She walked briskly up to the desk, giving Sergeant John Broderick the most dazzling smile he could recall. He smiled back reflexively. "Can I help you?"
"Yes. I'm Amber Adair to see Peter Caine."
Broderick marveled at the woman. She was neither slim nor stout, but instead fit and strong looking. Her hair was, like her name, a honey red-gold. She wore a soft grey suit with a gold-colored turtleneck and grey boots -- but what nailed him to the wall, so to speak, were the 1000-watt smile and the brilliant green eyes. He was pleased to be able to keep that smile of hers intact as he told her,
"Yes, Ma'am. Peter's expecting you. Go on back."
She twinkled at him and leaned towards him confidentially. He could see she was not consciously flirting -- she could not help the reaction she caused. "I haven't seen Peter since we were kids. I'm guessing he's changed a bit. Maybe he even has hair."
Broderick grinned. "Yes, he has hair now. Look at the desks in the middle of the room -- he's in front of the Captain's office in the back. You can't miss him. He's the good-looking one."
Amber laughed merrily. "Then that much hasn't changed." She pushed through the little wooden gate and went on back.
He was right -- she saw the handsome young detective seated directly in front of the Captain's office and knew he had to be Peter. So different from the tense boy she'd known, but so much the same. She stopped to look at him for a moment, unnoticed -- he was the oldest friend she had. At that very moment, he looked up and saw her. With a whoop, he jettisoned himself from the wooden chair, launching himself toward her.
He swooped down on her, dipping her into an enthusiastic kiss. Peter could not contain his exuberance at seeing this old friend -- they had been close for the time Amber had remained at the orphanage, had written and phoned one another for years after that. Jody laughed and shook her head.
"Peter, you know Jordan's right behind you."
He swung around with Amber still in his arms to face his girlfriend. Amber was trying to collect herself, but she felt the potential tension like heat prickles on her skin. She grinned at the blonde woman, pulled out of Peter's arms and stuck out a hand.
"You must be Peter's lady. He told me on the phone he was seeing a very special woman. Peter and I knew each other a long time ago."
Jordan could not help herself. She responded, as the whole room now did, to Amber's electric smile. She shook the proffered hand. "And you are...?"
"Amber. Amber Adair. You'll have lunch with us, of course. I know Peter told you we're having a kind of catch-up lunch."
Peter had, in fact, forgotten to say a thing about it, but shot Amber a look of gratitude.
"How about sharing your lovely friend with the rest of us?" Came a sardonic tenor.
Amber turned, disengaging herself from Peter. Her eyes rested on a man somewhere in his forties, clad in a dark suit with a red tie and dark green sunglasses.
"Kermit!" Peter ejaculated. "You're worse than Lo Si for sneaking up on a guy!"
"You'd have seen me coming if you hadn't been so...busy."
Peter gave a slightly uncomfortable laugh. "Kermit Griffin, meet Amber Adair. She and I were at Pathways together for a while."
Amber's eyes met his -- she knew that, even with the dark glass in the way -- and a thunderbolt struck her brain.
Kermit met her eyes -- he knew she saw through the glasses somehow -- and was hit by lightning. There was something about her -- her eyes? That brilliant smile? Maybe...but there was something indefinable, something he wanted more of.
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Adair," he gravely took her hand.
"Amber," she said softly. "And it's mutual."
Peter looked from one to the other, and then met Jordan's eyes. She wore a faint smile. Jody rolled her eyes. Blake merely sighed. He wore an enchanted grin, as he seemed to sniff the air. Peter tried a sniff, somewhat in reflex, but only smelled Jordan's cologne.
"Well," Peter threw up his hands. "Kermit, you'd better join us for lunch."
"Be happy to."
Amber and Kermit had not yet looked away from one another. Peter wasn't sure Amber had blinked -- he couldn't tell what was happening behind the former mercenary's glasses, but somehow knew he hadn't either. Gently, he gave Amber a little push toward the door. "If we're going to eat, we ought to move."
The eye contact broken, Amber got herself together and started for the doors. "You're right. I have to get back to my shop sometime today. The locals said somebody named Caine wanted to talk to me. You know this guy, Peter?"
"Your shop is almost in Chinatown, right?" He knew it. He just knew it.
"Yes -- actually I think I'm inside the area. I know I'm in your precinct."
"Then that Caine is my father."
She stopped. He narrowly avoided running into her. Jordan giggled, but Kermit just stopped, waiting. He was still watching the girl from behind green glass. "Your father? But you're an orphan, like me."
"It's amazing: Pop was nowhere near as dead as I thought. Seems he thought I was dead, too. I went from no father to two of them in no time."
Numbly, she began walking again. "I wonder how I could have missed picking that up?"
"What do you mean? You couldn't know..." Jordan asked.
"Oh, Amber's a psychic." Peter told Jordan smugly.
Amber groaned. "You just had to get that in there, didn't you, Peter?"
"What are friends for?" He grinned. Out on the street, he pointed. "There's a great pub just up there. Good burgers, bad fries."
Amber grinned again. "And we do love bad fries, don't we?"
"Oh, indeed we do," they both cackled madly for a minute. To Kermit's great shock, he felt a growl rising in his throat -- what was this about? Was it as selfish as that he felt she wasn't paying him enough attention?
No...couldn't be that.
Amber must have felt the growl rising -- she could not have heard it. She turned to the man in the glasses and took his arm. "Jordan's got an escort. I ought to have one, too, don't you think?" She carefully avoided meeting his eyes -- she needed to see ahead of her, not break her neck because she was entranced by the man.
He felt a peculiar rush as she tucked her hands around his bicep. With another woman he might have felt silly -- this was a Chinatown street, not the opera. With Amber Adair it felt right. Kermit, like her, looked straight ahead as they followed Peter and Jordan to the chosen pub.
The bartender waved at Peter, saying, "Hey, Caine -- take a booth. Sally will be right with you."
Amber slid all the way to the window, Peter doing the same on his side. Jordan sat across from Kermit with a wry look. "Something tells me we're in for orphanage reminiscences."
The honey-haired woman twinkled. "Oh, no. We'll bore you with that another time. Right now I want to hear about how Peter lost his orphan status! This is terribly exciting. And I can't believe you didn't say something over the phone!"
