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Stone Barrington sat at his desk in the downstairs office of his Turtle Bay town house, poring over documents related to the finances of his new clients, Jack and Hillary Coulter.
Or, perhaps, Hillary and Jack Coulter, since she was the one with all the money, and there was a great deal of it. He added a couple of paragraphs to the memo he was sending to the tax and finance department of his law firm, Woodman & Weld, where his suggestions would be reviewed to keep him out of trouble. His phone buzzed.
“Your five-thirty appointment is here,” his secretary, Joan, said.
“I have a five-thirty?” Stone asked, momentarily baffled.
“The insurance adjuster, Crane Hart, from the Steele company?”
“Oh, of course. Give me three minutes, then send him in.” He clicked off before she could respond. He tidied the document on his computer, then e-mailed it, then he shuffled the papers on his desk into a fairly neat stack.
"Much better," a female voice said from the doorway.
''Ah, Mr. Hart," Stone said, not looking up. Then he looked up. "I perceive that you are not a mister," he said.
She was tall, wrapped in a suit too tight and with a skirt too short to be businesslike, and her bright, blonde hair was pulled tightly into something at the back of her head. He won¬dered how she could blink, but she did, and slowly.
Before he could speak a moment of carnal curiosity flashed between them. ''Ah," he said, otherwise speechless. He finally managed speech. "I was expecting an insurance adjuster of the male persuasion."
''Ah," she replied. "A natural assumption, but Steele sends out tall, blonde, female adjusters when the loss is great enough." "I must remember to be robbed at gunpoint more often," he said, waving her toward the sofa, instead of the chair before his desk.
She took a seat and crossed her legs without undue expo- sure, an artful act, given the mininess of her skirt.
Stone came and sat at the other end of the sofa. "Now, about your loss," she said.
"Must we discuss that? I was beginning to think of this meeting as more of a gain."
She placed a briefcase on the sofa between them, unsnapped it, and extracted a file. "You're very kind," she said, "but first, your loss."
"If we must."
"We must." She consulted the file. "It says here that you were robbed of five hundred thousand dollars."
"Five million dollars," he corrected.
Her eyes opened perceptibly wider. "Then you require a taller, blonder adjuster."
"I recovered four and a half million dollars before filing my claim," he replied. "The present adjuster will do nicely."
"Do you have any evidence of this robbery?" she asked.
"I still have a bump on the back of my head," he said, gin¬gerly touching the spot. "Anything on paper?"
"I have a bank statement showing a five-million-dollar with¬drawal, and a redeposit of four and a half million a few days later."
"What happened to the other half million?"
"After I had been relieved of the five million-at gunpoint, I should add-the person who had taken it exchanged it for four and a half million."
"That seems an extremely unwise transaction," she pointed out.
"Not when you consider that the five million was in tens and twenties, and the exchange sum was in hundreds."
"You mean the villain paid half a million dollars to make it easier to count?"
"Count, transport, carry by hand, I believe it's called money laundering."
"Is there a police report covering any of this? Anything at all?"
Stone went to a desk drawer and came back with his bank statement and two documents, one a receipt from the Connecticut State Police and the other a police report on the theft from the NYPD.
"You seem well documented," she said admiringly, "and on this basis I will recommend that your claim be paid ¬ immediately."
"I expect we at Steele were fortunate to get off so light." "I expect you were."
"Now that we have concluded this matter, do you think you could tell me all of this story, just to satisfy my curiosity?"
"I can certainly do that," Stone said, "but not without induc¬ing a terrible thirst. Would you like a drink?"
"A Belvedere martini, please," she replied without hesitation. "Very dry, straight up, olives."
"For anything more boisterous than brown whiskey over ice, we will have to adjourn to my study upstairs, where the materi¬als for constructing your libation are readily available."
"You talked me into it," she said.
He led her upstairs and into his study, a small but comfort¬ ably furnished room with a bar concealed behind the paneling and an ice machine humming discreetly. She sat on the sofa, crossing her legs again, and waited while he assembled her drink, then poured himself a bourbon on the rocks. He handed her the martini glass.
She took a sip. "Perfect," she said. "I missed lunch. Do you have anything to snack on?"
