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It was not a mirror image.
The face in the painting was that of a much younger woman ... a woman half her age ... a girl, really, except that in those days girls married at thirteen and were mothers soon after.
Those are my eyes.
Lauren Ryder's steps slowed until she came to a complete stop directly in front of the portrait.
The familiar eyes stared blankly back at her--large, not as widely spaced as she'd have liked, and in hue the exact color of the first forget-me-nots of spring. The other painted features, too, were her own. Lauren thought that she might have found the same likeness in an old family photo album, if such a thing had existed, but as far as she knew there was no pictorial chronicle of her early years. Her parents had not cared enough to keep one.
Fascinated by the uncannily accurate representation, Lauren stepped closer to the velvet cord that separated the paintings in the exhibit from the people who had paid an exorbitant fee to view them. Her outward appearance had given no hint of it when her hands suddenly went clammy. No one had seen the shudder that swept through, deep inside her, like a ghost stirring restlessly in her soul.
A security guard glanced her way, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. A brunette in her mid-thirties, short in stature and as compactly built as a gymnast, Lauren Ryder wore a simple, short-sleeved dress and low heels. She did not stand out in a mixture that included upscale tourists and families on a weekend outing. Neither did she fit the profile the guard had been trained to recognize. There was little likelihood she'd try to vandalize the artwork.
Oblivious to all else, Lauren absorbedthe impact of the vividly detailed oil painting before her. In her rented headset a disembodied voice soldiered on in a clipped British accent: "Number Twenty-nine, oil on panel, is titled The Court of Henry VIII at Nonsuch and was painted in the manner of Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1545. Note that the figures on either side are the images of royal servants, a groom of the stable on the right-hand side near a door that is open to reveal the gardens beyond and, in the lower left corner, a maid. It was rare to include such subjects in early sixteenth-century art and the like is found in only one other group portrait of the early Tudor period."
It was an enormous piece depicting more than a dozen people and was in such good condition that Lauren surmised it had recently been restored. She'd expected to view yet another example of the art of the German-born Holbein, or one of his English imitators, make a close inspection of any fabrics therein, especially tapestries, then pass quickly on to the next painting. Instead she'd been brought up short by the shock of recognition. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the figure of the maidservant, this unknown girl who had been dead for well over four hundred years but who possessed not only Lauren's face, but her sturdily built body as well.
Coincidence, Lauren told herself firmly, rubbing her hands over her bare upper arms as if to dispel a chill. With a quick jab at the pause button, she stopped the recorded commentary, which had moved on to Number Thirty, a painting of King Edward VI attributed to William Scrots. Absentmindedly fingering the edge of the tape player, which was clipped to the strap of her shoulder bag, Lauren studied the likeness before her.
The girl seemed richly dressed, in spite of her station in life. Lauren had never seen a costume quite like the one she wore, but she supposed royal servants must have been put into some sort of livery, in this case an orange gown, heavily appliqued in forest green. It was lined with an ivory-colored fabric, visible because the skirt was tied back. A pleated, orange kirtle showed through the inverted V-shaped opening. Black shoes peeped out from beneath the skirts. Unlike the square, low-cut bodies usually shown in portraits of noblewomen of the period, the maid's outfit concealed all hint of a bosom with a black inset topped with a small standing collar. An unflattering cap, two-toned in orange and ivory, covered any hint of hair and completed the ensemble. She had been painted in a watchful pose, regarding the antics of her betters with an expression that might have been disdain.
Several people, impatient to get a better look at King Edward's portrait, pushed past Lauren, breaking her concentration and abruptly reminding her that she was not alone. In an effort to orient herself, she inhaled deeply, taking in the myriad aromas of the crowded room, mingled essences of sweat and Old Spice, Chanel and hair spray.
Footfalls thudded against polished hardwood floors. A door closed with a quiet whoosh on the line of patiently waiting spectators snaking down the corridor outside. They were being allowed inside in groups of twenty, but enough lingered each time, savoring this intimate glimpse of the distant past, that the rooms were always filled to capacity.
