Chapter Three: Sticky Fingers

Kari's mind rapidly tried to process the fear that was continuing to bloom within her body, her thoughts scrambled to form and force words from her dry throat. She held up a hand, the soft webbing of her fingers sticky and pungent from her spilled stomach contents.

"Can we take a break?" she asked in a strained tone, swallowing hard.

He nearly lifted an eyebrow at her question and waited as she continued to speak, her words coming more frantic.

"I need to take a breath or ten," she said as she wiped her hands against her sweatshirt. "And cleanup," she added.

He gestured to the discarded photo of her father proudly displaying the van load of stolen art. "First, tell me what that picture says."

Kari sighed and brushed back her mussed hair, wincing as a few strands slid along her cut lip, aggravating the tender skin.

She plucked the photo from the floor and ran her eyes along the faded writing. " G," she read aloud from the photo, overemphasizing each written consonant.

"What else?" he prodded.

"A fish, maybe? Or a mouse?" she replied squinting at the rudimentary sketch that accompanied the five letters.

She was proud for not flinching when he took a step towards her, she unconsciously pressed the photo to her heart as held out his hand.

Kari stared at his outstretched hand.

"We can take a break," he stated trying to soften his normally abrasive tone.

Kari focused her gaze at him, seeking the truth to his words in the depths of his startling blue eyes and his mouth which was set in a firm line.

Her eyes fell to the stiff green collar of his shirt, he had left the top couple buttons open and she could see the smooth hollow at the base of his throat. Kari found herself counting his strong carotid pulse that pounded under his warm skin.

His low voice pulled her from her thoughts, and she brought her eyes back up to meet his. "Kari, let me help you up."

She wordlessly placed her hand, tacky with regurgitated carbohydrates, into his offered palm. He helped her rise to her pink encased feet, shaky from shock.

His rough skin was in stark contrast to the smoothness of hers.

He glanced down at his platinum watch, heavy on his other wrist. "You can have 30 minutes to get yourself situated," he said gesturing to her disheveled appearance.

"An hour," she countered quickly, wanting to stay in the shower for the next two decades.

He fought a smile. "45. Final."

"Okay. 45 minutes undisturbed."

He never broke her gaze. "I'll be right outside the door."

"Then what?" The tremble in her voice betrayed her fear.

He paused a beat and took in her pale skin and puffy, reddened eyes. Her hand was chilly in his.

"After you've cleaned up and changed, we'll talk. Coffee if you'd like," he added when she remained silent, her lips pressed together in a severe line.

"Talk," she stated slowly as though she was pronouncing multiple syllables.

He nodded. "Negotiate," he added.

She nodded staying mute as her frazzled mind tried to decipher his words as she stared up at him and felt the warmth emanating from his strong grip. "What if we don't come to an agreement?"

"Let's not talk about that," he said in an easy tone as he squeezed her hand lightly. "I'm certain we can find some common ground."

He started leading her to the base of the stairs, having in his mind that she would want to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom. His mind started to wander and swim with images of the various sized slender glass bottles and squat plastic containers filled with scented gels, lotions, oils, and beads. He fought to shake his head to rid the image of the olive-green bottle that was responsible for the subtle orchid bamboo scent that clung to her hair.

Kari paused at the foot of the stairs, her mind quickly playing awful slideshows of what could happen if she allowed any trust of the dangerous man. He felt the tendons and ligaments in her hand begin to grow tense. His voice was a hot knife through the turmoil in her brain.

"Kari, I will not hurt you in any way. You can go cleanup and I won't even keep track of the time," he added with a crooked smile. "Then we'll talk."

He tugged more insistently at her hand, preparing to ascend the carpeted stairs.

"What can I call you?" She placed one pink shoe on the bottom stair, the cotton laces a mess.

"Edward," he said squeezing her hand as he began to climb.

"Is that your real name?" she asked as she reluctantly followed him up the stairs.

"It's what you may call me," he responded in what he hoped was a good-natured tone.

Kari couldn't find any more words and instead averted her attention to each carpeted stair, planting her unlaced sneakers solidly on each step.

Edward didn't press her for words as they reached the landing and she lifted her gaze up when they stopped directly in front of the linen closet.

