by Karin Kallmaker
Anita Topaz, Queen of the Bodice Rippers, is deliberately a woman of mystery. But pressure is mounting for Anita to reveal herself to her clamoring public. It’s scrutiny that writer Paris Ellison can’t allow, especially since the glamorous “Anita” is a work of pure fiction.
Lady Diana Beckinsale excels at disappearing into a good role. Especially if that role gets her close to certain objects she desires. When Diana proposes the perfect solution to Paris’s predicament, Paris is less than enthusiastic. She can’t let someone as unsettling and observant as Diana get too close.
But Diana is persistent. After all, if she and the handsome, secretive Paris both get what they want out of an unorthodox arrangement, then it’s a win-win for them both.
My Lady Lipstick is high stakes on a merry-go-round of lies—it’s all fun and games until somebody loses her heart.
Pin’s Reviews - With this two likable characters, some great secondary characters and her usual mature writing style, Kallmaker told us a very interesting story of deception, loneliness, vulnerability, broken dreams (and bones), family... and, of course, love. …My Lady Lipstick is a well-written story that I really liked and can easily recommend. If you have never read any of Karin Kallmaker's books (she has written nearly thirty novels; what are you waiting for!?), this one can be a good start.
Lex Kent’s Reviews - I was also really happy with the pace of the book. I would say the book is slightly longer than average, but it never really lagged for me. I never felt bored, and really enjoyed the actual concept of the book. When it came to the romance, at first I thought maybe the characters had jumped into bed a little fast. But with how the rest of the story unfolded, I was okay with it. There was no rushing to say “I Love you”. I actually really appreciate that as it seems to happen too often lately in lesfic romances. The romance instead felt like it progressed really organically. Not including the one angsty part, I actually felt the romance was one of the more realistic romances I have read in a while.
This was absolutely the right romance at the right time for me. I enjoyed this read and I hope others do as much as I did. If you are a Kallmaker fan, I believe you will be happy with this read.
Paris Ellison was so angry she made a seven-layer English Trifle and two large pans of double cocoa brownies.
She even dribbled water over the letter from Reynard House, Proud Member of the Reynard Media Group. But the ink refused to smear and the words continued to taunt her.
She’d said no once, and now the nerve—the nerve! To offer her first-class tickets, reservations at a Fifth Avenue hotel, and the assurance of box seats to Hamilton—how rude!
She whipped ganache into submission and drizzled it on the first pan of still warm brownies. She’d slice them later before taking them to Lisa’s tomorrow. The second pan of brownies went into the oven, and only then did she pause in her fever of anger-fueled anxiety baking to read the infuriating letter again.
Anita Topaz did not make personal appearances. Paris had been perfectly clear about that from the get go. But with the merger the new people at Reynard House preferred not to notice that little detail.
A scratch and yowl at the door made her look at the clock. Right on time, Hobbit sidled in to offer mid-morning greetings by way of gracing Paris’s jeans with orange tabby tomcat fur.
“You’re not fooling anyone, you know. I’m just Second Breakfast to you.” Yielding to the cat’s single-minded agenda, she dropped a small scoop of crunchy dry food into the dish next to the door. Hobbit promptly abandoned his adoration of Paris’s ankles and dug in.
“Just because Reynard House is the new owner, that doesn’t mean my contract is revised. Not yet at least.” Hobbit ignored the bowl of fresh water Paris set down next to the dry food. “They can’t make me, so there. I owe them four books in the next two years, and on schedule. Not one thing more.”
The oven timer beeped and she left Hobbit to his loud snacking. She turned the pan in the oven and reset the timer. The custard was cool enough now to assemble the trifle, and she devoted herself to carefully lining the bottom of her only clear glass bowl with fresh sponge cake and splashing it with sherry. Apricots and silky vanilla custard followed, then she repeated the layers until the glass bowl was nearly full.
At least the Misses Lambeth and Richards upstairs would love the treat. She’d take it up after supper and check on the progress of the colds that had kept her usually gregarious and active landlords in “little old lady” mode, as they called it. They did like a drop of sherry now and again, and nobody could feel out of sorts with a dessert like this one.
Except her, maybe. Her day had begun as peacefully and predictably as any other since the day she’d hunkered down in this haven. Then the mail had arrived this morning, again bringing demands.
