“Springtime in New Jersey” sounded like the start of a joke, but the truth was that this part of the Garden State really did look like a garden at this time of year. The countryside was lushly green and bright with wildflowers.
Despite the tragedy of the weekend, as A.J. drove to Sacred Balance on Monday morning, she felt her spirits rise fractionally.
She was the first one in when she reached the studio. As she turned on the lights and set about preparing her morning tea, she considered Lily’s closed office door. A.J. had a key to every office, every desk, every file cabinet in the building. It had never occurred to her to use them-she had no desire to spy on her employees-but for the first time she wondered if trust was not a mistake where Lily was concerned.
It was a depressing thought.
She went in her own office and signed onto her laptop. There was an e-mail waiting for her from the SCA.
A.J. read it quickly. It was polite and noninformative. Dakarai Massri had left the employ of the Supreme Council of Antiquities to pursue other opportunities in September of the previous year.
There were not many lines to read between on that, but she did her best as she absently listened to the comfortable bustle of the staff filing in.
She heard Lily go straight into her office and close the door. A.J. looked at the photograph of her aunt and sighed.
Suze came in.
“Thank God you’re back. One more day of the Yoga Overlord’s reign and I think there would be a revolution.”
“What’s been happening?”
“You mean aside from the fact that she tries to run this place like a prison camp?”
“It can’t be that bad, Suze. Everyone was happy with the way Lily managed when Aunt Di was alive.”
“That’s because Lily didn’t act like she does now when Di was alive. She wouldn’t have dared. Di was totally hands on.”
Meaning A.J. wasn’t hands on enough? Sometimes it was hard to tell whether these observations were criticisms or simply observations.
“What exactly is Lily doing that’s so bad?”
“It’s not one gigantic thing. You know how it is with her. It’s constant. It’s exhausting.”
“Have there been any more mysterious visitors to the studio?”
Suze shook her head. “Not during my shifts. Not that anyone has mentioned.”
Suze went off to prepare for her class, and A.J. went next door to Lily’s office.
She tapped on the door.
“Enter,” Lily commanded.
A.J. opened the door. Lily looked up from her laptop. “Yes?”
A.J. had to squelch her instant annoyed response. Lily probably didn’t even do it on purpose; it was just her manner, but in one curt word she managed to imply that A.J. was interrupting, irritating, and an idiot.
A.J. said with false brightness. “Hi! How was your weekend?”
“Good. Apparently much better than yours, according to the news. Murder does seem to follow you everywhere you go.”
A.J. kept smiling although her face was starting to hurt. Better hers than Lily’s though. “I thought maybe we could finish Thursday’s discussion.”
Lily made a point of looking at the clock. She rose. “Unfortunately, I’ve got class in ten. Perhaps later.” She added, “That reminds me. Do I need to get someone to cover your classes today?”
“No, I’m back full time.”
Lily smiled politely. “Great. Well, if you’ll excuse me?”
She went out and A.J. went back to her office to practice deep breathing exercises.
The morning routine began.
Not long after A.J. finished her tea and e-mail, Emma Rice tapped on the door of A.J.’s office.
A.J. looked up smiling. “What’s up?’
Emma came in and shut the door. At her serious expression, A.J. said, “Please tell me you’re not thinking of quitting.”
“Now there’s a coincidence. That’s exactly what I was going to ask you.”
A.J. examined the older woman’s lined face. “What do you mean?”
Emma said forthrightly, “The rumor is you’re planning on selling Sacred Balance and moving back to New York. Is there any truth to it?”
“No. Absolutely not. Who started that rumor?”
Emma shook her head.
“Well, it’s not true,” A.J. said again, firmly.
After a moment, Emma said, “Your word is good enough for me, honey. But you might want to reassure some of these other folks before they start looking for jobs.”
A.J. was startled. “Is it that bad?”
“Thanks for the heads up.”
A.J. taught her morning class without incident; she was careful not to push herself too far. She was surprised at how happy she was to be teaching, how much she had missed it over the past week. Give up the studio and move back to New York? No way.
After her Yoga for Kids course, she went down to Lily’s office to try again to meet with her, but Lily was locking her door, clearly on her way out.
“Sorry. Early lunch meeting,” she said in answer to A.J.’s visible surprise.
“All right. Can we talk after lunch then?”
“I’m always available.” Lily said it with absolute sincerity, so apparently she believed it. And it was true that Lily had never ducked confrontation before. But something was most definitely up. A.J. trusted her instincts on that.