The frown that appeared between her eyebrows quickly deepened as Edward opened the closet door and withdrew a stack of plush sapphire blue towels from the middle shelf.

"How long were you here before I got home?" She demanded as she ripped her hand free of his and yanked the towels from his arms, her eyes alighting from within, emerald fire.

"I followed you to work last night and after you clocked in at the hospital, I came back here and let myself in," he said evenly.

Kari felt a momentary loss of words. "You mean you've been here all night?" she asked with a measure of incredulousness.

Edward nodded as Kari unleashed a barrage of questions in rapid-fire succession.

"Have you been following me? How many times have you been in my house?"

He held up a hand as she took a deep breath in preparation for more questions.

"I am looking for the location of the Impressionist paintings your father and the others stole in 1968," he answered evenly.

Kari looked up at the ceiling. "I told you, my father isn't a thief. He's a lot of things, but not a thief," she said with an exasperated tone.

"I was hoping to be able to ascertain the location of the paintings without disturbing you, but I have been unable to find anything."

"That's because I have no idea what you are talking about," she said sharply.

"Or you have a hiding place that I haven't thought of yet," he stated casually.

She fought the urge to roll her eyes and before she could utter a scoff, her phone sounded from within his pocket. The ringtone grew louder as he pulled the phone from his pocket and read the caller ID aloud.

"Janelle," he stated without inflection.

"I work with her."

Edward stared at her as the ringing stopped, waiting for her to add more.

"She's going to keep calling until I answer."

On cue, her phone started ringing again, the bluesy Nina Simone ringtone filled the quiet hall.

Kari pushed her armful of towels back onto the shelf and held out her hand.

"You have to let me talk to her. Kari glanced down at her watch before adding, "she's off, she might drive over if I don't answer."

Edward looked at her outstretched arm and waiting palm. Nina's voice continued to emerge from her phone as he pulled his jacket away from his side so Kari could clearly see the well-cleaned and gleaming firearm nestled next to his side.

He held the ringing phone above her open palm and caught her eyes. "I don't want to hurt you Kari, but I will if you force my hand."

Kari was proud of herself for not blinking first or breaking eye contact and nodded with the slightest dip of her chin.

"Put it on speaker," Edward added before he dropped the phone into her hand and she tapped answer, cutting off Nina's sultry voice.

"Hey Janelle, are you calling to try and weasel out of your bet?" Kari forced enthusiasm to her bantering greeting and crossed her fingers that Janelle would buy it.

"I'll bet you'd like that," came Janelle's shrill reply along with a cackle. "I'm getting to my car and thought maybe I'd pick us up some greasy breakfast takeout after that shift from hell."

Kari's mind spun rapidly, and she was quiet for a few seconds, the phone amplified the sound of Janelle's keys jingling as her Jaguar's engine roared to life.

"Kari? Are you there?"

"Yeah, you cut out for a minute, I have to give you a raincheck for breakfast. I'm flying out on the redeye tonight and still have to pack and try and get some sleep at some point."

"Where are you going again, Denver?"

"No, Chicago. My great-aunt's 100th birthday."

Janelle couldn't conceal the disappointment in her voice. "Well, I guess I'm eating by myself."

Kari closed her eyes and rubbed her fingertips against her temple. "I'm sorry Jan, I've just got so much to do before I need to leave. I promise I'll make it up to you."

"I'm going to hold you to that, fly safe."

The line died as Janelle ended the call and Kari stared down at the phone in her hand.

Edward picked up the phone, his fingertips grazed her palm leaving a tingling sensation in their wake.

"You don't have anything written down about a flight tonight Kari."

"Is that how you're going to start your vacation," he added as he slid her phone back into his coat pocket.

He watched a myriad of emotions cross her face.

Kari cleared her throat. "How did you know I was going on vacation?"

"I only read what you wrote down in your calendar," Edward started until she interrupted him.

"What calendar?" she asked with a slightly anxious undertone.

"The cartoon calendar that has that silly looking rabbit on the cover," he answered and knew he wouldn't have to wait long for her reply.

"But my calendar is in my bedroom," she started with a quizzical tone until the realization of his words washed over her when he answered her unspoken question.

"Yes, more specifically it was on your dresser, in front of the silver picture frame of you and your father," he stated factually.

