With This Bling (Romano & Albright, #3)
This title is #3 of the Romano and Albright series.
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Caesar Romano’s catering career is doing better than he’d ever dreamed. And so is his love life—even if his boyfriend’s house in Staten Island is way too far from civilization for his liking. But then in short order, Caesar is duped into helping his cousin propose, is tricked by his best friend and business partner into appearing on live television, and is harassed by a thug-like personal trainer and his far too beautiful wife. In fact, Caesar is almost too busy to notice that something is troubling his PI boyfriend, Dan Albright.
Laid-back, open, charming—that’s the impression hunky former NYPD Detective Dan Albright gives everyone. Caesar can add sexually adventurous and a bit of an exhibitionist. But he also knows that Dan is hiding something—something dark and a little dangerous—and when Dan’s silence over his mysterious past threatens to harm them both, it’s Caesar’s turn to save the day.
But then again, a break-in, a gallery party, an heirloom ring, a new suit, and a stalker with bad BO are all just a typical week for Caesar Romano.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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My phone buzzed on the kitchen counter, and I raced downstairs at full speed, haphazardly tucking a bath towel around my naked ass as I hit the landing. I was alone in Dan Albright’s sleepy house on Staten Island, while Dan—who had “nothing pressing today”—braved the late June humidity for his daily run.
Sunshine poured into the kitchen, warming a row of spiny potted herbs on the windowsill. Outside, the neat suburban backyard burst with green shrubbery and midsummer flowers. A plump gray bird sat on the clothesline and a squirrel frolicked in the grass, both a reminder that I needed to get the hell back to the city because, honest to God, it was like the country out here.
I snagged my phone mid-ring, and my favorite cousin’s Italian mug stared back at me. Joey and I looked nearly identical, except for his product-slickened hair, his penchant for gold chains, and his ability to carry off scrubby facial hair. He rarely called, so I skipped the preliminaries. “Hey. Everything okay? Who died?”
“What? No. Jeez, can’t a guy call his family just to say hello?”
“You’d think so, but that’s never been the case.”
“Where’ve you been, Caesar? I haven’t seen you in two weeks. Not since you busted your rib.”
“Working. We have more business than we can handle.” Solid truth. I hadn’t taken a day off since starting my new career in the catering world, unless you counted the three days the doctor had ordered me to rest. “It’s wedding season. We have a wedding, a shower, a dinner, and the Fourth coming up. Stop by Posh Nosh if you want to see me.”
“I would, but I have school. I’m busy too. I get it. Are you home?”
“Home?” I didn’t even know what that meant these days. I’d been ping-ponging between my humble room at Nana’s house in Brooklyn, the job in the city, and Dan’s bed in the hinterlands. I’d spent more time on public transit in the past two weeks than I had in the last year. Honestly? I was fatigued. I tucked my towel, watched a robin pull a worm from the grass, and revised my plans. “I’ll be at Nan’s tonight.” My libido could take a rest. And missing dinner with Nan was never a smart idea. “What do you need?”
“Me? Well, uh, I need advice.”
His words gave me pause. Joey asking me for advice? That was a first. Our whole lives, he was the one offering his unsolicited opinion on everything from my fashion sense to my love life. Never the other way around. “Are you for real?”
“Yeah. I thought, maybe—and not because the entire family is breathing down my neck and flapping at me or anything—that I’d pop, you know, the question.” He exhaled. “It.”
I grabbed a Diet Coke from Dan’s massive Viking fridge and a peanut butter cookie from the white ceramic jar on the counter. Joey’s intended was my best friend, Poppy. She was also my sort of business partner and the mother of a future relative. We were stuck with each other till death do us part. Therefore, with my cousin’s best interest in my heart, I got tough. “Joey. If you can’t say it without saying ‘it,’ you need to rethink your plan.”
“I want to ask her to marry me, okay? There. I said it. Marry. Sheesh. I thought maybe you’d have some insight or suggestion that would entice her to say yes sometime before our kid is in college.” His snit ended on a sigh. “And my ma’s texting ten times a day wanting to know when we’re setting a date.”
“So is Mrs. McNamara. So what? Even I can’t believe you haven’t asked Poppy yet, but this is between you and her. Not me. Not her parents or yours. Not anyone but you two.”
Their parents collectively frowned over what they perceived as Poppy’s breezy, modern attitude toward her unwed pregnancy. Like this was 1976 or something. I didn’t have a horse in the race. I’d love Poppy and Joey no matter what. Plus, I knew better than to poke my nose in where it didn’t belong. Poppy would lop it off with a carving knife. “If you’re going to be a lawyer, you need to work on your powers of persuasion.”
“I’m working on them, but you know how she is.”
I did. “She can be stubborn. I know . . .”
“She says she’s not wearing a wedding dress with a maternity flap.”
