“ EVERYTHING looks perfect, Clare! Just perfect!”
Janelle Babcock folded her arms and stepped back from our coffee and dessert station. Her delicate confections were arranged on serving trees, surrounded by hand-blown Venetian glass, each jewel-toned piece filled with samples of my rare, roasted coffee beans.
“Perfect isn’t my favorite word,” I said. “But it does look spectacular.”
Esther Best strolled up to us, her wild dark hair tied neatly back, her blue Village Blend apron covering a plain white blouse and black slacks. “Nice bling,” she said, pointing to Nunzio’s fountain at the center of the display.
“Priceless bling,” I said. “Go ahead and take a closer look.”
The tabletop fountain consisted of three golden catch basins. Around the rim of each bowl, finely detailed reliefs depicted scenes from the stories of history’s most famous lovers. The entire sculpture was capped by the stylized nudes of a man and woman. Prosecco champagne-kissed with the sweetness of peach nectar-poured out of the apple in the woman’s hand and flowed like golden rain from one bowl to the next, through hundreds of holes in each basin’s bottom.
“Okay, let’s see what we’ve got here,” Esther said. “Adam and Eve at the top, and I can see the snake, too, with real ruby eyes. Nice. And what’s on the middle tier?”
“That’s Antony and Cleopatra,” I said. “You can follow the story in pictures around the bowl. See the poison asp biting the queen of the Nile? The snake has real emeralds for eyes.”
“The base is Romeo and Juliet,” Janelle noted.
Esther studied the entire piece for a moment then scratched her head. “Ah, kids? Weren’t these lovers sort of screwed by the end of their stories? I mean, I don’t see any happily-ever-after here.”
I froze for a second then glanced at Janelle. We’d been working with photos and dimensions and metric volumes. We’d never considered the sculpture’s overall meaning.
“I think she’s right,” Janelle said, stifling a laugh.
I folded my arms and sighed, recalling my evening with Nunzio. The man was sexy as hell, but he’d displayed all the sentiment of a soccer ball. “You know what? I think the artist knew exactly what he was doing, and the joke’s on us.”
I checked my watch. At this very moment, beneath a rose bower on the Met’s Roof Garden, Matt and Breanne were exchanging vows, surrounded by a half-dozen NYPD detectives, including Mike Quinn, Sully, Soles and Bass, and Rocky Friar. I felt confident they would snatch Javier Lozado the moment he showed his mustachioed face.
Everything was good to go on our end of the European Sculpture Court. The espresso machines at the Blend’s station were up and running, the Clovers were in place, the cups and glass mugs ready, and my baristas were eager to begin serving the moment the guests arrived.
“Tell me again about the first toast?” Janelle asked.
“As soon as the bride and groom come down from the roof, we’re going to become the center of attention. The newlyweds will walk right over to us and toast each other with shots of espresso.”
I showed Janelle the heavy, sterling silver tray Madame was going to use to serve the couple the first cups of their married life.
Janelle shook her head. “I still don’t get it. Why toast with coffee when there’s all this great champagne around?”
“The guests will be drinking champagne, but not the wedding party. Toasting with coffee is a family tradition started by Matt’s great-grandfather. It’s based on an old Turkish custom. The bridegroom made a promise to always provide coffee for his wife. If he failed to deliver, it was grounds for divorce.”
“Coffee is grounds for divorce?” Janelle groaned. “There’s a joke in there somewhere.”
Another man with a camera approached our coffee and dessert display, which the Trend photographer had already snapped dozens of times.
“Clare, look at the man’s ID. That photographer’s from the New York Times!” Janelle whispered. “Come on, let’s talk our way into his pictures.”
“You go, girl.” I smiled. “It’s your night.”
I checked my watch again. Once the tidal wave hit, I wouldn’t have a moment’s peace for at least four solid hours. With my servers chatting around the coffee station, and Janelle speaking with the Times photographer, I decided to circle the vast sculpture court before the crowd came at us.
