September night pressed in on Desiree Jacobs like an urgent warning. She shrugged the unease away. Flexing rubber-soled feet, she fixed her gaze on the brick wall half a dozen yards ahead. Under her Mylar jumpsuit, sweat trickled down her ribs.
E-e-easy. This little jaunt was no different than a trip across the balance beam at the gym, a move she’d practiced for twenty-two of her thirty years. Except no thick mat waited a few feet away to soften a fall. Only ten stories of empty air. A single misstep off the steel girder and she’d make a nice Impressionist splat on the pavement of the alley below.
Then Max can attend another funeral.
Desi sighed. All right, girlfriend, you win. Bungee cord it is. She took a step backward onto the roof behind her. Amazing how easy it had been to get into this co-op apartment building next to the exclusive Tate Art Gallery of Washington DC. Delivering pizzas opened doors fast. Must be the hypnotic smell of sausage and pepperoni.
Desi knelt beside her discarded delivery uniform. She stripped off her backpack, then pulled out the bungee cord and clipped an end to the harness around her torso. The other end went around a pipe sticking out of the roof.
Lifting her arms, Desi stepped back onto the beam. Just try to keep her away from that American artist collection. She took a step, then one more, toes outward, heel to instep. And this step is for the Cassatt. She moved forward. And this one for the Savage. And this one for Grandma Moses. She hopped and switched foot positions. Expect me soon, Andy Warhol.
At midbeam she stopped and looked up at the sky. One plump star winked at her. If Tony could see her, he’d have a cow. She winked back at the star. What an overprotective FBI agent boyfriend didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
Desi adjusted the backpack straps around her shoulders. She quick-stepped forward, one step back, then a trio of toe-steps forward. And those were for the three Georgia O’Keeffe’s. I’m coming, darlings.
The tenth-story ledge of the Tate Gallery building loomed close. She smelled the brick cooling from the heat of the Indian summer day.
Almost there. Almost…Yesss!
Her breath came strong and even. She knelt on the two-foot ledge and glanced back at the wide-open space she’d conquered. The girder formed the only remaining connection between buildings that once shared a roof support system. A handy choice of approach under cover of night.
She shrugged out of her pack and unhooked the bungee cord. Good riddance.
By feel, Desi located her narrow-beam flashlight and trained the glow on the window in front of her. The pane was an unimpressive standard thickness, and the wood frame showed weather wear. Desi kneaded gloved fingers together.
Where were the booby traps?
Her gaze stopped on a slim white sensor strip across the inside of the sash. Even a trained eye could miss that one. Any tampering with the frame, and alarms would shriek loud enough to startle a poor unsuspecting burglar right off the ledge.
Desi gulped and peered downward. The ground was there, in the blank darkness, hard and unforgiving. Cold sparks skittered up her spine.
She stiffened her jaw. No way was that a premonition. She pursed her lips at the window. What about cutting the pane? Nope. A web of hair-fine wire covered the glass, not obstructing the view of the drab roof opposite, but any slice would end in handcuffs for the window surgeon. Nuh-uh! She didn’t need those bracelets.
Time to find another way in. And in a hurry. Tony would snort and paw if she wasn’t ready on time for the White House Midnight Masquerade. Besides, she couldn’t afford to give him explanations.
Rising, she hefted the pack in her right hand and pressed the left side of her body against the building. She swept the flashlight beam ahead of her on the ledge. All clear. She lifted her foot and then halted midmotion. Indrawn breath hissed between her teeth.
Planting her foot back where it started, she panned the light up the wall. Sure enough. Stubby plastic-coated sensor rods stuck out from the brick at irregular intervals–no slipping around, between, or under these babies. A broken rod or an attempt to remove one from its socket released an ultrasonic frequency that tripped an alarm, and voilà, one bagged burglar.
So where did that leave her? She frowned. With a sackful of goodies and no place to go, except…
She looked down and smiled.
Chuckling, Desi set a grappling hook in the chink between the ledge and the window and then clipped the end of the rope to her torso harness. Lying on her stomach, she turned and flipped her feet into open space. She balanced on the rim of the ledge, abdomen muscles and extended arms bearing her weight as if she were about to start a routine on the uneven bars. The bottoms of her feet sought and found the wall below.
