Stratus Fear

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Chapter Sixteen

“Now over here—” With quick and precise steps Dane moved to the right, pausing before he came to another room connected by the foyer. “This is my multi-purpose room,” he declared and stretched his arm towards his catch-all space. “For guests or for working or whatever the mood dictates. I guess you could call it the den, office, playroom and guest bedroom.”

I walked over to join him so I could peak inside. Well, he certainly didn’t lie. Besides the expensive and large sound system, Dane had equipped the room with a large video screen, an all-in-one workout machine and a comfy sofa-day bed combination. Of course, my gaze drifted over to his work space, the modular desk unit equipped with the latest computer components— including a new, slim, high-powered andron. A hyper-cube sat nearby on the desk top.

For a moment I wondered if I had the nerve to snoop a little and see what he brought home from the office, that’s if I could muster a workable and convincing MO. Oh, the motive was there are right, but the opportunity seemed the problem. I could hardly excuse myself to use the bathroom up here when Dane had one downstairs. Then again I could just come back up here the minute Dane went to the kitchen, to fix us a snack say, or something equally time consuming. But then what? Since I didn’t know what I was looking for I could hardly start rummaging through his personal effects and expect to come up with something terribly significant or even important enough to invoke my investigative privileges. I rather doubted Dane would think too kindly of me after that. In fact, I could already hear him complaining to my supervisor, Capt. Bender. “See, I brought her up to my place for a cozy after-dinner drink, some conversation and maybe a little cuddling, but instead of returning my romantic overtures, she wanted to go through my drawers.”

Of course, I could always ask Dane outright.

Instead, I smiled sweetly, complimented his décor again, and then slipped into general conversation. “I was wondering, Dane, if I could examine Gavin McAllister’s office.”

As he turned towards me, he adopted a thoughtful look. “Well now, I’m not sure I can get clearance, although I could ask Menlo to open up Gavin’s office.” He furrowed his brow deeper in thought. “But unless you can interpret the lab results and subsequent file data with chemical and math equations as well as the medical jargon, I’m afraid you’ll be wasting your time.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t know what to look for…unless you’re willing to help me.”

“It’s not a matter of wanting to, Cade. I’m more than happy to assist the police, but there are ethical concerns and considerations. For instance we wouldn’t want our formulas and test results to be made public before we’re ready to do so.”

“I assure you that everything will be kept in strictest confidence.”

“Of course, if you presented a court order we wouldn’t have much choice but to comply.”

“I had hoped to avoid that possibility.”

“Look, I can give you more information about our operations as long as it’s on the QT.” To show his sincerity, Dane threw me a wink and then donned a perceptive smile. “But if it’s all right with you I’d prefer to skip the interrogation tonight and end our evening on a comfortable and pleasant note.”

Taking a couple of steps away from him I crossed my arms, not that I wanted to be petulant but I did have priorities; although, it pained me to move even half an inch away from his luscious body. “Oh, I hadn’t realized I was performing an interrogation. Please forgive me. Of course, I agree that we should forgo any and all work for the rest of the evening.”

“In that case—” Dane turned quickly and headed back to the small foyer between the bedroom and den. I expected him to go back downstairs, but instead he continued on to the bedroom and beckoned me to follow. “Come on over here, detective, and look at the view.”

Oh boy. With hesitate steps, I started towards the bedroom, not exactly sure what to expect. Whatever he had in mind, I imagined the worst scenario, one in which Dane had time to undress and stretch naked across the bed. Then, as soon as I entered his boudoir, he’d pat the empty space next to him in bed and give me one of his wholesome but devilish smiles. Of course, I wouldn’t be looking at his smile but the great view of his heavenly body…

Actually, I found him on the bedroom balcony that overlooked the patio below. He had placed two cushioned chairs together so we could sit, relax and watch the traffic scrim up and down between the two cities, the travel lanes giving off a lemon-chartreuse glow in the dun haze of night.

“Have a seat, Cade,” Dane offered, pulling out the nearest chair in gentlemanly fashion.

“Thanks.” I took the proffered seat and allowed him to scoot me closer to his chair, thus making it a comfy, cozy and intimate arrangement.

“Tell me something,” he began behind me, “if I open a bottle of champagne will you join me in a drink? Just one glass, I promise.”

I didn’t ask if he planned to use super-sized goblets, thus turning two ounces of pleasure into a titillating quart. Instead, I turned and glanced up at him. My smile broadened as I admired him from this angle, his chin strong and firm, his neck nicely corded and his shoulders as broad and hard as a steel beam. “Sure,” I managed to get out, my power of speech finally overriding my awestruck brain. “A couple of sips won’t hurt my reputation.”

