“Why do I let myself get talked into stuff like this?” Grace Jamison asked the pigeon pecking the dark brown paving stone at her feet.
The bird cocked its head and regarded her with a bright black eye. No idea, it seemed to say. But you always do.
She crossed one pale blue denim-clad leg over the other and leaned back, her curly dark blond hair flowing over her shoulders, so long it almost touched the base of the statue on which she sat. The May sunlight warmed her face despite the cool breeze washing over the Art Park outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Spring had been cold that year, and it felt more like Easter was approaching than Memorial Day. Despite the cool weather, she heard music coming from the park a block away. She tilted her head, recognizing the raspy voice of Jonny Lang as he sang the blues. The park was a favorite gathering place for students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University; a little cool weather wouldn’t keep their spirits down.
Grace glanced at her watch. She promised Margaret that she would meet this guy, so meet him she would. After all, Margaret was more like an older sister than a cousin, and her husband, Nathan Stokes, vouched for the guy. Margaret was anxious for Grace to find the Right Man just as she had found Nathan. Grace didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had already found the right man. He just didn’t know it.
“I’m leaving town tonight so it’s no big deal,” Grace murmured. “One cup of coffee and I can give him the old, ‘sorry, I’ve got to pack’ excuse.” In a few hours she would board a train to begin what she hoped would be a life-changing adventure. “By this time next week, I’ll see Kerry again,” she whispered. “I’ll see him and I’ll finally know what he feels for me.”
The bird pecked the pavement at her feet, oblivious to Grace’s discussion of her upcoming blind ‘date’ versus the Man of her Dreams, Kerry Songhorse. The bird and its companions were the only other warm-blooded creatures in the plaza. Several statues were spaced throughout the half-block square, as well as trees and shrubs, but the human patrons were all inside the glass-walled cafeteria that overlooked it.
Grace straightened and tugged her denim jacket tighter over her dark brown turtleneck sweater, going over Nathan’s description of Ben Cochran in her mind. “He’s a little bit nerdy, but give him a chance,” Nathan had told her. “He’s tall, too, which is good, right?”
Yes, tall is good, Grace thought. She was 5’10”, so the taller, the better. It wasn’t a requirement, but it certainly made life easier.
“He’s got black hair, and he wears glasses—just sometimes, not all the time. And he’s tall. Oh, I said that. And he’s into computers.” Nathan had laughed nervously. “He’ll probably go on and on about a project he’s working on. He’s a game player, too. You know, those role-playing things? He’s at Level Orange or something in one of those, and… Ben is kind of intense sometimes. But he’s a great guy. Really great. You’ll like him, Grace.”
Grace sighed. Just a cup of coffee. That’s all. One cup of coffee. I like Nathan. It’s the least I can do after all he and Margaret did to help me. Her wrist ached, reminding her of the cold weather and of the events a few months ago. She stared at the narrow segment of parking lot viewable in the distance. Because of the enclosing walls of the museum and cafeteria, the Art Park blocked her view of most of the lot, although she could see Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park beyond the cars parked in the distance. Sunlight glistened on cars driving through the rolling terrain of the four hundred acres, making the distant trees and golf course glimmer in the late afternoon sun.
A man was walking toward her, striding up the path from the parking lot with a long, purposeful gait. Was that him? He was tall, all right, although it was hard to tell just how tall at this distance. His black hair was long and curling up on his collar. Broad-shouldered, long-legged, attractive in an athletic, muscular sort of way. Sunglasses. Grace tugged a strand of hair that caught on the metalwork behind her and pushed the curly mass over her shoulder. If that was Ben Cochran, she might want more than a cup of coffee.
As he neared, he slid the sunglasses off, slipping them into the pocket of his dark gray sports coat. His gray T-shirt was tucked into black denims, emphasizing his big shoulders and narrow waist. That Nathan, Grace thought as she stood and smiled. He must have been kidding. Geeky? This guy? Good Lord, he’s almost as handsome as Kerry. The thought made her blink with surprise. They even look a bit alike with that black hair and the chiseled, sharp features. But Kerry’s eyes are dark and this guy’s eyes…they’re so pale. I’ve never seen eyes like that. They’re the color of ice.
