Authors: Marie Ferrarella
The way she said it, he believed she meant it. From where he sat, the woman appeared to be pretty complete as it was. He watched her untie the black velvet ribbon and placed the cameo against her throat. She leaned her head forward just a touch as she tied the ribbon at the nape of her neck. Finished, she tossed her long, straight blond hair back over her shoulder, then raised her chin as she looked at him. Her eyes were smiling at him. Touching him.
Which was impossible.
But he still couldn't shake the feeling.
“How does it look?” she asked.
He wasn't one to notice jewelry as a rule. But this looked as if it belonged exactly where it was. Resting against the hollow of her throat. Moving seductively with every breath she took. The blue of the background made her eyes seem even more vivid than they already were.
He was mesmerized. It took him a second to get his bearings.
“Fine.” He bit the word off, wanting to get back to something that he knew his way around.
Constance touched the cameo, as if to assure herself that it was really there. Welcome back, she thought. Her gratitude felt boundless.
“Are there some papers I need to sign?”
James shook his head. “This wasn't official police business, so no, there's nothing for you to sign.” He certainly didn't require anything. “You can just go.”
As quickly as possible, he added silently. Maybe if she went, the edgy feeling he was experiencing would leave with her. When she didn't rise to her feet immediately, an uneasiness undulated through him.
“I can't go without giving you some kind of reward,” she protested.
There were folders all over his desk, hard copies that went along with the series of robberies he and Santini were investigating. They had yet to make it into the computer. He nodded toward them. “Letting me get back to my work is reward enough.”
“No, really,” Constance insisted, leaning forward. Bringing with her a whiff of something sweet and stirring. And unsettling his gut, he noted darkly.
The sooner she was gone, the sooner he could grab something to eat. “Yes, really,” he insisted.
She knew ahead of time that he wouldn't accept money or a gift. He wasn't that kind of man. It didn't deter her. “There has to be something I can do. At least let me take you out to dinner.”
He remained firm, fully aware that other men in his
position would have given in immediately. Having dinner with a beautiful, grateful woman, well, there were a great many worse things in life.
But one thing always seemed to lead to another, ushering in unwanted complications. Even this. It had begun as a reluctant good deed on his part and wound up turning him into the center of attention in the squad room, a position he couldn't have hated more if he tried.
The adage about no good deed going unpunished whispered through his mind.
His eyes met hers. “No need,” he repeat with feeling.
Sensations rippled through her as she continued looking into his eyes. There was a need, a definite need, she thought.
Something in his eyes just beneath the surface spoke to her. Told her she was in the presence of one of the walking wounded. Her mother had always said she had a knack for finding lost spirits and restoring them.
Was that what had happened between her and Josh?
No, it wasn't, she told herself. With Josh it had been different. She'd been the one in need.
But all that was behind her.
The end result was what mattered. She hadn't made the mistake. She'd followed those unsettling instincts that had kept nagging at her, refusing to allow her to sit back and let Josh take full control of everything the way he'd kept first hinting, then suggesting, and finally insisting that he do. He'd claimed that she couldn't love him if she didn't trust him.
Truer words were never spoken.
Feeling somewhat guilty, she'd had Josh and her mother's accounts checked out by an independent third party. That had brought the truth home to her. That she's been nothing more than a walking bank account to Josh. A rather sizable bank account. Of course, it wouldn't have remained large for very long because, as it turned out, Josh Walker had lousy business instincts.
She fingered the cameo at her throat. It already felt as if she'd worn it forever. Thoughts of Josh and the mistake she ultimately hadn't made swiftly disappeared from her head.
Instead, she concentrated on the man who had reunited her with the cameo. One look at the determined set of his jaw told her that there was no arguing with the man. At least, not here. This was his terrain she was standing on.
Rising to her feet, Constance extended her hand toward him once again. His grip was firm. Like her father's used to be.
The memory warmed her.
“I really don't know how to thank you,” she repeated softly.
“Then don't try.”
