Saturday, November 21st
"All right," Abbey spoke to herself as she set out to clean the flat. Cleaning had always worked miracles for her when she wanted to think or clear her head, and now was a time when she really needed to put things into perspective so that she could figure out what to do next.
The detectives had been very clear in getting their point across; Abbey was not to leave the city. She knew that if she did go that would only rouse their suspicion of her. Suspicious of what though? She hadn't killed Tania. Surely the detectives had figured that out by now. Feeling positive that they would have arrested her already if they had something, anything, on her, Abbey's eyes strayed to the two tickets lying innocently on the kitchen table. Although they were already paid for, she could probably get a refund for them, she mused, gnawing at her lower lip as she considered.
She had two options; stay or go. If she stayed they would need to change a few things. First were the bills. Water, electricity and gas bills to be exact, and she had no idea how they were going to pay them considering Tania and her half of the contribution were now gone. They would need to cut back on everything. As for groceries, they'd have to stay within the budget she would draft up after deducting everything else they needed to pay. Buying only items on discount might just make it possible to manage. The rent was not going to change so if it became necessary Abbey would have to seriously look into taking on another roommate.
If she chose to go, however, most of those worries would disappear. Bills wouldn't be a problem, not for a short while anyway, the high rent would be history, and really, how difficult could it be to find a job that offered more than minimum wage in North Dakota? They would have a roof over their heads, food, and warm water and perhaps she might even make some new friends. The rest would come in time. The more Abbey thought about it, the more convinced she became that the second option was best. She had tried New York and it hadn't worked out. She should just cut her losses and move on. Who knew, maybe this could work out?
She picked up the cigarette that had fallen to the floor earlier, forgotten, and lit it. Detective Claremont could go screw herself, she thought nastily. Probably she wasn't held enough as a baby and chose to take out all those suppressed frustrations that had accumulated over the years on anyone who happened to be at hand. Well, this was one person she wasn't going to bully.
The dilapidated building was a typical Brooklyn brownstone tucked between a pizzeria and a Laundromat. The few trees that lined the street were straggly and sick looking, their branches bare and thin and threatening to break in the stiff November wind. The walkway was cracked. There were no pots filled with greenery scheduled to bloom or turn its leaves into the brilliant colours of the fall here. Steps headed to a door that was unlocked and that led Matthew into a hallway. The wood floor was worn and bore stains of unidentifiable substances. The mail slots on the wall were plastic; some were missing, and most were blank. There was no name next to apartment number 3A.
Matthew marched up the creaking stairs to the second floor. The hallway was more narrow here, the lights dimmer and there was a constant chill blowing in from a broken window. The only sound he heard was the muffled echo of what sounded like a cartoon from the television of 2B.
He was just about to turn and head up the next flight of stairs when a squat man descended them and stopped him. "Who are you lookin' for?"
Matthew glanced at the man who acted like he owned the place. If he'd had a toothpick stuck between his lips, the image would have been complete. "Abbey Lynn. I believe she occupies apartment 3A?"
The man's eyes turned beady. "You a friend of hers, or what?"
"You could say that."
There were sweat stains under his armpits and he smelled like he hadn't washed after doing hard manual labour on a sweltering summer day. It was November and New York hadn't seen a warm day for months. He jabbed the folded paper in his hand at the air between them. "Tell her I'm coming to collect this evening and she better have the rent. I'm not gonna give her any more time. And if she ain't got the money she's out. I got a couple who can move in tomorrow."
Matthew regarded him more closely when it dawned on him that this guy probably did own the building. He was a small man with a balding patch on his head that he tried to cover up by combing what hair he had left on the sides across. The golden rings and fake Rolex were no doubt means to compensate for the beer belly and ugly face that looked like it had been squashed something fierce when his mother had pushed the little bastard out during birth. Matthew wasn't a violent man by nature, but for some reason he had to restrain himself from rearranging the man's potato-like face. He narrowed his eyes at the little shit. "How much does she owe you?"
Now it was Lenny's turn to narrow his eyes. It made the doughy face look even uglier and reminded Matthew oddly of a piglet. "What's it to you?"
Matthew made a show of taking out his wallet from the inside of his jacket. "I asked how much?"
Lenny's gaze honed in on the expensive leather like a sniper aims a laser beam at its target. He didn't waste any time mentioning the figure should Matthew change his mind. "Fifteen hundred."
Matthew looked down at him and the man shrugged. "She owes me two months worth of rent and never paid her security deposit."
Matthew saw a rip-off when it stared him in the face, but he didn't want to waste his time by bothering to argue with the man. Instead, he took out his check book and wrote the man a check. "I'm paying for December as well."
"That'll be two thousand," Lenny said, inspecting his nails to appear casual. At the raised eyebrow he only whined, "She's a liability. For all I know she's gonna take off owin' me money."
Matthew tore off the piece of paper, handed it to the man.
"This better not bounce or I'll sic the cops on her."
"You sure you want to do that, Mr…?" Matthew began, letting the sentence hang.
A narrowing of the little eyes. "Lawson."
"Are you sure you want officers of the law coming down to inspect your place of business, Mr. Lawson?" Matthew asked with a smile so cold it could freeze lava. "They might find more suspicious things going on than non-paying tenants. Good day to you."