Grace’s attention jerked away from comparisons to the man walking toward her, staring at her intently. Men often stared at Grace. It was the consequence of having a model-perfect body, waist-length honey blonde hair and a freckled, “girl-next-door” complexion. She’d been stared at since her body matured in puberty. But this wasn’t that kind of look. This was predatory, intimidating. He wasn’t examining her body or her hair. His eyes… She took a step back, surprised to find the man with the unwavering pale gray eyes standing right in front of her.
“Ben?” She held out her hand.
The man looked at it, looked at her. He was as handsome up close as he was from a distance, with an oval face, pointed chin, and straight, almost narrow nose. Thick black hair curled around his collar, strands blowing in the breeze. His eyes were his most distinctive feature, like chips of metal rimmed in black, giving him a blind, icy look. She stared up at him and smiled tentatively. “Ben?”
“Were you expecting someone else?” He jerked her into his arms. He was far taller than she originally thought. He had to be at least 6’6”. Those icy blue-gray eyes were like cold lasers as he stared down at her. “You know why I’m here, right?”
“We’re supposed to—”
“Shh.” His eyes held her captive. “You look like a princess, sitting here waiting for your prince.” He smiled slowly, the edges of his mouth curving up. Dimples deepened in his cheeks and long creases appeared at the edges of his eyes, small flecks of white in the smooth tan of his skin. “Princess.”
A game player. “Is this a game?” she whispered.
His eyes changed, darkening like the clouds drifting on the horizon. “Of course it is. I’ve heard you’re an exceptional player, too.” He tilted his head to one side and regarded her, his eyes flickering over her face. “You’re going away soon, right? Do you plan to have a little fun while you’re gone?” His sly smile told her exactly what kind of ‘fun’ he had in mind.
Grace glared at him coldly. “That’s none of your business.” Had Nathan told this guy about her plans to visit Kerry?
If Nathan talked about that, I’ll skin him alive!
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I make you mad?” He picked out a strand of her thick honey-colored hair and fingered it. “No one told me how beautiful you were.”
“Didn’t Nathan tell you what I looked like?” She wiggled in his arms, and he loosened his hold but didn’t release her completely.
“Nathan Stokes.” Grace moved away from him, suddenly nervous. It was one thing to have a guy act like a goof, but this was weird. She managed to put a few more inches between them, but he was still uncomfortably close. Grace leaned to her right but a statue was at her back, preventing any movement in that direction.
“Stokes. Sure.” He looked distracted, his eyes narrowing and momentarily far away. “I forgot about Stokes.”
“How could you forget about Nathan? He’s why I’m here.” Grace pushed at his arms, and he released her, but he didn’t step back. On the contrary, he moved as close as he was before. “I’d rather not play this game,” she said and immediately regretted the words when she heard how whiney she sounded.
“You don’t want to play the game.” He spoke flatly, his face just inches from hers.
Grace flinched back. “No. I mean, I’d rather not…it’s not what Nathan said…I mean, can’t we just—?”
“You promised me a kiss, didn’t you?”
“What?” She stared up at him, so surprised, she couldn’t move.
“I was told you’d give me at least a kiss.” He smiled, but it was just his lips that moved. His eyes didn’t warm.
“Who told you that?” Grace pulled back but a knobby bit of statue dug into her back. She tried to ignore it, anxious to escape this stranger’s angry glare. “Did Nathan—?”
He jerked her into his arms, and his lips came down on hers.
Grace was so shocked she hung in his arms for a second before struggling. His lips were fixed on hers, his tongue delving into her mouth, his body pushed hard against hers. Between his tight arms and his probing kiss, she could barely breathe. She wasn’t an experienced kisser—far from it—but even in the midst of her chaotic thoughts, Grace realized he was very, very, good. His mouth, hands, and body all worked together, making her feel like the center of his universe, as though she was all he had thought of. If she hadn’t been so frightened, she would have been aroused. You are aroused, a little voice in her head whispered. Don’t lie.
The thought was like a shock of cold water. Grace tried in vain to pull away, but he put one hand on her head, keeping her face pressed against his. His other arm was around her waist, pulling her tight against him. She felt his erection, hard and insistent, a rod of flesh pressed against her stomach as he stepped forward, forcing her back against the concrete of the statue base behind her.
“No…no…” she mumbled, twisting her head. His hand tangled in her hair and tears sprang into her eyes when he jerked her head back. “What are you doing?” she gasped as his lips finally released hers.
He stared into her eyes. His were like gray chips of stone, cold and hard. “You know what I’m doing. I’m doing what you suggested. I’m combining business with pleasure.”