Edward watched Kari turn and look towards her room, he thought back to earlier when he was looking around her home, seeking anything about her father and the stolen paintings.

He had looked at the calendar first and then had turned his attention to the stack of sticky notes that all had scribbled handwriting in blue, black, with an occasional splash of red ink. The notes boasted various quotes from noted philosophers and literary masterpieces as well as reminder notes for things to buy.

The note on top that was underlined and highlighted, had the name of an antique shop to find a gift for Aunt S. He had then turned his attention to the drawers that were firmly closed in the oak dresser. The top drawer had not yielded anything of interest; its contents were nothing more than T-shirts that were haphazardly folded. The next couple drawers were similar in nature; denim and cotton were all he felt as he ran his hands through the stacks of clothing, pausing only to check the pockets of the jeans.

Edward always found it intimate when going through people's personal belongings and had spent a great deal of time in the bathroom attached to her bedroom. He had gone through every drawer and picked up her lipsticks which were a variety of peach and blush tones. He had twirled the wand of her dark mascara and perused the shampoo and body washes on the ledge in her shower. Edward had deeply inhaled the light but tantalizing lavender-rose scent of her shampoo.

He had shone a flashlight under the sink and ran his hands along the pipes to discover anything she may have hidden. Edward had then walked back into her bedroom after he found nothing out of place in the bathroom.

Edward was shaken back to reality from the earlier memory of sitting amongst the linen of her unmade bed, the velvety feel of the sheets that she had been swaddled in earlier when Kari turned and headed for her room. Her mind was racing, and she was seething as she thought of him touching and going through her personal possessions.

Edward followed and watched her from the doorway as she flipped through the carefully arranged stacks of papers and envelopes on her nightstand and then desk. She found that nothing seemed to be missing.

On closer examination, she could see that some of the stacks of papers and files appeared to have been rifled through, but everything seemed to still be in relative order. He continued to watch from the doorway as she moved from the roll top desk to her computer that was in sleep mode with a colorful screensaver of an abstract design that disappeared when she hit a few keys. She frowned at the screen as she navigated the mouse around her personal files, old tax returns and banking information. If he had messed with anything, she couldn't tell.

Edward remained silent until she lifted the porcelain lid of her jewelry box. She was relieved when her eyes found her mother's wedding ring set. Kari pressed the pad of her forefinger against the cool garnet.

"I am not a thief," he said as though he could read her thoughts. "That's comforting," she said icily.

Edward softened his tone. "Go take a shower, you'll feel better."

He listened to her sigh, which was heavy with resignation.

Kari turned to where he was leaning in the doorway and tried to walk past him. She bit back a yelp of surprise when his hand nearly closed around her upper arm. She tried to shake free of his grip, his fingers held her firmly.

"Do you mind?" she asked from behind gritted teeth. "I need the towels."

Edward released her arm but walked with her the short distance back to the linen closet. She shook her head as she retrieved the towels she had carelessly tossed to the floor.

He noticed a sudden slowing to Kari's pace as they neared the open bathroom door, a nightlight making the room glow warmly.

Edward noticed further tension settle around her shoulders. "What's wrong?"

Kari was surprised at his perception. "I don't want to leave the door open or unlocked and I want your word that you will let me bathe in peace."

He cocked his head and regarded her. He met her eyes before he deliberately trailed his gaze down her body. His eyes moved over her, from the tips of her pink-sneakered toes before returning to her face.

Edward smiled slowly. "I swear you may bathe in peace."

Kari wordlessly turned and walked into the bathroom, she struggled to not slam the door. She engaged the lock and jiggled the doorknob just to make sure it was secure. Her eyes traveled the door jamb down to the dull-toned pewter knob. She was certain in that moment that the door wouldn't offer protection if he really wanted in.

Kari checked that the door was locked again and turned to the mirror to appraise her reflection. She was startled at how pale her skin had become and bit back a hiss as she brushed her fingertip over her swollen lip. She rummaged in the medicine cabinet; the glass door was stippled with her smeared fingertips.

Kari located a tube of antibiotic cream and dabbed a bit on her lip.

As she started the water and waited for it to warm, on the other side of the locked door, Edward remained standing in the middle of her bedroom.