The waitress, a strong featured woman with a thick red ponytail, bobbed over and took orders. Amber knew about Peter's going to live with the Blaisdells, but they had lost touch before he had become a cop. He told her about that, and then about meeting Caine after fifteen years, and the long road to rediscovering their relationship. She soaked it up with glee. Kermit thought he had never seen anyone listen so hard. This woman seemed to give you her whole attention, to take in your words like a sponge. Her eyes, ears, even fingertips all faced Peter as he spoke, as if she were a small satellite dish receiving data. He wanted suddenly to have anything to tell her -- just so she would listen like that to him. But what could he tell her? About his life as a mercenary? His time with the CIA? What it had felt like the first time he'd killed a man? Surely she wouldn't want to hear what his memories were about.
As Peter paused to sip his coke, she turned to Kermit and softly told him, "You might be surprised at what I'd like to hear about, Mr. Griffin."
Then she turned her eyes back to her old friend, leaving the older man feeling like a koi on a stream bank, out of his depth and gasping for air.
Mentally, Amber was kicking herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, letting him know she had `heard' that. Damn. Would she scare this marvelous man off? He was such an enigma, even to her gift...he knew how to guard his mind -- those thoughts had merely been such loud, sudden, surface thoughts that she had accidentally picked them up. This was a man she wanted to get to know -- wanted to touch. He was darkly beautiful; a soul strong in itself, deeply contained; deeply in pain, yet seeking solace.
Peter finished talking about himself. "Now, Forest-Gem, what the heck are you doing in Sloanville? What happened to you? I know your aunt came and got you from Pathways -- but we kind of lost touch after high school."
She colored. She had almost forgotten that nickname. "Aunt Edith and Uncle Dougie completed my training in the `psychic arts'," she rolled her eyes a little. "That sounds pretty damn pretentious for someone who pretty much tries her best not to overhear other people's thoughts. Then they sent me to college, and I've been moving from place to place ever since."
Peter repeated, "But what brought you here? I mean, I'm glad you did come here, but what made you decide on this town?"
"I'm about to open a bookstore, like I told you on the phone this morning -- kind of a New Age deal -- some Wiccan stuff, some Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu...books on ancient civilizations -- you know. A store for the fringe elements. There'll also be some jewelry, incense and candles, and the like."
Peter nodded. "My Pop will be glad to hear you have all that kind of stuff."
"I've done this before. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure why here. Maybe I was drawn here because I knew you. I still don't know how I lucked into finding you here. Captain Willard, back in Cleveland, was telling me about his pal Captain Simms at the hundred and first, and mentioned your name. I just had to call you when I got here, after that. It had been way too long."
The burgers were as good as Peter had promised -- the fries as bad. That was an old joke between the Pathways Alumni -- Amber and Peter had sneaked off the property many afternoons to get greasy, crunchy french fries. They had been caught, of course, and disciplined -- but it had, they agreed, always been worth it. There was nothing like a bad fry -- the worse, the better.
The four of them talked of general things for the rest of the meal. Jordan asked a question Kermit wanted answered himself.
"Why did Peter call you Forest-Gem?"
"It's a bad joke. My name -- Amber -- is a semiprecious stone formed by a specific kind of pine resin."
"And that I found you crying in a tree that first night at the orphanage." The young cop teased her.
She blushed again, and Kermit smiled -- that was a very attractive color she turned.
"Yes, well...you helped me out that night, and until Aunt Edith came for me. But we said we wouldn't subject these poor people to our Pathways nostalgia."
Afterwards, the quartet made their way back to the precinct house. Peter asked,
"You want to meet the Captain? I know she would be interested in your talents."
"Maybe another time. Here -- give her my card, and tell her that I have worked with other police departments. I have letters from a few of those captains she can read over if she would like references."
"Will do. See you later? Meet us at Delancy's around six-thirty," he chucked her chin then realized how close he had come to pulling back bitten fingers. She gave him a feral grin, and he chuckled ruefully. "I'm sorry, Amber. You just bring out the big brother in me."
"Right, `big brother'." She smiled at Jordan, who once again found herself powerless to do anything but smile back. "Good to meet you." Finally, Amber looked up into the green glasses with a crooked smile. "And Kermit. I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow."
The answering grin was just as ironic as her own. "Until this evening, Green Eyes."
She turned and strode away. She felt eyes on her back all the way until she turned the corner. Amber shook her head as she walked -- what was wrong with her? He was no one to fool around with, she told herself. The man was a panther, not some tame kitten she might cuddle.
Although cuddling with the panther in the green
glasses might be worth the risk.
Kermit followed Peter back through the banks of desks, heading slowly for his office. The Captain rose from her seat and followed him in, closing the door behind her.
"Detective Griffin..." he raised an eyebrow and she chuckled. "Kermit. Look, I know it didn't ever quite work out between us, and I know it may not be my business, but I want you to stay smart. Promise me you'll be careful."
"Careful?" He seemed intent on whatever was on the monitor.
"Careful about that friend of Peter's. Oh, yes, I saw her when she came in, and she seems like a nice young woman. I also saw the reaction between the two of you. Watch yourself."
He slid the glasses down his nose to look at her. "Captain...Karen. I...I guess I'm not used to having friends.... I...well, thank you. I appreciate your concern for me."
His Captain smiled sardonically. "But it's none of my business."
He laughed low. "I can't think of too many other people whose business it might be. There's something about that young woman. Of course, I'm probably old enough to be her father. So far, nothing beyond a few odd stares has happened. I can't really say what might come next, if anything."
Karen stood once more, rounded his desk and laid her hand on his shoulder. "If you need to talk, Kermit, you know I'll be here..." she couldn't continue. He had helped her so often, helped her make complex problems simple -- and for some time, they had both thought their deep-growing friendship might bloom into something far more. It had all but broken her heart to realize, and to have to tell him, that that was not going to happen. She still felt deeply for this enigmatic, hard man.
"Thank you, Karen," he put his own hand over hers, grinned up at her. "You're a class act."
She winked and left. He pushed his glasses back up and turned to his monitor. Amber Adair was going to be a distraction, he could just tell. Throwing up his hands at his inability to settle back down, he went for a cup of coffee. Blake was at the pot.
"So, Kermit, did you get a load of Miss Adair?" The smaller man sighed happily. Kermit squelched a growl -- Blake was an old friend, always ready to back a colleague. It wasn't fair to take out his strange reactions on his comrade.
"Yeah, I did. What do you think?"
Blake beamed beatifically with another of those annoyingly joyful sighs. "Pheromones."
"She has great pheromones." The little man saw the perplexed look on his friend's face and explained. "The basis of human attraction, Kermit. Pheromones are like a sub-fragrance, kind of. You pick up on them through glands associated with your nose -- she has terrific pheromones. That's why everybody likes her on sight -- or rather, on sniff."
