"She does what for a living?"
The man behind the desk permitted a tiny smile to cross his smooth insurance agent's face. "She makes stuffed animals. You know, for kids to play with. Her business is called Teddy Bear Picnic."
Ran Constantine grunted. "The question is, how deep is her involvement with her husband's business? Does she know he used her? Damn, I thought we could carry out our inquiry quickly and quietly, but now that he's dead, it's gotten messy."
"That's right. He picked the most inconvenient time to die," Ken Baxter said pragmatically, as if people had a choice about the matter. "So, you'll have to question his widow." He shuffled the papers on his desk. "Just handle it the best you can. I trust your judgment."
He paused, looking at Ran with a cold stare that belied the bland image he habitually cultivated. "Just get that icon back. A payout would cut our profits for the next five years."
A messy case, the kind he hated. The thought kept resounding in his mind as he stood in the wet grass at the edge of the cemetery several hours later.
Early in his career, he'd taken a lot of messy cases. He'd been younger then, more determined. It had given him satisfaction to gather evidence that convicted criminals, and if innocent bystanders sometimes got hurt in the process, well, that was the breaks.
Lately the incidental damage had begun to bother him more and more. He'd started taking only cases in which there were no innocent third parties who would suffer, simple cases of recovering lost art or jewels that involved only the rich and cynical or the poor and greedy.
But this case, one in which his motive for recovering the missing object was as much personal as financial, promised to be a difficult one. It might well prove to be more trouble than it was worth, in spite of the substantial fee he would get if he were successful.
And the moment he saw her, he knew he was even deeper in trouble.
If it had been only the quick stab of desire he felt as she walked past him, he would have dismissed the feeling as overactive hormones rebelling against six months of celibacy. But hormones couldn't account for the odd empathy that shot through him as he took in the pain in her dark eyes and the brave tilt of her chin that didn't quite succeed in hiding the trembling of her mouth.
She aroused his curiosity, a reluctant, ill-conceived curiosity. He was supposed to be absorbed in the details of the case, not in the people involved.
Outward beauty in a woman didn't move him much any more. He'd come a long way since adolescence in his dealings with women. Yet, the way this woman disturbed him was reminiscent of his restless youth. He wasn't sure he liked the feeling, although there was a certain exhilaration in it. He'd grown tired of casual affairs, and it seemed like forever since he'd met a woman who interested him on more than a superficial level.
It struck him forcibly that Dina Walker Pappas was the woman capable of arousing his jaded interest. There was a quality of strength about her that intrigued him, a strength that showed through her almost ethereal appearance. Somehow, although he hadn't even met her, she was awakening dreams in him he'd thought long dead.
If only the circumstances were different. Beneath the stirring of passion, the dark premonition that this case was going to become a tangle of emotional complications spread through him as he gazed at her.
She had reached the graveside, flanked by a small group of somberly clad people, mostly women. Her face was still and sober, as colorless as the finest porcelain. She wore nothing to indicate her widowhood, no black clothes, no concealing veil. Her head was bare, glossy brown hair falling sleekly to her shoulders. A navy trench coat protected her from the unseasonable cold and the threatening rain. She carried a closed umbrella and a single white rose whose creamy petals mirrored the texture of her skin.
She hadn't shed a single tear.
Ran frowned darkly, his stomach churning, reminding him he hadn't eaten since breakfast. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, wriggling his toes against the clammy dampness of his socks as he moved closer to the tree at his side. A whisper of rain in the leaves warned him that the sullen clouds were about to give him another drenching.
Damn it, he didn't want to be the one to tell her that her late husband had been a criminal. She looked too frail to take what would be a shocking revelation. Or would it be shocking? Not if she was involved.
The rain began as the priest reached the middle of his final prayer. Dina huddled under her umbrella, staring at the downpour and wondering how the man could find so much to say about a nominal parishioner who'd probably never set foot inside the church.
Gus was dead. Nothing anyone said would turn back time nor erase the car crash that had killed him. Was this what all widows felt, anger and a deep sense of finality? She'd never expected to be a widow at all; she'd expected to be a divorcee.
"Kyrie eleison," intoned the priest, waving his censer over the flower-draped casket. The familiar yet exotic scent of the incense stinging her nostrils, Dina echoed the words, "Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on our souls."
Thunder rattled the heavy clouds, intensifying the slap of raindrops on her umbrella. Dina shivered as the priest pronounced the final amen. She walked up to the casket, and dropped the rose she held among the purple streamers decorating the polished mahogany, conscious of the little group that helped her pay her last respects to the man who had been her husband. They were her friends, not Gus's. No one had come for Gus.
