had not responded to A.J.’s message by the time she and Andy finished lunch and started back to Sacred Balance. She tried not to take it personally. Jake was in the middle of a homicide investigation; safe to say he was a little busy. Besides, for all she knew he was acting immediately on the information she’d given him.
“What’s going on here?” Andy murmured as they pulled into the studio parking lot.
The hours between one and three were the least busy at Sacred Balance, but today the parking lot was packed. In addition to all the cars, there was a large truck half blocking the driveway entrance.
“What the . . . ?” A.J.’s voice trailed away, trying to see past the truck.
Suze stood at the entrance of the studio apparently trying to deny access to what appeared to be a film crew.
“Local news coverage?” Andy asked her.
A.J. took in the equipment and cameras scattered along the walkway curving up toward the studio. She shook her head. “ There would be a van with the news station logo, wouldn’t there? This is like a . . . a movie set.”
Spotting a familiar tall, dark-haired woman arguing—loudly—with Suze, she reached for the door. “Let me out.”
“Are you sure? If they’re waiting for you—”
“ They’re not waiting for me. That’s Barbie Siragusa arguing with Suze.”
“Barbie Siragusa, as in
Barbie’s Dream Life
? As in the mob boss’s missus?
“ That’s the one,” A.J. said. “She wanted to film a segment of her reality TV show at Sacred Balance, and I told her no. Apparently she’s not a very good listener.”
“You told the wife of a famous mob boss
?” Andy said faintly.
A.J. tore her gaze away from the melee at the front of Sacred Balance. All those people and all that equipment in order to create . . . reality?
“I told her no,” she said. “And I meant it. It’s the last thing Aunt Di would have wanted for the studio, so please don’t tell me that it’s a wasted opportunity for good PR. I don’t think it would be good for the studio or the health and welfare of our clients.”
“Uh, I wasn’t thinking about the studio,” Andy said. “Or your clients. I was thinking that telling a mob boss’s wife ‘no’ might not be good for the health and welfare of
you sure you want me to abandon you like this?” Andy inquired as A.J. got out of the car.
That was almost too easy. A.J. opened her mouth but let it go. “I can handle it,” she said.
Andy looked unconvinced.
“I’ve been managing just fine without you for over a year now.”
He winced, and A.J. relented. “ Thanks, but I can cope. Honestly. I’ll see you back at the house this evening.”
Slamming shut the sedan door, she started briskly up the walkway through the gauntlet of bodies and equipment.
Suze, blonde hair on end and looking like one of the Keebler Elves after a brawl, stood at bay, blocking the glass doors. A.J. could see movement in the building behind Suze, but no one was coming to the beleaguered instructor’s aid.
Spotting A.J., she called out in relief, “A.J., I was just trying to explain—”
“What in the world is going on here?” A.J. demanded. She had to raise her voice—a lot—to be heard.
Barbie pushed through the crowd of people to meet her. Jabbing an acrylic talon at A.J.’s nose, she announced, “ This is her!” She gestured to the cameraman in front of the horseshoe of people. “Get a close-up! A.J., we need to talk!”
talked,” A.J. told her, eyeing the cameraman warily. “I told you I did not want anyone filming inside Sacred Balance.” And as the camera zoomed in on her, she said, “Please get that thing out of my face.”
“ This is about freedom of the press,” Barbie said, and the camera swung her way. “You’re standing in the way of free speech.”
are standing in the way of the front door,” A.J. retorted. “Barbie, I’m trying to run a business here. What about my rights? What about the rights of all the other Sacred Balance clients?” Into the whirring eye of the camera, which had turned her way again, she said, “I asked you to stop filming.”
“I warned you,” Barbie said. “I gave you the chance to cooperate.”
Apparently what you got when you crossed a mob boss’s wife with reality TV was a close-up you could not refuse.
“ This has gone too far already. Where’s the director?” A.J. scanned the crowd of curious bystanders. “Or the producer. Who exactly is in charge here?”
call the shots,” Barbie said. “Not the director. Not the producer. It’s my show. It’s my reality. And I gave you fair warning, A.J.”
“You’re right,” A.J. said. “I should have paid more attention. Now I’m going to have to get a restraining order.”
“You can’t do that!” Barbie shrieked. “Don’t you dare try it, you—!”
A.J. pushed past Barbie. Suze stepped back and A.J. slipped inside the glass door, locking it on Barbie’s outraged protest. The glass door thudded beneath her angry fists.
Is she for real?” Suze gasped, leaning weakly back against the closed door.
“I guess so. She’s got the camera crew to prove it.”
Inside the main lobby, the phones were ringing, unattended, and a few pleasantly horrified customers stood gazing out at the milling film crew.
Watching Barbie, who was now gesticulating like a Spa ghettiOs commercial gone bad, Suze said, “Are you sure you should have done that? Bad things have a way of happening to people Barbie doesn’t like.”
“No,” said A.J. “I’m not sure I should have done that. But I don’t know what else to do. I can’t have that film crew in here disrupting everyone’s schedule.” She headed straight for her office, Suze trotting behind.
“Well, okay, but we can’t hold the customers hostage inside the building.”
She resisted telling Suze to answer the phones and leave the rest to her. “We won’t have to. I’m sure Barbie and her film crew will give up and go away in a few minutes.”
In actuality, she was sure of no such thing, but she had bigger problems than Barbie. When it rained it poured. From down the hall, Lily was striding toward her, and for the first time A.J. understood the expression “a face like a thundercloud.” She said to Suze, “Or you can just shove ’em out through the emergency exit.”
“What in the world do you think you’re doing?” Lily demanded.
