WALKING into Breanne’s corner office was like stepping onto a giant magic carpet floating high above Manhattan. Two of the four walls consisted of unbreakable glass. Far below me, traffic looped Christopher Columbus’s statue in a diorama of matchbox cars. Stretching out before me, the tops of Central Park ’s trees sprouted newly green buds all the way to the horizon line.
If this were my office, no work would ever get done. I’d just stare out the floor-to-ceiling windows all day with a sketch pad in my lap, continually reframing the views-uptown and downtown and crosstown.
Breanne wasn’t looking at any of these sights. She was sitting tensely behind her massive glass desk, having obvious issues with the brooding sculptor, who was sprawled across the geometric lines of the art deco chair in front of her.
In his late thirties, Nunzio was clad in black Armani with a plain white T-shirt beneath. He’d chosen a fitted size, I noticed, snug enough to reveal his well-developed body. His long, wavy ebony hair was tied into an ink-black ponytail.
“Ah, at last,” Breanne said, her smile tense, her blue eyes almost pleading as she waved me in.
Holding the tray with one hand, I set my first shot in front of the editor-in-chief then turned to her jet-lagged guest. Nunzio had a broad, forceful face, not unlike the chiseled marble monument to the intrepid Italian mariner twenty-two floors below. His dark eyes were half-closed, and he barely glanced at me as I handed him one of the three remaining espresso cups.
When I’d first come through the door, Breanne had been telling him all about her wedding plans. Nunzio didn’t appear to be listening. As she resumed her chattering, the man’s large hand lifted my tiny cup to his Roman nose. He sniffed once, grunted, and downed the shot in a single gulp.
His heavy, half-closed eyelids lifted a fraction. “Mmmmm.”
While Bree continued talking, I took the empty demitasse and saucer, placed them on my tray, and handed him a second espresso. He glanced at me briefly, then one corner of his frowning mouth lifted slightly.
“Grazie,” he said.
“Prego,” I whispered.
He sipped this one slowly until it was finished. While he did, I found myself studying his hands. The man was a hardworking artisan on the rise, and his hands were amazingly muscular. I noticed thick calluses on the pads of his fingers and thumbs, wondered what his workshop looked like, what he was molding these days.
He noticed me noticing him, and his head tilted slightly. Then his artist’s gaze moved subtly down my body and up again. “Very nice,” he murmured in Italian. He drained his second cup and held it out to me.
“You’d like to offer me something more, signorina?”
Again he’d used Italian. The tone was suggestive. I ignored it. Averting my focus downward, I placed his empty demitasse back on my tray and held out the final espresso. Nunzio intentionally overreached, moving his hand beyond the cup. His long, callused fingers lightly brushed my wrist then moved down, tickling the outside edge of my hand before taking possession of the saucer.
The contact was not subtle. The caress was deliberate and a little bit shocking. When I glanced up, his liquid-brown eyes locked on to my startled green ones. Then his lips lifted in private amusement. Obviously, the sculptor had caught me admiring his hands, so he’d decided to let me feel them, too.
I said nothing, simply swallowed and turned to leave the room. There was a palpable intensity in the man that became more apparent as he became more awake. I was glad, frankly, to get myself clear of it.
As I approached the double doors, they swung open, and Monica strode in.
“Ah!” Breanne halted her nonstop monologue when she noticed the younger editor. “I see the layout is here!”
“Bene!” Nunzio said.
He was sitting up straight now. The dark storm in his olive-skinned face had dissipated; his mood had visibly improved.
As I turned around to close the double doors, Breanne stood, met my eyes, and nodded-probably the closest thing to a thank-you I’d ever get from the woman.
I slipped away as the three of them-Bree, Nunzio, and Monica-began to examine the layout. Back in the break room, I brewed up four more espressos, attracting attention from some of the magazine staff. Drawn by the heavenly aroma of the Bouchon House Blend, the assistants clustered around me at the counter. They were all young women. Like Terri, they were very slender with an ethereal beauty that reminded me of pixies in the forest.