Stone picked up the phone on the coffee table and pressed a button. "Fred," he said, "you have five minutes to put together some canapés for two." He hung up.
"Frederick Flicker, an English butler who was a gift from a French friend."
"A year of his services. After that, we negotiate."
"Is he concealed behind the paneling?"
"He's in the kitchen at this time of the day, no doubt canoo¬dling with my cook and housekeeper, Helene."
She suddenly fixed her gaze on a spot across the room, then rose and approached a painting, examining it closely. "Is this one of the Matilda Stones listed on your policy?"
"It is. There's another behind you, a couple more in the living and dining rooms, and, best of all, the four she left me, hanging in the master suite."
"Matilda Stone was my mother."
"Ahhhh, I should have deduced that. I'm not usually so slow on the uptake." She sat down again.
Fred appeared silently at the door, bearing a silver tray, which he set on the coffee table. "Helene's compliments: some prosciutto, some crumbles of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a little of her pork rillettes," he announced, then he vanished.
"I should keep him on, if I were you," she said. "I fully intend to."
"May I see the other paintings?" she asked. "Of course."
"Including the four in the master suite?"
He smiled. "Of course. But let me fix us another drink first."
Stone put their drinks on a small tray and led the way to the elevator.
“This is a very handsome house,” she said.
“Thank you. How did you come to be named Hart Crane in reverse?”
“My mother had never heard of the poet. Crane was her maiden name, much as your mother’s was Stone. Hart was my father’s name.”
“That makes perfect sense,” Stone said.
“Yes, but it doesn’t make it any easier to live with. First there’s the gender confusion, then the spelling, then the denial of a connection with the author, then, if I’m lucky, people get it right.”
“I’ll make a note of it,” Stone said. The elevator came to a halt, and Stone stepped out and nodded in the direction of the master suite. He followed her in, then set the tray on a bedside table and gave her what was left of her first martini. “Bottoms up,” he said. “So to speak.”
They tossed off the last sip of their first drinks.
She smiled. "And those are the paintings," she said, travers¬ing the room and standing reverently before the smallish oils. "Ahhhh."
"I'm glad you appreciate them."
"I paint a little, and that makes me appreciate them all the more."
"Your second drink," he said, offering the tray.
"First, I'll bet there's a bathroom in this suite."
"Mine is to your left, yours is to your right."
She chose the one to the right and was back in a flash, accept¬ing and sipping her new martini.
"That was fast," Stone said, sipping his new bourbon.
"It doesn't take long to take off your underwear," she said, as if to herself.
He froze for a moment. "I hope you meant what I think you said," he said.
"I try to speak clearly," she replied, "even after a martini."
He reached tentatively under her skirt and encountered a firm, smooth buttock.
"Mmmm," she said, taking another sip of her martini and facing the paintings again.
He stood behind her and kissed her on an ear. "Perfect hairdo for an available ear," he breathed, and he noticed that his respi¬ration had gone up about ten points.
She reached into her hair and released something, and it fell around her shoulders in thick, glossy waves. "It works both ways," she said, and she sounded a little breathless, too.
He reached around her and cupped a breast in his hand. It felt just wonderful. Emboldened, he undid her top button, reached inside, located a nipple and squeezed.
"You've found the start button," she said, reaching behind her and feeling the front of his trousers.
"So have you."
She found the zipper and pulled it slowly down. "I believe I have," she said, reaching inside and taking him in her hand. "Isn't there a bed somewhere in this room?" She turned to face him and began working on his belt buckle.
His trousers fell to the floor, and he stepped out of them. "The bed is this way," he said, pulling her across the space of six feet. They finished undressing before falling onto the bed, not bothering with the covers.
Half an hour later they lay in each other's arms, breathing deeply.
"I feel well adjusted now," he said.
"Adjustment is my metier," she said. ''Are you up to doing it again?" She took him in her hand again to focus his attention. “Yes, I believe you are."
They did it again, this time more slowly. "I'm hungry," she said a few minutes later.
"What would you like to eat?"
"You mean, in addition to what I've just had?" "Whatever you want."
"What kind of steak?"
''A prime strip."
"I thought I'd already done that."
"Medium rare," she said.
