise. Thank you for being so understanding. Professor, if you would see our guest out.” Jimmy, still on a nearby phone, gave Untermeyer the OK sign as the professor smilingly led him away.
Amanda made a quick stop by Nathan’s cubicle, where the young man was feverishly working on a brilliantly conceived illustration.
“I hear you did good, bozo,” she said, as she smiled in gratitude. “Thanks.”
“The old guy was really excited by this stuff,” he said. He gave a dismissive shrug, but his eyes shone. “And the prof couldn’t stop yapping enough. Maybe…” His look drifted inward. She didn’t recall ever having seen Nathanthink before. He justdid. “Maybe that model guy in last night’s class…” He shook his head as though just as surprised at his reactions as she. “Y’know, I’m kinda looking forward to what ole Antonio might come up with tomorrow night. Who was the suit that drug you out?”
Amanda’s heart skipped a beat. The life drawing classes at the League were held twice a week. The “suit” would be “un-suited” again tomorrow.
“Another money man,” she fibbed. “They’re throwing the stuff at us, thanks to your wicked, wicked ways with a drawing pen. Don’t get any smart ideas: your contract’s iron clad.”
His look was totally devoid of the usual self-interested smirk. “Thanks… Amanda. You’ve pretty much saved my ass again. Between you and the professor…” The old Nathan quickly squelched the glimmer of a buried smirk, but not before Amanda got in a quick hug of appreciation.
“We’re saving each other, buddy. That’s what friends use friends for.”
She went into her office and firmly closed the door.
Drunk with accomplishment was one thing. And Nathan being civil? Now, how was she supposed to spy on her friends?
Amanda stared at her hands, resting on her desk, her fingertips still tingling with the remembered feel of Marc’s warm palms underneath. The heat circulated in her chest. She felt a slight constriction in the depths of her throat and another sting behind her eyes.
I must be coming down with something.
No, Ace. You ain’t coming down with it. You GOT it.
WHAT A glorious day, Marc thought as the cab inched its way through the cacophony of Manhattan traffic. Crisp, bright light glinted off the proliferation of soaring phallic architecture. Clean, fresh, on-the-verge-of-spring air filled his lungs. Rich, healthy blood pumped in his veins.
The cab jolted as the driver bellowed a few well-chosen Pakistani epithets at the blocking taxi in front of him.
I love this city. LA is a helluva lot easier. But New York is… New York.He began to hum happily to himself.
“OKAY, TROOPS, this seems the best way to let you all know what’s going on.” Amanda sat on the front edge of her desk and surveyed the small group she had called into her office.
“Ohmigod, we’ve been bought out, right?” The receptionist’s voice cut through the general murmuring. “It’s the good-looking guy with the glasses, right?”
Amanda smiled. “Mindy, you’ve been influenced by my fine young assistant’s too many over-the-top reactions to things that are not that big a deal.”
“Come on, boss lady. It’s a big deal. You don’t call us into a private confab unless somebody’s hand has been in the till or worse,” Nathan commented, as he slouched in a chair busily scribbling on a pad.
The professor looked concerned. Jimmy looked eager.
“Someone has been going though my files. There was no sign of forced entry so I can only assume it was someone who had access to the office. Do any of you have any idea who, or why, someone might want to do such a thing? Nothing is missing that I can determine.”
The professor blanched. Jimmy looked excited. Mindy gasped. Nathan glanced up from his sketching with a frown. “Your files? Why? What the hell is in your files?”
“Records of sales, contracts. Documents that require a hard copy, a signature. Everything else is in the mainframe and available at everyone’s computer. To everyone at Double A, for that matter. We’re on a network.”
“You mean like who bought what books from us? Who we sold stuff to? Projected series? Stuff like that?” Jimmy was getting into it. “Sounds like illustrated-novel publishing espionage to me. Competitors trying to get the jump on us.” He nodded his head sagely, satisfied they were in the thick of big-city doings.
Professor Angeli sat forward on his chair. “We are somewhat lax about security. It does sound feasible that someone might have secured the proper keys. If nothing’s missing, was there a particular section of the files that seemed to have drawn the intruder’s special attention?”
Amanda ran her fingers under her shoulder-length hair to rub the back of her head. “Not that I could determine. Just general rummaging. Several of the posters were dislodged. As if they were looking for something that might have been hidden under the backing. Can’t figure it out. Though Jimmy’s suggestion does make a kind of sense.”
“I agree,” the professor added with finality.
Nathan shrugged and went back to sketching as Mindy glanced from one to the other, impressed with the efficiency with which they were solving the problem.
“We must be particularly careful of our projected projects. Several competitors would be more than delighted to get their hands on young Jimmy’s wonderful writing and,” the professor hastily added at Nathan’s scowl, “our chief artist’s brilliant illustrations.”
“Gee, this is kind of creepy, isn’t it?” The receptionist bounced eagerly on her chair. The phone rang. “I should take that outside, right?”
“Thanks, Mindy, and you better head back to reception. We don’t want anyone sneaking in while our backs are turned.”
“Thanks, all. You’re probably right. I’ll have the locks changed and I’m sure that’ll take care of that.”
The professor chuckled. “Let’s hope our pilferer doesn’t possess the dexterity of one of our nimble-fingered band of artists.”
Nathan’s slouching body stiffened.
“What do you mean? Someone we know here picks locks?” Amanda asked.
“How quick you are, my dear. But let’s not speak about that now,” he said, his voice rich with shared conspiracy. “The answer I would guess would be a surprising one.”
“Not all that surprising.” Nathan said. He sat up stiffly, looking annoyed.
“Nathan, you pick locks? But…”
The professor was totally nonplused. “I… I was referring to Mr. Wilde.”
“And me,” Nathan admitted. “The old guy taught me everything I know. I could crack Fort Knox.”
“I DON’T care if it is the damned Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Marc’s grim smile was deadly and his low voice equally threatening. “Don’t use that supercilious big-brother-putting-down-the-stupid-younger-sibling tone, little buddy. It tends to get my dander up.”
David blanched as nearby assistants turned from the art work they were hanging to take note. “Don’t make a scene.”
“You never learn, do you?” Marc started out of the closed gallery, heading past the alert guards.
“Marc, please.” David made a resigned conciliatory gesture. “I’m under a lot of stress here. Bear with me.”
Marc stopped and met the admonishing gaze of one of the larger guards.
Back off, dork. I could drop you with one chop.He turned back toward his abject brother.As abject as he’s capable of being.
“Is something wrong, doctor?” The large guard moved menacingly in Marc’s direction as he spoke to David.
“Yeah.” Marc’s intent look froze the man in his tracks. “You’re intruding on a private discussion and I’d hate to have to call to your supervisor’s attention how you overstepped your authority with a member of the public.”
“Oh, God.” David hurried to interpose himself. “Everything’s fine, Manchetti. Thank you. This gentleman’s… no, it’s me… I… Thank you. Please go back to your post.”
The guard slowly retreated, his apprehensive expression still grim.
I wonder what he’d do if I stuck out my tongue? Marc thought playfully. He considered the possible consequences.Probably not a good idea.
He bowed his head penitently in the guard’s direction. The large man’s back stiffened and he turned away, head high, having diffused a volatile situation.
“Okay, so I over-reacted to your stupid observation. I’m a little stressed, myself. Don’t these people ever let you take a break? Let’s go for tea.” Marc grinned. “Lemon’s on me.”
David stared at his younger sibling. “I’m too old to be put through this. What do I care whether we find the forger or not? It’s not my problem. I should have let the insurance company…”
“Yes?” Marc prodded, knowing the answer. “Let the insurance company what?”
“Miss Silvestri, I’ll be taking a break. My colleague and I will be in the restaurant if you should need me.”
“I can bring you something, doctor, if you’d rather,” the eager young woman suggested.
“No. We… I need to get away for a few minutes. Thank you.”
Marc beamed a blazing show of teeth on the rather plain-looking, avid, young woman, whose eyes instantly dropped.
As they left the gallery, Marc ducked his head in deference to the imposing guard.
“You’re really impossible,” David muttered as they started down the hallway leading to the grand staircase. He allowed a small undignified snort to escape. “I envy your impertinence.”
Marc grabbed the older sibling at his side and gave him a powerful hug. David stood in shock, unmindful of the crowd splitting around them.
“No hard feelings.” Marc continued down the hallway with a jaunty step.
David hurried to catch up as Marc descended the wide marble staircase. “I meant no disrespect to your new lady love. I’ve told you it’s not possible she’s the forger, but there is the possibility she may be involved.”
“I couldn’t care less whether or not she’s the hottest forger of Michelangelo since the dawn of the twentieth century.” He bounced ebulliently down the stairs emerging into the enormous classically designed entrance space. They turned toward the Ancient Greek section of the museum past which was the restaurant.
“If they put her away, I’d hide a file in my boxers so she could saw her way out in a flash. We’re gonna live happily ever after, big brother. Happier than I’ve ever been.”
“Marc. Get hold of yourself.” David hurried anxiously after him down the gleaming white corridor. “You hardly know the woman. We can’t throw away months of preparation, months of the effort you expended in preparing to put your incredibly inventive plan into action.”
“Nobody’s throwing anything away. If anything, it’s better now. She’s one of us.”
David blanched. “You told her. You revealed yourself?”
“Yeah.” A silly grin spread over Marc’s boyish face. “Mostly. And I’m planning on revealing a lot more. Gal’s gotta know what she’s dealing with.”
“A romantic infatuation! A schoolboy crush!” The drawing instructor turned on his heel and stormed back past patrons admiring ancient Greek statues.
Marc crossed his arms and leaned nonchalantly against a fragment of a marble nude. A female guard immediately materialized reminding him not to touch the works of art.
Acknowledging her admonition, he stood away from the statue and waited.
Through the crowd of museum patrons he saw the returning slumping figure.
Marc put his arm around his brother’s shoulder and guided him into the table service section of the museum’s dining area.
“Truce? I’ll be infatuated. You be as skeptical as your ancient, non-trusting self needs to be.”
David gave his muscular younger brother a baleful look. “Ancient… at forty. You’re right. And almost totally non-trusting. Not a pretty resolution to our parents’ upbringing.”
“Mom and dear ole Dad were lucky we didn’t drive a stake through their cold, unloving hearts. Sorry.” Marc acknowledged his brother’s look. “Another over-reaction. I guess they did the best they knew how. As if that’s an excuse.”
David slumped into the chair their waiter indicated at an empty table. “Scotch, please. Double.”
“Hmmm. And you never drink. I must be getting through.”
“I feel as if I’ve been beaten with a stick.”
“I think the term in some circles is ‘trod upon.’”
“Trod upon. Yes. By a hoard of confused elephants.” Accepting the quickly proffered drink, he tilted the squat glass to his lips and immediately gagged as the 80-proof alcohol seized his throat.
Marc waited until his brother had regained his composure and drawn fresh air down his burning throat, waving away the concerned waiter.
“Did we learn anything from last night?” The instructor of life drawing with a Doctorate in Art History continued to suck in fresh air in obvious embarrassment.
“I learned the smartest one in the class ain’t the bad guy.”
“I’ve had a chance to check my observations against the museum’s drawings. Both their authentic and inauthentic ones. They were very kind to…”
“Yeah?” Marc leaned forward excitedly.
“It’s merely my own opinion, of course.”
“David, for God’s sake…”
The instructor sighed deeply. “I confirmed what I told you I suspected last evening when you finally calmed down.”
Marc suppressed an amused reaction. Big brother couldn’t resist the dig. He was amazed they hadn’t done each other in years before. No… grateful. He spread his hands in supplication. “And?”
“Possible, but improbable: Christine. Possible, but unlikely: Nathan. Certainly capable: Professor Angeli.”
“The most likely suspect is Mr. Wilde. His skill is unquestionable.” He hurried on. “But I’m not ruling out Miss Emerson completely. She’s very gifted. Under the right circumstances…”
Marc leaned back in his chair, his steaming tea cup obscuring his sly smile.The right circumstances are exactly what I have in mind for getting Miss Emerson into…and they have nothing to do with forged Michelangelos.
“THE PLAZA? That’s not quite some obscure Village place where we can hide from your duenna.” Amanda imagined Marc’s smile at the other end of the phone line reflecting her own. She liked the idea of their being alone where big brother couldn’t find them.
Not exactly playing it cool, Ace. Oh, hush…
“I’m uptown, you’re half-way uptown, the days are getting longer, we can sit around the fountain and watch pigeons shiver before we go and knock elbows with celebs around 57th Street at some over-priced, theme bistro. I’ve got news to relate, my lovely.” His Humphrey Bogart growl was beginning to send suggestive shivers down her spine.
“Yeah, well, so have I, big boy.” Amanda’s attempt at a tough-gal moll came out before she had a chance to check herself. This maddening man had the most amazing ability to edge her into attempting things she had never before attempted. Dangerous. Exciting.
“Yeah? You do? What have you learned?”
“Nothing that can’t wait. Get your act together, Mr. Hot-shot P.I… I’ve been doing some heavy thinking and I want some heavy answers. I’ll meet you at the Oak Bar.”
With a smirk of satisfaction she hung up. He could use a bit of shaking up himself. She was used to making decisions on her own, evaluating events, deciding what course of action to take. He wanted her help. Fine. On her own terms.
The Oak Bar does allow women, doesn’t it?
MARC STARED at the receiver, a sly smile on his face. What kind of monster had he created? Give the girl a little room and she was ready to take over the investigation. But he could sure as hell use another cool head. David was almost no help in making clear-headed, objective evaluations. He had been fine sitting around giving opinions while they were planning the operation.
But now with this Met thing on his back, David’s mind was even less focused. As far as he was concerned, everyone in Amanda’s “group” was capable of the forgeries. Marc had been hoping for a more astute appraisal of their abilities and reactions to his poses as Antonio.
And besides, David wasn’t nearly as much fun to be around as Ace.
Yeah, I could spend a lot of time with that smart-assed broad…um…young woman. Okay, smart-ass, sexy broad.
He was being pulled under. Like in the over-life-sized Burne-Jones pre-Raphaelite painting at a Met exhibit where the enticing mermaid was dragging a naked sailor into the briny depths. And the snoozing guy didn’t look all that unhappy.
Marc’s thoughts were interrupted when the director of Cambiare International came back into the sleek rosewood and chrome office.
“Is there any other way we might be of assistance, Mr. Parkerson? I’m sorry the insurance representative wasn’t able to make the meeting. His flight was delayed, I understand. He’ll be pleased to know your investigation is proceeding well. Shall I set up a meeting when he arrives or shall I have him personally get in touch with you?”
“Have him give me a call.” Marc shook the elegant man’s hand and moved to the doorway. “So nothing new has shown up on the market since the last drawing surfaced?”
“No, and our buyers have definitely concluded the provenance was falsified. We’re certainly not professionals, but it does appear the last several came through the Village gallery and can be traced to your brother’s class.” He escorted Marc into the elegant, simply-appointed, outer reception area. “I’m rather looking forward to discovering the artist,” he continued. “A formidable talent. What a shame for it to be employed so deviously.”
Marc nodded in agreement. “Yes. Unfortunately, it’s not only the talent involved but the vanity. Money might certainly be a factor, but usually much less so than the self-inflating knowledge they can pull off such a stunt.”
The director grimaced. “Indeed. The Queen is most displeased. She was so looking forward to enhancing her collection.”
Marc laughed. “I thought she owned everything the old guy had ever produced anyway.” He pushed open the heavy glass doors leading onto upper Madison Avenue.
The director smiled. “The ‘old guy’ was very prolific. Thank you again.”
Marc headed south toward his lady-love.
THE AIR around the circular Pulitzer Fountain still filled with evergreens from the winter season held more than a promise of springtime. The pigeons were busier, more aggressive, out to fleece every early out-of-town visitor they could entice with their fluttering wings and swooping forays.
Amanda remembered Trafalgar Square in London as a child. Never been back. Daddy couldn’t bear the idea. Or at least Amanda thought she remembered it. There were vague memories of hazy 8mm movies that her brothers had surreptitiously projected when Daddy wasn’t around. She wished she had known the attractive young woman shepherding the tiny child through the swarms of swirling birds. Amanda shook off the memory.
“The boat sank- get over it.” She smiled ruefully and pulled her tailored topcoat tighter against the crisp air. A friend had given her a T-shirt emblazoned with the pleading exhortation to counter Amanda’s ravings about what a wonderful love story the movie Titanic was.
The T-shirt’s reproof had served her well on more than one occasion.He’s a fake nude model-get over it. This time, though, the practical admonition wasn’t working.
Behind the line of hansom cabs lined up across the street, the haze of new green over Central Park forecast more than a promise of a lush burgeoning. It had been a mild winter with tons of rain. The buds were busting to burst forth.
Amanda felt the same way. She turned to start toward the imposing hotel and the bar at the renowned Oak Room.
He came loping across Fifth Avenue, face ablaze with delight at seeing her before he had expected. Her heart leapt into her throat and she felt a shiver of excitement. He still wore his Clark Kent horn rims. Her Superman.
Foolish, foolish, ridiculous girl. There’s no way. Are you listening to me? No.
“Hi.” He grabbed her and held her close.
Her heart pounded and her temples throbbed. She was limp in his enfolding arms; held securely by his powerful grasp. Her breasts pressed against the solid, sculpted, muscular frame, evident even through his suit and light overcoat. His hips snugged easily against hers. Only a few hours ago he had held her tight and then eased her away.
Now it felt as if he would never let her go.
She rested her arms tentatively on the wide shoulders sloping to envelop her. The strong musculature flexed as his possessive hands gently explored her back. Her breasts felt the expansion of his lungs as his body inhaled the scent of her hair where he had buried his face.
He pulled back and looked happily into her eyes. “I missed you.”
She had not missed him. She had a business to run. An investigation to inquire into. And besides, she knew she would see him again… always.
You utter schoolgirl!
“D’ja find out anything?” He held her hand, proprietarily, as they strolled around the magnificent Beaux Arts marble fountain.
“Both Mr. Wilde and Nathan have the ability to have picked the locks of the office.”
“Wilde, again? And Nathan? Well you never know who’s adept at what, do you? Except we do know the guy didn’t take the time to pick the lock at your place. He was intent on getting in, even if someone were inside. Obviously a very urgent need to know something.”
Adrenaline surged through Amanda. “You don’t think he’ll come back?”
“Might.” Marc’s look was cautious. “But I doubt it. He seems to have done a pretty good search before we got there. And you two are bolted in safely now. Mr. Raymondo was very thorough.” He grinned.
She wanted to touch the crinkled eyes.
I give up on you! Completely. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“Somebody could have picked the lock on the front door. To let somebody else in. Cissy might not have let him in at all.” Marc’s mind raced as fresh ideas clicked into place in his analytical brain. “Let’s go down by the lake. It’s hard to think with all the traffic up here.”
They quickly crossed the street and descended a granite stairway. A wide walk skirted the nearby body of water inside the park. Many other strollers were enjoying the early evening. Marc pulled Amanda to an empty bench.
“I had been thinking this Wilde thing is too pat. Too coincidental. But, maybe we should pay more attention. You say the man doesn’t need money. Then that would play into the ego thing. Most forgers have their own private agenda. He’s a big man. Physically. Michelangelo was a big man. Is he gay?”
“Michelangelo? Michelangelo forgeries? From our class?” She sat back against the chilly wood, letting the cold shock her out of her instant reaction of overwhelming excitement that someone she knew was even capable of such a thing. Who could it be? Her mind skipped eagerly about.
“Gay? Wilde? I have no earthly idea. Why? Was Michelangelo supposed to be gay, too? Is that part of the ego thing?”
“Who knows. I’m just casting about for anything else we might be able to add into the mix.” He tossed a stone into the water.
“Could I see one of the drawings?” Amanda asked. She could hardly contain her excitement. “Are they available?” Someone she knew. In her class. How amazing!
“You want to see one of the forgeries?” Marc studied her carefully. She knew the artists intimately. Knew their style. Their strong points. She could possibly bring an added insight that he or David might miss. He nodded, pleased. “I’ll see what I can do.” He glanced at his watch. “I think we’d better go get something to eat. I made reservations at the Palm Court. I told them we’d be in the Oak Room Bar. I don’t want to miss the reservation.”
“The Palm Court at the Plaza for dinner?”
“It seemed convenient,” Marc said lightly, pulling her after him.
This man drags me everywhere.“I… I can walk on my own, thank you.” But she didn’t let go of his hand.
He smiled mischievously. She adored his smile.
He could have warned her about the restaurant. Not that it was that big a deal.I mean, it’s not “21” or something.
“It’s not that big a deal.” He was amused at her disconcerted reaction as he shepherded her past the hansom cabs with their glossy-coated horses.
“I think they must have carved the restaurant out of what was once a grand reception area in the old days. No matter. It’s nice.” Mark said.
The uniformed doorman ushered them through the revolving doors. The restaurant was right in front of them, a great drift of potted palms outlining the dining area. The lights were low, candles gleamed. Music came from somewhere. The table was tiny. The waiter wonderfully attentive. The food, ambrosial.
“You really go for this stuff,” Marc observed at the end of the meal, peering over a cup of delicious coffee as the waiter placed a gorgeous chocolate mousse between them and presented two forks.
“It’s very romantic.” Amanda could understand why debutantes from all over the country vied to have their cotillion lunches here with their beaus. She knew she was light-headed. The white wine hadn’t been completely assimilated even with the wonderful filet of sole. “I suppose a lot has to do with the history of the place, the fact that it’s been around so long. It’s survived with such elegance. Like the Waldorf. It’s still here. You can only hope that you’ll be as lucky and survive as well. In your own way, of course.”
Her eyes drifted up to his. She was definitely in love.
Oh God, what are you thinking? Pull yourself together. LOVE? Amanda! Amanda!The luscious chocolate melted over her tongue in a sensual flow. Go home. Crawl under your rock, she silently admonished her warring inner voice.When I make love to him, when he makes love to me, when we make love to each other… You… we are going to be so blown away.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“Not even if you max out your Amex card.”
“You wanna spend the night?” His eyes were anxious. Going for it. He was forking in the mousse as urgently as she.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Another flood of luscious chocolate burst over her taste buds. “I can’t imagine The Plaza allowing us to check in without luggage.”
“There’s a luggage shop down the corridor.”
Suddenly she became aware of what he was saying. Her inner voice was smirkingly silent.
“You shouldn’t tease.” She wasn’t sure if he were and if so, about what.
“We never get to be alone.” He forked in another bite of the mousse. He was not being gentlemanly about sharing. She stabbed her fork to protect her portion. “You’ve got a roommate; David never goes out. There are always people around.” He looked around the elegant space forlornly. A waiter instantly appeared.
“Uh, perhaps more coffee.” Amanda said. She smiled and snagged the last bite of mousse.
“You need to get to know me better,” he continued, “without a lot of distractions. There’s a lot more to me than just a great-looking bod and a needle-sharp mind.”
She laughed. His glasses were off. His eyes were like liquid skies. A view of the park from a Plaza bedroom window must be a beautiful sight. And a great-looking bod lying on a beautifully linened bed waiting for her…
“A buck for your thoughts?”
Be straight with the guy. This is getting serious.“You’re a very attractive man. I’m… this situation is… makes me a little vulnerable right now. I would like to think that our friendship can grow if given time and under the right circumstances.”
He nodded sagely. “Still need ‘space,’ huh?”
Oh, God, how she longed to see a view of the park through a Plaza window.
“I’m not sure I can handle that,” he said seriously.
“That space stuff. I want very badly to be very near you.”
“And I want very badly to be near you,” she admitted. “When you held me outside…”
His look was soft and gentle and understanding and manly. He would honor her request.
They finished the second cup of coffee in silence. He seemed content, drawn inward. Amanda was a mess. Why did she have to put her feelings on the line? Because it was important that she not be misunderstood this time. The guy in Pittsburgh she had almost married had pushed. It was important that Marc know how much she cared, but that she didn’t like being forced.
“IT’S RAINING!” The doorman spread his hands in resignation. “I’m sorry, sir, the taxis have all been engaged.”
Marc peered into the rain. “It doesn’t look too bad. Probably be over in a little while. You wanna go back in for a…” Suddenly his face lit up. “Pick one.” He gestured toward the line of hansom cabs. “We’ll take a ride around the park in the rain ‘til it stops. Romantic, huh? I’ll tell you the story of my life without any distractions. Not much space, though.”
She grimaced. “Marc’s that awfully expensive for…”
He swept his arm toward the carriages again. “Clip, clop. Drip, drop. Just like Fred and Ginger.”
The doorman smiled. “I’ll go get one for you, if you like.”
She couldn’t disappoint Marc’s eager look. “The white carriage.”
The handsome dark horse, its brushed coat steaming in the cool rain, pulled the white two-wheeled hansom cab up to the steps. The doorman stepped out to help Amanda and Marc in. The young man driving looked pleased that he had a fare and not at all concerned that rain was running off his rather battered high silk hat and incongruous down jacket.
Marc and Amanda snuggled under the blanket inside as the cab clip-clopped its way across the street and into the park.
Marc was as excited as she. “Neat, huh?” He slid an arm around her and held her close, his eyes shining as he glanced around at the retreating lights of the city.
Mercurial. One moment a sophisticated man of the world, the next an excited young adventurer. How secure he acted as the model, how efficient in routing the intruder at her apartment, how professional with the gun, how understanding of Cissy, how concerned about Amanda’s anxiety toward her friends.
She snuggled closer to the warm, powerful presence beside her, listening to the spring rain pattering on the carriage roof. The park was magical with the shimmering glow of street lamps glittering through the curtain of rain drops with the city veiled in the distance.
She looked up into the face of pure adoration. His square jaw descended, his moist lips parted and pressed against hers gently, tenderly and then more firmly, with greater urgency. Her mouth melted against the capturing pressure. Her body curled into the powerful coil of his embrace.
Amanda’s heart thrummed in her chest responding to Marc’s escalating pulse. Her whole body became electric.
A warm, muscular probe delicately thrust through her lips and touched her own in the blended caves of their mouths. Then as she welcomed him with responding strokes, he began to aggressively explore. His strength surged through her, firing her senses.
He pressed her body closer under the sheltering blanket, his movement more fevered. Through their clothing, the thud of his heart pounded against the fluttering of Amanda’s. Their bodies seemed to blend. Amanda flowed into his embrace, allowing herself to be taken. She held him tight, taking him.
His hands touched her face. He framed her flushed cheeks with his strong palms and held her firmly to his mouth, drinking her in. Inhaling her.
A flash of lightning strobed the sky, shocking Amanda’s eyes open. The streaking raindrops froze, the glittering trees showering them from their overburdened leaves were outlined with slashes of white. She waited for the crash of thunder, her arms around his neck, her fingers tangling the neatly combed hair. The distant rumble rolled nearer and nearer, more ominous, then faded.
She felt his assertive hands slide to her back, holding her close, gliding quickly from one position to another, impressing the shape of her body into his palms and arms. They moved around to her breasts, circling tentatively, stroking gently over the soft mounds, his fingers exploring the soft flesh.
His heart was pounding, his breath coming in raspy gasps.
Amanda forced herself to pull away from Marc’s encompassing lips. She inhaled cold, fresh oxygen hoping to bank the fires raging through her body. His scent almost shattered her resolve. He buried his face in the crook of her neck, brushing her hair aside with his fevered cheek, stroking the moist skin with his tongue. Sparks raced around her scalp setting off an explosion of nerve endings that ignited throughout her body.
She must give him some indication that this could not go on…
Thank God his exploring hands had stopped setting fire to her. His breath came in short gasps against her cheek. His body trembled with the force of his self-control. Reluctantly, he forced himself away from her.
In the darkness, she could make out his questioning eyes, his face frozen in a hard, contemplative look. The heat in Amanda’s body chilled as the rain drummed on the protective carriage overhang and the distant thunder grumbled farther and farther away.
His look softened and turned inward, his chest rose and fell more evenly.
He looped his arm over her head and pulled her tight against him again, possessively territorial, tucking the blanket protectively around her. She leaned her moist brow against his hot cheek. He pulled a long, deep draft of air into his lungs.
“You smell like spring.”
The ache in Amanda’s heart was palpable. She felt empty. As though she had been presented with a precious jewel that had evaporated in her grasp.
“It’s that wet dog smell. Gets ‘em every time.”
“Got me.” She could hear the smile in his voice.
The ache began to ease. The outline of the jewel began to re-emerge, tentative, making an effort at reformulating itself. She curled her hand into his comfortable grasp as she fitted her body more firmly against his chest.
Her lips felt bereft.
She turned her face to his. His pupils were black and bottomless.
“You think we could do that first part again… now that we know where to stop?” In her head she had intended the quip to be joking, worldly, sophisticated. In the harsh reality of sound, fighting to be heard over the crunch of the wheels against the wet asphalt and spattering raindrops and the drown of distant city traffic, the words came out more plaintive than she had intended, more tremulous.
She frowned and turned her head away.
His breath was hot against the delicate skin behind her earlobe. His tongue traced the shell of her ear and then the line of her chin until it found her lips and once again they were passionately savoring each other.
The line had been drawn and he wasn’t stepping over it. Just as she had asked. The perfect gentleman. He, too, seemed to have realized…
His lips were like nectar, his embrace totally comforting. Just what she had decreed.
And her warring inner voices were total silent. Both satisfied.
Then why was she able to feel so wonderfully blissful and yet at the same time so terribly frightened she might have just made one of the biggest mistakes of her life?