Edward stared at the closed door before walking to her side-by-side oak dressers. He tugged open the top drawer as he had earlier that morning while across town, Kari was helping to stabilize a trauma patient who was recovering from surgery and would now face the rest of their life with titanium screws and plates holding their pelvis together.

Edward's eyes danced over the fabric in the drawer that contained her lingerie. He traced his fingers along the various satin and lace seams before making a few selections and putting them on the corner of the bureau.

While Kari washed her hair and smeared an apricot cleanser across her forehead and down the bridge of her nose, Edward continued picking clothes from the other drawers and added them to the neat stack on the edge of the dresser.

As Edward sat on her bed, his phone chimed in his pocket as he sat where she had been laying, the duvet covered kicked to the side. He ran his hands along the linen where he imagined her body was positioned as she slept.

Edward picked up her pillow and pressed his face into the down-filled rectangle and breathed in fully, pulling the warm scent of her hair and skin deeply into his lungs. He plucked a single hair from the hunter green pillowcase and wound it tightly around his index finger. He released the strand and pulled his phone from his pocket when it gave a demanding second chime.

Edward reread the new text several times, he looked up at the closed bathroom door when heard the water turn off. He dropped his eyes to the glowing screen of his phone and tapped out a succinct reply.

He quickly put his phone away when Kari opened the bathroom door partway and leaned out through the space she had made. Billowing steam flowed out around her, the air kissed with the scents of exotic fruit and delicate flowers.

"I forgot to get something to change into," Kari started to say before Edward was on his feet and bringing her the neatly folded stack of clothes he had selected.

"You picked out clothes for me?"

"Yes," he answered and added nothing more as he held the clothes out towards her.

Kari wanted to slam the door in his face but instead dropped her eyes to the stack of clothes. She saw one of her favorite sweaters on top of the pile and the edge of her plain coffee-colored bra peeking from under a pair of black pants.

She was relieved, once back in the bathroom, to find a pair of her thick wool socks in the mix. The chill in the house started her thinking about hot coffee and her stomach piped up with a low rumble that she was also hungry.

Kari changed and wrapped her wet hair up in a bun. She took a deep breath and released it slowly before she opened the door. Edward was standing in the middle of her room, looking down at his phone. His mouth was pulled down into a frown and she could see the twitch of his jaw muscles as he clenched his teeth. He was engrossed in the bright screen of his phone as Kari moved her gaze down the line of his body, her eyes sought out the strong line of his jaw and the exposed skin of his neck.

She took her eyes off his lips when she realized he was watching her as she drank him in. Edward held her gaze as he slipped the phone back into his jacket pocket.

"Are you feeling better?"

"I'm hungry, are you hungry?" she asked, trying any tactic to leave her bedroom. She thought that she would feel better if they weren't standing mere feet away from the duvet cover of her queen bed.

The last text message he had read flashed behind his eyes as he followed her down the stairs. Edward focused on the gentle sway of her hips and found he could clear the message from the front of his mind by moving his eyes over her curves and memorizing her body.

Kari was certain she could feel the weight of his gaze and she felt her face flush, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She cleared her throat and spoke without looking back at him. "I haven't been to the grocery store this week but there's at least eggs and bread."

"I did your shopping for you."

Kari paused three steps from the last stair, tension filling her shoulders like concrete, sudden nausea blossomed in her belly.

Edward also paused on the stair he was standing on and waited to see if she was going to run, scream or continue descending.

He was surprised that he hadn't considered her reaction to his words when she slowly turned and looked back at him.

"Will you please tell me what the end game is here?"

"I told you why I'm here Kari," he started, before she held up a steady hand interrupting him.

"Yes, yes, yes, the paintings, I know. What is it you have planned?"

Edward took a deep breath and descended the stairs until he was standing next to her. His eyes settled on her swollen lower lip. He wanted to apologize for causing that, instead, he reached for her face and ran his fingertip outside of the bruise that was forming on her blush-pink lip. "I wish I could take this back," he said as he prolonged his scrutiny of the small cut on her mouth, relishing her soft skin. He had a growing urge to press his lips against hers and was thankful when her voice cut into his thoughts and temporarily caged his desire.

"What's going to happen to me?"