Hobbit finished up Second Breakfast and padded across the faded linoleum to the soft brown carpet of the living room. He stretched and flexed, then sauntered to the sunny window seat, lord of all.
Paris ignored the loud, disapproving sniff at the layer of cat hair on the cushion. “What do you think this is, some swanky New York hotel?” She prodded the top of the brownies in the oven with a fingertip and judged them as needing one more minute. “Speaking of which, look at this letter.”
She carried the offending paper to the window seat and showed it to Hobbit. Hobbit let out a grudging purr, and granted access to his belly while Paris read the letter aloud with renewed outrage.
“Looking forward to finalizing all the details, sincerely, blah blah blah,” Paris finished. “See? They’re trying to bribe me into going, and you know why I won’t.” Hobbit had heard all about why Paris had moved three thousand miles from her last job. “Anita Topaz isn’t going to this meeting. She’s not going to do a TED Talk or whatever Reynard Media calls it for any—” She whirled to face the kitchen. “Foul word!”
She dashed across the living room toward the ominous you’re-too-late scent of overcooked brownie. Her socks slipped on the linoleum, catapulting her through the kitchen door. She yanked the pan out of the oven, burning her wrist on the door. The pan slipped out of her grasp. She lunged to save it and whacked her head on the counter so hard that the world went dark for a moment.
The dancing stars in her vision went away finally as she Jackie-Chan rubbed the dent in her skull. At least it felt like a dent.
Hobbit coiled into view from around the corner of the kitchen island, tail kinked with annoyance that the clatter and cursing had disturbed his morning nap and petting. Rightly presuming that the fallen brownies were not anything he would want to eat, he pointedly began cleaning a paw.
“I’m not leaking brain matter,” she told the cat’s back. “Thanks for asking.”
At least the brownies had landed face up. The edges were hard and tasted burnt, even for people who loved that part. Increasingly foul-tempered about the whole world, she set to using a melon baller to scoop out the still moist and edible interior. Chocolate, sugar, and butter in any form was edible, right? Brownie Curls… Lisa might still be able to use them.
Now that was an idea. Why wait until tomorrow? Getting out of the house would probably make her feel better. It had been three…four days? Her last brownie delivery to Mona Lisa’s as a matter of fact. Not for the first time she was happy to have found a way not to eat her bouts of anxiety-baking all by herself, and it even involved exercise. If Lisa didn’t think anyone would buy the salvaged brownies, they could certainly eat a few themselves. It was that kind of day.
Five minutes effort with little plastic bags and ribbons to tie them closed went without major mishaps. Two dark, moist curls of brownie in each. Paris thought they looked appetizing, but Lisa would have to agree. She shoved the letter into her back pocket, thinking she’d ask Lisa’s advice about it.
Hobbit gave a discontented moof as she dumped him on the front porch.
“Go find Elevenses wherever it is you spend the rest of your time. I know it’s early, but I’m getting some fresh air.”
Hobbit slithered under the hedge with a parting yowl.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve been called worse.”
She pulled on her coat, grabbed up the basket with her wares, and let herself out into the blustery blue day. Lisa wasn’t expecting Paris to show up with baked goodies until tomorrow. Still, as Lisa had said in the past, there really was no limit to how many brownies a bar full of sports fans could consume.
Tipping her face to the sunshine, she zipped up her hoodie. The sharp wind off Massachusetts Bay shouted winter, but the sun was seductively whispering spring. San Francisco was never this extreme. She pushed away the pang of longing for Gorilla Barbecue and the pale, sandy beach at Pacifica.
She’d grown to like this town of Revere and nearby Boston, but in the nearly five years she’d lived here it hadn’t turned into home.
It was hard to stay angry on such a glorious day. The blue sky refreshed her eyes and the sun warmed the tip of her nose. It was as if the long, frozen, wet, dirty, slushy, slogging New England winter was over. But she knew that was a lie. As her landlords had warned her, March coaxed you out of your jacket, then dumped a foot of snow down your back. Much like life itself.
The only aspect about her apartment she didn’t like was its position near the bottom of a hill even San Franciscans would call steep. It did mean that her landlords had a great view toward the harbor and that Paris’s rental space was light and airy. But the location was a challenge to someone without a car.