Abbey tossed the pencil onto the table and studied her finished list of things-to-do-before-leaving. The list was done. The packing was done. Everything had been cleaned and cleared out. All that was left to do was to pay the rent and Abbey had even figured out a plan to take care of that. She'd leave Lenny an envelope with half the money – which is what she owed considering the apartment had been rented in Tania's name. She just hoped they wouldn't run into him on their way out. That could prove nasty.
She got up and went to the sink to pour herself more of the leftover lukewarm coffee. It was the seventh time she had gotten out of the chair in the past thirty minutes. She had already swept the place four times, twice to look under the bed in the tiny bedroom to make sure she hadn't left anything by mistake, once to refill her mug, and once to check the contents of the refrigerator to see if they had enough left to fix a quick meal for the bus ride.
Mug in hand, she went to check in on Jesse, who was still out cold after being unable to fall asleep yesterday night from excitement when Abbey had told him that they were going to visit his grandma in the morning. He'd never met her before and had asked Abbey a lot of questions that she had been unable to answer. So she'd told him that it was a surprise and telling a surprise would spoil it, and he would see tomorrow. It wasn't a total lie. It would be a surprise, for both of them.
She took another swallow of coffee and watched the rise and fall of Jesse's chest as he slept. Her little angel. The light of her life. With love shining in her eyes, not tears, Abbey told herself firmly, she sniffled and quietly closed the door behind her.
Although it had only been a couple of hours, it felt a very long time since she'd woken up that morning. She was tired, crabby and nervous. She'd barely been able to sleep, and during the three hours that she had been able to close her eyes, she'd kept having nightmares about Tania and Lenny laughing over a breakfast table laden with mountains of pancakes dripping maple syrup. Lenny had been painting his nails a coral colour and Tania had started bawling uncontrollably when the phone wouldn't stop ringing. Twice Abbey had woken up, drenched in a cold sweat, convinced she'd forgotten to do something crucial.
She padded to the kitchen to wash and dry the mug before finding a bag with a zipper slack enough to stuff it in, and then she went to check the tank. It was hot, which meant the boiler was working and she'd be able to take a hot bath. She turned on the taps and began to run herself a bath. While the water was running, she climbed out of the oversized t-shirt she used to sleep in, and took off her socks and underwear. She was chilly without her clothes and pulled on her fuchsia coloured bathrobe. What she needed was a hot cup of tea. What she really wanted was something stronger. She remembered the last beer she'd saved herself and went back to the kitchen to retrieve it from under the sink. The hinges holding the cupboard door upright had long since corroded and the hanging door had been such a nuisance Tania had just ripped it off completely one day. Abbey pushed the memories into a dark corner of her mind.
She'd just twisted the cap off the beer when she heard the knock on the door. She went to turn off the taps and put the beer back in the fridge. It looked like the hot bath would have to wait. It was either the detectives again or Lenny, neither was an option she felt good about, and with lead in her feet she went to answer it. She opened the door and was surprised to see Beaumont standing there. For a moment they simply studied each other.
He'd changed clothes. Now he wore faded jeans and a black sweater with a turtleneck collar that accentuated his strong jaw line. The way he'd pushed the sleeves of his sweater up to his elbows told her he must have driven here as he wasn't carrying a jacket with him to protect himself from the cold. The watch on his wrist was gold, its strap made of dark leather. No doubt very expensive. His blond hair looked tousled, but with his thousand dollar haircut it might as well have been styled that way. He looked good. Overall, this was not the type of guy to show up at her doorstep in Brooklyn on an average Saturday. She wondered what he was doing here.
"Hi," she said then, unable to come up with something witty.
She felt like an idiot. "What are you doing here?"
"There are some things we need to discuss," he told her. "I tried calling, but I couldn't get through."
"I unplugged the phone," she said. "It'll be disconnected in a few days anyway."
He smiled a wry smile and when she didn't offer anything else he asked, "Can I come in, or do you want to have this conversation in front of your neighbours?" He pointedly cocked his head in the direction of Mrs. Paulson, her elderly neighbour. She was shamelessly eavesdropping while pretending to sort out her mail with her front door open to the cold, autumn air that blew in through the broken window in the stairwell.
Abbey really didn't want to let him in, but she didn't want the whole block to know whatever it was he had to say either. It could only be bad. The question was how bad.
He smiled. Abbey caught herself chewing on her lower lip and made a conscious effort to relax as she stepped back.
"Would you like something to drink? Tea, coffee?"
"A cup of coffee would be nice."
She moved to grab a clean cup then realised she had used the last one so she dumped the last of the coffee down the sink and started to rinse it. Her belly felt like it had butterflies zooming around and her insides were doing strange things to her. She rubbed the cup a little harder. "I'm afraid I only have instant," she said, hating that she sounded apologetic.
"Instant is fine."
She nodded, the wheels inside her head working at triple rate to guess at his reason for coming here. Was it about the other night? Did she step on his ego when she left, okay, sneaked out in the middle of the night without so much as a goodbye? He didn't look very angry. Maybe he did this all the time. Maybe he had one night flings with women whenever the mood struck him. Maybe he was disappointed with her skills and he was now here to tell her she needed to look for another job, because, well, guys like that were usually assholes and, since they had violated employer/employee protocol, he had an excuse.