I gave them a quick lesson in how to work the machine for themselves, taking the opportunity to casually question them about Breanne and Monica and office politics. I didn’t get much beyond what I already knew. Breanne was a tough, demanding boss, who had little patience for screwups and sometimes belittled employees. (Telling the receptionist to shut up was apparently par for the course.) And Monica had been a very trusted, well-liked golden girl for years, which she cunningly used to advance herself.
A few minutes later, I was off again with a tray full of espressos. Returning to the corner office, I found Nunzio and Bree talking animatedly-but not unhappily-about his profile pages. By now, Roman Brio had also joined them.
I served the sculptor, Monica, and Roman. This time Breanne passed, so I took the last espresso for myself and backed away. Sipping the shot near the office doorway, I quietly observed the scene, paying special attention to Monica. She seemed agitated and tense, just as she had at the House of Fen. There was a notepad in her hand, and she was furiously scribbling in it as Nunzio made comments on the pages.
“The layout is good,” he finally declared, his Italian accent strong. “Make the changes I desire, and I will review her again before she prints, si?”
“Of course!” Breanne said. “Your instructions will be followed to the letter, Nunzio. I assure you.”
“And now I have something for you…”
The sculptor’s powerful hand reached into his Armani jacket and came out holding a small blue ring box. He flipped open the lid and, with a little bow, presented it to Breanne. Nestled in the blue velvet were two wedding rings.
“Oh. Oh God. They’re magnificent…”
Bree’s voice had gone soft, as if she were actually envisioning the moment the rings would be exchanged with her groom-instead of the moment they’d be photographed for her magazine.
Everyone in the room fell silent, aware of Breanne’s emotional shift. I stepped a little closer to see the rings, too. Then Monica, Roman, and Breanne began gushing about the intricate design. Hundreds of micro-thin strands of the finest white, yellow, and rose gold had been woven into a patterned circle. The design was inspired, with the metallic threads reflecting light as if shimmering stars were hidden within.
“I worked with the finest goldsmith on the Ponte Vecchio to realize this vision,” Nunzio said. “There are no other rings like these on earth-” He paused and smiled. “At this time.”
“Yes, of course. They’re the perfect prototype to launch your international jewelry line,” Breanne said, her tone all business again. “And your profile in Trend will be your introduction to a lucrative market in the United States.”
Nunzio set his empty espresso cup aside and rose from his chair. With a little smile he said, “May your marriage be blessed.”
Breanne thanked the sculptor and turned to Roman. “Take these,” she said, handing him the blue velvet box. “You’re as good as my best man, Roman, and I’d like you to watch over the rings until the ceremony.”
Roman smiled, obviously touched. He tucked the box into his lapel pocket. Like Puck making promises to his fairy queen, he crossed his heart with his pudgy hand.
“I’ll keep them with me at all times, my dear. I’ll guard them with my life.”
“I believe him,” Nunzio said with a laugh. Then he checked his watch. “Now I must go. Scusa, please.”
Breanne air kissed the artist. “Monica, show Nunzio to the elevators.”
“Yes, Ms. Summour.”
Before the young woman left, Bree caught Monica’s eye and smiled. “Good job on the pages.”
Monica’s tense expression registered relief. “Thank you.” She returned her boss’s smile then led Nunzio toward the door.
On his way out, the sculptor noticed me. “Arrivederci, signorina.”
“Buona permaneza,” I replied, telling him to enjoy his stay.
Monica continued into the hallway, but Nunzio slowed his steps until he’d stopped dead in front of me. Using two long fingers, he reached into his jacket’s breast pocket and brought out a cream-colored card. He held it out to me, his gaze holding mine until I took it. Then a half smile broke his intense mask, and he continued out the door.
Breanne didn’t miss the gesture. “What’s that he gave you?”
