Authors: Jean Harrington
The Design is MurderBy Jean Harrington
Book five of Murders by Design
Interior designer Deva Dunneshouldbe focusing her attention on buying a new home with Lt. Victor Rossi. But in typical Deva-style, she’s got her mind on everyone else’s abodes. Keeping her busy are her two newest clients, who have a lot in common. They both live on Whiskey Lane, and both were involved with the same woman. Coincidence or competition?
James Stahlman believes Stew Hawkins moved into the house across the street to terrorize him after he became engaged to Kay, Stew’s ex-wife. But Stew is over it. He’s remarried—and to someone much younger. When both women are found “accidentally” dead weeks apart, Deva thinks there’s something afoot on Whiskey Lane. Coincidence or murder?
Deva can’t stay away...as much as her protective fiancé would like her to. And it’s becoming clear thatsomeonethinks Deva’s seen too much. With the list of suspects growing, and Deva and Rossi that much closer to becoming homeless—really, wherearethey going to live?—she’ll have to sift through the clues herself, or there’ll be no happily ever after.
Welcome to the November 2014 edition of the Dear Reader letter. This month, Carina Press and I share an anniversary: five years since we joined Harlequin! Harlequin has been an amazing home for both of us, showing support, enthusiasm and offering a team environment for both the business and for authors. I’m thrilled to have seen Carina Press and our authors grow to great success in sales, reviews, careers and awards in the five years since we opened our doors, and we believe things can only get better from here.
In honor of the holiday season, two authors bring us holiday novellas. First, in Shannon Stacey’s contemporary romance,Her Holiday Man, two people, both wounded by love in the past, are brought together by a widow, a child’s joy, and the spirit of Christmas. Later in the month, star-crossed lovers Gabe and Cat meet again at Christmas after five years apart—just a week before she’s set to marry another man, in the historical romanceAChristmas Reunionby Susanna Fraser.
Lauren Dane is back with the third installment in her urban fantasy series, and this one is more romantic than ever! Don’t miss Rowan and Clive inBlade on the Hunt.
As a follow-up to his incredibly popular romantic suspenseFair Game, male/male romance author Josh Lanyon brings usFair Play, in which ex-FBI agent Elliot Mills must figure out who is willing to kill to keep his former ’60s radical father’s memoirs from being published.
InTempting the Playerby Kat Latham, a rugby player’s extreme fear of flying keeps his career from taking off—until a sexy pilot tempts him into her cockpit to help him overcome his phobia...of planes and commitment. Joining Kat in returning with a contemporary romance is Stacy Gail withWhere There’s a Will, the much-anticipated story of Coe, who won reader’s hearts inStarting from Scratch. This is one hero who will steal your heart, all because of the milk!
Designed for Loveby Kelsey Browning is also in our contemporary romance lineup in November. A former Houston socialite is out to prove she’s more than a blonde bobblehead by managing a huge construction project. When an environmentalist mucks up Ashton’s plans, she must rely on the blue-collar contractor who can either help her build her dreams or crush them.
Last, but not least, of the fantastic contemporary romances is male/male romanceIn the Fire, the second part of the In the Kitchen duology by Nikka Michaels and Eileen Griffin. After spending the last eight years apart, chefs Ethan Martin and Jamie Lassiter have to decide whether to face the fire to get what they want or live a lifetime apart. Don’t miss the chemistry and emotional angst between Ethan and Jamie in this explosive duology.
Two murders in two mansions in two weeks—what’s going on in Naples’ most glamorous neighborhood? For cozy mystery fans, Jean Harrington’s Murders by Design series should not be missed. Pick up her newest release,The Design Is Murder, or catch up withDesigned for Death,The Monet Murders,Killer KitchensandRooms to Die For.
This month we’re thrilled to welcome Edie Harris to our publishing team with Blood Money, her romantic suspense series that follows the lives and loves of a family of spies. InBlamed,ABlood Money Novel, we meet the first of the siblings. Beth Faraday, a former assassin who wants nothing more than to stay retired, finds her new life turning anything but normal when sexy British spy and ghost from her past Raleigh Vick shows up in Chicago, determined to protect her from the bounty that’s been placed on her head.
Coming in December: Leah Braemel caps off her sexy cowboy romance trilogy, new author Caroline Kimberly is back with her sophomore historical romance, Michele Mannon concludes her knock-out MMA trilogy, and so much more!
Here’s wishing you a wonderful month of books you love, remember and recommend.
~Angela JamesEditorial Director, Carina Press (Five years and counting!!)
To each and every friend of Deva Dunne, whoever you are and wherever you may be.
To my legal guide and friend, Attorney Carolyn Alden; to handwriting analysts Andrea McNichol and M. N. Bunker, who was the founder of the International Graphoanalysis Society. To theNaples Daily Newsfor its ongoing coverage of the python infestation now attacking the Florida Everglades; to Naples Detective Mike Haburjak of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Financial Crimes Bureau; to my steady and insightful critique partners and fellow writers, Brenda Pierce and Joyce Wells. And of course, to super editor Deborah Nemeth, who improves my manuscripts with unfailing patience and skill.
Also, although the State of Florida prison system does not provide a furniture construction program for inmates, other prison systems in the United States do, and this book borrows on that fact.
About the Author
I slit the envelope with my Colonial pewter-handledletter opener, slid out a thin sheet of lined paper and read,
To Mrs.Deva Dunne,
My name is Number 24601.I’m also known as Mike Hammerjack,aguest of Florida State Prison.I’m in for embezzlement,10 to 20,with time off for goodbehavior.After a few detours you don’t want to hear about,I’m trying to domy best.That’s why I’m writing to ask a favor,not for me,for myfellow inmates.Like me,most of these guys don’t belong behind bars,butthat’s another story.
As a reward for cooperation,some of us work inthe carpenter shop,making custom-designed furniture—chairs,benches,tables,desks—mostly out of pine,indifferent finishes.
Here’s where you come in.Everything we make is up for sale at very reasonable prices,withthe money going to prisoners’ families.Little kids,exes,etc.Iread an article about you inDesign Magazineand hope you can use our piecesin some of your projects.
If you’re interested,contact Warden Bill Finneyhere at Florida State,and he’ll send you pictures and info aboutour products.
You won’t be sorry.
Written in a tight, crabbed hand with fancy flourishes, theletter wasn’t easy to read, and I had to wade through the squiggles twice tounderstand it. Despite the poor handwriting, the letter was obviously the workof a focused person and, for some reason, I believed Number 24601 was sincere inwriting to me. Then again, I tend to root for the underdog. I’m from Bostonoriginally, and the Red Sox are my beleaguered team. Though they seldom make itto the Series, I love them anyway. As for a guy in prison reaching out to helphis fellow cons, he deserved a break, didn’t he?
“Of course, he does, darlin’,” echoed in my head. Dear Nanaagain, though she’d been gone for fifteen years now. “Help the lad, if you can.”Gone but not silent.
I put the letter on my desk with a sigh. God only knew whatprison-made furniture looked like. Clumsy most likely. Knocked together by big,rough hands. Still...
The Yarmouthport sleigh bells on the entrance of my interiordesign shop suddenly did their job, jangling like mad as the door opened,admitting a distinguished middle-aged gentleman. What else would you call asilver-haired man cradling a Maltese puppy in his arms, and wearing a silk suitand cravat on a hot July day in Southwest Florida?
I rose from behind my desk to greet him.
“Are you Ms. Dunne?” he asked without preamble.
“Yes, I’m Deva Dunne. How may I help you?”
He took a step forward and said, “Do forgive me for notoffering my hand, but Charlotte won’t let me put her down.” He caressed thedog’s head. “Will you, dearest?”
The dog licked his fingers. I guess that was a no.
“She’s adorable,” I said, sort of meaning it. A tiny whitescrap of a pooch, Charlotte didn’t look like she’d ever heard of “paws on thefloor,” or “stay” or, perish the thought, “roll over.”
“I’m sure she’s easy to indulge, Mr....”
“Stahlman. James Stahlman.”
I gulped. Hard. His name wasn’t one easily forgotten, not afterbeing plastered all over theNaples Daily Newsfor days on end. Thathad been some months ago, yet the cloud hovering over him then still lingered.Had he, or had he not, killed his wife?
“I’m about to be married,” James Stahlman said. “As a surprise for my bride, I’m planning to give my house a fresh new look.”
“The entire house?”
“I don’t believe in half measures, Ms. Dunne.”
“I see.” Standing straighter—when I don’t slump, I’m five-six—I said, “May I ask where your property is located?” A rhetorical question. I knew. Whiskey Lane.
“I’m at 590 Whiskey Lane,” he said, stroking Charlotte softly. “I want you to see the house, and after that we can discuss any changes you deem appropriate. By the way, it may please you to know you come highly recommended.”
Well,you don’t, I wanted to retort, but there I went again, jumping to conclusions. Mr. Stahlman hadn’t been convicted of murder, or if so, only in the court of public opinion. The official conclusion was that his wife, Marilyn, had accidentally drowned while cruising the barrier islands on her husband’s yacht.
“Thank you,” I said, keeping my voice politely noncommittal.
He seemed innocuous enough, standing in the middle of the shop, patting Charlotte’s topknot and taking care not to disturb her perky pink bow.
At the time of Marilyn Stahlman’s death, how such a champion swimmer could drown so mysteriously in the middle of the night had been the cause of much speculation. It still was and no wonder. Her body had never been found.
Anyway, I hoped what I was thinking didn’t show on my face.
Apparently not, for he said, “So shall we make an appointment for you to tour the house? How does tomorrow at two strike you?”
For the second time that morning, the sleigh bells jangled, and I glanced past Mr. Stahlman toward the front door. An unshaven teenager lurched in, his knees popping out of his jeans, his eyes popping out of his head.
I froze. A Beretta aimed at your face would do that to a person.
Finger shaking, I pointed toward the doorway. “Look!”
Mr. Stahlman swiveled around, spotted Bug Eyes and in his shock dropped Charlotte—boom!—to the floor, probably for the first time in her fluffy little life.
“Don’t move,” our intruder said. As if we could.
“What do you want?” I asked, my voice as shaky as my knees. “I just opened up. There’s no money in here.”
“Quiet.” He waved the gun at Mr. Stahlman. “Drop your wallet on the floor. Then slide it over to me. No fast moves.”
James Stahlman reached inside his breast pocket and slowly withdrew a leather billfold. Bending down, he placed it on the floor, and with the toe of his polished loafer sent it sliding across the room.
To Charlotte, that meant party time. As the wallet skittered across the floorboards, she pounced, grabbed the leather in her teeth and, happy with her new toy, scampered around the shop, dodging between chair legs and swooping under the round table skirts.
The mugger followed the dog with his doped-up eyes and the muzzle of his gun. “Get the damned wallet, fast, or I’ll kill that mutt.”
“Mutt!” The word tore from James Stahlman’s lips. Finding the insult too grievous to ignore, he drew himself erect. “She came in second in the Westminster Dog Show.”
“Who gives a shit?”
As the Beretta ominously followed Charlotte’severy move, the morning sun glanced off the dull barrel.Dull?Ah! The gun was a plastic fake. Mr. Tough Guy Mugger was playing Cops and Robbers. He wasn’t even armed. I was sure of it—well, pretty darned sure. My father had been one of Boston’s finest and taught me everything he knew about weaponry. But the price of a mistake could be fatal. While I tried to decide what to do, Charlotte did the deciding for me.
The mugger approached her, gun cocked and aimed. She took one look at him and dropped the wallet. A five-pound ball of fluff with the body of a crumpet and the heart of a lion, she leaped for his hand and sank her perfect little teeth into it.
He howled, and with Charlotte clinging to his flesh, he raised his arm. Swinging her around like a furry slingshot, he flung her through the air. She sailed across the shop, landing with a squeal on the zebra settee, a dazed expression on her face, her bow at a nutty angle.
Forgetting all danger to himself or to me either, Stahlman rushed to his darling and picked her up, murmuring sweet nothings into her ears.
Our mugger grabbed the wallet where the dog had dropped it, flipped it open and removed what looked like a hefty wad of cash. He threw the raided billfold on the floor, and with a final menacing wave of his pistol, yanked open the front door and disappeared down the alley to a rousing chorus of sleigh bells.
“My brave girl,” Stahlman said. “My dear, brave girl.”
He sure wasn’t speaking to me, but that was all right. Charlotte had been terrific and deserved the praise. All I’d done was stand frozen in uncertainty. Now that the danger was over, I thawed and sprang into action.
“I’m calling the police.”
“No! No police.”
Cell phone in hand, I stared at him, dismayed. “You’re kidding me.”
“Not at all, Ms. Dunne.”
“Actually it’s Mrs., but after what we’ve just been through together, do call me Deva.”
“Of course.” He stroked Charlotte’s fur and kissed her yet again. “And I’m James. But no police, Deva.”
The phone clutched in my sweaty palm, I said, “Why not, for heaven sake? You’ve been robbed.”
Cradling Charlotte in one hand, he bent over to pick up his wallet.
“Don’t touch that,” I yelled. “Fingerprints!”
Despite my warning, he pocketed the billfold.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said. You’ve just destroyed evidence.”
“The money is negligible. My important papers are intact. That’s what matters.”
He held up a single finger for silence, so I put the phone down on the sales desk, and without saying any more, waited for his reasoning.
He cleared his throat. “I’m assuming you read the local newspaper.”
“Every day. As a small business owner, I have to. It keeps me informed as to what’s going on locally.”
“Then you probably know of my wife’s unfortunate accident. It happened nearly a year ago...the publicity was relentless.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“The problem, Mrs....ah, Deva...is thateveryoneremembers. The last thing I want is more adverse publicity.”
“But you were the victim here.”
“No matter. The story will read badly in the media. I don’t want that spotlight trained on me ever again.” He shuddered and straightened Charlotte’s bow. Gave her back her dignity. Then with a frown, he glanced up at me. “Do you understand how I feel?”
“I do,” I said, trying not to sigh.There goes a plum client.“Your wishes are important to me, James, but in this I’m afraid I can’t please you.” I waved an arm at the door. “That’s open to the general public every day. Suppose the thief returns?”
“Hmm.” James sniffed. “I see your point. Very well, do what you must, but I won’t stay to be interrogated. If need be, the police will know where to find me.”
He was so clearly distressed, I semi-caved. “Tell you what. A friend of mine, Lieutenant Rossi, is a Naples detective. I’ll call him first. If he can keep this incident out of the media, he will.”
James smiled, revealing teeth that were long and yellowed but in excellent repair. “I appreciate that.” He reached into his breast pocket and, fumbling past his raped wallet, he retrieved a business card and held it out to me. “Until tomorrow then. As I said earlier, before our, ah...adventure...I’m getting married soon. My first wife would have wanted a new life for me. Marilyn would have as well. I’m certain of it.”
I must have forgotten some of the details in the newspaper reports, but with his reminder, they flowed back like a tsunami. Marilyn Stahlman, who disappeared at sea a year ago, wasn’t James’s first wife. But like the first one, she too had died an untimely death under mysterious circumstances.
“Why didn’t you insist on calling the police immediately?” Rossi asked an hour later after he sent out an APB with a description of the thief. His face was exasperation red—somewhere between beet and burgundy. “Or insist that he leave the billfold untouched? The thief’s prints could have been all over it. If he’s in our database, we might have nailed him by now.”
I sat slumped on the zebra settee without even bothering to cross my legs, though they look better that way, longer, curvier, sexier. Regardless, I didn’t bother. Too demoralized. At least I was until Rossi squeezed in beside me and took my hands in his.
“Sorry to sound so harsh, sweetheart, but I worry about you and these scrapes you keep getting into.”
“But that’s not—”
“Fair,” he finished. “I know. The creep who robbed your client just wandered in. You said Stahlman drove off in a new Mercedes sedan. The robber must have spotted him coming into the shop and pounced. He was probably cruising the Fifth Avenue area looking for a mark.”
Rossi kissed me, but only a careful peck on the cheek. Though he’d put the Closed sign in the shop window, two women had already rattled the door handle, wanting to get in. I won’t say we were in a goldfish bowl exactly, but seated hip-to-hip on the narrow settee, we were a lot like two tropical exotics on display.
“I really should reopen, Rossi. I have nothing more to report. As soon as James left with Charlotte, I called to—”
Rossi reared upright. “Another woman was involved? You didn’t mention that.”
“Well, Charlotte’s not a woman, but she is quite a girl.”
“Want to clarify that?”
“Charlotte’s a Maltese.”
“She’s a dog. A lap dog.”
“And she takes her work very seriously.”
“Whatever that means.” He eased back beside me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “Despite Mr. Stahlman’s wishes, I have to file a report, though an unshaven, glassy-eyed teen isn’t a lot to go on. Even holey jeans doesn’t add much to the picture. And you didn’t get a look at a fleeing vehicle or a plate number.”
He stopped me with a kiss. Under the circumstances, not one of his best, but even his non-best was very, very good.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” he said, when he lifted his lips from mine. “It is what it is. And there’s a chance one of the cruiser teams will spot somebody fitting the description. But it’s a long shot. Unless he tries something again. If that happens, would you be able to identify him?”
“Of course, but you don’t think—”
Rossi gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “He probably won’t return here. But he might try something similar in another store.” He brushed a tendril of hair from my forehead. “I don’t want to scare you. Or maybe just enough so you’ll be careful. Should you ever see him lurking around here again, call me immediately.” Rossi took my hand in his and stroked it.
I loved his touch. I loved his warm peppermint breath fanning my cheek, and I absolutely adored his smoldering deep-set eyes. He could light fires with those eyes and had—in me. And I haven’t even mentioned his big white smile. He doesn’t flash it very often, but when he does, it’s well worth the wait.
On the other hand, he wears hideous Hawaiian shirts and leaves the tails hanging out over his white pants. Today he had on his favorite shirt, orange linen scattered with red plumeria blossoms. He claimed his casual appearance helped suspects relax during interrogations. At least that was his theory. What scared me was that I had started buying into his look. Actually I’d bought into a lot more than that, but not kissing on display. I wriggled out of his embrace, turned the Closed sign to Open and unlocked the door.
“Duty calls,” I said without returning to the settee.
“I should go anyway. I have desk work waiting at the station.” He stood. “Tonight? Your place?”
I nodded. “Please.”
A spark flashed in his eyes, igniting that same old fire in me. “You begging, Deva?”
A leading question, but asking provocative questions was Rossi’s stock in trade. He arched an eyebrow, waiting.
“Absolutely,” I said, and after a quick glance down Fern Alley to make sure no one was coming, I gave him a farewell kiss that shot his plumeria blossoms into outer space.
Two could play head games, right?
The next morning the shop phone rang up a storm before I could yank the key out of the front door. I dropped my bag on a chair and sprinted over to the sales desk.
A voice like a file rasped through the line. “My name’s Hawkins. Stewart Hawkins, and I’ve got a house that needs some TLC. Or whatever the word is that you dames use.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr....ah...Hawkins.”
“No need to apologize. My bride wants the place done over. Doesn’t like the colors, doesn’t like the furniture. You know how that goes. I heard you’re good at this stuff, so that’s why I’m calling.” He paused to cough and take a breath, or maybe puff on a stogie. “You want to come over now and take a look?”
“Now? Well, I don’t know—”
“You don’t need the business?”
“That’s right. You got it right. People at the Port Royal Club have been raving about your work. So my bride hears this and doesn’t want anybody else.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Just so you’ll know what to expect when you get here, her name’s Connie Rae. She’s from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and has fake red fingernails.” A slight pause. “Everything else is the real deal, I can vouch for that.”
“Delighted to hear that, Mr. Hawkins, but—”
“She usually hangs out by the pool, so you can come over anytime today.”
“Today I have other—”
“You’ll need the address,” he said, butting in as if I hadn’t spoken. “It’s 595 Whiskey Lane. Just ring the bell and walk in. I’ll be home all day too. Hey, I’m on my honeymoon. Got enough work cut out for me here, if you know what I mean. You got that address? Five ninety-five. See you later.”
He hung up, and a dial tone replaced his take-charge voice. I lowered the receiver slowly, intrigued that he apparently belonged to the Port Royal Club, Naples’s most prestigious private enclave. The address he gave me was intriguing too. A quick computer check of MapQuest proved what I suspected. Mr. Stewart Hawkins lived directly across the street from James Stahlman. A coincidence? Hmm. Maybe, or a little neighborly competition perhaps. Two families vying for the same designer. That kind of one-upmanship went on all the time.
On the other hand, I was probably giving myself too much credit. Mr. Hawkins most likely had no idea James had already contacted me. Well, at this point, neither project was a done deal, so in the interest of keeping my business alive, I’d check out both possibilities. If they both came through, I’d make two things clear. One, their interiors would not copycat each other, and two, my dealings with each would be kept completely private. To do otherwise would be totally unprofessional.
Despite the complication, I couldn’t help but feel excited. Two clients on the same street, imagine! And two initial tours of their houses on the same day. Well, why not? Like a true Red Sox fan, I’ve always enjoyed a double header.
Though I disliked doing it, for two hot potential clients I locked up the shop once more. While interior design firms like mine didn’t thrive on walk-in sales of pillows and lamps and aromatherapy candles, turning off casual shoppers wasn’t a good move. You just didn’t know if today’s browser would become tomorrow’s major player.
