Authors: Cathy Perkins
She turned and faced him. “First honest statement I’ve heard from you. Does that blanket condemnation include me?”
He didn’t move an eyelash.
Raising her chin, she kept her tone and gaze level, rigid self-control containing the seething inside her. “If you have evidence they’re involved in Marcy’s murder and have a financial motive, you’ll have no problem getting a judge to sign off on a warrant.”
Holly stormed into Desert Accounting’s lobby with JC right on her heels. The tension between them was as thick and impenetrable as the walls of Fort Knox. She made it three steps into the reception area before she patted her jacket pocket and stopped in her tracks.
He did a quick sidestep around her. “What are you doing now?”
“Damn it, JC. You made me forget my phone.”
Before he could say another word, she marched back to her office. She snatched up her cell and turned, ready to stomp back into the lobby.
Her common sense kicked in.
Chill out. Get your act together
She took a deep breath and braced her palms against the desk. Letting JC see how much he upset her would be a major strategic error.
In his current mood, he’d probably interpret it as a guilty conscience.
For whatever reason, he seemed determined to pin Marcy’s murder on her, Tim, or Alex. And even if he wasn’t doing something that ridiculous, as far as she could tell, he was headed down the wrong path.
Clearly, he wasn’t going to tell her anything about the investigation, so she’d have to figure out herself what he knew—or thought he knew. Which meant talking to the people he
talked to. And since Tim Stevens was her client—as JC kept harping on—she had every reason in the world to stop in and talk to him.
So there, Mr. Super Sleuth Junior Cluemaster Detective
She felt better already.
The detective in question was doing his charming guy impression when she returned to the lobby. He leaned against the reception desk, flashing those damned dimples at Tracey. Normally the receptionist was the office mom—appointment-taker and excuse-maker. Tracey remembered the client’s names—and those of their spouses, children, grandchildren, and favorite hunting dog. Right now, she looked as if she’d climb over the counter separating her desk from the waiting area if JC merely crooked his finger in her direction. Phones were ringing, all the lines lit up, but Tracey looked like she’d never heard the phrase,
Answer the phone
JC’s body tightened enough for Holly to know he’d noticed her, but Tracey was still gazing longingly at the man, eating up the attention like she was seventeen instead of forty-seven.
Holly’s gaze drifted to JC’s long, lean body. What had six years’ worth of experience done for him? He’d been her first love, but she wasn’t a kid any longer. Had it all been hormones and young lust? Before she could wonder what he looked like without the tailored shirt, she sent her drooling inner teenager to her room and locked the door.
“If I can interrupt?” she asked.
JC’s lips twitched at her ironic tone.
Tracey blinked. “What? Oh, Holly, are you leaving now?”
What gave her away? The briefcase or the coat? She nodded, ignoring JC. Slim hips resting against Tracey’s desk, he was giving Holly a slow inspection that seemed to remove her clothing piece by piece.
He was just doing it because he knew it irritated her.
“Have you seen my mother this morning?” she asked Tracey.
“Donna’s still at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast.”
JC’s dimples reappeared. “I can’t believe you’re back in Richland, working for your mom.”
Something she’d sworn she’d never do. She gave him a withering look. “A temporary arrangement.”
She hadn’t asked about his mother, a woman she’d adored during their college years, because it seemed hypocritical to mention Antheia when she was no longer involved with her son.
No, that wasn’t right. She wasn’t going to talk about Antheia because JC was using
mother as a putdown and she refused to use
mother that way.
The front door opened, saving Holly from round four with JC. Nicole Stevens entered and flashed a thousand-watt smile. “G’morning.”
“Hello, Nicole.” Tracey turned her attention from the detective to the swing-top floating around the petite blonde’s killer body. “That’s a darling outfit.”
“You like it? It’s a Lilly P.” Nicole beamed with pleasure. From her Manolo Blahnik shoes to her diamond-studded ears, Tim’s wife as usual projected an image of leisure and wealth. Extravagance seemed to be Nicole’s middle name. Holly was relieved
didn’t have to pay off the woman’s charge cards.
Nicole executed a model-worthy pivot on her stiletto heels, and set the blouse’s fabric in motion. “What do you think, Holly? Does it make me look big?”
Holly took in the innocent face Nicole presented. The comment felt like another of the woman’s subtle digs. Her size four, perfectly proportioned body always made Holly feel like an awkward giant. “You look lovely.”
Nicole focused on the purse hanging from Holly’s shoulder. “Is that a Borgedorf?”
She instantly forgave Nicole for the “big” comment and swiveled the zebra-striped hobo so all three women could appreciate the details. “Isn’t it great? I found it last weekend.”