"Something on the side?"
She laughed. "Green beans and some sort of potatoes."
"Something to start?"
"A Caesar salad."
Stone picked up the phone, reached Fred, and ordered for them. "And a bottle of the Far Niente Cabernet, decanted." He hung up and returned to her.
She snuggled into his shoulder. "I hope you're surprised by all this," she said, "because I certainly am."
"I love a surprise," he replied, stroking her hair.
"There was a moment, when I stood in the door and watched you stacking papers."
"The moment for me came just after that," he said.
"I'm not this way with all my adjustees."
"I should hope not-you'd be continually exhausted." "I'm not exhausted yet," she said.
"You'll be ready again after a steak."
"You could be right."
"When I'm right, I'm right."
Their food arrived on the dumbwaiter. Stone sat up the two electrically operated beds and put the tray between them. Fred had decanted the wine, and Stone poured large glasses.
"So," he said, "how did I get so lucky?"
"Luck of the draw," she said. "I mean, I could have scheduled the old lady whose cat knocked over a candle and set her bed¬ room on fire. Besides, I'll bet you're lucky a lot."
"Not this lucky."
"I'm surprised you're not married."
"Widowed," he said.
''A while. You?"
"Divorced for three years. Much happier single."
"How did you get into insurance?"
"My ex-husband was a private investigator. I used to help, and I got pretty good at it. After the divorce I applied at Steele, and they found my investigative experience a good fit for sniff¬ing out insurance fraud."
"Did they suspect me of fraud?" Stone asked.
"Oh, no. There was a lull in those cases, and I drew yours."
"Did you know I'm their attorney?"
"No, they came to me through Strategic Services, another client."
"I certainly know who they are. I'd love to work there."
"Maybe you should meet their CEO, Mike Freeman."
"Love to. Will you introduce me?"
"It's the least I can do after all you've done for me."
She laughed aloud at that. "You're right."
They finished their dinner, sent the tray back downstairs, and made love again.
Crane stayed the night, and in the morning Stone put her in a cab. “I had a lovely evening and night,” she said.
“Would you like to try for that again this evening? There’s a cocktail party, and then we can get some dinner.”
“I’ll pick you up at seven. Where do you live?”
“Five-seventy Park. How shall I dress?”
“You’re a better judge of that than I. I’ll wear a suit.”
“See you at seven.” They kissed, and he closed the door.
“Well,” Joan said as he came into his office. “You have a rosy glow. Your insurance adjustment must have gone well.”
“My claim will be forwarded with the adjuster’s approval.”
Joan grinned. “I take it undue influence may have been brought to bear.”
“Kindly shut up and go to work,” he said. Joan was always interested in his sex life.
“Yes, sir!” She vanished.
Stone sat down and found himself reintroduced to the paperwork of Mrs. and Mr. Jack Coulter. He reread his memo to Tax and Finance and decided he had covered all the bases. "Joan!" he yelled.
She came back into his office. "We have this newfangled thing called a buzzer," she said.
"You need the exercise," he reposted. He scooped up the papers on his desk and handed them to her. Sort these into some sort of sane filings. I'll e-mail you my memo to Tax and Finance, and you can messenger the lot over to them."
She hefted the stack of paper. "Feels like a major new client, if we're starting at this weight."
"I believe that will be the case. Your experience with my file should be of use. You might use that as a template."
"Will do." She vanished, and after a moment, buzzed him. "See? A buzzer! Dino on one."
Stone sighed and picked up the phone. "Good morning, Chief," he said. Dino had been the new chief of detectives of the NYPD for some time now. "You and Viv going to the Strategic Services shindig tonight?"
"It's a free meal, isn't it?"
"Is it? I was thinking just cocktails."
"I can smell a free meal all the way downtown."
"Okay, I have a date. Join us for dinner, whether there or elsewhere."
"If it's free, we're there."
"Then I hope that Mike Freeman provides."
"Who's the date?"
"Somebody new. Her name is Crane Hart." He spelled it.
"Brand spanking new. I think you'll approve."
"I approved of the last one, and she stole five million bucks from you."
"Well, your judgment of women was never that great."
"How about your judgment? It wasn't my five million she stole."
