White Plains, New York
"He'll be here," Maxine Stuart said as she smoothed packing tape over the flaps of a cardboard box. "There's no way he'll let me leave without coming to say goodbye. He's nuts about me."
Stormy leaned over the box with her black marker and scrawled Kitchen Stuff across the top. Then she capped the pen and put it back into her pocket. "That's it," she said. "That's the last of it." She picked up the box and started for the door.
Max snatched it from her hands. "I told you, no heavy lifting."
"Knock it off, Max. The doctors say I'm fine."
Subconsciously, perhaps, Stormy ran a hand over her short hair. It had grown back by now, short, spiky, platinum blond and overly moussed, just as it had always been. Her hair covered the scar where the bullet had rocketed through her skull only a few months ago, plunging Stormy into a coma and nearly killing her.
But though Max couldn't see it, she was acutely aware that the scar remained. She would never forget how close she had come to losing her best friend. It shook her still, to remember.
"Stop looking at me like that," Stormy said.
"Like those coppery curls of yours are going to catch fire from the intensity. I really am fine."
"You'd better be." Max shook off the melodrama, knowing Stormy hated it. "Get the door, would you? My arms are breaking here."
Stormy opened the door, and the two walked out of the cozy white Cape Cod, down the concrete front steps and around to the back of the bright yellow rental van that waited in the driveway. Its back doors were open. Max climbed aboard and crammed the final box into the one remaining spot, near the top of the pile. Her whole life, she thought, was in that van. Sighing, she jumped down and closed the doors.
"Excited?" Stormy asked.
"To be starting a whole new life, yeah. I am. Are you?"
"If I wasn't, I wouldn't have agreed to come with you. Besides, what's not to be excited about? We're moving into a restored mansion, for crying out loud. Hanging up our shingle. Starting a new business."
"Think it will succeed?"
"I think it will kick ass," Stormy said. "What with those flyers we sent out with both our pics on them, full color, no less? They made us sound like the best detective agency since Sam Spade's. And besides, we're hot."
hot," Max said.
Stormy pursed her lips. "You don't look very excited, Maxie. You look as if your heart's breaking."
Max leaned back against the van and eyed the house where she'd grown up, its neatly trimmed hedges and freshly mown lawn. "I'm a little bummed we're going to have to make two trips. I mean, if I trusted myself to drive this van with the car behind it, I'd use the tow bar that came with the thing. But I'm not that confident."
"Uh-huh." Stormy crossed her arms and tapped her foot, giving Max a look that said she knew perfectly well that was not what was bothering her.
Max nodded and gave in. "I really thought Lou would agree to go into business with us. I mean, you and I have two P.I. licenses and some pretty powerful contacts"
"Even if they are mostly dead," Stormy put in with a wink.
"But none of that adds up to a retired cop with twenty years under his belt."
"I think there's other stuff under his belt that interests you more."
"Yeah, well, short of bashing him over the head and attacking him, I don't think I'm going to get within a mile of his belt. Much less what's under it."
Stormy tipped her head to one side. The sun caught the rhinestone in her nostril and winked. She'd given up the eyebrow ring. During her coma they removed it and the hole had closed up. But to celebrate her recovery she'd added the nose stud. Personally, Max liked it better. It was petite and daring, just like Stormy.
"Are you telling me," she asked Max in a tone of disbelief, "that during the whole time I was in the coma, and you two were up in Maine saving your sister from notorious vampire hunters and tracking down the bastard who shot me, that you never once"
"Like you don't think I'd have told you if we had?"
"You'd have rented a billboard," Stormy said with a sigh. "So now you're giving up?"
Max pursed her lips. "If I'm living in Maine and Lou insists on staying here in White Plains, I don't see what choice I have."
Stormy looked at her, a mix of pity and skepticism in her vivid sapphire eyes.
Slowly, Maxine straightened off the van, looked down toward the road and smiled. "I'm not beaten yet, though. Here he comes." She nodded toward the oversize rustmobile that was pulling up to the curb, since there was no room in the driveway. The small square of blacktop held the rental van on one side and Stormy's little red Miata on the other. Max's green VW Bug was in the garage.