"I think the glass is clean now."
Startled, Abbey jerked her head up at him. His eyebrows were raised and though his mouth was pressed into a grim line, his eyes crinkled a bit at the corners. There was a light in his eyes that hadn't been there before, and it made him look pretty irresistible. Then the corner of his mouth quirked up and she realised he was laughing at her. The butterflies in her stomach took a sudden nosedive. Damn it, this was so not the time for raging hormones!
Deliberately, she placed the cup on the counter and turned off the water. As she began to search for a clean dishtowel, she could see him glancing around the room from the corner of her eye. It was clean, but that was about all that could be said in its favour, Abbey realised as she imagined seeing it through his eyes. The old linoleum was an indeterminate cross between brown, grey and green, and had no doubt been put in before she was born. The walls were a mouldy green and the counters were cracked and white. An assortment of washed breakfast dishes, air drying in a plastic rack, would have taken up the nicked grey laminate if she hadn't packed up everything this morning. Above the sink the one small window was covered by a pair of hand-sewn, yellow-checked kitchen towels that served as curtains. The gas stove, chipped cream enamel, sat right by the refrigerator, which had once been white but had turned a greasy yellow over the years. The table that only two weeks ago they had stolen from a nearby park because the old one's leg had broken off stood in the centre of the room, surrounded by three chairs that didn't match. In the corner, in the space where the door opened, a broom, dustbin and mop were crammed. Above that four nails had been hammered into the wall to serve as makeshift coat and key hangers. The pantry, which was in fact a freestanding unit of wooden industrial shelving, stood between the fridge and the door that led to their closet-sized bathroom on the other side of the room. It was bare save for a half-empty jar of peanut butter, a box of cereal, and a bag with a few slices of four day old bread. Three packed suitcases, stuffed full, stood between the old TV and the couch with a sagging middle. The couch itself was covered with a bright red table cloth because the Naugahyde cover had ripped in several places, and the stuffing had begun to come out. Tania had done her best to repair it with electrical tape. It was clear to anyone who could see that the people who lived here were poor.
"Going somewhere?" he asked and she felt a sudden, unexplainable rush of anger.
"Not that it's any of your business, but yes," she wanted to say, but managed to bite down on the words just in time. "Yes. We're leaving tomorrow morning," she said instead. "In fact, I turned in my resignation yesterday." But he would already know that. "Why are you here?"
"Would you believe me," he said slowly, watching her, "if I said, that when I tried to call you earlier and the line was busy I was worried?"
Abbey glanced up at him in surprise. He was intent, frowning at her, his eyes burning deep chocolate at her. Meeting their gaze, Abbey decided wading into those waters was certain death. There was a lake of quicksand surrounding him and if she didn't watch out, he'd swallow her whole. "Most people would just assume that the line was busy," she muttered, unable to keep the snipe out of her words.
"I called more than once, Abbey," his voice was quiet.
When she only looked at him, chin high and defiant, he jingled the keys in his pants pocket. "Alright, I came to make you a deal."
"Yes. I want you to keep working for the hotel. Miranda Lillian, head of housekeeping, has praised your work efficiency –"
Abbey stiffened. "What, you have people sneaking around, evaluating how the sheets are changed and the sinks wiped down? Do we get a grade now?" her voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Actually, you're not too far off the mark," he said, ignoring her tone. "We are evaluating. I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice that we're in the middle of a complete overhaul. You could say that we're having a big spring cleaning. As the biggest department with the most employees, that includes housekeeping."
"You're serious, aren't you?" Abbey asked, disbelieving.
"We're getting rid of everyone who's twiddling his thumbs on company time and keeping those who do their work well and do it efficiently. So, yes, I'm serious."
Now she was outraged. "You think housekeepers sit around twiddling their thumbs? You think we've got nothing better to do than chat, have a cup of coffee and change a sheet or two while we're at it so we don't get bored? If you think that, you have obviously no idea what goes on in your hotel. I can only sympathise with its employees. You should give them a heads up so they'll know to start looking for another job."
He didn't like that, Abbey could tell. She could see his mouth thinning and the slight creases around his mouth deepening as he fought to control his temper. "I might not know all there is to know about the hotel business, but by god I think I know more about managing one than you do. I can assure you that we're not firing anyone who doesn't deserve it. Or did you conveniently forget the times I caught your son wandering around the restricted areas? I haven't fired you, have I?" Matthew said, his voice curt. He studied her for a moment in silence, and then shrugged. "I came here to offer you your job, with a promotion to floor housekeeper. I've been told you've come to know the hotel very quickly in the short time you've been here and that your colleagues like and respect you. You do what you have to do, quickly and effectively. Apart from Jesse's little escapades, you're a model employee. Mrs. Lillian has been looking to fill several positions that have come free and recommended you for one of them. Of all the candidates she marked you at the top of her list."
Abbey felt a little faint. "There's a list?"
"Yes. We'll be replacing the deputy of housekeeping, Janet Wilson, and Mrs. Lillian thought it would be fair to give her department first grabs at the position, so to speak, so during the next couple of weeks she'll be keeping a close watch on all of you.