I shrugged. “Just his business card.”
Her eyebrow arched. “Let me see that.”
I handed her the small, flat rectangle. She examined it, flipped it over and laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“He asked me your name after you left the room. Then I watched him write something on one of his cards. It’s his hotel room number, Clare.”
“At the Mandarin Oriental, about thirty floors up.”
“Good Lord. You keep it then. I have no intention of visiting the man in his hotel room. What does he think I am?”
She laughed again, slumping down in her chair as if the air had been let out of her. “You should be flattered. He obviously liked you as much as your espressos. Why not give him a whirl?”
Give him a whirl? Then and there I decided that Breanne Summour was the perfect mate for my ex-husband. Neither of them viewed sex as anything more meaningful than a carnival ride.
“I’m not going to the man’s hotel room,” I said, “because I’m in a relationship, and I don’t cheat.”
Breanne rolled her eyes. Clearly my morals, like my clothes, were far too bourgeoisie for her taste.
“Ms. Summour?” Terri was at the door, holding a package. “This was just delivered by courier. There’s no return address, but it’s marked ‘Wedding gift, open immediately.’ ”
“Bring it in,” she said. “Terri, would you like to see my rings?”
Terri nodded vigorously. Roman brought them out again.
“Ohmigod, they’re so beautiful!”
Bree and Terri talked for a minute about the rings, then her schedule, then some phone calls that had come in during her meeting with Nunzio.
“Terri, I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re a gem! I’m just sorry your promotion will have to wait a little longer.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m already making lists for article ideas. I’ll be ready to help out any of the section editors who want to work with me…”
As the two continued to talk, Roman examined the label on Breanne’s new gift. “Bree, sweetie, this gift says to open immediately. You might want to do that. What if it’s perishable? I mean, for heaven’s sake, it could be edible.”
“You open it then. I don’t want to break a nail.”
As Breanne sent Terri off to run an errand on another floor, Roman cut the tape with a letter opener and opened the cardboard box. Inside he found a long, slim package wrapped in glossy black paper. He pulled the gift card free and handed it to Breanne.
“It’s heavy,” he announced, tearing away the black paper. Roman opened the gift box and stared at the contents with puzzlement. “Odd gift for you,” he said, “seeing as how you seldom set foot in your own kitchen.”
I stepped forward and peered into the gift box. Nestled inside a blizzard of packing peanuts was a brand-new, stainless steel meat cleaver with a great big bow attached to its polished wooden handle. Like the wrapping paper, the bow’s color was not bridal white but funereal black.
The sight of it alone chilled my blood. “Who gave you this?” I asked Breanne sharply.
Her blue eyes squinted at the gift card. “It’s from Neville Perry. ‘A special gift to express my feelings for the bride.’ Signed, Neville. Oh, and he includes his ridiculous Prodigal Chef Web site address.”
Bree rolled her eyes and tossed the card into the garbage.
“Don’t do that!” I fished it out. “The gift is a threat. The card is evidence.”
“It’s a joke,” Breanne said. “And not a very clever one.”
I stepped up to her desk. “Let me use your computer.”
“No, Clare. I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to indulge you with this.” She checked her watch. “I have a call to make and e-mails to return. If you really need a computer, use Terri’s. She’s doing some research for me, so she’ll be away from her desk for a little while.”
I left Breanne’s office and went straight to Terri’s cherry wood desk, sat down, and examined the computer screen to find an icon that would bring up her link to the Internet. Roman trailed behind me, looking over my shoulder.
“Roman, tell me something. You must have met Neville Perry once or twice, right?”
“I know him quite well, actually.”
“You do? How does he strike you?”
“He’s a fairly eccentric individual, actually.”
“Eccentric? Or crazy? Could he be dangerous?”
A woman laughed. I turned to find Monica Purcell standing there watching us in her thigh-high boots, arms folded. “Neville Perry’s not dangerous, for heaven’s sake. He’s hilarious. I read his blog all the time.”
