It was a few minutes before ten when her taxi stopped in front of the three-story brownstone on a Greenwich Village side street. Even under the dim streetlights her pink costume sparkled where it peeked out below the hem of her well-worn down jacket. Aware of being stared at, she straightened her rhinestone tiara, raised her firm little chin, and regally swept across the sidewalk past a couple of snickering punk rockers. They had a lot of nerve! she thought, eyeing their multicolored hair and mismatched outfits.
Approaching the first-floor entrance of the building as instructed, Melissa took note of the long rectangular mullioned window lined with framed color photographs, most of them portraits of children. Stenciled on the glass, modest gold lettering outlined in black proclaimed this to be the residence of the Raphael Damon Photo Studio. About to ring the bell, she was startled when the door popped open.
"You're here! I was so afraid you might change your mind," Louise Damon said in enthusiastic greeting before stepping back to let Melissa into the entryway. "Come in. Let me take your things."
Melissa dutifully handed over the bag containing her street clothes and shoes before struggling with the jacket. In the dark area to the right she could make out a love seat, two chairs, and a reception desk, but Louise quickly took the garment from her and swept through a door that led to a long inner hallway. Melissa skipped a step to catch up with the taller woman. "Is she asleep?"
"I certainly hope so. Rafe lets Gretta stay up past nine only on special occasions. There's a mirror over there if you want to check your hair or something." Louise pointed to a long oval attached to the wall, then busied herself hanging Melissa's jacket in the closet under the stairway. "By the way, Rafe is my son. He's a well-known photographer," she added proudly.
With a frown of concentration, Melissa carefully reformed the bent wire of her wings, which had been crushed beneath her down jacket. She fluffed her golden curls, but a quick glance at her makeup showed her she didn't need to fool with it. All was intact, including the carefully penciled liner and generous smear of glossy pink lipstick that accentuated her cupid's bow lips.
Then she turned her attention to Louise, noting the elegant way the burgundy and black caftan flowed around the older woman when she moved. "Do you live upstairs?"
"No. My quarters are on this floor in back of the studio and darkroom. I wanted my own space even after my husband died. I value my privacy. Rafe and the children live upstairs. Actually, the attic was done over for Gretta and Hank, so each of us has our privacy when we want it."
"All this space is a real luxury for Manhattan," Melissa said, thinking of the rambling house she grew up in and the contrast it provided to her cramped sixth-floor walk-up.
"We like it." Louise began to climb the first set of stairs and motioned for Melissa to follow. "Shh. I don't want to warn Gretta. I just hope we don't run into my vocal son. I was going to tell Rafe about hiring you after Gretta was tucked in for the night, but he disappeared. Rafe had a long day and yawned all through dinner, so perhaps he's in bed too."
"I'll tiptoe all the way," Melissa promised.
Creeping along silently, she had only a glimpse of the softly lit second-floor space that combined the living and dining rooms.
"I'll wait here," Louise whispered, pressing a large coin into Melissa's small hand. "Gretta's bedroom is on the right at the top of the stairs."
Melissa headed up the carpeted steps and approached the door on tiptoes, then checked the coin she'd leave under Gretta's pillow. The shiny silver dollar winked at her as it reflected the soft stairway light. A bubble of excited laughter caught in her throat as she pictured the sleepy little girl's pleasure when Gretta wakened to hear a story told by her very own tooth fairy.
Turning the knob slowly, Melissa winced when it clicked, then gritted her teeth when the door creaked open. She peered into the dark room, willing her eyes to adjust. A white-canopied bed dimly glowed with ghostly intensity against its shadowed surroundings. When she noted the form curled in it, Melissa was assured the little girl was unaware of her presence.
Clutching the silver dollar, she half-blindly maneuvered around the bed, biting her lip when her floating tulle skirt caught on the canopy post. Carefully, she removed the material, squinting hard at the lump under the covers as it moved, turned, and finally settled down with a muffled sigh. Barely able to make out the shape, Melissa frowned. The form seemed large for a toothless six-year-old. Gretta must be big for her age.
Stifling an excited giggle, she moved forward, ears attuned to the soft sounds issuing from beneath the covers as well as to the slightly irregular beat of her own heart. Was Gretta dreaming? she wondered. Very carefully, she reached out and leaned over the still form to slip her closed fist under the pillow, there to relinquish her precious treasure and search for the tooth. It was at that moment that the lump in the bed stirred once more, capturing Melissa's delicate form with a solid, warm grip.
"Mmm, let me thank you properly for rescuing me," a low, sleepy voice appreciatively crooned a hairsbreadth from her lips. Strong arms tightened and her tiny feet flipped up from the floor, throwing her hard against a very male chest.
"Oh!" Melissa's cry of surprise was muffled by a warm, seductive mouth, and her thoughts became muddled by the unexpected yet tingling embrace. It happened so fast she didn't think to resist at first.
Strong hands pulled her closer, making the flesh of her arms and back throb. Insistent lips caressed her own until they quivered and parted at the silent demand. Breathing in the heady scent of spice, Melissa was magically enticed by the seductive assault.