Across the expanse of white marble, a string quartet had begun tuning up. Their perfect prolonged notes rose hauntingly in the airy space, but the blush of the setting sun, suffusing everything with burnished light, was what made the vast room absolutely magical. The glowing rays streamed through the glass panels of the pitched roof, giving the fifteen-foot stone sculptures the patina of antique brass. More light streamed from the west through the transparent wall that faced Central Park. Below the endless blue of a cloudless sky, newly budding trees swayed in the mild spring breeze.
I paused inside the Sculpture Court to watch a photographer rearrange his subject under the marble likeness of Perseus. More pixielike models in designer gowns posed amid the statuary, the artfully arranged raw bar and hors d’oeuvres, and the mountain of tastefully wrapped wedding gifts piled like pirate booty.
The photographers were hustling now, trying to finish before the 350 guests descended from witnessing the wedding ceremony. As I moved to the far end of the quiet atrium to study a fifteenth-century Venetian sculpture of Adam, a tall man in a tuxedo approached me. He was clean-shaven with spiky hair and a rugged, handsome face. I didn’t realize who the man was until he stopped right in front of me.
“Good evening, Ms. Cosi. Are you prepared for the big event?”
In shock, I stared at Javier Lozado. I took a breath, glanced around. There was no one close to help. The museum guards were all clustered out of sight, at the entrance to the event. The waitstaff was busy at their stations at the other end of the vast room, and Mike and his detectives were on the roof with the bride and groom.
Fat lot of good that does me now!
“You seem surprised,” Javier said, stroking his smooth chin. “Is it my new look?”
I wanted to run, scream, call for help. But I couldn’t take the chance that Javier was armed. The police upstairs had guns, but I knew the Met security staff did not. I could stall until the police arrived, but the crowds would come with them, and all I could think about were the innocent people who might get hurt if gunfire erupted in a crowded room.
I have to talk to him, make him see that his plan won’t work…
I cleared my throat, tried to keep the nervousness out of my voice. “Pretty clever, Javier, shaving off that big mustache.”
“Clever?” Javier laughed. “I suppose so. But it wasn’t my idea.”
“I’m sure you didn’t want to. But I have to hand it to you, shaving really changed your appearance-especially since your passport was so old and you had a full beard in the photo. You got a drastically new haircut, too, I see.”
“Yes, it’s a whole new look.”
“And you checked out of your hotel room. Very smart.”
“How do you know that I-”
“But it didn’t work, Javier. The police are on to you, anyway-”
“What police? What are you talking about, Ms. Cosi?”
“The authorities know about your plan. There are police all over the museum, and a personal bodyguard with Breanne. You’ll never get close enough to the bride to kill her. You’ll only die yourself-”
“Clare! What kind of talk is this? Have you been drinking? Is Matt’s remarrying too much of a strain-”
“It was the woman, wasn’t it? Matt’s affair with Louisa hurt you terribly. I can imagine. But you’re a handsome, successful man, Javier. Surely, there were other women since her?”
“Louisa! This is about Louisa?”
“She’s the woman you planned to marry, right? Until she strayed with Matt-”
“Let me show you something.” Javier reached into his evening jacket.
I couldn’t imagine how he got a weapon past the Met’s metal detectors, but he was a former commando. Maybe he knew a few tricks. It didn’t matter, anyway. It was impossible to do anything now but fight or run.
Here it comes! The man’s hand came out clutching-a wallet? He flipped the leather folder open, displayed a photograph tucked behind plastic.
“This is Louisa.”
The woman had long black hair and laughing eyes. She was surrounded by children, and she appeared to weigh at least three hundred pounds.
“She’s married now to the manager of a neighboring plantation. We speak often. But I am most definitely over this woman.”
Javier slipped the wallet back into his tailored jacket. “And my change in appearance is easily explained. I met an American woman, Ms. Cosi.” He smiled. “I have been spending my nights with her, which is why I checked out of my hotel. Yesterday, she confessed to me that she did not like my mustache. She said it made me look like Pancho Villa.” He rolled his eyes, shrugged. “So I shaved. It was a fair exchange. She has been even more affectionate with me since.”