She took a deep breath and set off up the hill with steady, long strides. Steep roads aside, renting the basement flat of the Lambeth/Richards house was still an ideal arrangement. The ladies had cash to help with their bills and repairs, and Paris had sunny windows, a solidly constructed kitchen that allowed her to bake off her anxieties, and an oversized bedroom with a big bay window where her desk was turned to face the flower and vegetable garden.
Her name appeared nowhere on a lease or utility bill. Exactly the way she wanted it.
That Anita Topaz’s meteoric success meant Paris could afford more—a lot more—didn’t make a bit of difference. Anita Topaz was not online, didn’t Tweet or chat, and she did not do personal appearances!
In danger of losing her recovering good spirits, she paused halfway up the hill. There was plenty of mud and slush lurking in the gaps between squares of sidewalk. Fortunately, her Doc Martens were perfect Adventuring Gear for New England winters. Snow and mud never slowed her down. Once she made it to the top of the hill, it was only two more minutes to a frequently scheduled bus that was only two short stops from the T—and from there all of Boston was within reach. It was also only three minutes to a grocery and five minutes to Mona Lisa’s. Her living quarters were as close to the rest of the world as she wanted them to be.
With her hoodie pulled up and zipped to her chin, jacket flapping in the wind and wrinkled jeans scruffy at the knees, she might have been any of the local youths walking home from the high school for lunch. True, none of them carried a picnic basket right out of Little Red Riding Hood swinging from one hand.
At the top of the block she paused to inhale deeply and smiled in spite of herself. There was a finch chirping in the distance. Spring was indeed coming. The last of her anger seeped away, leaving behind cautious contentment paired, as always, with the tickle of anxiety.
No news there. She’d known all along that her Berserker Baking Blitz was rooted in her hyperactive flight-or-fight instinct.
The flashing Sam Adams Lager sign over Mona Lisa’s familiar green door was a welcome sight. The flutters and shivers that had tightened her chest eased. Note to self—fresh air is good for you. It wasn’t the first time she’d told herself that. It wouldn’t be the last.
The steamy, golden air inside the bar was also good for her, she decided, even if her sunglasses immediately fogged up. The familiar sharp aromas of beer, furniture polish, and tangy tomato soup were immediately comforting. She shucked her coat and unzipped the hoodie. Her word count could wait. She’d clearly needed this break.
Mona Lisa herself was working the front of the house, and that was always a beautiful thing. It was just past noon and customers were scarce. By five o’clock there wouldn’t be an empty seat at the gleaming oak bar, especially if Lisa was still working it. Paris didn’t know where Lisa had picked up her mad skills, but she made filling a beer mug as eye-catching as a striptease. It certainly helped that she had a mane of sun-streaked yellow hair and a figure that filled out a Shetland sweater and Levi’s in all the best ways.
Paris sent a chin nod Lisa’s way, hoisted the basket into view and got a nod in return. Her usual cushioned chair in the corner near the front window suited her just fine, especially with her face to the sun and back to the TVs. At the moment the muted televisions were replaying a broadcast of a baseball game so ancient it was in black and white. It still roused a cheer from a die-hard Red Sox fan at the far end of the bar. Next month, on opening day, the place would be packed.
“What did you bring me?” Lisa put a cup of coffee on the table in front of Paris and dropped into the opposite chair. “I made that a couple of hours ago. Up to you if you drink it.”
Paris sipped. Contrary to Lisa’s description, the coffee was hot and fresh. “What every growing girl needs. Can you use some brownies? I know I’m early. I’ll have the usual tomorrow.”
Lisa made a hmm sound that Paris had learned meant that the calculator in Lisa’s brain was adding up the potential profit. Pity the fool who thought the tanned, blond surfer girl exterior meant there was no business sense on the inside. “It’s going to be a slow night.”
“I had an anxiety incident.”
“Sorry to hear that. All better?”
“They look awesome.” With a Betty Boop coo in her voice and shimmering tears in her eyes, Lisa asked, “Would fifteen be okay?”
It was tempting to say yes to anything Lisa suggested, but they’d played this game before. With a Spock eyebrow lift, Paris corrected, “I think twenty. And the cup of coffee.”
The corner of Lisa’s mouth twitched. “Spoilsport.”
“Does that big blue eye thing ever work?”
“Oh honey, you’d be surprised.” Lisa was peering into a baggie. “Why are they shaped liked that? What went wrong?”
“I got distracted. Sorry they don’t look so great.”
“They look like a Stoli White Russian with a chocolate chaser to me.”
