Phoebe found the quiet at Sotheby's Bond Street offices unsettling this Tuesday night. Though she'd been working at the London auction house for two weeks, she was still not accustomed to the building. Every sound- the buzzing of the overhead lights, the security guard pulling on the doors to make sure they were locked, the distant sound of recorded laughter on a television-made her jump.
As the junior person in the department, it had fallen on Phoebe to wait behind a locked door for Dr. Whitmore to arrive. Sylvia, her supervisor, had been adamant that someone needed to see the man after hours. Phoebe suspected that this request was highly irregular but was too new in the job to make more than a weak protest.
"Of course you will stay. He'll be here by seven o'clock," Sylvia had said smoothly, fingering her strand of pearls before picking up her ballet tickets from the desk. "Besides, you don't have anywhere else to be, do you?"
Sylvia was right. Phoebe had nowhere else to be. "But who is he?" Phoebe asked. It was a perfectly legitimate question, but Sylvia had looked affronted.
"He's from Oxford and an important client of this firm. That's all you need to know," Sylvia replied. "Sotheby's values confidentiality, or did you miss that part of your training?"
And so Phoebe was still at her desk. She waited well beyond the promised hour of seven. To pass the time, she went through the files to find out more about the man. She didn't like meeting people without knowing as much about their background as possible. Sylvia might think all she needed was his name and a vague sense of his credentials, but Phoebe knew different. Her mother had taught her what a valuable weapon such personal information could be when wielded against guests at cocktail parties and formal dinners. Phoebe hadn't been able to find any Whitmores in the Sotheby archives, however, and his customer number led to a simple card in a locked file cabinet that said " de Clermont Family-inquire with the president."
At five minutes to nine, she heard someone outside the door. The man's voice was gruff yet strangely musical.
"This is the third wild-goose chase you've sent me on in as many days, Ysabeau. Please try to remember that I have things to do. Send Alain next time. There was a brief pause. "You think I'm not busy? I'll call you after I see them." The man made a muffled oath. "Tell your intuition to take a break, for God's sake."
The man sounded strange: half American and half British, with blurred edges to his accent suggesting that these weren't the only languages he knew. Phoebe's father had been in the queen's diplomatic service, and his voice was similarly ambiguous, as though he hailed from everywhere and nowhere.
The bell rang, another shrill sound that made her flinch, despite the fact that Phoebe was expecting it. She pushed away from her desk and strode across the room. She was wearing her black heels, which had cost a fortune but made her look taller and, Phoebe told herself, more authoritative. It was a trick she'd learned from Sylvia at her first interview, when she had worn flats. Afterward she'd vowed never to appear "adorably petite" again.
She looked through the peephole to see a smooth forehead, scruffy blond hair, and a pair of brilliant blue eyes. Surely this wasn't Dr. Whitmore.
A sudden rap on the door startled her. Whoever this man was, he had no manners. Irritated, Phoebe punched the button on the intercom. "Yes?" she said impatiently.
"Marcus Whitmore here to see Ms. Thorpe."
Phoebe looked through the peephole once more. Impossible. No one this young would warrant Sylvia's attention. "Might I see some identification?" she said crisply.
"Where is Sylvia?" The blue eyes narrowed.
"At the ballet. Coppelia, I believe." Sylvia's tickets were the best in the house, the extravagance claimed as a business expense. The man on the other side of the door slapped an identification card flat against the peephole. Phoebe reared back. "If you would be so kind as to step away? I can't see anything at that distance." The card moved a few inches from the door.
"Really, Miss . . . ?"
"Miss Taylor, I am in a hurry." The card disappeared, replaced by those twin blue beacons. Phoebe drew back again in surprise, but not before she'd made out the name on the card and his affiliation with a scientific research project in Oxford.
It was Dr. Whitmore. What business did a scientist have with Sotheby's? Phoebe pushed the release for the door.
As soon as the click sounded, Whitmore pushed his way through. He was dressed for a club in Soho, with his black jeans, vintage gray U2 Tshirt, and a ridiculous pair of high-top Converse trainers (also gray). A leather cord circled his neck, and a handful of ornaments of dubious provenance and little worth hung down from it. Phoebe straightened the hem of her impeccably clean white blouse and looked at him with annoyance.
"Thank you," Whitmore said, standing far closer to her than was normal in polite society. "Sylvia left a package for me."
"If you would be seated, Dr. Whitmore." She gestured to the chair in front of her desk.
Whitmore's blue eyes moved from the chair to her. "Must I? This won't take long. I'm only here to confirm that my grandmother isn't seeing zebras where there are only horses."
"Excuse me?" Phoebe inched toward her desk. There was a security alarm under the desk's surface, next to the drawer. If the man continued to misbehave, she would use it.
