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Monday afternoon, Philadelphia
The sharp click of high heels on Champion and Stone’s plank flooring was his first warning that she’d arrived, but Vincent DeLuca knew it was her before he turned to look, before she spoke, before her heavy floral perfume invaded every pore of his skin. He knew because a rush of hot lust swept over him at the exact same moment hairs prickled along his arms and the flesh between his shoulder blades crawled.
Only one woman had ever had such an effect on him.
Vincent stepped back into the main room to face her, since ignoring Claudia Cruz wasn’t an option. Everything about her dominated and demanded, and her sinuous strut kicked him into a sensory overload of breasts and hips straining the seams of a red suit, brassy curls, cinnamon-red lipstick so glossy it looked as if she’d just licked her lips, and cold black eyes that met his almost on the level.
“Special Agent DeLuca.” Even her voice, low and a little raspy, sent mixed signals of sweet and rough. “I knew I’d find you here.”
Here being the wrap-up of his investigation at an art gallery in Philadelphia’s tourist-heavy Old City. He’d unlocked the door a few moments ago to admit a FedEx driver, and she must’ve been outside, watching and waiting for an opportunity to slither inside.
At this point, however, she couldn’t cause any trouble. Or at least no more than usual.
“Not surprising, Ms. Cruz,” Vincent said. “I’m usually at work when I’m working.”
“And hard at work, I’m sure,” she murmured, smiling, then trailed a manicured red fingernail down his tie.
The unexpected touch startled him so much that he didn’t even think to push her hand away. The rest of him responded quickly, though; his belly tensed before her finger had reached halfway to his belt buckle.
Just as he narrowed his eyes, she stepped out of reach, a humorless smile still curving her lips. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a walking, talking clichÉ, Mr. FBI Man? Tall, dark, and ever so grim; the black suit and tie; that steely-jawed look, and the stick-up-the-ass posture—it’s all—”
“What are you doing here?” His sharp tone made the detective filling out forms by the cash register glance up.
“As if you have to ask.” Her gaze moved past Vincent’s shoulder to the nearest gallery annex, and she frowned slightly. “Hmmm, is that the manager? It looks like she’s been crying. I hope she’s not having hysterics, because I’m not too handy with hysterical women.”
“That would require compassion, and compassion isn’t high on your boss’s list of job skills when he hires people like you.”
Claudia sent him another slow, maddening smile. “Oh, now, Vincent. You make it sound so . . . ugly.”
Her hair was longer than when he’d first met her four months ago, with the loose corkscrew curls styled in an artful disarray, as if she’d just been fucked on an office conference table.
Vincent squelched that thought—and its accompanying visuals—and moved between Claudia and the others, blocking both the curious detective and the gallery manager. Lowering his voice, he said, “Ugly about covers it. And every time you shove your way in where you don’t belong, I get more determined to take you down.”
“Take me down where?” She feigned innocence. “I’m not that kind of girl, you know.”
“Yank my chain one time too many, Ms. Cruz, and you’ll find out. This is the third time I’ve warned you and your kind to keep clear of my investigations, and it’s the last.”
Something sparked in those dark, assessing eyes, and it wasn’t fear or shame or anything remotely remorseful. “Big talk, no action. Ain’t that just like a Fed?”
For a moment longer, she held his gaze. When he raised a brow and shrugged, she turned her back and headed toward the manager. The detective—a competent, fiftyish man named Matherson who had pale eyes and thinning brown hair—followed the swing of hips in that tight skirt. Vincent couldn’t blame the guy; he’d never managed to look away, either.
After joining Vincent, Matherson leaned over and whispered, “Who the hell is that?”
Vincent didn’t reply, since any answer would require a long explanation. The investigation was over for now, and as fun as it would be to sic Matherson on Claudia Cruz and watch the fur fly, it still wouldn’t be half as entertaining as watching the woman in action.
“Did you hear what I—Vince? You feeling all right?”
Vincent took a deep breath, then ran a hand through his hair, wiping away the perspiration along his upper lip with his sleeve as he did so. “Yeah, I’m good. Just a fever I can’t shake.”
“Maybe you should see a doctor about it,” Matherson said in all seriousness.
“Maybe,” Vincent agreed, holding back a smile.
Against a backdrop of expensive paintings, Arnetta Gallagher stood beside an empty display case off the main entryway, only a fraction calmer than when Vincent had arrived. As Claudia touched her arm Arnetta visibly relaxed, assuming she was in the presence of a sympathetic female, an ally.
People were so gullible.