Blood pumping, she pushed away from the ledge. The tether flowed with steady friction through her gloved fists. Piece of cake. Just a few smooth hops and–
Desi’s line jerked. Bits of debris bounced off her head and shoulders. Her feet lost purchase. In free swing, her body rammed the wall, spurting a grunt from her throat. Pain shot through her shoulders and hips. She dug her fingers and toes into the chinks between the bricks and went still–except for her heart, which threatened to backflip right out of her chest.
Below, muted smacks taunted her ears–cement chunks bursting against pavement. Her imagination went into overdrive, picturing the landing should her body take a similar dive.
Stop it! Think. You can beat this.
A portion of the ledge above had given way. The stress of the hook and her weight must have been too much for the aged cement. Thank goodness the ledge hadn’t crumbled beneath her while she knelt by the window.
Now, any wrong movement…
She sucked in a breath. She needed a better hold on the brick. Reluctant to disturb so much as an air molecule, she slid a finger over…another…another. Oops!
A toe slipped. Her weight shifted. She jammed the foot back in tight, gritting her teeth against a yelp. Her big toe had felt better after a collision with the bedpost in the dark.
The tether line went limp. Desi held her breath.
The grappling hook remained aloft, but the sounds from above indicated that it must have pulled free and now rested, without anchor, on what was left of the crumbling ledge. If the hook plunged downward, the weight would pull Desi from her precarious hold on the brick.
Great! Where’s an angel when you need one?
Rotten cement on the ledges hadn’t figured into her calculations. That was the two-edged sword when owners insisted on locating art galleries in charming but antiquated facilities, which left them vulnerable to intruders but created unintended death traps for thieves.
Okay, that thought hadn’t come from her mind, but it was right. Time to stop relying on her own resources. Hadn’t the past months taught her a thing? All right, I’m busted, Lord. Again. What’s our next move?
No angelic chorus answered her plea with divine instructions. Desi sighed. Her breath fanned the brick in shaky drafts. Her cheek stung, pressed against the rough surface. Her fingers started to cramp, and her leg muscles ached. She couldn’t hang on much longer.
Should she try to climb up toward a ledge that she knew was brittle and crumbling or risk moving down toward the lip at the next floor, its condition an unknown quantity? The latter option could pull the grappling hook off the ledge above before she reached the doubtful security of the next level, and she’d join the smashed pieces on the ground.
Of all the kooky ideas… Wait…maybe…
Desi licked her lips, mouth as dry as the cement flakes that powdered her shoulder.
All right, what if she let go and performed a calculated fall onto the next ledge? She would need to hit leaning into the building. The impact might breach the cement if its condition was as unstable as the ledge above. Then again, the lip might hold her, and she’d be in a firm position when–not if–the grappling hook tumbled from above. Was the lower ledge strong enough to withstand the impact of her falling body? God knew.
Okay, Lord, I have to trust Your wisdom. Here goes!
Desi released her hold and left her stomach behind. Terror clawed up her throat and came out in a strangled gurgle.
The impact shuddered through her bones. She folded her knees forward, throwing her body sideways. Air woofed from her lungs. Cement fragments pelted her from overhead just as the grappling hook plummeted toward her then past into the darkness. Her harness jerked, tugging her toward the edge of her perch. She came to a halt with one shoulder hovering over thin air.
The sound of the metal hook bouncing off the building ticked off seconds. Desi’s brain fought to regain focus. Thank You, Abba Father! She lay where she had landed and enjoyed each breath. A giddy laugh bubbled from her throat.
Next move? Get her scraped and sore self inside, alarm or no alarm. Well, better without the alarm. Now that she’d risked this much, she ought to taste the victory, even if she was starring in this little caper as a bad guy who ought to lose.
Desi sat up. A few feet away a window beckoned, and really, she couldn’t have fallen more than a few feet. Things often weren’t as terrible as they looked. Then again, sometimes they were worse–like with Max’s situation.
Max’s husband, Dean Webb, was cooling his heels in jail while his two small children were left bewildered by their daddy’s sudden disappearance from their lives. How would Max ever be able to help them understand what their father had done for greed?
Fury clotted in Desi’s stomach. Too bad they quit clapping criminals into public stocks. Give her a dump truck full of rotten vegetables to fling and–
Whoa! She’d promised herself and God to work on her forgiveness skills.
Better concentrate on encouraging Max. Maybe she should let her best friend and treasured employee win this one.
