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"IT IS NEVER wise to become emotionally involved with a client," Vesta Briggs said.
"I'm not involved with Mack Easton." Cady cradled the phone against her shoulder and tugged off first one high heel and then the other. "Not in the way you mean. I'm just consulting for him. I thought I made that clear."
There was a short, terse silence on the other end of the line. Cady sighed silently and sank down onto the sofa. The phone had been ringing a moment ago when she had come through the door. She had lunged for it on the off chance that it was Fantasy Man.
It had not been Mack Easton. It had been her great-aunt.
"There's something in your voice when you talk about him," Vesta said. Icicles of disapproval hung on each word. "I get the impression that you are interested in him in a personal way."
"He's just a voice on the phone."
But what a voice. Every time she heard it, a thrill of awareness zinged through each nerve ending. Her vivid imagination did the rest, conjuring blatantly erotic fantasies out of thin air.
It was a voice that had begun to whisper in her dreams but she saw no reason to mention that to her rigid great-aunt. Vesta Briggs was not a romantic.
Cady slipped off one silver earring and set it down on the glass-topped coffee table. Probably not a good idea to tell Vesta that in addition to being a voice on the phone, Easton had also become a frequent e-mail correspondent, she thought. He seemed to enjoy locating arcane bits and piecesof information relating to the art world on-line and forwarding them on to her. Lately, she could have sworn that he had begun to flirt with her via computer.
She saved all of his on-line correspondence in a special folder labeled "Fantasy Man." She had gotten into the habit of checking her computer first thing each morning to see if he had paid her an on-line visit during the night. She didn't want to use the word "obsessive" to describe her new routine, but she was aware that some people might view it as a tad compulsive.
Of course, if there was anyone who would understand obsession, it was Vesta, she thought. She glanced at the row of family photographs arranged on one wall. Her gaze fell on the woman with dark hair and enigmatic eyes. It had been taken some fifty years ago when her great-aunt was in her thirties, shortly after she had founded Gallery Chatelaine. There was a withdrawn, remote quality about the image. Vesta looked as if she was listening to a conversation that only she could hear, one that had taken place in the distant past.
As far as anyone knew, the only thing Vesta had ever cared about was Chatelaine's. There had been no room in her life for love or marriage or children. For five decades she had single-handedly controlled the fate of the business she had created. With unflinching determination, skill and vision she had brought her gallery to its current respected position in the art world. But her lifelong preference for privacy could no longer conceal her growing eccentricities.
A lot of people were convinced that Cady took after Vesta. Lately Cady had begun to worry about that possibility herself.
It was true that, in spite of Vesta's austere personality, she had always felt a deep attachment to her. It wasn't just because her great-aunt had taught her everything she knew about the art and antiques business. The feeling of unspoken understanding between the two women went deeper. Even as a child Cady had sensed some deep, long-buried pain beneath the layers of protective frost that Vesta wore like an invisible shroud.
"Easton is a good client," Cady said, trying hard to inject reassurance into her words. "What's more, I'm really enjoying this end of the business."
"Tracing lost and stolen art and antiques?" Vesta paused. "I can see why that might appeal to you. You always were more adventurous than Sylvia."
"Which is why Sylvia makes a much better CEO for Gallery Chatelaine than I ever could," Cady said quickly. "She thrives on that corporate stuff."
"And you don't." Vesta sounded resigned.
"No." Cady settled deeper into the sofa. "I'm happy with my little art consulting business. I wasn't cut out to run a large operation like Chatelaine's. We both know that."
"You may change your mind someday."
"No."p This was old territory. It had been well covered after Cady's divorce three years ago.
There was more silence on the line.
"Be careful," Vesta said after a while. "Don't allow yourself to be seduced by this new client of yours."
"Seduced?" Cady repeated in a strangled voice, unable to believe what she had heard. Vesta never discussed sex. "I told you, I haven't even met him."
"There is often a great deal of money at stake when it comes to art. You know that as well as I do. A man who requires your expertise to get his hands on that cash cannot be trusted. It sounds like your Mr. Easton finds you useful."
"That's the whole point of my art consulting business. To make myself useful."
"It's all well and good for a client to find you useful. But don't let yourself be used. There's a difference."
