(Mermaid Note: If you haven’t already, please read The Garden Party (Part One) first.)
Jeesus. Guilty as sin and still he flirted. “Nope, won’t miss you one damn bit. I will, however, get a full weekend of sleep for the first time in two years.” It was her turn to grin at him. “I told you not to come back here, but your ego made you careless. You think you can steal from the Garden as if it was your neighborhood candy store.”
His half-gaze followed her as she paced compulsively for a moment. The Fedora still draped at the same angle showed only one smart-mouthed eye. Suddenly she couldn’t resist the urge and flipped the hat off of his head.
He sucked in a breath. “Why’d you do that?”
She reared back. “Do what? Tell you the truth. Too tough to hear? Or are you threatening me? That’s not a smart move considering you’re cuffed to a rail in a plant museum surrounded by a dozen armed guards, and at least a dozen squad cars parked outside, hoping you try something stupid.”
“You talk too much when you’re mad. That’s how I caught you in Chicago.” He winked, devilishly, and leveled his gaze. “Or are you mad because I let myself get caught?”
Shayna refused to fall for his nonsense. A penetrating gaze wasn’t going to make her suddenly dumbfounded. “Stop with the flirting and the sexy voice and the hard body. What did you do? Crunches until I walked in so your abs would pop through your T-shirt?”
He licked his lips; fighting the grin she saw threatening the corners of his mouth.
“Shayna, I haven’t been doing crunches. I swear.” He shrugged a shoulder at his cuffed wrists chained to the bannister. “Not that motivated.”
She pulled out her PDA, raised it eye level and took his picture.
“What are you doing now, Shayna?”
“My name is Special Agent Marigold,” she snapped back. “You can call me Special Agent or Special Agent Marigold.”
He cocked his head wearily. “We’ve known each other two years and no way am I going to start calling you Special Agent Marigold.”
She dropped her jaw. “We don’t know each other. You are a thief and I’ve been chasing you for two years. That does not make us friends on any planet. Even in this screwed up mess we live in now, we aren’t friends.”
His expression changed from cocky to uncertain and she realized she might have hurt his feelings. But his armor was back in a heartbeat and with a vengeance.
“I know why you’re mad at me,” he said. “It was the kiss.”
“I forgot about that kiss the second you jumped off the building.”
He sighed, a look of feigned distress in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to offend or take advantage, but you are a gorgeous woman. Smart, persistent, unwavering in your commitment. Pretty close to damn perfect…well, except for, you know, being a FBI agent.”
“Let’s stay on track. I need to record your confession.” She waved the PDA.
“You know those photos can’t be used as official crime scene photography.”
“Don’t worry about the pictures.” He was right. They weren’t official. She intended to put them in a scrapbook. “We don’t have all night.” She gestured at the orchid draped over a branch behind him and pushed the audio record button on her phone. “Confess.”
He laughed and kept laughing.
“Come on, Joshua. Do the right thing, here. Tell me why you wanted to steal a damn plant. I know they are extinct and to one of your rich clients, important, but the Garden is the most secure storage facility in the nation. What were you thinking?”
“As you said a few minutes ago, it’s my candy store. I rob it because I can.” Then his expression became somewhat perplexed. “Do you even know what this plant is?” He nodded at the orchid rooted securely to its spot in the Garden’s dirt wall.
“I know exactly what it is. I’ve read all about it.” She punched the mail icon on her PDA, and opened the attachment to an email she’d requested from one of the researchers at the office.
Clearing her throat, she read aloud. “It’s called Rothschild’s Slipper and is an orchid that can take up to fifteen years to flower. It can be identified by its petals, which it holds horizontally, and it produces up to six large flowers, and is the world’s most expensive orchid. A single stem is worth…” She looked at Joshua, blinking. “Damn, a half a million dollars.” Then swiftly getting beyond the sticker price, she added, “But I don’t get it. Why risk your freedom for a flower that could take more than a decade to flower or might die before you get it out of the building?”
“You ever heard of Malaysia?”
“Don’t be rude, of course I’ve heard of Malaysia.”
