“I welcome you to the ball!”
Thomas Templeton smiled and cast his right arm forward as the glass double doors slid open. Detective Ash Westgard of the Jacksonville Police Corps, off-duty and dressed to kill, took his other arm and together they entered Muir Gallery.
As a second set of doors yielded, they came upon a lively scene of patrons dressed in fancy attire strolling among the many works of art on display. A string quartet recording could be heard through the festive din of glasses clinking, friends reacquainting, and growing excitement over these fine examples of craftsmanship which would soon be sold at auction.
“This is overwhelming,” Ash said. “Where do we even start?”
“I don't know if you prefer sculptures or paintings,” Thomas replied, “but I'm inclined to look in on the bar first.”
After they were served, Thomas raised his slender flute of champagne and said, “Cheers to you, m'lady.”
“Now please, Ashley, follow my lead.”
He took her by the hand and began to navigate across the bustling showroom.
“Thomas?! Is that you?” a voice called from within the throng.
A man in his late fifties with wispy white hair and circular blue spectacles fought his way toward them.
“Braxton, my goodness! There you are indeed,” Thomas said as the two grabbed each other's biceps affectionately.
“How are you, old chap? I had no idea you were on the mainland.”
“I wouldn't miss this night of pitiless bidding wars for the world. Besides, it will most certainly stave off the boredom.”
“And get the heart rate going,” Braxton said as he examined Ash's low-cut silver dress from over the frames of his glasses.
“For those of us who still have them,” Thomas said slyly. “Braxton, allow me to introduce Miss Ashley Westgard. She was in fact the only interesting person I met at that ghastly to-do some local law enforcement charity held last week.”
The other man took Ash's hand into his own and gently rubbed the top with his thumb as he spoke.
“Well, Miss Westgard, it's a pleasure to meet you. Braxton O'Shea, at your service. Lover of all sunrises and sunsets, particularly when seated in quiet comfort along an ocean shore. But of course, sometimes imagined coastlines must also suffice.”
He tilted his head in the direction of a large, three-dimensional tropical scene on display nearby.
Ash freed her hand from O'Shea's grip and smiled politely. She said, “Nice to meet you as well. So, how do you and Thomas know each other?”
Both men chuckled, and Braxton tapped a fingertip against his chin while adding, “Us island boys are a rare breed. We always find our own kind.”
Ash raised her eyebrows at Thomas, whose wavy light-brown bangs jostled as he shook his head. “What an exaggerator you are, Mister Brax! No, no, Ashley, there's nothing scandalous or otherwise suspicious hidden within his cryptic words. What he really means, is that we are the last of the vanguard of old money.”
“The Loafers of the Caribbean,” Braxton said with a grin as he sipped at his drink.
“Golf… tennis… croquet. All the leisurely trappings of pre-twenty-first-century life.” Thomas swept his arm around the gallery. “Which is why we anachronisms find ourselves right at home here tonight.”
“And I dare say, you've found her,” Braxton quipped. “Now, Ashley—”
“Ash,” she said firmly.
“By all means. Tell me, Ash, what were you doing at that boring and boorish affair to which Thomas just alluded?”
“I'm a cop, actually. I was invited.”
Braxton's arm gave an involuntary start, which caused the ice cubes inside his tumbler to clink loudly.
Ash said, “Are you surprised, Mr. O'Shea? Not all of us on the force have beer bellies—or internal wiring.”
Thomas added, “Ash is being incredibly modest right now. She is in fact a homicide detective second-grade with the JPC. So I hope for your sake that you've established alibis for the many skeletons in your closet.”
Braxton O'Shea brought a hand to his breast and patted the lapel of his suit jacket, offering a bow as he said, “Detective, no offense intended. I simply had no idea that anyone involved in the serious professions, those that help keep our world afloat, would ever cross paths with such a lazybones as Mr. Templeton here. Not to mention spending time in his company voluntarily, hahaha.”
The man let out a hearty stuttering laugh as he slapped Thomas on the shoulder.
“If we're being brutally honest,” Ash said, “Thomas was only the second-most interesting part of the gala.”
“You see,” Thomas said, “we happened to meet at the punch bowl about halfway through all those ponderous speeches. Priorities, priorities!” He flicked a finger against his friend's nearly empty glass.
