Masks: Part 27

Wrapped in a towel, Jim exited the bathroom and went upstairs to get dressed. He could hear Blair in his room, doing the same. Knowing the kid would take twice as long as he would, he'd made Blair shower early. If he had to go to this party, he didn't want to show up late. An insistence on punctuality was one thing he and Olive Palmer had in common. She never kept her guests waiting, and she expected to be treated with the same courtesy. Jim found that entirely reasonable. The concept of being fashionably late had never made sense to him.

Dropping the towel, Jim pulled on black boxers and went to the bureau for socks. He opened the drawer, and frowned. Laid atop his socks, folded neatly, was his old Cascade PD sweatshirt. He lifted it out, grabbed his black dress socks, and closed the drawer. The doors to Blair's room opened. He heard Blair come out, and almost called down to him, but changed his mind. It could wait a few minutes.

The rented tux hung waiting for him. Jim looked it over, shaking his head. He'd wanted a plain, conservative tuxedo, but Blair had talked him into one that replaced the cummerbund with a dark green brocade vest and matching tie, claiming it would give him "sort of a gambler look". Jim had only agreed to it to keep Blair from making worse suggestions, like the duster or the velvet frock coat. He didn't think Blair had been serious about those, but he wasn't sure. At least the jacket and pants were plain black.

Fully dressed, Jim slipped his watch on, picked up the sweatshirt, and went back downstairs. Blair was sitting on the couch, hair tied back and glasses on, scribbling something in one of his ever-present notebooks.

"Sandburg, what's this?"

Blair glanced up, and smiled. "Hey, man, you look nice. What's what?"

Jim held out the sweatshirt. "This."

Blair slid the glasses down his nose and peered over them. "That's your Cascade PD sweatshirt, Jim."

"I know that, Einstein. What was it doing in my sock drawer?"

"I thought you might want it back."

"You don't want it?"

Blair shook his head. "That's okay, Jim. It's been pretty warm lately. I don't need it anymore."

Jim studied the earnest face. Blair wanted to play this casual. Fine, he could do that. "Okay, Chief. But if you ever get cold, you know where it is."

"Yeah." Blair smiled. "Thanks, Jim."

Jim brought the sweatshirt upstairs and put it away. When he came back down, Blair was on his feet, waiting for him. Blair had gone for what the shopowner insisted was the latest thing: a collarless, midnight blue jacket with hidden buttons up to his neck, worn over a white shirt with a stand-up collar. There was a notch cut out of the jacket at the neck; it reminded Jim of a Nehru jacket with the collar cut off. He had to admit, though, the kid looked good.

"Not bad, Chief," he said. "You ready?"

First Blair's eyebrows, then his whole body bobbed in one of his patented "I think this is gonna be fun, but I'm still nervous" dances. Jim shook his head. How a kid who didn't even own a tie could enjoy getting dressed up in a tuxedo to go mingle at some fancy society party was beyond him. Blair read his thought, and grinned.

"Come on, Jim, you'll have a good time. It's Olive. You like Olive."

Jim tugged at his tie. "Why can't she have a backyard barbecue like everyone else?"

"She's having one of those next month. I'm making the chili."

"Oh, no. Not--"

"Jim, ostrich meat is good for you. You liked it before you found out what it was."

"If I can't get a hamburger, I'm not going."

"Jim, you really need to switch your dietary focus away from red meat. I've told you before, you should--"

"Not now, Sandburg." Jim held up his hand before Blair could launch into a lecture. "Someone's at the door."

When the knock came, Blair's heartbeat quickened. It might have been just normal anticipation, but Jim knew it was more. Even now, nine months after Ponytail attacked him, Blair got scared whenever there was a knock on the door. Sometimes, if he was alone in the loft, he wouldn't answer it. But he wasn't alone now.

"I'll get it," Blair said, already moving. He started to push his hair back, but stopped the motion before he touched it. Jim smiled a little. The kid probably had every strand arranged just the way he wanted it. Out to impress the debutantes, Sandburg?

Jim almost said it, but didn't. Actually, he hoped Blair was out to impress the women tonight, and he didn't mean Olive Palmer. Blair hadn't had a date since the disastrous dinner with Toni LeClaire more than six months ago. The kid was doing a lot better--he hadn't had a nightmare in weeks, and the fear that had been in his eyes for so long made only rare appearances--but he still couldn't bring himself to ask a girl out. It wasn't something they'd talked about, though they still talked a hell of a lot more than they had before. Blair just did not want to discuss his love life with Jim, and Jim had to respect that. But that didn't stop Jim from giving Blair the occasional nudge toward the occasional attractive female, hoping that one of them could interest him enough to take the step. God knew, there were more than enough women willing to go out with him. Some were even bold enough to do the asking themselves, but Blair always turned them down regretfully. At least the regret was there. That gave Jim hope.

He wasn't dating much himself, these days. He didn't like to leave Blair alone in the loft at night. At Blair's prodding, he'd taken Vicky Smith from Vice out a few times. He liked her, but she was a little too wild for his taste. He'd always preferred more refined women. Independent, but classy. He supposed that made him some sort of throwback, but he couldn't help it. In the last six months, he'd dated two or three other women, but it hadn't worked out with them, either. Probably because he always felt guilty about Blair being home alone. Maybe if Blair's love life got going again, his would get back to normal, too.