"Good grief, Aunt Vesta, it's not like I'm having a red-hot affair with the man." Unfortunately, she added to herself.
"Yes, well, that's enough on the subject of Mack Easton. I didn't call just to discuss him," Vesta said.
"I also wanted you to know that I'm having second thoughts about the wisdom of a merger with Austrey-Post."
Deeply relieved by the change of topic, Cady swung her legs up onto the sofa and leaned back in the corner. "Sylvia told me that you had mentioned you might postpone the vote on the proposal."
"I haven't made a final decision yet but I will soon." Vesta paused. "I just thought you should know."
"I'm no longer a member of the board," Cady reminded her. "I won't be voting."
"I'm aware of that. Nevertheless, I think you should stay informed."
"Sylvia is not a happy camper," Cady said carefully.
"I know. She wants the merger to go through."
"She's got a vision for the gallery, Aunt Vesta."
"It's a great vision, one that will make Gallery Chatelaine even more important in the art world than it is already."
There was something in Vesta's voice that told Cady there was more to the story, but she knew her aunt well enough to know that there was no point pushing for an explanation. Besides, this was Sylvia's problem.
"Did you go out tonight?" Vesta asked.
Another change of subject. Interesting.
"I went to the preview of the Kenner collection," Cady said.
"Oh, yes, that's right. I remember that you mentioned it. I expect that it was well attended. The sharks of the art world have been circling for years, waiting for Anna Kenner to expire. Her collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century decorative arts is one of the finest in the country."
"Well, the good news is that Mrs. Kenner managed to outlive several of the sharks. She was ninety-seven when she died."
"Good for her. I always did like Anna. She bought some of her best pieces from me several years ago."
"Yes, I know. She hired me to consult after I moved here to Santa Barbara. I liked her."
Tonight Anna Kenner's Santa Barbara mansion had been filled with scavengers dressed in formal attire. They had come to view the lady's personal possessions in preparation for tomorrow night's auction. Anna's heirs had little interest in the lovely English porcelains, Georgian silver, Chinoiserie panels and exquisite furniture she had accumulated in her lifetime. They were anxious to convert her worldly goods into cash as quickly and profitably as possible. The denizens of the art world had been equally eager to help them accomplish that goal.
Cady had spent most of the evening standing in an alcove, an untouched flute of champagne in one hand. She had watched the dealers, consultants, museum curators and private collectors prowl through the fine rooms. People had paused here and there to examine carefully arranged groupings of art and antiques and to make inquiries about provenance and value. The auction house representatives, also garbed in somber black and white, had stood discreetly nearby to supply answers and advice.
It had all been very civilized and quite elegant with a proper air of hushed solemnity, Cady thought; but she could not suppress the sense of melancholia that swirled up out of the depths. She ought to know better. The ritual was a familiar one. She had grown up in the art world. She was well aware that there was little place for sentiment when it came to the business of auctioning off a valuable collection.
But tonight the process of preparing for what was essentially a high-end garage sale had been tinged with sadness. She had a right to brood, she thought. Anna Kenner had been more than a client. She had become a friend.
"The good news is that Anna was wined and dined in style during the last few years," Cady said. "I think she rather enjoyed it."
"I certainly hope so," Vesta said dryly. "I doubt if there was any expense spared to secure that consignment."
"None. The big auction houses sent people out from New York. The locals also spent a fortune on her. She told me that the courtship began while she was still in her early eighties. Who could know she would live so long?"
Like other wealthy collectors in her position, Anna Kenner had received the royal treatment from dealers, consultants and curators during the last years of her life. Her birthdays had been celebrated with elaborate floral arrangements from auction houses. Her evenings had been filled with invitations to lavish gallery openings and museum receptions. As she had once told Cady, her dance card was always full.
It was ambulance chasing with class, Cady thought, but it was, nevertheless, ambulance chasing.
"Well, it's getting late," Vesta said. "I'm going to take my swim and then go to bed. Good night, Cady."
There was something not quite right here, Cady thought. This was not a typical Vesta phone call.
"Is anything wrong?"
"What makes you think there's something wrong?" Vesta asked crisply.