Remembering why she'd come--to study the needlework of the period with an eye to duplicating some of the designs in her own creations--Lauren tried to concentrate on the ornate hangings and brightly garbed courtiers in the painting in front of her, but her gaze kept returning to the girl in the corner. Unable to stop herself, Lauren bent forward, one hand snaking out toward the surface of the panel.
An order delivered in an authoritative baritone arrested her thoughtless movement. "Ma'am. Don't do that."
Lauren hastily withdrew her fingers and folded them into a fist. Guilt-ridden, she dropped her gaze, dismayed by her own behavior. She knew better. These paintings, most of them on loan and all of them invaluable, were as vulnerable to damage by overeager connoisseurs as they were to theft or vandalism. Resigned to a lecture, she turned slowly and met the disapproving glare of a green-uniformed museum guard. He didn't say another word, just indicated, with a jerk of his head, one of several prominent signs in heavy black calligraphy warning patrons not to touch any of the works on display.
"Sorry." Embarrassed, Lauren fled toward the sanctuary of a group of upholstered benches at the center of the room and sat down gratefully on the only empty one.
From that safe haven she risked another look at the troubling portrait. Again, her own eyes stared back at her. But before she could ponder this oddity any further she heard a familiar voice and turned to find her sister-in-law bearing down on her.
"What on earth did you do to earn such a dirty look from the rent-a-cop?" Sandra Ryder demanded.
She landed on the bench at Lauren's side with a distinct plop. She was not a heavy woman. On the contrary, she was taller than Lauren and inclined to gauntness, but she blew into any room like a breath of fresh air--distracting, refreshing, and impossible to ignore. She never walked when she could stride, never sat when she could fling herself into a chair. Now she was exhibiting every bit of patience she possessed, for her lack of interest in this exhibit of paintings from sixteenth-century England had been evident from the moment they had arrived at the museum.
"Don't worry," Lauren assured her. "I'm not about to get arrested."
"Better not!" Sandra's eyes sparkled with amusement. "Oh, Lord! I can just see the headlines now. "Law Enforcement Expert Called Away From International Crime Conference to Bail Wife out of Jail." Wouldn't that be a kicker?"
Lauren tried to return Sandra's smile but her heart wasn't in it. She was still too bewildered by her own uncharacteristic behavior, and by her peculiar reaction to Number Twenty-nine. Sandra was right to imply one thing, though. There was probably no one more law-abiding in all of New York City than Adam Ryder, Lauren's husband.
Lauren's smile no longer had to be forced. She and Adam had one of the most blissful marriages of anyone she knew. From the moment they'd met, she'd known he was the one man for her, and Adam, too, claimed to have fallen in love at first sight. Their wedding took place before that same month was out, and neither of them had ever regretted their hasty decision to marry.
"So, how much longer do you think you'll be?" Sandra looked hopeful. "I've been all the way to the end already. Ninety paintings. I'd have gone on out but I didn't think I'd ever find you again in this maze, and they won't let anyone back inside the exhibit once they've left."
This wasn't the first time Sandra had complained long and loud about wasting the second of three days in New York at a museum. She wanted to visit Saks Fifth Avenue and F.A.O. Schwarz and the stores in the Trump Tower. She'd been somewhat appeased by the purchase of a few souvenirs in the museum gift shop, but then she was told she'd have to check her shopping bag before she could enter the exhibit. In line, where they'd stood for a good hour, she'd groused about that and the long wait and the fact that her shoes were too tight.
"Beats me why you want to spend a perfectly beautiful afternoon in here," Sandra complained as she kicked off the offending footwear and began to rub her toes.
"Business," Lauren reminded her. Personally, she couldn't understand the appeal of using a lovely autumn day for shopping.
"I'd think you'd be disappointed in these pictures," Sandra remarked. "They don't look anything like the covers on those historical novels you're always reading. And as for your craft business, you've already designed more needlework patterns than you know what to do with."