At least I thought so. Of course, as long as I kept my wits about me and Dane didn’t spike my drink with any drug that caused instant arousal I’d be all right to drive home. Although, I could just chuck to all and allow him to carry me over to his bed, that cozy and inviting set-up behind us with its soft spread, plump pillows and lovely panorama of the heavens above. Then, if he wished to undress me, I wouldn’t hinder his investigation to uncork and decant my slick and sizzling body…

Instead, Dane stood in the frame of the open double doors. “Okay then. Make yourself comfortable, Cade, and I’ll be right back.”

I waited a couple of minutes, until I heard him descend the spiral staircase with a tap-tap-tap of the heels of his leather ankle boots. Then I sprung into action, reworking my steps back to the guest room/den and over to his desk. I hated myself of what I was doing, but at the same time I knew I had to do it, even with my face flushed and my body trembling from an overdose of Dane-gazing. I worked as fast as I dared, turning on the cube and then pressing various components until several typed reports appeared. They seemed related to laboratory work, a lot of figures and equations typed neatly in columns; and even though I had no idea what the information meant, it still looked promising enough to copy to my comlink. After that, I tried to put the cube back the way it had sat on the desk. It still glowed an incandescent blue with recent use, but it would turn off at any minute…I hoped.

And I hoped Dane wouldn’t look too closely at the user-date-time mode the next time he opened his files. Then again, they hadn’t been classified as personal or top secret, the cube left on the desk for anyone to open and examine the contents. Still, I felt like a high-tech criminal, like Rogue, for instance; although I rather doubted that Rogue felt any pangs of guilt or remorse for what he did.

When I returned to my seat on the balcony I took a moment to tame my shaking limbs and bring my breathing back to normal. I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of cloak-and-dagger espionage. Yet, by the time I heard Dane on his way up the stairs, I knew I presented a calm, cool vision of a put-together lady—a deluxe Mata Hari.

“Here we go,” he announced, returning to the balcony with our drink ensemble nestled securely on a silver tray unit. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

I watched as he set the tray on a nearby patio table and then proceeded to lift the champagne bottle he had already uncorked and pour the liquid into two crystal flutes.

Now I felt rather elegant if not indulgent when Dane brought over the glasses and handed one to me. Still standing, he raised his drink to his lips, but paused to offer me a smile as effervescent and honeyed as the champagne. “I suppose I should make a toast,” he murmured, “but I prefer to make promises in a much more inviting atmosphere. But tell me, Cade, don’t you enjoy it more when there’s no strings attached?”

His provocative-laced insinuation not only stumped me for a moment but left me speechless. So, I simply nodded and then took my first sip as he did the same. The wine went down like a hot, bubbling tidal wave, making me choke on the fizzle.

“Oh, here, let me!” Concern riddled Dane’s face as he helped me out my seat, and then went to fetch a linen napkin from the tray. By the time he returned and dabbed my chin with the cloth I had recovered sufficiently, although I had now traded my choking tirade for the flush and gush of embarrassment. What on earth could Dane be thinking? I know what I thought, that I couldn’t hold my liquor for one; and two, I seemed to lack any appropriate politeness or dignity.

“It is a rush, isn’t it?” he laughed and tugged me towards him. “Not necessary an unpleasant experience but a surprise just the same. I’m not used to champagne either, even though a friend gave me six bottles of it last Christmas. I only bring it out for special occasions when the guests and the conversation prove stimulating and encouraging. Of course, it also works one-on-one. Like this—”

He seemed about to kiss me, his mouth bent perilously close to my own. I could smell the champagne on his breath, just as smooth and expensive, and warm, too, as his breath caressed my face. I closed my eyes, ready for his lips to touch mine. And then I heard the trill of bells, somewhere off in the distance, a welcoming sweetness, a prelude to so much more.

Suddenly, Dane broke our embrace and gently stepped back, his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. He hadn’t expected a bell chorus to go along with our first kiss, and neither had I. “Oh, I’m sorry, Cade, but that’s the doorbell. Someone’s here.”

Clearing my throat, I glanced down, around, anywhere but at him. “I need to be going anyway.”

“Well, if you want to use the bathroom or anything… Of course, you don’t have to leave.”

Willing myself to meet his gaze with professional tact, I tried a smooth look. “No, no, I better go. It’s been a wonderful evening, Dane, but I have a full day tomorrow. Thank you so much for dinner…and the champagne.” I remembered I had a full glass still clutched in my hand.

He offered a broad smile. “If you don’t mind an old cliché, the pleasure has been all mine, and I hope we do this again very soon.”

I puckered my lips in a half-smile, inviting and noncommittal at the same time. “I’d like that very much.”

The ding-ding of the door chimes continued to insinuate itself in the pleasurable time and space we had carved out for ourselves, prompting Dane to end our little dive into physical pleasure and go answer the summons. I followed along, just as soon as I downed my champagne and set the flute back on the tray, this time without the gagging sound effects. Waste not; want not, another maxim that made sense, especially when this bubbly probably cost about seven hundred dollars a magnum. Dane certainly had a very generous friend who hadn’t minded gifting six bottles of the stuff.