"In the end, it's her call who gets the job. After all," he said with a sardonic little smile, "she knows all about the housekeeping end of the hotel business."
"But I'm on that list?"
"Right at the top," he replied. "So I suggest you reconsider that resignation."
"But I already sent it!" she said with a look of alarm.
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it. That is, if you still want your job?"
"Good. Then you'll be expected to resume your work on Monday, as usual."
"But I can't Monday. I'm going away tomorrow."
Brown eyes looked steadily into her own. "Then I guess you have some thinking to do."
"You would fire me over this?"
"If I recall correctly it was you who resigned. I'm only offering you your job back, with a raise and a chance of a big promotion. On my terms."
"You make it hard for me to say no."
"I can't say I feel particularly sorry." He smiled. She felt her insides melt away and a warm fuzzy feeling took up residence inside her belly. It fluttered its wings and uncurled slowly, settling like a warm blanket over her.
"Take it or leave it." He was so matter-of-fact about it, she wanted to sneer.
"I don't really have a choice, do I? If I take the job, I get paid and get a raise. If I don't and I leave, I could go to jail."
At this, he frowned. "Jail?"
She nodded grimly. "That's what they do, isn't it? When the police asks you not to leave town and you leave anyway?" Fact was; she didn't know what they did really. All she knew was that if something happened Jesse would be left alone. And that was a bone-jarring thought.
"They told you to stay in New York?" Something about her tone must have alerted him. He looked at her intently.
She nodded again.
"They came by very early yesterday morning, thankfully, because if Jesse hadn't still been asleep they would have probably scared him. They asked a bunch of questions. Most of them I'd already answered the first time around but they made me repeat most of it. Then they told me not to leave the city just before they left." She hugged her shoulders to ward off a sudden chill. She didn't know why she was telling him all this. The words just seemed to come out of her mouth on their own accord.
"They came by? Here?"
"Yeah, here. Where else?"
He dragged a hand through his hair. "You should have had an attorney present."
"I don't have a lawyer."
"Then get one."
"But I'm not guilty!" she exclaimed, then forcibly pulled herself together and lowered her voice so as not to wake Jesse. "I didn't do anything wrong."
Matthew shrugged. "All the same, it wouldn't hurt."
"I don't have the money to pay for a lawyer," she told him abruptly.
He shrugged, and stuck his hands in his trouser pockets. "Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry –" Abbey began but he interrupted her.
"When are you moving?"
"Moving?" It was then she realised he thought that's what the packed bags were for. For a fleeting moment she thought about lying, but then reconsidered. What good would it do? He somehow seemed to know all there was to know anyway. "We're not moving. We – I was planning on visiting my... a friend. In North Dakota."
"So you packed up all your dishes to visit a friend?" he commented, his scepticism showing clearly on his face. "You weren't planning on coming back, were you?" It wasn't so much a question as a statement.
"No." And fact was; she hadn't been thinking either. She had no real plan. And now that Beaumont had come into her home and thrown a bucket of cold reality over her, she'd opened her eyes to find that reality sucked a lot worse than she had imagined possible. Now that she had no choice but to stay in New York, where would they go? Aside from the fact that she did not feel safe living here, there was no way she could pay the rent even if she did want to stay.
As if he could read her mind, he said, "Look, there's a room on the 22nd floor we're not using at the moment. It's due for renovation in a couple of weeks. Everything works just fine; it just needs a new lick of paint. Some guests who thought it would be fun to glue the furniture to the ceiling, that kind of thing. You can use it while you look for another place."
"I don't want your charity."
His eyes narrowed. "It's not charity, okay?"
She sent him a baleful look. "If you think that by offering me a place to stay you can have your way with me, you're sorely mistaken."
His eyes flashed, but to his credit he didn't show it. "I might not be an altruist but I'm by no means an insensitive bastard."
When she opened her mouth he held up a hand to silence her. "Let's just chalk it up to plain old selfishness. I want to be able to sleep soundly at night, and knowing that the kid's tucked safely in bed will help me do that. That and you can drop him off at the day-care centre. That way you'll know he's looked after and I'll rest assured the kid isn't out there wandering the corridors alone."
For some reason she felt that damn warmth again at the thought that he would have trouble sleeping over Jesse's safety. But of course that was an absurd thought and he didn't mean it. He'd only said it to make her feel better, she realised, both touched and chagrined at the fact that he was being nice to her despite her nasty behaviour.
"What happened the other night..." She licked her lips as she remembered, then met his gaze head on. "I don't make a habit out of it."
He was silent for a minute as he seemed to consider his response. Then he rubbed a hand over his heart. Though his mouth twisted into a wry smile, Abbey noticed that it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Ouch. That hurt. Well, I guess that's me put in my place. Now that that's taken care of," he flashed her a dazzling smile. "How about some Thai food?"
He changed tacks so fast her head reeled. "I have to pack," she managed.
He looked at the three bags standing in the middle of an empty room. "Looks like you're packed already."
"There are still things that need finishing."
"All the more reason to get some fuel into you to keep you running. How about it? Will you join me?"
Her eyes slanted to the bedroom.