“What?” Grace put her right hand against his left shoulder and pushed. It was like pushing one of the statues behind her. He remained pressed against her. She realized how it must look—two lovers, meeting in the Art Park, his arms entwined around her, her arms pinned to his chest as she stared up into his face. “What do you want?”
“You’re very good. Beautiful and good. I’d love to stay and entertain myself, but this project has to get done and soon.”
Project? Grace gulped, trying to make some sense out of the words he whispered in a harsh, husky voice. Nathan said he was intense but… This can’t be the guy. Nathan would never set me up with a… “Who are you?” she asked.
His arms slipped down to her waist, pulling her against him. She tried to look down as she felt something touching her side.
“Don’t look,” he snapped.
Her head snapped up, almost hitting him. He reared back, his mouth tight and hard. “Good try but it didn’t work, bitch.”
Fear, anger, and incredulity all surged within Grace. Fear won out. She opened her mouth to scream, but he must have sensed what she was going to do because he forced her face close to his. “It’s in your pocket. Thank you. They were watching.” His eyes were blue—no, gray—no, they were blue. They were so changeable. They snared her, trapped her. “I put it together just for you. It has all the information you need to make up your mind. Call me when you decide.” He looked beyond her, over her shoulder to the cafeteria and the patrons sitting there.
Grace twisted, following his gaze. Four or five tables were near the glass wall overlooking the plaza. Most of the people at those tables were talking to each other. Two men at the center table, though, stared out the window at them. They were too far away for her to see their faces clearly, but their interest was evident.
She gaped at him. “What?”
“You saved my life.” He kissed her again. But this time it was gentle and sweet. And once again Grace was so surprised she just stood there, her brain whirling. “Thank you.” He pushed a thick strand of hair over her shoulder, his hand touching her cheek with a soft caress. “What’s your name?”
She gaped at him. “Grace. You know my name. Didn’t Nathan tell you?”
“How appropriate. Amazing Grace.” He smiled at her but there was sadness in his eyes. “Your looks won’t help you, Grace. Pity. I wish I could see you again, I really do, but I’m not sure it will be possible. But…” He kissed her, his lips a lingering brush against hers. “I hope you’ll contact me.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” she said when he released her and took a step back. As she did she heard shouts coming from her right, where the parking lot was hidden from her view by a grove of trees. She turned, trying to see what the noise was all about, and when she turned back, the man was walking away from her, his head down as he focused on the uneven pavers.
A sudden chill washed over her, and she stared again at the cafeteria. The two men who had been looking at them were gone, hurrying through the tables to the side exit near where the man disappeared. Sirens erupted, close enough that she winced when the noise vibrated around the semi-enclosed space. Something big was happening. People ran through the parking lot, heading for a spot to her right. Grace walked toward the parking lot, peering from side to side as she emerged from the Art Park.
A crowd of people milled around a side door on the far end of the north side of the plaza. Two policemen in uniform held out their arms, keeping people from moving forward and two men were on the opposite side of the circle, keeping the people there from moving. Two other officers were near the door. One of them spotted Grace as she emerged from the plaza. “Ma’am, can you wait right there, please?”
Grace stopped. “Me? Why?”
“You might be a witness. Please wait there.”
Dozens of people turned to stare at her. “Witness to what?” Grace asked a man as he hurried by.
“Murder. They found a woman’s body near the door.” He gestured toward the far side of the plaza as he pulled a phone out of his pocket. At that moment the crowd shifted, and Grace caught a glimpse of a body on the ground. Long blonde hair covered the woman’s face where she lay sprawled in a pool of dark blood.
Secret Agent Man chimed from the phone tucked into Grace’s jacket. She fumbled in the deep denim pocket, her fingers first encountering a small hard object. It caught on her wristwatch as she pulled out her Blackberry, her hand trembling when she opened the phone’s leather holder. “Nathan?”
“I’m sorry, Grace. I heard from Ben, and he can’t get there. He didn’t have your phone number so he couldn’t call you himself.”
“Huh?” She stared down at the object swaying from her wrist.
“Ma’am, we need to talk with you. Can you hang up the phone?”
Grace untangled a necklace from her wristwatch and stared at a small black bear studded with rhinestones and pearls, dangling from a silver chain.
“What’s happening, Grace?” Nathan asked.
Grace looked at the police officer in front of her. “I have no idea,” she said faintly.