"I'm always on the lookout for inspiration." Lauren hesitated, reluctant to risk making herself feel more foolish than she already did, but in the end she yielded to her need to know. "Do me a favor, Sandra? Go look at that painting, the one that fat woman in the purple jumpsuit is staring at, and tell me if you can spot anyone in it who looks, well, sort of familiar."
"If you've seen one picture of Henry VIII, you've seen them all," Sandra grumbled, fishing under the bench for her discarded shoes.
Wincing in an exaggerated bid for sympathy, Sandra forced her feet back into her shoes, stood with a grimace, and then, as if resigned to her fate, strode purposefully toward Number Twenty-nine. After a moment, Lauren got up and followed.
"So, anyone look familiar."
Lauren slanted a nervous glance in her sister-in-law's direction, enough to tell her that Sandra was amused again but also perfectly serious. "Who?"
"Not what. Who."
"Sandra, you aren't making any sense."
"I'd be making perfect sense if you were into cult classics. See that guy, second from the right, sour expression, the one with the staff and the fancy gold necklace?"
Lauren nodded, more confused than ever.
Sandra's grin widened. "He's the image of Patrick Troughton. You know. The actor. He played the second Doctor Who."
As a muffled snort of laughter sounded directly behind them, Lauren belatedly caught on. Her sister-in-law was addicted to the old, British-made television series, shown in endless reruns on their local PBS station.
"You're quite right, you know."
Lauren glanced over her shoulder to discover a small, elderly man who was still chuckling at Sandra's remark.
"Looks just like him, doesn't it?" Sandra asked.
"Indeed. There's a reason, too. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Professor Steven Markham. Before my retirement, I specialized in Tudor history. You may recall that a number of years ago there were two television series, one on Henry VIII and his wives and one on Elizabeth I. The casting people deliberately sought out actors who physically resembled the characters they were to play, and based costumes and makeup on extant portraits of those historical figures. You see before you Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk. Patrick Troughton was hired for that role because of his uncanny duplication of the duke's features."
"Told you," Sandra said, nudging Lauren in the ribs with her elbow.
Lauren didn't answer. She was staring at the painted maidservant again.
Was that all it was? A chance resemblance?
Well, of course that was the answer.
A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth as she looked one last time at her own likeness and then turned away. If the BBC's casting department had been able to find modern day look-alikes for kings and queens and noblemen, then obviously doubles existed for the common folk as well. While Sandra continued to chat amiably with their new acquaintance, Lauren gave a soft sigh of relief and moved on to the next portrait.
Two pin-on name badges were removed in unison and stuffed in jacket pockets as the wearers claimed a table in the hotel's lobby bar. One bore the name Daniel Ryder, chief of police, Lumberton Maine. The other identified its wearer as Adam Ryder, consultant, and a blue dot denoted his status as a speaker at the conference.
"What's your pleasure, gentlemen?"
The young woman who had come to take their drink orders habitually smiled at everyone she served, but in this case it was no hardship. Both men had the sort of rugged good looks that appealed to her.
"What have you got on tap?" Dan asked, returning her approving look.
She ran down the list of domestic and imported beers from memory, which gave her the chance to make a closer inspection of the two men. She didn't need nametags to tell what conference they belonged to.
"Coors Light," Dan said with a rueful gesture. She tracked the movement and saw that a hand wearing a wedding ring hovered over the beginnings of a decided paunch. Without missing a beat, she shifted her attention to the second man.
Adam Ryder was six years younger and weighed twenty-five pounds less than his brother. Just sitting there he was an imposing presence. He gave her his drink order in a voice that could melt a woman's bones. It was deep, dark, and nearly as sexy as the locks of dark blond hair, highlighted by random streaks of silver, that fell rakishly over his forehead. Tilted up at her was a face dominated by a strong, square jaw and a thick mustache which, like his hair, had the beginnings of a dashing salt-and-pepper look.
"My wife and sister-in-law will be joining us soon," Adam Ryder said. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep an eye out for them. When they arrive, I'd like you to bring us a bottle of champagne." His smile was slow, sensual, and so full of private pleasure that the waitress felt a sharp stab of envy.