“The word ‘flap’ does diminish the allure. So you better ask now, because she’s starting to show. If you need backup, I’ll do what I can.”
“Yeah. About that. Backup’s not what I need.”
A car horn caught me off guard so I shoved the entire cookie in my mouth and, with the sweating soda in hand, went to the living room to investigate.
Outside, things were pretty much business as usual on Dan’s boring, residential street. Just another perfect summer morning in a postcard-worthy neighborhood tucked close to picturesque Wagner College. Possibly the only sliver of Staten Island I appreciated. Manhattan lay sun-streaked and sparkly in the distance, the city’s bold towers and shimmering glass an hour-long bus ride away.
I needed a pair of pants and to get my ass to work. Instead, I perched on the arm of the sofa, arranged my towel so no parts of mine adhered to the leather, and sipped my drink. Family first. “What do you need?”
“A full-on, all-out plan to wow her.”
“Wow her, or woo her?”
“Wow. Woo. It’s all the same. She’s five months.”
“She is indeed. Are you talking fireworks? Or something in a tiny blue box?” The air conditioner clicked and a breeze fluttered my towel, while in the street the sun steamed the pavement. Today would be a scorcher.
Joey huffed in my ear. “No. I want to do something special. Something that’s not pedestrian. Something outta the box, you know?”
“Yeah. I know.” I heard those words all the time. Every day, in fact.
Weddings. The biggest obstacle facing affianced couples—as far as I could tell from every client I’d spoken with during my introductory period into the catering business—was managing their colossally high expectations. They wanted every gesture to be grand and every new moment more special, more exciting, more unique than the last. Fireworks twenty-four seven. It took planning to be original, dough to be extravagant, and more than a little love for couples to find happily ever after when the deed was done and the bills came due. I didn’t know how anyone’s marriage survived.
But the booming wedding industry kept Poppy’s books in the black, so I was a good sport. I liked the money. And who didn’t like wedding cake? I practically lived on the stuff.
Still. Joey had reason for concern. After years in catering, Poppy had seen and heard everything.
Two kids in matching T-shirts pedaled by the house as Joey worked on selling me. “You and Poppy have been friends forever. Since college. What do you think I should do? What don’t I know? Does she like hot-air balloons?”
“Absolutely not. She likes both feet on the ground. You’re going at this all wrong. She’s from money. Real money. Old money. Nothing you can buy her can compete with what she’s already seen.”
“Thanks, man. That’s exactly the help I’m looking for—”
“I mean she chucked that lifestyle for a reason. She prefers a lack of pretension. She wants to be down to earth.”
“I don’t want to underwhelm her though. She’ll tell me to fuck off.”
“Well, you do run the risk . . .”
A lime-green van stopped at the curb of the split-level ranch next door, the vehicle partially obscured by the long, low hedge. Across the street, the neighbor’s sprinkler soaked puddles onto a driveway, leaving a rainbow of bleeding sidewalk chalk. Birds hopped around for bugs. Just another day in Middle America, and I asked myself again: what was I even doing here?
Dan. That’s what—and who—I was doing. I had love bites on my shoulder to prove it.
Joey’s voice filled my ear. “Hey. You still there?”
“Of course. Where would I go?” I stopped peeping on the neighborhood and went to check my reflection in the hall mirror. Yikes. “I’ll need a little time to think of something. My creative spark seems dim this morning.”
“Okay. Fine. But time is at a premium. Everyday it’s tick-tock, the stork is coming.”
Before I could smooth my hair, a bell rang. I thought the noise came from my cell phone, and I glanced around the empty room. “What the hell was that?”
“Sounded like a doorbell to me.”
I honestly didn’t remember there being a bell at Dan’s since I’d never rung it and no one ever visited. “I think someone’s at the door. That’s strange.”
“Why’s that strange?”
“I don’t know. It just is.” The bell rang again, and I tightened my towel and went to take a look. “No one ever comes to the house.”
Actually, that was kind of odd. Dan worked from his home office, when he wasn’t out and about investigating people’s personal business, but I’d never seen a client. I hadn’t seen a family member, either. Or a neighbor. Nada. He didn’t even use GrubHub.
“Who is it?” Joey asked around a mouthful of something.
“Hang on.” The peephole revealed a fish-eye view of a blue-eyed white guy who glared at the door, clipboard in hand. The man lifted his arm and whiffed his pit, then winced, leaving me less than eager to open the door. “I don’t know. I think it’s a service guy.”
His uniform consisted of a rumpled baby-shit-green tie-and-shirt combo that mirrored the van at the curb. He also bore the telltale signs of today’s promised high heat and humidity in the form of sweat rings. “Joey. I’ll call you back.”
“Yeah. Okay. Good luck. Ciao.”
The stranger rapped on the front door—the impatient jerk—but I wasn’t about to let him in. I wasn’t born yesterday. That guy could be a serial killer for all I knew. Or a tax collector. Or worse. A salesman. Not to mention, I was naked.