“You have an American girlfriend?”
“Her name is Cody. She’s gone off to find the ladies’ room. We were running late and could not make the wedding ceremony. But we are happy to be here for the reception. I’ll introduce you when she-”
“Javier, listen to me. A rare Colombian poison was used in an attempt to murder Breanne. Some kind of batrachotoxin, according to the medical examiner.”
“Batrachotoxin?” Javier’s face fell. “Made from the skin of a yellow frog, yes?”
“You know about it?”
“I use it,” he said.
“Not me,” he quickly amended. “Hector Pena. He is my estate manager. He extracts frog poison then puts it on barbed wire surrounding our buildings. It discourages bandits and FARC. Hector learned the trick from his father.”
I thought about the quiet, sad-faced man. “Hector was with you in the Colombian army, wasn’t he?”
“It must be him. But why would Hector want to kill Matt’s bride?!”
“Kill Breanne?” Javier shook his head. “I can’t imagine that Hector-”
“How does Hector know Matt exactly?”
“From his trips to our farm. Matteo also knew Hector’s daughter. A few years ago, she moved to Bogot'a to live and work. Matt spent time with her there, whenever he passed through our country-”
“But Hector’s daughter died, didn’t she? You told us she was murdered?”
“I did not say she was murdered. Andelina died by gunshot.” He lowered his voice. “To be honest, the young woman shot herself. But we do not speak of it. Colombia is a Catholic country. Suicide is a mortal sin, so-”
“How long ago did this happen?”
“About four weeks.”
I suddenly felt sick. “Around the time Breanne raided Matt’s PDA and sent wedding announcements to his old flames.”
Javier registered surprise. “I never made the connection, but you are right. Matt would have had Adelina’s address and phone number in his files.” He lowered his voice. “Matteo was intimate with Hector’s daughter, Ms. Cosi. You understand my meaning?”
Oh God. “Javier, listen to me. I think Hector’s daughter killed herself over losing Matt. She must have been unbalanced already, and that stupid wedding announcement sent her over the edge.”
“You believe Hector is trying to kill Breanne for this?”
“Not for sending the announcement. He couldn’t have known she was behind that. No, I think Hector is trying to exact some kind of twisted justice. He wants to show Matt the pain of losing a woman he loves.” I clutched Javier’s arm. “Have you seen Hector today?”
“Yes.” Now Javier looked sick, too. “I just saw him. He brought a gift with him, so he was delayed by security. But Hector should be inside the museum by now. I will look for him-”
“No!” I pushed Javier back against the wall. “You’re my only witness to the batrachotoxin connection, and I want you to stay right here. I’ll go up to the roof and talk to the police. Right now the authorities are looking for you, not Hector. Until I straighten that out, you could be arrested.”
He frowned but nodded. “I will do as you ask.”
Dozens of guests were now wandering into the Sculpture Court. Like Javier, they’d opted out of the wedding ceremony and come only for the reception. I dodged the small crowd and moved toward the exit. On my way, I scanned the area near the table of wedding gifts, but there was no sign of Hector there.
When I reached the elevators, I discovered they were out of service. Security was holding the cars on the roof until the end of the ceremony! I cursed and searched for another way up. I followed a long, empty corridor before I finally found the steel doors to the stairwell, right beside a glass emergency exit that opened onto Central Park.
I entered the gloomy stairwell and nearly fell on my face. My feet had become entangled in torn wrapping paper and a length of scattered ribbon. As I freed myself, I spied a gift box on the ground, packing tissue scattered around it. Leaning against the wall, I saw the metallic gleam of a silver bowl and large brass candleholders.
I heard footsteps above me and looked up.
Hector Pena stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at me. He wore a black tuxedo and gripped a small gun.