He didn't miss a beat. "Come on. We'll go to my place, I'll show off my extraordinary cooking skills," he wiggled his eyebrows and made her laugh. "Jesse can play on the Xbox. He'll have a great time."
"I don't know."
"What else is the kid going to do tonight? What else are you going to do for that matter?" he asked, smiling down at her. When she looked at him, she felt herself being drowned by that chocolate stare. It locked her into place and didn't let go. She felt like the girl next door about to be devoured by the high school's most popular and handsome jock. His smile widened and a dimple appeared in his left cheek. Abbey felt her knees weaken. How could anyone refuse him anything?
"I'll pick you up tonight at six," he told her. "We'll swap life stories. I'll cook, you'll eat. You'll have a great time. You won't regret it. I promise."
She didn't doubt him for a second, and that, Abbey thought with growing alarm, was the problem.
She felt better when she was dressed and had a light shield of makeup in place. She'd fought her long, wavy black hair into a tidy bun at the nape of her neck. She thought it made her look a bit more mature and dignified. Too often when she wore her hair down she was dismissed as a pretty girl rather than a grown woman.
Her skin was bronzed, thanks to her Native American heritage. Her eyes, big and light and almond-shaped. Her mouth was full, bright when she smiled. The bones in her face were strong and prominent, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. She wore little makeup for it took too much time and hassle to put on, but tonight she had indulged herself and taken an extra half hour in front of the mirror to apply a subtle coat of mascara to her naturally thick and long lashes and then she'd painted her lips a dark, wine red.
When she caught herself smoothing down her hair for the third time in a row, she called Jesse and told him to put on his shoes. She was twenty-four years old, devoted to her son, holding a job she hoped once to outgrow, satisfied with the single life so far, and apart from the constant financial struggle she was pretty happy all around. So why was she so nervous? Never before had she felt skittish in front of a man, never so insecure or just plain young as he made her feel. Maybe she was in love with him. It didn't have to be a bad thing. People fell in and out of love all the time, Tania had told her once, and the trick was to simply enjoy it while it lasted, then when it was inevitably over you moved on to the next adventure.
She could be like that.
She certainly wasn't looking for a father to her son, or a happily ever after. Abbey had lived through too much to still believe in those kinds of fairy tales. She'd survived so much already. There was no way she couldn't survive a slightly scratched heart.
In any case, it was obvious Matthew wasn't looking for something more. Though he'd invited her to dinner and offered her a place to stay, he'd made it clear that it was because she did her job so well and came recommended. He hadn't made any comments regarding any kind of future. Abbey had no doubt that for him this was just another fling, a little adventure that would have to end a lot sooner than normal. In any case, this was going to be an adventure, one that could be marvellous, a learning experience even. If nothing else, having a lover like Matthew was a treat to be cherished.
She fumbled a bit as she buttoned her dress, took a deep breath to calm the slight shaking of her fingers, then completed the task. She eyed herself in the mirror critically. Everything looked okay; she definitely looked a lot better in the classic, little black dress. She'd changed out of the white blouse and black trousers that she'd originally put on in hopes of looking more sophisticated, thinking that if ever there was a time to look drop-dead-gorgeous it was when she was going on a real date with none other than Matthew Beaumont. She wore black pumps with five-inch heels, a thick gold-coloured plastic bracelet and gold feather drop earrings with gold plated leaves. To make the outfit complete, she put on a lightweight black jacket and checked to make certain it didn't have any frayed edges. Adjusting the sleeves, she turned before the mirror and to her dismay discovered an old stain on the back. Frowning, she was about the shrug off the jacket when there was a knock on the door.
She glanced at her watch. It was 18:01. The man was sharp on time.
"Jesse," she called. "Come on. It's time to go."
Grabbing their coats, she checked to make sure Jesse's shoes were properly laced and helped him into his coat, zipping it up as she pushed him towards the door. Excitement kicked her heart rate up. She could feel the pulse of her blood as it pumped through her body, she was so nervous. She felt a buzz of adrenaline as her hand twisted the handle and opened the door.
"Matt!" Obviously Jesse was suffering from no such problems.
"Jesse!" she admonished, "What did I tell you about greeting adults?"
"Sorry. Hi, mister."
Matthew grinned down at him before focusing his attention on Abbey. He let out an appreciate whistle. "You sure do clean up nice."
"Thanks. I think." She zipped up her coat and moved to the door, suddenly nervous again.
"Well..." he drawled, after taking in her appearance for a full minute, causing her to turn slightly pink. He focused his attention on Jesse, who was squirming by the door all dressed and ready to go. "Shall we go?"
"Yes." For some reason, Abbey almost sounded relieved, but made no move to leave. Instead he watched her unplug the TV, check the tiny bathroom and do one last, baffling sweep of her apartment. Abbey knew he was watching her run around like a headless chicken, but she couldn't settle down and there was this nagging feeling that she'd forgotten something significant. Like turn off the gas or leave a candle burning. She could feel his stare burning holes in her back. It made her even more nervous.
"Yes." Gas was turned off, no candles to be found, keys were in her purse together with her phone. She hadn't forgotten anything. "Come on, Jesse," she said unnecessarily as he was already waiting for her by the door. "Oh, shit! Keys!" she smiled apologetically at Matthew, who was regarding her with a strange expression. She grabbed the keys from the table and this time made sure she actually put them inside her purse instead of just thinking it.