I latched the security chain before cracking the door a scant inch. “May I help you?”
He frowned when he saw me and double-checked the placard on the side of the door. Dan’s grandparents’ name still graced the house. Green. “Is this the Albright residence?”
“You don’t know? What house number are you looking for?” Haughtier than intended, but he’d rung twice and rapped once, and in my book he bordered on rude.
The man eyed his clipboard. “Look. I’m here for the cable. I need to reset the converter on the receiver box and update critical software. For the TV.”
“Uh—” He sounded so legit. I had zero knowledge of critical converters or cable boxes for that matter. Except I could have sworn Dan had a satellite dish bolted on the roof next to the bathroom dormer. “Could you hold for a minute? Thank you.”
I slapped the door shut and texted the current homeowner of Chez Green. Cable guy is here.
Short, to the point, and I hoped to God Dan answered. Jogging in eighty-five degree heat and swamp-level humidity meant he could have stroked out somewhere. I would have.
The cable guy stewed on the front step, and I raced to the second floor, my rib twinging, the towel flapping.
Photos of Dan’s family, none of whom I’d met, lined the upstairs hall. Like much of the house, the paint and wallpaper were dated, and the furnishings consisted of old pieces inherited from his grandparents after they’d left for sunnier climes, and new pieces Dan had purchased from God only knew where. The combination felt masculine and made his house homey.
My phone vibrated as Dan texted back. Wrong house.
I really don’t have time for this, I typed. He asked for you by name. Albright.
Before I could get to the master bedroom to find some pants, there came another knock on the front door, followed by the bell again. In case it wasn’t clear our visitor had some place he needed to be. Like who didn’t? What the hell with that guy?
The urge to cover my naked ass outweighed any social expectation, but Dan replied, Tell him to fuck off. So, dutiful, underappreciated boyfriend that I am, I turned around to do as I was bid.
I texted, Not helpful. And for the record, he’s a total asshole.
At the door, the security chain allowed the same measly inch. The dark-ringed stare of the cable guy greeted me. Green wasn’t doing his complexion any favors, and I didn’t let his rudeness deter me from my course of action, although, holy cow, the breeze shifted and I could smell him. My eyes watered. He reeked with an almost clinical level of body odor. He spat, “Seriously, guy. I have a job to do.”
“Is that right?” Years of dealing with jerks as a gallery assistant allowed me to mask any discomfort. I offered him the tight, condescending smile that had turned Dan on to no end. “So sorry, but you’ll have to reschedule. What was your name again? Perhaps you could leave your card?”
“Do you know how long it takes to get an appointment? Weeks.” He clicked his pen emphatically, and a bead of sweat shook free from his forehead. His shimmery brow wrinkled as he studied the clipboard again, and when his gaze returned, he poked his Bic through the door and tapped the flimsy chain. He could have lifted it easily. I read the threat. “You need to sign.”
“I’m not signing anything.” And I wasn’t opening the door for a pushy, smelly stranger. “Leave your paperwork in the box. Oh. And fuck off.” I banged the door shut and hit the stairs at a run.
I would have hopped in the shower for a second rinse, but we had a meeting with a mother-of-a-bride at ten thirty, and my trip to Manhattan would take a solid hour from the bus stop. Plus, I hadn’t had the most important meal of the day yet, and I needed to allow some time for grabbing a snack.
I headed directly into the master bedroom. Dan had gone for blue and brown in his home décor choices, with heavy furniture, simple blinds, and a throw rug. Soft sheets still rumpled the bed, and the scent of cologne and sex lingered. Nothing had changed.
He’d cleared a drawer for me a few weeks back. A sweet gesture that warmed my cold heart, but Jesus H. Christ, Staten Island seemed farther away from work every time I braved the commute. I’d ridden the train from Brooklyn to the Village for years, and that ride was as hot, loud, uncomfortable, and dirty, but the dirt from home felt less . . . dirty than the dirt here.
I opened the drawer to grab a clean pair of underwear, and a metallic clang broke the serenity of the house. The noise rang from the backyard, and was immediately followed by a thin silence.
Someone had opened the gate. Probably, it was of no consequence. Maybe Dan had finished his run early and had cut through the backyard. Or a neighbor kid needed to retrieve a ball or something. Those were reasonable assumptions, so I dropped the towel, and as I did, the gate squeaked closed.
Just to make sure there wasn’t anything criminal going on, I went to investigate. Then I’d brush away all these distractions, get dressed, and walk down the hill to catch the X10. The walk would count as my workout.
I flipped the light in Dan’s snug, retro bathroom and cracked the aged wooden blinds. Pale sky floated above the empty postage-stamp back-to-back yards of suburbia. There were no alleyways connecting the houses, like on our street in Brooklyn, only clotheslines, fences, sheds, and meager swimming pools. The neighbor’s dog barked, but Dan’s yard was empty. Even the birds and the squirrels had vanished.