"The package." Whitmore kept his gaze directed at her. There was a spark of interest there. Phoebe recognized it and crossed her arms in an effort to deflect it. He pointed to the padded box on the desk without looking at it. "I'm guessing that's it."
"Please sit down, Dr. Whitmore. It's long past closing time, I'm tired, and there is paperwork to be filled out before I can let you examine whatever it is that Sylvia set aside." Phoebe reached up and rubbed at the back of her neck. It was cricked from looking up at him. Whitmore's nostrils flared, and his eyelids drifted down. Phoebe noticed that his eyelashes were darker than his blond hair, and longer and thicker than hers. Any woman would kill for lashes like those.
"I really think you had better give me the box and let me be on my way, Miss Taylor." The gruff voice smoothed out, deepened into a warning, though Phoebe couldn't understand why. What was he going to do, steal the box? Again she considered sounding the alarm but thought better of it. Sylvia would be furious if she offended a client by calling the guards.
Instead Phoebe stepped to the desk, picked up a paper and a pen, and returned to thrust them at the visitor. "Fine. I'm happy to do this standing up if you prefer, Dr. Whitmore, though it's a great deal less comfortable."
"That's the best offer I've had in some time." Whitmore's mouth twitched. "If we're going to proceed according to Hoyle, though, I think you should call me Marcus."
"Hoyle?" Phoebe flushed and drew herself up to her full height. Whitmore wasn't taking her seriously. "I don't think he works here."
"I certainly hope not." He scrawled a signature. "Edmond Hoyle's been dead since 1769."
"I'm fairly new at Sotheby's. You'll have to forgive me for not understanding the reference." Phoebe sniffed. Once again she was too far from the hidden button underneath her desk to use it. Whitmore might not be a thief, but she was beginning to think he was mad.
"Here's your pen," Marcus said politely, "and your form. See?" He leaned closer. "I did exactly what you asked me to. I'm really very well behaved. My father made sure of it."
Phoebe took the pen and paper from him. As she did, her fingers brushed against the back of Whitmore's hand. Its coldness made her shiver. There was a heavy gold signet on his pinkie finger, she noticed. It looked medieval, but no one walked around London with such a rare and valuable ring on his finger. It must be a fake-though a good one.
She inspected the form as she returned to the desk. It all seemed to be in order, and if this man turned out to be some kind of criminal-which wouldn't surprise her a bit-at least she wouldn't be guilty of breaking the rules. Phoebe lifted the lid of the box, prepared to surrender it to the odd Dr. Whitmore for his examination. She hoped that then she could go home.
"Oh." Her voice caught in surprise. She'd expected to see a fabulous diamond necklace or a Victorian set of emeralds in fussy gold filigree- something her own grandmother would like.
Instead the box contained two oval miniatures, set into niches that had been formed to adhere perfectly to their edges and protect them from damage. One was of a woman with long golden hair tinged with red. An opennecked ruff framed her heart-shaped face. Her pale eyes looked out at the viewer with calm assurance, and her mouth curved in a gentle smile. The background was the vivid blue common to the work of the Elizabethan limner Nicholas Hilliard. The other miniature depicted a man with a shock of black hair brushed back from his forehead. A straggling beard and mustache made him look younger than his black eyes suggested, and his white linen shirt was also open at the neck, showing flesh that was milkier than the cloth. Long fingers held a jewel suspended from a thick chain. Behind the man, golden flames burned and twisted, a symbol of passion.
A soft breath tickled her ear. "Holy Christ." Whitmore looked like he'd seen a ghost.
"They're beautiful, aren't they? This must be the set of miniatures that just arrived. An old couple in Shropshire found them hidden in the back of their silver chest when they were looking for a place to store some new pieces. Sylvia reckons they'll fetch a good price."
"Oh, there's no doubt about that." Marcus pushed a button on his phone.
"Oui?" said an imperious French voice at the other end of the line. This was the problem with cell phones, Phoebe thought. Everybody shouted on them, and you could hear private conversations.
"You were right about the miniatures, Grand-mere."
A self-satisfied sound drifted out of the phone. "Do I have your complete attention now, Marcus?"
"No. And thank God for it. My complete attention isn't good for anybody." Whitmore eyed Phoebe and smiled. The man was charming, Phoebe reluctantly admitted. "But give me a few days before you send me on another errand. Just how much are you willing to pay for them, or shouldn't I ask?"
"N' importe quel prix."
The price doesn't matter. These were words that made auction houses happy. Phoebe stared down at the miniatures. They really were extraordinary.
Whitmore and his grandmother concluded their conversation, and the man's fingers immediately flew across his phone, transmitting another message.
"Hilliard believed that his portrait miniatures were best viewed in private," Phoebe mused aloud. "He felt that the art of limning put too many of his subjects' secrets on display. You can see why. These two look like they kept all kinds of secrets."