“Ever been there, Shayna?”
“Been no further west than Chicago and north than New York City, which you already know.”
He closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts for some elaborate lie, she imagined. But when he opened his eyes, the smirk had vanished from his face. He looked at her straight on, without any ranker or mischief visible that she could find.
“Okay, tell me why you wanted to steal a orchid,” she said.
“Decades ago before the volcanoes erupted and the atmosphere collapsed, there was a very special town in Malaysia and in it the ‘Gold of Kinabalu’ blossomed every fifteen years. It was recognized around the globe as the most exquisite and expensive orchid in the world.”
“Yeah, I just read that. It’s why we upped the security when it arrived, but it’s still an orchid.”
“Take a look, a very close look.”
She stepped to the railing to peer at the plant hanging over the branch. How lovely she thought. Purple and white and slender petals with a sweet scent she could taste on the tip of her tongue.
“A rare flower for centuries, this is the last one on the planet, and it will always be the last one. And I wanted you to see it, but more than see it, I wanted you to appreciate it.”
That wasn’t fair. Why would he think she never took time to smell the roses? She smelled stuff. “I appreciate things.”
Joshua tilted his head at her. His eyes softened, his voice whispered. “I know, but sometimes we all need to be reminded.”
“So you tried to steal an orchid to remind me?”
“Yes, and no. It’s a gift.”
He wrinkled his brow at her and she sensed his frustration. “It’s our anniversary.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s two years today since the first time I almost caught you.”
He chuckled. “Philadelphia. Behind the Liberty Bell.”
“How did you get away?”
Pondering her question, he licked his lips and her stomach flopped again. Damn, why did she keep noticing his mouth. “Just tell me how you escaped?”
“I have skills,” he said, his voice barely audible.
She stepped closer and when he leaned forward, she could feel his breath on her cheek. His breathing wasn’t even. It came in spurts, or exhales. As if he’d been running and suddenly stopped except all he was doing was standing and looking at her mouth. For some unexplainable reason, she reached out and her fingers touched his chest then slid down to just above his belt. She rested her palm against the firm hard muscles of his abdomen.
His mouth was inches from her mouth.
When the kiss started, the tender coolness of his lips made her shiver. Then their tongues intertwined, and the heat spilled off of him in rough waves. She prayed she wouldn’t collapse from the sheer weight of his touch. He placed a hand on her hip and his other hand splayed against the small of her back. It slid down over her ass, the pressure increasing. When he removed the hand from her hip he grabbed hold of her ponytail. Then his lips released her and he tilted her head back so she could see his eyes. Except she wanted his mouth, his lips, and she strained against his hold to reach them. When she did, she kissed him harder and longer than he’d kissed her.
Then abruptly, she stopped to take a breath and to ask him a question. “How’d you get out of the handcuffs?”
He cupped her face with both hands and kissed her on the forehead. She didn’t care really how he got out of the cuffs. Or how the vine reaching up to the ceiling turned into a rope, or how he used it to scale the walls. Within seconds, he was out an opening in the glass dome’s ceiling, and was gone.
She took a long look at the orchid, the most expensive in the world and smiled. The master thief didn’t take it with him. He wanted to teach her a lesson about beauty and appreciation.
“Beautiful things should be seen,” he’d said just before he let her go and grabbed the rope. “Not hidden inside walls where only the rich can enjoy them. I’m blessed, Shayna. In an ugly world, I still recognize beautiful things, and the most beautiful woman in the world is chasing me. What more can a man want?”
Shayna had no doubt she would catch Joshua one day and put him behind bars for the rest of his life. She would do her job, always. And nothing would stop her, not his smile, his warm brown eyes, or the touch of his lips on her mouth or his hand caressing her body. Nothing would prevent her from doing her job.
Of course, maybe, okay, definitely, she just wasn’t going to be in such a hurry to catch Joshua M.W. Smith–not for a very very, long time.
Besides, she liked the chase. It came with gifts and surprises.
Come back tomorrow to read Memory Garden by Kerri Carpenter.