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Sunday, December 24
Baltimore Museum of Art
Hours to Christmas: approximately six, oh, joy! Countdown to New Year's Eve, the hands-down worst night of the year to be thirty and single: exactly one week. Calories consumed: 8,000 give or take. (It's only 5:30 p.m.—crap!) Evil bosses on list for strangling: one, but could never get hands around thick, bulldog neck.Yet another dream dies on the vine. (Sigh). Times so far today mother looked up at velvet painting of Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus and asked when am I going to settle down and start having babies like a good Catholic girl: only five so far but haven't been home since breakfast.
THE MUSEUM'S VISITOR PARKING AREA was filling up with BMWs and Porsches when Officer Mandy Delinski turned off Art Museum Drive and pulled into the lot. Bypassing the valet parking guys, she swung her squad car into one of the staff only spaces next to the catering truck, stole a quick glance in the rearview mirror, and then reached across the passenger's side to the glove compartment where she'd stashed her diary and, most importantly, her lipstick. Why I bother I don't know, she thought, and then rolled the lipstick on anyway. She didn't usually wear bright colors, let alone red, but somehow the name, Blaze, seemed to promise all sorts of wonderful, sexy fantasies come true, including a much thinner version of herself decked out in Santa cap, fur-lined red minidress, and black fishnet stockings crooning the lyrics to "Santa Baby" to an as yet faceless, nameless hunk.
Mandy, you've got to get a hold on your libido. Better yet, you've got to get a hold on your life. Your love life, specifically. Actually, first you'd better get a love life, and preferably before your head blows off your damned shoulders.
Capping the tube, she tucked a curly red strand of hair behind her ear and stepped outside to join the glitterati of Baltimore society filing up the steps to the columned entrance. Inside, she moved through the marbled foyer, following the crowd toward the bank of elevators. Before she'd left the precinct, Boblitz had filled her in on the details, including the event location—the museum's West Wing, which housed its collection of contemporary art. Accordingly, she stepped off the elevator onto the second floor and followed the signage to the stark concrete-and-aluminum foyer. Aside from a few stragglers, the West Wing was deserted; certainly no one from museum security was in sight. She was just about to turn back when a cut-paper silhouette woman caught her eye, the projected image taking up an entire stand-alone wall. Drawing closer, she read the caption card, "Salvation" by Kara Walker. Framed beneath a tree's sheltering bow, the woman waded through a pool of still water, the bend of her naked body and outstretched hands suggesting she was almost to her destination, perhaps hailing something or someone waiting for her within the near reach of shoreline.
Mandy's shadow joined that of the cut-out woman and a lump settled into her throat. Where are you headed, Delinski? To something or someone good or are you just spending your life wading through one day to the next?
"There you are."
Mandy swung away from the artwork to see a tall, leggy twentysomething in a red silk suit and John Lennon wire-framed glasses clicking across the tiled floor toward her. Glancing down at the shoes, Mandy mentally calculated the heels at close to four inches. Impressive. Just looking at them made her arches ache.
The woman hauled up in front of her, and Mandy spotted the museum badge announcing her position as event coordinator. Feeling foolish for having gotten sidetracked, she admitted, "I, uh...didn't know museum collections included slides."
Clipboard clutched between perfectly manicured hands, the girl rolled her eyes. "Ms. Walker's work is a transparency projection installation, actually. It's the newest medium in contemporary art, very hip, very hot," she added, appraising Mandy with a head-to-toe look that as good as said the artwork was everything she was not. "The event is in our atrium court, actually, and ends at eight. Come with me, and I'll hook you up with our security manager." With a swish of her shoulder-length bob, she turned and walked off, leaving Mandy to follow.
Geez, is it my day to be ragged on or what? Reaching for her patience, Mandy listened with half an ear to the girl yammering on about the current economic downturn, and the subsequent reduction in charitable giving in general and to the arts in particular, explaining how the museum couldn't afford to lose any of its existing patrons, which was why the recent bomb threat, any threat, was so deeply disturbing, yada, yada, yada.
They emerged into an atrium, large-scale mosaics gracing the walls between the glass-paned windows. A tall, dark-suited African-American man stood at the entrance, checking IDs against what must be the guest list. They drew up, and the event coordinator introduced the gentleman as the museum security manager, Mr. O'Brien. Leaning in to Mandy, she added in a whisper, "Because so many of our guests tonight are older ladies, all top-tier supporters of the museum, we thought a female would be better received, especially if any purses need checking."