"You're right there," Marcus murmured. His face was very close, giving Phoebe an opportunity to examine his eyes more closely. They were bluer than she had first realized, bluer even than the azurite- and ultramarineenriched pigments Hilliard used.
The phone rang. When Phoebe reached to answer it, she thought his hand drifted down, just for a moment, to her waist.
"Give the man his miniatures, Phoebe." It was Sylvia.
"I don't understand," she said numbly. "I'm not authorized-"
"He's purchased them outright. Our obligation was to get the highest possible price for their pieces. We've done that. The Taverners will be able to spend their autumn years in Monte Carlo if they choose. And you can tell Marcus that if I've missed the danse de fete, I'll be enjoying his family's box seats for next season's performances." Sylvia disconnected the line.
The room was silent. Marcus Whitmore's finger rested gently on the gold case that circled the miniature of the man. It looked like a gesture of longing, an attempt to connect to someone long dead and anonymous.
"I almost believe that, were I to speak, he might hear me," Marcus said wistfully.
Something was off. Phoebe couldn't identify what it was, but there was more at stake here than the acquisition of two sixteenth-century miniatures.
"Your grandmother must have a very healthy bank account, Dr. Whitmore, to pay so handsomely for two unidentifiable Elizabethan portraits. As you are also a Sotheby's client, I feel I should tell you that you surely overpaid for them. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I from this period might go for six figures with the right buyers in the room, but not these." The identity of the sitter was crucial to such valuations. "We'll never know who these two were. Not after so many centuries of obscurity. Names are important."
"That's what my grandmother says."
"Then she is aware that without a definite attribution the value of these miniatures will probably not increase."
"To be honest," Marcus said, "my grandmother doesn't need to make a return on her investment. And Ysabeau would prefer it if no one else knows who they are."
Phoebe frowned at the odd phrasing. Did his grandmother think she did know?
"It's a pleasure doing business with you, Phoebe, even if we did do it standing up. This time." Marcus paused, smiled his charming smile. "You don't mind my calling you Phoebe?"
Phoebe did mind. She rubbed at her neck in exasperation, pushing aside her black, collar-length hair. Marcus's eyes lingered on the curve of her shoulders. When she made no reply, he closed the box, tucked the miniatures under his arm, and backed away.
"I'd like to take you to dinner," he said mildly, seemingly unaware of Phoebe's clear signals of uninterest. "We can celebrate the Taverners' good fortune, as well as the sizable commission that you will be splitting with Sylvia."
Sylvia? Split a commission? Phoebe's mouth gaped in disbelief. The chances that her boss might do such a thing were less than nil. Marcus's expression darkened.
"It was a condition of the deal. My grandmother wouldn't have it any other way." His voice was gruff. "Dinner?"
"I don't go out with strange men after dark."
"Then I'll ask you out to dinner tomorrow, after we've had lunch. Once you've spent two hours in my company, I won't be 'strange' any longer."
"Oh, you'll still be strange," Phoebe muttered, "and I don't take lunch. I eat at my desk." She looked away in confusion. Had she said the first part aloud?
"I'll pick you up at one," said Marcus, his smile widening. Phoebe's heart sank. She had said it aloud. "And don't worry, we won't go far."
"Why not?" Did he think she was afraid of him or couldn't keep up with his strides? God, she hated being short.
"I just wanted you to know that you could wear those shoes again without fearing you'd break your neck," Marcus said innocently. His eyes traveled slowly from her toes over her black leather pumps, lingered on her ankles, and then crawled up the curve of her calf. "I like them."
Break her neck? Who did this man think he was? He was behaving like an eighteenth-century rake. Phoebe took decisive steps toward the door, her heels making satisfyingly sharp clicks. She pushed the button to release the lock and held the door open. Marcus made an appreciative sound as he strolled toward her.
"I shouldn't be so forward. My grandmother disapproves of that almost as much as she disapproves of being cut out of a business deal. But here's the thing, Phoebe." Whitmore lowered his mouth until it was inches from her ear and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Unlike the men who have taken you out to dinner and perhaps gone back to your flat for something afterward, your propriety and fine manners don't frighten me off. Quite the contrary. And I can't help imagining what you're like when that icy control melts."
Marcus took her hand. His lips pressed against her flesh as he stared into her eyes "Until tomorrow. And make sure the door locks behind me. You're in enough trouble." Dr. Whitmore walked backward out of the room, gave her another bright smile, turned, and whistled his way out of sight.
Phoebe's hand was trembling. That man-that strange man with no grasp of proper etiquette and startling blue eyes-had kissed her. At her place of work. Without her permission.
And she hadn't slapped him, which is what well-bred daughters of diplomats were taught to do as a last resort against unwanted advances at home and abroad.
She was indeed in trouble.