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The Notorious B.I.G. (Junior)
"You come highly recommended, Mrs. Burke," the man said, holding her hand up to his lips and kissing the air above it. At least he didn't try to suck on her wrist; the guy looked so much like Dracula that she bet herself a jar of Sabon Margarita Sugar Scrub that he'd swirl his cape at the party guests.
She didn't let even a smidge of those ideas cross her face. "Thank you, Mr. Hayes. Now let's see what we have to work with."
He led the way, pointing out things like the exquisite crown molding and the patterned floors like they were fellow tourists; she scribbled notes on her pad and this time let her face betray a little confusion.
"Apologies," he said, a smile slipping briefly over his face, making him look a little less weary. "I've been spending most of my time on the other coast. Though it does look like the housekeeper has been earning her daily bread, doesn't it?"
She smiled and let him keep chattering. There was good light coming in, and the ceilings were high enough to foster the illusion of airiness despite the realities of New York square footage. Pack a couple hundred or so people into this ballroom, and they'd have to get friendly just because of proximity. With good food and good wine, they'd even enjoy it.
She could knock this out of the park.
Peter really cooked - apron and all - only about once a month, so she wasn't surprised to see him pulling a pan of frozen lasagna out of the oven when she got home. "I made green beans too," he said, a little defensively, before welcoming her with a kiss. "And I got strawberries."
She leaned into him, letting him hold her up. It had been a long day of visiting vendors all over Manhattan. "I'm just going to take a quick shower and then you can dazzle me with your culinary expertise," she promised, and he kissed her again and then swatted at her rear end.
She let him "surprise" her in the shower, and took the opportunity to get him to agree to attend Hayes's party with her. Peter in a tux might be a killer to show off to admiring eyes, but soapy, lustful Peter was all hers.
"Hayes? Von Hayes?" Neal asked as he smoothly uncorked a bottle of South African red that he'd assured her would complement moussaka.
Peter's spine stiffened just a bit. "Oh, he's a friend of yours?"
"No, no," Neal protested, and she wondered when he'd figure out that a dazzling grin didn't have nearly as much of an effect on Peter as a shy smile. "I just know the name. He's a collector."
"Of what? Pinky toes or Monets?" Peter asked, though clearly just to give himself some room to think; there was already a frown wrinkling his forehead.
"Pinky -?" Neal started to ask before she cut them both off by placing the salad bowl on the table and handing Neal the silver-plated salad tongs.
"El," Peter said quietly, while Neal pretended he wasn't eavesdropping by arranging the greens artistically.
"You're both on the guest list," she said firmly. They sat up straighter, glanced at each other, and nodded. Men were so predictable. "But you won't get in the door unless you're dressed as a literary character," she finished, and watched Peter cycle through dismay and determination and resignation while Neal openly smirked.
Peter was spooned up behind her, the heat of his chest better for her sore back than the hands of a skilled masseuse. The rumble his voice caused sparked a drowsy desire in her, and she played idly with his hand, resting low on her belly.
"Can you get out of this?" he asked.
"Possibly. But I'm not going to. It's a benefit for the library, and a successful event like this could give me and Louisa our pick of clients." She pressed back against him. "There'll be guards there, anyway. No one's going to be armed inside the party."
She could feel Peter breathing steadily as he looked for holes in her logic. She knew she had him when he started griping. "Can't I just go as your husband? Why do I have to dress up?"
"You've got the simplest costume ever," she promised, smiling when he kissed her shoulder in gratitude.
"Do you think I look like him?" Hayes asked, eyes flitting nervously from the portrait of Blake Inglesby Grand to her face, and Elizabeth thought wistfully of sane clients.
"Perhaps around the eyes," she said, crossing her fingers that he wouldn't go into detail about how he was descended from the man yet again.
"Ah!" he cried, lighting up as if she'd bestowed high praise. "Yes, I do have great-great-grandfather's eyes, don't I?"
"We should move the portrait to a more accessible location for the gala," she pointed out. "Everyone will want to see the man whose work they're celebrating."
"Indeed," he said, nodding decisively. "And the library will be loaning me a page from his journals for the event, so there will be a display case here, below the portrait."