But with my friend and assistant, Lee St. James, on a second honeymoon, I had no choice. So reluctantly, I posted the Closed sign in the front window where it couldn’t be missed, right next to a bergère I’d found at my favorite antiques-collectibles source. The chair’s wooden arms and legs had the kind of worn gilt finish I loved, and I’d had my workroom reupholster the cushions in a cheetah-print velvet. King Louis would have died at the mix, but that unexpected pairing made the old piece a knockout. Against one of the chair legs, I’d propped a white cardboard square that said,
To throwaway chic.
It can be done!
The little tableau had garnered quite a bit of interest and a few good clients. It was doubtful a prison-made chair would have the same oomph as the old Louis, but that remained to be seen. Anyway, the shop secured, I hurried out to my Audi and drove down Fifth Avenue South, Naples’s equivalent of L.A.’s Rodeo Drive.
Located on Fern Alley off Fifth, Deva Dunne Interiors was close enough to the high-rent district to make the shop seem like a part of the glamour. And to make me feel like I was one of the beautiful people, a little self-delusion that didn’t do any harm and lifted my spirits.
I passed the street’s major gem, the Sugden Theater, its palm tree-studded square a delightful green oasis in the heart of town, and continued on past planters spilling color and fragrance all along the way. For the length of time it took to drive the avenue, it was easy to believe all was well with the world. Another delusion.
But at least for the moment, everythingwaswell in my world, and I took time as I drove to glory in that. If only everything could stay the same, the hot July sunshine, the flowers, the salty Gulf breeze, and Rossi and me just as we were last night. He had been amazing, tender and warm, passionate and...demanding. My face warmed thinking about him, or maybe the July sun shining in through the windshield caused my cheeks to heat up.
A truck’s horn blared, yanking me out of my reverie. I pressed on the gas and turned left onto palatial Gordon Drive. For once I didn’t rubberneck at the mega-mansions fronting the Gulf of Mexico. A working woman and glad to be one, I ignored the over-the-top opulence and concentrated on my driving. On Whiskey Lane, magnificent banyan trees lined both sides of the street, their lush crowns arching over the roadway. Behind the trees, stately homes peeked through the mature foliage like beautiful faces from behind a veil.
House number 595 turned out to be a steep-roofed structure that from the sidewalk looked quite modest. A deceptive view, I guessed, for the house probably reached deep into the lot.
I pulled onto the driveway and climbed out of the Audi. A panel truck with Tony’s Tiles & More painted on the side in big red letters sat in front of me, its two rear doors open wide. A man in grout-stained coveralls was lifting pails and tools into the opening.
I smoothed down my green mini and grabbed my tote and clipboard. “Hello,” I called.
I must have startled him, for he slammed the truck doors and swiveled around, his eyes narrowing.
“Are you leaving soon?” I asked. “My car’s blocking you.”
“That’s okay, lady,” he said, turning back for a moment to lock up. “I’ll be on the job a few more hours.”
“Fine then. I’ll leave the Audi where it is. If you need me, I’ll be inside.”
I turned and walked away, but feeling his gaze hot on my back, I glanced over a shoulder. Sure enough, both hands stuffed in his overall pockets, he was watching me intently. Tall and bald and mountain-man skinny, he appeared to be somewhere in his mid-thirties. Caught staring, he forced out a smile and sent me a two-fingered salute. I returned it with a flourish and followed the yellow brick path up to the front door.
As Stewart Hawkins had directed, I rang the bell, and then again, but no one answered.
Ring the bell and walk in, Hawkins had said, so I twisted the knob and opened the door. Calling “Hello,” I stepped into a foyer paved with Mexican tiles. Directly ahead lay the living room and, beyond, a screened-in terrace and pool. To the left ran a short corridor that probably led to a bedroom wing, and to the right an interesting architectural feature, a small rotunda with several doors opening onto...what? There had to be a kitchen somewhere, and a...
“You the decorator?”
I whirled around. Coming from the direction of the terrace, a fifty-something man strode toward me wearing a swimsuit, a cigar and nothing else. At least the swimsuit wasn’t skimpy. Thank God.
Though he was of medium height, everything else about him was writ large, very large—belly, thighs, biceps, neck—everything.
As he came closer, I backed up a step. “Mr. Hawkins?”
“Of course. Who else hangs out around here?”
Who else, indeed?
“You didn’t answer the question,” he said. “You the decorator?”
God, I hated the worddecorator.“Yes, I’m Deva Dunne,” I said coolly.
“Really?” No one had ever told me that before, and I looked at him—well, at his hairy chest—with a freshly minted admiration. “Actually my first name is Devalera. After Eamon DeValera, my father’s political hero.”
“That right? No wonder you shortened it.”
Cigar clamped in his teeth, he yanked a shirt off the back of a chair and slid into it, leaving it open and unbuttoned. I guess he didn’t want to obstruct my view of his chest hair.
He upped his chin in the direction of the terrace. “I was just going for a dip, but it’ll wait. Unless you want to join me?”
I gestured at my green skirt and cropped white jacket. “I’m not dressed for the occasion.”
“Oh, yeah.” He grinned suddenly. “There’s always skinny-dipping.”
“Never mind. Some other time.” He rested the cigar on an ashtray, where it smoldered sullenly, and stuck out his hand. “Stewart Hawkins. Call me Stew.”
I let him prove his machismo by crunching the bones in my fingers. After flexing my hand to restore the blood flow, I handed him a business card. “How may I help you, Mr....Stew?”
“I bought this place a month ago. Before I met the little lady...the bride...so nothing’s been done in here. Except for some chairs and stuff that I already had, this is the way the previous owner left it. The bride and me both want to make some changes. I’ve got my ideas about what that means, and Connie Rae’s got hers.” He pointed a thick forefinger at me. “Your job is to figure out whose ideas are good and whose stink.”
My turn to point a finger. One tipped with Tropical Tangerine nail polish and aimed straight at his nose. “Hold everything right there, Stew. I can’t get in the middle of a marital dispute.”
He picked up his cigar, took a deep drag and exhaled a lung-clogging cloud of smoke.
I coughed, a hint to put out the Tampa-Havana or the stogie or whatever that noxious thing was, but my cough meant nothing. He took another puff and said, “Of course, you can. You deal with couples all the time, so handling family disputes is part of your job description. I know that for a fact. So you got a choice here, take my offer or leave it. But before you leave it, let me tell you this.” He stepped forward, poking the air with his cigar and giving me a better view of his chest hair than I wanted. “I’m the one with the money. Not Connie Rae. Got that?”
“You’re bribing me.”
“Exactly. Now, you want a tour of the place?”
“Will Mrs. Stew be joining us?”
“Doubt it. She’s still in bed. Last I looked, she was out like a light. So it’ll just be you and me. Come on.” Crooking a finger, he beckoned me toward the fascinating rotunda. “Over here’s the kitchen. Let’s start there.”
No harm in taking a look now that I was here, so I tamped down the moral dilemma and followed my unlikely Pied Piper into the heart of the home. After all, what did I have to lose?
An “Ahhh” escaped me as I trailed Stew into a stunning high-ceilinged space that combined a compact kitchen-in-a corner with a soaring great room.
“Look at this.” He waved his arms at a bank of windows overlooking the pool. “No privacy at all.”
Through the wall of glass, I could see the man from the panel truck busy on his hands and knees, chipping away at some loose pool tiles.
“Every time I throw an arm around the bride, Tony’s in on it,” Stew said.
So thatwasTony I’d spoken to in the driveway.
“And me a shutter manufacturer. It doesn’t seem right, you know what I mean?”
“You run a shutter business?”
“Yeah. Florida Shutters. Couples come in, and nine times out of ten they each want something different. That’s how I know you settle marital disputes. Me too. It’s part of the game. Too bad I couldn’t solve some of my own.”
He dropped the spent stogie in the sink and ran a little water over it. Lovely.
He looked up quickly, caught my frown and ignored it. “You’ve done business with us. I checked the books.”
“Yes, several times. Your product is excellent.”
“That’s the other reason I called you. One local business should help another.”
“You’re hardly local, Stew.” I knew Florida Shutters shipped all over the southeast, and possibly beyond. If Stew was the CEO and driving force behind the company, he was undoubtedly a wealthy man. Having Deva Dunne Interiors lumped together with him gave me a momentary high, but I came back to reality fast. “Strange we never met before now.”
“I leave most local floor sales to my staff. Spend my time out back in the plant. I’m a hands-on kind of guy.”
“I can see that,” I said, eyeing his beefy fingers, each one sprouting a little crop of black hair. “I take it you’ll want shutters on all these windows.”
“You got that right. On every damned one.”
I dropped my tote on a chair, picked up the clipboard and made some notes. The scope of the room already had my creative juices flowing. “Do you mind if I photograph the interiors as we go through? For reference?”
He nodded. “Do what you have to.”
I turned to get a shot of the kitchen corner and gasped. Where had she come from?
A short, voluptuous woman in a white nylon uniform stood rinsing the sink, a pained expression on her face.See, I wanted to say to Stew.I’m not the only one who’s disgusted.But of course, I did no such thing.
“Oh, hey, Deva, this here’s Teresa. The best chef Puerto Rico ever produced. Isn’t that right, Teresa?”
Teresa smiled and nodded but said nothing.
“She makes the best paella you ever tasted. Only thing is she’s deaf as a post. Can’t hear much at all.” He flexed his fingers. “Good thing I got talented hands.”
My jaw must have sagged, for he chuckled and said, “I’m talking about signing. Watch me.”
With a series of gestures that even an orangutan could interpret—puckering his lips, twisting his wrist back and forth as if pouring something into his mouth, and then blowing out short puffs of air over an imaginary cup, he told Teresa he wanted a drink. A hot drink.
“Coffee, Mr. Stew?” she asked, her voice loud and clear.
Triumphant, Stew turned to me. “See! Works every time.”
It was obvious that Teresa was toying with his need to believe she couldn’t hear a thing. A weird little game to play, if nothing else.
Stew didn’t give me any time to dwell on the matter. “Come on. While she makes the coffee, I’ll show you the rest of the place.”
We toured every room, from the formal dining room to a wonderful walk-in pantry that would hold multiple sets of china and glassware—what a dream—and on to his klieg-lit master bath. I took notes as we strolled but not many. An overall impression is what I was after, and so far the house showed well, though a bit too pastel for Stew’s over-the-top personality. What it mainly needed was an infusion of color pops and some comfortable seating. And maybe some of Hammerjack’s rough-hewn prison furniture in the study.
Finally we came to a set of closed double doors. “Show time,” Stew said. “I have to get the bride out of the sack.” He winked. “I don’t say that often.”
“No, let’s not disturb her,” I whispered. “I’ve seen most of the rooms. The bedroom can wait for another time.”
“No time like the present,” he said, opening the doors and barging in. He pressed a wall switch next to the door, sending floor-to-ceiling draperies swishing open, flooding the pink-hued room with sunshine.
Sprawled on her back in the center of an ultra-king lay a naked blonde, her hair fanned across a pillow, her legs spread apart in open invitation. I wanted to leave and give her some privacy but, fascinated, I stood and stared as Stew strode over to the bed and grabbed a handful of sheet.
“Look at that,” he said, gazing at the girl, whether in admiration or disapproval, I couldn’t tell. He draped the sheet over her and, bending down, shook her shoulder.
“Come on, babe, rise and shine.”
Connie Rae didn’t move.
“Is everybody around here deaf?” he asked of no one in particular. He patted Connie Rae’s cheek, and no doubt would have patted more than that except for the designer looking on from the foot of the bed.
Pale all of a sudden, he glanced up, stricken. His eyes wide, he said, “You know something? She’s cold. Ice cold. And she’s a funny color too. Kind of blue looking. I think she’s—”
He never did finish what he started to say, for without any warning at all, he passed out, falling belly first, right on top of Connie Rae’s breasts.
I screamed and ran out of the bedroom toward the great room. I’d left my tote there with the cell phone inside, and I needed the phone.Ineeded the phone.
Teresa collided with me in the rotunda. “I heard a scream. What’s wrong?”
“Stew. His wife. We have to call 9-1-1.”
She grasped my arm, staying me. “Where are they?”
“On their bed. Out cold, both of them.”
She raced past me. I grabbed the phone out of my purse and chased after her. Not wasting another second, I pressed 9-1-1. “A medical emergency,” I said to the dispatcher. “At 595 Whiskey Lane.”
“Is the person breathing?” In other words, dead or alive.
“I don’t know for certain. But I don’t think so.”
By the time I reached the master suite with the phone still glued to my ear, all three of them were on the bed, and Teresa was trying to peel Stew off Connie Rae’s supine form. On her knees on the mattress, she tugged at his arm and called to him. “Mr. Stew, Mr. Stew. Wake up. We need help. Wake up.”
Without looking over at me—she’d obviously heard me come in—she said, “A glass of water. Hurry. In the bathroom.”
I flung the phone on the bed and dashed into the bath, filled a water tumbler from the sink, and hurried back to press it into Teresa’s hand.
She took the glass from me and, without a moment’s hesitation, flung the contents in Stew’s face...well, hewaswearing a swimsuit. The cold splash roused him, and sputtering and gasping, he came to.
“Oh my God,” he said. “She’s dead. My Connie Rae’s dead.”
I grabbed my cell. “Sorry, I had to put the phone down.”
“Any change in the patient?”
I glanced across the bed. Stew and Teresa were both busy trying to coax Connie Rae back to life and, from what I could tell, not having much luck.
“Her husband’s trying to revive her, but I don’t think she’s responding.”
Stew looked up. “Tell them to hurry.”
The dispatcher must have heard him. “Someone will be there within three minutes,” she said.
“Help’s on the way,” I said to Stew, but he wasn’t listening. Teresa had straddled Connie Rae and started CPR.
“I’ll wait outside for the ambulance,” I said, and hurried from the bedroom, but not before Stew whispered to Teresa. “I’m dead meat after this. The cops’ll say I killed her.”
Why would he think that?Without waiting to ask, I dashed out to the front lawn. True to the dispatcher’s promise, in a minute or so, an ambulance roared along quiet Whiskey Lane. I flagged it down, thanked the dispatcher and hung up.
“This way,” I said, leading the two paramedics into the master bedroom with its pink satin-topped bed and deep-piled shag rug. Teresa climbed off the bed, and together we helped Stew stumble out of the room.
After spending several frantic minutes trying to revive Connie Rae, the medics pronounced her dead. As was standard procedure in a case of unexpected death, they remained on the premises and notified the police.
While we waited, Teresa served Stew his coffee, which he raised to his lips with a shaking hand. “I can’t believe this,” he kept muttering. “I can’t believe it. Poor Connie Rae. Poor little rich girl.” At that he snorted and sent coffee spray spewing across his chest. Absent-mindedly, he wiped it off with a palm and sat staring, coffee forgotten, out to the pool where Tony, ignoring all the drama, was still on his hands and knees working the tiles.
Car doors slammed, and Stew stiffened in his easy chair. “They’re here. Oh God.”
Teresa hurried to the front door. A moment later two Naples Police Department officers strode into the great room. Some things never change, and once again big, beefy Sergeant Batano accompanied by his partner, petite, no-nonsense Officer Hughes were the first responders.
They’d been first on the scene last fall when I found the body of my old friend, José Vega. But from their behavior today, you’d think they had never clamped eyes on me before now. A curt nod of Batano’s crew-cut head was his only greeting. And as for Hughes, no change there either. She was the same pretty poker face. I returned Batano’s stingy nod and let it go at that. For once I decided to keep quiet until I was asked to speak. Not exactly a new thing for me, but not easy either.
After telling us to remain where we were, they followed the medics into the master suite. When they returned a few minutes later, Batano stood, legs apart, in front of Stew’s chair. It forced the bereaved husband—always a person of interest in a spouse’s unexpected death—to look up at him, deliberately creating an uneven playing field, so to speak.
In between sips of his now lukewarm coffee, the pale, shaken bridegroom gave his initial testimony. “My wife’s name is...was...Connie Rae Freitas Hawkins.”
“How old was she?”
“Her place of employment?”
A brief, humorless laugh. “Bartender at the Port Royal Club. That’s how we met.”
“How long were you married?”
“Three weeks.” Stew’s voice broke. “Three great weeks.”
“What do you think happened to her?”
“I don’t know. I just found her like that.” As he spoke, his hand shook so badly that what was left of his coffee slopped over the rim of the cup.
“Had she been sick?”
Stew shook his head. “Not to my knowledge. You saw her body. She look sick to you?”
As he answered Batano’s questions, irritation began to intensify Stew’s natural testiness, but though he didn’t know it yet, he had only begun to fight. Wait till Rossi interrogated him. It could go on for hours. Poor Stew. His grief seemed genuine, but then I’d been wrong about people before.
“That’ll do it for now,” Batano finally said to him. He pointed out to the pool where Tony stood surveying his work. “Get him in here,” he said to Hughes. “I have to call Lieutenant Rossi.”
While Hughes went outside to fetch Tony, Batano hauled out his cell phone and with fingers poised over the pad, said, “You can be assured, Mr. Hawkins, that your wife’s death will be thoroughly investigated. The county coroner and a homicide detective will be here shortly.”
Stew let out a soft groan and slumped back in his chair. Even his chest hair drooped.
That evening, too agitated to sit, Rossi paced my living room. A study in frustration, he waved his arms in the air as he wove a path back and forth in front of me.
“I could not believe, I absolutely could not believe you were there in that room when I walked in.”
“After what happened, you know I couldn’t leave, and besides Stew wanted me there.”
That stopped him dead in his tracks. “Oh? Stew, is it? How long have you known this guy? His wife dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, you’re on the scene and now you’re calling him Stew like you’re old friends.”
“Are you jealous, Rossi?”
“Jealous? Jealous! I’m worried, for God’s sake. Worried. About you.”
I patted the sofa cushion. “Come sit beside me, please. I don’t like to see you so upset.”
He heaved one of those sighs that start deep in the belly, but after a few more passes on the carpet, he sank down next to me and placed a hand on my thigh. “My intention is not to be difficult.”
“Or juvenile,” I added, trying to inject a little humor into the evening.
“That either, but you do have a penchant for being on a crime scene before the police, before the medics, before the coroner, and—”
“It’s simply coincidence. Every time.”
“Say I buy that,” he said, stroking my knee, my thigh, my arm. “That doesn’t mean I like what I bought. This Hawkins character, for instance, is nobody you want to get too close to. We’ve been checking into his background, and so far what I’ve read I don’t like.”
I sat up straighter. “What?”
“Okay, for your own safety, I’ll tell you this. He has a record of domestic violence.”
I drew in a shocked breath. “Against Connie Rae? They were only married three weeks ago.”
“No, against his former wife, Kay Hawkins. On several occasions in the past couple of years she called the station for help. Said she was afraid of him. He was drinking and out of control. One report states that the officer found her with a black eye.”
“He beat her?”
“That time she said she’d gotten up at night and walked into an open closet door.” He shrugged. “Who knows?” His hand on my knee tightened. “But I do know you need to stay clear of this guy.”
I slumped back against the cushions. “Not to worry. He called me this morning, said he and his bride wanted to redecorate their house, but after this, I doubt I’ll hear from him again. Poor little Connie Rae. I wonder why she married him.”
“I can think of a few million reasons,” Rossi said sounding cynical and looking irritated. “Only twenty-two years old, and Hawkins is fifty if he’s a day.”
“A May and December romance I guess.”
“Or maybe a beauty and the beast romance, but in fairness to all, that remains to be seen. In the meantime, please be careful.”
“I will. Though tomorrow I’m due back on Whiskey Lane. I have an appointment at 590, the house directly across the street from Stew’s. But I won’t go near 595. I promise.”
“Good.” Leaning in closer, he treated me to one of his famous smiles and to what was morphing into a really beautiful, soothing, sexy massage.
* * *
The moment I rang the chimes at 590 Whiskey Lane, James Stahlman, with Charlotte in tow, opened the front door of his stately two-story house.
“Deva! Come in,” he said. “Do come in.”
“Happy to.” I held out a hand. “Thank you for allowing me to reschedule.”
His well-manicured fingers briefly touched mine. “Not a problem.”
He had dressed down this time, in linen shorts and a starched white shirt. He struck me as older and more nervous than I remembered. On the other hand, Charlotte looked exactly the same, frisky and relaxed, the pink bow still riding the crest of her topknot.
Curious as to what I’d find, I entered the foyer and glanced around. Spacious but nondescript rooms opened off both sides of a central hall, and at the end of the hall James ushered me into a glass-walled living room that extended across the back of the house. A typical Florida layout would feature a pool outside that rear glass wall, but from the look of the terrace and garden area, there wasn’t one. Strange. James’s last wife had been a champion swimmer. She’d have wanted a pool, wouldn’t she?
“I’ve arranged for tea,” he said, stroking Charlotte as if her life depended on it. “But first I thought you’d like a tour.”
“Yes, by all means.”
“Though before we tour, we must talk. So please sit down.”
No question about it, James was tense. If he kept patting Charlotte so vigorously, she soon wouldn’t have a topknot left to love.
He waited politely until I took a seat on a living room wing chair before sitting across from me with Charlotte on his lap. He’d been right about the interior needing a redo. One quick look around the room revealed that it was stuck in a time warp. Somewhere in the late eighties. That faded blue wallpaper would have to—
“Imagine how I felt,” he began, his voice throbbing with emotion. “Just imagine. I’ve never been so shocked in my life.”