“Really?” I said. “He’s got a real hate on for your boss. That doesn’t bother you?”
Monica shrugged. “I just read his site for the restaurant and bar reviews.”
I glanced back at Roman. “Does Perry strike you as the kind of person who could do physical harm to someone?”
“That I couldn’t tell you,” Roman said. “But if you’re curious, you can meet him tonight and judge for yourself.”
“Tonight? Really? Where? When?”
“I’ve been invited to dinner at an underground restaurant in Flushing, Queens. Neville is going to be there, too. He’s mentioned it in his blog posts already. You’re welcome to accompany me, Clare.”
“Underground restaurant?” Monica said. “I’ve heard of those but I’ve never been to one.”
“It’s quite clandestine, because it’s also quite illegal,” Roman said. “At eight thirty this evening, I’m to stand in front of the Friends Meeting House on Northern Boulevard. A man will approach me and take me to the secret location. Doesn’t it sound intriguing?”
Monica shuddered. “It sounds weird. Plus it’s in Queens. Ugh.”
“Neville Perry will be there?” I pressed. “You’re sure?”
Roman nodded. “I’ll introduce you. Then you can ask the chef any questions you like.”
“All right, Roman. You’ve got a date.”
“You two have fun,” Monica said, shaking her head. “I’d rather go clubbing.”
“Well, before you go, Monica, I’d like to ask you a few questions.” I stood up to confront her.
“Who are you, anyway? I mean, you work for Fen, right? I saw you at the boutique.”
“My name’s Clare Cosi. I’m a friend of Breanne’s. I’m helping her with the wedding.”
“I see,” Monica said, stifling a yawn.
“And I was wondering if you had an opinion on something that happened at Fen’s.”
“Breanne’s fitting was sabotaged.”
Monica folded her arms. “What do you mean sabotaged?”
“I mean someone sent an e-mail from Breanne’s mailbox, telling the boutique manager to have her gown altered a certain way. Do you know about that?”
“Why would I?”
“It’s just that Terri told me you used to be Breanne’s assistant. I thought maybe you’d have an idea who would have access to her passwords.”
Monica glanced around, stepped closer, and lowered her voice. “If you ask me, Terri’s the one who probably did it.”
“She’s slippery, that girl. She’ll tell you one thing to your face then turn around and undermine you in a meeting. She got an editor fired over it, you know, and she’s royally pissed she didn’t get the woman’s job. She’s also angry it’s taken her four long years to get promoted when she knows I did it in two. So I’d be careful believing what that little waif tells you.”
A moment later, the door to Breanne’s office swung open. The editor-in-chief strode out, barely glancing at us as she raced away.
“Where are you going now?” Roman called.
“The art department, darling! The Sinamon feature article’s still got issues, and her people are due here in fifteen! Monica! Tell Belinda to make sure the conference room’s ready. And Clare! We’ll need more of your coffee! Lots more!”
As Breanne’s long legs swept her away, I noticed she’d left her door wide open. Terri was still off on her errand. And except for us, the area was deserted.
“See?” Monica whispered, pointing to Breanne’s office. “If you go in there, you’ll probably find Ms. Summour’s e-mail box still wide open. She did that all the time when I was her assistant, just walked away from her computer, sometimes for hours at a time. I warned her about it. What good is password protection if you don’t close your e-mail box?”
With a shake of her blue-black hair, Monica turned and walked away. I watched her disappear down the hall and wondered whether her comments were trustworthy. Was Terri really the slippery one? Or was Monica lying to my face?
Well, one of her claims was easy enough to check out. I got up from Terri’s desk and walked inside Breanne’s spacious corner office.
“What are you doing?” Roman called.
“Checking Monica’s story.”
I moved around the huge glass desk. Breanne’s computer screen was lit up and active; her e-mail box was still open, just as Monica had warned. Anyone could have slipped into her office and sabotaged Breanne. A password wouldn’t have been needed. And who better to know when and how long her boss would be away than her current assistant?