Paris appreciated Lisa’s creativity. “That does sounds delicious. What cute name will you give that concoction?”
“The ‘Adulting So Hard.’” Lisa flashed her a brilliant smile. “I know it’s the first of the month, but I haven’t picked a March special yet. Bring me more next week, just in a box is fine. No need to wrap them for single sale.”
“Sure.” Paris’s attention was caught by a new arrival. Small and pale skinned, she looked like a recent arrival from the Emerald Isle itself. If the saffron and green pleated skirt wasn’t proof of heritage, there was a tweed flat cap holding down the abundant, wildly tangled orange-red curls.
“You have a customer.”
Lisa was already rising to her feet. “She’s been a regular for the past couple of weeks. There’s a new production rehearsing at the Ferley Playhouse she’s in. It’s always the same order—soup and a half pint.”
“Lunch of champions.”
She watched Lisa chat amiably with the newcomer about how wonderful it was at last to see the sun. Paris had heard often enough that former Floridian Lisa didn’t like the bitter Boston winters, but Lisa always added that her Alaskan-born wife knew how to keep her warm, wink-wink.
The most important fact Paris knew about Lisa was that she’d been a whistleblower against a large hotel chain in a dispute on union pay for waitstaff. She’d pointed out they were not paying wages for required prep time. They’d fired her. She’d sued. The quick settlement had bought the bar.
Good thing, since Paris was sure Lisa would never get work in a hotel again, not in New England, anyway. When a woman stuck her head above the weeds, there was no shortage of people willing to throw bricks at it. And if she interfered with profits, they never forgot her name.
She sipped the coffee and quelled the prickles of tension that threatened again. When a shadow fell over the table she jumped.
The redhead was holding out a folded piece of paper. “The bartender said this belonged to you. I found it on the floor inside the door.” The lilt in her voice confirmed she wasn’t a native New Englander.
“Crap!” Paris snatched the letter out of the woman’s hand. “I can’t believe I dropped it.”
“I thought it was trash and unfolded it to make sure. Hamilton tickets, sounds grand.”
Paris didn’t hide her annoyance that the woman had read it. “It’s really none of your—”
“I know. I’m a speed reader. Helps with auditions and acting. Anyway, I hope you have a great trip.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
The full lips split into a broad smile. “Yes you did. I couldn’t help but absorb the whole thing, but it was still rude of me. So now we’re even.”
Hoping her nervous swallow didn’t show, Paris held out her hand. “I’m Paris.”
Though the handshake was brief, it had the surprising effect of abating Paris’s anxiety completely. Impressions rushed in—light freckles dusted Diana’s cheeks. Her eyes were insanely green. The lipstick was winter-ripe cranberry and the fingers that had brushed her palm were exquisitely manicured and tipped with the same red. The tweed peacoat fit the slim figure perfectly and its large buttons were covered with the same suede piping that outlined the collar. Classy buttons meant couture, as Paris had found out doing research for her high-fashion thriller, Hands Off the Merchandise.
Diana had that…that…thing. That same whatever it was that Lisa had. That thing that made a plain woolen scarf sing with casual elegance.
“So you’re Anita Topaz?” Diana’s puzzlement was plain on her face. “The writer?”
Double crap, Paris thought. “It’s a pen name. And I would really prefer no one else know Paris Ellison is the real person behind the name.”
Her hmm sounded a lot like Lisa’s, as if they were sisters from different mothers. Luckily, Diana seemed only mildly intrigued. “Good for you. You’re not what I would have pictured for the Queen of the Bodice Rippers, and that’s probably shame on me thinking writers look like their characters.”
The more Paris heard her voice, the more aware she was that Diana’s accent was unusual. Definitely not American, and not Canadian either. It didn’t sound quite English or Welsh, or have the inflections of Irish cadence her landladies still had. Maybe a mix of all of those with something else?
Intrigued against her will, Paris temporarily abandoned her plan for a quick goodbye and heading home at full speed. “It’s true. I’m not personally a heaving bosoms kind of woman. On book covers, I mean.” She didn’t add how annoying it was that since Reynard had assumed control the covers had become increasingly pink, the gowns even more low-cut, with the woman dwarfed by a man who looked like he could snap her in two. Her first three books had been taglined, “A Smart Bodice Ripper.” Under Reynard the word “smart” had disappeared, as well as the nuance that the phrase was ironic—her books didn’t have bodices and clothing was only ripped when the person wearing them thought it a dandy idea.