"My insurance company is making me whole."
"You're a lucky bastard."
"I've been told that recently, without the bastard."
"Shall we pick you up?"
"Okay. Crane will be impressed by my pull with the department. Six-forty-five?"
''And use the siren, that always impresses my dates."
Dina's black departmental SUV rolled to a stop at the awning of 570 Park. Stone went to get Crane, while Dino trans¬ferred to the front seat, leaving his wife, Viv, to share the rear with Stone and his date.
Crane came downstairs, glowing in a simple black Armani dress with a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, topped off with a rope of pearls. They exchanged a kiss that would not disturb her lipstick.
Stone helped her into the SUV and made the introductions. “And that's Sergeant Devane at the wheel."
"Ma'am," the sergeant said.
"What have I done to need so much protection?" Crane asked as the vehicle moved off.
"You're with Stone," Dino said. "It's standard operating pro¬cedure. The department would never leave you alone in a car with him."
"Then I'm grateful," she said.
The party was held in the executive suite of Strategic Ser¬vices, which was the world's second-largest security company, with offices and other facilities worldwide. The big double doors between CEO Michael Freeman's office and the large boardroom had been thrown open, and the combination kitch¬enette and wet bar at one end of the room had been put into use. Stone ordered drinks from a waiter, and they quickly arrived.
Mike Freeman came over and welcomed them, and Stone introduced Crane.
"Crane is an admirer of your company," Stone said.
"That's always nice to hear," Mike replied. "Not many women admire large security enterprises staffed by armed personnel."
"It beats Bergdorf Goodman any day," Crane replied. "And what do you do, Crane?"
''I'm a fraud investigator and an adjuster in the large-account division of Steele Insurance."
"That's interesting," Mike said. "Why don't you all stay for dinner after the mob leaves, Stone, so that I can talk more with Crane about this."
"We'd be delighted," Stone said, and Mike moved off to greet his other guests.
"Did you say something to him about me?" Crane asked Stone.
"I did not, but you managed to get his attention in about ten seconds, and you got us a dinner invitation."
Stone watched as Crane turned toward the arriving guests, and her face fell just a bit. "Someone you know?" he asked.
"Someone I no longer want to know," she said. "My ex-husband."
Stone looked at the arriving guests. "Which one?"
"The giant," she replied.
There was, indeed, a giant among the group. Stone made him at six-six and 240. The man spotted Crane and started toward her.
Crane turned her back on him and faced Stone. "I don't want to talk to him here," she said.
Stone stepped between them and held out a welcoming hand. "Good evening, I'm Stone Barrington."
The giant grasped Stone's hand in his paw. ''And I'm Don Dugan."
Stone tried not to wince and managed to disengage his hand. "How are you, Don?" The man tried to sidestep him, but Stone was too quick for him.
''I'd like a word with my wife," Dugan said.
"I'm afraid she has a bad case of laryngitis."
"Then I'll just whisper in her ear."
"She has an ear infection, too."
"It looks as though I'm going to have to remove you from my path," Dugan said.
"Please reconsider that."
Dugan placed an index finger against Stone's chest and began to push.
Stone took the finger in his hand and bent it backward. Dugan's knees buckled to relieve the pressure, but Stone kept it up. "Come with me," he said. Keeping him with bent knees,
Stone led him across the room toward the lobby. "If you make a scene," he said to the man, "I'll break it off and feed it to you." They entered the lobby.
Mike Freeman spotted the pair and fell into step with them. "Going down?" He pressed an elevator button and the door opened.
"Thank you, yes," Stone replied. He walked the giant into the elevator, pressed the button for the ground floor, then, after a final tweak, he let go of the finger and stepped backward off the elevator, keeping an eye on Dugan, and the doors closed.
Mike was already on his cell phone. "A gentleman is coming down on elevator two," he said into it. "Please escort him to the street door and see that he doesn't reenter the building. It's going to take at least two of you."
"Well done," Stone said. "You know that guy?"
"Sort of," Mike said. "He owns an investigative agency. Was he trying to get to Ms. Hart?"
"He's her ex-husband," Stone explained, "and she didn't want to talk to him."
"I was thinking of buying his business," Mike said, "but I just changed my mind."