"Mister, can I play on the Xbox?" Jesse spoke up, his hands and mittens that hung on a string sticking out of the winter coat that was several sizes too big for him.
"Jesse!" Abbey admonished him.
Jesse turned innocent eyes on her. "But I called Matt Mister!"
"Jesse!" she hissed, knowing even while she did that she was being too hard on him, but she was unable to stop herself.
"Don't be ridiculous, Abbey. You can call me Matt, kid. And sure you can play on the Xbox. I got a new game. Racer something. Think you're up for a match? I have to warn you though. I hold the record."
While Jesse was making excited sounds that contained the words 'wow, wicked awesome and sweet', Abbey locked the door and turned to Matthew, saying with a low voice, "It's probably best if we don't talk too loudly in here." Her head jerked in the direction of Mrs. Paulson's door.
Matthew's eyes narrowed. "Are you embarrassed by me?"
Abbey let out a laugh that sounded just a bit hysterical. "No! Of course not. It's just, she's a bit... traditional. You know." Since she didn't know herself, she doubted he did.
"Maybe I should introduce myself?" He made a move towards her door as if to do just that. "So that she knows my intentions are honourable."
"No!" Abbey very nearly shouted. It was all she could do not to grab him and physically stop him. Not that she could if she tried. He was at least twice the size of her and hard with muscle. "That's not necessary. I –"
"Hey. Relax. I'm just jerking your chain." He grinned at her. "You're about ready to snap you're so tense." Obviously he didn't think anything was wrong or out of the ordinary because he grinned again, disregarding her ridiculous behaviour. "Come on. Let's go."
As they descended the stairs, Jesse jumped down the last four steps and very nearly gave Abbey an apoplectic seizure. She was by now convinced that if he didn't kill himself before the night was over, she would. Maybe the fresh air would help to clear her head of the unexplainable nervous tension she was feeling. If it did, Abbey didn't realise it; when she stepped outside, any thoughts of air, stress, Jesse, and even Matthew flew out the window.
There, by the curb in front of the few steps to her apartment, stood a sleek black sports car. Abbey froze at the sight of it. This was one of the ten most expensive cars in the world, probably the most expensive car in the world. This car made names like Aston Martin and Ferrari look like virtual bargains.
"Oh, my god," she breathed, stepping closer and gazing at it with such reverence that for a moment Matthew almost felt jealous. Of a car. "Oh, my god! No way! This is your car? You drive this car?"
He'd had a hell of a day so far.
The only thing that had gotten him through it just shy of tearing someone's head off, or just boarding his plane to an unknown destination as long as it was warm and sunny and had no cell phone reception, was the knowledge that at the end of the day he would be enjoying a home-cooked meal with a pretty woman, possibly followed by sex later in the evening. So when she saw his car, did a double take and then let out a very girlie squeal, he couldn't stop the sarcasm from lacing his words. "I do actually know how to drive, yes."
"And you just left it out here? On the street? Alone? Where someone could have stolen it?" she asked, working to keep her voice from sounding shrill from excitement that she would be riding in a Bugatti. "I mean, it's not really low-key, is it?"
"Well, I couldn't exactly take it with me."
If she heard, she didn't seem to mind his tone. "I've never seen one before. A Bugatti Veyron, 1001-horsepower supercar, 16 cylinders, from zero to sixty miles per hour in under two point five seconds, top speed of 253 miles per hour." Curious, trying hard not to fall to her knees and worship the car and make herself look like a fool on top of an unsophisticated, uneducated, broke, single mom who should have known better. "They made only three hundred of these." She turned saucer eyes up at him. "How the hell did you get one?"
"You certainly know your cars, don't you?" he asked her, jingling the keys in his hands as he watched her examine the headlights, peer through the window to look at the stick shift. "I've had it for about a month now, give or take. It's actually a Pur Sang. Production limited to five cars only."
He grinned when her jaw all but dropped open, enjoying the pure male satisfaction of the impact cars had on women.
"Is it real?"
He looked baffled for a moment, his reaction caught somewhere between offended and amused.
"I don't think these days you can get fake Bugatti's, even in Turkey."
She looked up, her expression puzzled.
He just shook his head. "Never mind. Do you have everything you need?" he asked, already rounding the hood of the car. "Let's go then." He opened the door for her. It was a bit of a squeeze seeing as there were only two front seats and Abbey had to shift a little to find a position from where she could ogle the interior and fit in Jesse beside her. He ended up squeezed between her and the door.
"Sorry about that," Matthew said as he slammed the door behind him and reached for his seatbelt. "I gave Patterson, my driver, the night off. The Maybach's a lot roomier but he only ever drives it, and he insisted it needed a check-up tonight of all times. I suspect he's just trying to keep me from driving it."
Abbey shot him a hesitant glance, obviously unsure of his capabilities as a safe driver now. He didn't know whether to feel amused or insulted. He settled on amused.
"Does he have any reason to do that?"