Yeah. Right. Lip curled, Desi imitated Maxine Webb’s West Texas drawl. “In a pig’s eye!”
Her flame-haired friend would skin her alive with a dull knife if she suspected that Desi hadn’t done her best to beat Max’s precautions. They had an internal audit on their work. If Desi could navigate through the safeguards the same way a thief would–no cheating–they’d keep working on the plan until it was Desi-proof. No exceptions. Their bread and butter came from keeping HJ Securities Company the best in the business of art and antiquities protection.
Of course, the timing for this caper could have been better. If the gallery hadn’t insisted on moving their grand opening up to the day after tomorrow, she wouldn’t be stuck on a crumbling ledge on the same night she was due at a White House party.
Desi climbed to her knees, pulled the grappling hook up, and secured it in her pack. Scoping out the window, she found it booby trap—free. She dug out her cutting tool and made a neat hole in the glass. A specialty hook probed inside, and the interior lock clicked open.
The slither between lintel and sash tested every scrape and bruise on her body, but at last Desi stood on cushy carpet inside some executive’s office. She took a few steps on wobbly knees, nerves still doing the boogie-woogie. A fat leather office chair beckoned. She collapsed into it, leaned back, and perched her feet on the desk. Her right big toe throbbed. Small price to pay. She dug a water bottle out of the pack on her lap and took a long pull. As she lowered the bottle, her gaze met the lighted face of the desk clock. Her feet thumped to the floor. Scrambling through her bag of tricks, she found her walkie-talkie.
“Max, do you read me? I’m in, and I’m in a hurry.”
The instrument crackled. “You’re in where? In trouble? That I can believe.” Male hoots sounded in the background. “You have a little more than an hour to get ready for that society shindig with Tony. Now tell me where you’re stuck, and I’ll send the cavalry after you.”
More background guffaws.
Wouldn’t the night guards love to brag to their buddies about how they rescued the high-toned security woman from a pickle? Well, not tonight, boys. “I’m sitting in a ninth-floor office, looking at the clock.”
“Get outta here! No way you breached that window security.”
“Way! But take heart, no one else will be loony enough to follow in my footsteps.”
“Do I even want to know?”
Desi laughed. “I’ll explain later. Right now, I do have to get outta here pronto. Tomorrow night we can pick up where we left off, and you’ll have your chance to nab me in the gallery showrooms.”
Low-voiced grumbles answered her, foreground and background.
Grinning, Desi switched off the walkie-talkie and loped–er, limped for the elevator.
If Supervisory Special Agent Anthony Lucano of the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted to walk into the White House ballroom with her on his arm, she didn’t intend to disappoint him. And she sure didn’t want him to catch a whiff of her derring-do tonight. That would be asking for trouble in paradise. Clad in nothing but her shower towel, Desi brushed a final stroke of genuine Egyptian kohl onto her left eyelid. An awkward activity with one hand, but Max had the other trapped on the bathroom vanity counter, doing a warp-speed job on Desi’s fingernails.
Good thing her shoulder-length hairstyle was wash-and-go. All she needed with her costume was the gemstone-studded headdress. The attached set of false bangs matched her sable-brown hair. She lifted the piece from the hotel bathroom vanity and held it to her head. The bangles dripping from the sides swayed and sparkled, highlighting the shades of green and gold in her hazel eyes.
Ooooh, Tony was gonna love this.
Max glanced up from her bent-over position. “Give me a sec, and I’ll pin that on.”
Desi set the headdress down and picked up one of a set of amber hairpins that had belonged to the mother she’d lost to a car accident when she was a baby. Her father, world-renowned security expert Hiram Jacobs, gave the pins and other jewelry heirlooms to Desi shortly before his murder four months and two days ago.
Daddy, did you already know you were a target?
Her vision darkened. To lose a parent in an accident hurt, even though she’d been too young to remember. To have one stolen by a killer…
Hot pain seared through her insides.
“Hey! Hold still.” Max clicked her tongue. “What have you done to your fingertips? Looks like you lost a fight with a blackboard.”
“A brick wall. And I won.”
“Ai-yi-yi!” Max screwed the top on the polish bottle. “Let’s get you into that neck-snappin’ dress. One look at the Queen of Sheba and the guy’ll need a brain transplant to think straight.”