Blair shut the door and came back to the living room. He was carrying a card, and a tiny box wrapped in blue paper starred with silver.

"Present from an admirer?" Jim quipped.

Blair blushed and shook his head. "I don't know, man." He opened the card. "It's from Olive. It says, 'What would your uncle think?'"

"What uncle?"

"I only had-- Oh, no." Blair's eyes widened with alarm. "She wouldn't." He tore the paper off and opened the blue velvet box. "Oh, man! Tell me she didn't do this!"

"What is it?"

Wordlessly, Blair turned the box so Jim could see inside. Nestled in white satin were three faceted blue stones that glittered and flashed in the light. All were round, one about a quarter-inch in diameter, the other two half that. Jim looked from the stones to Blair.

"Sapphires?"

"No, man," Blair moaned. "They're blue diamonds."

Jim whistled. "Nice present."

"Jim, I can't accept these. Do you have any idea how much they're worth?"

"No, but I'm sure Olive does. She wants you to have them."

"But, Jim, I can't!"

"Why not? Olive's got more money than God, and no one to spend it on. If she wants to buy you a present--if it makes her happy--I think you should accept it and say thank you."

Blair's eyes swam with distress. "Do you really think so, Jim?"

"Yes," Jim replied firmly. "I do."

Blair stared at the box in his hand. "Okay."

He took the box into his room, and emerged minutes later with the largest diamond centered on his shirt collar above the notch in the jacket. He hair was down now. He pushed it back, and Jim caught a double glint of blue in his ear. Blair met Jim's gaze doubtfully.

"It's too much, right?"

"It looks fine."

"But--"

"It's fine, Chief." Jim clapped a hand to Blair's shoulder and steered him toward the door. "Let's go or we're gonna be late."







Thanks to a little judicious speeding, they arrived at the Palmer estate precisely on time. A valet parked the truck among all the BMW's, Mercedes, and limos. Blair bounded up the steps to the open door, Jim following at a more leisurely pace. Blair loved parties. Jim had worked security for some of these society bashes, and had warned him that they were usually about as exciting as an all-night stakeout, but Blair didn't care. Even if nothing much happened, it was a chance to study a subsection of society up close. Besides, this was Olive's party. There just had to be some interesting people here.

Wilkins was doing door duty. Blair lightly slapped the dignified butler's arm. "Hi, Wilkins. How are you feeling?"

"Fine, thank you, Blair," Wilkins replied.

"The echinacea worked?"

"Like a charm." Wilkins turned to Jim. "Good evening, Detective Ellison. I must say, you gentlemen look...like gentlemen, this evening."

"Is that some kind of crack, Wilkins?" Jim asked, smiling.

"Not at all, sir. You carry a gun."

Blair laughed, and Wilkins allowed himself a small, triumphant smile. A few months ago, Blair and Wilkins had started competing to crack each other up. Lately, Wilkins had a much easier time of it than Blair, but the fact that the butler was far ahead on points didn't bother Blair at all.

A pretty girl offered a tray of drinks. Blair smiled at her, and took a glass of red wine. Jim took a scotch, and the girl moved on. Blair watched her go, wishing he dared do more than smile. Wilkins cleared his throat.

"Miss Palmer recommends that you keep your wits about you tonight, Blair."

"She does?" Blair stared into his glass. "Why? What's going on?"

"I couldn't say."

Blair grinned. "But you know."

"Of course."

"What about me?" Jim asked.

"She didn't say specifically, sir, but I believe it would be wise."

Wilkins excused himself to greet some new arrivals. Jim and Blair exchanged mystified shrugs and went in search of their hostess. They found her holding court in the red room, named for the wall-covering of crimson silk brocade. The rest of the room--mirror and picture frames, ceiling, and chandeliers--was gilt. Huge vases of white porcelain were filled with crimson roses. There were at least three dozen people in the room, the men in tuxes, the women glittering in gowns and jewels. They might as well have been invisible. All eyes were drawn automatically to the back of the room, where Olive Palmer stood, erect and commanding, her hair and her simple, draped gown glowing white against the red wall. One hand grasped the crystal head of the ashwood cane Blair had given her for Christmas. The wrist of that same hand was encircled by a massive diamond bracelet, her only jewelry.

Blair went straight to her and kissed her cheek. "Olive, you look fantastic."

"Thank you, dear. Hello, Jim." Olive reached out and brushed Blair's hair back, exposing his ear. "I see my little gift arrived."

Blair's face burned. "Yes. Thank you. They're way too much."

"Nonsense. They suit you." Olive's gaze shifted to someone behind Blair. "Don't you think so?"

"Oh, yes," said a voice Blair recognized, sweet and slow as honey. "They match his eyes."

Toni. Blair turned to face her, knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. Toni was wearing a strapless, form-fitting dress in a dark, muted purple, the long skirt slit up to her thigh. Diamonds sparkled at her throat. Pulled back from her face, her hair spilled down her back in an incredible mass of curls. Blair's hand twitched, wanting to touch them, to plunge his fingers into the fall of liquid obsidian. She was so beautiful.