AT THE midtown gym, Marc grabbed the barbells, lay back on the incline bench and began to do free weight chest exercises.
His young trainer mumbled something about form and glazed over until he could be of more use to his morning client.
The man’s entire focus in life is his body and how many broads he’s laid and this morning I’ve managed to shut him up with my amazing ‘positive’ vibes.
Marc glumly raised the barbells from a wide horizontal, spreading his broad chest to a vertical lift, tightening his pectorals and repeated the circuit.
Over and over.
The tension in his body began to slowly ebb.
One good thing about exercising, which he used to hate with a passion, was the almost zen-like concentration it forced him to maintain.
I’m lucky.Lift, spread, lift, spread.I’m really lucky.
The first, about his genes: not having to devote himself to the kind of concentrated pain that forced muscles and tendons to grow in a pattern to which they weren’t predisposed. It was just a matter of doing the work and having his muscles respond.
The other extraordinary luck was meeting her.
Marc glanced at his trainer, leaning back against a metal contraption of weights and pulleys, casually chewing gum, his eyes blandly scanning Marc’s body, checking to see that the right fiber packs were contracting, the right bundles of tissue elongating. Simple life. He was proud that none of his “guys” had ever sustained a “major setback”.
Major setback.Last night was not a major setback. It was a new and profound way of finding his way into his “relationship” with Ace: giving “space” when needed, pressing forward, only when given the go-ahead.
He wasn’t used to waiting to be given the go-ahead. That wasn’t the way he usually worked his women.
What a loathsome statement, how could I be so heartless? “Work my women.” As though I’m some kind of macho lothario. Is this the first time in my life I’ve ever been in…
He sat up in a sweat.
“Gotta cramp? Ya got another set t’ go, y’know.” Chad shoved himself erect, blinking, like a dully grazing stud whose interest was suddenly caught by an interesting movement at the other end of the field.
Marc nodded numbly and lay back. He forced himself to think only of the effort he was expending on the lifting and lowering of the barbells. Something he could control.
Amanda was not to be manipulated or controlled.
She had her own agenda.
And I damn well better be on it. Speaking of macho posturing… Okay, okay. I hope I’m on it. No, dammit, too wimpy. By God, I’m gonna be on it and she’s gonna want me to be on it. At the top of the list!
He finished the sets, took a breather to swig some mineral water and lowered himself prone on the bench again. Chad passed him a bar loaded with heavy circular weights for the chest presses. The trainer brightened. Now he was working. He had to watch his client closely, adjust his form, assist him with the bar, be prepared to grab the weight if he faltered. He was working. He nattered on.
Marc relaxed at the background of piped-in pop-rock and his trainer’s babble. The famous Fonda “burn” seared his chest and arms. Sculpting flesh, as Michelangelo had sculpted stone.
Getting a bit lofty, are we? Comparing ourselves to the big man himself, are we? She thought I looked great. She thinks I am great.
His eyes closed in measured self-satisfaction.
“Yeah, ya doin’ good, big guy. Keep up the good work.”
Chad didn’t permit his clients to day-dream. Keep ‘em focused. He shoved Marc into position for the squats with the gentleness of a stevedore unloading contraband. Marc’s thighs screamed. His legs were not as well-supplied with receptive genes as his upper torso. Or his groin.
The antiseptic, cleaned air of the gym being snuffed into his heaving lungs was replaced with her scent: rich, lush, a myriad of tantalizing bits of her daily being. He again felt her body responding to his urgent embrace in the hansom cab even through the confining layers of damp clothes.
Marc forced himself to not think of her kiss. His body responded too vehemently at the memory. His senses flared. His pulse galloped. The small hairs on his body rose.
I’d always wondered what it was like to swim in pure honey.
God, how long could a man take it!
As long as it takes, ‘big guy.’ We’re here for the long haul. She wants space. She’s got it. Tonight I’m gonna come up with such poses as “dreams are made of”. She’s gonna be knocked out! She’s gonna want to close that space so quick.
“Hey man, you’re really breaking your butt today. Big night tonight, huh?”
“The biggest, my young stud, the biggest.”
Chad beamed at the appellation and immediately launched into a blow by blow of his latest conquest.
Ah, but I am above such mundane matters as sex. I am ensconced on a higher plane. I am dealing in a realm of pure delight.
His lower senses chuckled. Right. The blood pumped lustily through his pulsing veins as he strained happily against the weights, as his head thought of her quickness, her sass, her forthrightness, her pride in herself, her need for him.
With a final heave, he hooked the bar onto the stanchion’s holders, stood and shook his muscles loose, dancing lightly on his toes, eyeing himself in the walls of mirror. He looked good. She deserved the best.
That’s what’s got you all shook up, huh? This is the first time it’s ALL been involved: your head, your heart, your…the rest of you. Wasn’t that a Boy Scout oath or something? I sure don’t feel like a Boy Scout.
His trainer pointed to the next toy machine he was to conquer.
Marc remembered his and Amanda’s goodnight kiss. They had returned to her apartment and chastely gone over what he wanted her to look out for at this evening’s posing session.
She had been annoyed.
“Why can’t you tell me exactly what’s going on? I know it’s a Michelangelo forger we’re looking for, but where did the information come from? Who’s the most likely? What an absolutely amazing thing to be involved in,” she interjected parenthetically. “And how do you know it’s someone from David’s class? I feel like I’m in high school trig where that annoying Mr. Danials kept saying ‘just do the math, you don’t have to know why.’”
“All in good time,” he had smirked.
She had swung at him and he’d instinctively grabbed her wrist.
There was a moment frozen in time, a split second where, from the look in her eye, the physical response in his loins, the shock deep in his heart, he could have vowed never to let her go, ever.
But he did. He had smiled jauntily, superior-male-I’m-bigger-than-you-are, gathered his coat and went to the door. “See,” he had said. “Space.” He had clasped his hands safely behind his back, leaned forward and puckered his lips.
He had been good. He deserved a goodnight kiss. He expected a peck. A truce. A quick salutary smack.
She had touched her mouth to his with infinite grace. An impress of the greatest goodness. Her lips had moved slightly, tasting his, measuring the width of his smile, the power of his pucker. She had kissed him nakedly. Wholly. Almost spiritually. They’d flowed into each other. He was frozen to the spot, drinking her in. Swimming in honey. He had felt hot behind his eyes.
And then she’d said goodnight and the door was closed and he was bereft not to be in her presence.
“Man, you gonna bust something if you’re not careful. Ease up. We want you to live to lift tomorrow.” Chad laughed appreciatively at his own ready wit.
Marc glowed. Long before tomorrow would come tonight. As Chad shook his head in bemused amusement at the odd behavior of his client, Marc twisted his body into a reproduction of The Dying Gaul.
He was ready…
Ready for the forger… ready for Ace.
Through the forest of machines of levers and weights, past floor-length mirrors, at the other end of the workout area, a large man nonchalantly exercised. His features deliberately concealed by a pulled down baseball cap, he kept close watch on the handsome, muscular man and his trainer.
His brow furrowed in puzzled concentration as, before the far mirror, Marc twisted his body into the tortured central figure in the Laocoön sculpture group. Suddenly, the rough, tensed face slacked in shocked recognition as an amazing revelation dawned.
His eyes narrowed and a satisfied snarl crept over his thin lips. He chuckled quietly to himself. His course of action had changed radically.
OH, DEAR. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all.Amanda’s worried eyes flicked quickly back and forth between a deadly looking Cissy and a grim-faced Christine.
Get to know what Christine thinks, Marc had said, referring to Antonio’s posing. Hopefully get past her initial reaction. That would mean meeting Christine away from their group, Amanda had surmised. Find out who Christine was, how she thought.
Her worldly classmate would also more than likely have a few well-chosen words of advice concerning “relationships.” And this morning Amanda had felt she could afford to listen to a little advice coming from a different perspective.
And then she had the bright idea that Cissy should be added to the mix. Maybe between the two Amanda could figure out if she was handling this thing with Marc right. Being very careful, of course, not to reveal his true identity.
She was feeling totally conflicted caught between wanting to build slowly to make sure her affinity with Marc was solid and built on a firm foundation. And at the same time wanting to leap into his arms and worry about the consequences later.
Lord, how long could a girl hold out?
So she had called them both for lunch and they all met at a lovely, little place on West 23rd.
“I’ve always felt theimportant thing was to find someone you could spend therest of your life with.” Cissy’s white-knuckled clinch around her wine glass belied her frozen smile. “Someone who could takecare of you, and keep you in the manner in which youshould be kept.”
“Bull, baby.” Christine was having none of it. “Love ‘em and leave ‘em, ‘cause that’s exactly what they’re going to do to your little, hot loins.”
“You sound like you’ve had someunfortunate experiences,” Cissy said, pity seasoning her voice. “And that’s anawful shame. But we mustn’t allow one or two bad apples to spoil the whole fruit basket.”
“One or two? Look at me, you little…you young one.” Christine swept her hand grandly from her hairdo down to her martini. “Do you get the feeling I’ve been there and done that? Several times over? If Amanda is so dense as to think she’s going to get the perfect ‘relationship’ out of this thing with…what’s his name Mr. Horn Rims…then it’s probably going to be as deadly as they come. He backed off when you told him to?” She turned an incredulous face toward Amanda. “No balls. I say jump in his pants, get what kicks you can and dump him for the first replacement that comes along.”
Amanda felt chilled. The air conditioning must be very high.
“Now if we were talking about the Naked Hunk we’re going to get the chance to slam our peepers on again tonight, youknow there’s no more there than meets the eye. But it’s great eye candy. You think because this Marc stud treats you like Little Miss Princess he’s gonna keep treating you that way when the wedding cake gets cold. Get real.”
Cissy’s tight features took on a look of true concern. “GoodLord, Christine, you sound like you’ve been treatedvery badly along the way. Maybe, if you were a little more subtle with your make-up?”
Amanda cleared her throat in shocked warning.
A moment’s hesitation and Christine laughed raucously.
“Cissy-belle, I gotta hand it to you. You’re either naive as cotton candy or you’ve got more guts than I give you credit for, to take on an old war horse like me. I know I’m painted like a fun-loving merry widow, but it keeps the uninitiated out of my life. I’m no teacher at this stage of the game.”
“But I thought you and Nathan…” Christine whirled on Amanda, stopping the words in her throat.
“I have… my weaknesses.” The look of pain startled both the other women as Christine downed the rest of her martini.
“You mean thattacky, self-centered, young…” Cissy’s harsh comment trailed off. Her face instantly softened into a look of motherly concern. “Oh,honey, youknow better.”
Christine woefully nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“Oh Lord, he would make your lifemiserable.”
Christine again nodded dejectedly. “Has made. But he’s such a great talent and he’s throwing it away.” She looked angrily at Amanda. “On those god-awfulthings you publish. It’s okay for old Angeli to blow what talent he’s got left, but Nathan… You should see the stuff he’s got on his walls.”
At Amanda and Cissy’s surprised reactions, her false lashes dipped and her chin lifted proudly. “Yeah. I’ve been in his bedroom. Yeah. We did it. Yeah, I’m carrying a damned torch ‘cause we’ll probably never do it again.” Her eyes brimmed. “He was… so gentle. I felt fifteen. As if I remembered fifteen.”
The tears overflowed. Cissy was instantly at her side, her arms enfolding the shuddering shoulders with protective youthful assurance, a tissue at Christine’s eyes, cooing soothing counsels of understanding.
Amanda watched, amazed at the revelations.
Christine sighed deeply, dabbed at her face and gave Cissy a thankful pat.
“At least I’ve got that night to remember. I had this goddamned foolish thing about being his… muse. You should see his stuff, Amanda. I swear it’s as good as the drawings I’ve seen hanging in the Met. Like old masters. I went home and did some of the best sketches I’ve ever done, I was so absolutely inspired.” She gave a self-deprecating guffaw. “Yeah, right. By his art. You know anything about art, Cis?”
“To have gone to bed with a kid that can put pen to paper like that. I guess I can die happy. But I ain’t happy…” The tears started again. Cissy was again at her side, spreading soothing understanding and commiseration.
Amanda sat stunned.
…And maybe Christine.
The life class at the Art Students League was starting to get tense.
DAVID Parkerson entered jauntily, a few minutes late, surprised that young “Antonio” hadn’t already shown up to pose for the session. He assumed the young model would be along shortly and proceeded to extol to the class his extraordinary good fortune in being chosen to assist in the new Metropolitan exhibit.
He had a particular expertise in the field of art the exhibition covered, he noted modestly without going into further detail and knew the class would find the it most interesting when it opened.
“We would like to find this class most interesting,” Christine noted tartly. “Where is our handsome hunk?”
Amanda felt a wave of apprehension. Where was Marc? She knew how he was looking forward to this evening’s session. Maybe stuck in the subway. Surely not in a cab accident.
She forced herself to remain calm.
“You haven’t perhaps set us up for a let-down have you?” Professor Angeli was being unusually tart. “Young Antonio is not to appear tonight and you are making a feeble attempt to assuage the situation.”
Mr. Wilde pulled himself up to his full imposing height. “I say, that would be unthinkable, Parkerson.”
“Mention using those damned plaster casts again and I’m outta here.” Nathan seemed the most sullen of all.
Amanda had the sinking feeling he was on something again. He had arrived hyped and excited and had grown increasingly short-tempered as it seemed more and more likely that Antonio might not show.
Their teacher’s patience was growing thin. “You’re here to sketch, to learn life drawing. It’s presumptuous of you to be demanding. It’s I who am demanding of you to do your best work with or without a model.”
“That’s outrageous,” Professor Angeli seethed. “How dare you speak to professionals in that tone of voice. We’ve put up with your superior attitude in no small measure. And the foolish examples of humanity you’ve given us to work from…”
“Let’s hear it for paunchy Maurice.” Nathan flung a drawing pad into the air. “And the overabundant Pauline!”
Mr. Wilde clattered his watercolor brush on his easel as the rest of the class joined in the bedlam.
David Parkerson waded into the center of his rebellious students, smartly slapping his hand against easels and rapping drawing pads for attention. “I am your instructor! You will not question my motives and my expertise.”
He spun on Nathan. “If you are so feeble as to not be able to draw without proper inspiration, then go to the posing area and we’ll draw you!” He shoved the compact young man roughly in the direction of the platform.
Amanda gasped. The entire scene had become surreal. She couldn’t believe serious artists were allowing themselves to become drawn into the mob mentality.
“You gave us a great model and you’ve taken him away”, someone in the class called out.
“We have every right to be angry,” another voice added.
Nathan whirled and shoved the large teacher back. “Keep your untalented hands off me, buddy. The Met may think you’re hot stuff but we’re the ones who do the work here.”
“Slug him, Nathan!”
“Serves the stuck-up bastard right…!”
A cacophony of violent voices rose in harsh agitation.
Christine waded in. “Don’t you touch Nathan!” She swung at Parkerson who backed into an easel, sending the flimsy wooden contraption clattering to the floor followed by drawing papers, pencils and crayons.
Chaos broke out. Pushing, shoving, shouting. Frustration burst forth, unleashed from all sides. Above it all Mr. Wilde bellowed for civility and calm.
Amanda hovered against a back wall with several other students, shocked and frozen into inaction.
Marc! Dear God, Marc, where are you?
THE PRIVATE investigator’s head swam. He couldn’t believe he had been so lax as to allow himself to be mugged in his own apartment.Man, this being in love stuff can get a guy killed.
Being in love?Yeah, he had to admit to himself, he was bonkers for the babe.Okay, let’s see if I can salvage any of this battered body with which to tempt my lady love.
He shook his head hard to snap away the excruciating pain. He could still see and focus, though it was a little fuzzy, so there appeared to be no major neural damage. He reached to feel if blood flowed and felt his hand sharply grabbed, pulled back, and roughly held against his other.
A large menacing shape loomed behind him, wrapping his wrists in tape. Marc slowly revolved his head to see his tormentor, incrementally realizing the rest of his body was also constrained. His ankles were taped to the legs of one of the dining chairs.
“Okay, pretty boy, where’s the other bozo? The Italian job. You’re teaching him that art stuff, right? Damn, how many of you are involved in this mess? I want some answers and I want ‘em fast. Where are the new drawings? Answer me!” A large ski-masked shape heaved itself into his field of vision.
There was a crack and Marc’s slapped face snapped around. Good. Woke him up, sharpened his senses and got his adrenaline boiling. David’s apartment… right. He had let himself in, humming happily, pretty good spirits, thoughts of Ace dancing through his bed- head!
Then everything went the proverbial black, preceded by the not-so-proverbial splitting pain in his head that remained with him still.
It was the big guy they had caught rifling Amanda’s apartment, Cissy’s unexpected guest. His head now covered with a ski-mask and he was making an effort to disguise his voice, but Marc would know his violent presence anywhere.
Another sharp slap stung the side of Marc’s head. The private investigator’s senses sharpened to a razor’s edge even as his body contracted in a counterfeit cringe from the onslaught.
“Answer me, fruit! What the hell is going on with the Italian guy and you? Parkerson set you up? You know where the new drawings are, don’t you? Damn creepy Angeli, doesn’t know shit! Talk to me!”
The man grabbed a nearby large bookend and drew his thick arm back. Marc ducked his head and flung himself forward, butting into the large barrel chest.
With a searing tear at his wrists, one arm swung free.
What an idiot. Binding me with low-tack masking tape from David’s drawing supplies.
With a bellow, the struck body fell backwards, clattering into an end table as Marc toppled to the floor. A dislodged lamp smashed near his head.
Pivoting himself on his free arm, Marc used his body as a fulcrum and swung the chair still attached to his lower body against his attacker, who was scrambling to right himself. The furious man threw himself at the retaliating private eye as Marc’s other hand came free. Bracing himself on the floor, Marc cocked his legs back and shot them forward driving the attached chair into his attacker’s chest like a desperate lion tamer.
The dining room chair splintered in stabbing shards against the barrel chest, one leg catching the howling man over an eye. He screamed in agony, clutching at his head as Marc hunched his body and jack-knifed himself upright and staggered for the door, pieces of the attached chair clattering after him.
“I’ll kill you, by God!” Marc heard the furious roar behind him as his mind raced to place the accent his assailant had ceased to attempt to suppress. Irish? Cockney?
Marc tried to wrench the door open. Maybe the man had snatched the mask off his wounded head. Marc glanced back to make a positive identification.
His assailant was indeed bareheaded, but with the tangle of dislodged dark hair, a beefy hand clutching at a slash of red, and the infuriated distortion of his features as he shrieked at his retreating victim, Marc caught nothing but a general impression of the large man flailing among the clattering utensils on the kitchen island.
He did somewhat resemble the elegant, large Mr. Wilde in the life class. That put that bit of misinformation to rest.
The life class…What must be happening there?
How much time had passed since he had been knocked out? Amanda must be worried sick. As he clawed at the bolts of the door, out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of one of David’s prize copper-bottomed frying pans sailing toward his head.
Amanda isn’t the only one who’s gonna be worried sick.
A flash of incandescence and he dropped like a stone.
AMANDA watched with a mixture of horror and amazement as the life class of the world-famous Art Students League disintegrated into chaos. David Parkerson’s screaming face was a mask of fear as he flailed ineffectively at his students, trying to restore order.
Half the participants had succumbed to the bloodlust of the mob, a vicious game of who would wrest power from whom. Others were indignant and furious at weeks of being treated so cavalierly and were determined to voice their repressed anger. Nathan, though in the midst of the shouting battle, was oddly silent, his ferret eyes fastening on one anger distorted face and then another, almost frighteningly concentrated on some inner directive. He worried Amanda most.
Parkerson stumbled backward through shoving students, in retreat from a gesticulating, chastising Christine and Mr. Wilde who was waving his arms and bellowing for calm as he swam through the sea of angry bodies toward the beleaguered instructor. At the forefront was a red-faced Professor Angeli, screaming invectives.
The vituperation pouring from her beloved, old friend shocked Amanda. His anger far exceeded the situation. Deep, hidden frustration boiled forth unchecked in his shouted hostile reprimands.
A yell of rage mixed with pain burst from the instructor as he backed into a large cabinet filled with plaster casts. There was a moment’s horrible pause before a piercing scream of shock stilled the roiling students. A large fragment of a Greek torso toppled from a high shelf and struck the teacher to the floor, shattering around his crumpled body.
“Oh my God!”
“He’s out cold!”
“He’s not moving!”
“Does anyone know first aid?!”
Professor Angeli staggered backward in horror, his trembling hands to his gaping mouth and fevered brow, a picture of pure melodramatic terror. “What have I done?” With a heart-rending cry he dashed from the room.
Amanda shoved shocked bodies aside to get to the fallen instructor. It looked serious. Blood poured from his head and he was growing pale. She thrust the large chunks of broken plaster aside to inspect the wound without moving Parkerson’s body.
“Call 911 now,” she instructed loudly to the mob of milling students. “Nathan, get this stuff out of the way! Christine, grab that clean drapery from the posing platform. Bring it here, quickly.”
She lightly touched Parkerson’s forehead. “We need to cover David, he may go into shock. Mr. Wilde, go after the professor. He’s hysterical. He might hurt himself. He’ll listen to you.”
She brushed a bit of plaster from the instructor’s head. The wound seemed clean. Folding an end of the drapery Christine handed her, she placed the pad against the bleeding slash and pressed firmly as several members of the class covered Parkerson with drapes and coats.
A horrified member of the League’s office staff appeared with a first aid kit. Within minutes, paramedics arrived to attend to Parkerson’s wound properly and bundle the still unconscious man onto a stretcher.
Amanda leaned against the doorway to the classroom.
Where is Marc?
The paramedics wheeled the gurney down the hall and out the front door as Amanda grabbed the coat and portfolio that Christine pushed into her hands.
She turned to follow the group and caught sight of a scowling Nathan staring after the stricken instructor as the attending group disappeared down the front entrance.
“C’mon, Nathan. We’re all going to the hospital.”
“No, I don’t like blood.”
Christine reappeared, looking for the young artist.
“Christine, you and Nathan check in the office about insurance. We don’t need that to hang us up at the hospital. I’ll call you from emergency.”
“Right. C’mon, hot shot. Let’s go make ourselves useful.”
Nathan pulled away from Christine’s grip. “I’m sorry the old guy got hurt, but he brought it on himself. Pompous bastard.”
“Step one: denial.” Christine shoved the glowering young man toward the office. “Don’t worry, stud bunny, you’ve got four more steps to go through before you accept the fact you were as guilty as the rest of us hot-headedartistes in getting the man hurt. Get word to us as quickly as you can,” she called after a departing Amanda.
Amanda flung a hand over her head in acknowledgment and dashed out the door.
The next hour was chaotic. Fortunately Roosevelt Hospital was only a few blocks away and David was quickly attended to, but it seemed forever before any information on his condition filtered down to the waiting group of students.
Amanda filled out forms with what information could be gleaned from David’s wallet, answered questions characterizing the incident as an unfortunate accident, and called the League to see what information Christine and Nathan had learned about the school’s liability.
“It’s going to be a while, Christine,” she finished the conversation. “Why don’t you and Nathan go on home? Most of the others have left the hospital already. I’ll give you a call when I find out something definite. They’re running tests now, but the E.R. physician’s first impression is it seems to be a minor concussion.”
“We’ll be at my place,” Christine answered. “The kid’s a wreck. Who would have thought the hard-hearted little beast had so much compassion in him- or guilt, hard to say which.”
“I’m so worried about Antonio. There’s no answer on his phone.”
“You know where he lives! Well, well, well. Does Mr. Horn Rims know you’re in tight with a naked, Italian model, too? A damn good-looking, incredibly hot, naked, Italian model if memory serves, who could probably give your horn rimmed stud a run for his money.”
Amanda flushed. “Of course he does. I mean, of course I’m not…” She was rattled.
I hate all this confusing hiding of identities. I hate all this duplicity. Why can’t we just be honest with each other.
It was a childish plaint, an “I-want-my-Mama” resurrected from ancient childhood. And a waste of wishful energy.
When her Mom had died, little Amanda had learned very quickly that I-want-my-Daddy brought little comfort. An alleviation of the problem, perhaps, but little sympathy or empathetic understanding. The man did not hug much.
She knew he cared. But he never learned to show it.
Still doesn’t. He’s a very good man, and he means well, but a “well-meaning parent” is cold comfort when what a little girl needs is to be cuddled.
And the younger brothers were as bereft as she. So Amanda became Mama. To her brothers and to her father.
And sometimes the job got really tough.
Christine’s voice through the receiver cut through her thoughts. “C’mon, tough lady, you sound like you could use some rest yourself. Parkerson’s in good hands. Why don’t you turn it over to the professionals?”
Amanda cut her off. “Christine, I have to go. Mr. Wilde’s shown up with Professor Angeli. Oh, the poor man. I’ll talk to you later.”
The professor was a shambles. Filled with regret and remorse. Self-flagellating to the point that Mr. Wilde threatened a sharp slap to the old artist’s quivering chops.
“Pull yourself together, man. No one’s blaming you any more than we’re all to blame for behaving so beastly. Rather exciting, in a way, to see everyone so excited about something.” A brief moment of shame passed over Wilde’s face remembering the exhilarating rush. “Obviously, the extraordinary artistry of young Antonio was the final catalyst that permitted so much animosity to be unleashed. Rather a sad state of affairs really.”
He leaned closer to Amanda. “I’m afraid I poured too many whiskeys into the professor after I caught up with him wailing and gnashing his teeth in the middle of Columbus Circle. I dragged him by what little hair he has left to the nearest bar. Don’t worry, I’ll see him home. You should pack it in, too, my dear. You’re looking a bit peaked. You’ve done a splendid job of handling things. We’re all in your debt.”
Peaked? More like totally wiped.
Amanda got the latest report from the attending doctor and staggered for a cab. David was probably going to be okay, but that relief only allowed a wave of dreadful premonition to break through her steely control. Thank God the cab ride was harrowing. It kept her alert.
There was no answer to the buzzer at David’s apartment house. She ran her hand up and down the row of buttons and presently someone let her in as an angry voice yelled at her from a high window. David’s front door was closed but on close inspection she could see the lock had been jimmied. It looked familiar. The same as the break-in at her and Cissy’s apartment.
She felt a rush of anger at the large man who was invading all their lives. In a rage she slammed her sneakered foot against the door as Marc had done, bursting it open. Only at the last second did she realize she had no gun with which to make the same dramatic entrance.
She leaped to the side of the doorway, plastering her back against the hallway wall, fully expecting a hail of bullets as a response to her un-thought-out emotional reaction.
Nothing. Was that a groan? She flung herself into the room. “Marc! Marc!”
He wasn’t in the living room or behind the kitchen counter. The place was a mess with a shattered lamp, overturned end table, utensils, pots and pans, smashed dishes scattered around the work island in the kitchen area. There had been a terrible struggle. She caught sight of a splatter of blood beside a large frying pan and let out another scream.
“Marc! Are you here?”
Suddenly she realized there seemed to be splatters of blood everywhere.
A groan from the bedroom. She dashed inside. Marc’s arms and feet were bound to the headboard and footboard of the bed with ripped up sheets. Masking tape circled his head, covering his mouth.
She leapt onto the bed and began to rip the tape from his face. His eyes groggily followed her. He smelled of liquor. What had the wretched man done to him? Fury swelled. She swore silently the beast would pay.
“Well, hi, babe.” His clear blue eyes blinked heavily. “Gee, I’m glada see you. I was jus’ havin’ the greatest dream.” He leered lasciviously as Amanda clawed at his bindings. She dashed into the kitchen and found a knife.
Marc was looking forlorn. “I’m really sloshed. Bastard poured enough Scotch down me to sink a bammleship. Sure sunk me.” He nodded sagely as Amanda sawed at the knotted sheets, blinking through her tears, desperately trying not to carve up his strong ankles.
“Y’wanna know what I was dreaming about?” He sat up in bed grinning foolishly as she freed his limbs. “Us!”
He reached for her and she flung herself at him, knocking him back down onto the bed. She covered his mouth with kisses as the sobs hiccupped out of her. She kissed his eyes, his chin, and drew back in shock at the horrible bruise risen on the side of his head.
But it didn’t seem to bother him and it wasn’t going to stop her. She dragged him upright, blubbering, testing his limbs. He grabbed her tight. His limbs worked fine. She grabbed him back, covering his body with hers as she clutched him desperately.
He lay blissfully back on the bed as she drenched his chest with choking sobs of relief.
“Oh, man, that dream was nothing.”
AMANDA jerked upright. She had fallen asleep.
Marc snoozed contentedly under her, his arms locked safely around her, a benevolent smile of possession on his handsome face.
It could only have been a few minutes. She was just so exhausted- and so relieved. She should let Marc sleep. God knows what he had been through. But he needed to know what had happened. It was his investigation and she should tell him what had happened to David. There may have been something she had missed in the bedlam at school. She needed to get him awake.
She pulled his arms off her and shook him. He frowned mightily and then when he saw it was her, grinned broadly.
“What about a cold shower? An awful lot has happened, Marc. I need to know you’re listening.”
“I will if you will.” He struggled out of the bed and tottered upright, clinging to her. Amanda had been in bed with him. This was too good an opportunity to miss. “Come with me into the shower. We can talk as much as you like.” He began to undress.
He was less drunk. Another sigh of relief. But she knew if they got into the shower together, talking was not what they would do; certainly not what she wanted to do. But as he pulled off his shirt and his broad bare chest was exposed, she panicked. He began to unzip his pants. She leapt off the bed to leave the room.