Cady winced. "It's not like you to call without a very specific reason."
"I explained my reasons for calling. I wanted to warn you about getting too cozy with Easton and to let you know that I was reconsidering the merger."
Mack Easton and the merger didn't seem to warrant a late-night phone call, Cady thought. But with Vesta you could never be sure of what was going on beneath the surface. She wondered if her aunt was simply lonely.
"What is it now?"
"I love you."
There was a short, startled pause on the other end of the line. Cady braced herself. Vesta was not given to sentiment.
"I love you too, Cady," Vesta said. The words sounded stiff and rusty as if she'd dredged them up from deep underground.
Cady was so stunned she nearly fell off the sofa.
"We are so much alike, you and I," Vesta continued. "But I hope things will turn out differently for you."
Cady tried to collect her thoughts. "Differently?"
"I hope you will be happy," Vesta said with stark simplicity. "Good night, Cady."
The line went dead.
Cady sat with the phone in her hand until it started to make strange sounds. She hung up the receiver, got to her feet, collected her shoes and went slowly down the hall to her bedroom. There she unzipped the subdued, cowl-necked dress she had worn to the preview. She pulled on a pair of black tights and a leotard and went barefooted down the hall into the living room. She switched on some Mozart and stood quietly for a moment.
When she was ready she went slowly through the yoga exercises that she had practiced faithfully since college. It had been suggested by more than one acquaintance that she was a little obsessive about her daily workout. But she was convinced that it was the flowing, stretching movements combined with the deep-breathing techniques that allowed her to control her body's predisposition toward panic attacks.
A predisposition she had inherited from Vesta's side of the family.
She was careful about her routine, but just to be on the safe side, she kept a tiny pill wrapped in tissue inside the small case attached to her key ring. She had not had to resort to the little tablet in years, but there was a certain sense of security in knowing that it was available if she ever got overwhelmed by the terrible jitters. She thought about it during that significant pause that occurs between the closing of an elevator's doors and the first movement of the cab. She visualized it whenever she found herself sitting in an airplane that had been delayed on the ground for an extended period of time. Most of all, she contemplated it whenever someone tried to coax her into going swimming in a lake or the ocean or any other body of water where she could not see beneath the surface.
The problem with panic attacks was just one more trait that she shared with Vesta, she thought as she curved into a slow, arching movement that released the tension in her shoulder. She had heard the comments for years. You're just like your aunt.... You take after your aunt.... You have your aunt's eye for art and antiques. But she and Vesta were at opposite poles when it came to the subject of deep water.
To the best of Cady's knowledge, her eighty-six-year-old aunt had swum almost every day of her adult life. Vesta loved the water. She'd had a large pool installed on the terrace of her home near Sausalito in Marin County, California. She was especially fond of swimming alone at night in the dark.
It occurred to Cady that she was as compulsive about her yoga as Vesta was about her nightly swim.
Something else they had in common.
Sometimes she wanted to scream in frustration. But there was no denying that the comparisons between herself and her aunt were growing more acute as each year passed. The parallels were getting a little scary. After her infamous nine-day marriage blew up in her face, she'd heard murmurs to the effect that she had also inherited Vesta's inability to deal with the male of the species. The words "You're going to end up just like Aunt Vesta" had taken on new meaning during the past three years.
Lately even her parents, usually serenely absorbed in their academic careers, had started to become concerned. After the divorce they had developed an irritating habit of making polite but increasingly pointed inquiries into Cady's social life.
She unfolded herself from the last exercise and sat cross-legged, gazing out into the night. The strains of a concerto spilled over her and through her, veiling the shadowy spaces that she knew from long experience were better off left unexplored.
Genetic inheritances were tough, but nature wasn't everything, she reminded herself. Self-determination played a role, too. She was not a Vesta Briggs clone. If she worked hard, she could avoid developing Vesta's less appealing characteristics. She would not become a self-absorbed loner who surrounded herself with the visible evidence of the past.
Damn, she was still brooding, in spite of the Mozart and yoga. Maybe a frozen pizza and a glass of wine would do the trick.
What she really needed tonight was a distraction, she thought. Preferably another one of the fascinating, out-of-the-ordinary consulting assignments she had started accepting from Fantasy Man. There had been three jobs in the past two months, each one more interesting and more intriguing than the last.
