Though a bright sun had burned away the last of the morning overcast, a cool breeze negated the ray's warming effects; as Robin and Kylie paused in the shadow of the hulking old warehouse which housed the craft fair, Kylie shivered in her sleeveless blouse. Noticing her discomfort, Robin glanced about for a setting more protected from the breeze and sited in direct sun.
The wooden pier met the Embarcadero's broad promenade in a narrow concrete plaza enlivened by skateboarders and gaily dressed tourists dodging the skateboarders and a free-ranging mélange of mendicants and musician-beggars who sought to extract some of the visitors' wealth before they hurried past.
A sidewalk café’s sunny tables attracted Robin's eye, and he gestured to the cafe and said, "I missed lunch today. How about going there?"
Kylie swung round and her glossy ponytail swished most deliciously behind her. "Actually, I missed lunch too, and I'm absolutely starving."
"You should have said something," Robin admonished her, and she gave him a smile of satiric amusement. "I didn't want to distract you from these very serious negotiations."
He chuckled and then assumed a mock sternness. "Don't tell me you're not a serious collector."
"Perish the thought," she replied airily. "Though I am collecting unemployment checks."
"Ah, so that's how you can conduct serious negotiations in mid-afternoon."
"And what's your excuse?"
Having reached the cafe's sunniest table, Robin pulled a chair out for Kylie and then sat down across from her. "I sell things to independent groceries that people don't really need."
"Then you should be amazingly wealthy."
Robin answered with a wan sigh. "Not in this economy. I make enough to rent a tiny studio and pay my taxes."
"So how do you know Alexia?"
"We're neighbors. How about you and Ross?"
"Apparently neighbors make the best negotiators," Robin offered, and Kylie flashed him an exaggerated steely gaze. "Yes, ready and willing to drive the hardest bargain possible."
Kylie's phone chirped and as Robin glanced at the menu she took the call.
Ross's voice had a low hard edge. "He better be paying for that fancy lunch," he hissed. "We're on a tight budget. How are the negotiations going so far?"
Openly facing Robin, she said in a voice easily audible to him, "He's a tough cookie. I don't think we'll get a one-to-one swap."
Robin glanced up from the sheet and winked in acknowledgement of her tease.
"Swine!" Ross grumbled. "Well, do your best, but get the T-20Z."
No sooner had they ordered Vietnamese-style grilled oyster sandwiches with pommes frites than Robin's phone announced an incoming call with the first bars of Beethoven's violin Romance in F.
"Don't let that little tart soften you up with a cheap lunch," Alexia's voice snapped harshly. "How are things going so far?"
"We've got a very a tough cookie on our hands," Robin murmured, and Kylie's Mona Lisa smile acknowledged his ploy.
"Don't tell me she wants something more than the poster?"
"Let's just say we're very far apart right now," Robin said sternly, and Alexia's frustrated sigh was audible even to Kylie. "It's always the skinny little broads you have to watch out for," she said darkly. "If you get that poster, I'll owe you a huge, huge favor—you name it."
Both smitten negotiators turned round and scanned the plaza, perhaps sensing the surveillance they could not spot. Ross was still lurking round the fair entrance, while Alexia had moved to a concrete planter and was sitting uncomfortably on the hard, cold rim beside an older German couple who were puzzling over a crisp new map of the city.
"So how long do you think these difficult negotiations will take?" Kylie asked.
"I would guess through dessert," Robin replied drolly.
"I'm supposed to meet your Alexia at four," Kylie explained. "Just in case negotiations fail and I have to deal with the dragon lady herself."
"Oh, she's not so bad as all that," Robin said. "At least she doesn't think throwing axes into boards is great fun."
Kylie's amused expression fell into puzzlement before rebounding. "Oh, so you did a little surveillance this morning. Too bad you got it all wrong."
"That wasn't Ross tossing the hatchet around—that was his pal Dewey."
Robin's surprise was evident. "You mean that wasn't Ross? But that's Ross's address."
"Correct. Dewey dropped by to pick up the cute little axe that Ross had bought him on eBay."
"Oh, what a tangled web assumptions weave," Robin said self-effacingly. "And so I take it Ross isn't quite as frightening as Dewey?"
"He's smaller, but maybe scarier."
"Let's just say a collector's single-minded obsession can be pretty scary."
Robin shook his head knowingly. "Funny, he and Alexia are two peas in a pod."
"Then we'll really have to cut a deal today, won't we?"
Though she knew it was none of her business, Kylie's curiosity about Alexia's sofa-based business jumped the bounds of politeness and she asked, "So how well do you know Alexia?"
Robin shrugged. "I don't see a great deal of her, but we're friendly."
"I know she has her boutique shoe business, but how does she afford such a tony address? Does she meet clients at home?"
Robin appraised his charming tablemate and smiled. "So you've been doing a bit of sleuthing, too. I'm not around much in the daytime, but I know she only goes to her store in the afternoon."
"Can she really make that good a living from used shoes?"
Robin shrugged. "The question's crossed my mind, too. I don't know."
Fixing a wry gaze on him, Kylie remarked, "She's single and good-looking, Are you sure you don't know her better than you're letting on?"
Robin's smile was unambiguous, and he answered, "She's sexy, but the web isn't that tangled. How about you and Mr. Ross? Is he young and charming and sure to sweep you off your feet?"
"No to all three," Kylie answered. "He is amusing, though, in a very neurotic way." As Kylie set off on a highly entertaining description of Ross's impossibly cluttered rooms and his absurd faith in the future value of old Sears catalogs, her mind was clicking through what she'd confirmed: Alexia was sexy, single, home most of the day, and could not possibly support herself by selling used shoes. It all hung together, Kylie concluded with secret satisfaction; I'm not a prude, but still, to see her in action—what would Ross think if he knew his nemesis's true profession?
To read the previous chapters, visit the "Four Bidding For Love" home page.
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