Numbly she listened to the polite platitudes offered by the priest. Her responses must have been coherent and appropriate, for he soon followed the cantor and the pall bearers to the car park, anxious, as they all must be, to get out of the rain. Some of the women, soft-hearted and emotional Greeks and Italians, hugged her. Most of them had worked for her since the inception of her business; they tended to mother her even though she was their employer. She was grateful for their kind words, and even their tears, since she seemed to have none of her own.
Soon she was alone, listening only to the relentless drip of rain on her umbrella.
Poor Gus, she thought. He might have been a failure as a husband, but he hadn't deserved to die after having lived only half the years most people were allotted.
Lifting her head, she glanced toward the parking lot. The funeral home's Cadillac limousine stood there, waiting to take her home. The driver must have sheltered from the rain inside for she couldn't see him. Another car, which she hadn't noticed earlier, was parked at the edge of the lot, a black, low-slung sports car of a make she couldn't identify.
Then she saw him, standing under a tree that offered scant protection from the rain, a man whose lean body echoed the sleek, powerful lines of his car.
He waited. And he watched.
A chill of premonition tiptoed up Dina's spine. Who was he? She shook off the irrational apprehension, telling herself the chill was only cold rain running down under her collar. With one last glance at the flower-bedecked casket, she turned toward the limousine.
As if he'd been waiting for her to move, he stirred, the tension ebbing out of his body. Hands thrust deep into the pockets of a tan raincoat, he came toward her, striding across the wet grass. The sides of the unbuttoned coat flapped open, revealing gray wool pants and a blue sweater over a cotton shirt. His head was bare, but he seemed oblivious of the rain that plastered his hair to his skull.
"Mrs. Pappas?" His voice was low, slightly hoarse, as if he had a cold or smoked too much.
Dina's first impulse was to walk past him, but something compelling in his tone slowed her step. "That depends," she said coolly. "In business I'm known as Dina Walker."
"My business concerns your late husband." He was so close she could feel the heat of his body despite the rain slanting between them. The subtle fragrance of his cologne mingled with the scent of wet earth and the faint, pungent aroma of damp wool. She glanced down. His pants were soaked at the knees and around the bottoms, his leather shoes darkened and dull with moisture. He'd been out in the rain for a while.
She is lovely, Ran was thinking. She's perfect. She smelled like a meadow on a soft summer day, and stirred an emotion in him that had slept longer than forever.
When he didn't speak, Dina looked straight at him for the first time. His face told her nothing. With an oddly lucid detachment she noticed that he was neither ugly nor handsome, but attractive in a distinctly masculine way. Tanned skin over a strong, clean-cut bone structure, his was a face more likely to inspire wariness than trust, but the maturity in it said he could be depended on.
He gazed steadily back at her, with eyes that were a strange shade, neither blue nor gray. Their dark depths warned of secrets better left untold.
Curiosity, and the need to break a silence that was becoming oppressive, got the better of her. "Did you know Gus?"
"Not personally, no."
A mutter of thunder followed his words, like a punctuation mark. Water ran off the edge of Dina's umbrella, startling her out of the spell his eyes seemed to cast over her. "Did you work with him? Is that why you're here? I would have expected some of the people from his business to come to his funeral."
Ran shook his head. "I wouldn't know about that. I didn't work with him." He cleared his throat. "By the way, I'm sorry." He gestured toward the coffin lying beside the tarpaulin-covered grave.
A gust of rain carried the heavy autumn scent of chrysanthemums to them. For the first time since the policeman's visit early Saturday morning, Dina's eyes stung with tears. Her friends' effusive condolences had washed over her, but this man's sincere, quiet I'm sorry spoke to her heart.
"I'm sorry, too." Her breath caught in her throat. "It shouldn't have happened. No matter what, he didn't deserve to die."
"Does anyone?" he said. Then he added obliquely, "Well, some people do."
The hard, dangerous light that momentarily glittered in his eyes stopped whatever comment she might have made. She backed up a step but the tension in him faded and he half smiled, with a disarming easiness.
"Look," she said when he still didn't speak. "I'm tired and I'd like to go home. Can you get to the point?"
What was the point? he wondered absently, enthralled by the soft pink vulnerability of her mouth. Dark circles shadowed her eyes and he knew he couldn't say anything now. Let it wait until tomorrow.
But at the same time, he was reluctant to let her leave. He ducked under her umbrella, next to her, placing his hand over hers on the curved handle before she could pull away. She looked so fragile that he suddenly, inexplicably, wanted to protect her. "I have to talk to you," he said quietly. "I realize this isn't the best time. Could you meet me for lunch tomorrow?"
Lunch? Tomorrow? She was so tired she just wanted to sleep, not even to think of tomorrow. Her head felt woolly, her thoughts becoming sluggish as a gray haze swam before her eyes.
Ran saw her face become even paler, alarmingly white. She swayed on her feet and he grasped her upper arms to steady her. "Will you miss him very much?" he asked, realizing the inanity of the question as soon as it was out of his mouth.