“I’m not following you, James.”
“I’m referring to the circus that went on across the lane yesterday. You were there. You know all about it. Although possibly not everything.”
In his distress, he dumped Charlotte onto the floor. “Go play, sweetheart,” he ordered in a tone I doubt sweetheart was accustomed to.
“I know Mrs. Hawkins passed away at a tragically young age.”
“Mrs. Hawkins!” James actually snorted. “My fiancée is Mrs. Hawkins. At least for the time being.”
“You’re confusing me, but that’s easy to do,” I fibbed, striving for some levity. Actually I’m not easily fooled—at least not all the time.
“My fiancée, Kay Hawkins, is that man’s former wife.”
Startled by his unexpected revelation, all I could think to say was, “Oh my.”
“Exactly. Now why, I ask you,whydid he choose to buy a house directly across the street from mine?”
“I have no idea.”
“Well, I do. Surveillance, Deva, surveillance. He wants to spy on us. On our comings and goings, to be a constant presence and threat to Kay every day of her life.”
“Surely you’re exaggerating, James.”
“No, I am not.” His emphatic tone left no room for argument. “The police are aware of how he treated Kay. The many calls she made for help. Her black eye. It’s all on record.”
True. Rossi had told me about Kay’s marital woes, but I don’t think Rossi was aware that she would be living across the street from Stewart Hawkins, her former husband and the very cause of those marital woes.
“I knew 595 had been sold,” James was saying, “but I was too busy with my own interests to inquire as to the buyer. A mistake. Had I known, I would have purchased the property myself and resold it to someone suitable. Someone lesslethal.”
At the venom in his voice, I stiffened. What on earth had I gotten myself into? In an attempt to defuse his anger, I said, “Stewart Hawkins hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. Not in his wife’s...that is, Connie Rae’s...death.”
“Mark my words, he will be. It’s just a question of time.”
Charlotte was whining at his feet. He scooped her up. “Am I neglecting you, darling?” he asked.
She licked his face.Yes.
“What worries me the most,” he continued, “is that Kay is terrified. Positively terrified.”
Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be? “Would you consider selling and moving?”
“Kay asked me the same thing. Begged me, in fact. But I had to refuse her. What kind of man allows himself to be forced from his home? A home, I might add, that I’ve lived in since the late eighties.”
Thought so!I experienced a moment of professional triumph, then forgot about it when James went on, “I was almost equally shocked when you called yesterday from the Hawkins house. I couldn’t believe it, in fact. Had you really considered taking on both Hawkins and me as clients?”
“Of course. There was no reason not to. Though when Stew contacted me, I had no idea of your past...shall we say history together.” I paused for emphasis. “I trust you understand that I never work exclusively for any one person.”
“Perhaps not.” He sniffed. “But I would prefer you work either for me or for him, not for the both of us.”
“I can’t promise you that, Mr. Stahlman,” I said and stood. “Naples has several excellent designers. I’m sure you can find one to suit your wishes.”
As I bent to pick up my purse, James put Charlotte back on the floor, a sure sign he was upset. “Please don’t take that attitude, Deva. There’s no need. You’re my designer of choice, and I will not be deterred by Hawkins or anyone else. I simply needed to state my preference. That’s all it was, a preference. Apparently Hawkins and I are already sharing a tile repair service. I saw the truck in his driveway yesterday. So why not share a designer?” He nodded at the chair I’d just vacated. “Do be seated. I’ll ring for tea. I think we both need a little refreshment before we tour the house.”
While I sorted out my reaction to being lumped in with Tony the Tile Guy, James raised a small silver bell from the table beside his sofa and rang it. Like wind chimes caught in a breeze, its tinkle echoed throughout the room.
A moment later, a stocky middle-aged woman with sturdy, no-nonsense legs appeared from what I guessed was the kitchen. She wore her hair in a bun, and like Teresa was dressed in a white uniform. As if acting in an English farce or something, she said—so help me God—“You rang, sir?”
“Yes, Eileen. Our tea please.”
“Very good, sir.”
Stunned, I sat back as far as the wing chair allowed.This should be interesting.
Our repast must have been ready and waiting, for in the short time it took to boil a kettle of water, Eileen reappeared, pushing a tea wagon laden with a silver service, blue and gold porcelain cups and saucers and a mouthwatering array of luscious-looking morsels.
In years past, I’d enjoyed one or two formal teas at the Copley Hotel in Boston, and the Copley, I decided, perusing the tea wagon, had nothing on Eileen.
“Would you do the honors, Deva,” James asked as Eileen pushed the cart up to my chair and quietly left.
The challenge was awesome. This was dowager stuff, pouring tea.You can do it, I told myself, and gripping the silver pot by its curvy handle, I poured James’s tea into an exquisite Limoges cup.
With the devil urging me on, I asked, “One lump or two?”
James, however, didn’t get the humor in that. “Just lemon, please.”
The tension over, I poured tea for myself and passed a dish of precisely cut finger sandwiches to my host. Getting prison-made furniture in here sure was going to be tough.
As we munched and sipped, he asked, “What do you make of the house so far?
I put down my cup and cleared my throat. “Its bones are wonderful, and it’s aging well, but if you’ll pardon my saying so, it could benefit from a facelift.”
He fed Charlotte a nibble from his plate. Unsatisfied, she sat in front of him and gazed up expectantly, her big brown eyes wide and waiting.
“No more,” he said.
And to me, “Would you explain what you mean by facelift?”
If I were reading him correctly he was annoyed at the analogy. What a shame that tact and truth were such poor bedfellows.
“Let me answer that with a question.” I pointed at the living room walls. “How long has this paper been here?”
“Oh, since...” he fed Charlotte another bite—Iknew he’d cave, “...1990 perhaps.”
“And the upholstery on the chairs and sofa?”
He held up a palm for silence. “I see your point.”
I believe he did, but to nail it in firmly, I said, “Are you aware that colors in home décor wax and wane in popularity, much like colors in the clothes we wear? Oh, some classics—the little black dress, the tailored white shirt—remain eternally in vogue. But many do not, and those date us. Do you recall tie-dyed T-shirts and neon orange minis?”
“Hardly. But I understand what you’re saying. The colors in here are dated.”
“I’m afraid so. And badly faded. If the rest of the house is the same, then what you need, James, is a clean sweep, and that calls for a master plan.”
“I like the way you think, Deva. Let’s finish our tea and then complete the tour.”
“Fine.” Now that James and I had an initial meeting of minds, I was enjoying my cucumber sandwich when the front door opened and a pair of stiletto heels clicked briskly along the hall.
Alarmed, James glanced up. “Oh dear,” he said, absent-mindedly popping a morsel meant for Charlotte into his own mouth. “We’ve been caught red-handed. I think that’s Kay.”
As James and I watched—with bated breath, for somereason—Kay Hawkins strode into the living room. Tall, lithe and late thirties,she had streaked brown hair falling to her shoulders, and though not beautifullike poor Connie Rae, she was nonetheless stunning. And in her purple dress,carrying a lime-green straw bag, she was clearly a woman who wasn’t afraid ofcolor.
At the sight of us she stopped short. “Tea for two. Howcharming,” she said in a bitchy tone that meant exactly the opposite.
James scrambled to his feet and held out his arms. “Darling,”he said in the same voice he used on Charlotte. “What a surprise.”
“Indeed,” she said, eying me without moving into hisoutstretched arms. “One doesn’t know whether to leave or to stay.”
Oh heavens. Time to jump in. I stood and held out a hand. “I’minterior designer Deva Dunne, Mrs. Hawkins. Your fiancé—” I might as wellestablish the correct pecking order, “—is planning a surprise for you. And Iseem to be it.”
We shook briefly, fingertip to fingertip. Then I rummaged in mybag for my card case, removed one and gave it to her. With a show-me frown onher face, she took the card and glanced at it. Tapping it on a thumbnail, sheturned to James. “You’re planning to redo the house for me?”
“Yes, darling,” he replied, his voice loaded with relief.
“How lovely, Jimmy, but did it not occur to you that I mightlike to be part of any changes?”
His face fell. “But that would negate the surprise.”
“Precisely,” she said.
“I thought while we were on our wedding trip, Deva here couldsweep in with her crew and give the rooms a...a facelift. Then when we returned,you’d have a wonderful new look awaiting you.”
“But, Jimmy,” she said, pointing a cerise fingernail at thehouse across the lane, “haven’t we had enough surprises? And besides, how do Iknow Deva’s changes would suit me? We may have totally different taste.”
“That would not be a problem,” James said. “I intended todirect the project from the get-go.” He waved a rather thin arm around theliving room. “As I did years ago when I purchased the property and redid theinterior.” He flicked an imaginary fleck of lint from his shorts. “Pardon me forboasting, but I do have a gift for this sort of thing.”
Kay shot a quick glance my way, and our eyes locked. We were onthe same page. I knew in that moment we’d work around Jimmy—I mean James—andthat together Kay and I would make a good team.
I fake-checked my watch. “I do have another appointment thisafternoon,” I lied. “So if it’s convenient, shall we begin our tour?”
* * *
Afterward, I drove back to the shop, delighted with theStahlman meeting. Decisive and direct, Kay had wasted no time informing both herfiancé and me about her color preferences. As a concession to James, she wouldinclude cobalt blue as an accent, and loved my idea of combining that with coraland white and adding touches of black for sheer drama. Recently I’d seen agorgeous Thibaut paper in coral with silvery birds that would make a sensationaldining room, especially with James’s silver pieces polished and on display,perhaps on a mirrored sideboard. We’d agreed to retire two of his brown diningchairs and replace them with upholstered host and hostess seating, andre-cushion the others. And that was just for openers.
I was actually humming when I opened the shop and took down theClosed sign. At my desk, I sorted through the mail, tossing circulars andopening bills and a few checks. An envelope with a familiar crabbed handwritingembellished with fancy flourishes caught my attention. I slit it open, removed athin sheet of lined paper:
The parole board finally came through and granted myrelease.Thought you’d want to know in case you need to contact me about theHelp-a-Con Program.
Not to worry.Ihave brochures and price lists for all the prison furniture and will stop byyour shop and drop them off.That might not be for a few days,though.
Once I’m sprung,I’m getting in on the last weekof the Python Challenge,so I’ll be in the Everglades by the timethis reaches you.
See you soon.Wish me luck with the snakes.
Egads, the Python Challenge. I shuddered, unable to believe people actually went into the Everglades—the biggest swamp in the world—and searched for Burmese pythons. Just the thought made my skin crawl.
According to theNaples Daily News, the pythons were decimating the Everglades’ native wildlife. In an attempt at control, the state was sponsoring a month-long hunt for the critters. Some were seventeen feet long and strong enough to kill an ox or a deer or a grown man, slowly by constriction.
As an incentive, the hunter who caught the most snakes would win a prize of fifteen hundred dollars. Not nearly enough in my opinion. To up the challenge, the pythons had to be killed or captured humanely by snare or net, not by blowing their heads off with a pistol or stabbing them in the throat.
Anyway, since no guns were allowed in the hunt, I guess the fun had been okayed by Hammerjack’s parole officer. Then fresh from tangling with the snakes, Hammerjack would pay a visit to Deva Dunne Interiors. Terrific. Rossi had been so upset about the Hawkins case last night, I wouldn’t mention receiving letters from Florida State Prison. Why upset him further?
On the other hand, Hammerjack didn’t necessarily mean trouble. He could simply be a reformed man wanting to reach out and help others. Wasn’t it a well-known fact that people with the least were the first to offer assistance to those in need? They understood from personal experience what being in harm’s way really meant.
I folded the letter with the prison return address and put it in a desk drawer with the first one. Yesterday, Kay had mentioned she’d like to turn one of the guest bedrooms into a personal study. That would mean installing a computer station, a desk, bookcases. Maybe I could put the Help-a-Con Program to use in there after all.
Pythons.Funny, I’d lived in Naples for several years now, and the only snake I ever saw was a little black garden runner. The diameter of my pinkie finger, it was maybe seven inches long, but when I spotted it on the lawn I’d screamed like I was in mortal danger and jumped onto a patio chair.
Snakes that were seventeen feet long boggled my mind and raised goose bumps on my arms. I shook my head, relieved when the Yarmouthport bells on the shop door jangled.
A woman who looked strangely familiar stepped in and gave me a radiant oh-there-you-are-again smile. Had we met before? I got up from behind my desk to greet her and realized—no, she couldn’t be—yes, she was—Teresa in the flesh and looking spectacular.
Fluffed-out Big Hair cascaded past her shoulders, and red-tipped nails matched her movie star lipstick. Hugging her curves, a mini sheath careened to a stop just above her knees, and platform stilettos added inches to her height. At her throat a rhinestone leaf sparkled like a Broadway sign at midnight. Va va va voom! A filled up Brassy de Bra in the exuberant flesh. So long, white nylon uniform and sensible oxfords.
“Teresa,” I said, extending a hand as I strolled toward her. “Is this really you?”
She laughed, pleased, I think, at my confusion. “Yes. This is me all right.”
“You’re not deaf, are you?”
She shook her head. “No. I never was.”
“Then why pretend to be?”
“Oh, it’s a game Stew and I...I mean Mr. Stew and I play.”
At my question, or maybe my quizzical tone, the confidence a tight skirt and stilettos can give a girl wavered for an instant. An instant only, then her mouth turned down at the corners. Way down. “I pretended to be deaf when Stew...Mr. Stew was married to that Kay woman.”
That Kay woman.I recognized female animus when I heard it. Teresa clearly hadn’t liked Kay.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“They fought so much, shouting matches night after night...oh, it was awful...so I began acting as if I couldn’t hear a thing. It made life easier for all of us. Mr. Stew—” she got it right that time, “—liked me for pretending and kind of made a joke out of it.”
The stilettos must have been killing her. She shifted from one foot to the other then back again as she dug around in her shoulder bag. “I have something for you. From him.”
She rummaged in the purse a while longer, searching for whatever it was. “I can never find a thing in this bag.”
Two women could bond over that alone.
“I know the feeling. Do come and sit down.”
She teetered after me and perched on the Eames chair in front of my desk. After a few more seconds of poking, she produced a white envelope and handed it across to me.
“For you. A retainer from Mr. Stew. He wants you to work on his house, but not until this, this...messis over.”
“Mess?” I asked, knowing full well what she meant. Whowasthis woman, really?
She nodded. ‘Yes, his new wife’s death. The police are questioning him, acting as if he caused it. He can’t sleep. He can’t eat. Not even when I cook him his favorites. It’s not fair.”
I tossed the pewter letter opener onto my desktop. “A woman is dead, Teresa. A very young woman. The police want to find out why. For that they have to get at the truth.”
“The truth?” She actually scoffed. “The truth is Stew should never have married that bimbo in the first place.”
Stew.Interesting. The wordMr.was apparently a frill she’d decided to abandon.
While she looked on, I slit open the envelope she’d given me and gasped. Sight unseen, without even hearing a single one of my design ideas, Stew had sent me a check for ten thousand dollars. What a show of confidence. Frankly I was thrilled and wrote him a receipt on the spot.
“Please give this to Mr. Hawkins with my thanks,” I said, handing it to Teresa. “I’ll be awaiting his call after the funeral is over and he’s recovered from his grief.”
“I don’t think there’ll be a funeral. Stew needs to forget all this and get on with his life.” She dropped the receipt into her bag and stood, smoothing the mini over her thighs.
Hmm. Where did she come off displaying an attitude like that? I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one bit and indulged in something I despised, a nasty female barb.
“When Stew gets on with his life, as you put it, you think he might get married again? With you as his new bride?”
She looked me straight in the eye. “That’s exactly how I see it.”
To that I had no response. Her brass-plated nerve took my breath away. Plus her recklessness. If the autopsy showed Mrs. Connie Rae Hawkins was the victim of foul play, then Teresa had just revealed a perfect motive for murder.
At closing time I was at the computer logging in initial design ideas for the two Whiskey Lane houses when the Yarmouthport bells swung into their happy dance.
I glanced at the door. “Rossi!” I leaped up from my chair and hurried over to him.
He turned the lock in the shop door and took me in his arms right in front of the plate glass window. After kissing me breathless, he said, “I have a surprise for you. So get your purse and close up for the night. We need to leave while there’s still plenty of daylight.”
“This time of year, the sun doesn’t set until about eight o’clock. So what on earth is your hurry?”
“If I tell you, there’s no surprise.”
“You know something? You sound like James Stahlman.”
His hand on the light switch, Rossi frowned. “The guy whose wife disappeared a year ago? The accidental drowning?” His frown deepened. “Accidental until proven otherwise.”
“He’s the one.”
“You know him?”
“We met the other day. He’s my other client on Whiskey Lane.”
“Yourotherclient? You mean you’ve taken on Stew Hawkins after I warned you to stay away from him?”
“I hate to be crass, Rossi, but a ten-thousand-dollar retainer trumped your warning. The business needs the cash infusion. I simply can’t afford to turn him down. Besides, Stew hasn’t been accused of a crime, has he?”
Rossi pressed the off switch for the overheads with more force than necessary. “No, I haven’t received the autopsy report yet. But Hawkins’s rep with women is pretty unsavory.”
“He has a housekeeper.”Boy,did he have a housekeeper.“She’ll be there whenever I am. And except for the first one or two planning sessions, I’ll be meeting tradespeople on the property. I won’t be alone with him.”
“Good. That’s something anyway. Now all I have to worry about is this other guy. This Stahlman.” Rossi held the door open for me. “You know his last wife’s disappearance is still an unsolved case, but are you aware his first wife died of an overdose?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I never heard that.”
“Well now you have. So don’t go swimming with the guy and don’t take any pills from him.”
“Very funny, Rossi. For your information, he’s a consummate gentleman. Even served me tea, for Pete’s sake. From a silver pot.”
Well, technicallyIhad served him, but that was beside the point.
I locked up and, tucking my arm in his, Rossi escorted me down Fern Alley to Fifth Avenue where he had parked his party wheels. Usually for everyday events like work or picking up a pizza and a bottle of Chianti, he drove his old, deliberately unwashed Mustang. Like his Hawaiian shirt theory, his dirty car theory aimed at disarming suspects into thinking he was an inept flatfoot. For special occasions though, like this apparently was, he rolled out his vintage Maserati. Sleek, silver and shined to the max, the car had been a gift from his late Uncle Beppe and Rossi loved it. No wonder. It was a special vehicle for a special guy and made me feel special too each time I slid onto the red leather passenger seat beside him. Like now.
So he did have a big surprise in mind, and I was aware of a rising excitement. What could it be?
We drove to his secret destination with the car windows open. Through some miracle of Mother Nature, humidity didn’t clog the air. Instead, a dry Gulf breeze with a hint of jasmine and oleander wafted over us and riffled my red Irish curls. But I had terminal frizzies anyway, and Rossi actually liked my hair on the wild side.
I tried to compensate for it by wearing rather conservative clothes—no super minis, no sky-high platforms, no XS sweaters. After all, Iwasin the taste business, although I’ve been known to tell my clients that style begins where the rules end, at least as far as interior design is concerned. But I digress.
From Fifth Avenue we headed north on the Tamiami Trail, past the street leading to the Naples Beach Hotel, then past the Community Hospital and through two stop lights until we reached a set of stone markers that read Calista Sands. Rossi turned in between the markers and drove slowly along a lush, curvy street lined on either side with gracious, low-roofed houses of a comfortable but not ostentatious size.
Quietly residential yet near enough to Fifth Avenue and Old Naples to be centrally located, Calista Sands was one of the neighborhoods in town I most admired. Too bad I couldn’t afford to live there.
In fact, driving by one well-groomed property after the other, with their manicured lawns that even in the torrid midsummer heat were as green as if it were early May, I was drooling mentally.
“Look at that one, Rossi,” I said, pointing to a house I especially liked. “And that one. It’s beautiful in here.”
“I know,” he said, taking his attention from the road for a second to glance across the front seat and treat me to a big, white Chiclets grin.
He was happy about something. That much was plain. Butwhat?
Rossi never drove fast, always five miles under the speed limit, never five miles over it. Tonight he was outdoing himself, driving the Maserati as slowly as if it were a sightseeing bus loaded with tourists. For some reason, he didn’t want me to miss a thing.
We kept heading west, toward the setting sun, or more precisely, toward a wide finger of water, an inlet that marked the end of Calista Sands and the beginning of the Gulf of Mexico. At an empty waterfront lot covered with stubbly sawgrass and sprouting a For Sale sign, he stopped and turned off the motor.
“What do you think?” he asked, turning to me. “Do you like it?”
Though a light bulb had popped on in my head, I said, “Like what?”
“The lot. It’s empty.”
“I can see that.”
A frown replaced his grin. “You’re not making this easy for me.”
“Rossi.” I took his hand in mine. “Are you saying you want to buy this lot?”
“And build a house on it?”
“Am I in the picture?”
“Triple yes. You’re the reason I’ve been looking.”
“Youhave?I didn’t know that.”
“The surprise,” he said.
“Oh. Right. How long?”
“Three hundred feet deep by one fifty wide.”
“No, I mean how long have you been looking for land?”
“Since the day you proposed.” The grin was back.
I had to smile, remembering how the duvet cover had slipped and... “Ididpropose to you, didn’t I?”