“Wait a minute, Ace,” he pleaded, stumbling after her, his trousers half off. “You said take a shower. C’mon, please…”
“David was hurt very badly at the League tonight. I think it was an accident. But so much as been happening lately, I need desperately to talk to you about it.”
He stood frozen in the middle of the room, holding his trousers, dressed only in his white cotton briefs, assimilating what she had said. Comprehension almost visibly raced through his body, slicing through the drunken stupor. She wanted to throw herself at this incredibly handsome, powerful man and turn her life over to him this instant. He would protect her from all harm. He would make everything well. He would certainly make her well.
Marc blinked hard, his mind furiously working on willing the drunkenness away. He concentrated on Amanda’s face, waiting for a fuller explanation.
“David is going to be fine. There was a riot.” She gave a giddy laugh, her nerves taut, overwhelmed at the amazing memory. “Because Antonio didn’t show up. See what you did?” She gulped for air. “Someone knocked into that large cabinet with the plaster casts and one fell on David. He was knocked out. It was pretty bloody.” She shivered.
He turned and headed for the bathroom. “Follow me and keep talking.”
He pulled off his shorts and stepped into the shower. Amanda stopped dead at the sight of his naked body disappearing behind the mottled glass.
“David is going to be fine? More information, Ace.” His voice was firm over the noise of the water.
Thank God, he seemed to be sobering by the minute. Just what she needed.
“He’s in Roosevelt. The CAT scan came back clean. It’s a minor concussion with superficial cuts. He should be okay in a day or two. They gave him medication for the bleeding and the pain and hooked him up to all sorts of monitors. If he develops no complications, they’ll release him in a day or two.” She stayed outside the room, yelling through the open door.
Suddenly the water stopped. He stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel to wrap around his middle. “We’ve gotta get there right away. Is he alone?”
She blinked at the sight of his naked body. “Wh… what do you mean, alone? We all left. There was nothing else we could do. He was moved upstairs.”
Marc was hurriedly pulling on clothes. “This big guy that’s been hounding us is getting panicky, Ace. I wondered why he didn’t finish me off. Maybe it’s because he’s got someone else who it’s more important to finish off first.”
Amanda felt the breath knocked out of her. “F… finish off…?”
He grabbed the phone. “Do you know Roosevelt’s number?”
He punched the operator. “This is an emergency. I need to be connected to the emergency room of Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street. Damn, they connected me to 911.”
“Marc, what’s going on? Tell me what we need to do.”
He was explaining to the emergency operator there was the possibility of a murder attempt on a man’s life in the emergency room of Roosevelt Hospital.
Amanda’s jaw dropped.Murder?
“Marc, he’s not in emergency anymore…”
Marc was furious at not being able to make himself clear. The operator thought it was a hoax. There would be people everywhere in the E.R. She demanded more information. Marc slammed the receiver down in frustration and ran for the door, still standing wide open.
“We’ve got to get to David. With him out of the way, the lead suspect would be gone.” He dashed outside.
Amanda’s jaw dropped. David was the lead suspect? She grabbed her purse and dug for her address book. She punched in the numbers quickly. “Christine, don’t ask any questions. This is an emergency. Get to the hospital and get into David’s room and stay by him until we get there. Yes. It is a very big deal. I don’t care how you do it.” She hung up and ran outside where Marc was still frantically searching for a cab, cursing mightily that cabs were never around when you needed them.
“Marc, it’s the middle of the night. Tell me what’s going on. What do you mean, David’s the lead suspect?”
A cab appeared and they threw themselves inside. Marc urged the driver to run whatever red lights he could safely run. “If a cop stops us, even better.” The large bill he waved made his point.
He turned to Amanda. “It seemed logical to the auction house. The drawings had been traced to David’s class. He’s the instructor. Ostensibly the most talented. They hired me, his brother, to prove that he wasn’t the forger figuring if anybody had a motivation to prove him innocent it would be me. If I can’t do it, David gets sent up by default.”
They were zooming up Ninth Avenue, screeching through red lights, racing past other late-night traffic.
“At the very least, his reputation would be ruined. Again,” he added grimly. “At the worst, he’d be put away for awhile. That would kill him.”
Amanda stared out the window, desperately trying to put all the pieces together. The jumbled New York landscape racing by making no impression. The cab hurtled past refurbished 42nd Street. 43rd. 44th.
None of this is making any sense.
“Do you think he is the forger? Is he capable of such a thing?” She couldn’t allow herself to even consider the possibility that he and David might be working together. She clutched Marc’s hand even tighter as if to squeeze that remote possibility from her mind.
“Talent-wise? The man’s a genius, when he lets himself forget how the world has never discovered that fact. He’s got a huge ego. He had to make something of himself; he had to show Dad. He’s still trying to do that. My brother wants to dance on my father’s grave. And I say more power to him. I just happen to have gotten another life. Better things to do with my time.”
He pulled her close. It wasn’t a romantic hansom cab clip-clopping through the spring rain, she thought, but it would do.
They were into the fifties now.
“You said his reputation would be ruined again.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you about it sometime.”
They pulled up in front of the emergency entrance to the hospital. Marc shoved large bills at the driver and he and Amanda dashed into the waiting room. The emergency room doctor she had dealt with before was still on duty. The doctor made a quick phone call and gave them David’s room number.
Christine sat glowering by David’s bed in the dimly lit room. Her face washed clean of most of its make-up and her hair beaten down by the day’s turmoil, she seemed soft and almost shockingly vulnerable, even through her annoyance. Nathan perched on the window sill nearby sketching on a small pad by the light of the small table lamp.
Marc stood frowning, framed in the doorway, the harsh, fluorescent hall lights behind him, his face in shadow.
“I called Christine,” Amanda explained. “She lives on Central Park South, minutes away. Nathan was a bonus.”
“Which I was rudely interrupted right in the middle of collecting,” Christine added airily, swooping over to shake Marc’s hand. She winked at Amanda. “Not bad. With or without the horn rims.” She looked more closely at Marc, squinting against the light. “You look familiar. Have we met? Nooo,” she decided. “I would have remembered you.”
“That’s my Ma,” Nathan said, as he chuckled smugly from across the room. He gave Marc a cursory glance and went back to sketching. “Thanks, boss lady,” he tossed over to Amanda. “You saved me from another night of sin. Guess this means I have to be at work on time tomorrow, huh?”
He slid off the window sill, preparing to leave.
“Everything under control now?” Christine looked from Amanda to Marc. “Can we get out of here? According to Nurse Grumpy, Parkerson’ll be good as new in no time.”
“No time meaning three or four days.” Nathan looked more closely at Marc.
Marc ducked his head and turned to Amanda, his face firm.
“You didn’t tell me what you had done…what you were going to do,” he said quietly, his voice hard.
“You didn’t give me much time to discuss anything.” Amanda felt the heat rise in her cheeks. She didn’t like being reprimanded in front of her older friend and her younger employee even if they weren’t paying that much attention as they prepared to leave.
“Nor did you tell me in the cab.”
“You were busy explaining some important information. I didn’t want to interrupt.” She turned to Christine who had collected Nathan and was standing in the doorway. “Did you notice anything special when you got here?”
Nathan grunted and shrugged. “We thought Wilde was still hanging around, but it turned out to be some other guy.”
Amanda blanched. Marc stayed in the doorway with the strong light behind his back. “Thank you both,” he said. “I’m sorry we interrupted your evening. What you did was very important. Thank you again.”
He shook their hands and ushered them out the door, keeping his head down as he turned his attention toward the sleeping patient.
Nathan gave one last attentive glance at the large, muscular figure, the wide shoulders, the narrow hips, before nodding goodnight to Amanda and following Christine out the door.
Marc picked up the phone, punched several numbers and spoke quietly into the mouthpiece. He hung up.
“I called a private security firm. They’re sending someone over right away. We’ll wait until they come. Okay?” He didn’t speak as harshly as he had a few moments ago.
Amanda sat down in one of the hospital chairs, her head in her hands.
“I had completely forgotten you were you. I mean, not Antonio… Oh Marc, what if they recognized you?”
“Don’t worry about it. I think they had other things on their mind.”
“And I was feeling so proud that I had thought to call…” Her voice trailed off.
“We seem to have a little rivalry going on here. You want to take my job away from me.” His playful tone was back. She stood, feeling abject, grateful for his understanding, confused at her own actions and hoping he would come to her.
He did. His strong arms enfolded her. Their kiss was deep and fervent. Safe in each other’s arms. Amanda’s pulse heightened. Marc’s chest rose and fell quickly as she nestled against it. She never wanted to let this protective presence go.
Marc turned toward his sleeping brother. David’s head was bound and tubes fed him medication. Even in sleep, David Parkerson’s face was strained. Marc studied it for quite a long time.
“He doesn’t seem to have such a big ego, now.” Amanda hoped her callous observation might lighten the mood.
“Do you know the painter Giorgione?”
She thought for a moment. “Sixteenth century, Italian?”
“Very good, Ace. Giorgio da Castelfranco, known as Giorgione. Not only was he a great painter, he was quite a swinger: poet, lover, musician. Shook the art establishment by its short ones. Died young; caught the plague from a lady friend. Probably was a great-looking corpse. He was my brother’s MFA thesis. Boy, did David empathize.”
“David? Empathize with a swinger?”
“He was quite a hellion in his younger days. Did everything he could to get Dad to pay attention to him. Dad hated the art crap stuff that David loved. He wanted David to be a salesman, a businessman, anything that would bring in the bucks.” He sighed, continuing to stare at the sleeping man.
“David turned his thesis into a book about Giorgione. Nobody had studied him as thoroughly as my nosy, self-absorbed brother, not in 200 years. I was damned impressed. The book was gonna be published by Abrams. Dad was not impressed. Writers were almost as bad as art critics.”
Amanda looked up at the grim face, flickering with ghostly memories.
“One of Giorgione’s drawings came on the market. There are only about half a dozen of his paintings that can honestly be attributed to him. Most of the time experts can’t tell the difference between him and Titian, for God’s sake.
“They came to my brother to vet it, to tell them if it was for real. David was in seventh heaven. Surely Dad would be impressed now. He looked at the drawing and said sure it was a Giorgione. It wasn’t just the technique. Only one man could have thought that way. Only one man could have had the invention and the imagination. The right paper and ink, that’s the obvious stuff, but Giorgione’s soul was in that drawing. David knew it had to be his. He just knew!” His brow furrowed and he looked away.
Amanda felt what must be coming, what must have happened, but she was amazed that even after all these years the feeling of surprise and disbelief that invaded Marc’s body, the pain that he suffered for his disgraced brother was as immediate and visceral as the original shock must have been.
“The forger’s book came out just as David’s book was about to be published. The drawing was fake. The book proved it. The forger didn’t even know about some dumb kid betting his whole wad on that particular drawing being real. It cost a very famous museum a lot of embarrassment and a publisher a lot of money. It destroyed David’s rep. Dad…” His voice caught, though his face remained implacable. “My father couldn’t laugh loud or long enough.”
He gave a harsh snort of angry derision. “It was the one thing that kept him going through the cancer. He died with a smirk on his face.”
Such unloving coldness in anyone was beyond Amanda’s comprehension. Her own father may not be demonstrative, she thought, but she had never doubted his love.
“But, your mother?”
“Mom worshiped the ground Dad walked on. She had better,” he added with a trace of resigned bitterness, “Since she never wanted kids anyway.”
“Oh, I can’t believe that. I know…”
Marc turned and faced Amanda. His face blank. “No, Amanda, you do not know what it’s like not to be wanted. And, pray God, you never will.”
Amanda held him tightly. Trying to impress through her body that life was not always like that, with parents so unloving, lives so shattered. Her father and brothers were far from perfect, but they were good men, they meant well. They could impart unknown and unmeaning pain but she knew they were there if ever she needed them. She couldn’t even begin to comprehend the emptiness of the childhood that Marc and his brother had endured.
Her body shuddered with a repressed sob.
“Aw, c’mon, babe. It’s not so bad. That was big brother’s hell, not mine. I was just surfing my little heart out. I didn’t give a fig about anything.” The lilting playfulness drained from his voice. He dragged a grin up, shoving the deep hurt aside. “I’m just playing on your sympathy, hoping to…”
She kissed him deeply, urgently, fervently. She wanted to make him well. Make him whole. But it was more than sympathetic concern. It was realizing that the man she was so attracted to was more and more a complicated human being.
The moods that swung over “Antonio” in their first time together in the Village that she had attributed to his concern with his disguise, now reappeared as part of his total character, as part of Marc’s struggle to deal with all the issues that made him the singular man he was.
He would be a struggle to comprehend, to deal with. But it would be an exciting struggle, ever new, ever fresh, as she discovered deeper and deeper depths in him.
His heart thundered against hers. Her own pulse throbbed in her temples. She so wanted to be a part of this man’s life. He would challenge her, he would thrill her; he would infuriate her and would excite her beyond all reason.
Marc’s fingers threaded into her hair pulling the strands through his strong fingers. His hand revolved to stroke her cheek, to cup her chin. His deep blue eyes, filled with longing and need, searched the depths of hers. She met his gaze, her eyes wide with acquiescence and embraced the inevitable.
The soft light from the bedside table illuminating the planes of his strong face was replaced by the harsh night lights of the city flashing dramatically across his high cheekbones and the firm chin as the cab hurtled them back to David’s apartment.
He held her as if afraid she might spring from him at any moment, but Amanda clung to Marc just as tenaciously. Neither of them spoke as the yellow streak surged its way through the dark pre-dawn cityscape.
Not once did she question her decision.
She only knew what she was about to do was going to change the course of her life.
AMANDA waited as Marc forced a chair back against the doorknob and then wedged the coffee table against the chair, barricading them safely in the apartment.
He turned, bent his powerful body and scooped her into his arms. Standing in the middle of the wrecked room, legs wide, feet solidly planted, Amanda clung to his neck, her acquiescent body curled against his beating heart.
She had dreamed of this moment, of being held in his strong embrace, protected from all harm, ready to enter into his life, to be a part of him.
And the dreams were feeble compared to the reality of his flesh and blood, hot with desire, trembling with the same anticipation that coursed through her throbbing veins and filled her being with his presence.
Even yet, neither spoke. There was no way Amanda could articulate how her body and her soul felt at this moment. How it seemed that all the actions of her life had led to this particular place and this particular time with this particular man.
She was Egyptian, French, ancient Greek, all women to all the men that this man holding her tight had created in his art poses, and by creating had made her a part of his imagination and his reality.
Marc carried her into the bedroom and placed her gently on the bed. He stepped back to admire his treasure. Amanda cringed. He was still all men, but she was certainly not all women, nor even one desirable one at that moment. Her dark hair plastered to her head, the disheveled locks had been kept in place by a shove here, a quick tuck there.
Her lightweight cotton shirt stuck to her damp skin. Her bra felt constricting and tight, shoving her in all the wrong places, making her feel crumpled and misshapen.
My jeans must be filthy.She smoothed a hand down the dirty denim, streaked with the powder of broken plaster.
And those damn clunky running shoes…Amanda was proud of her feet, they were handsome, beautifully shaped, and attached to her attractive calves by slim ankles.
He had showered. He had thrown on fresh clothes. He looked like something out of the Hampton’s issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly. While she felt like…
His gray-blue eyes shone in the early morning light as he looked down at her, devouring her. Dawn was breaking, sending splinters of gold slipping through the shuttered windows and rebounding fiery in the deep recesses of his eyes. His determined jaw glowed. She imagined him naked, moist and shining in full, warm sunlight. He began to unbutton his shirt.
“No!” The sound of Amanda’s voice shocked them both. His fingers froze at the V that had opened revealing his breastbone, the center of his smooth, sculpted chest. She could hear the pounding of his heart in the silence that followed her cry.
The bed rattled as she scrambled upright to kneel and reach for him. She gently pushed his hands aside and began to unfasten the buttons herself. His eyes lowered to follow her actions, impossibly long lashes shadowing his high cheekbones. His lips curled luxuriously, sinfully. He allowed her to undress him.
She tossed the shirt aside and lay her cheek against his naked chest, feeling the blood rushing through her warming face heated to an even greater incandescence by the heat rising from him. Her hands moved over his upper body, imprinting the rise and fall of his musculature into her exploring palms.
He gasped with pleasure, his chest swelling quickly with the intake of breath, and she was startled at the force that erupted under her cheek.
The thought skittered through her brain like a flash of summer lightning far in the distance. Could she possibly contain this primal energy that she was about to unleash, that she was desperate to allow to take full possession of her being? The rumble of distant thunder from the splintering thought rolled nearer and nearer and she knew the answer as well as she knew the forces of nature.
Her head rolled over on his chest, her hair veiling the landscape of his body. She closed her lips over the nub, flicking her tongue quickly over the tiny prong.
With a roar of unleashed pleasure, Marc threw her into the bed. He was everywhere at once, covering her with kisses, his hands tugging at her shirt, her shoes, her jeans, even as he struggled out of the rest of his own clothes.
He growled and muttered and breathed fire as his eyes gorged themselves with each uncovered portion of her body. A quick inspection, a stroke, a kiss, the sweeping of his searing eyes over his new acquisition and he hurried on, flinging clothes away from them until they both were naked, she clutching at the disheveled sheets underneath her as she lay beneath him, he hovering over her, his rampant erection a bolt of reality that nailed Amanda to this electrifying moment in time.
He rolled on the condom proudly, his eyes glinting, his lip curled as he purposefully settled the ring at the base of his powerful stalk of manhood.
This was no ancient Greek focused on some distant goal, no stricken Rodin sculpture bearing the weight of the world. This was here, now: Marc Parkerson and Amanda Catherine Emerson. Every inch of her was aware of his immediate, radiating presence.
He knelt over her, on one knee, anxious, his mouth slack with awe as he stroked her, testing the reality of her flesh. His hands sculpted the roundness of her breasts and hovered above her nipples, swelling her chest with tantalizing anticipation. He stroked the flat plane of her abdomen, drilling teasingly into her bellybutton as she giggled before he excitedly progressed, shaping the roundness of her lower belly. He straddled her legs, his tensed, bulging thighs on each side, to stroke both hands down her body, circling the outside roundness and smoothing gently up her inner thighs toward her center.
Amanda flowed with moistness. Streams of electrified nerve endings streaked in from her extremities to gather in her middle like a shaft of pure absorbing radiance. The cool morning light illuminating the bedroom warmed with each passing second as brighter and brighter streaks of spring sunshine forced themselves into the room, seeking out Marc’s body, highlighting his shape, making his musculature glow. Her eyes danced over him. A bulging vein, a slight discoloration of skin, a mole, the way his biceps flowed into the pit of his arm before blooming into the powerful plateau of his chest. She categorized the man’s flesh, reveled in his singularity. He was Marc… alone.
He dropped his head and the center of Amanda’s being exploded. Heat flooded into heat. She gasped and writhed. She had never experienced such delicate torture.
His hands cupped her breasts, pressing urgently into the soft flesh as she clawed at his hair and he brought her to the peak of anticipation, until her nails dug into his shoulders and dragged him higher on her trembling torso, the motion pleading for his body to enter hers.
His rough cheek pressed against hers. His chest flattened her breasts, his hips moved awkwardly, seeking. She reached to guide him and suddenly felt a plunging into the center of her being that reached into depths that she had never known before.
He was a revelation inside her. Exploring, delighting, searching, finding. Animal sounds of pure rapture rumbled through him. Elemental instincts. She pulled him into her, melding their bodies, his powerful buttocks alive with energy under her kneading fingers.
Choices of what to enjoy most crackled chaotically through her until Amanda was caught up in the rhythm of his thrusts, her shallow breaths dancing over their coupled bodies, a counterpart to the deep resonance of his near animalistic pleasure in their mating, their eager beginning escalating to near violence.
The wondrous physicality deep within their united bodies excited Amanda’s senses, sending them streaking toward her extremities and beyond. The heat of his hot, fevered breath against her cheek, the scent of their consolidation, acrid and rough, smooth and manufactured, the texture of his taut, pebbled chest, the roughness of his encompassing thighs, and a thousand other instant impressions melded into a physical spirituality that made her soare, lifted her higher and higher.
Marc plunged deeper and deeper into her being, to become one with her innermost self as she welcomed him in, tantalized him deeper, captured and held him in the most secret places that he had discovered and revealed to her in his fervent explorations.
Even as she closed around him to capture his urgency inside her, the thought intruded that it was too perfect, too unbelievably blissful, too devastatingly exciting for her to contain.
She erupted in an explosion of shattering physicality that simultaneously ripped her apart and reconfigured her. She had never been so intensely completed.
He held her together as she splintered into delicious shards of delight. Erupting and fulfilling, expelling and emptying. She giggled and grunted, gasped fresh supplies of oxygen to fuel her fiery finale, her nails dragging over his body, marking her territory. Over and over she rose and fell, tsunami waves with troughs of anticipation instantly filled beyond all expectation.
He paused as she plunged to earth, his musky eyes scouring her face. His sexy smirk of satisfaction fired her senses and her sense of self-preservation giving way instantly to a second round of shivering delight.
The smart-ass raised eyebrows and crooked grin nudged her drugged ego to protest in silence.
This isn’t the first time, buddy. I’m no virgin. I’ve been around the block. Shut up. Enjoy. Thisisthe first time. It has never been anywhere near like this before.
She closed her eyes and showed him a look of pure satisfaction. A chuckle rumbled up from his toes, curled against her calves, and his frame renewed its relentless pursuit of matching her total release.
When he reached his goal Amanda was stunned. She had never had to deal with such a release of energy. To contain his joyful outbursts seemed almost impossible and yet at the same time she felt as if she couldn’t absorb enough of his elation.
He had matched her. They were one in their complete immersion in one another, the total giving into of the other’s complete accommodation.
Amanda shivered in suspended joy and dread.
It could never, ever, be this perfect again.
MARC LAY panting, trying to remember his whole body weight was pressing down on Amanda. He felt completely wrung out. Tromped on? Marauding elephants couldn’t have done a more eviscerating job.
It was the most intense sexual experience of his life. It scared the shit out of him.
He tried to read some reaction in her melted body, lying totally receptive beneath his crushing force. He pushed himself up on his elbows, loathing the separation, entranced at the softness peeling from his skin and reblooming immediately of its own accord. She was so amazing, so beautiful, so devastatingly sexy.
He had never dealt with anyone as total as Ace. She fired him to unbelievable accomplishments, leading him, challenging him, enveloping him, absorbing him.
He lowered his head against her cheek, realizing his unshaven jaw might be rough. He took a breath to apologize and acknowledged speech was beyond him. The silence was like honey, their breathing the quiet buzzing of bees manufacturing pure bliss.
Her breath was more even now, a calm Mother Earth. Every inch, every millimeter etched itself into his tingling flesh. The roughness of her pubic hair knitted with his; the incredible smoothness of her thighs melded with his elongated packs of trembling muscle fiber- tissue developed to its limit- shorn of its blond dusting of body hair.
He regretted all the other false acts he had committed on her behalf.
He wouldn’t think about that now. He was doing his job. He was protecting her. He wouldn’t think about that now. She was slipping away.
The aftermath was usually a letdown. Nobody liked to leave the top of the mountain. But this was scary. He hadn’t only been to the top he had taken off. He had flown. He had been lifted into spaces he had never before encountered. He had heard about this stuff; he had expected some day to encounter it, to enjoy it, to embrace it as an exciting new kick.
He had enough action going that he was doing a fair sampling. Odds were, eventually, he’d connect with Someone Special.
This was nothing like he had expected. He had experienced phenomenal sex but he had also experienced flashes ofyes! Glints of‘this is what it’s all about. We’re talking hearth and home, stud. Sticking-with-this-forever, stuff’. Marc felt a knot in the pit of his stomach. His heart sang. His belly hurt. Maybe he had pulled something.
A couple of hard slam dunks and those thoughts of hearth, home, commitment were outta sight, outta mind. He slowly rolled off Amanda, careful to maintain the plastic barrier that separated them. On his back he slipped off the shield of modern sexuality and laid it carefully aside.
Maybe it could be preserved as a memento.
He snorted a derisive grunt at his romantic foolery and flung his arm over Amanda’s head, snuggling her into his side. She looked at him, amber eyes wide and mellow, dark lashes moist and glittering. He remembered her warm body against his, underneath him, encompassing him, containing him.
The tactile memory of the swell of her perfect breasts rolled over his chest. He had meant to taste the buds of her nipples as he had tasted her perfection. He had meant to tickle the firmness of her beautiful bottom with his unshaven jowls, trace the perfect indentation of her backbone with his mouth. Examine her toes, kiss the inside of her elbows, explore the classical transition from her breast to her arms. He lay drugged in a perfect state of bliss.
She murmured beside him and began to trace the line of his breastbone with her fingernail. She continued on, droopy-eyed with languorous teasing, down the rippling rises of his abdomen, into the tangle of hair at the apex of his thighs, and lower.
Her eyes widened and she sat up. “Good grief, Marc.”
They made frighteningly passionate love again.
New territories, new spaces, new intimacies discovered. He was astonished at her vastness. He could spend the rest of his life charting her.
He remembered once watching from a stormy Southern California shore the most amazing surf exhibition he had ever seen, the day violent, the waves near terrifying. He had seen a surfer ride through a death-defying barrel roll and catch a perfect incoming swell that seemed to raise the young daredevil triumphant into the glowering heavens and deposit him effortlessly onto the beach.
Marc had raced to the young man, to bathe in the aura of one who had experienced such total triumph.
Tears had streamed down the kid’s face.
“I’ve done it, man. It’ll never be like that again. Never. No matter how hard I try to find it.”
An endless pursuit of what he would never be able to achieve again. Because the experience itself had changed him irrevocably.
Marc pressed his face into the perfect nape of her neck and scrubbed the wetness from his cheeks with the waves of her hair.
The kid was way wrong. Perfection could be reattained.
Marc lay still. He had never been at this place before.
NOR HAD either of them been at the place they were the next morning.
They both were tentative in dealing with “the morning after,” Amanda felt, though their good-morning kiss was languorous and passionate, and weakened her knees in remembered passion, it seemed a part of the relaxed friendship between them had been lost.
But there was nothing lost that couldn’t be recaptured, Amanda told herself. They had already gained so much else. A certain amount of readjusting was to be expected.
Neither spoke as they stumbled through breakfast.
So.Neither of us are morning people, Amanda thought glumly.
Why? Why? Why? Can’t we talk to each other?Amanda berated herself for her silence as puffed something-or-other overflowed the rim of her cereal bowl onto the countertop. Marc sleepily grinned and scooped the over-processed grain into his fist and popped it into his mouth, grinding nosily away.
He bent over and kissed her lightly on the cheek.Just like an old married couple.
Suddenly he jerked back and choked, as if he had put his mouth to a hot griddle, spraying cereal.
I know just how you feel; I’m just as screwed up as you are, Amanda grumbled to herself, sloshing milk into the bowl, rising the puffed whatevers over the top. Not even bothering to wipe the counter, she plunged a spoon into the mixture and began to chomp away.
Well, it looks like he’s not going to say anything. And it looks like I’m just as gutless. I guess it wasn’t as great as I thought.
She looked across at Marc, who in his shocked haze was contemplating how to put the toast and the knife and the lite cream cheese together to make it work for him. He glanced up.
Well, it’s not exactly “little boy lost.” More like big “stud not quite sure what to say the next morning to the bimbo he boffed.” Ha!She laughed out loud.
“What’s funny?” He rubbed his shadowed face.
God, how sexy he looks unshaven.
He sighed apologetically. “I don’t wake up quick.” His dark gray-blues fastened on her and began to clear as though an obscuring summer cloud had glided away to reveal infinite azure skies. “Last night… uh, this morning…” He bit his lip and his brow wrinkled. “…was great.” He swallowed, waiting.
She smiled, hopefully sexily, hopefully not putting him off. “This morning is great.” That part was true. Just to be with him was almost enough to still the rancorous calamity going on in her.
What? Where? Head? Heart? Lower regions?
She flicked a bit of cereal and milk his way from the end of her spoon. He laughed, grateful she had accepted his vocal offering and thankful she didn’t seem to be requiring more. He reached over and tousled her tangled hair in relief.
“Marc, I’ve got to know what’s going on. I’m obviously in the middle of whatever kind of ‘caper’ you’ve got going and you really make me nervous throwing around terms like ‘attempted murder,’ and ‘finish me off.’ I… I don’t want anybody to finish anybody off.” She finished off the cereal and, collecting his, threw the bowls in the sink with a clatter.
“Come with me to see David. I called the hospital and they said he could handle a visit. He’s awake. The doctor said a conversation would help clear his head. We can tell you everything you want to know. Okay?”
At the very least it would get them in the company of other people.
DAVID’S COLOR was coming back. All his vital signs were good. Another twenty-four hours of observation and he should be able to leave the hospital, the nurse explained, but his condition needed to be monitored for the next several days. She indicated the doctor would prefer if they didn’t tax him too much this first visit.
Marc was going to the Met to report back to David how the mounting of the exhibition was progressing after he kept his appointment at the auction house to meet the insurance men.
Amanda waited patiently as they discussed the riot at the League and David’s impression of how things had gotten out of hand.
“What do you think, Ace? Was it just a fluky escalation of events or did someone trigger it? Was there a deliberate attempt to get David hurt?”
Amanda thought back. Christine’s actions appalled her; Nathan had been scarily detached, even in the middle of chaos; Mr. Wilde had tried to calm the class from the beginning. Professor Angeli had lost it completely, angry and vicious beyond all comprehension, but she couldn’t believe his actions sprang from anything other than spontaneous reaction to buried anger.