“Speaking of which,” Ash and Braxton said virtually in unison, and all three began to laugh.
“Shall we?” Thomas said.
Together the group made its way back toward the bar.
A short while later, after Braxton wandered off and they mingled briefly with several other patrons, Ash found herself alone with Thomas in a corner of the room.
He did look dapper in his “anachronistic” outfit of navy blazer, gingham shirt with no tie, tan slacks, and leather deck shoes. It was a style of dress that had matured over the course of a century: that thrown-together look which was undergirded by a vast fortune, as worn by the playboy, the dandy, the man without a care in the world—but whose education and pedigree made underestimating him a dangerous proposition. As for resisting him…
It truly was an opposites-attract moment when they met one week ago. Ash had been driven to liquor-thirst by the tedious philanthropic event whose invitation she was supposed to see as a high honor: the chance to hobnob alongside JPC top brass, in lieu of the public commendation they couldn't give her for cracking a murder case with far-reaching implications two months ago.
So she had quietly bowed out from the round table that she shared with, among other notables, her immediate superior, the Chief of Detectives Gabriela Paraquez. Then she killed some time in the ladies room, first applying fresh eyeliner before adjusting her mauve long dress. That exquisite outfit had been anything but thrown together, and Ash looked like a movie star on awards night when she reemerged and stopped under the lobby's twinkling chandeliers to order herself a vodka-tonic.
But the thirty-something man she saw standing alone at the bar, and who was very carefully twisting a sliver of orange peel above a glass, seemed not in the least affected by her dramatic entrance.
“Excuse me,” he said finally, after breaking his concentration and submerging the peel. “Would you be so kind as to taste this? I'm trying to teach that infernal barkeep how to make a proper old-fashioned. Sadly, my instructions seem to be falling on deaf ears.”
Ash took a step closer, eyeing the tuxedo-clad robot that stood behind the counter as she received the glass. She took a small sip.
“Hmm. You're right. It's not quite there.”
“Damn,” the man muttered. “You'd think at a ritzy affair like this, they would account for all the popular recipes plus a few variations. But who do I blame, the bureaucrats or the machines?”
Ash hailed the bot-tender, which rolled toward her silently.
“Yes, ma'am,” it said in a gracious, watery voice. “May I take your order?”
She glanced sidelong at her new acquaintance and said, “The secret, I find, is to get something that's foolproof. Shot of tequila,” she told the robot. A smile curved up the corner of her mouth. “Make that two.”
“As you wish.” The bot produced two tiny glasses and began to pour from a nozzle in its left forearm.
She heard the man chuckle. He said, “Do you really expect me to tarnish my palate with worm killer, right after I've humiliated this talking fountain by forcing it to make me three drinks in a row?”
Ash held both shot glasses aloft. She smirked. “Don't think I can't—or won't—take care of these all by myself.”
“I never doubted your abilities. Besides, how could I? I know nothing about you.”
She downed one of the tequilas, then made as if to offer him the other, before drinking that as well.
“You do now,” she said in a deadpan voice, feeling utterly self-satisfied as the dueling shots snaked through her with a fiery sizzle.
The man quietly set his old-fashioned down, ordered a tequila for himself, drank it without fanfare, and then turned away from her in the direction of the main hall. Without thinking, Ash ran after him and grabbed his sleeve.
He looked at her curiously and said, “Excuse me,” then dusted off his blazer and continued walking.
While Ash—shocked, furious, rejected—was summoning all of her willpower not to assault a stranger at such a prestigious event, she saw the man pause mid-stride and pivot back towards her.
“I do believe you'll be needing this,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket and handing her a business card.
She glanced at it and read, “Thomas MacLeish Templeton. Connoisseur of all things fine,” then called out after him, “Ash… My name's Ash.”
“Very good,” she heard him say as he receded with a wave, knowing instantly that her own words had sounded more like a plea than a declaration.
The connoisseur had won the first round. And it had taken Ash nearly a week to corral him into spending an evening together at the gallery—his idea, of course—where they would attend a live auction featuring works by some of the best talents within Jacksonville's flourishing art scene.
But Detective Ashley Westgard knew what it took to break a case—and a man. Somehow, she'd make this suave Thomas Templeton reveal what he was truly made of beneath his own fine airs…