She added truthfully, “The covers are chosen by marketing pros, and they seem to know what people want to see.”
“When people see what they expect to see it makes them comfortable.” Diana pulled on supple leather gloves. “I have to get back to rehearsal. Could you tell me where the nearest postal box is?”
Surprised Diana hadn’t seen the building that lay between Mona Lisa’s and the Playhouse, she began, “The post office is a few blocks—”
“A drop box is fine.”
“It’s pretty well hidden from the street by the hedges, but I know they pick up from it at three. It’s not on your way.”
“I like diversions.”
It might have been the whack on the head earlier that made it hard to focus on anything but those impossibly green eyes. Paris heard her own voice offering, “I’ll show you.”
“That’s perfect.” Diana cinched up her scarf and declared, “Master, go on, and I will follow thee.”
“To the last gasp with truth and loyalty?”
Diana blinked in surprise. “Have I found someone who likes Shakespeare as much as I do?”
“I don’t know how much you like Shakespeare, but my mother loved Romeo and Juliet.”
“Hence, Paris for your name?”
“That and Casablanca.”
“We’ll always have Paris,” Diana mused as they left the bar. “She sounds interesting, your mother.”
“She was.” Forestalling an automatic expression of sympathy that would flick at a nerve that would always be raw, Paris quickly added, “I’m no Juliet, and I’m also glad not to have gone through life as Romeo either. Turn right at the corner.”
Paris had caught a broadly mimed wink of approval from Lisa as they had gone out the door. She hoped Diana hadn’t seen it. Paris had never picked up women in Lisa’s bar, or even wanted to. Hell, Lisa would want all the details on the next visit.
It wasn’t as if Diana pinged what little gaydar Paris had ever had. It had been a matter of high humor among Paris’s former colleagues that she had said, “No way!” when informed that Jodie Foster was gay. She was definitely going to blame leaving with Diana on the konk on the head. It was now throbbing for real.
“It’s a block over.” Paris pressed for the pedestrian light when they reached the corner, then scrambled to keep up as Diana jaywalked. They skirted cars waiting for the light to turn and reached the other side without mishap. “So what play are you rehearsing?”
“An adaptation of Tartuffe. The director is hopeful that with some backing there’ll be money for off-Broadway. It’s very political and given the times there could be interest.”
“But you have your doubts?”
Diana seemed startled at the question. “Was I that obvious? I’ll have to work on that.”
“You seemed hesitant is all.”
“If it does make it to New York, it won’t be with this cast. We’re good enough for working out the bugs, but that’s about it.”
“Turn in to the parking lot here.” Paris led the way around the high hedges that surrounded the small drugstore. “They hid it well.”
“I’d have never seen it. Thank you.” Diana pulled a small, thickly padded envelope from a surprisingly capacious inner coat pocket.
Paris caught sight of an address in Utah before the package disappeared. It was so light it almost didn’t make a sound as it landed on the mail already in the box. “Hope it gets there safely.”
“Me too. Well thank you. I really do have to hurry. Do you go to Mona Lisa’s often?”
“Twice a week.”
“Then maybe I’ll see you there again.”
“Maybe,” Paris echoed. And she stood there rubbing the bump on her head and watching the petite figure make its way to the corner and then out of sight.
Diana Beckinsale put two blocks between herself and the helpful but unsettling Paris before she paused in her brisk pace to savor the moment. The wind snatched at her cap but the bobby pins held. She imagined her package whisked away instead, carried over the green expanse of the ridiculously large American continent until it floated to a gentle rest on the desk of the one person she was certain would recognize the contents.
As soon as she could confirm that it had arrived she’d trash the burner cell phone, bow out of playing Dorine and be home in plenty of time for her brother William’s wedding ballyhoo. It was a shame—Tartuffe was heaps of fun, and choosing to set a play about avarice behind fake piety inside the West Wing of the White House was brilliant. But, as much as she adored performing, Diana wasn’t looking for that kind of notoriety.
The only oddity of the whole Boston job was that woman, Paris. Diana really hadn’t had any intention of prying, but once opened it was impossible for her not to take in the contents of the letter she’d found. Queen of the Bodice Rippers Anita Topaz was actually a tatty, hoodie-clad twenty-something? Okay, she might be thirty—her taut, light brown skin would resist wrinkles for years. Not that Diana had ever seen a photo of the writer for comparison, but it was surprising nonetheless. When she’d first entered Mona Lisa’s and assessed the occupants, she’d mistaken the figure for an underaged boy hiding his face in a bar.