“I had this cousin once who couldn’t get rid of a cold.” Matherson’s voice broke across Vincent’s thoughts. “And then one day he dropped dead.”
Vincent finally looked away from Claudia. “Thanks for the advice, but this isn’t the kind of fever that’ll kill me.”
Unless a bad case of blue balls suddenly turned fatal. But after four months of dealing with this woman shadowing his thoughts and prowling through his dreams, he doubted the problem could get much worse.
“I hear your day got off to a bad start.” Claudia’s voice was warm with false concern, and Vincent, brows arched, slipped his hands in his pockets and settled back to watch the show.
Arnetta let out a shaky sigh, then dabbed her mascara-smudged eyes. She was a stately, gray-haired woman who’d worked for Champion and Stone for twenty years, and, as she’d repeatedly told Vincent, nothing like this had ever, ever happened to her before.
“I can’t believe this,” Arnetta said. “Nothing like this has ever, ever happened before. It was there last night, and this morning it was gone and that toy left in its place. No alarms, nothing on the cameras—it’s as if they slipped in like ghosts!”
Claudia gave Arnetta another comforting pat on the shoulder of her impeccably tailored tan suit. “I hope it’s not too fragile.”
“Oh, God, the bronze is so very delicate. . . . You can’t cart around something that’s twenty-five hundred years old like it’s part of some Halloween costume. And to make matters worse, it’s the only Corinthian helmet we’ve had in stock for over four years. Ms. Stone is going to be simply furious!”
“It’s hardly your fault,” Claudia said, soothingly. “I’m sure you’ve done nothing wrong.”
She was fishing for information, but carefully enough that Arnetta would never realize it. Claudia had gambled that talking with Vincent first—even playing up their hostile familiarity—would validate her presence.
The gamble paid off: anger, bewilderment, then worry crossed Arnetta’s face before she said, a shade defensively, “I checked over the inventory before I left last night, activated the alarms, and locked up like I always do. I have absolutely no idea how they got inside!”
Claudia’s gaze darted toward Vincent, then away again when she verified he wasn’t making any move to stop her. He had no intention of doing so; he’d had enough experience with this woman, and others like her, to know that he had to pick his battles.
She danced at the very edge of his last nerve, and as much as he wanted to believe he tolerated her intrusions because he was biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike, it wasn’t his only reason.
“Maybe Mr. DeLuca will find something useful on the security data.” Claudia paused. “Providing he remembered to take the recordings into evidence.”
“Oh, he did. He’s a very thorough young man.”
“I never doubted it,” Claudia said mildly, glancing back at Vincent again and giving a little shrug, as if to say, “Oh, well, I had to ask.”
As if he’d let her walk out the door with evidence. Still, her response—and the faint irritation underlying it—almost made him laugh.
Another fifteen minutes passed as Claudia produced more supportive comments designed to prompt Arnetta to spill her guts. Once Claudia had determined that she’d milked the situation for all it was worth—and that Arnetta would be of no real help—she smoothly disengaged and headed back his way, hips swinging, a small smile curving her mouth again.
At her approach, Vincent asked, “Did you get what you wanted, Ms. Cruz?”
“For the most part, Special Agent DeLuca,” she answered, matching his mocking, exaggerated politeness. “If I need a little something more, though, I’ll be sure to come find you.”
As she headed toward the door, Claudia gave Matherson a polite nod, and the detective frowned. Good instincts: the man knew a carnivorous interloper when he saw one, despite a breathtaking distraction of breasts and hips.
Vincent should’ve just let her walk out the door, but allowing her the last word galled him too much.
“Nice suit there, Ms. Cruz, and I noticed the classy makeup. I thought you people were supposed to downplay your presence.”
Matherson opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut at Vincent’s warning glance.
Claudia turned, and if the dig had offended her, it didn’t show. “We people are given a broad range to work with, but the sensitive jobs usually go to the sensible, boring guys like Tiernay.”
Vince rubbed the stubble along his jaw. “That would be the sensible, boring guy who blew up a factory and a couple people outside Boston a few months ago, right?”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Claudia said demurely.
“Of course not.” She’d been there, though. Vincent had checked into the situation—as best he could with the Boston cop who’d dodged his more pointed questions.
“It’s been great talking with you, Mr. FBI Man, but I gotta go. You have a lot of paperwork to do now, right? Me, I’m off to catch a thief, seeing as how I don’t got to deal with all that bureaucratic stuff.”
He’d noticed that whenever she was feeling cocky, the barrio came out more clearly in her voice—and her comeback jab put them at a stalemate. Again.
“Give it your best shot,” Vincent said. “I’ll be watching to see if you can deliver, or if you’re all flash and no substance.”
