Meet Phoenix

"I will not allow you to commit him." I tightly clutched the phone and swiveled around in my office chair.

"There may be no other choice," my aunt Estelle said. "Since yesterday he's been almost catatonic."

My eyes burned and tension weighed between my shoulder blades. This was my father she was talking about. I knew he had problems but to commit him to a psychiatric institution? Unthinkable.

I knew he was depressed, but the only therapeutic shock treatment Thomas Sutherland needed was to have his name cleared. And I intended to do just that. It was one of the reasons I'd accepted this assignment in Tibet.

Aunt Estelle was going on and on about how debilitating depression was. I blinked the moisture from my eyes, stuck my head out of the open studio window and focused on the leaves pooling around the trees. Taxis whizzed by. The sky was a cloudless, brilliant blue. Fall in New York promised to be beautiful.

"Can we discuss this later?" I said softly and hung up. I just couldn't deal with this today. Plus, they couldn't commit him without my consent anyway.

"Althea's on the other line," Whitley Montgomery, my assistant, called from the outer room.

I took a deep breath of the brisk morning air and picked up the receiver. Althea Wright and I had met eight years ago at an art institute in Florence, Italy. I was in the conservation program, devoted to the preservation of cultural heritage, and Althea was in the restoration program, which restores and reconstructs the work of art back to its "original" state. Or at least close to it. Ever since then we were as tight as two people could be.

"Hey, you caught me at the right time, Althea."

I injected gaiety into my voice. I welcomed any distraction.

"Is that Tibetan trip still on? You did say you needed someone with expertise in reconstruction."

"Does that mean what I think it does?"

"Yup. I'm coming if you'll still have me."

I needed this news. I could use both my best friend's expertise and her support.

"Of course I'll have you, silly girl. We're about to make history. We'll be working on a statue that is as important as the Messiah is to the Western world. Maitreya's finding is heralded like the second coming of Christ. He's considered the universal teacher."

"Yes, I know. He's one of three priceless Buddhas crafted by an artisan back in 500 B.C. How long will we be gone?"

"At the very least, three months."

"Three months, Phoenix? That's more than enough time for you to get into your usual trouble. And it's a long time for both of us to be away from our studios. The Tibetan government had better be paying us well."

I named a figure then went on to say, "If we meet the deadline we get a bonus. There just aren't any artisans in Tibet qualified to reconstruct a piece this rare."

This was exactly the kind of project I loved. I'd read and reread every article I could get my hands on about this rare finding. Even now a newspaper lay on my desk, the headline prominently displayed.

Maitreya, Future Buddha Found By Gardener.

Something wasn't quite right though. It was definitely odd that all of a sudden a missing Buddha would show up in a garden, of all places. Plus, if my suspicions were confirmed, it would be an opportunity to clear my father's name.

Whitley rapped on the door and stuck her head in through the crack, signaling time-out.

"Got to go, Althea," I said, hanging up the phone and waving Whit in.

"Some guy's outside asking to see you."

"I don't remember making an appointment."

"You probably didn't write it down. Stop picking up your own calls and we wouldn't have these issues. What should I do with him?" Whit asked.

I rose to my full height of five feet nine inches and rested my butt against the desk, crossing one denim-clad leg over the other. "Does him have a name?"

"Yup. Him has a card, too." Whit flipped a business card in my direction. "Him is a hottie."

I glanced at the crisp white card and my breath hitched.

What did Damon Hernandez want? It had been eight years since I'd last laid eyes on him.

"Send him in," I said, curiosity getting the better of me.

"I'm already in," a deep male voice said from the doorway, the Bronx accent very pronounced.

My heart palpitated and then settled, but my stomach was a different story. Must be the fried chicken and chips from lunch... I fumbled, found the Tums I kept in the pocket of my shirt, and quickly popped one.

The last I'd heard, Damon Hernandez was still in Europe, and that had been just fine with me.

"Heartburn, Phe? Tell me life isn't that rough."

I managed a smile. I would not let his appearance rattle me. I would not let those dark good looks, tight curls and dreamy gray eyes fog up my thinking. No trips down memory lane. That would not be permitted.

"How are you, Damon?" I asked. "And to what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Doing well, Phe. I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd swing by and take you out for coffee." — I hiked an eyebrow. "It's been a long time."