Jody had heard this and started to laugh. "We all like her because she smells good?"
Blake gave her an earnest look. "Well, yes. It's not really a smell like you think of a smell -- more like a...well..."
"Sub-smell, didn't you say?" Kermit asked. "Sort of like subsonics -- you react even though you can't consciously hear the sound."
"Exactly!" Blake beamed. "Well, I have to get back to paperwork. But I must tell you, as good as her scent is, Amber Adair is just a very nice person."
Jody grinned. "And a pretty one, too."
Blake gave her a look. "She's pretty, but most of that is her personality and her scent. Next time you see her, hold your breath for a second. She is an attractive girl, but nowhere near as beautiful as your brain tells you she is. And you'll get accustomed to her pheromones -- they'll lose their effect on you after a day or two. You'll see, she's no super-model."
Kermit felt that snarl rising again. He must not have caught it in time -- Jody and Blake both looked at him strangely.
"Sorry -- too much grease at lunch. Got to get back to the ol' computer."
He took his coffee and made a beeline back to his office. Thank whatever you thanked that none of the others were around just now -- although he knew the precinct -- his reaction to Amber was likely to be gossip fodder for weeks to come. Well, the ex-mercenary thought, that was the price you paid for getting involved with people -- loners didn't have this sort of thing to worry about. They also didn't have friends who cared. It all evened out, he was discovering. He devoted a few minutes to a very specific search.
Finally, Kermit was able to get back to work.
Amber reached her store, `The Unturned Page', and went in. She checked everything over to make sure she was prepared for her opening tomorrow. She would do this several more times before the appointed hour. She always did. A tap at the front door made her start -- a man with longish grey hair peered in -- there was a somewhat oriental cast to his features. A young Chinese couple stood close behind him. Amber opened the door.
"I'm not open till tomorrow," she began.
"I know. I am Caine," the tall man said.
Caine -- Peter's father. "Yes -- they said you would come by to see me today. Come in, come in. Can I make you some tea?"
"That would be...very nice." The two young people smiled nervously as Caine inclined his head somewhat formally.
Amber led them back to the stairway to her apartment. In the kitchen, she told them to sit at her table while she put the kettle on and warmed the teapot. This little ritual always seemed to calm her as well as those who had sought her. She pulled down the good oolong and busied herself setting out the tea things. The three Chinese watched her move around the room. Caine was calm, seeming to merely enjoy observing her graceful economy of movement. The other two were beginning to respond to her, letting down the guards they had maintained so carefully.
Finally tea was ready, and small biscuits and cucumber slices laid out. Amber poured the dark brew and took her own seat. "Now, what can I do for you?"
Caine sipped his tea, nodded in satisfaction. "Very good tea," he murmured. She couldn't tell whether or not he was surprised. "I have come to ask a favor," he told her simply.
"If I can do it, I will." After all, this was Peter's father.
"My friends, Joseph and Mai Wang, are in need of employment. I thought that perhaps you would be in need of employees."
She perked up. "As a matter of fact, I could use some help." She looked at the young people. They were maybe twenty-one, she estimated, but each had a look of determination, Joseph's still somewhat nervous, like a cornered cat. "How much can you work?"
"As much as you need," the boy said defiantly. "All the time!"
She chuckled. "I'm not planning to be open all the time," she replied gently. Joseph found himself grinning in response. "I could use a couple of good people, though. Can you each work a full schedule?"
Caine put a hand out, stopping Joseph's reply. "They are enrolled at the local college. They can work full time, as long as they have time for their studies."
Amber grinned. Something in her mind clicked. This might be the reason, or at least part of it, why she was in Chinatown. "I think we can accommodate that. I'm all for education. Tell you what -- give me copies of your schedules, and we'll work out hours for you. If I like what I see after a week, you'll both become assistant managers. Can you run a register?"
Mai nodded. "I can. I can teach Joseph. He learns quickly. If you will excuse us, we'll go home and be right back with our schedules."
Amber nodded and the two hurried out. She called after them, "When you come back, ring the buzzer at the back door!"
Caine smiled at her as he crunched a slice of cucumber. "Thank you," he murmured.
Amber smiled back. "I'm pleased you approve. It makes me very happy to be able to aid Peter's father."
He looked up sharply. "You know my son?"
"Yes, from our time in the orphanage. Your son was very kind to a lonely girl who had just lost her mother. He is a good friend."
Caine nodded almost to himself. "We must discuss this further another time. For now, there are things I must tell you about the Wangs."
"They ran afoul of a Tong in New York City, didn't they?"
He gave her another razor look. She smiled gently and continued.
"Poor Mai was forced into prostitution at a young age. She and Joseph met when he was drawn into the drug trade. They fell in love and tried to get away together."
Caine nodded. A slow smile spread across his face. "Yes. They eventually required assistance to flee the Tong. They came here to start again. They will work very hard for you, Amber. Thank you for giving them a chance."
She grinned. "Of course. That's part of why I'm here -- I try to help people get back on their feet, put their lives and souls back together."
"You have...a gift."
"Yes, I have a certain amount of ESP. I try to use it to help -- especially young people who are trying to help themselves. Joseph and Mai will be fine with me. We'll make sure she gets her business degree, and that he has the opportunity to pursue his art. Thank you for bringing them to me."
"And you will have to tell me, one day, about my son when you knew him."
The buzzer sounded, and she went to let the Wangs in. Caine excused himself with a smile, telling them,
"You will do well with Amber. I must go now. Come to me if you need me."
Mai looked far more confident now, as she handed over a small piece of paper. Joseph handed over his, as well. He seemed to have gained some assurance, too. Both of them beamed back at her. Amber took the papers cheerfully, and led the way to the small copy machine in the stockroom. Once copied, she gave the originals back to the couple and they went back upstairs to the kitchen, where Amber pulled out a ledger book.
"Let's see. I plan to be open from ten until six most days. We'll be closed on Mondays, and open until ten at night Tuesday and Thursday nights. From your class schedule, it looks like you could work the nights for me?"
The couple agreed. In fact, it turned out that they were willing to work any time they were not in class. Amber worked out a fair schedule for them, one where they could work together as much as possible and be off together as well. They were still in the honeymoon stage -- Mai shyly confided that they had only been married a month. As they got used to each other and their marriage, Amber figured they could adjust for private time as needed. She was reasonably certain than by then they would be handling the schedule.