Desiree laughed. If only she could cheer Max up so easily. “Better not distract him too much. The poor man wants his gray matter working. The director of the FBI will be there, and Tony’s got a sweat on to make a good impression for his office. Budget time and all that.”
Max lifted a corner of her mouth. “He could stand on his head and whistle Dixie. He’s got to be flavor of the year after haulin’ in a top al Qaeda operative, alive and kickin’.”
“You’d be surprised how fast such things are forgotten in Washington. But it’s significant that his office chose an agent who’s only thirty-five and just climbing into supervisory level to attend such a highbrow function. He’s getting favorable notice, all right.”
In a flurry of fabric, Desi let Max help her into the shimmering emerald gown of watered silk. The high-waisted style copied Anne Baxter’s costume when she played Nefretiri in Cecille B. DeMille’s tour de force The Ten Commandments.
“Sit down by the table, and we’ll add the crownin’ touch.” Max waved the headdress.
Desi saluted and took a seat. Fingers played in her hair, not once jabbing her scalp with a fastener.
“A fine piece of work if I do say so myself.” Max stepped back. Then she knelt and picked up the shoes that matched Desi’s gown.
“Hey, you don’t have to treat me like Cinderella. I can put those on myself.” Desi snatched at the footwear.
Max avoided her and grabbed Desi’s right heel. “As I thought. You’ve got a big toe turnin’ black-and-blue.”
“I swear I’ll tell all when we’ve got time.” Desi bent the digit and winced. “At least I chose to wear the Persian slippers instead of the strappy sandals.”
Max sniffed. “You’ll have to throw in a funky hip sway to convince anyone that your limp is a fashion statement.”
“Call me Forrest Gump.”
“Run, Forrest, run!” Max chuckled like her old self.
Desi would take ten jammed toes to get another reaction like that.
Feet encased in the slippers, she rose and Betty Boop—wiggled across the room. She glanced over her shoulder. Max lay on the floor, clutching her sides and wheezing.
Man, she’s lost weight. Max used to fit the cliché pleasingly plump. Now…
They’d talk about it later. “How’s that?” She batted the false eyelashes that made her lids feel sultry.
“Works…for me… You’ll just have to…fool Tony.”
Not going to happen. The man was born with an extra set of eyes and trained to use them. She’d have to fess up sooner or later. Later would be fine. He hated when she walked into danger. Ironic. Considering his occupation, she’s the one who should lecture about risks.
“I wish you were going along tonight.” She helped Max up.
“Why? So I can distract the big boy from your bad deeds?”
Desi stuck out her tongue. “No, so you can get out of this hotel for something besides work. We’re in the capital of the U.S. of A. for crying out loud.”
“Like we’ve never been here before?”
A chill breathed over the room. Their eyes met. Too true. They’d shared the same glass of fear and loathing on the trail of Hiram Jacobs’s murderer.
Max began to pick up discarded clothes. “I need to call home and find out how Mom’s doin’ with the kids. When I called this mornin’, she told me Grandpa Steve was comin’ over to take them out to a matinee.”
She bracketed the words “Grandpa Steve” with two pairs of finger swipes. They grinned at each other.
“The Lord has a colossal sense of humor.” Desi laughed. “Who’d have thought Tony’s Godzilla of an ex-partner would take a shine to a pair of little kids? Even kids as cute as yours. That bullet in the chest must have been a wake-up call for the Man with the Iron Heart.”
Max shook her head. “He’s been a miracle for us, steppin’ in when…” She cleared her throat and went back to housekeeping.
A rap sounded at the door.
”Showtime!” Max opened the door with a flourish.
Tony’s tall frame filled the entrance. Desi’s breath quivered in her throat. Oh, mercy! King Solomon never looked so fine.
Who would have guessed she’d swoon over her twenty-first-century agent-man in a beard and Middle Eastern robes? The Hebrew amulet that hung from a chain around his neck matched the color scheme of her headdress. Max must have advised him on that. An understated gold circlet framed wavy black hair cut too short to be period perfect. But who cared?
Desi stepped forward. A white smile split the dark beard. His brown eyes widened into a stare that set a pedestal under her feet and turned her limbs to warm taffy so she could tumble off her exalted perch straight into his arms.
Max smirked, and Desi could almost hear her thought–Neck-snappin’, oh yeah!
Tony stepped over the threshold, his thoughts also clear. By sheer willpower, Desi put a hand on his chest and stopped him.