Once in the living area, I paused to fetch my shoulder bag and jacket while Dane welcomed his visitor, or in the case, visitors. I recognized Renata Tijeras from the institute, dressed this evening in a form-fitting black sheath, calf-hugging boots and an army of gold rings in her ears, around her neck, clamped to both forearms and dangling at each wrist. I didn’t recognize the man who accompanied her, but Renata knew how to pick her dates. Of medium-height and build, he still offered a commanding presence, his eyes coffee brown and keen, his face angular and smooth, and his hair styled perfectly. And he looked just as stunning all in black cashmere and suede, with a red tie his only complimentary hue besides his chestnut hair.

“Hello, detective,” Renata greeted and extended her slim hand my way. “How nice to see you again.”

I approached and accepted her handshake. “Dane and I had a dinner engagement earlier, and now I’m on my way out.”

“Oh, well, we won’t keep you then; but I’d like to introduce you to Dalton Hendricks who runs our financial services. He’s our plus and minus man, or the numbers cruncher of our vice-president triumferate. Oh, I guess we have to call it a duo now.” Renata added a little laugh to cover her faux pas. “Dal, this is Detective Parrish who’s investigating Gavin’s death.”

“Yes, I heard all about you, detective.” Dalton Hendricks took a few broad and determined steps to come face-to-face with me, and then offered his hand and a practiced business smile, strong in corporate fineness but amiable at the same time. “Menlo briefed me on the situation before I arrived in town tonight; and I put myself completely at your service, detective. Whatever you need, I will be happy to provide.”

His hand felt smooth and strong, although the thick gold band of his onyx and diamond signet ring pressed into my fingers, tight enough to make me wince. “Thank you, Mr. Hendricks. I do have more questions and a couple of requests. If you and I could meet sometime tomorrow…”

After releasing my hand, he used his to sweep the air between us. “No problem, detective. I do have several important meetings to attend tomorrow morning and early afternoon. Would three o’clock suit you or is that too late?” His gaze offered a challenge as if to say: either take it or leave it, lady. I’m too busy to play games, murder or otherwise.

“That’s fine with me.” I smiled sweetly. “Three o’clock at your office.”

“Yes, of course. Now is there anything I can prepare for you ahead of time?”

I told him what I wanted, the personnel file on Gavin McAllister and all relevant inter and outer office communications. Hendricks barely blinked as I spoke, his face immobile; but when I finished, he nodded and offered that serviceable smile again. “You shall have it, Detective Parrish. Until tomorrow then, I wish you a good night.”

“Yes, a good evening to you, detective,” Renata echoed with the shimmy and clink of her gold dangles.

“Thank you.” Hoisting my purse strap up on my shoulder, I clutched my jacket and started towards the foyer. Dane, who had been standing off to the side of his two guests, now accompanied me to the door.

“Thanks, Cade,” he murmured while activating the door sensor to let me out. “I had a nice time tonight, and I hope we can meet again tomorrow. Stop by my office after your interview with Dalton.”

I threw a quick glance his way. No promises. I couldn’t afford to commit myself, professionally or personally, and neither could he despite his earlier suggestion to the contrary.

“I’ll try, Dane.”

There! Short and sweet, and definitely to the point. With my schedule tomorrow, I couldn’t guarantee I’d even have time for a cup of coffee. From morning on, I’d be running down potential witnesses on Terre Celeste, checking in with Arianna and then hoping to catch Morrison when he came into work at noon. From there it would be back to the city and the Senesco Institute. And maybe just maybe, after my meeting with Dalton Hendricks, I’d have time to catch a bite to eat before heading to the Midnight Lace Club to interview the dancers. So how could I offer Dane anything more?

And yet with his kiss still branded on my lips and his body still wrapped around mine, I walked briskly out of the apartment and continued down the second floor runway until I reached the landing. But before I went any further, I clutched the iron bannister and took a breather, letting out several long, purifying streams of air until I felt ready to walk down the stairs and stand on solid earth once more. I had almost plunged off that silky cloud of reason and sensibility, into the fiery pit of desire—and for what, just to have sex with a gorgeous man? What happened to my common sense, my stability, my loyalty? I had been bedazzled and sucker-punched, right between the legs, leaving my crotch hot and dripping with lust. No, my integrity, my professional ethics, had to come first. My thoughts would have to be stripped of everything concerning Dane Merrick and his arousing presence, and refocused solely on the Gavin McAllister case. Think cold and dead, I told myself, and not hot, alive and throbbing!

Thus, with a little sigh of regret, I proceeded forward, to my vehicle and onward home.

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