“Positively, and I accepted. So don’t try to wiggle out of anything.” His grip on my hand tightened. “You’re mine, and I want you. I’ve wanted you since the day we met. I think it was those little green shorts you had on that did it. And your sorrow over losing Jack. I knew in that moment you were a woman for a lifetime and...” his voice faltered, “...I’ve never told you this, but I envied Jack that day. And there’s something else, too...I was grateful to him for dying and leaving you free for me.” He let go of my hand and stared into my eyes as if he could still look but had lost the right to touch. “Do you hate me for that?”
Tears sprang into my eyes. I swiped at them with the back of my hand. “No. Never. I love you for your honesty.” And I did. Life had taken Jack, my first love, but had given me a second chance at happiness. I’d be a fool to let it slip away. I retook Rossi’s hand and squeezed hard, letting my fingers tell him what I was too soggy to say. We spent the next several minutes acting like teenagers in love before he said, “Shall we get out and look around?”
We made our way over coarse patches of scrub grass. On both sides of the lot, well-cared-for houses faced the shimmering blue Gulf, their screened-in lanais taking advantage of the view. In front of the one on the left, a glistening Chris-Craft was moored to a small wooden dock.
“The inlet has Gulf access,” Rossi said, pride of place already clear on his face.
“It’s wonderful. The view, the neighborhood, the surrounding houses. Only one thing is bothering me.”
“What’s that?” he asked, sounding faintly alarmed as if I had noticed something he hadn’t.
“It’s so perfect, it has to be expensive.”
He shook his head, visibly relieved that I had no other objection. “No, not really. It’s been on the market since the beginning of the housing crisis. The owner is eager to sell.”
“May I ask the price?”
“Or how you intend to pay for it?”
Like the Cheshire cat’s, his grin reached both ears. He was enjoying himself. On the other hand, I was getting ticked. Halfway back to the car, I stopped mid-stride. “If you trusted me, you’d answer my question.”
“Of course I trust you. Implicitly. But—”
“Nothing matters until you reach the ‘but.’ So why won’t you answer the question?”
“As you pointed out, this location is perfect for us, and I have no intention of risking a ‘No, Rossi, it’s too expensive.’”
He took my arm. Though I tried to shrug away, he held on tight and together we wended our way over the rough grass back to the Maserati.
Once inside the car, he said, “Let’s watch the sunset for a while.”
“Fine.” I stared straight ahead at a frieze of palm trees lining the shore and beyond at the blue Gulf water.
“You asked if I trusted you,” Rossi said softly.
“It was a logical question.” Ice frosted my tone.
“Now I’m asking you the same question.”
I half turned to face him. “You’re very good at interrogation. I’ll have to remember that.”
“You’re not going to give an inch, are you?”
“All I want to hear, Rossi, is what the damn lot costs. What’s wrong with that? You said you’re buying it with me in mind.”
“Even in Dorchester I’ll bet people don’t ask the price of a gift.”
“Oh.” I put my hands on my hips, letting my left elbow jab him in the ribs. “So now you’re insulting my background.”
He laughed. Out loud. “God, you’re impossible.”
At his laughter, my anger fizzled out like a wet firecracker. “I think we’re having a lover’s quarrel.”
“Those are the best kind, the aftermath is so great. This parcel of land is my gift to you. Your name will be on the deed. And on the house I want to build here.” His gaze left the view to focus on me. “You spend your life creating beautiful houses for other people. Isn’t it time you had one of your own?”
“And for you?”
“Yes, for the both of us.”
I exhaled and nodded, partly satisfied and partly not. Rossi’s gesture was beautiful. How could I not love him for it? But dammit, I did want to know how much the lot cost.
I eyeballed the For Sale sign. I could call the listing agent and ask the price. That would be sneaky, though, and I couldn’t cheapen Rossi’s gift that way, but I did huff out a sigh.
Like Kay Hawkins, I wasn’t sure how I felt about being surprised and wondered, suddenly, if James Stahlman had any more in store for Kay. And if Rossi had any more for me. I didn’t know how Kay might feel about that, but I knew secret surprises weren’t easy for a redhead from Dorchester.
Tanned and terrific in a new butter-yellow sundress and matching espadrilles that wrapped around her ankles, Lee St. James waltzed into work the next morning. All smiles, she caught me in a bear hug and said, “I want y’all to know I’ve been on the best second honeymoon ever.”
I believed her. Always beautiful, today she radiated happiness.
“So Hilton Head is a good vacation destination?”
“I can’t rightly say, Deva. I didn’t see much of the town.”
“No?” I smiled but tried to hide it.
“Uh-uh. Just the little bitty beach in front of our hotel and the dining room. Though we mostly ordered in room service.”
“And how was the room service?” I arched an eyebrow.
She perched on the Chiavari chair behind the bureau plat. “I wish I could say, but if my momma were alive, she’d be shocked if I did.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She blushed and changed the subject. “When we got home, though, we had some bad news waiting for us.”
“Oh? Sounds serious.”
She nodded, frowning. “It is, even if Paulo says it’s a first-world problem.”
I sank onto the zebra settee across from her. “Lee, explain, please.”
Her lips trembled ever so slightly. “We’re being evicted.”
“From your apartment?”
“Yes. And the owner didn’t tell us why. Just wants us out as soon as our lease is up—at the end of the month. It’s not fair. We thought the lease was being renewed, and we’ve taken such good care of—”
“I know you have.” I blew out a breath. “Now what?”
“Well, we’ll look for a temporary place if we have to. But what we really want to do is buy a house. Paolo says we can afford a condo to start. Something like yours at Surfside, with two bedrooms and a lanai and a pool, would be just about perfect.”
“Funny you should say that. My place is going up for sale as soon as I get around to putting it on the market.”
“Really?” Her eyes widened into two blue pools. “Wait till Paulo hears that. Do y’all mean it?”
“Absolutely,” I said, deciding in that instant.
Though I hadn’t a clue as to how much Rossi would pay for the Calista lot, I did have an idea of what a lieutenant in the Naples P.D. earned. So unless he had more surprises in store, we’d need the equity from both my condo and his house in Countryside to build our new dream home.
“My goodness,” Lee said. “I leave for a week and come back to all kinds of changes.”
“True.” I laughed. “There’s been a lot of excitement around here in the last few days.”
We spent the next couple of hours straightening merchandise and greeting drop-in browsers. We were catching up on girl talk when a tall, statuesque brunette with excellent carriage strode past the front window. A moment later, James Stahlman’s fiancée, Kay Hawkins, pushed open the shop door, sending the bells into their usual frenzy.
Holding her shoulders as square as a sergeant-at-arms, she smiled a small smile at the sight of me. “Deva, I was hoping you’d be here. We need to talk.”
“Kay, how stunning you look.” And she did, in a smart black sheath and leopard print pumps.
After I introduced Lee, Kay checked her watch. I could have told her it wasn’t quite eleven.
“Is lunch possible?” she asked. “My treat. I know it’s early, but I was hoping you might have some free time. We really need to talk.”
“Of course. I’m sure Lee can spare me for an hour or so.”
I reached underneath the sales counter for my purse, wondering what this emergency visit was all about. I thought we’d nailed the color scheme for James’s house—basically an ivory envelope with flashes of cobalt and coral. There hadn’t been time to select fabric for his sofas and chairs, or to shop for lamps and other accessories. In interior design, hurry wasn’t the path to a polished effect, and I hoped Kay understood that. More than a little concerned she would insist on a rush job, I accompanied her along Fifth Avenue to the Magnolia Café, too preoccupied to enjoy the breeze or the sunshine or the flowers along the way.
As we settled into a booth, she dealt me another surprise. Raising her chin, she flung her chestnut hair from her face and said, “I’m going to be honest here, Deva. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have hired you to redo James’s house.”
A challenge. Okay. I raised my chin, but no point in trying to fling back my hair. I have the kind that doesn’t fling. My chin had to do double duty. “Why not, Kay?”
My tone must have been super cool, for she flushed and reached across the table to give my hand a quick squeeze. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“Good. Because it sounded shitty.” Not a professional response but one straight from the heart.
To her credit, Kay laughed just as a waiter with the bearing of an ambassador to Great Britain approached and placed menus in front of us. Before he said a thing, she waved him away with, “Just water for now.”
She turned back to me. “Your reputation around town is marvelous. Several people at the club have been singing your praises.”
Somewhat mollified, I picked up my menu. “I’m glad to hear that.”
Our waiter returned with goblets of water and a basket of rolls. This time he hovered.
“Give us a few more minutes,” Kay said, dismissing him.
Obviously we weren’t going to eat anytime soon. But that was fine. All I really wanted was to hear the reason for this meeting.
“What has me concerned, Deva, isn’t your lack of designing skill. It’s Stew Hawkins.”
“Stew?” I leaned forward and forgot all about the menu. “Why is he the problem?”
“You know we used to be married?”
“Yes. James mentioned that.”
“Our divorce—our whole marriage—was a nightmare.” She frowned but for a moment, only then her dark eyes took on a shine. “The ending settlement, however, was almost worth what I went through with that—”
“Ladies, we have several specials today.” The ambassador had returned.
“No recitals,” Kay declared, picking up the menu with an exasperated sigh. “I’ll have the grilled chicken Caesar, with a side of fresh fruit.”
“Make that two,” I said.
When we were alone again, she said, “As they say, all’s well that ends well. But the end isn’t in sight yet. Not completely. That bastard—” she finished the sentence this time, “—bought the house across from James.”
“I know. James told me.”
“Can you believe it? The nerve of him.” She plucked a roll out of the bread basket, buttered it and bit off a chunk.
Having her ex living across the street sure hadn’t affected her appetite.
“No need to worry,” I said. “I’ll be careful not to create parallel designs.”
She stopped chewing and swallowed. “Parallel designs? What does that mean?”
“One house copying the look of another.”
As if swatting away flies, she waved a hand in the air. “I’m not worried about that. I intend never to step foot in Stew’s place. Do whatever you like. Make the interiors twins, for all I care.” She forgot about the bread and, leaning over the table, lowered her voice. “But you do have to promise me, Deva, that you will never talk to Stew about me, not even so much as mention my name.”
“I assure you, I—”
She raised a palm for silence. “And never, under any circumstances are you to tell him what James and I are doing or planning or saying. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Annoyance stiffening my spine, I sat up soldier straight. “I have no intention of doing any such thing,” I said, for emphasis leaving a little space between each word.
“Excellent. Because he bought the house on Whiskey Lane for one reason only. To torment me.”
Too irritated with the woman to simply agree, I said, “Isn’t that rather bizarre, Kay? I mean your divorce is final, and he remarried and all, though I will admit Connie Rae’s...Mrs. Hawkins’s death was an unexpected blow.”
“He probably killed her,” Kay said smoothly, breaking off a piece of roll and popping it in her mouth.
“That’s quite an accusation.” And this was quite a conversation. I was an interior designer, not a shrink. Or a homicide detective, though Rossi would laugh to hear me admit that.
“You think so?” Kay said. “He’s capable of it. What kind of husband locks his wife out of the house in the middle of the night? When she’s stark naked?”
“No, you don’t mean to tell me...no, he didn’t.” I forgot all about eating. This stuff was better than food.
“Yes, I didn’t have a thing on. Not even jewelry.”
Not wanting to miss a word, I bent in closer. “What happened?”
“Stew and I were arguing. As usual. He didn’t like something I said, so he grabbed my arm and threw me out onto the front lawn, and me without a stitch on. And the mosquitoes! Omigod.”
With a flourish, the waiter placed our salads in front of us. “Enjoy, ladies.”
Kay dug in immediately, but more curious than hungry, I asked, “What on earth did you do?”
“I found a beach towel thrown over a patio chair and wrapped myself in it. Then I sat on the back terrace all night shivering and fighting the bugs. While Stew was sleeping it off the next morning, Teresa let me in.”
“Yes, she mentioned that she’d worked for you.”
Kay stopped chewing long enough to laugh. “Not really for me. Always for Stew...at times I wondered what went on between them. Especially after she refused to testify against him during the divorce.”
“I see,” I replied, really beginning to.
“Do you understand why I needed to talk to you? I don’t trust Stew’s motives in buying the house at 595, and I don’t trust Teresa, either. In fact, I’m surprised he didn’t marry her instead of that Connie Rae person.” Kay looked up from her salad. “You met Connie Rae, didn’t you?”
I shook my head. “No, she was already dead when I saw her.”
“Too bad,” Kay said, too casually to be believed. “I remember her from the club. She was a bartender there, though barely of drinking age herself. That must have been the lure—youth. Teresa’s forty if she’s a day.” Kay shrugged. “Oh well, now that I have your promise not to gossip, I don’t have anything to worry about, do I?”
I picked up my fork and took a bite of chicken, hoping it wouldn’t choke me. Whether Kay knew it or not, her warning not to carry tales from her house to Stew’s was frigging insulting. To spread gossip about clients was not only totally unprofessional, but on a practical level, a sure way to kill a business.
Instead of wondering if I would betray her daily comings and goings, she might be better off wondering about how James Stahlman’s first two wives had died. If I were about to become wife number three, I’d sure wonder. And worry.
Outside the Magnolia Café, Kay and I hugged goodbye, best-friend style. Why not? We weren’t friends, but we were both women who had experienced life and its, well...surprises.
I strolled leisurely back to the shop, breathing in salty Gulf air that showed a definite tendency to succumb to summer humidity. But no complaints. The breeze was still balmy, the sky blue, and the flowers perfuming Fifth Avenue spilled exuberantly from their planters.
With high season over, traffic had thinned, and miracle of miracles, empty parking slots lined both sides of the street. Our town slowed down for the summer, and that was good as long as it didn’t slow to a crawl. After all, people like me had businesses to run.
I turned off the avenue onto Fern Alley, and as I passed the window of Off Shoots, the ladies boutique next to my shop, I waved at Irma, one of the leggy young twins who ran it. Farther along the alley, a white panel truck sat parked outside Deva Dunne Interiors. Big, bold red letters on the truck’s side announced Tony’s Tiles & More. This same truck had been parked in the Hawkins’s driveway the day Connie Rae died. And if I wasn’t mistaken, that was Tony sitting behind the wheel with the motor running. Strange. Why would he be lingering in the alley?
I was about to step into the shop when the truck’s passenger side door opened and a man jumped out. He had a manila envelope in his hand and the most perfect physique I’d ever laid eyes on. No wonder I noticed. In a muscle shirt and shorts that revealed his tattoos and every toned line of his body, he’d be hard to miss.
I had my hand on the shop door handle—and probably my mouth hanging open—when he sprang forward. “Allow me, ma’am.”
I tore my gaze from his pecs long enough to murmur, “Thank you,” and walked inside. He followed me in, took one look at Lee and zoomed right over to her.
“I’m looking for a Mrs. Deva Dunne,” he said. “Are you the lady, by any chance?”
“No, sir, I’m not. She’s standing there beside you.”
He swiveled on those toned legs of his and treated me to an eye swipe. Head to toe. A tattooed Adonis with a shaved head, he was here for something other than interior design services or my name wasn’t Devalera Agnes Kennedy Dunne.
Using my Boston voice, the one I hauled out for occasions calling for cool and smooth, I said, “I’m Deva Dunne.”
“I’m Mike. Mike Hammerjack.”
My jaw fell open. This time no question about it. It unhinged. “Mr. Hammerjack from Florida State Prison?”
He grinned as if I had paid him a compliment. “You remembered. That’s nice, coming from a beautiful redhead.”
Really?So who was the smoothie here?
I wasn’t anxious to make physical contact with this guy but good manners dictated that I extend my hand. So I did, holding it to the fire so to speak.
He tucked the manila envelope under his arm and took my hand in both of his, sandwiching it between his palms. “At last,” he said, gazing into my eyes with the intensity of a lover. I swear, a lover.
Perspiring, I slipped my fingers free and found what I hoped was my off-putting Back Bay tone. “How may I help you, Mr. Hammerjack?”
I just nodded.
“I would love to hear you say my name.”
I cleared my throat and glanced over at Lee. She winked. That did it. “Let’s just get to the reason for this visit, Mr. Hammerjack.”
Unfazed, he handed me the manila envelope that had been pressed to his armpit. It was dry, thank God.
“This is the Help-a-Con information I wrote to you about. With pictures of the prison-made furniture. Price lists, too.” He cleared his throat. “I added Warden Finney’s private phone number. Cost me two packs of cigarettes, but it was worth it. Thought I might get you through to him faster, in case you had a question or something.”
“That was very considerate of you.”
“Not a problem. I hope you can use some of the stuff the boys made. It’s for a good cause.”
“Yes, I know. I’ll try. I have a project, possibly two, that may need office furniture. If the prison pieces are suitable, I don’t see why they wouldn’t work.”
“Terrific!” He grabbed my hand and pumped it up and down. This time I was aware of the calluses on his fingers.
Outside, a horn honked. Mike Hammerjack glanced out the window. “That’s Tony. I’d better go. He’s chomping at the bit.”
“You know Tony well?” I asked out of idle curiosity.
“Yeah, we go way back. He’s a good guy, I can tell you that. We went to high school together. Difference is, Tone stayed on the straight and narrow, know what I mean? He’s a great guy all right, even gave me a job. I’d rather work with wood, but that’s okay. I can lay tile with the best of them.”
He turned to leave then stopped as a thought hit him. “Hey, you want to see a piece of the prison furniture? Tony’s got one in the truck. It’ll give you an idea of the quality.”
I nodded. “Good idea.”
“Tony bought a table for his mother’s place. Like I said, he’s a good guy. A good snakeman too.”
“Professional snake trapper. One of the best in the business. He ferrets out those wigglers like nobody else. Caught a fifteen footer opening day of the Python Challenge. The only snakeman who did.”
“I’m impressed.”And horrified.
“So’s everybody else. I wish I’d been there, but that was a couple of weeks ago, before I got out of Florida State,” he said, making the slammer sound like a four-year college. “But as soon as I got sprung he took me into the ‘Glades for a couple of days. We had good luck too. If I didn’t have to meet my parole officer tomorrow, we’d still be out there. You have to love that swamp.”
Talking nonstop, he led me slowly to the back of the truck. He unlatched the rear doors, flung them wide, and stepped aside so I could peer inside.
“Hey, Tony, the lady wants to take a look at—”
Tony never heard him. A scream of pure panic rose up from my lungs, ripped into my throat and burst out of my mouth, shattering the quiet calm of Fern Alley.
Frozen with fear, I stood there shaking, a cold chill raising goose bumps on my skin. I wanted to run but shock had me rooted to the spot—the back of the truck was full of snakes.
“Hey, the table’s not that bad,” Mike joked. He put one of his callused hands on my arm, for reassurance, I guess, but I recoiled as if one of the snakes had wrapped itself around me.
My scream had brought a cluster of people on the run. They stood in a rapt semicircle behind us—Lee, Irma, and several women wearing outfits with boutique tags dangling from their sleeves. Repelled and yet fascinated, when they spotted the snakes, they screamed too, but like me, they couldn’t look away either.
A truck door opened and slammed shut.
“What’s going on back here?” Tony asked.
Nobody answered him. Then Mike said, “I was showing the little lady the table you bought. Guess I forgot about the snakes.”
“You’d forget your head if wasn’t screwed on,” Tony said.
“I didn’t think they’d scare her so bad. They’re in cages.”
“You don’t think, that’s right,” Tony retorted.
“See that big one over there?” Mike asked me. I saw it all right and shuddered. “He’s thirteen feet long. Been measured. Tony caught him, the first day of the Challenge, the same day he caught the fifteen footer. It’s a record, hey, Tone?”
“You know what? You need to shut up. You talk too much,” Tony said, slamming the rear doors shut. “Come on, let’s go. We got work to do.”
Mike nodded and turned to me. “It’s been a pleasure, ma’am.” His eyes sparkled as he spoke. Had he enjoyed scaring the daylights out of me? And worse, had he done so on purpose?
I couldn’t be sure, but when he extended his hand, I didn’t take it. He shrugged and hopped into the truck. As they drove off, he rolled down his side window. “Hey, Mrs. Dunne,” he called. “I forgot to ask. What did you think of the table?”
After my adventure with the snakes, I was ready for some relaxation and could hardly wait for closing time and my dinner date with Rossi.
I wore a new outfit today, a short shift in mustard, summer’s hottest shade—sounded bad, looked good, especially with my hair. Being a redhead, I could only wear a limited color palette, so I was always pleased to find something that was fresh and chic and suited me. And even made my one pair of Jimmy Choos look new again.
I was in the shop’s tiny bathroom, refreshing my makeup, when Beethoven’s Fifth chimed out. Da da da DA. I dropped the lip gloss, rummaged in my bag, and grabbed the cell phone on the second ring.
Rossi.Was he working late and calling to cancel our date? An all-too-common occurrence in a detective’s life. And to be honest, one I’d probably never get used to.
I pressed Talk with my pulse spurting up a bit. “Rossi.”
“Deva, we’re celebrating tonight. I made reservations at Sully’s.”
Our favorite steakhouse? Sounded like an occasion. “How nice,” I said. “What are we celebrating?”
“Tell you when I see you. One hitch, though, I have a little car problem at the moment. Would you mind picking me up?”
“Of course not. Where are you?”
“At the station. Can’t wait to see you.”
“For a man with no wheels, you sound very cheerful.”
He laughed. “I am. I’ll explain later. See you soon?”
