The apartment was still, otherwise she might have missed it.
Brin was reading the morning paper over her coffee and cornflakes, just like every Saturday for the last two years. This boring routine had kept her sane since that horrible morning she woke up to find her life turned upside down.
But boring would be a temporary condition.
She almost dismissed the quiet shooshing from the foyer. But she shuffled across the room, her fuzzy slippers catching on the seam between the kitchen and the foyer floors. In the middle of the marble tile, she saw it. A small envelope. Innocent enough. But it had obviously been slipped under the door.
That’s odd. Hank had probably arranged for her to have another secret admirer—just the latest attempt to cheer her up. She picked up the envelope and turned it over in her hands. There was something different about this note. Something sinister—her name was pasted in unevenly cut letters like something out of a bad movie.
She slipped her finger under the seal, pulled out the paper, and unfolded it. The same letters inside spelled out the words in uneven, maniacal print.
You killed him. Now it’s your turn. Be ready to die.
Brin’s hands shook so hard she dropped the note. It caught the air and spiraled down, those terrible letters screaming out their message. Screaming out what she’d been telling herself for two years.
You killed him.
It was blue. The whole damned canvas was blue, except for one little spot in the upper right-hand corner that was supposed to be white. Actually, the spot was more of a gray color because it had blended with—well, the blue.
Brin shifted on the uncomfortable shoes she’d bought only because they matched her cream-colored linen suit. The three-inch heels were blocky, but were still sinking into the moist earth. She never would have worn them had she known Magda was going to have the showing outside. After all, who throws an art exhibit alfresco in April?
“Brin, darling, is that you?” The shrill voice made her jump, but she’d been so on edge there wasn’t much that didn’t.
“Hi, Mags. Nice painting.”
“Isn’t it divine?” The veritable stick of a woman strutted over, her deep red dye job blazing purple in the afternoon sun. “I think I’m going to buy it. It’ll go beautifully in the dining room at the penthouse in town, don’t you think?”
Brin narrowed her eyes and inspected the painting again, hoping she’d missed something. “You do know it’s blue, don’t you? Just a big blue canvas.”
Magda grinned and her eyes twinkled. “Of course it’s blue. I was born rich, darling, not stupid. But just look at the artist.” She gestured with her chin toward a tall blond Adonis of a man who obviously had more muscles than talent. “If you buy a painting today, he comes to your house to paint a mural. It was my idea when I set up the showing. I’d pay a lot to watch that man work wearing nothing but a tank top and tight jeans.”
Brin raised an eyebrow. “And does Blaire know about this little fetish?”
“Are you kidding? He encourages it! Face it, darling, Blaire is fabulous and I adore him, but he doesn’t look like that and he knows it. I get the view, he reaps the benefits, end of story.”
Brin chuckled and put up her hands in surrender. “Okay, that’s enough information for me, thank you.”
Magda looked Brin up and down. “You look lovely today.”
But Brin detected the slightest hint of disapproval in her voice. The cream suit was completely wrong, and Brin knew it, even though she’d spent hours putting together the ensemble. She’d packed her generous five-foot-ten-inch Scandinavian frame into an outfit made for an Ally McBeal reject, smoothing her brown hair into the perfect French roll. Brown—not her natural blonde. Blondes might have more fun, but they had more heartache, too. She’d had enough of that for one lifetime.
A waiter passed by and Magda snatched two flutes of champagne. Handing one to Brin, she steered her away from the painting and into a tent outfitted with bistro tables and Brie, which was kept at the perfect temperature by fussy caterers. They shrank back when Magda walked in, practically genuflecting in her presence.
“Now, darling, tell me how you’re doing. Any more letters?”
Brin felt as cornered as the caterers. Her face pinched, but she forced herself to relax. “Just a few.” She tried to sound casual and cavalier. It wasn’t working.
“A few? How many are a few?”
Brin drew a cleansing breath. She’d come out to Hyannis to forget about all this. Like she could. “There’ve been three total. Magda, I know you’re worried, but it’s just some jerk—”
“Darling, it was just some jerk who gunned down John Lennon in front of the Dakota!”