Was the instigator someone else in the class? Someone, perhaps, they had never even considered?
To a certain extent, as Nathan had so snarlingly put it, David had brought the events on himself. She thought it best not to make that suggestion.
The nurse looked in to see how David was doing and indicated her patient would need to rest in a few minutes.
Between them, David and Marc began to explain the whole affair, barely giving each other a chance to finish sentences.
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” Amanda stopped them a few minutes later. “Several years ago fake Michelangelo drawings started appearing on the international market?”
“No,” Marc corrected her. “They weren’t put on the market.”
“They’ve never been put on the market,” David added. “I thought we explained that.”
“No,” Amanda said evenly, “you didn’t. Why don’t you start at the beginning again, one at a time, and this time I’ll stop you if I get lost.”
The men looked at each other. “You first.” Marc tilted his head toward his disgruntled brother.
“As we said before,” David spoke deliberately, “Several years ago, three to be exact, Cambiare’s London branch came in possession of what their experts decided was an undocumented, genuine Michelangelo drawing.”
Amanda nodded, acknowledging she knew Cambiare’s was one of the most prestigious auction houses in the world. “But they didn’t put the drawing on the market,” she said.
“No,” Marc said. “They were led to believe that perhaps other such drawings might show up. They decided to accumulate as many as they could before offering them to the public.”
“Or the Queen,” David added pointedly, somewhat smugly. “A rather avid collector.”
“The discovery of a group of unknown, genuine Michelangelos would be a major coup in the art world,” Marc continued.
“But, what made Cambiare believe the drawing was genuine?” Amanda asked. “Surely by now, every stroke Michelangelo ever put to paper has been discovered and catalogued. It’s been almost 500 years.”
“Not necessarily.” David sat up with effort, eagerly, the complete art historian. “The great master made hundreds of drawings during his lifetime, finished works as well as preparatory sketches for various frescos, paintings and sculptures. Many of the drawings were destroyed when they had served their purpose and many he simply gave away as mementos to friends and acquaintances. He lived to a ripe old age, productive practically to the last.”
Marc caught up David’s eagerness. “And even though he was recognized as a genius during his lifetime, there were a lot of other great artists in Florence and Rome during the Renaissance. Probably having a Michelangelo wasn’t all that big a deal. A lot of stuff got stuck away and completely forgotten about for centuries.”
“Centuries?” Amanda said, wonderingly.
“Forgotten, and rediscovered during reconstructions or floods that drove people into parts of their palazzi they hadn’t been into for years,” David continued.
“Or wars,” Marc interrupted. “During the Second World War, the Nazis stole countless works of arts.”
“People were spiriting as much as they could out of the country or hiding it.”
“Behind walls, under floors, burying it!”
How exciting Marc looked. His whole body was alive, his eyes reflecting his eagerness. Amanda would have to run to keep up when he was enthused. She wondered if she had the energy or the courage.
“Tons of stuff was lost!” Marc’s blue eyes were wide. He paused, turned to his brother, shrugged and laughed. “So what we’re saying is, yes, it’s very possible for real, unknown Michelangelos to turn up after all these years.”
David settled back in the hospital bed. “Over the last three years Cambiare was able to accumulate five totally unknown drawings!”
“But they turned out to be fake, right?” Amanda disappointedly remembered the whole point of Marc and David’s enterprise- to catch a forger.
“Well, not exactly. You know, Ace, there’s a big difference between a fake and a forgery.”
“There’s nothing wrong with an artist creating a work in the style of another artist…”
“So long as he signs his own name to it.”
“Yes,” David said, as he nodded. “The problem occurs when a work is created for the express purpose of attributing it to another. That is against the law.”
“To put it mildly,” Marc noted. “The drawings had come to Cambiare unattributed. In addition to being from the right period they were also so unique, that Cambiare’s experts finally decided only Michelangelo himself could have conceived of them, much less executed them.
“On top of their artistic opinion, they ran every test. Chemical analysis, x-ray, carbon dating; everything checked out. But the larger the collection became, the more valuable it was. Cambiare had to be certain.”
“And, unfortunately,” David interjected, “even though the art work had come from various sources, odd circumstances began to arise that unsettled them.”
“They hired investigators to check into the provenances of the drawings, and to make a long story short, all were traced back to one gallery here in the States, in the Village.”
“Which, even more coincidentally,” David finished, somewhat chagrined, “four of my students had had dealings with.”
“Four?” Amanda ticked them off. “Mr. Wilde, Professor Angeli, Nathan and… Christine?”
“Bingo. It was decided that David or one of those four must have something to do with what began to look more and more like forgery on a grand scale.”
Amanda stopped them. “But why would the fact that some of your students had used the same gallery implicate you?”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” David began to rub his temples, “it didn’t really. The investigators were clutching at straws, but it was such an extraordinary coincidence they felt there must be some connection somewhere.” He closed his eyes and lay back on the pillows.
The nurse entered with medication and suggested they end their visit.
Marc gave Amanda a sharp look. “Of course David had nothing to do with the drawings. That would have been insane on his part and they realized it soon enough. But it was possible that one of his students might. They decided to enlist his help in catching the perpetrator.”
“If indeed there is a perpetrator,” David added with a wry smile. “There is, of course, the remote possibility the drawings are genuine.”
The thought of such a phenomenal prospect suddenly brought the group to silence.
After a moment’s pause, Amanda continued. “So I became a suspect simply by being in David’s class, not necessarily because I had shown any particular inclination for faking.”
“In a way, yes,” Mark said. “Nobody could figure exactly what was going on, they just wanted David to keep his eyes open. That’s when they called me in to see if I might have any ideas.”
David downed the pills presented by the nurse. She indicated it was time for Amanda and Marc to leave.
“I’m sorry,” David said, his eyes beginning to droop. “My head is starting to pound. How are we doing, Miss Emerson?” He turned to her with a brave smile. “Amanda,” he amended, responding to a look from Marc. “Is our little charade making any more sense?”
Amanda gave the exhausted man a kiss on the cheek, an action that startled him, and after a moment, to which he responded with a wan smile.
“That’s why you two came up with the idea of turning Marc into a Michelangelo model? Thinking the forger might be so excited he might let the cat out of the bag?”
“Yes, exactly. It does seem somewhat far-fetched, but I remembered the class hounding me to find a really superb model, ‘like the great masters might have used.’ Christine was always pushing for better looking men to draw,” he added, slightly embarrassed. “I think I had better beg off any more explanation before I implicate someone unfairly.”
“Thank you, David.” Amanda turned back at the door. “I don’t mean to be so meddlesome but now that I know what’s going on, maybe I can help by keeping my eyes and ears open, too.”
“That would be splendid,” the exhausted man said drowsily, his eyes closing. “Perhaps I’ll see you later this aft…” He was asleep.
Marc and Amanda moved quietly into the hospital hallway.
“Has anybody checked out the Village gallery?” Her mind was racing. “That seems to be the finger in the dike. Suspect art students go in, fake Michelangelos come out.”
“Not yet. Once you alert the gallery they’ve been implicated, the door slams shut, so we were hoping we might hit the nail on the head with this model stuff. Who knows what they might destroy in panic.”
He looked at her sharply. “Amanda. What’s going on in that sneaky little head of yours? Don’t do anything foolish.”
She was annoyed at his tone. “What does that mean? I’m incapable of being clever like the big boys?”
He looked hurt. “You know I didn’t mean that.” He also looked worried. “I’ve got a lot to do today. I don’t need to know you’re off getting into trouble.”
She kissed him on the cheek.
She had just gotten a brilliant idea of how to slip through that gallery door before it had a chance to slam shut. Marc wasn’t the only one who could be someone he was not.
“CISSY, I need your help.”
“I amstill upset with you, Amanda Emerson, for making me worry myselfsick about you not returning home last night. If I hadn’t thought to call Christine…”
“Yes, yes, I know. I’m sorry, blah, blah, blah. C’mon Cissy, you’ve got really great clothes and really great taste. I need you to turn me into a stunning, fashionable, wealthy, art dealer.” That wasn’t exactly accurate, but maybe it would tweak her interest.
It did. She was silent. Amanda could almost hear the wheels grinding at the other end of the phone line and see both their wardrobes being scattered about the apartment for appraisal.
“Jimmy said you were taking the day off. Which I canmore than understand after having learned what happened last night fromChristine.” She was waiting to be begged.
“You’ve been talking to Jimmy? My stalwart, young assistant at the office in whom I entrusted my professional corporate career this day?”
Cissy purred. “He called me. He asked me to lunch. I think he wanted to show off a bit. He is a nice man, but…”
“Cissy, he’s a great guy and you know it. You’ve just been fighting it ever since I got you two together when he first came to work for me, that’s all. God knows you’ve given the rest of New York bachelorhood a shot since then. Give Jimmy a chance. You know he’s always thought you were fantastic.” Another pause.
Cissy ruminated. It didn’t take a lot to side-track her.
Amanda hurried on. Cissy could think about her failed relationships later. “I need to convince someone I’ve got more money than sense and I need to do it right away. Challenge? You’ve been wanting to get your hands on me.” That did it.
Two hours later the two young women studied their handiwork.
“You lookscrumptious.” Cissy was delighted with her efforts. “VeryEuropean. Rich European.”
Amanda had to admit, she looked pretty spiffy. “I’d think I had a bundle if I had to deal with me.” The skirt of the pale mauve raw silk suit was a bit short for her tastes, but it made her thighs look great. She didn’t think she had ever had a pair of Ferragamos on her feet and they were startlingly high, but they did do amazing things to her ankles and calves.
Cissy had sculpted her hair into a no-nonsense French twist and dusted her face with a make-up so subtle that it could barely be discerned behind the huge dark glasses, though, to Amanda’s eyes, it changed her features so radically it rendered her practically incognito.
A pale green drape of silk flowing from the murky mocha Garbo hat fluttered past her hemline as an eccentric artistic affectation, and a Mark Cross rip-off briefcase slung over her shoulders stamped her as certainly not of the New York little black suit brigade.
Amanda looked slightly exotic, dripping with accustomed wealth. She had a mind, and taste, of her own. She looked like a million bucks.
Now all she had to do was convince the right person that was the amount she had to spend.
“Here.” Cissy slipped a yellow emerald ring on Amanda’s finger. Amanda gasped.
“Cissy, is this real?”
Her satisfied roommate shrugged. “It’s insured.”
A million and a half.
PINKS WAS an odd little place, located in an old building on a twisting street south of Houston Street. SoHo. She had expected the modern renovation of industrial space to be scoured clean of any character and blasted blindingly white in order the better to show off some obscure and difficult to comprehend artist from whom the gallery owner had probably extracted a dreadful fee to show his or her suspect wares.
Instead, this place was quaint, slightly musty, and looked as if the reproductions of famous paintings in its small showcase window had been gathering dust for years.
She swept in imperiously. A young girl who looked as if she would be more at home behind a computer screen filled with arcane programming notations appeared out of the gloom.
“This is not as I had expected.” Amanda grandly removed the dark glasses from her face and speared them onto the crown of her Garbo hat.
Her voice, she hoped, sounded somewhat foreign, gleaned from the remembered accents of parents and grandparents and newly-arrived cousins back in the Italian-Polish Pittsburgh neighborhood of her childhood.
The young woman looked startled to see her.
Probably the way she always looks.Amanda noticed she had an art book in one hand and a watercolor brush in the other.Ah, a budding copyist, perhaps. Maybe she was on the right track.
“Can I help you? Oh, excuse me…” The young woman hurried toward the back of the cluttered gallery to put her book and brush away. She turned the canvas on which she had been working to the wall.
“I have heard of you, of course.” Amanda strode around the gallery, peering at the paintings. “But I have not had the time when I have been in your country before. Today, I said, I will go see this…Pinks.” She gave a slight shrug at the odd name. Glancing around, she spoke quietly to the girl. “Do you have drawings.”
“Yes. Of course. What period?”
“May I see… anything…” Amanda’s hands flew apart in an expansive gesture. “If I do not find anything of interest, I will ask to see more. Agreed?”
“Sure. I mean, yes. Sure.” The young woman pulled several large portfolios from behind a counter. She cleared a space on a large table. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
Amanda smiled enigmatically. “I will know when I see. I will know.” She nodded her head mysteriously up and down.
She flipped through the drawings with a look of disdain on her face. “I understood you had more…singular works of art than these feeble attempts. I see I have been misled.” She turned to go.
Would I really know a decent fake if I saw one?
“No, wait. I’ll go get Mr. Pinks. Please. You should talk to him.” The wide-eyed, young woman hurried into a back room.
Amanda peered more closely at one of the contemporary drawings.I could swear that’s one of Nathan’s. He showed me pretentious stuff like this when he first came looking for a job.
Count Dracula appeared at her side. She jumped. “You are very silent. I am not amused. You are the Mr. Pinks?” She looked dubiously at his dark, sharp features.
“There is no Mr. Pinks. I am the owner. It pleases my employees to refer to me by that name. What do you want?” His voice was cold.
Amanda’s was colder. “Decent reproductions. I have come a great distance. Your young person showed me this.” She tapped the drawings with the back of her hand, dismissing them.
His sharp features began to soften. He looked Amanda over carefully. “My employee is inexperienced. Ordinarily I am made aware of special clients who may be coming to view what I have to offer. Please, this way.”
He led her to the back of the shop, waving the young woman away and indicating a chair for Amanda. With a small bow he disappeared and in moments returned with a folder which he untied with great ceremony. He spread the drawings on a table before her.
Her eyes glittered. The freshly-polished nails moved quickly from one piece of ancient vellum to the next, the emerald on her finger making streaks of gold lightning. At one particular drawing, she stopped, her hand to her breast, breathing deeply. She bent to observe the drawing more closely, stroking the edge of the paper lovingly, her eyes devouring the delicate pencil rendering of a female nude.
My God. It could be an Ingres.
She spoke quietly, intensely. “It is a foolish game I play. Hoping to find…” She caught herself and reassumed her imperious attitude. “Something that strikes my fancy. This is charming. How much?”
Amanda smiled slyly and met his direct gaze. “American Express Gold?”
He laughed (she was sure she saw sharpened eye teeth) and held out his hand. “Who are you? Your taste is exquisite. Surely we have run across each other in our wanderings?”
She offered him a dead fish which he brought to his lips.
“Put this away now,” she commanded. “I will return, with…” She searched for the appropriate medium of exchange, “…dollars. And then perhaps we will… negotiate?”
He seemed to undergo a moment of conscience. It created frightening changes in his countenance. “You do know this cannot be… authentic.”
Her smile was deadly. “I know that is what you believe. Put it away… now. It will take a few hours.” She made a small chuckle of satisfaction. “Truly, I never expected… even when I was led to believe…”
The delighted Count Dracula slipped the drawing into an acid-free folder. “If Madam would allow me. There are others coming. At least one more. A- dare I say?- a Michelangelo. Would that be of interest? Are you in the city for a while?”
Amanda pressed her fingers tightly to her lips as if to seal in a cry. His eyes were glued to the emerald. “When?” The word barely escaped her lips.
His face clouded momentarily and then he spoke with determination. “Within the week. I will see to it.” He smiled his frightening smile. “It will be of the highest quality. Madam will not be displeased.”
Her breath came in short gasps. “I will see what I can arrange. In the meantime…” She pointed to the selected art work he held. “With your life…”
He smiled and bowed and she strode toward the front of the shop.
The large scowling man that she and Marc had come to know so well was entering the door.
AMANDA’S mind shot into overdrive. She glanced quickly toward the back of the dark gallery. Dracula was disappearing into his secret lair. Her head snapped back. The nerdy young woman was already headed toward the incoming customer.
Entering from the bright outside into the dark interior of the shop, the dreaded large man was momentarily blinded.
Amanda dropped like a stone and hunched behind one of the display tables piled high with paintings. Cissy’s new pair of twelve dollar DKNY hose split over one of her elegantly uncovered knees. The Garbo slouch hat lurched lower and the Sophia Loren dark glasses dislodged and toppled toward the floor.
Amanda’s hand shot out and grabbed the glasses before they clattered onto the wooden planks. She held her breath.
The chirping young assistant’s voice was counterpointed by the gruff, deeper tones of inquiry.
What in heaven’s name is he doing here? Is he going to smash up the place? Is he in cahoots with Count Dracula? Dear Lord, did he follow me?
Amanda strained to hear what the pair was saying as she slipped out of the Ferragamos and flipped the silk scarf around her neck to keep from tripping.
“Gee. They just disappeared. I guess the other customer is in the back with Mr. Pinks. You should wait here. He doesn’t like people in the back unless he asks them.”
There was no answer, but the thumping tread of his feet and his heavy breathing as he followed the young woman indicated he had no intention of remaining in the front. Their footsteps approached Amanda and passed by the other side of the table.
“Oh. Well, okay. But you have to stay out here while I go in the back.” He grunted. Hidden from their sight by the massive table, Amanda imagined his steely eyes following the young woman opening the door of the Inner Sanctum.
Now was the time make a break for it. Crouching on tip-toe, she scuttled from behind the table, her calves screaming, clutching the shoes and her Mark Cross bag. The door was mere feet away. She rose to dash out.
“Aaagh!” The scarf caught in a dusty Rococo frame and yanked her head upright.
“Oh, you’re still here,” Count Dracula called out, emerging from his back room lair. Amanda breezily waved her hand in a grand farewell gesture and swooped out the front door shoving her collapsed Garbo hat out of her face just in time to avoid plowing into the doorframe. She had seen the large man turn and squint against the outside light.
“Au revoir,”the proprietor of Pinks called out as she moved in large, unhurried, exaggerated strides past the shop window.
And then took off like a shot.
She was half way up the block, her bare feet crying out in pain, her eye on the cracked sidewalk when she ran smack into the large man’s chest! He must have dashed out a back door and taken out after her. Amanda screamed bloody murder.
MARC COULDN’T concentrate. He wasn’t all that comfortable in museums anyway. Probably something left over from the art world making his brother’s life hell, which in turn made his life hell. And the guy in charge of the Metropolitan’s exhibition was an imperious prig.
Marc knew Cambiare had used its influence to get David hired. The auction house did seem to be doing everything in its power to treat his brother fairly and give him every opportunity to redeem himself. It had been, what? About ten years. David had proven himself in small attributions and as a respected teacher. Now all he needed was a major coup like nailing an international forger to put him back on the fast art world track.
Or getting the last laugh on the international art community by pulling off the forgery himself. Not a pretty thought. But a possible one.
Marc explained David’s absence to the arrogant curator and gave him David’s number. The hospital had said it was perfectly acceptable for David to receive calls and visitors.
“I’m sure we will be able to manage.” The curator looked over his half-glasses with a faint smile. “We do wish him a speedy recovery.” David’s young female assistant nodded earnestly, her lips pinched tight in distress.
Marc asked her to show him through the rooms so that he might inform David how the installation was progressing and suggested she might give his brother a call and stop by after work to fill him in more completely. She eagerly agreed.
Nodding obsequiously to his favorite Metropolitan guard, Marc left the exhibition area. He was amazed at the rebuilding of walls and resculpting of display space that was taking place. Mounting a major exhibition was a big deal. He was impressed big brother had been asked to participate.
“WE WERE only too glad to do whatever we could to assist in solidifying Mr. Parkerson’s reputation.” The head of Cambiare’s New York office offered Marc a coffee.
“And calling me in to spy on my brother was an efficient and practical way of backstopping your decision, right?” Marc noted.
The elegant man smiled coolly. “If anyone had the motivation to prove him innocent of these absurd charges…”
“Yeah, we’ve been over that ground. Where the hell is the insurance guy from the London office? I’ve got better things to do with my time…”
Like track down my head-strong girl friend and see what the hell trouble she may be getting herself into. Girl friend? Well, yeah. I mean, we were intimate. That must count for…
“I’m truly sorry. I was told he would be available today. He’s been a bit under the weather.”
“What does he look like?” Marc’s voice was sharp and his look intense. He had a sudden, startling thought.
“Wh… I… I’ve never met the man myself. We’ve only spoken on the phone. Short, compact, I understand. The London office sent a description ahead. I’m sure we could ask for more detailed information.”
Marc shook his head. “No, no. That’s fine. Have him get in touch with me as soon as he can. It’s important that we compare notes. Another factor seems to have entered the case and it’s getting a bit heavy.”
Short. Compact. Another dead end. Damn.
The director’s eyes grew large and his back stiffened. “Heavy? Do you mean violence? Perhaps it’s time to get the police involved.”
“And they will inform you they can do nothing until they are given more definite leads. The break-ins could be coincidence.”
“Break-ins? You didn’t inform us…”
“I’m informing you now. Somebody’s really hot to get his hands on something.” He gave a short derisive snort. “The cops would be thrilled to hear those specifics.” Marc stuck his hand out to leave. “Don’t worry. No, as a matter of fact, do worry. Tell your staff to keep particularly on the alert. I wish I could be more definitive, but I don’t really know more than that. I was hoping the insurance investigator might be able to add some information from his end.”
He shook the worried looking executive’s hand and left.
It was late afternoon Friday. The streets were crowded with chic Madison Avenue types hurrying to get away early for the weekend.
I’ve gotta bring this thing to a head soon.
Marc zigzagged easily though the sidewalk throng as he moved quickly toward Rockefeller Center. The insurance investigation firm was an international one. He should have thought about contacting the New York office before.
Your mind’s been on other things- Right. The delicate tint of blue veins under her perfect coral skin… The succulent moistness of her parted lips.He stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. Annoyed pedestrians side-stepped him.
He was in front of Tiffany’s. He needed to get away from all the rushing bodies to think. Marc wandered aimlessly among the spare, elegant showcases. In front of a particular one, he stopped and stared blankly.
“May I show you some engagement rings?” The smartly dressed saleswoman tilted an elegantly coifed head toward the array of sparkling jewelry.
Marc bolted from the store.
“MISS EMERSON, for heaven’s sake, pull yourself together. It is I!”
Amanda shoved herself away from the thug clutching her, ready to let loose with another bloodcurdling scream. She blinked. It was Mr. Wilde.
“I hardly recognized you,” he noted, stepping back to admire her appearance. He chuckled, quizzically. “And you obviously didn’t recognize me.” He caught sight of the shoes clutched in her hand and the expensive bag. And then the yellow emerald. “Good heavens, is that real? This is not the neighborhood…”
“It’s fake. What are you doing here?” Her heart was pounding. She shoved the shoes back on her feet and tried to resettle the slouch hat into some semblance of correctness. Had the scream rousted the big guy and Pink Dracula to come chasing her down? A few people were giving them wide berth on the sidewalk, but other than that her scream seemed only to have attracted momentary attention.
She dragged Mr. Wilde into a nearby coffee shop carved out of a dark corner of one of the reconverted eighteenth century manufacturing buildings prevalent in the area.
“Is something wrong, Amanda? You seem particularly on edge.”
“What are you doing here, Wilde?” Amanda asked sharply.
“Uh, coffee? Tea? You want a bagel?” A young man stood waiting at their elbows and she realized she hadn’t had lunch.
Wilde looked around perplexed. “A cappuccino, please. With a cinnamon stick, if possible. The young lady will take tea. Earl Gray. Bring milk.” He looked at her severely. “Miss Emerson, I need an explanation for your rather extraordinary attitude.”
“So do I, Mr. Wilde. What are you doing in this part of town?”
“Well, I say. That is a bit brusque. I shall assume you have your reasons for bordering on the rude. I was looking for an out-of-the way gallery that several of us had prior dealings with some months ago.”
“Yes.” His disgruntled face brightened. “Do you know the place? I can’t for the life of me remember where it is. The streets down here are as convoluted as…”
“What sort of dealings? And who?”
“Nathan had the bizarre idea we might be able to place some of our work. I told him I had no interest in such matters, but the others were quite insistent.”
He smiled an understanding, benevolent smile. “It was long before you became a member of the class or I’m sure we would have included you. Although, it was all to no avail.”
“Who ‘we’?” Amanda sat her cup of tea down with a snap.
Mr. Wilde reacted to the sharp gesture. At Amanda’s look he hastened to answer. “Nathan and Christine. And the professor, of course.”
His mind slipped to another track. “You should know the professor has been quite upset at Parkerson’s accident. Blames himself. Rather overreacting, I should think. But nonetheless, he called me in quite a state and insisted I get down here and retrieve the drawings the rather strange proprietor had taken on assignment. Said he was insisting Christine and Nathan do likewise. I thought perhaps seeing you at work today might calm him. You know how fond…”
Amanda had to choke back a lump. “Oh, gee. Mr. Wilde, you don’t think he’s beginning to lose it, do you? He… he’s so fragile.” She should have gone to the office. Been there when the professor needed to talk to someone. He had always been there when she needed him.
Mr. Wilde sighed and sipped his cappuccino meditatively. “These last several weeks, have you noticed? He seems to be more distracted than ever. And then this dreadful occurrence at the League…”
Amanda sat up. “Mr. Wilde, what do you think of a private posing session? Just the four of us? I’m sure we could get Antonio this weekend. All to ourselves. His extraordinary talent. Just for us. Do you think that would please the professor? Get his mind off himself. Nathan, I think, would like that and Christine would, too.”
The large artist stared at her for a moment and then his eyes began to flick about excitedly. “What a brilliant, brilliant idea! Miss Emerson you are a life-saver. I’ve been wanting… The professor and I have often spoken of…” His jowly face was ablaze with enthusiasm. “Do you know, I have the most extraordinary… What do you think of costumes?”
“Do you mean dress up?”
“Yes! Like fifteenth century Florentines. With the proper paper and ink. Oh, I know that would excite the professor.” He chuckled, downing his cappuccino. “It’s certainly exciting me. Do you know how to get in touch with young Antonio? He’s absolutely perfect, you know.”
“Yes. Absolutely perfect.” Amanda had a sinking sensation. She should have run the idea past Marc first. This was pretty big and Wilde was making it bigger by the second. She took a deep breath and fiddled with the emerald, watching the gold and yellow fireworks burst from deep within the stone.
The older artist leaned over. “That ring is not a fake and you had better take care how you display it in this rather seedy section of the city.” He looked about cautiously.
Suddenly a large shape passing outside the narrow window of the coffee shop caught Amanda’s eye. She ducked her head quickly and waited a few seconds. When she turned back, the large shape had passed by.
“Excuse me for a moment, Mr. Wilde.” She slipped out of the booth and peeked out the door. The large man was hurrying down the street in the opposite direction of Pinks. Her heart hammered. Should she go back to the spooky little shop? Might she find Dracula with a stake through his heart? Would the drawings be gone? The lumbering big man had not been carrying a portfolio but he could certainly have secreted several drawings under his coat. What would Marc want her to do?
Nothing. He doesn’t like the idea of me doing anything.
“You seem to be in some distress, Miss Emerson. I didn’t mean to alarm you about the neighborhood.”
“Mr. Wilde, will you do me a big favor? I’ll tell you where Pinks is and you can go retrieve your work. Will you come back and tell me what you observed? I’ll wait here. I have to warn you, though. Something might be wrong, so do go in cautiously. And then again, nothing may be wrong.” She smiled wanly, hoping he would let it go at that. He did.
“This is a most upsetting period. Certainly I’ll do as you ask. I take it I’m not to refer to…” He took a careful look at her appearance.
Amanda imagined he was debating with himself. But if she had wanted to give him more information, she would have, therefore, as a gentleman of the old school he would act on her request with what information he had. He nodded, looked around to assure himself she was in a safe, reputable establishment and left.
Amanda’s imagination went haywire. Mr. Wilde discovering the battered body; the place in utter disarray; cops everywhere; taken into custody; the next time she would see him would be in a rage behind bars.
Or nothing. She couldn’t be absolutely certain the big man was the same big man that had bedeviled her and Marc. She could be working herself up for no reason whatsoever. Amanda put her face in her hands.
I’m not made for this kind of stuff.
Yeah? Well, why did you take off on your own down here in the first place? Too many Nancy Drew books? You wanna impress the guy you’re smarter than he gives you credit for? Looks like a forger’s ego isn’t the only ego causing trouble.
She went to the pay phone enclosed in an old-fashioned cozy, wooden booth where she could still see their table and phoned Marc. The machine picked up with David’s rather terse announcement to leave a message.
“Marc, it’s me, Amanda. I… that is, Mr. Wilde thinks it’s a great idea if… We thought if we could get ‘Antonio’ for a private session with just the four of us this weekend, maybe… I mean, I thought maybe… with just the four of us… we might… I’m not at the office. Leave me a message at the apartment. I…” It slipped out before she could stop it. “I miss you… I’m sorry I…” She hung up.
The chrome plating of the modern instrument seemed incongruous in the warm wooden booth.
Where do you want this to go, girl? He was passionate and tender. You couldn’t have asked for a more caring lover. What’s your problem?
The problem was she hadn’t planned on getting involved with anyone just yet. There was a lot to accomplish in her young life. She had convinced herself the higher she climbed up the corporate ladder the better the pickings would be. Amanda flopped back against the wall, her finger picking at her torn hose.
I sound like my roommate.
Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea. Another meeting of the Bad Luck Club. Cissy and Christine’s very definite opinions seemed to challenge her into clarifying her own position to herself. She liked that. A good executive stance: get opinions from the experts, then make up your own mind. Good. She was feeling better. She dialed the office.
