tracy
"It's All About Eve..."
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Chapter One

If it weren't for the red tap pants, Eve Cantoro never would have known that she had problems.

Of course, problems -- like underwear -- came in all shapes and sizes. And one thing Eve knew was underwear.

Men, especially relationships involving men, were another thing. Take the man standing next to her.

"You say they were here?" Detective Carter Moran pointed his index finger dangerously close to the hairless, triangular juncture of the model's legs. He hesitated, then dropped his hand abruptly. "I mean, there?"

Eve nodded. "Yes, there." She looked at the stylized, gray mannequin and sighed.

Why was it that when confronted with women's lingerie, men inevitably fell into two categories? The first were the sniggering lechers who sounded off about "some women always wanting it," implying they could easily supply the "it". The second were the embarrassed types who, in contrast, seemed incapable of saying or doing anything beyond spouting beads of sweat along their upper lips and getting a petrified look in their eyes.

Detective Moran stood there -- on the verge of jumping into one or the other category. He stared at the model in the store window and rubbed his jaw. A very nice, square jaw, Eve noted. "Give me a second, will you?" he said slowly. "I'm trying to be cool here -- not make some tasteless comment or drool out of the side of my mouth. Either would, I'm sure, be totally offensive to you and -- at least in terms of my fragile male ego - absolutely mortifying. I'd be forced to find the nearest brick wall and bang my head against it repeatedly."

My God, the detective was different after all. What a surprise.

Eve didn't normally like surprises. They tended to mean extra work, extra time, even extra pain. The one and only time she had submitted to getting her legs waxed was in the throes of an unrequited infatuation with her car mechanic. Well, the man did know his way around her carburetor.

But it wasn't very often that a surprise came so neatly packaged, and rarely had a male specimen done so much to promote a positive image of law and order. At least, not in Eve's thirty years of experience. At well over six feet, Detective Moran's broad shoulders very nicely filled out the jacket of his charcoal-gray suit. And while fine tailoring seemed to be the order of the day, Detective Moran didn't appear to need any added padding, thank you. If it weren't for the high price tag -- presumably beyond a cop's salary -- she would have sworn the glad rags had the definite look of Paul Stewart, traditional but definitely more stylish than Brooks Brothers. Just look at the trousers.

Yes, look at them, Eve thought. Most conservative trousers were usually cut so generously that there was enough material to fashion a spinnaker for a forty-foot yacht. But Detective Moran's trousers, on the other hand -- or on his particular legs, to be more precise -- discreetly highlighted the well-developed muscles of his thighs.

But she was digressing. Eve crossed her arms. "Not your typical stolen property case, is it?" Eve was the owner of Sweet Nothings, the only lingerie shop in town. It was a recent addition to the high-end clothing stores, stock brokerages, independent bookstores and designer coffee shops.

Detective Moran slipped a hand in a vent pocket of his pants. "Frankly, we don't get many robberies in these parts. Thefts of mountain bikes are more the norm. Sometimes purses left in unlocked cars. Occasionally, someone walks off with a Rolex watch from one of the jewelry stores." He looked at her slender wrist.

"I'm more a Swatch-kind-of-girl," she said. "Good price, good lines."

His eyes traveled from her watch, slowly up to her face. "I can see what you mean by good lines." Almost as a quick afterthought, he ran his hand through his hair.

Wet, Eve noted. At eleven o'clock in the morning, it was a little late for shower time. Still, it showed a high regard for cleanliness. Something greatly appreciated in a tidy little town like Grantham.

Not that Grantham ever considered itself little in the most essential way -- prestige. Think the sophistication of Soho but with a real supermarket. Home to an elite university, this exclusive enclave in central New Jersey was known for its appealing colonial architecture, skyrocketing real estate prices, and high SAT scores among its above-average public and private school population -- Lake Wobegon had nothing on Grantham. Needless to say, nothing was left to chance. Volvo station wagons defined the parking space dimensions, and even the azaleas and magnolias coordinated their spring blooms in socially acceptable colors

But now that it was the beginning of June, the heat had turned up a notch, and the start of the summer's humidity produced a certain lassitude in the air. Big Daddy would have felt right at home.

"It's highly unusual, to say the least, to have cases being reported of, of -- what do you call these things again that you said were missing?" Detective Moran nodded toward the mannequin, then looked at Eve.

"Hmm-m?" she said absent-mindedly. Eve noticed that his wet hair was a dark, reddish-brown. She had always had this thing for men with dark red hair. And his was finger-combed, pushed straight back from a broad, intelligent forehead. Actually, maybe it was the intelligence rather than the hair color that really got her. That -- and his eyes. They were an exotic, hunter green. Talk about a jolt straight to the heart.