Silence. We just stared at each other.

"Cut the bull, Damon. Why are you here?"

"I've missed you, Phe," he said, taking a step closer. "Missed that lovely face of yours, those wonderfully sculpted cheekbones and sparkling eyes."

I stepped back and swept a lock of straightened brown hair off my cheek. I considered popping another Tums since the one I'd downed seconds ago was lodged in my chest. Why had I chosen today of all days to wear baggy overalls?

Whit was openly following the conversation. I could almost hear her brain clicking, trying to figure out how we knew each other. With a slight movement of my head, I dismissed her. To him I gestured to the most uncomfortable chair in the cramped office.

"Damon," I said, "I don't have time for coffee today. Grab a seat."

He flopped into the chair and I retreated behind the safety of my desk.

Breathe, dammit! Breathe! Don't let him see how much he rattles you. What you two had is long over with.

"Ah, Phe, you haven't changed at all," Damon continued, his gaze sliding over me. "If anything, you're lovelier than ever."

He must want something. I stuffed both hands into the pockets of my denim overalls and waited.

"Suppose you tell me why you're really here?" I asked, reasoning that my heated cheeks had to do more with his irksome presence than irrepressible hormones.

"Phe, you suspicious woman." Damon chuckled, a deep-throated sound. "I came to see you, and find out how your dad's doing?"

My dad was a sensitive topic.

I was protective of the father who'd raised me and four brothers single-handedly, since my mom died when I was five. Dad, once a museum curator in Asian art, was brilliant but eccentric. I loved him with utter devotion. He'd encouraged me to pursue a career in art conservation and restoration and we'd dreamt of one day working together.

I still held on to that dream.

"Holding his own," I answered, not elaborating.

"That's good. Must have been tough losing that job."

"Very tough."

Damon didn't have to know how badly Dad's condition had deteriorated after he'd been fired, and how a paralyzing depression had set in.

"So is your father the reason you've accepted an assignment in Tibet?" Damon held a hand up, preventing me from cutting him off. "I heard about the trip via the grapevine. You're going because you hope to clear your dad's name?"

I blinked at Damon but kept my tone even. "There's nothing to clear. My father is innocent."

"I know that," Damon said in the tone that used to give me goose bumps. Used to, being the operative words. "But you'll be needing an experienced X-ray infrared technologist along, yes? I'm at your service."

So that was why he was here. Word had gotten out that I'd been awarded the coveted assignment of preserving the Maitreya. Damon, self-serving as always, was here to capitalize on my good luck.

"I'll interview one if I need one," I countered.

Damon catapulted out of his chair, approaching my desk. He spread bronze-colored hands across the surface. I thanked the Lord for the safety of the barrier between us.

"Why bother interviewing, Phe? I'm your man. I'm as good as it gets and I wouldn't charge you what the others will." His voice was a whispered caress.

"Maybe I've already hired someone," I lied.

"Who? Lyle Greenspan's already committed. He's working on a project for the Museum of Modern Art and Felicia Michaels is in Egypt. You wouldn't use Earl Kincaid. He's not exactly dependable."

"And I wouldn't use you, either, for the same reason," I said firmly. I picked up the receiver and punched in a number. "Whit, please show Mr. Hernandez out."

Damon leaned in, placing his copper-colored face very close to mine. I could smell the heat emanating from him and the aroma of coffee on his breath. He probably still took it black.

"I am not ready to leave, Phe," he said, without any inflection in his tone. "You need me. Let bygones be bygones and hire me. We always made a good team."

Although there was no longer a "we," the idea of working with Damon again was tempting, but not to be considered. Only masochists would hitch their wagons to his.

Whit, still standing at the door, cleared her throat.

"Phoenix, do you need me?"

"Yes, Mr. Hernandez is ready to leave. Please help him find his way out."

"I'm not done," Damon said again, his voice even. I wondered about this new calmness.

He took a couple of long strides toward my assistant, who seemed spellbound by his physique. Her eyes practically bugged out of her head.

Damon placed a hand on Whit's arm and eased her out of the doorway, firmly shutting the door in her face. Not in the mood to be alone with him, I picked up the phone.