"If we set that up over here in this alcove," she said, drawing him away from the portrait with a hand on his arm, "people won't have any problems getting to the food." She'd have to make sure that the display case had a slanted top, to prevent people from setting down glasses and plates.
"That sounds superb," he said effusively. "We mustn't let anyone disrupt the energy of the room. One peep at the portrait and journal and then they're off to hobnob with the rest of my guests." He sighed expansively. "This is all rather exhausting. You can see yourself out?"
"Of course, Mr. Hayes." She bit back a sigh of her own - one of relief - and flipped open her pad the minute his back was turned. Louisa was taking care of the champagne and stemware, so she called the caterer to finalize the menu and the library to inquire about the display case.
A text from Peter appeared on her screen when she finished her calls. ? was all it said. She typed xxx and hit send.
"You are too handsome for your own good," she said as she tied Peter's bowtie and tried to keep clear of his greedy hands.
"I never knew I had a thing for Mary Poppins until now," he said, fighting a smile. He pushed a lock of her hair behind her ear beneath the brim of her hat. "Hell of a thing to discover about yourself at my age."
She laughed, feeling the butterflies in her stomach dissipate. "You're much better than any chimney-sweep," she said, then got on her tiptoes to whisper hotly into his ear. "You'll be under this skirt by the end of the night."
Stepping back, she gave him a once-over, checked her own appearance in the mirror one last time, and picked up the carpetbag that was the reason she'd chosen the costume in the first place; it could hold everything she needed for the event.
"Let me," Peter said, taking the bag from her and wrapping his other arm around her waist.
"Oh, Mr. de Winter!" she trilled, and he squeezed her tight.
She lost Peter immediately, Louisa separating them efficiently with a worried, "They sent the wrong flatware."
She took off with a backward glance, bolstered by his reassuring nod as he handed the carpetbag back to her. The butterflies returned to her stomach.
That crisis and two others successfully averted, she made her way back out to the main room, glance skipping over Hayes, who was looking both constipated and drunk, to find Peter. His back was to her, and she let her eyes rest for a moment on the strong, broad line of his shoulders. Next to him, half a head shorter, was Neal, standing in profile.
"Who are you supposed to be?" she asked him, coming up to stand near them.
"Sal Paradise? Jim Stark?" Neal offered, grinning mischievously at her. "Whoever would wear this outfit?"
"Sodapop Curtis, I think," she mused out loud. She'd always been aware that Neal was outrageously pretty, but she'd thought of him as a very modern man even in vintage, coiffed and clothed to within an inch of his life. And yet here he was, in rough-looking blue jeans whose rolled-up cuffs camouflaged the tracker on his ankle, a tight white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes folded into one sleeve, and slicked-back hair like a 60's greaser.
"He won't tell me who he's supposed to be," Neal said, indicating Peter with a tilt of his head. "James Bond?"
"No," Peter said, sounding amused. "El, you going to show us the guest of honor?"
"Hayes is over there, the one trying to look like a fin de siècle poet and painter," Neal said, his eyes flicking unerringly to Hayes's tall figure. "But the journal page is over there." He stepped in that direction, and she took Peter's arm and followed.
"Not what I was expecting, Jeeves," Neal murmured as he devoted his attention to the yellowed paper under the glass.
"No good?" Peter asked, not bothering to correct Neal's guess, and Elizabeth craned her neck to see, over Neal's shoulder, a sheet of parchment with a stylized drawing of a long-haired girl holding a flower, lines of a poem drafted next to her.
"Definitely not the real thing," Neal confirmed, and she watched Peter's gaze sharpen, watched the two of them start to move as a team.
"Hayes?" Peter suggested, scanning the room for him.
"Got to be, but Grand wasn't important enough for his stuff to be worth very much."
"It's worth it to Hayes. Grand's his great-great-grandfather," she said, with maybe just a touch of smugness at their incredulity. It was always nice when she had a hand in solving the case. "What are you going to do now?"
Peter looked frustrated. "I didn't bring my gun, and your guards would have confiscated it anyway. And I'd rather not have all these people as witnesses if we're arresting Hayes."
"Let's use the party as cover, see if we can find the original ourselves," Neal proposed, snagging a flute of champagne from a passing waiter.
