In the Dark

By: Pamela Burford

Chapter 1

Okay, so maybe I'm a little nervous, Cat Seabright admitted to herself as she wiped her damp palms on her cotton sundress. Why deny it? What was going to happen in this apartment tonight would, after all, transform her life forever. She hoped.

She leaned on the warm metal railing of the penthouse terrace and stared at the sparkling cityscape of Manhattan 's Upper East Side at night. The spacious top-floor terrace offered a panoramic view of lofty buildings stretching into the distance, all studded with innumerable glowing windows.

Muted sounds of traffic from the street twenty-two floors below competed with the seductive drone of the apartment's air conditioner behind her. There wasn't a whiff of breeze to stir the heavy, muggy air. The July heat was nearly as oppressive now, after ten at night, as it had been at high noon.

Cat resisted checking her watch, knowing it had been only about a minute and a half since she'd last done so. He wouldn't arrive for perhaps another half hour yet-if his plane had landed on time and if he'd managed to get a taxi promptly and if that taxi wasn't now sitting in snarled traffic on the bridge or in the tunnel. If, if, if.

Just get here, Greg. Get here and let's just do it before I lose my nerve.

No. She wouldn't lose her nerve. It would be awkward, certainly, and mechanical, but the end result was what mattered.

As Cat gazed distractedly at the glittering urban landscape, a block of buildings to the north abruptly disappeared-or seemed to as the windows winked into darkness. She straightened and stared, wide-eyed, as the lights in an adjacent duster of buildings disappeared. Within seconds everything north blinked out, as far as she could see, then the West Side in one great swath, and then her own chunk of the city suddenly turned dark.

The air conditioner rumbled to silence as Cat stood frozen. "A blackout," she whispered. A real, honest-to-goodness New York City blackout! The day's record heat must have placed the ultimate strain on the city's power system.

From street level far below came a cacophony of human voices, a faint mumble that swiftly rose in volume. New Yorkers roaring their delight or disgust, or possibly both.

A blackout. No electricity to run the elevator. Which meant Greg would have to climb twenty-two flights of stairs to get to her. That thought had her sputtering with nervous laughter as she turned and made her way across the brick-paved terrace, which felt like a pizza oven under the bare soles of her feet.

Yep, that's me, she thought, the most alluring babe in New York . A woman any man would traverse the continent for, before cheerfully sprinting up twenty-two flights of stairs. With luggage. There she was, the fairy-tale princess in her forbidding tower, devising a fitting test of endurance for all those princes clamoring for her hand in marriage.

No, not marriage, she reminded herself, as she stepped through the doorway into the cool, dark living room and groped her way around the velvet-upholstered sofa. It had taken long enough-thirty-eight years, to be precise-but Cat had eventually given up that particular pipe dream. There was only one thing she really wanted out of life, and she'd finally decided she'd waited for it long enough.

Has anyone thought to lay in a few candles here? she wondered, gingerly making her way through the gloom to the small kitchen, barking her shin on the marble coffee table in the process.

What would Nana do if she knew Cat had appropriated the agency's apartment for the night? And for such a scandalous purpose? She wouldn't be amused, that was for sure. Cat's employer was as straitlaced as they came, hence the grandmotherly moniker. One of her first clients had nicknamed Mrs. Amaryllis Littlestone "Nana" and the name had stuck.

Nana would fire Cat if she knew about tonight; end of story. Nana's "nurturers" were expected to comport themselves in a chaste and dignified manner, in their off hours as well as on assignment.

Up until now, Cat had never had a problem living up to her employer's exacting standards. She was anything but a hell-raiser, and her pitifully tame love life wouldn't raise an eyebrow. In the kitchen, she felt for a drawer handle and began to carefully paw through corkscrews and chopsticks, blindly hunting for a candle and praying she wouldn't find a boning knife or an ice pick in the process.

Cat had actually admitted to Greg on the phone that she hadn't had sex in three years. She still couldn't decide whether that particular item of information was likely to turn him on or, heaven forbid, earn his pity.

"Oh yeah, that's what you want to be," she muttered as she slammed the drawer shut and fumbled for the one next to it, "the kind of woman men sleep with out of pity."

She'd located the junk drawer, and it bore fruit a short candle stub, the remnant, no doubt, of some intimate dîner tête à tête. A little more exploring turned up a mostly empty matchbook and a squat, wax-encrusted glass candlestick. She crammed the candle in the holder and touched a lit match to the blackened wick.

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