She returned hastily to her office and tried deep breathing exercises until she was feeling lightheaded. Probably more lightheaded than calm, but it was a start. She choked down a cup of green tea and reminded herself that it was probably just as difficult for Lily to make concessions for her as it was for her to make concessions for Lily. She told herself that Lily probably had no idea how obnoxious her behavior was. She told herself this several times. Then she got back to work.
The morning passed quickly as mornings at Sacred Balance always did.
Andy arrived around eleven thirty, and Suze showed him into A.J.’s office.
“Wow,” he said a little grudgingly. “I guess I understand why you decided to give up freelancing. This is really nice.”
“It is,” A.J. agreed. “I still have to pinch myself some mornings. I loved the first years we were in business together. I loved the challenge of building our client base and landing big accounts, but . . .”
“You burnt out,” Andy said.
“It’s such a cliché, but I think I did. It didn’t . . . feed my soul.”
Andy didn’t say anything. His expression puzzled A.J. Even more than she, he had thrived on the stress, the challenge, the risk of running their own business. Now she wondered if somewhere along the line that had changed for him as well. He did look better today. More relaxed and rested. Perhaps the weekend in the country had done him some good—although he was still limping very slightly.
“Are we still on for lunch?” he asked.
“Sure. Why don’t I give you the grand tour first?”
Andy affirmed, positive and accommodating as ever, and A.J. gave him a quick guided tour through the three-story building. He made all the right noises and approving faces—until they reached the top level.
“Showers on the third floor,” he commented. “ That is so Diantha. She’s the only person I ever met who believed willpower could defeat gravity.”
A.J. knew what Andy meant, and it
a little unusual to have showers on the third floor.
“You have to admit, it is beautiful up here,” she pointed out. “All these windows looking down over the trees. Just clouds and sunlight and water. It’s a lovely experience showering here.”
“It’s the flying squirrels you have to convince, not me.”
A.J. grinned, because Andy’s reaction was very much what her own had initially been.
They finished the grand tour, and A.J. directed Andy into town and the Happy Cow Steak House, which was one of Stillbrook’s nicer places to dine. They had a brief wait in the lobby and Andy scrutinized the waitresses dressed like French maids, the bordello-crimson furnishings, and the sentimental Victorian paintings while the dimple that indicated private amusement creased his cheek.
“How perfect,” he murmured, once they had been seated and were glancing over the menus. “ They even have a meat bar.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” A.J. said. “But there are trendy places in New York and London and Tel Aviv that offer meat bars.”
“But do they offer elk sausage with Madeira wine? Or appetizers made from smoked alligator?”
A.J. tried not to laugh. “They do a really nice filet mignon here,” she informed him. “ That’s all I know. I’m trying to eat less red meat.”
“You could try the ostrich burgers,” Andy said. “I hear it’s the new white meat.”
A.J. laughed, but then her gaze fell on a petite red-haired woman sitting by herself at a table across the room. She sucked in a breath.
“Got a look at the prices, did you?” Andy inquired, his own gaze fastened on the red-bound menus.
“Don’t turn around,” A.J. said sotto voce. “I think I just recognized the woman sitting on her own at the table near the window.”
Andy’s elegant brows rose. He stared at the long mirror hanging on the wall opposite. “ The one with the short red hair?”
“In the DKNY flutter-sleeve top,” A.J. agreed.
“What about her?”
“Does she look familiar to you?”
Andy narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “Maybe. Why?”
A.J. reached for her purse and cell phone. “I’m almost positive that’s the woman I saw running away from Nicole’s house right before I found Nicole’s body.”
are you doing?” Andy asked her, still watching the woman reflected in the mirror across the room.
Andy was shaking his head. “She’s already paid the bill. She’s leaving.”
Glancing up, A.J. saw that he was right. The woman was gathering her belongings.
A.J. bit her lip. An idea occurred. She said, “I’m going to stall her for a couple of seconds. Can you go outside and see what car she gets into and try to get the license plate number?”
“You’re going to stall her
“Just . . . leave it to me,” A.J. said rising.
She started walking toward the entrance. As she passed the woman who was now on her feet and also moving to the lobby, she stopped.
“Oh! Aren’t you . . . ?” A.J. paused as though trying to rack her brain for a name.
The woman hesitated, looking doubtful, and Andy, with a muttered apology, squeezed past the two of them and went out through the lobby and the front door.
Good old Andy
, A.J. thought with genuine affection. Aloud, she said, “You were in . . . that movie, right? I can’t think of the name of it.”
The woman smiled a sickly smile. She was several inches shorter than A.J. Cute rather than pretty, with very short red hair and freckles so perfectly placed that they could have been painted on.
“I . . . um . . . I’ve been in a few things,” she admitted.
“Lydia Thorne!” A.J. said triumphantly. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
The woman shook her head. “Jane Peters.”
“Right, right. Can I get your autograph?” A.J. looked around as though seeking something the woman could write her name on.
“I . . .” Jane Peters took a step toward the restaurant entrance. “I really have to . . .”
“It’ll just take a second!” A.J. now had her purse open and was giving every appearance of ransacking the contents. “I’m
excited to meet a real movie star!”
“We’re in the way here,” Jane objected, continuing to sidle toward the door.
“No, no. Here you go!” A.J. grabbed a back page out of her day planner. “Just sign any-old-where.”
Jane Peters looked at her as though she thought A.J. herself might be missing a crucial page or two, but she scrawled a hasty signature and thrust the sheet back at A.J. “ There you go. Thank you!”
!” A.J. called.
Jane had already turned away and was making for the front door.