“A half hour.”
“Perfect,” he said and rang off.
I think I could guess what Rossi wanted to celebrate. He’d bought the Calista Sands house lot. With a spark of excitement pulsing in my veins, I finished my makeup, brushed out my hair and waved goodbye to Lee. Tonight, she’d close up and make the daily bank deposit.
Parked in the small lot behind the shop, the Audi didn’t look in shape for an evening on the town. At the very least, it needed a wash. No time for that, but how about gas? I checked. Less than a quarter full. Why was I always running on low? Truth was, my loyal little buggy was a gas guzzler. Long in the tooth with a hundred and ninety thou on the odometer, it needed to be traded for a newer model. Maybe a different color this time, a muted green with tan leather seats.
I sighed and turned on the ignition. Truth was I couldn’t afford a new car. The old bomber would have to last for another year or two.
After stopping for gas, I drove directly to the station. Constructed of gray granite, with weathered Bermuda shutters tilted over its windows, the building looked more like a resort hotel than the local headquarters for crime busting. But that was Naples for you.
Outside in a patch of shade, Rossi was waiting with a smile on his lips. One of those small ones that didn’t reach the eyes, but I’d learned to read him. The smile spoke volumes. He was delighted about something.
He slid onto the passenger seat and gave me a discreet kiss on the cheek. “Let’s go, sweetheart. Party time.” His glance swept over me. “Hot dress.”
From long experience, I knew it wouldn’t do any good to ask what he was so elated about. Rossi kept his secrets well. Super well, darn it. When he was ready, he’d tell me. For now, I was happy driving along the Tamiami Trail with his hand on my right knee.
At the restaurant, he said, “Let’s valet park tonight,”
“But the car’s such a heap. I’ll be embarrassed.”
His hand on my knee tightened. “Looking the way you do, once the valet lamps you, he won’t even know what he’s driving. Besides, I can’t wait to get the full effect when you stand up on those gorgeous pins of yours.”
Who could argue with that?
Anyway, we strolled through Sully’s well-designed foyer with its white marble floor and intimate groupings of blue-and-white-striped sofas.
The dark, woody bar was located off the foyer to the right. After making a margarita stop there, we followed the hostess to a small table for two in a quiet corner of the restaurant. I loved the way Sully’s décor played with opposing elements: rustic wood walls punctuated with black-and-white sports photographs in elaborate gilt frames.
Once we were seated, Rossi reached across the table for my hand. “I’d order a bottle of champagne, but we don’t have a designated driver. Unfortunately.” He grinned, “Or fortunately. I’d much rather be alone with you. A glass of merlot instead?”
“That would be lovely. So would knowing the reason for this dinner. It’s story time, Rossi.”
He tried for nonchalance and failed. “I bought the Calista lot today.”
Ah,Iknew it.“Is that what this is all about?”
He nodded somewhat gravely. “It is.”
“Wonderful! I love the location, the neighborhood, the view, the whole idea of living there some day. But—”
“You want to know what it cost.”
“Well, yes. If we’re going to share a life and a house there, don’t I deserve to know?”
“There’s no need to worry. It’s paid for.” He cleared his throat. “I sold the Maserati.”
“What!” I reared back in my chair. “Your pride and joy? Uncle Beppe’s bequest to you? How could you do such a thing? You love that car.”
“I love you more. I want you to have a house of your own. I want you to design it and decorate it and be happy in it. With me. What’s a set of wheels compared to all that?”
Our waiter approached with menus. I did a good imitation of Kay Hawkins and waved him away.
“The car paid for the lot free and clear,” Rossi added. “It was an excellent decision, one I’ll never regret.”
He held my glance with his, daring me to contradict him. How could I? The Maserati was his to do with as he wished. And what he wished was to make me happy.
The waiter returned just as I burst into tears.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, “I’ll come back later.”
“No,” Rossi said, “that’s not necessary. The lady’s too happy to order right now, so I’ll do the honors. Shrimp cocktails to start?” he asked me.
“And a filet for the lady, medium well. A T-bone for me. Medium rare. Chop salads. That should do it. Oh, and two merlots. You choose the vintner.”
“Very good, sir.”
I found a tissue in my handbag and mopped my face.
“Youarehappy, right?” Rossi asked, his eyes on me warm but worried.
“You know I am.” I sent him a watery smile. “But I’m practical too. What will you use for a car?”
“You forgetting the Mustang?”
“Don’t let the dinged body fool you. Under the dusty hood purrs a world-class engine. Besides, for occasions calling for a touch of class, like tonight, we can use the Audi.”
That did it. I laughed out loud, startling the waiter as he was about to serve our shrimp.
“Enjoy,” he said, placing the appetizers in front of us and hurrying off.
“He’s running scared,” Rossi said with a smile, picking up his fork and digging in.
“This has been a rollercoaster of a day,” I said. “Up, down. Up, down.”
“What do you mean? Exactly.”
“Well, first Kay Hawkins came into the shop to tell me not to spread gossip around Whiskey Lane.”
“Was that an up or a down?”
“Very funny. Then there were the snakes and—”
Rossi’s fork struck the tabletop. Hard. “The snakes?”
“Yes, in the back of the truck. Pythons. Cages full of them.”
“You’ve lost me, Deva. Would you please start over again? From the beginning.”
“Like an investigation, you mean?”
In between delicious bites of cold Gulf shrimp, I related my adventure. Rossi didn’t think a truck full of pythons was a big deal. After all, he pointed out, theywerein cages. But he was intensely curious about Mr. Mike Hammerjack and said, “An ex-con might be the biggest snake of all.”
“He’s fulfilled his debt to society, and now he’s out on parole. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps.” Rossi shrugged. “He may be rehabilitated. On the other hand, he may just be good at following rules. Bottom line, he’s a convicted criminal. An embezzler. You said ten to twenty in the state penitentiary? And he’s somebody you’re thinking of doing business with? Not good, Deva, not good at all.”
Experienced in law enforcement, Rossi understood the criminal mind. I’d be foolish not to listen to him. “Well, our business would be for a good cause, but I have wondered exactly what he did.”
“Why don’t we find out?” Pushing his shrimp cocktail aside, he removed his cell phone from a pocket and pressed the station’s call number. “This is Lieutenant Rossi. Connect me with criminal investigation.”
Two days later I stood uneasily in the foyer of 595 Whiskey Lane, holding a portfolio containing color boards, paint chips and fabric samples.
Only a few days had passed since...well, since Connie Rae had passed, and despite the phone call summoning me there today, I was uncertain about how I’d find the bereaved husband.
I needn’t have worried. Stew Hawkins strode out of his bedroom wing with a smile on his face and no sign whatsoever of grief.
“Glad you could make it, Deva. I want to get the place fixed up as soon as possible. No point in letting what happened keep us waiting.”
Wow.That gave new meaning to the wordcold.Did Stew have no regret? No sorrow?
I cleared my throat before answering. “My schedule is slower in the summer, so that won’t be a problem, but ah, wouldn’t you prefer to wait until after the funeral?”
He shook his head. “No funeral. Connie Rae’s family in Arkansas wants a funeral, that’s up to them. I can send her ashes. But there won’t be a funeral on this end.”
So Teresa had been right. “I see,” I murmured.
“No, you don’t. I can tell by your voice.” He cocked a finger, beckoning me forward. He led the way through the dining room and rotunda and into the great room. “The truth is, I hardly knew the kid. Married her on a spree...shouldn’t have happened.” A pause. “We were in Vegas. I was drunk. You do stupid things when you’re under the influence.”
He’d have no argument from me there. But it still didn’t explain what had caused the death of an apparently healthy twenty-two-year-old girl. Much as I wanted to know, I didn’t have the nerve to ask. Turned out I didn’t have to.
With his next breath, Stew blurted, “She had a bad heart condition. Real bad. Never told me a thing about it. So that’s how much I knew about her. Nothing, when you come right down to it.”
I ventured a question. “Her heart failed? Is that how she died?”
“Yeah, natural causes, the coroner said. Guess I should be glad they didn’t find something to hang on me. Especially after Kay...she’s my ex...got through bad-mouthing me to the cops. That was a while back, but the cops got memories like elephants. The slightest slip, they’ll nail me.”
He shrugged. “What can I say? Life goes on. Come on in, have a seat. Teresa’ll make us some coffee, and you can show me what you brought.”
So much for the grieving process. Poor little Connie Rae, whoever she was. With Teresa hovering in the background, pretending to be busy in the kitchen but listening to every word, I sat on the couch beside Stew so we could go over my schematics together.
As I unzipped the portfolio, I glanced out at the back garden. The hibiscus were a riot of orange blooms, a color that would harmonize beautifully with the design plan I had in mind. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man in coveralls pushing a loaded wheelbarrow toward the far end of the pool surround. Tony the tile guy back on the job. Since they were so tight, no doubt he knew his good friend Mike Hammerjack was a master forger, with two convictions for grand larceny under his belt.
I’d almost emptied the portfolio when Mike himself rounded the corner of the house, boxes of tiles cradled in his buff arms. So I guess he’d been honest about one thing—Tonyhadhired him. Despite his love for snake hunting, Tony was a nice guy then, the type of man who helped out a friend in need.
“Ah, here we go,” Stew said, pulling me back into the moment as Teresa, in red Capri pants and a flowered jersey top, placed steaming mugs on the coffee table. I guessed she’d probably ditched her shapeless white nylon uniforms for good, and who could blame her? No woman wants to look like she’s wearing a parachute.
I rested my computer-generated CAD drawings and the color boards on the coffee table. “Shall we start with the overall philosophy?”
“You’re the boss.” Stew settled back with his coffee.
“All right.” I picked up the first drawing. “What I see for you is a masculine environment. One with big bones. In fact, you’re already moving in that direction with the Mexican tiles and the wooden shutters you’re planning to install. Those design elements establish a strong tone, and the tone is male. So let’s take advantage of what’s already been decided.”Time for a little sugar.“Besides, a masculine setting is a perfect fit for your personality.”
He nodded. No argument there.
“So no small statements. We’ll write large.”
Stew took a sip of coffee then put down his mug. “I get the masculine drift,” he said, “but I’m not following the rest of it. You’re talking in decorator speak.”
Stew shrugged. “What’s the dif?”
I sighed. “They’re mostly the same.” Something I’d never conceded before, but we had a lot to discuss, and you have to pick your battles. A semantic skirmish with Stew was the last thing I wanted.
“What I see emerging is a desert palette,” I went on. “A warm Arizona sand tone on the walls.” I pointed to a paint swatch on the color board. “Distressed beams overhead. As for furniture, unstructured butter-soft couches and chairs in leather.” I handed him several leather samples to finger for texture. “These are colors that would work.”Now for a little more sugar.“We’ll make the seating large enough so a big guy like you will be comfortable.”
“Yeah, I like that idea,” Stew said, nodding.
I sent him a smile. “I was hoping you would. Some hand-loomed textiles for visual warmth and a few area rugs to soften things underfoot.” I gave him several catalog photographs to look over. “I’ve marked the pages with possibilities.”
He’d listened intently so far, but no point in barraging him with detail on our first run-through. “That’s it for openers. If we nail the basics, we can move on from there to accessories. The room jewelry—lamps, pillows, artwork.”
“Excellent. I like your plan. Only thing—you didn’t mention the bedroom. The master where Connie Rae...”
I nodded. “Yes?”
“I want you to start in there. Today if possible. Change everything. I mean everything. That includes getting rid of all her stuff. Once it’s boxed up, I’ll mail it to Arkansas. Otherwise Teresa and I can’t...otherwise, I’ll never get a good night’s sleep in there again.”
“I’ll be happy to start in your bedroom, but most people like to begin with the public rooms.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m not most people.” He gulped the rest of his coffee and stood. “I trust your ideas, so do what you want in the bedroom. Just make it look different. Get rid of the pink. Now if you ladies—” a slight nod to Teresa, “—will excuse me, I have to see what Tony’s up to.”
Left alone with Teresa, I repacked the portfolio, picked it up and said, “Well, let’s have a look at the master suite, shall we?”
She stopped her fake task at the sink, dried her hands and led me through the house to Stew’s bedroom. Unlike the day Connie Rae died, this time the draperies over the French doors were parted. In the bright afternoon light, the room was relentlessly pink, its focal point a king-sized bed in French provincial, all white curves and gold edging.
With the insight of a rocket scientist, I said, “Stew didn’t choose that bed, did he?”
Teresa chuckled. “No, it was in the house when he bought it. The rest of the things in here were also. Not the clothes, of course. Those were hers.”
“Hers?” I asked just to make Teresa say the name.
“That Connie Rae’s.”
“Oh, I see.” I pointed to the cardboard boxes on top of the satin bedspread. “You’re packing up Connie Rae’s things?”
“Yes, as I was asked to do,” Teresa replied with a prim sniff.
As you were dying to do.
“Well, don’t let me hold you up,” I said, glancing around. “I really can’t make changes in here until it’s cleaned out. Do you think Mr. Hawkins would switch to another bedroom while the renovation’s going on?”
She held up a skimpy black lace teddy that was more lurid holes than fabric. Three holes in particular. “Look at this. What decent woman would—”
“Well, what do you think?”
“It’s a disgrace, that’s what I think.”
“I mean about Stew moving into another bedroom temporarily.” I glanced out the French doors. He was standing in the blazing sun, discussing tile repairs with Tony and Mike.
“Oh not a problem. He’s already decided to sleep across the hall. I brought his clothes to a guest room this morning.” She folded the black lace teddy and laid it on top of a pile of sweaters.
“That going to Connie Rae’s mother?” I asked.
She looked up. “Everything is. Stew’s orders.”
“Maybe you should leave out the teddy.”
Teresa shook her head. “No, that wouldn’t be honest. Her mother should know what her daughter was like.”
“She was a sick girl who died at twenty-two. Her mother must be heartbroken.” I held out a hand. “Let me take care of it.”
For a minute, I thought she’d refuse, but after hesitating for a moment, she reluctantly plucked the teddy off the pile and slapped it onto my palm. I slipped it into the portfolio and made a mental note to tell Stew I had it. Who knows, maybe he could make good use of it again sometime. Anyway, while Teresa continued packing, I took some measurements, then studied my color chips. I needed a shade that would tie in with the main rooms, be masculine enough to suit Stew yet soft enough to create a relaxing atmosphere. Engrossed in my work, I forgot about Teresa until she came out of the walk-in closet with an armload of shoes and dumped them on the bed. One fell off and rolled under the pink dust ruffle.
“Oh, for heaven sake,” she muttered, bending over to grope under the ruffle. “Where did that darn thing go?”
The groping didn’t help, so she dropped to her knees and peered under the bed. That was all it took, one look, and she let out a wild scream—the kind that peels paint off walls—and scuttled backward on all fours. A safe distance from the bed, she leaped to her feet and yelled, “Get out of here. Run for your life.” Little more than a red blur, she disappeared down the hall.
Her cries must have reached the men outside. Startled, they stood frozen for an instant, then Stew dashed from the pool and sprinted for the great room door.
Whatever was hidden under the bed hadn’t hurt Teresa, just scared her. As she ran screaming through the house, my curiosity became stronger than my fear—or my common sense—and, heart pounding, I got down on my hands and knees, raised the dust ruffle and peered under the bed.
A pair of slanted eyes looked straight into mine, a jaw gaped wide and a long tongue flickered out.
I leaped up, faster than Teresa had, I swear, and raced over to the French doors. I flung them open and yelled at the top of my lungs, “Tony, get in here fast!”
Tony dropped his trowel, and with Mike hot on his tail, he rushed to the French doors.
“Under the bed,” I whispered.
He didn’t need any further instructions. Something in my voice must have told him everything he had to know. He knelt beside the bed, tossed the ruffle out of his way and, peering underneath the mattress, he reached for the snake.
Slowly, without hurry, he grasped the creature as I stood, horrified, next to the open door, ready to beat a retreat if need be.
With one hand behind the python’s head and one on its body, he pulled. And pulled and pulled. A cold sweat trickled down my back.Was there no end to the thing?
Finally, grunting with effort, he said, “Mike, give us a hand here. Take his head.”
Mike knelt and grabbed the snake’s front end. Flat on his belly now, Tony reached farther in and said, “Okay, I got him good.” Together, they dragged the python out to the center of the room where it writhed in their hands, ready to wrap itself around one of them and squeeze....
“This your fifteen footer?” Mike asked. “The one that escaped?”
Tony flashed him a warning glance to shut up. But impervious to hints, Mike glanced over at me, his hands full of snake, and said, “Isn’t this guy something? You don’t see one like this very often. His skin’s worth big bucks. You know how many pairs of shoes he’ll make?”
Hurried footsteps pounded along the hall. A moment later Stew hovered in the doorway. “Had to calm the housekeeper down. She was half nuts. What’s going...?” He took one look at the python stretching across his bedroom and all color drained from his face. “Where did you find it?”
“Under your bed,” I told him.
He pointed to his chest. “Under my...” His eyes widened and if anything he grew more ashen, and then like the day he discovered Connie Rae’s body, he passed out cold, toppling over like an axed redwood right across the struggling python.
“The snake! Get him off the snake,” Tony yelled. Mike dropped the python’s front end and, grabbing Stew’s feet, yanked him across the carpeting.
The movement woke Stew, who came to with a shudder. He sat up and aimed a shaky finger at the python writhing in Tony’s grasp. “You telling me I slept with that thing under my bed?”
“Looks that way,” Mike said cheerfully, picking up the python about a foot down from the head.
“When did he escape on you, Tone?” Mike asked.
“You ought to know,” Tony retorted, disgust clear in his tone. “You let him loose.”
“I didn’t let him loose. The boys in Jake’s Diner wanted to see him. I just forgot to relock his cage is all.”
“How long was it out?” Stew asked. “How long?”
“He got loose two days ago,” Tony said. “Thanks to this bonehead. It never should have happened. You’ve got my apology, Mr. Hawkins.”
“Hmmph,” was all Stew could muster, and from his position on the floor, he watched in silence as Tony and Mike hustled the snake out to a cage in the truck.
I spent the rest of the afternoon on damage control. Back in the great room, stretched out on the couch with a damp dish towel on her forehead, Teresa let me play nursemaid. Ditto for Stew, collapsed on a club chair. He refused a dish towel but gulped down a double scotch on the rocks.
Even though Tony vowed the fifteen footer was the only one missing, Stew had him search every room in the house to make certain no other pythons lurked in dark corners. In less than an hour, Tony declared the property snake free, and after all, he ought to know, he was the best snakeman in the business. Too bad he’d let Mike so carelessly manhandle the fifteen footer.
Once the house was again safe, Stew insisted that Tony and Mike drive “the damn snake off my property.” The two men left for the day with promises to return tomorrow.
Stew waved them off with a weary hand, and when Tony’s Tiles backed out of the driveway, he said, “I’d tell them to get lost for good, but I want that pool job finished. A couple more days should do it.”
With my two patients resting comfortably, I felt free to leave as well. Before I could, and as much as I didn’t want to, I had to return to the master bedroom to retrieve my portfolio. My car keys and wallet were in one of the side pockets.
For all the earlier excitement, the bedroom was now a calm if somewhat gaudy pink retreat, the dust ruffle still tossed over the mattress like a skirt hiked waist high. I flipped it down and made a mental note to dispense with a ruffle on Stew’s redo. His new bed would be platform style with no space underneath where critters could hide. I think Stew would appreciate that. At the very least, it would save him—or Teresa—from checking under the mattress every night before they went to sleep.
The pile of Connie Rae’s clothes covered the bedspread, ready to be packed into the shipping boxes. Topping the pile was a pretty lilac-flowered notebook, the kind a young girl might scribble in. Connie Rae’s journal? I picked it up and skimmed through a few pages. Had Connie Rae confided all of her secrets to this book, secrets she wouldn’t want her momma to know? For some reason—pity for her untimely end, perhaps—I wanted to protect the girl’s memory and her family from further hurt.
Not to be hypocritical about it, I was curious too. WhathadConnie Rae confided to this pretty flowered notebook?
Nothing much. Disappointed, I glanced through several pages, reading girlish confidences about manicures and haircuts and how she hated her boss, all told in loopy, unformed letters.
And then, pay dirt. Three weeks ago, right after her impulsive marriage, she wrote,
Tonight...afterwards...Itold Stew all about my
The accident victim had died on the operating table before he could be questioned. In light of that, Rossi rose early the next morning tense and troubled and not in the mood for conversation. Seeing him so worried, I was doubly glad I hadn’t added to his problems.
After he left for the station, I dressed more or less effectively in a short tomato-red skirt and a taupe cropped top that matched my cork-heeled slides. The emotional cloud that had darkened the day’s opening dissolved as I drove to work under a glorious blue sky. What a stunning ceiling that sky blue would make in our new home, especially in the bedrooms.
But there I went again, getting ahead of the game. I eased my foot on the gas pedal and rolled down the windows, continuing on to Fern Alley with the scents of gardenia and jasmine floating all around me.
According to its website, You’ve Been Framed didn’t open until ten, an hour from now. I used the time to leave a call-back message for Tom Kruse at Oceanside Finishes and made an urn of coffee that along with cookies we offered to drop-in customers. After Lee arrived, I helped her rearrange the display tables, and then at ten on the dot, my heart pulsing a bit overtime—would Naomi still be there?—I punched in the art shop’s number.
