I'd arrived at Franco's fifteen minutes early. Enough time to scope out the place and find a prime position for observing without being noticed. At the moment, a large wooden column was doing the trick just nicely.
Wood beams lined the ceiling, and pillars flanked the foyer. The dining area had white linen tablecloths and dim lighting. Very atmospheric. The small bar held only a few seats, the bulk of the room taken up with romantic tables for two. Vaguely I wondered if Aiden had picked the venue before or after he realized I was his prime suspect.
The bartender, a slim man with a wiry mustache, looked up frequently while mixing drinks. It had to be the strapless red minidress that accentuated my legs and cleavage. Of course, it could've been the way I hid, pressed to the column like a stripper.
I refused to believe it could be because he'd seen the latest broadcast displaying my face as a person of interest in the judge's murder. I mean, who paid attention to those news briefs anyway? My firm grip on denial allowed my heart to continue beating at a moderately normal level.
"Jamie, he just pulled up." Danny's voice registered clearly in my earpiece.
Attached to the bodice of my dress was a diamond brooch with a hidden camera disguised inside. Not what I'd normally wear on a date, but tonight was all business.
"Copy that," I spoke into my chest, with a sigh of relief that Prince had shown up himself.
And not sent a gang of black and whites.
The bartender frowned, probably wondering why the crazy, hot woman was talking to herself.
I offered a killer—um, no—an innocent smile and turned back to watch the entrance.
The door opened, and Aiden strode in. He still wore the suit trousers he'd had on earlier, but the jacket and tie were removed, leaving the white button-down open just enough to catch a glimpse of his tanned chest.
He glanced toward the bar, and my palms began to sweat like a thirteen-year-old on her first date.
Jitteriness wasn't usually a part of my routine. But nothing was usual about this encounter.
The maître d' showed him to a table in the far, front corner.
From what I could tell there were no police cars out front, no flashing lights or sirens. He hadn't walked in with any officers, and he was reading the menu.
I turned my back to the bar and asked Danny, "How's it look out there?"
A hand clamped down on my shoulder, and I flinched. I spun around to find the maître d'—a stout man with white hair and skin as smooth as a helium-filled balloon.
"Madame, may I help you?" he asked, clearly not used to women hiding out in his restaurant.
So much for being incognito.
"I'm fine," I whispered. "I was set up on a blind date, and I wanted to scope him out first. You know."
But from the sudden creases along his forehead, he didn't. "Shall I show you to a table so you can wait for the gentleman?"
Danny chuckled in my ear. "Smooth, Jamie."
An older couple walked inside and stopped at the host stand.
I used their presence as a shield and stepped forward. "No need. I see him now."
The maître d' shot me a look that said he'd be keeping an eye on me (join the club, pal), but thankfully left me to attend to the new couple.
I took a deep breath. It was now or never.
Aiden looked up as I approached. His eyebrows rose, and a smile tugged at his mouth. He stood and pulled out my chair.
"Play it cool," Danny whispered.
Like there was any other way?
"I'm so glad you called." Aiden widened his smile. The corners around his eyes creased. Under different circumstances, the expression would've been endearing. Right now, I wondered how he'd play his cards. I knew why I was here. Why was he?
"I'm glad your busy schedule allowed."
As Aiden helped push in my chair, he must have received a wide angle view of my cleavage. There was no sense in wearing something this revealing if I wasn't going to flaunt it.
He returned to his seat. "I hope you like Italian."
"Love it,” I purred.
"There's that sex kitten voice again," Danny muttered under his breath.
I cleared my throat and watched Aiden from beneath my lashes. “So, you’re a lawyer? Must be exciting.”
"It has its moments," he answered. "And what about you? What does Jamie Smith do?"
Was he aware that he'd emphasized my fictitious last name? Was it on purpose? Was he trying to crack me, get a confession right here in the dim candlelight of our table for two?
I parted my lips, tempted to falsify my life with tales of yacht sailing and actual Prince ogling, when the waiter arrived with a glass of Chardonnay for Aiden and a martini for me.
"I hope you don't mind I ordered just before you arrived," Aiden explained.
"You remembered what I was drinking the other night." His attention to detail was, once again, annoyingly endearing.
And a bad sign of the thoroughness with which he did his job.
"Of course." He flashed a brilliant smile that probably made other women weak at the knees. Good thing I was seated.
The waiter asked, "Are you ready to order?"
"Give us a few, please." Aiden lifted his glass. He waited for the young man to walk off before saying, "Here's to getting to know one another."
I wrapped my hand around the stem of my glass, allowing the cone-shaped bowl to rest against the side of my palm. A slightly awkward grip, but it was better than leaving my prints on the glass.
His gaze traveled to my glass, aware of my avoidance. Or maybe I was reading too much into his gaze.
"So tell me about being a prosecuting attorney," I asked. "It must be immensely satisfying to lock away the bad guys."
He chuckled warmly. I had to admit, it was kind of a nice sound. "Yes, very."
"But it can't be easy. The burden of proof lies with the ADA, right?"
When he raised his eyebrows, I added, "I watched a lot of Law & Order."
"Hollywood is fiction."
"True. So clue me in on the way it actually works." I sipped my drink. The vodka hit my belly and spread throughout my limbs. Now this was a drink.
He leaned back in his chair, never looking away from me. His posture conveyed confidence. His slicked-back hair conveyed confidence. His smirk conveyed confidence.
I wished I had some of that right about then.
"What do you want to know?" he asked.
I gently set down the glass and eased into a similar position. "What about the case you mentioned? That judge."
"The one from the Hilton, where we met."