The muscles in Brin’s neck tightened. She made a mental note never to encourage Magda to volunteer for the suicide hotline. “Thanks. That’s very comforting.”
Magda scooted to the edge of her chair and put a perfectly manicured hand on Brin’s. “What do the police say? Did they offer you any protection?”
Brin took a gulp from her champagne and tried to figure out what, if anything, she should tell Magda. The Brie was good. She could cover that comfortably. The champagne was already starting to make her lightheaded. Not something she’d normally admit, but at least she wouldn’t be talking about the letters. But she’d known Magda too long to think she’d get her to drop the subject. But maybe she could throw the bloodhound off the scent.
She shrugged and tried to look bored. “They’re just letters. The cops can’t do anything about it unless—”
“Unless?” Magda’s brow would have wrinkled in concern had it not recently been Botoxed into permanent surprise. “Brin, darling, they’re helpless, aren’t they? And that leaves you helpless!”
Brin put down her glass to hide that her hands were shaking. “I’m sure it’s a joke. A sick, twisted joke, but just a joke.”
Magda didn’t appear amused. “It doesn’t sound like a joke to me. Darling, why won’t you get a bodyguard? I’ve told you for years that you need one, but with these threats, I really think it’s time you finally give in to it.”
Brin shook her head. “God, no. Having Hank follow my every move is enough, thank you.” She rose from her seat to look at more paintings. “A bodyguard would just be a nuisance. And since we’re talking about assassinations, what good did bodyguards ever do the Kennedys? And they had the goddamned Secret Service.”
Magda’s face tightened. “Why do you think I want to protect you? I’ve lost far too many people I cared about over the years. I can’t lose you, too.”
Brin turned back to her. Magda’s face was drawn, and for the first time Brin realized that Magda’s concern went further than polite society chit-chat and a sense of obligation. Magda was scared. Hell, Brin was, too.
“I know. I appreciate it, I do. But the police think it’s just some sick bastard looking for attention. Anyhow, Hank is having a new alarm system installed today. One with a panic button. That should make you feel better. But for now, I just need to distract myself and try to get past it. If I hide and act like a frightened kitten, he wins.”
Magda smiled again, her face shining as brightly as her purple hair. “Good show, darling. God, you’ve got guts.”
“Not as much as you’d think.” Brin could put on a good show when she needed to, but her belly was buzzing like she’d swallowed the Energizer Bunny.
“I still think you need some security,” Magda said, but nodded when Brin gave her a look that clearly conveyed it was time to drop the subject. “But perhaps what you need is something to take your mind off things. And I know just what you need to do. Are you still going to help me plan that fundraiser for the new pediatric cancer wing at the hospital?”
Brin nodded. “Of course. When have I ever backed out on a promise?”
“And I hope that promise still includes that big, fat check.” Magda winked.
“Naturally.” The champagne hit Brin’s head like a welcome breeze. It was nice, the slight buzz burning into her muscles and loosening her spine. And Magda had changed the subject. Thank God.
“Oh my, I forgot!” Magda smacked herself on the forehead like a V-8 commercial. “I have that library fundraiser to plan, as well. I can’t possibly manage both at the same time.”
Brin scowled. All day she’d had a feeling that Magda was up to something. Keeping busy was what she needed, but single-handedly planning a benefit was more than she could manage. “Magda, I know I said I needed a distraction, but I can’t plan this thing alone—”
“I never intended you to.” Her eyes twinkled, scheming and wicked. “In fact, I’ve just been introduced to the perfect person.”
“Oh, he’s lovely, darling. Just right for you. I think I’ve really got it right this time.”
Magda placed her hand on Brin’s shoulder and gently shoved her toward a throng of people on the south lawn. Brin suspected this felt something like being led to the guillotine during the French Revolution. She was in big trouble, and she sure wasn’t in the mood to meet one of Magda’s lawyers or yet another stockbroker.
She followed Magda’s gaze and saw a slim, sandy blond man who looked nothing like a stockbroker. He appeared to be no more than twenty-five, which was too young for her. His hair had been tousled by the breeze and he wore a tan sport coat and navy pants. It was a huge contrast to the perfectly coifed Armani and Versace that surrounded him, but there was something inherently elegant about him, a charisma that transcended fashion and grooming.