By the time they were all satisfied, Amber was more pleased than ever. These young people were going to work out just fine. She gave them a quick tour of the shop -- the books, incense, jewelry cases and so on. The two were to come back tomorrow after class to help with her grand opening. The newlyweds thanked her again for hiring them, and departed.
It was time to go to Delancy's.
Amber sighed heavily: it was time to go to Delancy's. Time to see that bunch of loud, friendly cops -- who seemed willing to become her new friends -- and Kermit. The man behind the glasses intrigued her, drew her, called to her like light calls a moth. Was she doomed to get burned? Would his flame warm her or engulf her, leaving her in ashes?
She ran back up the steps to check her face and hair -- they would have to do. The amber of her hair glinted in the last of the sun filtering through the window. She ran a brush through the curls, taming them into a braid, and then flew down the steps and out into the alley.
A shadow fell over her as she went out into the street.
She felt the observer, but then he -- she? -- was gone.
She shrugged and went on. If someone was watching her, it was most likely curiosity. Amber was not the usual type to open a shop in Chinatown -- there was no possibility of Oriental blood in her very Celtic features. She was new in Sloanville, and there was the effect she'd always had on people -- that way of drawing them to her. All in all, it was not surprising that someone might want to watch her unseen.
Delancy's was a nice place, she discovered. It seemed a friendly bar, not too loud but full of chatter. Peter stood and waved her over -- the cops had pulled several tables together. Amber went over and took the seat next to him. Jordan was on his other side. Blake took the seat across from Amber, smiling beatifically.
"I'm not a stalker," he told her earnestly. "I just want to sit here and feel the effects of your pheromones."
She laughed lightly. "That's all right. You're the first person to react like that, you know."
He laughed too. "You must be joking."
"No, really. Usually someone who knows what it is doesn't want to be affected, and so stays away from me."
"I know that I'll become accustomed to it, and it won't be as much of a rush anymore. Do you mind if I just enjoy it for a while? It's a fascinating effect."
Now she laughed heartily. The man was odd, but harmless. "Not at all. You're sweet to ask."
A brunette woman came in then, with -- Caine! Peter introduced Skalany as his sometime partner. Amber gave a start as she realized how the brunette detective felt about Caine -- these cops tended to scream their thoughts out, with the exceptions of the Captain, whom she had seen through the woman's office window, and Kermit. She smiled to herself. Mary Margaret Skalany's feeling for Caine was certainly no stranger than her own attraction for a certain...
Someone who arrived as if on cue, taking the seat beside her. "Evening, Ma'am."
"Sir," she unleashed that dazzling smile again. He could no more resist that grin than anyone else. His fellow detectives tried not to notice the uncharacteristic smile until he got his face back under control.
"You ought to register that smile as a weapon," he told her.
"Only if I can get a license to carry it concealed."
Jody joined them, followed by a redheaded cop Peter introduced as TJ.
"Thomas Jefferson Kincaid, Ma'am. Don't call me TJ."
Amber grinned at him. "Pleased to meet you, Thomas Jefferson. Don't call me Ma'am."
He grinned back, sitting beside Blake to gaze her way.
Peter called the waiter over -- he ordered beers all around. Amber asked for an ice water to go with hers, and then largely ignored her beer. She didn't like the light rice pilsner he had chosen, preferring a more bitter brew. But she never drank much in any case -- alcohol and ESP could be a bad combination.
Some of them changed seats through the evening -- Blake let Jody Powell take his chair so she could talk with Amber for a while. The blonde cop found that she liked the psychic. By the time she let Blake have his seat back, she had gotten a promise that Amber would meet her for lunch in a few days.
Kermit remained in the chair beside Amber. He didn't really speak to her, but lingered in the seat. He talked with Frank Strenlich and with some of the others, but his eyes seemed to always return to Amber. She wished he would talk to her, but could not think how to begin. TJ spoke to her eagerly; relating a tale about someone named Donny Double D's wedding aboard a cruise ship, complete with terrorists and cruise missiles. Of course, she could tell that the tale made him look better than he had actually been -- people always were braver in hindsight, and he kept leaking his thoughts about his actual performance. She could forgive him that, as he was a good storyteller. She liked the young man, but wished he would stop staring at her.
Finally, Amber could stand no more -- the bar had become more crowded. The bartender had dimmed the lights, and someone had cranked the jukebox up. The press of people and their thoughts was growing -- as people drank, they lost what natural restraint they have on their minds. Amber began to feel battered. She made her excuses, inclined her head formally to Caine, and escaped outside.
She was leaning against the brick wall, breathing in the cool night air when a voice made her jump.
"Walk you home?"
"Last I looked," he gave her a crooked grin. "Could have changed by now."
She laughed shakily. It was happening again...she couldn't look away from those glasses.
"Can I walk you home?" He repeated.
"I -- I'd like that." She assented. He offered her his arm. Amber took it as she had this afternoon, again feeling that peculiar jolt.
"You don't drive?"
"I don't have a car." She admitted. "Haven't for several moves."
"You move a lot, then."
"I keep hoping I can find a place to settle," she told him softly. "Someplace I can stay. Maybe this will be it."
"There are worse places than Sloanville," the glasses glinted at her in the night.
"And I have connections at the precinct," Amber grinned. "Where would I possibly be safer?"
"Safe?" He mused. "I don't know about safe. It's interesting around here, but I'm not sure about safe."
"I feel safe with you..." she murmured.
He stopped, looked down at her. "Maybe that's a big mistake. I'm a fairly dangerous man." He was surprised at himself -- he usually told people he was a very dangerous man.
"Oh, I know that," she said very quietly.
She laughed softly. The danger she was talking about was only the danger to her heart and peace of mind "Are you telling me I shouldn't settle here?"
"Not at all, Green Eyes. Just letting you know it might be a more...eventful place than you think."
"I'm kind of counting on that." Green Eyes -- when he called her that, it felt like a caress.
They walked on. She realized he was leading -- smiled. He had done some checking on her. She should have expected that. He was a cautious man -- rightly so, with the life he had led. He did not speak again until she said,
"Well, we're almost there. Want to come up?"
A quick flash of strong white teeth in the dark. "Not this time. Maybe another?"
"You ought to come to my grand opening tomorrow."
"I might do that," he said slowly.
"I'll keep an eye out."
With one hand, he lowered his glasses just enough to peer at her. She could not see any more than that he did have eyes. With the other hand, he raised hers to his lips. Then he was gone.
Amber looked after him for a long moment, the fingers he had kissed to her mouth. At last, suddenly feeling eyes on her from the shadows, she turned and went through the back door and up the stairs.
