Two days later, I stood outside the BondAgency, staring at the letters embossed on the door. I traced them with my finger, not ready to go inside and face what waited for me.
Veronica Waterston had survived the gunshot, EMTs having arrived a beat after Aiden had and using their skills to revive her. The bullet had missed vital organs, though I couldn’t promise it wouldn’t be a painful recovery for the murderess. After an ambulance had taken Veronica Waterston away, and the police had questioned me, I was taken to the hospital, where I spent the night due to my concussion. The next day I’d been released, the self-defense story Waterston had planned to use for herself working much better for me against any possible charges. After a quick message to all that I was alive and fine, I’d turned off my phone, took a bubble bath until the bubbles were gone and water was cold, and snuggled into my bed. Where I'd stayed for the next twenty-four hours.
Now, however, it was back to work, back to making this business operate in the black, and back to restoring what little reputation we might have left.
I took a deep breath and pulled open the door.
Caleigh, Maya, Sam, Levine, and, most surprisingly of all, Danny raised cups of Starbucks coffee and cheered.
I blinked, taking in the scene. The lobby was decorated in red and white streamers and matching balloons, imprinted with the word Congratulations. A round bakery cake with white frosting, yellow and green flowers, and a couple of candles sat beside a stack of paper plates on Maya's desk. Hung on the far wall, facing the front door, was a handmade sign. Written with a black Sharpie, it read: Congrats Super Boss.
Four smiling faces stared back at me, expecting a reaction. One face stared back at me with a sheepish, downcast look as if he'd been dragged here against his will. I chose to ignore Danny, and focused on my girls instead.
"Wow, this is…wow," I repeated myself, closing the door behind me.
Maya handed me a grande nonfat Caramel Macchiato. "Here you go, boss. Your usual. We thought about buying champagne but figured you'd enjoy this more."
She knew me so well.
"To the bravest ex-model-turned-private investigator ever," Sam said.
Caleigh batted her lashes, as she added, "And the sexiest ex-jailbird."
"Who knows how to maim and not kill." Sam winked.
I chuckled. Long. Hard. Man, it felt great.
Caleigh lit the candles on the cake and said, "Make a wish."
"Aren't wishes only for birthdays?"
"Who cares. You earned one. Or a hundred," Caleigh replied.
I walked to the table and closed my eyes. I thought of my amazing girls and this awesome job, and blew out the candles. I'd enjoyed modeling. Nothing could beat traveling and shooting at exotic locations, and the money hadn’t been terrible. But there was a different, deeper thrill when I handed over incriminating evidence to a hurt, broken spouse.
Or helped put a criminal behind bars.
Everyone clapped, and Sam lifted a knife and began slicing the decadent-looking confection.
The phone rang, and Maya rushed to it.
Sam slapped a slice of cake on a plate and handed it to me. "Just so you know, the last ten minutes have been the longest the phone hasn't rung all morning," she informed me.
"Word is out that the BondAgency is the best." Caleigh swiped a finger across her frosting then licked it off.
"Wait—" I said, holding up a hand. "What do mean they know it's the best?"
Caleigh blinked at me. "Like, they know you caught Judge Waterston's real killer."
"And that no one gets away with any funny business where Jamie Bond is concerned," Sam said, grinning from ear to ear.
"And," Maya, added, hanging up the phone, "every suspicious wife in town now wants you on her side."
"And some husbands," Sam added. "Including Mr. Peters, who was so grateful to find out the truth about his cheating wife that his lawyer dropped off a big fat check yesterday afternoon."
I couldn't help it. I grinned too.
"So, I guess we're in the black," I said, shooting Levine a victorious look.
"Let's wait and see what this month's numbers look like," he hedged. Very lawyerly of him. But, I could see a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, too. No matter what this month's numbers said, my three girls were staying.
"So, how do things look for the nefarious Mrs. Waterston?" Levine asked, changing the subject.
"She's recovering well," I said, relaying the info the police had given me that morning on the phone as I dug into my cake. "In the prison hospital, of course. The police found the sex video between Alexa and the judge, as well as a baggie of Shooting Stars with the wife's prints all over them. There was a twenty thousand dollar withdrawal from her account a week before Waterston's death. And the same amount showed up in Donna's account the day after he died. It sounds like they have a pretty strong case."
"I can't believe the lengths some people go to," Caleigh said.
"The betrayal, the dishonesty," Sam added.
I stole a glance at Danny. He was studiously avoiding my gaze, hanging near the back of the room.
The phone rang again, and Maya jumped toward it, a radiant smile on her face. "I hope you're prepared for a busy week, boss."
"I can think of nothing I'd love more." And I totally meant that.
The girls took that as their cue to take coffees and cake to their desks and get to work. Levine mumbled a good-bye and a promise to be back in a couple of weeks to take a look at our accounts receivables. And Danny quietly set his cake down and headed for the door.
"Not so fast," I told him under my breath, grabbing him by the arm.
He paused, looking me in the eyes for the first time since I'd walked in the door. His were a deep, forest green today. Clouded and unreadable.
"I want to talk to you," I told him in a tone that broached no argument.