In a flash I knew how he’d managed it: the wrapped gift. The metal bowl and candleholders might have shielded the entire shape of the gun in the X-ray machine. Or he could have simply broken the gun down into pieces and reassembled the weapon here in the stairwell.
I gasped as our gazes met. Hector’s flesh was more sallow than I remembered, and the circles under his eyes seemed more prominent, too. In the shadows his face seemed skeletal, like a death’s head. In a blink, he saw recognition in my expression, understanding, too.
He knows that I know.
Hector lifted his weapon as he raced down the stairs, two at a time. I whirled and threw open the door. The corridor was still deserted. If I tried running back to the Sculpture Court, Hector could shoot me in the back. Someone might hear the shot. Or they might not. Either way, I wouldn’t be around to worry about it. I’d be dead.
I heard Hector opening the heavy stairwell door behind me. With no other way to escape, I pushed through the glass fire exit and staggered outside the museum, onto the soft grass of Central Park. The door closed behind me. Hector crashed into it a split second later. I thought he was going to shoot me through the clear pane, but he smiled triumphantly instead.
I heard a muffled burst of applause from inside the museum and realized the wedding party had finally come down from the roof! Hector realized it, too. He tucked the gun inside his black evening jacket and turned around. As soon as he was out of sight, I ran back to the door. It was locked! Hector knew I was stuck outside, and he didn’t care. Which meant he was on his way to kill Breanne-and maybe Matt, too-right now! He was gambling I wouldn’t have time to warn them!
I stumbled across the lawn, my low heels sticking in the still-damp ground; then I reached the sidewalk and took off at a dead run. The Metropolitan Museum covered five city blocks, and I had to travel at least half of that distance to reach the front entrance.
Panting, I cleared the modern art wing and blew past a bronze statue of three bears nestled among a circle of benches. Fifth Avenue and Eightieth Street were just ahead. I wended my way through a mass of exiting tourists, sprinted the long flight of stone steps, and burst into the museum’s lobby. Breathlessly I stumbled up to a tall African American man in a guard uniform and flashed my events pass.
“Help, please… there’s a man… he’s armed… in the Sculpture Court…”
The guard tensed. “The wedding?”
I nodded. Clearly, he’d been briefed. He grabbed my arm and spoke into the radio headset he was wearing. As we ran toward the back of the museum, I told him everything I knew. He related the information over the radio to the NYPD.
Two minutes later, we were entering the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts wing, and the guard visibly relaxed. “They have him in custody, ma’am,” he told me, tapping his earphones. “He tried to approach the wedding party, and they grabbed him.”
“Oh, thank goodness.” I gasped, the tension flowing out of me.
Although the pubic was still milling around the museum, the European Sculpture Court was closed for our private party. I saw its atrium ahead, the waning sunlight glinting off its marble figures. Tired as I felt, I increased my pace.
Entering the court, I spotted a flurry of motion near the table of wedding gifts. Sully and Lori Soles had a tuxedo-clad man in handcuffs. As the detectives turned him around, I saw his face.
“You’ve got the wrong man!” Javier Lozado cried. “Listen to me! Why won’t you listen?”
There was no time left. I raced forward, toward the coffee and dessert station. Matt and Breanne stood there alone, framed against Nunzio’s star-crossed fountain. The guests were at least ten feet back, clearing the area for the photographers to snap away. Madame was stepping up to the couple, her sterling silver gift tray in her hands, two freshly pulled shots ready to be served.
That’s when I spotted Hector, hiding behind a cameraman. He was reaching into his evening jacket! I was too far away to do anything more than shout at the top of my lungs, “Matt! It’s Hector! Hector’s got the gun!”
Matt turned at the sound of my voice, but the photo flashes had limited his vision. He couldn’t see Hector in the crowd! Breanne froze with stark fear, but she didn’t know where to look, and her bodyguard had stepped far back from the couple so he wouldn’t be in their wedding photos!
