Time stood still as I stared at the imprinted name, my mind racing.
Okay, so Danny had photographed her. He'd photographed lots of models. It wasn’t outside crazy to think that Dakota would have spent some time in front of his camera.
What was crazy was that Danny hadn't mentioned it. I'd been searching for a link between Donna Martinez and the judge, but staring me in the face was an even more important link. One between the judge and me. Why had I specifically been picked to be the scapegoat to his murder? Was it coincidence that one of my closest friends knew the niece of the guy I was accused of killing?
But even as I mentally chewed on that thought, I knew the answer. I'd never believed in coincidence before, and now was a lousy time to start.
Danny purposely hadn't mentioned her. Why?
The book trembled in my unsteady hands. Anxiety, anger, and betrayal washed over me all at once in a muddy swirl.
Danny had wanted me to hire an attorney. He'd urged me to turn myself in. He'd gotten angry when I'd said Aiden believed me, that I was meeting with him. At the time, I'd thought it was some over-protective, macho gesture. But what if the hide he'd been protecting was not mine but his own?
I'd known Danny for years. Even as I saw evidence of his lie staring me in the face, I had a hard time believing he would deliberately set me up to take the fall for murder.
But he was definitely involved. And definitely hiding something.
I flipped through the rest of the pages of the book, checking imprints on the back now, not the actual images. At least a dozen bore Danny's name. I felt sicker with each one, my stomach rolling on itself. I shut the book and shoved it back on the shelf.
Just as the bedroom door opened, and Dakota stepped inside.
Her eyes widened—then she frowned. "What are you doing in here?"
I blinked, not prepared for an interrogation, my mind still racing with the million WTF's the portfolio had inspired.
"Well?" she asked again, shutting the door behind her.
I clutched my stomach, knowing full well I appeared shaken and about to lose it. "I wasn't feeling well and was looking for a restroom. The other one was full," I lamely explained.
She stared at me for a long minute then scrunched her nose up. "Well, if you're gonna be sick, please don't do it in here. Like, go use the kitchen sink or something."
I nodded. "Right. Sorry." Then I practically sprinted out of the room without hesitation. When she closed the door behind me, I figured it was the perfect time to make my escape. I slipped down the staircase, quickly grabbed my purse from the sofa, and slipped out the door before anyone even noticed I was gone.
* * *
A cab dropped me off back at the club where I grabbed my car and immediately drove toward the office. It was a risk, but I needed answers, and this was the only place to get them.
I moved slowly, first checking the street for unassuming cars that looked like detectives in cheap suits lived in them, then scanning the building for any sign of new surveillance cameras. All looked clear. And eerily quiet.
I made my way down the hall in the dark. No sense in attracting any possible attention from outside. I hit my office, then I pulled my blinds shut tight and flipped on the lamp beside my computer.
My leather chair embraced me like an old pair of jeans, worn and comfortable in all the right places. I closed my eyes and listened to the silence, needing a moment to recoup.
I switched on my computer while mentally replaying every conversation Danny and I'd had in the past week. Funny how one little piece of information could put an entirely different spin on everything he'd said to me.
While I typed Dakota's name into a search engine, I wondered if Danny had really betrayed me for the leggy model. It wouldn't be the first time he'd done something stupid over a woman. I hadn't pegged Dakota as the brains behind the murder plot, but it's certainly possible she was a better actress than I gave her credit for.
Links to Dakota's modeling website and social media accounts popped up on my screen. Several articles showed her photo shoots in Seventeen and Glamour. One looked demure and teen-like while the other was full vamp. An interview listed her favorite movie as American Pie and her favorite dessert as apple pie because it reminded her of the film. She was so deep.
I added Danny's name to the search engine and received several mentions of them together on a photo shoot in Brazil. That was last year.
My stomach rolled again. Had they known each other that long? It gave them an awful lot of time to get cozy. And an awful lot of time for Dakota to milk Danny for info about yours truly. I wondered how willingly he'd given it.