She left out the half-price detail.
“It’s modern and retro at the same time,” Tracey said approvingly.
JC rolled his eyes.
What did a guy know?
Finger tapping her tiny, pointed chin, Nicole studied the bag. “Isn’t that
Way to kill the moment.
Nicole turned back to Tracey. Usually, Nicole looked like she belonged at a 1950s Junior League function, but from the current expression on her face,
might be more appropriate. “Is Tim here?”
“I haven’t seen him,” Tracey said.
Strange. Tim’s Mercedes was in their shared parking lot.
“Isn’t he in his office?” Holly asked.
Nicole’s glow dimmed. “I can’t find him anywhere.”
From the corner of her eye, Holly saw JC lock onto Tim Stevens’s wife like Alex’s bird dog after a pheasant.
She wasn’t exactly throwing the woman under the bus, but if JC focused on Nicole, he might get off Holly’s back about providing client financial information. As a bonus, talking to JC would keep Nicole out of the Stevens Ventures office long enough for Holly to talk to Tim—or at least to ask Brea where he was today.
“I’m headed over to Tri-Ag,” Holly told Tracey. “I probably won’t make it back before my two o’clock meeting. Please ask my mother to call me.”
JC coughed, as though covering a laugh. He pushed away from Tracey’s desk. “Could I have a word with you, Mrs. Stevens?”
Holly kept the smile off her face. Could she call them or what?
Most likely Nicole didn’t know enough about Tim’s business to tell JC anything, but he could have fun trying.
Of course, he
to be out looking for the real killer.
Holly pushed through Desert Accounting’s front door, crossed the atrium, and entered the Stevens Ventures office. The Western men’s club motif Tim had chosen always annoyed her, as if he’d missed the last forty years of women’s achievements. Masculine, desert-hued colors, leather and heavy oak furniture—it was all part of the über-conservative, wife-belongs-at-home nonsense she constantly battled on the east side of the Cascades.
The reception desk, which usually blocked access to the office interior, sat vacant. A light blinked on the phone console, but the office was strangely quiet.
The sensible thing to do was to walk back to Tim’s office. High heels muffled by the thick carpet, she strode down the hall. She rounded the corner and ran smack into Lillian.
The payroll clerk rocked backward. Short, curly brown hair framed an expressive face, which quickly transformed from surprise to recognition. Lillian’s left hand extended, palm up. She brushed bent fingertips across the palm, saying, “Excuse me” in sign language.
“Sorry.” Holly brought her palm to her chest, moved it in small circles.
“I didn’t hear you,” Lillian signed. A smile smoothed the remaining tension from her face.
Holly rolled her eyes at the pun. “I’m glad I ran into you.”
Since Lillian shared an office with Marcy, she might actually be a better person to start the investigation with than Tim. Even if she couldn’t hear, Lillian was bound to know a lot about Marcy’s routine. Holly signed, “Do you have time to talk about Marcy?”
The brunette stiffened, then subtly leaned away, as if distancing herself from the question.
The renewed tension surprised Holly. She thought the two women had gotten along. Before she could ask what was wrong, Lillian gestured at her watch and signed, “I have an appointment. We can talk later.”
She watched the payroll clerk walk away, shrugged, and entered Tim’s office. Drawn blinds left the room shadowed. The conversation area and conference table were vacant, but a man leaned against the massive desk. Clothes disheveled, hair wild, he turned when she flicked on the lights.
“Ugh.” He closed his eyes in a tight squint, stumbled to remain upright.
What the hell?
His hands rose and pushed through his already spiky hair.
A dozen possible business disasters cycled through her head. “What’s wrong?”
“Holly? What…?” His voice trailed off in a confusion of whiskey fumes. He splayed a hand on the desk and peered around the room, checking its contents. “Is this…your office?”
“It’s yours, Tim.” She dumped her briefcase in the closest chair. “Did something happen with Southridge?”
He collapsed against the desk. He tilted so badly the furniture barely held him upright. “I can’t believe she’s dead.”
“Marcy?” Holly studied his ravaged face. He looked worse than she felt, and she’d seen the body. “I know you worked together, but I didn’t realize you were that close.”
An unwanted thought intruded.
How close were they?
More than friends?
No way. Tim gave every indication he was happily married. Even if Nicole played the bitch in helpless waif clothing routine, Tim doted on her. Still, his reaction seemed out of proportion for someone who was only an employee.
“She was a friend—a good friend.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “She listened. Nobody does that. She deserved more than the crap Alders put her through. More than…”
“Who’s Alders? What crap?”