A.J. went back to her office, glanced over the monthly reports, and decided she, too, could do with an early lunch. She asked Suze if she wanted to grab a quick bite between sessions, and they drove into town, bought sandwiches and drinks at a caf'e, and took their lunch to the park to eat by the duck pond.
Preoccupied with her thoughts of Lily, it took A.J. a while to notice that Suze was not her usual bubbly self. Not at all, in fact.
“Everything okay?” A.J. asked.
“Sure!” But the bright tone didn’t match Suze’s expression.
A.J. examined the younger woman’s glum profile. “Emma told me there are rumors flying around the studio.”
Suze snorted. “You can say that again. And it’s all Lily’s doing.”
“Do you have any proof of that?”
“Who else would it be?”
A.J. couldn’t help but think there was some truth to that, but she wanted to try to keep an open mind. “What exactly is she saying?”
“She’s not saying anything. Not to me, anyway. She just looks mysterious and smug whenever anyone asks her anything outright.” Suze’s wide blue eyes slanted A.J.’s way. “The rumor is you’re considering selling your share of Sacred Balance to Lily.”
“Oh, really,” A.J. said very quietly.
Suze looked uncomfortable. “Please don’t tell anyone you got that from me.”
“Don’t worry. And for the record, it’s not true.”
Suze looked relieved. “I knew it wasn’t.”
They ate for a time in silence, then Suze asked, “Is it over between you and Jake?”
A.J.’s avocado and tomato sandwich turned to moth-balls and lodged in her throat. She managed to choke it down and say, “Not that I’m aware of. Why?”
Suze’s face looked as red as if she’d stepped into boiling water. “Uh…”
“It’s probably nothing,” Suze said quickly. “It’s just we had a new potential client come in last week. Chess Something-or-other.” Suze firmed her voice with effort. “She mentioned that she and Jake were seeing each other.”
At last A.J. managed to say colorlessly, “I see.”
Once again A.J. reminded herself that she and Jake had never been exclusive, they’d never even discussed it, which seemed a bit odd in retrospect. But just because Jake was going out with someone else didn’t mean…
At that point logic fled and it was all she could do not to be sick in the rhododendrons.
“A couple of people have mentioned seeing Jake-”
“Jake and I aren’t exclusive,” A.J. said quickly. Saving her pride seemed to be paramount now. More than that she couldn’t bear to think about.
“Right, right,” Suze said quickly. She was being careful not to look directly at A.J., for which A.J. was grateful.
They ate their sandwiches in silence for a minute or two and then Suze asked indignantly, “Who is she, anyway?”
“An old friend of Jake’s. An old girlfriend, I guess. Francesca Cox. She’s a travel writer.”
“Oh brother,” Suze said and her tone was so scathing they both started giggling shakily.
They finished their lunch with minimal discussion, walked back to A.J.’s car, and returned to the studio.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Around three o’clock A.J.’s cell rang and her heart leapt as she recognized the number as Jake’s.
“Hi!” she said cheerfully.
“Hey.” He sounded guarded. Or was she now overanalyzing every inflection and tone?
“Are you free for dinner tonight?” He added quickly, “Just someplace casual.”
“Sure.” Her heart sank at the “someplace casual.” Not that all their meals out were grand affairs, but something about the phrasing triggered recollections of friends’ horror stories about getting dumped in public.
“I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“I’ll be there,” she said a little grimly.
A.J. left work on time, determined not to fuss or primp for this date that might not be a date. Which might in fact be her pink slip.
All the same, she dressed carefully and spent extra time on her makeup and hair.
Monster lay on the bed and watched her try to decide between a Tuleh floral ruffle-trimmed blouse with apple green skirt ensemble and a black, ivory, and moss dash-print shift.
“What do you think?” A.J. studied the dress, frowning.
Monster thumped his tail.
“You always say that.” She put both selections back and pulled out a clean pair of jeans and a white T-shirt featuring the Paris Op'era. “It’s just Jake,” she informed the dog, and once again Monster’s tail dusted the quilt.
Yeah,” A.J. muttered, “but you’ve always had a thing for men in uniform.”
Monster raised his head, jaws open in a silent doggy laugh.
A.J. pulled on the jeans and T-shirt, added a pair of vintage crystal teardrop earrings, fluffed her hair, and went to wait in the front parlor, resisting the desire to have a glass of wine while she waited. That was one habit she was determined never to get into: drinking to calm her nerves.
