“SURPRISE!” my friend Vicky screamed in my face as I entered the lobby of my building, located within walking distance of Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Alfonse, the doorman, was one step behind her. Carrying two bottles of champagne, Vicky looked stunning in a fire-engine red bandage dress and gunmetal grey pumps.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked, grinning.
“Well, your big acquittal, of course,” she replied. “It’s all over the papers.”
Alfonse picked up a copy of The New York Times, already open at the right page. There I was, leaving the courthouse with my client, Andy Collins.
“‘Up-and-coming lawyer behind acquittal in a high-profile case of illegal trafficking of art and antiquities’,” Alfonse read out loud for our benefit. “Congratulations, Ms. Lake, quite a coup. And you look great in the picture, too.”
I tried to smile, really tried, but my victory was bittersweet. I’d only been entrusted with the case because Bill Peterson, the senior lawyer handling it, had suddenly been taken ill and Judge Barnes wouldn’t grant a postponement. Being the only one who had worked on the defense with Bill and the client for days, I knew the case inside out. And yes, I had won, but God and I both knew that Andy Collins had been guilty of all the charges brought against him and that I had enabled him to evade justice.
Some of my mixed feelings must have shown on my face because Vicky was already pushing me into the elevator. “What’s wrong?”
Naturally, I couldn’t tell her Collins was guilty. I’d have to take that to the grave with me. Bill always said I’d eventually get used to the bittersweet aftertaste of defeating the justice system. I sincerely hoped so. I liked my job and was already addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with every trial.
Of course I could have lied, said I was exhausted from a long day at the office. I could even have told her the vampires were hiring me to represent one of them in court. But I really just needed a girlfriend to confide in so I told her what I could.
“I kissed Andy Collins,” I said, my eyes never leaving the elevator’s electronic panel.
Would she judge me?
“He came to drop off a gift late last night, after the trial.”
We had reached my floor and I unlocked the front door of my one-bedroom apartment, a place I could only afford after I’d inherited a large sum of money from my mother when she was declared legally dead—a mother who I hadn’t seen since I was ten, and an ex-model who’d amassed a small fortune during her seven year career on the runways.
I nodded towards a painting leaning against a wall. Vicky was unusually quiet, or unusually quiet for her in any case, as she studied Andy’s gift. I left her to open the champagne and got into the shower.
“It’s pretty,” Vicky said through the door, “and expensive. I hope it’s not counterfeit. Was it a good kiss?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not sure,” I shouted back, referring to the kiss. “He sort of took me by surprise.”
“Hmmm…yeah. Sucks when it’s like that. You’re seeing him again tonight, aren’t you?”
The woman was a mind reader.
“Yes, he’s throwing a party at his place to celebrate.”
Just then, we were interrupted by a knock on the door.
I stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around me, and went to open the door.
“Probably Catherine,” Vicky said. “She’s late.”
“SURPRISE!” Catherine shouted, then air-kissed us both before pouring herself a glass of champagne. “I brought sushi and I’m starving. The only vegetarian option they had tonight was avocado rolls,” she said for my benefit. She had already opened the cupboard where I kept my plates before she noticed the expression on our faces. “Did I miss something?”
“Aurora kissed a bad boy,” Vicky said before I could say a word. I tried to say he’d been acquitted of all the charges—a jerk reflex—but why lie more on his behalf?
“Surely can’t be worse than your last one.” This from Catherine. “Is this one married, too?”
I rolled my eyes again and padded into the bedroom to start drying my hair. The girls followed me. Vicky did hair and makeup for fashion shows and shoots, so she started brushing and teasing my hair without my having to ask.
“It’s Andy Collins,” I said to the mirror. “You know—my last client.”
“Ah, yes, the dealer. He’s cute,” Catherine said. “What’s the problem?”
I had to shout over the noise of the hair dryer. “Apart from the fact that he’s a client? I don’t even know if I like him. It sort of just happened, you know? And now I have to see him again tonight at this party he’s throwing and I don’t know what to do.”
“Play it by ear,” Vicky said. “And follow your heart.”
“Fat lot of good that advice did her last time,” Catherine objected.
My last relationship had been a tumultuous two-year affair with my mentor, Bill Peterson. I broke it off with him when I realized he was never going to leave his wife and that their marriage wasn’t over, as he’d always told me, but very much alive. I’d just started working at the firm and he was so clever and charming and, well—Bill. Everyone liked Bill, even the DA, and he notoriously disliked every good criminal defense attorney on the planet. But Bill had a way with people and with words. I always enjoyed watching him work—still did—although after the affair it got a little awkward.