Kermit strode back to Delancy's, where he had left the lime green Corvair. He did not go back in, but drove home. He had recently purchased a house in a Sloanville suburb -- a quiet neighborhood, close enough to the precinct house for an easy commute. As he parked in the garage, he wryly thought that if Amber came over here more than once, he would have to actually meet some of the neighbors who shied away from him. What was it about her? It couldn't just be the pheromones -- and he could not stop thinking about her.
TJ had been unwittingly close to injury this evening. Kermit shook his head at his own response to the redhead's attentions to Amber. Blake had not disturbed him so much -- but then, Blake had made it clear from the first that he was merely enjoying the chemical high she put out. TJ had been trying to impress the young woman.
The former spy poured himself an Irish lager, watching the amber liquid flow into the chilled mug. Amber. He'd looked her up in the system today. She was twenty-eight -- had not lived in one place longer than ten months since college. She had a valid driver's license -- made sure to get one for whatever state she lived in -- but owned no car. Her newest, for this state, had been issued only yesterday. She was an heiress, with a modest fortune that allowed her to open store after store and then sell them to young people on generous terms. He was not old enough to be her father --that had eased his mind. The feelings he had for her were decidedly un-paternal. Then again, she had not looked at him like a girl looked at her father, either. He suddenly realized he was sitting in the dark.
Rising, he pulled off the tie, flipped the light
switch and went about his `coming home' ritual. A quick check to make sure
his domain had not been penetrated during the day, a change into more
comfortable clothing, and he pulled a `frozen in a bag' dinner from the
freezer. It wasn't great, but it wasn't K-rations, either. This was one of
those `you sauté it and put it over rice' meals. He used the Asian rice
Caine had taught him how to prepare, and made his solitary dinner.
Amber made herself a quick dinner, then changed into a soft, light grey robe and flipped the television on. It wasn't yet hockey season...she had a few weeks to go for that...and none of the usual sitcoms appealed to her. She settled on a PBS special on the pyramids and logged into the net, checking her email.
Nothing pressing. Kermit's face rose in her mind. Why hadn't he wanted to come up? She knew now that he was drawn to her as much as she to him -- was he merely playing it safe for both of them? And if so, what harm could she do the man? He was even more dangerous than he had tried to tell her. She knew he could kill without a second thought, that he had done so. She knew that he had lived a life diametrically opposed to everything she stood for, but she could not explain that to the primitive part of her brain -- the part that responded to a male of the species. He was, indeed, a dominant male, and her body appreciated that fact. Then too, the more evolved part of her mind knew that he had spent the past few years living a life less brutal. He did yearn for real connections to people now.
She shook her head. She could not let him take over her mind like this! To change the topic of her thoughts, she replied to a few emails from friends in other towns -- Briana in San Francisco was still delighted with the store Amber had turned over to her, and burbled on about recent days. Amber typed a reply with a fond smile. Briana had been about to hit rock bottom when they met. She had been neck deep in a gin bottle, careless of with whom she slept, sleeping in doorways when someone wanting easy sex did not offer a warm bed. Something in her had drawn Amber's eye, and the two women had begun a wary, tentative friendship. Briana had responded to Amber's show of trust well. In little time, she had turned herself around, gotten sober, found a girlfriend and -- somewhere deep in herself -- a reason to stay off the booze. When Amber had felt the stirrings of the need to move on again, Briana had accepted the offer of the bookstore. She and her lover Marcie were turning quite a nice profit, and Amber was pleased for her.
Finally, she turned off the television and went to bed, staring into the darkness. Would he come to her store opening?
And why did she care?
She rose early from a restless sleep and went out for her morning run. It took her past the precinct -- she saw Mary Margaret leaving. The brunette waved cheerily and called.
"Gotta catch some z's -- I just came off a night case -- but I'll get to your opening later!"
"Can't wait to see you! Sleep well!" The green-eyed woman called back. She grinned and waved as she ran past. Her route was a loop, so she came back past the station a bit later, seeing the back of Peter as he went in. She wondered if Kermit was in yet. She didn't know what he drove, or what shift he actually worked. She ran on home, showered and dressed before gulping down a glass of orange juice and a bowl of oatmeal.
Then Amber went down to the store, checking it over one last time. The New Age jewelry was lit nicely in low glass cabinets, the incense -- Wiccan, Pagan, and many varieties of Oriental temple blends, filled a wall rack. She had shelves full of books filling the place, and then other, odder items around the walls. Her register sat amid the jewelry counters. Everything was ready. She slipped to the back and started a pot of herbal tea, in case any of the Chinatown worthies came by to check her out. She'd been warned that someone called The Ancient was notorious for flirting with young women and begging tea. She would be happy to oblige -- she hoped he did come -- if he approved of her, her place in the community was assured. She would need the endorsement of the community elders to do what she was here for. Amber had lived in many cities, in many different ethnic neighborhoods, usually finding a specific person in need of her support, but more needing less direct help from her.
She unlocked her door precisely at ten, and waited for custom. Sure enough, Caine came a few minutes after she opened, following a small, wizened old man. They approached as she sat at the register. Caine inclined his head from behind the other man and told her,
"This is Lo Si. He is the one they call The Ancient."
She slid from her stool and came around to bow formally to the old man.
"I am Amber Adair, Ancient One, at your service," she said and turned her smile on him.
Lo Si grinned impishly. "You are quite a nice child. I think I will stay here and chat with you for a while."
She laughed. "Let me bring you a stool for your comfort."
Amber scampered to the back and brought the stool, which she set just in front of the counter. Then she ran back for some tea. Thus ensconced where he could survey the shop, supplied with tea and a small plate of tea cookies, he grinned like little Chinese angel and told Caine,
"You may rest assured I will be fine here, Kwai Chang Caine."
The Shaolin smiled at Amber with a shrug. "He is happy here."
She laughed. "I'm glad to have him. If the Ancient is here, the others in the community will come to my store. I need his approval -- and yours, Master Caine."
"I think you have both. I will see you again." He left.
"May I have another cookie?" Lo Si twinkled at her. Amber had no more defense against his smiles than most people had against hers -- she chuckled and fetched him another few cookies before pacing around the store. The Ancient remonstrated, "Calm yourself."
"No one's come."
"They will come. Get yourself a cup of tea, and sit down. They will come."