“You’re in luck. She’s here today,” owner Jane Walsh said. Her voice trailed off. “I don’t see her right now. Guess she stepped outside for a smoke. You want me to get her for you?”
“No, that isn’t necessary. Would you just tell her Deva Dunne called? I’m coming right over. Please ask her not to leave until I get there.”
“Sure thing. Will do.”
I hung up and reached into the desk drawer where I’d stashed my bag and the journal.
Busy with our first drop-in of the day, Lee was chatting about the merits of silk pillows over polyester. When I mimed that I had to leave, she nodded and went on talking.
I flung my bag over a shoulder, opened the center desk drawer and took out the two letters Mike Hammerjack had sent from Florida State Prison. If Naomi could shed some light on the journal’s mystery, why not on mystery man Mike? I already knew he’d been convicted for forgery, but what else might his handwriting reveal?
* * *
“Naomi’s out back again,” Jane told me when I arrived at You’ve Been Framed. “She spends more time outside than she does over there.”
“Over there” was a card table set up in a corner of the shop. Samples of Naomi’s calligraphy were pinned to a folding screen behind the table, and as always, the quality of her work stunned me. She made the most mundane address look like a work of art.
“You can use the back door if you like.” Jane pointed in the direction of her rear workroom.
I cut through the cluttered work space and pushed open a door that led out to a concrete slab overlooking a couple of trash cans and a small parking lot.
Seated in a plastic tub chair, taking in the view, was Naomi, the familiar gray pigtail snaking down the middle of her back much as I remembered.
“Hi, Naomi,” I said.
She swiveled around, cigarette in hand. “Well, hi there, girl, where you been lately?”
“Not too far. Busy, mostly.” I sank onto a plastic chair next to hers, downdraft from the smoke. In her thrift store jeans and outsized T-shirt, she looked older and thinner than she had a year ago.
“You keeping well?” I asked.
“As you see,” she said, inhaling the mother of all drags. She sucked the nicotine down to her toes and hung onto it for what seemed like forever before exhaling into the beautiful blue morning.
I pointed to the butt nestled between her stained fingers. “Those things will kill you yet, Naomi.”
She guffawed, a hoarse smoker’s laugh that ended in a rasping cough. “Your advice is a little late, Deva.”
I peered at her in the clear, merciless light. Circles of fatigue rimmed her eyes, and the lips that had been pursing around drags for years were sunken in a network of wrinkles.
I took her hand, the one without the butt dangling from it. “Are you telling me you’re sick?”
She glanced over at me, her eyes a fresh, startling blue in the wrinkled wreckage of her face. “I’m not telling you anything. You’re asking.”
“Well, you didn’t come to discuss my health, so what does bring you here?” She took a final drag, flicked the butt onto the concrete slab and stepped on it.
Clearly she was sick and didn’t want to talk about herself. For now, I had no choice but to respect her wishes, but later, as soon as I had Jane alone, I’d ask her about Naomi’s health. Though from the look of her, I feared I already had my answer.
“I have a job for you, Naomi. Some handwriting samples.”
Her eyes took on a shine. “Great.” She raised her arms and waved them at the ugly back lot. “This place is as good as any. So let’s have a look at what you brought.”
I took the journal from my bag, opened it to where Connie Rae mentioned Stew and handed the book to her. “Tell me what you see, and then I’ll tell you what I’m looking for. That okay?”
“Yes,” she said, already nose deep in the book.
While she perused it, I took in the view. Stare at something long enough and it starts to grow on you. I’d about decided the view really wasn’t ugly but part of the urban landscape when Naomi coughed and laid the notebook on her lap.
“You want to hear it?” she asked.
“Of course, that’s what I came for.”
“All right.” She reached for a cigarette, thought better of it, thank God, and dropped the pack back into her T-shirt pocket. “This is the writing of a young female.”
“Well, the lilac ink...”
She shook her head. “Not that. See the little circles over the i’s? No hetero guy does that. Mainly girls and immature women, but despite the emphasis on the middle zone, the writing is too literate to be that of a child. So I’m guessing she’s in her teens or early twenties.”
“What’s the middle zone?” I asked.
“You lost me, Naomi.”
She shrugged. “It happens. Think of the writing in Freudian terms—the id, ego and superego. Tall reaching strokes, like d’s and t’s, represent the superego, the spirit. The id, or sexuality, is found in the lower loops, the y’s and g’s. The middle zone, the a’s and o’s and e’s, is the ego or everyday reality. That’s where children live, and this example is written mostly in the middle zone. The writer, though not a child, is naïve and very sweet.”
“Where do you see sweet?”
She pointed to a word. “Look at this one. See how the letters are rounded? Almost no sharp edges, no spiky strokes, no long lower loops.”
“So you’re not seeing much id?”
What about that black lace teddy with all the erotic holes?Stew’s idea?
“But the weak id could be the result of illness. She’s a sick girl.”
“Oh, Naomi, I can’t believe you see that.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Sickness always shows.”
I knew she wasn’t talking about Connie Rae in that moment. Reaching across, I took her hand and squeezed it. I didn’t dare ask any more questions about her own health. Above all else, Naomi was a private person. Nor did I get to ask how she could tell the writer was sick, she volunteered the information. “The writing pressure is uneven. She isn’t maintaining an even hand. See, here and here.” Naomi touched the places where the lilac ink was lighter than elsewhere. “That’s a total giveaway.”
She brushed away the tear sliding down her cheek. “But none of this is why you brought the girl’s sample to me. What, exactly, are you after?”
I plucked the notebook from her lap and pointed to the place where Connie Rae mentioned her heart condition to Stew. “In here. Is she telling the truth, or is she lying?”
Naomi took the book and read where I indicated. A few seconds only and she handed it back to me. “She’s not lying. Absolutely no indication of lies at all.”
“How can you be sure? It’s important, Naomi.”
She smiled. “I won’t ask why. If it is, it is. But I can tell you this—in a case of conscious lying, the writing loses spontaneity. The writer hesitates to think up the lie. That creates a longer space between words and a tensing in the strokes.” She pointed to the place. “Take a look for yourself. No wide spaces, no loss of roundness. According to the rules of graphology, the girl’s telling the truth.” She paused, and asked softly, “What happened to her? Did she get well?”
I shook my head. “No. She wasn’t given the chance.”
The back door barged open, startling us. Jane poked her head out and said, “A woman in the shop needs some wedding invitations. You want to see her?”
“Tell her I’ll be right in.” Naomi rose out of the stiff plastic chair with difficulty. “Shucks. I wanted a smoke, but guess I can’t now.”
“Before you go in, I have another sample for you to look at. No hurry. It’ll wait until you have some free time.”
“Ha! That’s most always.”
I handed her the Mike Hammerjack letters. Knowing she usually sold herself short and would refuse payment if it were offered outright, I’d slipped some twenties into the envelopes while she studied the journal. “See what these yield, Naomi, and give me a buzz when you’re through.”
“Righto.” She turned to go inside.
“Hey, girlfriend,” I said. “Not so fast.” I caught her in a bear hug. Underneath the loose T-shirt, Naomi Pierce was a bag of bones. I wondered if her calligraphy would reveal that she was dying. I hoped to God it wouldn’t, but one sad thing thathadbeen revealed today—however unprovable it might be in a court of law—Stew Hawkins had lied. He knew his wife had a life-threatening illness but denied it. The question was why. What was he hiding?
Though Naomi answered a lot of questions, she couldn’t answer that one. No one could except Stew himself.
I’d hardly pulled away from the curb in front of You’ve Been Framed when my cell phone rang. Da da da DA.
Caller ID said Tom Kruse. Excellent.
I pressed Talk and when he answered, I said, “Where are you? You sound like you’re in an echo chamber.”
His chuckle came through the line like a men’s barbershop quartet. “I’m in an empty store in a strip mall. Getting it ready for the new owner.”
My heart sank. “You’re tied up then?”
“No just the opposite. I’m about finished here. Things are slow right now, the season and all...”
“Then the stars are in alignment. I have a question for you.”
“Do you have two trucks and two crews?”
“Yeah.” He stretched the word out into a question.
“Marvelous. I need two trucks the same color and the same size. Two crews with the same number of men in each crew. They both have to arrive at the job at the same time each day and begin work at the same time. Oh, and they have to be dressed exactly alike.”
“With all due respect, Deva, that’s the daffiest request I’ve ever had. Even coming from you.” His laugh echoed over the line.
I guess he’d never forgotten the time I gave him a rotten mango and asked him to copy the skin color for a dining room wall. He had, and the room turned out great.
“I’ll explain everything when I see you,” I said. “Want to meet me at Whiskey Lane tomorrow afternoon? Two o’clock?”
“That’ll work. What’s the number?”
I didn’t know whether to say 590 or 595, or the middle of the road. But since James seemed more sensitive to slights than Stew, we’d better start at the Stahlman house. “Five ninety.”
Meeting date agreed upon, we both hung up, with Tom probably shaking his head, and who could blame him?
At Fern Alley, I found Deva Dunne Interiors packed with shoppers. The minute I put a foot in the door, Lee whispered, “I’m so glad you’re back. There’s a convention at the Ritz. Cosmetics distributors and they love to shop. They’re buying up everything in sight.” She nodded at the line forming in front of the sales counter. “Y’all need to ring up those sales.”
I hurried over, guilty at having ignored my business for the sake of what might well be called a wild goose chase. To make up for my neglect, I treated each and every customer as if she were a friend who’d just dropped in for a social visit and packed every purchase extra carefully in tissue paper, even tied big wired-ribbon bows on the handles of every gift bag. Guilt is a powerful instrument. Besides, the day’s tally would be terrific after this unexpected bonanza, but what I had to keep in mind was these drop-in purchases, though nice, didn’t keep the business viable. For that, Deva Dunne Interiors needed design customers who wanted far more than a pair of souvenir candlesticks or a sofa pillow from Florida. In short, I needed customers like James Stahlman and Stew Hawkins.
While trying to fathom whatever mystery surrounded the deaths of both their wives wasn’t part of my job description, redoing their houses definitely was. So as soon as the crowd thinned out and Lee could handle the sales alone, I called first James then Stew and firmed up tomorrow’s appointments with the painter.
* * *
When I drove up to 590 the next afternoon, Tom Kruse was waiting for me in his truck. We strolled up the brick walk together and rang the chimes.
“You’re in luck,” I told him. “You get to meet Charlotte.”
“Oh really? A cutie?”
She greeted us at the door, all yips and leaps and happy barks. Ignoring James’s request to be a good girl, she licked my ankles and sniffed the cuffs of Tom’s pants.
“Meet Charlotte,” I said to him, “and not incidentally Mr. James Stahlman.”
Tom’s face fell at the sight of the cutie, but he recovered fast and shook hands with James who scooped up Charlotte for the grand tour.
I was somewhat surprised to see James at home. Not young, but not of retirement age either, he seemed never to be busy, never out and about, as if his main occupation were keeping Charlotte entertained. According to the newspaper account of his wife Marilyn’s drowning, he had been a well-to-do stockbroker at the time of her death and was presumed to be the likely heir of her considerable fortune. Which could well be the reason he lived a life of leisure.
I huffed out a sigh. There I went again, venturing into what was none of my business. So giving Charlotte a topknot pat—her bow was purple today—I accompanied James and Tom, who with his clipboard at the ready took notes as we moved from room to room.
“Flat white on all the ceilings,” I said. “Classic semi-gloss white on the woodwork throughout, except for the kitchen—Mr. Stahlman and I haven’t yet discussed what he wants done in there—and linen white on most of the walls.” Tom nodded. We had worked together on several projects, and he was familiar with my preferences. “For a color jolt, vivid coral behind the living room bookcases and in the foyer. I’ll give you the manufacturer’s number for that.”
“Excuse me, Deva,” James said. “You are aware that blue is my favorite color?”
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t forget anything so important, but blue is a cool shade and if not used carefully can make an interior appear...well, cold. To avoid that, we’ll introduce blue in your upholstered pieces and pillows and in some porcelains. Little blue islands, if you will. I found a gorgeous blue-and-ivory-striped fabric for the dining room chairs. And a silvery blue paper that will be stunning in the powder room.”
James didn’t object, so encouraged, I went on, “And if we bring an oriental into the dining room, we’ll strive for one with a few blue tones. Faded blue for elegance.” I ventured a smile and pointed to one of the drab living room walls. “Faded blue in orientals isn’t the same as in wallpaper.”
James placed Charlotte carefully on the floor and clapped. Actually clapped. “Bravo, Deva! Bravo. I like everything you’re suggesting.”
“So do I.”
We all swiveled around to the source of the voice. It was Kay in high-heeled sandals and a drop-dead bikini. The bra consisted of white stars on a blue ground and the bottom of red and white stripes. It was enough to make you want to salute. The sheer blue pareo cruising her hips didn’t conceal much either.
Tom stared at her, mouth agape, and lost his grip on the tape measure he’d been extending along one of the walls. It zinged back into its metal holder with a loudwhack!No wonder. For forty Kay looked good. For thirty she looked good. Ditto for twenty...well, twenty-five.
“Kay,” James said, his tone cool with disapproval, “a cover-up?”
“Hardly necessary, Jimmy. I’m heading for the pool. Ta-ta, everyone.”
So therewasa pool on the property. I glanced outside. The terrace steps led down to a clipped lawn that ended in a carefully pruned boxwood hedge. The pool had to be discreetly hidden behind the hedge.
Anyway, Kay slipped through the sliders and started down the terrace stairs.
Carrying Charlotte, James hurried outside. “Careful, darling, those stairs are wet and—”
Too late. Whether James distracted her, or her ankle twisted, or the stairs really were slippery, Kay lost her balance and tumbled down the length of the stone steps, landing at the bottom with a thud.
“Here,” James said, dumping Charlotte in my arms and hurrying to Kay, who lay unmoving.
He knelt beside her. “Darling,” he murmured. “Darling.”
She had landed on her side, one arm raised in an instinctive gesture to protect her head. At the sound of his voice, she stirred and attempted to sit up while tucking a breast back under the stars. James helped her with both attempts then sat holding her and murmuring into her ear.
Cradling Charlotte, I called down, “Do you need 9-1-1?”
Kay shook her head.
“No,” James replied. “She’s fine. Just needs a minute to rest.”
I watched them for a while longer until Kay, with James’s help, got to her feet and together they started up the stairs.
“I’ll make this fast,” Tom said to me quietly. In command of his tape again, he went back to measuring, calculating the amount of materials and man hours he’d need to transform the interior into what I intended to be a showstopper. In this opulent neighborhood, a stunning redo might result in some good word-of-mouth PR, exactly what Deva Dunne Interiors needed. Especially now, with that empty Calista lot waiting for its new house.
I gave Charlotte’s bow a pat. “How about I put you down?”
“Is that a yes or a no? Help me out here. I don’t speak your language too well.”
I bent down and set her on the floor. The instant her paws touched wood, she barked out several woofs in a row and stood on her hind legs. Crisis or no crisis, she needed attention, so I picked her up again. I guess I did understand Maltese speak. Besides, James had enough to deal with at the moment. With Kay in tow, he’d nearly reached the living room sliders.
Once inside, leaning heavily on his arm, Kay limped over to the sofa and stretched out. Alert but somewhat pale, she appeared shaken by the experience. No wonder, a fall like that could kill a person. She’d been lucky, the only damage appeared to be a rapidly swelling left ankle.
“Deva,” James said, taking Charlotte from me and looking as pale as Kay. “Would you please go into the kitchen and tell Eileen we need an ice pack?”
“Of course.” I hurried to the back wing and pushed open the swinging door to a kitchen that could be called retro or mid-twentieth century or just plain shabby. Whatever. It was slated for a redo, but for now I had a more pressing task. I was on an errand of mercy.
Standing at the sink, as sturdy and reliable as I remembered, Eileen glanced over at me and managed a little smile. “I saw Mrs. Hawkins take that tumble and thought she might be needing this.” She held out an ice pack nestled in a soft white towel. “I wish Mr. Stahlman would do something about those stairs. They’re treacherous.”
“I’ll mention it to him.” I took the ice pack from her and hurried back to the living room. James tenderly draped it over Kay’s ankle as Tom, looking a little goofy with Charlotte in his arms, tried not to stare at the bikini.
As soon as Tom’s measurements were complete, we said goodbye and crossed Whiskey Lane to number 595.
Teresa, in a cheetah-print jumpsuit cinched with a wide black belt, let us in. “Stew...Mr. Stew...is at work,” she said. “He wants you to go ahead and do what you have to do.”
Good. Without Stew’s heavy presence, the task would go faster, and Tom would only have Teresa’s jumpsuit to interfere with his concentration. It hadpowappeal, no doubt about that, but wasn’t in the same league as a flag bikini. After seeing Kay’s effect on staid, solidly married Tom Kruse, well, I was beginning to wonder if James had been right about Stew’s motivation in moving across the street. Maybe hewasstill in love with Kay and reallywasrunning a one-man surveillance operation.
Anyway, Tom and I went through the house, discussing the parameters of the job and the effect I was looking for.
“I want the rooms to have personality,” I told him. “Not just be color coordinated.”
“Right. Personality.” He sent me a glance that said,There you go again,Deva,just like that time with the mango, and calmly wrote down what I asked. In short, Tom was a consummate professional and a joy to work with.
Teresa followed us as we worked. I guess she was making sure we didn’t steal the family silver, for halfway through she said, “By the way, I told Stew about the teddy you took.”
“Oh? That’s fine.”
“Yeah. He said you can keep it.”
“How sweet. I hope you told him I took it for safekeeping. That I was concerned it might accidentally be sent to Connie Rae’s mother.”
She shrugged. “No, it never occurred to me to tell him that.”
Of course it had. She’d deliberately let him think I was a thief. I gave an internal sigh. Well, technically I was. “I’ll explain my reasoning to Mr. Hawkins when I see him.”
I was relieved that she hadn’t mentioned the notebook. Maybe Stew didn’t care that I took the teddy, but for sure he’d care about the notebook. At the moment, it was in the handbag slung over my shoulder, but I had no intention of relinquishing it before Rossi had a chance to read what it said.
As Teresa went to walk away, I said, “Do thank Mr. Hawkins for me, but I have no use for the teddy, so I’ll bring it back. It’ll be perfect on you.”
Okay, I had a brief moment of satisfaction telling Teresa that basically she was a slut. And I’d lied too. She wasn’t getting the teddy. I’d already thrown it in the trash. I was wrong on both counts. Nana Kennedy would be furious if she found out. Though I missed her terribly, maybe it was just as well she had passed away fifteen years ago.
“Say what you mean,” she’d once told me, “but always be kind. Nasty remarks are not worthy of God’s children. Unless,” she’d added, eyes atwinkle, “you’re pressed to the wall. Then let ’er rip.” She’d held up a warning finger. “Now don’t be goin’ out of your way to find trouble, but when it finds you, stand up for yourself. Remember, you’re a Kennedy.” Well, a Dunne soon to be a Rossi.
Whatever my name, that exchange with Teresa didn’t make the cut as trouble. Bottom line, I was ashamed of myself and vowed to be extra kind the next time we met. I fretted over it all the way to Fern Alley where a surprise awaited—Rossi. He leaped up from the zebra settee and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“Glad you’re back. Though the wait gave me a chance to visit with Lee.” He winked at her. “Don’t tell your husband.”
“I most certainly will,” she said with mock indignation.
I laughed, enjoying their banter. As Rossi had said once, Lee was the daughter he’d never had—yet.
“We have an appointment,” he informed me, checking his watch. “In one hour.”
“Uh-huh. I made an executive decision. We’re meeting an architect at the house lot. Harlan Conway, to be exact.”
“Wonderful! I meant to call him earlier but I—”
“Got busy. I had a feeling that would happen, so I went ahead. You okay with that?”
“Love it.” He really wanted this new house, one I would help design and furnish and decorate to my heart’s content, and the knowledge of that swept through me, leaving a warm glow in its wake.
I turned to Lee, who was listening and smiling at us. I guess in some ways, we were like the parents she no longer had. Leaving her to lock up, we left for Calista Sands. Early for our meeting, we sat companionably in the Mustang waiting for Harlan, enjoying the view.
Rossi had recovered from his worries of the morning and leaned back in his seat with a sigh of content. “Look at the sky. It’s as blue as the water. And look at those palm trees over there.”
“They’re beautiful, I agree completely.”
“And look at—”
He sat up straight and tore his gaze from the palms to glance over at me. “What’s that?”
“Connie Rae Hawkins’s journal.”
“The girl who died?”
“What are you doing with it?”
“I, ah, borrowed it.”
He frowned. “No euphemisms, Deva. You swiped it.”
“Temporarily,” I said, my tone all oily. “There’s something in it I think you should see.” Ignoring his disapproval, I opened to the page where Stew learned about Connie Rae’s heart and handed the notebook to him. “Read this.”
He did, snapped the book closed and gave it back to me. “Poor kid, but what’s your point in showing me this?”
“Stew Hawkins knew she needed heart surgery.”
“He told me he never knew she was ill. Not until the coroner’s report.”
Rossi’s brow knitted together. “Even if you did catch him in a lie, what does that prove? The ME verified the cause of death. The girl succumbed to natural causes.”
“Stew had a reason for lying, and the reason wasn’t a good one. He was hiding something.”