Suspicion flared, then narrow-eyed annoyance. Then she blew him a kiss and walked out, heels clicking and a little extra swish in those hips.
Heat rolled over him, and he let out his breath, hoping no one noticed he’d been holding it in the first place.
“Who’s that young woman?” Arnetta demanded. “Isn’t she one of your people?”
Vincent imagined her reaction if he told her the truth: “That young woman is the human equivalent of a shark. She works for a soulless sonofabitch who thinks he’s above the law because he’s stinking rich and has powerful friends all around the world. He owns a travel agency that’s just a cover for a bunch of mercenaries who also think they can run roughshod over every law in every country. Only these days they call themselves private contractors, not mercenaries.”
Instead, he said, “Nope.”
“Oh.” She blinked. “Somebody about the insurance, then?”
The woman’s distress and confusion radiated off her in waves, pricking his conscience. His day had been lousy, but hers had been much worse, so why was he being such an ass?
“No. She’s what you might call a freelancer in art theft recovery.”
Arnetta Gallagher wasn’t stupid, and every line of her body stiffened with anger. “Then she shouldn’t have been here. Why did—You should’ve stopped her!”
“From doing what, Ms. Gallagher? Listening to you talk? She never once asked you a question. Technically, she’s not interfering.”
Not enough for him to waste valuable time by causing a situation that would end in another reprimand. He’d discovered the hard way that Cruz might be a handful, but her boss’s lawyers posed far more trouble.
“I’m already going to have to explain to Mr. Champion and Ms. Stone that their prized Greek Corinthian helmet has been stolen from under the noses of a senior employee and one of the best security companies in Philadelphia.” Anger sharpened Arnetta’s soft, refined voice. “I hope you had a very good reason for your actions, and that this woman’s presence won’t cause me any further trouble.”
“It won’t.” Not for Arnetta; for himself, he couldn’t be so sure.
“So why didn’t you stop her at the door?” the gallery manager demanded. “You’re a federal law enforcement agent. You have the authority.”
Matherson’s frown deepened, but he kept his mouth shut.
“It’s nothing you need to worry about. She’s on your side. Solving specialized crimes like this often takes a cooperative effort from many investigators, including those in the private sector.”
It sounded good, big words and all, and more dignified than explaining the FBI sometimes had to deal with the devil it knew in order to catch the devil it didn’t.
Guilt pricked again, and he added gently, “Look, it’s been a rough day for you and we’re done here. You should have a cup of tea or something before locking up. Try to relax. We’ll be in touch if we have any more questions, and we’ll keep you posted if anything turns up. That’s about all we can do right now.”
Arnetta nodded, then reluctantly moved away, still looking a bit lost and frantic. Vincent supposed that if he’d had a chunk of bronze worth nearly two hundred grand disappear on his watch, he’d be a little green around the edges, too.
Once Arnetta was out of earshot, Matherson cleared his throat. “Okay, I’m not sure what just happened here, but that hot little number in red wasn’t someone you know?”
“I know her.”
The detective shot him a look of exasperation. “But she wasn’t authorized personnel.”
Matherson had no reason to know about Avalon, Claudia’s employer, and he was better off remaining ignorant. People who knew too much occasionally ended up dead. Or simply disappeared. “Somebody’s contracted her services. That’s all the authorization she needs.”
“So she’s like a private investigator?”
“You could call it that.”
Annoyance flaring, Matherson asked, “So why did you really let her walk in here and do whatever the fuck she wanted?”
Vincent shrugged. “Because I’ve got nothing to work with. She’s not one of us, so she doesn’t have to operate like us. Maybe she’ll get lucky—and when she does, I will.”
“Ah-hah.” Matherson drew out the word, nodding in understanding. “You’re tailing her.”
“There’s no place her sweet ass goes that I don’t hear about it. So that’s the plan.”
Or half of it; the other half was that he wanted to catch this woman in an illegal act—anything would do, no matter how petty—so he could make an example out of her. That high-handed bastard in Seattle needed to learn an important lesson: no one was above the law, not even the obscenely rich and powerful.
Next to catching this annoying little shit of a thief he’d been chasing up and down the East Coast for months, there was nothing Vincent wanted more than a chance—just one chance—to show Avalon they could no longer ignore the FBI.
Her floral scent still lingered, bringing to mind warm skin and lush female curves, a mouth in wet red lipstick and hair he could grab in both fists.
He blocked the image. Nope, there was nothing more that he wanted. And if he repeated it often enough, he might even start believing it.
© 2010 MICHELE ALBERT