And they did. Before long, there was a steady stream in and out of her shop. When Mai arrived, Amber was glad to turn over the register and walk the floor. The 101st precinct cops were as good as their words -- most of them popped in at one time or another during the day. Peter clapped her on the shoulder, gave her a congratulatory kiss on the cheek when he came in. Jody Powell bought a book and a pack of incense. Even Captain Simms came in asking to speak to Amber. The storeowner led the auburn-haired woman to the back room, where they could talk without customer interruption.
"Thank you for coming by, Captain Simms."
"Peter tells me you have letters of recommendation to show me?"
"You mean you're interested in a psychic?"
"Lady, I'll take any help that's offered to keep crime down on my watch."
"Come with me." She ran lightly up the stairs with the older woman right behind. The letters were in the desk in her living room. Captain Simms scanned them quickly.
"I've worked with two of these people, and I know four of the other five. I'll make some calls and then get back to you. May I call you?"
"Sure. I carry a cellular -- the number's on the card Peter gave you."
"Great. Thank you." Karen Simms looked around the flat. "This is a nice place -- very comfortable."
"Thank you, Captain." Amber grinned. The other woman smiled back.
"Thank you again. You're always welcome here."
They shook hands. Amber walked the Captain out, then checked on Mai. She was doing fine. She had already hit her stride and was chatting away with the customers like an old hand. Amber made a mental note to keep an eye on Mai. The young bride might well have the potential to take the store over.
Lo Si remained until three, when he smiled and slid off his stool to go. He gave her one word of warning as he left.
"You are a good girl, Amber. Keep an eye out -- I sense there are those who do not mean you well."
Joseph Wang grinned at her as he entered the store. "If you got The Ancient here, you're set, Ma'am."
By closing, the only cop she hadn't seen was Kermit. Trade slowed, trickled, stopped. It was almost six. She sent Mai and Joseph home for the night.
"You're closing tomorrow night which is a late night. We should be pretty slow for a few days now, while people think about us. Mai, you can show Joseph the register tomorrow afternoon, and we'll talk about stock, ordering and that kind of thing. Okay?"
They left, and she began to close up. The bell tinkled and she looked up to see Kermit, swathed in his black trench coat, glasses firmly in place.
"Hi, Green Eyes."
"You made it." It was one minute to six.
"Long day," he said. "I'm sorry."
She froze. "What?"
"I'm sorry I missed your opening. Can I make it up to you?"
Amber's jaw dropped. She could think of nothing to say. He was sorry? How long had it been since a man had apologized to her? And this man did not apologize, she sensed. But more than that, they had only met yesterday -- why the chivalry?
"I know your first day meant a lot to you. I had a lot of work fall on me. We had some really complex crap and I had to hack into some tight places to get the information the Captain needed. Then, some kid almost hacked into our files. Sometimes it's not so good to be the only computer expert in the department."
"I...I'm...it's okay?" She tried.
"Well, let me take you to dinner."
"I could cook something upstairs. You don't have to..."
Something in his face told her she had made an offer that almost hurt. He wanted her to cook for him -- wanted it a lot, but didn't want to go back on his offer. He tried again, "No, I'll take you out."
"No." She told him firmly. It did not take her talent to know he would quite possibly kill for a real home cooked meal. "Let me cook for you. It's much more fun than cooking for one, which is what I do a lot. Come on upstairs. Did you lock your car?"
"Oh, yeah." He sounded so firm she had to laugh. "If you insist, then I can't turn down your offer."
"Rain check on dinner out?"
Again, that quicksilver smile. "Name the day."
She flipped the switches turning the lights off, locked the front door and made for the back. She could feel him a step behind her. As she set the alarm, he waited patiently. Then she led the way up the stairs. He looked around her flat, much as Karen had done.
"Nice place. Homey."
"Sit down," she told him. "What would you like to drink?"
"Whatever you have."
"Actually, what I have is water, juice, tea or an Irish lager. It's sort of an acquired taste."
He smiled. "That's my favorite, besides scotch."
She fetched one and poured it into a chilled mug, just the way he liked it. He had to laugh.
"I can't believe it -- that's the way I do it at home."
She smiled gently, poured herself some cold filtered water. "That's the only way a civilized person serves it."
"You're not having any?"
"I drink very seldom. I'll have some with dinner."
She moved around the kitchen the way she had moved when Caine had noticed -- efficiently, with a fluid grace. Kermit watched her through his glasses, appreciating her easy glide.
"Do you eat meat?"
"Doesn't everyone?" He joked.
"Oh, good. This is a quick dinner, then. Not too much work, but it feels elegant."
Kermit watched as she sliced some veal thin, pounded it thinner, dipped it in egg and then breadcrumbs. She let it sit on the counter while she swiftly put together a salad and took rolls from the freezer, placing them on a cookie sheet in the oven. "Made them a few days ago and froze them. Much better than bought."
He could only agree. Amber stood before him, hands on her hips. "If you're planning to stay, you'd better give me that coat."
He rose and removed it -- he had forgotten he was still wearing the thing, to tell the truth. She took it and hung it on a tall coat rack in the central hallway. "If you need to make an escape, it's right there."
His suit coat fell open as he sat, revealing the big ugly desert eagle in its holster. He was so used to it, he had almost forgotten it was there. "Want this, too?"
She didn't even look. "No. I figure the safest place for it is with you."
Kermit couldn't think of anything to say. She trusted him that much?
"Of course I trust you," she told him from where she was heating a cast iron pan of olive oil. "Would I offer to cook for you otherwise?" Amber turned to meet his eyes -- somehow he knew she was again looking past the glasses, right into him. "Mother raised me not to share meals with strange men I don't trust. With or without superior firepower."
"Green Eyes, you're taking a lot on faith."
"All I know is faith, sir. It's kept me alive so far."
He loosened his tie -- today it was a green and black patterned one. He stood again, took his mug and stalked to the living room. Amber was cooking the veal now, watching him covertly. It felt so natural to have him prowling her home. He was magnificent in a strange way. He was not, as Peter was, the conventional male beauty. He was older, for one thing -- she thought maybe in his forties -- she'd call Peter tomorrow and ask. Or maybe Skalany or Jody. His hair fell to his shoulders in a purposely-shaggy sort of style -- the white lock in the front and the ones at his temples merely added to the attraction she was feeling. He was a man who had seen hard times, made hard choices and lived not to tell about it.
He was poking at her computer when she told him, "Come and get it or I'll throw it out."
She dressed the salad as he came back over, and they were ready.