She hadn’t long to wait before Jake’s sports car pulled up to the front yard. He got out wearing his favorite off-duty snug jeans and the Gucci dress shirt she’d bought him for Christmas: fitted black cotton with tiny little red polka dots. He’d done his best to tame his unruly dark hair, but he was past due for a haircut-probably too busy trying to throw her mother in the slammer to find time for the barber.
A.J. made a face at her thoughts. Okay, so it was sort of a date, anyway. But Jake looked awfully solemn. Solemn and really good-looking.
She sighed, put on her game face, and briskly opened the door, which seemed to catch him off guard. Maybe she did sort of throw it open a bit more dramatically than intended.
“Hey!” he said, taking a cautious step back.
Jake sort of hesitated, but then he moved to kiss her, his light salute hitting somewhere between her mouth and cheek.
“Your hair looks cute.”
“Gold star for noticing the hair,” A.J. said. She was proud of herself for managing to sound so much calmer than she felt.
“Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
He blinked at what probably sounded like a certain lack of enthusiasm, but led the way without comment, opening the car door for her, closing it, and going round to his side.
“I thought maybe Bill’s tonight?” he suggested tentatively.
His brows drew together. “Everything okay?”
He nodded, not entirely convinced, and turned the key in the ignition.
A.J. felt a strong sense of nostalgia as they walked through the front doors of Bill’s Diner, a nostalgia that had nothing to do with Buddy Holly singing “Love’s Made a Fool of You” on the jukebox or the wall display of vintage lunch-boxes. The first meal she and Jake had shared had been at Bill’s. She wondered if they had come full circle.
They hid behind their menus for a while, then Jake laid his down and A.J. followed suit.
“How is the investigation going?”
“We don’t have the ballistics report yet, but the informal consensus is the weapon used to kill Massri was probably the same used to kill the Sutherland woman.”
“Then Maddie’s death is connected to Dicky’s, and not to Peggy Graham’s.”
“If ballistics confirms, yeah, it looks that way.” He drummed his fingers restlessly on the table, caught A.J. watching, and stopped.
“Is Mother going to be arrested again?”
“Not at this time. The weapon still hasn’t been found and she tested clean for gunshot residue particles.” His eyes were very green beneath the dark straight brows. “Also, one of the neighbors reported seeing a blue sports car racing down the alley behind Sutherland’s house around five o’clock, which would have been the approximate time of the shooting.”
“Did the neighbor hear a shot? Because we sure didn’t.”
“No. She just noted the sports car. Very few cars use that alley so it stuck in her mind. But she wouldn’t have heard anything. We found a silencer in the garden near the back gate. It must have been improperly attached to the barrel of the murder weapon.”
Was that a clue? A murderer who wasn’t familiar with how to attach a silencer was certainly not a professional assassin.
“Did the neighbor get a license or see the driver?”
“No. That would have been nice, but no. All the same, it does open the possibility to another suspect.”
“I would hope so! Mother doesn’t have any motive for killing Maddie.”
Jake said patiently, “Motive is pretty much subjective, but that does seem to be the general opinion. No one can see any reason for Sutherland’s death-certainly not for your mother contriving her death.”
“What about the phone call-the single ring when Mother and I were talking in the kitchen?”
“That’s another point in your mother’s favor. There was a phone call. It was placed from a phone booth in Andover. The caller spoke to someone at the house for two minutes and thirty-six seconds.”
The waitress appeared at their table and they gave their orders. When the waitress departed, A.J. asked, “What about outgoing calls?”
“No luck there. The last two phone calls were to a hair place.”
“The Salon!” A.J. exclaimed.
“Right. One was about ten o’clock Sunday morning. The other was at five after three in the afternoon. Roughly two hours before Sutherland was shot.”
“But don’t you see that’s significant?” A.J. demanded. “I told you I thought there was a connection between The Salon and Massri’s death. And now here’s a direct link to Maddie’s death.”
Jake looked pained. “A.J., the first call was to set up hair appointments for all of you. The second call was Maddie asking whether she’d left her glasses at the salon. And before you ask? Yes, she had.”
“I did. I went and picked them up myself.”
A.J. racked her brains for a way to bring up what she believed to be the most damning fact: The Salon hair products at Massri’s apartment. “You know,” she said slowly, “Mother brought up a good point.”
“I’m serious. She mentioned that the last time she was at Dicky’s she noticed he had products from The Salon in his bathroom.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“No. Listen to me. The Salon only caters to women-and women of a certain age. Since the shampoo and conditioning rinse didn’t belong to Mother, who did they belong to?”
“Shampoo and conditioning rinse,” he repeated without inflection.