"Miss him?" she said on a gulp while tears rolled down her cheeks. "How can you miss someone who was rarely there?"
She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, fighting for control. "No, I won't miss him in that way. But we were married. We meant something to each other once. His death was senseless. The accident never should've happened. Even if he'd been a stranger, I'd feel this way."
Her reaction puzzled him. What kind of relationship had she had with Gus? He thrust a folded handkerchief into her hand as he saw her groping in her pockets. Ducking her head, she mopped her eyes and blew her nose.
"I'm so stupid," she muttered, "crying like this now. I didn't cry when I heard of his death, not even when I had to identify the body. I haven't cried at all, until now."
He took the handkerchief from her before she could put it into her own pocket. "At least let me wash it," she protested.
His smile was gentle. "It doesn't matter."
The softness of his tone, the quiet understanding, set fresh tears prickling in her eyes. She blinked rapidly to clear them, humiliation filling her as she realized she'd just cried in front of a total stranger. With only a couple of words, he'd succeeded in breaking through barriers she'd spent years erecting as a prerequisite of survival. And she not only had no reason to trust him, but possibly had every reason not to.
He took her hand in his, and her mind calmed with the ease of water passing turbulent rapids and flowing into a placid lake. Her awareness contracted to take in only the circle covered by her umbrella.
With his other hand he pulled her close so that his coat sheltered them both. His warmth, and the exotic, spicy scent of him engulfed her. All of it slipped away--the cemetery, the rain, the cloying aroma of the funeral flowers. For a timeless moment she forgot everything but the comfort he wordlessly offered.
His heartbeat was steady and strong against her. The blue sweater smelled clean, like him, the fibers tickling her chin as it nestled in the hollow of his collarbone. She could feel little ridges of calluses at the base of his fingers. Amazingly, his hands were warm, and in their heat was safety. She didn't even question it.
But no sooner had the thought formed when it changed, sounding a distant warning. He was a man, a man she didn't know, and as subtle strands of sensual excitement began to weave between them, she knew it wasn't safe any more.
His hands slid up her coat sleeves, to her shoulders. She felt his palms touching her hair, smoothing over it to where the ends curved in toward her neck. "Such lovely hair," he said, "with ribbons of sunlight."
Soft words. Lover's words that flowed over her like honeyed cream. Calm fled, replaced by a charged tension that hummed between them like a high-voltage wire.
His fingers moved lower, brushing the skin at her nape. How could they be hot when the day was so cold and raw? The rhythm of his breathing quickened, caressing her face, and she realized hers had sped up to keep pace with it. She was vaguely aware of the rain sheeting around them, of wind tugging at her skirt. But only the warmth of his touch seemed real.
With an effort, she banished the wild thoughts and errant dreams that beckoned seductively. She was suddenly appalled at her lack of restraint with a man she hadn't known half an hour ago. This couldn't be happening. They were in a cemetery, grave markers lying beside the path.
She must have made some sound, for he started, like a man waking from a dream. His fingertips moved over the tender skin of her neck, then traced her jaw with a feathery touch before falling away. For a moment their eyes held, as if their souls recognized each other.
Then he stepped back, the wind-driven rain swept between them, and again they were two strangers, thrown together by chance. But not the strangers they'd been, Dina knew. Not ever again.
Ran pushed aside his coat to draw a wallet from his hip pocket. "Look, here's my card. Can you meet me tomorrow, say twelve-thirty?" He named a restaurant in the shopping mall where she usually bought her groceries.
The realization that he probably knew where she lived came as no surprise in light of the upheavals of the past few days. "It's important that we talk." Taking her silence for agreement, he grasped her arms in a gesture that was almost an embrace. "Take care, Miss Walker."
The little white rectangle of cardboard, still warm from his body, burned her cold fingers as she clenched them around the handle of her umbrella. She stared at it, bending her head against a gust of rain that blew into her face. Reality was a cold, wet autumn that would soon turn to winter. The comfort he had briefly given was probably an illusion, as deceptive as the warmth of Indian summer. And as temporary.
Dimly she heard the low growl of the engine as he started his car. Tires hissed on the wet pavement, the engine's roar intensifying and then fading as he accelerated out of the parking lot.
He was gone, leaving only the sound of the rain. With slow, measured steps, Dina trod across the grass to the waiting limousine.
A deepening sense of unease about the case tightened Ran's grip on the wheel as he propelled the black Maserati through streets clogged with late-afternoon commuters. He downshifted in preparation for a left turn, his mouth twisting as he cursed the heavy traffic, the pelting rain, and his own reaction to Mrs. Pappas. No, Miss Walker. She didn't want to be Mrs. Pappas.