Rossi nodded in that infuriating, look-at-all-angles-before-you-leap nod. “Say he did lie, this book proves nothing. Need I remind you no crime has been committed?”
“What makes you so sure, Rossi? What makes you so sure?”
He never did get to reply. A sleek black Infiniti pulled onto the lot behind us, and a handsome, blond Viking stepped out from behind the wheel.
Harlan Conway in the gorgeous flesh. I’d kind of forgotten how beautiful he was, then his opening salvo brought everything back.
He nodded at us by way of greeting and pointed to Rossi’s beat-up Mustang.
Rossi nodded, his eyes wary.
“How old is it?”
“Let me put it this way,” Rossi said. “It can vote. That answer your question?”
Harlan shrugged. “The neighbors...”
“What about them?”
“Oh nothing, I just wondered.”
Some things, and some people, never change, but before our meeting deteriorated any further, I asked, “What do you think of the lot, Harlan?”
He glanced around, his keen professional eye not missing a detail. “Narrow. You’ll be limited in what you can build, size-wise, but for something compact, I think it’ll work.”
“I know it will,” Rossi said, leaving no doubt for argument.
I couldn’t speak for Harlan, but as for me, I was totally on the same page as Rossi. He wanted a house here so badly I was determined we would make the lot work. And work supremely well.
“Compact has many meanings, Harlan,” I said, not even attempting to hide the annoyance in my voice. “Let’s discuss that concept before we go any further.”
We stood by the Mustang and watched Harlan back his Infiniti off the lot. Rossi’s happy anticipation had dimmed to a scowl. “You sure the guy’s as good as you thought?”
Deflated, too, by Harlan’s supercilious airs, I nodded grudgingly. “Check out his website. He’s posted some awesome projects. You’ll see. He does brilliant work.”
“I’ve already checked out the site,” Rossi said. “That’s why I called him. But he’s a pain in the butt to deal with.” He peered at me. “Is having him design a house worth putting up with his attitude?”
“Yes and yes. Let me put it this way...did a producer ever fire Marilyn Monroe for being difficult?”
Rossi’s lips curled up. “As an analogy that one has flaws. Shewasfired from her last film, just before her death. But I get your drift. Okay, you’re the designer; I’ll bow to your wisdom in this. With one caveat. Conway deals with the designer, not the detective.”
“Done. I’ll shake on that. But you could help me out with a list of what you want in the house, and what you don’t want. Kind of a guide.”
“I want you in the house, and I don’t want to live in it without you.”
That was even more beautiful than the view. Disregarding any neighbors who might be looking, I flung my arms around him and kissed him until we were both breathless. Finally, reluctantly, we pulled apart. “What do you say we get back in the car?” Rossi said.
“Your legs are wobbly, huh?”
He laughed. “So’s my reputation in the ‘hood.’”
We settled onto the Mustang’s front seat and watched the orange sun sink slowly into the horizon. When the light show ended, I said, “Seriously, Rossi, I really do need to know your preferences. What you like in colors and furnishings and that kind of thing.”
He shook his head. “You know my house in Countryside is Beige City. I have no preferences.”
“Well, one. A king-sized bed and dark shades for when we want to sleep late. Maybe one of those thick covers. The kind that’s full of feathers.”
“That’s it, and extra pillows.” He smiled a dreamy smile. “A little radio for night music would be nice.”
“How about a central sound system instead?”
His eyes brightened. “That would be great. But only if the controls are on my side of the bed so I can turn it down. And up.” He grinned wickedly.
“I’ll be certain to include every one of those ideas. What about the kitchen?”
“I want one.”
“How many baths?”
“One a day. Sometimes two.”
“All right, you win. I give up. Let’s go home to Surfside and have something to eat.”
Rossi plainly hadn’t given up, and though I wasn’t overly concerned about the neighbors, nor was he—at least not in the same sense Harlan seemed to be—I figured we needed to do our teenage necking behind closed doors. That was fine with Rossi too.
The next morning he’d already gone for the day and I was about to leave for work when the Tony’s Tiles truck cruised onto the Surfside parking lot and stopped outside my front windows. Mike Hammerjack sat behind the wheel, staring at my door, no doubt checking out the address.
Not good. Not good at all.
He parked and jumped out of the truck dressed for God knew what in shit kickers, tight cutoffs and a black muscle shirt. Not exactly a flag bikini, but a head-swiveler, nonetheless, especially with those tattooed pecs of his.
Now what? Pretend I wasn’t home, or answer the bell and let him in? Neither choice was a viable option. I had to get to work, and I didn’t want him in my home. Bottom line, I didn’t trust him. He’d let Tony’s python loose, hadn’t he? And though I tried to keep an open mind, hewasa paroled felon.
He wasted no time strutting toward my condo, and I wasted no time grabbing my bag, dashing outside and locking the door behind me.
“Well, there you are,” he said, smiling as he approached. “I wasn’t sure I had the right place.”
“You don’t. How did you get my home address?”
My cool welcome didn’t faze him a bit. “A man has his ways,” he said, shrugging off my question. “Tony’s over at Jake’s Diner having breakfast, so I thought I’d stop by and show you some more of the Help-a-Con furniture. I’ve got a desk in the truck and a couple of chairs.” His brows came together. “You already saw one of the tables.”
Had I? All I remembered was the snakes.
While I wasn’t happy to see Mike at my doorstep, I did need to take a good, hard look at the prison-made pieces before ordering any for my clients. So I followed him over to the pickup without any further protest.
Before he unlocked the back panel doors, I said, “Any surprises in there today?”
A grin cracked his face wide open.
Oh?Scaring me with a truck full of snakes had been funny, had it? Fuming that he might have set me up that day, I examined the furniture in silence. But I soon got over my snit. The cons had done a marvelous job. The joints on each chair fit smoothly, the mitered desk drawers slid in and out without a single squeak, and best of all, I loved the finishes. No high shine, no glare, just a nice polished effect.
“They’re terrific,” I said. “If everything is this good, I’ll definitely place an order.”
I shook my head. “The answer to that is no.”
“Too bad. I got a message from one of the boys. They’ve been wondering. They don’t like waiting. They wait enough, you know what I mean?”
The hot summer air, heavy with sea salt and humidity, did nothing to cool my irritation and a lot to frizz my hair. Steaming hot and getting hotter by the minute, I lost it and threw caution to the winds.
“Let’s get the record straight,” I said, shifting my bag from one shoulder to the other. “No pun intended, of course.”
He laughed anyway. An accommodating guy, Mike Hammerjack.
“The furniture’s great. No problem there, but I have a place of business, and this isn’t it. So in the future, please remember I do not...not...see clients in my home. My phone is unlisted largely for that reason. That means you are trespassing on my privacy. And I don’t like that.”
“Oh, come on—”
“Secondly, I cannot guarantee anything to the men in prison. If possible I’ll be glad to help, but if you’ve made promises—” he looked so taken aback at that, I knew he had, “—I can’t help it. The next time...” He went to speak, but I held up a finger and he stopped. “The next time you need to contact me, call the shop.”
“I hate to see a beautiful lady like you so mad.” He put a hand on my arm.
As if scalded, I jerked it away. “Our acquaintance is strictly business, and that will end if this scene is ever repeated.”
“You’ve got the wrong idea, Mrs. Dunne.”
“No, you have.” I walked away, heart pounding, fully expecting him to do something nasty—leap on my back, knock me to the ground, hit me over the head. But I reached the Audi unscathed and slipped behind the wheel.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I backed out of my slot in the carport, put the car in drive and headed out of the parking lot. Or so I thought. I’d only gone a few feet when coming fast was the panel truck with Tony’s Tiles on the side and Mike Hammerjack at the controls.
With an ear-shattering crash, the truck struck the Audi head-on. The impact whiplashed me backward and then forward. My head struck the windshield with acrunch, and out I went like the proverbial light.
* * *
The next thing I knew, a man sitting beside me on the passenger seat was patting my cheeks and cooing my name. When his hand slid down my arm, I opened my lids to a narrow slit.
A few inches away, Mike, his jaw tight, gazed at me with big, blue eyes.
“Mrs. Dunne, are you all right?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered. I fingered my forehead. A lump the size of Mt. Rushmore had popped out above my left temple. And my right knee hurt more than my head.
Excited voices floated in the air. The crash must have brought out the neighbors. Someone knocked on the driver’s side window. Chip, my next-door neighbor to the rescue. He yanked the door open and peered in, his round face a moon of anxiety.
“Deva, you all right?”
I gave him a cautious nod—even so, the earth tilted on its axis. “Everybody’s asking me that,” I said, trying to convince myself that the world wasn’t spinning overtime.
Chip bent down and glanced across the front seat. “Who are you?” he asked Mike.
“Hammerjack’s the name.”
“You the driver of that truck?”
“Well, you did a number on Deva’s car. This is a private lot, not a speedway. How fast were you going?”
“I’m not sure. My foot slipped off the brake. I guess my driving’s a little rusty.”
“That so?” Chip didn’t sound convinced. I might have moaned, for Chip snapped his attention from Mike back to me. “I’m calling 9-1-1.”
“No, please.” I grasped his wrist.
“From the size of that lump, you have a head injury. You need to get to the hospital and have it looked at.”
“Okay, but no ambulance, please. Let’s not turn this into a big deal.”
Chip frowned, then nodded. “It’ll be faster if I don’t argue, so fine, we’ll do it your way. But first I’m calling the NPD and asking for the lieutenant.”
I definitely moaned that time. Not too thrilled about my association with Mike Hammerjack to begin with, Rossi would be less than thrilled over this accident. The last thing I’d wanted to do was add to his worries, but no way around it, I’d done exactly that.
Mike stirred on the seat next to me. “I better move the truck out of the way.”
Too weary suddenly to talk, I leaned back on the headrest and closed my eyes, aware of a deep throbbing at my temple and a worse pain in my knee. Mike’s hot breath fanned my cheek. “I’m real sorry about all this.”
“I know,” I said. Did I? Was he?
“Before I go, can you tell me something?” he said. “Why’s the big guy calling a lieutenant? This isn’t a crime scene.”
I opened my eyes. Mike’s usually cheerful expression had disappeared, replaced with a scared kind of tension.
“Lieutenant Rossi’s my fiancé,” I said.
“Oh my God.” The color drained from Mike’s face. He took my hand and squeezed it. For emphasis, I guess. “Be sure to tell him this was an accident, will you? Or I could end up back in State.”
My eyes flared open. Mike was desperate...but why? Of course the crash was an accident. My heart skipped a beat. Or had he rammed my car on purpose?
The question was too much for my aching head. With Chip’s help, I eased out of the wounded Audi and slowly limped over to the passenger seat of his Malibu.
Chip’s wife, AudreyAnn, in a pink terry robe and fluffy slippers, waited alongside holding a pencil and a piece of paper.
“Get the truck driver’s information,” Chip told her, nodding at Mike. “License, registration and insurance. Then call a towing service for the Audi. I need to get Deva to the ER.”
Chip slid behind the wheel of the Malibu. If he spoke on the drive to the hospital, I didn’t hear him. I dozed—off and on—as we wove through morning traffic to the Naples Community Hospital. When he pulled up at the ER entrance, Rossi stood waiting with a wheelchair, as grim-faced as I’d ever seen him.
As soon as Chip hit the brake, Rossi yanked open the passenger side door.
“You’re conscious,” he said. No hello. No smile.
“Of course.” I left off “barely.”
He leaned farther into the car. “Chip, you took a chance. Why didn’t you call 9-1-1?”
“This was faster,” Chip replied. “It cut out the argument.”
A wry smile lifted Rossi’s lips. “Say no more, my friend. And thank you. I’ll take her in. The ER staff is expecting her.”
“The ER staff isexpectingme? What did you do, Rossi, pull rank?”
“You could say that,” he said, helping me into the wheelchair. Chip gave me a farewell buss on the cheek and waved goodbye. Without wasting a minute, Rossi pushed my chair through the automatic doors.
Though the dizziness had settled over me like fog, I did notice the waiting room held only a single man. Satisfied that Rossi wasn’t wheeling me past a roomful of dire emergencies, I relaxed a little, and once inside a curtained cubicle, I lay on the hospital bed with a sigh of gratitude. My head hurt, dammit, and my knee hurt worse. And over and above those concerns another loomed large—a growing realization that the accident should never have happened.
The ER physician, a young resident from the boyish look of him, examined me and ordered a CT scan of my head and an X-ray of my knee. The upshot, several hours later, was that I had suffered a bone bruise on the knee, but despite the blow to the occipital region of my head, no concussion.
A kind of minor miracle, the doc told me. “You have a hard head, lady,” he said, a medical joke with all the freshness of a stale donut.
Still I sent him a grateful smile and went to get out of bed. The spinning started up immediately, and I fell back against the pillow.
“I suggest you go home and rest for the day. See how you feel in the morning before resuming your usual activities.” He paused. “The knee will take a while. Bone bruises are slow to heal. If it bothers you unduly, I suggest you see an orthopedic specialist.”
A handshake and he was gone. A moment later, the cubicle curtain parted again. “Rossi chauffeuring at your service. You’ve been sprung.”
I sat up slowly and, to my relief, nothing spun in front of my eyes. “I’m so sorry for all this.” The tears I’d been holding in leaked out onto my johnny. “You have enough to do without worrying about me.”
“Worrying about you is my main occupation. The department is a poor second to that,” he said, kissing my wet cheeks then handing me a fistful of tissues. “Also I do double duty as a ladies’ maid.” He opened the bedside stand, lifted out my clothes and held up my bra and panties. “This’ll be a first, putting them on instead of taking them off.”
“Rossi, give me my clothes and go find a nurse. A female one.”
With a chuckle, he did, and a half hour later, I was back at Surfside, stretched out on the living room couch with an ice pack on my knee and a pillow under my head. Where I needed to be was Fern Alley, running my business but, truthfully, I couldn’t have driven downtown nor functioned normally if I had to. So I lay there, outwardly calm and inwardly fuming, while Rossi went next door for the information Mike had given AudreyAnn.
He also went to have a look at the accident site. With my car towed away for repairs and Tony’s truck gone as well, I didn’t see what good it would do.
I should have known Rossi wouldn’t waste his time. Ten minutes later, he returned to my condo looking none too happy.
“The skid marks from that truck are facing in toward the building, not out toward the street. Where the hell did Hammerjack think he was going? There’s no way out of the lot in the direction he was headed. I don’t believe in accidents, Deva. I think the guy may have rammed you on purpose.”
Still flat out on the sofa, I answered Rossi’s questions as best I could and watched his face go from grim to grimmer. After serving me a bowl of canned chicken soup, he was determined to find out exactly what had happened and left for Whiskey Lane, to pay a call on Mike at the Hawkins house. And, I suspected, to scare the daylights out of him while he was at it.
I dozed for a while and awoke with the late afternoon sun streaming through my windows. Restored by the nap, I risked getting off the couch to freshen up. My head ached, but the dizziness had disappeared. The knee was another story. It throbbed as badly as earlier. I hobbled out to the kitchen, put the thawed ice pack in the freezer and took out a bag of frozen peas—Rossi hated them anyway—to lay on the knee.
On the way back to the couch, I plucked my tote off a club chair. At least I could make a few calls and not waste the entire day.
Lee assured me all was well at the shop, which made me feel happy and obsolete at the same time. Actually gratitude quickly took over. I was lucky to have someone as reliable and capable as Lee helping me run the business. She deserved to be rewarded for all she did, and the same thought I’d had for a while popped up again: I should offer her a partnership in the business. A junior partnership to begin with and gradually as her design skills grew, make her a full partner with a client list of her own. Then we could hire someone to work on the floor and keep the shop...Dunne & St. James Interiors...open without interruption. It was a good idea, one that lifted my spirits.
They stayed elated, too, until I called You’ve Been Framed and spoke to Jane Walsh.
“Naomi’s not in today,” she said, “and I don’t know whether she’ll return.”
“How is she, Jane, really? I’m worried about her. She didn’t look well the other day.”
Jane cleared her throat as if weighing what she could or couldn’t tell me, then came out with a shocker: “She’s been given six months.”
“Oh.” I slumped farther down on the sofa. The peas fell off my knee, but I didn’t care. “I’m so sorry. Her lungs?”
“Yes. She said if you called to tell you she wants to talk about some letters of yours. Said it was important. Wait a minute, I have her home phone number around here somewhere.” A thump as the phone hit the desk.
While she searched, I scrambled in my tote for a pen and a scrap of paper. She came back on the line, gave me the number and said, “Mum’s the word on the six months, okay?”
“I won’t say a thing, I promise. Thanks for trusting me with the truth.”
“No problem.” Except, of course, there was.
I took a deep, reinforcing gulp of air and rang Naomi’s number.
Instead of a hello, she answered with a cough.
“Hi, girlfriend,” I said, when she caught her breath.
“Deva?” she asked, her voice a raspy whisper.
“I’m glad you called. I mailed those Hammerjack letters back to you along with twenty bucks. You paid me too much.”
“No, I didn’t. You deserved every penny.” Another racking cough. “You feel like talking about what you found? If not, it’ll wait.”
“No it won’t. You’ve got quite a dude there, Deva. Oh, he’s charming, all right, but not to be trusted. I wanted you to know—” she stopped to draw in a ragged breath, “—before something happened.”
“Well, something has.”
“Yeah? Not surprising. I saw the prison address, but that’s not what alerted me. When you get his letters, look at his signature. It’s a mile high in comparison with the rest of his writing. You’ll see a lot of fancy swirls around theMin Mike. That’s self-importance, or you can call it an inflated ego. Either way, nothing illegal about it. But take a look at how he writes his y’s and g’s. The guy uses the felon’s claw.”
“The felon’s claw? What on earth is that?”
“It’s coming from a downstroke and immediately going into a claw shape below the line. It’s underhanded, goes against the norm.”
I could tell she was sucking in the air trying to get a full breath.
She mustn’t have succeeded, for she said, “There’s more, but not today. I’m done. Gotta get to my oxygen tank.”
“Thanks a million. You’ve helped me more than you know. And as soon as I get the letters, I’m sending back the twenty.”
“Don’t bother,” she rasped. “If you do, I’ll use it to light a cigar.”
My turn to gasp. “You smoke them, too!”
“Only when forced to.Ciao.”
She hung up wheezing and laughing, but I hung up saddened and troubled. Saddened about Naomi and troubled about Mike Hammerjack. Now that I had some insight into his character, what in the world was I supposed to do about it?
I was still mulling over the Mike Hammerjack problem when Rossi walked in. It was early evening by then, and he carried a frozen pizza and a bottle of Chianti. Dinner. Oh well, his pizza was better than his scrambled eggs, and I really wasn’t hungry anyway.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, eyeing me from head to toe and frowning.
“As you see.”
“I thought so. What’s with the peas?”
“You freeze them and put them on your knee.”
“So that’s the reason people grow them?”
“Seriously, you okay?”
“Not true. I can see your freckles. That’s never a good sign.”
Freckles.Something else to worry about.“How about you put the pizza in the kitchen and then tell me what happened with Mike?”
“You got it. Be right back.” He returned in a few minutes with two glasses of wine, handed me one, and settled into a club chair across from the sofa.
“So?” I said.
“So, you could say I wasted my time,” he began.
“Really? That surprises me. You never do.”
He raised his glass in a mock toast. “Thank you. However, this was an exception to my otherwise perfect record. The guy’s slick as they come. Claims his foot slipped off the brake, his driving’s rusty, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t believe a word he said, but there’s no way to disprove his story, so that’s that. Luckily the owner of the truck, this Tony Pavlich, carries insurance. So repairs to your car should be covered, and we can pick up a loaner in the morning.”
What he wasn’t saying was how much he regretted selling the Maserati. We were down to one set of wheels—the Mustang of voting age. Not good.
“Regrets?” I asked softly.
About to take a sip of Chianti, I lowered my glass.
“I deeply regret your tangling with this Hammerjack character. Promise me you’ll have nothing more to do with him.”
“He had no business being at your door. That alone scares me, never mind this phony accident.”
“I’d love to do as you ask, Rossi, but I said I’d try to sell some of the prison furniture. Not for Mike, for people in need. I have to follow through on my word.”
“You don’thaveto, you want to.”
The sofa suddenly felt like a hot seat. As if my pants were on fire, I squirmed before answering. “I need to. That means I have to.”
He sighed, one of those deep, I’m-annoyed-beyond-words type of sighs. “You’re being incredibly naïve. You’ll be selling the work of murderers, pimps, thieves, wife-beaters, addicts. The list goes on.”
I took a good stiff slug of wine. “Just so you’ll know, the furniture they make is excellent. Besides, my grandmother wants me to do what I can in the name of humanity.”
“This the Nana Kennedy who passed fifteen years ago?”
“The very same.”
“I give up,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. Thank God his glass was empty. “Who can argue with logic like that?” He eased out of the club chair. “I’ll put the pizza in the oven.”
“That’s all you have to say? You’re not going to try and talk me out of it?”
“Nope. Do what you must. Besides, I told Hammerjack if he caused you any more trouble, I’d personally see that he went back to State. For good.” A small smile lifted Rossi’s lips. “Even if I had to invent the evidence.”
I nearly dropped my glass. “Youdidn’t!”
“Damn right I did. I won’t act on the threat, of course, but Hammerjack doesn’t know that. Not for sure.” Halfway to the kitchen, he swiveled around to face me. “I’d do anything to keep you safe.”