Satisfied things were as dull as ever, I left the blinds open and readied myself for work. Dan’s medicine cabinet held my toothbrush, but I swiped his deodorant, cologne, and toothpaste. The haunting odor of the cable guy had me dousing myself liberally with Armani. When I closed the mirrored door—son of a bitch, and speak of the fucking devil—the cable guy teetered past the bathroom window.
I almost had a fucking heart attack.
He didn’t glance through the window, and he couldn’t see inside because of the blinds anyway. How he’d climbed onto the roof without a ladder was beyond me, unless he’d carried a ladder around the house, or shimmied the gutter pipe, or was half ninja.
Maybe he had a quota from the cable company and, as a sweat-soaked self-starter, he’d taken the initiative. Maybe his employer had given him permission to be on the roof. Maybe they had carte blanche. I wasn’t a homeowner. I had a degree in art history, and like most twenty-eight-year-old college graduates, I owned nothing and owed the farm. I hadn’t a clue, but surely there were protocols that separated “service call” from “trespassing.”
The guy could actually be checking the converter box for critical software upgrades, but on further reflection, those words rang hollow. Whichever, he was a total asshole and shouldn’t be on the roof.
As an ex–law enforcement officer, Dan took precautions. Locks secured every window and door, and he’d wired the place to the hilt. I’d worked in the gallery world for years, and I’d grown familiar with the ins and outs of various alarm keypads. My own family didn’t bother with fancy security companies. We relied on brute strength, intimidation, and the local neighborhood watch. More like a witch hunt than a watch, but effective nonetheless. And, when pressed, Romanos were swift to drive intruders away with the swing of a Louisville Slugger. There wasn’t a bat in Dan’s home, so I opted for his alarm.
I retrieved my cell from the dresser as the jerk on the roof did whatever asshole thing he was hell-bent on doing. I should have checked, but something—call it intuition—had me moving with haste to the stairs, phoning Dan as I descended. Having had my fair share of incidents in the past two months, I knew to call, but first I’d have to deal with Dan’s I don’t fucking believe this.
“Hey,” he panted, and he wasn’t the only one gasping. My lungs creaked from all the exertion.
“Question.” I swallowed. “Do you—”
“What’s wrong with your voice? Did you do something to your rib again? You’re making that kicked-puppy sound. The one you make when you’re in pain but you won’t tell me and I have to slip Vicodin into your milkshake. What are you doing?”
“What makes you think I’m doing anything? I’m doing nothing. I’m fine.” Just winded from the stairs. “Did you maybe schedule the cable company and forget?” I peered through the peephole again. Empty step, sprinkler sprinkling, birds slurping worms, kids on scooters, fishbowl suburbia. Check. Nothing had changed.
“Negative. I don’t have cable.”
“Huh. That’s unnerving, because there’s a guy on your roof.”
“What roof? Who’s on the roof? My roof?” A sharp inhale told me his jog had ratcheted to a flat run. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the cable guy climbed onto your house after I told him to leave. I’m just letting you know.” A thump from somewhere above and I flipped the plastic lid on the alarm panel, revealing the keypad. Pretty straightforward. P for police and the * sign together and I’d scare any prowler out of his pants and onto the lawn. “I have the situation under control.”
“The hell you do. Is he still there? You’re not kidding, right?”
“No. I am not kidding—you always ask me that. Why would I kid?” It was difficult keeping exasperation from my voice, but I managed valiantly. “How do I know what he’s doing? I’m not watching, although I can see his van from the window. It’s on the street. I’m hitting the alarm. Heads-up. Also chop-chop. I’m going to be late for work.”
“Yes. Hit the fucking alarm.”
An earsplitting eeeeeeee breached the peaceful splendor of Chez Albright.
I scurried to the kitchen as Dan yelled, “I’m two blocks from the house. You still there?”
“Yes, of course.”—eeeeeeee—“Where would I go? He’s out there. So I’m in here. Dial it down. I’m fine.”
“You need to leave the house.”
“That’s not going to happen.” I checked the window. “There are kids on the sidewalk. I don’t want a scene.”
“I think that train left the station—”
The cable guy fell from the roof in a flutter of green shirttails. He landed catlike in the grass directly in front of the kitchen window. “Holy crap.”
Dan panted, “What? Talk to me.”
The man popped effortlessly to his feet and hiked a rather utilitarian black backpack over his shoulder. Anyone else would have broken an arm or an ankle falling from that height, but no. The bastard didn’t even bother to check himself. Far less fatigued than he first appeared at Dan’s doorstep, he was nonetheless sopping in sweat. His gaze caught mine and he fucking bowed—the dick—then he flipped me off, mouthing, Fuck you, and darted under the clothesline. “I . . . don’t believe this guy.”
He vaulted the fence like a goddamn superhero. “My God. He’s like Batman.”