A.J. went to the table by the window and picked up the leather sleeve with the restaurant receipt. As she’d hoped, there was a credit card slip. The imprint read
The name meant nothing to her. Jane Peters hadn’t so much as blinked at the mention of Lydia Thorne, so it seemed unlikely that it was one of her aliases, but who was she and what had she been doing at Nicole’s the afternoon she was killed?
She leaned over, trying to see out the window, and spotted Andy walking back from the parking lot. She waved to him, but the window glass was tinted and he did not see her.
Returning to their table, she met the curious glances of one or two other dining patrons and picked up her cell phone once more, dialing Jake.
As usual, she got his voice mail.
“It’s A.J.,” she said crisply—if quietly—into her phone. “I’ve just spotted the woman I saw leaving Nicole’s. Her name is Jane Peters . . .”
Andy dropped into the chair across from her. He said, “She’s driving a black Saturn VUE, Jersey license plate JAA 00B.”
A.J. repeated this information faithfully to Jake’s voice mail and rang off.
“How can he possibly resist you?” Andy inquired. “You’re like the girl of his dreams.”
“His nightmares,” A.J. retorted. “It’s like I’m a magnet for murder.”
“ That should be a plus. Doesn’t he care about career advancement?”
“Ha.” She picked up her menu. “I must say Nick seems to have trained you very well.”
Andy’s smile dimmed. “Yeah,” he said, and picked up his own menu.
“One thing I think we can rule out,” A.J. said. “I don’t think Jane Peters is the mysterious Lydia Thorne. She didn’t bat an eyelash when I suggested that was her name.”
“You’re good,” Andy approved. “ That thought hadn’t occurred to me.”
“I’m cynical. It’s the first thing I thought of,” A.J. said. “Having an online persona isn’t in itself sinister, but whoever Lydia Thorne really is, her feelings about Nicole—good or bad—weren’t normal.”
“I don’t know—”
“She was obsessed with Nicole.”
“You said yourself that’s kind of what fandom is. And Nicole obviously didn’t get the wrong vibe from Lydia. They were friends for years, right?”
A.J. laid her menu aside. “ That’s because Nicole was totally absorbed in Nicole. So it probably seemed normal to her that Lydia was, too. But those negative reviews you showed me—those are creepy. They weren’t about Nicole’s work, they were about Nicole—and Lydia’s feelings for her—and I’m telling you that level of hostility isn’t normal.”
“We could try calling her,” Andy suggested.
“What is your fascination with calling this Thorne woman?”
“It seems like a logical step. If nothing else it might eliminate her, right? And we could rest easy.”
“I’m resting fine as it is.” Mostly, anyway.
Andy ignored that. “I checked my day planner this morning. I do still have a number for her. It might not be good, but . . .”
“You should have immediately handed that number over to Jake. Why didn’t you?”
Andy raised his brows at A.J.’s tone. “Because he’ll have her number from Nicole’s files, right? He’s got access to all Nicole’s information, and, if anything, Nicole’s information will be more up-to-date than mine.”
“So? I’m not following your line of reasoning.”
Andy said casually, “Well, if this number
still good, there’s a chance that Lydia might return a phone call from us whereas the police might scare her off.”
A.J. opened her mouth but was forestalled by the arrival of the waitress. They ordered their meals—pistachio-crusted salmon for A.J. and ribeye steak for Andy—the waitress departed, and A.J. said, “Andrew Belleson, I’m warning you now. I’m
getting involved in another murder investigation.”
“Really? What was the deal with me running out to the parking lot to scope out license plates while you pretended to be an autograph hound?”
“ That was a fluke, our running into Jane Peters,” A.J. said heatedly. “And you’ll notice I turned that information straight over to Jake. I’m not going to play amateur sleuth again. It almost wrecked my relationship with him the first time.”
“So it’s serious with you and Robocop. I knew it.” He was smiling, genuinely pleased for her, which vaguely nettled.
“It’s not serious. Not yet. Actually, I have no idea what it is—but I don’t want it ruined before I’ve had a chance to screw it up in the ordinary way.”
“He should be so lucky.” Andy thought that over. “And I mean that as a compliment.”
“Uh . . . thanks.”
“Anyway, if he cares about you, he won’t want you to squelch your inner girl detective.”
“I don’t have an inner girl detective. I was just . . . in the wrong place at the wrong time before.”
Andy tsk-tsked. Really, how the hell had A.J.—for ten years—missed the fact that he was gay? She simply could not imagine Jake tsk-tsking if his life depended on it.
“Don’t do that. You know it bugs me. And for your information, sleuthing can be hazardous to your health. My health, in this case.”
Andy sighed. “I’m disappointed in you, A.J. Your mother would take this case in a heartbeat.”
He was teasing her—though not entirely. A.J. said, “Now might be the right time to break it to you that I’m not my mother. My mother—lucky for both of us—is cruising down the Nile even as we speak. And hopefully not triggering any international incidents.
, if I remember correctly, Nick wasn’t thrilled about you being even peripherally involved in a murder investigation.”
Andy’s face tightened. An unpleasant thought sprouted in A.J.’s mind. Nick Grant was a big man and not particularly given to conversation. Was it possible he might have expressed his disapproval by hitting Andy? Knocking him down? She didn’t know a lot about the gay lifestyle, but she had seen enough bad television to give her a sordid impression.
She couldn’t help asking, “Is everything okay between you and Nick Grant?”
“Of course,” Andy said quickly. Too quickly?
She wasn’t sure she wanted to pry any further, and was saved from having to decide by the arrival of their meals.