“This is a setup.”
Magda patted her arm. “Don’t think of it that way, darling. Think of this as a friendly shove. After all, it’s been two years.”
“It’s only been two years. I can’t.”
“No one’s telling you to marry him, darling. Relax! Plan a benefit, see where it goes—”
Magda stuck out her lip and folded her arms. “But, darling, think of the children. The poor, sick children. If you don’t plan the benefit with your sense of style, why, who would do it as well? They’re counting on you.”
Magda knew which buttons to push and had a firm grasp on Brin’s sense-of-duty lever. And she had a point, even if she was full of it. Brin knew she had all the sense of style of a colorblind thirteen-year-old from Paramus. She closed her palm, concentrating for a moment on the reassuring presence of her wedding ring, then glared at Magda. “Oh, all right. I’ll plan the benefit, but that’s it. Introduce me to your little wonder stud, will ya? Or do I have to do this myself, too?”
Magda beamed. “Well, of course I’ll introduce you. Oh, David! David!”
She pushed Brin—not so gently this time—toward the man in the tan sport coat. He popped to attention, his puppy-dog brown eyes landing on Brin and sticking. Now that she was closer, Brin saw laugh lines around his eyes betraying a few more years behind him than she had first thought. He was slender, yes, but the open collar of his white shirt revealed a glimpse of the firm muscles concealed beneath, and even in her heels, she had to look up to him.
He extended his hand and took a quick step forward. “Mrs. Maxwell, it’s so good to meet you. I’m David Lyle.”
Wham. It was like a two-by-four smacked her square in the chest, knocking the wind out of her. Brin’s head was swimming, but from more than the champagne. The last man who’d made her feel this way—well, she’d buried him nearly two years ago.
Before she could stop herself, Brin said, “Oh, like the crocodile?”
He stared at her blankly. “I’m sorry?”
She swallowed and wished her mouth would shift into neutral from time to time. “Lyle the Crocodile. It’s a children’s book.”
“Oh, yeah.” He nodded, and let his grin widen. “Yes, I guess it’s just like the crocodile.”
Brin shook the hand he offered, but ignored the electricity that ran up her arm and straight to her head. She knew exactly what Magda had in mind, and she’d never give her the satisfaction of knowing that just the sight of this guy made her palms sweat.
“So, Mr. Lyle, I understand we’re to be working together on the hospital benefit.”
“Then we should be on a first name basis. Call me David.”
“David planned the Clarkson’s charity ball last year,” Magda said, providing the short form of his résumé.
Brin searched her memory. “Oh. That was a lovely party, but I thought Paul Blanchette planned that.”
“No.” David shook his head a little too quickly. “Well, he was supposed to, but he had to duck out at the last minute.”
“Paul plans all of the Clarkson’s events,” Magda said to David. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “But there was some sort of scandal with that wild wife of his. You know she has a thing for Italian boys—”
“Thank you, Magda.” Brin cut her off before she could go into further detail. She was in no mood for a ride on the latest gossip train.
“Well, I have an up-and-coming artist to catch up to, so I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” Magda said, undaunted.
Brin glared at her and could swear Magda was skipping on the inside. But something was off. Magda always set her up with guys whose pedigrees any dog would envy. Guys who knew Donatella Versace—in the biblical sense. But not this guy. David wasn’t Magda’s type. He was the type she’d send to Hank for a makeover, but not the sort she’d pick for Brin. So either there was something brewing, or she’d finally figured out that Brin wasn’t into polo ponies and blue chips.
“Brin, darling, do say you’re staying the weekend. Blaire and I want to talk with you about an idea we had and you haven’t given me a chance to beat you at tennis.”
Brin shook her head. “Sorry. I have to get home to Lilli.”
“But can’t Hank take care of her? After all, just between you and me and the wall, that writer from The New Yorker will be here later. He would love to hear about the plans for the benefit.”
“I doubt it. Sorry, Magda, but I have to get back tonight. Hank has plans for the weekend and he’ll kill me if I’m late.” And whatever games Magda had in mind for her, Brin wasn’t interested in playing.