Jimmy was very pleased with himself. “You woulda been proud of me, boss. Ole Untermeyer’s really pushing to get me to set something up.”
“The money guy, remember? Jeez, boss, you really are out of it. Cissy said…”
Amanda couldn’t believe she had let the business get shoved so far into the back of her mind. “How did your lunch date go? I’m sorry, I think I made her late.”
“She was really proud of how she fixed you up. We can’t wait to see.”
“We? Who, Jimmy? This makeover of Cissy’s was a temporary thing. It’s not permanent.”
“The professor, of course. He’s gotta know everything that’s happening to you. And then he told Nathan. Oh, by the way, I let him off for the afternoon. That was okay, right? I mean he really seemed upset or something.”
“Are you kidding? Nah, the prof. He wanted to do something. Got a call from somebody. Wanted to drag Nathan off with him but smart-ass wasn’t having any of it. Y’know, I think the professor ought to give up on that kid. He’s been trying to mother him along too long.”
“Mentor, Jimmy. Mentor. The professor thinks Nathan is an extraordinary talent. And you have to agree.”
“Me, I woulda dumped Picasso. Did you read that dame’s book about what a bastard he was? I don’t see why the rest of us have got to put up with that kinda ‘artistic’ crap, pardon my French, ‘specially when you’re running a business…”
Jimmy was feeling his oats. The luncheon with Cissy must have gone swimmingly. Amanda feared to think what havoc the young hot-shot might create if given full rein.
“Jimmy, thanks for handling Untermeyer. And of course it’s fine if the professor wants to take off early.” She almost expected to see her old friend hurrying past the coffee shop window on his way to Pinks, though she couldn’t quite figure Nathan’s attitude.
I wonder if the kid knows more than he’s letting on? Who did Mr. Wilde say had urged him to get his work back from the gallery?
“Thanks for looking after things. I don’t think I’ll make it back to the office this afternoon. Close the place up carefully for the weekend. I’m glad you and Cissy had a nice lunch.” She knew that final remark demanded a response and he knew it, too.
“She’s a terrific lady, Amanda. I think it went good. She said maybe we could do it again sometime soon. You think I got a chance? I mean, she’s really a classy lady.”
Cissy would have him crawling. And he sounded like he would be perfectly happy doing so.
“Of course you have a chance, Jimmy. You’re a pretty classy guy yourself. She’d be lucky to get you.”
“Yeah? Ah, I dunno…”
Yeah. They’d make a perfect couple.
The waiter was tapping frantically on the glass inset of the folding doors. Mr. Wilde was stalking about their table breathing fire. He headed in the direction of the phone booth.
“Jimmy, I gotta go. Thanks again. ‘Bye.”
Mr. Wilde was in extremely high dudgeon. He ordered a dark stout to calm his nerves.
“An absolutely amazing series of events, Emerson. I should not have taken your admonition lightly. The proprietor greeted me with flinging himself behind stacks of very bad reproductions and shrieking at the top of his lungs about calling the authorities while that odd, young woman cowered in a corner and burst into tears.” He pressed a handkerchief to his forehead
“I demanded they explain themselves and react professionally. When they realized it was I, as opposed to the person they had assumed I was, they began babbling most chaotically.”
His drink was delivered. Mr. Wilde took a tentative sip as if to reassure himself it was safe to down. Satisfied, he took a grateful swallow.
“It appears there was a previous encounter with a person resembling myself which was quite distasteful. The vulgarian had demanded information from them they had no intention of divulging, since it was none of his affair, at which point he became frighteningly demonstrative.
“I had noted some disarray when I entered, though, in truth, the shop has always struck me as a poor excuse for a proper art gallery. Ah, you are looking increasingly anxious. Forgive me, I do tend to get verbose when I’m upset.” He dabbed his damp face and swallowed another draft of stout.
“I’m sure you wish me to- how does one put it?- jump to the chase.” He gave a nod of understanding and continued. “I retrieved my pictures. That dreadful proprietor very tattily said ‘good riddance,’ and hurried me out.”
Wilde looked concerned. “I could have sworn that I had left a drawing of a female nude, very Ingres-like, of which I was quite proud, but he insisted I had done no such thing.” He shrugged. “And he could have been correct. I tend not to pay too much attention to the ‘provenance’ of my drawings.” He chuckled at his joke. “Simply placing them in appreciative hands is more than adequate satisfaction.”
Amanda felt the hairs at the base of her somewhat disheveled French twist rise. “And whose ‘appreciative hands’ would that be, Mr. Wilde?”
“Why the professor’s, of course. He does have the most discerning eye.”
Amanda’s heart sank even farther. The professor did seem to be getting in deeper and deeper.
MARC WAS angry.
And Amanda couldn’t really blame him.
He was angry she had tried the foolish impersonation stunt alone, angry she had wandered around the streets after encountering the big guy, and angry she had come up with such a loony idea as the posing session without consulting him.
Except, they both agreed, her plan for the private session was exactly what needed to happen. They could get the four suspects together and put on the pressure to find out which one was the bad guy, before the yet undiscovered bad guy decided to do somebody in.
Amanda looked around at the crowd of people in Washington Square, hurrying from one place to another. NYU students, all ages, backpack laden, business men and women rushing to take off for the weekend, the unkempt homeless and groups of people just hanging out.
Marc was expounding earnestly-had been for many minutes, Amanda noted distractedly-occasionally shoving his horn rims back up his nose.
His contacts must be bothering him.
There seemed to be nothing left of the lamplight-dappled moments she and “Antonio” had spent strolling the same walks a few evenings ago. That Antonio was gone.
That Amanda was gone, too.
Amanda chewed on her lower lip. Which wasn’t doing her subtle Makeover-by-Cissy look much good.
“Marc, I’m not listening to you.” She stopped him mid-reprimand. She plopped down on a nearby park bench, dislodging a sprawling street person, whose first reaction was to protest but at the cross look from Amanda decided he might get the worse of the confrontation.
Marc looked as startled at her action as did the mumbling pile of rags that shuffled off into the crowd. Amanda turned the same determined look on her slack-jawed companion.
“I have listened to you rant ever since you got here. Thank you for your concern, but I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself in this city. I told you I saw that large, ugly man leave Pinks. Both Mr. Wilde and I kept an eye out. He was gone.” She waved her hand, dismissing the danger.
“I called and you had left no message on your machine about how to get in touch in case of an emergency. I put Mr. Wilde in a cab; there were people everywhere. The park was only a few blocks away. It made perfectly good sense to me to leave SoHo and come here to try and phone you again. There was no reason for you to get hysterical.” She crossed her hands brusquely and snapped her head away. The slouch hat slid over one eye.
She could feel Marc stiffen, hovering above her, and she could almost feel the added heat from his reddening cheeks. He didn’t like being crossed either.
“I was concerned about you.” The words could barely force themselves through his clenched teeth. “And guys do not get hysterical.” He sat down next to her. She turned her head farther away. The slouch hat slouched over both eyes.
“Damn!” Amanda grabbed the limp felt and punched it into her lap, reeling in the flowing lime silk. She whirled her body to face her tormentor full face.
His tense jaw relaxed and the deep rust of fury faded from his cheeks. His gray-blue eyes softened. Her chin trembled.
“This is not going to work out.” She stiffened her back and tried not to concentrate on the way his glasses subtly enhanced the large, evening-sky blue irises. How could she not trust him with her life? His look was so direct, so honest.
“Yeah. I know.”
So maddening! How could he know what she was referring to? It could be the case she meant. How could he assume she was talking about what they both knew they were both thinking about.
He put his arm around her and gently pulled her close. His other large hand rested lightly on her small tight fists twisting Cissy’s delicate silk into an unredeemable knot in her lap.
“Ace, somebody may be lying dead somewhere in London, whose identity this guy has taken. I just don’t want anything…”
“And they may not, too, be lying dead… anybody… anywhere. You said the man at the insurance firm wasn’t certain. There’s no body, right? You always think the worst.” She would not be mollified by his strength, his concern, his willingness to be badgered the way he had badgered her.
“And you always think the best. You must have had a great childhood.” He was being grumpy and self-pitying and it shocked Amanda to realize how wrong he was.
She had always considered it a lousy childhood. No Mom. Almost non-existent Dad. Annoying little brothers. The teen-age years had been hell. And yet. Somehow she had turned out okay. It wasn’t Mom’s fault she died. Dad did the best he knew how. Now that he had gotten his brood through the worst part and they were becoming self-sufficient, he was even beginning to loosen up a bit.
Her brothers had stuck to the straight and narrow. With Amanda doing some psychological cattle-prodding to see to it that they did. They had turned out fine, had met some fine Pittsburgh girls, and were ready to settle down to being solid citizens. Bed-rock of the country. She was proud of them.
“What if I just not let you out of my sight until this case is closed?” Marc was being serious.
His face shifted to chagrin. “Yeah, yeah, I know, Ace. You’re a big girl. What you did today was dumb but very helpful. More pieces to the puzzle. Nothing fits yet, but we’re getting more choices.” He leaned back, appraising her from tousled top to scuffed toe.
“And Cissy did a knock-out job, I can imagine.” He grinned as Amanda frowned, clutching at her barely together hair-do and tugged at her short skirt realizing there was no possible way to cover the shredded hose.
She slapped the exhausted slouch hat on her head, the twisted fabric dangling, and pulled the felt sides down, turning it into a disheveled bonnet. She made a face not unlike the annoyed, dislocated street person and then, changing attitude, raised her eyebrows haughtily and slumped languidly.
“Eet has been a deeficult dayee. But at the time, I was most effectif. He ees guarding my treasure weeth his life.” Her eyes flashed with Garbo-esque passion.
Marc guffawed. “Dad-gummit, m’am, I’m downright impressed.”
“Marc, you should see the drawing. It looks exactly like one of the Ingres in the Met. So beautiful. I can’t believe someone I know might have done it.” For some odd reason, considering the diatribe she had just had with herself about truth and honesty between them, she decided not to reveal who she thought the drawing might have been made by. No reason to get Mr. Wilde into more trouble yet.
Marc looked thoughtful. “Maybe I will get to see it.”
Amanda heaved a sigh. Down came the crumpled hat, in reeled the twisted silk to be formed into another knot. She stared at her handiwork. “Marc, we gotta talk.”
“Yeah.” His strong fingers helped her unwind the abused scarf. Slowly, he ironed the wrinkled fabric over her thigh, his palm sliding down to guide his fingers onto the trail of laddered nylon that spilled over her knee and down her calf. “We could talk at your place or mine.” His voice was pure lust.
And she lusted as much as he.
Why fight it? We both know it can’t go anywhere. He just as much said so, too. I don’t know anything about a P.I.’s life. He’s just staying with his brother temporarily. I don’t even know where he’s from.
“Where are you from?”
It took only a moment to wrench himself onto her track. He was maddening, accepting her erraticness, her splintered trains of thought, as though they were the most natural thing in the world.
“The Island… Long Island. Upper middle class strivers. NYU.” He glanced around at the perimeter of the park. “A bummer. David went off to Europe on scholarships. I took off for the wide open spaces. Montana. Arizona. And when I got tired of the coyotes, headed for the bright lights of Vegas. That’s where I decided to try the private eye biz. I blame it all on Robert Urich, those half-naked show girls and that sports car. Reruns.”
He began to drift deeper within himself with the memories. She had to strain to hear.
“Settled in SoCal. David had tanked by then. I became a surfing dude when I wasn’t sneaking snaps of two-timing husbands. Bor-ring. So I started specializing in art investigations. Thought the clientele would at least be classier. Mr. Big Guy Heavy Hitter has proven me wrong.”
He had been around more than she had suspected. “So… so you’ve had quite a few relationships.”
“Yep. I’ve always been a very approachable guy, even before I started heaving iron and dropping my drawers. Very personable. Very charming. A real schmoozer.” He said it flatly, objectively, as he watched a couple of pigeons hustle in and out of hurrying feet to grab beaks full of something. “Enough to know the good from the bad.” He shifted his gaze to her. “This is one of the good relationships, Ace.”
One of many. One of the good ones… but one of many.
Somehow Amanda felt on safer ground now. Or at least on ground that she knew how to navigate. Get away from the mushy stuff.
It ain’t fairy tale time, no more, no more.
Handle the situation. More her speed. He wasn’t pushing…or pulling. He was just taking it as it came. And he seemed grateful it… they… were “one of the good ones”.
Amanda felt infinitely sad.Life, Ace. Be grateful.
“Let’s go to your place… David’s place. We’ll make dinner and I’ll tell you the story of my life.”
He brightened and smiled wickedly, though the wickedness seemed tinged with a trace of sadness, too.
“You know I’ll put the make on you real heavy. They’re springing David tomorrow. After that, it’s tacky motels. A P.I.’s salary is not a consistent one.”
Amanda slapped the misshapen Garbo slouch on what was left of her French twist and looked at her watch. “Then let’s get to it, hot shot. What do you know about tossing a salad?”
His eyes shone. She could tell his pulse was up. “You sure you want to do this, Ace?”
Oh, swell, he would have to ask.
“Do what? We’re making dinner. We’ve gotta eat. One day- one hour at a time, right? We know what today brought. We’ll see what tonight brings.” She couldn’t have been more coolly objective if she were dealing with Untermeyer and his bunch of money-grubbing venture buddies.
They decided to walk. Cabs and the subway were impossible at rush hour. It would give them a chance to discuss the modeling session on Sunday. Marc agreed it was a great idea.
“Damn, lady, I should be inviting you into the firm. Why didn’t I think of that? We go through all this hassle and then don’t focus on the prime targets. Not a smart plan.”
He remembered he had told David that he had invited her into the investigation, but she had outrun him.
“It was a smart enough plan for a couple of lunkhead males,” Amanda said. “What you needed was some cold, corporate dame figuring the angles. I’ll do what I can to help you mere men keep this show on the road.”
“So long as you don’t go off on your own again. Talk about not-smart plans.”
Before she could retaliate and they would be at it again in the middle of Sixth Avenue, Marc stuck up both index fingers. “Okay, what do we know so far?”
“We know the bad guy knows about Pinks. We don’t think there’s a connection, though, unless Dracula was going for a Tony with his act of outrage in front of Mr. Wilde. We also know the sharp-toothed one expects another drawing to show up within the next few days.”
“Which means things might be coming to a head. Too much activity is making our man or woman nervous. And, I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t look good for your beloved old mentor, Professor Angeli.”
“I know. He does seem to be in the thick of things. Alerting his buddies to clear their work out of Pinks because he thinks the heat is going to be put on. Jimmy said he was a nervous wreck at work today. Nathan was smooth as silk. Obviously, his backside is covered. I’ll find out what’s going on in Christine’s head tomorrow.”
“You’re seeing her tomorrow?”
“The wicked three are gathering.” Amanda almost wondered why. At this point, there didn’t seem to be a lot of discussion or deciding to be done. She and Marc had already taken care of that: enjoy each other and then farewell and goodbye.
Oh well, maybe she could regale Cissy and Christine with how she had battled against his advances and then listen to them berate her. That should be good for a couple of laughs.
“Christine is that readable?”
“She trusts me. First mistake.” Amanda felt like a traitor. Gaining her friend’s confidence and then using it to spy on her.
But Amanda also felt pretty certain Christine was not the forger. And she knew that Marc and David agreed. At this point, the best thing to do would be to get this case solved as quickly as possible in order to get her friend out of harm’s way.
They were at the apartment. The super had repaired the door and the locksmith had put in new locks.
Her objectivity crumbled almost the instant the repaired door to David’s apartment swung shut behind them. Amanda stood in the middle of the living room trying to think about what they might throw together for dinner, when Marc came up behind her, smoothed the stray strands loosened from her upswept hair out of the way with his warm palm and kissed the nape of her neck. And she dissolved into a little puddle.
His fingers curled around the once-sleek twist and began to pull it apart, deftly sliding out the hairpins that held it together. Amanda’s lids drifted closed as his fingers pulled the arrangement loose and combed through the released tumble of golden auburn locks, pausing to lightly scratch her scalp.
Little tributaries of excited nerve endings raced down her spine and into her toes. She kicked off the Ferragamos and pulled off her earrings, reaching to drop them on the nearby counter. Marc’s lips caressed her neck and he nibbled on her ear lobes as he pulled her back against his body.
His chest was solid and firm against her aching back. She wasn’t used to heels that high, or bare feet slamming against cracked pavement, or the energy expended in pretending to be European money. It certainly had been an exciting, though exhausting, day. And it was turning even more exciting by the second.
Relax and enjoy.
Her mind raced. Should she? She shut it down.
Marc was anything but relaxed. She snickered naughtily, feeling the extent of his excitement pressing against her.
He mumbled into her ear as his hands slid around to cup her breasts, “One thing about guys, they can’t keep a secret.”
“That would be a pretty big secret to try and keep.”
He chuckled into the side of her face, the heat from his breath raising tiny goosebumps which cascaded down her neck and skittered down her arms.
The pressure of his hands against the firmness of her breasts was urgent and filled with repressed longing. He knew their shape and texture, he had explored their landscape with his mouth and his hands and his stubbled cheeks. Now he rediscovered them, taking gentle but firm measure, probing their softness and bulk with the pressure of his fingers, receiving their weight into the enveloping cup of his hands.
Amanda’s chest swelled with the luxury of his touch. She pressed into his embrace. He was such a strong, gentle lover. Her heart burst with pride at having found him.
Even for a short while.
He seemed lost in filling his palms with the imprint of her breasts, as if to etch their carriage and weight into the memory of his life lines.
Amanda longed to feel his hands on her bare skin. Her shallow breath came quickly, urging him on. The delicacy with which he peeled the layers of clothing from her body seemed to float her off the floor, lightening her, rising her into the air as each piece fell from her.
He unbuttoned the fitted jacket, slipped the fabric belt from its moorings, and eased the garment from her shoulders. His hands moved down her bare arms, raising another legion of goose flesh. She could feel the delicate hairs all over her body rise to trembling attention.
She leaned back against his powerful body, molding herself to its jutting outlines. Marc unbuttoned the myriad buttons on the pale silk blouse, almost the color of her tawny skin, deliciously building her expectation with each released clouded mother-of-pearl oval, until her chest rose and fell in heavy anticipation at its ultimate uncovering.
He explored the barely confining lace of her bra, fingers outlining the delicate tracery, slipping seductively under a wired edge, an elastic band, to probe the confined interior. He tantalized her with his wanderings, his claimings, circling the outline of her breasts over and over again until, when he abandoned them momentarily to trace the circling elastic straps and release the hooks, Amanda was beside herself with anticipation.
She plucked the delicate confining cups from her body and stretched luxuriously back against his clothed frame, opening herself to receive his touch. When he spread his fingers and captured her naked skin in his grasp, the breath caught in her throat.
And so it was with the rest of her body. It seemed to be time immemorial that he took in discovering her anew, baring her to sun and sea and sky. His touch was like ice, like fire. When he pressed his lips to her bare buttocks she flushed with an inner release that froze her to the spot.
Somehow Marc became naked, too. The charcoal gray suit pooled roughly at his feet to mingle with her discarded silk, delicate nylon, and the laddered hose. His white cotton briefs came off, his executive length black hose; his berry-brown sculpted muscularity bloomed powerful and rampant, prepared to encompass her own.
Amanda did her own exploring, dropping to shape his jutting calves with her lips, ironing the hard-packed elongated thighs with her cheeks, sculpting the powerful bulges and lean indentations of his rib cage and heaving chest with her pressing, discovering hands.
She couldn’t believe she had made love to this man before; he was an entirely new, blazing being. Confined, contained, frozen to the spot, animalistic, territorial, throbbing as she with barely repressed expectation as if afraid the act of tearing themselves from the circle they had established would destroy the moment.
He produced the ring of protective plastic and she unrolled it on him, fascinated by the rich-colored, throbbing veins, the muscular, engorged flesh that it muted inside its whisper-thin sheath.
Marc plunged into her, lifting her from the floor. She clung to his neck, tenaciously, the steady throbbing of the straining cords beneath her clutching arms. Her breasts flattened and danced over the slabs of his chest, her nipples brushing his as their bodies engaged and released and re-engaged seeking more and more complete union.
She clung, her arms bolted to his lurching frame, her head interlocked with his, her gasping breaths a counterpart to his urgent deep-throated exertion. He had lifted her, her buttocks molded in his powerful grip. Her legs wrapped his lower body, binding them together. Inside, she stroked and clung and urged him deeper and deeper into her very center.
She exploded multiple times. She overflowed and refilled and emptied and plumed until she felt she had cocooned their clutching, upright forms with her blossoming, binding aura.
New. Brand new. Each stroke. Each breath. Each impaling thrust. Each butterfly brush of his lips. They seemed welded. Two melted into one from the heat of their passion. The flames mounting higher and higher.
He erupted in joyous, breathless gasps and staggering lurches of his spasming muscles, rocketing deep into her center, filling her to overflowing with his passion and complete possession.
Sighs of completion rumbled up from deep inside Amanda, low sounds of completion that bubbled over in satisfied, rippling chuckles. She nipped his nose, tugged on his ear lobes, blew on his clenched eyelids as her fingers dug into his hair and her legs tightened around his trunk. He swayed slightly and the power that rippled through his body as he adjusted his stance sent another thrilling cascade through Amanda.
He pried his eyes open, the dark and shadowed pools into which she indulgently plunged, diving and stroking, swimming luxuriously through the liquid of his heavy-lidded gaze.
“Was it good for you, too?” he smirked.
She pounded his buttocks with her heels and they tumbled laughing onto the floor.
How could she ever let this man go?
MARC GAVE up berating himself for not keeping his mind on business. Amanda Catherine Emerson had infected his soul. He would carry her with him always. While it lasted, it had been…
He looked over at her sleeping form, naked under the sheet in the cool spring morning, a smile of pleasure curving between her satiated, glowing cheeks. His chest swelled. He grinned into the breaking dawn. He had put that smile there.They had put that smile there. He was feeling pretty damn smiley himself.
He raised the sheet, careful not to cause a draft over her warm body, and let his eyes caress her. Her silken impression still remained in his inflamed skin. His gaze glided over the luscious hills and verdant valleys and his body responded as if ignited.
Damn, buddy. This is going to be a tough one to leave.
His brows knitted together. Stretching his arms behind his head, he thrust back into his threaded fingers.
Not to worry. It’s not that big a deal with Ace.
She had made love to him like lightning. As if they were going to be together forever. There was no hesitancy. Not the slightest indication that she was even considering the fact they couldn’t last.
Well, that was good. He gave a small snort of resignation. He had a business to run, and it wasn’t in New York. She had a life to get on with and it was in New York. Marc was glad it didn’t seem to be something that needed much talking about. Their leaving. Each other.
Leaving wasn’t the kind of thing Marc had ever felt comfortable talking about. But he was learning. The last couple of relationships he had been pretty up front. Not too many recriminations. He was growing up and no longer needed the macho posturing of having to stalk away feeling the wounded party.
I must have been one tough son-of-a-bitch to grow up with. David wasn’t one to feel too much sympathy for, but, still…
Amanda had talked about her family back in Pittsburgh. Over the spaghetti and sauce he had helped prepare. They had found candles and sat naked in the candlelight eating and telling their life stories, sipping good red wine and discussing their philosophies of surviving.
Disagreeing-Jeez, Ace can be stubborn and she’s damn hard on her guys at home – then suddenly moving- like quicksilver; uncontainable. She had more than once gotten teary-eyed at some dumb thing he had said about growing up; at some tender thing she had said herself about something.
She would probably make some kid a great mother. All that understanding.
Marc sucked in the cool morning air. The knot in the middle of his chest remained just as heavy.
God damn! It was going to be hard as hell…
He slipped out of bed and went into the bathroom. Let her sleep. He had to get ready for the day. Hit the gym. Practice poses- this time he had to come up with something that would nail the perpetrator. Get this case over with.
He had to bring his brother home. Check with the Met. With Cambiare. See if the insurance company had any news about their missing agent. Keep alert. Some hulking bastard was out there looking to do God knows what harm.
He headed into the kitchen and started breakfast. He could make a pretty good omelet. It would be a nice way for her to wake up. He started coffee. The whipped eggs and milk crackled into the hot margarine and he yelped at the stinging pinpoints that hit his naked body.
Amanda came out of the bedroom, dressed in one of his shirts, her dark, luscious hair tumbling about her sleepy head. Jeez, he had hoped she would still be into the naked thing. She looked delectable. His chest hurt even more.
“Watch out what you’re spattering hot grease on, buddy.”
With a macho flourish, he tied a dishcloth around his middle and she slapped his exposed tush. He turned to grab her and the look of surprise and realization- at their comfortable playfulness, at their imminent loss- the look on her face stopped him cold.
They held each other tightly for a moment, breathing deep, forcing reality into their lungs. And then broke apart, smiling resolutely and ready to face the day.
And that was how it started.
Pretty damn grim.
“I AM thrilled beyond measure!” Professor Angeli’s shrill voice cut through the phone wire with an hysterical edge that concerned Amanda. “Mr. Wilde is being dreadfully circumspect. I think he has a most extraordinary session in mind. Complete with props and costumes.
“I hope it won’t be too startling to our young model. Though I suppose he’s been a part of all sorts of artistic endeavors. I can’t wait. I shall be there with poised pen, prepared to be inspired. I hope my feeble efforts shan’t disappoint anyone.” The uncontrolled edge of his forced laughter caused Amanda to ponder the receiver in her hand as its dial tone buzzed annoyingly.
While Marc showered, Amanda continued making her calls. Mr. Wilde was not circumspect at all. He was filled with enthusiasm for the plans he was making. Costumes, indeed, yes. Props, indeed, yes. But the most amazing thing…
“I am supplying you all with paper of the period. And properly formulated ink. Don’t tell. It’s to be a special surprise. I have a special cache and I dole out my treasures very carefully. This is a particularly exciting occasion. Young Antonio has indeed fired all our imaginations and to have him to ourselves… It’s as though we were members of a very special salon in a very special time. I shall say no more.” And with a totally unusual chuckle of satisfaction, he hung up.
Amanda again found herself staring at the phone in disbelief. “Marc, is that possible? Paper of the period? And ink?”
“My, my, breaking out the big guns. Maybe we haven’t been paying close enough attention to the formidable Mr. Wilde. Oh yeah, it’s possible. Difficult, but possible.” He was in his gym shorts ready to go for his workout. It was hard for Amanda to concentrate.
“Old paper gets discovered all the time. Some of it hits the art black market, some of it shows up in legit houses. End papers of books of the period can be cut out. And ink is formulated from organic stuff that’s been around for a hell of a lot longer than five hundred years. Oil is oil. Clay is clay. Even carbon sticks can be made from old wood.” He shoved fresh shorts and socks into the plastic garment bag that held his suit and shirt and shoes and zipped it closed.
“Which makes it impossible to tell by the age of the materials if the art work is faked, because all the tests check out. The paper is old. The ink is old. Then it comes down to artistic judgment and that can cause a drawing’s worth to skyrocket. Nobody’s going to take the chance the thing might not be for real.” He threw the garment bag over his arm, picked up his gym bag and headed for the door.
“The drawing’s history- its provenance- might be fake, but if it looks like a Michelangelo, smells like a Michelangelo, and talks like a Michelangelo, then, by gummies, somebody somewhere is going to cough up the big bucks just in case, one day, it walks like a Michelangelo.”
He kissed her on the cheek; they caught on a longing look; then Marc quickly left.
Amanda continued her phone calls.
Nathan couldn’t have cared less. Or so he said. “Sure, I’ll be there. The guy’s got a great set of muscles. ‘Bout time we got some special treatment. The rest of Parkerson’s class is for the dodos. Wilde and the prof are going nuts. The old guy’s called me half a dozen times. I get dibs on the fancy paper when they croak from excitement. Dress up? Me? Fat chance.”
Fancy paper? He already knew about it. So much for secrets.
Christine was harder to nail down.
“Dress up? We’re going to play dress up? In what? Those Renaissance push-up things? Wonderful. It ought to knock my young stud’s eyes out when he gets a load of these shoved-out knockers reaching out to touch someone. Wilde and Angeli will be properly appreciative, but Antonio is a healthy growing boy and just might shake up my smug, self-satisfied young buck by making a pass at me.”
“Hey, Amanda, you think you could drop a hint? He’s fair game, right? The naked hunk? You’ve staked out Mr. Horn rims, right? Don’t be greedy, now, love.
“See you on the Central Park greensward. Didn’t Cissy tell you? The wicked witches are roughing it today. She packing a picnic basket. Spring has sprung and she’s ready to spring at it.”
And Amanda thought the unusually warm day was just her.
“ISN’T THISwonderful? I’m so clever.”
Cissy shook out the blanket and spread it on the cool ground. Christine, champagne glasses dramatically pressed to her bosom, surveyed the surrounding landscape punctuated with outcroppings of rock and newly-budding trees and sighed deeply.
“Olmstead really knew what the hell he was doing. This place is great.”
Amanda dug out the plates and sandwiches. Cissy’s idea for a spring picnic in Central Park was truly wonderful. Amanda hadn’t tracked down Marc to tell him their plans- and after berating him for not letting her know his exact whereabouts. He expected the ladies to be safely lunching behind locked doors or in some very public place. But Amanda had convinced herself a glowing, expectant spring day in the park would ensure a mass outpouring of winter-wearied New Yorkers and they would be well chaperoned.