The way he said it, she knew he thought that put an end to it. She never liked being the one owing a favor. Her mother had raised her to believe that it was far better to give than to receiveâand right now, she was on the receiving end. But not for long, she promised her
self as she walked out of the squad room. She nodded at Detective Santini as she passed him.
“I see it's still intact,” he commented.
She looked at him curiously. “What is?”
“Your head. Munro tends to bite people's heads offâwithout meaning to,” he explained.
She turned her head side to side for his benefit. “Yes, still there.” And then she smiled at him as she left.
Santini sighed. If he didn't have a wife and three kidsâ¦ Glancing toward his partner in the distance, he shook his head. Some guys had all the luck. And didn't even know it.
tooped beneath the weight of obvious disappointment, Santini dropped into the chair that Constance had just vacated and pinned his partner with a look of utter disbelief. “And that's that?”
James shuffled through the files on his desk, trying to remember what he was supposed to do. He was in even less of a mood for what he knew was coming.
Santini rose, then sank down again. He gripped the armrests as if to provide emotional support for himself.
“You're just letting a beautiful womanâa
beautiful womanâjust walk away like that?”
James spared him exactly one glance. “Couldn't think of anything to arrest her for.”
Santini snorted, shaking his head. “How about possession of gorgeous body with intent to make grown men humbly drop to their knees?”
A knowing half smile lifted the corners of James's mouth as he continued his search. “Rita has you sleeping on the couch again, doesn't she?”
Santini frowned. “We're not talking about me, we're talking about you.”
“No,” James said with finality, closing the last un-cooperative folder. “We're not.” James shoved the folders into a haphazard pile. He far preferred being out in the field to dealing with paper anyway. “C'mon, let's go. We've still got that last area to canvass.” He looked pointedly at his partner when the latter made no move to get up. “You know, that stuff they pay us for? It's called detective work?”
Santini looked like a man whose hot air-balloon had been shot down before it ever had a chance to begin its journey. It was clear that he was hoping to experience a little vicarious thrill. “Well, at least you know that much.”
James pulled his jacket off the back of his chair, but didn't bother putting it on. The two men walked toward the doorway leading out of the squad room. “Meaning?”
Santini moved fast to keep up. “Meaning you don't know a good deal when you see one.”
It wasn't a “good deal” he saw when he looked at Constance Beaulieu, it was trouble. Trouble with a capital
. He got enough of that on the job. “Maybe I don't want âa good deal.'”
Santini halted just outside the squad room, looking at James as if he'd never seen him before. He lowered his voice as he asked, “Munro, you're notâ¦?”
James gave him a dark look. “No,” he said firmly, “I'm not.”
“Because it's okay if you are.” Santini shrugged his wide shoulders. “It's just going to take me some time to get used to, that's all.”
James went to the stairwell, throwing open the fire door. He preferred taking the stairs to waiting for an elevator. It was faster. “The only thing I am is a man who's getting really close to strangling his partner. And at this point, I don't think any jury's going to convict me.”
Santini followed him down. An huge sigh escaped his lips as he made it down three flights and then to the underground level behind James.
Holding the outer door open for him, James found his tolerance in short supply. “What?”
“Nothing.” They made their way through the underground parking structure to where James had left the car. “Just sometimes I wonder what God was thinking, wasting all those looks on a guy who doesn't know what to do with them.”
Reaching the car, James got in behind the driver's seat. The enclosed area felt stuffy. It didn't improve his mood.
“I know what to do with them.” He jammed the key into the ignition and turned it. The engine hummed to life. “I wash them, I clothe them, and I get them over to a crime scene.” He glanced over his shoulder to see
if the way was clear. It was, but he still didn't back out. Instead, he gave Santini a warning look. “And if you don't drop this, we're going to have our own crime scene right here, right now. Except that you're not going to be in any shape to investigate. Now am I making myself clear?”
Santini sounded more like a sulky child than a grade-A police detective, but he would take what he could get.