"Good thinking," Mandy murmured, wishing it was eight o'clock already.
Apparently mollified, the girl excused herself and walked off. O'Brien signed Mandy's time slip, and they spent the next few minutes reviewing the security protocol. It was meat-and-potatoes stuff—check to make sure the photo ID matched the guest and of course, the name on the list, then issue one of the peel-off adhesive name tags that nearly everyone ripped off the moment they crossed over inside but what the hell.
He'd just wrapped up the short orientation when his walkie-talkie went off, spewing out a stream of static and coded radio chatter that Mandy had grown used to deciphering over the years. In this case, a woman had wandered into the roped-off area into the American Decorative Arts exhibit.
Signing off, he turned to Mandy with a look of apology. "Gotta go. You okay here on your own?"
"I've got it covered. Thanks."
Looking relieved, he nodded. "The event wraps up at eight. Things should slow down here in the next hour or so. Keep an eye on the door for any latecomers, but otherwise feel free to walk around, stretch your legs."
"Thanks, I will."
For the next hour, Mandy kept busy checking in the steady stream of guests filing through.A few put up a fuss about having to produce ID but most seemed to appreciate the museum's extra attention to their safety.Around seven o'clock, the volume of passers-through slowed to a trickle and then a stop.
Smothering a yawn, she turned to survey the festivities. From what she could see, the artwork was the liveliest thing about the event. Even with a function in full swing, the atrium vibrated with a tomblike dullness, the formally attired guests speaking in the hushed tones usually reserved for libraries and funerals, the professionally decorated Christmas trees occupying each of the room's four corners done up in monochromatic silver and gold. Even the thready notes struck up by the classical quartet from the city's renowned Peabody Institute seemed a sad substitute for the classic Christmas carols her pop would have blaring from the old hi-fi turntable as he and her mom decorated the tree with the hodgepodge of ornaments amassed over the years.
Her gaze landed on the white-skirted bar set up for the event, conspicuously devoid of any server but with a line of thirsty-looking patrons queuing up in front. Too bad I'm on duty because a cosmo would go down really good just about now. She was about to turn away when a blond head popped up from behind the bar, joined in short order by a set of broad shoulders, leanly muscled torso and narrow waist. Oh my God. Her brain froze and her breath stuck in her lungs. Talk about drop-dead gorgeous. The bartender who'd just surfaced with a magnum bottle of champagne and an easy smile looked like he was poured into that tuxedo, not to mention being a thirtysomething dead ringer for England's Prince William. Certainly he was the hands-down most amazing hunk of male she'd clapped eyes on in a long time—make that, ever.
And amazingly, he seemed to be looking her way. Nice fantasy, Delinski, but it's time to get real. With a sigh, she turned to greet the gorgeous model-type woman who surely must be approaching check-in only to find the alcove empty. Oh my God. She whipped around. He was still staring at her, his hot-eyed gaze shooting across the room like flame from a blowtorch. Mesmerized, she watched him pour a glass of champagne and then raise it to her in a mock toast. She thought his lips—his amazingly sensuous lips—mouthed, "Merry Christmas" but couldn't be sure.
My God, he's flirting with me. Me, of all people! She felt her face heat along with other more southern portions of her anatomy that had lain fallow for far too long.
Keep an eye on the door for any latecomers, but otherwise feel free to walk around, stretch your legs.
Maybe it was the whole turning thirty thing or the yet-another-Christmas-alone thing or a bit of both, but for whatever reason, Mandy found herself moving across the room toward the bar as if drawn there by an invisible cord. She walked up just as the last patron moved away, affording her an unobstructed view of her "target."
The target's cobalt-blue gaze settled on her face, making her glad she'd remembered that lipstick, and then slid lower, pausing perceptibly on her breasts before traveling back upward. "Can I get you something to drink...officer?" The slow, lazy smile accompanying the question and the close-up look of open appreciation had her heart slamming into her chest.
"Can't...I'm on duty." Jesus Christ, Mandy, that was smooth—not! What next, recite a line from Dragnet?
"Coke, then?" One side of his sexy mouth kicked up into an even sexier grin, and suddenly Mandy felt as if the room was spinning around her like a carousel.
She managed a reasonably steady "N-no thanks, I'm good" and then added, "You're not...you're not from around here."