I kept my expression steady as we stared one another down, as if whoever blinked first would qualify as the loser. Luckily this had been my favorite sport as a child. I'd never met a boy I couldn't outstare.
"Judge Waterston's killer shouldn't be too difficult to apprehend," he said slowly, blinking first.
"Oh, why's that? Did he leave behind a big clue?"
"You could say that."
I almost laughed out loud. Did he think his cockiness was going to make me confess?
"Be careful, James," Danny whispered into my ear.
My friend knew me too well, knew I wanted to prove how very wrong the ADA's assumptions were, but I continued with my stoic-slash-come-hither game face.
"I'd love to hear about it," I goaded.
"I'm sorry, I can't comment on an open investigation." He punctuated the statement with a wink, as if chalking up one point on his side of the scoreboard.
Fine. I had all night to dance around the judge. And the more sips of his Chardonnay he took in the meantime, the easier it would be for me to lead.
"So, what brought you to the benefit the other night?" I asked, smiling sweetly his way.
"It's a cause I believe in strongly."
He nodded, and for a half a second the confidence in his eyes gave way to something else. "Yes. Someone close to me died of cancer last year."
Had the benefit been a cancer awareness thing? I'd honestly never even paid attention.
"I'm sorry," I said, meaning it as I remembered what Maya had told me about his wife. Bringing up a personal death was a dirty trick. One I almost wanted him to know I hadn't played on purpose.
He looked down into his glass, swirling the few remaining inches in a circle to avoid looking at me. "It's fine. You didn't know."
"It's always hard to lose someone," I said. Which sounded like a hollow sentiment even to my ears.
"It was my wife," he said, still not looking up.
Why he was telling me, I didn't know. Maybe some irrational need to open up. Maybe a ploy to get me to open up to him?
I feigned surprise and laid a hand on my chest, careful to avoid the camera. "That's horrible."
"It was, but we move on," he said, pasting a smile on his face that said he was doing just that with this conversation. "What about you? Have you ever been married?"
"And I'll assume, since we're sitting here, that you're not currently involved?"
"I'm single," I assured him.
"Good to know."
"I bet," Danny whispered.
"What do you do for fun, Jamie? How do you spend your nights?"
Was this his round-about way of asking for my alibi when the judge was murdered?
"I'm a people watcher," I replied honestly.
Danny snorted in my ear.
"Do you have family in the area?"
I filed the thought of Derek into a locked safe and forgot the combination. "We're not close."
"What did you do after the benefit?"
Ah, there was the direct question. I glanced to my martini, wishing to down it in one gulp. I refrained, however. "I went home. Straight to bed."
He smirked. "Let me guess. Red silk sheets?"
I laughed, not expecting the question. "Six-hundred thread count Egyptian cotton, thank you very much."
"Nothing less than the best."
"Well, I have my eye on a set of fifteen-hundred count, but a girl's gotta eat.” I gave him a sly smile. “Is this where I get to ask boxers or briefs?"
He chuckled in response. "That’s one you’ll have to find out for yourself.”
Danny started making pig sounds in my ear.
"So, you went home after the benefit,” Aiden continued. “Alone?” His smile was playful, but I was an expert at reading between the lines. Do you have an alibi?
"Oh, Aiden, a girl has to have some secrets." My turn to give the seductive wink. Score one for Jamie's side.
"Hmm," he said, sitting back in his chair.
But before he could pursue that thought further, the server arrived to take our order. Aiden went with an appetizer of calamari. Food was light years from my mind, but, considering I was quickly draining my martini, I ordered a plate of bruschetta anyway. As soon as the man walked away, I turned my attention back to my prey.
"So, my turn to pry," I said, shooting Aiden my best flirtatious smile as I leaned my elbows on the table. "The judge that was killed. Did you know him?"
Aiden cocked his head to the side. "Why do you ask?"
I shrugged. "You both run in judicial circles. I thought maybe you've bumped into each other before at social events. Maybe he and his wife?"
Aiden paused, eyes scrutinizing me, wondering, I could tell, how much to give up. "I'd met him once or twice."
"What was he like?"
"And his wife?"
"Sorry, we weren't that close," he said, cutting off that line of questioning.
"I saw something on the news," I said, flirting with dangerous territory. "Something about video footage from the night the judge died?"
"Careful, Bond," I heard Danny whisper in my ear.
While I appreciated the concern, careful was getting me nowhere. I was on borrowed time, I knew. How long before Aiden tired of the flirtation-slash-interrogation game and pulled out the handcuffs?
I watched him carefully as he answered. "Yes. I saw that, too."
"So, it's true? You have video of the judge from that night?"
"Where did it come from?"
"Bond…" Danny warned in my ear. "You're treading on thin ice."
But I ignored him, watching the muscles in Aiden's jaw move as he decided just how to answer that question.
"Where it came from isn't as important as what's on it," he said.
"Huh," I answered, sitting back in my seat. "Odd."
"What's odd?" Aiden asked, taking my bait.
"Well, it's just that"—I paused, giving him my most innocent smile—"on Law & Order they always consider the source of the evidence as the main factor in how valid it is."
Aiden’s poker face was immovable. "Are you saying the footage we have may be faked?"
I shrugged. "I'm saying things aren't always what they appear to be."
He gave me a long look that was completely unreadable. Then just when the silence was starting to make me sweat, he said, "Channel 4."
"The footage was sent to a local news station. Channel 4. They forwarded it on to us just before it aired."
I opened my mouth to respond, but before I had the chance, Danny piped up in my ear again.
"I got bad news, Bond," he shouted. "A couple of squad cars just pulled up. You need to get out of there. Now!"