He made it a rule never to become personally involved with people he investigated. Emotions interfered with objectivity. But the moment he'd seen her, his objectivity had been seriously undermined. His unaccountable concern for her, the ambiguity of her relationship with Gus, the question of her guilt or innocence--it all added up to a case that wasn't going to be tied up neatly, when and if he found the icon.
His eyes narrowed as he followed the incessant path of the wipers across the windshield. Files supposedly dealt in facts. But some had been left out, and those supplied hadn't prepared him for how he'd react to the sight of Gus's widow.
Dina Walker Pappas, female--oh, very definitely--tall, slender, at thirty-three only a year younger than he was. The file hadn't told him about the cool serenity of her face, the flawless skin that had the luminance of porcelain. The file hadn't said her hair would feel like gold-brown satin running through his fingers, Brown eyes, he'd read, never imagining they would be as clear as a forest pool, shot with flecks of gold that spoke of sunlight and distilled dreams.
Dina Walker Pappas, apparent innocent. He gnawed on his bottom lip, scowling ferociously. Was the pain he'd seen real, or was it all an act to cover her involvement in Gus's crimes? He had to know.
So why hadn't he just asked her? He'd never let kindness silence him before. Instead of an interrogation, he'd asked her to lunch. Wasn't that going a little too far, indulging an adolescent fantasy? He'd tossed aside all pretense of professionalism for an impulse he didn't understand and wasn't sure he wanted to. And just to see her one more time.
She was going to hate him when he told her about Gus. He knew it with icy certainty. Whether she was guilty or innocent, she was going to hate him.
Bitter frustration caused his foot to stamp down on the accelerator, then to slam hard on the brake as the traffic light in front of him flashed to red. Forcing himself to calm, he pictured again Dina's quietly determined face with its frame of rich brown hair. The faint scattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks made her look much younger than she was, at least until he'd seen the maturity in her eyes. He couldn't hurt her. It would be like slapping a distraught child.
For the first time in the six years she'd been living in it, the house seemed cold and cheerless as Dina let herself in. Dusk already lay in the corners, and she shivered as a rising wind whined around the eaves and rattled the stove vent. Mechanically she dropped her keys and purse on the cedar chest that stood in the back hall.
She'd come in the back door, after driving her car into the detached garage behind the house. Unbuttoning her coat, she walked through the living room to the closet in the foyer. She loved this room. The mushroom and peach decor accented with blue gave it an ambience that was warm and inviting, but today it failed to touch her.
She was cold, her fingers and mind numb as she hung up the navy coat and pushed it to the back of the closet, as if by putting it out of sight she could also banish the events that had led her to wear a garment she'd never liked. Closing the closet door, she hugged her arms around her chest and crossed the room to turn up the thermostat.
Her bedroom was decorated in the same unstudied elegance as the living room, with ruffled white curtains at the windows that overlooked a meadow she left wild. In spring it was a riot of flowers--weeds, some of her friends said with smug city perspective--but she'd always thought there was something soothing about gazing on nature's chaos. It must be a rebellion against the sterile mansion with its manicured golf-green lawns in which she'd spent the first eighteen years of her life, she often thought.
Well, she'd escaped that, and the scars hardly showed any more.
With graceful efficiency, she moved about her bedroom, changing into comfortable jeans and a warm sweater, her mind going back to the more immediate problem of Ran Constantine.
His card, stark black letters on white cardboard, said he was a free-lance insurance investigator. Under the printed name was a post office box number and a Vancouver telephone number. It told her nothing at all.
So what was his connection with Gus? She'd seen so little of Gus in the last several years that she hadn't a clue. He'd never discussed his business with her, rarely asked about hers. Sometimes months went by without their seeing each other at all. He'd lived his life in the townhouse he'd always retained in the city; she'd lived hers here, in the house they'd briefly shared but which he'd never claimed as his.
She frowned suddenly, pausing in the act of hanging up her dress. Two weeks ago he'd unexpectedly come to see her, to tell her he'd at last gotten around to filing for divorce. They would be free, he'd said, but something about his attitude that day had bothered her.
He'd talked about mundane matters, but in his voice had been an undercurrent of excitement that bore no relationship to the spoken words. When she'd questioned him, he'd merely grinned and winked at her in a boyish fashion that reminded her of the early days when they'd been younger and, she'd thought, in love.
"It's some find," he'd said mysteriously with another grin as he'd gone out the door. "You'll see it in the newspapers. Soon."
But what she'd seen in the newspapers was the story of his death, although by then it was hardly news to her. Gus had crashed his Porsche, which he invariably drove over the speed limit and without seatbelts, into a tree next to the freeway on a rainy night. That was the report, the end of a life, the end of a marriage that had limped along for too many years.
As night fell softly over the meadow outside her window, she couldn't stop the premonition that shivered through her. It wasn't the end; it was the beginning.