A slow smile crept over Matthew's face, and it was just enough of a leer to cause those ever-present butterflies to take a tumble in her stomach and cause general havoc. "I promise," he told her, looking solemnly into her eyes, and stretching out the words as if he was caressing her with them, "to go real slow." Abbey felt a blush creep up her cheeks and had to look away before her body decided to betray her by throwing itself on him. In front of Jesse.
What would Janet Wilson say?
"I am aware that I promised you a home-cooked meal, but I got Italian instead," Matthew said as he took the bags from a pretty blonde, whose nametag and outfit suggested she worked at the reception area downstairs, and thanked her. Seeing her shy but undeniably flirtatious smile, Abbey had the sudden urge to shut the door in her face. "I didn't want to risk anyone getting food poisoning. I didn't know what you liked, so I just got a little of everything. And tiramisu for desert." He put the four bags on the counter and began to unload.
Abbey wandered over, glanced inside the bags, each filled with boxes and polystyrene aluminium foil wrapped packages to keep the food warm. There was enough food to feed six armies. She gave him a long, steady look. "We're not starving, you know."
He met her gaze as he took out the last two cartons carrying sweet and spicy aromas from the bag. "I know."
"I'm hungry," Jesse was quick to dispute the fact. "I could eat a horse."
"I think he picked it up from the TV," Abbey explained as he came running over to check out his dinner. "He's saying it constantly."
Abbey watched the grin slowly spread on Matthew's face. Something in her belly uncurled. "Tirmasu is a very tasty Italian dessert for adults."
"Can I have some?" On his toes, Jesse was trying to look into the bag but he lacked a good two inches.
Abbey took the cartons before Jesse had any ideas about 'helping' and set them out on the table. "Are you an adult?" she asked him with a cocked eyebrow and said, "I didn't think so," when he shook his head at her.
So he turned to Matthew. "Can I have some?"
Matthew was trying hard not to laugh, Abbey could tell, but he smiled and said instead, "If I can convince your mom." He sent Jesse a conspiratory wink that sent him into delighted giggles. Abbey rolled her eyes and ignored the soft warmth that began to spread through her body like a butterfly uncurling its wings. She distracted herself by setting the table.
"Have you ever been?"
Matthew glanced up from uncorking the wine. "What?"
"To Italy?" She placed the last fork on the table.
The cork made no sound as he pulled it free. He set the bottle on the table to breathe. "Many times."
She took her seat after making sure Jesse was clean enough to sit on his. "You say it so casually, like you've grown bored with it. I would die to go there."
He handed her the lasagne and salad and they dug in. It was so delicious that, for a moment, Abbey forgot they were having dinner with someone. The roman salad was done just so, sweet and vinegary but crisp. Even Jesse was slurping up everything without any complaints.
"Where would you go?"
His question surprised her and she had to think for a minute about the answer. "I don't know," she finally replied in all honesty. She didn't know Italy, or Europe, or better yet the world, very well. "Everywhere. Rome. Venice. Tuscany; I'd love to see it all." She shrugged, knowing they were just dreams that would never come true. Not for her. Maybe for Jesse. "Maybe one day."
They finished their food quickly, neither realising quite how hungry they were until the food was steaming on their plates.
"I think he's ready to drop off." Matthew commented twenty minutes later, looking at the sleepy Jesse all but nodding off at the table. "I don't think we should give him any tirmasu."
He surprised a laugh out of her, and she had to cover her mouth to muffle the sound so she wouldn't wake Jesse into action mode. "No. The sugar boost would keep him, and subsequently me, up the whole night."
She glanced up and, oh big mistake. His chocolate brown gaze was locked on hers with an intensity that had her insides quivering. There was something in his eyes that made it impossible to look away and break free from the spell he seemed to have her on. Suddenly whatever light-hearted banter they'd shared seemed significant, serious, and intimate. They seemed to realise this at the same moment, for a second later his intense gaze turned into a leer. She was just wondering whether he had consciously turned this into a joke because of her discomfort. He seemed to be able to read her so well it scared her sometimes and overwhelmed her at moments like this. So she changed the subject.
"In the rush today, I completely forgot to call Sara and tell her we're not coming."
He didn't ask who Sara was and she was grateful for it, because she had not meant for the name to slip out.
"Any news on your roommate?"
"Other than the fact she's dead, you mean?" She toyed with her napkin, folding it into squares. "No, nothing. Like I told you this morning, they came by around six to make sure I didn't leave the city."
"It's just standard procedure."
"I know." She sighed, rubbed the right side of her face, feeling emotionally drained. "But it doesn't make me feel any better you know."
"I mean. It's not like I hated Tania or loved her, to tell you the honest to god truth, I was kind of ambivalent. Sure, she was a good roommate. She was relatively clean, quiet, didn't bring any weird guys over to spend the night. Actually, she never brought men home period. She didn't play any loud music or behave outrageously. She looked after Jesse when I needed her to and I think she really liked him too. What more could I want in a roommate, right?"
"Other than all that?" His tone was slightly sarcastic so she ignored him.
"The call girl thing she did seemed irrelevant next to that, you know. So, yeah, I liked her, she was my friend. But did I know her? Were we really friends? No." She took a sip from her wine. "Do you know what I just realised? I never mourned her. I never really cried about her."