"That's one lucky wife," she managed to say.
"It's our wedding anniversary."
"Lauren deserves champagne for putting up with you for five long years," Dan joked when the waitress left them.
"She's the best thing that ever happened to me."
Dan grinned. "Could be. Could be. Of course, if you hadn't been filling in for one of my sick officers, you'd never have gone out on that call in the first place."
Adam knew his brother well. He said nothing, just waited.
"So, I was thinking, how about you splurge on an extra bottle of the bubbly for Sandra and me?"
"Why not? But, then, by rights, I should have champagne sent to Thomaston, too, as a thank-you gift for Greg Wilks, the man who really brought us together."
Dan chuckled. "Wouldn't go over too well with the warden."
A scowl darkened Adam's features as he remembered that Wilks would be out in another year. Six years in Thomaston, the state's maximum security prison, and six years on probation wasn't nearly long enough for the scum who'd broken into Lauren's house and assaulted her. "He's lucky I didn't shoot him," Adam muttered.
"I've always wondered just how close you came that night."
"Too close. I was burned out. Badly." He shook his head. "It still amazes me that I let you talk me into being sworn in again to help you out. It hadn't been a month since?"
He fell abruptly silent as the waitress returned with their drinks. Dan took a long swallow of the beer, but Adam, instead of drinking, ran one blunt fingertip around the rim of his glass. That incident was better forgotten. He'd rather think about the life he'd built since, with Lauren at his side.
He glanced at his watch, suddenly anxious. "What's keeping them? I expected they'd be back by now."
"Need you ask? Sandra can't pass a store without going in."
From what he'd heard, dangers lurked in the streets of New York even in broad daylight. Adam couldn't help but worry about Lauren, on her own in that jungle. She was a unique combination, intelligent and self-sufficient, but at the same time sweetly old-fashioned in her outlook. She could hold her own marketing the line of textiles she'd developed, but she had a deplorable tendency to take what people told her too literally, missing the nuances, oblivious to the possibility of other interpretations. At times this produced amusing results, and then she was the first to laugh at herself, but once in a while there were more serious consequences. Adam didn't like to contemplate Lauren interacting with the street hustlers of Manhattan.
"They'll turn up soon," Dan said with a confidence his brother envied, and only moments later, they did.
"Sorry we're late,"Sandra called out from the far side of the lounge. She kept talking as she and Lauren crossed to their husbands. "I've never seen so many toys in one place in my entire life. The kids would have loved it."
Apparently Sandra had loved it, too, for she was loaded down with shopping bags and carrying a large, brightly-wrapped box under one arm.
Adam's gaze shifted to Lauren. He was on his feet an instant later. "Are you all right."
"Fine. Just a little worn out from trying to keep up with Sandra."
He pulled out a chair for her, more concerned than he let on at the sight of her pallor. She seemed nervous and distracted, too. They'd agreed the previous night, after their first day in New York, that the hectic pace of the city was not for them, that they much preferred the quiet life they led at home. Even so, Lauren's apparent exhaustion worried Adam. She was usually full of energy. He'd never considered that she might come back from this afternoon's excursion too tired to enjoy the romantic evening he had planned for them.
Dan winced as most of Sandra's parcels landed in his lap. "Did you leave anything in the store?"
She dropped the remaining bags on the floor between his chair and the empty one she now claimed for herself. "Be nice," she admonished him "or I won't give you your present."
"Why can't you be more like Lauren," Dan grumbled, indicating the one small parcel Adam's wife carried. "She doesn't spend all her husband's hard-earned cash."
Adam barely listened to the good-natured bantering. All his attention was focused on Lauren. Was it just that she'd spent an entire day with Sandra? Adam liked his brother's wife, but a little went a long way.
At that moment the waitress arrived with the champagne, and Lauren brightened visibly. A smile of pure pleasure transformed her. "What a lovely way to begin the evening!"