“God, I hate that guy.” Tim jerked upright. His hands closed into fists.
He stopped as abruptly as he’d moved. Wavering on unsteady feet, his lower lip trembled and his jaw worked.
Still trying to catch up, Holly watched his emotional crumbling. Good grief. When was the last time she’d seen a guy cry? Besides over a stupid football game?
“She’s dead.” He lunged forward and enveloped Holly is a sweaty hug. Booze seeped through his pores, mingled with stale perspiration.
Wracking sobs shook his body. She didn’t know whether to be concerned, horrified, or embarrassed. Instinct took over and she patted his shoulder as if he were a child. “It’ll be okay.”
He clenched her tighter and blubbered loudly against her neck.
She turned her head, wrinkling her nose at the stench, and glanced at the door. Where was Brea when she needed her? “Shhh…”
Renewed sobs answered her.
Confused snippets of their conversation rotated through her mind, but she kept coming back to, W
hy is he drunk? Why is he so upset?
Finally, his tears subsided to shuddering breaths, and she wondered what to say that wouldn’t embarrass both of them. She eased him away from her chest. “Nicole’s in my office. Why don’t you let her take you home?”
A look close to panic slid across his face. “Hell, no. She flips out if I have a drink.”
A drink? How about the whole friggin’ bottle?
“Okay. What if I ask Brea to get some coffee?” She couldn’t leave him like this, but she had to get moving or she really would be late for her meeting.
Maybe she should take him with her.
She resisted the urge to glance at her watch. “C’mon. Caffeine. How about a quick run to the Bikini Barista?”
“I can’t.” He wiped his nose against his sleeve. “Southridge financing closes next week. Gotta do stuff.”
His tone reminded Holly of a petulant teenager.
Who are you and what have you done with my charming, confident client?
She didn’t want to set the guy off again, but maybe she could offer loan staff—from somewhere—to help him. “I guess Marcy…not being here…leaves you short-handed.”
“I can handle it.” A look that said
slid across his face, but he stepped back and slouched against his desk. “What’s up?”
Okay, here goes.
Tim had been drinking, but it wasn’t like she was looking for courtroom evidence. “I’m trying to understand what was going on in Marcy’s life. She worked for you and—”
Tim’s head jerked around and he lost his balance. His hand flew out and left a sweaty smear across the polished wood. “You think
did something to her?”
“No.” She backpedaled hard. “I just thought, I mean, she did spend most of her time here, and—”
“Her working here didn’t have anything to do with anything.”
“I just thought, since she’s a friend as well as an employee, you might know if something was bothering her lately.”
“You’re an accountant. Keep your interest on business.” His expression and tone approached
She took a surprised step backward. Where’d this temper come from?
“Ah, Christ.” He pushed away from the desk. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry he snapped? Sorry he told her what he really thought about her? Or sorry he tipped his hand that he might not be blameless in Marcy’s death?
Holly eased behind the visitor’s chair. If he made a move to hit or hug her, she wanted a sturdy object between them.
Tim’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t stand coming here and not seeing her.” He stared at the floor as if it were purgatory. “She was too young to die.”
Then again, maybe he was just drunk and upset.
“She’s alive as long as we remember her,” Holly said gently.
Okay, that was lame.
“Well,” she said, edging toward the door. “I’ll let Brea know you want to be alone.”
Her gaze slid from the bottle on Tim’s desk to the console behind the conference table, where she knew he kept the liquor. Should she confiscate everything inside it?
Tim didn’t answer and she wondered if he’d even heard her.
“I’ll be okay.” His voice was flat, drained of the earlier emotion. “Life goes on. So they say.”
Before she could think of a response, her cell phone rang. She dug it out of her pocket and checked the display.
. Thank God. She hit the connect button. “I’m leaving in a minute. Can you meet me at Tri-Ag?”
“Well ‘hello’ to you, too, darling.” Her mother’s voice was warm with concern and a touch of amusement.
“Hello, Mother. It’s taken me months to get a foot in the door out there. We cannot be late.”
“That’s why I called. The Chamber meeting is still going.”
Holly glanced at her watch. That meeting should’ve finished an hour ago. “Why?”
“They’re arguing about the Point property. Some people would rather hold onto their private parking lot than see it developed productively.”
“Are you going to make the Tri-Ag meeting?”
“I may be a few minutes late, but I’m more concerned about you. I tried to call earlier this morning, as soon as I heard the news. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. A little tired, but fine.” Guilt over not calling the previous evening poked her.
A thud sounded behind her. She whirled. Tim had vanished.
“Gotta go.” She dropped the cell phone into her pocket.