Magda stuck out her chin to show her displeasure, but quickly brightened. “Of course, darling. Whatever you think is best. I’m off, then. You two have some champagne, get acquainted.” She winked at Brin. “And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Or anything I would!” She floated away leaving only a cloud of Chanel No. 5 in her wake.
Well, now what? Brin was standing smack dab in the middle of pretension central with David Lyle-the-Crocodile, trying to figure out if he was really reptilian and wondering why her feet went numb every time he looked at her. Looked through her was more like it. Twirling her wedding ring again, she turned back to him and flashed an apologetic smile. “Sorry about Magda. She’s…well, she’s Magda.”
“She’s pretty unique all right.” David watched her purple head bob away among her guests. “You two seem to have a very special bond, though.”
Brin sighed. “She thinks she’s my mother.”
“She isn’t?” David looked surprised.
“Oh, Lord, no.” If she’d had more champagne, Brin would have choked on it. “You don’t know who Magda is?”
David reddened, but shrugged it off. “No, not really. She just hired me a few days ago, and I’m still pretty new around here.”
Brin’s eyes narrowed. This was definitely odd. Magda never hired “the new guy”. Too risky, since every event with her name on it had to be perfect. What was she up to? “You must be new if you don’t know about Magdalena McKecknie Todd.”
“So educate me.”
Champagne. This requires a lot more champagne. Brin swooped down on an unsuspecting waiter and grabbed two more flutes, disturbed to discover she was automatically filling Magda’s shoes in her absence. The grooming was taking hold.
Brin paused as she passed David his champagne. She wouldn’t blame him for being uncomfortable in his current surroundings. God knew she was. But his eyes were keen and constantly scanning, as if he was looking for someone. Under a seemingly casual exterior, his muscles were as taut as a cat’s getting ready to jump. It was unnerving, and, at the same time, exciting to watch.
Brin caught herself staring at his mouth and quickly shifted her gaze, but she was left with the image of his full lips. She clenched her fist and dug her nails into her palm, hoping the sting would clear her head. There was a time that a mouth just like that had been hers to do with what she would, but those times were gone. David Lyle and his tempting lips would be for someone else to explore.
“How to explain Magda,” she said. “Well, you’ve heard the expression about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth? Magda’s was platinum. When the Rockefellers needed money, they went to her father, Owen McKecknie.”
David let out a low whistle. “Wow. Now that’s cash.”
“You can say that again. Her husband, Blaire, owns Todd Publishing. One of the big ten, he says. Whatever that means.”
David shook his head. “I wouldn’t have a clue.”
“Whatever it is, Magda’s heavy into the business. She’s one of New York’s foremost charity mavens. And, of course, she’s my mother-in-law.”
David, who was mid-sip, lowered his champagne glass from his lips and coughed. “Magda is Marcus Maxwell’s mother?”
“Yup.” Brin’s smile came easier lubricated by a second glass of champagne, and she had to admit she enjoyed David’s stunned expression. “Oh, I know she doesn’t look like the type to have a kid who grew up to wear ripped jeans and leather and dance around on a stage, but right there in the thousand-dollar suit is the woman who gave birth to Hell’s Fury’s front man.”
David stared across the lawn at Magda as she worked her way through a gaggle of new artists. Brin worked her way through another glass of champagne, but her eyes never left David. What am I doing? She took a breath to clear her head. It was time to get back to business. “Um, so, David, tell me what you have in mind for the benefit.”
David’s eyes reflected the mental equivalent of a jazz square as he shifted gears. “Oh, well, I haven’t had time to draw anything out on paper yet.”
“Just off the top of your head.”
“Uh, well, I suppose a lot of caviar and champagne is in order. As for location, I haven’t decided yet, but I know this guy who does these fabulous ice sculptures.”
“Ice sculptures, huh?” She searched her memory, faintly remembering a huge bald eagle carved out of blue-tinted ice at the Clarkson’s ball. It had been impressive, but reminded her of a vodka luge she’d seen at a frat party in college. “That was quite the thing they had at the Clarkson’s last year. You thinking of using the same artist?”