A.J. said steadily, “That’s what Mother said.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “I see. Well, first of all, we have only your mother’s word she didn’t bring those things into Massri’s home. She could be making that up now in an effort to throw suspicion off herself.”
A.J. opened her mouth, but he cut her off.
“Or maybe another woman did bring those items into Massri’s apartment. Maybe he was having an affair with another woman and your mother discovered it and killed him.”
A.J. couldn’t seem to unlock her gaze from Jake’s green one. “She didn’t.”
“I’m just telling you how it might look if you went around sharing this brand-new information too freely.”
She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and said, “You won’t even consider the possibility that if there was another woman involved, she might have killed Dicky?”
“We haven’t found any evidence of another woman being involved with Massri.”
“Well you didn’t find evidence that he’d been married to Maddie either.”
His jaw tightened, and she knew that one had hit home.
“Fair enough. But how about this for an explanation? How about Massri bought the products himself?”
“I told you, The Salon caters to women.”
“Hey, for your information, Avon makes bath oil that works great as a bug repellent. I use it camping, although I guess you’ve probably noticed I’m not generally at home to the Avon Lady.”
Feeling deflated, A.J. sat back in the leather booth. She said stubbornly, “I don’t believe it’s a coincidence.”
Seeming to feel he’d already won that round, Jake asked more tolerantly, “You don’t believe what’s a coincidence? That Maddie and Massri bought hair products from the same place? That’s not that amazing of a coincidence, believe me.” She could feel his gaze on her face. He said, “We’ve turned up another possible lead, though.”
At her look of inquiry, he said, “Massri was fired from his position at the SCA. We haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what happened, but from everything not being said, it sounds potentially serious.”
A.J. said slowly, “So you think it’s a legitimate lead?”
“It’s too soon to tell if it will pan out, but I think it casts reasonable doubt on the case we’re building against Elysia.” He threw her a look from beneath his brows. “Obviously that’s off the record.”
“When isn’t it? Anyway, for the record, Mr. Meagher has already been looking into Massri’s connection with the SCA.”
He gave her a funny look, but whatever he might have said was interrupted by the reappearance of the waitress with their dinners.
They ate for a time in silence that gradually, at least in A.J.’s mind, took on the weight and substance of a funeral pall. With every bite it was clearer and clearer to her that Jake had not invited her out for the pleasure of her company or to discuss the case against her mother. She began to wish that he would just get it over.
The waitress returned to clear away their plates and offer dessert menus.
“Did you want dessert?” Jake asked, frowning over the menu. A.J. nearly laughed. He was clearly desperate not to have this discussion whatever it was.
He ordered apple pie and stuffed the menu back in the metal holder.
He looked at her and this time he held her gaze. “Look, I owe you an explanation.”
Almost impatiently, he said, “We never specifically said anything about not seeing other people.” He stopped. A.J. nodded. She managed to keep control of her face, but her stomach dropped. Officially she had only been dumped once in her life. That was when Andy had left her for Nick. It had been devastating; devastating enough that just the memory of it could give her dry heaves. Though thankfully not at the moment. The situation was shaping up to be humiliating enough as it was.
Jake’s gaze rose from the wet ring on the table. He said, “But whether we said anything about it or not, I haven’t been interested in dating anyone else.”
“Me neither,” a surprisingly calm voice said on A.J.’s behalf.
There was another pause, and then Jake said, “I’m not good at this kind of thing. What I’m trying to say is-what I’m trying to explain is-”
He stopped in awkward silence.
A.J. got out, “Honestly? It would be easier on me if you’d just say it.”
Jake nodded. “I told you that I was engaged once.”
“Jenny. Yes, I remember.”
“What I didn’t tell you-because I’ve never told anyone-is that Jenny disappeared two weeks before our wedding. No word, no explanation, nothing.”
“You mean… something happened to her?”
Now there was a dumb comment, but Jake just nodded. “Yes. But not what I thought. I thought… I don’t want to tell you the things I thought. That she’d had some kind of accident or had been kidnapped-or was dead. Maybe even worse.”
Worse than dead? Then A.J. remembered that Jake was a cop and had probably seen things that she didn’t want to know about-things that might be worse than being dead.
She tuned back in to hear him saying, “I spent weeks, months trying to find her. Trying to… find an answer.”
“Did you find one?”
“Yes. I did. Or, more exactly, the answer found me. She’d gone into the WPP.”