Peter flashed him a foreboding look and Neal protested, "Stealing back is not the same as stealing!"
"Elizabeth," she heard, and turned to see Louisa. "No dessert plates," Louisa said.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," she told Peter, not wasting her breath on cautioning Neal, then followed Louisa back through the crowd.
The dessert plates were there, just mislabeled, so Elizabeth spun on her heel while the going was good. Neal always made for an entertaining spectacle, but it wasn't often that she got to see her husband in action, and she had no intention of missing this.
Mary Poppins wore sensible low-heeled buttoned boots, and she was quicker than she would have been in stilettos. "Elizabeth!" Neal said when she caught up with them, shifting to let her into their huddle. "When you were organizing this with Hayes, were there any rooms he wouldn't let you see?"
"All I saw were the ballroom, the bathroom, and the staging area," she said, and Peter and Neal had an unspoken conversation with their eyes, though Neal cheated a little and let the rest of his face get in on the action.
"We'll go first," Peter said, slipping his arm around her and letting his fingers dangle against her hip, her wrist. The teasing touches were getting to her, and she tilted her face up for him. She loved the way he kissed her; while he walked her backwards toward a strategic vantage point, she wouldn't let him let up. "So my wife is a bit of an exhibitionist," Peter murmured against her neck, his hair pushing against the brim of her hat. "Hell of a thing to discover after ten years of marriage." She laughed, shakily, and held him tighter.
"Where's Neal?" she asked, peering over his shoulder, but she spotted him before Peter could swing them around to look. "Never mind." He was next to Hayes, smiling broadly and gesturing expansively with his glass of champagne; he was flirting up a storm.
"He getting anywhere?" Peter wondered, kissing along her jaw.
"Hayes looks a little freaked out, actually." She turned to catch his mouth with hers once more. "Time to send in the cavalry."
He straightened out his tie and went, and she saw him gesture toward the portrait. Even better, she saw Hayes brighten under Peter's friendly attention. Neal slipped away and headed for the door that led to the private staircase. "Cover me, Elizabeth," Neal asked as he brushed by her. She tried to scan the room at a glance the way she'd seen Peter do; the guards who should have been near the door had moved to the front door, evidently pegging that as the trouble spot.
She let her skirt hide him, turning her head curiously to watch what he was doing. With those slim, boyish fingers he unfolded his sleeve and pulled the box of cigarettes free and shook one out. He unrolled it deftly, stripping the paper away from the core, revealing what looked like two separate halves of an extra-long bobby pin. Swiveling on his heels, he turned to pick the lock on the door.
There was a click as the lock gave. "Well played, Sodapop," she said, and he winked conspiratorially before ushering her in.
"When did the library deliver the journal page?" Neal asked.
Her BlackBerry was still inside the miniature carpetbag dangling from her wrist. "Four hours ago," she said, "so it could be anywhere."
"Not necessarily," Neal answered, frowning as he scanned the room. "He had to break open the display case, make sure his copy looked close enough to the original to pass muster, get the fake in place, and hide the original. His time was pretty tight."
"Okay, well, what do you know about him?" she asked. "Other than that he's a 'collector'?"
"That his second favorite author, after great-great-grandfather Grand, is Poe. Bet he went for a classic," Peter said, easing into the study.
"Hiding in plain sight?" Elizabeth asked. "Really?"
"Oh, yeah," Neal said, pulling one particular sheet out of a stack of parchment. "And we're going to do it right back to him. Give me your bag." He laid the sheet flat between two pages of her notebook and then turned back to the desk and picked up a fountain pen. "A Caffrey for a Grand?"
"Hardly a fair trade," Elizabeth said, and Peter laughed out loud at Neal's face as he tried to figure out how to interpret that.
"How -?" she asked when she opened the carpetbag to find a long-stemmed red rose inside. "I didn't take the bag off my wrist the entire night!" She considered him, devastating in his tux, and thought about all the things Neal had taught him.
Peter tugged his bowtie loose and shrugged off his jacket and pulled the bag free. "Come here, Miss Poppins."
He sent her hat flying across the room and got her on the bed. She closed her eyes, laughter bubbling up inside her. Neal hadn't had to teach him that.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.