“Rain check.” Her voice came out husky. “My lipstick looks better on me for now.”
His muscled ribs expanded under her palm, then relaxed. Tony smiled and offered his arm. Desi curled a hand around his elbow, and they paraded past a grinning Max into the hall.
“Have fun, kiddies.”
Tony lifted a hand in a backward wave.
Desi glanced at her friend. Thank you, she mouthed. Then she looked up at the man beside her. Way up. The top of her head broke even with his square shoulder. The sharp planes of his profile made him more a rough-hewn Marlon Brando than a refined Robert Redford. She inhaled a deep breath of her date’s sandalwood scent.
Tony chuckled as they neared the elevator. “I intend to collect on that rain check.”
“And I intend to let you.”
His gaze darted toward the floor and then back to her face. “Are you hurt?”
Drat, the man was sharp. “Close encounter with a wall in the dark.” Tony’s sideways glance promised more than a heated embrace. She knew that set to his jaw. He meant to worm the facts out of her or eat his badge.
Let the battle of wits begin. Desi grinned on the inside. When she was with him, even if she lost she won. If they weren’t both committed to respecting each other and God, they’d be deep into a torrid, steamy affair by now. Maybe someday they could have a torrid, steamy marriage.
Desi’s cheeks heated, and she turned her face as they entered the empty elevator. There she went, thinking the M word again. Mere months ago, she and Tony had been adversaries. Then they became allies. Now much more. But she couldn’t assume he wanted a permanent commitment. Besides, she still knew little about him–except that she adored him. The guy was an expert at avoiding personal topics, about himself, that is. For sure, they had things to work on.
The M word could wait.
Tony’s arm circled her waist, and he lifted her chin, a knowing crook to his mouth. She narrowed her eyes. Should she slap away the smirk or yank off his crown and muss his hair?
He nuzzled the tender skin under her left ear. “A little something to tide me over.”
His false beard tickled, and the air in Desi’s lungs turned to helium.
“You smell great.” Tony lifted his head, dark gaze intense. He rubbed the side of her jaw with his thumb. “You know you drive me nuts figuring out what crazy business you’ve been up to.”
So he’d guessed she’d done a caper tonight. Too bad she couldn’t promise never again to take chances. He’d have to accept her for who she was and what she did for a living, or they wouldn’t make it as a couple.
He smiled, laugh lines creasing his tanned face. “You couldn’t shake me off your trail before, my queen. And you won’t succeed now.”
Desi stood a few feet away and studied Tony as he visited with Director Richard Harcourt of the FBI and a senior presidential aide. The director made a formidable Roman Emperor Constantine and the aide a dapper George Washington.
“They’re grooming him,” said a voice in her ear.
Desi turned to meet the amused hazel eyes of a blunt-mannered man she’d met at the hors d’oeuvres table. His massive build and shiny moon face fit a Jabba the Hutt impersonation better than the Darth Vader costume.
The man nodded double chins. “Very good, my dear. Almost as skilled as a federal agent at matching faces and names. The talent will serve you well if you’re going to stick with him all the way to the top.” He inclined his blond head toward Tony’s group. “I own a corporation, and I know the signs when the powers-that-be have plans for someone.” He winked.
Desi’s gaze darted to the group of men. Did the director have an acquisitive gleam in his eye? Constantine put a hand on Solomon’s shoulder, and the king leaned toward the emperor. Director Harcourt stood inches shorter, but no observer with a grain of sense could misinterpret the picture of a superior showing interest in his subordinate–except someone too distracted by the flutters of her heart. She’d missed the obvious.
What did this development mean? To her? To Tony? Her roots, not to mention the headquarters of her business, were in Boston. Comprehension sent gooseflesh up her bare arms. An FBI agent didn’t control his destiny. Tony could be transferred to the Washington office, the most coveted post in the Bureau, in a heartbeat. But the professional coup would mean a long-distance romance for them. The odds of such a romance lasting were dismal, especially when half of the couple thought communication was a one-way street.
Her stomach clenched.
As if sensing her turmoil, Tony whirled, but his stare went past her shoulder. Desi looked around. Hamilton Gordon was gone. A red-eyed Max staggered toward them, face pale, freckles standing out like pepper in porridge.
“T-trouble,” her friend croaked and crumpled forward.