Kermit had not quite realized how much he missed the times he had shared dinner at the Blaisdells' home until now, as Amber poured him a second beer and got one for herself. The meal was just right, he decided. The rolls were crisp and hot, the salad crisp and cold, the veal delicate and tender. He thought he could get used to this. And he could get used to sitting across from this woman on a regular basis.
He realized she was watching him. "It's great," he told her. "For so little time, it's a terrific meal."
She colored. "Thank you. I'm glad you like it." For some perverse reason, he liked it when she blushed.
Afterwards, he helped her clear up. They ended up standing awkwardly in her kitchen, dishes done and put away, not sure where to go from here. He didn't want to leave, and she didn't want him to. Finally, Amber attempted,
"Want to watch some TV?" Not her best come-hither line.
He didn't, but it was an excuse to stay. She turned the box on and they sat on the sofa. This was too comfortable, she thought. She could learn to like this, sitting with him of an evening, having another person with her in her life. That life had been somewhat lonely of late.
When he put his arm across the back of the couch, she said nothing. She wasn't sure what to say, so instead, she shifted a little closer to him. He turned to her.
"What do you want from me, Green Eyes?"
"I want you to take off your jacket and stay a little longer," she could only tell the truth, feeling his eyes locked on hers behind the glass.
That flash of teeth again. "As you wish." He leaned forward sliding the offending garment off and tossed it on the chair. Now he put his arm across her shoulders, touched the remote and the TV went dark.
"No more games," he told her.
"No more games," she whispered.
He took off his glasses -- his eyes were dark, deep wells she wanted to plunge into. Then he leaned over and kissed her. It began gently, as if he were seeking something -- but as she responded he grew more determined, tasting her, learning her. She could not have pulled away had she wanted to. She didn't want to. Amber wound her arms around his neck and held on, plunging her fingers into his dark hair.
All too soon, he released her. Regretfully, she disentangled her hands.
"I should go."
"I have to get to work in the morning."
Amber sighed. "I didn't know you were so responsible."
"I'm an old man. I need my sleep."
She raised an eyebrow. He gave her a crooked smile. "I'm old enough to be your father."
Now she laughed, low in her throat. It sent a shiver down his...well, all over. "Not hardly," she told him. "Not unless you were a very advanced boy."
"I've been married before."
"So, you're telling me I wouldn't be your first?" The amusement in her voice should have warned him. Amber was about to do something she was not sure about, but had to do. "Darn. And I so hoped to deflower you."
"I really ought to..."
She stood, unbuttoned her blouse and let it fall to the floor. Her skirt followed. Kermit had been about to replace his dark glasses, but now they fell from his fingers onto the sofa. Amber Adair had an athletic figure with some definitely feminine curves, but more than that, she carried herself with the confidence of a queen. Her eyes showed her uncertainty, but her body already knew what his response had to be.
"Oh, yeah," he breathed.
Amber smiled slowly. The wariness faded. "Do you still have to rush off?"
"I'm not sure I can," he told her, meeting her eyes frankly.
"Good." She scooped up his sunglasses and her outer clothes and strode down the hall. He rose and followed. The lingerie she wore was a wine color, and Kermit was beginning to feel it had gone to his head. In the bedroom, she set his glasses on one of the bed tables, tossed her clothes aside and turned to unbutton his shirt. He stripped off the tie, put his holster on the table and then unbuckled his belt while her fingers fumbled on his buttons in her eagerness. He stepped out of his trousers and took her in his arms for a lingering kiss. Then laughing softly, he finished removing his shirt.
"Guess I'm in too much of a hurry," she smiled.
"I'll take that as flattery," he got her onto the bed, running slow fingers over the bra, over her shoulders and down her back. Amber slid her arms around him, pulling him to her, then wriggled and twisted herself on top of him. As she ran light hands down his furred chest, he found and unfastened the clasp, letting the bra slide down her arms. A lazy smile teased her lips as she shrugged it off and bent to kiss his neck. He buried his face in her breasts, while his hands slid down to remove the last garment in his way. She was beginning to think that being burned to ashes might not be such a bad fate for a moth, after all.
Amber was no blushing virgin. She ran her hands along his body with great delight -- he apparently did not spend all of his time seated at a terminal. Her last lover had been in far less trim, and Kermit had a way of enticing her along one path only to pounce and take her in another direction that was at once delicious and maddening.
He teased her until Amber thought she might scream, before entering her. With a happy little moan she wriggled to meet his thrust. It took a little for them to find a rhythm, but once they did, it quickly built, both in speed and intensity. She was a little frightened of her own need -- she felt shameless as she met every thrust, letting out little noises of pleasure.
He seemed to dive deeper into her and her green eyes. This was not what he had expected -- it was more. This woman knew how to give and take at the same time -- she both cradled and demanded, rocked gently and clutched at him. It must be this gift of hers -- he not only felt his own sensations, he could feel her feeling him, and it was very heady stuff. She was taking her own joy while giving him a sense of pleasure he hadn't felt in a very long time, and this odd double-sense of it made every motion even more intense.
The pace quickened -- she was panting now, her need building as his did until finally they peaked and subsided to the mattress spent.
Amber lay with her head on his chest, still breathing heavily as she recovered. It had been long and long, and Kermit had made his need for her known. She could not remember a time when loving had been better. She opened her eyes again and twisted up to better see him. He grinned up at the ceiling.
She blinked. "Well what?"
"Well, what now?"
"Now I pass out into dreamless and contented sleep, lover."
"Ah." That wasn't what he had meant. He wasn't completely sure what he had meant.
She rolled enough to turn off the light. "Damn."
"I have to go turn off the other lights."
"I can do it," he offered.
"No, I'll do it." She was half-afraid that if she let him do it, he would keep going out the door and home. She scampered out to flip the switches, sliding back into bed beside him.
She drifted off to sleep lulled by his regular breathing, comforted by the warmth he brought into her bed.
Kermit woke to the sun coming in the window -- which faced east. He groaned. Turning his head, he found a pair of wide green eyes studying him.
"Morning," she grinned.
"Don't tell me you're a morning person," he begged, closing his eyes.
A slivery peal of laughter answered him as she leaned over to kiss him, then flung herself out of bed.
"I have to go run."
"And you run in the morning?"
"If I ran at night in this neighborhood, I'm afraid Peter would turn me over his knee."
"If he didn't, I would."
She raised a brow. "I think I'll leave that offer alone."
"I have to go home before I go to work," he groaned, reaching for his sunglasses.
"I think I have a shirt that would fit you," she offered. At his look, she added, "Don't give me that -- I wear oversized men's shirts from time to time. And I have some ties. You can just clean up here and pop off to the office."