When Lisa had pointed her that way to return the letter, Diana had been gobsmacked. As she’d approached the huddled figure she’d realized for starters that her presumption of gender had been wrong. She also hadn’t expected large, deep brown eyes greeting her not with gratitude but open suspicion. The instant snarl in those eyes left Diana with the impression of a formerly gentle dog that had been kicked so often it growled a constant warning at the world to keep its distance.
In the chaos of her reactions she’d mistakenly given the woman her real first name. Not that it mattered, she assured herself—they were unlikely to meet again.
What mattered on this brilliant, wonderful day was that her feet hardly touched the ground, so elated was she by a job well done and now completed. The beautiful day had burst into pure glory as the package had slipped from her hand.
She came to the mud-filled gap in the sidewalk she’d been going around for the last several weeks. Between the sun and her exhilaration she decided it was time to show it who was boss. With one running step for momentum, she jumped it cleanly. And laughed at herself for putting her arms up as if seeking a perfect score for the dismount.
Diana turned to find Jeremy, who played the titular Tartuffe, applauding her. “Thank you kind sir.”
He gallantly tucked Diana’s hand under his arm as they crossed the street to the theater. With decades in local theater and a love of performance for its own sake, Jeremy had no illusions about the scope of his abilities. He made rehearsals lively and wasn’t fond of behind-the-scenes drama. Of all the small, local productions Diana had crashed for cover, this one had been among the most pleasant.
As she shed her coat off stage and found her curled and ragged script where she’d left it before the lunch break, Diana flashed again on the puzzle of Paris’s surprising identity. The woman had been dressed like someone one paycheck from homelessness. Diana didn’t know much about publishing, but a writer with a name she recognized from supermarket shelves, well, wouldn’t she be more like a Meryl Streep in She-Devil? With a mansion on pristine headlands, diamonds glittering from a hat pin? More like Diana’s own relatives for that matter, with casual wealth dripping from every spa-tightened pore?
She wondered about the incongruity of the Paris Ellison-Anita Topaz puzzle until the smell of old dusty seats and stage floor varnish pushed all thoughts but the production out of her head. She did like the play and the players. It would be hard to walk away this time.
* * *
Hours later Diana’s back was the only thought in her head. As she climbed the steep, linoleum-covered stairs to her attic apartment, every step was accompanied by a pulse of tear-inducing pain. Her ebullient mood had masked the warning signs. The Nurofen tablets she’d hastily swallowed before leaving the theater had helped, but the annoyed and loudly complaining vertebrae hated the stairs. Well, it was only for a few more days. The privacy and week-to-week cash rental were exactly what she had required.
Her first stop was the bottle of Tylenol-3 she kept in the cupboard next to the fridge. The milk was a little iffy, but she didn’t want to wait until she’d heated a tin of soup to take the medication. It would blunt the edge. Getting off her feet plus a good night’s sleep would do the rest. She made a mental note to wear flats or trainers tomorrow.
The rock-slab of a chair at the tiny dinette table gave her immediate relief and for a moment she closed her eyes and willed the pain to subside. She’d had years on the gymnastics circuit to learn how to play hurt. Ten years after her last competition she was still playing hurt.
When the pain had faded from a hot red to a tolerable yellow on her personal meter, she eased the wig off with the help of a cotton swab and baby oil, and set it carefully on its pedestal. The windy day meant she had new snarls to brush out later. Feeling better by the minute, she wrestled her way out of her boots and carried them to the closet alcove. Her Irish lass attire fell onto the laundry pile alongside last night’s perfect costume she’d worn for an off-stage performance only she would remember.
Last night, she thought. Pure joy. All of it.
A wig of short black hair, a ubiquitous button-up white shirt, black slacks, and apron, and carrying a tray—presto! She had become part of the wallpaper in a busy restaurant. Entering the kitchen unchallenged was a simple matter of confidence. In a hotel the kitchen linked to everywhere and security was limited. Nobody noticed room service waiters. Tray lifted to block her face from the security camera, a quick knock, a few moments with her treasured Sissone pressed against the electronic lock and she’d entered the room. The object of her desire hadn’t even been in the hotel safe, just tucked in a jewelry case with other far more precious items. The case had been in the top dresser drawer, right on top.