David’s smile twitched. “Um, yeah. He does this thing with a fountain—”
“Like at the Clarkson’s?” Now why did I say that? Why am I testing him?
“Yeah. Like at the Clarkson’s. Magda said you might like something like that.”
Because he’s having trouble getting his facts straight. Somewhere in Brin’s gut she knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t put two and two together to come up with anything but five. She mentally chastised herself. David probably gave dozens of parties a year. Who could remember which had a fountain and which had a bald eagle? If it hadn’t been for those damned letters, she probably wouldn’t have been so suspicious, anyway. She also had to entertain the possibility that she was looking for something wrong with him just because Magda thought he was so perfect.
“Wait a minute.” Her brain had managed to catch up with the conversation. “Magda said I might like something like that? You’ve been talking to Magda about me? I should have known it. You’re in on the setup.”
“No.” He didn’t look surprised by the suggestion, which annoyed Brin even more.
“But you knew about it?”
He chuckled. “It was pretty obvious when her first question was if I was single and her second was if I was straight.”
“Great. So I suppose she’s filling you in about me, then?”
“Not much. She mentioned you were a widow, but I knew that as soon as she said your name. Marcus Maxwell’s death was on the front page of every newspaper in the country, with your name right beside.”
Brin tried not to register in her expression the knife suddenly driven into her heart, but knew immediately she’d failed.
“Sorry.” He cleared his throat and spun his champagne flute between his fingers. “How long has it been?”
His words were gentle, tying her stomach into knots. “What time is it?” she asked.
David blinked once, but looked down at his watch. “About four thirty.”
“One year, eleven months, fifteen days and fifteen—no, fourteen hours.”
The mood was getting way too heavy, and she realized she’d just dropped a lead weight. “Just kidding. But it’s been just about two years.”
He nodded, but his eyes were scanning again. “So you must have married into all this.”
Nope. Definitely not Magda’s type. He wasn’t slick, overly suave or reserved. He said what he thought. And despite the fact he could see past the designer shoes and tailored suit to notice she wasn’t born into a world of class and sophistication—or maybe because of it—there was something about David that she liked right away.
The truth of the matter was she’d always felt like a fish out of water at these things of Magda’s. Like she was the one person who didn’t say the right thing all the time. Magda had tried to fix her, but it hadn’t worked. Even if David had a few minor lapses in his memory, it was nice to have someone around with a mouth as big and uncooperative as her own.
“That’s a long story.” It was an obvious evasion, but she offered David a soft smile to rescue him. “Maybe I’ll tell you sometime, but suffice it to say that this whole shebang isn’t my thing. When I’m in Hyannis, I’d rather stop in at Tugboat’s for the lobster rolls.”
David’s eyes refocused on hers, and the tension fell from his shoulders. “Then let me take you there for dinner.”
Brin’s brain yelled “no”, but her heart pounded out “yes, oh God, yes” at a pace that would make Fred Astaire break a sweat. “Oh, I don’t know.” She tried to look outwardly calm.
“Please. Then we can go for a walk on the beach, maybe. Talk about the benefit.”
A walk on the beach sounded innocent enough, but the love scene in From Here to Eternity flashed through Brin’s head. What was it about this guy that was making her hormones go nuts? She forced a smile, reminding herself that all Deborah Kerr got out of that scene was sand up her hoo-ha.
“That’s a tempting offer. Unfortunately, it has to be another time. I really have to get home to Lilli.”
“May I at least walk you to your car?”
Brin shook her head, and the champagne made her vision spin. “No, thanks. Magda’s hired me a driver, and I need to hunt him down. Need to find Magda, too, before I go. Please stay and enjoy the Brie. Magda put a lot of time and effort into intimidating caterers for this. Make it worth her while.”
David nodded and laughed quietly. “All right. Can I at least call you this weekend to set up a meeting to get started on the benefit? Maybe have lunch sometime next week?”
“Yeah.” Lunch sounded fun. Harmless. Safe. “Terrific. Magda has the number—”
“She already gave it to me.”