Madame was right beside them now, and she knew what Hector looked like. Spotting him, she lurched forward as he raised his weapon and aimed for Breanne. The gunshot boomed, the sound echoing inside the massive space. Breanne, Matt, and Madame all went down in a tangle. The silver tray clanged against the floor; dark liquid seeped across the white marble. Screams and shouts lifted up, echoing off the pitched roof, drowning out the mannered music. The crowd shrank back, and I rushed forward.
A scuffle broke out: Rocky Friar wrestled with Hector Pena. The Colombian refused to release his small-caliber weapon, even as the muscle-bound detective squeezed his wrist.
“Give it up!” Rocky cried.
“You heard him!” Sue Ellen Bass shouted, rushing forward to Rocky’s aid. Together, the two disarmed Hector and cuffed him.
I turned at a new sound: my partner’s voice. Matt was sitting up now, clutching his new bride in his arms, wailing like a man who’d lost his one true love.
“No…” I whispered.
I saw the dark stain on Breanne’s delicate white wedding gown, right over her heart. The liquid bled slowly across the handmade silk. Then Breanne’s royal blue eyes fluttered, and I saw the empty espresso cup in her lap. The dark fluid wasn’t blood! It was coffee!
But if the bullet missed Breanne, who did it hit?
I whirled. Madame was still on the white marble, Otto Visser bent over her, his face twisted with emotional pain.
My God, no! Not my mother! I rushed to her side, fell to my knees. “Madame? Are you…”
Her gently creased face turned toward mine. She pointed to the sterling silver tray on the floor. The metal was badly dented: the tray had deflected the bullet!
“You saved Breanne’s life!”
“Your cry saved her, Clare. And Matteo, too…” Madame grabbed my arms, pulled me in. “Thank you…”
Relieved beyond words, I hugged her tightly. When we parted, Otto and I helped Madame to her feet. We took a moment to check her out, make sure nothing was broken.
“I’m afraid my gift is broken,” Madame said, shaking her silver head at the dented tray.
“On the contrary.” Otto laughed. “I think the couple will cherish it for years to come.”
Nodding in complete agreement, I looked around, wondering where the bullet had ended up. Noticing the slight damage to a nearby stone pedestal, I pointed. “Thank heaven no one was hurt. Not even a sculpture.”
Otto smiled and squeezed my shoulder. Then Madame’s gaze shifted-and she gasped. “Look, Clare,” she whispered. “Look at them now!”
I turned to see Matt still sitting on the stained marble floor, holding Breanne close, kissing her, petting her, telling her he was there for her.
“Madame? I don’t understand. What is it?”
Her blue eyes had dampened. “It’s love, my dear.”
Otto laughed. Then he put his arm around his girl and kissed her, too.
“I’m so happy, Otto!” Madame declared as they headed for the bar. “My son does love his bride…”
Still uneasy, I remained behind, surveying the crowded room. When I saw Hector being led out in handcuffs, I finally sagged against my perfect coffee and dessert table.
Matt was still holding his new bride in his arms, kissing her with a passion I hadn’t seen him display since our own Hawaiian honeymoon.
It was then I finally noticed our daughter in the crowd, watching her father, her pretty young face full of mixed emotions. I knew how Joy felt. It was surreal, given all that had happened, all that we’d been through.
Oh, sure, on the scale of human history, you could hardly deem the wedding of my ex-husband a significant event. Not like, say, Christopher Columbus discovering the New World. In my own little life, however, it was a moment that changed everything. This really was good-bye to the handsome groom of my youth; the swaggering father of my child; the globe-trotting spouse who liked to pretend that, no matter how many women he slept with, I was his only love.
For a fraction of time, I felt a sadness grip me, the quaking that comes from unforeseen loss. But the seismic shift was a small event, and when it was over, I heard another man call my name.
“Clare! Over here! I’m over here, sweetheart!”
I saw Mike then, breaking through the crowd. With a sure and steady voice, I answered him, because now I was ready, more than ready, to explore his new world.