Stephen led me into the elevator and punched the button for the eighth floor. He turned, facing me, and seized my arms. His touch felt cold and hot at the same time. I groped for something to say. All I could come up with was an awkward murmur. "This is the first time I've ever...uhh...dated someone like you."
"I guessed that, Sophia." He moved his dark hands up to caress my face. "I hope it doesn't stop us from seeing each other again."
"Again? My God, this is crazy."
"Not too crazy, I hope. Listen, Sophia, just stay for a nightcap then I'll take you home, okay?"
I dared not move away as his lips hovered close to mine. He smelled clean and sweet, and rather masculine. As our lips came together, the elevator doors opened. I pulled back, and Stephen sighed. Leading me down the ornate hallway, my high heels rat-tatting on the classic hardwood floor, Stephen held onto my hand until it came time to reach for his keys and unlock the door.
Once inside the condo, Stephen went straight to the kitchen, while I walked around the living room and looked at furniture and decorations I knew I could never afford on triple my pay as a freelance writer and proofreader. "This is a beautiful place."
"It belongs to my family. I'll tell them you think so," Stephen called back from the kitchen.
"Don't tell anyone that!" I felt my cheeks redden. "They'll think you brought me up here to—you know—to party."
"Really? Yeah, good point. That's exactly what they'd think."
A lot of busy rustling sounds came from the kitchen. God only knew what some men do in there.
Then I saw the painting hidden behind a surprising array of security devices. No… wait. Not quite a painting, more of a bas-relief. A statue of a woman—or an image that looked like a woman—guarded a great, carved staircase, which descended into a vast void. More than vast, it seemed almost limitless. Floating out into space over it was an octagonal shape. The name plaque on the work said The Seventy Steps Of Light Slumber, but I didn't see a signature.
I knew this scene from somewhere. "Who's this by?"
"What?" he shouted from the kitchen.
"The Seventy Steps Of Light Slumber. Is this the original?"
"Before the original!"
"Now, what's that supposed to mean?"
"It's a bas-relief that pre-dates the Sumerians. Technically the trust owns it, which in reality means my mom's family controls ownership."
"Sumerians? Are you sure? It looks so modern."
"We've had it appraised by art historians and authenticators. It's the real deal. That's what Professor Laban's consortium wishes to buy."
"So...um…" I cleared my throat. "If you don't mind my asking, what's it worth?"
"It's a museum piece. It's priceless."
"Priceless as in over a couple hundred grand?"
He laughed. "Let's just say it should start at about a million-two. The museum people, represented by Professor Laban, are offering less than eight hundred thousand. My family won't accept that unless we get a really great tax deal."
The painting was fascinatingly complex, busy, almost baroque, but the woman depicted in it loomed— wrong somehow. She looked sensuous, curvaceous even; I didn't know exactly how to phrase it, but the bulges representing the train at the bottom of her chiton looked less like human limbs under the cloth and more like—what?
I traced the folds of the tunic with my fingertips, hoping to read the shape of the texture.
"Tentacles?" I muttered. "That can't be right."
"This silver octagonal thing hanging in space," I said, while trying to shake the tentacle image out of my head. "Is that supposed to be a flying saucer?"
"Actually, it's a legendary lost relic," he said, pushing through the kitchen door. "Sort of a pre-historic Holy Grail."
Stephen returned to the living room, holding two wine glasses—one for each of us—and the wine bottle.
"Well, I hope this is to your liking." Stephen stood before me totally nude. He acted as if the sudden change in his appearance was perfectly normal. As he walked over to hand me my glass, I paled. Besides confronting me with six feet, three inches of muscular slimness, Stephen kept a very innocent look plastered on his face. I couldn't help myself; the first thing I did was look down.
Besides possessing every possible positive attribute of both size and grandeur that a certain part of a man's torso could exhibit to a woman, Stephen displayed the sort of smug self-confidence with the rest of his physique that athletes and body builders have. But he didn't exhibit the broad musculature of the thighs, arms, and back like so many pro body builders did. I could tell he was both comfortable in his skin and with the way his appearance affected the opposite sex.
"I…I'm stunned," I whispered. I drank in the sight of his nakedness and gulped at my wine. "That was a —"
"Impetuous and unfair thing to do to someone I've just met," he replied.
I swallowed a thick lump in my throat.