Stirring up the Sheriff(37)

By: Leslie North

Those were the tamest of the thoughts he entertained while looking at her. Even though his eyes were concealed behind his sunglasses, he thought she felt the suggestive weight of his gaze. He watched with interest as a mute flush rose up beneath the freckles whose full territory he was considering.

"Hey! You listening to me, pal?" the driver demanded. The two movers had returned from inside the gallery, their hands freed from carting the broken frame. They flanked their supervisor, although they eyed Vlad with a good deal more wariness.

Vlad turned his attention away from the beautiful woman to eye the three movers with far less interest. The accumulation of their upper body strength was something worth considering, at least. These weren't meatheads who zealously pumped iron at the gym—these were men who made their living hauling heavy objects, and they had the practical strength to show for it.

"Move whatever remains inside," Vlad instructed, "and apply the zero to your offered discount. I won't repeat myself."

"Sir, I can take care of this," the woman said uncertainly. Her tone made it clear she was uncomfortable with his easy command of the proceedings. He thought it likely her discomfort stemmed from the fact that she hadn't been able to tighten the leash on these men herself. "There's no need for you to get involved," she added.

"Why don't you tell the fire-crotch to learn how to handle her own business?" the supervisor demanded.

The woman gasped, as if all the wind had been knocked out of her by the crass insult. A meditative moment passed, and then Vlad put his coffee on a nearby ledge and struck out with the flat of his palm.

His single-handed shove sent the driver flying backward against the truck trailer. The container rang hollowly at the impact, and the man's shoulder gave a sharp crack to rival the shattered wood frame from earlier, although Vlad was confident he hadn't used enough force to break any bones. The two movers sprang out of the way, and the woman's hand flew to her mouth.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I—"

"Get a move on," Vlad advised the three men. "Be glad I didn't spill my coffee."

The threat in his tone was thinly veiled, and the movers collaborated to unload the items much more expediently after that. A thorough apology from the stricken supervisor preceded a complete refund, and it wasn't long before Vlad and the woman found themselves standing alone in the alley amid a cloud of dispersing exhaust. The truck was gone, carrying with it the three stooges who had given her such a hard time.

"Terminate your contract with them," Vlad advised.

"You don't have to tell me twice," the woman agreed.

Generously, he held out his coffee to her. The woman accepted his offer without a second thought as to what she was doing, exhaling a long sigh, she raised the paper cup to her lips. In the next moment, she spat its contents out onto the ground.

"Does this have… is that vodka?" she exclaimed incredulously.

Vlad shrugged. It was as much a morning staple to him as cream was to professionals who had less vital business to attend to.

"You cannot come into the gallery if you are intoxicated," the woman said, delivering her verdict in a clipped procession of words.

Vlad raised an eyebrow. "Can't I?" He didn't bother correcting her assessment of his sobriety.

The woman fisted her knuckles on her diminutive hips. Any pair of hands could get lost in a set of curves like that, he mused privately. "No, you cannot," she emphasized. "This is my family's gallery, and I won’t have someone like you…that is to say…there’s been enough damage for one day."

There were two details in particular about the woman's comments that Vlad found far more interesting than her refusal to let him enter: one was her personal relationship to the gallery, and the other was her remark concerning someone like him. There was no mistaking the resentment in her tone. It may have been his intention to keep a low profile while visiting the gallery, but this woman saw right through him.

Then again, maybe it was the sharp sting of the vodka on her tongue that clued her in.