The noise level dropped to zero when Lou shut off his engine; then the heavy driver's door swung open. Lou got out, and Max drank in the sight of him. God, he was something. Oh, he tried real hard, especially for her, she thought, to pull off the saggy, burned-out ex-cop routine. With his loose-fitting suits and always crooked ties, and slow-talking, slow-walking ways, he tried to be the living proof that forty-four was over the hill. And way
too old for a twenty-six-year-old. But she saw through the act. He wasn't too old; he was just too damn wary. The only thing burned out about Lou Malone was his heart, though she didn't know why. She'd always intended to fix it, whether he liked it or not. Now, she thought she was about to run out of time.
He came across the driveway to where she stood, glancing at the van, then at her. His eyes met hers, held them, and she thought she saw something sad in them before he covered it with a smile. Could he be sorry to see her go?
He broke eye contact and nodded hello to Stormy.
"Hey, Lou," Stormy called. "We'd just about decided you weren't coming to see us off."
"Wouldn't miss it. How are you feeling, Stormy?"
"Fine, except for being sick of everyone asking how I'mfeeling." She softened the words with a smile. "You?"
"Can't complain." He eyed the van, his glance tripping over Max's tummy on the way. Good, she thought. It would have been a waste of good low-rise jeans and a cropped-short T-shirt if he hadn't even noticed the bared section of skin in between.
He cleared his throat, nodded at the van. "Are you going to have to make a few trips with that thing, Max?"
"Nope. Everything that's going is packed up and ready. Except my car, anyway. I'll have to come back for that."
"Everything?" He lifted his brows. "You couldn't have fit furniture in there."
"You've been to my sister's house, Lou. Morgan's will left me everything, furniture included."
"Still, seems like you'd want some of your own."
"Most of the stuff in this house isn't my own, anyway. It's nearly all hand-me-downs from my parents." She never qualified the word parents
with the word adoptive, even though it was true. "Besides, what do I have here that would fit there? That place is
"Yeah, but it's not you."
She planted her hands on her hips and frowned at him. "What's that
supposed to mean? I'm not opulent?"
He lifted his brows. "It wasn't an insult, Maxie, just an observation. Morgan's house ishell, it's Morgan. Dramatic, dark, rich.
You should be in a place that's
I don't know. Cute, quirky, fun."
He sent her a quelling look.
Maxie sent him back a wink. "That's what you meant, and you know it. But don't worry, Lou. Once I get settled in, I'm going to redecorate a suite of rooms just for me. I can't exactly do the whole place, though. It's not like Morgan's really dead, after all."
"No, I suppose not." He lowered his head, shaking it slowly.
"What?" she asked.
"We talk so matter-of-factly about it. Like it's nothing. And then every once in a while it hits me. Everything that happened. Everything we saw. Stuff I thought was nothing but superstition, turning out to be real. The fact that one of Mad Maxie Stuart's conspiracy theories turned out to be dead on target."
He said it with a teasing smile that made her want to lean up and kiss it right off his face. Instead, she only shrugged. "I wish you were coming with me."
"Yeah, well, I told you, I didn't retire from the force with the goal of going back to work full-time."
"Right. Instead you're going to buy a fishing boat and spend your time lying around, smelling like bait and growing a beer belly."
"Sounds like paradise, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, for a seventy-year-old in failing health, maybe. Not for you."
He eyed her, maybe seeing a little beyond the words she said out loud, so she averted her eyes. She hadn't meant to sound petulant or pouty. Childish was the last way she wanted him to think of her.
"I'll visit, I promise."
She shot her eyes back to his. "When?"
I don't know."
"How about now?"
"Maxie, sometimes I don't even know how to follow your conversations."
She rolled her eyes. "Hell, you're going to make me admit it, aren't you?"
He held up both hands, shaking his head, as if she'd lost him.
"I'm not sure I can drive mat
thing." She nodded toward the van. "It's huge, and I can hardly see over the steering wheel. It steers like ...