Mariella pumped her legs harder. It was late morning on Tuesday and lunchtime traffic was already picking up. Taxis, limos and regular cars, as well as what seemed a larger than usual quotient of stupid people at crosswalks. She'd never understand why people on foot wanted to chance being hit by racing taxis just to gain a few feet of distance and a few seconds of time on their fellow pedestrians.
She'd already been up and down and across the Island today picking up and delivering envelopes and packages. Glancing at her wrist, she noted that if she took her lunch break now, she'd be in a good spot to pick up her next package with time to spare.
At just that moment, her Bluetooth clicked.
That meant Manny, her dispatcher, needed something. It clicked again, three times. That was code blue, in Manny-speak.
Keeping her legs moving, she tapped the device. "Yeah?"
"Urgent pickup at Colony Bank on 55th and Park. And by urgent, I mean get your tight ass over there now," Manny barked.
"Lunchtime. Will pick up in forty-five." The light went yellow and she braked.
"Now, Mari. Call came from top floor. They want you, and I mean you, exclusively, there, now. Capital B Big Bonus. Hustle." Manny hung up.
Well, damn. There went lunch, she thought, calculating the time necessary for a short crosstown/uptown ride. As the light shifted to green, she pushed off into the moving mass of honking vehicles.
The building at 55th and Park was a testament to money. Tall and black, spearing into the sky, the Colony Bank Tower positively glittered in the April sunlight. She locked her bike to a nearby pole and hustled into the lobby.
The guards at the desk were dressed in well-tailored suits rather than the standard blue security jackets. They looked more like male models than guards. Despite that, two of them stared at her from the instant she pushed through the revolving doors and walked across the lobby.
"Pickup for Cheetah Messengers," she said.
One of the guys dropped his eyes below the ledge, then back to her. "This way." He stood and, after glancing at the other guys, she followed him to the nearest elevator, set alone. The guard pushed the button, and when the door opened, stood back for her to enter. Once she was inside, he keyed the lock in the panel, and then pushed the single button below. He stepped back and the doors closed.
The car rose. And rose and rose.
Top floor, Manny had said. Guess the top floor was really at the top.
The car stopped, finally. The doors whooshed open, and she stepped out into a gorgeous atrium space. Above her was a glass ceiling, through which she saw the clouds above Manhattan. The space in front of her was full of plants and what looked like antique wooden furniture, thick carpets and artwork. Paintings and a tapestry--a big one--and some sculptures were placed around the lobby.
Not too far in front of her were two desks facing each other, where a woman and a man were seated at sleek work stations. Both had headsets and were talking into them while staring at a screen and typing fast. Beyond them was another, sleeker desk where a woman about her mom's age sat, but in a striking green suit.
Mari looked around but no one paid any attention to her except the woman in the suit, who looked up and smiled. As Mariella walked toward her, she spoke in to an intercom next to her, then stood.
"Miss Amorini? The package is in here." The woman stepped to the double doors behind her and opened one. She gestured Mariella inside.
Her first impression was that the inner office was nearly as big and maybe more impressive than the outer lobby.
Her second impression was of the two men in the office, one dark-haired, standing behind the massive desk, the other sitting on the edge of the conference table.
She stopped, hearing the door click shut behind her. "Package pick-up?"
"On the table." The seated man spoke.
She glanced over, saw the manila envelope on the gleaming surface.
Something was weird, she thought, but mentally shrugged. Manhattan. What wasn't weird?
She crossed to the table and opened her bag.
"Can you..." the standing man spoke. "Can you take off your glasses?"
"Helmet too." The other one.
Mariella stopped. Faced them. "Why?"
"Why not?" The seated man smiled. He was big, six three or so, broad-shouldered. Lots of golden brown hair. His smile was, well, brilliant. And, she thought, meant to be charming the glasses and helmet right off her. It would work, too, if he weren't quite so tense.
She picked up the package.
"Look," the second man came around the desk, "This is a confidential delivery. I'll feel better if I can see your eyes." His voice was deep and smooth. He was tall too, almost as tall as Mr. Smiley, but leaner. He was also far more relaxed.
She let her messenger bag, slung over one shoulder and across her body, slip back into place at her hip. Then, taking her time, she reached up and pulled off the black aviators she regularly wore. She set them on the table and unclipped the webbing holding her crash helmet in place. Sliding it off her head, she slipped her free hand through the short curls and let the headgear dangle.
Ethan's first good look at her was a punch to the midsection.
She stared at him and set her chin. Pursed her lips. "Feel better?"
She was beautiful. Her hair wasn't just dark, it was a rich deep red, cut in short, crisp curls. Her features were feminine, but shaped with an edgy elegance. High, slanted cheekbones, pointed chin, small nose. Her eyes were thickly lashed, slightly tilted up at the outer corners like a cat's, a clear gray, albeit looking rather stormy right at this moment.
Gabriel stood and circled toward her left side. When Ethan slid a look at him, he saw his friend register the TKO of Mariella's looks.
Ethan watched as Gabriel rubbed one hand across his mouth, hiding his expression. But he was stalking her.
She glanced at Gabe, at Ethan, and back to Gabe. "No offense, but you're making me, um..."
"What, sugar?" Gabriel's voice was rougher than usual.
She eyed him warily. "Uncomfortable." She picked up the envelope, which was still lying on the table.
Ethan moved in, lifted her chin with one finger, studying her face. "Don't mean to do that. But I do feel better. Gabriel?"
"I'm Ethan Stone. This is Gabriel Pryor."
She stepped back, away from Ethan's touch. "Yeah. Still uncomfortable." She moved to replace the sunglasses and Ethan caught her arm.
Regret shot through him when she flinched and took a firm step away. He let go of her arm. Gabriel stopped too, watching her.
"Miss," Ethan started, then stopped. Unexpectedly he had no idea what to say to make it right. He wasn't used to feeling uncomfortable in his own office.
Gabriel stepped in. "Let us take you to lunch."
She eyed them, head to toe, and smiled. "No, thanks. Our outfits don't match today." She waggled the envelope. "And I've got deliveries."
"We'll get someone else to deliver them." Gabriel had relaxed enough to lean against the conference table, arms casually folded across his chest. His eyes gleamed.
"Sorry. My job." Mariella didn't sound sorry. She put on the sunglasses, grabbed the helmet, and nodded briskly. After one last glance at the both of them, she headed for the door.
"One minute, Miss Amorini," Ethan's voice rang out and she stopped instantly, responding to his command.
She turned to see him hold up a white envelope.
"Your bonus." Ethan crossed to her, stopping two feet away. She reached for the offered envelope, but he didn't let go, forcing her to meet his eyes once more. "Be careful." She pulled slightly and he let go.