“I’d say take it slow this time. You already know he’s a bad boy, so that should count for something. Get to know him. Kiss him a few more times if you have to, but for Christ’s sake, don’t get emotionally involved. And since we’re on the subject of bad boys, guess who called me this morning?”
“Who?” Vicky and I asked at the same time, intrigued.
I tried to put a face to the name and came up blank.
“The baseball player?” Vicky asked.
“Yep!” Catherine said coyly. “We’re spending the day together tomorrow. He’s in town for the weekend, which means,” she addressed Vic, “you’re doing my hair for me, too.”
“Only because you make the best pecan pie ever,” Vicky replied, waving a flat iron in Catherine’s face. “And I’m collecting within the month.”
Vicky was working furiously on my hair, teasing, back-combing and pinning strands into place, when she asked if I knew what I was going to wear.
“Maybe the midnight blue dress we bought together,” I told her, thinking she would approve. She surprised me by crinkling her nose.
“Too conservative. I see you in something more aggressive tonight. Something backless, perhaps?”
“It’s October, Vic,” I reminded her.
“And your point is?”
“I don’t want to freeze to death.”
Just the use of the word death made me think of Sebastian Fiscard again. Everything seemed to make me think of Sebastian Fiscard, even the billboard for the “Yes to Vampire Integration” campaign right outside my office building—which I’d never noticed until today—featuring a male model that bore an uncanny resemblance to him.
I wanted to tell the girls about the case, of course—they would encourage me to take it on, to not be afraid—but mostly, I just wanted to tell them how imposing Sebastian Fiscard was. How intensely his blue eyes shone from the smooth, pale beauty of his face. How I could tell he was ripped even through his clothes.
What was wrong with me?
Panicking, I put all thoughts of Fiscard in a mental pigeonhole and secured it with the largest padlock I could imagine. There would be no talk of alluring vampires tonight or any other night, if I had a say in it.
“Wear this,” Catherine said, holding out a long strapless dress I had bought on a whim that summer. A dark red masterpiece with a stiff bow on the front. Would Andy think I was presenting myself as a wrapped gift?
“No way,” I said immediately.
“Yes way!” Vicky squealed. We had popped the second bottle of champagne by then and between my friends’ encouragement and a good dose of alcohol-fueled Dutch courage, I got into the red dress without putting up a fight. After putting on my favorite set of diamond earrings, my fanciest watch and signature Bvlgari ring, I called for a taxi.
“Some frogs do turn into princes, you know,” Vicky told me as I locked behind us.
“Just don’t believe it only takes one kiss,” Catherine finished for her, “or you’ll be in for a lot of disappointment. Most relationships take work. Lots and lots of work.”
With its views of the Jacqueline Kennedy Reservoir, Andy’s penthouse on the Upper West Side couldn’t have cost less than five million dollars. With the quality of the finishes and the art carefully displayed everywhere, it was worth double that. Whoever said crime didn’t pay was clueless.
I walked out onto the terrace to take in the view. “I thought you weren’t coming,” an unmistakable voice said behind me. I turned to look at my host, one arm holding onto the railing to steady myself. The champagne I’d drunk at home had gone to my head.
You had to hand it to Andy—he looked good in a tux. He looked me up and down, clearly enjoying what he saw. His perusal wasn’t in any way subtle, but daring and kind of sexy.
“You are a sight for sore eyes,” he whispered in my ear before kissing me on the cheek.
“Mr. Collins…” I started to say, but he interrupted me, one hand held up in front of him.
“Andy, please,” he said. “And before you chew my head off for what happened yesterday, I apologize. It was a surprise attack. Very naughty of me and entirely out of character, I assure you.”
I smiled; his boyish look made it difficult to be upset. This seemed to embolden him.
“I did keep my hands to myself, however, so surely I can be forgiven?” “Yes, Mr. Collins, but you would be well advised to continue to keep them to yourself,” I replied firmly, without ditching the smile.
“Only if you call me Andy.”
I nodded. “Thank you again for the painting. I think I found the right spot for it in my sitting room.” I was about to tell him he really shouldn’t have bought me anything, but we were interrupted by a one of the guests.