He hesitated. Smile slipping, he asked, "What makes you say that?"
"Your accent, it sounds kind of New England."
The smile made a comeback only this time it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Oh, it's my accent, is it?"
Mandy felt a telltale tickle at the corners of her own mouth, and realized she must be smiling back—and damn, it felt good. "If you're saying I have a Bawlmer accent, then I'm guilty as charged. I can't help it. I grew up in the city."
"I like your accent. It's distinctive...like you." Distinctive, huh. Distinctive could be good or bad depending on the circumstances. Given the sultry looks he was sending her, she decided she could safely take it as a compliment, or better yet, a gift—the best Christmas gift she'd gotten in a long, long time.
"Thanks, hon," she said with a wink, deliberately exaggerating the infamous truncated Baltimore O.
He threw back his head and laughed, a deep baritone that had her thinking of her favorite Godiva dark chocolate—rich, complex and full of sensual promise. Suddenly the hunk in her "Santa Baby" fantasy had a face, and it was staring back at her now as if its wearer wanted to eat her up. All she needed to wrap up the fantasy in a big red Christmas bow was a name.
As if reading her mind, he stuck out a broad-backed hand. "I'm Josh by the way."
Mandy hesitated, and then slipped her hand in his big, warm one. Glancing down, she considered the many other "uses" to which the strong, sensitive fingers might be put, and a jet of warm moisture splashed between her thighs.
Her throat, in contrast, went sawdust dry. Swallowing, she said, "I'm Amanda...Mandy, actually."
"Mandy, hmm? Pretty lady, pretty name." He glanced down to their clasped hands, and she realized she'd forgotten to let go.
Palm tingling, she slipped her hand from his. "Sorry."
He stared straight at her, blue eyes blazing. "I'm not." Suddenly the room was too hot, he was too hot. Too hot to handle, though images of her doing just that, running her hands over him from head to foot with some studied stops in between, sped through her mind like racers on a NASCAR track.
A cough from behind had her glancing over her shoulder. A Roland Park grand dame stood at her back, silver-blue hair piled into a bouffant and liver-spotted hand wrapped about an empty champagne glass.
Geez, lady, ever heard of AA? She turned back to the bartender, Josh, and said, "I guess duty calls."
"I guess so." He rolled his eyes, letting her know he didn't welcome the intrusion any more than she did. "Hey, I've got another hour to go and all the nonalcoholic carbonated beverages you can drink, so don't be a stranger, okay?"
"Okay, I won't."
She stepped aside and half walked, half floated back to the check-in station. Throughout the next hour, beautiful people in beautiful clothes milled about quaffing drinks, noshing on appetizers, and pretending to study the mosaics while not-so-secretly studying each other and yet Mandy's eyes kept coming back to one person. Him. Josh. And the most amazing, unbelievable and altogether wonderful part was that every time she looked over, she caught him looking back. Who would have thought she'd meet her dream man behind a makeshift bar pouring out rotgut chardonnay to blue-haired old ladies?
By 8:05 p.m., most of the crowd had dispersed. Despite the few stragglers, the caterers were breaking down the setups, including the bar. Her spirits, which had been dancing on air, started to plummet. Both the evening's assignment and the fantasy were about to end.
By the time O'Brien returned to sign her out, her feet were planted squarely back on terra firma. Pulling out his fountain pen, he asked, "How'd your night go?"
Ordinarily it would have seemed an innocent enough question, and yet Mandy felt her face heat. Flirting on the job wasn't exactly unethical, but it wasn't the most professional behavior, either. Hoping he hadn't seen her hanging around the bartender, she said, "Fine, thanks. Yours?"
He handed back the signed overtime slip. "It went fine, but I'll be glad to get home to my family. It's hard leaving the wife and kids on a holiday. What about you, Mandy? Got any kids?"
A telltale lump lodging smack dab in the middle of her throat. "No, not yet anyway."
They said their goodbyes and there was nothing left to do but head for home. Still, Mandy couldn't help sending one last look in the vicinity of the bar. The stock had been packed up onto a cart, and it looked as though Bartender Josh had packed it in as well. He must have slipped out through a rear exit door while she was finishing up with O'Brien. Holding in a sigh, she pulled her cell phone out of her belt clip. It was early yet, and she didn't really feel like going home and being pressed into tree decorating duty. Maybe her friend, Suz, would feel like grabbing a bite to eat.