A.J. unlocked her office. “Suze, could you get me Mr. Meagher,” she told the younger instructor. She stepped inside her office and said to Lily, “If you have something to say to me, say it in here where we don’t have an audience.”
“As though an audience were a concern for you?”
Clearly A.J. had done something very wrong in a previous life; her karma had flatlined. First Barbie and now Lily.
Lily was in full spate as she followed A.J. inside. “You’ve turned this place into a circus, A.J. I will never understand what Di could have been thinking when she abandoned Sacred Balance to you.”
A.J. told herself to count to ten. She closed the door to her office with great care. The electric fountain splashed musically in the silence. Reaching three and a quarter, she burst out, “ That’s not something either of us will ever know, Lily. But the bottom line is, we’re stuck together. Deal with it!”
Lily’s snapping-turtle eyes glinted dangerously. “
Deal with it?
Who do you think you’re talking to?”
Months of struggling for understanding and patience—of biting her tongue—had come to an abrupt end. A.J. said, “I’m not any happier that Sacred Balance came with
attached than you are to find yourself in business with me. But this is what Aunt Di wanted. If you can’t come to terms with it, I’ll be more than happy to buy you out.”
“Like hell!” Lily said. “If anyone is leaving, it’s you.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“You’re ruining this business. You’re turning us into a laughing stock. Yoga for dogs, yoga for cats, yoga for babies, yoga for singles? My God, where will it end? Film crews, reality TV?”
“How is that last my fault?” A.J. objected. “I’m trying to keep that film crew out of Sacred Balance!”
“By antagonizing one of our most important clients.”
Exasperated, A.J. said, “Do you want to be on reality TV or not? Because I don’t understand—”
“ This is my point.” Lily was suddenly cool and patronizing. “You don’t
. You’re out of your depth. It’s obvious to everyone. Before you destroy Sacred Balance, and everything it stands for, why don’t you let me buy
out?” A.J. stared. “How in the world could you afford to buy me out?”
Lily smiled. “All that need concern you is that I’m now in position to do so. Name your price.”
“I’m not going to sell Sacred Balance. Not to you, not to anyone. Aunt Di left the studio to me. We’re co-managers, not co-owners, Lily.”
“ That was an oversight on Di’s part.”
“Aunt Di didn’t
oversights. I’m not selling you the studio.”
“ Then at least let me manage it on my own, the way Di intended.”
“She didn’t intend that or she wouldn’t have made us co-managers.” A.J. lowered her voice and forced her knotted muscles to relax. “I understand that you’re not any happier with this arrangement than I am, but until one of us is willing to concede, we’re going to have to find a way to work together.”
The intercom buzzed. Suze’s voice said, “Mr. Meagher is on line one for you.”
“If you’ll excuse me,” A.J. said to Lily.
Lily didn’t budge. She said flatly, “We have to resolve this A.J. For the good of the studio. We can’t have more incidents like this afternoon’s.”
“Well, we’re not going to resolve it in the next two minutes,” A.J. said. “I need to take this call.”
It looked as though Lily might refuse to leave, but finally she turned and went, closing the door with the smallest suggestion of a bang behind her.
A.J. dropped down at her desk, her gaze seeking the enigmatically smiling photo of her aunt. She picked up the phone. “A.J. here.”
“Ah, me darlin’ wee A.J. So you’ve a minute to spare for your old Uncle Bradley, have you?” Mr. Meagher said in his musical Irish brogue. A.J. could see him in her mind’s eye: a short and very tanned older man with a silver pom padour and bright, beady eyes. “And how is your wicked minx of a mam enjoying her holiday?”
“Oh, Mr. Meagher,” A.J. said, and it all came pouring out—much to her own surprise.
Mr. Meagher listened in silence until A.J. paused at last for breath. Then he was brisk. “Now, as to your first dilemma, we’ve several options open to us. We can indeed go the way of placing a restraining order on Mrs. Siragusa. Are you sure that’s what you wish to do?”
Having vented long and loudly, much of A.J.’s emotional heat had evaporated. She could hear the reserve in Mr. Meagher’s voice, and she had respect for his legal—and other—instincts.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, raking a hand through her hair. “No way am I going to permit her to film inside the studio, and I don’t think she’s going to accept my decision graciously.”
“She’s an important client,” Mr. Meagher pointed out.
“I suppose so,” A.J. said. “She’s a wealthy client, certainly. But I don’t know that having the wife of a crime boss on our roster is necessarily a coup.”
“Let me put it this way,” Mr. Meagher said. “Having Mrs. Siragusa as an enemy is unlikely to prove good for business. Or anything else.”
A.J. thought this over silently.
Bad things have a way of happening to people Barbie doesn’t like
, Suze had said.
Of course, Barbie hadn’t had anything to do with Nicole’s death. At least . . . it wasn’t likely, was it? The time element was off. Barbie would have had to race from the studio and make straight for Nicole’s, murder her on the spot, and then escape—all without being spotted by an army of people. And Barbie was not exactly the inconspicuous type.
Mr. Meagher knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. He cleared his throat and said, “Now, me darlin’ . . . regarding the other matter. There’s no question Ms. Martin is an unpleasant young woman. We’ve talked this over before, and the terms of your aunt’s will are quite explicit. It was Diantha’s wish for the two of you to work together. One of you may decide the situation is intolerable and leave, but neither of you can force the other out.”
Till death do us part,
A.J. thought grimly. She said, “What if it could be proven that the partnership is detrimental to the welfare of the business?”
“Is it indeed?”
She was silent. As dearly as she longed to blame Lily for everything that had ever gone wrong at Sacred Balance, the truth was little had gone wrong. Business was thriving, and the numbers bore it out regardless of Lily’s feelings on the matter.