Cissy had chosen a rise overlooking the small Conservatory Pond where model boat aficionados were already out in force. The sky was clear- the color of his eyes in late afternoon- with large, fluffy, picture-postcard clouds. It was just what Amanda needed: quiet chattering friends, delectable goodies, and friendly debate, in a lovely setting. It was perfect.
And from the way the conversation was going, she wasn’t going to have to do much explaining of herself. Christine and Cissy had their own agendas and Amanda’s romantic decisions were pretty low on their lists.
“Jimmy really is adear man.” Cissy sliced off slivers of cheese to go with their fruit dessert. “And he has a very good career going, doesn’t he, boss lady? I mean, as an office manager, he could go practicallyanywhere in the corporate world, right? And move right up the ladder, right?”
“Cissy,” Amanda held out her champagne glass to be refilled, “Jimmy loves his job. He’s very happy in the graphics publishing world and he’s especially good with creative people.”
“Oh, I know, that does take aspecial gift. Umm…” She munched delicately on a cheese-laden cracker, thinking.
Christine laughed. “You’re worried about explaining a New York up-and-comer who makes a living doling out X-rated picture books for grown-ups to your folks. Afraid Daddy won’t like?”
Cissy gasped. “They arenot X-rated. They are very dramatically illustrated. Some people consider themart. There’s a huge number of collectors…” She looked back and forth between her two friends, both of whom observed her askance. She giggled.
“Cissy, he’s a great guy. Cute as all get out. He’ll be a very satisfying companion.” Amanda was feeling very worldly. Yes, she had made the right decision.
“Well, he is energetic, I’ll say that.”
Both Amanda and Christine looked appropriately impressed.
“You’ve done it? Tell all.” Christine leaned in lasciviously. “Explain ‘energetic’.”
Cissy’s head ducked coyly. “Well, you never come home anymore, Miss Amanda. And one thing did lead to another. He was…” She savored a piece of ripe pear, her eyes sparkling. “Very…sweet.” She stretched luxuriously, flinging her head back. “Verythoroughly sweet.” Her delighted laughter caused a couple passing nearby to look over and smile.
“Haw! Cissy-belle’s caught herself a live one. Well, if there’s anything my kid ain’t, it’s sweet. Tough as nails. Power-packed. Just an old broad’s style.” Christine downed the pale sparkling wine in a dramatic swoop.
Amanda gave her a thoughtful look. “What happens when he moves on? You’ve said he will. You expect it.” How would she survive without Marc? She had no choice. She would survive.
Christine sighed. “You’re damn right he’ll move on. I can’t keep up. Some nights I just want to kick off my wedgies and veg out in front of the TV, but he’s gotta get out and ‘make the scene.’” Her hands drew the scene in the air. She whooped. “I’ll make a great corpse.”
Amanda thought Christine seemed truly pleased with her lot. Resigned, but pleased. Not too unlike the way Amanda felt. She had made her decision based on the available information. A good corporate decision. Eventually, the emptiness would fade.
“Oh you silly.” Cissy patted Christine’s hand indulgently. “You’re just beingdramatic. I know some May-December marriages that have worked very well.”
Christine washed down a slice of apple and handful of berries with a drink of champagne. “It’s December-May, honey bun, in that order and marriage is not an operative word.”
“You’re happy?” Amanda needed to hear it.
“It’s okay. Hell of a lot better than hope.”
“Well, I think I’m going to be happy,” Cissy chirped. “It’s about time I settled down. Goodness knows, I’ve tried it all. And I feel Jimmy is someone I cancount on. You know, through thick and thin. Sickness and whatever…”
Amanda knew her roommate and her assistant were about as alike as oil and vinegar, but though the two ingredients don’t exactly mix, the combination can make a satisfying merger. She gave Cissy the thumbs up and wished her well.
All three women were quiet. Each lost in thought. Amanda reviewed her very practical reasons for not continuing the relationship with Marc. Cissy and Christine glanced at each other and turned to her.
“It’s going to be fine. It can’t last because he’s very occupied with his work, just as I am with mine. And,” she shrugged, “I’m not ready to settle down and I’m sure, neither, is he. So, that’s that.”
Christine made an effort to keep it light. “Is it good?”
The pause wasn’t to remember whether it was good or not. It was to give Amanda time to force the knot in her throat back down where it didn’t interfere with her speech.
“Yes. It’s very good. I will miss him tremendously. But,” she sat up and toasted her companions, “the fat lady hasn’t sung yet and until she does, we’re having a great time.”
Christine patted Amanda’s knee. “Atta girl.”
“Maybe something will work out.” Cissy’s lip trembled.
“Hey!” Christine sat up and lightly punched Amanda on the shoulder. “What about the naked hunk? You made it with him yet? He sure as hell doesn’t look ready to settle down either and how much of a career can a buck naked beauty have? Even if he is a damned spectacularposeur. When Horn Rims takes off, it wouldn’t be a bad shot to have Mr. Gorgeous Butt waiting in the wings.”
Amanda laughed. “Christine, you do know how to put things in perspective. I’ll keep that in mind. And, by the way, I did speak to Gorgeous Butt and he’s going to make a pass at you tomorrow, just as you requested, so be sure you strip Nathan of any sharp objects in case he rises to the jealously bait.”
Christine flopped back, her eyes rolling. “Strip Nathan. Now there’s a thought to block my neural transmitters. What were we talking about? Y’know, the kid does have a great…”
Amanda and Cissy tossed crumpled napkins at her.
“Leavesomething for us to speculate on, Christine.” Cissy’s laughter was light and satisfied. “There are some things Inever intend to tell my Jimmy.Mystery is important.”
Yeah, Amanda thought, her mind swinging back to more mundane matters, unless the mystery involves possible murder, international fakery and a lot of probable mayhem. She looked around at the lovely, tranquil setting. And gasped in shock.
“I’M SORRY, I just don’t see what your problem is.” David Parkerson settled gingerly onto the sofa, looking around, pleased to be back in his own apartment.
I should have known better than to try and hold a brother-to-brother conversation with that cold fish.
Marc placed a pillow behind his brother’s back and asked if he would like a snack.
“I don’t mean to seem uncaring, and I’m pleased that you’re sharing your affair with me, but unless you’re serious about the woman I can’t imagine where it could lead.”
Affair. Oh, man.
“Yeah, you’re right, big brother, and I can’t be serious because she’s gonna stay here climbing up the corporate ladder and I’m gonna be there cooling my heels in the Pacific surf. Well, thanks anyway for the insight.” He went into the kitchen to dig out some stuff to eat and make some tea.
“Speaking of affairs, did you realize that my young assistant at the Met came to see me several times?” David tried not to seem too pleased. “Ostensibly to keep me informed since our distinguished curator certainly wouldn’t have, but also I think because she genuinely enjoys my company.” He looked at Marc expectantly.
Marc was nonplused. That was the last thing he expected. Big brother showing an interest in something other than art. Someone, other than art.
“You mean that young woman, uh, the quiet one?” He stared blankly into the open refrigerator.
David laughed indulgently and carefully pushed himself up off the sofa. “She took me for walks up and down the halls, along with that wretched guard you placed on me. She said I must get back on my feet as soon as possible. I was needed and missed. I’m in much better shape because of her. She wanted to be there today when you picked me up, but I told her we needed some time together.”
Some time together? Us? That phrase has never passed the man’s lips. Curiouser and curiouser. Maybe…maybe the world is a-changin’.
“She’s certainly not the beauty your Miss Emerson is, but she has great charm in her own way. A lovely simplicity. An inner confidence and peace that is most attractive. Though quite a scholar and most definite about her opinions. She would be a challenge.” Marc saw a quiet intensity he had never seen on his brother’s face before.
“David, she’s very young.”
“An old soul. And I am very flattered. I am hopeful enough to believe I could add to her life.” He leaned back against the kitchen counter and contemplated the top of the cabinets. “For as long as her interest might last.” His voice became almost inaudible. “I would consider it an… honor.”
Marc could hardly believe his ears.
“David, that’s great. I don’t… I… That’s great.”
His brother smiled benignly. “She wrote her thesis on my downfall. Her speculations were that my reasoning was impeccable. No other scholar or authenticator could have made a more astute judgment. On the basis of those arguments, I could have been just as right as I was wrong. Authentication is a fine, and finite, art.” He beamed. Marc could see the pleasure in his eyes, remembering her intensity.
Nothing like having a girl friend who believes in you.
He had faked his way into Amanda’s good graces on their first night together, had put off taking her into his confidence, and had treated her like she should be grateful that a guy like him would deign to fall for her. At the moment, he couldn’t think of anything else to kick himself for.
But he had eventually told her what was going on, had stuck his neck out to believe she wasn’t the forger, and had given her space to make her own decisions and decide what to do. Crazy as some of her actions were, they were good ones. She’d make a top P.I. He had joked about having her in his one-man firm.
And that’s what it’s going to stay: a one-man firm.
Somehow or other, eats appeared on the table, his tea was brewing, David wanted wine.
“So you see, I was somewhat preoccupied when you began to discuss your relationship with Miss Emerson…Amanda. I’m afraid I’m so new at this sort of thing I can’t be much help. But, Marc,” his older brother’s eyes grew misty. “wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if someone did care for me? I believe I could reciprocate.”
He sipped his wine quickly to fortify himself. The concept was a new, exciting and terrifying one. “I would try very hard.”
David unsure about his ability to enhance someone’s life? Not just expounding on how he could instruct, tell them how to think, correct their bad judgment?
“David, you know you’ve been considered the prime suspect in this case.”
Marc was instantly ashamed. Did he want to slap his brother in the face? The brother, who, for the first time in his unfeeling life, might be feeling?
Surely not jealousy, little bud. Surely not getting back at dear old Dad through the guy who always made your life miserable. Yeah, well, if he made your life such hell why did you take this case? Why did you go through all this “Antonio” hassle to help redeem him? Why are you angry now?
‘Cause he’s got a girlfriend and you ain’t.
David walked carefully back into the living room and eased himself into his favorite lounge chair. His head nodded thoughtfully. Marc had expected anger. Hurt.
“I suppose I could take that as a compliment. Have you seen the drawings? I know you don’t know much about art, but…”
“Yes. They’re great. Even I… they’re really beautiful. I was very proud to think that you might have done them.”
“Thank you, Marc. That’s most kind. I would like very much to see them myself.” He took a long swallow. “So you’ve known all along that I was suspect.”
“Cambiare hired me because they thought I would have the most to lose and you the most to gain. Assuming there were any brotherly feelings left between us.” He poured a shot of bourbon into his tea, dumped something salty and crunchy into a bowl and sprawled onto the sofa. “I didn’t tell you because I wanted to see if you’d hang yourself somewhere along the line first.”
“And what did you discover that convinces you I’m innocent.”
“Innocent, you’re not, but a forger you’re not either. Too much integrity. I wasn’t sure how much had been knocked out of you.”
“My reputation isn’t as important to me as it once was. Alma has made me very aware of that.”
He seemed to test each word carefully, as if to see if it would remain in the air. “My young lady. Simply knowing that someone with integrity and training is concerned for me. It was a great revelation.”
“I always believed in you.”
“You’ve just said you weren’t sure. There’s a difference.”
Something deep in Marc’s psyche began to put pieces together. Bits of truths that he had been accumulating but that had remained separate, like defragmenting his computer. It was beginning to come clear. A movie special effect with swirling mists and clouds that at a climatic moment came together into something solid, something he could put his hands on. And deal with. Soon it would snap into focus and he would know.
“Do you think there’s any way I might see the drawings?”
“They’re in London. We could fly over. I could check. We could check. Cambiare believes in you, David.”
“I’ll call tomorrow. While you’re having your special posing session without the imperious instructor clucking over his students.”
“I think if the imperious instructor had clucked more, your best pupils might not be deserting you to try and find something special on their own.”
He nodded. “Do you think there’s any hope for my redemption, my younger and wiser sibling?”
“You’ve got someone by your side who trusts you. Go for it.”Go for it.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you, either, Marc, I’m afraid. You should know before you go into the session tomorrow. I’m almost certain I know who the forger is.”
“CISSY, CHRISTINE, look down the rise, across the pond. Do you see that large man sitting on the bench reading a paper?”
Christine started to wave. “Hey, it’s Mr. Wilde.”
“No, it’s the guy who broke into our apartment and tore up my files and probably the one who rifled my office, attacked Marc, and most certainly is the one who followed me down to Pinks.”
Christine snatched her raised hand back as if burnt. She turned sharply toward Amanda. “You know about Pinks? Damn. And you’ve had a break-in, too? I thought it was just my nosey cleaning lady.”
Cissy’s wide eyes narrowed. She quickly drew her hand away from her slack jaw where it had been suppressing a cry, and began to rummage in the Prada shopping bag that had held their lunch.
“I was so hoping we wouldn’t need these. But New York is New York. It’s always best to be prepared.” She handed out metal silver-colored tubes with rings.
“What the hell are these?”
“Bobby’s whistles. London policemen. From England. They’ll wake the dead. And attract alot of attention. And here.” She thrust small dark spray tubes at them.
“And pepper spray? Are these legal?”
“So let him sue. There’s more.”
“Where did you get this stuff, Cissy?”
“Daddy sent acare package. Here. Walkie-talkies. Two pair. They look like cell phones. Aren’t theycute? ”
Amanda laughed. “Cissy, you never cease to amaze me. Jimmy is going to have to run to keep up. He’ll love that.”
Christine hefted the heavy champagne bottle. “You want me to test my pitching arm?”
“No, I want us all to go off in different directions and see who he follows. We’ve got to figure what this guy is up to. And don’t sell him short. He moves fast and he can cause a lot of damage.”
They cleared up the picnic debris and prepared to separate.
“What did Pinks take of yours?” Christine attempted nonchalance.
“Take of mine? I went there to buy something. Do you have work there?”
“Damned creepy snot wouldn’t take any of my stuff.” She gave a short harsh laugh. “Took all the guys’. That’s okay.” She lifted her shoulders in satisfaction. “The only one that’s sold anything is Nathan.”
“Nathan?” That was a surprise.
“Yeah. Some drawings he had left there before, he told me. Supposed to have been pretty good. You know Nathan. Ever the self-deprecating one. We never saw them. Hey, hey…” She swung her head toward the pond. “Looks like the big guy has finished his read. We stand up, he stands up. Who do you think he’s going after?”
“We’ll keep in constant touch with each other on the walkie-talkies,” Amanda instructed. “Whoever he follows, the other two will circle around behind and never lose eye contact. Agreed? If he makes a threatening move, we raise the dead.”
“I feel like one of the ThreeMusketeers out to save the Queen’s necklace or something.” Cissy’s eyes sparkled. “Isn’t thisexciting? ”
Christine chuckled. “Well it beats flaking out at Elizabeth Arden’s which is what I was planning to do after this feed. What do you think he wants, Amanda?”
“If he’s already rifled all our apartments and not found what he wants, I think it’s more information than anything else. Okay, let’s move out and be careful.”
BACK IN David’s apartment, Marc looked his brother dead in the eye.
“You think you know who the forger is?”
“I’m almost certain. I’ve had quite a bit of time to go over my theory. But I need to see the drawings.”
“London could send copies over the Internet. They’ve the most secure encryption I’ve seen yet. Who is it?”
“I don’t think it would be fair to implicate anyone until I’m certain. It’s much too serious a charge now.”
“David, what if you’re wrong? It’ll be the same loss of prestige all over again. Don’t take the chance. Wait until I find out for certain. We might strike it lucky tomorrow.”
“All right. Tomorrow.”
THEIR VOICES crackled over the walkie-talkies.
“Who’s the lucky girl?”
“You are, Christine. Oh, my goodness!”
“Don’t worry, Christine, we’re only about a block away. Cissy, can you see the guy?”
“Yes. I’m right in front of Bergdorf’s. Oh, what a pretty outfit.”
“Cissy, pay attention. Christine may be in danger.
“If you ask me, it’s thatmuch-too-heavy man that’s in danger. Christine, can you hear me? I still amappalled that you shoved that big old Moet and Chandon bottle in that gorgeous Kenneth Cole bag. You’re going to positively ruin…”
“Oh my God, he’s coming at me. I can’t believe it. Right here in the middle of Fifth Avenue. Are you guys close? Should I look for a cop or something?”
“Christine, cool it. He’s not going to attack you in broad daylight. I see him! Cissy?”
“Yes, I see him, too. What should we…”
“Oh, thank God, here comes Nathan! I told him to meet me at Arden’s.” Her urgent whispers changed to a bright conversational tone. “Hi, guy! We were having too much fun in the park, I’m afraid I missed my appointment, but that’s okay since I’m all flushed and rosy, anyway, right? Let’s go see if they can work me in.”
“Uh, I’m just talking to the girls.” Christine hissed into the walkie-talkie. “Where the hell did he go?”
“Cissy, do you see him?”
“I think he went into Trump Tower. Oh my, do you think maybe we could have been wrong? Amanda, are you sure that was…”
“Yes, Cissy, I am sure!”
“Oh, well, yes, of course. I mean, I was stillhiding in the bedroom when you and that nice Mr. Horn Rims, I mean, oh, Christine, now you’ve gotme saying it. Christine? She’s not answering…”
“Cissy, look, you can see her. She’s not on the walkie-talkie anymore. She’s heading off down Fifth with Nathan. Cissy, I think you can put that away now.”
Cissy turned with a shock as Amanda touched her on the elbow.
“Ohmy, with all the people, I didn’t see you, Amanda. Well, that was certainlyexciting.”
“Cissy, the man just walked away. We don’t know any more than we did before.”
“Well, we know he’s afraid of Nathan or didn’t want to talk to Christine when Nathan was around…orsomething. So, we’ve learnedsomething. Even if we’re not so sure what it is. I don’t think I should have had that third glass of champagne.”
They were in a cab half-way down to Chelsea when it dawned on Amanda. She had the driver stop immediately, sent Cissy on and rushed for an uptown taxi.
A few minutes later she was excitedly explaining to Marc over the telephone, after tracking him down at the insurance company in Rockefeller Center. “Marc! Cissy was right! It was Nathan! That’s what made the big guy change his mind. He was headed toward Christine, Marc, really moving though those people on Fifth Avenue. He wanted to get to Christine. And then he saw Nathan and changed his mind instantly. He ducked into the nearest doorway. And I think I know why.”
She was so excited it was hard for Marc to contain his anger. He couldn’t believe she and her insane girl friends had taken it on themselves to follow a guy who might be a murderer, for all they knew. And who was a vicious and violent burglar, they certainly did know. Marc had the bruises to prove that.
This…this insane relationship with this…this insane woman were driving him to distraction. How could she be so brazen? So sure of herself? So sure she wouldn’t bring God knows what down on the head of her friends, for God’s sake!
Marc sighed.Heaven help her enemies.
“I knew you would be angry. I just knew it! Don’t try to pretend you’re not. I know that look.” Her voice crackled with indignation over the wires. “We were perfectly safe. Practically an arsenal of stuff from Cissy’s Dad. If that creep had tried anything there would have been such…”
Uh oh, she was really mad at him now.And what had he done?
Be concerned that his girlfriend might have gotten herself in… No! She was not his girlfriend. There was no way in hell this thing between them could last past… Tomorrow could just be the night to bring everything to a head. And then farewell and goodbye. His look softened, he sighed into the mouthpiece.
“Maybe I…” She was fighting hard to maintain her confidence in her decisions. “There wasn’t time to get in touch with you, Marc. And those women are smart. They wouldn’t have put themselves into real danger. And we did learn something.”
MINUTES LATER, Amanda’s assurance in herself slowly began to rebuild as she rushed ahead with her story to Marc. They were on Fifth Avenue, having met in front of Saks, moving down the street.
“After it dawned on me, I left Cissy and grabbed a cab back here, praying I hadn’t lost him. I hung around, watching the red door at Elizabeth Arden’s. Sure enough, Nathan came out. Probably to hang around while Christine had her facial or whatever. He headed toward the Museum of Modern Art and, Marc, I swear, the big guy just emerged from the crowd. It was spooky. I had really been keeping an eye out for him. I have no idea where he came from.”
Marc looked at her desperately. “Go on, go on!”
“Anyway, he started following Nathan and started closing in. I panicked. I didn’t know what he was going to do.
“I started to run for a cop- they’re everywhere in midtown- but the guy caught up with Nathan and stopped him right outside the museum. I was about half a block away. He acted very polite and Nathan didn’t seem to mind. It was like some guy on the street asking him for directions or something. They had a short conversation. And then Nathan just beamed. You know, the way he does when he turns in a particularly good illustration at work.
“ No, of course you wouldn’t know that. Well, he does. Or… or like when somebody really praises him. Then he gave the guy something, his card it looked like, although who would have thought Nathan had cards. And the guy thanked him profusely, backing away like Nathan had just done him the hugest favor, and walked away as Nathan strutted into MOMA. The guy started in my direction so I had to duck out of the way and when I thought it was safe to look, he was gone.”
She paused, flushed with excitement. Waiting to see if he had caught the significance, waiting to see if he was going to yell at her or praise her.
He grabbed her hard- to shut her up, to yell at her, to shut himself up, to love her- and planted a hard, possessive kiss on her unbelievably soft and yielding mouth, because he couldn’t stand one more second of being in her presence without holding her tight.
In front of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian. Where people got married all the time who weren’t even Presbyterian.
His blood ran cold.
Even as his body throbbed blisteringly hot.
HE ALL but begged her to spend the night with him-at a cheap motel, at an incredibly expensive hotel, on the Great Lawn at Central Park- anywhere. Okay, hehad begged. Cajoled. Pleaded. Teased. He had ended up on his knees in the middle of the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue clutching her legs, threatening to handcuff himself to her until she agreed. For a moment Amanda wondered if the pleading private eye at her feet really might have a pair of cuffs on him.
They had both collapsed in a hugging, laughing heap outside of Trump Tower drawing an appalled, disapproving frown from the haughty, white-haired, spit and polish uniformed American doorman and an understanding, nonchalant shrug from the European one.
Marc left, grumbling, threatening to embarrass them both at the nude posing session tomorrow. And then had tenderly kissed her goodbye with such a gentle and passionate longing Amanda had immediately regretted her decision and had to clamp her jaw shut to keep from calling out after him as he vanished into the evening crowd.
The next twenty-four hours were torture.
And as busy as hell, fortunately. They talked to each other every few hours. He had met his brother’s “young woman”, he told her, and wonder of wonders, she was smart, secure, and put up with no guff when David began to rise to his full, overbearing height. She seemed totally devoted to him.
“I felt like I had stumbled into a loony bin where the people you think you’ve known all your life morph into completely different beings right before your eyes. Weird, Ace. I didn’t know the guy had that kind of…” He searched for the word. “Communication… in him. I sure as hell wouldn’t have minded him throwing a little of it my way when we were kids.”
Amanda’s heart went out to Marc. But he was a big boy now. A very big boy capable of manly acts and manly coping. An extremely impressive, complicated man who tangled her mind and her body and who forced himself into every cranny of her consciousness even as she tried to concentrate on the immediate goal at hand.
A few calls later. Amanda had information to share.
“Marc, I think the professor’s going to be all right. He’s still enormously excited, but he sound’s so much more focused. It’s the session. The anticipation seems to be doing the most amazing thing to people. Wilde can’t stop chuckling. He’s got Zabar’s whipping up Florentine goodies. Christine keeps talking about her push-up Renaissance outfit and Nathan is going to wear tights as part of the costume Mr. Wilde has rented. She convinced him. He says he’s got great legs- even better than Brando’s inJulius Caesar – ‘bout time we all saw them. Nathan, not Wilde, ding bat.” She laughed at his joke and wished he were there. But he was off to the gym.
Later, Marc had information to share. “I look terrific, Ace! Muscles even I didn’t know I had. It was a great workout. Young trainer, Chad, when he could stop chewing his cud, kept trying to talk to me about entering a competition. Can you believe that?”
He laughed, as excited as everyone else, Amanda thought.
“I had some great ideas. What do you think of the Lacoön? You know, the daddy in the middle. Too tortured? Or what about the Heracles, the one with the big bow? It’s at the Met and LA County. Too blatant? Pure classicism, but do you think it’s too modern? I want to really get through this time, Ace. Inspire you all.”
“Do the Dying Slave again; that is so powerful, so painfully beautiful.”
“I want to really shake everybody up. Get Christine’s mind off my crotch. Speaking of my crotch…”
“Do the David. That statue represents everything Michelangelo ever accomplished, spent his life accomplishing: strength, beauty, power, determination, hope.”
“I can’t do David, I’m the wrong shape, you know that. He’s a kid.”
“He’s a man, Marc. A man on the verge of becoming a greater man. Do David.”
A sob suddenly erupted from somewhere deep inside Amanda, startling them both. She gasped, choking it back, then filled her lungs with quick, deep drafts of air. A couple of sniffs and she pulled herself together. He silently waited.
“Marc? I’m sorry, I don’t… I guess I’m so on edge, too. So looking forward…”
“For you, I’ll do David.”
HER HEART racing, she climbed the narrow stairs of the 72nd Street subway stop and walked out into the early evening crowd. Up Broadway on the West Side of the street, she could see the impressive pile of ancient sandstone known as the Ansonia, ever in constant repair, determined to drag its elegant late 19th century French self into the 21st century.
She had taken the subway because she wanted time to clear her mind. Because she wanted to be a bit late. Because the subway reminded her of the first time…
Amanda crossed from the square granite subway kiosk planted in the middle of the intersection of Amsterdam Avenue with Broadway to the west side of the street and turned north across 72nd street toward the famous old building noted for its artists-in-residence.
Inside the lobby, she gave her name to the guard at the entrance of the elevator bank alcove which took guests to the upstairs condominiums.
He smiled. “Mr. Wilde seems to have quite an evening planned. He’s been bustling in and out all day. We are to be particularly welcoming to his guests.” He gave Amanda a smart little bow. “Welcome. And have a very pleasant evening.”
She returned his smile, thanked him and started to enter the elevator.
“And don’t throw anything away,” the guard called out. “Bring it down here for the guys. Mr. Wilde’s pretty good about passing out his rejects. Good artist; he does good stuff.”
The elevator door closed leaving Amanda to digest the information that Wilde freely gave his work away. She found the apartment and rang the bell.
“Oh, my dear, what a joy to see you. We were beginning to worry. We’ve already begun. You must go dress. Christine will assist you.” Mr. Wilde looked wonderfully impressive in a long, cut-velvet, Renaissance robe. A squashed velvet hat rested on his fluffed white hair.
She had seen a similar costume on Juliet’s father in a production ofRomeo and Juliet somewhere. Or was it Romeo’s father? Whichever, he was one of the ones that didn’t end up dead at the end of the play.
Mr. Wilde had indicated a doorway off the hall. Christine bustled in, looking fabulous. More velvet, floor-length. Deep wine, heavily brocaded with glints of gold thread. With her coloring and dark hair, she looked lush. The gown had a high, fitted waistline and the bodice was pushed up indeed.
Her ample bosom was outlined with flourishes of antique lace peeking from the embroidered banding. Her dark, gleaming hair was piled high and crowned with a flat hat from which a drape of pale silk framed her face.
“Pretty jazzy, huh? The guys can hardly keep their eyes in their heads. You missed the big play. Antonio was all over me. Buck naked. Whew, those hot Italians. Nathan was between us like an attack dog. Made it very plain I was not available and was ready to scar pretty boy to make his point. Wilde smoothed it all over. We’re all great buddies now. Nathan suggested to our horny model he take after you, would you believe? God, I feel wonderful. I’m doing some great stuff.”
She zipped Amanda into a light, layered silk, pale blue underdress with a high waist and a snug, embroidered, multicolored bodice. The long, puffed sleeves were caught up with delicate gold cords. Over the dress, Christine slid a sleeveless, pale lavender open robe with narrow banding encrusted with colored jewels.
Amanda’s hair was to be down, she instructed, brushing it quickly and vigorously until it shone. Then she pinned a small Juliet cap onto the crown of auburn waves that framed Amanda’s face. She stepped back, admired her handiwork and gave Amanda the okay sign.
“Young stud is in tights. Don’t laugh, for God’s sake. He looks hunkier than hell. He’s in a short tunic that just grazes those cute buns.” She fanned herself exaggeratedly. “Damn, I wish Cissy were here. She’d get such a kick out of this.”
They started out the door. “Angeli whispered that Wilde’s gonna bring out his good stuff later. Like five-hundred year old paper. I don’t know if I’ve got the guts to touch it. And he keeps dropping hints about other stuff, too. He’s like a kid.”
She pulled Amanda after her through a small, bachelor living room into a large high-ceilinged studio, for which Amanda felt an immediate pang of envy.
At an easel facing the naked model, Professor Angeli sat, dressed similar to their host but in a more subdued robe and wearing a much more restrained hat. He gave Amanda a perfunctory but pleasant nod and immediately returned his full attention to the drawing he was making.
Nathan looked smashing. A jaunty cap with a plume sat atop his murky hair- Christine must have cajoled him into combing it for the first time in months- topping off the tights and tunic. Amanda had to admit, the guy did have a great set of buns with which he greeted her with a smart-ass wiggle. He pointed to velvet slippers on his feet.
Looking her up and down with a lascivious leer, he gave an appreciative nod, two thumbs up, and went back to work. Amanda could imagine the talk around the water cooler at work next week.
The breath went out of her when she finally dared focus on Marc.