And for once, he didn't give me one, nodding and following me into my office. I shut the door behind him, then leaned my butt against my desk, crossed my arms over my chest, and sipped my coffee.
Danny watched me, his expression guarded. "So what is this about?"
"I want the truth out of you."
He opened his mouth to speak, but I ran over him.
"The whole truth this time, Danny. None of that dancing around denial crap you did at your apartment."
Despite the awkward tension in the air, the corner of his mouth quirked upward at my candor. "Fair enough. What do you want to know?"
"How do you know Dakota?"
"We worked together on a few shoots."
"And you slept with her?"
He nodded slowly, as if unsure what the right answer to that was. "Once. But that was awhile ago, back when I first met her."
"Do you really want to know details?" he asked.
No, I didn't. In fact, the image of Danny peeling cheap leopard print lingerie off of Dakota was the last thing I wanted burned into my brain. "What I really want to know," I said, shifting gears, "is that you knew she was Judge Waterston's niece all along."
Again with the slow nod. "I did."
"Christ, Danny, why didn't you tell me?" I asked, slamming my coffee down on the desk.
"I didn't want you to get hurt."
I gave him a get real look. "Seriously? So lying to me is your way of showing you care."
"Yes," he said, his eyes dead serious, his jaw tense, a frown of honest concern between his brows.
Which put a damper on my sarcasm. I crossed my arms again and waited for him to go on.
He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Look, I'm sorry I had to lie to you. But you were being reckless, and there was a killer out there with your name on her list. As soon as Maya found the Shooting Stars connection, I knew Dakota had to be mixed up in this somehow."
"Wish I'd known it then. Would have saved me a lot of trouble."
Danny shook his head. "No, you would have gone to your friendly ADA or, worse yet, gone in guns blazing."
I didn't respond. Mostly because he was kinda right.
"Anyway," he went on, "I asked Dakota to meet me so I could find out what was going on. She did, we talked, and that's when you saw her leaving my place."
"What did she say?" I couldn't help my curiosity getting the better of me.
"About what you'd expect. At first she denied knowing anything about Shooting Stars. Which anyone who knows her knows full well was a lie. So, when I pressed, she confessed that she was addicted. She said she was trying to quit."
"But not that her aunt had taken some of her supply to kill Donna?"
Danny shrugged. "Honestly, I'm not sure she noticed it was gone. The girl isn't the brightest bulb to begin with, and add being high half all the time to that? Anything could slip past her."
"Boy, you sure know how to pick 'em."
He smiled. The first genuine one I'd seen in a long time. "Thanks, James."
I sighed, some of the tension having eased out of the room.
"Okay, maybe I can forgive you for that," I said. "But there is the little matter of your tip to the police about my meeting with Aiden in the park."
Danny chewed the inside of his cheek. "He told you about that, huh?"
"Danny! You tried to get me thrown in jail!"
"Which would have been the safest place for you," he countered. "I needed to make sure you were out of harm's way while I talked to Dakota and tried to find out who was framing you."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "They made me wear orange polyester, Danny."
"And eat baked beans."
"And room with the female version of a tattooed linebacker."
Danny took a step forward, his eyes going serious again. "I mean it, Jamie. I'm sorry," he said. And I could tell he really did. "You gotta believe I hated keeping stuff from you. But if anything had happened to you—"
"Something did happen to me, Danny," I cut him off. "I was arrested, thrown in jail, escaped, went on the run, and was almost murdered. And look," I said, gesturing to myself. "I'm fine. Unharmed. I'm a big girl, and I can take care of myself."
Danny smiled, let out a chuckle on a huff of air. "I know, I know. You're a tough guy."
"You got that right."
"It's just"—he took another step forward—"James, you're more than a friend to me. I think of you as a—"
He paused, searching for the right word.
A week ago, I would have thought he'd end that sentence with little sister. But as his brain worked over the possibilities, I watched his gaze go dark and warm, forest green melting into a softer, sea green. His lips parted. Emotion backed up behind his eyes. This was not the look of a big brother. Or a best friend. This was something different. Deeper. More dangerous.
I felt a warm sensation curling in my stomach, blood suddenly pumping in my ears as I waited for him to finish the thought.
"Yes?" I asked, realizing I was slightly breathless.
"Well, you're very important to me," he finally said, his voice thick and low.
I swallowed and locked eyes with him. A million things were swimming there, unspoken. Though, whether I was ready for him to speak them or not, I wasn't sure.
Not that I had a say in the matter. Danny quickly broke the gaze, breaking the moment with it, and took a giant step back, clearing his throat.
"So…truce?" he asked, extending a hand my way.
I nodded. "Truce," I agreed, shaking his hand, even as I knew something had shifted between us that would never be quite the same again. And as his warm hand lingered just a moment too long on mine, I suddenly wasn't sure I minded.
"Good," Danny said, "'cause it sounds like you're going to need a lot of backup to handle the client flow coming in." He smiled, a lopsided thing that was pure boyish-charm Danny.
I returned it, grabbing my coffee and sinking into my imitation leather chair. Today, it was good to be me.