“Of course she did.” Brin shook his hand and let her fingers linger in his a moment longer than she should have. “It was really nice meeting you, David. I’m looking forward to this.”
She walked away feeling like she’d finally beat Magda at her own game. She’d been tempted, that was for sure, but if she could meet someone she was attracted to and have no interest in pursuing him, that was proof positive she wasn’t ready to move on yet. Nope, she had no interest in David Lyle beyond planning a benefit.
Now if she could just get her pulse to slow down.
I was having a stroke.
Had to be. What else could account for the palpitations, the tingling all over, and the sudden urge to run in the opposite direction? Sure as hell couldn’t be seeing Kevin Best for the first time in umpteen years. Could it?
“What the hell are you doing here, Kevin?” My pulse was racing and my palms were slick, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him see that.
He stood there the picture of innocence. His tall frame was hunched slightly, and his green eyes sparkled with humor. An unruly shock of sandy hair framed a handsome face, and I was annoyed as hell with myself for noticing every inch of him.
“Just wanted to buy a chocolate raspberry tart.” He leaned one elbow across my counter and put on that infernal grin. His voice was still smooth as silk, the Southern accent still lilting and calculatingly seductive.
I, however, was immune. “You know the recipe. You could’ve made that yourself. You didn’t crawl in here after all this time just for a tart.”
“Sure I did. I love your chocolate raspberry tart.”
The remnants of the breakfast crowd shot glances our direction. I had a feeling I’d gone pale, but hoped not. I stretched my frame as tall as I could, grateful the pastry case hid my knocking knees.
I folded my arms and glared at him. “Don’t stand there pretending you’re a customer. You want something.”
Kevin put his hands up in surrender. “I want a tart.” I tilted my head to the side and he got the message. “Okay, you got me.”
“I knew it!” I said in victory. “So what is it, then? Don’t tell me Fred Carpenter has gotten a hold of you and is trying this approach now? You can tell him sending in his minions won’t work, either.”
Kevin looked confused. “Who’s Fred Carpenter?”
“Don’t play innocent. Fred’s been trying to buy us out for ages, but we’re not selling. Period.”
Kevin nodded. “Okay. Good to know.”
“I’m not going to work for him, either. He tried that angle already, and it’s not flying any better.”
“Maggie, I don’t know Fred Carpenter. But if he wants you, he’s got good taste.”
I scowled. He seemed clueless, but I wasn’t sure I was buying it. “So if you’re not an industrial spy, why are you here?”
“You mean, other than to buy a tart?”
“Will you forget the damned tart?”
The jackass had the audacity to chuckle. “No, as a matter of fact, I won’t. But I do have another reason for being here. I wanted to let you know—before the rumor mill got going—well, you remember Angela Summerset?”
My temples throbbed. “Unfortunately.”
“We’re opening our own shop. Over on Colgate Street. Nothing like this, of course.” He motioned around the small dining room with its tiny bistro tables and black-and-white checkerboard floor. He seemed to smile at each customer in turn, charming the room. They didn’t know him like I did. “This is inspired, Maggie. A coffee shop. And the name! Let’s Dish…catchy. So it looks like you’re doing well. Making good money?”
“Oodles.” I was lying my ass off, but Kevin didn’t need to know our bank account was so often in the red we’d nicknamed the checkbook Scarlet.
Kevin either didn’t know or didn’t care that his question had been out of line. “We’re just doing catering, for the most part. Some bakery items and a freezer section with some quick-cook entrees.”
One side of Kevin’s mouth slid up into a half-smile, and I willed my belly to stop flip-flopping. “Anyway, our kitchen’s not quite up and running yet, and we wanted to celebrate with something special. Your chocolate raspberry tart is legendary, Maggie. I never figured out how you mix the butter into the crust so there are little chunks of it in the dough…” He stopped long enough to look me over. With my arms crossed and my expression calculated to match, I hoped to seem imposing. It must have worked at least a little, because he cleared his throat before continuing. “I had a craving, I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d stop by.”
I stared at him a moment longer, but grabbed a box and opened the back of the display case. “Anything else?” I asked. Just like I would of any other customer.