“What the— Did you say Batman?”
I shouted over the alarm, “He looked right at me! That asshole, but holy crap, he’s totally parkour. I’ve never seen anything like him. I don’t think you can catch him.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence.”
The guy cut through the neighbor’s backyard and disappeared around the corner of a garage as the house alarm clanged my head like a gong. I pressed a finger against my ear. “He’s gone. Wow. Where are you? If you come through the back—”
Any hope the intruder would run smack into Dan coming from the opposite direction was dashed as the front door burst open and my hero announced, “I’m here. Where is he?”
“Gone. I told you. Jesus, the guy could move.” I tossed my phone on the counter. I wasn’t sure what my next move should be, so I let Dan lead. He braced one hand against the wall, gasping for air—which didn’t seem entirely heroic—and stabbed at the keypad with his index finger. The alarm ceased and, thank God, I could hear myself think again. Summer heat met AC, and a wave of tepid air blew through the living room.
“FYI, I move too.” Dan sucked wind. “I sprinted up that fucking hill.”
He swiped his forehead and joined me in the kitchen, his Shakespeare in the Park T-shirt soaked to his skin. Unlike the intruder, he wore his perspiration very well. Face flushed, hale and hearty in loose-fitting black running shorts, he flipped the backdoor locks and disappeared down the steps.
I followed a few paces behind, watching as he scoped the backyard. “He’s not here.”
“I can see that.”
He glared at the kitchen roof where two stubby dormers were connected by a thin outcropping of architectural tiles. One dormer held the bath window, the other the guest room window. Bolted between the dormers? A long-nosed satellite dish.
Dan looked ready to scale the brick and poke around for clues, or climb for a better vantage point of the cable guy’s escape route, but his outdoor inspection lasted two seconds. He stared at me briefly, dark brows knitted together, before stomping back into the kitchen. He scrubbed at his damp hair, leaving finger-wide furrows. At least his breathing was somewhat under control.
His gaze raked me, head to toe, and he stalled for a second. “So, you look fine this morning.”
“Of course I do.” I answered stiffly because I was indeed fine. What had he expected? That I’d faint over a possible break-in? Please. “I’ve dealt with intruders before. I’m not a novice.”
“All right, Mr. Not A Novice.” I swear to God his eyes twinkled. His jaw definitely twitched. “Tell me exactly what happened, and don’t stop talking until you get to the part where you realize you’re still bare-ass naked.”
I glanced south and found an unencumbered view to my toes. Not a stitch covered me, not even my Hugo Boss underwear. I’d just exposed myself to his entire neighborhood and, while I’m sure they were impressed—because who wouldn’t be?—I was also mortified. I dashed through the kitchen, resisting the natural urge to clap both hands over my crotch. “That explains the breeze.”
“I’m not complaining.”
“Getting dressed didn’t seem as important as getting the guy off the roof. If you’ll excuse me.” I dipped into the downstairs bath and grabbed a towel from the cupboard before joining Dan in the living room. “It’s all in the texts up until I went to brush my teeth and he walked by the window. I almost had a stroke.”
“I can imagine. I’m just glad you didn’t climb onto the roof and confront him. Normally, that’s something you’d do.” I didn’t argue because the thought had crossed my mind. Dan checked the living room window, his gaze searching the street. “You said he had a van?”
“The green one. Same as his shirt. We should report this to his supervisor. After we speak with the police, of course.”
Dan dropped the curtain, and I knew by his frown he had something else in mind. “Did he threaten you?”
“Not exactly. But when he jumped from the roof, he flipped me the bird.”
“Because you were watching him from the window.”
“Yes, of course. You seemed to want the blow-by-blow over the phone. I needed a good vantage point.” I focused on the neighbor as she repositioned her sprinkler.
Dan grunted, “Okay. You’re right. So, what’d he look like?”
“Brown hair. Blue eyes. Your age? I don’t know. Forty? Thirty-five? Fifty? I don’t know. He could be anything. He was fit. Really fit.” I was historically bad at gauging a person’s age. “Definitely older than me, though, and medium height. And sweaty. As if he had a disorder. His scent was powerful enough that he was sniffing his own armpits.”
“That’ll be useful in the line up.” Since Dan was also soaked from his run, he didn’t appear bowled over by what I thought an important detail, but then again, he often paid closer attention than he let on. It was his job to do so. “Define medium height. Show me with your hand. Like this?” He held his hand at exactly my height.
“Yes.” Everyone thinks I lie about my height, but it’s impossible for me to lie. I have a tell in the form of excess stuttering. “Medium. Maybe my height.” I’m five foot nine-ish, and Dan’s a few inches above six feet, making most people short in his vaunted opinion. Average is in the eye of the beholder. And in the height of a heel. Therefore, I used one finger to show him exactly how tall I was.