Speak, Sandburg. "Toni. You're--you look--" Spit it out! "Hi."

God, Sandburg, you're such an idiot! Jim covered his mouth, trying not to laugh, and Blair gave serious thought to the feasibility of blending his molecules with those of the floor. Toni smiled.

"Blair," she said. "How are you?"

"Great. You?"

"Very well, thank you."

Okay. What now? Sorry I didn't get around to telling you I'm sorry that your boss was murdered by his brother, who then murdered your co-worker and shot himself? Yeah, that would go over well. In desperation, he turned to Olive for help, but she linked her arm through Jim's and drew him away with,

"Jim, there's someone I want you to meet."

Panic akin to his own flashed through Jim's eyes as Olive led him away. Toni laughed, and whispered to Blair.

"Olive's matchmaking again."

"You're kidding."

Grinning, he watched as Olive steered Jim to a small group of people, including a stunning redhead in black who had to be six feet tall in her heels. Introductions were made, and Jim smiled broadly, obviously impressed.

"She's a doctor," Toni said.

"Really?" Within a minute, Jim and the doctor had detached themselves from the group. Blair turned to Toni with a smile. "So, can I get a ride home with you?"

Toni laughed again. "Of course. You may need it." She reached out and adjusted the diamond stud in his collar. "Olive and I missed you at the gallery opening."

God, he was blushing again. "Yeah, sorry. We were going to come, but the case we were on got hot, and by the time we got off that night, it was morning."

"A policeman's lot is not a happy one."

"Sort of, except I'm not a cop."

"I know, but 'a policeman's anthropologist partner's lot is not a happy one' just doesn't have the same ring to it."

Blair grinned. "I think it's great that you and Olive are partners."

"So do I. I could never have afforded to take over the gallery on my own. She's so generous."

"She sure is." Blair fingered the studs in his ear self-consciously. "But hey, this way she gets first pick of everything."

"That's what Olive said." Suspicion entered Toni's gaze. "Mr. Sandburg, you didn't have anything to do with this, did you?"

"Me?" Blair looked around. "Want to go sit down somewhere?"

One fine eyebrow rose, but she didn't press the issue. "All right. I know just the place."

Toni took his arm and led him to the Conservatory, then out the French doors into the garden. A rare warm spell made the night pleasantly cool, and there were no clouds overhead to obscure the stars. The quarter moon didn't shed much light, but Olive had thought of that. Tiny white lights glimmered in the branches of every tree and bush, illuminating white peonies splashed with magenta, scarlet and purple anemones, banks of irises in bronze and gold, and roses of every size and hue imaginable, the combined scents almost overpowering even to someone without sentinel senses.

Blair and Toni strolled the paths, talking or just admiring. No one else had ventured out yet; they had the garden to themselves. A light breeze rustled the leaves, and Toni shivered. She was from Louisiana. To her, this was probably cold. Of course, she wasn't wearing as much as he was, either. Blair removed his jacket and draped it over Toni's shoulders, carefully lifting her hair so it wouldn't be caught. The soft curls slipped through his fingers like dark water.

"Thank you." Toni looked at him, and smiled. "Why, Mr. Sandburg, you shine brighter than the moon in that shirt."

Blair smiled, praying the light wasn't bright enough to show his blush. The white shirt was practically glowing, the silk so light it rippled in the breeze. He felt vaguely ridiculous, and hoped he didn't look it.

"What made you decide to move to Cascade?" he asked.

"Subtle change of subject," she commented, taking his arm again to ease the sting. "I'm not sure. I suppose I wanted to get as far away from my ex-husband as possible."

"Nasty divorce?"

"Not really. The marriage was a mistake; we were too young. We both found other interests. Mine was art history. His was other women."

"He must've been insane."

Toni smiled. "That's sweet. I don't blame him, really. Our marriage was over before he started cheating. What about you, Blair? What brought you to Cascade?"

Blair looked from Toni to the stars, his smile not really for her. "I think it was fate."

They walked for a while longer, then sat down on a bench set beneath a canopy of drooping branches laced with lights. Darker than night, Toni's eyes glittered with reflected stars. The dim light made her fine features even more delicate. Blair leaned toward her, drawn to her mouth, the full lips blushed with the color of wine. She lifted a hand to his hair, stroked one curling tendril.

Blair pulled back, staring down at his hands. "Toni, I--"

"What is it?" she asked softly.

He forced himself to look at her. "I'm so sorry about what happened in the parking lot that night. I never meant to hurt you."

"I know, Blair. I knew it then. You were so upset."

Blair bit his lip, his gaze sliding away again. "When I--when I asked if I could call you, you said, 'When you can tell me why'."

"I remember."

"I couldn't do it then. I wanted to, but I--I just couldn't."

Blair laid his hand on hers, half afraid she'd pull away. Toni turned her hand under his and folded her fingers over the back of his hand. Blair looked at their clasped hands for a moment, breathing deeply to calm himself, then raised his eyes to hers.

"I can tell you now."

 

End Part 27

Part 28