"I'm sorry, what do you call those?" He pointed -- this time keeping his extended index finger at a discreet distance.

Eve focused. "They're called tap pants, or at least they were called tap pants until a few minutes ago." She looked in the direction of his extended left hand. She couldn't help but notice that he wasn't wearing a wedding band.

He followed the direction of her gaze with his own eyes -- those Emerald Isle babies. "Yes, well." He nervously wiggled his fingers, then lowered his arm to his side. "That's when you noticed they were gone?"

"Actually, my assistant Melodie noticed they were gone and let me know. I was with a customer, a young woman. She was buying an item for her honeymoon. A thong, to be exact." She folded her arms across the front of her black top.

The policeman frowned. "A thong?"

"Underpants. They're the little small ones."

He blinked. "Oh?"

"Yes, they don't leave any visible panty-line."

"Hey, I'm all for practicality, especially in a woman."

"Really?" Eve asked.

"Really." They studied each other in silence.

Eve slanted her head. "Would you like to know the color, practically speaking, of course?"

"Of course -- practically speaking."

"This particular thong was midnight-blue."

"Midnight-blue?" He left his mouth slightly open.

"Almost black."

"Almost?"

"Yes, it's very popular with new brides."

"Really?"

"Yes, and their husbands as well." She raised her chin and did her best to look down at him, virtually impossible, since he had almost a foot on her five-foot-two frame. As it was, she had a prime view of stubble. The kind that would abrade the soft skin of a woman's breast. "For all the practical reasons, of course," she added.

The detective breathed deliberately. "Of course. I mean, I can imagine."

Eve tilted her head. "Can you now?"

He paused before replying, concentrating his full attention on her face -- and an interesting face it was. From her thick, shoulder-length black hair and her strong Roman nose, to her peaches-and-cream skin and raspberry-pink lips. When he finished his thorough examination above the neck, he said slowly, "You'd be surprised what I can imagine."

Eve gulped. Enough was enough. This wasn't a social call. Which didn't explain at all why she was wondering if the lipstick she'd applied early in the morning was still on or not. Eek. Sometimes she amazed even herself.

She yanked her hair behind her ear. "Yes, well, I'm sure in your line of work, you've had the opportunity to witness all sorts of goings-on and as a result, can imagine all sorts of things." She was all business now.

The detective looked at her closely and waited a beat before replying. "So why don't you tell me more about the missing garment?"

"The garment we're talking about is a pair of tap pants -- you know, loose-fitting panties," she explained. He frowned. "Detective Moran -"

"Carter," he interrupted with a smile, a dimple appearing low on his cheek. "It's a relatively small town. We like to think it's possible for everybody to all know each other."

She held up her hand in acknowledgement. "Carter. Anyway, we get occasional shoplifting, and granted one pair isn't such a big deal. But this is now the third time we've had this particular item disappear from the window."

He nodded. "They must be pretty hot."

"Maybe you'd like to see for yourself?" Without waiting, she marched from the front of the shop with its collection of nightgowns and robes to a small room housing undergarments. Three small, brushed aluminum tables held artful arrangements of intimate ensembles. Along the outer wall, an almost industrial-looking rod with giant hooks displayed colorful bras and bustiers. Shelves and drawers with high-tech handles lined the inner walls. The remaining surfaces were painted a discreet shell pink, and the wood floors were stained a rosy blond. The total effect was understatedly feminine without being cutesy-wutesy. Eve didn't go for frou-frou.

She went behind one of the display tables -- the variety of garter belts, including one pair with fur straps, was really quite amazing -- and bent over to slide open a drawer. "Here's a pair just like the ones that were in the window." Eve turned around.

The policeman's eyes quickly shifted from her backside. He raised his hand to his mouth and coughed.

She straightened up, running one hand down the black material of her slacks, and held out the garment. "Keep it -- for reference."

Carter lowered his hand and reached for the tap pants -- a naturalist getting his first glimpse of a rare species. "So these are tap pants." He inspected the price tag dangling from a string. "I can see that there's a profit to be made. And I take it this size eight would also fit" -- he looked around the garment and studied Eve's hips -- "someone of your size?"

Eve frowned.

"Just think of all this as purely information gathering."

"You don't say?"

He gave her an exasperated smile. "You know, sometimes an observation is merely an observation. Well, maybe not all the time, but some of the time, at least. At least, I think some of the time it is. Like now, for instance." He rubbed his forehead, that very nice, intelligent forehead. "Actually, the truth is I'm not sure of anything at the moment."

Aw, thought Eve. She wanted to take his hand, tell him not to worry. Offer him a cappuccino. No, maybe her shoulder. Maybe more than her shoulder. Maybe say something like, "I don't usually do things like this, but would you like to spend a weekend at a little B&B in Bucks County, the kind of place with floral wallpaper, tasseled throw pillows and bowls of potpourri?"