“Anything else? Glasses? Scars? Tattoo? Earring?”
“Eye patch? Peg leg? No. He was uninteresting. Bland. An adult male over thirty who smelled like BO, and jumped from the roof and landed in the grass like a gymnast. That was memorable. He used the gate as a pommel horse. Caucasian. Ugly uniform.” The van beckoned undisturbed at the curb. “We should check outside.”
“We? Guess again.” A squad car stopped in front of the house, lights flashing, siren mercifully silenced, and Dan sighed. “Shit. We have company.”
“Of course we do. What did you expect when I hit the alarm?”
Dan frowned at the panel like he wanted to rip the thing off the wall.
“I’ll just put some pants on.” I skirted around him, heading for the stairs as he poked at the keypad again.
His gaze flicked toward my towel. “Not that I don’t enjoy seeing you naked, but that’s probably for the best.”
It took a couple of minutes to throw on some work clothes and fold and pack a tie. I left my messenger bag by the front door to hasten my exit when we were done with the cop, grabbed my Tom Ford sunglasses, and stepped into the blistering daylight.
The smell of fresh-cut grass and wet asphalt greeted me. Dan and a slender, blue-clad officer waited in stiff silence halfway down the cement walk. A parked cruiser sat at the curb. In any other neighborhood, namely the one I’d grown up in, a police presence would be an automatic invitation for an impromptu block party. Neighbors would gather and mingle on the street, ready to find out who did what to whom, and depending on the height of the sun, carry coffee cups or covered dishes or bottles wrapped in paper lunch sacks.
Here in Staten Island, on Dan’s tree-lined slice of suburbia, people minded their business. The street was empty. Even the curtains were drawn.
On one side of Dan’s Cape, a long, low hedge bordered his yard and his neighbor’s equally charming property. On the other side, a picket fence separated the Albright nee Green residence from a single-story, ranch-style home. Robert Frost would have approved of this setup. Dan’s beloved motorcycle slept under a tarp in the driveway, and a borrowed white Toyota Camry waited for his next thrilling detective job.
Dan didn’t hide his relief over my arrival. “That was quick.”
I shrugged and turned my cuff to the elbow. A button-down wasn’t ideal for late June’s humidity, but needs must, and Poppy and I had a client to impress. “I have work. I may have mentioned?”
“A time or three.” A stingy dimple creased his cheek, and softened the peppered shadow covering his jaw.
“Then let’s press on.”
The cop glanced between Dan and me, offering the sort of smile one reserves for a social visit. “Mr. Romano? I’m Officer Springer.”
“Really?” How appropriate given his striking resemblance to a spaniel. Black shaggy brows, sad brown eyes, and freckle-faced, he could have passed as a college kid from Wagner. Actually, he was shockingly young, and surprisingly fidgety. His gun appeared to be brand new and shiny. He sent Dan worshipful looks, which was totally understandable. Dan had that effect on men and women alike. Officer Springer’s devotion could be explained by Dan’s prior reputation on the force, or due to the way he filled out his running shorts.
I assumed the homeowner had handled the what, when, and where of our situation while I’d been in the house, so I could give a pared-down statement as the main witness. I was prepared to be brief. Very. “So, what do you need to know?”
The cop squinted at his copious notes. He bent to read, and I got a view of the groove denting his hair. He’d probably left his hat in the car along with his sunglasses. “I may have a few questions . . .”
“Right. Whenever you’re ready.” I bowed to his authority. I should have added take your time, but I had a bus to catch.
Silver glare reflected from Dan’s mirrored shades. He folded his arms across his chest, and the thin scars tracing his upper arms were visible under the hem of his sleeve. His gaze was hidden, his jaw hard, and the line of his mouth harder. With the exception of the frugal smile he’d offered me, he radiated impatient discontent as he bit, “I gave the officer the run down. This should be routine.”
“Of course.” Jesus. We were moving at a snail’s pace, standing awkwardly in the front yard watching a cop read. I should have grabbed some SPF15. And not to whine, but without any styling product to battle the daunting humidity, my hair began to frizz.
I glanced between the two men. Wasn’t there a secret cop handshake or something? So we could expedite the bullshit? I had no idea. Other than having a private detective for a boyfriend, I didn’t care much for law-enforcement types. I’d never sported a secret hard-on for men in uniform. In fact, I’d spent a lifetime keeping my distance from them and abiding by the law unless pushed otherwise. I had plenty of family members who tiptoed the line of legality, and since I was the spitting image of some of those Romanos, I never wanted to be confused with any of them. Particularly in a lineup.
No speed-reader, the cop—his lips moving carefully—eventually got through. “I think I have everything.”
“Great.” Patience remained ever within my grasp. “You’re sure you don’t want to review your notes again?”
Dan sighed, and the cop shut his notebook, saying, “No. I’m done. You’re free to go. I’ll file the report.”