His naked body deeply golden-toned, the dark crop of curls adorning his head, his eyes a rich, deep chocolate. “Antonio” bore almost no resemblance to the man with whom she…
He was standing on a small posing platform, his weight solidly planted on one leg, the other leg relaxed, lightly lifted, the knee bent, resting on tiptoe. His beautiful, muscled body spiraled upward in an ecstatic twist. One arm was poised, half-raised, in horizontal open-palmed anticipation, while his opposite arm arched skyward.
His sculpted face, alive with joy, peered upward. It was a perfect reproduction of the Muse of the Dance from one of the famous sculpture groups on the facade of the old Paris Opera house.
“Antonio” momentarily cut his eyes to Amanda and gave her a wink.
Amanda was instantly hot and flushed with the memory of the magnificent animal before her lusciously ravishing her more than willing body and her, equally lustily, ravishing his.
Ace, that man could be yours! Underneath the wig and behind the contacts is the best thing that ever happened to you. Who the hell cares what you have to give up to get it.
“Isn’t that glorious?” Wilde whispered at her elbow. “The boy is absolutely astonishing. See what I’ve done.” He thrust a group of sketches at her. “He is a fount of inspiration. And soon,” his voice dropped teasingly, “I shall astonish you all with materials worthy of that inspiration.” He patted her arm benevolently and returned to his easel.
Amanda glanced through the sketches. They were extraordinary. With their quick sure strokes of the pen, highlighted with watercolor washes of sienna or cerulean, they could easily have passed for antique studies.
“Mr. Wilde, these are amazing.” Amanda held the sketches reverently as the self-satisfied older artist retrieved them.
He dropped his eyes in an aborted attempt at a show of modesty. His shoulders gave a small shrug. “You are too kind, my dear. They are good, aren’t they?”
With a sigh, he dismissed the drawings and patted her hand. “I have held off sharing my special treasures until your arrival, which I shall do after we’ve taken a pause in the evening’s proceedings. In the meantime you must see what the others are accomplishing. Angeli is absolutely under the spell of this superb young man. Let’s peek.”
He guided Amanda over to join him behind the professor where they had a clear view of his work.
A thrilling shiver coursed through her at the sight of the brilliantly executed charcoal sketch Professor Angeli was finishing.
With a smudge of a fiber stump to blur a line and a touch of a kneaded eraser to set a highlight, the professor stepped back and surveyed the drawing and its inspiration. “Ah.” His hand darted in to thicken and darken a contour.
After a final squint, he opened his eyes and, with a satisfied smile, turned to ask, “Well, what do you think?”
Amanda was speechless. Wilde began to rave. Christine and Nathan came over to see. Angeli turned to the still-frozen model. “Thank you, my boy, you have been more than noble.” Antonio relaxed and began to stretch and shake his muscles loose.
“This incredible young man held that unbelievable pose rock-steady for at least a quarter-hour while I leisurely attempted my little drawing. There would not be a drop of blood left in my poor drained torso if I dared to attempt such a feat.”
He murmured with modest delight as the group praised the work. Antonio tied a robe around himself and came to join in the admiration. Nathan moved to keep himself between the model and Christine, which she acknowledged with a sly smile and wink to Amanda
They all admired Christine’s carefully crafted pencil rendering, so different than her usual powerful Roualt-type slashings. Her horizons had, indeed, expanded beyond the naked model’s midsection and she had produced an exquisite sketch of a full-length nude that caught Amanda’s breath in her throat.
It was so startlingly similar to the Ingres-like sketch Amanda had chosen in her wealthy European persona at Pinks gallery that she could have sworn both drawings had been done by the same person. But Christine had said the creepy Pink Dracula had never taken any work of hers.
Amanda’s mind began to race. Nathan’s drawing was crisp, clean and very well-executed and evidenced his underlying background as a superb graphic artist. How could it not, Amanda thought. Her employee drew dramatic, contemporary cartoons daily at his job with great relish and obvious love of his work. His art was contemporary and very much of today.
She couldn’t put all the bits and pieces together and longed for a chance to discuss what was going through her head with Marc. He could help her sort it out. He would add his own insight and the pieces would begin to fall into place.
And the case would be solved. One of her dear friends would be indicted as an international forger, Marc would be gone and she would never again feel his touch.
Impulsively, she grabbed “Antonio’s” hand for support, for strength, for belief that what they had had would have to last her for the rest of her empty life and because she couldn’t stand being in his presence one more moment without feeling the touch of his flesh.
Just as impulsively, Marc leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. The two older artists smiled in delighted surprise. Christine raised her eyebrows and Nathan smirked.
Amanda’s cheeks flamed and she looked around in confusion. Even Marc, behind his dark contacts, seemed startled. But she did not let go of his hand. Nor he of hers.
“I… I… we…”
“How delightful,” Professor Angeli ducked his head coyly, patting both Amanda and Antonio on their reddening cheeks. “It appears our young people have become… friends.”
He looked around at a beaming Mr. Wilde. “Perhaps now would be a perfect time for a bit of a respite. Amanda, my dear, your timing is superb. Our more than gracious host has provided us with a lavish, authentic 15th century Zabar’s nosh to keep our energies up. And I have offered to assist in spreading the fare.”
He reached over and squeezed Antonio and Amanda’s hands, still holding tightly to each other.
“Thank goodness something good came of my awful madness with poor Parkerson the other evening at the League.” The professor moved toward the kitchen, speaking to no one in particular. “I spoke to him this morning- I call every day, you know- and he’s coming along nicely. I still can’t imagine what got into my befuddled brain.” His voice came from the depths of the refrigerator. “The madness of the crowd, I assume.”
Amanda pulled “Antonio” into the kitchen with her. “Professor Angeli, did you see Mr. Wilde’s sketches,” Amanda asked excitedly. “They look like… they look like,” she gave a quick glance to the apprehensive Marc, “like classical work I’ve seen in the Metropolitan or at the Morgan. Isn’t that amazing?” she added, with what she hoped sounded like girlish naiveté.
“Yes, Wilde has been making an effort to emulate the old masters for years,” the professor explained lightly. “He’s even made a study of the formulation of inks of the various periods. He doesn’t usually feel confident enough to show off that aspect of his talent in the presence of others.
“Wilde,” he directed to their host, who had entered the kitchen to retrieve the plastic-protected bowls and platters prepared by the world-famous, local delicatessen which Angeli pulled from the refrigerator. “You’re becoming extraordinarily accomplished. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you dash off such excellent work of the period quite so proficiently.
“We’re settling in the salon,” the professor informed them as an aside. “Good heavens, Wilde, there’s enough food here for a dozen starving artists.” He handed Amanda and Antonio bottles of wine and wine glasses and led the way through the studio.
“Amanda is quite impressed with your work tonight,” Angeli said to Wilde as they passed a chatting Christine and Nathan and motioned for them to follow.
“Do have one, my dear,” Wilde offered magnanimously, setting the various containers on a large art deco coffee table. “Take any sketch you like. I want you to have one and I certainly want our gifted young model to have one.” He began to spoon various salads onto intricately-decorated hand-made crockery plates. “You may choose whatever you wish.”
Christine popped an olive into her mouth and gave Amanda a satisfied look that indicated how impressed she was with Amanda’s good fortune: a new boyfriend to take the place of the one leaving soon and a damn fine drawing by old Wilde.
Amanda was as nonplused at Christine’s look as she was flabbergasted at Wilde’s suggestion. “Mr. Wilde,” she sputtered, “those drawings are magnificent. I can’t imagine you giving them away. Why…why you could sell them if you don’t want to keep them. I’m sure there are galleries that…”
“Pagh,” Wilde erupted in fury, spraying food over his comfortable masculine living room. “Galleries! Vile, wretched, blood-sucking dens created solely to drive poor, naive artists to utter distraction!” He gestured wildly with an antique silver fork sending bits of salad flying. “We tried, didn’t we, Angeli? Didn’t we, Nathan? Didn’t we, Christine? God knows, we tried to do business with those money grubbing pariahs. You met one of them, my dear.” He turned to Amanda and let out a huge, appreciative guffaw.
“She called him Dracula… Pink Dracula. Perfect! Blood-sucking, namby-pamby pariah. I should have known better. But we did try, didn’t we, Angeli?”
“Yes, Wilde, we did.” Angeli scooted about the room wiping up the bits of scattered food. “Several of us in the class went to a Village gallery recommended by Parkerson and I’m afraid were treated rather perfunctorily.”
Recommended by Parkerson?Amanda sat upright.
The professor leaned between Amanda and Antonio and said quietly, “An attitude that reacts rather badly with Wilde’s personality.”
Recommended by Parkerson?Marc felt his pulse quicken.
“Purveyors of wretched modern crap! Not a decent reproduction in the whole shop! Worse than shyster, bottom-feeding lawyers,” Wilde grumbled into his food. “Forgive me, my dear fellow artists, my lack of restraint.”
Amanda wasn’t sure any of this was computing. Wilde hadn’t seemed that upset about the gallery when she ran into him in SoHo. Maybe he was just being overly dramatic now in front of appreciative friends. But the idea that David had sent them to the gallery?
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Mr. Wilde, but I’m sure there must be places that handle your quality of work.”
He patted her hand. “You are a dear to be concerned and I appreciate your thoughts, but I much rather enjoy giving my work to those who truly appreciate it for its quality rather than for what it might have cost them.”
“Unless the entire economy of the western world collapses, Wilde is fortunate not to have to choose between art and commerce, “Professor Angeli said, as he smiled somewhat tightly at the group.
Amanda looked at the sketches. Tears of joy bubbled in her eyes. She hugged the startled Wilde fervently.
“Oh, Mr. Wilde, thank you, thank you. This gift is the most wonderful thing to happen… since… since,” She grabbed Antonio’s hand and pressed it to her bosom. “Since Antonio.” She dropped her eyes, feeling delighted and silly, knowing she was blushing and that her emotions had carried her over the top. What would Marc think?
Wilde beamed. “I’m so pleased you would consider my paltry efforts on a par with such an obviously special attachment.”
“Don’t be so modest, Wilde,” the professor’s voice was chilly. “Your work is good and you know it. Fortunately you don’t have to give a fig about what any stupid so-called artist’s representative might think.”
There was an awkward silence. Christine looked from one to the other. Nathan continued to shovel food into his mouth, unconcerned.
Oh dear, I’ve offended Professor Angeli, Amanda thought. Obviously, he had also at one time had a bad personal experience with a gallery. He really was the better artist and must surely know it, but she had never seen him try to emulate an old master. To compare his work with Wilde’s would be like comparing oranges and apples.
“Professor Angeli,” she said, squeezing his hand, “you must help us decide about Mr. Wilde’s wonderful gift. And I can’t wait to be able to afford an example of your work, too.”
The professor looked at her slyly. “You have great tact, Miss Emerson, and great charm. All you have to do is check my wastebasket at work.” Amanda wasn’t sure whether he was joking or repressing his annoyance.
His look brightened. “I’ll be delighted to assist in your selection and I will think seriously about adding a modest effort to your collection. Perhaps,” he added pointedly as he and Wilde began to clear away the dishes, “our esteemed host might grant me a modest discard also.”
“Oh, Angeli, you are far the better artist.” Wilde left the room and continued talking. “And you know it,” he called out. “I can’t imagine you honestly caring a fig about having my work.” Re-entering, he continued, noting the professor’s shocked look. “Now let’s not rankle among friends. It’s time to share my modest treasures with my dear companions.”
He put a protective arm around the smaller, more wizened, trembling older artist and shooed him from the room indicating that he relieve himself of the gathered dishes and silverware.
“Not that I could ever outshine you, my dear young man,” he gave a quick bow to Antonio, “but tonight we… you and all the rest of us… will make history at least amongst our little group.” He led them into the studio.
“Wilde, what the hell are you babbling about?” Nathan muttered as Professor Angeli rejoined them, looking pale.
Amanda glanced quickly at Marc to check his reaction to the recent exchange but he seemed intent on maintaining his Antonio disguise.
“Behold.” Wilde carefully pulled a flat wrapped package from between leather dividers and held it reverently before him. “The Italian Renaissance.”
He paused dramatically, looking from one to the other and then, with the greatest care, began to unwrap the package.
ALL FIVE heads leaned in, focusing intently on the uncovered precious blank sheet.
Nathan’s eyes narrowed possessively.
Professor Angeli pressed back a gasp.
Christine leaned closer, her jaw slack.
“It’s… beautiful.” Amanda had never seen pristine, unmarked paper of such quality or age.
“Theyare beautiful,” Wilde said, pulling aside the top one and revealing three smaller pieces of vellum. “They are over four hundred years old and I want you each to have one.”
With a flourish, he presented the first. “Professor, the largest one is for you, our brightest and best.” He pressed the heavy sheet into the stunned professor’s hand.
“I have had several of these sheets for years.” Wilde was enjoying himself hugely. “As you know, I have been waiting for the most propitious moment to share these final ones with my friends. I have another which I shall present to our esteemed instructor when he has recovered. It seems only fair.”
Nathan’s jaw tensed. “Final ones?”
Christine took the letter-size piece of paper passed to her with the same sense of awe she would finger a piece of Paloma Picasso jewelry. Her total attention fastened on the slightly textured, cream-colored stock. Carefully she stroked it, reveling in its texture and history.
Even though Amanda knew Christine was a fine draftsman, she had never before seen her flip, brittle friend so unconsciously reveal her artistic sensitivity.
Amanda could barely accept the sheet Wilde proffered her, she was so overwhelmed with the weight of its history. Here was something made during one of the greatest art ages in history, hundreds of years old. Who had it been produced for, why hadn’t it been used, where had it been all these years, and how had it come, by such astonishing luck, through its convoluted history into her hands here and now?
She beamed up at Antonio, who was looking at Amanda with the same undisguised admiration.
Nathan shook his head. “Un-nh.” Putting his hands up, he backed away from the offered sheet as though it might burst into flame. “No,” he muttered, looking around, his chest heaving, “don’t do this. Don’t give the stuff away. Damn, man, don’t do that.”
The startled artist’s tone was placating as he pressed the sheet forward. “But you deserve the best, my boy. You must never underestimate your God-given talent.”
“I said no, dammit,” Nathan yelled. “I don’t want it! Keep it, use it, then give it to me! When it’s got something on it.” His outburst echoed off the high glass skylights of the large studio.
Everyone stared in shock. “I…” He glanced around and quickly reassumed his oft-used Brando nonchalance. “What the hell, I guess I don’t think I’m ready yet. And don’t kid yourself, Christine, you’re not either.” He snatched the sheet from her and forced it back to Wilde.
Christine’s surprised look instantly contracted into anger. “Maybe not, but it’s mine to keep or give back as I choose. Right, Wilde?” Her eyes remained fastened on Nathan.
“Of course, my dear,” the concerned artist answered, returning the paper to her. “I’m sorry, my boy, I had no intention of upsetting you with what I hoped would be construed as a generous gesture. I wanted us all to partake of a bit of a fantasy tonight. One I have been looking forward to for some time.”
“I’m sure Nathan didn’t mean to rebuke your generous gift.” Professor Angeli put his arm protectively around the tense, young man who roughly shrugged him away. “I think we’re all totally overwhelmed, Wilde,” he said, flatly. “You’ve truly outdone yourself.”
Amanda glanced at Marc who was watching Nathan carefully. Nathan’s clamped jaw throbbed. His fists roughly ironed the short skirt of the belted, velvet tunic over his thighs. No one expected him to apologize. He remained quiet. And with that gesture of non-confrontation, seemed to be making an effort to appease.
Professor Angeli was the first to break the tense silence. “Wilde, what is this foolish fantasy you mention?” He swept his sheet of ancient drawing stock around at the costumed group. “Surely, you’ve outdone yourself already.”
Wilde placed his hand on Antonio’s shoulder. “It has to do with this extraordinary young man.” He directed his remarks to the model. “When I saw what you were able to achieve at our last class, the dream of a lifetime- which I must admit I had always thought could never be accomplished- forced itself to the forefront of my brain and told me to…” He paused for effect.“Go for it. And, so, indeed, I… we… go.”
They all smiled at his convoluted speech. Even Nathan’s grim look relaxed.
“Specifics, Wilde,” Professor Angeli urged, “specifics.”
“Yeah, get on with it, Wild-man.” Nathan returned to his usual arrogant self.
“Very well.” Wilde’s eyes darted excitedly from one to the other. “Imagine yourselves artists in l5th century Florence. You are anxious to expand your clientele, to garner new commissions, to do something extraordinary.”
“I don’t think there were too many ofus looking for commissions,” Christine stated as she indicated Amanda and herself, resettling her long velvet robe over her crossed legs. “I think we would have been good Italian housewives taking care of the babies or some other Godawful thing.”
“There were several very famous female artists. Daughters of artists and noblewomen with time on their hands who weren’t all that concerned with making good alliances.”
“Ah, alliances. I can relate to that,” Christine acknowledged with a grunt. She turned to Amanda. “You can be one of those delicate young things, who simply had to draw because your artistic soul depended on it. Especially if some hot Italian model had turned you on.” She gave a sly sidelong glance to Antonio.
“I can relate to that,” Amanda returned, tartly. “Especially if I were one of the Medicis and had seen their private commission of Donatello’s David. Very hot stuff for the time.”
“Perfect,” Wilde announced. “Then we’re all ready.”
“For what?” Nathan was getting annoyed.
“A contest has been announced. The town council of Florence wants a statue to represent the city and all it stands for and they want the sculptor to use a huge vertical slab of marble on which a previous sculptor had begun work and then abandoned.”
“You want us to be Michelangelo?” Amanda’s voice was filled with disbelief. Had Marc mentioned her love of the David statue to Wilde?
“Yes, in effect. I want us to accept the challenge. We all know what Buonarroti came up with: his David. But do we know where his inspiration came from? I posit there must have been an extraordinary young man, whether a professional model or no, in which he saw the possibilities of the marble. He must have made innumerable sketches. And now, we,” he paused and looked around dramatically, “can recreate that moment.”
He moved to a small, inlaid cabinet. “You have paper of the period.” He extracted small stoppered bottles and handed them out. “And, through the kind generosity of a chemist friend, you now have ink of the period, and…” He pulled out a handful of pens and brushes which he also offered the group, “instruments of the period.”
Wilde looked around with benevolent satisfaction at the astonished artists. “Now we, by the grace of Heaven, have been given this extraordinary young man.” He swept his hand toward Marc who was as caught up as the rest with Wilde’s fantasy.
“Antonio,” he instructed as he offered the model a strap of leather and a round glass paperweight, “give us David.”
Amanda looked at Marc. She felt the small hairs on the back of her neck rise and could see a similar elevation of excitement in the private investigator’s eyes. This was the moment he had prepared for, more dramatically set than he possibly could have done himself. If anything could, this moment should flush the forger.
Marc went to the front of the room, turned on the modeling lights, removed his robe, took a moment to concentrate his thoughts, threw the strap over his left shoulder, settled his weight on his right foot, held the paperweight in his relaxed right hand and became… David. His entire being concentrated on slinging the rock in his hand to slay the enemy of his people. He was powerful, sure, filled with the concentrated determination of youth.
The room was silent. Only the sound of distant street traffic invaded.
Professor Angeli pressed his fingers to his lips, blinking to sharpen his sight. Suddenly, with a sense of urgency that the apparition might vanish, he chose a pen, dipped it in the deep brown liquid, stared for a moment at the naked young man in front of him and then, after four hundred years, began to indelibly stain the precious paper with definitive strokes.
Wilde, who had watched mesmerized as Marc became the ancient Hebrew hero, released a held breath and attacked his paper with the same sureness.
Amanda pulled a sheet of ordinary drawing paper from her portfolio and laid it on top of the antique stock. “I have to at least practice first,” she explained to no one in particular. “Get used to the nibs.”
Christine stood frozen behind her easel, arms folded, clasping her elbows. She shook her head, staring at the ancient paper awaiting her stroke. Her eyes were moist.
“I told you you weren’t ready.” Nathan snatched the ancient paper resting on her drawing pad and stuffed it in his portfolio.
The older woman offered no resistance. After a moment she huffed a lung full of air and reached for a charcoal stick. “But I can still draw,” she announced, “and I sure as hell know a great naked man when I see one. Kid,” she called out, “you’re terrific!” And she began to sketch with gusto.
“He’s wrong,” Nathan commented, watching the others busy at their drawings. “He’s too big to be David.”
“Yes, yes, dear boy,” Wilde said, as he worked away, “obviously so. The statue itself is incorrect as we all know. The head is too large as are the hands and feet. We assume the master made those choices in order to emphasize the youthfulness of the body. One must make choices. It’s not merely a matter of reproducing what one sees.”
Amanda felt a stab in the center of her chest as she contemplated the magnificent man in front of her.
Professor Angeli hardly took his eyes from his work. “Art is all choice.”
Amanda began to draw but not on the four-hundred-year-old paper. Soon, everyone was immersed in their work except Nathan, who wandered about the room watching what the others were doing and occasionally staring at the model.
After a quarter of an hour they took a break. Hardly anyone spoke and they all remained near their easels. Nathan wandered out of the studio and returned with bottles of mineral water for the group.
He seemed to have relaxed, it appeared to Amanda. And from the creeping up of his lips and his knowing glances in the model’s direction, seemed to have discovered something that amused him in his attitude toward Antonio.
Perhaps he had realized the handsome, naked man was no threat to his affair with Christine, Amanda thought, as Nathan settled at his easel and began to sketch. She was grateful she could now dismiss her concern and concentrate on her drawing.
As the artists’ concentration intensified, costume hats were laid aside and doublets loosened. Amanda removed her over-robe, untied her sleeves and pushed them up. Everyone was intent on the work at hand.
Antonio offered to execute different poses but everyone agreed the David was the touchstone of the evening. Wilde mildly tried to keep the concept of the competition for the Florentine burghers going but finally succumbed, as had they all, to the palpable connection that had been established between the pose and each individual artist.
After a couple of more breaks, only reluctantly agreed to, in order to give Antonio a needed rest, the extraordinary session drew to a close. The four working artists began to finalize their efforts.
Wilde applied a contouring wash of reddish-brown ocher. “There,” he gave a snap of his brush to scatter minute drops of color over the paper. “I think I’m rather pleased.”
Almost reluctant to leave their own work, they all gathered round to look. A full-length figure in the familiar pose was in the center of the paper. To the side, one of the feet had been reworked, overdrawn in several positions. Other studies of various parts of the body- a hand, a profile, a shaded section of curls- gave the impression of a working drawing, quickly sketched over the space of a few hours, that could easily have come from the studio of Michelangelo.
Amanda felt breathless. Her mind whirled. It seemed as if she were back under Athenian skies, flown forward to a Roman temple, bent over an illuminated manuscript. Through her stinging eyes she glanced at Antonio.
Antonio, not “Marc.” Her magnificent creator of dreams and fantasies not the real flesh and blood, hard-working private investigator who excited her senses and drugged her hard-won self-assurance.
Marc focused on the drawing blankly, slowly raising his look to the man who had produced it. She could see it in the private investigator’s eyes. The case was solved. He seemed filled with the same mixture of admiration and sadness as she.
He looked at Amanda, his eyes hard. He turned and left the admiring group and sat apart. His broad shoulders hunched and his head slumped.
Amanda knelt in front of the naked man.
“Why would he do such a thing?” he quietly asked. “He doesn’t need the money. It’s not going to gain him any fame. He rants and raves but that’s just bluster. His ego is as solid as a rock. It makes no sense.” He shrugged, focusing intently on Amanda but thinking of the rash, foolish determination that had brought his brother down.
Amanda felt as if all emotion had been drained from her.
Poor Marc. He had broken the first commandment of a private investigator. He had gotten involved with his suspects. He cared. About her. About Wilde. About them all. And one of them had betrayed him.
As well as she knew her own, she was at a total loss to comprehend the mind of her beloved Wilde. Now they all knew what he was capable of. Did he mean to drag them all into the sordid mess when it would surely finally come to light? To make them accomplices to his sick joke?
He made her mad. He gives away his work. To the staff, for God’s sake. Heaven only knows to whom else. Sooner or later someone, somewhere would make the connection. It was almost as if he wanted to be discovered.
Her light-weight, detailed costume felt like suffocating, dragging sackcloth. She was grateful Marc seemed not to have caught the look of utter desolation in her eyes. She would be supportive, by his side until it was done.
And then they both would be gone from each other.
Amanda crossed her arms on Marc’s knee and rested her aching head. Even his perfect nakedness seemed foreign now. As if a glass wall had formed out of the very air between her and the rest of the world cutting her off from all feeling.
A whoop of delight shocked her back.
Christine came rushing at them waving Wilde’s sketch, her Renaissance skirts swirling around her. “Me! He gave it to me!”
She spun ecstatically, sending up clouds of chalk dust from the salon’s floor, then rushed back to the beaming artist to hug him tightly. She whooped, “Wilde, you are the best buddy in the world! This will go over my bed. The highest place of honor!”
As Marc and Amanda heavily stood to congratulate the chortling Christine, a furious, scowling Nathan stalked toward her and snatched the drawing.
“It’s mine,” he snarled through gritted teeth. He turned viciously on a quaking Professor Angeli, wide-eyed with fear. “I warned you, you old crock. I told you to tell the old bastard not to give the stuff away.” He shoved the drawing quickly but carefully into his backpack and spun to spray the group with a mad-dog look.
A look that had no effect on Christine. “What the hell are you doing, you little twerp? Have you gone nuts? That’smy drawing. Give it back!” She grabbed the backpack.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Nathan swept his arm across his chest and snapped it back, hitting Christine in the face with the back of his hand. With a gasp, she sprawled backwards into Marc who had instantly lunged for Nathan. They fell in a tangle of fabric.
“I warned you. I warned you all!” Nathan wrenched the door open. “This is my drawing!”
The door slammed thunderously behind him.
“OH, MY word!” Wilde flapped his arms in disbelief.
“Dear heaven, he’s gone mad!” Professor Angeli charged about distractedly.
“Christine, you’re bleeding!” Amanda leaped to disentangle Marc from the older woman.
“God, whatta belt. Bleeding? Damn!”
“Ace, look after Christine! I’m going after him!” Marc bolted around the bewildered older men.
“The little twerp has always been flaky.”
He dashed out of the apartment.
“You don’t have any clothes on!”
“Damn! I think he loosened a tooth! Ace? Who the hell is…?”
“Professor! Mr. Wilde! Look after Christine, I’m going with Marc!”
“Marc?” Angeli’s voice was a confused croak.
“I’m fine, damn it! I’m coming, too,” Christine shouted after Amanda. “It’s a scratch. He must have caught me with one of his arty rings. Just get the little bastard. I knew he was going to crack!”
The hallway was empty except for the naked model looking frantically around.
“Ace, I’ve gotta get that drawing! If he destroys it we have no evidence!”
“I don’t know whether he grabbed an elevator or made for the stairs. You take the elevator, I’ll take the stairs! Be careful,” he yelled, disappearing into the stairwell.
Christine furiously stormed after them into the hall, still trying to clear her head, followed by the two men.
“Catch the elevator,” Amanda called to the group, “I’m going down the stairs.”
She dashed into the stairwell and caught sight of a naked Marc racing down the steps two floors below her.
“Marc, Marc!” Her voice echoed down the shaft. “The others are taking the elevator. Do you think he went down to the street or do you think he’s hiding on another floor?” She was already puffing hard.
“Sounded like he just wants to get away from here.” Marc’s voice rebounded up to her.
“But it doesn’t make sense.” She raced down the stairs, gasping, clutching her long skirt out of her way. “We all know where he lives. What’s he thinking of?”
“That’s what worries me. I think he really might have flipped! I don’t want him to hurt himself or the drawing. Or us!”
Good lord, he’s not ever breathing hard, she noted in astonishment as her calves began to burn.
Marc hit the first floor flying and dashed into the lobby with Amanda not far behind.
“What the hell?” the guard behind the desk leaped up at the sight of the naked man.
“Have you seen a kid in a jerkin and tights? Probably running?” Marc quickly scanned the startled occupants of the narrow lobby.
“He’s a thief!” Amanda yelled, emerging from the stairwell. “We need back-up!”Back-up? Ace, you are such a pro! Out of shape, but still a pro.
“Take the south door,” Marc called, zigzagging through startled people. “I’ll take the north!”
Amanda dashed out the door onto the sidewalk. The night was filled with people. Nathan was nowhere to be seen.
Damn, maybe he’s still in the building.
She caught sight of Marc’s muscular bare body at the other end of the block frantically searching the crowd as the flow of pedestrians parted apprehensively around him.
Amanda bellowed into the passing late-night crowd, hoping to catch the attention of the blasé New Yorkers. “Nathan’s stolen a fake Michelangelo! The game’s up, Nathan!” She quickly scanned the startled pedestrians, slowed down by the galvanizing shout which had caught the attention of even blasé New York night strollers.
Half-way down the block she caught sight of a costumed figure that broke from the crowd and suddenly began to run.
“There he is, Marc! He’s headed for the subway!”
The tanned body streaked by her with the grace of a gazelle.
His feet must be killing him.Twin thoughts shot through her head.What a magnificent body!
“Get the little bastard!” Christine and the two older artists lurched from the lobby onto the sidewalk, all in disarrayed Renaissance splendor. Amanda dashed after the disappearing Marc, her long dress hiked up to her knees.
“Stop him,” Wilde bellowed.
Christine flung her train over her arm and started running.
Professor Angeli gasped for breath as he hurried after them. “Oh dear, oh dear heaven, please!”
Suddenly ahead of her, Amanda heard a noisy commotion and screams. “He’s got a gun!”
“The kid’s got a gun!”