“The Witness Protection Program. Jenny worked for a real estate agent who turned out to have mob ties. Anyway, one night when she was working late, she saw her boss killed by none other than Jackie Palermo.”
The name was vaguely familiar to A.J. Was Palermo a mob boss? Somebody connected to organized crime, she was pretty sure.
“Palermo’s goons spotted her, but Jenny managed to get away, and she went straight to the cops who put her in contact with the feds. She agreed to testify, but Palermo put a contract out on her. To keep her alive, she was moved into the WPP.”
“She didn’t leave word for you?”
“No. It was deemed too risky. Palermo had a lot of clout, a lot of contacts-there was fear that it might reach all the way into the police department.”
A.J. began to understand why Jake was such a fanatic for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. As the last puzzle piece fell into place, she said, “Chess is Jenny.”
“I don’t understand why she didn’t get word to you. You were her fianc'e. Spouses are moved into the program-well, I mean, from what I’ve seen on TV.”
He said shortly, “She wasn’t thinking clearly. She wasn’t prepared for that. Who is?”
Clearly a sore spot. She said mildly, “Okay. Just wondered.”
Jake was instantly apologetic. “No. It’s a valid question. I asked it myself plenty of times. Why did she let me go through all that time believing the worst?”
“Would you have gone into the program with her if she’d told you?”
He stared at her. “I… don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s so long after the fact it’s hard to say what I’d have done then.” He sighed. “Anyway, I thought I’d never see her again.”
“So…” For the life of her, A.J. couldn’t think of what to say. Her first instinct was to ask if Jake had proof that Jenny was telling the truth, but she knew Jake well enough to know he didn’t accept anything at face value. Jenny must indeed be telling the truth. It was an amazing story, and A.J. knew that she should probably be ashamed that her primary reaction was the essentially selfish one of wondering whether she was losing Jake to his exfianc'ee.
At last she managed-almost steadily, “Are you still in love with her?”
“No. I don’t know.” He stopped, wincing. “I don’t know what I feel. I thought I’d never see her again. I never had the chance to say good-bye to her. Everything ended and I had all these unresolved feelings. Can you understand that?”
And the problem was, A.J. could. She could totally identify with those feelings. In fact the only hard part was picturing Jake having them. He always seemed so tough, so in control.
He said suddenly, urgently, “The thing is, I have feelings for you, too, A.J. I care for you. A lot. More than I thought I was ever going to care for anyone again.”
If he told her they would always be friends, she was probably going to bean him with the saltshaker. But he didn’t say it. He didn’t say anything else. He just stared at her in that grim, pained way, waiting.
Waiting for what? Waiting for A.J. to say something? Waiting for her to break it off?
“Where does this leave us?”
“I don’t know. I just know that I had to tell you. That I couldn’t leave you wondering what the hell was going on with me.”
She nodded absently. “Are you… seeing her?”
“Yes. I’m seeing her. I’m not dating her. I don’t know what I’m doing, frankly. We’re just talking.”
Reliving old times? Trying to figure out if there was enough there for a future? Aware of Jake’s gaze, A.J. said slowly, “I’m not sure what to say.”
They stared at each other across the gulf that had unexpectedly appeared between them.
How simple it would be if A.J. could just give Jake an ultimatum. You’d better make your mind up quick, buster! Or if she could hate him for being confused and torn now. But neither of those was a realistic option. She cared too much for him to risk throwing down an ultimatum. For both their sakes-for all their sakes-he needed to make the right decision now. And, yes, while way down deep inside she was hurt and a little angry that Jake couldn’t see that she was the best thing that had ever happened to him, apparently she had learned enough during the last year or so to recognize how unfair and unrealistic that attitude was.
In fact it was impossible not to be sympathetic to the pain he must have felt when Jenny-Chess-had disappeared. It was also impossible not to feel anger at the other woman. No matter what the circumstances, to have left Jake without a word was beyond cruel. And if Chess hadn’t known him well enough to trust him with her life, she hadn’t any business getting engaged to him in the first place.
So A.J. swallowed her pride and ego and fear. She said with calmness she was a million miles from feeling, “Thank you. For being honest, I mean. I care too much about you-and about us-to try and push you. For a decision. I know you’ll tell me once you know, once you’ve worked out, what you’re feeling.”
He reached across the table, offering his hand. A.J. rested her hand in his palm, and to her astonishment, he raised their joined hands and kissed her fingers. It was the last gesture A.J. expected, but she found it incredibly moving-maybe because it was so obviously sincere.
She laughed shakily. Jake released her and they both reached hastily for their coffee cups.