The helpful smile I’d reserved for our responding officer dissolved in a frown of disbelief. “Wait. How is that possible? You haven’t asked me anything, and I’m the witness. I’m the one who saw the guy. We had a conversation.”
“Oh. Right. Yes. Well.” The cop shook his head. Maybe if he shook it hard enough, he’d rattle a complete sentence free. He glanced around the front yard, like he anticipated assistance, then opened his notepad again. “Sorry. Yes. Why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“Okay.” I proceeded to tell my story, keeping both my adjectives and my hand gestures to a bare minimum. Dan wasn’t impressed by my toned-down performance, which was unusual because he typically offered commentary, but when I finished, the cop clicked his pen and scribbled.
“And that’s everything?”
“I believe so. Except, of course, the man stunk.”
Officer Springer perked up. “Stunk? Of what? Alcohol? Marijuana?”
“No. Body odor.”
“I see.” He deflated, though my description warranted another long notation in the booklet. A car drove by. A dog barked a few houses away. The lawn sprinkler went tsk tsk tsk tsk wetting the pavement, and I empathized with Dan’s next long-suffering sigh. I swear I could hear his teeth grind together.
I cleared my throat. “I believe it’s your turn to ask questions. Give and take. Maybe there’s a list you can consult?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Dan mumbled. “That guy’s in Jersey by now.”
The cop straightened, and his leather belt creaked from the load of police equipment weighting his hips. “Mr. Romano—”
“Yes. Right here. I haven’t moved.”
“Right. So you were alone in the house and when you saw the intruder on the roof you engaged the alarm?”
“Any idea how the suspect got on the roof?”
“He was athletic. Maybe he pole-vaulted up there.”
Dan added, “Although he probably chose to climb the lattice.”
“There is that possibility. Yes.” I conceded with a nod, and Dan’s cheek dented infinitesimally.
The cop stayed the course. “And you didn’t know the intruder? Did he give you a name when he came to the door? Present an ID?”
Now we were getting somewhere. “An ID? I knew I was right not to open the door for that fucker.” Dan snorted, but I answered the questions. “No. No, and no. He wasn’t an intruder. More like a roof climber. He asked for the Albright residence. Oh. He did ask me to sign something before he left. I told him to put his paperwork in the mailbox.”
Both men reacted like I’d finally revealed an important clue. Their gazes simultaneously moved from me, to the door, and then back to me. I shrugged. “It seemed like a reasonable request. The alternative was to unlock the door.”
Dan’s mirrored gaze met mine. “And you were naked.”
“Yes. I was.” The cop’s gaze ping-ponged between Dan and me, and he cleared his throat. Despite being sick of my own story—a story I’d have to repeat to my family and friends for the next few days—I reiterated, “And he reeked. I wasn’t letting him inside the house.”
Dan marched to the door, long legs eating the sidewalk. His shorts cupped his firm butt, his buff legs were on full display, and I did my best not to leer. “That was good thinking.”
I trailed him. “Who lets a stranger into the house?”
“You’d be surprised how many people do. You did. Remember? Let me right in the front door.”
“Yes, and look at all the trouble I’ve had since.”
Once upon a time, I allowed Detective Dan inside the locked art gallery where I worked based on the false assumption that he was an actual, badge-carrying police officer. That had been the first of many liberties Dan had taken, and the beginning of the end of my career in the art world.
I halted at the bottom of the steps, and the cop almost collided into me. Springer focused on Dan, but he addressed me. “Did you give the intruder your name?”
“What? No. Of course not. I had no reason to tell him anything. He was obviously a sham.”
The lid on the metal mailbox scraped the brick, and Dan added, “That’s probably what he was after when he asked you to sign something. Your name.” The lid squeaked again. He really needed to invest in some WD-40. “There’s nothing here. I think it’s safe to say this guy wasn’t a cable guy at all.”
“Color me surprised. And he was a total asshole. Shouldn’t you dust for prints or something?”
“Not if he didn’t physically touch the box.”
“Oh. Right.” The finer details of police work were not part of my repertoire. Frankly, Dan’s job looked pretty dull from my vantage point. There seemed to be a lot of standing around and asking meaningless questions. “Could we speed this along? Maybe fast-forward to me catching the bus?”
Officer Spaniel closed his notebook again. “I think we’re done here.”
“‘Think’?” Dan’s running shoes moved silently down the concrete steps as he joined us. He was taller than Springer by a few inches, and behind the shades, I knew Dan was glaring at the kid. “You shouldn’t think you’re done. You should know. What kind of— Oh.” He paused, made a tsking sound, and then his tone lightened. “This is your first time out alone, isn’t it?”
Officer Spaniel’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he turned aw-shucks. “Yes. Is it obvious?” He swallowed and glanced nervously around the yard before his gaze landed on the cruiser. His cheeks were tinged pink. “I think I’ll just check in with my FTO.”