One of the easiest jobs she’d ever done.
Happy to relax into warm yoga pants and her faded red Arsenal sweatshirt, she filled a saucepan with tinned mushroom soup and put it on the larger of the ancient stove’s burners. It would take a while before it reached tepid, let alone truly hot. Even though their ubiquity was a Yankee mystery, she was happy to spot a packet of oyster crackers in the jumble on the table. They would hold her over while she took off her makeup.
The dinette table was only big enough for her makeup mirror and supplies. Witch hazel and cold cream worked wonders. The Irish lass her own family wouldn’t recognize disappeared in minutes.
Color contacts out and the heavy makeup off at last, she became the brown-eyed towhead that Evelyn, Countess Weald, would acknowledge as the product of her first marriage. They loved each other, to be sure, but Diana’s frequent and lengthy absences helped hearts grow fonder.
Naked of all artifice and the last of the cold cream wiped away, she switched off the mirror. She’d worn so many masks for so much of the last few years that sometimes the real self she was looking at seemed a stranger, and it unsettled her.
Feeling much lighter and aware that the codeine was moving the pain from yellow to green, Diana plucked a sepia-toned photograph from its anchor point in the corner of the mirror. She studied the high forehead and long plaits of black hair that framed the woman’s somber face. At the neck of what was probably a deerskin ceremonial dress was a small brooch of ordinary stones and turquoise beads strung and twisted to clasp a small dark feather. The faded coloration of the very old photograph had turned the beads a uniform dusty brown.
She allowed herself a grin as she fished out the photo album she kept in the smallest of her half-unpacked suitcases. Flipping it open to the ribbon she used as a bookmark, she slid the photo into its original sleeve and used the mirror’s lighting to study the brooch one last time. It might have been an indication of rank or merely ornamental. It could have been a gift from a suitor who showed devotion by supplying fresh feathers, or a fetish the native woman had made for herself.
Diana now knew the beads were clay red stone and beautifully variegated turquoise. The combination had looked gorgeous in the palm of her gloved hand.
She sipped her soup from the least chipped of the mugs the landlord provided while ensconced in the apartment’s only other chair. The recliner worked, albeit with a screech like a banshee, and the floor lamp next to it put good light on her treasured photographs. Turning the pages was a happy journey of past successes and future endeavors. Obsidian earrings, a carved leather choker, a delicate glazed black and white bowl. An elaborately carved wooden fish hook, unpolished diamonds set into an unfired ceremonial goblet—so many pretty things. Some of them she’d touched, but for most she was still waiting for that moment.
After William’s wedding she’d pick something new and start the whole process over again.
All the adrenaline of the past month slowly drained out of her until she was too limp to move. It didn’t matter. The recliner was no worse for her back than the Murphy bed. The thump of her landlord arriving home for the night was the last thing she remembered.
She woke cold and stiff and mightily wished she’d grabbed a blanket. At least her back had stopped aching. The photo album tumbled to the floor as she dragged herself upright. Groggy and yawning, she got the Murphy bed lowered without the usual conk on the head. It was no sooner in place than she realized the album was now out of reach underneath. She could leave it until morning, after she tucked the bed into the wall again. But the knowledge that something so precious to her was on the floor would likely keep her awake, so she slithered under the bed and emerged with the album. There were advantages to being small and nimble.
About to switch off the overhead light for good, she found herself standing stock-still with one hand on the light switch and the other holding the album. It had fallen open to the third page, displaying one of the first photos she’d collected. It featured a burly man at a podium, about to strike an elegant, curved gavel to the wood.
Her sleepy brain slowly called up the object’s data. The delicate handle was carved from highly polished, partially petrified ram’s bone. The head was a stunning single piece of faceted obsidian laboriously bored to allow the handle to fit through it. A thin disc of rose gold was inset over the eye where the two pieces joined. In spite of disputed provenance, at its last auction the artifact had fetched over two thousand pounds. The winning bidder and current so-called owner was the American tycoon in the photograph. A man with fingers in entertainment—television, tabloid news, films. And publishing.
Her drowsiness fled. She closed her eyes to recall the fallen letter. Anita Topaz’s letter. Signed by Ronald Keynes Reynard himself.