"That doesn't make you a bad person, Abbey." The look she shot at him spoke volumes; how dare you placate me like I'm a child when you know nothing about it. "Trust me," his voice remained steady, calm. "I speak from experience."
Oh. She deflated a little. "I'm sorry. I completely forgot. Your father died and here I am blabbing about my roommate."
"Who you probably knew better than I knew my father." He shook his head at her look. "Never mind. I'm just saying you shouldn't beat yourself up over this. You'll mourn when you're ready to mourn. And if not, it doesn't mean you're a bad person or didn't care about her."
Abbey stared at him and realised not for the first time what a great man he really was. Not the power, or the money, but inside there was something good, something that whoever would be lucky enough to call herself his wife someday would hopefully cherish. She felt the sudden need to touch him and let him know that she saw the good man inside and that she admired him for it. But she kept herself from reaching out and touching him, because the sudden deep emotions that he had invoked scared her.
"I don't." Her gaze turned thoughtful as she realised something. "Maybe that's why detective Claremont keeps busting my ass. I swear, when that woman sniffs something she grabs onto it like a leech. It's like she wants me to be the bad guy."
"Maybe she just wants to close the case."
Abbey gave him the evil eye.
"Or she's jealous," he added. "I have it on very good authority that when women are jealous they go out of their way to rile each other."
Abbey frowned to herself. "Maybe she was born that way. Typical case of overachievement complex, if you ask me. Probably wasn't held enough as a baby." She took another gulp of wine, feeling it burning a nice warm path down her throat. "I bet you she's anal retentive too. Must take a lot of time to get that image right; all that flawless make-up, not one single hair out of place, a suit that looks like she stitched it on her skin. I bet it takes a real chunk out of her time. Probably she doesn't have a social life either – what?" she asked when she noticed he was grinning at her.
"Sure you're not the one who's jealous?"
"Are you serious?" she exclaimed. "Of her?"
A little sound coming from her elbow drew her attention to Jesse, who had literally fallen asleep on the table and was now snoring quietly. He looked like a little angel, and totally uncomfortable.
"I should probably get him home," Abbey said and checked her watch. There was a crack in the glass. "Last bus goes in a little over an hour."
"Don't be absurd. This is a proper date. I'm driving you home."
She felt a giddy feeling starting to spin around her heart at the word 'date'. Did he really consider this a date? Or was he just trying to make her feel less awkward about it? Best not to dwell on it, Abbey concluded, seeing as she couldn't answer herself.
He handed her the keys to the apartment and elevator. "You take the keys, I'll take him."
On the ride home she realised that she felt a little disappointed that he hadn't tried anything to make her stay the night. Secretly she'd been hoping he would, even though she'd plainly told him it wasn't going to happen, and had put on her nicest cream lacy bra and panties just for the occasion.
The ride was quiet and uneventful. Abbey kept wishing he would say something, crack a joke, flirt, do anything but keep this intense silence between them. It felt too comfortable, too husband and wife intimate. She almost let out a sigh of relief as they rounded the last corner and the brownstone building where they lived came into view.
He pulled the car over on the side of the road, got out, walked around to the other side, and opened the car door for her before she could do it herself. She accepted the gentlemanly gesture and moved to wake up Jesse from her lap. Jesse mumbled something incoherent and clasped his arms around her neck in a move that clearly said he wasn't feeling like walking up the steps. Abbey sighed, thinking he was getting too old and too big for her to carry him up three flights of stairs and was about to wake him up when Matthew was there beside her, reaching to lift Jesse up. Jesse didn't seem to care that he was being carried by another man, just cuddled closer and fell promptly back to sleep. With a nod of his head indicating that she should precede him into the building, he followed her to the door. Abbey was very conscious of him at her back. He made her feel claustrophobic, yet at the same time she didn't want him to leave. She was beginning to get seriously sick of herself.
Coming up onto the third floor landing behind Matthew, the first thing Abbey noticed was the unlocked door standing ajar. The second was that the lights were on inside and that the extra large, grey sweater she wore only at home was lying in a puddle by the door.
"Oh my god," she gasped, a thousand and one hideous possibilities going through her mind. With a quick glance at her, Matthew turned to set Jesse on the stairs.
Her hand reached out to open the door, when a sudden "Don't," and a steel grip on her arm halted her mid-step. She frowned, ready to argue, but the expression on his face stopped her. "We don't know that they're gone," he whispered to her, keeping his eyes on the open door. "Here's my phone. Stay with Jesse and call the police." And he left her to go inside. Hastily, she punched in nine-one-one and reported a burglary. Twenty seconds later, just as she was hanging up the phone, Matthew came out into the hallway, looking grim.
"There's no one there. They left a mess. It's probably better if you don't go inside," he added when she made a move. "They might have left evidence."
She nodded silently, unable to process yet what had happened, feeling totally inadequate somehow.
"Hey." He touched a palm to her cheek, titled her head up. "You okay?"
Her sight was blurry, but she wouldn't allow the tears to fall. There was Jesse to think about. She released a shuddering breath. "Yes."
He stared at her for a moment longer, then pressed a kiss to her forehead.
"Don't. Please." She couldn't take the tender kindness. It would undo whatever hold she still had on her emotions, and she needed that power to keep her together until the police arrived.