Mack Easton had tracked her down via the internet. The only thing she knew for certain about him was that he operated a very low-profile on-line business he called Lost and Found. Driven by curiosity, she had tried to research him and his business on-line but the usual search engines had come up empty-handed. You didn't find Mack Easton, apparently. He found you.
Easton brokered information related to lost, strayed and stolen art. As far as she could discern, his clients included a wide variety of private collectors, museums and galleries. They all had two things in common: They wanted help tracing and recovering art, antiques or antiquities; and, for various reasons, they did not want to take their problems to the police.
Easton worked by referral only. In his initial phone call, he had explained that he frequently required consulting assistance from experts who had specialized knowledge. That was where Cady came in. She knew the world of the so-called decorative arts, the realm where exquisite design and functionality intersected. She loved the objects and artifacts of the past that had been crafted with an eye toward both beauty and practicality: Glorious Baroque salt cellars, gleaming seventeenth-century inkwells created by master silversmiths, glowing French tapestries, brilliantly illustrated wall panels and handmade furniturethose were the things that called to her across the centuries. Purists could have their fine art, their paintings and sculpture and the like. She was drawn to art that had been shaped to a useful purpose, art that satisfied the needs of daily life as well as the senses.
She closed her eyes and summoned up the mental image she had constructed to go with Easton's voice. As always, the picture refused to gel. Probably because no man could live up to that fantastic voice, she thought.
"It's all well and good for a client to find you useful. But don't let yourself be used."
If she hadn't known better, Cady thought, she would have suspected that her aunt was speaking from personal experience. But that was impossible. No one used Aunt Vesta.
The phone rang, jarring her out of her reverie. She hesitated briefly and then uncoiled to her feet and crossed the crimson carpet. She paused, her hand hovering over the instrument, and listened to the second and third ring.
Her parents were in England at the moment, doing research for their next papers in art history. But the fact that they were several thousand miles away did not mean that they weren't calling to ask about her boring love life.
She really did not need that conversation tonight. Not after Vesta's call.
The phone rang a fourth time. She could let it go into voice mail.
But what if it was Fantasy Man?
The odds were staggeringly not in favor of that possibility, but the slim chance that it was Easton calling with another consulting assignment was sufficient incentive to make her scoop up the phone.
"What do you know about sixteenth-century armor?" Fantasy Man asked.
Oh, boy. The voice cued every nerve ending in her body. Get a grip, woman. He's probably married. Voices like this one do not stay single for long.
Or maybe he's twenty or thirty years older than you are.
So what? Maturity was a good quality in a man.
"Funny you should ask ...," she said, striving for a businesslike tone. Mentally she crossed her fingers behind her back.
Okay, so arms and armor weren't her favorite examples of the decorative arts. Nevertheless, she knew the basics. More importantly, she knew whom to call to bring her up to speed in a hurry. She had connections at some of the best museums and galleries in the country.
"I think we should meet to talk about the assignment," Fantasy Man said. "There are some complications involved."
This was the first time he had ever suggested that they should get together face-to-face. Don't get too excited, here. It's just a job.
"Yes, of course," she said. "Where do you want to meet?"
"At the clients' place of business."
She seized a pen. "Where is it?"
"Las Vegas," Fantasy Man said. "Place called Military World. A small museum that features reproductions of arms and armor from the medieval period to the present. Does a big gift shop business."
"Reproductions?" she repeated carefully. Her initial enthusiasm evaporated instantly. Reality returned with a dull thud. Military World sounded like a tacky, low-rent souvenir operation. She had professional standards. She did not work for people who collected and sold reproductions.
On the other hand, this was Fantasy Man. In spite of Vesta's warning, she was determined to encourage future assignments with Lost and Found.
Sometimes you had to lower your standards a notch. Business was business.
"When do you want me in Vegas?" she asked, pen poised above the pad.
"As soon as possible. How about tomorrow morning?"
"I'll have to check my schedule," she said smoothly. "But I seem to recall that I'm free tomorrow."
And if she wasn't free, she would cancel whatever appointments stood in the way of meeting Fantasy Man in person.