“Good. Now let's see if anyone around Playa del Rio saw or heard anything yesterday that might be useful.”
For once, his partner didn't hold out much hope. “Everybody's going to have a terminal case of deafness,” Santini predicted.
James slanted a final look at his partner before he pulled out of the parking structure and onto the street. “They don't know how lucky they are.”
It was the usual dance. The robbers had been quick, efficient and seemed to know exactly when to strikeâwhen the register was fullest. After questioning dozens of employees, customers and people who lived and worked in the general vicinity of all five of the restaurants that had been hit in the last five months, they were still coming up empty. There were no leads, no clues.
In the winter, that kind of thing didn't irritate him nearly as much as it did in the summer. Humidity always shrank his temper down to almost nonexistent, like a wool sweater thrown into the dryer set on hot.
The only good thing was that, confronted with the
details of the case, Santini had finally stopped yammering about the woman who had come to claim her necklace.
Cameo, he mentally corrected himself. She'd called it a cameo. Him, he didn't know the difference between a cameo and a camcorder. Things like that were Santini's department. His partner had a keen eye when it came to possessions while James had the nose for something being out of kilter. For overlooked details and things that didn't quite add up unless you tried using a different kind of math.
But not this time.
Leaving his car parked in the facility where he rented a monthly space, James crossed the street to get to his apartment. Heat rose almost like steam from the sidewalk, a testimony to the rain that had fallen earlier for a short duration. Not enough to cool, just enough to add to the stickiness of the night.
For the moment, the case had him stumped and he hated that. Hated feeling at a loss. There had to be something they were missing, some speck of a clue that by itself meant nothing but, in the proper light, made all the difference in the world.
The robberies were obviously the work of the same people. So far, though, he hadn't been able to find the connection. The restaurant employees were different at each location. No one was related to anyone else. They ordered their meats and produce from different suppliers, used different employment agencies. Nothing was the same.
to be. The robberies just didn't have a random feel to them.
He tried to console himself by thinking that there would be a slipup. There always was. Someone got greedy, someone got sloppy. And when they did, he'd be there to catch them. It was as far into optimism as he ever allowed himself to venture.
Glancing at the number that registered above the elevator doors, he saw that the car was almost on the top floor. He didn't have the patience to stand here waiting for it. Muttering a curse under his breath, he took the stairs.
The back of his shirt dripped with perspiration by the time he reached the third floor. After letting himself into his apartment, James dropped his keys on the small table next to the door. He deposited his weapon in a more secure place. On top of the single bookcase that stood with its back not quite flush against the wall. The floor was uneven. Located near the subway, the apartments in the building all showed the signs of wear that came from having several trains an hour rumble by not too far from its foundations.
James stripped his damp shirt and dropped it on the recliner, which was all but buried beneath a week's worth of shirts.
He was going to have to break down and do his laundry soon, he thought. Or come to terms with smelling ripe. The idea didn't please him.
Stanley had come to life the instant James had put his key in the door. He could hear the dog's nails click
ing on the hardwood floors as the animal hurried over to greet him. With a laugh, he fondly ran his hands over the dog's back. “So, how's it going, Stanley? Catch any burglars today?” The dog cocked his head and looked at him. “Yeah, me neither.”
He walked over to the corner to check out the dog's water dish. There was still a little water left. He poured it out and put in a fresh supply.
The air within his apartment was a great deal cooler than outside. He'd left his air-conditioning unit on while he was gone during the day. There was no reason for both of them to suffer from the heat.
Moving over to the refrigerator, he found his every step shadowed. Stanley was shifting from foot to foot, obviously in the mood for some companionship. Dogs got bored, too, James mused. Especially intelligent ones like Stanley.
“You look better than I do,” he commented. The dog barked as if in agreement. He swore that Stanley understood every word he uttered. “Tell you what, let me just recharge a little and I'll take you out on a walk. Although I warn you, once you stick your nose out there, you're going to want to come right back on the double.” He fixed the German shepherd with a look. “You have to promise me, no sniff fest tonight. I've had enough heat today to last me a month.”