"I'm not going to hurt you Kari," he said solemnly and withdrew his hand as she assessed him for a few heartbeats. After not seeing ugly malice floating on the surface, she descended the last step and retrieved the plastic container of fallen cake from the tile. Miraculously the lid had stayed firmly in place, but the frosting was now smooshed into the Tupperware logo.

She set the container on the kitchen counter, turned the water to hot and washed her hands. Edward leaned against the stainless-steel refrigerator and watched her busy herself with making coffee, pulling two coffee cups from the cupboard, and laying a spoon next to each cup.

"There's creamer and su…" she started to say and then quickly spit out on a sarcastic wave. "I don't know why I'm telling you anything, I'm sure you already know where everything is."

Edward appreciated her lively venting and didn't reply. He walked to the dining room table as she pressed the start button on the coffee maker. In a matter of minutes, the only sound was the percolating water turning the grounds into steaming deliciousness.

Kari stayed standing in the kitchen, watching the coffee carafe fill. She called to him as she filled her favorite mug that boasted a dancing cat in a pink tutu.

"How do you take your coffee?"

She was about to repeat her question when Edward appeared in the kitchen. "You don't need to make that for me," he said gently, picking up the other mug she had selected from the cupboard.

Kari watched him fill the bright blue mug and stir in a splash of creamer. He picked up the full mug and gestured towards the other room. "Let's go sit and talk."

She grasped her cup between both hands and walked to the dining room, she moved a couple stacks of paper from the tabletop, so she could put down her coffee. Edward settled across from her, moving a few medical manuals to the side.

Edward looked over at Kari as she precariously stacked a few folders and patient charts on the table while fragrant steam rose from her coffee cup. He allowed his eyes to travel up her torso and focused on the rise and fall of her chest, he lingered on the swell of her breasts under the charcoal grey cashmere sweater. His eyes passed over her smooth décolletage and settled on the hollow of her throat and the line of her jaw.

Kari finished the rudimentary organizing and took a sip of coffee. He watched her pink tongue run along her lips to chase every drop of the sweetened coffee. Edward took special notice that her soft-pink lip gloss left a blemish on the porcelain cup. Edward tore his eyes from Kari when she looked over at him.

"Well, where do we start?"

Edward drank from his cup and looked at her glassy eyes that were reddened from the fatigue that invariably followed physical shock and trauma. He watched her suppress a yawn and rub at her eyes.

"Would you like to go take a nap?" Edward asked and added after a short pause. "We can talk after you've had some rest."

"I am tired," Kari admitted with a wry smile and pinched the bridge of her nose. She could feel another series of yawns incoming. "I just need to know even just the basics of what is happening here before I could even possibly consider sleeping."

Edward watched her drain her cup and noisily replace it on the table.

"We can talk more about this later, right now I assure you that I will not hurt you."

"But am I now a prisoner, in my home?"

Edward's face was expressionless. "For an unspecified amount of time, you are the focus of all my attention and will never be far from my sight."

Kari's face grew a shade paler. "Unspecified?"

Edward nodded.

Kari stood and picked up her cup. "A nap will be good. I've also got to transition to day-shift mode for the next few weeks."

Edward listened to her deposit the mug in the sink and fill it with water. He heard more rustling in the cupboards followed by the sound of the toaster. Soon, the delectable aroma of the neatly placed slices of cinnamon-raisin bread filled the air. He rose from the table with his own cup and resumed leaning against the fridge, watching her spread butter on the hot slices with the raisins hemorrhaging their sweetness.

She glanced back at him. "Would you like a slice?"

"No thank you."

She turned with her plate in hand and noticed he had turned off the dining room light and appeared poised to follow her upstairs. "Where are you going to be?"

"I've been up all night too," he said and added. "I have some matters to attend to, but I'll be close by."

Kari regards him for a moment. Finally, her salivary glands and hunger pangs took over at the tantalizing aroma of the toast. "Okay," she eventually stated and made a rigid beeline to the perceived comfort of her bedroom.

Edward followed, his eyes moved over the clothes he had picked out, the way the fabric fell against her skin and moved with her body. He wanted to feel her body through the soft cashmere sweater and run his hands down the smooth fabric that encased her thighs. He had told her that he would be close-by.

He didn't want her to be awake when he slipped under the covers next to her.