“Clare!” Roman called from Terri’s desk. “Look at this.”
Neville’s Web site was now up on Terri’s computer screen. Today the former chef was blogging about wanting to chop his critics into little pieces. There was even an animation loop showing a meat cleaver swinging at a woman’s neck. Recipes followed for seasonal stews and soups.
“That meat cleaver looks exactly like the one he sent to Breanne,” Roman said, “complete with the death-black bow. My, he really is getting morbid.”
Feeling sick to my stomach, I told Roman to give me a minute. Then I stepped back into Breanne’s office, shut the door, pulled out my cell phone, and called Mike Quinn.
I ran down everything: the suspicious man hanging around Fen’s while Breanne was inside; Monica’s phone call to an unknown number concerning her boss’s schedule and the arrival of some one-of-a-kind wedding rings; the counterfeit e-mail that mucked up the bride’s fitting. Finally, I told him about the rivalries that seemed to be bubbling inside Trend’s cauldron of an office.
“You’ve got a lot of observations, Cosi. What’s your conclusion?”
“When you get right down to it, this place is filled with the typical bitchy backbiting of office politics. It’s not pretty, but I don’t see anyone here with a grand vendetta to threaten Breanne’s life…” Then I described Neville Perry’s black-wrapped wedding gift.
“The meat cleaver goes beyond prankish, Mike. It feels like a real threat to her life, which is why I’m calling you now.”
“Does Breanne want to pursue charges?” he asked.
“No.” I closed my eyes. “She still thinks it’s a joke.”
“Well, no ADA I know would waste time on a case like that. Unless this guy Perry makes an actual threat to Breanne or attempts to harm her, you’re stuck. You need to get more on him, Clare. Can you find a way to do that without breaking the law?”
“Yeah, Mike. I think so. Otherwise, I’m relying on you to bail me out.”
“Bail you out?” Mike laughed. “With what? Since I lent you my checkbook to furnish my apartment, I’m broke.”
“Sorry, buddy, but a girl can eat only so many ‘picnics’ on a bare living room floor before it gets old-not to mention cold.”
“Honeymoon’s over, huh?”
“Not if you consider cuddling up on a new sofa romantic.”
“I do. What’s more, Cosi, I expect to see you on that very sofa tonight. When are you coming over?”
“I’ll get back to you, Quinn. I’m on the job!”
I closed the phone on Mike’s sputtering (I was still a little pissed at him for getting me into this) and left Bree’s office.
Roman was still at Terri’s desk.
“Okay,” I told him, “tonight’s more important than ever.”
“You mean the underground restaurant?”
“I’m going with you to Flushing, and I’m going to interview Neville Perry, try to press a few of his buttons. You can be a witness to any threats he makes or confessions of violent intentions toward Breanne. Whatever we hear, we’ll both convey to her. Then maybe she’ll finally press charges, and we can get a police interrogation, maybe even a warrant to search his residence. What do you think?”
“Sounds like a plan, Shirley Holmes.” Roman’s impish eyes danced. “It seems I really am going to be your Dr. Watson-your big, gay, epicurean Watson.”
“But, listen, honey, before you start solving crimes again…” Roman tapped his watch. “You’d better get that coffee made.”
Damn. The coffee…
I took off down the hall. On the way to the break room, I rang Matt and gave him the update on the cleaver, quietly warning him to keep Breanne out of public places.
“Talk her into eating takeout at her place tonight, okay? And for heaven’s sake, use a private car service. Don’t walk anywhere. Between that SUV last Friday and the look-alike shooting last night, the last place that woman should be is on a New York sidewalk.”
“You believe me now, Clare, don’t you?” Matt asked.
“I believe Breanne has at least one serious enemy. Whether or not they’re serious enough to commit murder, the jury’s still out.”