A rumbly belch broke the silence. She followed the sound and peered around the desk. Tim lay sprawled on the floor, passed out cold.
Well, that went well.
She might need to refine her interrogation technique.
Brea rushed into the room. “Holly. Thank God. Where’s Tim? That cop’s here again.”
“The cops?” She glanced from the receptionist to the slumbering suspect. Talk about bad timing.
“This detective—God, he’s gorgeous—wants to talk to Tim. He was a little PO’d when I said Tim wasn’t here. I mean, Tim’s Mercedes is right there in the parking lot. Where is he, anyway?”
Holly ignored the “gorgeous” comment—
have at it, honey
—and pointed behind the desk.
Brea took one look, then her face crinkled, fighting laughter. “What did you do to him?”
Brea waved away the comment. “I knew he was hammered. He lurched in, mumbling, ‘Don’t tell Nicole I’m here.’ ”
“That would explain why she was in
office looking for him.”
“What was she doing there? I told her to check upstairs, with the money people. As soon as she left, I tried to find one of the property guys to help.” The receptionist propped her hands on her ample hips and nodded at Tim’s inert form. “This is getting to be a habit.”
“He was at Crazy Horse Casino Friday night, completely trashed.”
“Are you sure it was Tim?” Surprise colored her voice.
“Oh, yeah. I see him down there all the time.”
“I didn’t know he gambled.” Holly gave Tim another dubious inspection. “I hate to leave him on the floor, but I need to get moving.”
Brea gauged the distance to the sofa. “Think we can haul him over there?”
“Worth a try.” Holly kicked off her high heels.
Brea grabbed Tim’s arms and tugged.
“Gee, thanks.” Holly hooked her fingers under his ankles. “Give me the dirty end.”
“Hey, you’re farther away if he hurls.”
They maneuvered the man around the desk.
“At least Nicole doesn’t have to worry about him driving drunk.” Holly adjusted her grip. “I’ve seen him have a beer or two, but I’ve never seen him drunk.”
“That’s because you only see him when Nicole’s around. He doesn’t drink much in front of her.”
“Her parents. I’m not sure about her dad, he ran out on them, but her mom was an alcoholic.” Brea’s hand slipped and Tim’s arm flopped to the carpet. “Damn. Gotta rest.”
They stopped halfway across the office, Tim’s body sprawled between them.
“To look at her, you’d think Nicole grew up a pampered princess.” Holly flexed her hands, then re-gripped Tim’s ankles.
“She married well,” Brea said. “Ready?”
They lifted his body and shuffled forward a few steps.
“I thought today—his being drunk—might’ve been about Marcy,” Holly ventured, probing.
“Maybe.” Brea shrugged. “Her being dead totally sucks.”
“Do you have any ideas about what happened to her?”
“No…which is too bad, since I wouldn’t mind talking to that detective again.”
Holly rolled her eyes. “Trust me, you don’t want to hook up with him.”
The other woman grinned. “Speak for yourself.”
They tugged Tim closer to the sofa.
“Did Marcy ever talk to you about some guy named Alders?”
“Never heard of him.” Brea nudged the coffee table away from the sofa. “You know, now that I think about it, Marcy was a lot of fun but she didn’t talk much about herself.”
“I feel bad about it now. Did anybody really know her?”
“I guess.” Holly measured the distance to the cushions. “Okay, on three.”
Brea nodded. “One, two,
With a heaving jerk, they lifted Tim’s limp body and swung it onto the sofa.
Holly’s stocking-clad feet slid as his weight shifted. She took a staggering step and dropped his legs. Arms waving, she fought for balance and lost. Her face landed in Tim’s soft belly, perilously close to his belt.
Her disgusted, “Oh, yuck,” was muffled by fabric and flab.
“What is going on?” demanded an outraged female voice.
Trying to find somewhere that didn’t include Tim to put her hands, Holly wallowed off the couch and her client.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Tim’s wife arranged her baby blue eyes and pink lips into something that looked like a scowl.
Brea silently sidled out of the room.
Damn. No good deed went unpunished.
“We all know this isn’t what it looks like,” Holly scrambled to her feet. “The man is passed out.”
Nicole crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
“Brea and I didn’t want to leave him on the floor.” Holly closed her mouth to stop herself from saying any more.
Nicole’s nose went up. “When you blew off your office, I didn’t realize it was a literal concept.”
Holly recoiled, as if the woman had physically slapped her. “I beg your pardon?”
“Stick to massaging the numbers. You don’t have the assets”—Nicole raked a disparaging look down Holly’s underdeveloped chest—“for anything else.”