They were outside in less than ten minutes. Despite the promise he'd tried to extract from Stanley, the dog apparently had other ideas. Every blade of weed grass that poked its head through the cracks of cement, every
available place where another dog might have relieved himself, Stanley had to investigate. Not once, but twice, sniffing as if he were pulling the entire scent into his system, to file away and draw upon during those boring hours when he had the run of the apartment and the songs on the radio his master left on for him didn't interest him.
James stretched his patience to the limit. He knew that aside from the morning run, this was Stanley's only time to exercise his inquisitive mind.
But the humidity remained higher than the temperature and he was melting. It didn't exactly put him in the best of moods. After what seemed like an endless half an hour of indulgence, he turned the dog around and made his way back to his apartment.
Sometime between when they had left and returned, the elevator in his building had decided to give up the ghost. Again. That made three times in less than a month. Not a very good record, James thought darkly as he and Stanley took the stairs up to his third-floor apartment.
The stairwell seemed even more airless now than it had before, although he could have sworn there was a trace of something sweet in the atmosphere. It vaguely reminded him of the woman who'd come for her cameo.
What a strange name, he mused.
Reaching the third floor, both master and dog paused on the other side of the fire door to draw in oxygen. Stanley was panting in Morse code and loudly at that.
“C'mon, I'll get you some water. You'll cool down,” James promised, fishing through his pockets as he looked for his keys.
Had his attention not been focused so intently on his pet, he would have been alerted the second he stepped out onto the floor. There was what amounted to a one-second delay. The scent caught his attention before his eyes actually focused on the fact that there was someone standing in front of his door.
That light, honeysuckle scent that Santini had dragged into his lungs this afternoon in the same manner that Stanley took in the scent of other dogs.
The scent from the stairwell, he realized.
She was here.
Invading his space again.
He felt his spine stiffening, his body and mind on high alert. “What are you doing here?” The question was all but barked out.
She wore the same short white skirt, the same clingy light blue tank top she'd worn to the precinct. But this time, her suit jacket was slung over one arm, a casualty of the ever-increasing humidity.
He became aware that another tantalizing aroma was vying for space with her perfume, but this one had to do with food. Stanley came alive beside him the second he caught whiff of it, whimpering as if he'd been starved for the last five days.
Her eyes lit up the moment she saw him, like a Christmas tree. “Canceling out my debt.”
What was with the womanâdid she have some kind
of attention-deficit disorder? “I already told you, you don't owe me anything.”
The expression on her heart-shaped face told him she thought differently. “Just because you think the sky's pink and say as much doesn't make it so.”
He liked things plain and simple, not wrapped up in rhetoric and similes. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“That I owe you dinnerâat the very least.” Since he was making no move to open his apartment door, she amended her plans. She was nothing if not flexibleâfor the right person. “We can have it out here if you like. Like a picnic.”
Whatever allure a picnic might have contained died with the boy he'd once been. He had no desire to go on one now, especially not in his own lobby. Frowning, he took the key to his apartment and opened the door.
Glancing behind him, he saw that Stanley was giving the woman the once-over, sniffing her the way he did everything new that crossed his path.
“Don't be afraid,” he told her, although he had to admit, she certainly didn't look as if she were afraid. If anything, she looked as if she were enjoying the animal's attention.
Constance laughed in response. “I'm not. I love dogs.” Juggling the padded carrier she was holding, she managed to pet Stanley's head.
James grunted, taking the thermal container from her. As his unwanted guest walked into the apartment, he became acutely aware of the fact that most of the
clothing he owned was on rumpled display in the living room.
Putting the dark red thermal carrier down on the kitchen counter, he moved back into the living room and scooped up the pile of clothes covering one portion of the sofa, clearing off a space for her to sit, should she be so inclined. He dumped the clothes onto the recliner. They flowed over the side.