I struggled to follow their conversation. “What’s an FTO?”
Dan answered in what I termed his “stay calm” voice. “Field-training officer.”
“Excuse me?” I followed Spaniel’s gaze to the car. “No one would send a rookie to a possible home invasion alone, right?”
Dan shrugged. “He’s trained.”
The kid flushed purple. “I am trained. And this is standard procedure. Since the homeowner canceled the alarm prior to my arrival—”
“Oh. Really.” Dan and I would discuss that tidbit at some other time. Staying on task seemed vital. “Shouldn’t you have someone with you? Someone authorized to be here and oversee or make sure you don’t discharge your weapon or something?”
“He’s fine, Ce. Stand down. This is the protocol. Let up.”
“Let up? We’ve wasted how much time out here? And now you’re telling me that someday I could call the police—not that I plan to anytime soon now—and a virgin could show up.” The cop winced. “That’s not common knowledge, is it? Do people know and I missed an important Dateline?”
“I’m not a virgin,” the cop snapped. “This is my first time solo. I’ve made these same sort of calls with supervision dozens of times.”
“And if the cable guy had a weapon?”
Officer Springer actually brightened. “Statistically, that’s unlikely. And I would have called for backup.”
“Great. Congrats. Problem solved.” I was too pissed to be polite. Fifteen minutes had flown past, and the guy could have come back to the house and finished what he started. I eyeballed the house. “We’re wasting time.”
Dan stepped in before I could make more of a cake of myself, asking the officer, “Do you know who I am?”
His question shut me up. I blinked in disbelief. In the past, I’d heard prima donna artists ask that question, and some of our more ego-bloated catering clients, but never, ever Dan Albright. He pretended to have no past, or he became someone else, or he hid in plain sight, always flying under the radar, but for once Dan played his battle-scarred hand, and the young cop nodded. “Officer Perry mentioned a few things.”
A few things? I’d heard no things, and because the cop was a league ahead of me, I was all ears.
Dan was not unkind. “You have this down. Give me your business card, walk the perimeter, write your report, and call your superior.” He ticked off the list easily, and I wondered if he’d ever trained new recruits during his time on the force. Or who had trained him. That had to be a special sort of relationship, the one between a rookie and his mentor. “I’ll reset the alarm and report anything unusual to the alarm company.” The look he gave the younger man said this was nonnegotiable. “You’re good to go.”
If that kid had a single brain cell still firing inside his inexperienced skull, he’d have seen right through the former detective, who would trundle that youngster into his big boy car and then take care of anything unusual on his own terms. And who could blame Dan for doing so?
I should have grabbed my bag and split. Instead, I dawdled on the sidewalk wondering why Dan was so keen to get rid of the kid. Someone had come to his door, asked for him by name, and then proceeded to climb onto the roof knowing full well I was inside the house.
Realistically, Dan could have people looking for him. He’d been a cop. He had a history. He’d presumably put people behind bars. And these days? He stalked strangers for a living.
What did I know about Dan’s life? Not just since we’d started dating, but in general? I should ask more questions. Everyone in my family told me as much, almost daily by every form of communication they could master, but I respected Dan’s privacy. He’d tell me when he was ready. And I figured there were things I wasn’t ready to hear.
That was my story, and I’d stuck to it.
The humidity corked my hair, and sunlight blazed down on the cruiser. The officer did as Dan instructed, reaching into his pocket first. “Let me leave you my card.”
I forced a smile. “Thank you for your time. I’m sure you’ll be in touch. Maybe he’ll come back for the van and someone will nab him.”
The kid twitched, and the business card fluttered to the pavement.
“Goddamn it.” Dan grimaced.
Honestly, I’d make a good cop if I didn’t loathe the guns, the hats, the shoes, and law enforcement in general. “Both of you need to watch more television. Didn’t you check the van? Run the plates or—” I grasped for a legal term and, coming up short, I waved a hand “—something?”
“Stay here.” Dan barked at me and morphed into an action figure. He strode across the lawn, his sneakers sucking up lawn clippings. His shorts fluttered around his muscular thighs. His thick hair stood crazily from digging his fingers through too many times, and when he swiped his forehead with the hem of his shirt, he flashed sculpted abs and whorls of dark hair.
I trailed him, like a kid following an ice cream truck. Hungrily. Although I kept to the walkway, preferring to keep my loafers free of vegetation.
Dan halted next to the van. “Are you sure this is it? There’s no logo or anything.”
The cop scrambled to keep pace. “Wait. I think maybe—”
Dan cut him short. “You’re done thinking. Time to get some practical experience.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Springer answered, and I wholeheartedly agreed.
[I]f you need something light and fun and a little bit silly to cheer you up, with added sexiness and crime comedy capers, Caesar can definitely help. I loved being back with this crazy bunch again.
[A]n intriguing and enjoyable read!
[Q]uirky and funny and whip-smart.