He rolled out of bed. "You're way too perky at this hour."
"Come on, I'll run while you shower, and then I'll fix you breakfast."
He turned the glasses upon her. "Now, that's an offer I can't refuse."
"Well, take your time washing. My route will take me about half an hour."
She threw on the shorts and tank top and went. Kermit took a minute to make the bed. I may be a tough guy, but I can help a lady out. By the time he emerged from her shower, she was back. Amber found him the promised shirt and tie, and a spare toothbrush. Then she cooked up a quick two bowls of oatmeal with brown sugar, serving it along with what had to be the last of the summer melons and sent him off with a kiss.
He stopped at the back door and grinned. "Why do I feel like the dad in an old sitcom?"
Amber laughed lightly. "Mercenary Man, the TV series."
He touched her hair softly and almost said something. Then he changed his mind and left.
Amber ran back up the stairs and took her own shower. It was only when she returned to dress for the day that she noticed the neatly made bed.
"Big tough guy," she laughed. "His Momma must have taught him that."
She threw on a button-down shirt and dark slacks, with a pair of little black half boots. Then, on a whim, she tied on Kermit's tie.
She spent some time updating her store files on the computer, and then it was time to open. Jody phoned shortly after that, to see if Amber was still up for lunch. Amber confirmed as the first customers began trickling in.
Mai and Joseph arrived before lunchtime -- they had a light class load on Thursdays. Mai immediately showed her husband the register, and then closely watched as he rang a few purchases. When she was satisfied, she sent him out to chat with the customers. Amber was impressed. This couple was really trying to make good for her. When Jody poked her head in the door, Amber waved to her new employees.
"I won't be long -- call me on the cell if you need me."
Mai merely waved her off with a smile.
Jody drove them to a small café outside Chinatown. "I know, I know, we live and work there, but sometimes I just have to get out!"
"I understand," the honey-haired woman told her. "Sometimes you just want something different."
Jody gave her a look through narrowed eyes. "And our ex-mercenary is something different, I would guess."
Amber started, looked away with a blush. "If I don't want it to be general knowledge, I guess I ought not wear the tie he wore yesterday."
The blonde detective laughed. "Believe it or not, I won't say anything. But you might want to change it if you don't want Peter to notice."
She hadn't really thought of that. Peter might feasibly drop by the store at any time. And if Jody had recognized the tie, why shouldn't anyone else who knew Kermit? Reluctantly, Amber untied and drew off the green and black tie, carefully rolling it into her pocket. "Thanks, Jody."
"So, does he ever take off the shades?"
She gave the other woman an enigmatic smile. "Not so's you'd notice."
They chatted of other things through lunch -- primarily their respective childhoods. Jody was burning with curiosity, but did not want to push. The idea of this woman, so full of energy and openness, together with the mystery man of the 101st just begged for examination. The cop might like to be tough in her line of work, but she was a romantic at heart, and was dying to poke her nose in it -- she just didn't dare yet. Soon, but not yet.
As they were leaving, Amber decided to ask Jody -- after all, the woman had said she would not spread the news. "Jody, how old is Kermit, anyway?"
"I don't really know," the cop admitted, taken aback. "I think he's somewhere in his forties. That white hair at the temples and the top is premature -- he's had that since I've known him. Why?"
"Confidential," Jody made the international kids' sign for locking her lips and throwing away the key.
"He made some crack about being old enough to be my father," Amber admitted.
Jody laughed out loud. "Maybe a dirty old uncle, but not your father, I suspect. Anyway, your questions are safe with me. I'll tell you anything I can, but I couldn't even dig any other info up for you. I hear he's found and deleted any information pertaining to himself."
"A man with many secrets."
"No kidding. But Amber, he's one of the good guys. He might not always come across that way, but he is."
"That much, I know." Amber gave her new friend an earnest smile. "I don't think I'd care so much for him so quickly if I didn't know that."
Jody could only look back into Amber's somber face. There was no need for Amber to state that she was giving Jody a confidence. She would not tell anyone of this -- she really liked Amber, and would honor the trust the other woman had placed in her. This had to be strange for the gentle woman. She had been raised to honor all life and help those who were trying to help themselves. To be falling in love -- Amber had not used those words, but Jody knew the signs -- with a man with such a past might seem a betrayal of her training.
She drove Amber back to the shop. The shopkeeper gave her a quick hug. "Thanks, Jody. I'm so glad we did this. Let me know when you're free again."
Jody sighed. "All too often."
"Well, come by some evening and I'll make dinner for us."
"That sounds like a deal."
"Yeah, we can rent some flicks and eat fattening foods and paint our toenails or something."
Jody threw back her head and laughed. "You're on."
Amber got back into the shop. She felt that sense of eyes on her back again from the car to the store.
Mai Wang looked up as the shop bell tinkled, smiled. Joseph came from the stock room.
"I guess things went all right, since you didn't call?"
Mai nodded. "Joseph has been checking on what's in the stock room for me -- I've been watching the front. He's given me a list, and I'm checking what sold fastest yesterday and today."
"Very good," Amber told them. "And what will you do next?"
"I'll track the sales for a few weeks, and then we can talk about what I think we need most of. You tell me if I'm right, right?" The Chinese girl went on earnestly. "I tracked yesterday even though I suspect the numbers will be off -- yesterday was the first day -- people bought things they probably wouldn't ordinarily, out of curiosity. But it's good to have the data."
This young woman was sharp! Joseph said proudly, "I sold the big jade ring, Miss Adair."
"Amber," she corrected automatically. "You both call me Amber. I'm very pleased. Joseph, I'm impressed -- I figured that ring would take weeks to sell! And Mai, you're definitely on the right track. Now, I would like you two to take a few minutes to help me. Several teenagers asked about jobs yesterday. I had them fill out applications. Will you help me go over them? Whoever we hire will report mostly to you two, so you ought to have some say."
Mai beamed. Joseph nodded -- he was not as confident yet as his young wife, but would do anything to prove his ability and desire to do as asked.
"Great. I'll be right back." She scampered up the stairs and fetched the papers from her desk. Amber did not use standard applications, but her own creations. These would tell her and the Wangs more about the character of the applicants than about their previous work experience. As she re-entered the store, Mai held up the phone.
"It's for you."
Peter's voice was welcome in Amber's ears. His news was less so. "I found a note on my desk asking me to call you. Kermit had to go out of town unexpectedly. He said he'll be back when he can."
Amber almost dropped the phone in dismay.