“Maybe some of those sun-dried tomato pesto rolls. Those sound good with dinner tonight. Four of them, please.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “Four? Got company?”
He grinned. “Not yet. Want to come over?”
My nose wrinkled involuntarily. “I think not.” I made a production of sliding the glass aside to grab the rolls.
“You can bring Ted,” he said. “How is old Ted, anyway? Still a drag?”
Now one might think that was an innocent question, but it was as loaded as my father after a Packers game. And Kevin knew it.
“Fine,” I said. “I hear he’s fine. He might be fine. He might be dead. None of my business anymore, really.”
Kevin had the good grace to blush as his cocky grin faded. “Wow, Maggie. I…didn’t know. I wouldn’t have… I’m sorry. You couldn’t make it work, then?”
“No.” I felt like I’d swallowed a rubber ball and it was bouncing around my insides. “The divorce was finalized a few months ago.”
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. I stood there with one fist dug into my hip, waiting to see what lame trash would come out of his mouth next. The humor in his eyes paled to a soft, sad expression. The rubber ball lodged and made my gut ache.
“Maggie, I never meant for this to happen.”
“Yeah, well, it did. Nothing anyone can do about it now.” I took a deep breath, realizing I was squeezing a pesto roll in one hand. I slipped it into the bag and placed it next to the boxed tart on the counter. “That’ll be twenty-two fifty.”
He handed me his money, but let his fingers linger on the bills near mine. “Maggie, if there’s ever anything I can do…”
“I think you’ve done enough.” I ripped the money out of his hand and dug for his change.
“Keep it.” He stopped, and seemed to be engaged in a mental wrestling match. “Mags, I really am sorry. I didn’t want to see you hurt.”
“Then maybe you should have kept your mouth shut.”
His brow furrowed. “You mean you would have rather…” He stopped, shaking his head. “Never mind. Thanks, Maggie.” He took his order, shot me an uneasy glance, and headed for the door.
“Thank you,” I said in a mocking, sing-song tone. “And be sure not to come again.” He paused on his way out the door, but let it swing shut without another word.
I let out the breath that I’d been holding since he’d walked in. My brain was reeling. Kevin Best was opening a new shop? The fact that he’d slunk back into town had been enough of a shock, but to open a shop? A competing shop? Damn! After all this time, he was still hell bent on ruining my life. He’d just come up with a new angle.
I was pretty sure a stroke would have been better news.
Before the little bell above the door had stopped echoing around the dining room, the second third of our partnership walked in the door with her eyes still focused on the sidewalk behind her. The door snapped shut and she turned to face me. “Was that…”
“Kevin,” I finished for her.
Lyla’s jaw dropped. “No way! What the hell did he think he was doing coming in here?”
“Thank you! So I’m not the only one who thinks it’s weird for him to show up here out of the blue and tell me he’s opening a new store?”
Lyla’s eyes popped. “He’s what?”
“Here in Fallsview. Right under our noses.”
“Why that rat. After what he did to you?” She paused. “Although…”
“Oh no. Don’t even go there.” I turned away and grabbed my rag to polish the display cases.
She shrugged. “Well, you never know. It’s been a while since you and Ted split up, this might be your second chance.”
I let out half a chuckle. “Next thing you’ll be telling me people can change.”
“People can change. Just look at me.”
I scrubbed at a particularly stubborn smudge on the glass. “Minor miracles notwithstanding, a leopard can’t change his spots.”
She smiled, but it seemed a little patronizing. “Okay, Maggie. If you say so.” She looked around at the dwindling mob. “Looks like we had a good crowd today.”
“It’s getting better,” I agreed. “More every week.”
Lyla bobbed her head in approval. “Excellent. But you’re here by yourself?”
I nodded. “Armand’s at the farmer’s market.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“God, no.” I threw my hands protectively across the display case. “Back away from the pastries, Lyla. Put away the cookbooks and nobody’ll get hurt.”
“Oh come on.” Lyla shrugged. “What? Just because one time I mix up salt and sugar—”
“One time? How about the egg shells in the banana bread? The cranberry juice in the piña colada pie?”