Wow. The man of integrity had lied. For me. My elation at being loved so much quickly turned to guilt. Once more I’d caused a problem for Rossi, but this time I’d placed him on the horns of a moral dilemma, and that made me feel terrible.
His evaluation of Mike Hammerjack was most likely correct, but if I told him my phone conversation with Naomi tended to verify his findings, that would only disturb him all the more. So I’d keep what I learned to myself and be extremely wary around my Help-a-Con contact. Bottom line, I didn’t want to believe that when Mike crashed into the Audi, he meant to harm me. Or maybe even kill me.
My concern about Mike and his motives took a back seat the next day when James Stahlman dropped into the shop with Charlotte in tow. I’d just settled down behind my desk with a cushion under my sore knee when in he came.
To my delight, Charlotte wriggled out of his arms and scampered over to me, licking my ankles and woofing her head off.
“Are we friends?” I asked, picking her up. A lick on the cheek erased the question and most of my Tropic-Glo blush. I took that as a yes.
“I’m so glad we caught you in,” James said. “We’re on our way to Klaus and Hartmann to select a new suit for the wedding. While we’re in the neighborhood, I thought I’d better stop by and alert you.”
Uh-oh.“Alert me about what?” I put Charlotte down in case James’s answer caused me to tense up and grip her too tightly.
“Kay and I are tired of waiting.”Just like the guys in the state pen.“Last night we decided to stop all these postponements and set a date. It’s etched in stone, Deva,” he said, his voice stern of a sudden. “Two weeks from today.”
“We’re getting married in the house.”
“Yourhouse? The one with painters swarming all over the inside?”
His pale eyes rounded. “What other house could I be referring to?”
His question required no response, but I gave him one anyway. A groan. “I can’t possibly have the house ready for a wedding. Not in two short weeks.”
“Of course you can, and you will. I insist.” He reached into the breast pocket of his double-breasted linen jacket, removed a check and laid it on my desk. “In anticipation of your objections,” he said with a smile. A smile of supreme confidence, as if he were convinced money solved all problems.
I sighed and then my peripheral vision spotted the amount on the check face. A hefty five figures. Well, money didn’t solve everything, but this money would help to swell the Rossi-Dunne building fund.
I picked up the check and, tapping it with a thumbnail, stared at James with what I hoped were steely eyes. “Say I agree to your time constraint. It will have to be with the understanding that every detail won’t be in place on your wedding day. The tradespeople and workrooms have other clients to consider, other orders to complete. All I can do, with or without this check—” which I was holding onto tightly, “—is my best.”
“That will more than suffice. I trust you completely,” James said. “Please send any further bills to my financial advisor. This is his address.” He placed a business card on my desk and then snapped his fingers at Charlotte. “Come here immediately, young lady.”
To her credit, Charlotte ignored him and kept right on sniffing the table skirts, especially the one topped with a display of aromatherapy candles. Then, bored with that, tail on high, and not letting James intimidate her for a second, she disappeared around the corner to explore the back storeroom. I felt like clapping. Or making her an honorary member of NOW.
As for me, I wasn’t quite so independent. I put James’s check in a desk drawer for safekeeping and stood, not without difficulty, to shake his hand. After which he chased Charlotte all over the place, finally managing to nab her in a corner. “Naughty girl,” he said, kissing her.
“One thing puzzles me, James,” I said as he was about to leave.
“Since the house is undergoing a rehab, wouldn’t it be simpler for you and Kay to be married elsewhere?”
“Simpler yes, but not as satisfying.”
Ah! How could I have forgotten? Having the wedding at 590 directly across the street from 595 meant that they could marry and torment Stew Hawkins at one and the same time. Not nice. Not nice at all.
After James left, I took another peek at the check. It was real, all right, with a tidy Palmer Method signature and big clear numbers. I was no Naomi when it came to handwriting, but I sure did like what I saw, especially those numbers. So why did I feel as if I were aiding and abetting a crime? All I was doing was my job. Wasn’t I?
Whether or not James and Kay wanted some kind of revenge against Stew Hawkins, I convinced myself their private feud had nothing to do with me or my role as interior designer. Anyway that sounded good to my conscience.
So I tamped down my guilt, and as soon as Lee returned from the bank with a supply of petty cash, I left for the Stahlman house. My knee, hugged by an ace bandage, had slowed me down but not knocked me out. Which was a good thing. For no way could I let the windfall from James slip through my fingers.
At Whiskey Lane, two identical panel trucks sat in each driveway, and without checking I knew that true to his promise, Tom Kruse would have the same number of uniformed men working in each house. About to suggest we break that rule, I walked in to 590 feeling a tad foolish.
In the living room, the odor of wet paint permeated the air, an odor many people objected to but that I loved for the way it signaled fresh, new beginnings. Rocking to whatever his iPod was pumping into his ears, a lanky young guy was busy painting the ceiling. I caught his attention and pointed to my own ear. He removed the buds. “Is Tom around?” I asked.
“He was working in the master bedroom earlier.”
I found him there and greeted him with, “We have a problem.”
He rested his brush across the top of a paint can. “What’s wrong?”
“James and the bikini are getting married.”
“That’s a problem?” Tom shot me a grin. Ah, the power of a well-filled flag.
“The wedding’s in two weeks.”
“Umm-hmm.” He bent to pick up his brush.
“In this house.”
His jaw dropped and so did the brush. “Oh God, no.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
“Well, I’ll tell you right now, I can’t finish this job in two weeks.” He waved an arm at the dated wall covering. “Not with all that paper to be stripped off. No telling what’s underneath it. And some of the rooms need three coats of paint.”
“Okay, how about this? The bedrooms stay as is until after the ceremony. The kitchen too. That leaves the living and dining rooms, the foyer, den and library.”
I pointed to his brush. Paint was dripping onto the floor. A first, I’d bet, for perfectionist Tom. He grabbed the brush with an oath. Another first.
“Suppose we hire a temporary crew?”
Tom shook his head. “No dice, Deva. That’s how you lose quality control. I’ve got a reputation to protect.”
“You’re right. So do I.”Back to Plan A.“How about taking your men out of 595 and putting them to work over here? Would that help?”
“It might. If we work through the weekend.” He pulled a rag out of his back pocket and wiped up the drips. “That means time and a half for the men.”
“I’d be willing to double their hourly rate providing they finish in twelve days. Mr. Stahlman gave us two weeks, but I’ll need at least two days to put the rooms back in order after you’re through.”
With Tom’s promise to do his valiant best to meet the timetable, I limped across the street. If Stew refused my request, I could kiss James’s check goodbye, and I really couldn’t afford to do that. Or to lose Stew as a client either.
My knee throbbing and my heart beating faster than normal, I rang Hawkins’s bell. The moment the chimes pealed, Teresa yanked open the door, her face falling at the sight of me. Without saying hello, she peered over my shoulder as if hoping someone else might be coming along the walk. “They’re late. They should be here by now.”
Small critters were a problem in southwest Florida where everything, includingla cucaracha, thrived in the heat and humidity. So the bug men, as exterminators were affectionately known, made regular calls at almost every building in town.
But this was different. In jeans, a washed-out T-shirt and no makeup, Teresa looked too scared to have had an encounter with a mere water bug or two.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“A snake.” She hissed out the word.
Another python?“Omigod. Where?”
“In my kitchen. Under the sink.” She shuddered. “I slammed the cabinet shut and trapped him inside. Nothing can make me go back out there.”
“I don’t blame you. Not a bit.” As she peered up and down the street, I glanced past her, into the living room. Tom’s crew was applying a coat of desert sand latex to the walls. Even partially finished, the room had taken on a masculine vibe that would suit Stew’s personality to a T.
“Is Mr. Hawkins at home by any chance? I need to speak to him,” I said.
Teresa shook her head, sending her ragged ponytail into a little dance. “No, he’s out of town. At a convention. Of all the times, just when we’re infested with snakes.”
“Oh, surely not.”
“What do you know? You didn’t see it.” She shivered. “I can’t stay here, I’m too afraid. But I don’t know what else to do. I have no other place to go.”
“Can you reach Stew?”
“Sí.I mean yes. He left a number in New York. I called him there. But he hasn’t called back.”
“I hope he does. I have a problem too.”
“Not like mine. Mine is worse.”
Arguable, but I never got to debate the subject with her, for an exterminator’s truck pulled onto the driveway, and two men in coveralls jumped out of the cab.
Teresa raced outside to embrace—I mean meet—them. As she was relating her woes, the living room phone rang. I did debate answering that—for a second or two—then made a dash for the receiver.
I was in luck. It was Stew.
“Who’s this?” he barked.
“It’s Deva Dunne.”
“What the hell’s wrong with Teresa? She sounded half nuts on the phone. Something about snakes.”
“Well, uh, she says the house is infested with them.”
“She doesn’t seem to think so. She’s out on the driveway right now, speaking to the exterminators.”
“Dammit, I leave for a few days and all hell breaks loose.”
“She’s scared, Stew. Afraid to stay here in the house. Says she has no place else to go.”
A sigh wove its way through the line followed by a long moment of silence. “Okay,” he said finally, “I’m glad you’re there, Deva. Do me a favor, will you? Stay with her while she packs some clothes. Buy her a one-way ticket to LaGuardia and give her some cab fare to my hotel. Put everything on my tab. And give the exterminators a key. Tell them to do whatever it takes. Then lock up the house.”
“What about the painters?”
“Oh for crying out loud, I forgot about them.” Another sigh. “Tell you what. Put a halt to all that decorating stuff until I get back. We have to get the house fumigated first. What good’s a fancy redo if my girlfriend...housekeeper...won’t spend a night in the place?”
Even with my gimpy knee, I happy-danced across the street to relate the good news to Tom. He flung down his brush—on a wad of yesterday’s newspaper—and wasted no time in hurrying over to 595 to inform his crew the game plan had changed, to put what they were doing on hold and transfer their equipment to 590.
Afraid to stay in the house with the snakes and the exterminators, Teresa waited outside while Tom and I went over the change in plans. Then I hurried back to 595 as fast as my knee allowed, and together Teresa and I packed a bag for her trip. That took a little longer than it should have. Afraid a snake lurked inside her walk-in closet, she refused to step foot in it. So I did the selecting, and she disapproved of half the things I brought out. Through trial and error we finally filled a carryon with two or three outfits and collected some underwear to toss in too. When she quietly balled up a new black teddy and stuffed it in a corner of the bag, I pretended not to see a thing. A pair of spike heels went in next, and we were finished.
Luckily Southwest had a late afternoon flight to New York with a few empty seats available—one of the advantages of Florida’s off season. We booked her on it, and I drove her to the Ft. Myers airport.
Once free of the house, Teresa morphed into a different woman. Actually the transformation began inside, right after Stew’s phone call. While I stood on snake guard, she changed out of the ratty T-shirt and jeans into a snug print dress and red heels, and spritzed herself with Opium. She was brushing out her hair as we got into the loaner, and most of the way to the airport kept busy putting on her face. Not easy in a moving car, though I did try to control fast stops and starts, especially while she was applying the mascara. Five coats.
A mile from the airport, she screwed on some dangly earrings then added an armload of bangle bracelets and a great big I-gotcha-smile.
I tore my attention from the road for a second to glance over at her. She looked as sunny as the day.
“There wasn’t any snake, was there?” I said.
She hesitated, but not for long. “No. But it’s your word against mine.”
“You need to get to New York so bad you cooked up a whole scheme?”
“Why not? I can’t leave Stew up there all by himself—or worse, not by himself. Look what happened when he went to Vegas without me.”
“You know something, Teresa? You missed your calling. You’re a fabulous actress.”
She shrugged off the compliment. “I’ve been acting my whole life. It was the only way out of my village.”
“I see.” And I did.
Her charade had been anything but honest, but she hadn’t committed a crime. At least I didn’t think so, and actually without intending to, she’d done me an enormous favor. For both reasons, I had no intention of tangling with her over this, but she didn’t have to know that.
“What happens if Stew finds out what you did?”
“He won’t unless you tell him.”
“I won’t say a word, but he’s a sharp guy. He may figure things out for himself.”
“Then he’ll be flattered. Besides, I’m going to make him very, very glad to have me there.”
Of that I had no doubt and dropped her off at the Southwest gate with something like a blessing though I couldn’t quite bring myself to say, “Have a wonderful time.” Maybe the thought of Connie Rae’s little purple notebook full of girlish confidences stopped me. One line especially kept playing over and over in my mind—the one in her round, childish scrawl saying her husband knew that without heart surgery she would die.
Anyway, after we waved goodbye, Teresa sashayed into the terminal, and I checked my watch. Darn it. One house problem under control and another waiting to be solved. But this upcoming one I was looking forward to. I had a date with Harlan Conway to plan the new house. But I’d never make it back to town in twenty minutes, and a late arrival would be sure to irritate The Great One.
Before airport security asked me to move, I made a quick call and left a message on Harlan’s voice mail, doubting if any excuse, however legitimate, would matter to his prickly ego.
Well, nothing I could do about that except drive the loaner five miles over the limit all the way back to town. Rossi would have had a fit had he known, but it did get me there only ten minutes late.
Two surprises awaited. Harlan wasn’t annoyed, and his office turned out to be quite spartan, a single room in the industrial park off Pine Ridge Road. In addition to a computer desk and a couple of filing cabinets, a large drafting table faced with a pair of upright chairs were the extent of the furnishings. Though initially surprised by the modesty, I forgot all about it when I glanced up at the walls. They were breathtaking. Against a taupe background, he had hung double-matted line drawings of his architectural achievements. There were several mega-mansions, a hospital, a bank, even a small museum. All had pride of place, and I was fascinated, studying first one and then the other.
He watched me, a smile playing about his lips. “You like what you see.” It wasn’t a question.
“It’s eye candy, Harlan. I do have one major concern though,” I said, sitting across from his drafting table to rest my knee.
“Yes?” One of his eyebrows lifted as if he couldn’t believe that, after viewing his work, I could have any serious concerns.
“What Rossi and I have in mind doesn’t begin to compare with any of these projects.” I waved my arms at his walls.
“Not a problem,” he said. “I understood that the night I saw your building lot. I fit in small projects like yours around my major clients. In fact I find the change of pace refreshing.”
“So for what I have in mind, a set of drawings won’t take you long?”
“No. A few days at most. Now I have a question for you.”
“During preliminary planning sessions, I like to meet with both clients. But the lieutenant chose not to join us today?”
That onewasa question. Time for me to take an acting lesson from Teresa.
“He’s so terribly busy...he said you’d understand...one hardworking professional to another.”
He frowned but nodded. “Very well. Ultimately, the lady of the house is the one I aim to please. So what do you have in mind, Mrs. Dunne?”
He leaned across the drafting table, and if I were the susceptible type, those dazzling blue eyes with their impossibly long lashes—no five coats of anything on those babies—would have had me in a flutter. But with Rossi in my life, I reacted to Harlan Conway as if I were a piece of wood. All I wanted from him was a set of house plans.
I cleared my throat and plunged right in.
Life was seldom perfect, and when it was—watch out. I learned that lesson a few days later when I had:
Two major projects under control.
Plans for a jewel of a new house in the works.
An Audi dealer who promised Tony’s insurance would cover repairs to my car.
A knee that had stopped throbbing and a forehead without a lump.
And last, but far from least, I had Rossi to love.
Then Tom Kruse called me at the shop and stole the line I’d used on him the other day. “We have a problem.”
“What’s wrong now?”
“I can’t tell you over the phone. I think you better get over here. Make it fast, okay?”
Ready for high fives a moment earlier, I hung up not wanting to slap anything except my own forehead. Lee took one look at me and hurried over to the desk.
“Everything all right?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I thought so earlier. Now I’m not so sure. I hate to leave you alone in the shop again today, but the painting contractor needs me. Sounds like he has an emergency.”
“Don’t worry about a thing, Deva. I’ll manage just fine.”
“I know you will. You always do.”
“Besides,” she added softly. “I won’t exactly be alone...”
Busy retrieving my purse from the lower desk drawer, I didn’t recognize the import of her words immediately. It took a second, and when the message hit home, I let the bag flop back into the drawer and leaped to my feet. “Are you having a baby?”
Her smile beamed from ear to ear. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You’re having a baby! Omigod!” I caught her in a bear hug and held her tight.Too tight?I let go. “Did I hurt you?”
She laughed. “Paulo said the same thing this morning. I’m fine. Just fine.”
She looked it too. Always lovely, she had taken on a radiance hard to miss. Why hadn’t I noticed it before now? Too busy with my own concerns, that was why. For shame.
“When?” I managed to ask while I swiped a finger at the tears springing into my eyes.
“In December. Around Christmas.”
“What a wonderful time to have a baby.” Especially in southwest Florida. The days were cool, the nights cooler.
“We wanted you to be the first to know. And Paulo asked me to mention something else.”
“The bank has approved us for a mortgage.”
“Yes, we’re thrilled.” As if to prove it, her smile went from ear to ear. “So are you still willing to sell us your condo in Surfside?”
“Of course. I’d love for you to have it. That would be a perfect solution all around. Let me speak to Rossi. He won’t be putting his place in Countryside on the market anytime soon, so I’m pretty sure I can move in with him until the new house is ready. Don’t worry. We’ll work something out.”
I reached back into the desk drawer and lifted out the purse. “You’re going to be a beautiful mother, Lee. And just for the record, I want to be called Aunt Deva.”
She nodded. “I wouldn’t have him call you anything else.”
Him.This time I needed tissues to mop up my tears. “I’d like to have a baby too some day. A little boy maybe. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that lucky but I’m hoping so. I can see him now. He has red hair and a tough-sounding name. Rocco Rossi. What do you think of that?”
“I think you’ve picked out a daddy.”
“I have. So maybe I better marry him and find out what life has in store.”
“That’s what my momma would say.”
I hugged her again—more gently this time. For sure, her news had shaken up my thinking. Planning a house was one thing. A good thing. Planning a whole life was better, far better. After all, my doctor hadn’t said I’dneverhave a child, just that the odds were greatly against it. Who knew? I might just beat those odds.
Humming “I Will Always Love You,” I left the shop already making plans for the future—a baby shower for Lee and a small, intimate wedding for Rossi and me. On the lanai of a brand new house overlooking a Gulf inlet with an orange sunset gilding the water.
But those ideas were for a golden tomorrow. With an effort, I yanked myself back to today as I drove the loaner over to Whiskey Lane and a house with a more immediate wedding in its future. Usually calm in the face of any job-related glitches, Tom had sounded beyond harassed. I couldn’t imagine what had gone so wrong he needed me there for immediate back-up.
I found trucks clogging the driveway of 590. I’d expected to see Tom’s vehicles parked there, but why Tony’s Tiles? I shrugged and, with my stomach in a knot, parked on the street behind a gorgeous Honda Gold Wing.
Though not a biker, I stepped out of the car and gave the Honda an awestruck once-over. Lustrous and gleaming in the sun, the bike had every bell and whistle possible. It even had a helmet sitting on the seat as if the owner knew no one in the neighborhood would bother to touch it. Still, a motorcycle, no matter how glamorous, seemed out of place on hushed, elegant Whiskey Lane, and I wondered who owned it.
Inside, the house hummed with activity and looked as if it were peeling; wallpaper, loosened by hand-held steamers, hung in strips everywhere. What a beautiful sight! If the men removed all the paper in the public rooms today, the painting could begin in earnest tomorrow. Encouraged, I asked the same lanky young painter of the day before if he’d seen Tom.
“Earlier,” he said, zapping a wall with a burst of steam. “He was talking to some lady. They might be out in back.”
Alady?Kay might have dropped by to check on the job. Dealing with her demands was probably what had Tom so agitated.
I found him in the kitchen on his cell phone. Eileen was there too, slumped in the breakfast nook, a cup of green tea sitting unnoticed on the table in front of her.
“He’s not picking up,” Tom said. “I got his voice mail again.” He closed the phone and stashed it in his pants pocket. “I know the dog had to be walked, but this is an emergency. If we don’t hear from him in five minutes, I’m calling the cops.”
“What’s going on, Tom?”
“I wish the hell I knew.”Hell?From Tom-who-never-swore?He glanced over at Eileen. “You tell her,” he said. “I’ve got wallpaper to strip off.” He stomped across the kitchen toward the door. “Boy, you sure got us mixed up in a good one this time, Deva.”
“Eileen?” I asked.
“She’s not dead,” Eileen said in a toneless voice.
“Who’s not dead?”
“James’swife?The one who was lost at sea?”
Eileen, the color of the tea in her forgotten cup, nodded. “She’s come back. Like a ghost.”
“Where’s Mr. Stahlman?”
“That’s the problem,” Tom said, pausing in the doorway. “We can’t reach him. He’s out somewhere with that mutt of his.”
Mutt.Charlotte with her impeccable ancestors would woof at that.
“Where is this woman? This Mrs. Stahlman?”
“She said she wanted to take a shower,” Tom said, “and ordered me and the crew out of the house.”
“Whoever she is, she has no right to do that.”
“Understood. But just so you’ll know, dealing with long-lost wives isn’t part of my job.”
Beyond agitated, Tom was positively angry. Having him walk off the project would be a full-blown disaster. So in the interest of damage control—and to satisfy my curiosity—I headed for the master suite and a look at this woman who had come back from the dead.