Did people really say things like that?

Carter held up a hand. He looked like he was about to speak.

Maybe they did.

"You know, one thing I am sure of, I'm here on official duty. Right?" He looked like he was asking for confirmation.

Eve swallowed hard. "Right. Absolutely." Where were her thoughts wandering at a time like this? Tasseled pillows, my God. She hated tassels. "Actually, for the record, those tap pants happen to fit the mannequin in the window."

Carter slowly walked back to the front of the shop and stared at the display window. "Was the mannequin disturbed in any way?" There were three mannequins on view: one had on a slinky negligee, a second wore flannel pajamas with ducks swimming in what looked like bathtubs, and the third - in the middle - featured a strapless, red lace bustier and a decidedly naked bottom. Carter Moran didn't appear to be staring at the ducks.

Eve paused mid-stride. The way a man walked could definitely be attractive in a way that had never occurred to her before. "What was that?"

He turned around and looked at her. "Was the mannequin moved or knocked over?"

Eve lifted her head upright and squared her shoulders. "No, the mannequin was completely in order. Just as if nobody had touched it."

"Well, don't touch it now," he said. "I'll have somebody come by to dust it and the immediate area for prints. Not that I can promise anything." Carter looked around. A few customers had drifted into the shop, including a couple of Grantham University coeds who were looking at black silk boxer shorts. He frowned and leaned a little closer to Eve. She could smell a light citrusy scent, along the lines of grapefruit, pink grapefruit.

"Are they for women or men?" He nodded toward the boxers.

Eve glanced over, thinking of vitamin C in ways she never dreamed of. "Both. Maybe you'd like to see a pair?"

"No thanks. I'm strictly a white cotton Jockeys guy."

"Hmm-m."

He looked a little taken aback. "Is that a hmm-m good or a hmm-m bad?"

"Just a hmm-m," she said. "As someone in the business, I try not to be judgmental when it comes to a person's choice in underwear."

"That's nice to know." He smiled and thought. "Of course, it leads to the assumption that you're judgmental about other things." He paused. "Are you?"

Eve considered the question. "Champagne -- I definitely like it very dry. And fireworks -- I like them really loud. Then there's perfume -- I like it clean, fresh." Citrusy, she thought. "I don't like it when it's too strong, kind of drippy -- you know, gardenias mixed with Spanish moss."

"Hmm-m." His voice was playful.

She smiled. "Is that a hmm-m good or a hmm-m bad?"

Carter smiled wider. "Just a hmm-m."

Eve pursed her lips. "I'm glad we've cleared up that."

His eyes danced. "Me, too."

They stood there smiling at each other until Carter cleared his throat again. "Yes, well." He looked over toward the counter. Eve's assistant was ringing up a purchase for a woman in a gray, pinstripe pants suit. Her face was turned away from them. "You said this isn't the first time that a pair of, uh, tap pants have disappeared?"

"That's right. We've been open - about three months now -- but all the thefts, three in total, occurred in the past two weeks."

"And again, no sign of anything being moved or anything else missing in the other two instances?"

"No. Nothing. Just the tap pants."

"And always during store hours?"

Eve nodded. "As far as I know. Usually lunchtime, when we're busiest."

"Figures."

"Yeah, I guess it does."

"Doesn't make it any easier though, does it?"

"No." Gee, she was a sucker for sympathy.

"Carter. Fancy meeting you here." A tall blond woman -- the one who had been at the cash register -- grabbed his upper arm and gave it a squeeze.

"Hey, what a surprise." He leaned over and kissed her cheek, catching the corner of her mouth. "We still on for tonight?"

Eve felt the back of her throat constrict.

"You bet." The woman winked. Her deep-blue eyes matched the sapphire studs in her earlobes. "And speaking of tonight, I came in for a sports bra, and I somehow managed to walk out with this. Take a look. I couldn't resist wearing it." She leaned over and pulled out the neckline of her jacket.

Carter craned his neck. "Sorry, I can't quite see."

The woman pulled at his arm. "Well, don't be shy. Come on over to the dressing room, and I'll show you."

"You think that's wise?"

"God, Carter, you'd think I was going to show you something you'd never seen before." She dragged him toward the dressing rooms. This was clearly a woman who didn't take no for an answer.

"If you insist." He looked back at Eve. "I'll just be a sec."

"Hmm-m," Eve responded. He didn't seem to put up much of a struggle, she noticed.

"Is that a hmm-m good or a hmm-m bad?" he called out.

"Oh, you know me. I'm non-judgmental when it comes to underwear." But not when it came to hot local cops.

(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2003)

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