“Hey, that didn’t taste too bad.” I stared at her, and she put her hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay! But I can pour coffee! Geez!”
I laughed and rearranged the bagel basket. “That’s all right. The main rush is over, anyway. And I’m sure you came in to balance the books, not play waitress.”
“Server,” she corrected. “But yes, that was my intention. Taxes are due next month, insurance in two weeks, and I have to figure out which Peter to rob to pay Paul.”
I winced, a familiar twinge in the pit of my stomach. “Is it bad?”
Lyla tried to look encouraging, but we’d been friends long enough for me to know when she was faking. “It’s not hopeless or anything. Your instincts were right about adding the coffee shop on top of the catering. I think it’s nearly doubled our profits.”
“And double of nothing is…”
“Something,” she said, but the façade was starting to crack. “We talked about this, Maggie. All businesses lose money in the first few years. Did you really think you were going to be the exception?”
“No.” But deep inside I’d had hopes. “But losing money and going bankrupt are two different things.”
“Nobody said anything about going bankrupt.”
“We have to make this work, Lyla. If we lose the Dish, I’m doomed to spend the rest of my days living in my parents’ basement. I might as well adopt fifteen cats and start watching Star Trek reruns right now.”
Don’t be so dramatic.” She headed back toward the office. “Let’s see what happens. For right now, you and my husband just cook the food and leave it to me to cook the books.”
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” a voice said from behind us. Armand came in the rear door, his arms loaded with canvas bags. He put down the bags on the island, gave Lyla a quick kiss, and waved at me with one finger. “I got blueberries, Mags. And some strawberries to put in the cream puffs for the D.A.R. dinner tonight. They look good. Really fresh.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I’ll get started on the puffs right after breakfast.”
Armand motioned for Lyla to follow him behind the counter, and swept through the swinging door with a mysterious look on his face. “You’ll never believe what I heard through the grapevine.” He leaned in so only Lyla and I would hear. “Guess who’s back in town.”
“Kevin Best,” I said.
“And he’s opening a new shop.” Lyla, like me, had no problems with stealing Armand’s thunder.
Armand’s dark eyes crinkled around the edges. “How did you know? You wake up psychic this morning?”
“I wish,” I said. “He was just here. Ly got in on his grand exit.”
“He’s got guts showing up here.” Armand shook his head. “Last I heard he was trolling the cooking schools for someone to go into business with him.”
“Well, he found someone,” I said.
He nodded. “Angela Summerset, if you can imagine that pair together. Their place is called Best Dishes. Can you believe the size of his ego?”
“Duh,” Lyla said.
“Kevin’s a flash in the pan.” My tone was more confident than I was. “Pun intended. And Angela flunked out of the Culinary Institute. She’s a dilettante playing with her daddy’s credit card. No threat there.”
“Maybe not,” Lyla said, “but Kevin is serious competition. And competition is bad.”
“Not when it’s bad competition.”
Armand tilted his head, looking at me. “You know that’s not true. No matter how you feel about him, you know Kevin’s got talent.”
I shook my head, exhaustion washing over me and making my knees feel weak all over again. “Talent with food is one thing. People skills are another. And we all know how Kevin is with actual human beings.”
“But you said it yourself,” Lyla said. “Angela has money coming out her wah-hoo. They’ve got tons more capital to work with than we do.”
“Capital doesn’t mean quality,” I said, determined to sound sure of myself, whether I felt that way or not. “And Angela couldn’t bake herself out of a paper bag.”
Armand looked worried. “But Kevin—”
“Kevin, Kevin, Kevin!” I said, drawing a glance from Mrs. Foster and her sister at the corner table. I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms. “Listen, it won’t matter who opens a shop if we stand here gossiping all day instead of taking care of our own customers.”
Armand forced a smile. “Right. What can I do?”
“If I have to lift that coffee pot one more time, my arm is going to fall off.”
“I’m all over it.” He grabbed the coffee off the warmer.
“I’ll help, too,” Lyla said.
“Don’t touch the food!” Armand and I said in unison.
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll cover the cash register. Okay?”
Armand grinned at me, and I headed back into the kitchen, doing what little I could to try to save our business.