I browsed a few more pages, picking up little bits and pieces about Dakota that meant nothing on their own, but I filed them away for future info anyway. Then I turned off the computer and grabbed a camera from my bottom desk drawer. An old Nikon that Danny had given me a couple of years back when he was updating his equipment.
I tucked it into my jacket beside my Glock and headed out.
Fifteen minutes later, I was parked across from Danny's apartment, a block down the street. I faced the door, taking a front row seat to any activity to or from the building. It was too early, too dark for him to be awake.
But I could wait.
* * *
A horn honked, and I jumped. I rubbed my eyes, smearing day-old mascara and eyeliner.
It was daylight, dawn. The sky was a pale grey, but the sun hadn't risen yet. I blinked into the hazy morning.
The horn blasted again, and I turned to glare. A car sat parallel to mine, only a couple of feet away. The windows were down, and a woman yelled obscenities at the car in front of her, which was idle at the stop sign.
She gripped her phone in one hand and a coffee in the other. The older man in the front car flipped up his middle finger then sped around the corner.
Good morning, LA.
Miss Obscenities drove on using the tips of her fingers to steer. She never even noticed me.
I grabbed my phone off the passenger seat. Six o'clock. I stretched, as best as possible behind a steering wheel, and considered driving down the block to get a cup of coffee. But I didn't want to miss Danny leave. He'd be up and out soon.
I grabbed the camera and took a few shots of the front of his building. Then waited. My stomach rumbled, and I fished through the glove compartment for a piece of gum, a leftover fortune cookie, anything. But all I found were ketchup packets, napkins, and a book of matches.
For a brief moment I wondered if heated ketchup would satisfy the hunger.
I played with my phone and discovered two voicemails. I dialed in and listened. The first one was from Derek, wanting a recap of the night. His tone sounded edgy and concerned.
I made a mental note to call him later, then deleted the message and went on to the second.
It was from Caleigh. "You haven't checked in. I'm worried. And when I worry I get those tiny lines between my eyebrows, and you know how I feel about lines. So call me when you get this."
I smiled at her concern, then quickly shot her a text telling her I was okay.
Movement up ahead made me look up. The building door opened, and a pair of tall, athletic blondes bounced out. Danny's neighbors in 4B. He said they were Pilates instructors who had yet to give him the time of day. It hadn't stopped him from repeatedly trying, though.
They walked down the street and out of sight.
I set the camera on my lap, my body humming, ready for action. I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, trying an old meditation technique I'd learned during my first photo shoot in lingerie. Filming in see-through lace at seventeen hadn't sounded like a nerve-wracking idea until I got onto the set and saw all the cameras and people gawking. Luckily, one of the makeup artists taught me how to tune everyone else out through relaxation.
I continued the breaths until my pulse calmed.
Just as the door opened and Danny stepped outside.
I lifted the camera and took a couple of shots.
He blinked at the sky and shielded his eyes with his hand, as if sunlight blinded him. Knowing him, he'd just climbed out of bed and hadn't pulled up a shade yet.
I continued to watch him through the lens.
He was topless and shoeless, only wearing grey sweats and a smile. What was he grinning at? He glanced back at the door.
It opened farther, and out stepped Dakota, still dressed in the tiny black shorts and nude colored halter she'd worn at the club.
Her appearance sucker punched me in the gut, and all those relaxing deep breaths gushed out my window.
Dakota reached up on tippytoes and planted a firm kiss on Danny's mouth.
The "special guy" who'd bought her the purse I'd admired at the club. The hushed conversation with someone in the limo. It had been Danny. Had she been telling him about me? Warning him that I was getting close?
I jabbed and released the camera's button continuously. The shutter opened and closed in rapid speed, echoing like distant gun fire.
Danny leaned into the kiss and grabbed Dakota's behind.
She pulled away, giggled, and waved as she walked down the road to her car.
He turned and went back inside.
I gripped the edge of the camera until I thought I'd snap it in two.
My best friend was now my prime suspect. I couldn't trust anyone.
I clenched my teeth until I thought the enamel would crack.
I hated it when Derek was right.