She pushed her way through the frantically dispersing mob of wild-eyed, terrified women and frantic men. Blood-lust spectators raced along with her.
Ahead, breaking through the crowd, she saw Nathan dash into the middle of 72nd Street, clutching his backpack to his chest with one arm, the modern pack an incongruous shock against his 15th century garb. Wildly, he swung his other arm around. She caught the frightening glint of hard metal in his hand. Cars screeched to a halt to avoid the angry, threatening figure.
The tearing of metal split the air as two cars collided. She spun around as Marc leaped into the air onto the hood of a taxi and stepped lightly onto the roof. A shot rang out.
His tan body, illuminated by street lights and neon glow, contracted to avoid the bullet and then dove off the yellow roof. Amanda screamed and raced around the car. Cowering passengers inside twisted to follow her. Marc landed square on the spinning Nathan, trapped by traffic and surging crowds.
The gun went off again as Marc’s falling body hit the younger man and sent him sprawling. Amid screams and yells and screeching brakes, the arena cleared.
The two men struggled in a tangle of bare and fabric-covered limbs as the furious Nathan viciously fought against Marc’s muscular assault.
A screaming, dark-haired figure in a crimson gown emerged from the fleeing crowd and dashed for the struggling men. Amanda yelled and lurched forward. Nathan swung the gun toward Christine, his face a mask of rage.
Behind the advancing fury appeared the gasping Professor Angeli and the wildly gesticulating Mr. Wilde. A duplicate of the large artist, in contemporary clothes, loomed behind them.
My God, it’s the big guy!
The bizarre thought crackled through Amanda’s brain that since he’d never hurt any of them that maybe he could help. She grabbed Christine’s gown and yanked her out of the way as a sharp crack sounded again followed by the whiz of a bullet cutting the air near their heads. An astonished Christine spun into Amanda’s arms. Amanda whirled her around and shoved her to safety back toward the group of men.
Marc grabbed for the smoking firearm with both hands. With his free arm, Nathan punched the naked private investigator in his unprotected pelvis. Marc gasped in agony and momentarily loosened his grip as the enraged Renaissance figure savagely twisted from under him and struggled to his knees. Viciously, Nathan swung the gun toward Marc’s head. Amanda screamed and hurtled toward them.
The metal barrel cracked against “Antonio’s” dark curls and with a grunt Marc fell back. Amanda raced forward with all her might, the light-weight skirt dragging her back as though through mud.
Nathan shoved the barrel against Marc’s forehead and grabbed the tangle of curls to hold his victim’s head steady. The wig came away in his hand. With a shocked look he catapulted backward onto the asphalt. The gun snapped from his hand and bounced away, spinning in circles.
Amanda grabbed for the whirling metal. Her foot caught in the swirling fabric around her legs and with a lurch her foot knocked the gun away as she fell.
Streaking in the bright city night lights, the small firearm slid brightly across the rough darkness of the asphalt, slowly circling as it bumped over a rise in the road and clanged over a steaming manhole cover. It continued on its route toward the wild-eyed professor. Behind him loomed the large dark figure.
Marc lunged for the backpack as Nathan sprawled backward. He yanked the dark nylon bag from the falling figure, who dropped with a thud, his head hitting the pavement.
The large shadow behind the professor mirrored the crouching stance of the terrified little man as the mesmerizing metal slid to a stop at his feet.
At the duo’s side, Mr. Wilde struggled to restrain a shouting, struggling Christine.
Professor Angeli- the dark figure’s large head pressed urgently close to his ear- stooped for the gun.
He raised it in his trembling hands toward the figures in the center of the street.
A sprawled Amanda.
A stunned Marc.
A groggy Nathan.
A large hand reached from behind to steady the small shaking arms as rough lips continued to instruct him rapidly at the side of the elder artist’s face.
Professor Angeli shot Nathan. The costumed body fell back on the street, instantly still.
With an unearthly howl of horror, the elder artist whirled on his nemesis who melted into the surging crowd.
The professor put the gun to his temple and fired.
Amanda heard no sound, no ear-splitting crack, no screeching traffic, no shouting voices, no police sirens nor did she hear the horrified shout from Marc as he scrambled toward the falling body.
All she heard was the unearthly, unbelieving scream of her own voice.
POLICEMEN were everywhere. Deafening ambulances shrieked to a halt under blinding, flashing red lights. Gawking faces hovered in the background as hulking men shoved glass-eyed video cameras at Amanda, Marc, Christine and Mr. Wilde.
Nathan and Professor Angeli were quickly loaded onto stretchers. Amanda begged to go with the professor but the police said no. She erupted in fury. Fought them. Kicked and screamed as Marc held her back and absorbed her flood tide of anger. He refused to react to the dreadful names she called him and the vicious accusations she threw until the flashing red lights and warbling sirens were gone and she was utterly spent.
Cops wrapped Marc in a blanket and they were all taken in ear-shattering, wailing police cars to the local station. More video cameras. Accompanied by big-faced male and female, television reporters desperately pleading and battling to get at them. Christine swung at the reporters. Mr. Wilde glowered. Marc was stony, buried in his blanket. Amanda was enraged. Until her emotions finally shut down and she became numb.
The cops found old sneakers and a pair of pants for Marc. He remained bare-chested under the blanket.
He doesn’t even shiver in the cold, damn him.
No one asked about the backpack he handed her, which she slipped on and wore as if she were a 60s Village hippy with her ripped, long skirt and glittering, dirtied bodice.
Now I’m an accomplice in this whole disgusting mess.
Marc explained to the police about the private posing session and the costumes. Nathan had stolen a valuable drawing and they had all given chase. The gun was Marc’s. Licensed. He was a private investigator and Nathan had stolen the gun. The detectives were used to dealing with the eccentricities of the artistic inhabitants of the Ansonia and accepted his explanation blandly and without question.
Marc continued that they could only assume the professor had been seized by a sudden desperation to come to the aid of the naked model when the gun fell at his feet and then, in a horrified realization of having actually shot someone, shot himself.
At Amanda’s insistence, the sergeant called the hospital.
Nathan was badly wounded, in Intensive Care but expected to survive. He might lose the use of his right arm… his drawing arm. Christine snorted it served him right and burst into sobs.
The professor was dead.
Considering the outcome, no one wanted to press charges. It was decided they could all be released in their own recognizance and would be called in for more questioning later. They must remain in Manhattan for the time being. The silent group returned to Mr. Wilde’s apartment.
They dressed in their own clothes and downed much-needed drinks. Amanda found it difficult to even swallow liquid.
Christine referred to Marc’s blond hair and his now-blue eyes. “I think we deserve to know what the hell is going on. And,” she added pointedly to Amanda, “why we weren’t let in on your little game.”
Christine was right. This whole thing had seemed like an exciting game to Amanda; a game that raised her adrenaline and made her seem more alive.
Alive? What do you call what you do at the office? You’ve worked hard to get where you are. A good-looking pair of pants comes along…okay, he didn’t have pants on…and makes you feel loved and wanted and more alive than you’ve ever been in a man’s arms before and you’re ready to throw your career away.
Marc explained to Christine the case involved international repercussions in the art world and hardly qualified as a “game”. He answered what questions he could and then asked Mr. Wilde for clarification of the assumptions he had already come to.
“Yes.” The older gentleman’s voice was tired and flat. “I gave the drawings to Angeli over a period of years. I thought he would be the one to best appreciate them.”
“And then, trying to mentor Kid Ass-hole,” Christine continued, bitterly, “Angeli gave them to Nathan, who sold them to Pinks who got them to the European fence and on the market.”
Wilde’s shoulders slumped lower. “It seemed such an innocent endeavor. Almost noble. To attempt to emulate the great master.” He turned his head away. “I also wanted to impress Angeli. His talent was always far greater than my own.”
A talent the world would never know. What had gone wrong in the professor’s life? Why had he ended up expending his enormous gifts on “Ahn-sel in the 21st Century”? Hoping to pass his love of art on to a self-centered nothing. A talented nothing but an unworthy receptacle for the professor’s hope and dreams.
Marc looked at her; worry lines creased his forehead.
Why am I in this city? Amanda thought dully. What am I working for? What havoc have I caused? Why couldn’t I have figured it out before… before…
Marc reached for her. She turned away.
Someone who excited my senses. Lifted me to magical realms. Nothing wrong with being lifted a little.
The wine bit the back of her throat, burned her gullet, its fine vintage a waste on her blunted taste buds.
Made me soar.
She turned a flat gaze on Marc’s handsome face. His brows contracted more tightly.
Sorry, kiddo, she thought. I’ve got more on my agenda than being a part of getting dear friends killed.
His face saddened and his gaze drifted down. He turned away. After a moment, he straightened and his head lifted: his finely-shaped head, with the deep iron-gray blue eyes and the soft, beautifully sculpted lips set in a firm, manly jaw. He looked at her squarely, peering deep…
But she knew she wasn’t there for him to see.
“I KNOW the damn case isn’t closed.” Ace was annoyed again. “Who the hell is the big guy? Where is he now? What’s he going to do now that Cambiare knows for sure the drawings are fake? And should we care a whit?”
Marc was getting fed up with the woman.
Sure, she made him proud to be a man. She probably had taken courses somewhere in this hateful city on how to nail a guy in bed.
Well, he had done some investigating of good bed practice himself and had obviously proven he had learned his lessons well. She had seemed pretty happy. She seemed elated. He certainly…
His chest hurt. His head hurt. His groin ached. And not from that rotten kid’s punch to the solar plexus.
No matter how he tried, he couldn’t put the blame on her. No matter how hard he called her every name in the book and she damn well deserved half of them, the smart-assed, smart-mouthed, conniving corporate cookie. God help those poor suckers who wanted to throw money at her rotten little comic book factory.
He sighed. What could he do to get her back? What could he do to take away the ache in her heart, in her soul? She seemed so in pain. He couldn’t bring the old guy back.
She would be busy finding someone to take Nathan’s place, to keep turning out “Ahn-sels” to the greater glory of Double-A Communications, to keep climbing to the top.
He missed the waves. The implacable surf. He missed having nothing between him and the forces of nature. He had been down this female road before. He had survived.
You twerp, she’s the greatest thing that ever happened to you. Don’t demean her. Be a man.
What? Give up his manly P.I. life to come back to this God-awful town and hang around waiting for her to realize what a catch he was? Even his brother had found true romance. And Cissy and Jimmy, for God’s sake. He wouldn’t even have a drinking buddy.
His chest hurt even more.Damn, I’m getting an ulcer…
He returned from the shower with a towel wrapped around his middle and with first aid cream for Amanda to apply to the vicious roadway scrapes on his back and thigh. She pushed the towel down to attend to the scrapes at the top of his buttocks.
Cissy was spending the night at Jimmy’s. He and Amanda were alone, working out the details of how to fit the final piece of the puzzle in place: how to trap the big guy.
He had said no to her involvement. She had insisted that now it was as much her mission as his. She wanted someone to pay for Angeli’s death. Dearly.
Lord, the woman has a mouth on her when she’s riled.
Under her healing touch, he felt the knotted muscles begin to unclench. The touch of her gentle hands spreading the soothing cream sent waves of sensual arousal through him. She might not be there but her hands were.
She had pulled her dark hair back, glistening with golden highlights matching the flecks in her melting, angry, sorrow-filled eyes. She had swept it from the sides of her face and caught it with a spring clamp made of horn- like the frames of his horn rimmed glasses, his only apparel, other than the towel.
He caught the quickening pulse in her delicate neck. Glancing down, Marc saw the tented terry cloth indicating his filling manhood. He glanced back at the shadowed nape of her neck, the exquisite flow of her ear lobe into her jaw.
“Maybe I should take a shower, too.” He seemed to detect a glimmer of life in the dead sound of her voice.
She continued to firmly stroke the ache from his shoulders and in his back. Her fingers probed the dimples at the base of his spine. Her hands continued lower to smooth over the firm swell at the top of his buttocks and he knew he was lost to her touch.
“I’m pretty grubby.” Her words dropped like falling velvet.
“I’ll help.” His voice was as musky as the scent of her body. “You’ll need somebody to un-grub your back.”
The warm water poured over them. Soothing, healing rain. Obliterating the chaos and confusion of the last few days, the last horrible hours. They were alone in the world under the gentle, showering spray.
Amanda explored his wet, muscular terrain being careful to avoid the abraded territory; Marc found no imperfection on the silken surface of her perfect skin. With his fingers and tongue he followed the racing rivulets flowing down her neck to between her full, firm breasts, pausing to press his face home between the enfolding blooms. He could lose himself in her freshness, bathe in her delicious, taunting spice and tartness, immerse himself in her beauty forever.
He moved past the puddling in her navel down to the rain-forested center of her pelvis, burying his face in the dampening depths to soothe and enrage the engorged tissues with his caressing lips. She was milk and honey to him. She tasted of purity and sense, of horseplay and undying love.
Amanda threw her head back wantonly and arched her hips. The water flooded over her face and slicked her soaking dark tresses against her back. She was elemental. A force of nature. Marc’s soul ached as much as his body rejoiced.
Does she love me? There’s no way she can be this responsive. You’re kidding yourself, buddy. It’s love ‘em and leave ‘em. And you’re the one being left. You explained it to her yourself. Face it, she’s gone. Her body’s here, but her soul’s… vamoosed.
ALL AMANDA’S senses rejoiced. All doubts floated away, unresolved but out of mind. All questions drowned. Nothing mattered but the complete and total devotion with which Marc attended her.
At least for these few minutes- Shhh. Don’t think.
She felt clean and pure and totally receptive. She needed attending to. She needed caring for.
His wide shoulders dropped, the muscles rippling as he knelt on the shower floor and pressed his head through her parted legs, his mouth stroking the inside of her thighs.
Amanda groggily smiled at the slippery, muscular frame sliding under her and chuckled as he almost toppled her. He emerged behind her and rose to bury his face in the softness of her bottom. She laughed, sputtering in the falling water, in unsuppressed relishing of his infinite physical invention.
She became whole again under his touch. She felt adored, loved and wanted. Filled with bliss. He was magic.
His traveling tongue ferried up her spine sending tendrils of delight skittering throughout her being. His head wetly nestled into the grotto of her shoulder and her backward lolling head. His hands moved possessively around to take the weight of the throbbing fullness of her breasts.
She could be held like this forever, bathed in a warm spring rain, pressed safely against the strength and urgent need of the man she loved. Held. Captured. Protected. Amanda’s chest rose and fell quickly, filled with all-consuming passion.
She felt the hard presence of his raging masculine probe, sheathed and ready, forcing itself against her backside, and she wanted to possess this magnificent man, now; needed to devour him with her body and love him with her complete being.
She revolved within his watery embrace as his arms circled to contain her. Her breasts pressed against the powerful swell of his pectoral muscles. His mouth reached down to close over her upturned lips.
She loved his body. His perfect instrument, that transported her to realms she had only dreamt of.
If only that were enough…
Be still. Stay, my lady. Enjoy.
With one all-encompassing movement he drove possessively into her with such filling solidity that she sailed into the air. Like a bird. Free.
Amanda’s was thrilled to the center of her being. The first time they had made love he had lifted her with his power. She flew. Her senses raged as she circled their melded bodies, recapturing the rapture. The soothing hiss of the gushing spray, the glittering highlights off their gleaming wet bodies, the taste of their battling tongues, the freshness of the water mixed with the musk of their own enticing moistness combined to urge Amanda to strive for heights of sensual demand she had never conceived of before. Marc answered those demands.
She clasped herself to this man of men. Their writhing bodies tumbled down the rapids of overwhelming desire and then suddenly together, as one, they were swept over the falls of complete and total fulfillment.
She gasped for air. He filled her so full of caring. She couldn’t tell if it was in her head or into the fevered night that her cries mixed with the roar of the waterfall. She was bound to him as to elemental forces combining. He clutched her to him with the desperation of a drowning man, yet groaning in overwhelming joy at their joining and his rescue.
They slowly slithered down the slick tiles of the shower, clasped together in the quiet downpour, their bodies joined as one, locked together, enfolded in each other’s watery arms. For eternity. Would that it could be eternity and the ugly reality of what she must do would never have to be done.
Eternity dissolved and they slowly roused themselves to still the flowing water and towel each other dry.
In bed, they lay together quietly, neither sleeping.
He turned to her in the darkness. She felt the heat of his breath against her face, drew the scent of his maleness into her nostrils. The sadness in his voice echoed throughout her.
“You’re gone, right? And I’ll never get you back, right?”
Tears seared her cheeks.
“MARC, THIS is really sick. The Plaza? Why don’t you just kick me in the gut and get it over with?” How could he treat the memory of their wonderful stay there so badly.
She was tired of the bullshit, the being nice, the putting up with his condescending, masculine acceptance. No fight. No balls. Obviously he wanted this thing between them to be not only over with, but dead. Kicked to death. Totally destroyed.
Okay, what had to be, had to be. But, dammit, it hurt.And she was tired of being hurt, of having her insides ache day in and day out.
Get this wretched “operation” over with and get out of town.The dictum drummed in Marc’s head like a mantra. Get far away from her so she could get on with her life. So he could get on with his.
“You want to go over the plan again?” He was being overly solicitous. Kind to the poor, little wretch whose heart he had trampled, she thought…
“I think I’ve got the picture.” Her voice was brittle, a tone it had taken on ever since the sight of the professor dropping to the pavement had burned permanently into her brain.
“Hopefully, Dracula got the word to the Big Guy,” she clipped off tartly, “that Ms. Rich-European-Fake-Art-Grabber and her Money Man would only deal directly with the international fence into whose care Saber Tooth placed his best drawings.”
Marc chuckled. “The look on his face when you hit him with that entrance line was worth the price of admission to his lair.”
“Frankly, I preferred the look of what little blood he has left draining from his face as you flapped Mr. Wilde’s latest in front of him. His sharp little teeth fairly dripped with covetousness.” She nodded admiringly. “You’ve got quite a nice little Mafioso accent yourself, buddy.”
Marc repeated. “Ya see, creepazoid, we got the Michelangelo- the last Michelangelo there’s gonna be. We got no intention of going through no middle man. You tell your fence, Trask, we want in on the deal, now.”
“I loved the way you snarled out ‘Trask.’ It was like a verbal stake through the guy’s heart.”
“Thank you, thank you. I accept this supporting award only because of the extraordinary talents of my leading lady.”
She guffawed.Gee, I’m gonna miss… And felt emptier.
He leaned close. “You’ve gone through a real tough time these last few days, Ace. We never could have gotten this far without your guts.” He gave a rueful snort. “And you’ll never know how hard it was for this self-centered P.I. to say those words.” He looked tough. “Especially for an amateur and agirl.”
She punched him in the stomach listlessly.Hard as a rock; like his head.
She remembered the difficulties of the past hours with pain. She had gone to the professor’s to provide clothes for the funeral home. Angeli had lived alone. Died alone. She forced herself to believe she had provided some measure of friendship, but now realized all the artist’s hopes had resided in Nathan’s talent, and those hopes the untrustworthy young man had squandered.
In the professor’s tiny, well-kept apartment, she had found the phone log. An entry from several weeks back had caught her eye. $50,000-overwritten, then circled several times. In the professor’s precise handwriting, immediately preceding, was a London telephone number, followed by two names: Phibbs. Trask. The insurance company confirmed Phibbs was their missing investigator. Who was Trask?
A stock manipulator, Cambiare had informed them. A man named Trask had been buying large amounts of Cambiare stock over the last few years. They had feared an attempted takeover, but the man’s broker had informed them he simply believed in the firm.
Particularly if Cambiare held possible unknown Michelangelos and was waiting for a last one to appear to announce the news to the world-wide art community. Their stock would zoom.
But how had this Trask person gotten the information, unless he was somehow a member of the pipeline? The only one not accounted for-the fence! Possibly a friend of the missing insurance man.
And then she discovered the professor’s journal.
Exquisite cursive writing:
I am shattered. Nathan has sold my beautiful gifts- for those dreadful pills. Pray Mr. Wilde never discovers the loss.
A few pages later, representing a number of months:
The “drawings” have surfaced! There is talk of their being saved for Her Majesty! To imagine I might have held something she may one day own! I have received an astonishing note from a person called Trask who knows of my involvement. He suggests I hold my tongue. I am completely mystified as to his identity. And terribly unnerved.
The dreadful man has offered me an immense amount of money to “see to it, g’vn’r, that the true identity of the ‘reproducer,’ if you follow my drift, is never discovered.” I am incensed to think this wretched person assumes I myself am incapable of such work. I would, of course, never stoop to such a falsification of my talent. What does this dreadful person think I am to do to Mr. Wilde? End his life? I often wonder what the loathsome creature must look like. He sounds immense. Like Wilde. How quaintly appropriate.
Still later, the date nearer:
He has threatened Nathan’s life! My own! Why doesn’t he take care of the “problem” himself? Why does he lay it on my terrified and incapable shoulders?
Just a few days earlier:
How could I have been so deceived? Nathan and that painted woman! He squanders not only his talent but his precious self. In moments of passion I have fantasized revealing to the wretched person how heartless is that thankless child. It is Wilde’s fault! Why must he be so determined to keep producing those hideous falsities? That dreadful man is right. Wilde should be stopped.
Amanda’s heart chilled. Her dear friend had had a harder heart than she could have imagined. Now, more than ever, she wanted to get the bad guy. She and Marc came up with a plan.
Cissy had been less than enthusiastic this time in recreating Amanda’s European wealthy art buyer persona. She chose cheaper hose and an Adrienne Vittadini sheath that she had grown tired of, but kept the Garbo hat, with a mind of its own like its namesake, and the giant sunglasses.
“They can be yoursignature, honey. Did I tell you whatsweet name Jimmy called me last night?” She had chuckled to herself as she’d tied another dreaded scarf around the dreaded hat. “He is so original”
Marc had showed up in a Hugo Bass suit that took her breath away and warmed the cockles of her…pelvis.
“Gotchur gat?” She’d asked, as she yanked the slouch over her eye.
He’d patted his chest and looked her up and down with a heavy-lidded look and reaction that all but steamed his contacts.
And now her breath steamed the window of the Plaza Hotel overlooking the Park.
“Now, if we’re right in our assumptions…”
“That the big guy, Trask, for whatever reason, put the fear of death into Dracula when Mr. Wilde and I were down there,” Amanda said.
“Probably he wanted to shut off the supply, check to see if there were any more fakes in the pipeline. Who knows?”
“And if the Pink Bloodsucker wants to get Big Guy Trask off his back, then he will have alerted him about what we have, and said Trask will presently be charging through the door of one of the Plaza’s finest.
“And if we are wrong…”
“Then Dracula himself might come swirling through that door, eyes blazing- and let’s hope that’s all- wrap us in his black cape and grab the pitchur for hiz own evil purposes.”
There was a hard knock on the door.
AMANDA and Marc stared at the door.
What if Trask had seen them on TV? Surely he must have with the coverage they’d gotten on every local station. Amanda thought Marc had looked particularly fetching on the amateur video with the blurry pixels scurrying to keep his naked body acceptable for family viewing.
Christine had been smart enough to keep moving. Every shot of her was fuzzy or her face obscured by her swinging arms trying to punch the cameraman.
Amanda looked incredibly shrewish. Cissy had put the picture from the front page ofThe News on the fridge. If the sight of her fury could displace a shot of a handsome, well-built, naked man in full attack mode, she knew she didn’t look like herself. And that was what she and Marc had counted on: that when he arrived at the hotel room, Trask wouldn’t instantly recognize her.
“Antonio” had been unceremoniously un-wigged in the middle of 72nd Street, though today he hardly resembled the blue-eyed, horn-rimmed private investigator. However, Trask might have made the connection.
Hopefully, the stock manipulator had continued to think Amanda and the European art buyer were two separate people. The television coverage of the shootings had been totally confusing and the New York papers’ account of the incident just as obscure, even forThe Times. If Trask had believed the proprietor of Pinks that the European Art-Buyer and her male accomplice had somehow obtained the final Michelangelo drawing, he might come to the Plaza hoping to make a buy or a deal.
If he believed the couple were Marc and Amanda he might come in with a much deadlier purpose.
It had only made sense to Amanda that she be the one to serve as the bait.
Marc had raged and refused, but she had calmly convinced him that nothing so far had indicated the big bruiser was a killer. He had roughed up Marc but had left him more or less in one piece when he had gotten what information he could. He had not pulled the trigger himself that downed Nathan and had probably “only” spewed terrifying threats into Professor Angeli’s ear that had shoved the unhinged artist over the edge and prompted his self-destruction.
Amanda swallowed and took a breath to calm her thundering heart. There was another, more urgent knock on the door. She assumed her pose and glanced over at Marc who, looking grim and determined, nodded he was ready.
If anything happens to this woman…How could I have let her convince me to allow her to be in this position? We only have a moment to react. What if we’ve miscalculated? Who knows for sure what’s coming through that door?
She’s smart. She’s clever. Cracker-jack mind. Whip sharp reactions. She’d make a terrific addition to the team. This time, she’s right and she knows it. And she wouldn’t let me screw it up by acting like a macho, ego-pumping male. If anything happens to her…
Amanda tossed her head- the damn slouch hat shifted and she grabbed it and resettled it- and assumed her accent. “Come in.”
Trask cautiously opened the door. Across the room he saw an attractive woman in a very short skirt and a slouch hat lounging seductively by a large window overlooking the early evening spring haze of Central Park.
Amanda spread her hands effusively. “Ah. It is he. Welcome, Mr… Trask.” She pronounced the name with loving viciousness as the large man stepped inside.
Marc released the heavy metal weight he had borrowed from the gym and had rigged above the door. It hit Trask squarely on the head. The large man dropped satisfyingly, like a stone.
As the professor had done.
WHEN THEY left the police station, Marc reminded Amanda the room at the Plaza was still theirs for another twelve hours.
“You really are loathsome.” Amanda was in no mood to play footsie.
I’ve had all the realizing that he’s going to be gone within days, if not hours, I can take. It just hurts too much to be reminded how much I’m going to miss him.- Yeah, well look in those eyes; nothing wrong with a little farewell loving.- My God, my own mind is as loathsome as his!
“Okay, no problem about the room. What about a carriage ride?”
“Now that’s just perfect. Why not wreck that memory, too? You betcha, big buddy, let’s go. And you can regale me with tales of how great it is being a hot-shot private eye in Raymond Chandler territory and I’ll do my Ayn Rand impersonation about how effectively I’m clawing my way to the top.”
God, she’s gorgeous when she’s angry. Feisty. Stubborn. Her eyes like erupting volcanoes. Man, they’re sure melting me.
“The white one wasn’t even available,” Amanda grumbled, snuggling under his arm and pulling the blanket tight under her chin.
“Yeah, I hope the horse knows what the hell he’s doing, because I think the old guy holding the reins is already asleep.”
“He’s probably just resting his eyes. You always think the worst.”
“And you always think the best. You’re gonna make some kid…”
“Marc.” She stopped him and became all business. “There’s a lot going to be going on in the next few days with the arraignment, the funeral and…” She took a very deep breath and pressed herself even closer to him. Maybe she could melt into him. Become one. He would have to take her with him. Career be damned.
“And I’d like to say…” She paused, unable to go on for a moment. “Knowing you has been…”
A moment of ineffable loss flickered in his eyes, before it was quickly replaced with, “Yeah? Yeah? Wait, wait! Could you speak into the microphone?”
She sat up and punched him in his rock-of-Gibraltar chest. “You are such a clod. I’m not about to say all the nice things I had planned to say. You’ll just have to come back someday and beg me. And by then I probably will have forgotten all about you.”
She turned away haughtily, arms crossed, and leaned back against him contemplating the passing trees lit by the street lights, even more lush with fresh new leaves.
A rain would have been nice.
“Amanda, will you marry me?”
Uh, oh. She had flipped out.
“I know it’s asking a lot. I mean, I’ll really miss the coast but there’s got to be surf off the Jersey shore, right? And I’ll probably gripe about it a lot, how great LA is and how unlivable Manhattan is. Maybe we could get a little place upstate in the country or something, whatd’ya think, for the kid’s sake, except I’m not sure how having a private eye for a dad is going to set with the P.T.A. Do they still have P.T.A.s?
“And with you climbing the corporate ladder we’ll probably have to have a couple of kids so they can look after each other, right? Like you and your brothers and me and my brother. I mean, all in all we didn’t turn out too bad, all things considered. Our kids will have a mom and dad who’ll love ‘em like crazy, even if she’s Ms. CEO and he’s Mr. Head-of-his-own-Outstanding-Investigation-Firm who is willing to go all the way for his clients.”
He wiped her tears and they kept flowing, happily, joyously, unbelievingly. It probably would never work, they were so different.
I mean, he loves that God-awful herb tea stuff and I can’t start the day without…
Her mouth hit his like a freight train. To drink him deep. To pour herself into him. Forever.
He pried his grinning, self-satisfied, handsome, magical mug away. “Does this mean you’ll think about it?”
She jumped on him.
The driver of the hansom cab woke with a start. “Hey, what are you two doing down there? You’re gonna scare the horse!”
He chuckled and drove the bouncing carriage on into the sparkling night.
Elizabeth Maynor has been writing professionally since 1993, with numerous short stories published in national magazines and several anthologies. “The Farm Hand and the Widow Lady” appears in Northern Hearts – New England Love Stories, edited by Lori A. Paige. A member of the national Romance Writers of America and the New York City and Los Angeles chapters,Never Love A Naked P.I. is Elizabeth's first epublished romance novel.