“Hey, Andy,” he said with a beautiful lopsided smile, an arm going round Andy’s shoulder. He looked even younger than my twenty-eight years. “Hi,” he said to me, not waiting for Andy to introduce us. He extended an arm. “Glenn Finnigan.”
“Aurora Lake,” I replied, taking his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Your lawyer?” he asked Andy. I didn’t like the way he started looking me up and down, like something he wanted to buy.
Something passed between the two men, something primordial and basic, then Andy said, “Glenn, go get drunk somewhere else on my property, will you?”
Duly chastised, the younger man grimaced and left with his tail between his legs.
“That was entirely uncalled for,” I told Andy.
“I know,” Andy admitted, his good humor restored. “But believe me when I tell you the kid’s a first-class jerk. You’re better off not knowing him.”
“Why invite him then?”
“His father is a friend,” he said, both hands on the railing now, eyes focusing on something in the distance. “He asked me to invite him, so I did.”
“Just like that?”
Andy turned his head to look at me. “It’s as good a reason as any other, isn’t it?” His reply said everything and nothing at the same time. How did he do that? He picked up two flutes of champagne from a passing waiter. “Would you sit with me a while?”
He guided me towards a sofa under a small marquee. We talked about everything. I already knew what he did for a living, and he was under the misguided impression that I didn’t judge him by it. Late into the night, he had undone his bowtie and I had pulled one leg up to rest beneath me. We were truly and completely at ease in each other’s company, and time was flying. Guests started leaving, probably a little miffed that their host had let himself be monopolized by me, but Andy didn’t seem to care.
He told me about his childhood. He never knew his father, and his mother was an alcoholic. “At least she wasn’t abusive,” he said. “Just useless.” I couldn’t help an internal cringe. To think about one’s mother as useless was a terrible thing to carry around all day, every day for a lifetime.
His first job had been as a busboy when he was barely fourteen. One evening he was cleaning up after a bunch of kids who looked only a couple of years older than him, and they tipped him twenty dollars just for cleaning their table. He asked around, trying to find out who those rich kids were, and someone told him they were a group of pushers. He wanted in on their circles, hoping to make some money too, so one evening he plucked up the courage to stop one of them on his way out of the bar where he worked.
“I thought they’d beat me bloody and leave me for dead,” he said. “But I told myself I had to try and I got lucky. Couple of weeks later I was pushing drugs at street corners.”
But he was smarter than his peers. He “sub-contracted,” as he put it, covering more territory in the same day by hiring friends to work for him. He focused on schools, clubs and playgrounds and he kept a low profile, not letting the money he made go to his head.
“My talent for crime didn’t go unnoticed.” He smiled. “I was quickly promoted to bigger things. By eighteen I was smuggling all sorts of things in and out of the country. Then one fine day I’m offered a million dollars to smuggle some old painting out of Lebanon and into the States. I didn’t know how large the canvas was, or who the artist had been, but I said yes and the rest is history. You saw the FBI files. I needn’t tell you how I operated.”
“Now I’m going legit,” he said. “I’m going to open an auction house.”
“An illegal art dealer turned auctioneer,” I said, mulling over the idea. “I like it.”
“I know the business and I enjoy it. I have quite a collection already, you know. Some here at home, more in storage. Would you like to see?”
I noticed the crowd had thinned out considerably. I told myself I had to leave that house now or I wouldn’t be leaving at all that evening. Such was my faith in myself since my breakup with Bill. He’d made such a fool of me that I couldn’t trust myself to make the right decisions anymore. Not unless I had time to think and agonize over it first.
“Another day perhaps,” I said, already pushing myself up from the sofa. “I really must get going. I might have to work tomorrow.”
Like all good hosts, Andy walked me to the door. He leaned against the frame, hands in his pockets, one leg crossed in front of the other, as if wanting to say something but not daring to in case I shot him down. He lingered there, eyes soft. I’d never seen this side of him before. Of course I’d met him at a time when he was possibly facing a long prison term. Getting into my pants had been the last thing on his mind. But now? Now I was fair game.
“What is it?” I asked, smiling already because I knew exactly what he was going to say.
His eyes crinkled at the corners, pleased that I had taken the bait.
“Will you have dinner with me tomorrow?”
“It’s a date,” I whispered, smiling wider, and all too aware that I would probably live to regret it. Nevertheless, I found myself unable to resist the challenge Andy represented.
Andy grinned like the Cheshire Cat.
Yes, I had definitely become fair game. And as far as Andrew Collins was concerned, it was hunting season.